Chapter 24: The Masquerade

Severus had to admit, his wife did have a certain flair as a hostess. As he stared out at the glimmering masses in the grand ballroom of Spinner's End, he felt a small twinge of regret that he hadn't thought to include Victoria in all of this sooner. She had been quite right that the most poetic justice for the Dursleys—social climbers that they were—would be best served in public. The eyes of the elite would be upon them as their ruination began in earnest. The plan they had crafted was indeed brilliant, and Severus could claim very little of it as his own. He should have expected it from a master manipulator as skilled as his wife, but he had been too busy ignoring her to consider how she might assist him. In the end, he had begun to develop a grudging respect for his wife. Had Victoria been born a man, Severus doubted there were many who would have challenged her for fear of her retaliation.

As Victoria had planned, Spinner's End was filled to the brim with the creme-d-la-creme of London. A bit of artfully murmured gossip from the Countess of Dunhaven had brought the peerage out en masse to Richmond for Victoria's masquerade. Knights and kings, queens and concubines all adorned in rich velvets and gossamer silks floated across the marble floors. Against his will, Severus had been convinced to play the part of Hades to Victoria's Persephone, but the indignity of wearing black robes about in public would be well worth it if everything went according to plan, and with all of the players well informed of their parts, he was quite sure it would. However, the night was young and the guests of "honor" had not yet arrived. It was enough to give Severus slight pause

Leaning in to her husband's ear, Victoria whispered, "I have it on good authority that Petunia Dursley purchased a gown from Madame Renaurd's this week. One of the seamstresses there told my Sophie that Mrs. Dursley would be dressing as Cleopatra." She let out a bit of seductive laughter from behind her fan. "Smile. Pretend I've just told you something terribly naughty."

Severus did his best to feign desire as he gazed back at his wife. Though she did not stir his passions, even he noted that Victoria was at her absolute finest. In a barely there Grecian gown made of pale teal silk that hugged her curves with her hair falling in perfect golden waves about her shoulders, one could very well picture her being carried off by some amorous god.

"Out of curiosity, how did you get them to put aside their fears and come to a ball beneath my roof?" Severus asked quietly.

Victoria merely smiled. "I simply didn't give them much choice. As you know, Mr. Dursley has business dealing with the Cramptons. The Cramptons aren't exactly haute society, but they do have connections to the earl. All I had to do was mention to Mrs. Crampton at a dinner party how particularly rude I found it that the Dursleys hadn't confirmed for the ball while Narcissa was in earshot."

"And the Cramptons would not risk offending the earl through you. Thus the Durselys had no choice, unless they wanted to court the financial loss they would incur with one of the last few gentlemen willing to do business with them," Severus surmised.

"Dance with me, Severus," Victoria commanded. "It's a tad bourgeois to dance with one's own husband, but I can't have anyone thinking you are anything but besotted with me."

As Severus danced, he paid careful attention to certain guests. Sir Arthur and Lady Weasley were in attendance, as were Mr. Weasley and Hermione. More importantly, Severus had managed to convince the Earl of Dunhaven to come. Usually Lucius did not see fit to attend much outside of London and sent his wife alone to country parties, but it seemed that, like Victoria, he was not very keen on Severus' recent secretive lifestyle. The promise of an explanation was all it took to draw the earl out of his comfort zone. In turn the promise of the earl and countess' attendance was all it took to bring nearly the whole damned ton out of London. Again, he marveled at the delicate web his wife had helped him spin.

The Dursleys arrived late to the party. Aside from those in on the plan, no one paid a moment's notice to the trio—that was except for the ladies who were gawking in horror at the decided lack of good taste they showed through their ghastly attire. Severus had to restrain himself from storming across the room and demanding satisfaction from the fat toad and his even fatter son, but he managed. He sent a discreet nod toward one of his footmen, setting the trap to fall.

Victoria smiled in a vaguely feline fashion, leaning against his chest provocatively. "Well, my lord husband, it looks as though the rats have taken the bait," she murmured, rather pleased with herself.

For their part, the Dursleys seemed only moderately skittish. The lad, in fact, didn't let the looming threat to the family come in the way of his appetite and was determinedly gorging himself at the buffet table with a passion that sent the other guest scurrying away in disgust. The elders were putting on brave faces as they crossed the room greeting the scant number of people who would grant them notice. It did appear that they were somewhat reluctant to greet their hosts, however. A lapse that Severus and Victoria were of a mind to correct directly. At their approach, Vernon stiffened and Petunia took on an unbecoming shade of green.

"Why, Mr. and Mrs. Dursely, how wonderful of you to attend our little gathering," Victoria drawled icily. Those in attendance around them might not have openly started eavesdropping, but most did have an ear turned ever so slightly toward the meeting.

"Your invitation was so very kind," Petunia managed to murmur gracelessly.

"Kindness had very little to do with it, I'm afraid," Severus replied honestly. "I had very much hoped to introduce you to someone."

Vernon's eyes narrowed. "What games are you playing, Lord Snape?"

"Tsk, tsk, is that any way to speak to your betters Mr. Dursely?" Victoria admonished, her tone just loud enough for the gossips to hear.

"My lady, if you are implying that your husband is anything other than a conniving snake, you are sadly mistaken," Dursley bristled as his neck began to turn purple.

Victoria blinked rapidly, looking much as though she had just been dealt a blow rather than having dealt one. By now, there was much twittering going on behind the many ladies' fans around the room. The gentlemen were only slightly less discreetly as the coughed covering many speculations. Every eye was upon them. The countess even went as far as to peer across the room at them with her lorgnettes, and the earl was staring at the pair with what could politely be called overt distaste. Not even ten minutes after their arrival, and they had already secured a blinding fall from social graces.

"Were you worth my notice, Dursely, I would call you out this instant. I have no doubt there are at least a dozen men in attendance tonight who would gladly offer themselves as my second," he sneered.

"I would," a voice called out from among the masses.

Severus smiled victoriously as a slender, raven haired, young man parted the crowds. Wearing finely tailored black clothing and only a half mask in deference to the party, he stood out amongst the nobles who were now guessing at his identity. With glee, Severus made sure they did not have to guess much longer. "Ah, Mr. Potter," he announced, "how good of you to come."

A collective gasp sounded in the room before whispers erupted like a great wave crashing upon the rocks. Petunia looked as though she may faint.

"Potter," Dursley breathed in shock. "No, it can't be!"

The man in question removed his mask with a flourish. "Come now, Uncle Vernon, you didn't think you could squander my inheritance without any comeuppance at all, did you?"

"This is an outrage!" the great walrus blustered. "You are not, Harry Potter. Harry Potter is dead and buried!"

"Not quite as dead as you hoped, you mean," the young man quipped. He turned to the party goers as though he were artfully addressing an audience. "My uncle had me imprisioned for many years in his home until I escaped with the help of Lord Snape and his gracious wife. Were it not for their kindness, I would be a shadow of the man you see before you. I am forever in their debt."

Harry paused, and then nodded to his relatives. "My family,however, has lied and cheated their way to monies that were never intended to be theirs. In fact, I have reason to believe—though I cannot prove such—that Mr. Dursely even went as far as to have my parents murdered."

"LIES!" Vernon cried out in a fit of rage. "HE LIES! There is no proof of any of this. Harry lies in his grave. This man is an imposter!"

"Am I? Can anyone deny that I am the very image of my father?" he asked the crowd.

Suddenly, a wizened old woman moved forward from the onlookers. Leaning heavily on a jeweled cane and wearing her hair in the powdered fashion of a bygone era, Lady Bathilda Bagshot moved toward Harry.

"Come closer, boy," she commanded in a voice that crackled with age. The young man did as she asked and allowed himself to be inspected quite closely by the old woman. Finally, she patted his hand. "Why, Harry, you always did have your father's beautiful brown eyes!"

With Lady Bathilda's backing, the crowd became more hostile. Outraged voices began to cry out for justice. Several young bucks, already quite in their cups, even went as far as to suggest hanging. Petunia took the opportunity to faint into her son's arms while her husband went deathly white.

"You did this," Dursely muttered in shock. "You've ruined me."

Severus chuckled. "No, Dursely, you've ruined yourself."