“You are telling us,” he snarled, “that you lost her. Two strong, capable servants of the Triumvirate lost a little girl. How could that happen?”
Marcus cupped his hands. “Lord Cleander, I don’t know! We stopped at a convenience store outside of Dayton. She went to the restroom and—and she disappeared.”
Marcus glanced at his companion for support. Vortigern grunted.
Cleander, the red-suited advisor, scowled. “Was there any sort of plant near this restroom?”
Marcus blinked. “Plant?”
“Yes, you fool. The growing kind.”
“I…well, there was a clump of dandelions growing from a crack in the pavement by the door, but—”
“What?” yelled Cleander. “You let a daughter of Demeter near a plant?”
A daughter of Demeter. My heart felt like it had been launched upward in one of Britomartis’s nets. At first I had wondered if these men were talking about Georgina, but they meant Meg McCaffrey. She had given her escorts the slip.
Marcus gaped like a fish. “Sir, it—it was a just a weed!”
“Which is all she needed to teleport away!” screamed Cleander. “You should have realized how powerful she is becoming. Gods only know where she is now!”
“Actually,” said the emperor, sending a flash freeze through the room, “I’m a god. And I have no idea.”
He stopped twirling his poleax. He scanned the throne room until his gaze fixed on a blemmyae servant arranging cakes and canapés on a tea cart. She was not in disguise—her chest-face was in full view, though below her belly-chin she wore a maid’s black skirt with a white lace apron.
The emperor took aim. He casually chucked his poleax across the room, the blade burying itself between the maid’s eyes. She staggered, managed to say, “Good shot, my lord,” then crumbled to dust.
The advisors and bodyguards clapped politely.
Commodus waved away their praise. “I’m bored with these two.” He gestured at Marcus and Vortigern. “They failed, yes?”
Cleander bowed. “Yes, my lord. Thanks to them, the daughter of Demeter is on the loose. If she reaches Indianapolis, she could cause us no end of trouble.”
The emperor smiled. “Ah, but Cleander, you failed too, did you not?”
The red-suited man gulped. “Sire, I—I assure you—”
“It was your idea to allow Nero to send these idiots. You thought they’d be helpful in capturing Apollo. Now the girl has betrayed us. And Apollo is somewhere in my city, and you haven’t apprehended him yet.”
“Sire, the meddlesome women of the Waystation—”
“That’s right!” the emperor said. “You haven’t found them yet, either. And don’t get me started on all your failures concerning the naming ceremony.”
“B-but, sire! We will have thousands of animals for you to slaughter! Hundreds of captives—”
“BORING! I told you, I want something creative. Are you my praetorian prefect or not, Cleander?”
“And so you’re responsible for any failures.”
“And you’re boring me,” Commodus added, “which is punishable by death.” He glanced to either side of the throne. “Who’s next in the chain of command? Speak up.”
A young man stepped forward. Not a Germanus bodyguard, but definitely a fighter. His hand rested easily on the pommel of a sword. His face was a patchwork of scars. His clothes were casual—just jeans, a red-and-white T-shirt that read CORNHUSKERS, and a red bandana tied across his curly dark hair—but he held himself with the easy confidence of a practiced killer.
“I am next, sire.”
Commodus inclined his head. “Do it, then.”
Cleander shrieked, “No!”
The Cornhusker moved with blinding speed. His sword flashed. In three fluid slices, three people fell dead, their heads severed from their bodies. On the bright side, Cleander no longer had to worry about congestive heart failure. Neither did Marcus nor Vortigern.
The emperor clapped with delight. “Oh, nice! That was very entertaining, Lityerses!”
“Thank you, sire.” The Cornhusker flicked the blood from his blade.
“You are almost as skilled with the sword as I am!” the emperor said. “Have I ever told you how I decapitated a rhinoceros?”
“Yes, my lord, most impressive.” Lityerses’s voice was as bland as oatmeal. “Your permission to clear away these bodies?”
“Of course,” the emperor said. “Now—you’re Midas’s boy, aren’t you?”
Lityerses’s face seemed to develop a few new scars when he scowled. “Yes, sire.”
“But you can’t do the golden-touch thing?”
“Pity. You do kill people well, though. That’s good. Your first orders: Find Meg McCaffrey. And Apollo. Bring them to me, alive if possible, and…hmm. There was something else.”
“The naming ceremony, sire?”
“Yes!” The emperor grinned. “Yes, yes. I have some wonderful ideas to spice up the games, but since Apollo and the girl are running around loose, we should move forward our plan for the griffins. Go to the zoo right away. Bring the animals here for safekeeping. Manage all that for me, and I won’t kill you. Fair?”
Lityerses’s neck muscles tensed. “Of course, sire.”
As the new praetorian prefect barked orders to the guards, telling them to drag away the decapitated bodies, someone spoke my name.
“Apollo. Wake up.”
My eyes fluttered open. Calypso stood over me. The room was dark. Nearby, Leo was still snoring away in his bed.
“It’s almost first light,” said the sorceress. “We need to get going.”
I tried to blink away the remnants of my dreams. Agamethus’s Magic 8 Ball seemed to float to the surface of my mind. Apollo must bring her home.
I wondered if the ghost had meant Georgina, or another girl whom I very much wanted to find.
Calypso shook my shoulder. “Come on! You wake up very slowly for a sun god.”
“The zoo,” she said. “Unless you want to wait around here for morning chores.”
I sing of taters!
Chili, sweet potato, blue!
Why? Ask my arrow
CALYPSO KNEW how to motivate me.
The thought of scrubbing toilets again was more terrifying than my dreams.
We walked the dark streets in the cold early morning, keeping an eye out for polite mobs of killer blemmyae, but no one bothered us. Along the way, I explained my nightmares to Calypso.
I spelled out the name C-O-M-M-O-D-U-S, in case saying it aloud might attract the god-emperor’s attention. Calypso had never heard of him. Of course, she’d been stuck on her island for the last few millennia. I doubted she would recognize the names of many people who hadn’t washed up on her shores. She barely knew who Hercules was. I found that refreshing. Hercules was such an attention hog.
“You know this emperor personally?” she asked.
I convinced myself I wasn’t blushing. The wind was just stinging my face. “We met when he was younger. We had a surprising amount in common. Once he became emperor…” I sighed. “You know how it is. He got too much power and fame at a tender age. It messed with his head. Like Justin, Britney, Lindsay, Amanda, Amadeus—”