Broken Circle

Alexandra was somewhat familiar with fractures, breaks, and other injuries, having spent time hanging around in emergency rooms waiting for her mother's shift to end. So she was impressed at how quickly her ankle was mending with the help of Mrs. Murphy's healing. The swelling almost disappeared overnight, though the pain did not. The healer told her she would be able to leave the infirmary in another day or so. The other cuts and bruises Alexandra had sustained required only a few simple charms or some bruise-healing paste.

On her first day in the infirmary, she was not allowed any visitors. Mrs. Murphy assured her that Anna had been brought back safely, and that Ms. Grimm was recovering just fine from her injuries, but Alexandra was sure there were things going on, out in the school, and she was being kept isolated from those things. Maybe it was for her protection, or maybe it was just more things being hidden from her.

Charlie appeared at the window, cawing, and Alexandra waved, feeling a great sense of relief and gratitude, but the healer wouldn't let the raven in.

On the second day, her first visitor was an unexpected one: Ms. Shirtliffe. The P.M.E. and Magical Theory teacher was dressed in a grayish-blue military uniform, much to Alexandra's surprise.

"Did you join the Regimental Officer Corps?" she asked.

"I've always been a reserve officer," said Shirtliffe. "I'll be wearing my uniform for the Governor-General's visit, and we have a dress rehearsal for the commencement ceremony this afternoon." She sat down by Alexandra's bed. "How are you feeling, Quick?"

"Bored." Mrs. Murphy had allowed some books to be brought to her, but Alexandra, who normally was happy to read all day, found herself unable to concentrate on books for very long.

Shirtliffe nodded. "I'm sure boredom isn't the only thing you're feeling."

"I'm awfully confused about a lot of stuff," said Alexandra, and Shirtliffe nodded again.

"I think Dean Grimm will be here soon to explain some of it."

Alexandra wasn't sure if she was glad or not. "So I guess I'm not being expelled?"

Shirtliffe laughed. "No. I don't think you are."

"Why are you here, Ms. Shirtliffe? Not that I mind."

The teacher smiled. "Well, there were some things I wanted to say to you when you first arrived here, and I couldn't. I want you to understand, first of all, that I support Dean Grimm completely. Although I might not always agree with her, she's a brilliant and valiant woman. I'm sure I don't need to remind you that you owe her your life. So don't mistake anything I say as a criticism of her, or think that I'm going to be sympathetic if you continue running afoul of her in the future."

Alexandra nodded. She agreed that Dean Grimm was brave, and she was sure she was probably brilliant. Her magical feats had certainly been impressive.

"You were given an unfair disadvantage from the moment you arrived here," Ms. Shirtliffe said. "You were brought to Charmbridge Academy without even the minimal preparation most Muggle-born students receive, and set up to do poorly on your SPAWNs. Ms. Grimm didn't want you to immediately excel, and was hoping that being held back would make you a little less remarkable. I knew the moment I met you that you have too much talent to suppress, though. You're definitely your father's daughter."

"So you knew who my father was all along?" Alexandra asked quietly.

Ms. Shirtliffe nodded. "As did Dean Price. I don't believe Ms. Grimm confided in anyone else, but obviously... Mr. Journey, with his access to the Registrar's Office, found out."

"And you went along with hiding it from me," Alexandra said.

Ms. Shirtliffe sighed. "In retrospect, Ms. Grimm probably regrets that as well. But I understand your determination to uncover the truth about yourself. Not that it excuses everything you've done!" she added quickly. "Your behavior in Chicago, in particular, was reckless and irresponsible."

"Does everyone know who my father is now?"

The teacher gave her a wan smile. "I'm afraid so. The Dean can only do so much to control rumors. The details of what happened out in the woods are between you and her – and Anna Chu, I suppose, since she was out there too. A lot of fantastic stories are going around the school, though. And of course, a few details that happen to be true."

Mention of Anna made Alexandra stare out the window for a while. Ms. Shirtliffe cleared her throat, and said, "The other thing I wanted to say to you was that I think you would be a fine Junior Regimental Officer."

Alexandra's attention snapped back to the teacher, sitting there in her neat uniform. She couldn't have been more surprised if Shirtliffe had told her she wanted Alexandra to teach Magical Theory next year. "Me? Join the Corps?" She knew very little about the wizard militia, and had only seen the Junior Regimental Officer Corps around school, flying in formation above the fields or practicing wand and broom drills, or marching through the hallways flashing their ribbons and medals.

"You have great talent, courage, and determination, and enormous charisma. You're a natural leader, Alexandra. I don't think you realize that yet, but you are. And the JROC would be good for your development."

"Good for teaching me to follow orders, you mean," Alexandra said, frowning.

Shirtliffe smiled tightly. "A little discipline would be good for you, yes."

"And I'd be serving the Confederation."

"Not as a student. Whether you choose to follow in your father's footsteps once you graduate would be up to you." Shirtliffe was watching her closely.

"Is following in my father's footsteps really what you want?" Alexandra asked.

Ms. Shirtliffe was silent for a moment, studying her.

"You have your entire life ahead of you, Alexandra," she said at last. "You'll make your own mistakes, I'm sure. But you don't have to make your father's mistakes. What I want is for you to reach your potential and not spend your life rebelling against or trying to live up to your name."

Alexandra wasn't sure what to make of this. "I'll think about it," she said.

Ms. Shirtliffe nodded. "I know you have a lot of things to think about. Well, I'd best let you rest. Don't forget, your SPAWN is in a few days. Although you can probably ask the Dean for a later test date, considering the... circumstances."

Alexandra nodded, and closed her eyes and napped for a while after Ms. Shirtliffe left.

When she opened them again, her friends were gathered around her bed, watching her. Anna and David, Constance and Forbearance, and, to Alexandra's surprise, Darla and Angelique.

"Well, gee," Alexandra said, sitting up with some embarrassment. "How long have you guys been standing there watching me?"

"Just a few minutes," said David. "We were trying to decide if we should wake you up or not."

"How is your ankle?" asked Angelique.

"Better." Alexandra wiggled her foot a little, and winced. "Mrs. Murphy said I can get out of bed in another day."

"So," David said, "I hear your father really was a bad-ass Dark wizard after all."

There was a shocked silence. David was looking at her seriously. Constance and Forbearance had both turned bright red, and Forbearance was giving David a scathing look, which he ignored.

Alexandra stared back at him, and then snorted. "Yeah," she said. "I guess that makes me bad –"

"Alex!" squeaked Anna, and David's face broke out into a grin. Darla and Angelique laughed nervously, and Constance and Forbearance looked relieved.

"So it's true," Darla said quietly.

"Are you going to be afraid of me now?" Alexandra asked, and though she was looking at Darla, she was really watching Anna, out of the corner of her eye.

"She's already afraid of you," Angelique smirked, and Darla protested, "I am not!"

Bringing it out into the open seemed to have released the tension, and they all talked about the assembly they had just had, where the Assistant Deans had tried to tell them all the rumors were untrue but had confirmed that Mr. Journey was dead. Alexandra heard some of the rumors Ms. Shirtliffe had been talking about – that Alexandra had flown into the woods on a broom to do battle with Journey herself, accompanied by an army of crows; that Ms. Grimm had transformed into a dragon; that Abraham Thorn himself had appeared, and a host of even more unlikely events. Alexandra knew that they all wanted to hear the real story, and she shook her head to dispel some of the more nonsensical versions, but she didn't really feel like talking about what had happened. She noticed that Anna, also, was quiet while the others chattered as if this had been some thrilling children's adventure.

Darla offered to help Alexandra "do something" with her hair, to Alexandra's amusement and irritation. Angelique offered to join her and Anna for a SPAWN study group. David said he'd sneak some decent food in from the cafeteria. And Alexandra felt happy and content, despite the persistent questions and Darla's annoying chatter.

The only ones who didn't talk much were Anna and the Pritchards. So when Mrs. Murphy came and told them that it was dinnertime and they needed to leave the infirmary, Darla and Angelique and David waved good-bye and promised to come visit the next day, but Anna, Constance, and Forbearance hung back.

"I'm not Dark," Alexandra said.

"'Course not," said Constance.

"I'm not going to turn Dark just because of my father. I don't want people to be afraid of me."

"I think you like being feared some," said Forbearance.

Alexandra frowned.

"You should'a asked for our help," said Forbearance.

"You're a stubborn high-headed mule, Alexandra Quick!" declared Constance.

"Walking into the woods on a broke ankle!"

"What in heaven's grace did you have it in your mind to do?"

"It's not like I had a lot of time for planning!" Alexandra protested.

"And it hain't like you spent much time thinking!" Constance retorted.

The Ozarkers both looked at Anna, and Forbearance said, "It could'a gone very much badly for the both of you."

"We told you you was responsible if harm came to Anna," said Constance.

"And it near did," said Forbearance.

Alexandra nodded, and closed her eyes. Suddenly she was tired, and feeling defensive, though she didn't know how to defend herself. But she felt a gentle hand on each shoulder, and opened her eyes to see the twins on either side of her.

"Troublesome is vexing," said Constance.

"And her words are often cruel," said Forbearance.

And they both leaned over, and said softly, "But she has the biggest and the bravest heart of anyone in school." And they both gave her a kiss on the cheek.

Alexandra blushed, and couldn't meet anyone's eyes as the twins smiled and stood up. "You best join us for dinner, Anna," said Constance.

Anna nodded. "I will. I'll be there in a minute." Constance and Forbearance nodded, and glided out of the infirmary, leaving Alexandra and Anna alone.

"I –" Alexandra started to say, and Anna shook her head.

"I don't blame you for anything, Alex. You don't need to be sorry. I don't mean you shouldn't try to be more responsible."

"You almost got killed because of me," Alexandra murmured.

Anna was quiet, and regarded her very seriously.

"I don't think Mr. Journey ever intended to hurt me," she said at last. She hesitated, then said, even more quietly, "He was going to kill you, wasn't he? You knew that, when you went with him. When you told me it was going to be all right?" Her eyes glistened.

Alexandra nodded slowly. Anna swallowed. "Weren't you scared?"

That was a question Alexandra had been asking herself, and she still wasn't sure how she'd been so calm. She didn't think it was bravery.

"I was scared for you," she said. Her voice almost cracked. "I was afraid you were going to be hurt and it would be my fault!"

Anna reached across the bed and wrapped her arms around Alexandra's neck, and Alexandra felt Anna's tears on her cheek.

"Don't you ever do that again!" Anna whispered. "How do you think I would have felt if you died?"

"This is very touching."

Anna jumped, and stood up as she realized Ms. Grimm was standing at the foot of Alexandra's bed.

The Dean was wearing a business-like skirt, blouse, and jacket again, but one arm was in a sling. Her long black hair was tied back in a braid. Most of the cuts and bruises that had covered her face and hands were faded now; there was only one long, angry red slash across her forehead, not completely healed yet. She looked like a battle-scarred veteran, and very much back in control.

Her smile was gracious yet cold. "Miss Chu, I believe you should be going to dinner, now. You will see Miss Quick tomorrow."

"Yes, Ms. Grimm," Anna said, with her eyes lowered. She glanced at Alexandra, and whispered, "Bye," and then hurried out of the infirmary.

Ms. Grimm sat down in the chair Anna had just vacated.

"You are looking better, Miss Quick," she said.

"So are you," Alexandra replied.

They regarded one another silently for a while. The older woman was the first to speak.

"Mrs. Murphy informs me that you should be ready to leave the infirmary in a day or two. I'm sure your friends will be willing to bring you your books and homework assignments, but if you wish to postpone your SPAWN, there's no need for you to take it this Friday."

"That's okay. I'd rather take it Friday."

Ms. Grimm smiled. "Stubborn girl. I'm sure you'll do fine."

"Did you come to talk to me about my SPAWN? Or maybe you wanted to ask me not to do too well on it, so I won't attract too much attention?"

Ms. Grimm's smile became wider, but tighter. "I think it's a little late for that, don't you?" Then she sighed. "You're understandably confused and bitter, Miss Quick. But that does not excuse rudeness. If you mind your manners, I will answer your questions as best I can. I'm sure you have many. If you insist on being unpleasant, however, I am not going to tolerate being spoken to in your usual insolent manner."

Alexandra looked back at her steadily, then said in a calm, controlled voice, "You punished me in your office, for calling you a liar. But you lied when you told me you didn't know who my father is."

Ms. Grimm exhaled slowly. "Yes. That may not have been the best strategy, in retrospect."

Alexandra snorted. Grimm scowled. "Careful, Miss Quick," she warned.

"Did you know Mr. Journey was trying to kill me all along?"

"Of course not. Do you actually believe I would have knowingly left you in danger? I was suspicious, after the incident on the Invisible Bridge, and combined with the inexplicable presence of redcaps and kappas in Larkin Mills, I began taking a closer look at the people around you."

"How many times did I almost get killed before you actually believed someone was out to get me?"

"I put a number of protective spells up around the school, and on you personally. I did not know the exact nature or origin of the threat against you, but yes, I realized you were in danger."

"Mr. Journey said you did know. You and Mr. Thiel. Why couldn't you just arrest him instead of letting him keep trying to kill me? Mr. Journey said you were using me as bait!" Alexandra was trying to stay calm, but it was becoming difficult to keep her anger bottled up.

Ms. Grimm held up a hand, and leaned back against her chair.

"At the point where the Special Inquisitions Office became involved, I lost a great deal of... autonomy. They had a keen interest in you, Alexandra. They thought you would lead them to your father, and the Thorn Circle. They forced me to allow an undercover agent into my school, and Mr. Thiel had his own ideas about how the investigation should be conducted. I protected you as best I could."

Alexandra felt her anger draining away, almost involuntarily.

"But why?" she asked. "Why did he want to kill me? He was... nice."

Ms. Grimm nodded slowly. "He probably was nice, once. Most people assume that the Thorn Circle in hiding is still conspiring to overthrow the Confederation, but I suspect that Mr. Journey wanted only to stay out of prison. And you were a threat to his freedom."

"Because I'm a Secret-Keeper," said Alexandra. "He told me... my father cast a... a fih-day-lee-us Charm on me."

"As we suspected," said Ms. Grimm. "Did he explain what that means?"

"It keeps the secret of the Thorn Circle. None of them can rat each other out, not even if you try to use magic to force them. So if they stay in hiding, no one can find them?"

"That's correct. Wherever they might be hiding, no amount of searching or scrying will find them. Mr. Journey could have been arrested, but he couldn't reveal where any of his compatriots were." She leaned forward, to meet Alexandra's gaze. "To the Special Inquisitions Office, that makes you very, very important, Alexandra, because you can reveal their hiding places, their aliases. But there's a catch – if you die, then so long as you've told no one what you know, those secrets die with you."

"But I don't know anything!" Alexandra protested.

"And Mr. Journey wanted to make sure it stayed that way."

"So it was him all along? The Invisible Bridge, getting trapped in the attic, the Clockworks, the explosion in alchemy class..."

Ms. Grimm nodded. "Galen was trying to save you in the attic, Alexandra." She made an unpleasant face. "As it is, you only survived as many times as you did because Ben was being exceedingly cautious, and, I suspect, exceedingly squeamish. But not too squeamish to use any means necessary in the end. And he was using Dark creatures, and Dark magic."

Alexandra thought about that, and then asked, "So does this mean the rest of the Thorn Circle is going to try to kill me too?"

Ms. Grimm patted her hand. "I cannot say for certain, Alexandra, but generally the Thorn Circle was thought to be loyal to Abraham Thorn. I would think they'd want to protect you. You are his daughter, after all."

Alexandra was silent again. She wasn't sure she found that reassuring.

"What happened to Mr. Journey?" she asked at last. "How come he died and not me?"

"I can only speculate," Ms. Grimm said. "First, tell me everything he said to you while I was... preoccupied, with the murder of crows?"

So Alexandra repeated the rambling explanation Journey had given her, about the Fidelius Charm and the Circle of Protection, and her bracelet, and Ms. Grimm nodded and waited until she was finished, then chuckled dryly.

"Such a fool, Ben Journey was," she said, shaking her head. "He should have known better. He assumed that the circle was that silly bracelet. It did have a charm on it, and might have helped you a bit, but it wasn't the Circle of Protection. The circle that protected you was the Thorn Circle itself."

"They didn't protect me all the times Mr. Journey tried to kill me!"

"Didn't they?" Ms. Grimm raised an eyebrow. "Are you so certain that it was entirely your own cleverness, and luck, that kept you alive each time?"

Alexandra fell silent. Ms. Grimm continued. "Journey did surmise, correctly, that he couldn't strike you down directly. Making someone impervious to harm is extremely difficult. True invulnerability is like invisibility or immortality – highly sought after and virtually unattainable, even with magic. A lethal blow, a killing curse, it has to be borne by someone if not the recipient. Your father's charm couldn't make you invulnerable, but it could cause someone else to be murdered in your stead." She smiled grimly. "Only Mr. Journey thought that by breaking your gold circlet, he had bypassed that protection. He broke the wrong circle."

Alexandra's mouth fell open as she understood. "Oh," she said. "The Circle..."

"Such a spell is not without precedent," said Ms. Grimm. "But it's very difficult, very powerful, not found in any book. And I should think your father would have needed the permission of those whose lives were bound to yours. Perhaps they thought it was only fair, as your life was protecting them in return. I am only speculating. But Journey was a fool. He should have understood better the circle he was a part of." She shook her head. "With his death, the Circle is broken, I think, at least as far as your protection goes. No one else is likely to die in your place, Alexandra."

Alexandra gave Ms. Grimm a cold look. "Do you think I wanted anyone to die?"

"No," Ms. Grimm said seriously. She leaned forward again.

"You are, I think, more like your father than you know. No, listen to me, child!" she added, as Alexandra was about to interrupt her. "What we know about Abraham Thorn is that he is egotistical, arrogant, willing to protect those close to him, but also willing to use them. Let me tell you what makes him such a terrible threat, what makes the Governor-General fear him. It's not that he is a powerful wizard – though he is. And it's not that his ideas and his ambitions are dangerous – though they are. It's that he is so very, very charismatic! How did he gather such a loyal following in the first place? People willing to face impossible odds and extraordinary threats on his behalf? A circle of followers willing to die for him – or for his daughter."

She held Alexandra's gaze. "You have that same gift, Alexandra. Your friends are remarkably loyal to you. You haven't even begun to exercise your powers of persuasion, but it's clear you can talk them into putting themselves at great risk on your behalf. Miss Chu – well, I don't need to tell you what price she might have paid for her loyalty to you. Think on that. The difference between you and your father is in how you choose to use your gifts... and your friends."

She sat up straight, grimacing slightly, while Alexandra sat quietly in her bed, thinking.

"What name will I be enrolled under now?" she asked.

"Well, that's a good question," Ms. Grimm said. "I suppose it's up to you. If you want to claim the name Alexandra Thorn, you're entitled to it."

Alexandra thought a moment, and slowly shook her head. "My father never claimed me," she said, with sudden resolution. "Why should I claim his name?"

"So be it," Ms. Grimm said. "We will speak again soon, Miss Quick." She rose to her feet. "Oh, yes." She reached into the pocket of her jacket, and withdrew a wand. "This was recovered from Mr. Journey. I imagine you want it back." She held it out.

Alexandra closed her fingers around the hickory wand. It was reassuring to have it back in her hand. "Thank you." And as the Dean turned to leave, she said, "Ms. Grimm?"

Grimm turned, with a raised eyebrow.

"I think there are still things you're not telling me."

The Dean stood there a moment, and then the corners of her mouth twitched.

"My dear child," she said, with a bemused expression. "There are things I am not telling you that would fill half the library. Good evening, Miss Quick." And she walked out of the infirmary without another look back, her heels clicking against the floor, while Alexandra ran her fingers along her wand and watched her go.