Chapter Six: Progress Across the Board
A month later Ron was called to McGonagall's office. "I'm not going to the tournament," she informed him. "I have been called away on family business."
He must have shown his dismay, as she continued. "Professor Snape is not always the most comfortable traveling companion, but you would have had to share a room with him anyway. You'll both be busy with chess most of the time, and likely won't see each other that much. Do show some responsibility and stay out of trouble," she said crisply.
"It would be extremely embarrassing to Gryffindor, and to me, if you fail to represent us, and Hogwarts, properly. For one thing, I'd never hear the end of it at staff teas," she said with a brisk smile. "I know you haven't been on your own very much. Don't let it go to your head."
"Wait a minute," Ron said. "What about that note that Malfoy's father sent me?"
"I've given it to Professor Snape. He knows what Lord Malfoy is capable of rather better than anyone else, I daresay." Her smile faded for a moment. "But then, only a Slytherin could possibly keep track of all those family histories."
Ron was puzzled. From what he'd seen, Snape bent over backwards to keep any Malfoy happy. Then he remembered how angry the Potions Master had been about Quirrell's ghost. He couldn't figure it out.
"You'll be gone for a week," McGonagall said. "Here's a reading list and some essays you can work on when you don't have games. I suspect you're going to get other lists for the rest of your classes. You have one more weekend before you leave. I suggest you make use of it to complete as much as possible before you go."
"Yes, Professor." Of course he was disappointed that the Transfiguration Professor wasn't going. Then he began to see some of the advantages. If Snape's schedule kept him busy, he would be on his own. That didn't happen very often, either at home or at Hogwarts.
He talked with Harry and Hermione about it that evening.
"Professor McGonagall's right," Granger said. "If you get in trouble and mess up Snape's schedule, you know what the rest of the year in Potions class is going to be like."
Potter looked glum. "It's going to be awfully quiet around here while you're gone."
"Well, I'm going to miss all of you, too. It's going to be strange to be anywhere without the family or you two." Ron's stomach felt funny. Probably just nerves, or terror at the prospect of being under Snape's thumb for a whole week. He tried not to think that the three of them might be split up forever in just a few years.
He started one of the assignments on the various lists he'd gathered so far, but kept sending owls home or looking in one of McGonagall's chess books instead of actually getting anything done.
At last the day dawned. His trunk was packed with enough clothes for the week, even though he'd had to borrow some of them from Fred or George. There weren't going to be any house-elves eager to launder shirts mid-week to hide the fact he didn't have a closetful of them. At least it wasn't as bad for him as it was for Ginny; nobody cared what boys wore, but if she had to wear the same dress under her robes more than once a week, all her friends noticed at once. If I win any prize money, it's all going to her, he suddenly decided.
He went to Dumbledore's office with his luggage floating behind him, since they were going to use the Headmaster's fireplace. It was hooked into a much larger network than most of the other fireplaces, or so he'd been told. Professor Snape was already there, with a trunk that looked older than he was.
The Headmaster congratulated both of them. "I know the two of you will make Hogwarts proud. And Severus, try to find some time just to enjoy yourself."
The Potions Master shrugged dourly. "That will depend on a number of things," he said, and glanced at Ron.
Ron vowed to stay out of trouble. He knew he wouldn't get any sympathy from anybody this time if he did. For one thing, it would probably be all his fault, and not spread out among the three of them. "I'll do my best," he said.
"I know you will, boy," said Dumbledore. "Now show them all what Hogwarts has taught you both!"
With that they entered the fireplace, Professor Snape first. Ron had little trouble with the Floo network (unlike Harry, who had a real gift for getting lost even after that first horrible time) except that the powder always made him sneeze.
They arrived in a lavish hotel lobby just behind a huge entourage who barely got out of their way in time. Ron had never seen such a beautiful room in his life. Pillars were scattered around, decorated with living vines, some of which were blooming. The floor was tiled in black and white. How do they keep it clean with so many people going through? he wondered. They must have an army of house-elves, or do it all by magic, he concluded.
The Potions Master led the way to a tall counter. "Snape from Hogwarts, party of two, two bedroom suite," he said curtly. When the clerk didn't do anything, he said something in a language Ron didn't know, one that seemed full of consonants hopelessly searching for a vowel.
The clerk found some papers for them after that. Then the man cleared his throat and said, "Chess over there," with a thick accent, as he pointed to another section of the lobby.
A couple of other men appeared and took their luggage, lifting it physically from the floor. Ron was about to protest when he saw Snape just handed each man a coin.
He followed the Potions Master to a table set up at one end of the lobby. Snape produced some papers, spoke in yet another language that Ron recognized as French, and got two thick envelopes with a couple of badges. Snape's was different than his. Probably because I'm still a student, Ron thought.
They went up to the room in silence, though Ron wanted to ask a million questions. If only McGonagall had been able to come!
Their floor was the second one, two flights of stairs up. It had a quiet corner where a couple of plush chairs were arranged next to a long hallway with lots of doors. An old man with a sparse white in pale green robes, who looked older than Dumbledore, sat in one of them and looked at some papers in his lap.
Snape broke into a genuine smile and stepped forward. Ron's jaw dropped. There was a running bet that the professor was incapable of looking pleased about anything, and here he was without a camera!
"Salaam aleikum," Snape said in a voice full of gladness. "Too many years have waited upon our meeting!"
The old man glanced up through the tiny glasses and said, "Salaam aleikum, indeed. How may I serve you?"
Snape bowed, and gestured towards Ron. "I am at Hogwarts now. And this is Mr. Weasley, who speaks English only."
"Hmmm. It has been years since I spoke it myself," said the old man, who didn't have much of an accent as far as Ron could tell. "The last time I did so was when a tall skinny boy from the place fetched and carried for me when he was playing for that school." The ancient man looked amused, then glanced at Ron. "I am al-Hadoud, young man. If you are playing for Hogwarts, you must know something about the game. Have you ever heard the term 'chess rat'?"
"No, sir," Ron said, feeling drawn to the man already. It was really amazing how different the Potions Master looked just now.
"Snape here once ran my errands and brought me my tea, and in exchange I endeavored to teach him a little of what I know about chess in the short time we had together. Has it really been so many years, Severus?"
"Yes," Snape said, his head slightly bowed as if he were still the old man's servant.
"Where have they gone? The world moves so quickly these days, and I hear of so much wickedness." The frail-looking old man sighed, then frowned. "Ah, now I remember." He looked up at Snape. "I heard that you were involved in that horrible business yourself. I wish it were not so, but there it is. Is it not so that you bear a sign of loyalty to such evil?"
Snape's face settled back to its old lines as if a spell shining light on it had suddenly failed. "Yes," he said in a toneless voice.
Ron nearly burst out with But he isn't one any more! He didn't know why he cared, but it wrong for someone that the Potions Master obviously liked to think that way. Yes, Snape was a greasy, unpleasant git, but it wasn't fair to hate him for something he really wasn't any more.
And then he remembered what Harry had told him about Snape probably having something else to do here besides playing chess. Ron held his tongue, but he didn't like it.
The old man in the chair continued. "I am disappointed, Severus." His voice was soft, but his words clearly struck the Potions Master like a blow.
"I hope your displeasure does not extend to Mr. Weasley. He is free from any such taint. I do not corrupt those in my charge." A touch of the whip had crept back into Snape's voice.
"Is this true, boy?"
"He assigns us too much homework and yells at us in class," Ron said, hoping his frank speech wouldn't come back to bite him. "Of course, Draco Malfoy gets away with a lot more."
"Malfoy," al-Hadoud said with a sigh. "I am not surprised at anything he does. So you have charge of his son, eh?" he added, looking at Snape.
"I have that privilege."
"Well, that is trouble enough for any man. I shall teach this boy if he is willing. I only wish that things had not gone as they have with you, Severus."
Snape's eyes glittered. "That is a wish that many have, Emir."
"You have my leave to depart. The boy--your name is what, Weasley? I would like him to remain and begin his instruction now. That is, if he agrees."
Ron looked at Snape. "I would like to, sir, if it's all right with you."
"As you will have it," Snape said. He bowed to the old man and walked down the hallway.
Ron felt slightly panicky. Who was this old man, really? Had he just made a huge mistake?
The old man rose, though with difficulty, and said, "Now it is time for tea." Ron followed, not knowing what else to do. The emir entered a room a few doors down where a short, plump man with brown, glossy skin, dark hair stood. His outfit looked all the world like pajamas. "I am Rafi," the fellow said with a pronounced accent. "The tea will be done in just a moment, master."
"Please sit," the emir said to Ron, who complied. While Rafi laid out cups and a platter of finger food, al-Hadoud asked Ron to talk about himself.
That was never hard. Ron got over his initial fear, especially once he had a cup of tea in his hand, and chattered about the Burrows, his mum and dad, all his brothers, Ginny, and the cousins who came and went. He decided not to talk about his friends at school right now. Potter's business was his own, and 'Mione was nobody's business at all.
"Weasley...hmm. It seems I have heard that name before."
"My father plays some. His first name is Arthur."
"Ah-no, not that one. Perhaps my memory is failing after all these years," said al-Hadoud.
The emir had Rafi bring out a chess set. It was beautiful! The rooks were minarets, the knights rode on tiny camels, and the bishops wore turbans like the emir did. Both queens were veiled, but each carried a deadly-looking sword. The kings, which al-Hadoud called caliphs, wore crowns over their turbans, while the pawns were men-at-arms in Arab dress. "You have a set of your own, do you not?" al-Hadoud asked.
"Of course I do. Do you want me to go back to my room and get it?" Ron asked.
"If you would," the old man said.
That made sense. You could sometimes tell a lot about a player by how his own pieces treated him. Ron went out to the hall and tried to remember what the room number was. He knew it was only two doors away from this one, but he couldn't decide in which direction. He knocked on one, apologized when it turned out to be the wrong one, and then went to the right one. Snape opened it. Ron explained that he needed to get his own set. The Potions Master, clearly not wanting to talk much, motioned him to the left-hand bedroom. Ron was surprised that all his stuff was already in there and set out, which made it easy for him to find the case.
"Wait," Snape said. "Here is your key. Don't lose it. You may take your meals either here, with al-Hadoud, or downstairs. Sign for it with the room number, it's all been taken care of."
"Thank you, sir," Ron said cheerfully, who hadn't even thought about it. He marked down the number of both rooms in his head, since it looked really easy to get lost around here.
He knocked, entered the room, and set out his own pieces. They started jumping up and down and waving once they faced the emir. He'd never seen anything like it before.
"Yes, I recognize those pieces!" said al-Hadoud with a smile. "Who did they belong to before?"
"Grandpa Bart," Ron said.
"Is that short for Bartholomew? I think I played him quite a bit one year. I wish I could remember when...how is he these days?"
"Um, he died when I was ten," Ron said, who still missed him.
"That is a pity. I would have liked to have seen him again. How the years pass!" The emir sighed. "Then let us play in his memory."
Ron was hoping for a game. No doubt the elderly man wanted to check him out, too.
He drew black, which would give him a chance to find out how the emir liked to play. Oddly enough, the old man's strategy was closer to Quirrell's than to anyone else's. Ron was glad of that-if al-Hadoud played like Dumbledore, he might as well resign now. He hated using Filch's kind of play against it in such august company, but so far it seemed to be the kind that worked the best, at least at first.
Once the spiderweb seemed to be broken a little, Ron reverted to his normal style, which leaned on his knights. He kept his bishops in reserve to play Vinnie and Greg if he had to.
And then the emir sprang his own surprise. Ron gulped as the old man's queen made havoc among the black pieces. Then he noticed that white's back row appeared vulnere able. Yes, it would be nice to double-team that awful queen and get revenge for her slaughter, but the point of the game was to trap the king.
First one of his bishops slid into the middle of the board, and then the other. He was hoping the emir would forget about the knight that looked like it was stuck in the upper right-hand corner of the board. He had plans for it.
The old man's eyes widened a bit. Then the white queen sailed to the rescue and threatened Vinnie. Ron moved his knight, knowing it was toast, but also knew that the move required to take it out of play would open the field to his bishops.
Instead, al-Hadoud moved his king. Ron knew if he took the other fork just for the pleasure of threatening the white rook that he might as well not do anything at all.
Anything at all. His pieces towards white's back file were actually fine just the way they were. If the emir's queen took his bishop, then his knight would be there next, and in a position to set up a fork in the move after. Ron moved one of his pawns forward instead. You never knew when a pawn could come in handy, even if it never made it to the eighth square.
The emir sat up a little straighter. Then he moved his queen back down towarde sts Ron's king.
That made Ron sit up. What did al-Hadoud have in mind? He decided to ignore the situation for now and moved his bishop to clear a space for his knight.
Then al-Hadoud's queen took his rook and Ron's king was trapped. Ron tipped over his king and said, "Thank you, sir."
"You are still finding your style, I see," said the emir. "But that is quite reasonable at your age. You will be quite good in a few years."
Ron thought he was already, but knew the old man was probably right.
"Let us eat and drink again, for we have labored hard and are weary. Rafi, serve us."
"No, sir, if I'm going to be your chess rat, I should serve you now." Ron got up and fetched another tray of finger food, and had Rafi show him how to brew a fresh pot of tea. He quickly put away his pieces, then laid out the cups and little plates the way that Rafi had done before. Once the tea was poured, he sat down. He was proud at how careful he'd been, the way Mum was, and hadn't spilled a drop.
As he ate, the emir asked some more questions. "Young Snape there, is he the Potions Master at your school?"
"Yes, sir. He's supposed to be really good."
"I thought as much. It always shows in the hair and skin with alchemists. They can never leave their work long enough to get rid of the fumes they breathe in. And a teacher, of course, is likely often surprised at what comes out his students' cauldrons."
"If they don't melt," Ron said darkly. "I haven't done in mine all year, for a change, but Longbottom still ruins his about once a week."
The old man laughed. "Perhaps it is just as well that Severus must suffer for his art so. Are there young ladies at your school?"
"Of course. One of them is better than all the rest of us." He still didn't feel like saying anything about Harry or Hermione.
"That's right. I keep forgetting that English schools do not separate you as much as I would consider seemly. Severus is wise to appear the way he does, then. No doubt it helps avoid scandal, since young ladies are impressionable and not always prudent."
Ron suddenly remembered Gilderoy Lockhart and all that nonsense with the valentines. Even Hermione had gotten stupid over him. "Well, that explains why Professor Snape wears those horrible robes in class. You wouldn't believe what gets on them."
The old man snorted with laughter. "I daresay that drives your house-elves to despair."
Ron winced. Dobby had told him several times what he and the others had to do to get his own robes looking decent again. He didn't want to know how they dealt with Longbottom's gear.
"I have kept you long enough for today," al-Hadoud said. "I would like to see you here early tomorrow morning, though. We shall go down to the tourney floor and find out what changes they have made in our schedules."
"Isn't that in our packets?" Ron asked.
"Oh, yes, but there are always changes," the emir said. "It is much easier to update one board than all of our pieces of paper. Now, go and rest. You will play all the better for it tomorrow."
Ron left reluctantly, not wanting to leave this peaceful room for one that might contain an upset Professor Snape.
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