Sweethearts and Traitors
Anna didn't ask any questions the next morning, but her silence felt like an accusation. Alexandra waited until after they'd both showered and dressed, debating whether to keep her father's message a secret.
I will trust you from now on, she thought, and she proceeded to tell Anna about her conversation with Larry.
"My father must have bewitched him, somehow," Alexandra said. "But how could he have even gotten to Larry?"
Anna asked, "Do you think Larry will accuse you of putting a love potion in his drink?"
Alexandra made a face.
"It's a clever way to send a message, though, if you don't trust owls," Anna said.
"Or ravens." Alexandra looked at Charlie, who had been reluctant to go out again since returning from the last errand. "Why couldn't he just send a note back with you?"
Charlie made a clacking sound, puffed up a bit, and then went back to sleep, head buried under one wing.
"So, why do you want to talk to him, anyway?" Anna asked.
Alexandra paused, before turning away from Charlie's cage. This was the one thing she wasn't telling Anna — not yet. She didn't want to get her friend's hopes up.
"I have some things to ask him. There are things we need to talk about. About... Max."
Anna was quiet, before she nodded, accepting the explanation. "Pretty risky, if you get caught." To Alexandra's relief, Anna didn't lecture her.
At breakfast, Larry and Adela were sitting at their usual table in the cafeteria. When Alexandra and Anna passed by, Larry's friends snickered and muttered under their breaths. Anna tensed, but Alexandra was relieved that it was merely the usual taunting instead of shouted accusations.
The Rashes were also sitting with the Old Colonials, and didn't look nearly as amused. Surprisingly, they barely noticed Alexandra and didn't give her their usual dirty looks. Instead, their attention was fixed on Constance and Forbearance, who were sitting with the other eighth graders.
When Alexandra and Anna joined them, they found David and Dylan sitting across the table from the Pritchards, looking quite pleased with themselves.
"What's up?" Alexandra asked.
"We jacked the Rashes' dates," Dylan said.
Forbearance set her spoon down, looking offended. "Beg your pardon?"
David said, "We danced with Constance and Forbearance last night."
"You'uns asked an' we'uns said yes — we wasn't... 'jacked'!" Constance sounded even more offended.
"Sorry." David looked at Constance apologetically.
Dylan was still snickering. "Man, you should've seen the looks on their faces."
Forbearance shook her head. "If we'd knowed you was askin' just to spite Benjamin and Mordecai and not 'cause you wanted to dance with us..."
"I didn't — I mean, I did want to dance with you —" David was stammering now.
"What about Angelique?" Alexandra asked.
"Oh, well, she was dancing with Stuart Cortlandt —" David's face darkened. "I mean, what, I'm supposed to stand against the wall while some other dude is dancing with my girl?"
Alexandra looked down the table, where Angelique was sitting with Darla and the other girls. Angelique glanced at David and rolled her eyes.
"So you only danced with me to nip at Angelique?" Constance said.
"No!" David was becoming increasingly flustered. "C'mon — everyone was dancing with different people!" He said that rather loudly, and Angelique turned her head and rolled her eyes again.
Alexandra was beginning to tune the conversation out — it was exactly the sort of inane drama that made her not want to get involved with boys or dances at all. Then David asked, "Hey Alex, what was that about with you and Larry?"
She turned her attention back to him, and found everyone staring at her.
Annoyed by David's transparent change of subject, she sipped her orange juice slowly, then said, "Isn't it obvious? I charmed him."
She turned around, to look at the tenth graders' table. Larry and Adela both caught her looking at them, and began glowering. Alexandra deliberately fixed her eyes on Larry, and slowly winked. She saw his mouth drop open, while Adela's face twisted in fury. Then she turned back around to smile at her appalled friends.
Alexandra soon regretted that taunt, when she learned that rumors were spreading through the school that she really had bewitched Larry. She didn't know whether Larry believed them, or if he had made any accusations against her, but she was summoned to Dean Cervantes's office that week.
The dean of the eighth grade studied her, as she stood before him. It was a drill day, and she was in her JROC uniform.
"You know, I served in the Texarcana Regiment for a few years." The dean drummed his fingers, and looked at his wall, where a framed case displaying several Regimental Officer Corps medals hung. "I was commissioned as a Mage-Lieutenant immediately, of course, because of my family background. I didn't have to bother with the JROC as a student." He turned in his chair to regard Alexandra. "But the JROC has been an avenue for many young witches and wizards to advance without the benefit of being born into a pureblood family."
Alexandra could think of no response to that. She stood silently at attention, with a puzzled frown.
Dean Cervantes steepled his fingers together. "Certain rumors have reached my ears," he said. "Rumors that you may have used a Bewitching Charm or a Love Potion on Mr. Albo at the Winter Ball."
Alexandra's face colored. "Excuse me? Did he say I did that?"
"Word gets around, Miss Quick. Don't worry about who told me. I am simply asking you: is it true?"
"No! Sir." Alexandra clenched her fists.
"You realize that using any variety of Confunding, Bewitching, or Memory Charm or potion on another student is a serious breach of the Charmbridge Academy Code of Conduct," Dean Cervantes said.
"You've got to be kidding!" Alexandra blurted out.
The dean stared at her.
"I hate Larry Albo! And he hates me! He'd accuse me of using Unforgivables if he thought it would get me expelled! Sir."
Cervantes leaned back in his chair. "I find it odd that two students who hate each other so much would dance together."
"So you believe stupid rumors that I somehow charmed Larry?" It was easy to become indignant, but Alexandra worried that her face might reveal something else. Larry had been charmed — just not by her. "He's probably going around telling all his friends how he danced with a Mudblood as a joke."
"Language, Miss Quick." Dean Cervantes pursed his lips. "If his intentions were less than honorable, why did you accept?"
Alexandra flushed. What was she supposed to say to that? "I didn't want to make a scene."
She knew how lame that sounded. Cervantes raised his eyebrows with a dubious expression.
She took out her wand and tossed it on his desk. "If you think I charmed Larry, go ahead and check my wand like you do Darla's!"
He frowned at her, without moving, and eyed her wand.
"Pick up your wand, and mind your temper, young lady," he said at last. "It's necessary for me to inquire about such things. And I doubt you'd offer me your wand if you had in fact used it to charm him."
She retrieved her wand and thrust it back into its sheath. "I didn't do anything to Larry, sir."
"Very well." She wasn't sure whether the dean believed her, but he waved a hand. "Stay out of trouble, Miss Quick. Dismissed."
With neither detention nor the Dueling Club to occupy her (Ms. Shirtliffe told her she'd consider allowing Alexandra to rejoin next year), Alexandra had more free time than she'd had since the start of the school year. She spent much of it in the library, continuing to read what she could find about ghosts, the afterlife, resurrection, and Dark Arts.
The latter subject, of course, was not one covered in any of the books available to eighth graders. But Alexandra was compiling a list of titles — books listed as references that she couldn't find in the library, or which were marked as Restricted in the Card Catalog. Necromancy, immortality, souls, spirits — like the Lands Beyond, they were alluded to, and Alexandra could see from the school's course catalog that some of these subjects were touched upon in advanced classes, but no books available to her actually spelled out the principles behind them, let alone provided any magical instruction.
If Anna was suspicious about Alexandra's unusual enthusiasm for Charms homework, she didn't say anything. Opening a door that had been sealed with a Colloportus spell was, according to Mr. Newton, at least two grade levels above them. Alexandra could open doors she'd sealed herself about half the time, now, and occasionally she could open a door that Anna had sealed. She credited all the time she'd spent learning Unlocking Charms in sixth grade.
When she wasn't doing classwork, or what she thought of as her own 'independent study,' she resumed playing games with her friends in the recreation room. It was becoming harder to stay focused entirely on her most important goal. Accepting that it would probably take years was beginning to feel like an admission of defeat — maybe her dream of bringing back her brother would fade, in time, until eventually it would become some silly idea she'd had as a child. As much as she resisted the idea, and periodically threw herself into long hours in the library poring over books about the spectral nature of ghosts, and Other Places in fact and legend, her time in class and with her friends was starting to feel more 'real' again; her time spent trying to contrive methods by which she could bring Max back from the Lands Beyond felt like daydreaming.
Anna had been even more miserable since returning from the winter break. She could hardly stand to talk about her stay with her mother and her grandparents; Alexandra gathered that her grandparents treated her and her mother both like unwanted guests. She heard Anna crying in the bathroom many evenings.
By now, news that Geming Chu was in prison, and the source of much of the unrest in California, had reached Charmbridge Academy. The election in North California which was supposed to take place on the same weekend as Valentine's Day and the Chinese New Year had been postponed.
Alexandra tried to get her roommate to join her in the rec room more often. Constance and Forbearance were usually obliging, but David was always too busy, either with Quidditch and ASPEW, or spending time with Angelique.
As January turned to February, the weather stayed cold but dry, so by the week before Valentine's Day, the snow around Charmbridge Academy had mostly melted. Alexandra was glad, since tracks in the snow would be one less thing she'd have to worry about when she snuck out that night. Her preparation for the possibility of an early February snowstorm was paying off in class, at least; for her final project in Transfiguration, she had decided on a Reversible Transformation turning boots to snowshoes. Mr. Hobbes warned her that this was too advanced for her, but he was pleased by her progress.
Everyone was talking about the Sweetheart's Dance. Unlike the Winter Ball, it was open to all grades, and Alexandra overheard William being teased in JROC after he admitted that Innocence had made him ask her to the dance.
Alexandra would have been quite thoroughly fed up with hearing about Valentine's Day, if not for the fact that with most of the school at the dance, or sneaking out afterwards, it would provide her with ample opportunity to slip out herself.
She wasn't the only one with no plans to attend the dance, however. Constance and Forbearance were adamant that they had no intention of going with Benjamin and Mordecai.
"We'uns hain't sweet on them," Constance said one evening, as they played Knaves and Wands. "We don't even prefer 'em much." She laid a card on the table.
Alexandra tapped the card. "Knave," she said.
"You wish!" said a muffled voice from beneath it.
Alexandra laid a card next to it. "You went to the Winter Ball with them."
Forbearance frowned. "A formal ball is different. Hain't koosy like a Sweetheart's Dance." She tapped Constance's card. "Wand."
"Lucky guess," the card retorted.
"Knave," she said, tapping Alexandra's card.
"Thhhppptt!" The card gave her a raspberry.
"Anyhow, we had to drop hints like lead wands a'fore them boys took us to the ball," Forbearance continued, adding a card to the table. "'Twas the least they could do. Hain't no one else we could attend with."
"I don't know about that." Alexandra watched as Anna quietly tapped the wand card and then missed an obvious guess with the next one. Anna usually won games that relied on memory. She slid a new card onto the table indifferently.
Constance and Forbearance looked at Anna and sighed.
"Are you'uns goin'?" Forbearance asked.
"No," Alexandra and Anna said together, shaking their heads.
"Just as well." Constance shrugged. "We'uns can have a fine a time right here, without no boys."
"I just wish we could persuade Innocence to join us," Forbearance said.
"Can you believe that girl got detention again?" Constance slapped a card down. The card protested with a startled yelp.
Alexandra wondered if they knew that their sister was going to the Sweetheart's Dance, but she certainly wasn't going to tattle on Innocence, or poor William.
There was no snowfall before that weekend. The ground was hard and cold around the school, but only a few patches of snow remained, in deep shadows and far back in the woods. Alexandra prepared for her night's outing, with a worried Anna looking on.
"Are you sure you should do this?" Anna asked, for perhaps the fifth time.
"No, I'm not," Alexandra replied, with a note of exasperation. When Anna flinched, Alexandra's expression softened, and she clasped her roommate's hands.
"It will be all right," she said. "My father wouldn't come meet me like this if he wasn't sure it was safe. I mean, he's been avoiding Aurors and Inquisitors and Dark Wizards for years — I'm sure he's taken precautions I don't even know about."
"You sound like you trust him now," Anna mumbled.
Alexandra frowned. "I don't. Except when it comes to outsmarting Diana Grimm."
The thought occurred to her that her father might not care so much if she were caught — but it was a risk she was willing to take.
I'm doing it for you, she thought, looking at her anxious friend. Anna seemed more nervous than usual. You probably think I'm just up to something dangerous again.
All year, she had been thinking only of herself. Tonight, she was doing something for Anna.
Alexandra waited until almost eight o'clock, when the Sweetheart's Dance would be well underway, before she left her room. Beneath the cloak that Valeria had bought for her, she was dressed in the nicest clothes she had, so that if she were stopped by a teacher, she could say that she was on her way to the dance.
"Curfew is still in effect, Miss Quick," the Delta Delta Kappa Tau hall monitor reminded her as she passed beneath him. "Back by ten p.m."
"I know," she said. She suspected a lot of kids would be getting warnings for curfew violations tonight.
She could hear the music from the auditorium where the dance was being held. It wasn't the school's magic band playing this time; it was a wrock band from Chicago. The music was lively, and Alexandra could see occasional flashing lights and sparkles drifting down the hall. Couples also entered and left the dance area; some just took strolls down Charmbridge's many hallways, hand in hand, with the rules against Public Displays of Affection being enforced less zealously than usual. With so many amorous teens wandering around, though, the teachers on chaperone duty were kept quite busy. Dean Black was standing in the main hallway, and Alexandra passed Vice Dean Ellis as she walked away from the auditorium, towards the nearest exit.
He glanced at her as he continued walking. "Where are you going, Miss Quick?"
"Bathroom," she replied.
"Back to the auditorium when you're done," he said. "Only seniors are allowed outside after hours."
"I know, sir." She watched as he disappeared around a corner. He looked like he was in a hurry; probably summoned by one of the Hall Monitors to intercept some teenagers up to no good. She kept going, turning right where the Vice Dean had turned left. By now she knew where most of the exits from the school were; being in the Mors Mortis Society the previous year had given her lots of practice sneaking in and out.
The night air was bitingly cold when she slipped outside near the stables. She pulled her cloak around herself, and did not light her wand. Charmbridge Academy shed plenty of light near the walls of the building, but it became darker and darker as she proceeded across a riding track and a barren brown field towards the woods. There was only a sliver of moonlight, and most of the stars were hidden by clouds. No doubt her father had chosen the night of the new moon for that reason.
She reached the edge of the Quidditch field, and waited. Out in the woods, it was mostly quiet, aside from an occasional owl hooting. She could still hear music from inside, faintly. Then she heard wings flapping.
"Charlie!" she whispered. She had told Anna to give her about ten minutes before opening the window to let Charlie out.
The raven cawed and landed on her shoulder.
"Let's go find my father," she said, petting her familiar.
She walked on across the Quidditch field. She still hadn't lit her wand, not wanting to be seen from the academy. Looking over her shoulder, here and there she could see glowing circles of wandlight where other students, old enough to be allowed outside, were taking walks on the lawn.
A dark shape loomed ahead of her, barely visible. It was the bleachers behind the Quidditch field, with the woods only a few dozen yards further on. Charlie squawked a warning before she smelled smoke, and saw a small, orange glow hovering in the darkness ahead of her.
"Who's there?" she called out, drawing her wand.
"Merlin's balls!" someone cursed, and there was movement as a shadow rose in front of her. The orange light also rose, to her eye level. "Quick?"
The last word was spoken with such venom that Alexandra instinctively raised her wand.
Charlie cawed and took off from her shoulder. She said, "Lumos," and the light from her wand shined fully in Larry's face.
He winced, and held one hand in front of his face, while the other held a rolled cigarette. "Put that out, you little idiot! You want us both to get caught?"
"You're not supposed to be out here," she said.
She kept her wand pointed at him. He eyed the glowing end of the wand, and held both his hands out; one empty, the other holding only a cigarette. "What — are you going to hex me? Go ahead — it's the only way you'll ever beat me, Quick!"
Her arm trembled, as she thought about all the curses she could throw at him. He just stood there, and then brought his cigarette to his lips and inhaled, with a contemptuous expression. He exhaled at length, blowing a cloud of smoke at her.
She wrinkled her nose and fanned the smoke away with her free hand. After a moment, she half-lowered her wand, and turned so that her cloak was blocking its light from anyone who might be watching from the direction of the school. "What are you doing out here?" she snapped. "Shouldn't you be at the dance with Adela?"
"Mind your own business and broom, you little goblin!"
She wasn't sure what to do — she didn't dare turn her back on him and let him see her walking into the woods.
"What are you doing out here?" he asked. "Planning some Dark Arts ritual in the woods? Little sorceress."
"If you really think that, shouldn't you be afraid?"
Larry laughed. "Your brother was scary. Not you." He spat on the ground. "Go ahead, show me how dangerous you are. Crucio me like he did."
Alexandra clenched her teeth in anger. Larry laughed again. "Yeah — you're no sorceress. Just a troublesome little Mudblood brat."
Alexandra heard Charlie flapping around, and then the ominous sound of more wings flapping. Larry had an owl, Alexandra remembered. "Charlie, come back!"
Larry was making no move to leave. Alexandra stood there, frustrated. "What is your problem with 'Mudbloods,' anyway?" she demanded. "Why do you hate us so much?"
Larry took a long draw on his cigarette again, and shrugged. "Wade's father is a half-blood. And I'm pretty sure one of my great-uncles had a bamboo wand. I don't really hate Mudbloods." His lip curled. "Just you."
Alexandra simmered angrily. Half a dozen nasty curses came to mind, the least violent of which involved giving Larry a pink beard with lice. But he was just standing there, making no move to defend himself.
"Why me?" she asked, through gritted teeth. Maybe she would just have to Body-Bind him. That would be fitting, and he could hardly tell on her.
"Are you serious? Your father is the Enemy of the Confederation! Do you think any other Dark Wizard's bastard half-blood child would be allowed to strut around Charmbridge like she belongs here?"
"It's not my fault who my father is!"
"Yeah, and you're not at all like him. The 'girl who came back' — the girl who gets away with everything! Ms. Shirtliffe's little pet!"
"Pet? What are you talking about?" Her voice rose angrily. "Ms. Shirtliffe is always on my case!"
"She and the Dean are always giving you another chance, even after all the crap you pull. Anyone else would have been expelled by now." Larry threw his cigarette on the ground and stomped it out, leaving his face completely shadowed. "I was as good as you when I joined the Dueling Club in eighth grade! Better! Ms. Shirtliffe never said a word to me. No special treatment, no telling me how much potential I have —"
"You think Ms. Shirtliffe likes me? You think I get special treatment?" Alexandra was so angry, she had almost forgotten her reason for being out here.
Larry laughed. "Merlin, you think you can get away with anything!"
"What about Darla? She's done way worse stuff than me!"
"Yeah, well, that's the way the Confederation works, no matter how many 'Muggle Awareness Months' and lessons on Cultural diversity and blood status equality they shove down our throats." His voice became lower, and in the scant amount of light shed by her wand, his eyes seemed solid black, beneath his pale, gleaming forehead. "The Elect are the ones who really run the Confederation, and we always will. And you should have broomed when you had the chance." He drew his wand, so fast that she barely had time to raise her own. "Now —"
"Now you're going to put your wand away," said a deep voice.
Larry froze, as Alexandra turned and saw her father standing behind her. He was a tall shadow wrapped in a long, black cloak. Light from Alexandra's wand cast shadows from below across his rugged, bearded countenance, making him look even more ominous standing there in the darkness.
Charlie came flapping down and landed on her shoulder.
Abraham Thorn continued staring at Larry, until he lowered his wand.
"You should go inside now, young man," Alexandra's father said. "And you should also stop smoking."
Larry stared at the two of them, and then he turned and ran back across the field towards the academy. Only after he was halfway across the field did an owl screech and flutter down after him. With a mocking caw, a larger, darker shape descended in the opposite direction. Hagar spread her wings and glided towards Abraham Thorn.
Alexandra turned to him. "Are you crazy? He's going to tell everyone he just saw you here! With me!"
"Probably." Her father nodded. "But since the Aurors know already, his seeing me is moot."
"What?" She gasped, and then he reached out and gently took hold of her upper arm.
Hagar settled on his shoulder, and he said, "One moment, my dear — we're going to Apparate." And with a wrenching sensation, she felt herself pulled along with him.
A moment later, they were standing somewhere else. Near the top of a mountain, looking out over a large, dark, forested valley. Distantly, she could see lights from a highway and a city.
Charlie squawked and almost tumbled off her shoulder. Hagar's talons seemed dug into Abraham Thorn's shoulder; the larger raven fluttered and shook her head rapidly back and forth.
Alexandra stared at her father.
"You wanted to talk to me," he said. His voice was gentle now. "I feared you would never speak to me again."
She took a deep breath, trying to silence all the emotions and the torrent of questions she wanted to ask him, the flood of accusations she wanted to hurl at him. "My friend, Anna — she's my roommate at Charmbridge. She's my best friend. Her father has been imprisoned, because the WJD thinks he's a member of the Thorn Circle."
Her father said, "I know who your roommate is, and I am aware of Mr. Chu's dilemma."
"Is he?" she asked. "A member of the Thorn Circle?"
He was silent for several moments. Then he said, "No."
"I want you to help get him out of prison. I don't mean by breaking him out. I mean by convincing the WJD that he's not a Dark Wizard."
"Really?" Her father folded his arms. "Shall I just drop by the Governor's office and tell him that Mr. Chu is innocent?"
"Don't mock me," she said, feeling small and childish, as she often did in her father's presence.
"I am not mocking you, Alexandra. But surely you know that my word alone will not suffice."
"You're a great wizard — I'm sure there's some way you can do it. Write a Mortal Contract swearing that Mr. Chu has never been part of the Thorn Circle. Or... offer to turn yourself in, if they set him free. Something. Think of a way." She took a deep breath. "You owe me a boon."
She felt her father's gaze upon her, long and thoughtful, and she stood there in the night air, shivering. Charlie huddled against her; she could feel the raven's feathers brushing against her ear.
"I suspected," he said, "that you would ask me something of the sort."
"When you were a baby," he went on, "I held you in my arms as I cast the Fidelius Charm. And then I whispered in your ear the names of every member of the Thorn Circle. That secret I entrusted to you. It is that secret that has kept the Office of Special Inquisitions from being able to find any of us, for they cannot even discover who my closest companions were." He placed a hand on her shoulder. "Give that information to the Inquisitors, and they will have that which they so badly want from you. And more importantly, Diana Grimm will believe that you have truly turned against me. You will no longer be so important. Freedom for Mr. Chu, and a measure of freedom for you as well."
"How can I possibly remember something you whispered in my ear as a baby?" she asked. "What are you going to do, write down a list for me? Ms. Grimm will never believe that!"
"You are correct." He nodded, then removed his hand from her shoulder, reached into his cloak, and produced a small glass vial. He held up his wand in his other hand. "But the memory itself — taken directly from you — that she will believe."
Alexandra eyed her father's wand. "You can retrieve that memory from my head?"
"Yes." He nodded.
"And... you'd do that? Even though it will mean giving up all of your friends?"
He smiled grimly. "It was almost fourteen years ago, and the Fidelius Charm has served its purpose. Soon, we will not be hiding at all. I'm not saying there won't be a cost... but I will grant you your boon." He fixed his eyes on hers. "Are you ready?"
She swallowed, and nodded.
"This won't hurt," he said gently, and he touched the tip of his wand to her temple.
It was a strange sensation, but not painful. She couldn't even see the memory being drawn out of her. For a moment, her vision was cloudy, and the world was too large, too noisy, and too bright — she was aware of something large looming over her, and she was frightened, but she was being held and it was soft and warm all around her, even as the large, looming presence whispered in her ear...
She blinked, and in the darkness, her father was holding a small vial that glowed with silvery light. He handed it to her. She took it, staring at the liquid essence of her own memories.
"You have your boon," her father said.
Charlie made a trilling sound, as she shifted her shoulders to tuck the vial into a safe place in one of the pockets of her cloak.
"Will this really work?" she asked. Now that she had gotten what she wanted, she found herself having doubts. What if her schemes once again were doomed to end in disappointment?
"They can still claim Mr. Chu is collaborating with the Dark Convention — just not with me." Abraham Thorn looked off across the forest. "But it was never him they were really after, and they did not anticipate the political cost of persecuting him." He turned back towards her. "I heard about your Time-Turner scheme." Alexandra couldn't read his expression in the darkness. "Do you think I wouldn't have done something similar, if it were possible to undo the past like that, Alexandra?"
"I don't know what you would have done," she said bitterly. "At least I tried to do something."
He paused. When he spoke again, he sounded sad. "I miss Maximilian terribly. I never planned to lose a child, my dear. I would do anything if I could bring him back."
"Really?" She fixed him with her most determined glare, though she could barely see his eyes. "I've heard there are Dark Arts that can call back the dead. Supposedly there's something called a Resurrection Stone, and —"
"Fairy tales, Alexandra. The Dark Arts you speak of, whatever they might call would not be anything you want brought back. Please, you must abandon this foolishness. Maximilian is gone — you will only bring more grief upon yourself if you persist."
"What about what you're doing? How much more grief are you going to bring? How many more people need to die?"
Hagar made a soft croaking sound. Charlie clacked nervously in response. Her father was silent for a long while, as the wind blew and, very far away, Alexandra heard something that sounded like a horn, possibly from a truck on the highway.
"I hope there comes a time when I can justify myself to you," he said. "But for now, you will have to judge me as others do."
She shook her head. "You're really good at not answering my questions."
"And you are quite adept at trying my patience." He sounded more weary than angry. "There are reasons, Alexandra. I know you have little reason to trust me —"
"You're right, I don't!" she snapped.
There was a cold silence after that. Even Hagar and Charlie were quiet.
"In time, perhaps," her father said at last. His voice was a little less warm. He reached a hand out. "I should return you to Charmbridge now."
"How am I going to explain my father showing up to talk to me? I thought the point of meeting me in the woods under a new moon was to keep it secret. I mean, you might as well have just sent me an owl. Or a Howler, for that matter."
"I wanted to confirm something." He took her hand. "There will be Aurors waiting when we return. You must tell Diana Grimm that you knew they would find out about your meeting with me; you told no one because you believed, correctly, that you could trust no one, and you hoped they would just do their jobs. It will not be your fault that they will fail. But the memory I have extracted from you, that will satisfy them. Convince them that you have turned against me, Alexandra."
"Wait!" Alexandra's mind was spinning. "How can the Aurors already know you're here?"
But they were already Apparating, and Alexandra's questions were cut off by the jerk through space. She was still stammering when they arrived on the lawn of Charmbridge Academy.
There were dark shapes in the air, and someone shouted: "There!"
"Protego Totalus!" her father said, and a glowing sphere appeared around the two of them, just before lances of light flashed down from the sky, bouncing off the shield and blasting holes in the lawn.
"Until next time, my dear," he said, and leaned in to kiss her cheek. Then he disappeared with a flash and a crackle of electricity that threw Alexandra against the inside of the sphere. Charlie cawed, and she could smell burning ozone. Then she was surrounded by wizards descending out of the sky on brooms, yelling and pounding against the sphere with Blasting Spells, casting Anti-Disapparition Jinxes, and shouting at her, while she stood helplessly within, confused and shaken.
Aurors were prowling around outside, but Abraham Thorn was gone and they had no way of pursuing him. Alexandra had been left alone with Charlie in an empty classroom, at first, until Diana Grimm arrived.
The Special Inquisitor had been skeptical when Alexandra told her her story — until she gave her the vial with her memory, and told her about the boon she had made her father swear.
Now, it was almost two hours later, and Alexandra was as tired as she was confused and annoyed. But Ms. Grimm finally seemed satisfied that she had extracted all the information she could from Abraham Thorn's daughter.
"I want to thank you, Alexandra, for making the right decision," she said. "It can't have been easy, turning against your father. But you really should have contacted me directly — we might have caught him, with your full cooperation."
"Unless he's been spying on me, too, and knew I'd turned traitor," Alexandra said. That might even have been true — her father seemed uncannily aware of what was going on at Charmbridge.
Saying it like that — turned traitor — left a sour taste in her mouth. She didn't feel loyal to her father. She didn't like anything he did, or trust his intentions. But it still made her feel a little slimy, letting Ms. Grimm believe that she'd try to lure him into a trap. Was it only her imagination that the other Aurors were looking at her with just as much hostility as ever?
No one likes a traitor — even when she's on your side, she thought.
"Does everyone have to know about this?" she asked.
It had been bad enough when everyone thought she was a sorceress. Would they think any better of her when they thought she'd betrayed her own father?
Ms. Grimm shook her head. "Everyone will know that you were visited by your father, and that we tried, unsuccessfully, to catch him. What you choose to tell your friends is up to you." She looked at the vial that she held between her fingers. "We must act quickly, now. Having given this to you, he will warn his allies. But just knowing who they were will help us untangle his conspiracy, revealing secrets going back years."
The Special Inquisitor looked pleased, eager to be on her way, but Alexandra asked, "What about Mr. Chu?"
Ms. Grimm's expression shifted. She shrugged; her face became hard to read. "The Governor of North California is the only one with the authority to order his release. However, I will let him know that we have cleared Geming Chu." She shook the vial slightly.
"And my cooperation? Does that count for anything?"
Ms. Grimm gave her a long look, before answering. "Yes. Yes, it does. And given the political pressure the Governor is already under — I think Mr. Chu will be released soon. I cannot promise you that, but he should be."
Alexandra nodded. It wasn't an entirely satisfactory answer, but it was the best she could do. She felt a tiny bit of relief.
The relief curdled in her stomach as she walked back to her room. Her steps became heavy, until her feet were almost dragging on the floor as she passed beneath the warlock hanging over the entrance to her hall.
"It's past curfew, Miss Quick," the portrait said.
Charlie, who was still sitting on her shoulder, squawked. Alexandra didn't look up. "I think I have a pass," she said, and kept walking.
She stopped in front of her door, and stared at it, until Charlie squawked again, and she heard a sound down the hallway. She looked, and saw a door quickly close.
"Been talking about me?" she shouted. "Heard about my father yet?"
Her voice echoed up and down the hallway, but no one replied. All the doors remained tightly shut.
She opened the door to her room. Anna was sitting with her back to Alexandra. A candle and some incense were sitting on the corner of her desk, just beneath the photographs of her parents.
She didn't turn around as Alexandra entered and closed the door behind her.
"Have you heard what happened?" Alexandra asked.
Anna hesitated, then said, "No."
Alexandra raised her hands to her shoulder and lifted Charlie into the cage hanging by her bed.
"You wouldn't have, because you were sitting here all night, right?"
Anna didn't say anything.
"There were Aurors waiting for us," Alexandra said. "They didn't catch my father, of course. He was expecting them. He got away."
Anna didn't move, but her neck twitched a little.
"We talked, first, though." Alexandra moved slowly across the room, towards her roommate. Charlie was very, very quiet, watching the two girls. "I got what I wanted from him."
Anna moved her head very slightly, just enough to see Alexandra out of the corner of her eye. "What was that?" she whispered.
"The identities of everyone in the Thorn Circle. Proof that your father isn't a collaborator. Diana Grimm said she thinks it will be enough to free him."
Anna turned around, to stare at Alexandra. Her eyes were wet with tears.
Alexandra moved closer still, until she was standing over her roommate.
"I don't understand how the Aurors knew he was coming, though, as quickly as they did. I mean, it was like they were waiting already. Someone had to tell them."
Anna began trembling.
"Why, Anna?" Alexandra asked. Her voice was close to breaking. She felt her own eyes burning. Of everything she had endured in the past year, only Maximilian's death had hurt this much.
Anna made a choking sound, and opened her hand, revealing a stiff yellow card imprinted with the seal of the Office of Special Inquisitions. It fell to her desk, and she covered her face with her hands.