The mark of athena, p.2
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       The Mark of Athena, p.2

         Part #3 of The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
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  “Stop that!” Terminus insisted. Another small explosion made Leo drop his screwdriver. “Weapons are not allowed on Roman soil inside the Pomerian Line. ”

  “The what?” Piper asked.

  “City limits,” Jason translated.

  “And this entire ship is a weapon!” Terminus said. “You cannot land!”

  Down in the valley, the legion reinforcements were halfway to the city. The crowd in the forum was over a hundred strong now. Annabeth scanned the faces and…oh, gods. She saw him. He was walking toward the ship with his arms around two other kids like they were best buddies—a stout boy with a black buzz cut, and a girl wearing a Roman cavalry helmet. Percy looked so at ease, so happy. He wore a purple cape just like Jason’s—the mark of a praetor.

  Annabeth’s heart did a gymnastics routine.

  “Leo, stop the ship,” she ordered.

  “What?”

  “You heard me. Keep us right where we are. ”

  Leo pulled out his controller and yanked it upward. All ninety oars froze in place. The ship stopped sinking.

  “Terminus,” Annabeth said, “there’s no rule against hovering over New Rome, is there?”

  The statue frowned. “Well, no…”

  “We can keep the ship aloft,” Annabeth said. “We’ll use a rope ladder to reach the forum. That way, the ship won’t be on Roman soil. Not technically. ”

  The statue seemed to ponder this. Annabeth wondered if he was scratching his chin with imaginary hands.

  “I like technicalities,” he admitted. “Still…”

  “All our weapons will stay aboard the ship,” Annabeth promised. “I assume the Romans—even those reinforcements marching toward us—will also have to honor your rules inside the Pomerian Line if you tell them to?”

  “Of course!” Terminus said. “Do I look like I tolerate rule breakers?”

  “Uh, Annabeth…” Leo said. “You sure this is a good idea?”

  She closed her fists to keep them from shaking. That cold feeling was still there. It floated just behind her, and now that Terminus was no longer shouting and causing explosions, she thought she could hear the presence laughing, as if it was delighted by the bad choices she was making.

  But Percy was down there…he was so close. She had to reach him.

  “It’ll be fine,” she said. “No one will be armed. We can talk in peace. Terminus will make sure each side obeys the rules. ” She looked at the marble statue. “Do we have an agreement?”

  Terminus sniffed. “I suppose. For now. You may climb down your ladder to New Rome, daughter of Athena. Please try not to destroy my town. ”

  Chapter 2

  A sea of hastily assembled demigods parted for Annabeth as she walked through the forum. Some looked tense, some nervous. Some were bandaged from their recent battle with the giants, but no one was armed. No one attacked.

  Entire families had gathered to see the newcomers. Annabeth saw couples with babies, toddlers clinging to their parents’ legs, even some elderly folks in a combination of Roman robes and modern clothes. Were all of them demigods? Annabeth suspected so, though she’d never seen a place like this. At Camp Half-Blood, most demigods were teens. If they survived long enough to graduate from high school, they either stayed on as counselors or left to start lives as best they could in the mortal world. Here, it was an entire multigenerational community.

  At the far end of the crowd, Annabeth spotted Tyson the Cyclops and Percy’s hellhound, Mrs. O’Leary—who had been the first scouting party from Camp Half-Blood to reach Camp Jupiter. They looked to be in good spirits. Tyson waved and grinned. He was wearing an SPQR banner like a giant bib.

  Some part of Annabeth’s mind registered how beautiful the city was—the smells from the bakeries, the gurgling fountains, the flowers blooming in the gardens. And the architecture…gods, the architecture—gilded marble columns, dazzling mosaics, monumental arches, and terraced villas.

  In front of her, the demigods made way for a girl in full Roman armor and a purple cape. Dark hair tumbled across her shoulders. Her eyes were as black as obsidian.

  Reyna.

  Jason had described her well. Even without that, Annabeth would have singled her out as the leader. Medals decorated her armor. She carried herself with such confidence the other demigods backed away and averted their gaze.

  Annabeth recognized something else in her face, too—in the hard set of her mouth and the deliberate way she raised her chin like she was ready to accept any challenge. Reyna was forcing a look of courage, while holding back a mixture of hopefulness and worry and fear that she couldn’t show in public.

  Annabeth knew that expression. She saw it every time she looked in a mirror.

  The two girls considered each other. Annabeth’s friends fanned out on either side. The Romans murmured Jason’s name, staring at him in awe.

  Then someone else appeared from the crowd, and Annabeth’s vision tunneled.

  Percy smiled at her—that sarcastic, troublemaker smile that had annoyed her for years but eventually had become endearing. His sea-green eyes were as gorgeous as she remembered. His dark hair was swept to one side, like he’d just come from a walk on the beach. He looked even better than he had six months ago—tanner and taller, leaner and more muscular.

  Annabeth was too stunned to move. She felt that if she got any closer to him, all the molecules in her body might combust. She’d secretly had a crush on him since they were twelve years old. Last summer, she’d fallen for him hard. They’d been a happy couple for four months—and then he’d disappeared.

  During their separation, something had happened to Annabeth’s feelings. They’d grown painfully intense—like she’d been forced to withdraw from a life-saving medication. Now she wasn’t sure which was more excruciating—living with that horrible absence, or being with him again.

  The praetor Reyna straightened. With apparent reluctance, she turned toward Jason.

  “Jason Grace, my former colleague…” She spoke the word colleague like it was a dangerous thing. “I welcome you home. And these, your friends—”

  Annabeth didn’t mean to, but she surged forward. Percy rushed toward her at the same time. The crowd tensed. Some reached for swords that weren’t there.

  Percy threw his arms around her. They kissed, and for a moment nothing else mattered. An asteroid could have hit the planet and wiped out all life, and Annabeth wouldn’t have cared.

  Percy smelled of ocean air. His lips were salty.

  Seaweed Brain, she thought giddily.

  Percy pulled away and studied her face. “Gods, I never thought—”

  Annabeth grabbed his wrist and flipped him over her shoulder. He slammed into the stone pavement. Romans cried out. Some surged forward, but Reyna shouted, “Hold! Stand down!”

  Annabeth put her knee on Percy’s chest. She pushed her forearm against his throat. She didn’t care what the Romans thought. A white-hot lump of anger expanded in her chest—a tumor of worry and bitterness that she’d been carrying around since last autumn.

  “If you ever leave me again,” she said, her eyes stinging, “I swear to all the gods—”

  Percy had the nerve to laugh. Suddenly the lump of heated emotions melted inside Annabeth.

  “Consider me warned,” Percy said. “I missed you, too. ”

  Annabeth rose and helped him to his feet. She wanted to kiss him again so badly, but she managed to restrain herself.

  Jason cleared his throat. “So, yeah. …It’s good to be back. ”

  He introduced Reyna to Piper, who looked a little miffed that she hadn’t gotten to say the lines she’d been practicing, then to Leo, who grinned and flashed a peace sign.

  “And this is Annabeth,” Jason said. “Uh, normally she doesn’t judo-flip people. ”

  Reyna’s eyes sparkled. “You sure you’re not a Roman, Annabeth? Or an Amazon?”

  Annabeth didn’t know if that was a com
pliment, but she held out her hand. “I only attack my boyfriend like that,” she promised. “Pleased to meet you. ”

  Reyna clasped her hand firmly. “It seems we have a lot to discuss. Centurions!”

  A few of the Roman campers hustled forward—apparently the senior officers. Two kids appeared at Percy’s side, the same ones Annabeth had seen him chumming around with earlier. The burly Asian guy with the buzz cut was about fifteen. He was cute in a sort of oversized-cuddly-panda-bear way. The girl was younger, maybe thirteen, with amber eyes and chocolate skin and long curly hair. Her cavalry helmet was tucked under her arm.

  Annabeth could tell from their body language that they felt close to Percy. They stood next to him protectively, like they’d already shared many adventures. She fought down a twinge of jealousy. Was it possible Percy and this girl…no. The chemistry between the three of them wasn’t like that. Annabeth had spent her whole life learning to read people. It was a survival skill. If she had to guess, she’d say the big Asian guy was the girl’s boyfriend, though she suspected they hadn’t been together long.

  There was one thing she didn’t understand: what was the girl staring at? She kept frowning in Piper and Leo’s direction, like she recognized one of them and the memory was painful.

  Meanwhile, Reyna was giving orders to her officers. “…tell the legion to stand down. Dakota, alert the spirits in the kitchen. Tell them to prepare a welcome feast. And, Octavian—”

  “You’re letting these intruders into the camp?” A tall guy with stringy blond hair elbowed his way forward. “Reyna, the security risks—”

  “We’re not taking them to the camp, Octavian. ” Reyna flashed him a stern look. “We’ll eat here, in the forum. ”

  “Oh, much better,” Octavian grumbled. He seemed to be the only one who didn’t defer to Reyna as his superior, despite the fact that he was scrawny and pale and for some reason had three teddy bears hanging from his belt. “You want us to relax in the shadow of their warship. ”

  “These are our guests. ” Reyna clipped off every word. “We will welcome them, and we will talk to them. As augur, you should burn an offering to thank the gods for bringing Jason back to us safely. ”

  “Good idea,” Percy put in. “Go burn your bears, Octavian. ”

  Reyna looked like she was trying not to smile. “You have my orders. Go. ”

  The officers dispersed. Octavian shot Percy a look of absolute loathing. Then he gave Annabeth a suspicious once-over and stalked away.

  Percy slipped his hand into Annabeth’s. “Don’t worry about Octavian,” he said. “Most of the Romans are good people—like Frank and Hazel here, and Reyna. We’ll be fine. ”

  Annabeth felt as if someone had draped a cold washcloth across her neck. She heard that whispering laughter again, as if the presence had followed her from the ship.

  She looked up at the Argo II. Its massive bronze hull glittered in the sunlight. Part of her wanted to kidnap Percy right now, climb on board, and get out of here while they still could.

 
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