House of Flying Artichokes

By the time she was walking up the carriage drive towards the Great House, Hermione was beginning to wonder what had possessed her to accept an invitation to "a little supper party" at the Malfoys' in the first place.

She had had to stand outside the gates for over an hour before she even made it to the Great House, waiting, shivering as dew seeped into the hem of her expensive velvet evening gown, and her carefully styled hair reverted to its usual sorry frizz in the evening damp, while the servants and master of the house disarmed the anti-Muggle wards on the borders of the Malfoy property.

The hosts had been most solicitous and apologetic. Pansy had come rushing within minutes of the first roar of energy, a train of House Elves in her wake, laden with shooting sticks, rugs and hot chocolate laced with rum. "Darling, so sorry, how mortifying!… Such a nightmare we just never thought… so careless – quite saw you as one of us!" as unholy energies crackled and dissipated harmlessly in the dark. "Thank heavens for your curse-breaking skills – I'll never say a word against women's libbers again! – you could have been killed!"

The last time they had met face to face had been the day they left Hogwarts. Pansy's mother had been sent to Azkaban after Voldemort's defeat a month before their finals, and she had done very badly in her NEWTs as a result. Hermione's clumsy attempts at commiseration had been very badly received.

A girl of Pansy's background was generally expected to marry straight out of Hogwarts, and with such poor NEWT results, no other options had been open to her. Narcissa Malfoy's health had been failing since Lucius had been sent to Azkaban, and at Voldemort's defeat she had crumbled – with both Pansy's parents now in Azkaban and Narcissa unable to cope with the household, an early marriage had seemed the only logical step. The last Hermione had seen of Pansy was a bridal photograph in the Daily Prophet from which she had waved, smiling demurely, on Draco's arm.

While Pansy was perfecting her social and housekeeping skills, Hermione had spent the past four years in Nubia, working as Gringotts' youngest ever accelerated-entry trainee curse-breaker. With Voldemort out of the way, she was now free to take up the job she had always secretly dreamed of, where pursuit of knowledge of long-lost cultures went hand in hand with adventure and hard cash.

There she had met Geraint Rodway, handsome only child of the Hampshire Rodways: thirty years old, Level Three curse-breaker, tall and tanned, with a shock of floppy blond hair, a flashing white smile and a cut-glass accent. It had not been love at first sight. Hermione had despised Geraint as an upper class twit who owed his career to friends in high places, while he had made no secret of the fact that he found her shrill, pushy and far, far too serious. That is, until a booby-trapped secret tunnel was discovered in the notoriously tricky Pyramid of Eternal Torment, and Hermione and Geraint were sent together to deal with it.

It had proved more than their masters had bargained for. Two months had passed and Hermione and Geraint had been given up for dead by the time they emerged, racked and twitching with curses, skeletally thin and covered in weeping sores – but with the fabled Scarab of Doom in Hermione's backpack, together with a score of lesser artefacts. While trapped in the pyramid, they had obviously managed to come to some form of understanding: from then on they were inseparable, and the engagement had been announced a mere month after that.

So when Hermione had a fortnight's home leave, it was only natural for Geraint to ask Cousin Pansy to introduce Hermione to polite Pureblood society. "You'll be moving in these circles when I'm promoted back to London – better get used to it now," he had said, and Hermione, delighted at the prospect of meeting Geraint's childhood friends, had been happy to agree.

The day after she arrived at her parents' house in Bicester, a little gilt supper invitation from Pansy Malfoy had arrived, clasped in the talons of a haughty, well-groomed eagle owl. Her father, an enthusiastic member of the RSPB, had been in raptures over the creature, which had hissed and snapped at his fingers before leaving through the kitchen window with a contemptuous swoosh.

Hermione had held the elegant missive in her hands, deep in thought. Who would have thought, after all the differences of opinion they'd had at school, that she was now in possession of an official invitation to Pansy's home? If it wasn't for Geraint… but for their future together, she was willing to do far more than this. Besides, they were all grown up now, with lives of their own. They could hardly be petty enough to remember school rivalries after all this time, could they?

Once the Muggle-repelling charms had been properly neutralised, Pansy led Hermione through marble halls to an antechamber where drinks were being served.

"Here at last, my love!" Pansy cooed at her husband.

"Well – what are we waiting for?" came an impatient voice. "Let's eat! Dining Hall, isn't it?"

"No, darling," said Pansy. "I thought – since Ceridwen and Urgulanilla are indisposed and the Ponsonbys cancelled – so cold and empty at this time of year – the Winter Breakfast Room… there's a lovely, roaring fire…"

"Fine, splendid, whatever. Let's get a move on, please! Crabbe here's going mad with hunger – don't want him breaking up the furniture now, do we?"

The bulky figure of Vincent Crabbe, looking uncomfortable in itchy Harris tweed dress robes, sidled through the door, acknowledged Hermione with a clumsy bow, and lumbered off determinedly in the direction of the food. After him came Blaise Zabini, whom Hermione vaguely remembered from school, a slim, elegant young man with laughing dark eyes, which he rolled at Draco as he passed.

There were going to be six of them, it appeared: Hermione, the Malfoys, Crabbe, Blaise Zabini and Professor Snape. As they proceeded down the hall, Hermione realised that she and Pansy were the only two women there.

They sat down to supper in a cosy, wood-panelled room, with a view of empty November flowerbeds, a park, and beyond that, dark and rather sinister woods. There was indeed a fine fire in the grate, and what had probably been ancestral portraits lining the walls, but these now only featured hurriedly deserted background scenes. Was it Hermione's imagination, or could she hear scandalised whispers of "Mudblood!" coming from the empty frames?

The table was laid with elegant silver, fine china and damask napkins, with an elegant Runic place card for each guest. Draco and the guests took their seats (Hermione thanked her lucky stars that she had insisted on studying Ancient Runes at Hogwarts), but Pansy remained by the door, where a tense, hissed conversation was taking place with someone on the far side. Finally, with a muttered "Have it your own way", she sat down, and magicked away one of the place settings with a flick of her wand.

"Narcissa," she said with a rather tight smile at Hermione. "I would so have liked you to meet her but her health… well, you know how it is."

"That's a pity," said Hermione. "I notice there aren't any other female guests."

"Ah yes, of course," said Zabini, with charming insincerity. "Dear, dear, where are my manners? Ceridwen sends appols and all that – sick mother… nothing serious, but all the same… sure you'd understand…" He looked her straight in the eye, daring her to call him a liar.

"Urgulanilla's too ill to come. Not well at all. Sick as a dog in fact. Very sorry…" said Crabbe, staring at his soup plate, and rubbing the back of his neck with vigour.

Hermione gulped, took a deep breath, plastered a sweet smile on her face and turned to the other guest.

"And Madam Snape?" she said. "What's keeping her away? Nothing too serious, I trust?"

Snape's expression of outraged fury took Hermione completely by surprise.

"I have no wife," he finally said, after a long, charged pause. "As you are no doubt perfectly well aware."

"Elves!" cried Pansy quickly. "First course! What are you waiting for?"

A pair of house-elves, dressed neatly in their best monogrammed antimacassars, came bustling in, bent almost double under the weight of a magnificent silver soup tureen.

"I do hope you like Turtle Soup," she said to Hermione with a smile.

"You really shouldn't have gone to all this trouble," said Hermione, reaching for the broad spoon in the innermost layer of the cutlery. Was that a moue of disappointment that Blaise Zabini turned to share with the master of the house, as she passed the first test of Pureblood etiquette, or was she letting her nerves get the better of her? And was it her imagination, or did she hear a faint "tsk" of disappointment from behind the door?

She had noticed when she sat down that the wine had been served in Self-Fulfilling Goblets, enchanted to top themselves up magically whenever emptied. For this reason, she curbed her impulse to grab hers and down the contents in one gulp, contenting herself instead with a cautious sip of her soup.

Turtle soup proved to be clear, aromatic and delicious, and Hermione set to with a will. There was a nasty moment when she abruptly remembered a clipping from the scandal pages of the Daily Prophet Ron had sent her with his last owl, a scandalous piece about how Professor Snape's highborn fiancée had eloped with a spotty youth who worked as a conductor on the Knight Bus, but she managed to stop short of spluttering consommé all over the table.

Snape had never been kind to her at school, but she had certainly not meant to humiliate him. During the soup and the devilled badger brains that followed (rich, soft, exquisitely seasoned lumps that melted in the mouth - much nicer than the name had led her to believe), Hermione did her best to put matters right. She complimented Snape on his latest monographs on combining anti-analgesics and emetics, and met only with surly silence. She enquired politely after his Hogwarts colleagues, to learn that, after a serious of incidents ("foolish mollycoddling: potion-making is simply not a suitable occupation for the cowardly and incompetent"), he had been offered the choice between a compulsory sabbatical in Tibet studying meditation techniques, or instant expulsion. He had taken the sabbatical, but with ill grace; and Hermione's account of how much good Harry's spell in the lamasery had done his post-traumatic stress disorder was not kindly received.

Hermione was saved from causing worse offence by the arrival of more house-elves bearing platters of larks' tongues, served on a bed of blanched Devil's Snare. She took up the silver tweezers traditionally used in the best Wizarding circles for larks' tongues, and picked away at her dish (tasty, but rather fiddly and surprisingly tough) while listening to Draco Malfoy speaking with great authority and at some length about Quidditich, Quidditch brooms, Quidditch tactics and the Holyhead Harpies – who in his view had been good for nothing since they first allowed women to get involved. Hermione, who was fond of Quidditch, attempted a few questions, which he answered in an indulgently absentminded way, in a voice more suitable for a small child. Hermione wondered whether she should be offended, until she noticed that his manner with Pansy was not so very different. Come to that, he was not particularly civil to Crabbe, either. Still, now she was going to be a part of Geraint's life, she was going to have to make an effort with his family, and her efforts were not in vain: after several questions about the famous Slytherin Quidditch victory in their seventh year, she was rewarded with a faint, thin smile, before he turned to tug Zabini's sleeve and direct his attention to the hysterical sight of a house-elf who had become entangled while attempting to carry away the remains of the Devil's Snare.

Since Hermione was so determined to fit in and not cause any upset, it was perhaps fortunate for her that four more house-elves came in before she had a chance to intervene, staggering under the weight of a vast, silver covered dish, which they placed on the table with a flourish.

"Now here's something you'll never get with those M– I mean, here's a real treat for you, Hermione!" said Pansy brightly. "Roast haunch of young hippogriff – first of the season – reared especially for us, fed on nothing but pedigree chinchillas and long grain rice – not like those awful Montagues, all they can afford are the culls from Hagrid's litters…"

While she was speaking, one of the house elves swept off the cover with a flourish, to reveal a mouth-watering roast, studded with cloves, star anise and some other spice that gave the surface a strange, oily, rainbow-coloured sheen. He whipped out a carving knife from the folds of his antimacassar and swiftly cut enough slices to feed twelve, so fast that the knife was a blur in his hands, while the other elves served the roast potatoes and six kinds of seasonal vegetables. Then they picked up their comrade - now purple in the face, choking silently on the floor in the grip of the Devil's Snare - deposited him in the upturned dish-cover and carried it out between them.

"I know," said Pansy, following Hermione's shocked gaze, "but what can you do? You just can't get the staff nowadays."

Blaise Zabini turned towards her.

"Pansy's been telling me all about your whirlwind romance!" he said. "Too crushingly romantic – just like the books my poor dear mother used to read. Now, please, you must tell us absolutely everything," he continued, leaning confidentially towards her. "How did you meet? Which of you popped the question? What do his parents think – such lovely people – have you met them yet?"

As they munched their way through enough roast hippogriff to feed a family of twenty in Nubia, Zabini kept up a running series of questions in an ingratiating, solicitous voice, black eyes lively in his smooth, handsome face. He appeared to be genuinely captivated by her story of their love snatched from the doors of death, and equally fascinated by all that she could tell him of Muggle life ("So your parents are dentists? How utterly fascinating. Is it true they use drills and hammers?").

All through the hippogriff course he asked and she answered, pleased to be able finally to contribute something to the conversation. As a result, it took Hermione longer than it should to have done to notice that all Zabini's artless questions were framed in terms calculated to show her up as a mercenary gold-digger of questionable morals, and her parents as ludicrous simpletons. Once she had spotted this, it was difficult to miss the playful glances of delighted horror he kept exchanging with Draco. She avoided his eye and gave short answers, but he either did not notice or did not care. Finally, faced with a wide-eyed, innocent enquiry about whether Essex girl jokes had any foundation in reality, Hermione lost patience.

"Why, Blaise, I'd no idea you took such an interest in Muggle things!" she said sweetly. "Why don't you visit my parents' surgery one weekend? They're fascinated by our world – my father loved the owl Pansy sent me – and I know he'd love to tell you all about it. Bring your wife if she can get away – I'm sure there'll be enough room in the bungalow for both of you."

Zabini bridled, huffed and subsided into a sulky silence.

She thought she might have heard a choked snort from Snape, but when she turned to look at him he was staring morosely into the bottom of his Self-Fulfilling Goblet. He caught her glance, glowered at her and took another swig of wine.

Across the table, Crabbe cleared his throat.

"'Scuse me," he said though a mouthful of Hippogriff and caramelised parsnip. "Did you say your pa liked the owl? I thought Muggles hated owls."

Hermione looked in him in surprise: he had barely spoken so far, except to ask for second helpings.

"Of course we don't hate owls," she said. "Most of us live in towns, and we hardly ever get a chance to see them, that's all. My dad had never seen a live eagle owl before, and he was over the moon – said he'd never seen anything so beautiful."

"Eagle owl, was it?" said Crabbe with interest. "That'd be one of mine – I've gone into owl farming, y'know. I bet it was Otto. Missing left primary, very nice markings, a bit on the dark side?… it might've been Ulli, or even Gretel, but they're more long-haul birds..."

After five minutes of intense cross-examination, Crabbe had made a positive identification of Otto the owl. By this point Malfoy was looking fractious, and Zabini was yawning delicately behind his hand.

"Really, Vincent!" said Pansy sharply, as Crabbe paused to draw breath. "Hermione's a Mu- … a professional cursebreaker – she doesn't want to hear about your silly old owls."

"Well, what else can he talk about? It's not like he left school with any other qualifications, is it? Care of Magical's the only OWL he left school with… as it were," said Malfoy, delighted with his own wit. Zabini sniggered appreciatively. Crabbe blushed and hung his head.

"Not at all," said Hermione encouragingly. "It must be fascinating to run an owl farm. What breeds do you keep?"

Pansy's shoulders slumped, and Snape let out an audible groan. Crabbe, on the other hand, beamed at Hermione, and launched into a interminable description of life as an owl-farmer, with digressions into the merits of human-imprinted owls versus wild ones (wild 'uns are a lot harder to train but they don't try to mate with your head in spring), the best kind of owl for work in the desert (scops and burrowing owls don't mind the heat, but a barn-owl's a classic, one of those'll get you anywhere) and an endless series of anecdotes about his favourite birds.

Under cover of Crabbe's enthusiastic monologue, Hermione had no need to do more than smile and nod as they worked their way through the mahogany-smoked viper (which she correctly flaked off the bone with her fish-knife, to Blaise's palpable disappointment and her own much better concealed triumph), and the roast peacock in its feathers that followed it. By this time, the food was starting to bother her. The exotic nature of the dishes was not a problem – when she was trapped in the pyramid with Geraint, they had been hungry enough at one point to give serious consideration to eating a six-thousand-year-old mummified crocodile; besides, no curse-breaker who was squeamish about what they ate managed to survive past their first meal at the Goblins' high table. But Nubia was a poor and barren country: Hermione's usual supper consisted of flatbread, chickpeas, lentils and goat's milk, and the rich food was beginning to have an effect on her insides.

The pumpkin and nasturium sorbet that followed, though far too sweet for her taste, went some way to ease the discomfort, and she hoped very much that this signalled the end of the food. But it seemed that there was one last treat in store.

As Crabbe was telling her all about Henry the Great Grey Owl, who had strenuously resisted all attempts to breed from it until it unexpectedly laid an egg, and Blaise was regaling Pansy of with an account of what Evadne Greengrass had said to Zacharias Smith about Millicent Bulstrode, another bevy of house-elves came tripping in, bearing more plates. Several had welts on their hands or necks from the Devil's Snare, and all were sporting cuts and bruises.

"Aha!" cried Blaise gaily, with a playful glance at Hermione. "We are honoured! Aggressive Artichokes – straight from the Malfoy greenhouse, if I'm any judge!" He exchanged a laughing glance with Malfoy. Across the table, Professor Snape took another swig from his goblet, and stared morosely at his plate.

In front of her, nestling in a bed of exotic leaves and drenched in aromatic oils, sat a large, plump, golden artichoke. It looked so ripe and tender that Hermione almost thought she could see its flanks moving up and down.

She looked up, and realised that everyone was watching her. She reached for innermost knife and fork in her now depleted table setting.

"Well," she said. "You shouldn't have bothered – and I'm so full – these look almost too good to eat…" and lowered her fork to the tawny scales of the artichoke.

The artichoke appeared to flinch out of the path of the fork, and rolled unharmed to the side of her plate. Hermione blinked, attempted to regain her composure, and stabbed down with her fork at the prone vegetable.

The artichoke let out a shrill wail, rolled out of the path of the fork, snapped upwards, and Hermione felt many sharp, pointed little teeth meet in the fleshy part of her palm. She shrieked, and dropped her fork.

"Oh dear," said Blaise, turning laughing dark eyes on Draco, "now she's made it angry."

"They should've told you," said Crabbe. "You've got to peel off the petals of the Aggressive Artichoke, disarm it before it wakes up. Have to use your hands - they're very sensitive to metal. Why didn't you tell her, Pansy? How's she going to catch it now, eh?"

He pinned down his own artichoke with one large, meaty hand, while the other grasped its snout, and wrenched it firmly backwards. The plant convulsed, and went limp. He ripped off the leaves, which he dipped into a bowl of rich, smoking blood-red sauce in the centre of the table.

"There!" he said with a reassuring smile at Hermione. "That's the way to do it. Quick and simple." He scraped the insides of one of the leaves off with his teeth. "M'wife always says it's like waxing a leg – quicker you do it, the less it hurts." He caught Draco's eye, blushed and fell silent.

The golden globe on Hermione's plate shifted and gave a little whimper. Hermione looked at it, her already uncomfortably full stomach roiling at the prospect of having to strip the petals off a living thing and then devour its quivering insides. Sensing weakness, the creature cocked its snout at her, and snarled.

The eyes of every other guest at the table turned towards her. Nauseated, she realised that this was another test. The choice was simple: torture and eat this sentient creature while they were watching – and pretend to enjoy it too – or show herself to be an outsider, one not fit to join the charmed circle.

She tried to remember Geraint: the way his eyes would brim over with love, confidence and delight as he spoke of their future life together, during their many walks under the immense, star-strewn skies of the desert. For a love like this, how could anything be too much to ask? It was, after all, only an artichoke, bred for the table.

Then she looked down at the artichoke. It shrunk back, tensed to spring, as if daring her to make a move, and she felt an upsurge of sympathy for the plucky little vegetable. Nothing in her upbringing, either among kindly, sensitive, nature-loving, RSPB-member muggles or the wholesome steak-and-kidney pie based Hogwarts menu, had prepared her for this, and she just did not know how she could go through with it. She swallowed, hard, feeling her gorge rising.

Groaning aloud, and rolling his eyes up to the ceiling, Professor Snape threw both his hands in the air in an exaggerated gesture of exasperation – a gesture that would have been much more effective had one of the heavy, trailing sleeves of his evening robe not caught on one of the ornamental protrusions on his goblet, upsetting it onto the snowy tablecloth.

Snape had been drinking so heavily throughout the meal that a normal, Muggle goblet would have had nothing in the bottom, and the mess would have been minimal. But this was a Self-Fulfilling Goblet, which filled itself as it emptied. Malfoy let out a moan of anguish as great purples gouts of wine from his precious cellar pumped out uselessly onto the tablecloth. He reached over to make a grab for the goblet, overturning his own in the process, and also dislodging the sturdy wire cover on the platter of the second-helping artichokes in the centre of the table. Spooked by the sudden motion, the creatures awoke into gibbering life, and shot off in all directions, bouncing off the walls.

Frantically dabbing at the mess with her napkin, Pansy grabbed the bell, and rang it till the clapper flew off and hit Blaise Zabini between the eyes.

"Elves!" she shrieked, in a voice that would have done credit to Bellatrix Lestrange. "Elves! Stop them! They're getting away!"

A little squad of them came trotting in at her command, armed with butterfly nets, sacks and croquet mallets. With military precision, they read out and tried to corral the escaped artichokes, which, having tasted freedom, showed no signs of wishing to relinquish it. The house-elves seemed perfectly competent to deal with the emergency, but unfortunately the guests were not, milling about and getting in the way. Zabini was clutching his forehead and whimpering; Malfoy bemoaning the state of his wine cellar and kicking out at any elf, artichoke or human that came his way; Snape was wringing wine from his wet robes, and Pansy was yelling out contradictory instructions to the harassed house elves. Crabbe was at least doing his best to help, attempting to take a net off one of the elves, who was clinging to the net and protesting: "Oh no, Mr Crabbe, sir, please no! Gubby will do it! This is elves' work!"

On her plate, Hermione's artichoke glared up at her, and gave a little shiver. Quick as thought, she palmed her wand, cast a Silencing Charm on the creature, wrapped it in a discarded napkin and thrust the small, struggling bundle into her embroidered evening bag. Then with the razor-sharp reflexes of a curse-breaker who had battled a thousand horrors in pyramids and tombs all over Africa, she immobilised all the remaining artichokes with a series of perfectly aimed Impedimenta curses, and Banished them neatly into the house-elves' waiting sack.

The room fell silent.

"I'm so sorry, Pansy," she said. "I really couldn't face a whole artichoke to myself right now, not after all that delicious food. But perhaps a cup of coffee?"

Once the artichokes had been dispatched, the meal seemed to have run its course. Elves scurried here and there, casting cleansing charms, righting overturned chairs, removing the dirty tableware, spreading a new, clean white tablecloth and mopping up a furious Professor Snape. As a final pair of house-elves came trotting in with a decanter of port and a fancy ivory humidor, Pansy rose to her feet with a swish of expensive velvet and lace. Hermione, recognising the signal to withdraw and leave the men to their port and cigars, got to her feet, picked up her now stained and twitching evening bag and followed Pansy into an elegant gilt-and-white drawing room, full of elegant, spindly chairs. As in the dining room, all the portrait canvasses were blank, though Hermione thought she might have seen the last few inches of a train whisk huffily away into a frame as she walked through the door.

Pansy perched on a delicate chair, and Hermione, rather gingerly, did the same. Against all appearances, the chair was strong enough to bear her weight, but she could feel whorls and protrusions digging into the tense muscles of her back.

Pansy gave her a huge, strained smile.

"Well! Isn't this nice!" she said, skin taut around the cheeks. "Now we can have a lovely chat, just the two of us!"

Hermione looked at her tense, weary face, and managed to summon up a smile. "Lovely."

Casting desperately around for a neutral subject of conversation, Pansy caught sight of a silver salver of rum truffles next to the gilt coffee pot.

"You must try one of these, Hermione!" she said. "They're called truffles – if you like chocolate, this will be a new experience for you. I bet you've never had a chance to try them with the mu- at home."

"Oh but I have," said Hermione. "I'm very fond of truffles – my parents send them to me by mail order. She caught sight of Pansy's stricken expression. "But don't worry. You've been so nice to me – no-one will ever hear from me that Muggles eat rum truffles!"

Pansy sagged with relief. For the first time, the two women exchanged a genuine smile.

Once Hermione and Pansy had established common ground, they spent a relatively happy ten minutes discussing various Muggle innovations in confectionery. Pansy Summoned an elegant white tablet, and took copious notes, while Hermione Transfigured the sweets into all the forms of upmarket Muggle chocolate she could remember. In the middle of a heated debate about whether violet creams were either possible or desirable, they heard shuffling footsteps outside, followed by a little sigh, and a tap at the door.

"Pansy, dear!" Pansy sat up with a guilty start, shoving her notebook under a tasselled cushion. "Have you seen my embroidery silk, darling? My special platinum twist, for the unicorn's horn? I can't find it…"

Pansy rolled her eyes.

"Coming, Narcissa," she said, and left.

She was back in five minutes, and sat down, smiling, in the chair she had vacated.

"Now, where were we?"

Suddenly, neither of them could think of anything to say. When Narcissa came back, hovering on the far side of the door and demanding that Pansy help find smelling salts for her Winged Pekingese which had had one of its funny turns, it was almost a relief. This time, Pansy was gone a long time.

After fifteen minutes, Hermione decided enough was enough. She found Pansy's note tablets under the chair, ripped out a page wrote a note thanking Pansy for her hospitality, and explaining that she had just received a message on her mobile phone calling her urgently back home (the mere mention of Muggle technology should, she thought, effectively prevent any follow-up questions). This she left propped up against a delicate little china shepherdess on the mantelpiece. She picked up her ruined evening bag, the Animated Artichoke still scrabbling about inside, and made her escape. She knew she had drunk too much to Apparate safely, but there was always Floo. She had been told that in great houses of this age and antiquity, the Floo-enabled fireplace was usually in a small anteroom just off the main entrance, and after her time in the labyrinths of the pyramids, finding the entrance hall was child's play. As she was walking towards the exit, she was almost bowled over by a running house-elf.

"Er… excuse me…" Hermione began.

The elf slowed down, but did not stop.

"Tisha cannot stop! Tisha is running on her errands, and Tisha is not being supposed to talk to Muggles – oh! – silly, silly Tisha – too late! Bad Tisha! Horrid Tisha!" The elf dashed off, viciously twisting her own ears and pinching herself.

Hermione gave an offended sniff, paused and sniffed again. Yes, there it was – the unmistakable, sulphurous aroma of Floo powder. It seemed to be coming from a small door to the left of the main entrance. Dim light was seeping from the barely-open door, and as she got closer she heard a man talking behind the door – snatches of a muttered monologue in a voice that was strangely familiar but with an odd slurred and echoey quality she could not quite place.

"Bloody awful people," said the voice, superficially cultured but with the underlying Yorkshire starting to show through. "Better to be alone… Cauldron m'only friend… subtle simmering friend… And then her too… Never would've thought it… Never. Not in a million years… Brightest girl in her year…. brave, gifted, pretty…that lummox Rodway… jumped-up streak of nowt… Turning herself into a clothes-horse. Bloody unbelievable…"

Hermione pushed open the door and went in.

Sure enough, there was an open fire burning merrily, ideal for Floo travel. The shards of an onyx container were lying on the hearthstones, and there was a trail of spoiled Floo powder staining the panda-skin hearthrug. And there in a dark corner, as far away from the firelight and candles as possible, sat Professor Snape, white, sweaty and reeking of alcohol and bile, bent over a large urn in exquisite blue and white Japanese porcelain, which he held clutched between his knees. He looked up sharply as she came in, and shot her a most unfriendly look.

"Oh how lovely," he said nastily. "Look who's here. The blushing bride."

"Good evening, Professor Snape," she replied in her politest voice. "Don't mind me – I was just looking for a Floo-enabled fireplace."

"Oh, but you mustn't go," he said. "Not when we're all having so much fun… and how d'you like hobnobbing with the purebloods then? Are we suave? Are we grand? Does it set your funny little mudblood heart beating faster?"

"Excuse me, professor," said Hermione brightly, ignoring the racial slur in the interests of a quick getaway. "I need to go now. I've had such a lovely evening, but I'm needed elsewhere..."

"'Course you've had a lovely evening," he said with a leer. "Such fun, who could resist? Stay a little longer, why don't you? Talk to your dear old ex-professor. Pretend you like me. Make small talk about Tibet. Try out your lines for next time you have to coax that toxic little shit Malfoy into giving you a smile. Pretend you're looking forward to being sneered at by those chinless wonders out there for the rest of your life."

"Professor, what in the world - "

"You can't do it," he said. "You know you can't. God help you, idiot girl, you can't even see an artichoke in distress without wanting to save it! These people were brought up to be Death Eaters, Hermione. Their parents used to torture Muggles for fun – and so would most of this lot if they had the nerve -"

He broke off as Tisha the house-elf, now rather red about the ears, came dashing in, a box of Floo powder in her hands.

"Tisha has brought Professor Snape his Flooing powder!" she announced. "And this time Tisha is going to stand here and watch very, very carefully so Professor Snape is safe."

At the mention of travel by Floo, Snape's face went from white to green, and he jackknifed over his urn again. With his free hand, he waved Hermione in the direction of the fireplace. She hesitated, not quite liking to abandon anyone so obviously unwell.

"Oh, just go," he said between dry heaves. "Bugger off… while you've got the chance… and take your bloody stupid vegetable with you."

Hermione took a handful of the coarse powder, and threw it into the flames.

"Goodbye, Professor Snape," she said, as the green flames rose up in the grate. "I'm sure Tibet won't be as bad as you think. The Leaky Cauldron!"

Hermione's original plan had been to take the Knight Bus back to Bicester. But when she reached the Leaky Cauldron, she felt a sudden, strong urge to be by herself for a while. After all, if her mother and father asked her: "How was your evening, sweetheart?" what could she possibly say?

Tucked up in a warm bed in the Leaky Cauldron, dress robes Transfigured into soft flannel pyjamas, a warming pan at her feet, a generous mug of the Leaky Cauldron's special Chocolat Digestif in her hands and the artichoke paddling around happily in a saucer of olive oil on the dresser, Hermione considered her evening with the Malfoys.

She wondered queasily if this evening's display was a foreshadowing of her own future. Was Pansy's the fate of every pureblood bride? – to devote her life to acting the perfect hostess, pandering to the whims of a spoiled husband, his dullard or sycophantic friends and his senile relations? More worryingly, was this what Geraint was expecting of her?

She thought about Geraint, and sighed. She remembered their first meeting, chuckling wryly at the memory of the party where they had first met: his cocksure arrogance and her own shrill insecurity. How long ago that seemed! She thought of their days in the pyramids, terrifying at the time, but so delightful to her now: Geraint steadfast against her back as they fought for their lives, battling the ghosts of long-dead jackals in the burial chamber of an empress; Geraint's smile, dizzy with relief as she levitated gently out of a pit of spikes and cobras, unscratched; Geraint in the dusty darkness of a tomb, far from help, burning up with fever and calling her name… She remembered passionate quarrels that had enraged them both beyond reason, but which they had not been able to let alone until the day when, driven by some force beyond their control, they tumbled into each other's arms. She remembered sauntering arm in arm through the Wizards' bazaar at Luxor, haggling for goods, tasting heavily spiced, aromatic delicacies from stalls by the side of the road, and laughing with a carefree abandon she had not felt since she came to Hogwarts and befriended the boy whose destiny was to save the Wizarding world. She remembered Geraint's strong arms around her, and the thrill as his lips met hers.

And yet something had changed. Other words were intruding on her thoughts: "lummox… jumped-up nowt… bloody unbelievable". Could it be, she asked herself in disbelief, that she was proposing to marry a stupid man? In her own way, Hermione was as much a snob as Narcissa Malfoy, and the thought of a lifetime bond with a man of even just average intelligence appalled her. For the first time she realised, with mounting horror, that she had never seen a book in Geraint's living quarters.

No, she told herself. She was being ridiculous. Her fears were groundless – night-time fancies brought on by that ridiculous Pureblood diet rather than rational concerns. Geraint was every bit as clever as she was – just not bookish, that was all. He was warm, tender, witty and considerate. And he loved and respected her for what she was, not because of her bloodlines or her name. He knew she was no Pansy, and he would never try to make her into one… surely?

Nonetheless, it was clear that they had a lot of ground to cover before they really knew each other properly. When she got back to Nubia, they were going to have to have a serious talk.

Hermione realised that, for the first time since she had fallen in love with Geraint, she was not looking forward to their next meeting.

She blew out the candle and burrowed under the covers, trying to get some rest. Lying in the dark, mulling over her evening and waiting for sleep to come, she found herself wondering idly if Professor Snape had made it home safely.

"I hope he bloody well splinched," she muttered crossly, tossing and turning.

It was going to be a long night.