"This will take a while," Maximilian said. "We have a lot to talk about."
"You think?" Alexandra muttered.
They were both sitting down now, side by side on the cold stone floor, with their backs against the wall. Periodically, they felt water rumbling through the pipes on the other side.
"I mean, it will take more time than we have tonight. We could sit here talking until dawn."
Alexandra nodded slowly. "If I don't show up back at my room soon, Anna will probably panic and go tell the hall monitor." She turned her head and looked at her alleged half-brother, though she really couldn't see anything more than a slightly darker shape in the darkness surrounding them, as Maximilian had extinguished his wand. "How do I know you're telling the truth?"
"I guess you don't," the older boy answered, after a pause. "I don't have any way to prove it to you offhand. I could get a copy of my birth record, but that will take some time. If we were at Blacksburg, you could look at the Registrar's Scroll." He paused again. "You could just ask Martin or Beatrice, assuming you'd believe them."
"Do all your friends know?" she asked. "Does everyone at your school?"
"No," he replied. "Just Martin and Bea – we've been friends since sixth grade. The Dean and the Commandant at Blacksburg know, of course, but they agreed to keep it quiet and allow me to be enrolled under my mother's name. I assume Dean Grimm knows, too. Colonel Shirtliffe might, but I haven't brought it up, and she hasn't said anything."
"Then how would the Mors Mortis Society know?" asked Alexandra.
"You've heard of the Dark Convention?"
Alexandra nodded. Then, realizing that Maximilian couldn't see her nodding in the darkness, she answered, "Yes. Are they real?"
"They're real. Although most of what you hear about them is bull – er, nonsense. But they really do use Dark Arts gatherings like the Mors Mortis Society to recruit. Most of the kids in the MMS are just fools, like you said. But a few of them have the... qualities that the Dark Convention is looking for."
"So the Dark Convention knows about you... and me... and that's why we were invited," she said slowly, thinking it over.
There was a brief silence, and then Maximilian must have realized his nod was equally invisible, and replied, "Right. Someone – John, I'm pretty sure, and maybe Sue too – is actually in contact with real Dark wizards."
"So John knows you're my brother. That's why he thinks you can 'take care of me.'"
She thought about that, then asked, "What's this 'mission' you're on?"
"That's the part that will take a while."
"Who's your mother? Have you met our fa – Abraham Thorn? If you're not really interested in becoming a Dark wizard, why have you been participating in the Mors Mortis Society? Why have you been such a jerk to me? Why didn't you tell me in the first place? How could you just stand there while John was t–torturing me..." Alexandra suddenly had a million questions, but her voice almost broke on the last one, and she frowned, furious at the unexpected emotion that memory brought forth. She shuddered, too, involuntarily.
"We can talk about all of this," he said gently. "We will talk about all of this, I promise. I want to explain everything. I know I've made mistakes. This whole time, I've never been quite sure what to do about you, and so I've probably cobbed up a lot. I don't blame you for being angry, and I don't expect you to just trust me and believe everything I say right away. But will you at least give me a chance?"
My brother, she thought, still having a hard time wrapping her mind around that concept.
"What about the Mors Mortis Society?" she asked. "What were they going to do with Honey?" The jarvey was still lying stiffly in her lap. If she didn't know otherwise, she would have thought the creature was quite dead.
"Put a curse on Angelique, through her familiar," Maximilian replied. "It's a nasty trick that can be used to do terrible things to someone, but they just wanted to punish her a little bit. They haven't worked their way up to doing serious harm yet. But they were going to do it to you, with your raven."
"Those creeps!" Alexandra cursed. "If they touch Charlie I'll kill them!" And then another thought occurred to her. "That's why you dragged me and Anna out early this morning, so Tomo could sneak into our room and abduct Nigel?" Alexandra was becoming furious again.
"My snake! The snake you and your scummy friends were going to torture and kill –"
"They're not my friends, Alexandra!" he corrected her sharply. He felt the heavy silence between them, and added, more apologetically, "Yes, I told Tomo to go after your snake instead of your raven. Look, I don't enjoy harming animals either. But it is just a snake. I knew you wouldn't have a connection with it like you do with your other familiar."
She took several deep breaths, trying to calm down. "So they wanted to punish me," she said at last. "And Angelique. What about Stuart and Torvald, and Tomo, and all the other kids who have quit?"
"They can't go after everyone. It would be too obvious. But you definitely need to watch your back. What happened to Tomo? She didn't show up tonight."
Alexandra quickly explained how she and Anna had confronted Tomo, and Maximilian made a hissing sound through his teeth. "Yeah, she could be in trouble too. Give me her coin. I'll do what I can to keep them off her. I'll tell them something to persuade them it's better to leave her alone. I didn't think she really had the heart for this stuff; I wasn't sure why she was still participating."
Alexandra looked down, glad that it was too dark for Maximilian to see her face. Then she looked up, and asked quietly, "What about Darla?"
"Darla..." Maximilian sighed. "I don't know what she thinks she's doing. She's a silly little girl who wants to impress older boys."
"Even kill her best friend's pet, and watch her get cursed?"
"She probably knows she's in over her head now, and she's scared, but she's also being really stupid."
Alexandra was silent, and Maximilian said, "We really should get back to our dorms."
"So, you want me to trust you, and keep quiet, and not tell anyone about all these terrible things going on? And when someone else gets cursed, or worse..."
"I'll warn you if anything bad is going to happen, and if I have to, I'll go to Dean Grimm myself," he promised. "But yes, I want you to trust me."
"That's a lot of trust for someone who's been nothing but a butt-head, and this could all be a lie, and you could be working for the Dark Convention yourself, for all I know."
"That's true," Maximilian replied somberly.
She was silent again, for several seconds, before she put her hand into her pocket. Then, reaching out in the darkness, she found Maximilian's hand, turned it over, and put Tomo's MMS coin in it.
"No one else gets hurt," she stated. "No curses, no familiars getting abducted. If anything happens to anyone and I think the Mors Mortis Society is behind it, I'll go straight to Ms. Grimm and take my chances."
"All right," Maximilian said.
"You owe me a really big explanation, and I mean soon. Really soon."
"Yes," he agreed.
"And stop being so mean in JROC."
"You and Chu are still new wands. I can't stop treating you accordingly."
"You can do it without being an obnoxious bully, can't you?"
He laughed a little. "You have no idea how new wands get treated at BMI. We call the start of sixth grade 'a semester in hell,' and it doesn't get much better until seventh or eighth grade. But I'll try to ease up."
She frowned, but decided that would have to do. She began to rise unsteadily to her feet. Maximilian was already on his feet, and grasped her arm to help her up. She wasn't sure how she felt about that, but she didn't resist him, and when she was standing, he murmured, "I hated watching you get Crucioed. I almost stopped it the first time, and I should have stopped it the second time." He paused, and it sounded as if he were having trouble speaking when he continued. "I wasn't sure what to do, how much you could take before I'd have to intervene, even if it meant blowing my mission. So that's probably my biggest blunder so far, and I don't blame you if you hate me for it. I am sorry, Alexandra. I won't let that happen again, I promise. And if you want to Crucio me for it, I deserve it. I'll willingly let you do it until you feel satisfied."
She stared at him, even though she couldn't see his face. It was the seriousness with which he said it that convinced her in that moment that he was telling the truth, that he really was her brother. And at the same time, she was appalled, rather than comforted, by his words.
"You didn't Crucio me," she said quietly. "If anyone deserves it, it's John. But I don't think I'd do it to him either, even if I knew that spell."
She wasn't sure that was true. She knew there was a part of her that would like very, very much to see John Manuelito writhing on the floor, screaming in pain. Then she remembered the look of terror on Tomo's face, and wondered if that part of herself was what the Boggart Tomo had seen looked like.
On the ground floor, she and Maximilian looked at each other, blinking in the relatively bright light cast by lamps near the main entrance. She thought she could see, now, the resemblance to Abraham Thorn, at least from pictures she had found of her father. Maximilian had the same handsome profile and square jaw, and the same dark, penetrating eyes. Her own pale skin and green eyes were completely unlike her father's and her brother's; they had only their straight black hair in common.
Questions came bubbling to her lips, but she knew this wasn't the time or place to ask them.
"Soon," Maximilian murmured, as if reading her mind. He waved his wand, and conjured a handkerchief. He murmured, "Aguamenti," and dampened it with a jet of water. She was puzzled by this, until he touched it to her cheek and began wiping away the tear tracks left behind after her Cruciatus experience. Annoyed and embarrassed, she snatched the cloth away from him, and rubbed furiously at her eyes herself.
She felt Honey start to squirm in her other hand, and realized the Body-Bind Charm on the jarvey was wearing off.
"Would you please not tell Chu all this?" Maximilian requested. "Knowing about the Society won't do her any good, and I'd rather you didn't tell her about us." When she frowned at him, he told her, "Not many people know who my father is, and I'd like to keep it that way. I think you can understand why."
She kept frowning. "I'll think about it."
He didn't look happy, but nodded slightly.
"What am I supposed to tell Angelique?" she asked.
"Mudblood!" growled Honey sluggishly.
"That you were too late to save her jarvey?" Maximilian suggested.
She glared at him, and he shrugged. "Angelique knew Darla was in the Mors Mortis Society. I'd say return her familiar, and let Darla deal with the consequences. Maybe that will be enough to make her quit."
"Dunk the witch!" snapped Honey. Alexandra now had to hold onto the jarvey with both hands.
"I hope so," she muttered. Then she looked up at him again. "Hey, all this stuff you've been telling me – aren't you worried about the curse in that secrecy contract?"
"Oh, I already had it removed." Maximilian smiled at her. "Martin's been studying curse-breaking for a couple of years now. He's not a professional, of course, but neither was whoever enchanted that contract."
She stared at him as he walked off towards another wing of the academy, where the eleventh grade boys slept, then hurried back to her own dorm. Honey continued wriggling in her hands, and even tried to bite her.
"I can't believe I just risked my life to save you," Alexandra said to the jarvey.
"Shut up, Honey."
She had been hoping the Delta Delta Kappa Tau hall monitor would be asleep again, but when she reached the entrance to the seventh grade girls' dorms and peeked around the corner, she saw that the old warlock was awake for once.
"Pictogel!" she intoned sharply, pointing her wand at the portrait, and then she sprinted down the hall towards her room, hissing, "You probably woke him up!" at the jarvey.
"Filthy Mudblood!" Honey's voice was getting louder.
"How would you like to be introduced to a really big snake?"
She shifted her grip to hold the jarvey by the scruff of the neck, dangling her from one hand, while she opened the door to her room with the other.
Anna was pacing inside, and rushed to the door as soon as Alexandra opened it. Charlie cawed loudly.
"Dwarf!" sneered Honey, her feet pawing the air.
Anna gasped. "You found her!"
"Yeah, and I can't wait to get rid of her." Alexandra hurried across their room to the bathroom, walked through it, and pounded on the door to Darla and Angelique's room before opening it.
Darla wasn't back yet, but Angelique was lying on her stomach in bed, with the covers thrown off. Her face was buried in her pillow, but she looked up, startled, when Alexandra walked into her room.
"Honey!" she exclaimed.
"Lazy bed-head! Is sleeping all you ever do?" Honey snapped.
Angelique leaped out of bed and took the squirming creature out of Alexandra's hands, and snuggled her against her chest.
"Feed me!" Honey demanded, but Alexandra noticed the jarvey immediately stopped thrashing about and became docile in her mistress's arms.
Angelique looked up at her, with an awkward, grateful expression.
"How did you find her?" she asked softly.
Just then, Darla opened the door from the hallway, and stood there, frozen in the doorway. She and Alexandra stared at one another, both their faces unreadable. Before either of them could say anything, though, Honey began screaming such a litany of curses that even Angelique looked shocked.
"Ask Darla," Alexandra said, not taking her eyes off of Angelique's roommate. She backed into the bathroom, forcing Anna to move aside, and closed the door. From the next room, they heard Honey continuing to screech noisily, while Angelique pleaded with her to be quiet, until finally the jarvey fell abruptly silent – muffled, Alexandra assumed, by a Silencing Charm.
She turned to look at her wide-eyed roommate.
"I can't believe I saved that thing," she grimaced. "You have to wonder where she learns all that."
Anna kept staring at her.
"Is Tomo all right?" Alexandra asked. "You didn't hex each other, did you?"
Anna shook her head.
"You made sure she got back to her room all right? Without threatening each other or getting in another fight?"
Anna nodded, frowning.
"Good. Well, it's really late, isn't it? We'd better go to bed –"
"Alex!" Anna practically shouted. "Are you kidding me?"
Alexandra sighed. "I know. I owe you an explanation. But it's a long story, and I really am tired, Anna. Can it wait until tomorrow?"
Anna's brow wrinkled up with concern. "Are you all right?" she asked.
Alexandra really didn't feel all right, and she had no idea what she looked like. She was almost afraid to look in the mirror. Her thoughts were still whirling, and her nerves still tingled with the memory of the Cruciatus Curse. There was so much she had to think about, and a lot she didn't want to think about. And she knew that if she told Anna half of it, her friend would absolutely freak out.
So she nodded. "I'm fine," she assured her. "I'm just really, really tired."
Anna looked unconvinced, but nodded. "Okay, Alex," she agreed softly. "Let's go to bed."
Alexandra checked on Nigel, and took a few moments to pet Charlie, who had emerged from the cage hanging by the window and was sitting on her bedpost.
"I'll never let anyone hurt you!" she whispered fervently.
"Alexandra," cooed the raven, pecking affectionately at her hand.
She finally tumbled into bed, but long after she and Anna had extinguished the lights, she lay on her back staring at the ceiling, in the darkness, thinking about Maximilian and Abraham Thorn. When she fell asleep, she dreamt that she was slithering on her belly, like a snake, unable to do anything but flop around and hiss in pain, while John Manuelito stood over her, screaming, "Crucio!"
Alexandra almost dreaded getting up the next day. Staying in bed would have been so much easier. But Anna's worried "Alex?" as she emerged from the bathroom and found Alexandra still under her covers forced a sigh, and emergence into the cold light of morning.
She ran a hand through her unkempt black hair, trying to ignore Anna's worried expression, and walked into the bathroom just as Darla tried to enter from the other side.
"It's my turn," said Darla.
Alexandra took two steps towards her, and Darla backed rapidly away. Alexandra pushed the opposite door shut, with a slam that almost drowned out Darla's cry of indignation.
She hadn't heard much conversation going on in the next room, like she usually did in the morning. Even Honey seemed to be silent (or was still Silenced). Now she wondered what Darla could possibly have said to Angelique, and whether Angelique would go tell on her herself.
She felt a little better after a shower. She emerged into the bedroom, and began putting on her uniform, glancing at Anna, who was already in hers.
"Your wand pin is too close to your collar," she said. "And your belt is crooked."
Anna frowned, and began adjusting her pin. "Fine, Alex, if you're not going to tell me anything –"
Alexandra sighed, and reached for the pin that Anna was about to stick into her uniform upside down. Anna's hands fell away while Alexandra adjusted it for her.
"Did Tomo tell you why I was worried about a curse?" Alexandra asked.
Anna swallowed. "Not exactly," she said quietly. "But she was scared. She was afraid to tell me anything. So I guessed... I guessed the Mors Mortis Society made you both swear some kind of oath of secrecy. Is that right?"
Alexandra nodded slowly. "I want to check on her this morning." She finally finished fixing Anna's pin, and then looked her over, straightening the other witch's uniform. "So you understand why I can't tell you everything?"
"You have to go to the Dean," Anna said firmly. "Most magical oaths can be removed, you know, unless it's an Unbreakable Vow."
"Maybe I will." And when Anna looked thoroughly unsatisfied with that answer, Alexandra pleaded, "Will you trust me, Anna?"
Anna sighed. "You usually get in the most trouble when you think you know what you're doing."
"Do I look like I'm about to run off and do something?"
"No," Anna replied quietly. "You look really serious. That's what worries me."
"You always worry, Anna." Alexandra smiled, to take the sting out of her words, and patted her friend on the shoulder. "Come on. Let's go to breakfast."
Downstairs, Alexandra scanned the cafeteria. She saw Maximilian sitting with the other Stormcrows, as usual, at the end of a table they reserved for themselves. He looked at her and gave her a small nod, then turned back to Beatrice, who was sitting on the other side of him from Martin, and continued whatever conversation he was having with her.
Sue Fox was sitting with a group of eleventh grade girls, one of whom had also been at the Mors Mortis Society meeting last night. Neither of them looked at Alexandra, but a couple of other kids she recognized were glowering at her, including Tony Masterson. Alexandra had rarely seen John Manuelito in the cafeteria, and he wasn't here now.
She tried to look as if she didn't notice the covert glares being cast in her direction. Anna took her tray to join David and Constance and Forbearance at their usual table. Alexandra was about to join them, but paused when she saw Tomo enter the cafeteria, accompanied by a couple of other sixth grade girls. She strolled over to them.
Tomo's friends immediately glared at her. "Why can't you just leave her alone?" said one, a brown-haired girl who was nearly as tall as Alexandra. Her voice quavered, though, and she gulped when Alexandra looked at her. Their fear made Alexandra feel both formidable and small.
"It's okay," Tomo murmured. There was nervousness in her eyes, too, but she swallowed and said, "I'll join you in a minute."
The other two girls looked at her dubiously, looked back at Alexandra, and then shuffled over to their table, with several suspicious glances over their shoulders. Tomo stood where she was, not looking up.
"I just wanted to check on you," Alexandra said quietly. "Nothing else happened last night?"
Tomo shook her head. "I was worried..." She looked around and dropped her voice to a whisper. "About the curse. But nothing's happened."
Alexandra nodded. She had been thinking about that, and had decided she should read more about magical oaths. "I don't think that curse is as powerful as they say it is," she whispered back. "But that doesn't mean they can't do something to you."
Tomo nodded, eyes downcast.
"You can tell your friends I will leave you alone. And I'll make sure Anna does, too. But, be careful of the others. If anything happens, or anyone else threatens you, tell me," Alexandra whispered.
With that, she walked over to join her friends, and sat down next to Anna.
Anna, David, and the Pritchards were all looking at her. She wondered what Anna had told them. She felt tired already.
"Ready for that Magical Theory test?" David asked.
Alexandra groaned. She hadn't studied at all.
When Angelique arrived, Darla was still nowhere to be seen. Angelique filled her tray with breakfast, then shuffled towards the table where Alexandra and the others were sitting, and hesitated.
Alexandra gestured for her to come join them. When she sat down, looking as nervous and downcast as Tomo had, Constance asked, "Where's Darla?"
"I don't know," Angelique muttered. "She was still in the shower when I left."
Constance and Forbearance raised their eyebrows. Angelique and Darla always came to breakfast together.
Alexandra wanted to ask her what Darla had told her, but didn't think it was a good idea to talk about it in front of everyone else.
In the classes they had together that day, Angelique sat with her and Anna, and Darla sat at a table by herself, and avoided looking at any of them. Alexandra also noticed, for the first time, that they weren't the only ones avoiding Darla – no one wanted to sit with her. Darla adopted a haughty demeanor, and spread her books and pencils and scrolls out on her desk as if it were her private domain.
Alexandra found herself staring blankly at her scroll during her Magical Theory test. Her mind kept going back to the previous night, and then to her confrontation with the Boggart on Halloween, and that black void in the room beneath Charmbridge Academy. Then she looked up and found Miss Hart frowning at her. Alexandra shook her head, trying to banish these unwanted thoughts.
'6. Give an example of Ptolemy's First Principle of Magic, and describe one spell you have learned this year and how this principle applies to it,' she read, and not only could she not remember Ptolemy's First Principle of Magic, but she couldn't remember answering questions one through five.
"That wasn't too bad," David said afterwards.
"Hm," Alexandra grunted.
Darla did come to the cafeteria for lunch, but she sat with Wayne Reeves and Tony Masterson at another table. Alexandra frowned, and saw that Angelique wore a troubled expression when she spotted her roommate sitting with the two older boys from the Mors Mortis Society.
Alexandra sighed, and joined Anna and David to head for Wizard Social Studies. Angelique and Darla had Astronomy and Astrology after lunch; Alexandra would have to wait until after school to talk to Angelique.
In P.M.E. class, Ms. Shirtliffe had the JROC students flying broom drills again. Maximilian did seem to be less overbearing, but Alexandra was distracted and kept staring at him, then looking away. Shirtliffe made her repeat several simple maneuvers, and then reprimanded her when her response to the question, "What's wrong with you today, Quick?" was a shrug. That day, for the first time, Anna actually performed her drills better than Alexandra did.
"Quick!" barked Maximilian, when the JROC formation was dismissed after the final school bell rang. He strode over to her and Anna.
"Your flying today was miserable," he said, "and so was your attitude. I think you need another remedial training session."
Anna started to object. Alexandra shook her head at her. "It's fine, Anna. Go on." She glared at Maximilian, who looked ready to shout at her. He just scowled, until Anna, looking wary and concerned, slowly walked back inside.
"Whatever remedial training you have in mind, Corporal, it won't be on a broom," Colonel Shirtliffe declared, walking over with a concerned expression of her own.
"No, ma'am," Maximilian replied.
Shirtliffe looked at Alexandra. "Is everything all right, Quick?" she asked. "Do you need to talk about anything? Mage-Corporal King's remedial training can wait until another day."
Alexandra shook her head. "I'm fine, ma'am."
"All right." Shirtliffe sounded almost reluctant. She frowned at Maximilian. "I'd better not see any excessive 'training,' King, and don't keep her out too long. There will not be a repeat of the previous incident."
"No, ma'am," Maximilian repeated. They both waited until the uniformed teacher had marched out of earshot. There were still a few students out on the fields – younger kids playing Quidditch after school, and a few older ones tending to the few plants in the outdoor herbology gardens that hadn't died yet – but Alexandra and Maximilian were mostly alone, now.
"My flying was not miserable," she muttered sullenly.
"Actually, it was." Maximilian looked amused. "I've seen you fly much better."
"When I'm not flying into a tree, you mean?" she retorted. Maximilian looked down.
"You did that on purpose, didn't you?" she asked sharply.
"I didn't mean for you to hit it quite so hard," he admitted.
"I could have been killed!"
"Not likely. You are a witch. But it wasn't one of my better ideas." He sighed, and actually looked guilty as he met her disbelieving stare.
"Walk with me," he said, gesturing.
After a moment, she followed him, and they began walking past the gym and stables.
"I thought I might put you in the infirmary for a day or two, long enough to keep you from going to the meeting. And maybe even rattle you enough that you'd want to quit."
"Brilliant plan." Her tone was heavy with sarcasm.
"Look, I just admitted it wasn't. I didn't know how else to keep you away from those sorcerers. You've seen how dangerous they are now. Do you understand why I was trying to protect you?"
She looked sideways at him, frowning. "Why, because I'm your sister? We'd never even met before this year. Who made it your job to protect me? And how about telling me the truth from the beginning? For three months, you've been acting like my worst enemy, and you never mentioned we're related. I'm really sick of people knowing stuff about me and not telling me!"
Her words came out in a stream, with more anger and bitterness than she'd intended. But Maximilian just listened to her, and nodded.
"I heard about what happened to you last year," he said gravely. "With Benedict Journey. I'm glad that traitorous snake died, and not you."
"What do you know about it?" The two of them were walking side by side, and Alexandra felt that Maximilian was speaking to her as if she were an actual person for the first time, but it was only making her angrier. "Are you going to actually tell me anything or not?"
He sighed. "All right. Where do you want me to start?"
She thought a moment, then stared ahead, and said, "Our father."
"Right." He nodded, with a wry smile. "He married my mother about twenty years ago. At the time, he was at the height of his political career, and depending on who you ask, he needed to remarry so he'd look like a good family man, or my mother thought she was marrying a future Governor-General." His smile faded, and his words became more heated. "But that's dragon dung! He and my mother really did love and respect each other. I know they had political reasons for getting married, but it wasn't just convenience. Either one of them could have chosen someone else rich and powerful."
"Okay." Alexandra was nonplussed at his tone and his angry expression. Were people always telling him that his parents had only married for political reasons? Then she did a double-take. "Wait... remarry?"
He hooked his thumbs through the broad red leather belt around his waist, and hunched his shoulders forward a little, looking uncomfortable as they rounded another corner of Charmbridge's exterior. "Well, yes. He's been married and divorced at least three times. My mother was his third wife. I think."
Alexandra blinked at this. She'd read several biographies of Abraham Thorn last year, but they mostly talked about his political career and the events that led to his becoming the most notorious and wanted wizard in the Confederation.
"I've read books about him," she said. "I don't remember anything about three wives." Of course, it had been hundreds of pages, mind-numbing at times.
"Did you ever hear about what happened to Jerwig Findlewell?"
"No. He wrote one of those books, right? I think I read it."
"The Darkness That Threatens Us All! Yes." Maximilian smiled, without much humor. "You probably read the revised edition. Booksellers and librarians were quick to apply Editing Charms on that one. Findlewell wrote a little too much about Father's family. He's now in the Dunwoody Home for the Incurably Cursed. Reporters who've put the names of Father's ex-wives or children in the press have also had bad things happen to them."
"Children? Other children?" Alexandra felt slightly dizzy at all the information spilling out of her half-brother.
Maximilian nodded. "You and I have four other sisters that I know of, besides Julia. I've met Lucilla and Drucilla, but not their younger sister Valeria – they're Father's daughters by his second wife. And I've heard he had a daughter by his first wife." He added bitterly: "All of us get interviewed by the Office of Special Inquisitions, at least a couple of times a year."
He smiled. "My other little sister. She's a couple of years older than you."
Alexandra let 'little sister' pass, and asked, "So is he still married to your mother?"
Maximilian shook his head, mouth pressed into a firm line. "He became an opposition figure in the Wizards' Congress around the time I was born, and then he started associating with other wizards who were out of favor, and keeping questionable company. Then came his trip to Britain, shortly after Julia was born, and his alleged meeting with Lord Voldemort. Governor-General Hucksteen branded him a traitor. He and my mother had already separated by that point. He didn't oppose her petition to divorce, which was fortunate since he tried to kill Hucksteen a few months later." He shrugged. "Mother says the divorce was necessary. We're still living under his shadow as it is."
Alexandra's mind was whirling again. She had always been an only child. She was still struggling with the idea that she had a half-brother, and suddenly she had five half-sisters as well?
She thought about this, as they kept walking, and Maximilian remained silent, letting her mull over this new information.
Finally, she asked, "What's he like?" in a somber tone.
Now Maximilian was quiet, as they walked along. They rounded a corner and continued walking down the length of another wing of the academy. To their right was a large brick fire pit, where last year at about this time, Alexandra had nearly been barbecued by renegade Clockworks, following the orders of Ben Journey.
"I've only met him a few times, since I was little," he answered at last. "It's kind of hard to talk to your father when the Wizard Justice Department is always watching you so they can arrest him if he shows up. I think he keeps an eye on all of us, but the more involved he tries to become in our lives, the more scrutiny there would be on us from the WJD. So..." He shrugged. "Lucy and Dru told me it's the same for them. None of us know him well."
Alexandra's eyes were fixed on the ground. There was so much to think about, and as Maximilian had said the other night, they could talk for hours and still not exhaust all the questions she had. She was feeling curiosity, excitement, jealousy, and resentment – all these new siblings she'd never known about, whom she now had a very real desire to meet. But all of them had at least met their father, and had had the advantage of growing up in the wizarding world, and knowing about each other. And what was she? The youngest cast-off of a man who had left a trail of abandoned wives and children behind him?
"What about my mother?" she asked quietly. "She's not even a witch. She's never told me anything about him. Was she just some Muggle girl he... fooled around with, and left?"
Maximilian stopped walking, and turned to regard her seriously. She stopped also, but couldn't quite meet his eyes, and instead fixed her gaze on the silver button, stamped with the image of a crow, that held his short military cloak to the collar of his uniform, just below the tight muscles of his neck.
"I don't know, Alexandra." His voice was as quiet as hers. "From what I've heard about our father, he's always been something of a playboy. There are all sorts of rumors, and scandals from when he was younger." Alexandra frowned, wrinkling her nose, as Maximilian went on. "Not something I really wanted to ask my mother about, and the few times I've met him, it didn't really occur to me to ask him about other women."
She nodded slowly. She could see why asking their father about his love life would be awkward. She looked up at him, trying to read his expression, and divine the truth from his dark, steady gaze, but she couldn't. Nothing he'd said was implausible, and she couldn't think of a reason for him to make any of this up, but she didn't know how she felt about any of it.
"How long have you known about me?" she asked.
"Rumors that Abraham Thorn had another daughter, going to Charmbridge Academy, went around last year," he said. "Then Diana Grimm mentioned you, when she interviewed me this summer."
Her brows knit together in an angry frown. "So was that your mission?" she demanded. Her voice began rising again. "Show up here, turn me into a good little JROC officer who will do what she's told? What, you thought telling me you're my brother would be too obvious, so instead you just decided to act like an arrogant jerk –"
Maximilian threw his head back and laughed, which did nothing to soothe her temper. "What are you laughing at?" she snapped.
He made himself look serious again, with an effort, and smiled at her. "That doesn't make any sense, you know," he pointed out. "You must realize that? How was treating you like any other new wand going to earn your trust? And I had no idea at the beginning of the school year that you'd wind up in the JROC. I would have preferred you hadn't, at least at first. Yes, Ms. Grimm gave me the same speech she always does, about letting her know if I hear from my father, and she did tell me to keep an eye on you, since he might be more likely to contact one or both of us, with the two of us here at Charmbridge. But I don't think they expect to get any useful information from any of his children. He's not stupid, you know. The last time I met him, he told me to go ahead and tell the WJD agents everything about our meetings. He knows they'll interrogate us, and he's smart enough not to tell us anything that will be useful to them."
Alexandra was still fuming, both at Maximilian's laughter, and at all the things he knew, all the experiences he had had, that she hadn't. "You should have told me," she said angrily. "You should have just told me from the beginning. Were you ever planning to tell me?"
"Eventually. I was hoping to get to know you first, but that obviously didn't work out too well."
"Yeah, when you and all your friends are bunch of arrogant bullies and jerks and then you try to kill me, I can see how that made it hard to say, 'Oh, by the way, I don't really hate your guts, I'm actually your brother.'"
He shook his head, and gave her a wry smile again. "You are mouthy. And awfully sarcastic."
His smile faded when he saw the baleful expression on her face, and he sighed and put a hand on her shoulder. "Look," he said softly. "I messed up, I admit it. I'd rather you hated me than get dragged into this."
She looked at his hand on her shoulder, and he let it slide off.
"What is 'this'?" she demanded. "You said you have a mission." Her tone was skeptical now.
They had walked over halfway around the school. Maximilian looked around, as if worried that someone might be eavesdropping on them. There were no people on this side of the academy, though, only a trio of Clockwork golems, out on the lawn raking leaves. Further away, a black flurry of crows was descending on the treetops. Alexandra watched them wheel and spin about, cawing and shrieking, and wondered if they were the same crows Ben Journey had commanded to attack Ms. Grimm. She shook her head and looked at Maximilian again.
"I told you that the Mors Mortis Society has connections with the Dark Convention," he said, in a much lower voice.
"Dean Grimm isn't stupid. She knows that there's a Dark Arts club meeting secretly in her school. So does the Wizard Justice Department."
Alexandra frowned. "And they aren't doing anything about it?"
"They are. Dean Grimm just wants to get rid of them – catch the students who are practicing Dark Arts and expel them. But the WJD wants to find out what the Dark Convention's involvement is." The two of them continued walking along, now shuffling through leaves the Clockworks hadn't reached yet. They made a crackling sound underfoot. Alexandra had to resist to the impulse to run through them, gleefully kicking up a storm of autumn leaves, as she might have a year ago. But this was a serious conversation, and she wasn't in the mood, and besides, she didn't want Maximilian to think she was a little kid.
"So you are working for the WJD!" Alexandra exclaimed, and then lowered her voice when Maximilian winced.
"I wouldn't exactly call it working for them," he said defensively. "It's not as if I'm getting a salary."
"So what are you getting from them?" she demanded. "Seems awfully risky, sending a teenager undercover to infiltrate a secret society of Dark wizards."
"Yes, it is, which is why I didn't want you involved. And why I preferred letting you think I was a... big fat bully."
She shook her head. "Dean Grimm knows about this?"
"Not about me, no. I was told by the Office of Special Inquisitions that she refused to cooperate in planting a special agent at Charmbridge. Apparently, she and her sister aren't on speaking terms at the moment, and she doesn't think too highly of the WJD. So, they told me about the Mors Mortis Society instead."
"And you're supposed to infiltrate them?" she asked incredulously. "And the WJD let you, because you're Abraham Thorn's son and they figured the Dark Convention would be extra-interested in you? And then what? You rat out the Mors Mortis Society, help them arrest some Dark wizards? What's in it for you? All they want is to catch our father, and they don't mind using us to do it! And you're willing to cooperate with them? Will you turn him in, too, if you get a chance?"
Her eyes were flashing angrily, and then she skidded to a halt as Maximilian rounded on her, his expression as angry as hers. For a moment, she saw cold fury in his eyes, and she was reminded of before, when he'd grabbed her and seemed on the verge of throttling her.
Now, however, he took a deep breath and slowly let it out, and then his dark, ominous scowl faded, to be replaced with a small smile.
"You sound awfully loyal to a man you've never even met," he said quietly.
She glowered at him, but her tone was less certain when she replied, "I'm not loyal to him. But I don't see why I should be loyal to the Confederation either. They didn't care about me or my mother all these years, and now they just want to use me."
He nodded. "That's right. Just like they want to use me, and Julia, and all of Father's other children. But if I help them here, I earn their trust and maybe have a chance of advancing my career after I graduate. There's a huge stigma in being one of Abraham Thorn's children, you know. Lucy and Dru are very talented Artificers, but no one will hire them. No one will marry them either, not from the circles they rightfully belong in. Valeria has gone overseas to get away from the Confederation. I know Julia is going to have the same problem. She's a beautiful, intelligent girl, and she's already shunned by boys who aren't worth a tenth of her." Maximilian's eyes blazed, and Alexandra was amazed at the sudden passion in his words. "She'll never get any decent marriage proposals while Governor-General Hucksteen is in power! Neither will you."
"What?" Alexandra sputtered. "Marriage proposals? Are you kidding?"
"Well, of course you're too young to be thinking about that now, but you will be –"
"I will not!" she spat. "And why would I care about any boys who are stupid enough to care about who my father is? You're risking your life and turning into a Dark wizard so your sisters can get married? That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard!"
"I'm not turning into a Dark wizard, and it's not just about my sisters getting married," he replied, in a much calmer tone of voice. "It's about undoing the damage our father has done to us."
"And the Governor-General," said Alexandra.
Maximilian smiled tightly. "Yes. Him, too."
"Are you crazy?"
His eyes glinted with amusement. Alexandra wasn't amused at all. Their grand tour around the exterior of the academy had almost brought them to the front entrance, where some older students and a few teachers were coming and going, on foot and on broom. "So do Martin and Beatrice know about this secret mission of yours?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Martin knows a little, but he doesn't ask questions. Bea wouldn't understand."
He stopped, and turned to face her. "So, do you believe me?" he asked seriously.
She squinted at him. "You'd have to be crazy to make a story like this up," she muttered.
"Then can I trust you?" he asked.
She blinked. "What?"
"I just told you all my secrets, Alexandra. You could blow my cover with the Society. Or you could spread it around school that I'm Abraham Thorn's son. Or you could go to the Dean. She'd probably put an end to the Mors Mortis Society immediately."
"But then I won't be able to prove myself to the Dark Convention, and I won't be able to prove myself to the WJD, and you and Julia will never get married."
"That's –" Alexandra started to sputter again, then noticed the amused glint back in his eye. "You are such a jerk!"
"But I am serious," he said, as his face turned serious, matching his words. "You could really bollix everything for me."
She considered that.
"What happens if the Mors Mortis Society tries to really hurt someone?" she asked.
"As I said, I'll go to the Dean myself if I have to."
She frowned. This still sounded like a stupid idea to her. Maximilian waited, while she mulled everything over.
"Would you really let me Crucio you?" she asked.
"Do you really want to?" he replied gravely.
She shook her head.
"How are you feeling?" he asked, studying her.
She shrugged. His steady gaze remained fixed on her, until she answered, "Fine," at last. She looked back at him. "So what now?"
"Now, we're done with remedial training for the day." He clapped her on the shoulder, hard enough to stagger her. "Don't you have homework?"
She glared at him.
"I do want to be your big brother, Alexandra," he said softly. "I know you've had a rough time because of Father, and growing up in the Muggle world. But here you are, and you're fierce, and brave, and wickedly talented, too! A real daughter of Thorn."
Alexandra's eyes were wide now. Once again, her brother's words caught her off-guard, and replaced indignation with shock and confusion. "You think I'm... talented?"
"That was some Stunning Spell you hit Darla and Tony with." He smiled. "And when you actually put effort into it, you're not half-bad when it comes to handling a wand and broom. Yes, you're clever and powerful... and thick-headed, temperamental, full of yourself –"
"I guess Abraham Thorn's children are like that," she said dryly.
His mouth twisted into a wry grin. "I'm sure he's proud of you."
She stared at him, unable to think of a response to that.
A gust of wind blew leaves up around them. Maximilian dispersed them with a wave of his wand, and Alexandra realized that she'd often seen him doing things with greater ease than most juniors.
"Teach me all the stuff you know," she said. "Magic, I mean. And I want to hear more, about our father, and your sister, and your mother, and all the times you've met Diana Grimm. I want to hear everything."
"And stop being such a jerk."
He smirked a little. "In uniform, you're still a new wand, Quick." When she continued glaring at him, he held his hands out in mock acquiescence, and shrugged. "Julia says I'm a blaggard, too. But she knows I'm just looking out for her."
"I don't need anyone to look out for me," Alexandra replied.
He stared down at her, and his face grew serious again. "That's what you think. Anyway, I'm going to whether you like it or not."
Annoyed, she snorted and shook her head, but as much as she wanted to tell him off, there was something about his earnest expression that stirred feelings in her for which she had no name. Maximilian was an arrogant, hot-tempered jerk and a condescending bully. But now she was seeing another side of him: tough, brave, skilled, determined, ambitious. And protective. She had never had a brother, and she still didn't know how she felt about having one suddenly appear in her life.