Cassiopeia twinkled brightly in the night sky above Squirrel’s Leap cottage.
Out in the countryside the constellation was surrounded by the dusty outline of the Milky Way and thousands of other stars not visible in the light-polluted skies of London.
It was for this reason that Contessa Marchbanks lived alone in her tiny, isolated stone cottage, rather than closer to her employment at the Ministry of Magic. In the dark depths of the countryside the sky hung like a black velvet blanket sparkling with millions of glimmering stars and celestial objects.
The clear and moonless night had been perfect for her quest to map distant galaxies. Now, in the early hours of the morning, the sun crept towards the horizon, bringing dawn and heralding the end of her astronomy observations.
The fainter stars were slowly blotting out as Contessa packed up her telescope and levitated it back towards the cottage. Bats swooped around her head as she made her way carefully through the apple orchard by the light of her wand.
Opening the front door, she entered into the cosy living area. With a flick of her wand she lit enough candles to allow her to safely stow away her telescope. After spending hours looking at the black night sky, the candlelight hurt her eyes.
Squinting, she returned her books to their proper place on the bookshelves. When all of the astronomy equipment was stored away, she extinguished all but one candle. Passing the Headmaster’s portrait without looking, she padded softly through the darkness into the kitchen.
Feeling tired and ready for some rest, Contessa used magic to heat up a mug of milk. She stirred in some chocolate powder by hand and sighed. Another day at the Ministry beckoned as the twilight waned; she needed to get some sleep.
Taking a sip of hot chocolate, she turned to leave the kitchen and make her way upstairs. However, a crackling flash of flame lit up the living room and she leapt backwards, dropping the mug and drawing her wand in one swift movement.
Silently Contessa approached the kitchen door, heart pounding in her chest and blood surging in her ears. She thought she heard a ruffling of feathers, or was it a cloak? Whoever or whatever it was had arrived without invitation.
She mentally planned a non-verbal spell before peering through the doorway. Nothing could have prepared her for what she saw.
Standing in her living room, silhouetted against the candlelight, was the unmistakable figure of her former Potions Master.
Professor Snape stood looking slightly dishevelled, struggling to adapt to the darkness. As Contessa took in his torn robes and his blood-stained shirt she felt even more nervous. Why was he here?
She stepped into the room with her wand raised, pointed directly at his chest.
Snape caught sight of her movement and turned to face her, eyeing her wand intently. His hand twitched as he realised his own wand was out of reach. Contessa felt a rush of momentary advantage and moved closer, staying in the shadows, until she was face to face with the towering bat-like form.
She could smell the scent of burning wood on his robes as she stood, wondering if it would be prudent to cast the Body Bind Curse. He was wandless, but Contessa knew he wasn’t completely defenceless. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she noticed movement behind him. With a jerk of her head she beckoned Snape out of the way.
As he moved sideways, Snape revealed a beautiful red and gold and rather battered-looking phoenix. Comprehension flooded her mind as she gasped at the sight of Fawkes, perched precariously on the telescope.
Lowering her wand, Contessa looked back towards the Potions Master in shock. “Professor Snape…” she croaked.
He stepped forward a little in the dim light of the room, searching the features of the woman stood before him. Snape’s eyes widened as he recognised her and he appeared briefly discomposed.
Recovering from the recognition of his former student almost instantaneously, the sallow face hardened and his black eyes glittered coldly in the candlelight.
“Miss Marchbanks,” his low voice glided across the room, laced with disdain and condescension. Contessa shuddered at the sound of his speech, the distant memory of Potions lessons brought sharply and hideously back into focus.
Animosity swelled inside her as she looked at his pale face and dark eyes, framed by the usual curtains of greasy black hair. Snape’s appearance had not altered at all in the fifteen years since she had left Hogwarts. He had aged, that much was clear from the lines around his eyes, which seemed puffy in the half-light.
“You were not expecting me?” His voice was derisive, cutting through her like a knife.
What had Dumbledore been thinking? Of all the people in the Order of the Phoenix, why did it have to be Professor Snape? Was Dumbledore out of his mind?
“I was expecting someone,” she managed, “but I didn’t know whom.” Contessa wished she’d asked Dumbledore to be more specific when she accepted the mission. He had intimated that the task she had been given would not be easy, but had she known…
“A pleasant surprise for us both, then,” Snape sneered.
She returned his sarcasm with a flash of loathing as she slumped into an armchair.
How in Merlin’s name could she keep her promise to Dumbledore? Helping Snape would be difficult enough knowing their history, but giving him her unconditional acceptance…that would surely be impossible.
“Well, well, the Ravenclaw Revolutionary at a loss for words,” he mocked as she wilted in submission. “Will wonders ever cease?”
Her insides churned at the sound of the old nickname; Snape remembered everything… how could he not?
Contessa looked up at him through narrowed eyes, but her retort died on her lips.
Behind Snape, the portrait of Albus Dumbledore was gently snoring.