An Errand at the Fortress


This story was written for Round 2 the 2019 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. The assignment was to write a story of no more than 1,000 words in the fantasy genre, taking place at a post office, with a carton of eggs appearing in the story.

Note: this story is unedited from original 48-hr version until this note is removed.

Synopsis: A witch is excited to revisit the magical post office of her childhood, but finds that there have been some changes. Will the new species behind the counter prevent her from sending a time sensitive package, or report her for suspected possession of black magic contraband?

I’ve always loved my hometown post office. As a kid, I’d happily join my mum for errands, hoping to stop at the converted fortress pressed up against the sea. I’d called it “the fairy castle”, and vividly remember the high stone walls and the sunlight glinting off its windows.

Now, years later and just back from witching school, the fortress seems small and grubby: the stone walls greyer, the windows dirtier. Inside, I find the retractable line dividers placed so close together that I need to mind my elbows. Was it always this cramped?

I look toward the familiar counter. Dwarves face us from the other side, efficiently collecting envelopes, exchanging coins for stamps, and placing express packages on a conveyer belt to the back room. Just as I remember.

Eagerly, I look through the back room’s large, magic-proof window and am relieved to find that at least things there are the same. Fairies excitedly flit to and from the conveyer belt in faint trails of light. Groups of them gingerly lift each box and inspect the shipping label. A team leader raises a tiny wand, and poof! Package sent.

A tingle of excitement flutters in my chest. I’ve never sent my own express package before. Revisiting childhood while reaching what feels like a grown-up milestone makes me secretly giddy. Add in the illicit source of the contents of my package, and it’s enough to make me feel downright tipsy.

When it’s my turn I hustle to the farthest end of the counter where I’ve been summoned. It’s right next to an open seaside window behind the counter—a station for merfolk. A sea dweller patiently waits there, tracing a fingertip along their gills as a dwarf clerk labels a shrink-wrapped hydra head for shipment.

I notice my clerk.

Whoa, I think. When did the post office start employing humans?

She (the pronoun on her badge informs; I’d never assume) notices my surprise.

“First day,” she says cheerily. “Fresh out of training. New program for us out-of-worlders!”

“Well…welcome,” I tell her, returning the smile. “I’d like to ship an express package.” The excitement thrills through my chest again.

“Domestic, or otherworld?”

“Otherworld. Yours, actually.”

“Oh! The homeland!” she cheers. Humans only recently discovered world-hopping; I find they’re easily excited. Her smile fades, however, as I place my carton on the counter.

“Oh dear, are those eggs?”

“Indeed,” I reply, ready for this moment. “I’ve followed all the instructions of the Otherworld Shipping Agreement of 2017. They are chicken eggs native to the recipient’s universe, laid in the last 48 hours, individually cushioned, and are being shipped to an address registered by the 13th Chapter of the Otherworld Responsible Gift Giving Commission. They are a gift; I am not receiving compensation for them,” I lie sweetly.

“I see,” she replies. She’s looking at the carton, not moving. The excited flutter in my chest becomes a nervous one. What does Postal Regulation training for humans include about the black magic market? It’s the only place a recent graduate like me can get ahold of rare and necessary resources for work in otherworld magic and potions.

I’d bartered hard for my chickens, finally settling on a deal that included weekly egg shipments. She can’t assume the source of my chickens. Can she report any suspicion? I hold my breath.

A thump at the seaside window draws our attention. The hydra head is on the conveyer to the fairies.

“Is there a problem?” I finally ask.

“Per Decree 263, Section 4 of the Self-Aware Species Protection Act,” she recites her training, “we cannot express ship chickens.”

I feel a laugh coming, but politely suppress it. Of course fairies can’t poof! a conscious creature. It’s cruel! That’s why all avian eggs from her world must be shipped so quickly after being laid.

“These aren’t self-aware chickens,” I assure her. “They’re only eggs. Your coworker just shipped an entire head of hydra,” I gesture towards the seaside window.

“The hydra was dead,” she replies flatly.

Obviously. I roll my eyes. I’m not about to tease out the nuances of resurrection and new life with a human postal clerk. The Powers That Be have already hashed these things out! I’m completely within Postal Regulation.

“These eggs are not alive,” I explain through gritted teeth, discreetly scanning her desk for personal trinkets. I may need one later.

“They could be, though” she counters. “I can’t ethically send your package.”

“Morally,” I correct her, visualizing my revenge for this wasted time. Papercut proclivity? Infinite junk mail? Excessive fertility? “It doesn’t follow the Moral Code of Postal Service worker…” I read her badge, “…2766.” I draw the number out into a little hiss, catching the attention of the seaside clerk.

“Can I help you?” the dwarf asks, quickly moving next to the human.

“I need to send these eggs express,” I insist.

“Of course, no problem.”

The human throws her hands up in exasperation and walks away. After a blissfully quick exchange, the eggs are coasting along the conveyor. I watch as fairies carefully pick them up, inspect the label, and finally poof! them to their destination.

Somehow, the magic of it all has waned.

“So sorry for the trouble,” the seaside clerk apologizes. “She’ll be sent back to training. Third incident this week. This human program is noble and all, but yeesh are there some cultural hurdles.”

“Indeed,” I notice a seashell on the absent human’s desk. “Thank you for your help.”

“You’re welcome!” the dwarf says, returning to the seaside window.

I reach for the shell, then pull my hand back. It isn’t ethical—nor moral, I suppose—to cast petty spells over minor inconveniences caused by socio-political differences. What she needs is a clarity spell, and those take time and energy. It’s not worth the effort.

If this doesn’t get worked out in her training, however, I will need a shipping spell next week. Now that’s a life skill they should teach in witching school!

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