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The Lost Hero
The Lost Hero/38
“Oh, I’m better than a friend, my dear,” Her Highness said. “I’m a saleswoman. ” Her diamonds sparkled, and her eyes glittered like a snake’s—cold and dark. “Don’t worry. We’ll work our way down to the first floor, eh?”
Leo nodded eagerly. “Sure, yeah! That sounds okay. Right, Piper?”
Piper did her best to stare daggers at him: No, it is not okay!
“Of course it’s okay. ” Her Highness put her hands on Leo’s and Jason’s shoulders and steered them toward the cosmetics. “Come along, boys. ”
Piper didn’t have much choice except to follow.
She hated department stores—mostly because she’d gotten caught stealing from several of them. Well, not exactly caught, and not exactly stealing. She’d talked salesmen into giving her computers, new boots, a gold ring, once even a lawn mower, though she had no idea why she wanted one. She never kept the stuff. She just did it to get her dad’s attention. Usually she talked her neighborhood UPS guy into taking the stuff back. But of course the salesmen she duped always came to their senses and called the police, who eventually tracked her down.
Anyway, she wasn’t thrilled to be back in a department store—especially one run by a crazy princess who glowed in the dark.
“And here,” the princess said, “is the finest assortment of magical mixtures anywhere. ”
The counter was crammed with bubbling beakers and smoking vials on tripods. Lining the display shelves were crystal flasks—some shaped like swans or honey bear dispensers. The liquids inside were every color, from glowing white to polka-dotted. And the smells—ugh! Some were pleasant, like fresh-baked cookies or roses, but they were mixed with the scents of burning tires, skunk spray, and gym lockers.
The princess pointed to a bloodred vial—a simple test tube with a cork stopper. “This one will heal any disease. ”
“Even cancer?” Leo asked. “Leprosy? Hangnails?”
“Any disease, sweet boy. And this vial”—she pointed to a swan-shaped container with blue liquid inside—“will kill you very painfully. ”
“Awesome,” Jason said. His voice sounded dazed and sleepy.
“Jason,” Piper said. “We’ve got a job to do. Remember?” She tried to put power into her words, to snap him out of his trance with charmspeak, but her voice sounded shaky even to her. This princess woman scared her too much, made her confidence crumble, just the way she’d felt back in the Aphrodite cabin with Drew.
“Job to do,” Jason muttered. “Sure. But shopping first, okay?”
The princess beamed at him. “Then we have potions for resisting fire—”
“Got that covered,” Leo said.
“Indeed?” The princess studied Leo’s face more closely. “You don’t appear to be wearing my trademark sunscreen …but no matter. We also have potions that cause blindness, insanity, sleep, or—”
“Wait. ” Piper was still staring at the red vial. “Could that potion cure lost memory?”
The princess narrowed her eyes. “Possibly. Yes. Quite possibly. Why, my dear? Have you forgotten something important?”
Piper tried to keep her expression neutral, but if that vial could cure Jason’s memory …
Do I really want that? she wondered.
If Jason found out who he was, he might not even be her friend. Hera had taken away his memories for a reason. She’d told him it was the only way he’d survive at Camp Half-Blood. What if Jason found out that he was their enemy, or something? He might come out of his amnesia and decide he hated Piper. He might have a girlfriend wherever he came from.
It doesn’t matter, she decided, which kind of surprised her.
Jason always looked so anguished when he tried to remember things. Piper hated seeing him that way. She wanted to help him because she cared about him, even if that meant losing him. And maybe it would make this trip through Her Craziness’s department store worthwhile.
“How much?” Piper asked.
The princess got a faraway look in her eyes. “Well, now … The price is always tricky. I love helping people. Honestly, I do. And I always keep my bargains, but sometimes people try to cheat me. ” Her gaze drifted to Jason. “Once, for instance, I met a handsome young man who wanted a treasure from my father’s kingdom. We made a bargain, and I promised to help him steal it. ”
“From your own dad?” Jason still looked half in a trance, but the idea seemed to bother him.
“Oh, don’t worry,” the princess said. “I demanded a high price. The young man had to take me away with him. He was quite good-looking, dashing, strong …” She looked at Piper. “I’m sure, my dear, you understand how one might be attracted to such a hero, and want to help him. ”
Piper tried to control her emotions, but she probably blushed. She got the creepiest feeling the princess could read her thoughts.
She also found the princess’s story disturbingly familiar. Pieces of old myths she’d read with her dad started coming together, but this woman couldn’t be the one she was thinking of.
“At any rate,” Her Highness continued, “my hero had to do many impossible tasks, and I’m not bragging when I say he couldn’t have done them without me. I betrayed my own family to win the hero his prize. And still he cheated me of my payment. ”
“Cheated?” Jason frowned, as if trying to remember something important.
“That’s messed up,” Leo said.
Her Highness patted his cheek affectionately. “I’m sure you don’t need to worry, Leo. You seem honest. You would always pay a fair price, wouldn’t you?”
Leo nodded. “What were we buying again? I’ll take two. ”
Piper broke in: “So, the vial, Your Highness—how much?”
The princess assessed Piper’s clothes, her face, her posture, as if putting a price tag on one slightly used demigod.
“Would you give anything for it, my dear?” the princess asked. “I sense that you would. ”
The words washed over Piper as powerfully as a good surfing wave. The force of the suggestion nearly lifted her offher feet. She wanted to pay any price. She wanted to say yes.
Then her stomach twisted. Piper realized she was being charmspoken. She’d sensed something like it before, when Drew spoke at the campfire, but this was a thousand times more potent. No wonder her friends were dazed. Was this was what people felt when Piper used charmspeak? A feeling of guilt settled over her.
She summoned all her willpower. “No, I won’t pay any price. But a fair price, maybe. After that, we need to leave. Right, guys?”
Just for a moment, her words seemed to have some effect. The boys looked confused.
“Leave?” Jason said.
“You mean … after shopping?” Leo asked.
Piper wanted to scream, but the princess tilted her head, examining Piper with newfound respect.
“Impressive,” the princess said. “Not many people could resist my suggestions. Are you a child of Aphrodite, my dear? Ah, yes—I should have seen it. No matter. Perhaps we should shop a while longer before you decide what to buy, eh?”
“But the vial—”
“Now, boys. ” She turned to Jason and Leo. Her voice was so much more powerful than Piper’s, so full of confidence, Piper didn’t stand a chance. “Would you like to see more?”
“Sure,” Jason said.
“Okay,” Leo said.
“Excellent,” the princess said. “You’ll need all the help you can get if you’re to make it to the Bay Area. ”
Piper’s hand moved to her dagger. She thought about her dream of the mountaintop—the scene Enceladus had shown her, a place she knew, where she was supposed to betray her friends in two days.
“The Bay Area?” Piper said. “Why the Bay Area?”
The princess smiled. “Well, that’s where they’ll die, isn’t it?”
Then she led them toward the escalators, Jason and Leo still looking excited to shop.
PIPER CORNERED THE PRINCESS as Jason and Leo went off to check out the living fur coats.
“You want them shopping for their deaths?” Piper demanded.
“Mmm. ” The princess blew dust off a display case of swords. “I’m a seer, my dear. I know your little secret. But we don’t want to dwell on that, do we? The boys are having such fun. ”
Leo laughed as he tried on a hat that seemed to be made from enchanted raccoon fur. Its ringed tail twitched, and its little legs wiggled frantically as Leo walked. Jason was ogling the men’s sportswear. Boys interested in shopping for clothes? A definite sign they were under an evil spell.
Piper glared at the princess. “Who are you?”
“I told you, my dear. I’m the Princess of Colchis. ”
The princess’s expression turned a little sad. “Where was Colchis, you mean. My father ruled the far shores of the Black Sea, as far to the east as a Greek ship could sail in those days. But Colchis is no more—lost eons ago. ”
“Eons?” Piper asked. The princess looked no more than fifty, but a bad feeling started settling over Piper—something King Boreas had mentioned back in Quebec. “How old are you?”
The princess laughed. “A lady should avoid asking or answering that question. Let’s just say the, ah, immigration process to enter your country took quite a while. My patron finally brought me through. She made all this possible. ” The princess swept her hand around the department store.
Piper’s mouth tasted like metal. “Your patron …”
“Oh, yes. She doesn’t bring just anyone through, mind you—only those who have special talents, such as me. And really, she insists on so little—a store entrance that must be underground so she can, ah, monitor my clientele; and a favor now and then. In exchange for a new life? Really, it was the best bargain I’d made in centuries. ”
Run, Piper thought. We have to get out of here.
But before she could even turn her thoughts into words, Jason called, “Hey, check it out!”
From a rack labeled distressed clothing, he held up a purple T-shirt like the one he’d worn on the school field trip—except this shirt looked as if it had been clawed by tigers.
Jason frowned. “Why does this look so familiar?”
“Jason, it’s like yours,” Piper said. “Now we really have to leave. ” But she wasn’t sure he could even hear her anymore through the princess’s enchantment.
“Nonsense,” the princess said. “The boys aren’t done, are they? And yes, my dear. Those shirts are very popular—tradeins from previous customers. It suits you. ”
Leo picked up an orange Camp Half-Blood tee with a hole through the middle, as if it had been hit by a javelin. Next to that was a dented bronze breastplate pitted with corrosion—acid, maybe?—and a Roman toga slashed to pieces and stained with something that looked disturbingly like dried blood.