Bespoke

Constance and Forbearance sat with the Rashes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and only spoke with their friends in class or in the girls' dorm in the evenings. Innocence, as if to prove that she was not so strictly controlled, began walking in the hallways with William again, having finally forgiven him for throwing their Halloween duel.

David was even more outraged than Alexandra at Constance's and Forbearance's meek compliance with their enforced segregation, and complained constantly about the situation.

Finally, Alexandra asked him over breakfast, "What exactly do you think you can do?" David had been casting dark looks in the Ozarkers' direction all morning and muttering about the Rashes.

"We need to stand by C and F," he said. "Let 'em know their friends got their backs."

"Maybe they need to know their friends won't publicly embarrass them or make things worse for them," Alexandra said.

"I seem to remember having this conversation with you last year," Anna said, while scraping some eggs off her plate.

"So, we just let those two ignorant rednecks keep Constance and Forbearance in a cage?" David asked.

"Maybe you should go curse Benjamin and Mordecai," Alexandra said. "That usually works well. Just make sure you do it when there are enough people around to save you from getting trounced and hexed afterward."

David's mouth opened, but all the air seemed to go out of him. Without saying another word, he rose to his feet, picked up his tray, and walked away.

"Ouch," said Anna.

Alexandra put her elbows on the table and rested her forehead against her knuckles. "I probably shouldn't have said that."

"It was kind of mean." After a pause, Anna added, "But true."

David didn't eat with them after that, and in class, he barely spoke to Alexandra at all. Even the Pritchards commented on this, while seated next to Alexandra and Anna.

"You do somethin' to vex David?" Constance asked.

"She hurt his feelings," Anna said.

"I bruised his ego," Alexandra said.

Constance tsked. "You gots to be gentler with boys, Alex. They can't take much."

Alexandra kept her retort to herself.

Her guilt was tempered by annoyance. All right, maybe she had picked fights she shouldn't have, too. But she told herself that she didn't pick fights she knew she couldn't win.

It had been over two weeks since she'd summoned Quimley, and the elf had not returned. She was beginning to worry about him. She thought about summoning him again, just to make sure he was okay, but what if that turned out to be another inconvenience just to tell her that he had nothing to tell her? Wouldn't it seem like she was checking up on him? She was pretty sure Quimley could visit her at will. Maybe he had to return to the Lands Below. He certainly couldn't spend all his time running an errand for her. She resigned herself to be patient and wait.

Forbearance had not given up on calling upon the Stars Above. She and Sonja continued working on astrological charts and occasionally asking Alexandra seemingly irrelevant questions like "Do you do more magic in the morning or evening?" and "What colors do you wear in the winter?" Alexandra wasn't sure when or how they planned to attempt another ritual, but she humored Forbearance and focused on her own studies.

She wasn't invited to Croatoa for Thanksgiving, but she was hoping she might see the Kings over the winter break. Those hopes were dashed by a letter from Julia informing her that Ms. King suggested waiting until the summer.

"It is so terribly unfair, Alexandra," Julia wrote. "She didn't say as much, but I know she's punishing us for our little misadventure. I suppose she has concluded that keeping us apart is the only punishment she can inflict upon you, but it's simply awful! Sometimes my mother is so horribly unreasonable I can't even bear speaking to her! I'm sure I will hardly say a word to her this Thanksgiving, unless she changes her mind about letting you visit over the winter holiday."

Julia had danced with a boy named Quentin at the Salem Halloween Ball, and she was now exchanging letters with him. She denied that this was anything more than a casual correspondence, but the number of exclamation points in her letter made Alexandra doubtful. Of course Julia asked her about Payton, too.

Letters from Payton had been trailing off a bit, while containing a wistful tone Alexandra found annoying. She tried to write regularly, but what could she talk about besides her classes and school activities? She mentioned her friends (Payton was curious about Chinese and Ozarker witches, but seemed particularly curious about David, especially when she mentioned that he was also a Muggle-born wizard and that his father was a football player), and JROC and the Dueling Club. She very casually mentioned almost winning the Charmbridge Dueling Championship, and was surprised by how much importance Payton seemed to read into that:

"I'm sure you'll beat this Larry guy next year, but you said he's older, right, so why are you so upset that he beat you or that he wins in your dueling club matches? You sure seem bugged about him LOL! Hey, I thought I'd learn to duel myself, except we only get Magical Self Defense classes like a couple times a month at my school. But I checked out some books so I'll practice with you next time you visit, OK? We can help each other get better."

She wrote back that she probably wouldn't return to Roanoke until the summer.

Even if she could have told Payton about what was really happening in her life – the Pritchards and the Rashes, John Manuelito's murder attempts, the Stars Above – these were things she couldn't trust to owls. She wrote a letter promising to call him when she got home for Christmas and sent the owl on its way.

Constance and Forbearance were not able to sit with their friends even for the Thanksgiving Feast. Alexandra and Anna sat with Sonja and Carol, while David kept to the boys' end of the table. He still wasn't speaking to Alexandra. Alexandra forced herself to be cheerful and enjoy the company of the other girls, wondering if she would lose their companionship as well.

November turned into December. Alexandra spent almost all her free time in the library with Anna. Her classmates were amazed: Alexandra Quick was turning into a wyrm! Her teachers were amazed: she was attentive and diligent in class. She was determined to ace the SPAWN and her final exams at the end of the semester.

The Dueling Club meeting before finals week was her last chance to beat Larry before the end of the year. She had dueled him every Friday for months, and lost every single time. She had come close to winning more than once, and she thought she was coming closer each time, but Larry didn't seem worried at all.

They had more spectators than usual that afternoon. Anna wasn't there, having told Alexandra weeks ago that she wasn't going to come watch her get beaten up every Friday. Neither were the Pritchards, but Alexandra didn't expect them. She also didn't expect David, who had barely spoken to her in a month, but he stood with Dylan, watching each match.

To Alexandra's surprise, it was not Larry who challenged her, but Sonja. Each person could only accept one challenge, so Larry was annoyed, and looked at Alexandra suspiciously. She gave him a smirk and raised her wand in a gesture that said: "You're next." She could still challenge him. He sat back to watch next to some blonde witch who had replaced Bathsheba.

Alexandra didn't know what Sonja was thinking – she was no match for Alexandra. As they stepped up onto the platform together, Sonja whispered, "Can you do something that looks really painful without being, you know, too painful?"

Alexandra was flabbergasted. "What?"

Sonja eyes darted around as they reached the top of the steps. "Make it look good," she whispered.

"You're planning to lose?"

"Of course not." Much louder, Sonja said, "Don't underestimate me, Alexandra."

Sonja wasn't good enough to throw a duel without being obvious, and she fought Alexandra as hard as she could, mostly with Stunning Charms and Disarming Jinxes. Alexandra blocked them while trying not to make it look too easy, and then when Sonja was at the point of committing to another jinx, cast a Nordic Reversal that flipped her opponent head over heels and sent her bouncing across the platform, head and shoulders and behind striking the planks one after the other. She sprawled in a heap of tangled robes and disheveled red hair, groaning loudly.

The spectators murmured, and Ms. Shirtliffe's eyes narrowed. Alexandra's spell had been legal, but it was much more violent than necessary. Everyone in the club knew Alexandra could beat Sonja easily, so the trouncing had the appearance of vindictiveness.

Alexandra wondered why she'd done as Sonja wished; it looked as if her 'friend' had set her up.

"Someone take Rackham to the infirmary," Ms. Shirtliffe said.

Sonja struggled to a sitting position and reached a hand out. "Oh, Matthew, won't you help me, please?" Matthew Prester started, then stepped forward and slipped an arm around her to help her off the platform. She put her arms around his neck and limped as if she could barely walk, hobbling with him toward the academy. Over her shoulder, she gave Alexandra a wink.

That's why she wanted me to flatten her? Alexandra thought, with a great deal of annoyance.

"Go ahead, Quick, get it over with," Ms. Shirtliffe said. Alexandra realized the teacher meant for Alexandra to issue her own challenge while she was already up on the platform. She pointed her wand at Larry, who was already strutting up the steps.

"You're doing the same thing over and over," Shirtliffe said in a low voice, strolling close enough so only Alexandra could hear.

"That's how you get better, isn't it, ma'am?"

"You think you're going to win this time?" Shirtliffe asked.

"Yes."

Shirtliffe stepped back and waved her wand. Alexandra and Larry began exchanging hexes immediately.

Alexandra had gotten better in the past couple of months – she knew she had. She was sure she could have beaten Larry on Halloween if she'd fought him without the rules limiting them here on the dueling platform. She tried timing her attacks between his. She had gotten good at memorizing the patterns of other dueling club members, but Larry didn't fall into a pattern as readily.

She scorched his leg, and realized an instant too late he hadn't deflected that hex because she couldn't move her wand quickly enough after casting it. He said "Expelliarmus!" and her wand flew from her hand.

She was furious. She hadn't been Disarmed in a year. Disarming Charms only worked against beginners or someone caught completely by surprise. It was the worst way to lose a duel.

Larry leveled his wand at her. Technically, the duel wasn't over until she was incapacitated or she yielded. Usually, being Disarmed was assumed to end a duel, but Larry wanted to make her surrender.

She faced him and didn't move. Whatever spell he threw at her would be preferable to saying 'I yield.'

"That was hexed, dropping Rackham on her head like that," Larry said. He hesitated, then let his hand drop. "You don't even make it fun anymore to beat you." He turned and walked off the platform.

"Match," Ms. Shirtliffe said. "Albo wins." She looked with disapproval at Alexandra. "Being too proud to accept defeat after you've picked a fight you can't win isn't admirable, Quick."

With those words, Alexandra was left to stew in humiliation until open dueling was over and the audience dispersed along with the rest of the dueling club.

Two spectators lingered. "Man, you really are a dueling fiend," Dylan said. "But Albo made you his –"

"Shut up, Dylan," David said. He regarded Alexandra warily. "That smack-down you gave Sonja was pretty cold."

"Did you lose eagles on me again?" she asked. "Or did you bet on Larry this time?"

"No." David shrugged. "Just came to watch." He and Dylan drifted off. Part of Alexandra wanted to call after him and walk with them back to the school, and part of her refused to yield. Pride won, and she watched them walk away.


Late Sunday night, the last Sunday before everyone would go home for the winter break, Constance and Forbearance knocked at Alexandra and Anna's door. Boys weren't permitted in Delta Delta Kappa Tau Hall, so the Rashes couldn't prevent the Pritchards from visiting with Alexandra there.

Alexandra quickly admitted them. No one said anything for a while as Alexandra and Anna sat on the edge of their beds, and Constance and Forbearance sat in chairs, hands folded in their laps.

Finally, Alexandra couldn't take the silence any longer.

"I know whatever is up with you and the Rashes isn't my business. And I know you have your culture and things I don't understand. But tell me what I can do to make your parents stop hating me so much. Is it just that I'm Abraham Thorn's daughter?" She glanced at Anna. Anna's father had come to terms with her being a friend of the Enemy's daughter, but it had not been easy.

"Our Ma and Pa don't hate you, Alexandra," Constance said.

"They don't know you," Forbearance said.

"Then why did they forbid you to be friends with me?"

"They didn't percisely."

"Then tell me precisely what I should do. I'm sorry, I just can't stand watching those two... blaggards treat you like that."

The twins looked at each other, then burst out laughing.

Alexandra looked from them to Anna, who was also smiling. "What?"

"Blaggard?" Constance repeated, while Forbearance laughed.

"When did you start talking like an Old Colonial?" asked Anna.

"I figured it was better than the word I wanted to use," Alexandra said.

The Pritchards became more serious, though Forbearance's eyes still twinkled with amusement.

"Alex, dear, Benjamin an' Mordecai hain't gullymogs," Forbearance said.

"Really?" Alexandra folded her arms. "So you don't mind being talked to like you're little children who have to obey them?"

"Yes, we'uns do mind it. We minds it very much," Constance said. "We'uns done talked to them 'bout that."

"Mordecai even apologized for shamin' us," Forbearance said.

"Benjamin didn't," Constance muttered.

"So you can hang out with me after all?"

The twins fell silent again.

Alexandra sighed. She didn't understand, and she was afraid of trying to pry more out of them. But they seemed to want to tell her something, so she waited.

"We'uns owe you an explanation," Constance said.

"You don't."

"We do." Forbearance chewed her lip. "But it hain't easy to 'splain 'cause your'n ways is different an'... we'uns don't want the whole school speakin' more fur 'bout Ozarkers."

"An' our 'primitive, superstitious' –"

" – backwards customs."

"But you know we don't think that way," Anna said.

The twins sighed together.

"Ozarkers don't percisely believe in astrology," Forbearance said.

"We'uns don't believe in it at all," Constance said. The corners of Forbearance's mouth tightened slightly. "But we do believe in signs an' portents."

"Like fortune telling?" Alexandra regretted saying that when the Pritchards winced.

"No, not like fortune tellin' 't all," Constance said. "Like prophesies an' Naming an' Mysteries an' special ways of knowin' –"

"It hain't no different from astrology an' numerology an' other 'ologies," Forbearance said, "'ceptin' Connie don't agree with me." For a moment, that invisible tension between the twins filled the room again, and then Forbearance continued. "Anyhow, there's power in certain combinations an' patterns, like numbers an' Names an' births –"

" – and twins," said Constance.

"Certain things can only come 'bout when the right people does the right things in the right order," Forbearance said.

Alexandra and Anna looked at each other.

"I'm lost," Alexandra said.

"Me, too," Anna said.

The Pritchards blushed and fidgeted. Then Forbearance spoke, in a quiet voice. "Connie and me is bespoke."

Alexandra and Anna were speechless for several long moments. Then Anna said, "Does that mean...?"

Alexandra managed to sound only a little less shocked: "Are you engaged?"

What had her great-great-great-great-grandfather told her? At one time, it was not unusual for girls her age to marry. But even Old Colonials didn't marry at fourteen anymore – or so she thought.

"We'uns hain't percisely betrothed," Forbearance said.

"Just bespoke," Constance said.

"What's the difference?" Alexandra tried to keep the sick feeling she felt out of her voice. Her friends married to Benjamin and Mordecai Rash? Anna's face did not conceal her horror.

"We'uns allowed that it's a proper match," Constance said.

"So we'uns consented to let 'em court us in apperhension of askin' for our hands at the proper time," Forbearance said.

"But definitely not 'til after we finish educatin'."

"We'uns was very firm on that."

"Our Ma an' Pa agreed, too."

Alexandra was still trying to wrap her mind around this. "So, they haven't actually asked you to marry them, but you agreed to let them ask you after you graduate – does that mean you've promised you'll say yes?"

Constance and Forbearance looked at each other before answering.

"It means," Forbearance said slowly, "that it's expected we'll say yes."

"That's how everyone understands it," Constance said.

"How do you understand it?" Anna asked.

The twins were silent.

Alexandra leaned forward. "You don't really want to marry them, do you? Do you have to? Is this like an arranged marriage thing where your parents decide who you'll marry?"

Constance said, "It hain't that simple, Alexandra."

"Plenty of couples consent to a match 'cause it's suitable, a'fore they really knows each other," Forbearance said.

"Our Ma and Pa did."

"An' they have ten children now."

Alexandra wasn't sure what that proved. She looked at Anna, but to her surprise, Anna was nodding. "Chinese wizards usually use matchmakers, too, and consult their ancestors. It shocked everyone when my father married a Muggle."

"So a matchmaker tells you who to marry?" Alexandra asked, trying to keep her indignation in check.

"No," Anna said, "a matchmaker advises you."

Alexandra turned back to the Pritchards. "But you don't even like Benjamin and Mordecai! They're bigots, they're chauvinist pigs, they treat you like – well, badly..."

"They're mean," Anna said.

The twins looked down. Then Forbearance said, "We'uns can't deny any of that, Alex. It's true, every bit of it."

"But they'uns is tryin'," Constance said.

Forbearance sighed. "They try. An' they're just boys. In a few years, maybe they'll be more mannerly."

Alexandra asked, "What happens if you decide you don't want to marry them in a few years?"

After a pause, Constance said, "We'uns can say no."

"But... it'd kick a right row," Forbearance said.

"A great multitude o' folks would be terrible disappointed, not just our folks."

"Whose business is it besides your family?" Alexandra asked.

"It's like we said, Alex. There's signs an' portents, an' twins marryin' twins is a powerful conjunction..."

"Your fellow Ozarkers, they want you to marry the Rashes just because you're twins? That's –" Alexandra started to say 'stupid', and when the Pritchards flinched as if already wounded by her words, she amended: "It doesn't make sense to me."

"Well," Constance said, "it don't have to make no sense to you, now does it?"

Constance's tone was gentle, but Alexandra still felt slapped as soundly as Benjamin Rash. She sat back on her bed. Anna remained troubled but quiet.

Forbearance said, "Anyhow, we'uns thought you'uns oughter know."

"Why is it a big secret?" Anna asked.

The twins were quiet. Then Constance said, "How Alexandra took it is how we're feared everyone'll take it."

Forbearance spoke with a slight edge of uncharacteristic bitterness. "Them poor jakey gals who ain't got no head o' their own."

"An' everyone knows Ozarkers is simple hillbillies," Constance said.

"I don't think that," Alexandra said.

More softly, Forbearance said, "Can you accept things as they is, even if'n you don't like it?"

Alexandra tried to force the tension out of her posture and her voice. "I'll try. But it sounds like you're already forbidden from being our friends. I guess after you... marry them, we'll never see you again." That prospect, as distant as it seemed, filled her with hurt.

"Alexandra Quick," Constance scolded. "Didn't we'uns promise we'll always be your friends?"

"Anyhow," Forbearance said, "you'uns don't need to be frettin' 'bout us when you got your future to worry 'bout."

"But we'uns is workin' on that," Constance said. "Astrologically an' otherwise." She and Forbearance exchanged another look, but declined to explain further.


Alexandra spent every evening the last week of classes in the library. She had gone to see Mr. Calvert, Dean of the Ninth Grade, about moving to a more advanced Magical Theory class in January. He told her he would allow it if and only if she received a Superior score on the Magical Theory portion of her end-of-year SPAWN and perfect grades in all of her classes.

This seemed like an unfair requirement to her: she only wanted to skip levels in one class! But Dean Calvert had been unmovable, and Alexandra knew better than to try to appeal to Dean Grimm.

She wasn't a bad student, but neither was she usually very diligent, and she had never gotten straight 'A's in her life. She was not worried about her Charms or Transfiguration grades – she was the best in the class, at least in practical spellcasting – and Herbology was easy, but her Confederation Citizenship class threatened to undo her ambitions.

She found Confederation Citizenship as boring as all her other wizarding social studies classes had been, and thus had put her usual mediocre effort into the class. Now, she suddenly had to raise her mid-term grade, which meant not only acing the final exam, but also coming up with a Citizenship Project, which contrary to Mrs. Middle's advice, she had not even thought about the entire semester.

Most students conducted some sort of fundraiser to send books and wands to young witches and wizards in 'uncivilized countries,' or visited elderly witches and warlocks at the Queen of Chicago Sanatorium, or performed other service projects over the winter or spring breaks. Everyone had to submit their intended project to Mrs. Middle by the last day of the semester, and the teacher said that projects that showed 'originality, exceptional effort, and a truly civic-minded spirit' would be weighed in their favor when she was recording their semester grades.

Considering all the homework assignments and quizzes which Alexandra had skipped or completed sloppily, she needed all the favorable weight she could get. The fact that she was anything but 'civic-minded' toward the Confederation did not make it easy for her to think of something suitably original and exceptional.

Anna's father had endless opportunities for his daughter to demonstrate her civic-mindedness back in California, and Anna said she'd ask the Congressman if he could do anything for his daughter's friend. Alexandra had no idea what she could do in Larkin Mills that would count as service to the Confederation. She hated the assignment and she hated the idea of it, but she needed an 'A.' That meant she couldn't just sign up for one of the 'volunteer opportunities' Mrs. Middle made available for students who had no better ideas. She had to really impress the bothersome old witch.

Seated at a back corner table, Alexandra saw David as he sneaked out of the room behind the librarian's office carrying a couple of old books. When he saw her, his expression was that of someone caught in a furtive act.

She just watched him, and after a moment's pause, he strolled over to her table, trying to look casual.

"Where's Anna?" he asked.

"Arithmancy study group," she said. "She'll be here soon."

He looked down at her book. "Magic in the Days of Merlin? What class is that for?"

"No class. It doesn't mention Powers directly, but it hints that Merlin and Morgan and some of the other old-time wizards dealt with them a lot more than we do now."

"Uh huh."

David held his books clutched to his stomach, and made no move to show them to her. The silence stretched between them. Alexandra thought about the acrimonious words she had flung at him weeks ago, and Constance's admonition.

She broke the silence first. "What've you got there?"

He hesitated, then sat down and showed her the books.

"Central Territory Wizard Senate Proceedings: 1932-1933. Confederation Census Records, 1875-1900." She gave him an odd look. "That looks like really interesting reading." She lowered her voice. "Are you researching... you know?"

"The eathly-day egiment-ray?" he whispered. "No."

She rolled her eyes. "Seriously? Pig Latin? Wait, if you're not looking for... that, then why are you reading old books like this, and –" She narrowed her eyes. "Where'd you get them?"

"I'm looking up old laws for my Citizenship Project."

"Oh." She waited, but he didn't volunteer anything else, so she said, "Those books don't look like they came from the regular stacks."

"Bran and Poe helped me," he said. "You're the one who told me I should actually talk to elves about ASPEW."

"Did you?"

"Um, a little. Not much. They kind of get upset when you start talking about..."

"The f-word."

"Yeah. And they insist they love their 'bookses' so much they'd never want to do anything else." He shook his head. "It's sad. They're totally brainwashed."

"Maybe they really are happy."

"Yeah, them slaves sho' do love they work."

His vicious sarcasm made her flinch. "Come on, David. Are you accusing me of being in favor of slavery?"

"Well, you haven't exactly been supporting ASPEW. And how many house-elves do you and your sister have waiting on you at Croatoa, again?"

She gave him an unblinking stare.

He looked away first. "I'm just sayin'."

"Did you enjoy the Halloween and Thanksgiving feasts?" she asked. They both knew that Charmbridge's kitchen elves spent many hours preparing those feasts. "How did you find out about Bran and Poe, anyway?"

"From C and F." He pulled the books back across the table toward himself. "So, uh, can I study with you?"

"Study with me?"

"Am I bothering you?"

She reopened her book. David had hardly talked to her in a month, and she wasn't going to apologize.

"Why did you beat down Sonja like that?" he asked. "I thought you're friends."

"She asked me to."

"She asked you to beat her up?" he repeated skeptically.

"Yes." She did not elaborate, and waited for him to either say something else or let her read.

He sighed and stuck his hands in his pockets as he slouched in his chair. Finally, he said, "You really do think I'm a wuss, don't you?"

"What?" This took her off-guard.

"Did you know Constance and Forbearance know how to duel?"

"They do?" Now she had almost forgotten being annoyed at him.

"Where do you think Innocence learned? Apparently, it's not just Ozarker boys who learn to duel when they're little. Girls just do it in secret, and they don't call it dueling."

"Innocence told you this?"

"She also told me about C and F being engaged to the Rashes."

"They're not exactly engaged." Alexandra frowned. "So you're prying info out of Innocence?"

"Well, since apparently none of my friends will tell me this stuff..." He fidgeted, hands still stuck in his pockets, as Alexandra folded her arms. Then he said, "I want to learn to duel."

She blinked. "Why?"

"So when those two rednecks start talking crap, I can step up to them."

"You step up to them now."

"Yeah, and you think I'm –"

"David," she said, "I don't think you're a wuss. But learning to duel so you can fight the Rashes is a stupid idea."

"Why?"

"Training just to beat someone up won't work."

"Really? I thought you're in the Dueling Club 'cause you want to beat Larry."

"I –" A hint of uncertainty bled into her denial. "That's not true. I just want to be the best."

"Can you teach me how to duel?"

"Me?" She stared at him. "Join the Dueling Club. Ms. Shirtliffe will teach you."

"You learned tricks from your brother that Ms. Shirtliffe doesn't teach."

"She says they've made me worse at dueling."

He frowned, unconvinced.

"Who are you trying to impress?" she asked. "Suppose you did beat Benjamin and Mordecai in a duel. What would it prove? Do you think they'd stop thinking of us as Mudbloods?"

"Funny how that doesn't stop you from drawing your wand." He thumped his fist on the table. "Everyone knows you beat them both last year. You can beat almost anyone except the seniors, and Larry. Those hicks are afraid of you, but they think I'm nothing."

"I don't think they're afraid of me." Alexandra grabbed his fist before he thumped the table again. "If you really want to practice dueling, I'll practice with you. But honestly? Unless you're really good, you're not going to beat Benjamin and Mordecai."

"You're really good."

She shrugged.

"It kind of sucks that even girls are better than me."

Alexandra's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean, 'even girls'?"

"I didn't mean it like that," he stammered.

"How did you mean it?"

"I just meant – look, I'm sorry about getting pissed off at you."

"You're really a jerk sometimes."

"Takes one to know one," he retorted.

They sat in silence, glaring at each other.

"What if you have to choose between dueling and Quidditch?" Alexandra asked at last.

He frowned. "I don't know."

"Well, make up your mind by January, and join the Dueling Club if you're serious about dueling. And if you want to practice wizard-dueling with me, it's going to hurt. A lot. Especially if you keep making comments about how much it sucks that girls are better than you."

He nodded.

"Now go away," she said. "I'm studying."

"Wyrm." He stood up. "So, uh, are we cool?"

"Do you want a hug?" she asked, without looking up.

He snorted and walked away.


On the last day of class before their SPAWNs, Alexandra had her proposed Citizenship Project written on the best parchment she could find in her neatest handwriting. She handed it to Mrs. Middle and sat down to take the final exam, for which she'd stayed up all night studying.

She felt pretty confident when time was up. She and Anna had reviewed the difference between Territorial Senates and the Wizards' Congress. She knew how Governors were selected and how the Governor-General was appointed, and she didn't miss the question about the special powers under which Governor-General Hucksteen had extended his term in office. She had identified the rules for Cultural Exemptions.

She just hoped that boring, unimaginative Mrs. Middle would take her Citizenship Project seriously.

Final exams in her other classes were not all easy, but she felt better about her performance than she ever had before. Now there was just the SPAWN to get through. She was barely paying attention during the last JROC drill of the year until Ms. Shirtliffe held them a little later than usual and made them stand in formation, even as a few snowflakes began drifting down, the first snow of the season.

Ms. Shirtliffe called three names: "Witch-Private Quick, Mage-Private First Class Panos, and Witch-Corporal Barker, front and center!"

The three of them broke out of formation and marched to the front. Alexandra wondered if she was in trouble. Theo Panos had been acting like his usual asinine self, but she hadn't been up to anything, and Charlotte was never in trouble.

Witch-Colonel Shirtliffe wore her stiff, creased blue and gray Regimental Officer Corps uniform, with a black cape. She stood before the three Junior Officers and said, "Most promotions wait until the end of the school year, but you three have earned mid-term promotions, for your time in your current rank, dedication, and mastery of your duties."

Alexandra barely heard the speech Shirtliffe gave before affixing a pin to her collar. Witch-Sergeant Barker, Mage-Corporal Panos, and Witch-Private First Class Quick stood at attention while the rest of the JROC cheered and applauded.

After they were dismissed, Ms. Shirtliffe clapped a hand on Alexandra's shoulder, preventing her from leaving. "What did you do this time, Quick?"

Alexandra turned around, baffled. "What do you mean, ma'am?"

The uniformed teacher held up a bit of flapping parchment. "You've been summoned to the Dean's office. I'm going to be very disappointed if you've gotten yourself into trouble again just when I decided to give you the promotion you should have gotten last year."

"I haven't done anything, ma'am. I don't know what this is about." Alexandra eyed the parchment.

"Well, you'd better go and see."

Alexandra hurried inside, wondering what she could have done to warrant a summons to the Dean's office.

The administrative wing was crowded at this time of year. Many students were coming to see deans to appeal grades assigned during the semester, defend themselves against accusations of cheating, or request schedule changes. There was a line of students in front of Miss Marmsley's portrait, and when Alexandra reached the front, the school secretary was too busy to look down her nose at her. She merely said, "The Dean is downstairs at the moment. Go wait on the bench. She'll see you in a few minutes."

Alexandra walked down the hall to the bench in front of the Dean's office. Dean Price hurried past with a large iron box floating behind her. "Excuse me, Miss Quick," she said brusquely. The box had a gargoyle face engraved into one end of it which leered and stuck a wrought-iron tongue out at Alexandra as it floated after the Assistant Dean.

Alexandra looked around the hallway rather than sitting down. Old photographs of Charmbridge Academy, past teachers, and famous alumni hung there, along with plaques for awards students had won over the years.

There was another girl already sitting on the bench in front of the Dean's office door – a little sixth grader with black hair in dreadlocks, wearing velvety red robes. She was trying very hard not cry, and looked as if she were going to be ill.

Alexandra wondered what the girl had done. Something serious, if Dean Grimm was seeing her instead of Dean Price.

"Don't worry," she said, "Dean Grimm isn't actually that bad."

The girl turned her face up toward Alexandra, and her wide, fearful eyes shined hopefully. Either the younger girl didn't recognize her, or she was more terrified of the Dean than she was of the notorious daughter of the Enemy. "Really? I've never been in trouble before, I swear! I'm a good witch! Those cookies weren't my fault – I didn't mean for anyone to actually eat them!"

Alexandra wasn't sure what to say to that.

The girl's eyes darted around, then she lowered her voice to a whisper. "Everyone says the Dean turns students into animals to punish them. That isn't true, is it?"

Alexandra hesitated. "I don't think she does it very often."

The girl's eyes went wide again. Just then, Alexandra caught movement at the end of the hallway. There was a black cat standing at the foot of the stairs.

The girl saw the cat, too. She sniffled and wiggled her fingers. "Here, kitty, kitty."

"That's the Dean's cat," Alexandra said.

The girl put her hands over her mouth.

"It's just a cat." Alexandra walked over to Galen. "You're a troublesome cat."

Galen meowed at her but didn't object to being picked up. The cat purred in her arms, and Alexandra was about to turn back to the girl on the bench when she looked up the stairs and saw a closed door at the top. She could just make out the letters printed on the door: 'Registrar's Office.'

She looked around again. No other deans were outside their offices. The girl on the bench was hunched over with her face in her hands.

Without spending any time to think about what she was doing, Alexandra walked quickly upstairs. She looked down the hall at the top of the stairs and saw no one, though she could hear voices through a couple of open doors.

The Registrar's Scroll was behind the door in front of her. It will only take a minute – in and out. She set Galen down and drew her wand, shushing the cat as it meowed at her. She tested the door to the Registrar's Office, found it locked, and opened it with an Unlocking Charm, just as she had three years earlier.

Galen stood in the doorway, tail held high, as Alexandra slid inside and reached up to the shelf where the wooden case containing the Registrar's Scroll sat. She was just able to reach it. She dragged it off the shelf and set it down on the small table that was the only piece of furniture in the room besides the counters and bookshelves.

She lifted the lid off the plain wooden box and found the large roll of parchment spooled between two wooden spindles. She took the scroll out of its case and set it on the table. The names on the parchment were barely visible in the light falling on it from the half-open door.

She glanced again down the hallway, then whispered, "Show me Livia Pruett, Class of... um, I don't know."

She wasn't sure what would happen if she didn't specify the year, or if there had been more than one Livia Pruett enrolled at Charmbridge Academy, but the scroll began spooling quickly. Names and years flew past: 2005...2000...1995... then it slowed and came to a halt halfway through the class of 1994. There was the name in black and white: 'Livia Justina Pruett.'

It had been foolish to take this risk just to satisfy her curiosity on a hunch, but Alexandra felt a strange sense of vindication. So she was not the first daughter of Abraham Thorn to attend Charmbridge Academy.

She was about to put the scroll away, but hesitated. "Show me... Claudia Carolina Quick."

She held her breath, waiting for the scroll to move. But it didn't.

So much for that, she thought. Every second increased her risk, but she couldn't resist one more: "Show me Lilith Grimm."

She had no idea whether Dean Grimm had attended Charmbridge. But the scroll moved. It rolled backward several years from Livia's class, and revealed the name 'Lilith Tisiphone Grimm.'

"Huh." Alexandra leaned closer. The names above and below Lilith Grimm were 'Morgan Thomas Greeves' and 'Geryon Heathcliff Grimmald.'

"Show me Diana Alecto Grimm," she said.

The scroll didn't move.

Had Diana gone to a different school? Maybe her sister was the smart one.

She put the scroll back into its case and set the case back on the shelf, then exited the Registrar's Office, locking the door behind her. Galen darted between her legs as she hurried downstairs. Her heart raced and she was flushed with excitement, as she always was when getting away with something. It had been a stupid thing to do, a spontaneous impulse, but –

The sixth grader was gone. Alexandra crept back to the bench and saw light through the opaque glass in the door. She sat down and waited. Galen jumped up into her lap. Surprised, Alexandra stroked the cat.

After several minutes, the little girl opened the door, face miserable and eyes swollen. Dean Grimm was standing behind her, wearing black robes like an executioner. Trembling, the girl walked away without a word or a glance in Alexandra's direction.

"Miss Quick," said the Dean, "you were not here when I admitted Miss Dupree into my office."

"I was around the corner, getting Galen." Alexandra rose to her feet. "Ma'am."

She worried a little about Ms. Grimm's narrowed gaze. Then the Dean extended her arms and took Galen from her. "When you're told to wait outside my office, that does not mean wander up and down the hallway because you're bored." She said nothing as she walked back into the office.

Alexandra followed her, and stood at attention in front of the Dean's massive desk. Ms. Grimm sat down and inspected Alexandra's JROC uniform for a moment. "Do you know why you're here, Miss Quick?"

"No, ma'am. I really don't."

The Dean held up a piece of parchment that had been sitting half-curled on her desk. Alexandra recognized her own handwriting on it. It was her Citizenship Project proposal.

Ms. Grimm said, "Mrs. Middle sent this to me because she believed that this was your idea of a joke. I am inclined to think that in typical adolescent fashion, having mastered the art of simple sarcasm, you're now experimenting with the more aggravating possibilities of passive-aggressiveness. But I fear you may be serious."

"It's not a joke, ma'am. I am serious."

Ms. Grimm read from the parchment: "I will perform a valuable service to the Confederation by locating a dangerous criminal who was expelled from Charmbridge Academy for practicing Dark Arts and who is now a member of the Dark Convention. I intend to locate and bring to justice the Dark Wizard John Manuelito."

A pointed silence followed.

"Should I bake cookies instead?" Alexandra asked. "I think HAGGIS is holding a fundraiser."

"You've become entirely too comfortable displaying your sharp tongue with me, Miss Quick." The Dean set the parchment down and smoothed it against the surface of her desk with long, polished nails. "I haven't assigned any pig detentions for a long time. Too many parental complaints. But that was before the WODAMND Act – now I have parents complaining that I've become too soft. And of course, your mother will hardly complain."

Alexandra thought about 'pig detention,' and kept her mouth shut.

The Dean tapped the parchment. "Did you honestly think this was a good idea?"

"I told you, ma'am, I'm serious."

Ms. Grimm closed her eyes for a moment, and let out a breath as she leaned back in her chair. Her hands slid off the table to her familiar, who was still sitting in her lap. "Miss Quick, your arrogance and lack of foresight will be your undoing. Had you thought this through, surely you would have realized that no adult at this school is going to approve of fourteen-year-olds hunting Dark Wizards."

"I've done a lot of things no one would have approved of, or thought I could do. And I'm going to find John Manuelito, whether or not Mrs. Middle approves it for my Citizenship Project."

The Dean's expression, which had become just a little bit softer, hardened again. Alexandra hurried out the rest of her words: "He's been trying to kill me, and no one else is doing anything. He seduced Darla! He joined the Dark Convention and I saw him in Chicago –"

"That's enough. Do you have proof of any of this, Miss Quick? How do you intend to find John Manuelito?"

Alexandra said nothing.

"What exactly was your plan?" The Dean's tone compelled an answer.

"I can't tell you, ma'am."

"You mean you won't tell me."

"I haven't done anything wrong! If I have to propose another Citizenship Project – that's not fair!" Alexandra realized that if her proposal wasn't approved, she would not get an 'A' in Confederation Citizenship and would not be able to take Advanced Magical Theory II next semester, no matter what she scored on her SPAWN. "How is catching a Dark Wizard less important than retouching portraits in the Governor's mansion or raising money for ASPEW or being a Congressman's intern?"

Ms. Grimm sat there thinking for a long time, while Alexandra held herself still. Finally, the Dean said, "You may be sincere, but you will not be pursuing any Dark Wizards. I assure you, you're quite wrong in thinking that no one else is doing anything about Mr. Manuelito. Or have you failed to notice that there have been no further attempts on your life?"

Alexandra didn't reply, unwilling to concede anything.

"My sister has put protective charms around your neighborhood in Larkin Mills," Ms. Grimm continued, "and Aurors will check the area while you are home over winter vacation."

Alexandra objected. "More monitoring of me?"

"Your stubbornness necessitates it. I have no doubt that left unsupervised, you would go looking for trouble. So remember that when you go home – you're being watched. For your own good."

Alexandra clenched her fists.

"I will ask Mrs. Middle to allow you to propose another service project for your class," Ms. Grimm said. "That is all, Miss Quick. Congratulations on your promotion."

Angrily, Alexandra saluted her and left.

That night, Alexandra, Sonja, and Anna sat in the rec room, playing a magical rings game belonging to Sonja. Sonja had only a slight bump on her head, and was much less upset at Alexandra than Alexandra was at her. Alexandra pointed out that she'd looked like a bully. Sonja replied that she hadn't asked Alexandra to send her flying off the platform. So their game was rather tense, with Alexandra tapping her wand on the rings hard enough to make them jump into the air before they disappeared, until she casually mentioned her conversation with David.

"You are so dense, Alexandra," Sonja said, conjuring a blue ring out of the air and adding it to her pile.

"Really?" Alexandra rolled a silver ring across the table, which magically yanked all of Sonja's blue rings into the middle and made them disappear. It was a petty, unstrategic move, since Anna would now be able to claim all of their red rings, but after the events of that afternoon, she was annoyed at being called 'dense.'

Sonja gave her a smug, knowing look. "Why would a boy want to spend time with you in private? Think about it."

Alexandra shook her head. "No. Not David."

"Why not?"

"We're just friends. And he knows better. If you like someone, you shouldn't play stupid games to get their attention, you should just say so."

Anna tapped her wand on the table and drew all their red rings to her, winning the game.

"And trying to duel someone just to spend time with them? That's pretty stupid," Alexandra said.

Sonja rested her chin on her hand and smiled. Anna said nothing.