The ship in storm, the frog and Sam's café belong to me. Merlin and Flora belong to Zelazney. The rest belongs to Rowling.
I enjoyed myself to the fullest on that dinner. They served me boiled student in a sauce of tension, flavoured with power struggle and just a tiny hint of fear. The wine was superb and tasted of intrigues. How much I felt at home among these Slytherins.
"Pass the sauce, if please Goyle." A quick glance at his master Malfoy before daring to. Me smiling "Thank you very much, you are an obedient student." He looks proud for a moment, then hesitantly. Was it a compliment? An insult? His companion Crabbe shots him a jealous glance. How I enjoy this! The pecking order is so obvious. And so important. And for this dinner I'm in the centre of it all. Snape sits dark and eats in silence. Regarding, remembering. Judging most likely. Woe on the student who crosses Snape. Malfoy, the prince of the bullies, sits on my right side. Regarding his class-mates. Once or twice he throws a warning glance at someone who is getting a bit too much attention, once or twice he gives a rewarding little smile to someone who has laughed at his jokes. I smiles at them all, regards, enjoys.
The conversation is polite and careful. A few students make short speeches, talking about the greatness of Slytherin, the importance of traditions and the importance of proper education in the relevant subjects. The last one an attempt to flatter me and my defence class. A bit dangerous considering that Snape regards me as an impostor. Or is it maybe a needle at me? A little hint that Snape would have done a better job? Dangerous as well. Ah well.
"If I want some more wine? Why, certainly, Malfoy. I would be delighted." And then a strange creature enters. Only a few feet high and with a snout as a piglet, its face wrinkled and shrunken. It is dressed in what looks like a pillowcase, and it carries a wine cooler in both hands, a frosty bottleneck sticking up over the top. What is that? Malfoy glances at it. "Oh, it is just a house-elf. Don't bother about it, Professor." And I don't. The wine is good and I say so.
I regard them all, once in turn. Most of them are in Malfoy's pocket. Crabbe and Goyle, certainly. Bullstrode as well. Parkinson too. A little crush there, I would say, or maybe just her way of getting close to power. Nott on the other hand... Interesting case. He sits silent and pale. Only speaks when spoken to, and very polite. But he's all attention, all ears and eyes. I smile at him. He looks scared.
"I really must compliment you, Nott. Your performance in my class is... remarkable." He regards me with fearful eyes. A quick glance at Malfoy. Oh yes, this boy is a survivor and he knows the importance of keeping his head down. He's in the attention of the whole table now, and that means trouble. He forces a smile in return and answers. A short "Thank you, sir." I stretch the silence a few seconds, but then I take pity on him. "But I've never had such an... inspired student as you Malfoy," and the attention leaves Nott who gives me an almost thankful look. Malfoy looks proud. "I'm not talking only about the spells, everyone can learn them given practise," no reaction from Snape. "But the way of thinking. They way to understand the possibilities at hand at make the most of them. Yes, I'm impressed."
I stretch a bit forward, catching Snape's attention. "Hey, Serveus!" A sour look.
"What can I do for you?" The students hold their breath.
"I wonder if I might ask you a favour." He is all attention and I feel a childish joy in being the one who currently is in charge of the dinner conversation. I suppress a laugh.
"Could you take the class at next double lesson? I want to try some stuff with the students individually, so I need someone to entertain the rest of them. You wouldn't mind, would you?" And I get the look telling exactly how much he would mind, but he remains polite.
"I would very much like to but unfortunately," he almost spits out the last word, "my duties are required elsewhere. Your classes, important as they are, take quite a toll of my time as it is. It is my sad duty to answer your question in a negative way." I note that some of the students look slightly relieved. Not looking forward to being taught by the head of their house, are they?
"Ah, well. Some other time then. I do hope your other duties will be performed with the same perfection as what work I have seen you undertake here." I smile and he at least makes the attempt. Draco looks scared. Just a moment. Does he know or suspect what duties Snape are referring to? Maybe.
I lean back in my chair, drinking the wine, exchanging a few polite words with the house-ghost, baron this-or-that. I don't pay much attention to ghost. In my experience the living can usually give you enough to bother about. I surprises a small laughter when I reach the conclusion to which that certain train of thought leads. I suppose my father's tale should have thought me otherwise. The dead can indeed give you hell of trouble. But the baron is polite enough and frankly seems to be just as uninterested in me as I am in him.
When the dinner is eaten and all polite little insults delivered we all sit and wait for someone in the top to make the decision that the dinner is over. It is Snape who finally stands up and announces that everyone will go to bed. I see quite a lot of relieved faces. When I start to move towards the door, however, I'm intercepted by Malfoy.
"Sir! I do wonder if I could ask you a favour."
"Fire away!" I answer, feeling high in spirit.
"I do have an invitation for you from Narcissa Malfoy, my mother, to visit our house for a small tea party at Christmas. We would both very much appreciate if you could attend."
There is something in his voice, and in his eyes. I look closer. Yes, he tries to maintain his carefree air of the dinner, but underneath the surface he seems anxious. Afraid?
"Really? That's an honour. And why, if I may ask?"
"My mother would be very pleased to be able to talk to you and in person compliment you on your teaching." A bit to thick of flattering for my taste, but I can sense the tension in his voice. He really wants me to come. Why, I wonder.
"Of course, Malfoy! I'll love to. Please tell your mother that I look forward to see her." Is there relief? Hard to tell. Suddenly I'm feeling a bit generous and bend forward, putting a hand on his shoulder. He looks surprised.
"I just wanted to tell you that I really meant what I said about your defence qualities. You're a natural." I don't give him time to decide what I'm up to or formulate an answer, I just flash him a smile, say good night and walk out, leaving a quite confused boy behind.
I walk up the corridor in good mood. Even whistles a little tune. As it happens I become aware of another midnight stroller, a bit further up the corridor. As I come closer I recognize him as the headmaster. He's wearing a long nightgown, in the same colour as his beard, and a plainly stupid nightcap. However, it suits him and I greet him politely.
"Ah! Good evening, Merlin," he says, smiling at me. "I do trust you enjoyed your dinner at the Slytherin house."
"I appreciated it very much, thanks for asking," I say, smiling back at him. "I'm sure some of those students will reach far."
"Indeed," he answers, and do I trace a hint of sadness in his voice?
"The Malfoy boy, for example. Great mind, high ambitions. No stopping him, I would say."
"Yes," he says. "I understand that young Malfoy has made an impression in your class. I would appreciate your opinion of him."
"My opinion in what matter?" I ask a bit taken aback. He regards me calmly, those friendly, yet all seeing eyes locked at my own.
"Young Malfoy is going through a lot of stress at the moment. His father is sentenced to prison, and he himself is experiencing doubt in many of the values and beliefs he so far has nurtured. Taken into account his situation as an important part of the social life of this school, I think it is fair to say that he has a lot to handle."
"Oh," I answer, not really knowing what to say. But the headmaster waits for me to go on, so I do. "Well, I can't really say that I have known much about his private life. But he performs well enough at my class, and he seems to do well enough with his friends as well. So far, he seems to be able to deal with stuff." He smiles faintly then, and suddenly he looks very, very old.
"Thank you very much Merlin. I am glad to hear that he fares well. However, I would like to ask you, as a teacher as well as a man that has gained the trust of this boy, to do what you can to look after him. Draco Malfoy will need that in due time." Again his eyes locks mine, and I honestly don't know what to say. But sure, I mean, why not?
"Of course!" I therefore answer. "I'll keep an eye out for him."
"Thank you very much, Merlin," he says and starts to walk again. I'm about to go on up the corridor when he stops, chuckling slightly.
"Oh. I thought I would be able to get to the kitchen myself this time. There is simply no evading these elves." Curiously I turn around to look, and surely enough I see one of those little snouty buggers approaching, carrying a large cup with a steaming content.
"The elves are stalking you with tea?" I ask curiously. He chuckles again.
"Hot chocolate, rather. The staffs know that I usually seek a cup of that draught at night time, so they have taken up the habit of bringing it to me. Sometimes I manage to slip down to the kitchen myself without having to bother them about it, but they are really helpful... Thank you Winky. You are most kind." He bends down to receive the cup from the elf, and while doing so he winches slightly, making me look closer. Suddenly I realize that one of his arms is severely damaged, as if being subjected to acid.
"What..." I begin, but he shakes his head.
"One of many work related risks with being headmaster of this school, I am afraid. I do wish you a good night, Merlin".
"Oh... OK. Good night, then." I start to walk, knowing when I'm put off.
"Incidentally," he says a few steps later "Could I please ask you to escort miss Lovegood to her dormitory?"
"OK," I answer, waiting for him to continue, but he only says "thank you" and walks away. I look after him for a while, but then I go on as well. Strange man.
Sure enough, only a few steps later, I see Luna. She wanders dreamily through the corridors, her wand, emitting a pale light, tucked away behind her left ear. She waves happily at me.
"Good evening, Luna," I says, approaching her. "It's after curfew, you know?"
"Why, is it already? Time flies," she answers, looking around with an air of faint curiosity. I try not to smile, not totally succeeding.
"And students are not allowed to be outside their dormitories after curfew."
"Indeed so," she firmly agrees. "That rule is posted as four hundred and twenty-seven on mister Filch' list of rules and forbidder items, right between the ban on the fanged frisbee and the prohibition of bringing kelpies into the school." I actually am intrigued by this.
"Why exactly is that forbidden?"
"There were some rather surprising events at a time when kelpies were kept as pets in the wells and in the lake, and even in the toilets. I don't think anyone have them as pets any longer."
"I shouldn't think so. I seem to recall that they can be at least thirty feet long."
"Oh, even more than that," she says enthusiastically, her eyes suddenly less dreamy and more attentive. "There was an issue in the Quibbler a while ago about..." she starts to open her bag, but I interrupt her.
"If we for a moment resume the discussion about curfew, Luna, I seem to notice that there indeed is a student out of bed, in spite of the rule that precedes the rule about kelpies." She regards me with interest. Big silvery eyes.
"Really? I have not seen any." And there I can't contain the laughter any longer. She laughs too.
"Come on Luna, let's go back to your dorm," I say when I'm finished laughing. She nods agree and we start to walk.
"An absolutely clever idea, Merle. And maybe the student that is out should return too."
"Yeah," I agree. "I should think so."
I walk her up to the Ravenclaw dormitory and bids her goodnight. As I find my way back to my own room, I pass the ghost of a lady in a strict, Elizabethan dress who greets me and whom I greet in return, which is absolutely fitting since all nightly encounters should come in triplets.