Alexandra and Julia stood before the fireplace at Sweetmaple Avenue. Alexandra held her magical backpack in one hand and Charlie’s cage in the other. Julia was surrounded by her baggage.
Alexandra still didn’t understand how the Floo Network worked or what made it easier to connect than enchanting Portkeys. Something else to study, she supposed. She would have resented the fact that she could have just traveled to Chicago the easy way all this time if Claudia hadn’t been in denial, except that riding the Charmbridge Bus was one of the things she’d come to look forward to each September. The memory of those trips, never to be repeated, was already a painful loss.
“You know this is not going to be a regular thing,” Claudia said, as if reading Alexandra’s mind. She almost didn’t look anxious; only her hands, rubbing together with slow, nervous energy, gave away the apprehension she still could not suppress whenever magic manifested in her presence. “I don’t have a wand to clean up all that powder.”
“I know,” Alexandra said. “Livia said they’ll connect the boiler in the warehouse before school starts.”
Claudia said, “Julia, don’t let Alexandra steamroller you or talk you into anything. You keep insisting you’re practically an adult, and your mother and I are trusting you to prove it.”
“How about trusting me?” Alexandra said. “You keep talking like I’m going to burn down the Ozarks if I’m let off my leash.”
“Troublesome!” said Charlie.
“You’re not helping, bird-brain,” Alexandra said, tapping the bird’s cage.
Julia squeezed Alexandra’s hand, while giving her other sister a smile with no trace of impatience. “Alexandra will have to explain what ‘steamrollering’ means before she can do it to me, but it sounds unpleasant, so I certainly shan’t allow it. Oh, do trust both of us, dear sister. And knowing Ozarkers, I daresay there will be guards and chaperones everywhere to keep anyone from stepping the least bit out of line.”
Alexandra didn’t know how much Claudia actually knew about Ozarkers. Claudia made a noncommittal sound, then said, “If you do step out of line…”
“…then you’ll never let me go anywhere ever again and you’ll take my wand away and cancel my allowance and send me to bed without my supper,” Alexandra said. “And also you’re still legally my guardian until I turn eighteen and this is still your house and just because I’ve seen a few things doesn’t mean I’m grown up. Come on, Claudia.”
“Tsk,” Julia said. “There’s no need to be so impatient. Claudia is rightfully concerned, and you should appreciate how much she cares about us. I know you would not speak to my mother like that, Alexandra.”
Alexandra forced her eyes downward. “Sorry.” The grudging apology practically burned her tongue.
“Well played, Julia,” said Claudia. “Safe trip. Be careful.” Only on the last part did the dry tenor of her voice betray a touch of concern beneath the exasperation layered over most of her words.
This time, Julia pushed her luggage ahead of her. She blew Claudia a kiss, then tossed a double-handful of green Floo Powder into the fireplace and said, “Chicago Wizardrail Station!” She stepped into the fireplace and disappeared with a rush of wind.
Alexandra met Claudia’s eyes for a moment, felt all the conflicting emotions that had thickened every conversation between them for the past six months lingering there, and tried to look bold, cool, mature, worldly-wise, and a trace yielding — just a tiny trace — all at once. She repeated Julia’s gesture and words, and she too was gone.
Charlie made a terrible racket even after the cage’s Cleaning Charms blew away the Floo Powder. Charlie did not enjoy the Floo, and was going to enjoy a Portkey even less.
“It seems backward to take a Floo to Chicago and then take a Portkey to the Ozarks,” Alexandra said, as she and Julia dusted green powder off their sleeves beneath the high, convex ceiling of the Chicago Wizardrail Station. “Missouri and Arkansas are actually in the opposite direction from where we just came.”
“Misery and Ark’n’saw,” Julia repeated. “Someday I must learn Muggle place names. I don’t know how you understand those maps Muggles draw — they’re so fixed and inaccurate, as if locations were absolute.”
“They are when magic doesn’t move them around and obfuscate them,” Alexandra said.
As they walked along, with Julia levitating her luggage behind her, Alexandra kept her eyes on all the wizards and witches bustling past them, entering and leaving the station, boarding trains to other parts of the Confederation, or getting into the long lines at the Portkey booths. After Abraham Thorn sabotaged the Wizardrail network three years ago, the Confederation had rerouted some lines so they no longer traveled through the Lands Below, but people were still nervous about taking the train.
“Lovely misses’ hair still has Floo dust,” said a voice from knee-height that seemed to creak under the weight of some painful burden. “Junk makes gone for three Pigeons.”
Alexandra and Julia both turned their eyes downward. A woebegone elf wearing a faded many-colored patchwork of stitched-together rags bent almost double before them. The creature’s forehead hovered inches above the floor.
Appalled, Julia said, “A house-elf offering… paid labor? Why, I’ve never!”
“Never, never!” said Charlie.
“Two Pigeons,” the pitiful elf said. “Junk banishes every speck, without misses must even lift their wands.”
“But,” Julia said, “does this mean you are…?”
“A free elf,” Alexandra said. She had only ever met one free elf before: Quimley, who lived in the Lands Below.
Tiny shoulders slumping, the elf trembled. “Just one Pigeon, pretty misses? Junk knows misses could clean dust better their own selves, but Junk has no mistress to serve no more, Junk is so —”
“Junk!” bellowed a male voice, and the elf jumped and began scrambling away, still with head bowed low. A red-robed wizard wearing a Wizardrail Auror Authority badge strode after the elf. “I’ve told you about harassing folks in the station!” He had his wand out, and was rolling it between his fingers as if ready to cast a hex.
Alexandra stepped forward. “He’s not harassing us. We asked him if he’d dust us off. We just took the Floo here.”
The Auror halted his advance and gave Alexandra a cursory glance. “We don’t encourage schnorrers here, miss. There’s more and more of them cadging coins and food, and we don’t want them hanging about in the station.”
“Where are they supposed to go?” Alexandra asked. “And how do elves wind up on the street?”
The Auror shrugged. “The increase in household taxes, combined with all these new Clockworks — more and more families are freeing their elves.”
The elf called Junk shuddered.
“You mean… they are simply kicked out?” Julia said, aghast. “House-elves are not Clockworks! They belong to their families! It’s unconscionable to simply set one free and make no provisions for their care! I had heard things like this were happening in other Territories, but I never imagined —”
“Miss, there are Elf Welfare houses,” the Auror said impatiently. “He can go there.”
“No, no, no,” said Junk, muttering and shaking his head. “They comes for us there. ASPEW thinks they helps, but they does not.”
“Go before I Banish you,” the Auror said, “and I mean Banish.”
“Wait,” Alexandra said. She reached into the pocket of her robe, pulled out all the Confederation money she had — six Lions, an Eagle, and a handful of Pigeons — and knelt to press the coins into Junk’s hands.
“Don’t encourage schnorrers!” the Auror said angrily.
“Go,” Alexandra whispered in the elf’s ear. “I’m sorry.”
Junk disappeared with a pop. Alexandra stood and faced the Auror with a defiant shrug.
“Next time I see that elf, he’s gone.” The Auror twirled his wand meaningfully. Alexandra just glared at him. The wizard shook his head and walked away.
Julia walked to Alexandra’s side, a hand over her chest. “That is appalling,” she said. “I just can’t imagine.”
“Appalling!” echoed Charlie.
“Maybe you should,” Alexandra said. “Not all elves are lucky enough to live on Croatoa.”
Julia gave her a sharp look, but Alexandra didn’t look away.
Julia dropped her gaze first. Behind her, her floating luggage dipped in the air. “I know what you think of keeping house-elves,” she said softly. “But you just saw what happens if you free them.”
“So they’re all enslaved for their own good,” Alexandra said. “No wonder they’re so grateful.” She was uncomfortably aware that David had once used this exact argument with her.
Julia visibly flinched, and now Alexandra felt guilty. There wasn’t any reason to lash out at Julia like this. Alexandra didn’t know enough about the history or the magic behind house-elf servitude, or the Compact Quimley had referred to, so she didn’t know if she was being fair.
“Anyway, I just gave away all my spending money,” she said, with forced cheerfulness. “So I’m going to have to borrow coins from you if I want to buy anything in the Ozarks.”
Julia lifted her head. “Indeed?”
They made their way through the bustle of the station to the Portkey booths. Alexandra was tense, half-expecting Diana Grimm or Richard Raspire or some other adversary to materialize at any moment. That always seemed to happen whenever she went out into the wizarding world, particularly when she was just minding her own business with friends or relations. A number of witches and wizards cast apprehensive looks at her, as if carrying a raven in a cage made her a Dark sorceress. Wizard superstitions were as strong as ever.
She also kept an eye out for elves, hags, and any other Beings who might be loitering in the station despite the Aurors’ proscriptions, but all she saw were people and Clockworks. There were several of the metal golems pushing brooms and mops across the polished marble floor.
Why couldn’t they give those jobs to elves, if they need jobs? she wondered.
“It’s a good thing your ticket is already purchased, or we would be in quite a fix,” Julia said.
“Maybe we could have asked Junk to take us to the Ozarks,” Alexandra said.
“Tsk. You know elves can’t replace Portkeys, Alexandra.” Julia was still a little wrought after their tête-à-tête, so her chiding didn’t have quite as light a tone as usual. Alexandra didn’t say anything as they walked to the Portkey booth and showed their tickets.
“Going to the Jubilee, eh?” said the attendant behind the metal grate. She inspected the girls’ tickets. “That’s not the usual destination. I didn’t know there were any Portkeys for… Furthest.”
“We’re expected,” Julia said.
“By Ozarkers?” The attendant was dubious. “Most visitors are going to the ‘Foreign Town’ they set up.”
“Yes,” Julia said, “well, we are going to be guests —”
“It’s none of her business,” Alexandra said. When the attendant frowned at her, Alexandra said, “Can you please find us our Portkeys so we can go?”
The woman rang a bell to summon a uniformed porter. This man examined the tickets and led Alexandra and Julia to a booth at the far end of the row, walked around it into a storage room, and emerged with two items on a broad pillow which he supported with both hands. One was a large, rusty pail; the other was a small tin container of some sort, narrower in the middle than at either end, with an open, bowl-shaped top. It was painted, but the old, faded decorations had worn through in places, and were covered by brownish stains in others.
“Ozarker workmanship,” the porter said. “They don’t make many Portkeys. Their enchantments are first-rate, but they don’t put any thought at all into aesthetics.”
“Not stuff to show foreigners, anyway,” Alexandra said.
“Well, one for each of you. Take your pick,” the porter said.
Julia tilted her head. “That is a milk bucket, if I’m not mistaken, but what is that other… item?”
“A spittoon,” said the porter.
Julia turned to Alexandra. “You get the spittoon.”
The yank through space was not as violent as Alexandra’s trip to Roanoke. She didn’t know if this was because the Ozarks weren’t quite as far away, or because the Ozarker-made Portkeys were better. She stumbled out of thin air onto a gravel driveway and stood there blinking in the hot mid-morning sun, blinded after the shade of the Chicago Wizardrail Station.
Julia “landed” with more grace, as if she had gathered up her skirts and hopped over the merest ankle-high obstacle. Settling onto her feet, she lowered the pail to the ground. Alexandra realized she was still clutching the spittoon in both hands. She dropped it and wiped her hands on her robe, then piled her bags at her feet once more with a wave of her wand. She lifted Charlie’s cage and made soft cooing noises. She’d been told that animals did not like Portkey travel, but she had been assured it was safe if unpleasant for them.
Charlie’s wings fluttered and then the raven screeched: “What the hell?”
“Are you okay, Charlie?” Alexandra asked.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” In fact, Alexandra could feel Charlie’s annoyance, which was a good sign — if the bird was angry and upset, it wasn’t hurt.
“Shush, Charlie.” Alexandra stuffed a treat through the bars.
“Well,” said Julia, looking around. “I don’t see your friends.”
“They’ll be here,” Alexandra said. “They can’t know the exact minute we’re going to show up.”
“No, indeed. I’m sure they will be here.” Julia folded her arms.
Alexandra realized with some surprise that they were standing in the back lot of an old A&W stand. A sign rose overhead, and painted root beer bottles and hot dogs were still visible, barely, on the weather-beaten back wall. There was also a dumpster with evidence of recent use, and Alexandra saw a couple of cars in the parking lot on the other side of the building, so the store was evidently still in use. She wondered that the Ozarkers would have fashioned Portkeys to dump them so close to Muggle eyes.
After several minutes of listening to the bird sounds and insect buzz around them, Alexandra said, “You’re upset at me, aren’t you?”
Julia inhaled deeply. “I am not.”
“Jerk!” said Charlie.
“That’s enough.” Alexandra activated the Silencing Charm on Charlie’s cage. She set down the cage, letting Charlie squawk silently, and turned to Julia. “I was really upset by Junk… who named him ‘Junk’ anyway? Sometimes wizards just piss me off.”
Julia regarded her wordlessly, neither smiling nor frowning, but something stirred in her dark eyes.
“No, it doesn’t make me feel better that I’m a wizard,” Alexandra said. “Also I’ve gotten paranoid about telling anyone anything about me or where I’m going or what I’m doing.”
“And all that explains why you are so…?” Julia’s genteel voice trailed off just so.
“No. I just am sometimes.” Alexandra shrugged. “I’m sorry.”
Julia reached a hand out and pinched Alexandra’s ear, then leaned forward and kissed her cheek.
The sound of an engine and wheels on gravel made them both turn about. A big boat-like car full of teenagers rolled around the A&W stand and came to a stop a few yards away. Two boys in the front seat, two girls lounging in the back, all wearing sunglasses, skimpy shirts, and jeans in the summer heat. The boys wore baseball caps, and one leaned out the passenger window to grin at Alexandra and Julia.
“Afternoon, ladies,” he said. His voice carried a twang that was not unlike Constance and Forbearance’s, though his accent wasn’t quite the same as theirs. “What’re you’all doin’ standin’ out back o’ the A&W?”
“We’re waiting for some friends,” Julia said. Alexandra stuck her hands in her pockets, and closed one around her Grundy’s wand. She wondered whether the Ozarkers had a Trace Office.
The boy raised his sunglasses to peer at Julia, who wore a flattering, feminine dress that was clearly out of place here. He glanced at Alexandra, who wore plain robes and her magical shiny JROC boots, but she didn’t merit more than a moment of his attention; it was obviously Julia he wanted to look at. “Waitin’ here?”
“Yes, indeed,” said Julia.
“Well, if you don’t mind my sayin’, I hate to leave pretty gals standin’ out in the sun. We got plenty o’ room in the back here if you’re wantin’ to go somewhere.” The girls already in the back of the car did not look as if they were quite so eager to share the available space, but they said nothing.
“I don’t mind at all,” Julia said. “You’re very kind.” The way she dipped her chin and softened her voice made the boy grin from ear to ear. “But we’ll wait here, thank you.”
The boy behind the wheel said, “You’all ain’t exactly dressed for walkin’ around. You’all goin’ to a folk festival or somethin’?” He eyed Charlie, a dark but silent figure inside the cage at Alexandra’s feet.
“Something like that,” Alexandra said.
“Alexandra,” Julia whispered, “take your hand out of your pocket. These Muggles don’t mean us any harm.”
Alexandra almost snapped back: “You can’t know that.” But she held her tongue and casually slipped her hands out of her pockets. She didn’t watch the boys in the car any less warily.
“My name’s Donald,” said the boy in the passenger seat, “an’ this is Buster. And they’s Colleen an’ Meg. So whereabouts you’all from?”
“Out of town,” Alexandra said.
Donald snorted. “Well heck, I figured that.”
Julia gave Alexandra an admonishing look. “My name is Julia, and this is my sister, Alexandra.”
“Julia an’ Alexandra.” Donald drawled the names out like exotic foreign sounds on his tongue. “They’s real pretty names.”
“Thank you.” Julia made a small waving gesture with her hands, like the start of a curtsy, not quite bobbing her head.
“You’all sure you wouldn’t like a ride?” Donald asked.
Julia looked at Alexandra. “What do you think, Alexandra? Should we go for a ride?”
Alexandra’s jaw dropped. “Julia!”
“Aw, c’mon girls, we’re safe,” said Buster from behind the wheel. “Colleen, Meg, tell’em we’re safe.”
“Yeah,” one of the girls said, and they giggled. “They’re safe. ‘Less you’re talkin’ ‘bout Buster’s driving.”
“Sheeit, Colleen!” Buster snatched his hat off his head and swiped it at the girl, who laughed and raised a knee to fend it off.
Then, abruptly, both boys paused, their eyes focused somewhere behind Alexandra and Julia, and their mouths opened soundlessly. It took a moment for Colleen and Meg to notice their reactions, then they sat up and looked ahead, and also went very still and wide-eyed.
Alexandra and Julia turned around. Riding out of the woods behind the A&W were a pair of girls in flowered calico dresses and bonnets, sitting astride a pair of mules and leading another pair behind them. Their faces lit up with delight at seeing Alexandra and Julia, but in the shadows of their bonnets, their delicate lips pursed as they saw the Muggle automobile.
Alexandra turned back to look at the Muggle teenagers. The four of them stared at the girls on mules, then Donald and Buster’s eyes went from the Ozarkers to Alexandra and Julia, and seemed to take in Julia’s full dress and Alexandra’s robes with new meaning. They stared again at Charlie. Fearful realization rippled across their faces.
“Holler people,” Donald said with a gulp.
Colleen and Meg put their hands to their mouths; their eyes were wide, as if the apparitions bearing down on them were Death and Famine, not Constance and Forbearance Pritchard, whom Alexandra could not imagine inspiring fear in anyone.
Buster threw the car into gear and with a spray of gravel, it spun almost in place before hurtling past the A&W stand and out onto the road, where it squealed away out of sight.
Julia and Alexandra looked at each other.
“You were totally flirting with them,” Alexandra said.
“We might have gotten a ride in their vehicle,” Julia said. “It could have been fun.” She winked.
“Alexandra!” Constance and Forbearance both called at once. They seemed to have been trying to kick the mules into a faster pace, but the mules saw no reason to hurry. At the edge of the gravel driveway, the Ozarker girls slipped off the animals and led them forward, before Constance handed the reins to Forbearance and rushed to greet Alexandra, arms outspread. They hugged, and Constance said, “Missed you terrible!”
“Missed you too,” Alexandra said. “It’s great to see you both.” She turned. “This is my sister Julia, but you probably guessed that.”
Julia beamed, all quarrels of a moment ago forgotten. “Constance and Forbearance Pritchard, I am so pleased to meet you at last. And I do hope you will forgive me if I mistake one of you for the other at first.”
“Oh, that’s no bother atall,” said Constance.
“Sometimes our Ma an’ Pa mistakes us,” said Forbearance. She handed the reins to Constance, and embraced Alexandra in turn. Both girls shook Julia’s hand.
“Your dress is awful purty,” said Forbearance.
“Why thank you!” Julia held out her skirts for Constance and Forbearance to admire. “And I love yours as well. No, honestly, I do, and Alexandra and I would both be delighted to wear Ozarker dresses while we are visiting, if it would be more polite to your folk.”
Alexandra made a choking sound.
“Really?” Constance and Forbearance said together. They turned to Alexandra, wide-eyed, and their faces broke into grins — they knew as well as Julia how enthusiastic Alexandra would be about putting on a dress.
“That would be a calamity,” Constance said.
“Alexandra Quick made complete with a bonnet,” Forbearance said. “My stars, but I’d cherish that!”
“Yeah, you’ll see that when mules fly,” Alexandra said.
Constance and Forbearance both turned startling blue eyes on her, their faces suddenly blank.
“What?” Alexandra said.
The twins broke into laughter.
“Oh, Alexandra,” said Constance.
“What?” Alexandra said.
“We’uns’ll take that as a promise,” Forbearance said.
“You done heard her, din’t you, Julia?” said Constance.
“Indeed I did,” said Julia, bemused.
Constance and Forbearance led the extra pair of mules to Alexandra and Julia. “Now, don’t you be feared none, these’uns are the gent’lest mules we got. They’uns’ll take us back to Furthest Holler.”
“Right,” Alexandra said. She grunted as she mounted her mule. She had ridden Granians and Thestrals, and Julia had been riding winged horses since she was a little girl, so she didn’t expect either of them would have a problem riding mules. “Um, why were those kids so afraid of you?”
The Pritchards’ mouths sank into frowns again.
“We’uns don’t mingle with Muggles much,” Constance said.
“An’ they’uns prefers it the same way,” Forbearance said.
“They called you ‘holler people’,” Alexandra said.
“Really, is that what they’uns calls us?” Constance sounded interested. “We’uns keep to our ownselves best we can, and they’uns knows to do the same, mostly, but they’uns must glimpse us every now’n then, I reckon.”
“We’uns don’t scare ‘em purposefully, you do understand,” Forbearance said, casting a glance at Alexandra. “We’uns don’t never do harm to ‘em. It’s ‘gainst our ways.”
“I know.” Alexandra knew Constance and Forbearance would never harm anyone. She wasn’t so certain about bigots like Benjamin and Mordecai Rash.
They rode away from the A&W stand, Julia’s mule burdened by all her suitcases. Soon they were out of sight of the building and the roads. There was no path between the cedar and oak trees that pressed around them in the hot insect-heavy air, but the mules ambled patiently along with an unerring instinct for avoiding low branches or obstructing foliage.
They chatted for a few minutes about their trip from Larkin Mills to Chicago and thence to the Ozarks. There was so much more Alexandra wanted to talk about, but she held back her curiosity about the wonders of the Ozarks and the details of the Pritchards’ lives, which she would see soon enough. She sensed her friends holding back questions they wanted to ask her and Julia also.
Julia asked, “How far is it to your home?”
“A fair piece,” Constance said.
“Our Hollers is way, way back in the backwoods,” Forbearance said. “Far from Muggle eyes. That’s why they’uns doesn’t never but rarely see us, an’ might could be why they’s feared of us.”
“‘Cause mostly it’s only tales they’uns knows of us, an’ tales is mostly confabulations,” Constance said.
Alexandra nodded. The slow, unhurried pace of the mules did not seem very efficient. She let Charlie out of the cage, and the raven perched on the back of the mule, saying nothing. If Charlie wanted to give her the silent treatment, that was fine with her.
“So, uh, you get most places by mule instead of broom? Can’t you use brooms back in the holler?” she asked.
“Back in the holler, ‘course we can,” said Constance. “But brooms is hard to craft, an’ foreign brooms is awful dear, so hain’t many families with more’n one. An’ mules we’uns can ride if Muggles is about.”
“Too bad you don’t have Granians,” Alexandra said.
“Oh, we’uns have a few winged horses ‘bout, but they’s big an’ costly — they’uns takes a passel o’ space and eats, well, like horses. Mules get about adequate for most purposes.”
“They’re charming,” Julia said, patting her mule.
“A little slow,” Alexandra said.
“Only ’til we’uns is outter sight o’ Muggles,” said Constance.
“Which we is now,” said Forbearance.“This here’s where Furthest starts.”
“Now hold on tight,” said Constance.
“And you start thinkin’ ‘bout what color bonnet you prefer,” Forbearance said, laughing gaily.
“What?” Alexandra said.
The mules, all four of them, took off, floating away from the ground as if carried by invisible balloons.
“Fly, fly!” said Charlie, taking wing.