Read The Son of Neptune Online

Authors: Rick Riordan

Tags: #Legends; Myths; Fables, #Action & Adventure, #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic, #General, #Other, #Fiction - Young Adult

The Son of Neptune (10 page)

BOOK: The Son of Neptune
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“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Rome was more successful than Greece. They made this huge empire. The gods became a bigger deal in Roman times—more powerful and widely known. That’s why they’re still around today. So many civilizations base themselves on Rome. The gods changed to Roman because that’s where the center of power was. Jupiter was…well, more responsible as a Roman god than he had been when he was Zeus. Mars became a lot more important and disciplined.”

“And Juno became a hippie bag lady,” Percy noted. “So you’re saying the old Greek gods—they just changed permanently to Roman? There’s nothing left of the Greek?”

“Uh…” Frank looked around to make sure there were no campers or Lares nearby, but the main gates were still a hundred yards away. “That’s a sensitive topic. Some people say Greek influence is still around, like it’s still a part of the gods’ personalities. I’ve heard stories of demigods occasionally leaving Camp Jupiter. They reject Roman training and try to follow the older Greek style—like being solo heroes instead of working as a team the way the legion does. And back in the ancient days, when Rome fell, the eastern half of the empire survived—the Greek half.”

Percy stared at him. “I didn’t know that.”

“It was called Byzantium.” Frank liked saying that word. It sounded cool. “The eastern empire lasted another thousand years, but it was always more Greek than Roman. For those of us who follow the Roman way, it’s kind of a sore subject. That’s why, whatever country we settle in, Camp Jupiter is always in the west—the
part of the territory. The east is considered bad luck.”

“Huh.” Percy frowned.

Frank couldn’t blame him for feeling confused. The Greek/Roman stuff gave him a headache, too.

They reached the gates.

“I’ll take you to the baths to get you cleaned up,” Frank said. “But first…about those vials I found at the river.”

“Gorgon’s blood,” Percy said. “One vial heals. One is deadly poison.”

Frank’s eyes widened. “You
about that? Listen, I wasn’t going to keep them. I just—”

“I know why you did it, Frank.”

“You do?”

“Yeah.” Percy smiled. “If I’d come into camp carrying a vial of poison, that would’ve looked bad. You were trying to protect me.”

“Oh…right.” Frank wiped the sweat off his palms. “But if we could figure out which vial was which, it might heal your memory.”

Percy’s smile faded. He gazed across the hills. “Maybe…I guess. But you should hang on to those vials for now. There’s a battle coming. We may need them to save lives.”

Frank stared at him, a little bit in awe. Percy had a chance to get his memory back, and he was willing to wait in case someone else needed the vial more? Romans were supposed to be unselfish and help their comrades, but Frank wasn’t sure anyone else at camp would have made that choice.

“So you don’t remember anything?” Frank asked. “Family, friends?”

Percy fingered the clay beads around his neck. “Only glimpses. Murky stuff. A girlfriend…I thought she’d be at camp.” He looked at Frank carefully, as if making a decision. “Her name was Annabeth. You don’t know her, do you?”

Frank shook his head. “I know everybody at camp, but no Annabeth. What about your family? Is your mom mortal?”

“I guess so…she’s probably worried out of her mind. Does your mom get to see you much?”

Frank stopped at the bathhouse entrance. He grabbed some towels from the supply shed. “She died.”

Percy knit his brow. “How?”

Usually Frank would lie. He’d say
an accident
and shut off the conversation. Otherwise his emotions got out of control. He couldn’t cry at Camp Jupiter. He couldn’t show weakness. But with Percy, Frank found it easier to talk.

“She died in the war,” he said. “Afghanistan.”

“She was in the military?”

“Canadian. Yeah.”

“Canada? I didn’t know—”

“Most Americans don’t.” Frank sighed. “But yeah, Canada has troops there. My mom was a captain. She was one of the first women to die in combat. She saved some soldiers who were pinned down by enemy fire. She…she didn’t make it. The funeral was right before I came down here.”

Percy nodded. He didn’t ask for more details, which Frank appreciated. He didn’t say he was sorry, or make any of the well-meaning comments Frank always hated:
Oh, you poor guy. That must be so hard on you. You have my deepest condolences.

It was like Percy had faced death before, like he knew about grief. What mattered was listening. You didn’t need to say you were sorry. The only thing that helped was moving on—moving forward.

“How about you show me the baths now?” Percy suggested. “I’m filthy.”

Frank managed a smile. “Yeah. You kind of are.”

As they walked into the steam room, Frank thought of his grandmother, his mom, and his cursed childhood, thanks to Juno and her piece of firewood. He almost wished he could forget his past, the way Percy had.

the funeral itself.

But he remembered the hours leading up to it—his grand mother coming out into the backyard to find him shooting arrows at her porcelain collection.

His grandmother’s house was a rambling gray stone mansion on twelve acres in North Vancouver. Her backyard ran straight into Lynn Canyon Park.

The morning was cold and drizzly, but Frank didn’t feel the chill. He wore a black wool suit and a black overcoat that had once belonged to his grandfather. Frank had been startled and upset to find that they fit him fine. The clothes smelled like wet mothballs and jasmine. The fabric was itchy but warm. With his bow and quiver, he probably looked like a very dangerous butler.

He’d loaded some of his grandmother’s porcelain in a wagon and toted it into the yard, where he set up targets on old fence posts at the edge of the property. He’d been shooting so long, his fingers were starting to lose their feeling. With every arrow, he imagined he was striking down his problems.

Snipers in Afghanistan.
A teapot exploded with an arrow through the middle.

The sacrifice medal, a silver disk on a red-and-black ribbon, given for death in the line of duty, presented to Frank as if it were something important, something that made everything all right.
A teacup spun into the woods.

The officer who came to tell him: “Your mother is a hero.

Captain Emily Zhang died trying to save her comrades.”

A blue-and-white plate split into pieces.

His grandmother’s chastisement:
Men do not cry. Especially Zhang men. You will endure, Fai.

No one called him Fai except his grandmother.

What sort of name is Frank?
she would scold.
That is not a Chinese name.

I’m not Chinese,
Frank thought, but he didn’t dare say that. His mother had told him years ago:
There is no arguing with Grandmother. It

ll only make you suffer worse.
She’d been right. And now Frank had no one except his grandmother.

A fourth arrow hit the fence post and stuck there, quivering.

“Fai,” said his grandmother.

Frank turned.

She was clutching a shoebox-sized mahogany chest that Frank had never seen before. With her high-collared black dress and severe bun of gray hair, she looked like a school teacher from the 1800s.

She surveyed the carnage: her porcelain in the wagon, the shards of her favorite tea sets scattered over the lawn, Frank’s arrows sticking out of the ground, the trees, the fence posts, and one in the head of a smiling garden gnome.

Frank thought she would yell, or hit him with the box. He’d never done anything this bad before. He’d never felt so angry.

Grandmother’s face was full of bitterness and disapproval. She looked nothing like Frank’s mom. He wondered how his mother had turned out to be so nice—always laughing, always gentle. Frank couldn’t imagine his mom growing up with Grandmother any more than he could imagine her on the battlefield—though the two situations probably weren’t that different.

He waited for Grandmother to explode. Maybe he’d be grounded and wouldn’t have to go to the funeral. He wanted to hurt her for being so mean all the time, for letting his mother go off to war, for scolding him to get over it. All she cared about was her stupid collection.

“Stop this ridiculous behavior,” Grandmother said. She didn’t sound very irritated. “It is beneath you.”

To Frank’s astonishment, she kicked aside one of her favorite teacups.

“The car will be here soon,” she said. “We must talk.”

Frank was dumbfounded. He looked more closely at the mahogany box. For a horrible moment, he wondered if it contained his mother’s ashes, but that was impossible. Grandmother had told him there would be a military burial. Then why did Grandmother hold the box so gingerly, as if its contents grieved her?

“Come inside,” she said. Without waiting to see if he would follow, she turned and marched toward the house.

In the parlor, Frank sat on a velvet sofa, surrounded by vintage family photos, porcelain vases that had been too large for his wagon, and red Chinese calligraphy banners. Frank didn’t know what the calligraphy said. He’d never had much interest in learning. He didn’t know most of the people in the photographs, either.

Whenever Grandmother started lecturing him about his ancestors—how they’d come over from China and prospered in the import/export business, eventually becoming one of the wealthiest Chinese families in Vancouver—well, it was boring. Frank was fourth-generation Canadian. He didn’t care about China and all these musty antiques. The only Chinese characters he could recognize were his family name: Zhang.
Master of bows.
That was cool.

Grandmother sat next to him, her posture stiff, her hands folded over the box.

“Your mother wanted you to have this,” she said with reluctance. “She kept it since you were a baby. When she went away to the war, she entrusted it to me. But now she is gone. And soon you will be going, too.”

Frank’s stomach fluttered. “Going? Where?”

“I am old,” Grandmother said, as if that were a surprising announcement. “I have my own appointment with Death soon enough. I cannot teach you the skills you will need, and I cannot keep this burden. If something were to happen to it,

I would never forgive myself. You would die.”

Frank wasn’t sure he’d heard her right. It sounded like she had said his life depended on that box. He wondered why he’d never seen it before. She must have kept it locked in the attic—the one room Frank was forbidden to explore. She’d always said she kept her most valuable treasures up there.

She handed the box to him. He opened the lid with trembling fingers. Inside, cushioned in velvet lining, was a terrifying, life-altering, incredibly important…piece of wood.

It looked like driftwood—hard and smooth, sculpted into a wavy shape. It was about the size of a TV remote control. The tip was charred. Frank touched the burned end. It still felt warm. The ashes left a black smudge on his finger.

“It’s a stick,” he said. He couldn’t figure out why Grandmother was acting so tense and serious about it.

Her eyes glittered. “Fai, do you know of prophecies? Do you know of the gods?”

The questions made him uncomfortable. He thought about Grandmother’s silly gold statues of Chinese immortals, her superstitions about putting furniture in certain places and avoiding unlucky numbers. Prophecies made him think of fortune cookies, which weren’t even Chinese—not really—but the bullies at school teased him about stupid stuff like that:
Confucius say
…all that garbage. Frank had never even been to China. He wanted nothing to do with it. But of course, Grandmother didn’t want to hear that.

“A little, Grandmother,” he said. “Not much.”

“Most would have scoffed at your mother’s tale,” she said, “But I did not. I know of prophecies and gods. Greek, Roman, Chinese—they intertwine in our family. I did not question what she told me about your father.”

“Wait ... what?”

“Your father was a god,” she said plainly.

If Grandmother had had a sense of humor, Frank would have thought she was kidding. But Grandmother never teased. Was she going senile?

“Stop gaping at me!” she snapped. “My mind is not addled. Haven’t you ever wondered why your father never came back?”

“He was…” Frank faltered. Losing his mother was painful enough. He didn’t want to think about his father, too. “He was in the army, like Mom. He went missing in action. In Iraq.”

“Bah. He was a god. He fell in love with your mother because she was a natural warrior. She was like me—strong, brave, good, beautiful.”

Strong and brave, Frank could believe. Picturing Grandmother as good or beautiful was more difficult.

He still suspected she might be losing her marbles, but he asked, “What kind of god?”

“Roman,” she said. “Beyond that, I don’t know. Your mother wouldn’t say, or perhaps she didn’t know herself. It is no surprise a god would fall in love with her, given our family. He must have known she was of ancient blood.”

“Wait…we’re Chinese. Why would Roman gods want to date Chinese Canadians?”

Grandmother’s nostrils flared. “If you bothered to learn the family history, Fai, you might know this. China and Rome are not so different, nor as separate as you might believe. Our family is from Gansu Province, a town once called Li-Jien. And before that…as I said, ancient blood. The blood of princes and heroes.”

Frank just stared at her.

She sighed in exasperation. “My words are wasted on this young ox! You will learn the truth when you go to camp.

Perhaps your father will claim you. But for now, I must explain the firewood.”

She pointed at the big stone fireplace. “Shortly after you were born, a visitor appeared at our hearth. Your mother and I sat here on the couch, just where you and I are sitting. You were a tiny thing, swaddled in a blue blanket, and she cradled you in her arms.”

It sounded like a sweet memory, but Grandmother told it in a bitter tone, as if she knew, even then, that Frank would turn into a big lumbering oaf.

“A woman appeared at the fire,” she continued. “She was a white woman—a
gwai poh
—dressed in blue silk, with a strange cloak like the skin of a goat.”

“A goat,” Frank said numbly.

Grandmother scowled. “Yes, clean your ears, Fai Zhang! I’m too old to tell every story twice! The woman with the goatskin was a goddess. I can always tell these things. She smiled at the baby—at you—and she told your mother, in perfect Mandarin, no less: ‘He will close the circle. He will return your family to its roots and bring you great honor.’”

Grandmother snorted. “I do not argue with goddesses, but perhaps this one did not see the future clearly. Whatever the case, she said, ‘He will go to camp and restore your reputation there. He will free Thanatos from his icy chains—’”

“Wait, who?”

“Thanatos,” Grandmother said impatiently. “The Greek name for Death. Now may I continue without interruptions? The goddess said, ‘The blood of Pylos is strong in this child from his mother’s side. He will have the Zhang family gift, but he will also have the powers of his father.’”

Suddenly Frank’s family history didn’t seem so boring. He desperately wanted to ask what it all meant—powers, gifts, blood of Pylos. What was this camp, and who was his father? But he didn’t want to interrupt Grandmother again. He wanted her to keep talking.

“No power comes without a price, Fai,” she said. “Before the goddess disappeared, she pointed at the fire and said, ‘He will be the strongest of your clan, and the greatest. But the Fates have decreed he will also be the most vulnerable. His life will burn bright and short. As soon as that piece of tinder is consumed—that stick at the edge of the fire—your son is destined to die.’”

Frank could hardly breathe. He looked at the box in his lap, and the smudge of ash on his finger. The story sounded ridiculous, but suddenly the piece of driftwood seemed more sinister, colder and heavier. “This…this—”

“Yes, my thick-headed ox,” Grandmother said. “That is the very stick. The goddess disappeared, and I snatched the wood from the fire immediately. We have kept it ever since.”

“If it burns up, I die?”

“It is not so strange,” Grandmother said. “Roman, Chinese—the destinies of men can often be predicted, and sometimes guarded against, at least for a time. The firewood is in your possession now. Keep it close. As long as it is safe, you are safe.”

Frank shook his head. He wanted to protest that this was just a stupid legend. Maybe Grandmother was trying to scare him as some sort of revenge for breaking her porcelain.

But her eyes were defiant. She seemed to be challenging Frank:
If you do not believe it, burn it.

Frank closed the box. “If it’s so dangerous, why not seal the wood in something that won’t burn, like plastic or steel? Why not put it in a safe deposit box?”

“What would happen,” Grandmother wondered, “if we coated the stick in another substance. Would you, too, suffocate? I do not know. Your mother would not take the risk. She couldn’t bear to part with it, for fear something would go wrong. Banks can be robbed. Buildings can burn down. Strange things conspire when one tries to cheat fate. Your mother thought the stick was only safe in her possession, until she went to war. Then she gave it to me.”

Grandmother exhaled sourly. “Emily was foolish, going to war, though I suppose I always knew it was her destiny. She hoped to meet your father again.”

“She thought…she thought he’d be in Afghanistan?”

Grandmother spread her hands, as if this was beyond her understanding. “She went. She died bravely. She thought the family gift would protect her. No doubt that’s how she saved those soldiers. But the gift has never kept our family safe. It did not help my father, or
father. It did not help me. And now you have become a man. You must follow the path.”

“But…what path? What’s our gift—archery?”

“You and your archery! Foolish boy. Soon you will find out. Tonight, after the funeral, you must go south. Your mother said if she did not come back from combat, Lupa would send messengers. They will escort you to a place where the children of the gods can be trained for their destiny.”

BOOK: The Son of Neptune
11.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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