Penelope followed Abel Whistleweather around the shop counter and towards a small door obscured by a heavy velvet curtain.
Behind the door was a tight spiral of stairs, which led up to a small landing and another door of old, dark wood.
This door creaked as Abel gestured Penelope across the threshold into a large, brightly lit workshop.
There was an enormous glass sphere which filled most of a platform in the back corner of the room. Supported by a broad base of wood, the sphere was also suspended from a system of cables and chains anchored into the stone walls and broad ceiling beams. To Penelope’s disquiet, these chains occasionally rattled, causing the ceiling beams to groan.
Nearby was a hearth filled with ashes, surrounded by a neat sitting area with dark leather armchairs.
The greater part of the room was occupied by a long, finely carved dining table stacked with books and contraptions in various states of repair. Smaller workbenches surrounded this central table, like celestial satellites frozen in orbit. Many of these smaller tables were piled with complex equipment made of glass and copper.
Abel weaved his way through the maze of benches to stand before one of the smallest tables. Penelope followed slowly, wary of disturbing the delicate looking equipment.
Atop the bench’s rough wooden surface lay several small, cracked orbs of quartz, as well as a larger sphere of vibrant violet. Small glass bottles filled with a swirling liquid of the same colour sat in neat rows within a wooden case. Suspended above the violet sphere was a looping system of glass tubes terminating in a bright copper tap, which seemed poised to drip liquid onto the sphere below.
“Your family have long been custodians of a very fickle, very powerful alchemy.”
“The Elixir of Syvensia,” Penelope whispered, frowning. “I’ve only ever seen it the one time…”
Penelope had been very young when she had been taken to a ceremony in the Crystal Grove. She had been told to remain still and quiet, which made her nervous as she had never been very good at either.
Her mother had stood amongst the enormous silver and crystal trees, surrounded by tall attendants wearing pearly cloaks. The Queen had drunk the Elixir, which smelled of flowers and woodsmoke. Her mother’s eyes had glowed an eerie violet, which had frightened Penelope. Her mother had laughed, then wept, then stood tall and roared at the sky in a language Penelope didn’t understand. Penelope had fled.
She remembered the bright glitter of crystal and silver leaves, and her father smiling as he had coaxed her out from beneath a large shrub. She couldn’t remember if she had been in trouble, but everything had felt different, even after they returned home. It wasn’t very long after the ceremony that she had been sent away with the Sisters.
Blinking away the memory and suppressing her shame, Penelope peered apprehensively at the loops of glass tubes. The liquid within shimmered with ghostly figures.
“You mother is the most skilled seer in generations, and your sister is proving quite adept. Very impressive for her young age.” Abel handed a corked bottle of the potion to Penelope, distracting her from her thoughts. She closed her fingers around the cold glass, then placed it on the table with a sigh.
“I don’t have the constitution to bear the weight of foresight,” Penelope said dully, quoting the words she had been told many times by various royal advisors on their annual visits to the cottage. At least, until they had stopped visiting altogether many years ago.
“Alas, very few do, even amongst the esteemed House Starwood. However,” Abel gazed at the orb in front of him, “your family has agreed to trade some measure of Syvensia with Grimwood. Your mother and sister visited the shop last week to deliver this case of the Elixir in person.”
Penelope’s heart sank as she realised she had missed her mother and sister by mere days.
“Your mother has been instrumental in the progress of many of my projects,” Abel enthused. “We have corresponded for quite some time on the theoretical aspects of this particular project before she was able to deliver the Elixir for more experimental work… insisted on delivering it herself. A very generous woman, your mother.”
Penelope pressed her lips together, unsure of what to say. “My mother writes to you?” she finally asked quietly.
“Oh yes! I’ve often wondered how she finds the time. She must be very busy with her own project. Though, I’m sure you know all about that,” Abel waved his hand cheerily, as if dismissing the obvious.
“No,” Penelope admitted. “No actually she doesn’t write to me.”
Abel looked shocked. He opened his mouth to say something, but Penelope cut him off with another question.
“How long were… my mother and my sister here?”
“Oh, they didn’t stay very long before returning to Starwood, just an afternoon.”
“And what is it that you’ve been working on?” Penelope asked, examining the larger, unmarred crystal ball so as to avoid Abel’s concerned gaze.
“After much trial—and error—” Abel gestured at the broken crystals, “I have succeeded in suspending Syvensia’s magic within this quartz sphere. Thus allowing anyone, who might so wish, to glimpse insights into their future paths without imbibing the Elixir directly.”
Penelope sucked in a breath and took a step backwards, bumping into another table behind her. “Sorry!” Penelope squeaked, steadying the glass apparatus she had nearly sent tumbling to the ground.
“Quite alright, quite alright,” Abel said, hurriedly fixing several nozzles back into place. “Much of the Elixir’s potency is diffused within the orb, so it is far less… intense… of an experience than in potion form. However, I do understand if this is too much.”
“No, no, I’m fine. Sorry,” Penelope said again, clasping her hands together in front of her.
“Do you mean to say,” Penelope asked carefully, “that I could look into this orb… and see my future?”
“Rather, potential futures. But correct.” Abel grinned. “This technology is very new, and mostly secret. As I said before, my private collections aren’t open to the public, and this particular experiment is especially sensitive. However, as the First Heir of Starwood, this really is your birthright. If you choose to look.” Abel stood to the side, making space for Penelope to stand before the orb.
Penelope considered fleeing again, running down the spiral stairs, out the shop, and all the way home if she had to. She dismissed the absurd thought. She wasn’t a child anymore.
Penelope moved to stand in front of the orb. “How does it work?” she asked.
“First, take some deep breaths and try to relax your body.”
Penelope felt as though she was buzzing with nervous tension, but she took a deep breath anyway.
“Good. Now place your hands either side of the orb—yes, like that. Now, close your eyes, and call to mind a question you may have about your future. Perhaps you have a decision to make, or you wish to know about future events.
“It helps to be specific, and to ask about near futures rather than distant ones, as there will be fewer forks in the road, so to speak. Take a moment to think, then nod when you have a query in mind.”
It didn’t take Penelope very long. She was desperate to know two things; would she find love at the Grimwood Ball and reclaim her place among the royal courts? More importantly, would this prove enough for her family to finally reclaim her?
Heart pounding and teeth clenched with anxiety, Penelope nodded.
“Good, good. Keep your eyes closed and allow the energy of the orb into your hands… feel it in your fingers, your palms… draw it up into your heart, into your mind…”
Abel’s voice faded into silence as Penelope felt a curious, almost painful, tingling in her fingers. The tingling moved up her arms, followed by a cool sensation snaking through her veins, flooding her chest and closing her awareness to everything but the presence within her.
She could taste the ghost of it on her tongue as the sensation moved up past her throat. Woodsmoke and flowers. Her mind felt chill and foggy, like a winter morning in untouched forest.
Her mind was filled with a pearly, purple mist. She felt isolated, completely encapsulated within the fog. Just as Penelope’s nerves were about to break, unsure if she truly wanted to see after all, the mist swirled, gathering around her into the spectre of a grand hall. The walls were transparent and dim, as if endless night lay beyond. Three figures emerged before her.
“Clarity!” Penelope gasped as she recognised the image of her younger sister, who stood smiling widely up at Penelope.
She had the same sweet face as Penelope’s portrait of her, though she was now several years older, nearly thirteen. Clarity’s skin was darker and her hair longer than Penelope’s, though they shared the same narrow gap between their front teeth.
“Mother! Father!” The King and Queen of Starwood stood behind their second daughter, smiling warmly and opening their arms to embrace Penelope. They looked so happy to see her.
Penelope stumbled forward, yet her family faded to smoke and she passed right through the place they had stood.
The ballroom collapsed back to mist.
Before she could catch her breath, a new image swirled about her. The shadow of an unfamiliar figure stood before her. Penelope could make out no details within the silhouette save for the handkerchief in the figure’s breast pocket.
Penelope recognised the embroidery as her own handiwork. In fact, it looked to be the very same one she carried now in her own coat pocket.
The shadow bowed and reached a hand towards Penelope. She hesitated, then reached up, fingers trembling, to clasp the shadow’s hand.
Penelope felt nothing, her fingers closing around air. However, as the shadow stepped back, Penelope felt a tugging sensation with her chest.
The ghostly figure of her own self emerged before her, dressed in a ball gown of writhing mist and clasping hands with the shadow person.
Penelope gaped as her eerie double and the shadow figure began to dance, swirling around each other like vapour. The handkerchief in the shadow’s breast pocket seemed to glow brighter and brighter as the ghostly Penelope’s smile grew wider and wider.
As Penelope watched the figures spin, she felt a bubbling feeling of elation rise within her chest so fast she felt she might burst.
The emotion was so strong it broke the vision, and the mist dissolved from Penelope’s mind. Her fingers stopped prickling, and she opened her eyes to see Abel peering curiously at her.
She started to laugh. “It’s possible,” she murmured. “I’m going to find love at the Grimwood ball. I’ll be a true royal… I’ll have my family again!”
Half laughing, half weeping, she flung her arms around Abel Whistleweather’s thin shoulders.
“Thank you, Abel. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome, my dear.” Abel patted her soothingly on the back until Penelope gathered herself. “Bear in mind however, these visions can be tricky. Indefinite. It’s best to maintain caution and a clear head.”
Penelope frowned and nodded. “Indefinite…” she muttered. “What can I do to make the visions more definite?”
“Well, you’ll know as well as I that foresight is a fickle science… but,” Abel rubbed his chin and regarded Penelope seriously. “You might find the ministrations of the Enchantress of Daisy Lane helpful.”
Abel escorted Penelope back down the stairs and through the Emporium to the shop’s threshold. Pointing across the concourse, he said, “Follow that lane all the way to the end and you’ll have no trouble finding the Enchantress. She has a knack for catching your attention.” Abel grinned mischievously, and Penelope smiled weakly in return.
“Thank you, Abel,” Penelope waved goodbye as she stepped onto the concourse path. “Truly, it was a pleasure to meet you.”
“And you, my dear,” Abel called after her as Penelope was once more carried away with the crowd.