I Flip A Coin
The Senate would meet in four days. There was nothing to be done about that; it wasn't like I was calling for an emergency quest. As far as they were concerned, it was somewhere along the line of Lucie's monster patrols. Probably harmless, but nothing they were going to get gray hair over, either.
I spent my time doing normal things. I went to school. I failed a spelling test pretty spectacularly, but did pretty well in history. We played defense on war games, partnering with the Third Cohort. The First, Second, and Fourth took our banners and spray painted them so that the Fifth's read "Vermin" and the Third's read "I-i-idiots!" Our praetors were from the First and Second (Jonah Song and Nick Dubois, respectively), and they gave their admonishment for this while trying not to laugh… and not succeeding.
When I wasn't on duty, I went into the archives and looked up what I could on sea monsters, Winchester Bay, and the reporting legion veteran. Charles "Cha" Brown, a son of Deverra (a minor goddess who was, as far as I could tell, in charge of childbirth and, weirdly, brooms) was always flighty, and probably wouldn't be my strongest case. I asked permission to call him and get the details, and by the time he was finished talking, even I didn't believe him, though I didn't tell him so. "You get them to send someone," he said. "You do what it takes, centurion. Because is a Greek plot. I'm telling you that right now."
My head ached by the time I hung up, and I imagined myself actually going to the Senate with this theory. There were people who believed there were still Greek demigods out there, always plotting to overthrow us, like they did in ancient times. The people who believed that were generally considered lunatics, on par with the faun who sometimes went begging through the square, preaching about how Tarturus was stirring and the monsters were about to come back. (That the monsters never left -- you can't walk a block in New Rome without seeing some kind of monster -- affected this prophecy not at all.)
But the meeting had already been called. I'd have to be ready. I made arrangements with Bobby's dad to use his old farm truck. It was the first time I'd met him. He was a nice guy, legacy of a minor farming god (it was Bobby's mother who was descended from Jupiter) and as soon as I promised that we'd have a licensed driver at the wheel, he was willing to let us take the truck. "If you get in a pinch," he told me, "Bobby does know how to drive it, but he'll get pulled over pretty fast if a cop spots you."
Money for gas would have to be arranged with the Senate, unless Cha Brown wanted to front us some. Those of us in the legion did get paid a little bit, but accessing our money was a nightmare. I didn't even know how much I had, other than one ancient gold aureus (not a denarius, I finally figured out).
Speaking of which, I found myself returning to the coin over and over again while I waited. It always ended up in the pocket of whatever I was wearing. If I wasn't wearing something with pockets, it found the closest clothes that did have them. Once, just as an experiment, I wore pocket-less sweatpants down to the baths, swam around in the usual Roman bathing attire -- nothing at all -- and then put on one of the loaner terrycloth bathrobes while I went looking for a legion barber to get my hair in shape. Sure enough, by the time the clippers came out, the coin was in the robe's pocket.
I couldn't figure anything out about it. Caesar on one side. A Gaul battle axe on the other. The word IVLIVS. I tried rolling it across paper to see if it would cut. No dice, which was probably just as well if it was going to show up in my pocket all the time. I tried using it to hit things with. It was no different than any other coin. A little bit of a ping, and that was it. I tossed it at a dartboard once, but I didn't even make it into the target. The coin just rolled away.
"Maybe you're supposed to use it to buy something," my co-centurion, Gwen, suggested when I showed it to her. "Maybe there's some shop that only takes aurei, and they have something you need."
"Maybe, but where?"
"You should go back to the temple. Maybe there's a map."
There was no map at the temple. Emily even helped me look. She checked the index cards where the carved prophecies were recorded.
"Coins," she muttered. "We've got some coin ones, but nothing seems right." She pulled one out and read, "'A silver coin in golden purse, shall unleash the shadow's curse…'" She wrinkled her nose and stuck the card back in the box. "Your problem child is a gold coin, and there was no purse. No purse, no curse."
I looked at a few in my hand. "'She shall not speak through rainbow's coin, to the child of Mercury's loin…'"
Emily took it from me and refiled it with a roll of the eyes. "No rainbow tricks, so I think we can avoid Mercury's loins."
"Generally speaking, yes." She shook her head over a few more. "I don't see anything relevant, Jason, I'm sorry. If you have something you'd like me to read an augury on…"
"No, thanks, Em. I appreciate the time."
"Well, let me know if anything comes up."
I promised, but with the Senate meeting the next morning, I doubted I'd have much time to devote to Ivlivs, or, as I'd started calling it in my head, Livvy.
We had another war game that night. The Fifth was teamed on offense with the First and Second, so our team won, but they threw us at the barricades right off and none of us made it through to the actual capture of the banners. I went to bed tired and sore from a duel at the gate with one of the big kids from the Third.
I found myself in a dream.
This was normal enough. Most people in two or three generations of one of the gods -- half-bloods most of all -- get seriously weird dreams from time to time, none of them figments of imagination. I've dreamed about other people's lives, about monsters, about lots of things that wish were make believe.
This time, I was standing alone on top of a hill in the moonlight, looking down on a nestled little… village? Maybe a village. There was a pine tree beside me, and my hand was on it, stroking the bark. My hand seemed smaller than usual, and pale. There was a bracelet made of chains on one wrist, glimmering in the silvery light. I heard hooves clopping and turned around.
I should have been surprised to see a centaur with no horns, or any kind of a centaur. They're not known for their love of humans or half-bloods. Instead, in the dream, I expected him and didn't even wave.
"You don't have to go, you know," he said. "You've been through a very troubling experience."
I wasn't aware that I was going to speak, let alone what I was going to say, and when the words did come out, they came in a girl's voice. Not high-pitched, but not low and husky. And definitely a girl's. "I want to go somewhere normal."
"You'll be behind in your studies. Even before…" The centaur pointed at the tree. "It had been a long while, child."
"I passed the entrance exams, and I'll have a very helpful roommate."
"The monsters are still out there."
"I can still fight them. Isn't that what our little training sessions have been for?"
The centaur nodded. "But --"
"And I'll come back weekends to keep training."
"I wish you would stay here."
"Because I’m a girl? You let the boy go home."
"The boy is going home," the centaur said gently. "His mother has been protecting him since he was small. You're going to a boarding school. There's no one to protect you."
I felt the corners of my mouth move up, but I wasn't smiling in my mind. I raised my arm. The chain bracelet dangled, and I touched it. Suddenly, it shifted and changed, and I was looking at the back of a bronze shield. The reflection wasn't good, but I saw a pale moon of a face, surrounded by a dark smudge of hair. Where the eyes were, there were two black smears. Either I wasn't allowed to see my eyes, or I was wearing a ridiculous amount of makeup.
The centaur took a step back.
"See?" I said. "I'm protected…"
The world blurred, the stars began to drip down like rain. For a moment, it was like being inside a painting by van Gogh, with the whole sky swirling above me, then it began to drip down like rain, leaving the sky clear above me. It was completely empty, even of stars.
I looked around. The world around me was empty as well, except for one figure -- a woman in a goat-skin cape.
I knew her. I'd dreamed of her on and off all my life, and her appearance never meant anything good.
"Lady Juno," I said.
She turned and gave me her oddly practiced smile, the politician's wife waving off rumors about interns, even as one of their
children looked back at her through her husband's eyes.
"Jason Grace," she said.
"Who was that?" I asked. "Before, I mean."
Her nose wrinkled. "No one of any importance. You are ready to begin now."
"You have a destiny, my champion. This is the beginning of its foundation. You will be a legend."
"I don't want to be a legend."
She waved her hand, and the black sky filled with stars, They danced around, creating the pictures of the zodiac. lines of light traced the patterns. "What's written in the stars, my little legend, has no interest in what you want."
"There's nothing written in the stars," I told her. I lowered my eyes before she decided to blast me with something. "I mean, my lady, the constellations… all of that… it's just what humans make up and… I don't know. Assign meaning to. The stars wouldn't even look the same from another planet. They're just there."
She didn't blast me, but the laugh she gave was even more fake than her smile. "Humans," she sniffed. "You understand nothing." She turned to me, and her eyes were full of stars. "Of course the stars don't move. And perhaps, if there is anyone to see from another world -- "
"I'm sure I have no idea, and you are interrupting."
"I'm sorry, Lady Juno."
" -- perhaps they form their own understanding of what they see. Perhaps on some other world, they look at the earth, if they can see it, and forms the button on someone's coat. But that doesn't matter, because the truth of the stars, in our context, is precisely in the assigning of meaning. A constellation is not created by adding new stars, but by adding new legends. The truth of the stars is in the lines we draw among them." Her eyes became normal again. They were brown and beautiful, but they didn't have much depth, like she was a cartoon queen drawn by a novice animator who substituted a clumsily placed starburst here and there for real emotion. "If those lines are destroyed --"
"How can imaginary lines be destroyed?"
"One more interruption, Jason Grace, and you will need to avoid cows for a year."
"Very well. The lines we draw among the stars are no different than the other imaginary lines we draw, and those lines create civilization itself. They're the lines that bind us as families, as husband and wives, as nations, as cultures. Do you imagine those bonds to have some physical reality?"
"Well, parents and children…"
"Oh, yes. You know well how effective that bond is," Juno said with a snort, and an image came into my mind of the vague woman shape who hugged me, then left me with the wolves. "The physical similarity may be there, but it is the imaginary line that joins people that creates importance for that similarity. Other animals simply eat their young."
It occurred to me to argue with her, but I'd tripped over her cow-curse before. They'd ruined most of my shoes the year I was eight, after I got sick of the Fifth losing games and I told Juno that I was going to quit camp and go find someone to adopt me instead of pretending to be in an army for a stupid old Empire that wasn't even around anymore. I don't know where all the cows came from. That might have been magic. But there was nothing magic in the little presents they kept leaving me.
So I kept my mouth shut.
"It's the lines that matter, Jason Grace," she said again. "The lines that make the pictures, the pictures that tell us the stories, the stories that create the world, or at least make it livable." She looked around with distaste at the landscape, which was now somewhere on a mountain road. "Or as livable as this place can be, I suppose. It's the lines of fate that they'll want to break. The lines that we've spent so long drawing among the stars." She looked back at me. "Someday, my champion, you, too, will be written in lines among the stars… if such things survive what's to come."
I waited to make sure she was finished, then said, "What do you mean?"
"Oh, you'll see. There's no point in details right now. Mortals never understand that, but it's true."
"Because… knowing everything would make us freeze up?" I guessed.
"Because knowing everything is the same as knowing nothing. Most things out there to know aren't worth the space they take up in your brain. If you know a hundred facts, but you don't know which are the important ones, how is that different from knowing nothing at all? How would you use them to determine your course of action?"
"I don't know. Roll the dice?"
She smiled faintly. "Roll the dice. Read the omens." She sighed. The dream was fading, and the mountain road was becoming the cohort barracks. My cot and trunk sat beside a pine tree. I could see the corner of a beaten up old duffel bag on the other side of it. The goddess was becoming indistinct. "Roll the dice… or flip a coin, Jason."
I opened my eyes, suddenly completely awake. Everyone else was still asleep. It was the gray, pre-dawn twilight outside the window. I threw my covers back and dug into the pocket of the olive green tee shirt I'd slept in. Sure enough, Livvy was there for me. I fished it out of the pocket and held it in the palm of my hand.
Roll the dice… or flip a coin.
I turned my hand into a loose fist, then balanced the coin top of my thumbnail. With a flick, I sent it flying into the air, turning over and over. I held out my hand to catch it. I could see it coming as a coin, the axe-face down, the face of Julius Caesar up, but when it hit my hand, it thickened and lengthened, shedding soft light through the barracks. In my hand, I was now holding a perfectly balanced sword made of Imperial gold.
I stared at it. It was either catching the very faint light of the sky outside, or it had a little glow of its own. I wasn't sure. The only thing I knew completely was that it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.
"Thanks, Dad," I whispered, but then I thought of my dream. It wasn't from Dad, even if his lightning bolt had loosed it. It was from my divine, nosy stepmother. Thanks, Juno, I thought, but didn't say out loud.
But I'd spoken once of her little dream-visits -- it had been during the cow flop incident -- and been dismissed roundly, even accused of attention-seeking.
"Oh, yeah," someone howled, "Juno just loves sons of Jupiter. Ask Hercules!"
The thing was, she didn't love me. She didn't even like me. She just considered me hers in some way, and she had some kind of plan for me. She expected a lot of me, and I didn't have much choice about living up to those expectations.
Unfortunately, even the other demigods didn't get many visits from their godly parents. It wasn't very Roman. We look for signs and omens, not direct communication. There was really no one to talk to about it. Maybe the others talked to their mortal parents, who'd obviously experienced visits, but I didn't have anyone like that.
I looked up. Across the room, Bobby was sitting up in his cot, blinking blearily.
I tossed the sword into the air. As it hit the apex of its spin, it turned back into a coin, and landed neatly in my hand.
Bobby grinned. "Our quest is going to rule," he muttered, then rolled over and went back to sleep for the last twenty minutes before reveille.
The morning of the senate meeting was about the slowest one I ever spent. There were chores, and I had a math test, but mostly, it was about waiting for one o'clock, when we'd present our case. I was on the steps of the Senate at twelve-thirty, but my old friend, Corey John, convinced me not to look too anxious. They'd have other things to talk about first.
Bobby and Dakota arrived just before one, and we were definitely not late. The Senators -- all older members of the legion, in their late teens and twenties -- along with many adult leaders of the city all wandered in, seemingly at random. Many were coming from the baths, toweling off their hair and calling greetings. The opening business took forever. The Third cohort was requesting more underwear. The city parks needed volunteers to polish the cobblestones. The temple of Neptune was, again, being neglected. Would someone please see to the sea god before he sent an earthquake or something?
Finally, an adult from the city said, "Oh, hey, looks like we've got a quest approved by the augurs."
"Let's hear it!" someone yelled.
I got to my feet. Livvy had somehow crept into my hands, and I held it tight enough that I guessed I'd be able to see Caesar's face on my palm later. "My name is Jason Grace," I said. "Centurion of the Fifth Legion… er, cohort." I winced "Fifth Cohort, first legi… Er, Twelfth legion."
"We know where we are," an older kid said. "Do you?"
There was laughter at this. Two months ago, when I'd first been made centurion, I'd started a campaign to re-name the Twelfth Legion of Rome as the First Legion of America. The campaign hadn't exactly set the world on fire.
"Yes, sir," I said, mustering a smile. "I propose a quest -- "
"Based on speculation," someone said.
"Based on an augury. And word from a former legionnaire. He believes a marine monster of some kind is active off the Oregon coast. It's worth looking into. With…" I looked over my shoulder, to the north, where storm clouds were gathering around Mount Tam, but decided not to push that. That was big enough that, if the Senate saw fit to deal with it, they'd be dealing with it already. "We've seen more monsters lately," I told them, and started flipping through the notes I'd made. They were obviously bored.
I put down the notes. "I took the augury, and I'm leading this quest," I said firmly, stepping forward into the circle of sunlight that lit the room. "I'll take along Bobby and Dakota. I've arranged for transportation, but we will need fuel money. Bobby and Dakota will need weapons from the armory."
They were all listening now.
"And you won't need a weapon?" our praetor asked.
"I have one," I said, and drew Livvy. I flipped it into the air, expecting the sword, but instead, it elongated into a spear. I tried no to look surprised. Apparently, it was a heads-or-tails thing. Who knew?
They were all silent, and I knew then, with total certainty, that they would let us go.
The man who'd first remembered that I was here said, "According to the notes, your source has made up more than a few tales in the past. And you don't have much questing experience. You should take along… well, perhaps someone from another cohort."
"I quested with Gwen last year," I said. "For the nectar we brought back. I'm a centurion, and I can lead this."
"It's likely a fool's errand."
"Then it's good you won't have wasted one of your experienced centurions on it."
There was some good-natured murmuring, and I had a horrible feeling that someone was going to come up and pinch my cheeks and tell me what a good little centurion I was being. No one, thank the gods, tried it.
In the end, one of the adults opened his wallet and pulled out two hundred dollars, telling the Senate that they could pay him back later. He gave it to me, and shooed the three of us out of the building.
Octavian was standing at the bottom of the steps. "I should have told them not to send you," he said. "Emily wouldn't allow it."
"Why would you want to?" I asked.
"Because you're going to lead us into disaster." He wrinkled his nose. "I've seen it. You'll turn your back on us when things get bad."
"I will not."
"Yes you will. You'll turn into a barbarian, and you'll leave this camp and die outside the walls of Rome."
"Thank you for that astute assessment," Bobby said, steering me away.
Dakota followed us. "It's crazy," he said. "You're the steadiest person here."
We walked up the hill, and past the temple of Jupiter. Workmen were up on the roof, fixing the lightning damage. I stopped, not entirely knowing what I meant to do.
"What is it?" Dakota asked.
"Nothing. Go on. I'll meet you at Bobby's dad's place."
But they didn't go on. So much for my great leadership. I went up the stairs to the temple, with both of them in tow.
I went straight to the area under the roof damage, the place where Livvy had fallen down from the sky. Had it been in the marble? Under a join? Or had someone cast it down straight from the clouds?
I didn't know. I bent and looked at the prophecies on the floor.
"What are we looking for?" Bobby asked.
"I don't know. I--" Then I saw it, the black mark on the floor where the bolt had hit. It wasn't directly on a prophecy, but it was close.
Caved into the marble was a six-line poem, faded over the years as the floor wore down under many passings. If it had ever been lined in gold, it no longer was, but it was visible enough.
When darkness falls upon the west
And Rome at last is put to test
The sea shall yield a hero true
But blood of Rome shall not win through
And the one who bears Jove's spark
Shall drag the stars into the dark
We stared at it for a long time, then Bobby shook his head.
"Here's a thought," he said. "Let's not share that one with Octavian."