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Chapter no 13

The Burning Maze

Don’t move the gas grill Meg is still playing with it We are so KA-BOOM

Oh, the scenic ocean vista! Oh, the waves crashing against the cliffs below, and the gulls whirling overhead! Oh, the large, sweaty mover in a lounge chair, checking his texts!

The man looked up when we arrived on the terrace. He scowled, grudgingly got to his feet and lumbered inside, leaving a mover-shaped perspiration stain on the fabric of the chair.

‘If I still had my cornucopia,’ Piper said, ‘I’d shoot those guys with glazed hams.’

My abdominal muscles twitched. I’d once been hit in the gut by a roasted boar shot from a cornucopia when Demeter was especially angry with me … but that’s another story.

Piper climbed the terrace fence and sat on top of it, facing us, her feet hooked around the rails. I supposed she’d perched there hundreds of times and no longer thought about the long drop. Far below, at the bottom of a zigzagging wooden stairway, a narrow strip of beach clung to the base of the cliffs. Waves crashed against jagged rocks. I decided not to join Piper on the railing. I wasn’t afraid of heights, but I was definitely afraid of my own poor sense of balance.

Grover peered at the sweaty lounge chair – the only piece of furniture left on the terrace – and opted to remain standing. Meg strolled over to a built-in stainless-steel gas grill and began playing with the knobs. I estimated we had about five minutes before she blew us all to bits.

‘So.’ I leaned on the railing next to Piper. ‘You know of Caligula.’

Her eyes shifted from green to brown, like tree bark ageing. ‘I knew

someone was behind our problems – the maze, the fires, this.’ She gestured

through the glass doors at the empty mansion. ‘When we were closing the Doors of Death, we fought a lot of villains who’d come back from the Underworld. Makes sense an evil Roman emperor would be behind Triumvirate Holdings.’

I guessed Piper was about sixteen, the same age as … no, I couldn’t say the same age as me. If I thought in those terms, I would have to compare her perfect complexion to my own acne-scarred face, her finely chiselled nose to my bulbous wad of cartilage, her softly curved physique to mine, which was also softly curved but in all the wrong ways. Then I would have to scream, I HATE YOU!

So young, yet she had seen so many battles. She said when we were closing the Doors of Death the way her high-school peers might say when we were swimming at Kyle’s house.

‘We knew there was a burning maze,’ she continued. ‘Gleeson and Mellie told us about that. They said the satyrs and dryads …’ She gestured at Grover. ‘Well, it’s no secret you guys have been having a bad time with the drought and fires. Then I had some dreams. You know.’

Grover and I nodded. Even Meg looked over from her dangerous experiments with outdoor cooking equipment and grunted sympathetically. We all knew that demigods couldn’t take a catnap without being plagued by omens and portents.

‘Anyway,’ Piper continued, ‘I thought we could find the heart of this maze.

I figured whoever was responsible for making our lives miserable would be there, and we could send him or her back to the Underworld.’

‘When you say we,’ Grover asked, ‘you mean you and –?’ ‘Jason. Yes.’

Her voice dipped when she spoke his name, the same way mine did when I was forced to speak the names Hyacinthus or Daphne.‌

‘Something happened between you,’ I deduced.

She picked an invisible speck from her jeans. ‘It’s been a tough year.’

You’re telling me, I thought.

Meg activated one of the barbecue burners, which flared blue like a thruster engine. ‘You guys break up or what?’

Leave it to McCaffrey to be tactless about love with a child of Aphrodite, while simultaneously starting a fire in front of a satyr.

‘Please don’t play with that,’ Piper asked gently. ‘And, yes, we broke up.’ Grover bleated, ‘Really? But I heard – I thought –’

‘You thought what?’ Piper’s voice remained calm and even. ‘That we’d be together forever like Percy and Annabeth?’ She stared into the empty house, not exactly as if she missed the old furniture, but as if she were imagining the space completely redone. ‘Things change. People change. Jason and me – we

started out oddly. Hera kind of messed with our heads, made us think we shared a past we didn’t share.’

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘That sounds like Hera.’

‘We fought the war against Gaia. Then we spent months searching for Leo. Then we tried to settle into school, and the moment I actually had some time to breathe …’ She hesitated, searching each of our faces as if realizing she was about to share the real reasons, the deeper reasons, with people she barely knew. I remembered how Mellie had called Piper poor girl, and the way the cloud nymph had said Jason’s name with distaste.

‘Anyway,’ Piper said, ‘things change. But we’re fine. He’s fine. I’m fine.

At least … I was, until this started.’ She gestured at the great room, where the movers were now lugging a mattress towards the front door.

I decided it was time to confront the elephant in the room. Or rather, the elephant on the terrace. Or rather, the elephant that would have been on the terrace had the movers not hauled him away.

‘What happened exactly?’ I asked. ‘What’s in all those dandelion-coloured documents?’

‘Like this one,’ Meg said, pulling from her gardening belt a folded letter she must have filched from the great room. For a child of Demeter, she had sticky fingers.

‘Meg!’ I said. ‘That’s not yours.’

I may have been a little sensitive about stealing other people’s mail. Once Artemis rifled through my correspondence and found some juicy letters from Lucrezia Borgia that she teased me about for decades.

‘N.H. Financials,’ Meg persisted. ‘Neos Helios. Caligula, right?’

Piper dug her fingernails into the wooden rail. ‘Just get rid of it. Please.’ Meg dropped the letter into the flames.

Grover sighed. ‘I could have eaten that for you. It’s better for the environment, and stationery tastes great.’

That got a thin smile from Piper.

‘The rest is all yours,’ she promised. ‘As for what they say, it’s all legal, legal, blah-blah, financial, boring, legal. Bottom line, my dad is ruined.’ She raised an eyebrow at me. ‘You really haven’t seen any of the gossip columns? The magazine covers?’

‘That’s what I asked,’ Grover said.

I made a mental note to visit the nearest grocery store checkout and stock up on reading material. ‘I am woefully behind,’ I admitted. ‘When did this all start?’

‘I don’t even know,’ Piper said. ‘Jane, my dad’s former personal assistant –she was in on it. Also his financial manager. His accountant. His film agent. This company Triumvirate Holdings …’ Piper spread her hands, like she was describing a natural disaster that could not have been foreseen. ‘They went to

a lot of trouble. They must have spent years and tens of millions of dollars to destroy everything my dad built – his credit, his assets, his reputation with the studios. All gone. When we hired Mellie … well, she was great. She was the first person to spot the trouble. She tried to help, but it was much too late.

Now my dad is worse than broke. He’s deeply in debt. He owes millions in taxes he didn’t even know about. Best we can hope for is that he avoids jail time.’

‘That’s horrible,’ I said.

And I meant it. The prospect of never seeing Tristan McLean’s abs on the big screen again was a bitter disappointment, though I was too tactful to say this in front of his daughter.

‘It’s not like I can expect a lot of sympathy,’ Piper said. ‘You should see the kids at my school, smirking and talking about me behind my back. I mean, even more than usual. Oh, boo-hoo. You lost all three of your houses.’

‘Three houses?’ Meg asked.

I didn’t see why that was surprising. Most minor deities and celebrities I knew had at least a dozen, but Piper’s expression turned sheepish.

‘I know it’s ridiculous,’ she said. ‘They repo-ed ten cars. And the helicopter. They’re foreclosing on this place at the end of the week and taking the aeroplane.’

‘You have an aeroplane.’ Meg nodded as if this at least made perfect sense. ‘Cool.’

Piper sighed. ‘I don’t care about the stuff, but the nice former park ranger who was our pilot is going to be out of a job. And Mellie and Gleeson had to leave. So did the house staff. Most of all … I’m worried about my dad.’

I followed her gaze. Tristan McLean was now wandering through the great room, staring at blank walls. I liked him better as an action hero. The role of broken man didn’t suit him.

‘He’s been healing,’ Piper said. ‘Last year, a giant kidnapped him.’

I shuddered. Being captured by giants could truly scar a person. Ares had been kidnapped by two of them, millennia ago, and he was never the same again. Before, he had been arrogant and annoying. Afterwards, he was arrogant, annoying and brittle.

‘I’m surprised your father’s mind is still in one piece,’ I said.

The corners of Piper’s eyes tightened. ‘When we rescued him from the giant, we used a potion to wipe his memory. Aphrodite said it was the only thing we could do for him. But now … I mean, how much trauma can one person take?’

Grover removed his cap and stared at it mournfully. Perhaps he was thinking reverent thoughts, or perhaps he was just hungry. ‘What will you do now?’

‘Our family still has property,’ Piper said, ‘outside Tahlequah, Oklahoma –the original Cherokee allotment. End of the week, we’re using our last flight in the aeroplane to go back home. This is one battle I guess your evil emperors won.’

I didn’t like the emperors being called mine. I didn’t like the way Piper said home, as if she’d already accepted that she would live the rest of her life in Oklahoma. Nothing against Oklahoma, mind you. My pal Woody Guthrie hailed from Okemah. But mortals from Malibu typically didn’t see it as an upgrade.

Also, the idea of Tristan and Piper being forced to move east reminded me of the visions Meg had shown me last night: she and her father being pushed out of their home by the same boring dandelion-coloured legal blah-blah, fleeing their burning house and winding up in New York. Out of Caligula’s frying pan, into Nero’s fire.

‘We can’t let Caligula win,’ I told Piper. ‘You’re not the only demigod he’s targeted.’

She seemed to absorb those words. Then she faced Meg, as if truly seeing her for the first time. ‘You too?’

Meg turned off the gas burner. ‘Yeah. My dad.’ ‘What happened?’

Meg shrugged. ‘Long time ago.’

We waited, but Meg had decided to be Meg.

‘My young friend is a girl of few words,’ I said. ‘But with her permission

…?’

Meg did not order me to shut up or to jump off the terrace, so I recounted for Piper what I’d seen in McCaffrey’s memories.

When I was done, Piper hopped down from the railing. She approached Meg, and before I could say, Watch out, she bites harder than a wild squirrel! Piper wrapped her arms around the younger girl.

‘I’m so sorry.’ Piper kissed the top of her head.

I waited nervously for Meg’s golden scimitars to flash into her hands.

Instead, after a moment of petrified surprise, Meg melted into Piper’s hug. They stayed like that for a long time, Meg quivering, Piper holding her as if she were the demigod Comforter-in-Chief, her own troubles irrelevant next to Meg’s.

Finally, with a sniffle/hiccup, Meg pulled away, wiping her nose. ‘Thanks.’ Piper looked at me. ‘How long has Caligula been messing with demigods’

lives?’

‘Several thousand years,’ I said. ‘He and the other two emperors did not go back through the Doors of Death. They never really left the world of the living. They are basically minor gods. They’ve had millennia to build their secret empire, Triumvirate Holdings.’

‘So why us?’ Piper said. ‘Why now?’

‘In your case,’ I said, ‘I can only guess Caligula wants you out of the way. If you are distracted by your father’s problems, you are no threat, especially if you’re in Oklahoma, far from Caligula’s territory. As for Meg and her dad … I don’t know. He was involved in some sort of work Caligula found threatening.’

‘Something that would’ve helped the dryads,’ Grover added. ‘It had to be, based on where he was working, those greenhouses. Caligula ruined a man of nature.’

Grover sounded as angry as I’d ever heard him. I doubted there was higher praise a satyr could give a human than calling him a man of nature.

Piper studied the waves on the horizon. ‘You think it’s all connected.

Caligula is working up to something – pushing out anyone who threatens him, starting this Burning Maze, destroying the nature spirits.’

‘And imprisoning the Oracle of Erythraea,’ I said. ‘As a trap. For me.’ ‘But what does he want?’ Grover demanded. ‘What’s his endgame?’

Those were excellent questions. With Caligula, however, you almost never wanted the answers. They would make you cry.

‘I’d like to ask the Sibyl,’ I said, ‘if anyone here knows how we might find her.’

Piper pressed her lips together. ‘Ah. That’s why you’re here.’

She looked at Meg, then at the gas grill, perhaps trying to decide what would be more dangerous – going on a quest with us, or remaining here with a bored child of Demeter.

‘Let me get my weapons,’ Piper said. ‘We’ll go for a ride.’

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