There was a nose pushing into Piper's face, cold but not slimy, which was one advantage of automaton dogs.
"All right, I'm up," Piper grumbled. Argentum stood over her with a cockeyed, open-mouthed grin, and Piper belatedly remembered that Reyna used her dogs for interrogations. But apparently what she'd said was close enough to the truth that Argentum padded over to the courtyard door and started scratching instead of tearing her to shreds.
She swung her legs to the floor and went to let Argentum out, but when she got there she found that the door was already ajar. Argentum nosed it open, which he could have done at any point, and looked over his shoulder at Piper like, come play!
"For a lie-detecting dog, you're a shameless liar," Piper told him. She went to the kitchenette and fixed herself a coffee and some cereal, and then had to decide whether to put yesterday’s party dress back on or keep wandering around in a T-shirt and nothing else. She settled on swiping one of Reyna’s togas and wearing it as a wraparound skirt. Then she did go to the courtyard and play frisbee with the dogs for a while before heading out to Camp Jupiter to see if there was any news.
Her quest wasn't notably successful. She couldn't find Reyna, Annabeth, or Jason anywhere. She did find Percy, but he was wrangling a toddler while trying to explain the difference between a Lastrygonian Giant and a Hyperborean Giant to a dozen hyperactive kindergarteners, so Piper decided not to bother him. Finally, she caught up with Will in one of the coffee shops. He was on his way to lend his hand to the medics, who were setting up their first-aid station for the afternoon's deathball match. "You want to come along, Dr. McLean?"
Piper laughed. She was going to start her first year of medical school in the fall, same as Will, but years of quests and, in Will's case, running the infirmary at Camp Half-Blood, had given them experience that very few of their fellow incoming students could match. "Sure thing, Dr. Solace," she said. "So, um, have you heard anything from Nico, or . . . ?"
"He came in early this morning." Will nodded absently to Terminus as they crossed the Pomerian Line, on their way to the Field of Mars; Piper blew the god a kiss. "He was really . . . on top of being up all night, he'd been using his underworld powers a lot, and you know how he gets. And I knew that if he'd found out where Hazel or Frank were he wouldn't have come back without them—if we were really lucky he might have called for help if they were in trouble he couldn't handle—so I just made sure he got to sleep. He'd been out for ten hours when I left. He might be out for ten hours more. You know."
"Yeah," said Piper. Will was right that Nico couldn't have any important news, and anyway, he was back, and that was one less thing to worry about. So she tried to swallow her frustration along with a bite of her bagel. Will sipped at his coffee.
“Are you going back to your dad’s?” he said. “You know we’ll keep you posted as soon as there’s any news.”
“Yeah, well. He’s filming on location in Mexico, so it’d just be me and the housekeeper. I should visit New Rome more often anyway, but even when I was dating Jason, I never really . . . all these Roman virtues. Duty, self-denial, stability.” For some reason, Piper thought of Reyna’s model ranch house. “Do you think you could ever settle down here? Permanently, like Annabeth and Percy?”
“Di immortales, no,” said Will. “That so-called bagel you’re eating? It’s just round bread.”
Piper aimed a swat at the back of his head, and Will ducked deftly without spilling any coffee. By this time they could see the engineers putting the finishing touches on the deathball terrain, fixing sharpened stakes at the bottom of pit traps, hauling out racks of deathball markers. Justine, the legion’s chief surgeon, waved at Piper and Will from the door of the medics’ tent. Soon Piper was sorting packets of powdered unicorn horn and making sure they had enough bandages, awash in gossip about people she barely knew. When she heard the tromp of hundreds of sandalled feet, she ducked out of the tent in time to see Reyna swoop down over the field on her pegasus. Her braid and cloak snapped out behind her, and her legs were bare beneath her armored skirt, gripping the pegasus’ flanks--there were some Roman virtues that Piper could definitely appreciate.
Reyna shouted instructions, and the legion swung into motion, dividing into teams, centurions scrambling to get the best weapons for their cohorts. It wasn't long before the first cry of "Medic!" went up from the field--someone's tagger had jammed while they were loading it, and the deathball had exploded in a burst of Greek Fire--and after that everything was a blur.
At first Piper was on nurse duty, finding supplies, holding hands and murmuring encouragement to legionnaires who were being stitched up. But soon enough all the more senior medics were busy with patients, and it was Piper’s turn to run out onto the field when a call for help was heard.
“Where’s the casualty?” she panted once she'd reached the second line of fortifications, where she’d heard the call from. She’d had to push her way through the thick of the fighting, but here there were only about a dozen warriors, and it looked like they were all on the same side. One of them paused long enough to point Piper in the direction of a defensive trench before shouldering her tagger and vaulting over a coil of razor-wire, heading towards the battle.
Piper slid carefully down the side of the trench, mindful of the sharpened stakes at the bottom. There was a young man sprawled there, arms and legs covered in shallow, jagged cuts from his fall, but the real trouble was his shoulder: no blood, but an inky and spreading stain beneath the skin. Piper felt queasy as she identified the poison. Capture the flag back at Camp Half-Blood could get pretty intense, but nobody three would have used centaur’s-blood venom.
“That looks nasty,” she said. “Shouldn't you be wearing armor?”
“S’posed to be invisible,” said the kid. “Bright-eyed bitch.”
“Least she called you a medic. You a demigod?”
The kid shook his head. “Legacy.”
Piper regretfully took her hand off the flask of nectar at her hip and drew her dagger instead. “I’m going to have to drain the poison. Hold still; this is gonna sting a little.”
The kid set his teeth and couldn't keep his eyes off Piper’s dagger; he gave a little gasp when she made an incision across the infected area. “Hey, that doesn't actually hurt much,” he said.
“I could have said, ‘This won’t hurt a bit,’ but sometimes people are creeped out when I cut them and they don't feel anything,” Piper informed him with a grin. She kept up the pressure on the wound until the dark fluid started to run bright red, then she sprinkled some powdered unicorn horn on and bandaged it up. As she did, she took a closer look at her patient. Short and skinny, with buzz-cut hair and a Mercury tattoo and two years’ service marked on his arm-- “Hey, I know you. With the corps of engineers, Robin, right? You're not part of this exercise. What are you doing on the field?”
“Waiting for the Fifth Cohort to reach the second line of fortifications. Then I’ll give Flavia the signal and she’ll move her unit into place while I trigger the trap--” He clapped his hands over his mouth, looking young and terrified. “I wasn't supposed to tell you that! Flavia’ll flay me alive.”
“What trap?” Piper could see Robin trying not to answer this time, and she said, “Tell me! What happens when you don't give Flavia the signal and you don’t trigger the trap?”
“It’ll trigger anyway when the cohort gets close,” said Robin miserably. “It works by underground vibrations, so--”
Piper looked up, but she couldn't see the field from down in the trench, or how close the Fifth was to disaster. All she could see was blue sky overhead, and Reyna making a sweep on her pegasus-- “Reyna!” Piper called, but she didn't turn, didn't seem to hear. Piper cupped her mouth with her hands, drew on all the power of her voice, and shouted, “YO, REF!”
“Wait! Don't--” Robin squeaked, but it was too late. The walls of the trench had already begun to shake. Piper only had enough time to realize that she should have paid more attention when the kid mentioned underground vibrations, and to throw her body across his, before the walls caved in.
She came to on a cot in the medics’ tent. Everything hurt, and Will was standing over her with a frown of professional concern. “Oh good, you're up.”
Piper rubbed her head. Her hand worked, at least, and the other one, and her left toes wiggled. The right ones didn't, though, and when she looked she saw her entire leg was encased in a cast. Great.
“Is Robin okay?” she asked.
“For now,” said Will. “I wouldn't give much for his chances once Reyna gets her hands on him. She's seriously pissed.”
“Almighty Aphrodite, I’ll bet.” Piper winced, and it had nothing to do with her various aches and pains. Reyna probably wasn't real pleased with her either. “How many people were hurt?”
“Half a dozen injuries, all minor,” said Will. “You managed to collapse the fortifications before most of the legion reached them, so we’re counting you as a hero on this one.” He punched her lightly on the shoulder. “That'll happen if you keep pulling stunts like shielding people with your body, you dope. Your leg is broken in four places.”
Piper shrugged, which didn't hurt any worse than anything else. “I had worse when I was ten years old, skiing with my dad.” She sipped at the cup of nectar Will handed her. It tasted like the coffee she’d had at Reyna’s that morning, and she didn't want to think about what that meant. “The doctor thought she must have mixed my x-rays up with someone else's; she couldn't see how else I’d healed so fast.”
Will rolled his eyes. “Yes, I know, you're a big tough demigod who laughs at pain and eats basilisks for breakfast. You're still going to need a crutch to get around for the next couple of days at least.”
He had one ready for her, and they spent a few minutes adjusting it to her height and walking around making sure she was comfortable, then Will pronounced her fit to go. Which was good, because Piper was starting to get real curious about the argument she could kind of hear outside.
It wasn't the entire legion clustered outside the medics’ tent, but it was a lot of them. Reyna was glowering down at a young woman whose tattoo was a harp with six tally marks--Piper didn’t recognize her, but Reyna, Frank, and Rachel had all complained that the legion’s current augur was as big a pain in the ass as the last one. So Piper assumed that was Flavia.
“Thought you’d make yourself a hero and take out some of the people who were likely to vote against you at the same time?” Reyna said.
“Robin’s lying,” Flavia answered flatly.
Piper stepped out from the tent, and said, “Not to me.”
Reyna whirled around, and for a moment her smile was the brightest thing Piper had ever seen, and it warmed her belly more than ambrosia or nectar. There were scattered cheers from the crowd, too. It looked like Will was right; at least some of them thought she was a hero.
But Flavia didn't turn a hair. “Is the graeca one of your dogs now, praetor? Anyway, everyone knows that Robin would say whatever she told him to say. I’m sure a more thorough investigation will get to the bottom of what happened, but you don't have to worry about that. You'll be retired by then, and seeing as how no one was seriously hurt, I doubt the new leadership will be interested in pursuing any criminals beyond the borders of Rome.”
“Is that so.” Reyna’s voice dropped to a venomous hiss, but Piper didn't think anyone was having trouble hearing her. “I won’t be threatened. And I won’t be retired. Hear this: if Frank Zhang is not back by the Feast of Fortuna, I will re-enlist. You will never be praetor of the Twelfth Legion if I can help it.” Then she looked around, as if she was noticing the crowd for the first time. “Twelfth Legion--I dismissed you like an hour ago. Don't any of you have anything better to do?”
Then she swung herself up onto her pegasus’ back and flew off.
“Well,” said Flavia. “That was a stirring campaign speech.”
Piper thought she knew where Reyna was going. It took a while to hobble over there on her crutch, but she wasn't wrong. Reyna just kept fussing with her curry-brushes or whatever horsey tools they were, her back towards Piper as she came into the stables, but the rubdown didn't seem to be doing much to calm either Reyna or the pegasus.
“You can't do this,” said Piper.
“Sorry, I don't recall anyone busting me down to probatio and making you my sponsor,” said Reyna. “I can do what I want.”
“You're telling me this is what you want? You showed me your house--your dream--you shouldn't have to give it up just ‘cause--look, I know Flavia’s bad news. But we can find someone else to run for praetor.”
“We?” Reyna rounded on Piper, eyes red-rimmed and bright with tears. “If you interfere with a Roman election in any way, I swear I will have you gagged before you're thrown into the Little Tiber in chains.”
It was like the wall that had fallen on Piper a couple of hours back; it knocked the breath out of her, left her speechless with fury. When she finally got her words back after a couple of seconds, the only thing she could say was, “Really?”
For a minute neither of them moved or spoke, and Reyna’a ragged breathing was unnaturally loud in the silence. Then she sat down heavily on a low stool that was pushed under the horsey things.
“Sorry. That was out of line,” she said. “It’s just--that self-righteous little fuckhead could have gotten you killed. And this isn’t your fight.”
“Don't say that,” said Piper. “You're my friend, it’s my fight. You may be the legion’s only praetor for now, but that doesn't mean you have to do everything yourself. Let me help.”
Reyna tilted her head back and looked up at Piper, more vulnerable than Piper had ever seen her--she never thought Reyna would bare her neck to anyone. “Piper--”
“Oh, good, you’re here too, Piper,” said a voice behind her.
“Jason,” Piper sighed. “Have I ever told you that you have the gods’ own worst timing?”
“Oh, um, sorry . . .” Jason looked from Piper to Reyna, clearly not sure what he’d just interrupted. Piper wasn’t sure either, but she wished she’d had a chance to find out.
“Never mind,” said Reyna, standing and straightening her her cloak and armor skirt, which Piper hadn’t even gotten to mess up. “What’s going on?”
“Nico’s awake,” said Jason. “And Annabeth says she’s figured out some stuff, so we’re all meeting at Percy and Annabeth’s. You guys coming?”
“Of course,” said Reyna, and she was on her pegasus and airborne without a backwards glance.
Jason held out a hand to Piper. “Want a lift?”
She didn’t, really, but she also didn’t want to miss anything, or make everyone wait for her to make her slow way back to New Rome. So she stepped into Jason’s arms, and they took off. Once they were airborne, Jason said, “So, are you and Reyna . . . ?”
“No,” said Piper. “Look, can you do me a favor and forget I said anything, or that you saw anything? The last thing any of us need is more drama now, right?”
“That’s for sure.” Jason laughed ruefully. “But, you know, I’m here if you want to talk about . . . anything.”
“Thanks. I don’t.” But after a minute of silent flight, Piper regretted snapping at him; it wasn’t his fault. “I do appreciate the offer, though,” she added. “You’re a good friend.”
Jason blushed and smiled one of his absurdly bashful, absurdly charming smiles. Suddenly it was like they were fifteen again, floating high above the floor of the Grand Canyon as he held her in his arms for the first time . . . Piper hated that he could still twist her insides up like that, after all these years. She’d had boyfriends after Jason--even a couple of girlfriends--but nothing serious, nobody she couldn’t leave behind with as few regrets as she left a hotel room in some strange city where her dad had been shooting.
But it wouldn’t be like that with Reyna.
She was there before them, and so was Will, and Nico in a bathrobe still looking like death warmed over, all squeezed into Annabeth and Percy’s small living room. There was also a guy she didn’t recognize, ex-legion from the tattoo on his arm--one of a pair of the sort of gorgeously-defined arms that wheelchair users sometimes got.
“Hey, guys. Annabeth’s just putting Damasen to bed, we’ll get started in a minute,” said Percy, bringing in more chairs from somewhere. “Piper, have you met Felix? He was a lab partner of Annabeth’s in college.”
Just then Annabeth came downstairs, looking frazzled but happy. There was a short round of greetings and everyone finding places to sit, and then Annabeth said, “So you remember those formulas Leo left on Ogygia?”
Percy groaned. “You holed yourself up for like a month with those formulas after I found them, and barely said two words to me the whole time. And you never got anywhere with them.”
“Not true,” said Annabeth. “I never found Leo with them. But they were interesting anyway. Felix and I did some work on them for a group project in Magical Physics, which is why I thought he might be able to help with this . . . what Hazel said, about Calypso not being there, and what the wind spirits told you, Jason--I thought, what if Festus and Calypso were here in New Rome, but not now?”
“We’re looking at time travel, essentially,” said Felix. “The thing is, it’s only possible with a massive expenditure of divine energy--like when Gaea was defeated, or the end of the first Titan war, when the gods first created Calypso’s prison. But what we found out is that these major disruptions have some similarities to more minor time-distortion effects--”
“Like when we were in the Lotus Hotel, or the Labyrinth,” Annabeth finished. “And they leave traces which it’s possible to measure. So Felix was able to build a device which told us when Calypso had come from. But I’m not sure it helped much. Does April 10th, 1934 mean anything to anyone?”
Nico looked up, visibly shaken. “That’s the day my mother died.”
“Your mother?” said Reyna. “Ella said something about--”
Before Reyna could finish her sentence, the door was flung open. It was Mike Kahale, a brother of Piper’s on the Roman side, wearing full armor and trailed by a mousy-looking girl Piper didn’t know. She’d always gotten along well enough with Mike, but Reyna looked like she’d just bitten into something nasty.
“Mike,” said Percy, “this is a private party. You ever hear of knocking?”
Mike ignored him. “Nico Di Angelo, I arrest you in the name of the Senate and People of Rome. Come with me to the--”
“The praetor is right here, you idiot,” said Reyna, rising to her feet. “And you had damn well better have a specific accusation to make this time. And evidence to back it up.”
“We do,” said the mousy girl, then cringed back as she drew the full force of Reyna’s glare. “Sorry, Reyna! I know he’s your friend and--and Hazel always stood up for him. But we’ve been searching Frank’s house, with magic like Hazel taught me, and . . . well, Nico was the last person to see him alive.”