Page 39

“Your Highness,” Piper said, trying to control her nerves. “Why don’t you tell the boys how you betrayed your family? I’m sure they’d like to hear that story.”

Her words didn’t have any effect on the princess, but the boys turned, suddenly interested.

“More story?” Leo asked.

“I like more story!” Jason agreed.

The princess flashed Piper an irritated look. “Oh, one will do strange things for love, Piper. You should know that. I fell for that young hero, in fact, because your mother Aphrodite had me under a spell. If it wasn’t for her—but I can’t hold a grudge against a goddess, can I?”

The princess’s tone made her meaning clear: I can take it out on you.

“But that hero took you with him when he fled Colchis,” Piper remembered. “Didn’t he, Your Highness? He married you just as he promised.”

The look in the princess’s eyes made Piper want to apologize, but she didn’t back down.

“At first,” Her Highness admitted, “it seemed he would keep his word. But even after I helped him steal my father’s treasure, he still needed my help. As we fled, my brother’s fleet came after us. His warships overtook us. He would have destroyed us, but I convinced my brother to come aboard our ship first and talk under a flag of truce. He trusted me.”

“And you killed your own brother,” Piper said, the horrible story all coming back to her, along with a name—an infamous name that began with the letter M.

“What?” Jason stirred. For a moment he looked almost like himself. “Killed your own—”

“No,” the princess snapped. “Those stories are lies. It was my new husband and his men who killed my brother, though they couldn’t have done it without my deception. They threw his body into the sea, and the pursuing fleet had to stop and search for it so they could give my brother a proper burial. This gave us time to get away. All this, I did for my husband. And he forgot our bargain. He betrayed me in the end.”

Jason still looked uncomfortable. “What did he do?”

The princess held the sliced-up toga against Jason’s chest, as if measuring him for an assassination. “Don’t you know the story, my boy? You of all people should. You were named for him.”

“Jason,” Piper said. “The original Jason. But then you’re —you should be dead!”

The princess smiled. “As I said, a new life in a new country. Certainly I made mistakes. I turned my back on my own people. I was called a traitor, a thief, a liar, a murderess. But I acted out of love.” She turned to the boys and gave them a pitiful look, batting her eyelashes. Piper could feel the sorcery washing over them, taking control more firmly than ever.

“Wouldn’t you do the same for someone you loved, my dears?”

“Oh, sure,” Jason said.

“Okay,” Leo said.

“Guys!” Piper ground her teeth in frustration. “Don’t you see who she is? Don’t you—”

“Let’s continue, shall we?” the princess said breezily. “I believe you wanted to talk about a price for the storm spirits—and your satyr.”

Leo got distracted on the second floor with the appliances.

“No way,” he said. “Is that an armored forge?”

Before Piper could stop him, he hopped off the escalator and ran over to a big oval oven that looked like a barbecue on steroids.

When they caught up with him, the princess said, “You have good taste. This is the H-2000, designed by Hephaestus himself. Hot enough to melt Celestial bronze or Imperial gold.”

Jason flinched as if he recognized that term. “Imperial gold?”

The princess nodded. “Yes, my dear. Like that weapon so cleverly concealed in your pocket. To be properly forged, Imperial gold had to be consecrated in the Temple of Jupiter on Capitoline Hill in Rome. Quite a powerful and rare metal, but like the Roman emperors, quite volatile. Be sure never to break that blade…” She smiled pleasantly. “Rome was after my time, of course, but I do hear stories. And now over here—this golden throne is one of my finest luxury items.

Hephaestus made it as a punishment for his mother, Hera. Sit in it and you’ll be immediately trapped.”

Leo apparently took this as an order. He began walking toward it in a trance.

“Leo, don’t!” Piper warned.

He blinked. “How much for both?”

“Oh, the seat I could let you have for five great deeds. The forge, seven years of servitude. And for only a bit of your strength—” She led Leo into the appliance section, giving him prices on various items.

Piper didn’t want to leave him alone with her, but she had to try reasoning with Jason. She pulled him aside and slapped him across the face.

“Ow,” he muttered sleepily. “What was that for?”

“Snap out of it!” Piper hissed.

“What do you mean?”

“She’s charmspeaking you. Can’t you feel it?”

He knit his eyebrows. “She seems okay.”

“She’s not okay! She shouldn’t even be alive! She was married to Jason—the other Jason—three thousand years ago. Remember what Boreas said—something about the souls no longer being confined to Hades? It’s not just monsters who can’t stay dead. She’s come back from the Underworld!”

Jason shook his head uneasily. “She’s not a ghost.”

“No, she’s worse! She’s—”

“Children.” The princess was back with Leo in tow. “If you please, we will now see what you came for. That is what you want, yes?”

Piper had to choke back a scream. She was tempted to pull out her dagger and take on this witch herself, but she didn’t like her chances—not in the middle of Her Highness’s department store while her friends were under a spell. Piper couldn’t even be sure they’d take her side in a fight. She had to figure out a better plan.

They took the escalator down to the base of the fountain. For the first time, Piper noticed two large bronze sundials—each about the size of a trampoline—inlaid on the marble tile floor to the north and south of the fountain. The gilded oversize canary cages stood to the east and west, and the farthest one held the storm spirits. They were so densely packed, spinning around like a super-concentrated tornado, that Piper couldn’t tell how many there were—dozens, at least.

“Hey,” Leo said, “Coach Hedge looks okay!”

They ran to the nearest canary cage. The old satyr seemed to have been petrified at the moment he was sucked into the sky above the Grand Canyon. He was frozen mid-shout, his club raised over his head like he was ordering the gym class to drop and give him fifty. His curly hair stuck up at odd angles. If Piper just concentrated on certain details—the bright orange polo shirt, the wispy goatee, the whistle around his neck—she could imagine Coach Hedge as his good old annoying self. But it was hard to ignore the stubby horns on his head, and the fact that he had furry goat legs and hooves instead of workout pants and Nikes.

“Yes,” the princess said. “I always keep my wares in good condition. We can certainly barter for the storm spirits and the satyr. A package deal. If we come to terms, I’ll even throw in the vial of healing potion, and you can go in peace.” She gave Piper a shrewd look. “That’s better than starting unpleasantness, isn’t it, dear?”

Don’t trust her, warned a voice in her head. If Piper was right about this lady’s identity, nobody would be leaving in peace. A fair deal wasn’t possible. It was all a trick. But her friends were looking at her, nodding urgently and mouthing, Say yes! Piper needed more to time to think.

“We can negotiate,” she said.

“Totally!” Leo agreed. “Name your price.”

“Leo!” Piper snapped.

The princess chuckled. “Name my price? Perhaps not the best haggling strategy, my boy, but at least you know a thing’s value. Freedom is very valuable indeed. You would ask me to release this satyr, who attacked my storm winds—”

“Who attacked us,” Piper interjected.

Her Highness shrugged. “As I said, my patron asks me for small favors from time to time. Sending the storm spirits to abduct you—that was one. I assure you it was nothing personal. And no harm done, as you came here, in the end, of your own free will! At any rate, you want the satyr freed, and you want my storm spirits—who are very valuable servants, by the way—so you can hand them over to that tyrant Aeolus. Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it? The price will be high.”

Piper could see that her friends were ready to offer anything, promise anything. Before they could speak, she played her last card.

“You’re Medea,” she said. “You helped the original Jason steal the Golden Fleece. You’re one of the most evil villains in Greek mythology. Jason, Leo—don’t trust her.”

Piper put all the intensity she could gather into those words. She was utterly sincere, and it seemed to have some effect. Jason stepped away from the sorceress.

Leo scratched his head and looked around like he was coming out of a dream.

“What are we doing, again?”

“Boys!” The princess spread her hands in a welcoming gesture. Her diamond jewelry glittered, and her painted fingers curled like blood-tipped claws. “It’s true, I’m Medea. But I’m so misunderstood. Oh, Piper, my dear, you don’t know what it was like for women in the old days. We had no power, no leverage. Often we couldn’t even choose our own husbands. But I was different. I chose my own destiny by becoming a sorceress. Is that so wrong? I made a pact with Jason: my help to win the fleece, in exchange for his love. A fair deal. He became a famous hero! Without me, he would’ve died unknown on the shores of Colchis.”

Jason—Piper’s Jason—scowled. “Then … you really did die three thousand years ago? You came back from the Underworld?”

“Death no longer holds me, young hero,” Medea said. “Thanks to my patron, I am flesh and blood again.”

“You … re-formed?” Leo blinked. “Like a monster?”

Medea spread her fingers, and steam hissed from her nails, like water splashed on hot iron. “You have no idea what’s happening, do you, my dears? It is so much worse than a stirring of monsters from Tartarus. My patron knows that giants and monsters are not her greatest servants. I am mortal. I learn from my mistakes. And now that I have returned to the living, I will not be cheated again. Now, here is my price for what you ask.”

“Guys,” Piper said. “The original Jason left Medea because she was crazy and bloodthirsty.”

“Lies!” Medea said.

“On the way back from Colchis, Jason’s ship landed at another kingdom, and Jason agreed to dump Medea and marry the king’s daughter.”

“After I bore him two children!” Medea said. “Still he broke his promise! I ask you, was that right?”

Jason and Leo dutifully shook their heads, but Piper wasn’t through.