Trees and fields blurred past, lit by bright sunlight. Beams of light filtered in through the duct-taped driver’s window, falling over Thalia’s shoulder and Zoë’s dimpled knees.
‘There’s another junction,’ Thalia said.
‘Shouldn’t you brake?’ Bianca squeaked.
Percy leant forward to catch her eye and grinned at her. ‘I think Thalia only knows what one of the pedals does, Bianca.’
Bianca smiled, a little pink colouring her cheeks and tips of her ears. ‘It’s good I don’t have to drive.’
‘Percy, I’m trying to save us time.’ Thalia twisted around. ‘Zoë, which way?’
‘West.’ Zoë pointed out the windscreen. ‘And keep thy eyes on the road.’
Thalia ground her teeth. ‘You always say West.’
‘That’s the way we are going,’ Iphigenia said. ‘What more do you need?’
‘It would be nice to know where we are going.’ Thalia slammed the brakes on and wrenched the car around the corner with a screech.
Percy clung on, bracing his legs as the seatbelt cut into his collarbone. Zoë slid into his side, soft and warm against his arm and thigh.
‘I think that was a red light,’ Bianca murmured, rubbing her neck beneath the seat belt.
‘Thalia?’ Zoë shuffled back into the middle seat. ‘How much is left?’
‘How much?’ Iphigenia demanded.
‘West,’ Thalia retorted.
Zoë sighed. ‘Have it thy own way, Thalia Grace.’
Percy sighed and stared out the window, watching the trees blur into a swathe of green beneath the cloudless sky. A pair of hawks circled in the distance, high above the road, floating in the blue like fish in the ocean. He tracked their spiral resting his head against the warm glass of the window.
The engine spluttered.
‘That’s probably it,’ Thalia said. ‘Needle’s been in the red for a while now.’
‘Back to running.’ Bianca groaned. ‘I’m going to have lost so much weight by the time we get to wherever we’re going.’
‘You can pretend to be a spartoi.’ Percy mustered a smile. ‘Get them by surprise.’
Bianca pouted. ‘I don’t want to look like that.’
The car crawled to a halt.
‘Let’s go.’ Zoë nudged Bianca in the side.
Percy kicked his door open and stumbled onto the road, stretching his legs and jogging on the spot until a little warmth crept into his muscles.
‘How far do we have to run?’
Zoë peered at the sun. ‘It is still some way.’ She broke into a slow jog. ‘Thou art going to be much fitter than thou were before.’
Thalia scowled as they set off after her. ‘I was plenty fit before.’
‘You were a tree.’ Percy grinned into her glower. ‘I used to nap against you.’
‘I remember.’ Thalia crossed her arms and looked away, stumbling on a pothole. ‘I woke up on top of you.’
‘On top of him?’ Bianca craned her head around Iphigenia. ‘Like, touching?’
‘It would’ve been hard to touch him less,’ Thalia muttered. ‘One moment there was lightning, then the next I was staring into his eyes.’
‘Thank you, Aphrodite,’ Percy quipped.
The distant roar of an engine drifted from the horizon.
Thalia snorted. ‘I’m not your type.’
‘I don’t have a type.’ He wiped a sheen of sweat off his forehead. ‘I don’t even know what a type is, I’m too young.’
‘Dark hair. Dark eyes.’ Thalia shot him a pointed look. ‘Really really old.’
Percy blinked. ‘What?’
‘Enough,’ Zoë said. ‘Mind thy tongue, Thalia Grace.’
‘Oh.’ Percy grimaced. ‘I get it now. No, I don’t think that’s my type either, even Aphrodite wouldn’t be that mean, that’s an age gap of about eight thousand years. It’s just inappropriate.’
Zoë sighed, the corner of her mouth twitching. ‘Perseus, do not encourage her. Not unless thou art keen to hear me make the same jest later.’
‘I could live with that.’
‘While Lady Artemis is there.’
‘I probably wouldn’t live through that,’ he said. ‘My lips are sealed. I’ve spent too much time as a guinea pig already.’
A red ferrari roared over the rise, zipping down the road toward them.
‘If the spartoi have a Ferrari, I’m going to be so annoyed,’ Percy muttered, sliding Anaklusmos from his pocket. ‘That’s just not fair.’
‘I don’t think they’d know how to drive,’ Bianca said, clutching Malcolm’s blade to her chest. ‘And there’s no way they’d all fit in the ferrari together.’ She closed her eyes. ‘I can’t feel them, I don’t think it’s the spartoi.’
The Ferrari cut across the white lines and skidded to a halt, the sun flashing off its tinted windows.
Percy frowned as they slowed to a walk. ‘We’re also not going to fit in, though. We’re a seat short.’
The wing door rose and a gleaming red heel clicked onto the tarmac. ‘Hello, heroes.’ A soft, high voice sliced through Percy’s ribs, flooding his stomach with butterflies.
Zoë stiffened. ‘Keep running.’
A sweet little laugh rose from behind the car door; it twisted in Percy’s breast like a knife. ‘So hostile, Zoë. All these long years and still you have not thanked me.’
Zoë’s red lips thinned and her dark eyes flashed. ‘I will never thank thee.’
The woman stood and smoothed the crimson silk of her dress down. ‘I do not need to hear your thanks, Zoë, I can feel the truth you know in your heart.’ She shook a tumble of gold curls back off grey eyes and delicate, high cheekbones. ‘You would still be alone in that garden were it not for me and you know it well.’
‘Who are you?’ Thalia demanded.
‘Such a rude little girl.’ The woman’s gold curls darkened to ebony and her eyes faded dark as night. ‘I am not here to speak with you, daughter of Zeus. Your heart is known to me.’
Zoë stepped in front of Bianca and shook her head. ‘We have no time for your games, Aphrodite.’
Aphrodite smiled, a flash of white teeth and bright, clear blue eyes, and Percy’s head spun, his heart leaping into his mouth.
‘I’ll give you time, then.’ She patted the door of her car. ‘This little toy, for a little conversation with one of you.’
‘No.’ Zoë shook her head. ‘I would rather run than let thee poison one of us with thy honeyed words.’
‘Be quiet, Zoë.’ Aphrodite’s dark eyes narrowed a fraction. ‘I am not here for Hades’s daughter, though hiding her behind you would not stop me if I were. This is Percy’s choice to make, not yours.’ The corner of her crimson lips curved into a slim smirk. ‘So choose well, Percy, and live or die without regret.’
Zoë twitched, a furious scowl on her face.
Percy frowned. ‘The car for what?’
‘A little talk, just the two of us,’ Aphrodite murmured. ‘There are so many things I wish to tell you.’
‘Just a conversation?’ Percy weighed it up, balancing the bright red car and the distant spartoi. ‘No cursing, or tricking, or dangerous extra quests involving misplaced scarves.’
‘Nothing but words.’ She pressed her hand to her chest with a broad smirk. ‘Cross my heart and hope to die.’
‘You can’t die.’
Aphrodite laughed. ‘You have my word, Percy. There is no catch. The car works. It has a full tank. I’ve still got my scarf after you last retrieved it. All we will have is a single short conversation.’
Zoë inched forward. ‘Perseus—’
‘It is his choice, Zoë.’ Aphrodite’s eyes shifted to cool grey and her hair shivered from straight and dark to blonde ringlets. ‘But every second he spends making it is one more second poor little Artemis spends beneath the sky.’
Guilt chewed at Percy. ‘Well, when you put it like that… I’ll do it.’
She flashed him a smile, melting his heart into a swirling pool of heat beneath his ribs. ‘Of course you will, sweet boy.’ Aphrodite crooked a finger and stepped around the other side of the car.
Percy avoided Zoë’s stare and trudged past the bonnet. ‘I’m here.’
‘Hmmm.’ Aphrodite leant her head to one side, spilling gold curls over the pale curve of her throat. ‘Another handsome son of Poseidon. I remember your few brothers, you know.’
‘Did you speak to them, too?’
A smirk flitted across her lips. ‘In one form or another.’
‘That sounds really ominous.’ Percy dragged his eyes off her red lips. ‘I really feel like there is a catch and I’ve just somehow missed it.’
‘There’s something missing.’ Aphrodite reached out with one slim finger, touching a red-painted nail to his ribs. ‘I can feel it beat, but its secrets elude me.’
Percy shrugged. ‘Maybe I’m too young.’
‘Too young for love?’ Aphrodite laughed. ‘No mortal is too young for love, Percy. You are born into it. No, I think perhaps it is the sea that can be hard to read.’ Her grey eyes darkened to a familiar brown. ‘Tell me. What would you give to catch her eye?’
She covered her smile with her hand. ‘Are you playing a game with me, Percy?’
‘No.’ He shook his head. ‘I’m just confused.’
‘Love can be confusing,’ Aphrodite breathed. ‘Its dizzying heights. The plunge into despair. The sweetness of its triumph. But what could be worth craving more?’
‘Something that doesn’t end in me murdering my own family or abandoning some poor girl on an island to chase destiny.’ Percy groped for words and found Zoë’s on his tongue. ‘It’s selfish.’
‘We’re all allowed to be a little selfish, Percy.’ Her fingertips brushed his cheek, sending butterflies swirling through his stomach. ‘And does it matter if all love leaves behind is ashes when it burns so bright and hot and beautiful? Some things aren’t meant to last, Percy. That’s why they’re so perfect…’
‘I don’t want to do that to someone else.’ Percy drew himself up, smothering the fluttering beneath his ribs and drawing a trembling breath. ‘It’s not right to hurt them if you can avoid it.’
She laughed. ‘No mortal avoids love, Percy. Not even those whose hearts are veiled from my sight.’ Aphrodite slid a step closed, her red silk dress shimmering in the sunlight; her breath washed over his cheek, sweet as sugar. ‘You will see. All mortals come to desire it in one form or another.’ Aphrodite’s lips grazed his skin, hot as flame. ‘And when your heart yearns, when its sweet, desperate screams for my favour reach my ear, I promise I will whisper back.’
Her words sang in his blood, a bright fierce thrill searing through his veins.
A cold breeze tickled his skin.
Percy twisted ‘round.
Zoë stared across the bonnet of the Ferrari. ‘She’s gone, Perseus.’
Relief flooded through him like water bursting through a dam, tangling with a strange pain between his ribs. He took a deep gulp of air and sagged against the side of the car.
‘Get in.’ Iphigenia bent in beneath the wing door. ‘It’s my turn to drive.’
Thalia’s face fell. ‘But I wanted—’
‘You’ll be able to drive the Ferrari later,’ Zoë said. ‘Just get in.’
Bianca sidled out from behind Zoë’s shoulder. ‘You’ve got lipstick on your cheek, Percy,’ she whispered.
Zoë twisted on her heel and fixed him with a sharp look.
Percy rubbed it off on the back of his hand. ‘That was quite possibly the most terrifying moment of my life since I discovered my math teacher really was trying to make my life hell.’ He offered Zoë a weak grin. ‘Next time I don’t listen to you, just remind me of this.’
Zoë’s lips twitched. ‘Get in the car, Perseus.’
Bianca glanced between them and scrambled in first.
Faint creases furrowed Zoë’s forehead and she rested a hand between Percy and the door. ‘Me next.’ She slid into the middle seat, sparing Bianca a short glance.
Bianca pulled her knees up to her chin and sighed, closing her eyes.
Percy squished in beside Zoë and tugged the door shut after him. ‘West, by any chance?’
‘West.’ Zoë’s eyes dipped to where her foot rested on his. ‘How much gas is there, Iphi?’
‘A full tank.’ Iphigenia pressed the button beside the wheel and the engine roared to life. ‘Aphrodite kept her word this time, at least. A small price to pay to save Lady Artemis.’
‘A small price for us,’ Zoë murmured.
Iphigenia shrugged and stamped her foot to the floor. Percy grimaced as they lunged forward, unease gnawing at him, nibbling at his gut like thick-beaked parrot fish at Gabe’s discarded biscuits.
‘What did Aphrodite say?’ Thalia demanded.
Percy studied the white leather beneath his legs. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
Bianca’s eyes slid open. ‘Did she tell you who you’d fall in love with?’
‘No.’ Percy shrugged. ‘She said she couldn’t tell, and her hair and eyes kept changing all the time so it was really hard to focus on what she was saying. ADHD is such a pain.’
‘Leave Perseus be,’ Zoë said. ‘I think having Aphrodite prying into his heart was torment enough for one day.’
Thalia grunted and pulled open the glove box, rummaging through the contents. ‘Aha!’ She produced an ipod, skimming through the playlists. ‘Oh Gods, they’re all awful love songs.’
‘Were you expecting anything else?’ Percy asked. ‘It’s not like Aphrodite was going to be listening to weird screamy emo punk music.’
Thalia shoved the ipod into the glovebox and slammed it shut, glowering through the windscreen. Bianca closed her eyes, squirming into a comfortable position; her breathing evened and deepened as the road zipped by.
Percy stared out the window at the blurring countryside.
I promise I will whisper back. Aphrodite’s words echoed in the back of his mind, welling up like a stream of silver bubbles from a hot spring. His heartbeat quickened and all the hairs on the back of his neck prickled.
Zoë nudged his knee with hers. ‘Did she say anything about Bianca?’ she whispered in his ear.
‘What happened to torment enough?’ Percy whispered back. ‘But no, she didn’t say anything about anyone else.’ Words bubbled up onto his tongue, caught in a hot, twisted rush. ‘She said I couldn’t avoid it. That I’d yearn for it.’
Zoë’s face darkened. ‘Do not listen to her, Perseus,’ she murmured. ‘She is trying to ensnare thee in selfish wiles. She will lead thee astray if she can.’
A deep disquiet crept up inside him, like water rising up the walls of a well. ‘I’m afraid she’ll be right. And you said it yourself, it never ends well.’
‘Fierce, selfish love always leads to ruin, but thou doth not need to chase it.’ Zoë reached across and took his hand, squeezing it between hers. ‘Fate will not let thee be led astray so long as thou makes the same choices I have seen thee make already.’
‘I’m not sure I trust the Fates,’ Percy muttered. ‘They’re probably playing thread, paper, scissors with my life.’
Zoë’s lips twitched. ‘Thou art doing just fine, Perseus. If thou were a girl, I would ask Lady Artemis to offer thee a place among us. She would approve, I think.’
A little warmth touched his heart, like sun-soaked waves lapping at white sand. ‘Well as flattered as I am, I’m not a girl. And I don’t want to suddenly become one like that poor guy who accidentally saw Artemis bathing, either.’ Percy glanced at where Zoë’s warm leg pressed against his from hip to ankle. ‘And I’m very sure that if I do have cooties, you’ve caught them.’
A small smile flitted across Zoë’s face. ‘Someone had to save Bianca from thy cooties, Perseus, and Iphigenia refused. As long as I don’t catch thy terrible taste in pyjamas, I will survive.’
‘My dad’s probably going to curse you if you keep criticising his fashion design attempts. Even if that criticism might be deserved.’
A quiet laugh slipped through Zoë’s lips. ‘I belong to Lady Artemis, it would take something more grievous than me not liking fish pyjamas for Poseidon to curse me.’
‘I don’t know, I think he’s pretty proud of those pyjamas.’ Percy grinned. ‘Annabeth hates them too, you know. She doesn’t like that the pattern is erratic and the spaces between the fish aren’t even.’
‘Athena’s children…’ Zoë shook her head. ‘One of my sisters is a daughter of Athena. She is obsessed with symmetry. If the camp is not symmetrical she will sulk all evening.’
‘That sounds like something you’d do. Do you get all waspish when the tents aren’t in a straight line?’
‘No, Perseus.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘I am not a daughter of Athena, I am not even a demigod.’
‘You were mortal?’
‘Once upon a time, before Lady Artemis found me,’ Zoë murmured. ‘But now I am the lieutenant of the Hunt and a companion to Lady Artemis.’
‘Not the lost girl from the garden,’ Percy murmured.
Zoë stiffened. ‘No. Never.’
‘Sorry,’ he whispered. ‘I didn’t mean—’
‘Thou hath not upset me.’ She folded her arms. ‘Rest, Perseus. We will stop to confront the spartoi, soon. We must not have them behind us when we try to free Lady Artemis.’