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Will he be merciful? Jason wondered. He knew Chiron had a tender heart under that brawny chest. How often had he seen the centaur stop to tend an injured bird, splinting a broken wing or applying a healing salve.

But do we deserve his mercy? Desperately Jason wished he could remember what it was they had done.

Chiron turned his dark-eyed gaze down to the valley below. “I should have known from the sorry state you were in when you dragged yourselves home last night that you had left some sort of trouble behind you.”

“Home!” Acastus whispered contemptuously to Admetus, though Jason overheard. “What kind of home is a cave in the side of a mountain?”

Suddenly Chiron passed behind the boys and without warning swerved his massive body. His rump barged into Acastus, knocking the boy flat on his face. The others began laughing, but one glance from Chiron snuffed out their mirth.

“A prince,” Chiron said in his teacher voice, “should be noted for the respect he shows others, not his insolence.”

As Acastus clambered to his feet, Jason thought, He must have forgotten how sharp Chiron’s ears are. For an instant, rebellion flickered in the young prince’s eyes. Then he lowered his gaze, fixing his eyes on the ground as he fingered the golden amulet that hung around his neck, a symbol of the royal house of Iolcus.

“Pigs,” Chiron said again. “They did not escape their pen without help. Now whose idea was it to set them loose?” He scowled at them, but no one spoke.

“Pigs!” Chiron boomed. Another tree on the edge of the clearing shivered, lost its leaves.

Silence fell again like a smothering blanket.

It was Idas who spoke up at last. “We can’t remember,” he said sullenly. “Whatever punishment is due, inflict it upon us all equally.”

“Idas is right,” Lynceus chimed in after his brother. “Except maybe for the part about punishment. If you choose to leave me out, I promise not to complain.”

Chiron turned the full force of his eyes upon him. Lynceus seemed to shrivel up as though he were trying to shrink to the size of a dust mote.

“And if setting the pigs free weren’t bad enough,” the centaur continued, “you decided to climb on their backs and race them through the streets of the village. A terrible sight, I am sure.”

Hoi! Jason thought. So that’s what we did! He was beginning to remember it now, as if through a haze.

The boys stared down, scuffing the earth with their sandals.

“And the result of this rampage? Three fences knocked down, ten clay pots smashed, a cauldron of soup overturned, chickens set to flight, and women and children terrified out of their wits.”

As far as Jason could recall, most of the village children had been laughing at their antics. He could still feel the bruise in the small of his back where he had landed on a rock when his pig threw him off, to gales of laughter and applause. Surely our escapade wasn’t as bad as all that.

He was about to say so when Chiron added: “Two elders from the village visited me this morning while you were still sleeping off your folly. They wanted to flog you in the village square.”

“Flog us!” Acastus blurted out. “Admetus and I are princes.”

Chiron looked at him under beetling brows. “I persuaded them to leave your punishment to me.”

The boys let their collective gaze fall on Jason, as if begging him to say which would be worse—the flogging or Chiron’s choice.

“I had to give them one of my best goats and five jars of honey by way of compensation,” Chiron added.

Jason winced. He’d been on good terms with the people of the village and could always count on them for something to eat and drink when he was running an errand for Chiron. Now he wondered if he could ever go back there.

“So whose notion was this barbaric race?” Chiron demanded.

Like water gushing from a smashed jar, the boys all started talking at once.

“Somebody said something about the S-Scythians and the Amazons,” Admetus stammered.

“Yes, about how they ride on the backs of horses instead of using chariots like civilized folk,” Lynceus added.

“It seemed like a test of skill,” Melampus finished lamely, “at the time.”

Jason cleared his throat. “The truth is, master,” he said, “we’re not sure whose idea it was. I … we don’t remember it very well. Except”—he rubbed his back—“some of the bumps.”

Chiron nodded somberly. “Yes, I can believe that. And why?”

The boys were silent again.

“Because of the wine.” The centaur’s mouth curled around the final word as if it were distasteful.

Hoi, Jason thought, the wine! He’d never had any wine before. And now he couldn’t even remember what it tasted like.

“The jar was lying unattended,” said Acastus.

“We left two rabbits we’d killed to pay for it,” Admetus added.

“Rabbits I shot,” bragged Idas.

“You missed the second one,” Jason reminded him. “I shot that one.”

“I wounded it,” said Idas, “leaving you an easy target.”

“Enough!” Melampus complained, clutching his skull. “You’re making my head hurt all over again.”

“Was that all you caught?” Chiron asked disdainfully. “Two small rabbits? You were supposed to be on a hunting expedition.”

“We got close to a deer,” said Idas.

“But there was a big argument over who should fire the first shot,” said Lynceus. “The noise scared it off.”

Jason remembered that part. And how no one would listen to him when he warned them to be quiet. How they laughed at him. How they called him Mountain Boy and Chiron’s Slave.

“So,” Chiron concluded solemnly, “instead of carrying on with the hunt, you got drunk on wine and behaved like barbarians.”

“You never let us have any wine,” said Idas sullenly. “Is it any wonder that it goes to our heads once we drink some?”

“At my father’s palace I can drink all the wine I want,” said Acastus.

“Let your father teach you to drink wine, then,” said Chiron. “My task is to teach you to be strong adults, to hunt like a man, to be a virtuous hero.”

All down the line noses wrinkled at the word, except for Jason. He alone nodded. Yes, he thought, that’s what Chiron always says.

“A virtuous hero,” Chiron repeated. “And how can you remember what is virtuous or honorable when you cannot think straight?” He tapped himself on the forehead to emphasize the point.

“Do you mean a virtuous man cannot drink wine?” Idas asked.

“A virtuous man knows when to drink and when not to,” Chiron answered gravely. “He knows when it is appropriate to celebrate a victory or toast the gods, but he also knows when wine will lead to disgrace. One day you may know this, too, but until that time, I forbid wine to all of you.”

Melampus rubbed his brow. “That doesn’t help my head right now,” he complained.

“I have a cure for that,” said Chiron. “However, before I can brew it, you will have to fetch special herbs from the valley of Daphnis.”

“What—all of us?” Acastus exclaimed. “Why not just send Jason?” He said it with a straight face. “He’ll be swiftest. And surely swiftness under these circumstances is a virtue.”

Jason gave him a sidelong look that was as sharp as a dagger but bit back any other response.

Chiron observed his restraint and gave Jason a barely perceptible nod of approval. “As you have been partners in folly,” he said, “so you will be partners in the cure. I will need eyebright, pennyroyal, feverfew, and—rarest of all—bawme. So the more of you there are to search, the quicker you will be. If you set out now, you can be back by sundown.”