Everything in Lucius Malfoy's library--the scent of old books and rubbed leather, the candles shedding pools of golden light on the Persian rug, the French windows open to the sound of summer rain--spoke of established and expected comforts. But Lucius Malfoy, pacing between the bureau and the sideboard, casting glances at the library door, looked anything but comfortable.
After the fifth or sixth glance, as if it had finally decided to reward Lucius's anxious regard, the door opened. Dobby, the Malfoys' house-elf, tiptoed inside.
Lucius stopped in his tracks. "Yes?"
"L--Lucius Malfoy has a--a caller, sir."
"Who is it?"
"A--a gentle--a gentlem--a--a person." Dobby's voice trembled. His body trembled. The tattered hem of his tea-towel trembled.
"Does this person have a name?"
Dobby shook harder than ever. "N--no, Lucius Malfoy, sir. Er, that is, yes, but Lucius Malfoy mustn't ask, for Dobby can't say, no one must say--I could tell this person Lucius Malfoy is not at home?" Dobby concluded hopefully.
"He knows I am expecting him," Lucius said. "Show him in."
Whimpering softly, Dobby slipped out of the room. Lucius stared at the door without moving until it opened again.
It was not Dobby, this time, who came inside.
Lucius bowed. "My lord."
Lord Voldemort closed the library door, and with a click the latch caught. Sliding his wand out of his robes, Voldemort cast an Imperturbable Charm over the door. Then he turned to Lucius.
"Your elf seems to have been taken ill," Voldemort said.
Lucius's chest tightened. Dobby had been inept. "I hope he wasn't rude, my lord," Lucius said.
"No--that is, I don't think so. I couldn't quite make out what was wrong with him. He seemed almost incapable of taking my cloak. I think the idea of my removing my hood distressed him."
"I'll speak to him if you'd like--"
"That won't be necessary." Voldemort chuckled. His pallid skin crinkled at the corners of his mouth, and his eyes reflected the golden candlelight as a red gleam. "I found him diverting."
Lucius breathed again. He gestured to two leather armchairs before the empty hearth. "Won't you sit down, my lord?"
Voldemort settled himself in one of the chairs while Lucius went to the sideboard. On its marble table top stood a decanter of claret and two empty glasses. Lucius poured wine into both glasses. He placed them on an ornately-carved side table between the two armchairs and took the unoccupied chair for himself.
Voldemort extended a long, thin hand to one of the glasses. "Delightful," he said after a couple of sips. He looked round the room. "As is everything here." His eyes completed their circuit and stopped on Lucius. "I am grateful you have finally seen fit to offer me your hospitality."
"You are always welcome here, my lord," Lucius said quickly.
"If only I'd known it. But you mentioned wishing to sponsor a Death Eater, which is something else you've never done before."
Lucius sat up straighter. But even as he ordered his thoughts, he saw a slow, smiling comprehension dawn on Lord Voldemort's face. "I waited until I found someone who could be of real use to you."
To his surprise, Voldemort laughed aloud. "Meaning I believe most of them aren't! Who is the Legilimens here, I wonder?"
"I wouldn't say 'most,' my lord," Lucius said. "You have many energetic and efficient servants--"
Voldemort cut him off with a wave of the hand. "Never mind. Who is this treasure you wish to lay at my feet?"
"He is a wizard," said Lucius, "by the name of Severus Snape."
"Snape," said Voldemort. "Not one of your illustrious extended family, I take it. Perhaps that is why I have never heard the name?"
It was not his bloodlines which recommended Severus Snape, but Lucius had learned enough about the Dark Lord not to say so. "The wizard himself is somewhat obscure, my lord. A recently-qualified Apothecary at St. Mungo's Hospital. I knew him at Hogwarts. He was five years behind me and one year behind Rabastan Lestrange and Olaus Ruskin." Lucius paused, then added, "Snape was in Azkaban on the day Ruskin was Kissed. He witnessed the whole thing."
Voldemort lifted a scanty eyebrow. "This Snape--he saw fifty dementors run amok and survived with mind enough to tell you the tale?"
"He didn't just survive. Do you remember the article in the Daily Prophet? 'Apprentice Auror James Potter and another Ministry employee expelled the rogue dementors from the prison infirmary.' The Ministry didn't want it known that the 'other employee' was a contract Apothecary, that there wasn't another Auror on the island capable of giving Potter a hand."
Voldemort had been lounging lazily in the depths of the armchair, tilting his wineglass to catch the candlelight. At the mention of James Potter, he sat up and looked sharply at Lucius. "Why was Snape with Potter in the first place?"
"They were working together on a secret Ministry project."
"Working together on a secret Ministry project," the Dark Lord repeated. "Dear me, Lucius. I must admire your nerve. You don't wish to sponsor just anyone, do you? No. Your protégé is friends with Albus Dumbledore's favourite! "
"Oh, I didn't say Snape and Potter were friends, my lord."
"Perhaps you had better start your story from the very beginning."
"Certainly, my lord." Lucius did not let his eyes drop, for this was the crux of the matter, wasn't it? He had no great magical power to offer the Lord. His greatest assets were his position and his connections. And, strange to say, Severus Snape, the grimy little half-blood charity boy and debt-ridden Apothecary, was one of the best connections he had ever made.
He coughed discreetly and began: "It hardly hurts our cause, does it, my lord, that the Ministry are not above blackmail?"
That drew from Voldemort both a chuckle and his close attention. Encouraged, Lucius launched into the tale of Apothecary Severus Snape.
Snape had accepted an assignment to a secret Ministry project in Azkaban. There his task was to formulate a powerful Defences-Downdraught, a potion to weaken the psychological and magical defences of Death Eaters under interrogation, making them more susceptible to the influence of the dementors. Snape had had no idea that the Department of Magical Law Enforcement had begun to use dementors as guards, that they'd set the creatures to hover over prisoners and sap their strength.
"I am surprised, Lucius, that you don't offer me the wizard who dreamt up that scheme," Voldemort said.
"I understand it was Barty Crouch's brainchild, my lord."
"Barty Crouch! That stern upholder of the law, that righteous foe of all that is Dark! I'm shocked, simply shocked."
"Well," Lucius said. "Severus Snape was at least as shocked as you are, apparently. He wanted nothing to do with dementors and tried to pull out of the project."
But the Ministry had a special hold on Apothecary Snape. Apothecary Melusine Morgan, his supervisor at St. Mungo's, had caught him in possession of Hidden Hellebore, an illegal powder which, when taken, induced a fatal stroke.
"Snape disposed of the Hidden Hellebore in Morgan's presence, and, according to him, that was the end of it," Lucius said. "That is, until the Warden of Azkaban was interviewing him for the Ministry project. When Snape balked at the Dementors, Warden Reid reminded him that the penalty for the possession of Hidden Hellebore was three years in Azkaban and the revocation of his Apothecary's licence."
"How did Reid find out?" asked Voldemort.
"I'm only speculating here," said Lucius. "But I think Morgan reported Snape and was ordered to cooperate in hushing the matter up. If she went through the proper channels, a record of the incident would have arrived in the Poisons Office of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. From there, one can easily imagine it reaching the ears of Barty Crouch, who at that time was beating the bushes for a skilled Potioner willing to work alongside dementors in Azkaban."
"Well, well," said Voldemort. "Barty Crouch has the brain of a Death Eater, if not the stomach." A smile snaked across his face. "Hidden Hellebore. This is most promising. I know very few Potioners with the skill to formulate that powder. And fewer still with the motive."
"I remember Severus had a knack for making enemies at school," Lucius said thoughtfully. "I wouldn't have said he wanted to kill them."
"What about outside of school?"
"I really don't know, now that you mention it. Severus was the sort of boy who didn't seem to have an existence outside of Hogwarts, if you know what I mean."
"Yes, I do," said the Lord. "Since I was that sort of boy myself. Is he an orphan, then?"
"Oh, no, he has family. His mother is a pure-blood witch, as a matter of fact, one of the Princes. She married very badly. A Muggle from some mill town in the north, I forget where, exactly. Severus never spoke about them."
"Didn't he?" Voldemort said. He was lounging in the chair again, intent on the candlelight scattering as it struck the clear red wine in his glass. "Did you ever see any of them?"
"The mother, a few times. A plain creature, and rather sad. Very lonely, I'm sure. Her family cut her off, you know, after she married Tobias Snape."
"And Tobias Snape was not enough to fill the void they left?"
"No, I don't suppose he was." Lucius didn't see how any one person could make up for the rejection of one's family, for the loss of the tightly-woven network of kinship and power that was pure-blood wizarding society.
"So Reid blackmailed Snape into making the Defences-Downdraught by holding the Hidden Hellebore incident over his head," Voldemort said. "And Snape's duties in Azkaban involved a close association with dementors."
"And with prisoners under interrogation whom the dementors had yet to cow. Snape told me Olaus Ruskin was his first subject. Ruskin hadn't said a word to the Aurors, though they'd surrounded him with dementors for weeks. So Snape brewed the Defences-Downdraught, and Potter, who was the interrogator, forced it down Ruskin's throat."
"So this is where Potter comes in? Law Enforcement are setting Apprentices to interrogate experienced and powerful Death Eaters like Olaus Ruskin? No wonder they're not getting anywhere."
"Most of the qualified Aurors refuse to do it, and Alastor Moody won't force them. If the Apprentices refuse, Crouch sees to it they're thrown out of the programme."
"Ah, I understand," said the Lord. "So it was James Potter who lost control of the dementors, one of which sucked out Olaus Ruskin's soul."
"More or less," said Lucius.
"And did Potter think it needed fifty dementors to break Ruskin's spirit?"
"No," Lucius said. "Emotions were running high in the infirmary where Ruskin was being interrogated. The furore drew dementors from all over the prison. Snape and Potter dispelled them right off the island. Most of them have been lost for good. The ones the Ministry have found, they're having difficulty luring back. Needless to say, the project's been shut down."
Voldemort stared into the empty hearth. "Snape and Potter dispelled fifty dementors from Azkaban Island. How on earth did they do that?"
Lucius took a moment to ensure that his voice held no anxiety. "They conjured linked Patronuses which chased the dementors away."
For a few seconds Voldemort was silent. Then he shifted forward, set his glass on the side table and stared at Lucius.
Lucius refused to blink. He looked into Voldemort's eyes and noted the way the irises leaked, like glistening rivulets of blood, into the whites.
"Why, Lucius," the Lord said, in his softest, silkiest tone. "You didn't tell me this protégé of yours was so Light that he could conjure a Patronus. You do understand that is the signature skill of the most powerful witches and wizards in Albus Dumbledore's Order?"
"Yes, my lord," Lucius said, fully expecting to be answered by a Cruciatus Curse.
"Whatever made you think I would have any use for a wizard like that? Whatever made you think such a wizard could even survive the taking of the Dark Mark? How do I know you're not offering me--quite mistakenly, of course--one of Albus Dumbledore's spies?"
Lucius managed to speak without a tremor. "Because Severus Snape is every bit as Dark as he is Light. I am certain Dumbledore would have nothing to do with him."
Voldemort stared at Lucius, sorting through the layers of his mind, scrutinising thought and memory until Lucius felt sweat collect on his upper lip and at the nape of his neck.
Finally Voldemort released him. He rose and took their glasses to the sideboard. While Voldemort poured more wine, Lucius, with a stifled sigh, allowed himself to relax.
Voldemort returned, handed Lucius his glass of wine and sat back down. "You really believe what you just said. Tell me why."
Lucius drank in long swallows, until he felt the wine tidying the disorder Legilimency had left in his brain. "Well, there is the Hidden Hellebore, my lord."
"And, as I say, I knew Snape in school. The way I knew him--the way everyone knew him--was through his bad temper and his clever spell work. He came to Hogwarts knowing more Dark hexes and jinxes than most seventh-years. And he didn't just con the spells out of books. By the time he was in second year, he was inventing his own."
Lucius smiled reminiscently. "I shan't forget the time he hexed Potter's toenails so that they split his shoe leather and grew a foot long. This while Potter was flying three hundred feet off the ground during a Cup match with Slytherin. You should have seen him trying to keep his balance."
"Snape and Potter were the worst of enemies during school, my lord. The Patronus business was a fluke, I assure you."
"Well, then. Toenail-growing aside, practical jokes weren't Severus's forte. He's a wizard of more gravity than that. You've seen that new flesh-slicing spell the Lestrange brothers are teaching to the Death Eaters."
"Yes. Sectumsempra." The incantation came out on a hiss of satisfaction. "Who knew Rabastan had it in him, to pick up a spell like that on his own? Or are you saying he didn't?"
Lucius chuckled. "Rabastan? No. That spell was invented by Severus Snape while he was in his fifth year at Hogwarts. He perfected it in his sixth year. That's when he taught it to Olaus Ruskin and Rabastan Lestrange."
Voldemort sat back in the armchair, out of sight. He was silent again. The rain had stopped. All Lucius could hear was the irregular dripping of water from the eaves.
"How do you know all this?" Voldemort asked at last.
"I asked Ruskin. Because I did wonder. Rabastan Lestrange doesn't have the brains to invent something like Sectumsempra, and the spell just wasn't Ruskin's style. Ruskin would blow you off your feet with a Stunner, or, if he had to, he'd kill you cleanly with Avada Kedavra. He wasn't the sort who would enjoy slicing his opponent to ribbons and watching him bleed to death."
"Is Snape that sort?" Voldemort asked.
"I think he could be," Lucius said.
"How very interesting," Voldemort said softly. "Sectumsempra." Again he made the word into a hiss of pleasure. "It isn't an Unforgivable."
"We haven't used it on an enemy yet. I doubt the Ministry knows of its existence. They haven't ruled on its status, at any rate."
"They'll make it illegal," said Voldemort, "but not Unforgivable. How could they? It doesn't rob you of your free will or, necessarily, kill you. That makes it rather a useful spell, legally speaking. You can't clap someone in Azkaban for life simply for using it. And your protégé invented it." The Lord sounded much more pleased with Snape than he had a few minutes before. "Did he have a counter-spell? The Lestranges aren't teaching one."
"Perhaps he has now," Lucius said. "But he was still working on the counter when he taught the spell to Ruskin. Ruskin said the counter-curse looked as though it would be much more complicated than Sectumsempra itself."
"I don't imagine the damage would be easy to repair," Voldemort said. "But that's the way of it, with the best Dark curses. Their effects are difficult--if not impossible--to reverse."
There was another silence. Lucius waited through it, listening to the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece and the dripping from the eaves outside.
"So, Lucius," Voldemort said finally. "Does Severus Snape know about us yet?"
"I've prepared him, my lord. He thinks of the Death Eaters as a beleaguered political party, with you as our courageous and plain-spoken leader. Severus is ambitious, a true Slytherin. He is already sympathetic to the aims of the traditional pure-bloods."
"Ah, I see. He has ideas above his station."
"I did not say so, my lord," Lucius answered mildly.
"No, I did. And I quite approve of poverty-stricken half-bloods who aspire to greater things. Perhaps you told him he would rise quickly in our ranks?"
"I did not take that liberty, my lord," Lucius said. "But I think he would rise."
"What else did you tell him?"
"I told him I was sure you would want to meet him. Then I showed him my Dark Mark."
Voldemort gave a short, cold laugh. "You are as foolhardy as any Gryffindor, Lucius. What if he turns you in?"
"I don't think he will."
"I simply have that feeling, after talking with him about what he saw in Azkaban. I trust Severus Snape."
"You trust him? Why?"
"Perhaps because I can read him. He thinks he's good at hiding his feelings but actually wears his heart on his sleeve. I trust him because I'm fairly sure I know what he wants."
"Are you? I find it's not so easy to uncover a man's true desires."
Lucius smiled. "I say I'm fairly sure, my lord."
"It does seem that, in this Snape's case, it would be an interesting voyage of discovery," said Voldemort. "When will you introduce us?"
"I'll have to get back to you on that, my lord," Lucius replied. "The Aurors and the Death Eaters have been keeping St. Mungo's Hospital very busy. Apothecary Snape is frequently required to work overtime."
"I hope you won't keep me waiting too long, Lucius. You have me brimming with anticipation."
Lucius knew what that meant: that, having betrayed so much, he had better not allow Snape to balk. "I won't, my lord," he said.
"Contact me in the usual way," Voldemort said. He rose, indicating that their interview was at an end.
Lucius rang for Dobby. The elf arrived trembling as before. His eyes lit on Lord Voldemort and bulged with terror.
"Show the Lord out," Lucius said, with a look that told Dobby he would brook no protests.
Lucius could have escorted the Lord to the front door. But Dobby was sometimes unacceptably rebellious. Occasionally he needed lessons in obedience and deportment.
"Y--es, Lucius Malfoy, sir."
Voldemort looked down at Dobby and smiled. Dobby, avoiding his eyes, watched the floor ahead of him as he led Lord Voldemort out of Lucius Malfoy's library.