Claudia didn't say much on the drive to Chicago. They left at six in the morning, expecting traffic to be heavy and parking impossible on the Fourth of July. Alexandra knew Claudia was right — the Department of Magical Education had deliberately scheduled the hearing during a major Muggle holiday. Why did they even bother holding a hearing if they were going to stack the deck against her so unfairly?
The appeal hadn't even been her idea. Until Livia suggested it, it hadn't occurred to Alexandra that she could appeal her expulsion from Charmbridge Academy.
Livia had promised to be there. Claudia had been visibly relieved at this, as they weren't at all sure that their physician/Healer sister would make the trip from Milwaukee to Chicago on such short notice, especially with a child on the way.
Claudia did not want to return to the wizarding world, even for a day. She'd left it before Alexandra was born, and she had good reasons to fear it, not just because she was a Squib. These were all things Alexandra had learned only recently, and coming amidst other revelations — like the fact that Claudia was not actually her mother, as she'd been led to believe all her life — Alexandra had been more preoccupied with the present. And herself.
Now she studied the woman who'd been "Mom" to her until the winter before she turned fifteen. Claudia had never been very emotional and she was usually quite moderate in both temper and affection. This held true now — she kept her eyes on the road with the same implacable purpose that had guided her away from Chicago when Alexandra was a toddler.
Every now and then, Claudia's knuckles turned a little white, and Alexandra wondered what memories were going through her head.
If nothing else came of this trip, Alexandra hoped she could at least get another wand at the Goblin Market. She wanted another hickory and chimaera-hair wand like the one she'd carried since she was eleven, before it was broken two months ago by John Manuelito. Since then, she had felt almost powerless. Also, she hoped either Livia or some other Healer would be able to replace the tooth John had knocked out of her mouth.
The Interstate was heavy with traffic as they approached Chicago. Alexandra wished, not for the first time, that they could have taken the Automagicka.
At last they found their way downtown, and parked in a garage not far from the "abandoned" office building where Central Territory hid its Headquarters building.
As they got out of the car, Alexandra tucked her formal robes under her arm. Claudia looked at the bundle and nodded. She wore a long skirt and blouse with a light green jacket. It was appropriate for a job interview or a court appearance, but it was what a Muggle would wear, not a witch. Alexandra doubted Claudia had worn witch's robes since she was her age, and certainly she didn't have any in her closet.
"Livia said she would meet us in the Territorial Headquarters Building," Claudia said.
Alexandra nodded, while checking her smartphone. At least without her wand, her phone worked better. Livia had not sent a text or any other form of communication, but that didn't worry Alexandra much, since Livia tended not to text a lot, and if she was already at the Territorial Headquarters Building, her own phone probably wasn't working.
Alexandra did have some texts from David Washington:
sorry tried to get folks to bring me. dads at training camp n mom says detroit to chicago is too far for one day
I said how bout plane by myself? she said noway
I said how bout broom? she said HELL noway
Alexandra texted him back:
its cool thx. talk later and see you at the Jubilee
She had left a message on Anna's voice mail, but Anna Chu, in her little wizarding community in San Francisco, was not able to use her cell phone every day, and probably wouldn't get the message until after the hearing was over. Not that Alexandra thought Anna would able to get all the way from San Francisco to Chicago in a matter of hours anyway. She probably wouldn't see Anna until next month.
She sighed. "No one else can make it. Guess it'll just be you and Livia."
Claudia nodded. "Let's go, then."
As the two of them walked out of the garage and into Chicago's downtown, Alexandra asked, "Are you ready for this?"
"I doubt they'll even ask me anything. What could a Squib tell them?"
Alexandra searched for something reassuring to say. But Claudia strode ahead and didn't let her face show fear or insecurity. If she was preparing herself, it was by steeling herself for the encounter ahead, not by seeking comfort from her younger sister.
The Territorial Headquarters Building was located at the edge of the Chicago Loop, surrounded by high-rises and skyscrapers. It appeared from the outside to be a vacant office building dating from earlier in the city's history. At thirteen floors, it was probably impressive when it was built, but now it was dwarfed by the Muggle buildings around it. No doubt it suited the wizarding authorities for it to be so unremarkable. As Alexandra approached and focused her Witch's Sight on it, she recognized the Muggle-Repelling Charms that prevented anyone on the street from giving it a second glance. To anyone but a witch or a wizard, it had signs posted on all the doors so faded that one would have to stop and study them to actually read the notices of closure, and something about the building's elderly facade discouraged the eye from resting on it long enough to do that.
"Alex?" Claudia was looking directly at the building, and yet, Alexandra realized, not seeing it. "Are you sure this is the right place?"
"It's right in front of us," Alexandra said. "That building right there." She pointed.
Claudia stared for several long moments, then said, "Oh. Of course."
She walked forward. Alexandra still wasn't sure whether Claudia quite saw it, but she went through the door that Alexandra held open for her, and the two of them entered the lobby.
Alexandra had last been here during a sixth grade field trip. The lobby looked exactly as it had four years ago: dusty and empty, only a polished tile floor between them and the elevators.
The click of heels on tiles disturbed the eerie silence. Livia Pruett emerged from the restroom and crossed the lobby floor to meet her sisters. She wore formal white and green robes, which hid her pregnancy, and she had woven her long black hair into a braid, rather than putting it up in her usual bun. Her black frame glasses gave her the appearance of a librarian rather than a physician, and made her look several years older. Next to her, Claudia looked like the younger of the two.
"I brought a set of robes for you," Livia said to her older sister. "I thought you might not have any." Hesitantly, she offered a neatly wrapped bundle to Claudia.
Claudia took it without looking at it.
"You don't have to," Alexandra said.
"Livia's right," Claudia said. "We should try to make a good impression. Let's go change."
Alexandra and Claudia walked into the restroom opposite the elevator. Alexandra changed quickly into her robes. Claudia was still examining hers when Alexandra emerged from the stall.
"Go on, Alex," Claudia said. "I'll be out in a minute."
Alexandra walked back out to join Livia.
Livia cleared her throat. "I'm only here for moral support. I doubt I can say anything on your behalf that will help you."
"I appreciate the moral support," Alexandra said.
"I meant for Claudia."
Alexandra flushed. "Right."
Livia laid a hand on her shoulder. "I'm here to help you, too, Alexandra."
"Thanks. Will you go with me to the Goblin Market after the hearing?"
"That's somewhere I haven't been to in a long time. Does Claudia want to come with us?"
Alexandra shook her head. "Not a chance. She said she'd go visit the Art Institute or something."
"You do know this is hard for her," Livia said.
Livia was the second-oldest of Abraham Thorn's children, and she had fled the wizarding world a few years after Claudia had been banished from it. Alexandra had only learned of her existence the previous year, and though they had spoken on the phone and exchanged email over the summer, Alexandra still didn't know this new older sister well. She didn't understand how Livia and Claudia, who had grown up together, could have severed all contact for over twenty years.
"I know it is," Alexandra said. "I think maybe I know better than you."
"Really?" asked Livia. "Do you know what it's like to grow up in the wizarding world and then be cast out of it? Because I don't. I walked away. That makes all the difference. Let's not either of us pretend we know what Claudia is feeling, Alexandra. And let's not keep reminding each other of how we've all failed one another in some way."
"Okay," Alexandra said.
"I don't want her hurt again."
"Me neither," Alexandra said. "I told her she didn't have to come."
Livia's expression was skeptical, but Claudia returned, wearing plain, dark robes that covered her Muggle clothing and made her look a bit like a graduating college student. "Thank you, Livia," she said. "All right. Shall we go?"
The three sisters stepped into the elevator. Claudia immediately edged back toward the door as she realized that the interior was enormous. From the outside, it appeared to be a small cage dating back to when the building was first constructed, but the interior was magically expanded. Alexandra's entire sixth grade class had once fit comfortably inside it.
"It's okay," Alexandra said, "it's —"
"A wizard-space," Claudia said. "Yes." She turned around to face the doors as they closed. "You can both stop treating me like I'm a frightened Muggle. It's just a little disorienting, seeing these things again, is all."
"Okay." Alexandra punched the button for the ninth floor, even though she remembered that the elevator obeyed verbal instructions. They began ascending.
"Alexandra," said Livia, "I know we don't have much time for me to give you advice or a pep talk, and I've been out of the wizarding world myself for years. But don't be arrogant. I know it's hard for you, but try to show contrition. Whoever the committee members are, they hold your fate in their hands, and I'll wager they want to see that the daughter of Abraham Thorn can be humbled."
"Humble. Got it," Alexandra said.
Claudia put a hand on her shoulder. Alexandra turned to her.
"You really do want to go back to Charmbridge Academy, don't you?" Claudia asked.
"I wouldn't have asked you to bring me if I didn't. Don't worry. I'll be humble. And contrite."
The doors opened onto a long hallway lit with gas lamps. The tiles were much less polished and elegant than those in the lobby. A long line of ominous, closed wooden doors lined the hallway on either side. Brass plaques on each door reflected gaslight at them like cyclopean eyes. One door opened, and a small man in coattails and black polished shoes stepped out into the hallway carrying an armful of documents. He glanced at the three women, squinted, then scuttled three doors down and disappeared into the next room without a word. Another door opened and two witches filed through it. One wore solid black robes, the other black with red trim, but they were otherwise identical, and Alexandra gave a little start. "Ms. Grimm!"
Both witches turned to look at her.
Lilith Grimm was the Dean of Charmbridge Academy, and the one who had expelled Alexandra. Her sister, Diana Grimm, was a Special Inquisitor who interrogated Alexandra — and her other sisters — regularly.
And they were both her aunts, though she had not known that until a few months ago.
She approached the Grimms. Claudia and Livia followed her.
"Hello, Alexandra," said Lilith Grimm.
"Hello Alexandra, Claudia, Livia," said Diana Grimm.
"So," Alexandra said, "I guess you're both here for my appeal hearing." Dean Grimm's presence was not surprising; Diana Grimm's presence was. "Why does the Office of Special Inquisitions care whether or not I'm allowed back into Charmbridge Academy?"
"The Office of Special Inquisitions doesn't," Diana Grimm said. "But my presence was requested."
"Requested by who?"
"Mr. Greenwich. I believe he wants testimony concerning the events of last year."
The events of last year. To Alexandra, her aunt's terse summation of that episode in her life sounded like a dismissal and a judgment all in one.
"Testimony?" Livia spoke up. "She's appealing her expulsion. This isn't a criminal trial. And I'm rather surprised that the Department of Magical Education can issue summons to Special Inquisitors from the Wizard Justice Department."
Diana Grimm smiled. "Oh, they couldn't demand my presence. But I chose to come."
Her smile, Alexandra thought, was not a warm or supportive one. It was not a smile that said her aunt was on her side.
Lilith Grimm didn't smile. She just nodded to Alexandra and said to the other women: "It's good to see you again, Mrs. Green, Dr. Pruett." She walked through a large pair of double doors, the only other doors in the hallway that were open, and her triplet followed her.
Alexandra turned to her sisters. "I think I'm screwed."
Livia shook her head, while Claudia gently pushed her forward through the double doors.
The room was not quite large enough to be a courtroom, but with the large elevated table at the far end of it, facing six rows of chairs, it had the appearance of one, or an austere and ecumenical chapel. A little sunlight fell into the room through long, narrow windowpanes high on the wall just behind the raised table, but most of the light came from gas lamps. Lilith and Diana Grimm took their seats in the front row.
There were six other people in the seats a few rows back, and Alexandra came to a dead halt when she saw who else had come to her hearing.
She had last seen Larry Albo lying on the ground covered with blood after a monstrous mummified baby bit off the fingers of his left hand. Now he sat upright next to a tall man with thinning hair, a goatee, and a pencil mustache: an aging, less handsome version of Larry, without Larry's dark, curly locks. The man's cruel demeanor, more than anything else, convinced Alexandra that this was Mr. Albo.
Larry did not exhibit any of his usual cockiness, only a measured frown as he turned to regard Alexandra and her sisters. He seemed to be trying as hard as she was to reveal nothing. They stared at each other, and then Alexandra's eyes fell to the scar that ran between his lower lip and his chin. Then, unable to help it, she looked down at his hand.
Larry's expression didn't change. But wordlessly he lifted his left hand and displayed it to her. Four silver fingers gleamed in the light.
Was that defiance, or showing off, or accusation: See what you did to me? Alexandra couldn't tell.
Her gaze slid away from Larry to the three people seated a row back from him and his father. A man and a woman and a young girl, a handsome family all with the same light brown skin, dark eyes, elegantly braided dreadlocks, and rich, elaborate robes.
The girl wore a black patch over one eye. Cleopatra Dupree, who had been a sixth grader last year, peered at Alexandra from her good eye. Then, to Alexandra's surprise, she lifted a hand and waved.
Alexandra waved back, but Cleopatra's mother grabbed her daughter's hand and she and her husband both sent furious daggers shooting at Alexandra with their eyes. Maybe Cleopatra wasn't angry at her for losing an eye, but it was obvious who her parents blamed.
The last person in the audience was a plain-looking young man in a shabby suit that might have been fashionable half a century ago. He wore a fedora with a small card stuck in the headband, and held a fountain pen and a notepad.
Four people sat at the table at the head of the room. One stood as Alexandra approached. He was impressively tall, and broad at the shoulders. Despite the snow-white hair clinging to his head in wisps, there was no impression of diminished strength or vigor in the old man. He had a mustache to match his hair, bushy and white, complementing his ice-blue eyes. He wore an old-fashioned white suit with wide lapels, in the style of some wizards who preferred that sort of garb to robes.
"Miss Quick, is it?" he said. "Please take a seat." He indicated the front rank of chairs on the opposite end of the row from the Grimms. His gesture was as curt as his tone, the "please" barely elevating the request above the way one might address a dog. Already he was looking away from Alexandra, gazing around the room. Then he turned back to the two witches and the one wizard seated next to him at the table. "Where is Franklin?"
One of the witches was hunched in her chair like a bag of skin folding in on itself. She was ancient beyond estimation of her age; Alexandra didn't think she'd ever seen such an aged human being before. Her eyes might have been closed or they might not; her face was so wrinkled that her eyes could have been hidden completely in the crevices and canyons around her cheeks. She didn't move or answer the wizard's inquiry. She might have been dead.
"In the lavatory, I believe," said the other woman at the table, in a whisper so loud there was hardly any point in whispering it. This woman was younger than Livia, blonde, and pretty, though with a certain severity in her strongly-set mouth and in the way her gaze lashed across Alexandra and Claudia and Livia that did not suggest any sort of sympathy.
The fourth of Alexandra's five interrogators might have been any age from forty to eighty. He had dark skin and equally dark hair trimmed close to his head; he wore what looked to Alexandra like a Dracula outfit: suit and cravat and long black cloak. He sat upright in his chair and kept his eyes fixed straight ahead, except for one brief glance at Alexandra that expressed nothing.
"I am Samson Greenwich," said the standing man, "Chief of Discipline for the Department of Magical Education. I will explain to you how this hearing will be conducted, Miss Quick. We will ask questions. You will speak when spoken to. The committee and I will then discuss your case. We do not vote: we come to a consensus, and if we cannot, I have the final authority. Is that clear?"
Alexandra stood up and cleared her throat. "Yes, sir."
The double doors swung wide. An enormously fat wizard in deep red velvet robes waddled into the room, huffing and puffing and sweating profusely. His head was the size and shape of a pumpkin, with a black beard spreading mold-like across his cheeks and down the wattles of his neck. He fixed his eyes on Alexandra and Livia and Claudia as he circled along the edge of the room toward the front table. He seemed to become more and more outraged by what he saw, or perhaps it was just the effort of walking that turned his face redder by the second. The effort of heaving himself up a step to the raised platform seemed to expend the last of his energy; he collapsed onto a chair between Mr. Greenwich and the other wizard with such force that Alexandra expected to hear wood splintering. But the chair held his weight. The fat man fixed his eyes on Alexandra once again and stared at her balefully from between folds of flesh.
"Why are we hearing this case?" he asked. "The girl was expelled. I'm sure there was a good reason. Are there no day schools?"
Mr. Greenwich said, "I granted the request for a hearing, Franklin." He looked like someone slipping a hand into a glove before handling something hot. "If you'd like to note your opinion as read, you can go and we'll continue with your good judgment taken into account."
Alexandra didn't think Mr. Greenwich liked the other man, though she doubted that was good news for her.
The fat wizard squinted at Alexandra again. It made his eyes virtually disappear. Then he said, "That's very ungracious of you, Samson. Let's hear what the witch has to say. I won't have it said I'm not fair-minded."
"Indeed." Mr. Greenwich sat down. He tapped the table, and five desk plaques leaped into the air as if knocked out of the wood, settling in front of each of the committee members with a clatter. Now Alexandra could read everyone's names: the fat wizard was 'Franklin Percival Brown, III,' which made her think of a statue she'd encountered last year at Charmbridge Academy, a talking stone bust with the same name. The wizard with the dark skin and hair was Rudolfo Viterbi, the blonde witch was Natalie Winter, and the ancient one, who had not yet stirred, or even breathed as far as Alexandra could tell, was Carmela Erdglass.
Mr. Greenwich rapped his knuckles against the wood a second time, and a quill, inkpot, and a scroll popped out of it. The quill fluttered in a circle, dipped end-first into the inkpot, then spun around. Finally it floated over the scroll where it hung suspended vertically, motionless until Mr. Greenwich spoke.
Alexandra heard the scratching of a pen. The man in the fedora held his notepad on his lap, as his fountain pen moved by itself over the pad.
"The five members of the Disciplinary Committee are all present, and we are hearing the case of Alexandra Octavia Quick, age fifteen, expelled from Charmbridge Academy at the end of her ninth grade year. Miss Quick is appealing her expulsion and requesting that the Board of Magical Education overrule the Dean of Charmbridge Academy, Lilith Grimm."
"The presumption!" squealed Mr. Brown.
"Indeed," said Mr. Greenwich. "Dean Grimm, we've read your letter explaining the reasons for Miss Quick's expulsion. Do you have anything to add?"
"No," Dean Grimm said. Alexandra noticed that she didn't call Mr. Greenwich "sir."
"I would like to know why a Special Inquisitor is here," said Mr. Viterbi. It was the first time he'd spoken.
"I asked Ms. Grimm to come," Mr. Greenwich said. "I believe her interest in Miss Quick has special bearing on this case."
"A Special Inquisitor has an interest in Miss Quick?" asked Mr. Viterbi.
"You are aware of Miss Quick's parentage?" asked Mr. Greenwich.
At this, everyone's eyes fixed on Alexandra, except those of Carmela Erdglass, who remained asleep. Or dead.
"Tell us who your father is, Miss Quick," said Mr. Greenwich.
How is this even relevant? Alexandra wondered. She answered: "My father is Abraham Everard Thorn."
Ms. Erdglass stirred, but that was the only response in the room.
It felt like she'd given the wrong answer, though Alexandra didn't know how. She had answered truthfully. But when she glanced at Livia and Claudia, she saw Claudia breathing out some long-remembered memory. Livia met her gaze steadily and, ever so slightly, shook her head.
Most wizards preferred not to speak Abraham Thorn's name aloud. Rumors that he could hear his name spoken on the wind and retaliated against those who spoke ill of him were surely exaggerated, but Alexandra felt grudging admiration for the dread her father inspired throughout the Confederation.
That was the problem, she realized: that was the mistake Livia was trying to belatedly warn her about. She had flung her father's name out in defiance of the fear it inspired in others, and she now had the impression that Mr. Greenwich had staged his question to elicit just such a response.
Tensely, Mr. Greenwich said, "Special Inquisitor Grimm — is it true that you have been watching Miss Quick for the first fifteen years of her life, owing to the fact that her father is the Enemy of the Confederation?"
"I've been hunting Abraham Thorn that long," said Diana Grimm, speaking his name with neither defiance nor deference. "Watching his children has been a means to getting closer to him."
And it almost got you killed, didn't it? Alexandra thought, recalling the duel between her father and her aunt. She was glad Diana Grimm wasn't looking at her; she was afraid the Special Inquisitor might be able to read her thoughts.
"And does this defiant sprog follow in her father's footsteps?" asked Franklin Percival Brown, III.
"Ah," said Ms. Winter, as if she found Mr. Brown's question particularly insightful.
"Excuse me, if the issue is that it's too dangerous for a child of the Enemy to attend school with other children, let's settle the matter on that basis," said Rudolfo Viterbi. "No need to hear Miss Quick's appeal."
Alexandra was wondering when they did plan to hear her appeal; so far she'd barely said a word! But Mr. Greenwich proceeded to ask Diana Grimm about how Alexandra had broken the protective wards around Charmbridge Academy and allowed a murder of crows, a deadly Nemesis Spirit, and the Dark Wizard John Manuelito to enter the grounds and cause havoc. This led to a recounting of Alexandra's other activities that year: violating the laws against Underage Use of Magic, running away to pursue John Manuelito in Dinétah, and thence to previous misdeeds from participating in the Mors Mortis Society to stealing her sister Valeria's Time-Turner to her forbidden use of portals in the basements of Charmbridge Academy.
Alexandra noted that the Special Inquisitor only mentioned the portals, but did not name the Lands Below or the Lands Beyond, and the committee members only nodded solemnly, as if they didn't know or didn't care what portals to other realms signified.
Diana Grimm simply recounted facts, neither shading them in her niece's favor nor against her as far as Alexandra could tell. Mr. Brown continued to turn various shades of mottled purple and red; Mr. Viterbi listened solemnly; Ms. Winter occasionally shook her head or tsked. Ms. Erdglass didn't move.
"Well, I've heard enough!" said Mr. Brown, when Diana Grimm finished. "That this ill-bred half-blooded warlock's seed has remained in school this long can only be attributed to liberality on the part of Dean Grimm and laxity on the part of the Wizard Justice Department. If it falls on us to correct such oversights, let's send the witch back home where she belongs." His voice rose as he spoke, while his massive bulk seemed to be lifted from his chair by the force of his indignation alone.
Blood pounded in Alexandra's ears. She imagined Mr. Brown inflating himself and floating away, powered by his own hot air. She clenched her jaw and steeled her expression and forced herself to look away from him. This caused her gaze to fall on her aunts. Lilith and Diana Grimm's expressions were identical. It was the first time that afternoon Alexandra had felt any kinship with them.
"Well, that is a question, isn't it?" said Mr. Greenwich mildly. "Where does she belong?"
"Quite so," said Ms. Winter.
Alexandra's eyes snapped back to the Chief of Discipline, as she felt Livia and Claudia both stiffen next to her. What? Her frustration and anger were pushed aside by an uneasy sense of other agendas lurking beneath the surface.
"Some of the affected second parties are present," said Mr. Greenwich, consulting a parchment in front of him with pompous deliberation. "Lawrence Orion Albo and Cleopatra Rimona Dupree."
"These two youngsters," Mr. Viterbi said, pointing his chin in the direction of the Albos and the Duprees, "are classmates of Miss Quick?"
"They are students at Charmbridge Academy," said Mr. Greenwich. "Their parents requested the right to attend this hearing. As you can see, their children were maimed as a result of Miss Quick's actions at Charmbridge. Therefore, her continued presence has a direct bearing on their safety and well-being."
"Ah," said Ms. Winter.
Alexandra considered just walking out of the room. It seemed to her that things couldn't get any worse. She sat up straighter in her chair to fight the impulse to slouch.
"Miss Dupree, do you have anything to say?" asked Mr. Greenwich, suddenly sounding kindly. "If you would feel unsafe returning to Charmbridge Academy with Miss Quick present, you can tell us."
Alexandra closed her eyes. Why not just announce your decision and get it over with? This "appeal" seemed to be an exercise in humiliation and guilt. So fine — she would sit here and endure it. Cleo had lost an eye, and Larry had lost his fingers. If they wanted to flog her over it, they were entitled to that much.
Cleopatra rose to her feet, with reassuring murmurs from her parents. Then the girl said, "Um, Alexandra doesn't make me feel unsafe. I think you should let her come back to school."
"Cleo!" said her mother sharply.
"But it wasn't her fault, Mom!" said Cleopatra. "And she was nice to me. And everyone blames her just like they blame me for every little thing that goes wrong when it's not my fault!"
"Sit down, Cleo," Mrs. Dupree said, and Cleopatra flounced back into her chair.
Alexandra had to try very hard not to smile. Cleopatra had been sent to the Dean's office multiple times last year — it hadn't occurred to her that the girl might sympathize with her. Thanks, Cleo.
"Mr. Albo?" said Mr. Greenwich, obviously not pleased by Cleopatra's defense.
Larry stood up, and Alexandra turned around in her seat. She at least wouldn't let him think she was too ashamed to face him.
"How do you feel about Miss Quick returning to Charmbridge Academy?" asked Mr. Greenwich.
Larry met Alexandra's eyes, then shrugged. "I don't care, sir. I'm not afraid of her."
Alexandra did smile then. Leave it to Larry to let his arrogance get the better of his desire to see her punished.
"She maimed my son!" exclaimed Mr. Albo. "He was almost killed! He's been telling me for years what that— that— sorceress has been up to at that school, while Dean Grimm has practically thrown open her doors to undesirables. If Charmbridge Academy weren't my alma mater…"
"Dad," Larry groaned, rolling his eyes.
"So you have previously protested Miss Quick's activities?" Mr. Viterbi asked.
Larry thrust both his hands into the pockets of his robe. He frowned. "Look, it was mostly schoolyard stuff. What you'd expect from an arrogant little brat raised by Muggles. Quick's full of herself and she thinks everybody should be afraid of her because of her father, but she's no Dark sorceress."
Alexandra laughed. "Gee, Larry, that's the nicest thing you've ever said about me."
"Miss Quick, you weren't asked to speak," said Mr. Greenwich.
"Indeed," said Ms. Winter.
"Bind and gag her!" Mr. Brown was on the verge of choking with fury. Little drops of spittle clung to his lips. Alexandra's eyes widened, and Livia and Claudia both half-rose in alarm, but Mr. Greenwich waved a hand.
"I don't think that's necessary, Franklin. Miss Quick, do you have anyone here to speak on your behalf?"
Alexandra rose to her feet. "Um, my… maternal guardian, and my sister, sir."
"Your maternal guardian. That would be Claudia Green?" Mr. Greenwich's eyes fixed intensely on her and Alexandra felt something sharp and purposeful in his question.
"Yes, sir," said Alexandra.
"And your sister, Livia Pruett." Mr. Greenwich looked at his parchment again. "Aren't you Wandless, Mrs. Pruett?"
"It's Dr. Pruett, and I just reregistered with the Confederation Census Bureau," Livia said.
"I see. May I ask why, Doctor Pruett, since you have been living as a Muggle for the past sixteen years?"
Livia frowned. "May I ask why this is relevant to my sister's appeal hearing?"
"Whatever we think is relevant is relevant!" said Mr. Brown. "And we can certainly see what sort of attitudes and lifestyles have been influencing Miss Quick! The daughters of the Enemy are clearly alike in their lack of respect for the social order!" He waggled a finger at Livia from across the table. "Why, I shouldn't wonder that you're to blame for this young witch's rebellious, insolent attitude!"
"She only just met me last year!" Alexandra protested.
"That's true. Alexandra was rebellious and insolent long before that," said Claudia. Alexandra and Livia both turned to her in surprise, since it was the first time Claudia had spoken. Her smile was faint, but Alexandra almost laughed.
Mr. Brown harrumphed. "We have taken precautions regarding the, er, Muggle, haven't we, Samson?"
"Precautions?" Mr. Greenwich asked, while Mr. Viterbi and Ms. Winter looked at Mr. Brown askance.
"Well, surely we don't let Muggles just wander around in wizard offices and leave without Obliviating them first?" Mr. Brown said.
Claudia jerked upright, and Alexandra leaped to her feet. Then Livia grabbed her and pulled her back down to her seat. Her grip kept Alexandra from shouting something out loud.
"As the guardian of a witch," Mr. Greenwich said, "she is entitled to be aware of proceedings concerning her ward, provided there is no evidence that she risks exposing wizarding affairs to the Muggle world."
"Entirely too much has been exposed to the Muggle world recently," Mr. Brown said. "The wizarding world is being tainted by anti-wizarding sentiment and mindless modernism! Instead of entering our world discreetly and respectfully observing Colonial traditions, the unwizardly and even some purebloods are becoming radicals who would rather tear down our society out of spite because it doesn't reflect some poppycock equalitarian delusion that exists in their own heads. Ignoring the obvious fact that Muggles and wizards are different and ever shall be! Taking such a liberal approach to Muggles right here in our formal deliberations surprises me, Samson."
Alexandra, who could barely follow what Mr. Brown was going on about, was further distracted when the doors at the rear of the room opened again. She turned to see who was entering the room now, and felt a chill that had nothing to do with the small breeze that blew in from the hallway outside.
The man was solid and compactly built, and wore black robes with a red sash similar to those worn by Aurors, but Alexandra knew it indicated some other high government function. And indeed, she knew the moment she saw the man's ruddy, bald head who it was: Mr. Raspire. A man she'd first met in Dean Grimm's office, at the right hand of Governor-General Hucksteen, and last seen two years ago, when he and Diana Grimm had interrogated her after she returned alone from the Lands Below.
Mr. Raspire nodded to the front of the room and took a seat in the back row. No one spoke to him, but Alexandra saw, when she turned around, that Mr. Greenwich had nodded meaningfully to the Governor-General's man.
Then she noticed Claudia, who had also turned to see who the newcomer was. Claudia was frozen. Her eyes had gone wide, and her fists were clenched so tightly that it looked as if her fingernails might draw blood from her palms.
Alexandra looked back and forth from Mr. Raspire to Claudia, and everything fell into place.
Last year, Alexandra's friends had discovered the document that Governor-General Hucksteen had signed, many years ago, sentencing a young Claudia Quick to be made barren, a magical curse once routinely inflicted on all Squibs in the Confederation. Claudia had never spoken of it, of course, and she didn't know that Alexandra knew about it.
Alexandra still didn't know why Governor-General Hucksteen had done that, what enmity for her father had motivated him to take it out on a fourteen-year-old girl. But now she knew who must have been one of the parties that carried out the order. Maybe Raspire hadn't actually been the one who cast the Barrenness Curse, but he'd been there. Claudia's reaction told her that.
Alexandra stared daggers at Richard Raspire, who settled back in his chair with a distant smile. Livia laid a hand on Claudia's arm. "Claudia?"
Claudia snapped out of her trance and, with a visible effort, turned her back on Raspire. She was shaken and had trouble looking at anyone.
Mr. Greenwich, who had paused in responding to Mr. Brown while everyone was distracted by the newcomer's entrance, said, "I think there's an important issue to address here regarding Miss Quick's parentage. It is true that in the Confederation Census she is registered as a half-blood, but I have information here indicating that this is not correct." He passed some documents around the table, and everyone but Ms. Erdglass leaned forward to examine them.
Alexandra stole a look at Lilith and Diana Grimm. They were both impassive and seemingly indifferent to whatever Mr. Greenwich was showing the appeals committee.
"Is this accurate?" Mr. Viterbi asked.
"Of course it's accurate!" Mr. Brown said. "It's got a Confederation seal on it." He looked at Claudia as if she had personally offended him. "You are the daughter of Abr-b-burr—" He sputtered and turned white.
"You're a Squib," Mr. Greenwich said, "not a Muggle. And you are not in fact the mother of Miss Quick, but her older sister. Is that correct?"
"Yes," Claudia said.
Alexandra sat very still. She kept her eyes on Mr. Greenwich. She didn't want to look at the fat bombastic wizard still squealing in terror and outrage, or the sycophantic blonde or the other two who barely seemed there. She didn't want to look at her aunts, and she especially didn't want to look at Larry Albo or Mr. Raspire.
"Do you have any idea how your records could have been… mislabeled, all these years?" Mr. Greenwich asked.
"No," Claudia said. "Since I haven't been a Confederation citizen since before Alexandra was born, I wouldn't know anything about the census or your records. And if you want to know about my father, I'm sure Special Inquisitor Grimm can tell you more than I can."
Alexandra was heartened by how quickly Claudia was rallying, though her face was still white and her hands shook a little.
"But it does raise the issue of who is Miss Quick's proper guardian," Mr. Greenwich said. "Indeed, this seems to be a very irregular affair all around."
"Excuse me, Mr. Greenwich," said Diana Grimm, "but with all due respect, I was asked to be here to speak on the matter of Miss Quick's expulsion from Charmbridge Academy. These other matters don't seem to be relevant, or within the purview of the Department of Magical Education."
Mr. Greenwich smiled with the sanguine assurance of someone holding a knife behind his back. "We're convened under the authority of the Governor, Special Inquisitor Grimm. Perhaps you're more used to strict segregation of duties and authorities in the Office of Special Inquisitions, but as long as we are duly convened to hear Miss Quick's appeal, we're authorized to investigate whatever activities, infractions, and crimes have a bearing on it."
And that was it — Alexandra saw the knife. She couldn't follow all the interplay and intrigues going on here, but this wasn't about her getting expelled or readmitted to Charmbridge Academy. Somebody was playing games here. Mr. Greenwich was part of it, and so was Mr. Raspire. Probably the others were just pawns. Alexandra didn't know if the target was her or her father, or maybe her aunts, as neither of them had been open about their own relationship to her. But the immediate target had become her — and Claudia.
She stood up. "Excuse me, sir."
Mr. Greenwich raised his eyebrows, but although Mr. Brown suddenly became frantic and furious, fumbling for a pouch that might have contained his wand, the white-haired wizard simply said, "Yes?"
"Are you still authorized to ask questions and poke your noses into my business if there's no longer an appeal to hear?"
"Excuse me?" Mr. Greenwich asked.
"I want to know if we have to stay here if I drop my appeal."
The room went silent.
Claudia looked up at her. "Alex," she whispered.
Mr. Greenwich cleared his throat, but it was Mr. Viterbi who spoke: "Technically speaking, our scope is limited to the appeal."
"We're obligated to turn over our proceedings to the Deputy Head of the Department, with recommendations for further action," Mr. Greenwich said.
"But you have no more business with me if I drop my appeal," Alexandra said.
Mr. Greenwich frowned.
"Alex —" Claudia repeated.
"It's all right, Claudia," Alexandra said. "They were never going to let me come back. I'm sorry I dragged you and Livia both into this." She faced the committee. "I hereby drop my appeal."
"You can't," Mr. Greenwich said. "You're a minor. Your appeal was filed on your behalf by your legal guardian."
Claudia looked at Alexandra, then at Mr. Greenwich. "Then I'm dropping the appeal."
"It's not entirely clear that you are her legal guardian," Mr. Greenwich said.
"Then the appeal was invalid to begin with, wasn't it?" Claudia said.
Alexandra almost laughed. Mr. Greenwich looked as if he'd just tried to swallow one of the documents on the table in front of him.
"I do have one other thing to say," Alexandra said.
Mr. Greenwich folded his hands in front of him. "And what's that?"
Alexandra turned around slowly so she could see everyone else in the room except the committee members. Her aunts were stone-faced. Larry studied her with interest. Cleo had her mouth open, clearly confused by the proceedings. Mr. Albo and Mr. and Mrs. Dupree just glared at her. The man with the pen continued to write, and Raspire's expression hadn't changed — he regarded her with his arms folded across his chest and a slight smile playing on his lips.
"I'm sorry," Alexandra said. "I'm sorry for everything that happened. It was at least partly my fault, and I didn't think about the consequences. I'm sorry about your hand, Larry, and Cleo, I'm so sorry about your eye. I wish I could take it all back. There's a lot I wish I could take back."
She stared at Raspire for a moment, then cleared her throat and turned to her aunts.
"Thanks for being on my side," she said, in a carefully neutral tone. She wasn't sure, but she thought she saw something flicker in their expressions.
Finally, she turned back to face the committee. "And since now I'm permanently expelled anyway — screw all of you. C'mon, Claudia, Livia."
To her surprise, Carmela Erdglass opened one eye, shining like a dark glass bead in the withered recesses of her face, and made a dry sound barely audible over Natalie Winter's gasp and Franklin Percival Brown's apoplectic gargling. It sounded like either a chuckle or the old lady was choking to death.
Alexandra turned around and waited just long enough for Claudia and Livia to rise from their chairs and follow her. She made sure she was just a step ahead of Claudia as they passed by Mr. Raspire, and her muscles knotted with tension. But the man didn't say anything, and none of the daughters of Abraham Thorn looked at him as they filed past and walked out into the hallway.