The building was smaller than your average pure-blood manor. Severus had taken notice of this on the first day of his arrival, but thought nothing of it initially. The outer gritstone walls formed a triangle, the corners of which marked the central points of the three main living areas: the West Wing with the entrance area, the East Wing, which extended into the inner yard, and the Northern Front, which mutilated the triangle into a not-so-geometric shape by featuring a castle-like tower at its tip, on top of which, for all Severus knew, a massive time-turner held the building in a constant temporal vacuum. This enabled the house to move back and forth in time, thus the puniness of the place.
“The office is behind the fifth door to the right,” the House-Elf had said. “Don’t knock, just be punctual. The lady won’t wait.”
The downstairs floor was carpeted, the tapestry featured a ghastly tartan pattern. This had to be the right direction. He had been walking for several minutes already, having come from the part of the manor where his own room was situated. And unless there were ball rooms behind these doors… ah, there it was! Number five. It looked like an office door, too. Severus stopped for a moment, scanning his robes for crinkles, and then entered, closing the door behind himself in one, smooth movement. He found that this engulfed him in complete darkness. It was not a particularly pleasant impression. Too “Dark Lord” for his taste.
For a moment, he just stood, trying to get used to the darkness, sure that he was not alone. Then, something –or someone- in the back of the room moved.
“Punctuality is of vital importance in this household, Half-blood, I thought you might have realised that by now.”
“I apologise for being late,” said Severus politely, completely certain that he was not. “The basement corridor is rather longer than one might expect at first glance…”
“You are early,” was the cold reply. “By almost two minutes. Sit!”
Severus looked around. His eyes were slowly beginning to adapt to the darkness and the outline of a chair became visible the very moment a flash of wand light from the other end of the room made everything go white. This was the thing about pure-bloods – if they tried to impress you, they did it with all means available to them. Light was a classic.
The lady ignited several torches, which were hanging on the walls all around him. Severus covered his eyes with his hands and sat.
“Thank you for…”
“You will speak when addressed,” stated his opposite. When he could remove his hands, Severus gave her a calculating look. The lady was a tall woman of at least a hundred years of age and clothed in a black pure-blood gown of no particular fashion as far as he could tell. Her face looked as though it was commonly used for the display of contempt in varying degrees, which in itself was not unusual for a witch of the lady’s generation. She was surrounded by an aura of complete authority, the likes of which Severus had only ever seen in two people before. He could not help being reminded of the fact that, in both cases, he had felt obliged to address the person in question as “master”…
“You will be surprised about this summons,” said the lady now. She remained standing, her hands folded elegantly in front of her gown, her gaze directed at the torches on the wall rather than him. Severus tried to ignore this.
“A little,” he said truthfully.
“You have been living under this roof for quite a while now,” continued his opposite unmovingly. “I find that it is time for the two of us to get to know each other a little. – Ah, it is good to see that you recognise the breach in protocol,” said the lady. “Shall we have some tea?”
Severus nodded mutely. The lady raised an eyebrow. It took the black-haired wizard several seconds to realise that she expected him to do the rest.
“Don’t apologise. Just do it!”
“You realise, of course, that I have still not fully recovered…”
“However did you survive the last war with such a hesitant disposition? Show me!”
Severus produced his wand, giving her a quizzical look.
The lady graced this with an approving nod. “Very good. You can remember things.”
Severus concentrated on the summons. Even simple spells were hard work these days, after the Shack incident…
“A-accio teapot,” he said, embarrassed by the sound of his own voice. Mute spells were still very much out of the question, of course. The lady’s mouth curled into a miniscule sneer.
“Well done. I am glad to see that I am no longer playing host to a completely magicless creature. This speaks in your favour.”
She waited until Severus had poured her a cup of tea, and eventually lowered down on an armchair opposite the window, which was rather higher and more richly decorated than his own, plain one.
“I don’t have to tell you, of course,” said the lady calmly, as though explaining Arithmancy to a very small child, “that your presence in this house constitutes a huge imposition on myself and my husband. Especially as it now seems as though it will be rather prolonged.”
“Rather shorter than expected it seems,” Severus threw in, “by about three or four years.”
“Well, rejoice,” remarked the lady dryly. “That leaves only about six or seven years to go, does it not?”
“I was given to understand that you agreed to this arrangement,” observed the Snape, attempting to catch her gaze out of habit.
“And so I did,” said the woman. “Mainly on my husband’s behalf, who is very intent on satisfying our daughter’s wishes wherever he can, I have to say. But I have begun to see a certain benefit in the endurance of a constant liability to my status and reputation under my roof. pure-blood society has its rules, you know, with which you are, of course, more than acquainted, judging from your former circle of acquaintances.”
“Lucius Malfoy has been a good friend,” replied Severus, very interested in what kind of benefit she could be talking about. “He was able to overlook the, ah, shortcomings of my blood status in exchange for closeness, companionship.”
“You want me to believe that Lucius Malfoy would be as foolish as to put his personal desires over political and societal considerations?” For the first time, the lady seemed honestly surprised. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“We were young,” Severus concluded calmly. “Boys can be foolish.”
“Very much so,” agreed the lady smugly. “Indeed, it is much more fashionable to have daughters these days, although this is one of the few things my good friend Lady Warrington-Selwyn and I cannot seem to agree upon. Well, but if it is only companionship you have to offer, I am afraid the two of us will not have much to discuss tonight.”
“You will find that there a quite a lot of changes in a man between the ages of thirteen and thirty-eight,” said Severus calmly.
The lady sneered at one of the torches. Her gaze was directed stubbornly at anything but Severus, who found that this probed his patience more than anything else in this conversation. If she would only look at him once more… perhaps he might attempt to revive some remains of his Legilimency after all? It seemed worth the risk.
“A man,” said the lady quietly now. “Hardly. But you must feel that way, of course, having a life expectancy of a mere… what, a century, perhaps?”
“A little more,” said Severus curtly, feeling his blood beginning to boil. This was new. And unpractical. “Halfbloods have been known to live up to one hundred and fifty years or more.”
“That is astonishing,” remarked the lady dryly. “Well, lets hope this counts for you as well. The Princes are one of our oldest lines, of course, and surprisingly pure in blood before you came along, if I may add. You realise that my husband is a practical historian and in the fortunate position to double-check on these matters?”
“Yes…?” said Severus through clenched teeth. “I must say, I don’t quite…”
“I don’t remember asking for your opinion,” cut the lady in, flicking her wand for more tea. Severus felt an unpleasant tingle gush through his body. This commonly happened when someone performed magic spells in his close reach, but the strength depended on the spell caster.
“The Princes are a good line, and it is wasted on your Muggle father, if I may say so,” said the lady sharply, finally seeming to freely speak her mind. “I intend to remedy this and I will require your assistance in doing so.”
“In what way?”
“I have a proposal to make, Half-blood,” replied the lady, her attention directed at nothing but her tea now. “And I advise you to listen carefully. This is a singular opportunity for you to secure your place in our society without resorting to, ah, Death Eater means, now that the times of constant bloodshed are hopefully over.”
Severus felt his body straighten up on its own accord. The lady noticed it with some satisfaction.
“You realise, of course,” she said slowly, very pointedly pronouncing every word, “that my daughter is on the lookout for a husband. What you may not have noticed, however, is that she has also chanced to fall in love with you. A very unpractical habit of hers, I may add, but there you go. This is what I have to work with. As it happens, I think now that a link between the Prince line and my own may be very beneficial for both…”
“What is in it for you?” Severus cut in unable to stop himself, his entire concentration now on whether or not he could learn more of her true intentions by means of Legilimency.
“I shall withdraw this offer if you interrupt me one more time, Halfblood!” hissed the lady, suddenly leaning forward so that she was now uncomfortably close to his face and hair. “I have very good reasons for wanting a link with the Prince line, as you should realise. I also happen to think it is very practical that you cannot move out of this house by yourself. It is of great interest to me that my dear Minerva should not stumble into yet another relationship, which she feels she will have to end on her own accord and against my explicit wishes by means of a divorce. Merlin knows, the first one was sensational enough. So your little hanky-panky ‘accidental’ handholding kind of nonsense behaviour that I have had to endure in recent weeks may continue uninterrupted. Also,” she leaned back again, looking smug, “I do believe the two of us could make a spectacular team during political and social gatherings if you work some more on those little mind-reading skills of yours. For now, I have to say, you can save your energy and direct them to more important things, such as a reasonable answer to my gracious offer.”