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The Lamentable Comedy of Severus, Half-Blood Prince of Denmark

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“I think, Severus,” said Professor Dumbledore, “that it would be just as well if you left England for a while after you finish school.”

The greasy-haired, sallow young man slumped in the opposite chair gave a guilty start. Of course, the Headmaster had probably observed his friendship with Avery and Rosier, but he couldn’t know about certain introductions that had been made over the Christmas holidays, nor about a ritual performed at midnight, some two weeks before. Could he?

“Yes,” Dumbledore went on meditatively, “these are dangerous times, particularly for one of your background. If you felt inclined to stay and fight, of course, there will certainly be work for you here, but there is no shame or dishonor in spending some time abroad.”

Severus stopped feeling guilty and returned to his usual state of sullenness. He hated being reminded of his Muggle father, and Dumbledore plainly had no idea which side he’d be fighting on if he did end up joining the war. He allowed himself to feel superior to the Headmaster, although he was careful to let no trace of his contempt show in his face or posture.

“Besides, Professor Slughorn tells me you have considerable academic gifts, which ought to be nurtured. He recommended you for a research fellowship at one of the wizarding universities on the Continent, and Professor McGonagall and I agree with him.”

Severus could not suppress a flicker of excitement, although he didn’t let that show, either.

“I have written to one of my colleagues at Wittenberg, and he has offered to take you on as a research assistant. I must warn you that he can be a trifle eccentric, but his work on experimental potions is very exciting, and I believe you would learn a great deal from him.”

Severus snorted. He suspected that someone who was “a trifle eccentric” by Dumbledore’s standards would be barking mad by anybody else’s.

“He speaks excellent English. As a rule, he expects his research assistants to speak English, too, rather than expressing themselves by staring at the floor and making snuffling sounds. May I trust that there will be no communication barrier?”

“Yes, sir,” Severus muttered.

“And are you interested in the fellowship?”

Severus didn’t look up. “I reckon I might be.”

“From you, Severus, I shall take that as an expression of great enthusiasm. Very well. I will write to Dr. Faustus and inform him that you accept his offer.”

* * *

A week after finishing his N.E.W.T.s, Severus set out for Germany. He carried with him a recommendation letter from Dumbledore and a battered suitcase containing a toothbrush, a change of clothes, and as many books as he could fit inside (though not his copy of Advanced Potion-Making, which had, irritatingly, gone missing). He had committed most of the potion recipes and his own improvements to memory, anyway – along with a set of instructions from the Dark Lord and every word Lily Evans had ever said to him.

An awkward and reluctant flier, Severus chose to queue up for the International Floo Network and then took the Wizarding Express from Hamburg to Wittenberg, as he had too hazy a sense of his destination to Apparate. It was late evening when he arrived, cramped and sleepy from too many hours on the train.

An ancient house-elf met him at the station and showed him to a room at the top of one of the university’s towers. It was tiny and institutional, but very clean; the only furnishings were an iron bed, a shelf for books, and an enormous wardrobe. Severus, who had grown up in surroundings that were even more austere, was not inclined to complain. After checking the wardrobe for boggarts, he threw himself down on the bed and fell asleep at once.

He was awakened by a string of firecrackers going off outside his door.

He stumbled out into the corridor, ready to hex the idiot who had set them off, only to be confronted with what looked like a mechanical devil spitting fire from beneath its tail. It had the horns and the pitchfork, but instead of being goat-footed, it rolled along on wheels.

A voice barked out a command in German; the thing stopped rolling, and the smoke in the corridor began to clear. Severus saw that the stranger who had spoken was a very old man, far older than Dumbledore, though his step was still vigorous.

“You must be the new research assistant from England – Snape, is it? John Faustus. Please accept my apologies about the Mechanical Demon. Sometimes it goes off without warning.”

“What does it do?” Severus asked.

“Well, nothing very much at the moment, but it looks very impressive, don’t you think? I made a much better one back in 1537 – but they took it from me when I was arrested for breaking the Decretals. Oh, Albus didn’t tell you about that? Quite a legend with the Muggles around here – they say Lucifer himself came to drag me away to hell – but it was really the International Confederation of Wizards who were angry about some practical jokes that I played on the Pope. To make a long story short, they sentenced me to four hundred years’ hibernation. I can’t complain. I’m still here, after all, and I’d likely have died long ago if they hadn’t. Time is a funny thing, my boy. Sometimes stepping out of it can save you.”

Severus was certain by now that Dr. Faustus was, indeed, barking mad.

“Well, now that you’re up and about, we may as well get to work. I’ll show you around the laboratory. Oh, I almost forgot, your mother wrote to me and said to make sure you changed your underwear, so I suppose you’d better do that first. Semper ubi sub ubi, as they say in Rome. Grapes?” Faustus flicked his wand, and a platter of fruit appeared in front of him.

“No, thanks.” Severus made a mental note to send an angry letter to his mother. He was a Death Eater, for God’s sake; since when did Death Eaters’ relatives badger them about their underwear?

“I sent for them from Australia. They’re really very good. I imagine your mother would like you to eat, too, although she didn’t actually say anything about that.”

His head whirling, Severus accepted a stalk of grapes.

* * *

It did not take him long to decide that Faustus was even madder than he’d expected. The doctor was, at the moment, hard at work on something he called a Plothole-Plugging Potion; Severus was not quite sure what a “plothole” was, but Faustus seemed to be obsessed with them, and claimed they were everywhere. The evidence, he claimed, was abundant if you looked at England alone: Hogwarts had had a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher every year for twenty years without anybody noticing or commenting on it; nobody ever said the Dark Lord’s name yet everybody seemed to know it; the Death Eaters, an illegal secret society, had decided it would be a brilliant idea to get indelible tattoos.

At this last observation, Severus shifted uncomfortably in his chair; his left arm felt like it was burning. Why had he thought it was a brilliant idea, anyway?

“But there are as many in my world as yours. Tell me, why did I agree to sell my soul for twenty-four years of power and pleasure? Why not twenty-four hundred or twenty-four thousand?”

“I haven’t the foggiest,” said Severus, who had no idea what Faustus was on about.

“Plotholes, I tell you! They surround us, as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, and until now, no one has thought to do anything about them.”

“If they surround us, as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, are you sure it would be a good idea to do anything about them?”

Faustus shrugged. “Actually, I’m not at all sure it would be a good idea. But it would be a triumph of science, and that is even better.”

Severus was doubtful about this, and even more doubtful when Faustus told him that he would have the honor of drinking the first batch of Plothole-Plugging Potion.

“Why me?”

“Because I have no way of knowing how far in the past – or in the future – the potion may take you, and I am a wanted man in many places and times. Your record, according to Professor Dumbledore’s letter, is clean.”

Severus, who wasn’t at all sure it would be clean in the future, was not reassured by this answer. He couldn’t see any good way to explain this, however, and his own calculations suggested that the Plothole-Plugging Potion was nontoxic and, indeed, highly unlikely to have any effect at all. He drank it obediently. It tasted of pineapple.

He felt a whirling, wrenching sensation, much like being suddenly jerked into the Floo network, and the room went dark.

~ ~ ~

Severus landed spreadeagled on top of a large and lumpy object.

“Thou hast killed Rosencrantz, thou whoreson bastard!”

Severus rolled off of the object, which turned out to be a person, a dark-haired man in his early twenties. “My parents,” he said with as much dignity as he could manage, “are – most unfortunately – married to each other.” He knelt to examine the inert figure beside him. “Besides, he’s only stunned. Concussion, most likely.”

The other young man in the room, the one who had spoken, seemed to have processed the unusual manner of Severus’s arrival in the meantime. He backed up against the wall, his eyes wide, and crossed himself. “Are you an angel or a devil?” he asked.

“Neither,” said Severus coldly. “I am Severus Snape.” He considered the two young men. They wore short breeches and hose, a costume as unlike contemporary Muggle dress as it was unlike wizard robes. Unless they were on their way to a masquerade ball, he had evidently landed some centuries in the past. The one who was conscious wore a sword, and his hand had instinctively strayed to its hilt. Muggles, then. “Dr. Faustus sent me,” he said, unable to think up any better explanation for his presence.

This seemed to satisfy Rosencrantz’s companion, who didn’t appear to be very bright. “Oh, old Faustus. He’s mad.”

“I noticed.”

“‘Twould be better to have no dealings with him. They say he’s in league with the devil.”

“I don’t intend to have any more,” said Severus feelingly. He added, grudgingly, “I am sorry for the accident to ... your brother?”

“My friend. My name is Guildenstern; he’s Rosencrantz – but most people have trouble telling us apart.”

“He will be quite all right, but you’ll need to keep him quiet for a few days.” Had Guildenstern been a wizard, Snape could have woken Rosencrantz and mended his cracked skull in a trice, but he knew better than to risk performing spells in front of a Muggle, particularly in the ... sixteenth century, was it?

Guildenstern looked distressed. “We travel to Denmark on the morrow, to the royal court at Elsinore. We have a summons from the king.”

“Your friend won’t be going. Perhaps in a week or two he might be well enough to join you.”

“But King Claudius positively ordered ... I dare not disobey him. And there was a postscript from the poor queen – she sounded so distraught. ‘Tis about her son, you know, Prince Hamlet.”

Severus didn’t know, but he thought it would be wiser to nod as if he did.

Suddenly, Guildenstern’s face cleared. “I have it! You and Rosencrantz are something like each other; you must wear his clothes, and I shall present you to the king as him, and he will be ne’er the wiser.”

This struck Severus as a terrible idea. It was true that he was of approximately the same build and coloring as the unconscious man, but their faces were nothing alike; anyone less vacuous than Guildenstern would have noticed the difference at once. He pointed this out to Guildenstern.

Guildenstern shrugged. “It will make little difference. People look upon us, but they mark us not.”

“Have you ever met the king and queen of Denmark?”

“Aye, but no more than twice or thrice, at court masques and entertainments. Prince Hamlet was courteous enough to present us, and to speak of us as if we were his dearest friends, but ‘tis not likely that they would remember our faces when so many are presented to them. Besides, everyone is drunk at such affairs, especially in Denmark.”

“But you do know Prince Hamlet? Won’t he notice?”

“No, for he hath fallen into a black melancholy of late, such that if he were not the prince, men would say openly that he is not in his right wits. And so the king and queen have written to us, imploring us to discover the cause of his trouble. If he does notice aught amiss, we might play it off, saying that he would not think so if he were more himself.”

“Don’t you think the king would believe his own son before he would believe us?”

“Hamlet is not the king’s son. He’s the queen’s son, but his father is the old king, King Hamlet. I gather there is little love lost between King Claudius and the prince.”

“She’s the dowager queen, then?”

Guildenstern said no, she was the current queen, and it was rather complicated and he’d explain during the journey, and in the meantime Severus had better put on Rosencrantz’s doublet and he’d send the servants for some clean hose.

* * *

Severus would have been the first to admit he didn’t understand people as well as he understood potions, but by the time Guildenstern finished his explanation, he was sure he knew exactly what was the matter with Prince Hamlet. Guildenstern should have known it too, but he was obviously a blockhead. Severus kept his own counsel about both of these points.

The journey from Wittenberg to Elsinore was the third most miserable experience Severus had ever had, after his childhood and his adolescence. They traveled in some sort of horse-drawn Muggle contrivance, which went at an agonizingly slow pace over bumpy roads. It was always drafty inside, even when Severus bundled himself up in fur rugs, and it smelled of horses and stale sweat. Guildenstern’s powers of conversation were never very profound, and things took a turn for the worse when they met up with a wretched company of actors along the way, who insisted on regaling them with speeches from something called Cambyses, King of Persia.

“The prince will be pleased,” said Guildenstern. “He hath often told me of these players and how much pleasure they have brought him.”

This was sufficient, by itself, to convince Severus that this Prince Hamlet must be an insufferable fool.