Alexandra was up late the last night of the semester, writing a new Citizenship Project proposal for Mrs. Middle. As a result, she was tired and cranky when she took her SPAWNs the next day. It was all she could do not to snap at the teachers administering them, and when Mr. Grue gave her two more alchemical combinations to perform than he had other ninth graders, she almost threw the wolfsbane leaves into the brazier and stormed out of the room. She didn't need a Superior score in Alchemy, after all. But she gritted her teeth and mixed them with the synthesizing agent Mrs. Verde had taught her about, producing a small amount of greenish paste that she knew she'd brewed correctly even though Mr. Grue took one sniff and dumped it down the sink.
By the time she finished answering all the questions on her Magical Theory test, she couldn't remember most of them. She wouldn't know how she had done until she received an owl later that month in Larkin Mills. But it wouldn't matter unless her report card was perfect.
She found Mrs. Middle in her classroom after the SPAWN tests. The teacher was sitting at her desk, writing in a record book with a very large quill pen. The dreadlocked sixth grader Alexandra had seen the day before outside the Dean's office was scrubbing desks with a plain old brush and a bucket of water. A wand, which Alexandra assumed was the girl's, lay on Mrs. Middle's desk. The girl grinned with nervous embarrassment when Alexandra entered the room.
"Dean Grimm let you off easy," Alexandra said, thinking that scrubbing desks wasn't much of a punishment.
The girl pouted. "I'm going to be doing this all winter break, since I'm not going home."
"Oh," Alexandra said. "Sorry."
"Can I help you, Miss Quick?" asked Mrs. Middle.
"Yes, ma'am." Alexandra walked over to her desk. "I have another Citizenship Project." She handed the teacher a fresh piece of parchment. It wasn't as fine or nicely printed as the last one. "What I wrote last time wasn't a joke, you know."
Mrs. Middle took the parchment with a dubious smile, unrolled it, and read it over.
"Community outreach for... HAGGIS." The teacher blinked several times, rapidly. "Really, Miss Quick, it's inappropriate for children to deal with hags –"
"You're not hagphobic are you, Mrs. Middle? You told us the Confederation respects the rights of all Beings. Except elves."
"I – well, yes –" Mrs. Middle blinked again. "Now wait, I did not say 'except elves.'"
"Oh. I just thought that was understood."
Mrs. Middle's mouth opened, wordlessly.
"Hags have suffered persecution for centuries because of old witches' tales about them," Alexandra said. "Even today it's considered perfectly acceptable to teach children to fear and hate them."
"Miss Quick, have you ever met a hag?"
"Yes, ma'am. And none of them tried to eat me. I've already written a letter to HAGGIS asking how I can help."
The teacher fumbled with the parchment. "Why can't you do something with Muggles?"
"Oh, I see. I'm a half-blood so of course I should do something with Muggles."
"I didn't mean that, Miss Quick!"
"What did you mean, ma'am?"
Mrs. Middle stammered and ran out of words.
"So how about HAGGIS?" Alexandra nodded at the parchment.
The teacher's mouth opened and closed. "Well... it's very unusual. No one has ever suggested a service project on behalf of hags before!"
"So it's pretty original and ambitious, huh?"
Mrs. Middle seemed unsure how to respond. "I assume you won't be meeting any hags unsupervised?"
"There aren't any hags in Larkin Mills. I'll have to talk to them the next time I go to the Goblin Market. Thank you, ma'am. Um, I don't suppose you've graded our final exams yet?"
"No, Miss Quick, I haven't."
"All right. Merry Christmas, Mrs. Middle." Alexandra reached into a pocket and withdrew a bright red apple, which she placed on the teacher's desk next to the other small gifts students had left her. She had gone to the kitchens to ask Mr. Remy for the biggest, shiniest apple he had, and she was pretty sure elven magic had been used to polish it to unseasonal perfection. "I'll tell the hags that you support them."
Mrs. Middle did not pick up her quill again as Alexandra left. The girl with the scrub brush watched her with a wondering expression.
Alexandra was disappointed that Constance and Forbearance could not persuade Benjamin and Mordecai to let them sit with their friends on the ride home. The last few weeks had been difficult and bleak without the Pritchards sitting with her and Anna and Sonja at meals or playing games in the rec room. Alexandra still couldn't quite accept the idea of her friends being 'bespoken' to the Rashes, or understand why they had acquiesced to it. But she was heeding Anna's advice not to make it worse for them by pressing the issue; after all, she'd told David the same thing.
Alexandra, Anna, David, Dylan, and Sonja sat together on the Charmbridge bus. Sonja invited Carol to join them, but her quiet roommate demurred and took a seat across the aisle instead. "Wocky gets nervous around birds," she said, though she looked more nervous than her rat.
Dylan spent most of the bus ride clumsily and crudely flirting with Sonja. Alexandra couldn't tell whether Sonja was flattered or embarrassed before she got off the bus in Chicago with Anna. Anna promised to call as soon as her father let her leave their wizarding enclave in San Francisco. To Alexandra's surprise, after Anna hugged her, Sonja did too.
"Do I get a hug?" Dylan asked.
Sonja waved at him and departed, with a toss of her head.
That left Alexandra alone with the two boys. She played chess with David until he got off in Detroit, and then she was alone with Dylan. He proceeded to make several "joking" suggestions about kissing and making out, commented that Anna "wasn't that hot for an Asian chick," and made unflattering comparisons between Alexandra and Sonja, accompanied by curves traced in the air with his fingers. By the time they reached Dylan's stop in Cleveland, Alexandra was ready to shove his wand up his nose, and barely muttered a farewell to him.
The Automagicka took the bus south, and Alexandra spent the rest of the time reading until Mrs. Speaks told her they were almost at her stop. She slung her backpack over her shoulder, tucked her broom under one arm, and picked up Charlie's and Nigel's cages. Thus encumbered, she found herself facing Constance, Forbearance, and Innocence, who had just descended the stairs from the upper level of the bus.
Constance smiled at her. "You didn't think we'uns wasn't gonna say good-bye proper, did you?"
"I wasn't sure," Alexandra said.
"Girls, we're all waiting on you," said Mrs. Speaks from the front of the bus.
Constance hugged her, though Alexandra couldn't hug her back while holding her familiars' cages.
"Miss you terrible," said Charlie.
"You going to be in trouble with them?" Alexandra asked, rolling her eyes upward.
"Hush now," Constance said.
Forbearance kissed her on the cheek. "You take care, Alex, dear. Expect our'n owls to visit."
Innocence wrapped her arms around Alexandra. "Have a merry Christmas, Alex, an' I'll write you what Connie an' Forbearance won't."
"You will not!" Constance snapped.
"Girls!" Mrs. Speaks yelled.
The Pritchards let Alexandra go and returned upstairs. Alexandra walked off the bus, said good-bye to Mrs. Speaks, and reentered the Muggle world.
Claudia and Archie were both there to welcome her home, Claudia with an arm around her shoulders and a peck on the cheek, Archie with a grunt and a nod. Charlie chose that moment to say "Big fat jerk!"
"Take the menagerie upstairs," Archie said.
"I'm going to," Alexandra said, with infinite exasperation. It was as if she'd never been gone.
During the week before Christmas, she caught up on her TV watching, read more about magical theory, and went to the Larkin Mills Public Library to check out everything they had on astronomy and astrology. There was nothing in any of the Muggle books about a Parliament of Stars. She found a few references to some of the names Forbearance had used, but nothing that shed light on any magical associations.
She exchanged emails with David, and was disappointed (and annoyed with herself for being disappointed) that Payton had not emailed her. She thought about calling him, but decided it would be better if he called her.
It was a couple of days before he did. They talked on the phone for over an hour that night – Alexandra talking about Charmbridge Academy, Payton talking about his day school, and both of them bemoaning how much it sucked not to be able to do magic at home – but when Payton asked if she missed him and she said, "Sure," he seemed to find this unsatisfactory.
"I wish you could come to the winter ball," he said.
"There's a winter ball at Charmbridge."
"You aren't going, are you?"
"Well, who would you go with if you were going?"
"I don't know. I went last year with David's roommate."
"You were dating David's roommate?"
"Hell, no!" Alexandra shuddered at the thought of dating Dylan. "He was just there."
"You can go to your winter ball, you know. Ask some girl you like."
"What makes you think I like any girls besides you?"
"Payton," she said, embarrassed, "you can't tell me there aren't any other girls you like."
"So are there boys you like at Charmbridge?"
"No, not really."
"Just as friends! Don't be stupid."
She detected a certain petulance in his tone. Eventually he dropped the topic of balls, but she was rather annoyed.
"I miss you," he said, as they were saying their good-byes.
"Yeah, I miss you too."
After Alexandra pressed the button to end the call, she wondered if this was how conversations with your boyfriend were supposed to go. She was almost tempted to ask Archie if Payton was acting like a normal boy. She discarded that idea after half a second. She considered talking to her mother, but dismissed that idea as well. Her mother had never been particularly disposed toward 'girl talk'; Claudia Green was straightforward and unsentimental when discussing the facts of life. Usually that suited Alexandra fine, since she was much the same, but just this once, she wished her mother was more chatty. Maybe more like Julia. She could talk to Julia, if only she were here.
She decided to take a walk. She put on a jacket instead of her charmed, weather-proof cloak and wandered around the neighborhood a bit, wondering what sort of charms Diana Grimm had placed for her 'protection.' Nothing she could see. She'd heard that experienced witches could sense magic, so she tried doing that, but without success. She hoped that was something she'd learn in her classes.
It had now been over a month since she had asked Quimley to find John Manuelito. She wanted to summon him, but here in Larkin Mills the Trace Office would notice her doing so, especially with the increased monitoring Dean Grimm had warned her about. She considered doing it anyway at Old Larkin Pond; if Diana Grimm showed up, Alexandra could tell her she was helping the Special Inquisitor do her job. But notwithstanding how Diana Grimm might react to that, Alexandra didn't know what a Special Inquisitor would say about a free elf appearing in a Muggle neighborhood. Probably nothing good. She resolved to wait until she returned to Charmbridge, and do it first thing if she didn't hear from Quimley by then.
Lost in thought, she was further distracted by a group of crows sitting on a telephone wire. She was staring at the birds when someone said, "Hello, Alexandra."
She almost bumped into Brian. She looked at him in surprise, standing in the middle of the sidewalk with his hands thrust into the pockets of his brown winter coat. He had a scarf wrapped around the bottom half of his face. Their breaths formed white plumes in air that was too cold for snow. Alexandra only realized when she stopped walking that her old jacket from last year was too thin. Without the magic cloak she wore at school, she was shivering.
"Hi," she said neutrally.
"Guess you're back from school," he said.
"Guess so." Her tone of voice said Duh!
He stood there awkwardly, and after a moment, Alexandra started to walk around him.
"We're going caroling again on Christmas Eve," he said. "Wanna come?"
She stopped. With his scarf covering his mouth, she couldn't read his expression.
"Why?" she asked. "Did your mother tell you you have to invite me?"
He shook his head. "I wanted to invite you." His eyes peered at her, squinting against the cold wind.
When she didn't say anything, he spoke again in a muffled voice. "I'd like to be friends again."
A car drove by. Alexandra felt as if the entire street were watching the two of them standing out there in the cold.
After the car was gone, she said, "You have no idea what's happened to me the past three years. No idea! Do you know – do you know how many times I wished I could talk to someone here in Larkin Mills? But I couldn't say anything to you, because even if you wanted to hear it, I'm a witch!"
Brian winced a little when she raised her voice. Alexandra heard cawing. When she looked over her shoulder, the crows were gone.
"I'm sorry," Brian said. He was still standing as if frozen in place, hands stuck in his pockets, face obscured by his scarf.
"Sorry for what – sorry that you ignored me for three years, or sorry that I'm a witch?"
His shoulders slumped. "I'm just sorry. What else do you want me to say, Alex?"
"I don't know." She stepped back, walking backward away from him.
"Will you come caroling with us?" he asked.
"I'll think about it." She turned around and hurried back to her house.
She wrote a letter to Julia, telling her sister about her conversation with Payton and her conversation with Brian, knowing that it would be after Christmas before Julia received it. Anna called Alexandra that night, excited to tell her that her mother had given her an early birthday present: her very own cell phone. She had to keep it hidden in her room lest her father discover it, and of course it would not work while she was within the walls of Little Wuyi.
Anna had no advice concerning Brian. She didn't quite understand Christmas caroling. But when Alexandra pointed out that it could put Brian in danger if she did start hanging out with him again, Anna said, "You really have to stop using that as an excuse, Alex."
"An excuse for what?"
"For keeping your friends away."
"I don't do that."
Anna didn't say anything.
"He's a Muggle," Alexandra said. "He can't understand the wizarding world."
"My mother understands, when I tell her about it."
Alexandra was troubled after she got off the phone with Anna.
She remained troubled, thinking about Payton, Brian, Quimley, and celestial Powers until Christmas Eve, when Brian came to their door. Alexandra's mother let him in, and he stood in the warm front hall of their house, brushing off a light dusting of snow. Alexandra was reading a book in front of the fire, and Archie was in the next room watching a football game.
"We're going caroling now, a bunch of kids, and some parents," Brian said. "You're welcome to come too, Mrs. Green."
"I don't think so, Brian, but thank you," Mrs. Green said.
Brian rocked back and forth a little on his feet.
"Billy Boggleston isn't coming, is he?" Alexandra asked.
Brian laughed. "What? No way!"
Alexandra studied the fire for a moment.
"Okay," she said. "Let me get my coat."
She went upstairs, taking her book with her. Charlie squawked and fussed as she got ready to go, and she scolded the bird. "You wouldn't go outside if I let you. It's cold and it's snowing."
Wrapped in a coat and a scarf, wearing gloves and a wool cap, she looked like a normal teenager. But she put her wand in her pocket, as she always did before leaving the house.
She and Brian left the house together. Down the street, teenagers, younger kids, and three or four adults were gathered in a yard full of illuminated Santas, snowmen, reindeer, and elves.
"I'm glad you came," Brian said.
"Uh huh," she said.
"Bonnie will be glad, too."
He cleared his throat. "You're mad at me, aren't you?"
They walked on in silence. They had almost reached the gathering when Alexandra said, "You've barely talked to me in three years, except to call me a freak."
"I said I was sorry." He puffed out a breath of misty air. "You did come anyway."
"Alexandra!" Bonnie waved to her. Brian's little sister was the same age as Mary Dearborn. If she were a witch, she might be going to Charmbridge Academy now. She seemed so young, in a puffy turquoise coat with a pink sweater underneath and a white and pink cap on her head. She wore none of the makeup Alexandra had seen last time. Even her earrings were gone.
Bonnie made a face. "Did your parents make you come, too?"
"No," Alexandra said, "Brian invited me."
"Bonnie, don't be a brat," Brian said.
Bonnie rolled her eyes theatrically.
Alexandra saw a couple of her former classmates, but most of the other kids were younger than her and Brian. They proceeded up Sweetmaple Avenue, caroling at each house, including her own. Alexandra felt very silly singing 'Jingle Bells' and 'Silent Night' with Claudia and Archie watching them in amusement. They went around the block and over to the next street. Alexandra didn't remember some of the carols, but she could mumble along, half-humming.
It became apparent that Bonnie wasn't there voluntarily. Brian tried to hold her hand, but she jerked away from him. She whined about how cold it was and did they really have to go down another street and how many times were they going to sing that same stupid song until she was getting on everyone's nerves. Alexandra thought about all the spells she was tempted to use to shut the girl up. She cast a look at Brian, who shrugged wearily. Alexandra began to feel some sympathy for him.
At the end of the next street, Bonnie said, "I'm going home."
"Bonnie, you can't walk off by yourself," said Mr. Carlow, the father of another girl Bonnie's age.
"Sweetmaple Avenue is right there!" Bonnie said, pointing.
Brian said, "Bonnie, be quiet and stay with me."
She gave him a disgusted look and stormed away. Mr. Carlow and one of the women walked after her, but Brian said, "It's all right, Mr. Carlow. I'll walk her home."
"Are you sure, Brian?" the man asked.
"Let her go," said one of the older kids, to general murmurs of assent.
Brian ran after Bonnie, and Alexandra followed him. Brian grabbed his sister. "You embarrassed us, Bonnie! Are you out of your mind? You're acting like such a little brat!"
"I'm sick of caroling! I didn't want to go in the first place."
"If Mom and Dad had come along, you wouldn't dare act like that."
"Tell them." Bonnie tossed her head defiantly.
Brian glared at her, then gave her a shove. "Come on." He walked after her, back toward their house. "Sorry, Alex."
"It's all right. I was getting tired of caroling, too." Alexandra wondered at Bonnie's outburst, and her foolishness in doing something that would obviously get her in trouble.
Brian said, "Don't mention to my parents that we left early, okay?"
Alexandra shrugged. She hadn't been planning to, but she said, "I don't see why you should protect Bonnie."
Bonnie looked over her shoulder. "Are you going to tell on me? There's things I could tell about you, you know."
"Bonnie!" Brian grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her around. "Don't start with that!" Furious, he raised a hand. Bonnie flinched, but stood her ground. Brian clenched his fist and dropped it. "God, I don't know what's wrong with you, you little –"
"Witch?" Bonnie suggested, her eyes sliding in Alexandra's direction.
Brian shoved her. "Knock it off!"
She staggered and almost fell, then glared at him. Without another word, she turned and stomped back toward their house. It was three houses down, and so Brian watched her without moving. When she got to the sidewalk in front of their house, she stopped, and waited.
"She won't dare go in without me," Brian said. "Anyway, she's an idiot, since Mr. and Mrs. Carlow will probably tell our parents."
"What is her problem?"
Brian shrugged. "She's been like that for the past year. Dad says it's puberty. Mom's used a hairbrush on her more in the past year than she ever did with me – that's why I won't tell them about this." He sighed, and didn't see Alexandra's expression.
Something flapped overhead. Alexandra looked up to see a dark shape flapping away. She almost drew her wand.
"Whoa," Brian said, "what was that?"
"A bird." Alexandra tried to follow its path in the night sky, but all the stars were washed out by the town's lights, and the darkness swallowed it. She still heard the sound of flapping wings, just at the edge of her hearing, and she felt a prickling intuition. "I should go, Brian. You'd better take Bonnie inside."
"Oh." He sounded disappointed. "Right, well –"
"See you later. Merry Christmas." She took off running down the street, passing a surprised Bonnie. The flapping sound led her toward her own house.
She knew it wasn't Charlie. She was wary and alert, more than usual after a semester of paranoia. Her wand was in her hand as she reached her driveway.
Everything looked normal. Why had she freaked out like that? And what was she going to do if her home was threatened by a wizardly intruder?
She walked to her front door and tried to open it. It resisted her. Thinking Archie had locked it – he was always going on about safety and not leaving the door unlocked – she took the key out of her pocket. The key didn't open the door either.
She was disturbed now. Had her parents changed the lock on her in the past hour? That was ridiculous. But she felt goosebumps. Looking right and left, she saw that there was no one else on the street.
She thrust her hand back into her pocket and gripped her wand, then knocked on the door with her other hand. "Mom!" she cried. "Archie!"
The door swung open into pitch darkness.
Alexandra stepped back and pointed her wand.
"Don't be afraid, Alexandra." A light flared in the darkness, illuminating a cloaked figure with a bearded face.
Alexandra stepped cautiously forward, lowering her wand but keeping it pointed in the direction of the intruder. "What is this?" she asked. "Where are Mom and Archie?"
"They're fine, and exactly where they should be," said Abraham Thorn. "This is a complicated bit of magic I could only have woven in your – and Claudia's – home. We are temporarily outside of time and space, as it were. We have more time than we did back on Croatoa, but not an unlimited amount. Will you enter?"
She looked around suspiciously. Through the doorway into what should have been the small front hallway of her house, there was a dark chamber whose dimensions she could not guess.
"You know," she said, "if you can impersonate someone else with Polyjuice Potion, someone else could impersonate you, couldn't they?"
He smiled. "Why, yes. Though I assure you, the number of wizards in the world besides myself who could cast this spell can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But you are right to be wary."
His approving tone, like that of a proud father, irritated her. She raised her wand again. "So prove you're really Abraham Thorn."
He waved a hand, and Alexandra felt an invisible force push her hand down so her wand pointed at the ground. No longer smiling, he said, "The last time we spoke, you accused me of sending you and Maximilian to the Lands Below, knowing that one of you would die. I told you I did not. I am not sure you believed me then. I hope you believe me now."
She let her arm relax. She walked into the darkness, and felt stone beneath her feet. It was chilly, but without the wind that had been blowing outside. Shadows slid around at the edge of the light cast by her father's wand, suggesting that the chamber was large but not infinite.
"I want to believe you," she said, after she had closed the distance between them and stood before him.
He didn't say anything, but his face remained shadowed by more than the darkness. Alexandra felt grief welling up from places she'd thought were buried, and stirrings of guilt as well. Annoyed, blinking rapidly, she looked around at the space they were occupying. "What is this place? You can just open up another dimension or something?"
"You said we're outside time and space."
"More precisely, we are in a time and place where nothing and no one will intrude upon us, so it is safe to move us here. When I return us to our proper time and place, it will be as if no time had passed. I am simplifying a great deal."
"Give me the unsimplified explanation."
"My dear, you must change that demanding tone when addressing me, particularly when asking me for something."
She turned her head to look into his face again. The pained expression in his eyes was gone, replaced by the stern countenance she was more accustomed to. Feeling obstinate, she said, "Is this where you remind me how much I try your patience?"
"Why are you so insistent on provoking me, Alexandra?" he asked, less angry than sad.
She looked away. "I don't even mean to," she mumbled. "You're just – you – you make me – angry! And confused. And you just show up and then you talk about whatever you want to talk about and never answer my questions, then you're gone, usually being chased by Aurors or Special Inquisitors..." Her voice trailed off.
He put his hands on her shoulders. She didn't look at him, but she didn't pull away. She allowed him to draw her closer and hold her to him.
"I daresay," he said quietly, "that this is a very difficult time in a young witch's life, and the circumstances of your life – many of which I am responsible for – have not made it easier."
She sniffed, and asked, "Why did you come?"
He released his grip on her and drew away a little. "It is Christmas Eve. I brought you a gift."
"Do you bring presents to all of your daughters?"
"When I can." He produced a small, thin object wrapped in red paper from within his cloak.
"How about Livia? Is she going to get a visit from Santa?" She felt a tiny bit of satisfaction at his unguarded surprise. "You didn't know I met Livia?"
"No, I did not."
So you don't hear everything that happens to me. "Do you talk to her?"
Abraham Thorn held the little package in both hands. "Livia is one of my most unforgiving daughters. She knows that she has but to call me and I will come, but I will not if she doesn't wish it."
"How about your eldest daughter?"
There was a long silence before he replied, "What about her?"
"What's her name?"
He shook his head. "No, Alexandra. I made promises. Please do not press me on this."
"Do you see her, too?"
"It has been longer than I would like."
She sighed. "How about Valeria?"
"I haven't been able to visit her since she returned to Europe. We have exchanged letters, though."
"Does she still hate me?"
"Valeria does not hate you, Alexandra. But if you feel aggrieved that she's not ready to forgive you yet, then perhaps you can put yourself in my shoes."
Alexandra didn't have a ready answer to that. What her father had done was different, and worse, to her mind, but she could hardly claim that she deserved Valeria's forgiveness.
He handed her her gift. "You may open it."
She did. It was a little leather book with a seal stamped on the cover. She held up her wand and saw that it was the logo of the Colonial Bank of the New World, embossed in gold.
"You're giving me a bank book?"
"I'm giving you an account. Think of it as an advance on your inheritance."
"That's kind of morbid."
"It is not such a great sum now. You can spend it all on chocolate frogs and ice cream if you choose. But I will add to it. You will never want for anything."
Alexandra opened the book and found the amount written in the first and only entry. "That would be a lot of chocolate frogs and ice cream."
"Obviously, I hope you will be wiser than that."
She closed the little book and put it in her pocket. "Thank you. But you know, money and expensive presents aren't really what I want."
"What do you want, my dear?"
He sighed. "The only questions I have refused to answer are those involving other people."
"Pretty much all my questions involve other people."
His answer was a wry smile.
"Do you know anything about the Parliament of Stars?" she asked.
His smile faded. "Where did you hear about the Parliament of Stars?"
"You tell me first."
"I am not accustomed to my children back-talking me."
"No, Max just obeyed you, didn't he?"
For a moment, she thought her father might slap her. He dropped his hand to his side. She looked down at the ground. He wasn't going to answer her, and she couldn't bring herself to apologize.
"Did you speak to the Stars Above?" It was his tone that surprised her as much as the question; he sounded almost fearful of the answer. She jerked her head up and found him studying her with more worry than anger on his face.
"We tried," she said. "Our ritual didn't work."
"They are teaching you to treat with Powers at Charmbridge?"
"No, it was just my friends. Don't look at me like that – we weren't goofing around. Forbearance thought it was important because of what she read in my astrological chart, and I didn't really believe it would work, but –"
"Ozarkers," he said. "I might have known."
"What's wrong with Ozarkers?"
"Many of them are fine people. Alexandra, you should not be meddling with magic that's outside your experience. And I know you've become obsessed with a certain John Manuelito as well. Forget about him and let others hunt him down."
Thoughts whirled in her head. The contradictions, the knowledge he'd revealed of her friends and her activities, the unanswered questions – how did he know about her interest in John Manuelito? Had he actually talked to Dean Grimm? Or did he know about Quimley?
No, Quimley wanted her to tell her father everything. He would have told Abraham Thorn, if her father had spoken to the elf.
"You were meddling with magic outside your experience at my age, weren't you?" she said. "And if you knew someone was trying to kill you, would you have just waited for the adults to handle it? I don't think so." Her father opened his mouth, but she kept talking before he cut her off. "I'll bet you were teaching Max things by the time he was fourteen, weren't you? Well, that's what I want – I want you to teach me magic. I want you to teach me the stuff I can't learn at school. I want to become better than anyone else my age – I want to become better than anyone else, period. Except maybe you," she finished, sounding a little less sure of herself than she had when she'd started talking.
"You ask a great deal," he said. "From whence comes this burning ambition?"
He considered that a moment, then smiled and shook his head. "That is very flattering, my dear, and I have no doubt there is much of me in you. I've said before that you are more like me than any of my other daughters. But you aren't trying to follow in my footsteps, nor would I wish you to. Something else drives you."
She was silent. He waited. The silence stretched between them. Under his gaze, she broke first.
"I need to know more if I'm going to live longer," she said.
It was hard to tell in the wand-light that bleached their faces white, but he seemed to turn a little gray. "Explain."
"I'm not ready to tell you yet." She thought about him trying to sacrifice someone else in her place, or going to the Lands Below to confront the Generous Ones. Would he do that? she wondered.
"Is this because you fear John Manuelito? Rest assured, I will not allow him to harm you."
"It's not just him." She wanted to tell him. Quimley was probably right that if anyone could help her, it was Abraham Thorn. But there was too much doubt in her mind. "My friends who are taking Astrology, they did my star chart, and they said the stars have predicted my death. They think maybe I should consult the Stars Above for advice."
"Astrology! Heavenly Powers! Stay away from that foolishness, Alexandra." He laid his hands on her shoulders. "I swore when you were born that I would protect you from all that threatens you, and I mean to. But you want to learn more magic. You want to become great. Very well. Have patience, and take what opportunities come to you. In the meantime, hold out your wand."
She did so, wondering if he was going to teach her a spell, or perhaps practice wizard-dueling with her. That was a rather frightening prospect, but she prepared herself.
He took her wand from her and tucked it under his robes.
"Hey!" she protested.
Gently, he placed his hands on her shoulders again and turned her around so her back was to him. "One of the problems with learning wandcraft at a young age is that we don't develop some of our finer senses. Magic exists independently of wizards, and wizards did magic before we invented wands. We could feel it. We could breathe it. A wand is a powerful tool, the greatest ever devised for channeling that which is all around us, and there are things even a young witch can do with a wand that no one can do without one. But there are also things you can do without a wand."
"I... used to do magic when I was little," Alexandra said. "Sometimes by wishing things... sometimes with rhymes..."
"Yes, and that's useful, though unreliable. But I'm not asking you to practice doggerel verse or attempt wandless magic. Even if you succeeded, you'd only bring yourself to the attention of the Trace Office, and we don't want that, do we? I want you to see with a witch's sight. I want you to feel what you've started taking for granted, spending all your time at Charmbridge where magic is like air."
"You want me to start... seeing magic?"
"So to speak. Close your eyes and see this room."
That hardly made sense to her, but she tried. She closed her eyes, and tried imagining the room's outlines, where she imagined the walls and floor and ceiling to be. She wondered how she was supposed to 'see' magic. She visualized invisible lines running around them, like a sort of magnetic field. Then she imagined shifting blobs of color or extrasensory perceptions or anything else that might come to mind.
All she saw was the inside of her eyelids, dark with occasional blotchy red flashes.
"It's not working," she said.
"After a few minutes, I'm not surprised." Slowly – reluctantly, it seemed – he took his hands off her shoulders. "And unfortunately, we haven't much time left. I must go."
She felt his beard brush against the side of her face before he kissed her cheek. "The next time we meet," he said, "we will talk some more, and I will teach you some more."
"Okay." She opened her eyes. He was already walking toward the entrance through which she had stepped 'outside time and space.' She could see the street lights of Sweetmaple Avenue through the doorway, and he gestured for her to precede him.
She paused at the threshold and held out her hand. "Um, my wand?"
When the cloaked figure didn't move, she added, "Please?"
"This will be your first exercise in seeing with a witch's sight," he said. "Find it."
Her mouth dropped open. "What – you're going to hide my wand? You've got to be kidding!" She realized he was not. "Come on, that's not fair! That's –"
"A challenge? Something more difficult than you're accustomed to, something most children are never asked to do?"
She simmered indignantly. "What if I need my wand? I could be attacked again!"
"I will be watching, Alexandra. I am always watching."
"Seriously? You're watching me twenty-four-seven? When do you have time to plot against the Confederation?"
"You will be safe, Alexandra." He sounded a little testy this time.
She closed her mouth, fuming.
"You shouldn't be casting spells at home anyway, so it shouldn't matter," he said. "As long as you find it before you return to Charmbridge."
"Will you give me a hint? Like, will it be somewhere in the house, or do I have to search the whole neighborh –"
"Good-bye, my dear. I will see you again after the new year." His hand pushed her gently through the doorway and outside. She found herself standing on her front porch. She turned around – Abraham Thorn, and the dark interior, were gone, and there was only her front door.
When she turned back to the street, there was a woman standing there, a young, beautiful woman with severe features and dark hair. She wore blood-red robes beneath a black cloak. Alexandra gaped at the witch, who stared back at her with a cool smile, and then nodded slightly. Then she was gone. Alexandra winced – the witch had Apparated in plain sight! But the street was quiet and empty and no one seemed to have noticed.
It only occurred to her some time later, after she had gone inside, that the Trace Office might blame her for the magic her father and his mysterious companion had used in her presence. But if the Trace Office had detected it, then surely Diana Grimm would have been close on their heels?
No owl came from the Trace Office that night, and no Aurors came to Sweetmaple Avenue.