Thirty years ago.
The two little girls were everything charming and beautiful and innocently malicious at the age of six. They spent all afternoon giggling, staging masques with dancing dolls, and drawing crayon pictures on magical parchment that animated what they drew without needing a wand or an incantation, but they had grown bored with such amusements and were now trying to cast spells. It was what all young witches did as soon as they learned that magic was theirs for the calling. Livia had discovered that last year. Jezebel had just begun manifesting sparks and flames and sometimes worse when she was in a temper, and now she did so at every opportunity, eagerly and gleefully.
"Last week," Jezebel said, "I filled Papa's office with caterpillars. Oh, he was so mad!" She tittered as she flicked her fingers in the air in front of her face, trying to conjure something.
Her hair was elaborately arranged in blonde ringlets that would have taken hours to style without the help of a wand or a house-elf. One afternoon of play had already unraveled the elegant curls into something like a frizzy mop-head, a fact that she had not yet noticed but which caused her friend to cover her mouth to stifle giggles when Jezebel wasn't looking.
"Eww," Livia said, wrinkling her nose. "I don't like bugs." She was making methodical gestures with her hands, trying to imitate grown-up wand motions. Every once in a while, one of her gestures produced a magical effect, though rarely the one she intended, but today nothing was happening.
"Well, I wanted to turn them into butterflies, but Papa said that would take much more powerful magic. He said I won't be able to do that until I get my wand. Then he threatened to paddle me if I did any more sponta — spont-nious magic in his office." Jezebel stuck her tongue out and made a dismissive sound. Both girls knew Jezebel's father would sooner eat caterpillars than paddle his daughter.
Livia, who never needed paddling, thought Jezebel might be a little nicer if she did get paddled every so often. But Jezebel was fun to play with, when she wasn't being mean, and she had wonderful toys, like those dancing dolls she'd brought over.
The two girls had made a wager over who could cast a spell first. If Livia won, the dancing dolls she coveted would be hers, while Jezebel, with a sly smile, had told Livia that if she won, she got to go through Livia's closets and choose anything she liked.
While Jezebel continued wiggling her fingers, Livia abandoned her own hand gestures, closed her eyes, and murmured something. She nodded her head as she found a rhythm to her words, then repeated them in a slightly louder voice.
A big, blue, grinning head pimpled out of empty air in front of her, like a ghastly blister. Livia screamed in delight. "Look, look! I did that!"
The head swelled like a giant ghostly plum, spun around and rotated topsy-turvy, then scrunched up into a horrid wrinkly caricature of a face with balloon cheeks and an enormous forehead. It stuck out a long blue-black tongue at Jezebel. Then with a sudden "Whoosh!" it shot across the room, zig-zagging all around it with a flatulent sound that made Livia tumble onto her back squealing with laughter.
Jezebel's face turned thunderous and dark. She slapped her hand on the carpeted floor and said "Bother and beetlejuice!" Her eyes flashed and around her hand, tongues of fire leapt up. She jerked her hand away, trailing flames, and flicked her wrist, causing a tiny fireball to roll off her palm and shoot halfway across the room before it dissipated in a wave of heat. Her startled expression immediately transformed into the triumphant look of someone who'd meant to do that all along.
"Look! Look! That was a real spell! I win!" she shouted.
"Do not!" Livia righted herself and shook her head until her long black hair flew around her face. "I cast my spell first! You saw it! You know I beat you!"
"Did not! That wasn't a real spell — I heard you, that was doggerel verse! You were using baby magic!" Jezebel's lip curled into a well-practiced sneer that was already devastating on her pre-adolescent face.
"We didn't make a rule against doggerel verse, and a spell's a spell!"
"There's no evidence of your magic," Jezebel said, shifting quickly to another line of argument. "Your spell wasn't real. That's real!" Jezebel pointed at the smoking scorch marks her hand had made, as if burning the carpet in her host's home was reason to be proud.
"Just because I didn't burn a hole in the carpet doesn't mean my magic wasn't real, you… you… fibber!" Livia was beside herself. "Tell her, Claudia!"
The third girl in the room, sitting quietly at a fine wooden writing desk while the two younger girls played, had already pushed her chair back. During the giggling and the incantations and the noisy flight of Livia's conjured phantasm, Livia's sister had merely sighed and continued flipping through the pages of the glossy magazine in front of her. Now she looked with dismay at the burn marks on the carpet.
"You are both in so much trouble, totally," she said. "You know you totally shouldn't have been practicing spontaneous magic."
"She did it!" Livia said, pointing, while Jezebel pointed back and said, "She's a cheater! I get to choose something out of her closets."
"That's a lie!" Livia shouted. "I cast my spell first — you know I did! Tell her, Claudia! You saw it!"
"Well…" Claudia said uncertainly. She was still staring at the burned carpet, but pressed, she wavered. "Well, Livia's spell was first but you totally shouldn't have been doing it anyway and you totally shouldn't have been wagering and also you burned the carpet… so it's totally null and void."
"What?" Livia and Jezebel both said.
"Neither of you win," Claudia said, totally convinced that this was the correct and responsible judgment.
"That's totally unfair, and you're totally taking your sister's side," Jezebel said, the derision thick in her voice. "And you totally sound like a Muggle." Her contemptuous tone peaked with the word "Muggle." "You dress like one too. Is that because of all those Muggle magazines you read with those ugly Muggle boys?"
Claudia flushed. She had been experimenting with the clothing styles she found in her magazines, but like most wizards, her attempts at syncretizing Muggle fashion were a bit haphazard. She wore a denim jacket over her robes, and neon leg-warmers pulled up over her ankles.
Though she played easily with her younger sister, somehow she always felt diminished by Livia's friends when they visited. Being bigger and older and more mature never seemed to count in her favor when facing Jezebel in particular.
Sensing that she had hit a nerve, Jezebel pressed her advantage. "And what would you know about magic anyway? You can't even do magic!"
Now Claudia's face went from red to white. "That's not true," she said, in a voice leached of all conviction.
Jezebel's smile was pitiless. It was the victorious grin of a tiger that has caught the slowest zebra away from the concealing tall grass. "Everyone knows it is. That's why you read all that Muggle trash, because you're going to have to go live with them."
"Shut up," Claudia said. "You're an ugly little brat, and you totally lost the wager."
Livia did not look delighted by her sister's abrupt declaration of victory. Her eyes had gone wide at Jezebel's words, and now her lips were trembling with anger.
"Everyone talks about it," Jezebel said in a lilting voice. "How Abraham Thorn's daughter is a Squib!"
"Shut up, Jezebel!" Livia cried.
Claudia reeled as if she'd been slapped. Livia's face had turned an angry, ominous red to rival Jezebel at her worst, but the other girl didn't notice — she was too busy sinking in her fangs now that she'd tasted blood.
"Claudia's a Squib, Claudia's a Squib, your father is a Muggle-lover because his daughter is a Squib!" Jezebel chanted in a sing-song voice.
With a shriek of rage, Livia launched herself at Jezebel and struck her across the face hard enough to knock her off her feet. Jezebel went down on the floor in her fancy frilly robes and Livia fell upon her, pummeling her and screaming in fury. "Liar! You take that back you nasty horrible evil little —"
"Livia, stop it!" Claudia shouted. The sight of her younger sister losing her senses helped her regain control of hers. She rushed forward and grabbed Livia, pulling her off the other girl. "Stop it right now! You're going to get in trouble!"
Claudia's warning was too late. An adult voice pierced the tumult. "What in Merlin's name is going on here?"
The lady of the house entered the room, and all three girls froze in a combative tableau. Claudia had her arms around Livia, Livia's feet were thrust out in an attempt to get in another kick at Jezebel, and Jezebel was lying on the floor sniffling, with her hand pressed to the red mark on the side of her face.
Desirée Thorn née Pruett shook her head, causing glittering diamond earrings to spin and sparkle. She was a beautiful woman with pale yellow hair coiled atop her head in a perfect coif, draped in robes as fine as any at a formal ball, though she was merely at leisure in her own home.
"Do my eyes deceive me?" she asked. "Do I find three little girls rolling on the floor brawling and using uncouth language like pagans?"
"Mommy, Jezebel called Claudia a… a Squib!" Livia said. Behind her, Claudia flinched. "Tell her that's not true! Claudia's a witch just like us — tell her, Mommy!"
Mrs. Thorn's mouth compressed into a thin, serious line. There was something both hard and gentle in her expression as she looked from one girl to the next, sweeping her gaze across Claudia, Livia, then Jezebel, back to Claudia, and finally fixing it on Jezebel.
"I believe you should go home now, Jezebel," Mrs. Thorn said. "I'm very sorry that you and Livia and Claudia can't play nicely."
Jezebel picked herself up off the floor and wiped her nose with her sleeve.
"Mommy, she burned the floor!" said Livia. "Look!"
Livia's mother looked at the burn marks and sighed. "Yes, I see. Well, a Repair Charm will mend the carpet. I wish I had a charm to as easily mend your manners."
Jezebel scooped up her dancing dolls, giving Livia a haughty glare, and added an evil squint at Claudia. "I was going to go home now anyway," she said. "I'd rather play with proper witches who do proper magic."
Livia gasped in outrage and Claudia had to tighten her arms around her again. Mrs. Thorn said, "That will be enough, from both of you. I'll summon your house-elf, Jezebel." She snapped her fingers, and a tiny, wizened house-elf draped only in tattered rags appeared with a pop.
"It's time for Miss Hucksteen to leave," Mrs. Thorn said. "Do please take her home, and give my regards to her mother and father. I'll be sending an owl later," she added meaningfully. Jezebel only stuck out her lower lip.
"Yes, Mizzus Thorn," said the house-elf. It turned to Jezebel. "Is Miz Jezebel ready to go — ow!" The elf winced as Jezebel grabbed one of its long, pointy ears and held on as if it were a purse handle.
"Yes, take me home right now, Quimley," Jezebel said, as if all of this had been at her insistence in the first place.
The house-elf whimpered, then both he and the girl vanished with another pop.
Livia shook free of her sister's grasp. Claudia stood there with a sorrowful expression.
"What Jezebel said, that was a lie," Livia said. "Why didn't you tell her she's a big fat liar, Mommy? She shouldn't talk about Claudia that way."
"No, she shouldn't." Livia's mother sighed, patted her daughter on the head, and then laid a hand on Claudia's shoulder. "And you shouldn't have been fighting, or making wagers, or attempting magic unsupervised. Both of you are grounded and will not have any friends over for the next week, and you're going to clean this room without magic."
If Claudia felt she was being punished unfairly, she didn't say anything, and as she and Livia quietly went about picking up the toys and cleaning the room, Desirée Thorn watched her stepdaughter, with a calm gaze that didn't quite conceal the troubled thoughts that lay beneath it.