“It smells so pretty in here, like apricots and roses…” Penelope murmured as Marmalade steered her into a large bedroom. Marmalade guided Penelope by the hand around the curved rail guarding the stairwell and into the circular space beyond.
The room seemed to spill over with books, plants, and fragrant, blooming flowers. Penelope spent several long moments spinning in slow, unsteady circles, taking in every detail with growing awe.
A wooden staircase continued upwards to the left, following the curve of the tree to further rooms above. Set into the space below the stairs were polished shelves laden with books, potted plants, and shining crystals.
An iron brazier filled with warming stones stood in the very centre of the room, casting everything in a dim golden glow. Encircling the brazier were a pair of rounded, mauve lounge seats and dozens of lush plants bearing golden blossoms.
A broad bed was set along the wall opposite the stairwell. Small tables set to either side were stacked with heavy books. Above the bed was an enormous circular window paned in stained quartz and coloured sea glass, casting shafts of blue, green, and lilac moonlight across the floorboards.
To the right, set along the curving wall of the tree, were various pieces of eclectic furniture: a stone basin with bronze fixtures; a small writing desk with spindly legs and narrow drawers; an ornate dresser with an ancient gilded mirror; and a tall wardrobe of dark wood, its doors painted with glowing constellations.
“There,” Marmalade gave Penelope a gentle push towards the dresser, guiding her to sit before the mirror. The polish of its silver surface was marred with faint spots. The rusted speckles captured her attention until Marmalade tilted Penelope’s chin down, forcing the princess to meet her own gaze.
Penelope drew in a sharp breath. Her reflection was the same as ever, yet she seemed so different. The damp spirals of her hair were shining, soft from Marmalade’s bathing potions. The brown of her skin gleamed in the amber light of the room. The dusting of her freckles spread like stars across her nose. Marmalade had been right. Her freckles were perfect. Penelope smiled, showing the small gap between her front teeth.
And her eyes…
“My eyes are so… greeeeeeen… but in a… brown sort of way…” Penelope leaned forward to marvel at her eyes.
“That’s called hazel, dear.”
“Haaaz…el,” Penelope repeated, drawing out the word in a sigh. She knew that. She had always known her eyes were hazel. Yet she had never quite noticed, nor had the word hazel ever quite captured, the richness of timber speckled with vivid moss. The multi-hued browns and greens, and even small flecks of gold, within Penelope’s irises seemed to glow with all the vibrancy of life. Her life. Her spirits.
Her eyes were a cosmos unto themselves, and Penelope was falling towards the bottomless centre.
As Penelope stared into her own eyes, she felt as though the soul of the forest was staring back. All the rich beauty of the deep and dark wilds of Faewood seemed to exist in her gaze. Each secret shadow. Each quiet hollow and shallow green pool.
Penelope peered into the core of herself where unnamed things grew, untamed thoughts and storms of feeling, all yearning to spill outwards in flourishing growth.
“I’m… I’m so…” Penelope couldn’t quite voice the word beautiful, because it wasn’t big enough. Wasn’t expansive enough to describe the worlds emerging in her gaze, bubbling up from veiled depths within her. She was every large and small thing. She was the rhythms of seasons, of growth and death and rebirth. She was the living harmony between sky and soil, and all that grew between.
She was the deepest loves and deepest sorrows of the earth itself made manifest.
“Exquisite… wondrous… powerful… perfect.” Marmalade supplied the words in a soft voice, sending shivers across Penelope’s skin. Penelope nodded.
“True beauty and true love are much the same thing. It’s easy to truly love what is truly beautiful. My love potion… it doesn’t force lust or false romance. It doesn’t make an illusion of love, nor a glamour of beauty.” Marmalade stroked her hands through Penelope’s hair as she spoke, and Penelope relaxed into the touch, each nerve enlivened with the simple pleasure of it. “It opens one’s eyes to the true beauty at the heart of everything and everyone. The beauty that is always there to see, if our hearts are open. The deep and subtle beauty we’re often too clouded by our fears to notice.”
Penelope had never felt so free of fear. The humming anxieties, the worries and doubts that she always carried like stones in her chest, were gone. Now, she felt there was so much space inside her, so much more room for joy and hope. For love. The relief of it was dizzying, and Penelope erupted into giggles.
The room rang with Penelope’s laughter, bursting fits of delight that made the room feel even richer, warmer. Marmalade joined in, and Marmot chittered by her feet. Eventually they laughed themselves out, the room falling into contented silence.
After a time, Marmalade spoke again. “Now, why don’t we all get some rest. You take my bed, and I’ll sleep on that couch over there, and we can sort everything out in the morning.”
Penelope gave a happy hum. “No, thank you.”
Penelope stood abruptly, nearly tipping the chair, filled with a gleeful and urgent need to be outside. To feel the forest earth beneath her feet. To be amongst the winter trees. Her soul’s kin.
Penelope giggled as she danced around the shocked witch and raced back down the stairs.
“Penelope, wait! Where are you—oh, no, you’ll catch your death!” Marmalade cried as the princess alighted at the bottom of the stairs, twirled across the entranceway, and flung open the door. The frigid midnight air only served to lift Penelope’s spirits further as she gazed out over the snow-dusted wild flowers of Marmalade’s clearing.
In borrowed dress and bare feet, Penelope dashed outside, her laughter echoing amongst the trees as Marmalade and Marmot gave chase.