- The Hidden Oracle
“Meg, you can’t trust him,” I said. “The last time he did this, he strung up Christians all over his backyard and burned them to illuminate his garden party. I was there. I remember the screaming.”
Meg clutched her stomach.
“My dear, don’t believe his stories!” Nero said. “That was just propaganda invented by my enemies.”
Meg studied the face of Paulie the geyser god. “Nero…you didn’t say anything about making them into torches.”
“They won’t burn,” he said, straining to soften his voice. “It won’t come to that. The Beast will not have to act.”
“You see, Meg?” I wagged a finger at the emperor. “It’s never a good sign when someone starts referring to himself in the third person. Zeus used to scold me about that constantly!”
Vince and Gary stepped forward, their knuckles whitening on their spears.
“I would be careful,” Nero warned. “My Germani are sensitive about insults to the Imperial person. Now, as much as I love talking about myself, we’re on a schedule.” He checked his watch again. “You’ll open the gates. Then Meg will see if she can use the trees to interpret the future. If so, wonderful! If not…well, we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.”
“Meg,” I said, “he’s a madman.”
At her feet, Peaches hissed protectively.
Meg’s chin quivered. “Nero cared about me, Apollo. He gave me a home. He taught me to fight.”
“You said he killed your father!”
“No!” She shook her head adamantly, a look of panic in her eyes. “No, that’s not what I said. The Beast killed him.”
Nero snorted. “Oh, Apollo…you understand so little. Meg’s father was weak. She doesn’t even remember him. He couldn’t protect her. I raised her. I kept her alive.”
My heart sank even further. I did not understand everything Meg had been through, or what she was feeling now, but I knew Nero. I saw how easily he could have twisted a scared child’s understanding of the world—a little girl all alone, yearning for safety and acceptance after her father’s murder, even if that acceptance came from her father’s killer. “Meg…I am so sorry.”
Another tear traced her cheek.
“She doesn’t NEED sympathy.” Nero’s voice turned as hard as bronze. “Now, my dear, if you would be so kind, open the gates. If Apollo objects, remind him that he is bound to follow your orders.”
Meg swallowed. “Apollo, don’t make it harder. Please…help me open the gates.”
I shook my head. “Not by choice.”
“Then I—I command you. Help me. Now.”
Listen to the trees
The trees know what is up, yo
They know all the things
MEG’S RESOLVE may have been wavering, but Peaches’s was not.
When I hesitated to follow Meg’s orders, the grain spirit bared his fangs and hissed, “Peaches,” as if that was a new torture technique.
“Fine,” I told Meg, my voice turning bitter. The truth was, I had no choice. I could feel Meg’s command sinking into my muscles, compelling me to obey.
I faced the fused oaks and put my hands against their trunks. I felt no oracular power within. I heard no voices—just heavy stubborn silence. The only message the trees seemed to be sending was: GO AWAY.
“If we do this,” I told Meg, “Nero will destroy the grove.”
“He has to. He can’t control Dodona. Its power is too ancient. He can’t let anyone else use it.”
Meg placed her hands against the trees, just below mine. “Concentrate. Open them. Please. You don’t want to anger the Beast.”
She said this in a low voice—again speaking as if the Beast was someone I had not yet met…a boogeyman lurking under the bed, not a man in a purple suit standing a few feet away.
I could not refuse Meg’s orders, but perhaps I should have protested more vigorously. Meg might have backed down if I called her bluff. But then Nero or Peaches or the Germani would have just killed me. I will confess to you: I was afraid of dying. Courageously, nobly, handsomely afraid, true. But afraid nonetheless.
I closed my eyes. I sensed the trees’ implacable resistance, their mistrust of outsiders. I knew that if I forced open these gates, the grove would be destroyed. Yet I reached out with all my willpower and sought the voice of prophecy, drawing it to me.