The Parliament of Stars
Sonja was quiet but composed the next morning. She didn't want to talk about the previous night, which told Alexandra that whatever had happened must have been rather serious. At the tenth graders' table, Stuart sat with some of his friends, back erect and stiff, not so much as glancing at the freshmen. Oddly, Torvald was sitting at the other end of the table from Stuart. He smiled when Alexandra looked his way, but he didn't come over to sit down next to her, and there was something uneasy about his expression.
The 'Alexandra Committee' met that afternoon. Forbearance insisted on making sure everyone was well-rehearsed in the ritual they were going to attempt the following weekend. Sonja was like a bubbling brook that had been dammed. Even her hair no longer glowed. Everyone tried to pretend they didn't notice, and Sonja for her part was as serious and businesslike as she had ever been. Even Innocence, who had been talking continuously about the dance – mostly to vex her sisters – became subdued.
Alexandra was burning with curiosity, and torn being feeling like she should be concerned for Sonja's sake and not wanting to be a hypocrite. After they left the library, she and Anna walked alongside the red-haired girl, and Alexandra said, "It's none of our business. But if you want me to put a curse on Stuart, just let me know. I totally will."
"She will," Anna said, "but please don't let her."
Sonja smiled at Alexandra. "It's fine. You're very sweet to offer, but I'd rather not talk about it. I made a fool of myself, that's all. I don't think Stuart will say anything to anyone. Please don't mention it again." And with her face darkening, she left a mystified Alexandra and Anna standing in the hallway as she hurried away.
"There's more to it than that," Alexandra said, thinking of how Torvald and Stuart had been sitting apart that morning. She hoped whatever drama had embroiled them wasn't going to affect her plans.
She spent the day studying, and writing missives to send by owl post.
The first was her enrollment as a Friend of HAGGIS, along with the substantial membership fee. They offered a discount for signing in blood or enclosing a strand of hair. Alexandra wondered if anyone was foolish enough to do that; she wrote a check for the full amount, drawn on her CBNW account. Along with her enrollment, she wrote a letter inquiring about the possibility of a spokeshag visiting Charmbridge Academy to speak about hags' rights.
If Dean Grimm forbids it, she thought, they can't blame me for not completing my Citizenship Project.
She wrote a very long letter to Julia explaining everything that had happened since her last letter, and then laid out her reasons why she thought it would be best if she didn't go back to Larkin Mills, and instead stayed with the Kings when she wasn't in school. She pleaded with Julia to intercede for her with Ms. King, and also asked if it would be possible for her to come to Croatoa over spring break if she paid for the trip herself.
Her next letter was a briefer one to Livia, asking if she had done anything about the Regal Royalty Sweets and Confections Warehouse yet.
Finally, with mutters and frowns and much erasing, she wrote a very brief note to her oldest sister:
I am fine.
I'm glad you and Livia are talking.
I would like to go to Croatoa over spring break. I don't need money, and I didn't ask the Kings for any. Please send me a note giving me permission. Thank you. Alex."
She had calculated how much a two-way Portkey trip would cost, and it was most of what was in the CBNW account her father had given her.
Her final letter was to the Colonial Bank of the New World. She requested that all the funds in her account, less her HAGGIS membership fee and what she expected to pay for the Portkey tickets, be converted to dollars and sent to Ron Pete of Orange Rock, New Mexico, c/o Henry Tsotsie of the Dinétah Auror Authority.
She still didn't know exactly how much a car engine cost, but by her calculations, after subtracting conversion and transaction fees, she was probably still going to owe Ron Pete quite a sum.
She sent the owls that afternoon, and encountered Torvald after coming down the stairs from the aviary. He was without Stuart and looked somewhat glum, but he brightened when he saw her. The two of them looked around for any snooping students or wandering faculty, then exchanged a kiss in the middle of the hallway before pulling apart.
"You haven't changed your mind, have you?" he asked.
"No, have you?" Alexandra replied.
He grinned. "Not a chance."
"Okay then. See you tonight." Both of them walked away with a great show of casualness, while Alexandra's heart pounded.
That evening after dinner, she put several thick blankets in her backpack. She wore her weatherproof boots, outdoor robes, and cloak. She acted as if she were just going for a hike or one of her unauthorized dueling meetings, but her face was hot and her mouth was dry and second thoughts kept bouncing around in her head. Maybe Anna had a point. She didn't think she loved Torvald. And she didn't have to have sex now. Even if it was safe inside the boundaries of Charmbridge's wards, it wasn't exactly the best time to be sneaking out with a lover. She told herself all this, but said none of it to Anna, who watched her silently.
When Alexandra let Charlie out the window with instructions to wait for her, Anna finally spoke. "So if you don't show up for breakfast, should we go looking for you?"
"We won't be out all night." Alexandra gave her friend a hug. "I know you don't approve."
"Well, I do think this is dumb. But if you really want to, you're going to do what you want to do." Anna bit her lip. "I just don't understand – why Torvald?"
"He's... interesting." Alexandra didn't have a better answer. Anna shook her head.
"I'll tell you all about it." Alexandra tucked her pack under her arm and went to the door.
"I don't think I need to hear all about it," Anna said as Alexandra left.
It had been over a month since Alexandra returned to Charmbridge Academy. The moon was not full, but it was bright in the sky, and the snow sparkled beneath it. Alexandra didn't like the moon's brightness. It would be easy for anyone looking out a window to see her. She wished for something like an Invisibility Cloak, or better yet, that she could simply Apparate across Charmbridge's grounds as the older kids did.
She wasn't entirely satisfied with finding a cozy spot at the very edge of Charmbridge's wards. There were snowbanks enough to hide in, and with Burrowing and Warming Charms, they could make quite a cozy niche for themselves, perfectly warm and invisible from more than a few feet away. She'd had plenty of chances to test such spells, and nothing about the outdoors intimidated her – except perhaps something lurking in the woods, waiting for her. But she refused to think about that tonight. It was no more substantial than the Hodag.
Charlie settled on her shoulder, and Alexandra said, "You'd better watch out for me tonight of all nights, Charlie. If we get caught, it will be really bad."
"Troublesome," Charlie said.
"Big trouble." Alexandra pet the bird. Charlie, at least, did not have Anna's judgmental attitude.
Alexandra's misgivings increased when she saw Torvald crouching at the place she'd told him to wait for her, but so did her excitement. The prospect of losing her virginity did not bother her, only the possibility that she might not enjoy it, that Torvald wouldn't enjoy it, that Torvald would turn out to be a jerk about it, that they would get caught – Anna was right, this was dumb, there were so many logical reasons not to do this, and no reason at all to persist in this plan just because she'd gotten it into her head that she wanted to have sex.
Torvald rose to his feet, and let out a long puff of breath that frosted in the air before him. Then he wrapped his arms around her and they kissed, a long lingering kiss that made Alexandra lose most of her misgivings. She wasn't in love with him and no, he wasn't very handsome, but he was still a boy, he felt like a boy, he smelled like a boy –
Charlie settled atop a pile of snow and for once observed silently.
"Are you ready?" Torvald asked.
He grinned, a little nervously. "We're a little close to the school, aren't we?" From where they stood, they could see the lights across the field.
Alexandra nodded. "I wish we could go to the Glade, but I think that little trail that runs outside the riding path along the western edge has a lot of thick earth underneath the snow, and we can make a little... snow fort there."
"I wonder what the Glade is really like," Torvald said. He took her hand. They didn't often walk hand-in-hand, even when no one else was around, but she let him hold her hand as they strolled through the snow and Charlie flapped from bush to fencepost to snowdrift ahead of them. "I doubt even seniors are actually allowed to go there to... you know."
"If we're going to do 'you know,' maybe you should be able to say it," Alexandra said.
Torvald snickered. "I really don't think there's any girl like you at all."
"You mean a girl who wants to have sex with you? I believe that."
"Hey. What makes you think you're my first?"
That gave her pause. She had actually assumed this was the first time for both of them. Then she wondered if Torvald was assuming this wasn't her first time.
He cleared his throat. "Not that I'm saying I've been with a lot of girls..."
She snorted. He was so transparent. He hadn't done this before any more than she had. Boys. Teasingly, she said, "I always figured Stuart was the playboy."
Torvald pulled his hand away from her. "I don't want to talk about Stuart."
Alexandra was perplexed. "Sorry. I thought he had a fight with Sonja, not with you."
They walked in uncomfortable silence, then Torvald said, "Sonja didn't tell you?"
Alexandra shook her head.
"Well, at least I'm not the very last to know." Torvald snorted. "I was only his best friend for five years."
Alexandra frowned, but stayed silent as they kept walking.
"I can't believe I never had any idea," Torvald said, sounding disgusted now.
"Okay," Alexandra said, "do you want to talk about it or not? 'Cause if you're going to keep talking about it, then tell me what you're talking about. What's the deal with Stuart and Sonja?"
Torvald sighed. "The 'deal' is that poor Sonja wanted to... do it... with him. He must have gotten tired of lying. So he told her. Then he figured she'd tell everyone, so he told me. I guess Sonja hasn't said anything? Well, I'm certainly not going to talk about it."
"Talk about what?" Alexandra asked slowly.
"Stuart is... you know." He made a derogatory gesture with his hand. "A bent wand."
"A... bent wand?"
"You know. A pervert. Queer. He likes boys!" Torvald spoke with growing emphasis, as Alexandra kept staring at him as if she didn't understand what he was saying. "He admitted it! All these years, we've been friends and we've even undressed in front of each other, and I had no idea he was looking at me like that." Torvald grimaced. "Sorry. You see why I didn't want to talk about it? Talking about my sick freak of a roommate doesn't exactly put me in the moo–"
Alexandra's fist swung around and caught him under the chin. Torvald grunted and sprawled backward in the snow. He rubbed his chin and gazed up at her in shock, but she was already stomping across the snow, back the way they'd come.
"Alexandra!" Torvald called. His voice was unsteady, full of confusion and hurt.
She ignored him and kept walking, her mind a storm of angry, painful thoughts. She rubbed her eyes and sucked in cold lungfuls of air, welcoming the harsh chill. Charlie refused to leave her, and remained on her shoulder rather than flying to wait outside her window before she went inside. Alexandra ignored everyone who stared at her as she left a trail of melting snow all the way back to her room with the raven on her shoulder.
Anna was surprised when Alexandra returned barely half an hour after she'd left. She sat up and muttered a word that lit the lamp by her bed. "Are you okay?" she asked.
"I'm fine." Alexandra threw her pack on the floor. Charlie fluttered to a bed post. Even Nigel stirred in his terrarium, as if Alexandra's agitation had somehow transmitted itself to the snake.
Anna got out of bed, alarmed. "You don't look okay."
"Torvald's an asshole!"
Anna became more alarmed. "What did he do?"
Alexandra shook her head. "He didn't do anything. We didn't do anything."
"Big fat jerk," Charlie said.
Alexandra sat down and told Anna about the argument – or rather, what Torvald had said, and her reaction – and realized that Anna was as confused as before.
"I never told you about Max," Alexandra said quietly.
"Max? I don't understand."
"Max... was queer." Alexandra met Anna's eyes. "Martin told me, after Max died."
Anna's eyes widened. "You mean, the two of them...?"
"Yes." Alexandra was tense, wondering if Anna would recoil or make a face. She didn't really know what Chinese wizards thought of gay people, but Anna's father was very traditional and very conservative.
Anna just wrinkled her brow. "Torvald couldn't have known."
"No, but he's still an asshole."
"I guess that means you're not going to sleep with him, then."
Alexandra just stared at Anna's flat expression for a moment, then laughed. Anna's lips curled upward slightly, as Alexandra gave her a hug.
"Am I the biggest idiot ever, or what?" Alexandra looked at Charlie. "Don't you dare memorize that!"
"Bird-brain," Charlie said.
Alexandra lay in bed for a long time that night. It bothered her how easily all the anger had come boiling up again. She had thought Maximilian's memory could no longer hurt her. Of course she still missed him, and she still grieved for him, but Torvald's unthinking callowness – which, honestly, she knew was probably how just about everyone in school thought – had made the pain fresh.
The incident made her a little more clear-headed in other ways. Whatever mixture of lust and attraction had been blinding her for the past few weeks seemed like a fog that was now lifting, making her feel silly and foolish. She buried her face in her pillow. Shame, embarrassment, grief, and anger all tormented her that night and kept her from getting much sleep.
Torvald watched her as she entered the cafeteria with Anna the next morning, but he did not venture over to her from his table. She hoped that pointedly refusing to look in his direction would keep him away.
Constance and Forbearance joined Alexandra and Anna. Alexandra didn't ask how they'd obtained 'permission' from Benjamin and Mordecai. The Rashes sat at the juniors' table with the other Old Colonials as if there was nothing unusual about the Pritchards not joining them.
Forbearance wanted Alexandra and Sonja to come to their room that night "...to practice the Namin' o' the Stars."
Alexandra lowered her voice. "Naming of the Stars?"
"Conjurin' with Names is a rig'rous work," Forbearance whispered. "Even with the Names the Grannies gave us."
"Forbearance and I are working on a new astrological chart," Sonja said, "but we have to make sure everything is aligned right, and I don't know the Naming stuff myself –"
"We can't bobble it," Forbearance said.
"Okay. Fine." Alexandra was happy to have a distraction from the events of the previous night.
When she left the cafeteria with Anna, Torvald followed them, and called Alexandra's name when they got outside.
She and Anna turned around and presented him with matching expressions of cold hostility.
Torvald said, "Come on, can we talk? If you want your friend to listen, she can."
"My friend has a name," Alexandra said. "And she doesn't need your permission."
Torvald stood there, helpless and at a loss for words. Alexandra's expression softened in spite of herself.
"I'll meet you in class," Anna murmured.
"You don't have to go," Alexandra said.
"I know." Anna gave her a small smile, and walked past Torvald.
Alexandra tossed her head. "Okay. We've got five minutes until the first period bell."
Torvald reached for her arm, stopped when she drew back and gave him a warning look, then walked slightly ahead of her. She followed him, turning left down the same corridor they had taken away from the main hallway the night of the dance. It was still empty, but this time Alexandra could see the large stone head more clearly. According to the plaque on the pedestal, it was a bust of Franklin Percival Brown, once Charmbridge Academy's Deputy Assistant Plumber. Normally Alexandra would have been amused and curious, but she just pointed her wand at the big, round head and said, "Fleer." A fat pink bubble emerged from the tip of her wand and flew into the sculpture's face, bursting and covering its eyes with sticky goo.
The marble lips moved. "RE-MOVE THIS IM-MEDI-ATE-LY."
She filled the statue's ears with sticky pink stuff as well, then turned back to Torvald.
"I didn't know you could do that with that spell," Torvald said, while Franklin Brown continued complaining, in a low, grating voice that didn't carry far.
"Four minutes," Alexandra said coolly.
Torvald took a breath. "Okay. I've been thinking about what happened, and I think I figured it out." Alexandra's expression didn't change and she said nothing, so he went on. "You have a friend who's – you know – queer, don't you? Or maybe even someone in your family."
"Figured that out, did you, genius?"
"All right." Torvald held up his hands. "I'm sorry about what I said. I mean, I didn't think maybe you might actually know someone... like that."
"A sick pervert, you mean?"
Torvald winced. "Alexandra, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to insult your friend, or relative, or whoever it is."
Alexandra raised her voice. "If someone said they can't stand Mudbloods, except my friends, would you expect me to say, 'Oh, that's okay then'?"
The marble bust wobbled back and forth slightly and rumbled, "WHO IS U-SING PRO-FANE LANG-UAGE?"
Torvald ignored the talking head. "Of course not. You know I'd never say anything like that! That's totally different." When Alexandra's expression only became darker and angrier, he said pleadingly, in the tone of someone seeking one last chance for reprieve, "He's my roommate, Alexandra! I mean, if people find out, they're going to think that the two of us..."
Alexandra stared at him in disgust, then shook her head. "I'll tell you what. You can tell everyone you slept with me. I won't even deny it. Then no one will think you're queer."
Torvald's shoulders slumped. "That's not what I want."
"Well, I guess you can't have what you want."
The bell for first period rang. Alexandra said, "I don't want to be late for class."
She walked past the indignant, trembling marble head of Franklin Percival Brown, leaving the gum for a Clockwork to clean up. She felt sad, but not as sad as she thought she would.
Alexandra still couldn't follow the star charts with which Forbearance and Sonja busied themselves that night. There were too many complicated astrological symbols, obscure little cantrips they used to generate rays and pinpoints of light on their scrolls, and measurements they had to take with little tools Alexandra didn't recognize.
But she paid close attention to the lines Constance and Forbearance recited, invoking the Names of the heavenly Powers, and in turn Naming Alexandra. The words of the ritual were not one- or two-word incantations, but lengthy verses, like the one Forbearance had used during their first attempt to draw down the stars. They were only practicing, and they'd carefully laid their wands aside, but Alexandra felt there was magic in their words nonetheless, especially when they spoke the Names of the Powers – and particularly when they spoke her Name. Never before had "Troublesome" been anything more than an aggravating nickname. But Constance said:
"Name yon sky and name yon Powers,
And Troublesome name yon Stars Above."
And Alexandra felt something like a reverberation in her heartbeat, like an echo in her breath.
"Did you just Name me?" she asked.
"No." Constance and Forbearance shook their heads together.
"Not done true, not yet," Constance said.
"But I reckon you felt a jolt, din't you?" Forbearance said.
Alexandra nodded. "You can do things to someone with their Name."
The twins exchanged one of those looks of unspoken discussion or whatever passed for argument between them.
"Speakin' a Name in an ill manner is Dark Arts," Constance said.
"But anyone who knows my Name could do it," Alexandra said.
"Well... if'n they was minded to try," Constance said.
"But Alex," said Forbearance, "it hain't a one-way road. Anyone who wishes a curse by your Name, you can serve back."
Alexandra didn't find this very reassuring. She plied the Pritchards with more questions. They answered as best they could, but the Grannies had only given them the basics of what they needed to know, and nothing about cursing or other Dark Arts.
"Obviously this is something else I need to learn about," Alexandra said, feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the magic she had resolved to study outside of what she was learning in class.
Sonja, who had been listening without comment, said, "Honestly, if someone's out to get you, there are more direct ways to do it, aren't there?"
Alexandra considered saying, "Someone is out to get me," but kept her mouth shut.
By the following weekend, she had made a list of every book about magical Names in the Charmbridge library, though she didn't have time to do more than browse through a couple. Naming was considered a complicated, arcane branch of magic with few practical uses in the modern era.
Of course, most books in the library said Powers didn't exist, and if they did, you certainly couldn't conjure with them.
On a cold, windy Saturday evening, seven students sneaked out of Charmbridge Academy through one of the exits near the stables. It was after dark but not yet curfew, though for the youngest member of their group it soon would be. Constance and Forbearance were more worried about keeping Innocence out past curfew than they were about the archaic, complicated, and possibly dangerous magic they were about to perform.
The ground was still covered with snow, though much of it had been trodden into mush near the school buildings. When they reached the small field they had chosen to do their ritual in, only a few yards from the nearest trees in the woods, the snow was knee-deep. Alexandra had brought Charlie, and Anna had brought Jingwei. The two birds took up watchful positions on opposite sides of the clearing. Alexandra was proud of Charlie for appearing almost unintimidated by the great owl without a cage between them.
"Make sure the Rashes don't sneak up on us this time," Alexandra said to the birds.
"They'uns got a test tomorrow," Constance said. "They's studyin'."
"They better be," David said.
Sonja and Forbearance consulted their charts beneath the light of their wands and, as before, carefully positioned everyone in a six-pointed star configuration around Alexandra.
Alexandra looked up at the stars, which were bright and clear on this winter night, and wondered if anything would happen this time.
"Are you ready, Alex, dear?" Forbearance asked.
Constance chanted the first part of the spell, the part that called the Stars Above using Troublesome's Name. The words were ambiguous; Alexandra could understand why the twins had not immediately realized that Alexandra was both subject and object. She could feel it, though – every time Constance said, "Troublesome," Alexandra knew it was her being Named.
Then Forbearance raised her hands over her head, gripped her wand in both hands, and chanted the same words as before to convene the Parliament of Stars.
Alexandra kept her eyes fixed on the sky. Trillions of miles away, the stars blazed with an indifference that was as cold as the gulf between them. Alexandra was lost in the vastness of distance and time, feeling the immensity of the universe and her own insignificance. The folly of thinking that a bunch of children with wands could call on such Powers! Never before, not even when facing the Most Deathly Power, had Alexandra felt so powerless, her wits and her will and her magical talent all amounting to a flicker of nothingness.
She wrapped her arms around herself, trying to suppress the shivers coming upon her. What she felt was more than fear; it was existential despair that struck at her confidence and sense of being.
She closed her eyes to block out the sight of the Stars Above, and that gave her a moment's reassurance. She was still planted here on this world, surrounded by her friends.
When she opened her eyes again, her friends were gone.
Alexandra's breath froze in her throat. She turned in a slow circle. Everyone was gone. She stood in an empty field of snow, exactly like the one she had been standing in a moment ago, except there were no footprints, no signs that anyone had ever crossed it. There were no lights in the distance where Charmbridge Academy stood. There was no wind, and there were no sounds from the trees, which were black silhouettes, visible only by way of the stars they blocked from view.
"Hello?" Alexandra called out.
Constance and Forbearance and Innocence and Anna and David and Sonja were gone. Not even Charlie answered back. Alexandra was alone – the only living soul in the universe, as far as she could tell.
We have endless time
But you see our light briefly
Through a small window.
Alexandra started and spun around.
Troublesome vexes, Troublesome woes,
Twice she has called us,
But can't say what she knows.
She turned her eyes upward. The stars had not changed in their appearance, but the two voices were distinct, both in tone and in the rhythm of their words. She had not heard them, precisely. But they were voices all the same.
"Are you the Parliament of Stars?" she asked. "My friends and I requested that you convene. We thought that you'd know my future and you might know how I can change it."
Troublesome's arrogant, Troublesome's rude,
Troublesome hasn't learned humility,
Or even gratitude.
This, Alexandra thought, was the same voice that had spoken the second time. She clenched her teeth, and in the vast empty spaces between the stars she heard a chorus like glass breaking and being blown about by the wind. She thought it was laughter. She could not tell if it was kind or unkind. It was alien.
"I'm... sorry," she said. "Thank you for... convening, and talking to me. I'll address you however you want me to address you, but I don't know what forms I should use. My friends and I had no idea what would happen if you actually did answer our summons. No one knows how to talk to Powers, or at least, they haven't written it down in a book."
There was that distant breaking sound again. Less like glass than sheets of ice fracturing off enormous glaciers and falling into the sea – thousands of them all at once. The image was as unbidden as the voices in her head.
We do not convene at the behest of children, nor has any being the power
To demand our presence, to command us, to summon us like helpful elves.
It has been ages since wizards called us. It is late, the age, the hour.
But even so ancient and distant as we may please to amuse ourselves.
Alexandra thought maybe that was a sonnet; she named this voice the Shakespeare Star. She still couldn't tell which stars were addressing her. They all glowed sharp and bright but no more alive to her eyes than they had been before, and she wasn't even sure she was actually hearing them with her ears.
She cleared her throat. "Can you please tell me if it's really my fate to die within seven years? And if it is, is there any way I can avoid it?"
Troublesome's fate is written in the stars;
Troublesome's future is in her hands,
Her fate lies not in ours.
Alexandra named that voice the Troublesome Star, since its short, sarcastic couplets always addressed her directly. "Does that mean I can change my future? If you know what it is, you must know how I can change it."
A new voice spoke, sounding jovial and a little more sympathetic than the Troublesome Star:
There once was a girl named Troublesome, who got herself in trouble,
With no escape, she cheated and made her problems double.
Now she stands beneath the stars and asks the Powers for aid,
But some things are beyond our power; we can't help, I'm afraid.
"What do you mean I cheated?" Alexandra asked. "And if you can't help, does that mean everything I do is predetermined?"
We see but you choose
We see what you have chosen
All time is the same.
She thought about what the Rhyming Star and the Haiku Star had said. They were talking about her future as if it had already happened. From their point of view, maybe it had.
"You know what choices I'll make," she said slowly. "But... what about free will? If I can't choose differently, that violates causality."
Troublesome argues, Troublesome pleads,
Troublesome thinks reality
Will bend to her needs.
Alexandra recalled the eerie, mysterious verses of the corn maidens she and Maximilian had encountered in the Lands Below. When she met the Most Deathly Power on her quest in the Lands Beyond, he had spoken in riddles, not verse, but he was just as confusing and used that same tone that made her feel small and slow-witted. Alexandra was finding that magical beings rarely expressed themselves directly, and the more powerful they were, the more likely they were to cloak themselves in inscrutable, mystic obfuscation.
They all seemed to like testing her. Come to think of it, talking to Powers was not unlike talking to her father.
Ice and glass crashed together again in that distant void between the stars. Alexandra felt certain that she was being mocked. But when the Shakespeare Star spoke again, it was solemn:
We did not pronounce the fate apportioned to your Name
Each soul is influenced by us, but we do not steer them
The moon brings the tides, and so drowns men; is it to blame?
The Stars Above are the greatest of Powers, but do not fear them.
All that falls within our orbit is ours to see,
Our domain is limitless, our sight expands forever,
But we do not craft fate and destiny
We know and when it please us, warn, but command never.
Ages pass and you grow more distant, your light fleeting
You close doors and windows, shuttering the light we shed.
You who once called us often, now rarely meeting
Prefer a world of atoms where magic has fled.
It is no tragedy for us; we are eternal
You will feel our absence in time.
The source of your tragedy is paternal
You cannot hide until the end of time.
Your father knew when you were born
The Stars Above whose spheres he'd scorn.
The long sonnet was abstruse to her; she pondered the Shakespeare Star's words as it spoke, but she couldn't catch everything. Was it complaining or simply observing? Did these Powers want something from her, or was she just a momentary amusement to them? They denied they were responsible for anything that happened to her. The verse about a world where magic has fled confused her – magic certainly hadn't fled her world! But the last two lines were what caught her attention.
"My father knew when I was born that I'd have this destiny, this... Geas on me? That I would be doomed?"
All are doomed, yes, all
Even we, the Stars Above
Come the end of time.
The Haiku Star, Alexandra thought, was not very helpful.
"So you can't help me," she said, with a feeling of defeat. Or won't.
Troublesome has questions, but answers are not free.
Swear a service to us, and we'll answer
Alexandra thought about that. "Three questions? About anything?"
As we told you, our orbits encompass the sky,
All that's beneath it, we espy.
The lands that are not are beyond our sight,
But we know all seen by day or by night.
They couldn't tell her anything about Death, then, or the Lands Beyond. Nor could they tell her what was happening in the Lands Below. That probably meant they could tell her little about the Generous Ones, and nothing about how to escape her fate.
And yet... three questions about anything else. And she had so very many questions.
Alexandra paced. Beneath the Stars Above, the snow was uniformly pale white and she had some satisfaction in feeling it crunch beneath her feet. Wherever she was, whether another realm, like the Lands Below and the Lands Beyond, or just a dream, or somehow still outside of Charmbridge Academy, next to the woods, the ground still felt solid and the snow still felt cold. That, she thought, proved she was still alive and that this was real. It wasn't a proof that would hold up in Ms. Shirtliffe's Magical Theory class, but Alexandra would turn that over in her mind later – maybe.
She was ready to swear, and then remembered her promise to Quimley.
"What service do you want?" she asked. "What could I possibly do for the Parliament of Stars?"
Far across space, in a cold orbit where sunlight barely reached, heavenly bodies collided, fractured, splintered, shedding immense fragments of ice in a soundless collision. This image came to Alexandra's mind as the image of shattering glass and crumbling icebergs had come before – the sound of distant stellar laughter, this time without any sound at all.
When you take a life
And your life is at an end
Hold open the door.
Alexandra blinked slowly. She took a deep breath, and realized for the first time that she couldn't actually feel her own breath, nor did the air mist in front of her face when she exhaled, despite the snow on the ground around her.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I don't understand. I'm not planning to take any lives. What door do you want me to hold open?"
Troublesome child, what we tell you was writ before you were born,
You cannot choose to change your fate, only the choice you make.
You swore to treat with any Power, so make the bargain sworn,
Hold open a door you won't pass through, and another path take.
Alexandra wanted to shout in frustration. She brought her fingers to her temples and rubbed them. Why did they have to speak in riddles? There were no crashing ice sounds now, no cosmic laughter from the heavens. It was as if suddenly the Stars Above were shining very intently on her, awaiting her answer. They wanted her to swear to do something that they could not do themselves.
What had Quimley said? Think once, think twice.
She didn't know exactly what it was the Stars Above were asking her to do – if she understood the cryptic sonnet of the Shakespeare Star, she probably wouldn't understand it until the moment it happened. And then what? What if she found out, at that time, that what she had sworn to do was not what she wanted to do? What if it was something that she would do anything to avoid?
The Haiku Star had implied they only had a little time. And Alexandra suspected the Stars Above would not have infinite patience for bargaining and requests for clarification. But her initial eagerness had given way to uneasiness, even dread. Nothing the Powers had said lessened her sense of foreboding about her future, or offered much in the way of escape. She wondered why they needed her to hold a door open. She didn't like the talk about taking a life, either.
"I'm sorry," she said. "But I'm not taking any lives, and I won't make a promise when I don't understand exactly what I'm promising."
The silence was endless and stretched beyond time. She thought perhaps those earlier sounds had not been laughter at all.
"If there's something else I can do for you –" she said, and then she was blinded by white light that filled the universe. The light of a million candles all blasting through her eyes and into her skull. The pain was intense, and she thought she would never see again, if she survived the burning of her brain. She was aware she was falling, though she never felt the ground.
The Power whose voice had been cruelest and whose rhymes had been the meanest uttered one last verse:
Troublesome will take a life, so say the Stars Above.
Troublesome will save a life, but lose everything
"Alexandra!" The voice was fearful, and another voice repeated the same cry, and then a third voice said her name, but this one was softer and closer to her ear.
"No," Alexandra said. "I'm sorry."
There was a brief silence. "Sorry for what? Alex, can you hear me?"
Alexandra reached a hand out and felt a face. Another hand pressed against hers and held it there.
"Please say something, Alex," Anna said.
"Is it still night?" Alexandra asked.
There were people all around her. They moved and breathed and made small sounds: heavy robes and other winter clothing rubbing together, feet pressing into the snow, hot breath puffing in the air. Then she heard a flapping sound sharply in one ear, and felt little particles of moisture flung against the side of her head.
"Yes, Alex, dear, it's still night." Forbearance's voice was gentle and very worried. "You just fell down – it weren't but a moment ago."
Alexandra slowly opened her eyes. It took her two tries. The retinal image of burning white light seemed seared into her, and she was afraid she would see nothing but that bright, hot glow. She shuddered and sucked in a breath when she saw stars – an endless canopy of stars – scattered overhead, but much closer were the heads of her six friends gathered around her.
"Maybe we should take her to the infirmary," David said.
"Alexandra!" said Charlie, who was sitting in the snow next to her head.
"No." Alexandra pulled her hand away from Anna's face, who released it reluctantly. "I'm okay."
"You fainted," Sonja said.
Alexandra sat up. Multiple hands helped her, though she hadn't asked for help. Innocence crouched behind her and brushed snow and dirt off her back. Alexandra extended an arm to Charlie, who stepped onto her wrist and wrapped talons around it with a grip that would have drawn blood if her wrist hadn't been covered by a thick coat sleeve.
"I'm so dreadful sorry, Alexandra." Forbearance's voice quavered, and she was near tears. "This was a terrible foolish idear."
"What happened?" Alexandra asked.
Everyone looked at each other. Then Forbearance said, "Soon's we'uns completed the ritual –"
"You done swooned," Constance said.
"That's all you saw?" Alexandra asked.
Alexandra closed her eyes, still saw white light against the insides of her eyelids, and opened them again. "I'm fine."
"Can you stand?" David asked.
"I'll help," Innocence said, and half a dozen pairs of hands reached for her, but Alexandra shrugged them all away. She stood up without help, transferring Charlie to her shoulder as she did, and stood there a moment, then reached behind herself to brush snow off her butt.
"Did anything else happen?" Anna asked.
Alexandra almost shook her head, then said, "Yes."
A hush fell over the group. Even Charlie became still and silent.
"It worked, Forbearance," Alexandra said. "The ritual worked. But Constance was right. You shouldn't mess with Powers."
Constance seemed to take no comfort from this vindication.
Alexandra pressed a hand over her eyes, trying to forget that nova-like flare, and the last line of the rhyme. "I don't want to talk right now. Let's go inside."