Chapter Three: Classification
"Something troubles you?" Blaise Zabini enquired of his lover as she entered the parlor just off the back of the taproom of the Three Broomsticks.
"Many things, as it happens," the proprietress answered, settling into a chair at the table in front of the fire.
Blaise moved to stand behind Rosmerta and began massaging her temples, something that had yet failed to relax his paramour's tongue. "Start with the worst of it."
"As in, 'it depends on one's'?"
"I am always most interested in yours, you know. What's troubling you?"
"Agnes Blake's husband has been found."
"Forgive me, but isn't she a widow?"
Blaise took a seat across from Rosmerta and examined her face carefully. As always, her expression was one of bemused interest, and it betrayed nothing to even her most intimate of observers.
"See anything you like?"
How long did she have to practice that trick before she perfected it? the man wondered, attempting a bit of misdirection of his own. "How old are you, really?"
The flicker of irritated amusement passed almost too quickly through Rosmerta's eyes for Blaise to catch, but the lady did not deign to answer him.
Her lack of response made Blaise feel foolish . . . and kindled the fury lurking just under his own pleasant demeanor.
"If it's a young witch you're after, you need only wait a few more weeks for the Assembly, pet."
"You know how I hate that sobriquet!"
Noting how her lover's fists were white-knuckled and trembling, the publican responded, "Yes, I do."
"Where was Mr. Blake found?"
Good boy. Let's see how long you can keep your composure, today. "The Quibbler reports that the petrified form of Ambrose Blake was found in an unassigned tomb in the Hall of Monuments early last week. The Ministry has released no other details, but dear Balthazar invited Agnes to St. Mungo's to discuss what was to be done with her husband."
Balthazar Zabini, the older brother of Zoroastrid's late husband, Giancarlo, was the head of the Department of Posthumous Affairs, a position to which he had been demoted thanks to the efforts of Alastor Moody during Lord Voldemort's first rise to power.
The Auror had heard Zabini's name once too often in his questioning of the Death Eaters that he had sent to Azkaban.
While nothing substantive had ever been proven against the former junior member of the Wizangamot, the shadow of scandal against Balthazar's name had been enough to damn him, at least in part. It said something about the sterling societal position of his family--which had less to do with its age and more to do with its gold--that the wizard had managed to remain in government at all, and it had come as a surprise to some that he had secured himself a position on the Hogwarts' Board of Governors without exercising his connections.
For Balthazar's disgrace, and the subsequent loss of prestige it had wrought, had yet to be forgiven by his family.
Discretion was the cardinal rule of House Zabini.
"Did you say that they had found Mr. Blake's 'form'?"
"I did. His petrification is not . . . usual, and does not seem to be reversible. Apparently, he shows no sign of being either alive or dead. He is simply frozen. Agnes is in great despair."
"Is he . . . as he was before he disappeared?"
"Yes, Ambrose is a monument to his fifty-fourth year. . . . What I am interested to discover is how he came to be in an unassigned tomb. You know from your studies, don't you, that sepulchers are never created without a properly prepared corpse--"
"Of course I do--"
"So who would have had the skill or the power to bewitch Ambrose and break the enchantments guarding the Hall of Monuments to hide him there?"
Somewhat churlishly, Blaise asked, "Would you like me to contact Uncle Balthazar and ask him what he knows?"
"That would be kind of you."
Blaise exhaled sarcastically. "Perfectly polite--you don't like me very much, do you?"
"Ridiculous boy--I adore you."
"Why must you slight me so, lately?"
"Have I hurt your feelings, young one? It was you who made a point of asking me my age. Did not Tagliaferro ever tutor you in the things one ought never ask a lady?"
The wizard shuddered, shutting out the image of his old tutor having anything remotely at all to do with a woman--or, for that matter, a man--and considered the witch before him.
It was not the issue of Rosmerta's years that made her so intriguing; it was the fact that, though she looked like a mature Dresden figurine--all sun-kissed hair and stormy blue eyes and plump lush curves--she had a well of violence boiling black and red and waiting just under the alabaster perfection of her skin that excited Blaise by virtue of its very familiarity.
But instead of telling his lover this, he said, "I think that you scare me."
Rosmerta repaid Blaise's confession by smothering him in unkind peals of laughter in which the wizard could almost feel the stings of angry bees as if caught between their own nectar and his skin.
"And so I should."
When he could breathe again, the young man made as hasty an exit as etiquette and his pride would allow, repeating the second-most important rule of his House to himself as a balm: A Zabini remembers everything, forever.
A short while later, Alastor Moody entered the room without knocking. "I saw the boy leave, Rosmerta. You shouldn't tease him."
"Why not? I enjoy it."
Moody's magical eye rolled around to peer sharply at the being before him. "Remind me again why I don't kill you?"
"Because you lack the requisite imagination."
The Auror had no response to that other than, "Do you have the text I'm looking for, you old bloodsucker?"
"Careful, Alastor. Such familiarity might end in your further disfigurement."
Moody had never had much luck talking to women, and he was not about to reminisce about lost battles with this one; he had seen Rosmerta in fighting form--just after it was too late. "I apologize, Madame Rosmerta."
"Your ability to survive is legend. . . . Tell me, is it true that you've seen your death?"
"Would I tease you if it weren't?"
"I think you might."
"Now that we've dispensed with the pleasantries, may I offer you a drink?"
In response, the grizzled old man removed his ubiquitous flask and toasted his hostess before taking a deep swig from it.
"How delectably stubborn you are, Moody. I've a rule against poisoning guests."
"That may be, but I'll not provide you with a ready exception to your policy. Now, where is my book?"
Rosmerta gestured at the little table above which a concrescence of dust motes was swirling into the form of a heavy dark tome. "The Grimoire Nigromantia, third copy."
"You have all three copies?"
"No, only the first and third."
Moody decided not to touch upon the subject of the whereabouts of the second copy. "Leaving a book like this laying about--your security leaves much to be desired!"
Without a trace of irritation in her voice, the proprietress replied, "As does your favorite Auror."
"You did volunteer to keep an eye on him."
"True, but the task becomes increasingly annoying. That one needs killing."
"There are more than he that do, Madame Rosmerta. Give it time."
"It's a joy to find ourselves in accord, Master Moody."
"--can't you see sense, Ree. This is a date. Of course you should show a little--"
Harry, standing in front of a large mirror hiding her head in her hands, spun to face Hermione. "A little skin," she interrupted, gesturing at her bosom. "You call this a little?"
The haruspex looked at her friend in mock horror. "'Why Harry Potter, I didn't know that you had breasts'," she said, indicating her head in the direction of the slight swell of décolleté that rose over the bodice of the other witch's dress. "'I couldn't see past the great, hulking Death Eater you were with to see them'!"
"Stop that, Hermione!"
"Well, really, Ree, that's what's actually bothering you, isn't it?"
How can she say that? "How can you say that? I'm not ashamed of Severus!"
"But you are worried about what other people might say about him because of you, aren't you?"
"Sod other people!" Harry spat, throwing herself onto the sofa across from the bed. "I just don't want . . . I just--oh, hell! . . . This is going to be a circus."
Hermione sat next to Harry and gave her thigh a reassuring pat-a-pat-pat-pat and a squeeze. "Look, Ree, if you didn't go to such lengths to avoid people, they might learn to respect your privacy. You can't hide up here forever."
"I'm not hiding--am I?"
I'll just ignore that, shall I? "Besides, do you really think that people are going to force themselves on you while you're being escorted by Severus Snape? He'd hex the first person who asked for your autograph."
"Or he'd glare at them to death," Harry said, smiling.
"That's the spirit. Now stand up and take a proper look at yourself."
"Oh, all right."
Harry's dress, despite being cut low, managed a demure drape of green silk that rode gently over the witch's curves, save where it gathered into an embroidered lace bodice of darker green. Madam Malkin's exquisite needlework graced the ends of the long sleeves, as well, in cuffs that just passed Harry's wrists.
Hermione thought that the lacework made Ree's fingers look mysterious. Oh I am a romantic fool, she thought harshly of herself, as she pushed aside her feelings of loneliness and said, "You look lovely."
"Do you think that Severus will like me this way?"
Brightening, Hermione giggled. "Well, perhaps not enough to molest you in a corridor."
"Oh, gods! Does everybody know?"
Hermione firmly put the society column of the afternoon edition of The Daily Prophet out of her mind. "Ree, the people who care about you have known for quite some time. No one else's opinion matters."
Right. We'll see how that works out, Harry thought but did not say for fear of appearing ungrateful. "Thanks, Mione--for the dress--and, well, everything."
"You're welcome. Now come sit down so that I can charm your braid into something suitably elegant to this occasion."
"But it's a Tuesday. How is it possible that you don't have a table on a Tuesday?" Rita Skeeter, who was rather used to being seated immediately in this particular establishment, demanded of the maître d' of the Gryphon's Foote. Sheldon and Rupert are coming tonight. I have to take them out and show them how well I've done for myself. "I have family coming, Hunter. You simply must have a table!"
A striking young man who was without a doubt one of the Weasley boys stepped out of the bar and over to where Rita was arguing.
"My name is Bill Weasley, Ma'am. Is there something I might do for you?"
You could give me an interview, the witch thought without hesitation, but did not say because she was busy twisting her face into an expression of a damsel-in-distress. "Oh, Mr. Weasley, your reputation is known to me. You've made quite a career for yourself."
"Thank you, Mrs.?"
"Skeeter. Rita Skeeter. I had no idea you'd returned from foreign parts," she told him in the manner of someone who felt that it was the other party's fault.
"I'm on a bit of a vacation, you see, and waiting for . . . a friend."
The witch's eyes lit up with a greedy light. A 'friend', is it? A scoop, more like! "And are you dining here," she asked with a malicious glare for the maître d', "in spite of the lack of tables?"
"As a matter of fact, Fleur is running a bit late, so I have some time to catch up on the latest gos--news--if you'd care to join me?"
Fleur, Rita thought. Fleur . . . . "Fleur Delacour? That is to say, won't your young lady mind the intrusion?"
About a paycheck's worth. Yes, thank you--she'll mind it terribly. "No, she won't mind it at all. My girlfriend frequently adds bits from your column to her owls so that I don't feel completely cut off from the London scene." Gods, I sound like an utter prat. "I know she'll be delighted to meet you, and, after we've had our drinks, you're welcome to keep our table for your party."
His girlfriend. His table. "Yes! I mean, that's very generous of you, Mr. Weasley--Bill. I'd love to join you."
Mission accomplished, the curse-breaker thought as he and the Skeeter woman were led to a table situated far from the entrance. Someone owes me a favor.
But what were friends for? Bill had not been at the restaurant ten minutes when a rather fetching waitress had whispered to him that the infamous Severus Snape had reserved the Terrace for the evening. And who else would that wizard be escorting but Ree Potter?
Charlie wrote Bill letters, too.
Narcissa Malfoy efficiently unfurled the scroll she'd just received as part of her duties as the co-mistress of ceremonies for the Courtship Committee of the Assembly--and promptly threw it across the room.
"I will kill him!"
"Whatever is the matter, Cissa?" Zoroastrid Zabini, the witch's . . . friend and co-mistress asked calmly.
"Snape! That is his registration for the rituals!"
"And why," Zoroastrid, bending to pick up the discarded scroll asked, "should that discompose you?" She perused the parchment quickly. "Ah."
Although Snape had not declared himself as interested in any particular person, the nature of his enrollment in the festival--all private rites to be conducted in the presence of family and officials only--left little doubt of the wizard's desire not to mingle with the general body of potential partners.
"He has someone in mind."
"Ree Potter, then. Again, why are you bothered, my love? Surely you did not expect Draco to submit a Claim for her?"
"Just because your son has failed to tempt the girl does not mean that Draco will not succeed there. He's within his rights to court her."
"Barely. Ree Potter is only a distant relation of yours by virtue of being your cousin's godchild, a tenuous connection to be indulged for the sake of affection, but nothing more. And as I recall, your son loves nothing at present."
Narcissa grabbed her lover's arm only to find Tagliaferro's on her shoulder. She did not flinch.
Without looking at her servant, Zoroastrid tilted her head in a gesture of dismissal. The vampire, noted for his loyalty, but not his obedience, merely returned to his chair in the recess of the room.
"I don't care if he wants her or not. Draco will do as he's told. . . . I want Potter in my House."
"In your House?" snapped the other witch, jerking her arm free with a lack of her customary grace.
Instantly, Narcissa's face composed itself into the beguiling expression that she used to subdue Zoroastrid's rare shows of temper. "Darling . . . darling, surely you understand how much my family has suffered since Lucius' . . . death. I want Draco to be proud of his name again, and to take the place that is rightfully his."
"And where might that be?"
Narcissa laughed, a beautiful, brittle sound. "Why, by his wife's side, working toward the betterment of our society."
"Just because you would have Draco win her, does not mean that Ree would wish it."
"True, but he should have his opportunity to try for her," Narcissa breathed into Zoroastrid's mouth. "The Malfoy wiles are well known to many."
I know. Withdrawing a bit from the other witch, Zoroastrid said, "Then let us hope that Miss Potter chooses to participate in the rites."
If she wants Severus, Narcissa thought, she'll have to.
It was nearing seven o'clock, and Sirius and Remus were sitting on their sofa and poring over Whistlespit's Guide to Courtship Rites in the Moderne Age. They also had taken out the Potter genealogical chart and myriad other documents.
"I can't believe he's going about it in this blasted formal way, Remus."
"When has Severus taken a casual approach to anything, love?"
"Point. But Harry won't care about courtship rituals and ceremonial declarations. It's not as though she has any doubts about her feelings."
"Sirius, the festival 'games' were designed to prove to worried parents that their children were well-matched. I think Severus is just trying to do what he can to show people that he's not taking advantage of Ree."
"Again, I'm not certain that Harry will appreciate that fact, however noble of Severus it is to try and spare her from the outcry that their marriage will cause."
"What's so funny?"
"We are. We're idiots."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, here we are sorting through this dusty book hoping not to find that any other House has a right to submit a Claim of Courtship for Ree when we don't even know if she'll want to participate in the rites. And, what's more," Remus continued, holding up a hand to prevent interruption, "we've already got her married to Severus!"
"Why does that make us idiots?"
"He hasn't even asked her, yet."
"I should hope not--they're only just going on their first real date!"
"That is why all of this," Remus said, indicating the general disorder, "is ridiculous."
"I shouldn't worry about it. There's no suspense in this scenario."
"Still . . . ."
"A girl likes to be asked."
"Really?" Sirius asked, shoving Whistlespit to the floor and straddling Remus' thighs.
"Geroff! I'm working here!"
"So am I lover. So am I."
The two men were naked before the clock finished chiming seven o'clock.
"I insist that you remove those dreadful garments, or I will summon Peeves."
The Potions master, wearing his standard black dress robes over his evening attire, spun angrily toward the hovering apparition. "Baron, if you insist on plaguing me with that poltergeist, I'll see to it that--"
A knock on the door surprised him. His students rarely bothered him in the evenings unless they had made an appointment. Opening the door, he was further disturbed to find Argyle Slizer standing face to face with him. It had irritated him a great deal when the boy had grown to his height.
"What is it, Mr. Slizer?"
"Good evening, Professor Snape. I have the clothing you requested," the young man said, handing over a box.
Summoning his every ounce of will, Severus refused to snap. "And what clothing might that be?"
"Didn't you send me a note asking if you might borrow a formal winter dress robe in our house colors?"
Behind him, something crashed to the floor of his workroom. Damn that meddling spectre! "Indeed I did, Mr. Slizer. I shall return the robes to you in good order upon the morrow. Good evening."
Snape shut the door in the boy's face before Slizer could respond and strode toward his bedroom. I will exorcize both of them--after I change.
Examining himself in the mirror, Severus was rather relieved by the effect the stylish robes had on his finely tailored, though rather plain, black suit.
I approach the idea of dashing, at least. . . . Well, the clothes do, at any rate. "It will have to do."
"Yes, yes, Professor Snappy, it will! You is going to be late if you don't leave soon!"
"Dobby! I thought I told you that I never wanted to see you in my quarters again!" Severus yelled, examining his hair and wondering if anything else might be done with it.
The constant stream of irritants to which he had been subjected all afternoon was beginning to seem suspicious.
The house elf disappeared immediately--with about two inches of hair from the back of the Potions master's head, which added a slight wave to his coiffure.
"Professor Dumbledore said for Dobby to help. You looks good now. All nice for Harry Potter!"
Albus. I should have known, thought Severus as he left his quarters. I wonder if you ever tempted Minerva to reverse her Zuccarum Innocuous spell?
Arriving at Harry's door, Severus suddenly felt nervous about his impending outing, and mentally thanked the headmaster for being such a good friend as he tried to regain his composure.
"You're welcome, dear boy," Albus murmured, looking up from the reports he was reading as if he could see the other wizard before him. It relieved him a bit to know that he was not without all Sight, but he did not dwell on the feeling. There was much work to be done before the next meeting of the Order.
It was going to be a long night.
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