Behind the staircase leading to the upper levels of the tree was a second, narrower set of spiralling stairs leading downwards beneath the earth.
Having described the way, Marmalade gave Penelope a gentle push towards the passage, promising tea and rest after her bath.
The stairs were faintly lit by glowing, moon-coloured stones pressed into the clay walls. The stairs soon gave way to a smooth, sloping path of moss and stone curving gently downwards, with several smaller passageways forking away into the deep.
Arriving at a small wooden door bearing a gold painted star, Penelope pushed through into a cavern of natural blackstone.
Several steaming pools of varying sizes and depths filled the space, with narrow trails of glittering teal quartz winding between them. Throughout the cavern, vines of luminous blue flowers flourished, entwining the roots of the tree above.
The pools themselves rippled with the soft glimmer of submerged quartz and small, shining jelly stars. Several bathrobes and towels hung from hooks set into the stone walls.
The cavern smelled of citrus, sage, sweet oils, and earthy florals. Something about the fragrance picked at the knots of Penelope’s heartache, soothing the burn of shame and despair.
Peeling off her clothes, Penelope discarded them to the floor near the doorway. Easing herself into the nearest pool with a sigh, she sat herself on a submerged shelf of stone, taking care where she placed her feet amongst the mysterious sea stars.
Penelope scrubbed at her skin and hair, feeling vaguely alarmed as the pool filled with clouds of ash, dirt, twigs, and leaves. Worried that she’d created another mess for Marmalade, Penelope watched, fascinated, as the small glowing forms of the jelly stars shone ever brighter through the swirling sediment.
Slowly the muddied waters began to clarify, the twigs and leaves vanishing as they were consumed by the luminous living stars plastering the lower walls of the pool, until the water was pristine once more.
“Where do I find some of you?” Penelope muttered, suddenly resenting the many hours she’d spent scrubbing clean the bathing tub in their cottage.
As Penelope breathed in the fragrant steam rising from the pools, her mind drifted, almost dreaming, as she allowed herself to fully relax for the first time that day.
She thought of the vision she’d seen in Whistleweather’s workshop. Her family opening their arms to her, welcoming their daughter back home. Dancing with a prince, someone to love and who would love her.
Were they possibilities? Truths? Or just cruel imaginings, the ghosts of everything she wanted, yet couldn’t ever have?
She thought of her parents’ one and only letter to her, all those years ago, asking of her the courage to remain in the Faewood, and the discipline to keep to her studies.
She’d given both in spades. Yet all she had seemed to earn was increasing isolation in an increasingly run down cottage deep in the woods with the Sisters.
If a vision was the reason for it all, the Sisters had never said so. Did they know?
Penelope drifted into sleep, her dreams a swirl of dragons and lights between dark trees.
A knock on the door startled her awake. “Come in!” Penelope called. Marmalade stepped through the door, carrying a small basket piled with fabric.
“Just came to check you hadn’t drowned.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, has it been a long time? I fell asleep…” Penelope yawned as Marmalade set the basket down and sat on the edge of the pool. Withdrawing a broad-toothed comb carved with bright sigils, Marmalade drew it gently through Penelope’s damp curls.
“Don’t fret, it hasn’t been long at all. Tea’s ready upstairs.”
Penelope hummed, tilting her head to meet Marmalade’s comb as the snarls and tangles of the day were brushed away.
“Do you mind…?” Marmalade gestured to the pool as she began to peel off her own jacket.
“Not at all.” Penelope closed her eyes as the small witch discarded her clothes and eased into the pool.
“Here,” Marmalade said. Penelope opened her eyes as the witch held out a soft bathing sponge. Penelope accepted it, grateful for the silk of it against her skin. They bathed without talking, Marmalade humming as she drew the comb through her own copper hair, its sigils glowing as it found tangles, teasing them away like a warm spoon through honey.
“I was invited to attend the Dark Moon Ball at Grimwood,” Penelope spoke, breaking the quiet. Marmalade stopped humming, but said nothing, encouraging Penelope to continue.
“It’s the first royal invitation I’ve received in years. I used to go to parties when I was younger, but I couldn’t ever afford new dresses, or nice silks. I always made my own dresses. I was so proud of them, too.” Penelope smiled at old memories of stitching hems by the fire as the Sisters bantered over pots of tea.
“My favourite one is embroidered with moon flowers and silver stars. The Sisters showed me the pattern. But the princes wouldn’t dance with me, looking so home-made and all, and the other girls all teased me. They used to call me Princess Penny, Princess of Pennies.” Penelope sighed, recalling the sting of childhood cruelty and Princess Ivy’s humiliating taunts of earlier that morning. “In the end, I stopped being invited at all.”
“Children can be such little beasts,” Marmalade said, smoothing a glittering potion over her skin.
Penelope snorted, inhaled some water, and spluttered through her laughter. “Yes, yes they can.”
Marmalade handed Penelope the small bottle of mysterious liquid. Smoothing it over the skin of her hands and arms, Penelope felt warmth sinking deep into her muscles, relaxing knots she wasn’t even aware were tense. Marmalade handed her another bottle of viscous potion, which the witch had applied through her hair.
“Do you make all these yourself?” Penelope asked, examining the small tear-shaped bottles, which she recognised from the shelf in the sitting room.
Marmalade nodded. “Potions are something of a speciality of mine.”
“They’re so different from the ones Sister Heely makes. Those are all oils and balms and tinctures. She steeps them with herbs. I’ve never seen her make anything quite like this…”
Penelope tilted the bottle, gently so as not to spill its contents, and watched the potion swirl like smoke before pooling back to a dense, sticky-looking liquid as it settled. Penelope poured some onto her fingers. Though it clung to her fingers like syrup, the potion felt light as mist as she ran it through her damp hair, leaving the tight curls feeling soft and nourished.
Marmalade simply smiled as Penelope set the small bottles on the pool’s edge.
“I don’t think I want to go to the Dark Moon Ball anymore,” Penelope murmured, tugging at a stray coil of her hair.
“Oh? Why not?” Marmalade asked.
“It feels… pointless. Everyone has always made it so clear they don’t think I belong. It’s an open secret my own family wants nothing to do with me. I should have lied better when the other scions asked why I turned up to their parties with mossy stones in my pockets and pressed flowers stitched into my ribbons. No, of course I don’t live in a leaky cottage in the woods, my seamstresses have eclectic customs. Of course I can afford silks, I just prefer home-spun linen.” Penelope scoffed. “Ridiculous. Of course everyone saw right through it.”
“Why do you want so badly to return to a world that has been so unkind to you?”
The question was simple enough, but it knocked the air from Penelope’s chest. She’d never questioned her desire. Not once. Of course she had to go home. That was her place. Where else would she belong?
Penelope spoke slowly, her voice hoarse. “I… don’t even know anymore. You know, I’ve always wanted to prove them all wrong. Prove that sending me away was a big mistake. I was so… angry.” Penelope clenched her teeth together, huffing a breath through flared nostrils. “I’ve been so angry that they’ve all refused to see they were wrong about me.”
Penelope sank further into the pool, blowing despondent bubbles in the water as she chose her next words. “Now… I suppose, I can see they were right. I don’t belong in that world. Perhaps I never did. If I go to the Dark Moon Ball, everyone will know I had to make my own gown. No one will want to dance with me, let alone marry penniless Princess Penny.”
Marmalade smiled. “Oh, I can think of one or two who would be very interested to meet a princess like yourself.”
Penelope sat up, frowning. “Really?”
“Really. Penelope, there are many people in this world who will tell you where you do or don’t belong. They’ll tell you the manner in which you should express yourself, the ideas you should hold. Even the dreams you should aspire to. It’s your choice whether or not to heed them. If you truly feel you don’t belong to the world of royalty, then you’re now free to choose your own place, unencumbered by their ideals.”
Marmalade waded across the pool to cup Penelope’s cheeks with damp hands. “If you feel that you do belong, then return under the manner of your own choosing. Attend the dance for your own reasons. Not to prove them wrong. But to prove yourself right.”
A new feeling of hope unfurled in Penelope’s chest as she digested Marmalade’s words. It was her choice. She would make her own way home.
Penelope nodded, meeting the witch’s gaze, blue in the light of glowing flowers.