Chapter 1: Urbi et Orbi
Here is a secret -
But no, not yet.
Watch, first, as the city wakes from its slumber; as the April sun slides through the mists. As it gilds the waters of the lagoon that circles the city in an embrace like a lover; like a noose.
Hear the calls of the birds that wheel above the docks where the fishermen have brought their catches. Listen to the slap of the canal water against the gondole that carry early risers - or late retirees - between the tall palazzi.
Can you see the secrets? Can you smell them on the wind? Listen - listen - this city is full of them. They are the whisper of water against old stone, the swift patter of feet in the narrow twist of an alleyway.
The people of the city love gold and silver; they love silks and fine jewels. But they love secrets best of all.
They clutch their secrets tightly, holding them close to their chests even as they sit at confession and enumerate their sins. Secrets are sinful, say the priests, dressed in sombre black. And sin pays a dividend of death.
It is true that since the Pretender came many have died, but in this city of sinners there is new life every day, and anyone born here inherits the spirit of the place.
Glory, smirk the Wizards, as they stand on the gleaming marble steps of the Ministero. Look, they say, making expansive gestures with their brocaded sleeves: after the rain has fallen, the streets sparkle like diamond. See, when the sun shines, the buildings crowned with bronze.
The priests glower but they know to pick their battles; that this city is not so easily won.
For the people who live here have secrets in their hearts and lies upon their lips, and though their eyes smile and smile you can never see their souls.
Power is the only language that they understand, and knowledge the only currency they will deal in. The Pretender knows this, and he despises the people for it even as he craves both. They will bend to him, he decides. And if they do not, he will break them.
So, here is a secret: the best mask is the one that you forget you wear.
"Be still, child," Daphne's mother chides her, and she tries, really she does, but it's hard not to fidget when the pins scratch against her skull, when the stiff brocade of the dress is so very uncomfortable.
"Daphne." Her mother's voice is sharper than a pin, and her fingers are tight on Daphne's arm. "Daphne listen to me."
There is something in the words, an urgency that is unusual, coming from her winsome, smiling mother, and Daphne stares up at her, sees her own deep-blue eyes reflected in her mother's face.
"You're a beauty, Daphne," her mother says softly, her eyes moving across her daughter's face. "And your beauty is what you must show the world. Nothing more. Do you understand me?"
Daphne frowns, purses her lips. There is something more to her mother's words than what she is saying, and Iris sighs gently, sits on the bench before the vanity table, and pats the spot beside her.
When Daphne settles herself obligingly next to her mother Iris lifts a hand and runs it gently over Daphne's cheek.
She will remember this conversation, this touch, a year later, when she stands at her mother's bedside. Will remember her mother's musical voice when all that is left of it is a hoarse whisper.
"You are beautiful," her mother says now, "and your father is a rich and important man. These things are enough. Do not let the world know that you are anything more." There is a noise in the passage outside, and Iris lowers her voice, "The magic that you have, that lives in your veins, it is better that you hide it, better that you do not tell."
"But -" Daphne starts, and her mother shakes her head.
"It is a dangerous time to be what you are," Iris breathes, and then one of the footmen is at the door, and begging your pardon, my lady, but your guests are arrived, and Daphne turns pleading eyes upwards to her mother's. The worry on Iris's face softens into a smile, and she nods, once, before Daphne goes running out as fast as she can in the dress, making the footmen laugh as she rushes past down to the hall where the doors are just opening to admit -
"Lady Potter," Iris's voice says from behind her, and her hand settles on Daphne's shoulder, but she doesn't care, she doesn't care because -
"Lady Greengrass." The beautiful, red-haired woman smiles graciously. She has no breeding, Iris had said, her voice quiet as she brushed first Daphne's hair, then Astoria's. You'd never know it, of course, but she will not be allowed to forget.
Daphne can forget though: Lady Potter is kind and pretty and clever, but the best thing about her is the small face crowned with messy black hair that peeps from behind her golden skirts.
Daphne grins, bouncing on her toes, and the boy smiles back: small, and shy, but filled nevertheless with sunshine.
"Behave," Iris says quietly, but Daphne hardly hears her, she and Harry are already tearing up the staircase in search of what adventure can be found in the narrow attics of the Ca' d'Erbe, in the courtyard filled with exotic plants that Daphne's father keeps.
"You'll ruin your dress," Harry says, his tone caught between admonition and dare, and Daphne pauses, thinking of the way her mother's mouth will frown if she does, and decides not to climb out of the window after all.
"What shall we play instead?" she asks, for if they aren't going to be pirate adventurers she will need a worthwhile alternative.
Harry shrugs, looking out of the window. The spring light catches on the crystal lenses of the glasses that he wears, on the bronzed gold of his skin. He's five, the same age as Daphne, but he looks older, more serious somehow. She wants suddenly, very badly, for him to smile at her again, and so she leans in and whispers, "I have a secret."
He looks back at her, eyes wide, and she wins the smile she wanted. "So do I," he says after a moment, and they both pause, looking at one another, before Daphne reaches out a hand to touch the waistcoat that he wears, the red and gold threads turning green and silver under her fingers. Harry laughs, and then his hand is around her wrist, and the delicate, silver-webbed lace has turned golden. "My mother says -"
"- we mustn't tell." Daphne finishes the sentence for him, and they are both laughing now, at their daring, at their naughtiness, and Daphne, feeling giddy with it, asks him, "Have you ever kissed anyone?"
Harry's laughter stops abruptly, and his cheeks turn crimson. "No," he says, "Why would I?"
"I've seen my parents do it," Daphne says, and suddenly there is a seriousness to both of them. Somehow, though they are very young, it seems that something important might be about to happen. She hasn't moved her hand from where it lies on his chest, and she leans forward to press her lips against his.
There's a beat of silence while their mouths are together, and Daphne feels a little underwhelmed, frankly, but then there is a crackle in the air and she feels something spark under her lips. She steps back hurriedly, because whatever they've just done she is fairly sure is something that her mother will be very very cross about, and for a long moment they stare at each other. Then Harry coughs, wrinkles his nose, and says, "Parents are silly," and Daphne giggles again, and whatever strange thing they did has passed.
When they are called back downstairs Iris's eyes go to the golden lace that Daphne is now wearing, to the silver embroidery on Harry's waistcoat, and she looks not at her daughter but at Lady Potter, whose face wears a similarly frozen expression. "Harry," his mother says, and her voice isn't admonishing, exactly.
Daphne blinks, as she realises that Lady Potter sounds afraid.
When the Pretender comes for the Duke, when he makes the proud wizards of the Ministero tremble, when they hurl their spells and fight and shout, and the priests watch with their hands over their mouths to hide their smiles of satisfaction; as they tell their renewed flocks that Pride goeth before destruction; Daphne knows little of it.
She does her embroidery, plays her harp, follows the instructions of her elderly dancing teacher and smiles and smiles and smiles, remembering always the flash of terror in her mother's eyes as they beheld golden lace.
Lady Potter does not come to call, and Harry does not come to play, and Daphne says nothing of her sadness, nothing of the spark that flared, momentarily, between them.
In late summer Iris begins to cough, the sound underlaid with a haunting rattle, as though her lungs would shake themselves free of her body. Daphne's father's face is pale and drawn as he watches the light begin to go out of his wife, and Daphne and Astoria watch as their mother's eyelids flutter with tiredness, the veins in them dark even against the bruised purple of the thin skin.
The Pretender stands on the steps of the Ministero, shouts for the Duke to come and face him, to fight him, and it is Lord Potter who snarls that the Pretender isn't worthy of the ground the Duke walks on. At the end of October, as the city stands poised for winter cold, the Pretender takes his gondola and sets out alone, poling his way along canals that glimmer petulantly beneath a clouded night sky.
He uses the quick, cruel magic that he is known for to kill Lord Potter, to kill his lovely, clever wife. But when he turns to the boy, or so the whisperers say, he finds that for all his quickness and his cruelty the child cannot be killed, and instead it is the Pretender who falls, his body closed within the waiting arms of the lagoon.
And the boy disappears.
It is the best secret of all for the city, and all the citizens watch one another, wondering who knows the secret, who can tell them what the boy did. But no one, it seems, will barter such a priceless piece of knowledge.
The Duke returns, walking the narrow streets and grand piazze with his back straight and his shoulders squared, though he is an old man. His eyes still twinkle behind his glasses, or so people say, but he speaks little, and says even less.
Does he know? The people ask. Has he hidden something from us?
The doors of the Ministero are closed. The wizards do not stand on the steps, and the priests say that they are paying the price for their arrogance, that the Pretender was born of them and was their punishment, their shame. And the people listen.
The wizards hoarded their secrets, the citizens begin to say. They did not barter, or trade, but built their secrets into a web of such vanity, such hubris, that they were almost suffocated beneath it.
Daphne hears these whispers, and she places her hand against the scarred wood of the pew on which she sits, still and elegant and upright, six years old now but already with the look of a lady. Under her fingers the wood twitches, the whorl of the grain reshaping itself to her thoughts.
Her mother turns her head slowly to look at her, the blue of her eyes dulled by illness but the expression still sharp. Daphne lifts her hand, folds it with the other in her lap.
"Magic is dangerous," the priest thunders from the pulpit. "And it is only right that the wizards should be kept separate! Look at the Pretender. Look at what happens when their power grows too strong."
Daphne's eyes drop to the seat beside her, to the handprint in the wood.
That night her mother calls her to her bedchamber, where she lies, resting against a pile of pillows, looking small and shrunken. Her voice is a shadow of itself; her hand trembles when she lifts it to place over her eldest daughter's.
"Wield your secrets like a knife, Daphne," Iris says, the words sounding laboured, harsh in the quiet room. "Your face is a mask," she breathes, "Hide behind it - keep yourself, what you are, a secret." Her fingers tighten, brittle strength. "Do you understand?"
"Yes," Daphne says, and she finds that she is choking on a sob. "I understand."
Summer turns to autumn, and her mother dies.
Autumn turns to winter, and the Pretender sinks into legend.
Winter turns to spring, and Daphne accompanies her father when he goes to the theatre, sitting beside him, perfect as a little doll, or so she hears the people whisper.
And when spring becomes summer, when she turns seven, Daphne wonders whether the whispers are true, and Harry really is still alive somewhere in the city.
She wants to play again, to run and to laugh, to risk ruining her dress and not care, but if you run your mask might fall, and she cannot let people see what she is.
They are at the Malfoys', Daphne sitting motionless beside a fidgeting Pansy, whose mother is alive and can therefore still be disobeyed.
Their fathers have disappeared with Lord Malfoy, to discuss the secrets of men - business and politics and other things that make Daphne want to sigh with boredom.
Lady Malfoy places her cup on its saucer with a delicate clink, and smiles warmly at Daphne, who doesn't miss the glint of calculation in the woman's eye. "Why don't you go and find Draco?" Narcissa says. "He should be finishing his lessons soon."
Daphne stands slowly, uncertainly, and waits while Pansy rises with considerably less grace, before they start down the corridor, followed, at a respectful distance, by one of the Malfoy footmen - a small, balding man with watery eyes who makes Daphne's skin crawl. In the distance she can hear the sound of wood striking wood, and without meaning to she walks a little faster, wanting to know what is happening.
"Slow down," Pansy whinges, and Daphne obliges, her cheeks reddening at the thought of her own excitement. She is still flushed when they round the corner to see Draco and Theo fencing with practice swords, the hollow thwacks of their thrusts and parries ringing around the room. They are watched by a man with greasy black hair that falls over his sallow, bored-looking face.
As the girls stand there Draco leaps forward and manages to strike Theo in the shoulder. The dark-haired boy gives a little hiss of pain and drops his sword, which rolls across the floor to come to rest at Daphne's feet.
Without thinking, she bends to pick it up, adjusting her weight slightly as she lifts the wooden sword and holds it out level. It feels warm in her hand. "May I have a go?" she asks, and is rewarded by Draco's derisive laughter.
"You're a girl," he says dismissively, and Daphne shivers with anger, sees the torches flicker around the edge of the room as she feels a tingle of something at the tips of her fingers - something she mustn't. She drops her arm, feeling the weight of humiliation settle on her shoulders for a moment as Theo and Pansy laugh too, Draco ever the leader.
But when she looks up the black-haired man is watching her, his face unreadable. And two days later, he is in the receiving room at Ca' d'Erbe, speaking to her father.
"I have come to offer my services as a dancing master," the black-haired man says, and Daphne frowns in confusion from where she sits in a corner, eyes downcast into her lap,
She can hear her father's scepticism in his voice, can imagine how his eyes will roam dubiously across the stranger's dark robes, his unprepossessing exterior. "A dancing master?"
"Yes," the man replies, and there is the barest edge of impatience to his voice. "Footwork. Poise. She is not so entirely graceless as most children in the city."
Daphne has the feeling that she had just been offered a very generous compliment.
"Nevertheless," her father is saying. "She already has a dancing teacher."
"Not like me," the man says simply, and somehow her father is persuaded, because that afternoon Daphne is taken up to one of the rooms on the top floor of the Ca' d'Erbe, where the man waits with his back to her, staring out across the waters of the city.
"I am Master Snape," he says, once he has heard the door shut on the retreating footman. "And I am here to instruct you."
"You are to be my new dancing master?" Daphne asks quietly, and the man turns from the window to give her another of his impenetrable looks.
He takes a step towards her, lifting his hand to snap his fingers. "I am here," he says, as the air of the room roils like a stormwind, as Daphne gapes at him, as the floorboards seethe beneath their feet like waves, "to instruct you."
The city basks in the heat of high summer, houses grand and modest alike creaking as the warmth seeps into their wooden bones. Sparrows twitter above the squares where old women gather to air their laundry and their opinions. Gossip is essential to the running of the city – the sharing of it, in carefully measured increments, enlivens the drudgery of the poor, and the ennui of the rich.
The Duke knows this, and every time he lets a crumb of gossip fall from his lips it gives him a thrill of pleasure to imagine the ripples growing from it, moving outwards from his grand palazzo, through the market square and along the canals; spreading like a drug through the bloodstream of the city, like magic fizzing in the vein.
The boy is alive, the people whisper. Alive.
Where is he? they ask one another, and the sparrows take up the whisper and call it to one another across the red-tiled roofs: where where where?
But as the years dance past, deceptively light on their feet, the whispers die down. The wizards have been quiet, have kept themselves to themselves, but every so often there will be a child selling fruit in the marketplace whose basket is never empty; a thief against whom no lock can stand; a girl whose face is so beautiful the people weep upon seeing her.
The Ministero doors open to admit them. They do not come out again.
It's for the best, people say. Remember the Pretender.
Remember what he did?
The Duke smiles as he watches the people from the window of his tower room.
Remember, he has told them.
Here is a secret: the best dancers have an assassin's touch. Heart-piercing, feather-light.
It's one of the first things that Master Snape teaches her, and Daphne holds it in her mind as she plays her harp, as she smiles and sips tea, as she lies sleepless in her bed at night, watching the glimmering reflection of water across her ceiling.
Lightness of touch, he had said, that first day, snapping his fingers and sending something stinging across the backs of her ankles. Daphne's eyes had filled with tears at the pain, but she hadn't even flinched, and he had nodded as though satisfied. You are more than you appear, he remarked. And I am here to ensure that that remains the case.
He teaches her to dance, then. They spend countless afternoons in the room on the top floor of her father's house, and Master Snape drills her until she can turn on a pinhead, until she can dance every dance that she's ever heard of and then some more, and Daphne is willing to learn – eager, even – because every time she masters a dance he teaches her more magic.
At first Daphne isn't sure whether she should call it that – it is a word that has come to hold a weight of fear in it, a measure of terrified awe, and when she has heard it whispered by people in the streets, thundered by the priests in church, or murmured behind fluttering fans by women in the stalls at the Opera, it has always come freighted with distaste.
"Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself," Master Snape says to her when she tells him this, and his black eyes glitter dangerously, as though daring Daphne to argue with him. "There is magic in your blood, Lady Greengrass, and though I would advise you not to make the fact known, you should not be afraid of admitting it to yourself."
Daphne nods, grits her teeth, and focuses on splitting the light that drifts through the window into its constituent spectrum. Rainbow colours bounce around the walls, and Master Snape's eyes follow them, his mouth pursed in consideration.
"That will do for today, I think."
His dark robes flutter around him as he descends the stairs. The summer blazes through the city, but it seems to Daphne that he carries winter with him wherever he goes.
The years pass, spinning their way through the Ca' d'Erbe in a flurry of suppers and lessons and new gowns and sibling rivalry.
Soon enough Daphne is twelve years old, neither too tall nor too short, her spine straight and her hair a fall of spun gold. Men look at her now, when she accompanies her father on his outings; she can feel their eyes upon the shine of her hair, the sweep of her cheekbones, the delicate bow of her lips, and she keeps her own gaze directed to the ground.
It is Astoria who lifts her chin and stares back, and so the people say that it is Astoria who has run amok in the absence of a mother; Astoria, with her dark eyes and hair, who must be a burden to her father when he thinks of having to arrange a match for her.
They do not realise that Daphne's eyes are cast downwards so that the people who stare at her will not see the wildness in her soul, the sharpness at the core of her being.
Your face is a mask.
Hide behind it.
She is old enough now that her father expects her to play hostess when they have guests, and Daphne excels at little flatteries, artless smiles, and demure half-glances.
At her father's Midsummer party she notices Lady Malfoy watching her closely, and Daphne forces herself to swallow her mouthful of wine, to not let her hand tremble as she replaces her crystal glass on the fine lace linen.
She isn't all that surprised when Draco appears at her elbow after dinner, when he makes a show of bending and pressing his cool lips to her knuckles. Everything that he does is a study in arrogant elegance, Daphne thinks to herself, as Draco straightens up to stare boldly at her down his nose, despite being barely an inch taller.
Her father watches her over Draco's shoulder, and when he sees that she has noticed, Hyperion gives her a slow, subtle nod.
So, Daphne thinks to herself. It begins.
She could do much worse, of course. The Malfoys are rich and influential, and for all that Draco can be a hopeless bully he is also clever, and Daphne knows, even at twelve, that this will prove important if they are to forge a successful union, though she recoils from the idea.
Really, the problem isn't being Draco's wife. It's being anyone's wife at all.
But for now she knows that she has a duty, and it would not do to anger her father unduly. Her dancing lessons would be the first to go, and Daphne knows that she has not learned nearly enough to continue to pass unnoticed if she is left to do so alone.
She lets Draco pull gently but firmly on her arm. Lets him, as the musicians play and the guests drift from the the dinner table to dance and drink and politic, steer her out of the room and onto the balcony overlooking the Grand Canal. The Ca' d'Erbe is not nearly so magnificent as the Malfoy Palazzo, but it is her home, and it is charming, and from her bedroom window she can hear the cathedral bells and -
"Daphne," Draco says, and though he is obviously trying to be charming there is a bite of impatience in his voice that tells her that this is not the first time that he has said her name.
She turns to him, catching a glimpse, in the minutely petulant set of his mouth, of the boy who laughed at her when she asked to play with a sword. Draco must see something in her face, because his grey eyes sharpen as he looks at her.
"Daphne," he says again, and his voice is gentler this time, more solicitous. "My father would like me to sue for your hand. I find that I have no objection to the idea -"
You need to work on your flattery, Draco, Daphne thinks to herself, and her amusement must soften her expression because Draco appears emboldened.
"- and I wondered if I might - may I kiss you?" he asks.
His expression is confident and expectant, but beneath it she catches a flicker of nervousness, and it is this that makes her smile, that makes her whisper, "yes," and tip her chin up towards him.
The feeling of Draco's lips against hers is not unpleasant. They are smooth, soft and dry, and though his mouth is by no means plump there is a pleasant give that makes her think that she would not mind, so very much, having the duty of kissing him.
But then he leans away, and smirks at her. "We're each other's first kiss," he whispers, his tone conspiratorial, and Daphne smiles, demurs, and casts her eyes to the ground once again. She remembers playing, kissing another set of lips, and the strange spark that had passed between the two of them.
How long since she last thought of him? Her cheeks flame abruptly, and she glances up to see Draco watching her with smug satisfaction, clearly under the impression that it is her modesty that makes her blush.
Let him, Daphne tells herself. It would not do for him to know the truth.
It is the summer that Daphne turns fourteen, and she is tired, and fractious, and Master Snape has picked today to drill her on theory, which she hates. Daphne stretches her neck, feels sweat beading beneath the stiff gown that she wears in spite of the heat; little droplets of it pool in the shallow channel between her breasts.
"This is irksome," she sighs, tossing her quill down and resting her chin on her hand. In this room she is neither demure nor dutiful. In this room she returns Master Snape's stare boldly.
His face remains impassive, though one eyebrow twitches slightly. "What would you rather be doing, Lady Greengrass?" he asks, his voice lethally quiet.
There's a subtle irony in the formality of the address, and in any case Daphne is bored enough to disregard his tone, so she tips her head and blinks slowly at him. "I'd much prefer it," she says, letting the words come out as a purr, "if you could be persuaded to find something more diverting -"
"Stop that." Master Snape snaps his fingers, and Daphne jumps as a spell nearly connects with her nose, halted only at the last moment by a hurried motion of her hand.
"I am not one of your father's friends," Master Snape says, "to be flattered by your attentions."
"I didn't -" Daphne starts to say, but the words die on her lips when he shoots her a quelling glare. Because she did; of course she did. She has a power, and she tried to use it.
"You will find me immune to that sort of thing," Master Snape says sharply. "And if you wish to continue to learn you will not try my patience."
Colour floods her face, and this time it is shame that paints her cheeks. Master Snape gives her a long, level look. "Enough," he says quietly. "We are done for today." She stays frozen in her seat as he sweeps past her, burning with humiliation.
It's only when she hears the creaking slam of the great doors downstairs that it occurs to her that he may not come back.
"My Lady Greengrass."
He makes his customary jerking bow, and Daphne sinks into a curtsey, as she always does, though her relief is so acute that she feels she might faint from it.
He follows her up the stairs but pauses just outside the door to the room where he usually teaches her.
"I thought we might try something less...irksome, today, my Lady," Master Snape says, and Daphne could swear that there is the tiniest light of amusement in his dour face as she stares at him.
"Put these on," he says, "and let me know when you are decent."
She takes the bundle of clothes that he passes to her, and closes the door. It is the work of mere moments to persuade her tight stays to unlace themselves, to step free of the prison of her gown and pull on the rough linen shirt, leather jerkin and breeches that Master Snape has given her. There is a length of cloth that she realises is supposed to bind her breasts, and she does so quickly, reaching under the shirt to pull the binding tight before shoving her feet into a pair of worn boots. Finally she picks up a soft wool cap, and coils her hair up into a knot before tucking it carefully underneath.
When she looks at herself in the glass Daphne is forced to swallow. A boy - admittedly a very pretty one, but a boy nonetheless - stares back at her, and she finds that her heart is skipping with excitement as she opens the door and goes out to Master Snape.
"You will do," is his only comment, before he moves his hand in a complex motion and Daphne feels something cool settle about her shoulders. "To ensure that your footmen do not make difficulties," Master Snape says, before he leads the way downstairs and out to the boat landing, where his gondola waits.
The footmen do not spare Daphne a single glance.
"Sir," she asks, once she is seated in the boat and Master Snape's servant has started to row them away. "Where are we going?"
He regards her with his black eyes, and Daphne feels brutally self-conscious.
"You live in a gilded cage," Master Snape says finally. "And there are many such in this city. However there are cages also made from other, baser materials, though their inhabitants are trapped just the same."
"I see," Daphne says uncertainly, though it is patently obvious that she does not, and there is amusement in his face again as he watches her, perched on the seat, dressed as a street-rat but with the posture of a queen.
"No you do not," Snape says. "But you will."
It's at the tip of her tongue to ask him what, exactly, he is going to show her, but then something makes Daphne glance up towards the servant who is sculling with slow, neat strokes. She takes in the fine features, the suntanned skin, and the springy curls that seem to make a bid for escape from beneath a woollen cap similar to her own, and realises that she is not the only one in disguise.
The girl returns her stare boldly, and Daphne feels small and silly under such a knowing gaze. They must be about the same age, but the girl has a compact wiriness to her that tells Daphne that their lives have been very different.
"This is Miss Granger, Lady Greengrass," says Master Snape. "If the two of you are amenable, she will be helping with some of your more...practical lessons from now on."
Daphne looks back at the girl and sees that a tiny frown has appeared on her face. She swallows tightly. "Very good, Master Snape."
'Practical lessons' turns out to mean a number of different things. There is the charming of locks to fall open. There is walking across the rooftops: learning the sure quick-footedness required to leap from one to another. There is the climbing of walls without ropes, with only the barest whisper of magic to buoy them upwards. There is slipping a hand beneath a gentleman's cloak to relieve him of his purse, and there is swimming in the lagoon waters.
All of these things together, Miss Granger ("call me Hermione, I beg you") tells her, form something that she calls, with a little twist of a smile, the "freedom of the city."
Daphne can feel it, making her heart sing and her cheeks glow and her fingertips tremble. Freedom; the keys to her cage.
It doesn't take long for her and Hermione to learn that, with their magic, they have more than enough in common to become friends. While her lessons with Master Snape continue as before, Daphne finds herself sneaking out almost every other night to run across the city with Hermione, and as the years pass she learns more and more secrets.
The priests - those severe, starched pillars of black - hide gold in their private halls, and their feasts are lavish enough to make even Daphne's eyes widen.
The gondoliers will gut you as soon as look at you, but if you earn their loyalty they will fight for you to the death.
The island of San Marco, which emerges from the mist each morning, is haunted by so many ghosts that to learn all their stories would take another lifetime.
And then there are the secrets of how a girl like Hermione, whose mind is as quick as her thieving hands, but whose magic is an awesome thing to behold, has managed to survive so long without being caught and taken to the Ministero.
"Swords are for gentlemen and soldiers," Hermione sniffs primly. "A knife is much better."
She produces one with a plain wooden handle - nothing special, though Daphne can see the keen shine of the blade as Hermione balances it in her hand.
Soon Daphne can wield a knife in close quarters, and can throw one to hit a target twenty feet away. Hermione rounds on her unexpectedly one night when they are both sixteen, and the two of them whirl through a series of movements that seem more like a dance than anything else - the neat choreography of feet and hands, the bend and twist of their bodies. It is an improvisation, a daring call and response. This is what Master Snape has been teaching her all these years, Daphne realises, as her breath comes short and her blood sings.
When Hermione knocks the blade out of her hand and grazes the point of her knife over her ribs, Daphne laughs, and sketches a mocking bow to concede the victory. There is more laughter, and a light smattering of applause, and the two girls turn to see that the whores have crept out of the shadows of the bridge to watch them spar.
"Well done," says one, whose name Daphne thinks is Rosmerta. "I haven't seen you at Hogwarts before, I don't think?"
From the corner of her eye Daphne sees Hermione shake her head very slightly, and she smiles blithely at the woman. "No," she says, "you haven't."
Hermione takes her arm and turns her away. "Goodnight, sweet ladies," she calls over her shoulder, and another wave of laughter follows the two of them as they wander away across the piazza.
Daphne rounds on her as soon as they are out of earshot. "What's Hogwarts?" she demands. "What was she talking about?"
Hermione chews her lip, and as her dark eyes size her up Daphne is reminded of the day that they met. "It's an orphanage," Hermione says eventually. "Near the Arsenale. It's run by nuns but it's where Master Snape takes the magical children that he finds before the Ministero can get them."
"It's where you live?" Daphne asks, and is rewarded with a slow nod. They have stopped in one of the narrow calle, and are leaning against opposite walls. Hermione's mouth lifts on one side. "One of your lessons with Snape will feed an orphan for a week," she says, and Daphne wonders suddenly about this girl that she has known for years now; wonders about her instructor, Master Snape, whom she has known for more than half her life; and realises that really she knows almost nothing about them.
There's something that Hermione said though, something about Master Snape finding magical children… and Daphne looks up at her friend, and whispers, "What about Harry Potter?"
Hermione's eyes widen, and she raises a finger to her mouth, shushing Daphne just before a well-dressed gentleman sweeps past and they both instinctively tuck their chins to their chests. His hand is on his purse, and his stride is purposeful enough that Daphne has no doubt he is on his way to visit the ladies who make their living around the bridge.
"How do you know that name?" Hermione whispers once the man's cloak has fluttered out of sight around the corner, and Daphne blushes.
"I remember him," she says. "We played together when we were children. He - I -" she falls silent, unsure how to put into words what she wants to say, and Hermione gives her a peculiarly searching look.
It is a tiny paring of the secret; a sliver thinner than the crescent moon whose insipid light does nothing to combat the dark that fills the calle; but apparently it is enough, because eventually Hermione sighs, and pushes herself away from the wall. "Sister McGonagall would kill me for telling you," she says softly, "But we call him the Boy Who Lived for a reason." Daphne feels her heart leap, and knows that something of her excitement must show in her face, because Hermione smiles slightly, and rolls her eyes.
"You should get home," she says, but her eyes dance as she whispers, "I'll tell him you asked after him."
The title of this chapter comes from the Latin for "Know thyself" (a translation generally attributed to Cicero from an earlier Greek aphorism).
Barely two strokes of the oar past a busy piazza, and suddenly the city is quiet as an indrawn breath. Here, in the narrow Rio, the short winter days have become a slow, creeping darkness that slides down the walls like a velvet cloak. The water chuckles against Istrian stone and strokes languorously at the sides of boats, as though possessed of tongues and fingers.
These small canals are where the city's petticoats trail through her waters: the plain back walls of the grandest Palazzi and the more workaday buildings belonging to people neither rich nor powerful enough to matter. The marble in its gorgeous patterns; the gilded lanterns and polished wood that adorn the landings that open like unfurled palms into the Grand Canal; all are unnecessary here, for they will not be seen by anyone of importance. The doors that open directly to the water itself admit mostly tradesmen and servants. The bridges are narrow; barely enough room for two men to pass side by side.
A gondola slips through one of these backchannels, lacquered wood gleaming with droplets of water. It is not yet evening but a low mist sits just above the water and the strange salt-earth scent of the lagoon fills Hyperion's nose when he inhales deeply.
Across from him in the small cabin are his daughters, Daphne fair and Astoria dark, though at this moment both hide their beauty behind masks, beneath modest veils. The city has many eyes, but more than anything it desires what it cannot see.
Hyperion knows this, and so he tells his gondolier to stick to the small canals. He allows his daughters' faces to show only rarely, and watches with satisfaction as the eyes of the city turn hungry.
And here, here is a secret: in a city where everything is for sale, the richest man is the one whose wares are desired above all else.
Daphne is seventeen, and she stands by the window, staring unseeing as evening light the rosy colour of peach flesh bounces and dazzles off the broad back of the Grand Canal. Behind her the chatter of the ball rises and falls: ebb and flow like the tide of the lagoon. She hears Astoria's laugh like the chime of a bell, high and clear, just as their deportment-mistress taught them both.
Flatter and charm, charm and flatter.
Daphne turns to see her sister smiling coyly at Draco from behind her fan. Astoria's mask leaves her eyes plainly visible, and Daphne watches as her dark lashes flutter slightly when Draco bends to speak softly in her ear. He has grown bored, over the years, of Daphne's quietness, of her refusal to preen and flirt, to charm and flatter, and it would seem he is seeking diversion elsewhere.
She looks down at the crystal glass in her hand, at its slowly-melting contents, and feels an abrupt longing for the fresh tartness of fruit snatched from a market stall; for loose boys' clothes and clear night air.
Hermione's eyes had shone with quiet longing when Daphne told her of the ball, and she hadn't known how to put into words the sticky heat of so many bodies; the too-sweet flavour of the sorbets; the choking scent of perfumed oils. The way that her dresses are sometimes laced so tightly that she struggles to breathe.
At the thought of an easy breath Daphne turns away from the sunset and starts to pick her way across the room, but she has made it no more than a few feet when an arm encircles her waist, drawing her towards the dancing. Even had he covered his distinctive hair she would know Draco by his clean, sharp scent, more refreshing by far than the sugared ice that he plucks from her fingers to set on the tray held out by a passing servant.
"You haven't danced with me yet, Lady Greengrass," he mutters as he starts to twirl her through the steps, and she struggles to contain her grimace.
She can tell from the set of his mouth that he has caught the part of her expression left visible by her mask, and Daphne curses her lack of subtlety. She is too hot, too tired, and it has made her careless. She looks down, and sees her shadow waltz momentarily away from her feet. It is an effort of will to call it back, and when she raises her eyes to Draco's he is watching her curiously.
"I don't understand," he says softly, as he bends her over his arm and then draws her upright, "What it is about me that you find so distasteful."
You are not him, Daphne wants to say, but instead she summons something of Astoria's coquetry to her own lips. "Just because I do not primp and giggle for -"
"You are not your sister," he says bluntly. "I would not expect it of you. But I would expect you to pay me at least the courtesy of your attention."
Daphne is silent; for once, Draco has managed to surprise her.
"We are still betrothed, Daphne," he says quietly, shifting his hold so that his hands clutch painfully at her waist, at her wrist. "And I will not have you make me look a fool."
"I -" she starts to say.
I don't want to.
I wouldn't if I could help it.
I want you to let me go.
Something dances along her skin, out of tempo with the music, and Draco releases her abruptly.
Daphne stumbles, and a hand catches her arm, holding her upright. She turns, blinking in surprise when she recognises the dark gold of the woman's eyes.
"My Lady Greengrass," Hermione says, "if I am not mistaken?"
"No," Daphne replies faintly, unable to tear her gaze from the other girl. Hermione's hair, usually stuffed beneath a cap, is a careless tumble of dark curls, barely restrained by a glinting comb. "I mean - no, you are not mistaken."
"Well met, my lady," Hermione says, dropping a surprisingly elegant curtsey, and though Daphne can see the fear in her wide eyes she can see the excitement too; the light flush of colour over Hermione's cheeks. "I am Lady Granger, from -"
Draco has been frowning down at Daphne, but now he rounds, sneering, on Hermione. "It's excessively ill-bred to introduce yourself," he interrupts her, his lip curling scornfully. "And what sort of a name is -"
His voice seems to die in his throat when Hermione glares up at him, her silvery mask catching the light. It's expensive-looking, just like the dress that she wears, and Daphne recognises with a flash of amused indignation that both have been filched from her own wardrobe.
A long moment passes, and Draco and Hermione are still simply staring at one another.
"No sort of name," Hermione says finally, and there is something in her voice that Daphne has not heard before: a strange admixture of scorn and hope. "That's really rather the point."
Draco swallows and makes an abrupt half-movement, as though he would have laid his hand against Hermione's cheek. "Lady Granger," he murmurs, and his voice is so soft that Daphne almost cannot hear him over the swell of the music. It doesn't matter though, because the name, the quiet reverence in his voice as he fits his mouth around its unfamiliar contour, is not for her. He extends his hand to offer it to Hermione. "Perhaps I might have this dance?"
Hermione makes no reply, but her eyes still have not left Draco's and she lifts her hand unhesitatingly to place it in his. There is a crackle, a tingle of energy upon the air when they touch one another, and Daphne takes a step away, feeling a blush steal its way across her face and knowing with absolute certainty that her presence is no longer needed - has been surplus to requirements, in fact, since the moment they laid eyes on one another.
She backs towards the stairs, neither Draco nor Hermione sparing her departing form so much as a glance. As Daphne climbs towards the gallery she watches the pair of them moving together through the crush of bodies on the floor of the ballroom, and can tell even at this distance that they are blind to everything but themselves; that Draco's hold on Hermione's waist is tighter but more gentle than it has ever been on Daphne; that their bodies, their hands, their very breaths fit perfectly together.
There is magic on the air; she can feel it, taste it, and it is pouring from the two of them, making Draco's hair gleam and Hermione's skin glow. She wonders what Master Snape would say if he could see; wonders whether he knows that Hermione is here. Daphne has the sense that there is not much that Master Snape does not know, and as she crosses to the family's private apartments in search of cooler air, she considers this.
She has wished to be free of the obligations of the balls, of her status as the eldest daughter of one of the richest men in the city, and now her friend has appeared out of nowhere to bewitch Daphne's betrothed away from her. As she slips through the door to the parlour it occurs to her that perhaps she should be outraged, but instead Daphne feels an overwhelming sense of relief, and an odd, wistful jealousy that has little to do with either Draco or Hermione and a great deal to do with the way they aligned like the missing pieces of a puzzle.
It is just when she is on the point of laying down on one of the overstuffed couches to ponder this that Daphne hears a noise from across the room, and sees the sliver of light peeking under the door of Lord Malfoy's study. With a vague memory of having seen Lucius downstairs speaking to her father she frowns, and picks her way between the tasteful bric-a-brac that litters the room to lay her ear against the polished wood.
Hearing the distinct sound of drawers thumping open and closed, Daphne's frown deepens. The door opens soundlessly with a flick of her fingers, and she pauses, shocked, in the doorway.
The study is in disarray, drawers and cabinets open and ransacked, pieces of parchment, odds and ends scattered across the floor. In the middle of it all a man stands behind Lucius's grand desk, rifling through the drawers with a purposeful determination that tells Daphne that this thief is looking for something specific.
It's in her head to call for the guards that she knows patrol the palazzo. The words are on the tip of her tongue, even, but she is looking at the thief, at his long cloak, his rakish hat and the plain black mask that he wears, and all at once her cry of alarm dies in her throat and she cannot take her eyes from him.
He is dressed like most of the men at the ball - they are in costume after all, knaves and ladies - but there is a casual ease to the way that the clothes fit him that tells her he is not wearing them for amusement.
"You shouldn't be in here," she says quietly, stepping fully into the room and letting the door swing closed behind her.
The man jerks upright, staring at her, and she just has time to see the surprise in his green eyes before he leaps around the desk, one hand moving quickly to form what she barely registers is a spell - only Daphne is faster, years of Master Snape's uncompromising tutelage lending her a fluid grace as she pulls the stiletto from her hair, dancing and ducking beneath the man's outstretched arm to hold the blade to his throat.
"Ah," he says quietly, and behind his mask she sees the corners of his eyes tighten. "I didn't think that there would be anyone up here."
Daphne's free hand twitches, and she is hit with the absolute conviction that, if she wished to, she could trace the exact shape of his frown without needing to lift his mask.
"Well," she says, hearing the prim note in her own voice and struggling not to wince. "It would appear that you thought wrong."
"Apparently so," he murmurs, and the edge of his mouth lifts into a wry smile. His nonchalance is irritating, and charming, and all the more irritating for being charming, and Daphne narrows her eyes at him.
Careful, Master Snape's voice cautions her, and she remembers the spell that the man's hand had shaped. He can do magic too.
"Where do I know you from?" she whispers, the sense of recognition overwhelming. She can still feel the fizz and spark of magic, like she did downstairs, but now it is inside her skin, burning her everywhere that his eyes touch.
Those eyes - emerald green - lovelier than any of the jewels that fill her father's coffers.
"I really couldn't say," he replies, lifting one shoulder in a shrug, but his eyes dance and her heart stutters with the echo of a laugh.
I know you, she thinks again, and the shiver up the back of her neck is a feeling, the flicker of magic at her fingertips is a name, but it can't be - it can't be -
"I won't let you rob my hosts," she says, trying to lace her voice with steel as she raises her chin and stares right back at him, ignoring the way that her heart leaps into her throat when he lifts a leather-clad finger to run it along the stiletto.
"Well," he breathes, and he uses the pressure of his finger on the blade to allow him to lean closer to her. "I can hardly leave here empty-handed, can I?"
The way that he looks at her makes her breath come short, makes the hand holding the knife jump, the point nicking against stubble, but Daphne doesn't care, because she is saying "No you cannot" - she is dropping the knife - running both hands up the sides of his face to pull hat and mask away and -
"Harry," she whispers, as his hands find the ribbons that hold her mask in place; find the edges of her jaw and lift her chin.
"Daphne." Her name is a sigh of relief, the shape of it on his lips doing something strange to her pulse. They stare at one another, and how funny, Daphne thinks, to have been jealous of Draco and Hermione, when -
"Have you ever kissed anyone?" Harry asks her, tease and entreaty, and she remembers, she remembers, though it was a lifetime ago, though they were only children, hearts whole and ignorant of sorrow.
"Once," Daphne breathes, for there has only ever been once that it counted. "A long time ago."
His smile is a thing of wonder, but it is nothing to the feeling of his mouth on hers, of his arms around her. Twelve years , or thereabouts, and they were children then, and it was just a game that they played one afternoon, nothing of consequence, but it was everything, just as this, now, is everything.
The swell of his biceps beneath her fingers, the sigh of his name in her throat, the sweep of his tongue, tasting of black tea and burnt sugar; riches beyond imagining. The spark and flare of magic as she runs her hands down his back, feeling the broad sweep of muscle tapering from his shoulders to his hips, his fingers playing across the nape of her neck.
And then her hands are empty and he is across the room, standing on the windowsill. He's holding a slim leather-bound book in one hand - snatched from the desk, she thinks, as he darted away - and in the other, twinkling in the lamplight -
"How dare you!" Daphne says, trying to make her tone appropriately outraged as she raises her hand to her collarbone and feels the absence of the diamond necklace.
His reddened lips stretch into an apologetic grin. "It wouldn't do for me to leave here empty-handed, my lady," he says. "My accomplices would not be happy if I allowed myself to be distracted from my task."
Daphne thinks of Hermione downstairs, of the look on her face as she had stared at Draco. "I think at least one of your accomplices might be somewhat distracted themselves," she says.
One dark eyebrow raises above the mask that he has tugged back into place, and she feels magic and desire twisting the air of the room until she is short of breath.
"Be that as it may," he says slowly, "I got what I came for." He waves the book at her, and Daphne narrows her eyes.
"What you came for?"
He has the grace to blush, and she watches with satisfaction as he realises what he has said, as he starts to splutter something incoherent. "It's a shame really," Daphne says coolly, once she judges that he has suffered long enough, "that that necklace isn't more valuable."
Harry glances from Daphne to his handful of glittering gems, and back again. "A shame," he echoes, smiling slowly, a flash of teeth in his pink mouth. "To steal the treasure but leave the prize." Their eyes hold, and though the room is small it is too large, the space between them a world to be crossed in a single step -
But not tonight, Daphne knows, seeing the flicker of regret in the purse of his lips.
"I guess I'll have to rob your father next," Harry says, before he leaps from the window into the wide, waiting dark.
'Multum in parvo' = much in little. Hearts for all!
Bright the city: burnished with gold, with marble the colour of a young girl's blush. The gleam of sun- and moonlight upon the winding, twisting canals; on the broad expanse of the lagoon. Light spilling luxuriantly from windows and from the lamps of gondolas; bathing waters, rooms and faces in its warm glow.
Dark the city: shadows deep and thick gathering around the edges of the piazze, rubbing against the towering walls of churches with feline affection. Clouds gathering in the nighttime to transform the lagoon into an aching yawn of black - the canals to inky ribbons coiling between buildings.
In the brightness is the city's smile, music and laughter, the first flush of young love. In the darkness are the city's knives, quick and vicious, fitting themselves between the ribs of the unwary.
Master Snape knows this, and he watches from the shadows as the people of the city spin through the light. He remembers the feel of a heartbeat quickened for the first time, and he remembers the lessons that he learned in the darkness, many years ago. He turns his face to the wind that slinks through the streets, making the lamps shiver and the shadows dance. It will soon be time, he thinks, to pass those lessons on.
But, for now, enough of that, for here is a secret: hate is a cruel mistress, but love is crueller still.
"Concentrate!" Master Snape barks, sending a stinging hex towards Daphne's ankles that she only barely leaps away from, and she grits her teeth with frustration as she struggles to find her balance.
All day she has been like this, barely able to think, let alone move, perched upon the edge of something and staring into the unknown that lies ahead. Unbidden the image of the dark night gathering beyond an open casement springs to her mind, just waiting to be leapt into.
Perhaps I'll rob your father next -
"Lady Greengrass." Master Snape's voice is soft - deadly - and she looks up to see him watching her with his unreadable black eyes. Everything about him is dark, but he does not possess the pompous solemnity of the Priests, nor the ostentatious self-importance of the members of the Ministero. He is fluid as oil, gliding across the water, never mixing, always apart-
"My lady," he says again, and this time there is an unmistakable note of impatience to the words. "If you will not pay attention to the lesson, I hardly think it worth my while to tea-"
"Why didn't you tell me?" Daphne blurts, surprising herself as much as her instructor, whose eyebrows twitch together in an expression that could be shock, or irritation, but is, in any case, banished from his face almost as soon as it appears.
"Tell you what?" he asks quietly, and Daphne's jaw tightens as she draws on the mulish stubbornness that she so rarely deploys, but that makes her and Astoria more alike than either would ever admit.
"That he would be there last night."
Had she expected another flicker of emotion on his face Daphne would have been disappointed, but she knows Master Snape better than that by now; knows that having let her surprise him once today he will not do so again.
He considers her closely, and Daphne sees the moment of decision in the set of his mouth. After so many years she can read his face as well as her father's, she realises, though the mask that Master Snape wears is blank, whereas Hyperion hides his thoughts behind his smooth politician's smile.
"Even if I knew who you were talking about," Master Snape says slowly, "Why is it that you think that I would concern myself with the trite affairs of children?"
Daphne stares at him, furious and a little abashed. In their sconces the lamps flicker, and the walls give a creaking groan as magic snaps through the air of the room. All that Master Snape does is hold her gaze calmly, waiting her out. Just like that, she understands: it is another dance - the exchange of information; the revealing of secrets.
The lesson to be learned, she knows with sudden, indubitable clarity, is how much to give away. And, of course, surmising how much information your opponent has to give in return.
Wield your secrets like a knife -
"Because you make it your business to know things," Daphne says, trying to keep her tone light as she casts a baited hook into the conversation. "After all, if Harry Potter is not in the grip of the Ministero then he is surely in yours."
"Mine?" hums Master Snape, and there is a tiny, quizzical lift at the corner of his dour mouth. "I feel that I should assure you, Lady Greengrass, that Harry Potter is most certainly not under my control." His voice takes on a note of polite enquiry that doesn't quite cover the wry amusement in it. "Whatever would lead you to think that?"
You made a mistake, he seems to be saying. Revealed too much, too early.
Daphne sighs, and tosses her hair. "The missing son and heir to the house of Potter turns up to burgle Lord Malfoy's private office," she says ignoring the way that her heartbeat speeds at the memory of the small room, of the way that Harry seemed to fill it with his presence. "And you claim not to be interested?" Master Snape says nothing, so she goes on. "Had I known beforehand that I would need to absent myself from the dancing in order to deal with a thief in the house of my betrothed, I might have been disposed to be a little more helpful."
The amusement in Master Snape's eyes has faded by the time she stops talking, and his mouth twists in naked disapproval.
"That boy is hopelessly reckless," he says sharply, "worse even than his father." He grimaces again, and Daphne feels a mixture of satisfaction and surprise that something is able to break through Master Snape's sangfroid. It's on the tip of her tongue to question his obvious disdain for Harry when he turns his pitch-dark gaze back to fix her with a shrewd glare. "Did he find whatever it was that he was after?"
I can hardly leave here empty-handed -
Daphne lifts her chin defiantly, fighting the blush that threatens to stain her cheeks. "I think that he found robbing Lord Malfoy more of a challenge than he was expecting," she says. Her tone is crisp, and pert, but it isn't an answer, and she can't quite meet Master Snape's gaze as she speaks.
I got what I came for, Harry smirks in her memory.
There is a beat of silence while Master Snape seems to consider her, and then his eyes narrow. "What I find strange," he murmurs, "is that Miss Granger was not there. Wherever Potter goes she is usually not far behind."
Daphne thinks of the way that Hermione's eyes had widened as she looked at Draco - the decisive placement of her hand in his - and cannot hide her flicker of surprise, raising her eyes to Master Snape's quite without meaning to, and then finding herself unable to break his stare. Not for the first time she has the unsettling feeling that those black eyes can see all the way through her thoughts.
"Lady Greengrass?" Master Snape presses, impatience lending his voice the barest edge.
"She was -" Daphne begins to say, but then there is a glint of something in his eye and she stops herself, thinks back over his words.
She is usually not far behind.
"You already know she was there," she says softly. "You know Hermione, so you must - you sent -"
"I advise you, my lady," Snape's tone holds a warning now - and here - here is the lesson, Daphne thinks - "That it would be most unwise to assume that I know anything at all about what Potter and his friends get up to, let alone to accuse me of sending them to steal from one of the city's luminaries."
Guess, and guess, and guess again.
"But if you didn't -" Daphne starts to say, then falls silent when Master Snape raises a single eyebrow.
"Was that a question?" he murmurs silkily, and Daphne bites her lip, choosing her words carefully.
"Perhaps you did not send them," she says slowly, "But you know what they were there for."
Master Snape gives her a long look. "Are you sure," he asks finally, "That you want to know?"
Late that evening Daphne stares unseeing at her reflection in the glass, hearing nothing above the thrum of her own pulse in her ears. She had known of course - known that there had to be reason for the fear, for the mistrust, for the secrecy surrounding magic, but it is as though she has never truly believed it until now.
A Horcrux, Master Snape had said, is an object that contains a piece of the maker's soul, separate from their body, ensuring, so long as the Horcrux exists, that the maker cannot die.
Heresy! Daphne remembers a priest shouting one Sunday, spittle falling from his lips to spray the first row of worshippers. She had thought it strange then, unable to reconcile his vitriol, his terror, with the warmth and brightness of magic in her veins. But she knows now: knows what it is that makes the priests, makes the people, so very afraid of magic.
The soul is rent by an act of wilful murder, the energy of the victim trapped and harnessed to allow the caster sufficient control to place the severed portion of their soul into their chosen vessel -
Why are you telling me this? Daphne had asked, staring at Master Snape in horror.
Because this is what the Pretender did, he says, his voice cold and merciless. Not once, nor twice, but seven times, and it is for this reason that we know that he will return, and that boy is the last thing that stands between us and disaster.
Harry? Daphne could not keep the shock from her voice. Why Harry?
Master Snape had tipped his head so that half of his face was bathed in shadow, but she had seen, nevertheless, the deep well of sorrow laid momentarily bare.
Because his mother died to save him, he answered perfunctorily. Love, Lady Greengrass, is a magic more terrible even than Death.
Daphne's breath has grown ragged without her notice as she recalls the conversation, and she jumps to her feet, her hairbrush falling from nerveless fingers as she rips at her stays, desperate to be free of them. There is a fury inside her, a wild longing awoken by the press of Harry's chest to hers, the taste of his mouth, but with it lives the fear, the horror of what she now knows magic to be capable of.
The Ministero deny that the Pretender will return, and they would take practitioners and train them to be good little servants of their authority. If they had their way, there would be no caster capable of fighting him when he comes back. Master Snape had looked back at her then, a sudden urgency in his face. That could not be allowed to happen.
Why me? she had whispered. Why did you choose me?
Master Snape's black gaze had been unwavering on hers. Magic chose you, Lady Greengrass, he said simply. It is what you are.
But magic is a secret that Daphne has held to herself so closely; bound the cutting edge of it so tightly against her body for so long; that it seems as though to wrench it free, to be what Master Snape tells her that she must be - someone who will act, who will fight, and not simply exist to be looked at - might unstop something at the core of herself and allow everything that she is, everything that her lowered eyes and winsome smiles keep hidden, to come spilling out, to finally be seen.
Daphne laughs helplessly as she looks back at the glass, for she has only ever been an object to please the eye. But what is it that men see when they look at her - what it is that make their eyes glint with greed, their faces turn wolfish with longing?
It isn't her.
It is the fact that her hair is as golden as the coins that weigh down the purses at their belts; that her lips curve with the grace of the finest gondola. It is the way her breasts swell like the waves of the lagoon. It is that her eyes are as blue as the sky and her skin fair and smooth as Carrara marble. But her face - her beauty - is a mask, has been a mask since she was a little girl. Daphne sees herself more clearly in the sketch of her hands on the air as they shape a spell, in the way that her feet fit themselves nimbly to the tiled rooftops of the city, and in the movements of her body as she dances as Master Snape has taught her, than she ever could in the looking glass.
She presses her hands to the cool marble that tops her dressing table, meets her own eyes in the mirror. The marble feels liquid under her fingers, shaping and reshaping, the red veins in the stone flowing like blood. This feeling, the control and power, is what she is. Her face is - "Meaningless," Daphne murmurs, watching as a frown turns her features severe. There's a sound like the groaning of winter ice on the Grand Canal, and cracks web their way across the glass, splitting Daphne's beauty into nonsense fragments.
She gazes at the glass a moment longer, feeling a calm sense of satisfaction wash over her before she turns to look out of the window. Night has settled across the shoulders of the city, the moon's face peering out from behind unseasonable cloud. It is a good night for the rooftops, and Daphne tugs again at the dress that she has half-ruined, finally wrenching herself free and pulling the bundle of boy's clothes from where they lie tucked beneath the bedframe.
If it were up to me I would say that you were not ready, Master Snape had said, but unfortunately things move outside of my control, and I must be content to allow impetuous children to run amok.
Where? Daphne had heard her own breathless excitement, and had not cared.
A tavern in Castello. The Hog's Head. Do not get caught.
She can hear the tavern from two streets away, raucous shouts and wild laughter, and Daphne pulls her neckerchief higher, turning the collar of her coat up as she approaches. She has smudged dirt over her face, but she doubts the disguise would survive a great deal of scrutiny. She notes with relief that it does not seem to be the sort of place where one is required to remove one's hat, at least if the caps dotted among the crowd spilling onto the little piazza are anything to go by.
Shouldering her way to the door, Daphne pushes inside and is immediately assaulted by a wave of heat and even greater noise, and by the ripe scent of many unwashed bodies. It is nothing like the heady smell of the crowd at a ball - this is earthy, pungent, and mixes with the odours of woodsmoke, of spilled beer and wine to create an overpowering stench that has Daphne close to gagging.
Blinking tears from her eyes she winds her way carefully through the crowd, her magic gently pressing people out of her way, subtle and unremarkable, and yet enough, she hopes, to catch the attention of someone who knows what they are looking for.
When she reaches the bar she rests her elbows on it, pretending to crane her neck for a look at the dusty bottles that line the back wall, but in fact counting slowly in her head.
"I don't know you," says a hard voice in her ear, and she turns her head slightly to meet a pair of bright blue eyes.
Daphne smiles, slow and unconcerned, raking her gaze across the man's face. He is tall, lanky almost, his face freckled and his unruly hair a shocking shade of red. He'd be quite striking, she thinks, if it weren't for the look of deep distrust that turns his features almost to a snarl.
"You don't," she agrees pleasantly. "But your leader does, and it's him that I'm here to see."
The man frowns at her, the petulant look on his face making him suddenly boyish, and Daphne realises that he must be around her own age. "I don't know what you're -"
"Spare us both the trouble," she says, with the flat dismissal that she has learned from Master Snape, "And take me to Harry."
Beneath his freckles the man pales slightly, and his hand closes tightly around Daphne's upper arm. "You must have some sort of death wish," he mutters, as he pulls her through the crowd towards a rickety staircase at the back of the room.
Up the stairs and they turn onto a narrow landing, lit with tallow candles from which thick trails of oily smoke hang upon the air. The red-haired boy raps sharply at a door at the end of the landing, and hauls Daphne through it when a muffled voice speaks from the other side.
The room is dimly lit, but a quick glance around it tells her that there are about ten people in there. It is dominated by a large desk on which a map has been laid out, and behind it Harry sits, elbows on his knees and his fingers steepled in front of his mouth. He looks up at their entry, and Daphne sees his eyes go wide.
There's a movement behind Harry, and Daphne sees Hermione stepping forward, her face slack with shock, until Harry stops her with a hand on her wrist.
Daphne feels the redhead draw himself upright beside her, about to start speaking, and takes the opportunity to elbow him in the ribs, forcing him to release her arm as she steps up to the other side of the table from Harry. As she does, she pulls the cap from her head and vanishes the dirt from her face, summoning a stool from where it has been pushed against the wall and perching on it.
The room has fallen silent save for the muffled noise of the tavern downstairs, and Daphne quirks an eyebrow at Harry.
"If you will insist on showing up at my parties without an invite," she smirks, "it shouldn't surprise you when I return the favour."
For a long moment nobody says anything, and then Harry slowly starts to smile. "My Lady Greengrass," he says, inclining his head graciously. "Master Snape told you where to find us?" he asks.
"And what you're up to," Daphne nods. She pulls her gloves from her hands with practiced delicacy, dropping them to one side and fighting a grin when one of the men hovering at the edge of the room rushes forward to catch them.
"He did?" Hermione asks, her voice squeaking slightly with surprise.
"Horcruxes," Daphne says, the one word making the quiet of the room thrum with tension. Harry's eyes do not move from hers, and though she can feel heat moving up her neck and across her face, Daphne does not look away. "But really, Lord Potter, housebreaking? I would have thought it beneath you."
Behind her someone - Daphne thinks it might be the boy called Ron - makes a strangled noise of indignation, but is quickly shushed. Harry's eyes narrow very slightly. "What would you suggest as an alternative?"
Daphne allows herself a small smile. "I have always found," she says, "that the easiest way to gain entry to a house is through the front door."
She sees the glint of Harry's teeth as his smile answers hers, and Daphne hears again the thrum of the blood in her ears. What was it that Master Snape said?
Love is a magic more terrible even than Death.
She doesn't doubt it.
Chapter title means 'he conquers who conquers himself' and it's also (lol) the motto seen on the stained glass window in Beauty & the Beast.
Chapter 5: Alea iacta est
Alea iacta est = the die is cast (attrib. Julius Caesar)
The city is alight, awash, awhisper. Like a fire in the streets but faster - quick as a glance - quick as the moment between heartbeats - the word spreads.
The young Lord Potter has been seen on the steps of the Duke's palace, the gossips say, and the news rises from the streets and into the grand salons, so that the fans flutter a little faster in the hands of the ladies; so that the gallants scowl and toss their neatly combed heads.
Have you heard…?
Have you seen…?
Hermione sits at the end of the wooden landing, her bare feet dangling above the turquoise water of the Grand Canal. She turns her face towards the pamphlet spread across her knees - No Salvation in Magic! - but from beneath the broad brim of her hat her eyes are trained upon the palazzo opposite.
In the midst of all the excitement the young Lord Malfoy has made discreet enquiries about the mysterious Lady Granger, she has heard, and her heart has sped at the knowledge, at the memory of dancing in his arms.
At the memory of his eyes, the colour of ice, burning across her face.
Hermione knows that when it is not hidden beneath a boy's cap men have no trouble looking twice at her face: at her high cheekbones and deep brown eyes; at the spray of freckles across her nose. And she knows also that she could use her pretty face to make a pretty living on her back; she need never be hungry. But to have a pretty face without a pretty name to match is to have nothing at all, when it truly counts, and Hermione's hunger has always been of a different sort – harder by far to sate than an empty belly.
But she has been hungry for a long time - long enough to learn patience - and so for now she sits, and she watches the Malfoy palazzo, and she waits.
But soft – here is a secret: if you have nothing, then you have nothing to lose.
The small group of men moves through the darkened streets, cloaked in unremarkable homespun and worsted, just another of the gangs come up down from Canareggio to try their luck in the gambling houses of San Marco. But the men do not tarry at the painted steps of the casinos; they pay no heed to the painted faces of the whores who would try and tempt them inside - and then tempt the gold from their purses.
The ladies of the night have sharp eyes, and they note that though the men's cloaks are of humble get, the feet that carry them past their doorways are shod in fine leather; their stockings smooth white silk. When the men speak quiet words to one another their low voices are cultured, careful, and the air of the streets where they have passed holds the memory of cologne and of hair pomade.
Ruffians they appear, but ruffians they are not, and by the time the men stop outside a low door on a street that runs parallel to the Grand Canal, already the whispers have started.
Did you see…?
Did you hear…?
The group stand straight and tall, the golden light of torches licking across their clean-shaven faces. Their leader raises a gloved fist and knocks at the door.
And the men wait.
And the quiet street watches.
And the city holds its breath.
The footman's eyebrows rise almost to his hairline when he opens the door and beholds the group. "May I help you?" he asks, the words dripping with the same disdain that curls his lip upwards.
The tall man at the head of the group rolls his shoulder in a casual movement that allows his cloak to fall open and reveal the glitter of his gold-figured waistcoat, his hand resting casually on the dagger at his hip. When he removes his hat his eyes catch the lamplight in a sparkle of green.
"Tell your master that Lord Potter has come to call," he says, smiling as he watches the footman's throat bob nervously.
The footman hurries ahead of them as they climb the stairs, glancing occasionally over his shoulder as though he cannot quite believe what he is about to announce. Their humble cloaks, ragged hats, and their blades (that would serve in the streets, but not in a lord's ballroom) have been left downstairs, and the group that ascends towards the hubbub of the gathering on the first floor of the Ca' d'Erbe are dressed in clothes as fine as any of the Quality, who turn towards the door and stare at them as they enter.
"My Lord Greengrass!" The footman's voice is almost a squeak, and his bow too short, too sharp for normal propriety. "Might I present -"
"Lord Potter," Harry says, stepping neatly past the footman, and extending his leg forward as he bows low before the party's host. The room goes almost unnaturally still, the silence lapping across it like a wave over the lagoon. Hyperion pales slightly, staring at Harry as though he is a ghost that has just walked into the party and announced itself.
In a way, it's precisely what has happened.
Daphne watches as her father takes an uncertain step forward, hears him clear his throat, the noise loud in the quiet room.
"Lord Potter," Hyperion draws a smile across his features, though Daphne sees that it doesn't quite reach his eyes. "May I be the first to welcome you back to society."
Harry inclines his head, "I thank you for your hospitality, my lord."
Hyperion gives a slow nod, then snaps his fingers to one of the servants, who rushes forward with a tray of glasses. Harry picks one up, raising it to his lips, and then pauses, turning his head slightly to look at where Daphne stands with Pansy and Astoria.
How many balls like this has she been to, Daphne wonders suddenly, where her eyes have rested modestly upon the floor, where her face has been hidden behind the painted pleats of a fan?
Irrevocably, unavoidably, Daphne's chin lifts, and when her gaze meets Harry's she feels the shock of it through her whole body. Her hand stills, her fan listing forward to let him see, for a moment, how her lips turn upwards at their corners into the barest hint of a smile.
Harry lifts the glass to her, a silent toast, before he takes a long sip. His eyes do not move from hers.
"You seem to delight in courting danger, Lady Greengrass."
They are alone in the dimly lit room on the upper floor of the Hog's Head, Harry having dismissed his band of scoundrels ("The Order of the Phoenix," he had said, sweeping his hand around the small gathering) with a nod, a smile, and a couple of quiet words. Hermione had been the last to leave, hovering a moment in the doorway, but when Harry looked quizzically at her she had only shaken her head and stepped from the room, closing the door behind her.
Daphne doesn't answer him, but steps closer to the desk, looking at the map spread across it. Marks are scattered over it, and she frowns, leaning closer when she realises that some of them are moving -
"Clever, isn't it?" Harry says, and she hears by his voice that he has stepped around the table, that he stands close to her side. She glances up to find him watching her, the expression on his face almost nervous as he waits for her to say something.
It occurs to her that Harry is more rattled than she realised, having her turn up here, and Daphne feels a flutter of pleasure that she has managed to surprise him, offering a word of silent thanks to Master Snape for not having alerted the Order that she would be coming.
"It's remarkable," she agrees quietly, her finger finding the tavern, finding the tiny dots labelled Harry Potter, and Daphne Greengrass, and seeing how they are so near that they almost overlap. She takes her finger from the paper and runs it along the firm angle of his jaw.
Harry shivers, leans forward and places his hands on either side of her face. There is magic between them, filling the air, filling her lungs, and she feels as though she is falling upwards and into him, his mouth meeting hers with an inevitability that makes her every nerve dance at the sensation...
"Daphne!" Astoria hisses, her fingers digging into her arm, making Daphne flinch and turn back towards her sister and Pansy, both of whom are staring at her with scandalised expressions.
"Forgive me," she murmurs, thinking innocence; thinking virtue; thinking naiveté.
Thinking of Harry's lips on hers -
Pansy smirks as the colour rises in Daphne's face, gently extricating her from her sister's grasp. "Honestly Astoria," she says, with the habitual tartness that Daphne has never before been grateful for. "You can't blame her for looking."
Hermione stands in the midst of the Order members at Harry's back, dressed in breeches, shirt and cravat, her hair pulled tight and tucked into the collar of her richly-worked coat. The glamour laid over her long curls itches slightly, but she could hardly walk in here the only woman in Lord Potter's retinue.
It wouldn't do for people to get the wrong idea.
Even with the spell disguising her hair, she knows that the illusion will not stand up to much scrutiny, short and slight as she is, but she is half-hidden in between Ron and Dean and is, for the time being at least, entirely unremarkable. For why, indeed, would anyone note her presence when Harry Potter himself stands before them, proclaiming his return to the world?
A servant steps forward and a tray of glasses is offered, from which Ron plucks two, passing one wordlessly to Hermione, who takes it with a roll of her eyes. The taste of the bubbles on her tongue reminds her of the last ball - the first ball - that she attended.
"Where did you come from?" he asks her, his arm tight around her waist, his breath warm on her cheek. "Why don't I know you, why have I never seen -"
"Do you think that you know everything, Lord Malfoy?" She makes her voice a silken whisper, a marionette string for him to dangle from. His eyes glide along the teasing bow of her lips, and Hermione tilts her head, knows that the light will fall across her cheek like a benediction. "The city you live in is as the lacquer on a gondola," she breathes. "You see nothing of what lies underneath."
His fingers flex against her spine. Their bodies are pressed together, indecently close, but there is room enough between them for something - something -
Power, Hermione realises in a rush, with a jolt of what feels like panic but might just be more magic, as it seems to spill from her very pores; as she sees it shining in every perfect strand of Lord Malfoy's hair, which it can't, he isn't -
Fear is a lurch in her stomach as she wrenches herself from his arms, as she pushes her way from the dancefloor to flee down the wide marble staircase and out into the night.
Hermione takes a long breath. She is calm; her magic is contained. She will not be so foolish again. The wine fizzes against her tongue as she lets her eyes roam across the faces of the gathered lords and ladies, some slack with shock, others flushed with excitement. Some, like Daphne's father, regarding Harry with expressions of cool calculation.
Her gaze lights upon a head of pale blond hair, grey eyes slightly narrowed, the line of his mouth pulled tight. Hermione watches as, almost as though he has heard the riot of her thoughts, he turns to look at her, and she finds that she cannot resist turning her head, letting the light catch her face just so.
She feels a terrible thrill of satisfaction when the young Lord Malfoy's eyes widen with recognition.
Not a phantom. Not a dream. But not a Lady either.
Hermione offers him the barest suggestion of a smile before she dips her head, steps backwards, and slips from the room.
In the hallway outside it is easy to melt into the shadows, to lean against the wall and wait, counting her breaths, holding her magic balled tight in her hands and wondering - fearing - hoping -
He stops a wary distance from her, but she can feel it already, the way that her power starts to uncurl itself towards him, and how is he doing that, why am I -
"Who are you?"
The growl in the words sends a shiver up her spine, and Hermione makes no reply, choosing instead to grin at him, the roguish expression that she has learned from Harry. Lord Malfoy tosses his head with annoyance and steps closer to her, raising a hand and catching, impossibly, the edge of her glamour between his fingers, to reveal the tumble of her hair.
Hermione sucks in a sharp breath of surprise, wide-eyed with astonishment. Lord Malfoy smiles as he knits his fingers into her curls. Mischief is less at home on his face than on hers, but his features shape themselves to the expression readily enough, and the effect is devastating.
"How?" she whispers.
"You think that only street rats have secrets, Lady Granger?"
He is close to her; dangerously, exquisitely close; and the words are a velvet brush of his lips against hers.
"You must look beneath the lacquer."
It seems to Daphne that she and Harry move around one another, like binary stars held in delicate balance by mutual gravity.
Harry has spent most of the hour that has passed since his arrival being alternately fawned over and patronised; a succession of sneers and simpers; and Daphne has fought to keep herself to the edge of the room, away from the sheer pull of him that threatens to overwhelm her whenever she gets too close.
Pansy watches her like a hawk, her dark eyes sharp with suspicion, and Astoria sulks beside her - dancing postponed, for the time being, in favour of politics.
"Where have they been hiding themselves, do you think?" Pansy asks, thankfully looking away from Daphne to allow her gaze to move with unabashed appreciation up the long line of Ron's breeches as she takes a languid sip of her wine.
"I'm sure I've no idea," Daphne demurs, though in her mind's eye she sees a dimly-lit room, the way that the light of a taper gilds the line of a stubbled throat above an open shirt-collar. She can almost feel the press of the table's edge against the small of her back, the sensation imprinted upon her like the shape of Harry's hands, the taste of his kiss.
"You should go," he says, a ragged, tortured gasp, his hands stilling at the edge of her shirt, and she leans her head back to see that his eyes have darkened in the low light. "I would not wish to - my lady - Daphne -"
She drains her wineglass, breathless with the memory, and Pansy looks at her in surprise, her eyebrows quirking, mouth opening to to ask, just as the first strains of a viol cut through the chatter of the ballroom and Harry materialises before them, the picture of courtly propriety as he sweeps her a low bow and holds out his hand.
"Lady Greengrass," he says, "Will you do me the honour?"
Daphne's eyes widen, her breath coming short, and she shouldn't, she shouldn't, this isn't part of the plan, she should dance the first with her fiancé - except, she realises as she darts a look around the room, that Draco is nowhere to be seen. Daphne closes her eyes, trying to summon the courage, the devil-may-care attitude of the girl who skips over rooftops and plots with dashing rogues in taverns, and when she opens them Harry is still smiling at her, and her father catches her eye over his shoulder, and gives the subtlest of nods, and then Pansy gives her a very unsubtle shove forwards, and Daphne shivers as Harry's hand closes around her own.
"You know," he says as he sweeps her into the dance, "I almost thought you were going to refuse me."
"It is improper," she murmurs, trying to duck her head so that he will not see her blush. "I am not - I cannot be -"
She falls silent, her heart skipping as he turns her gracefully through the steps, and she recognises the markers of Master Snape's tutelage in his upright spine, the precision with which he places his feet and hands. Suddenly Daphne wants to ask how Harry was found by the dancing master, where he has been all these years. She realises, as her breath shortens and her blood quickens and her body turns light with longing, how very little she knows of him.
But the magic in her veins knows the magic in his bones, and as they dance together she can feel how the layers of herself - the artifices of duty and propriety, of modesty and refinement - are stripped away, and there, in the circle of his arms, she is nothing but Daphne, he nothing but Harry. They are simply themselves, and she forgets the eyes upon them, lets slip the impassive mask that has served her for so many years and finally, finally, allows herself to smile up at him, and feels herself bathed in the rapture of his gaze.
The wrenching dischord as the music shrieks to a halt shatters the moment - shatters the spell that they weave around one another - and Daphne looks in horror to where a footman has appeared at the door, breathless and white-faced. Harry's hand tightens on her own, and he shifts slightly so that his body guards hers as the man halts before her father, forgetting himself in the moment, in his fevered urgency.
"My Lord Greengrass, word from the Duke's Palace!"
A stir of whispers upon the air; the guests seeming to ask themselves how much drama one evening can sustain.
"The Duke is dead, my lord. The Pretender is returned!"
Where does a city keep its heart?
Ask a fisherman and he will point to the lagoon, to the rise and fall of the waters like a great, slow pulse.
Ask a merchant and he will tell you of the Exchange, of the desks that glitter with piles of coin, and the rafters that ring with words in foreign tongues.
Ask a whore and she will laugh, lift her skirts to reveal her pretty ankles, and whisper in your ear that she can show you - for a price.
Had you the gall to ask the Pretender he would likely kill you where you stand. Were he of a mind to, however, he would tell you that the city has not one heart but many thousands, and they can all be made to bleed.
He grew up far from here, in a place where words were rougher; where men were wary of the portents in the sky. Now he watches the sun rise on the city, painting the wet streets crimson.
The dawn turns the blood that still stains the steps of the Duke's palazzo almost black. Up the stairs and through the doors, along the hallways' twists and turns and you will come to the great chamber, with the wide bench of the High Council at its end.
The Pretender sits, his elbows on the dark wood, pale fingers steepled before his white face.
He knows the hearts of men, knows their follies and weaknesses, and from them he has crafted his strength.
He waits to see which of the great men of the city will be the first to return; to bend the knee to the Lord they thought a boy could kill.
Around him are those whom he has freed from the cells, flashing broken smiles, their eyes dancing with madness as the lords of the city begin to trickle into the room.
The masks that they wear now are coldly expressionless, delicately worked in silver and gilt, and though they hide their faces it is clear that the Pretender knows every one of them.
These proud men bow low, but stiffly; as though their bodies have forgotten the movement. Their whispered loyalties echo softly from the painted ceiling.
The Pretender sits, and watches, and says nothing.
When the light that slants through the tall windows glances off a distinctive head of pale hair it is no surprise, but the Pretender's gaze lingers on the young man who stands at his father's side, whose eyes are as silver as his mask and just as opaque.
The men position themselves around the room, returning to places established long ago. The Pretender's eyes follow them, drifting past the gaps that are left like teeth missing from a smile. As the men wait the quiet murmur of conversation blooms, though their faces stay turned towards the Pretender.
Finally, a man robed all in black walks into the room, and the whispers fall away like dead leaves on the wind as he passes. Eyes flicker behind masks as he makes his way to the council bench, his steps smooth and unhurried. Like all the others his face is hidden, but there can be no doubt as to who he is, and the young man with the silver eyes goes perfectly still at the sight of him.
When this man kneels before the Pretender the movement is practised, as though it has been twelve hours, rather than twelve years, since he offered his supplication.
"My Lord," says Master Snape, his voice smooth as oil on water, and the Pretender smiles.
Hush, hush - here is a secret: it is a terrible thing not to be your own master, and yet a puppet with its strings cut cannot dance.
Where does a city keep its heart?
Daphne has felt it beating beneath her fingers, beneath her dancing feet; has tasted the pulse of it in a kiss stolen from a thief. Here, here, here.
She feels as though she is in the grip of a dream, reality suspended as she moves through the Ca' d'Erbe, her head still full of the events of the night before.
The way that Harry's arm had tightened around her - possessive, protective - before he stepped back, lifting her hand to his mouth, his eyes wide and wild as he bruised her knuckles with his lips.
I have to go.
The memory is so all-consuming that it is a few moments before she registers the voices that echo upwards from the floor below. At first the men speak softly, but as she listens one voice rises with frustration in contrast to her father's low, even tone. Daphne moves carefully down the stairs, placing her feet with delicate precision, all the time straining to hear the details of what is being said.
"Hyperion, you're a fool if you think you can keep yourself out if this!"
She does not know the man who speaks, and Daphne pauses, thrown by the familiarity with which he uses her father's name.
A murmur - her father's reply - and then -
"You have your daughters to think of, Lord Greengrass, and you cannot risk -"
Her father speaks again, cutting off the other man, but Daphne has heard enough to know who is there. That voice has whispered low in her ear; has emerged from a smiling mouth to coil its words about her heart; has made itself an echo that calls to her in her dreams.
Before she quite knows what she is doing her hand is on the door and she lets herself into her father's study, drawing up short when four faces turn towards her. Her father's mouth thins and the corners of his eyes tighten with disapproval, but Daphne hardly spares him a glance.
Harry's eyes are a brand upon her skin, the green bright and clear in the morning light, but there are lines of grief in his expression that were not there when he held her in his arms the night before. Behind him - watching Daphne with, respectively, a frown and a wary look - are two men of around her father's age.
The wary-faced man is tall and rangy, his overlong hair a sandy brown. He is dressed in a habit of undyed wool, pale against his paler skin, and Daphne cannot help the crawling fear that moves across the back of her neck as she takes in his cowl.
She has seen the monks in their habits from a distance, moving about the plague island like ghosts, tending to the sick and dying. She and Hermione had been perched high on the dome of one of the churches, passing one another slices of apple as they watched the holy men across the water, marooned on their island of death.
He has a kind face, but there are shadows in his eyes that make Daphne shiver, and so she looks instead at the other man, who is slightly shorter; broad-shouldered and dark-haired. His face is drawn, almost sallow, though still handsome, and his eyes are the same silver-grey as Draco's.
With a start, Daphne realises that she knows his face - has seen it on notices throughout the city - and only the fact of his hand resting gently on Harry's shoulder stops her from reaching for the knife tucked into her hair as she recognises Sirius Black.
"Father..?" she asks, relieved to hear that her voice is steady; that the wavering dread creeping up her spine has not entered it.
"Daphne," her father says, and her name falls heavily from his mouth - a rebuke - but Daphne does not look to the floor, does not blush or step back. She holds his gaze, and when he blinks and looks away; when the tightness of his eyes bleeds into the corners of his mouth; Daphne realises that her father is afraid.
"Daphne?" the erstwhile Lord Black repeats, looking from her to Harry and then back again.
Hyperion's chin lifts, following the glance, and what little colour was in his face before leaves it. His mouth opens, but he seems momentarily shocked into silence - and why should he not be, when it is the meeker, the lovelier, the more dutiful of his daughters who has been proven traitorous?
"What is this?" Daphne asks, directing the question at Harry, her tone calm and steady - addressing him as an equal - and she sees the two men behind him shift, feels them appraising her more closely.
"The Pretender," Harry replies, unhesitating, and his certainty seems to answer a question that Lord Black has not yet voiced, for his face is lit by a momentary smile before Harry continues. "He has called the Lords of the city to pay tribute now that the -" he falters for a moment, swallowing hard. "Now that the Duke is dead."
Behind Harry's shoulder the monk bows his head, and Lord Black, whose presence still has yet to be explained, seems to slump slightly.
"He killed him, then," Daphne surmises, but when a look of helpless anger washes over Harry's face she knows that she's got it wrong, somehow. Lord Black's features have twisted with a hatred that seems personal, and he looks suddenly very much like the murderer the reward posters proclaimed him to be.
"No," he growls, his harsh voice at odds with the beautifully appointed room, with the bright bars of sunlight that wash the occupants with gold. Daphne looks at her father, sees him watching her, angry and hurt and...afraid.
"The Duke was killed on the Pretender's orders," Lord Black continues, "But it was not he who struck the blow."
Daphne frowns and looks from her father to Harry, who meets her gaze. She has stepped towards him, the movement born of instinct, before she has a chance to think about how the action must look, what her father must see when her palm comes to rest on Harry's chest. She hears Hyperion inhale sharply, but at this moment she doesn't care. "Tell me," she whispers.
Harry swallows again, and when he looks down at her his green eyes are full of sadness, betrayal, and a cold, terrible anger. "Snape," he whispers, placing his hand over hers, twining their fingers tightly together above his heartbeat. "It was Master Snape."
Where does a city keep its heart?
The city is as shifty as a street performer - follow the movement of the cups, and tell me, ladies and gents, where does the heart lie?
Nowhere, Hermione knows. The city's smile is empty, its greatest trick the sleight of hand that makes you believe it could care. It is the first lesson that an orphan must learn if they are to survive on these streets: the city is a heartless place.
Draco's lips against her neck, the twist of his fingers in her hair, the flavour of his smile when he finally brought his mouth to hers.
All of these and then the feel of his body against her own; the bruise of his hipbones against the tautness of her abdomen; the press of his ribs against her breasts. The slim, welcome insistence of his leg nudging hers apart as his kiss devoured her, sending heat through her body.
And she had felt it, suddenly, in the deep shadows of the hallway in the Ca' d'Erbe. Had felt it before the shouts and screams from the ballroom had broken them from one another.
The beat of the city's heart.
As the sun drifts from morning into afternoon, as the city turns and whispers and shrinks in fear, Hermione stands on the roof of the ducal palace, and listens to the echoes of voices that rise within the great chamber. The sun kisses her skin and she brings her fingers to her mouth, feeling the ghost of Draco still lingering there.
I have to go, he'd said, but his hands had tightened on her waist.
She should have said yes, you must, should have pushed him away, closed her eyes and closed her ears and told herself that she felt nothing.
The worst thing was, Hermione knew, that she had considered it. She could have told him no, could have stepped back and dropped her hands and turned away.
The word had been on her lips, the push in her hands, the spin in her foot, but she had met his eyes and found her courage wanting; had, in the moment, found all of herself wanting.
She had felt all the parts of herself dissolve in forgetting and denying and desire. Could have traced her future in the shape of his mouth, her destiny in the quirk of his brow.
You could come with me, she had whispered, dropping her eyes to look at the space between his chin and his shoulder, her orphan heart speeding and stuttering. She had felt the stillness of him, had heard the silent scream of indecision, but when she had looked up he had looked away.
The glance of the sun from his pale hair as he'd climbed the bloodstained steps beside his father had cut her to the quick.
I can't, he'd said, and the words had been shaky, but firm, determination underlaid with fear.
She can feel, even now, the press of his fingers against her jaw, the dig of them into the flesh of her waist.
I want to, but I can't.
And she had run, then. Back across the rooftops, across the bridges, through the twist and wind of the streets, until she had reached the Hog's Head, and the Order, and the terrible truth.
She hadn't believed it - not from Sirius, Remus, Sister McGonagall, or Arthur Weasley.
No, she'd said. No, he believed in this place, he was faithful to the Duke, to all of us.
And in the end she had run once more - had fled along streets that were dark and then light; pulling herself up and onto a roof as the dawn reached its fingers into the city.
Draco she had expected. How could it be a betrayal when she already knew his choice?
But she had stayed - had waited - had refused to believe - until she saw him step from the gondola.
Saw him walk between the twin pillars, a streak of black against the rosy marble of the stair.
She had watched so intently that she had seen the minute pause as he climbed the stairs, the way his head had turned so very slightly, so unwillingly, towards the dark stain, and then she had known.
Master Snape has taught her many things. To fight, to dance. To endure meanness, and barbarism, and cruelty. But there has always been a consistency to him; a sense of truth. He has been unkind but never, she has felt, unjust.
It seems now, in the light of this greatest of all betrayals, the greatest cruelty.
A city has no heart, Hermione would tell you, but her voice would choke with tears.
She has believed the truth of it her whole life, but now she knows it for a lie, because this city has a heart.
It has a heart, but it is cold, and traitorous, and cruel.
Circa regna tonat = thunder rolls around the throne
His mother had hair as red as a sunset. Harry remembers how soft it was; how she would let him brush it for her, sometimes, before the maids dressed it for the evening, trapping the wild length of it in coils and braids and bands.
Her hair was loose when she died. He remembers the shine of it against the marble floor, her bright eyes staring blankly upwards, already turning dull. He had looked into the face of the man who had killed his father, killed his mother; who now raised his hand to kill him; and had seen only cruel darkness.
He has forgotten much of his life before - "You were so very young," the Duke had said. "I wanted only for you to be kept safe" - and much of what he does remember, he knows, has been pieced together from what he has been told by others.
Hagrid the gatekeeper, whose huge hands are deft and gentle when he tends the broken wings of birds; who can soothe wounded animals with a soft murmur but who finds words a terrible trial; he has taken the time to tell Harry patient stories of his parents. Of a boy who was brash and brave and conceited and kind. Of a girl who was clever and capricious; dazzling and defiant.
Sister McGonagall, whose frown hides a kindness deep as a well, has turned to look at him on occasion and blinked rapidly. "You look very like your father," she says. "But you have your mother's eyes."
Sirius, when deep in his cups, has more than once called him James, and Harry has seen Remus flinch when the older man looks at him, as though he has seen a ghost walking.
They love him, he knows; love him so much that they would die to protect him. But it is a love that was bought with the deaths of his parents, and it chafes and scratches at him. They love the child that they remember, and the man that they hope he will be. They love the ghosts that dance in his eyes and shine in his smile.
The moonlight glints upon the water, and he feels the city's restlessness in his own veins. It twitches and pulls against his senses, aching for the fight that it was promised twelve years ago. The garrulous voices of the canals, of the citizenry: all are hushed, and above him the moon seems to sing with loneliness, mourning the city paralysed with fear.
He remembers, gazing upwards, the way that his heart ached when he strained his eyes to peer at the night sky through the gaps in the thatch, as he slept in the hayloft of his uncle's farm and dreamed of the brightness and noise of the city. Of the brightness of the life that was taken from him - that he was taken from.
The Pretender has sat in the Duke's Palace for nearly a week, silent and patient as a spider in the heart of a web, and Harry knows that the next move must be his.
He thinks of Hermione's compassion; of Ron's bravery; of these people who love him for who he is, not for what he came from. He thinks of deep blue eyes and a blade at his throat, and he rises from his perch on the rooftop to pick his way across the city, towards the Ca' d'Erbe.
And oh, here is a secret: the dead we love never truly leave us, but it is the living for whom we cling to life.
Her father's anger is a terrible thing, but Daphne weathers the storm of it beneath her mask of indifference. She is surprised, in a way, that he has not realised before now. It has been years since she has shown Draco any favour, but her father seems not to have understood that there is a difference between quiet and obedience, and Daphne wonders again at her mother, dying with the secret of Daphne's magic walled up deep inside her.
It has been almost seven days, and at Harry's insistence she has stayed away from the Arsenale, from the rebellion that she knows is brewing there.
"They cannot know," he says softly to her, his eyes intent as he looks up over the crest of her knuckles. "If they knew what you were to me it would place you in terrible danger."
She had bridled at that, and he had smiled knowingly at her.
"I know you don't need me to save you, that you can take care of yourself, but please -" turning her palm upwards to place a kiss at its centre "- allow me the comfort of trying to keep you safe."
It is only the illusion of safety in any case, as they are both well aware. Master Snape has taught her since she was a girl; he knows Daphne's greatest secret; and they have to assume that he will tell the Pretender.
No summons comes; no men in cloaks and masks arrive to take her away, to imprison her in the Ministero which, as Master Snape predicted, has been proven toothless and clawless. Daphne feels each breath as a reprieve, as a boon snatched from the encroaching darkness.
Her father locks her in her room; forbids her to speak to anyone but the servants and Astoria; and Daphne passes the time throwing knives into a patch of wall that she has spelled soft and slipping from her window to sit upon the roof, watching the stars. Hermione joins her up there a few times, bringing with her meaningless pieces of empty news, but the other girl seems as distracted as Daphne is, and her presence is cold comfort.
When, finally, Daphne is allowed downstairs one afternoon to take tea with her sister she almost cries, but her relief withers inside her as she steps into the room and Narcissa Malfoy rises from the chaise to greet her.
"My dear," she nearly purrs, her hands held out to take Daphne's. Narcissa's fingers are cold, her grip tight, and her smile is merciless. "But you are so very pale!" she exclaims softly, and Daphne bites her cheek so as not to say something inappropriate.
"Indeed, my lady," she says quietly. "I have been indisposed." A quick flick of her eyes is enough to take in Astoria, frozen in apology on one of the sofas. Beside her Pansy sips innocently at her tea, before smirking at Daphne over the rim of the cup.
Narcissa makes a show of pressing the back of her hand to Daphne's forehead; of pouring her tea and pressing sweetmeats and morsels of gossip upon her.
"I for one cannot wait for this whole business to be done with," she murmurs as afternoon fades into evening, tipping her head so that her blue eyes reflect the candles that the servants have lit around the edges of the room.
"Done with?" Daphne echoes, caught off guard, and Narcissa's eyes lift to hers, sharp and direct.
"Yes," she says. "It is high time that this fight was finished."
There is a long moment of quiet, and Narcissa swirls the dregs in her teacup, watching the shapes of the leaves. "Your mother understood things better than I," she says, and her voice is so soft that Daphne wonders, for a moment, whether she has imagined the words.
She glances away to see that Astoria and Pansy are talking quietly together by the fire, and when Daphne looks back at Narcissa it is to find the older woman watching her once more. "Keep your blades sharp," she murmurs, before she sets her cup down with a light clink, rising smoothly from her seat and snapping her fingers to call Pansy to her side.
Daphne is too frozen with shock to raise a smile for the face that Pansy pulls at Narcissa's back, barely managing to rise from the couch to say goodbye to her guests.
Narcissa takes Daphne's hands again, her grip just as unforgiving as before. "Should I tell Draco that you sent your love?" Her tone is guileless, but a small smile plucks at her lips, and Daphne feels herself caught like a mouse between the paws of a cat.
"I -" she says, and Narcissa's smile widens.
"No," she murmurs. "Perhaps not. He did not send you his, after all."
A week is long enough for the itch beneath her skin to grow and multiply. Hermione has tried to stay away - has tried telling herself that he is treacherous, that he cannot be trusted.
That she offered him a way out and he refused it.
But she finds that she cannot sleep - and that when she does, her dreaming hands reach out for something that is not there, and she is woken by the feeling of her fingers closing around nothing.
Hermione throws off her blankets and pulls on her boots, sneaking through the Hogwarts dormitory and out into the night.
She has visited Daphne a few times, thinking to relieve the other girl's boredom while she is locked away. But something in Daphne's sadness; in the way that her body seems to shape itself to an absence; speaks too close to that feeling of an empty hand, and so Hermione surrenders to the merciless pull upon her feet, letting herself be drawn across the city, ducking down alleys, skipping across bridges and shinning her way up marble columns.
The window is lit by a soft glow; the candle-flame distorted by the ripple of the thick glass. Hermione sighs through her nose as she taps gently against the cool pane, half-expecting that it will not open, that he will not be there, or will ignore her, or -
She nearly loses her balance when the window is thrown open, but a hand closes tight around her upper arm, yanking her inside. As soon as her feet hit the floor she spins, the alley-rat instincts kicking in as she pulls the knife from her belt, tearing herself free of his grasp and shoving him backwards.
Draco stumbles, his foot catching the edge of a heavy rug, and Hermione uses his distraction to kick him to the floor. Draco yelps, rolling with surprising grace to catch her ankle, tugging sharply so that she lands heavily on the rug beside him. Hermione bites back an oath, pushing herself onto her elbows and catching his arm as he grabs for her, swinging her leg over him so that she straddles his ribs, the blade pressed to the soft underside of his jaw, pushing his head back to expose the strong line of his neck.
Draco glares up at her, his eyes sparking liquid silver, and she can feel his magic nagging, teasing, goading her. "You shouldn't fucking be here," he growls, but his hand (the one that she hasn't managed to pin to the rug) fits itself to the curve of her thigh, and Hermione nearly laughs with relief.
"Tell me to leave, then," she says, leaning down so that their faces are almost touching. "Tell me," she whispers, tasting his breath on her tongue, "that I should go."
"No," Draco says, and then he closes the distance between them, kissing her viciously - perfectly, Hermione thinks - and when he sits up the knife drops to the floor with a dull clatter. Draco pulls the cap from her head, letting her hair spring free, and when he grabs a fistful of her curls Hermione gasps, alight with wanting him.
Her hands find the buttons of his waistcoat, stumbling over the fiddly closures, and when he snickers into her mouth she slaps lightly at his chest. "I've never undressed a man before," she mutters, and she sees the light catch his smile before he nips at her lip, ripping her shirt to expose her clavicle and dropping a kiss onto the line of bone.
"Neither have I," he murmurs, and Hermione laughs as he pulls her shirt up, as he pushes her back onto the rug and starts to shimmy her trousers down over her hips.
Once he has undressed her - once she has stopped worrying about damaging his fine clothes and torn them from him - he picks her up, kicking their discarded garments aside to carry her to the bed, where he throws her down on the rich damask quilt. Draco pauses, staring at her, and Hermione sees something dark twist in his gaze.
"He'll kill us both for this," he says softly, and she realises that for all the gold and the name and the soaring palazzo he is just as scared as she is. Hermione reaches for him and he obeys the demand, holding himself above her on his elbows.
"I won't let him," she says simply, before she pulls his mouth to hers.
She wakes, but it can't be much later, for the sky outside the open window remains ink-dark. Draco's arm is a heavy, warm weight across her waist, and for a moment she isn't sure what has woken her, until a throat is delicately cleared from the other side of the room.
Hermione bolts upright, eliciting a panicked shout from Draco as she tumbles from the bed, scrabbling for the knife that she knows is somewhere on the floor.
"Stop," says a quiet, melodious voice, and Hermione freezes as she hears Draco whisper "bollocks," behind her.
Hermione swallows, then rises slowly to her feet, fingers snagging one of the quilts from the bed and wrapping it around herself as she eyes the petite blonde who is delicately perched on a chair in the corner.
"You know," Lady Malfoy says, in the lazy tone that her son has so effortlessly inherited, "the trousers did give me pause, so thank you for clearing that up."
She gestures pointedly to where Hermione has hastily covered her breasts, and she feels her cheeks flame with embarrassment.
There is a long moment of silence as they eye one another, before Lady Malfoy bats her hand carelessly towards the ottoman at the foot of the bed. "Sit," she says, her face expressionless, but her tone like ice. Hermione remains standing, ignoring the panicked glance that Draco throws her way. The corners of his mother's mouth turn upwards. Her eyes are shimmering blue to her son's silver-grey, and when they travel across her again Hermione feels small; childish in her defiance.
"Well, darling," Lady Malfoy purses her lips, but her eyes dance as she inclines her head towards Draco. "Your lack of enthusiasm for Lady Greengrass's charms is no longer a mystery."
"Mother -" Draco starts, but she quiets him with a flick of her fingers.
"Not such a good match after all," she murmurs. Her eyes still haven't moved from Hermione's face as she rises from the chair, reaching forward to snag a single curl. "Two serpents," Lady Malfoy sighs, (and Hermione fancies for a moment that there is something wistful in her gaze) "Will twist and twine and never touch."
Abruptly she steps back, and Hermione finds herself releasing a breath she hadn't realised she was holding.
"Be careful Draco," his mother says, as she moves towards the door. "You would not want your father to hear about this." As her fingers close upon the latch she looks at Hermione one last time. "You should tell Lord Potter the same," she murmurs. "Tom may yet learn from his mistakes." Her sapphire eyes flash as she slips from the room.
Late that night Daphne sits, sleepless, at her casement, staring out at the canal and the dark shapes of palazzi along its banks, when a figure drops from the roof above, feet finding purchase on the narrow lip of the sill.
Her hair is loose: no knives concealed within it today, and even if one were she would not have reached for it. She knows the shape of his shadow against the night sky; is sure that she could recognise him by the rhythm of his heart, by the very cadence of his breath. But when she reaches for him he holds up a hand. "My mother's last words?" he murmurs, and Daphne sighs, deploring not the caution but the pain she knows it brings him.
"Not Harry," she says softly. "Please - I'll do anything." She sees the edge of his face silvered with moonlight as he flinches, and balls her hands into fists, knowing what must come next. "Mine?"
"Your secrets are your strength," he says, and she hears again the wheeze and rasp of her mother's voice, feels the pain of the loss but also the strange joy of him knowing this; of having shared something so very precious, and trusted that he will guard it close.
"Harry," she breathes, and this time when her hand finds his cheek he leans into the touch, pressing his lips to the heel of her palm.
"I missed you," he exhales the words roughly, burying them in the angle of her neck as he draws her into a tight embrace.
With an action that seems more natural than breathing Daphne molds her body to his. No matter that she could practically count on one hand the number of times they have held one another: the shape of her knows the shape of him; her magic finds its echo and opposite in his; and being apart for so long has been a slow form of torture.
She hopes that the fingers wound in his hair, that the catch in her breath as his cheek scrapes hers, tell him this: that she has missed him with every beat of her heart; that she has been so consumed by his absence it has made her listless and out of sorts enough to be noted even as the city sits, breathless with terror, waiting for the Pretender to show his hand.
When his mouth finds hers Daphne kisses him back with all of her fire, all of her frustration, and Harry, who has been so cautious, so careful up until now, pushes her against the wall, his hands gliding up her body to squeeze her small breasts through the fine linen of her shift.
She hears herself whimper, and the sound seems to recall Harry to his senses because he breaks the kiss, resting his forehead against hers as he draws a rough breath.
"You're a maid," he says, "you're a maid and I - your father -"
Maybe I'll rob your father next, she remembers, and it was - what, a fortnight since?
"What I would give you belongs only to myself," Daphne says fiercely, clasping her hands around the back of his neck. She listens for a moment to the sound of their breath, to the faint noise of the water lapping far below.
Everything is so very still; it is as though the city hangs upon her words, its fate trembling on her lips. It will be tomorrow, she knows suddenly, and she raises herself on tiptoe so that their hips are aligned.
"Maidenhead be damned," she says, placing the words on his lips in a rush of boldness. "Who else would I keep it for?"
Loving her is a complete thing - like solving a puzzle, or mastering a spell. Knowing that you have the answer and it is so much simpler than you anticipated, and yet so vastly more complex.
She smiles at him across the pillow, and in her eyes - as dark and deep as the waters of the lagoon - he sees himself reflected. His ghosts are quiet when she looks at him; an exorcism in her gaze that leaves the messy dark hair and bright green irises his alone.
As though she can read his thoughts Daphne raises a finger to follow the line of his brow. "I've never seen eyes as green as yours," she says, a sleepy note of wonder in her voice.
"They're the same colour as my mother's," he says, then - "But I'm told I'm the spit of my father."
Silence, a long moment, before - "Tell me about them," Daphne whispers to him, and he finds himself repeating the stories that others have told him. How his mother would scold Sirius for his appalling table manners; how she was the only one who knew that Remus longed to do something meaningful to salve the pain in his soul. How Sister McGonagall once caught his father stealing cakes and gave him such a hiding he couldn't sit down for a week. Daphne watches his face as he speaks, and when he pauses to look out across the city she cups his cheek gently in her hand.
"Tell me what you remember," she says. And slowly, haltingly, he tells her of jasmine-scented hair. Of the sound of his father's laugh and the feeling of being carried home in his arms late one night. Of holding his mother's hands and dancing with her in the hallway of the grand palazzo that he now cannot bear to step foot into.
She listens, her quiet full of intent, and he feels the pull of her stillness; the depths of her ready for him to drown in. As the last of his stories settles on the air of the room Harry closes his fingers around the smooth jut of her hipbone and turns her gently onto her back. Daphne gasps and trembles, her legs falling open as his fingers explore her, and when she moans sharply; when her hands grip the rumpled bedsheets; he gives into his desire and dips his mouth to replace fingers with tongue.
She tastes like magic - like warmth and power and life - and when he brings his mouth back to hers; when he buries himself inside her and she clenches tight around him; she tastes - no, she feels - like home.
Apparently more dramione required soooo… also Narcissa is one of my favourite characters and she's a total badass and I love her.
Chapter title means, approximately, "let us live while we're alive." Appropriate, I felt.
It starts with a sigh in the night; a breath of wind through the city that has held itself watchful and still. In the port, furled sails swell like cream-coloured lungs as the salt-splashed hulls of ships bob upon the rising waves.
Fingers still upon the keys of pianofortes; upon the strings of purses; upon a lover's skin. Noses twitch as the scent reaches them of blood-tinged earth, carried to the edge of the lagoon in the arms of a ruthless southerly wind.
To the east of the city, where two spurs of land reach for one another in a thwarted embrace, the wide sea can be glimpsed. The sky above it is a deep, bruised violet, and there - there - blink and you'll miss it - the crystalline shatter of lightning.
Signs and portents; portents and signs. Seers did a brisk trade in the back alleys and passageways of the city, once upon a time, but between the Pretender, the Churchmen, and the Ministero their patrons have long dried up. That isn't to say that there aren't those who might, for the right coin, peer into the dregs of a cup and tell your fortune, but they are few, and desperate, and likely charlatans besides.
And yet, in the cry of wind, an old whisper, half-forgotten, can be heard once more.
Neither can live while the other survives.
The storm gathers out to sea. The water climbs steadily against the banks of the canals. The city has been promised a reckoning, and it will have what is due to it.
Another secret, to be kept safe: you were born with a destiny written in your name; a fate written in the stars in the sky; and a heart that is free to choose.
Across the city, citizens brace themselves for the threatened tempest.
Loose shutters are secured with twine and clever knots; buckets are placed beneath the holes in leaking roofs. Priests cross themselves, and then, when the eyes of the congregation turn upward in orison, make the cruder gestures of a superstition that runs dangerously close to magic.
Hands move in a sketch of half-prayer, half-spell as gondoliers scowl at the glowering sky, muttering sly imprecations as they drag their boats high to safety.
In the Hog's Head, as in almost every other tavern in the city, men throw their coin down as though they cannot wait to be rid of it, in spite of the fact that it is not yet midday. Harry sits in the corner of the room, head tipped back against the wall, observing the comings and goings from beneath the shadowed hood of his cloak.
He returned to the tavern early this morning, having left Daphne with a kiss and a promise and made his way back through the labyrinthine streets, his boots already splashing through an inch of floodwater. Rosmerta had smiled and raised a brow at him as he entered, but Harry had ignored her, not in the mood for teasing, or for the disapproving turn of Bill Weasley's mouth as the red-haired man looked up from his coffee to watch Harry cross the room.
Bill is new-married, with a child on the way, and Harry feels no guilt in refusing to tell him what is planned.
Near the door he sees first Ron and then Hermione appear, each of them apparently casual, waiting for his signal. With an effort of will Harry remains seated, but his patience is mere patina; his stillness as volatile as the storm outside. He is as taut as a coiled spring, just waiting to whirl into action, and as though they can sense that they should not get too close, the other patrons leave a subtle space around him.
Outside the water continues to rise, caressing the feet of buildings with teasing slowness, and when Sirius flings the door open he has to pause to stamp his wet feet against the rushes that line the wooden floor before striding to Harry.
"They've closed the Exchange," he says without preamble, as he slides into the seat across the table. His grin is bright, lighting up the shadows that long imprisonment carved beneath his high cheekbones, but his posture remains off-balance, as though his centre of gravity is not quite right, until Remus appears at the foot of the staircase that leads to the lodgings upstairs.
He is no longer dressed in his friar's habit, but now wears a rough brown jacket over a plain shirt and breeches that are almost identical to those worn by every other man in Cannaregio. Harry watches the tension bleed from Sirius's shoulders as Remus makes his way across the room towards them to sit down next to Sirius on the bench, their heads bending together for just a moment in a shimmering contrast of light and dark as Sirius murmurs something too quietly for Harry to hear.
Whatever Sirius says in Remus's ear it causes him to grin, his eyes dipping shyly towards the floor in a way that makes him look almost like a teenager.
"Why did Remus become a monk?" Harry asks his godfather one day, not long after Sirius broke out of the Ministero cells and found his way to Hogwarts, bringing with him the truth of what had happened years before.
Sirius turns, and for a moment as he looks over his shoulder Harry sees the edge of ghosts in his pale eyes. "He...he thought he was dangerous," he says slowly. "Thought it would be better if he kept himself...separate."
Harry frowns, watching as Remus smiles, lifting a basket of washing for Molly Weasley. He knows about Remus's illness - they all do - but that is one night of the month - not enough to merit a life of -
"He didn't have anyone left to tell him otherwise," Sirius says, in a low voice that is almost a canine growl, before he fixes Harry with his silver stare. "I broke through that roof to make it back to you," he says gruffly, reaching out to clasp Harry by the shoulder. "But you weren't the only one who needed me."
"Is everyone ready?" Harry asks now, and he sees the two older men exchange a fleeting look, smiles fading.
"Harry -" Remus starts to say, and in his quiet, hoarse voice Harry hears the beginnings of forgiveness, of the te absolvo that Remus has never spared for himself, and he shakes his head, setting his jaw determinedly and placing his hands palm down on the table.
"It has to be me," he says, his tone firm enough to brook no argument. It has been his destiny since he was a child, written in his stars.
Neither can live while the other survives.
And Harry wants, with every part of himself, to live. He wants music and laughter and dancing and the magnolia-scent of Daphne's skin; he wants a future that he had barely dared to dream of before he went to steal a diary, and a beautiful girl held a knife to his throat.
He thinks of Daphne, calm and certain in the morning light, her voice even and her lips sure against his, her hand trembling only slightly as she held it out for his mother's ring, then steadying as she slipped the band of plaited gold - transfigured from a loop of her hair - onto his finger, and waited for the priest to finish his blessing.
Harry can feel the warmth of that golden band between his skin and the leather of his glove as he presses against the wood, pushing himself upright.
Sirius sighs, his chin dropping towards his chest for a moment, before he looks up at Harry and smiles apologetically. "You're your father's son through and through," he says, and beside him Remus nods, before rising from his own seat.
"Your mother's too, and your own man besides," the no-longer monk says softly, as Ron and Hermione straighten, ready to follow them out of the door. "Now, I believe there's a robbery we need to commit?"
Draco dreams of water running down the emerald silk of his bedroom walls. He dreams of the glimmer of candlelight upon the freezing black liquid that covers his bedroom floor.
His lungs are heavy with moisture, his breath held prisoner in his throat. The room seems to swell, the walls bowing with desert wind and ocean water, and in the midst of it all he lies, choking and drowning. Draco twists, searching for air, and his hand lands upon the empty space of the other half of the bed.
When he opens his eyes the salt-sting is of his own tears; the crushing weight upon his lungs is that of the decision that must be made today. Her flavour is fresh in his mouth - a lick of honeyed fire - but her warmth in the bedsheets is a memory, swiftly turning cool.
For a moment Draco lies still, feeling his ribs expand and contract; a small marvel, a minor magic, this - proof of life, of continued existence. He can see, in the haze of being not-quite-awake, two futures overlaid.
The one, the more familiar, has the known sheen of gold; the markers of ease and power. Daphne smiles on his arm, though even in what he knows to be his imagination her face is turned away, her neck stiff above her straight shoulders. And at the edges, darkness; and he hears Master Snape's drawling voice - sees the disapproving frown of his mouth.
Not all that glitters, Draco.
Draco shakes his head, reaches again into the vacant space that lies on the other side of the bed, seeking the edge of that other future: no more than a fleeting glimpse, but a burn so bright it seems imprinted upon the inside of his closed eyelids.
The after-image of Hermione's smile, of her laugh. The way that the feel of her in his arms seems to have marked him like a bruise.
After his mother leaves the room he thinks for a moment that Hermione might leave too, might gather her absurd boy's garments and disappear through the window - a thief in the night - but instead she buries her face in her hands and gives a helpless little laugh before turning back to him.
"Your mother is -"
"Terrifying?" Draco supplies, arching a brow and hoping his relief doesn't show too much in his expression. "Utterly shameless?"
Hermione's smile drops slightly, softening into something quiet and quizzical. "Intriguing," she says, her eyes ranging across his face, and when he reaches his hand out to her she takes it, dropping her makeshift covering to crawl back into his bed, her leg sliding between his while she traces her fingers along his brow.
"You're going to have to choose," she whispers, as her touch finds its way to his mouth, and Draco parts his lips to lick at her fingertips, prompting Hermione's eyes to darken. "Things are drawing to a head, and if you aren't with us, then…"
Her words end in a gasp as Draco bites down gently, before he kisses her fingers and rolls her onto her back, bracing himself above her. Her hair fans out across the green satin pillow, and the candlelight catches upon the rich brown curls and threads them with -
Not all that glitters -
"Then I'm against you," he says, catching her breath in his mouth, pressing his body to hers and revelling in the feeling of her nails in the flesh of his back; moving together like a duel, or a dance; heat and light and magic-bright.
In the bed that has never seemed so large, so empty as it does without her in it; in the room lit by the cold, watery dawn light, Draco sits up and runs his fingers through his hair. He doesn't remember Hermione leaving, knows that she cannot have said goodbye.
Or - did she? He hears the low song of the wind outside the shutters, and with it comes the memory of her lips against his, her head bent down to frame both their faces with dark curls.
"Will you be judged by your name, Draco Malfoy? Or by your deeds?"
He touches his fingers to his mouth, then pulls himself from the bed, plucking his discarded shirt from the floor and donning it as a half-hearted protection against the damp chill as he crosses the room to throw open the shutters. The water of the Grand Canal is high, he realises; high enough that the piazze and many of the calle must already be flooded; but he barely spares a glance downward. Instead his eyes scan the rooftops, searching beneath an oyster-shell sky for any hint of her.
Across the city, spreading like echoes; like ripples in a pool; come the chiming voices of bells. A flood-warning: the water pouring into the lagoon, racing ahead of the storm-wind that has howled its way across the sea to vent its anger upon the shining city.
His mother stands behind him, and when he turns to her the pale light slices its way across the room, bathing her face in a mother-of-pearl glimmer. "It's nearly time," she says, and he feels his stomach roll, recalling with a sudden, fierce clarity the dream of drowning.
He wants to ask his mother what he should do, but the words die on his tongue and he can only nod, waiting until he hears the snick of the latch as she closes the door behind her before he turns his head to look out of the window once more.
By your name, or by your deeds?
Draco has been to a tavern once: teased and dared by Theo until he found himself in a raucous, filthy room that seemed little more than a hovel, surrounded by men who smelled of gunpowder, fishguts, and the wide openness of the ocean. But it was there that he heard a man speak, glassy-eyed, of sirens, and the songs they sing to tempt men to their deaths.
He remembers it now, that story - remembers the haunted longing in the man's voice as he told it.
And then, sudden as a ghost, she's there on the roof opposite. Draco stares as the wind whips Hermione's dark hair around her head, seeing only the shine of her eyes, the gleam of her sad smile, before she turns and disappears behind a chimney stack.
He takes a deep breath, tasting salt and sea and storm, and squares his shoulders against the coming day.
Daphne paces back and forth in her room, unable to sit still. The bells began to ring for the flood hours ago, which means that soon the Exchange will close, and the Order will go to retrieve the cup - the last of the horcruxes, or so they hope - from the vaults.
"Draw him out," she had said, that first night that she had gone to the Hog's Head. "Force him to make a mistake."
And after the diary was destroyed the Order had watched, and waited, and finally they had seen when Bellatrix, grinning and manic and terrible, had gone to the Exchange, and demanded to check her vault.
Outside her window the bells chime on, the city restless and spoiling for a fight. She turns the ring on her finger, over and over, a nervous gesture that Master Snape would scold her for, no doubt, but where is he? Slunk back to the Pretender, a traitor to them all. She doesn't pause in her pacing, but allows herself a small smile of satisfaction that here, at least, in a band of gold and ruby, she has a secret that Master Snape does not know.
"I'm coming with you." She turns away so as not to see him shake his head, and when Harry catches her arm she rips it from his grasp, raising her hands to catch fistfuls of his untucked shirt.
"It's too -" Harry starts to say, but Daphne cuts him off with a kiss, as vicious as she has ever been, and when she pulls her mouth away she presses the tip of the knife against his ribs.
"Don't tell me what's too dangerous, Harry Potter," she breathes, and he winces, lifting his hands in a gesture of surrender, before gently cupping her face.
"The Pretender will want everyone to see," he says softly, and Daphne frowns, opens her mouth, but his finger lands on her lips. "When I face him," he continues. "When I - when he -"
Neither can live while the other survives-
"He will want everyone to see," Harry says, swallowing carefully, "and I need you there, Daphne. I need you in that room, on my side, when the time comes to end it."
There's a sense to it that she finds she cannot argue with. For whatever reason Master Snape has not revealed her to the Pretender, and to show her true colours now would be to squander the advantage.
But still -
"I won't let him kill you," she says fiercely, starting to tie his cravat for want of a distraction. "I'd rather die myself." Her fingers tighten the final knot, and a restless sliver of magic escapes to chase the snow-white material with snaking green embroidery.
Harry looks down at her, his expression closed and set. "It seems I wear your favour," he murmurs, reaching to snag his jacket from where it hangs on her bedpost, and searching the inner pocket. "Might I ask that you wear mine?"
The ruby gleams brightly even in the insipid, watery light, and as Daphne stares at it she feels the same sense of certainty that she had when she took him to her bed the night before. "I think we can do better than that," she says, smiling when his brows draw together in question.
Astoria's dark eyes track Daphne back and forth across the room. She still has not lost the bemused expression that she has worn since Daphne shook her awake in the early hours and dragged her out across the roof to meet Harry at the small church.
"Who are you?" Astoria asks finally, and Daphne stops, turning to look at her sister.
"Lady Potter, apparently," she says, an irresistible smile unfolding itself over her lips, and Astoria narrows her eyes.
"That much I'm aware of," she says, gesturing impatiently at the shining ring. "I want to know what you've done with my sister, because insofar as I can recall she wouldn't say boo to a goose."
"Is that so?" Daphne asks, and her mouth is open to say more when she is interrupted by the clamour of a new bell - that of the Exchange.
Both sisters turn to the window in time to see a great plume of water rise from the far side of the Rialto, the shape of it seeming to spread and flare like - like wings - Daphne thinks to herself - like a dragon - before the water starts to drop in a cascade towards the Duke's palace.
Harry! she wants to cry, but his name is frozen on her lips, her knuckles turning white on the window frame as she looks to Astoria, who returns her shocked stare.
Hyperion's voice echoes through the house, and when Daphne and Astoria emerge to peer down over the banister towards the hallway below, it is to see him standing there white-faced, though ugly spots of colour dance high in his cheeks. He holds a card tightly in his fist, and Daphne's eyes go to it even as her father's gaze lands upon her left hand, where the ruby sparkles in the glow of lamps that have been lit against the unseasonable gloom.
"The Pr- Lord Voldemort," Hyperion says, and his voice is hoarse, his eyes not moving from her hand. "He demands your presence at the Palace - a masked revel." He draws a ragged-sounding breath, "What have you done?"
"The stars incline is, they do not bind us," or, "it lies not in our stars but in ourselves" (Julius Caesar, I:VI) or "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities" (Dumbledore, HPCS). Your pick.
What does a good death look like? the City asks the sky.
Like a blaze of fire, replies the Sun, as his rays bathe the rooftops in gilded glory. But as the day grows long the Sun dies quietly, slipping gently below the horizon and kissing the lagoon's cobalt cheek with the last of his light.
What does a good death feel like? asks the sigh of a gondolier's oar, sliding between the dusk-dark waves.
Like patience, whispers the Moon, a breath of silver that shimmers on the water. But her glow tonight is bright, intent, and the people of the City are restless beneath her unwavering eye.
What does a good death sound like? the pigeons call from the eaves of the chapel.
Like a prayer, thinks the young woman who kneels before the altar, her eyes shut tight; lips and hands pressed firm together. But when the shadows come they are laughing, and they tear a scream from her throat in the end.
What does a good death feel like? ask the dice as they rattle across the chequered top of a gaming-table, on the other side of the city.
Like a pocketful of gold and your prick buried in a warm cunt, a drunk laughs to himself as he stumbles from the gambling house. But the shadows trip his unsteady feet, and the water that closes its arms around him is cold; the air in his empty pockets not enough to buy his breath.
What is a good death? Severus had asked himself, as he heard the alarm bells ring out from the Exchange.
What will it look like? he had puzzled, as he gradually made his way through the hallways of the palace towards the great chamber.
Night falls quickly, and when he pauses outside the large doors Severus looks out of the window to see that the City has grown dark. The reflection of his eyes in the glass shows bottomless pits of black.
Let it feel like forgiveness, Severus thinks, as he steps into the room. His gaze skips across the gathered lords and ladies and finds Daphne, tense and unmistakably beautiful, even in her mask, standing by the Dark Lord's throne.
Severus's throat is dry when he tries to swallow. Let it feel like an end, he decides, as he makes his way through the crowd to where the creature whose brand he bears sits watching, his face unreadable as ever.
"Severus," the Dark Lord says. "Good of you to join us." He gestures toward the girl and smiles, cold and cruel. "You see our guests have already arrived."
Daphne does not flinch when the backs of Voldemort's pale fingers glide their way down her cheek, and Severus is reminded of another young woman, long ago, who would not waver; who stood firm and strong and made a good death something worthy of memory.
He feels a creaking warmth expand within his chest, and he realises then that he is proud.
Let me be worthy of them.
Keeping his face impassive as he meets Daphne's eye, Severus closes the walls of his mind and smiles, and bows, holding his magic tight in his balled fists.
Let it be enough.
A secret, then, though you might think you've heard it before: the dead we love never leave us, but it is the dead we failed who become our ghosts.
The gondola had rocked lightly when Daphne stepped into it, and she had adjusted her weight with the instinct born of a lifetime moving between the water and dry land.
You're graceful, Master Snape remarked dryly, years before, a spell readying itself about his fingers. Now let's see you use that.
As the small craft cut its way smoothly through the flooded streets Daphne had tried not to think what the summons could mean.
Had tried with all her being to focus her mind, as Master Snape had taught her, on innocuous things.
Make yourself appear as vapid as you can, and no one will take undue interest in your thoughts.
Her father had sat beside her, fear and anger making his silence an impossible noise. Daphne had not attempted to speak to him, opting instead to fold her hands in her lap, close her eyes, and will herself to patience.
I need you there Daphne, Harry had said. I need you in that room, on my side -
Had he known? she wonders, that Master Snape would betray her now? Had he suspected it might be so?
Daphne traces the shape of the ruby on her left hand, and listens to the slow, steady beat of her own pulse. She has made a promise to a man that she loves - to a man that she trusts.
I need you there.
And so she has let herself be dressed in silken finery; let a mask of gleaming silver be set upon her face. Has sat wordlessly beside her father as they made their way to the Duke's palace, where she is welcomed and led up towards the great chamber.
When her name is announced at the doors, Daphne sees the Pretender's head snap up; she watches him smile, though it is the large snake that coils around his feet that makes Daphne shudder. Immediately she can feel the cool weight of the Pretender's attention, and when Lord Yaxley appears beside her to lead her towards the dais at the other end of the room she is not surprised. Heads turn as she passes; conversations stop in mid-sentence.
Draco stands with his mother, face stricken, and Daphne feels a momentary whisper of guilt that she will not get to explain herself to him.
It is our choices that show who we truly are, Master Snape's voice reminds her - another memory, and she struggles to keep the grimace off her face.
Instead she clenches her fist so that she can feel Harry's ring; feel the choice that she has made, but that remains hidden, for the moment, behind a concealment charm. There is strength in the choice, strength in the secret, and Daphne draws upon it to lift her chin and let her eyes meet the Pretender's.
High above the great chamber, on the roof of the Duke's palace, there stands a young man, staring into the night. One gloved hand grasps a sword, and from the other a locket dangles.
"She's inside!" Dean calls softly, slipping and sliding across the wet tile as he clambers his way back to the group that have gathered on the rooftop.
Harry squares his shoulders against the enormity of the night, and turns his attention to the problem he holds in his hand. He can hear the locket whispering to him in its soft, sibilant voice - boywholivedboywholivedboywholivedcometodie.
Death is his mother, broken in the hallway. It is the wild emptiness in Sirius's eyes when he first returned, and the Duke bleeding on the palace steps.
The locket in his hand twists upon its chain, and all at once Death is ice in Daphne's smile and a sneer on her beautiful face. It is the shape of her shoulder lifting in dismissal as she turns her back on him.
Harry grits his teeth and tightens his grip on the sword, and the band of gold, the promise of her, spreads tendrils of warmth through his chilled body. The Daphne in his head pauses, the edge of her mouth curving into a smile, and it is enough.
When he brings the sword down the locket gives a piercing, inhuman scream, and an awful serpentine shape tries to twist free of it. Harry cries out as pain lances up the arm holding the sword, and behind him he hears a shout. Then other hands are wrapping around his arm, other strength is shoring up his own, and Ron and Hermione are there, either side of him.
At Harry's glance of surprise Ron rolls his eyes. "Come off it, mate," he grits out.
"As if we'd let you do this alone," Hermione says. Her face is pale and set, and a bead of sweat inches its way over her temple.
The thing in the locket continues to writhe, but the three of them together maintain their immovable grasp on the sword's hilt until finally, with another terrible wail, the locket is still, though it continues to smoke gently.
"Was that the last of them?" Ron asks, panting gently with the effort of the last few minutes.
Harry glances towards where Remus and Sirius stand watching, and receives a nod from each.
"For now," Hermione agrees shakily, wiping her hands down her jerkin in a seemingly unconscious gesture. She is jittery; on edge; and Harry is fairly sure that her periodic glances downwards, as though she would look through the rooftop to the hall below, have something to do with the fact that he was not the only one to return to the Hog's Head after dawn this morning.
There was the diary, Harry thinks to himself, then the cup, the ring and the locket. Which leaves -
"We have to kill the snake," he says, turning to address himself to the Order members gathered behind him. "Otherwise it's all for nothing."
He glances from one face to another, but he sees only one face in his mind.
I need you there, he had said to her. I need you there when I face him.
"So," the Pretender says evenly. "Lady Greengrass." His dark blue gaze moves across her, and though he should be handsome the angles of his face are too sharp, too cruel; when he smiles it is brutal in its malevolence.
"You are as beautiful as I have been told."
It sounds more mocking than complimentary, and the snake rears up beside him and hisses at to cement the impression. Again the Pretender's eyes rake over Daphne's face, and the twist of his mouth is small and horribly, terribly satisfied.
"Come, stand beside me, girl," he says, and her breath hitches as she moves to where he has indicated. The Pretender murmurs something to Lord Yaxley, who disappears only to return with a glass of wine for Daphne, which she takes with a steady hand.
The Pretender's face doesn't move as she raises the glass to her lips, and Daphne is not indelicate enough to sniff the contents. She eyes the snake, upon whose head the Pretender rests his hand, before she sips at the blood-coloured liquid.
There is a burn, a tickle in the back of her throat, but she feels no other ill-effect until those cold blue eyes go to her finger, where the ruby ring is very much back in evidence. This time when the Pretender smiles she sees a gleam of genuine amusement.
"You see," he says. "You cannot lie to Lord Voldemort, girl. He knows." He strokes the snake idly, and it preens beneath his touch, though his eyes do not leave Daphne's. "He always knows."
She swallows the wine's sour aftertaste and scowls at him before she turns away, though the movement feels leaden, weighed down as she is by dread.
Daphne watches almost absently as the doors open and Master Snape steps into the room. He moves, as ever, like a shadow, but she notes from the corner of her eye that the Pretender watches closely as Master Snape makes his way towards them with all of the awkward grace that she has come to know so well through the years of their lessons.
"Severus." The Pretender's voice tone is pleasant, almost cordial, and then Daphne's mind goes numb with horror as she feels his touch against her cheek. She sees something flicker momentarily in Master Snape's face, but then it is gone, and the Pretender's fingers have closed around her shoulder, and Master Snape is bowing low before the dais.
Daphne has always believed that her teacher has ensured that her magic is kept safe; that she is kept safe; but the Pretender's cold grip has all the cruel bite of betrayal. Master Snape straightens from his bow and smiles pleasantly at the Pretender, says "Forgive me, my Lord," and the last of the sourness on Daphne's tongue disappears as fury flows, icy and sure, through her body.
Around her balled fists she lets a wreath of pale flame shimmer to life. Master Snape's eyes skip briefly downwards, and he gives the smallest twitch of his head before returning his stare to the Pretender. "I did not know that you had a revel planned, my Lord?" he says mildly, and Daphne's stomach drops even as she draws the magic back beneath her skin.
That twitch - the tiny movement that says no - wait - and Daphne thinks for a moment that she has seen a glint of something in Master Snape's eye; a hint of warmth, or perhaps a whisper of reassurance; but then he blinks and it is as though that light has been snuffed out.
"But surely you heard the bells, Severus?" the Pretender says, and Daphne hears the whisper of his robes as he steps closer to her. "It would appear that Harry Potter is abroad in my city."
There is venom in the words, and a shiver runs through the finely dressed men and women who crowd the room - a ripple of palpable fear.
"I thought that I would throw him a welcome party." The Pretender's voice is almost a croon, and Daphne fights the shudder that threatens when he lifts her hair away from her neck. "And then of course, we have been most lax in neglecting to throw a celebration for dear Draco and his charming, lovely -" Daphne feels the tickle of his breath close to her skin, and closes her eyes "- bride to be."
The Pretender takes a long, goading sniff of her neck, and Daphne is glad that the mask hides the full extent of the horror on her face. When she opens her eyes it is to see that Master Snape has gone very still, and when her eyes find Draco he is so pale that his face matches his hair.
"Nothing to say, Draco?" the Pretender asks mockingly, and now his hand has crept round to grasp Daphne by the throat. "Is it not true that you have been enjoying your pretty bride's favours?"
Draco's pallor slips so that he looks almost grey, but his jaw sets into something mulish and stubborn that reminds Daphne of when they were children. "I have done nothing of the sort," he says. "I have only the utmost respect for Lady Green-"
"And yet your manservant tells me that you do not spend your nights alone," the Pretender interrupts, and Draco falters in the act of taking a step forwards so that he almost seems to stumble in place. "Is that not right Wormtail?"
The vile manservant, who Daphne had not noticed before, standing as he does half in the shadow, gives a cringing bow, nodding eagerly as he stammers out an affirmative.
"Well well," the Pretender says, and Daphne cannot help the little gasp of pain as he tightens his hand upon her throat. "It would seem, Draco, that you have broken the vow of your betrothal."
Daphne stares at Draco from behind her mask, and sees sorrow, fear, and anger warring across his features. When their eyes meet, however, she does not see regret, and she is glad of it as the Pretender lifts her left hand.
"And apparently," he smiles, "you are not the only one."
Daphne cannot help the fizz of her anger, the sizzle of magic across her skin. The Pretender gives a hiss of surprise, and his grip slackens enough for Daphne to pull herself away. She raises her shaking right hand to her throat as she coughs, and then Draco is at her elbow, holding her upright. "Forgive me," he says softly, and Daphne, unwittingly, begins to laugh.
"You fool," she says hoarsely, though her voice sounds loud in the oppressive silence. Daphne coughs again as she turns back towards the Pretender, whose name is not Lord Voldemort as he has styled himself, but - "You fool, Tom Riddle. You think that you can just come back and grind this city beneath your heel once more?" She has her breath, finally, and she straightens, this time giving free reign to the magic that crackles to life around her fingers and relishing the wrench of displeasure that contorts Riddle's skeletal features.
"This city is mine," Riddle says, "I will use it as I please, and this time your jumped-up little prince of thieves will not stop me."
Draco's grip tightens on her elbow, and Daphne is somehow not surprised to feel the twist of his magic weaving itself with hers.
"Are you so sure about that Riddle?" she asks, finally reaching up to remove her mask; done, finally, with pretense..
Riddle sneers. "You are a rabble of impetuous children," he says. "Nothing could give me greater pleasure than to show you the error of your ways, and when I kill Harry Potter this time he will -"
"No," Daphne says, drawing on Draco's magic to make the word firm, unyielding. Another thread of power joins theirs, and she feels tears prick at her eyes as she recognises Master Snape at her back. "You will not kill him. I - we - will not let you."
Harry, she thinks desperately. I'm here, I'm ready, but this is up to -
"What is this?" Riddle is snarling. "Who is we?"
"Ah," says a quiet voice from the gallery that circles the room, and Daphne's heart clenches with relief and sudden terror. "I think that I should probably answer that."
Daphne stands, ablaze with power, in the middle of the floor. Next to her is Lord Malfoy's insufferable son, who seems to have recently come into possession of something resembling a spine, and behind the pair of them, turned slightly to one side and looking up towards the gallery, stands Master Snape. Harry feels a wave of revulsion upon seeing the dancing master there, until he realises that the man's hand, half-extended towards Daphne, is shoring up her power.
"We will not let you," Daphne says, her voice clear as a bell, every inch of her glorious with defiance.
The Pretender - Riddle - seems to rear back at the affront, the snake hissing and writhing furiously at his side. "What is this?" he demands, "Who is we?"
A cue, Harry thinks to himself, if ever he heard one, and he steps forward from the shadows of the upper gallery to lean his elbows nonchalantly against the balustrade. "I think I should probably answer that," he says.
The first blast takes him a little by surprise in that it comes not from Riddle but from the dangerously unstable-looking witch who Sirius will only grudgingly admit is his cousin. Harry dodges nimbly and then launches himself over the parapet, hoping that the rest of the Order members will have taken this first volley as their cue to action. From the sound of running feet and shouting, they have not disappointed him.
He lands in the midst of the chaos, and it takes him a moment to get his bearings before he whirls towards the dais, where Riddle is hurling spells back and forth with Daphne and Master Snape.
And somehow Draco is gone from her side, but she can barely spare a moment to think as the snake lunges for her and she throws herself backwards in an effort to avoid the snap of its jaws -
Harry shoves his way through the fleeing bodies, leaping onto the table and running along its length, readying a shout as he pulls the magic into his hands -
Master Snape is there in front of her, and the snake has its teeth in his arm as his face goes slack -
Neville appears from nowhere clutching the sword, which he swings at the snake, and Riddle screams, a sound of pure rage as the thing's head falls to the floor with a wet thud -
She wrenches the knife free from her sleeve and launches herself at Riddle -
He sees the spell knock Daphne sideways, and then Riddle has grabbed her by the hair and the world goes still.
"Let her go," Harry says, raising empty hands as his vision narrows to the crease of pain between Daphne's brows. She tries to shake her head but Riddle yanks at her, eliciting a gasp that almost has Harry stumbling forwards, except that Riddle jolts Daphne with a spell that makes her go limp as a ragdoll and pulls her flush against him.
"Ah ah ah," Riddle says, wagging his finger at Harry, who goes utterly still. Daphne's eyes are wide, and for a moment Harry is almost swimming in the blue of them.
"I will admit that she fights valiantly, but alas," Riddle sighs, "in vain." His eyes narrow, skipping round the room before returning to Harry's face. "How many more have to die, Harry Potter, before you will confront your fate?"
Daphne is mouthing something at him, something that looks like no - don't - but Harry sees only the trickle of blood from her nose, the swelling bruise above her eye, and he nods to the Pretender, who smiles and then shoves Daphne unceremoniously -
Her hand slips into his pocket, light-fingered as Hermione had taught her, and closes around the cold, cold metal of a diadem-
- to one side, before raising his hand to point it at Harry, green light twining around his fingers.
"Kneel," Riddle says, and Harry swallows his pride, bending his knees slowly and watching, from the corner of his eye, as Daphne lifts something dark and glittering from the folds of her skirt.
The blow is not unexpected, and Harry's head snaps to the side, the taste of iron flooding his mouth. "How is it that you wish to die, Harry Potter?" Riddle growls, his fingers raising Harry's chin in a cruel grip.
Harry looks at Daphne again, sees the flames that wreath her hands as she murmurs a spell; sees first Hermione, then Draco place their hands upon her shoulders, faces creased in concentration as the flames gather strength.
Daphne opens her eyes and meets his gaze.
Like a blaze of fire.
Harry smiles, his mouth scarlet, teeth bloodied, welcoming the fate that it seems he has always known, in his heart, is carved out for him.
"Answer me!" Riddle hisses.
Harry sighs, and raises his eyes to those of his enemy. "Knowing that I have sent you before me, Tom -" he summons the last of his strength into a spell that dances to life in the palms of his hands " - to give the devil my regrets."
Title means "your death, my life" so i.e. neither can live while the other survives... one chapter left.
Chapter 10: Non vincor, vinco
Out to sea the storm fades, its fury finally spent. The waters of the lagoon retreat, taking their tithe of the unwary and the unfortunate with them and leaving behind a layer of salt-smelling mud.
Gradually, like a sigh of relief, a gentler rain starts; falling soft as a mist. Across the city eyes peer from the cracks between shutters and fingers emerge to catch at the cool drops. The wind that dances light-footed along the calle is fresh, bringing with it the crisp scent of approaching autumn.
The sky is a pale, virginal white, and soon the walls of the buildings - creamy plaster, blood-red brick - are streaked and stained with water, like the tracks of tears. Gently, the sun works its way between the clouds, and the first, bright threads of light spill through the narrow streets and canals.
Memory, like the streets of the city, can be sluiced clean. Fear has carved itself deeply into the hearts of the people, but hope is a powerful salve. And as the wet streets are left shining, as the sun glances from the rooftops, then – slowly, slowly – the citizens come creeping and blinking into the light.
And when magicians with contrite expressions have clasped the hands of priests with bent heads; when the windows shattered by the explosion of power released in the moment Lord Potter's hands met the Pretender's have been repaired; when they reflect the sunlight in a rainbow glitter of broken shards fused by magic; then the city pauses to gaze upwards at the blue sky, and taste the clean sweetness of the air.
The lords and ladies of the city do not speak of what passed within the palace walls. Their eyes drop to the floor, their mouths work around words that will not pass their lips. Like the magicians, like the priests, they let shame weight their steps and still their tongues.
Anything and everything, they have always said, can be bought and sold in the water city - you have simply to name your price.
But some things cost too dear even for the merchant lords, whose pockets are heavy with gold and whose eyes are bright with greed.
Who will buy, if the price of power is freedom?
Who will pay, if the price of peace is a young man's life?
And so, a final secret, to hold close until the very end: love is the greatest of all currencies, more powerful even than death; but it cannot be hoarded, only spent.
Hermione examines her reflection critically in the mirror. Black and white does not suit her: the absence of colour drains her skin of its usual warmth, making her look sallow and deepening the shadows of sleepless nights that prowl beneath her eyes and cheekbones.
There is a movement behind her, and she turns to see Lady Malfoy, pale and elegant in her own black gown.
"Mourning dress is rarely flattering," Narcissa remarks, and Hermione can see her son in the slight, smug upturn of the Malfoy matriarch's lips. There's a twitch in her fingers, the impulse to curl around the known quantity of a knife hilt, and it takes all of Hermione's considerable willpower to smile back.
"Indeed." She tries to affect Daphne's limpid serenity; her wide and guileless eyes. "I could never hope to wear it so effortlessly as you do, my Lady."
The barb is very slight; the faintest lilt of challenge. In her mind she likens it to a blade still sheathed, but in full view.
Hermione learned very young to fight with knives, with teeth and nails and well-placed feet.
Later, she learned to fight with magic, and then with the shape of her body against Draco's and the sigh of her voice in his ear.
She knows now that she must master the art of fighting with patience, with the faintest modulation of tone; the briefest pause. A whole new arsenal has been placed at her disposal - the weapons of a lady - and her new teacher is proving as adroit an instructor as Master Snape ever was.
Lady Malfoy's viperine smile widens very slightly, and she inclines her chin. "Good," she says, and this time when her cool blue eyes sweep across Hermione, the gaze is approving. "To think I almost took you for a boy," she says musingly.
It is probably as close to praise as she will permit, and so Hermione swallows and sinks into a shallow curtsey before making to leave the room. Narcissa's fingers, surprisingly strong, close around her upper arm before she makes it to the door.
"My son chose you," Narcissa says, very quietly. "And while you may not prove the easiest choice, I have to believe that you were the best." Hermione can feel her pulse jumping against Narcissa's firm grip.
"I chose him too," she replies, barely a whisper. She remembers Narcissa's cryptic words - twist and twine and never touch - and leans into her grasp so that, were anyone to look, she might be caught in the older woman's maternal embrace. "A lioness in your den of snakes, eyes wide open."
The sound that Narcissa makes is loud, and surprising, and Hermione blinks before she realises that it is a laugh, the first true one that Narcissa has ever permitted herself in Hermione's presence.
"Very good," Narcissa releases her, pale fingers smoothing the wrinkled silk of her sleeve. "You are a match, and no mistake."
They go downstairs together, to where Draco waits with his father by the canal door. Both are dressed in suits of sombre black, though Draco looks sleek and elegant next to Lucius. Irrepressible dandy that he is, the head of the House of Malfoy has been unable to resist a froth of white lace at his cuffs.
Unbidden, Hermione recalls the singed and bloodied lace at Daphne's wrists, her hands shaking and face white with the strain of holding a million twinkling shards of glass in the air above the gathered revellers at the Duke's Palace.
Destruction and desolation and devastation on the air and -
She gasps at the memory, stumbles on the last stair, and Draco is there to steady her, his grey eyes sharp with concern when they meet hers.
I know, his hand says, as it closes around her own, and Hermione allows herself to savour the feeling of him holding her upright. They are both grieving, and though his mother's machinations mean that they are doing so under the same roof, it is rare that they get to share so much as a touch.
Lucius clears his throat delicately as Hermione sways towards Draco, and the Malfoy heir steps back to a polite distance, though he keeps his hand on Hermione's arm until the last possible moment. She smiles to hide her disappointment, and dips her head with pretended modesty, remaining silent to preserve the fiction - a foreign lady, recently orphaned and a stranger to the city - that Narcissa has managed to spin around her origins.
How she has managed to persuade Lucius of such an audacious lie is anyone's guess, though Hermione is starting to suspect that Draco's magic may not be so mysterious in its origins after all.
Master Snape always taught magic as a dance: precise, measured; devastating. The more that Hermione watches Narcissa–with her subtleties, her little nudges, effortless twists and manipulations–the more she sees the tightly-controlled chaos.
Hermione takes a slow breath through her nose and smoothes her hands over the fine black damask of her bodice. The clothes of a lady, one who will be a suitable bride for the scion of the House of Malfoy, once a decent mourning period has been observed. It is not so hard to learn the arrogant lift of the chin, the straightness of the spine, that will make her look the part.
Controlled chaos, she thinks, as she meets Narcissa's eye.
For it is true, is it not, that Hermione Granger has always been a quick study. She loves knowledge for its own sake, and she is an excellent student, thoughtful and eager. But there is a secret to her studiousness, one that she scarcely admits to herself, and it is that she longs, always, to be the best. Narcissa's blue eyes sparkle as they hold one another's gaze, and again the edges of her mouth pull upwards.
Twists and manipulations.
Draco places a warm hand at the base of Hermione's spine, out of sight of his father, and Hermione returns Narcissa's smile. The lesson will be worth the learning of it.
Master Snape's magic finally gutters and dies as the dust settled from Harry's spell. Daphne heaves a gasping breath and immediately begins to cough on her lungful of smoke and dust.
She struggles, blinking, through the haze, barely conscious of Hermione and Draco behind her, of Ron to her left lifting Pansy to her feet, of the shouts and screams around them. All that Daphne can see are the two crumpled shapes that are Harry and the Pretender, both lying still - so still - too still -
Daphne has hated mourning dress ever since her mother died, and she hates it doubly now. She turns her head to examine her reflection in the shattered mirror, watching as the swoop of her cheekbone repeats itself over and over, and she finds that she has no desire to fix the cracks. She likes the brokenness; the way that the myriad fragments reflect her face a hundred times at once. She is all of these faces, all of these women - daughter, sister, lover, killer.
When the Pretender held her against him she could feel the wrongness of his magic; the chill - like dead flesh - of the thing that he carried. It had been nothing, almost laughably easy, to pick his pocket the way Hermione taught her.
Too often, rich men grow careless of their treasures. Master Snape taught her that particular lesson one afternoon when she complained about her father's overbearing nature.
It is the height of arrogance to think yourself too great to be brought low, Master Snape had barked, his magic lashing out to catch her a stinging blow across the back of one hand.
Daphne looks at that hand now, remembers the way that the thing in the diadem had writhed and fought against her, and she hears Master Snape's voice in her ear.
Magic's strength is a brittle one. You have to mean it - have to want it - with all your heart, with all that is in you -
Her hand forms a fist, the knuckles turning white. She can still feel the burn of the magic, the way that her knees buckled and her vision blurred and her blood felt as though it would burst from her veins.
She can still see the look on Harry's face as he grinned up at the Pretender, at Tom Riddle, whose expression had twisted from confusion into horror the moment that - that -
With all your heart -
Harry's eyes on hers, green as bottle-glass, and she had known it in that moment.
A magic more terrible even than death - and Master Snape's thin smile, his unreadable black eyes -
You will know the things worth living for, when you find yourself willing to die for them.
He had been so still -
A whisper of a draft stirs the air of the room before strong arms fold around her, and Daphne turns her face into the warmth of Harry's chest, not realising she is crying until she feels his waistcoat turn damp against her cheek.
"Breathe," he says gently, smoothing his thumb across the nub of bone at the top of her spine, the only part of her that is as exposed, as vulnerable, as she actually feels.
"I should have trusted him." Daphne's voice is a croak; these are not the first tears that she has shed in the last few days. "I should never have believed that he would actually betray us."
Harry's chest rises and falls in a deep sigh. "He wouldn't have been doing his job if he hadn't had us fooled."
It's true, and yet. Sometimes grief is like the sharp jab of a hairpin in the hands of a careless maid, and at others it is the fierce pain of a dagger in the ribs.
No, Daphne thinks to herself. In the stomach. One of those cruel wounds that invariably festers without the aid of magic, achieving slowly and painfully what would take a matter of seconds if the knife were to slide across your throat.
Harry says nothing more, and Daphne knows that if her grief is a deep wound then his is sharper, darker. He is a deep and bottomless well of feeling, and his eyes are dry only because sorrow has been a constant companion to the Boy Who Lived.
It is a testament to the miracle that is Harry Potter that he has never turned away from the things that have been sent to break him. He has let pain gouge deep wounds in his soul without ever letting himself become as the Pretender was, and now, Daphne promises herself, she won't let anything else be taken from him.
"I love you," she whispers, shaping the words so that they fit into the underside of his jaw, into the shadows that she has seen in his eyes as he contemplates the things that would have a lesser man bleeding to death with the pain of them.
His hand tightens on the back of her neck, and Daphne turns her face upwards to meet Harry's lips with her own. He doesn't say it back - doesn't need to - and when they break apart from one another, when he steps backwards and stares down at her, the bleakness has been edged out of his expression.
Daphne runs her thumb over his gloved knuckles. "Are you ready?" she asks softly. And Harry, so strong, so determined, gives her a tight smile.
"As I'll ever be," he sighs. "Sirius would tell me to pull myself together."
"And Remus would say there's no shame in letting yourself feel."
She had only met them a handful of times, but she knows them enough. Daphne sees Remus and Sirius in all that Harry does. She saw them throw themselves into the fight against the Pretender's followers - how they gave their lives for love of their best friend's son. She sees, every day, the way that Harry has been shaped by that love, though he only knew it for a few short years.
Harry lifts her hand to his mouth, and presses a kiss into her palm. "And Master Snape would sneer at the pair of them and ignore me entirely." His eyes flash with humour. "Thank you for the reminder, Lady Potter."
Daphne blushes in spite of herself, and Harry's smile is a balm for the grief that once again clenches in her heart.
"We'll be late," she says, as she pulls him with her through the door. She is ready to lay their ghosts to rest.
There are a great many funerals, each with its attendant tears and laughter, speeches and songs. It is not the first time that the city has settled its debts with blood, and goodness knows the people are not unused to muffled bells and the flutter of black lace veils. True, it is a long time since there have been so many dead to mourn at once, but it also means that the carpenters' wives and daughters will have new shoes; that the dyers' fingers will be stained black as they pay good coin for finer ale than usual. Death is simply another livelihood, and the people are nothing if not good at finding opportunities to make coin.
Harry stands on the balcony, absent-mindedly dropping pebbles into the canal waters far below. He watches as lamps glimmer into life across the city and the stars peep shyly from the firmament. As ever his eyes go first to the brightest, and he nods a greeting to Sirius's namesake as he weighs a small pebble in his hand and turns it over between his fingers.
For a moment, alone beneath the night sky, Harry imagines that he sees Sirius's grinning face; Remus's kind eyes. He remembers the sound of his father's laugh and the feeling of his mother's hand upon his shoulder.
He knows that they will never leave him, that they have, in fact, been with him all this time, carefully preserved in his memories; in the spaces of his heart that seem made as wells for sorrow, reservoirs for joy.
When he steps back into the warmth and light of the wake his eyes go straight to Daphne, and he feels that strange jolt of fierce delight that he has come to associate with her face, her touch, the sound of her voice.
She is talking to Hermione and Lady Malfoy, who seems to have decided to take her son's unorthodox choice of bride under her terrifying wing. Draco stands slightly to one side, watching his mother with narrowed eyes. Harry notices that Draco's fingers are playing with the fabric of Hermione's taffeta skirt and hides a smile behind his hand. He wonders how long Lady Malfoy plans to torture the pair of them before she will allow them to wed.
A throat is cleared very close by, and Harry jumps as his father-in-law steps to his side, assaulted at once by the uneasy not-quite-guilt feeling that he has come to associate with the imposing Lord Greengrass.
Hyperion's sharp eyes are fixed on Daphne, his expression unreadable. "I do not usually take kindly to thieves, Lord Potter," he remarks, taking a sip of his wine and raising one eyebrow. Harry is startled by how well he knows the expression, recognising it from Daphne's face.
"My lord," he begins carefully. "I do not believe that I -"
"My father," Hyperion says, cutting him off, "told me soon after Daphne's birth that he was glad to have only had sons, as he understood daughters to be an unholy trial."
Harry swallows, uncertain where this is going. Eventually he breaks the silence. "And what has been your experience?"
Something in Hyperion's face softens, and Harry watches as his eyes move once again over Daphne. She looks up as though she has felt the scrutiny, and stills as she sees the pair of them stood together, watching her.
"They are a terrible burden," Hyperion says, placing his empty glass down on the small table, "but also an unparalleled joy." He turns, and looks Harry dead in the eye. "I would not have chosen the Prince of Thieves for a son-in-law, but my daughter loves you, Lord Potter." He gives a small, but courteous nod. "I entrust her to your care."
And with that he is gone, another lean black silhouette melting into the throng of mourners.
"I saw you speaking to my father." Daphne runs her fingers through Harry's hair where he has rested his head in her lap. The last of the guests have finally left, and they are sat in one of the window seats that face out over the Grand Canal, alone in the half-ruined grandeur of the Palazzo Nero - Sirius's last legacy.
"He was saying how delighted he is to have me for a son-in-law." She doesn't need to see Harry's face to know he is grinning that wonderful smile that she carried with her from when she was a small child; the smile that was enough for her to know him by when she stumbled upon him in Lord Malfoy's study. Only a few short months ago, and yet enough time for everything to have changed.
"I don't doubt it," Daphne says, leaning forward so that Harry can see her teasing smile, and when he lifts his mouth to hers their lips meet lazily. No rush, this kiss seems to say. They have bought themselves the luxury of a lifetime together.
"You are a prince, after all."
Outside, the first light of sunrise spills across the lagoon like liquid gold. A pair of birds, white-winged and graceful, wheel above the gleaming water. Soon the Prime bells will ring, and the city will wake, and the day will begin.
Dawn is the perfect hour for secrets - whisper them in your lover's ear, tuck them in the pockets of your skirts. Clutch them to your breast or toss them to the winds. The city will hear them, and keep them, as it has always done. As it always will, until the very end.
Thank you all, so very much, for coming on this journey with me. It's been so wonderful to read your reviews and to hear your thoughts. I hope that you've enjoyed it as much as I have. If I give individual shoutouts I will inevitably neglect to mention someone amazing, but rest assured that everyone - everyone - who has taken the time to read, review, and just generally engage with Prince, you're amazing and awesome and I love you. Actually, special thanks to Olivie Blake since this story would have died a death without her there to coax and cajole me into writing when I worry that I might actually have run out of words.
Hit me up on tumblr if you have any questions, and to keep tabs on other projects. I'll be starting a new HP story shortly (if anyone is a fan of Sherlock I suggest you keep an eye out), and my other WIPs, Nyctophilia and Orphea will be updating soon!
Also, a plea - this is not only a rare-pair, but quite a hefty leap of an AU, so any shares and recommendations are always super-appreciated!
Love Sally xx
PS: the chapter title means "I am not conquered, I conquer."