The son of neptune, p.10
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       The Son of Neptune, p.10

         Part #2 of The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
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Page 10


  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. ”

  “Marie, it’s a trap,” Pluto warned. “Whoever’s whispering in your ear, whoever’s turning you against me—”

  “You turned me against you!” She picked up a porcelain vase and threw it at him. It shattered on the floor, and precious stones spilled everywhere—emeralds, rubies, diamonds. Hazel’s entire collection.

  “You won’t survive,” Pluto said. “If you go north, you’ll both die. I can foresee that clearly. ”

  “Get out!” she said.

  Hazel wished Pluto would stay and argue. Whatever her mother was talking about, Hazel didn’t like it. But her father slashed his hand across the air and dissolved into shadows…like he really was a spirit.

  Queen Marie closed her eyes. She took a deep breath. Hazel was afraid the strange voice might possess her again. But when she spoke, she was her regular self.

  “Hazel,” she snapped, “come out from behind that door. ”

  Trembling, Hazel obeyed. She clutched the sketchpad and colored pencils to her chest.

  Her mother studied her like she was a bitter disappointment. A poisoned child, the voices had said.

  “Pack a bag,” she ordered. “We’re moving. ”

  “Wh-where?” Hazel asked.

  “Alaska,” Queen Marie answered. “You’re going to make yourself useful. We’re going to start a new life. ”

  The way her mother said that, it sounded as if they were going to create a “new life” for someone else—or something else.

  “What did Pluto mean?” Hazel asked. “Is he really my father? He said you made a wish—”

  “Go to your room!” her mother shouted. “Pack!”

  Hazel fled, and suddenly she was ripped out of the past.

  Nico was shaking her shoulders. “You did it again. ”

  Hazel blinked. They were still sitting on the roof of Pluto’s shrine. The sun was lower in the sky. More diamonds had surfaced around her, and her eyes stung from crying.

  “S-sorry,” she murmured.

  “Don’t be,” Nico said. “Where were you?”

  “My mother’s apartment. The day we moved. ”

  Nico nodded. He understood her history better than most people could. He was also a kid from the 1940s. He’d been born only a few years after Hazel, and had been locked away in a magic hotel for decades. But Hazel’s past was much worse than Nico’s. She’d caused so much damage and misery. …

  “You have to work on controlling those memories,” Nico warned. “If a flashback like that happens when you’re in combat—”

  “I know,” she said. “I’m trying. ”

  Nico squeezed her hand. “It’s okay. I think it’s a side effect from…you know, your time in the Underworld. Hopefully it’ll get easier. ”

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