The Sugar Quill
Author: catmeat (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Alexandra Sutton and the Nighthawk's Trinket  Chapter: Chapter One
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TLM Modelling Introduction

Alexandra Sutton and the Nighthawk's Trinket

Note: This story is begins in the summer of 1994 -- before the events in Goblet of Fire and three years before the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China.

As ever, thanks to Ozma for her great beta-reading. Her vast restraint for not mocking my bizarre mistakes in English is greatly appreciated.

Chapter One

My parents showed both a reverence for tradition and a sorry lack of imagination when they chose to name my sisters, Jennifer and Rachel, and myself after various ex-members of the Sutton clan. In my case, it was my grandfather's elder brother, Alexander Sutton, who died in 1978. But don't think I'm complaining - I knew a Ravenclaw girl called Onuphria.

Alexander worked in advertising, as a journalist and later as a theatre critic, but he was serving as a Second Lieutenant in France when the Germans invaded in May 1940. When France collapsed, the British Army retreated to the port of Dunkirk for evacuation to England by means of anything that would float. Thanks to good luck and German incompetence, this desperate scheme worked. For one week, Britain was within a whisker of losing the war but instead the army was saved to fight another day.

Alexander's actions as history happened around him were hardly distinguished. Being a bloody typical Sutton, he arrived twelve hours late and found the town ruined and empty, the sky smothered by dense black smoke from an oil refinery that'd been set on fire by German bombs a week earlier. On the deserted beach, he found heaps of discarded weapons and army equipment and hundreds of abandoned vehicles. Off-shore, he could see the tops of ships that'd been sunk by bombing during the evacuation. By then, the Germans had broken past the last desperate defenders around Dunkirk and were only a few miles away.

The story of what he did next only emerged in 1952 when he and my grandfather got roaring drunk in the back bar of The Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden -- they were celebrating Grandfather's intact return from the Korean War. He told Grandfather he did the only thing possible. He found a small French fishing boat and, in his excellent French, told the two reluctant crewmen he'd give them his silver watch, his gold cigarette case and all his money if they took him to England. He also cheerfully mentioned that if they refused, he'd shoot them both and try sailing the boat himself. The happy result of taking carrot and stick tactics to the extreme was that ten hours later, he was stepping onto the quayside at Dover. His only regret was abandoning the Citroen car he'd stolen to get to Dunkirk (the fishing boat was too small). Afterwards, somebody high-up noticed his fluency in languages and his pre-war success in advertising, so they gave him a job in the office in London where they worked on anti-German propaganda - essentially, advertising with a uniform on. "Supplying the Nazi regime with toilet paper," Alexander always used to say.

For what it's worth, Grandfather frequently claims I'm concrete proof of reincarnation. Though I'm fairly sure he only says that to annoy his daughter-in-law.

***

That Friday morning, I was looking down at an address I'd written on the back of my hand. I looked again at the building it referred to. It was the usual, seven floor, weather-stained concrete box. Squeezed uneasily between its neighbours, it looked like it'd been built from scratch in under forty-eight hours and had desperately wanted to fall down ever since. An air-conditioning unit poked from almost every window and above us a vast, jumbled assortment of large advertising signs projected over the street and made it almost impossible to see the sky.

"This is it, Ben."

"Okay, Alex. Remind me - why are we here?"

"Told you - a favour for my Uncle Charlie. And when we've done that we have to -"

I was drowned out by jet engine noise as an airliner, on its way to Kai-Tak airport, flew over: wheels lowered and flying so low you could count the rivets.

"- pick up that stuff for Snape."

We were on a side street off Argyle Street, on the Kowloon side; we'd just taken the Star Ferry across the harbour from Hong Kong Island. My mother had refused to go on the Star Ferries since the day she'd seen a body floating in the water. Personally, I love them ... the ferries, I mean. As for bodies, well you have to be tolerant - that's simply the kind of place Hong Kong is. Part of its unique charm, you might say.

I had spent the first three weeks of the summer in Shropshire with my Hufflepuff crony Ben Stebbins and his family. Earlier in the year, they'd agreed to pay his airfare out to Hong Kong if he got sufficiently good OWL results and it was only a few days since we'd arrived. He was a pleasant, chummy pure-blood lad who'd had far too sheltered an upbringing so he still seemed slightly dazed by the place. The crowds, the noise and the frenzied bustle made Diagon Alley look as quiet and dull as a wet Sunday afternoon in one of those remote Welsh towns where so many people marry their cousins that even pure-blood wizards would be scandalised.

Late July in Hong Kong is notoriously hot and humid and the walk from Star Ferry pier had been long and sweaty. One of my legs was painfully chaffing against the sweaty elastic of my underwear so, wanting to get this quickly over and done with, I crossed to the other side of the street. I narrowly avoided getting hit by an old London bus, stepped over a pavement fortune-teller, skipped nimbly round an elderly woman carrying a dozen live ducks in little wooden cages, nearly got knocked into the road by two men carrying a new fridge slung from a pole between them and entered the building.

The landlord, with an eye to economy, hadn't installed air-conditioning in the lobby but there was a signboard listing the names of the commercial tenants in Chinese and English. They all had names like Tung-Shan Import-Export Company, Chaing Tzse Trading Company or Lucky Star Commercial Agency. The names revealed few hints of what these enterprises actually did; I don't doubt this was deliberate. The one we wanted was on the third floor so we trudged up the stairs, past a Filipino amah who was mopping the steps with a lack of enthusiasm I could empathise with.

It was hard so say if the place we entered was an office or a shop. The walls were decorated with framed tourist posters of the Great Wall, the Terracotta Army and the Forbidden City. Brightly lit glass display cases were filled with antique Chinese jade, lacquerware and porcelain. A chunky-looking safe, a desk piled with papers and an owner completed the inventory. He was in his thirties, as far as I could tell. He was dressed in an immaculate lightweight suit and looked far cooler and more relaxed than any human had a right to be in this heat. I became self-consciously aware of the damp patch in my T-shirt that exactly corresponded to the shape of my backpack.

He was scrutinising the first page of a fax that was being spat out of the machine when we entered. He put it down where we couldn't see it.

"Miss Sutton?"

"Mr Yang, I assume. You know who I am?"

"Mr Charles phoned last week and told me to expect his niece. He said..." he paused for an instant and almost succeeded in suppressing a grin. "His precise words were to expect a young English girl who has glasses, short, dark hair and who is likely to be wearing an expression that makes her look like she's chewing a wasp."

"This is for you," I said testily. I handed him a small package from my backpack and made a mental note to seek revenge on Uncle Charlie by significantly inflating the payment I'd demand from him. Mr Yang nodded and took the package into a back room, leaving us alone, aside from the CCTV camera. I squatted to get a better look at a rather nifty little Cloisonnè box in one of the glass cases.

"Damn it! Should've brought my wand. There's a charm that could tell me roughly how old this is."

"What did you just give him, Alex?"

"Uncle gave it to me before we left London. He told me not to open it under any circumstances."

"So, what did you find?"

"Oh... Umm, two thousand American dollars in fifties."

"Bloody hell! That's... a bit under three hundred Galleons, isn't it? He trusts you with that much?"

"I'm family. Besides, I've run errands for him before. He's even hinted he'll offer me a job when I leave school."

After the precise length of time needed to count forty banknotes and then recount them twice, just to be sure, Mr Yang reappeared and presented me with a shoebox-sized parcel, neatly wrapped in pages from the South China Morning Post. Some more conversation revealed that, even with savage haggling, the Cloisonne box would be more than my summer allowance and birthday money combined so I stuffed the parcel into my backpack and we departed to search for somewhere that had air-conditioning and cold drinks.

We found a teenage future millionaire who'd set up an impromptu street cafe with a few tables, chairs and a large tub full of crushed ice and bottles of Coke. Ben was all for encouraging this sort of thing and we decided air-conditioning could wait. I clutched the backpack between my knees and hoped all the bag-snatchers had taken the day off to visit their elderly mothers in the New Territories.

"We've got a new mystery now. What's in this parcel that you're going to be carrying back to London?" said Ben.

"My guess is some T'ang Dynasty knickknack that's so freshly looted from a tomb in mainland China it'll still have damp soil on it. By the way, if Mother asks, we spent the morning wandering round the shops in the Ocean Terminal. She doesn't approve of what her brother-in-law does for a living. She definitely wouldn't approve of my involvement."

"What exactly does he do?"

"He's an antiquities dealer. He's the middleman between Americans who have money but no history and people from countries that have bucket-loads of history, but no money. Years ago, he finished an archaeology degree but decided he didn't want to spend his life at the bottom of a muddy trench. He now wears nice suits, has a classy looking shop in South Kensington and is in a line of work with as stinky a reputation as you can get without it technically being illegal."

"And he thinks you're the kind of person who'd be an asset to his business. I'm astounded," he said in a tone of voice that implied he wasn't. "So you said we had to get stuff for Snape?"

I groaned and handed him a piece of parchment that was folded up in my wallet.

"Five minutes after he heard I'd be in Hong Kong for the summer, he handed me a sodding shopping list! Chinese potion ingredients, which I'll now have to waste time shopping for. Luckily, he included the address to go to because I wouldn't have a clue where to start looking for this lot."

"Alex, I've not heard of half of these things.... What's Opaleye Dragon viriya?"

I decided not to tell the poor lad what 'viriya' was a euphemism for. He was starting NEWT potions next year and would find out soon enough. A seventh year had once told me the important thing at NEWT level was not throwing up as you drink your potion, even though you now know every detail of what's been used to make it. As for dragon whatsit, let's just say that no matter how bad your life seems to be, the bloke who makes a living by collecting this has got it worse.

I shrugged. "I've not heard of it either. I'm sure to get half the things wrong and be in Snape's bad books all next year. Not that he has good books. Umm... worse books. You know what I mean?"

"If I do, it's only through long and tedious experience. We'd better try and get at least some of it today. You don't want to be rushing around the city in a panic the day before you fly back. Besides, we managed to avoid looking after your little sister today; it may be days before we get another chance."

Years ago, my parents had decided not to tell my sisters that Mother and I were witches - I imagine they had their reasons. Jennifer had just finished school and was set on following Pa into the Army. Rachel had recently turned eleven. Nobody had yet noticed spontaneous levitation or her tongue suddenly turning blue (I'm haunted by memories of an afternoon with the school nurse and subsequent sessions with the school shrink because when the teacher asked, all I could think of saying was I drank a pot of paint on a whim). She would therefore be flying back with us at the end of the summer to start her first year at boarding school. Pa may've been able to gleefully sprint to the Saab dealership with the school-fee money he hadn't had to spend on me, but he wasn't getting out of it this time. Rachel was down to go to Cheltenham: where Jennifer went and where I'd have gone, had the universe not decided to have a giggle at my expense.

You can't argue with honest Hufflepuff common sense. Damn them! Shopping for potion ingredients was clearly impossible with an intelligent, interfering, cheerfully inquisitive, eleven-year-old Muggle sister tagging along. So, with a grunt inducing effort, I levered myself out of the chair and we headed for a subway station.

***

To get to the address, we had to cross the harbour again to the Hong Kong side. It turned out to be an apothecary's shop in the seedy part of Wanchai -no different in appearance from a hundred other places selling traditional medicines. Hong Kong has no walled-in enclave, no Diagon Alley. It's not needed, the Chinese magical community's relationship with Muggles seemed to be simply one of quiet discretion, not the manic secrecy you get back home.

Of course, Britain still ruled Hong Kong (three years and counting, tick-tock, tick-tock) so the Ministry of Magic had equivalent authority over Hong Kong Wizardry - in theory. It's true the Ministry had an appointed representative who was supposedly in charge (Mother knew the man from her days in the Ministry) but all he ever did was sail his boat and hang about in the bar of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. He must've known the Chinese Wizards would politely ignore him if he ever tried telling them what to do: possibly he didn't care. Hong Kong has a nice climate, the wages were good, the food was amazing, the beaches were golden, the shopping was tax-free and all deviant vices were efficiently catered for if that was your thing. Brits working there at the time seemed to be only interested in squeezing as much as possible out of their few remaining years as the last grains of sand trickled through imperialism's hourglass. Why should some Ministry of Magic quill pusher be any different?

The shopkeeper, a thin-faced, middle-aged woman wearing half-moon spectacles, was watching one of the Cantonese channels on a portable TV when we came in. She weighed us up with a scornful glance: probably taking us for a pair of the slightly adventurous yet patronising sort of Western tourist who visit an apothecary to photograph each other trying out traditional remedies as part of the "authentic" Hong Kong experience. No doubt she was resigned to us whipping out cameras any second so I decided to get to the point and placed Snape's list on the counter.

"Good afternoon ... can you supply these items?"

Saying nothing, she picked it up. For a second, she looked up and examined Ben and myself before turning her attention back to the list. I stood by the shop counter, grinning like an amiable imbecile. Ben had wandered off to examine the dozens of jars of pickled animal parts that filled the shelves covering one wall.

"Do you know what these things are?" she said at last.

"Umm ... let me think. Ground tigerflower seeds are a senekating agent. Similar to green orchid oil. Flower of Langan is ... Oh sod! I should know this, I should know this ... it's used in-"

"It's used to make Agrippa's Elixir, you idiot! It's beyond me how you scraped an A in your Potions OWL," said Ben.

I ignored that. "Now I know Ching-Li venom is a principal component of Huandan Potion and fireworms are mostly used to make a salve that heals burns. Not sure about the rest."

She sneered, but seemed satisfied we were definitely wizards and possibly idiots.

"You from Salem Institute?"

"OhgoodGodNO! Hogwarts," I said.

"Ah," she said, smiling for the first time. "I once met Professor Snape, many years ago; he's a brilliant man. You're very lucky to be taught by him."

"Absolutely. We never stop telling each other how lucky we are," Ben said with a poker face.

"I've got everything on the list except Ching-Li venom," she continued. "That's hard to get; I could have some by next week. Come back then, Hogwarts girl. Ask nicely and I'll tell you all about Chinese potions."

That actually sounded interesting. She nodded in response to my thanks and turned her attention back to her TV soap. A few minutes later, we were walking towards the bus terminal.

"We never stop telling each other how lucky we are. Ben, do you have some inner need to always be a complete twat?" I said, as I stepped over a beggar - round here, there was a good chance there'd be pickpockets watching to see which pocket the charitable kept their wallets in.

"Alex, thanks to that greasy sod, Hufflepuff lost about a hundred house-points last year."

"And another hundred thanks to you and Nick Summers. You ought to be grateful Sarah Fawcett was dumped into Ravenclaw instead of Hufflepuff. With the three of you on the case, Hufflepuff wouldn't have made it into triple digits anytime in the last five years."

"Oh listen, everybody! I think Slytherin's Miss Perfect is going to favour us with some sage advice on personal conduct."

"Look, I don't shy from breaking rules if there's a good reason for it. But I certainly wouldn't feel the need to try and ape some semi-mythical bunch of hell-raisers from the seventies because I'd heard old stories from an uncle about their exploits. I don't go round trying to pull stunts a first year would think are juvenile because somehow I'm happy to leave the role of school clown safe in the hands of the bloody Weasley twins who seem capable of little else."

"That is so bloody Slytherin! Your problem, Alex Sutton, is that you're always whining about being the martyr, half-blood Slytherin. You've told me how shitty your life is because the Sorting Hat had some kind of fit, failed to put you in Hufflepuff and you like to think you'd belong there. Well, here's some news! The Hat got you spot-on. You couldn't be more Slytherin if you tried. Take a good look at yourself sometime - you might begin to comprehend why three-quarters of the school always cheers for the other team whenever Slytherin plays Quidditch."

"Blow it out your arse, Stebbins! I'm going home."

"Fine."

A car blasted its horn as I stormed across the street without looking.

"Tsi leng sin gwai mue!'

"DIU LEI!" I screamed back.

It didn't make me feel better.

***

"Hi, we're back," I called as I unlocked the door - the first words I'd uttered in nearly an hour aside from telling the bus driver the stop we wanted.

If you're made to move every two years then your home isn't a place, it's things. The Sutton living room was always the same even though it was sometimes located in different countries. Great-grandfather, Major General Albert-Victor Sutton, clutched his sword hilt and glowered disapprovingly at his descendants from the wall. On other walls were Mother's watercolours and my parents' framed wedding pictures. That must've been quite a party; God only knew what the Suttons and the Boardmans made of each other: beings from different planets would have more in common.

The first thing I noticed was the good, Royal Crown Derby tea service was in use. This meant Mother was in graciously-receiving-guests mode. She and Father sat with an exultant looking Rachel on the settee. The guest in question was Petronius Gatland - Hong Kong's Secretary for Magic and twenty five percent of the colony's current British wizarding population. My brief panic that I was in trouble subsided when the amiable old codger nodded at Ben and myself in a friendly way.

It was only then I noticed the envelope on the coffee table; it had no stamp.

Miss Rachel Helen Patricia Sutton
First Bedroom on the Left
Apartment 8, Suffolk Building
Kam-Tin Terrace
Stubbs Road
Hong Kong

"Ben, guess what ...I'm a witch, just like you!" Rachel piped up, too excited to make sense. "Close your mouth, Alexandra, or you'll get a fly in it."

I hope somebody remembers to phone Cheltenham and tell them she's not coming. And they should put the Hong Kong Saab dealership on standby.

***

The shift from British to Far Eastern time had shattered my internal clock. For some reason I tended to wake up around dawn. The flat was quiet so it was a good time to wander into the kitchen, drink coffee and do Transfiguration essays or go over my Cantonese language tapes. Unfortunately, Ben woke up early for the same reason. He'd already made coffee and was watching the early morning news when I staggered through the doorway.

"Oh... morning," I mumbled, quietly.

"Morning."

I poured some coffee and glanced at the TV.

"Are the idiots still going on about sodding crop circles? Doesn't everybody know they're faked? Haven't they noticed the things always appear two or three hours after country pubs close for the night and kick out the drunks? For God's sake, it's only what inbred yokels do when they're bored with cow-tipping!"

I paused for breath. Ben said nothing as he carefully studied the official, typhoon warning chart that Pa had stuck to a cupboard door (Storm warning one -wind ...what wind? Five - if you've got any brains, you stay indoors. Ten - small ships are plucked from the harbour and dumped in the middle of the racecourse at Happy Valley.)

"Oh God I'm the idiot ...Ben, this nasty, self pitying Slytherin so and so still really wants to be your friend. Is it possible we can pretend yesterday didn't happen?"

He sighed. "It'd be a shame to let that row spoil anything. That wasn't even a very good one. Remember how we didn't speak for nearly a month after we 'discussed' the Goblin rebellions?"

It's rarely a good idea to insist to somebody from an old wizard family that the Goblins seem to have had plenty of justified grievances, but I'm digressing. At that moment, I wanted to say, "Ben, perhaps we should try being a proper couple. As we seem so good at blazing rows, we're practically half way there." But somehow, it got mangled between brain and mouth and came out as:

"Umm ... do you want to take the tram up to the Peak today? It's not that great, but it's a compulsory tourist thing. If you try to leave the Colony without having been up there you get arrested and taken up under armed guard. They won't let you go until you've posed for pictures and bought some postcards."

"Might as well get it over then," he said, grinning. "'I'll go and shower before there's a rush for the bathroom.... By the way, have you ever heard of Mooncalves?"

"Moon-what?"

"Nothing. Why don't you have another cup of coffee and shout some more at the TV?"

***

The morning tramcar that slowly creaked up Victoria Peak was empty aside from us, the driver and some early-rising Japanese tourists up at the front. The Peak is the highest point on Hong Kong Island and, despite the territory's land shortage and the maddest property prices on the planet, it's green, forested parkland. The mountainside's too steep to make any kind of building possible. The main way up or down is by antique tramcars that are hauled up the slope by long, steel cables.

Rachel had been made our responsibility. The parentals had greeted the previous day's news with suspiciously little surprise (I assumed they'd been pre-warned somehow) and had gone off to spend Saturday lurking in some furniture workshops. They were planning to have a matching, dining room suite made: table, chairs and sideboard. It's easy to spot a British family that was posted to Hong Kong for two or three years. Their house is stuffed with wonderfully high quality, carved handmade furniture whose manufacture contributed, in a small way, to the extinction of at least one South-Asian hardwood species. All bought for one-third of London prices.

Rachel was still full of barely contained excitement from what she had been told. Gatland had arrived just after lunch and had stayed until evening, talking about magic, Hogwarts and wizardry for Rachel's benefit. He even insisted I fetch my wand and do a demonstration despite me making my bad mood and petulant reluctance very obvious.

"Ben, will you show me some magic? Alexandra's being a sourpuss and says she won't."

"Sorry, Rach. It's illegal for Alex or me to do magic out of school. She could only do it yesterday because that Ministry bloke said it was okay."

"Pleeease!" she said. She had the plaintive eyed puppy-dog look off pat.

"Ben's a polite family guest and wouldn't threaten to hex you," I growled. "But if you don't shut up I just might be tempted to say bugger the legal consequences. Do you understand?"

"Ben, how on Earth do you put up with Alexandra in Hogwarts? Everybody in our family says she's a complete fake."

Our arrival at the summit spared him the lose-lose choice of replying and Rachel scampered ahead to bag a coin-operated telescope. We followed her out of the tram station towards the viewing terrace. It was a clear day. Spread out below us were the densely packed skyscrapers on Hong Kong island - which always vaguely reminded me of a god's pin-cushion. Beyond was the harbour, Kowloon on the far side, and on the horizon, the green hills of the New Territories. Down below, in amongst the buildings, the sticky heat of the day was beginning to make itself felt but up here, it was relieved by a cool breeze coming off the South China Sea.

"'That was a nice bit of levitation you did yesterday," said Ben. "Pouring a cup of tea and adding milk and sugar, it's not easy keeping four objects in the air at once."

"Would've been nicer if it'd worked. You know I'll never be allowed to forget this; that tea set was my parents' wedding present. You did a brilliant job on Reparo'ing the milk-jug - ten points to Hufflepuff! But Mum said it's not the same now because she knows it was broken."

She had said a lot of other things, about me mainly, at length and in detail, after Ben had diplomatically gone to his room early to write letters. But I'm sure he already knew that as the walls in the apartment weren't very thick.

"Mum thinks I was in a shitty mood last night because Rachel got a Hogwarts Letter," I continued, after a pause.

"Was it a shock?"

"Only for me. My Mother and Father got their shocks over and done with six years ago. You see, my mother kept quiet about being a witch when she was dating Pa. When my older sister turned out to be a Muggle, she thought she'd never have to enlighten him and, I think, was quietly relieved. Then soon after I turned ten, I discovered I could make the TV change channels by waving at it - until it exploded and all hell broke loose. Eighteen months later, I got sorted into Slytherin and it broke looser because mother's family have been Gryffindors and Ravenclaws for generations. But Hogwarts will suit Rachel. She's a precocious little brat: guaranteed Ravenclaw."

"You don't think she'll follow you into Slytherin? Siblings often go into the same house."

"God, Ben, I genuinely hope not. Bill Collier left last year so the only half-blood Slithys will be James Bergreen and myself in sixth year and Ian McQuade and Gloria Shayler in seventh year. We were all right back when we started but things have ... well, changed."

I didn't like to say more -Ben was probably my closest friend but he was still a Hufflepuff, not one of us. Slytherin was always the odd case compared to the other houses. Supposedly character and nothing else determined where you were placed yet it was traditionally the fiefdom of a clique of old, mostly rich, pureblood families. Half-bloods were uncommon, ruthlessly ambitious Muggle-borns mostly became Gryffindors, Ravenclaws or even Hufflepuffs.

Then all that changed. It seems You-Know-Who's obliteration lifted a shadow from the house. People with certain ideas about wizard blood purity didn't change them, but at least they where now careful to keep quiet because getting labelled a junior, Death Eater sympathiser was a sure route to ostracism in school and unemployment afterwards. Besides which, plenty of Slytherins had lost relatives, even siblings and parents, during the terror years. Mouth-off in the common room about Mudbloods or half-breeds and you might be picking your teeth up from the floor, assuming you still had arms. For a while, a steady stream of half-bloods and the occasional Muggle-born entered the house; it looked like Slytherin might become like the others ... well ... normal.

But whatever remained of that old bastard Salazar couldn't be got rid of that easily. Nobody with a Muggle parent had been sorted in the six years since Bergreen and myself. Since then, things were slowly changing back; year by year, the old order slowly re-asserted itself.

"You're thinking about Malfoy and his clique, aren't you?" said Ben, after a pause.

"Yeah, that vile little creep and his toadies are careful to leave us alone; we're senior to them, we stick together and we don't take grief from anybody."

Even the so-called purist wizard families had Muggle branches on their family tree. Some didn't care, some re-wrote their family history when they thought nobody was looking. But some of their boorish spawn (and not all of them Slytherins) would gleefully forget all that when they discovered a half-Muggle with a green tie who could be their victim. Survival depended on ganging up with those in the same situation, finding allies wherever you could and never, ever, forgetting to reply to your tormentors. Ideally one at a time, when there were several of you and they were on their own in some remote corridor.

He calls you Mudblood; you pull out your wand. They knock one of yours to the ground; you send one of theirs to the Hospital Wing. That's the Slytherin Way.... Here endeth the lesson.

"The trouble is," said Ben. "In two years, all of you will be gone and Rachel will be on her own."

"Exactly. Malfoy's lot would think it their mission to make life a hell for any half-blood Slytherins younger than them. I can look out for Rachel for now but what will happen when I'm nothing more than a name on the reserve team photo in the common room? Can the Hat be bribed? Threatened?"

"No. I think the only thing to do is quietly take Rachel aside and carefully brief her about Hogwarts, the houses and the sorting ceremony. Even pure-blood kids are often quite clueless when they arrive but if she knows precisely what to expect then she'll have a head-start. If the Hat tells her, for example, that Slytherin could help her achieve great things -"

"What it said to me," I commented sourly.

"Slytherins: ambitious and gullible! No, if Rachel could tell the Hat to take so-called Slytherin greatness and shove it because her life's ambition is to be a bookworm Ravenclaw, the Hat should give it to her if she's insistent enough. It generally does."

"Something to try, I suppose."

In Slytherin, your choice is to leave as a physical wreck or a moral ruin. I decided early on and never looked back. But I didn't want Rachel to pick either.

***

At the end of August, we attended the Governor's annual garden party as Pa was just about senior enough to secure an invitation. During the previous month, I'd done my best to forget about Hogwarts and had mostly succeeded. The time was filled with days on the beach at Repulse Bay, sailing at Aberdeen, trips up into the New Territories and boat excursions to Lantau and Stone-Cutter's Island.

I was lying on the ground, resting my head against a tree and feeling too relaxed to care about grass stains. My Laura Ashley floral number was getting its annual outing and, for mischief and to annoy Mother, I was wearing a silver broach shaped like a bright green snake I'd bought in London. Earlier in the afternoon, I'd been part of the long line-up of people briefly shaking hands with the governor (he liked the broach) and had spent ten minutes pushing through the impeccably dressed, heaving throng to get to the food and twenty minutes trying to get to the loo. Rachel and myself had just found this quiet corner where we could where we could consume a jug of Pimm's and a tray of canapes I'd kidnapped when Rachel skilfully distracted one of the waiters. I'd given up trying to swipe some champagne - the supply was limited and closely watched, and I didn't think I could conceal a bottle under my light summer dress.

"Have you seen Ben recently, Rachel? NO! Put the Pimm's down! You're too young; you stick to Coke."

"I saw him half an hour ago, Alexandra," she said. The full effect of her surly glare was spoiled by the one cheek bulging with some crab-meat dainty.

Tomorrow, we'd have to start packing to go back to school. What with the easy availability of alcohol and quiet spots in the large gardens surrounding the Governor's official residence, it occurred to me this might be a last good opportunity - if only I could find where that silly twit Ben Stebbins had gone and if only I could summon up some courage.

"I think..." continued Rachel. "I saw him talking to Catherine Sullivan."

What! The Australian Consul-General's daughter? Blonde, stuck-up little cow!

I swigged the rest of my Pimm's and, regretfully, decided not to refill the glass. Mum and Dad would be scooping us up to drive home in an hour or two. I was five weeks away from turning seventeen so I doubt they expected me to be completely abstemious, but discretion and moderation made up my side of the unspoken deal - I had to be able to at least simulate sobriety.

"Alexandra, you're a ... Sliterin, aren't you?" she said. Pausing slightly, unsure of the unfamiliar word.

"That's Slytherin, and yes I am."

"I asked Mum about that and she said something odd. She told me not to worry about it - you were always the one of us three who took after Dad more than her."

"Pa says I take after Grandfather," I said flatly.

And Grandfather says I take after great-uncle Alexander. Who, being dead, can't further pass the buck and blame great-grandfather Albert-Victor.

"I don't understand why I should worry," she continued. "I thought it'd be good, I mean to say, it wouldn't be unbearable awful to be together in the same House."

"Look Rachel, there's something you have to know about Hogwarts. You already know the school's divided into Houses. They're almost like schools within a school. You'll eat, sleep and do most of your classes with your housemates. Some people have friends in other houses but plenty don't and only mix with their own. Almost the first thing that happens to new first years is they get sorted into houses by means of a magic hat which examines each firstie's character and decides which house they'd be best suited to."

I ignored Rachel's snort of disbelief, refilled my glass and continued.

"Supposedly Hufflepuffs are distinguished by being hard working; everybody else claims they're dense. Ravenclaws are reputed to be smart ... that is to say, boring bookworms. Slytherins..." I pointed at myself, "are ambitious. This is generally assumed to mean we're untrustworthy ruthless scumbags. Gryffindors are courageous; they like to think this means they're decent, noble and honourable. Though in my experience, being brave doesn't stop somebody from also being a right bastard."

"There's just four houses?" she asked in a slightly hopeful tone of voice. Perhaps she was wondering if there was also a good house to join that I hadn't mentioned.

"Just four. No matter who you are or what you're like, you'll get dumped into one of four pigeonholes. For the rest of your life, people will be judging you by the stereotypes associated with your old Hogwarts house."

"Untrustworthy, ruthless scumbag..." she echoed with a grin.

"Being a Slytherin has some compensations," I said, as I tried to remember what they were. "But you, on the other hand, really don't want to be one. I'm being serious. If you have a very strong preference, that Sorting Hat will supposedly give it to you. It's quite logical I suppose, clearly a person isn't going to be best suited to a house they'd detest. Besides, I think you'd make a much better Ravenclaw; perhaps even Hufflepuff."

"Do you mean I don't want to be in Slytherin or you don't want me in Slytherin, Alexandra?"

"It's nothing to do with that! I am telling you this for your own good. I'm mostly okay in Slytherin but it's a rough place and it's getting worse. Look, it's complicated; it involves politics and a lot of things you wouldn't understand."

Hell! She's smart and worse, she knows she is. I forgot that telling her she wouldn't understand something is the most direct way of pissing her off.

"Alexandra, you don't want me in Slytherin, you may not want me in Hogwarts. But I'm a witch. That's not going to change because you're in a stinky big snit over it."

"I'm NOT IN A SNIT," I yelled at her back as she stormed off.

Crap! Crap! Crap!

A few minutes later, while I was still trying to decide whether to guzzle the rest of the Pimm's or bang my head against the tree I was conscious of some bulk blocking out the sun. Squinting, I saw the silhouette of a big curly-haired Hufflepuff lout looking down at me.

"Hi, Ben."

"I saw Rachel just now...went well, did it?"

"A catastrophe, a disaster. In fact, a right royal balls-up. Sit down and help me finish the jug. I badly need consolation."

"Sorry, I can't. Your mother sent me to find you. You're parents are going in ten minutes."

Oh bugger!

***

Author's Notes

Amah - Servant/Cleaner.

According to Fantastic Beasts, which Alex clearly hasn't read, crop circles are the result of the nocturnal mating dances of Moon Calves

Pimm's is an alcoholic drink made from herbs and gin. It's mixed with lemonade and served with ice. It's usually drunk as a summertime thirst-quencher by people who think they're too classy to drink beer.

//
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