Alexandra and Julia sat on the railing of the Pritchards’ porch as they sipped sweet tea with Constance and Forbearance.
“So, you won’t actually leave with your new wand,” Julia said. “That is so disappointing, after you had to go on such an adventure to earn it.”
Alexandra shrugged. In truth, she was sorely disappointed. Granny Pritchard had told her it would take several days to finish crafting her new wand, and made it sound like it was Alexandra’s fault that her Quest had taken so long.
Granny Pritchard had also promised Alexandra she would get her wand to her, even in Larkin Mills. Alexandra hardly expected the Granny to deliver it personally, and she certainly wasn’t going to send it by FedEx. She wondered if it would be an owl or some more exotic method of delivery.
“You could just stay with us a few more days,” Constance said.
“Thank you,” Alexandra said. “But I’m pretty sure I’ve worn out my welcome here.”
“Oh Alex, don’t speak such foolishness,” said Forbearance. “Ma and Pa’d be proud to have you, an’ don’t you let Pa’s grumblin’ say you otherwise.”
“And you’d have Noah and Burton’s undivided attention,” said Julia, taking a deep draught of tea. Her eyes danced. Constance and Forbearance covered their mouths with their hands to stifle titters, while Alexandra concentrated on keeping her cheeks cool.
“Claudia would freak out if I stayed longer than I’m supposed to,” Alexandra said.
“Oh, she would not. I could tell her when I go back by Portkey,” Julia said.
“You could both stay longer,” Forbearance said hopefully.
“Alas, no, the new semester at Salem starts on Monday, and I must be back to Croatoa by tomorrow so I can arrive at school the next night and get my new dorm assignment.” A shadow crossed over Julia’s face at this. Constance and Forbearance missed it, but Alexandra knew that the new dorm assignment had something to do with Julia no longer staying in the same house she’d lived in for the entire six years she’d been at the Salem Witches’ Institute. Normally quite open about everything with Alexandra, one of the few things she remained uncharacteristically tight-lipped about was her situation at school. Alexandra didn’t even know who her best friends were, but had a suspicion that Julia’s friendships at Salem were now tenuous at best.
“However,” Julia continued quickly, “you know very well, dear sister, that Claudia would not object to your staying here longer, with my assurances that you are safe and sound.”
“Mightn’t Alexandra be punished when she gets home?” asked Forbearance.
“Oh yes, I’m sure that terrible man married to Claudia would take a strap to her. He’s such a brute! Alexandra’s stories of him hardly did him justice.” Julia put fingers to her lips, as if the thought of Archie’s retribution had just occurred to her. Constance and Forbearance both went wide-eyed.
Alexandra put her glass of tea down with a thud. “She’s joking. She got along fine with Archie.”
“Why Alexandra, are you admitting that your stepfather —”
“Brother-in-law,” Alexandra said.
“— is not an ogre who hates you and sent you to bed without your supper throughout your childhood?”
Alexandra rolled her eyes. “I never said he did that. But anyway, at least I won’t be without a wand until Granny Pritchard is finished.” She pointed her basswood wand at her iced tea and tried to make it freeze.
The glass rattled, and cold air condensed around it. A thin layer of ice formed. Alexandra sighed. The yew wand would probably have blown the glass apart in a shower of ice and glass. She was really looking forward to having a wand that wasn’t lazy or resistant.
They were all silent for a little while after that, sipping their tea and listening to Innocence out in the front yard yelling at Whimsy, who was yelling at Done, and Charlie cawing atop the Pritchards’ chimney.
Finally, Constance said, “We’uns have treasured havin’ you’uns here.”
“And we’uns wish Anna an’ Sonja an’ David could’ve stayed with us, too,” said Forbearance.
Constance nodded. “But we did get to visit with ‘em for one day an’ night.”
Alexandra put her wand away and gave the Pritchards a fond, sad smile. “I sure wish you guys had phones so I could talk to you.”
“We’uns do have owls,” Constance said.
“Yes,” Alexandra said.
“And we shall all stay in touch this coming year, agreed?” said Julia. “It’s been such a delight making all of your acquaintances, and getting to know Alexandra’s friends, and helping keep my dear sister alive.”
Constance and Forbearance beamed, and both embraced Julia. “We’uns were right honored by your visit, Julia,” said Forbearance.
“We’uns would love to have you back,” said Constance.
“Yes, we would,” said a male voice from the house. Alexandra jerked away from the door as Noah stepped through onto the back porch, followed by Burton. Noah tipped his hat to Julia. “I am right sorry to have to take you away, now, Miss Julia. Seems like your visit weren’t half long enough.”
Julia smiled and offered a hand to Noah. “I would be delighted to stay longer, if only I could.”
While Noah took her hand and kissed it, Alexandra tried not to make a face. Julia’s sugary sweetness was so utterly sincere, it usually didn’t bother her, but she didn’t have to pour it on so much right now, did she?
“How ‘bout you, Miss Quick?” asked Burton. “Would you like to stay longer?”
Alexandra folded her arms, inviting no handshakes or embraces. “We’ve already discussed that. I’d love to. Can’t.”
“That’s a right shame,” Burton said. “You only saw such a piddly bit o’ the Ozarks. You be sure ’n come back; maybe next time you can take a tour o’ the Five Hollers. Or go on another Quest ‘n cause some more calamity.”
He wouldn’t stop grinning at her. Alexandra wanted to kick him again. If the idiot didn’t stop looking at her like that, his sisters would catch on!
Innocence was freed from her chores to accompany them to Down Below Holler. The remaining Pritchards turned out to say good-bye to their guests: Mr. And Mrs. Pritchard, Prudence and her children, and Whimsy and Done. Grace remained inside, pleading sore feet and fatigue. Alexandra said good-bye to everyone, being particularly polite to Mr. and Mrs. Pritchard.
Then Noah and Burton led them into the yard and directed them all to hold hands in a circle.
“I’ve never seen Side-Along Apparition done like this,” Alexandra said.
“Nor I,” said Julia.
“It’s an older method,” said Noah. “Sorta ritual magic, sorta relyin’ on the leys between Hollers. Hain’t learned about that in yore fancy magical schools, huh?”
“Ley lines?” said Julia. “But those don’t actually work for any modern wiz—”
Alexandra wanted to pay attention to the ritual invocation, but she was distracted by Burton’s hand wrapped around hers, squeezing it tightly but not hard. He even had the nerve to rub his thumb against the back of her hand!
Then they all spun and twirled through space, and landed in a meadow behind the foreigners' village.
Alexandra and Julia, who had held their breaths, carefully relaxed. No one seemed to have been splinched. Even Charlie didn’t complain.
“If you can do that,” Alexandra said, “why bother with regular Apparition?”
“Had to prepare that ritual aforehand,” Noah said. “An’ like I said, it uses leys. Can’t do it anywhere. Only on account o’ we’uns have no Portkeys and no flyin’ mules, ‘til we re-enchant everythin’ we Unworked, we’uns usually prepare a few trips like that in case o’ need.”
“Fascinating,” said Julia. “It’s not a type of Apparition commonly taught.”
“No, Miss Julia, it hain’t.” Noah smiled at her. “Maybe some day I’ll teach it to you.”
“Or Constance and Forbearance could teach it to us,” said Alexandra.
Noah and Julia turned at the interruption. Julia smiled. “Yes, certainly.”
“David an’ Anna an’ Sonja will be waitin’,” said Constance.
“G’won, then,” said Noah.
“Don’t mind us, left to twiddle our thumbs like all we’uns is here for is to provide mule service for our sisters ’n their friends,” said Burton. He gestured at Julia’s huge pile of luggage.
“Oh, Burton,” said Forbearance.
“I reckon you two will find a pack o’ mischief to get up to whilst you is here,” said Constance. The twins were helping Alexandra and Julia levitate all their bags into the air to follow after them.
Julia walked up to Noah and said, “It has been a delightful week, Noah Pritchard, and I’m so grateful for your family’s hospitality and your gentlemanly chaperoning.” Her voice dropped, her Virginia drawl lengthening and becoming huskier. “I do hope we shall see each other again.”
Noah wet his lips. “I would like that, Miss Julia.”
Julia stood on her tiptoes and kissed Noah on the cheek. Then she turned to Burton and said, “And you as well, Burton Pritchard. I know my sister has particularly appreciated your hospitality.” She gave him a kiss too, a quick peck in comparison to the one she’d given Noah. Burton was left standing there with a bemused expression, as if uncertain how to react, when Julia turned away from the boys and joined the girls walking toward the foreigners’ village.
Alexandra gave Burton and Noah a wave. Then, hanging back a little so that Julia and the others had walked a few feet ahead and couldn’t see her, she put her fingers to her lips and, with a sardonic smile, blew Burton a kiss. She turned around to avoiding seeing his reaction.
The Charmbridge bus was parked in front of the hostel where the underage visitors to Down Below Holler had stayed. Several JROC students were lined up before Ms. Shirtliffe, who was in her Witch-Colonel’s uniform. She was giving them instructions prior to their departure; she dismissed them just as Alexandra, Julia, and the Pritchards came around the corner of the building.
“William!” called Innocence. The chubby blond boy’s face broke out into a grin.
“Hi Innocence.” William nodded to Innocence and her sisters, then his grin widened a little. “Hi Alex. Julia.” A blush spread across his face.
“Hello, Mage-Private First Class Killmond,” said Julia. “Congratulations on your promotion.” Alexandra saw that there was indeed a new rank pinned on his collar.
William stood a little taller in his uniform. “You recognize JROC ranks!”
“Of course I do. My brother was a Mage-Sergeant,” Julia said.
William’s grin vanished. “Oh, right. I’m sorry —”
A shadow fell over the young man. He stiffened as Witch-Colonel Shirtliffe stood before the group. Middle-aged, with steel-gray hair and a scarred face, she was an off-putting woman even in teacher’s robes; in her uniform she resembled a hard blue and gray truncheon.
“Good to see you again, Quick,” said the JROC commander.
“Really?” Alexandra asked, pointedly omitting any “Ma’am.”
The woman’s jaw set. “Yes, really. Why would you think I don’t mean it?”
Alexandra, aware of Julia and the Pritchards watching her, said, “You didn’t seem sorry to see me go.”
Ms. Shirtliffe sighed. “What exactly do you think I should have done, Quick? Blame me if it makes you feel better. I hope you’re not neglecting your drills and exercises completely.”
“What do you think the odds are that I’ll ever wear a JROC uniform again?” Alexandra asked.
“That’s not the point.” Ms. Shirtliffe hesitated, then shook her head. She nodded to the Pritchards. “I’ll look forward to seeing you girls back at Charmbridge this year.”
“Yes’m,” Constance, Forbearance, and Innocence all answered together.
“Maybe you’ll consider going out for the Junior Regimental Officer Corps,” Ms. Shirtliffe said. “You might get a chance to ride a dragon, like Killmond here.”
She smiled briefly, then turned and strode off toward a uniformed wizard with a Hippogriff on a chain and leather straps binding its beak. Alexandra’s eyes followed Ms. Shirtliffe’s retreating back, even as William and Innocence excused themselves.
“Constance, Forbearance, you never told me Innocence had a sweetheart,” Julia said.
“Oh, they hain’t sweet,” said Constance.
“They’uns is just friends,” Forbearance said.
“Which is good, ‘cause she’d surely walk roughshod over that boy,” said Constance.
“Also, Ma an’ Pa would have conniptions if they’uns knew she’s fraternizin’ so much with a foreigner, so I hope Noah an’ Burton keeps their mouths shut,” Forbearance said.
“What, it’s okay for Ozarker boys to ‘fraternize’ with foreign girls, but not the other way around?” Alexandra demanded.
“Well,” Forbearance said uncomfortably.
“That is rather the way o’ things,” said Constance. “But you’re right, Alexandra, it hain’t fair!”
Forbearance eyed her sister.
“Anna,” said Charlie.
“Hi!” called Anna.
“Yo!” shouted David from the porch of the hostel. “You guys gonna stand down there talking or come up and join us?”
“Charlie,” Alexandra said, “you wait out here.” She knew bringing her “dark” familiar inside wouldn’t go over well with the Ozarkers who ran the place.
“Yes’m,” said Charlie, and flapped off over the rooftops.
Julia looped her arm through Alexandra’s, and the four of them joined David and Anna inside, with bags trailing through the air after them.
They found Sonja waiting for them at a table in the back. Anna said, “Sonja knows.”
Alexandra gave them all a dismayed look.
“Just about your… problem,” David said. “You did practically shout it out in front of half the Ozarks, how you’re cursed and the Grannies have six years to figure out a solution…”
They reached the table, and Alexandra stood over Sonja. Sonja’s hair was no longer flaming bright, and she was somber. “I knew you would be upset,” she said.
“You foresaw that, huh?” Alexandra said. “I don’t suppose your Inner Eye sees how I’m going to get out of my predicament?”
Sonja gave her a very long, serious look. “No.”
“Let’s all sit down,” Julia said. “We have rather a lot to catch up on in a short time.”
It took Alexandra an hour to catch David, Anna, and Sonja up on everything she hadn’t told them, under the protection of a Muffliato Charm. By the time she was done, there wasn’t much time before her three friends would have to board the bus back to Central Territory.
She left out everything to do with Burton, of course. She also left out her vengeance against the hill dwarves. It had felt so right at the time, but now she feared she might have gotten a little carried away.
Anna shook her head. “That yew wand is trouble.”
“And?” Alexandra was not surprised Anna would say that.
Anna rolled her eyes. “Are you going to ask your father about it, at least?”
“If he doesn’t already know, then it means his latest trollop is acting behind his back,” Julia said. “That is certainly something he should know.”
The Pritchards blushed, while Alexandra looked at Julia in surprise. That was the unkindest thing she’d ever heard her sister say. Julia had never spoken ill of any of the women their father had been with since he left Ms. King.
She wondered if Julia thought of her mother as one of their father’s “trollops.”
“If Abraham Thorn’s girlfriend can go sneaking around giving dangerous artifacts to his daughter without him knowing about it, what kind of Dark wizard is he?” David asked.
Alexandra and Julia both turned sour looks on him.
“It’s not dangerous,” Alexandra said.
“He’s not a Dark wizard,” Julia said.
They looked at each other.
“What are you gonna do with the other wands?” David asked.
“I’m going to keep them. Can’t hurt to have an extra wand. Or two.”
“Well,” said Constance. Forbearance bit her lip.
Alexandra sighed. “Granny Pritchard already told me a bit of wandlore. I know, multiple wands are a bad idea. Any more warnings or recommendations from the Alexandra Committee?”
“I am composing a list, which I am going to write down before I leave for Roanoke,” Julia said, folding her hands on the table.
“I was hoping the Grannies might be…” Anna darted a glance at the Pritchards. “More helpful.”
“Forbearance an’ I will continue to applicate ‘em,” Constance said.
“I do believe they’uns wants to help,” Forbearance said.
“Sure, now that they need me,” Alexandra said. “Your family isn’t really going to be pressured by the rest of the Five Hollers, are you? I mean, the Exodans won’t try to, I dunno, force me to open the World Away by…”
“Threatenin’ us?” Constance and Forbearance shook their heads together.
“Ozarkers do not threaten one another,” said Constance.
“Violence hain’t our way,” said Forbearance.
Alexandra asked skeptically, “How many times have the Rashes or your brothers bragged about how rough Ozarker boys play? And even girls learn to duel. I know you do, even if you don’t call it dueling.”
“We’uns do not duel,” Constance said firmly.
“Of course we’uns learn defensive charms an’ such spells as we’uns need to know to protect ourselves,” said Forbearance. “But it hain’t our own kinfolk we’uns’re feared of.”
“So no one will be pressuring you?”
“Not in the way you mean,” Constance said.
“But thankee,” Forbearance said, “for bein’ concerned for us.”
“Can you really do it?” David asked. “If you wanted to, right now, could you just open up another world? Because that seems pretty major. Like, something that the greatest wizards in the world can’t do, you can do whenever you feel like it?”
“Not whenever I feel like it,” Alexandra said. “I don’t even know exactly how to do it.” She had not told her friends about her experiment in the creek before Burton showed up, and the blue fireflies. “But I think doing what the Exodans want would take a lot of magic. All the magic the Ozarkers have been saving up, all these years.”
“Since we’uns first came to the Hollers,” Constance murmured.
“But now that they know they have enough,” Sonja said, “what prevents them from doing it themselves?”
Alexandra shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe they will.” Though she thought it would require someone who had her ability to see the cracks in the world, and she had no idea how the Ozarkers would go about repeating the experience that had opened her Witch’s Sight to that. She looked at the Pritchards. “I don’t think they will, though. At least, not as long as they think I’m Troublesome.”
Constance and Forbearance nodded. “You may reckon it’s all silly superstition,” Constance said, “but if it’s what Troublesome is meant to do…”
“I don’t think it’s silly superstition,” Alexandra said, “though I do think you all are way too stuck on Names and how everyone is supposed to follow a script for their lives.”
Constance’s eyes became hard and stubborn, while Forbearance looked down at the table.
“Then,” Julia said gently, “Alexandra is right that it gives your folk a good reason to wish her well and to do something about her geas.”
“Wish her alive, anyway,” David said. “I doubt the Rashes wish her well.”
“I wish you would not persist in low-ratin’ the Rashes, or any of our kinfolk, David,” Constance said quietly, without looking at him. David fell silent and folded his arms across his chest uncomfortably.
Alexandra’s sympathies were with David, and provoked by her disgruntled feeling of being manipulated since her first conversation with the Grannies, she said, “He’s right. I know most of your people are decent and don’t wish harm on anyone, but none of them care about me. I’m like an artifact, or a key. I had to be a bitch at the Jubilee, right to your Grannies’ faces, ‘cause otherwise they’d say ‘You-uns just fulfill yore destiny, Missy. Oh, we-uns is plumb sorry ‘bout that geas.’”
Cold white indignation washed away the red on Constance’s cheeks. Forbearance pressed her lips together.
“She’s not wrong,” Anna said. Alexandra was grateful for the support.
“That was a terrible Ozarker accent, though,” said Sonja.
“We care ‘bout you,” Forbearance said. “An’ ‘you’uns’ hain’t never used in the singular.”
She sat there, straight-faced, unblinking, serene. Alexandra could read indignation and worry from Constance, but nothing from Forbearance.
Julia laughed. Everyone else did too, except Constance, and even her mouth twitched up at the corners.
“I’ll miss you guys,” Alexandra said, and the laughter trickled off. “I’m going to be really bored in Larkin Mills.”
“Surely not,” said Julia. “You will have school — and new friends.”
“It won’t be the same,” Alexandra said.
“Also, you’ll find a way not to be bored, probably in the worst way possible,” Anna said.
“Thanks,” Alexandra said.
“She’s not wrong,” said David, trying to leaven the somberness that fell over them, realizing they were about to part. “You’ll find trouble.”
“And what will I do without my friends to help me out of it?” Alexandra asked.
The lump in her throat surprised her. The awkward pause before anyone else spoke suggested she was not the only one so afflicted.
“We’uns will always be available to help you out o’ trouble,” said Forbearance.
“I will be watching, with my Inner Eye,” said Sonja. “I know you’re all laughing at me, but you’ll see.”
“We’re not laughing, Sonja. We just wish your Inner Eye saw things that weren’t conveniently obvious or in the past,” Anna said.
“We really need to work on our communications,” said David. “A Floo, a Ouija board, a crystal ball…”
“Maybe you can invent a magic smarty-phone,” said Constance. David tilted his head, considering her comment, as if examining it for mockery. Constance could be sharp lately, even sarcastic. But her face was open and ingenuous. She winked at him.
“Maybe,” David said. “And it’s ‘smart phone’.”
“Hey,” said a young voice from the front of the room. “Um, Colonel Shirtliffe said Mr. Washington and Miss Rackham and Miss Chu should get their butts outside.” William was standing in the doorway. At his side, Innocence giggled, and made a show of straightening her face when Constance and Forbearance frowned disapprovingly.
“Well, that’s what she said,” William said defensively.
Constance said, “Ms. Shirtliffe is a fine lady, but she hain’t always… well…”
“Proper,” said Forbearance.
Alexandra tried not to laugh at the thought of Ms. Shirtliffe conforming to Ozarker notions of propriety.
They stood and moved together outside. Alexandra shouldered her backpack and grit her teeth as she found her basswood wand once more so weak that she could only levitate one of Julia’s bags with her.
The Charmbridge students were lining up by the bus. Ms. Shirtliffe and Mrs. Speaks stood together watching as Alexandra’s former classmates filed aboard.
Sonja just smiled at Alexandra, made a gesture with two fingers at her eyes, pointed with a third finger at a spot on her forehead, then pointed the fingers at Alexandra. Alexandra maintained a serious expression until Sonja boarded the bus.
“Well,” David said, facing Alexandra, “bye.”
Over his shoulder, Alexandra saw Noah and Burton standing some distance away, waiting for the “foreigners” to depart so they could take their sisters home. She leaned in and gave David a kiss on the cheek. David had always been a little short, but now he was her height.
He blinked at her in surprise, turned his head to look at Noah and Burton, and turned back to her. “You trying to impress someone?”
Before she could react, he threw an arm around her shoulders and drew her into a hug.
“So, are you and Burton a thing?” he whispered.
“Are you and Constance?” she whispered back.
“Jerk,” he muttered.
“Dork,” she said.
“Jerk!” called Charlie, who had landed silently on the wooden awning overhead.
David turned to the Pritchards. He teased Innocence while saying good-bye to them, but Alexandra’s attention focused on Anna, who stood in front of her with her lip trembling and her eyes moist.
“Anna,” Alexandra said, “don’t worry — I’ll be fine, and we’ll stay in touch. And maybe you’ll get lucky and have a room to yourself this year.”
Anna wiped at her eyes angrily. “How are we going to figure out how to save you when you’re stuck so far away?”
“I’ll be farther away,” Julia pointed out. “But dear Anna, we are witches. What is distance to us?”
“Also,” Alexandra said, “I’ve been working on something.” She removed one of the charms from the bracelet Anna had gifted her, and handed it to her. “I don’t have Nigel anymore, so that gave me the idea of Transfiguring the ‘snake’ symbol. I had to look up the Chinese character… I hope I got it right.”
Anna took the charm from Alexandra, and inspected the dangling silver ideograph. She smiled. “You won’t win prizes for your calligraphy, but turning a snake into an owl in Chinese is pretty impressive, even if it is just the hanzi.”
“Take it,” Alexandra said, pressing the owl charm into Anna’s hand. “The charms are connected.”
Anna nodded, and tucked it into her sleeve. Then she hugged Alexandra. “I really like your sister,” she whispered.
“I do too,” Alexandra said.
“Good. You need one person telling you things that you’ll actually listen to.” Anna lifted her chin and kissed Alexandra on the lips, then turned quickly away with her long red hooded cape flowing around her. She slipped into the line to get on the bus without looking back. Alexandra stood there, staring after her.
Something was going on between David and the Pritchards that she’d missed. Innocence was grinning, and Constance and Forbearance had blushes on their faces.
“See you next week,” David said. He turned back to Alexandra and Julia and took Julia’s hand. “It was really nice to meet you,” he said. “I’m glad Alexandra’s got someone else she’ll actually listen to.”
“Anna said that, too,” Alexandra said, with a bit of irritation, while David brought Julia’s hand to his lips and kissed it.
“I’m glad you both have such confidence in me,” Julia said. “I fear you may be overestimating my influence. It was a pleasure to meet you, David Washington.”
Then David and Anna were both aboard the bus, William gave them all a final wave before boarding himself, and finally, Ms. Shirtliffe herself got on. Alexandra almost expected the teacher to say something else to her before leaving, and was vaguely disappointed when she didn’t.
Foreigners who were not being carried away in wizarding vehicles had been departing all morning by means of Portkeys. Alexandra and Julia had their own Portkey back to Chicago already paid for. They had hours yet before Julia’s train would leave from the Chicago Wizardrail Station, and Claudia would pick Alexandra up, but the Pritchards had a lot of work to do back at their homestead. Alexandra understood they would stay with her and Julia as long as they remained here, but no doubt Noah and Burton were waiting impatiently to take their sisters home and put them all to work.
They all walked along with Alexandra and Julia to the Portkey field, while Charlie settled back on Alexandra’s shoulder.
“We’uns was chattin’ with our neighbors,” Noah said. “Seems there’s a influx o’ hill dwarves in Furthest an’ Scotch Ridge.”
“Dwarves!” said Constance.
“You don’t say,” said Alexandra.
“They’uns’re telling’ tales ‘bout a mountain that fell down,” said Noah.
“How can a mountain fall down?” asked Innocence.
“You can’t take hill-folk tales literal,” said Burton. “Everyone knows they’uns is famous confabulators.”
“I heard hill dwarves is nasty,” Innocence said, wrinkling her nose.
“I wouldn’t turn your back on them,” Alexandra muttered, running a hand through her hair, over the still-sore bump on the back of her head
“What will happen to them?” asked Julia.
“Well, we’uns can’t just drive ‘em off. They’d wind up pesterin’ Muggles an’ that’d be a fine kettle o’ fish,” said Noah. “An’ there’s women an’ chillun an’ elders an’ injured ‘mongst ‘em. So I reckon we’uns’ll have to come to an understandin’.”
Alexandra looked away, to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes.
Unlike the Chicago Wizardrail Station’s orderly lines of Portkey booths, the Portkeys in Down Below Holler were sitting in plain sight in a field next to the foreigners’ village. There were tires, bottles, an ancient soda vending machine, a horse-drawn carriage missing its wheels, a flagpole, a fishing pole, a box kite, a long rifle that looked of 18th century vintage, and other objects littered about like hillfolk lawn ornaments. A non-Ozarker with a bright blue vest and cap over his wizard robes stood officiously with clipboard in hand, looking up departure locations for each of the foreigners who came to him.
It was time to say good-bye to the Pritchards, and the Ozarks.
Alexandra was glad that no one shed tears this time, though Forbearance looked close to it. Innocence hugged Alexandra most fiercely of all.
“Be good at school,” Alexandra said to the girl.
“You are tellin’ me to behave?” Innocence said. And before Alexandra could reply, Innocence nodded. “I will,” she said seriously.
Noah repeated David’s gesture with Julia, kissing her hand. Much more casually, he kissed Alexandra’s hand too. “It has been a pleasure, Miss King, Miss Quick. I truly hope you will visit again.”
“The pleasure was all ours,” said Julia, back to her coquettish self, turning her face to the side and blinking her long lashes in Noah’s direction.
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Burton, winking at Alexandra. She hoped the momentary widening of her eyes wasn’t noticed by those around her. She didn’t trust herself to speak as he seized her hand and kissed it. He released it and stood up straight. “You did enjoy yourself, didn’t you, Miss Quick?”
There was a note of sincerity in the question she didn’t quite trust, but Alexandra answered, “Yes, I did.” Then added, “Some parts more than others.”
She and Julia were guided by the man in the blue cap to an old tin bathtub.
“A two-person Portkey,” the man said. “It won’t depart until you both get in.”
Julia gathered her skirts, stepped into the tub, and sat down in it. She made a comical sight, surrounded by bags and suitcases, but she grinned with good humor. Alexandra looked over her shoulder one more time, taking in the green hills, the diminishing crowds, the tents still dotting this temporary mecca for visitors, and the Pritchards, standing a few yards away waving. Then she stepped into the tub herself, squatting next to Julia in her dark robes over jeans, boots, and a shirt, with her backpack squeezed against her.
She said, “Hold on, Cha —” and they disappeared.
The arrival at Chicago Wizardrail Station was rougher than the initial journey in the opposite direction. Charlie was stunned, and after they gathered all their belongings and Alexandra put the raven in its cage, she occasionally reached a hand in to worriedly stroke her familiar’s feathers.
They sat on a bench waiting for the Roanoke Express to arrive. It did not take long for Julia to pry the details of Alexandra’s previous night out of her. In truth, Alexandra rather wanted to talk about it.
Julia listened quietly, with none of her usual jokes or exclamations of delight, amusement, or shock. Alexandra couldn’t read her expression, which was serious and composed, with her lips pursed together in a way that suggested deep thought. Did that also suggest judgment, disapproval? Alexandra couldn’t tell.
“Okay,” Alexandra said, when she was finished and silence stretched between them. “Go on, tell me I was stupid and irresponsible.”
“Well,” Julia said, “if that’s what you believe, then you don’t need me to tell you, do you?”
Alexandra sighed. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“I would say lust, impulsiveness, and more magic than any mortal is meant to have at her command,” said Julia. “The latter being not entirely your fault. I daresay anyone might have acted recklessly after escaping death and looking into a world away. My goodness.”
Alexandra smiled, her eyes shining as she remembered splitting the mountain. “It was… incredible.”
Julia’s mouth formed an odd smile beneath an arched eyebrow. Alexandra blushed. “I meant the magic. Not…”
“Oh,” Julia said. “Well, that’s disappointing.”
“It wasn’t —” Alexandra’s blush deepened. “Were you… I mean, tempted?”
“You mean, with Noah?” Julia considered a moment. Then she sighed. “We were only flirting. Oh, I have no doubt Noah would have been happy to take me into the woods as well. Without ever being less than a gentleman, he was not unclear in his intentions. But Alexandra…” Julia hesitated, choosing her words carefully. “I do not think either of those boys consider a dalliance with a ‘foreign’ witch to be a serious affair.”
“Well, no,” Alexandra agreed. “I didn’t want a serious affair.”
Julia’s expression became odd and unreadable again.
Alexandra wasn’t sure what to say. She’d been first to lose her virginity, but she didn’t feel any more mature or worldly than her older sister.
Julia said, “I shan’t lecture you on irresponsibility, dear sister, and I know you don’t have a high regard for what others might think of you. But I do have one question — what about Brian?”
“Brian?” Alexandra’s mouth fell open. It felt as if she’d been away from home so long, but it had only been a few days. “Um. We haven’t —”
Julia raised both eyebrows.
“Do you think I should tell him?” Alexandra asked.
“I don’t know. Should you?”
“Well,” Alexandra said, “it’s not like we actually agreed to only see each other. I mean, I told him last year when he said he wanted to date me that I was going to be gone all year and I didn’t really think a long-distance relationship would work.”
“But now you’re not gone all year,” Julia said.
“Right, but we still never really talked about it. I mean…” Alexandra’s voice trailed off. “You’re saying I cheated on him, aren’t you?”
“I’m not saying anything.” Julia’s voice was gentle, and her expression had softened considerably. “But I think you are hoping I will absolve you of guilt by telling you you didn’t do anything wrong, and I shan’t. It’s your conscience you must address, and whatever understanding you did or did not have with Brian is for you and Brian to work out.” She laid a hand on Alexandra’s. “Dear sister, I am not judging you. Truly I’m not. But you worry me.”
“I think there are bigger things to worry about than whether I cheated on my boyfriend,” Alexandra said.
“Indeed there are,” Julia said, “and I do worry about those things more. But, since you put it that way, I must point out that some things you actually have control over.”
There was a rumble and a rush of air, and the Roanoke Express shot into the station.
Two years earlier, Abraham Thorn had caused the Roanoke Underhill to crash when it failed to magically pass through the solid rock of the mountains to the east. Hundreds had died, and much of the Wizardrail system had been shut down for the next two years. The Roanoke Express had just opened as a replacement for the old line. It wasn’t as fast as the Roanoke Underhill, as it didn’t pass through the ground, or the Lands Below.
Alexandra hoped no one recognized her or Julia. Some might find it bitterly ironic, or worse, that Julia was taking this train now.
While an elven porter took Julia’s bags, Julia spread her arms. “I enjoyed this visit so very much,” she said. “I loved meeting Claudia and Archie, and Brian, and all your other friends, and seeing Larkin Mills. I want to do it again.”
Alexandra let her sister wrap her in an embrace. “Me too.”
“I will miss you so very much,” Julia said. “I’ve spoken to Mother about having you over to Croatoa again for the holidays. Possibly Claudia and Archie might come? And Livia too!”
“Possibly,” Alexandra said. She doubted very much that Claudia was ready to visit Croatoa, and she couldn’t imagine how they’d bring along Archie, whose understanding of the wizarding world was sketchy at best. “Er, Livia will be due around that time, won’t she?”
“Oh, that’s true.” Julia bit her lip. “Well, we shall see. But certainly another year must not pass without a visit.”
“I hope not,” Alexandra said.
Julia kissed her on both cheeks. “I love you, dear sister. And the Alexandra Committee will not be idle while we’re apart.”
“I’ll miss you,” Alexandra mumbled.
“Miss you terrible,” Charlie croaked from the bottom of the birdcage, the first coherent sound the raven had made since their arrival from the Ozarks.
Julia laughed. “Pretty bird. Until next time.”
“Pretty bird,” said Charlie, as Julia swirled away in a flash of robes too bright and colorful for the dim blue-gray-brown of the station. She stepped onto the train, waved a hand at Alexandra, and disappeared inside.
Alexandra stood there, backpack over her shoulder, Charlie’s cage hanging from one hand, until the Roanoke Express shot out of the station with the same speed it had entered.
For a moment, a vision of the train hurtling through the dark to its doom, with metal-crushing, bone-pulping violence, played in Alexandra’s mind. She shuddered. Surely not. Their father wouldn’t do that again. Certainly not with Julia aboard. He’d know, wouldn’t he?
The fear was irrational, but Alexandra knew she wasn’t going to relax until she received word when she got home that Julia was safely at Croatoa.
That was just one of the things she’d have to face when she got home. She turned and walked out of the Wizardrail station, pausing only for a moment when she saw a dark red and black-garbed figure lingering near where she and Julia had been sitting.
Was that round, ruddy face one she recognized? Could it have been Richard Raspire? No, the Governor-General’s henchman couldn’t be following her around personally. It was just some other Auror…
You’re getting paranoid, she thought. She walked outside into Muggle Chicago, to find the parking lot where Claudia was to pick her up.
The first thing Claudia told Alexandra was that Bonnie Seabury was still missing.
“You mean she never came home the night before I left?” Alexandra asked, remembering Brian telling her and Julia that his sister had run away right before their trip.
“No. Apparently she’s done this before. Jane and Kenneth didn’t call the police until late that night, and we didn’t find out until after you and Julia had already left.”
Alexandra wondered if Brian had ever texted her. She’d left her phone in her room, knowing it would be no use in the Ozarks.
Claudia steered the car out of the parking lot, and went over a pothole that jostled Charlie’s cage in the back seat. The Silencing Charm on the cage prevented them from hearing Charlie’s comments on her driving.
“Do they know anything?” Alexandra asked.
Claudia shook her head sadly. “She’s listed as a runaway right now. There’s no evidence of any kind of foul play, but no one has seen her, at all, since she left their house.”
Brian was going to ask her to use magic, Alexandra realized. She didn’t know any spells offhand that could find a missing person, but Brian would ask, even though he knew he wasn’t supposed to.
Claudia asked few questions besides superficial ones about how Alexandra’s time had been spent and how her friends were. Alexandra now understood, and felt less anger, about Claudia’s lack of interest in the wizarding world, even if it did bother her that all the wonders of the Ozarks and the Jubilee were off-limits. Claudia would probably listen to her speak about them if she wanted to, but with a shifting gaze and discomfort radiating from her clenched hands and tensed shoulders.
Claudia definitely wouldn’t want to hear about her wand, or her Quest. Telling her that she’d almost been eaten, several times, would only reinforce her eldest sister’s desire to keep them both away from the wizarding world.
The problem was, understanding Claudia’s reticence to talk about the wizarding world, and why she had held Alexandra at arm’s length her entire life, did little to make up for the lack of closeness. Even before the revelations of the last year, Alexandra would not have gone to the woman she believed to be her mother to talk about her first sexual experience, and she was even less inclined to talk about it with Claudia now. So that took the other major event of her summer off the table as a topic of conversation.
Archie had spent much of the week on the search for Bonnie. Little else had happened in Larkin Mills. As they zoomed south on the Interstate, leaving the towers of Chicago receding behind them, Alexandra thought about the younger girl she’d grown up with. Bonnie had been acting out the last few years — shoplifting, talking back, running away — but Alexandra had just thought she was being a brat. Was there something else she should have noticed? What could she have known that her parents didn’t?
Alexandra had been a runaway herself the previous winter. In fact, it had been right after Bonnie’s accident that Alexandra had run away to Dinétah. In retrospect, that had been a pretty irrational thing to do, but she’d hardly been thinking clearly. She wondered if Bonnie had experienced a similar shock, or if it was just the misbehavior she’d exhibited all summer taking a tragic turn. She’d have to talk to Brian about it.
She and Claudia lapsed into silence, each occupied with their own thoughts. So much had happened, and yet there was little Alexandra could say to Claudia. And now she worried about what she would say to Brian.
Brian had never texted her. Alexandra found this a little odd, but she had told him she wasn’t taking her phone with her. She texted him immediately to let him know she was back.
She received back only “Ok” in reply. Was he too distracted worrying about his sister, or was he angry at her? Alexandra remember Julia suggesting they help find Bonnie. We should have insisted, she thought.
Julia called that evening from a telephone in the Muggle village on Croatoa. Of course there had been no accidents or disasters.
The daughter of the Enemy had been recognized, however. “I was obliged to move to an empty carriage,” Julia said, a little stiffly.
Alexandra wondered how Julia had been “obliged,” but didn’t ask.
“And there was a Special Inquisitor waiting for me,” Julia continued. “Not Ms. Grimm. An obnoxious little man. He asked me all the usual questions, and some additional ones about you, and the Ozarkers, and he was very rude. He was even ruder to Mother.”
Julia was glossing over what had undoubtedly been an ugly experience, Alexandra knew.
“So far, no one has come to question me,” Alexandra said. “I figure I’ll be seeing Ms. Grimm soon.” She was not looking forward to her next visit from her Special Inquisitor aunt.
“And… that other matter?” Julia asked.
Alexandra sighed. “Not yet,” she said, “but I’m going to talk to him tonight.” She didn’t tell Julia about Brian’s missing sister, as it would only make Julia even more unhappy.
Brian was agreeable but sounded oddly puzzled when Alexandra called him and asked to meet him at the park. If she was going to have this conversation, it definitely wasn’t one she wanted to have around her parents or his.
Larkin Mills Park, at the center of town, was two blocks of tree-studded lawns, scattered playgrounds, and barbecue pits, with a large artificial pond in the center. In the winter, it was a spot for ice skating. Now, in the latter days of summer, there were model boats floating around and people casting lines trying to catch the few fish the pond was stocked with, and the grass and benches were crowded with picnickers, strollers, dog-walkers, and other couples.
Alexandra had found a bench near one of the playgrounds, a familiar one where she had once scuffled with Billy Boggleston and his friends. Thinking of Billy made her look around as if her thoughts might summon him, but the bully was nowhere to be seen.
On the playground, children swung and rode the merry-go-round and pushed each other into the sand, with occasional shouts and scoldings from watching parents.
“Hi, Alexandra,” said Brian. He had approached from the direction of Sweetmaple Avenue while Alexandra’s mind was elsewhere. He wore Dockers and a polo shirt. His hair was neatly trimmed, though the slight breeze blew it into mild disarray. He was cute, in a boyish way that contrasted sharply with Burton. A few years and a beard seemed to cast a yawning gulf between them.
Stop that! Alexandra snapped at herself. Burton was exactly who she should not be thinking about right now, and it certainly wasn’t fair to mentally compare them. The thing with Burton had been a mistake, a fling, a wild impulse… She still wasn’t sure what she was going to say, especially given that Brian now had more important things to worry about.
She patted the bench next to her. Brian shrugged and sat down.
“I just got back,” Alexandra said.
Brian nodded, forehead wrinkling. “You were visiting friends, right?”
“Yeah.” Something about Brian’s posture and demeanor made Alexandra uneasy. She couldn’t understand why he was looking at her with such a puzzled expression. “I heard about Bonnie. I’m so sorry. I wish you’d called or texted me that night, when she didn’t come home.”
A shadow fell over Brian’s face. “I guess I didn’t think about it,” he said. “We were busy calling everyone who might have seen her, and going around the neighborhood.”
“No news?” Alexandra asked. She could see now how much this hurt Brian, and it pained her. Sympathy piled on top of guilt.
He swallowed and shook his head. “She’s always just gone to a friend’s house or run off to the mall, or sometimes hid in the park, before now.” Alexandra could see that he was fighting not to tear up. She swallowed too.
She hesitated for a moment, and actually braced for the question she was expecting, about using magic. When he didn’t say anything else, she leaned over and put a hand around his neck and kissed him on the lips. It wasn’t usually her who initiated their kisses, but she thought he might like it.
Brian’s reaction stunned her: he jerked away from her and stared, wide-eyed, as if she’d done something bizarre, even offensive. “What are you doing?”
Alexandra stared back. “I… was trying to kiss you.”
Brian’s eyes got wider. “Is this a joke? Or are you playing some kind of game? It’s not very funny.”
Alexandra wondered if it was Brian playing a joke. But this wasn’t the sort of joke he’d play, and his expression was too shocked to be insincere. Then she wondered if somehow he knew — but how could he?
“Are you… look, if you want to break up, I understand,” she blurted out. “I know with Bonnie missing…”
Brian’s confusion just seemed to grow. “Break up? What are you talking about, Alex?”
Alexandra stared at him for several long seconds, wishing she could read his thoughts. Legilimency would be really useful at a time like this. Then she realized her mouth was hanging open. She closed it. Swallowed.
“Brian, do you… remember what we were doing at my house, a couple of weeks ago? When Claudia came home?”
He shook his head. “When was I at your house recently? We’ve hardly talked in months. Years, really. And why are you calling your mother Claudia?”
Ice gripped her heart, and almost froze her tongue. “Brian,” she said, in a hoarse voice, “do you remember anything I told you about what happened to me at school?”
“You go to some private school, right? Something happened to you there?” He looked baffled, and not very sympathetic.
“It’s a magic school!” she said.
“A magic school,” he repeated. He kept staring at her with that stupid, baffled expression. “I’ve never liked your pranks and crazy talk, Alex. I don’t know what this is about, but if you’re just going to bring up that nonsense from when we were kids, I’m going home.” He began to get up.
She grabbed his wrist, almost desperately. “When Bonnie was in the hospital, I came to see you!” she said. “Do you remember what happened?”
He glared at her. “Of course I remember that. We didn’t think she was going to live. That was a terrible night and I was glad to see you. But that doesn’t explain why you’re trying to kiss me.”
“The kappa, at Old Larkin Pond! Do you remember that?”
His eyes turned glassy for a moment, as if a memory were struggling to writhe its way free… or as if his mind were searching for something missing.
He pulled his wrist away. “What. Are. You. Talking. About?” Now he sounded angry.
“You don’t remember anything,” Alexandra whispered.
“Are you on drugs?” Brian asked.
“What?!” Alexandra exclaimed.
Brian shook his head. “You know, you’ve always been kind of weird. It was one thing when we were kids. But this is creeping me out, and I’m really not in the mood for your games. Whatever you’re up to, leave me out of it.”
He got up and walked away. At the edge of the sandpit, he paused and looked back at her.
There was confusion, irritation, maybe even a touch of disgust, but underneath that was something else that made it all the more unbearable — a wistful hurt, a dim awareness that something was wrong, something that he didn’t quite comprehend. Then he shook his head and turned away.
Alexandra watched his retreating back, too numb with shock and horror to think about calling after him.