If one thing sets Malkin Academy apart from Hogwarts, Hermione, it is the great diversity of magical techniques. As I said, there’s no mistaking the Hogwarts influence here, but American wizards and witches come from such diverse backgrounds you can’t help but notice. I’ve already mentioned Mr. Corntassel, my supervisor. He’s an American Indian. (Well, mostly, I think. Do you know of any Beings that can turn invisible?). He has his fifth-years prepare Medicine Bundles before they can pass their Herbology B.A.T.S. (Basic Achievement Test in Sorcery, more or less the same as O.W.L.s at Hogwarts). Mr. Malleus, the Defense against the Dark Arts teacher, is Pennsylvania Dutch and knows all about Hex Signs and other defenses we never learned about at Hogwarts—unless there was something in the footnotes somewhere. I missed it if there was. Then there’s Madame Glapion, the Potions teacher. She’s from New Orleans, where they use a lot of African techniques. And a new Charms teacher from somewhere out west who’s a fully licensed Mexican curandera!
Well, it’s nearly dinnertime, Hermione, so I’d better wrap up so I can take this letter by the owlery. Say Hi to Ron and give Rose and Hugo kisses from Uncle Neville.
PS: Any chance you and Ron can make it to London around Christmas? I’d love to see you lot again.
PPS: You’ll never believe what Mr. Malleus is working on! I’ll tell you about it later.
After a quick stopover at the owlery, Neville made his way to the Great Hall. The room had the appearance of a vast stone-and-timber hunting lodge, with two fireplaces facing each other, one to the right and one to the left, and a dozen mounted trophies on the walls. Though normally quiet, tonight they were serenading the students with Christmas carols in perfect four-part harmony. At the far end, the faculty sat at a semi-circular table against a concave stone wall. Four long tables accommodated the student body.
In the morning, most of the students and faculty would return home for a needed break. Tonight was the Christmas Banquet. Red and green fire belched up from the fireplaces, and the entire room was festooned with gold and silver tinsel, holly, and mistletoe. Unlike at Hogwarts, the ceiling didn’t reflect the nighttime sky. Rather, it was a deep velvety red studded with thousands of pinpricks of light.
Silvery ghosts glided above and between the tables. One of them doffed his tricorn hat to Neville and bowed deeply with a flourish.
“Good evenin’, Mr. Longbottom, and Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas, Rufus. I see I didn’t miss anything.”
“The food’ll be up directly, I allow. Now go get your seat before Principal Towne gets up to speak.”
Neville found his way to the faculty table, stopping along the way to greet students who called out his name. As a guest, Neville’s seat was near the center of the table where Principal Towne was deep in conversation with Mr. Malleus and Mr. Rainey to his right. To the principal’s left was Madame Glapion, then an empty seat between her and Neville where Mr. Corntassel should have been seated.
“Merry Christmas, Neville!” she called in her exotic, musical accent.
“And to you, Madame,” Neville answered. Madame Glapion didn’t look nearly old enough to be Head of Fairgarland House, although he had already figured out she was in fact about ten years older than Professor Snape had been when he started at Hogwarts—and he had been Head of Slytherin House at the time. Neville had a hard time imagining Snape as ever being young. Madame Glapion, however, projected the warmth, energy, and joi de vivre of a woman half her age.
“Please, you British are so formal. How many times have I asked you to call me Justine?”
“Well, then, Happy Christmas, Justine.”
“Ah, it looks like Athanasius is ready to begin.”
Principal Towne was tall, slim, and clean-shaven, his longish gray hair pulled back into a pony tail. His robes were of the plainest design and at least twenty years out of style. Only a thin stripe of yellow piping indicated his affiliation with Strongfoot House. Athanasius Towne came from one of the oldest wizarding families in New England—although he never bragged. The more irreverent students liked to say he took great pride in his modesty. In fact, Principal Towne rarely said much at all. His laconic nature ensured there wouldn’t be a long wait for the meal to commence.
“Esteemed faculty, students, and other members of the Malkin family,” he began. At the last phrase, Rufus and his fellow ghosts gave him a subtle bow. “Our academic year is now half over. My, how the time flies. Some of you, I’m delighted to say, have already distinguished yourselves admirably. Others of you…might consider a bit of reading homework before we meet again in January. Whatever your intellectual accomplishments, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year. And so, without further ado,” he clapped his bony hands three times and the Christmas feast appeared with a flash on all the tables.
Neville began digging into roast turkey, sweet potatoes, and corn. He wondered, however, where Mr. Corntassel could be. Although he seemed to enjoy wandering the campus almost as much as he enjoyed teaching his students, it wasn’t like him to be late for such a grand occasion.
Then, almost on cue, Neville noticed that something had caught Principal Towne’s attention. Following the old wizard’s eyes, Neville saw the doors of the Great Hall closing by themselves. He hadn’t noticed them open, but Towne obviously did.
A moment later, Mr. Corntassel flickered into visibility, leaning over the table to whisper something into the Principal’s ear. Towne nodded to Mr. Malleus, who was included in the conversation and seemed none too happy. Then he tapped Madame Glapion on the shoulder.
“Justine, we need to discuss something in the hallway,” he announced. The three wizards rose from their seats and slipped quietly from the Great Hall. A few of the students noticed their movement but most were too busy enjoying their dinner.
“Neville, I’d like you to join us, if you please.”
“Who? Me?” he said, rising to his feet almost automatically. But Mr. Corntassel was already halfway to the doors. Neville hurried to catch up. But on his way out, he did happen to notice something he hadn’t before. Three of his favorite students were conspicuous by their absence: Kate, Will, and Dana.