The Hidden Oracle chapter 30

I school McCaffrey

Yo, girl, your stepdad is wack

Why won’t she listen?

 

I HAD BEEN BETRAYED BEFORE.

 

The memories came flooding back to me in a painful tide. Once, my former girlfriend Cyrene took up with Ares just to get back at me. Another time, Artemis shot me in the groin because I was flirting with her Hunters. In 1928, Alexander Fleming failed to give me credit for inspiring his discovery of penicillin. I mean, ouch. That stung.

 

But I couldn’t remember ever being so wrong about someone as I had been about Meg. Well…at least not since Irving Berlin. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”? I remember telling him. You’ll never make it big with a corny song like that!

 

“Meg, we are friends.” My voice sounded petulant even to myself. “How could you do this to me?” Meg looked down at her red sneakers—the primary-colored shoes of a traitor. “I tried to tell you, to

warn you.”

 

“She has a good heart.” Nero smiled. “But, Apollo, you and Meg have been friends for just a few days —and only because I asked Meg to befriend you. I have been Meg’s stepfather, protector, and caretaker for years. She is a member of the Imperial Household.”

 

I stared at my beloved Dumpster waif. Yes, somehow over the past week she had become beloved to me. I could not imagine her as Imperial anything—definitely not as a part of Nero’s entourage.

 

“I risked my life for you,” I said in amazement. “And that actually means something, because I can die!”

 

Nero clapped politely. “We’re all impressed, Apollo. Now, if you’d open the gates. They’ve defied me for too long.”

 

I tried to glare at Meg, but my heart wasn’t in it. I felt too hurt and vulnerable. We gods do not like feeling vulnerable. Besides, Meg wasn’t even looking at me.

 

In a daze, I turned to the oak tree gates. I saw now that their fused trunks were marred from Nero’s previous efforts—chain-saw scars, burn marks, bites from ax blades, even some bullet holes. All these had barely chipped the outer bark. The most damaged area was an inch-deep impression in the shape of a human hand, where the wood had bubbled and peeled away. I glanced at the unconscious face of Paulie the geyser god, strung up and bound with the five demigods.

 

“Nero, what have you done?”

“Oh, a number of things! We found a way into this antechamber weeks ago. The Labyrinth has a

 

convenient opening in the myrmekes’ nest. But getting through these gates—”

 

“You forced the palikos to help you?” I had to restrain myself from throwing my wind chimes at the emperor. “You used a nature spirit to destroy nature? Meg, how can you tolerate this?”

Peaches growled. For once I had the feeling that the grain spirit might be in agreement with me. Meg’s expression was as closed up as the gates. She stared intently at the bones littering the field.

“Come now,” Nero said. “Meg knows there are good nature spirits, and bad ones. This geyser god was annoying. He kept asking us to fill out surveys. Besides, he shouldn’t have ventured so far from his source of power. He was quite easy to capture. His steam, as you can see, didn’t do us much good anyway.”

“And the five demigods?” I demanded. “Did you ‘use’ them, too?”

 

“Of course. I didn’t plan on luring them here, but every time we attacked the gates, the grove started wailing. I suppose it was calling for help, and the demigods couldn’t resist. The first to wander in was this one.” He pointed to Cecil Markowitz. “The last two were your own children—Austin and Kayla, yes? They showed up after we forced Paulie to steam-broil the trees. I guess the grove was quite nervous about that attempt. We got two demigods for the price of one!”

 

I lost control. I let out a guttural howl and charged the emperor, intending to wring his hairy excuse for a neck. The Germani would have killed me before I ever got that far, but I was saved the indignity. I tripped over a human pelvis and belly-surfed through the bones.

“Apollo!” Meg ran toward me.

 

I rolled over and kicked at her like a fussy child. “I don’t need your help! Don’t you understand who your protector is? He’s a monster! He’s the emperor who—”

 

“Don’t say it,” Nero warned. “If you say ‘who fiddled while Rome burned,’ I will have Vince and Gary flay you for a set of hide armor. You know as well as I do, Apollo, we didn’t have fiddles back then. And I did not start the Great Fire of Rome.”

I struggled to my feet. “But you profited from it.”

 

Facing Nero, I remembered all the tawdry details of his rule—the extravagance and cruelty that had made him so embarrassing to me, his forefather. Nero was that relative you never wanted to invite to Lupercalia dinner.

 

“Meg,” I said, “your stepfather watched as seventy percent of Rome was destroyed. Tens of thousands died.”

 

“I was thirty miles away in Antium!” Nero snarled. “I rushed back to the city and personally led the fire brigades!”

“Only when the fire threatened your palace.”

Nero rolled his eyes. “I can’t help it if I arrived just in time to save the most important building!” Meg cupped her hands over her ears. “Stop arguing. Please.”

I didn’t stop. Talking seemed better than my other options, like helping Nero or dying.

“After the Great Fire,” I told her, “instead of rebuilding the houses on Palatine Hill, Nero leveled the neighborhood and built a new palace—the Domus Aurea.”

 

Nero got a dreamy look on his face. “Ah, yes…the House of Gold. It was beautiful, Meg! I had my own lake, three hundred rooms, frescoes of gold, mosaics done in pearls and diamonds—I could finally live like a human being!”

 

“You had the nerve to put a hundred-foot-tall bronze statue in your front lawn!” I said. “A statue of yourself as Sol-Apollo, the sun god. In other words, you claimed to be me.”

 

“Indeed,” Nero agreed. “Even after I died, that statue lived on. I understand it became famous as the Colossus of Nero! They moved it to the gladiators’ amphitheater and everyone began calling the theater after the statue—the Colosseum.” Nero puffed up his chest. “Yes…the statue was the perfect choice.”

His tone sounded even more sinister than usual.

 

“What are you talking about?” I demanded.

 

“Hmm? Oh, nothing.” He checked his watch…a mauve-and-gold Rolex. “The point is, I had style! The people loved me!”

 

I shook my head. “They turned against you. The people of Rome were sure you’d started the Great Fire, so you scapegoated the Christians.”

 

I was aware that this arguing was pointless. If Meg had hidden her true identity all this time, I doubted I could change her mind now. But perhaps I could stall long enough for the cavalry to arrive. If only I had a cavalry.

 

Nero waved dismissively. “But the Christians were terrorists, you see. Perhaps they didn’t start the fire, but they were causing all sorts of other trouble. I recognized that before anyone else!”

 

“He fed them to the lions,” I told Meg. “He burned them as human torches, the way he will burn these six.”

 

Meg’s face turned green. She gazed at the unconscious prisoners on the stakes. “Nero, you wouldn’t

 

—”

“They will be released,” Nero promised, “as long as Apollo cooperates.”

 

“Meg, you can’t trust him,” I said. “The last time he did this, he strung up Christians all over his backyard and burned them to illuminate his garden party. I was there. I remember the screaming.”

Meg clutched her stomach.

 

“My dear, don’t believe his stories!” Nero said. “That was just propaganda invented by my enemies.” Meg studied the face of Paulie the geyser god. “Nero…you didn’t say anything about making them into

torches.”

“They won’t burn,” he said, straining to soften his voice. “It won’t come to that. The Beast will not have to act.”

 

“You see, Meg?” I wagged a finger at the emperor. “It’s never a good sign when someone starts referring to himself in the third person. Zeus used to scold me about that constantly!”

Vince and Gary stepped forward, their knuckles whitening on their spears.

 

“I would be careful,” Nero warned. “My Germani are sensitive about insults to the Imperial person. Now, as much as I love talking about myself, we’re on a schedule.” He checked his watch again. “You’ll open the gates. Then Meg will see if she can use the trees to interpret the future. If so, wonderful! If not… well, we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.”

“Meg,” I said, “he’s a madman.”

At her feet, Peaches hissed protectively.

Meg’s chin quivered. “Nero cared about me, Apollo. He gave me a home. He taught me to fight.” “You said he killed your father!”

 

“No!” She shook her head adamantly, a look of panic in her eyes. “No, that’s not what I said. The Beast killed him.”

“But—”

Nero snorted. “Oh, Apollo…you understand so little. Meg’s father was weak. She doesn’t even remember him. He couldn’t protect her. I raised her. I kept her alive.”

 

My heart sank even further. I did not understand everything Meg had been through, or what she was feeling now, but I knew Nero. I saw how easily he could have twisted a scared child’s understanding of the world—a little girl all alone, yearning for safety and acceptance after her father’s murder, even if that acceptance came from her father’s killer. “Meg…I am so sorry.”

 

Another tear traced her cheek.

“She doesn’t NEED sympathy.” Nero’s voice turned as hard as bronze. “Now, my dear, if you would be so kind, open the gates. If Apollo objects, remind him that he is bound to follow your orders.”

Meg swallowed. “Apollo, don’t make it harder. Please…help me open the gates.”

 

I shook my head. “Not by choice.”

 

“Then I—I command you. Help me. Now.”

 

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