A Great Work
Alexandra was still in bed the next morning when Anna emerged from the shower.
Anna didn't say anything as Alexandra continued to lie in bed, but when she finished dressing, she said, "Alex? Shouldn't you be outside?"
It was a Monday morning; the JROC was doing their morning exercises, as they did every Monday morning, and Alexandra had missed formation.
"I'm not going," Alexandra said, with her eyes still closed.
"Are you sick?" Anna sounded worried, which was understandable – witches didn't often get sick. When they did, it was usually some magical malady.
"I don't feel like going," Alexandra said.
Anna was silent for several moments. Then she asked, "Won't you get in trouble?"
"Let Ms. Shirtliffe kick me out of the JROC. She already kicked me out of the Dueling Club."
Anna didn't say anything. After a moment, Alexandra heard her moving about the room again, slowly, taking a robe out of her closet and opening her drawer full of hair ornaments. There was the shuffling sound of books and parchment being stacked on a desk, and then a long silence. Charlie, attuned to Alexandra's mood, had not made a sound.
Finally, Anna spoke again. "Aren't you going to get breakfast?"
"Are you going to get dressed?"
"What about class?"
"I don't feel like going."
Anna was silent much longer this time. Finally she sat down on the edge of Alexandra's bed. "You know if you're too sick to go to class, you have to see Mrs. Murphy. Otherwise, Dean Calvert will send someone to check on you. You're on probation. You know what happens if you're caught cutting class."
Alexandra didn't say anything.
"Fine," Anna said, "I'll stay here with you."
"Then you'll get in trouble for cutting class," Alexandra said. "Won't your father kill you?"
"Well, at least you're not too depressed to be a jerk."
"Who said I'm depressed?"
"You wouldn't tell us anything last night. I figured you'd say something today. You don't have to if you don't want to. But don't lie in bed like that and pretend nothing is wrong. I've seen you being stubborn and I've seen you being secretive and I've even seen you cry." The smooth calm of Anna's voice broke. "But I've never seen you beaten. Even when you lose, you're never beaten."
Alexandra's eyes opened. She turned over slowly in bed. Anna's brown eyes were moist.
"After Maximilian died," Alexandra said, "I never gave up. You know how hard it was for me to accept he was never coming back. It was the hardest thing in the world. Even being told I have only seven years to live wasn't as bad as losing Max."
Anna nodded slowly. "I know."
"I can't do it again."
Anna's eyes widened. "Do what?"
Alexandra suppressed a shudder. "Watch someone else die because of me. Lose someone else. I'd rather let the Generous Ones take me now than –"
"Stop it!" Anna exclaimed. Charlie squawked, stirred into commotion. "Max didn't die because of you. We've talked about this, Alex. What do you mean by someone else dying? What happened?"
Reluctantly, Alexandra told Anna about her audience with the Parliament of Stars, which for her friends had taken place in the single breath between the last word of Forbearance's spell and Alexandra's collapse. She couldn't remember everything the Stars Above had said – not precisely, with all their poems and obscure pronouncements – but the final verse as she fell to the ground, blinded by their anger, she remembered word for word:
Troublesome will take a life, so say the Stars Above.
Troublesome will save a life, but lose everything
Alexandra swallowed. "You. And Constance and Forbearance and Innocence. And David – I mean, he counts too. Don't tell him I said that."
"He knows," Anna said distractedly.
"And Julia." Alexandra blinked back tears. "Even Claud–" She stopped.
Anna's expression was thoughtful, but she wasn't looking at Alexandra. "Can the Stars Above control the future? Can they make something happen, or just tell you what's going to happen?"
"I don't know."
Anna's gaze settled on her. "Maybe we should find out."
"Did they say someone was going to die because of you? No. They just said you'll lose everything you love. Did they say when? No. Alex –" Anna put a hand on Alexandra's shoulder. Her voice softened, became reassuring and steady. "If you live the rest of your life – not just seven years – you will lose people you love, won't you? I mean, most people do. No one wants to think about it, but..." She looked down. "Someday, our parents will probably pass away. And by the time you're old, you'll have outlived other people you know. And when you die, you'll leave everything behind. Everyone does."
"I don't think that's what the Powers meant, Anna."
"How do you know? Maybe they were just being spiteful. You said you rejected their bargain. I guess heavenly Powers would be pretty ticked off that a fourteen-year-old girl told them no. But if they can't control your destiny, then maybe all they can do is tell you bad things are going to happen. So, someday people you love will die. I could say the same thing to anyone, and I'd probably be right. Does that make me a Seer? Did they say I'm going to die, or one of your sisters?"
Alexandra winced. "No."
"Of course not. Heck, they're hardly better than Sonja and Forbearance's Astrology. Heavenly Powers my heels!"
Alexandra said reproachfully, "You make it sound like it's nothing."
"Maybe it is nothing. Maybe it isn't. We should probably talk to Forbearance about this. And Constance, and maybe David –"
"Why not just bring in the entire Alexandra Committee?"
"Good idea." Anna smiled. Then her smile faded. "What are you going to do, lie in bed waiting to see who dies? I've just never seen you give up."
Alexandra frowned. "I'm not giving up."
Anna said nothing.
Alexandra looked at Charlie, who looked back at her with bright, beady black eyes.
"Troublesome vexes, Troublesome woes," Charlie said.
Alexandra sat up, throwing off her covers. "Whatever," she muttered. As Anna watched hopefully, she got out of bed.
Before going to the bathroom, she turned to her friend. They regarded one another for a long moment, until they heard voices in the next room – Sonja and Carol returning from the cafeteria to their room just before class, and probably to find out why neither Alexandra nor Anna had been to breakfast.
"Sorry I made you miss breakfast," Alexandra said.
"It's okay," Anna said.
Alexandra gave Anna a fierce hug, not caring what sort of spectacle it would present to Sonja if she burst in at that moment to find Alexandra still in her pajamas, looking a mess with her hair disheveled, and Anna already showered and dressed in her nice school robes with her hair tied in a bun.
"I do love you," Alexandra said.
"I know. I love you, too."
Alexandra let go of her and ran a hand through her unwashed hair. She only had a few minutes to clean up and put on her JROC uniform if she wasn't going to be tardy to first period. She went into the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth, while Anna waited for her.
Alexandra lingered after the end of her second period Advanced Magical Theory class, letting Anna and the Pritchards go on ahead of her. Ms. Shirtliffe had not said anything about her absence that morning. In fact, she had hardly acknowledged Alexandra's presence at all. But when Alexandra approached her, the uniformed teacher said, "I assume you have a note from Mrs. Murphy explaining your absence from morning exercise, Quick?"
"So I suppose you're about to give me an explanation."
"I overslept, ma'am."
Ms. Shirtliffe had been gathering her notes and the one book she used in class, but now she gave Alexandra a sharp look, taking in her barely-pressed uniform and untidy hair. "You look like it. That's your excuse? You overslept?"
"It's not an excuse, ma'am. I need to ask you something."
Ms. Shirtliffe folded her arms. "All right."
"Suppose, hypothetically –"
"Quick, I'm already ticked off at you and now you're going to waste my time with hypothetical questions?"
Alexandra stood straight and tried not to let the teacher intimidate her. She didn't entirely trust Ms. Shirtliffe – there were no adults she trusted entirely – but Shirtliffe had always been straight with her.
No, that wasn't entirely true. The JROC commander had known about Alexandra's father all along. But she had also been the first to tell Alexandra that she regretted keeping that from her.
"I need to do some magic that isn't in any books," Alexandra said. "Probably really powerful magic. I need your help."
The older witch's face didn't change, showing neither surprise nor skepticism. "What kind of magic? Is this about your mother?"
Of course Ms. Shirtliffe knew about her mother. Alexandra fought to keep her own face free of surprise or other emotions. "No ma'am. I mean, yes, I want to cure her, too. But that's not what I need your help for. I want to change my future."
"That's easy. Make decisions now about what you want your future to be like. For example, waking up on time and preparing your uniform properly would mean fewer broom drills in your future."
"I mean a future that's been... pronounced."
Ms. Shirtliffe made a sound of exasperation. "Do you mean prophecies? Have you and your friends been experimenting with fortune telling and astrology? That's all nonsense, Quick. Real, bona fide Seers are rarer than rare. There are a dozen cranks hanging out shingles in the Goblin Market for every individual who's ever had a single genuine vision in their life, and –"
"Ma'am, I'm not talking about Seers or prophecies," Alexandra said, impatient because the bell for the next period was about to ring. She hurried on before the teacher could admonish her for interrupting. "I mean a future pronounced for me by..." She hesitated, then plunged ahead: "The Stars Above."
Ms. Shirtliffe rubbed the bridge of her nose between her fingers. "Fairy tales, Quick."
"No, ma'am. Powers are real. I may not be able to prove it to you, but I know. I don't mean I believe in them, I mean I know." Alexandra held the teacher's gaze, and Ms. Shirtliffe slowly lowered her hand and regarded Alexandra thoughtfully.
"I also need to know about gates," Alexandra said.
"What do you mean by 'gates'?" Ms. Shirtliffe asked.
"Gates like the ones under Charmbridge," Alexandra replied levelly. "I think you know what I mean. Don't tell me those aren't real either. Ma'am."
She couldn't read Ms. Shirtliffe's reaction. Her jaw was tight again, the creases in her face making her scar even more pronounced.
"So, you think Powers are real and have taken a personal interest in your future," Ms. Shirtliffe said. "And you want to tamper with magic you should be staying the hell away from for reasons you know well. And you want me to help you."
"This new obsession of yours means you've probably found a new way to get yourself into trouble with a half-baked scheme, which means you are inevitably going to wind up in the Dean's office again before the end of the year. We can only hope it's not after someone else has been hurt." The teacher held up a hand to forestall Alexandra's protests. "But maybe, just maybe, you've found a purpose in life. If you really have a burning passion for this subject, it might lead you to undertake a Great Work."
"A Great Work?"
"That's what they called them in the old days. Usually the work of a lifetime. Not many wizards attempt one nowadays... modern magical folk seem content with the magic we've got. It's a very ambitious undertaking."
"So you'll help me?" Alexandra said hopefully.
The bell for third period rang.
"No," Ms. Shirtliffe said. "If you want to be taken seriously, start acting like you're serious. Don't be late to JROC drill, and do something about that uniform." She strode away.
Almost every waking hour that Alexandra wasn't with the JROC was now spent in class or studying. If it wasn't homework, it was her own uncertain attempts at research. In Mr. Grue's class, it seemed as if they were studying everything but what she really wanted to study. The one time she dared ask him about memory alchemy, he snapped at her that if she thought she knew better than him what potions she needed to master, she could leave his class and learn what she needed to on her own. She already had enough studying to do on her own, so she bit the inside of her cheek rather than snapping back, and resumed mixing rare metal tinctures.
After two weeks of this, with February coming to a chilly end, Alexandra decided she needed to get outside now and then to practice her dueling spells. She'd given Dean Grimm her word not to engage in any more unauthorized dueling, but she wasn't dueling anyone if she cast spells by herself.
Anna came with her sometimes, and Alexandra even talked her into practicing a few hexes, cast carefully at a tree stump or a fallen log, without venturing into the woods or blasting the still-abundant snow. A couple of times Sonja or David joined them, but were disappointed that Alexandra was keeping her promise and not dueling.
Innocence soon noticed Alexandra's night-time excursions as well, and one evening she and William showed up, eager to resume their dueling lessons. Alexandra reluctantly told them there would be no dueling, but they continued to come, asking Alexandra to help them improve their spellcasting. Alexandra decided she wasn't breaking her promise as long as they weren't pointing their wands at each other.
Without the lure of actual dueling, however, Alexandra was alone most evenings except for Charlie. On these evenings, she would walk close to the tree line and sometimes venture into the woods, listening and feeling. In this way, she traced the boundaries of the circle of protection around Charmbridge Academy, and sometimes felt as if she could reach out and touch the wards and feel their composition. They were, she thought, not dissimilar to the magic used to create the Invisible Bridge. The idea struck her forcefully – when she crossed the Invisible Bridge for the first time, it had vanished, dropping her and David to what should have been their deaths.
Mr. Journey had engineered its failure. Only briefly, but if Mr. Journey could undo a spell like that then others could too.
Her evening walks became a sort of meditation for her. She sensed something out in the woods beyond the wards. From the Stars Above, she sensed nothing.
During the first week in March, even Anna thought it was too cold to go outside, and William and Innocence didn't join her either, so Alexandra, expecting to be alone one evening, was considering a walk out to the limits of the protections around the school when Charlie cawed a warning from the air. These caws, once all alike, were becoming more distinct to Alexandra's ears. She could tell when Charlie meant "Danger, trouble!" and when the interloper was someone the raven didn't regard as a threat. This time it was the latter, probably just someone else taking a walk. Alexandra sometimes encountered other students outside, usually older ones, and they said nothing to one another and went their separate ways. This time, however, it was two figures making their way directly toward her. She held her wand loosely between her fingers while she tried to make out who the tall, cloaked figures were. She only had to watch them for a moment before she recognized one of them, from the many evenings she had waited for that same figure out in the dark and walked with him across Charmbridge's lawns. Her fingers tightened on her wand.
"Hey there, Alexandra," Torvald said, pulling his hood back to reveal his straw hair and uneven features, now pallid in the chilly breeze. His jaunty tone and his smile weren't quite convincing, but he sounded almost like he had before when greeting her. "Looks like you don't have any dueling partners tonight."
Alexandra's eyes fixed on the other boy behind him. Stuart stood stiffly, with his mouth closed and his eyes in a sort of squint while he avoided looking directly at her.
Charlie descended from the sky and screeched, "Big fat jerk!" before landing on Alexandra's shoulder.
"What do you want?" Alexandra asked.
Torvald came closer. Stuart did not.
"The bird's right," Torvald said. "I was being a jerk."
Alexandra didn't say anything.
"You haven't told anyone else, have you?" he asked. "I mean, about Stuart."
Half a dozen sharp responses came to mind, but Stuart's face – unmoving, wax-like, disturbingly similar to Maximilian's expression when he was keeping things to himself, things Alexandra had only learned about after he'd died – stifled her impulse to lash back. "Just Anna," she said.
Torvald sighed and Stuart grimaced, but Alexandra glared at them, daring them to protest.
"You're a jerk too, you know," she said to Stuart. "Sonja really liked you. You shouldn't have played with her like that."
Stuart shuffled his feet and kicked up little clods of snow and dirt from the ground. "I wasn't playing with her. I didn't want to hurt her. I tried to – you know, like her that way."
"From what Sonja says, you tried a lot of things before you broke up with her."
Stuart flushed. "I could have just broken up with her without saying anything. Instead I told one of the most gossipy witches in school the truth. She could ruin me. So could you."
"Like you're the only queer kid in school?" Stuart blanched at her words, and Torvald looked around as if afraid someone might appear out of nowhere to overhear her. Alexandra shook her head. "There are more important secrets than who you want to kiss, and I've got more important things to worry about."
Stuart fell into silence. He had never been as friendly with her as Torvald, especially after the identity of her father became public. This was the longest conversation they'd had since she was in sixth grade.
Torvald stepped closer, speaking to her in a low voice with his back to his friend. "I was hoping... you know, that we could –"
"Get back together?" Alexandra carefully lifted Charlie off her shoulder, and sent the bird flying into the air with a little toss.
"Jerk!" Charlie exclaimed, taking off.
As Stuart turned away, embarrassed, Alexandra grasped the front of Torvald's robes and pulled him toward her. He inclined his head until she could reach his mouth with hers. Both their lips were cold, but warmth passed between them as they kissed. Some of the feelings she'd had before stirred within her, and a part of her could have stood there for quite a while longer kissing. But her affection had cooled since their fight, and so had her desire to get naked with him. Perhaps it had been a brief bit of madness, or perhaps pitting herself against the heavens themselves made earthly urges less compelling. She pulled away from him.
"No," she said. "Sorry."
Torvald's smile was bleak, as if he had expected her answer but was still disappointed.
"Too bad," he said. "But at least you can still perform virgin rituals."
It was almost comforting to hear Torvald make cracks like old times. She smirked at him. "Like you can't?"
He clearly wanted to offer a clever retort to that, but he couldn't seem to find the words.
"Well, bye then." Alexandra turned away.
She walked ten paces before Torvald said, "Hey, Troublesome."
She turned back. "Yeah?"
She jumped as a hex sizzled into the snow where her foot had been an instant ago.
"Watch yourself in the hallways," Stuart said.
"We have to keep you on your toes somehow." Torvald winked, and the two boys walked away.
Alexandra watched the two of them head back inside, then resumed casting spells that sliced, shattered, melted, disintegrated, and transformed pieces of rock and dead wood, all the while thinking about duels she was missing, the lurking presence out there in the woods, and the lingering warmth of Torvald's lips on hers. Above her, the stars came out, and with studied indifference, she walked inside without looking up at them once.
Forbearance warned Alexandra gravely that all previous calculations and ritual preparations would become naught on the twenty-second of March, the day she turned fifteen, because of the influence of the Stars Above. Alexandra told her that the Stars Above could fall into the ocean for all she cared, and that she wouldn't be needing any more astrological calculations or rituals.
The day of her birthday arrived. She received an owl bearing a letter from Claudia that morning before breakfast. It was a terse birthday card with a gift certificate for the Larkin Mills Mall. Her sister-who-pretended-to-be-her-mother was back to her usual form, Alexandra thought, except that this time, Claudia's birthday wishes included a line informing Alexandra that she was expected home over spring break, and that she was missed.
Alexandra was not at all reconciled to the idea that she was going home for spring break. Or ever, for that matter.
Her friends threatened to sing 'Happy Birthday' in class, and she threatened to put a Tongue-Tied Curse on all of them. They did get her to promise to come to the recreation room that evening instead of holing up in the library.
Alexandra was expecting to find Dean Grimm outside the cafeteria holding Galenthias, but the Dean was nowhere in sight when she arrived for breakfast. Slightly downcast, Alexandra sat with Anna and Sonja and Carol, and was joined by David and Dylan, but hardly noticed any of them until Anna asked if she was all right.
"You're awfully gloomy," Sonja said. "Did somebody forget your birthday?"
Alexandra was sure her father hadn't forgotten, but she doubted she'd hear from him today. She had decided not to go outside that evening. She didn't want to risk even a small chance of another confrontation between Abraham Thorn and Diana Grimm here at Charmbridge. She had been hoping Julia might answer her letter by now. She didn't expect any of her other sisters to take notice of her birthday. But by the time she finished breakfast, she knew there was someone she had to see.
"You guys go on to class," she said. "I'll see you in a little bit."
Anna was concerned. "We've only got a few minutes. You'll be late."
"Don't worry." Alexandra waved to her, and turned right out of the cafeteria, heading for the administrative wing.
Miss Marmsley set down her quill when Alexandra approached her portrait. Very respectfully, Alexandra said, "Good morning, Miss Marmsley. May I please see the Dean?"
"Is the Dean expecting you, Miss Quick?" the school secretary asked, as the bell for first period rang.
"Maybe. Just tell her I want to see her, please."
Miss Marmsley did not look pleased. She stepped out from behind her desk and walked out of her portrait frame, leaving only an empty desk and chair pictured on the wall. She returned a few seconds later.
"The Dean says you may return during lunch," she said severely, "assuming that your teacher does not assign you lunch detention, since you will not receive a note excusing your tardiness to first period. Go to class, Miss Quick."
Alexandra went to class, fuming. Mrs. Middle didn't give her detention, but scolded her and took points off her grade for the day. Alexandra remained quiet and moody through Advanced Magical Theory and Charms as well. Anna and the Pritchards watched with concern as she left Mr. Newton's class, telling them she'd catch up to them later.
Back before Miss Marmsley, she said nothing, merely waited in silence as the school secretary made a great show of not noticing her while she finished writing some memos, and then addressed several other students and a couple of teachers who each passed Alexandra by, coming to the office for various items of business. Finally, Miss Marmsley settled her old painted eyes on Alexandra as if just noticing the girl who had been standing in front of her portrait for the past ten minutes and said, "The Dean will see you now, Miss Quick."
Ms. Grimm was behind her desk, petting Galenthias, who sat in her lap. The black cat regarded Alexandra with minimal interest and no recognition as she closed the door behind her.
"I've been expecting you," said the Dean.
"I came to see you this morning," Alexandra said.
"So Miss Marmsley told me. Naturally, you assumed that I had nothing else to do this morning and it would be perfectly all right for you to cut class and drop by my office."
Alexandra forced herself to ignore the prickle of annoyance provoked by Ms. Grimm's words. "I'm sorry. I should have made an appointment earlier."
"An appointment? I assumed you were here to collect these." The Dean gestured at a stack of thick, heavy books sitting on her desk. Alexandra hadn't paid them any attention until now. There were five of them, leather-bound and gold-gilded, and they didn't look new. There was something foreboding about them. Alexandra knew at a glance that they were magical tomes, and suspected they were the sort of books usually found in the Restricted Reserves.
"What are they?" she asked.
"They arrived for you last night," Ms. Grimm said. "Whoever sent them did not see fit to include his name or return address, but they were contained in a single letter-sized envelope sent by owl post, charmed to defeat magical attempts to look within. Apparently the sender didn't think we would screen your mail, or didn't think highly of our ability to detect sophisticated enchantments."
Alexandra did not let her surprise show, keeping her face as impassive as the Dean's. There could be little doubt who the sender was.
"I had Ms. Shirtliffe and Mr. Grue inspect them thoroughly," the Dean said. "They are free of curses and other Dark magic, but they're very... serious works."
"Serious works?" Alexandra asked.
"Great Works. Famous ones. Hardly light reading. And just barely within the set of permissible subjects for a ninth grader to study independently. Dare I ask why you requested these particular volumes, Miss Quick?"
"I didn't, ma'am," Alexandra said, while wondering how her father had known about her interest in Great Works. Surely Ms. Shirtliffe hadn't told him. "They're, uh, a surprise to me, too."
"I see. A birthday present, then. I will of course have to let Diana know about this. Even if I let you have them, she may wish to confiscate them."
Alexandra scowled, but said nothing.
Ms. Grimm's cold expression didn't change, but her voice was gentler when she spoke again. "So, today you are fifteen." Her fingernails scratched against the top of Galen's head, and the cat closed her eyes and purred, like any other cat. "And now you know why I brought Galenthias to see you every year on the day of your birth. A foolish sentimentality, of course. There was no possibility she would recognize you, or have any idea what day it was."
"Maybe deep down, you hoped she would recognize me."
Ms. Grimm shook her head. "No. Never dream it, Alexandra."
Alexandra approached the Dean's desk until she was standing at the very edge, looking directly across it and down at the black cat in Lilith Grimm's lap.
"I want to see her," she said.
"That's not a very good idea."
"Why? If she won't remember it, it can't hurt her."
"I don't think it's healthy for you to nurture unrealistic hopes."
"You don't know what hopes I'm nurturing or whether or not they're realistic. I think it's easier for you to pretend she's just a cat."
Ms. Grimm opened her mouth, but Alexandra spoke before the Dean could. "Please, Aunt Lilith. I promise I'll only ever ask on my birthdays. But this is what I'm asking for. She's my mother."
Galenthias, oblivious to the tension in the still room, drowsily sat in her sister's lap and flicked her tail. The fire in the hearth was burning low, but the room was pleasantly warm. The deans in the portraits on the wall behind Dean Grimm were all watching them, but none of them so much as exchanged whispers.
Finally, Ms. Grimm rose from her chair, holding the cat in her arms. She walked to the comfortable, cushioned chair that she only offered to important visitors and never to Alexandra, and set Galenthias down in it. Then she took her wand out of her sleeve, and without uttering any words, made a few quick gestures over the head of the cat. In seconds, Galenthias become an adult woman sitting in the chair in the same simple gown she'd worn before, with the same loose, unbrushed hair and confused expression.
"Hello," Hecate Grimm said, looking from Lilith Grimm to Alexandra. "Who are you?"
"Hello, Hecate. I'm your sister, Lilith," Lilith said.
"I'm your daughter, Alexandra," Alexandra said.
Hecate's brow knotted in concern. "I didn't know I had a sister. Or a daughter."
"That's okay." Alexandra sat in the chair next to her.
Hecate smiled at her. It was an unreserved smile, one without hidden barbs or wryness or irony, which were the only smiles Alexandra ever got from Hecate's sisters, but it was also a smile of polite, befuddled geniality. There was no recognition or maternal affection in it. Not that Alexandra knew what maternal affection really looked like.
"Why is your hair white, child?" Hecate asked.
"I tried to cross an Age Line," Alexandra said.
"Oh. You shouldn't do that."
Alexandra smiled. "I want to tell you something."
"What's that?" Hecate asked, still studying Alexandra's white hair.
Next to her, Lilith was almost as still as a statue, but Alexandra sensed her aunt's uneasiness. It was a strange thing to feel Dean Grimm so ill at ease.
"I'm going to restore your memories," Alexandra said, her tone of voice not changing at all. The words got her mother's attention, though. For a moment, Alexandra thought there was something behind those gray eyes, something familiar – it wasn't just glassy confusion – but she couldn't say for certain, and if she'd been pressed, she would have admitted that it was probably just her own desire to see some sign of comprehension, of retention.
"What do you mean, restore my memories?" Hecate asked. "What happened to my memories?"
"You lost them. All of them. And you can't remember anything. Do you remember my name?" Hecate opened her mouth, hesitated as that doubtful crease appeared between her brows again, and Alexandra pressed on without letting her answer: "My name is Alexandra Quick, born Alexandra Octavia Thorn, and by the Stars Above I am known as Troublesome. My father is Abraham Everard Thorn, and you're my mother, Hecate Megaera Grimm. Today is my fifteenth birthday. Someday, I'm going to tell you all that, and you're going to remember it."
Hecate didn't say anything. For several long moments, she regarded Alexandra with such a thoughtful, serious expression that Alexandra felt hope stir in spite of herself. She had never seen her mother stay silent this long before. Surely something had to be going on inside her head. She looked earnestly into her eyes, willing Hecate to recognize her, remember her.
"You have white hair," Hecate said. "Why is that?"
Alexandra closed her eyes. Hecate asked, "Is something wrong? What's your name, young witch?"
"Good-bye, Hecate," her sister said. Alexandra kept her eyes closed, though she felt the spell and the stir of air as an adult-sized body became a cat-sized one.
"I only allowed you to say those things because she won't remember them, so you can't hurt her with false hopes and promises," Lilith Grimm said. "But what you told her is impossible. I will not let you speak to her again if you cannot accept reality, Alexandra. For your own good."
Alexandra opened her eyes. Her mother was a black cat again, sitting in the comfortable chair licking a paw. Her aunt stood over them both, holding her wand, erect and just a little paler than usual.
"I've already done things that are impossible, Aunt Grimm," Alexandra said. "And I'm going to do more."
Ms. Grimm's eyes were as dark and impenetrable as Hecate's had been, but sharp rather than vacant. "I noticed that little attempt at Naming magic. Did you really think a bit of magic attached to your names would do anything? And what's this 'Troublesome' nonsense? Those silly Ozarker friends of yours?"
"Constance and Forbearance aren't silly."
Ms. Grimm sat back down in her leather chair, leaving Galenthias where she was, and watched Alexandra and Galenthias both from across her desk.
"No, I suppose they aren't," she said. "Ms. Shirtliffe told me you want to begin a Great Work of your own."
"Something like that, ma'am."
"Naming magic, memory alchemy, and now a stack of Great Works, all in addition to your regular classwork. And Merlin knows what else you're up to. You've become quite the academic lately. I wish I did not find your sudden intensity so worrisome."
"I'm just taking my studies seriously, ma'am. It will keep me busy and out of trouble, right?"
Ms. Grimm smiled faintly. "That I doubt." She raised one long finger and pointed it at her. "You want to study like an adult and engage in adult activities. Start behaving like an adult. Fix your hair."
Alexandra raised her wand, and after concentrating a moment, twirled it in a counter-clockwise circle next to her temple and whispered a counterspell. She couldn't see her hair, and she didn't precisely feel anything, but she knew the curse had been undone and her hair was black again.
Ms. Grimm did not look even a little bit surprised.
"How did you know I could undo it?" Alexandra asked.
"You stopped pestering your teachers. You were being stubborn and you liked the attention and the air of defiance it gave you to walk around with cursed hair, but you wouldn't have become so accepting of it if you didn't have the ability to change it." Ms. Grimm steepled her fingers. "A curse from an Age Line cast by a trained Auror is something a senior would find challenging to undo. It's becoming ever more difficult to put limits on your behavior, Miss Quick. I do hope you remember that what you can do and what you should do are two different things, and you are still on probation."
Alexandra noted the shift from 'Alexandra' to 'Miss Quick.' She rose to her feet. "Yes, ma'am."
"You may go." The Dean gestured at the books. "Take these with you."
Alexandra collected the volumes from the Dean's desk, and as she walked to the door, Ms. Grimm said, "Happy birthday, Miss Quick."
Alexandra glanced at Galenthias, who was now stretching, claws extended and sinking into the upholstery of the chair she was standing in, and then looked back at her aunt. "Thank you, ma'am."
Back in her room, she sat down at her desk and began paging through her father's idea of study materials. The Great Works were weighty, and while none of them promised to answer any of her questions directly, they appeared interesting if not particularly accessible. Levy and Dee's Banishments talked about ghosts in greater detail than Alexandra had found in any of the open shelves in the Charmbridge library, and Giles Harrow's Bestiary Diabolic described such things as barrow-wights and kelpies and kappas, complete with uncensored descriptions of their grimmer habits. Fausta Sterntochter's refactoring of Ptolemaic astrology as Arithmantic equations made Alexandra think she'd taken the wrong electives. None of these works seemed directly related to predestination or gates between realms, and Alexandra wondered if her father was merely trying to distract her.
When Anna returned to their room, Alexandra showed the books to her. Anna was intrigued by them, but she was obviously trying to hide her instinct to worry and fret over any gift Alexandra received from her father.
Alexandra received an owl that evening from Julia. Unfortunately, it did not contain an invitation to move to Croatoa.
"I told Mother about the extraordinary and shocking revelations you received," Julia wrote. "You are ever in her heart, as you are in mine. However, while we would both love nothing better than to have you here at Croatoa again, Mother is of the opinion that your idea of leaving your home and moving here is not a very good one. Forgive me, Alexandra, but I agree with her.
Dear sister, I can only imagine how angry you must be at Claudia, but isn't it a little ungenerous to wish for forgiveness from one sister that you are not willing to grant another?
I would so much like to meet Claudia again, as my sister. Will you not soften your heart to her, Alexandra? And what of Livia? Will you not do what you can so that all of us sisters may be reunited?"
Julia knew exactly how to tug at Alexandra's heartstrings, and her sister's words filled her with remorse for her selfishness. But guilt did little to erase her resentfulness toward Claudia. She wanted to grant Julia her desire, but she awaited spring break sullenly and without enthusiasm.