Rain pattered on the roof like a drumbeat, slow and steady.
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.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.Harper looked to Mamaw. Her grandmother sat erect in her chair across the table, eyes bright, deliberately silent.
Harper leaned close to Taylor at her right to whisper in his ear, I’ll be right back. I want to check on her.You sure you’ll be all right? Want me to come with you? She’d sensed a tension in him tonight, ever since his conversation with Granny James. During dinner she’d seen him glance at her grandmother a few times, as if he were scoping out the enemy.
Heavens, no. I’ll be right back. Setting her napkin on the table, Harper hurried to the kitchen after her grandmother.The caterers were almost finished packing up the food and washing the dishes. The two women and one man, all dressed in black pants and white shirts, moved about the kitchen with focused intent, eager to finish the gig and get out as soon as they could. Granny James was standing at the counter, pouring herself a liberal glass of red wine. Seeing Harper, she reached for a clean glass and lifted it in the air, asking whether Harper would like one.