Piper caught his shoulders as he keeled sideways. ‘Whoa, Sparky. We need to contact the Argo II, get help.’
‘You haven’t called me Sparky in a long time.’
Piper kissed his forehead. ‘Stick with me and I’ll insult you all you want.’
Annabeth scanned the ruins. The magic veneer had faded, leaving only broken walls and excavation pits. ‘We could use the emergency flares, but –’
‘No,’ Jason said. ‘Leo would blast the top of the hill with Greek fire. Maybe, if you guys helped me, I could walk –’
‘Absolutely not,’ Piper objected. ‘That would take too long.’ She rummaged in her belt pouch and pulled out a compact mirror. ‘Annabeth, you know Morse code?’
‘So does Leo.’ Piper handed her the mirror. ‘He’ll be watching from the ship. Go to the ridge –’
‘And flash him!’ Annabeth’s face reddened. ‘That came out wrong. But, yeah, good idea.’
She ran to the edge of the ruins.
Piper pulled out a flask of nectar and gave Jason a sip. ‘Hang in there. You are not dying from a stupid body piercing.’
Jason managed a weak smile. ‘At least it wasn’t a head injury this time. I stayed conscious the entire fight.’
‘You defeated, like, two hundred enemies,’ Piper said. ‘You were scary amazing.’
‘You guys helped.’
‘Maybe, but … Hey, stay with me.’
Jason’s head started to droop. The cracks in the stones came into sharper focus.
‘Little dizzy,’ he muttered.
‘More nectar,’ Piper ordered. ‘There. Taste okay?’
‘Yeah. Yeah, fine.’
In fact the nectar tasted like liquid sawdust, but Jason kept that to himself. Ever since the House of Hades when he’d resigned his praetorship, ambrosia and nectar didn’t taste like his favourite foods from Camp Jupiter. It was as if the memory of his old home no longer had the power to heal him.
Born a Roman, die a Roman, Michael Varus had said.
He looked at the smoke curling from his bandages. He had worse things to worry about than blood loss. Annabeth was right about Imperial gold. The stuff was deadly to demigods as well as monsters. The wound from Varus’s blade would do its best to eat away at Jason’s life force.
He’d seen a demigod die like that once before. It hadn’t been fast or pretty.
I can’t die, he told himself. My friends are depending on me.
Antinous’s words rang in his ears – about the giants in Athens, the impossible trip facing the Argo II, the mysterious hunter Gaia had sent to intercept the Athena Parthenos.
‘Reyna, Nico and Coach Hedge,’ he said. ‘They’re in danger. We need to warn them.’
‘We’ll take care of it when we get back to the ship,’ Piper promised. ‘Your job right now is to relax.’ Her tone was light and confident, but her eyes brimmed with tears. ‘Besides, those three are a tough group. They’ll be fine.’
Jason hoped she was right. Reyna had risked so much to help them. Coach Hedge was annoying sometimes, but he’d been a loyal protector for the entire crew. And Nico … Jason felt especially worried about him.
Piper brushed her thumb against the scar on his lip. ‘Once the war is over … everything will work out for Nico. You’ve done what you could, being a friend to him.’
Jason wasn’t sure what to say. He hadn’t told Piper anything about his conversations with Nico. He’d kept di Angelo’s secret.
Still … Piper seemed to sense what was wrong. As a daughter of Aphrodite, maybe she could tell when somebody was struggling with heartache. She hadn’t pressured Jason to talk about it, though. He appreciated that.
Another wave of pain made him wince.
‘Concentrate on my voice.’ Piper kissed his forehead. ‘Think about something good. Birthday cake in the park in Rome –’
‘That was nice.’
‘Last winter,’ she suggested. ‘The s’mores fight at the campfire.’
‘I totally got you.’
‘You had marshmallows in your hair for days!’
‘I did not.’
Jason’s mind drifted back to better times.
He just wanted to stay there – talking with Piper, holding her hand, not worrying about giants or Gaia or his mother’s madness.
He knew they should get back to the ship. He was in bad shape. They had the information they’d come for. But as he lay there on the cool stones, Jason felt a sense of incompleteness. The story of the suitors and Queen Penelope … his thoughts about family … his recent dreams. Those things all swirled around in his head. There was something more to this place – something he’d missed.
Annabeth came back limping from the edge of the hill.
‘Are you hurt?’ Jason asked her.
Annabeth glanced at her ankle. ‘It’s fine. Just the old break from the Roman caverns. Sometimes when I’m stressed … That’s not important. I signalled Leo. Frank’s going to change form, fly up here and carry you back to the ship. I need to make a litter to keep you stable.’
Jason had a terrifying image of himself in a hammock, swinging between the claws of Frank the giant eagle, but he decided it would be better than dying.
; Annabeth set to work. She collected scraps left behind by the suitors – a leather belt, a torn tunic, sandal straps, a red blanket and a couple of broken spear shafts. Her hands flew across the materials – ripping, weaving, tying, braiding.
‘How are you doing that?’ Jason asked in amazement.
‘Learned it during my quest under Rome.’ Annabeth kept her eyes on her work. ‘I’d never had a reason to try weaving before, but it’s handy for certain things, like getting away from spiders …’
She tied off one last bit of leather cord and voilà – a stretcher large enough for Jason, with spear shafts as carrying handles and safety straps across the middle.
Piper whistled appreciatively. ‘The next time I need a dress altered, I’m coming to you.’
‘Shut up, McLean,’ Annabeth said, but her eyes glinted with satisfaction. ‘Now, let’s get him secured –’
‘Wait,’ Jason said.
His heart pounded. Watching Annabeth weave the makeshift bed, Jason had remembered the story of Penelope – how she’d held out for twenty years, waiting for her husband Odysseus to return.
‘A bed,’ Jason said. ‘There was a special bed in this palace.’
Piper looked worried. ‘Jason, you’ve lost a lot of blood.’
‘I’m not hallucinating,’ he insisted. ‘The marriage bed was sacred. If there was any place you could talk to Juno …’ He took a deep breath and called, ‘Juno!’
Maybe Piper was right. He wasn’t thinking clearly.
Then, about sixty feet away, the stone floor cracked. Branches muscled through the earth, growing in fast motion until a full-sized olive tree shaded the courtyard. Under a canopy of grey-green leaves stood a dark-haired woman in a white dress, a leopard-skin cape draped over her shoulders. Her staff was topped with a white lotus flower. Her expression was cool and regal.
‘My heroes,’ said the goddess.
‘Hera,’ Piper said.
‘Juno,’ Jason corrected.
‘Whatever,’ Annabeth grumbled. ‘What are you doing here, Your Bovine Majesty?’
Juno’s dark eyes glittered dangerously. ‘Annabeth Chase. As charming as ever.’
‘Yeah, well,’ Annabeth said, ‘I just got back from Tartarus, so my manners are a little rusty, especially towards goddesses who wiped my boyfriend’s memory, made him disappear for months and then –’
‘Honestly, child. Are we going to rehash this again?’
‘Aren’t you supposed to be suffering from split-personality disorder?’ Annabeth asked. ‘I mean – more so than usual?’
‘Whoa,’ Jason interceded. He had plenty of reasons to hate Juno, but they had other issues to deal with. ‘Juno, we need your help. We –’ Jason tried to sit up and immediately regretted it. His insides felt like they were being twirled on a giant spaghetti fork.
Piper kept him from falling over. ‘First things first,’ she said. ‘Jason is hurt. Heal him!’
The goddess knitted her eyebrows. Her form shimmered unsteadily.
‘Some things even the gods cannot heal,’ she said. ‘This wound touches your soul as well as your body. You must fight it, Jason Grace … you must survive.’
‘Yeah, thanks,’ he said, his mouth dry. ‘I’m trying.’
‘What do you mean, the wound touches his soul?’ Piper demanded. ‘Why can’t you –’