Chapter 10: Non vincor, vinco
Out to sea the storm fades, its fury finally spent. The waters of the lagoon retreat, taking their tithe of the unwary and the unfortunate with them and leaving behind a layer of salt-smelling mud.
Gradually, like a sigh of relief, a gentler rain starts; falling soft as a mist. Across the city eyes peer from the cracks between shutters and fingers emerge to catch at the cool drops. The wind that dances light-footed along the calle is fresh, bringing with it the crisp scent of approaching autumn.
The sky is a pale, virginal white, and soon the walls of the buildings - creamy plaster, blood-red brick - are streaked and stained with water, like the tracks of tears. Gently, the sun works its way between the clouds, and the first, bright threads of light spill through the narrow streets and canals.
Memory, like the streets of the city, can be sluiced clean. Fear has carved itself deeply into the hearts of the people, but hope is a powerful salve. And as the wet streets are left shining, as the sun glances from the rooftops, then – slowly, slowly – the citizens come creeping and blinking into the light.
And when magicians with contrite expressions have clasped the hands of priests with bent heads; when the windows shattered by the explosion of power released in the moment Lord Potter's hands met the Pretender's have been repaired; when they reflect the sunlight in a rainbow glitter of broken shards fused by magic; then the city pauses to gaze upwards at the blue sky, and taste the clean sweetness of the air.
The lords and ladies of the city do not speak of what passed within the palace walls. Their eyes drop to the floor, their mouths work around words that will not pass their lips. Like the magicians, like the priests, they let shame weight their steps and still their tongues.
Anything and everything, they have always said, can be bought and sold in the water city - you have simply to name your price.
But some things cost too dear even for the merchant lords, whose pockets are heavy with gold and whose eyes are bright with greed.
Who will buy, if the price of power is freedom?
Who will pay, if the price of peace is a young man's life?
And so, a final secret, to hold close until the very end: love is the greatest of all currencies, more powerful even than death; but it cannot be hoarded, only spent.
Hermione examines her reflection critically in the mirror. Black and white does not suit her: the absence of colour drains her skin of its usual warmth, making her look sallow and deepening the shadows of sleepless nights that prowl beneath her eyes and cheekbones.
There is a movement behind her, and she turns to see Lady Malfoy, pale and elegant in her own black gown.
"Mourning dress is rarely flattering," Narcissa remarks, and Hermione can see her son in the slight, smug upturn of the Malfoy matriarch's lips. There's a twitch in her fingers, the impulse to curl around the known quantity of a knife hilt, and it takes all of Hermione's considerable willpower to smile back.
"Indeed." She tries to affect Daphne's limpid serenity; her wide and guileless eyes. "I could never hope to wear it so effortlessly as you do, my Lady."
The barb is very slight; the faintest lilt of challenge. In her mind she likens it to a blade still sheathed, but in full view.
Hermione learned very young to fight with knives, with teeth and nails and well-placed feet.
Later, she learned to fight with magic, and then with the shape of her body against Draco's and the sigh of her voice in his ear.
She knows now that she must master the art of fighting with patience, with the faintest modulation of tone; the briefest pause. A whole new arsenal has been placed at her disposal - the weapons of a lady - and her new teacher is proving as adroit an instructor as Master Snape ever was.
Lady Malfoy's viperine smile widens very slightly, and she inclines her chin. "Good," she says, and this time when her cool blue eyes sweep across Hermione, the gaze is approving. "To think I almost took you for a boy," she says musingly.
It is probably as close to praise as she will permit, and so Hermione swallows and sinks into a shallow curtsey before making to leave the room. Narcissa's fingers, surprisingly strong, close around her upper arm before she makes it to the door.
"My son chose you," Narcissa says, very quietly. "And while you may not prove the easiest choice, I have to believe that you were the best." Hermione can feel her pulse jumping against Narcissa's firm grip.
"I chose him too," she replies, barely a whisper. She remembers Narcissa's cryptic words - twist and twine and never touch - and leans into her grasp so that, were anyone to look, she might be caught in the older woman's maternal embrace. "A lioness in your den of snakes, eyes wide open."
The sound that Narcissa makes is loud, and surprising, and Hermione blinks before she realises that it is a laugh, the first true one that Narcissa has ever permitted herself in Hermione's presence.
"Very good," Narcissa releases her, pale fingers smoothing the wrinkled silk of her sleeve. "You are a match, and no mistake."
They go downstairs together, to where Draco waits with his father by the canal door. Both are dressed in suits of sombre black, though Draco looks sleek and elegant next to Lucius. Irrepressible dandy that he is, the head of the House of Malfoy has been unable to resist a froth of white lace at his cuffs.
Unbidden, Hermione recalls the singed and bloodied lace at Daphne's wrists, her hands shaking and face white with the strain of holding a million twinkling shards of glass in the air above the gathered revellers at the Duke's Palace.
Destruction and desolation and devastation on the air and -
She gasps at the memory, stumbles on the last stair, and Draco is there to steady her, his grey eyes sharp with concern when they meet hers.
I know, his hand says, as it closes around her own, and Hermione allows herself to savour the feeling of him holding her upright. They are both grieving, and though his mother's machinations mean that they are doing so under the same roof, it is rare that they get to share so much as a touch.
Lucius clears his throat delicately as Hermione sways towards Draco, and the Malfoy heir steps back to a polite distance, though he keeps his hand on Hermione's arm until the last possible moment. She smiles to hide her disappointment, and dips her head with pretended modesty, remaining silent to preserve the fiction - a foreign lady, recently orphaned and a stranger to the city - that Narcissa has managed to spin around her origins.
How she has managed to persuade Lucius of such an audacious lie is anyone's guess, though Hermione is starting to suspect that Draco's magic may not be so mysterious in its origins after all.
Master Snape always taught magic as a dance: precise, measured; devastating. The more that Hermione watches Narcissa–with her subtleties, her little nudges, effortless twists and manipulations–the more she sees the tightly-controlled chaos.
Hermione takes a slow breath through her nose and smoothes her hands over the fine black damask of her bodice. The clothes of a lady, one who will be a suitable bride for the scion of the House of Malfoy, once a decent mourning period has been observed. It is not so hard to learn the arrogant lift of the chin, the straightness of the spine, that will make her look the part.
Controlled chaos, she thinks, as she meets Narcissa's eye.
For it is true, is it not, that Hermione Granger has always been a quick study. She loves knowledge for its own sake, and she is an excellent student, thoughtful and eager. But there is a secret to her studiousness, one that she scarcely admits to herself, and it is that she longs, always, to be the best. Narcissa's blue eyes sparkle as they hold one another's gaze, and again the edges of her mouth pull upwards.
Twists and manipulations.
Draco places a warm hand at the base of Hermione's spine, out of sight of his father, and Hermione returns Narcissa's smile. The lesson will be worth the learning of it.
Master Snape's magic finally gutters and dies as the dust settled from Harry's spell. Daphne heaves a gasping breath and immediately begins to cough on her lungful of smoke and dust.
She struggles, blinking, through the haze, barely conscious of Hermione and Draco behind her, of Ron to her left lifting Pansy to her feet, of the shouts and screams around them. All that Daphne can see are the two crumpled shapes that are Harry and the Pretender, both lying still - so still - too still -
Daphne has hated mourning dress ever since her mother died, and she hates it doubly now. She turns her head to examine her reflection in the shattered mirror, watching as the swoop of her cheekbone repeats itself over and over, and she finds that she has no desire to fix the cracks. She likes the brokenness; the way that the myriad fragments reflect her face a hundred times at once. She is all of these faces, all of these women - daughter, sister, lover, killer.
When the Pretender held her against him she could feel the wrongness of his magic; the chill - like dead flesh - of the thing that he carried. It had been nothing, almost laughably easy, to pick his pocket the way Hermione taught her.
Too often, rich men grow careless of their treasures. Master Snape taught her that particular lesson one afternoon when she complained about her father's overbearing nature.
It is the height of arrogance to think yourself too great to be brought low, Master Snape had barked, his magic lashing out to catch her a stinging blow across the back of one hand.
Daphne looks at that hand now, remembers the way that the thing in the diadem had writhed and fought against her, and she hears Master Snape's voice in her ear.
Magic's strength is a brittle one. You have to mean it - have to want it - with all your heart, with all that is in you -
Her hand forms a fist, the knuckles turning white. She can still feel the burn of the magic, the way that her knees buckled and her vision blurred and her blood felt as though it would burst from her veins.
She can still see the look on Harry's face as he grinned up at the Pretender, at Tom Riddle, whose expression had twisted from confusion into horror the moment that - that -
With all your heart -
Harry's eyes on hers, green as bottle-glass, and she had known it in that moment.
A magic more terrible even than death - and Master Snape's thin smile, his unreadable black eyes -
You will know the things worth living for, when you find yourself willing to die for them.
He had been so still -
A whisper of a draft stirs the air of the room before strong arms fold around her, and Daphne turns her face into the warmth of Harry's chest, not realising she is crying until she feels his waistcoat turn damp against her cheek.
"Breathe," he says gently, smoothing his thumb across the nub of bone at the top of her spine, the only part of her that is as exposed, as vulnerable, as she actually feels.
"I should have trusted him." Daphne's voice is a croak; these are not the first tears that she has shed in the last few days. "I should never have believed that he would actually betray us."
Harry's chest rises and falls in a deep sigh. "He wouldn't have been doing his job if he hadn't had us fooled."
It's true, and yet. Sometimes grief is like the sharp jab of a hairpin in the hands of a careless maid, and at others it is the fierce pain of a dagger in the ribs.
No, Daphne thinks to herself. In the stomach. One of those cruel wounds that invariably festers without the aid of magic, achieving slowly and painfully what would take a matter of seconds if the knife were to slide across your throat.
Harry says nothing more, and Daphne knows that if her grief is a deep wound then his is sharper, darker. He is a deep and bottomless well of feeling, and his eyes are dry only because sorrow has been a constant companion to the Boy Who Lived.
It is a testament to the miracle that is Harry Potter that he has never turned away from the things that have been sent to break him. He has let pain gouge deep wounds in his soul without ever letting himself become as the Pretender was, and now, Daphne promises herself, she won't let anything else be taken from him.
"I love you," she whispers, shaping the words so that they fit into the underside of his jaw, into the shadows that she has seen in his eyes as he contemplates the things that would have a lesser man bleeding to death with the pain of them.
His hand tightens on the back of her neck, and Daphne turns her face upwards to meet Harry's lips with her own. He doesn't say it back - doesn't need to - and when they break apart from one another, when he steps backwards and stares down at her, the bleakness has been edged out of his expression.
Daphne runs her thumb over his gloved knuckles. "Are you ready?" she asks softly. And Harry, so strong, so determined, gives her a tight smile.
"As I'll ever be," he sighs. "Sirius would tell me to pull myself together."
"And Remus would say there's no shame in letting yourself feel."
She had only met them a handful of times, but she knows them enough. Daphne sees Remus and Sirius in all that Harry does. She saw them throw themselves into the fight against the Pretender's followers - how they gave their lives for love of their best friend's son. She sees, every day, the way that Harry has been shaped by that love, though he only knew it for a few short years.
Harry lifts her hand to his mouth, and presses a kiss into her palm. "And Master Snape would sneer at the pair of them and ignore me entirely." His eyes flash with humour. "Thank you for the reminder, Lady Potter."
Daphne blushes in spite of herself, and Harry's smile is a balm for the grief that once again clenches in her heart.
"We'll be late," she says, as she pulls him with her through the door. She is ready to lay their ghosts to rest.
There are a great many funerals, each with its attendant tears and laughter, speeches and songs. It is not the first time that the city has settled its debts with blood, and goodness knows the people are not unused to muffled bells and the flutter of black lace veils. True, it is a long time since there have been so many dead to mourn at once, but it also means that the carpenters' wives and daughters will have new shoes; that the dyers' fingers will be stained black as they pay good coin for finer ale than usual. Death is simply another livelihood, and the people are nothing if not good at finding opportunities to make coin.
Harry stands on the balcony, absent-mindedly dropping pebbles into the canal waters far below. He watches as lamps glimmer into life across the city and the stars peep shyly from the firmament. As ever his eyes go first to the brightest, and he nods a greeting to Sirius's namesake as he weighs a small pebble in his hand and turns it over between his fingers.
For a moment, alone beneath the night sky, Harry imagines that he sees Sirius's grinning face; Remus's kind eyes. He remembers the sound of his father's laugh and the feeling of his mother's hand upon his shoulder.
He knows that they will never leave him, that they have, in fact, been with him all this time, carefully preserved in his memories; in the spaces of his heart that seem made as wells for sorrow, reservoirs for joy.
When he steps back into the warmth and light of the wake his eyes go straight to Daphne, and he feels that strange jolt of fierce delight that he has come to associate with her face, her touch, the sound of her voice.
She is talking to Hermione and Lady Malfoy, who seems to have decided to take her son's unorthodox choice of bride under her terrifying wing. Draco stands slightly to one side, watching his mother with narrowed eyes. Harry notices that Draco's fingers are playing with the fabric of Hermione's taffeta skirt and hides a smile behind his hand. He wonders how long Lady Malfoy plans to torture the pair of them before she will allow them to wed.
A throat is cleared very close by, and Harry jumps as his father-in-law steps to his side, assaulted at once by the uneasy not-quite-guilt feeling that he has come to associate with the imposing Lord Greengrass.
Hyperion's sharp eyes are fixed on Daphne, his expression unreadable. "I do not usually take kindly to thieves, Lord Potter," he remarks, taking a sip of his wine and raising one eyebrow. Harry is startled by how well he knows the expression, recognising it from Daphne's face.
"My lord," he begins carefully. "I do not believe that I -"
"My father," Hyperion says, cutting him off, "told me soon after Daphne's birth that he was glad to have only had sons, as he understood daughters to be an unholy trial."
Harry swallows, uncertain where this is going. Eventually he breaks the silence. "And what has been your experience?"
Something in Hyperion's face softens, and Harry watches as his eyes move once again over Daphne. She looks up as though she has felt the scrutiny, and stills as she sees the pair of them stood together, watching her.
"They are a terrible burden," Hyperion says, placing his empty glass down on the small table, "but also an unparalleled joy." He turns, and looks Harry dead in the eye. "I would not have chosen the Prince of Thieves for a son-in-law, but my daughter loves you, Lord Potter." He gives a small, but courteous nod. "I entrust her to your care."
And with that he is gone, another lean black silhouette melting into the throng of mourners.
"I saw you speaking to my father." Daphne runs her fingers through Harry's hair where he has rested his head in her lap. The last of the guests have finally left, and they are sat in one of the window seats that face out over the Grand Canal, alone in the half-ruined grandeur of the Palazzo Nero - Sirius's last legacy.
"He was saying how delighted he is to have me for a son-in-law." She doesn't need to see Harry's face to know he is grinning that wonderful smile that she carried with her from when she was a small child; the smile that was enough for her to know him by when she stumbled upon him in Lord Malfoy's study. Only a few short months ago, and yet enough time for everything to have changed.
"I don't doubt it," Daphne says, leaning forward so that Harry can see her teasing smile, and when he lifts his mouth to hers their lips meet lazily. No rush, this kiss seems to say. They have bought themselves the luxury of a lifetime together.
"You are a prince, after all."
Outside, the first light of sunrise spills across the lagoon like liquid gold. A pair of birds, white-winged and graceful, wheel above the gleaming water. Soon the Prime bells will ring, and the city will wake, and the day will begin.
Dawn is the perfect hour for secrets - whisper them in your lover's ear, tuck them in the pockets of your skirts. Clutch them to your breast or toss them to the winds. The city will hear them, and keep them, as it has always done. As it always will, until the very end.
A/N: Thank you all, so very much, for coming on this journey with me. It's been so wonderful to read your reviews and to hear your thoughts. I hope that you've enjoyed it as much as I have. If I give individual shoutouts I will inevitably neglect to mention someone amazing, but rest assured that everyone - everyone - who has taken the time to read, review, and just generally engage with Prince, you're amazing and awesome and I love you. Actually, special thanks to Olivie Blakesince this story would have died a death without her there to coax and cajole me into writing when I worry that I might actually have run out of words.
Hit me up on tumblr if you have any questions, and to keep tabs on other projects. I'll be starting a new HP story shortly (if anyone is a fan of Sherlock I suggest you keep an eye out), and my other WIPs, Nyctophilia and Orpheawill be updating soon!
Also, a plea - this is not only a rare-pair, but quite a hefty leap of an AU, so any shares and recommendations are always super-appreciated!
Love Sally xx
PS: the chapter title means "I am not conquered, I conquer."