Chapter 1.2 – In which Percy is conned


Month 9, Day 27, Sunday 1:00 p.m.

(Five weeks before.)

“I’m going to be late!” Percy muttered to himself, turning in a circle while staring at a scrap of paper. It was the end of his shift, and he was supposed to be delivering some rather delicate pastries, but he was lost.

Percy’s family had only lived in Gilbratha for a few months now and, despite his best efforts, he had yet to learn his way around. The city was too huge, and none of the streets had simple, easy-to-remember names like “First,” “Second,” or even “Main.”

Gilbratha was one of the biggest cities in Lenore. It had grown within an enormous circle of white stone that was too perfectly shaped to be natural. At one point, the towering walls of the white cliffs might have even protected those within from a Titan. But all the Titans were dead now and, while the cliffs to the north remained, the poor that spilled beyond the city’s circular borders had nibbled the southern stone away over the last few hundred years.

With the one and only Thaumaturgic University—the only place for people to get their Master’s license and legally sell magical items and services—the city also boasted an abnormally high concentration of magic-users and people from every species. While many of Percy’s peers might have dreamed of becoming powerful thaumaturges, he just wanted to make it through the day with no major disasters.

His stomach rumbled as the tantalizing smell of buttercream, marzipan, and caramelized sugar seeped out of the multi-tiered container in his arms. The scent of the expensive, delicate pastries was almost strong enough to cover up some of the stench of poop that wafted off the cobbled street. Percy did his best to ignore both the smell and the clenching of his stomach; if he stopped by the pastry shop after his delivery, the owner would let him take home whatever hadn’t sold for a good discount. His little siblings were always ecstatic when this involved something sweet.

“You, boy! Are you lost?” a woman’s scratchy voice called.

Percy looked up and took a quick glance around.

“Yes, you!” A hag across the street pointed at him. She sat on a carpet spread out on the side of the road, her bark-like craggy skin forming deep wrinkles as she displayed her inhumanly sharp teeth to him in a broad smile.

Percy raised a hand to his mouth as if he’d blurted something rude. “Wait, is it rude to call her a hag?” he muttered to himself. The word was initially just a label for their mostly humanoid species, but over time had grown to become an insult for unattractive women.

“Come here, boy!” the woman urged, waving him over.

Percy carefully looked both ways, twice, while listening for any signs that fast traffic might be heading his way. Two weeks ago, he had been pushed off of a canal bridge by a Crown noble who lost control of their horse-drawn carriage. Hearing no shouts or screams, and seeing nothing to indicate danger, Percy stepped carefully into the road. His stride deliberately overshot the built-up mud at the edge of the sidewalk; he knew from experience that it was deceptively slippery and at the perfect angle to send someone shooting off their feet.

Percy made it across without incident. “Hello. Do you think you could help direct me? I’m a little lost, and I’m running short on time.” He held out the slip of paper with the address on it, then pulled it back. “Oh, can you read? I can read the address for you if—”

“You get lost a lot, don’t you?” the hag interrupted him.

Percy blinked at her, the slip of paper still awkwardly outstretched between the two of them. Had he offended her? His thoughtless tongue was always getting him in trouble. He shouldn’t just assume people couldn’t read. “Well, I guess I do. I find myself lost slightly more often than the average person, probably?”

The hag peered at him, holding up a scuffed monocle to her eye and squinting to hold it in place between two crags in the skin. “Are you under a curse, boy? I’m seeing dark signs.” She nodded to herself, smiling as if this was a pleasant surprise, then intoned ominously, “Oh yes, very dark.”

Percy frowned. How rude to say something so horrible with a greedy smile! “No, I’m not.”

“You are,” she insisted, waving a hand over his whole body vaguely. “Super dark.”

Percy squinted. “Maybe you need to get your monocle cleaned. That’s just the color of my skin. And it’s not even that dark.”

The hag snorted at him and snatched away the monocle with a glare, as if he was the one that had offended her! “Something must be wrong with you, boy. You’ve got horrible luck. You can’t be that oblivious, surely?”

Percy deflated somewhat. Though he wished for nothing more than to be the kind of normal person who could live a boring life—where pots never fell on him from balconies—he couldn’t deny the truth.

“After all, you’re literally covered in misfortune.” She waggled her eyebrows and repeated, “Literally.”

The smell of the street wafted into his nose again, and Percy groaned as he understood her insinuation and looked down at his feet. Apparently, the lingering stench was not the street itself, but his shoes. “Oh, I’m sorry. I think I stepped in dog poop.”

The hag shook her head smugly. “That’s not dog poop.”

Percy tilted his head. “Not dog poop? What do you mean, it’s obviously—” His eyes widened as he stared down at the stinking brown material caking the bottom of his shoe. “Oh, ugh! No!” There was only one other type of poop that was so similar to dog poop and yet smelled even worse. Human poop.

“Yes,” she insisted.

Luckily, Percy was carrying a second pair of shoes in his backpack of standard supplies, which he could put on just before he got to his delivery’s address.

“And things could get even worse if you don’t take measures to correct your fate.” She waved at the various goods in front of her, trinkets and talismans and little pots filled with unknown substances.

“I just want to get directions,” Percy said. Would she force him to buy one of her talismans before she helped him? He was running out of time.

“You’ll never make it to that delivery without a little help,” she predicted balefully. Another mean smile showed off the gaps between her spiky, browning teeth.

“How did you—” Percy cut the question off. Obviously, the woman had just made an educated guess. He probably didn’t look rich enough to have bought so many pastries from such a fancy shop for himself, and if he had, he would probably know how to get back to his own house. There might even be some obvious clue, like flour dust in his hair.

“I have eyes that can see, boy,” she muttered, looking down at her wares. “Improved chances of meeting your true love? A nightmare suppressant? Very good protection against stubbing your toes in the dark?” She shook her head, pursing her thin, spit-shiny lips. “No, none of these for you, I think.”

Percy actually found the anti-toe-stubbing talisman to be quite interesting, but she had already moved on.

She reached into her robe’s collar, pulling a talisman in a silk pouch from some hidden pocket inside. A moth that must have been trapped against her skin fell out from the angled collar, dropping to her lap. It flapped pitifully and then somehow managed to flutter away, leaving a print of wing-dust on her clothing.

Percy shuddered violently, wondering if the hag actually hadn’t noticed or was just pretending to be oblivious. He imagined the feel of those disgusting wings, scratching legs, and feathery antenna against his own skin, and felt a tingle as all the small hairs on his body rose. Even his scalp itched as his short-cut afro trembled with the sheer force of his revulsion.

The woman offered him the talisman pouch. When Percy hesitated, she leaned forward, grabbed the hand holding the address paper, and shoved the pouch into his grip. “This will help. General good luck, to counteract your general bad luck. Quite strong. Only eight silver.”

Percy knew he wasn’t as sophisticated as people who had grown up in the big city, but he wasn’t a total country bumpkin. He recognized a scam when he saw one. He lifted the talisman to toss it back to her but hesitated. There was something about its soft fabric, the shimmering glyphs embroidered within tiny, complex designs, and the gleam in the hag’s eyes.

Hags often worked with karmic magic. Supposedly, they had a natural predilection toward balance, enforcing it through curses and hexes. This was maybe why their spell arrays used so many hexagrams. Percy was no thaumaturge, but he had heard this bandied about and thought it made sense. On the other side of that, they were also supposedly skilled with good luck charms. But despite how much of a dent eight silver would put in this week’s wages, it seemed rather cheap for a general good luck charm of any strength.

That, more than anything, made Percy suspicious. “Are you sure it’s actually potent? Or is it about to run out of power or something? Making this delivery on time isn’t worth eight silver to me.”

“It’s a perfectly good talisman. Very…tenacious, I assure you. It just doesn’t match up well with most people. In that way, you could say that you’re lucky to have found me today.” She winked.

That decided it. This was definitely a scam. Percy was never lucky. He tossed the talisman back to her and turned to find someone else to ask directions of.

He hadn’t made it half a block toward the congested cross-street next to a blocked off canal bridge when someone slammed into him from the back hard enough to spin him around. The container of pastries flew out of his hand, and Percy watched it tumble through the air and crash into the street even as he himself hit the ground with jarring force.

The woman didn’t even stop. Didn’t even apologize. She just sprinted on, then ducked into the alley to her right with a frightened glance over her shoulder.

Percy climbed back to his feet, meeting the eyes of the hag.

She gave him a condescending sneer, her long nose held high in the air. “I told you so!” she called out, both delighted and patronizing.

After once again checking for danger, Percy hurried into the street to retrieve the pastries. A quick check showed that at least half of the delicate confections inside had been broken. Cream ran out of the broken shells of the candied pixie eggs, some of the fake marzipan fruits and flowers were dented or missing petals, and the ultra-thin crunchy caramel glazing on the lemon cloud-cakes had chipped and cracked. It was all still edible, of course, but not presentable for the Browns’ bruncheon.

Percy re-sealed the container and looked up at the grey sky, resisting the urge to scream and stamp his feet in frustration. His boss would blame him for this. Perhaps he would even take the cost out of Percy’s paycheck.

With a deep breath in through his nose and out through his mouth, Percy stomped back toward the hag. “I’ll take the talisman,” he said, digging in his skinny coin purse for a single gold crown.

But then a cacophony of copper-nailed boots pounded up the street. The coppers—Crown-sanctioned law enforcement—were looking for something. Or someone.

The hag watched them even as she shoved the talisman into Percy’s free hand once more.

The coppers slowed, questioning people, and Percy caught a few stray words. They were looking for a woman, and something about a stolen book. “Ah! That rude girl who ruined my pastries!” Percy muttered.

As the coppers drew closer, the hag spoke in a rush. “To activate it, all you need to do is pluck one of your hairs and drop it inside the pouch. Seal it back up again tight and enjoy.” Then she dropped, rolled up her carpet with all of her wares still inside, and tossed the bundle over her shoulder. “Nice doing business with you!” she said, before sprinting away with surprising speed.

Astonished, Percy stared after her as her retreat drew the coppers’ attention. A couple of them gave chase, following her into the crowd ahead.

“You didn’t give me my change!” he called after her belatedly.

And here, we have jumped back in time to the beginning of Percy’s story. I think you all can guess who the rude, pastry-ruining woman is. If you can’t, that means you need to read A Practical Guide to Sorcery!

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