Alexandra sat in the Dean's office. She wasn't sure if she was in trouble or not, but Ms. Grimm had sent her here to wait for her. The Dean's cat, Galen, was nowhere to be seen, but Miss Marmsley was a silent, reproachful presence in the small picture frame on the Dean's desk. Behind the desk, the portraits of former deans were also watching her. Alexandra tried to ignore them.
Ms. Grimm arrived after ten minutes. She closed the door, moved behind her desk, and sat down in her leather chair before fixing her gray eyes on Alexandra.
"Miss Rackham seems to be unharmed, but she has no memory of what happened," she said.
"She was Obliviated?" Alexandra asked.
"No," Ms. Grimm said, "I believe she was placed under an Imperius Curse."
"That's one of the Unforgivables." The thought didn't shock Alexandra as much as it should have. It certainly explained Sonja's behavior.
"Yes." Ms. Grimm steepled her fingers. "Tell me everything you remember, Miss Quick, from the moment you set foot outside. And do not hold anything back."
"I don't have to hold anything back. I know what you're thinking, that I was up to something and it went wrong somehow, but I didn't do anything. I was just gathering herbs for Mrs. Verde's class."
"I doubt very much that you know what I'm thinking, Miss Quick. Spare me your guilty conscience and get on with the narrative."
Alexandra tried to relax. "Yes, ma'am." She told Ms. Grimm everything that had occurred.
When she was done, the Dean said, "You should not have gone so far from the others. And when Miss Rackham insisted on venturing out of sight–"
"You just have to find some way that this was my fault, don't you?" Alexandra didn't mean to lose her temper, but she was more stressed and upset than she realized. "What should I have done, Stunned her? I thought about it. Except then I'd probably be expelled for assaulting her. Or maybe I should have just turned back and let her go on by herself and get killed. Ma'am."
"Control yourself, Miss Quick," the Dean said icily.
With an effort, Alexandra sat back and relaxed her grip on the arms of her chair.
"I do not think she would have tried to uproot a mandrake if you hadn't been present," Ms. Grimm said. "She was obviously ordered to lead you there."
Alexandra's anger faded as she thought about the implications.
"That was quick thinking," Ms. Grimm went on. "You saved her life. And your own, of course."
"How could she have been Imperiused? Was someone just waiting in the woods for her to pass by?"
"Perhaps," Ms. Grimm said. "Though we would have known if there was an intruder in the woods. Since the events of the previous two years, we've extended a number of alarm and warding spells. But the Imperius Curse can also be used to plant instructions in a victim's head that are only to be followed later – though only an unusually skilled Dark Wizard could do that."
"So someone could have cursed Sonja any time to lead me into the woods?"
Ms. Grimm didn't answer.
"Someone really is trying to kill me," Alexandra said.
This validation, which was so different from the last time Alexandra had been convinced someone was trying to kill her, was not comforting. The Dean believed her, but apparently didn't know who it was or how to stop them.
"So what are you going to do?" Alexandra asked.
"We are watching over you, Alexandra. More closely than you imagine."
"I'm not sure I like that, either."
"Miss Quick, you can't have perfect privacy and be perfectly safe. You need to stop complaining about the precautions we take; they are not only for your sake. And since you know the danger is real, take more precautions yourself. I told you last year, you can't go sneaking around, running off-campus, pursuing little quests taking you Powers know where..."
"I wasn't doing anything reckless. I would never have gone out of bounds if not for Sonja."
"I trust you will continue to exercise discretion and good judgment, then."
When the Dean said nothing more, Alexandra decided that she was dismissed. She stood up slowly.
"If you suspected someone, would you tell me?" she asked.
Ms. Grimm said, "I would watch that person very, very closely."
"Are you watching Mary Dearborn very closely?"
After a long moment, Ms. Grimm answered, "I am. But if a sixth grader can cast Imperius Curses and conjure a murder of crows, she would be the most remarkably talented witch I've ever known. I'm fairly certain even your father couldn't do that when he was eleven. Stay away from Miss Dearborn, Alexandra."
Alexandra left the Dean's office. Third period had ended and lunch had started. She walked into the cafeteria and ignored the hush that fell around her. She heard all the usual whispers, and when a group of sophomores gave her apprehensive looks, she glowered at them so fiercely that they edged out of her way and let her cut in line.
She was sitting alone when her friends entered the cafeteria. Anna walked straight to her; the Pritchards tried to follow, but were intercepted by Benjamin and Mordecai. Alexandra watched them whispering furiously at each other while Anna sat down next to her.
Anna said, "I heard something happened during Mrs. Verde's class. Why did she take you all out into the woods? Is she crazy?"
"So, what rumors have you heard?" Alexandra's eyes were still on the Ozarkers. Innocence arrived in the cafeteria, saw her sisters arguing with the Rashes, and tried to sneak around them before Benjamin gestured at her and raised his voice.
Anna cleared her throat. "Um, you lured Sonja into a mandrake patch and tried to kill her."
"Just by pulling up a mandrake, or was I going to feed them her blood? Maybe let the crows feast on her, too?"
Anna's face twitched. "I haven't heard anything about blood or crows –"
"So how was I going to kill her without being killed myself? I mean, unless I'm rumored to be immune to mandrakes myself. Or maybe I'm actually part-mandrake –"
"Alex, this isn't funny."
Alexandra finally looked at her worried friend. "No, it isn't. Sonja's all right, and no one got hurt. I'll tell you the rest later. But you should get something to eat."
Anna hesitated, then nodded and rose to get in the lunch line.
The Pritchards got in line with the Rashes. From beneath her bonnet, Constance gave Alexandra an apologetic smile, while Forbearance put her hands on the shoulders of her sulky little sister.
David entered the cafeteria as Anna was sitting down with her lunch. He walked directly to them and said, "Alex, what the heck happened? I've been hearing all these rumors –"
"Sonja, mandrakes, Dark Arts, yeah, whatever." Alexandra spoke loudly enough that other people turned their heads to stare at her. "Let's talk about it later, okay?"
Her voice trailed off and Anna and David turned to follow her gaze. Mary Dearborn had arrived with several other sixth graders. She looked strikingly like her older sister, right down to her fancy, brightly-colored robes.
Mary must have sensed the three teens looking at her. She turned her head, and for a moment, her eyes met Alexandra's. Then other students were moving between them, and Mary got in line. Alexandra thought the sixth grader was casting furtive glances over her shoulder, but she turned her own attention to her meal.
Everyone, including David, met in the library that night. Constance and Forbearance had more trouble getting rid of their younger sister than they did avoiding the Rashes.
"Innocence is givin' out that all the gammon 'bout you is false. She near got in another fight," Constance said.
"If you want, I'll tell her I appreciate her sticking up for me but she should knock it off," Alexandra said.
Forbearance had opened a large book of star charts and spoke as she ran a finger down the line of a compact arc-shaped graph: "Girl hain't gonna stop puttin' up for you, Alexandra. She reckons it's her bounden duty."
David turned in his seat. "What I'd like to know is why you don't stick up for yourselves with the Rashes. Are you gonna have to slink out of here if they show up again?"
They were on the third floor of the library, and well back in the stacks, behind shelves of collected merfolk songs and goblin poetry. Not many students ventured back there. But Constance and Forbearance had been wary and glancing over their shoulders when they arrived.
"Let it be, David," Constance said. "We'uns hain't here to discuss Benjamin and Mordecai."
Alexandra cut David off before he could reply. "Okay, so, any ideas?" Anna had unrolled a scroll and had her quill ready to write down their theories.
"We already know who's at the top of your list," David said.
Even as Anna wrote 'Mary Dearborn,' Alexandra frowned. "Not necessarily. Ms. Grimm is right – how could Mary cast spells like that when she just got her wand? And besides, if she can cast an Imperius Curse, why didn't she just Imperius me to go jump off a cliff?"
Constance and Forbearance looked aghast, but Anna, who had written 'Imperius Curse?' under Mary's name, said, "Even with the Imperius Curse, it's hard to make people kill themselves. Also, it doesn't work as well against someone who's really strong-willed."
"Well, we all know how hard-headed Alex is," David said.
She rolled her eyes at him. "Anyway, Mary isn't at the top of my list."
Anna hesitated. "Are you thinking of John Manuelito? Do you really think he followed you here to Charmbridge?"
"Ms. Grimm says they'd know if a stranger was lurking around here, but he could be hanging out past the edge of whatever wards they've put up."
"So, what, he's camping in the woods just waiting for an opportunity to get you?" David asked.
"I didn't imagine seeing him in the Goblin Market."
"So why didn't he just AK you once you were out of sight of everyone else?"
"Ay-Kay?" Forbearance asked.
"You know, the Killing Curse. Avada –"
"David!" Constance's voice rose. "Don't speak them words!"
"I wasn't going to cast the spell! I don't even know how."
"You shouldn't even say it!"
"Hello?" Alexandra raised her voice and waved her arms to catch their attention. "Can we get back to the list?"
Constance and David fell silent.
Anna cleared her throat. "Someone Imperiused Sonja. Someone is definitely trying to kill Alex."
"The Dark Convention," Alexandra said.
Constance and Forbearance went very still. David took a deep breath. It was the only sound besides the scratching of Anna's quill.
"Okay," David said, "the whole Dark Convention is out to get you? Isn't that just a little bit dramatic?"
"It's not the whole Dark Convention."
Forbearance looked up from her charts. "Wasn't..." She hesitated. "Forgive me, Alex, dear, but they say your father..."
"...is allied with the Dark Convention? Mr. Journey says the Dark Convention is really a bunch of different nutbar groups. Some of them were allied with my father and some weren't."
"Now you're listening to that ghost?" David said.
David's tactlessness was getting on Alexandra's nerves. "You know, David, it would be really helpful if you actually had some ideas instead of just shooting everyone else's down."
"Okay, here's an idea – figure out why the Dark Convention wants you dead. I mean, I guess John Manuelito might want to kill you for getting him expelled, and Mary Dearborn's motive is obvious, but let's say the Dark Convention – or some wizards who call themselves the Dark Convention – is trying to kill you. I hate to say it, Alex, but anyone can be got. See it all the time back in Detroit."
"You mean the mean streets of Detroit where you live in that mansion?"
"I watch the news. The point is, if a bunch of warlocks want you dead..." He looked troubled. "I know you're Danger Girl out on the dueling field, but do you really think you could take on a real Dark Wizard?"
Alexandra was spared a reply by William suddenly appearing at the end of the aisle that led to their table. He hurried forward between the stacks of Beings poetry and songs, jumping away from a row of books that made strangled keening sounds whenever anyone passed near. He almost tripped over his plain blue robe before reaching their table.
"Hi," he said nervously as the five ninth graders stared at him. He addressed Constance and Forbearance. "Um, Innocence said Benjamin and Mordecai Rash are looking for you."
"Innocence said what?" they replied together.
"She's tailing them so she'd know when they went looking for you, and –" A loud croak came from within the folds of his robes. He reached a hand into a pocket and pulled out his pet toad. It croaked again, more loudly.
"That means they just entered the library," he said.
"How...?" Forbearance asked.
"She did something with our familiars," William said. "She can make Misery croak, and then Anthony will, too. So she could signal me. She called it sympathy."
"That's an Ozarker charm," Constance muttered.
"That's pretty clever," Anna said.
Alexandra was dumbfounded. "Wait – Innocence is watching the Rashes and she sent you –"
Constance and Forbearance were both getting up from the table. Forbearance closed her book of charts, saying in dismay, "I was near finished."
"We'uns gots to go," Constance said. "We're sorry, Alex, but we'uns can't be caught conspirin' with you'uns."
"It's okay. Go." She gave a warning look to David, and he closed his mouth.
The Pritchards hurried off. William stood there, fidgeting.
"Thanks, William," Alexandra said. "You can go tell Innocence her sisters are in the clear. I hope."
He nodded. "Um, I'm sorry I interrupted your meeting."
"It wasn't a meeting." She leaned closer to him. "Can you do me a favor?"
"Forget you saw us."
He blinked at her, then nodded quickly. "Yes, ma'am."
"I mean, yes, Alexandra."
"Alex. You can call me Alex." She patted him on the shoulder. "Now go."
Face shining, he hurried off.
David trudged after Alexandra and Anna as they left the library, and mumbled a sullen good night before turning down the corridor to the ninth grade boys' dorms.
"He's being kind of a jerk," Anna said.
Alexandra was silent. Anna opened her mouth as if to say more, but closed it as the warlock in the portrait over Delta Delta Kappa Tau Hall greeted them. They nodded to the portrait, and said nothing else until they reached their room.
"David's being a jerk, but he's right," Alexandra said. "We do need to know why the Dark Convention wants me dead. And..." She looked out the window at the dark night outside. Was John Manuelito out there in the woods, waiting for another opportunity to kill her? Put like that, it did seem rather implausible. But that wasn't what was really disturbing her. "If they want me dead, why don't they just get me while I'm at home?"
Anna gulped; she obviously hadn't thought of that.
"There aren't any protective wards or alarms around my house in Larkin Mills," Alexandra continued. "They could come after me any time."
Anna was very pale.
"Or they could come after me while I'm visiting Julia in Roanoke." Alexandra looked at the door to the adjoining bathroom. "I should probably see how Sonja's doing. I haven't talked to her since this morning." She walked through the bathroom and knocked on the door, and waited until a voice from the next room told her to enter. She did, while Anna stood behind her in the doorway.
Alexandra dreaded facing Sonja, expecting recriminations, blame, even fear. Instead, Sonja was full of questions, and not nearly as traumatized as she should have been after being used as a puppet in a murder attempt.
It was Carol who practically hid in the corner of their room, watching Alexandra fearfully. Alexandra wished she could say something to reassure her, but she couldn't blame Carol for being afraid. Didn't Sonja realize she should be afraid, too?
"So, who's trying to kill you?" Sonja asked.
"That's what we're trying to figure out," Alexandra said.
"You should be careful. That was pretty scary."
"You don't remember anything at all?"
Sonja shook her head. "I was only a few yards away from you. I was just about to call out to you because I thought I saw some magic mistletoe up in the trees. And then..." Sonja frowned. "I think I remember falling. And then I was floating."
"Yeah, floating down the hall toward the infirmary. And I saw Ms. Grimm and thought I was in trouble, but she told me to keep still, and then Mrs. Murphy examined me, and they told me about the mandrakes and the Imperius Curse, and the Dean said she'd have to send an owl to my parents. I hope they don't shoot sparks over this."
Alexandra glanced at Carol, whose rat was running up and down her arm. "Sonja, I'm really sorry."
"Well, it's not exactly your fault if someone is trying to kill you. Is it?"
"No, but you could have been killed, too."
"I don't think I'll go on any more hikes in the woods with you." Sonja laughed, a little nervously. "Maybe you should be careful, too, Anna."
When Alexandra and Anna returned to their own room, Anna said, "Don't take what she said seriously."
"Okay, let's all stay away from you because being your friend might be dangerous."
Alexandra refused to respond to that. Something else gnawed at her. "I want to talk to Mr. Journey again."
Anna sucked air through her teeth.
"I want you to stay here," Alexandra said.
"I don't really think he's dangerous," Anna objected.
"Then you shouldn't be worried about me talking to him alone."
"Why don't you want me to come with you?"
"Because I think he might say more to me alone than when you're with me."
Anna frowned. "I don't like it."
"I'll be fine." Alexandra fed Nigel and Charlie, then put her cloak back on. It was always cold in the basement.
"You've got less than an hour until curfew," Anna said.
"I'll be back by lights out. Promise."
Silently disapproving, Anna fed Jingwei some owl treats as Alexandra left their room and hurried downstairs.
There were still students, mostly older kids, walking about in the hallways, but nobody talked to her. She took the stairs down to the basement, and rather than trying to sneak into a dark side passage, she walked directly down the main corridor toward Ms. Fletcher's office.
She wasn't surprised to find Mr. Journey waiting for her, casting as much light with his own glow as the flickering lamp next to him. "I had a feeling I'd see you again, Starshine."
"Seriously, you keep calling me that just to annoy me, don't you?"
He smiled, but it wasn't his usual cheerful smile. "I heard about what happened today. Alexandra, are you going to come accuse me every time something suspicious happens? I don't know how I can prove to you that I'm not behind any of this."
"If I thought you were behind this, I wouldn't be talking to you. I can't think of any reason why you'd want me dead now. But I don't think you've told me everything."
The ghost sighed. "All right. What do you want to know?"
"Did you know about the Mors Mortis Society before you died?"
Alexandra stiffened in spite of herself. "You knew all along that there were kids practicing Dark Arts under the school?"
"Do you really think they could have kept meeting like that for years, avoiding me and the house-elves, if I hadn't known about them?"
"I wondered about that." Alexandra regarded the dead warlock with pity and anger. "So you were behind them all along."
"No. All I did was look the other way and not tell the Dean about them."
The ghost was silent, but a slight breeze stirred around him and then blew down the corridor, making a sound like a distant moan. Finally, he said, "The years I was a fugitive, after I broke away from your father's circle, I never joined any covens or became dedicated to another cause but... even with the Fidelius Charm hiding my identity as a member of the Thorn Circle, I needed help hiding from the Wizard Justice Department. There were a few shady warlocks who did me some favors."
"You mean Dark Wizards. You put yourself in debt to the Dark Convention."
"Yes. Then I got a job here at Charmbridge. Thought I was safe as I was likely to be. Lilith doesn't like the WJD poking their noses into her school. I could just tend to the grounds, look out for the elves..."
"Did she know about you?" Alexandra asked.
There was another long pause before Journey answered. "She couldn't know, because of the Fidelius Charm. But I think she suspected." He let out a ghostly breath that froze the air around him and made Alexandra shiver. "I certainly didn't know you would be showing up here, at her school, a few years later."
She waited for him to continue.
"Anyway, they – the Dark Convention – they let me know I should just... not interfere with that little Dark Arts club. Look, every school has a few kids messing with that stuff. I was promised it didn't amount to anything serious, wouldn't put other students in danger."
"And you believed them."
"It was true, as far as I know, until you arrived." Journey regarded her sadly. "I suppose someone has always kept an eye on the MMS and recruited the ones who were the most talented."
"So you had nothing to do with any of their activities? You didn't help encourage Darla Dearborn into the Dark Arts? You didn't know that John Manuelito wanted me dead?"
"Darla Dearborn? Merlin, no, I had no idea what that poor girl was up to, not even when you made me lead you into the Lands Beyond. And John Manuelito? I exchanged maybe six words with him the entire time he was at Charmbridge. What makes you think he wanted you dead?"
Alexandra studied the ground, thinking, and to avoid looking at Ben Journey.
"Lilith knows all this already," the ghost said. "I confessed everything to her."
"I figured." Alexandra's anger was already fading. She wanted to blame Mr. Journey for Darla's madness and for allowing the events that had led to Maximilian's death, but he'd just been a spectator – a coward, in hiding even as a ghost, but not the one responsible.
"Your father didn't trust the Dark Convention," Mr. Journey said.
Alexandra snorted. "Of course he didn't."
"What I mean is..." Journey paused. "When he put the Circle of Protection on you, obviously he didn't expect that one of us would threaten your life. And the Confederation would want to use you, not kill you. But in those last days before he cast the Circle and the Fidelius Charm and we went our separate ways, something was going on with the other Dark Wizards he'd been dealing with. He never shared everything he knew, even with his closest friends. If I'd stayed around, maybe I would have found out. I didn't really understand how the Circle of Protection worked, but I wasn't the only one who wondered why he was so paranoid about protecting your life. Of course you were his brand new baby daughter, but who'd want to kill you? And he had other children. But it was you he was worried about. Said he'd protect you from the stars above if he had to."
Alexandra frowned. Another mystery, something else to ask her father if she ever found him in a mood to answer questions again. None of this was very helpful. But it reminded her of something else.
"You tried to kill me the summer before I started at Charmbridge by putting a kappa in Old Larkin Pond, and redcaps. And all those other murder attempts at school – weren't they kind of, well, clumsy? If you just wanted to kill me, why not use a curse? Or run me over with a car? It couldn't have been that hard to get me in Larkin Mills."
Journey seemed unfazed by the questions. "You were being watched. You know that. And there was the Circle of Protection, which I thought was that damned bracelet. I didn't dare try to kill you directly."
"The Circle." Alexandra considered that. "Now that I've told Ms. Grimm everything I knew, anyone could know about the Circle of Protection, right?"
"It doesn't matter – it was broken when I died. You know all this, Alexandra."
"I know it and you know it, but who else knows it?"
Journey looked puzzled. "Your father, of course, and Lilith."
"She might have told her sister. Then everyone in the WJD would know. But would my father have told his new circle?"
"I don't know. Would you mind telling me why this matters?"
"Suppose someone wants me dead. But they've heard Abraham Thorn put a Circle of Protection around me, something that killed the last person who tried to kill me. Would they know that the protection died with you?"
Mr. Journey got the oddest expression on his face. At last, he said, "It's not a textbook spell. I suppose – you think someone thinks you're still protected?"
"Did you ever tell anyone... you know, after you died?"
"No, who would I have told?"
"You never mentioned it to any of the elves? Or maybe another ghost, like when you're floating around in the afterlife asking each other, 'So, how did you die?'"
"No." Journey's eyes glowed faintly, mournfully.
"So let's say someone wants to kill me but they think casting Avada Kedavra at me might backfire. Maybe they try to get someone else to do it instead. Or they lure me into a mandrake patch. Like all those indirect attempts you made to kill me."
"It's possible," Journey said.
"John Manuelito probably knew what you were up to. And I'll bet he knew the tunnels really well."
"Why are you so convinced it's John Manuelito?"
"I don't know." Alexandra looked up and down the corridor. "I know they've sealed off the sub-basements now. Is there still any way to get into them?"
"If there was, I wouldn't tell you about it."
"But is there a way?"
"Alexandra, I'll tell the Dean what you're up to if I have to. I swore to her that I wouldn't remain silent if any students were in danger, especially you."
"I'm not trying to get down there. I'm just wondering if they really sealed it off this time."
Journey sighed. "To my knowledge, they have. But it's very hard to be sure of anything where magic is involved."
"Can you still go down there?"
He gave her a long look. "They haven't warded the sub-basement against ghosts."
"How about Apparition?"
"The wards in Charmbridge's walls prevent Apparition, including below the school."
"What about elves?"
There was another long silence. "You know I hate a rat," the dead warlock said, "but just so we're being straight with each other, I think I'm going to have to tell Ms. Grimm about our little chat."
"Fine," Alexandra said, a little coldly. "All I've done is ask questions." She checked the time. "And now I have to go, before I miss curfew. You've been very helpful, Mr. Journey."
He said nothing as she left.
Halloween, and the Charmbridge Dueling Championship, was only a couple of weeks away, so when Torvald caught her outside the cafeteria one evening and asked if she wanted to practice dueling with him after dinner, she only hesitated for a moment before agreeing. There weren't many students who wanted to duel with her outside the club.
"But only if you're going to be serious about it," she told him. "Not that stupid hexem crap you play with Stuart."
"Aren't I serious in the club?" Torvald grinned at her. "If you're foolish enough to give me extra practice beating you before the real competition, I'm game."
"You've never beaten me."
His grin slipped for a moment. "Well, I was holding back."
"Uh huh. You know we're not allowed to duel in the gym without adult supervision."
"So we'll do what everyone else does: sneak outside."
Only juniors and seniors were allowed to leave the academy after dark. Sneaking out after curfew meant automatic detention for most students, and Alexandra doubted she would get off so lightly.
"Okay," she said. "Meet me in the fire pit west of the greenhouse." The greenhouse and the small trees next to it, as well as the depth of the fire pit, would shield them from view, and the wing of the academy that faced it was made up of classrooms that were unused at night.
He raised his wand in acknowledgment. "See you then, Troublesome."
Alexandra continued into the cafeteria. Constance and Forbearance had been sitting with Benjamin and Mordecai at meals for the past few days, so she was pleased when they joined her and Anna. Alexandra looked surreptitiously over her shoulder to see if the Rashes were glaring at them. They were.
David, who usually sat with the other boys during dinner, moved over to join them as well when he saw the Pritchards. "Hey. Are you allowed to sit with us again?"
"David Washington, you're worryin' my nerves," Constance said. Forbearance ignored him and unrolled a scroll across the cafeteria table. Alexandra realized after a moment that it was a star chart.
"Alex, I done your forecast for Halloween," Forbearance said, leaning forward to whisper across the table. "An' –"
"I done told her this is foolishness," Constance said, turning away from David to interrupt her sister. "Even if'n the stars got somethin' to say, you hain't skilled enough to read no one's signs."
Alexandra was looking around for the inevitable appearance of Sonja, but she was with the popular girls at the other end of the table. She had apparently not noticed the star chart or wasn't interested in breaking away from her current conversation to stick her nose into this one.
"I asked Mrs. Estrella to give a look," Forbearance said, "an' she said I'm right." Hastily, she added, "I din't tell her it was for you, Alex."
Alexandra sighed. "So what do the stars say?"
Forbearance didn't react to Alexandra's skepticism in her eagerness to show her discovery. "Take a gander – this is your star sign, an' that there's Mars, tied to your wand an' makin' your magical focus, an' this be the influence line from your birth to Halloween an' that's the lunar cycle correspondin' to times o' strife an' major works – see, it's a witch's moon – an' these here is your augery lines –"
"Forbearance, I have no idea what any of that means."
The litany of astrological terms ceased. Forbearance's hands fluttered over the chart and she looked from her vexed sister to Alexandra. Anna and David watched with careful neutrality.
"Look at the Seven Sisters," Forbearance said.
Alexandra studied the chart. The stars Forbearance indicated glowed red.
"And?" she asked at last.
"On Halloween night, you're in the most dangerous stellar latitude," Forbearance said.
Alexandra pressed the heels of her hands to her forehead. "What is a 'stellar latitude'? What is this supposed to be telling me, Forbearance, that I'm going to be in danger on Halloween? And what should I do about it, hide in my room?" She dropped her hands to the table. Forbearance's expression was dismayed and concerned. Constance folded her arms but kept her mouth shut.
"Seriously," Alexandra said, more gently, "what am I supposed to do?"
Forbearance swallowed. "Mrs. Estrella agreed that the stars is against you in any conflict or if'n you is involved with dire works – that's magic with any kind of, um, Dark influence..."
"Did you think I was planning to practice Dark Arts on Halloween?" Alexandra asked, with more than a touch of annoyance.
"No, 'course not." Forbearance flushed. "But it also means, well, Halloween would be a bad time for Dark Arts to be directed 'gainst you."
"I think any time would be a bad time for Dark Arts to be directed against me."
"Alex, dear, I know you don't take this seriously, but there is Arithmancy an' astronomy an' magical theory behind chartin' the influence of the stars above. This hain't just made-up folderol, whatever some people might think." Forbearance gave her sister a resentful glance.
"I promise to avoid anyone practicing Dark Arts on Halloween," Alexandra said.
"Conflict," Anna said. "The stars are against you in conflict –"
"If that means that the stars say I'm going to lose the dueling competition, well, screw the stars above," Alexandra said, causing the Pritchards to flinch. "Forbearance, I appreciate you looking out for me, I really do." Alexandra laid her hand across the unrolled chart with its moving, spinning illustrations of heavenly bodies and slowly rotating hemispheres. "But I've never paid attention to the stars before. I don't see why I should now. I'm not saying it's nonsense – I just don't see the point in worrying about it."
Forbearance and Anna continued to plead with Alexandra as they ate their dinners. When Alexandra saw Torvald leaving the cafeteria with Stuart, he gave her a little wave and she nodded. She turned back to her friends. "Look, I have to go."
"Maybe you should think about not dueling for a while," Anna said.
Alexandra gave her an incredulous look. "Seriously?"
"I'll see you in the library later, okay?"
Alexandra left the cafeteria and returned to her room. Before she went outside to meet Torvald, she let Charlie out. She wanted her familiar with her.
Sneaking in and out of the school was not difficult, but it was never completely safe. The portraits hanging in the hallways were occasionally moved to watch intersections that had previously gone unmonitored, and sometimes alarm spells were put on exits. But the faculty and older students were coming and going all the time, and sneaking out a window was easy: Ms. Grimm had required personal brooms to be locked up this year, but there were still Falling Charms and ropes. So mostly the staff emphasized punishing those who were caught rather than futile attempts to prevent every ingenuous method a student might devise to break curfew.
Although Alexandra still had a Skyhook in her backpack, she knew if she were caught using it Ms. Grimm would assume she was up to something sinister and take it away. So she used the main exit near the gymnasium. There was a possibility that an older student would see her and report her, but she saw no one as she sneaked out. It was getting cold, so there were fewer people venturing outside in the evening.
Charlie was waiting for her, sitting on the edge of the roof far overhead. When she stepped outside, the raven descended to land on her shoulder.
"Go check out the fire pit area, okay?" Alexandra said, pointing, but Charlie wouldn't take off until she produced an owl treat from a pocket in her cloak. "Greedy bird."
She found Torvald sitting on the edge of the fire pit with his legs dangling over the side, and Charlie perched on the opposite edge. Torvald sprang to his feet and gave Alexandra an exaggerated bow, as if they were about to begin a formal duel. "Your familiar announced you."
"Good bird," she said.
"Greedy bird," Charlie said. Alexandra tossed the raven another owl treat.
She walked to the edge of the pit and examined it. "We'd better not cast anything that leaves a mark. If either of us has to go to the infirmary, we'll be in trouble."
"Non-injurious takes away some of the best hexes," Torvald said. "You're not scared, are you?"
She wasn't scared, but she was wary. Torvald was a class clown. He'd never been malicious, but the possibility hadn't escaped her that he might be setting her up for a prank. She looked around carefully while pretending to examine the fire pit, but she saw no sign of his roommate or anyone else. A set of steps went down into the circular brick-lined pit. It was about twenty-five feet across, with an ash-filled hole at the very center. Sometimes it was used for picnic barbecues, and sometimes it was used to burn leaves. Once, she had almost been thrown into it by Clockworks acting on Mr. Journey's command.
"Are we going to practice in the pit?" Torvald asked. "It's half the size of a dueling platform."
"So you'll need to practice fast and short-range spells. You're not scared, are you?" She jumped down into the pit. "We're less likely to be seen down here."
Torvald stepped off the edge and landed a yard from her. "All right, close quarters is good – it's not so different from hexem. My advantage."
"Charlie, take off!" Alexandra commanded. She waited until the raven was no longer visible overhead, then asked, "Ready?" Torvald nodded.
He was expecting her Disarming Charm – he tried to move before she cast it – but his wand flew from his hand before he'd finished nodding.
"You said you were ready," she said, as he picked up his fallen wand.
He spun and cast a hex, but she already had a Shield Charm between them.
"C'mon, all that hexem rearranging your face and you can't do better than that?" she said.
Dueling constrained by distance and limited only to charms that wouldn't do worse than stun, paralyze, or temporarily deform the victim wasn't as good as a real duel, but it did give Alexandra practice in spotting the tell-tale movements of Torvald's hands, watching his feet and lips and fingers to guess what he would cast and when and react first. At close range there wasn't much chance of either of them missing, and both of them tended to attack more than they blocked. Alexandra Stunned Torvald four times in the next half hour. Though she hadn't hit him as hard as she could, he leaned against the wall and gasped for breath, clutching his bruised ribs, when they took a break.
Alexandra's legs were wobbly – she'd reversed the Jelly-Legs Jinx Torvald had hit her with, but she still couldn't quite stand up straight, and he'd Nettled her several times. She ran a hand over the side of her face; she'd felt something sting her there, but she wasn't sure what hex Torvald had cast. She grimaced when she felt a large, floppy ear covering half her face.
"That had better not be a real Transfiguration," she said. "If I need to have it reversed, Mrs. Murphy might ask me who did it."
"You won't tell her." When she scowled, Torvald waved a hand. "Just a standard sixth grade Enlarging Jinx."
"How exactly were you trying to win a duel by enlarging my ear?"
"I was aiming for your tongue, actually. You haven't learned non-verbal spellcasting yet, have you?" Torvald shook himself off and tried to brush some of the ash and dirt off his robes. Alexandra's Stunning Charms had knocked him off his feet, and once bounced him off the bricks of the pit.
He wasn't bad, and he probably would be more of a challenge when neither of them had to hold back. But Alexandra knew she'd beat him at the competition. He wasn't nearly as good as Larry.
"Want to practice some more?" she asked.
"It's getting late," he said. "Maybe we should quit while we're still both in one piece."
"I need more practice," she said. "C'mon, a few more rounds. I promise not to hurt you too much."
She hoped that would goad him into casting another hex, but he just grinned as he stepped close enough for the light from her wand to reflect off his teeth. "Your ear is shrinking back to normal."
She raised her free hand to the side of her head again. Her ear wasn't quite as large as it had been. "I'm fine – look, do you want to duel some more or not?"
"You're kind of obsessive," Torvald said. "Can I ask you a question?"
She lowered her wand. "What?"
He leaned against the wall a couple of feet from her. "Why do you go around acting like you're Bellatrix the Death Eater? We both know you're not really Dark at all."
Alexandra was so startled by the question, she answered it without thinking: "I don't act like I'm a Death Eater." Then she became indignant. "How do you know I'm not Dark? You don't know anything about me."
"I know all the rumors. You're the Enemy's daughter, you've been mixed up in Dark Arts every year, things happen around you..." Her expression made his voice trail off, then he spoke in as serious a tone as she'd ever heard from him. "I was in the Mors Mortis Society too, remember? I was there when you quit, over a snake. That's not how a Dark Sorceress acts."
"I am Abraham Thorn's daughter. That's not a rumor." She paused when Charlie cawed, then said, "I've never claimed to be a Dark Sorceress, but people are going to believe what they want. Why do you care? If you really thought I was Dark, you wouldn't have come out here with me alone at night, would you?"
"No." He shuffled his feet a little, with an expression Alexandra couldn't quite figure out. "Is it true you have a boyfriend?"
"What?" she exclaimed.
"Sonja Rackham says you do, but she's a gossipy little thing."
She pointed her wand at him again. "Is there any reason any of this is your business?"
He opened his mouth, but was distracted by a flapping sound. Alexandra looked up, and saw black wings moving against the backdrop of stars.
"Charlie?" she called. But the shape was bigger than Charlie.
"Crap," she said, and raised her wand.
There was a bright flash of light. Torvald and Alexandra both threw their arms up to shield their eyes, but too late for Alexandra to avoid being blinded. She staggered against the wall behind her and waved her wand back and forth, but she couldn't see anything with the glowing after-image imprinted on her retinas.
A voice from above said, "I'd think you'd have learned to stay away from fire pits, Troublesome."
Alexandra pointed her wand in the direction of the voice. "If you hurt Charlie, Larry, I'll –" She yelped as something struck her hand and her wand flew from it. She clutched her right hand; it burned painfully.
"I'm not going to hurt your raven. Corwin might eat it, though."
"Hey, Larry, what's the big idea?" Torvald said. "We weren't bothering anyone."
"What were you doing, Krogstad? Merlin, please tell me you weren't making it with Quick. Even with that face, you can't be that hard up."
"Hey!" Torvald said indignantly.
Alexandra was sidling along the edge of the wall, probing with her foot and hoping she would feel her wand lying on the ground.
"Oh, leave them alone, Larry." This was a female voice: Bathsheba Anderson. She sounded more amused than annoyed. "Although I'd think even a couple of freshmen would find a more romantic spot than a fire pit."
"I'm a sophomore," Torvald said.
"We weren't looking for a 'romantic spot'!" Alexandra said. "We were –" She stopped.
"You were what?" Larry asked.
Alexandra could see a little now, and tried to blink away the stars blurring her vision. Her hand and forearm were so swollen that when she stumbled to her wand to pick it up, she could barely close her fingers around it. She looked up at the two figures standing at the edge of the fire pit. There was a dark, bird-like shape on the shoulder of one.
"What did you do to me?" she asked. Her arm really hurt.
"A Stinging Hex combined with a Swelling Jinx. Pretty effective, isn't it?" Larry sounded very smug.
"Excessive, even," Bathsheba said.
Larry glanced at her, then turned back to the couple in the shadows below. Alexandra could just make out the corners of a smile. "We're allowed to be out after dark, but you two would be in big trouble if someone turned you in."
"Don't be a sneak, Larry," Torvald said.
"Go ahead," Alexandra said. "I'll get detention and I'll probably be forbidden to participate in the dueling competition. Great way to spare yourself the humiliation of getting your ass kicked, by being a snitch."
"You really are a vulgar little goblin, aren't you?" Larry said. "Very well, I'll let you get back to your pawing and groping."
Alexandra was filled with fury, but she kept her mouth shut. It was Torvald who said, "It's not like that. We were dueling."
"Torvald!" Alexandra hissed.
"Dueling?" Larry asked.
"Dueling?" Bathsheba echoed.
Torvald said, "I swear, it's the truth. I'll tell everyone you're a liar if you spread rumors."
"I'll mess your face up in ways Mrs. Murphy can't fix, sophomore!" Larry pointed his wand at the younger boy.
Bathsheba put a hand on Larry's arm. "If you think this is impressing me, you're wrong."
Larry lowered his arm. "Is it true, Quick? You came out here to duel?"
"None of your business!" she snapped.
He was silent a moment, then he laughed. "If you wanted extra dueling practice, you should have told me. I'd have been happy to oblige you."
"Yeah, right. You're lucky that we're dueling formally on Halloween."
"Oh, because you'd do better dueling without formal rules?"
"Hell, yeah! In a wizard duel, I'd own you!"
"I'd kick your ass!"
"Stars, you've got a mouth. You know what? Any time you want a wizard duel, Quick, you tell me the time and the place."
"How about Halloween night?" she said. "Outside, after the feast."
There was a moment of hushed surprise. Alexandra breathed in and out rapidly, as her temper faded. Her arm felt like deadweight on fire.
"Are you serious?" Larry asked.
"Are you afraid?"
"You're both being foolish," Bathsheba said. "You're going to duel each other in front of the whole school – what's the point in a rematch afterward?"
"Wizard dueling is the real thing," Alexandra said.
"It can get you in real trouble," Torvald said.
"Don't worry, Larry's all talk." Alexandra couldn't stop, even though she knew she was removing any possibility of either of them backing down.
"Says the witch with the mouth but not the talent," Larry said.
Torvald groaned. "You're both insane, you know that?"
Larry asked, "Any stakes? Or just the pleasure of knocking you into the dirt twice?"
Alexandra thought a moment, then grinned despite the burning in her arm. "Loser agrees to step aside and keep your mouth shut every time we see each other, the rest of the time we're at Charmbridge. And leave my friends alone, too."
Larry's mouth curled into a smile of his own. "So you'll act like a whipped house-elf every time you see me, just like your Ozarker friends around Ben and Mordecai? Really?"
"You're the one who's going to be rolling over and hanging his head."
"Oh, Merlin, Morgan, and Medb!" Bathsheba said. "If you're going to do it, just agree to the terms and let's go! I'm not going to stand here listening to you two posture all night."
"I accept." Larry twirled his wand and sheathed it. "This is going to be the best Halloween ever."
Bathsheba pulled him away before Alexandra could retort. She was left standing alone in the pit with Torvald.
He shook his head. "You're nuts, you know that? You don't really think you can beat him, do you?"
"I'm going to beat him." She put her own wand away. "Thanks for the practice."
"My pleasure," he said sarcastically, but Alexandra was already climbing the steps out of the pit and calling for Charlie.