Chapter Twenty-Four: The Necessary Restraint
Sometime later, Severus, with Evessa on his arm, discovered Endicott arse up and head down in the hall fire as he was leading everyone from the house.
"Perhaps I will, Mother. Tattle should know about the next Chair of the Suffrage Committee's perverse beha—"
A thwap! rang out in the hall as Evessa twitched her fingers and caused the coat of arms just to the side of the large stone hearth to animate and smack Endicott's arse, and she rounded on the company shrieking, "I hate you!"
Evessa retorted, "Not as much as you will if you give me cause to draw my wand, you ill-bred guttersnipe."
"You wouldn't dare raise your wand to me!"
"The dictates of hospitality are voided when a member of one's household is threatened, Endicott, and I distinctly heard you plotting to discuss my brother with that reporter. If you know what's good—"
"This isn't your household!"
"My sister is a Snape," Severus said coldly, "and Snape Manor will always be her home."
Walden leant down to whisper into Harry's ear, "It's like theatre, isn't it?"
It's amazing how he can sound so generous and harsh at the same time, Harry thought, laughing nervously but saying nothing.
"I say, that's a dreadful way to treat someone!" Tuttle protested, moving to take Endicott's arm. "There now. Don't fret."
"Y—you're very kind."
"Come along, Miss Endicott," Tuttle said, levitating a nearby trunk which Harry assumed must belong to her and leading her towards the door. "I'll just conduct you to the road where we might Disapparate to that tidy looking inn hard by."
"B—but don't you want your things?"
"Oh, my dear Miss Endicott, I am never without my belongings. One must be careful, mustn't one? Why I . . . ."
Tuttle's voice faded as the couple moved farther from the door, and then Mrs Parkinson remarked, "Good riddance. They deserve each other," before she released Severus' arm to take Hermione's. "Excellent development! Of course, her tiresome presence wasn't any true threat to you."
"What does she mean?" someone whispered, as most of the others took their cue from Mrs Parkinson and followed, as well.
Severus remained rooted in place, Harry saw. "Are you all right?"
"You don't seem—"
"I'd hoped to avoid scandal, but it seems clear that—"
"Oh, I doubt," Blaise interrupted, pushing himself off the wall against which he had been leaning, "that the 'ill-bred guttersnipe' will say anything to the press, Severus. This is her second time being an Eligible, and I doubt she'd like to publicise the fact that she's been passed over again. She was just throwing a tantrum because, well, Evessa does have a 'special' gift for dealing with people, doesn't she?"
"But how did that woman know about," Severus began to say, stopping as he glanced uncertainly at Harry.
"How did she know about what?"
Blaise walked over to stand between Harry and Severus, laid an arm over both their shoulders, and declared, "Enough of this dallying! You've guests to see to, and we've an old friend with whom to visit," he said to Severus and Harry, in turn.
"Luna is my friend, as well," Severus protested, surprising Harry.
"Since when?" he asked, still wondering what Severus didn't want to discuss in front of him.
"She's a remarkable artist."
"As remarkable an artist as Nev's a landscaper?" Harry teased, as the three of them walked outside and towards the festive tent in the distance.
"Mr Longbottom has . . . done well here."
"Did you hear that, Blaise?"
"I did. Frankly, I'm as stunned as you are. When Neville hears, he's liable to expire from the shock of the compliment."
"Then perhaps you should spare him."
Harry laughed with Blaise, and Hermione, who seemed to be waiting for them, smiled. "What's so funny?"
"Mr Longbottom's having acquired a skill."
"Now, Severus, that's not very nice, is it?" Luna rebuked him gently, appearing from behind Hermione.
She sounded so very like Greer that Severus found himself wishing he'd invited her. Harry would like Greer, I'm sure of it.
"Luna!" Harry exclaimed.
Luna gave a mock start and exclaimed back, "Harry! Is that how we're greeting each other now? With exclamation marks? Because, if so, I'll have to stop drinking Dad's herbal infusion. It mellows me too much to speak excitedly, you see. Sometimes, though, he mis-mixes it, and that's always entertaining." Grabbing a grinning Harry's hand, she continued, "I suppose I can try, if you're resolved to do it, so. Come! On! I! Want! You! To! See!"
Frowning, Severus turned to ask Hermione, "How long do you expect they'll keep that up?"
"I! Couldn't! Say!"
"Nor! I!" Blaise added, taking Hermione's arm and following Luna and Harry.
Severus shook his head, and then he noticed that he was being observed.
"Oh, I quite agree. They're rather young and silly, aren't they?" Margaret Marchbanks asked, though not in an unkindly tone.
"Enthusiasm is not a defect."
"No, of course not, but in a spouse, I expect one could find too much 'enthusiasm'—out of context, that is—an unwelcome thing."
Why in Merlin's name am I subjecting myself to this? "Manoeuvring is to be expected, of course," Severus replied, forcing himself not to cause Blaise any further bruising.
Marchbanks pursed her lips, licked them as if giving herself time to think, and then replied, "You're very direct. I appreciate that quality in a man."
"That is certainly gratifying." I can't do this much longer, I really can't.
"Shall we speak freely, Supplicant Snape?"
Marchbanks glanced towards the tent and then replied, "For the Snape name and fortune, I'm prepared to surrender my career for the period of five years for the purposes of bearing your heirs, after which time I would return to it. I have no desire for fidelity from my husband, merely discretion, something I expect that you, given your tastes, should appreciate. My own mistress is the law, and it's my goal to sit in the Wizengamot within the next twenty—"
"Allow me to wish you the best of luck in achieving your goals," Severus interrupted, his mind set to reeling by the cold-blooded speed at which Marchbanks could speak.
"I see. In that case, permit me to wish you the joy of your Choice," she said, with a significant glance over her shoulder as Harry's laughter was heard emanating from the tent, "and also to take my leave of you. I am forever wishing I were somewhere else."
Marchbanks moved off before Severus could respond; watching her walking away, he thought, My name wouldn't have furthered your ambitions in any case, before issuing a relieved sigh and joining the remaining guests.
Evessa was sitting next to Luna in front of the others, who were arranged in a semi-circle and observing as Luna busily painted while talking to herself.
"Oh, yes. I see now. Exactly right."
"What is exactly right?"
"That would be telling, Mrs Parkinson. Let me see—no, no! That's not the angle. Will you cooperate?" she asked her brush, shaking it, which caused a series of tiny rainbows to shoot from it, before continuing to work.
Severus saw Llewellyn turn to Charteris, who was sitting next to him on the left side of the curved line of chairs, and remark, "I can feel the magical properties of that paint from here, but who knew the artist was to be the entertainment?"
Charteris laughed and said, "Curse-breaking must hone your . . . sensibilities."
"You've no idea."
Severus was pleased. Good. Excellent, in fact. Do pair off.
Blaise rose from his chair next to Hermione and sauntered back to him. "I see that Marchbanks has left us."
"Did Alastor Moody teach you your astonishing powers of observation, or were they acquired genetically through your connection to my branch of the family?"
"Ah, your good mood has returned. Wonderful! But don't become too eager to pare down the Scroll, Severus. I saw how nervous you were about discussing your plans in front of Harry, and I—"
"Not here," Severus hissed, turning on his heel.
Once outside, Blaise continued, "Your reticence is telling. I'm not saying that I don't think you and Harry wouldn't make a fine match, but—"
"Damn it, Blaise! Why are you—"
"Because it occurs to me that neither of you know each other half so well as you should."
"I'm well aware of that."
"Then use this time wisely. Get to know each of your Eligibles—not just the one on whom your heart is set. You may find that you enjoy the company of one of the others, and also that Harry's plans for the future don't compliment your own."
"Again, why are you telling me this?"
"Because it's my duty to do so. Because you gave me that duty. Because you're my cousin—"
Blaise snorted. "As you say, and I care for you. I want you to marry well, Severus, with someone who will share your life, not merely tolerate it."
"You think Harry could only tolerate me?" Severus asked, worrying that perhaps Blaise knew something of Harry's feelings that he didn't.
"I only think that you don't know each other well. That's all I'm trying to impress upon you. What if Harry can't stomach the idea of his spouse being so much in the public eye? You know that he hates—"
"I wouldn't expect him to be public."
"Ah, but you've forgotten, haven't you, that Harry may have political ambitions of his own. If he elects to take his hereditary seat in the Low Chamber—"
"Ridiculous! Harry has never displayed an interest in politics of any kind."
Harry, who'd risen and approached the obscuring beads hanging at the tent's entrance because he was wondering where Severus and Blaise had got to, heard Severus and felt at once as if he'd been drenched by the frigid rain of a single black cloud. Sighing, he returned to his seat just as Mrs Parkinson's portrait began to animate.
"Too right!" the portrait exclaimed. "You've painted my gown just a shade too darkly. Can you not see that it's aubergine rather than purple? You're the artist, of course, but—"
"I think you look lovely," said Luna. "Your dress is as deep as the thoughts flowing behind your eyes."
"You . . . you really mean that twaddle?" the portrait asked, sounding rather pleased.
Harry smiled, in spite of his confusion and lowered spirits. Good old Luna.
"Shall we ask yourself, then?" Luna answered.
Mrs Parkinson reached for the canvas, which Luna had stretched onto a temporary frame, and declared, "She's right. The dress is all wrong, but we do have fine eyes, do we not?"
Most of the others laughed.
"Who's next?" Luna asked.
Dellwood and Denton both made to rise from their chairs.
"Oh, you should go," Denton told Dellwood.
Dellwood sat back down at once. "Oh, no, Dru. I want to see how Luna captures your likeness."
Harry wondered if anyone but he had come to the manor for Severus.
Denton was just settling herself down before Luna when Severus and Blaise re-entered the tent. Blaise sat with Hermione again, and Severus took the centre-most chair of the semi-circle. Harry was sitting to his left, but he appeared too enthralled by the artistic display to notice his arrival.
Studiously enthralled, Severus thought, perceiving at once that something was bothering Harry by the tightness around his eyes and the set of his shoulders and jaw. He recognised this look of his as being what he'd come to think of as "Potter's bearing up attitude," something Harry had frequently adopted during Order meetings towards the end of the war. What could possibly have happened to have upset him in so short a time? Perhaps he is concerned by the Endicott woman's comment. Damn. I wish—
He was jarred out of his reverie as a hard, warm thigh brushed against his right one and glanced over to find Walden winking at him. He raised an eyebrow and quipped, "I expect it is difficult."
"Getting comfortable in such small chairs when one is as large as yourself," Severus flirted, resolutely leaving his thigh where it was.
Blaise's admonition had begun to work upon him, and he knew that he should at least appear to be considering his other Eligibles.
Walden leant down to whisper in Severus' ear, "Most wizards are intimidated by my size."
Only an Auror would find that statement subtle. "I'm not most men, Mr Walden."
Even though he and Harry weren't touching in any way, they were sitting close enough to one another that Severus knew he'd overheard his statement because, as Luna completed Denton's caricature, Harry leapt from his seat to be the next subject before Luna could ask for one.
Walden, following Severus' gaze to Harry, replied, "No, I see that. Most men would never consider taking such a powerful spouse as our friend, there."
"I am, of course, considering all of you."
"Oh, that may be, but it's obvious to all of us that you have a favourite."
Walden didn't whisper, nor did he raise his voice, and Severus allowed himself to appreciate the fact that the man's training had obviously been quite thorough. For nothing carries so loudly as a whisper. "Mr Potter and I enjoy a history, of course."
"And that makes him the man to beat."
"Are you truly so interested in winning this 'competition'?"
"As it happens, yes."
"Why?" Severus asked, genuinely curious.
"I have a career, but precious little else in my life. I think it's time I settled down, and it would suit me very well to marry into a Family that is so much a part of the world I fought to save in the war."
"I don't understand."
"Don't you? I'm an Auror from an Unregistered family. We've always prided ourselves on our independence, but I've come to realise that the next great battle is going to take place in Parliament, and I want a front row seat, as it were. I know that you're planning to take yours, and supporting your efforts to stop this 'restructuring' business seems like a worthy occupation."
Severus frowned. If Harry had said that to me . . . . "You would truly be content to give up your career and bear heirs?" he asked, not quite believing Walden. "And just how is it that you're aware of my political ambitions?"
"I take it that you don't read The Quibbler?"
"Did someone mention The Quibbler?" Luna asked, suddenly looking up from her task.
"I did, Miss Lovegood," Walden replied. "Forgive me for distracting you."
"No, Harry. Please keep still," Luna said, before replying to Walden. "Oh, I'm always distracted by important things, and I hope you weren't talking about the lack of the promised firecracker font on page thirty-three of the last issue. Dad tried, you see, but he's not as good at enchanting ink as some. You may still have your firecrackers by writing in to request them."
"That's certainly fair."
"And this is beginning to hurt my neck," Harry complained.
"Oh, sorry. Right then, I just need your nose."
A few people laughed at that, and then the separate conversations that had formed during the wait resumed.
"As I was saying, Supplicant Snape, The Quibbler reported recently on the Wizengamot's latest plans to encourage members of the High Chamber to become more active in government. You were mentioned."
The Wizengamot wasn't just the mechanism of wizarding justice, but the keeper of the genealogical charts of the Registered Families of the magical world. Its concerns were the law, the Registration of new Families, settling disputes amongst those Families, and the persuasion of all members of Parliament to meet their civic responsibilities, lest the wizarding world be consumed by Muggles through interbreeding and apathy.
"I'm aware of the Wizengamot's plans, but I didn't know that The Quibbler concerned itself with more mainstream topics—or my political ambitions."
"Oh, the editor was good enough to note that your work during the war was a reasonable excuse for your absenteeism, but he also wrote that it seemed likely you'd be taking your seat."
"And on what intelligence did he base that assertion?"
"An anonymous source who related that you'd been promised the chairmanship of the Suffrage Committee."
"Ah," Severus replied, feeling uneasy about the turn the conversation had taken.
"So, does Anonymous have it right?" Walden asked, lowering his voice a bit.
Grateful for his discretion, Severus nodded in the affirmative.
"I thought as much."
"It appears you've been thinking a great deal."
"I do that sometimes," Walden replied, favouring Severus with an undeniably charming smile before turning again to watch Luna work.
Thank you, Narcissa, for your discretion, Severus thought sarcastically, irritated by her obvious impatience to see him take up his duties. I suppose I understand her concern. If Michael makes his case before the Wizengamot that I'm not meeting my Familial obligations, it will mean more than an unwelcome scandal. It will mean that one who supported the Dark Lord and his aims will be in a posi—
"Oh!" Luna exclaimed, suddenly shaking her canvas. "I don't know why this is happening, or, rather, why it isn't, Harry. Your portrait should be animating by now!"
"Maybe the paint's losing its potency or something," Harry suggested, shrugging. "It's still a good picture," he reassured her, sounding apologetic—and a bit apprehensive.
Severus thought he understood why at once. The paint captures something of the subject's essence, but Harry's essence might not be bound solely to his corporeal form, and he must suspect that.
"Well, I guess I'm not going to be as entertaining as Mrs Parkinson, so why doesn't someone else give it a go?" Harry suggested, rising from his chair and wandering over to the refreshment table at the back of the tent.
I am the worst kind of fool, Severus thought. I've shown disinterest to a highly suitable Eligible and embarrassed my Choice, a man whose magic might not permit a proper Binding even if he acquiesced to one.
It was a heart-breaking thought after having felt Harry's voice in his mind, which was evidence of a natural magic-fasting—something Severus had long desired but never hoped for until recently. There could be no rare and precious Knowing for him, however, no matter that it had once been the only form of marriage in the wizarding world, because the exacting nature of the ritual with which Severus would have to be Bound required that his spouse's magic be subordinated to his own.
It's either that, or lose control over my Family, but when has Harry ever willingly allowed himself to fall under the power of another?
Severus found himself struggling not to be ill as he resolutely did not rise and join Harry, who he knew needed him. He could feel it, but to go to Harry would be to offer definitive proof to his other Eligibles that he wasn't undertaking the Courtship Ritual in earnest, and that was something he couldn't permit, not even for the sake of his heart's desire.
Michael is vicious, wealthy, charismatic, and has a powerful father who's ambitious on his behalf. Without the reinforced blood bond between us that would give me the ability to strip him of his magic, I couldn't keep him in check. After everything I've done, it's my duty to see that no one else in my Family ever—
"Severus?" Evessa said, interrupting his despairing thoughts. "Are you sleeping, man? It's your turn to sit for Miss Luna."