PIPER WISHED SHE COULD CHARM HERSELF TO SLEEP.
It may have worked on Gaia, but for the last two nights she’d hardly slept a wink.
The days were fine. She loved being back with her friends Lacy and Mitchell and all the other Aphrodite kids. Even her bratty second-in-command, Drew Tanaka, seemed relieved, probably because Piper could run things and give Drew more time for gossip and in-cabin beauty treatments.
Piper kept busy helping Reyna and Annabeth coordinate between the Greeks and Romans. To Piper’s surprise, the other two girls valued her skills as a go-between to smooth over any conflicts. There weren’t many, but Piper did manage to return some Roman helmets that mysteriously made their way into the camp store. She also kept a fight from breaking out between the children of Mars and the children of Ares over the best way to kill a hydra.
On the morning the Romans were scheduled to leave, Piper was sitting on the pier at the canoe lake, trying to placate the naiads. Some of the lake spirits thought the Roman guys were so hot that they, too, wanted to leave for Camp Jupiter. They were demanding a giant portable fish tank for the journey west. Piper had just concluded negotiations when Reyna found her.
The praetor sat next to her on the dock. ‘Hard work?’
Piper blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. ‘Naiads can be challenging. I think we have a deal. If they still want to go at the end of the summer, we’ll work out the details then. But naiads, uh, tend to forget things in about five seconds.’
Reyna traced her fingertips across the water. ‘Sometimes I wish I could forget things that quickly.’
Piper studied the praetor’s face. Reyna was one demigod who hadn’t seemed to change during the war with the giants … at least not on the outside. She still had the same strong, unstoppable gaze, the same regal, beautiful face. She wore her armour and purple cloak as easily as most people would wear shorts and a T-shirt.
Piper couldn’t understand how anyone could take so much pain, shoulder so much responsibility, without breaking. She wondered if Reyna ever had anyone to confide in.
‘You did so much,’ Piper said. ‘For both camps. Without you, none of it would’ve been possible.’
‘All of us played a part.’
‘Sure. But you … I just wish you got more credit.’
Reyna laughed gently. ‘Thank you, Piper. But I don’t want attention. You understand what that’s like, don’t you?’
Piper did. They were so different, but she understood not wanting to attract attention. Piper had wished for that her whole life, with her dad’s fame, the paparazzi, the photos and scandal stories in the press. She met so many people who said, Oh, I want to be famous! That would be so great! But they had no idea what it was really like. She’d seen the toll it took on her father. Piper wanted nothing to do with it.
She could understand the appeal of the Roman way, too – to blend in, be one of the team, work as a part of a well-oiled machine. Even so, Reyna had risen to the top. She couldn’t stay hidden.
‘Your power from your mom …’ Piper said. ‘You can lend strength to others?’
Reyna pursed her lips. ‘Nico told you?’
‘No. I just sensed it, watching you lead the legion. That must drain you. How do you … you know, get that strength back?’
‘When I get the strength back, I’ll let you know.’
She said it like a joke, but Piper sensed the sadness behind her words.
‘You’re always welcome here,’ Piper said. ‘If you need to take a break, get away … you’ve got Frank now – he could assume more responsibility for a while. It might do you good to make some time for yourself, when nobody is going to be looking at you as praetor.’
Reyna met her eyes, as if trying to gauge how serious the offer was. ‘Would I be expected to sing that odd song about how Grandma puts on her armour?’
Reyna smirked. ‘I’ll consider the offer. Thank you.’ She adjusted her dagger, and for a moment Piper thought about her own blade, Katoptris, which was now locked in her hope chest in her cabin. Ever since Athens, when she’d used the blade to stab the giant Enceladus, its visions had stopped completely.
‘I wonder …’ Reyna said. ‘You’re a child of Venus. I mean Aphrodite. Perhaps – perhaps you could explain something your mother said.’
‘I’m honoured. I’ll try, but I have to warn you: my mom doesn’t make sense to me a lot of the time.’
‘Once in Charleston, Venus told me something. She said: You will not find love where you wish or where you hope. No demigod shall heal your heart. I – I have struggled with that for …’ Her words broke.
Piper had a strong urge to find her mother and punch her. She hated how Aphrodite could mess up someone’s life with just a short conversation.
‘Reyna,’ she said, ‘I don’t know what she meant, but I do know this: you are an incredible person. There is someone out there for you. Maybe it’s not a demigod. Maybe it’s a mortal or … or I don’t know. But, when it’s meant to happen, it will. And until it does, hey, you have friends. Lots of friends, both Greek and Roman. The thing about you being everyone’s source of strength: sometimes you might forget that you need to draw strength from others. I’m here for you.’
‘I’m not charmspeaking, I promise.’
‘No charmspeak required.’ Reyna offered her hand. ‘I have a feeling we’ll see each other again.’
They shook and, after Reyna left, Piper knew that Reyna was right. They would meet again, because Reyna was no longer a rival, no longer a stranger or a potential enemy. She was a friend. She was family.
That night the camp felt empty without the Romans. Piper already missed Hazel. She missed the creaking timbers of the Argo II and the constellations her lamp used to make against the ceiling of her cabin aboard the ship.
Lying in her bunk in Cabin Ten, she felt so restless she knew she wouldn’t be able to doze off. She kept thinking about Leo. Again and again she replayed what had happened in the fight against Gaia, trying to figure out how she could have failed Leo so badly.
Around two in the morning, she gave up trying to sleep. She sat up in bed and gazed out of the window. Moonlight turned the woods silver. The smells of the sea and the strawberry fields wafted on the breeze. She couldn’t believe that just a few days ago the Earth Mother had awoken and almost destroyed everything Piper held dear. Tonight seemed so peaceful … so normal.
Tap, tap, tap.
‘What are you doing here?’ she whispered. ‘It’s after curfew. The patrol harpies will shred you!’
‘Just come on.’
Her heart racing, she took his hand and climbed out of the window. He led her to Cabin One and took her inside, where the huge statue of Hippie Zeus glowered in the dim light.
‘Um, Jason … what exactly … ?’
‘Check it out.’ He showed her one of the marble columns that ringed the circular chamber. On the back, almost hidden against the wall, iron rungs led upward – a ladder. ‘Can’t believe I didn’t notice this sooner. Wait till you see!’
He began to climb. Piper wasn’t sure why she felt so nervous, but her hands were shaking. She followed him up. At the top, Jason pushed open a small trapdoor.
They emerged on the side of the domed roof, on a flat ledge, facing north. The whole of Long Island Sound spread out to the horizon. They were so far up, and at such an angle, that nobody below could possibly see them. The patrol harpies never flew this high.
‘Look.’ Jason pointed at the stars, which made a splash of diamonds across the sky – better jewels than even Hazel Levesque could have summoned.
‘Beautiful.’ Piper snuggled up against Jason and he put his arm around her. ‘But aren’t you going to get in trouble?’
‘Who cares?’ Jason asked.
Piper laughed quietly. ‘Who are you?’
He kissed her, and … okay, they had kissed before. But this was different. Piper felt like a toaster. All her coils heated to red-hot. Any more warmth and she’d start smelling like burnt toast.
Jason pulled away enough to look in her eyes. ‘That night at the Wilderness School, our first kiss under the stars …’
‘The memory,’ Piper said. ‘The one that never happened.’
‘Well … now it’s real.’ He made the ward-against-evil symbol, the same one he’d used to dispel his mother’s ghost, and pushed at the sky. ‘From this point on, we’re writing our own story, with a fresh start. And we just had our first kiss.’
‘I’m afraid to tell you this after just one kiss,’ Piper said. ‘But gods of Olympus, I love you.’
‘Love you too, Pipes.’
She didn’t want to ruin the moment, but she couldn’t stop thinking of Leo and how he would never have a fresh start.
Jason must have sensed her feelings.
‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Leo is okay.’
‘How can you believe that? He didn’t get the cure. Nico said he died.’
‘You once woke up a dragon with just your voice,’ Jason reminded her. ‘You believed the dragon should be alive, right?’
‘Yes, but –’
‘We have to believe in Leo. There is no way he would die so easily. He’s a tough guy.’
‘You remember the time in Detroit, when he flattened Ma Gasket with a car engine?’
‘Or those dwarfs in Bologna. Leo took them down with a homemade smoke grenade made from toothpaste.’
‘Commander Tool Belt,’ Jason said.
‘Bad Boy Supreme,’ Piper said.
‘Chef Leo the Tofu Taco Expert.’
They laughed and told stories about Leo Valdez, their best friend. They stayed on the roof until dawn broke, and Piper started to believe they could have a fresh start. It might even be possible to tell a new story in which Leo was still out there. Somewhere …