With a month until the Dark Moon, and much work to finish in the cottage before all three women could embark on the journey to Grimwood Village, it was several days before they were ready to leave.

Starwood Palace had reclaimed their carriage and fast mares many years ago. The Sisters had been left to barter at Clear Lake market for a small mare and cart so they could continue trading homemade wares.

Cynthia, their apricot mare with a cream-coloured mane and spots on her flank, was getting on in years. Though, the wild clovers which grew on the cottage grounds seemed to keep her spry.

Pretty and even tempered, she was quite the favourite with the children of market goers, whom Cynthia seemed content to trot around the market grounds for the younglings’ amusement.

Sister Rosin was harnessing Cynthia as the mare stood patiently, stretching her neck to nibble at a nearby branch of plumbee berries.

Sister Heely had run off on a final check of their hen coop, and Penelope was focused on a checklist of errands they needed to run in Grimwood Village.

Pacing by the small cart to keep herself warm, Penelope muttered aloud, “Fabric, thread, fastenings, and lace for three dresses… we should make do with the under dresses we already have… we might need some new gloves… what about face powders?” 

Doing a rough mental count, Penelope figured there should be some money for face creams and shading powders. Though, with a love of dressing up, Sister Heely often indulged in crafting their own cosmetics at home when Sister Rosin could barter for quality ingredients at Clear Lake.

Penelope stopped pacing as a thought occurred to her. With a larger than average commission for Mary Walburton’s dress, there might even be enough for some alchemical enchantments.

Though she wouldn’t admit it to the Sisters, Penelope had longed to try the enchanting—and prohibitively expensive—beauty charms she sometimes saw adorning the wealthier patrons of Clear Lake market.

Penelope had always envied the glimmering golden or pastel shades of hair which emitted mesmerising illusions of butterflies or birds with each delicate step. Or the glamours which turned freckles into glittering specks of diamond. Or the charms which rendered skin into a cosmic display of constellations as ribbons of green and purple light rippled through perfectly curled hair.

Would she still have been invited to the royal soirees if she could have afforded to match the artisan aesthetics of the other princesses? Would a prince have asked for her hand instead of another if she could only afford the same magics? Maybe she could have found her true love by now, if only she’d had the power to capture their attention in the first place. Perhaps there would be money to spare for her to find the perfect enchantment at Grimwood Village…

Penelope shook her head and locked away that hope deep within her, returning her focus to the jars of salve and embroidered scarves they were taking with them to sell or trade. Just in case.

Travelling at dawn, they should reach Grimwood Village before the start of trading hours, giving them the whole day to buy everything they needed, and perhaps even take tea at The Crescent Cup.

Sister Heely returned as Sister Rosin was checking Cynthia’s fastenings. Before long they were ready to go.

Sister Heely and Penelope sat in the back of the cart as Sister Rosin encouraged Cynthia into a trot along the packed pebble path towards the outer Faewood Ring Road. The fine, white quartz gravel crunched underneath the lacquered wood of the cart’s wheels, and the enchanted iron of Cynthia’s shoes tinkled like bells on the narrow, winding path.

Penelope hadn’t been to the Clear Lake market since early last season when the trees were turning gold with the coming winter. It had been much, much longer since she had visited Grimwood Village, which was further east and traded in luxuries beyond the resources they had to craft from their small cottage.

The Sisters had tried, a very long time ago, to sell some of their perfumes and soaps, and even some of Penelope’s embroidery, but every shop had turned up their noses at the clearly home-crafted nature of their wares.

Penelope still bristled at the injustice of it. They hadn’t even tried Sister Heely’s signature perfumes, made with orange clove and a dozen essences hand pressed from the unique wild flowers of their cottage. They’d refused to try the thistle butter soaps that eased the callouses of household labour, for “the gentry of Grimwood had no need of such pedestrian remedies.” The shop keepers had sniffed, threaded together their uncalloused fingers, and sent the Sisters on their way.

The patrons of Clear Water were kinder, more practical folks, though most were also poorer and less inclined to spend hard earned pidges and pennies on sweet soaps.

Penelope sighed and allowed her attention to be captured by the gleaming ice crystals which clung to the boughs of the forest trees.

“Something the matter, dear?” Sister Heely asked with a kind smile. Penelope shook her head and smiled in return. “Just thinking about how long it’s been since I left the cottage. Just a bit anxious, I suppose.”

Sister Heely nodded and looked up to the clear winter sky. “It’s been a long time for all of us travelling so far. I dare say it will be a bit of an adjustment to what we’re used to.”

The winter air was chilly. Even approaching the outer border, the forest was suffused with a damp, pearly mist, the cold of which permeated Penelope’s cloak, dress, and even skin, settling deep in her bones.

Noticing Penelope shiver, Sister Heely passed her two fresh warming stones, and Penelope made a mental note to stock up on more while in Grimwood.

Rubbing the smooth amber crystals to a bright glow, she placed one in each of her gloves, sighing as she felt the warmth spread over her skin.

“Whoa, there!” Sister Rosin called from the front seat. She pulled Cynthia to a stop on the edge of the white quartz road, just before it intersected with the lavender quartz of the much wider Faewood Ring Road. Grinning with anticipation, Sister Rosin turned to look at Penelope and Sister Heely. “Ready?” she asked, theatrically raising Cynthia’s reins.

Penelope couldn’t help it, she grinned back, recalling what it was like to join the larger road which girded the outer boundary of the entire Faewood. Penelope and Sister Heely nodded, both tightening their grips on the polished rim of the cart. “Here we go!” Sister Rosin called, shaking the reins. With a check for traffic in both directions, she eased Cynthia and the cart out onto the Faewood Ring Road.

It took only a moment for the magic to take effect, and then the cart surged forward, speeding along the glistening purple road. Penelope squealed with delight at the pace as Cynthia’s enchanted shoes clipped along the new quartz.

Looking behind the cart, Penelope was mesmerised by the shower of purple light kicked up behind the cart’s wheels, fading into delicate glowing tendrils in the distance.

The trees were more sparse here closer to the forest boundary. Though she knew they were too far northeast, Penelope couldn’t help but try to catch a glimpse of Starwood’s distant turrets. But all she could see was the occasional small village or plot of farmland through the trees.

The road curved imperceptibly ever northwards and, as they neared Grimwood Village, the traffic grew thicker.

The occasional traveller riding a swift stallion would thunder by their cart, passing them effortlessly. Soon they spotted the odd merchant carriage and, on rarer occasion, even the lavish gleam of a royal coach, both of which easily outpaced their small cart.

Penelope gaped at the gleaming polish and precious metal trimmings of the finer coaches, before remembering her manners.

They crested a small slope and Penelope caught sight of Grimwood Village in the far distance. The watchtower of Grimwood Fort loomed tall, built into the mountainside further to the east.

A broad river flowed out from the Faewood, marking the boundary between the Starwood and Grimwood realms. The river ran eastwards to meet the base of the waterfall roaring down the cliffside adjacent to the Fort.

The blue lanterns of merchant barges glowed like ghost lights through the morning mist as they passed beneath the great arched bridge of the Faewood Ring Road, which continued over the river.

Much of Grimwood Village, and even the Fort itself, had been rebuilt in recent decades. While some facades had been built atop older stone foundations, most of the clustered houses of the main township had been built anew. As such, many of the tall, narrow houses appeared to share a similar elegant style, and were built from the same materials of bone marble, wood, and blackstone.

The township sprawled up a sloping hill, stopping a hundred yards clear of the outer walls of Grimwood Fort. The crenellated ramparts were also constructed of bone marble, an alchemically crafted material unique to the region of Grimwood, with taller structures of blackstone and wood merging with the mountainside into which the original Grimwood palace had been built.

Penelope craned her neck to peer up at the dark spire of the watchtower which, it was said, overlooked the whole of Edenwood Valley. As a child she had been so curious to climb the tower and view her home from far above the ground, but Grimwood Fort had been closed to outsiders for many long years.

Having crossed the river, the traffic slowed as their cart approached the high, gated arch leading into Grimwood Village.

With too few saleable items to warrant a trading pass, the bone-masked guards by the gate quickly waved them through. Beyond the gate was a short bridge, passing over a shallow gully filled with snow and ivory flowers, and into the town beyond.

Sister Rosin steered them towards the village stables, which lay on a flat field to the northside of town.

The streets were broad, and paved with black cobbled quartz stones much larger than the gravel of the Faewood Ring Road. The magic contained within them prevented all but members of the Grimwood royalty, guards, and medical mages from speeding through the streets.

Wending their way through side streets on a shortcut Sister Rosin knew, Penelope looked around in awe. She had only visited Grimwood Village a few times as a young child, having attended etiquette training and the occasional tea party of royal peers. When she had still been invited to such things.

Most of the shops had changed in the years since, with many shopfronts aglow and showcasing the latest in fashion and glamour charms. Though, Penelope was delighted to see that some of her old favourites were still there. In particular: a fine fabric shop called Sooth & Crane, a clackstone and paper shop called Papyre, and a small sweets shop which had no known official name, but was affectionately called ‘Cackle Hag’ for the small carved sign of a smiling crone swinging above the door.

While the streets were thick with the carts of early merchants entering the village for trade, foot traffic was sparse as most shops were yet to open. The queue to the stable was long, and by the time they had reached the check-in bay within the large thatch-roofed barn, Penelope was itching to get into town.

Sister Rosin and the stable master had a brief conversation, and Penelope heard, “Stable until trade closing? That’ll be three pidges.” There was a clanking of coins as Sister Rosin handled the transaction, but Penelope was shocked. Three pidges? She thought. Just for one day of stabling? Suddenly she worried they mightn’t even be able to afford all they needed for three gowns, let alone any glamour.

A stable girl approached the cart and, once Penelope and the Sisters had claimed their packs and wares for trade, Cynthia and the cart were steered away towards a stable in the far corner of the barn.

Feeling forlorn and a little panicked, Penelope hurried behind the Sisters through light snowfall down the narrow footpath towards the Grimwood Village High Street. It took only fifteen minutes on foot to reach The Crescent Cup, a tea garden renowned for its hundreds of tea blends and fresh-baked tarts.

A wooden sign bearing a teacup with a crescent moon inlaid with bronze hung over the doorway. Through the square-paned windows of the shopfront, Penelope saw cozy looking booths and tables arranged in front of a long counter. Open doors either side of the counter appeared to lead through to a back courtyard. 

A small bell chimed above the door as Sister Heely ushered them through. Though it was still early, there was a large crowd of breakfast patrons already seated and being served tea. The interior of the teashop was warm, and lit by a grated fire set in the hearth along the left-side wall.

The air smelled of baked pastry and the leather of armchairs.

A smiling woman wearing a lavender apron approached them. “Good morning, tea for three is it?” Sister Heely nodded. “We’d like to sit in the garden, if there’s any room?”

“Of course.” The woman beckoned Penelope and the Sisters through the shop and out to the back. On the way past the counter, Penelope saw that the entire wall behind the counter, from bench height to ceiling, was set with hundreds of tiny drawers with gleaming bronze handles. Another shop attendant was sliding a ladder along a polished wooden runner towards the far end of the counter.

Penelope lingered to watch the attendant climb half way up the ladder and open a drawer. Using a small silver scoop, they shovelled two scoops of the drawer’s contents into a small cloth bag before closing the drawer and climbing back down the ladder. The attendant approached a crystal teapot set on the counter top, placed the cloth bag inside, and filled it with steaming water from a tap set into the counter. Penelope watched, stunned, as the water shifted from a deep indigo to bright purple to swirling gold.

“Coming, Penelope?” Sister Rosin called from the doorway. Penelope hurried to catch up with the Sisters as they were being seated in a booth along the back wall of the courtyard. 

The yard was enclosed with a steepled glass roof supported by wood and bone marble cross-beams. Green and purple vines with blooming ivory flowers climbed up trellises set into the blackstone walls. Large ceramic pots were set all about the courtyard filled with large leafy plants, subtly placed to offer patrons privacy from their neighbours.

Penelope sat opposite the Sisters, sliding across the tufted bark-leather seat. She noticed several crystal plates, about the size of her open hand, set into the wooden tabletop. Looking closer, she saw the plates were in fact made of several separate rings set around an inner circular disc.

Once Penelope was settled, their attended gave a short bow and said, “My name is Emily, I’ll be at your service this morning. Have you dined with us before?”

Penelope shook her head while Sister Heely said, “Not since heliocs roamed the world.”

Emily smiled and gestured to the crystal plates. “These are your menus. If you’ll see the symbols set around the outer rim—,” Penelope leaned forward and saw there were indeed small pictographs etched into the copper setting which housed the crystal, “—these are your menu settings.” Emily reached down and twisted the outer ring of Sister Rosin’s plate so that a small gold notch pointed at a symbol. The crystal began to emit a faint glow, like moonlight.

Penelope spun her own outer ring to match Sister Rosin’s.

“This will show you our black leaf range,” Emily said. She spun a second inner ring, and an illusion of an elegantly wrought teacup appeared, semi-transparent and hovering above the central plate. Penelope gasped and leaned closer. Within the cup, she could see a deep mahogany liquid roiling with golden plumes. Penelope could smell the warm scent of oranges and earthy black leaf tea wafting from the cup, which was spinning lazily in mid-air. Reaching out to touch the cup, Penelope’s hand passed through the illusion, and she sensed only a faint tingling warmth.

Emily gestured to the inner plate and said, “You press this plate once to add your selection.” Emily pressed the plate and the cup shrunk to the size of thimble, moving to hover in place above the third inner ring. “To send your order to our kitchen, double press the plate. Or, to clear a selection, simply flick the ghost away.” Emily grinned and demonstrated flicking at the small illusory cup with her index finger. It vanished in a cloud of sparkling light.

“If you have any questions at all or need help placing your order, please let me know. Otherwise I’ll leave you to browse.”

Penelope and the Sisters thanked Emily, and she glided away to serve other patrons.

“Wow,” Penelope whispered. 

Sister Heely clapped her hands and peered closely at the markings around the crystal plates. “It looks like Old Grunaen sigils. I haven’t seen these since my studies, and even then it was a rare sight.”

“How do we know which is what?” Penelope asked, cautiously swiveling the outermost ring of her own plate.

Sister Rosin shrugged. “A bit ostentatious, isn’t it?” she said cheerily.

“Most certainly!” Sister Heely replied with a wide smile.

The three women spent a good while browsing through the tea and tart selections. Penelope was most intrigued by a pastel purple brew with bubbling white sparkles which smelled of moon cherries, and a mixed berry tart which reminded her of the mysterious scent of baked goods she sometimes smelled at their cottage.

The Sisters bantered over their own selections, with Sister Rosin reaching over to flick away half of Sister Heely’s order, before catching sight of Penelope’s disapproving stare. Smirking, Sister Rosin raised her hands in mock surrender. Quick as a cat, Sister Heely reach across and flicked away Sister Rosin’s blueberry pie before either of them could stop her and Penelope couldn’t help laughing.

The women were still giggling as they finally pressed their inner plates to order breakfast. 

Emily served their orders from a bronze trolley and left Penelope and the Sisters to sample each others’ breakfast tarts. 

Penelope sighed with satisfaction as she sipped her tea and found the sweet moon berries unsnarling the knots of anxiety in her chest.

As they ate, the Sisters discussed the first task of the day, to buy fabric for their ball gowns. As they spoke of increasingly lavish materials, Penelope grew uneasy once more.

“But Sisters,” Penelope cleared her throat, “can we really afford all that? We’ve already spent three pidges just to stable our cart and—”

Sister Heely raised a hand to gently interrupt. “Penelope, dear…” Sister Heely glanced at Sister Rosin, who smiled and nodded. “We wanted to surprise you. Mary’s gown, well… she offered triple her usual commission fee.”

“Triple…” Penelope repeated weakly.

“Plus a few years’ savings.” Sister Rosin pulled a money purse from her bag and opened the lip for Penelope to peer inside. There were more gold pidges than she had seen since the magic show of her fourth birthday party had showered the room with chocolate coins.

“But… that’s…” Penelope stammered.

“More than enough to buy the finest fabrics for our gowns, and then some,” Sister Rosin said with a satisfied nod.

Penelope’s eyes filled with tears as the Sisters reached across the table to grasp her hands in theirs.

“So we’re really, truly going to the ball,” Penelope choked out. “I’m going to be a real princess.”

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