Marmalade’s tree was warm and filled with the soft, golden light of glowstones. Penelope kicked off her borrowed boots, setting them by a haphazard stack of others in the entryway.
Emptying the pockets of her borrowed coat, carefully stowing the fate token in the pocket of her skirt, Penelope hung her coat and scarf on a hook by the door. Marmot shrugged off his own pack, setting it on the floor with an alarming rattle of its contents.
Opposite the cosy entryway was a set of narrow stairs leading up to a platform that appeared to follow the curve of the hollow tree, up and out of sight to untold rooms above.
A doorway to the left lead into a kitchen filled with small cupboards, shelves packed with ingredient jars, and bundles of drying herbs strung from the ceiling.
Following the sharp clack of firelight stones through a doorway to the right, they found Marmalade in a crescent-shaped sitting room stoking an amber fire.
The outer wall was round and irregularly shaped, with shelves set into the smooth wood seemingly at random.
The room seemed to spill over with books, bottles of mysterious, glimmering liquids, vases of flowers, and myriad trinkets of wood, quartz, copper, and stone.
The fragrance of baked tarts and warm bread permeated the air, mixing with the scent of old book pages and pine kindling.
At Marmalade’s beckoning, Penelope and Marmot settled into armchairs by the fireplace, which was set between two round windows overlooking the garden.
Marmalade hooked a pewter pot over the fire to boil, then began retrieving small jars filled with flowers, mushrooms, moss, and stones from her pack.
Setting them on the small hearthside table of polished red wood, she examined each jar in the flickering light, ensuring they were undamaged by the journey.
Marmalade nodded, satisfied. “I’ll just store all these away properly and then make us some tea.”
Penelope nodded as Marmot spun around in his seat several times, curling into a ball of brown fur and crusted earth. The light of the flames glinted from his eyes and the wet sheen of his nose.
Marmalade bustled away with her wares to the kitchen. Penelope listened wearily to the sounds of cupboard doors opening and closing, the sound of metal clinking on glassware, and the pouring of liquid into jars as Marmalade prepared her ingredients for safekeeping.
Now that sundry crises were averted, and Penelope was seated safe and warm by the hearth, her thoughts turned to the Sisters.
They must be fretting themselves ill. Were they still in Grimwood? Had they ventured home? Would they ever let her leave their sight again?
Penelope groaned, burying her face in hands covered with dirt. What a mess she’d made of her first proper independent outing through a proper town.
Penelope retrieved the fate token from her skirt pocket. The copper tracings laid into the smooth obsidian coin glinted in the firelight. Soon, Marmalade would lay its magic to rest, then Penelope would write home to the Sisters. In the morning she would make the trek through the forest to the cottage, and then do her best to forget this whole misadventure had ever happened.
Feeling resolute at having a plan, Penelope placed the token on the small table and stood to look around the room.
An elegant cabinet of pewter and glass housed dozens of small bottles filled with vibrant, luminous potions. Some danced like gossamer mist, thin and transparent. Others roiled with tiny, crashing waves, dense and opaque as the deepest waters. Others were absolutely still, seemingly calm but for the feeling of a rising storm, electric with the promise of violence and light.
Penelope found herself especially mesmerised by the pearlescent swirl of sunset liquid contained within a heart-shaped bottle the size of an acorn. Penelope peered closer, pressing her nose to the glass of the cabinet door. The potion seemed to sing of love and beauty and everything she most desired…
Penelope started as Marmot sat himself down atop her feet with a heavy whump. “Oh, hello there.” Marmot gave a squeaking yawn, stretching himself out across Penelope’s toes, evidently having forgiven her the faux pas of collapsing his roof.
Blinking and raising her gaze, Penelope caught sight of her reflection in a speckled, bronze-framed mirror set on the highest shelf of the cabinet.
Her hair was tangled and frizzy, filled with leaves and twigs. The elegant glimmer of cosmetics had been washed away in the river, and her face was weary and covered in ash. Her eyes were still puffy from tears, and red from the searing smoke of Marmot’s ill-fated muffins.
All in all, she was a bedraggled sorry mess, desperate for the comfort of her own bed and the Sisters’ reassuring presence.
Penelope groaned, glancing down at Marmot, who was belly up across her feet. “Do you think one of these potions could make me beautiful?” She asked him, staring once more at her glum reflection. Marmot chirped and pressed his wet nose against her ankle.
Penelope rubbed at a spot of ash on her cheek, succeeding only to smear more dirt across her skin as her hands were filthy with earth.
This final defeat was too much, and Penelope broke into fresh sobs.
“Oh dear, what’s the matter?” Marmalade asked, appearing by Penelope’s side with a tray of cakes and biscuits as Marmot patted Penelope’s leg with a scratchy paw.
Penelope was suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of absolute, despairing failure.
The shame she felt at the burden she had inflicted upon the Sisters turned her heart to ash as surely as she was covered head to toe in soot.
Time and again, all throughout her life, she had proven herself powerless to make herself into the princess she wanted to be. For herself, for the Sisters, for her family.
Yet even still, she had always maintained hope that, one day, she would return to those glittering courts as someone beloved.
Like all the bedtime stories the Sisters had told her as a child, she would find her soul’s match in the place where she most belonged. She would marry into highest royalty, dressed in a gown fit for a fae queen, as her family looked on with beaming pride. All those who had belittled and excluded her as a child would vie for invitations to her wedding. Other princesses, like Ivy of Sweetwood, whom Penelope had always envied for their elegance and finery, would sit in the crowd dressed in diamonds and look up at her as someone to respect. Perhaps even to envy in kind.
Through the courage and patience and studious virtue her parents had asked of her, she would uplift the Sisters from poverty and isolation, returning home, triumphant and beautiful, to the splendour of the life she had been born to with true love by her side.
Now however, staring at herself in that small mirror, ash and tears tracking down her cheeks, Penelope could no longer find the will to believe in her own fairy tale.
Standing in the shadows of an unbridgeable chasm, unable even to reach the sunlight of her own fantasy, she felt leached of all hope for the future she was most desperate to claim.
Never in her life had she felt so destitute. So unworthy. So ugly.
Unable to muster the words to encapsulate her feelings, Penelope could only sputter through keening tears.
“Everything’s… gone… and… Sisters… wasted so much money… all for nothing… and… and… and my freckles… aren’t even symmetrical!”
Marmalade set her tray down and regarded the wailing princess with pursed lips and wide eyes, before bursting into peals of laughter. Penelope sniffled indignantly.
“Not funny,” she muttered, wiping her face and smearing more soot across her cheeks.
Marmalade laughed all the harder, rubbing Penelope’s shoulders in comfort as her sobs quieted.
“No, my dear, it isn’t,” Marmalade said, her voice gentle. “But freckles are simply kisses from the stars. It’s absurd to fret where they land.”
Penelope sniffed, smiling through her tears at the small witch. “I know.. I know, that’s not even the…” Penelope shook her head, the ache in her chest easing under the witch’s touch. “You’re right.” Penelope laughed, her breath shaky.
“Of course I am,” Marmalade said with a smile. “Now, there’s a washroom downstairs. Why don’t you go have a bath, hm? I promise you’ll feel much better.”
Penelope simply nodded, feeling hollow and weary.
With a squeeze of her hand, Marmalade guided Penelope out of the sitting room and towards the stairs.