The griffins settled into their nest, clucking contentedly to each other. I was no griffin midwife, but Heloise, thank the gods, seemed no worse for wear after her flight.
I faced Meg. My cheek stung where I’d slapped myself. My pride had been trampled like Lityerses under a herd of combat ostriches. Nevertheless, I felt remarkably happy to see my young friend.
“You rescued me.” Then I added two words that never come easily to a god: “Thank you.”
Meg gripped her elbows. On her middle fingers, her gold rings glinted with the crescent symbol of her mother, Demeter. I had bandaged her cut thigh as best I could while we were in flight, but she still looked shaky on her feet.
I thought she might cry again, but when she met my eyes, she wore her usual willful expression, as if she were about to call me Poop Face, or order me to play princess versus dragon with her. (I never got to be the princess.)
“I didn’t do it for you,” she said.
I tried to process that meaningless phrase. “Then why—”
“That guy.” She waved her fingers over her face, indicating Lityerses’s scars. “He was bad.”
“Well, I can’t argue with that.”
“And the ones who drove me from New York.” She made her icky expression. “Marcus. Vortigern. They said things, what they would do in Indianapolis.” She shook her head. “Bad things.”
I wondered if Meg knew that Marcus and Vortigern had been beheaded for letting her escape. I decided not to mention it. If Meg was really curious, she could check their Facebook status updates.
Next to us, the griffins snuggled in for a well-deserved rest. They tucked their heads under their wings and purred, which would have been cute if they didn’t sound like chainsaws.
“Meg…” I faltered.
I felt as if a Plexiglas wall divided us, though I wasn’t sure whom it was protecting from whom. I wanted to say so many things to her, but I wasn’t sure how.
I summoned my courage. “I am going to try.”
Meg studied me warily. “Try what?”
“To tell you…how I feel. To clear the air. Stop me if I say something wrong, but I think it’s obvious we still need each other.”
She didn’t respond.
“I don’t blame you for anything,” I continued. “The fact that you left me alone in the Grove of Dodona, that you lied about your stepfather—”
I waited for her faithful servant Peaches the karpos to fall from the heavens and tear my scalp off. It didn’t happen.
“What I mean,” I tried again, “is that I am sorry for everything you have been through. None of it was your fault. You should not blame yourself. That fiend Nero played with your emotions, twisted your thoughts—”
“Perhaps I could put my feelings into a song.”
“Or I could tell you a story about a similar thing that once happened to me.”
“A short riff on my ukulele?”
“Stop.” This time, though, I detected the faintest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of Meg’s mouth.
“Can we at least agree to work together?” I asked. “The emperor in this city is searching for us both. If we don’t stop him, he will do many more bad things.”
Meg raised her left shoulder to her ear. “Okay.”
A gentle crackling sound came from the griffin’s nest. Green shoots were sprouting from the dry hay, perhaps a sign of Meg’s improving mood.
I remembered Cleander’s words in my nightmare: You should have realized how powerful she is becoming. Meg had somehow tracked me to the zoo. She’d caused ivy to grow until it collapsed a roof. She’d made bamboo plants swallow a squad of Germani. She’d even teleported away from her escorts in Dayton using a clump of dandelions. Few children of Demeter had ever had such abilities.
Still, I was under no illusions that Meg and I could skip away from here arm in arm, our problems forgotten. Sooner or later, she would have to confront Nero again. Her loyalties would be tested, her fears played upon. I could not free her of her past, even with the best song or ukulele riff.
Meg rubbed her nose. “Is there any food?”
I hadn’t realized how tense I’d been until I relaxed. If Meg was thinking of food, we were back on the path to normalcy.
“There is food.” I lowered my voice. “Mind you, it’s not as good as Sally Jackson’s seven-layer dip, but Emmie’s fresh-baked bread and homemade cheese are quite acceptable.”
Behind me, a voice said drily, “So glad you approve.”
At the top of the ladder, Emmie was glaring griffin claws at me. “Lady Britomartis is downstairs. She wants to talk to you.”
The goddess did not say thank you. She did not shower me with praise, offer me a kiss, or even give me a free magic net.
Britomartis simply waved to seats across the dinner table and said, “Sit.”
She was dressed in a gauzy black dress over a fishnet bodysuit, a look that reminded me of Stevie Nicks, circa 1981. (We did a fabulous duet on “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” I got zero credit on the album, though.) She propped her leather boots on the dining table as if she owned the place, which I guess she did, and twirled her auburn braid between her fingers.
I checked my seat, then Meg’s, for any spring-activated explosive devices, but without Leo’s expert eye, I couldn’t be sure. My only hope: Britomartis looked distracted, perhaps too distracted for her usual fun and games. I sat. Happily, my gloutos did not explode.
A simple meal had been laid out: more salad, bread, and cheese. I hadn’t realized it was lunchtime, but when I saw the food, my stomach growled. I reached for the loaf of bread. Emmie pulled it away and gave it to Meg.
Emmie smiled sweetly. “Apollo, I wouldn’t want you to eat anything that’s only acceptable. There’s plenty of salad, though.”
I stared miserably at the bowl of lettuce and cucumbers. Meg grabbed the entire bread loaf and ripped off a chunk, chewing it with gusto. Well…I say chewing. Meg stuffed so much into her mouth it was difficult to know if her teeth ever connected.
Britomartis laced her fingers in front of her. Even that simple gesture looked like an elaborate snare. “Emmie,” she said, “how is the sorceress?”
“Resting comfortably, my lady,” said Emmie. “Leo and Josephine are looking in on her—Ah, here they are now.”
Josephine and Leo strode toward the dining table, Leo’s arms spread like the Rio de Janeiro Christ statue. “You can all relax!” he announced. “Calypso is okay!”
The net goddess grunted as if disappointed.
A thought struck me. I frowned at Britomartis. “The net over the arena. Nets are your department. You helped blast it away, didn’t you? Calypso couldn’t have done that magic by herself.”
Britomartis smirked. “I may have jump-started her power a bit. She’ll be more useful to me if she can master her old abilities.”
Leo dropped his arms. “But you could’ve killed her!”
The goddess shrugged. “Probably not, but it’s hard to say. Tricky stuff, magic. You never know when or how it’s going to come out.” She spoke with distaste, as if magic were some poorly controlled bodily function.