Alexandra appeared in the center of the great tent where the end-of-Jubilee dance was being held with a flash and a boom. Everyone jumped, Ozarkers and foreigners alike, and the more faint-hearted screamed. A few drew their wands. Ripples of confusion replaced the waves of alarm when they saw that the source of the commotion was a teenage girl in an Ozarker dress, with a black raven on her arm and a backpack slung over her shoulders.
“Alexandra!” cried several voices. Julia, dressed in flowing, lacy robes, had been dancing with Noah, who looked dapper in his finest suit. She pushed through the crowd as most of the young people in the center of the tent moved away from the witch with the raven familiar.
“Hi, Julia,” Alexandra said with a manic grin, as her sister reached her. “Are you having fun?”
“Am I having —?” Julia’s eyes and mouth were round with surprise. “Oh! You ridiculous girl!” She grabbed Alexandra’s cheeks and kissed her on the forehead. “Where have you been? What happened? Why do you smell worse than Charlie?”
Charlie uttered an indignant squawk. Alexandra grinned sheepishly. “Uh, no time for baths on a Quest.”
“Oh my!” Julia stared at Alexandra’s mouth. “Evidently you had time to replace your missing tooth.”
This was true, Alexandra realized. She could have removed all the blood and sweat and dirt on her, when she stood at the center of the mountain, on the border of the World Away. It just hadn’t occurred to her.
“What is the meaning of this?” bellowed a loud male voice. Leland Sawyer, the jovial head of the Sawyer clan who had spoken a few days earlier at the opening of the Jubilee, barged his way forward. He was less jovial now. His flabby mouth turned down in a scowl when he saw Alexandra and Charlie. “Did you just Apparate here? You oughter know better’n some furriner to — er, no offense, Miss.” He made a gesture with his porkpie hat to Julia, as if to doff it, though he really did barely more than flick his finger against it. Without waiting for Julia to respond, he scowled back at Alexandra. “Who are you, Missy?”
Alexandra made a very slow curtsy. She evidently did it wrong — the Ozarkers murmured their disapproval as she lifted the hem of her skirts high enough to show her ankles.
She peered up at Mr. Sawyer from beneath her lowered bonnet with a cat-like smile.
“Call me Troublesome,” she said.
He gaped at her. The Ozarkers near her gasped, while those further away muttered and whispered to each other.
“Alexandra, do be less melodramatic,” Julia whispered.
Charlie cawed loudly, with wings spread as if to mimic Alexandra’s curtsy.
“Charlie, you’re just as bad,” Julia said.
Straightening, Alexandra patted Julia’s hand while scanning the crowd. She found Anna standing quietly on the fringes, wearing her red cloak with her hood pulled up. She was trying to get to Alexandra but there were too many people between them. Further away, one of the Pritchard twins stood arm in arm with Benjamin — or was it Mordecai? But where was the other? Sonja was visible all the way across the throng. She’d charmed her hair to flame, literally, a “foreigner” fashion which seemed to be drawing a number of Ozarker boys to her.
Alexandra turned to face the Grannies, who were gathered in the darkened back quarter of the tent, dressed in their usual dour garb, unlike all the other attendees at the dance, and given a wide berth by everyone else. Each and every one of them had their eyes fixed on her.
“I completed my Quest,” she said. She stepped forward, ignoring the sputtering Leland Sawyer. One foot in front of the other, swinging each one casually before setting it down, like a child tromping unhurriedly across a muddy field, Alexandra approached the Grannies. They drew up with backs as stiff as if they’d been fitted with iron braces. Their faces were equally cold and hard. Only Granny Pritchard and Granny Ford didn’t look as if something sour was lodged in their throats. Granny Pritchard watched Alexandra with curiosity and just a hint of softness. Granny Ford looked sleepy, which fooled Alexandra not at all.
“This,” said Granny Sawyer, “is not how you are supposed to complete a Quest.”
“Well, I’m so sorry. But since you didn’t tell me what I was supposed to do, I kind of had to wing it.” Alexandra stopped in front of them and shrugged off her pack. “I got ambushed by hill dwarves. I climbed a cliff and captured a Thren. I fought a bugbear, escaped a jimplicute, and killed an underwater panther. I had some interesting conversations with elves. You should probably leave them some food.” She dumped her pack on the ground at the Grannies’ feet. “I collected a few things, too.”
Granny Pritchard raised an eyebrow, eyeing the pack.
“The elves told me about the World Away,” Alexandra said. “And they showed me how to go there.”
She looked around again. With the Unworking no longer coursing through her and the vault of all that Ozarker magic leagues away, she was no longer a mortal Power. The memory of near-omnipotence had left tracks in her mind, her brain still burned, and her fingers still tingled with the forces she had wielded, but she was once more just a witch with a barely-manageable wand. But her Witch's Sight had been transformed forever. She could still see those cracks in the world.
“What’s this about… about…?” Leland Sawyer was behind her. So was Julia, and Anna had pushed her way to the front of the crowd.
“The World Away,” Alexandra repeated. “That’s what you want, right?” She addressed the Grannies, ignoring Mr. Sawyer.
“We’uns din’t intend for this to be a public testament,” said Granny Morrison. “You are makin’ a right spectacle o’ yoreself, Missy.”
“I saw it,” Alexandra said. She stepped away from Leland Sawyer and Julia, closer to the Grannies. She lowered her voice. “With all the magic of all those Unworkings, all of you could go there. If someone opened the way.”
She had the Grannies’ attention now. All those ancient eyes fixed on her in silence.
“Can you do it?” asked ancient Granny Ford.
“Maybe.” Alexandra drew back. “Why should I?”
“Excuse me?” Granny Sawyer demanded.
Alexandra turned to face the rest of the crowd. The foreigners were perplexed; some were annoyed. The Ozarkers all stared at Alexandra with expressions of shock and dismay. Burton and Noah had both pushed to the front. Forbearance was still back in the crowd with one of the Rashes. Alexandra now saw Constance and David near one of the side entrances, standing on their tiptoes.
“Do you all want to go to a World Away?” Alexandra asked, which silenced every Ozarker in the tent.
She looked back at the Grannies, who did not look accustomed to being so put off-guard, then she turned back to the crowd and addressed Burton, the nearest of the Pritchards.
“Do you want to go?” she asked. “You and your family?”
“You mean right now?” Burton stammered.
“Miss Quick,” said Noah, “you must know that’s not a question we’uns can resolve on the spot like this. Even the Exodans never featured up ’n leavin’ with nary a moment’s notice.”
Alexandra saw the alarm and consternation she was causing, but it only made her want to stir more trouble. She felt a kind of mania that demanded a release. Only the concerned faces of Julia and her friends sobered her.
“Well,” she said, “if my friends want to go — if you decide you want to go to the World Away…” She found Forbearance in the crowd, and met her eyes, then Constance, in another quarter of the tent. She swallowed. “For them, I’ll do what I can. If they ask me to.”
She turned angrily back to the Grannies. “But the rest of you can go jump off a cliff for all I care.”
Another wave of gasps rose from the crowd, and the Grannies’ weathered faces turned shades darker.
“You need Troublesome, and if you want my cooperation, there’s a price.”
“We’uns did not send you on a Quest to barter with you when you returned,” Granny Ford said.
“You know my problem,” Alexandra said, speaking quietly to the Grannies again. “That thing my friends tried to help me with, that you sent Constance and Forbearance with a ritual for? Well, that didn’t exactly help, and I still have the same problem.”
“How do you feature we’uns can do aught about it?” asked Granny Pritchard. “Child, if’n we could remove the… curse —”
“What sort of curse?” asked Burton.
“Well, figure out something,” Alexandra said. “You’ve got less than six years now. Or you can Name a replacement. Maybe that’ll work.” She shrugged, and turned away from the aghast Grannies.
“I’m really tired,” she said. “I’d like to go home and get some sleep.” She turned to her sister and her friends. “I’m sorry I interrupted the festivities.”
“Not that sorry, I don’t think,” said Julia, with deceptive lightness. She put a hand on Alexandra’s shoulder. “We probably should take our leave, though, dear sister.”
“We’uns’ll take you home,” said Noah. “Round up the gals.”
Alexandra noticed for the first time Innocence standing next to William, both of them glowing in the press of the older attendees, like children who’d snuck into an adult event. William wore his JROC uniform. There were many uniforms in the crowd, JROC and ROC. Alexandra winked at William. He blushed.
“So I guess you won’t be staying for the dance,” Anna said.
“I think I’d be a disruptive presence,” Alexandra said, straight-faced. “But please stay and enjoy yourselves. I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”
“Before we leave,” Anna said. “We never did get to spend much time together.”
“I’m sorry. I really wasn’t expecting to go on a Quest.”
Anna hugged her. Alexandra returned her embrace.
“I knew you were alive,” Anna said. “That’s why we weren’t worried. Much.”
Alexandra smiled. “How did you know I was alive? Was Sonja watching me with her Inner Eye?”
“She said she was. But I used these.” Anna touched the raven and snake charm bracelets around Alexandra’s wrist. Alexandra examined them, and realized there was a magical connection between them and Anna she’d never seen before.
“Why, you clever little sneak,” she said.
Anna flushed. “I didn’t mean… it’s not a Trace or anything!”
“I’m not angry.” Alexandra patted Anna’s cheek, which made her stare, wide-eyed. She grinned at David, who had finally pushed his way through the crowd to them.
“Don’t let her lie to you,” David said. “She was trying to figure out how to locate you and help. She was worried sick. So was your sister.”
“But not you?” Alexandra said, as Anna glared at David.
David, like Anna, seemed unnerved by her mood. “Maybe a little,” he admitted.
Alexandra threw her arms around David’s neck, which so startled him that he didn’t turn his head when she kissed him on the lips.
“The hell…?” he mumbled. “What is wrong with you, Alex?”
“You’re such a dork,” she whispered. “Is Constance watching us?”
“You smell like you’ve been on a Quest,” David said, gently pushing her away. “And you also look kind of wired.”
Alexandra cocked an eyebrow at him, and smiled. She felt wired. The magic in the heart of the mountain was no longer roaring around her, but the memory of it was still alive in her eyes and her heart had not stopped racing. It felt as if all the events of the past few days had been compressed into an opening act just before she stepped onto the stage here at the culmination of the Jubilee.
She knew she wouldn’t get many more chances to hang out with her friends. And she owed them explanations.
She saw Burton hovering behind her and Julia. “Hey Burton, you don’t mind giving me a lift back to Furthest, do you?”
“Not at all, Miss Quick,” said Burton. “But it won’t be by mule.” He held out a hand. “Apparition’s the only way to travel ‘tween Hollers ’til we’uns charm our mules an’ brooms an’ Portkeys again.”
Alexandra thought about running back to Furthest in her Seven-League Boots. But Julia had already taken Noah’s arm.
Alexandra took Burton’s hand. “I hope you’re good at this.”
He waggled his eyebrows, and they Apparated away.
“Now I reckoned you must be a proper hand at Apparatin’, the way you just appeared in the middle of our dance,” Burton said, as he held Alexandra up outside the Pritchards’ home.
Her knees wobbled and her stomach felt as if it had been shoved up her esophagus. She held Charlie in her arms; the raven had toppled off her shoulder like a bird rebounding off a sliding glass door when they arrived.
“You’re sure not,” she managed to say.
All of the Pritchards had returned, Noah with Julia, Mr. and Mrs. Pritchard with their three daughters. The house was dark. Their oldest daughters and younger children and grandchildren had already gone to bed. The animals immediately clamored for attention as everyone appeared in the yard.
Burton coughed, still holding Alexandra firmly. “Hain’t Side-Alonged no one so far before,” he admitted. “But I did ‘spect you to assist a bit.”
“What I did was kind of a one-time thing,” Alexandra said. “I couldn’t do it again.”
“Ah. Are you gonna tell us what you been up to these past three days?”
“Burton, really,” interrupted Julia. “My sister is exhausted and has obviously been through great trials.”
“You’re quite right, Miss Julia,” said Burton. “I beg yore pardon.”
“Constance, Forbearance, do make sure their sheets are turned down, and heat some water for Miss Quick if’n she prefers to scrub the dirt off’n her face ‘fore she goes to bed,” said Mrs. Pritchard.
Scrubbing dirt off her face wouldn’t begin to get her clean enough, Alexandra thought. But she wasn’t going to ask Constance and Forbearance to prepare a full bath for her, especially when it would involve manual labor. “Thank you,” she said. “I may just go take a dip in the creek, after everyone else has gone to bed.” She cradled Charlie and walked with Julia back to the house, leaving Burton behind running his fingers through his beard.
She gave herself a quick sponge bath with the bucket of water Constance heated with a spell. None of the Pritchards asked her questions. Constance and Forbearance just told her how glad they were that she was back safe and sound. Faithful’s family had returned to their home, leaving a guest room for Alexandra and Julia, though Constance, Forbearance, Innocence, and Whimsy were now squeezed into the twins’ room.
Julia kissed her, petted Charlie, and asked if she was hurt, cursed, or hexed.
“No,” Alexandra said.
Julia looked her over. Alexandra had not let Julia see her undressed, but her nightgown left much of her arms and legs and neck bare, and she was covered with bruises and scratches.
“Maybe a little,” Alexandra said. “But I swear, nothing that needs a Healer. Not right now.”
Julia closed her eyes, as if summoning patience, or fortitude. “Is there anything else you’re hiding that will make me wroth when you finally tell me about it?” she asked.
Alexandra shrugged. “Not yet?”
Julia tilted her head. For a moment she looked very much like Thalia King.
“I had a lot of encounters and some pretty interesting things happened, and yeah, some of it was dangerous,” Alexandra said. “But obviously, I survived.”
“Obviously.” Julia remained silent until both of them had slid beneath their bed covers.
Then Julia asked, “Alexandra, what is the World Away?”
“Later,” Alexandra said. “I promise.”
She should have been tired, and somewhere deep in her bones she was. Her muscles were fatigued. She felt every mile she’d traveled, every rock that had scraped or bruised her body. But she was restless and still brimming with energy, even if all that magic had drained away from her — or more accurately, been expended in a burst of wasteful displays.
When Julia’s breathing had become slow and deep, Alexandra rose from her bed. She listened, and heard only the sound of the Pritchards’ wood-framed house creaking ever so slightly, settling and flexing as breezes through the trees pressed against it, now unwarded against the elements, no more weatherproof than any ancient Muggle homestead.
Charlie fluttered to her shoulder. She crept out of her room, trod through the dining room and across the common room, and let herself out through the front door.
The porch creaked treacherously beneath her feet, but the sound was minute compared to the sudden braying of the winged goats in their pens. Alexandra froze, and didn’t move again until the goats settled down and no sounds emerged from the house indicating that her night-time wandering had been noticed.
She continued down the steps of the porch, across the yard, and into the woods.
It was a short walk to the creek, and Alexandra followed the small, nearly indiscernible trail beneath a half-moon to the swimming hole where she and Julia and the Pritchards had gone skinny dipping a few days ago.
There was a crack rippling through the creek, a crack in the world. With enough magic, Alexandra could open it. She wondered what would happen if she did that — opened it and allowed the creek to flow into a World Away.
She tilted her head, slowly, entranced. Charlie, on her shoulder, became tense and alert.
Alexandra’s lips moved and she spoke while trying to see through the split that was invisible to those who didn’t have her special sight.
And the crack I see
Stills the water by it,
And it’s closed to me.
But if I pry it
And open the way,
This creek may flow
To a World Away.”
She pried at the crack.
There was a sudden gurgling sound, and a rush as of a waterfall just out of sight. Eerie light filled the gap in the trees where the creek ran between them, and Alexandra gasped as the creek sank a full foot and formed an enormous eddy she could see even in the semi-darkness, as if someone had pulled out a plug in the creek bed.
Glowing bugs flew through the crack. Fireflies, but fireflies the size of great bumblebees; their light was not flickering yellow, but a steady fiery blue, like gas flames.
Alexandra squeezed her eyes shut, visualizing the crack between worlds squeezing shut as well.
She knew better than to think that what was easily done was as easily undone. She did.
But she let out a long, relieved breath when she opened her eyes and saw the crack was sealed once again, as if it had never parted for those few moments. The creek was flowing normally.
Blue fireflies still hovered over the water, then flew off into the woods. Alexandra watched them go, hoping they might simply disappear. But no, they had flown away. Perhaps they would die — their short bug lifespans ending naturally, or else be eaten by birds that were attracted by their unnatural blue glow. Or perhaps they would multiply and in the years hence, Troublesome would be blamed for introducing blue fireflies into the Ozarks.
What she had done, though, was something she thought even the Grannies couldn’t do. She wondered if her father could do it. Could they even see these cracks in the world, with their Witch’s Sight?
She’d walked to the creek wearing her slippers and a nightgown. She stepped out of her slippers, then pulled the nightgown up over her head, carefully hung it over a branch, and stepped into the water, still holding her wand, for all the good it had done her. The night was hot and muggy, so the water was refreshingly cold against her skin, not merely a miserable, icy bath in a chilly cave like falling into the underground stream beneath the mountain had been.
She plunged in deeper, dunked her head underwater, and floated in the quiet pool, before raising her head when Charlie cawed.
A figure was standing by the water’s edge, next to the tree where she’d hung her nightgown.
“I wasn’t sure if you was serious,” Burton said.
“About what?” Alexandra asked. “Taking a dip in the creek?”
“These woods, they hain’t always safe,” Burton said. “There’s bears an’ worse things —”
“Like what, jimplicutes and hide-behinds?” Alexandra paddled slowly in place beneath the moonlight. “That Quest I was just on, it wasn’t a joke, you know. So I think I can handle walking in the woods behind your house by myself.” She tilted her head, regarding the boy — no, man — four years her elder.
Burton crouched, so he could look her in the eye more easily. She could barely make out his eyes, beneath the hat he wore even at night.
“And why are you here, Miss Quick?” he asked.
“After a three-day quest, a bucket of hot water just wasn’t going to do it. I didn’t want to make Constance and Forbearance prepare a full bath for me, but I didn’t want to wait until morning to clean the blood and dirt off.”
“Could’a just used a Scourin’ Charm,” Burton said. “Had a few o’ them applied to my hide when I was a tad ’n gave Ma lip ‘bout not wantin’ a bath.”
“Uh huh.” Alexandra floated a little further out into the pool. “So why are you here, Burton?”
There was a long pause. Then Burton said, “Could be I misapperhended yore intentions, but I got the impression you was expectin’ me to come.”
Alexandra kicked herself another foot from him, her pale legs flashing in the water.
“So are you going to join me, or not?” she asked. She tried to say it as if it were a casual flirtation, or an invitation to an innocent swim-party, but her voice took on an unfortunate life of its own. She had been trying to produce something perhaps a little bit sultry, but what came out was deep and raspy rather than breathless.
Burton didn’t move for a long time. Then he said, “You are a brazen hussy.”
Alexandra was pretty sure that wasn’t complimentary, especially among Ozarkers. Yet Burton made it sound almost flattering. She didn’t say anything.
Burton rose to his feet, took off his hat and set it on the same branch where her nightgown hung, and unbuttoned his shirt.
Alexandra watched as he stripped off his clothes until he stood in the buff in the moonlight. Only for a second, though, and then he jumped into the water, not sliding in gently as she had, cautious of disturbing the quietude of the night, but cannonballing into the creek next to her, whooping loudly and spraying water in a huge splash that sent Charlie flying up to higher branches, with loud scolding noises.
“Jerk,” Alexandra said, when Burton’s head burst through the surface, a foot from hers.
His teeth flashed as he grinned. His hands found her shoulders, and he pulled her closer to him.
Her heart, which had not really slowed down since she Apparated away from the mountain, felt like it might beat through her chest. Surely Burton could feel it pounding against him when their bodies pressed together. He kissed her as both of them kicked slowly to keep their heads above water.
Charlie sat silent on a branch high above the water, watching them.