Between You and Me

Alexandra and Anna sat alone together in the cafeteria the next day. David sat with the other boys, Sonja and Carol sat with the other ninth grade girls who had mostly shunned Alexandra since sixth grade, and Constance and Forbearance sat with the Rashes.

In their Wizarding Citizenship class, Forbearance passed Alexandra a note:

'It might be difficult for us to meet you in the library for a little while, and we can't sit together in the cafeteria. Please don't be upset. Can I come to your room Saturday morning?'

Alexandra wrote 'Sure' and passed the note back. She only noticed afterward that Forbearance had written 'I' – not 'we.'

Saturday morning, Forbearance came to her room with scrolls and books clutched to her chest. Alexandra and Anna watched as she spread charts and graphs out on both their desks and laid an extremely complicated map of stars and astrological signs across Alexandra's bed.

"Where's Constance?" Alexandra asked.

Forbearance was bent over the map with her back to Alexandra and Anna, but they could hear a slight edge in her voice. "Studyin' somethin' more important an' useful, I 'magine."

"I thought you usually study together," Anna said.

"Maybe so, but as it happens we'uns wasn't actually stitched together at birth," Forbearance said.

Alexandra and Anna looked at each other. Forbearance straightened and turned around to face them. "Oh, Anna, dear, I'm sorry." She passed a hand in front of her face. "There's no call for me to be so tetchous."

"It's all right," Anna said.

"Is Constance on your case again about astrology?" Alexandra asked.

"If'n 'on my case' means she scoffles every time I mention it, then yes." Forbearance sat down on Alexandra's bed. "She says it hain't fit or academical, an' only warlocks, pagans, an' durgens reckon by the stars above."

"Well, you don't have to do my chart," Alexandra said, feeling guilty about her own silent scoffing. "I don't want you and Constance to fight about this."

"I hain't gonna drop my Astrology class, Alex. And anyhow, this hain't really 'bout you or astrology."

"You sure it's not about me?" Alexandra sat next to Forbearance. "Aren't you getting in trouble with Benjamin and Mordecai because you keep hanging out with me?"

"Connie an' I are still o' one mind where you're concerned, Alex, dear, you be sure of that. Benjamin an' Mordecai is a trial, it's true, but we'uns'll square it our own selves. Please don't you nevermind 'bout them."

"Okay," Alexandra said. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Forbearance hesitated, then shook her head. "Not just now. But thank you, truly." She turned to her charts. "I know your birth date, but not what time you was born. Also, I need to know when both your parents was born, an' when you first showed magic."

Alexandra opened her mouth, but they were interrupted by a knock on the door to the bathroom. Sonja opened it before she or Anna could say anything.

"Hi," Sonja said. "I thought I heard Forbearance's voice. Are you doing Alexandra's star chart?"

"Come right on in, Sonja." The memory of what had happened in the forest only a few days earlier blunted the sarcasm in Alexandra's voice. Sonja immediately entered and leaned over to examine the chart. One animated planet was spinning on the parchment, casting a red glow on its smaller siblings who had shrunk in relation to it.

"Mars – that figures. But you haven't calculated her Aspects or guiding and influential Powers or their Domains."

"I was gettin' to that." Forbearance also betrayed a slight hint of irritation.

Alexandra hesitated. "I don't actually know what time I was born."

"Hain't your ma never told you?" Forbearance asked.

Alexandra frowned. She'd asked her mother a lot of questions about herself and her father when she was little – questions her mother had always refused to answer. She had been born in the Chicago university hospital where her mother had been studying nursing. She wasn't sure if she'd ever seen her birth certificate.

"Well, Mrs. Estrella says we can chart by noon and midnight and estimate," Sonja said. "Do you know if you were born in the morning, afternoon, or evening?"

"Morning, I think," Alexandra said. She didn't actually know.

Forbearance pointed with her wand. One star on the chart glowed blue-white, and a third of the sky glowed more brightly while another third dimmed. "Now see, I charted the Power governing magic by her wand – hickory wood an' chimaera hair. That weren't easy to look up; chimaera hair hain't listed in most books."

"When did you first show you were magical?" Sonja asked.

"I don't know," Alexandra muttered. "My mother never talked about that, either."

Both girls gave her another look.

"I remember transforming things by the time I was five." On the playground, with Brian...

"We'uns can work from that," Forbearance said. She and Sonja resumed discussing signs, houses, Aspects, traits, rising and crossing and degrees and other terms that were nonsense to Alexandra. Except one they used repeatedly.

"What's this stuff about Powers?" she asked. "I thought nobody believes in Powers anymore."

"Well," Forbearance said uncomfortably, "whether Powers is real so's you could talk to 'em, that's..."

"They're symbolic," Sonja said. "Of course Powers aren't actual Beings – they're just how wizards in the ancient world represented magical forces they didn't understand yet."

Forbearance remained tight-lipped, and Anna kept her eyes fixed on the star charts. They knew about Alexandra's meeting with the Most Deathly Power.

"But those forces are real," Sonja went on, like a lecturer. "You may think astrology is nonsense – a lot of wizards do, just because Muggles copied wizard astrology and of course they didn't get anything right, so now astrology has become associated with Muggles and Powers. But don't be so skeptical, Alexandra. You didn't grow up in the wizarding world, so there are probably some things you still don't understand. There are things you might not even believe yet."

"Really?" Alexandra's expression was deadpan.

Sonja nodded. "You have to keep an open mind."

"I'll try."

Anna bit her lip; she almost looked amused.

Forbearance picked up her quill, and she and Sonja went through a surprising number of calculations, drawing complex diagrams which they kept crossing out and redrawing. The stars moved about like migrating sparks of light, planets and constellations rose from the surface of the parchment and drifted into new positions on the chart, and images like ghostly watermarks moved beneath the lines and letters. Alexandra became interested in spite of herself. She soon gathered that the other two girls were not pleased by what they were finding.

"That's not a good sign," Sonja said, adding a line from Alexandra's birth symbol to another star. The symbol Alexandra recognized as representing her, or one of the symbols representing her, had turned a sickly green. "You either crossed over or under Nibiru..."

Forbearance became upset. "I done told you Babylonian wizards was wicked an' even Mrs. Estrella says their charts hain't reliable –" Then she drew in a breath. "Oh."

"What?" Alexandra asked.

"That's an Ozarker constellation," Forbearance said. "You was born under Troublesome's signs."

Alexandra snorted.

"Hain't a good thing, Alex."

Sonja said, "Wait, you don't think ancient Babylonian wizards knew what they were talking about, but you want to go by Ozarker folk tales? Troublesome isn't a person; she can't have signs."

"Ozarker 'folk tales' is based on magical principles," Forbearance said. "It might surprise you to know we'uns understand symbols and metaphors too. An' also, Troublesome is so a person."

Alexandra said, "Look, this is all interesting, but you don't really believe the stars control our lives, do you?"

"Of course not," Forbearance said.

"That's not what we learn in Astrology at all," Sonja said. "Nobody controls you. But if you pay attention to the stars you can see what's going to happen in your life. What you do about it is up to you."

"Fine," Alexandra said. "So what's going to happen in my life?"

"The stars above don't just spell out dates an' times," Forbearance said. "It's more a matter of..." Her voice trailed off as she studied the chart they'd been compiling.

"Oh, Mrs. Estrella isn't going to like that," Sonja said.

"Who cares what Mrs. Estrella likes? What does it say?" Alexandra asked. Even Anna was leaning over her shoulder now.

"Well, um, that's the sign for 'calamity' and that's the sign for 'trouble' and that's the sign for 'pride' and that's the sign for 'evil' –"

"The stars say I'm evil?"

"No, no, no," Forbearance said. "Just that certain stars is, well, influential on you."

"This is really helpful." Alexandra saw Anna's worried look. "No offense, guys, but I don't think anyone's life is determined by a star chart when they're fourteen."

"Of course it don't determine your life," Forbearance said.

"Oh, look, her Powers!" Sonja said, as the stars on the chart stopped moving and settled into place.

Alexandra turned back around. "What Powers?"

"The Seven Sisters."

Alexandra's eyebrows went up. So did Anna's.

"And what does that mean?" Alexandra asked, somewhat less skeptically.

"Well, the Seven Sisters are really powerful," Sonja said. "Which means you're supposed to be really powerful."


"And have a powerful destiny."

"Even better." Alexandra grinned.

"The youngest Sister is fated for trouble an' early ends," Forbearance said, much more quietly. She consulted one of her books. "The Seven Sisters is associated with war, sacrifice, betrayal, secrets, night, vengeance, forgiveness, water, oceans, May, sowin'..."

"Is there anything they're not associated with?"

Sonja and Forbearance looked at her blankly. Anna wasn't amused.

Alexandra sighed. "Okay, this is all really interesting –"

Everyone but her jumped when something rapped sharply on the window. It wasn't Charlie demanding to be let in, but an owl bearing a letter tied to its leg.

Alexandra opened the window, but when she reached a hand out, the owl snapped at her and hooted at Anna.

"It's for you," Alexandra said. Anna rarely received any mail except letters delivered by her own owl from her parents.

Anna took an owl treat out of the bag she kept for Jingwei and let the owl gobble it up as she untied the letter. She unrolled the envelope, then handed it to Alexandra. "No, it's for you."

The owl hooted and flew off, while Alexandra read the return address. It was from Payton. She cleared her throat. "Okay, are we done with star charting today?"

"Who's it from?" Sonja asked.

"None of your business."

"Well, excuse me!"

Forbearance's eyes lit up. "Is it from...?" Then she covered her mouth, as Alexandra flushed.

Sonja's eyes also lit up. "It's from your boyfriend, isn't it? Isn't it?"

"Get out."

"Oh, come on."

"We hain't finished with your chart, Alex," Forbearance said.

"Fine." Alexandra walked to the other side of the room and turned her back on them while she opened the letter.

There was just a little slip of parchment in the envelope. Strange, she thought. Payton didn't write on parchment – he sent her letters written on plain paper stationary.

The words didn't make sense. They glowed red, then turned black and made blind spots in her vision. They grew and eclipsed everything else even as she tried to read them. Icy fingers clamped around her throat, and something black and terrible clutched at her heart. She didn't even have time to gasp before she fell.

Something loosened painfully in her chest, and Alexandra opened her eyes. She was burning.

A bearded, scowling face loomed over her. She wasn't in her room, but her vision was all red and black and spotty. What parts of her that weren't numb hurt.

"...almost killed her..."

"The curse is only half the problem."

She gulped air. She felt fingers strangling her, but there were no hands on her throat.

"Close your mouth, girl. You're gaping like a fish."

"Glaucus, please –"

"I'm not a cursed Healer. You comfort her."

Their voices were very loud. Alexandra mumbled something, with a tongue that had shriveled in her mouth.

"Stop trying to talk," the bearded ogre snapped. "I'm trying to keep you from dying, and nothing you say is going to help."

"Neither is berating the poor girl." The owner of the softer voice held her hand.

"Can you identify the poison?" That was another voice, cooler and harder.

"If that fool Ozarker hadn't burned the parchment –"

"Then someone else might have touched it. Can you identify the poison, Mr. Grue?"

"With time that Miss Quick doesn't have. I'm going to put her in a coma. She should go to the hospital."

Alexandra flinched as Mr. Grue put a hand behind her head and pressed something to her lips. "Drink!" he commanded.

In her fevered state, Alexandra was sure that this monster who had hated her for years was now trying to poison her. She refused to open her lips. Grue cursed and pressed thumb and forefinger painfully to either side of her jaw, trying to force her mouth open. She raised a hand to slap his hand away, but someone caught it and held it.

"Glaucus!" Mrs. Murphy said, and then Alexandra heard Ms. Grimm's voice in her ear. It was soft, as Alexandra had never heard Ms. Grimm speak before, but insistent: "Alexandra, drink the potion. You will die if you don't. Trust me."

Alexandra parted her lips, and Mr. Grue dumped what felt like a gallon of sickly-sweet liquid down her throat. She gagged as it spilled out of her mouth. She sputtered something at Mr. Grue, who pressed his rough hand against her face. She fell asleep before she could struggle.

When she opened her eyes again, light was shining through the windows, and she knew she was in the infirmary. She also knew she had been asleep for a long time. She remembered Mr. Grue telling them about Hundred-Year Sleep Potion the previous year. She put a hand to her face, for a moment imagining she might have a beard like Rip Van Winkle. That was an absurd thought. She giggled. Then she clamped a hand over her mouth in horror. She'd giggled!

"Is she going to be all right?" a voice asked.

A hand touched her forehead. Alexandra felt dizzy and wondered if she were delirious. Livia Pruett was standing over her. She was wearing a plain blue robe; the collar of a white blouse was visible beneath it.

"Can you tell me your name and your birth date?" Livia asked.

Alexandra's eyes unfocused. "Alexandra... Octavia Quick. March twenty-second, nineteen ninety-six. Why are you here?"

"Ah, her attitude is unchanged. Excellent."

Alexandra turned her head. Ms. Grimm was sitting in a chair next to her bed, holding Galen in her lap. The cat watched Alexandra and purred as the Dean stroked it.

"You're going to be a bit light-headed," Livia said. She called in a louder voice, "Mrs. Murphy, can we get Alexandra something to eat?"

"Oh, she's awake!" Mrs. Murphy came around the partition surrounding Alexandra's bed, beamed at her, then hurried away.

"How long have I been asleep?" Alexandra asked.

"Three days," Livia said.

Alexandra started to sit up, but the effort seemed to drain all the blood from her head. She collapsed, dizzy.

"After you get something to eat, maybe you can start trying to move about," Livia said. "You should recover fairly quickly, but you'll be weak for a while. You really should have been in a hospital – either a wizard hospital or a Muggle one."

"We very much appreciate your help," Ms. Grimm said.

Livia turned away. "I'll be going now."

"Wait," Alexandra said. "Why did you come?"

"Dean Grimm summoned me." Livia glared at the Dean. "That's twice in as many months I've been dragged back into the wizarding world. You're as bad as your sister."

"I'm so sorry I inconvenienced you to save your sister's life," Ms. Grimm said.

"Wait," Alexandra said again. "If you don't care, why didn't you just let me die?"

Livia answered with exasperation: "I'm a doctor. I was a Healer. I can't just let someone die." She hesitated, made a motion as if she might reach a hand out to the girl on the bed, then dropped it to her side. "It's not that I don't care, Alexandra. But... I have a family. I have a life now, untainted by being Abraham Thorn's daughter. There's nothing in the wizarding world worth risking that. I'm sorry – it's not personal."

"Not personal," Alexandra repeated. "Right."

There was a long silence. Then Livia said, "Good luck, Alexandra."

Alexandra closed her eyes. "Thanks for saving me."

She listened to Livia's footsteps echo all the way out into the hallway, where she stopped to talk to someone in a low voice, before continuing on.

She heard a pop and opened her eyes. An elf stood on the edge of her bed, bearing a tray of food. The elf was not looking at her, but at Ms. Grimm.

"M-Mister Remy s-said M-Miss Quick needed l-l-lunch," the elf stammered.

"Thank you, Zipf," Ms. Grimm said. "You may leave the tray."

Alexandra sat up. The elf bobbed his head and let Alexandra take the tray on her lap before disappearing again with a pop. Alexandra's stomach rumbled and she realized she was starving. That was undoubtedly part of the reason she was so light-headed. The tray held fresh cornbread and soup, peppermeat sausage – one of her favorites – and green beans. There was also a glass of pumpkin juice, which she was not partial to, but she was thirsty as well as hungry, so she gulped half of it down and then grabbed the cornbread, before pausing to look at Ms. Grimm, who hadn't said anything since Zipf had left.

"Go ahead and eat," Ms. Grimm said.

Alexandra didn't bother tearing the cornbread; she just stuffed it into her mouth. It tasted wonderful, and her stomach rumbled again violently. While she swallowed the first mouthful of cornbread, Mrs. Murphy walked back in, carrying a flask and a small cup, which she set on the stand next to the bed.

"Don't stuff yourself all at once or you'll be sick," Mrs. Murphy warned her. Alexandra tried to slow down her chewing.

Ms. Grimm resumed petting Galen. "Your friends have come to see you every day."

"I finally had to forbid them to visit except after school," Mrs. Murphy said. "Oh – Miss Chu made me promise that I would tell you as soon as you woke up that she's taking care of your familiars. She knew you'd be worried about them."

Alexandra nodded and fumbled to pick up a knife and fork to cut the peppermeat sausage. "Thanks."

"You're to drink all of this potion when you finish eating," Mrs. Murphy said. "You're going to spend another night here in the infirmary" – Alexandra grimaced – "but if I am satisfied with your color by this afternoon, I'll let your friends come stay with you until curfew."

Alexandra held up a hand, wondering what was wrong with her color. She was shocked at the ashen pallor of her skin, with traces of blue along the veins in the back of her hand. Her fingers were bandaged.

Mrs. Murphy glanced at Ms. Grimm, then walked away, leaving the two of them alone except for Galen.

"Well," Ms. Grimm said, "what am I going to do with you, Miss Quick?"

Alexandra dropped her hand to her lap. "I don't know." Her stomach rumbled some more, so she reached for her fork and stabbed the sausage. She watched Ms. Grimm while she chewed. The Dean was as cool and composed as ever, but there was an unfamiliar tension in her posture.

Ms. Grimm spoke again while Alexandra ate. "Whoever was trying to kill you didn't use half-measures. That parchment contained both a curse and a contact poison. If one didn't get you, the other one should have. Miss Pritchard burned the parchment to ashes even before you fell, hence the blisters on your fingers. That probably saved you from a lethal dose, but unfortunately made it harder for Mr. Grue to identify what poison had been used, and for Miss Gambola to determine just what sort of curse struck you. She thinks it was a Glyph of some sort, since Miss Chu's inexperienced attempt at curse-breaking actually appeared to have some effect."

Alexandra swallowed a half-chewed piece of sausage. "Anna countered the curse?"

"No, but she weakened it enough that you were still alive when Miss Gambola arrived. So you owe your life to Miss Chu and Miss Pritchard both. And Miss Rackham, who had the presence of mind to run for help the moment you fell. Of course, it's really Miss Gambola and Mr. Grue who saved you, with a little help from Ms. Shirtliffe and Mrs. Murphy, and then, of course, Ms. Pruett... excuse me, Doctor Pruett... who enabled your recovery. I think you have quite a few thank-you notes to be writing."

Alexandra looked at her hand again, and flexed her fingers. Her fingertips didn't hurt, and she wanted to peel off the bandages. Instead, she resumed eating. Write a thank-you letter to Mr. Grue? How humiliating!

"I had to tell Diana about this incident," Ms. Grimm went on. "The Wizard Justice Department is trying to track the origin of that owl now."

Alexandra's eyes widened; she almost dropped her fork. "Is Payton going to be in trouble? I'm sure he didn't send it."

"I doubt very much he did." Ms. Grimm's eyes took on a familiar icy sheen. "But I would like you to explain how a letter to you bypassed the security measures we implemented to prevent this very sort of thing from happening."

"I'm sure you asked Anna, so you already know. I told Julia and Payton to address their letters to her." Alexandra looked down at her food. The soup was still steaming and the green beans were warm and buttery, and she was still hungry, but her appetite was seeping away. "I didn't want Mr. Grue reading my personal mail."

"Foolish, foolish girl. Do you really think Mr. Grue cares to read the correspondence of teenage girls? He would have detected that curse."

Alexandra said nothing.

"You endangered yourself and your friends. Imagine if Miss Chu had opened that envelope –"

"I know!" Alexandra wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.

Ms. Grimm fell silent. Alexandra was surprised not to be lectured for her impertinence. She thought about Anna being simultaneously cursed and poisoned by a letter meant for her. Alexandra didn't even know curse-breaking! She sniffled. Why was she acting so weird? First giggling, and now crying.

"Mrs. Murphy and Dr. Pruett both warned that you may not be quite yourself for a while," Ms. Grimm said, as if reading her mind.

Alexandra didn't look at her or answer, so the Dean went on. "We've kept most of the details from circulating publicly. Rumors will circulate regardless, but it was not difficult to impress upon your friends the desirability of discretion."

Alexandra snorted. Sonja would have told half the school by the time Alexandra reached the infirmary. But she couldn't exactly hold that against her. Apparently, she owed Sonja her life, too.

"It does leave me with the problem of what to do you with you, however," Ms. Grimm said.

Alexandra stared at her tray for a few seconds, then looked up to meet Ms. Grimm's eyes.

"Maybe I should go home," she said.

She had seen Ms. Grimm angry, injured, worried, and even occasionally sympathetic. She'd rarely seen her surprised. Only her eyes showed it; her expression barely changed. But even Galen felt something, as the cat's eyes also went from sleepy half-mast to wide alertness. In a tone of voice that was almost shocked, the Dean asked, "Are you afraid to stay here at Charmbridge, Alexandra?"

"No. But... what everyone says is true. Trouble follows me. Someone is really trying to kill me, and doesn't care if they get someone else instead. I'm..." Alexandra's voice choked. "People die around me. I am dangerous to know."

Ms. Grimm was silent for a long time. Her long fingers curled beneath Galen's chin, stroking the cat thoughtfully. She allowed Alexandra to calm herself. Then she said, "Do you think you would be safer at home? Do you think your parents and your Muggle friends would be safer?"

Alexandra shook her head. "What am I supposed to do?"

"You allow the staff here at Charmbridge, which includes many excellent wizards and witches with experience fighting Dark Arts, to do their jobs, and protect you and everyone else on these grounds. You allow the WJD to conduct its investigation. You do as you're told, and don't try to find your would-be killer yourself."

"What happens when I go home? What about Christmas break?"

"I've spoken to Diana about that. There will be some additional security measures put in place."

Alexandra grimaced. "Are they even looking for John Manuelito?"

"You'd have to ask Diana that." Ms. Grimm tilted her head, just as Galen's ears twitched. "I believe your friends are coming."

"Wait," Alexandra said, as Ms. Grimm rose. "Why did you bring Livia here?"

"You needed a Healer. A very good one." Ms. Grimm glanced in the direction of the nurse's office, and lowered her voice. "Mrs. Murphy is quite competent, but your sister..." The Dean sighed. "She was one of the best, before she decided to go Wandless."

"Better than any of the Healers at the Queen of Chicago Sanatorium?"

"Perhaps, perhaps not. But bringing you to the hospital would make this incident more public than would be good for either of us. It was a calculated risk. I..." Ms. Grimm hesitated, and Alexandra saw something she'd never seen before. The Dean looked uncertain. "I might not have been able to keep you here at school were the full details known."

"You mean... you'd have to expel me if everyone else's parents knew that there's really a Dark Wizard out to get me?" Alexandra swallowed. "Maybe you should."

"You sound as if you want to be expelled, Miss Quick." Ms. Grimm turned, as Anna, David, and all three of the Pritchards skidded to an abrupt halt upon seeing her.

"As you can see, Miss Quick is awake," the Dean said pleasantly. "And if you conduct yourselves appropriately and don't tax your friend's recuperation with too much activity, I believe Mrs. Murphy will allow you to remain here for a while."

There was a chorus of 'thank you ma'am's, and Ms. Grimm looked over her shoulder at Alexandra. "We will speak later, Miss Quick. In the meantime, please stop bothering Mr. Journey in the basement."

Alexandra's friends stepped aside as she strode out of the infirmary. Alexandra watched her retreating back, and Galen's tail flicking side to side, then forced a smile to show her friends. "Hi, guys."

A tearful Anna embraced Alexandra. Constance and Forbearance also wept as they hugged her. Innocence wore a grave expression and was dressed like a proper Ozarker, complete with bonnet, which she normally abandoned at school, but her eyes were dry as she kissed Alexandra's cheek. "We was terrible worried 'bout you!" she said.

David slouched against the partition, with his hands in the pockets of his robes. "Hey. How you feeling?"

She was feeling crowded. Gently, she nudged her friends back a little and picked up her still-unfinished bowl of soup. "Hungry. And a little light-headed. And confused and worried... you know."

David nodded. He took a moment to speak again. "I'm glad you're all right."

She gave him a weak grin. "Don't get all mushy on me."

He rolled his eyes. Constance tsked.

Alexandra was unprepared for all the other people who visited her that evening. Sonja came by, ostensibly to see how she was doing, but also to ply her for more information. She wanted to know everything about the curse, the poison, and what Ms. Grimm had said to her. Alexandra tried to be vague without brushing Sonja off; the other girl had, after all, helped save her.

Several members of the JROC came to see her. Charlotte Barker sneaked a piece of pie out of the cafeteria for her. Mage-Sergeant Major Keedle told her he hoped she'd be recovered in time for the Halloween dueling competition. Innocence returned with William. Even Torvald and Stuart stopped in. Torvald said it was to get some Blister, Boil, and Bruise Cream from Mrs. Murphy, as his face once again bore the marks of a brutal game of hexem with Stuart, but he chatted with and teased Alexandra until Mrs. Murphy kicked him out, telling him it was almost curfew.

The next morning, Mrs. Murphy pronounced her fit to resume attending classes, but instructed her to stop by every evening for a week, and gave her a note excusing her from JROC exercise. Alexandra returned to her room, to an overjoyed Anna and an excited Charlie.

Nigel, as far as she could tell, had not noticed her absence.

She showered and changed into her JROC uniform before walking with all of her friends to breakfast. Constance, Forbearance, and Innocence defied the Rashes and sat with her, and Alexandra ignored the stares and the whispers and the attention, and pushed aside the fears that had been worming their way into her mind.

As she sat at the freshman table between Anna and Forbearance eating a breakfast of cold cereal and grapefruit, Larry Albo walked past carrying his tray. Wade and Ethan were following him, as usual, but while they glowered at Alexandra, Larry's expression was more calculating.

"Heard you almost died, Quick," he said.

"You wish," she said.

Larry laughed. "I've seen people do desperate things to avoid a hiney-hexing, but if you wanted out of the dueling competition, you didn't have to stage some fake murder attempt."

Anna clenched her fists and David rose to his feet.

"David," Constance whispered, glancing across the cafeteria. Dean Calvert, the chaperone on duty, was already focusing his attention on them.

Alexandra sneered at Larry. "I'd have suspected you, except whoever tried to kill me was almost halfway competent, so it was obviously someone else."

Larry gave her a smirk, then said to David, "Who do you think you're kidding, you bench-sitting little goblin? Next time you feel like waving your wand in front of the witches, you'd better be ready to use it."

While David snarled and the girls flushed, Larry and his friends walked over to join the Rashes at the juniors' table.

"Can you really beat him?" David asked, sitting down slowly. "'Cause I really, really want to see it."

"Maybe you should take some time off from dueling," Anna said. "Like, the rest of the year."

"No way," Alexandra said, cutting open her grapefruit. "I'm going to beat him."

The Pritchards and the Rashes argued outside the cafeteria that morning. Alexandra wanted to step in, but a pleading look from Forbearance told her it would do more harm than good. She dragged David away, and they went to Mrs. Middle's class and waited for Constance and Forbearance to arrive. The Ozarkers were more somber than usual.

After class, Alexandra asked them, "Did they threaten to tell your parents about you hanging out with me again?"

"They already done it," Forbearance said.

"I thought after Innocence..." Alexandra left the rest unsaid. The twins didn't approve of Innocence's extortion of the Rashes the previous year.

"Innocence can't threaten to set the fur on them no more," Constance said. "She already done it this summer."

"Gave out that Benjamin and Mordecai was whupped by... well, you," Forbearance said. "Tale spread throughout the Five Hollers. They was made low by it, you can be sure."

"Great." Alexandra felt no triumph in the Rashes' humiliation. She suspected it had only made her a more undesirable associate as far as the Ozarkers were concerned.

"We'un'll be fine, Alex, dear." Forbearance smiled reassuringly.

The bell for second period rang, and Alexandra and David went to their Advanced Magical Theory class while Anna and the Pritchards went to theirs.

"I don't get why they have to listen to those punks at all," David said.

"It's an Ozarker thing. I don't get it either. But you're not making it easier on them," Alexandra said.

David stewed, but said nothing.

At lunch, the Pritchards sat with the Rashes again.

In Herbology class, the first time Alexandra had been back in class since the mandrake incident, they spent all day indoors while Mrs. Verde began showing them how to use their wands to separate, slice, crush, and grind herbs. The charms were simple, but Alexandra discovered that it took a certain amount of finesse. They would have been very useful charms to know during her three miserable years in Mr. Grue's Alchemy classes.

When she joined the JROC formation in sixth period, Ms. Shirtliffe looked her over and said, "No broom drills for you, Quick. Take the new wands and drill them in forms and courtesies."

Alexandra hated being treated as an invalid. While the older students were all outside on their brooms, she worked with the sixth and seventh graders in the gymnasium until the end of class. Nearby, the sixth graders who weren't in JROC practiced basic magical defense under the tutelage of Miss Gambola. Alexandra saw Mary Dearborn among them.

The bell ending sixth period chimed. The young JROC wands began filing out of the gymnasium to join the formation outside, but Alexandra was crossing the gymnasium before she thought about what she was doing. The sixth graders were already dispersing, so Alexandra was only ten feet away from Mary when the other girl, walking with a friend, noticed her.

Mary turned pale. A silence spread around them.

Alexandra thought, I should have done this in private. Then she immediately contradicted herself: No, this should be in public. And how likely was it that Mary Dearborn would meet her in private?

"Mary," she said, not loudly, but easily heard by everyone around them, "I have something to say to you."

Mary didn't move or speak.

It took Alexandra a moment to summon her words.

"I'm sorry about Darla. I'm really sorry. I don't know if you believe me, but I never wanted what happened to happen." She didn't even know how much Mary actually knew about what had happened to her sister.

Mary still didn't say anything, and she didn't move. Neither did the large circle of sixth graders around them.

Alexandra cleared her throat. "I lost my older brother. I know how it feels."

Mary finally spoke. "You're sorry."


"You killed her," Mary said.

The silence around them intensified. Alexandra was sure that they could be heard from one end of the gym to the other.

She shook her head. "No, I didn't –" I tried to save her.

This had been a bad idea.

"You killed her," Mary said in a louder voice, "and you're sorry?"

"That's not true. Whatever you heard, Mary, I didn't kill Darla. I'm –" She was going to say, "I'm not responsible for her death," but she couldn't make herself say that.

"You killed her," Mary repeated, slowly. And what she said next made Alexandra's blood burn hot and her face turn cold: "I heard you killed your brother, too."

Miss Gambola was walking toward them. Ms. Shirtliffe was calling her name. Alexandra stepped closer to Mary, and closer still, and though the girl's eyes widened and she began to tremble, she didn't back away like the kids around her.

"Whatever you believe," Alexandra said, in a voice that she kept from shaking only by exerting every ounce of her self-control, "if you have a grudge against me, then bring it to me. Not my friends, not other people. It's between you and me."

"Are you threatening me?" Mary did back away from her then. Her eyes filled with tears, and she sounded on the verge of hysteria. "First you say you're sorry my sister is dead, and then you threaten me?"

"No, that's not –"

"What's going on here, Alexandra?" asked Miss Gambola, scattering students with her arrival.

Mary said, "I hope you get what you deserve!" Then she hurried away, wiping at her eyes.

"I just wanted to tell her I was sorry," Alexandra said.

She couldn't tell whether Miss Gambola believed her, but Ms. Shirtliffe was there in the next instant. "What the hell were you thinking, Quick?"

"I swear, I didn't threaten her, ma'am."

Ms. Shirtliffe grabbed her arm and dragged her outside, with Miss Gambola following. Alexandra didn't resist. Once they were standing in the dirt outside the academy building, Ms. Shirtliffe said, "Didn't Dean Grimm tell you to stay away from her?"

"Yes. I just wanted to –"

"Who cares what you want, Quick?" Ms. Shirtliffe asked angrily. "How could you possibly think confronting her would turn out well, whatever you intended? Did you think 'I'm sorry' would make anything better? Or that maybe you'd shock a confession out of her?"

"A confession?" Miss Gambola was appalled. "You actually accused Mary?"

"I didn't accuse her," Alexandra said. "I –"

"You what?" Ms. Shirtliffe demanded.

Alexandra didn't answer. She forced herself to meet the teacher's gaze, but she closed her mouth.

"Sometimes you amaze me, Quick. And not in a good way." Ms. Shirtliffe made a curt gesture. "Go near that girl again and you'll be back in the Dean's office. Dismissed."

Alexandra stalked away feeling angry and frustrated. Unfortunately, Dueling Club was immediately after school, which meant being right back under Ms. Shirtliffe's eye.

"No dueling for you," Shirtliffe said.

"Ma'am!" Alexandra protested. "Mrs. Murphy said I'm fine."

"Quit whining. You can practice drawing and targeting, but no matches. That's final. Not until you bring me a note from Mrs. Murphy specifically saying it's safe for you to duel. And convince me you can act like a mature, responsible witch, while we're on the subject of reasons for you not to duel."

While Alexandra fired hexes at flying ceramic ducks, Larry dueled with Daniel Keedle, Charlotte Barker, Ermanno DiSilvio, and Bathsheba Anderson, getting valuable practice time. Alexandra simmered.

Another duck burst as she blasted it. Then Larry, from his position atop the dueling platform, cast a spell that knocked three targets out of the air, raining glittering shards onto the sand, and made a mocking gesture of salute at Alexandra with his wand.

"Albo! Do that again and you're suspended from dueling," Ms. Shirtliffe snapped.

His face stiffened. "I'm sorry, ma'am. I was just showing Quick how you cast hexes when you're doing it for real."

"For real?" Shirtliffe stepped up onto the platform and stared at him. "What do you know about dueling 'for real,' Albo? Have you ever been in a real wizard duel?"

"My coach..."

"Oh, you have a coach?"

"During the summer," Larry said. "I was coached by Basil Toynbee."

"Your parents hired a professional duelist to coach you? Then why is your technique so sloppy and your form worse than the some of the eighth graders'? Spend less time bragging and more time practicing, Albo. Sports dueling isn't the same as wizard dueling."

Larry's face colored as Ms. Shirtliffe turned her back on him. Alexandra snickered. But she worried – Larry's technique didn't seem sloppy to her. How bad must hers be?

"Krogstad!" Shirtliffe shouted. "Do you like having pieces of your face reattached? Quit grinning and cast a Blocking Jinx! If you were half as good as you think you are you'd be twice as good as you are!"

While Ms. Shirtliffe walked around barking at the older duelers, Alexandra continued her target practice. As it began to get dark and they were about to be dismissed for the day, Ms. Shirtliffe made her way over to her.

"Did you play with toy guns as a child?" Ms. Shirtliffe asked.

"Yes, ma'am," Alexandra said, with some surprise.

"A wand is not a gun. You have the same problem most Muggle-borns do. Get those TV images out of your head. Why are your fingers so stiff?" Shirtliffe clamped a hand over Alexandra's wrist, until she loosened her hand. "You're also not nearly as good as you should be. When are you going to get over yourself and start taking instruction, Quick?"

"I'm trying, ma'am."

"Yes, I can see how you're trying not to grit your teeth at me." Shirtliffe released her wrist. "Try harder." She walked away, leaving Alexandra fuming even more. She saw Torvald smirking at her, and Larry glowering, and was relieved when the teacher called an end to practice and sent them all inside.

Over the next week, Alexandra asked Mrs. Murphy every day for a note permitting her to start dueling again, becoming more desperate as Halloween approached. Finally, with only a week before the competition, the Healer reluctantly admitted that Alexandra showed no lingering effects from the curse or the poison, and cleared her for all activities.

It was the Friday before Halloween before the 'Alexandra Committee' was able to meet in the library again.

Alexandra and Anna were looking through descriptions of curses that could be imbued in objects while David was consulting a thick encyclopedia of poisons when the Pritchards arrived.

"Hey," David said. "Are Tweedledum and Tweedledee in detention or something, or you gonna have to look over your shoulders all evening for them?"

Constance and Forbearance were not amused. "That hain't no way to talk, David Washington."

"Those two say worse about us Mud–"

"We'uns expect better of you," Constance said, in a very severe tone.

That shut David up as the twins sat down.

"To talk plain, they'uns don't actually speak much 'bout any of y'all," Forbearance said.

"An' we'uns don't let 'em speak ill," Constance said.

Alexandra decided it was time to change the subject. She cast Muffliato and said, "We've been trying to guess exactly what curse and poison were used against me, but it's not easy."

"Really dangerous poisons are only described by effect. Naturally, you need a note from Mr. Grue to check out the books that list the details of the worst ones," David said.

Anna nodded. "And there are some pretty dangerous curses listed here, but all the Dark ones are in the Restricted Reserves."

"Same old story," Alexandra said. "They won't let us learn anything that might be even a little bit dangerous."

"That curse wasn't a little bit dangerous," Anna said. "Putting something that can kill you on a piece of parchment is hard. That was a sophisticated piece of Dark Arts. It's not the kind of curse you can buy in a back alley in the Goblin Market."

David leaned toward Anna. "Yeah, I've been wondering about that. Since when have you become an expert on curses? You never explained how you broke the curse on Alex."

"I didn't break it." Anna's eyes were downcast, as if she were admitting failure. "Mr. Grue said I almost killed her myself and it was pure luck that I undid a little bit of it."

"Mr. Grue would rather boil his own tongue than admit that you saved me," Alexandra said.

"You can't even take Beginning Curse-Breaking until eleventh grade," David said.

"I've been taking Arithmancy," Anna said, "and I started reading books about curse-breaking this summer." She flipped through her book again, embarrassed. "I kind of figured Alexandra might need help someday – I didn't think I'd have to actually try breaking a curse this soon."

"Damn. That's hard-core," David said.

"You're a wonder, Anna," Constance said.

"She is," Alexandra agreed. Anna blushed.

"Why are you tryin' to figger just what this warlock sent you?" Constance asked.

Forbearance nodded. "S'ppose'n you find out. How will it help you?"

"Won't likely be a name next to it," Constance said. "You won't prove nothin'."

"It's all we have to go on," Alexandra said. "Except one thing, which I've been meaning to ask you." Her eyes swept the table. "You were there when I told Anna I was going to have Payton send letters to me through her. Did you tell anyone else about that?"

While Forbearance's mouth made a startled 'o' of surprise, Constance asked, "Why would we have mentioned it to anyone else?"

David looked confused. "Why are you asking..." His voice trailed off. "Oh."

Alexandra nodded. "Whoever sent me the owl must have known my mail was being screened."

Everyone looked at each other.

"I'm not accusing anyone," Alexandra said. "But if you happened to mention it to anyone else, you know how easy it is for word to spread."

"We know," Constance said.

"But we'uns din't say nothin' 'bout it to no one else," Forbearance said.

Anna shook her head. David shrugged – he hadn't been there when Alexandra had spoken about it.

"Well," Alexandra said, "I didn't think to hide our conversation there in the cafeteria that day. So anyone could have been listening in."

"You think someone took a potion just to eavesdrop on you –" David stopped.

"Darla used Auror's Ears to eavesdrop on me last year," Alexandra said.

"You're still thinking it's Mary," Anna said.

"I doubt she sent the owl, and I'm pretty sure she didn't curse the parchment. If she could do that, she could get me any time."

"She could be a spy," David said.


Anna said carefully, "Alex, you might be right, but..."

"I know, if I go accusing her without proof, I'll look like the crazy, paranoid girl, and worse, I'll be accusing the little sister of the girl everyone thinks I killed." Alexandra rubbed her eyes wearily. "Seriously, I hope it isn't Mary."

There was a long, uncomfortable silence after that. Then Forbearance said hesitantly, "You know, I finished work on your chart, Alex – after you was in the infirmary an' there wasn't nothin' else we'uns could do..."

Constance made a sound that was almost a groan. "You hain't gonna trot that out?"

Forbearance paused, mouth half-open for a moment, then went on as if she had not been interrupted. "Your signs was dangerous that day."

"No offense," Alexandra said, "but that's not too helpful now."

"I know that. But if I was to cast your chart for the rest of the year..."

Constance threw her hands up. "Oh, goodness, Forbearance! You can't predict when Alexandra's in danger with your star charts! You been so swoggled by this astrology foolishness..."

"If it were foolishness it wouldn't be taught here," Forbearance retorted. "And the stars were right! Alexandra was in danger!"

"She's in danger every day that some wicked warlock has a mind to kill her. She's in danger 'til we break the Geas on her! Don't need no stars to tell us that."

Alexandra interrupted them. "Forbearance, I hate to say it, but if you tell me I'm in more danger on a particular day, what am I supposed to do about it? Astrology can't tell you how someone's going to try to kill me, can it?"

"Well, no, not percisely," Forbearance said.

"The stars can't tell you nothin' percisely," Constance said.

"I s'ppose you think readin' them romance novels is more helpful?"

"They're for Muggle Studies," Constance said heatedly.

"Muggles think vampires is romantic an' you call astrology foolishness?"

"Vampires?" David said.

Constance blushed, while Alexandra and Anna sat in stunned silence. Constance and Forbearance rarely displayed anger, and never at each other.

"Is you'uns quarrelin' again?" asked a younger voice. Everyone turned quickly as Innocence came strolling up the narrow aisle to their back corner table, hands clasped behind her back, blonde hair hanging loosely around her shoulders. By Charmbridge standards, she was dressed quite conservatively, with a dark open robe over her long dress, but Constance and Forbearance never failed to frown disapprovingly when they saw her head uncovered.

"What is it, Innocence?" asked Constance.

"Is the Rashes come lookin' for us?" Forbearance asked.

"Nope." Innocence shook her head. "They'uns're still out with the winged goats."

"Then why are you here?" Constance asked crossly.

Innocence looked with interest at the chart Forbearance had unrolled on the table, and at the books lying next to Alexandra and Anna.

"Innocence," Alexandra said, "we're kind of busy. Talking about high school stuff."

"I know what you'uns're talkin' 'bout," Innocence said, "an' it hain't high school stuff."

Constance said, "Innocence, mind your manners and don't be a pest."

"What do you mean you know what we're talking about?" Alexandra asked.

Innocence ignored her sister. She spoke earnestly to Alexandra. "You're in trouble, Alex. I know you is. Constance and Forbearance been frettin' and fearin' for you ever since school started, even a'fore someone tried to murder you. You'uns are meetin' in secret 'cause you're tryin' to figger who."

Alexandra gave her a wry smile. "You're pretty smart."

Innocence beamed, and made a face at her sisters, as if to say: See? Then she turned back to Alexandra. "I wanna help."

"You helped a lot warning us about Benjamin and Mordecai."

"Aw, Alex, you could use Charlie as a lookout. I hain't no bird, I can help for real!" Her voice became wheedling. "Mr. Newton says my Charms is above my grade level, and I'm fixin' to win the seventh grade Duelin' Competition."

"Innocence, that's enough," Constance said.

"We all appreciate you wants to help," Forbearance said.

Innocence snorted. "No you don't! You'uns want me to 'mind my manners' an' 'behave' an' –"

"They want you to be safe," Alexandra said.

"If it hain't safe for me to help, it hain't safe for them neither, is it?" Innocence turned on her sisters again and folded her arms. "Ma and Pa would be just as angry at you as me – more, since I'm your li'l sister an' I hain't to be expected to know better."

Constance said, "Now you listen to me, Innocence Catharine –"

"If I oughtn't be involved, you ought not neither, an' you'uns is already disobeyin' Ma and Pa, and we know you hain't mindin' Benjamin an' Mordecai."

"I don't want your help," Alexandra said.

That silenced everyone. Innocence's face fell. Constance, who had half-risen from her chair, sat down slowly.

"Alex, you saved my life," Innocence said, hurt. "I'd do anythin' for you. I can keep a secret." She gave a meaningful look to her sisters again, who both pursed their lips angrily.

Alexandra felt a disturbing moment of deja vu. She rose and put a hand on the younger girl's shoulder. "I'll think about it, Innocence. Maybe there is something you can do to help. But –" she added, as Innocence's face lit up, "I don't want you interrupting us again, or threatening to blackmail Constance and Forbearance like you did Benjamin and Mordecai. If you'd do anything for me, then do what I say. Go away and leave us alone."

The look on Innocence's face made Alexandra feel horrible, but she pointed in the direction of the library's main entrance, forcing herself to remain impassive. Innocence hung her head and turned around to trudge away.

Alexandra sat down. "Now I feel like crap."

Anna said, "She's just a kid."

"Like I was, when I made Maximilian take me with him to the Lands Below."

After a long silence, David said, "Okay, don't everyone flip out, but... she does want to help."

"David Washington!" Constance said. "You best not be suggestin' that we involve Innocence?"

"The five of us, we aren't just trying to figure out who's after Alex right now. We're studying magic we'll need in the future, right? Isn't that really what the Alexandra Committee is about?"

"Do we really have to keep calling it that?" Alexandra asked.

David turned to her. "Look, Alex, you said it yourself. Max couldn't keep you from getting involved when you were a seventh grader."

"He should have," Alexandra said.

"You'd have hated him if he had, and you'd have figured out a way to get up in his business anyway," David said.

Alexandra stared at him. Aghast, Anna, Constance, and Forbearance all waited for Alexandra to speak. David's hands twitched, but he held her gaze.

Slowly, Alexandra said, "Do you really want Innocence to know what I promised the Generous Ones?"

David's brow furrowed. "Doesn't she deserve to know the truth?"

"That I promised my life in place of hers? No, I don't want her to know that. Ever."

David opened his mouth, then closed it slowly. "Okay. I see your point."

Anna said, "She'll probably keep trying to help whether we want her to or not."

"Girl is persistent," Forbearance admitted.

"Well, maybe we can find something for her to do," Alexandra said. "To make her feel included." She yawned. "I have no idea what. I don't even know what to do myself right now."

"Don't go nowhere alone," Constance said.

"And let us watch your back," Anna said.

"Are you going to taste my food for me, too?" Alexandra asked. "Never mind – don't answer that. I'll be careful, I promise." She gathered up the books she had been browsing. "I hereby call this meeting of the Alexandra Committee to an end."

Alexandra knew she hadn't fooled anyone with her flippant tone. Anna was silent as they walked back to their room.

Alexandra wasn't sure what to do about Innocence, but she didn't spend too much time thinking about the girl. Innocence was earnest, but she had a short attention span. What really bothered her was the fact that her would-be killers were still out there, waiting to try again, and there was nothing she could do about it. She even had a pretty good idea who it was, but as usual, no one would listen to her. Well, she certainly wasn't going to wait for Diana Grimm to catch the culprit. If the Special Inquisitor even cared about catching Dark Wizards other than her father. Nor was she going to rely on Dean Grimm to protect her. Somehow, she had to flush out John Manuelito and whoever was helping him.