Just as the clock struck seven-thirty, Severus Snape knocked at the door of Professor Slughorn’s office. He’d been waiting out in the corridor for precisely five minutes.
“Mister Snape? Do come in, please.”
He sat in the chair across from Slughorn’s desk. “Good evening, sir.”
“Good evening, dear boy, and a very good evening it is. I've been meaning to tell you, your work with MacPherson’s Phantasian Philtre has pointed me in some interesting directions.”
“Thank you.” Even Severus couldn’t quite stop himself blushing at the unexpected praise. He let himself sink into the overstuffed chair. When he was a First Year, he’d been certain that the Head of Slytherin had installed such a well-cushioned chair for the sole purpose of lulling his students into a state of ease such that even the Occlumency barriers of a scion of the Sacred Twenty-Eight, trained from infancy to shield his or her thoughts, might slip enough to betray some useful insight.
Now, after five years and two months at Hogwarts, he’d come to accept that the Professor’s only thought was for his students’ comfort. I’d be far more comfortable with a hard wooden chair, myself, but it would be rude to ask, so I’ll go on pretending I like this one.
When Slughorn had first taken a particular interest in a greasy-haired Halfblood with Pureblood pretensions, back in Fourth Year, Severus had kept his guard up, even more than he did with most people, suspecting the professor might be motivated by the same desires as the owner of a shop at the wrong end of Diagon Alley—a distant cousin of the Seventh Year prefect—who the previous June had offered him a job over the summer holidays, brewing potions for room, board, and two Galleons ten Sickles a week. That was a better wage than anyone else was offering, and infinitely better than returning to Spinner's End and his father's drunken rages.
"I've had girls in here before," Trevor Winston-Rosier had said, "but I don't find 'em suitable. Rather have a good boy, so I would. You seem a polite little chap, and my young cousin tells me you're an orphan, so I'm sure you'll know what side your bread's buttered on, what?"
Fourteen years of age and far more naïve than he imagined, Severus had thought the man meant he'd be a hard worker, worth every Knut of his pay, and for a fortnight he'd done his best, filling the cabinets of the down-market shop with household potions that would have passed muster even at Auberon and Sons, the high end apothecary that faced the great bronze doors of Gringotts Bank.
He'd also spent that fortnight avoiding Winston-Rosier's groping hands. It didn't seem any worse than dodging Tobias Snape's slaps, kicks, and occasional thrown bottles, right up until the evenng his employer came home drunk, pinned him facedown over the shop counter with a bruising grip on the nape of his neck, and tried to yank down his breeches. Kicking out blindly, Severus had managed to break loose, grabbed his few possessions, and escaped out the back door without so much as a Knut of his fee. He'd slept rough for a couple of nights, until he found a job in Knockturn Alley. Mafalda Herring couldn't pay more than a Galleon and two Sickles in the week, but she was honest to the bone and, in her way, kind and motherly to the boys and girls who brewed for her.
After two years and not a hint of untoward behaviour, he had finally convinced himself that Slughorn’s interest was only that of a Potions Master who saw the makings of a fellow professional in him, much as if the man were a plummier equivalent of Madam Herring. He'd even learnt not to flinch when his Head of House patted him on the shoulder and called him "dear boy."
"Well now, Mister Snape, I have to say that in terms of the standard curriculum there's nothing more I can teach you. If you sat for your Potions NEWT tomorrow, you'd pass with flying colours. So, I've been thinking ahead. I know you've expressed interest in pursuing a Mastery, and there's a potion, a very old one, which I believe you might find an interesting challenge."
Severus did his best to remain calm and collected, but he couldn't help feeling a little prickle of interest. Old potions were fascinating, especially the ones that nobody used much any more. "I'm sure I would, Professor."
Slughorn picked up a thin volume bound in cracked leather from off his desk. "This is a book you'll not find in the Hogwarts library: Ingram Harriot's Potions Moste Obscure. The better part of it is an unacknowledged translation of a work written, about a hundred years before Harriot's mid-sixteenth century birthdate, by Johan Karl Gambrinus of Uppsala, but that's neither here no there. Whatever his failings with regards to crediting his sources, Harriot was meticulous when it came to his recipes, and in the case of several older and more unusual potions his book is the best presentation available to us. I was thinking we could start with Diomedes' Downfall Draught. Have you ever heard of it?"
Severus searched his memory. "I can't say that I have, Professor. Has it to do with Diomedes from Greek mythology, the king who fed his mares on man-flesh?"
Slughorn chuckled. "Not really, but the Diomedes who's credited with the Draught was indeed a Hellene. I commend your knowledge of the ancient literature."
"Thank you, sir."
“In any case, it’s no wonder you’ve not heard of Diomedes’ Downfall, as its place in the pharmacopoeia has long since been taken by more sophisticated preparations. That being said, it’s most interesting as a pure technical exercise, and great practice for some of the potions you’ll need to brew as you work towards your Mastery.
“You see, the draught takes care and precision, but it’s made of shockingly simple ingredients, dead common ones, really, and like all ancient potions it requires only the most minimal equipment. You could brew it in a jam pot over a candle flame and harvest nearly all the ingredients from an ordinary Muggle garden anywhere in Europe, excepting only a couple of common spices bought from the nearest greengrocer. Then again, the likes of cinnamon and clove were precious luxuries by the time they’d reached the tiny Hellenic kingdom of Ambipontus, back in the days when Diomedes the Demi-Dilligent was court wizard to the local ruler, about a century after the death of Alexander the Great.
“The King of Ambipontus at that time had one great problem. He’d only ever sired a single child, a daughter, and it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. What was more, he knew that, but for her sex, she would have made an ideal successor. In a magical kingdom, of course, it wouldn’t have been an issue, even in the third century BC. But the King was a Muggle, and so were his subjects. He was strong and fierce, feared by many and even loved by some, and without exception he had won the respect of both the neighbouring rulers and his own people, but he knew himself a mortal man and subject to the same limits as all his kind. A Queen to follow him, he was certain, wouldn’t reign a fortnight, no matter how clever and ruthless she might be. He wanted better than that, not only for his lineage but for his daughter herself.
“And so, a few months in advance of the girl’s thirteenth birthday he commissioned his court wizard to employ his arts and transform her into the son he’d always wanted.
“As it happens, the King was also a notorious penny-pincher, or perhaps we should say an obol-pincher, what? The funds he provided to support the wizard’s efforts were as limited as his threatened punishments for failure were dire. Had Diomedes any better prospects, or even a decent chance of escape, he might well have begged the use of a remote villa in which to carry out his work and from there quietly slipped away to seek a new patron in Gandhara or somesuch place at the opposite end of the known world. But this was before Apparition was commonly practised, before broomsticks and flying carpets, and Diomedes had never won the respect of a Hippogriff or a winged horse.
“He counted out the scant bag of coin his dread sovereign’s messenger had brought him, laid every last drachma from his own equally meagre purse beside it, and wondered how on Earth he would save himself from the garotte or worse. Having no great skill at Transfiguration or Charms, he knew his only hope lay in potions, for which he would need obscure scrolls, rare ingredients, and, last but not least, experimental subjects. And that, in those benighted times, meant human beings, and I don’t mean willing volunteers but slaves.
“Perhaps it’s true, as some sources will have it, that the citizens of Ambipontus were, let us say, less given to the famous peccadilloes of Ancient Greek manhood than their contemporaries in other kingdoms and city-states. Or perhaps there was simply a glut of boys on the market that week. In any case, slave girls were expensive, even the unattractive ones. Their male counterparts, on the other hand, were going for a few coppers apiece.
“This was where Diomedes had a stroke of genius, or so it seemed at the time. Surely, he thought, the potion that would turn a girl into a boy would equally turn a boy into a girl!
“The tale varies with the teller as to how many formulae twisted his subjects into things best not described, dropped them stone-dead in their tracks, or failed to effect the slightest alteration. But on the very last day, with only a single boy remaining, a clever fair-haired fellow hailing from some misty island in the far Northwest who’d proven a useful assistant despite his barbarian birth and whom he had therefore saved as long as possible, he prepared two doses of his final recipe and sent word to the palace that he’d achieved his goal and was ready to demonstrate his success.
“The King came at once, without a single guard or henchman, for he trusted in his own sword to keep him safe and wanted no wagging tongues. The servants were sent away, and only Diomedes, his Majesty, and the boy remained in the house. The wizard knew failure would result in his own instant death by that same sword, but no doubt he thought that a very good thing, considering some of the punishments in vogue at the time.
“Making a silent plea to any deity who chanced to be listening, he tore away the slave’s ragged tunic for fear his employer would suspect a trick, sat him down on a divan, handed him a phial, and ordered him to drink it to the dregs as he valued his life.
“Even as the boy finished the potion, his body began to contort and change. When the transformation was over, and the King had assured himself that the slave who had been a boy was now in every aspect a healthy, well-formed girl, he embraced Diomedes, kissed him on both cheeks, presented him with a full bag of gold, and promoted him to the ranks of his chief advisors.
“As for the slave girl, he took off his purple cloak and wrapped it about her, kissed her on the forehead, and lifted her up to the back of his own horse as gently as if she herself had been a princess. Back at the palace, he presented the slender blonde barbarian to his delighted child, for he knew that on the morrow he’d have a fine strong son, and if the lad turned out anything like himself at thirteen years of age he’d want a pretty little handmaiden to warm his bed.
“The next morning, the King announced that the gods had granted him their favour and where his people saw a princess they would soon see a prince. He formally declared his daughter his heir, handed her the potion his wizard had so carefully prepared, bade her drink… and watched, along with his entire court, as nothing happened. She was still the same bold, lively, capable girl she had been the day before, her father’s daughter in every respect… but his son only in title.
“Some chroniclers say Diomedes was immediately crucified or stuffed into a red-hot brazen bull. But others tell us he made his escape by one means or another, and that years later the Queen of Ambipontus, who proved well able to hold her father’s throne with the body Nature had given her, granted him a comfortable residence and a generous pension. After all, without Diomedes the Demi-Dilligent she would never have got the loyal fair-haired handmaiden who warmed her bed for the rest of their long and happy lives.”