Chapter Fourteen: Bureaucracy

“…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 again.

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 on them.

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 shrugged. “Well?”

“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 strangers here.”

“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 shoulders.

“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 published works.”

“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, please.”

“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 explain…”

“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 you.”

“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 – there’s Rincewind.”

The 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.  

"Rincewind 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. “Oh!”

“What?” demanded the Archchancellor.

“Something’s happening!”

“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, that’s all…”

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 story.”

“Another one?” She sounded amused.

“Yeah,” Harry said, grinning. “Anyway, they’re off looking around. Ichabod promised Rincewind some sweet potatoes.”

“I won’t ask.” She smiled again, then paused. “However, I must ask some things. You know what I mean.” 

“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 home.”

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 deal.”

“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.

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