The Thanksgiving Blessing

The elves were busy all Thanksgiving Day, preparing a feast to dwarf what they'd served the previous night. While they were cooking, Ms. King summoned her daughter and guests, and told them that the wizarding families who lived on the island would be gathering to perform the Thanksgiving Blessing.

Julia made a face. "Do we have to go, Mother?"

"We always have, Julia. And we will not hide our faces from our neighbors."

As they all climbed into the Thestral-drawn carriage, with Mr. Hunter accompanying them, Valeria told Alexandra that the Blessing was much more common in Roanoke and the New England Territories, but even here, it was becoming something of a quaint tradition.

"Even though Muggles aren't really under any threat of black magic or Indian attack anymore, it's a reminder that we did help them, once," she said. "I think it's a shame the tradition is fading — more wizarding families should be reminded that we used to befriend Muggles."

Alexandra sat next to Julia, who held her hand in both of hers. Alexandra didn't mind. She was thinking about Valeria's version of Thanksgiving history, and how they were taught in their American History of Magic class that the first Muggle colonists in the New World had only survived thanks to the witches and wizards secretly living amongst them.

There was a Muggle town on the southern tip of the island. Its inhabitants were mostly either fishermen or people catering to the tourists who came out to the island in the summer. There weren't many tourists now, so the town looked tiny and isolated as they drew up at the edge of the woods surrounding it. Most of the stores were closed for Thanksgiving, but there was a diner and a coffee shop still open. From the woods, the witches could see a few villagers walking up and down the main street, and children playing in yards.

Alexandra heard noises behind them, and saw other carriages coming through the woods. One was pulled by a pair of winged Granians, and one by a large bull with an indigo blue hide, but the rest were pulled by ordinary horses. There were also a few wizards walking on foot, and to their left, a family descended from the sky on brooms. Alexandra was surprised — it was still daylight out, and they were visible from the town.

"They can't see us," Ms. King said, noticing Alexandra's surprise. "The Roanes and the Malevirges have already cast a Disillusionment Spell; the Muggles will see only shadows and leaves among the trees."

"Ms. King," said a wizard in long brown and red robes, with a pointy chin and thick black eyebrows beneath a receding hairline. He strode over to the four witches and the wizard in the carriage, and extended a hand to the King matriarch. "We were not sure you would be attending."

"We have attended every year, Mr. Roane," Ms. King said.

Mr. Roane nodded. He looked at the other occupants of the carriage with a polite expression, but not a particularly friendly one.

"You know Mr. Hunter and my daughter, of course," Ms. King said. "And this is Alexandra Quick and Valeria White."

Mr. Roane nodded again, slowly. "Daughters of Julia's father, yes?"

"Yes." Ms. King glanced at Valeria and Alexandra. Valeria gave the other wizard a polite smile; Alexandra just returned his stare.

"Well, we will begin the Blessing shortly. We're pleased to see you, Ms. King. My deepest condolences for your recent loss." He bowed slightly.

"Thank you," Ms. King said.

As soon as Mr. Roane walked away to join another group of wizards, Julia muttered, "They're not pleased to see us. They were all hoping we'd stay home."

"Which is precisely why we will not hide our faces," her mother said.

Mr. Hunter said, "The Thorns have lived on this island as long as the Roanes and longer than most anyone else. You have as much right to be here as any of them."

Ms. King stepped down from the front seat of the carriage, even as Mr. Hunter leaped down and ran around to help her. She didn't need the help, any more than did Valeria, who nonetheless allowed Mr. Hunter to give her a hand down, as did Julia, and finally, Alexandra.

There were about forty witches and wizards gathered at the tree line, including a few children and teenagers. Julia waved at a brother and sister, who waved back halfheartedly; they didn't come over to talk.

Mr. Roane began speaking:

"For almost five hundred years, we have protected the Muggles in this New World. Without their knowledge or thanks, they have been kept safe, from Indian sorcery, from fell beasts, from mistletoe wands and elf-stones and ghost sickness and black magic of all kinds. On this day, we celebrate Thanksgiving along with them, and renew our pledge to safeguard them in their ignorance."

He went on in this vein for a while; Julia and the other young people looked politely bored. Alexandra, having never heard this speech before, found it confusing. Wizards protected Muggles? She glanced at Valeria, and wondered if the Historicist knew how much was truth and how much was a fairy tale.

Mr. Roane finally finished speaking, and nodded to the assembly. Everyone, including Valeria and Julia, held their wands high. Alexandra did the same, though she didn't know what she was supposed to do. She thought it was a good thing that the townspeople couldn't see them — the magical conclave would probably have appeared quite sinister to them. Everyone wore dark robes and pointed hats, and when the adults all stepped forward to raise their wands, it almost looked as if they were preparing to smite the little town.

"Benedictus!" chanted the wizards in front.

Everyone else repeated the word. Alexandra did, too. A warm glow radiated from the magical gathering, and for a moment, Alexandra thought she saw a shimmer over the town itself. None of the Muggles seemed to notice.

Then everyone lowered their wands. The gathering broke up into small groups, with neighbors greeting one another and shaking hands. Apparently, that was all there was to the ceremony. A few families strolled over, with fixed, polite expressions, to greet Ms. King and those with her. Alexandra nodded to each as she was introduced, imitating Julia with an equally polite but distant look. Alexandra paid little attention to the names — the Roanes, the Jameses, the Hallowells, and so on, until an elderly couple with no children approached Ms. King, after everyone else had gone through the motions and retreated.

The man looked very old indeed. He walked with a slight limp, and his face was almost ghostly white, as was what little hair he had, protruding from beneath his wizard's hat. His beady black eyes were recessed into a deeply creased and wrinkled face. He didn't look very friendly. Alexandra could easily imagine him exclaiming, "Bah! Humbug!"

His wife was holding his arm. She was also rather old, though not nearly as old as her husband. She looked as if she had been pretty, once. Now her face, too, was lined and weathered, but it was her eyes — harsh and disapproving — that detracted from her appearance the most.

"Ms. King," said the wizard.

"Mr. Malevirge," replied Ms. King.

"I understand you lost your son recently."

"Yes." Ms. King nodded.

"My grandson was killed aboard the Roanoke Underhill," Mr. Malevirge said, in the same dry, conversational tone, as if he were discussing the weather. "Many sons and daughters died thanks to your son's father. Losing one child isn't nearly enough punishment for him. His family name should be expunged from the Confederation Census. All of his descendants should be removed from the rolls of the Elect. For your family to show yourselves so brazenly at an occasion such as this is an insult to decent wizarding society."

Julia gasped. Alexandra felt rage welling up inside her — if Julia had not clutched her arm, and Valeria laid a hand on her other shoulder, she might have exploded. She could feel her sisters trembling with anger as well.

Mr. Hunter stepped forward, as if to interpose himself between Mr. Malevirge and Ms. King, but Ms. King faced the other wizard and replied in an even tone:

"I am sorry about your grandson, Mr. Malevirge. Obviously grief has robbed you of both civility and sense. Good day to you."

Mr. Malevirge's expression was filled with loathing; he glared at Ms. King and then at Abraham Thorn's daughters. Alexandra glared back at the hateful old man. Then his wife tugged at his arm, and they turned and walked away.

Julia could only sputter in fury. Alexandra looked at her, and saw that she was on the verge of tears. Ms. King took her daughter's hand, and said gently, "Let's go back to the house. I think dinner will almost be ready."

Ms. King sat in the back of the carriage as they rode away, with Mr. Hunter taking the reins. She put one arm around Julia and the other around Alexandra. Julia waited until the Muggle town and the gathering of wizards were out of sight behind them before she began crying. Her mother murmured in her ear, kissed her gently on the top of her head, and looked with concern at Alexandra.

"I'm sorry I exposed you to that," she said. "I underestimated how much anger there might be at your father now, misdirected at you." She sighed. "I only want all of you to be able to hold your heads up and not be forced into seclusion, but I shouldn't have made you pay the price for my stubborn pride."

"I'm okay," Alexandra said. "We shouldn't let people punish us for what our father did."

Julia nodded, wiping at her face. "Alexandra is right, Mother. I just — what Mr. Malevirge said —"

"We've heard it all our lives," Valeria said. "You're braver than I am, Ms. King. After everyone learned who my father was, I left the country because I couldn't bear it any more."

Ms. King shook her head. "It's not my place to judge you, Valeria. We've all had to cope with Abraham's legacy in our own way."

Alexandra felt bad for Julia, as they returned to the mansion, and also wondered what sorts of insults Valeria had had to grow up with. Her sisters sometimes seemed to pity her for growing up with Muggles; she wondered if perhaps she was the lucky one.

The house-elves sensed the depressing cloud hanging over them when they returned. It took a while to dispel the gloom, but the delicious smells from the kitchen, and the elves' earnest efforts to cheer them up, eventually lightened the mood. Valeria suggested they play a game of Neptune's Horses while waiting for dinner to be served. Alexandra liked games, especially wizarding games, so for a while, she forgot about Abraham Thorn and Mr. Malevirge, while she learned how to make the little animated horses jump on and off the enchanted deck of cards. The four witches played while Mr. Hunter stood outside on the veranda, smoking hand-rolled wizard-tobacco.

"Doesn't Mr. Hunter have a family to spend Thanksgiving with?" Alexandra asked.

"His brother's family lives in Hudson Territory," Ms. King said. "He visits them every few years."

"Mr. Hunter has been joining us for Thanksgiving for as long as I can remember," Julia said.

"What about Myrta?" Alexandra asked. She suddenly realized she hadn't seen Myrta Applegate at all since returning to Croatoa.

Ms. King said, "She did go home to her family for the holidays."

Alexandra nodded. The unsmiling assistant who also lived on the estate and helped Mr. Hunter with the winged horses was a Squib. Alexandra wondered briefly how Myrta's family treated her, and what it was like, being the only non-magical person in a family full of wizards. She supposed if it were bad, then Myrta wouldn't go home for Thanksgiving.

Valeria won the second round of Neptune's Horses, and then Nina bounced into the sitting room, to announce, "Dinner is served!" with great enthusiasm.

The elves were all waiting in the dining room as the four witches and Mr. Hunter sat down to the table. An enormous turkey dominated the centerpiece — Alexandra was sure the elves had had to use magic to cook the thing, much less move it — but there was also fish and crab and clams, what seemed like a dozen different varieties of squash and pumpkin and sweet potatoes, corn in half a dozen colors, mountains of mashed potatoes, bowls full of steamed, buttered green beans and carrots and okra, roast chestnuts and acorns, cornbread, and endless pitchers of Butterbeer and pumpkin juice.

Despite her earlier mood, Alexandra was hungry — in fact, the sight of all the food made her stomach rumble — and she could hardly wait to dig in. But there was an uncomfortable pause, as Ms. King and Julia looked at one another, and then at the turkey in the center, waiting to be carved.

Ms. King asked quietly, "Mr. Hunter, would you please carve the turkey?"

He cleared his throat. "Yes, ma'am."

Alexandra half-expected him to use his wand, but Mr. Hunter used a long carving knife to slice the turkey just like Archie did at home, and he did so expertly. Once their plates were full, everyone relaxed, and began eating.

The house-elves seemed determined to make sure everyone ate until they burst, or so it felt like to Alexandra, when she finally pushed herself away from the table, after having had just one more slice of witch-apple pie with hazelnut ice cream.

Mr. Hunter, who had eaten as much as anyone, rose when Ms. King did, and said gruffly, "Well, the horses need tending, Thanksgiving or no."

Alexandra thought it was a shame that he still had to work, but he really seemed more comfortable outside, cold as it was, than inside the house. The elves were already clearing away the table, and though Alexandra felt a twinge of guilt at all the work being left for them to do, she wanted to just collapse on her bed upstairs and fall into a coma.

Everyone was stuffed. They sat in the parlor and talked for a while, but even Ms. King looked a bit tired, and suggested a nap, followed by perhaps some parlor games and a very light dinner later in the evening. Everyone readily agreed.

Alexandra was still working out how she was going to pump Valeria for information about Time-Turners. She only had three more days before she would be returning to Charmbridge. She was tempted to go knock on Valeria's door, rather than go upstairs to her own room, but Julia was waiting expectantly, so she went upstairs with her, and agreed when Julia asked if she'd like to come to her room to rest and chat. Julia seemed a bit downcast again; had, in fact, never quite cheered up completely during dinner.

Julia's large canopied bed was easily big enough for two girls to stretch out on. Nina was already there, turning down the covers, and offering to draw a bath. Julia thanked the house-elf, told her she might take a bath later, and then dismissed her.

Alexandra lay side by side with her sister, while Julia patted her stomach. "I am going to return to Salem ten pounds heavier," she sighed.

"I doubt it," Alexandra said.

"Oh, I'm sure I won't stay slim like you, Alexandra." Julia raised a hand to her mouth, to cover a belch. Alexandra laughed a little — she didn't think Julia would allow herself to belch in front of anyone else.

"It's true," Julia continued. "Someday I'll have Mother's figure."

"Your mother is beautiful," Alexandra said. "So are you."

Julia turned her head and smiled at her. "You're very sweet. And yes, Mother is beautiful."

She didn't say anything after that for a while, and Alexandra was beginning to nod off, when Julia whispered, "Max used to carve the turkey."

Alexandra's eyes popped open.

"Such a silly tradition — why does the 'man' of the house have to carve the turkey?" Julia murmured. "But as soon as he was old enough to handle the knife, Mr. Hunter turned that duty over to Max."

Alexandra swallowed. Hesitantly, she reached out and put her hand on Julia's. Julia took it and squeezed it.

"How have you been, honestly, Alexandra? You don't talk much about how you're feeling, in your letters."

Alexandra shrugged. "Like you said — it's hard, sometimes." She cleared her throat. "I miss Max, too. But I know it's a lot harder for you and your mother."

"Is it?" Julia rolled onto her side, facing Alexandra, still holding her hand. "Yes, I miss him terribly. But you went through it —"

Alexandra looked away. After a few moments, she asked, "Has the WJD interrogated you yet?"

"I was called to the Headmistress's office on the first day of school," Julia said. "To be warned that there might be... resentment towards me, because of what Father did. Of course the Headmistress was very understanding — she's always been very nice to me."

Alexandra's mouth twitched. She wondered what having a nice Dean in charge of Charmbridge would be like.

"Anyway," Julia went on, "it turned out there was a Special Inquisitor waiting to speak to me, too." She sighed. "I told him Father hasn't spoken to me since before the Roanoke Underhill crash." She paused, and squeezed Alexandra's hand again. "I didn't tell him about what you... remember," she whispered.

Alexandra nodded.

"And you?"

Alexandra grimaced, and then, slowly, told Julia the story of her encounter with Diana Grimm at Old Larkin Pond.

She was relieved that Julia didn't scold her, or tell her that she should have kept her temper and not defied the Special Inquisitor.

"Oh, Alex. And she destroyed your broom, too?"

"Yeah." That memory still filled Alexandra with bitter rage, but she didn't let it show.

"What did you tell your parents?" Julia asked.


"Really? After your awful ordeal, you didn't mention being interrogated about it?"

"They don't know about any of that."

Alexandra realized that was a mistake, by Julia's shocked silence.

"What do you mean, they don't know about any of that?" Julia asked at last.

Alexandra didn't answer, and the silence stretched out between them, until Julia said, "You did tell them, didn't you, Alexandra? They know that something terrible happened to you, and that you — you lost your brother?"

Alexandra's throat felt very tight. She didn't want to talk about this. "They wouldn't understand. My mother doesn't want to hear about... our father, or the wizarding world at all, and my stepfather doesn't even know I'm a witch."

There was yet another long pause. When Julia spoke again, she sounded quite distraught. "Alexandra... that — that's simply not right. That cannot be. How can your mother not know about this?"

"She doesn't need to know."

"Yes, she does! Alexandra, were you alone with this all summer?" Alexandra finally turned her head, to look at Julia's appalled face. "You never told me that in your letters! How could you keep that from your own mother? Who do you go to to cry? Sweet Merlin, if we had known, we would have ridden Granians all the way to Central Territory if need be!"

"You didn't have to. I didn't need to go anywhere to cry." The entire conversation was making Alexandra intensely uncomfortable. "I'm not some weak little girl!"

Julia stared at her.

"I see," she said, in a very quiet voice. "I must be a very weak little girl, indeed."

"No!" Alexandra sat up. "I didn't mean it that way! I meant —"

"What did you mean?"

Alexandra looked down. That lump in her throat was making it hard to speak again.

"It's different for you," she mumbled. "You — you lost —"

"My brother? So did you."

"But you —"

"Do you think he was less your brother than mine? Do you miss him less because you didn't know him as long?"

"I don't know." Alexandra just wanted this conversation to be over.

Then Julia was pulling her close, and Alexandra allowed her sister to put her arms around her and hold her. Julia couldn't see Alexandra's face, but Alexandra still forced down the lump in her throat and tried to drain her mind of everything. Her resolution that she would not cry like a weak little girl was very close to breaking — she could feel tears threatening, she could feel her shoulders trembling, just a little, and she refused.

"You silly, stubborn girl," Julia said. "You are so much like Max."

If Julia noticed Alexandra's internal struggle, she didn't say anything. She just kissed the top of Alexandra's head, and lay next to her, and Alexandra rested her head against her sister and closed her eyes.

When they woke up, a couple of hours later, Alexandra felt in control of herself again. She and Julia stretched and yawned, and Deezie and Nina were both instantly at the side of the bed.

"Does Miss want a bath now?" asked Nina.

"Deezie can draw a warm bath for Miss Alexandra, too, snap-snap-snap!" Deezie said.

Alexandra and Julia looked at each other, and then Julia laughed quietly.

"A bath does sound quite nice right now," she said.

Alexandra had to admit that she wouldn't mind soaking in a hot bath herself. As she got up, Julia caught her hand.

"This conversation isn't over," she said softly.

"Okay," Alexandra sighed. She was hoping that Julia would forget about it, or that she could somehow put her sister off the topic for the rest of the long weekend. But she doubted it.

Deezie was waiting in the large bathroom adjoining Alexandra's room. She had already filled the tub. "Deezie will wash Miss's hair for her if she likes —"

"No, thank you," Alexandra said, politely but firmly. She raised a hand to her hair, which had grown out a bit since the summer, but still barely reached the nape of her neck. "I don't need any help washing it — it's really short."

"Yes, Deezie noticed that." There was a hint of disapproval in the elf's tone. "Deezie was mentioning this to Olina, and we could —"

"No, thank you."

Alexandra made sure Deezie was quite clear on her desire to bathe alone — the house-elves could be quite intrusive at times — and sent her away, before taking her bath. Afterward, she dressed in the fresh clothes Deezie had laid out on her bed, and she and Julia went downstairs to join Ms. King and Valeria.

Julia still wore a concerned expression. Alexandra worried, the entire evening, that Julia was going to bring up the matter of talking to her parents about what had happened in the spring, as they paged through Ms. King's photo albums.

It was obviously painful and bittersweet for the Kings to go through them, but Alexandra couldn't get enough of looking at them. Maximilian was moving and alive in those wizarding photographs: Maximilian as a baby, being held by his father; six-year-old Maximilian chasing Julia with a glass snake; Julia at the start of sixth grade, about to go off to Salem for the first time, posing with Maximilian in her new school robes, while he proudly wore his BMI uniform. Alexandra stared at him as he raised his chin to strike a cocky pose for the camera, realizing that he was the same age in that picture as she was now.

Alexandra wondered if Ms. King ever shared memories with Julia in her Pensieve, as she had with Alexandra on her last visit. The elves took the photo albums, reverently, to restore them to their proper place, and then brought tea and cake to the four witches.

They finished the evening playing some more card games, and Valeria mentioned that she might go to New Roanoke on Saturday, to buy some presents for her sisters and do a little digging into local history. Alexandra wanted to ask about that — how did a Historicist 'dig into history'? But she still hadn't worked out the right approach, and she needed to catch Valeria alone if she were going to have an involved conversation on the topic.

They turned in for the night, exchanging hugs and good-night kisses all around. Julia gave Alexandra a much longer hug, outside her bedroom door.

"What do you think of Valeria?" she whispered.

Alexandra was surprised by the question. "She's nice. I think being a Historicist must be pretty interesting. She doesn't talk much about her job, though, and only a little bit about her family."

Julia nodded. "I want to get to know her better. I hope we can become close."

Alexandra nodded back. "Me, too."

Julia took her hands. "We are close, aren't we, Alexandra?"

Alexandra stared back at her. "Yes. Of course."

"Then you trust me? You won't hide things from me? Like how you're feeling? You won't fear being a 'weak little girl' around me?"

Alexandra didn't know how to answer that.

"I don't like to cry," was all she could manage to say.

Julia studied her. Her brown eyes for a moment reminded Alexandra of Anna's; Anna, who also gave her that look sometimes, worried and much too acute at sensing when Alexandra wasn't being open with her.

"I can't make you," Julia said at last. "And I won't force you to speak of things you don't want to speak about, but please, Alexandra, trust me. I haven't told Mother yet about what you told me, but I'm worried about you."

"I do trust you," Alexandra said. She swallowed. "I just don't want to hurt you." I don't want to get your hopes up — or convince you I'm crazy. "But I'll talk to you about Max... I mean, I'll try. I just can't... right now."

Julia nodded slowly. "All right, Alexandra. But don't worry about hurting me. We're sisters." She gave Alexandra another kiss on the cheek, and then went down the hall to her room.

Alexandra lay in bed again that night, staring up at the ceiling and having a hard time sleeping. She thought she heard voices at one point, but when she opened her eyes, she heard only silence. Later, she thought someone was standing over her, but when she turned over, she was alone in her room. She even looked instinctively to where Charlie's cage would normally be hung. She regretted leaving her familiar at Charmbridge.

She was plagued by restlessness. Her sleep was disturbed repeatedly, and she wasn't even sure whether she'd actually woken up or dreamed about waking up. She rose at about three a.m. to use the bathroom. Just as she was about to climb back into her bed, she saw lights flashing outside.

For a moment, she thought of the lights on top of Archie's police cruiser — the flashing lights were red. But she didn't think there were any police cars on the island. She went to the window, and saw that the blinking red lights were in the trees, down at the bottom of the hill.

It wasn't the side of the hill facing the main road up to the mansion; it was the side facing the deep woods where the Thorn family crypt was located. Alexandra remembered the creatures she'd seen moving in those branches; clabberts, they were called. They had some sort of red nodule that glowed when strangers approached.

And there was a figure emerging from the woods, walking up the hill.

Alexandra wondered at first if it was one of the ghosts who haunted the woods. But the approaching figure was dark and solid-looking, and seemed to be walking like a normal person, not floating over the ground like a ghost.

As the stranger came closer, Alexandra saw that it was Valeria. She was wearing an outdoor robe beneath a heavy cloak, and walking boots.

Alexandra knew that with her room dark, Valeria couldn't see her even if she looked up, so she stood there and watched her half-sister approach, until the top of Valeria's head disappeared from view below her.

A moment later, she heard quiet footsteps on the veranda in front of the house. She ran to her bedroom door and cracked it open. Downstairs, she heard the front door open, and then quiet voices — Valeria, and one of the house-elves. Alexandra couldn't make out their words.

Then Valeria went to her own room, and after the door closed, it was quiet downstairs again.

Alexandra climbed back into bed, but it took even longer to fall asleep this time, as she pondered what Valeria was up to, and who she was meeting in the woods.

Alexandra watched her older sister closely the next morning at breakfast, but Valeria didn't appear particularly tired. Nor did she look furtive or guilty, and when she caught Alexandra staring at her, she just raised an eyebrow and smiled.

"Is something wrong, Alexandra?" she asked.

"No." Alexandra shook her head, and stifled a yawn of her own. "Guess I'm just tired."

"You and Julia weren't up all night talking, were you?" Ms. King asked.

"No, Mother," Julia said. She glanced at Alexandra.

All day, Alexandra watched Valeria, thinking about her late-night excursion to the woods. Had she visited the Thorn family crypt? Had she met their father there, as Maximilian once had? Or was she talking to the ghosts of their ancestors?

Was Valeria now doing their father's bidding? That was a disturbing thought. Alexandra didn't think her father had recruited any of his other children — or that Valeria would be interested in becoming part of the Thorn Circle. But she'd been surprised before.

Everyone went down to the meadow below the mansion, and Mr. Hunter brought out a trio of Granians for the sisters to ride. Alexandra had had her first riding lessons only a few months earlier, and though she remembered how to get into the saddle, she was annoyed that Mr. Hunter had to hold the reins for her while she steadied her mount, Halosydne. Julia slipped easily onto Misoo, her favorite, while Valeria, who had never ridden before, looked at the winged horse in front of her with obvious misgivings.

"Aethra's real gentle," Mr. Hunter assured her.

Valeria didn't look convinced, but she climbed onto the horse, with the wizard's help, and Alexandra and Julia spent most of the afternoon riding around the meadow with their sister. Alexandra was anxious to take off, but Ms. King warned her that she wasn't ready to fly a Granian unaccompanied.

By the end of the day, Ms. King had taken Alexandra and Julia on a short flight over the ocean and around the northern tip of the island, while Mr. Hunter coaxed Aethra to glide with Valeria a few times up and down the hill.

Alexandra was thrilled at flying, though she knew she'd be sore the next day. She thought Halosydne was starting to like her.

As they returned to the mansion, Valeria looked happy enough, but she was limping a bit, and commented, "I do think I prefer a broom. But thank you for this experience."

"Oh, Mother, can we go with Valeria to New Roanoke?" Julia asked.

Alexandra thought she saw Valeria's brow crease for a second, but Ms. King said, "Julia, it's rude to invite yourself along."

"But Alexandra hasn't been to New Roanoke since... last time, and she hardly ever gets to go shopping in a wizarding town!"

Alexandra was about to object, but Valeria said, "I don't mind, Ms. King." She looked up at the sky. "But I'm afraid the weather may not allow it."

The sky had been turning gray and cloudy all afternoon, and as they returned to the house, the wind was picking up, and they could hear thunder rumbling in the distance.

According to the Wizard Wireless, a major storm was sweeping down the coast. It turned out that there were a lot of storm preparations necessary on a winged horse ranch, and Ms. King put on her all-weather cloak and informed the girls that she and several of the elves would be going outside to help Mr. Hunter. Julia, Alexandra, and Valeria promptly volunteered to help, though neither Alexandra nor Valeria had any idea of what was required.

The women joined Mr. Hunter by the huge hangar-like stable where the horses were kept, and he put them all to work securing equipment and hay, making sure doors were tightly closed, and clearing away things that might be blown about by the wind. He went into the stable, while Ms. King walked around outside, casting spells of some kind.

Valeria walked to the edge of the trees, and flicked her wand, bringing down a few dead and broken branches with Severing Charms. Alexandra watched her do this, and then her eyes were drawn upward by a sudden flurry of black wings. Startled crows surged out of the trees, cawing angrily. They circled about overhead, continuing to squawk and scold.

Alexandra stood there, watching them, until a particularly strong gust of wind scattered them. They screeched and cawed, regrouped, and then banked off to the west, flapping over the ocean towards the mainland, ahead of the gathering storm.

Once the stable and adjoining barn and sheds were secure, Mr. Hunter stayed with the horses, while Ms. King went to check on Myrta's little cottage. Deezie, Rolly, and Nina urged the younger witches to return to the house. Rain was beginning to fall, and the wind was whipping it into their faces.

As they walked back to the mansion, Valeria twirled her wand and said, "Parapluvia." A translucent golden shield appeared around them, like a magical umbrella, repelling the rain but not the wind.

"Oh, how wonderful!" Julia said. "I've never seen that spell! Will you teach it to us?"

"Perhaps later." Valeria smiled as Julia put an arm around her waist and grabbed Alexandra with her other arm to pull her along with them.

For the rest of the day, and into the evening, the storm gathered strength, and rain continued to pound against the house. The house-elves kept the fireplace roaring. Ms. King retired to her study, leaving the three half-sisters to talk amongst themselves. As Triss and Rolly and Deezie brought them coffee, tea, and cookies, Alexandra steered the conversation towards her American wizarding history class.

"I don't think they tell us what really happened in school," she said.

"Oh, Salem's history classes are very good," Julia said.

"Charmbridge is supposed to be one of the best schools in the Confederation," Alexandra said. "But all we hear in history class is how wonderful the Confederation is, and how lucky Muggles are that we're so tolerant and benevolent." She was watching Valeria, who smiled slightly.

"The history of the Confederation does tend to get glossed over a bit in school," Valeria said.

"But we go on historical field trips!" Julia protested. "They're even starting to use mixed texts at Salem — introducing the 'Muggle perspective' on history. It's very progressive!"

"How do the Old Colonials feel about that?" Alexandra asked.

Julia paused.

"Well, the Salem Traditionalists were concerned about the use of Muggle materials in school," she admitted. "But they're not anti-Muggle, strictly speaking."

"Strictly speaking," Alexandra repeated dryly.

Julia arched an eyebrow. "Some of my friends are Salem Traditionalists, Alex. They're not bad people. They don't trust Muggles, but it's not as if they're Death Eaters."

"Sorry," Alexandra muttered. "I just get hassled a lot at Charmbridge for being a Mudblood."

Valeria and Julia both turned red.

"Oh, Alexandra, I can't believe Charmbridge allows language like that!" Julia whispered. "If I ever heard anyone at Salem use that word, why, I'd tell them about my sister, and —" She flourished her wand, with an unusually fierce expression, then put arm around Alexandra.

Alexandra smiled, a little wryly. "Charmbridge doesn't allow language like that. That doesn't mean I don't hear it." And she wondered if Julia didn't hear it at Salem because she wasn't a Mudblood.

"Salem Traditionalists wouldn't use that word — very few of them are actually descended from pureblood families," Valeria said. "It's not true, what they say about wizards coming to the New World along with Muggles. The Muggles came first. Then, only wizards who didn't mind living with them — mostly half-bloods and Muggle-borns themselves. The old pureblood families came later, when they could establish all-wizarding communities of their own. But the Salem Traditionalists were among the first of the Old Colonials — the ones who colonized the New World with the early Muggle settlers."

"And after the way Muggles treated witches, or anyone they even thought was a witch — well, it's still a bit of a touchy subject in Salem," Julia said.

Alexandra nodded. She'd heard some of this in school — mostly the part about Muggles killing suspected witches. But she wasn't very interested in that.

"So what do you study in Europe?" she asked Valeria.

"I've been doing genealogical research, mostly," Valeria answered. "Tracing those wizarding families who emigrated to the New World. That's also a bit of a touchy subject. It was easy for a... well, someone who would have been called a 'Mudblood,' back in Europe, to come to America, establish himself in the New World, and then claim to be a pureblood. The Confederation was founded by people who did just that, including some of our oldest and most respected families." Valeria took a sip from her coffee.

"Like the Thorns?" Alexandra asked.

Julia raised her eyebrows at that. Valeria, on the other hand, gave Alexandra a shrewd, appraising look.

"Whatever made you suspect that, Alexandra?" she asked quietly. She glanced at Julia, who looked intrigued, rather than offended, and back at Alexandra. She nodded slowly. "Yes — the Thorns, and many other families among the Elect."

"Well," said Julia. "There's no such thing as 'pure blood,' anyway. And it's illegal to discriminate, so it's not supposed to matter, anymore." She looked at Alexandra, and squeezed her. "I wouldn't care if I found out that our family isn't really pureblood. Honestly, I wouldn't! I wish the Wizard Census would just stop recording blood status."

Alexandra smiled. "Now who sounds like a member of ASPEW?"

Julia laughed, and stuck out her tongue.

"So who are these Elect?" Alexandra asked, eyeing Valeria again. "Did you have to move to Europe to become a Historicist because you didn't want to make them angry, digging into their history? Or because you wouldn't be allowed to use a Time-Turner here?"

Julia looked curious and a little puzzled at Alexandra's interest, but Valeria lifted her coffee cup to her lips again, with a thoughtful expression. She set it down, and smiled and shook her head when Triss immediately hobbled over with a coffeepot, offering to refill it.

"Most Historicists don't actually handle Time-Turners, Alexandra. But yes, there are areas of historical interest that many in the Confederation — especially influential families like the Elect — would prefer not be looked at too closely. Especially by someone with a father as illustrious as ours."

Alexandra noted the hint of sarcasm, but she also noted that Valeria had a way of not quite answering her questions. Something she shared with their illustrious father. When Julia seemed to have had enough of talking about genealogies and history, and innocently reminded Valeria that she had promised to teach them her Umbrella Charm, Alexandra didn't argue. Pursuing the point would only make Valeria more suspicious, and possibly Julia, too.

Ms. King told them the worst of the storm had yet to pass over Croatoa, and the house-elves were appalled when the three of them went outside in the pouring rain. Julia shrieked and clung to Alexandra, as wind whipped her hair and robes, and soon their clothes were plastered to their bodies. Neither Julia nor Alexandra were able to produce Valeria's shimmering golden shield right away, but by the time Ms. King came to the front porch and called them inside, they could at least create small rain-repelling bubbles.

Julia's mother shook her head as the younger witches returned to the house, soaking wet and shivering with cold.

"Get upstairs and dry off," she said, kissing Julia on the cheek. "Before you catch a chill."

"I'm going to do the same, and I'm spent, so I believe I will be retiring for the evening," said Valeria.

"Good night," Julia said, and she embraced her older sister. "Thank you for teaching us that spell. Obviously, I need more practice."

"Yeah, thanks," Alexandra said. She hesitated, and gave Valeria a hug also.

"It's not as difficult as a Shield Charm, but it took me more than a day to learn it," Valeria said, returning the hugs.

"Brr!" Julia said, wrapping her arms around herself. "Nina..."

"Nina will have Miss Julia's bath ready," said the elf, and she was gone with a pop.

"Deezie will ready Miss Alexandra's bath," Deezie said, and disappeared an instant later.

"Go!" Ms. King said with amusement, waving a hand at the three girls. "Stop dripping on the carpet."

As they went upstairs, Alexandra pointed her wand at herself, and said, "Exaresco." Water turned to steam and rolled off of her, and Julia looked at her in surprise.

"I don't know that spell either!" she exclaimed. She pouted a little. "Perhaps I should be going to Charmbridge, too."

"I didn't — a friend taught me this, outside of class," Alexandra said.

"Oh." Julia sighed. "I'm pretty sure Maximilian knew it, too."

Alexandra looked down. Why hadn't she told Julia that Maximilian was the one who had taught it to her? Would Julia be jealous? Maximilian had taught Alexandra a lot of spells, things he'd never have wanted Julia to have to learn. It was easier to avoid going into that. As always, it was easier to avoid talking about Maximilian.

Drying Spell notwithstanding, she appreciated the hot bath even more that night. She and Julia sat up talking for a while after bathing, both wrapped in soft, fluffy robes. Nina was brushing and braiding Julia's hair, and Alexandra reluctantly allowed Deezie to brush hers, only because it seemed to make the elf so happy. With the two house-elves present, Alexandra didn't think Julia would press her about her family, or her feelings. They talked more about school, and their friends (Julia was particularly interested in hearing about Constance, Forbearance, and Innocence, as she had never actually met any Ozarkers), and a little about what they might do the next day if they were able to go to New Roanoke.

Alexandra was the first to yawn, and Deezie immediately declared that Miss was tired and should go to bed. Normally, Alexandra would have been annoyed, but this time, she agreed, with only token protests, before kissing Julia good-night and going off to her room.

Once in bed, and sure that Deezie was gone, she slipped out from under the covers, pulled a pair of pants and a shirt on over her pajamas, slipped her feet into her mud-repelling JROC boots, and grabbed her cloak and backpack. She sat at the desk in front of the bedroom window, and waited, resting her head on the folded-up cloak. She nodded off several times, despite the steady roll of thunder, and the lashing of rain against the window. But eventually, something caught her eye in the darkness.

Through the window and the sheets of rain, she saw a golden bubble of light bobbing up and down, like someone walking away from the house carrying a magical golden umbrella.

She stood up, rapidly tied her boot laces and fastened the cloak around herself, and looked around, just in case Deezie had decided to Apparate into her room to check on her. When there was no sign of the house-elf — she'd asked Deezie to please stay out of her room unless called, though she'd asked her so mildly, for fear of hurting the elf's feelings, that it had stopped short of being a command — she reached into her backpack, and took out Maximilian's Skyhook.

Then she pushed open the window. She grimaced at the wind that immediately whipped rain into her face — she was sure Deezie would have a fit.

At least I don't need to rely on doggerel verse this time, she thought, as she tossed the Skyhook out the window, and jerked on the rope. It caught on the empty air, and didn't budge when she pulled against it with all of her strength. Cautiously, she stepped onto the desk, then to the window sill, looked over her shoulder one more time, and then swung out into the rain.

It was cold and windy and wet, and she was immediately tossed and spun about as she dangled there in the air. Her plan to close the window from the outside immediately proved impossible; she was too far away from the window, and if she tried swinging towards it, she was afraid she'd just crash into it, or make a thump loud enough to alert the elves.

Can't do anything about that now. She slid down the rope to the ground, and then gave it a shake, the way Maximilian had taught her. The Skyhook came loose, and dropped to the ground at her feet. She coiled the rope and shoved it into the largest pocket in her cloak. She thought about trying to cast the Umbrella Charm, but she was already soaked after just minutes in the rain, and she didn't want to be seen.

Valeria was all the way down at the bottom of the hill now. Alexandra could see the glow of her Umbrella Charm disappearing into the trees, so she began running as fast as she dared down the slippery grass slope, determined to keep her sister in sight as she followed her into the woods.