“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.”
Penelope followed the Sisters out onto the street with a sense of renewed purpose. A light snow was falling, which quickly dusted Penelope’s hair before she pulled up her hood. She held out her hand to catch several of the crystalline flakes, watching them melt into her glove with glee.
The three women followed the cobbled footpath up the sloping street until they arrived at the upper village concourse, a large circular area of levelled stone shaded by leafy, silver-barked trees. Tall, narrow buildings ringed the circular concourse road, which itself encircled a lush, open garden with an elaborate fortune fountain in the centre. The road funneled traffic around the concourse from intersections to the north, south, east, and west.
The Grimwood Fort loomed tall in the distance beyond the concourse, lending the scene a sense of grandiosity which never failed to catch Penelope’s breath.
Trading hours had begun, and the concourse was busy with shoppers on foot, as well as important-looking carriages drawn by well-groomed horses.
Penelope followed closely behind the Sisters, dancing away from the road’s edge so as not to be trampled by either steed or carriage.
Sister Heely had clasped Sister Rosin’s hand and was exclaiming at various window displays showcasing perfumes, extravagant feathered hats, gleaming rings and bracelets, and beaded gowns with flowing, silken trains. They passed various laneways which lead through to smaller shopping arcades and narrower roads.
Penelope had loved exploring these as a child, but had always been accompanied by one of the Sisters, or otherwise a stuffy royal escort who didn’t appreciate chasing after Penelope down every lane which called to her curiosity. Today, she was itching to go exploring on her own, as she didn’t always share the Sisters’ interests.
As they circled the concourse footpath, Penelope noted several spell shops she wanted to explore. But first, they had to find gowns. Even with their bolstered savings, three custom gowns from a Grimwood dressmaker would be far too costly, so they wended their way down the narrow lanes and side streets which led from the concourse to Sooth & Crane. The shop was a tall, narrow tower of black stone with a series of circular rose windows set high up to capture the daylight.
Stepping inside, it was exactly as Penelope remembered. The circular floor space was a gleaming black bone marble, with a polished dark wood welcome desk in the centre. Elegantly placed around the floor space were mannequins wearing regal gowns of the finest silks and sheer fabrics. As Penelope watched, many of the gowns shifted subtly in colour, or cast shadows which glimmered with ribbons of light, as though underwater.
Set into the ceiling far, far above was an enormous chandelier with glowing crystals, chained together with bronze and golden links. A broad ramp with plush carpet and antique hand railing spiralled around the walls of the shop. The ramp wound up and up the tower, almost to the ceiling, allowing customers to peruse level upon level of fabrics which were shelved on every available wall surface. The most expensive fabrics, lace, and threads were housed on the very upper level of the spiral.
The air smelled fresh and clean, like perfumed laundry dried in the sun. The scent brought back memories of the last time Penelope had visited as a younger girl. She had spent the afternoon ignoring Sister Heely’s calls, instead climbing her way up the spiral and giddily running her hands through every fabric that caught her attention. Smiling at the memory, Penelope breathed deeply, feeling impatient to explore the spiral’s treasures.
A shop attendant was adjusting a gown over a mannequin frame. She looked up as the Sisters and Penelope stepped across the floor, the clip of their footsteps echoing across the showroom.
She uttered something none of them could quite make out, for she had several pins clamped between her lips. Swiftly adding them to the ruffled shoulder of the gown, she released a swathe of fabric, which spilled elegantly from shoulder to floor, like a sheer waterfall of stars.
“There!” Standing back to admire her handiwork a moment, the woman turned her gaze back to the trio, smirking at Penelope’s awestruck expression.
“That is… that’s—“
“Starweave silk,” the woman finished with a conspiratorial smirk. She beckoned Penelope toward the mannequin.
“I’ve only ever seen a small sample of it before… to make a whole dress! May I?” Penelope reached a longing hand towards the fabric, stopping just shy of the silk.
“Please! I could hardly believe it myself. Just a few years ago this material would cost more than the Fort’s treasury. Now, several new weavers have refined the technology making it, well not exactly everyday affordable, but at least accessible for collectors.”
As she spoke, Penelope ran her fingers through the draped cape of the gown. It was so very thin, and the tiniest fragments of blue diamond woven into the translucent fabric captured the morning light, casting small luminescent beams of indigo across Penelope’s hands.
Penelope allowed the fabric to fall through her fingers and stepped back, half fearing sudden movements might tear the precious garment. As the Sisters spoke with the attendant in hushed tones, which nonetheless echoed about the marble-paved room, Penelope stepped to the centre of the circular floor and looked up. Sunlight filtered in through the gold tinted windows, illuminating the whole space with a bright, warm light which glittered within the long shards of crystal suspended from the chandelier far above.
Penelope could see a few other patrons browsing the fabrics on various levels. There was a small crowd around the tea cart on the platform of the third level, set with velvet lounges for resting.
“Come along, Penelope,” Sister Heely called from the base of the spiral. The attendant smiled at Penelope and returned to the greeting desk. “Do let me know if you need anything at all!” she said with a bow of her head.
“Thank you,” Penelope replied, and hurried to follow the Sisters up the ramp. The spiral was gentle and ran a full turn and a quarter around the wall before they arrived at the first platform. Penelope reached out to inspect various fabrics as they went, luxuriating in the smooth velvets, fine cottons and thick linens of every colour and pattern she could dream of wanting.
They walked past the service desk of the first platform, not yet needing any fabric cut, and continued up the spiral to the second platform, and the third. They perused soft wools of all varieties, and leathers crafted from the fruits, tree barks, and funghi of the Sweetwood region. One particular jewel-green apple leather would make for a wonderful pair of winter boots, and Penelope sighed as they moved on.
They walked past the tea cart and up the spiral to the fourth level platform, where the finest silks and chiffon were kept. For curiosity’s sake, they made their way up to the fifth and final platform, passing fabrics and lace woven with precious metals and stones. Row upon row of glimmering, bejewelled fabrics were stacked in carefully folded bundles of the richest colours, as well as pearlescent shades of opal, gold, silver, and bronze. There was a whole shelf dedicated to fabrics of midnight black which cast a spectrum of ethereal auras.
Mesmerised, Penelope was drawn to a fabric which resembled the constellations on a dark cloudless night. She let out a quiet squeal when she saw the price tag and scurried to rejoin the Sisters, who were admiring lengths of a sheer purple fabric which cast ripples of golden light across the floor.
Making their way back down to the fourth level shelves, they perused the more affordable, though still uncomfortably expensive, silks. After much yearning indecision, Penelope finally settled on a combination of indigo silks, silver lace for trimmings, and a gleaming opalescent thread which, when embroidered, would shine like starlight in the evening-coloured fabric.
Sister Rosin chose fabrics of flamboyant reds with matching sunset thread and bronze lace, while Sister Heely chose more muted shades of cream and dusk pink with golden lace and thread. Adding buttons, eyelets, bone for bodices, and various tools Penelope would need for dressmaking, they approached the fourth level service desk for a final tally.
Penelope twisted her scarf between anxious hands, hoping they would have enough to cover the expense, and making a pre-emptive mental tally of what she could do without if it came to it. But Sister Rosin completed the transaction with a clinking of coins, and their materials were soon wrapped up.
“We’ll have these run to your cart bay within the hour. Do you have your stable token?”
Sister Rosin fumbled in her pocket for a small chip of wood, and the man added tags to each of their bags with their stable number.
Positively floating with delight and relief, Penelope traipsed after the Sisters back down the spiral. “It’s nice not to have to carry all those bags around,” Sister Rosin remarked as they arrived at the base.
The Sisters chattered about which shops they wanted to explore on the concourse as they stepped out the door. Penelope cast a final, wishful glance at the gown of starweave silk, before following the Sisters back out onto the street.