After a nineteen-hour bus ride, Alexandra stepped out into a gray evening in Connecticut. Headlights reflected off the glass and snow around the bus terminal. A surprising number of people were bustling about. It wasn’t as busy as Chicago, but there were more people than Alexandra had been used to for the past few months.
She looked around, fearing an Auror might appear, or Diana Grimm. But she supposed if she’d been tracked on her cross-country journey, they’d have intercepted her before she arrived at a public place with so many Muggles around.
After visiting the bus station’s restroom and buying a sausage sandwich, she walked outside again, stretching and rolling her shoulders. She was tired and had not slept well on the bus.
She opened her backpack. “You all right in there, Charlie?”
“Fly, fly!” The raven was not happy about being confined so long. Alexandra had snuck the bird out a few times during the long trip, long enough to share some food and a little sunlight, but Charlie wanted to fly.
“Soon,” Alexandra promised. She zipped up her pack again, silencing Charlie’s angry caw.
Lucilla and Drucilla hadn’t provided much in the way of instructions, only that she should find a pay phone, insert a Pidge, and dial a particular number. In the icy, slush-filled alley behind the terminal, there was a lone pay phone under a battered metal hood.
Alexandra picked up the phone, stuck a Confederation Pigeon into the coin slot, and dialed the seven digits she’d been given. Nothing happened. The dial tone resumed.
She looked around, then unrolled the letter from Lucilla and Drucilla and reread it. She had not made a mistake with the numbers, and there were no additional instructions.
She was about to try putting another Pidge into the pay phone when she felt a disturbance in the air. She whirled, and had her wand out before she even realized what she was reacting to.
“Easy, little sister.” A cloaked, hooded figure stood in the alleyway, holding up her hands. “A bit jumpy, are you?”
“When people Apparate behind me, yeah,” Alexandra said.
The figure slowly pulled back her hood, revealing blonde hair and ice-blue eyes.
“Lucilla, right?” Alexandra said.
Lucilla smiled. “Very good.” She nodded to Alexandra’s wand. “I understand your wariness. But don’t wave that around in town if you can help it. You never know when there are Muggles watching. Also, it’s poor form for an apprentice to hex her teacher, or her sister.”
“Sorry.” Alexandra let out a breath and lowered her wand.
Lucilla said, “If you’ll take my arm, I will Apparate us to our home.”
Alexandra hesitated, then did as Lucilla said, keeping her wand in her other hand.
The Side-Along Apparition only unsettled her for an instant. Then they stood before a large house. No other buildings were visible near it. From what Alexandra could see, they were in a frozen marshy area next to a river. Dead reeds poked out of the snow, and small trees with bare branches stood on two large hillocks to the east and west.
Just across the river were the lights of what looked like a large port, with big gray ships sitting in docks.
“Is that… a military base?” Alexandra asked.
“I believe so,” Lucilla said. “Don’t worry. The Muggles can’t see us.”
Alexandra gazed at the ships, then turned her attention to the house. Hidden between the two hills on either side of it, it was larger and more impressive than it first appeared. Multiple gables thrust up into the twilight gloom. Most of the windows were dark, and the wood seemed old and weather-stained, but in sheer size the house was several times larger than the Pritchards’ home back in the Ozarks. It was more a mansion than a house. And that was just what she could see from the outside.
Lucilla said, “Before we go in, there’s something you should know.”
Alexandra nodded, expecting to hear some unpleasant surprise.
“Our house is protected by a Fidelius Charm. I know you know what that is. By bringing you here, I’ve revealed its location to you. Until now, Drucilla and I were the only Secret-Keepers. Not even our father can visit us here. You must not reveal this place to anyone else. Not even him.” Lucilla’s mouth settled into a frown. “Especially not him. But not Julia or any of our other sisters either, nor your friends, and obviously, not your dear aunt Diana Grimm.”
“Do you really think I would?” Alexandra asked.
Lucilla’s gaze was unblinking. “I don’t think so, no. But realize we don’t really know you, Alexandra. We have taken an enormous leap of faith in inviting you here and extending our trust. Before you set foot inside, understand that as our apprentice, you will be expected to obey our every instruction. Even the ones that don’t make sense to you, or which you find tedious or unpleasant. Don’t worry, we won’t be harsh teachers, and we will not haze or abuse you or make you do unpleasant things just because we can. Some wizards think it’s traditional to treat an apprentice like a house-elf.” Lucilla shook her head. “But if you ever break our trust, we will not give you a second chance. Are these terms acceptable to you?”
Alexandra nodded. “Just one thing.” She unslung her backpack, opened it, and pulled Charlie’s cage out of it.
“Alexandra!” Charlie said, in a demanding tone.
“You knew I had a familiar, right?” Alexandra asked, as she opened the cage to let Charlie out. The raven pecked Alexandra’s hand, then fluttered up to her shoulder.
Lucilla smiled. “Well, aren’t you a fine black bird?”
“Pretty bird,” said Charlie.
“Familiars cannot be Secret-Keepers,” said Lucilla. “And they cannot reveal a secret. Your raven will be able to come and go freely, just as owls can.”
Alexandra wondered again how that worked, but she nodded. “Well, Charlie, looks like this is where we’re staying for a while.”
The front of the house boasted a porch wide enough to hold a dance on, though the wood was so old and warped that it didn’t look like a good idea. As they walked across it to the front door, Lucilla said, “Dru is downstairs, quenching something. She’ll be up shortly.”
She led Alexandra inside. Past the entry hallway was a small living room decorated with polished wooden furniture and lined with glass-fronted bookcases. A large chandelier dominated the room, and Alexandra had to hold Charlie’s legs to prevent the raven from flying up into it.
“I’m sure you’d like something to eat,” Lucilla said.
“You too, my fine black bird,” Lucilla said.
Charlie cawed again, and said, “Clever bird!”
Lucilla nodded, as if used to conversing with ravens, then turned and beckoned for Alexandra to continue following her.
Alexandra remembered Lucilla as the dressier and more glamorous of the twins at Maximilian’s funeral two years earlier. Her face was plainer today and she wore casual robes, but fine silver and gold bracelets jingled on her wrists. Jeweled rings and dangling earrings flashed as she led Alexandra down a dim hallway.
The hallway seemed unusually long. There were no pictures or lamps hanging on the walls, but they passed three doors on each side. Alexandra tried to reconcile the number of paces with the size of the house on the outside.
“Is your entire house wizard-spaced?” she asked.
“Not all of it,” Lucilla said. “But the interior does move sometimes.”
She beckoned Alexandra into a sitting room dominated by overstuffed red chairs and sofas and a coffee table. Alexandra sat down in a chair, and Charlie hopped to the armrest.
“Your familiar will need to stay in that cage while inside,” Lucilla said. “I know Charlie will want freedom to fly about, but there are things in this house that aren’t good for birds, especially birds who love shiny things.” She raised a hand and waved a finger at Charlie, who was indeed eyeing the bangles on Lucilla’s wrist.
“Okay,” Alexandra said.
Lucilla reached under her belt and withdrew a long, pale wand. She made a small gesture, and a set of plates glided into the room through the open doorway, followed by a gleaming silver tea kettle. One plate held a pile of rich-looking yellow cakes, and another held a teacup. They settled onto the table in front of Alexandra, and the tea kettle sprouted thin legs like a fat metal spider, rose above the table’s surface, and tilted to pour tea into the cup, like something out of a children’s cartoon.
Charlie, without waiting for Alexandra’s approval, hopped onto the table and began nibbling at one of the yellow cakes. Lucilla frowned.
“Sorry,” Alexandra said. “Charlie doesn’t have the best manners.” Over Charlie’s objections, she put both hands around the raven and forced her familiar back into the cage.
“Thank you for letting me come here,” she said. She picked up a cake that Charlie hadn’t begun pecking at yet. “I’m not sure what you intend for me to do. I’ve never been an apprentice before. I’ve never been anything but a student. But I’ll do my best.”
Lucilla smiled. “You’ve been many things besides a student, I think. And Drucilla and I want to hear all about your adventures, in much more detail than we’ve heard already.”
Drucilla entered the room. Her hair was the same yellow shade as Lucilla’s, but it was tied back in a braid. Her robes were a bit rougher than Lucilla’s, with frayed patches at the elbows. A pair of heavy leather gloves were tucked into a sash around her waist. Unlike Lucilla’s soft slippers, Drucilla’s feet were covered in worn brown leather boots. Sweat still beaded on her forehead and there was a blueish smudge on her cheek. Alexandra wasn’t sure what “quenching” was, but she guessed that Drucilla had been working when she arrived.
“So, our fugitive, troublesome sister has arrived,” Drucilla said. “Along with a familiar, I see.”
“It’s good to see you again, Alexandra. I know you’ve been through some trials since we last met. I hope this will be a place of safety and comfort for you, but there is a great deal for you to learn, and rules for you to follow.”
“Lucilla has been explaining things to me,” Alexandra said.
“She’s told you you’re to do all the housework, and serve us breakfast in bed each morning?”
Alexandra glanced at Lucilla. Lucilla laughed. “She’s joking. You can’t always tell, because Dru likes to pretend she doesn’t have a sense of humor.”
“Pretend?” Dru shook her head. “Eat and rest, little sister. We’ll have plenty of time to talk later about chores and responsibilities.”
“Yes,” Lucilla said. “When you’re done eating, I’ll show you to your room. I’m afraid there’s a trick to it.”
“A trick?” Alexandra said.
“Well, it won’t always be the same room,” Lucilla said. “Our guest bedroom moves, you see. The house likes to hide it, so you may have to try a few doors to find its current location. That’s true of a lot of rooms in this house, but we’ve fixed most of them in place.”
“Mostly,” said Drucilla.
“Yes. Never step through a door in this house blindly. The basement steps mostly rotate between three or four doors, but depending on the time of day and the season and the weather, they can occasionally appear elsewhere.”
“And sometimes the steps will be missing entirely,” said Drucilla.
“It sounds like the house sometimes tries to kill you,” Alexandra said.
“Not anymore,” Drucilla said seriously, but Lucilla laughed.
“We had to banish a lot of ghosts, and a particularly difficult poltergeist, and some ill will still lingers,” said Drucilla. “I hope you aren’t unusually sensitive.”
“No one’s ever called me sensitive,” Alexandra said.
“The house is not quite aware,” Drucilla said, “and we’ve done our best to make sure it doesn’t become so — that can cause all kinds of problems — but it’s very old, so… yes, watch your step. And be careful opening cupboards. Or turning on faucets.”
“This is also one of the reasons you should keep your raven in a cage,” Lucilla said.
“Don’t complain,” Alexandra said to Charlie. “It’ll be just like home.” That triggered a twinge of homesickness, which she ignored.
“Well then,” said Lucilla, “let’s show you to your room.”
Alexandra didn’t know how they knew which door led to her room, but Lucilla opened the first door on the right after they left the sitting room, and nodded as if confirming a guess.
Alexandra found within an old four-poster bed with fresh sheets, and simple dressers and baskets that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Muggle home of the same time period in which it appeared this gabled mansion had been built. There was a mirror on the wall, and Alexandra noticed as she passed by it that neither she nor Charlie cast a reflection in it. A window next to the bed, with curtains tied back, showed snow banks surrounded by water. The water came to within yards of the house. The lights were of the old gas lamp style Alexandra had seen at Croatoa and in other older wizard buildings.
She set her pack and Charlie’s cage down. “It should be safe for Charlie to fly around outside, shouldn’t it?” she asked.
“As safe as it is for any familiar around Muggles,” Lucilla said.
“Charlie is used to flying around Muggles,” Alexandra said.
The Whites showed Alexandra around the house. As she had already deduced, it was larger on the inside than on the outside, and it was quite large on the outside. Her bedroom was near a large kitchen and dining room, the sitting room Alexandra had already seen, a spacious party room, and what seemed like an excessive number of smaller sitting rooms, reading rooms, and closets.
Everything was furnished with quaint elegance, and few of the rooms appeared recently used. Aside from its magically expanded internal geometry, the house had few obvious wizardly appurtenances… until they reached the library
It was the first room Alexandra had seen in the house that was expanded vertically as well as horizontally; it was nearly as large as the Larkin Mills Public Library she’d spent so many hours in as a child. The shelves all looked relatively new, not like the antique furniture of the other rooms. It was lit by glowing spheres hanging wirelessly below the ceiling. The books ranged from recent publications Alexandra had seen at Boxley’s Books in Chicago’s Goblin Market to much older tomes, some of which had the distinctive worn leather covers she associated with very old wizarding texts, sitting adjacent to drawers with piles of scrolls on top of them.
“This is awesome,” Alexandra said.
“Awesome,” Lucilla repeated, as if intrigued by the word. “Well, thank you. You’re welcome to use it any time, of course, and in fact we’re going to start your training with quite a few books to read. But we do need to point out a few volumes that are… well, you shouldn’t open them.”
“You mean they’re forbidden,” Alexandra said, remembering the Restricted section of Charmbridge’s library.
Drucilla said, very seriously, “Nothing here is forbidden, Alexandra.”
“Really?” Alexandra looked at the twins, waiting for the catch.
Lucilla said, “What you did in Roanoke, taking Valeria’s Time-Turner… is that your usual behavior?”
Shame burned Alexandra’s cheeks, and she looked down.
“If you think that, I’m surprised you trust me at all,” she said quietly.
“We do trust you, Alexandra,” said Drucilla. “We know the circumstances, at least what Valeria told us. What you did was the headstrong act of a foolish girl. Who was still grieving and could not let her brother go.”
Alexandra maintained a stoic expression, still gazing at the floor.
“That was the past,” Drucilla continued. “You are no longer that foolish girl. Are you?”
Alexandra let out a breath. “I’m not sure my friends would agree. But I think… I hope… I’ve gotten a little less foolish.”
“You’re here as an apprentice,” Drucilla said. “We expect you’re going to behave like one, and that means taking our warnings as seriously as our lessons. You’re not a child to be looked after, and we’re not your babysitters.”
Lucilla nodded. “You can leave any time this arrangement no longer suits you. We hope you’ll prove worthy of our trust and take our warnings seriously. If you can’t, then this arrangement may not work for us either. We haven’t shown you the workshop, the laboratory, the forge, or the cellars yet. There are things there that cannot be mishandled, and we don’t want you touching them before you’re prepared.”
“Okay.” Alexandra nodded. “I won’t touch anything you tell me not to touch.”
Drucilla gestured toward the library, which had more chairs and tables than there were residents in the house. A writing desk by the window, its wood surface stained with ink, had a jar full of quills on it. Next to it was a large table made of a thick slab of wood, more appropriate for a carpenter’s workbench than a library. Several piles of smooth, dark stones were lined up along one edge, presumably to hold down the immense scrolls and maps rolled up in sheaves in a glass case by the wall.
Most of the books were wizarding texts, and the titles alone read like subjects far more advanced than Alexandra had encountered at school. Non-Euclidean Apportionment. Seven volumes of Thaumaturgic Reactions and Anti-Reactions. Kingsley’s Handbook of Conjuring Primitives, 11th Edition. Unreal Arithmancy. 667 Advanced Transfigurations. Before We Had Wands: Practical Ancient Wizardry. Syncretic Polyspatial Feng Shui.
“Wow,” she said.
“The books that you shouldn’t open will tell you so,” Drucilla said. “We put Warning Charms on all of them.”
“Also Thieves’ Curses, of course,” said Lucilla, “but you won’t have to worry about that.” She tapped one book, which had a black cover with bright red bands across it. “Go on, touch this one.”
Alexandra did so, cautiously laying her fingers on the stiff leather binding.
“Gitcher filthy paws offer me!” said the book. Its title was The First Step Into Darkness: What You Should Know, by Gilroy Wycliffe.
“That one came with a Warning Charm already on it,” Lucilla said, shaking her head. “It’s actually a terrible book, and I don’t mean terribly Dark.”
“Nowadays anyone can get published,” Drucilla said with a sigh.
“But,” Lucilla continued, “the rituals that idiot warlock recommends could leave you blind and tongueless if you try them right out of the book.”
“If there is a volume you’re interested in but it warns you not to touch it, just let us know, and if you really want to read it, we’ll work out the necessary precautions,” said Drucilla.
“Thank you,” Alexandra said. After days of travel, and weeks of feeling like an outsider even among the most hospitable Ozarkers, she was filled with an enormous sense of gratitude. These two half-sisters barely knew her, yet they were giving her the run of their house and unlimited access to materials that seniors at Charmbridge wouldn’t be allowed to even look at. She took a deep breath. “I appreciate everything you’re doing for me, and I really want to learn more. About everything.”
She didn’t just mean magic. She was intensely curious about their upbringing, and how much they knew about their father, and just what they did besides enchant magic items out here in a house on the edge of a swamp. She hoped there would be time for such conversations.
Lucilla and Drucilla exchanged a meaningful look; it was the first time they had displayed any sort of mannerism that reminded Alexandra of the Pritchard twins. She guessed they knew what she meant as well.
“Well,” Lucilla said, “why don’t you unpack your things and arrange your room as you like it. Time enough to begin studying tomorrow. We’ll talk about chores and things over dinner — and by the way, I hope you know how to cook.”
“Um,” said Alexandra, remembering Granny Mahnkey scolding her for burning water. “Not really.”
“Humph. Well, we have a magic oven and plenty of convenient cooking charms, but you will be on your own for food quite often.”
“That’s fine.” Alexandra had fed herself at home for much of her childhood, usually on sandwiches and snacks.
“Very well.” Lucilla nodded. “Welcome to our home, Alexandra. You will begin your studies tomorrow.”
Alexandra didn’t sleep well, despite how tired she’d been. The bed was comfortable enough, but disturbing dreams haunted her sleep only to recede from her conscious recollection moments after she woke up. She was unsettled, not sure if the feeling was just the lingering after-effects of a nightmare.
Charlie slept contentedly until Alexandra rose, then immediately began complaining about being caged.
Something bothered her. It took her a moment to realize what it was: she’d gone to sleep with her head to the north and her feet to the south, the window to her right. But when she woke, her head was to the south and her feet to the north.
She examined the bed. She had not somehow reversed her position in her sleep. The bed was pointing in the opposite direction from when she went to sleep.
Alexandra shook her head, not entirely sure she wasn’t misremembering.
She pushed aside the curtains and saw only mist beyond the window. It curled around the house and pressed against the glass, obscuring the snowy ground even immediately in front of the house. But she could hear sounds from the river harbor.
Lucilla and Drucilla were both in the kitchen already when Alexandra joined them. Drucilla looked sleepier than Lucilla, who was tossing toast into an oven and tapping her wand against a row of eggs, instantly bursting them cooked and scrambled out of their shells. The shell fragments flew in a white spray into a ceramic cup.
“Traditionally, an apprentice does all the chores, including cooking meals,” Lucilla said.
“Ignore her,” Drucilla said, yawning. “We’ve never had an apprentice before and this is hardly the usual sort of apprenticeship.”
“Family apprenticeships are quite traditional,” said Lucilla.
“Our family isn’t,” said Drucilla.
Alexandra sat down at the table. “Have you talked to our father much?” she asked.
“When we were younger,” Drucilla said. “We spent more time with him than Valeria did, but, well, our parents’ marriage was already strained by the time she was born. You know that he’s never been particularly…”
“Monogamous?” Alexandra said.
“I was going to say, constant,” Drucilla said.
Lucilla snorted. “Our mother was rather bitter, so we didn’t hear much good about him growing up. Eventually we reconciled, but, well, he’s always been felt more by his absence.”
Alexandra nodded. “I only met him three years ago, and it was only a year before that that I found out who he was.”
“Your upbringing was quite unusual, I must say.” Drucilla sounded interested, rather than judgmental. “I understand that was mostly Claudia’s doing.”
Alexandra learned over breakfast that Lucilla and Drucilla had been talking to Julia and Livia a lot over the past year. They knew far more about her life than she did about theirs. The White sisters spoke highly of their stepfather, with whom their mother had had several more children, but they seemed almost indifferent about their father.
Lucilla floated their dishes into the sink with a wave of her wand, and Drucilla folded her hands together across the table from Alexandra.
“So,” she said. “What do you know about Artificing?”
“Just what I learned in school,” Alexandra said. “I’ve had four years of Magical Theory and Transfiguration and Charms and Alchemy. I’ve read a little bit. And I know something about wandlore. Just what little the G— what I learned in the Ozarks.”
“Ozarkers.” Drucilla waved a hand dismissively. “Wandcrafting is for mystics and runecarvers.”
“Dru doesn’t like any art she can’t understand,” Lucilla said. “Wandcrafting is a different kind of enchantment. It requires much more… sensitivity.”
“Mumbo jumbo,” Drucilla said. “No one understands it, not even wandcrafters. We’re here to teach you Artificing. It will take everything you’ve learned in school and a great deal more, and before you’re ready to create your first item you’ll know more than a Charmbridge graduate, at least in our particular specialty. But it will require reading a lot of books, because we’re going to make very sure you know what you’re doing before you try your first enchantment.”
“You may find our practices more formulaic and rigorous than you’re used to,” Lucilla said. “Every Artificer must find their own foundation, but ours is built on Arithmancy and Alchemy in the Paracelsusan tradition.”
“I know who Paracelsus is!” Alexandra said, happy to show off that she wasn’t completely uneducated.
“I should hope so,” Lucilla said. “You’re introduced to him in sixth grade, aren’t you?”
“Well, yeah.” Slightly deflated, Alexandra listened to the Whites list the books she was to read and all the steps she’d have to complete before they’d allow her to make her first Artificing attempt.
“Yes, it is daunting,” Drucilla said. “We’re going to cram your head with years’ worth of study in a matter of months. That doesn’t mean you’ll be as good as someone who’s spent years studying the art of Artificing, but either you have aptitude or you don’t, and we may as well find out quickly.”
“I do have aptitude,” Alexandra said. “I’m as much a witch as you are. And I’ve been places, done things, and seen things you haven’t.”
Drucilla sat back in her chair, while Lucilla, still standing, raised her eyebrows and folded her arms. “You were much more humble last night,” she observed dryly.
“I know I’m younger than you, and I have a lot to learn,” Alexandra said. “I know you’re both really accomplished, and I want to learn from you. I’m grateful, too — really grateful.” She looked back at each of them, and her hands curled into fists. “But I don’t have as much time as you think, and I have things I need to do. I’ll study, hard. I’ll do everything you ask. I’ll follow your rules. Just don’t hold back. I can do anything you can do.”
“Can you, now?” Lucilla made the rest of their meal and accompanying dishes vanish with a wave of her wand. “Well then, you’d best get started.”
At Charmbridge, Alexandra had considered herself quite formidable, at least in Charms and Transfigurations, and dueling and flying. When it came to book-learning, she had to admit she’d been an uneven student. She was an avid reader, but she had not always been a diligent one.
Lucilla and Drucilla piled books on her, as promised. For a week or so, she barely saw them except at breakfast and dinner, and did not leave the library much. Some of the reading she was given covered subjects she had studied at Charmbridge — Arithmancy, Alchemy, Magical Theory — and she wondered if her sisters were just trying to push her missing school year on her. But Alchemy led to Esoteric Metallurgy, and Thaumaturgic Vitality, and Investment Rituals, and other fascinatingly arcane topics. She found a scroll instructing how to create a Pensieve, and eagerly studied it, but found it very difficult to decipher. It referenced a book about Memory Alchemy, which she spent the entire day studying.
Alexandra hated to admit it, after the speech she’d given her sisters, but she was lost. The material was too dense and difficult for her. She had no doubt she could grasp it, given enough time. She didn’t have time.
When Lucilla asked her that evening how she was faring, Alexandra hesitated. The three of them were eating soup that Drucilla had made. Alexandra sipped cautiously; the previous night, she had tried to heat up some stew, and burned her mouth. Not because she’d poured too much heat into it from her wand, but because this house made odd things happen sometimes. She’d tripped, walked into doors, found walls where doors should be and vice versa, and once the bathroom had been replaced with stairs down into a closet in the middle of the night.
“It’s… a lot,” she said.
Lucilla’s eyebrows went up. “But you’re very smart,” she said. “And you have had a lot of experience.”
“I have, but… not so much learning from books.” Alexandra sighed. “I was kind of hoping you could… help me.”
Behind Lucilla, Drucilla smiled. “We were just waiting for you to ask.”
Lucilla pulled Alexandra’s book across the table. “We were warned that you can be a bit full of yourself, and sometimes you need to learn the limits of your ability before you ask for help.”
Alexandra frowned. “Warned by who?”
Lucilla flipped through the pages of the book. “We haven’t been entirely fair to you — an apprentice wouldn’t normally begin at this level of study. But then, an apprentice wouldn’t normally be as old as you and with so little learning.”
“So little learning?”
“Don’t be offended. Your general education at Charmbridge was fine, I’m sure. And yes, we realize you’re very talented. Your magical ability is not in question. But Artificing is a very demanding specialty. Drucilla and I have been studying it since we were eleven.”
“I’ve been studying it since we were eleven,” Drucilla said. “It took you a few more years to take a serious interest in something besides boys.”
Lucilla tossed Alexandra’s book back to her. “Don’t listen to her, Alexandra. She was interested enough in boys, too.”
“My priorities were different,” Drucilla said.
“All work without a switch makes Dru a dull witch. Don’t be like her, Alexandra. Now, let’s talk about solvents.” Lucilla picked up another book, opened it to a chapter with lurid green lettering in the margins, and set it on the table in front of Alexandra. Acrid fumes burned her nostrils. “Careful. Don’t handle the pages without snakeskin gloves or treating your fingers properly beforehand.”
Startled by the transition from banter to lecture, Alexandra held her breath and leaned forward.
None of Alexandra’s classes at Charmbridge had been as difficult as weeks of cramming under Lucilla and Drucilla, but she never complained. She reminded herself that she’d asked for this, but she wondered when she’d be allowed to actually do magic. She’d hardly used her wands since arriving at the seven-gabled house.
Drucilla quizzed Alexandra every morning, while Lucilla set various items out for her inspection and made her assess them. Alexandra was learning to see the spells in the everyday objects Lucilla and Drucilla left around their house, and she was beginning to notice things even in the items she already owned, like her backpack and her waterproof boots. Like Witch’s Sight, it seemed less remarkable the more she employed it.
It was three weeks before they finally allowed her downstairs.
Lucilla led her through an oak door that was conspicuously thicker and heavier than any other door in the house. Also conspicuous, now, was the small wrought iron gargoyle mounted in the frame above the door. Alexandra stared at it, and the little creature winked at her as she passed beneath it.
The stone steps went down further than should have been possible, considering the house was sitting on marshy ground next to a river. At the bottom of the steps, Alexandra looked left and right and saw corridors stretching in both directions, lit by torches. The basement had to be enormous.
“Don’t wander around here by yourself,” Lucilla said. “Don’t come down here without one of us. I’m very serious about that. Most of our work is quite mundane, but Artificing can be dangerous, and we have things down here which you’re not to trifle with.”
“Okay,” Alexandra said.
Lucilla turned and looked at her.
Alexandra frowned. “Look, I don’t know what Valeria or Julia told you, but I don’t go wandering around causing trouble just for the heck of it.”
Lucilla arched an eyebrow.
“Well, not anymore,” Alexandra said.
Lucilla smiled slightly. She beckoned for Alexandra to follow her.
The first door she opened led to an ordinary-looking workroom, with a long bench filled with brooms. On the wall were racks of broomsticks, and in one corner were bins full of straw of various lengths, shades, and materials. Other boxes contained bits of wood, leather, metal, stone, glass, and all sorts of tools. The brooms were in various states of disassembly. With her Witch's Sight, Alexandra saw this was true of their charms as well as their physical construction.
“A lot of our business is repairing brooms,” Lucilla said. “It’s boring work, but every broom is a little bit different, and each repair is a slightly different challenge. It’s perfect for an apprentice. You can find manifests for all the most common models there.” She pointed to a cabinet by the door. “I expect it will be weeks before your work is actually acceptable to ship back, but this is what you’re doing until we’re tired of it.”
“We?” Alexandra asked.
“Drucilla and I. We don’t care if you’re tired of brooms. And you will be.”
By the end of the week, Alexandra was very tired of brooms. Lucilla had given her no further instructions, only inspected her work at the end of each day, leaving Alexandra to figure out what was to be done with each broom. There were tags affixed to each one indicating the original owner, but rarely any notes about the broom’s condition. Some were models she recognized; there was a Valkyrie like the one Maximilian had given her for her thirteenth birthday, and a fine 2012 Hesper that looked brand new except for the split along its shaft. Many were old — brooms with bent sticks and cracked, peeling paint, and charms in a similar state of decay. Some were so old they were just bundles of straw tied to a stick with a leather thong, and Alexandra could barely believe they had ever been flightworthy. Even the Ozarkers had brooms in better condition that that!
The problem, she realized, was that repairing them required both craftsmanship and Artificing skill. A simple Repair Charm could mend fractures and splits, but sometimes she had to resort to cutting new splints of wood herself, or finding the right type of straw to attach. She peeled her knuckles with clumsy woodworking skills, and spent long hours looking up the right spell to reactivate the Flight Charm on something that belonged in a coal bin.
Elves, she thought, would probably love this kind of work. Or would they? Julia and Ms. King had no qualms about letting elves serve them, but she had seen no elves here. The first time she asked Lucilla about house-elves, her sister glared at her as if she’d uttered an obscenity.
“We,” she said, emphasizing each word, “do not employ house-elves.”
Next to her, Drucilla eyed Alexandra coldly.
It was the first time Alexandra had seen the twins truly angry. She didn’t press the point. She did wonder what Lucilla and Drucilla thought about the Kings’ house elves.
A few days after that, Lucilla examined one of Alexandra’s repair jobs and for the first time pronounced it acceptable.
“You are on your way to becoming competent,” Lucilla said. She tossed the broom on the bench. “Tomorrow you can start testing, but only before dawn and after dark.”
Alexandra grinned. It had been a while since she’d been flying — and she’d barely been out of the house since arriving.
“Only to test the brooms you’re repairing,” Lucilla said.
“Don’t let us, or any Aurors, catch you flying your own broom,” Drucilla said.
“I haven’t seen Aurors or anyone else since I got here,” Alexandra said. “How do you do business, anyway?”
“Most of it is by Confederation Post nowadays,” Lucilla said. “But we have a small clientele, and sometimes Drucilla and I make business trips. You haven’t seen any of that because we’ve kept you busy. It will be a while before you meet any of our customers.”
Alexandra took a couple of her most recent repairs outside that evening. She hadn’t realized how long it had been since she’d been outside, other than to let Charlie out and sometimes walk around the house waiting for her familiar to return. She’d watched the ships out along the river, and even heard automobiles pass by, not too far away, but her cell phone was long dead and she’d had no contact with anyone but the Whites since arriving. She had sent letters by owl to all her friends, as well as Julia, but no replies had come back yet. Lucilla and Drucilla’s words made her realize how isolated she felt. Flying around over the river did little to relieve her of the feeling, but at least it was freeing. Below her, ships churned up and down the icy waters of the river.