Chapter no 29

The Burning Maze

A horse is a horse

Of course, of course, and no one Can – RUN! HE’LL KILL YOU!

A floating mansion full of shoes. Hermes would have been in paradise.

Not that he was the official god of shoes, mind you, but as patron deity of travellers he was the closest thing we Olympians had. Hermes’s collection of Air Jordans was unrivalled. He had closets full of winged sandals, rows of patent leather, racks of blue suede, and don’t get me started on his roller skates. I still have nightmares about him skating through Olympus with his big hair and gym shorts and high striped socks, listening to Donna Summer on his Walkman.

As Piper and I made our way to deck two, port side, we passed illuminated podiums displaying designer pumps, a hallway lined floor-to-ceiling with shelves of red leather boots, and one room with nothing but studded football boots, for reasons I couldn’t fathom.

The room Wah-Wah had directed us to seemed to be more about quality than quantity.

It was the size of a goodly apartment, with windows that overlooked the sea so the emperor’s prize shoes could have a nice view. In the middle of the room, a comfortable pair of couches faced a coffee table with a collection of exotic bottled waters, just in case you got thirsty and needed to rehydrate between putting on the left shoe and the right.

As for the shoes themselves, along the fore and aft walls were rows of … ‘Whoa,’ Piper said.

I thought that summed it up rather well: rows of whoa.

On one pedestal sat a pair of Hephaestus’s battle boots – huge contraptions with spiked heels and toes, built-in chain-mail socks and laces that were tiny bronze automaton serpents to prevent unauthorized wearers.

On another pedestal, in a clear acrylic box, a pair of winged sandals fluttered around, trying to escape.

‘Could those be the ones we need?’ Piper asked. ‘We could fly right through the maze.’

The idea was appealing, but I shook my head. ‘Winged shoes are tricky. If we put them on and they’re enchanted to take us to the wrong place –’

‘Oh, right,’ Piper said. ‘Percy told me about a pair that almost … uh, never mind.’

We examined the other pedestals. Some held shoes that were merely one-of-a-kind: platform boots studded with diamonds, smart shoes made from the skin of the now-extinct Dodo (rude!), or a pair of Adidas signed by all the players of the 1987 LA Lakers.

Other shoes were magical, and labelled as such: a pair of slippers woven by Hypnos to give pleasant dreams and deep sleep; a pair of dancing shoes fashioned by my old friend Terpsichore, the Muse of dance. I’d only seen a few of those over the years. Astaire and Rogers both had a pair. So did Baryshnikov. Then there was a pair of Poseidon’s old loafers, which would ensure perfect beach weather, good fishing, gnarly waves, and excellent tanning. Those loafers sounded pretty good to me.‌

‘There.’ Piper pointed to an old pair of leather sandals casually tossed in the corner of the room. ‘Can we assume the least likely shoes are actually the most likely?’

I didn’t like that assumption. I preferred it when the most likely to be popular or wonderful or talented turned out to be the one who was the most popular, wonderful or talented, because that was normally me. Still, in this case, I thought Piper might be right.

I knelt next to the sandals. ‘These are caligae. Legionnaire’s shoes.’

I hooked one finger and lifted the shoes by the straps. There wasn’t much to them – just leather soles and laces, worn soft and darkened with age. They looked like they’d seen many marches, but they’d been kept well-oiled and lovingly maintained through the centuries.

‘Caligae,’ Piper said. ‘Like Caligula.’

‘Exactly,’ I agreed. ‘These are the adult version of the little booties that gave Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus his childhood nickname.’

Piper wrinkled her nose. ‘Can you sense any magic?’

‘Well, they’re not buzzing with energy,’ I said. ‘Or giving me flashbacks of stinky feet, or compelling me to put them on. But I think they’re the right shoes. These are his namesake. They carry his power.’

‘Hmm. I suppose if you can talk to an arrow you can read a pair of sandals.’

‘It’s a gift,’ I agreed.

She knelt next to me and took one of the sandals. ‘This won’t fit me. Way too big. They look about your size.’

‘Are you implying I have big feet?’

Her smile flickered. ‘These look almost as uncomfortable as the shoes of shame – this horrible white pair of nurse’s shoes we had back in the Aphrodite cabin. You’d have to wear them as punishment if you did something bad.’

‘That sounds like Aphrodite.’

‘I got rid of them,’ she said. ‘But these … I suppose as long as you don’t mind putting your feet where Caligula’s feet have been –’

‘DANGER!’ cried a voice behind us.

Sneaking up behind someone and yelling danger is an excellent way to make them simultaneously leap, spin and fall on their butts, which is what Piper and I did.

In the doorway stood Crest, his white fur matted and dripping as if he’d flown through Caligula’s swimming pool. His eight-fingered hands wrapped around the door frame on either side. His chest heaved. His black suit was torn to pieces.

‘Strixes,’ he panted.

My heart leaped into my nasal cavity. ‘Are they following you?’

He shook his head, his ears rippling like startled squids. ‘I think I evaded them, but –’

‘Why are you here?’ Piper demanded, her hand going to her dagger.

The look in Crest’s eyes was a mixture of panic and hunger. He pointed to my ukulele. ‘You can show me how to play?’

‘I … yes,’ I said. ‘Though a guitar might be better, given the size of your hands.’

‘That chord,’ he said. ‘The one that made Wah-Wah screech. I want it.’

I rose slowly, so as not to startle him further. ‘Knowledge of the C minor six tri-chord is an awesome responsibility. But, yes, I could show you.’

‘And you.’ He looked at Piper. ‘The way you sing. Can you teach me?’ Piper’s hand dropped from her hilt. ‘I – I guess I could try, but –’

‘Then we must leave now!’ Crest said. ‘They have already captured your friends!’

‘What?’ Piper got to her feet. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘The scary girl. The lightning boy. Yes.’

I swallowed back my despair. Crest had given a flawless description of Meg and Jason. ‘Where?’ I asked. ‘Who has them?’

‘Him,’ Crest said. ‘The emperor. His people will be here soon. We must fly!

Be the musicians in the world!’

Under different circumstances, I would have considered this excellent advice, but not with our friends captured. I wrapped up the emperor’s sandals

and stuffed them into the bottom of my quiver. ‘Can you take us to our friends?’

‘No!’ Crest wailed. ‘You will die! The sorceress –’

Why did Crest not hear the enemies sneaking up behind him? I don’t know.

Perhaps Jason’s lightning had left a ringing in his ears. Perhaps he was too distressed, too focused on us to guard his own back.

Whatever the case, Crest hurtled forward, crashing face-first into the box with the winged sandals. He collapsed on the carpet, the freed flying shoes kicking him repeatedly about the head. On his back glistened two deep impressions in the shape of horse hooves.

In the doorway stood a majestic white stallion, his head just clearing the top of the frame. In a flash, I realized why the emperor’s yachts had such tall ceilings, wide hallways and doorways: they were designed to accommodate this horse.

‘Incitatus,’ I said.

He locked eyes with me as no horse should be able to do – his huge brown pupils glinting with malicious awareness. ‘Apollo.’

Piper looked stunned, as one does when encountering a talking horse on a shoe yacht.

She began to say, ‘What the –?’

Incitatus charged. He trampled straight over the coffee table and head-butted Piper against the wall with a sickening crunch. Piper dropped to the carpet.

I rushed towards her, but the horse slammed me away. I landed on the nearest sofa.

‘Well, now.’ Incitatus surveyed the damage – the overturned pedestals and destroyed coffee table; broken bottles of exotic spring water seeping into the carpet; Crest groaning on the floor, the flying shoes still kicking him; Piper unmoving, blood trickling from her nose; and me on the sofa, cradling my bruised ribs.

‘Sorry to intrude on your intrusion,’ he said. ‘I had to knock the girl out quickly, you understand. I don’t like charmspeak.’

His voice was the same as I’d heard while hiding in the dumpster behind Macro’s Military Madness – deep and world-weary, tinged with annoyance, as if he’d seen every possible stupid thing bipeds could do.

I stared in horror at Piper McLean. She didn’t appear to be breathing. I remembered the words of the Sibyl … especially that terrible word that began with D.

‘You – you killed her,’ I stammered.

‘Did I?’ Incitatus nuzzled Piper’s chest. ‘Nah. Not yet, but soon enough.

Now come along. The emperor wants to see you.’

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