The Mirror of Yu-Huang
The voice was low, and muffled by the door, so it impossible to make out who was speaking. It certainly wasn't Megan's father, though, because whoever it was had an accent.
The speaker paused and made several noncommittal noises, as if he or she were listening to someone else. A tap on the shoulder made Megan jump and turn around. It was Rachel. She pantomimed someone speaking into a phone. Megan nodded--a phone call seemed the most likely explanation for the one-sided conversation.
"I know, I know," the voice said. "We'll be leaving in a day or two, and my chance will be gone." There was another pause. "Our suspicions have been confirmed. I know for sure she's the Librarian. She wears the symbol."
Megan gasped. She put her hand to her throat, but of course, the tree necklace was upstairs in her jewelry box. It didn't go with her dress, it was so plain, and she'd thought it would look strange if she wore it to the ball.
The conversation in the study continued.
"She wasn't wearing it when we arrived, but she is now ... I don't know how it came to her, or when ... Yes, perhaps."
So, whoever was in the study had seen her wearing the necklace, which meant it wasn't anyone who had arrived tonight for the ball. That wasn't any help at all, since she had already narrowed down the gift-giver to someone in the ambassador's party.
Something else occurred to her. If the person who gave her the necklace knew who she was, then the person in the study wasn't the one who had given it to her, but was looking for her. Her head spun as that idea sank in--there were twopeople among their guests with very serious secrets.
All four girls put their ears to the door, brows furrowed. The person in the study must have moved, because the voice was softer, farther away.
"I don't know. Hemmlich's notes were not complete, and he was an idiot. He said the library must be hidden behind the common library in the house, and we both know it is not there."
Megan's stomach took up residence near her feet. What notes?She thought back. Josef Hemmlich had brought stacks of notes with him when he came to The Parthenon, but all of them had left with Diedrich. Megan had saved copies of them--they were stored with Sir Gregory's diary in the hole beneath her hearthstone.
Josef had come to the manor looking for a map that would lead him to the Ankh of Isis. Megan had seen him searching through the regular library, just a few feet away from where she now stood, for something he thought would lead him to the artifact. He hadn't known about the Library of Athena, and definitely not about the magic books.
He didn't have time to send any kind of message after he did find it, that's for sure. Of course, he probably had more notes somewhere, like in his office at the museum, or his house.
Megan suddenly remembered Hemmlich's last words with startling clarity. I am not the last ... Librarian.
Her breath caught in her throat. At the time, she had blown the statement off as the last attempt of a condemned man to frighten her. Now it seemed more like a prophecy. Someone else--more than one someone--knew about the Library of Athena. And Megan's role in protecting it.
The voice in the study continued.
"I was saving that as a last resort. He doesn't know who I really am, but he knows something ... I can makehim tell me if he doesn't cooperate."
"Who the heck do you think he's talking about?" Rachel whispered in Megan's ear.
Megan shook her head. "Oh, wait." No. "Do you think ... Bailey?"
Bailey had been with Sir Gregory since the butler was a very young man. He had been present when the archaeologist brought back his first magical artifact, the Crown of Zeus, and when he created the Library of Athena. Megan was suddenly afraid for Bailey's safety.
"Yes ... Yes, I understand." The speaker moved again, back toward the desk, by Megan's reckoning. "Tonight ... No one will suspect me. There are hundreds of people here. By the time they sort it all out, my mission will be complete ... I will contact you again when I am finished ... Until then."
The clunkof the handset being replaced was like a bomb exploding in Megan's gut. Footsteps moved toward the door.
"Quick, back into the bathroom."
Megan grabbed Rachel's dress and dragged her across the hall. The girls just managed to cram themselves inside and shut the door before they heard the study door open and close again.
Megan held her breath. She wanted to know who it was. Didn't she? It was her job to protect the Library, and she needed to face this threat head-on. But what could she do? She was still only a kid. What would she do once she knew who was plotting against her?
Fear and anger fought for control. When she agreed to be the Librarian, she hadn't signed on for this. Josef Hemmlich had been a fluke. At least, she'd thought he was. Now that the moment for action had arrived, she was frozen with indecision.
Rachel, apparently not laboring under such a conflict, ripped the door open and ran into the hall.
"Bugger! He's gone."
Harriet stepped out behind her into the hallway.
"It's so dark out here we wouldn't have been able to see clearly who it was anyway."
"Yeah, probably not." Megan sighed and leaned back against the wall. Her hands shook, so she pressed them behind her. "I didn't recognize the voice, except for..." She hesitated, afraid to say it out loud. "Except for the accent."
The other three girls looked at her knowingly--they'd all heard it, too, and understood what it meant.
Claire opened the study door and flipped on the light.
"This explains the crashing noise."
Megan and the others peered inside. A pedestal that normally sat beside the large picture window on the other side of the room lay on its side, and the marble bust that should have been perched on top was in pieces, scattered across the wooden floor and Persian carpet.
"Obviously, whoever it was wasn't worried about the noise." Claire righted the pedestal. "Probably figured no one would notice, with all the other noise in the house."
"Does everything else look okay, Megan?" Rachel asked.
Megan inspected the rest of the room, her heart growing heavier by the second.
"Yeah." She pulled back one of the curtains and peered across the courtyard, past the reflecting pool with its Greek statues and white columns covered in glittering snow, right into the ballroom. The lights were bright, and people spun around the floor, oblivious to the fact that two of the people here to celebrate were not what they seemed. At least one was a would-be thief. Possibly something more sinister as well, if he got his hands on Bailey.
Harriet looked around the room, then at Megan, clearly puzzled.
"Um, question. What was all thatabout, anyway? What is going on around here?"
Megan opened her mouth, ready to give a brief explanation. They couldn't keep Harriet in the dark much longer. But before she could spill a single syllable, Rachel intervened with a curt but not impolite, "Not now, Harriet."
Harriet looked abashed--she didn't appreciate being blown off.
"We'd best get back," she said softly. "We'll be missed."
Rachel leaned against the giant desk in front of the window and gave Megan a sympathetic look.
"Missed by whom? There are a couple hundred people out there. Four more won't make any difference."
Harriet slowly smoothed the front of her skirt, then folded her hands.
"True. But the headmistress will be introducing the Wens soon. Megan needs to be there, to stand with her father when Professor Spencer thanks them for hosting the ball."
"Yes, Madame Manners." Rachel's tone had none of her usual bluster when it came to Harriet's slavish adherence to protocol. "I suppose we'd better. No sense hanging around here, anyway." She put an arm around Megan's shoulders. "Let's just enjoy the rest of the party, and worry about it later. I'm sure whatever has been planned won't happen in the middle of all this racket."
No, it'll be later tonight.
Megan let herself be led back to the entrance hall, thinking about everything that had happened since the ambassador's arrival, trying to figure out who had been in the study. It wasn't the same person who had given her the necklace, of that much she was sure.
She reviewed the list of suspects in her head and ran through them one by one. She had barely had a chance to interact with the ambassador or his wife, so she crossed them off for the moment. With nothing to go on, she couldn't make any reasonable assumptions about them.
Which brought her back to her three original suspects. Ling had noticed the necklace, and was the only one who had said anything about it at all. Megan considered whether Ling might have given her the pendant. If she had, why hadn't she come forward?
Megan gave a mental shrug--the gift had been meant to be anonymous. Ling was young and new to the ambassador's staff. It was unlikely she had anything to do with any of this.
Chao had certainly seen the pendant, but hadn't said anything about it. And there washis odd act in the lounge yesterday. Had he been pulling books looking for a way to open a secret entrance? That seemed more than possible. She moved him from the top of the necklace list to the top of the phone call one.
That left only one person--Xu Ping. She hadn't had much time to talk to him, either, but he seemed a kind and wise old man. He had commented on the Athena statue, and seemed to know something about Sir Gregory. Megan didn't know much self-defense, but she was pretty sure she could push over one elderly man and get help if he tried to get her to tell him anything about the Library of Athena. Bailey was certainly safe from Ping.
Again, without motive there was no reason to think he had given her the necklace, except that there were no other choices.
Right now, though, the necklace-giver wasn't as important as the identity of the person who was after Bailey. She just had a feeling when she found one, she'd discover the other.
So, where did that leave her? Considering everything she knew, if she had to pick a spy out of the ambassador's group, it would be Zhang Chao.
They reached the hall, which was even more crowded than before. Apparently, it was almost time for the formal introduction of their honored guests. Megan scanned the crowd, but didn't see Chao. He was probably with the ambassador and his family.
Professor Spencer appeared on the staircase. She wore a lovely but simple full-skirted emerald gown and a matching wrap. Her hair was pulled back in a sleek knot, held in place with a pair of ebony sticks, and her jewelry was elegant but understated.
"She looks really beautiful," Claire said, surprised.
"She should wear makeup more often," Harriet added.
Rachel smirked. "Wouldn't change her disposition. She'd still be the Dragon Lady, no matter how pretty she looked."
Professor Spencer raised her hands, calling for quiet. Soft murmurs ran through the crowd, which was packed tightly around the giant tree, and spilled into the music room and lounge, where necks craned and people stood on tiptoe to get a better view.
"Let me thank you all for coming this evening," Her voice was clear, but had an edge of nervousness. "And let me welcome you on behalf of St. Agatha's College for Girls, and our host, Mr. Donald Montgomery, who has graciously opened his home to all of us for this lovely affair."
There was a spate of polite applause, and everyone looked around for Megan's father. He stood at the bottom of the stairs, wearing a humble but appreciative smile, his hand raised in acceptance of the ovation. Professor Spencer hadn't mentioned Megan, and she breathed a sigh of relief at the reprieve. She was still trying to get a grip on everything that had happened, and really didn't want to be put on display like some prize dog.
The noise died down, and the Headmistress continued.
"We have an array of guests this evening. In addition to our faculty and our lovely student body, we welcome alumnae, school governors, captains of industry, and guests of state, and are most pleased to be ringing in the New Year with all of you.
"Of course, the holiday is not the only reason we are here celebrating this evening." She paused, one hand pressed to her stomach as if she were holding in her excitement. "We are here, of course, to welcome a prestigious visitor and his family into our midst, and a new student into the fold of St. Agatha's, which we hope will become like family soon enough."
"Is she serious?" Rachel muttered into Megan's ear.
Megan smirked but was still on the lookout for Chao. She didn't see him anywhere. He could have slipped away and be, at this moment of confusion, putting his plan into action.
She wanted to search for Bailey and warn him, but she was caught in a press of bodies, all focused on Professor Spencer. So, she just kept searching, the tension building inside her like bubbles inside a shaken bottle of soda.
Finally, she spotted him. He was on the other side of the entrance hall in a corner by the front door, whispering fervently into the ear of Xu Ping. Chao, obviously distressed, stopped and glanced around in the same nervous way he had in the lounge, as if he didn't want to be overheard. He didn't seem to notice Megan watching them.
Ping, on the other hand, gave no reaction to Chao's auditory assault, his attention focused on Professor Spencer's sideshow. Megan had a sudden, horrible thought. What if Chao and Ping were working together?
Her stomach turned to lead at the idea of such a conspiracy. She was already hesitant about stopping one person, what could she do against more?
That's stupid. The person on the phone said me, notus.
Still, it was suspicious, unless Ping really had given Megan the necklace, and Chao had figured it out in the time since the phone call. That was unlikely. She wasn't worried about Ping, though, so she would just keep Chao in her sights for the rest of the evening and hope for the best. If he went anywhere near Bailey, Megan would ... well, she wasn't sure what she would do, but she would do something.
Her attention was drawn again to the landing, where Professor Spencer pulled herself up to her full height and pulled her shoulders back.
"Now, without further delay, I am so proud to introduce to you Ambassador Wen Cheng, his wife, Wen Rou, and their daughter, Wen Mei-Li."
The applause as the Wens descended the staircase was like a wave of sound, echoing off the high ceiling of the hall. The three Wens stopped on the landing in front of the statue of Athena to accept the crowd's enthusiastic response, looking like they had stepped from the pages of a magazine. The ambassador wore a simple black-and-white tuxedo, Madame Wen a floor-length straight-skirted, high-necked dress of black satin embroidered with gold. Mei-Li's gown was similar to her mother's, except that it was red, a shade that perfectly complemented her dark hair and eyes.
The Wens completed their descent and were instantly sucked into the crowd and lost to the sea of satin and silk. Megan moved away and looked across the room to where she had last seen Chao, but there were too many people in the way. When a break in the mass of bodies finally opened, both Chao and Ping were gone. She stood tiptoe, trying to find them, but they had vanished.
Rachel pushed through the throng to get to Mei-Li. She wanted to introduce her to some of the nicer girls who would be in her year. But before she could reach her, Portia swooped down and spirited her away. Megan, her mind on her troubles, climbed the staircase, now looking for Mei-Li as well as Chao.
"I see her." She pointed Rachel in the right direction. "Portia's taking her toward the parlor."
"Come on, we'd better go rescue her, before Portia sinks her claws into her." Rachel grabbed her hand and dragged her along, leaving Harriet and Claire behind.
Megan and Rachel dodged and darted their way into the parlor. Mei-Li had been planted by Portia on the loveseat. There was a polite but distant look on her face, her eyes glazed. Portia and her friends hovered around her like vultures.
Mei-Li's face lit up when she saw Rachel and Megan. She reached for them and pulled them closer.
"Portia, I think you know Megan and Rachel, two of my newest and dearest friends."
Portia's gaze went from Mei-Li to Megan and Rachel, and the wide smile she wore slipped just slightly.
"Girls, sit down and talk with us." Mei-Li scooted sideways. Her lips smiled, but her eyes begged, Please.
Megan did not want to sit with Portia and her crowd of snobs. She would much rather slap the lot of them for picking on Claire. But she managed to restrain herself, especially when there was a chance her teachers and father would see.
Rachel must have felt the same.
"We can't, really. We just came to fetch you, because my mom really wants to meet you. She's been to China, you know, and was just mad about it."
Mei-Li stood gracefully and said goodbye to the older girls. Portia, seething beneath her refined façade, said she hoped Mei-Li would return once her social obligations--she glared at Megan and Rachel--were finished.
Rachel, Megan and Mei-Li left the snobs to ponder what had just happened and went back into the hall.
"Thank you so much," Mei-Li said gratefully. "Those girls were so..."
"Yes, we know," Rachel nodded. "Don't sweat it, glad to rescue you. Let's grab Harriet and Claire and find a quiet corner."
"Megan, are you all right?" Mei-Li's face was drawn into a mask of concern. "You don't look very happy, like you'd rather be somewhere else."
Megan jumped at the sound of her name. She had been on a sort of autopilot, allowing Rachel to sweep her along while she picked through the conversation in the study again. She shook her head and put on what she hoped was a convincing happy face. There was no reason to worry Mei-Li.
"No, sorry, I'm fine. Just a bit tired, I guess. It's been such a long day."
"You didn't take a nap today like I told you to, did you?" Harriet scolded as she approached. "I've been going to events like this for years, and if there's one thing I've learned, it's take a nap in the afternoon."
"I didn't have time," Megan said, irritated at Harriet's obtuseness. She knew she should be more forgiving, but her nerves hummed like she was attached to an electrical current. She wanted to run through the house calling for Chao at the top of her lungs. Maybe it would disperse this feeling of unbearable pressure inside her.
"Relax, will you?" Rachel muttered into her ear.
Megan whipped her head around, her voice a low hiss.
"How can you say that to me? You heard that phone call. Whatever they're planning, it's happening tonight, and we're not even sure who it is."
Rachel put a calming hand on her arm.
"Yes, but we know more than we did. No one is going to try to hurt you, not as long as you stick with us and keep yourself surrounded by people. The Library is safe for the moment, too--they don't know where the entrance is, and even if they did, they couldn't get to it in the middle of this bash."
"What about Bailey?" Megan said. "He might be in trouble."
"Bailey can handle himself. The staff's on the watch, too. So, keep a weather eye out, but try to enjoy the party. Okay?"
Rachel made a lot of sense, although it didn't stop Megan's nerves jangling. Chao was off doing who-knew-what. And despite Rachel's assurances, she was worried for Bailey's safety. He would never reveal the secret entrance to the library, she was sure of that. No matter what they did to him.
Not exactly a comforting thought.
Claire must have been reading her mind.
"Rachel's right, he can take care of himself." She grasped Megan's hand and gave it a squeeze. "Bailey's tougher than we give him credit for."
A high-pitched scream cut off Megan's reply. It came from the direction of the music room. Instantly, everyone's head swiveled in that direction.
Megan's insides turned to water. She hoped the scream was because someone had dropped a tray and covered a guest in sparkling cider or caviar. She prayed for the ruin of someone's gown.
Her prayer went unanswered.
"Someone help! I think he's dead!"