Chapter Twenty-EightMadam Marchbanks,
Just an Illusion
Contessa spent the following day in turmoil.
She found herself distracted by her conflicting feelings, and her concentration had been broken so many times that she had abandoned her first two attempts at making Deflating Draught for Horace Slughorn’s Potions class. Contessa had drifted off several times and forgotten to add the necessary ingredients, or had not stirred the cauldron at the specified intervals.
The false memory from Squirrel’s Leap continued to haunt her, and she frequently slipped into daydreams, fantasising that the seduction was real.
The events on the Astronomy Tower also replayed in her mind. Contessa had not intended for Severus to locate her whereabouts, but in her haste to escape from the dungeon she had forgotten about the ring she wore. The icy night wind had frozen her hands, numbing all sensation, so she had not felt the ring turn cold on her finger.
And so, Severus had found her. He had come to her immediately, but his reticence at the doorway to the tower seemed to suggest he had not known what to do. Contessa knew he was unaccustomed to acts of kindness, but she could still feel his hands holding her firmly as he wrapped his cloak around her, pulling her away from the parapets.
She had hoped this gesture was one of affection, but when she looked into his cold, dark eyes it was plain to see her feelings for him were not returned. Worse than that, Contessa thought she had read distaste in his features.
Contessa felt certain that the attraction was completely one-sided. As such, she had no idea what she was going to do or say when she next saw Severus.
She was due to hand in her weekly potions requisition and Contessa found herself making excuses not to go to the Headmaster’s office; the awkwardness of the situation was impossible. She feared being in the same room as Severus but also experienced a strong desire to see him again. The two things simply did not fit together.
Later that afternoon, Contessa found a note pushed under the door to her quarters. She let herself in to the gloomy room and lit the candles with a Lumos Charm.
Contessa settled down on the dark green leather of the Chesterfield sofa, pausing as she looked around at Severus’s former quarters. Since moving in, she had not changed them much and the room had retained its cold and formal air.
The stone walls had a greenish hue, as though lichen grew on them, although there were no such organisms present in the rock. As a result, the walls seemed to glow when candlelight reflected upon them. Contessa found the luminescent effect strangely comforting.
A large fireplace dominated the room, conspicuous in size, with an iron grate which had been bewitched with a Replenishment Charm. Contessa realised that she never needed to add wood to the fire, and on one night when she had fallen asleep on the sofa, she had awoken in the middle of the night with the fire still burning, keeping her warm in her slumber.
The furniture in Severus’s quarters was comfortable and functional, but lacking in flair or design. There was an air of practicality about the quarters but it also had a feel of solace and security.
Contessa always felt she was completely alone in the rooms, undisturbed and peaceful. She was unsure why, as the quarters were nothing like her countryside cottage. It was a surprise to her that she had settled into the dungeon quarters with such ease.
Looking down at the parchment envelope in her hands, she flipped it over to see the Headmaster’s stamp embossed in a red wax seal.
Simultaneously, her heart leapt to her throat and her stomach dropped to the floor.
I request your attendance at the Headmaster’s
office at 9 o’clock this evening. Please prepare
your weekly potions requisition in advance.
Contessa pushed herself to go to the Great Hall for dinner that evening, but found that her appetite had vanished.
She spent most of her time avoiding eye contact with Severus, and spent the meal deflecting comments from Poppy Pomfrey, who was concerned that Contessa looked ‘peaky’ and clearly wasn’t eating enough.
By the time nine o’clock arrived, Contessa was sitting in her quarters again, seriously considering running for the hills.
Ten minutes passed in silence, as she sat fidgeting fretfully with her wand. So far, she had produced a flock of canaries which fluttered around the room, singing loudly and performing acrobatics from the candle-lit chandelier. With a snap another canary popped into existence and hopped onto the arm of the sofa, scrutinizing the agitated witch warily.
Contessa wondered vaguely if she could get away with not responding to the invitation, but she doubted it. Severus was not the sort of man who tolerated disobedience.
Bracing herself, Contessa got up and prepared to leave, but at that moment the fire in the hearth turned green. With a crackle of flame and hiss of ash, Severus stepped out of her fireplace and into the quarters.
Contessa took a step back and the canaries vanished with a pop.
Severus towered before her, his bat-like form bearing down on her, silencing her thoughts. His features were, as ever, inscrutable.
Contessa swallowed nervously and stood straighter in an attempt to redress the balance. Severus surveyed her with a familiar look of disdain.
“You are late,” he said curtly.
Contessa felt a nauseating mixture of old contempt for her old Potions Master and an inexplicable attraction to his form and presence. She reacted by taking another step back, swaying slightly.
“I’m sorry,” she replied uncertainly. “I was…delayed.”
Severus’s eyebrows arched in response. “So I see,” he said, glancing around the empty room and looking pointedly at the yellow canary feathers landing softly on the rug-covered floor.
Contessa cleared her throat, squirming at the absurdity of the situation. She was going to have to pull herself together, and fast.
Severus held his hand out to her, commanding her to join him next to the fireplace. Contessa placed her hand in his and he led her through the Floo connection and into the Headmaster’s office.
The Headteachers’ portraits all turned around to look at the unlikely pair as they arrived. Many of the portraits bore looks of mild amusement. Dumbledore, however, appeared solemn and concerned. He nodded towards Contessa as she took the seat opposite the Headmaster’s desk.
Severus sat down on the other side and contemplated Contessa austerely. She wished the ground would open up and swallow her as a giddying mixture of power and attraction crashed over her like a wave. Befuddled, she remained speechless.
“We find ourselves in a delicate situation,” Severus began formally, and Contessa noticed him twitch with discomfort.
A leaden weight landed hard in her stomach as Contessa interpreted his discomfiture as aversion. It seemed clear he did not return her feelings. The realisation rendered her unable to speak.
“We now have an appearance to maintain in front of the Carrows,” Severus continued.
Contessa’s mouth turned dry in response, horrified at the possibilities which might now be expected of her.
Severus looked at her, clearly hoping she would speak and ease some of his misery, but Contessa had frozen, unable to offer him any relief from the difficult and embarrassing conversation ahead.
Her thoughts spiralled at the many varied ways they could keep up the pretence of a relationship for the sake of appearances. She wasn’t sure she was capable of pretending, whilst all the while harbouring unrequited feelings for Severus.
He watched her closely with a strained expression, but Severus’s unease was nothing compared to how Contessa was feeling.
Severus cleared his throat awkwardly. “I propose we meet twice a week for supper in my quarters,” he said tensely. “You can give me your report on the teaching staff at this time.” Severus paused and sat back in his seat, apparently wishing he was somewhere else. “The Carrows will be aware of this arrangement and have been sworn to secrecy about our…relationship.”
Contessa relaxed somewhat, relieved she would not be required to be physically demonstrative in front of the Carrows. Their relationship would be just an illusion. “That seems acceptable,” she croaked, her mouth still dry.
Severus exhaled, releasing some of his tension. The conversation had obviously pained him, although for wholly different reasons. Contessa wondered fleetingly if she would be expected to use the formal title of Headmaster whilst alone with Severus in his quarters. The thought made her shudder.
Contessa cleared her throat and straightened in her chair. “What news of the replica sword of Gryffindor?” she asked, changing the subject in an attempt to reclaim normality.
Dumbledore cut into the conversation, causing Contessa to jump slightly. She had almost forgotten that they were being overheard.
“Griselda informs me she will have the sword finished to an acceptable standard and delivered to Hogwarts tomorrow. The replica won’t be perfect but should be sufficient,” the former Headmaster said.
Severus then addressed Contessa. “I shall ask the Carrows to deliver the fake sword to Gringotts, in the belief that it is the original sword. It will be done during daylight hours in front of witnesses. It would be helpful if you could ensure that Dumbledore’s Army believes that the sword of Gryffindor no longer resides in the Headmaster’s office. It should prevent further attempts at robbery.”
“Certainly,” Contessa replied. “I’ll tell Neville when the sword has been removed from the school. Has he been told of his punishment?”
“He and the others will be assisting Hagrid in the Forbidden Forest for the next week. The punishment is one of Dumbledore’s old favourites for the most severe incursions and should send out a strong message to the other students.”
Contessa nodded, feeling relieved that she herself had never warranted such a detention in her time at Hogwarts. She had obviously not misbehaved as much as she had thought.
“Is that all for now?” she asked steadily, hoping she could leave the office and the confusing emotions it had roused in her.
“There is just the small matter of your potions requisition, and then you may leave,” Severus said huskily.
“Oh, of course,” Contessa said, scrabbling inside her robes for the small roll of parchment. She held it out to him and he took it from her, quickly signing the list without looking at it, and handing it back to her promptly.
“Thank you, Headmaster,” she said, feeling self-conscious as she rolled the parchment up and tucked it away.
Severus stood up and escorted her back to the fireplace.
“Good night,” he said decorously, as they glanced at each other in front of the crackling fire.
Contessa nodded and stepped through the Floo connection without another word.