Chapter no 28

The Burning Maze

Apollo, disguised

As Apollo, disguised as … Nah. Too depressing.

We saw no sign that the mercenaries were pursuing us. How could they? Even hardened warriors could not be expected to give chase after such a performance. I imagined they were sobbing in each other’s arms, or rifling through the yacht for extra boxes of tissues.

We made our way through the thirties of Caligula’s super-yacht chain, using stealth when necessary, mostly relying on the apathy of the crew members we encountered. Caligula had always inspired fear in his servants, but that didn’t equate to loyalty. No one asked us any questions.

On boat forty, Piper collapsed. I rushed to help, but she pushed me away. ‘I’m okay,’ she muttered.

‘You are not okay,’ I said. ‘You probably have a concussion. You just worked a powerful bit of musical charm. You need a minute to rest.’

‘We don’t have a minute.’

I was fully aware of that. Sporadic bursts of gunfire still crackled over the harbour from the direction we had come. The harsh scree of strixes pierced the night sky. Our friends were buying us time, and we had none to waste.

This was also the night of the new moon. Whatever plans Caligula had for Camp Jupiter, far to the north, they were happening now. I could only hope Leo had reached the Roman demigods, and that they could fend off whatever evil came their way. Being powerless to help them was a terrible feeling. It made me anxious not to waste a moment.

‘Nevertheless,’ I told Piper, ‘I really don’t have time for you to die on me, or go into a coma. So you will take a moment to sit. Let’s get out of the open.’

Piper was too weak to protest much. In her present condition, I doubted she could have charmspoken her way out of a parking ticket. I carried her inside

yacht forty, which turned out to be dedicated to Caligula’s wardrobe.

We passed room after room filled with clothes – suits, togas, armour, dresses (why not?) and a variety of costumes from pirate to Apollo to panda bear. (Again, why not?)

I was tempted to dress up as Apollo, just to feel sorry for myself, but I didn’t want to take the time to apply the gold paint. Why did mortals always think I was gold? I mean, I could be gold, but the shininess detracted from my naturally amazing looks. Correction: my former naturally amazing looks.

Finally, we found a dressing room with a couch. I moved a pile of evening dresses, then ordered Piper to sit. I pulled out a crushed square of ambrosia and ordered her to eat it. (My goodness, I could be bossy when I had to be. At least that was one godly power I hadn’t lost.)

While Piper nibbled her divine energy bar, I stared glumly at the racks of bespoke finery. ‘Why can’t the shoes be here? This is his wardrobe boat, after all.’

‘Come on, Apollo.’ Piper winced as she shifted on the cushions. ‘Everybody knows you need a separate super-yacht just for shoes.’

‘I can’t tell if you’re joking.’

She picked up a Stella McCartney dress – a lovely low-cut number in scarlet silk. ‘Nice.’ Then she pulled out her knife, gritting her teeth from the effort, and slit the gown right down the front.

‘That felt good,’ she decided.

It seemed pointless to me. You couldn’t hurt Caligula by ruining his things.

He had all the things. Nor did it seem to make Piper any happier. Thanks to the ambrosia, her colour was better. Her eyes were not as dulled with pain. But her expression remained stormy, like her mother’s whenever she heard someone praise Scarlett Johansson’s good looks. (Tip: never mention Scarlett Johansson around Aphrodite.)

‘The song you sang to the mercenaries,’ I ventured, ‘ “Life of Illusion”.’

The corners of Piper’s eyes tightened, as if she’d known this conversation was coming but was too tired to deflect it. ‘It’s an early memory. Right after my dad got his first big acting break, he was blasting that song in the car. We were driving to our new house, the place in Malibu. He was singing to me.

We were both so happy. I must have been … I don’t know, in kindergarten?’ ‘But the way you sang it. You seemed to be talking about yourself, why

you broke up with Jason?’

She studied her knife. The blade remained blank, devoid of visions. ‘I tried,’ she murmured. ‘After the war with Gaia, I convinced myself

everything would be perfect. For a while, a few months maybe, I thought it was. Jason’s great. He’s my closest friend, even more than Annabeth. But –’ she spread her hands – ‘whatever I thought was there, my happily-ever-after

… it just wasn’t.’

I nodded. ‘Your relationship was born in crisis. Such romances are difficult to sustain once the crisis is over.’

‘It wasn’t just that.’

‘A century ago, I dated Grand Duchess Tatiana Romanov,’ I recalled. ‘Things were great between us during the Russian Revolution. She was so stressed, so scared, she really needed me. Then the crisis passed, and the magic just wasn’t there any more. Wait, actually, that could’ve been because she was shot to death along with the rest of her family, but still –’

‘It was me.’

My thoughts had been drifting through the Winter Palace, through the acrid gun smoke and bitter cold of 1917. Now I snapped back to the present. ‘What do you mean it was you? You mean you realized you didn’t love Jason?

That’s no one’s fault.’

She grimaced, as if I still hadn’t grasped what she meant … or perhaps she wasn’t sure herself.

‘I know it’s nobody’s fault,’ she said. ‘I do love him. But … like I told you, Hera forced us together – the marriage goddess, arranging a happy couple.

My memories of starting to date Jason, our first few months together, were a total illusion. Then, as soon as I found that out, before I could even process what it meant, Aphrodite claimed me. My mom, the goddess of love.’

She shook her head in dismay. ‘Aphrodite pushed me into thinking I was

… that I needed to …’ She sighed. ‘Look at me, the great charmspeaker. I don’t even have words. Aphrodite expects her daughters to wrap men around our little fingers, break their hearts, et cetera.’

I remembered the many times Aphrodite and I had fallen out. I was a sucker for romance. Aphrodite always had fun sending tragic lovers my way. ‘Yes. Your mother has definite ideas about how romance should be.’

‘So if you take that away,’ Piper said, ‘the goddess of marriage pushing me to settle down with a nice boy, the goddess of love pushing me to be the perfect romantic lady or whatever –’

‘You’re wondering who you are without all that pressure.’

She stared at the remains of the scarlet evening dress. ‘For the Cherokee, like traditionally speaking? Your heritage comes from your mom’s side. The clan she comes from is the clan you come from. The dad’s side doesn’t really count.’ She let out a brittle laugh. ‘Which means, technically, I’m not Cherokee. I don’t belong to any of the seven main clans, because my mom is a Greek goddess.’


‘So, I mean, do I even have that to define myself? The last few months I’ve been trying to learn more about my heritage. Picking up my granddad’s blowpipe, talking to my dad about family history to take his mind off stuff.

But what if I’m not any of the things I’ve been told I am? I have to figure out who I am.’

‘Have you come to any conclusions?’

She brushed her hair behind her ear. ‘I’m in process.’

I could appreciate that. I, too, was in process. It was painful.

A line from the Joe Walsh song reverberated in my head. ‘ “Nature loves her little surprises,” ’ I said.

Piper snorted. ‘She sure does.’

I stared at the rows of Caligula’s outfits – everything from wedding gowns to Armani suits to gladiator armour.

‘It’s been my observation,’ I said, ‘that you humans are more than the sum of your history. You can choose how much of your ancestry to embrace. You can overcome the expectations of your family and your society. What you cannot do, and should never do, is try to be someone other than yourself –Piper McLean.’

She gave me a wry smile. ‘That’s nice. I like that. You’re sure you’re not the god of wisdom?’

‘I applied for the job,’ I said, ‘but they gave it to someone else. Something about inventing olives.’ I rolled my eyes.

Piper burst out laughing, which made me feel as if a good strong wind had finally blown all the wildfire smoke out of California. I grinned in response. When was the last time I’d had such a positive exchange with an equal, a friend, a kindred soul? I could not recall.

‘All right, O Wise One.’ Piper struggled to her feet. ‘We’d better go. We’ve got a lot more boats to trespass on.’


Boat forty-one: lingerie department. I will spare you the frilly details.

Boat forty-two: a regular super-yacht, with a few crew members who ignored us, two mercenaries whom Piper charmed into jumping overboard, and a two-headed man whom I shot in the groin (by pure luck) and made disintegrate.

‘Why would you put a regular boat between your clothes boats and your shoe boat?’ Piper wondered. ‘That’s just bad organization.’

She sounded remarkably calm. My own nerves were starting to fray. I felt like I was splitting into pieces, the way I used to when several dozen Greek cities all prayed for me to manifest my glorious self at the same time in different places. It’s so annoying when cities don’t coordinate their holy days.

We crossed the port side, and I caught a glimpse of movement in the sky above us – a pale gliding shape much too big to be a seagull. When I looked again, it was gone.

‘I think we’re being followed,’ I said. ‘Our friend Crest.’ Piper scanned the night sky. ‘What do we do about it?’

‘I’d recommend nothing,’ I said. ‘If he wanted to attack us or raise the alarm, he could’ve already done it.’

Piper did not look happy about our big-eared stalker, but we kept moving. At last we reached Julia Drusilla XLIII, the fabled ship of shoes.

This time, thanks to the tip-off from Amax and his men, we expected pandai guards, led by the fearsome Wah-Wah. We were better prepared to deal with them.

As soon as we stepped onto the foredeck, I readied my ukulele. Piper said very quietly, ‘Wow, I hope nobody overhears our secrets!’

Instantly, four pandai came running – two from the port side and two from starboard, all stumbling over each other to get to us first.

As soon as I could see the whites of their tragi, I strummed a C minor 6 tritone chord at top volume, which to creatures with such exquisite hearing must have felt like getting Q-tipped with live electric wires.

The pandai screeched and fell to their knees, giving Piper time to disarm them and zip-tie them thoroughly. Once they were properly hog-tied, I stopped my torturous ukulele assault.

‘Which of you is Wah-Wah?’ I demanded.

The pandos on the far left snarled, ‘Who wants to know?’

‘Hello, Wah-Wah,’ I said. ‘We’re looking for the emperor’s magical shoes –you know, the ones that let him navigate the Burning Maze. You could save us a lot of time by telling us where they are on board.’

He thrashed and cursed. ‘Never!’

‘Or,’ I said, ‘I’ll let my friend Piper do the searching, while I stay here and serenade you with my out-of-tune ukulele. Are you familiar with “Tiptoe through the Tulips” by Tiny Tim?’

Wah-Wah spasmed with terror. ‘Deck two, port side, third door!’ he spluttered. ‘Please, no Tiny Tim! No Tiny Tim!’

‘Enjoy your evening,’ I said.

We left them in peace and went to find some footwear.

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