"Have I mentioned that you're a complete moron?" Andreas asked, twisting the key in the ignition. The engine stopped, and we were left with no sound but the muted chatter of the radio and the almost audible tension emanating from my best friend.
"Only about fifteen times since I got in the car," I replied.
"You'd think it'd have sunk in by now."
I turned in the passenger seat to shoot him a glare. His face looked ethereal lit only by the blue glow of the dashboard clock. "Hey. What happened to moral support?"
He shrugged. "I decided to go with the 'tough love' approach instead. You'll need thick skin to walk into the lion's den."
I leaned back in the leather seat, shutting my eyes in order to block out the view of the palatial house at the end of the long, sweeping circle driveway. It was beautiful; what with the meticulously landscaped gardens and the way the Grecian-style marble pillars stood out starkly against the night sky, but I wasn't in the mood to appreciate the architecture.
Not when the person I was meeting inside of it was about to be my judge, jury and executioner.
"You're all about the comfort, Andy."
"Just doing my duty as your best friend." He sighed, and even though my eyes were closed, I could tell he was looking through the windscreen at the mansion beyond the gate. "Are you sure that you're ready for this disciplinary meeting? I feel like I'm throwing you to the wolves."
"I thought they were lions?"
Andreas punched the button for the overhead light, and I wrinkled my nose at the sudden flare of yellow from behind my closed eyelids. Cracking open one eye, I surveyed him.
His brown eyes were uncharacteristically sombre. "This isn't funny, Ethan. You're not getting told off by your dad for missing curfew, here. This is your career at stake. Hell, this is your life."
"I know," I decided to sober up. There was genuine fear in Andreas's expression, fear for me that I didn't want to treat as though it was a big joke. I needed to get my head in the game, or else I might end up getting it bitten clean off. "You're right. I know what's at stake here."
He exhaled heavily through his nose. I knew that sound well. It was the same noise he made whenever he was holding back from telling me an unpleasant truth.
"Whatever it is, Andy, just say it."
"It's just…" His gaze dropped to his hands. They were clenched around the steering wheel, so tightly that his knuckles had turned white. "You never think, Ethan. Even after all the times you've been in trouble, you still half-arse your way through life, taking on deadly missions armed with nothing but a wing and a prayer. You've not changed since you were fifteen."
"That's not true," I argued. The kid I'd been when I'd first started my warrior training six years ago had been intelligent, but naive. Strong, but undisciplined. Brave, but thoughtless. That kid had seen so many horrors over the years that his nightmares had transformed him into someone else. And the guy who had woken up from those endless nightmares, he was different. I was different. Older. Harder. More calculating. "You know that I made the right call out there, Andreas. I did what I had to do."
"I know that." He bit his lip. "I just hope that Atticus knows it, too."
I turned his words over in my mind for a few moments. Andreas had good reason to be wary. Our commander charmed the rest of the world, but to those in his charge, he was sometimes ruthless. Whether someone was in the right or in the wrong often had little to do with his judgements of them. Sometimes, he would condemn you to prove a point or to knock you down a peg. Sometimes, the severity of his punishment just depended on the kind of mood he was in.
"Well, we'll soon see." I unclipped my seatbelt and grabbed the door handle. I was partway out of the car when Andreas leaned across the seat towards me, dark curls falling in his eyes.
"Do you want me to come with you, man? You might need some back-up."
Of course, Andreas knew full well that he would be kicked out of the meeting before it even started. His presence wasn't requested, and was therefore unwelcome, whether he volunteered to be there or not. His words were empty, but I appreciated the gesture all the same.
"Thanks, Andy, but no. I've got to face the music alone. You know that you'll just end up getting into shit if you try to come in with me."
"Can't argue with that," he mumbled, sounding relieved. I couldn't say that I blamed him. I took a deep breath. Showtime. Before I could lose either my nerve or my lunch, whichever came first, I booted the car door open fully and stepped out into the cool night air. The gravel crunched underfoot as I moved to shut the door again.
Andreas unwound the window to give me his last parting words. "Good luck, E. Try not to get devoured."
"Thanks. You'd better get out of here."
"Call me later."
I nodded, and Andreas re-wound the window. I had to dart out of the way as he performed a very dodgy U-turn and took off, pedal to the metal, spraying gravel as he went. I watched the car go until the tail lights were swallowed up in the darkness.
When I could delay it no longer, I marched forwards to the guard booth beside the towering wrought iron gates. Atticus had recently changed the guards around, so I barely knew the guy manning the booth. He was a stocky-looking skinhead in his late-twenties. I was about sixty percent sure that his name was Kostas. As he saw me, his mouth stretched into a wide grin.
"In trouble again, are we, Ethan?"
I may not have known him well, but he sure as hell knew who I was. Not that that was particularly surprising. "I'm here to see Atticus."
He ignored this. Leaning forward, his watery green eyes lit up with the prospect of gossip. "So, what did you do this time?"
"None of your business."
He shrugged. "I suppose it doesn't really matter. You screw up so often that it's only to be expected, eh, kid?"
My hands balled into fists at my sides, and I barely resisted the urge to reach under the Perspex panel and throttle him. "Just get on your stupid radio and tell Atticus that I'm at the front gate."
With another smirk, Kostas complied. He picked up the walkie-talkie on his desk and jabbed one thick thumb into the button. There was a crackle of static, which settled into an even silence.
He lifted the radio to his mouth. "Ethan Savas is at the front gate. Should I let him in, boss?"
A few seconds later, the reply came. I recognised the voice as Atticus's instantly. "Is he armed?"
Kostas eyed me warily. "I'm not sure, sir."
"Strip him of any weapons before he comes in, Kostas. I don't want him making a scene."
If Atticus heard the snarl of protest that escaped my throat, he didn't acknowledge it. Kostas did, though. He slid out of the guard booth and picked his way over to me with all the skittishness of a faun in the woods. I was half-tempted to yell 'boo' and see if he ran away screaming.
Instead of doing that, however, I played at being a good boy. I held out my arms and let Kostas pat me down. He confiscated the bronze dagger tucked into my waistband, but didn't find anything else on me. I decided to keep quiet about the knife in my left boot that he'd overlooked.
Kostas made his way back to his little radio. "I've confiscated his weapons. He's clean, sir."
"Send him in, then," Atticus replied cheerily.
Kostas fiddled with the control board on his desk for a moment, and the gate swung forwards with a metallic hum. My footfalls were heavy on the crunchy gravel as I made my way up the long drive. It might have been melodramatic, but I felt as though I was marching towards my own doom.
Just as I got to the bottom of the marble front steps, the main doors swung open. A woman in a short grey shift-dress appeared on the threshold. She looked to be in her mid-fifties, and yet somehow timelessly elegant. Her long, dark hair was braided in a complicated style on top of her head. When she saw me, she gave me a smile that was far more sympathetic than the one Kostas had given me.
"Oh, Ethan, darling. Come on in."
I took the steps two at a time and stooped to plant a kiss on her remarkably unlined cheek. "Joanna, it's good to see you."
"And you, my sweet." She reached up to cup my cheek. "Although I wish I weren't seeing you under disciplinary circumstances again."
I flinched. "It wasn't my fault."
"It never is, darling," she sighed. I was stung by that. Clearly Andreas wasn't the only one who questioned my rationality on a daily basis. "Come, then. Atticus is waiting for you."
She stood back and gestured for me to enter the sumptuous foyer first. I stepped over the threshold, nodding at another black-clad security guard who was standing sentry on the inside of the double doors. This one, I knew well. He was Peter, one of Atticus's personal security detail. He raised one eyebrow at me and winked, before muttering something unintelligible into his handheld radio.
Joanna swept through the door behind me and looped her arm through mine. "He's in a good mood today, darling," she whispered in my ear. "I wouldn't worry so much."
She towed me through the house, past yucca plants and the winding staircases that led to the upper living quarters. A few people passed us, men and women alike. Some were dressed in sweatpants and t-shirts, like they'd been training. Others were dressed casually. A couple were wearing the all-black security uniform. They stuck out like overgrown crows against the cream-on-white colour scheme of the place.
I noticed the cagey looks I was getting as we progressed towards Atticus's office. I didn't know why my brethren insisted on treating me like a ticking time bomb, but they did. It was a gross overreaction, on their part. I wasn't as volatile as people made me out to be.
We fetched up outside Atticus's office within a couple of minutes. Joanna cupped my face again, giving me another matronly smile. "You'll be fine, Ethan. Just don't lose your temper."
"I won't," I insisted, and she nodded. After a condescending pat to my head – for which she had to stand on tiptoe – she swanned off down the corridor. I took another deep breath and knocked on Atticus's door.
"Come in!" he called loftily.
I walked through. Atticus's office had always reminded me of the office of some sort of forties newspaper editor. It was cramped and cluttered, the top of the desk was a mess of papers, and there always seemed to be a crystal bottle of scotch resting on top of his in-tray. Plus, every piece of furniture in there was made of polished mahogany.
It didn't really fit with the image of the man himself. Atticus was a tall, broad-shouldered guy in his late-thirties. He had the physique of an Olympic boxer, the bone structure of an Abercrombie model, and the impish smile of a badly-behaved schoolboy. His light brown hair barely contained a trace of grey, and his navy blue eyes sparkled with wicked humour.
I cleared my throat. "Hello, Atticus."
He tipped the glass of scotch he was holding towards me in greeting. "Hello, my troublesome nephew. You're looking more and more handsome every time I set eyes on you."
I narrowed my eyes, unimpressed with his flattery. "I look like you." And it was true. Other than my hair – short, reddish-blond curls I had inherited from my mother – I looked very like Atticus. He was my father's younger brother. At one time, he'd been my cool uncle who snuck me alcohol at parties. But I wasn't fifteen anymore. I was twenty-one, a fully fledged Son of Heracles. Now, he was my commander first and my uncle second. He never let me forget it, either.
Atticus smiled. "Isn't that what I just said?"
"I'm not really in the mood," I told him, crossing the room and throwing myself bodily into the chair opposite him. With the desk between us, and the sudden coolness of his gaze, I felt more than a little uneasy. "I'd rather get this hearing over with, if it's all the same to you."
"You're insolent and insubordinate, Ethan," he told me, but he didn't sound all too upset about it. "It's becoming noticeable to the others."
I couldn't resist sarcasm. "Only just now? Wow, either the Sons of Heracles are exceptionally slow, or I need to try harder with my rebellion."
The twinkle evaporated from my uncle's eyes altogether. "You're a lot less amusing than you think you are, kid."
I bristled at the word 'kid', but tried not to let it show. "I respectfully disagree."
"Your little stunt with the gorgons last week…" He left the sentence hanging. I crossed my arms over my chest emphatically. I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of condemning myself for what had happened. If he wanted to accuse me of misconduct, he could damn well say it himself.
After a few minutes of silent staring-off, Atticus cracked. "You were reckless and dangerous."
"I fought damn well, and you know it. I'm a better fighter than most of the other warriors combined."
He continued as though he hadn't heard my interjection. "You knowingly risked the lives of four of your brothers by running off inside the gorgon's lair half-cocked when you were expressly told not to. Do you think they wanted to go in after you? Dimitri is still in the infirmary. He might not recover for months. And all because you were too damn impatient and hot-headed to wait for back up."
"The gorgon had taken a little girl hostage," I said simply. "What did you expect me to do? If I'd waited, she'd be dead."
"And Ronan wouldn't be."
I flinched. Ronan had been petrified and shattered by the gorgon during the rescue attempt. He had been a good man. A sworn brother in arms. A true Son of Heracles. I mourned his loss along with all the others. I knew they blamed me for it. Hell, I blamed me for it. His death was the sole focus of my nightmares, lately.
But he'd sacrificed his life to save a ten-year-old girl. It was a good death. A noble death. A hero's death. My fault or not, he would be finding his way to Elysium right about now.
"I'm sorry about Ronan." My voice came out as a whispery croak. I cleared my throat and tried again, this time forcing myself to meet my uncle's gaze. It did no good showing weakness in front of Atticus Savas. "I really am. But I still saved an innocent life."
"So, it was worth it?"
I sucked in a breath. Atticus leaned closer, his eyes boring into mine. I knew what he wanted me to say. He wanted me to tell him that it was a mistake. He wanted me to tell him that the loss of a Son of Heracles was greater than the loss of a mortal child. If I told him that, I knew that he wouldn't punish me severely. I could walk away with a slap on the wrist and a week's worth of training duty.
But I couldn't do it. I lifted my chin defiantly. "Yes, Atticus. It was worth it."
He smiled. It wasn't his usual genial smile. It was the smile of a predatory animal the second before it rips your throat out. "Very well, Ethan. I've heard what you have to say."
"And?" I replied quietly.
"And… I think you have a lot to learn about the importance of our brotherhood here. I think you are arrogant, and irresponsible." He paused. "But I'm not going to remove you from field duty. I'm going to give you an assignment. A permanent one."
My eyebrows rose. "That doesn't seem like much of a punishment."
He laughed softly. "Oh, it is. There's a new Pythia who has just been anointed in Delphi. She refuses to remain within the confines of the Temple of Apollo for her own safety, so the Council have decided to compromise with her. She can remain in the outside world under two conditions. One… that she relocates to a more remote destination. And two… that she is under the twenty-four hour protection of a Son of Heracles."
I had to run his words over in my mind a couple of times before I could actually make sense of them. "So, you're saying…?"
"That you are now the glorified babysitter of a defiant teenage oracle? Yes, Ethan, that's precisely what I'm saying. I'm shipping you off to Kiev with the girl. You can stay with the Amazons there."
"Ukraine?" I expostulated. "You're sending me to Ukraine?"
"The girl can't stay in England," he scoffed. "Everyone knows where she is. And she refuses to stay in Delphi. Therefore, she will be under the protection of the Amazons. In order for that to happen, she has to go and stay with them. Hence, Ukraine."
"If she's under the protection of the Amazons, then why does she need a Son of Heracles?" I demanded.
"Because the sibyls requested it."
I knew I'd been snubbed as soon as the words were out of his mouth. There was a tone of utter finality to what he was saying. I didn't stand a chance of refuting him. I placed my palms flat on the table, narrowing my gaze at him again. "You're exiling me."
"I prefer to think of it as… teaching you a lesson."
"You son of a bitch." I stood up so suddenly that my chair tipped backwards and hit the hardwood floor with a crash. "You couldn't wait until I screwed up enough so that you could do this, could you? You and Dad, I bet you planned this from the very first disciplinary meeting!"
"Don't be ridiculous, Ethan." Atticus stood, too. It wasn't as impressive a gesture as it used to be. Sometime in the last couple of years, I'd grown as tall as he was. "You shouldn't think of this as a punishment. You should think of this as an opportunity for discovery."
"What I think is that you're not only removing me from the field, you're saddling me with some freaky future girl and shipping me off to another country to live with a group of warrior women who hate the Sons of Heracles on sight!"
"That's true," Atticus smirked. "But you might learn something valuable, nephew."
"Go to hell, uncle," I spat. Whirling around, I practically fled from the room. Just before I slammed the door to his office, I heard him call after me.
"You'll pack your bags and report to me here tomorrow for the journey to Delphi!"
I showed up at Andreas's door an hour later. He took one look at my expression and beckoned me inside without another word.
It wasn't until I'd thrown myself down into one of his overstuffed armchairs and accepted the beer he'd offered me that I actually began to tell him what had happened.
"I'm being sent away."
Andreas choked on the swig he'd just taken from his own beer bottle. "You what?"
"He's sending me to the Amazons. I'm supposed to look after the new Delphic Pythia or whatever."
Andreas's eyes went so wide I was worried that they'd actually fall out of his head. "You're kidding, right? He can't do that."
I raised one eyebrow at him. "Can't he? Atticus is the commander of the Sons of Heracles. He says 'jump', we ask 'how high?' End of story."
Andreas took a long pull on his beer. "That sucks, man. You're going to be stuck with some old crazy chick and a bunch of psycho killer women for months on end."
"Actually, apparently I'm going to be stuck with some teenage crazy chick. Not an old one. Although that doesn't make much difference."
"I don't know," Andreas mused. "She might be hot."
I gave him a Look. "She's an oracle, Andreas. She'll be annoying, and weird, and she'll know things are going to happen before they do. She'll faint at the drop of a hat, and she'll be utterly useless for conversation. She probably won't even laugh at my jokes. I'm screwed."
"She might surprise you."
"Lots of things surprise me. This whole assignment has surprised me. But it's not in the good way, and it rarely is. Face it, I have just been handed the shittiest gig in the whole world."
"You've just been handed the shittiest gig in the whole world," he agreed. "But that doesn't mean that nothing good will come from it, in the end."
"Who died and made you the Emperor for Optimism?"
Andreas laughed. "I'm just saying that every cloud has a silver lining."
"Fantastic. Any more clichés you want to throw at me, just while you're on a roll?"
Instead of a cliché, he threw a sofa cushion. It landed with the uncanny precision that only a Son of Heracles could manage deliberately – right between the eyes. I flinched and batted the offending item away.
"Seriously, though, I'm sorry." Andreas sighed. "If it makes you feel any better, I'm going to have a miserable time without my best friend."
"Funnily enough, that doesn't make me feel any better."
I stared glumly down at the bottle of beer in my hand, wishing, not for the first time, that I'd been able to overcome my crisis of conscience in the gorgon's lair and just wait for backup. If I had, then none of this would've been happening to me.
But, I reminded myself sternly. A little girl would be dead.
As though he'd read my mind, Andreas said, "You shouldn't beat yourself up over this, E. No matter what Atticus said to you, I still think you did the right thing. I would've done the same thing in your position."
I opened my mouth to argue that he most certainly would not have rushed in by himself. Andreas was a stickler for the rules, which is why our friendship was so unlikely. Instead of voicing my opinion, I shut my mouth again. He was only trying to comfort me, and it was pointless taking my frustration out on him. Not when I had a different target in mind for my anger.
Atticus had thrown me under the bus. He hated disobedience, despite being something of a loose cannon in his own youth, and I was his latest object lesson. I knew he'd use my exile as a cautionary tale to all the newer warriors. Be a good boy, fall in line, or you might end up like Ethan.
A rush of hatred for my uncle swelled in the pit of my stomach. I tried to quench the flames with another swig of beer, but it didn't work. If anything, the anger intensified.
"You know what you're going to have to do, though, don't you?"
I glanced up at Andreas. "No, what?"
"You're going to have to prove to him that you aren't a thoughtless screw up. You're going to have to play nice with this oracle girl."
I scowled. "I'm no good at playing nice."
"Ethan," Andreas said seriously. "Learn fast."
With another sigh, I turned my attention back to my beer bottle. It looked as though, whatever way the deck was cut from here on out, I was officially screwed.