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Bold as Death, Hard as Hell

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Love is bold as death; jealousy is hard as hell.
Song of Songs 8:6

“It’s called the Rite of Passage.” Nayra popped a chocolate into her mouth. Silena’s dad had given her a super deluxe box of chocolates for her very first time going to sleepaway camp, but Silena had really wanted to give it to Nayra. Nayra had the most amazing big dark eyes and shiny hair that went down past her butt and Silena would never be as pretty as Nayra in a hundred years. “How it goes is, you pick out a guy--”

“Or a girl,” one of the boys added.

“Right, yeah, or a girl,” said Nayra with a wave of her hand like, whatever. “The point is, it should be someone you really like. No cheating and picking out some hopeless melvin who no one would date anyway. You get him to fall in love with you, and then . . .” She paused dramatically, reflected candlelight shining in her eyes. “You break his heart.”

The other new girl on the bed next to Silena’s gave a delighted laugh. “Have you done it? I bet it was fun!”

“It’s not fun,” Nayra snapped.

Two bright red spots appeared on the other girl’s porcelain-doll cheeks, but she didn’t say anything. Even bossy Drew was in awe of Nayra.

But Nayra never stayed mad long. She stretched her legs out on the bed in front of her, flexed her toes like a cat, and smiled. “Okay, it was kind of fun. But that’s not why we do it.”

That was Nayra’s listen-this-is-important voice. Silena listened as hard as she could.

“It’s like when you offer a portion of your food to the gods at the dining pavilion. It’s a sacred rite of our mother Aphrodite, how we show her honor. You know what the other cabins think of us.” The other campers nodded. But Silena had only been at Camp Half-Blood for a few days, and, well--mostly everyone seemed really nice. “They say we’re stupid and selfish and shallow. They think they’re better than us because they can win at capture the flag, or hit a stupid target on the archery range. But we know the truth. There’s nothing more powerful than love.”

Nayra popped another chocolate into her mouth. Her lips were red and full and perfect. Silena snuggled down under her blanket and clutched her stuffed rabbit tightly. She could watch Nayra eat chocolates all night.

“Nothing,” said Nayra.

The first time Silena rode a pegasus, it was the scariest thing she’d ever done. It was so big, and so alive, with an unknowable will of its own; Silena was shaking when Harvey, the head counselor from the Demeter cabin, helped her into the saddle. The first couple of lessons, he held on to the reins, walked her slowly around the paddock--and then he finally decided she was ready to fly. She still remembered that first leap into the air, her breathless exhilaration.

Sneaking down to the Ares cabin before breakfast, knowing what she was about to do, was ten times scarier. But she promised herself the payoff would be even better.

Silena squared her shoulders and stepped up to the door, but before she even managed to knock, the door burst open and Clarisse strode out.

She was wearing armor over her camp T-shirt and camo pants. Her duffel bag was full to bursting with supplies, but she carried it slung over one shoulder as lightly as if it weighed nothing. The few stray wisps of hair escaping her bandana did nothing to soften her proud, angular features.

“Hey, Clarisse,” Silena blurted out before she could change her mind. “Have you chosen your companions for the quest yet?”

Clarisse narrowed her eyes like she thought Silena was making fun of her. When Clarisse thought you were making fun of her you usually ended up with your head down a toilet, if you were lucky, and Silena had to fight the urge to turn and run.

The thing was--when Clarisse thought you were making fun of her, she was usually right. But the people who used to make fun of Clarisse to her face now mostly did it behind her back. Clarisse stood up for herself, always, and damn the consequences. Silena wished she could be like that. But at least she could stand her ground now.

“Not taking any companions,” said Clarisse finally. “My brothers and sisters wouldn’t--I mean, who needs ‘em? I can do it myself.”

If you want to change someone’s mind, Nayra always said, don’t argue with them. Agree with them.

“You’re right,” said Silena, and Clarisse gave her a startled look like, I am? “I mean, you’re the best fighter in camp,” she went on. “Those guys would just slow you down. You don’t need them. You need me.”

Clarisse laughed. It wasn’t her nasty laugh, which Silena had heard often enough; it was more like she really thought Silena had told a joke, and that it was funny. It transformed her whole face: raised her eyebrows, filled out her mouth, brightened her eyes. “Oh, man, if my sibs’d slow me down, you’d be like--like one of those old farts who takes his golf cart onto the highway, y’know? You’re no kind of fighter. Why would I need you?”

“Because what good will it do to find the Golden Fleece and not whoever poisoned Thalia’s tree in the first place? Mr. D’s holding Chiron responsible, but he can’t be, you know that, Clarisse.”

“Yeah.” Clarisse narrowed her eyes in thought. “I’m listening.”

“Well.” Silena took a deep breath. “Last summer, when Luke left camp--and they say he almost started a war between the gods, and that he’s working for Kronos, and Percy says--”

Clarisse wasn’t listening any more. She turned away, almost hitting Silena with her duffel bag. “Don’t talk to me about Prissy Jackson,” she growled over her shoulder.

“No, wait!” Silena jogged after her, cut her off on the path. “Percy says that Luke is evil and he’s got to be stopped, but he’s wrong, he’s wrong, he doesn’t know--Luke’s bitter, and angry, but he’s not a bad guy--” Not Luke, with his brilliant smile and his bright blue eyes, with his gentle fingers when he’d corrected Silena’s grip on her sword, and never laughed at her for wanting to learn. “He just needs to be reminded where he comes from, and . . . and how much we all love him here. You’ll get the Fleece, but I can save Luke. I can.”

“Are you for real?” Clarisse shook her head. “Are you seriously trying to sell me some power of love bullshit? This is power, princess,” she said, touching her spear where it was strapped to her back. “I don’t need anything--or anyone--else. Now my father’s got a ride for me down at the beach, and I’ve gotta catch it. Are you gonna get out of my way, or are you gonna give me a kiss for luck first?”

A kiss--it was a joke, of course. Only Silena suddenly knew, like her mother had tapped her on the shoulder and whispered it in her ear, that it wasn’t. Like a pegasus launching itself into the sky--Silena had lost touch with the ground, and had no idea what to do.

Clarisse shouldered past her. “Never mind. I don’t need luck, either. See you around--after I save the camp.”

“I dunno.” Silena nibbled at her lower lip, looking at the plans Masha had just showed her. “I mean, pegasi are fast in the air. But the rules for the chariot race say you have to stay on the track, and that’ll be hard for them.”

“But the Apollo cabin’s horses are so pretty,” sighed Masha. “We’ve got to have something better, or what’s the point?”

The problem was, Silena really wanted the Aphrodite cabin to have a chariot in the upcoming race. They hadn’t fielded one in the first race, which turned out to look like a really smart idea in retrospect, but . . .

Since Nayra had left for college, it seemed like Silena’s sisters and brothers couldn’t work together on anything. At first Silena thought it might be part of the general poisoned atmosphere of camp, but Clarisse had brought back the Golden Fleece and Thalia’s tree was slowly healing, and the children of Aphrodite were still bickering.

“You’re really good with pegasi, Silena,” said Laurel, looking up from braiding flowers into Drew’s hair. “I bet you could get them to stay on the track.”

“Maybe,” said Silena. “But If I’m driving, who’s going to fight?”

“I can fight,” said Mitchell. He was new, and blond, and undersized, so he had to constantly dodge Demeter girls trying to feed him granola. “I’ve been doing okay in archery.”

Drew snickered. “Yeah, and we’ll get you a diaper and a little pair of angel wings and you’ll look just darling. We’ll win the race cos all the other contestants will be laughing too hard to drive.” She flicked a grass stem at him. “This is dumb.”

There was a mutter of agreement from the other kids, even Masha who’d designed the chariot. Even Silena, who knew what Drew was like and was sick of it. She was right, this was dumb, they’d never be able to make it work . . .

She looked up. Hanging back at the edge of the meadow, as if the Aphrodite kids were a nest of monsters and the assault had to be timed carefully, was Clarisse. She caught Silena’s eye and gave a little nod, like--she wanted to talk to her?

“Hey, guys, I gotta go,” said Silena. “We’ll talk about this more later, okay?” She handed the chariot designs back to Masha. “We may have to make some changes here, but it’s a good design. You should be proud of yourself.”

Masha nodded uncertainly. Silena silently gave it even odds that the designs would end up as Drew’s curling papers before tonight, and got up to join Clarisse.

“Is Aphrodite actually gonna race this time?” Clarisse said.

Silena looked back over her shoulder at her siblings. Drew was still needling Mitchell, it looked like; he had his shoulders pulled in sulkily. Laurel had moved on to Masha’s hair, and Masha was staring after Silena and Clarisse. Silena started walking as she talked, in the direction of the forest, and Clarisse kept up with her.

“I doubt it,” said Silena with a sigh. “Even if we manage to get something built, everyone will probably decide it’s too pretty to risk it getting scratched up on the track.” She felt like she was being disloyal to her siblings as soon as she said it--but they were being so frustrating. And it made Clarisse laugh, anyway. “So are you just here to scope out the competition, or . . .?”

“Uh, yeah. I actually wanted to, um.” Clarisse shrugged and looked down. “Apologize. I should’ve listened to you, before I left for the quest.”

“Why?” said Silena. “I saw--we all saw the Iris message Percy sent.” Clarisse scowled, but the mention of Percy’s name didn’t send her storming off in the opposite direction this time. “The things Luke said about Chiron--about all of us--he’s not who I thought. Not a hero. Not like you.”

The tips of Clarisse’s ears went pink, and the corners of her mouth twitched like she was trying hard not to smile. People at camp had always been afraid of Clarisse, but it was only since she’d brought back the Golden Fleece that they’d started to admire her, and it seemed like she didn’t know quite how to deal with it. It was kind of really cute.

“Yeah, but . . . I was wrong too,” said Clarisse. “I couldn’t do it on my own, not really. If I hadn’t been too proud to listen to you . . . well, I dunno if it would’ve turned out any different. But I’d rather’ve gotten help from you than from Jackson and Chase.”

That wasn’t saying much. Clarisse would rather have accepted help from a one-eyed sea demon than Annabeth and Percy. So why did Silena feel her face getting hot, and a flock of little fluttery creatures taking to wing in her stomach--well, she knew why. She wasn’t stupid.

And they were well inside the forest now, hidden from the curious stares of Silena’s siblings. Silena stopped, turned her face up to Clarisse’s, and kissed her.

Clarisse grabbed Silena’s arm, like she wasn’t sure whether to pull her closer or push her away, but she didn’t do either. Just stood shocked utterly still until Silena took her lips away.

“I should have done that before you left,” said Silena. “But I was too shy.”

Clarisse touched her mouth like she had to make sure it was still there. “For real? You mean it?”

“Yeah,” said Silena, and brought their lips together again to show Clarisse just how much she meant it. Clarisse kissed back this time, clumsy but ardent; Clarisse didn’t do anything halfheartedly. She put her arms around Silena’s waist, and Silena pulled them down to sit under the trees, and it was just mouths for a while, and hands, and hearts going way too fast.

“Oh man,” said Clarisse, her back against a tree and her head on Silena’s shoulder, as relaxed as Silena had ever seen her. “I’m going to get so much shit for making out with the daughter of Aphrodite, though.”

“Yeah?” said Silena. “The daughter part, or the Aphrodite part?”

“Oh, Aphrodite, definitely. I mean, look at me--”

Silena pulled back, grinned, gave Clarisse the old up-and-down. “I’m looking.”

“Shut up!” Clarisse laughed and punched Silena’s shoulder, blushing like a forge. “You know what I mean. Just--look at me, and tell me people don’t call me a dyke ten times a day already.” Now it was her turn to give Silena the up-and-down. Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Bet you don’t get that, though. Princess.”

“Oh, I don’t care,” said Silena, shrugging and tossing her hair. But she wondered if that was really true. Clarisse was practiced at shrugging insults off--or punching them until they shut up. Most everyone had always been nice to Silena. “But if you wanna keep this private--you know, for a bit--we could do that.”

“I dunno. It’d be nice to rub people’s faces in the fact that I get to kiss the hottest girl at camp,” said Clarisse. But there’d been a flash of relief on her face, and Silena knew she’d got her. “But hell, it’s not like it’s anyone else’s fucking business, right?”

“Yeah,” said Silena, pushing a lock of Clarisse’s hair behind her ear, and wishing she could bottle the happiness of this moment. She hadn’t even had to tell Clarisse the biggest reason she wanted to keep them a secret.

The thing was--once Silena’s sisters and brothers knew Clarisse was in love with her, the next thing they’d want to know was when was she planning to break Clarisse’s heart. And Silena would have to, she supposed. Probably. Eventually. It was what you did, when you were an Aphrodite kid.

But for now, and maybe for a little while longer, it was nice just to be Silena and Clarisse.

Silena’s dad looked so uncomfortable and sorry when he came into her room that she guessed what was wrong right away. “Dad, you have to let me go to camp for Christmas vacation. You promised.

Silena’s suitcase was open on her bed and she was almost finished packing; she just had to decide which of her new boots were likeliest to turn Drew green with envy. He couldn’t cancel on her now.

“It’s not that, it’s--oh, baby, I don’t know how to tell you this.” He shook his head helplessly. “There’s something you should see.”

“What is it? Dad, you’re freaking me out. Tell me!” But her dad didn’t say anything, just went back to the living room and hit the button on the TiVo remote. It was the news, and the headline said Bizarre murder at SUNY Purchase, and . . . there was a picture of Nayra.

“Oh, no,” Silena said. “No.”

“Police are still searching for clues in the mysterious death of Nayra Nezain, 19, a freshman at Purchase College, SUNY,” said a newscaster’s bland voice. The scene shifted, the still of Nayra with her arms around two girls Silena didn’t know replaced by the newscaster herself, standing in front a green lawn and brick buildings, the whole area sealed off with crime scene tape. “Nezain’s body was discovered in the library, her throat seemingly cut with a sharp implement. There were scorch marks on the body, but none where it was found, leading investigators to speculate--”

Drakon. Or maybe hellhound, but mortal authorities would be more like to see that as a random mauling.

“The mood on campus is tense, and students have been advised to--”

“Turn it off, Dad,” said Silena.

Her dad hit the button again, and the TV screen went blank. “She was your sister, wasn’t she?” he said.

Silena nodded. Now was when she should start crying, but she didn’t. Everything just seemed very far away. “I don’t . . . I don’t want to go back to school,” she said.

Her dad pulled her into a hug. She let him. “I should probably tell you to think it over, not to make your mind up right now,” he said, his chin resting on top of her head. “But I think you’re right. I’ve been thinking about it a lot . . . ever since that thing at school . . .”

Silena shook her head, her exasperated puff of breath muffled against his shirt. “I told you, it was just a little flaming serpent. I ate some ambrosia afterwards and there wasn’t even a scratch. It was fine.

“I know,” he said. “You’re brave and amazing and I’m proud of you, but I worry. And--I don’t really understand all this stuff but--it’s getting worse, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” said Silena. “It is.”

His arms tightened around her. “I’d feel better, knowing you were at camp. As long as you keep learning. You should study hard, and go to--”

Yesterday he would have said go to college. But Silena knew he was seeing, same as she was, the campus they’d shown on the news. With the crime scene tape and the swarms of cops, who hadn’t been able to protect Nayra, who would never understand what it was that had killed her.

“There’s classes,” Silena said. “Clarisse takes them, she’s a year-rounder, and she--” Silena was going to see Clarisse. She was going to get to spend all year with Clarisse. That should have been exciting. It wasn’t. “I should probably go pack a bigger bag.”

“Yeah.” Silena’s dad let go, and held her at arm’s length instead, so he could look at her. “I’ll miss you a lot. And--I probably don’t say this enough. I love you, Silena.” He kissed the top of her head.

“I know,” said Silena. “I love you too.”

But it was just words.

They burned Nayra’s shroud, even though she hadn’t been at camp for a year and a half, and her body would be returned to her father once the coroners had given up on making sense of it. It was just Silena, Drew, and Laurel in the Aphrodite cabin that winter; Silena held the torch. Afterwards--even though that sort of thing was seriously forbidden--Drew smuggled a brazier into the cabin, and they burned a hazelnut truffle for Aphrodite. The smoke pooled by the ceiling, heavy with the scent of Chanel No. 5, and they passed around the rest of the box of chocolates and told Nayra stories.

Silena talked about how Nayra had taken her to buy her first bra. Drew talked about all the guys whose hearts Nayra had broken, Robert from the Ares cabin who’d thought he was such hot stuff, and Apollo’s son Lloyd who’d gone on to write a song about her that everyone was singing the next year, even some of the mortal kids at Silena’s school. Laurel talked about how Nayra had convinced her father and stepmother to take her back in after they’d kicked her out. It hadn’t stuck, which was why Laurel was here now. She was sobbing by the end of the story.

“It was the first time they’d ever called me Laurel, and not Laurence,” she said between sniffles. “They always did, afterwards, even when . . . when things got bad again. I couldn’t make them, but Nayra did.”

“Oh, hon,” said Drew, pulling her into a hug. Her usually-so-assured voice was wobbly, and Silena started crying too, for the first time since she’d heard the news about Nayra.

Clarisse wasn’t at camp. She had gone on a special mission for Chiron, and nobody knew where she was. Missing in action, one of her brothers said. It was like there was something tight and cold wrapped around Silena’s chest--she shivered, she couldn’t get enough breath. At night, she dreamed of Clarisse wandering in the dark, lost, calling out for help. One of the names she called was Silena’s, but when Silena tried to answer, her voice came as an odd distorted echo that only frightened Clarisse more. Once she saw Clarisse facing down a drakon like the one that had killed Nayra, with one eye glowing balefully and the other a ruined socket above a mouth full of teeth as long as her arm. There were tears in Clarisse’s eyes and rage on her face, all her skill and bravery counting for nothing against the immensity of the monster.

Silena asked Chiron every day if there was word from Clarisse; after a week he started to shake his head sadly as soon as he saw her coming.

“Let me go look for her,” Silena pleaded.

“It’s much too dangerous. I wouldn’t have let Clarisse go, except . . . the quest was sent to her.” Chiron put a heavy hand on Silena’s shoulder. “Try not to despair. Where Clarisse has gone, I knew it would be hard for her to stay in touch with camp, but I have faith in her abilities. She’s been training for this all her life.”

“And I haven’t.” Silena knew she shouldn’t be mad at Chiron for making her admit it; it was true, after all. And she hadn’t even spoken aloud her bitterest thought, that she was relieved that Chiron had forbidden her to leave camp, and that she wouldn’t have to go searching for Clarisse in the dark unknown.

Instead, she gave riding lessons, and did the spear drills that Clarisse had showed her last summer, and waited for news. When thoughts of Clarisse lying bleeding and helpless pressed too close, she tried to chase them away with memories of last summer, sneaking off into the forest, Clarisse’s particular smell: sweat and soap and leather and crushed grass. Clarisse’s mouth on hers, and her strong, calloused hands at Silena’s waist, playing with the hem of her T-shirt.

They’d never gone farther than that. Even among Aphrodite kids, sex, like death, was a subject to be danced around, joked about, too scary to talk about seriously. Silena wasn’t even sure what two girls did. But whatever it was, she found herself wishing that she and Clarisse had done it, that she had some memories stronger than kisses to hold as a shield between herself and her fears.

She knew what her dad would say: Oh baby, you’re so young.

Yeah, she answered him, in her thoughts. And how much older do you think I’m likely to get?

Clarisse came back to camp a couple of nights before Winter Solstice. Connor Stoll, on patrol duty, had found her, and had also probably started all the rumors about exactly how he had found her--delirious, leading an army of monsters, 15 minutes late with Starbucks, ascended to godhood with flowers growing in her wake, with an offer of unconditional surrender from Luke, hopping along missing both arms and a leg. Officially, his lips were sealed, waiting for Chiron to decide what it was safe for the campers to know. Unofficially, Travis was running the betting pool on which rumor would turn out to be correct.

Drew put a drachma on the triple-amputee thing. Laurel put two on the Starbucks one.

“What do you think?” Drew asked Silena, while they were making their beds before breakfast.

Silena shrugged. “My cash is already spent. But if Thalia’s dad kills her, Travis owes me twelve drachmas.”

“Cold,” Drew said. Silena shivered.

She hadn’t really made any bets with Travis. She didn’t know Thalia well--no one did, except maybe Annabeth--but she hoped she’d be okay. It was just something to say, to distract Drew from Clarisse, because if people kept making jokes about Clarisse Silena thought she would scream. And then Drew would make Silena tell everything. She could and she would.

On the way to breakfast, Laurel squeezed Silena’s shoulder. “I know Clarisse is your friend,” she said in a low, quick undertone. “You trained together last summer, right? She’ll be okay.” Then she hurried off to catch up with Drew before Silena could try to figure out what else she knew, and how likely she was to tell Drew about any of it.

It was still Sherman leading the Ares campers into breakfast, and not Clarisse. They didn’t look any more worried at their table than they had all winter, or any less; they sat down at their table with shoving and jokes that were almost, but not quite, loud enough to hear at the other end of the pavilion, or else single-minded concentration on their food. Sometimes the claustrophobic atmosphere in the Aphrodite cabin got a bit much, with the backstabbing and the clothes-stealing, but at least Silena knew they cared about each other. None of the Ares kids had even agreed to go with Clarisse on her quest, either time.

Silena looked over to the Hermes table instead. It was as crowded and raucous as ever, some of the smaller kids getting shoved off the ends of benches in the press. Connor looked different, though, his troublemaker’s grin a caricature of its usual self, like a comedy mask. Silena was tempted to go over to his table, camp rules be damned, and shake him until he told her what he knew.

But it was her turn to lead her sisters up to make their offerings. “Aphrodite,” Silena said, as she scraped some of her mushroom omelette into the fire. She stopped, swallowed, but didn’t make way for Drew to come up after her. Keep Clarisse safe had been her prayer all winter. Now . . . “If you had a hand in bringing Clarisse back,” Silena whispered, “thank you. And, please . . . show me what to do.”

After breakfast, Silena taught pegasus-riding to some of the younger kids. She was trying, without much success, to introduce a skittish pegasus to an over-excited camper when she overheard two of the others whispering.

“Yeah--they’re planning to let her out of the infirmary this morning.” It was Will, from Apollo, his head bent close to Lou Ellen from Hermes.

“Clarisse?” said Lou Ellen. “But what about--” She broke off quickly when she saw Silena looking.

But Silena had already heard enough. She saw Charles Beckendorf passing by, a bundle of I-beams under one arm, and called him over.

“Sorry,” she said, as he set down his load by the edge of the paddock. “Are you busy?”

He grinned sheepishly. “It can wait. Need help with something?”

“Well . . . you know Nico, right? Nico DiAngelo? He’s in the Hermes cabin, but he’s--”

“Undetermined,” Nico mumbled, finishing her sentence before she could say it.

“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about!” Silena assured him. “He might be a brother of yours, Charlie.”

Nico looked up at Charles, and Charles looked down at Nico, identical dubious expressions on their faces. Well, he might. That card-collecting of Nico’s was kind of like the obsessions Hephaestus campers sometimes got, and even though Nico was enthusiastic about everything at camp, he hadn’t really made many friends. The kids from Cabin Nine were often loners, too.

“Anyway,” said Silena, “it’s hard for Hephaestus’ kids to get along with horses sometimes too. They smell like fire, which horses don’t like, and their body language can be a little stiff at first. But Charlie’s learned to be an excellent rider. The main thing is to show your pegasus that you’re calm, and Charlie does a wonderful calm, don’t you?”

Charles looked down and shifted his weight from foot to foot, anything but calm. It would have been adorable if Silena hadn’t been desperate to fob the two boys off on each other so she could go to Clarisse.

“So if you could give Nico a few pointers, I’m sure it would help a lot. I’ve got to go take care of something real quick. I’ll be back right away!” Silena flung this last lie over her shoulder, already heading to the Big House at a run.

By the time she got there, she was winded. She sat down on the steps for a minute to catch her breath, and Clarisse came out the front door. She looked a bit tired, but whole; her hair, loose of its bandana for once, had been chopped off unevenly around her ears, and there was a new scar on her chin, livid and barely-healed.

At first, Clarisse seemed to look through Silena, but then she saw her, smiled, and plopped down on the step next to her. “Hey,” she said, nudging Silena with her shoulder.

Silena was torn between the urge to ravish Clarisse on the Big House porch, and an unaccountable, awkward shyness. “Clarisse,” she said, “I love--what you’ve done with your hair.”

Clarisse laughed and patted it, with a movie-star pout. “Yeah? You think all the Aphrodite girls are going to be copying it this summer?”

“It looks great,” said Silena with 100% sincerity. “You--” Silena was suddenly sick of being afraid, sick of holding back, sick of saying half of what she felt. She threw herself at Clarisse, almost knocking her over, wrapping her arms around her and burying her face in her neck. “I missed you so much! I was so scared! Where were you?”

“Hey. Hey, Princess.” Clarisse squeezed Silena around the waist, and her voice was a little hoarse. It might have been from whatever injuries she had. Clarisse didn’t cry. “It’s okay.” She pulled back and said, “I’m not supposed to talk about it until the counselors’ meeting, but screw that. I’ll tell you everything, just not here, okay?” She scowled over her shoulder at the Big House. “This fucking place is getting on my last nerve.”

Silena stood up and pulled Clarisse up too. She didn’t really think Clarisse needed it; mostly it was just an excuse to hold her hand. But Clarisse leaned on Silena harder than she expected. “Were you badly hurt?” Silena asked, worried all over again.

“Not me,” said Clarisse. “Chris. Chris Rodriguez.”

“From Hermes? Didn’t he--” Silena was going to say something like switch sides or join Kronos, but she could tell, by now, when Clarisse’s hackles were raised. Her stride lengthened, and she put a bit of a swagger into it, jaw thrust forward, shoulders thrust back. “Leave?” Silena said instead. And since when was Clarisse so defensive of Chris Rodriguez?

“Yeah, well, he’s back now. Not that he’s gonna be fighting on anyone’s side any time soon. I’ve he’d just calm down and eat some damn ambrosia--” Clarisse broke off, breathing hard. “But that’s not important. What’s important is where he came from, when my mom found him wandering around in the desert out of his dumb skull. Daedalus’ Labyrinth.”

Silena didn’t know much about the Labyrinth, and what she’d heard was enough to convince her that she didn’t want to know any more. “Why? Was he--did Luke send him there as a punishment or something?”

Clarisse’s mouth twisted in a bitter smile. “Maybe. But mainly he sent him as a scout. Near as I can figure, he’s trying to use it as transportation. Real fast, if you can manage it. Real easy to move whole armies to places you wouldn’t be able to get to otherwise.”

“But where--” Silena swallowed and looked back. Without noticing it, she’d been headed with Clarisse to their favorite old spot in the woods, and she couldn’t see much of the camp from here. A corner of the strawberry fields. A cheerful puff of smoke from the forge’s chimney. Even knowing everything she did about Luke, Silena still found it hard to believe he’d lead an army of monsters here. Wasn’t it his home? “Oh, gods.”

“Haven’t been much fucking help lately,” said Clarisse with a shrug.

They reached the tree where they’d first kissed. Silena sat down, and Clarisse threw herself on the ground, head in Silena’s lap. It was like every nerve in Silena’s body came alive at once--but Clarisse just looked tired.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” said Silena. “It’s been the most awful winter.”

“Yeah, I, uh . . . I heard about Nayra.” Clarisse shifted uncomfortably. “I’m sorry.”

Tears pricked Silena’s eyes. “Thanks.”

“You been doing those spear exercises we worked on last summer?” said Clarisse, propping herself up on an elbow.

“Sure. Every day. I can take Michael Yew two falls out of three, nowadays.”

“Good,” said Clarisse. “Then maybe you won’t end up like her.”

The pit of Silena’s stomach went cold. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Forget it.” Clarisse was sitting up all the way, glowering at the leaf litter.

And Silena could have forgotten it. Could have made Clarisse forget it too, forget her own name, pulled her in for a kiss and seen how much farther they could go, figured it out together. But instead she said, hearing her own voice from a distance like the night Nayra had died, “No. You started this. Say it.”

“Look,” said Clarisse, exasperated, “I know you loved Nayra, but fuck if I know why. Far as I can tell, she never gave two shits about anyone but herself. Acted like a queen bee, and all the other Aphrodite kids were her little minions, she’d never have gotten away with acting like that in the Ares cabin, making you fetch her drinks, do her chores--”

“That’s not true!” Silena said. Or, well, she had always saved the best chocolates from her dad’s assortments for Nayra, and Nayra might have made her own bed but she never had to wash the bathroom floor or anything like that. Clarisse didn’t understand. She didn’t know what it was like to have Nayra smile at you, and scoot over on her bench at the table to make room, and to know that you were her favorite sister. “She looked after us--when I was twelve, and already big enough for a C-cup, and she--”

“Oh, that is such bullshit!” Clarisse burst out. “If she’d looked after you, she’d’ve made sure you all went to the archery range and the climbing wall and sword practice instead of lying around by the lake doing your nails! And maybe then we wouldn’t have a cabin full of demigods who aren’t gonna be good for anything but cannon fodder when Luke brings his army through.”

“Is that what you think of us?” Silena’s voice was quiet, cold. Nayra had warned her, her first day at Camp Half-Blood, that the other demigods held Aphrodite’s children in contempt. She hadn’t really believed it. But it was true.

“Not--I mean, not you,” Clarisse stammered, like she hadn’t quite realized how far she’d gone. “You’re different--you’re not--”

“Not like my sisters and brothers?” Like it was supposed to be a compliment. “You think I’d rather be like you? Everyone in camp laughs at you. You’ve just gotten so full of yourself that you stopped noticing. Drew told me this morning that she heard you came hopping back to camp on one leg, missing the other one and both arms. She bet Travis a drachma that it was true. Everyone’s betting on it.”

“You didn’t.” Clarisse’s voice was shaky, impossibly small. “Did you?”

“As if I’d waste my money!” Silena rose to her feet, and Clarisse did, too, fascinated, compelled, her hands knotted into fists at her sides. “As if I’d waste my time, thinking about you all winter, waiting for you, when there’s loads of other hot girls and guys I could make out with and I wouldn’t die of embarrassment if anyone found out--”

“You didn’t,” Clarisse repeated. It was a growl this time, barely suppressed.

“And what if I did? What are you going to do, hit me?” She might, Silena realized with a thrill of terror. She almost hoped Clarisse would. If they weren’t going to have sex, it seemed like the next best thing, something to feel other than the same dull dread that had been Silena’s companion for so long that she could hardly remember life without it. “It’s what Daddy would do, isn’t it, when he hears something he doesn’t like?”

Clarisse flinched back, as if Silena had hit her. Her eyes were wide and her mouth was open, but no sound came out for a few seconds. Then she hissed, “Fuck you,” turned, and ran. She wasn’t fast enough to keep Silena from hearing when she started sobbing.

Silena stayed where she was, stunned, breathing hard. She’d never felt more powerful, not with a thousand pounds of pegasus muscle beneath her, responsive to her every move, not with Michael Yew flat on his back, her spear aimed at his throat.

Her elation lasted for about a minute. Then her legs gave way, and she landed on her knees in the dirt and vomited up the morning’s mushroom omelette all over the base of the tree.

I did it, she thought, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, breathing deep to try and settle her stomach. The Rite of Passage. She should tell Drew and Laurel. Drew would be impressed, and Laurel would be sympathetic. And they’d laugh at Clarisse, the best fighter in camp, running from Silena crying like a baby. Silena hadn’t been wrong about that. She couldn’t do it.

She hadn’t done it for them, anyway. She hadn’t even done it for Nayra. She’d done it for Aphrodite. She’d prayed for guidance, and no one could ask for a clearer sign than what she’d gotten. But now that it was done, and Silena was emptied out and bereft, the place in her heart that she’d always thought of as her mother’s was silent.

A huge fan thrummed overhead, striping the floor of the parking garage in alternating bands of light and shade. Silena gripped her spear tighter, scanning the shadows. It was a perfect spot for an ambush; there might be skeletons skulking on the ramp to the second floor, a cyclops crouching behind that SUV. She caught a flicker of motion in her peripheral vision and whirled around. It was Luke, a white flag of truce in one hand.

“Would you mind putting that thing away? You’re making me nervous.” He held his hands out to the sides, empty except for the flag, which fluttered slightly in the breeze from the fan. The scabbard at his waist was empty, too. “I’m alone and unarmed. I swear it on the River Styx. I just want to talk.”

There was an odd hitch in his voice when he invoked the Styx. Silena thought he was telling the truth, but she kept her spear levelled. “You threatened my dad.”

“I had to get your attention somehow. I wouldn’t really have hurt him; I’ve got no quarrel with mortals, especially not the parents of demigods. You’re lucky you still have him, you know, that Aphrodite didn’t use him up and toss him aside and leave you with nothing but--anyway. I heard you were on the outs with your mom.”

“How?” said Silena. Nobody knew that, she didn’t think, except Clarisse, and she’d hardly have gone telling Luke about it.

“Never mind. But I thought you might understand. It’s been so long since I talked to someone who did.” He sat down on the hood of a faded blue Honda Accord, looking like an ordinary moody college kid disappointed in love, his arms resting on his knees, his head drooping between his shoulders. He wasn’t defending himself at all; one downward thrust with her spear, flag of truce or no flag--but Luke had been Silena’s friend, once, and besides, she didn’t trust an opportunity like that. “When I first came to Camp Half-Blood . . . Thalia sacrificed herself for us, but nobody tried to help Thalia. I mean, Annabeth was just a kid, but even Grover, even Chiron, they just shrugged and went, welp, will of Zeus, what are you going to do? Everyone else was happy to have a magical tree guarding the borders. I was the only one who cared about Thalia. And I brought her back. I saved her.”

“Clarisse brought the Golden Fleece back to Camp Half-Blood, not you,” Silena pointed out.

“It was my plan. And it worked,” said Luke. “Everything I did, I did for Thalia. I would have made the the queen of a new pantheon. And she tried to kill me! And then Annabeth . . . I somehow always thought that no matter what, Annabeth wouldn’t turn her back on me. But when I really needed her, when she could have saved me, she wouldn’t. I guess that kind of no-matter-what is just another stupid fairy tale.”

Silena crossed her arms and leaned back against the car. She didn’t remember setting down her spear, but at some point she must have. “The way I heard it,” she said, “you tricked Annabeth into taking the weight of the sky on her shoulders.”

“Just for a bit!” said Luke. “It was all part of the plan. I wouldn’t have really let her get hurt. I love her.”

“Yeah,” said Silena. “You tell yourself, I’d never hurt her, I love her, and then when it all goes to hell, it must have been her fault, right? If only she’d listened, if only she’d understood, if only she’d loved you enough. But that’s exactly backwards. If she didn’t love you, you wouldn’t have been able to hurt her so bad. She’d never have fallen for it, or if she had, it’d only be the weight of the sky she was holding, not the weight of your betrayal, too.”

Luke flushed red. “You don’t know anything about it.”

“I know everything about it,” said Silena. “And the worst part is, even once you’ve done it, the unforgivable thing, you don’t stop caring. Because if you did, it wouldn’t be so bad. But you go right on loving her. And it hurts.

“Maybe you do know what you’re talking about.” Luke looked up with a wry half-smile, looked at Silena like he was finally hearing her, and not just the echoes of his own thoughts chasing each other around in his head. “Sounds like your mother screwed you over pretty good.”

“I thought I was doing what she wanted!” Silena wailed. “I was supposed to be honoring her, but there was no honor in it, none. It’s all just . . . shit.”

“Yeah,” said Luke. “Yeah, I know.” He turned towards Silena, his hand hovering in the air near her arm, like he wasn’t sure whether to offer a comforting pat. Silena pressed her face into his shoulder instead, and after a moment’s hesitation, he put his arms around her and held her while she got snot and tears on his shirt.

It wasn’t any one thing, it was everything: the echoing silence when she sacrificed to Aphrodite at meals, the way she couldn’t stand the smell of mushrooms anymore. Nayra’s picture on the evening news, and the set of Clarisse’s shoulders as she trudged up the hill to the Big House to visit Chris.

“There was actually something else I wanted to talk to you about,” said Luke. “My source of information at Camp Half-Blood has dried up. I was hoping you’d take over.”

Silena wiped her face with the heel of her hand. “I can’t. It’s like I said, you don’t stop caring. I love Camp Half-Blood. I love my sisters and brothers, and my friends. I don’t want to fight them. I wish I could just turn it off, but I can’t.”

“Maybe you can’t choose how you feel, but you can choose what to do about it,” said Luke. “You know what I’m fighting for. A world without gods.”

Silena nodded. She’d never really thought much about Luke’s cause before--she hadn’t understood how he could turn his back on his home and his family. She understood a little better now. A world without love sounded great to Silena.

Luke went on, “And I’m not asking you to fight anyone. I’ve got plenty of fighters. What I need is someone to keep me informed.”

“A spy,” said Silena. “A liar and a sneak, who makes friendly with everyone, and then stabs them in the back.”

“You can leave the stabbing to me. And really, fewer people have to get hurt this way. The better information we have, the better we can target our attacks; take out the main opposition quickly, and avoid the wholesale slaughter of people who don’t really pose much of a threat.”

Like Silena’s dad. Like Nayra. But not like Clarisse, because wherever the fighting was, Clarisse would be in the thick of it.

Still, Luke was right. This was a choice Silena could make. “What do I have to do?”

“Aphrodite girls like pretty jewelry, right?” Luke took something out of his pocket. It was a small silver charm, shaped like a scythe, at the end of a delicate chain; it turned and glinted as he held it up. “This will let me hear everything you hear. Take it, and pledge your service to Lord Kronos. That’s it.”

As soon as Silena fastened the clasp around her wrist, her hand went cold, almost numb. It felt right. “I pledge myself to Kronos, Lord of Time,” she said, “and to the downfall of the gods.”

The raid on the Titan army's supply depot was a disaster. It had started out promisingly enough; Chris had provided the intel, the Hermes and Ares cabins had assembled a joint team, and Silena didn’t hear anything about it until afterwards, so they actually took the enemy by surprise for once. But they ran into some of Hecate’s kids, quick on their feet and well-coordinated, and the campers had prepared for fire and poison and giants but they hadn’t prepared for illusions. They ended up fighting each other; there were five moderately wounded and one severely, and they came back empty-handed. As far as anyone could tell, the enemy had taken no losses at all, but they had taken three enchanted javelins and a Celestial bronze dagger. The children of Hermes found being stolen from incredibly demoralizing.

Silena was at the head counselors’ meeting when Travis and Clarisse made their report, barely civil, each trying to shift the responsibility for what had gone wrong onto the other and the other’s siblings. Naturally, the one person neither of them blamed was Chris, but he took it hard. Clarisse’s attempts to reassure him were not a notable success. Silena only heard about the screaming fight they had at the campfire secondhand, but she saw Clarisse around camp over the next couple of days with red-rimmed eyes and a permanent scowl, and a swagger like she was spoiling for a fight with the whole world.

A part of Silena felt savagely glad, seeing Clarisse like that, but another part wanted to punch Chris Rodriguez in the face. And a small, pitiful part hoped that now she and Clarisse would get back together.

There wasn't any part of Silena that was expecting Clarisse to talk to her after the next head counselors' meeting. They'd been discussing Katie's plan to bring some rogue karpoi back under Demeter's control. It was a good plan, and it probably would have worked if Silena hadn’t been sitting there, transmitting the whole thing to Kronos. As it was, Katie and her siblings were going to be heading into a death trap. But Kronos was going to win no matter what Silena did, and fewer people had to get hurt this way--and she wanted Kronos to win, didn’t she? After Kronos won, Silena wouldn’t have to feel bad about Katie.

As everyone was clearing out, Clarisse lingered by the ping-pong table, and said, “Hey, Silena. Wait up?”

Silena could have pretended she didn’t hear, kept walking. She and Clarisse didn’t talk, not privately, not since they’d broken up.

“I need your help,” said Clarisse.

“And why should I help you?”

Clarisse’s scowl deepened, but she didn’t shout or walk away or tell Silena to forget it. “No reason. I just don’t want to fuck things up with Chris the way I fucked up with you, and I don’t know anyone else I can ask. Gudit’s idea for making up with your boyfriend is bringing him severed cyclops limbs.”

Gudit was a sister of Clarisse’s, four feet tall and skinnier than a plucked chicken. Silena giggled. She couldn’t be cold and snooty with Clarisse. “Okay, yeah, maybe not. I don't know why you think my advice'll be any good,though. Everyone thinks I'm some sort of expert on relationships because I'm the head counselor for Aphrodite, but you should know better."

"I don't--I mean, you were--Anyway, you've been with lots of people."

"Um, no," said Silena. "I wanted you to think I was cheating because I wanted to make you as mad as you made me. But it was ever only you."

"For real?" said Clarisse. "But you're so gorgeous, you could've had anyone, and you couldn’t even be sure I’d come back--honestly?”

Silena avoided Clarisse’s eye, spun a ping-pong ball on the tabletop, nodded. She wasn’t sure why she should be embarrassed to admit it, but she was.

“Damn, girl,” Clarisse said. “If I’d known--”

Silena shrugged. “Doesn’t matter now. Do you love Chris?”

“Yeah.” Clarisse’s voice was soft and scratchy, and her chin came up, defiant. “I do.”

“Then you can’t let him get away so easy,” said Silena. “I’m sure he’s kicking himself now for the dumb things he said.”

Clarisse flicked a ping-pong ball at the one Silena had been spinning; it hit, and they both rolled off the table. “Huh. You don’t think he’s relieved to be rid of the camp laughingstock?”

“Oh, Gods, I was such a jerk.” Silena felt a flush creep up her neck at the memory. “Look, yeah, there are some people who laugh at you, but those guys are idiots. And if Chris is one of them, then he can go fuck himself. But if he’s not, he’ll just be so relieved that you want to give it another chance it barely even matters what you say--”

Silena stopped herself before she said anything else, but she’d already said too much. She looked at the scratched surface of the ping-pong table, at the maps pinned up on the walls, anywhere but Clarisse.

“I missed you,” said Clarisse.

“Yeah,” Silena whispered.

“And it’s not--it’s not ever gonna be like it was. But maybe we can be friends?”

Silena looked back at Clarisse. Shoulders back, chin forward; Clarisse never backed down. And she was holding her hand out. Silena took it.

“Friends.” Silena felt like she was going to start crying, and she didn’t know if she was happy or sad or what. “Friends is good.”

The smell of gunpowder and Greek Fire hung in the air, and Clarisse’s face was a wash of colors: pink, blue, and green. Her head was tilted back to watch the fireworks, and her body language for once open, unguarded. Chris lay on his back on the sand, his head in her lap.

Silena’s heart ached, looking at them. Maybe it always would. But it was a good ache, mostly, good to see Clarisse relaxed and happy, to see Chris smiling up at her in adoration. Clarisse deserved someone who adored her.

“Hey.” Charlie touched Silena’s shoulder. “Everything all right? You seem about a million miles away.”

“I’m right here,” said Silena, snuggling into his side. “Can’t think of anywhere better.”

She leaned closer, kissed his jaw softly, maneuvered around to get as his mouth, but he said, “Good, now check this out. It’s a last-minute addition to the fireworks show. I had a lot of time to think it up this afternoon, because someone threw me in jail even after I saved her butt from a berserk automaton.”

He slid a hand around her waist as he was talking, and squeezed; he wasn’t really mad. Silena laughed. “Oh, hush, all’s fair in love and war. Anyway, it was your stupid berserk automaton, and I saved your butt first, so--”

“Look,” Charlie interrupted, pointing at the sky. There was a series of booms loud enough that the sand beneath Silena jumped and skittered, and then a dragon appeared in the sky, glittering bronze, the lights that made it up falling and fading as it snaked its way down to the beach.

“Oooh, pretty,” Silena cooed. As the lights fell, their color deepened, until they were ruby-red, and it wasn’t a dragon anymore. It was a heart, hanging suspended above the waves for just a second before it faded, too. After half a minute, everyone realized that that was the end of the show, and the beach rang with applause.

“Oh,” said Silena. “Charlie.

He ducked his head shyly. “Like it?”

“That was amazing! I didn’t know you could do that with fireworks!”

“Yeah, um--” Charlie got an absolutely flummoxed look on his face, like he really wanted to kiss Silena, and he also really wanted to explain how he’d achieved those pyrotechnical effects, and he couldn’t decide which to do first.

Silena could’ve settled it by going in for the kiss, but it was pretty great the way Charlie’s face lit up when he talked about the work he loved. So they sat there for a while not doing either. The other campers started rolling up beach blankets, gathering weapons, and heading back to their cabins. But there was one group headed down the beach towards Silena and Charlie. Drew, with Laurel, Masha, and Mitchell a step behind her in phalanx formation.

When Charlie’d asked her to go to the fireworks with him, she could have made some excuse, and suggested a less public activity. But Silena didn’t want to screw things up with Charlie like she’d screwed up with Clarisse, didn’t want to ever act ashamed of him. And she was going to have to face the music sooner or later, might as well be now.

She squeezed Charlie’s hand. “Look, I’ve got to talk to my sisters and brother. I’ll catch up with you later, okay?”

“Okay,” said Charlie, as they both got up. There was a faint note of disappointment in his voice, maybe? Or like he didn’t know what he’d done wrong. “Sure.”

Silena rose up on her tiptoes and pulled his face down towards hers. Their lips brushed, parted, came together again, and Silena ran her hands down his back and grabbed his butt. He gave a startled squeak, and Silena pressed her advantage, sweeping her tongue into his mouth. He was hot, so hot, everywhere their bodies touched, like a true son of fire. Finally she let go.

“Go on,” she said, shoving him gently in the chest to get him moving; he looked pretty stunned. “I’ll see you tomorrow. That’s a promise.”

Then she turned, and Drew was there, arms folded across her chest like she was prepared to wait all night but honestly she was getting a bit bored. “Nayra always used to say, no hopeless melvins,” said Drew. “I’m not sure a son of Hephaestus really counts. Especially not one who smells like an electrical short and thinks Terpsichore is something you put over your car to protect it from the rain.”

“He’s got great arms, though,” Laurel sighed. “Every time I see him I want to fall to my knees and thank Aphrodite for sleeveless camp T-shirts.”

Masha clutched Laurel’s arm and giggled. “And the way his butt looks in those jeans! Did you see how Silena just groped him? I would have died happy.”

“So yeah.” Drew directed a brief sour frown at Masha and Laurel, like she hadn’t required quite that much enthusiasm about Charlie’s physique. “We’ll allow it in this case.”

“Charlie’s not stupid. He’s going to NYU in the fall,” said Silena. “But thanks for your permission, which I don’t remember asking for.”

“Oh, sweetie, you didn’t,” said Drew. “And you should have. You’re the head counselor, who you pick out for your Rite of Passage reflects on all of us. But we’ll overlook that, too, as long as the break-up is spectacular. I expect an even better show than we got just now.”

She didn’t say if she meant the fireworks or the kiss. I’ve already done it, Silena could say. Is the hero who brought the Golden Fleece to Camp Half-Blood and drove the chariot of Ares, who went into the Labyrinth alone and came out alive, good enough for you? But that was none of Drew’s fucking business and never had been. And neither was Charlie.

“It’s not happening,” said Silena. “I mean, yeah, maybe we’ll break up at some point--I’m not the Oracle, I can’t tell the future. But I’m not doing it for some stupid game.”

“It’s not a game!” Laurel protested. “It’s a sacred rite! Nayra said--”

“Nayra is dead.” It just came out like that, flat and bitter, but Silena regretted it as soon as she saw Laurel’s shocked, injured reaction. “I miss her, too. I’ll never forget everything she did for me, for all of us. But she wasn’t right about everything.”

Laurel shook her head. “What’s gotten into you lately, Silena? You never hang out with us by the lake anymore. When we talk at night, you pull the covers over your head and pretend to be asleep.”

“You’re always either training, or at meetings with the other head counselors, or--I don’t know,” Masha put in. “The little ones hardly see you. I don’t think Lacey even knows you’re our head counselor.”

Mitchell hadn’t said anything until now, and Silena looked at him, hoping he’d back her up. He scuffed his toe in the sand and wouldn’t meet her eye. “I didn’t want to think Drew was right about you,” he said. “But she was. You do think you’re better than us.”

“No!” said Silena. “I think we’re all better than this. Look, Nayra always said that love is the most powerful thing, right? And it is. But the Rite of Passage is a stupid way to prove it. Yeah, love can hurt. So can an arrow, or a sword, or a stick with a nail in it. We should be showing what love can do that none of those things can. Like bringing together the most unlikely people. Like healing hearts, and humbling pride.” The way Clarisse had asked for her help, even after all the awful things Silena had said to her, because she loved Chris, and because she loved Silena. The way that Charlie had leapt onto the back of the brass dragon, and the way he’d captured the dragon’s movements and hung them up in the sky. “It can inspire people to make beautiful things and do great deeds, to be better, braver, more generous. That’s the power of love.”

Mitchell’s eyes were shining. Laurel and Masha looked uncertain. Drew clapped sarcastically.

“Nice. But all I’m hearing is that you’ve found something you want, and you’re not willing to give it up, and you think you know better than the gods. Haven’t you read any myths, Silena? Don’t you know how that ends? Mark my words, you and Mr. Built-like-a-brick-shithouse are both going to end up regretting this.”

“You don’t scare me,” said Silena.

“No reason I should, hon. But if Mom doesn’t scare you, you’re an idiot. I give it a year, at most. Then we’ll see who knows the will of Aphrodite, you or me.” Drew turned on her heel. “Come on, girls. Mitchell.”

Silena was left alone on the beach. Maybe not completely alone--there were a few dim shapes further along that might have been couples braving the cleaning harpies for a few more minutes of time together, but she couldn’t see them clearly, and they couldn’t see her. She shook her wrist, and the silver scythe at the end of its chain blinked into visibility. Aphrodite girls like pretty jewelry, right?

And if she believed in the power of love after all, what then? Better. Braver. She undid the clasp, and sensation flooded back into her hand with painful intensity. It felt right.

“You’re a jerk, Luke Castellan,” said Silena, and she wound up and threw the bracelet as far as she could, out to sea. It flew out of sight and fell without a sound.

By the time she got back to her cabin, everyone else was asleep for once. Silena was exhausted, too. She left her shorts and bra in a pile on the floor and climbed into bed. And there, on her bedside table, was the bracelet with its silver scythe charm.

"Hello, Silena." The voice was Luke's and not Luke's. Heart pounding, she grabbed the bracelet and ducked under the covers, hoping that no one had heard. “You didn’t think you could get rid of me that easily, did you? That I’d place any dependence on your faithfulness, when you’d betrayed one set of loyalties already?”

“I’ll tell Chiron,” Silena said breathlessly. “He’ll know what to do.”

The voice laughed, a sound like metal scraping against stone. “I’m certain he will. My son is not as soft as you seem to think him. He has been sending heroes to their deaths for millennia; he will not scruple at one more, willing or unwilling, when it is so clearly for the good of all. Still, he does have his share of foolish sentimentality. Perhaps he will spare you a few squares of ambrosia before he casts you out of Camp Half-Blood and seals its borders against you. After all, it’s dangerous out there for a demigod alone.”

Silena wanted to say that Chiron wouldn’t do that. But Kronos was right; it was the logical course of action.

“Or do you imagine anyone will stand up for you, once they know what you’ve done? Your siblings, to whom you spoke so stirringly just now? That boy who seems smitten with you?”

Silena’s throat closed up. She could face monsters. She’d faced them before, and she’d brought this on herself. But everyone knowing--Clarisse’s look of shocked betrayal, multiplied by everyone--Silena’s dad wouldn’t judge her, she knew. But she couldn’t go to him. She’d lead the monsters right to his door.

“Or else,” the voice went on, “you could save them all. I know what Luke promised you; safety, for those you loved, if they posed no immediate threat. I keep my promises. What’s one son of Hephaestus more or less, to me?”

How stupid did he think Silena was, when he was using Luke as a meat puppet to talk to her; Luke, who’d been his most faithful servant?

“But if you refuse my protection--well, I doubt it would make much difference to you if those you love were the first to die, would it? They would despise you then, and you’d never even hear of their deaths.”

Silena waited in silence for the next twist of the knife. But that was it; apparently Kronos had said his piece. And while she had no faith in his promises, she absolutely believed his threats. She couldn’t go to Chiron. She clutched the tiny scythe tightly, sharp and cold against her hand, which was already beginning to go numb.

Silena wasn’t afraid. It had been so long since she’d last not been afraid that she’d forgotten how light she could feel, how free. Every sensation was intensified: the chariot shuddering beneath her, with a jolt for every pothole and crack on Fifth Avenue, the reins biting into her hands, the wind against the small patch of skin around her eyes that was all the helmet she was wearing left open. She tried to hold it back, but she couldn’t; she threw her head back and laughed.

The warriors thundering behind her, Clarisse’s brothers and sisters, didn’t seem to notice anything strange about that. Maybe Clarisse often laughed while riding into battle. If it felt like this for her, no wonder.

All around, Silena could see the devastation worked by the Titan army where the defenders from Camp Half-Blood had fallen back, foot by bloody foot, until they were almost backed up against the Empire State Building. There were still skirmishes going on, on sidewalks and alleyways, but the monsters weren’t pressing forward now, and soon Silena saw why. She had to swerve to avoid the armored tail of an enormous drakon advancing on the defenders. The rest of the army had moved aside to give it room to work.

“Ares!” Silena shouted, and without any need for further orders, half the warriors following her peeled off to help the campers still fighting on the sides, the other half continuing to race behind her towards the front of the drakon, where it kept all its vulnerable spots.

They knew each other so well, the children of Ares, that they didn’t need any words to know who should go where, covering each others’ backs automatically when the sibling next to them turned aside. On some level, they must know it wasn’t Clarisse leading them, but they still followed. Maybe Silena shouldn't have been surprised. She knew how easy it was to fool yourself when you really wanted to believe..

She'd told herself that she didn't believe Kronos' promises, but she'd hoped, and she didn't realize how hard she'd been hoping until there was nothing left to hope for. Then she'd wanted to give up; in Asphodel, she'd heard, you forgot everything, and she wanted to stop picturing the way Charlie must have looked when the explosion hit, to stop knowing that it was her fault.

Love was stronger than grief, or guilt, or despair, and crueler. They all knocked you down, but love was the one that made you get up again, that wouldn't let you quit. And now love was doing what nothing else had been able to: leading the children of Ares into battle alongside their cousins.

This was the Rite of Passage Silena chose.

She wheeled around to face the drakon. Behind her, with well-drilled precision, her unit did the same. The drakon reared and spat, and Silena leapt from her chariot, barely dodging the stream of poison. She heard a few stray drops hiss against the boiled leather of her armor. But that wasn't what made her fear come rushing back, or its teeth, each as long as her arm, or the single eye, glowing balefully next to the bloody ruins of the second one. It was--she knew this drakon, had seen it somewhere, but she couldn't remember--

It didn't matter. "Ares, to me!" she called, and the campers behind her answered with a volley of javelins, more than half of which found weak spots, impossibly small chinks in the monster's armor. Enraged, the drakon lunged, snapping up the warrior to Silena's left; there was a cut-off scream, and she couldn't see what had happened to him, couldn't stop to wonder if she'd just become responsible for another death, because that great head was bearing down on her, jaws dripping with blood and poison.

Then the head turned aside, and Silena had a chance to recover her breath. Something had distracted it. Two warriors were running up its ridged back: Annabeth, with Percy right behind her.

"You can do it!" Percy called. "A child of Ares is destined to kill it!"

He meant it as encouragement. It should have been encouraging--there were plenty of children of Ares here. Silena had brought them, all except one.

She locked eyes with him for a moment, and he knew.

"No," he said, "wait!"

Silena hardly heard him. In that moment, she knew, too, remembered the dream where she'd seen the drakon, and understood why Clarisse had been crying when she faced it down. And she knew that Clarisse was destined to kill it. All her skill and bravery might not be enough to defeat the drakon, but love was enough.

Clarisse would avenge her. Charlie was waiting in Elysium. "Ares!" Silena shouted. In her heart, she called, Aphrodite! And she lowered her spear and charged.