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 (6 page)

BOOK: The Son of Neptune
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H
AZEL WAS WALKING HOME ALONE
from the riding stables. Despite the cold evening, she was buzzing with warmth. Sammy had just kissed her on the cheek.

The day had been full of ups and downs. Kids at school had teased her about her mother, calling her a witch and a lot of other names. That had been going on for a long time, of course, but it was getting worse. Rumors were spreading about Hazel’s curse. The school was called St. Agnes Academy for Colored Children and Indians, a name that hadn’t changed in a hundred years. Just like its name, the place masked a whole lot of cruelty under a thin veneer of kindness.

Hazel didn’t understand how other black kids could be so mean. They should’ve known better, since they themselves had to put up with name-calling all the time. But they yelled at her and stole her lunch, always asking for those famous jewels: “Where’s those cursed diamonds, girl? Gimme some or I’ll hurt you!” They pushed her away at the water fountain, and threw rocks at her if she tried to approach them on the playground.

Despite how horrible they were, Hazel never gave them diamonds or gold. She didn’t hate anyone
that
much. Besides, she had one friend—Sammy—and that was enough.

Sammy liked to joke that he was the perfect St. Agnes student. He was Mexican American, so he considered himself colored
and
Indian. “They should give me a
double
scholarship,” he said.

He wasn’t big or strong, but he had a crazy smile and he made Hazel laugh.

That afternoon he’d taken her to the stables where he worked as a groom. It was a “whites only” riding club, of course, but it was closed on weekdays, and with the war on, there was talk that the club might have to shut down completely until the Japanese were whipped and the soldiers came back home. Sammy could usually sneak Hazel in to help take care of the horses. Once in a while they’d go riding.

Hazel loved horses. They seemed to be the only living things that weren’t scared of her. People hated her. Cats hissed. Dogs growled. Even the stupid hamster in Miss Finley’s classroom squeaked in terror when she gave it a carrot. But horses didn’t mind. When she was in the saddle, she could ride so fast that there was no chance of gemstones cropping up in her wake. She almost felt free of her curse.

That afternoon, she’d taken out a tan roan stallion with a gorgeous black mane. She galloped into the fields so swiftly, she left Sammy behind. By the time he caught up, he and his horse were both winded.

“What are you running from?” He laughed. “I’m not
that
ugly, am I?”

It was too cold for a picnic, but they had one anyway, sitting under a magnolia tree with the horses tethered to a split-rail fence. Sammy had brought her a cupcake with a birthday candle, which had gotten smashed on the ride but was still the sweetest thing Hazel had ever seen. They broke it in half and shared it.

Sammy talked about the war. He wished he were old enough to go. He asked Hazel if she would write him letters if he were a soldier going overseas.

“’Course, dummy,” she said.

He grinned. Then, as if moved by a sudden impulse, he lurched forward and kissed her on the cheek. “Happy birthday, Hazel.”

It wasn’t much. Just one kiss, and not even on the lips. But Hazel felt like she was floating. She hardly remembered the ride back to the stables, or telling Sammy good-bye. He said, “See you tomorrow,” like he always did. But she would never see him again.

By the time she got back to the French Quarter, it was getting dark. As she approached home, her warm feeling faded, replaced by dread.

Hazel and her mother—Queen Marie, she liked to be called—lived in an old apartment above a jazz club. Despite the beginning of the war, there was a festive mood in the air. New recruits would roam the streets, laughing and talking about fighting the Japanese. They’d get tattoos in the parlors or propose to their sweethearts right on the sidewalk. Some would go upstairs to Hazel’s mother to have their fortunes read or to buy charms from Marie Levesque, the famous
gris
gris
queen.

“Did you hear?” one would say. “Two bits for this good-luck charm. I took it to a guy I know, and he says it’s a real silver nugget. Worth twenty dollars! That voodoo woman is crazy!”

For a while, that kind of talk brought Queen Marie a lot of business. Hazel’s curse had started out slowly. At first it seemed like a blessing. The precious stones and gold only appeared once in a while, never in huge quantities. QueenMarie paid her bills. They ate steak for dinner once a week. Hazel even got a new dress. But then stories started spreading. The locals began to realize how many horrible things happened to people who bought those good-luck charms or got paid with Queen Marie’s treasure. Charlie Gasceaux lost his arm in a harvester while wearing a gold bracelet. Mr. Henry at the general store dropped dead from a heart attack after Queen Marie settled her tab with a ruby.

Folks started whispering about Hazel—how she could find cursed jewels just by walking down the street. These days only out-of-towners came to visit her mother, and not so many of them, either. Hazel’s mom had become short-tempered. She gave Hazel resentful looks.

Hazel climbed the stairs as quietly as she could, in case her mother had a customer. In the club downstairs, the band was tuning their instruments. The bakery next door had started making beignets for tomorrow morning, filling the stairwell with the smell of melting butter.

When she got to the top, Hazel thought she heard two voices inside the apartment. But when she peeked into the parlor, her mother was sitting alone at the séance table, her eyes closed, as if in a trance.

Hazel had seen her that way many times, pretending to talk to spirits for her clients—but not ever when she was by herself. Queen Marie had always told Hazel her
gris-gris
was “bunk and hokum.” She didn’t really believe in charms or fortune telling or ghosts. She was just a performer, like a singer or an actress, doing a show for money.

But Hazel knew her mother
did
believe in some magic. Hazel’s curse wasn’t hokum. Queen Marie just didn’t want to think it was her fault—that somehow she had made Hazel the way she was.

“It was your blasted father,” Queen Marie would grumble in her darker moods. “Coming here in his fancy silver-and black suit. The one time I
actually
summon a spirit, and what do I get? Fulfills my wish and ruins my life. I should’ve been a
real
queen. It’s
his
fault you turned out this way.”

She would never explain what she meant, and Hazel had learned not to ask about her father. It just made her mother angrier.

As Hazel watched, Queen Marie muttered something to herself. Her face was calm and relaxed. Hazel was struck by how beautiful she looked, without her scowl and the creases in her brow. She had a lush mane of gold-brown hair like Hazel’s, and the same dark complexion, brown as a roasted coffee bean. She wasn’t wearing the fancy saffron robes or gold bangles she wore to impress clients—just a simple white dress. Still, she had a regal air, sitting straight and dignified in her gilded chair as if she really were a queen.

“You’ll be safe there,” she murmured. “Far from the gods.”

Hazel stifled a scream. The voice coming from her mother’s mouth wasn’t
hers.
It sounded like an older woman’s. The tone was soft and soothing, but also commanding—like a hypnotist giving orders.

Queen Marie tensed. She grimaced in her trance, then spoke in her normal voice: “It’s too far. Too cold. Too dangerous. He told me not to.”

The other voice responded: “What has he ever done for you? He gave you a poisoned child! But we can use her gift for good. We can strike back at the gods. You will be under my protection in the north, far from the gods’ domain. I’ll make my son your protector. You’ll live like a queen at last.”

Queen Marie winced. “But what about Hazel…”

Then her face contorted in a sneer. Both voices spoke in unison, as if they’d found something to agree on: “A poisoned child.”

Hazel fled down the stairs, her pulse racing.

At the bottom, she ran into a man in a dark suit. He gripped her shoulders with strong, cold fingers.

“Easy, child,” the man said.

Hazel noticed the silver skull ring on his finger, then the strange fabric of his suit. In the shadows, the solid black wool seemed to shift and boil, forming images of faces in agony, as if lost souls were trying to escape from the folds of his clothes.

His tie was black with platinum stripes. His shirt was tombstone gray. His face—Hazel’s heart nearly leaped out of her throat. His skin was so white it looked almost blue, like cold milk. He had a flap of greasy black hair. His smile was kind enough, but his eyes were fiery and angry, full of mad power. Hazel had seen that look in the newsreels at the movie theater. This man looked like that awful Adolf Hitler. He had no mustache, but otherwise he could’ve been Hitler’s twin—or his father.

Hazel tried to pull away. Even when the man let go, she couldn’t seem to move. His eyes froze her in place.

“Hazel Levesque,” he said in a melancholy voice. “You’ve grown.”

Hazel started to tremble. At the base of the stairs, the cement stoop cracked under the man’s feet. A glittering stone popped up from the concrete like the earth had spit out a watermelon seed. The man looked at it, unsurprised. He bent down.

“Don’t!” Hazel cried. “It’s cursed!”

He picked up the stone—a perfectly formed emerald. “Yes, it is. But not to me. So beautiful…worth more than this building, I imagine.” He slipped the emerald in his pocket. “I’m sorry for your fate, child. I imagine you hate me.”

Hazel didn’t understand. The man sounded sad, as if he were personally responsible for her life. Then the truth hither: a spirit in silver and black, who’d fulfilled her mother’s wishes and ruined her life.

Her eyes widened. “You? You’re my…”

He cupped his hand under her chin. “I am Pluto. Life is never easy for my children, but you have a special burden. Now that you’re thirteen, we must make provisions—”

She pushed his hand away.

“You
did
this to me?” she demanded. “You cursed me and my mother? You left us alone?”

Her eyes stung with tears. This rich white man in a fine suit was her
father
? Now that she was thirteen, he showed up for the first time and said he was sorry?

“You’re evil!” she shouted. “You ruined our lives!”

Pluto’s eyes narrowed. “What has your mother told you, Hazel? Has she never explained her wish? Or told you why you were born under a curse?”

Hazel was too angry to speak, but Pluto seemed to read the answers in her face.

“No…” He sighed. “I suppose she wouldn’t. Much easier to blame me.”

“What do you mean?”

Pluto sighed. “Poor child. You were born too soon. I cannot see your future clearly, but someday you will find your place. A descendant of Neptune will wash away your curse and give you peace. I fear, though, that is not for many years.…”

Hazel didn’t follow any of that. Before she could respond, Pluto held out his hand. A sketchpad and a box of colored pencils appeared in his palm.

“I understand you enjoy art and horseback riding,” he said. “These are for your art. As for the horse…” His eyes gleamed. “That, you’ll have to manage yourself. Now I must speak with your mother. Happy birthday, Hazel.”

He turned and headed up the stairs—just like that, as if he’d checked Hazel off his “to do” list and had already forgotten her.
Happy birthday. Go draw a picture. See you in another thirteen years.

She was so stunned, so angry, so upside-down confused that she just stood paralyzed at the base of the steps. She wanted to throw down the colored pencils and stomp on them. She wanted to charge after Pluto and kick him. She wanted to run away, find Sammy, steal a horse, leave town and never come back. But she didn’t do any of those things.

Above her, the apartment door opened, and Pluto stepped inside.

Hazel was still shivering from his cold touch, but she crep tup the stairs to see what he would do. What would he say to Queen Marie? Who would speak back—Hazel’s mother, or that awful voice?

When she reached the doorway, Hazel heard arguing. She peeked in. Her mother seemed back to normal—screaming and angry, throwing things around the parlor while Pluto tried to reason with her.

“Marie, it’s insanity,” he said. “You’ll be far beyond my power to protect you.”

“Protect me?” Queen Marie yelled. “When have you
ever
protected me?”

Pluto’s dark suit shimmered, as if the souls trapped in the fabric were getting agitated.

“You have no idea,” he said. “I’ve kept you alive, you and the child. My enemies are everywhere among gods and men. Now with the war on, it will only get worse. You
must
stay where I can—”

“The police think I’m a murderer!” Queen Marie shouted. “My clients want to hang me as a witch! And Hazel—her curse is getting worse. Your
protection
is killing us.”

Pluto spread his hands in a pleading gesture. “Marie, please—”

“No!” Queen Marie turned to the closet, pulled out a leather valise, and threw it on the table. “We’re leaving,” she announced. “You can keep your protection. We’re going north.”

BOOK: The Son of Neptune
4.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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