Cursing and Fighting

There were usually a few other students serving detention with Alexandra, though their punishments were rarely longer than a few days. Since they were temporarily without a head custodian, everyone on detention was assigned to scrub, clean, and mop, or rake leaves and maintain the grounds outside.

Only a few days after the owl from Diana Grimm, Alexandra was waiting with her fellow delinquents for Mr. Bludgeleg, the school's Quodpot coach, to march the Clockworks out. There was an unusually large group tonight, so she was standing apart from everyone else so as not to have to put up with the whispers and evil eyes and accusations of being a sorceress.

She sighed when she saw a familiar blonde head pushing through the sulky mob of students.

"Hi, Alex." Innocence didn't look or sound quite as chipper as usual, despite the Glamour Charms brightening her face.

"You got detention again?" Alexandra asked.

Innocence nodded.

"You want to tell me what for?"

Innocence bit her lip. "Fightin'."

Alexandra sighed. "With?"

Innocence made a face. "Ouida Noel. 'Least she got detention too, this time." She pointed, and Alexandra saw the other sixth grader, wearing fancy clothes that really weren't suitable for working in, standing uneasily with the older kids. Ouida was pretending not to notice Innocence or Alexandra.

Alexandra shook her head. Apparently Innocence's relationship with her roommate was a tumultuous one. "Have you made up with your sisters yet?"

Innocence scowled and scuffed her toe against the ground, but a series of clanks and scraping sounds cut off any further conversation as the Clockwork golems came marching up the stairs. Mr. Bludgeleg, a short, fat wizard who looked like a most unlikely former Quodpot player, dispatched groups of students to lead them in various chores.

"Not you, Miss Quick," Bludgeleg said, as he assigned the last two golems to Innocence. He beckoned with a thick, stubby finger, and Alexandra shuffled over to him.

"You," the rotund teacher informed her, "have been assigned to kitchen duty for the rest of the month. Report to Mister Remy." He waved a hand in dismissal.

Banished from the sight of other students, Alexandra spent the evening using Scouring Charms to scrub pots and pans, finding that she often had to supplement her wand's magic with elbow grease. The kitchen elves seemed more amused than anything else; they were used to students serving detention in the kitchens, and they were less easily cowed than most house-elves.

Mister Remy, in particular, was an old, sour-looking elf with a face like a shrunken apple. He was always carrying a very long butcher's knife, and he would cross his hands over his diminutive chest, holding the knife clasped to him with the point sticking up above his head like a great bayonet held at port arms. He snapped orders at Alexandra and watched her continuously, until she wondered whether he'd been warned about her by Em, or if he was like that with all students.

Kitchen duty was the most miserable detention she'd been assigned yet, made all the more intolerable by the fact that she suspected she'd only been sent to the kitchen so the other kids wouldn't have to work with her.

Alexandra was now more ostracized than Darla — who, largely thanks to Angelique, had been warily accepted back into the ranks of the popular girls and once more sat with them at lunch. No one but Anna, Constance, and Forbearance would sit with Alexandra. (Or, occasionally, David, though he mostly sat with other boys now during mealtimes, when he and Angelique had not ditched Darla and taken up one end of a cafeteria table to themselves.)

Alexandra's father was in the news again, though rarely mentioned by name. The Enemy of the Confederation was supposedly being hunted by a specially-trained Regiment of hit-wizards and magical beasts, and there were rumors that the Confederation was enlisting Dementors, ghosts, and other beings in the war against Dark Arts. Alexandra also heard of deaths being blamed on the Dark Convention. She didn't know how much to take seriously and how much was hysteria — it seemed that whenever some wizard came down with a curse, there was some presumed connection to the Dark Convention. But she remembered what Diana Grimm had told her about WJD agents being killed by her father.

Though she pretended it didn't bother her, the suspicion, the hostility, and the fear were beginning to wear at her.

So were the curses. Most kids — even in older grades — were either afraid of her (or her father) or unwilling to risk sharing detention with her, but at least once a day Alexandra would get jinxed or hexed, usually from behind. Sometimes she saw the culprit and retaliated, and bystanders scattered as hexes flew. The combatants usually limped away before a teacher was alerted to the commotion, but Alexandra had visited Mrs. Murphy repeatedly to have eyebrows regrown and teeth shrunk, ears turned back around, boils healed and stingers pulled out, and in one embarrassing incident, a tail removed.

Alexandra sent Charles Murphy, Michael Lester, and Karina Knutzen to the infirmary as well. Mrs. Murphy questioned everyone, but no one was willing to snitch. The nurse was used to periodic outbreaks of cursing, either as a result of pranks or grudges, and she didn't usually press too hard, as long as the injuries she saw weren't serious.

The harassment was not entirely new — Alexandra had been targeted before, starting back in sixth grade, when rumors first began circulating about her sinister parentage. She was more worried about her friends than she was about herself. But Anna denied that she was being bullied, and Constance and Forbearance shushed her when she asked if they were going to get in trouble for associating with her.

It was the morning after the tail incident that Alexandra finally snapped. She was still sore and trying not to show it — the procedure to remove the unwanted appendage had not been painless. Theo and Jordan were making mocking comments behind her back, and then she heard the word 'Mudblood' from Adela Iturbide.

Alexandra had been called a Mudblood before, but never in JROC. That afternoon, she had had enough. Consumed with fury, she whirled and tackled the other girl. Adela was taller than her and a year older, but Alexandra dragged her to the ground and began pummeling her, and by the time the other kids dragged her off, the freshman girl was screaming and curled into a ball.

"What's going on here?" Colonel Shirtliffe yelled. Everyone snapped to attention except Alexandra and Adela. Alexandra couldn't unclench her fists, and Adela was still sitting on the ground, shaking, with tears streaming down her face.

"That little... savage attacked me!" Adela screamed.

Shirtliffe's eyes darted in Alexandra's direction, and back at Adela. "What was this fight about?"

Adela looked away.

"Well?" Shirtliffe demanded, but no one spoke.

Finally, Eric Strangeland sighed. "I believe I heard the word 'Mudblood' used, ma'am."

Colonel Shirtliffe's eyes turned cold and stony. "True, Iturbide?"

Adela's face darkened, but she couldn't meet the teacher's gaze.

"I've made it very clear that I will not tolerate that sort of hate speech," Shirtliffe said, through clenched teeth. "Blood status doesn't matter in the Regiments."

"Serving with non-purebloods I could stand!" Adela said, angrily rising to her feet and wiping blood from her split lip. "Serving with her I cannot!" She pointed at Alexandra, with a venomous look. "Her father is an enemy of the Confederation! The Iturbides are among the Elect! We built the Confederation! It's an insult to have the Enemy's bastard half-breed child here!"

Alexandra lunged at Adela. Shirtliffe snapped her fingers, and two of the older Mage-Sergeants stepped between the two girls. Daniel Keedle grabbed Alexandra and almost had to wrestle her to the ground.

"Stop it!" he hissed. "You want to show everyone you are a savage?"

Breathing heavily, she struggled in his grasp, and then subsided, until he loosened his grip.

"I'm not my father!" she snarled. "And I'm not a —"

"Get yourself under control, Quick!" Shirtliffe snapped, and turned coldly to Adela. "It wasn't just the Elect who built the Confederation."

Alexandra finally noticed that she was not the only one who'd been outraged by Adela's words. She was aware that not everyone in JROC was a pureblood — Ermanno DiSilvio had mentioned Muggle grandparents once, and she thought Daniel was a half-blood — but she was surprised at how many glares were now being cast in the arrogant pureblood girl's direction. Even those who Alexandra knew were purebloods, like Charlotte Barker and Supriya Chandra, didn't look happy.

"Both of you," Shirtliffe said. "Forty laps on the bare sticks."

"No. I quit!" Adela spat on the ground at Alexandra's feet, and stomped off.

Ms. Shirtliffe barely reacted. She gestured with her chin at Alexandra. "Go on, Quick — get your tailbone on a broomstick or I'll make it fifty."

Gritting her teeth, Alexandra complied. She in fact had a note from Mrs. Murphy excusing her from exercise for several days, while the tailbone Ms. Shirtliffe had mentioned healed. But she left the note in her pocket, and said nothing, and though the pain from balancing on the hard wooden broomstick was terrible enough to bring tears to her eyes after twenty laps, she completed all forty without stopping or making a sound. She was glad that everyone but Ms. Shirtliffe had left by the time she was finished; she was unable to avoid wincing with every step. The Witch-Colonel just nodded at her curtly and dismissed her. Nothing more was said about the incident with Adela.

Two more students quit the JROC. Ms. Shirtliffe said nothing, but Alexandra knew that they shared Adela's sentiments. This made it even more of a surprise when William reappeared one morning. He was barely in better shape than he had been at the beginning of the semester, and he looked thoroughly miserable, but he didn't complain as Colonel Shirtliffe and Mage-Sergeant Major Strangeland ran him and the rest of the JROC relentlessly through morning calisthenics and a broom-balancing endurance exercise.

Alexandra caught up to him after they were dismissed to return to their rooms. He turned when she called his name, and crossed his arms self-consciously and looked down as she approached the sweaty, breathless sixth grader.

"I thought you quit," she said.

"I changed my mind," he mumbled. "Decided I didn't want to be a quitter."

"And Ms. Shirtliffe let you come back, just like that?"

He frowned, still looking down, then shook his head. "I practically had to beg her. She told me she never wanted to see me again if I quit a second time."

Alexandra stood there, not sure what to think of this, and then patted him on the shoulder. "It does get easier," she said.

His face brightened, and Alexandra sighed inwardly.

"William," she said, in as gentle a tone as she could manage. "You didn't return because of me, did you?"

He turned red, and she rolled her eyes, but he spoke again before she could say anything.

"It's because you don't quit!" he said. "Everyone says all this bad stuff about you, and hexes you, and... and it's like totally prejudiced! We're both discriminated against! The Charmbridge Academy Equal Education Policy says it doesn't matter if we have wizard parents or not, but all the pureblood kids just snicker whenever the teachers talk about Muggles."

Alexandra smiled slightly. "Not all of them."

"Anyway, Innocence really, uh, chewed me out. Used lots of Ozarker expressions I didn't even understand, but she said no one likes a quitter."

"Innocence." Alexandra's mouth twitched. "You know, I think she must like you."

He blushed again. "Actually, I think she likes you. She talks about you all the time. You and that other Muggle-born kid..."


"Yeah." He cleared his throat. "She even got detention for punching some girl who used the m-word."

Alexandra groaned.

"I'd better get back to my room," William mumbled. "Gotta shower and change into my uniform. Umm, see you sixth period."

"Yeah." Alexandra watched him go, bemused and oddly touched that she was being defended by a pair of sixth graders.

While Clockworks and students serving detention did a lot of the cleaning work around the school, there was a great deal of work they could not do, particularly where magic was concerned. The magical lamps and torches, the talking bathroom mirrors, the doors spelled against Unlocking Charms, the monitor portraits, the classrooms full of magical apparatus and books and alchemical supplies, all required wizardly maintenance. Without a head custodian, many of these chores were taken up by elves, and the normally invisible Charmbridge elves were seen more frequently about the school, cheerfully repairing broken mirrors, touching up portraits whose paint was peeling, and making sure that locked doors stayed locked.

In the weeks that followed, the ranks of students serving detention swelled considerably, but it turned out that most of them had not actually been assigned detention. The kids joining Alexandra and her fellow troublemakers were wearing bright red ASPEW t-shirts; the school's ASPEW club had decided that they needed to step in to prevent more work from being given to the elves.

When David showed up one evening, Alexandra told him, "You know that none of you are actually replacing any elves, right? They're still doing as much work as they ever did."

"We're making a statement," David said. "But I suggested we stage a sit-in in the Dean's office."

Alexandra smiled skeptically. "Really? Let me know when that happens. I want to be there to see it."

David rolled his eyes at her, and walked off to do outdoor chores — maintaining the Quidditch field, something the elves never did anyway. Innocence, Alexandra noticed, had also turned up for voluntary 'detention' after having finished her actual detention the previous week. She was also wearing a baggy ASPEW t-shirt over her dress.

But JROC and ASPEW and detentions were only a distraction for Alexandra. As her faint hope that Maximilian's spirit might still be haunting Charmbridge Academy faded, she became less optimistic about finding a way to bring someone back from the Lands Beyond. In her obsession with ghosts, she realized, she had been neglecting the more promising possibility of time travel. She re-immersed herself in the books she'd found in the library, and even spent what little remained of her converted wizarding currency on an owl order from Boxley's Books, for The Journal of American Wizarding History and A Guide to Careers in Arcane Research.

She also sent a letter to Valeria by International Owl. Of course she could not ask her sister, "Can you get me a Time-Turner?" Even if she weren't worried about her letter being intercepted, she doubted Valeria would simply send her one by return owl. Instead, she wrote about how interesting her American Wizarding History class was (which was a lie), and that she thought she might want to be a Historicist. Could Valeria give her any advice, she asked? And was it fun using Time-Turners to study history?

Maybe I'll have to move to Europe, too, she thought. Of course then she'd have to bring a Time-Turner back to America. She didn't have a real plan, yet — just ideas. But she had time. If time travel were possible, then she had all the time in the world, didn't she?

As October wore on, Alexandra waited for a response from Valeria. Instead, she received a letter from Julia, telling her that the Department of Magical Transportation had lifted most travel restrictions on Portkey travel — and inviting her to Croatoa for Thanksgiving.

Alexandra read the letter twice, and it took her a while to write a reply. She wanted very much to see Julia again, and Ms. King, but she dreaded returning to their large mansion, feeling the emptiness caused by Maximilian's absence, and walking past his room...

You're being stupid, and feeling bad won't bring him back, she thought, disgusted with herself. Julia had to live with that pain every day when she wasn't at school. If anyone was entitled to grieve, it was Julia — not Alexandra.

She was uncomfortable with the thought of Ms. King paying for a two-way Portkey trip, which she knew was very expensive, but she wrote back to Julia that she would love to see them at Thanksgiving, and then wrote a letter to her mother asking for permission to visit her 'friend' Julia again over the holiday weekend.

After receiving a signed permission slip back from her mother, Alexandra's mind turned to the Thorn family crypt in the woods surrounding Croatoa. Her brother's ancestors — her ancestors — haunted those woods. Would she get an opportunity to speak to them? What questions could she ask them? Could they tell her anything about the Lands Beyond? Did they, perhaps, know more than Simon Grayson would admit?

And what would Julia and Ms. King think if they found out about the nature of Alexandra's inquiries?

Preoccupied with these questions and with her attempts to decipher the mysteries of time travel and death, she would have all but forgotten about tests and term projects if not for Anna.

Anna found her in the library one weekend, surrounded by old newspapers. Alexandra had developed a morbid fascination with wizard obituaries.

Wizards had their own euphemisms for death: 'passed beyond' or 'crossed the Veil' was the most common expression. Until the turn of the previous century, the departed was sometimes said to have 'entered the Lands Beyond,' and twice, in the oldest papers she found, Alexandra read an announcement that the deceased had 'joined the Deathly Regiment.' There were also uniquely magical posthumous dispositions listed for a few souls, such as 'Currently haunting her childhood home in Peoria,' or 'Relocated to the Shawnee Hills Undead Retirement Community.'

Alexandra wasn't sure what this information would tell her, but she had even subscribed to the Chicago Wizard Times, just so she could read the obituaries.

"You haven't even started studying for the test on Friday, have you?" Anna asked, looking at a black and white photo of wizards doing some sort of victory dance.

"Umm, which one?" Alexandra carefully folded the old paper from the 1940s and slid it back onto the pile.

"American Wizarding History. The Goblin Tariffs, the first Confederation Census, the Roanoke Revolt..." Anna's voice trailed off, and she sighed, as Alexandra looked at her blankly. "You're going to get Hocus Pocus marks and wind up back in Remedial classes."

"Don't worry about me, Anna."

To her surprise, Anna looked angry. "Don't worry about you? Don't worry about the fact that you're going to fail out of school, or be kicked out —"

"Anna, what are you talking about?" Alexandra protested.

Her roommate grabbed one of the books sitting next to the newspapers, and read the title: "Looking Back Magically: Why We Don't Know History." She turned to Alexandra. "Well, I know why you don't know history."

Annoyed, Alexandra snatched the book back. "I am studying history." She gestured at the other reading material. "This is all history!"

"You're studying time travel. And other things." Anna picked up another book. "The Veil and Beyond." She looked at Alexandra; Alexandra shrugged uncomfortably.

When Anna spoke again, her voice was very soft: "You can't bring him back."

Alexandra's expression made Anna shake her head sadly. "What, I wasn't supposed to figure it out? Do you really think I'm that dumb?"

"I've never thought you're dumb, Anna."

Anna dropped the book back on the table. "Everyone knows you can't change the past," she said gently. "Even with a Time-Turner. It just doesn't work."

"Everyone says that," Alexandra replied. "Just like everyone says there's no such thing as hodags, and ghost sickness isn't real, and nobody can come back from the dead, and no one can survive a Killing Curse. Except when someone else says different — and we're talking about magic! How do you know what's really possible and what's not? They tell us lots of things here — they tell us what they want us to believe."

Anna looked down. Alexandra hadn't realized her voice was rising, but she had become agitated by Anna's skepticism, and she paused.

Be gentler with your friends, Alex.

"Would you give up, if they told you there's no way you can help your father?" Alexandra asked.

Anna blinked, and shook her head. "No." She looked up. "But Alex, what you want to do — if it were possible, don't you think someone else would have done it already? Wouldn't Historicists change history all the time?"

"Maybe they have. Maybe they do. How would we know?"

Anna slowly sat down across from her. "Alexandra, I'm really, really sorry about Max." She spoke earnestly, almost pleadingly. "I know you miss him — you won't talk about him at all, you won't talk about anything that happened — maybe it's because you don't remember, that makes it so hard for you."

Alexandra looked away, though not for the reason Anna thought, and her friend took her hand.

"I'm worried about you. I'm worried that you're obsessed with trying to do impossible things that even wizards can't do, because you can't accept —" Alexandra turned back towards her with an expression that made Anna suck in a breath. "Please don't be angry at me!"

Alexandra closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, her expression was softer. She spoke quietly, but her voice was still as firm as before.

"I'm not angry, Anna. But don't tell me to forget and accept it. I won't give up. Maybe it is impossible — maybe I'll never succeed." A fierce light burned in her eyes. "But I'll never give up."

Anna just sat there. It was hard for her to meet her friend's stare. But it was just as hard for Alexandra to look into Anna's eyes; she saw compassion and sympathy and everything she liked about Anna, and everything she didn't want right now.

Alexandra dropped her gaze first.

"I'm not saying you should give up, Alex," Anna said hesitantly. "I'm worried that you're going to get yourself into trouble again, or that you're going to start trying to do magic you really shouldn't. But even if you have to do this, do you have to give up everything else?"

Alexandra frowned. Anna leaned forward. "Maximilian wouldn't want you to spend your entire life trying to bring him back, would he?" she whispered. "Even if it's possible." She bit her lip. "Your friends are still here... and so is your schoolwork. You can't learn much of anything if you get kicked out of Charmbridge, can you?"

Alexandra stared at The Veil and Beyond. It was about how wizards had attempted to explore the afterlife, to find out what happened after death without dying themselves. Almost all of them ended up insane, imprisoned, or dead. Sometimes all three.

"I guess... I don't have to spend all my time reading about ghosts and time travel," Alexandra mumbled.

Anna smiled. "Will you study with me for the history test?"

Alexandra nodded. "Okay."

Anna gave her a small grin, but Alexandra added, "It will have to be later tonight, though." She sighed, and stood up, and piled books on one of the little tables for Bran and Poe to gather and reshelve, much later that night. "I have to go to detention now."

Anna nodded, looking relieved. Alexandra walked to the library exit, and paused when she saw Darla asking Mrs. Minder for help with the Card Catalog.

She couldn't remember ever seeing Darla in the library before. Her thoughts were interrupted by a hand slapping her on the back — startled, she spun around and drew her wand.

"Whoa, Troublesome!" Torvald laughed, holding his hands up. "Easy!"

Behind him, his friend Stuart just rolled his eyes; Alexandra noticed that Stuart didn't look directly at her.

"Don't do that!" Alexandra said, sheathing her wand quickly before Mrs. Minder noticed. The wand-sheath was another trick Maximilian had taught her.

"All those hexes getting you paranoid," Torvald said. He grinned at her. "So, what's for dinner tonight, Troublesome?"

"Dragon poison, if I find out you've been hexing me," she snapped, and pushed past the two boys, exiting the library to head for the kitchens.

Behind her, Stuart whispered nervously, "You don't think she really has access to dragon poison, do you?"

Although Alexandra's performance on the American Wizarding History test and Mr. Grue's midterm was nothing to boast about, she was sure she'd at least scored better than Hocus Pocus. Anna reminded her, however, that her aural amplifying drops would be half of her Alchemy grade, and she hadn't even started steeping the bat ears she'd need to brew the final solution. Anna's persistence forced Alexandra to spend more time on schoolwork and less researching other subjects, but she told herself she'd catch up on her reading once she was no longer serving detention.

There were other distractions besides schoolwork. The Halloween Feast was one of the most anticipated events of the year, as Clockworks were banished from the kitchen and the house-elves prepared every dish. (The school's ASPEW club objected, but Alexandra noticed that they had yet to actually boycott the feast.)

As in previous years, the week before Halloween was marked by parties and special events. Alexandra had to spend extra afternoons with the Junior Regimental Officer Corps as they rehearsed for their Drill and Ceremonies performance for the school. The Magic Band put on a concert, and Mr. Fledgefield brought out a couple of winged horses from the stables for students to ride.

Teachers were traditionally a bit more tolerant of games and pranks during Halloween. Alexandra ran into a crowd of sixth and seventh graders blocking the path to her dorm, yelling enthusiastically, until they saw her and abruptly fell silent. They parted before her to reveal several young students on their hands and knees — including Innocence, wearing a fancy robe that glittered with magical sparkles, and William in his dress uniform. They were coaxing their toads down the corridor, but one of the amphibians abruptly leaped the wrong way, sailing between the spectators to land on Alexandra's boot.

"Anthony!" William exclaimed. He scuttled over to retrieve his familiar.

Alexandra looked down at the boy and his toad. "Your toad is named Anthony?"

"Yes, ma'am." He stood in front of her, blushing, while Anthony ribbeted loudly.

"Dang it, Misery was winnin'!" Innocence said.

Alexandra shook her head at them, and walked on.

Besides impromptu toad races in the hallway, there were school-sponsored competitions. Anna entered the Arithmancy contest; Constance and Forbearance spent most of their free time writing entries for the eighth grade essay contest.

Alexandra signed up for the dueling competition. Thanks to her seemingly endless series of detentions, she could not join the Dueling Club, but the Halloween competition was open to everyone — and she knew how to duel. Maximilian had taught her.

The contest would be nothing like wizard-dueling with Maximilian, Martin, and Beatrice. The Stormcrows from BMI weren't afraid of injuring each other, and they hadn't gone much easier on Alexandra. Only a few pre-approved categories of spells were allowed in Charmbridge's dueling contest, and mostly the matches consisted of unskilled students zapping each other ineffectually with Stunning Spells.

When Alexandra joined the others at the raised platform that had been erected in the middle of the Quodpot field, she could feel tension in the air — and if some of her fellow competitors were eyeing her with fear and suspicion, she also sensed anticipation among the spectators; the sort of anticipation stirred up by the prospect of a fight. The previous year's dueling competition had ended abruptly when Darla had tried to cast a Killing Curse at Alexandra.

Alexandra saw Darla standing with Angelique and David among the spectators. David waved, then laid a finger against the corner of his eye, and pointed at Darla with a knowing look: I'm keeping my eye on her. Alexandra rolled her eyes and gave him a small smile. Darla wasn't competing this year, and Alexandra wasn't worried about her.

Everyone in the Junior Regimental Officer Corps, as well as everyone in the Dueling Club, had signed up for the dueling tournament. Alexandra saw Adela Iturbide standing with the other high school students on the opposite side of the dueling platform. Adela sneered; Alexandra glanced quickly around to make sure no teachers were watching, and then made a gesture at the other girl that was the same in the Muggle and wizarding worlds.

I hope you win, Alexandra thought. Sixth to eighth graders dueled first — Alexandra wouldn't get to duel Adela unless she won in the middle school division, and Adela beat all the other upperclass students.

Then she noticed that Adela was standing next to Larry Albo. He followed Adela's gaze, and smirked at Alexandra. His hand was brushing against Adela's elbow, and she looked down with a coy smile as he whispered something in her ear.

Huh. Larry and Adela. She curled her lip. Too bad I can't whup both of you.

"Don't get cocky," Anna told her, as if reading her mind. Alexandra turned to her, and smiled.

"You know I'm going to win," she said, loudly enough for the other middle schoolers to hear her. Some of them snorted; most looked nervous. She glanced over to where the handful of sixth graders were standing. William, in his JROC uniform, was bent over with his hands on his knees, as if he might be sick. Next to him, Innocence was trying to reassure him.

"I promise I'll go easy on you," she said, patting his shoulder.

"Thanks," William mumbled. "But I'm not afraid of getting hexed — I just don't want to look like a doofus in front of the whole school."

"What's a doofus — ?" Innocence started to ask, and then her voice trailed off, as Constance and Forbearance walked over to her.

Alexandra knew they didn't approve of dueling. And Innocence was dressed, as she had been for the past few weeks, in borrowed robes, leaving her head scandalously uncovered. She stared sullenly at her older sisters.

"Innocence," Constance said. She drew a breath. "We'uns don't condone your feistin' —"

"Connie," said Forbearance.

Constance sighed. "But... good luck."

Innocence blinked, and Forbearance leaned forward and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Then the twins turned away and walked back to where the other spectators were standing, joining the Rashes.

"Sixth graders, line up!" called Ms. Shirtliffe.

There were only four sixth graders competing. William and Innocence were the first match.

The two of them faced each other across the platform, and Alexandra could see William's knees shaking as they bowed. The entire school was watching, with Dean Grimm and the Vice Dean and Assistant Deans in the front row.

Innocence pointed her long oak wand and said, "Peterficus Totalus!"

"Oh, she misspoke it!" Forbearance moaned, as William made a shaking motion with his wand and said, "Ribbet!"

"What kind of spell was that?" asked Corey McCluskey, behind Alexandra.

Innocence let out a horrified croaking sound as she tried to hex William again.

William extended his wand and pointed it at her. Innocence tried several more spells, and each time, she produced nothing but croaks, amidst growing laughter from the audience. William licked his lips nervously. By the rules of the competition, he could continue hexing her until she yielded. He just kept his wand pointed at her, and finally, Innocence furiously lowered her wand in a gesture of surrender.

"William Killmond wins the first match!" declared Ms. Shirtliffe. Cheers erupted from the spectators, especially from the JROC. Blushing, William bowed, and then his grin was replaced with a worried look, as he followed Innocence off the dueling platform.

Constance and Forbearance hurried over to their sister as she stepped down to the ground, followed by the Rashes.

"Finite," Constance said, pointing her wand at Innocence's throat.

"That was a Croaker!" Forbearance exclaimed.

"I taught him that hex!" Innocence croaked. Her voice still sounded frog-like. She glared at William.

"You taught Ozarker magic to a foreigner?" Benjamin growled.

Innocence shoved past her sisters and the Rashes, and stalked off.

"Innocence!" said William. He started to follow her, and then Ms. Shirtliffe called his name. The duel between the next pair of sixth graders had lasted only seconds, and William was being summoned back to face the winner.

Reluctantly, he trudged back onto the platform. His opponent was Niles Moreau, a thin boy with dark brown skin, wearing formal black and green robes. William barely managed to take his wand out of its sheath before his opponent cast a Stunning Spell. William fumbled his own spell, and seemed unable to focus as the other boy kept trying to Stun him; finally, William's wand fell from his hand, and Ms. Shirtliffe declared Niles the winner.

Most of the seventh graders were equally unimpressive. Tomo Matsuzaka was the only one able to cast a Stunning Spell with any power, and Alexandra was unsurprised that she won in her grade.

Then came time for the eighth graders. The first match was a virtual replay of the previous year, with Sonja Rackham facing Ebenezer Smith. Sonja had gotten better, though. The two of them exchanged Stunning Spells just like the previous year, but this time, after Sonja hit Ebenezer several times, he swayed and fell over.

"Alexandra Quick and Corey McCluskey," called Ms. Shirtliffe, and Alexandra took her position opposite Corey. He was a pimply-faced boy with glasses; Alexandra was somewhat interested in seeing what spells he would cast, since he was a member of one of the druidic denominations that were allowed their own magic under a Cultural Practices Exemption. She was disappointed when he used the same spell everyone else had attempted: a Stunner. The red beam struck Alexandra in the shoulder with enough force to numb it a little, but she'd withstood much worse from her brother and his friends.

She took her time pointing her wand at Corey, and when she said, "Stupefy!" her Stunning Spell struck him directly in the chest and knocked him flat on his back. Alexandra turned away even before Ms. Shirtliffe declared her the winner. She winked at Anna, who clapped her hands while shaking her head.

None of the other eighth graders fared better against her; her final match was against Michael Lester, one of the kids who'd been hexing her in the hallways, and she knocked him clear off the platform.

This left only the remaining matches between the lower grades. Alexandra was spared from having to strike down a sixth grader when Tomo defeated Niles, but Tomo fairly trembled when facing Alexandra, and Alexandra ended their duel quickly with a Body-Bind Curse.

She half-expected to draw boos and cries of "sorceress!" But when Ms. Shirtliffe declared her the winner in the middle school division, cheers from her friends and the JROC drowned out the few mutters and hisses, and she felt an unfamiliar flush of pride.

In the upperclass division, they saw a few more interesting spells, and Alexandra was so gleeful that she didn't regret losing the chance to duel her when Adela was hit with a curse by Tucker Robb that turned her purple and puffed her up like a giant blueberry, with steam venting from her ears.

Torvald defeated Tucker, but was no match for Larry. Alexandra watched sourly as Larry defeated everyone else he dueled. He turned to look at her as Ms. Shirtliffe announced his fourth victory, over Theo Panos, and raised his wand as if to say, You're next.

Larry's last opponent was Eric Strangeland, the student commander of Charmbridge's JROC company, and a boy two years older than him. Eric had made quick work of all the other eleventh and twelfth graders, and it was almost unheard of for a sophomore to beat a senior. But the audience was murmuring with excitement, and Alexandra knew why; even she could see that Larry was surprisingly good.

She knew from JROC drills that Eric was also good — very good. Not as good as Maximilian had been — but better than her.

The duel between Eric and Larry lasted nearly ten seconds — longer than any of the previous duels. Unlike most of the previous duelists, they both knew how to block and deflect, and Eric had a formidable Shield Charm. His Stinging Hex made Larry yelp, and then he almost ended the duel with a Deadweight Charm — but to Alexandra's surprise, Larry countered it. Eric, who also thought his opponent was about to fall, did not raise his wand quickly enough, and Larry caught him with a Stunning Spell that knocked him out cold.

Loud cheers hailed Larry's victory, along with a few disgruntled boos from the JROC — quickly silenced by a glare from Ms. Shirtliffe.

The JROC commander and head of the Dueling Club looked around, as the crowd fell silent. The tension that had been in the air before was now electric. The Charmbridge Dueling Champion would be determined by the match between the underclass and upperclass winners. The older student almost always won; according to Ms. Shirtliffe, it had been seventeen years since the last time a middle schooler had won the school championship.

"Alexandra Quick and Larry Albo!" Ms. Shirtliffe called.

Even Alexandra felt nervous flutters in her stomach as she stepped back up onto the dueling platform. It was one thing to want to fight Larry — it was another to do so in front of the entire school, knowing that everyone was hoping that she'd lose.

No, not everyone. She saw her friends smiling at her encouragingly. Innocence had apparently returned from her sulk, and was now standing near David, Angelique, and Darla. The younger girl grinned and waved.

And the JROC was gathered at one edge of the platform. Mage-Sergeant Major Strangeland, still looking a little woozy, nodded and winked at her. William gave her a thumbs-up, and Charlotte cupped her hands over her mouth and shouted, "For the Corps, Witch-Private!"

They were rooting for her.

Ms. Shirtliffe put one hand on Larry's shoulder and another on Alexandra's, and dragged the two of them together to the center of the platform, before leaning close to speak just loudly enough for them to hear her.

"All right, you two," she growled. "I know very well there is a history between the two of you. This duel will be clean and by the book. I know more dirty tricks than you'll ever learn, so don't even think about trying to get one past me. Cast a spell not on the approved list, pretend not to hear a call, or do anything else even the least bit questionable, and I'll make you wish you'd never picked up a wand. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, ma'am," Alexandra and Larry replied together, and then Larry added, "Only warlocks and losers use Unforgivables."

Shirtliffe scowled at Larry. "Get back to your positions." She didn't notice Alexandra's clenched jaw, or the way her fist shook as it gripped her wand.

The eighth grader and the tenth grader stood opposite one another across the wooden stage. Everyone was silent. Ms. Shirtliffe raised her wand, and then lowered it.

"Expelliarmus!" Alexandra shouted. She hadn't yet used a Disarming Spell in any of her duels, and she hoped Larry wouldn't be expecting it. She thought she was fast, but he was faster. His own spell collided with hers, and he cast another one before she saw the result. A hex struck her in the head and it felt like her face was on fire.

"Stupefy!" she hissed, ducking to one side. Larry deflected her Stunning Spell and returned fire with one of his own. That was followed rapidly by three more hexes, each of which Alexandra stopped with a Shield Charm. She attempted a Body-Bind Curse, and then a Deadweight Spell, and then she tried conjuring worms in Larry's mouth. He gagged and spit after the last spell, but made her dance with "Tarantallegra!" before she could follow up. Everyone thought that was the end of the duel, but Alexandra removed the curse before she'd kicked her legs three times, causing even Ms. Shirtliffe's eyebrows to go up. Larry's triumphant smirk froze on his face, but he still managed to deflect her next hex. She tried to yank his feet out from under him with another wave of her wand, and didn't see the green ball of light coming directly at her face until it struck her like a kick to the head. Just like that, she was lying on her back, seeing stars, and Ms. Shirtliffe raised her wand.

"The winner — and Charmbridge Dueling Champion — is Larry Albo!"

Cheers and applause rang all the way to the edge of the woods surrounding the academy, sending birds fluttering from the trees. Alexandra lifted her head dizzily, and saw Adela — reduced back to a normal size, though still colored purple from head to toe — flinging her arms around Larry and giving him a kiss on the cheek, as other students crowded around him to congratulate him. He looked over Adela's shoulder and his eyes met Alexandra's for a moment. Behind Adela's back, he raised one hand and returned the gesture Alexandra had made earlier.

Alexandra fumed, feeling bitter and defeated, but then her friends were crowding around her, helping her to her feet, and the JROC was there, congratulating her, and making her feel less like a loser.