A/N: Hello lovely readers, and welcome to the Venetian AU world of Prince. This is an expansion of my drabble "Secrets" (Sally Drabbles chapter 24) and will be a Harry/Daphne story, but at least one other pairing will pop up in the background.
Disclaimer: The world and characters of Harry Potter belong to J K Rowling. This is a work of transformative fiction written for no profit.
Chapter One: 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."
A/N: And we're off! This is for belle-delesque, who requested the original drabble, and for MereWhispers, whose birthday I missed this week! Expect a weekly update on this one. If you're reading my other stories then look out for new Orphea tomorrow. Much love x