The dark prophecy, p.13
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.13
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         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan

  “Thank you so much,” I said. “I needed the reminder.”

  “Oh, don’t look so glum, Apollo!” Britomartis gave me one last flirtatious, irritatingly cute smile. “If you come out alive, we’ll catch a movie together. I promise.”

  Her gauzy black dress swirled around her in a tornado of netting. Then she was gone.

  Meg turned to me. “Naming ceremony?”

  “Yes.” I stared at her furry green piece of bread, wondering if it was still edible. “The emperor is quite the megalomaniac. As he did in ancient times, he plans to rename this capital city after himself. Probably he’ll rename the state, the inhabitants, and the months of the year too.”

  Meg snorted. “Commode City?”

  Leo gave her a tentative smile. “What now?”

  “His name is—”

  “Don’t, Meg,” Josephine warned.

  “—Commodus,” Meg continued, then frowned. “Why am I not supposed to say his name?”

  “He pays attention to such things,” I explained. “There’s no point in letting him know we are talking about—”

  Meg took a deep breath and yelled, “COMMODUS, COMMODUS, COMMODUS! COMMODE CITY, COMMODIANA. COMMODE DAY, MONTH OF COMMODES! COMMODE MAN!”

  The great hall shook as if the Waystation itself had taken offense. Emmie blanched. Up in their roost, the griffins clucked nervously.

  Josephine grumbled, “You shouldn’t have done that, hon.”

  Leo just shrugged. “Well, if Commode Man wasn’t watching this channel before, I think he is now.”

  “That’s dumb,” Meg said. “Don’t treat him like he’s so powerful. My stepfather—” Her voice caught. “He—he said Commodus is the weakest of the three. We can take him.”

  Her words struck me in the gut like one of Artemis’s blunted arrows. (And I can assure you, those hurt.)

  We can take him.

  The name of my old friend, shouted over and over.

  I staggered to my feet, gagging, my tongue trying to dislodge itself from my throat.

  “Whoa, Apollo.” Leo rushed to my side. “You okay?”

  “I—” Another dry retch. I staggered toward the nearest bathroom as a vision engulfed me…bringing me back to the day I committed murder.

  Call me Narcissus

  Today I’ll be your trainer

  I’ll also kill you

  I KNOW WHAT YOU are thinking. But, Apollo! You are divine! You cannot commit murder. Any death you cause is the will of the gods and entirely beyond reproach. It would be an honor if you killed me!

  I like the way you think, good reader. It’s true I had laid waste to whole cities with my fiery arrows. I had inflicted countless plagues upon humanity. Once Artemis and I slew a family of twelve because their mama said something bad about our mama. The nerve!

  None of that did I consider murder.

  But as I stumbled to the bathroom, ready to vomit into a toilet I had cleaned just yesterday, dreadful memories consumed me. I found myself in ancient Rome on a cold winter day when I truly did commit a terrible act.

  A bitter wind swept through the palace halls. Fires guttered in the braziers. The faces of the praetorian guards betrayed no sign of discomfort, but as I passed them at every doorway, I could hear their armor clattering as they shivered.

  No one challenged me as I strode toward the emperor’s private chambers. Why would they? I was Narcissus, Caesar’s trusted personal trainer.

  Tonight I wore my mortal disguise poorly. My stomach churned. Sweat trickled down the back of my neck. The shock of that day’s games still overwhelmed my senses: the stench of carcasses on the arena floor; the bloodthirsty crowd shouting, “COMMODUS! COMMODUS!”; the emperor in resplendent golden armor and purple robes, tossing the severed heads of ostriches into the seats of the senators, gesturing toward the old men with the point of his sword: You’re next.

  The praetorian prefect Laetus had pulled me aside only an hour ago: We failed at lunch. This is our last chance. We can take him, but only with your help.

  Marcia, Commodus’s mistress, had wept as she tugged at my arm. He will kill us all. He will destroy Rome. You know what must be done!

  They were right. I’d seen the list of names—the enemies real or imagined whom Commodus intended to execute tomorrow. Marcia and Laetus were at the top of the list, followed by senators, noblemen, and several priests in the temple of Apollo Sosianus. That sort of thing I couldn’t overlook. Commodus would chop them down as carelessly as he did his ostriches and lions.

  I pushed open the bronze doors of the emperor’s chambers.

  From the shadows, Commodus bellowed, “GO AWAY!”

  A bronze pitcher sailed past my head, slamming into the wall with such force it cracked the mosaic tiles.

  “Hello to you, too,” I said. “I never did like that fresco.”

  The emperor blinked, trying to focus. “Ah…it’s you, Narcissus. Come in, then. Hurry! Bar the doors!”

  I did as he asked.

  Commodus knelt on the floor, clinging to the side of a sofa for support. In the opulence of the bedchamber with its silk curtains, gilded furniture, and colorfully frescoed walls, the emperor looked out of place—like a beggar pulled from some Suburra alley. His eyes were wild. His beard glistened with spittle. Vomit and blood spattered his plain white tunic, which wasn’t surprising considering his mistress and prefect had poisoned his wine at lunch.

  But if you could look past that, Commodus hadn’t changed much since he was eighteen, lounging in his campaign tent in the Danubian Forest. He was thirty-one now, but the years had barely touched him. To the horror of Rome’s fashionistas, he had grown his hair out long and had a shaggy beard to resemble his idol, Hercules. Otherwise he was the picture of manly Roman perfection. One might almost have thought he was an immortal god, as he so often claimed to be.

  “They tried to kill me,” he snarled. “I know it was them! I won’t die. I’ll show them all!”

  My heart ached to see him this way. Only yesterday, I’d been so hopeful.

  We’d practiced fighting techniques all afternoon. Strong and confident, he’d wrestled me to the ground and would have broken my neck if I’d been a regular mortal. After he let me up, we’d spent the rest of the day laughing and talking as we used to in the old days. Not that he knew my true identity, but still…disguised as Narcissus, I was sure I could restore the emperor’s good humor, eventually rekindle the embers of the glorious young man I’d once known.

  And yet this morning, he’d woken up more bloodthirsty and manic than ever.

  I approached cautiously, as if he were a wounded animal. “You won’t die from the poison. You’re much too strong for that.”

  “Exactly!” He pulled himself up on the couch, his knuckles white with effort. “I’ll feel better tomorrow, as soon as I behead those traitors!”

  “Perhaps it would be better to rest for a few days,” I suggested. “Take some time to recuperate and reflect.”

  “REFLECT?” He winced from the pain. “I don’t need to reflect, Narcissus. I will kill them and hire new advisors. You, perhaps? You want the job?”

  I did not know whether to laugh or cry. While Commodus concentrated on his beloved games, he turned the powers of state over to prefects and cronies…all of whom tended to have a very short life expectancy.

  “I’m just a personal trainer,” I said.

  “Who cares? I will make you a nobleman! You will rule Commodiana!”

  I flinched at the name. Outside the palace, no one accepted the emperor’s rechristening of Rome. The citizens refused to call themselves Commodians. The legions were furious that they were now known as Commodianae. Commodus’s crazy proclamations had been the final straw for his long-suffering advisors.

  “Please, Caesar,” I implored him. “A rest from the executions and the games. Time to heal. Time to consider the consequences.”

  He bared his teeth, his lips specked with blood. “Don’t you start too! You sound like my father. I
m done thinking about consequences!”

  My spirits collapsed. I knew what would happen in the coming days. Commodus would survive the poisoning. He would order a ruthless purge of his enemies. The city would be decorated with heads on pikes. Crucifixions would line the Via Appia. My priests would die. Half the senate would perish. Rome itself, the bastion of the Olympian gods, would be shaken to its core. And Commodus would still be assassinated…just a few weeks or months later, in some other fashion.

  I inclined my head in submission. “Of course, Caesar. May I draw you a bath?”

  Commodus grunted assent. “I should get out of these filthy clothes.”

  As I often did for him after our workout sessions, I filled his great marble bath with steaming rose-scented water. I helped him out of his soiled tunic and eased him into the tub. For a moment, he relaxed and closed his eyes.

  I recalled how he looked sleeping beside me when we were teens. I remembered his easy laugh as we raced through the woods, and the way his face scrunched up adorably when I bounced grapes off his nose.

  I sponged away the spittle and blood from his beard. I gently washed his face. Then I closed my hands around his neck. “I’m sorry.”

  I pushed his head underwater and began to squeeze.

  Commodus was strong. Even in his weakened state, he thrashed and fought. I had to channel my godly might to keep him submerged, and in doing so, I must have revealed my true nature to him.

  He went still, his blue eyes wide with surprise and betrayal. He could not speak, but he mouthed the words: You. Blessed. Me.

  The accusation forced a sob from my throat. The day his father died, I had promised Commodus: You will always have my blessings. Now I was ending his reign. I was interfering in mortal affairs—not just to save lives, or to save Rome, but because I could not stand to see my beautiful Commodus die by anyone else’s hands.

  His last breath bubbled through the whiskers of his beard. I hunched over him, crying, my hands around his throat, until the bathwater cooled.

  Britomartis was wrong. I didn’t fear water. I simply couldn’t look at the surface of any pool without imagining Commodus’s face, stung with betrayal, staring up at me.

  The vision faded. My stomach heaved. I found myself hunched over a different water basin—a toilet in the Waystation.

  I’m not sure how long I knelt there, shivering, retching, wishing I could get rid of my hideous mortal frame as easily as I lost my stomach contents. Finally, I became aware of an orange reflection in the toilet water. Agamethus stood behind me, holding his Magic 8 Ball.

  I whimpered in protest. “Must you sneak up on me while I’m vomiting?”

  The headless ghost proffered his magic sphere.

  “Some toilet paper would be more helpful,” I said.

  Agamethus reached for the roll, but his ethereal fingers went right through the tissue. Odd that he could hold a Magic 8 Ball and not a roll of toilet paper. Perhaps our hosts had not sprung for the extra-soft two-ply ghost-friendly Charmin.

  I took the ball. Without much conviction, I asked, “What do you want, Agamethus?”

  The answer floated up through the dark liquid: WE CANNOT REMAIN.

  I groaned. “Not another warning of doom. Who’s we? Remain where?”

  I shook the ball once more. It provided the answer OUTLOOK NOT SO GOOD.

  I put the Magic 8 Ball back in Agamethus’s hands, which was like pressing against the wind from a moving vehicle. “I can’t play guessing games right now.”

  He did not have a face, but his posture seemed forlorn. The blood from his severed neck trickled sluggishly down his tunic. I imagined Trophonius’s head transposed on his body—my son’s agonized voice crying to the heavens, Take me instead! Save him, Father, please!

  This blended with the face of Commodus, staring at me, wounded and betrayed as his carotid pulse hammered against my hands. You. Blessed. Me.

  I sobbed and hugged the commode—the only thing in the universe that wasn’t spinning. Was there anyone I hadn’t betrayed and disappointed? Any relationship I hadn’t destroyed?

  After a miserable eternity in my private toilet-verse, a voice spoke behind me. “Hey.”

  I blinked away my tears. Agamethus was gone. In his place, leaning against the sink, was Josephine. She offered me a fresh roll of toilet paper.

  I sniffled weakly. “Are you supposed to be in the men’s room?”

  She laughed. “Wouldn’t be the first time, but our bathrooms are gender neutral here.”

  I wiped my face and clothes. I didn’t accomplish much beyond toilet-papering myself.

  Josephine helped me into a sitting position on the toilet. She assured me this was better than hugging it, though at the moment I saw little difference.

  “What happened to you?” she asked.

  Not having any concerns about my dignity, I told her.

  Josephine pulled a cloth from her coverall pocket. She wet it at the sink and began cleaning the sides of my face, getting the places I’d missed. She treated me as if I were her seven-year-old Georgie, or one of her mechanical crossbow turrets—something precious but high maintenance. “I’m not going to judge you, Sunny. I’ve done a few bad things in my time.”

  I studied her square-jawed face, the metallic sheen of her gray hair against her dark skin. She seemed so gentle and affable, the same way I thought of Festus the dragon, yet at times I had to step back and remember, Oh, right, this is a giant fire-breathing death machine.

  “Leo mentioned gangsters,” I recalled. “Al Capone?”

  Josephine smirked. “Yep, Al. And Diamond Joe. And Papa Johnny. I knew ’em all. I was Al’s—what would you call it?—liaison to the African American bootleggers.”

  Despite my dour mood, I couldn’t help feeling a spark of fascination. The Jazz Age had been one of my favorites because…well, jazz. “For a woman in the 1920s, that’s impressive.”

  “The thing is,” Jo said, “they never knew I was a woman.”

  I had a sudden image of Josephine in black leather shoes with spats, a pinstripe suit, a diamond-studded tie pin, and a black fedora, her submachine gun, Little Bertha, propped against her shoulder. “I see.”

  “They called me Big Jo.” She gazed at the wall. Perhaps it was just my state of mind, but I imagined her as Commodus, throwing a pitcher so hard it cracked the tiles. “That lifestyle…it was intoxicating, dangerous. It took me to a dark place, almost destroyed me. Then Artemis found me and offered me a way out.”

  I remembered Hemithea and her sister Parthenos launching themselves over a cliff, in a time when women’s lives were more expendable than jars of wine. “My sister has saved many young women from horrible situations.”

  “Yes, she has.” Jo smiled wistfully. “And then Emmie saved my life again.”

  “You two could still be immortal,” I grumbled. “You could have youth, power, eternal life—”

  “We could,” Josephine agreed. “But then we wouldn’t have had the past few decades of growing old together. We’ve had a good life here. We’ve saved a lot of demigods and other outcasts—raised them at the Waystation, let them go to school and have a more or less normal childhood, then sent them out into the world as adults with the skills they needed to survive.”

  I shook my head. “I don’t understand. There’s no comparison between that and immortality.”

  Josephine shrugged. “It’s okay if you don’t get it. But I want you to know, Emmie didn’t give up your divine gift lightly. After sixty-odd years together with the Hunters, we discovered something. It’s not how long you live that matters. It’s what you live for.”

  I frowned. That was a very ungodly way of thinking—as if you could have immortality or meaning, but not both.

  “Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “Are you trying to convince me that I should stay as…as this abomination?” I gestured at my pathetic mortal body.

  “I’m not telling you what to do. But those folks out there—Leo, Calypso, Meg—t
hey need you. They’re counting on you. Emmie and I are, too, to get our daughter back. You don’t have to be a god. Just do your best for your friends.”

  “Ugh.”

  Jo chuckled. “Once upon a time, that kind of talk would’ve made me throw up too. I thought friendship was a trap. Life was every woman for herself. But when I joined the Hunters, Lady Britomartis told me something. You know how she first became a goddess?”

  I thought for a moment. “She was a young maiden, running to escape the king of Crete. To hide, she jumped in a fishing net in the harbor, didn’t she? Instead of drowning, she was transformed.”

  “Right.” Jo intertwined her fingers like a cat’s cradle. “Nets can be traps. But they can also be safety nets. You just have to know when to jump in.”

  I stared at her. I waited for a moment of revelation when everything would make sense and my spirits would be lifted.

  “Sorry,” I said at last. “I have no idea what that means.”

  “That’s okay.” She offered me a hand. “Let’s get you out of here.”

  “Yes,” I agreed. “I’d like a good long sleep before our trip tomorrow.”

  Jo grinned her affable killing machine smile. “Oh, no. No sleep yet. You’ve got afternoon chores, my friend.”

  Pedaling in style

  Leg irons are fashionable

  Cue the screaming god

  AT LEAST I DIDN’T have to clean toilets.

  I spent the afternoon in the griffin roost, playing music for Heloise to keep her calm while she laid her egg. She enjoyed Adele and Joni Mitchell, which strained my human vocal cords considerably, but she had no use for my impersonation of Elvis Presley. Griffin musical tastes are a mystery.

  Once, I spotted Calypso and Leo down in the great hall, walking with Emmie, the three of them deep in conversation. Several times I saw Agamethus float through the hall, wringing his hands. I tried not to think about his Magic 8 Ball message: WE CANNOT REMAIN, which was neither cheerful nor helpful when one was trying to provide egg-laying mood music.

  About an hour into my second set, Jo resumed the manufacture of her tracking device in the workshop, which necessitated me finding tunes that went well with the sound of a welding torch. Fortunately, Heloise enjoyed Patti Smith.

  The only person I didn’t see during the afternoon was Meg. I assumed she was on the roof, making the garden grow at five times its normal rate. Occasionally I glanced up, wondering when the roof might collapse and bury me in rutabagas.

  By dinnertime, my fingers were blistered from playing my combat ukulele. My throat felt like Death Valley. However, Heloise was clucking contentedly on top of her newly laid egg.

  I felt surprisingly better. Music and healing, after all, were not so different. I wondered if Jo had sent me to the roost for my own good as well as Heloise’s. Those Waystation women were tricky.

  That night I slept like the dead—the actual dead, not the restless, headless, glowing orange variety. By first light, armed with Emmie’s directions to the Canal Walk, Meg, Leo, and I were ready to navigate the streets of Indianapolis.

  Before we left, Josephine pulled me aside. “Wish I was going with you, Sunny. I’ll do my best to train your friend Calypso this morning, see if she can regain control over her magic. While you’re gone, I’ll feel better if you wear this.”

  She handed me an iron shackle.

  I studied her face, but she did not seem to be joking. “This is a griffin manacle,” I said.

  “No! I would never make a griffin wear a manacle.”

  “Yet you’re giving me one. Don’t prisoners wear these for house arrest?”

  “That’s not what it’s for. This is the tracking device I’ve been working on.”

  She pressed a small indentation on the rim of the shackle. With a click, metallic wings extended from either side, buzzing at hummingbird frequency. The shackle almost leaped out of my hands.

  “Oh, no,” I protested. “Don’t ask me to wear flying apparel. Hermes tricked me into wearing his shoes once. I took a nap in a hammock in Athens and woke up in Argentina. Never again.”

  Jo switched off the wings. “You don’t have to fly. The idea was to make two ankle bracelets, but I didn’t have time. I was going to send them off to”—she paused, clearly trying to control her emotions—“to find Georgina and bring her home. Since I can’t do that, if you get in trouble, if you find her…” Jo pointed
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