“You,” Marmalade hissed at Penelope. “Explain.”
“I have no idea what happened! I didn’t wish for that!” Penelope protested, hoisting herself to sit upright.
“What did you wish for? Exactly?”
“I… I saw a vision of my future. I saw my family reach out to embrace me… and then I was dancing with a prince… I think. I only wished for a way to ensure that future for myself. I just… I only wanted the love of my family back. Grimwood’s Dark Moon ball is only a few weeks away, and it might be the last chance I’ll ever get to prove I’m worthy of the Courts. And I—”
The events of the day had left Penelope feeling rattled and utterly exhausted. A feeling of homesickness overwhelmed her and she folded herself over her knees, sobbing. “I only wanted my family back.”
Through her tears, Penelope glimpsed a blur of brown as Marmot crawled into her lap. Penelope clung to him as she cried herself out. Marmot pressed his wet nose to her cheek and patted her face with his small paw.
Marmalade said nothing, allowing Penelope to cry. For a time there was quiet, with only the soothing sound of gentle waves as the boat charged through calm waters. Finally, Penelope sniffed and wiped her eyes with a handkerchief Marmalade passed her.
“I don’t understand,” Marmalade said. “Aren’t you a Princess of Starwood? Why aren’t you with your family?”
Penelope grimaced against the familiar shame burning in her chest.
“My mother, the Queen of Starwood, she’s a Seer. One of the best in generations. When I was very young, I messed up one of her rituals. A really important one, I think. I was told to stay quiet and still. But I was so frightened, I ran away. After that, my parents sent me to live in the Faewood with my governesses, Sister Rosin and Sister Heely. And now they’re stuck there because of me. Because I couldn’t— Because I wasn’t—” Penelope hiccoughed, devolving into sobs once again. Marmalade fetched a kettle to make tea.
Penelope gathered herself, stroking Marmot’s coarse fur, as Marmalade brewed a pot of honeyed herbs. Small clouds scudded across the night sky, obscuring the waxing quarter moon.
“Do you not think,” Marmalade pondered as she passed Penelope a steaming mug, “that perhaps your Seer Queen saw something which prompted her to send you to the Faewood?”
Penelope stared at Marmalade, unable to speak for a long moment. “No. No, I never thought that. The advisors that came each year from the palace to test my studies, they just told me to work hard. To not be a nuisance. To become a scion worthy of House Starwood. I thought…” Penelope pressed her hand to her mouth, stifling fresh sobs. “I thought… they sent me away… because I was a horrible nuisance. An embarrassment. Too afraid of the rituals to be a useful Seer.”
“Oh… are all Starwoods Seers?” Marmalade asked, her tone pensive.
“Well, no, they… not all, no,” Penelope sniffed and took several gulps of hot tea to calm herself. “But my younger sister, Clarity, is said to be almost as good as my mother. I assumed when they stopped sending the advisors, it was because they wanted Clarity as First Heir instead. I thought they’d just kind of… forgotten about me… ”
Penelope glared out across the moonlit waters, now dark and calm with no hint of the earlier turmoil.
“Did you ever ask them why they sent you away?” Marmalade asked, peering over her cup at Penelope.
Penelope sighed. “Of course. At first I wrote them a letter every day. Then as I got older, once a week. I asked them to tell me what I did wrong, so I’d never do it again. I promised I’d be good, I’d be brave, I’d be quiet for the rituals…” Penelope sighed and hung her head.
“Sometimes I got a letter back from the High Advisory telling me to behave and make my parents proud with my studies. Then even those letters stopped coming.” Penelope shook her head and drained her teacup.
Marmalade poured her another, adding a splash of amber liquid from a small copper flask. Penelope tasted the burn of mossmire mead, and took a deeper gulp.
“The Sisters sometimes used to write back to me, pretending to be my parents. But I knew it was their handwriting.” Penelope smiled. Even though she had known they were faked, she still treasured those letters. “I caused the poor Sisters all kinds of grief as a child. One time, I even climbed the tallest tree I could find, wrapped myself all up in messenger papers, and tried to post myself back to the Palace…”
Marmalade blinked. “And how did that go for you?”
“I broke my arm in three places.” Penelope huffed a laugh. “The Sisters were so worried about me. That was the only time I got a real letter from Father. He wrote…” Penelope paused again, wiping away new tears.
“He wrote that he knew I was brave. I didn’t need to prove that, but that I couldn’t be so reckless. He wrote that I needed to stay in the Faewood and be good. That he’d be so proud of me, if I could be brave enough to do that.” Penelope broke into new sobs. “I never got another letter from my parents again.”
“I pretended for the Sisters’ sake that I’d lost interest in writing home. I still write letters, though. Once a week. I just don’t post them anymore.”
Penelope sat quietly after that, drinking her fortified tea and watching the golden glow of the warming stones as they kept the kettle hot. Her emotions were raw, her mind a whirl of confusion as she mulled over old and painful memories.
Could a prophecy have caused her family to abandon her?
As the boat ploughed on, leaving the Tears behind as they crossed into the waters of the Sweetwood River, Penelope spoke again.
“Do you really think I was sent away because Mother saw something in a vision?”
Marmalade frowned, looking up at the stars. “I couldn’t say that for certain, no. But sending a child away to live in the Faewood seems rather a drastic reaction for disrupting one little ritual… It was just the one ritual, yes?” Marmalade asked, squinting at Penelope.
“I think so,” Penelope wracked her memory. “That’s the only one I remember, at least.”
“Well then. I’d say you’re not living in the forest because you’re a nuisance. Not to say that you aren’t that, too,” Marmalade sighed theatrically, staring around at her cracked and creaking boat.
Penelope giggled, then covered her mouth. “I’m sorry. It isn’t funny. I am truly sorry about your boat. And, well, everything else, too.”
Though her apology was sincere, Penelope pressed her teacup to her lips to hide her growing smile. She’d had a little too much mossmire mead, and it was starting to go to her head. The dangers of the day now seemed ghoulish absurdities, and Penelope couldn’t help but find it all a little funny, in a grim sort of way.
Marmalade chuckled too, waving her teaspoon dismissively. “When you live to my age, dear, everything is simply another adventure.”
“Your age? Of what… twenty eight?” Penelope quirked an incredulous eyebrow at the witch.
“Oh, you’re a charming nuisance, I see.”
Penelope laughed out loud, and found she couldn’t stop. Marmalade chuckled and Marmot chittered, laughing all the harder when Marmot spilled his tea.
Penelope’s stomach was still aching with mirth as the boat glided towards a pier set at the end of a small, winding stream just off the main river. Penelope helped pack away the tea set as Marmalade tied the boat to the dock.
They gathered everything that was needed from the cabin, Marmot carrying his own little backpack filled with who-knew-what, and set off down the quartz path at the pier’s end.