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Villain of the Piece

Part 3  Waiting Games

- Chapter  35 -

Chapter 35:   At High Table

30th August to 2nd September 1981

It was a hot Saturday morning, fast approaching noon when Severus moved his few belongings into the Hogwarts Dungeons Teacher’s Suite.  A few other staff were already in residence – Aurora Sinistra the new Astronomy teacher had been there since early August, and Wilbert Slinkhard who had started teaching towards the end of the previous term, covering Defence Against the Dark Arts, had returned to the school from a Channel Islands holiday.  Aurora looked as cool and poised in her blue candy-striped dress as Wilbert looked ridiculous in his khaki shorts.  Severus caught sight of them walking beside the lake and he stopped to watch them.  Wilbert, a man of about forty, was a portly figure with a boyish face.  Aurora was short of stature, but slim, young and attractive – a mere twenty years old.  He noticed that Wilbert seemed to be doing most of the talking and Aurora looked bored.

Quietly, looking down at them from the cliff, Severus smiled.

“You’ll bake in the sun, in those robes” a waspish voice said from behind him.

It was his mother.  Or rather, Severus reminded himself with a mental slap on the wrist, Irma Pince, the Assistant Librarian; ever ready with a piece of advice.

“Thank you so much, Irma” he replied.  “Your solicitude is most thoughtful.”

She went away grumbling something about solicitude being by nature thoughtful, and he didn’t run into her any more that day, not even at lunchtime.  He spent the afternoon checking the stores and was late arriving for dinner.  Filius and Minerva were already in their places, chatting together across Dumbledore’s empty chair, Ted Kettleburn was talking to Irma, and Wilbert Slinkhard was trying to decide where to sit.  He motioned Severus into a chair next to Minerva and sat on the other side of him.

“Better keep House Heads together” he murmured.  “Settled in alright?”

“So-so” Severus replied.  “Any idea where Slughorn can be reached?”

“Nope” Wilbert said casually, unfolding his napkin.  “You could owl him.  Why?  Got a problem?”

“There’s a note in the inventory about the theft of some Ashwinder eggs.  I just wanted to check what happened.”

Wilbert snorted.  “Big surprise!” he sneered.  “The kids nearly drove Horace mad last year.  I saw something of it first-hand – I started just after Easter.  Boy was Sluggy glad to leave!  Nick anything, some of those little twats.”

“Then why didn’t Slughorn secure the stores?”

“Oh I reckon he did” Wilbert said airily.  “But some of these kids can break powerful spells, you know.”

“But Slughorn is a highly skilled wizard.”

“Yes.  Even so” Wilbert said, weighing up his answer.  “You wait and see.  Actually the worst culprit’s left – John Bradley.  You should get an easier ride this year.  Except from whoever’s planning Love Potion with those eggs.  Ha-ha!  Nymphadora Tonks is one to watch.”

“Nymphah-dora?” Severus repeated carefully, sounding as if he couldn’t believe such a name existed.

“Yes.  Not a bad kid” said Wilbert.  “She won’t burgle your stores, but I wouldn’t put her past having a go at a bit of illegal brewing.  Gryffindor girl.  Fifth-year now.  Any pranks, look for Tonks!”

He chortled quietly on and Severus lapsed into silence, waiting patiently for dinner.  “What is for dinner?” he wondered aloud to no one in particular.

“Ham-leek-and-cheese bake” Minerva replied.  “Have you settled in alright, Severus?”

“Yes, thank you, Minerva” Severus replied, as a tureen of gazpacho soup materialised near to him and soup bowls appeared at all the place settings.  “Err – shall I be mother?”

As he served the soup the small door opened behind them and there was a clatter of high heels.  Severus halted in his ladling and looked around, Wilbert following suit, but it was only Rolanda Hooch making a very late appearance.  Wilbert looked disappointed.

“Willy.  Sevvy” she murmured, giving them a nod of greeting.  “Settled in alright, Sevvy?”

Severus gave her a withering smile and Wilbert began to chortle again, knowing that the very next person to ask Severus that question was likely to end up wearing a soup bowl as a hat.

 

Sunday was a dull but leisurely day.  In the middle of the morning after a lay in bed and a late breakfast, Severus headed for the staff room, but overhearing the conversation through the door he stopped short, intrigued.

“I’ve just seen that Irma Pince walking into Hogsmeade with Argus” a squeaky voice said.

“Really, Filius?  And is that so very remarkable?”  McGonagall’s brogue was unmistakable.

“Well you never know.  She’s not married, is she.”

“Not as far as I know.  I really don’t know much about her” Minerva replied, sounding disinterested.  “She was Dumbledore’s choice.”

“Hm, like Snape” Filius grumbled.  “Well she’s got to be better than that.  I just can’t understand Albus, there.”

“No … Well … it isn’t always easy to understand Albus.  I mean, look at Willy.”

“Willy?  He’s a nice enough chap.”

“Nice enough, yes, but not exactly dynamic” Minerva said sadly.  “Still, better than Snape I suppose, with a subject like that.  Now shall I have lunch out today?  Treat myself to a pub lunch?  Won’t get another chance for weeks.  Yes, I might just do that–”

Severus decided it was time to interrupt them.  He opened the door casually and wandered in, saying a quite good morning to the two professors and settling in a corner with a Sunday Prophet.  He noticed them stumbling to pick up the conversation and make it sound natural.  I’m not going to help you out, he said to himself.  I’ll sit here like the spectre at the feast and watch you squirm.  He fetched himself a cup of coffee from the refreshment table and continued to thumb through the newspaper.

At lunchtime Wilbert walked to the Three Broomsticks with him.  They stood by the bar drinking mead and then walked back for a late lunch at the school.  In the afternoon Severus browsed the report files of his existing Slytherins, noting who was good and who was lazy; who was high-born and who was not; who was useful and who was a liability.  Gwenog Jones, Beater, he mused turning page after page of Horace’s curly script.  Jeremy Wagtail, Quidditch Captain.  Doon Pilliwickle, top fourth-year at Potions; might in time be a candidate for the prize, but stiff competition from Gryffindor’s Nymphadora Tonks…

 

Monday was an equally leisurely day.  Severus finished browsing the student report files and then quietly savoured the remains of the day; the last day of August; the last moment before the onslaught of the barbaric hoards.  Tomorrow would be peaceful until the train arrived.  And then the Sorting – and what would he get?

At the start-of-term feast he leant forward, watching excitedly as Minerva read out the names and the Hat made its decisions:

“Anderson, Kathryn”

“HUFFLEPUFF!”

“Beavis, Marc”

“RAVENCLAW!”

“Blane, Brian”

“HUFFLEPUFF!”

“Bode, Frederick

“GRYFFINDOR!”

“Cook, Wendolyn”

“SLYTHERIN!”

One for me, Severus said to himself, as he watched a pretty blonde girl skip gleefully to the Slytherin table, and his mind wandered back in time to his own sorting.  The Hat had spoken to him and he had whispered back.  He could still recall the conversation:

“Ah, Sli–, just a sec, though; should you be Ravenclaw?  I wonder.  No, you’ve too much edge to be anywhere but Slytherin.  Surprised?”

“Not particularly.”

“What if I told you, you had a dash – just a teensy-weensy dash – of Gryffindor?”

“I’d eat my hat, Hat.”

“Ha!  No doubt then!  SLYTHERIN!”

Severus pulled himself back to the present.  A nervous-looking boy called Samuel Halliday was stepping forward.  He had dark hair and pale blue eyes.  He looked grimly determined as if he was about to face a charging lion.  He put on the Hat and sat down.

“SLYTHERIN!”

His place was taken by a girl with a pony tail.

“GRYFFINDOR!”

Pomona’s eldest daughter’s girl” Wilbert whispered.

“Really, Willy.”

“Tiffany Jewkes.  Pays to know these things!” Wilbert added.  “Wait till Phoebus King arrives … Here he is now.”

A blond boy with a sweetly handsome face was stepping forward.  Unlike many of the first-years, he didn’t look scared – he looked happy and confident.  A blond James Potter, Severus wondered?  A blond Sirius Black?

“SLYTHERIN!”

“Merlin’s beard, he’s mine” Severus whispered.

“Bet that’s put Minerva’s nose out of joint” Wilbert sniggered.

“Why?”

“He’s a sort of nephew of hers.  Her’s and Septima’s.”

“Bloody hell!”

Severus began to realise that he would be up against this sort of thing all the time.  As Lucius had often boasted ‘all the pure blood families are related’ so he shouldn’t be surprised that the Vectors and McGonagalls were intermarried, nor that the descendents of the existing staff would arrive as students at Hogwarts.

 

The first day of lessons arrived.  In his dungeon bedroom Severus was looking at his reflection in the mirror of his wardrobe door.  “Professor Snape” he whispered, “How good that sounds.”  He smoothed his black robes and set off for the Great Hall and breakfast, wondering if he would get an opportunity to sit next to Aurora Sinistra.

But the pretty Astronomy Professor was not at breakfast so he took the vacant chair between Wilbert and Minerva, and looked at the sea of pupils’ faces – the shining expectant first-years, the scheming third-years, the cool, poised NEWT students, and the fifth-years who were just beginning to stare in disbelief at their OWL timetables.

He looked down the house tables for the second-years.  He had Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs first. And then third-year Gryffindors and Slytherins.  After lunch it will be a doddle, he decided – double seventh-years, and then free!  Free for early tea just after three o’clock if I want, or I can mess about with preparatory work and go up for tea at half-past four – the usual time.  Where are your third-years, Minerva?  Yes, they look like trouble.  Well, they’ll be pickling frog brains if they mess me around too much.  I wonder why Aurora isn’t here?

Professor Sinistra was a puzzle.  She was also new to Hogwarts that year; the previous incumbent having retired.  Was Astronomy the job that Dumbledore had in mind when he had pondered the notion of giving him ‘a’ job, ‘not ideal, but one he would be able to do’?  If so why had Horace Slughorn finally been allowed to retire, freeing up Potions and the Headship of Slytherin – had Horace insisted upon it?  And if so, how had he finally brought such pressure after years of being denied?  And why had Wilbert Slinkhard been hurried in to teach Defence Against the Dark Arts when old Dangerfield fell off his broomstick refereeing last years Quidditch final?  Why hadn’t Severus been asked to start one term early, and been given the Defence job?

An owl woke Severus from musing these endless questions by bringing him a daily newspaper and he browsed it quickly, cover to cover.  With that done and a last sustaining cup of tea he was ready to start the day.

 

He had to admit afterwards that the first day of lessons had been an odd sensation.  The second-years were clearly afraid of him, the seventh-years seemed disposed to work.  And in between – in the late morning double period were the cheeky, lazy brats whom Minerva had spoken of as ‘the terrible thirds’ – their only merit being that they were good house point material.  As Severus sank gratefully into a staff room chair at half-past three he would not have summarised the day as odd because to do so would have seemed foolish, but school life, he had to admit, was not like working for Nobody’s Perfect, nor for St Mungo’s.

“All done for the day?” Ted Kettleburn asked.

“Yes, thank goodness” Severus said in a drawling voice.  “Fortunately the seventh-years left the classroom tidy.”

“Yes; their not a bad bunch” Ted agreed.  “My seventh-year’s a small group anyway.  Smoke?”

“No thanks; I don’t.”

Ted Kettleburn lit up a long pipe of fragrant tobacco, holding it carefully with an injured hand, and Severus went to the refreshment table to summon tea but Ted declined, preferring to smoke than to drink.

Over the course of the next hour the staff room gradually filled and emptied as various teachers arrived for tea and then went to change for dinner.  Severus departed at five o’clock, deciding to change his robes because the ones he was wearing smelled faintly of puffa fish.

Dinner was at seven but he arrived purposefully early.  Standing proud and tall, he strode the length of the Hall at a measured pace towards the High Table, enjoying the stares of the students, the comforting weight of the worsted robes sweeping from his shoulders, and the candle-filled illumination highlighting from above.  Even after all these years he still found it exciting to walk beneath the expanse of candles.  It was Hogwarts own form of limelight.  He had never known the thrill of it as Head Boy but now he would enjoy it as a Master.  This was better than having to wear the lime green robes of a Healer.  Much better.

As he walked he worked out where he would sit.  The chair next to Aurora was free.  He slipped causally into it.

But it proved a bad move – Aurora was not very talkative that evening, answering mostly in monosyllables.  It had been a cool, cloudy day, and the kitchen elves had prepared a Lancashire hot pot; warm and nourishing, but when it arrived Aurora only picked at it.

“Not a lover of hot pot?”

“It is so dull.”

“So you like something spicy.  I’ll bear that in mind.”

Silence.

“How do you find teaching?  The third-years are fun, aren’t they.  I almost gave detention to–”

“They orright.  No problem.”

She left most of the hot pot, made short work of the apple charlotte and left the Hall, skipping coffee.  Shy or stuck-up, he wondered?  Or does she simply not like me?  Well, I won’t crowd her.  Let her come to me.

In the late evening Dumbledore summoned him and suggested a stroll by the lake.  The air was chilly and they needed their cloaks.  As they walked along the cliff-top edge and down to the shoreline they chatted in general, and Dumbledore enquired politely about his feelings regarding his first day’s teaching.  But as the castle fell into the background the Headmaster moved the agenda on to the matters that really concerned him – the latest news of the Death Eaters and what Severus could tell him of their various identities.

“I know some of them already” Dumbledore explained.  “I knew of Rookwood, Mulciber and Rosier months ago.”

Inwardly Severus winced at hearing the name of his friend, but he made no mention of Evan.  “I don’t know Rookwood” he replied.  “Nor Mulciber.  I’m sure I haven’t even met all the Death Eaters.”

“Of those you’ve come across, whom do you think is the most useful?”

“To the Dark Lord?  Difficult to say.  I suspect he makes use of our different skills on separate occasions.”

“Compartmentalisation.”

“Indeed!” Severus agreed.  “Lucius is very good at general organisation.  I have often received communications from him.  Summonses masquerading as dinner invitations and so forth.  And the Dark Lord likes the accommodation in Wiltshire.  Lucius’s house is a kind of hub.”

“That must put him in a very powerful position in the Black and Malfoy families” Dumbledore observed.

They walked on in silence for a while, turning eventually towards the Quidditch pitch.  Severus could feel the Headmaster watching him even though Dumbledore rarely looked directly at him.

“Something on your mind, Severus?” Dumbledore asked suddenly.

“Headmaster?”

“I sense there is something on your mind.  Something you wish to say to me.”

“Yes, Headmaster.  I was wondering who – here at the school – knows I was a Death Eater.”

Dumbledore halted, looking grave.  “All the staff know you were accused of Death Eater activities” he said, “And all know – or should know – that you did not stand trial.  The senior staff certainly know that.”

“But being called for trial is not the same as being a Death Eater” Severus pointed out.  “Do they know–?”

“I have not discussed the Mark on your arm, if that is what you’re wondering about” Dumbledore interrupted.  “If certain staff have a view about you, they will have formed it on their own.  They all read the papers.  They all have minds of their own.  They can draw conclusions, and hold opinions.”

“You must have received some raised eyebrows when you announced my appointment.”

“Oh don’t worry about eyebrows!” Dumbledore said jovially.  “Many of my appointments give rise to that!”