"Cyril Wattsworth . . . Hufflepuff!"

Under the applause from the Hufflepuff table, Ron leaned toward Harry and whispered, "Awful lot of first years going to Hufflepuff, aren't there?"

"I don't think so. I mean, we had a lot of Gryffindors last time round." All of them, unfortunately, seemed to be Weasleys: lined farther up the table Harry could see Ron's sister Ginny and the twins Fred and George (with their heads suspiciously close together; Harry wondered fate lay in store for the unsuspecting first years later tonight). Lacking at the table was Percy Weasley, which didn't really count: Percy was now interning as an assistant teacher under Professor McGonagall, which distressed Ron so that over summer holiday he had sent Harry several urgent owls bemoaning his fate ("He's unlivable!" the letters ran. "Now all my aunts and uncles are looking at me with that greedy look in their eyes. I don't know what I'll be doing after graduating, Harry, but I won't be teaching at Hogwarts, believe you me!").

The final first year student--"Slytherin!"--safely sorted and seated, Albus Dumbledore rose to give one final speech before dinner began.

"To our first years, I welcome you to Hogwarts. As always, I should like to remind you all that the Forbidden Forest has, in the past year, devoured eight-and-a-half of our graduating students, as well as several underclassmen, and is strictly off-limits. Hence the name Forbidden Forest. Believe me, if it were completely safe we would have long ago changed the name to the Come-And-Go-As-You-Damned-Well-Please Forest. Also, I would like to announce the top floor of the main building is closed until we can get rid of all those giant vampire bats."

"Twenty quid says we three'll have to go into it for some reason before the year's up," said Hermione. Harry laughed, then quickly put a hand over his mouth as Dumbledore continued.

"And finally, I am happy to introduce to you our new Professor of the Defense Against the Dark Arts, Professor Yvaine Evensong."

The feast hall broke into polite applause. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry spotted the Weasley twins conferring, then shaking hands. For the past five years they had set themselves up as Hogwarts's freelance punters. Harry had no doubts they were taking bets as to how long this new teacher would last.

Ron seemed to share the feeling. "Remember the one last year? He died in three days. I bet Hogwarts must have outrageous insurance premiums."

"Oh, hush up, Ron," said Hermione. "Anyway, they never found the body."

At the teachers' table, a slender figure draped in midnight blue robes trimmed with white Irish knotwork, stood and cleared her throat--although it didn't much sound like throat-clearing, unless one could imagine a hummingbird with a touch of laryngitis. A murmur of excitement swept up and down the hall. If she was the new teacher she couldn't be much more than twenty. Her moon-pale braid fell down past her waist, and even from here Harry could see her clear, lovely grey eyes. A collective sigh rose from the male populous, Ron included.

"Thank you, Headmaster Dumbledore." She turned her head and beamed on the four houses. She had a beautiful, sonorous voice that seemed a little too large for her body. "And thank you all, students. I 'm certain I'll enjoy my time here at Hogwarts, and I look forward to teaching you this year and in the many years to come."

"Not bloody likely," murmured Ron as Professor Evensong took her seat again.

Dumbledore clapped his hands, and the empty platters lining the tables suddenly steamed with food. At each students place a candelabrum flared, and at the far end of the Ravenclaw table there was a brief consternation as Agnes Longbottom's right sleeve caught fire. Neville rushed across the room to put her out, and the rest of them loaded their plates.

"I always forget how good Hogwarts food tastes after a summer with the Dursleys," said Harry. Rapidly he took double helpings of buttered corn, boiled spuds, bread pudding, and a huge turkey leg. Hermione, ever scrupulous, gave a plate of broccoli an unsubtle nudge in his direction.

With his mouth full, Ron shouted, "You don't mean your cousin's still on that diet, do you?"

"Worse. Aunt Petunia got so fed up with getting reports from his school that she enrolled him in a special summer camp for fat kids. He's lost sixty pounds."

"No joke? So Dudley's thin now?"

"Not really, but definitely thinner. It's just that now that I'm allowed to eat with the family instead of just getting scraps I've found out Aunt Petunia is a horrid cook." With a sigh of pure contentment, he tore a bite off his turkey leg.

Hermione was picking daintily at her food. Sometimes her precision could nearly kill you. Not only did she have the required two servings of greens, the proper number of carbohydrates, and a glass of milk rather than apple cider, all her portions were laid out in neat circles around her plate. Instead of tucking in, the way Harry and Ron were doing, she was watching the head table with her head cocked that peculiar way of hers. Harry, who in six years had had more classes with Hermione than he cared to count, knew that look as the one Hermione bestowed upon final examinations before ripping them to shreds and passing with full marks.

"The new professor looks a little unusual, don't you think so, Harry?" she asked.

"Unusually gorgeous," Ron replied before Harry could respond. Ron stuffed a whole dinner roll into his mouth, chewed and swallowed before going on. "I mean, she's absolutely drop-dead. She looks young enough to be going here, not teaching here."

Hermione gave Harry a pointed look, ignoring Ron.

"Well, yes," Harry said. "I did notice how all the boys dropped everything and gawked for a moment. Do you think she might be a veela?"

Two years ago they'd had quite enough trouble with veelas at the World Quidditch Cup, not to mention Fleur Delacour, who'd only been a quarter veela.

"No, but I did notice her when the teachers were filing in. She's got very pointed ears. I think she's some sort of a faerie."

Harry turned to the headmaster's table for a second, closer look. The new professor was laughing as she talked animatedly with Professor Hagrid (it still seemed odd referring to Hagrid as Professor), and gesturing wildly with her hands. As she reached the climax of her story the entire teachers' table erupted into laughter, with Hagrid thumping the table

hard enough to rattle silverware on Professor Snape's end, and Professor Evensong casually brushed a stray lock of pale hair from her face, revealing a long, tapered ear.

"Yes, I see it. That's odd. I didn't think faeries had much to do with Hogwarts."

"She must be here on some sort of teacher's exchange programme with Bride's Academy of Glamourie in Ireland. I do hope she is. I'd love to learn more about glamourie and faerie lore. Hogwarts has been so neglectful with their liberal arts curriculum." Hermione put a forkful of asparagus into her mouth and sighed, lost, no doubt, in fantasies of extra-credit excursions to Stonehenge.

"Whatever she is, she's hot." 'Hot' was Ron's new vocabulary word, gleaned from his summer's obsession with muggle film magazines. In addition to talk of Percy's internship, Ron's recent letters were filled with exclamation points in connection with an American pop star named Britney Spears.

Harry's summer had been an unusually good one. As soon as Dudley left for the summer the Dursleys seem to have lost all interest in tormenting Harry, and Uncle Vernon had been generous in his willingness to allow Harry free time. Actually, generous and willing weren't quite the words; Uncle Vernon had picked up Harry under one arm, the Firebolt, Hedwig, and all Harry's schoolbooks under the other arm, and thrown the lot out the door saying "I don't care what you do, just do it outside!" Harry spent most of the summer in the far field of an abandoned farmhouse, practicing Seeking with his Firebolt and an enchanted Hi-Bounce ball, which hovered obligingly in place while Harry swooped down on it at all angles. He'd even been invited out rollerblading with some muggle boys in his neighbourhood, and was still waiting for the scabs to fall off. All of them thought it was 'wicked cool' that Harry's aunt and uncle let him keep an owl as a pet, and Hedwig was always willing to play dead for a scrap of hamburger bun so long as her audience wanted to see her perform. As far as Harry was concerned, any relatively Dursley-free summer was a good one.

When the last drop of pumpkin juice had been coaxed from the pitcher, the last plate scraped and shoved back with a groan of contentment, and the last Longbottom extinguished, the prefects rose to lead the little first years up to their houses. The senior students followed up the occasionally shifting staircases to Gryffindor House. Harry, Ron, and Hermione separated only as Hermione made the turn toward the girls' dormitory.

"We'll find out about her tomorrow," Hermione assured.

Harry looked puzzled. Ron only groaned, "For Pete's sake, you're not still going on about that new teacher, are you? She's Dark Arts, Hermione; she won't see the week out!"

"I just think it's interesting," said Hermione, and gave Harry one of her hard looks. "Don't you, Harry?"

"Why should I think it's interesting? Ron's right. Do the math. Six years, six Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers. If she doesn't get blown up, kicked out, arrested, or eaten, she'll run like mad in a month."

"I just think it's interesting that Hogwarts hasn't had a woman teaching the Dark Arts class in a hundred and sixty years. That's all. Good night." She vanished behind a tapestry.

While Ron changed in pyjamas behind the screen, Harry opened the window and set Hedwig free for her night's hunting. After a bumpy ride in the baggage compartment of the Hogwarts Express, she was eager to be off, but she politely made her contented krrlkl noise and paused long enough to be petted before hopping out the window. She sailed off, a chalk-white speck against the darkness of the Forbidden Forest. From somewhere close by a prefect was issuing orders to any first-year still away that tomorrow was a full day of classes and no one, not even a first year, would be excused from tardy demerits. Harry couldn't help but grin. Not too long ago he was a first year, and those days of waking up in the middle of the night, bursting with excitement at the simple prospect of being at Hogwarts, were sometimes very near.

Ron tumbled into bed and immediately pulled the quilt over his face. "Turn off the light, Harry. I'm worn out already. And close the window. It's freezing."

Covering the lantern with its tin hood, Harry shut the window down to a crack so that Hedwig could nose her way, or rather beak her way, back in, Harry lay down on his bed. "We're in trouble, you know that, don't you?"

"Why are we in trouble?"

Harry turned on his back and stared at the ceiling. "Because every time Hermione thinks something's 'interesting' we're always in trouble."