I wondered why Lityerses had split his people into two groups. Surely they already knew where the griffins were being kept. Why, then, were they searching the park? Unless, of course, they were searching for intruders, specifically us….
Calypso snapped her hairpin in two. She inserted the metal pieces in the door lock and began to wriggle them, her eyes closed as if she were in deep concentration.
Ridiculous, I thought. That only works in movies and Homeric epics!
Click. The door swung inward. Calypso waved me inside. She yanked the pin shards out of the lock, then followed me across the threshold, gently closing the door behind us. She turned the dead bolt just before someone outside shook the handle.
A gruff voice muttered in Gallic, probably something like No luck. Bash heads elsewhere.
I finally remembered to breathe.
I faced Calypso. “How did you pick the lock?”
She stared at the broken hairpin in her hand. “I—I thought about weaving.”
“I can still weave. I spent thousands of years practicing at the loom. I thought maybe—I don’t know—manipulating pins in a lock wouldn’t be too different than weaving thread in a loom.”
The two things sounded very different to me, but I couldn’t argue with the results.
“So it wasn’t magic, then?” I tried to contain my disappointment. Having a few wind spirits at our command would have been very helpful.
“No,” she said. “You’ll know when I get my magic back, because you’ll find yourself being tossed across Indianapolis.”
“That’s something to look forward to.”
I scanned the dark interior of the snack bar. Against the back wall were the basics: a sink, a deep fryer, a stove top, two microwaves. Under the counter sat two horizontal freezers.
How did I know the basics of a fast-food kitchen, you ask? I had discovered the singer Pink while she was working at McDonalds. I found Queen Latifah at Burger King. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in such places. You can’t discount any site where you might find talent.
I checked the first freezer. Inside, wreathed in cold mist, were carefully labeled boxes of ready-to-cook meals, but nothing that read TATER TOTS.
The second freezer was locked.
“Calypso,” I said, “could you weave this open?”
“Who’s useless now, eh?”
In the interest of getting my way, I decided not to answer. I stepped back as Calypso worked her non-magical skills. She popped this lock even faster than the first.
“Well done.” I lifted the freezer lid. “Ah.”
Hundreds of packages were wrapped in white butcher paper, each labeled in black marker.
Calypso squinted at the descriptions. “Carnivorous horse mix? Combat ostrich cubes? And…griffin taters.” She turned to me with a horrified look. “Surely they’re not grinding animals into food?”
I remembered a long-ago banquet with the spiteful King Tantalus, who had served the gods a stew made from his own son. With humans, anything was possible. But in this case, I didn’t think the café was putting mythical wildlife on the menu.
“These items are under lock and key,” I said. “I’m guessing they’ve been set aside as treats for the zoo’s rarest animals. That’s a mix of food for a carnivorous horse, not a mixture of carnivorous horse.”
Calypso looked only slightly less nauseated. “What in the world is a combat ostrich?”
The question triggered an old memory. I was overwhelmed by a vision as powerful as the stench of an unwashed lemur cage.
I found myself lounging on a couch in the campaign tent of my friend Commodus. He was in the midst of a military campaign with his father, Marcus Aurelius, but nothing about the tent suggested the harsh life of the Roman legion. Overhead, a white silk canopy billowed in the gentle breeze. In one corner, a musician sat discreetly serenading us with his lyre. Under our feet spread the finest rugs from the eastern provinces—each one as expensive as an entire villa in Rome. Between our two couches, a table was spread with an afternoon snack of roast boar, pheasant, salmon, and fruit spilling from a solid gold cornucopia.
I was amusing myself by throwing grapes at Commodus’s mouth. Of course, I never missed unless I wanted to, but it was fun to watch the fruit bounce off Commodus’s nose.
“You are terrible,” he teased me.
And you are perfect, I thought, but I merely smiled.
He was eighteen. In mortal form, I appeared to be a youth of the same age, but even with my godly enhancements I could hardly have been more handsome than the princeps. Despite his easy life, being born into the purple of the Imperial Household, Commodus was the very model of athletic perfection—his body lithe and muscular, his golden hair in ringlets around his Olympian face. His physical strength was already renowned, drawing comparisons to the legendary hero Hercules.
I threw another grape. He caught it in his hand and studied the little orb. “Oh, Apollo…” He knew my real identity, yes. We had been friends, more than friends, for almost a month at that point. “I get so weary of these campaigns. My father has been at war virtually his entire reign!”
“Such a hard life for you.” I gestured at the opulence around us.
“Yes, but it’s ridiculous. Tromping around Danubian forests, stamping out barbarian tribes that are really no threat to Rome. What’s the point of being emperor if you’re never in the capital having fun?”
I nibbled on a piece of boar meat. “Why not talk to your father? Ask for a furlough?”
Commodus snorted. “You know what he’ll do—give me another lecture on duty and morality. He is so virtuous, so perfect, so esteemed.”
He put those words in air circles (since air quotes had not yet been invented). I could certainly sympathize with his feelings. Marcus Aurelius was the sternest, most powerful father in the world aside from my own father, Zeus. Both loved to lecture. Both loved to remind their offspring how lucky they were, how privileged, how far short they fell of their fathers’ expectations. And of course, both had gorgeous, talented, tragically underappreciated sons.
Commodus squished his grape and watched the juice trickle down his fingers. “My father made me his junior co-emperor when I was fifteen, Apollo. It’s stifling. All duty, all the time. Then he married me off to that horrid girl Bruttia Crispina. Who names their child Bruttia?”
I didn’t mean to laugh at the expense of his distant wife…but part of me was pleased when he talked badly about her. I wanted all his attention for myself.
“Well, someday you’ll be the sole emperor,” I said. “Then you can make the rules.”
“I’ll make peace with the barbarians,” he said immediately. “Then we’ll go home and celebrate with games. The best games, all the time. I’ll gather the most exotic animals in the world. I’ll fight them personally in the Colosseum—tigers, elephants, ostriches.”
I laughed at that. “Ostriches? Have you ever even seen an ostrich?”
“Oh, yes.” He got a wistful look in his eyes. “Amazing creatures. If you trained them to fight, perhaps designed some sort of armor for them, they would be incredible.”
“You’re a handsome idiot.” I threw another grape, which bounced off his forehead.