"Where's Charlie?" she gasped, lying on her back.
"Charlie's fine," Mrs. Speaks said. She had her wand out and was waving it over Alexandra. "I think you'll be fine," she said, "other than a few bruises."
Alexandra flexed her arm, winced, and sat up. David was also being helped by some older students, and by Mr. Journey, who was trying to pry the boy's shaking fingers loose from their death grip on his falcon's cage.
"Whoever thought up that Invisible Bridge should be locked up!" David said.
"It's never done that before," said Mrs. Speaks. "But obviously we're going to need to reinspect all the charms on it. I don't understand how this happened."
"You should've had nets underneath it!" David insisted. "Or you people with your brooms should've been riding alongside us! We almost died!"
"Now, Mr. Washington, you're understandably upset," Mrs. Speaks said soothingly. "I assure you, our safety precautions have always been sufficient and as you saw, people were standing by with brooms just in case. Even if, err, that giant bird hadn't caught you, I'm sure we would have reached you in time."
Alexandra didn't think Mrs. Speaks looked nearly as certain as she was trying to sound about that last part, and from the look in David's eyes, he was not convinced either. She had lost Charlie's cage along with everything else she'd been holding in her hands, except her wand. She looked around and could see no sign of the raven.
"Where's Charlie?" she demanded a second time.
"Charlie is fine," Mrs. Speaks repeated. "The bird flew away after being... persuaded to let go of you."
"Flew away?" she exclaimed. "What do you mean, persuaded?"
"Calm down, Miss Quick. Familiars always return."
They helped her to her feet. It was still a little painful to take in a breath – she was sure Charlie hadn't meant to hurt her, but those talons had been strong. And her arm felt like it had been stretched an extra inch or two.
Everyone looked shaken. Gwendolyn, still holding onto her broom, was trembling, and all the students who had preceded Alexandra and David across the bridge were standing around in a large gathering, watching them.
Alexandra wasn't shaky, just sore, but she wasn't pleased to be the center of attention again.
"I lost my cauldron and my books and my robes and my potion supplies," she said glumly. At least she still had a few changes of clothes, packed into the bookbag on her back.
"We'll get replacements for you, don't you worry," said Mrs. Speaks. "At least you still have your wand." Alexandra was still clutching it. She leaned closer and whispered, "You can put it away now, dear," not unkindly. Alexandra tucked it back into her jacket pocket, and felt it bump against her bracelet. Then with a sinking feeling, she thrust her hand down into the pocket and felt around for the locket. It was gone. The bracelet had somehow remained in her pocket, but the locket must have tumbled out.
"All right, everyone, obviously this gave everyone a horrible scare, but no one's hurt. The excitement is over! Get back in line!" Mrs. Speaks clapped her hands and Mr. Journey began coaxing the other students away from the bluff and back onto a trail that Alexandra hadn't been able to see from the far side.
"Are you all right now, Miss Quick? We can have someone carry you, or send a carpet out –"
"I'm fine!" Alexandra said quickly. She looked at David, who nodded and walked over to join her, though he looked a little more wobbly.
"I am not telling my parents about that!" he said. "They'd have me back in Detroit by nightfall!" He was holding up Malcolm's cage as he spoke, and inspecting his familiar. Malcolm didn't look too much the worse for wear, though the poor falcon was now bobbing its hooded head back and forth and partially unfolding its wings, obviously agitated.
"You sure you don't want to go back?" Alexandra said, grinning. David gave her a sharp look.
"No," he said. Then added, "Not yet. I'm not so sure about these people. Girl, I can't believe you. You think that was a joke?"
Alexandra's grin faded, and she looked unusually thoughtful for a moment. "No," she said. "I think someone tried to kill us."
Alexandra wasn't actually sure anyone was trying to kill them. She supposed magical invisible bridges could collapse just like normal bridges. But she was naturally prone to imaginative explanations for unnatural events, and the idea that someone might be trying to kill her was more exciting than a mundane magical mishap. She tried to imagine who would want to kill her and why, but the only explanation she could come up with was that she was a "Mudblood," which would fit David almost being killed as well. Of course, she knew that many of the older students who'd passed across the bridge safely were also Muggle-born.
Speculating about a plot to murder her also distracted her for a little while from the loss of her locket, and her still-missing familiar.
"That was the most horrible thing I've ever seen!" Darla exclaimed, as Alexandra and David caught up to the other sixth-graders. There was a larger group of them now, not just the ones who'd been sitting with Alexandra at the table on the bus.
"We're okay," said Alexandra.
"I've heard kids have been blown off the bridge before, or fell off while horsing around," said another sixth-grader, looking at Alexandra and David as if wondering whether they had fallen off as a result of horseplay.
"But the seniors or one of the faculty always catch them," said Angelique.
"We weren't horsing around!" David snapped.
"And we didn't fall off," Alexandra added. "We were dropped."
"I've heard the Dean arranges for someone to fall off every few years, just to keep anyone from messing with it," another boy said. "It's made to vanish most of the time, you know, but sometimes kids sneak out here and try to rematerialize it."
"That's ridiculous!" said Darla. "Dean Grimm would never deliberately make someone fall like that! Can you imagine what parents would say?"
Alexandra didn't exactly share Darla's faith in Ms. Grimm, but it did seem unlikely that the Dean would randomly schedule falling accidents.
As they talked, they were walking along a trail that wound through some woods. The trees weren't as dense as those Alexandra had seen on the valley floor. Sunlight shined through the leaves, speckling the shrubs and groundcover. They could hear birdcalls and see squirrels and rabbits scampering about. It bordered on idyllic, and Alexandra wondered if there was a fairy castle waiting for them.
Instead, as they emerged from the woods onto a nicely manicured lawn, they saw a large brick building that sprawled across at least twenty acres, surrounded by grass, sandlots, and athletic fields that were many times that area. Charmbridge Academy seemed to be built in a roughly circular structure at least three stories high, making it impressively large, many times the size of the high school back in Larkin Mills. The enormous lawn the school sat on appeared to be surrounded on all sides by woods.
The students all walked through an ivy-covered arch that curved above a large set of stone steps taking them through the main entrance. Large wooden doors opened to greet them, and Alexandra saw a line of adults waiting beyond in a foyer whose high ceiling reached up to the third floor. There were balconies and hallways running along the edge of the foyer, from which people on the second and third floors could look down at the people entering, and Alexandra saw quite a few students clustered there leaning over the railings to watch the new arrivals.
Older students that had arrived on the bus immediately called up to friends they recognized, and the foyer was soon filled with yelled greetings and excited chatter. Both the adults and the students were dressed as diversely as she had seen back at the Goblin Market. Cloaks and robes and long jackets with lots of pockets predominated, and there were an awful lot of hats, especially on the adults, but some of the students were wearing clothes that seemed to conform more closely to the school dress code. Alexandra didn't see anyone dressed just like Constance and Forbearance, or Benjamin and Mordecai Rash, but there were others wearing buckled shoes, stiff dark tunics, bonnets and long skirts beneath multilayered blouses, or knee pants and suspenders. Lined up on the ground floor, behind the teachers, Alexandra saw a group of boys (and a couple of girls) wearing uniform jackets, white and navy blue with large gold buttons. These students also had their wands hanging on their hips from little leather straps.
A few of the students could have walked into the normal parts of Chicago, or Larkin Mills, and passed for Muggles, but most witches and wizards seemed to have a personal style that would raise eyebrows anywhere else.
Ms. Grimm was not present. A thin-faced woman dressed in a black dress and hat stepped forward to look down her nose at the circle of arriving students, and then clapped her hands briefly. This did not immediately quiet the room, so she drew her wand and said, "Sonorus!" When she spoke again. her voice was amplified as if her wand were a microphone.
"Welcome to Charmbridge Academy, or back to Charmbridge Academy, as the case may be!"
Conversations died down as her voice drowned out all others, and students turned to look at the witch addressing them.
"My name is Hephzibah Price, and I am the Vice Dean in charge of the Sixth Grade," she said. She gave a stern look at a few eighth-graders who were still talking, waited until they fell silent, then continued.
"I understand there was some trouble at the bridge today." Her eyes briefly flickered in Alexandra's direction. "Rather than spreading rumors, I'll ask you to please wait until the general assembly tomorrow morning, when the Dean will address all your concerns and give you all the facts. In the meantime, everyone should return to the dormitories assigned to your year. New students, there are volunteers waiting to show you the way. Dinner will be served in half an hour, so don't take too long putting your things away."
She murmured something, and her voice went quiet again.
"Yeah right, that'll stop people from talking," David scoffed.
Alexandra trudged after the other sixth-graders. She was still thinking about the loss of her locket, and she worried about Charlie. How could they just let her familiar fly away? And would he stay giant-sized?
The sixth-graders were lining up in front of a pair of older students, divided into two lines, one for boys and one for girls. The boy and girl at the head of each respective line were both wearing green and white sashes across their chests, with a variety of ribbons, buttons, and patches decorating them.
"There are Scout troops at Charmbridge?" she asked aloud. She had been briefly interested in the Brownies when she was eight, but the other girls hadn't appreciated it when Alexandra staged a pitched battle between their dolls and their stuffed animals that inflicted extensive casualties on both sides. Alexandra had been annoyed that they wanted to stay indoors baking and sewing instead of going camping.
"Rangers," said another sixth-grader.
"Hi, I'm Marguerite Millicent Murray," said the girl wearing the sash, sounding even more cheerful than Gwendolyn. "I'll show you to the girls' dorms for your year. I'm also the Witch Ranger Coven Leader for Charmbridge Academy, so if anyone is interested in joining the Witch Rangers, please see me after dinner!"
The boys and girls walked side-by-side down a long white corridor which had photographs hanging on the wall. Some were of Charmbridge Academy and its grounds, apparently taken at various stages in the school's history, while others were of groups of students and faculty. In all of the pictures, people moved and talked, and some of them even turned to wave at the students walking past. They passed under a particularly severe-looking warlock whose portrait hung above an arch with Greek letters carved into it: DDKT. "Delta Delta Kappa Tau" was inscribed in English below them.
"Boys' dorms are downstairs, girls' upstairs," said the two Ranger guides, and Alexandra and David waved to each other as they were separated, and Alexandra followed the girls upstairs.
The dorm rooms turned out to be rather small, with two girls to a room, and two rooms to a suite, which included little else besides a bathroom and a common storage area.
Marguerite informed the girls that they could choose any unoccupied bed, which led to a great deal of scurrying up and down the hall, and a buzz of conversation, as those girls who didn't already have a friend they planned to share a room with hurriedly tried to work out who they wanted as a roommate... or who they didn't. No one approached Alexandra, so she just marched forward looking through open doors for a room that was empty. She passed Constance and Forbearance standing in one doorway. The Ozarker girls smiled demurely at her, and Alexandra greeted them, but since they had their own room, she moved on. She paused when she saw Anna Chu sitting at a desk, her back to the door and her red cloak hanging on her chair behind her. The other bed in her room was unoccupied.
"Hi," Alexandra said. "Do you have a roommate yet?"
Anna turned around, looking shy. "No," she replied.
Alexandra stepped through the door and shrugged her bookbag off and dropped it on the empty bed. "Is it okay if I'm your roommate?"
Although she knew she wasn't really giving Anna much choice, she was glad when the other girl smiled and said, "Sure."
Since Alexandra didn't have much baggage, having lost most of it in the Invisible Bridge accident (which she spent a few minutes telling Anna about), it didn't take her long to put away the few books and clothes she had remaining. She saw Anna's Great Horned Owl sitting on a perch next to an open window looking out over Charmbridge's grounds, and wondered if Charlie would be able to find her here.
Anna followed her gaze and must have known what she was thinking. "I'm sure Charlie will come back," she said. "Once the Engorgement Charm wears off. How did you do that, anyway?"
"I just made up a rhyme, and waved my wand. I didn't really have much time to think about it."
"Made up a rhyme?" Anna looked puzzled. "You need to pronounce the correct incantation to make a charm work."
Alexandra shrugged. She had never learned any incantations, and right now, didn't really care how she'd cast her spell.
In the next room, they heard excited chatter, giggling, and then a familiar voice saying, "What a dump!" followed by Angelique snapping, "Shut up, Honey!" Anna and Alexandra looked at each other with similar expressions. It seemed that Darla and Angelique would be their suitemates.
Marguerite the Witch Ranger led all the sixth-graders to the cafeteria, where long tables were lined up in neat rows from the outward-facing windows to the inner wall. This was the first time Alexandra had seen the entire student body of Charmbridge Academy together in one place, and the echoes of hundreds of conversation was a dull roar filling the room. The cafeteria was enormous, larger than most gymnasiums, and the dozen tables arrayed in front of the serving lines each looked like they could accommodate nearly a hundred people. It appeared that students generally sat with their own year, though there was some mingling going on. The tables were already set with plates of bread, bowls of soup, and other appetizers, but there were long lines of students streaming past the serving counters to get their meals, trays floating magically in front of them.
Alexandra noticed immediately that with the exception of a few supervisors, most of the servers were clockwork golems. They ladled out stew, carved roast beef, and dished up potatoes and vegetables with stiff, mechanical motions, yet they never spilled or dropped anything. There were smaller golems walking back and forth from the kitchens, carrying more bread and soup. Trays flew on their own back to the kitchen, loaded with dirty dishes.
Alexandra stood in line with a floating tray, asked the brass golem behind the counter for mashed potatoes and peppermeat gravy, and watched with interest as it whirred into gear, dishing up a large serving for her. It also added an unasked-for serving of peas and carrots. She overheard some older students speculating as to how much the new golem serving staff had cost. "My father says all this modernization is going too far," one boy said. "He says it's more like 'Muggleization.' What's wrong with house-elves? We never had to stand in line for meals when they were serving food!"
Alexandra walked back to her table. She had been sitting with Anna, Darla, and Angelique, and now Constance, Forbearance, and David had joined them.
"I suppose Clockworks are adequate servants," Darla said, with a sniff. "But they're so cold and impersonal."
"I agree," said Angelique. "At Baleswood, they have house-elves doing all the work. They cook and wash dishes and even clean your rooms for you. You wouldn't think Dean Grimm would allow herself to be pressured by those silly ASPEW people."
David was frowning. "What's ASPEW?"
"The American Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare," said Anna.
"House-elves are those little guys we saw in Chicago, right? The ones who were following some wizards around dressed in rags, like slaves?"
"Yes," Anna said nervously.
Darla didn't notice David's reaction. "House-elves have served wizards for centuries," Darla said as if this were simply a natural fact. "They like it, it's their purpose in life – what?" she broke off, as she'd finally noticed David's ugly expression.
He glowered at her, and then turned to look at Angelique. "Are you listening to this?" he demanded.
Angelique shifted uncomfortably. "House-elves aren't like humans," she said. "They're a magical race. They've been enchanted to serve. If you ask one, it will tell you it wants to have a wizarding family to look after."
David was staring at her. "That's what they used to say about us!"
"Us?" Angelique blinked. Alexandra wondered if she was being deliberately obtuse.
"What, you think because you're a witch no one sees color?" David asked.
"Oh, don't talk like a Muggle," said Darla. "We don't have those kinds of problems in the wizarding world."
David narrowed his eyes. "Really?" he said slowly.
Everyone was uncomfortable now, and they ate in silence, until Anna said, "There's probably a student's ASPEW chapter here."
David looked at her. "Maybe I'll check it out."
"Me too," said Alexandra.
"Me too," said Anna, after a pause.
Back in their dorm room, Anna told Alexandra, "I don't really know much about ASPEW. My family has never had house-elves. Nowadays it's only the old Colonial families that do... or new wizarding families who want to imitate old Colonial traditions. That's what my father says."
"Are these old Colonial families the same ones who care about whether you're a pureblood or not?" Alexandra asked.
Anna pursed her lips. "Some, probably."
Anna's owl suddenly hooted and flapped its wings excitedly, and then a normal-sized raven came through the window and landed on Alexandra's desk.
"Charlie!" she exclaimed. Her heart leaped, and it soared higher when she saw what was clutched in the raven's beak.
"My locket!" She reached out and tried to take it from the bird, but Charlie tugged back hard, making a cracking sound deep in its throat.
"All right," she said. "You can keep it... for now."
Charlie seemed perfectly content not having a cage, and sat on a second perch above the window. Anna told her that there was an aviary in the school, but they could keep their familiars in their rooms if they chose.
Anna put on a nightdress. Alexandra had only shorts and a tank top to wear to bed, and looked glumly at the few clothes she had remaining that hadn't fallen into the valley. She noticed that Anna's owl was now hooting as it gazed out the window, while Charlie seemed to be trying to go to sleep, and kept opening one eye to glare at the owl. It also kept the locket clutched in one talon. Alexandra wanted to try opening the locket again, now that she was on school grounds and had a wand, but she was tired. She also didn't want to fight with Charlie. She put the bracelet around her wrist, however, and slid under the covers.
"G'night," she said, and Anna said good-night back. Charlie made a soft sound deep in his throat, and Anna's owl, with a hoot, took off through the open window to do a night's hunting.
The next morning was rather frantic, as Alexandra had not gone to much effort to sort and put away her clothes the previous night. She also discovered that sharing a bathroom with Darla and Angelique was going to be problematic. Both girls spent what seemed like ages brushing their air and making up their faces.
"My mother wouldn't even allow me to wear make-up," Anna said.
"Would you want to?" Alexandra asked, her face scornful.
Anna shrugged. "Not really." She sighed as Angelique finally exited the suite's shared bathroom. "But my mother would really have a cow if I did."
Anna's mother, Alexandra thought, must have had a cow when she found out Anna was a witch. But at least she knew, unlike Alexandra's mother.
She was still buttoning her jacket as she hurried down the hall with Anna. The sixth-graders were now streaming towards the cafeteria along with all the other students. This time, however, no one was waiting in line to be served by the clockwork golems. Instead, sizzling griddles and trays lined their tables, producing stacks of pancakes and waffles, and piles of sausages, eggs, and bacon, while pots bubbled full of grits and oatmeal. These, along with pitchers of milk and orange juice, appeared to magically replenish themselves. Alexandra helped herself, while watching the kids around her to see if there were any rituals or dining customs she was missing.
"You saw our SPAWNs are this morning on the notice board, right?" David asked, sitting down opposite her and Anna.
"What notice board?" Alexandra asked, and was annoyed at David's exasperated look.
"Every hall has a notice board. You passed right by it on the way to the cafeteria."
Alexandra hadn't noticed, and was a little disgruntled that neither Anna, Darla, nor Angelique had mentioned a notice board to her, though she knew it was really her own fault for not paying attention.
"After the assembly," David continued, popping a sausage link into his mouth. "We have to take our SPAWNs so they can place us."
Alexandra wasn't normally made nervous by tests, because she didn't normally care much about them. She was, however, annoyed that she was going to be tested on something she'd never been told about or given a chance to study for. Darla saw her expression and said, "Don't worry, it's just to place you correctly. A lot of students need remedial instruction, especially when they come from Muggle households." Her voice trailed off at Alexandra's look.
Alexandra thought that though Darla had probably meant that to be reassuring, she was still awfully smug.
As students finished eating, they rose from their tables and made their way, not to the internal corridor they'd arrived by, but through another set of doors that opened to the outside, or rather, the hub at the center of Charmbridge Academy. When Alexandra followed the rest of her grade into what turned out to be a very large courtyard surrounded on all sides by Charmbridge's wings, laid end-to-end, she saw that the building was not circular, but polygonal. She turned around in a circle and counted seven sides, before everyone was directed forward, through another set of large doors across the courtyard.
They were now entering an auditorium, but rather than the fold-up carpeted seats Alexandra was familiar with at her elementary school, Charmbridge's auditorium was an amphitheater consisting of row after row of plain wooden benches in concentric semi-circles, anchored to a stone floor that descended towards the stage in the center. It also seemed to her that this auditorium was too large to fit within one of the building's wings, and she wondered whether the same enchantment that made Charmbridge's short bus so large on the inside made the academy itself even larger than it appeared.
Hundreds of students took their seats, all wearing dark cloaks or jackets over the rest of their school-approved clothes. Each grade sat together, with the youngest closest to the stage, which meant Alexandra was in the second row from the front, seated between David and Anna.
There was a great deal of talking, which meant noise filled the amphitheater, until with a series of pops, a dozen adults appeared on the stage in front of them, including Ms. Grimm. Everyone instantly fell silent. Alexandra had never seen her grade school principal be so successful in immediately silencing a roomful of children.
Dean Grimm was dressed in a severe-looking dark suit with a knee-length skirt, making her the only faculty member before them who could have passed for a Muggle. Alexandra recognized Hephzibah Price, still dressed in black robes and conical hat, but the other six women and four men were unfamiliar. They were mostly wearing robes, though one of the women was actually wearing a hoop skirt, while another, who had a short haircut and a long scar across her face, was dressed entirely in black leather. One of the men was wearing a plaid kilt, another looked like a fur trapper, covered in pelts.
"Good morning, students, and welcome to a new year at Charmbridge Academy," said Ms. Grimm. Alexandra hadn't seen her pull out a wand or use the spell Mrs. Price had used last night, but the Dean's voice was amplified loudly enough to carry to the furthest row back. "Mr. Murphy, I'll see you afterwards about that jinx. Miss Batson, hand that mistletoe wand over to Mr. Journey, please." Alexandra twisted around to see Ben Journey, who was circling the auditorium, extending a hand to confiscate a wand from a tenth-grade girl who looked horrified and embarrassed.
"Why'd she have her wand taken away?" Alexandra muttered to Anna.
"Mistletoe wands are illegal," Anna whispered, then squeaked as the Dean's gaze turned on them, though they'd been speaking very quietly under their breaths.
"Are you quite finished, Miss Quick and Miss Chu?" Grimm asked pleasantly, in a voice that boomed throughout the auditorium and caused all eyes to turn in their direction.
Anna swallowed and nodded, shaking. Alexandra just slumped in her seat and glowered at the Dean.
"Now then," Grimm continued. "Most of you should have received your class schedules already. There are lines outside the Vice Deans' offices every year, of students wishing to change their schedules, and I will remind you this year as I do every year that adjustments will be made only for valid academic reasons, not because you dislike a particular subject or teacher, or because you want to be in the same class as your friends."
The Dean went on for several minutes discussing school policies, sounding much like the principal of a normal school lecturing students on appropriate behavior, though a Muggle principal wouldn't have needed to go over cleaning up after familiars, leaving wands and potion supplies out, or which charms and enchantments were disallowed. Alexandra heard about something called the Glade which was off-limits to everyone but juniors and seniors, and learned that sixth graders apparently had most of their day rigidly scheduled, with little room for deviation.
"I must also remind you that shamanism, mysticism, pagan rituals, and other forms of so-called wandless magic are strictly forbidden unless you have been granted a Cultural Practices Exemption by the Department of Magical Education," said Ms. Grimm. "Also note that voodoo remains classified a Dark Art by the Confederation Wizards' Congress. Every year some group of students forms a little coven to experiment with 'forbidden' magic, and every year someone winds up jinxed, cursed, or worse, and someone winds up expelled. Do not meddle with magic you don't understand. I assure you, whatever you've heard to the contrary, all of these 'native' or 'alternative' traditions are nothing more than crude approaches practiced by ancient cultures who had not yet refined the principles upon which modern magic is based."
Alexandra wondered if Ms. Grimm realized how curious she'd just made Alexandra and probably dozens of other kids about these forbidden practices.
"Finally," Grimm went on, "I know you have probably heard about the mishap at the Invisible Bridge yesterday." Alexandra felt eyes turning in her direction again.
"The bridge has been thoroughly inspected by wizards from the Department of Magical Transportation. They've determined that it is completely safe, but nonetheless, all of its enchantments have been have been reinforced. I can assure you, this was a fluke accident."
A fluke? Alexandra thought. She narrowed her eyes suspiciously at the Dean. She sure liked "assuring" people of things.
"With that, I shall turn this assembly over to Vice Dean Darren Ellis. And I sincerely hope to see none of you in my office this year, unless it is to be commended for making the Dean's List." Ms. Grimm's smile was shiver-inducing, and then she sat down, surrendering the podium to Mr. Ellis.
It was left to the Vice Dean to introduce the other faculty on the stage: Deans for each grade, the Dean of Academic Affairs, Department Heads, Counselors, and so on. Alexandra's attention span was being taxed by all the administrative rambling, and she could see that she was not the only student becoming restless. Ellis finally finished talking, and then students were told were rise and exit the amphitheater by grade level. They went in reverse order from how they'd entered, so Alexandra and her fellow sixth graders were left sitting the longest. Ms. Grimm disappeared with a pop soon after the seniors began filing out, followed by most of the other adults. Alexandra wondered when she would get to learn to appear and disappear like that.
Outside in the corridor again, one of the teachers who'd been on the stage called her name along with David's and several others. Alexandra only remembered her last name being Middle. She looked around to see the other students who were, presumably, from Muggle homes like herself. There were four besides her and David.
"Now, we'll be administering the SPAWN so that we can assess your level of magical education prior to arriving at Charmbridge," said Mrs. Middle, leading them down yet another corridor. She spoke in an officious, clipped tone. "The first part will be a written test. The second half will be a practical assessment of your magical skills. There's nothing to be worried about, this is only for placement purposes and has no bearing on your grades."
"Shouldn't we get a chance to study for it if we've never had any magical education before?" Alexandra asked. Mrs. Middle looked at her, nonplussed. "Why, that's the point of the SPAWN, dear, to determine how much you don't know."
Alexandra was tempted to tell Mrs. Middle that since she didn't know anything, it was pointless to measure it, but then decided that maybe she did know something after all. She had been doing magic since she was little, and she had read a lot about magical creatures, so perhaps she'd turn out to be naturally gifted.
The six of them were led into in an empty classroom that was large enough for over fifty students, so they spaced themselves out, feeling rather solitary surrounded by empty desks. Middle give each of them a writing quill and a roll of parchment. "You can begin when ready," she said. "No hurry, just do your best."
Alexandra unrolled the parchment, and began reading.
"Sixth Grade Level Standardized Practical Assessment of Wizarding kNowledge," said the parchment, and below that, "Section One: Magical Theory."
Any hopes Alexandra had that her "natural gifts" would help her on the SPAWN were quickly dispelled.
Magical Theory started out by asking her to match definitions for "Charm," "Jinx," "Hex," "Curse," "Enchantment," and "Spell." Alexandra had figured out from listening to the other kids that jinxes, hexes, and curses were bad, but beyond that could only guess which was which as they all seemed essentially the same to her. There were more matching and multiple choice questions, asking her to identify the critical components of a proper spell, the reasons why wands were necessary, what differentiated Muggles from wizards, things magic could not do, and so on. Alexandra guessed as best she could, but all of her information came from fairy tales and a few days of exposure to the wizarding world.
Next was "Section Two: Alchemy and Herbology." If she had been guessing before, she was now picking answers almost at random. She knew nothing about potions, elements, transmutations, or magical herbs. The only question she had a faint hope of getting right was one concerning the metals which could be used in cauldrons, and only because of visiting Grundy's during her shopping trip.
Alexandra was optimistic when she turned to "Section Three: Arithnomancy, and Geomancy," as she was pretty good at math, but this section was even worse. She had no idea what the magical properties of the numbers six, seven, or thirteen were, what shapes were most effective for warding against curses, or whether Roman or Arabic numerals were better for inscribing on gravestones.
In frustration, she turned to "Section Four: Wizard History." The history resembled nothing she had learned in school (and Alexandra had not been much interested in Muggle history in the first place). What were the names of the first four Colonial New World Territories? When was the Confederation Congress established? What caused the California Disunification, and which new Territories resulted? The Voodoo Wars and the Wizard Pow Wow of 1838 sounded interesting, but Alexandra knew nothing about them.
At the end of two hours, Mrs. Middle collected their parchments. Alexandra was feeling frustrated and aggrieved. She'd never particularly cared about tests in school, but she hated feeling ignorant. Middle told them that the practical portion of the SPAWN would be administered after lunch.
"I don't think there's anything practical about this stupid test!" Alexandra said to David, as they ate fried bread and chili in the cafeteria.
David shrugged. "I didn't think the Alchemy and Herbology part was too bad. I'm not sure if the wizards on the West Coast split California into two or three Territories, though. There wasn't much about that in my study guide."
Alexandra glowered at him, and finished her fried bread, trying to ignore Anna's pitying look.
When the sixth graders taking their SPAWNs returned from lunch, Mrs. Middle had been joined by three other teachers. Two of them had been among those seated at the podium with Ms. Grimm during the assembly, including the scary-looking woman in black leather. She squinted at each of the students as if looking for some defect. Alexandra stared back at her unflinchingly, and was surprised when one corner of the woman's mouth twitched upwards, just for a moment.
"Each of you will meet individually with Mr. Grue, Mr. Hobbes, Mr. Newton, and Ms. Shirtliffe to demonstrate your knowledge of charms, transfigurations, alchemy, and basic magical defense. I assume you all have your wands with you, so – " She paused as Alexandra raised her hand. "Yes, Miss Quick?"
"If none of us is supposed to have ever used magic before, we just got our wands, and most of us grew up as Muggles, then how are we supposed to have learned any of that stuff?" Alexandra asked.
Middle smiled, though she looked a little thrown off. "Well, I'm sure you've done some magic growing up, that's what makes you a witch, after all! And children who've grown up in wizarding households usually get a basic education in spellcraft at home before they're sent off to school. Don't worry, Miss Quick, you won't be expected to know as much as other children. This is just a standardized test to establish a baseline."
Alexandra had heard that before, and it still sounded like officious grown-up talk for pointless testing. But she resolved that she would do as well as any of the other kids; she was tired of being treated as if having grown up "Muggle-born" were a handicap.
She took out her wand while she was waiting in line to see Mr. Grue. Hickory with chimaera hair, Mr. Finsterholz had said. It felt good in her hand, and she knew now what Constance and Forbearance had meant by knowing when a wand was right for her. But it was still a mysterious and untested instrument. She began rehearsing rhymes in her head, trying to guess what she might be asked to do. Transform animals? Start a fire? Make it rain? And "magical defense"? Did that mean she'd have to fight?
She was surprised when Mrs. Middle pulled her out of line and said, "You can go ahead and see Mr. Hobbes now, dear."
"I thought Mr. Grue was supposed to test me on alchemy," she said, looking at the other kids.
Mrs. Middle smiled benignly. "After reviewing your score on the alchemy section of the written test, it's apparent that won't be necessary."
Alexandra bit her tongue, but her expression was stormy as she shuffled through the door into an empty classroom. "It's just as well," she thought, "since my cauldron is still lying somewhere on the valley floor," but it was one thing to know she really didn't know anything, and another to be told that she was so unknowledgeable that they weren't even going to bother testing her.
Mr. Hobbes was an older man with frizzy white hair. He looked a bit like a mad scientist in green robes. Even his smile was eccentric, lopsided and showing too many teeth. "Alexandra... Quick, is it?" he asked, reading from a scroll. "Come in, come in!" He beckoned her further into the room. She saw that on the table in front of him was a glass of water, a rock, a stick, and a small white mouse in a glass cage.
"There's a good girl," he wheezed, as she walked over to stand on the other side of the table from him. "Now, don't worry a bit if you're not actually able to succeed at any of my simple tests. Transfigurations are very difficult, very difficult! One third of the sixth-graders I test can't even manage a single-element inanimate-to-inanimate transfiguration."
"Oh," she said, not feeling reassured, and definitely not wanting to be in that one-third.
Hobbes pointed at the glass of water. "Let's start with a basic liquid transformation. Turn this glass of water into milk, if you would."
Compared to what Alexandra now knew was possible with magic, this seemed like a trivial test, but she'd never attempted anything like it before. She licked her lips, looking at the glass of water, and she was silent for several moments.
"That's all right, my girl," Mr. Hobbes started to say, but she shook her head.
"No, wait, I can do it." She frowned in concentration and said:
"Water's cold and clear and cheap,
Turn to milk as white as sheep."
The glass of water clouded and turned white.
"Oh dear," tutted Mr. Hobbes, making a note on the parchment. Alexandra's triumphant smile faltered. "What's wrong?" she demanded. "I did it!"
"Yes, yes, certainly," he said, with the same soothing tone he'd used when he thought she wasn't even going to be able to attempt it. He waved his wand over the glass and the milk immediately turned clear again. "That wasn't really a proper transfiguration, but certainly you've demonstrated the raw ability."
Alexandra tried mentally transforming her face into stone so she wouldn't glower. How was it not a proper transfiguration if she transformed it? She waited for Mr. Hobbes to give her her next test. He pointed at the rock.
"I'd like you to transform this rock," he said, "into anything you please. A piece of candy, a dandelion, even a change of color if that's all you can manage. Now, if you can do something more impressive, such as, say, enlarging it or making it vanish... but almost no one your age is that accomplished, and you, ah –" he caught himself, because Alexandra did glower that time, but then he just smiled encouragingly. "Go ahead, whatever you can do, my girl."
She stared at the rock, and thought about all the things that rhymed with rock – lock, chalk, stalk, clock, sock – but then wondered if she'd get any credit if she transformed it with another rhyme. She took out her wand instead. If Mr. Hobbes could transform things just by waving his wand, then it was possible.
But she had no idea how. She imagined it turning into a mouse like the one in the cage, and waved her wand, but nothing happened. She screwed up her face in concentration. She'd turned cookies into worms without making a rhyme, but that had just sort of happened, like a lot of the spells she'd cast back home, and suddenly what came naturally without thought back in Larkin Mills seemed enormously difficult with a teacher watching her. Mentally, she begged, pleaded, and threatened the rock, but it remained unmoved and untransformed.
Alexandra would have stood there trying to transform it long past sunset, but Mr. Hobbes finally cleared his throat. "That's all right –"
"No! I can do it!" she insisted.
"Well, we don't have unlimited time," he said gently, and Alexandra snapped her wand in the rock's direction again in frustration, and it jumped and then a shower of rocks flew in all directions, bouncing off her and Mr. Hobbes, raining down on the table, knocking over the glass of water, and hitting the mouse's cage hard enough to crack the glass and send the poor creature running frantically around in circles.
Embarrassed, but relieved and proud at the same time, she looked up at the teacher. "There! See?"
"Mmm, hmm, yes," he mumbled, brushing a rock off his sleeve and then making a note on the parchment. "We're going to have to do something about that wild magic of yours. Unpredictable and uncontrolled transformations can be very dangerous, you know."
Alexandra bit her tongue and clenched her teeth, as he calmly waved his wand and conjured a small broom out of thin air, and directed it to sweep up the extra rocks. Then he righted the glass, refilled it with water, and repaired the mouse's cage, all with similar casual wand gestures.
He smiled at her. "Now, my girl, you're doing just fine, given your previous education."
She was becoming accustomed to feeling insulted by attempts to reassure her, so she just stewed while Mr. Hobbes said, "Next, if you feel you're up to it, see if you can make this stick grow legs and walk."
Alexandra didn't waste time. She stared at the stick, and composed a silent rhyme in her head. But try as she might, waving her wand this way and that, it lay on the table motionless. She ignored Mr. Hobbes's several attempts to persuade her to desist, and finally he coughed and said, "For your final test, Miss Quick, I'd like you to transform the mouse."
She paused, but Mr. Hobbes misunderstood the reason. "Now, living creatures are the most difficult subjects to transform, so there's no need to exert yourself or spend too much time if it's too difficult."
"What if I hurt it?" she asked, looking at the mouse. Alexandra was neither squeamish nor particularly soft-hearted, but she'd never used her magic maliciously on animals before.
"Oh, I have a cage full of them!" Hobbes replied cheerfully, gesturing at a larger cage on the floor behind him, which Alexandra now saw was indeed full of more white mice just like the poor creature in front of her. "But don't worry, I can undo most damage you might do to it."
Alexandra sighed, and considered the mouse for a moment. Then she held out her wand over it. The mouse looked up at her. She waved the wand, but nothing happened.
"Guess I suck at transfiguration," she said, and dropped the wand back to her side.
"Tut, tut! Language, my girl! Don't feel bad, as I said -"
"Yeah, transformations are very difficult," she said, a little sullenly, thinking about all the transfigurations she'd accomplished in the past without knowing how difficult they were supposed to be. She looked at the mouse, which she had not even attempted to transform. "I hope you appreciate it," she thought, but the mouse merely scampered about its cage, oblivious.
By now, Alexandra was wondering what they did with witches they decided were too "wild" or "uneducated." Would she be sent back home, or to one of those "day schools" she'd heard about? In the hallway, Mrs. Middle pointed her to the next room, where she was to be tested in charms by Mr. Newton.
Newton was much younger than Hobbes, though he had prematurely graying hair. He also wore large, thick spectacles, and he peered at Alexandra almost suspiciously. He had no props on the table in front of him, only a stack of parchments.
"Name?" he asked.
"Alexandra Quick," she replied.
He pulled a new sheet of parchment off the stack and scribbled on it, with a frown.
"Let me see your wand," he said.
She held it out to him, and he inspected it.
"Good." He handed it back to her. "Now, are there any charms in particular you have learned previously and might be capable of performing?" His quill hovered over the parchment.
"Well, I jumped off the roof of a house and landed without getting hurt, I've made birds and butterflies and chipmunks and plastic toys appear, I pushed a kid off the swingset once from across the playground, but he deserved it, I made my Splendid Stars Space Robot walk across my desk and jump off it, I open and close my bedroom window without getting out of bed, I can unlock doors, umm, I know I'm not supposed to," she added a bit sheepishly. "I tried making a computer give me a password but that just killed it. I turned cookies into worms but I guess that's transfiguration, and I don't know why that shouldn't count for the SPAWN. Oh, and I made a branch shoot fireballs. A wet branch! And I cast an Engorgement Charm on my raven."
It was a pretty impressive list, she thought, and surely Mr. Newton couldn't claim that all those spells didn't count, but he just frowned and scribbled a few words on his parchment. "Any standard, approved charms?" he repeated.
"Well, if we're underaged and been living with Muggles and haven't been in school before, then aren't all charms 'unapproved'?" she replied crossly.
The teacher finally looked up at her. "Don't be smart, Miss Quick. All young wizards and witches can cast spontaneous charms even without education, but learning how to perform magic in a consistent, reliable fashion is why you're here."
Alexandra thought and said, "I know what a Confundus Charm is, and a Silencing Charm, and an Apportation Charm -"
"I didn't ask for a recital of charms you've heard of. Can you perform any of them?"
She thought back to the letter she'd received from Ms. Kennedy at the Trace Office. "I can do an Unlocking Charm." Then added, "And I did an Engorgement Charm too." That's what Anna had called it, anyway.
"Indeed?" He waved his wand, and suddenly a padlock appeared on his desk. "Please."
She pointed her wand at the lock.
"This is something I know how
To do so padlock unlock now!"
The padlock popped open. Mr. Newton frowned and scribbled on the parchment.
"What's the difference between using a rhyme and using Spanish or Italian or whatever you use for charms?" Alexandra demanded.
Mr. Newton looked up at her again. His eyes narrowed. "Most incantations are derived from Latin or Greek, and if you pay attention in your Magical Theory classes, Miss Quick, you will learn why true wizards use incantations that have been perfected for centuries, not doggerel verse." He gestured with his wand again, and this time a feather fluttered out of its tip and landed on his desk.
"Let's see how you do with a very simple charm that many students already know before coming to school. The incantation is Wingardium Leviosa. If performed correctly, you should be able to levitate this feather into the air. Like this." And Mr. Newton gestured with his wand and said, "Wingardium Leviosa!" and the feather rose straight into the air almost to the ceiling, and then gracefully fluttered back down to the desk.
Alexandra was sure she could do that with her usual method, and thought she might even be able to do it without saying anything, but apparently she was being tested on her ability to do "proper" charms. So she tried to move her wand exactly as Mr. Newton had done, and said, "Wingardium Leviosa!"
Nothing happened. Mr. Newton scribbled something on his parchment. "Too much emphasis on the first syllable and it's obvious you've never used a wand before. That's all right, Miss Quick. That's why we have remedial magic classes."
Alexandra was gaping at him, outraged, but Mr. Newton didn't seem to notice. He made a dismissive gesture, and said, "That will be all, Miss Quick."
She stomped out of the room, and almost ran into Mrs. Middle. "Finished already?" the teacher said, sounding surprised in a way that suggested that finishing so quickly wasn't a positive sign. "Well then, I don't believe there's anyone waiting yet to see Ms. Shirtliffe. You can go get your Basic Magical Defense practical out of the way."
Alexandra stalked into the next classroom, already glowering, and stood in front of Ms. Shirtliffe defiantly. Shirtliffe wasn't as old as she'd first appeared, but her short, severe haircut and serious expression made her seem older. Her black leather jacket, jeans, and leather boots were incongruous at Charmbridge; she looked less like a witch than a biker. Alexandra noticed the teacher wore a pair of earrings set with blood-red stones.
Surprisingly, the teacher gave Alexandra an amused smile. She was leaning against the desk with her arms folded across her chest. Alexandra didn't see any props here either; in fact, there was no table to separate the teacher from the student being tested as there had been in the other two classrooms.
"Not having a good day?" she asked. "You're Alexandra Quick, right? The girl who fell from the Invisible Bridge."
"The bridge disappeared," Alexandra said. "And these tests are bogus!"
Shirtliffe arched an eyebrow. "Really?"
"I've done lots of magic!" Alexandra said heatedly. "I've even fought redcaps and a kappa, and when the Invisible Bridge disappeared, I saved myself and David by making Charlie, my raven, big enough to carry us! Mr. Hobbes said transfigurations like that are so difficult most students can't do them when they come here. But everyone keeps telling me I'm 'uneducated' and not casting 'proper' charms because they're not 'derived from Latin or Greek.' How about if you drop all the other sixth graders off the Invisible Bridge and see how many of them can save themselves? That would be a practical test!"
To Alexandra's amazement, Ms. Shirtliffe laughed. "Yes, I guess it would, but I don't think the parents would approve." She pulled out her wand. "Have you ever been jinxed, Alexandra?"
"Umm, no." Alexandra eyed the teacher's wand warily.
"λόξιγκας!" said Shirtliffe, flicking her wand, and Alexandra hiccuped violently. "Hey!" she exclaimed.
"Geeyuvlok!" Shirtliffe said, and this time her wand moved more lazily in a circle. Alexandra's mouth stretched open in an enormous, involuntary yawn. "Knock it off!" Alexandra protested.
"You were just bragging about fighting kappas and redcaps," Shirtliffe replied. "Surely you can deal with schoolyard jinxes?"
Worms, Alexandra thought, and pointed her wand at Ms. Shirtliffe. She poured all her concentration into the stream of worms she wanted to make pour out of the teacher's nose.
Shirtliffe held her wand up at an angle, and for a moment something twitched and roiled in the air, like a barely-visible squirming mass, and then it faded.
Shirtliffe smiled. "Hah! The best defense is a good offense," she said. "But most children learn basic counter-jinxes to deflect or reflect the jinxes their friends put on them. You've only learned how to go on the attack."
"I learned all by myself," Alexandra said. "And I've never been attacked with magic before. I'm tired of being told how much more I'd know if I'd grown up with wizards!"
"Well, it's true, you would have learned more growing up with wizards. But that doesn't mean you can't learn as well as any other student here." Shirtliffe pulled out a roll of parchment that had been tucked into her jacket, and instead of a quill, a fountain pen floated out and began writing on the parchment, without Shirtliffe holding it.
"That's it?" Alexandra protested. "Did I fail this test too? You hardly even tested me!"
"Who said you failed anything?"
Alexandra scowled. "All I get are stupid questions about things I don't know, then I do some magic and get told it's not the right magic. I hope this isn't how you usually teach."
Shirtliffe raised an eyebrow again. "Do you talk to your Muggle teachers like that?"
"Sometimes," Alexandra said, after a pause, and Shirtliffe laughed.
"I'll bet you do," she said. "And I suspect you're going to see more of Dean Grimm than you'd like."
"I've already seen more of Dean Grimm than I'd like," Alexandra muttered.
"Have you?" Shirtliffe replied. She grinned toothily. "Yes, you're definitely going to be one of those students every teacher knows by name in a hurry. I look forward to seeing you in class, Alexandra."
Alexandra wasn't sure what to make of Ms. Shirtliffe, and wasn't sure if she was looking forward to seeing her in class. She shuffled out of the room, and saw that all the other students were in line to see one of the four testers. She was the first one done.
"How was it, dear?" asked Mrs. Middle, ambling over with her hands clasped at her waist and a fatuous smile on her face.
"A waste of time!" Alexandra proclaimed. Middle's smile faltered.
"Why, Miss Quick, how else can we know where to place you if we don't test what you know?"
"But you already know I don't know anything! So what's the point? You just give me stupid tests you know I'm going to fail!"
Middle frowned. "But it's a standardized test, dear," she said, very slowly, as if Alexandra's comprehension abilities were uncertain. "That's the point, you see."
Alexandra didn't see the point at all. Middle, nonplussed, conjured a hall pass and sent her to the library, telling her to return to the study lounge in Delta Delta Kappa Tau Hall by four-thirty.
The Charmbridge library was enormous. Like other spaces Alexandra had seen, the inside of the library was much larger than it seemed from outside. In particular, its shelves stretched up to head-craning heights, which should have put it well into the third floor of the halls above and maybe through the roof of the building. Alexandra also noticed, as she walked around the library, that different sections had different views out the windows. The desks closest to the main entrance were beneath windows looking into Charmbridge's interior courtyard, and opposite them, across the library, were windows on the other side with a view of the vast grassy lawn that stretched to the woods surrounding the academy. But when she went between the stacks in the "History and Social Wizardry" section and emerged into a somewhat smaller study area with fewer desks, the windows had less light pouring through them, because outside was a dark, tangled forest that didn't look at all like the woods Alexandra had seen on her way from the Invisible Bridge.
She wandered around, looking at the bookshelves. Most of the books were wizardry-related. The categories dividing the rows bore no resemblance to the Dewey Decimal System the Larkin Mills Elementary School librarian had spent one tedious afternoon explaining to the fourth grade. However, in a section titled "Muggle Literature," Alexandra found an assortment of books and magazines that seemed to have been culled from Muggle libraries. Alexandra pulled a few off the shelf at random, and discovered that that was how they seemed to have been shelved – at random. Or if there was any order to them, she couldn't figure it out. A high school science textbook from 1963 was surrounded by paperback romance novels, and there was a pile of fishing magazines next to a volume of the complete works of Shakespeare. They all had a musty, unread smell.
She shoved the science textbook back onto the shelf, and went looking for the librarian. She found a stocky woman with pale yellowish-gray hair tied up in an enormous bun, pushing a cart at a clockwork golem. "You can't sort books by color!" she said disgustedly. She swished her wand back and forth, and labels appeared on each book. "Just put each one on the shelf according to its label," she sighed. "And pull the labels off first!" The golem jerked backwards, pulling the cart with it.
"Awful, just awful!" the librarian moaned. "They can manage well enough at cooking and cleaning, but Clockworks don't belong in libraries! They don't even understand books, let alone appreciate them!"
"Then why use one?" Alexandra asked.
"It's all that nonsense from ASPEW. They've been pressuring us to stop using elves altogether, but the Dean reached some sort of compromise with them. So now our library elves have to stay out of sight during normal library hours!"
"You have elves who work in the library?"
The librarian looked close to tears. "Poor Bran and Poe are only allowed to work in the library when you children aren't here. Of course they've always stayed out of sight, but now they have to do nothing for most of the day! It's awful for them, simply awful!"
Alexandra considered that, and then the librarian wiped at her eyes and sniffed. "What can I do for you, dear?"
"Well, actually, I wanted to find out how you find things here, and how to check books out." Alexandra started to tell her she was Muggle-born, but then decided not to. Surely even kids from wizarding homes didn't automatically know how to use a wizarding library.
The librarian brightened. Alexandra read her name from a plate on her desk: Mrs. Minder. She seemed genuinely pleased to have a student wanting to know more about the library. In short order, Alexandra had a library card, and had been taught how to use the Card Catalog, which was a tall, polished wooden cabinet with dozens of little drawers, each full of small white cards.
"It's only as helpful as your instructions," Mrs. Minder said. "If you say something vague like 'Quodpot,' you're going to get a whole flock of cards that you have to narrow down."
Alexandra faced the Card Catalog, and said, "Books about kappas and redcaps in America."
At Alexandra's words, half a dozen drawers opened and closed, and several cards flew out of them and fluttered in front of her nose.
"Why, I don't believe there are any kappas in America," said Mrs. Minder. "They're Japanese water demons, if I recall."
"Yeah, so I've heard," said Alexandra. She was reading the titles of the books and tapped two with her wand. Immediately those cards began flying off towards the shelves, while the Card Catalog opened its drawers and the remaining cards flew back inside.
"Thanks, Mrs. Minder!" she said, and ran off after the cards.
"Don't run in the library, Miss Quick," Mrs. Minder called after her.
Alexandra spent the rest of the afternoon in the library, reading about kappas and redcaps and other magical beasts. There was no explanation for how a kappa could have found itself in Old Larkin Pond, though; the only kappas previously seen in the United States had been brought to the West Coast by some Japanese wizards in the 1930s, and by 1950 it was thought the Department of Magical Wildlife had rounded them all up and either disposed of them or shipped them back to Japan.
It was past four-thirty when Alexandra realized she was supposed to have returned to the study lounge, so she hastily stacked her books on a table and ran out of the library, down the halls, past the entrance to Delta Delta Kappa Tau Hall beneath the scowling wizard, who looked particularly disapproving as Alexandra sped past below him, and into the study lounge she'd been told was where sixth graders came to do their homework. She saw that all the other sixth graders who'd taken the SPAWN with her were already there. Mrs. Middle frowned at Alexandra as she took a seat at the end. "Four thirty means four thirty, not four forty, Miss Quick," she said. She cleared her throat.
"As I was saying: your teachers and the Vice Dean will be scoring your SPAWNs now. There are only a few of you, and we need to give you your class schedules, so they should be done by dinnertime. Thus, you will all return here after dinner to receive the results of your SPAWN and your schedules for the coming year."
Alexandra walked with David to the cafeteria. "Where did you go when you finished your test?" she asked.
"Outside. They've got a bunch of athletic fields, and some wicked broom games," David replied. "I think I'm gonna try out for Quodpot. I wish they had Muggle sports, though."
"I was in the library. It's huge! You know, they have elves who work in the library too. Mrs. Minder, the librarian, says they like working here."
David glared at her. "Sure, slaves love being slaves. That what you learned in your history classes?"
"I'm just saying... well, house-elves aren't exactly human, are they? Maybe it's not quite the same. I mean, you wouldn't call those clockwork golems slaves, would you?"
"Those golems aren't alive!" David snapped. "They don't have feelings. They're just a bunch of metal parts held together by magic. You want to tell yourself house-elves don't mind being slaves 'cause they're not human, go ahead! I'll bet your great-great-great-grandfather said the same thing about mine!"
"I just meant –" Alexandra paused, as David angrily picked up his pace, leaving her behind. She sighed. She wasn't sure David was right, and she wasn't sure he was wrong.
By the time she caught up to him in the cafeteria, he was seated at another table, talking to some older students. The group he was mingling with was multiracial, a striking contrast to Charmbridge Academy overall, which was, she realized suddenly, awfully white. Larkin Mills was not exactly a diverse town, but there were many more blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other minorities at her elementary school than she had seen here.
"David hasn't been here for a week and he's already associating with radicals," said Angelique. "Really, I don't see why just because someone is Muggle-born they have to make a fuss about it. We're all equal."
"Really?" Alexandra said. She had heard this often enough that its repetition was making her skeptical.
"So how did your SPAWN go?" Anna asked, obviously trying to change the subject.
Alexandra shrugged. "I don't know Latin or Greek. I'll bet I can do magic as well as any of you, but since I haven't learned the proper incantations, they said something about remedial classes."
Anna, Darla, and Angelique all looked at her with exactly the sort of pitying expression she hated.
"I'll bet they do that with all Muggle-borns!" she said hotly.
"Well," Angelique said, and exchanged looks with Darla.
"Not really," Anna said quietly. "I mean, if you studied for the SPAWN beforehand..."
"I didn't have anything to study!" Alexandra said hotly. "I keep saying that! I didn't even get the study guide David had! How am I supposed to know... wingardium leviosa or whatever it is?"
Her plate rattled and shifted an inch in front of her.
"Well, that wasn't bad," Darla said, apparently trying to be placating. "I'm sure you'll learn it quickly and be out of remedial classes in no time." Her smug smile, however, made Alexandra want to levitate the plate into her face.
Alexandra ate the rest of her dinner in silence, listening to Darla and Angelique prattle on endlessly about classes, extracurricular activities, and boys. Anna was also quiet, but she usually was. After they finished, she caught up to David again as he was walking back to the sixth grade study lounge.
"Look," she said quickly, before he could cut her off or speed ahead. "I wasn't saying house-elves aren't enslaved or that it isn't wrong. I just meant, maybe you should actually talk to one before you assume you know how they really feel?"
He looked at her, and for a moment she thought he was just going to snort and turn his back on her again. Finally he said, "Maybe," grudgingly. "But do you think you can just go ask a slave 'Hey, do you like being enslaved?' and expect to get a straight answer? When you're one of the enslavers?"
She thought a moment, and said, "No, I guess not."
"You have any black friends back home?"
"You think I'm making a big deal?"
She hesitated. "No. But I still want to talk to some elves."
"Good luck with that. I hear the staff tries to keep them away from the students. Guess if they're not seen and not heard, no one has to think about them too much."
They arrived at the lounge once more. Mrs. Middle was there, with a row of parchments lined up on a table. The students all sat down.
"When I call your names, please come forward and take your scroll, which has both your SPAWN results and your class schedule," said Mrs. Middle. "And remember that the SPAWN is purely an evaluation tool. It says nothing about your intelligence or your desire to learn. It's only natural some of you will start out with certain... advantages others do not, but you will all be taught to the same standard here at Charmbridge, and we expect all of you to excel!"
David folded his arms and waited, stonily. Alexandra narrowed her eyes a little, unconvinced by Middle's cheery tone, and glanced at the other kids, most of whom were Muggle-born as well. They all looked nervous.
Middle began calling them forward, in alphabetical order by last name. When she got to "Quick," Alexandra went to get her scroll and walked back to her seat without looking at it.
"Well?" David demanded.
She frowned at him, and opened her scroll while turning towards him so he couldn't see it.
Sixth Grade Level Standardized Practical Assessment of Wizarding kNowledge
Assessee: Alexandra Octavia Quick
Section One: Magical Theory H
Section Two: Alchemy and Herbology M
Section Three: Arithnomancy and Geomancy M
Section Four: Wizard History M
Basic Magical Defense A
Explanation of Scores:
Superior (S): Student performs one or more full levels
Excellent (E): Student performs above average grade level.
Average (A): Student performs at grade level.
Underperformer (U): Student performs below average grade level.
Hocus Pocus (H): Student possesses only rudimentary knowledge or ability.
Muggle (M): Student shows no discernible knowledge or ability. (Squib testing recommended.)
Alexandra wanted to crumple the parchment up and throw it away, though she was pleased that at least Ms. Shirtliffe hadn't rated her badly.
"It's stupid for them to test us on things we haven't even started learning yet," she said to David, but then David was being called up to receive his results. When he returned, he opened it and his face fell.
"See?" she said. "Of course we'll score the same as a Muggle when we've lived as Muggles all our lives!"
He looked at her. "You got Muggle scores?"
She flushed slightly. "Only for history," she said quickly. "I mean, I didn't have your study guide to read."
"You had the books you bought at Boxley's," he said, then shrugged as Alexandra glared at him. "Anyway, I guess two remedial classes for a Muggle-born aren't that bad," he said, pronouncing "Muggle-born" with the same distaste Alexandra felt for the phrase. She looked at the second slip of parchment rolled up with her SPAWN results, which had her class schedule:
Basic Charms (Remedial level)
Basic Transfiguration (Remedial level)
Basic Alchemy (Remedial level)
Basic Principles of Magic (Remedial level)
Wizarding World History (Remedial level)
Practical Magical Exercise
"How many remedials did you get?" David asked.
"A couple," she mumbled.
"I've never really practiced charms or transfigurations," he said, "so I guess it won't be too bad learning the basics."
"Haven't you been doing magic since you were little?" she asked.
"Yeah," he said, "though I didn't know it was magic until we got the owl from Charmbridge. Me and my parents just thought I was incredibly lucky. I mean, I never realized I was actually making things happen."
Alexandra wondered about that as they walked back to their dorms. There was obviously a big difference in how she and David had experienced their magical gifts. He had used his magic unconsciously; it had never occurred to him he was a wizard. She had known at a young age what she was doing, and as far as she was concerned, she'd been learning spells for years, even if they weren't what the Charmbridge teachers considered "proper" spells. Yet David had obviously scored better than her on the SPAWN. She didn't think that made him a better wizard, especially since he'd had a study guide and she hadn't. Who had saved whom at the Invisible Bridge?
The unfairness rankled, as did the constant reminders that being Muggle-born was supposed to be a disadvantage. When Anna asked about her scores and what classes she was taking, Alexandra gave her a scathing look and then said haughtily, "I think standardized tests for witches are stupid! If you ever get attacked by redcaps, they're not going to ask what you scored in Magical Theory on your SPAWN!"
"Attacked by redcaps?" Anna repeated.
Charlie made a harsh croaking sound, and Alexandra held out her hand. The raven flapped over to land on her wrist and peck at the bracelet around it. She smoothly reached out and snatched her locket, and Charlie cawed indignantly.
"If I can outthink a kappa, I can outthink you, birdbrain," she said, in the same haughty tone, but then her face broke out into a smile she couldn't help, and she stroked the raven's feathers affectionately. Charlie only seemed slightly mollified, but allowed her to continue the petting.
Anna just looked at Alexandra, with an odd expression. She didn't ask her anything more that night.
Remedial classes indeed! Alexandra went to bed still simmering, with both indignation and determination. The next morning, she rose with a chip on her shoulder and something to prove, and went to breakfast prepared to show her classmates, her teachers, and even Dean Grimm that there was nothing "rudimentary" or "remedial" about her.