After Marmalade and Steph had stepped out into the garden and vanished beyond the treeline in quest of feverthistle—Steph dressed in borrowed coat and winter gloves—Penelope and the sisters settled by the fire with hot mugs of cocoa. Having opted to stay behind where there was the promise of treats, Marmot was curled up by Penelope’s feet crunching on walnuts.
There was a terse silence where no-one knew quite what to say, the quiet punctuated by the occasional spark and crackle from the hearth.
“So,” Sister Rosin spoke, dragging out the word. “Made some new friends, then?”
Penelope laughed into her cup, more out of relief at the broken tension than amusement. She winced as her ribs ached. “I suppose I have. I could ask you the same. Did you really take Steph hostage?”
Sister Rosin huffed. “That boy practically begged for us to bring him along home. Said he could help us in finding your witch friend. Vouched for her something fierce, too. Didn’t trust him as far as I could throw him, and you can absolutely bet I wanted to throw him, but there’s just something about him…” Sister Rosin shook her head fondly.
“There rather is, isn’t there,” Penelope agreed, smiling into the golden flames.
“He towed along with us as we spoke with the Grimwood guards. Some of them had seen you dragged up onto Marmalade’s boat, and were familiar enough with the witch to corroborate her identity. Steph said she wouldn’t harm you, and the guards seemed to defer to Steph’s judgement on the matter…” Sister Rosin frowned at the fire for a moment before continuing.
“At first we had planned to stay in Grimwood Village in case you turned up again. But the guards assured us they would send word if you were found. They also sent a contingency of Rangers out to search for you, but no one seemed to know exactly where Marmalade resides. Steph had reckoned somewhere to the south-west of Faewood, which was beyond the Rangers’ territory. At least, officially…” Sister Rosin snorted and took a sip from her mug.
“We decided to come home and search for you ourselves. Steph insisted on coming with us, as he was most familiar with Marmalade and hoped to find her more quickly. Since the forest seemed… amenable… to his presence when we arrived, we figured he wasn’t over much a threat.” Sister Rosin smirked a little at that.
Sister Heely huffed in disagreement and Sister Rosin chuckled. Penelope frowned, looking between them, suspicious she was missing some private argument.
“Since we got home after dark, we figured we’d go looking for you at first light, but you showed up and saved us the journey.”
Penelope nodded, feeling a little ill at just how much trouble she had caused in her disappearance. “Do the Rangers know I’m home, now? I’d so hate for Grimwood to waste their efforts on my behalf.”
Sister Heely set her mug down, speaking for the first time. “We sent a message to them after you arrived.”
“Well… that’s a relief,” Penelope murmured, still flushed with mortification that the Village guards had been involved at all. She took a sip of cocoa to mask her embarrassment.
“And to your parents.”
Penelope spluttered, spitting cocoa down her front. “What?!”
“You went missing, Penelope,” Sister Heely said, sounding exhausted. “Of course we had to inform the King and Queen of Starwood that their daughter had disappeared, and was possibly kidnapped.”
Penelope’s insides writhed. “What did they… have you heard from them?” she asked, her voice thin.
The Sisters glanced at one another before Sister Heely sighed and went to fetch a piece of parchment, passing it to Penelope before perching on the edge of her chair, her posture stiff.
Smoothing the folds, Penelope read the missive.
Dear Sister Heely of Noble House Fellworth and Sister Rosin of Noble House Devier, Governesses of Princess Penelope, First Scion of Royal House Starwood,
Thank you for informing us of the Princess’ safe return to your care.
Cramon of Noble House Primbloom and Chief of Starwood High Advisory.
Penelope read the letter several times, staring at the page with incredulity. This was all her parents had to say? And not even bothered to write themselves… Taking several sharp breaths through her nose, Penelope laid the letter on the small table as the Sisters watched her with concern.
“Well,” Penelope said after a time, her voice rough with bitterness. ”At least I’m still considered First Scion.”
Draining her cup, Penelope stood. “I think I’ll go to bed now, if that’s alright.”
“Of course,” Sister Heely stood and moved to brush a curl from Penelope’s face. “Penelope, dear…”
Leaning into the touch, Penelope smiled sadly. “I’m fine. I really am sorry, for everything.” Penelope met Sister Heely’s pale blue eyes, which were wrinkled with sorrow. Blowing a kiss at Sister Rosin, Penelope left the room.
She was halfway up the stairs when the back door of the cottage opened with a bang. Shuffling back down the stairs, her joints aching in protest, Penelope followed the Sisters into the kitchen.
Marmalade strode into the warmth of the kitchen with a regal sort of grace while Steph clomped his boots on the porch to rid them of caked mud.
“Any luck?” Sister Rosin asked, as Sister Heely peered into the basket Marmalade had set onto the table. It was brimming with ferns and flowers.
“We couldn’t find your feverthistle—” Marmalade began.
“I sang very loudly, I promise,” Steph chimed in.
“—but I did find several other herbs which should help.”
Penelope smiled at Steph and Marmalade, feeling warmed by their presence. She watched as Steph shuffled eagerly around the kitchen while Marmalade prepared the herbs for tea, and the Sisters marshalled cups and kettles.
Steph swatted Penelope’s hand away as she attempted to help, pointing imperiously at a chair and making a show of guiding Penelope to her make-shift throne. Marmot splayed in her lap as though to keep her in place. Penelope laughed at their antics until her sides hurt. The domestic bustling helped lift some of the familiar gloom that always settled in her chest whenever she thought of her parents.
The tea was bitter, but she felt much better by her second cup. Listening to Steph and Marmalade regale their adventures, and Sister Heely quizzing the witch on several unfamiliar herbs as Sister Rosin and Steph pulled faces at each other, Penelope felt a deep sense of contentment.