Meg did her famous turn-to-cement expression, shutting down all emotion, extinguishing all light from her eyes.
Hunter Kowalski rushed in to help with Georgie. “Hey. Hey, hey, hey.” She stroked the girl’s ratty hair. “It’s okay. We’re friends.”
“Nero!” Georgie shrieked again.
Hunter frowned at Meg. “What’s she talking about?”
Meg stared down at her high-tops. “I can leave.”
“We’re all leaving,” I insisted. “Georgie, this is Meg. She escaped from Nero, that’s true. But she’s on our side.”
I decided not to add, Except for that one time she betrayed me to her stepfather and almost got me killed. I didn’t want to complicate matters.
In Hunter’s kind embrace, Georgie calmed down. Her wide eyes and trembling body reminded me of a terrified bird held in cupped hands. “You and death and fire.” Suddenly she giggled. “The chair! The chair, the chair.”
“Ah, taters,” I cursed. “She’s right. We still need the chair.”
Tall, Dark & Jimmy appeared on my left, a brooding presence not unlike a storm front. “What chair is this?”
“A throne,” I said. “Magical. We need it to cure Georgie.”
From the blank looks of the prisoners, I guessed I wasn’t making much sense. I also realized I couldn’t ask the entire group to go tromping through the palace in search of a piece of furniture, especially not the half-starved boys or the dracaena (who, not having feet, was incapable of tromping). Nor was Georgie likely to go anywhere with Meg—not without a great deal of shrieking.
“We’ll have to split up,” I decided. “Leo, you know the way back to the sewer tunnel. Take our new friends with you. Hopefully the guards will still be distracted. Meg and I will find the chair.”
Leo glanced at his beloved dragon suitcase, then at Meg and me, then at the prisoners. “Just you and Meg?”
“Go,” Meg said, careful to avoid Georgie’s eyes. “We’ll be okay.”
“What if the guards aren’t distracted?” Leo asked. “Or if we have to fight that snake thingie again?”
Jimmy rumbled, “Snake thingie?”
“I ressssent your choice of wordssss,” said Sssssarah.
Leo sighed. “I don’t mean you. It’s a…well, you’ll see. Maybe you can talk to it and convince it to let us pass.” He sized up Jimmy. “Or if not, the monster’s probably about the right size for you to make a belt out of.”
Sssssarah hissed in disapproval.
Hunter Kowalski wrapped her arms protectively around Georgie. “We’ll get everyone to safety,” she promised. “Apollo, Meg, thank you. If you see the emperor, send him to Tartarus for me.”
“Pleasure,” I said.
In the hallway, alarms began to blare.
Leo led our new friends back the way we’d come. Hunter held Georgina’s hand while Jimmy and Sssssarah propped up the hunger-strike boys.
Once the group disappeared around the corner, Meg walked to her little patch of chia. She closed her eyes in concentration. Faster than you could say ch-ch-ch-chia, the sprouts went into overdrive, spreading across the corridor like a fast-motion sheet of green ice. Sprouts wove together from ceiling to floor, wall to wall, until the hallway was clogged with an impassable curtain of plants.
“Impressive,” I said, though I was also thinking, Well, we won’t be exiting that way.
Meg nodded. “It’ll slow down anybody chasing our friends. Come on. The chair is down here.”
“How do you know?”
Rather than answering, she dashed off. Since she was the one with all the cool powers, I decided to follow.
Alarms continued to blare, the noise stabbing my eardrums like hot skewers. Red lights swept the corridors, turning Meg’s blades the color of blood.
We poked our heads inside the COMMODUS STOLEN ART GALLERY, the COMMODUS IMPERIAL CAFÉ, and the COMMODUSCARE INFIRMARY. We saw no one and found no magical thrones.
Finally, Meg stopped at a steel door. At least I assumed it was a door. It had no handle, lock, or visible hinges—it was just a featureless rectangle of metal set in the wall.
“It’s in here,” she said.
“How can you tell?”
She gave me her nyah-nyah-nyah look—the kind of expression your mother used to warn you about: If you make that face, it’ll stick. (I’d always taken this threat seriously, since divine mothers are fully capable of making it happen.)
“It’s like the trees, dummy.”
I blinked. “You mean, how you led us to the Grove of Dodona?”
“You can sense the Throne of Mnemosyne…because it is made of magical wood?”
“Dunno. I guess.”
That seemed like a stretch, even for a powerful daughter of Demeter. I didn’t know how the Throne of Mnemosyne had been created. It certainly might have been carved from some special tree from a sacred forest. Gods loved that sort of thing. If so, Meg might have been able to sense the chair. I wondered if she could find me a magical dining table once I got back to Olympus. I really needed one with foldout leaves for accommodating the Nine Muses at Thanksgiving.
Meg tried slicing the door the way she had with the glass walls in the prison. Her swords didn’t even scratch the metal. She tried wedging her blades into the door frame. No luck.
She stepped back and frowned at me. “Open it.”
“Me?” I felt sure she was picking on me because I was the only enslaved god she had. “I’m not Hermes! I’m not even Valdez!”
As if that were a simple request! I attempted all the obvious methods. I shoved the door. I kicked it. I attempted to get my fingertips under the edges and pry it open. I spread my arms and yelled the standard magic words: MELLON! SHAZAM! SESAME STREET! None of these worked. At last I tried my infallible ace in the hole. I sang “Love Is an Open Door” from the Frozen soundtrack. Even this failed.
“Impossible!” I cried. “This door has no taste in music!”
“Be more goddy,” Meg suggested.
If I could be more goddy, I wanted to scream, I wouldn’t be here!
I ran down the list of things I used to be the god of: archery, poetry, flirting, sunlight, music, medicine, prophecy, flirting. None of these would open a literal stainless steel door.
I thought back to the last room we’d peeked in—the Commoduscare Infirmary. “Medical supplies.”
Meg peered at me from behind her filmy cat-eye lenses. “You’re going to heal the door?”
“Not exactly. Come with me.”
In the infirmary, I riffled through supply cabinets, filling a small cardboard box with potentially useful items: medical tape, oral syringes, scalpels, ammonia, distilled water, baking soda. Then, finally…“Aha!” In triumph, I held up a bottle labeled H2SO4. “Oil of vitriol!”
Meg edged away. “What is that?”
“You’ll see.” I grabbed some safety equipment: gloves, mask, goggles—the sort of stuff I would not have bothered with as a god. “Let’s go, Chia Girl!”
“It sounded better when Leo said it,” she complained, but she followed me out.