Chapter no 26

The Burning Maze

Oh, Florence and Grunk

La-di-da, something, something I’ll get back to you

Perhaps Jason, the physics expert, could explain to me how pandai flew. I didn’t get it. Somehow, even while carrying us, our captors managed to launch themselves skyward with nothing but the flapping of their tremendous lobes. I wished Hermes could see them. He would never again brag about being able to wiggle his ears.

The pandai dropped us unceremoniously on the starboard deck, where two more of their kind held Jason and Piper at arrow-point. One of those guards appeared smaller and younger than the others, with white fur instead of black. Judging from the sour look on his face, I guessed he was the same guy Piper had shot down with Grandpa Tom’s special recipe in downtown Los Angeles.

Our friends were on their knees, their hands zip-tied behind their backs, their weapons confiscated. Jason had a black eye. The side of Piper’s head was matted with blood.

I rushed to her aid (being the good person I was) and poked at her cranium, trying to determine the extent of her injury.

‘Ow,’ she muttered, pulling away. ‘I’m fine.’ ‘You could have a concussion,’ I said.

Jason sighed miserably. ‘That’s supposed to be my job. I’m always the one who gets knocked in the head. Sorry, guys. Things didn’t exactly go as planned.’

The largest guard, who had carried me aboard, cackled with glee. ‘The girl tried to charmspeak us! Pandai, who hear every nuance of speech! The boy tried to fight us! Pandai, who train from birth to master every weapon! Now you will all die!’

‘Die! Die!’ barked the other pandai, though I noticed the white-furred youngster did not join in. He moved stiffly, as if his poison-darted leg still bothered him.

Meg glanced from enemy to enemy, probably gauging how fast she could take them all down. The arrows pointed at Jason and Piper’s chests made for tricky calculations.

‘Meg, don’t,’ Jason warned. ‘These guys – they’re ridiculously good. And fast.’

‘Fast! Fast!’ the pandai barked in agreement.

I scanned the deck. No additional guards were running towards us, no searchlights were trained on our position. No horns blared. Somewhere inside the boat, gentle music played – not the sort of soundtrack one might expect during an incursion.

The pandai had not raised a general alarm. Despite their threats, they had not yet killed us. They’d even gone to the trouble of zip-tying Piper’s and Jason’s hands. Why?

I turned to the largest guard. ‘Good sir, are you the panda in charge?’

He hissed. ‘The singular form is pandos. I hate being called a panda. Do I

look like a panda?’

I decided not to answer that. ‘Well, Mr Pandos –’ ‘My name is Amax,’ he snapped.

‘Of course. Amax.’ I studied his majestic ears, then hazarded an educated guess. ‘I imagine you hate people eavesdropping on you.’

Amax’s furry black nose twitched. ‘Why do you say this? What did you overhear?’

‘Nothing!’ I assured him. ‘But I bet you have to be careful. Always other people, other pandai snooping into your business. That’s – that’s why you haven’t raised an alarm yet. You know we’re important prisoners. You want to keep control of the situation, without anyone else taking the credit for your good work.’

The other pandai grumbled.

‘Vector, on boat twenty-five, is always spying,’ the dark-furred archer muttered.

‘Taking credit for our ideas,’ said the second archer. ‘Like Kevlar ear armour.’

‘Exactly!’ I said, trying to ignore Piper, who was incredulously mouthing the words Kevlar ear armour? ‘Which is why, uh, before you do anything rash, you’re going to want to hear what I have to say. In private.’

Amax snorted. ‘Ha!’

His comrades echoed him: ‘HA-HA!’

‘You just lied,’ Amax said. ‘I could hear it in your voice. You’re afraid.

You’re bluffing. You have nothing to say.’

‘I do,’ Meg countered. ‘I’m Nero’s stepdaughter.’

Blood rushed into Amax’s ears so rapidly I was surprised he didn’t faint. The shocked archers lowered their weapons.

‘Timbre! Crest!’ Amax snapped. ‘Keep those arrows steady!’ He glowered at Meg. ‘You seem to be telling the truth. What is Nero’s stepdaughter doing here?’

‘Looking for Caligula,’ Meg said. ‘So I can kill him.’

The pandai’s ears rippled in alarm. Jason and Piper looked at each other as if thinking Welp. Now we die.

Amax narrowed his eyes. ‘You say you are from Nero. Yet you want to kill our master. This does not make sense.’

‘It’s a juicy story,’ I promised. ‘With lots of secrets, twists, and turns. But if you kill us you’ll never hear it. If you take us to the emperor, someone else will torture it out of us. We would gladly tell you everything. You captured us, after all. But isn’t there somewhere more private we can talk, so no one will overhear?’

Amax glanced towards the ship’s bow, as if Vector might already be listening in. ‘You seem to be telling the truth, but there’s so much weakness and fear in your voice that it’s hard to be sure.’

‘Uncle Amax.’ The white-haired pandos spoke for the first time. ‘Perhaps the pimply boy has a point. If it’s valuable information –’

‘Silence, Crest!’ snapped Amax. ‘You’ve already disgraced yourself once this week.’

The pandos leader pulled more zip ties from his belt. ‘Timbre, Peak, bind the pimply boy and the stepdaughter of Nero. We will take them all below, interrogate them ourselves and then hand them over to the emperor!’

‘Yes! Yes!’ barked Timbre and Peak.

So it was that three powerful demigods and one former major Olympian god were led as prisoners into a super-yacht by four fuzzy creatures with ears the size of satellite dishes. Not my finest hour.

Since I had reached peak humiliation, I assumed Zeus would pick that moment to recall me to the heavens and the other gods would spend the next hundred years laughing at me.

But no. I remained fully and pathetically Lester.

The guards hustled us to the aft deck, which featured six hot tubs, a multicoloured fountain and a flashing gold and purple dance floor just waiting for party-goers to arrive.

Affixed to the stern, a red-carpeted ramp jutted across the water, connecting our boat to the prow of the next yacht. I guessed all the boats were linked this way, making a road across Santa Barbara Harbor, just in case Caligula decided to do a golf-cart drive-through.

Rising amidships, the upper decks gleamed with dark-tinted windows and white walls. Far above, the conning tower sprouted radar dishes, satellite antennae and two billowing pennants: one with the imperial eagle of Rome, the other with a golden triangle on a field of purple, which I supposed was the logo for Triumvirate Holdings.

Two more guards flanked the heavy oak doors that led inside. The guy on the left looked like a mortal mercenary, with the same black pyjamas and body armour as the gentlemen we’d sent on the wild fish-taco chase. The guy on the right was a Cyclops (the huge single eye gave him away). He also smelled like a Cyclops (wet wool socks) and dressed like a Cyclops (denim cut-offs, torn black T-shirt and a large wooden club).

The human mercenary frowned at our merry band of captors and prisoners. ‘What’s all this?’ he asked.

‘Not your concern, Florence,’ Amax growled. ‘Let us through!’

Florence? I might have snickered, except Florence weighed three hundred pounds, had knife scars across his face and still had a better name than Lester Papadopoulos.

‘Regulations,’ Florence said. ‘You got prisoners, I have to call it in.’

‘Not yet, you won’t.’ Amax spread his ears like the hood of a cobra. ‘This is my ship. I’ll tell you when to call it in – after we interrogate these intruders.’

Florence frowned at his Cyclops partner. ‘What do you think, Grunk?’

Now, Grunk – that was a good Cyclops name. I didn’t know if Florence realized he was working with a Cyclops. The Mist could be unpredictable. But I immediately formulated the premise for an action-adventure buddy-comedy series, Florence and Grunk. If I survived captivity, I’d have to mention it to Piper’s father. Perhaps he could help me schedule some lunches and pitch the idea. Oh, gods … I had been in Southern California too long.

Grunk shrugged. ‘It’s Amax’s ears on the line if the boss gets mad.’ ‘Okay.’ Florence waved us through. ‘You all have fun.’

I had little time to appreciate the opulent interior – the solid-gold fixtures, the luxurious Persian carpets, the million-dollar works of art, the plush purple furniture I was pretty sure had come from Prince’s estate sale.

We saw no other guards or crew, which seemed strange. Then again, I supposed that, even with Caligula’s resources, finding enough personnel to man fifty super-yachts at once might be difficult.

As we walked through a walnut-panelled library hung with masterpiece paintings, Piper caught her breath. She pointed her chin towards a Joan Miró abstraction.

‘That came from my dad’s house,’ she said.

‘When we get out of here,’ Jason muttered, ‘we’ll take it with us.’ ‘I heard that.’ Peak jabbed his sword hilt into Jason’s ribs.

Jason stumbled against Piper, who stumbled into a Picasso. Seeing an opportunity, Meg surged forward, apparently meaning to tackle Amax with all one hundred pounds of her weight. Before she took two steps, an arrow sprouted from the carpet at her feet.

‘Don’t,’ said Timbre. His vibrating bowstring was the only evidence he’d made the shot. He had drawn and fired so fast even I couldn’t believe it.

Meg backed away. ‘Fine. Jeez.’

The pandai herded us into a forward lounge. Along the front wrapped a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree glass wall overlooking the prow. Off to starboard, the lights of Santa Barbara twinkled. In front of us, yachts twenty-five to one made a glittering necklace of amethyst, gold and platinum across the dark water.

The sheer extravagance of it all hurt my brain, and normally I was all about extravagance.

The pandai arranged four plush chairs in a row and shoved us into them. As interrogation rooms went, it wasn’t bad. Peak paced behind us, sword at the ready in case anyone required decapitation. Timbre and Crest lurked on either flank, their bows down, but arrows nocked. Amax pulled up a chair and sat facing us, spreading his ears around him like a king’s robe.

‘This place is private,’ he announced. ‘Talk.’

‘First,’ I said, ‘I must know why you’re not followers of Apollo. Such great archers? The finest hearing in the world? Eight fingers on each hand? You would be natural musicians! We seem made for each other!’

Amax studied me. ‘You are the former god, eh? They told us about you.’ ‘I am Apollo,’ I confirmed. ‘It’s not too late to pledge me your loyalty.’

Amax’s mouth quivered. I hoped he was on the verge of crying, perhaps throwing himself at my feet and begging my forgiveness.

Instead, he howled with laughter. ‘What do we need with Olympian gods?

Especially gods who are pimply boys with no power?’

‘But there’s so much I could teach you!’ I insisted. ‘Music! Poetry! I could teach you how to write haikus!’

Jason looked at me and shook his head vigorously, though I had no idea why.

‘Music and poetry hurt our ears,’ Amax complained. ‘We have no need of them!’

‘I like music,’ Crest murmured, flexing his fingers. ‘I can play a little –’ ‘Silence!’ Amax yelled. ‘You can play silence for once, worthless nephew!’ Aha, I thought. Even among the pandai there were frustrated musicians.

Amax suddenly reminded me of my father, Zeus, when he came storming down the hallway on Mount Olympus (literally storming, with thunder, lightning and torrential rain) and ordered me to stop playing my infernal

zither music. A totally unfair demand. Everyone knows 2:00 a.m. is the optimal time to practise the zither.

I might have been able to sway Crest to our side … if only I’d had more time. And if he weren’t in the company of three older and larger pandai. And if we hadn’t started our acquaintance with Piper shooting him in the leg with a poisoned dart.

Amax reclined in his cushy purple throne. ‘We pandai are mercenaries. We choose our masters. Why would we pick a washed-up god like you? Once, we served the kings of India! Now we serve Caligula!’

‘Caligula! Caligula!’ Timbre and Peak cried. Again, Crest was conspicuously quiet, frowning at his bow.

‘The emperor trusts only us!’ Timbre bragged.

‘Yes,’ Peak agreed. ‘Unlike those Germani, we never stabbed him to death!’

I wanted to point out that this was a fairly low bar for loyalty, but Meg interrupted.

‘The night is young,’ she said. ‘We could all stab him together.’

Amax sneered. ‘I am still waiting, daughter of Nero, to hear your juicy story about why you wish to kill our master. You’d better have good information. And lots of twists and turns! Convince me you are worth bringing to Caesar alive, rather than as dead bodies, and perhaps I’ll get a promotion tonight! I will not be passed over again for some idiot like Overdrive on boat three, or Wah-Wah on boat forty-three.’

‘Wah-Wah?’ Piper made a sound between a hiccup and a giggle, which may have been the effect of her bashed head. ‘Are you guys all named after guitar pedals? My dad has a collection of those. Well … he had a collection.’

Amax scowled. ‘Guitar pedals? I don’t know what that means! If you are making fun of our culture –’

‘Hey,’ Meg said. ‘You wanna hear my story or not?’ We all turned to her.

‘Um, Meg …?’ I asked. ‘Are you sure?’

The pandai no doubt picked up on my nervous tone, but I couldn’t help it.

First of all, I had no idea what Meg could possibly say that would increase our chances of survival. Second, knowing Meg, she would say it in ten words or less. Then we’d all be dead.

‘I got twists and turns.’ She narrowed her eyes. ‘But are you sure we’re alone, Mr Amax? No one else is listening?’

‘Of course not!’ said Amax. ‘This ship is my base. That glass is fully soundproofed.’ He gestured dismissively at the ship in front of us. ‘Vector won’t hear a word!’

‘What about Wah-Wah?’ Meg asked. ‘I know he’s on boat forty-three with the emperor, but if his spies are nearby –’

‘Ridiculous!’ Amax said. ‘The emperor isn’t on boat forty-three!’ Timbre and Peak snickered.

‘Boat forty-three is the emperor’s footwear boat, silly girl,’ said Peak. ‘An important assignment, yes, but not the throne-room boat.’

‘Right,’ Timbre said. ‘That’s Reverb’s boat, number twelve –’

‘Silence!’ Amax snapped. ‘Enough delays, girl. Tell me what you know, or die.’

‘Okay,’ Meg leaned forward as if to impart a secret. ‘Twists and turns.’

Her hands shot forward, suddenly and inexplicably free of the zip tie. Her rings flashed as she threw them, turning into scimitars as they hurtled towards Amax and Peak.

You'll Also Like