I'd been half hoping there would be a sign on the door that said, "Out to lunch," or something like that, but Mars said the Marovan Congress never spent any time away from the job.

We approached the huge, red gates. And once we were just a couple feet away, they started creaking and suddenly swung inward – to reveal a gigantic hall that resembled the inside of a cathedral. It stretched so high and so wide that I could've sworn this was Godzilla's summer estate.

As we walked inside, the left and right walls revealed vivid interiors. Depictions of warriors and armies and all sorts of epic sceneries were engraved on the walls, which went up at least a hundred feet, then arched inwards to form an upside-down U. A big, colorful carpet occupied the whole floor – so soft that my feet sunk in like a water bed. Every step made me just a little more tired.

There was nobody inside. I'd been expecting some massive Hercules warriors strapped with axes and clubs waiting inside, ready to whack us if we said anything offensive.

But it was empty. And there were no chairs, tables, couches, or any furniture at all. Not even any pillars or archways or doorways to other rooms. I thought that was a little strange.

The only other entryway – besides the one we had come through – was straight ahead, two huge iron gates, probably impossible to push open with human hands.

Mars stepped forward, hands on hips. "Well," he said, "here we are."

I looked around. "Um, where exactly is here?"

Mars rubbed his temples. "Where have you been? Under a rock? Haven't you been listening to me? This is the Marovan Congress. Where they basically rule the whole stinking universe."

"Not all of it," I thought I heard Jason mumble, but Mars just ignored him.

I sat down on the floor near the middle of the room and tried to take it all in. It was breathtaking, really. Like a cathedral, and a museum, and a tower all mixed in one. If this place was on earth, I thought, it would be worth trillions. I couldn't believe people actually worked here for a job.

Sparkly gems and stones were meticulously placed equal distance apart on the perimeter of the room, at about seven up. Above each was a war scene – and not those cute little Greek designs you see on vases and scrolls. This was the real deal. These were epic paintings, showing gigantic armies charging massive cities, raising torches and battle axes, while archers stood on the rooftops, bows raised high, while a midnight sky was flooded with burning arrows. Or there were paintings of beautiful sceneries, like the whole majestic-waterfall-deep-valley type deal. It was so legit.

"Yep," Mars said, chilling against the wall. "This is my crib."

"Really?" I asked, probably at my most gullible moment.

Jason's response was immediate. "No it isn't."

Mars shrugged. "One day, I'm telling you. This place'll be mine. And instead of the Marovans walking around, going all, 'I'm better than you 'cause I live in a friggin' palace', I'll be all, 'Eat it Marovans, 'cause I live in your friggin' palace!' And I'll be walkin' around like a boss. And they'll be all-"

"My gosh, Mars," Jason said seriously. "Please stop."

I was actually starting to laugh, but when Jason got all serious, I stifled everything. Like, Haha…wait! That's not funny.

Awkward silence.

I racked my brain for something to say. "So…where are we really? What is this whole Charta place?" I looked accusingly at Jason and Mars. "And who are you guys…really?"

They glanced at each other, and instead of things getting more comfortable, the air around us got a little chillier. And I knew I'd just entered into something way more intense than Mars taking over this castle.

Jason leaned against the wall, still standing. "Well…I guess you know by now that Mars and me aren't really from earth."

Yeah I picked up on that, I thought, but I didn't want to ruin the moment.

"So," Mars interrupted suddenly, "the Marovans are these-"

"Mars!" Jason chastised. And I really wasn't liking his attitude. "We have to tell her about Charta first before we get into that."

Mars started mimicking Jason with his mouth, but otherwise stayed quiet.

After a pause, Jason continued, "The society of Charta is a lot different than on earth, so while you're here, watch what you do." Encouraging start. "The upper class here is really polite and considerate of others. Well…most of it. The lower class, on the other hand, is actually pretty," he glanced at Mars, "well, they're pretty snobby. Most of them. Most of them tend to act like they're better than everyone else just because they wish they were. Don't take it personally."

Mars scoffed. "You're so kind, Jason."

He shrugged. Then, as Mars resumed his gaze at the ceiling, Jason mouthed to me, "Lower class." I wondered if that meant Jason was upper class.

"Can we move on, please?" Mars said irritably.

Jason cleared his throat. "Right. So, all newborns in the upper class each receive a White Gem, a jewel with a special power inside it. Now, each jewel has the power to protect its holder until the holder learns how to master the power within. Once they master that power, the protection vanishes forever." He let that sink in. "The purpose of the White Gems, from the very beginning, was for the holders to learn how to master the powers inside of them. Most people, though, just never bother learning how to master the power because…well, honestly, the upper class is more political and intellectual than anything else. So they just get the protection for their whole lives. It's…stupid."

I tried to understand what he was saying. "Wait," I said, "what kind of power?"

He took a deep breath, and I knew I'd just tapped into another big topic. "This is…kind of hard to explain. Each gem contains the power of two opposing forces. Mine for example," he held up his right hand, which had a thick golden ring on his index finger,"gives me power over fire and water. Fire and water are two opposing forces."

"Why opposing forces?" I asked, albeit a little creeped out by the whole concept. I wondered if this whole thing was symbolical, or if it was all literal. "Why not just water? Or fire?"

"Balance," Jason answered. "A long, long, long time ago – before White Gems existed – power was like that – just water, or just fire, or just whatever element. But then people started to get narrowminded, and kind of evil. So, they put both sides into a gem, thus creating a White Gem. If you have both sides, you get a little more perspective. Do you understand?"

"Yeah," I said, which is probably one of the biggest lies I'd ever told. "Kinda."

"As for who we are," Mars broke in, sounding very eager to get into the conversation, "I am Mars, the official page of the Marovan Congress." He grinned wickedly, like he'd just announced the best title out there. And I got a really big déjà vu moment.

"What about you, Jason?" I asked, slightly more interested in his response.

He stiffened. "I live with my parents on the east side of the city." He paused, and when I kept looking at him, pressing him for more, he added, "I got a White Gem when I was born. My parents always just wanted me to keep it for protection, but…some friends convinced me otherwise."

I blinked. "So…you mastered fire and water?" Can I be completely honest? I felt like the biggest idiot ever, saying those words. My brain was laughing, like, This is so fake, but my gut was like, Ya sure?

Jason just shrugged in response, but a slight smile curved his lips…maybe a little prideful. It was the closest thing to a smile I'd seen from him since we'd arrived at Charta.

"So," he said, in that I'm about to change the subject type way, "let's talk about what happened homecoming night."

Immediately I was hooked. That night still had me confused, and I was eager to put the pieces together.

Jason slid down to his butt against the wall. "A while ago," he said, "a White Gem was stolen from the Hold, here in Charta." He paused. "It's the ring you have now," and gestured at my hand.

I lifted my hand up and examined it, extremely wary.

This explained everything!

Sort of.

But I'd always known something was up with this ring. It glinted in the light.

"I found it in a Jespian's nest…that's what those creatures were. Jespians." He grimaced. I understood why. Those things were nasty. And of course I wasn't biased. It's not like one of them had threatened my life or anything.

He continued, "After I retreived it," Jason crossed his arms, like things were about to get confusing, "another Jespian tried to take it back from me. You were there, at the dance."

I nodded slowly. So Jason really had had history with that creature before homecoming night. "Hold up," I said. "This is kind of off topic…but what's the Jewel of Charta?"

"Can I please answer this?" Mars asked, and I realized how bored he looked, sitting there, off to my left.

Jason nodded.

Mars sat up and said, "Well, Amanda dear, the Jewel of Charta is simply a traveling device, like…oh, like a taxi!"

I gave him a look. A comparison between a jewel and a car? Doesn't really clear it up.

"What?" he said. "Aren't taxies those pointless yellow vehicles that hatchlings invented because they're too lazy to drive themselves around?"

"…Sort of," I said, "but I don't understand what that has to do with a–"

"Well you could've let me finish!" he snapped. "Look…" He took out the Jewel from his pocket and held it up. Now, I could finally see it clearly.

The Jewel of Charta was a seven-pointed, bright and shining, crimson red ruby, jeweled necklace that shone like the sun. It was the most beautiful piece of jewelry I'd ever seen in my entire life. Yet Mars handled it like an ordinary rock. I was scared he might drop it.

Mars cleared his throat. "If you've got this baby, you can freely go to and fro Charta. But Charta's got to be either the departure location or the destination. Oh, and only ancients like the Hannons can actually go back and forth at their own free will." He winked at Jason, like, I got you covered, but at that moment, Jason looked like he was seething. I wondered what had come over him.

In that really firm I don't want to talk about this voice, Jason interrupted by saying, "The question is, why did the ring get stuck on your finger? Because they're only supposed to work on beings from Charta. And a couple other places. But…you're a hatchling."

I raised an eyebrow. Yes, I'm really sick of hearing that word, thank you for asking.

"A foreigner," Mars clarified. "Hatchling is what we call foreigners."

"And," Jason went on, "why aren't you dead?"

"Sorry to disappoint you," I mumbled, but I don't think anyone heard it.

"The dimension of Charta literally can't tolerate blood from a foreign land," Jason continued. "Otherwise you'd be burnt up."

I shrugged, really finished talking about why I should be dead. "Well…one more question."

"Shoot," Mars said.

"Why did you guys lie to the guards, at the entrance of the city?" I asked. "I mean, I understand that I'm not really supposed to be alive, since you said foreigners can't come to Charta, but why is it such a big deal if people know I'm here?"

Finally the old Mars came back. And he gave me that Oh my word you're so stupid look. "Why do you think they made it impossible for foreigners to visit Charta? Because they don't want them here. If we went around telling people you were a hatchling, they'd – they'd – well, they'd…do something really bad and very painful to us! And this face?" he gestured at his own face. "I don't think so, hon!"

"It would be like Mexicans advertising themselves as illegal immigrants into America," Jason stated.

"Not a good idea," I summed up. "But that still doesn't answer why I'm –"

Suddenly, the loudest noise ever boomed into the hall. The iron gates – not the ones we'd come through – swung open easily like they weren't iron gates, and the massive Hercules guards I'd been anticipating charged towards us, marching in unison.

My mouth was still open. I blinked. What.

A man the size of Jupiter (okay…not really) who was wearing a full-out Roman gladiator outfit stepped forward. He opened his mouth and said, "My lord the President has seen fit to have an audience with you, fellow Chartans! Consider yourselves honored!" His voice was so loud! I literally thought my ears were going to start bleeding. It was like he was speaking through six hundred bullhorns.

But the thing that shocked me the most was that this was about to happen. When we'd walked into the castle, I'd been completely blown away by the architecture , and I'd totally forgotten we were here to talk to the Marovan Congress…whom I'd been seriously intimidated by since Mars first mentioned them back at the Hannon's house.

But I didn't really freak out until Mars got up, took one giant breath, and said, "I think I'm going to hurl."