The Emperor nodded. “Soon.”

He turned his attention back to me. “But where are my manners? Allow me to introduce my right hand, Vincius, and my left hand, Garius.”

The bodyguards pointed across to each other.

“Ah, sorry,” Nero corrected. “My right hand, Garius, and my left hand, Vincius. Those are the Romanized versions of their Batavi names, which I can’t pronounce. Usually I just call them Vince and Gary. Say hello, boys.”

Vince and Gary glowered at me.

“They have serpent tattoos,” I noted, “like those street thugs you sent to attack me.”

Nero shrugged. “I have many servants. Cade and Mikey are quite low on the pay scale. Their only job was to rattle you a bit, welcome you to my city.”

“Your city.” I found it just like Nero to go claiming major metropolitan areas that clearly belonged to me. “And these two gentlemen…they are actually Germani from the ancient times? How?”

Nero made a snide little barking sound in the back of his nose. I’d forgotten how much I hated his laugh.

“Lord Apollo, please,” he said. “Even before Gaea commandeered the Doors of Death, souls escaped from Erebos all the time. It was quite easy for a god-emperor such as myself to call back my followers.”

“A god-emperor?” I growled. “You mean a delusional ex-emperor.”

Nero arched his eyebrows. “What made you a god, Apollo…back when you were one? Wasn’t it the power of your name, your sway over those who believed in you? I am no different.” He glanced to his left. “Vince, fall on your spear, please.”

Without hesitation, Vince planted the butt of his spear against the ground. He braced the point under his rib cage.

“Stop,” Nero said. “I changed my mind.”

Vince betrayed no relief. In fact, his eyes tightened with faint disappointment. He brought his spear back to his side.

Nero grinned at me. “You see? I hold the power of life and death over my worshippers, like any proper god should.”

I felt like I’d swallowed some gel capsule larvae. “The Germani were always crazy, much like you.”

Nero put his hand to his chest. “I’m hurt! My barbarian friends are loyal subjects of the Julian dynasty! And, of course, we are all descended from you, Lord Apollo.”

I didn’t need the reminder. I’d been so proud of my son, the original Octavian, later Caesar Augustus. After his death, his descendants became increasingly arrogant and unstable (which I blamed on their mortal DNA; they certainly didn’t get those qualities from me). Nero had been the last of the Julian line. I had not wept when he died. Now here he was, as grotesque and chinless as ever.

Meg stood at my shoulder. “Wh-what do you want, Nero?”

Considering she was facing the man who killed her father, she sounded remarkably calm. I was grateful for her strength. It gave me hope to have a skilled dimachaerus and a ravenous peach baby at my side. Still, I did not like our odds against two Germani.

Nero’s eyes gleamed. “Straight to the point. I’ve always admired that about you, Meg. Really, it’s simple. You and Apollo will open the gates of Dodona for me. Then these six”—he gestured to the staked prisoners—“will be released.”

I shook my head. “You’ll destroy the grove. Then you’ll kill us.”

The emperor made that horrible bark again. “Not unless you force me to. I’m a reasonable god-emperor, Apollo! I’d much rather have the Grove of Dodona under my control if it can be managed, but I certainly can’t allow you to use it. You had your chance at being the guardian of the Oracles. You failed miserably. Now it’s my responsibility. Mine…and my partners’.”

“The two other emperors,” I said. “Who are they?”

Nero shrugged. “Good Romans—men who, like me, have the willpower to do what is needed.”

“Triumvirates have never worked. They always lead to civil war.”

He smiled as if that idea did not bother him. “The three of us have come to an agreement. We have divided up the new empire…by which I mean North America. Once we have the Oracles, we’ll expand and do what Romans have always done best—conquer the world.”

I could only stare at him. “You truly learned nothing from your previous reign.”

“Oh, but I did! I’ve had centuries to reflect, plan, and prepare. Do you have any idea how annoying it is to be a god-emperor, unable to die but unable to fully live? There was a period of about three hundred years during the Middle Ages when my name was almost forgotten. I was little more than a mirage! Thank goodness for the Renaissance, when our Classical greatness was remembered. And then came the Internet. Oh, gods, I love the Internet! It is impossible for me to fade completely now. I am immortal on Wikipedia!”