Mules, it turned out, were stabler and smoother than horses in the air. There was something lost in the absence of great pegasus wings beating against gravity while the wind rushed past one’s face, but as a mode of transportation, Alexandra had to admit that flying mules beat brooms or Granians for comfort. Charlie now glided along beside her.
Here and there, as they passed over green hills liberally spliced with rivers, creeks, and lakes, they saw houses and small communities, devoid of automobiles or power lines or paved roads. Once she saw another couple on flying mules floating away from them. Constance and Forbearance waved, and the couple waved back, but none of them called to each other.
Alexandra guessed they were deep in the Ozark Hollers. They floated placidly along like one of those slow children’s rides at an amusement park, and it was only when they began to descend that Alexandra looked back, saw how many mountains were behind them, and realized that they hadn’t been traveling at such a slow rate of speed after all.
Below them was a sprawling wooden homestead with attached barns and fenced pens where pigs and chickens rooted in the dirt. As they settled on the ground, over a dozen people came out of the house to greet them, and Alexandra felt a stab of apprehension.
Constance and Forbearance, along with their younger sister Innocence, had almost been withdrawn from Charmbridge Academy more than once. Their proud but traditional parents allowed the girls to attend one of the most prestigious magical schools in the Confederation, but events at Charmbridge, and in the Confederation at large, frequently gave them second thoughts. Alexandra had been at the epicenter of many of those events, and as the daughter of the man who was the cause of the Confederation’s unrest, she was more than a little surprised that Mr. and Mrs. Pritchard had invited her to their home. Constance and Forbearance had assured her that their parents didn’t blame her for her father’s deeds, and Alexandra supposed that saving Innocence’s life two years ago must have weighed in her favor. But Ozarkers were so reclusive and conservative, and so leery of "foreigners” and Muggle influences, she couldn’t imagine what powers of wheedling and persuasion her friends must have brought to bear.
She might not be wearing a dress, but she had come in traditional robes, with no obvious Muggle accessories. Alexandra was determined to be on her best behavior. She didn’t want to do anything to make her friends look bad.
“Behave, Charlie,” she said, as her familiar settled on her shoulder. “I mean it.”
As she and Julia slid off their mules, a high-pitched, almost unintelligible voice hollered: “Confound it all come back har you ramptious varmint or ah’ll meller yore haid!”
A young goat with small, ridiculous-looking wings trotted along, dragging a rope tied around its neck on the ground behind it. From out of a barn, a girl of about nine chased after it, trying to keep a soft, floppy bonnet clapped to her head with one hand while waving a stick with the other. Catching up to the kid, the girl was about to step on the rope to bring it to a halt when the goat flapped its wings vigorously, and with a “Baaah!” of derision, leaped into the air and sailed away from the girl. It landed directly in front of Alexandra.
Alexandra reached out and snatched the rope around its neck. The goat rolled contemptuous eyes at her, then clamped its teeth onto her wrist.
“Ow!” Alexandra cried, and raised a hand to whack it over the head. She saw the young girl’s face contort in dismay, and gritted her teeth and refrained, keeping the rope in her fist. She muttered, “I hope we’re having goat stew for dinner, you little —”
“Wicked!” cried Charlie, flapping off of Alexandra’s shoulder to peck at the goat’s face. It released Alexandra and backed away with an angry “Baah!”
Constance grabbed the kid’s tiny horns while Forbearance took the rope from Alexandra. “Oh, dear,” Forbearance said. “I’m so sorry, Alex.”
Alexandra inspected her wrist. The goat’s teeth had left marks in her sleeve and her skin was bruised, but at least she wasn’t bleeding.
“Whimsy, why in tarnation would you let loose your kid when we’uns has guests?” Constance asked. “Less’n you planned to set it out for dinner?”
“No!” The younger girl grabbed the goat’s rope and regarded her sisters and their guests with wide eyes. “I jes’ wanted ter show Dewdrop off, he weren’t meant to get loose!”
“Hi, Alex!” Alexandra turned around at a new voice. A grinning girl who was the spitting image of Constance and Forbearance but for a couple of years threw her arms around her before Alexandra could finish wiping goat drool off her sleeve. “I reckon y’all met Whimsy an’ Dewdrop.”
“Hello, Innocence.” Alexandra returned the hug with one arm. She started to introduce Innocence to Julia, but by now the Pritchards’ parents had joined the gathering, along with brothers and sisters and in-laws, and all the introductions, insistence that the guests be taken inside, scolding of Whimsy and fussing over who would put the mules away took on the character of a melee. Julia stood patiently and nodded to each person who spoke to her, and Alexandra tried to decipher Mr. Pritchard’s unrevealing wooden expression.
Charlie fluttered up to sit on the roof.
While Constance and Forbearance took the mules to the barn, Mrs. Pritchard, a soft-spoken woman who looked much like an older version of her twin daughters, dressed in a dark blue dress and bonnet, murmured to one girl or another, occasionally addressed a word to her sons, and quietly directed the flow of traffic toward the house and saw to it that all the animals were under control. Mr. Pritchard, a tall, dark-bearded man with flinty eyes and a weathered face, continued to say nothing, merely tipping his straw hat by way of greeting to Julia and Alexandra.
Prudence, the oldest sister, was taller than her mother, and thin-boned and pale beneath her bonnet and shawl. Two daughters stood on either side of her, hands held firmly in hers. Prudence released them just long enough to shake hands with Alexandra and Julia and apologize that her husband had had to stay home. Faithful, the second oldest daughter, had brown curly hair, unlike her mother and sisters, and was a little on the plump side. She had a baby on her hip and another small child clung to her skirts. Her husband mumbled something and Alexandra didn’t catch his name before she was swept onward. There was a very pregnant dark-haired sister-in-law named Grace. Her husband, Able Pritchard, the oldest brother, was away on some business that was not precisely specified. The unmarried brothers, Noah and Burton, were two years apart but very similar in appearance. They both had neatly trimmed beards, much shorter than their father’s. Noah’s hair was darker than Burton’s sandy brown, and he had a thick, full mustache, unlike Burton’s sparse, stubbly one. Alexandra guessed that Burton, the younger brother, was about eighteen or nineteen, and Noah twenty or twenty-one.
The two youngest Pritchards were Whimsy and Done. Julia pressed her lips together and nodded solemnly when the little boy, who looked about five, was introduced.
There were so many Pritchards! A baby was crying, and another toddler tried to clamber up on Grace, who remonstrated with the child in a piqued tone. Done stared up with frank fascination at Alexandra. He had a runny nose and she hoped she wasn’t going to be expected to pick him up. Noah and Burton had positioned themselves on either side of Julia with conspicuous gallantry, and were loudly trying to talk over one another.
Not too bad, Alexandra thought with some relief, as they made it to the porch. She hadn’t offended anyone or killed the stupid goat, and at least they liked Julia — well, the older brothers did, anyway.
“I’ll take you to your room straightaway, Alex,” said Innocence, clasping her by the arm. “I knows Connie an’ Forbearance wants to talk confidences with you. You hain’t gonna ‘sclude me from the big kid talk, is you? We’uns can’t do that ’til after dinner anyhow. I hope y’all’re hungry.”
“Sure,” Alexandra said.
“We’uns have more guests.” The gravelly voice of Mr. Pritchard got everyone’s attention; they were the first words Alexandra had heard him speak.
“Why, it’s the boys from Clearwater,” Faithful said jovially, looking down a dirt trail where a pair of figures could be seen.
Innocence let out a little squeal of dismay, and looked fearfully at Alexandra before turning to her father.
“Pa, you din’t say they’uns was supperin’ with us tonight!”
“They’uns sent an owl whilst Constance and Forbearance was fetchin’ their friends,” said Mr. Pritchard. “I din’t see no reason not to invite ‘em. We’uns already have so many guests over right now, ‘tween our foreign visitors, Grace, an’ Prudence ’n Faithful’s folk.”
Alexandra eyed the approaching pair. They strode toward the house with long-legged gaits, arms swinging confidently. They wore long coats and tall hats — not quite ball-like finery, but they had definitely dressed up.
Comin’ courtin’, Alexandra thought sardonically.
Benjamin and Mordecai Rash halted a few paces from the gathered mob on the porch, doffed their hats, and said in unison, “Evenin’, Mister an’ Missus Pritchard, gentlemen, ladies.”
“Benjamin. Mordecai.” There was no tone of welcome or anything else in Mr. Pritchard’s voice; he might merely have been confirming their identities.
The blond twins stood almost at attention until Mrs. Pritchard said, “We’uns are right pleased to have you, boys. Constance an’ Forbearance is in the barn but they’ll be back directly. I’m sure they’uns’ll prefer to wash up ‘fore receivin’ company. I hope you’uns don’t mind waitin’.”
“S’no fuss at all, ma’am,” said Benjamin.
“We’uns don’t want to put no one at any inconvenience,” said Mordecai.
Throughout their polite greetings, neither of the Ozarker boys had looked directly at either Julia or Alexandra. They were forced to when Mrs. Pritchard said, “I reckon you’all know we’uns got guests for the Jubilee. This is Miss Julia King, an’ her sister Miss Alexandra Quick, whom you surely know from school. Hain’t it a wonder them both comin’ to visit with Connie an’ Forbearance this summer?”
“Yes’m,” said Mordecai, raising his hat. “A wonder. Pleased to meet you, Miss King.”
Julia nodded. “I’m pleased to meet you, Benjamin and Mordecai Rash. I believe Alexandra has mentioned you before.”
“She surely has, I’ll wager.” Benjamin fixed cold blue eyes on Alexandra, and raised his hat with a gesture identical to his twin’s, but somehow more ironical. “I din’t honestly think we’uns’d have the pleasure of her company again. ’Tis surely a wonder. An’ how’ve you been farin’, Miss Quick? Or kin I call you Alexandra, seein’ as how we is former school chums?”
Alexandra’s smile was a stretched wire. “Oh, please do call me Alexandra, Ben,” she said, with a honeyed voice. “And I’m just awesome.”
Even the Pritchards’ huge table was not large enough to hold all the guests sitting for supper, so people were scattered through several rooms of the sprawling split-level log house. It was spacious and quite a bit cooler than the muggy Ozark summer outside, though not as cool as a modern house with air conditioning. Alexandra hadn’t yet brought up the question of baths; she hoped she’d be pleasantly surprised by magically-pumped water or something, but was prepared for conditions more like those she’d endured camping with Maximilian in the Lands Below. She saw a small wooden chair chasing one of Faithful’s children, and wondered if the other furniture was animated.
Alexandra, Julia, Constance, Forbearance, and Benjamin and Mordecai were all placed at a separate table in the same room as the adults. Alexandra assumed the arrangement was by age group, and that proximity to the adults was to ensure proper chaperoning. She would have been quite happy if the Rashes had been seated with the adults, leaving the girls to enjoy dinner without them.
Innocence protested bitterly at being assigned to sit with her younger siblings and nieces and nephews, until her mother took her aside and spoke a quiet word in her ear. Chastened, Innocence went to join the other children with only an envious glance and a pouty lower lip betraying her sense of injustice.
“That girl’s a caution,” said Mordecai.
“I think she’s delightful,” said Julia. “And your home is lovely.”
“Thank you,” Constance and Forbearance said together.
“But we’uns know it’s puttered an’ not magicked much,” said Constance.
“There is other Ozarkers whose homes is much finer, an’ enchanted with all the latest charms,” said Forbearance.
Benjamin and Mordecai sat up a little straighter, as if stung by Forbearance’s comment.
“If’n you’uns prefers a home worked by hand,” Benjamin said, “we’uns hain’t no furriners who can’t get by without gewgaws an’ elf-work.”
Alexandra caught the slight, and saw that Julia did too, but neither of them said anything. Constance opened her mouth, but was interrupted as Prudence came by, still holding her baby under one arm, floating table settings through the air with a wand in her other hand. Mrs. Pritchard, Prudence, Faithful, and even Grace, with her swollen belly, were doing all the work of serving dinner. Only Grace looked put out about it.
Prudence levitated plates and bowls piled high with pork, corn, potatoes, and gravy onto the table. “Eat up, y’all,” she said cheerfully. “Connie an’ Bear, you two best enjoy sittin’ at the table havin’ others wait on you.”
“We’uns don’t usually,” Forbearance protested.
“Oh, I knows you’uns helps more’n your share,” Prudence said. “When you’uns hain’t away at that fancy school.”
“Fancy schoolin’ hain’t good for girls,” said Grace, passing by with a tray full of cups balanced on her hand, stacked so high that only magic could have kept them from tumbling and spilling their contents everywhere. “Takes they’uns minds off'n kith ‘n kin.” She looked harried and annoyed and there was something about the lines around her mouth that made Alexandra think she wasn’t teasing. Constance and Forbearance shrank into their seats a little, though Prudence dismissed her comment with a chuckle and patted the twins on the shoulders before moving away.
“Well, guess I won’t have to worry about that,” Alexandra said. “No more fancy schooling for me.”
There was an awkward silence, as everyone dished food onto their plates. Then Julia said, “I’m afraid I must be quite ruined already. But I’m sure your sister-in-law was joking. Constance, Forbearance, I confess I often wished I had a large family when I was growing up.”
“Oh, it’s wonderful to have so much family,” Constance said, pleased.
Forbearance smiled, although not quite as brightly as usual, Alexandra thought.
Conversation around the “big kids table” remained polite and tense. Benjamin and Mordecai seemed on their best behavior while trying to ignore Alexandra’s presence as much as possible. They were barely more gracious to Julia. Constance and Forbearance wanted to know about Roanoke, and Julia happily carried most of the conversation.
At the next table, the adults spoke of the Jubilee and all the visiting “foreigners.” Alexandra tried to listen in on their conversation, as it sounded more interesting.
“Hain’t surprised — them Scotch Ridgers is allus high-levatin’ themselves,” said Faithful’s husband. “Now they think they’uns don’t need to coven with the rest of us? Let ‘em sit up there an’ shun the Jubilee, the fools.”
“But even Clearwater folk’re talkin’ exodus now,” said Prudence. “And most o’ Clearwater is steadfaster’n us.”
“‘Ceptin’ present company,” muttered Grace.
A low rumble from Mr. Pritchard hushed them all. Alexandra didn’t catch his words, but she quickly turned her attention back to her plate when she saw Mrs. Pritchard and Prudence and Faithful all looking in her direction.
After dinner, yells and squeals filled the house at greater volume than before. The commotion of the younger Ozarkers drowned out everything else. The menfolk stood from their table and walked outside, while the women began clearing dishes away. It was easier using wands, Alexandra had to admit, and it was quite a spectacle as well — the Ozarker women sent streams of dishes and table settings and leftovers floating through the air like a food fight caught in slow motion, yet nothing collided, even as youngsters got in the way. Innocence rushed past chasing one of her young nieces, with barely a moment to smile at the older teenagers. Alexandra noticed none of the men lifted their wands to help.
“Would you’uns like to set outside awhile?” Mordecai asked.
He was looking at Constance and Forbearance when he said it, but Benjamin clarified to leave no doubt of their intent: “Without your guests, seein’ as how they’uns’ll be visitin’ for a spell an’ I reckon you’uns’ll spend most o’ the Jubilee with them.” He sounded resentful.
“The Jubilee lasts the whole year,” Constance said, “an’ our friends won’t be here but a few days.”
“An’ you’uns ought not rudely suggest we abandon ‘em,” Forbearance said.
“I’d be happy to see that Miss King hain’t abandoned,” said Noah, appearing suddenly at Julia’s elbow, just behind her chair. He and his brother had lingered while Mr. Pritchard and his son-in-law stepped outside onto the porch. “That is, I could show her round the house an’ all.”
“Maybe she’d like to walk outside too,” said Burton.
“I’m sure Alexandra and I would both be delighted to see your home, inside and out,” Julia said. “That is so kind of you both.”
A silent contest ensued between Noah and Burton: eyes darting meaningfully from side to side, hands twitching in not-quite-gestures. Alexandra found it very amusing, and she and Julia both rested their chins on their hands waiting to see how they would resolve it. Finally, Burton, the younger of the two, turned to Alexandra and grinned broadly at her. “I’ll wager you hain’t never seen a hide-behind.”
“What is that?” Alexandra asked.
“Burton, Noah, don’t you saw off no whoppers to our friends,” said Constance.
“And don’t you’uns be tryin’ to scare ‘em neither,” said Forbearance.
“Aw, we’uns hain’t gonna scare you or run a sandy on you or your sister, Miss King,” said Noah. He gave Burton a stern look.
“I would like to see you try to scare Alexandra Quick,” said Benjamin.
That was nearly a compliment from Benjamin Rash, but Alexandra said, “Julia’s not easy to scare either. But don’t try anything with my sister.”
Julia pursed her lips. Noah looked amused.
“Does that mean I can try somethin’ with you?” Burton asked.
“Burton Osric Pritchard!” Constance’s scandalized tone only further amused her brothers.
“I would like to see you try that, too,” said Benjamin.
“Benjamin!” Forbearance exclaimed.
“Hain’t no one gonna try nothin’ with nobody!” said Noah. “Merlin’s fuzzy britches, what is wrong with you boys? How you’uns look to our guests!”
With slightly awkward gallantries, the Rashes led Constance and Forbearance outside, while Noah and Burton showed Alexandra and Julia their house. Alexandra was initially interested only in figuring out where she would be sleeping and what sort of bathroom facilities they had, but she noticed as they explored the interior that its layout did not match its exterior.
“It’s larger inside,” she said aloud.
“What?” said Burton.
“Your house. It’s a wizard-space.”
Julia turned slowly about, eyes widening.
“It’s subtle, though,” Alexandra said. “I mean, you don’t just walk through the front door and see it, like on wizard buses and trains, or at Charmbridge.”
Noah smiled. “Maw carves the magic into the planks ’n timbers, and Paw puts the charms into the very pitch ’n nails. Connie an’ Bear oughtn’t have spoke so humble ‘bout our house. I think those gals is gettin’ too accustomed to frilleries and foreign fancies. Maybe they’uns is learnin’ to be ashamed o’ bein’ from the Hollers. I’m sure your houses is grander’n ourn, but you won’t find better Work in the Governor-General’s mansion.”
Alexandra wasn’t so sure about that, but she nodded.
“We gots a fraid hole down here,” said Burton, indicating a heavy wooden door in the floor. “For picklin’ an’ we’uns used ter hide there when we’uns was little, if’n a tornado come.”
“Or from Paw’s wand,” said Noah.
“Noah an’ Burton, don’t you try’n take them gals down into the cellar!” called Prudence from some room nearby. All the noise and the children, combined with the enchanted layout, made it hard to track who was where in this house.
“Pru, whatever are you conceivin’?” Noah called back.
“I knows your ways, you anticks! You let them gals be!”
Noah sighed dramatically, but Burton winked at Alexandra.
Aside from the interior size, there was very little about the Pritchards’ house that was obviously magical. The Kings’ mansion, Croatoa, had magical lamps and mirrors, animated portraits hanging on the walls, windows and doors that opened and closed with a snap of the fingers, and of course, house-elves. But except when the women were floating dishes through the air, to an unaware person this house would appear much like houses Alexandra imagined Muggle Ozarkers might live in.
Noah and Burton led them outside, to a back-facing deck with an unbroken view of the deep woods beyond. During dinner, Constance had told them that their nearest neighbor lived a quarter of a mile away. The sun hadn’t quite set yet, but the rear of the house was entirely in shadow, and the trees were a wall of solid black, interrupted by the brief flashes of lightning bugs. The smell of tobacco smoke drifted around from the front of the house, where Alexandra could hear Mr. Pritchard talking to Faithful’s husband. She wondered where Constance and Forbearance and the Rashes had gone.
Charlie came flying down from the rooftop and settled on the railing in front of her.
“You were very good, Charlie, and patient,” Alexandra said, and gave her raven some of the food she’d tucked into her pocket as a reward.
“That’s yore familiar?” Burton asked.
“Yeah. I hope you don’t have a problem with ravens.”
“Nah, but the hoot-owls an’ other critters might.”
“Charlie will sleep in my room, with a cage.”
Burton nodded, studying the raven for a moment. Then he leaned in, so he could speak into her ear. “So, do you have a chub?”
“A what?” Alexandra turned her attention from the trees and the lightning bugs to Burton. At the other end of the deck, Julia sat on a wooden bench while Noah illustrated something with his wand, drawing a trail of fireflies through the air.
“A beau,” Burton said. “You know, a sweetheart.”
“You mean a boyfriend? Yeah.”
“Oh. That’s a durn shame.” Burton grinned at her. His teeth were better than those of the Muggle boys who’d been driving the car back at the A&W. He was also not too bad looking; in fact, Alexandra might have considered him handsome, except that he was Constance and Forbearance’s brother.
“Are you hitting on me?” She intended to sound indignant, but her voice had no real force in it. Still, Burton’s grin disappeared.
“What? Hell’s bell’s, I hain’t never hit no girl, not even my sisters, an’ there’s times they done wanted it, too.”
“No, I mean —”
From across the deck, Julia laughed. Her own wand was out, and she and Noah were doing something with the large, whirring bugs that swirled around them. Some glowed, some fell out of the air and bounced on the wooden planks with brilliant flashes of light, and a stream of them flew past Alexandra and Burton like a formation of old propeller planes, buzzing and chopping the air with their passing.
“Connie ’n Bear ’n Innocence talks ‘bout you a lot,” Burton said. “They’uns esteem you right highly.”
“I esteem them highly, too.”
“Hain’t never had no furriners here afore.” Burton leaned against the railing behind him. “Tell a honesty, you an’ yore sister is the first foreign witches I ever spoke to more’n a few words.”
“I was kind of surprised your folks invited us. I mean, I know they’re grateful I saved Innocence, but I thought it’s, like, a taboo for Ozarkers to mingle with non-Ozarkers.”
Burton turned his head, hawked, and spat over the railing. Well, Alexandra thought, that wasn’t attractive.
“Lame,” said Charlie.
Burton looked at the raven a moment, then replied to Alexandra. “Hain’t percisely taboo, if’n I understand how you mean that word. We’uns don’t regularly step outside our Hollers, that’s true. But Maw an’ Paw did allow my sisters to go to Charmbridge, an’ they’uns is minglin’ plenty with furriners there.”
“You know, even when your sisters call me a foreigner, they don’t say it the way you do, like it’s a dirty word.”
Alexandra couldn’t read Burton’s expression in the dark, with only Julia and Noah’s lightning bugs and wand flashes casting light against the side of his face, but she could feel him giving her a long look, and then he turned and spat again.
“Don’t hold back yore opinion none, do you?” he said. “They’uns said you is fierce an’ untempered.”
“I’ve been called worse.”
“Now girl, they’uns gave it like praise. I kin see why. You is kind of interestin’. But I kin also see why they’uns calls you Troublesome.”
That again, Alexandra thought. “You’ve known me for like three hours.”
“I done heard plenty. And you do make an impression.”
“Now don’ take no umbrage, Miss Quick. I reckon Maw an’ Paw wanted to see for themselves what this gal is like they done heard so much tell of. Is it true you churned Ben an’ Mordecai at school?”
“If you mean did I beat them in a wizard-duel… they started it.”
Burton guffawed and slapped his knee. “You are a calamity! An’ them boys was improved by it. But to hear they’uns was licked by a girl! Broom me out!”
Alexandra was tempted to challenge him to a wizard-duel, just to see how he’d react, but bit back her response. She glanced in the direction of the other couple. Julia was telling Noah about the ocean.
“I heard tell even the Grannies know yore Name,” Burton went on.
Alexandra didn’t say anything.
“Yes’m, I was plenty curious to see the notorious Troublesome my ownself,” Burton said.
“My name is Alexandra,” Alexandra said. “Alexandra Quick. Daughter of Abraham Thorn.”
She wasn’t sure why she felt the impulse to reference her father. More often than not she tried to stay out of her father’s shadow. It annoyed her that mentioning his name always made people take her more seriously, but she wondered if Ozarkers also flinched at the mention of the Enemy.
“Troublesome,” said Charlie.
It seemed to her as if the insect and night-bird noises quieted for a moment, and she was aware of Julia and Noah looking at her from across the deck.
Then Noah said, “Well, I reckon Mister Thorn is welcome to come to the Jubilee too. Think he might shake my hand?”
“He might,” Julia said, “if he had a favorable impression of you as a gentleman. I’m sure I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t.”
Noah threw his head back and laughed. “Why Miss Julia, you do flatter me.”
Their conversation continued, and Burton leaned forward.
“What d’you think?” he asked in a low voice. “Would yore Paw shake my hand?”
“Are you a gentleman?” Alexandra asked.
Burton’s teeth gleamed as he grinned slowly in the dark. “I reckon yore sister favors gentlemen more’n you do.”
“What? What’s that supposed to mean?” Alexandra felt heat rising to her face. She was grateful for the darkness.
Her face heated more when Burton laughed quietly. Then he said, “Now don’t take offense. I’m just joshin’ you. It’s fun to tease li’l girls my sisters’ age who hain’t quite so green as them.”
“I —” Alexandra wanted to ask exactly what he meant by "green,” and decided not to. She folded her arms and leaned away from him, staring into the darkness. A startlingly loud croak came from the woods, almost a roar, and back in the trees leaves shook and birds took off with shrieks and caws and hoots. Charlie hopped from the railing to Alexandra’s knee.
“A jimplicute or hide-behind, might could be,” Burton said. “The woods at night is a hazard. I hope you don’t take it into yore head to go out into them by yourself.”
“Why would I do that?” Alexandra asked. She thought of the legendary hodag that supposedly haunted the woods around Charmbridge. She suspected “jimplicutes” and “hide-behinds” were just as mythical.
“One never does know,” Burton said. He hawked and spat again.
The Pritchards’ house was large, but there were many Pritchards. Alexandra and Julia had to share Constance and Forbearance’s room. They didn’t really mind; the girls’ room was spacious enough, and Mrs. Pritchard had conjured an extra bed. However, this meant that Constance and Forbearance would be sharing a bed to allow their guests to each have their own.
“We’uns don’t mind,” Constance said. She and her sister were dressed in long white gowns and sleeping caps. “We’uns shared a bed ’til we went to Charmbridge.”
“We’uns still sometimes did even at Charmbridge,” Forbearance said, “’til we got accustomed to sleepin’ separate.”
Alexandra and Julia shrugged. Neither of them were particularly comfortable with displacing their hosts, but they realized that arguing would only make the twins more uncomfortable. Alexandra would have doubled up in a bed with Julia if required to, but she couldn’t say she would sleep comfortably like that. Charlie settled into the cage with surprisingly little fuss.
“Mercy sakes!” Innocence barged into the room looking harried, her bonnet askew. “Ma finally said I could leave off caretakin’! If Peter yanked my hair just once more I was just fixed to hex his sticky li’l fingers an’ Merideth is such a brat I caint even tell you!” She plopped down on the bed next to Alexandra. “What’re y’all talkin’ ‘bout? You’uns hain’t started to share confidences yet, have you?”
There was a moment of stunned silence. Then Constance, with a slight frown, said, “Innocence, that hain’t no way to enter.”
“I enter this way all the time!” Innocence turned to Alexandra and Julia. “You’uns don’t mind, do you? Or is this a ‘big kids only’ gatherin’?” Alexandra was unaccustomed to hearing such sarcasm from Innocence, and evidently so were her sisters.
“Innocence, dear, you ought not be so impatient with the little’uns,” said Forbearance.
“You wasn’t made to mind ‘em all day an’ all evenin’!” said Innocence. “Prudence an’ Faithful an’ Grace done birthed ‘em, they oughter have the carin’ of ‘em!”
“Now, Innocence,” said Forbearance, trying to preempt Constance’s brewing ire, but Alexandra interrupted them both.
“We haven’t started sharing confidences yet,” she said. “I was just about to tell Constance and Forbearance about my trip to Chicago.”
“Oh!” said Constance, Forbearance, and Innocence together.
“You don’t mind Innocence being here, do you?” Alexandra asked Julia.
“Certainly not,” Julia said, smiling. “Why, we’ve barely had a chance to get acquainted. And I do admire your patience, Innocence.”
Alexandra did too, and she thought Innocence had a point about unfairness. But she didn’t want to say that in front of Constance and Forbearance.
She told them the story of her hearing at the Territorial Headquarters building. Soon they were peppering her with questions about Livia, and Claudia, and then they were sharing stories about Charmbridge. The Pritchards asked Julia about the Salem Witches’ Institute and Croatoa. Somehow the subject turned to boys, and more questions about Brian than Alexandra liked. But very late at night, with all of them sprawled indecorously across the three beds and the floor in the fatigue that comes after hours of non-stop conversation, Alexandra drifted off to sleep and realized she hadn’t thought about geases or Traces or the Office of Special Inquisitions once since arriving in the Ozarks.