Alexandra sat on the sofa for a long time, doubled over and shaking. Ms. King rubbed her back gently, but didn't say anything.
We'll be late to the ceremony, Alexandra thought, at last, and she took several deep breaths before sitting up.
"Do you want to know?" she asked quietly.
Ms. King's face was pale and still. She seemed to be thinking about it, then she shook her head.
"Only one thing," she whispered. For the first time, her composure seemed near breaking. "Did he... did he suffer?"
Alexandra swallowed, and shook her head. "No." Her voice was barely audible. "I'm pretty sure he didn't."
Ms. King studied her, perhaps trying to determine whether she was telling the truth, then nodded. "Thank you." She put her arms around Alexandra, and squeezed her tightly.
Alexandra couldn't return the embrace. "You don't want to know..."
"Who was responsible?" Ms. King murmured. "Who to blame? I think I know who to blame."
"Is there anything about what happened that will comfort me, or Julia?" Ms. King asked.
Alexandra thought about that, with her mind still reeling from memories of the Lands Below, and the last terrible sight she had of Maximilian, disappearing into the Lands Beyond.
"He saved me," she whispered. "If he hadn't died, I would have. He sacrificed himself for me."
She waited for Maximilian's mother to push her away, to look at her hatefully, to tell her that she should have been the one who died. But Ms. King just cupped the side of her face, and ran a thumb down Alexandra's cheek, gently brushing away a tear.
"You poor child," she murmured. "Alexandra, forgive me. It's you who needs to talk about what happened."
Alexandra shook her head. "You were right. It would be better if I didn't."
"Better for your father, perhaps. But not better for you." Ms. King sighed, and closed her eyes. "We must leave now."
"Promise me you will not try to keep all this contained within yourself. Come talk to me, when we return here tonight. Or if not me, promise you will talk to someone."
Alexandra bit her lip. Who could she tell about the Lands Below? Anyone she told would be at risk of being interrogated by Inquisitors.
"I will," she promised, but she had no idea who she would talk to.
They rode onto the grounds of the Blacksburg Magery Institute in a Thestral-drawn carriage, escorted by Regimental Officers and older students, all wearing crisp, dark uniforms beneath formal robes. At another time, Alexandra would have been excited and curious; now, she only took note in passing of the rows of brick and stone structures scattered across the large campus, so different from Charmbridge's single, seven-sided building. Uniformed students were everywhere, marching between classes and coming to attention as the officers passed by. Alexandra and the Kings were pulled along a road wending through the academy. They passed by a tall, black, stone tower, and Alexandra saw what appeared to be a troll chained to its base. She wondered about that, briefly, and then turned her attention to the parade field, where Maximilian's memorial service would be held.
His classmates had been given permission to attend, and there were rows of Stormcrows in neat, perfect lines. She saw Beatrice and Martin up front. Their eyes were straight ahead, and they could not acknowledge her, but she was sure they'd seen her.
Alexandra was numb throughout most of the ceremony. Officers in uniforms and teachers in robes spoke of what an outstanding student and promising mage Maximilian King had been. Alexandra listened to the speeches while looking around, wondering if her father was in attendance. Could he be invisible? Or perhaps there was a raven sitting in those trees across the field. She saw several adults who were wearing nondescript robes, scattered here and there among the attendees, and she knew they were probably Aurors. She didn't see anyone she recognized, though. She was glad Diana Grimm had not come, or worse, Mr. Raspire.
The BMI band played, the eleventh grade class cast a fiery tribute into the air with their wands, and Julia clung to Alexandra's arm and wept quietly.
The three bereaved witches had to stand in a reception line, as those who had known Maximilian came by and gave their condolences. Alexandra thought many of them were more curious than sympathetic; she sensed them studying her and Julia. Some looked nervous; some were too frightened to approach. She was sure that they were whispering about her, wondering about the role she'd played in her brother's death. Rumors were running wild back at Charmbridge, and surely they would be here, too.
Beatrice, when she reached the front of the line, embraced Alexandra, Julia, and Ms. King, each in turn, and cried openly. Alexandra was relieved that Martin seemed to have gotten his own tears under control. He gave Julia a quick hug, and shook Ms. King's hand, and then stood in front of Alexandra.
Face to face with the handsome older boy, Alexandra saw how grief-stricken Martin truly was by the loss of his best friend.
"Maximilian and I," he said, "we were... we were really close. I know you think I'm a... what's that Muggle word you keep using? Jerk?"
Alexandra shook her head. "No. You're not a jerk."
Martin smiled, for the first time she could recall since Maximilian's death. "Yes, I am. But if you ever need anything – I mean it." He looked at Alexandra's sister. "You, too, Julia. If either of you ever need anything, I swear to you, as an officer and a wizard, I will do anything I can to help you. Max..." His voice choked up. "Max would want me to."
"Thank you, Martin," Julia sniffed, and wrapped her arms around his neck, giving him a kiss on the cheek.
Alexandra nodded. "Thank you."
All of these people are going to miss you, Max, she thought. You never had to be afraid of being Abraham Thorn's son.
"Alexandra, Julia," called Ms. King. The two girls turned, to see three other witches standing at her side. Alexandra had noticed them taking seats nearby, during the ceremony, but she had assumed they were BMI staff, or perhaps Inquisitors.
All three women looked like they were in their twenties. Two of them were blondes, of exactly the same height. One had straight hair, and her face was radiant, suffused by Glamour Charms; the other wore her hair in curly braids, and her face was less made up. They seemed quite different at first glance, but Alexandra realized after looking at them for a moment that they were twins.
The third witch was a little younger, and shorter and plumper than the first two. She had curly brown hair, tied back away from her face. Despite her heavier figure and darker hair, Alexandra could see enough resemblance to guess that she was sister to the twins.
"Those are the Whites," Julia murmured in Alexandra's ear. "Father's daughters by his second wife." She paused. "I've only met Lucilla and Drucilla a couple of times, and I think this is the first time I've ever seen Valeria."
Alexandra nodded, and walked over to be introduced to three more half-sisters.
"We always meant to come visit properly," said Lucilla, one of the twins, as they each took turns embracing Julia, and then Alexandra. "But we only got to meet Maximilian a few times, over the years. We had lunch with him, a couple of years ago, when we happened to be in Roanoke."
"He was a wonderful young man," added Drucilla, the twin with the plain face and the braided hair. "We should have gotten to know our brother better."
"I'll always regret that I never got a chance to meet him," sighed Valeria. She was only a little taller than Alexandra. She held her youngest half-sister out at arm's length to examine her, with a sad smile. "I've been in Europe for the last five years, and I only happened to be visiting my family this month, when we heard about Maximilian. I'm very glad to meet you, too, Alexandra, and I'm so sorry it's under these circumstances."
Under any other circumstances, Alexandra would have been thrilled to meet three more sisters. Now, it was too much, and she felt like she should be asking questions, trying to make conversation and get to know them, when all she really wanted was to get away from all these people and the need to remain composed and sociable. But she imagined that Ms. King felt the same way, only much worse, so she nodded and accepted the White sisters' condolences.
Ms. King invited them all back to Croatoa, of course, but the Whites declined, with profuse apologies. Valeria was flying back to Europe the next morning – by Muggle airplane – so the three of them were returning to New England that evening. Their own mother was expecting them.
They all ate lunch together, at the BMI Officer's Club. It was a plush, luxurious dining room, quite different from the Spartan cafeteria Alexandra glimpsed downstairs where the students ate. There were no house-elves or Clockworks that Alexandra could see; instead, BMI students in fancy white uniforms waited on the officers and distinguished visitors.
Alexandra wasn't sure what she was supposed to say. She had never been to a funeral before. She had never lost anyone close to her before. And she felt as if all the memories of the past week had been picked up and shaken, and were still swirling around in her head, waiting to settle down. She felt numb, and Julia, still coping with her grief less gracefully than her mother, said little.
For Lucilla, Drucilla, and Valeria, their father's other children had apparently been incidental branches of their family tree, with whom they loosely stayed in touch, but had never become close. Alexandra heard them mention other half-siblings; they had a stepfather, and a family they had grown up with, and their real father had always been a nearly invisible presence in their lives.
No one talked much about Abraham Thorn.
She answered her half-sisters' questions about Charmbridge, and her home in Larkin Mills, and managed to muster enough curiosity to ask about Artificing. It seemed to involve the production of enchanted artifacts, everything from brooms to Clockworks to Portkeys, and even more complex creations. Lucilla and Drucilla told Alexandra that if she were interested, she could apprentice with them, any summer.
Valeria told them she was a Historicist. Alexandra thought that sounded like a rather dull occupation for a witch, but politely asked what kind of history she studied.
"The kind I can't study here," Valeria replied. "Only a few Territories in the Confederation have Historical Departments, and none of them are going to hire a daughter of Abraham Thorn."
Alexandra found this puzzling – why would the Wizard Justice Department care about Abraham Thorn's daughters studying history? It seemed like one of the more innocuous things they could do.
It was intriguing enough to penetrate her grief and numbness, and she would have asked more questions, but no one else seemed interested, and Alexandra didn't think showing enthusiasm for some off-limits academic subject would do anything but make this lunch more painful for Julia and Ms. King. Valeria seemed to sense her curiosity, though, and wrote down an address and – to Alexandra's surprise – a phone number and email address as well.
"I don't check them often," Valeria warned her. "An International Owl will probably reach me faster, even across the Atlantic. But I have found Muggle computers useful for some things."
"Valeria has always been quite the radical," Drucilla commented, with a smile. The Historicist snorted at her older sister, while Alexandra wondered what made Valeria a 'radical.' Maybe the fact that she even deigned to touch a Muggle device.
Too many new things to think about, at a time when she didn't want to think about anything.
The Whites were nice enough. Alexandra did hope to see them again, someday. She didn't think they were going to go out of their way to stay in touch.
She didn't see Beatrice or Martin again, as she left Blacksburg with Ms. King and Julia. She was returning to Chicago by Wizardrail the next day. She didn't know whether or not the Stormcrows would be on the same train, but she rather hoped they wouldn't be.
Although the memorial service was over, there was one more thing to be done. Ms. King had explained it to Alexandra when they were crossing the water to the mainland, that morning.
"Maximilian will have a marker at the BMI cemetery," said his mother. "But that will not be his true grave site."
So when they returned to Croatoa, Ms. King led Julia and Alexandra down the hill from the mansion on foot, and into the woods. Charlie – whom Alexandra had confined in a cage and left in the care of Deezie when she went to Blacksburg – was still a little miffed at her, and refused to remain perched on her shoulder. The raven fluttered from branch to branch, cawing occasionally, as they proceeded through the woods. Alexandra thought about telling her familiar to be quiet, but Ms. King and Julia didn't seem to mind, so she allowed the bird to keep announcing their presence.
The forested part of the island was nearly as dark and spooky by day as it was by night. Alexandra did not mention her previous trip through these woods, and allowed Ms. King to believe she had never seen their destination before. Julia held out her hand – not fearfully, but for solace – and Alexandra took it gladly.
"Mother... and Max... have only taken me to the family crypt once before," Julia murmured.
Alexandra nodded. Ms. King was casually clearing a path for them, sweeping her wand and Vanishing brambles and vines so they could walk unimpeded through the trees. When the stone mausoleum loomed ahead, Ms. King paused, and Alexandra saw several ghostly figures before them, dimmer by day but still visible.
"Are you here to inter Maximilian?" asked one of the ghosts. It sounded like Absalom Thorn.
"His name belongs in the crypt, though there is no body to inter," replied Ms. King.
Julia, who had mostly held back tears since they'd left Blacksburg, suppressed a choking sob, and Alexandra squeezed her hand.
The ghosts seemed to accept this. Ms. King proceeded into the small clearing around the crypt, and the girls followed. Alexandra saw her great-great-great-great-grandfather, and several other ghosts, standing by the entrance.
"Stay here, Charlie," she commanded, and Charlie landed on the stone arch above the entrance, without a sound.
Julia took a deep breath, before they entered. Ms. King's wand cast light on the stone sarcophagi and the names and dates inscribed on the walls, above niches and alcoves. The ghosts followed them inside. In the crypt, the details of their faces and clothing could be seen clearly. The Thorn ancestors looked solemnly and sympathetically upon the three witches who had intruded upon their resting place. Alexandra could see tears running down Julia's face again.
Ms. King chose a bare spot above one of the empty niches, near the entrance, and pointed her wand. Alexandra could not hear the words she muttered, but the stone glowed as if being heated from within, and then brilliant fiery letters burst across its surface. As soon as the letters appeared, the glow faded, and Alexandra saw what Maximilian's mother had inscribed:
Maximilian Alexander Thorn
Beloved son of Abraham Everard Thorn and Thalia Agatha King
Born on the Third of July, MCMXCII
Passed Beyond in May, MMIX
I still don't even know the exact date, Alexandra thought bitterly. She only remembered three days in the Lands Below, but she had returned a week after they'd left.
Ms. King bowed her head, and they all stood silently for a while.
"He will be remembered," Absalom Thorn intoned, at last. "We shall all remember him. Let your minds be at ease, that he has found peace in the hereafter, as we have not."
Ms. King nodded, and with a tear in her eye, held out one hand to Julia, and the other to Alexandra. The two girls took her hands, and they exited the crypt.
Alexandra looked at the ghost of Absalom Thorn, and her other ancestors, as they walked past, and reflected on what he had said.
Peace? She thought about her last sight of Maximilian, disappearing into a black void from which no one could return – not even as a ghost, apparently. Was that peace? Was she supposed to believe that Maximilian was living happily in some afterlife? That the Lands Beyond were just another great adventure, in a world beyond this one?
She didn't believe that. She hoped Maximilian was at peace, but her mind was not at ease.
She let Deezie pack all her clothes that night, while she stared out the window, at the darkness surrounding the island. No ghosts appeared at the tree line this night. She wondered if perhaps her father were out there in the woods at this moment, paying his respects to Maximilian. She was tempted to run out there and find the crypt again, and demand answers from Absalom Thorn, and if she found her father there, from him, too.
Instead, she exited her room, walked across the hall, and knocked on Julia's door.
"Come in," Julia said quietly, from within, and Alexandra opened the door, to find her sister sitting in a chair by her vanity, with her back to the door, while Olina stood on a stool behind her, weaving her hair into fine braids.
"I don't want to go back to Salem," Julia murmured, looking at Alexandra in the mirror. "I don't think Mother should be alone right now. But she insists we both go back to school tomorrow."
"Mistress King will not be alone, Miss Julia," Olina said, in a tremulous voice. "We house-elves will take good care of Mistress."
"I know you will, Olina," Julia sighed. She held out her wand, and tried to conjure another chair for Alexandra to sit in, but all that appeared was four wooden legs, which stood straight up for a moment, and then fell to the carpet.
Before she could do anything else, Deezie appeared, with a chair, and then Rolly appeared, scooped up the chair legs, and disappeared with them.
Grateful for the elves' efficiency, Alexandra sat down and thanked Deezie. She cleared her throat, as Julia looked at her expectantly, with a sad half-smile.
"Can I talk to you?" Alexandra asked, in a quiet voice.
Julia's eyebrows went up. "Of course you can! Why else are you here – oh." She glanced at Olina, in the mirror, and Deezie, at Alexandra's side, and then back at Alexandra.
"They really are part of the family, you know," Julia murmured, indicating the house-elves. "They miss M-Max... as much as we do." Julia swallowed, while fat tears ran down Olina's face, and then she continued. "And they'll keep our confidences. House-elves don't gossip."
"Never!" Olina declared. Deezie was shaking her head violently.
"I believe you," Alexandra said. "But –" She took a deep breath.
"It's all right." Julia smiled, and took Alexandra's hands. She looked over her shoulder at Olina. "Leave us, please."
"Yes, Miss," Olina croaked. She disappeared with a crack, and a blink of an eye later, so did Deezie.
"I hope I didn't hurt their feelings," Alexandra said, looking down.
"No." Julia shook her head. "They understand. What did you want to talk about, Alexandra?"
Alexandra looked up at her sister. "I was wondering..." She paused. "Wizarding portraits... I know they aren't really the actual person, but..."
Julia closed her eyes, and squeezed Alexandra's hands, while she shook her head. "There's no portrait of Maximilian, Alex. They're almost never painted for someone Max's... age, and you can't enchant one after the wizard has already died."
"Oh," Alexandra replied, disappointed. She took another deep breath. "There's something else I need to tell you."
Julia opened her eyes. They creased slightly, as she waited expectantly.
"I... remember," Alexandra whispered.
Julia looked puzzled for a moment, and then her eyes widened in comprehension.
Alexandra didn't let go of her sister's hands, as she told Julia how she and Maximilian had journeyed to the Lands Below, and how Maximilian had died. She knew telling Julia was risky. They'd both have to worry about being interrogated by Inquisitors. But if they were forced to divulge Abraham Thorn's secrets, that was his problem, not theirs. He had had no right to take her memories in the first place, and now that he'd given them back to her, they were hers to do with as she saw fit – including share them. And Julia deserved to know that her brother had died a hero.
"We'll take care of Charlie," Beatrice assured her.
"Really," Martin said earnestly, with no smirk or trace of teasing on his face. He just looked at Alexandra seriously, and took Charlie's cage from her. Inside, Charlie cried out, "Alexandra!" and fluttered around within the confines of the cage.
Alexandra had already known that Julia would be taking a Portkey back to Salem, but Ms. King had informed her that morning that if Alexandra didn't want to endure the train ride back to Chicago, she could travel by Portkey as well. And Alexandra had agreed, because she really didn't feel like riding the Roanoke Underhill again.
Julia's warning that Portkey travel, especially at that distance, was uncomfortable, did not deter her. But animals didn't travel well by Portkey, and they also cost as much as a human fare. Rather than asking Ms. King to pay an additional exorbitant fee for Charlie, Alexandra agreed to send the raven back by Wizardrail. Fortunately, the BMI students who had come back to Blacksburg for Maximilian's funeral were returning to Charmbridge for the final two weeks of the semester, and Beatrice and Martin had promised Alexandra that they would bring Charlie safely back to the academy with them.
Alexandra wasn't entirely happy about this, and Charlie was even less so, but it seemed like a reasonable arrangement.
"Behave, Charlie," she said. "I'll see you this evening."
"Alexandra!" Charlie squawked. Alexandra felt guilty, and almost decided then and there to take the Wizardrail instead, but then she looked back over her shoulder, where Julia and Ms. King were waiting in the carriage.
"Thanks, then," she told the Stormcrows. "I'll see you when you get back to Charmbridge."
Beatrice nodded. "I wish I were going by Portkey. Just don't hold your breath."
"I'll remember that." Alexandra walked back out of the Wizardrail station, trying to ignore Charlie's angry caws, and climbed back into the carriage outside. Ms. King pulled on the Thestral's reins, and they went trotting down the road, to a much newer building made of brick, also concealed in a copse of trees, behind a sign that said only, 'Portkeys.'
As they got out of the carriage, each carrying only one bag, Julia took Alexandra's hand. Alexandra smiled wanly at her sister, and they walked hand-in-hand into the Portkey station.
Julia had cried for a long time, after hearing Alexandra's tale. Alexandra had sat up with her, long into the night, and they were both tired now, but that was nothing compared to the relief Alexandra felt that Julia had not turned on her, had not screamed at her that Alexandra shouldn't have let Maximilian go to the Lands Below, or that she shouldn't have gone with him, or most of all, that she should never have allowed her brother to die in her place.
That Julia didn't say these things did not mean Alexandra still didn't think them, though.
"Girls," said Ms. King, returning from the counter, where she had paid for two Portkey trips with what looked to Alexandra like a very large stack of Lions.
She opened her arms, and gave Alexandra another warm embrace.
"You will always be welcome at Croatoa," Ms. King murmured, with her thick arms wrapped around Alexandra's shoulders. "I want you and Julia to stay in touch."
"Me, too," Alexandra mumbled. "Thank you."
Then Ms. King embraced her daughter. Julia, who had managed to remain composed for most of the morning, burst into tears again, and the two King witches stood together, holding one another, for several long minutes, Ms. King murmuring into her daughter's ear. Alexandra waited patiently. It wasn't as if she were in a hurry, and Portkeys didn't run on a schedule.
Finally, Julia's mother released her from her embrace, and Julia and Alexandra faced one another.
"Promise you will come back, to visit," Julia said. "And write, as often as you like. Summer..." She swallowed. "Summer is going to be very lonely here."
"I will." Alexandra nodded. Summer in Larkin Mills was going to be lonely, too, she thought. "I'll write every week, at least. And I'll come see you if I can, if your mother and mine both say it's okay –"
"Of course they will."
Julia pulled her younger sister into a tight embrace, and pressed her hot cheek against Alexandra's. Alexandra hugged her back.
"You are my sister," Julia whispered in her ear. "Now and forever."
Alexandra nodded. "I know," she whispered back.
Julia released her, then cupped Alexandra's face in her hands. She leaned forward and gave her a kiss on both cheeks, and then looked her in the eye.
"It wasn't your fault," she whispered, eyes glistening.
Alexandra gulped, and couldn't answer. She just stared at her sister, as Julia picked up her bag. A wizard in a uniform similar to those worn by the ticket agents at the Wizardrail station had just carried a large antique silver spoon into one of the booths, holding it on a red velvet pillow. He set it on a shelf in the booth and stepped back. Julia walked into the Portkey booth and gave Alexandra and her mother a final wave, as the Portkey agent closed the door.
A moment later, he opened it, and removed the pillow. Julia, and the spoon, were gone.
Another uniformed agent was now carrying a car tire, dangling from a heavy silver chain, into another booth. He set it down and slid the chain out, without touching the tire, then gestured at Alexandra to enter.
She looked at Maximilian's mother. "Good-bye, Ms. King."
Alexandra stepped into the booth, and the agent closed the door behind her.
A sensation like being hooked behind your navel and jerked through space, they had told her. She almost took a breath, before remembering Beatrice's advice. So she exhaled slowly, and then touched the tire.
The 'hook' felt like one that a side of beef would be hung on, and Alexandra knew immediately why Beatrice had warned her not to hold her breath. She felt as if she'd been ripped right out of her shoes – indeed, she wouldn't have been surprised to arrive naked, her clothes left behind. There was a moment that seemed to stretch out and out, as she tumbled through space, yanked on an invisible line, and then she stumbled against the inside of the booth, and felt the rubber of the tire under her fingers. Panting, she sucked in a breath, and leaned against the wall. All that, and nothing had happened!
Then someone opened the door, and she saw that she was looking out at the Chicago Wizardrail station.
It was chaos. Witches and wizards were running in all directions, a voice was urging calm over the Wizard Wireless loudspeaker, and Aurors were using Petrification and Impediment Jinxes to keep the crowds from stampeding.
Alexandra had no idea what was going on. Then a hand reached into the booth and grabbed her by the arm.
"Hello, Alexandra," Diana Grimm greeted her, with a humorless smile. "Did you have a pleasant trip?"