FROM SPARTA TO SYBARIS
The sun was laughing – as the old saying goes – from an impeccably blue sky.
Hermione had the distinct feeling that it was laughing at her.
Even though the sun probably had other things to worry about, Hermione's predicament surely was enough to make it laugh so hard that the resulting protuberances would cause severe disturbances in the earth's magical field. Not that she would mind. Not as long as there was an even minimal chance for said irregularities to submerge the wizarding resort of Pompeii under the blue waters of the Mediterranean, preferably forever.
She listlessly stirred her lemon granita and pondered one of the Great Unanswerable Questions of Mankind: why was this beverage of water, sugar and lemon so delicious while frozen, but turned into a completely unpalatable, sticky mess once it melted? This contemplation led to glum observations on the unfairness of life in general and, finally, to the morose conclusion that the concatenation of events that had brought her here had all the dire fatality of Greek tragedy.
Her life, in short, resembled a granita which had gone well beyond its melting point.
First there'd been the separation.
Ron had simply had enough of working his arse off at his brother's joke shop and bringing home the money to pay all the bills for a girlfriend he never saw, or so he'd said. Hermione hadn't even bothered to argue, because the facts were certainly true enough: after finishing school, she'd entered into a three-year Charms apprenticeship, and when she'd attained the coveted title of Charms Mistress, she'd accepted two unpaid internships. Lots of work for no money, was what Ron called it. Invaluable experience that would look good on her CV, was what Hermione thought, and rightly so, because job offers were beginning to pour in. Still, Ron had been fed up, and they'd decided to break up shortly after Christmas.
Then, there'd been the months following the separation.
Not that she'd been pining for Ron, or suffering excruciating torments of the spirit and heart. She'd never dare admit it even to her closest friends, but she'd felt as if a great weight had been taken off her. True, she'd let herself go a bit, but not because she was too sad or hurt to care. She was a practical girl and just didn't see the point of putting on pretty underwear, using cosmetic charms or keeping her legs as smooth as velvet, if all she did was work twelve hours a day, sleep and eat. It would've been a waste of time.
Ginny hadn't seen eye to eye with her on the matter, of course.
Still, it was a long way from disagreeing to entering her – behind her back! Ginny was a bloody sneak! – into Witch Weekly's Before-and-After Makeover Contest.
When a battalion of witches armed with cameras, beauty products and sunny-but-steely smiles had shown up on her doorstep, Hermione had been too flabbergasted to react, and when she'd rallied her spirits sufficiently to throw them out, they'd already overpowered her and begun to, as they termed it, work on her.
The 'Before' photo had been taken when she opened the door, at eight on a Sunday morning, sleep-tousled and with pillow creases on her cheeks. Her tormentors were nothing if not thorough, and their skills, combined with the sheer atrocity of the photo, had led to a result Hermione might not have foreseen but certainly dreaded: she won the contest. And with it two weeks at the luxury resort in Pompeii.
Her attempts at turning the prize down had been in vain, and so she'd decided to get it over with as soon as possible. She'd just finished her second internship and planned to treat herself to a holiday anyway. The fee for her last article had been higher than she'd expected, and her parents had given her a nice little sum when she'd presented her Charms Mistress diploma.
She wouldn't have chosen to spend her precious leisure time here, though. Not at this place which, in mid-May, was teeming with the typical off-season holidaymakers: leftover wizards, menopausal witches and overexerted young mothers with screaming toddlers.
After four days at this hellish place she still wasn't sure who was worse: the toddlers or the elderly wizards. She was tending towards the former, because the latter could be got rid of by means of well-placed hexes. Jinxing children was something she couldn't quite bring herself to do. Though if they carried on like this, she wasn't certain how long the thin veneer of civilized behaviour was going to resist the turpentine of sheer exasperation.
Hermione glanced at her watch. Half-past five… More than two hours of tedium till dinner. She'd brought two sizeable boxes filled with books, but even Hermione Granger was unable to do nothing but read. Earlier on, before breakfast, she'd done a few laps in the pool, and before lunch she'd gone down to the beach. Eating and swimming: that was about the grand total of things one could do at Pompeii without paying extravagant sums for the optional activities on offer.
Maybe a short nap would help. She carefully put a bookmark between the pages of 'Transcendental Refraction: Long Term Effects of the Transfiguration of Animate Creatures into Inanimate Objects', laid the book on the small side table next to her deckchair, slid her straw hat down over her forehead and closed her eyes.
She'd barely dozed off, when she was rather abruptly jerked back to wakefulness by a small, wet hand that insistently slapped her arm.
'What are you reading?' said a voice that unmistakeably belonged to one of the English wizarding world's Hopes for a Better Future.
Shoving up her hat, Hermione cracked an eye open and squealed. The wet hand that wasn't busy leaving sticky prints of what she presumed to be strawberry granita and sand on her right forearm was fiddling with her book.
'Let go of it and I'll tell you,' she said. You were supposed to motivate the little buggers instead of criticizing them, right?
The chubby, syrup-and-sand-coated hand didn't budge. Blue eyes narrowed at her from under a mop of irritatingly golden curls, and the pink rosebud of a mouth curled up into a pout. 'It's a stupid book!'
'How can you say that? You don't know what it's about.'
'It looks stupid.'
Twang! went the string of Hermione's patience. 'So do you, but I didn't say you were stupid.'
The eyes went wide, and the rosebud opened to show two incomplete rows of teeth. 'Muuuuuuuuum!'
Hermione flinched at the sound.
The mother was nowhere to be seen. Not that Hermione was surprised – she, too, would try to put as large a distance between herself and this siren-cum-cherub as was humanly possible. 'Why don't you just go find your mother,' she suggested when the child was busy inhaling deeply between two screams.
The child shut its mouth and glared at her. 'You're stupid,' it finally said. 'And your book is stupid. I hate stupid books.'
Faster than Hermione could react, two chubby hands grabbed the tome and flung it into the pool.
At first, Hermione thought she was having one of those strange experiences which literary fiction so often refers to, although they never actually happen to anybody. Oh, she thought when the book's movement seemed to be slowing down, the shock of seeing thirty galleons' worth of print sail towards a wet grave has triggered the kind of brain chemistry which slows down my perception of reality.
When the book stopped moving altogether, however, and then gently floated back towards its baffled owner, finally landing on her thighs, she knew it couldn't have anything to do with brain chemistry. It was magic – so the mother had heard her offspring's screams and arrived just in time to prevent the worst.
She looked up from her almost-lost treasure. The person standing a few feet from her deckchair and skewering the child with a very unfriendly glare did have long, blond hair. It wasn't the child's mother, though. It wasn't even a woman.
It was Lucius Malfoy.
The piercing stare of silvery-grey eyes was a lot more effective at immobilizing the seemingly angelic ankle biter than Hermione's patented Stop-It-Ron-Or-I'm-Going-To-Hex-You glare had been. She was really rather impressed – the child seemed to shrink and, although it opened its mouth, no sound emerged.
'What,' Malfoy said in a voice that had been known to reduce grown wizards to shivering wrecks, 'do you think you are doing, young man? Has your benighted mother taught you no manners, you disgusting, grubby little excrescence?'
Far from feeling sorry for the wilting brat, Hermione was hardly able to refrain from applauding.
'When I ask a question,' Malfoy continued, in a quiet-but-deadly tone of voice Hermione associated with Potions lessons, 'I expect it to be answered.' Two carefully measured steps brought him close enough to the child that his shadow fell on it. 'Well?'
'It… it was…' The rosebud quivered.
'It was a stupid book.'
Malfoy crossed his arms and cocked his head slightly. 'I seriously doubt that you are qualified to make such a bold and, dare I say, generalizing statement. Nevertheless, you have missed the point. The point is: is it your book?'
Hermione's eyes met his for the first time when they exchanged an amused look, as a puddle was slowly forming around the child's feet. Malfoy calmly drew his wand, making the child jump six inches into the air, and vanished it (the puddle). Seeing Hermione's eyes widen, he turned, just in time to brace himself for the pink stick insect that was hurriedly approaching the little group, wand in hand and stiletto heels clattering on the marble tiles.
'Bartholomew!' she screeched, 'Bartholomew, my angel! Are you all right?'
'Muuuuuuuuuuuum!' The golden-haired demon flung himself into his mother's scrawny arms. 'Mum! He' – 'a grimy index finger indicated Malfoy – 'he… Muuuum!'
Hermione's jaw fell as she witnessed a first-rate theatrical performance. The child, whose eyes had taken on an expression of malice Voldemort would have been envious of, half-turned and pointed towards her. 'She started it!'
Surely Bartholomew was going to be the next Dark Lord, Hermione thought. He was a natural. Muuuuuum, who had spared no effort to show her emaciated frame to best advantage, was obviously on the prowl for male company. Her offspring must have somehow detected (and correctly interpreted) the predatory glint in her eyes, as they alighted on Malfoy, and had changed tack accordingly. And quite successfully, because now the stick insect unfolded herself from her crouching position and stalked towards her.
'What have you done to Bartholomew?'
The demon, who was trying in vain to abscond behind his mother's bony thigh (it just about hid his face, but his ears remained visible), stuck his head out from abaft the skinny limb, rather like a jack-in-the-box, and smirked at her.
Although busy suppressing her amusement at the thought that the woman looked like Paris Hilton after a week in the desert with no water, Hermione was able to frown up at her. 'Your son, madam, had the audacity to try and chuck my book into the pool. Had Mr Malfoy not saved it at the last second…'
She'd evidently lost her public. So had Bartholomew, who was rudely shoved aside by his mother.
'Mr Malfoy,' the stick insect purred, incongruously, for Hermione would have expected her to buzz. 'Fancy meeting you here. What a pleasure!' She extended a fuchsia-talon-ed hand for him to kiss.
'The pleasure, madam, is entirely yours, I assure you.'
The talons twitched slightly; then the stick insect lowered her arm and took a step backwards. Malfoy observed her with a sardonic expression.
'You ought to keep a closer watch on… it,' he observed. 'Children do have this nasty habit of falling into pools and drowning…' The smile he gave her was like a Damascene dagger: aesthetically pleasing but deadly.
When the stick insect had vanished in a flurry of pink veils, and the sound of Bartholomew's screams died down, Malfoy bowed to Hermione. 'Miss Granger. Would you mind if I join you?'
Like the unfortunate Faust, Hermione was witnessing the struggle of two souls in her bosom. She'd always assumed this to be terribly unpleasant in an astronaut-gives-birth-to-alien way. It wasn't too bad, however, probably because the struggle wasn't of an existential nature.
She'd come to know the man quite well in his capacity as owner and editor-in-chief of The New Charms Journal, one of the most prestigious scientific periodicals of the western hemisphere. So far she'd published three papers there, and his advice and expertise had proved most helpful. Once she'd begun to respect him for his vast knowledge, she'd been inclined to forgive and forget his past errors. His looks might have helped, too.
The struggle currently taking place in her bosom therefore wasn't about sending him on his way or not. It was about losing the prime view of his silhouette made visible by the sun which, already low on the horizon, backlit him to perfection.
In the end, politeness triumphed over lechery.
'I'd be delighted,' she said, and he summoned a deckchair for himself.
It was only natural, after a pleasant hour spent at the pool in conversation, that they should share a dinner table.
They'd mainly discussed the stick insect, the plague of bad-mannered children and the book Hermione was reading. Now, after they'd finished their starters and ordered a second bottle of wine, Hermione felt that moving on to more personal matters was permitted.
'I hope you don't mind my saying so, Lucius' – they'd toasted first names with their aperitifs – 'but you're looking rather thinner than last time I saw you. It's been a couple of months, but… I hope you aren't ill.'
'Oh, no. No, I'm not ill. Although' – he deftly coaxed a prawn from its pink husk – 'I have certainly come here to, well, recover.'
'So you have been – sorry, I didn't mean to prod.'
Already dismantling another prawn, he gave her a quick smile. 'You're not prodding, and I don't mind you asking. What I find mildly astonishing, though, is that you obviously haven't read the latest issue of Witch Weekly, in spite of featuring there so prominently.'
Oh Merlin's bollocks. She'd known this stupid contest would come to haunt her. Cheeks growing hot, Hermione avoided his glance. 'It, erm, wasn't my idea, you know. It's all Ginny's fault, and being poked, prodded, kneaded, scrubbed and generally tortured by those harpies was bad enough. I didn't enjoy it, and I certainly don't want to look at the pictures. Or read the drivel they wrote about me.' She took a morose sip of wine. 'I wasn't aware you read that rag.'
'I own the rag, Hermione. And therefore I browse it, from time to time, especially when it contains something that concerns me personally.'
'I'm sorry.' Hermione put down her cutlery and hid her face in her hands. 'Give me the slightest opportunity to put my foot in my mouth, and I'll do it.'
He shrugged. 'It makes me lots of money. I'm not especially proud of it. But of course I have an interest in making sure they don't write any falsehoods about me. They probably know better than to bite the hand that feeds them. Still, I like to ascertain they don't, from time to time. I don't trust journalists further than I can throw them without magic.'
Since he obviously didn't mind her gaffe, Hermione gave in to curiosity. Besides, keeping her hands clapped over her face made eating impossible (short of using a straw, but she doubted her maxillary muscles were strong enough to suck gnocchi through a straw), and she was famished. And the food was fantastic.
'So,' she said, 'what are you recovering from? And what's it got to do with Witch Weekly?'
There was now a neat pile of shells and translucent carapaces on the small plate next to him, and Malfoy began to reap the benefits of his work. While elegantly coiling a strand of Linguine ai Frutti di Mare around his fork, he gave her a long, intense look. 'You can keep a secret, can't you?'
Hermione chased a recalcitrant gnocchi round her plate. Finally it got stuck in the cheese sauce, and she scooped it up. 'Of course I can. And I promise I will.'
'Very well then. I suppose you know that my divorce came through yesterday.'
'Hermione, Hermione.' He shook his head and wagged an admonishing finger at her. 'Much as I agree with you about Witch Weekly being a rag, and the Daily Prophet only marginally better, you shouldn't bar them completely from your reading list. Even if you're a scholar – or I'd rather say especially if you're a scholar – you've got to keep abreast of events.'
She sighed. 'I know. It just seems like such a waste of time.'
'But it isn't. You of all people should know that, Hermione.'
She would have liked to snap at him, but had to acknowledge that he was right. With her Muggle background, she might have the advantage of knowing how to drive a car or use a computer, but she lacked the kind of knowledge that came naturally to children of magical parentage. If she wanted to avoid atrocious gaffes or just looking stupid, she really had to stockpile background information.
'So tell me all about it,' she said.
'Hm.' He refilled their glasses. 'Well, to make a long story short, I knew that getting away with a large fine, after the war was over, and making lots of donations to charitable causes wasn't enough to redeem me in the eye of the Average British Wizard or Witch. Because' – he swirled the wine around in his glass – 'even after giving away thousands, I still had millions in my vaults, and I felt that it wouldn't be wise to indulge in my usual lifestyle when so many had been reduced to poverty.
'I therefore decided to, erm, adopt a new way of life. Modesty, simplicity, austerity. No more lavish dinner parties or balls. No more six-course meals, oysters, caviar and champagne. Are you feeling quite well, my dear?'
Hermione rubbed her forehead. 'Yes, I suppose I… It just sounds a bit incongruous, you know.'
'That's exactly the effect I was aiming for. Needless to mention that the Average British Wizard lapped it up. It was, in short, one of the most brilliant ideas I'd ever had, if I say so myself. At first I thought I'd never get used to it, but I have to say that it was much easier than I had expected. Not for Narcissa, though.'
'She didn't like the new Spartan lifestyle?'
'Not one bit. I don't know what she resented more: having to restrict herself to a mere twelve pairs of new shoes a year, or to a measly two visits per month at the Beauty Spa. Come to think of it' – he grinned into his glass – 'it might also have been the sudden decline in the popularity of her Saturday afternoon tea parties. The ladies didn't seem to appreciate the cucumber-sandwiches-only regime, seeing as there was only one blend of tea and one kind of cake to console themselves with.'
'Twelve pairs…' Hermione, who owned four pairs of shoes and had metaphorically flagellated herself for the acquisition of the fourth, tried to guess the amount of footwear the woman had bought per year previous to the draconian measures her husband had inflicted on her. Fifty pairs? A hundred? She'd have got on well with Imelda Marcos…
'I thought one per month was quite reasonable. Narcissa disagreed, of course. Not at first, because she obviously thought the alterations were only temporary. But with time, she realized that I had no intention of returning to past luxuries. She began to talk of unbearable cruelty and divorce, and since by that time I'd come to the conclusion that she was both superficial and boring – one may be the one or the other, but being both is quite simply unpardonable – I didn't object. In order to make sure she'd go through with her plans, however, I had to introduce further privations. A certain loss of weight on my part was inevitable, which is why I decided to come here and recover.'
'I suppose that's not quite the story I'd read in Witch Weekly.'
'Not quite, no. It has a more romantic streak there – it seems that, in the face of such disloyalty, so great was my distress that I was unable to ingest more than an apple and a slice of dry bread every twenty-four hours. Sometimes the House Elves had to coax me into eating even this meagre repast. I was angry at them for preventing my self-destruction, but didn't allow them to punish themselves, since their intentions were good.'
The meat course had arrived, and from a certain carnivorous gleam in Malfoy's eyes, Hermione surmised that it was only his impeccable upbringing that held him back from tearing into his steak like a lion into a zebra.
'It seems,' she said tactfully, 'that the Spartan lifestyle has lost most of its attractions.'
He shrugged. 'It has run its course. Except for the last year, when I had to swallow strengthening potions to make up for the lack of nutrition, I didn't mind it overly much. But I'm a free man now, and I fully intend to move away from Sparta and back to Sybaris.' He dabbed his lips with his napkin and took a sip of the red wine. 'It's a strange thing about the Average British Wizard: he may criticize the lifestyle of the rich and idle, but in his heart of hearts the feudal spirit lives on. I have been advised to return to a somewhat more sumptuous existence – people seem to expect it. In a way, it's understandable: if the rich didn't indulge in luxury, why aspire to wealth? And who would there be to tut-tut and shake one's head at?'
'There is a certain twisted logic to what you're saying. Personally, I've never been able to see the attractions of decadence…'
'Really?' Nonplussed, Malfoy put down his cutlery. 'Have you ever given it a try?'
'N-no. I don't want to sound like the Average British Wizard, Lucius, but decadence is mainly a question of money. And I don't have much of that, not yet anyway.'
'You're right, but only to a certain extent. More than of money, it is a question of character. A box of fine chocolates, a bottle of good wine and some nice bath products are within easy reach of almost everybody. The question is: do you allow yourself to savour them? Or do you munch a piece of chocolate without giving it much attention, merely to keep up your strength while you're memorizing a complicated wand movement?'
'You have me there,' Hermione admitted.
Malfoy smiled and inclined his head. 'I thought so. But now you're here, in one of the most decadent places I know. Surely you can see the attraction now?'
'I'm afraid I can't. It's a bit dull, and I'm not really a sun-sand-and-sea person.'
'Even so, there are literally dozens of possibilities for the more active holidaymakers.'
'I'm sorry to sound so… boring. But those possibilities cost an awful lot of money. They aren't included in the prize I won.'
Feeling horribly awkward in the ensuing silence, Hermione had just decided to leave before dessert arrived, when Malfoy spoke again.
'May I propose a deal?'
She shrugged. 'I don't know what I could offer that you'd be interested in, but go ahead.'
'A good deal more than you seem to know, my dear, but what I am proposing is this: in exchange for a day of decadence you'll be spending with me, without thinking of or mentioning money, you'll write an article for The New Charms Journal for which I'll pay you only half your fee. Would that be agreeable to you?'
Hermione pondered this. Considering that her current, penniless state wasn't going to last much longer, and that her next article was almost ready for publication, she wouldn't even have to do any extra work. And a day of decadence spent in the company of Lucius Malfoy sounded too good to be turned down lightly. He probably had decadence down to an art form, his stint to Sparta notwithstanding.
'Yes, that would be acceptable,' she said.
'To our Roman Day, starting tomorrow at nine a.m.,' he said, raising his glass.
'To our Roman Day.'
What the heck was a Roman day supposed to be?
There must have been something in the drink that had materialized last night on her bedside table, just as she'd leaned over to extinguish the candles.
Wakened by the soft pling-pling of some kind of harp, Hermione stretched luxuriously and tried to remember what the mixture had smelled and tasted like. Roses, she was sure, and something lemony, and something peppery-fruity she couldn't quite place. Since none of the ingredients had triggered fear or even the need to be cautious, she'd drunk it and fallen asleep immediately after putting the empty glass back on the table.
Whatever it had been, it had led to the most refreshing eight hours of sleep she'd had in ages, and to… Oh, the dreams! Hermione felt her face go hot. The Pompeii resort had to employ an extraordinary potions brewer – she'd dreamed of feasts and moonlit strolls among marble pillars that seemed to reach the night sky, of golden chalices filled with a wine that tasted nothing like wine did nowadays. There had been images of sun-dappled atriums and baths decorated with lavish mosaics. And she hadn't been alone. Although the dream was beginning to pale and evaporate, she was sure there'd been a man, tall and with long blond hair.
While one part of her mind was busy trying to figure out the components of the potion she'd ingested, another was attempting to string together a convoluted argument, the purpose of which was to convince herself she didn't really fancy Malfoy. Neither endeavour had yet been successful, when somebody knocked at the door of her room.
Hermione glanced at her watch; it was a quarter to nine. 'Come in!' she called.
A young witch entered, wearing the ubiquitous Pompeii staff uniform of light blue robes with a white P embroidered on the left side. 'Good morning, Miss Granger. My name is Giuliana. I hope you had a good night.'
'I doubt anybody could have a bad night after drinking that potion,' she replied. 'Your brewer must be exceptional. Have you ever tried it?'
The young woman smiled. 'I have frequently heard our guests say so, madam, but we are not allowed to touch the potions. You have booked a Roman Day, and I am here to discuss a few details with you, if that is agreeable to you.'
'Details?' Hermione sat up and leaned against the headboard. 'Yes, of course, although I can't quite imagine what.'
'Well, madam, first there would be the topic of clothes.' She produced a sheet of parchment and drew her wand. 'Would you prefer to dress in the Roman fashion, or would you feel more at ease in casual contemporary clothing?'
'Hm.' Hermione pondered this. 'Well,' she finally said, 'it's supposed to be a Roman Day, so I guess I'll choose Roman.'
Giuliana nodded and tapped the parchment with her wand. 'And your hairstyle, madam? Would you like that to be done in the Roman fashion as well?'
Things were beginning to get quite interesting in a way she hadn't reckoned with. Hermione thought of Roman statues with tamed ringlets and buns low on the back of their heads. She nodded. 'Yes, definitely. If the hairdresser is up to the challenge.' She gestured at her frizzy mane.
'You have lovely hair, madam. I'm sure it will be a pleasure for the ornatrix to work with it. The next item on my list is the food that will be served at lunch and dinner. Would you prefer Roman, Asian, Italian, Mexican, Caribbean or French?'
'That's a tricky one. From what I remember about Roman food, it isn't something I'd particularly want to taste – no pepper, and I seem to recall some ghastly condiment named garum. Let's say Italian – a good compromise.'
The wand tapped the parchment again. 'And finally, madam, sports.'
'Sports?' Aghast, Hermione stared at the young witch. 'But… why?'
Seemingly a little lost for words, Giuliana fiddled with the hem of her sleeve. 'Well, madam, the Roman Day also includes sports, as it follows the typical day of a young Roman patrician.'
'I see. But women didn't do sports, did they?'
'I don't think so, madam. But since you signed up for your Roman Day together with Mr Malfoy, and he refused to sing, dance, weave, spin, or embroider, I'm afraid-'
So there were things worse than sports. 'That's all right then,' Hermione interrupted her. 'Sports it is. What do you have to offer?'
Was that a faint blush tingeing Giuliana's olive cheeks? 'There is, uh, wrestling…'
'I think we can forego that.'
'Yes, madam. Archery perhaps?'
That might be interesting, Hermione thought. Given her complete inability to hit any given target even from a short distance, if she aimed at the bull's eye, surely she'd plant an arrow into one of those obnoxious toddlers. Maybe Bartholomew?
'Better not,' she said ruefully.
'Sounds fine to me.'
'And maybe horse-riding?'
'Horse-riding? In a toga?'
'We put cushioning charms on the saddles, madam. And it would just be a leisurely stroll along the beach, nothing daring or dangerous.'
'Oh, well. Horse-riding, too.'
'Thank you very much for your patience, madam.' With a few practiced movements of her fingers, Giuliana folded the parchment into an aeroplane, which she sent off with a flick of her wand. 'May I accompany you to the cubiculum now?'
The cubiculum was a dressing room, where two witches – one of them the unfortunate ornatrix, Hermione supposed, who'd have to deal with her hair – were waiting for her.
'Good morning, madam,' the younger one, a petite blonde with a foxy face, welcomed her. 'Since you have opted for Roman clothing and hairstyle, we will now take care of your coiffure and garments.
The procedure that followed was mercifully short, compared to what the Witch Weekly stylists had subjected her to – an experience the thought of which still made her shudder. A few expert wand movements and nothing more, and within minutes Hermione found herself clothed in an under-toga of blindingly white linen with elbow-length sleeves, over which a shorter, sleeveless silk toga was draped. The colour was a light lavender, and Hermione had to admit she liked it. A loose belt and a pair of sandals completed the outfit.
She was glad they'd allowed her to wear knickers and forego the fascia, the Roman precursor of the bra consisting simply of a broad strip of cloth wrapped tightly around the lower part of the breasts and the ribcage.
Then the other witch, a rather substantial, black-haired woman, cast a series of charms at Hermione's hair and gave her a satisfied smile. 'You are ready now, madam,' she said in heavily accented English. 'Would you like to have a look at yourself?'
Hermione said that she would like that very much. With a wave of her wand, the foxy blonde made a mirror appear on a previously bare wall, and Hermione stepped in front of it. A contented smile spread over her face. She'd done well to choose the Roman outfit – the hair was perfection, just as she'd remembered it from the statues, and the flowing lines of her clothes were extremely flattering.
'Well done,' she addressed the two witches.
They bowed slightly, and the dark-haired one told Hermione that she was to accompany her to the triclinium.
The triclinium turned out to be a dining room, as Hermione had hoped it would, because her stomach was rumbling in a rather alarming fashion.
'You cheat!' she exclaimed when she saw Malfoy. 'I'd been looking forward to seeing you in a toga!'
Not that he looked bad as he was, reclining on the traditional Roman lectus, a bed or bench with a raised upper part: feet naked, hair pulled back in a ponytail, light grey linen trousers and a loose white linen shirt which he'd buttoned up only halfway, so that a large expanse of milky-white, hairless chest was visible. No, definitely not bad.
'And a very good morning to you, too, Hermione. You look ravishing, like a nymph of the woods.'
Unused as she was to receiving compliments – Ron had been neither generous with nor apt at them – Hermione felt a little self-conscious. 'Erm, thanks.' She lowered herself onto the lectus facing his. At first glance, it had looked rather uncomfortable, but someone had obviously done a nice bit of spell-work. The bed adjusted to her like a mould, giving support where required and heavenly soft where necessary. 'Oh, this is nice.' She gave Malfoy a tentative smile.
'Very,' he confirmed. 'Did you sleep well?'
Unbidden, the memories of her dreams came rushing back, blood suffusing her cheeks in their wake. 'Yes, uh, very well. Thank you.'
Much to her relief, two young wizards chose this moment to enter the room and serve breakfast, thus saving her from having to answer any potentially awkward questions Malfoy might have asked. The sensuous, half-lidded look he'd given her had made her fear the worst – after all, how did one go about telling one's publisher that one had had dreams of sweaty but extremely satisfactory sex in a Roman bath with him? Well, she wasn't thinking of him strictly as her publisher anymore, and she was pretty convinced he wasn't either. Still, "not merely her publisher" didn't automatically translate into "sweaty sex". There usually were a few steps in between.
When the table looked like an opulent still life, the two wizards retired. 'Bathing time will begin in two hours, madam, sir,' one of them announced before they left.
'Two hours?' Hermione echoed, eyes wide. 'Does that mean – one can't have breakfast for two hours.'
He smirked and lazily motioned for his coffee cup to float into easy reach. 'Decadence, remember?'
'A glass of champagne, maybe?'
Hermione surreptitiously tapped one ear, then the other, to make sure they were still in working order. 'Champagne at this time of day? On an empty stomach?'
'I thought it might help you relax,' he said teasingly. 'Maybe later, then.' At another languid wave of his fingers, pieces of fruit obediently arranged themselves on a small plate which drifted towards him.
'You're very skilled at wandless magic,' Hermione remarked, secretly envious, because she didn't trust herself to coax her coffee cup into such smooth, subtle movement without a wand.
'I am, but not that skilled. Since the guests aren't supposed to use their wands on a day of pure relaxation, the dishes are charmed to respond to hand movements.'
The day-to-day domestic use of spells and charms had always held a particular fascination for Hermione, and she tentatively pointed at her coffee cup and crooked her finger. It rose and glided towards her.
'This is pretty impressive,' she said. She took a sip, and her eyes widened. 'Good heavens, it's exactly as I like it! The ideal cup of coffee – I never manage to prepare it quite like this!'
For a little while, they enjoyed their breakfast in silence.
'This,' Hermione finally said, 'would be the point where I get up and start doing something useful. What time is it, by the way?'
Malfoy chuckled. 'You are quite incorrigible, my dear. No wands, no timepieces, no work. You just relax and enjoy.'
'But they said that bathing time was going to start in two hours!' she protested.
'So they did.' He got up from his lectus. 'But you're not supposed to count the minutes or tell them off if they're late.' He wandered over and sat behind her, on the other side of her lectus. 'Traditionally, these beds are meant for two or three. So let us honour the Roman tradition, shall we?'
She merely nodded, as her mouth had gone quite dry. How many steps exactly were there between "not merely her publisher" and "sweaty sex"? If the sudden tightening of her nipples and acceleration of her heartbeat were anything to go by, the distance had just shrunk considerably. And he hadn't even touched her yet! She could feel him behind her, sense his breath on the back of her neck, but there was no contact between their bodies.
And then there was – he leaned forward to reach across her and wave at the champagne bottle, which rose from its bucket and filled two waiting glasses. It was just a slight, ephemeral brushing of the linen of his shirt against the silk of her toga, a mere hint of hard muscle and body heat, but she felt it slash through her from head to toe.
The flute was hovering close to her hand, and she closed her fingers around the stem.
'And now,' he said, 'you ought to try this: most people favour strawberries with their champagne, but I think that this combination' – a wiggle of his fingers put a few cubes of cantaloupe melon and some mint leaves on a plate – 'is even better.'
The aroma of the melon tickled her nose, and Hermione smiled. 'So,' she said, leaning backwards to intensify the contact, 'how am I supposed to do it?'
Lowering his head, so that his mouth was very close to her ear, Malfoy instructed her to take a sip of champagne fist. 'Very good,' he said, 'and now the melon.' He picked a fragrant, pink cube from the plate and put it between her lips. 'Chew it slowly, then swallow. And then take another sip. Good?'
'Yes,' Hermione breathed. 'That's…'
'Yes, isn't it? And to complete the experience' – he folded a mint leaf in half and crushed it between his thumb and index finger – 'just touch it with the tip of your tongue.'
Feeling terribly wanton and daring, she brushed the tip of her tongue across the crushed leaf and his fingertips. 'Like this?'
'Oh, absolutely,' he purred, capturing her earlobe between his lips and doing to it what she'd just done to his fingers.
This isn't breakfast, she thought dimly – her brain seemed somehow to have short-circuited and slowed down considerably – this is foreplay. And not the kind I'm used to. What I'm used to is three clockwise turns of my nipples and a perfunctory squeeze at my crotch, and in we go.
Letting go of her ear, he blew gently on the moist spot. 'More?' he purred.
Whatever he was referring to, be it foreplay or champagne, she certainly wanted more. Lucky girl that she was, she got more of both.
'The bath,' explained a young wizard who had introduced himself as Giorgio, 'would usually be scheduled for the afternoon, after sports and lunch, but since you both opted for swimming, we thought we'd put the beauty routine first. If that is to your liking, of course.'
Her powers of speech having deserted her somewhere along the road towards sweaty sex, Hermione merely nodded.
They hadn't yet proceeded beyond kissing, but she couldn't remember having ever been kissed like that. Kisses that tasted of melon, mint and champagne, kisses that teased and kisses that set her on fire, teeth grazing her lips and biting gently, tongues slithering against each other languorously.
When Lucius put a hand under her elbow, she glanced up at him and smiled. His answering smile seemed to make his eyes a little softer; his face and throat were slightly flushed, and a few pale strands had escaped from his ponytail. He looked like debauchery incarnate, and even though he'd been quick and discreet, she'd heard him mutter a Deflating Charm when they got up from their lectus. If he was half as aroused as she was, the charm must've been quite strong.
Giorgio held a door open for them, and they proceeded into the caldarium. Hermione was unable to suppress an Oh! of pure delight as they stepped over the threshold and into perfumed, moist heat.
It was vast, and she thought that the enormous space, surmounted by a cupola, must contain every conceivable shade of blue. Light filtered in through round openings in the dome and, as she saw a little later, through horizontal slits in the wall, right under the ceiling. Sapphire candles were floating in the hot, humid air, some of them close to the surface of a dozen or so of hot-water pools of different sizes, tingeing the rising steam gold. Mosaics on the walls depicted lapis lazuli dolphins dancing through azure waters, playing with turquoise porpoises and watched by indigo seagulls. Some of the mosaics were purely ornamental, intricate designs of a deep, hypnotic aquamarine interwoven with cyan and the lightest of powder blues, reminiscent of Islamic art.
'This is fantastic,' she whispered. 'So beautiful!'
Giorgio beamed at her. 'Mr Malfoy designed it himself. Ah, here's Letizia. She will accompany you to the changing rooms. If you would follow me, Mr Malfoy?'
She opened her mouth to say something – had she heard correctly? Lucius had designed this? – but he was already on his way to the other side of the room, winking back at her over his shoulder.
'Letizia?' Hermione addressed the grey-haired woman standing next to her.
'Yes, madam. If you would come with me to-'
'Yes, yes of course I – did Giorgio just say that Mr Malfoy created this? I mean, this Mr Malfoy?'
The grey-haired witch ushered her into an adjacent room; it was much drier and cooler in there, and Hermione felt goose bumps rise on her arms.
'Yes, madam. Most of the resort was designed by professionals, but he designed the whole bath area. I remember seeing it for the first time – I was completely overwhelmed.' She took Hermione's clothes and put them on a hanger. 'You like it, don't you, madam?'
'Like it?' Hermione stepped out of her sandals. 'That would be the understatement of the century. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it. Even the Great Hall at Hogwarts didn't bowl me over quite like this, and I was certainly awed when I saw that!'
Letizia handed her a thin, white linen shift. Hermione, now only in her knickers, looked at the garment, then at the witch, and back at the semi-translucent tunic. 'What, erm, am I supposed to do with it?'
The witch bit her lip to hide a smile. 'Put it on, madam, unless of course you prefer to bathe in the nude.'
'It won't make much of a difference, I suppose, once this gets wet. It must become completely see-through.' Then again, she mused, wet white linen clinging to her breasts was a much more erotic sight than nakedness. He'd teased her with his kisses; some teasing of her own was fair payback.
She took the tunic and slipped it over her head. The hem was a couple of inches above her knees. Then she stripped off her knickers and, before the other witch could get her hands on them, folded them discreetly and put them into one of her sandals. 'All set now,' she said brightly to Letizia.
The heat and humidity enveloped her like an aromatic blanket, as they returned to the main area.
'Would you prefer a larger, deeper pool, madam, or a shallow one?'
Larger… deeper… Hermione cleared her throat and hoped that the sudden rush of colour to her cheeks would be attributed to the increase in temperature. 'Large and… uh, deep,' she said – did it sound as unambiguously ambiguous as she thought, or was it just her imagination?
'Very well, madam.' Letizia guided her to a steaming pool. It took Hermione a few moments to realize what exactly the periwinkle nymphs and gentian fauns were doing in the mosaic at the bottom. 'Would this be to your liking?'
'Yes,' she panted, unable to look at the witch. 'Very much to my, erm, liking.'
'Enjoy your bath, madam,' Letizia said, and then Hermione was alone, staring at the naughty creatures and wondering whether it was humanly possible for her calf to rest on his shoulder while he…
'Inspiring, isn't it?'
Hermione whirled round. 'Yes, it's quite – oh!'
He was wearing a pair of white, drawstring linen trousers and nothing else. 'Shall we?' he said, holding out his hand to her.
Hermione nodded, not quite trusting her own voice, because she was unable to detach her eyes from the slightly tented front of his trousers. Together they descended the steps into the pool. The water was hot but not uncomfortably so, just enough to make her feel the quick pulsing of her blood against her skin.
They hadn't yet arrived at the bottom step, when the water came up almost to Hermione's chin. She swam a few strokes towards the broad ledge that ran along the whole length of the pool and sat down. 'So much for my Roman coiffure,' she said, when she came up again, laughing and brushing her sopping wet hair back from her face.
Lucius grinned. 'It seems the ledge adjusted itself to my height.'
'Never mind,' Hermione said. 'I'll just, uh, tread water.'
'It's much too hot in here for that kind of exercise. At a water temperature of thirty-nine degrees, the risk of heart failure is considerable.' He reached for her wrist and pulled her close. 'But I think, if you sit like this' – he turned her around so that she was facing him and drew her even nearer – 'you'll be quite comfortable.'
Since she had no intention of kneeing him in the groin, Hermione spread her legs and let him push her down, until her knees came to rest on the ledge on both sides of his thighs. 'Yes,' she said breathlessly, 'that's much better. Oh, my god!'
One end of the string holding up his trousers had floated upwards and brushed a very sensitive spot. Then she felt his mouth on her throat and thought, Oh, what the hell. She might just as well go all the way and sit down. The bold movement was rewarded by a groan and a sharp nip at the sensitive area beneath her ear.
'I'd advise you,' Lucius said, his voice a little hoarse, 'to ask me to move to another pool right now, if you don't want this to go any further.'
'If I didn't want this to go any further,' Hermione replied, rubbing her cloth-covered breasts against his chest, 'I would hardly have agreed to share a pool with you in nothing but this flimsy tunic. And I swear I'm going to burst if you don't fuck me right now.'
Lucius chuckled. 'We have all day, Hermione.' His hand slipped between her legs. 'But if you're so impatient… Maybe there's something I can do to help.'
After an hour of very advanced foreplay in the hot water – he'd made her come twice, and she him once, and she'd been extremely proud when he had to press his face into her shoulder to muffle a scream – they exchanged the caldarium for the tepidarium, where Giorgio and Letizia treated them to a vigorous rub-down after massaging generous quantities of fragrant oil into their skin. Boneless with relaxation, they staggered on into the frigidarium, where they sank down on a low bed. A large, soft blanket draped itself over the two.
'Too tired now for sex,' Hermione muttered.
'M' too,' he murmured back.
But he had enough strength left to pull her against him and make sure she was resting comfortably, before they both fell asleep.
Not even during the year she'd spent on the run with Harry and Ron had she ever been so hungry, Hermione was sure. She'd just woken up, and her hands were trembling and her knees weak.
'I think I could eat a whole cow,' she said to Malfoy, whose rumbling stomach was echoing the desperate pleas of her own.
'Me, too.' He kissed her lightly on the lips. 'Lunch should be waiting for us in the next room, though.'
'I'm not sure I have enough strength left to get there.'
He chuckled. 'You'll have to, because I haven't enough left to carry you.'
The distance was mercifully short, though. The plates, bowls and platters of antipasti arranged on the low table looked like a colourful glass window, almost too pretty to be destroyed. Iconoclasm prevailed, though, and the savoury amuse-gueule proved to be more satisfactory than a cow, even a whole one.
'So,' Hermione said, once she felt that she could stop eating for a few seconds without starving, 'all this is yours, then?'
With his mouth full of prosciutto and ciabatta, he could only nod.
'Don't take this the wrong way, but is there anything you don't own?'
He washed the bite down with a sip of white wine. 'Let me put it like this: there aren't many things I would like to own but don't.'
'Meaning that you always get what you want?'
'If I can buy or create it, yes. But with age comes wisdom, and I have learned the hard way that some things cannot be bought. One has to wait for them, patiently and often for a long time. And unless they come of their own volition, one has to accept that one will never be able to call them one's own.'
'In a manner of speaking,' he replied lightly.
Again, that half-lidded, languid glance that made her insides melt. 'Wisdom indeed.' She selected a plump, green olive and bit off a small piece. 'Ron thought he could buy me,' she said, more to herself than to him. 'At first I wasn't aware that that's what he was trying to do.'
Why was she talking to Lucius Malfoy about Ron? She hadn't spoken about this aspect of their relationship to anybody, but somehow, although she didn't know why, she felt that he'd understand. Maybe because he, too, had been bought, lured into obedience with promises of power. He'd sold himself heart, soul and bone, but obtained nothing in return.
'I wanted to study,' she said slowly. 'I had, and still have, this desire to make the best of my abilities. Ron offered to pay for everything, and I thought he did it because he loved me. I thought he was giving me freedom. But in reality he was just waiting for me to give it all up, bear his children and stay home to cook for him and darn his socks.'
'Understandable,' Malfoy said.
'Do you think so?'
'We're talking about Ronald Weasley, Hermione. The eternal sidekick, the youngest son, the one whose parents couldn't afford to buy him a new wand. The man who still hasn't built anything of his own but is now working for his older brother. A man like him could never have the self-assurance to let a woman find her own way, trusting that it would lead her to him, and facing the risk that it might not. I don't know you very well yet, but I'm convinced that you cannot be bought.'
'They say that everybody has their price.'
'So they say, yes. But I am sure that, even if a man were able to pay yours, he would never call you his own.'
Hermione smiled at him. 'Do you have a price?'
'Not anymore. I used to come quite cheap, once upon a time, but those days are long gone. Which,' he said, gazing pensively into his glass, 'was one of the reasons why I didn't want to continue being married to Narcissa. The realization that my wife was available at the price of a few pairs of shoes was… daunting, to say the least.'
'Ron thought I came at the price of a few textbooks.'
Lips twitching, he gave her a mischievous glance. 'The library at Malfoy Manor is the stuff of legends.'
'So I heard. But as you can probably imagine, I'm capable of losing myself in a library and staying in there, day and night. I've been known to completely forget other people's existence when in a library.'
'At the risk of sounding very conceited, I believe I'd be able to coax you out of there.'
'Really? I can be rather single-minded when in the company of books.'
'Oh, I certainly wouldn't appeal to your mind, my dear. Although I'd probably be quite willing to discuss Charms theory during the afterglow.'
Hermione could feel his eyes on her almost physically. Was this just flirtatious banter, or was he serious? More importantly, was she? Would she seriously consider having a relationship with Lucius? A man twice her age, divorced, ex-Death Eater, a man who'd despised Muggleborns to the point of wanting them extinct? A man so rich that she couldn't even begin to guess how much money he had? A conservative pureblood?
If a relationship was doomed to failure because of differences such as these, logic dictated that her relationship with Ron ought to have been a success. It had been anything but, though. And if she was completely honest with herself, she had to admit that the difference in age, wealth and experience was quite superficial, although by no means unimportant. But what really counted was mutual respect, and the shared determination to make a relationship work. Lucius had been so thoroughly humiliated that he'd probably learned the value of respect. There was a fair chance that he'd be willing to invest in a relationship after his marriage had failed.
She raised her head and looked straight into his eyes. 'I'm probably being terribly unsubtle, but I need to know. Are you really interested?'
'May I ask you a question before I answer yours?'
'Is this supposed to be some kind of Socratic dialogue?'
'If it leads to elucidation, yes, by all means.'
Hermione rolled her eyes. 'All right, go on, ask your question.'
'Thank you. Do you think that I spend hours with every scholar who publishes an article in The New Charms Journal, discussing their work and giving useful advice?'
'You own the bloody thing, and you're editor-in-chief. Of course you do.'
'I also own Witch Weekly, thirty-five percent of the Daily Prophet, a sizeable part of the Flourish & Blotts chain and many other companies.'
'So, what you're saying is…' She had to fortify herself with a gulp of wine.
'Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying.'
A horrible thought dawned on her. 'You didn't fiddle the Before-and-After Contest, did you?'
'Of course not. I was waiting for the divorce to be finalized, and then I would have approached you anyway. Your winning the contest – and deservedly so, I would like to observe – merely speeded things up and provided the ideal setting.'
'Oh.' Come to think of it, people had been quite surprised when she'd told them about the long afternoons she'd spent in Lucius's office, going over her work with a fine comb. And he had been rather solicitous. And the fees she'd received had seemed quite, uh, extravagant…
She'd been so lost in her thoughts that she hadn't noticed him leaving his lectus and joining her on hers.
His hand sneaked around her waist. 'You're being very monosyllabic.'
'Mmh.' She put her hand on his, guiding it lower. 'Do you think we'd stand a chance?'
Her coiffure had been restored, and he took advantage, nuzzling her nape. 'I think it would be worth a try. After all, we've got a lot in common: pride, stubbornness, a dislike of toddlers…'
Hermione half-turned so she could look at him. 'We don't even know yet if the sex is good.'
'A bait that had all the grace of a sledgehammer-wielding troll, my dear.'
'But you're going to swallow it.'
'Oh, yes.' He rolled onto his back and lifted her up into a sitting position. 'I'm sure the ancient Romans used to fuck between the starters and main course.'
They exchanged a smirk as the upper part of the bed rose until Lucius was in a half-sitting, half-lying position.
She hitched up her toga, the better to sit astride him. 'And they used comestibles in creative ways, I guess.' A frown creased her forehead. 'What would you do with olives?'
'Nothing I could do while you're in an upright position. Stay still for a moment, or I'll never be able to untie this drawstring.'
She leaned back to give him better access and grabbed a jar of olive oil from the table. 'What about using this?'
'I don't think' – his finger strayed between her thighs – 'that we'll be in need of any lubricant. No, definitely not. Oh, you do blush prettily.'
'I'll put it back then – oooh!' The jar shattered on the tiled floor. 'You sneaky – oh, yes!'
His hands on her hips, Lucius smiled up at her. 'Have you read Sartorius' latest theory on the possible correlations between wand cores and the speed of Summoned objects?'
Panting, Hermione leaned over him to kiss him. 'You're cheating, Malfoy. You know very well that I can't resist… oh, do that again!'
'That? Willingly, my dear. Sartorius posits that dragon heartstring…'
'Oh my GOD!'
'…makes objects move much faster…'
'Yes! Yes, oh god, don't stop!'
'…than, for example, unicorn hair…'
'Almost there, oh Lucius, please!'
'…and he hypothesises that the speed the living animal is able to achieve…'
Flushed and cross-eyed with pleasure, Hermione frowned at him. 'That's complete bollocks. Sartorius is a nutcase and well-known for his lack of scientific exactitude.' She braced her palms on Lucius's chest and rolled her hips. 'He's an ignorant... dunderhead… who ought to be… oh, yes!... banned from teaching… and… publishing…'
'A fraud,' Lucius panted, 'whose lunatic ramblings… no serious… publisher… ought to accept…'
Their lips locked together as they both came, trembling and sweaty. Still, joined, they remained as they were, in a rather undignified but immensely satisfied heap.
'What?' Lucius drawled, when she muttered something unintelligible against his collarbone.
She raised her head. 'I said, next time I want us both to be naked.'
'By all means.'
'And I'd like next time to be sooner rather than later. After lunch comes to mind.'
'No horse-riding?' He smirked up at her, lifting his hips.
'Oh, very well.' His hand vanished under her rumpled toga to stroke her arse. 'You'd probably be sore and ill-tempered afterwards. Besides, I notice a very refreshing tendency towards shirking your scheduled duties for the sake of sex.'
'It seems' – Hermione got up reluctantly and waved her hand at the resulting mess, which obediently vanished – 'that I might yet get the hang of this decadence thing.'
'And I'll have the pleasure of watching your moral decline? Because, you know, that's one of the perks of being a corrupting influence.'
'At least you'll be able to appreciate it. Oh, look! The pasta course has appeared!'
'You know what?' Lucius swung his legs off the bed and grabbed her. 'I think we'll skip the pasta course.' He dragged his willing prey through a door and out into the blinding sunshine of the umbrella-mottled beach.
'We could have taken the spaghetti,' Hermione protested, digging her heels in. 'Lucius, listen! I'd just figured out I could wrap them around your cock and-'
The pink stick insect, draped on a deckchair and evidently trying to attain an even more advanced state of mummification, stared up at them in horrified shock. She'd just opened her mouth, no doubt to express a strong opinion on Hermione's morals, when Bartholomew shot around the corner, screaming, 'Muuuuuuuuuum!'
'No children,' Lucius and Hermione said in unison and, with a last glance at the stick insect and the golden-haired demon, walked towards Lucius's rooms and the pleasures of decadence.
~~ THE END ~~