“…having filled out form SFAW-76/77a(iii), those seeking asylum/citizenship/escape from ravening monsters from Dungeon Dimensions/none of the above, skip questions 11-13 and request form SFAW-78b(iv)…” – Megha Varma, A Beginner’s Guide to Customs and Excise
The horses had to stay outside.
Ichabod was ready to hang back and keep an eye on them, but Harry objected.
“First show us where to go.”
They were led to the large,
imposing front door of the building. Harry noticed that until now he had been
automatically assuming it was the town hall because of its appearance, but he
was about to be proven right. Ichabod talked smoothly and quietly to the city
officials as they paced up and down in their appointed paths, and eventually,
they stood aside and allowed him to rap at the door.
Nothing happened for so long that
Harry was afraid no one had heard, but at length the heavy wooden door did creak
open. It was hard to see clearly into the darkened interior because of the
bright sunlight outside, but Harry managed to discern a long, empty corridor,
painted that particular shade of olive green you only ever saw in schools,
hospitals and government buildings. There was another city official just within,
not pacing up and down but standing to attention. What looked unpleasantly like
a bayonet was balanced on his shoulder. Ichabod spoke to him too quietly for any
of the other wizards to make out the words; Harry wondered exactly what was
being said and how their presence was being explained.
Whatever was happening, it
didn’t seem to be in their favour. After a moment the guard shook his head
emphatically in a way that needed no translation, and the door was slammed shut.
Being made out of solid wood, the sound it made was particularly final.
Ichabod didn’t seem
disheartened. With an impatient wave of his hand, he silenced Harry and rapped
again at the door. Whereas earlier the knocking had been completely random, this
time it had a clear rhythm to it – four short raps, then two long ones, then
another short one. After a shorter interval than last time, the door opened
Harry didn’t try so hard to see
inside this time, having seen it before, but certain things caught his
attention. The colour of the walls, for one thing – now no longer olive
green—were pale blue. It wasn’t a dramatic change in hue, and it would
perhaps go unnoticed if people weren’t paying attention, but Harry noticed and
smiled. He had a feeling he knew what was going on. Sure enough, the guard was
different. He wasn’t wearing uniform; rather, ordinary Muggle jeans and a
jacket. But he was smiling, unarmed, and wearing a wizard’s hat. Harry glanced
back at his companions. One by one, they all smiled as the same thoughts dawned
The guard stepped back, Ichabod
entered and Harry followed, everyone else just behind him. The horses were
forgotten for the moment as they proceeded down the long, darkened corridor. The
floor was polished and the walls slightly patchy and discoloured; it was so much
like any Muggle building that for a moment, Harry doubted himself. But at that
moment, some light from a high, narrow window caught their guide, illuminating a
stick of polished wood sticking out of his pocket. Harry smiled, and suddenly
decided he might do well to take a lesson from Ponder. There was no harm in
asking questions; whether they were answered or not was a different matter, but
there was no harm in asking.
“There’s two doors, isn’t
there?” he whispered hurriedly to Ichabod as they walked along.
“Depends on how you look at
it,” Ichabod whispered back. “There’s two doors, yes, but they occupy the
same space. The guard will only open the Ministry door if you knock the right
way, whereas the Muggle one will open however you knock.”
“Does that mean both doors
opened just now?” Harry replied.
Ichabod nodded. “That’s right. The Muggle guard is at this moment wondering why there was no one there on the other side of the door."
At that point, the conversation
had to be cut short. The corridor had opened out into a large, circular open
space with a large round skylight cut into the roof. The walls were white, as
were the floor and ceiling, and they reflected the sunlight so it was almost
unbearably bright. Strangely, this reassured Harry. The atmosphere seemed much
more… magical, for lack of a better word; much more like the
surroundings the wizards he knew lived and worked in.
The guard listened to a few more
words from Ichabod, and then led them to one door in particular. He saluted
smartly, and disappeared back towards the front door. Ichabod inclined his head
in that direction. “Time I went back, too,” he said. “Let me know how it
goes, if you can.”
And before Harry or anyone else
could object, he was gone, following the guard back down the corridor. Harry
“Just knock on the damn
door,” Draco told him, and there were murmurs of agreement. Shrugging again,
Harry knocked. He wondered if another special rhythm of knocks was required, but
it didn’t seem to be, for a few seconds later a voice called out. It was
muffled and possibly not in English, and Harry turned his head to be met with
lots of people shrugging in just as expressive a fashion as he had been.
He pushed open the door. It
opened into a room that could only be described as a den of bureaucracy. Once,
it had probably been a tidy office with a solid wood desk, a few chairs, and
perhaps a pot plant in the corner, but no longer. The room and its contents
seemed to be drowning in paper. Harry, himself a civil servant, thought he
recognised certain documents and forms among the mess, and sighed inwardly.
The occupier was seated behind the desk, head down, scribbling
away busily at yet another piece of paper. She looked up at the sound of the
door opening. “Kaun hai?” she demanded.
“Um…” Harry began, and
looked helplessly at Rincewind, who looked helplessly back.
“Kya hua, bhai?” said
the woman, as questioningly as before.
Harry decided he ought to say
something beyond ‘um’, if only to prove he was capable of speech. “I’m
sorry to disturb,” he began, but got no further.
“Ah!” The woman’s face
cleared immediately. “You would prefer me to speak in English, I see.”
The relief was palpable. “Thank
you,” Harry said, aware that he had been nominated as spokesperson. “We’re
“Not to me,” said the woman,
smiling. She seemed more amused than surprised. “You are Harry Potter, is that
not right? And Draco Malfoy… Hermione Granger… I’m sorry, I don’t know
any more. What brings you to Shimla, Mr Potter?”
She had stepped out from behind
her desk as she spoke, carelessly kicking pieces of paper out of the way as she
did so, and Harry’s spirits rose slightly. It seemed as though she had the
same slapdash attitude to red tape as he himself had. In standing up, she had
revealed herself to be just about Harry’s height, maybe a little less, and
clearly much younger than he. She was typically Indian, north Indian as Harry
was to later learn, with large eyes set in a relatively pale face. Unlike most
women they had seen here, her hair was bobbed, framing her face, but she was
dressed traditionally, with the flowing chiffon scarf draped around her
“Well…” Harry said slowly.
“It’s a long story, but to cut it short, we’re lost and we need help
getting home. Um… how do you know who I am?”
The woman laughed delightedly.
“You must think I don’t read newspapers, Mr Potter. Of course I know who you
are; and your partner, too. And Miss Granger – I have read many of your
“It’s Mrs Pince now,”
Hermione said shyly, “and can we ask what your name is?”
“My name?” She smiled. “My
name is Megha – Megha Varma. I am the Northern Consul for the Ministry of
Magic.” She sighed, and added frankly, “It is not a particularly powerful
position, but I hope I will be able to help you.”
“I hope so too,” Harry replied. “Um… Miss-”
“Megha, then – my friends and
I have been travelling for some time. We need things like” – Harry
floundered – “food, and sleep, and…”
“But of course.” She smiled.
“You will tell me what your friends’ names are, and we will see about making
them more comfortable.”
“Right.” Harry nodded, and
pointed to himself, then Draco and Hermione. “You know me, and Draco, and
Hermione – and that’s Rincewind over there, and Gytha Ogg, and this is…”
He paused, unsure of how to say it, uncomfortably aware that it was quite likely
his next few words could shortly be quoted in every wizarding newspaper on the
planet. But a few moments’ internal debate resolved the issue. He wasn’t
ashamed, not of… “My son, Ponder Stibbons.”
To her credit, Megha barely
raised her eyebrows. “Forgive me… I didn’t know you had a son.” Her eyes
drifted towards Ponder, and Harry saw her make the same connections everyone
else had made.
“It’s part of the reason
we’re here, really,” Harry said honestly. “It might take some time to
“There is all the time in the
world,” Megha declared. “You shall be given food, and somewhere perhaps to
rest, and then you shall explain it to me.”
* * *
“Push off, Senior Wrangler!”
“Excuse me, my dear sir, but I outrank
“Gentlemen, who is
Archchancellor of this university? Why, bless my soul, I do believe it’s me!
I am more important than both of you!”
Time never runs parallel. The
stately raven from the Tower of Art had just hopped into young Sam’s life, and
his inamorata had just fallen into the sleep of the truly exhausted.
“Fine.” The Senior
Wrangler folded his arms and sulked, and beside him, the Chair of Indefinite
Studies did the same.
Ridcully was ignoring them. “This thing’s a bit fuzzy,” he said thoughtfully. “Mr Stibbons – ah, sorry. Dean? Can you make this clearer?”
“Already did my best,
Archchancellor,” said the Dean mournfully, but he took the crystal ball anyway
and gave it a good polish with his robe. Much to Ridcully’s surprise, this
made all the difference.
“Ah, much better. Look –
Senior Wrangler gave up his sulk and eagerly peered over Ridcully’s shoulder.
In the depths of the crystal, he saw an image beginning to form clearly behind
the mists. As Ridcully had said, it was indeed Rincewind, and he wasn’t
running. He appeared to be sleeping peacefully, a white sheet covering most of
his face so only his eyes were visible.
seems alarmingly comfortable there." The
Senior Wrangler remarked. "He's clearly up to no good."
“Oh, all right,
Chair!” Ridcully exclaimed. The Chair of Indefinite Studies was getting
impatient. “There, you can have a look.”
The Chair moved forwards.
“What?” demanded the
“Living up to your name, I
see,” sighed the Archchancellor. “What, precisely, is happening?”
“Let me see!” squealed the
Senior Wrangler, and for a moment it did look like he would get a turn, but it
was not to be.
The Senior Wrangler was lightly
built for a wizard and the Librarian was a three-hundred-pound orang-utan, and
events unfolded as one might expect.
“Ook,” said the Librarian
again as the Senior Wrangler picked himself off the floor. “It’s all
right,” translated the Chair in a whisper. “The picture’s just moving,
The picture was indeed moving.
For some undefined but clearly magical reason, the image in the crystal ball had
become less focused, drawing back to show Rincewind lying in a simple wooden bed
(“Civilised,” said Ridcully) and some distance away, curled up on another
bed, the wizards could dimly make out another shape.
“Ponder,” said the Dean
suddenly, and once he had said it they could all see it; despite the fact his
face was half-hidden in shadow, those peculiarly soft features could only belong
to Ponder Stibbons.
The image was still moving. The
third bed contained two people, and the Archchancellor gave the crystal ball a
subtle nudge to hurry it up. He didn’t want his wizards to start getting
ideas. There was nothing more dangerous, in his extensive experience, than a
wizard with an idea.
“Where’s the girl?” asked
the Lecturer in Recent Runes suddenly. He had been uncharacteristically quiet
for the last few minutes.
“What girl, Runes?” asked
Ridcully without looking. He was still focused on the crystal ball.
“Miss Ogg,” persisted the
Lecturer in Recent Runes.
“Ah, young Gytha,” said the
Dean portentously. “I can’t see her.”
“We’ll start trying to get a
fix on her after lunch,” promised Ridcully. “Dear me, I do wish Mr Stibbons
was here, he’s far better than you lot with this thing.” He gave the crystal
ball a poke.
“If Ponder was here, wouldn’t
that rather negate the exercise, Archchancellor?” asked the Senior Wrangler,
who had just about recovered from assault by orang-utan.
Ridcully pretended not to hear.
“Lunchtime, chaps,” he declared, and not a wizard among them disagreed. But
as they waddled off towards the Great Hall, he did make some thoughtful remarks.
“Could be worse. Stranded in another world, never good, but at least they’re
getting a good night’s sleep. And if anything’s happened to the girl, no
wizard from this university would sleep like that. Sense of righteous outrage
would keep them awake, don’t you know.”
The Librarian only paused to grab
a banana from the Hall. Within a few minutes, he had disappeared through the
students’ entrance and was even now swinging from rooftop to rooftop on his
way to the old Ramkin residence.
* * *
“I trust your accommodations
were to your liking?” asked Megha, looking anxious. “I was worried that
perhaps there might not be space for all of you.”
“Everything was fine,” said
Harry, feeling a little uncomfortable. “Hermione and Gytha had one room and
the males of the species had the other.”
Megha smiled slightly. “You
understand we do not often have visitors, particularly from other worlds,” she
said slowly. “And where are your friends now?”
The two of them were seated in
Megha’s bombsite of an office, and one could be forgiven for thinking the
atmosphere unnaturally quiet. However, Harry had decided early on that a single
person doing the explaining might make things rather a lot less complicated.
“They’re off in the city with
Ichabod,” Harry explained. “He’s Draco’s half-brother… it’s a long
“Another one?” She sounded
“Yeah,” Harry said, grinning.
“Anyway, they’re off looking around. Ichabod promised Rincewind some sweet
“I won’t ask.” She smiled
again, then paused. “However, I must ask some things. You know what I
“Yes, of course.” Harry sat
up in his chair. “Well, some time ago – I’m not sure how long, to be
honest, but it can’t be longer than a fortnight – I was at home in
Derbyshire with Draco when Ponder’s head appeared in the fireplace. After that
things started getting really strange.”
She laughed and listened, and as
Harry finished talking – “…so we came down from the mountains on
horseback, and here we are” – she looked thoughtful. “So all you really
want is Floo powder?” she asked.
“Well, yeah,” Harry said,
embarrassed. “That’s only the start, of course. Once we’re back in
England, we’ll have to figure out how to get Gytha, Rincewind and Ponder
She stared at him; Harry quickly
decided she wanted to say something, but was uncomfortable about it. He didn’t
push her, and after a moment she spoke. “Forgive me, but I must ask you this.
The young wizard… your son…”
“Ponder,” said Harry gently.
“Yes, Ponder. He is your son;
is his home then not with you?”
Harry sighed. “To be honest, I
have no idea. I haven’t even talked to him properly since we arrived here.”
“He resembles you a great
“If he stays here, that will be
a problem,” Harry said decidedly. “He’s so instantly recognisable. Still,
we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them.”
“Indeed.” Megha looked almost
sad for a moment, then brightened. “Would you like something to drink?”
“No, thank you. I’ve already
had breakfast; Hermione’s a great believer in it.”
“If you change your mind, you
need only say and I shall have someone arrange for it.”
Harry was struck by something in
what she said. “If you don’t mind me asking a question, well… are you the
only person who works here? It’s just, it’s so quiet and I wondered.”
Megha gave him a sly look. “Mr
Potter, the Ministry of Magic in India is the world’s largest civil employer.
Other than me, a great many people do work here. You may have noticed
some of them last night.”
Harry didn’t say anything and
she sighed. “There is Lakshmi, who makes the tea. Monica, who cleans the
toilets. Abhi, who stands guard at the door. There are people who do everything,
and some of them are even Muggles. But people doing the kind of work I think you
mean – well, then there is only me and one other. Krishan is in Delhi at
present, making reports for Congress.”
“How come?” Harry asked. “I
mean, I don’t want to be rude, but…”
“You are not offending me. The
truth is, when the British were here, this was a much more important outpost. It
was here all year round, as opposed to the general government, and we reported
directly to the British Colonial Secretary. Alas, no longer.” She sighed
dramatically and grinned. “Independence, when it came, changed everything. Now
we are here only nominally. We have all the paperwork and none of the power.
Ah… is that your friends I hear?”
It was. The sound of laughter and
talking filtered dimly through the air, and within a minute or two, the door had
opened and Draco entered, head thrown back and laughing at something Gytha had
just said to him. Harry smiled at the sight as they all filed in. At the back
was Rincewind, holding something in his hands and staring at it with the
expression of an elderly virgin upon finally finding a man under the bed.
Harry answered their cheerful
greetings, but his eyes were on Rincewind. After a moment, Rincewind opened his
palms to reveal two large flat leaves with something balanced on top of them.
“Sweet potatoes,” said
Rincewind reverently and slowly, delicately, began to eat them.
“They’re a speciality up here.” Ichabod shrugged and looked at Harry, who looked at Ponder, who made I-don’t-get-it-either gestures.
Megha watched all this politely
and without comment. “Gentlemen,” she began, “and ladies” – with a
glance at Hermione and Gytha – “now Mr Potter has told me the unfortunate
series of events that led you here, you are welcome to stay here as long as you
wish, but would I be correct in saying you would prefer to go home now?”
Harry looked around at his
companions, and ascertained the general consensus. They were all nodding, and
after his taking a rueful glance at the potatoes, that included Rincewind.
“That’s right,” Harry said.
“Also, we don’t know how long it will be before it becomes impossible for my
Discworld friends to return to their homes within the same timeframe.”
“Temporal research is conducted
at the Ministry in Delhi, but perhaps it would be better for you if you went to
England as quickly as possible,” Megha replied.
Harry nodded. “I think so.”
Megha nodded. “So be it.”
* * *
The fireplace was in a back room,
designed primarily for Floo travel. Though it was not as hot as in the south,
there was no need for indoor fires. The jar of Floo powder on the mantelpiece
was a welcome sight after their travels. Ichabod had come this far, but declined
to go any further. “It’s best for everyone that I stay here,” he said
seriously. “It was nice to meet you all, and I’m glad to have been able to
help.” He waved away Harry’s thanks. “At least you know I exist now, and I
have some strange otherworldly coins to remind me it wasn’t all a dream.”
And with farewells all round, he departed.
“You all know to do it,”
Harry said once Ichabod had gone. Harry had been addressing everyone in general
with specific instructions. “Ponder, you go first.”
Mutely, Ponder took a handful of
powder and threw it into the flames. They immediately sizzled and glowed green.
Closing his eyes, Ponder yelled, “Malfoy Manor, Derbyshire!” and stepped
into the flames. He was gone immediately. One by one, the others followed him.
Harry hung back for a few
moments. “Thank you,” he said to Megha. “Thanks so much for your
hospitality. We would have been royally screwed if it hadn’t been for you.”
Megha laughed at the
colloquialism. “Believe me, Mr Potter, it was no trouble at all. I enjoyed the
company and I am glad to have met you all.”
“Oh, and… um… I really
don’t want to offend you, but…”
“Speak, Mr Potter.”
“Well,” Harry hesitated,
“you know about Ponder. You know who he is. Can you not tell anyone, at least
for the time being? I don’t want the world to know, at least not yet.”
“Your secret is safe with
me.” She was emphatic. “And now you must go.”
“Yeah…” Harry made no
attempt at moving. “And, um, listen. Hope the job prospects look up.”
She laughed. “I am sure they
will. Now go!”
Harry turned and smiled at her over his shoulder, stepped into the flames and was gone.
Stories Index Chapter Index Chapter Fifteen