Penelope made her way back to the garden fountain with just a little time left to spare before she was to meet the Sisters. Strolling through the garden to pass the time, Penelope turned her fate token around in her fingers, squinting at the intricate copper design embedded in the glassy obsidian.
Her attention absorbed in the token, she caught her foot on a loose stone and almost dropped the coin in the snow. Shaken, Penelope withdrew her purse and placed the token in with her remaining pennies, feeling it would be the safest place for it until she returned home and could examine it properly.
Though, the Enchantress had said to keep her token close… Was she supposed to carry against her skin? Would the purse stifle its magic? Perhaps she should keep it inside her glove…
Penelope withdrew the token again, unsure of what to do with it. Lost in thought, she was startled when the token’s copper tracings flared with warmth and light. Penelope stumbled again, this time into another’s path and was knocked bodily to the ground. Afraid to lose the token, Penelope clutched it in her fist, but lost grip of her purse.
The loud clink of copper pennies rang out as they tumbled across the snowy stone path. Penelope felt pain in her wrist as she landed on her closed hand. Flexing it gently, she was relieved that it didn’t feel broken, like the time she had fallen from the feathered willow. Her relief was short lived as she heard a familiar taunting laugh.
Penelope looked up into the smirking face of Princess Ivy of Sweetwood as she smoothed the front of her fine wool coat.
Ivy stood over Penelope amongst a small crowd of other royal scions, all peering down at her in mild disdain. Penelope recognised them from the soirées and classes she had attended many years ago. They had been unkind then, and it didn’t seem that time had much improved their character.
“My, my,” Ivy snickered. “If it isn’t Penelope, Princess of Pennies.” A few of the others chuckled. Some frowned in confusion before recognition flared and malice returned to their gaze.
Penelope struggled to her feet with as much dignity and poise as she could, which wasn’t much with a sprained wrist. She looked around in dismay at the bright littering of coins on the path.
Torn between the impulse to collect them, for each coin was precious, and the desire to simply walk away from the whole humiliating situation, Penelope hesitated.
“Greetings, Princess Ivy,” Penelope ducked a short curtsy, before acknowledging the wider group, hoping cool and formal courtesy might deflect any cruel intentions.
Neither Ivy nor the others returned her greeting. Some sneered, though most already seemed disinterested. Good. Ivy’s smile, however, grew thin. “We haven’t seen you around for ages, Penny. We thought perhaps you’d been swallowed up by moss in your little hut…”
Penelope bristled at the insult to her cottage. It was true that she longed to return to her real home at Starwood Palace, but she felt defensive of her small cottage and its beautiful, overgrown gardens. She felt a longing ache for her bedroom now, where she could sip tea by her own little fire grate and soak her feet in a hot bath of sweet salts.
“Oh, the moss hasn’t eaten anyone in years,” Penelope smiled wryly. “Though I appreciate your concern for my welfare.”
One of Ivy’s friends giggled and Ivy’s glare became icy. “Oh, come on Ivy, leave her be. I want to see the fountain.”
Ivy frowned in their direction and the friend stepped back, looking down at their shoes.
Penelope hoped Ivy would grow bored and move on. She was anxious to collect her coins, find the Sisters, and get some relief for her injured wrist.
“Oh, hullo! Are these your coins, miss?”
Penelope and Ivy turned towards the new voice to see a lanky figure with a head of ruffled black curls, and wearing an apron covered in flour dust and jam stains. The newcomer bent down and gathered up Penelope’s purse.
“They are. Clumsy me, I dropped them. Lovely to see you Ivy, but I don’t want to keep you from your friends.” Penelope glanced pointedly at Ivy’s cohort, many of whom had grown bored and wandered away to throw pebbles into the fountain.
“They’ll wait,” Ivy dismissed, glaring at the stranger’s cheerful face.
“Thank you,” Penelope murmured to him as she took back her purse, her face heating with embarrassment as she realised Ivy was going to wait for her to collect all the coins at her feet.
“Your friends do seem in want of your company, perhaps it would be best if you joined them over there. I’ll help your friend here—Penelope, was it?—collect her coins.” The stranger’s mouth twisted on the word friend, and Penelope realised they weren’t as guileless as she had thought.
She felt a rush of warmth towards this stranger, confronting Ivy on her behalf.
“Friend is a strong word,” Ivy trilled. “And who might you be? Baker’s apprentice come to play knight for our poor Princess Penny?”
The stranger whistled. “Princess? Why didn’t you say so?” Turning his back on Ivy to face Penelope, the young man folded gracefully into a low bow. “I beg forgiveness, your Highness, I didn’t recognise your House. I’d be honoured to be of service to you any way I can as a poor, lowly baker’s apprentice.”
Penelope struggled to keep a straight face as the stranger winked at her through a curtain of curls.
Penelope curtsied in return, ignoring Ivy’s open-mouthed outrage. “An easy mistake, good baker’s apprentice.” Penelope struggled to suppress the quaver of a giggle.
“Well I’m Princess Ivy of Royal House Sweetwood, and you’ve crossed a dangerous path, boy,” Ivy hissed.
To Penelope’s surprise, the baker’s eyes narrowed as he smiled and bowed to Ivy. “I’ll be sure to remember that, Princess Ivy of Sweetwood.”
Penelope felt a thrill of satisfaction as the baker’s smile quirked mockingly, unseen by Ivy as she sniffed, turned on her heel, and marched away.
Penelope covered her mouth to chortle as Ivy and her friends stomped out of sight. “Thank you, uh–”
“Steph,” Steph said, crouching down to collect a coin wedged between the stones.
“Thank you, Steph, I appreciate your help. You didn’t have to trouble yourself.”
“No trouble at all,” Steph grinned. “Quite fun, actually. Oh, and you dropped—”
“Wait, where are the rest of my coins?” Penelope cried in dismay, turning about in a circle. Aside from the few coins Steph had gathered, almost all of them had vanished, as if by magic.
“Oh, no,” Steph whispered.
Penelope followed Steph’s gaze to a set of tiny paw prints tracking through the snowy path, until she caught a glimpse of a brown, furry face peering out from a nearby bush.
As she watched, the creature raised a shining copper penny in its paws, examining the gleam in the winter light, then shovelled the coin into its mouth. Penelope and the creature stared at one another for a brief, bewildering moment, before it turned tail and scampered down the path.