author's note: The David Arkenstone version of the carol, on the Enchantment album, is entirely responsible for this story.
[ten lords a-leaping]
Masters in the Hall
by Tenshi no Korin
I left the party early. It was tempting, for a moment, to consider the cool stone length of the common room, a deep armchair and a book. But I know that within the space of a quarter-hour the entire chamber will be full of noise and laughter and children, and tonight I am not particularly compelled to enjoy the company of either. It is, after all, why I had excused myself from the holiday proceedings prematurely.
Comforting, these old halls are. I'd love to make them home someday. For now though I think I'm content to wander down them, to feel cold stone seep into my boots, to see my breath fog. I do this, always, when I need to think. And sometimes when I just want the silence. Sweet winter meditation, to find a ledge near a window and sit in it for hours, to watch the snow serpents writhing on the frozen lake, gleaming in a silver sickle moon. It is good for secrets, for mysteries.
Now it is the silence more than the thinking, noise and firelight and crackers all a bit too festive for a solstice, for the longest night of the year. I have always thought so. So it is the castle that I share my Yuletide with, the drafts through her winding tunnels and the wind in sweeping buttresses both my carol and confidant. I would no other company.
But company, it seems, has found me, in the crossed halls near some nameless spiral stair. There is a moment, as there is always a moment, of glancing at the embroidery for the familiar colors, of noting the collar-bars for class. He is my younger by two years, a Gryffindor.
"Is this your corridor?" he asks, jerking his unruly head towards the yawning north wing. "I'll not intrude on your search, if it is."
No, you'll not, I would say, had I an idea as to of what he was speaking. "My search?"
"For the scavenger hunt." He blinks owlishly behind his glasses. I don't recall ever seeing him before, but I pay little heed to the Gryffindors. "The Christmas scavenger hunt," he clarifies. "Weren't you at the feast?"
"Ah." Easier to dismiss it as a childish pastime, than to admit to lack of knowledge. "That. I left the feast early. I assure you, I'm not a player."
"Oh, well. That's all right, then." He peers down the corridor. "I'll just go have a look-- I know there was a painting with a red dress down here, or was it--?" He looks at a piece of parchment in his hands. "Right. A red dress. It was on the way to potions last week, but the way the paintings move--"
I trust my instincts. They are my means of survival, they have carried me this far. And now, they tell me to watch this one carefully. There is something of a puzzle in his long deft hands, and I would unknot it before letting him get away. Besides, I know the real magic in this night, not the thin sort practiced in the classroom, but a wild thing old and rich and not contained by frail words. I would not neglect an appointment made for me by fate, on this night of all nights. "Is the red dress painting a young woman in a crown? I think, perhaps, it was along the fifth floor landing, near the records archive."
"That's the one!" He rolls up his parchment, on which every item save two are checked. "Thanks for your--" His eyes flash to the badge on my chest, and grow suspicious. "You're a Slytherin Prefect. Why would you help me? Don't you want the points for your own house?"
I shrug. I can appear generous, when it suits my purposes. "You seem to have come a long way already. Besides, I'm not even sure if the painting is there." I brush at my robe cuffs, feign disinterest. "I might be leading you astray for my own designs."
Sharp, this one, running his fingers along the tube of parchment, his eyes on mine. He is not to be intimidated, nor is he complacent, like everyone else. I should watch him. Good allies and enemies both are a rarity.
"In which case," he says, with a slow sort of a smile, "You won't mind coming along, will you? And if it's not there, well, you can explain to the headmaster why a prefect was cheating."
Oh, gasp. As if the old fool wasn't eating out of my hand. "And if I refuse?"
Again the smile, a bit too triumphant, a bit too over the top. Young, this one is. "Then you have something to hide."
Touché. And oh so sure of his own logic. A child, yes, and nauseatingly Gryffindor. But still, there is that niggling something, in the lift of his head, the shadows on his face. Instinct. "Very well, then."
He has two strides to one of mine, his growth spurt not quite done with his legs just yet. His height will match mine, I am sure, if his hands are anything to reckon by. The halls are silent, looming and cold; it must be nearing midnight. It is easier to cross three gardens than make our way through sprawling corridors, foraging a white world of hushed moonlight. The frost sparkles on stone arches as we crunch through hedge-paths covered in snow, our cloak hems making serpentine patterns to flank our sunken footsteps. Even with shortcuts, there are two staircases up and three down, but he never gets lost, never hesitates. Here is one who knows these paths almost as well as I, even the dusty ones that the professors neglect, or are ignorant of. In a smaller place it would be odd that I had not encountered him on my walks, instead I am surprised only to have found no trace of his passing.
"This would be easier if they'd let us work in teams." He pauses on a landing, winded. It is the first we have spoken since we started.
"And what would the challenge be in that?" I answer. "It would be a competition of who has the most friends, not who is cleverest."
With his eyes narrowed, I realize, he looks a trifle like me. "Well, if they were the cleverest, wouldn't they have picked the cleverest friends?"
Oh, not so, little one. The cleverest don't bother with friends at all. "No use debating it, is there?" Ah, diplomacy.
"Guess not." He trudges up the stairs, determined. "Oh well. It's not much farther."
The painting is not where it should be, but the lantern-bearing Watchmen hanging in her place are kind to point the way.
"Right down the hall on the left, boys. Lor, She's not been 'ere for fifty years. Fifty, wasn't it, Yves?"
"Nay, kinsmen. Nearly six hundred years."
"Six hundred! Are ye daft, you old bat?"
"You're both wrong," chimes another, "It was a week ago Tuesday!"
The watchmen fall to arguing, no longer good for information.
"You were wrong." And my companion is suspicious.
That's a sweet betrayed look you have on your face, little boy. I'd like to look at it a little longer, and maybe make it stay, but that's not to my advantage now, is it?
"My mistake," I say, smoothly. "I would have sworn it was here." And here I am uneasy, for I could have. I dislike being wrong.
He runs his fingers through his hair, and it ruffles charmingly, black and spiky. "It's all right, they move around all over the place, and their sense of time is lousy. I just hope she's where they say she is."
Remarkably, in the history of paintings giving directions, she is, and preening. "You're the first," she croons, lifting her chin as the Gryffindor writes "xerampelinae" next to her clue on his parchment. "None of the others have found me yet--" she blinks at me, and is suddenly unfriendly. "Here! You're not supposed to be working together! You there, come out!"
When I do make this place my home, I shall have these impertinent things removed, and some nice silent landscapes put in. "Your pardon, lady." I bow, and she seems to like that, adjusting her crown. "I am not involved in the game, I was merely walking in the same direction as my friend, and curious as to your location." A smile is often the very best of weapons, sharpened as I lower my eyes shyly. "Since you are one of our loveliest portraits, and I so rarely get to see you."
Her paint goes a bit pink, as expected. I have a mirror, and am no fool. Fate saw fit to arm me with black lashed emerald eyes and a smile to shatter hearts. My companion, however, regards me with a look of deep distrust, and not only, I think, for the colors on my cloak. Smart, young Gryffindor. There's hope for you yet.
"Well, if you're not helping him, I suppose it's all right. I'd best go move now, can't make it too easy if I've been found once." She stands and shakes out her skirt, moving to the edge of the frame. "Run along now, boys. No peeking."
"Thanks for your help," he says to me, sincere even in his suspicion. Feh. Honorable Gryffindors.
"My pleasure." I will find you out, boy. I will find out who you are. "So, what is the last item to be found?"
He checks his list, tilting it to the dim light filtering through narrow windows. "...It's a secret."
Oh, come now, you can tell me. "A secret?"
"Yeah. That's what I've got to find." He scowls at his parchment and rolls it up, blowing at this bangs. "Ah, well, I guess I'd better get on with it, then. I suppose I'll see you around."
Oh, you will. "I'm afraid you never mentioned your name?"
"Didn't I?" he must be popular in Gryffindor, to not be used to introducing himself. "James. James Potter. You?"
"Tom." Foul, common name. How I hate to claim it as mine. "Do let me know what secret you find out, won't you? I'm curious."
He doesn't look like he'd quite like to, but he's not about to get saucy with a Prefect, even a Slytherin one. "Sure. If we meet up again."
"Not to worry," I feel myself smiling, under my skin. "I'm sure we'll bump into each other in the future." I will make sure of that.
It is only, standing in the snowy courtyard we crossed previously, that I wonder if such a meeting will be possible. At my feet lie one set of tracks, my own. From the Cleric's Garden to the Squire's Gate they travel alone, though I was certain enough that he made his own as we walked, I saw him shake snow from his boots in the hallway.
It would seem that James Potter found his secret, and I my mystery. These walls are full of them, especially on nights of snow and moonlight, on this night already holy before the Christians came, rich with old magic. The castle will give me no answer, just the riddle of my own tracks in the snow. Very well. So be it.
Still, making my way to my chamber and to bed, I can only wonder. Was he my ghost?
Or was I his?
twelve days of christmas
b i s h o n e n i n k