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The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 3]

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Chapter Thirty-Three

Rhyme and Reason

Severus noticed Contessa’s absence at lunch-time in the Great Hall and was left with the distinct impression she was avoiding him.

He wasn’t overly troubled by the fact she wasn’t speaking to him; Severus felt he had the moral and intellectual high-ground.

However, he was perturbed by the thought of Contessa wandering the corridors of Hogwarts without her wand, unable to defend herself and impeded in her work. Awkward questions might be asked with regard to the location of her wand and Severus did not wish to raise suspicions.

It was for this reason that he found himself descending the steps into the dungeon and knocking on the door of the Potions office later that afternoon.

Severus opened the door to find Contessa working alone in the office, marking a stack of parchments on the desk which had once belonged to him.

He glanced around the room and noted the office was neater and less cluttered than before. However, Severus observed the arrangement of the potions supplies remained the same. He found this deeply satisfying.

Contessa met his gaze steadily as he walked across the room. She placed her quill down on the desk and remained seated as Severus stood before her.

“Headmaster,” she said calmly, “how may I help you?”

Severus nodded once in acknowledgement, and looked again at the shelves of potions ingredients lining the walls of the office.

“I like what you’ve done with the place,” he said, his voice betraying amusement.

Contessa followed his gaze around the room and her eyes narrowed. Severus wondered if she would rise to the bait. He was not disappointed.

“I am sure you will recall, Headmaster, that I helped design the layout of your office during my seventh year,” she said. “You requested I re-organise it on several occasions, before eventually settling on your original outline for the room. My memory of the plan’s rationale serves me well.”

Her voice was even and measured. Severus was pleased with her self-restraint.

“I notice you’ve increased the lighting in here,” he said, looking pointedly at the new candelabras placed around the desk.

“I needed more light to work,” Contessa said crisply.

Severus watched her for a moment. “The increase of light will have an adverse effect on the potions supplies.”

“I’m aware of that. I took it into consideration and the ingredients will not be harmed.”

Severus was impressed by Contessa’s controlled demeanour. Additionally, he approved of the changes she had made to his old office.

He reached inside his robes to retrieve her wand. Severus would have returned it to her regardless, but he felt more content about doing so now. He held out the wand and Contessa rose from her desk and accepted it gratefully, her cheeks flushed pink.

“Thank you for returning this,” she said quietly.

“My apologies for the delay in its return,” he replied with formality.

Contessa’s posture relaxed, but she still appeared fidgety and nervous.

“Severus, I…” she began. “Sorry, Headmaster,” she corrected herself with a wince.

“Go on,” Severus said.

“I’m sorry for my impertinent behaviour last night. I didn’t intend to question your authority.” Contessa’s voice was remorseful. “I forgot my place.”

For the space of a few heartbeats, Severus stood stoical, gratified to hear an apology. At the same time he sensed the problem had still not been resolved, at least not for her.

“You’re struggling to find your place now we are at Hogwarts,” he reflected.

“I am, Professor,” she said awkwardly. “I must admit I find it difficult to address you formally when we’re alone together. You are still Severus to me.” Contessa looked down at the desk, her fingers fiddling with her wand.

“I have good reason to maintain a façade, Contessa. There is a lot at stake.”

“I know,” she replied. “But I can’t put our relationship in a box and label you Headmaster; I find it confusing and distracting. I don’t know who to be when I’m around you – am I a Potions Assistant, a spy, or simply Tess…”

Severus processed her predicament carefully and weighed up the consequences in his mind. They needed to be able to work together closely in order to be successful, but his wish to be addressed formally had become a barrier to that goal. Contessa seemed unable to overcome it.

“I propose something different, in that case,” Severus said.

Contessa looked up at him hopefully.

“In the presence of students, teachers and portraits, you should call me Headmaster,” Severus suggested. “That effectively means almost everywhere in the castle, including my office.”

Contessa eyed him suspiciously.

“However, when we are in my quarters, away from the earshot of others, please call me Severus.”

A smile returned to Contessa’s face. “I understand your logic, Headmaster. I accept.”

“Good,” Severus replied, lifting himself onto his toes and grasping his hands behind his back.

Contessa’s relief was palpable as she sat down in her chair.

“Do we have anything further to discuss with regard to my enforcement of the decrees?” he asked.

“You want to revisit the argument?” Contessa replied, taken aback.

“Only in the interests of completeness – I can’t imagine your reasoning to be sounder than mine. Nevertheless, I should like to hear it.”

Contessa appeared to collect her thoughts with a degree of trepidation.

“I’m aware I didn’t express myself particularly well, however, my concerns are that the students will suffer from a learning point of view. Also, by making the membership of organisations such as Dumbledore’s Army illicit, it will drive them underground and make the option more appealing. People will rebel and join the cause because it is exciting.”

“It is only unofficial student societies that have been banned, so bona fide learning groups will be allowed to continue, albeit heavily supervised,” Severus began to explain. “On the subject of the DA, it will mostly be Gryffindors flocking to the cause.”

“That may be true,” Contessa replied, “but remember, Dolores Umbridge struggled to stop the DA. Children should not be underestimated – they are resourceful.”

“Umbridge’s old decree served to halt recruitment to the DA by scaring most of the students away. I believe this to be the best I can hope for. It will be impossible to stop the DA completely. I only hope to limit their activities and numbers. The decrees assist me in achieving this goal.”

“So, you don’t want to stop them?” Contessa asked, surprised.

“Oh, I would very much like to stop them, but I don’t believe it entirely possible to do so,” Severus replied pragmatically. “I shall have to consider how to penalise the culprits and make an example of them. If I can dissuade students from supporting them, it might have an impact on their members. The punishment needs to be severe enough to send out a strong message, but stop short of violence and brutality.”

“I see your conundrum,” Contessa said earnestly.

“Indeed,” Severus replied.

At that moment there was a brief knock at the door and Horace Slughorn strolled into the office without looking up.

Contessa’s eyebrows rose fractionally and Severus shot her a stern look in response. He cleared his throat imperiously.

“Good afternoon, Horace,” Severus said, in his customarily low voice.

Slughorn looked up, startled. “Oh, good afternoon, Headmaster.”

Slughorn’s beady eyes flicked between Contessa and Severus, speedily assessing the situation. He walked over to the side of Contessa’s desk and dropped some rolls of parchment onto the work-space.

Severus’s former Potions Master addressed him carefully. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”

“Not at all, Horace. Your assistant and I were just discussing the merits of restricting certain potion ingredients.”

“Ah,” replied Slughorn, casting Contessa a wary look.

“Your assistant is not particularly taken with the idea,” Severus said waspishly.

Contessa’s eyes widened as Slughorn rose to her defence. “She’s doing a fine job, Headmaster. I’m very pleased with her.”

Severus looked at him disdainfully. “I’m not convinced, as yet,” he said in a cold voice.

Reaching inside his robes, Severus pulled out a small roll of parchment and handed it to Contessa.

“These ingredients are to be moved to my personal stores and added to your weekly requisition.”

“But,” Contessa spluttered, with believable consternation.

“Until you can demonstrate improved competence, I shall be keeping a close eye on you, Madam Marchbanks.”

Severus felt satisfied when he saw Contessa’s expression of indignation crossing her face.

She played her role well. Things were as they were meant to be.

Without another word, Severus turned on his heel and swept out of the dungeons.

The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 3]

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