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The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 3]

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Author's note:

As my health improves, the chapters increase in length! So I'll continue to update fortnightly for a while.
Thanks for your patience and I greatly appreciate your reviews - they help me to keep focused when the going gets tough.
I look forward to hearing from you.




Chapter Thirty-Nine

Masquerade


Blistering winds arrived in November, stripping trees of their remaining leaves. Morning frosts turned the landscape icy-white, withering perennial plants holding on to the last gasps of temperate weather.

Inside Hogwarts the atmosphere was quieter and, for once, the students were held in check. Severus felt the Halloween feast had been a useful exercise; it seemed to pacify some of the more disruptive students, allowing the professors to focus on teaching.

However, after a couple of weeks of relative calm, events outside the castle started to impact upon the school.

It was clear to anyone reading the Daily Prophet that the Dark Lord had gained control of the newspaper some months ago. In the intervening time The Quibbler had stepped up to the mark, essentially replacing the Prophet as the source of real news. The editor of the magazine continued to print ludicrous articles about Crumple-Horned Snorkacks and such like, in an attempt to conceal sedition against the Dark Lord’s regime.

Luna Lovegood had become something of a minor celebrity amongst the students, who were heralding her father as a valiant crusader for the truth. Such was Miss Lovegood’s burgeoning popularity that Contessa had to place a quiet word in the girl’s ear, forewarning her to stay out of trouble.

Severus needed Miss Lovegood to be whiter-than-white for her to remain at the school and, so far, the editor’s daughter had applied some of her Ravenclaw intelligence and kept a low profile.

Early one Tuesday morning, Alecto Carrow discovered Seamus Finnigan and Ernie Macmillan wandering the corridors of Hogwarts, affixing posters bearing the Headmaster’s face on as many walls as possible with Permanent Sticking Charms. The posters showed Severus’s pale, thin face pointing sternly at the reader with a customary scowl, aside the slogan, ‘Snape wants YOU to read The Quibbler’.

Such was Severus’s fury with the boys that he penalised the whole school for the offence. All Houses were confined to quarters until morning lessons began, forcing the students to miss their breakfast altogether. Severus hoped the strong message would make everybody think twice about supporting the activities of the DA.

Later that evening, Severus retired to his quarters, showered and changed into a fresh black shirt and trousers. He caught his reflection in the large dressing table mirror as he buttoned up his shirt. The Tiger’s Eye ring around his neck glinted in the candlelight.

Severus had gone back to wearing the ring on its chain ever since the Halloween feast. He decided to lift the Disillusionment Charm in an attempt to minimise the undue influence of additional charms, and also prevent him from losing the ring.

During the feast, when Contessa accidentally triggered a connection between the two rings, Severus suspected he had briefly sensed her thoughts. He had chosen not to tell Contessa, deciding it would be much better to have her believe his power of intellectual deduction led him to choose a stalked apple.

Contessa arrived in his quarters exactly on time at eight o’clock, wearing a knitted, black cardigan and a long flowing skirt adorned with a subtly shimmering pattern of bronze and gold autumn leaves. She too had started to make more of an effort for their shared evenings, and he was an appreciative beneficiary.

Severus sat down facing the doorway, and Contessa took her usual seat opposite him, on the sofa across the coffee table. The fire blazed merrily as Severus served her a cup of aromatic coffee, from the tray provided by the house-elf. Contessa slid the plate of biscuits over the table and selected a garibaldi.

“I might take a stash of these in a napkin tonight,” Contessa said wryly, “just in case you decide to pull another stunt like the one this morning.”

Severus watched her closely, expecting criticism.

“I was starving all morning, you know,” she continued. “Horace was really annoyed with me; I’m hopeless if I haven’t been fed.”

Severus caught his breath. “The teaching staff didn’t get any breakfast either?” he asked.

Contessa looked at him, surprised. “You didn’t know?”

Severus shook his head, feeling a slight flush rising in his cheeks.

“I thought it was a bit harsh, even by your standards,” Contessa said, a trace of a smile gracing her lips. “Maybe next time you’ll ensure the staff are provided for and don’t spend the entire morning snapping at students and handing out extra homework.”

A smirk curled Severus’s mouth, and he paused before replying. “For a moment there, I thought you were trying to dissuade me.”

She chuckled and Severus relaxed, held rapt in her bluish, slate-like gaze.

“It certainly worked,” Contessa said. “Some of the students are ready to turn in the culprits, next time something happens.”

“So, the punishment was effective, then.”

“It was,” Contessa replied. “Though I’m not sure I want my behaviour to emulate a certain Potions Master again.”

Severus smiled as he watched Contessa fiddling with the laces on her ankle boots, eventually removing them and placing her slender feet on the cushioned sofa.

“Filch has been dusting off his collection of chains and shackles today,” Contessa said darkly. “The man is incorrigible; he’s getting all excited at the prospect of using his thumbscrews again.”

“I might be tempted, next time there’s a revolt,” Severus replied.

Contessa frowned at him. “I hope you don’t plan to use them on the staff as well.”

“Only the ones who misbehave and talk back to the Headmaster,” Severus replied, unable to hide a grin.

“I’ll bear that in mind,” Contessa replied, one eyebrow raised.

Severus felt a ripple of amusement at her feigned seriousness. He took a deep, anticipatory breath. “I’m glad to see you’ve finally learned your place.”

Contessa turned with mock annoyance, reached for a teaspoon and threw it across the table, intending to hit him on the shoulder. Severus ducked out of the way. His eyes glittered as she grinned back at him, laughing.

The moment was broken by a loud gong chime; the Doorbell Charm on the Headmaster’s office had been activated. Contessa looked completely bewildered by the sound.

Severus sobered instantly and leapt to his feet.

“Who is it?” Contessa asked.

“One of the Carrows,” Severus replied. “We don’t have much time.”

“The Carrows? Why would they –”

“They’ve started to drop in at all hours, so I’ve taken precautions. We have about twenty seconds to look convincing.”

Contessa looked at Severus, frozen with horror.

He bent over and lifted her legs off the sofa, ushering her to one side so he could sit down next to her. Severus turned his back to the door. “You need to look more alluring,” he said urgently.

“Excuse me?”

“Here,” he said, extracting his wand and pointing it at her buttoned-up cardigan.

Contessa flinched as he Transfigured the garment into a black silk blouse. She looked down at her new clothing, stunned.

“Undo the first few buttons,” Severus instructed her, thinking it would be prudent to unbutton the blouse by magic, but not wanting to risk provoking her. “Quickly!” he pressed, stowing his wand away.

Looking into her frightened eyes, Severus heard the footsteps of one of the Carrows ascending the stairs to his quarters.

“My apologies,” Severus said, hoping fervently that Contessa was ready for what was about to happen.

He slipped his right hand around her waist and pulled her closer. Ignoring her gasp, he slid his left hand into the V of her blouse, pushing the silk aside to expose her creamy-white collarbone and a black bra-strap. Severus inclined his head towards Contessa’s neck and felt her body tense.

His lips met the soft warmth of her skin and he inhaled the lingering aroma of her perfume.

Severus’s heart thumped loudly as the uninvited guest burst through the door.

“Snape! Yeh’ve got to see this!” Amycus Carrow wheezed. “That ridiculous little man has done it again!” The wizard paused when he caught sight of the scene unfolding on the sofa.

Severus sighed, causing Contessa to shiver at the sensation of hot breath on her shoulder. He removed his lips from her collarbone and turned to cast Amycus a look of tested patience. Severus’s right hand held Contessa firmly as she squirmed beside him.

“Oh,” the Death Eater managed, rolling the copy of The Quibbler in his hands and gently tapping the paper cylinder with his fingertips. “Sorry to disturb yeh when yeh’re…” The man halted, mouth gaping open at the sight of Severus and Contessa canoodling on the settee. “Busy,” he finished.

“Perhaps next time you could knock,” Severus said testily into the silence.

“Err. Yeah, I s’pose so.”

When Severus turned back to face Contessa, she had pulled her blouse over her exposed shoulder and was starting to fumble with the buttons. He couldn’t allow her to re-assert herself in front of Amycus Carrow; she was meant to be at Severus’s beck and call.

“Who told you to cover up?” Severus said in a low, sneering voice.

Contessa recoiled and looked back at him with wide, angry eyes.

Severus eyeballed her for a long moment, mentally crossing his fingers. She had to realise she must play along with the masquerade.

Eventually she capitulated to the request, dropping the silky blouse to reveal a length of collarbone. Her jaw was set firmly as she stared back at him with a hint of defiance.

Severus blinked and let out his breath. “What do you want, Amycus?” he said, without turning around to face the Death Eater. Instead, Severus placed his fingertips on Contessa’s jaw and ran them slowly past her ear and down her neck. She shuddered, but did not pull away.

“Yeh’ve got to see this copy of tomorrow’s Quibbler, Snape,” Amycus drawled. “This time Lovegood’s gorn too far. He’s run another article on Potter, claimin’ he’s still alive and urgin’ people to support the boy.”

Severus’s hand dropped from Contessa’s shoulder and he turned around to reach out for the magazine in the Death Eater’s hands.

“Give it to me,” Severus instructed him.

He perused the feature briefly, realising the editor of The Quibbler had no understanding of the difficulties his daughter would face if he persisted in printing the truth.

“It’s high time his kid was expelled from Hogwarts – she’s a rallying point for them mutineers. Every day she spends under this roof undermines yeh as Headmaster,” Amycus said firmly.

“The girl has done nothing wrong and will not be punished for the misdemeanours of her father. She is better off here, where we can keep an eye on her,” Severus answered evenly.

Contessa shifted against his arm and he turned to see a look of discomfort on her face and a glint of rebellion in her eyes.

“You are an impatient little tease at times, Marchbanks,” he whispered at a level audible enough for Amycus to hear.

Severus pulled her blouse back over her shoulder and removed his hand from her waist. None too gently, he pushed her upwards off the sofa, stopping short of tapping her behind.

“Go to my personal chambers and warm the bed for me,” he told her smoothly. “I’ll deal with you later.”

Contessa shot him a contemptuous look. Severus maintained steely eye contact until she turned to leave.

“Yes, Headmaster,” she said through gritted teeth.

One hand clenched in a fist at Contessa’s side as she walked away and opened the door into his bedroom.

The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 3]

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