A smile flickered across his mouth. ‘Gaius Vitellius Reticulus, although we did call him Ridiculous sometimes. He was one of the Lares of the Fifth Cohort. Kind of a goofball, but he was the son of Aesculapius, the healing god. If anybody knew about this physician’s cure … he might.’
‘A healing god would be nice,’ Piper mused. ‘Better than having a screaming, tied-up victory goddess on board.’
‘Hey, you’re lucky. My cabin is closest to the stables. I can hear her yelling all night: FIRST PLACE OR DEATH! AN A-MINUS IS A FAILING GRADE! Leo really needs to design a gag that’s better than my old sock.’
Piper shuddered. She still didn’t understand why it had been a good idea to take the goddess captive. The sooner they got rid of Nike, the better. ‘So your cousins … did they have any advice about what comes next? This chained god we’re supposed to find in Sparta?’
Frank’s expression darkened. ‘Yeah. I’m afraid they had some thoughts on that. Let’s get back to the ship and I’ll tell you about it.’
Piper’s feet were killing her. She wondered if she could convince Frank to turn into a giant eagle and carry her, but, before she could ask, she heard footsteps in the sand behind them.
‘Hello, nice tourists!’ A scraggly fisherman with a white captain’s hat and a mouth full of gold teeth beamed at them. ‘Boat ride? Very cheap!’
He gestured to the shore, where a skiff with an outboard motor waited.
Piper returned his smile. She loved it when she could communicate with the locals.
‘Yes, please,’ she said in her best charmspeak. ‘And we’d like you to take us somewhere special.’
The boat captain dropped them at the Argo II, anchored a quarter of a mile out to sea. Piper pressed a wad of euros into the captain’s hands.
She wasn’t above using charmspeak on mortals, but she’d decided to be as fair and careful as possible. Her days of stealing BMWs from car dealerships were over.
‘Thank you,’ she told him. ‘If anyone asks, you took us around the island and showed us the sights. You dropped us at the docks in Pylos. You never saw any giant warship.’
‘No warship,’ the captain agreed. ‘Thank you, nice American tourists!’
They climbed aboard the Argo II and Frank smiled at her awkwardly. ‘Well … nice killing giant warthogs with you.’
Piper laughed. ‘You too, Mr Zhang.’
She gave him a hug, which seemed to fluster him, but Piper couldn’t help liking Frank. Not only was he a kind and considerate boyfriend to Hazel, but whenever Piper saw him wearing Jason’s old praetor’s badge she felt grateful to him for stepping up and accepting that job. He had taken a huge responsibility off Jason’s shoulders and left him free (Piper hoped) to pursue a new path at Camp Half-Blood … assuming, of course, that they all lived through the next eight days.
The crew gathered for a hurried meeting on the foredeck – mostly because Percy was keeping an eye on a giant red sea serpent swimming off the port side.
‘That thing is really red,’ Percy muttered. ‘I wonder if it’s cherry-flavoured.’
‘Why don’t you swim over and find out?’ Annabeth asked.
‘How about no.’
‘Anyway,’ Frank said, ‘according to my Pylos cousins, the chained god we’re looking for in Sparta is my dad … uh, I mean Ares, not Mars. Apparently the Spartans kept a statue of him chained up in their city so the spirit of war would never leave them.’
‘Oo-kay,’ Leo said. ‘The Spartans were freaks. Of course, we’ve got Victory tied up downstairs, so I guess we can’t talk.’
Jason leaned against the forward ballista. ‘On to Sparta, then. But how does a chained god’s heartbeat help us find a cure for dying?’
From the tightness in his face, Piper could tell he was still in pain. She remembered what Aphrodite had told her: It’s not just his sword wound, my dear. It’s the ugly truth he saw in Ithaca. If the poor boy doesn’t stay strong, that truth will eat right through him.
‘Piper?’ Hazel asked.
She stirred. ‘Sorry, what?’
‘I was asking you about the visions,’ Hazel prompted. ‘You told me you’d seen some stuff in your dagger blade?’
‘Uh … right.’ Piper reluctantly unsheathed Katoptris. Ever since she’d used it to stab the snow goddess Khione, the visions in the blade had become colder and harsher, like images etched in ice. She’d seen eagles swirling over Camp Half-Blood, a wave of earth destroying New York. She’d seen scenes from the past: her father beaten and bound at the top of Mount Diablo, Jason and Percy fighting giants in the Roman Colosseum, the river god Achelous reaching out to her, pleading for the cornucopia she’d cut from his head.
‘I, um …’ She tried to clear her thoughts. ‘I don’t see anything right now. But one vision kept popping up. Annabeth and I are exploring some ruins –’
‘Ruins!’ Leo rubbed his hands. ‘Now we’re talking. How many ruins can there be in Greece?’
‘Quiet, Leo,’ Annabeth scolded. ‘Piper, do you think it was Sparta?’
‘Maybe,’ Piper said. ‘Anyway … suddenly we’re in this dark place like a cave. We’re staring at this bronze warrior statue. In the vision I touch the statue’s face and flames start swirling around us. That’s all I saw.’
‘Flames.’ Frank scowled. ‘I don’t like that vision.’
‘Me neither.’ Percy kept one eye on the red sea serpent, which was still slithering through the waves about a hundred yards to port. ‘If the statue engulfs people in fire, we should send Leo.’
‘I love you too, man.’
‘You know what I mean. You’re immune. Or, heck, give me some of those nice water grenades and I’ll go. Ares and I have tangled before.’
Annabeth stared at the coastline of Pylos, now retreating in the distance. ‘If Piper saw the two of us going after the statue, then that’s who should go. We’ll be all right. There’s always a way to survive.’
‘Not always,’ Hazel warned.
Since she was the only one in the group who had actually died and come back to life, her observation sort of killed the mood.
nk held out the vial of Pylosian mint. ‘What about this stuff? After the House of Hades, I kind of hoped we were done drinking poison.’
‘Store it securely in the hold,’ Annabeth said. ‘For now, that’s all we can do. Once we figure out this chained god situation, we’ll head to the island of Delos.’
‘The curse of Delos,’ Hazel remembered. ‘That sounds fun.’
‘Hopefully Apollo will be there,’ Annabeth said. ‘Delos was his home island. He’s the god of medicine. He should be able to advise us.’
Aphrodite’s words came back to Piper: You must bridge the gap between Roman and Greek, my child. Neither storm nor fire can succeed without you.
Aphrodite had warned her of what was to come, told her what Piper would have to do to stop Gaia. Whether or not she would have the courage … Piper didn’t know.
Off the port bow, the cherry-flavoured sea serpent spewed steam.
‘Yeah, it’s definitely checking us out,’ Percy decided. ‘Maybe we should take to the air for a while.’
‘Airborne it is!’ Leo said. ‘Festus, do the honours!’
The bronze dragon figurehead creaked and clacked. The ship’s engine hummed. The oars lifted, expanding into aerial blades with a sound like ninety umbrellas opening at once, and the Argo II rose into the sky.
‘We should reach Sparta by morning,’ Leo announced. ‘And remember to come by the mess hall tonight, folks, ’cause Chef Leo is making his famous three-alarm tofu tacos!’
PIPER DIDN’T WANT TO get yelled at by a three-legged table.
When Jason visited her cabin that evening, she made sure to keep the door open, because Buford the Wonder Table took his duties as acting chaperone very seriously. If he had the slightest suspicion a girl and a boy were in the same cabin without supervision, he would steam and clatter down the hall, his holographic projection of Coach Hedge yelling, ‘CUT THAT OUT! GIVE ME TWENTY PUSH-UPS! PUT SOME CLOTHES ON!’
Jason sat at the foot of her bunk. ‘I was about to go on duty. Just wanted to check on you first.’
Piper nudged his leg with her foot. ‘The guy who got run through with a sword wants to check on me? How are you feeling?’
He gave her a lopsided smile. His face was so tanned from their time on the coast of Africa that the scar on his lip looked like a chalk mark. His blue eyes were even more startling. His hair had grown out corn-silk white, though he still had a groove along his scalp where he’d been grazed by a bullet from the bandit Sciron’s flintlock. If such a minor scrape from Celestial bronze took so long to heal, Piper wondered how he’d ever get over the Imperial gold wound in his gut.
‘I’ve been worse,’ Jason assured her. ‘Once, in Oregon, this dracaena cut off my arms.’
Piper blinked. Then she slapped his arm gently. ‘Shut up.’
‘I had you for a second.’
They held hands in comfortable silence. For a moment, Piper could almost imagine they were normal teenagers, enjoying each other’s company and learning to be together as a couple. Sure, Jason and she had had a few months at Camp Half-Blood, but the war with Gaia had always been looming. Piper wondered what it would be like if they didn’t have to worry about dying a dozen times every day.
‘I never thanked you.’ Jason’s expression turned serious. ‘Back on Ithaca, after I saw my mom’s … remnant, her mania … When I was wounded, you kept me from slipping away, Pipes. Part of me …’ His voice faltered. ‘Part of me wanted to close my eyes and stop fighting.’
Piper’s heart did a slow twist. She felt her own pulse in her fingers. ‘Jason … you’re a fighter. You’d never give up. When you faced your mother’s spirit – that was you being strong. Not me.’
‘Maybe.’ His voice was dry. ‘I didn’t mean to lay something so heavy on you,