JASON HATED BEING OLD.
His joints hurt. His legs shook. As he tried to climb the hill, his lungs rattled like a box of rocks.
He couldn’t see his face, thank goodness, but his fingers were gnarled and bony. Bulging blue veins webbed the backs of his hands.
He even had that old-man smell – mothballs and chicken soup. How was that possible? He’d gone from sixteen to seventy-five in a matter of seconds, but the old-man smell happened instantly, like Boom. Congratulations! You stink!
‘Almost there.’ Piper smiled at him. ‘You’re doing great.’
Easy for her to say. Piper and Annabeth were disguised as lovely Greek serving maidens. Even in their white sleeveless gowns and laced sandals, they had no trouble navigating the rocky path.
Piper’s mahogany hair was pinned up in a braided spiral. Silver bracelets adorned her arms. She resembled an ancient statue of her mom, Aphrodite, which Jason found a little intimidating.
Dating a beautiful girl was nerve-racking enough. Dating a girl whose mom was the goddess of love … well, Jason was always afraid he’d do something unromantic and Piper’s mom would frown down from Mount Olympus and change him into a feral hog.
Jason glanced uphill. The summit was still a hundred yards above.
‘Worst idea ever.’ He leaned against a cedar tree and wiped his forehead. ‘Hazel’s magic is too good. If I have to fight, I’ll be useless.’
‘It won’t come to that,’ Annabeth promised. She looked uncomfortable in her serving-maiden outfit. She kept hunching her shoulders to keep the dress from slipping. Her pinned-up blonde bun had come undone in the back and her hair dangled like long spider legs. Knowing her hatred of spiders, Jason decided not to mention that.
‘We infiltrate the palace,’ she said. ‘We get the information we need, and we get out.’
Piper set down her amphora, the tall ceramic wine jar in which her sword was hidden. ‘We can rest for a second. Catch your breath, Jason.’
From her waist cord hung her cornucopia – the magic horn of plenty. Tucked somewhere in the folds of her dress was her knife, Katoptris. Piper didn’t look dangerous, but if the need arose she could dual-wield Celestial bronze blades or shoot her enemies in the face with ripe mangoes.
Annabeth slung her own amphora off her shoulder. She, too, had a concealed sword, but even without a visible weapon she looked deadly. Her stormy grey eyes scanned the surroundings, alert for any threat. If any dude asked Annabeth for a drink, Jason figured she was more likely to kick the guy in the bifurcum.
He tried to steady his breathing.
Below them, Afales Bay glittered, the water so blue it might’ve been dyed with food colouring. A few hundred yards offshore, the Argo II rested at anchor. Its white sails looked no bigger than postage stamps, its ninety oars like toothpicks. Jason imagined his friends on deck following his progress, taking turns with Leo’s spyglass, trying not to laugh as they watched Grandpa Jason hobble uphill.
‘Stupid Ithaca,’ he muttered.
He supposed the island was pretty enough. A spine of forested hills twisted down its centre. Chalky white slopes plunged into the sea. Inlets formed rocky beaches and harbours where red-roofed houses and white stucco churches nestled against the shoreline.
The hills were dotted with poppies, crocuses and wild cherry trees. The breeze smelled of blooming myrtle. All very nice – except the temperature was about a hundred and five degrees. The air was as steamy as a Roman bathhouse.
It would’ve been easy for Jason to control the winds and fly to the top of the hill, but nooo. For the sake of stealth, he had to struggle along as an old dude with bad knees and chicken-soup stink.
He thought about his last climb, two weeks ago, when Hazel and he had faced the bandit Sciron on the cliffs of Croatia. At least then Jason had been at full strength. What they were about to face would be much worse than a bandit.
‘You sure this is the right hill?’ he asked. ‘Seems kind of – I don’t know – quiet.’
Piper studied the ridgeline. Braided in her hair was a bright blue harpy feather – a souvenir from last night’s attack. The feather didn’t exactly go with her disguise, but Piper had earned it, defeating an entire flock of demon chicken ladies by herself while she was on duty. She downplayed the accomplishment, but Jason could tell she felt good about it. The feather was a reminder that she wasn’t the same girl she’d been last winter, when they’d first arrived at Camp Half-Blood.
‘The ruins are up there,’ she promised. ‘I saw them in Katoptris’s blade. And you heard what Hazel said. “The biggest –” ’