Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Second Chapter

49 Snail, 11 Rabbit, Hour of the Bear

What a year it has been.  I wonder that we made it through in one piece, wonder if the final dark is waiting in the corners about to fall as soon as the shock wears off and the pain sets in.

Time passes faster and faster each year.  I look at the Master and I still see a tiny mite is wee boots, still see his father and his father's father and his father's father's fathers in a line of homonculi, lifting their hands to be taken up on my shoulders.  A long cold line, the rulers of Schadelthron, and I pride myself on having served them well.

Once more, though, I find myself between Moloch and the manger.  I was not on patrol as Little Mistress took dinner with the Master, but I made sure to place one who would serve as my eyes and ears there.  I heard what was said, and equally importantly, what was not said between them. About the organization barely out of the egg, as it were, and about the role she played in deceiving those who would bring back the darkness. Spike, you  play a dangerous game with a man who could have written the rules in his own hand.

She spent the day with the doctor, mewed up in Wolfgang's laboratory from just past breakfast until I had to fetch her back for a quick bite before bedtime. Talking of double helices, of history, of blood and hair.  I understand the last well enough and have lived more than my fair share of history, but the shapes she described sounded like advanced Arithmancy to me.  Pure science, not something I could begin to grasp.  "Verra schtupeed monster, me."

She sleeps now, nestled in the down comforter and the snowy pile of pillows while I steal a moment here at her desk by the fire to write in this book that is never far from my heart.  No further than she is, truth be told.  I watch her sleep and I think I can see the future in the light of the flames.

--Totenberg

Monday, December 23, 2013

Late for Dinner, Conclusion

The soup was served in individual tureens, thick beef broth redolent with onions, a perfect round of bread laden with cheese floating on the top to seal the heat in as it was brought out from the kitchens.  Even in the lazy balmy summer evening of the garden, the warmth was welcome, and Spike cupped her hands around the bowl for a moment.  Dinner at home, at last.  The food at Hogwarts was lovely, and there was plenty of it, but the kitchens couldn't compare to Matya's hand-picked staff.

Matya lobbed a graceful slowball in Spike's direction.  "So, Nischa, what have you been studying this past term?  How's school? What's your favorite class?"

She was ready for this.  Pushing all thoughts of the Order of the Phoenix Reborn out of her mind, she swallowed, smiled, and replied, "I'm taking Potions, of course."  Matya had been a dab hand at potions and its sister art of poisons.

"I've heard about the teacher -- is he as good as they say?"

"He's brilliant.  A little --"  She thought for a moment.  *How to sum up?*  The teaching team was fairly nice; but she wasn't sure if she wanted to continue with the Advanced Potions with the Great Bat of the Dungeons.
"Strict?"

"Obsessed, more like.  He doesn't have room for anything but his craft."

"Mmmm.  The laboratory can be a jealous mistress."  She smiled sidelong at her husband, touching his hand briefly below the tablecloth.  "Speaking of obsessions -- how's Arithmancy?"

Spike stared into her soup bowl, searching for an answer in the dregs of onion.  "It's a little light," she finally sighed.  "There's not a lot offered beyond the basics and the OWL levels."

"That's not a bad thing," said Atyets firmly.  "Potions is a good, solid practical sort of magic.  Arithmancy . . ."  he let it trail off as he lowed his head, looking down his nose at her with ursine focus.

"I know you think it's a wild card," Spike said carefully.  He snorted.

"When a potion doesn't work, most of the time you just have no result.  A mess of goo.  Water in funny colors.  Arithmancy has been historically uneven, with results beyond expectations or utter disasters.  You should know this."

Spike blushed.  It was hard to be good at something; to have a talent that demanded exercise.  Like leashing one of the Hounds, you can only contain it with its willing cooperation -- and who knows how long that will last.  She set her spoon down, aligning it carefully with the bowl.

They covered History of Magic over the breaded fried sweetbreads, with Atyets's approval of the subject. "Good to see what mistakes others have made and learn from them.  Saves time."  Spike dared to mention that she was taking that subject up for her upcoming OWL, and added that she planned to consult with the good Doktor over the break.  Atyets quirked one curious eyebrow, his shaven head wrinkling with the motion.  "I could see with last term's OWL, why you would want his input, but for History?  He's been around for a good long time, but I'm not sure he'd make a good interview subject."

Spike smiled a little.  "Oh, it's not his memories I'm interested in, but his knowledge once more."

"And that's all you're going to tell us?"  Matya's eyes twinkled, scenting mischief.

"It's kind of an experiment," Spike said, slowly.

"And is Hogwarts aware of this little 'kind of' an experiment?"

"Oh, I'll fill them in when I do my OWL."  When it's completely done, assuming everything goes according to calculation.  And if the good Docktor can help out the way I think he can.  She kept her face carefully arranged in pleasant neutrality.

The blood orange and pineapple sorbet was brought, and lasted nearly as long as the discussion of Divination, with Atyets making a moue of disgust and sighing that he supposed she ought to be exposed to the practice, but she wasn't to start mooning over tea leaves.

The debate grew livelier over beef heart stroganoff and Muggle Studies.  Spike gently argued that Atyets himself often said that knowledge of one's enemy -- "Or at least, uneasy and unwitting allies," she amended carefully was hardly the foolish waste of time he was proclaiming it to be.  "The Muggles may one day be the thin line between . . . " she pretended to be concealing an indelicate noodle before the words "Death Eater" could escape.  They'll want to know more about why that groups is on my mind, and no amount of pretended fascination with History of Magic and the Wizarding Wars is going to get me out of that.

"Remember the Burning Times, dear."  It was entirely possible that Matya had some firsthand knowledge of that era, perhaps as a very young child.  "The Muggles encroach further and further as they spread.  There will come a time when we will need to live openly side by side with them."

"So do the rabbits," growled Atyets.  "That doesn't mean I will gladly throw the garden gates open and invite them to warren in the halls."

But her diplomacy was for naught; when the truffled creme brulee appeared in delicate ramikins, she closed with Defense Against the Dark Arts . . . which lead into a discussion of why such a study would be necessary.  "A good offense, and all that," commented Atyets as he broke the carmelized crust with quick neat blows of his spoon.

"So I would think that you'd be in agreement with Wroxton's choice to teach the Arts as a practical course," argued Spike, emboldened.  "To be able to use not only the counter-curses, but to have familiarity with the curses themselves, some experience in creating them, in finding the correct frame of mind to truly mean your intent . . ."  She trailed off under the weight of his stare.

"And that is why teaching as a practical at this age is a poor choice."

"It's not like I'm in danger--"

"Not physically; I'll grant you that." A quick smile flashed on his lips and vanished.  Was that truly a year off his life, of just a day? Spike wondered.  "But with the young and impressionable ones . . . there's a glamour to the darkness.  You've seen what happens when the dogs wander by the hatching pens when the ducklings are coming out of the shell."

"Sure; sometimes the ducklings follow the poor dog around, peeping for food."

"And those ducklings will never learn to swim or fly unless someone steps in and re-directs them.  These Death Eaters -- the masks, the brands --"  he shook his head, snapping the neck of that thought.  "Sheep are branded.  Cattle are branded; slaves are branded. Skulls and snakes.  Dark Marks indeed. They announce that you, the individual, are nothing to them; simply a means to an end.  That they will use you until they have used you up, all in the name of feeding your desire to feel as if you belong to something bigger and grander than yourself.  That is what concerns me; that you will fall into lockstep with these wizards and not be able to find your way out."  He crumpled his napkin, pushing dessert away half-eaten.

Dinner was over, and Spike had some disturbing new thoughts about the Order of the Phoenix Reborn.  A coin may have two sides, she thought, but they are bound together just the same.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Late for Dinner, Part Two

Spike raced down the stairs, robes clutched in both hands to avoid an embarrassing fall.  *I can't wait until I'm of age to Apparate,* she thought, dismally.  She glanced over the balustrade.  *I might be able to jump it,* she thought, *skip these last couple of flights and save a few seconds.*  She thought better of it, remembering a sprained ankle that had hobbled her for weeks as a younger child the third or fourth time she had tried to save those seconds.  *I'm late anyway, more or less doesn't really matter.*

With that thought, she reached the bottom of the stairs in time to meet Waterhouse's gently disapproving look.  "You were expected in the west garden--"

"Several minutes ago.  I know."  He always made her feel about three years old, with one hand in the cookie jar and chocolate smears on her pinafore.  She took a deep breath, trying for the poise that always seemed to come naturally to Matya.  She shook her robes out so they fell properly around her boot tops.  "I should like a moment to put my hair back in order; kindly let them know that I apologize for being tardy . . . and . . ." She withered under the increased weight of his stare.  "Right."  Meekly, she crossed to the wicket door set in the much larger egress and opened it.

They had shoveled the show that afternoon, and it had been a clear evening; only a dusting of powder lay on the flagstones.  *It's been a wet winter,* Spike noted with approval, tucking her hands into her robes for heat.  The piled drifts lining the walkway were taller than her head.  Through the moon gate across the inner garden, she could see the lights glittering on the snow in the western garden, the warm glow of candles, the sparkling of the charmed crystals hanging in the trees.  Atyets's back was to her, the gold embroidery across the yoke of his tunic gleaming.

She crossed from darkness into light; from winter into the perpetual summer of the west garden.  Hummingbirds and cardinals mingled like living jewels in the air, some clinging close to the light and blossoms, others flying out into the evening in search of cooler air and berries standing out against the snow.  Spike made her graces to her parents as one of the footmen pulled her chair out for her.

"Good of you to join us," Atyets observed dryly, softly.  His voice was always soft and dry, it was his words that cut.  Spike blushed and looked at her empty plate, the silverware arranged on three sides.  "Tell me, is time management on the roster for next term?"

"Now, Pavel."  Matya, gently chiding, from Spike's left hand.  "She's here now."  She unfolded the snowy bear of her napkin, giving it a crisp shake before spreading it over her lap.  Startled birds fluttered, wheeled, then settled, watching beady-eyed for crumbs from the table.  Atyets grunted, acknowledging the point, then followed suit.

The pavane of dinner had begun.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Late for Dinner, Part One

Dimo stood quietly at Spike's elbow, waiting for her to surface from the sea of crumpled parchment and ink. He had thought that the pounding at the door would have caught her attention, but she was deep in the depths of inspiration.  She had sat down at her desk earlier that morning, in the dark with a single candle lighting her way. The sun had briefly shown its face and now it was nearly time to re-light the stub once more.

He coughed, once, and she looked up at last, frowning as the wheels slowly turned.  "There was someone at the door," she said, slowly.

"Yah.  One of you mother's footmen."

"What did he want?"

"Message from her ladyship.  Dinner in the west garden tonight."

"Dinner?  We haven't had lunch yet."  Wordlessly, Dimo indicated the cold covered tray that Spike had shoved to the side as soon as it touched the table.  She lifted the cover to discover congealed chicken and dumplings gone soggy in the thick broth.  Condensation dripped from the underside of the lid where the steam had gone back to water.  She made a face, setting it back down before it could drip on the list she had been pondering.  Hair, clothes, toothbrushes if possible . . . and from historic figures no less.  Going to be hard to convince the staff that I'm not looking to work some very dark and forbidden magic indeed.  

"You not gonna eat dat . . ."

Shuddering, Spike replied, "Oh, it's all yours."  Dimo grinned his thanks, then lit the candle on Spike's desk. Instead of setting it back down, though, he used the stub to light the lanterns around the room, then stood by the wardrobe.

"Come on, Dimo, I need that to see," Spike complained.  As she started to get up, her feet tingled, and she sat back down abruptly as the tingling became throbbing as the circulation started back up.  "How long -- no, don't answer that."  She rubbed her hand, which was cramped and stiff from holding the quill.  Have I really been at this all day?

"Can see the clock now? Can see you gonna be late?  Can see it's time to dress right about --"  The dinner gong rang. "--oh, fifteen minutes ago?"

"Why didn't you tell me?"  Spike tossed off her outer robes, flying to the wardrobe and rummaging for something clean and appropriate to wear to her first night home.

"Did," he replied, putting the candle down and helping her change into the heavy formal black on black brocade.  "Told you an hour ago; you said five more minutes.  Told you half an hour ago, you said ten more minutes.  Told you five minutes ago, you said just a minute more, you was almost there."

She remembered him saying something to her, and saying something in return.  It could have been a plea for just a little longer, maybe.  Then again, it could really have been anything.  She had been hot on the heels of an Idea, a plan for next term's OWL that would knock their socks off.  "Right, right," she sighed.  Maybe I should issue standing orders to physically interrupt me the second time I ask for just a minute more -- to pick me up and move me in the direction I should be headed.  She thought about the possible consequences of giving such an order.  Er, maybe not.  That's how the great deserts became so empty, after all, one person insisting that there be no more grass to stain his boots.  "Just help me get there before they call out the guard."




Sunday, December 01, 2013

Wood and Water

Spike pulled her boots on just as the gong rang.  Running late again, she thought irritably.  She took a fleeting glance in the mirror, shook her head at the state of her hair.  No time for it.  She tied it in a bun, jabbing her wand in to hold it in place as she trotted to the line of Snakes getting ready to troop up to the Great Hall for the end of term feast.

She wasn't in much of a hurry; she remembered the last term's feast.  Last.  Dead last.  Behind Hufflepuff, even.  She had hoped that Headmistress Wroxton would find some way to grant Slytherin enough bonus points for especial cunning, points for plotting and planning, --"For biting off just barely as much as she could chew, 200 points to Nikolevnischka "Spike" von Schaedelthron!" And then the banners would change to green and silver again, and Slytherin would have won.  But we didn't.

Atyets hadn't been particularly pleased, but neither had he been as angry as Spike had suspected.  It's as if what Totenberg said was true, that he intended I learn what it was to lose, and find some determination not to be defeated again.  To figure out what it would take to achieve victory, and then do it, not just to plan big or dream big -- but to do big.  She stopped in her tracks, and the firstie behind her nearly walked into her back. To do big. Well, and she had done big this term, hammering out her Care of Magical Creatures OWL, even though it had had a mind of its own.  The monster was in a special cage in the Owlery, with a fireproof coverlet to keep it calm and quiet. *I wonder if it's figured out how to use its tentacles to pull the cover off yet?  I wonder if it's managed to figure out how to pick the lock on the cage, yet?

She had created seven fauxcruxes, and had been prepared to hide them throughout the castle, if the Order of the Phoenix hadn't cancelled the mission at the last moment.  Learned a lot, doing that. She'd received a history of the Hounds as part of her education, not one taught at Hogwarts, but imparted by one of her bodyguards.  She'd learned more of her role as the Little Mistress.  It's been a good year.  She hurried to close the gap between her and the back in front of her.

They filed into the Great Hall with the purple and white hangings.  At least they're not blue and bronze.  If they couldn't be the colors of her House, at least they weren't the colors of another.  House Unity -- hanging together in the face of a common enemy.  Belvina Pascoe was already seated with the rest of Ravenclaw, her amethyst pendant winking in the candlelight.  Spike caught the Phoenix Operative's eye and nodded once.  Belvina reached up to adjust her cap in what might have been a tiny salute, the merest hint of a wave.

Slytheirn was the last to enter, based on their House standings from last term, made to enter under the eyes of all the other Houses, the literal last to the feast.  Spike took a deep breath, smelling the good scents of roast meat, sauces, bread, vegetables, the sugary hints of dessert to come and crusts browning.  Is it harder to be first, to sit here and wait for the rest to assemble, and then for the Headmistress's Address, or to be last, to have everyone eyeing you and waiting for you to finally take your seats so the thing can start?  She hoped to be able to compare the two extremes next term.

At long last, Wroxton took the podium, shuffling through bits of parchment. "Well, here we are again," she beamed.  "Another term gone by, and I know you are all just as anxious as I am to tuck into the lovely feat the House Elves have prepared.  But first, the standings.

"In fourth place, with a valiant 35,898 points – Gryffindor!"  Spike applauded politely with the rest of the students, secretly relieved that it wasn't her house this time.  Three more though, and only one of those really counts.

"In third place, with 40,883 points – Hufflepuff!  Good effort, Hufflepuff."  The Badgers clapped each other on the backs and exchanged hugs around the table.

"It was a close one this term.  With 42,034 points, I give you – Ravenclaw!!"  The 'Claws didn't look so happy as that, but nodded wisely.  Spike could almost see the wheels turning as the students began to mentally sort their projects and begin polishing plans for next year.  An extra class here, a slightly larger project there, a more achievable OWL or NEWT.  Something that would let them complete their Advanced Studies for the extra points, and yet take more than the one class required of all students.  Wait.  Does that mean-- She held her breath.

"And that, of course means, that in first place, the winners of the House Cup, with 45,957 points, I give you the most noble and ambitious House of Salazar Slytherin!"  Bursts of emerald and silver light flared above the tables as the tapestries turned to green and silver, the serpent emblem proudly emblazoned.

Now she'll take it away, thought Spike, She'll award enough points for something or other to one of the other Houses.  To Gryffindor, probably.  But no, the Headmistress was walking back to her seat, smiling and nodding to the Heads of House at the main table.  Professor Gorre was accepting congratulations from her peers. It was real; Slytherin had won the House Cup.

"I thought it would feel . . . different, somehow," Spike confessed that night as she climbed into bed and Totenberg pulled the covers over her.  "I thought winning would feel like the opposite of losing.  The after party was nice; don't get me wrong!"  she added in a hurry.  The Pit had been jumping most of the night, drinking butterbeer from the House Cup before placing it on the mantle and casting a mass Sticking Charm.  The charm would be undone by Professor Gorre in the morning, of course, but it was still nice to think they could hang on to it forever and ever.  "I just thought there'd be more there to it."

"Winning and losing is both temporary," Totenberg reminded her.  "Hurts to lose, but brings you back with more determination, yah?  Winning the same -- feels good, and brings you back . . ."

"With more determination.  Yeah."  She thought about it for a moment.  "Yeah.  I think . . ." she yawned.  "I think I'll need to go and talk to Herr Scherblocken when we get back home. He was a lot of help with my OWL this term, and if we're going to keep it, I'll need to be on my game."

"Wait -- de Scherblocken??  Spike?"  But she was already drifting off to sleep.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Loyalty, Unity, Confusion

Later that night she laid them out on her bed.  Tilted her head this way and that.  Added the purple squares she had created for classes that term in among them.  Loyalty, unity, and confusion to the enemy, she thought.  Totenberg came and stood at her elbow, laid one hand on the Slytherin star, traced the linked rings of Hufflepuff.

"Could do worse," he said, "than to sleep under a piece of your soul, yah?"

Spike thought about it.  In all the stories, wizard placed bit of their souls in majestic and important things -- the eggs of firebirds, cloven pines on lonely mountaintops, even Voldemort had fallen for the idea of creating his Horcruxes in glamorous, historically important items so that the wizard finding them would be tempted on several levels not to destroy such a venerated object.  Almost worked with Dumbeldore, too, she thought.  Tempted to keep the Horcrux whole, just for the value of thing itself, then tempted to use it for his own ends when it began to whisper.  Would have been the death of him, either physically -- or turned him to the dark, with a withered hand.

"It wouldn't look like such a much," she mused aloud, "Just a little Second Year's security blanket, made by loving hands at home.  Kept for sentimentality's sake."  She glanced up sidewise at her bodyguard.  "I think you may have something there, Totenberg."

A few wand movements later, the thing was conjoined and bound into one.



Spike vowed to keep it close, as a remembrance of this term, and a lesson in power learned.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Crashing and Burning

The match was thrilling, as always, and very close, but Hufflepuff managed to squeak out a  win over Gryffindor, by seventy-nine points.  They're getting good, Spike thought.  For a moment she was concerned about Slytherin's chances with the Quidditch Cup that term, but shook it off.  You have more to think about than just Quidditch, she reminded herself, like that little "victory party" in the Room of Requirement.

By thinking hard about how she needed to find Philandra and explain why she hadn't been in touch -- but how she had managed to create all seven faux Horcruxes!-- she found her way to the Room and waited quietly for the rest of the Order to turn up.  They trickled in by ones and twos, quiet and subdued, even the Hufflepuff contingent.

Philadra was last.  "So, she said, sitting down wearily and pulling off her pads.  "I've already heard everyone else's reports, why don't you fill me in, Spike?"  She listened as Spike explained the series of small deaths and sentimental objects that had been transfigured into something that appeared to magical senses as Horcruxes.

"I finally completed the series," she said, almost as tired as Philandra appeared.  "So I'm ready to start scattering them as soon as you give the word.  Ah, presuming you didn't already give it -- doing the Horcruxes put me a little behind on the OWL, so I had to make up for lost time . . . and . . ." she trailed off, suddenly feeling the stares of the other students gathered around her.  "Am I too late?"

The look on Philandra's face was painfully familiar to Spike; she'd often seen it on the face of one of her professors.  Not sure whether to be delighted with the power of her magic, or dismayed at the expression it had chosen.  "Spike, hon, I think you're the only one who actually completed ANY of the horcruxes.  And you say you made all seven?"  Spike blushed and nodded, looking at the floor.

"I called everyone back a couple of weeks ago to call the experiment off.  Didn't you see the flashing -- no, of course not."

Hecuba chimed in, "It was just too much for us, so we were going to focus on more achievable tasks  from here out.  Not fight dark with darker, but with single candles.  I couldn't seem to find you in the common room, so I thought . . ."

"You thought I'd backed out?" Spike was incredulous and furious.

"You're a Second Year.  You're the youngest student here.  Be reasonable, what would you have thought?"

"All right," she replied, conceding the point.  But what am I going to do with the Fauxcruxes?