Chapter no 30

The Burning Maze

I’ll never leave you

Love will keep us together Or glue. Glue works too

Some of my best friends are magic horses.

Arion, the swiftest steed in the world, is my cousin, though he rarely comes to family dinners. The famous winged Pegasus is also a cousin – once removed, I think, since his mother was a gorgon. I’m not sure how that works. And, of course, the sun horses were my favourite steeds – though, thankfully, none of them talked.

Incitatus, however?

I didn’t like him much.

He was a beautiful animal – tall and muscular, his coat gleaming like a sunlit cloud. His silky white tail swished behind him as if daring any flies, demigods or other pests to approach his hindquarters. He wore neither tack nor saddle, though golden horseshoes gleamed on his hooves.

His very majesty grated on me. His jaded voice made me feel small and unimportant. But what I really hated were his eyes. Horse eyes should not be so cold and intelligent.

‘Climb on,’ he said. ‘My boy is waiting.’ ‘Your boy?’

He bared his marble-white teeth. ‘You know who I mean. Big C. Caligula.

The New Sun who’s gonna eat you for breakfast.’

I sank deeper into the sofa cushions. My heart pounded. I had seen how fast Incitatus could move. I didn’t like my chances against him alone. I would never be able to fire an arrow or strum a tune before he kicked my face in.

This would have been an excellent time for a surge of godly strength, so I could throw the horse out of the window. Alas, I felt no such energy within me.

Nor could I expect any backup. Piper groaned, twitching her fingers. She looked half-conscious at best. Crest whimpered and tried to curl into a ball to escape the bullying of the winged shoes.

I rose from the couch, clenched my hands into fists and forced myself to look Incitatus in the eye.

‘I’m still the god Apollo,’ I warned. ‘I’ve faced two emperors already. I beat them both. Don’t test me, horse.’

Incitatus snorted. ‘Whatever, Lester. You’re getting weaker. We’ve been keeping an eye on you. You’ve got hardly anything left. Now quit stalling.’ ‘And how will you force me to come with you?’ I demanded. ‘You can’t pick me up and throw me on your back. You have no hands! No opposable

thumbs! That was your fatal mistake!’

‘Yeah, well, I could just kick you in the face. Or …’ Incitatus nickered – a sound like someone calling their dog.

Wah-Wah and two of his guards slunk into the room. ‘You called, Lord Stallion?’

The horse grinned at me. ‘I don’t need opposable thumbs when I’ve got servants. Granted, they’re lame servants that I had to chew free from their own zip ties –’

‘Lord Stallion,’ Wah-Wah protested. ‘It was the ukulele! We couldn’t –’ ‘Load ’em up,’ Incitatus ordered, ‘before you put me in a bad mood.’

Wah-Wah and his helpers threw Piper across the horse’s back. They forced me to climb up behind her, then they bound my hands once again – this time in front, at least, so I could better keep my balance.

Finally, they pulled Crest to his feet. They wrangled the physically abusive winged shoes back into their box, zip-tied Crest’s hands and force-marched him in front of our grim little parade. We made our way up to the deck, me ducking under every lintel, and retraced our path across the floating bridge of super-yachts.

Incitatus trotted along at an easy pace. Whenever we passed mercenaries or crew members, they knelt and lowered their heads. I wanted to believe they were honouring me, but I suspected they were honouring the horse’s ability to bash their heads in if they didn’t show proper respect.

Crest stumbled. The other pandai hauled him to his feet and prodded him along. Piper kept slipping off the stallion’s back, but I did my best to keep her in place.

Once she muttered, ‘Uhn-fu.’

Which might have meant Thank you or Untie me or Why does my mouth taste like a horseshoe?

Her dagger, Katoptris, was in easy reach. I stared at the hilt, wondering if I could draw it quickly enough to cut myself free, or plunge it into the horse’s neck.

‘I wouldn’t,’ Incitatus said. I stiffened. ‘What?’

‘Use the knife. That’d be a bad move.’ ‘Are – are you a mind-reader?’

The horse scoffed. ‘I don’t need to read minds. You know how much you can tell from somebody’s body language when they’re riding your back?’

‘I – I can’t say that I’ve had the experience.’

‘Well, I could tell what you were planning. So don’t. I’d have to throw you off. Then you and your girlfriend would probably crack your heads and die –’

‘She’s not my girlfriend!’

‘– and Big C would be annoyed. He wants you to die in a certain way.’ ‘Ah.’ My stomach felt as bruised as my ribs. I wondered if there was a special term for motion sickness while riding a horse on a boat. ‘So, when

you said Caligula would eat me for breakfast –’ ‘Oh, I didn’t mean that literally.’

‘Thank the gods.’

‘I meant the sorceress Medea will put you in chains and flay your human form to extract whatever remains of your godly essence. Then Caligula will consume your essence – yours and Helios’s both – and make himself the new god of the sun.’

‘Oh.’ I felt faint. I assumed I still had some godly essence inside me – some tiny spark of my former awesomeness that allowed me to remember who I was and what I had once been capable of. I didn’t want those last vestiges of divinity taken away, especially if the process involved flaying. The idea made my stomach churn. I hoped Piper wouldn’t mind terribly if I threw up on her. ‘You – you seem like a reasonable horse, Incitatus. Why are you helping someone as volatile and treacherous as Caligula?’

Incitatus whinnied. ‘Volatile, schmolatile. The boy listens to me. He needs me. Doesn’t matter how violent or unpredictable he may seem to others. I can keep him under control, use him to push through my agenda. I’m backing the right horse.’

He didn’t seem to recognize the irony of a horse backing the right horse.

Also, I was surprised to hear that Incitatus had an agenda. Most equine agendas were fairly straight-forward: food, running, more food, a good brushing. Repeat as desired.

‘Does Caligula know that you’re, ah, using him?’

‘Of course!’ said the horse. ‘Kid’s not stupid. Once he gets what he wants, well … then we part ways. I intend to overthrow the human race and institute a government by the horses, for the horses.’

‘You … what?’

‘You think equine self-governance is any crazier than a world ruled by the Olympian gods?’

‘I never thought about it.’

‘You wouldn’t, would you? You, with your bipedal arrogance! You don’t spend your life with humans constantly expecting to ride you or have you pull their carts. Ah, I’m wasting my breath. You won’t be around long enough to see the revolution.’

Oh, reader, I can’t express to you my terror – not at the idea of a horse revolution, but at the thought that my life was about to end! Yes, I know mortals face death, too, but it’s worse for a god, I tell you! I’d spent millennia knowing I was immune to the great cycle of life and death. Then suddenly I find out – LOL, not so much! I was going to be flayed and consumed by a man who took his cues from a militant talking horse!

As we progressed down the chain of super-yachts, we saw more and more signs of recent battle. Boat twenty looked like it had been struck repeatedly with lightning. Its superstructure was a charred, smoking ruin, the blackened upper decks spackled with fire-extinguisher foam.

Boat eighteen had been converted into a triage centre. The wounded were sprawled everywhere, groaning from bashed heads, broken limbs, bleeding noses and bruised groins. Many of their injuries were at knee level or below –just where Meg McCaffrey liked to kick. A flock of strixes wheeled overhead, screeching hungrily. Perhaps they were just on guard duty, but I got the feeling they were waiting to see which of the wounded did not pull through.

Boat fourteen was Meg McCaffrey’s coup de grâce. Boston ivy had engulfed the entire yacht, including most of the crew, who were stitched to the walls by a thick web of crawlers. A cadre of horticulturists – no doubt called up from the botanical gardens on boat sixteen – were now trying to free their comrades using clippers and weed-whackers.

I was heartened to see that our friends had made it this far and caused so much damage. Perhaps Crest had been mistaken about them being captured. Surely two capable demigods like Jason and Meg would have managed to escape if they got cornered. I was counting on it, since I now needed them to rescue me.

But what if they could not? I racked my brain for clever ideas and devious schemes. Rather than racing, my mind moved at a wheezing jog.

I managed to come up with phase one of my master plan: I would escape without getting myself killed, then free my friends. I was hard at work on phase two – how do I do that? – when I ran out of time. Incitatus crossed to the deck of Julia Drusilla XII, cantered through a set of double golden doors and carried us down a ramp into the ship’s interior, which contained a single massive room – the audience chamber of Caligula.

Entering this space was like plunging down the throat of a sea monster. I’m sure the effect was intentional. The emperor wanted you to feel a sense of panic and helplessness.

You have been swallowed, the room seemed to say. Now you will be digested.

No windows here. The fifty-foot-high walls screamed with garishly painted frescoes of battles, volcanoes, storms, wild parties – all images of power gone amok, boundaries erased, nature overturned.

The tiled floor was a similar study in chaos – intricate, nightmarish mosaics of the gods being devoured by various monsters. Far above, the ceiling was painted black, and dangling from it were golden candelabras, skeletons in cages and bare swords that hung by the thinnest of cords and looked ready to impale anyone below.

I found myself tilting sideways on Incitatus’s back, trying to find my equilibrium, but it was impossible. The chamber offered no safe place to rest my gaze. The rocking of the yacht didn’t help.

Standing guard along the length of the throne room were a dozen pandai –six to port and six to starboard. They held gold-tipped spears and wore golden chain mail from head to foot, including giant metal flaps over their ears that, when struck, must have given them terrible tinnitus.

At the far end of the room, where the boat’s hull narrowed to a point, the emperor had set his dais – putting his back to the corner like any good paranoid ruler. Before him swirled two columns of wind and debris that I couldn’t quite make sense of – some sort of ventus performance art?

At the emperor’s right hand stood another pandos dressed in the full regalia of a praetorian commander – Reverb, I guessed, captain of the guard. To the emperor’s left stood Medea, her eyes gleaming with triumph.

The emperor himself was much as I remembered – young and lithe, handsome enough, though his eyes were too far apart, his ears too prominent (but not in comparison to the pandai), his smile too thin.

He was dressed in white trousers, white boat shoes, a striped blue-and-white shirt, a blue blazer and a captain’s hat. I had a horrible flashback to 1975, when I’d made the mistake of blessing Captain and Tennille with their hit single ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’. If Caligula was the Captain, that made Medea Tennille, which felt wrong on so many levels. I tried to push the thought from my mind.

As our procession approached the throne, Caligula leaned forward and rubbed his hands, as if the next course of his dinner had just arrived.

‘Perfect timing!’ he said. ‘I’ve been having the most fascinating conversation with your friends.’

My friends?

Only then did my brain allow me to process what was inside the swirling columns of wind.

In one hovered Jason Grace. In the other, Meg McCaffrey. Both struggled helplessly. Both screamed without making a sound. Their tornado prisons

whirled with glittering shrapnel – tiny pieces of Celestial bronze and Imperial gold that sliced at their clothes and skin, slowly cutting them to pieces.

Caligula rose, his placid brown eyes fixed on me. ‘Incitatus, this can’t actually be him, can it?’

‘Afraid so, pal,’ said the horse. ‘May I present the pathetic excuse for a god, Apollo, also known as Lester Papadopoulos.’

The stallion knelt on his forelegs, spilling Piper and me onto the floor.

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