As soon as I said that, I realized it was perhaps not the best proof of my friendship.
Lit gave me a cruel smile. “Yes, I grew up hearing about that music contest you made my dad judge. Gave him donkey ears because he declared your opponent the winner? Heh. My father hated you so much for that, I was almost tempted to like you. But I don’t.” He sliced through the air in a practice swipe. “It’ll be a pleasure to kill you.”
“Hold on!” I shrieked. “What about all that take them alive business?”
Lit shrugged. “I changed my mind. First, that roof collapsed on me. Then my bodyguards got swallowed by a stand of bamboo. I don’t suppose you know anything about that?”
My pulse boomed like timpani in my ears. “No.”
“Right.” He regarded Calypso. “I think I’ll keep you alive long enough to kill you in front of Valdez’s face. That’ll be fun. But this former god here…” Lit shrugged. “I’ll just have to tell the emperor he resisted arrest.”
This was it. After four millennia of glory, I was going to die in a griffin enclosure in Indianapolis. I confess I hadn’t envisioned my death this way. I hadn’t envisioned it at all, but if I had to go, I wanted a lot more explosions and blazing spotlights, a host of beautiful weeping gods and goddesses crying No! Take us instead!, and a lot less animal poop.
Surely Zeus would intercede. He couldn’t allow my punishment on earth to include actual death! Or perhaps Artemis would slay Lit with an arrow of death. She could always tell Zeus it was a freak longbow malfunction. At the very least, I hoped the griffins would come to my aid, since I’d fed them and sung to them so sweetly.
None of that happened. Abelard hissed at Lityerses, but the griffin seemed reluctant to attack. Perhaps Lityerses had used those sinister training implements on him and his mate.
The swordsman rushed me with blinding speed. He swung his blade horizontally—right toward my neck. My last thought was how much the cosmos would miss me. The last thing I smelled was the scent of baked apples.
Then, from somewhere above, a small humanoid form dropped between me and my attacker. With a clang and a burst of sparks, Lityerses’s blade stopped cold in the crook of a golden X—the crossed blades of Meg McCaffrey.
I may have whimpered. I had never been so happy to see anyone in my life, and that includes Hyacinthus the time he wore that amazing tuxedo on our date night, so you know I mean it.
Meg pushed with her blades and sent Lityerses stumbling backward. Her dark pageboy hair was festooned with twigs and blades of grass. She wore her usual red high-tops, her yellow leggings, and the green dress Sally Jackson had lent her the first day we met. I found this strangely heartwarming.
Lityerses sneered at her, but he did not look particularly surprised. “I wondered if threatening this idiot god would smoke you out of hiding. You’ve signed your death warrant.”
Meg uncrossed her blades. She retorted in her typical poetic fashion. “Nope.”
Calypso glanced at me. She mouthed the question, THIS is Meg?
This is Meg, I agreed, which encompassed a lot of explanation in a very short exchange.
Lityerses stepped sideways to block the exit. He was limping slightly, probably from his incident with the canopy. “You dropped that ivy-covered roof on me,” he said. “You made the bamboo attack my men.”
“Yep,” Meg said. “You’re stupid.”
Lit hissed in annoyance. I understood this effect Meg had on people. Still, my heart was humming a perfect middle C of happiness. My young protector had returned! (Yes, yes, she was technically my master, but let’s not mince words.) She had seen the error of her ways. She had rebelled against Nero. Now she would stay by my side and help me retain my godhood. Cosmic order had been restored!
Then she glanced back at me. Instead of beaming with joy, or hugging me, or apologizing, she said, “Get out of here.”
The command jarred me to the bones. I stepped back as if pushed. I was filled with the sudden desire to flee. When we’d parted, Meg had told me I was released from her service. Now it was clear that our master-servant relationship could not be so easily broken. Zeus meant me to follow her commands until I died or became a god again. I wasn’t sure he cared which.
“But, Meg,” I pleaded. “You just arrived. We must—”
“Go,” she said. “Take the griffins and get out. I’ll hold off stupid-head.”
Lit laughed. “I’ve heard you’re a decent sword fighter, McCaffrey, but no child can match the Reaper of Men.”
He spun his blade like Pete Townshend windmilling his guitar (a move I taught Pete, though I never approved of the way he smashed his guitar into the speakers afterward—such a waste!).
“Demeter is my mother, too,” Lit said. “Her children make the best swordsmen. We understand the need to reap. It’s just the flipside of sowing, isn’t it, little sister? Let’s see what you know about reaping lives!”
He lunged. Meg countered his strike and drove him back. They circled each other, three swords whirling in a deadly dance like blender blades making an air smoothie.
Meanwhile, I was compelled to walk toward the griffins as Meg had ordered. I tried to do it slowly. I was reluctant to take my eyes off the battle, as if merely by watching Meg, I was somehow lending her strength. Once, when I was a god, that would’ve been possible, but now, what good could a spectating Lester do?
Calypso stood in front of Heloise, protecting the mother-to-be with her body.
I made it to Calypso’s side. “You’re lighter than I,” I said. “You ride Heloise. Be careful of her gut. I’ll take Abelard.”
“What about Meg?” Calypso demanded. “We can’t leave her.”
Just yesterday, I had toyed with the idea of leaving Calypso behind to the blemmyae when she was wounded. I’d like to say that wasn’t a serious thought, but it had been, however briefly. Now Calypso refused to leave Meg, whom she barely knew. It was almost enough to make me question whether I was a good person. (I stress the word almost.)
“You’re right, of course.” I glanced across the arena. In the opposite enclosure, the combat ostriches were peering through their Plexiglas, following the sword fight with professional interest. “We need to move this party.”
I turned to address Abelard. “I apologize in advance. I’m terrible at riding griffins.”
The griffin squawked as if to say, Do what you gotta do, man. He allowed me to climb aboard and tuck my legs behind the base of his wings.
Calypso followed my example, carefully straddling Heloise’s spine.
The griffins, impatient to be gone, bounded past the sword fight and into the arena. Lityerses lunged as I passed him. He would have taken off my right arm, but Meg blocked his strike with one sword and swept at Lit’s feet with the other, forcing him back again.
“Take those griffins and you’ll only suffer more!” Lit warned. “All the emperor’s prisoners will die slowly, especially the little girl.”
My hands shook with anger, but I managed to nock an arrow in my bow. “Meg,” I yelled, “come on!”
“I told you to leave!” she complained. “You’re a bad slave.”
On that, at least, we agreed.