Cultures

Alexandra's mother and stepfather didn't relent, and she remained grounded through her last week of summer vacation. The visit to the Goblin Market had cheered her up considerably, though. Seeing wizards and witches, goblins and elves, Clockworks, and winged horses again was enough to reassure her that the wizarding world was still there, waiting for her.

She even studied, a little, skimming her textbooks for the coming semester. She looked up 'Recolligo' in her Charms textbook, and found it was called a 'Reconstruction Spell,' and with several variations, could put back together all sorts of things that had been broken or torn into pieces.

Next time, burn the letter, she thought.

An owl arrived that week from Charmbridge Academy, with a form on which she was to choose her elective, listing three choices in order of preference. She still hadn't made up her mind, and the owl sat on her windowsill, hooting impatiently, as she chewed on a pen trying to decide what to write. Its hooting became louder and angrier, until Alexandra finally quieted it by pouring out some of the owl treats she'd bought for Charlie onto her desk. The owl nibbled on these, while Charlie protested.

Alexandra finally wrote: '(1) Magical Ecology. (2) Arithmancy. (3) Practical Magical Exercise.' She rolled the form back up, tied it to the owl's leg, and gave it another owl treat, before it flew off.

"Stop complaining, Charlie," she lectured her raven, who was still eyeing the owl treats greedily. "I'll give you some more treats when you can go a whole week without stealing anything."

The morning that the Charmbridge bus returned, her mother waited with her once again in the parking lot. It was Claudia's first day off in a week. Archie was already at work. He'd given Alexandra a gruff good-bye the night before, and an awkward, one-armed hug, which Alexandra had returned, just as awkwardly.

Now, she stood with her mother, wondering how another entire summer had passed without them having had a real conversation. Somehow her resolve to confront her mother had faltered; she could not bring herself to speak her father's name in their home, as if it might unleash something that couldn't be undone.

Alexandra was wearing slacks and a short-sleeved white shirt conforming to Charmbridge's dress code. Charlie was unhappily caged, sitting on top of Alexandra's traveling case, making irritable croaking noises. A slight breeze stirred the raven's feathers, but it was still a pleasant day outside; the worst heat of summer had passed, but it hadn't yet gotten chilly.

"By the time you come home for Christmas, we won't be here anymore." Her mother gestured at the apartment complex behind them.

Alexandra nodded. Her mother and Archie were still arguing about exactly where they would be, she knew. "You'll let me know your new address, right?" she asked, with a trace of sarcasm.

Her mother looked at her askance, and shook her head. "You've been awfully sulky this summer, Alex. I know it hasn't been easy, living in this little apartment. And I know you had some kind of falling out with Brian."

Finally figured that out? Alexandra thought bitterly, and almost said something about Vacation Bible School contributing to her 'sulkiness,' but she just shrugged.

Claudia Green sighed. The Charmbridge bus pulled into the parking lot, and she put an arm around her daughter's shoulders and leaned in to give her a kiss on the cheek. "I will miss you, you know," she murmured quietly.

"Yeah," Alexandra mumbled. "I'll miss you, too." Somewhere deep down she knew that was probably true, but right now, she could hardly wait to get away from Larkin Mills.

Mrs. Speaks greeted Alexandra and Mrs. Green cheerfully once again, and then Alexandra boarded the bus, with a final wave to her mother.


Each year, the Charmbridge bus collected students throughout the week before the start of class; Anna and the Pritchards were already at the academy, so Alexandra sat with Darla and Angelique, who had just been picked up from the Chicago Wizardrail station. Darla didn't seem to have gotten over Martin entirely, as she was quiet for most of the trip, holding her black cat in her lap and staring out the window, rather than being a chatty, pretentious know-it-all like she usually was. Angelique had her jarvey in a carrier cage, for which she had fortunately mastered a Silencing Charm. Alexandra set Charlie's cage on the table, and watched as her raven and Darla's cat glared at each other, while she and Angelique talked, with only occasional contributions from Darla.

David boarded the bus in Detroit, dressed in clothing appropriate for Charmbridge Academy, instead of the defiantly Muggle sports t-shirt and shorts he'd worn last year. He greeted the girls amiably, glanced at Darla, and exchanged a look with Alexandra, who just rolled her eyes and shook her head. He shrugged and set his familiar's cage on the table next to Charlie's. Inside, Malcolm, his falcon, sat hooded and apparently docile.

"What does a falcon hunt in the city?" asked Alexandra, once the bus began moving again.

"Rats," David replied. "And the occasional cat."

Alexandra thought he was joking, by the way the corners of his mouth twitched slightly when he looked at Darla, but the curly brunette just gave him a sour look, while her cat bristled in her arms. Angelique shook her head and gave him a glare that warned him against any more attempts at humor at Darla's expense.

Alexandra cleared her throat, and asked him about Quidditch tryouts instead. David had begun studying the game intensively. Alexandra thought Quodpot, with its exploding balls, was more interesting, but any game where you got to fly on a broom sounded exciting. She had not seriously thought about joining any teams, though.

The small talk lasted for nearly an hour, until they reached a winding road up one side of a mountain that appeared almost untraveled by Muggles. At the point where the road leveled off and began to descend down the other side, they would disembark. Alexandra and David both fell silent, remembering their first trip across the Invisible Bridge, the previous year.

Once the bus did stop, the students exited to stand on a bluff overlooking a river, far below. The sixth graders all stared at the valley before them, nervous and excited, much as Alexandra and her friends had when they had first come here. Nearly a mile across the valley, red cliffs rose up to face them on the other side. A thick forest stretched as far back as the eye could see, and Alexandra knew Charmbridge Academy was waiting, just a short hike through those trees.

She held up Charlie's cage. "I hope you're ready to save us again, just in case."

The raven squawked. David laughed nervously, and Mrs. Speaks, overhearing her, admonished, "Now, don't be silly, Miss Quick! Everything is perfectly safe!" She smiled reassuringly at the sixth graders.

Alexandra was sure it was perfectly safe – but she and David still waited until the older students were already walking across the Invisible Bridge over the valley before they followed. She noticed Darla and Angelique looking a little nervous before they joined them.

The students all appeared to be walking on air, half a mile above the ground. It was a dizzying height, and one of the sixth graders balked and had to be coaxed out onto the Invisible Bridge by Mrs. Speaks, holding the young boy's hand. He wasn't the only sixth grader who looked terrified. Alexandra wondered if her classmates had looked like that to the older students. Of course she hadn't been frightened!

She spread her arms, pretending she was flying like a bird. They were floating on air, held up only by an invisible, enchanted bridge. This was magic! She was back in the wizarding world, and this year, she told herself, she was going to stay out of trouble.


Charmbridge students generally stayed in the same room from one year to the next, so Delta Delta Kappa Tau Hall was now the seventh grade girls' dormitory. The portrait of the old, bearded warlock who hung above the entrance to the hall welcomed the girls back as they passed beneath him. Alexandra thought he looked a little less enthusiastic when he saw her, but he nodded and even gave her a little wink.

Anna was already in the room they shared, and she beamed when Alexandra came through the door. Last year, both of them had arrived at Charmbridge hardly knowing anyone, and Alexandra had picked Anna as her roommate almost at random, little knowing they would become best friends.

"It's good to be back," Alexandra declared. Charlie squawked agreement, or maybe it was just a demand to be let out. Alexandra set the cage on her desk and opened the door, and Charlie immediately hopped out, and took off through the open window.

"I let Jingwei out, too," Anna said, referring to her great horned owl. "I'll put her in the aviary later, but I figured she'd like to fly around a bit first."

Alexandra nodded, as she began unpacking her books and clothes. Through the door to the bathroom that they shared with the room next to them, they heard Darla and Angelique moving around and opening drawers. Then a familiar, abrasive voice screeched, "What kind of pigs live here?" Anna sighed, and Alexandra rolled her eyes. Angelique's foul-mouthed pet jarvey could only be Silenced for so long.

Despite the prospect of fighting with their suitemates over bathroom time in the morning again, Alexandra was comforted by the familiarity of her surroundings. The previous year, she had been new to the wizarding world, and hadn't yet gotten used to portraits that talked, and meals served by Clockwork golems. Now, however, she fancied herself a veteran, with an entire year's worth of experience under her belt. She was cheerful at breakfast the next morning, and looking forward to her classes. She even remembered to check the seventh grade bulletin board in their hall.

"Well, your name hasn't appeared there yet," Anna observed wryly.

Alexandra gave her roommate a mock scowl, then grinned, and patted her on the arm. "I'm not going to get into trouble like last year, Anna."

The other girl looked at her skeptically.

"I haven't even gotten into a fight with Larry yet!" Alexandra protested.

"And it's almost breakfast!"

Alexandra shook her head, but they were laughing as they entered the cafeteria. They waited in line for the Clockworks to serve them from a hearty buffet selection. Alexandra put a pile of pancakes on her plate, and added some scrambled eggs and a glass of orange juice. Anna chose toast, cold cereal, and a bowl of fruit. As they headed to the table where their friends were sitting, another girl bumped into Anna, hard enough to tip over her cereal bowl. Milk went spilling across her tray and dripped down the front of her robe.

The other girl was one of the new sixth graders. She was Asian, and even shorter than Anna. Alexandra was startled, however, when instead of apologizing, or even saying, "Oops," the smaller girl gave Anna a nasty look and kept walking.

"Hey!" Alexandra called, but the younger girl kept walking. Alexandra was tempted to set off after her and grab her by the shoulder, but Anna shook her head. "Forget about it, Alex." She walked to the table and set her tray down, and then took out her wand and cleaned up the spilled milk and dried the front of her robe with a simple charm.

"That girl has an attitude!" Alexandra exclaimed, sitting down between Anna and Constance, and then looked around as all her friends started laughing at her. "What?" she demanded, as they exchanged knowing looks.

Following breakfast was the first assembly of the year, when the Dean, Vice Dean, and Assistant Deans would address the student body. Every student in the academy filed into the amphitheater, through four different entrances. Alexandra and her friends sat several rows up from the center. The sixth graders filled the rows in front of them, and Alexandra stared for a moment at the small Asian girl who'd bumped into Anna in the cafeteria. She was sitting between a couple of other sixth grade girls, and while the girls on either side of her were whispering excitedly and looking around, she was sitting quietly, looking straight ahead with her hands folded in her lap.

The voices around the amphitheater died as a dozen adults walked onto the stage. Dean Grimm was dressed in formal blue and black robes, and the other faculty members were similarly dressed. Alexandra knew who most of them were, but there was a fat, red-faced woman, fidgeting in her robes, whom she didn't recognize.

"Good morning, students and staff," said Dean Grimm, and her voice silenced the last few conversations still going on out in the amphitheater. Alexandra stared at her, trying to note any differences between her and her sister. Lilith Grimm's commanding gaze and voice were definitely the same as last year. She went through introductions of the Vice Dean and Assistant Deans and Department Heads on the stage with her. Alexandra was uninterested until Dean Grimm announced the Dean of seventh graders, Caelum Black, who was a mild-looking man with graying hair and tiny spectacles. Dean Grimm also introduced the round, red-faced witch as Libby Gale, the new Groundskeeper and Chief Custodian. That caused Alexandra to give her more scrutiny, but the woman seemed harmless.

So did Mr. Journey, she reminded herself. The previous Chief Custodian had been a very nice man – who turned out to be a fugitive warlock who'd been trying to kill her all year.

After being introduced, Ms. Gale left the stage, visibly relieved, and Dean Grimm continued with a speech very much like last year's, and which Alexandra assumed she'd be hearing variations of for the next five years. There were rules against certain types of magic, and against possessing certain types of magic items. Hexing and cursing each other was not permitted, not even as a joke. (Alexandra and Anna exchanged a look – that was probably the most frequently violated rule at Charmbridge Academy, next to 'No Public Displays of Affection.') Students were warned not to try to change their schedules because they didn't like a teacher, not to leave their wands unattended, not to allow familiars loose inside the school, not to violate curfew, and so on.

Alexandra was beginning to tune out the speech, when she heard the Dean mention the Blacksburg Magery Institute, and began paying attention again.

"These six juniors and seniors will be attending Charmbridge Academy all year as part of the Magical Academy Student Exchange Program," Ms. Grimm was saying. "I hope you'll give them all a warm welcome." Everyone clapped dutifully as the six BMI students who had been in the Grundy's cafeteria stood up, in the highest row at the back of the amphitheater. They were wearing their uniforms again, and stood stiffly at attention, each of them acknowledging their name as it was called with a brisk half-bow. Alexandra glanced down her row at Darla, as Martin Nguyen bowed, but Darla was looking at Dean Grimm, not turning around in her seat to look at the Stormcrows as most of the other students were. The handsome, serious boy Alexandra had noticed before was named Maximilian King. The other two boys were Tybalt Franklin and Pierce Prince, and the girls who had found Darla so amusing were Adelaide Speir and Beatrice Hawthorne.

Finally, the assembly was over. Many of the girls had been whispering excitedly when the Stormcrows were introduced, and now they were sighing over the uniformed boys in a way that made Alexandra's eyes roll. Some of the older kids began teasing Darla about her 'boyfriend' – the incident at Grundy's had by now gotten around the school – but Darla seemed to be studiously ignoring the taunts. Alexandra was actually surprised at Darla's self control. Normally her buttons were much easier to push. Since the Stormcrows were in the eleventh and twelfth grades, though, Alexandra didn't expect either she or Darla would have much interaction with them.

When they received their schedules, Alexandra was pleased to see that she'd been given her first choice of electives: Magical Ecology.

"Geomancy," sighed Anna, looking at her schedule. "Too bad we don't have the same elective."

Alexandra laughed. "We have three other classes together! You teach me any cool spells you learn in Geomancy, and I'll tell you about all the magical animals I learn about."

"You don't really learn spells in Geomancy," said Anna.

"Let us know what you find out about Hodags," David teased, following after them, and Alexandra tried to elbow him, as he laughed and dodged out of the way.


The first few days of class were uneventful. Their Charms and Transfiguration teachers were the same as last year: the humorless Mr. Newton and the affable, slightly addled Mr. Hobbes. Alexandra was disappointed that Mr. Grue also taught seventh grade Potions and Alchemy; the large, bearded Alchemy teacher had taken a dislike to her last year, and from the scowl he gave her when she entered his classroom and sat down next to Anna, his opinion of her hadn't changed.

Anna had tested into a more advanced Magical Theory class, as had the Pritchards. Alexandra was feeling a little disgruntled at this when she and David, along with Darla and Angelique, entered their Basic Magical Theory classroom for the first time. She was expecting to see Ms. Shirtliffe, the scarred, hard-bitten defense instructor, as she taught sixth graders Basic Principles of Magic. Instead, they had a new instructor, an attractive young blonde witch named Miss Hart, who seemed barely old enough to be a teacher. Her first lessons were much too advanced, and then they became much too simple, and throughout class she had particular trouble keeping the boys focused; they were more interested in looking at her than at their textbooks.

The pleasant but patronizing Mrs. Middle was their Wizard Social Studies teacher again. Their first few lessons reviewed everything they had learned the previous year about Ministries of Magic in other countries, and the International Confederation of Wizards. Alexandra found it boring; she wanted to learn magic! Wizard Social Studies was a class she merely endured, and her grades last year had reflected her disinterest.

She was initially quite excited about Magical Ecology, but when Mr. Fledgefield handed out a course outline, Alexandra was disappointed to see that dragons, basilisks, minotaurs, sea serpents, and giant spiders did not appear anywhere on it. Neither did Hodags. Instead, it appeared the first few weeks would be spent learning about common magical plants like whipweed, Flitterblooms, and Puffapods, followed by a unit on trees, and then moving into animals at the end of the semester – and Knarls, Clabberts, and hoop snakes didn't sound as interesting as dragons.

When she approached Mr. Fledgefield about this after class, he gave her a bemused smile.

"I've heard you tend to be fascinated with anything that's dangerous, Miss Quick."

She frowned. "I am not. I just wanted to learn about..." She frowned again.

"Dangerous magical creatures?" Fledgefield suggested. He chuckled. "There are more Magizoology and Magibotany classes available as electives in higher grades. We aren't going to let seventh graders handle mandrakes or go looking for Sasquatches. Pass this class, and you'll get to do more interesting things later. I imagine you've heard that before."

"A lot," Alexandra grumbled. She resigned herself to learning about nettles and flowers and vines, and wondered how her mother and stepfather would react to her bringing home a Fanged Geranium.

With the first week of class also came various clubs and other extracurricular organizations seeking to recruit new members. Posters in hallways whistled and beckoned to passing students, and in the open center courtyard that everyone used as a shortcut to move between classes, club tables were set up, and charmed to chase students around until someone took a flyer or a button.

"I'm thinking about joining the Witch Rangers," Alexandra told Anna one night.

Her roommate looked up at her. "You know that their Good Witch's Pledge is actually a binding oath, right? You have to promise to respect authority, follow school rules, obey your parents, never practice Dark Arts, never use magic in front of Muggles, never cast hexes or curses..."

Alexandra grimaced, then noticed that Anna was dipping her hands into a small bowl, and using a small brush on her fingertips. "Are you painting your nails?" she asked, astonished.

"No." Anna winced. "I'm regrowing them."

"What?" Alexandra scooted over to look in the bowl, which was filled with a translucent, milky-white liquid, and then at Anna's hands. She gasped in horror when she saw that several of Anna's fingernails appeared to be little more than a thin film over the pink nubs of skin at the end of her fingers. "Anna, what happened?"

"A Nail-Pulling Jinx." Anna's voice was very quiet.

"Nail... pulling?" Alexandra's face contorted in fury. "Anna, who did this to you?"

"They'll grow back overnight. Mrs. Murphy gave me a diluted Fudd's Grow-All solution."

"Did you tell her who did it?"

Anna shook her head. She was looking at her fingers, and avoided looking at her friend.

"Why not?" Alexandra demanded.

Anna looked up at her, finally. "Is that what you'd do?" she asked.

Alexandra frowned. "Well, no," she admitted. "I'd hex whoever did it back, harder!"

Anna sighed. "And be sent to the Dean's Office."

"So, you won't tell, and you won't fight back? That's stupid, Anna. Who was it?" Then Alexandra's expression darkened even more. "Was it Larry Albo?" she growled. "If it was him, I swear I'll –"

"It wasn't Larry, Alex."

"Then who?"

"I don't want you getting in trouble."

Alexandra stared at her, then it hit her. "Was it that girl who bumped into you in the cafeteria?" When Anna looked down, Alexandra sputtered, "Are you kidding me? You're being bullied by a sixth grader?"

Anna pouted a little, and looked hurt. "I can handle it."

"How, by waiting until she's stupid enough to jinx you in front of a teacher? What's her problem, anyway? Do you know each other?"

"No, not really. Look, Alex, I'm not going to just let her keep hexing me. But I don't want you to get involved. Promise you'll stay out of it."

Alexandra shook her head. "I will not promise to do nothing if you keep coming back to our room missing fingernails!"

"I won't. Don't worry, she has no idea who she's messing with."

Alexandra sat back, surprised. Anna was not one to make threats like that. She looked at her diminutive roommate, then nodded. "Okay. 'Cause you know I won't stand by and let my friends get hurt."

Anna smiled at her. "I know."

The next morning at breakfast, Alexandra watched carefully, as the girls from the sixth grade dorms trickled into the cafeteria. The other Asian girl cast a glance in Anna's direction, and then noticed Alexandra looking at her and stared back. She and Alexandra locked gazes for a moment, and then one of the younger girl's friends asked her something, and she turned away. The sixth graders went to sit at another table.

David was talking about Quidditch tryouts. Alexandra wasn't paying much attention, until she heard him snapping his fingers and whistling. "Yoo hoo, Alex?"

She turned back towards him and scowled. "I'm sorry, is there a dog named Alex around here?"

He grinned. "Just trying to get your attention. ASPEW is having its first meeting tomorrow. You gonna join this year? Since you haven't managed to get yourself detention yet?"

"Hah, hah," she replied sarcastically. But she nodded, though not with as much enthusiasm as David might have liked. Last year, she had promised to join the American Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare, but continual detentions and other distractions had kept her from participating. She did sympathize with David's concern for the house-elves, though, and she couldn't think of a reason to beg off now that didn't sound selfish. And it reminded her that she owed Bran and Poe a visit.

Mrs. Minder, the librarian, was delighted to see Alexandra again, which made Alexandra happy, since not many of Charmbridge's staff were. When she asked if she could visit the library elves, Mrs. Minder looked around.

"Well, you know they're not supposed to be out among the stacks during regular library hours," she whispered, "but I suppose I could let you go downstairs to the storage basement."

The reminder that the elves were kept hidden away from the rest of the student body – still doing their work, just not where the students could see them doing it – made Alexandra think ASPEW had a point. But she also knew from her previous conversations with Bran and Poe that they loved working in the library. The thought of doing anything else reduced them to tears.

The two elves were sorting books that had been removed from the shelves as too out-of-date, too damaged, or 'Inappropriate for Minors,' as Alexandra saw on one stamp that Bran was applying to a volume that appeared to be bound in singed black leather.

"Alexandra Quick!" exclaimed Bran, bouncing to his feet.

"Miss Quick has come to visit Bran and Poe!" exclaimed Poe joyfully.

"Hi guys. Missed you over the summer." Alexandra grinned at them. The two library elves had been among the best friends Alexandra had at school. She knew how lonely they felt, as much as they liked spending all day surrounded by books. Mrs. Minder was very nice to them, but regarded them as helpers, not friends.

Alexandra spent some time chatting with Bran and Poe, and learned that they inspected each and every book in the library every summer, and the shelves as well.

"Naughty childrens puts some awful curses on library books sometimes," Poe sighed.

"Or tries to undo the charms that keeps their naughty fingers off of books they shouldn't be touching." Bran's wrinkled forehead scrunched up even more as he regarded Alexandra, but his eyes twinkled, as she adopted her most innocent expression.

After chatting with them for a while, she promised before she left that she would come visit again. "But hopefully not to serve detention," she added.

She'd been unable to get around to the subject of ASPEW. As before, any discussion that touched on the topic of house-elf servitude and whether or not they should be freed made Bran and Poe so nervous that Alexandra was dissuaded from pursuing the point.

When she climbed back up the stairs and emerged into the main room of the huge Charmbridge library, she saw Anna sitting at a table with two older students, both of them Chinese. There weren't many Chinese students at Charmbridge Academy, and Alexandra hadn't seen Anna socializing much with any of them, so she was a little surprised. But she didn't think much about it until the next day, when Anna was looking rather smug at breakfast – and her tiny nemesis seemed to be absent.

Alexandra didn't think it was a coincidence when an unscheduled assembly was called that morning, during which Dean Grimm lectured the entire school on Charmbridge's disciplinary policy, with particular emphasis on jinxes, hexes, and curses. The Dean's final warning was particularly ominous: "In particular, using curses that can cause serious harm or death will be grounds for expulsion!"

Anna was suspiciously quiet for the rest of the day, and Alexandra decided not to press her until after the ASPEW meeting that afternoon.

Dewshine Jennifer, the club president, was wearing shimmering robes with some sort of rainbow charm on them; bands of colors drifted across her and shifted from one hue to another, in an almost hypnotic effect. Other kids were also dressed in bizarre or nonconformist styles. Some of the ASPEW members were Radicalists, like Dewshine, while many were Muggle-borns like herself and David. Dewshine seemed pleased to have Alexandra join them, though she looked a little bit suspicious.

After accepting a large 'Elves are People Too! ASPEW!' button, Alexandra heard a couple of the ASPEWers discussing the Dean's lecture.

"That's a pretty advanced spell," a sophomore named George Bombeck was saying. "And the Medusa's Curse is Dark magic, if you ask me."

"Medusa's Curse?" Alexandra asked.

"That's what sent Tomo Matsuzaka to the infirmary," George told her. "Her own hair tried to strangle her."

David, listening in, nodded. "Heard Mrs. Murphy had to cut it off."

Alexandra frowned, remembering Anna talking to the older students the day before.

Dewshine turned their attention to ASPEW's agenda for the coming year: the complete abolition, for once and for all, of house-elf labor at Charmbridge (Alexandra bit her tongue, wanting to ask what exactly they would have Bran and Poe do instead), making Muggle Studies mandatory for all students, and more "inclusiveness" of different Cultures (whatever that meant).

"How come Anna isn't here?" David asked, as Dewshine finished speaking. "She said she'd join last year, too. I already asked Constance and Forbearance, but they 'don't want no part in no agitatin'.'" He looked disgruntled.

"I don't know." Alexandra shrugged. "I'll ask her."

As soon as the ASPEW club adjourned, having distributed buttons for everyone to wear, and made plans to begin writing letters and requesting meetings with the Dean (which they had done all last year as well), Alexandra went back to her room. Anna was doing her Geomancy homework.

"You know," Alexandra declared, without preamble, "when you said you'd deal with her yourself, I didn't think you meant you were going to try to have her killed."

Anna raised her head, with an expression that was defensive and a little guilty. "I didn't know what Xaoming was going to do, but I'm sure he didn't curse her hair to actually strangle her to death."

Alexandra shook her head. "Siccing older kids on her? You'd let them curse her, but you won't let your friends help you?"

"It doesn't involve you, Alex."

"Of course it involves me! I'm your friend! Why do you and Tomo have it out for each other, anyway?"

Anna sighed. "I didn't start it. She's the one who started saying... stuff, when she got here. Just like you'd expect from them."

Alexandra blinked. "Them?"

"The Majokai."

Alexandra folded her arms and stared at her roommate, and Anna sighed again.

"She's Japanese. I'm Chinese. Chinese and Japanese wizarding families don't get along."

"You mean, you two are cursing each other just because you're from different countries?"

"We're from the same country as you, Alex," Anna corrected her, a little sharply. "But different cultures. We almost went to war during the California Disunification, and now... well, technically we're both part of the Confederation, but we assimilated. Majokai wizards didn't. They demanded to be recognized as a separate Culture, and they live apart from everyone else. I don't even know what Tomo is doing here. They have their own schools."

Alexandra found all of this very confusing, and a little disconcerting. "Ozarkers are like a separate culture too, aren't they? Constance and Forbearance said most Ozarkers are home-schooled, but they came here."

"Constance and Forbearance don't look down on everyone else."

"No, but Benjamin and Mordecai Rash do," Alexandra pointed out. "And they called us both Mudbloods."

Anna's expression was unusually harsh. "Like I said, I didn't go calling her names. She started it."

"Okay." Alexandra frowned. "But do you think it will end now?"

"If Tomo knows what's good for her." Anna's voice, too, had an edge to it that Alexandra wasn't used to hearing from her roommate. "There aren't any other Majokai kids here."

Alexandra lay awake for a while that night, her arms folded behind her head as she looked up at the ceiling, thinking. Of course she sided with Anna. Anna was her friend. But she couldn't help thinking that this conflict over cultures sounded kind of stupid. Maybe she still didn't understand the wizarding world at all.

Tomo Matsuzaka was apparently here all by herself. At least Alexandra knew there were other Muggle-borns like herself. Both pairs of Ozarker twins had each other. Anna wasn't the only Chinese student in school. Alexandra realized, with surprise and dismay, that she was feeling a little bit sorry for Tomo. As she drifted off to sleep, she resolved to put her sympathy aside. After all, if Tomo was making nasty comments about her friends, then she deserved what she got.


The next day, since Anna had dissuaded her from joining the Witch Rangers, Alexandra pestered her to come to the next ASPEW meeting. "C'mon, it'll be fun!"

Alexandra's forced attempt at enthusiasm must have been evident in her voice, because Anna gave her a skeptical look, as they walked to Wizard Social Studies. "It's not that I don't agree with them, kind of. But I'm not sure I want to hang out with Radicalists. No one really trusts them, and my father would have a cow."

"I'm sure they're not all like Mr. Journey," Alexandra muttered.

Anna looked uncomfortable. "No, that's not what I meant. Radicalists believe all kinds of crazy things. We have lots of them back in California, too."

The wizarding world might still have been an alien culture to Alexandra, but it seemed that cultural differences within the wizarding world were playing out right at Charmbridge Academy. In Mrs. Middle's class, she actually looked up 'Cultures' in her textbook, and found an entire chapter on 'The Confederation's Many Cultures,' with an animated picture of children of all races, wearing traditional wizards' robes and witches' hats, Ozarker dresses and bonnets, rainbow shirts and headbands, black cassocks, dyed tunics and sandals, denim trousers and stovepipe hats, buckskin and beads and feathered headdresses, Japanese kimonos, and even one boy dressed like a Muggle, all holding hands and smiling cheerfully at her. But then Mrs. Middle scolded her for not having her book open to the correct page, and she turned back to the chapter titled 'The First Wizards in the New World.'

"What a whitewash," grumbled David, as they left Mrs. Middle's classroom.

"What do you mean?" asked Alexandra.

"Do you believe there weren't any wizards here until white people arrived?" David demanded.

Anna and Alexandra looked at each other, but it was the Pritchards, following along behind them in the hallway, who answered.

"'Course there was," Constance piped up.

"The Indians got their own magic," said Forbearance.

"Exactly!" David nodded. "But I guess you only count as a wizard if you use a wand."

"That's why there are Cultural Practice Exemptions," Anna argued.

"That's why Indians don't usually educate at reg'lar schools," Constance agreed.

"Do they have their own schools, like the Majokai?" asked Alexandra.

"The what?" David, Constance, and Forbearance all asked together.

As if on cue, Alexandra saw Tomo Matsuzaka coming down the hallway towards them, walking with her own group of friends. The small Japanese girl looked even smaller with her hair shorn. Previously, it had fallen down below her shoulders. Now it was cut so short she looked like a boy. Her eyes blazed hatefully as she saw Anna. Alexandra pretended not to notice her, and hoped they would all just pass one another by in the hallway without a word.

She was never quite sure afterwards whether Anna provoked Tomo with a look, or whether Tomo's seething anger bubbled over on its own, but Alexandra heard the other girl hiss something as they went past, and Anna hissed something back, and both girls spun around, exclaiming, "What did you call me?"

"Anna," warned Alexandra, and Tomo's friends also looked as if they wanted to drag her away, but Anna and Tomo were ignoring everyone but each other.

"Bone-stealer!" screamed Tomo.

"Ghost-dwarf!" screamed Anna back.

Tomo began cursing in Japanese, and Anna began cursing in Chinese. Alexandra couldn't understand any of it, but it sounded awful, and worse, both girls had drawn their wands. Alexandra had never seen her quiet, soft-spoken roommate fly into a rage like this.

"Anna!" exclaimed Constance and Forbearance, aghast, and Alexandra and David both moved to restrain their friend, while the other sixth graders did the same to Tomo, but the two girls simultaneously cast hexes at each other. Anna's hair stood straight up and then every strand spiraled and kinked as Tomo's hex hit her, while Tomo's feet went flying out from under her and she almost landed on her head. David and Alexandra both received a nasty shock and had to let go of Anna.

Anna trembled and then pointed her wand again, while Tomo staggered to her feet and did the same.

"Expelliarmus!"

Alexandra had drawn her own wand almost without thinking about it, and Tomo's wand went flying from her hand. With a flick, Alexandra disarmed her roommate as well, and for one moment felt rather proud of herself. Then Tomo and Anna both leapt at one another and began punching and kicking and slapping.

Alexandra rushed in to separate them. She yanked Anna away, and grabbed Tomo by the front of her robes, glaring down at the younger girl, and then someone yelled, "Revulsio!" All three girls went flying away from each other. Someone grabbed Alexandra's arm and pinned it behind her, squeezing her wrist and forcing her to drop her wand. She saw a girl in a uniform grab Tomo, and Ms. Shirtliffe, who was also wearing a uniform, seized the back of Anna's cloak and hauled her to her feet, leaving her almost dangling like a kitten lifted by the scruff of its neck. Anna started to squawk indignantly, and then turned pale and fell silent when she saw who it was who'd grabbed her.

Alexandra twisted her head around angrily, and saw that she'd been grabbed by one of the BMI students, Maximilian King. He was looking down at her with a contemptuous scowl, as if he found it distasteful to lay hands on her. Around them, all the other Stormcrows, as well as what appeared to be Charmbridge's entire Junior Regimental Officer Corps, were now forcing the sixth and seventh graders, and all the other students who had been drawn to the brawl, back against the walls on either side of the corridor, while Beatrice Hawthorne continued to pin Tomo's arms to her sides.

"What's going on here?" demanded Ms. Shirtliffe.

That provoked a simultaneous outpouring of accusations from both Anna and Tomo, until Shirtliffe snapped, "Quiet!" Both girls shut up immediately, still glaring at each other.

"Let go of me!" Alexandra hissed at the older boy who had her in an armlock. He didn't loosen his grip a bit.

"I'm surprised at you, Miss Chu," Shirtliffe scolded. She turned to Alexandra. "And you, in the middle of things again, Quick."

"Right, anything that happens around me is automatically my fault!" retorted Alexandra, through gritted teeth. All of the Blacksburg students looked shocked at this, as if they couldn't believe a seventh grader was talking back to a teacher like that. Shirtliffe clenched her jaw.

"King, Hawthorne, let go of them," she ordered, and King released Alexandra. She stepped away from him, rubbing her wrist and glaring at him. Tomo took a step away from Beatrice Hawthorne, still glowering angrily at Anna.

"The rest of you go on to class," Shirtliffe commanded, and looked at Tybalt Franklin. "You can begin covering courtesies and traditions with the new wands, Franklin."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied, and he gestured at all the other uniformed students, who fell back into two neat columns and marched away.

Ms. Shirtliffe looked back down at Anna. "You three, come with me." She let go of Anna at last, who stumbled away from her and tried to smooth down her frazzled hair. "We're going to the Dean's Office."

Alexandra sighed inwardly, and saw David and the Pritchards looking at her with a mixture of sympathy and resignation. So much for staying out of trouble this year.