A Girl Named Troublesome
Though Alexandra had been planning to meet Torvald the following evening – and maybe even to practice dueling with him some more – Forbearance slipped her a note asking her to come to the Pritchards' room instead.
Alexandra intended to sound cool when she caught Torvald in the hallway and told him, but she ended up sounding apologetic, which just added to the pile of embarrassing, awkward feelings she was experiencing.
She and Anna went to see Constance and Forbearance after dinner. Alexandra and Anna had rarely entered the twins' room, though Alexandra wasn't sure why; certainly the Ozarkers had never made their friends feel unwelcome.
Constance and Forbearance had the same lamps as everyone else in their room, but the light had a different, sunny quality when Alexandra and Anna stepped inside, almost as if it were still daytime. Alexandra realized with something more than her normal sight that there was a charm on the walls and ceiling. It was a subtle bit of Glamour. She wondered which of the twins had cast it.
Alexandra's side of her room was always a bit messy, and she did little to personalize it, while Anna was neat and orderly but decorated her half of the room with photographs of her parents and Chinese scrolls and wall hangings. By contrast, the Pritchards' shared room was immaculately clean, with beds made, desks clear, and windows spotless. The few ornaments were plain baskets and ribbons and some animated wooden animals on Forbearance's side of the windowsill. Even the large owl cage in which their barn owls sat when not in the aviary was spotlessly clean. They had put up a pegged wooden rack by the door, from which hung an assortment of bonnets in different colors. Alexandra thought the Charmbridge elves probably despaired of ever having anything to do in the twins' room.
The Pritchards were bonnetless now. Rarely in four years had Alexandra seen their heads uncovered. After letting Alexandra and Anna in, Constance sat down and resumed running a brush through her hair, which was longer than it appeared when wrapped tightly beneath her bonnet. Forbearance's hair was still tied up, with a few curls escaping to hover around her face as she faced Alexandra with an anxious expression.
"What's up?" Alexandra asked.
"We'uns is afraid we might not've told you the unskint truth," Forbearance said.
Alexandra exchanged a look with Anna at this confession. Anna was similarly nonplussed.
Constance stopped brushing her hair. "Forbearance don't mean to say we'uns lied to you, Alex. We wasn't sure ourselves 'til now."
"Okay," Alexandra said, "why don't you tell me what you're talking about?"
Forbearance took a breath. "You recall we'uns told you after we hied home an' covened with the Grannies that it might could be you have an Ozarker Name?"
Alexandra nodded. "Yes. I still don't see how that works. But if you believe it, I'll take your word for it."
"Hain't a matter of what we'uns believe," Constance said.
"We'uns told you that there needs be a girl named Troublesome betimes," Forbearance said.
"Right," Alexandra said, "though I can understand why no one would name their daughter that since she vexes and woes and is nothing but trouble."
"We'uns is s'pposed to call 'pon the Parliament of Stars by your true an' proper Name," Forbearance said.
"Troublesome." Alexandra made an effort not to roll her eyes. "So your Grannies say."
"So the Grannies intend," Forbearance said quietly.
Constance sniffed. "We'uns have unraveled every word and gimmick in the work the Grannies taught us, an'..." She swallowed. "We'uns think the Grannies mean us to Name you."
"I'm confused," Alexandra said.
"Some people is Named," Forbearance said, "an' some is Named."
Alexandra waited a moment, then said, "That doesn't really help."
Forbearance wrung her hands. "Accordin' to lore, some folks has a Name no one gave 'em but the Stars Above. They was just born with it, no matter what their parents named 'em."
"But with the right work," Constance said, "you can give someone a Name."
Alexandra frowned. "So all this stuff about how my signs and stars and stuff say I'm Troublesome... that's all just superstit– sorry, lore, but the Grannies actually want to make it come true? They want you to Name me Troublesome?"
"We reckon," Forbearance said. Her eyes were downcast.
"Will the new ritual actually summon the Parliament of Stars?"
"Might could, if you is Named Troublesome," Forbearance said. "But if you is Named Troublesome, Alex..."
"I know – I'm dangerous, doleful calamity."
"I think you should take this more seriously," Anna said.
"I think you oughter know how Troublesome's entire story goes," Constance said.
Alexandra grinned. "I read a few of them. They actually have a couple of books of Ozarker legends in the library. My favorite is when Troublesome smart-mouths one of the Dreadly Powers, so he punishes her by giving her his job."
"Dreadly Powers?" Anna asked.
"In one version it was Death," Alexandra said. "But there was another version where it's Mischief."
"It was Mischief in the tales our Ma told us," Constance murmured.
"Hain't many Ozarker legends that talk about Death," Forbearance said.
"Then there are the more depressing ones," Alexandra went on, "like where Troublesome plays a riddle game with a naiad. A boat full of people escapes while she's distracting it, but then they all drown anyway because she messed with a naiad in the first place. Or Troublesome turns a bunch of Muggles into dwarves, creating some kind of ugly hill clan that's been the enemy of Ozarkers ever since. Or Troublesome creates a plague of clockwork bugs that carry off all the food in the hollers just before winter. But she saves everyone from starvation by going to the Indian Territories and bringing back some corn maidens. Troublesome goes to a dance she wasn't invited to and shows her ankles, which causes all kinds of trouble even though everyone makes a point of saying how unpretty she is. And so on. Then there's all the Troublesome and Responsible stories, which according to the warlock who cataloged them, are later additions, from after your ancestors took the Road West."
Constance was still now. Forbearance had stopped wringing her hands. Both of them stared at Alexandra in amazement.
Alexandra sat on the chair she'd been offered, arms clasping one knee, and smiled at them. "See, I do my homework, too. So are all those stories true?"
Forbearance shrugged. "We'uns reckon there's a grain o' truth to 'em."
"There is dwarves in the hills who's meaner'n goblins an' twice as ugly," Constance said.
"And sometimes you can still dig up clockwork bugs all over the Five Hollers."
"We'uns reckon someone did some of those things."
"Not the same girl."
"But a girl named Troublesome," Alexandra said. "Do any Ozarkers actually name their daughters 'Troublesome'?"
"Once did," Constance said. "Things've changed, now no one'd dare. Most folks say it's like wishin' for wickedness."
Alexandra thought a moment. "So I get to be the girl no Ozarker wants to be, and they can say they've got their Troublesome. Do you think the Grannies mean me harm?"
Constance and Forbearance exchanged looks.
"The ritual won't harm you none," Forbearance said. "We'uns is certain 'o that."
"The Grannies wouldn't do that," Constance said firmly.
Anna was less sanguine. "But they didn't tell you exactly what the ritual would really do."
"They'uns must've knowed we'd reason it," Constance said.
"A lot of what they'uns teach us is to inkle things on our own," Forbearance said. "It hain't like lessons here at Charmbridge. We'uns is given tools an' it's for us to figger how to use 'em. We're to use our witches'..." Her voice trailed off.
"Witches' sight? I think I know what you mean." Alexandra thought of her father's frustrating 'lessons.' "So being Named Troublesome won't hurt me. Heck, everyone calls me that already. Even my boy– um, everyone."
"But, Alexandra, Troublesome's story hain't just in them books you read," Forbearance said.
"I thought you trust the Grannies," Alexandra said.
"Oh, Alexandra, we do!" Forbearance's eyes brimmed with tears. "But they'uns is wise an' crafty an'..."
"They'uns is Ozarkers," Constance said, "an' you hain't."
"You just said the ritual won't hurt me," Alexandra said.
"Not directly," Forbearance said. "But if you is Named Troublesome..."
"What, will I be cursed with a fate worse than dying in seven years?"
Everyone flinched. No one answered.
"Whatever." Alexandra was losing patience. "I'm not named Troublesome, and no ritual can turn me into a fairy tale character. You don't really expect me to back out now, do you? Thanks for the concern, but it's a little late. So I'm supposed to fill some role for the Grannies? Maybe they have a plan of their own, or they just want me to satisfy some superstition. Well, if you trust the Grannies, then I trust you." She grabbed Forbearance's hands. "I know you'd never do anything that will hurt me. The worst that will happen is we learn nothing. No offense, but I'm not really convinced by all this stuff about Ozarker rhymes and Naming magic and Troublesome. All I care about is whether I can actually get some answers from the Stars Above. So let's do the ritual."
Forbearance and Constance didn't look at her, but they nodded.
"So, are you going to the Sweetheart's Dance with Benjamin and Mordecai?" Alexandra asked.
The twins' uneasiness became a different sort of discomfort.
"The Sweetheart's Dance hain't a proper ball," Constance said.
"Connie don't want to go to no koosy dance without no romancin'," Forbearance said.
"If you're bespoken, they should try to romance you a little," Alexandra said.
Anna stared at her, as if she couldn't figure out what Alexandra was up to.
Constance put her chin in her hands. "It'd be nice if'n they'd try to be just a bit romantic."
"Innocence is probably going to take William again," Alexandra said.
"You mean William's goin' to ask Innocence," Constance said.
"Yeah, right." Alexandra turned to Anna.
Anna held up her hands. "Oh no. I told you, I don't need a date and I'm not going."
"Come on. If everyone else goes –"
"If everyone else jumped off the Invisible Bridge I wouldn't follow you."
"Sure you would." Alexandra grinned at her.
Forbearance cleared her throat. "An' who's escortin' you to the dance, Alexandra?"
Alexandra hesitated before she answered. "Torvald Krogstad."
Constance perked up. "So it's true he's settin' up to you?"
"You'uns 're courtin'!" Forbearance said.
"I wouldn't exactly call it courting."
"I wouldn't either," Anna muttered.
"Look, we're just... dating," Alexandra said. "Neither of us is thinking about marriage."
Constance leaned forward, eyes wide. Forbearance was just as eager. "Tell us more about the... datin'."
Alexandra could not explain even to herself what she saw in Torvald. He was not handsome. Payton had been better-looking. David was better-looking. There were actually few boys in school who weren't better-looking than Torvald, with his plain Old Colonial clothes, self-inflicted haircuts, and an acne-scarred face made worse by experimenting with Transfigurations and curses.
Maybe it was that goofy grin of his, she thought. And she was becoming rather fond of the kissing. She knew that Torvald wanted to do more than kiss, and at first she had firmly pushed him away, but she was beginning to think that she was doing that because she was 'supposed' to and not because she wanted to. The voices of Claudia and Archie nagged at her in her mind, full of advice and lectures that she didn't want.
Anna alternated between feigning disinterest and disgust and wanting to hear all the details. They lay awake late at night as Alexandra tried to sort out her feelings.
"Just don't get in trouble," Anna said, after an evening spent recounting how she and Torvald had climbed up to a room adjacent to the aviary. Torvald had shown off a few invisible jinxes which he'd used to terrorize two sophomores, raining the spells down on the couple who were walking around out on the lawn. Then they had spent the next ten minutes making out, until they heard someone else coming up the stairs.
"They were just minor jinxes," Alexandra said. She'd told Torvald to knock it off, but not until after she had seen enough to imitate them.
"That's not what I mean."
"What do you mean?"
"What do you think, Alex?"
"We haven't gone that far."
"Are you going to?"
Alexandra wasn't shocked at the question, but she sensed that Anna was disturbed by her delay in responding. "I haven't really thought about it," she lied. ""But maybe you should come to the Sweetheart's Dance, to keep an eye on us. You never know what sort of trouble we might get into if we sneak off afterward..."
"Good night," Anna said, turning over and putting a pillow over her head.
Alexandra continued to meet Torvald after school for dueling. She was glad for the practice, though she was afraid that their sessions were improving his skills more than they were improving hers. David continued to come when he didn't have Quidditch practice. Sonja, after initially expressing disinterest, began to show up when Stuart was busy.
David was not an adept pupil. Alexandra spent all of one afternoon trying to teach him tactics. It was cold and cloudy and they were near the woods, not far from where Stuart and Torvald's snow Hodag was still a mushy, half-melted lump of snow.
"Look," Alexandra said, "you don't face off against someone and think 'I'm going to use a Stunner' or 'I'm going to melt her fingers' – Stunning Charms only work if she can't cast a Blocking Jinx, and going for the fingers only works if you can get the fingers right where she holds the wand while she's casting the jinx –"
"How the heck can you see which fingers someone is using? By the time you notice that, they've already hexed you!" David said.
"Don't you dare melt my fingers!" Sonja said.
Charlie cawed a warning, and all of them relaxed into stances not suggestive of dueling. Torvald walked over to Alexandra and slid an arm around her shoulders. She allowed it, but felt very self-conscious.
William and Innocence came over the little hill the group was using for cover. William wore a fluffy red robe over his coat and thick pants and lace-up boots. Innocence was wearing her bonnet for once, and a wool cloak over a long dress.
"Don't kill me," William said. "She made me come."
"We're practicing Charms and Transfigurations for our midterms," Sonja said. David nodded.
"We're making out," Torvald said. Alexandra jabbed him with an elbow.
Innocence ignored everyone but Alexandra. "I done told you, Alex, don't tell me no lies. You can tell me to broom an' I will, but don't treat me like a li'l child."
"I didn't lie to you," Alexandra said. "William, how did you know we were out here?"
The seventh grader ran a hand through his untidy blond hair. "Well, Innocence and I were talking, and I knew you'd probably do something because Ms. Shirtliffe won't let you participate in the Dueling Club..."
"Never mind. You can't join us."
"Why not?" Innocence folded her arms to match Alexandra's stance. "'Cause we'uns is too young? As if you wasn't out here learnin' duelin' when you was a seventh grader."
"Were you?" Torvald asked.
"My brother was teaching me." Alexandra's tone made Torvald and Innocence fall silent. "Innocence, your sisters would kill me."
"My sisters allows Benjamin an' Mordecai Rash to tell 'em what to do. I don't mean to be reg'lated so. If'n you send me away, say it's 'cause you esteem I'm too silly an' foolish, but don't say it's on account o' my sisters."
Innocence knew just what buttons to push. Alexandra looked at Torvald. He was no help.
"I don't think you're too silly and foolish," Alexandra said. "But think about the position you're putting me in. Constance and Forbearance are my friends."
Innocence stuck her lip out, but she did seem to be thinking about it. "If'n I promise to make Connie an' Forbearance easy, will you let us practice with y'all?"
"What do you mean make them easy?"
Innocence drew the toe of her shoe in a slow circle on the ground. "I'll tell 'em what I'm about."
Alexandra eyed her skeptically. "And you think they'll let you?"
"I'll make 'em easy. They won't be vexed with you none, Alex, I promise."
Innocence held out her wand. "Witch's honor."
Alexandra sighed and tapped her wand. "Fine. David, pair off against William. Sonja, you versus Innocence. Don't look at me like that."
"We're not going to make out tonight, are we?" Torvald whispered in her ear
"If you can beat me once, I'll break curfew tonight."
He almost did. She was tempted to let him win a round, but she didn't.
Alexandra's time was filled with classwork and studying. She and her friends hardly ever played games in the rec room anymore. She was with Anna in the library when she wasn't doing JROC drills in the afternoon or dueling in the evening. She began looking forward to the moments she spent with Torvald as much because it was a break from studying as because she enjoyed being with him.
A blizzard swept across Central Territory in early February; after a month of bitter cold without much snow, Charmbridge Academy's grounds were buried beneath several feet. With students outside playing in the snow and constructing the sort of elaborate sculptures only magic could create, Alexandra's unauthorized dueling club had to venture further from the school to be safely out of sight. They met at the edge of the treeline, and decided to duel in the woods. Alexandra forbade anyone to leave the group's sight.
"What if I have to take a piss?" Torvald asked.
"Hold it until we go back inside," Alexandra said.
"She's just jealous that girls can't go in the woods," Torvald said to David.
"Says who?" Alexandra glared at him. "Don't goof off. I mean it."
Torvald whistled and held up his hands. "Yes, ma'am."
"No one wanders off, and if anyone is acting funny, say something."
Sonja and Innocence both nodded seriously.
Alexandra directed tree branches, pine needles, and snow balls at Torvald. He was becoming better at deflecting her spells, but she had learned all of his techniques, and the style that served him well in games of hexem did him no good against a serious opponent. She let him help William with his hexes after releasing him from the snowy fist she'd animated to grab him. She paired David with Sonja, which was entertaining since both of them were too flustered to do more than toss weak Stunners, Stinging Jinxes, and Disarming Spells at one another.
Sonja's hair was damp and no longer glowing after David flipped her on her head into a snowbank. She said she wanted to rest, so David practiced with Innocence. Alexandra wasn't sure if he looked so uneasy because he didn't like dueling a younger girl, or because he was afraid she'd win.
"He must really like you," Sonja said, "considering how badly you treat him." She was watching Torvald flick his wand to demonstrate to William how to cast a shower of tiny fireballs.
Startled, Alexandra said indignantly, "I don't treat him badly."
"How many shirts has he had to replace after dueling you? And you must have added about a dozen scars to his face."
"I have not scarred his face. We're dueling. We're not supposed to go easy on each other."
"Most boys prefer girls who aren't so rough. I'm just saying."
"I think he likes me the way I am."
Sonja raised an eyebrow.
Alexandra lowered her voice, while keeping an eye on the other kids. "So, have you actually tested your witch's knowledge with Stuart?"
Sonja blinked, and then, realizing what Alexandra was referring to, became much more serious. "Not yet. He's actually a little... reluctant. Those Old Colonials are very conservative, you know." Sonja's eyes were alive with curiosity. "And you?"
Alexandra kept her voice cool. "No."
They turned their attention back to the others. Innocence was pelting David with hexes. He was reluctant to counter-attack but was showing improvement in his ability to cast Blocking Jinxes. William had dropped his wand and was dancing around holding singed fingers while Torvald laughed.
"Can I trust you?" Alexandra asked.
Sonja turned to Alexandra, surprised. "Of course."
"If you tell anyone –"
Sonja put her hands on her hips. "I haven't said anything about that other project."
"This isn't about that." Alexandra licked her lips. "It's about what you said before... witch's knowledge."
Sonja said nothing, just widened her eyes a little. Alexandra said, "So, I've read Astrology for Witches and Traditional Herbology, but I'm not sure..."
A smile crept across Sonja's face. "Stars Above, you really are thinking about it, aren't you?"
Studying the toes of her boots, Alexandra nodded.
Sonja made a small squealing noise. "Oh, wait until Janet and Lydia and Carol hear about this!" All the blood rushed from Alexandra's face, and Sonja laughed. "I'm kidding! I won't even tell Stuart."
"You'd better not!"
"Big fat jerk!" Charlie said. The raven was watching the proceedings from a tree branch high overhead.
"Who, me or Stuart?" Sonja asked the bird.
"Well, well, well," said a voice Alexandra knew too well. It came from the trees, and she drew her wand and pointed it while everyone else was just starting to turn in that direction. David paused at the wrong moment and was hit in the face by a fat bubble from Innocence's wand that splattered him with pink goo.
Larry came sauntering through the trees with his black owl on his shoulder. The owl ignored the squawking raven, and fixed its eyes balefully on Alexandra. Behind Larry came Wade and Ethan.
"Unauthorized dueling," Larry said, halting at the edge of the little dip in the snowy ground where Alexandra and her group had gathered. "Do you underclassmen know how much trouble you could get in for that?"
"Only if we're caught," Alexandra said. Larry gave her an insolent stare, and seemed to take no notice of the wand she was pointing at him. "If you rat on us, I'll confess – to all of my unauthorized dueling activities."
"Rat!" said Charlie.
Larry regarded her a moment. "I believe you would, Troublesome." He took a few steps further into the open area between the trees, and shrugged his cloak away from his shoulders in a smooth movement that exposed his right arm and dislodged his owl from his shoulder. Alexandra envied the finesse of it – it was almost as if he'd been practicing. "Come on, then. Let's do it."
Alexandra frowned. "Do what?"
"Come on, Larry, don't be a blaggard," Torvald said.
"Come on, Larry," Larry mimicked in a high-pitched voice. He drew his wand, very quickly, and flicked a curse in Torvald's direction without looking at him. Torvald fell to the ground with his legs locked together.
"You want to duel me?" Alexandra said.
"No, I want to duel the little girl in the bonnet."
"My name's Innocence," Innocence said angrily.
"Okay." Alexandra advanced slowly into the clearing. "Keep your owl away from my raven." The owl was now sitting high in a tree, overlooking the scene.
"Corwin won't go anywhere."
William and David dragged Torvald out of the way, while Innocence nervously stood next to Sonja. Opposite them stood Wade and Ethan, belligerent but silent.
"Any stakes?" Alexandra asked. She and Larry were now circling one another slowly. "Wagers? I'm sure you have something to prove, sneaking up on us out here."
"What do I have to prove? That you're a dangerous, reckless little brat who thinks rules don't apply to you? That I'm better than you? Everyone already knows that. I just want the pleasure of beating you again. Since you went and got yourself kicked out of the Dueling Club, Friday afternoons haven't been nearly as much fun."
"Nice to know you miss me," Alexandra said, and when he opened his mouth to retort, she said, "Caedarus!"
The green sphere flew directly at his face. He was so shocked that it almost hit him, but he dispelled the green ball by thrusting his wand directly into it. Alexandra had allowed herself to stop and watch the effect of her spell rather than follow it up with another one.
Larry sneered. "A copycat, that's all you are, aping your betters. This is how it's done – Caedarus!"
His green ball of energy was much larger and faster. Alexandra tried to deflect it, realizing from watching Larry that the sphere could be dispelled with a touch. But it required a very precise touch, and she only weakened it before being knocked halfway into the trees.
Trying to learn countering techniques on the fly is stupid, she thought, spitting blood. The impact had cut her lips and undoubtedly left a bruise across her back. Max would have told me that.
"She's hurt! Duel's over," Torvald said.
"Not until she yields or she's unconscious," Larry said, stalking toward her. "You know the rules, Krogstad."
"Back off, Torvald." Alexandra rose shakily to her feet. She was afraid Torvald might intervene, which was strictly against dueling etiquette and would be horribly embarrassing to her. Do all boys think once you kiss them it's their job to protect you?
Larry threw Black Coils at her, which was a nasty, barely-legal hex. Alexandra used a reversal spell that didn't often work, but was fantastic when it did. She got lucky. The dark coils twisted and writhed in the air and almost settled around Larry before he dispelled them, and Alexandra yanked his feet out from under him and dragged him ten feet across the snow, cloak dragging behind him, before he countered that spell and cast a Shield Charm so he could stand up.
They had both moved further into the woods, with all the spectators following at a wary distance.
Behind Larry, Alexandra saw something moving between the trees. It was small and fast, and she almost thought she'd imagined it as it rushed from the shadow of a tree to a dark, icy hollow beneath a fallen log surrounded by bare bushes. Charlie cawed and Corwin hooted. Alexandra couldn't tell whether they were warning their master and mistress, cheering them on, or antagonizing one another.
What had she seen? Just a small animal – but in that fleeting glimpse she had retained the impression of a peculiar kind of movement, a spidery scuttle on stick-like legs –
Flames burst against her shoulder. Her cloak and jacket ignited. She screamed and extinguished the flames. Larry was so surprised that he didn't finish her off while he had the chance. Alexandra put her hand to her shoulder, which was already beginning to hurt. She knew the pain would increase rapidly. A flame jet was only a distraction – a seventh grader could blow it away. It was only dangerous if you were stupid enough to let it burn you.
Larry stood in front of the log with the dark, concave shadow beneath it.
"Stop," Alexandra said. "I yield."
Larry was as astonished as everyone else. He lowered his wand, contempt turning to disappointment. "What happened to you, Quick? You've gotten soft."
"Move," Alexandra said. She walked passed him and tried to shove him aside as Torvald and the others came running toward her. Larry barely moved, but he didn't push back, just stared at her. "Stay back!" she shouted at her friends. Her wand was shaking, and not just because her shoulder was beginning to throb.
"What's your problem?" Larry demanded. He waved a hand at Wade and Ethan, who were also approaching.
"Shut up." Alexandra threw a fireball at the log, followed by three more, blasting and melting the snow all around it and causing the brown branches sticking out of the snow to smolder. The log lay there on frozen ground that was now steaming, with a space beneath it just large enough for a small child to hide. There was nothing there.
While she kept her eyes fixed on the log, she searched all around with her witch-senses. She could feel something – magic that was familiar to her now. They were standing at the edge of the magical wards around Charmbridge Academy, the wards that Ms. Grimm said kept Dark creatures and unauthorized visitors away.
It was almost silent. Charlie and Corwin had both stopped making noise, and the only sound was the crunching of boots in the snow as the other kids approached. That and the wind through the trees, which carried other noises: distant sounds, dripping, things falling in the forest, and – she could have imagined it, or it could have been a memory rather than an actual sound. Something skittering...
"You've actually cracked," Larry said. "All that pretending to be Dark and deranged has affected you for real."
She turned away from the woods, and the wards. Torvald ignored her warning and ran up to her. "Alexandra, what's wrong?"
"We're at the edge of the magical protections around Charmbridge," Alexandra said. "We should go inside now." She winced as she realized that her shoulder was truly beginning to hurt. If you let flames touch you, witches' flesh burned like anyone else's, and Larry's flame jet had been hot enough to burn her badly.
David said, "You could have killed her, you mother–"
Ethan said, "Watch your mouth, M–"
"You call me a Mudblood, I won't duel you, I'll freakin' –"
Simultaneously, Larry said, "Ethan, shut up," and Alexandra said, "David, shut up." David might have become angry, except at that moment Alexandra stumbled and Torvald had to catch her.
"Merlin, Larry, you really did hurt her," Torvald said, seeing her skin through the charred hole in her jacket, and putting a hand to her swollen mouth.
"Basic spell defense. Only an idiot would just stand there in front of a flame jet!" Larry was becoming defensive. "If she wasn't paying attention, it's not my fault!"
"I'll carry you," Torvald said.
"I don't need to be carried," Alexandra said. She was feeling a little faint. She held onto his arm. "I just might need... a little help."
They all walked back to the academy. Charlie sat on her unburned shoulder, then hopped onto Torvald's as Alexandra winced. Sonja berated Larry while David muttered ominously about siccing Malcolm on Larry's owl. There wasn't much conversation, and Alexandra was using all her willpower not to shout at them.
In the infirmary, they had to wait for a senior who was apprenticing as a Healer to find Mrs. Murphy, and only when the nurse appeared did Larry and his friends leave, without saying a word.
Alexandra's friends waited outside while Mrs. Murphy inspected her. "These burns are serious. They'll take a few days to heal even with magic." She cupped Alexandra's chin in her large, warm hand. "I can reset your teeth and mostly prevent bruising. Miss Quick, I know dueling injuries when I see them, though I must say, you've been particularly careless. How did you get burned like that? Was there some foul play involved?"
"No, ma'am," Alexandra said. "We were just practicing a few basic Charms, and –"
"Spare me. I'll have to report this to the Dean. Don't look at me like that – any injury severe enough that you'd be scarred without magical Healing is too serious for me not to report it. I won't tell her tonight, though, so you have until tomorrow at least to work on a better story."
Alexandra was relieved that Mrs. Murphy didn't insist on making her spend the night in the infirmary. She walked out feeling much better, slathered with Burn and Bruise Ointment. A dose of Pain-Away felt like it was burning her from the inside out as it spread through her body and lightened her step.
William, Innocence, David, Sonja, and Torvald were waiting for her. They walked with her as far as the stairs to Delta Delta Kappa Tau Hall.
"Listen," Alexandra said, "I want everyone to promise me something. Don't go past the wards around the school."
"What wards?" William asked.
"Just stay within school boundaries. I mean it. I think there's something dangerous out there."
Everyone stared at her, then nodded as she fixed them with her most serious expression. It wasn't very serious as the Pain-Away was making her a little cross-eyed.
Innocence and William left together. David looked between Alexandra and Torvald and said, "See you tomorrow, then," and slunk off to the ninth grade boys' dorms. Sonja winked at them both and went upstairs.
"You were okay," Alexandra said. "You didn't embarrass me too much."
"Oh, well, thank you." Torvald eyed the pinkish skin of her shoulder visible through her burned clothing. "So, nothing too burned and bruised under there?"
"Why, do you want to see?"
He cocked his head sideways. She reached up to take his face in her hands, and kissed him, a full open-mouthed kiss despite the fact that they were standing right in front of a stairwell and likely to be interrupted at any moment. His hands squeezed her waist as if he were afraid to let go. He was as breathless as she was when they parted.
"There has to be some place here in school that's nice and private," she murmured.
"Now?" Torvald coughed. "I think you should sleep off that potion. I can taste it."
"You weren't complaining while your tongue was in my mouth." Alexandra swayed a bit. "I mean after my skin heals."
Torvald raised an eyebrow. "Some place nice and private...?"
She gave him another kiss – this one only on his lips, and not as long – and told him good-night.
Sonja, of course, was waiting upstairs, all eagerness and concern. Alexandra made her promise again that she and Stuart would definitely not be going into the woods, and told her she would ask her about Herbology and Astrology the next day.
Even by the next morning, Anna did not quite believe that Larry hadn't attempted to kill Alexandra. Alexandra found it frustrating that her roommate was more worried about Larry than the thing in the woods.
During her third period Charms class, a note arrived summoning her to the Dean's office. Miss Marmsley told her brusquely to wait "in her usual spot." Alexandra had just sat down on the bench outside the Dean's office when the door opened and Larry emerged, looking sullen. He and Alexandra exchanged looks, but neither of them said anything.
"Come in, Miss Quick," said the Dean.
Alexandra entered the Dean's office. She looked around for Galen.
"Galen is outside at the moment," Ms. Grimm said. "She likes to get some fresh air now and then."
Alexandra was seized with a sudden fear. "Don't let her outside! There's something in the woods."
"There are many things in the woods, Miss Quick. I assure you, Galen is perfectly safe. She never wanders far from the school."
Alexandra wanted to argue, but Ms. Grimm cut her off. "Speaking of the woods, what were you and your friends doing there?"
"We didn't cross the school boundaries."
"And you weren't dueling Mr. Albo?"
Alexandra paused. "Is that what he said we were doing?"
Ms. Grimm smiled in a way that expressed no humor. "I'm asking you, Miss Quick."
"We weren't dueling." She paused, as Ms. Grimm's eyes turned hard and cold. "Ma'am."
"How did you get beaten and burned?"
"An accident. Just kids goofing off with Charms – you know. Ma'am."
"I know that Mr. Albo and his friends and yours have all given me the same story. I rarely see such... solidarity." Ms. Grimm made a note on a slip of parchment on her desk. "I'm giving you a week's detention."
Alexandra's mouth dropped open. "For what?"
"Because we both know what you were doing out there, so don't push your luck by arguing with me." Ms. Grimm slapped her hand on her desk. "Stay out of the woods and cease your unauthorized activities, immediately. Your friends' loyalty is the only thing that's kept me from having to suspend you, or have you forgotten that you're on probation?"
"Larry Albo isn't my friend."
"Evidently not. Mrs. Murphy told me your shoulder would have been permanently scarred had you not sought immediate Healing. Yet you say you were 'goofing off' and Mr. Albo says they were kindly instructing underclassmen in the finer points of Fireproofing Charms, and how very bad he felt for not realizing what a slow learner you are."
The heat that rose to Alexandra's face also warmed her shoulder and made it tingle uncomfortably. "There is something in the woods, ma'am. I think it's something that I fought in Dinétah. I think it's being kept back by the anti-Dark wards, but it's really dangerous and hard to kill. I dropped a burning building on it –"
"Are you suggesting that a Dark creature has followed you here all the way from the Indian Territories?"
"Why don't you try believing me just once, Aunt Grimm?"
The Dean gave her a long look. "Do not presume to invoke our relationship like that."
Alexandra fumed, clenching her fists.
"I'll have Miss Gambola and Ms. Shirtliffe check the woods," the Dean said. "And I'll mention your suspicions to Diana. Now you try heeding my advice just once, Alexandra. No more unauthorized dueling, and stay inside the wards, which should keep you safe if there is in fact something out there."
Alexandra glared at her.
Ms. Grimm placed her hand on the parchment on her desk. "I want your word, Alexandra. Or else I will have no choice but to suspend you."
Alexandra wondered what her aunt would do if she and Torvald were caught engaging in more questionable activities than unauthorized dueling. "I promise, ma'am."
Alexandra spent the next week doing detention in the kitchen. This was generally the most hated detention duty, because it meant taking orders from elves, who delighted in giving naughty children the most skin-peeling, knuckle-scraping, finger-wearing, sweaty and backbreaking chores available. Mr. Remy, the elf in charge of the other kitchen elves, did not let Alexandra sit idle or get away with doing only light work, but he was less abusive than he had been the first time she'd been sent to the kitchens. Alexandra tried to improvise scrubbing and levitating charms to mimic the ones the elves used to do their work so easily. She wasn't nearly as good at it as they were, but the elves were amused by her efforts.
The Sweetheart's Dance was the following weekend. The giddiness that infected students around Valentine's Day, which Alexandra had always found so annoying, now at least distracted her from her disappointment over having to end her illicit dueling practice.
She told Anna, David, and the Pritchards about what she thought she had seen in the woods. None of them were able to find a description in any book matching the monster-child Alexandra had encountered in John Manuelito's hogan, nor any clues to the magic that might have created it. Not that they expected the Charmbridge library to divulge any secrets about Indian Dark Arts. Alexandra considered writing a letter to Henry Tsotsie, but remembering how skeptical he had been when she'd told him last time, and how harshly he had scolded her, she didn't think he'd even bother reading a letter from a meddlesome belagana witch.
The night of the Sweetheart's Dance, Alexandra and Anna took turns in front of Alexandra's magic mirror while Sonja occupied the bathroom.
"I can't believe I'm doing this," Anna said. "It's only as a favor to David." Rather than the elegant style she had put her hair up in for the Winter Ball, she was keeping it long and straight, falling over one shoulder, but she had woven dark thread adorned with bits of jade and amber through it so it sparkled from every angle. She had cast a Makeup Charm which turned her face deathly white and made her lips that much redder and her eyes that much darker by comparison. She assured Alexandra this was how fashionable Chinese witches appeared beguiling. Alexandra thought it made her friend look a little like a vampire, but she didn't say so. In Alexandra's magic mirror, Anna's reflection tucked her chin into the hollow of her shoulder, batted her lashes, and radiated elegance and beauty, like a painted porcelain princess, but the real Anna was not nearly so accomplished in charming gestures and poses.
"You and David will look cute together," Alexandra said.
"Why don't you date him?" Anna said. "What the heck do you see in Torvald anyway?"
"I don't know." Alexandra took Anna's place in front of the mirror.
Alexandra wore sparkling earrings, and more makeup than she'd worn even to the Cotillion. The roots of her hair were growing out, but as the cursed white strands resisted a Coloring Charm, she instead Charmed her roots white. She had experimented with the albedo of her hair until it was shiny without being blinding. She wished Julia was here. The mirror was a great help, but Alexandra was quicker at learning hexes and counter-curses than she was at learning fashion and grooming tips.
Her reflection smiled a knowing, sultry smile. Alexandra's robes covered her shoulders and her neck. She would have liked to have worn something less conservative, but her right shoulder was still a little tender and when viewed under the light, the skin where she'd been burned was pinker than the skin around it, and she couldn't quite hide the scar the monstrous mummy's beak had left on her neck with Makeup Charms. But the robes were in a modern style that clung to her body rather than hanging loosely about her like traditional witches' robes. They were hardly risque, and they were well within the rules of decorum at Charmbridge Academy, but by Old Colonial standards her outfit was rather bold, even with all her skin covered up.
Sonja knocked at the door and entered. Her hair was a glorious fiery red tumbling around her neck and shoulders like flames spilling out of a lantern, and her lips flickered as if reflecting firelight from within. She wore a robe that was in the same modern style as Alexandra's, but her curves were much bolder. She smiled at Alexandra. "Not bad, not bad at all. I don't think Torvald will be disappointed."
"I don't think Stuart will be either." Alexandra wondered if Sonja had cast a Glamour to make her breasts look bigger or if it was just her imagination. Probably the latter – minor Glamour charms for cosmetic purposes were allowed for formal occasions, but what the Charmbridge Code of Student Conduct called 'illusory body alterations' were strictly forbidden. While the line between 'cosmetic purposes' and 'body alterations' might be arbitrary, everyone knew that 'pumpkin boobs' (said to vanish at midnight) were an automatic detention.
"I hope not." Sonja smiled wickedly, or at least her reflection in the mirror looked wicked and twice as sultry as Alexandra's. She turned to Anna, and her smile took on a brighter edge. "You look... pale. And adorable. Very adorable."
"Thank you," Anna said.
"Carol, come on," Sonja said, beckoning impatiently behind her. Her roommate stepped timidly into Alexandra and Anna's room, blinking without the benefit of her glasses. She looked like a mouse wrapped in colorful gauze.
"If Dylan tries to lay a hand on you, tell me or Alex," Anna said.
"I'm sure Carol and I can handle Dylan just fine," Sonja said.
"You'd better, since you set her up with him," Anna said. "Carol, Sonja told you that Dylan has wandering hands, right?"
"She didn't need to," Carol mumbled. "You told me, many times."
Everyone went downstairs to find their dates. David and Dylan were both wearing single-layered robes that barely hid the Muggle clothing underneath. Torvald was dressed in a more casual style than he had been for the Winter Ball, but his dark cloak was neatly pressed and his shirt was starched and perfectly white. He drew a breath when he saw Alexandra, and whistled. "Well. You clean up nice, Troublesome."
"She almost looks hot," Dylan agreed, ignoring Sonja's incendiary look. Carol seemed unbothered.
"Jerk," Alexandra said, grabbing Torvald's arm.
"Him or me?" Torvald asked. Alexandra didn't answer.
Stuart was late. He finally came striding down the corridor in a long, flowing cloak over a formal vest, stiff, long-sleeved shirt, and sharp-creased dark pants, looking a bit distracted. He smiled at Sonja and kissed her on the cheek, without offering an apology, and everyone hurried off to the auditorium.
A wrock band from Dixie called Webster and the Jury played for the dance. Their music was energetic and loud and their instruments sent fiery sprites spinning through the air and conjured flaming little homunculi that danced across the floor. They dressed in a wizard's conception of what Muggle rock and roll bands wore. Some of their lyrics bordered on profane. The faculty chaperones were uneasy, and a couple of the Assistant Deans were positively scandalized. The students loved them.
The night passed in a pleasant jumble of loud music and colorful charms and dancing. The Rashes were there with Constance and Forbearance, mostly standing uncomfortably off the dance floor and scowling at Innocence, who gleefully kicked up her heels and danced with William, swishing her skirt back and forth and ignoring the strands of yellow hair that came loose as she danced. Constance was obviously itching to drag Innocence away, but she argued with Benjamin when he seemed about to do that.
Alexandra and Anna traded partners for one slow dance, and David danced once with a blushing Innocence before the sixth and seventh graders had to return to their rooms at ten p.m. Alexandra and Torvald pressed together as closely as the watching chaperones would allow. The adults used Repulsion Charms on couples violating what Alexandra considered their stupid, arbitrary rules about physical proximity, which did little except to encourage everyone to be more cunning and watchful of the adults.
Someone bumped into Alexandra while she and Torvald were trying to steal a kiss. Annoyed, she turned to see Larry looking just as irritated. His date was Galea Lewis, a pretty eleventh grade girl with her copper hair charmed to flicker and glow as if sparks were running through it, around and around like captured electricity.
"Merlin, I thought you had better taste," Larry said, giving Alexandra and Torvald a disgusted look before turning away. His girlfriend laughed and pressed her lips to his.
The room was steamy because of all the dancing inside an enclosed space on a winter night, and Alexandra and Torvald were both sweating a little when the last dance ended. She was flushed, and annoyed that Mr. Calvin and Mrs. Price and half a dozen other Assistant Deans and teachers were watching every student carefully as they flowed out of the auditorium, warning them that the hall monitors would be accounting for every student on each floor. She didn't feel like going back to her room.
Torvald took her by the hand. Surprised, she followed him as he took a left turn instead of a right when leaving the main hallway, and they darted down a corridor that ran behind the kitchen in the opposite direction of their dorms. It was mostly a hall of locked doors, but behind a large marble bust of some warlock that had been consigned to the disused end of the hallway, they were shielded from the view of the main corridor. The locked door behind them was solid and had traces of dust along its edges – one of the many doors in Charmbridge Academy that weren't opened frequently. Torvald pressed Alexandra against it, and when she didn't push him away, but merely turned her face up to breathe heavily on his neck, he pressed his mouth against hers.
At the dance, touching was forbidden except for hand-holding or arms around waists and shoulders. The chaperones would occasionally let a kiss on the cheek or even a peck on the lips slip by. Neither of them were so restrained now – their hands were on each other, like their kissing hungry and without much finesse.
Alexandra pulled Torvald's hands away first. "This isn't a good place. An elf or a teacher is going to check the side corridors. Stop it." She slapped his hand when he persisted.
"Where?" he asked.
"Not tonight," she said, with no small amount of regret. "They'll probably actually do a bed check or something. Stupid – like being extra-vigilant right after a dance means no one will sneak out the rest of the year."
"That's adults for you," Torvald said. He sounded even more frustrated than her, but he didn't disagree. "Are you – are we actually talking about – you know?"
"WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?" The slow, ponderous voice made them both jump and quickly step away from one another, straightening their robes and smoothing their hair back. But there was no one else in the corridor.
"Who said that?" Alexandra asked.
"YOUR BEHAVIOR IS VERY INAPPROPRIATE," said the voice again, pronouncing the words very slowly, so the last word came out like a series of pops: 'In-ap-pro-pri-ate.'
"Oh crud," Torvald said. It was the marble bust. They couldn't see its eyes in the shadows, but they could make out its stone lips moving.
"What are you, a voyeur, you stone-headed creep?" Alexandra said.
"CERTAINLY NOT," the bust said, with slow, grinding indignation. "I CAN-NOT SEE YOU."
"Really?" Alexandra elbowed Torvald and gestured for him to crouch low. Giving her a puzzled look, he did. She pushed him ahead of her, toward the light of the main corridor.
"TELL ME YOUR NAMES," said the stone bust.
"Galea Lewis and Larry Albo," Alexandra said. "Please don't report us, blockhead!"
"I MUST," the blocky head said gravely. Alexandra and Torvald both stumbled out into the main corridor, snickering, and looked around. Students, mostly juniors and seniors, were still wandering about, taking their time getting back to their rooms since they had no curfew. Larry was standing with his date near the main doors, which had been left open for the band to haul its instruments out with the help of Clockworks. He eyed Alexandra and Torvald and their state of dishevelment and leered.
"That was wicked," Torvald said.
"We'd better go back to our rooms," Alexandra said. And added, "No" when he leaned in to kiss her.
"So, what we were talking about..."
She was still a little breathless, still hot and flushed. "Tomorrow night," she whispered. Tomorrow was Sunday. "Where we met for dueling practice."
She returned to her room. Anna had already undressed and returned her face to its normal healthy color. She gave Alexandra a wordless appraisal.
"We were saying good-night," Alexandra said.
"Uh huh," Anna said.
"Did you have a good time?" Alexandra asked.
"Not as good as you."
Alexandra took off her earrings and began undoing her own Makeup Charms. "I think I'm going to do it," she said quietly.
Anna was very still. "With Torvald?"
"Why not with Torvald?"
"Do you love him?"
Alexandra set down her wand. The question struck her as faintly ridiculous. "It's not like I'm going to marry him."
"I didn't think you even liked him that much."
Alexandra turned to her friend. "I just..."
"I don't see the point in waiting," Alexandra said.
Anna took a deep breath, and when she spoke again, she sounded almost angry. "That sounds like a reason to do whatever you want for the next seven years."
"No, Anna, that's not it." Alexandra's mouth drew up in annoyance. "But I don't see why I shouldn't do whatever I want if it's not going to hurt anyone."
Anna looked away and folded her arms. Alexandra was a little surprised at Anna's attitude – sex wasn't something they had talked much about, mostly because until now, neither of them had been much interested in it.
"I don't need your approval," Alexandra said, "but I wish you wouldn't act like I'm doing something wrong. Like, say, sneaking into the Registrar's Office, or attending Mors Mortis Society meetings."
Anna's shoulders slumped, and she looked down. "I'm sorry. You're right, you don't need my approval."
"I think we should maybe not mention this to anyone else," Alexandra said. "I love Constance and Forbearance, but..."
Anna nodded in agreement.
"And David might get weird. Not that I think he has a thing for me, but he's kind of weird about everything." Alexandra got out of her robe, and frowned as she heard sniffling sounds from the bathroom and realized it was occupied and she couldn't use it.
"I wouldn't mention it to Sonja either," Anna said. "Besides the obvious reason, I don't think she wants to hear about anyone else's love life right now."
"What happened?" Alexandra asked.
"I'm not sure. But I think she and Stuart broke up."