“Scotch Ridge has allus been full o’ starched britches ’n stiff necks,” said Noah as they dispersed with the crowd. He and Burton walked on either side of the group, casually eyeing the Ozarkers who jostled against them on all sides. “I wouldn’t put no mind to what Balthazar said. The Donaldsons is a runctious lot, every last one of ‘em, even the ones who went to other Hollers by marriage.”
“They’uns’re all Exodans, hain’t they?” said Innocence.
“We’uns don’t need to talk ‘bout that, Innocence,” Noah snapped.
“Seems to me,” said Constance, and she paused, as if gathering her nerve before continuing: “Seems to me that they’uns’re eager to talk ‘bout it. Raised it right up there afore the entire Five Hollers, guests ’n Ozarkers alike, Mr. Donaldson did. It don’t seem to me that they’uns wants to be discrete atall.”
Noah let out a long breath. Before he could speak again, Burton said, “I reckon Connie’s right. I heard ‘em spreadin’ evil words ‘bout furriners an’ the Confederation. They reckon the Jubilee’s a good time to bring more folks into their camp.”
“The Exodan camp,” said Alexandra.
“You got sharp ears, don’t you Miss Quick?” said Noah.
“An’ a big nose,” said Burton. He tapped his own nose. Sonja giggled, and he winked at her.
“Yes, Alexandra is very good at digging up secrets,” Julia said, “and keeping them.” The reproach in her tone pulled Alexandra’s attention away from Burton’s smirk.
Anna said, “You don’t have to explain anything to us you don’t want to.”
“You know Alex won’t let it go,” David said.
“Hey!” Alexandra protested.
Noah shook his head. “It hain’t that the Exodans is secret. But talkin’ ‘bout ‘em is like talkin’ ‘bout an ornery uncle who drinks too much of his own shine — everyone knows ‘bout him, but you still don’t like the subject bein’ raised ‘round outsiders.”
“We are sorry,” Julia said. “We don’t wish to embarrass you.”
“I know you’d never, Miss Julia,” said Noah.
“We’uns hain’t embarrassed,” Constance said.
“‘Cept by Mr. Donaldson,” said Forbearance.
“But what is it that Balthazar Donaldson said you’re doing for Muggles?” Alexandra asked. “What did he mean by a ‘real’ Jubilee, and sacrifices? And all that stuff about a world apart, like you aren’t already apart enough from the Confederation?”
“Well, that’s just it,” Noah said. “They’uns reckon we ain’t.” He pulled off his hat, ran his fingers through his dark hair, and paused to let another family pass by. A bearded man and a plump wife and four young boys, all wearing matching suspenders and red knit shirts, stared at Alexandra, Anna, David, Sonja, and Julia as if they were exhibits in a zoo.
“They’uns is furriners,” whispered one boy.
“BOO!” David shouted. All four boys yelped and scrambled away, seeking refuge behind their mother. She glared at David. The family hurried on.
“That weren’t nice, David,” said Constance, trying not to smile.
Alexandra waited impatiently. Noah put his hat back on, inclined his head toward the long wooden fence where many mules besides their own were tied, and resumed walking. Everyone followed.
“We’uns, that is to say, our ancestors, took the Road West to get away from the rest o’ the wizardin’ world,” Noah said. “First from the Old World to this one, an’ then when foreigners came in ever greater numbers an’ surrounded us all about, we’uns went west again, from Appalachia to the Ozarks.”
“What, you thought nobody else would keep going west?” David said. “You could’ve gone all the way to California and you still would have been surrounded again.”
“My community lives surrounded by Muggles,” Anna said, “but we still live in a world apart.”
“Apart, yeah,” Noah said. “But you’uns can’t get away from Muggles entirely, can you?”
“My mother is a Muggle,” Anna said, with an edge in her voice.
Noah paused, perhaps drawn up short by Anna’s tone, or perhaps by his sisters’ scowls.
“Ozarkers don’t never harm Muggles, Miss Anna,” he said. “I will allow as there’s some who don’t much prefer Muggles, but an Ozarker will no more harm a Muggle than he’d harm a mule.”
Anna stopped in her tracks. David’s expression matched Anna’s.
“Noah Arthur Pritchard, you’re right beastly,” Constance said.
“Noah’s meanin’ wasn’t to compare Muggles to mules,” Forbearance said, distressed.
“Sounded like it to me,” David said.
“Now listen, I do not despise Muggles,” Noah said, “but I’ll be broomed if a bunch o’ young’uns is gonna lecture me.” They had reached the corral, and Noah untied his mule with jerky motions that made the animal bray in disapproval.
Alexandra held her tongue because she still wanted to hear about Exodans. Noah, however, fixed his features into stone. Whatever had made him momentarily loquacious, he was no longer in a talkative mood. He said only, “Let’s hie back to Furthest. Some of us have work to do afore we’uns can go dancin’ an’ frollicatin’.”
Anna, Sonja, and David, though they had to return to the foreigners' village and rejoin the other Charmbridge students that evening, had gotten permission to visit Furthest for the day, which meant riding the mules back. Anna and David eyed the creatures dubiously.
“Flying mules,” David said.
“You’ve seen flying carpets, flying brooms, and flying goats and horses,” Alexandra said. “What’s so hard to believe about flying mules?”
“Well, flying goats and horses have wings,” Anna said, trying not to shrink away from the mule that poked its nose at her. “Innately non-magical creatures can’t be given the power of flight without adding wings or something… It’s complicated, but there’s a whole field of Arithmantic equations related to flight—”
“They fly, Anna dear,” said Forbearance. “You can ride with me. Don’t worry, Sterling’s gentle as can be.”
Sterling brayed loudly, making Anna jump.
“Well, obviously I knew we’d be flying by mule,” Sonja said. “I’ll ride with Burton.” Burton grinned.
“Who’m I riding with?” David asked, edging casually toward Julia.
“Me,” Alexandra said, grabbing his sleeve. “And you can hold onto the saddle, not me.” As she mounted her mule and gave David a hand up, Julia winked at her before leaning close to whisper something to the still-brooding Noah.
The mules rose with barely a twitch, ascending like hot-air balloons with four legs.
David relaxed a little after the first few minutes, though he still kept muttering about preferring brooms. Anna wrapped her arms around Forbearance’s waist so tightly that Forbearance asked her to loosen her grip a bit.
The flight back to Furthest was scenic at first, but between the Hollers, the bright cloudless morning turned overcast. Even just a few hundred feet off the ground, clouds formed with astonishing speed. Where minutes earlier Alexandra had been able to see to what must have been the Arkansas border, suddenly Noah, only a few yards in the lead, had become a gray shape in the mist.
A shadow fell across them all, and Alexandra thought at first that they must have become disoriented and were drifting close to a hillside. Then the mules all sent up a cacophonous braying that almost drowned out the beat of leathery wings. Charlie let out a shrieking caw and abruptly dove out of sight. Sonja screamed.
Alexandra’s yew wand was out of its sheath and in her hand before her brain registered what she was seeing — vast scaled wings, a tail as large as a tree whipping through the air, great talons large enough to seize one of the mules — and then it had passed on, wings slamming the air and tail lashing in its wake.
“Whoa,” David said.
And then they were surrounded, dragons on all sides, surging past them like great lethal sharks swimming past a school of minnows too puny to even take notice of. They were green and black, tinted blue and silver, with scales like shingles and heads that were serrated racks of fangs and horns.
Anna squeezed her eyes shut and buried her face in Forbearance’s back. Julia sat straight and tall. Her eyes were wide, but she watched the great reptiles with more amazement than fear.
“Jeez,” said David, as the mule he and Alexandra rode shuddered and dipped lower. Alexandra was still holding her yew wand in one hand, though she realized how foolish it would be to throw a spell at the beasts flying past. Any one of the dragons could sweep the lot of them out of the air in an instant. With her other hand she pulled on the mule’s reins, trying to keep the animal from dropping to the ground.
“It’s the Confederation Air Force,” said Noah, in a tone not of awe or fear, but irritation, almost disgust.
The dragons had riders. Men in blue pants and tunics, with heavy leather boots and thick gray cloaks flapping behind them, sat astride the reptiles on hard black saddles. They were faceless behind burnished steel helmets, but clinging to each man was a passenger, and the passengers’ faces, protected by goggles and leather caps, were turned in astonishment toward the flying mules and their riders.
They were kids, Alexandra realized, and they wore the blue and gray uniforms of the Junior Regimental Officer Corps.
“William!” shouted Innocence.
Although his blond hair and pudgy face was hidden beneath his headgear, the short, stubby boy in a JROC uniform was unmistakable. He was clinging to the rider of one of the biggest dragons of all, an enormous black leviathan with wings that blocked out the sun. William slipped one hand free to wave at them, and then the dragons were gone, disappearing into the fog over the Ozark hills.
“See, nothin’ to be feared of,” Burton said. He had fallen back to hover alongside Alexandra and David. Sonja was clinging to him in terror.
“I wasn’t feared,” Alexandra said, yanking on her reins. “It’s this stupid mule who’s feared.”
“I wasn’t feared — I mean, afraid — either,” said David. “What’s the matter, Sonja? Your ‘inner eye’ couldn’t see a freaking dragon coming?”
Burton thumped their mule on the head. The mule’s ears flicked forward and it brayed indignantly. “You behave, Breezy.”
Breezy brayed again, and Burton grabbed the reins from Alexandra’s hand, ignoring her protests, and yanked hard until the mule stopped its descent. Burton descriptively cataloged the animal’s behavioral, aesthetic and familial deficiencies, including a few words Alexandra hadn’t heard before. Breezy brayed, but stopped resisting.
“I thought Ozarkers would never hurt a mule,” Alexandra said.
“I din’t hurt this cowardly, ornery thing,” Burton said. “That’s just how you gotter talk to mules. They’re a bit like girls — they’uns don’t listen ‘til you talk sweet to ‘em.” He winked and leaned forward. Sonja giggled, with a touch of hysteria. Their mule carried them back to where Noah and Julia floated.
Alexandra rolled her eyes behind his back. “He is such a jerk.”
“Big fat jerk,” said Charlie, reappearing out of the mist and landing on the back of the mule’s neck.
“Nice of you to rejoin us, scaredy-bird,” said Alexandra. She cast a glare over her shoulder at David. “What are you snickering at?”
Mr. Pritchard hadn’t returned home from Clearwater Holler yet, so only Mrs. Pritchard and her eldest daughter and daughter-in-law were there to greet the returning teenagers. David, Anna, and Sonja were politely appreciative of the homestead, with David and Sonja showing more overt curiosity. The two youngest children, Whimsy and Done, were overtly curious in turn about the foreigners, as they assembled in the Pritchards’ large dining room. The women and the twins had gone to prepare food for everyone.
“Are you from China?” Whimsy asked Anna.
“No, I’m from California,” Anna said.
“Oh. Do you speak Californian?” Whimsy asked.
“Like, omigod, totally,” said Anna.
Alexandra stared at her. “You’ve been watching TV.”
“He’s never seen a black person before, has he?” David asked, gesturing at Done, who stood silently next to Whimsy, one hand in his mouth and eyes wide.
Constance entered the room with a tray full of stew bowls and bread and tea. “You was the first black person we’uns ever met, David, that day on the Charmbridge bus.” She laid the tray on the table and gently nudged her little brother toward the next room with Whimsy. “But we’uns hadn’t seen many furriners atall afore that, an’ Whimsy an’ Done hain’t never even left Furthest. I’m sorry we’uns hain’t as cosmopolitan as you’uns in Detroit an’ Chicago an’ San Francisco. But we’uns never thought ill o’ no one, even if you’uns was all terrible strange an’ foreign to us when we’uns first left.”
A graver expression settled over David’s face. “I know that.”
“I hope you know that,” Constance said. “We’uns invited you’all here ‘cause we’uns want you to know that Ozarkers is not hateful people.”
“Where’s Julia?” Alexandra asked. David and Constance didn’t seem to hear her. Anna looked around and shrugged.
“Talkin’ to Noah outside,” Forbearance said, entering the room with another tray of food. She tilted her head at Alexandra’s frown. “Is somethin’ amiss?”
“No, of course not,” Alexandra said.
Sonja asked to use the bathroom and slipped away. When Constance, Forbearance, and Innocence were all out of the room again, Alexandra turned to Anna. “You told Julia,” she said. “You told her everything.”
“Not everything,” Anna said.
“You told her way too much.”
“Don’t just blame Anna,” David said. “She talked to me about it first, and I agreed we should.”
“Then I’m pissed at you too,” Alexandra said.
Anna turned her face away.
“Hey,” David protested.
“You had no right to tell Julia about my geas,” Alexandra said.
Anna raised her head abruptly and said, “I’m not sorry.”
Alexandra stopped talking, taken aback.
“You’re right, I didn’t have the right,” Anna said. “Julia’s your sister and it’s your family business. You can keep everything secret from your sister, who loves you and is at least as good at magic as all of us, because you’re stubborn and you hate having anyone help you and you think you’re the only one allowed to take risks or be in danger. But I did it, because I think she can help and I knew she’d want to know, and you were being a jerk by not telling her.”
Alexandra stared at her friend. David folded his arms and studied the floor.
“I don’t blame you for being angry at me,” Anna said, “but I’m not sorry. So you can yell at me or hex me or just be pissed, but I did it for your own good.”
“We did it for your own good,” David said. “And please don’t hex me.”
“For my own good?” Alexandra repeated. “You’re making decisions for me for my own good now?”
“Yeah, ‘cause you never make decisions for anyone else for their own good,” David said. “Anna’s right — be mad, but don’t be a hypocrite.”
Stung, Alexandra said, “You could have talked to me about it first. You could have suggested I talk to Julia.”
“You’d have said no,” David said.
Sonja returned, ending the conversation.
Alexandra’s anger wasn’t lessened by the feeling that her friends had her dead to rights. She felt aggrieved and betrayed, and petty and small for feeling that way. She tried not to show her ill temper when Constance and Forbearance returned, carrying yet more food.
Noah and Julia joined everyone else at the table when they all sat down to eat. Noah said little, and he and Burton both disappeared immediately after lunch, leaving their mother and sisters to do the cleaning.
“Oh, do let us help,” said Julia, rising and drawing her wand. Alexandra, Sonja, and Anna immediately chimed in their agreement.
David slouched in his chair with a lazy grin until Alexandra kicked his ankle. He jumped up and said “Me, too.”
“I will not hear this,” said Mrs. Pritchard. “No guests in my house are doin’ chores. You’uns put your wands away. I mean it!”
She shooed her daughters’ friends outside, so the five teens ambled out onto the porch, waiting for Constance and Forbearance to finish.
“Doesn’t look like the boys do much work,” Alexandra said.
“That’s for sure,” Anna said, with a sideways glance.
“Hey!” David protested. “I offered, too.”
“You shouldn’t make assumptions, Alexandra,” said Julia. “Noah has to fix the barn, which is held together by charms that are going to be dispelled soon, and Burton has to make sure the goats and pigs and other livestock won’t get out after the Unworking.”
“So while Noah was telling you all that, did he tell you about Exodans?” Alexandra asked.
“We did not discuss Exodans,” Julia said.
Alexandra folded her arms and watched balefully as Burton emerged from an outbuilding with large coils of rope slung over both shoulders. The ropes were heavy and thick, and he wore a long-sleeved shirt even beneath the beating summer sun, so he was sweating profusely before he began rigging up some sort of complicated tether around the flying goats’ pen.
Sonja looked back and forth between Burton and Alexandra. She put a hand over her mouth.
“What?” Alexandra demanded.
“Nothing.” Sonja dropped her hand. “I’m going to talk to Burton. You won’t mind, since you want to talk to everyone else without me.”
Alexandra opened her mouth.
“I know more than you think I do, Alexandra,” Sonja said. “I’ve seen it with my Inner Eye.”
“Okay, where’s my father, right now?” Alexandra asked. “If that works, I could think of some really useful things to do with your Inner Eye. Have you ever heard of a Muggle game called a lottery?”
Sonja scowled at her. “It doesn’t work like that. My Inner Eye sees, it doesn’t look.”
“Eventually you’ll learn to appreciate my gifts. You consulted me for your Naming, and for witch’s knowledge, which you definitely shouldn’t forget.”
“Witch’s knowledge? Oh my,” said Julia, as Alexandra’s cheeks reddened.
“What is — never mind,” said David.
“It’s fine. Talk to your sister,” Sonja said. She hopped off the porch and walked over to Burton.
After a minute of silence on the porch, interrupted only by animal and insect noises and the clinking of dishes inside, Julia laid a hand on Alexandra’s shoulder.
“So, do we not have things to discuss, dear sister?” Julia asked.
Anna said, “We can’t have a private conversation with all these people around.”
Alexandra watched Burton working around the pens, while Sonja sat on a fence chatting with him. Sweat was streaming down his face and back. His shirt clung to him, and he paused to wipe a damp sleeve across his forehead.
“Maybe down by the creek,” Alexandra muttered.
“Do you want to go skinny dipping again?” Julia asked, amused. “It is very hot today.”
“Skinny dipping?” Anna exclaimed.
“Wait, again?” David said. “You mean, you went —”
“Wipe that smirk off your face, dork,” Alexandra said, transferring her attention from Burton to David.
“So, we gonna go skinny dipping?” David asked.
“Sure,” Alexandra said. “You first, and we’ll watch.”
“Watch what?” asked Constance, walking out onto the porch, followed by Forbearance and Innocence.
“Nothing!” David said quickly.
“Skinny dipping,” said Anna. “We’re learning a lot about Ozarker customs.”
The Pritchards blushed.
“How about we take a walk by the creek and keep our clothes on?” Alexandra said. She pointed a finger at David. “Say one word.”
He held his hands up, but the smirk stayed on his face.
Alexandra turned to face the Pritchards. Innocence’s face was alight, until she saw Alexandra’s.
“Oh no,” she said, “are you goin’ to skeet me back inside to help with the little’uns an’ cleanin’ an’ fetchin’?”
“Yes,” Alexandra said. “I mean, not the chores. I’m sorry you keep getting stuck with those. But —”
“Guess I hain’t really your friend noways!” Innocence cried, barely controlling her tears. “Y’all are just like my bossy sisters who think I’m just a stupid li’l chile!” She turned around and stomped inside, brushing off Forbearance’s hand.
“Awkward,” said Anna.
“She’ll meller out and forgive us soon enough,” said Forbearance.
“Is it really necessary to exclude her?” Julia asked. “And Sonja? I know she’s chatty, but surely she can be trusted.”
“Yes, we need to exclude them both,” Alexandra said. “You’ll understand after I tell you.”
Julia raised her eyebrows at that, but didn’t argue. As the six of them trooped off into the woods, Burton called out, “Hey, where y’all goin’?”
“Skinny dipping!” Alexandra called back, before Burton’s sisters could answer. Anna and David snickered and Julia giggled. Even Constance and Forbearance laughed.
They came to the same watering hole as before, but though the water was clear and inviting, everyone sat on one of the big rocks, or at the water’s edge. Anna pulled her robes up to her knees and slid off her shoes and socks. David rolled up his pants legs and did the same, and the two of them dangled their feet in the water.
“Well?” asked Julia. She folded her hands expectantly on her lap.
Alexandra drew her yew wand and concentrated a moment, rehearsing the word and the gesture in a way she didn’t normally have to for a spell she’d thoroughly mastered. “Muffliato.”
There was the sound of air escaping somewhere around her ears, accompanied by a slight buzzing, but the spell seemed to take. With a sigh, she put the wand back in her sleeve.
“So, my friends told you about my geas,” she said. Her cutting tone made Anna and David examine their hands.
“Yes, they did,” Julia replied coolly, “and if you’re angry at them for sharing confidences, then may I point out that it hurts me deeply that you didn’t see fit to take me into your confidence in the first place.”
“I wasn’t trying to hurt you,” Alexandra said. “I was trying to —”
“Protect me, yes, you foolish girl.” Julia waved a hand dismissively, almost angrily. “And we both know you are a gallivanting headstrong fool, and you have no business trying to protect me! I’m older than you, Alexandra, and Maximilian would want me to look after you, not the other way around. It’s my right and privilege to do so, and you would deprive me of it. And you don’t trust me and you turn your anger on your friends because you’re so unbearably obstinate!”
The words shocked Alexandra. It was the second time that afternoon she’d been dressed down. Julia wiped away tears from the corners of her eyes. Everyone was silent.
Finally, Alexandra said, “I do trust you, Julia.”
“Then prove it,” Julia said.
Alexandra looked off into the trees, where birds chirped and wind stirred all the greenery in the hills, and no one else was to be seen.
“You know about how I went down to the Lands Below,” she said. “And you know how Darla Dearborn died, trying to save her sister.”
“Yes, but I don’t understand what she thought she was saving her sister from,” Julia said. “You’ve never really explained that part.”
“What Darla was trying to save Mary from,” Alexandra said, “was the Deathly Regiment.”
She didn’t extract a promise of secrecy from Julia before she proceeded. She trusted that Julia would understand once she heard the whole truth.
Julia was quiet for a long time after Alexandra finished. Everyone waited, watching her. Julia was the oldest among them, and for all her playfulness and frivolity, Alexandra respected her maturity and wisdom. But Julia was sensitive, too, even more sensitive than Anna. Julia’s heart was too gentle, Alexandra thought. She wasn’t a fighter and she shouldn’t suffer trauma and horrors. Losing Max had been the most terrible thing to happen in Julia’s life, and now she had to learn about the darkest secret of the wizarding world, and why their father waged war against the Confederation.
“So all this time, it hasn’t just been a personal vendetta,” Julia said. “Father has had reason for being an enemy of the Confederation.”
Alexandra didn’t say anything. No one else did either.
Julia turned her face upward. Alexandra had remained standing as she told about the Deathly Regiment. Julia’s brown eyes were less soft, more stormy. “And what is it you plan to do about the Deathly Regiment, Alexandra?”
“I don’t know.” Alexandra hesitated. “He offered me the chance to join him. But… he may be right about the Confederation, but killing people on trains and destroying schools can’t be the way to stop the Deathly Regiment.”
“No, I don’t suppose it can.” Julia put a finger to her lips. “But our father is not a fool. If we can see that his strategy doesn’t seem very likely to work, surely he can as well. So either he is blinded by vengefulness, for what that terrible man Hucksteen did to poor Claudia, or there must be a method to his madness.”
“I asked him. He wouldn’t tell me any more. Not unless I wanted to join him. I guess I can’t blame him. But I’m not sure he isn’t just blinded by vengefulness.”
“Even so,” said Julia, “it is an abomination. It cannot be allowed to continue.”
Alexandra was both heartened and worried by Julia’s reaction. “I don’t know how to stop it. And that’s not what we’re here for. If the Thorn Circle can’t stop the Deathly Regiment, I don’t think a bunch of kids can.”
Which didn’t mean she wouldn’t try. Somehow. But she wanted Julia to laugh and try to make her wear dresses and flirt with boys. Not join a war against the Confederation.
David said, “Alex is right. We’re not here to fight the Confederation. We’re here to save her stubborn ass.” When the Pritchards gave him disapproving looks, he said, “Sorry. But not sorry.”
Alexandra glared at him. She knew he was as outraged by the Confederation’s dirty secrets as she was.
“Perhaps we’uns are here to do both,” said Forbearance.
“Huh?” Alexandra turned with everyone else.
“Connie an’ I done a heap o’ thinkin’ since ever you told us ‘bout the Deathly Regiment,” said Forbearance.
“And now, with what Balthazar Donaldson said ‘bout the Jubilee, well…” Constance’s voice trailed off.
“You think the Exodans might have something to do with the Deathly Regiment?” Alexandra asked.
The twins nodded.
“You’uns know that most Ozarkers think that furriners is wicked,” Constance said. “An’ we’uns stays in our Hollers, as apart from the rest of y’all as we can get.”
“Surely you don’t really think that,” Julia protested. “Everyone has been so friendly.”
“We don’t,” Constance said. “And even Pa will allow as some furriners is decent folks.”
“That crowd in Clearwater Holler wasn’t so friendly after Balthazar Donaldson’s speech,” said David.
“Yes, well.” Constance and Forbearance were in sync now, looking down together, taking breaths together, and alternating sentences in perfect rhythm.
“Since ever we’uns settled in the Hollers, and the Grannies say since we’uns first arrived in the New World, we’uns have lived in a world apart,” said Forbearance.
“But it is said that there is worlds even further away than the Ozarks,” said Constance.
“Further’n California, too, or even China,” said Forbearance.
“Worlds where no wizards dwell, no people atall.”
“And that we’uns — I mean to say, Ozarkers who’d leave this world an’ its wickedness behind — will only truly be free of, well, you’all, when we’uns go to a world away from this one.”
“That’s what Exodans wish. To leave this world behind, an’ go to a world away.”
Alexandra said, “And Steadfasters want to stay?”
The twins bowed their heads, silently considering, weighing words.
Constance took up the reins again. “It hain’t so much that our kinfolk don’t — in principal — agree with ‘em.”
“But it’s Exodans who is so strict ‘bout keepin’ us to the Unworkin’ and stayin’ apart from furriners, and opposin’ anythin’ that might bring wickedness into the Hollers,” said Forbearance.
“Like foreigners,” said Alexandra.
“Or education,” said David.
The twins fixed sharp looks on him.
“Steadfasters reckon we’uns oughter make the best o’ things in this world, an’ not expend all our effort an’ magic for some other one that like as not don’t even exist,” said Forbearance.
“I don’t see what this has to do with the Deathly Regiment,” said David.
“I do,” Alexandra said.
Everyone turned to her again.
“Why do they think the Confederation is so wicked?” Alexandra asked. “Just because we’re foreigners and we don’t follow Ozarker customs? I mean, you guys are, uh, traditional, but lots of Old Colonials are pretty traditional too.”
“But their traditions hain’t ourn,” Constance said.
“Right, and maybe some of your people know about the Confederation’s secret traditions,” Alexandra said. “Maybe it’s not just about girls going to school and leaving their hair uncovered, or enchanted brooms and mirrors and clockworks.”
Constance and Forbearance nodded slowly.
“Yes,” Forbearance said.
“That’s what we’uns feature,” Constance said.
“You believe some Ozarkers know about the Deathly Regiment?” Julia said.
“It’s kind of a coincidence that the Jubilee is every seven years,” Alexandra said. “And our father didn’t tell me much about why the Confederation enforces the Deathly Regiment, but he implied it’s the basis for their power. Instead of enjoying the benefits other wizards have, Ozarkers throw away all their magic every seven years. Almost like keeping it around in objects and enchantments would be a debt they’d have to repay.”
Constance said, “I know Ozarkers don’t participate in no Deathly Regiment. I know it to my bones.”
“Even if we’uns never heared of it, there just hain’t no way it could happen in our Hollers an’ not be known,” Forbearance said.
“One child every seven years,” Anna said quietly. “If it’s one child in the entire Confederation, it wouldn’t be an Ozarker child very often.”
The twins shook their heads vehemently. “Never.”
“Anna, your father told me his great-great-grandfather made some sort of… deal with the Confederation that allowed Chinese wizards to join the Confederation,” Alexandra said. “They had to join the Deathly Regiment. It’s the reason why Ozarkers and the Majokai are Cultures, and you’re not.”
Anna swallowed. “So because they haven’t joined the Deathly Regiment…”
“Cultures don’t get whatever benefits the Confederation does. Do the Majokai throw all their magic away every seven years?”
Anna shrugged, with an effort at hiding her disdain for her traditional nemeses. Alexandra wished she could ask Tomo Matsuzaka, the Majokai witch who attended Charmbridge Academy, but she doubted she’d have an opportunity to talk to Tomo again.
“So if you’re right,” Alexandra said to the Pritchards, “then the Jubilee and the Unworking has something to do with keeping Ozarkers out of the Deathly Regiment. You only get to keep magic past seven years if you’re subject to it. Or something.”
“Somethin’ like that,” Forbearance said weakly.
“Stands to reason,” Constance said, also faltering as they considered the implications.
“Do you suppose your father knows about the Deathly Regiment?” Alexandra asked.
Constance and Forbearance looked ill.
David stood up. “If he does, then he’s against it. That’s why he supports you staying traditional. Even if it does mean being engaged to tools like Benjamin and Mordecai Rash. Maybe all that stuff about twins marrying twins having special magical significance, it’s about keeping magical power in Ozarker families, since you can’t afford to lose any. Something like that.”
Constance and Forbearance frowned at him.
“Bespoken, not engaged,” Forbearance said.
“Somethin’ like that, might could be,” Constance said. “And I s’ppose you feature it as more Ozarker backwardness.”
“I think your old man is looking out for you,” David said, “and your folks obviously want nothing to do with the Deathly Regiment. And I get wanting to stand by your people. But I still think you shouldn’t marry someone you don’t want to.”
“That is not somethin’ we are here to discuss,” Constance said stiffly.
“Dear Merlin,” Julia said. “If this Deathly Regiment is really the reason for the Confederation’s existence, then I can’t blame the Cultures who choose to stay apart from it. Perhaps Ozarkers have the right idea in wanting to go to a world away from such an awful institution.” She looked ill. Alexandra wished she’d never had to tell her sister.
A shaking and a squalling in the bushes at the edge of the creek suddenly drew all their attention. Someone was being dragged out of them, under protest, and the voice was familiar. From the tree branches overhead, Charlie cawed a belated warning.
“Innocence Catharine Pritchard,” said another familiar voice, “hide me an’ tan me if you hain’t got no better raisin’ than a wildcat an’ the seemliness of a billygoat! I am shamed to think you is my own great-grandchile!”
Granny Pritchard appeared at the edge of the path where they all cooled by the waterside. Innocence was at her side, red-faced, with her head tilted painfully and awkwardly toward her great-grandmother thanks to the hand that held her ear in a tight, merciless grip.
“Innocence!” exclaimed Constance and Forbearance in identical horrified tones. Then, “Granny Pritchard!”
“Hello, girls,” Granny Pritchard said cheerfully. “Just look who I found a’ lurkin’ an’ a’ snoopin’ — for all the good it might’a done her, thanks to that spell Miss Quick cast. That sneakin’ 'bout the bushes din’t do you a lick o’ good, did it, Innocence Catharine, since you couldn’t hear a word they said?”
Innocence tried to shake her head, was unable to because of the grip on her ear, and mumbled, “No, Granny Pritchard.”
“So you’d’ve better just stayed at home and minded yore garters like you oughter,” said Granny Pritchard.
“Yes, Granny Pritchard,” said Innocence, her face turning redder.
“Shame, shame, shame, you wicked child.” Granny Pritchard released her. Innocence stood up and took a step back, rubbing her ear and sniffling. She looked chastened and defiant at the same time, though the defiance was directed more at her sisters than at Granny Pritchard. With Constance and Forbearance’s astonished, outraged gazes upon her, she lifted her chin, while darting her eyes anxiously in the direction of her great-grandmother.
“Innocence Catharine, go back to the house,” said Constance.
“We’uns will deal with you later,” said Forbearance.
“Now girls, I reckon I done set the fur on her adequately, don’t you?” said Granny Pritchard. “Hain’t really no call for further remonstration. The girl has learned her lesson, hain’t you, Innocence?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Innocence, this time with a trace of sullenness.
“Then be off with you,” the old woman said, not unkindly. “Yore sisters an’ yore friends will be back to the house shortly, I reckon.”
“Not my friends,” Innocence said, and skulked back through the woods.
Constance and Forbearance sighed.
Julia said, “I do feel sorry for her. I remember when Max and his friends would come to the house, and then they’d go out to the woods or the beach, and they wouldn’t let me come with them.”
“Did you sneak after them?” Alexandra asked.
Julia gave her a knowing smile.
“Hey, Charlie!” Alexandra called. “What good is having a familiar if you’re not going to warn me when people are sneaking up on me?”
Charlie’s caw was indignant.
“One does wonder just what you young folks was gammonin’ about so secretive,” Granny Pritchard said. “With an impenetrable charm ‘gainst eavesdroppers, my word. Can’t blame Innocence for bein’ curious.”
Alexandra wondered how “curious” Granny Pritchard was, but she didn’t say anything. She waited the old lady out. After a moment, Granny Pritchard spoke again.
“So, Miss Quick, have you decided whether you will give us the pleasure of yore company?”
Alexandra nodded. “Yes, ma’am. I’d like to talk to the Grannies.”
“Splendid!” Granny Pritchard clapped her hands together. “Are you’all finished with yore confidencin’?”
“You want us to go right now?” Alexandra asked.
“If’n you don’t mind,” Granny Pritchard said. “Seein’ as how they’uns is waitin’ on you.”
Like they already knew where and when to find me, and that I’d come along when asked, Alexandra thought.
“If it’s all right, ma’am, I’d like to accompany my sister,” said Julia.
Granny Pritchard chuckled. “Stars Above. Are you really so affrighted of a bunch of old women?”
“It’s all right, Julia,” Alexandra said. “I think the Grannies just want to see who it is they Named.”
Granny Pritchard closed her mouth and eyed Alexandra once more. Then she said, “Aye.”
Alexandra pulled the crumpled bonnet out of her pocket and tied it onto her head. She made a half-hearted effort to smooth it and pull it back into shape, then gave everyone a confident smile, trying to banish their apprehension. “I guess I’ll see you later this evening.” She turned to Granny Pritchard. “You think we can make sure Innocence doesn’t follow us this time?” Or anyone else.
“Oh yes, we can do that.” Granny Pritchard snapped her fingers, and she and Alexandra were elsewhere.