I could practically see the smoke start to pour out of Ella’s ears. “Are you crazy or just incredibly stupid?”
Ava sniffed. “Neither, thank you. Calliope? Is this the lightning bolt guy?”
“Yes, that’s him,” said Calliope from an armchair, where she’d collapsed at the news. “That’s Henry’s brother.”
I bit my lip, not knowing what to say. I had a hard time believing all of this to begin with. Throw in the king of the gods, and any conceivable chance I had at taking this seriously flew out the window. Besides, I had no doubt that if I actually started to believe what they were saying, I’d have fainted on the spot, and that was the last thing I wanted. For now, they were Henry’s family. A very scary, very intimidating, very large family, but still his family. I could ignore the part about lightning bolts in the meantime.
“New rule,” I said, swallowing the lump in my throat. “No one talks about them unless I ask. You’re freaking me out, and I can’t do this if I’m freaking out, so just—let’s not. Not until this ball is over. Okay?”
None of them seemed too unhappy with this, and they all nodded, even Ava.
“We’re not allowed to tell you much anyway,” admitted Calliope. I scowled, but I didn’t fight it. If Henry didn’t tell me, then I’d just have to figure it out on my own.
“One thing,” said Ella. “Last I’ll say of it, but you really ought to know. The council will be the ones to decide whether or not you pass your tests. And if you don’t pass, they’ll be the ones who decide what to do with you afterward.”
My head spun, and I said in a small voice, “What they do with me afterward? I thought Henry said I wouldn’t be able to remember it.”
“Oh, don’t worry!” said Calliope, glaring daggers at Ella. “You won’t. They won’t hurt you or anything, or at least I don’t think they will.” She hesitated. “No one’s really made it to that point before.”
The way Ella glared at her made me think I wasn’t getting the whole truth. My stomach churned violently, and for a moment I thought I was going to be ill. If they didn’t like me, I was screwed, and there would be no one left to care what they did with me.
“A ball?” My mother’s tinkling laughter rose above the people we passed on the crowded New York street, who bustled around us on their way to home or work or other important places. “They really don’t know you at all, do they?”
“It’s not funny.” I shoved my hands into my pockets, staring across the street at Central Park. “What if Henry’s family hates me?”
“It’s always a possibility, I suppose.” She tucked her arm in my elbow and drew me closer. “I highly doubt it though. Who could possibly hate you?”
I rolled my eyes, refusing to mention the part where apparently someone inside the manor wanted me dead. “You’re my mother. You’re supposed to say that.”
“True.” She grinned. “Doesn’t mean I don’t mean it though.”
Nearby a car honked impatiently at the slow-moving traffic, and my mother and I were constantly jostled as we made our way down the sidewalk at our own pace, not the brisk walk the other pedestrians used. I closed my eyes and tilted my head upward, inhaling deeply. The smell was uniquely New York, and it reminded me how much I missed the city. How much I missed being here with my mother. “He thinks he’s a god.”
“Does he?” My mother raised an eyebrow. “He brought back Ava, didn’t he?”
Before I could reply, she spotted a hot dog vendor. I tried to tell her I wasn’t hungry, but she wasn’t having it. Two minutes later, we reentered the park, both holding hot dogs. Hers was laden with every topping the vendor had; I stuck with ketchup.
“He said he was married to Persephone,” I said reluctantly. Even to me, it sounded crazy.
“Then that would make him Hades.” She said this so matter-of-factly that I gave her a puzzled look. Unfortunately she noticed. “What?”
“You actually believe him?” I said.
“And you don’t? What else does he need to do to prove it to you, sweetheart?” She leaned over and gave me a sloppy kiss on the forehead. “You’ve always been too practical for your own good.”
“But—” I took a deep breath, trying to focus my thoughts. “But why? Why do you believe him?”
She made a wide, sweeping gesture to the park around us. “How else can you explain this?”
She was right. Even if I was skeptical about Ava or what Henry had done or what he’d told me, this—being with my mother, talking to her, getting another chance—it was too vivid to be a dream. It was too real to be my imagination.
“He gave me more time with you,” said my mother, pulling me into a hug. “How could I possibly not believe him after that?”
We walked in silence, finishing our hot dogs and tossing the wrappers in the trash as we made our way to the center of the park. She kept her arm around my shoulders, and I wrapped my arm around her waist, not wanting to let go.
“Mom?” I said. “I’m scared.”
“Of the tests.” I stared at the ground. “He said I have to pass them all—what if I can’t? What happens then?”
“And what if you can?” She rubbed my back soothingly. “What if you’re exactly what Henry’s been waiting for all this time?”