Chapter no 19

The Burning Maze

In my underclothes

Slathered with grease. Really not As fun as it sounds

I am not sure how we got out of the maze.

Lacking any evidence to the contrary, I will credit my own courage and fortitude. Yes, that must have been it. Having escaped the worst of the Titan’s heat, I bravely supported Piper and Meg and exhorted them to keep going.

Smoking and half conscious but still alive, we stumbled through the corridors, retracing our steps until we arrived at the freight elevator. With one last heroic burst of strength, I flipped the lever and we ascended.

We spilled into the sunlight – regular sunlight, not the vicious zombie sunlight of a quasi-dead Titan – and collapsed on the sidewalk. Grover’s shocked face hovered over me.

‘Hot,’ I whimpered.

Grover pulled out his panpipes. He began to play, and I lost consciousness.

In my dreams, I found myself at a party in Ancient Rome. Caligula had just opened his newest palace at the base of the Palatine Hill, making a daring architectural statement by knocking out the back wall of the Temple of Castor and Pollux and using it as his front entrance. Since Caligula considered himself a god, he saw no problem with this, but the Roman elites were horrified. This was sacrilege akin to setting up a big-screen TV on a church altar and having a Super Bowl party with communion wine.‌

That didn’t stop the crowd from attending the festivities. Some gods had even shown up (in disguise). How could we resist such an audacious, blasphemous party with free appetizers? Throngs of costumed revellers moved through vast torchlit halls. In every corner, musicians played songs from across the empire: Gaul, Hispania, Greece, Egypt.

I myself was dressed as a gladiator. (Back then, with my godly physique, I could totally pull that off.) I mingled with senators who were disguised as slave girls, slave girls who were disguised as senators, a few unimaginative toga ghosts and a couple of enterprising patricians who had crafted the world’s first two-man donkey costume.

Personally, I did not mind the sacrilegious temple/palace. It wasn’t my temple, after all. And in those first years of the Roman Empire I found the Caesars refreshingly risqué. Besides, why should we gods punish our biggest benefactors?

When the emperors expanded their power, they expanded our power. Rome had spread our influence across a huge part of the world. Now we Olympians were the gods of the empire! Move over, Horus. Forget about it, Marduk. The Olympians were in the ascendant!

We weren’t about to mess with success just because the emperors got big-headed, especially when they modelled their arrogance on ours.

I wandered the party incognito, enjoying being among all the pretty people, when he finally appeared: the young emperor himself, in a golden chariot pulled by his favourite white stallion, Incitatus.

Flanked by praetorian guards – the only people not in costume – Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus was buck naked, painted in gold from head to foot, with a spiky crown of sun rays across his brow. He was pretending to be me, obviously. But when I saw him my first feeling wasn’t anger. It was admiration. This beautiful, shameless mortal pulled off the role perfectly.

‘I am the New Sun!’ he announced, beaming at the crowd as if his smile were responsible for all the warmth in the world. ‘I am Helios. I am Apollo. I am Caesar. You may now bask in my light!’

Nervous applause from the crowd. Should they grovel? Should they laugh?

It was always hard to tell with Caligula, and if you got it wrong you usually died.

The emperor climbed down from his chariot. His horse was led to the hors d’oeuvres table while Caligula and his guards made their way through the crowd.

Caligula stopped and shook hands with a senator dressed as a slave. ‘You look lovely, Cassius Agrippa! Will you be my slave, then?’

The senator bowed. ‘I am your loyal servant, Caesar.’

‘Excellent!’ Caligula turned to his guards. ‘You heard the man. He is now my slave. Take him to my slave master. Confiscate all his property and money. Let his family go free, though. I’m feeling generous.’

The senator spluttered, but he could not form the words to protest. Two guards hustled him away as Caligula called after him, ‘Thank you for your loyalty!’

The crowd shifted like a herd of cattle in a thunderstorm. Those who had been surging forward, anxious to catch the emperor’s eye and perhaps win his favour, now tried their best to melt into the pack.

‘It’s a bad night,’ some whispered in warning to their colleagues. ‘He’s having a bad night.’

‘Marcus Philo!’ cried the emperor, cornering a poor young man who had been attempting to hide behind the two-man donkey. ‘Come out here, you scoundrel!’

‘Pr-Princeps,’ the man stuttered.

‘I loved the satire you wrote about me,’ Caligula said. ‘My guards found a copy of it in the Forum and brought it to my attention.’

‘S-sire,’ said Philo. ‘It was only a weak jest. I didn’t mean –’ ‘Nonsense!’ Caligula smiled at the crowd. ‘Isn’t Philo great, everybody?

Didn’t you like his work? The way he described me as a rabid dog?’

The crowd was on the verge of full panic. The air was so full of electricity that I wondered if my father was there in disguise.

‘I promised that poets would be free to express themselves!’ Caligula announced. ‘No more paranoia like in old Tiberius’s reign. I admire your silver tongue, Philo. I think everyone should have a chance to admire it. I will reward you!’

Philo gulped. ‘Thank you, lord.’

‘Guards,’ said Caligula, ‘take him away. Pull his tongue out, dip it in molten silver and display it in the Forum where everyone can admire it. Really, Philo – wonderful work!’

Two praetorians hauled away the screaming poet. ‘And you there!’ Caligula called.

Only then did I realize the crowd had ebbed around me, leaving me exposed. Suddenly, Caligula was in my face. His beautiful eyes narrowed as he studied my costume, my godly physique.

‘I don’t recognize you,’ he said.

I wanted to speak. I knew that I had nothing to fear from Caesar. If it came to the worst, I could simply say, Bye! and vanish in a cloud of glitter. But, I have to admit, in Caligula’s presence, I was awestruck. The young man was wild, powerful, unpredictable. His audacity took my breath away.

At last, I managed a bow. ‘I am a mere actor, Caesar.’

‘Oh, indeed!’ Caligula brightened. ‘And you play the gladiator. Would you fight to the death in my honour?’

I silently reminded myself that I was immortal. It took a little convincing. I drew my gladiator’s sword, which was nothing but a costume blade of soft tin. ‘Point me to my opponent, Caesar!’ I scanned the audience and bellowed, ‘I will destroy anyone who threatens my lord!’

To demonstrate, I lunged and poked the nearest praetorian guard in the chest. My sword bent against his breastplate. I held aloft my ridiculous weapon, which now resembled the letter Z.

A dangerous silence followed. All eyes fixed on Caesar.

Finally, Caligula laughed. ‘Well done!’ He patted my shoulder, then snapped his fingers. One of his servants shuffled forward and handed me a heavy pouch of gold coins.

Caligula whispered in my ear, ‘I feel safer already.’

The emperor moved on, leaving onlookers laughing with relief, some casting envious glances at me as if to ask, What is your secret?

After that, I stayed away from Rome for decades. It was a rare man who could make a god nervous, but Caligula unsettled me. He almost made a better Apollo than I did.

My dream changed. I saw Herophile again, the Sibyl of Erythraea, reaching out her shackled arms, her face lit red by the roiling lava below.

‘Apollo,’ she said, ‘it won’t seem worth it to you. I’m not sure it is myself.

But you must come. You must hold them together in their grief.’

I sank into the lava, Herophile still calling my name as my body broke and crumbled into ash.

I woke up screaming, lying on top of a sleeping bag in the Cistern.

Aloe Vera hovered over me, her prickly triangles of hair mostly snapped off, leaving her with a glistening buzz cut.

‘You’re okay,’ she assured me, putting her cool hand against my fevered forehead. ‘You’ve been through a lot, though.’

I realized I was wearing only my underwear. My entire body was beet maroon, slathered in aloe. I couldn’t breathe through my nose. I touched my nostrils and discovered I had been fitted with small green aloe nose plugs.

I sneezed them out. ‘My friends?’ I asked.

Aloe moved aside. Behind her, Grover Underwood sat cross-legged between Piper’s and Meg’s sleeping bags, both girls fast asleep. Like me, they had been slathered with goo. It was a perfect opportunity to take a picture of Meg with green plugs sticking out of her nostrils, for blackmail purposes, but I was too relieved that she was alive. Also, I didn’t have a phone.

‘Will they be all right?’ I asked.

‘They were in worse shape than you,’ Grover said. ‘It was touch and go for a while, but they’ll pull through. I’ve been feeding them nectar and ambrosia.’

Aloe smiled. ‘Also, my healing properties are legendary. Just wait. They’ll be up and walking around by dinner.’

Dinner … I looked at the dark orange circle of sky above. Either it was late afternoon, or the wildfires were closer, or both.

‘Medea?’ I asked.

Grover frowned. ‘Meg told me about the battle before she passed out, but I don’t know what happened to the sorceress. I never saw her.’

I shivered in my aloe gel. I wanted to believe Medea had died in the fiery explosion, but I doubted we could be so lucky. Helios’s fire hadn’t seemed to bother her. Maybe she was naturally immune. Or maybe she had worked some protective magic on herself.

‘Your dryad friends?’ I asked. ‘Agave and Money Maker?’ Aloe and Grover exchanged a sorrowful look.

‘Agave might pull through,’ said Grover. ‘She went dormant as soon as we got her back to her plant. But Money Maker …’ He shook his head.

I had barely met the dryad. Still, the news of her death hit me hard. I felt as if I were dropping green leaf-coins from my body, shedding essential pieces of myself.

I thought about Herophile’s words in my dream: It won’t seem worth it to you. I’m not sure it is myself. But you must come. You must hold them together in their grief.

I feared that Money Maker’s death was only one small part of the grief that awaited us.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said.

Aloe patted my greasy shoulder. ‘It isn’t your fault, Apollo. By the time you found her, she was too far gone. Unless you’d had …’

She stopped herself, but I knew what she’d intended to say: Unless you’d had your godly healing powers. A lot would have been different if I’d been a god, not a pretender in this pathetic Lester Papadopoulos disguise.

Grover touched the blowpipe at Piper’s side. The river-cane tube had been badly charred, pitted with burn holes that would probably make it unusable.

‘Something else you should know,’ he said. ‘When Agave and I carried Money Maker out of the maze? That big-eared guard, the guy with the white fur? He was gone.’

I considered this. ‘You mean he died and disintegrated? Or he got up and walked away?’

‘I don’t know,’ Grover said. ‘Does either seem likely?’

Neither did, but I decided we had bigger problems to think about. ‘Tonight,’ I said, ‘when Piper and Meg wake up, we need to have another

meeting with your dryad friends. We’re going to put this Burning Maze out of business, once and for all.’

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