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The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 4]

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Chapter Thirty-Four

The Missing Piece

“Good grief, Tess, what did you say to the Headmaster to warrant that?” Horace Slughorn rested forward on his arms as he stood at the side of Contessa’s desk.

“Oh, nothing, Horace,” she replied dolefully. “I doubt I’ll ever be able to do anything right. The man tortures me for fun.”

Horace pulled up a chair, sitting down at the side of her desk. “What happened between you two?”

“What? Just then?”

“No, I mean, in the past – after I retired. You had one year left at Hogwarts, if memory serves correctly.”

Contessa sighed, partly due to relief. “Snape was such a contrast to you, Horace. He was cruel and impatient, showed favouritism towards his own House and impeded the students who did not perform to his exacting standards.” She paused for a moment, remembering her struggles. “I rebelled against him.”

Horace smiled ruefully. “You always were a feisty student, Tess; it was one of your admirable qualities.”

“He didn’t seem to think so,” Contessa replied as the old feelings from the past resurfaced. “I found out he was a Death Eater during my seventh year. Dumbledore swore me to secrecy.”

“Oh my,” Horace said, his eyes widening in horror. “Back then, none of us knew.”

“I came so close to blurting it out, but Dumbledore convinced me to trust Snape. He said he was completely assured of the man’s loyalty. I believed in Dumbledore and trusted his judgment, so I stayed quiet.”

“If only we’d known,” Horace said forlornly.

“Indeed.” Contessa shook her head, faking remorse.

In the silence that followed, Contessa assessed the impact of her past discretion with new perspective. She realised how much would have been lost if she had broken her promise to Dumbledore.

“It’s a wonder Snape allowed you to join the teaching staff this year,” Horace pondered.

Contessa was ready for this one. “You’d think. But you shouldn’t underestimate the man’s vindictiveness. I know he takes great pleasure in making my life a misery.” The falsities slipped from her tongue easily; up until recently they had still held some truth.

Horace sat quietly contemplating her dilemma then jumped slightly as he remembered something.

“Are you busy tonight?” he asked.

“No. Why?”

“I need you to supervise a detention for me,” Horace asked, his demeanour hopeful. He was still testing the limits of his Potions Assistant’s capacity, but Contessa was more than willing to oblige, due to Horace’s commitments as Head of Slytherin.

“That’s fine, I can finish the marking at the same time,” she replied.

“Actually, it’s a practical detention. A young third-year lad needs to make another batch of Shrinking Solution.”

“That’s OK. I’ve still got all the ingredients out from earlier today, so there’ll be no need to obtain the Headmaster’s permission for another Shrivelfig,” Contessa responded with feigned irritation. “What’s the student’s name?”

“Robert Selwyn,” Horace said darkly.

A memory sparked in the recesses of Contessa’s mind. “Selwyn. I know that name.”

“As well you might – he’s the son of a Death Eater,” Horace said, unable to hide his distaste.

“A Slytherin?”

“No – he’s in Gryffindor.”

Contessa was astounded. “A Death Eater’s son was sorted into Gryffindor?” she asked disbelievingly. “Poor kid. He didn’t have much luck, did he?”

Horace neglected to reply, standing and gesturing to the rolls of parchment which he had previously dropped onto the desk. “Sixth years’ homework on Amortentia; should be interesting for you,” he said with a little wink. “There’s nothing like a bit of teenage angst to pass the time, eh?”

Contessa smiled in return, but groaned inwardly. The last thing she needed was to be thinking about Love Potion at the moment; she was confused enough already.

“No problem, Horace. See you tomorrow morning.”

“Thanks, Tess. Make sure Selwyn’s potion cuts the mustard. I can’t have him slacking all the time.”

Contessa nodded as Horace waddled out of the room, no doubt looking forward to putting his feet up and tucking in to some crystallised pineapple.

At eight o’clock that evening, there was a knock at the door of the Potions Office. A nervous-looking thirteen year old boy walked into the room.

Robert Selwyn was sandy-haired and pale-skinned, with large chocolate-brown eyes. He looked sheepishly at Contessa as he stood in front of her desk.

“Hello, Madam Marchbanks.” His voice was barely audible and Contessa noticed he was shaking slightly.

“Good evening, Robert,” Contessa said kindly. “I believe you’ll be making Shrinking Solution tonight?”

“Yup,” he said, looking furtively around the office for the cauldron he would be using.

“Oh, not in here,” Contessa said. “We’ll be using the Potions classroom tonight – everything is waiting for you in there.”

“OK,” Robert said, and he turned to leave.

Contessa followed him out of the office and down the corridor, observing the boy’s hunched shoulders and quiet footsteps. He seemed to be doing everything possible not to be noticed.

Once inside the classroom, Contessa showed Robert the caterpillars, daisies, leech juice and rat’s spleen he would be using in his potion, and he set about skinning his Shrivelfig with impressive efficiency.

Contessa chalked up the instructions on the blackboard and settled down to mark the remaining Amortentia essays.

After about half an hour of working in silence, Contessa finished her marking. She got up and wandered over to the cauldron to have a peek at the contents. The liquid was bright, acid green – perfect for this stage of its preparation.

“Very good, Robert. You’re doing well,” she said encouragingly.

The boy blushed and looked away. He set about slicing his caterpillars, ready for the next step.

“I’m just going back to the office to get some more books – I’ll be back in a minute,” Contessa told him, feeling she could trust the boy on his own in the classroom without any problems.

Contessa went to her quarters and picked up the books she had borrowed from Severus’s collection at Spinner’s End. She had already perused the first Potions book and was looking forward to starting the second volume.

Returning to the classroom, all was quiet and Robert was progressing well with the potion. Contessa wondered why he’d struggled so much during the lesson; he hadn’t needed to ask her for any help.

Sitting back down at the teacher’s podium, Contessa rested the book on the lectern and ran her fingers over its black leather cover. It was almost identical to the other Potions book she had borrowed, except she realised with a start that the book appeared to have no title.

Tentatively opening the pages, Contessa read down the table of contents. The book seemed to be a selection of research papers from prominent witches and wizards, most notably the former Hogwarts Headmistress, Dilys Derwent. Contessa’s eyes scanned the titles of the articles and noticed a chapter titled ‘Bottling Vim and Vigour’ by Mungo Bonham, the founder of St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries.

Contessa had no idea that Severus had any interest in magical medicine. She leafed through the pages, relishing the smell of old parchment at her fingertips. Spinner’s End had held the same aroma – that of an archaic library stacked full of wisdom and knowledge. Excitement blossomed as Contessa dived into Mungo Bonham’s article, almost forgetting about the student working opposite her, behind the bubbling cauldron.

Some time later, Contessa jumped at the clink of a glass phial being placed down on the front desk. She looked up to see Robert Selwyn presenting his Shrinking Solution for inspection.

“Gosh, that was quick,” Contessa said hurriedly, not realising how engrossed she had been in the book she was reading.

She held the vial up against the candlelight, catching its green hue and watery viscosity. It was near-perfect.

“Let’s test it out, then,” she said, producing a red apple from inside her robes.

Contessa placed the apple in Robert’s outstretched hand and squeezed a few drops of the potion into the nook of the apple stalk. With a tiny pop, the apple vanished, and in its place, in the palm of the boy’s hand, was a dark brown apple seed.

“Excellent!” Contessa exclaimed as she took the seed in her fingers and turned it over in her hands.

Robert beamed back at her with pride.

“How did you manage to produce such a good Shrinking Solution without any help from me, and yet completely fail to make a useable potion earlier today?” she asked with a flicker of suspicion.

The boy shrugged. “Dunno, Madam Marchbanks.”

“What stopped you during the Potions class?”

Robert hunched his shoulders again, fidgeting under her inquisition. “The others… They kept tripping me up, switching my ingredients behind my back, saying things to distract me.”

Contessa’s stomach flipped at the implication, and she saw a look of pained embarrassment flickering across the young boy’s face.

“Who taunted you, Robert?”

“Dunno. Most of the class.”

Contessa paused for a moment, not fully comprehending. “But why?”

“’Cos of my dad,” Robert answered sullenly.

“You’re being bullied because of your father?”

The boy didn’t reply. He looked at the floor, shuffling his feet on the cold stone surface.

“Was it the Gryffindors who messed with your potion?”

Robert looked up again. “Nah, they just thump me in the arm when I’m stirring the potion, or stick their feet out when I’m walking past them.”

“Who then?”

“The Slytherins, Madam Marchbanks.”

Contessa was nonplussed. “Why would the Slytherins pick on you? They’d be more likely to support you, wouldn’t they? What with your dad being a Death Eater…”

“No. They hate me too. Because of my mum.”

“Your mother? Why, what did she do?”

“She left Dad two years ago when You Know Who came back. She took me with her, but she’s in hiding now. I was sent to Hogwarts because it’s safer here. Dad disowned me; he doesn’t want to know me. There’s nowhere left for me to go.”

Contessa stood in stunned silence. The young boy was essentially parentless, renounced by his own House of Gryffindor because his father was a Death Eater and hated by Slytherins because his father had disowned him. Contessa reflected that Potions classes would be his worst nightmare – being in the same room as both Slytherins and Gryffindors.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Robert.”

“Thanks,” the boy said self-consciously.

Contessa’s heart ached in response. “You’ve done brilliantly here tonight. You are obviously a gifted potion-maker.”

Robert returned her gaze with a trace of a smile.

“Perhaps you’ll do better in the next lesson,” she said hopefully, wishing there was something more she could do for him.

“Yes, Miss,” he said automatically.

Contessa’s sadness returned. She knew how difficult it was going to be for the boy. “You can go now.”

Robert left the room, and Contessa slumped into the teacher’s chair. She felt torn, wanting to intervene, but not knowing how.

She wanted to help; she felt she had to do something.

With a flash of inspiration, Contessa realised she had stumbled upon the missing piece of the puzzle – the thing Dumbledore had promised she would find.

The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 4]

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