A Fresh Start
*This story begins in a world quite like our own, but different in many ways*
Hermione Granger and her daemon, Papageno, sat quietly in the flower garden outside the Bodleian Library, careful to stay out of sight near the hydrangeas on that side. The large ornate fountain at the centre of the botanical quad provided good cover from inquisitive eyes, and the plants here were wild and natural, unlike the cultivated flora nearer to the library building itself. The splash of the water was also useful for muffling Hermione’s soft weeping, as she sat cross-legged under the shade of an ancient oak and felt thoroughly sorry for herself.
“You shouldn’t let those girls get to you,” her daemon soothed. “They just want to see you upset.”
“Well it’s working!” Hermione groaned, dabbing at her eyes.
“All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t give them the satisfaction,” Papageno went on. “They’re just jealous, that’s all. They aren’t half as clever as you and it bothers them. All that extra tuition that their parents spend out on them and it’s still you, little Hermione Granger, a townie, that beats them in every test and tops every class.”
Hermione smiled weakly as her daemon nudged her besocked feet with his little head. He was otter-formed just now, and gambolled around her in a little circle a while, tickling the exposed skin of her knees with his fur, before leaping over to frolic in the fountain water. Hermione laughed at his playfulness, as he splashed around and chased imaginary fish. Her mood lightened as she watched him.
“Thank you, Pap. You always cheer me up.”
“I’d prefer not to have to,” he replied in a fraught tone. “I’d rather you not be upset to start with.”
“Oh, you know what I get like!” she exclaimed, huffing at herself. “You’re right. I shouldn’t let them upset me. But I try so hard ... and it hurts when they make fun of me.”
“Are people making fun of you, young lady? You should report that to your mentor. Bullying is not tolerated at Jericho Prep.”
Hermione snapped her head up, then immediately turned her eyes down and bowed her head as she saw who had addressed her.
“Professor Silvertongue! I was ... I was just ... er, oh -”
“You were just crying because someone made fun of you,” Professor Silvertongue replied, kindly. Her daemon, a rather large pine-marten, trotted up to Papageno and touched noses politely. “This is Pan. What’s his name?”
A slight nod towards Hermione’s daemon directed Professor Silvertongue’s enquiry.
“Pap ... Papageno,” Hermione mumbled. She still hadn’t looked up, and was desperate to dry her eyes. Professor Silvertongue was a visiting scholar from Jordan College, and a favourite amongst the girls of Jericho Preparatory Academy. It just wouldn’t do to look so weedy and pathetic in front of a woman who was famous for being so strong.
“Has he settled yet?”
“No, not yet,” Hermione replied. “But he seems to prefer being an otter, so I think he might choose that for his permanent form.”
“And what about you?” asked the Professor, mimicking Hermione’s cross-legged pose in front of the bushes. “Where do you think you will permanently be? I assume that’s why you are here, for the Open Day.”
Hermione nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Trinity and Magdalen have made approaches to my parents. But the fees are quite high, I’m not sure we could manage them.”
Hermione blushed deeply and ducked her head in embarrassment, which caused the Professor to frown in pity.
“What do your parents do?”
“They run a small dental practice not far along the canal, near Abingdon,” Hermione explained. “It’s only a family surgery, mostly Domestic Health Service patients. I only got into Jericho by way of a scholarship ... my academic scores are quite high, you see.”
Hermione blushed further at her own achievements. Even Papageno buried his head between his paws in nervous reticence, causing Pantalaimon to whisper encouragingly in his ear.
“Yes, I’ve heard,” Professor Silvertongue smiled.
That caused Hermione to look up. “You have?”
“Of course,” the Professor continued. “As the only female scholar at Jordan I take a keen interest in high performing young ladies from around the feeder schools. And your name keeps coming across my desk and my attention ... Miss Granger.”
Hermione didn’t know where to look. The famous and much-loved Lyra Silvertongue knew about her. That was the most bizarre of pieces of news for Hermione to come across. For some reason, though, she felt as if she were being reprimanded.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered mutely. “I don’t mean to be any trouble.”
Lyra laughed at that. “You are a meek little thing, aren’t you? Tell me, Miss Granger, what causes this nervousness in you? You are a bright, intelligent girl, in a Mecca of learning. What is it that makes you uncomfortable?”
“I suppose I don’t feel like I belong,” Hermione mumbled, shifting awkwardly to curl her legs to a better sitting position. “Being a townie, and everything.”
“You mean, the spoilt little rich girls you study with make you feel that you don’t belong,” Lyra quirked sagely. “Are they the ones who upset you?”
Hermione turned away again, fighting a new surge of tears behind her eyes, but she still managed a polite little nod of confirmation.
“And what did they say?”
“They make fun of me because I have so much hair,” Hermione blurted out, fluffing her hands through her thick tresses. “And because my front teeth are so big. They say it’s a good job I love books so much because no boy will ever fancy me or love me, because I’m so ugly.”
Tears came against Hermione’s will and she sniffed hard as they fell. Professor Silvertongue would see, and judge her for her pathetic-ness, so why bother pretending?
But then she felt Pantalaimon rubbing his head against Pap’s shoulder in a comforting fashion, which caused Hermione to look up.
And she didn’t find Professor Silvertongue admonishing her, or tutting at her. Instead, she found kind, sympathetic eyes fixed gently on her face. She had a very pretty smile and Hermione was warmed to see it directed at her.
“Do you think you’ll ever fall in love?” the Professor asked.
Hermione hauled in her breath. This was a fear she carried, one she’d never shared before. But Lyra Silvertongue just had a way of earning one’s trust.
“I ... I don’t know,” Hermione snivelled. “Boys don’t tend to talk to me. But then, nobody really does. I can be quite bossy, you see. I don’t mean to be, but it just happens and people think I’m being mean. But I’m not. And I am ugly, the girls are right about that. What boy would want me as a girlfriend?”
Lyra chuckled at that. “Firstly, you are not ugly, and don’t let any silly girl - or boy - tell you otherwise. Secondly, aren’t you a bit young to be thinking about boyfriends? What are you ... ten? Eleven?”
“I turn eleven in September,” Hermione clarified.
“There we go, far too young. You need to enjoy being a child before you start thinking about the messy business of relationships.”
“Clara Fortescue has a boyfriend,” Hermione mumbled.
“Is that someone in your class?” asked Lyra. Hermione nodded. “And are you jealous of Clara?”
“Oh no!” Hermione scoffed. “Her boyfriend is Tobias Woodforde, a nasty, freckled little thing.”
“There we go then!” Lyra laughed. “Who would want a boyfriend if that’s the type on offer?”
Hermione smiled cheekily and felt a lot better. “Thank you, Professor.”
“Don’t mention it. However, if you really want to know if you’ll fall in love, we could always ask my alethiometer.”
Hermione’s eyes went round. She had heard of the mysterious truth-telling symbol readers, but she was half-convinced they were just a myth.
“Do you have one?” she whispered. “I thought the Magisterium confiscated them all?”
“I will tell you a secret, but only if you agree to do something for me in return,” Lyra replied, her grey eyes sparkling with meaning.
“What is it?” asked Hermione eagerly. She, like many others before her, had fallen under Lyra’s sway. She was totally in her power.
“The Magisterium and I have a, well, complex relationship,” Lyra continued. “The secret I carry could land you in trouble with the Consistorial Court of Discipline, or a dozen other bodies. But I have to pass it on to someone, and I’ve been considering you for a while.”
Hermione was beyond flattered. But the light of adventure had sparked within her too.
“You are bright and intelligent as I said earlier,” Lyra explained. “Someone who would appreciate the mystery and magnificence of all I have learned. Knowledge I am eager to pass on. Hermione, you could be my apprentice you know - I need one.”
Hermione gasped aloud. “An apprentice ... to you?”
“Would you like that?”
“Oh yes!” Hermione cried, leaping to her knees. “I would like that very much indeed!”
“And do you know anything about Experimental Theology?” asked Lyra. “That is my field of study, after all.”
“I know it concerns elementary particles, and the Rusakov Field, and the work of Barnard-Stokes, and Stanislaus Grumman, and I think it might have something to do with the movement of the planets, and maybe magic - but I’m not sure about that- ... oh, and it’s all about Dust, of course.”
Hermione said all this very fast and very enthusiastically. Lyra smiled at her.
"Of course?” she repeated. “And what do you know about Dust?”
Hermione blushed. “Mostly what you wrote in your books and treaties on the subject, ma’am.”
“If you are to be my apprentice, Hermione, I must insist that you call me Lyra.”
“But that wouldn’t be proper,” Hermione frowned. “You will be my mentor, I your student. Can I please call you ′ma’am’?”
“That makes me feel very old,” Lyra grinned.
“How about ′Miss’, then? I ... I don’t think you’re married, are you?”
Hermione blushed nervously again. It was a question to test boundaries, but Lyra simply smiled at her.
“No, I am not married. Very well, ‘Miss’ will just have to do.”
“Okay,” Hermione grinned. “My parents will be ever so proud when I tell them.”
“Now, first thing,” Lyra began seriously. “As my apprentice, much that we do will have to be kept secret. Even from your parents. It is safer that way, unlikely to draw the attention of the CCD onto your family.”
Hermione gulped hard. “I can keep secrets. But what was the one you were going to tell me ... about your alethiometer?”
“Merely that,” Lyra replied. “That I still have one. It’s mine, I’ve carried it with me since I was a girl of your age. I have no intention of giving it up to the Magisterium, or anyone else who might come looking for it.”
“And can you read it?” asked Hermione, shivering at the sudden hint of danger Lyra was alluding to. “Do you have the books?”
“I have learned to read it without the books,” Lyra returned with a triumphant grin. “That is secret number two.”
“Wow!” Hermione breathed. “Can ... can I see it?”
“That will be your third secret of the day,” Lyra admonished falsely. She waited for that adorable flush to return to Hermione’s cheeks before continuing. “But I’ll permit it. Come along, my office is not far from here. I will allow you to ask one question of my alethiometer, then I will return you to the dorm-house at Jericho.”
Hermione was on her feet in a flash, hurrying to keep pace with Lyra’s long strides. Pap and Pan trotted along behind, chattering quietly as they followed their humans across the garden, through the gatehouse of Jordan college, where Lyra cheerily saluted the Porter, then up the narrow staircase of the new Asriel Tower to Lyra’s little round office.
“It isn’t much,” she observed as Hermione closed the door. “But it’s all mine. Now, take a seat at the desk.”
Hermione did as she was told. Lyra then busied herself out of Hermione’s sight, entering the correct code to the safe in the corner of the office. The heavy door clicked open and Lyra withdrew a small mahogany box, which she placed next to Hermione on the desk. Lyra flicked the catch, then carefully lifted out the alethiometer, which she unfolded from inside a fine velvet cloth.
“Wow ... it’s beautiful!” Hermione gushed. “I never expected it to be so pretty.”
“You can hold it if you like?”
“Can I?” Hermione whispered, taking the object with reverent, trembling fingers as Lyra offered it to her. It was heavier than she imagined, and humming with a sort of low-level energy that Hermione found almost intoxicating as it flowed around her fingers.
“Now, what question would you like to ask?” Lyra queried, taking the alethiometer and setting it down in front of her.
Hermione didn’t even need to think. “Will ... will I fall in love?”
“Okay,” Lyra smiled softly. “Let’s ask.”
She busied herself with the dials at the sides of the alethiometer, spinning them with practised ease to move the hands to the correct positions. Then she closed her eyes, brought her breathing into a slow, steady rhythm, and framed the question in her mind. Hermione watched in drunken fascination as the needle swung round and around, stopping at this symbol then that one, making no sense to her, but hypnotising her as she tried to divine some sort of meaning from it.
She may not have understood what the symbol reader was trying to communicate, but Lyra was a far more experienced hand at this. She swallowed each meaning, followed each link as it passed through her mind. But the final message was very confusing.
She opened her eyes slowly.
“Well?” Hermione asked eagerly. “What did it say? Will I fall in love?”
Hermione was looking so earnestly that Lyra had to be truthful, even if the truth was disconcerting to the point of frightening.
“Yes, Hermione, the alethiometer says you will.”
And with that, Hermione Granger erupted in a shock of tears. She buried her face in the crook of her arms and leaned on the desk. Lyra stood and moved to her new apprentice, rubbing her consolingly on her shoulders.
“There, there, don’t cry. This is good news, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes,” Hermione looked up, smiling through her tears. “It’s the best. I’m just so happy. Did it say when?”
Lyra chuckled. “No, the alethiometer doesn’t give out details like that. But, it did give me some very unusual information, and I’m not sure what to make of it.”
“Like what?” Hermione pushed, drying her eyes.
“It says you will fall in love, but that the boy you love is from a different world.”
“A different world?” Hermione parroted. For some reason, the tone of Lyra’s voice suggested she didn’t mean a different sphere of society or social class ... but an actual different world. The kind that Lyra, herself, was rumoured to have visited in her past.
“Yes, and not only that, it says that he is in grave danger,” Lyra went on. “And there was something infinitely more confusing, regarding magic and his being a blacksmith, or maybe even a potter. Some sort of master of fire. I don’t really understand that.”
“But he’s in danger?” Hermione urged, a desperate imperative rising in her chest, to rescue this unknown boy that she had already fallen for, sight unseen. “What kind of danger?”
“Someone’s out to kill him.”
Hermione gasped in horror. “Then we have to help him. We must! I don’t know how but, Professor ... Miss Lyra ... you must know a way. If anyone does, it’s you. I cant let him be killed, I just cant!"
Hermione was so firm, so fierce, that Lyra was reminded of her younger self a moment. It ignited the spirit of adventure in her, this restless sense that always flowed just beneath her surface. She turned her sparkling eyes to her new apprentice.
“Okay, Hermione, let me make some enquiries to my friends at Oakley Street. They owe me a few favours. Let’s see if we cant help this Mr Potter of yours.”