Lityerses growled. “I will deal with this, sire. Never fear. Guards, with me!”
Heavy footsteps faded into the distance.
I glanced at Meg and Leo, who were both giving me the same silent question: What the Hades?
I had not ordered an incursion at the front gates. I hadn’t even activated the iron manacle on my ankle. I didn’t know who would be so foolish as to launch a frontal assault on this underground palace, but Britomartis had promised to look for the Hunters of Artemis. It occurred to me that this was the sort of diversionary tactic they might arrange if they were trying to distract Commodus’s security forces from our presence. Could we be so lucky? Probably not. More likely, some magazine-subscription salesman had rung the emperor’s doorbell and was about to get a very hostile reception.
I risked another peek over the edge of the canal. Commodus was alone now with just one guard.
Perhaps we could take him—three on two?
Except that we were all about to pass out from hypothermia, Meg probably had some broken ribs, and my own powers were unpredictable at best. On the opposing team, we had a trained barbarian killer and a semi-divine emperor with a well-deserved reputation for superhuman strength. I decided to stay put.
Commodus glanced at his bodyguard. “Alaric.”
“I think your time is approaching. I grow impatient with my prefect. How long has Lityerses had this job?”
“About a day, my lord.”
“Seems like forever!” Commodus pounded his fist on his armrest. “As soon as he’s dealt with this incursion, I want you to kill him.”
“I want you to wipe out the Waystation tomorrow morning at the latest. Can you do that?”
“Of course, lord.”
“Good! We’ll have the naming ceremony immediately afterward in the colosseum.”
“Stadium, my lord.”
“Same difference! And the Cave of Prophecy? Is it secure?”
My spine took a jolt of electricity so strong I wondered if Commodus kept electric eels in the channel.
“I have followed your orders, sire,” Alaric said. “The beasts are in place. The entrance is well guarded. None shall gain access.”
“Lovely!” Commodus jumped to his feet. “Now let’s go try on our racing outfits for the dress rehearsal, shall we? I can’t wait to remake this city in my own image!”
I waited until the sound of their footsteps receded. I peeked over and saw no one in the room.
“Now,” I said.
We dragged ourselves out of the canal and stood dripping and shivering in front of the golden throne. I could still smell the scent of Commodus’s favorite body oil—a mix of cardamom and cinnamon.
Meg paced for warmth, her swords glowing in her hands. “Tomorrow morning? We gotta warn Jo and Emmie.”
“Yeah,” Leo agreed. “But we stick to the plan. First we find the captives. And that Throne of Whatever-It-Is—”
“Memory,” I said.
“Yeah, that. Then we get out of here and warn Jo and Emmie.”
“It may not help,” I fretted. “I’ve seen how Commodus remakes a city. There will be chaos and spectacle, fire and wholesale slaughter, and lots and lots of pictures of Commodus everywhere. Add to that an army of blemmyae bulldozers—”
“Apollo.” Leo made a fiery time-out sign. “We’re gonna use the Valdez method on this.”
Meg frowned. “What’s the Valdez method?”
“Don’t overthink it,” Leo said. “It’ll just make you depressed. In fact, try not to think at all.”
Meg considered this, then seemed to realize she was thinking, then looked sheepish. “’Kay.”
Leo grinned. “See? Easy! Now let’s go blow some stuff up.”
So amaze! Such name!
Sssssarah with five s’s is
Still two syllablessssss
AT FIRST, the Valdez method worked fine.
We found nothing to blow up, but we also didn’t have to overthink anything. This was because we embraced the McCaffrey method as well, which involved chia seeds.
Faced with a choice of which corridor to take from the throne room, Meg pulled a soggy package of seeds from her red high-top. (I did not ask why she kept seeds in her shoes.) She caused the chia to sprout in her cupped palm, and the tiny forest of green stalks pointed toward the left-hand corridor.
“That way,” Meg announced.
“Awesome superpower,” Leo said. “When we get out of here, I’ma hook you up with a mask and a cape. We’ll call you Chia Girl.”
I hoped he was kidding. Meg, however, looked delighted.
The chia sprouts led us down one corridor then another. For an underground lair in the Indianapolis sewer system, the palace was quite opulent. The floors were rough-hewn slate, the gray stone walls decorated with alternating tapestries and television monitors showing—you guessed it—videos of Commodus. Most of the mahogany doors were labeled with engraved bronze plates: COMMODUS SAUNA, COMMODUS GUEST ROOMS 1–6, COMMODUS EMPLOYEE CAFETERIA, and, yes, COMMODUS COMMODES.
We saw no guards, no employees, no guests. The only person we encountered was a maid coming out of the COMMODUS IMPERIAL GUARD BARRACKS with a basket of dirty laundry.
When she saw us, her eyes widened in terror. (Probably because we looked dirtier and damper than anything she’d pulled from the Germani’s hamper.) Before she could scream, I knelt before her and sang “You Don’t See Me” by Josie and the Pussycats. The maid’s eyes became misty and unfocused. She sniffled nostalgically, walked back into the barracks, and closed the door behind her.
Leo nodded. “Nice one, Apollo.”
“It wasn’t hard. That tune is wonderful for inducing short-term amnesia.”
Meg sniffed. “Would’ve been kinder to hit her over the head.”
“Oh, come now,” I protested. “You like my singing.”
Her ears reddened. I remembered how young McCaffrey had cried when I poured out my heart and soul in the giant ants’ lair at Camp Half-Blood. I’d been rather proud of my performance, but I guess Meg did not feel like reliving it.
She punched me in the gut. “Come on.”
The chia seeds led us deeper into the emperor’s compound. Silence began to weigh on me. Imaginary insects crawled across my shoulder blades. Surely Commodus’s men had dealt with the front-door incursion by now. They would be returning to their normal posts, perhaps checking security monitors for other intruders.
At last, we turned a corner and spotted a blemmyae keeping watch outside a metal vault door. The guard wore black dress pants and shiny black shoes, but he made no attempt to hide his chest-face. The hair across his shoulders/scalp was clipped in a military flattop. The wire of a security earpiece ran from beneath his armpit to his pants pocket. He did not appear to be armed, but that gave me no comfort. His meaty fists looked quite capable of crushing a pedal boat or a Lester Papadopoulos.
Leo grumbled under his breath, “Not these guys again.” Then he forced a smile and strode toward the guard. “Hello! Lovely day! How are you?”
The guard turned in surprise. I imagined that proper procedure would have been to alert his superiors to the intrusion, but he’d been asked a question. It would’ve been rude to ignore it.