The Nine Muses cranked up the tunes, and I realized the music was whatever you wanted it to be: the gods could listen to classical and the younger demigods heard hip-hop or whatever, and it was all the same sound track. No arguments. No fights to change the radio station. Just requests to crank it up.
Dionysus went around growing refreshment stands out of the ground, and a beautiful woman walked with him arm in arm—his wife, Ariadne. Dionysus looked happy for the first time. Nectar and ambrosia overflowed from golden fountains, and platters of mortal snack food crowded the banquet tables. Golden goblets filled with whatever drink you wanted. Grover trotted around with a full plate of tin cans and enchiladas, and his goblet was full of double-espresso latte, which he kept muttering over like an incantation: "Pan! Pan!"
Gods kept coming over to congratulate me. Thankfully, they had reduced themselves to human size, so they didn't accidentally trample partygoers under their feet. Hermes started chatting with me, and he was so cheerful I hated to tell him what had happened to his least-favorite son, Luke, but before I could even get up the courage, Hermes got a call on his caduceus and walked away.
Apollo told me I could drive his sun chariot any time, and if I ever wanted archery lessons—
"Thanks," I told him. "But seriously, I'm no good at archery."
"Ah, nonsense," he said. "Target practice from the chariot as we fly over the U.S.? Best fun there is!"
I made some excuses and wove through the crowds that were dancing in the palace courtyards. I was looking for Annabeth. Last I saw her, she'd been dancing with some minor godling.
Then a man's voice behind me said, "You won't let me down, I hope."
I turned and found Poseidon smiling at me.
"Hello, Percy. You've done well."
His praise made me uneasy. I mean, it felt good, but I knew just how much he'd put himself on the line, vouching for me. It would've been a lot easier to let the others disintegrate me.
"I won't let you down," I promised.
He nodded. I had trouble reading gods' emotions, but I wondered if he had some doubts.
"Your friend Luke—"
"He's not my friend," I blurted out. Then I realized it was probably rude to interrupt. "Sorry."
"Your former friend Luke," Poseidon corrected. "He once promised things like that. He was Hermes's pride and joy. Just bear that in mind, Percy. Even the bravest can fall."
"Luke fell pretty hard," I agreed. "He's dead."
Poseidon shook his head. "No, Percy. He is not."
I stared at him. "What?"
"I believe Annabeth told you this. Luke still lives. I have seen it. His boat sails from San Francisco with the remains of Kronos even now. He will retreat and regroup before assaulting you again. I will do my best to destroy his boat with storms, but he is making alliances with my enemies, the older spirits of the ocean. They will fight to protect him."
"How can he be alive?" I said. "That fall should've killed him!"
Poseidon looked troubled. "I don't know, Percy, but beware of him. He is more dangerous than ever. And the golden coffin is still with him, still growing in strength."
"What about Atlas?" I said. "What's to prevent him from escaping again? Couldn't he just force some giant or something to take the sky for him?"
My father snorted in derision. "If it were so easy, he would have escaped long ago. No, my son. The curse of the sky can only be forced upon a Titan, one of the children of Gaia and Ouranous. Anyone else must choose to take the burden of their own free will. Only a hero, someone with strength, a true heart, and great courage, would do such a thing. No one in Kronos's army would dare try to bear that weight, even upon pain of death."
"Luke did it," I said. "He let Atlas go. Then he tricked Annabeth into saving him and used her to convince Artemis to take the sky."
"Yes," Poseidon said. "Luke is… an interesting case."
I think he wanted to say more, but just then, Bessie started mooing from across the courtyard. Some demigods were playing with his water sphere, joyously pushing it back and forth over the top of the crowd,
"I'd better take care of that," Poseidon grumbled. "We can't have the Ophiotaurus tossed around like a beach ball. Be good, my son. We may not speak again for some time."
And just like that he was gone.
I was about to keep searching the crowd when another voice spoke. "Your father takes a great risk, you know."
I found myself face-to-face with a gray-eyed woman who looked so much like Annabeth I almost called her that.
"Athena." I tried not to sound resentful, after the way she'd written me off in the council, but I guess I didn't hide it very well.
She smiled dryly. "Do not judge me too harshly, half-blood. Wise counsel is not always popular, but I spoke the truth. You are dangerous."
"You never take risks?"
She nodded. "I concede the point. You may perhaps be useful. And yet… your fatal flaw may destroy us as well as yourself."
My heart crept into my throat. A year ago, Annabeth and I had had a talk about fatal flaws. Every hero had one. Hers, she said, was pride. She believed she could do anything… like holding up the world, for instance. Or saving Luke. But I didn't really know what mine was.
Athena looked almost sorry for me. "Kronos knows your flaw, even if you do not. He knows how to study his enemies. Think, Percy. How has he manipulated you? First, your mother was taken from you. Then your best friend, Grover. Now my daughter, Annabeth." She paused, disapproving. "In each case, your loved ones have been used to lure you into Kronos's traps. Your fatal flaw is personal loyalty, Percy. You do not know when it is time to cut your losses. To save a friend, you would sacrifice the world. In a hero of the prophecy, that is very, very dangerous."
I balled my fists. "That's not a flaw. Just because I want to help my friends—"
"The most dangerous flaws are those which are good in moderation," she said. "Evil is easy to fight. Lack of wisdom… that is very hard indeed."
I wanted to argue, but I found I couldn't. Athena was pretty darn smart.
"I hope the Council's decisions prove wise," Athena said. "But I will be watching, Percy Jackson. I do not approve of your friendship with my daughter. I do not think it wise for either of you. And should you begin to waver in your loyalties…"
She fixed me with her cold gray stare, and I realized what a terrible enemy Athena would make, ten times worse than Ares or Dionysus or maybe even my father. Athena would never give up. She would never do something rash or stupid just because she hated you, and if she made a plan to destroy you, it would not fail.
"Percy!" Annabeth said, running through the crowd. She stopped short when she saw who I was talking to. "Oh… Mom."
"I will leave you," Athena said. "For now."
She turned and strode through the crowds, which parted before her as if she were carrying Aegis.
"Was she giving you a hard time?" Annabeth asked.
"No," I said. "It's… fine."
She studied me with concern. She touched the new streak of gray in my hair that matched hers exactly—our painful souvenir from holding Atlas's burden. There was a lot I'd wanted to say to Annabeth, but Athena had taken the confidence out of me. I felt like I'd been punched in the gut.
I do not approve of your friendship with my daughter.
"So," Annabeth said. "What did you want to tell me earlier?"
The music was playing. People were dancing in the streets. I said, "I, uh, was thinking we got interrupted at Westover Hall. And… I think I owe you a dance."
She smiled slowly. "All right, Seaweed Brain."
So I took her hand, and I don't know what everybody else heard, but to me it sounded like a slow dance: a little sad, but maybe a little hopeful, too.
I GET A NEW ENEMY FOR CHRISTMAS
Before I left Olympus, I decided to make a few calls. It wasn't easy, but I finally found a quiet fountain in a corner garden and sent an Iris-message to my brother, Tyson, under the sea. I told him about our adventures, and Bessie—he wanted to hear every detail about the cute baby cow serpent—and I assured him that Annabeth was safe. Finally I got around to explaining how the shield he'd made me last summer had been damaged in the manticore attack.
"Yay!" Tyson said. "That means it was good! It saved your life!"
"It sure did, big guy," I said. "But now it's ruined."
"Not ruined!" Tyson promised. "I will visit and fix it next summer."
The idea picked me up instantly. I guess I hadn't realized how much I missed having Tyson around.
"Seriously?" I asked. "They'll let you take time off?"
"Yes! I have made two thousand seven hundred and forty-one magic swords," Tyson said proudly, showing me the newest blade. "The boss says 'good work'! He will let me take the whole summer off. I will visit camp!"
We talked for a while about war preparations and our dad's fight with the old sea gods, and all the cool things we could do together next summer, but then Tyson's boss started yelling at him and he had to get back to work.
I dug out my last golden drachma and made one more Iris-message.
"Sally Jackson," I said. "Upper East Side, Manhattan."
The mist shimmered, and there was my mom at our kitchen table, laughing and holding hands with her friend Mr. Blowfish.
I felt so embarrassed, I was about to wave my hand through the mist and cut the connection, but before I could, my mom saw me.
Her eyes got wide. She let go of Mr. Blowfish's hand real quick. "Oh, Paul! You know what? I left my writing journal in the living room. Would you mind getting it for me?"
"Sure, Sally. No problem."
He left the room, and instantly my mom leaned toward the Iris-message. "Percy! Are you all right?"
"I'm, uh, fine. How's that writing seminar going?"
She pursed her lips. "It's fine. But that's not important. Tell me what's happened!"
I filled her in as quickly as I could. She sighed with relief when she heard that Annabeth was safe.
"I knew you could do it!" she said. "I'm so proud."
"Yeah, well, I'd better let you get back to your homework."
"Percy, I… Paul and I—"
"Mom, are you happy?"
The question seemed to take her by surprise. She thought for a moment. "Yes. I really am, Percy. Being around him makes me happy."
"Then it's cool. Seriously. Don't worry about me." The funny thing was, I meant it. Considering the quest I'd just had, maybe I should have been worried for my mom. I'd seen just how mean people could be to each other, like Hercules was to Zoe Nightshade, like Luke was to Thalia. I'd met Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, in person, and her powers had scared me worse than Ares. But seeing my mother laughing and smiling, after all the years she'd suffered with my nasty ex-stepfather, Gabe Ugliano, I couldn't help feeling happy for her.
"You promise not to call him Mr. Blowfish?" she asked.