“Yes…” I sighed. “I suppose so.”
“What are you doing here, then?”
A sharp laugh dangerously close to hysteria escaped my lips. “I wish I knew! One minute, I was teaching Alyson in my house. The next, we were here.”
“But, you must have come for a reason?”
“Trust me—I had no intention of coming here. I didn’t even know this place existed!” Then I added under my breath, “The sooner I can get out of here, the better.”
“If you are so anxious to leave,” Ms. M said in the same monotone voice as usual, “then why not just go?”
I turned to her with renewed hope. “Do you know how to get to the Other World?”
Ms. M raised a sharp eyebrow. “No.”
My heart dropped to the pit of my stomach. We were stuck here, maybe forever. I made myself breathe in and out with long, slow breaths before I spoke again. Panicking wouldn’t do me any good. “Do you know anyone who does know how I can get home?”
“Surely someone here knows how to travel between worlds!” I demanded. “Alyson and I have to go home! Her mother must be worried sick!”
Ms. M finally stopped tapping her finger, much to my relief. “The inhabitants of Harmonia have no need of such knowledge. We are bound to this world and cannot leave it. Only Other Worlders possess that freedom.”
“Fine,” I conceded. “Are there any ‘Other Worlders’ here right now, besides us?”
“Not that I know of. Visitors are a rarity, to say the least.”
“But there have been others, right?” I pleaded. “For example, I met an old man a couple of months ago, and I’m almost sure he’s been here. He gave me his music box, which Alyson and I were listening to when—”
“You have the Music Box?” Ms. M interrupted me with a look of shock.
“Sure,” I shrugged. “Wait—do you know about it?”
“Everybody knows of the Music Box! It is the most powerful of all the ancient portals. But,” she lowered her voice until it was barely more than a murmur, “you should not speak openly about it. You never know who might be listening.”
I could only stare at her. Perhaps her warning should have worried me more, but I was too excited at the prospect of leaving all this weirdness behind. “The Music Box is a…portal?”
Ms. M clucked her tongue impatiently. “Of course! You cannot enter Harmonia without going through a portal. Surely you knew that?” I muttered an incoherent response, and she shook her head in disbelief. “Every child in our land knows the stories!”
Normally, I would take more offense at being patronized in this manner, but I didn’t care at the moment. Finally I was getting somewhere. If I could just figure out how to work the portal, then we could go home! Surely it went both ways.
“How exactly does the portal work?” I pressed her.
“Only the Guardian of a portal knows its secrets.”
“And I’m guessing you’re not a ‘Guardian?’”
“Certainly not!” She shot a scathing look at me. “I am the Keeper of Time. I see to the tempo and organization of all music. Without me, music would be chaos—pure chaos!” Her eyes bulged and she threw her arms wildly in the air. I nodded furiously, feeling it was best to agree.
“That is an important job, of course,” I said. “But getting back to these Guardians, do you know any?”
“That is hardly common knowledge! The Guardians alone possess the power to control the ancient portals. As such, they are careful to protect their identities.”
“I see,” I said. Although, in honesty, I was feeling more confused than ever. So did that mean a Guardian had brought Alyson and me here? And if so, why would some stranger use the portal to transport a couple of humans to their world, and then leave them on their own? Something about it didn’t feel right.
“So…” I began slowly, choosing my next question with care. “No one knows who the Guardians are. But you do know what the portals looks like?”
“Yes, at least those in the legends. There could be others though, for all we know.”
“Sure. And I’m guessing you don’t know where these portals are?”
“Of course not!” she cried, apparently scandalized by my ignorance. “I said we know of the portals. But only the Guardians know—”
“Ok, I get it! Only the Guardians know,” I snapped. I scratched my head, trying to put all this information together. “So the Music Box is a portal…but that is back at my house so it’s hardly useful to me now. Are all portals in the Other World? Or are there others in Harmonia, to allow one to travel back and forth?”
Ms. M sighed as if the conversation was starting to bore her. No doubt this was all old news to her. “All portals are in the Other World, naturally. Otherwise, how would anyone get here? But, each portal is connected to a specific location in Harmonia. So there is the Other World end, and the Harmonia end, so to speak. You need only find the location connected to the Music Box, then succeed in convincing the Guardian—if you can find them—to send you back.”
“Great!” I said. “That’s a lot less complicated than I expected.”
“Humph!” Ms. M snorted. “Have I not already explained that Guardians never reveal their identities? If you do not know the Guardian of your own portal already, then I don’t know how you hope to ever find them.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” she replied, oblivious to my sarcasm.
My only problem now was going to be finding the Guardian. And Ms. M was right–that was a pretty big problem. Where should I even start? I knew nothing about Harmonia. What I needed was someone who might be willing to help…a guide, of sorts…someone who was less difficult than Ms. Metronome, preferably…
“Of course!” I slapped my forehead suddenly and Ms. M gazed at me with concern.
Maestro! He was the unicorn inside the Music Box! Either he was the Guardian, or else he had to know who was.
“Uh…excuse me,” I said to Ms. M, then ran off.
On the other side of the playground, I skidded to a halt beside Maestro, who cried, “Goodness me! You look as if you’ve been running from a stinging Accent!” I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about, but I didn’t really care. I was on a mission, with no intention of beating around the bush.
“Do you know how to work the portal?” I asked breathlessly. Maestro stared at me for a moment in silence. His left ear twitched, and he snorted softly.
“Well?” I prodded. The unicorn quickly glanced around to make sure no one else was listening, then leaned in closer to me.
“We cannot speak about it here. It is too dangerous.”
I raised my eyebrows. “You’re telling me we’re in danger in a schoolyard?”
“Danger lurks everywhere, particularly when one brings up the portals openly in conversation,” Maestro whispered. “I can help you, but we must speak in private. Can you meet me after school?”
“Sure,” I shrugged. It wasn’t like I was going anywhere. “Where do you want to meet?”
Maestro pointed with his muzzle in the direction of the Staff Road. “There is an inn not far away. If you take the A space in the Road and head back in the direction we came from, you’ll see it off to the right. It’s called the Half Rest Inn. You can get food and drink there, if you like. Just make sure to stay in the A space until you reach the Inn!” he warned.
“Fine. We’ll wait for you there.”
“Good.” Then Maestro whispered even softer than before, “Also, it will be safest if we aren’t seen together inside the Inn.”
“So try to find a seat near a window. When I arrive, I will walk around the building and pass the windows to get your attention. Wait about ten minutes, then leave the Inn and head into the woods nearby. Follow the path until you come to a tree marked with a Coda sign (). Turn right and head straight until you find me. We can speak openly there.”
I didn’t care for his plan. It sounded too much like a trap, like he wanted to lead us away from any witnesses. There he was finally going to do us in. Just when I was starting to trust him, too. Still, there was nothing else for me to do. I promised to meet him as he asked, if only to give myself time to think and decide what we should really do. With many whines and protests from her new friends, I told Alyson it was time to go. Together, we headed out in the A space on the Staff Road, Alyson skipping and talking excitedly about new adventures that awaited us. I merely hoped there was nothing worse than an Inn ahead…
To be continued…