The son of neptune, p.16
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       The Son of Neptune, p.16

         Part #2 of The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
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Page 16


  “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 his 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. ”

  Frank felt as if he were being shot with arrows, his heart splitting into porcelain shards. He didn’t understand most of what Grandmother said, but one thing was clear: she was kicking him out.

  “You’d just let me go?” he asked. “Your last family?”

  Grandmother’s mouth quivered. Her eyes looked moist. Frank was shocked to realize she was near tears. She’d lost her husband years ago, then her daughter, and now she was about to send away her only grandson. But she rose from the couch and stood tall, her posture as stiff and correct as ever.

  “When you arrive at camp,” she instructed, “you must speak to the praetor in private. Tell her your great-grandfather was Shen Lun. It has been many years since the San Francisco incident. Hopefully they will not kill you for what he did, but you might want to beg forgiveness for his actions. ”

  “This is sounding better and better,” Frank mumbled.

  “The goddess said you would bring our family full circle. ” Grandmother’s voice had no trace of sympathy. “She chose your path years ago, and it will not be easy. But now it is time for the funeral. We have obligations. Come. The car will be waiting. ”

  The ceremony was a blur: solemn faces, the patter of rain on the graveside awning, the crack of rifles from the honor guard, the casket sinking into the earth.

  That night, the wolves came. They howled on the front porch. Frank came out to meet them. He took his travel pack, his warmest clothes, his bow and his quiver. His mother’s sacrifice medal was tucked in his pack. The charred stick was wrapped carefully in three layers of cloth in his coat pocket, next to his heart.

; His journey south began—to the Wolf House in Sonoma, and eventually to Camp Jupiter, where he spoke to Reyna privately as Grandmother had instructed. He begged forgiveness for the great-grandfather he knew nothing about. Reyna let him join the legion. She never did tell him what his great-grandfather had done, but she obviously knew. Frank could tell it was bad.

  “I judge people by their own merits,” Reyna had told him. “But do not mention the name Shen Lun to anyone else. It must remain our secret, or you’ll be treated badly. ”

  Unfortunately, Frank didn’t have many merits. His first month at camp was spent knocking over rows of weapons, breaking chariots, and tripping entire cohorts as they marched. His favorite job was caring for Hannibal the elephant, but he’d managed to mess that up, too—giving Hannibal indigestion by feeding him peanuts. Who knew elephants could be peanut-intolerant? Frank figured Reyna was regretting her decision to let him join.

  Every day, he woke up wondering if the stick would somehow catch fire and burn, and he would cease to exist.

  All of this ran through Frank’s head as he walked with Hazel and Percy to the war games. He thought about the stick wrapped inside his coat pocket, and what it meant that Juno had appeared at camp. Was he about to die? He hoped not. He hadn’t brought his family any honor yet—that was for sure. Maybe Apollo would claim him today and explain his powers and gifts.

  Once they got out of camp, the Fifth Cohort formed two lines behind their centurions, Dakota and Gwen. They marched north, skirting the edge of the city, and headed to the Field of Mars—the largest, flattest part of the valley. The grass was cropped short by all the unicorns, bulls, and homeless fauns that grazed here. The earth was pitted with explosion craters and scarred with trenches from past games. At the north end of the field stood their target. The engineers had built a stone fortress with an iron portcullis, guard towers, scorpion ballistae, water cannons, and no doubt many other nasty surprises for the defenders to use.

  “They did a good job today,” Hazel noted. “That’s bad for us. ”

  “Wait,” Percy said. “You’re telling me that fortress was built today?”

  Hazel grinned. “Legionnaires are trained to build. If we had to, we could break down the entire camp and rebuild it somewhere else. Take maybe three or four days, but we could do it. ”

  “Let’s not,” Percy said. “So you attack a different fort every night?”

  “Not every night,” Frank said. “We have different training exercises. Sometimes death ball—um, which is like paint-ball, except with…you know, poison and acid and fire balls. Sometimes we do chariots and gladiator competitions, sometimes war games. ”

  Hazel pointed at the fort. “Somewhere inside, the First and Second Cohorts are keeping their banners. Our job is to get inside and capture them without getting slaughtered. We do that, we win. ”

  Percy’s eyes lit up. “Like capture-the-flag. I think I like capture-the-flag. ”

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