Chapter 31


There was supposed to be a clue to the Second Task inside the golden egg; that was what Ludo Bagman had told us. While the Slytherins were celebrating my accomplishment, I withdrew to my dormitory and began to investigate the clue. As I opened the egg, it greeted me with a screech almost as bad as that of the portrait in the Black townhouse. (I had afterwards realised that it was the portrait of Walburga Black whom I had had the misfortune to know at Hogwarts in my first life. It was a good thing she was dead; if the Second Task would have been confronting her, I probably would have compromised my false identity by using Unforgivable Curses on her. I had been tempted to set the Basilisk on her back in 1943, but I had considered it risky to target people I had openly disliked.)

The egg was clearly not about to give its secret away that easily, so I cast a Silencing Charm on it before opening it for the second time. I peeked inside, trying to see if there was something carved on the inside surface; the screeching sound might be a bluff. But there was nothing, not even after a Revealing Charm.

I stuffed my blanket into the egg and dispelled the Silencing Charm. The sound was muffled, but did not become any more understandable. This did not discourage me. It was a riddle, and I had a very special kind of kinship with riddles. Besides, since the Tasks were supposed to be the challenging part of the tournament, the egg would have to be easily solved.

I sat down on my bed and imagined myself as an organiser of the tournament. The riddle had to be solvable using methods anyone would know and try. If silencing the sound or muffling it with a blanket were not the right method, then perhaps changing it somehow? Some magics worked differently underwater, and so I took the egg to the bathroom and filled it with water. That did the trick. The screech was replaced with a watery song that I could understand only after I pressed my ear beneath the water surface.

After a few minutes I was certain that the Second Task would be a hostage mission, commonly used in the historical tournaments, and it would take place in the lake. I already had Gillyweed, thanks to Professor Moody's advice, and three months time to explore the lake for the place where the hostage would be kept. That would also be enough time to plan a breathtakingly dramatic fight scene between myself and the Giant Squid.

The next folly the school year offered the students was the Yule Ball. For many Slytherins it was nothing out of the ordinary, and Draco complained that he had to endure a feast which would be messed up by Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs.

"When the commoners come from the pub to the parlour, they don't become civilised, but turn the parlour into a pub," he said with a condescending grimace, and I could not help but agree. The Weasley twins, for example, had the potential to be useful minions in a magical war, but I did not want to socialise with them, especially on their terms.

I could not quite understand why the commoners seemed to consider the ball as an incredibly important occasion. When I asked Harry what he had planned for the Christmas evening, he blushed and muttered something incoherent. I sighed in exasperation and turned to look at the target dummies that he had battered so many times during our lessons in the Room of Requirement.

"I should keep in mind that you are not a Slytherin," I said. "I'm taking for granted some things that are totally alien to you. Now I realise that we've been focusing too much on combat skills. You have to learn other skills too. The people stuff."

"Tom, you've said many times that Voldemort is regaining his strength," Harry pointed out. "I have to learn how to fight. I don't see how this Yule Ball is relevant."

"If you don't, that proves you don't understand the other aspects of war than battles. Even the greatest warrior is unable to win a war by himself. We've got Moody as our Defence Professor, but he's not a good example; he was a lone wolf. Barty Crouch was a true military leader who understood the complex situation Britain was in. He knew that in order to stop Voldemort he had to deal with other people and ensure their support. The truth is that the huge majority of Slytherin families sided with the Ministry, at least passively, and that was the great accomplishment of Barty Crouch. Moody was the one who engaged in battle and defeated more of Voldemort's followers than anyone else, but Crouch, while he did take part in some battles, his most important role was to be the one who ensured that Moody didn't face an enemy force too numerous to be defeated."

"But the ball…"

"… is the perfect opportunity for you to learn how to deal with people. Consider it an opportunity. Make new friends. Make sure they fight alongside you when the next war begins. Be an awkward, closemouthed loner, and you'll face your war alone."

"McGonagall said that I've got to ask a girl to be my partner…" Harry said, looking as if he would rather have faced a dragon again.

"You're not asking her to marry you! No need to be nervous. You could ask someone you're already on speaking terms with. Surely you wouldn't get uneasy with Hermione. Ginny would be thrilled to be your partner." Harry did not seem to like the idea. "How about one of the Chasers of your Quidditch team? But if you want to learn something, not just survive the night, ask someone you don't know. It's better to learn to cope with such a situation before there's much at stake."

Harry stared at a wall and fidgeted with his fingers very tensely. Such behaviour was quite familiar to me from the numerous Slytherins I had practiced my manipulative skills with in my first life.

"Oh, I see," I said and chuckled. "There's someone you'd like to go with. Is that it?"

"Well, yes," he muttered after a few awkwardly silent moments, blushing again. "I was thinking… Cho. She's the Seeker of the Ravenclaw Quidditch team."

Another Quidditch enthusiast? It might be bad influence. But it hardly mattered in the grand scheme of things. Lovesick loons were so easy to manipulate that I welcomed this revelation with eager anticipation.

The human weakness that I'm above is upon you, Harry!

"Ask her to be your partner," I said aloud. "And do it soon. It won't get easier over time. Someone else may be harbouring similar thoughts. Consider this a test and a challenge. To give you further incentive, I refuse to teach you anything before you've asked her."

I walked to the door and opened it, leaving Harry looking after me with a haunted expression.

"Oh, by the way," I said, turning around smirking viciously. "If you don't act soon, I may take matters into my own hands. I've got Polyjuice Potion, and your hair… surely you wouldn't want me to ask her on your behalf?"

I left the Room, laughing diabolically.

The next evening Harry had not scratched up enough courage to ask the Ravenclaw Seeker, and I reprimanded him before offering to cast the Cheering Charm on him. The idea of approaching a girl under artificial mood was strongly unpleasant for him, so he promised to bring better news the next day before fleeing the Room of Requirement.

The next evening Harry burst into the Room, looking giddy.

"I did it, Tom!" he exclaimed. "I asked Cho, and she said yes! I checked the Marauder's Map and saw that she was leaving the library, and then I met her outside as if by chance. Good thing her annoying friends were not there."

"That's a good first step, but what next?" I asked. "How do you plan to use this date to advance your interests?"

"Frankly, it somehow feels wrong to think about it that way," Harry complained.

"Well, what plans do you have to make the Yule Ball at least tolerable for you?"

Harry's elation waned in a heartbeat.

"Um… I'm not the most, uh, socially talented person," he admitted. "How can I keep up a conversation with Cho the entire night? I barely know her. She likes Quidditch, too, but is that topic enough for so many hours?"

"I have a solution to your problem." I tried hard to keep my face serious. "If it feels like an awkward silence is coming and you have absolutely nothing interesting to say, this will work. But this is the very last resort, understand? It will be a choice between two calamities. Ask her what she thinks about Moody. Then point out that he can see right through clothes!"

Harry's eyes widened in shocked realisation.

"She will most likely begin an outraged tirade and doesn't want to be interrupted. As she keeps running her mouth, you can be quiet without it feeling awkward."

"Uh huh," Harry voiced. "I think I know what he will be fired for."

The door opened and my other Gryffindor minions entered. The Weasley twins were carrying two armfuls of fireworks that were charmed to fire hexes. Ron and Hermione, who both looked a bit wary, kept their distance to the twins. (Harry and Ron's friendship had suddenly fixed itself after the First Task, but Harry had wasted the opportunity to demand reparations from Ron; I would not have forgotten to do so even as a four-year-old.) Ginny, who entered last, looked fierce as she glared daggers at me for some reason.

We had a normal fighting lesson, except that Ginny's foul mood made her much more proficient at using offensive magic, and she repeatedly managed to pierce Ron's Shield Charm. After the session, when everyone else left for the Gryffindor common room, she stayed behind and turned her furious eyes at me again.

"I heard Harry telling Ron that you encouraged him to ask Cho Chang for the Yule Ball, and he did!" she said in a vicious, accusing tone. "You promised to help me with Harry!"

So that was what bothered her. Still, I was quite taken aback by her reaction. Was this really the same emotionally fragile little girl whom I had had no trouble possessing in order to open the Chamber of Secrets?

"Wow, Ginny, you've grown!"

"What?" she hissed.

"You've learned to fight for what you want. I have no doubt that Harry will notice you as a person in your own right, not just as Ron's sister who has a crush on him."

"What does it matter now?" Ginny shrieked. "Harry's going to date Cho Chang!"

"Hah, it's just one frivolous event. He didn't ask her to marry him. Besides, I did suggest asking you, but he wasn't very keen about it. It was Harry who told me he wanted to ask the Ravenclaw Seeker, I just told him to go with it."

Tears glistened in Ginny's eyes.

"Let Harry have a horrible night with a shallow fan girl," I said dismissively. "It won't take long for him to start appreciating your down-to-earth style. But you must act as if you're not upset by this turn of events. That way he can't take you for granted."

"I've trusted you for over two years," she said in a dangerously quiet voice, like the calm before the storm. "You seem so sure of yourself when you say things like that, but I don't know if I can trust you so much anymore."

It stung, if only a little.

"That's how it should be," I said, unable not to smile. "It's a really, really important part of growing as a person to realise that you can't rely on others. You must be able to rely on yourself. There's no one else in the world to whom your best interests are the highest priority."

She snorted and walked to the door.

"Good night, Tom," she said coolly before leaving. "I'll heed your advice, but I'll also consider whether it's worth it."

The door closed after her. She had more potential than I had imagined. Was this what Voldemort had seen in Bellatrix Lestrange?

As Christmas Day came, we Slytherins had decided to demonstrate to the rest of the school why our House produced most of the powerful individuals in Britain by being as sophisticated as we could. As I had suggested, many Slytherins had asked students of the other Houses as their partners; this opportunity to form friendships that would later become beneficial should not be wasted. My partner, however, was Sara Jugson, the most Slytherin young lady in the castle, because I had another kind of demonstration to make. Even though I was the one who advocated friendly relations with the other Houses, I still sought my own partner from within Slytherin itself. I knew there were still those who suspected I had some hidden agendas (it was the House of cunning, after all), but this gesture would keep them content.

Sara Jugson was the best choice for another reason too. She, the daughter of one of the most powerful pure-blood families, had known from childhood that her father would be the one to choose her future husband. (She would have the freedom to reject her father's choice, but not to choose herself.) Because of that the normal dating life of a young witch was not for her, and she did not have any naive delusions that my asking her as a dance partner would be a romantic gesture. Besides, I had danced with her a couple of times before, in the Malfoy Yule Ball a year previously, and also during the summer, and I knew she was not like many of the girls I had known in my first life. For example, Sidonie Hipworth, the female prefect of the students Sorted to Slytherin in 1938, had been obsessed with me. She had considered me as the perfect husband material for her, because neither of us had aristocratic background, but enough talent and ambition to force our way upwards in the stiff social hierarchy of wizarding Britain. (I had checked what had become of her, and found out that she was a high-ranking official in the Ministry's Department of Magical Finance and was married to a moderately respected family whose members were usually Sorted to Ravenclaw. Three of her grandchildren were currently at Hogwarts. It was weird to think that if she had had her way, those three would be my grandchildren…)

After some legendary family names had died due to no male offspring, it had become customary in the wizarding world to preserve all respected family names. If a family had only daughters, especially if it did not have a cadet line, the eldest daughter's marriage was arranged so that her husband would adopt her name and not the other way around. Because of this, the eldest sons of the prestigious group of families never married the eldest daughters of such families. Greengrass was one of the families with currently no male offspring, and I had heard rumours that my friend and Sara's brother Ethan had been planned to become the husband of Daphne Greengrass while his brother Robert would continue the line of Jugson.

These thoughts and more went through my mind as I waited for the rest of the Slytherins to prepare for the Yule Ball. When everyone was ready, we left the common room with Sara and me leading the way to the Entrance Hall. There we had to wait again, and everyone stared at the champions and their partners. I had purchased plain-looking dress robes, but improved them magically so that they absorbed all light; they seemed like a totally empty void in the field of vision. It was what I considered elegant. Sara had a green dress, not Slytherin green, but the softer colour of her eyes; but she wore silver jewellery, something the House of Jugson had in abundance.

Harry and Cho Chang stood next to me, and I noticed Ginny, who was with Neville Longbottom, watching them intently. She did not look discouraged; on the contrary, she seemed to find entertainment in both Harry and Chang looking a bit uneasy as they did not appear to have anything to say to each other. (I suddenly got nervous that Harry would mention Moody before the ball even began.) But then everyone's attention focused on the new arrivals as Fleur Delacour glided haughtily through the crowd with Cedric Diggory in tow. Diggory seemed somewhat resistant to his partner's Veela allure, and gave an apologetic sort of look to Chang, who returned the exact same look back, but Harry was too oblivious to notice.

Interesting, I thought and added Diggory and Chang on my mental list of budding romances. I had years ago (well, decades, rather) realised that romance was something a cunning Slytherin could manipulate for his own benefit. I had figured out who had fancied who, and begun a complex and ever-shifting game of manipulating relationships. I had first helped many people and gained their gratitude, then sabotaged them without them knowing and created jealousy, then offered support and fake consolation and gained even more gratitude. By my fifth year, there had been many grudges and conflicts and much distrust within Slytherin, but I had been a respected mediator and councillor. To be honest, securing future political assets had been my secondary motivation. I would have done it just for the sake of the entertainment the conflicts had offered me.

The mighty front doors opened as the Durmstrang students arrived. As Viktor Krum took his place among the champions, the gossip mill of Hogwarts suddenly got a lot more stuff to grind, because Krum's partner was none other than Hermione. I felt my eyebrows rising towards my hairline. I could not imagine Hermione asking Krum to be her partner, so it had to have been Krum who had taken the initiative. My own minion and an internationally known Quidditch prodigy! There had to be a way of gaining some political advantage from this situation. Oh, how I loved being a Slytherin!

The Great Hall was decorated to look like a fairy tale castle from a winter wonderland. To me Hogwarts had always been magical enough as it was; when wizards put special effort to making things look fantastic, it turned out extravagant. Christmas should have a solemn and devout air, not this.

All champions and their partners sat at the same table as the judges. Bartemius Crouch was not present: he had sent his underling to attend this frivolous occasion. Percy Weasley welcomed us, smiling and looking important. Apparently he did not realise that being sent to Hogwarts for the Yule Ball emphasised his unimportance. Crouch was probably sniffing around in Malfoy Manor where the actually important people convened every Christmas, doing his best to find evidence that would link Lucius to the events following the Quidditch World Cup final.

Viktor Krum had found his tongue and kept babbling to Hermione throughout the dinner. I tried to listen to him, because he might mention some hints I could use to find the secret location of Durmstrang; for a long time I had wanted to sneak into the school notorious for the Dark Arts and take a look at its library.

Karkaroff apparently realised the danger, because he interrupted his student.

"Now, now, Viktor! Don't go giving away anything else, now, or your charming friend will know exactly where to find us!"

"Igor, all this secrecy," Dumbledore began and then stopped in order to pop a sherbet lemon into his mouth before continuing. (I had trouble believing that sherbet lemons were a good side dish for pork chops.) "One would almost think you did not want visitors."

"Well, Dumbledore," Karkaroff said, grimacing. "We are all protective of our private domains, are we not? Do we not jealously guard the halls of learning that have been entrusted to us? Are we not right to be proud that we alone know our school's secrets, and right to protect them?"

"But isn't it a school's purpose to teach, to spread those secrets to new students?" I asked. "Hogwarts teaches its secrets to outsiders too. You visitors have an access to our library. And even though I am the champion for Hogwarts, this is but my second year here. My original school is the Private Wizarding Academy of New Zealand – though, admittedly, it does consider itself as some kind of root sprout of Hogwarts."

"I'm not sure your policy is a wise one," Karkaroff said coldly.

"It's funny, by the way," I continued in a teasing tone. "If a secret must not be known, there has to be something shifty about it. You're treating your school secrets in the same way some pure-blood families treat their heirlooms. Don't you agree, Sara?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Sara said, but was not offended in the slightest. The Jugsons certainly hoarded tons of items that were outlawed ages ago, but like any pure-blood family that was too rich and influential to be seriously harassed by the Ministry, they enjoyed rubbing the fact that they were above the law to the face of the authorities.

"What, d'you mean the Dark Arts?" Harry asked blankly.

Karkaroff coughed.

"Such accusations should not be made lightly," he said. "Remember that Durmstrang expelled the Dark Lord Grindelwald for delving into the Dark Arts!"

I nodded and turned my eyes away from the remarkably unaesthetic face of Karkaroff. Then I noticed that Dumbledore's face had become very controlled, as if he was trying not to show what he thought about what Karkaroff had said. That only lasted for a moment, and he was his normal merry self again, and popped a sherbet lemon into his mouth.

"But Durmstrang does offer more opportunities to learn ze Dark Arts," Madame Maxime said. "Yes, zere 'ave been Dark wizards from France also. Napoléon Bonaparte, obviously, but 'e did not learn 'is evil crafts from Beauxbatons, but Egypt where 'e broke into an ancient tomb full of lost writings. And Edmond Dantés 'o found ze 'idden library of Cesare Spada. But awfully many former students of Durmstrang are familiar wiz ze Dark Arts."

"Yes, Hermione, I don't think you should get too enthusiastic about Durmstrang," I said. "I've heard they don't value Muggle-borns there."

Hermione's face fell, and she turned to Krum with a hurt look, and he probably meant his bashful expression to be apologetic, but it turned out just awkward.

"Indeed, Durmstrang doesn't accept Muggle-born students," Percy called out pompously. "I read once that they expelled a perfectly capable Muggle-born student after the truth came out that his parents had just pretended to be a witch and a wizard."

A very brief flash of anger swept across the face of Dumbledore; I would have missed it if I had not happened to be looking at him at the right moment. Karkaroff mumbled something, knowing that most people present disapproved of his policies.

"Barbaric," Madame Maxime huffed.

"The Department of International Magical Cooperation has repeatedly appealed to the Russian People's Commissariat for Magical Foreign –" Percy began to lecture with a maniacal gleam in his eyes, but was interrupted by Dumbledore with the unanimous backing of everyone else present.

"I, too, have discussed this matter with the Russians," he said and popped and sherbet lemon into his mouth. "As well as with many other nations that deny civil rights such as education from Muggle-borns. Alas, they usually ask the question why we should have the right to force our ways upon them and not the other way around. If, Miss Granger, you would like to see the International Confederation of Wizards somehow enforcing a uniform policy towards Muggle-borns in the entire wizarding world, keep quiet about it, for now, at least. I fear we progressives might turn out to be the minority, and you would suffer from it."

"Progressives," Sara muttered under her breath so that only I could hear. "I hate it when Dumbledore so casually declares that he represents the inevitable future. No fate has determined that the society should progress exactly to the direction Dumbledore wants it to."

"I agree," I whispered in reply. "The power of propaganda is strong. He has used it to turn the very language we use to further his own ends."

Sara nodded, glanced furtively around, and decided to drop the subject. An uncomfortable silence had come over the table, and even whispers could have been heard. Krum stared at his plate with such a lost and helpless look that Hermione's indignation had to give way for pity. Harry's pathetic attempts to initiate a conversation with Chang failed. Fleur Delacour had nothing positive to say about anything, and Diggory was focused on his meal. Karkaroff, no doubt feeling somewhat threatened by the strong opposition to his policies, had also decided to shut his mouth. Ludo Bagman could not stand a mood that was not cheerful, and seemed put out.

Luckily I did not mind being a killjoy.

The end of the dinner came as a relief for many at the table. Into the Great Hall came a chamber orchestra that began to play some cheap imitations of Johan Strauss's waltzes. (Many pure-bloods refused to listen to any music composed by a Muggle, but in order to circumvent this prejudice some much less talented magical composers had taken the Muggle compositions, changed a few notes here and there, and introduced them to the wizarding world as their own.) We champions were the first ones to enter the dance floor. No one could match the unnatural grace with which Fleur Delacour danced, and most of the audience stared at her with mesmerised expressions. That was good for Harry, because no one noticed his sorry excuse for dancing, except Ginny, who reminded me of a bird of prey when she waited for Cho Chang to get filled up by the awkwardness of her date.

Sara, like all daughters of aristocratic families, was an adept dancer, and I did not mind dancing with her. In my first life the touch of another person had been unpleasant for me, but I had got rid of that weakness thanks to Ginny. It had made the social side of being a Slytherin much more tolerable to me.

After half an hour of dancing we left the dance floor and joined a group of other older Slytherins and a few Durmstrang students. We also visited the rose garden that had been conjured outside the front doors, but all in all, the night was not that different from what pure-bloods were used to.

It was not very late when the mood in the Great Hall started to turn boisterous as the dignified ball was replaced by a vulgar carnival, and I considered casting a Noise Muffling Barrier around my ears. As Draco had feared, inviting the commoners to the parlour had turned the parlour into a pub. Both Sara and I grew very irritated by it, and decided to leave, being among the first ones to do so. As we left, I heard a loud girlish shriek, and wondered if Harry had finally decided to ask his date about Moody.

"Good night, Tom," Sara said as we entered the blessed silence of the Slytherin common room. "I hope they haven't planned anything stupid for Easter. I'd much rather attend the next ball in Jugson Manor."

"Likewise," I said. "Good night."

In the morning I heard that Ron and Hermione had had a heated argument about their relationship in the Gryffindor common room. Apparently, Ron did not like Hermione going to the ball with Krum, but could not articulate why. I asked Ginny to extract her memory of the argument to me, and she happily complied. Unlike me, Ron and Hermione were not immortal, but I would make sure that the funniest moments of their lives would not be forgotten.

Posted on the 29th of October, 2020.