Thanks to nnozomi for betaing.
Prompt: Characters and/or pairings: Minerva, other female witch; Prompt(s): AU, magical or nonmagical. A story inspired by these two: Ada Lovelace and Mary Somerville. The genre is up to you - gen, friendship of whatever kind, romance, adventure, science fiction, steampunk ... / Friendships and relationships (romantic/erotic or otherwise) outside the heterosexual norm.
Once I started brainstorming ideas for this a whole host of allusions began creeping in; I hope I've been able to keep the focus on these witches! I also hope it's AU enough...perhaps the state of Muggle science in this world is lagging behind ours, so that our characters are really on the cutting edge? Use your imagination. ;) More notes at end.
It was a hot evening in early summer, hot enough for plenty of people to be taking a walk outside where they might have noticed a silver ball of light that almost, from a certain angle, resembled a cat.
A woman in a dark purple sweater and fashionably new, if rather bland, trousers gritted her teeth as she approached the light, stepping in front of it and glaring pointedly at the water meter on the block of flats.
From below her, the hint of a voice saying "Six o'clock" in the slightest Scottish accent.
And then, nothing unusual, bar her scrupulous attention to the water meter. She stared at it a few moments longer, then muttered a few expletives under her breath, as if to overshadow the brief voice.
Then she went inside, climbed up to her flat, and took out a notepad. Sorry, friends wanted to meet earlier than expected. If I'm back by eight, a rematch is in order, but don't stay up on my account, she wrote, leaving the note on a plain plastic table.
She walked into her bedroom and resumed reading a large book, scribbling in the margins every so often with a small pen. Her hands seemed cramped as she shook the pen this way and that, gripping it tightly to force ink onto the page before tilting it to a different angle and writing somewhat more fluidly.
Finally, at ten minutes to six, she opened her nightstand, grabbing what seemed to be a branch of a walnut tree, nine inches long. She closed the book and walked outside again, wandering aimlessly for a few blocks. Whispering under her breath, she spun the branch between her fingers—
—then stepped through a crowded basement, shivering as she got her bearings.
"Casual Tuesdays, eh Sep?" crowed a young redheaded man. "Welcome to the monkey house."
"Quite," she sniffed. "And I live in the Muggle world, there's a surprising number of clothes available there."
"Good on you!" grinned an older man, clapping her on the back. "Always good to get a sense of who we're fighting for, innit?"
She rolled her eyes and made her way across the room. It was crowded, either because of the brooms strewn across the floor or because there really were more people than she had expected. But it wasn't difficult to find the woman she was looking for. Tall, wearing tartan robes and a dark hat, she smiled at the first woman's approach. "Septima! Thank you for coming, glad you found the place."
"The smell alone was memorable enough," said Septima Vector with raised eyebrows. "No, you're lucky that I knew when to arrive. Stay alert for times, you said—you might have sent an owl!"
"An owl might have been intercepted."
"Minerva, this is the first time I've really been to one of your...club meetings, I doubt there are any wizards on my street."
"Then it wouldn't have done to send an owl, would it?" said Minerva McGonagall smugly. "People might notice."
"Well—I—supposing I couldn't have made six. How should I have told you?"
"The same way, Dumbledore will teach you how to send messages by Patronus."
"Patronus Charm?" Septima gave a dry laugh. "I barely got my OWL in Charms, never mind Defense."
"Don't be modest, Septima. Here." Minerva nodded at a tall man with a broken nose. "Albus, this is Septima Vector—Septima, Albus Dumbledore."
Septima shook his hand. "An honour."
"Quite!" smiled Albus. "Minerva speaks very highly of your work."
"Of course," said Minerva. "But sit down, I think we're going to get started."
She sat down next to Minerva and the discussion began. There were a few early jokes, mostly at the expense of Fabian Prewett, and speculation as to whether he had only joined because the Order wanted to use the house he shared with his brother Gideon (he denied all such charges). But very quickly, the conversation went over Septima's head. It was all a question of who knew who and who had heard what from whom. There were old Squib friends and young schoolchildren about whom the professors gave knowing looks while Septima tried to keep up. For a society dedicated to overthrowing pureblood extremists, it certainly had the feel of an old boys' convention.
But just when she thought it would never stop, it did, and Septima found herself wanting more. Not because the details of their quiet operations were of any interest at all, but because there were still no specifications about the next meeting...
Oh, she thought to herself. Of course. All right, then.
"Thanks for inviting me, Minerva," she smiled. "If anything...strange comes up in the Muggle world, I'll send word."
"Thank you," said Minerva. "I'll let you know when the next meeting is, yes?"
"Next...meeting?" They did want her?
"Of course. It hasn't been set in stone, yet, but—"
"An hour's notice won't do, not by owl and not by enchanted cat and not in public where Muggles can see."
Minerva blinked. "Are you on the Floo?"
"No," Septima said pointedly.
"All right—well—how were you going to send word to me?"
"Through the Owl Office. When it's not time-sensitive."
"But you receive owls?"
"Well, I've been thinking of getting my own mailbox in Hogsmeade."
"Do you need that much secrecy? Something can be arranged—"
"I'm fine, but if things are as bad as you say I don't need any Muggles knowing anything strange. Might as well keep them safe."
Minerva smiled. "You'll fit right in."
Septima rolled her eyes, then Disapparated, reemerging a few blocks from her flat. Then she walked back, so it would look to anyone near there like she'd just been out for a walk.
By the time she returned, it was a quarter past eight. Sighing, she picked up her book and began to scribble once again.
When she next saw Minerva, it was at lunch in a Muggle restaurant. Minerva ordered pleasantly quickly, which was a nice change of pace—several of the witches Septima ate with would pore over Muggle menus time and time again as if making sure there wasn't a secret message in the unfamiliar ingredients.
While they waited for the food, Minerva dug into her purse, taking out a piece of paper with several titles written on it. "No rush, but Albus wanted to look at some of the sources you used for that translation."
"I'll send them over. I didn't know he was interested in...er..." she dropped her voice. "Alchemy?" If anyone heard, they could just be talking about Isaac Newton.
"There's no telling what he's interested in. For all I know he's starting his own private library."
Septima rolled her eyes. "I'll want these returned."
Lunch was pleasant, in spite of a headache coming on. Septima's uncle Nathanael swore by a relatively simple potion for the migraines that ran in their family, but the hassles of delivery had instilled in her a skepticism for magical cures.
"So," she said in casual terms, "are your plans for, ah, victory based on being as haphazard as possible? I suppose it's hard to defeat an enemy that no one can find."
"I see you've never played kriegspiel," McGonagall muttered.
"Hard enough with my new set—oh, never mind. Did you want to practice...trying to conjure up happy memories?"
"Believe it or not, I am afforded with enough time to practice on my own. Nothing doing."
"I find a change of scenery can be helpful, now and then. Plenty of m—power comes down to will—"
"—and seeing as I clearly have very little of either, I'll stick with my theoretical...computations."
"I'll make an academic out of you yet, Sep."
"Says the one who swore she was going to be a civil servant. Whatever happened there, anyway?" Theirs was a friendship built on mutual understanding—of esoteric first principles, if not each other's past or present.
Minerva rolled her eyes. "Politics. Isn't that enough for everyone?"
"More than enough," Septima conceded, then glanced down at the notes in her hand again. "All of these back issues? I thought your—school—had a library."
"And he can't find any of these?"
Minerva shrugged. "When you come to work here, you can donate your archives to the cause."
"Likely," Septima sniffed. "Well, if there's no rush, I'll send them off when I can."
"Thank you. Er...you still follow the Magpies, don't you?"
"You remembered? Yes, of course!"
"I have a spare ticket next Saturday, if you'd like."
"Next Saturday? We don't play next Saturday."
"Yes we do."
"You're not...referring to Newcastle, are you."
Minerva swore. "I'm sorry. You're still invited, of course."
"That'll be all right. Maybe later."
"Okay. Thanks again."
Septima did practice the Patronus Charm, when she was sure no one was watching. The day I left school, she thought, sailing back out across the lake. I'd done it, I'd done very well...although, I liked Hogwarts, liked having the library right there, it's not that I enjoyed leaving it so much as finishing my work...ugh..."Expecto patronum?"
Meeting the lessor. It...it was just a business arrangement at first, signing the papers to move into the flat. I didn't know at the time, it wasn't a really good memory that way, but...seeing a friendly face is always nice..."Expecto patronum."
Newcastle are in the cup final again for the third time in five years. I'd missed the first two, away at school, but this one I get to watch on the television. Only forty-five seconds in and Jackie Milburn scores. They never look back. "Expecto patronum!"
Gold flecks, floating at the edge of her vision. Nothing silver. I need iron in my diet, probably.
Sighing, she glanced at the clock—dinner wouldn't be until later, but maybe a few Every Flavor Beans to tide her over. Some magical luxuries weren't worth doing without.
The delay happened to be a good thing, as she was able to receive Albus Dumbledore's owl without it interrupting dinner. Sure enough, all the journals were returned in one tidy bundle, along with an extra note. I'd be honored to meet with you privately before our next meeting. Does Saturday at five in the Hog's Head work?
she quickly scribbled back. She could go for a walk, have somewhere quiet to Apparate from. Though, of course, being out in public rather defeated the purpose...
But by the time Saturday rolled around, she was too busy to think of walking. The potions she was studying were extremely reactive, which on one hand suggested that whoever had scribbled down the alchemical equations was onto something. On the other, though, it didn't seem like they would have been able to synthesize anything of value among all the puffs of smoke. By the time she had gotten everything in her bedroom to stop fuming, it was more than quarter past. Nervously, she Apparated into the bar.
"—really must understand that not everyone is as adept at Apparition—" someone was saying.
"Minerva!" Septima smiled. "Hullo, didn't know you were coming too."
"Oh. Just—Albus wanted to make sure you were okay."
"Fine. Just...lost in thought."
"A common affliction!" said Albus. "Would it were more common, perhaps."
"Evening, Professor. Sorry to run late."
"No trouble, no trouble at all. I'm here mostly to return your journals. Thank you very much—I hadn't been keeping up with many of the continental trends."
"Oh. Um. You're welcome." It wasn't clear whether the man wanted to run a secret paramilitary or an elite lending library.
"I was wondering, however, if you could tell me about the advertisements?"
"What about them?"
"In the back of these issues." He flipped past the articles to reveal pages full of cramped boxes with only a few lines per ad. "The materials for sale, the book offers, I understand. But some of this just looks like gibberish."
"Of course it looks like gibberish," she smiled. "It's an anagram code."
"Really? They still have those? Goodness, and I thought our wizarding dress sense was a bit reactionary."
Septima looked down at her Muggle outfit and blushed, but Minerva interrupted. "Still have what?"
"Here," said Septima, reaching for another issue, "I'll show you one of mine." She turned to the end, and there, in between a call for manuscripts to pass off to unassuming Muggles and a sale on newt eyes, was printed:
AAAAAAAAABCCCCCCDEEEEEEEEEEE EEEFFFGGGGHHIIIIIIJKLLLMMMNN NOOOOPRRRRSSSSSSSSSSSTTTTTTT UUUVVW
"And that's an anagram?" Minerva asked. "You rearrange the letters to spell something?"
"Exactly! All there is to it!"
"Old tradition. Muggle too. If you have a result or even a hypothesis that you want to claim priority on, but aren't confident to publish all your results yet, you can do this first. Then if you get more data and publish, great. But if someone else beats you, you unscramble the letters to say that you got it first."
"So what does this one say?"
"Er, hold on, I'd have to check...see, I never needed to unscramble this. No one was working on my projects so a few years after this came out, I did publish and got the credit anyway. Let's see, two Vs, one of them is my name...yes. Septima Vector infers that when seeking access to secure areas, Muggle blood is just as effective as magical."
"Blood wards?" said Albus. "I don't suppose there are many Muggles getting injured and trying to break into secret magical locations."
"Well," said Septima, "that's why it was only an inference at that point."
Albus paused, then laughed. "Touché."
"Wait a minute," said Minerva, glancing at the paper. "You do this in public, so anyone can read it?"
"Exactly!" said Septima. "Then I can say well, go back to such and so edition."
"Then what's to stop someone from unscrambling the letters themselves, and stealing the discovery?"
"The length of the message."
"There are ninety letters there. That means there's more ways to arrange them than you know what to do with, a hundred and...thirtysome digits' worth. Most of them are gibberish, of course, but even when you get something coherent it could be...let me see...as our American friends would say...Fascist jackasses avenge amateur soccer mischief and struggle to beat the elves." She paused, then added, "Magpies' score in it woeful."
After a moment, both professors laughed uproariously. "How do you do that?" Minerva finally asked.
"Practice," said Septima, her shrug that of false modesty. "I still can't win at Scrabble."
"I thought you grew up in the Muggle world!"
"Ugh, you've been at that school too long. Come over to my flat sometime and I'll show you, yes?"
"That'd be brilliant," said Minerva, glancing down at the original advertisement Albus had opened. "Wait, so you put your letters in alphabetical order to start with?"
"Yes—neutral standard, gets rid of most of the words that show up."
She nodded slowly. "I see another one like that. But why is this gibberish out of order?"
"Here and here," she pointed to a couple of ads, "always at the bottom of the page. There's the letters-put-in-order, but then this is just gibberish. Unless it's just out of order for no real reason at all, but then why?"
"Can't be," Septima whispered.
"Vowels. Look at mine—you don't know what it says, but the letters look like they might be English, just out of order. There's more Es and As than other letters, lots of Ss and Ts too. Those ones you have there? There's not enough vowels to go around."
Albus picked up another edition and turned instead to the front cover, squinting at the list of editors. "Curious. I do apologize for the inconvenience, but, perhaps—perhaps I could borrow these once more, just to make a few copies? I can give them back to you at the next meeting."
"I thought the next meeting was tonight."
"What?" said Minerva.
"Oh, no," said Albus, "forgive me, I only thought we should meet between now and then. No, it'll be Thursday, week after this. Or Friday, if that works better for some people."
"Do you think I might have more than an hour's notice? Not all of us can change our plans that quickly," Septima asked again.
"I'll see what I can do."
"Please do," she said. "And Minerva?"
"I meant that about Scrabble. Do please come by."
"Do you know what that is?" said Minerva, glancing at Albus.
"Vaguely," he shrugged. "Just think of it as a chance to practice your spellwork."
Septima's flat was divided neatly into the living room, where she kept a variety of old books and journals, and the bedroom, where she kept a variety of old books and journals. The difference was that while her interest in alchemy would be evident from a glance at the spines in the living room, nothing in the more public area would fizzle if you poked it the wrong way.
Absent from this, however, were many entertainments. She hardly needed her own stash, after all, when Althea was so generous with her supply. There was no counting the hours they had spent in the landlady's flat, facing each other across the table, eyes locked on the words in front of them before Septima got up to make them both tea. Had she needed to borrow one of the games, it would have been hers without asking.
Still, she hadn't counted on Althea's reaction.
"You're having company over? Brilliant. Bring her up here and we can all play."
"Er—that's all right—there's no bother."
"No, please! We've both been busy, let's enjoy it."
"I never get to meet any of your work friends."
"They're all a bit—odd."
"I've never had a problem with oddities, my goodness, Sep, you know that. No. Bring her."
And Minerva had to go and be so enthusiastic about the process too, curse her, so Septima reluctantly had her come up. She wasn't sure how Minerva had gotten there—she certainly didn't know Septima's neighborhood well enough to Apparate—but perhaps she was better with Muggle transportation than she let on?
Oh well, none of her business. "This is Althea Mathewson, a—close friend of mine."
"Minnie McGonagall," said Minerva, as Septima tried to hide her shock. Minerva was never Minnie, and she seemed to remember her actually disliking the nickname.
"McGonagall?" Althea repeated, as if knowingly.
"Old schoolfriend," Septima rushed to fill in.
"I thought you met through work?"
"Recently reconnected. She...jumps around a bit. Can be brilliant once you get her going, but doesn't know how to play Scrabble."
"We can fix that," said Althea. "Tea, Minnie?"
"No thanks," said Minerva.
"All right, let me know if you change your mind. Now." She made her way over to the table. "We start by drawing a letter out of a bag to see who goes first—first in the alphabet."
"Yes, but how do you play?"
"You'll catch on," said Althea, reaching for her own letter and turning it over. "T."
Septima drew E, but Minerva I. "Great," said Althea, "Septima can go first—you draw six more while you have the bag, Minnie."
She did so before passing it to Septima, who took her second tile out and tried not show any reaction before continuing.
"She has a Q," said Althea offhandedly.
"What?" said both witches, before Minerva continued, "do we show you our letters?"
"No, I just thought I'd give you a hint because you're new. You have a Q—don't blush, Sep, you always glower when you get a Q with no U like you don't for X and Z, you expect to be able to play those."
"I don't understand this game," said Minerva.
"You cheat!" Septima grabbed another and exhaled.
"Uh-huh," said Althea. "Now I think she just grabbed the blank—it doesn't score any points but it still helps."
Septima sighed at her rack as she finished drawing. "This always happens to me."
Althea took the bag. "You need a better poker face."
"I meant this," she said, rearranging the tiles and subtly tilting the rack so Minerva could see. "See, there's a fifty-point bonus for using all your letters in one go."
Minerva still did not quite understand the game, but looked down at Septima's Q-blank-A-F-F-L-Eand gave a wistful smile.
"Oh, okay. Here, quaff—as in, thirst, right? You quaff your thirst? On the double?"
"It's the drink you're quaffing, but yes, that's a word," said Althea, marking down Septima's score. "See, I don't need to cheat, I can't keep up with your luck. Tilt your rack, Minnie can see from that angle."
"I would never take advantage of looking at an opponent's pieces," said Minerva primly, "Especially because I don't even understand the game."
"They're called tiles,Minnie," said Septima. The nickname still felt harsh on her mouth.
She shrugged. "Kriegspiel. Force of habit."
Althea gaped, almost forgetting to score her own move. "You play kriegspiel?"
Minnie's face lit up. "I think I'll have to come back here. Septima can call moves."
"Excuse me?" said Septima. "Have I been invited to...something? It's good manners to ask first."
"How come I have never met any of your work friends before?" Althea demanded. "Minnie seems so interesting. No, don't use your S there—you can make this into Quaffs, see. Get points for the Q again and then play vertically..."
The good news about the encounter, Septima supposed, was that it finally convinced Minerva to use the telephone to contact her. Two whole days' notice, that time, of the meeting on Friday.
Discussion seemed to be focused around how the secret society should, or should not, interact with the Auror Office. Some said it was better if they didn't tell the Ministry what they were up to—if they happened to go against the letter of the law, the Aurors could look the other way. Others thought that the sooner the Ministry drew the line the better, and if they needed to be reminded to stand up to criminals, well, so be it.
"I still don't know why you invited me here," Septima admitted, "but surely trained dark-wizard catchers would be a lot more use than an Arithmancer?" (It was her job and she was going to teach people what the word meant. "Numerologists" were just would-be Seers who drank all the tea and didn't have any leaves left. But studying old theoretical papers and testing them against current magic, well, that was respectable work.)
Minerva gave her a smile. "Of course, the Ministry already tries to go about its business. But—it does not always do so very well. I think it's important to maintain diversity..."
Cuing another round of arguments flying over her head. No wonder the pureblood nutters were doing so well, they probably only had one leader who just told them what to do.
The meeting ended with little more accomplished, and Septima sought Albus out. "Were you done with the journals? Or—had you made your copies—"
"Yes," he sighed, gathering them into a stack."I—I suppose I can return the originals, at any rate. But if you don't mind, I would appreciate seeing others. How early do your copies of the Gazzetta go back?"
"I'm not sure. I don't subscribe to that one but I've bought a lot of individual copies, probably would have been cheaper."
"I can look at them if you'd like," said Minerva, "I'm still coming over next week, right?"
"If Althea's talked you into it, I suppose there's no saying no," said Septima.
"Are you able to set your own schedule?" said Albus, sounding concerned.
"Oh no, Althea's—my landlady—she's brilliant—I just didn't expect them to get along so well."
"She doesn't quite trust me," Minerva pointed out, "I'm not used to playing cards that don't shuffle themselves."
"If you'd be so kind as to find out when Nerina Alunni took over as editor?" Albus said, handing the journals back. "Some time between Fall 1959 and Summer 1967, it seems, judging by the inside covers. Oh, and maybe look to see when this "gibberish" started showing up."
"I should think Septima doesn't need me to read her journals for her!"
"Of course. But—pardon me—you seem a bit nervous here from time to time. I hardly want to order you around."
"I don't belong here because I'm not a vigilante and I can barely cast a spell," said Septima. "I don't know what you want from me!"
"You're a brilliant witch who lives among Muggles and an expert in abstractions I wouldn't begin to understand," said Minerva. "Don't sell yourself short."
Septima blushed. "All right, then. See you soon."
Althea rolled her eyes, moving her king sideways.
Septima copied the move on her own board. "I think that's stalemate."
"Think? There's no rush."
"Yes. Stalemate." There was nothing like relaying "your turn" to two women excitably huddled over chessboards half a flat apart, preferring the extra challenge of not even looking at each other's pieces, to get a feel for legal moves. But really!
"How is it stalemate?" said Minerva. "Wait, come see if I guessed right."
Althea marched over as Septima rolled her eyes and started making tea. "All wrong. C'mon, you have to ask about pawn captures more often."
"Oh, I prefer to ask the pawns whether they feel like capturing anybody today."
Septima whirled from the kitchen, teakettle frozen in her hand. Minerva's face was completely straight, but Althea seemed amused. "Oh? And what did they say?"
"What is this place and where's all the other team," Minerva deadpanned, and both women began laughing. Even Septima joined in, rolling her eyes as she brought out tea.
Minerva had muttered something about "high-powered Reducio" as she brought her own chessboard in, earning a sharp glare from Septima, but by and large the evening had gone well. Thankfully, Althea had stopped asking questions after the demure "oh, I'm a boarding school teacher" explanation, and other than a few jabs at "Minnie's" dress sense they didn't seem in any danger of being caught out.
"So, what sort of music plays on the wireless up here?" Minerva asked.
"Er?" said Althea.
"They've been "radios" for the last two decades, Min," Septima interrupted, "you sound like my mum."
"Oh," shrugged Althea. "I don't care much for music."
"Really?" Minerva gaped.
"Come on, Min—er," Septima caught herself, "I just put up with an hour of you asking about pawn moves. We don't need to all have the same hobbies."
"Oh, all right," she said. "Thank you again. Thank you both. I'd invite you over to return the favor—are you all right, Septima?"
She glanced down at the tea she had spilled, her jaw stiffening. Her wand was so close, and yet, she couldn't help her legs from burning. "Not exactly."
"Just head back to your flat and change? Do you need some cold water?" said Althea.
"I'll—just—go back to my place. But Min, you can't exactly have Althea up to the school, it's so—er—far away."
"Nonsense, Min seems to manage the trick all right!" Althea smiled.
The burning sensation only worsened. How was she going to talk her way out of this one?
"I was saying, I would invite you over, but I'm afraid my rooms are in a shambles. There's been construction and—I don't mean to be impolite, but I hope you know how much I appreciate your hospitality. I just wish I could offer some in return."
So Minerva got out of hosting, and Septima got tea all over her legs. Sighing, she walked down to her flat and quickly Vanished the mess.
"Sorry," said Minerva, once she'd joined a few minutes later.
Septima shook her head. "I know you're a brilliant academic. You might think before you speak!"
"Yes. Er. I just—"
"I looked up my copies of the Gazzetta the moment I got back from the meeting with Albus, I am good for something."
"I know. Here. I don't have every issue, like I said, but Spring 1962 Scordato was the editor, and by Spring 1963 it's Alunni. So she took over sometime that year."
"There wasn't any gibberish before that, just standard anagrams. But the next issue I have is Winter 1964, and they do show up after that. Does Dumbledore think they might be linked?"
"He hasn't said anything to me."
"All right. Well. If you hear anything, let me in on it, okay? I—they're my journals, I want to be part of it too."
"All right. Don't Apparate out of here, you don't want to wake anybody up or startle them."
"Has anyone complained about being startled?"
"How could they? After I Apparate away, I'm not here."
Minerva nodded slowly. "You appreciate the scientific method. Let's have a bit of a controlled experiment."
"You're not leaving, are you? I'll Apparate away, and if no one complains, you'll know it's safe to Apparate out of."
"And when they do? How am I supposed to—" Crack! "Min!"
She stayed up late, paging through the journal and staring at the gibberish, tapping it with her wand and testing the pages to see if they were physically strange in any way (they weren't). No one came to knock at the flat. Still, she feared.
Another meeting at the Hog's Head was quickly arranged. Septima brought the three issues she'd mentioned, taking care to leave the flat well before Apparating to Hogsmeade.
"You think there's some connection," she said flatly to Dumbledore.
He adjusted his half-moon glasses, as if buying time to speak. "The Alunni family are an old pureblood line, and they do like to make a show of their philanthropy. Restoring fountains. Giving scholarships."
"Writing codes?" said McGonagall.
"I am not very familiar with Nerina Alunni's work. However, Nerina Tornincasa's name is a bit more...concerning."
"She's gotten married since she became editor?"
"No. Beforehand. She was born a Tornincasa, and their...reactionary allegiances are well-known."
"So there could be a pureblood fanatic editing the Gazzetta," Septima summarized, "and as soon as she takes over, there starts being these gibberish messages?"
"It is unwise to jump to conclusions, but yes, both of these appear likely."
"Do you have any idea what the letters mean?"
"No. I would assume a more frequent contributor or reader might."
"I don't have any idea. To be honest, I looked past them—didn't notice when they started showing up like this."
Minerva had gotten out a quill and parchment. "You said before it couldn't be an anagram, there weren't enough vowels, right?"
"Does it look more like...this?"
She passed over the parchment. Ifmmp nz obnf jt njofswb ndhpobhbmm.
"No spaces," said Septima, "but yes, only a few vowels. What's this, some kind of code?"
"Yes. Do you know how to solve it?"
"No. That's why it's a code."
"Codes can be broken. Give this a try. It's not bad. I even put spaces in."
"A try how?"
"Look for anything...distinctive about it."
"Double Ms at the end...double Ms at the beginning...lots of words starting with N. But only a few vowels."
"The letters stand for different letters."
"I know what a code is."
"Well technically this one is a cipher..."
"Shut up," said Septima, grabbing the page even closer. She could show Minerva. If every letter stood for the same letter, maybe the Ms were vowels since they showed up so often? Probably E or O at the end of the word. And the N...something that could start a two-letter word. There weren't many. T for to? "How am I supposed to know what it says?"
"Well, take a guess, it's not a very secret piece of information." Minerva was already scribbling down something else.
Information. Something everyone knew. Like "The sky is blue?" Is...another two-letter word. Started with I—had Minerva already written it down? No, that was a J, it just looked like an I. But if jt meant is...J came right before I, like S and T. Pushing the letters back one...the N and M turned into M and L. "Minerva McGonagall?"
"See? You're fast. Now try this one." URYYBZLANZRVFZVAREINZPTBANTN YY.
"You don't need them."
What was that supposed to mean? Double Ys at the end, double Ys early on, Zs everywhere—"Same pattern."
"Exactly. See? You're coming along."
"Well. Even assuming these are coded messages, I don't think people trying to keep themselves secret would just introduce themselves by name."
"No. My point was, even if these aren't anagrams, if they were encoded like this, you should be able to notice that some letters show up far more often than they should—standing for the vowels or very common consonants. And guessing which of those are which would let you crack the code."
"I suppose, yes. Are they?"
"It's your journal."
Septima rolled her eyes. "Albus, if you're done reading about Paracelsus, I'd like to count some consonants."
Blushing, Albus put down the journal and handed it over. Septima immediately began making tally marks for how often letters showed up in each string. The first one was short, and she just listed the letters in the order they appeared, which wasn't enlightening. For the second, she wrote out the alphabet first before making tallies, leaving some spaces empty since those letters never appeared. And for the third, she just tried to write the letters as they appeared but in alphabetical order, which left gaps and arrows drawn in when she had left too much or too little space respectively. "This isn't helpful. Is it?"
Minerva peered over her shoulder. "I don't know. I think it's too—flat. The letters are all showing up about the same amount of time."
"Maybe it is just gibberish?"
"Why would they go to the effort?"
"Confuse people like us?"
"Seems a little early to do that—nothing much was going on in the sixties."
"Hmm. I could go check the other issues, if you want? Or did you bring your copies?" she added, looking at Albus.
"No," he said, "though I've made some, I can check too."
"I'll do it," she shrugged. "When should I write back? Or were you planning on coming by again, Minerva?"
"If I could, yes," Minerva replied. "I actually had some old magazines of my own to bring along."
"Althea said she was interested in some of them."
"So help me, if this is some Charms rubbish about growing eyes in the back of your head, I'll burn my Kwikspell notes before she gets her hands on them."
Minerva laughed. "Burn them anyway, you don't need them."
"I suppose I don't, for that." She'd made her peace with life in the Muggle world, and she really did enjoy her theoretical work more than bombastic wandwaving. Still...
"All right," said Albus. "No doubt we shall remain in touch."
Septima quickly returned to her flat and began tallying the letters in the later editions of the journal. Sure enough, the letters were still very evenly distributed. Few peaks and few valleys.
It didn't cross her mind that, focusing on the task before her, she had Apparated directly there.
"This is brilliant, thank you!" Althea grinned.
"You're welcome," Minerva shrugged, "they were just taking up space."
"Can I see?" said Septima. "What is it?"
"Kriegspiel puzzles," Althea explained. "So I can practice by myself."
"Figures," said Septima, picking up another magazine, then dropping it. "Excuseme?"
"What's this supposed to mean?" She pointed to the cover reading Fairy Chess Review."I didn't know they had a special kind?"
"Well," said Minerva, "the sort of fairies that fly around are only a few inches tall, so they need a smaller board."
"Min—" But Althea was laughing too hard to worry about anything, and Septima cut herself off.
Once Althea had stopped laughing, she explained. "It just means any sort of puzzle that isn't—isn't regular chess. Like kriegspiel. All the interesting versions. I'll show you some?"
"Suit yourself, then. Scrabble, Minnie?"
"Can't say no," said Minerva.
"Is your school ever going to start, or do you get to keep hanging around and playing board games?"
"First of September. Same as ever."
"Even when it falls on a weekend?"
"Fair enough." Althea began setting up the board.
There was no mention of the gibberish codes at the next Order meeting. Albus had done his own analysis, of course, and gotten the same results. On the one hand, Septima thought, a little "Septima Vector and Minerva here are looking into some suspected extremist influences on the continent" would not have gone amiss. Would have given people a reason not to think to themselves who's the witch who we don't know, wasn't she at school with Minerva, always studying Arithmancy in the library?
On the other, as soon as Minerva decided once and for all that the "code" was unbreakable or irrelevant, they could get on with their lives. Wasn't worth the trouble to tell these wide-eyed strangers she might be doing something only to disappear again.
Several of the members were Aurors. Despite not telling their bosses what they did on the side, they seemed to share a lot about what they learned at work. Not everyone believed this, though. Part of the problem was that some people seemed convinced that there were dark magicians on all sides planting misinformation everywhere. Others, while not disputing this, claimed that the individuals in the Order just had to ooze warmth and trust wherever they went.
It was always just talk. Good, in that Septima never had to show how mediocre her wandwork was. Bad, in that she was still rubbish, and almost political. If the wrong people ever found her...
"Well, they probably won't," Minerva ventured, "that's why we're a secret society."
"Order of the Phoenix," she muttered, "there's probably not even a ruddy phoenix."
"Oh, there is."
"Albus has one. Well not has, you don't own a phoenix like you would a Puffskein."
"Quite. Does it come to meetings, ever?"
"Oh, no, he lives up at Hogwarts. Of course, if you were a teacher, you could come by and look at him..."
"I'm sure. And if I was a dung harvester I would get to see dragons all the time, which would also be very exciting."
Minerva nodded. "Do you like setting your own schedule?"
"Yes. It's so easy to work ahead when I've got caught up in my research—just now I've been working ahead on analyzing some star charts—a couple of sixteenth-century wizards were very frightened by a supernova, they didn't know how it would influence their astronomy."
"So you can take the night off."
"What do you want?"
"Well, I'd just been planning on going to a violin recital. Up in Scotland, I could Apparate you."
Septima paused. How long had it been since she had gone out to listen to music? It wasn't as if she needed magic to get out every once in a while. But she had never took the initiative on her own, and it wasn't Althea's cup of tea nor that of the other renters. Strange, that she could work so hard to hide her magical connections but never realize there were Muggle hobbies she could put aside without thinking.
"If you don't want to, of course—"
"No," she cut off. "No, I'd actually quite like to go. I'll just have to leave a note."
"Wait. I—how late is this going to go?"
"Probably till ten or so?"
"I don't want to Apparate back that late, what if people ask questions?"
Minerva rolled her eyes. "Tell them you were out listening to music."
"Well, I'm sure you could stay with us."
"My brother and his family."
"All right, then, hold on."
Going to Min's to stay the night. She has kindly (and spontaneously!) offered to take me to a concert—I suppose deep down I love music too much to resist! Septima quickly wrote, leaving the note on her own kitchen table just in case. Taking Minerva's hand, she waited a moment, and quickly found herself in Banchory.
The recital was in a small church; Septima and Minerva sat near the back, next to an overdressed couple Septima took to be Minerva's brother and his wife. The rest of the audience was mainly families with young children, and Septima felt out of place, only more so as the first "performers" began; young children all, with technique to suit.
But as the evening wore on, the performances became more technically impressive and here and there even moving. The final performer was introduced as an Elspeth McGonagall, who looked to be in her Hogwarts years, and launched into a dazzling etude that made up for the introductory segments.
Then there was nothing for it but to go back to Malcolm and Tacey McGonagall's house. Tacey had baked a celebratory pie which Septima eventually enjoyed, after minor protestation—it was cooked already, Minerva reminded her. Elspeth explained that she pushed herself to do well in the summer lessons; living at Hogwarts, there was no way to find a reliable teacher during the year (though several students had formed impromptu ensembles; Professor Auntie was quite amused to hear who the ringleaders of this activity were, having overheard a few rehearsals but never identifying anyone besides her niece).
"And Septima would like to stay here for the night," said Minerva. "I take it the couch is free?"
"Oh of course, I'd Transfigure it into a proper bed but I'll defer to the expert," chuckled Malcolm.
Blushing, Minerva waved her wand, and the couch sprang open, a thin pillow shimmering into being on top of it and sheets swooping out of nowhere into a folded pile at the foot of the nascent bed, an ugly shade of green. "Best I can do," she shrugged. "Elspeth, thank you again for the invitation, that was beautiful."
"Thanks so much for coming," said Elspeth.
"I'll see you back at school. Be ready to conjure up birds!"
Tacey blinked. "You're not—er—staying?"
"No...oh. No. I'm not—no. Septima just wanted a chance to visit Scotland for the night. If that's still all right...?"
"Of course! But you're welcome."
"No," she said, rolling her eyes, "if I need to camp out somewhere I'm sure dear Elphinstone from the Ministry has a spare cot."
"Dear Elphinstone?" Septima blinked. "Am I missing something?"
"Why don't you come back for breakfast, then?" said Tacey. "We can make waffles."
"There's no need," said Malcolm.
"I think our star should get a vote. Waffles, Elspeth?"
"Yes, please," blushed Elspeth, "if that's okay."
Minerva shrugged. "You drive a hard bargain."
Tacey's waffles proved to be even better than her pie, in Septima's opinion, though perhaps she was ready for a break after a fitful night of sleep. The pillow had not been conjured to last, and while it endured the entire night, she was quite sure it had shrunk significantly by the time Minerva arrived to restore the couch.
Still, the McGonagalls were pleasant enough company. Elspeth told Septima about Hogwarts—she liked her aunt's classes all right, but Potions was her favorite. Minerva and Malcolm began reminiscing about their schooldays, which seemed to be an escalating arms race of him trying to "borrow" her notes from past years, her defending her schoolbooks, and him trying to break through her enchantments. "I didn't get most of them in the end," he explained, "but I learned enough countercharms trying that it was worth it."
"My goodness," Tacey giggled. "I was just passing notes with Fabius Watkins in the back row."
"I would have done the same if I was in his class," Minerva wistfully conceded.
"Knowing us, you'd have done it in code," Malcolm laughed. "Show-off."
"Code?" Septima interrupted.
"The good old indecipherable cipher—we found it in Mum's old books one summer and started playing around with it for a while."
"We've been—reading up on some codes," said Minerva. "You don't think..."
"It's worth trying to remember," said Septima. "Unless it really is indecipherable?"
"I'm not sure. I really haven't thought about it in years."
"We thought it was," said Malcolm, "and whoever wrote Mum's books did too."
"Those were ancient, though...well, anyway. You explain. There was some sort of grid?"
"We didn't really need the grid."
"Right, right. Okay. You remember the—the codes I wrote at the Hog's Head. That you got right away."
"Yes," said Septima.
"All I did was change all the letters."
"When you put it that way—"
"But I changed them all the same way. Every letter was one off, or thirteen off—some fixed way to change from what it was before, so some letters still showed up more often than others."
"Of course. The ones that the most common letters had turned into."
"Right. But what if every letter didn't just turn into the same letter every time, but could turn into five or six or seven different ones?"
"Then...they'd spread out. The distributions would be much more even. Like what we saw! But it's useless for whoever's supposed to be reading it."
"Not if there was a specific rule controlling which letters turned into which."
"You take some secret...word, or a name. Then you write it out over and over again, like...CATCATCATCATCATCAT."
"You'd—line it up alongside your text, right Malcolm?"
"Yeah," said Malcolm. "Just write the word out as many times in a row as you need to line up with your entire message."
"So every letter in your original message is sitting next to a C, A, or a T. "
"And every C letter—so every third letter, starting with the first—you'd shift down by three, since C is the third letter of the alphabet."
"Right, yes. Every third letter starting with the second you'd shift by one, since A is the first letter. And the rest would be shifted by some other number...oh, I forget what T is, which number in the alphabet."
"Twenty," chirped up Elspeth. "Right?"
"I'll take your word for it," Minerva laughed.
"That's why we had a grid—just a piece of paper reminding you which letters go to what, when you're shifting by any letter." said Malcolm.
"But without knowing the secret word, it's useless?" said Septima.
"Ah, well. Was worth a shot."
"I'll owl you if anything comes up," said Minerva.
"Okay. Do you want to tell—"
"Yes," she said quickly.
"You know. People."
"You're looking at codes?" said Malcolm. "I'll have a peek if you'd like."
"No," said Minerva, before Septima could accept the offer. "This is—rather technical stuff."
"All right, then," he shrugged.
"Elspeth, you did a lovely job," Septima repeated. "Malcolm, Tacey, thank you very much for the food, and having me stay."
"Of course!" said Tacey. "Good luck with your...research."
"All right. Thank you."
Hope you're well. Sorry I haven't written—been the usual mess of, not just first-years needing to be herded up the staircases, but sixth-years sorting out their schedules—the usual grind!
Sorry for being curt with Malcolm. I just want to keep them safe and not drag them into private business.
I did speak to Albus and he seems more optimistic about deciphering the messages (if indeed this is the correct system). If we knew however many letters long the secret word is (says Albus) we could split the initial gibberish up into that many groups. Each of those would have letters that got shifted by the same amount, so they'd be encrypted weakly, like the messages from the Hog's Head. Then we could attack those separately. As we don't know how long the word is, however, we have to guess. In a long enough message, by sheer luck, some words might get encrypted the same way twice and that would be a hint. But it seems so laborious to go through and check.
Give Althea my best, hope she's enjoying the puzzles.
Althea likes the puzzles. She curses and rolls her eyes at them a lot. She says that means she likes them. I am dubious.
Go through and check all the letters? I suppose that would be difficult, yes. Is there a spell that can speed things along?
Hope teaching goes well. What's it like having Elspeth in your class?
I don't know a spell to speed things up, do you? Perhaps something you use for sorting files? Albus thinks instead of charming the paper itself it would be easier to charm an object which you could put various papers inside. (That or he wants an excuse to use the Muggle typewriter he rescued from a rummage sale over the summer, which seems more likely.)
Elspeth is fine. I think she's a little afraid of crossing me as the other teachers report she giggles more in their classes. Some of the Ravenclaw boys in her year are far more obnoxious, however, so they're the ones to look out for.
Keeping up with Scrabble, then?
What, a manual typewriter? I suppose the electric kind wouldn't work at Hogwarts but they're much better.
And no, no idea. I'm going to send along an article about creating your own spells—repetition of specific hand motions, that whole thing. The upshot is that the number of times you carry out individual elements matters; seven versus twelve, that sort of thing. For something like this where you'd be charming something to do the same thing over and over until it works you probably want an even number. Eight? Four? Have a read. If it doesn't get to you wait a day, I'm sending it with a different owl from the office. Can't be too careful I suppose.
And yes, back to normal on our end. Though it got a bit more excitable with you here! Althea gives her best as well.
Thanks for the article, and the extra owl. ("From the office"? Please tell me you've gotten an owl of your own by now, it's much cheaper than renting every time!) I agree, security is important. Won't say too much more here but watch for Caradoc or someone to let you know more. Albus is worried about a few things but we carry on.
He and I have managed to make a few "improvements" to the typewriter (and I don't mean cursing off the flowers on the side—garish!) although it's still far from being able to make heads or tails of the gibberish. I'll enclose a few notes in our shorthand, maybe you can improve them?
Dear Minerva (and Albus if you're reading this),
All right, so what does it do? No offense, but I find this hard to make sense of. Granted, the crossouts and scribbled arrows make it look brilliant if you're, say, giving tactics to the Magpies (how are yours doing, by the way? Mine look promising but then again there's always a lot of potential).
Think of it like a loom—you want to make things more regular, not less. I'm sure it looks good but this is hard to read.
Heard from C. Disappointing that. Stay in touch.
Hard to read? This from the woman who translated Wenlock in the original! Back to the drawing board, then.
I (Minerva) will drop by if you like—Hogsmeade weekend is the one after next—if I don't have too many papers to mark.
(I, Albus, have Wizengamot duties and sadly cannot join you. I also sadly confess my ignorance as to Montrose's League finish.)
We were second, thank you very much.
There was a light drizzle when Minerva came, carrying a large paper bag up the steps of the flat. "You all right?" said Septima.
"Yes, I've got it," she said, setting it down and carefully pulling out the typewriter, then a folder full of notes.
"Here. Er. Do you have a spare bit of paper?"
"Paper might be...cleaner."
Septima raised her eyebrows. "Loads. Letter-sized?"
"Smaller is fine."
She reached for her notepad, ripped off the top note—cursing out that idiot in 2B, back soon—and handed Minerva the next one.
"Brilliant," she said, feeding it through and then typing.
As she hit the equals sign, the machine began buzzing, turning the paper through and typing incomprehensible symbols on it. Up and down the paper turned, sometimes resulting in the keys typing over Minerva's original digits. Then it stopped.
"Keys stuck," said Minerva, nudging apart the T and Ykeys and quickly removing her fingers before the churning began again. Then there was more noise, a ripping motion. Two small vertical slits appeared halfway down, followed by a horizontal one to their right.
Minerva unrolled it and smiled. "Six!"
"Is three and three!"
"Did you work that out all by yourself?"
"I told Albus no matter if we never break a code, this is already a success—we're hiding it from the students to make sure they can't scale up their Potions ingredients, they need to learn how to do it by hand."
Septima shook her head. "And it always takes this much paper?"
"Have you considered index cards or something? They seem about the right size."
"We considered them."
"Our librarian proved very reluctant to hand any over for this 'contraption.'"
"...I see. Well, show me what you have so far."
Minerva opened up her notes folder. Sure enough, there was her documentation (with a few footnotes in Albus' fine handwriting, which Septima recognized from the letters). The page bore the marks of having been thoroughly revised, with crossouts everywhere and the final incantation circled for emphasis.
"What does this one do?"
"It turns the crank!" said Minerva with obvious pride. "So the letters don't over-write anything too important."
"All this...it's just exactly the steps you do, for making the thing on the end rotate?"
"Exactly! It does work, we've tested it and everything."
"I believe you," Septima said hurriedly. "It's just—that's more incantations, I'm not going to be able to help you with that."
"Don't sell yourself short."
"I'm not! I just—I want to see your ideas for the actual codework. Even if it's not literally in terms of what you do with your wand, just the theory behind it."
"Well, we have to know what to do, otherwise it won't work."
"Right, but...okay, you should do that after you've figured out in your mind what exactly is going on. You need to charm the machine to recognize the text, yes? Then have it count the repeated sequences, you'll want a Sorting Spell to figure out which is the longest, and then separating it into the interwoven strands of the right length."
"Yes. So we have keys and a turner and these things that hold the paper in, and we'll have to cast different spells on every single one of them."
"No," said Septima, picking up the typewriter and setting it under the table before Minerva could react, "you don't have any of those things. You have a quill and a piece of parchment and you're going to figure out what you want the contraption to do, then you can make it do it."
"Bridget Wenlock wrote seven hundred years ago, yes? This is harder to read than her notes, not because of anything you've done wrong, but because her notes are clear. You can tell when you read them that the magic there is true and powerful, because it's simple and elegant and makes sense. If we can figure out what you want this to do, you should be able to enchant the machine."
"Well, you can help."
"Better you than me."
"Don't be modest—"
"All right, then, I'll brag, for an Arithmancer like me it should be no trouble once we sit down and do it. Quill and parchment."
And so they sat and scrawled. Minerva was first to recognize the benefits of retyping every message so that the letters would be evenly spaced to read through. Septima explained the possibilities of factorization when the repeated letters were a certain distance apart. Minerva Transfigured the keys into pieces of metal somewhat narrower, but every bit as strong, so they wouldn't stick. Septima slipped a pile of Muggle letter paper into the bag so Minerva would have more to bring back to Hogwarts. Outside, the weather grew far worse, but they paid it no mind. Only a knock on the door could startle them out of their scribblings.
"Put that away," said Septima, slowly rising.
"It just looks like a Muggle typewriter."
"I don't care. Put it away."
Minerva did so as Septima at last made her way over to the door. "Hullo—er—hi there!"
"Hullo," said Althea. "Minnie? What are you doing here?"
"Long weekend," Minerva shrugged, "thought I'd come by."
"Brilliant! Up for some Scrabble?"
"Unless you two had other plans."
"No," said Septima, "that sounds good."
Althea sailed to a quick lead, as had proven to be the usual. Septima was more adept at making several words going in different directions at once, while Minerva was more likely to try for bonus squares, but neither could keep pace. That day, unlike the taut battles that had developed by the summer's end, there was no close race for second either, with Septima outscoring Minerva from early on.
"You're just out of practice," she said, "don't worry. "
Minerva laughed. "All in good fun. I suppose I should be getting back, but I'll write to you and see..." She nodded at her bag. "See how things go."
"Absolutely not," said Althea.
"Excuse me?" she blinked.
"Leave? In this weather?"
Septima blinked; the rain had become a full-fledged storm. For someone not used to Apparition, departure could indeed seem perilous.
"I'll be fine," Minerva said, "really."
"To get to the train station, if you're going back up to Edinburgh? No. It's a long weekend, you can stay until the storm passes. Come up to my place and we'll all have tea."
"I—no, I can—"
"No," Althea said, "this is technically still my property, I do believe my rules still apply. No objections, Sep?"
"No," said Septima with a smile—let Minerva see how difficult life could be! "Perhaps a rematch is in order."
So they climbed up to Althea's flat, Minerva hugging her bag protectively. The windows in the landlady's flat were wider, and as Althea put tea on, Septima and Minerva glanced out at the storm. "This really is bad, for this late in the year," said Septima. "You don't—suspect—"
They wound up fitting in another game of Kriegspiel. Althea, skills honed by the puzzles, won that handily as well, with Minerva itching to leave but unable to explain why. By the time she got her focus back, Althea had wiped out most of her pieces.
The game moved quickly, with Septima pleasantly surprised to find she'd retained most of the knowledge necessary to be a go-between, until a late mistaken attempt at en passant delayed things considerably. By the time it was over, the rain was still continuing, but it wasn't as torrential, and the sun had come out enough for Althea to "let" Minerva "walk" to the "train station."
"Actually," she squinted, "hold on a minute, quite nice rainbow outside."
Minerva tilted her head to the side, rustling through her memory. "Revealing harmony from tears and sighs; a pledge - that deep implanted in the breast a hidden light may burn that never dies, but burst through storms in purest hues expressed."
"Quoting poetry?" laughed Septima.
Minerva blushed. "Yes. My dad wanted to make sure all of us grew up knowing some half-decent poems, instead of—"
"I knew it!" Althea was grinning.
"What?" said Septima.
"McGonagall, isn't it?"
"Yes," Minerva sighed. She was blushing more deeply than ever, and Althea grew increasingly smug.
"What's going on?" Septima asked.
"She's related to that McGonagall. The worst poet in the history of the English language."
"I...didn't know people had bothered to pick one out."
"It's not something I brag about," Minerva shrugged. "Anyway. I'll keep in touch."
Sorry again for the wait. Things have been mad here (but as Minerva's superior I can order her to sleep) Ahem. The theoretical groundwork has really helped. Now if anything the typewriter does too much, going in circles and reprinting the same things over and over again until the paper's all torn up. We're going to run through that supply very quickly!
If you've been out of the loop, some discussion among our Ministry friends re: Auror powers. We believe that there are alternatives to Unforgivable Curses when under attack from blood fanatics/minor criminals/(organ grinders) Albus, give me my quill back! (I've always said music was a more powerful magic than what we do, it has Dark Magic too.)
Ahem. Well, we're both low on sleep, but making progress, we promise. Thanks again for all your help.
For goodness' sakes take care of yourselves first! You have a school full of children to educate, you need to be strong for them. Don't let the circles drive you crazy!
If you have any notes you want me to look over, send them along. Minerva, whenever you get the chance (and not before), could you write a separate "kids are brats but all's well" letter for Althea? She's wondering why I can't show her any of your mail.
I barely follow politics (except the Muggle kind—Wilson's in and out all the time) so let me know how things develop.
Hope you're well. You remember meeting my niece? She's doing quite well this term and it's always fun to see her doing well. The students have been on the whole acting up more than usual—it's just an antsy feeling around here, I suppose it's the weather. So there've been more detentions than usual to hand out but Elspeth at least is a dear.
Other than that little news. Some of the students are down because the intramural sport games didn't go their way but then some of them are up for the same reason.
As we wait for the machine to function (and it is coming along, many thanks again for your help), I have good news; working by hand, I was finally able to break one of the original 1964 codes. The message, if you're curious, is "All true friends of magic ought to write to the Gold Dragon." I don't think it does us much good to know—the Gold Dragon is probably someone's nickname—but at least we know that it is "le chiffre indéchiffrable." Once we get it working, which shouldn't be too long now, we'll be set!
Thank you again.
Dear Minerva and Albus,
Thank you both! Wonderful news. (Well, not about the detentions, obviously.)
A bit cynical about how useful the machine will be if every message is like that. Quite aside from dragons what's a friend of magic? Do you have to be as close to magic as I am to you (Albus)? You (Minerva)? Althea? One of my Muggle neighbors? As decent I am at translation there are some things that are too difficult even for me...
(Speaking of useful, can it still do sums?)
Yes, it can do sums. And products! Division is a muddle, it doesn't know when to stop really, puffs of smoke everywhere, but at least it multiplies all right in only six or seven times the time it would take one of us to do it. Definitely worth keeping away from the students! You were right about abstracting things out first, this makes it a lot more powerful. (Let me know if you come up with any other ideas and I'll try and cast the right spells for it.)
Tell Althea she can write back if she wants, I'll send along more updates on sport and normal things here. (How are your Magpies coming?)
No, no new theories from me. Not sure I'd send them to you even if I did have them. Sums one day and codes the next (well, months rather, but you know what I mean)—do we really want something this powerful? Is it a Beast or Being? (In either case use Cooling Charms if it's puffing smoke.)
Sorry, just nervous. The Magpies are a bright spot! Poised for a cup run I reckon! Still the off-season for you?
How is Althea supposed to write back, pray tell? By owl?
Yes. By owl. They're much like carrier pigeons, only wiser.
I'd say the machine is less than a beast—it doesn't move, and can't be fed. It only does whatever we know how to order it to do—and if you can figure out more, all the better. But please don't if you don't want to.
I think the more powerful we make it, it just shows how powerful our magic is. If people misunderstand, well, nothing new there. As another one of those poems Da had us learn goes...
If the good God were suddenly to make a solitary blind to see we would stand wondering all and call it miracle; but that he gives with lavish hand sight to a million souls we stand and say, with little awe he but fulfills a natural law!
Perhaps some worries can't be helped. At the end of the day it's still a typewriter. Albeit one under a spell fraught with desolation—we're only in this because there's a war to fight—but maybe something good can come out of this.
Yes, off-season here. Still mourning Watkins. Poor lad.
That's a good way to think about it. Thank you.
I'll let you know if I do come up with anything else. But if you're the one going to be using the thing you should probably let me know if you have any suggestions.
A bird in the flat? Are you mental? It'd stink.
Can you meet in Hogsmeade at seven this Friday?
It was a very cold day when Septima Apparated there. Minerva and Albus were huddled over their butterbeers, and had ordered a third for her, which she drank gratefully. "Er...is...anything...special in here?"
"Up at the school," said Minerva. "The first tests worked, but we thought you ought to be there for the real thing."
"Here you are," she said, handing over a piece of paper, which Septima read as they walked up to the school (with their butterbeer).
First had been typed out:
exncchfmylcewyrlqzpypccpcrex zcxygtljmuzswdmwyxuwyqgxitkw matbiavncadwecjutwrlqkfnezlq gpxbscgmvsyzqi cmyemmcjazprlquzprqdppcyqysx qltcwmullihmcwquvfriavpgwnwc l
There then followed more gibberish, then a blank section full of holes in the paper. Below it, in Albus' handwriting, came what must have been the translation:
Alfred Tennyson (the real queen's poet, my infamous relation's claims aside) once wrote:
Fill the cup, and fill the can:
Have a rouse before the morn:
Every minute dies a man.
Every minute one is born.
"Technically, it's more like one and a sixteenth being born," said Albus. "But who's counting?"
"It actually worked?" Septima gaped.
"Well, I built in some repetition to help," said McGonagall. "Some of the real messages are shorter, they might be harder—but yes. You did it."
Septima felt a sudden warmth but kept her voice cool. "All right. Well, we'll have to see."
"It's slow going, either way, but much faster than doing it by hand."
"Unlike those sums."
"Unless you're a Hufflepuff second year—some of them do still struggle."
Septima laughed as they reached the school. The typewriter was stowed in Minerva's study on the first floor, a room decked out in red and gold banners. There were bookcases, of course, and a desk with papers for grading.
"Here we are, then." Minerva placed another sheet of paper into the machine, code in tow.
Immediately it began whirring as it had with the sums, the handle spinning, the keys clacking, smoke puffing out on occasion. It was nothing a quick Cooling Charm couldn't handle, though, and they watched silently as it sputtered on.
"We got the Tennyson to fit all on one page, I think this should do it," Minerva finally whispered as more and more paper issued forth from the top of the typewriter. "Yes..."
Just rips in the paper.
"Do the keys...print...anything?" Septima finally ventured.
"Oh yes," said Albus, as Minerva took it out and reached for parchment.
"It's just holes—we built it in that way, it's easy to go between these and the letters," said Minerva, busily copying down letters onto the page one at a time. "Well, tedious, but we know what we're doing...yes...thank goodness these are in English, we'd have to go through all the mess again for Italian or Wizard's Latin..."
"Can you make the machine do that in general?" said Albus. "Not codes, just translating."
"I...I don't know," said Septima. "Words are...hard to make sense of, even in one language at a time."
"That is understandable."
"But, I mean, I'd be willing to try. If I have time among my other publications."
He nodded. "I won't belabor points I believe my colleague has made already, but you should know that here at Hogwarts, faculty of elective courses have relatively small classes and teach mostly older students, and are afforded a great deal of research time for their own projects. If you're ever considering academic life."
"I...yes. Thank you."
"Got it!" said Minerva. "All loyal mages ought to move to recall the pigeon who is a traitor and no friend of tradition."
"Probably their old Minister—Celeste Palumbo, only barely survived a 1964 recall," said Albus. "This is brilliant!"
"This was a different key word than the other one," said Minerva, "but once we've got a few more we should try translating the others directly."
"What will we do once we have them all?" Septima asked. "Place ads of our own to throw people off? Go over to the continent and...attack people? Based on suspicion?"
"We will have to see," said Albus. "No need to get ahead of ourselves—we ought to celebrate this now that it's done."
Minerva and Septima looked at each other. "Let's break some more codes," they both said in unison, and burst out laughing.
Working together, they made their way much more quickly through the back issues of the Gazzetta. While there were several different key words in use, it was easy to check whether a particular code used any given one once they'd identified it with the help of the typewriter. Soon enough, they had a pile of clandestine plans about radical threats on the continent, many of which seemed to spring from the Death Eaters haunting the British Isles.
"We'll need to talk this over," said Albus. "Order meeting?"
"I think a special one is in order, yes," said Minerva. "Both for planning and celebration."
In fact there was a bit more celebration than planning at the resultant meeting. Several times Septima had to explain to people she barely knew what, exactly, she had done. It sounded a bit stupid in her mouth. "Er, I write down ideas about machines and numbers and things, and then Minerva cast some charms on Albus' typewriter, and now he's going to Italy on his Wizengamot duties to mention some things to their Ministry while Minerva holds the fort at Hogwarts."
"That's brilliant!" they would all say. "I wish I could do something for the Order like that."
"But you do," she repeated, "you—you're not on your own in the Muggle world, you cast spells all the time, you do something."
Except, they repeated, that they didn't. They were just wizards and witches, rowdy siblings and cranky Aurors, professors and politicians. They were like her—more than they seemed, once they stood together.
Hope things are going well. Still no word from Albus so I'm trying to keep things under control. The faculty are a bit cantankerous to see things changed up even for a short time. I suppose it's just him being gone but all of a sudden it's rumour this and nonsense that. I don't really want to tell anyone that I know more about the situation than most—easier to try and keep them safe, that way—but still.
Looking over the Gazzetta again and going through the library just to see if there are any more codes in other journals. Nothing stands out yet besides those normal "seeking priority" anagrams, but I'll keep looking.
You had used one of them, right, about literal Muggle and magical blood. Have you ever considered what would have happened if the results turned out the other way? Would you still have published it?
Hopefully we'll have news soon, in the meantime, good luck.
Sorry to hear about the faculty. Hope the students at least are under control. And that the band rehearsals don't give you too much trouble.
Of course I would have published if it had gone the other way. I'm a researcher—we like things to be clear and make sense. Unless you think it'd have been too political? You can't accuse someone of being biased with their research when there's likely coded propaganda within the journal itself! Good grief.
I've been looking over our notes again, and I think now that we have the codes pretty much figured out, I want to go back to computations. You'll laugh but even as an Arithmancer—maybe especially as an Arithmancer since I do so much work in the abstract—I'm none too brilliant at computations. It would be nice if it could handle division. And roots. And all the subtraction, even when there's minuses.
Well, I can dream, anyway!
Let me know if anything comes up.
The band is pleasantly quiet. And the other students are doing well for a change, that's some relief.
I didn't mean to insult you—I know you're a witch of principle. It was just good for me to remember other people will approach things differently. I suppose we need Gryffindors to charge in and defend their attitudes, but we also need you Ravenclaws behind the scenes to get matters right. So thank you for explaining that.
Good luck with the subtraction. I wish you were at present a plus instead of a minus quantity here.
Albus' trip to Italy was a success. A few whispers in the right places, and, sure enough, Nerina Alunni came under quick investigation. Everyone was surprised to hear that she had been arrested for, of all things, tax evasion, and one of her close friends was also convicted of illegal trade in Venomous Tentacula seeds. "But that might be for the best," Albus had posited on his arrival back. "If she's not destroyed, as long as she's not hurting everyone right away—they don't know we've broken the code, we can keep gathering information."
Though they had another party at the Hog's Head, Minerva didn't seem to have drunk too much Firewhiskey by the time she sought Septima out, giving her a quiet smile, at the end of the night. "Thank you again. This was wonderful."
"Thank you," said Septima. "And Albus, whenever he's done talking to the barman—what an adventure, just to run off to Italy for a week or so, casually bringing down dark witches!"
"Everyone needs a little fun with international law now and then."
"You should try it. Breaking international statute, I mean. It'd be good for you."
"Uh-huh," she nodded, in her "Cannons tipped for victory" voice.
"No, I actually do mean it."
"The International Statute of Secrecy. You ought to break it."
"Are you mental?" asked Septima, suddenly worried that shewas the one who had had too much Firewhiskey and was mishearing things.
"You care about Althea, and she cares about you, and—you don't need to keep secrets from each other. Not like this."
"You're a professor. I don't think you ought to be encouraging law-breaking."
Minerva glanced at Albus, then sighed, and looked back at Septima. "I've seen...too many people...making choices they shouldn't have to. You two have something special. It would be a pity if something silly like wizarding law threatened it."
She looked at Septima's pale face.
"But, I suppose, if you wanted to go and try and fill out a waiver of extenuating circumstances at the Ministry, I'd vouch for you." She shook her head. "Ravenclaws."
"And they give you advice?"
"It's not very good—they're mostly concerned for their own selves, see."
"But they do try."
Septima sipped her tea and shook her head.
"And...and if you were playing...someone else. Like you."
"They'd have their own pieces."
"Which would talk too."
"And...they...they talk to each other?"
"Well, it's mostly bad-tempered poking, and that only if they're within range."
"But the rules are the same."
"Yes." Minerva smiled up at Septima. "I think she's taking it well."
"I'm not going to take it well," Althea said, arms crossed, "until you promise me you've never used your magic to cheat at Scrabble!"
There was a brief silence, then all three friends burst out laughing.
"It wasn't funny," Septima said, "keeping it secret."
"I know," said Althea. "But I told you. Nothing has to change."
"Thank you," she whispered.
She thought back to that moment a few days before when, stammering, she had told the full story to Althea who had received it much the same way, with a blink and a shrug and an embrace. Such flippancy, and yet, it had brought her a peace she didn't know she craved.
The joy filled her once again, and she gave Minerva a nervous smile. "Hey. Watch this."
"Watch what?" said Minerva.
Septima gripped her wand, then relaxed her hand slightly. "Expecto patronum!"
Althea blinked, unconcerned, but Minerva's mouth made a small o. Clenching the wand more tightly, Septima waited a few moments, until a silver owl emerged from its tip and took to the air.
The title and some of the summary phrases come from Charles Babbage's description of Ada Lovelace.
Lovelace did once spend the night at Somerville's because her "love of music could not resist" the concert invitation.
Babbage apparently really did break the Vigenère cypher ("le chiffre indéchiffrable") on Tennyson's "The Vision of Sin," and apparently also complained about the non-rigorous mathematics therein. (I don't know whether this was the same incident.) He also really, really didn't like organ grinders.
Lovelace did compare the Difference/Analytical Engines to looms.
"The Rainbow" was written by Lovelace, and carved on her tombstone at her request.
"Don't let the circles drive you crazy" is a quote from Somerville's letters to Lovelace.
"a spell fraught with desolation" is from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (Lovelace's father, Lord Byron, writing about her).
"I wish you were at present a plus instead of a minus quantity here" is a quote from Lovelace's letters to Somerville.