A.N.: Can I simply state how sorry I am to have made you wait for so long? I had a good reason though; I finished with university. And I'm moving. And when I say I'm moving I don't mean just houses, oh no. Not even cities. I'm moving out of the country. Yes, I am. I won't bore you with the details; for those of you who have moved out of a country before, I don't even need to say how hard it is. For those who haven't, let me assure you; it's horrendous! Ugh. Enough with me though. All you need to know is, I felt so bad with leaving you hanging for so long, this chapter is thirty five pages long. Yep. And what should you expect? PLOT. Plot happens and a lot of it. Next chapter? Horcrux interrogation! I hope you'll enjoy this new chapter of mine -delayed as it is- and don't forget to review!
P.S.: It feels so good to be back!
Disclaimer; I will own the rights to Harry Potter the same day I will be proclaimed as the undisputed Overlord of the Universe. Quite possibly, that means never.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF MR. RIDDLE, PART I
"You know," Neville began, rubbing his forehead as if he was trying to chase a headache away, "while I truly hope Voldemort has created no more Horcruxes, I can't help thinking; what of there are more? We know of two so far and that was pure luck. Where do we even begin our search?"
"We'll simply have to take it one step at a time and hope for the best." Harry offered, his gaze trailing towards the box that contained the Horcrux. Goosebumps rose on his arms as traces of Voldemort's magic reached him even from inside the box. He would place a seal on it too, he decided; no use in taking unnecessary risks at the point. He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply; something inside him told him that the hunt for Voldemort's Horcruxes had only just began.
By the time the sun rose the next morning, Harry had already been awake for two hours, only the accumulated tiredness of the past few days having allowed him to sleep. He still had about three hours to go till he was due for his appointment with Rita Skeeter so he found himself walking towards the kitchen in search for food. He wished he could say that a good night's sleep had made things clearer in his head. The truth however was, he felt just as disorientated as he had when he had gone to bed last night.
"Good morning, Minnie." He greeted the house elf as he walked into her domain, plopping himself on a chair unceremoniously. The world had stopped making sense it seemed; how did he always manage to find himself in situations like these?
"Good morning, master Harry." The elf answered kindly, serving the teen breakfast, fluffy pancakes covered in blueberry syrup having, seemingly, appeared out of thin air and into his plate. "I hope the young master feels better today?" Minnie asked, her round eyes even wider than usual.
"Thank you, Minnie." Harry said, accepting the cup of coffee she handed him. "And please, do not worry yourself. I will be fine, in the end. I always am." I hope I will, he added inwardly but chose not to voice his thoughts.
"It is just that…" The elf stammered and toyed with the hem of the white towel she used in the place of a dress, eyes downcast at what she perceived a daring on her part. "If young master Harry is in trouble, Minnie would do anything to help." Large, vividly blue eyes made contact with Harry's. "Minnie hopes the young master knows that?"
"Minnie…" Harry muttered, his heart warming at the elf's declaration. He got off his chair and kneeled, so that he was at eye level with Minnie and smiled, as true a smile as he had ever given. "Dad and I would have been lost without you; this whole castle would be too. The best way to help me is to keep doing what you've always done; as Dad likes to put it, you're the one that keeps us in line." The elf blushed a dark crimson at the praise, bowing her head once more in an effort to hide it.
"The young master is being kind as always." She said, resuming her blushing.
"I'm merely stating a fact." Harry said and smiled even brighter when the elf raised her gaze to hold his own. A small tentative smile edged on Minnie's face too, her large eyes watering.
"Now, young master Harry, you should eat your breakfast before it gets cold." She admonished tentatively, making Harry nod and return to his pancakes. What would have they ever done without Minnie, he wondered idly before his thoughts turned to the meeting swiftly approaching, making a mental side note to ask the elf about her nephews later; Orbein would need house elves too and if her nephews were even half as competent as Minnie he would be set. Concentrating on the more pressing matter of his appointment with Skeeter, Harry repeated the plan, as it had been decided last night.
He would have to go in disguise, of course, not that he was worried about that part; he had years of experience in appearance altering charms to fall back on. Neville and Draco would be there too, their own appearances altered, just as a precaution and to keep watch of the crowd. Paranoia could possibly pay off in case somebody entered the pub when they shouldn't or if Skeeter had brought company. Not that their discussion would be overheard; Harry was prepared to cast every charm he knew to prevent that.
What worried him the most was how Skeeter was going to react to the assignment he would set for her; there was always the chance that she would go too deep, try too hard to uncover what she thought would be a great scoop and endanger, not only their search for horcruxes, but her life too in the process. And though he could mask the true purpose of the task he was to set for her, giving her names of many a family to look for, he wanted the information to be detailed and arrive fast. He couldn't simply hold onto the locket forever.
All he could think of doing was give her a certain amount of time to bring back the information he asked, offering her only a few more names of wizarding families after she had completed her research on the Gaunts, just to throw her off scent. But the Gaunts would have to go first and foremost. Sighing for the umpteenth time, he turned towards the kitchens' door where his father stood, having just woken up himself. Or having decided to drag himself from his bed after a night of tossing and turning more likely, Harry thought, if one took into account his tousled hair and sleeping attire.
"I feel like I haven't slept properly since before the Triwizard Tournament." The potions master stated, plopping heavily onto the chair across his son, his voice husky from sleep, or rather the lack of it. Harry chuckled and nodded in agreement, taking in the dark circles under his father's eyes that he knew mirrored his own. Minnie followed his example and glared at her older master as she placed an even larger stack of pancakes before him. Severus smiled apologetically at the house elf and forced himself to eat.
"I spent all night trying to come up with more things we could work on, anything so that I wouldn't have to wait idly while you and Skeeter researched on the Gaunts and the Horcruxes." Harry admitted, shaking his head resigned. "I've come up empty. There's nothing more I can do before we find out more about the Locket and it's driving me insane!"
"You can keep up with your training." Severus stated. "You can oversee the rebuilding of Orbein. The result of the war may depend heavily on the destruction of the horcruxes, but that alone won't win it for us." He rubbed his eyes tiredly. "I understand you're restless; but you have to be ready to fight, not just to destroy the horcruxes." His son looked at him in silent contemplation for a few moments.
"Have I mentioned how much I hate this?" Harry asked, letting his head drop on the table. "And I know you're right. Of course there are other things I have to do." He admitted, voice coming tired and muffled from where his head lay. "It's just feels like…" He lifted his head just enough to peer at his father; Severus, on his part, waited silently for his son to put his thoughts in order. "It feels like, no matter what I do, there is always one more thing that needs my attention. Like the bloody Hydra; you cut one head, three more appear and I feel like I don't know which way to turn any more." Harry gulped and let his head fall down again. Severus paused for a few moment, finding that he too needed a few moments to collect his thoughts before he could even try to form an answer. The truth was, that his son's description of the situation was more than accurate.
Dealing with Voldemort was just like battling with a Hydra. Despite the obvious serpentine likeness between the Dark Lord and the legendary creature, he thought ruefully, he too found himself floundering at all the new problems that needed to be dealt with before the war was finally over and done with. And what was more troubling was the not knowing; there was no way to know how many heads this Hydra would sprout. Not until the very end.
"I think liking Voldemort to a Hydra is quite apt." He stated, carefully considering his words, trying to express how he felt of the situation without resorting to a flight to the dungeons and a training session against the dummies there. "And just like with a Hydra, you'll have to cut the head you can reach and cauterize the wound, dealing with it once and for all. The time will come to hunt for the horcruxes; for now, focus on the rest of the issues around you."
"I can do that, I think." Harry stated, a soft smile edged on his lips. At least he could keep his hands full and his mind occupied; anything so that he wouldn't just have to sit back and wait. Maybe it was time to finish with that second animagus transformation. He would have to ask Neville and Draco if they wanted to start with theirs this afternoon and… "Ugh, I almost forgot!" Harry exclaimed, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose, annoyance radiating from every pore of his body.
"Forgot what?" Severus asked, looking at his son concerned.
"You have to go to that gala tonight and I have to return to the Headquarters for a few more hours. They'll be cleaning the bedrooms today." He shook his head once. "I would like to go back and look through the house again, but with everybody there…"
"I could skip on the gala and help you out." Severus pointed out. "The faster the work is done, the sooner you can return to overseeing Orbein."
"No, I think you should go; Fudge will be there and…"
"…And somebody's got to keep watch over the fumbling imbecile, I know." Severus stated, gulping down the whole contents of his cup, the dark coffee helping slightly with his headache. "There have been some rumors you know, that he'll try to reach into Hogwarts." Harry cocked an eyebrow, looking at his father skeptically. The Minister was barely able to do his own job, they sure didn't need him branching out.
"To do what? Discrediting Dumbledore wasn't enough for him?" He shook his head, poking at his pancakes with the tip of his fork lightly, rapidly losing his appetite despite how delicious he found them. "Last time I checked, he was consulting Dumbledore before he even started with his daily schedule and the most important decision he made on his own was choosing which hat to wear. And now, when there is actual reason to seek advice, he throws caution to the wind and shoulders the decision-making alone?" He grimaced and put his fork down altogether, reaching for his coffee instead. "I find his dash towards independence…" he paused, searching for the right words, "conveniently timed."
"You think he swapped Dumbledore's advices for somebody's that better suited his unwillingness to deal with Voldemort's return?" Severus asked, considering his son's words carefully. It was true that he too had thought along the same lines. Fudge's panic at the prospect of a second war against Voldemort and his willingness to remain blind and deaf at the warning signs didn't explain the viciousness with which he went after the Headmaster. Using the press, he would not put above him but having the forethought -and the audacity- to actually pry into Hogwarts' affairs? That didn't quite sound like the Minister at all.
"It feels that way, doesn't it?" Harry asked. "It all seems methodical, premeditated somehow. What do you think, Dad?"
"I think that Pius Thicknesse's promotion to Chief Advisor of Fudge and Head Director to Ministry in the beginning of the summer was conveniently timed too. As was the death of the previous Head Director; Albert Eames was old enough to be my great grandfather but healthier than most men half his age." The potions master stated, referring to the sudden heart failure of the previous Head Director, earlier that week. "I met him a few months ago and he gave me the impression that he would outlive us all; and though heart failure could happen naturally to a man his age, there are potions that could make it happen too, not so naturally. Untraceable ones, trust me, I should know."
"And now he's dead and Mr. Thicknesse is in the best possible place to offer his opinion to the Minister and succeed Fudge, should he be removed from office." How he would be removed was yet to be seen, but Harry supposed the man still had his uses, even if the dark Lord utilized him solely as a mask to hide behind. "Thicknesse wasn't a Death Eater in the previous war." The green eyed teen stated with certainty; he had made the effort to memorize each and every name of the Dark Lord's followers after he first read on them when he was nine.
"No, but that doesn't mean he isn't one of his supporters; Voldemort had always had connections in the Ministry that he had not introduced or included in his Death Eaters' ranks." Severus reminded him. "A smart move on his part, as you understand; it's difficult to weed his followers out from the Ministry when they're not marked. Doubly so when not even his Death Eaters know who said supporters are." Harry nodded, conceding to that point. A smart move and beneficial to the Dark Lord and to the Dark Lord alone. He hadn't expected Voldemort would make things easy for him but not having to guess and hope for the best in every turn would be a good change, once in a while.
"And should we operate considering him a Death Eater in disguise from the get go?" Harry asked, almost certain of his father's response. He had read some of Thicknesse's articles lately; the allusions of the inferiority of muggleborn witches and wizards were becoming less and less veiled by the month. And his opposition to anything proposed on the Wizengamot concerning intra-race approaches was clear to all who took the time to read the bi-monthly journal containing the reports of its committees. Did anybody even read those journals anymore? Well he did -reading his father's copy with the two weeks advance the Lords of Wizengamot received it- and he had caught Draco giving his copy to Neville too a few months back, which was smart of them considering they were to inherit a seat one day. The Potter family did have a seat too, of course, that would go to his twin after James passed.
"We should." Severus stated, bringing his attention back to the matter at hand. "I don't know him very well, but I know of his work; he has always been one to support pureblood superiority, albeit not one of its more radical supporters. Would he ever actively go against the Ministry and become a Death Eater? I'm not certain he'd reach such lengths but he'd be easily susceptible to Voldemort's ideology. Even if he's not influenced by Voldemort himself he might be guided by one of his Death Eaters." He shrugged once at his own deductions. "Either way, he has to be watched closely. All the more reason for me to attend the gala tonight, I suppose."
"According to the Daily Prophet, a few foreign Ministers will be in attendance too." Harry offered, trying to appease his father.
"To drink and dance when they should be strategizing." Severus pointed out. "Such a waste of time!"
"Good morning." Neville's voice sounded from the kitchens' doors, accompanied by a hearty yawn, interrupting that conversation.
"Good morning." Father and son chorused, Harry taking a closer look at his brother. The dark circles under his eyes -and the beeline for the coffee pot- spoke of a fitful sleep and Harry guessed that Neville had tossed and turned for the majority of the night as much as he had but had held on to the hope of a few hours of sleep more valiantly than himself.
"I shouldn't be giving you boys that much coffee." Severus muttered, taking a large gulp from his cup. "It's a miracle how you ever sleep at night."
"What is this "sleep" you speak of? Without the coffee it would be a miracle if we stayed awake at day." Neville countered, plopping onto the chair next to Harry.
"Yeah, sleeping is for losers." Harry agreed with a rueful smile, elbowing his brother teasingly.
"I'm raising comedians." Severus stated dryly, despite the soft smile on his lips.
"We're hilarious." Neville agreed. "Especially in the morning when we seldom make any sense at all. And coffee is the secret of life."
"I thought that was chocolate?" Draco interjected, following Neville's example as he walked into the kitchens and straight to the coffee, blond hair in complete disarray. "Good morning, family."
"Good morning to you too, brother." Harry offered as Neville and his father murmured their own tired greetings. "And how are you this fine morning?"
"Lovely, thank you." Draco answered, taking his seat at the table and looking at the wizards around him. "I gave up on sleeping around the time you all did, I suppose, judging from how you look, and decided to get up after I heard Nev muttering something about coffee as he stumbled past my room." Harry snorted at that declaration while Severus shook his head fondly and Neville shrugged unapologetically.
"Now that we're all here," the potions master spoke after he allowed the caffeine to work its way into the system of the two newly arrived teens, "we should review today's schedule."
"Agreed." Harry offered. "Skeeter will be at the Leaky Cauldron in roughly two hours. I'm going to have to disguise myself and you two," he said, pointing at his brothers, "for the meeting before we actually head there, of course."
"We should probably work on concealment enchantments ourselves after today; you never know when we might need those." Neville mused, looking at Draco who nodded in agreement.
"I would have suggested that myself." Severus offered, smiling encouragingly at the two teens. Young as they were, they had made up their minds on sticking with Harry to the end and were determined to do anything in their power to help. Men decades older than them hadn't shown such determination during the first war, Severus knew, and counted himself and his son lucky to have the two teens' support.
"Minnie!" Harry called the house elf and smiled at her as she appeared next to him. "Could you bring me some parchment and a quill?"
"Of course, master Harry." The elf said and disappeared for a few moments, gathering the required objects and returning to the kitchens with them as Lila, one of the kitchens' house elves served Draco and Neville their breakfast.
"Thank you, Minnie." Harry said and turned back to his family. "I've thought about it and figured we should at least give Skeeter two, maybe three more families to look into along with the Gaunts. Not too many so that it would take her too long to return with the information we need but enough to throw her off scent."
"I believe three more should do." Severus offered.
"Have you figured out which yet?" Neville asked.
"No." The green eyed wizard said. "I admit my knowledge of ancient wizarding families is somehow limited. And they will need to be ancient families with obscure pasts or questionable interactions for the Gaunts to fit in. I've left the Ostelers out, for obvious reasons."
"There's no need for Orbein to be brought to Skeeter's attention." The potions master agreed.
"Perhaps we could take another look at that book of yours, Sev?" Draco asked, the time he had spent in Silbreith making him feel more at ease around the potions master to call him such, as Neville did and Severus himself had asked him to while not at school.
"Plenty of ancient families in there." Neville agreed. No sooner than the four had agreed to search the book for names, Minnie had fetched it for them.
"So, which families do we choose?" Harry asked, opening the book.
"Not the Butlers," Draco said, his knowledge of the wizarding aristocracy being of great use to the elimination process, "for they married into the Black line and that might make Skeeter look into Bellatrix a bit too close for her prospective health. I don't see her staying in Azkaban for long."
"What a brilliant thing to consider." Neville muttered darkly, mentally cursing Bellatrix LeStrange to oblivion. "But you're right, I think."
"I wish I could tell you it wasn't so." Severus said, placing a comforting hand on Neville's shoulder. The teen in question smiled softly, his spirits lifting ever so slightly.
"What about the Crawfords?" Harry asked, trying to pry his brother's mind from the deranged Death Eater. "They have a seat in Wizengamot and I've heard many a rumor for their rather shady financial dealings."
"I think we could include them." Draco agreed. "It would throw Skeeter off too, in case she made a connection to the Death Eaters. The Crawfords do err on the unlawful side and could cheat you out of your robes but they have never been aligned with the Dark Lord."
"A trace of honor in them still?" Neville asked, focusing on the conversation at hand and not on his thoughts of revenge for his parents.
"Merlin, no!" Draco exclaimed, appearing convincingly scandalized. "They're just very liberal of the people they choose to steal from. Siding with Voldemort would theoretically mean they could only embezzle what they could out of Muggleborns or Halfbloods, you see, and it's the Purebloods that generally have the money they're after." His declaration was followed by a round of much needed laughter, after which Harry wrote down the name "Crawford" on his list, followed by the name "Gaunt".
"Two more then?" Severus asked.
"Yes." Harry agreed, the conversation carrying on for twenty more minutes, Draco taking it upon him to entertain his family with the odd gossip he had picked up on various pillars of the country's wizarding community.
"So, out of the one hundred and twenty one Lords of the Wizengamont, you'd say we should actually trust what, thirty or so, to govern the country?" Neville asked, after the list had been completed. And sixty-one of them were actually elected, the teen mused, as in somebody had chosen them to be there; go figure.
"Food for thought for when you two inherit your seats." Harry stated, smirking at the sour expression on his brothers' faces.
"So, after speaking with Skeeter, what?" Draco wondered, looking at the wizards around him.
"I'll be returning here with you, to lift the enchantments in private and head at the Headquarters for a few hours, assuring everybody Silbreith still stands." Harry offered, having his turn of looking dejected. "I'll try to make a hasty exit. After that, I was planning to oversee the restorations at Orbein until sundown and return for some work at my lab. I want to start on the production of a few charms that may come in handy during the war." Protective alchemic charms for all of them, Harry mused, with strict orders not to remove them from their persons, when possible.
"We'll help you at Orbein." Neville said for both himself and Draco, who nodded in agreement.
"And work on the concealment charms you'll use on us while you're at the Headquarters." The blond Slytherin added.
"I will head straight for Gringotts." Severus stated, nodding in accordance to their plans so far. "There's some research to be made on the locket in their archives as well, I believe. And then I'll return home and get ready for the gala tonight." He sighed and looked at his now empty mug accusingly. "I'd better keep a close eye on Fudge before he does anything spectacularly idiotic and kills us all."
"Ah, optimism! That's the spirit!" Neville exclaimed, causing Harry to breathe most of the coffee he had been trying to swallow. Getting ready for the meeting with Skeeter was a time consuming process as Harry didn't simply change his and his brothers' facial characteristics but explained which charms he used. After he was done, the three teens found themselves observing their reflections in the grand mirror at the fireplace hall. Draco had gone slightly cross-eyed as he studied his now black hair, brown irises and round face, looking at the mirror from a close distance. He finally acknowledged there was no way anyone could tell who he was and uncrossed his eyes, feeling content. Neville now sported a mop of dark blond curls and blue eyes, his own face angular, nose slightly crooked. Harry himself had chin length honey blond hair and gray eyes, a smatter of freckles over his tanned face. All three looked older, making certain nobody would question their presence in the pub.
"Good work, Harry." Severus commented, looking at his son's spellwork pleased. It was decided that he would go first, with a thirty minutes head start. Neville would go next, taking his seat at the bar. Draco would follow, sitting at a table with a novel, seemingly enjoying his morning coffee and Harry would arrive last, at the precise moment of the appointment. Should Draco or Neville realize Skeeter had managed to find a way around the contract and brought somebody along, they would inform Harry who would make sure to express his opinion on the matter to the reporter immediately. If they did not, Harry would take it from there and proceed with the appointment as planned.
Counting the seconds as he paced in front of the fireplace, Harry mentally repeated all that he wanted to say to Skeeter for the umpteenth time. Repetition being the mother of knowledge and all, he assured himself; nothing to do with his nerves. Exactly thirty seconds before nine, Harry had stepped into the green flames and was uttering the name of his destination. He stepped out of the fireplace and into the mostly empty pub; it was a cloudy day and the Leaky Cauldron, who was dimly lit in general, seemed darker than usual. Satisfied with the assorted crowd and taking note of where his brothers were seated, Harry turned his attention towards the reporter; Rita Skeeter was sitting alone, in a table in the far corner of the pub, away from all exits, her back at the wall. Smiling slightly in satisfaction, his fingers closed around his wand in his pocket as he cast the necessary spells to assure their privacy. Nodding once to Tom, the bartender, he walked towards his intended destination.
"Miss Skeeter." Harry greeted the startled reporter politely, bowing slightly and taking his place on the other side of the table. Checking on the protective charms and spells he had cast around them once again and feeling satisfied with how the held strong, he smiled at the woman opposite him a little wider. He was feeling anxious to send her on her way with the research he needed her to do for him and bone tired from the emotional roller coaster he had been put through during the past few days but he was not going to let on in front of Rita Skeeter, that much was certain. The woman was ruthless and, even though he knew their contract to be practically ironclad, he was also aware that the terms "practically" and "absolutely" not only differed greatly but were usually separated by a bottomless pit that swallowed all fools that thought them the same. And the last thing he needed was falling into said pit. No, thank you, he would rather avoid that.
"I don't have time for fans today. I'm expecting a colleague." The reporter stated, looking around her nervously as if terrified somebody might see she was with company and get all the wrong ideas. Ruthless and rather slow on the uptake on this fine morning, Harry mused, rolling his eyes at her.
"Good morning to you too, Miss Skeeter. I hope you haven't been waiting long." He said, pushing some of his chin length hair back, the honey blond locks having escaped from where he had tacked them behind his ear. Making a mental note to either give himself short hair or, at least, long enough to tie it away from his head when the need for disguise arose in the future, he asked the waitress for a butterbeer and turned his attention back to the startled reporter. "You surely did not think I'd arrive looking like myself now, did you? And from now on, in any future correspondence or contact between us, you will address me as Mr. H. Simple and to the point."
"Of course Mr Po- I mean, Mr H.!" Her eyes wide behind her glasses and her face pale, Rita Skeeter stared at the man across the table, waiting for instructions. Pleased that the reporter seemed properly terrified of him -hopefully enough to only look for the things he'd ask and forgo her inborn tendency to snoop around for once- Harry smirked at her for added effect.
"As I mentioned in my letter, I have a task for you, Miss Skeeter; I think it's time we made good on that contract, no?" He asked, waiting calmly for her response. It was clear in his head that he needed her wary of him but not overly skittish; he had to make sure that she understood what she was to be looking for, after all.
"As you wish, Mr. H." She answered and Harry nodded once.
"There are some families whose history I need you to research for me." Harry stated, taking a piece of folded parchment from his robes' inner pocket and pushing it towards the reporter. "Focus on their recent history -let's go back a century at least, maybe up to two centuries back- and their financial situation. And, most importantly, Miss Skeeter, I want you to dig for some dirt on those families. Rumors, financial transgressions, dirty little and not-so-little secrets. The more the better." She unfolded the parchment and looked over the small list of names.
"I don't believe those will give me any trouble, Mr. H." Skeeter assured him, folding the parchment and placing it in her bag. "What else can I do for you?" She asked meekly.
"Why, nothing else for now, Miss Skeeter!" The reporter's eyes widened comically and Harry found himself chuckling at her predicament. "Come now, Miss Skeeter! I did promise only to ask for information you can procure and that alone. I'm a man of my word."
"Of course, Mr H, I never meant you weren't, I mean..." Harry chuckled at the flustered reporter and drunk from his butterbeer catching Draco giving him a mystified glance from across the room with the corner of his eye. He supposed they made for an interesting picture, the usually unruffled reporter looking frazzled and a young man sitting with her, looking very much at his leisure, in direct contrast with his unlikely company.
"I understood what you meant perfectly, don't worry." Harry assured her. "When do you think you'll have the information I asked for ready for me?"
"Let's say a week and go from there." Skeeter replied thoughtfully. "If that's alright with you, of course." Even if Harry would have wished for that information yesterday, he understood why she might need a week to gather everything. Above all, he wanted accurate details, something concrete he could lean on when interrogating the Horcrux. He could wait a week.
"Agreed." Harry stated, slowly raising from his seat and extending his hand for a handshake. "I will see you in seven days exactly, in this very spot. Same day, same time." He tilted his head slightly to the left, seemingly studying the reporter; Rita, on her part, appeared more and more agitated under his gaze. "I do not believe I need to stress how you are to keep to what you have agreed on the contract; you've been sworn to secrecy and that's exactly what I demand of you."
"Of course, Mr H!" She hastened to assure him. He nodded.
"Good." They shook hands once more and he turned around to leave, making sure he left enough money on the table to pay for her drink too; manners were manners and his father had made sure he knew how to conduct himself in every situation even when dealing with someone as disagreeable as he found Rita Skeeter. Minnie's gentle prodding during his childhood and the small rewards -mostly in the form of chocolate cake- when he did something in a manner befitting of the young master of Silbreith, ensured he would never forget what his father had instructed. He walked towards the fireplace purposefully and flooed back to Silbreith. His air of self-assurance didn't last longer than that; the very moment he stepped foot in the castle, he reached for the closest armchair and let himself collapse upon it with a groan, allowing the charms he had placed on himself melt away.
There he remained, eyes closed, one hand pressed over them, until the flames flared green once more and Draco stepped into the room. The young Slytherin called his brother's name once, then twice, before Harry as much as twitched.
"Harry!" Draco called for a third time, still-brown eyes widening in fright. "Did something go wrong?" The green eyed wizard simply shook his head negatively, pointing his wand towards Draco and flicking his wrist once, lifting the spells he had cast upon him. One more burst of flames and Neville followed his brothers home, smiling widely.
"I think that went as well as could be expected!" He exclaimed jovially, looking from Draco to Harry smile never faltering.
"I'm not so certain." Draco offered; Harry, on his part, groaned once again.
"See?" Neville said pointing at Harry. "Told you it went well!"
"It did." Harry agreed, seeing how Draco only got even more worried by the second. "It did go well. It's just that, the moment I returned to Silbreith, I realized we actually have to wait for a whole week, practically sitting on top of a Horcrux and be unable to even open the lid of the box we've put it in." He carded a hand through his hair in almost-desperation. "All the while knowing there's a way to destroy it too!"
"She said she'll need a week?" Neville asked, wincing slightly. Harry nodded, removing the concealment enchantments from the brown eyed Gryffindor. He proceeded to narrate exactly what had been said between him and the reporter.
"I've set up an appointment for next week; same day and hour." He finally told them, shaking his head contemplatively. "Let's hope she'll have something solid by then."
"Well, you did ask Rita Skeeter to dig up some dirt." Draco reasoned. "Isn't that her thing?" Harry chuckled in agreement.
"That, it is." He agreed, looking at the grandfather clock by the fireplace. "I still have about three hours before I'm needed at the Headquarters. Maybe we could head over to Orbein?" A quick stop to the stables later and they were off, Harry inwardly praying his father had better luck with his search all the way to his castle.
As things were, Severus Snape could boast, if not exactly finding the answer to the mystery that was Voldemort's younger years, at least a momentous strike of luck. He had left Silbreith that very morning with no particularly high hopes. The closer he got to Gringotts the more concerned he got; about his son's meeting with Skeeter, the Horcrux that lay locked away back home and, of course, his own plan.
He had entered the archives with little hope. For, while the ledgers he intended to search for were open to the public, what he had failed to mention to his son, Neville and Draco concerning the archives -mostly because he dreaded thinking too much on it himself- was this; the archives of Gringotts were open to all to read and benefit from, that was true. What was also true was that one rarely found what he was looking for. And, upon first regarding the archives, a seemingly endless room with bookcases upon bookcases filled with ledgers, reaching as far up as the ceiling he could barely see and then more reports stacked haphazardly upon each other, he was pretty much convinced he had set himself up for failure.
"I could search on for years and never even come close to what I wish to find." The potions master muttered to himself, inwardly wondering why in Merlin's name he had thought this a good idea. Nobody else was in the room, apart from the curator of the Archives at the opposite corner from the entrance -Severus could just make out his desk from were he stood, hidden as it was by, surprise of surprises, more files- all sensible wizards having given up on the goblins' archives about a century and a half ago, when they first opened their doors to public.
"Sleep deprivation." Severus concluded, walking, despite himself, towards the desk that was the closest to him and shrugging off his cloak on the bench he expected to spend the greater part of his stay seated upon, throwing his briefcase next to it. He had spent a noteworthy part of the past twenty years immersed into the study of one principle of magic or the other, he had translated obscure tests written in extinct languages and he had toiled patiently as he revolutionised the field of healing potions; and yet, simply looking at the towering stacks of documents on the desk in front of him alone had him feeling overwhelmed. "Definitely sleep deprivation," he concluded and headed towards the closest bookcase, trying to make heads or tails on how the filing system worked.
After a couple of hours of reading through irrelevant and over-analytical reports of little substance, he reached the conclusion that it wasn't that the filing system didn't work that was the problem. If there even was a filing system -and Severus suspected there was one indeed, carefully conceived by the goblins to throw everybody not working in Gringotts off, damned sly creatures- then it fulfilled its intended task marvellously; it prevented interested wizards from finding what it was they were seeking. It was all the Ministry's fault, the potions master concluded, and, of course, a direct by-product of the stubbornness and the conniving nature of the goblins.
A century and a half ago, after the Minister of the time -a certain Mr Covington, a wizard of questionable intelligence where personal gain wasn't involved- had almost led the country to bankruptcy. Since then, history had proven it had been the Minister's certain proclivity for betting on the wrong hippogryphs and a flair of his and his directors for embezzling. At that moment it time, Mr. Covington had assured the nation it was the secrecy of goblins that had almost driven the country to financial ruin; the goblins wanted nothing else but to protect their gold, he had said, and their centuries old practice to keep their reports secret had left the Ministry unprepared for the crisis. Had the Ministry had the right to go through their reports, they would have had a better insight on how to deal with the changes in the ever mercurial field that was world economy.
The Ministry had issued a degree that just about ordered Gringotts to open their reports for public view or face the consequences, said consequences being increased Ministry control over the bank. It was only luck that the goblins did not feel like starting yet another revolt and instead complied with the demands of the Ministry, in their own, special, sadistic way. They had gathered every single report that had been written in Gringotts starting from the past decade up to two years before the degree had been issued -not-so-kindly reminding the Ministry officials that had been supervising the procedure that without that two year window they would likely lose the edge in the investments their own goblin financial advisors were overseeing- and deposited them all in a newly erected sector of the bank, the building of which they had billed to the Ministry itself. A magical contract was signed and that was that.
It was chaos; the goblins had an inherent inclination for writing reports on anything and everything. With every month that passed, thousands of reports and ledgers flooded into the Archives, in no apparent order. Everything had been catalogued, from the most important transactions and mergers to the new office supplies of every separate department of each branch of the bank, all ending up in thick files of identical appearance and thrown into the same room, charmed especially to prevent summoning them based on content, name or year.
When goblins were asked for help into locating a specific file, they presented you with a sixteen pages long form that asked you to provide detailed information on the report you were looking for. Information, of course, that one could not possibly have without reading the report they were looking for. If one tried to protest, they were asked to submit a complain form that was double the size than the original. Once, about eighty years ago, an effort had been made to take the situation to court. The goblins stated that the contract they had signed bound them magically to present the public with every single report they composed. The contract was foolproof and that was that. Absolute chaos.
And even though any wizard that possessed an ounce of logic wouldn't step within a hundred feet from the Archives, Severus was also aware that, somewhere within that pandemonium were the files he was looking for. The goblins kept track of goblin made artefacts. The reports existed; the question was where. Two more hours passed in a similar fashion, the potions master getting increasingly frustrated; he had finally managed to find a single file regarding a bracelet of goblin origin that the bank had been keeping track of for over two centuries before it had been reclaimed by the bank forty years ago.
And, while the fact that the file seemed to have been updated over the years -there was a system, he just knew it- meant that any information on the locket was probably in one file too, when he had returned to the adjacent reports on the self he had found the file on, he was ready to commit murder; what he had found on each side of the report he had just read was a detailed ledger of the bank's Syrian branch concerning their offices' monthly supply in parchment, composed the year 1925, and a report on the loans of a company that had closed twenty years ago, dated from the fifties. He had barely managed to return to the desk he was occupying and was fully prepared to spend a few minutes wallowing in misery when the unexpected had happened; the curator approached him.
"You are the inventor of the permanent Wolfsbane." The goblin had stated, not bothering forming a proper question. "Mr. Snape, correct?"
"Professor Snape." Severus corrected him mechanically, observing the goblin with weary eyes. His hair was red, his nose large and crooked and, in dire contrast with every other goblin he had ever seen working at the bank, he looked young. Severus supposed that was because the Archives were generally empty; it was an easy job to watch over them, a nice place to start, perhaps, when working in Gringotts. "Excuse me, master goblin, but I do not know your name."
"Alved." The goblin offered, bowing slightly, still regarding the wizard in front of him with some apprehension.
"A pleasure to make your acquaintance then, Alved-nûr." Severus offered, still not understanding the reason for this conversation; and the goblins rarely did something without an ulterior motive. Alved, on his part, seemed mildly shocked over the fact that Severus not only knew the proper way of addressing a goblin but chose to use it too; his eyes widening marginally, he returned the sentiment.
"Pleasure to make your acquaintance indeed, professor Snape." He blinked once, before carrying on. "Excuse me for interrupting you, professor, but you are the first wizard that has walked into this room for the past six months. And the only one I have ever seen staying for over an hour since I started working here." He added after a short pause. And somewhere in the depths of Severus's soul, the part of him that was purely Slytherin stirred. The goblin in front of him was young and curious and he had heard of him. Maybe he could work that to his advantage?
"To be absolutely truthful, Alved-nûr, I was not intending to stay longer than that myself." He offered, studying the goblin's reactions as he picked his words carefully.
"Yet, four hours in, and here you are." The goblin stated, taking the bait. Severus nodded, his brain working on overdrive.
"Well, yes." He admitted, smiling ruefully. "I had intended on conducting a bit of a research on the contracts Nimbus Co had signed with their independent broomstick designers in the past decade, on behalf of Harry, that is to say, Mr Harry Potter." He said, trying to give his story a personal note while keeping everything vague. The cover story he had come up with was quite plausible, he decided, giving himself a small, mental pat on the back, and the best he could think on the drop of a hat. "The company itself refuses to provide them, but I understand all such transactions go through Gringotts? I'm afraid they're trying to capitalise on Mr Potter's young age and cheat him out of his rightful earnings." The goblin looked miffed at the prospect, disagreeing on principle where transactions as such were mentioned. "I was in Diagon Alley," Severus carried on, "and decided to visit the Archive and try to look for the contracts myself. Completely idiotic of me, of course," he added, "trying to do a goblin's job. I should have gone straight to Melvoz- nûr, mine and Mr Potter's financial advisor, with the issue." Another rueful smile. "I'm afraid I'm not cut out for this."
"Surely, your advisor would be aware if Mr Potter was being taken advantage of?" Alved asked, his insinuation that Severus might not trust his goblin advisor after all bordering on accusation.
"There is nobody more qualified than Melvoz- nûr to smoke out any discrepancies." Severus assured him, the first truthful titbit he had offered to the goblin since he had stated his name. "It's just that they try to do the same in every single contract and the thought just struck me as I was passing by Gringotts. Now that you mention it, ofcourse, I realise that Melvoz- nûr probably already has all the information I need. Of course he does." He added a grimace for good measure. "As I said, I'm horrible at this. Without Melvoz- nûr, I would be the one cheated out of my money."
"It is only natural to desire personal knowledge when such contracts are signed." Alved offered, clearly appeased at the high regard Severus held his goblin advisor and the general acknowledgement that goblins were superior to wizards on matters of finance. "And tell me, professor Snape, have you found what you were looking for?" The goblin asked, looking at the file that lay open in front of the potions master. And now to the main event, Severus thought, swiftly organising his thoughts.
"I admit I did not." He stated. "And I would have already left, only I stumbled on this very interesting report." He pointed at the file in front of him. "I was not aware that Gringotts was keeping track of goblin made artefacts or that it was possible for the goblin nation to reclaim them!" He said, eyes widening slightly.
"Of course we do!" The goblin exclaimed, insulted.
"I mean, I am aware that some of the artefacts that had been acquired illegally were returned to the bank after the seventh goblin revolt," the potions master offered, not wanting to give the goblin a lot of time to mule over the subject, certain that Alved's indignation could be spurred into anger. And angry people tended to talk; from his experience, goblins weren't excepted from that rule. "I just wasn't aware that Gringotts kept watch over the ones that had been bought legally too."
"Not a single of those objects was truly acquired legally." Red tinted Alved's cheeks, his fists clenching. "The goblin nation was forced to sell priceless artefacts after the second goblin revolt in an effort to rebuilt and rise from its ashes. We had no other option at the time, but now we can buy those objects back. Yet you wizards won't return them; you pretend not to have them and, when they resurface, you claim ownership based on the titles acquired over a millennia ago!" Alved was, thankfully, very passionate on that subject. Just a little longer, Severus mused. "You resell them to private collectors and the ownership titles with them. But we're patient." The goblin assured him. "If you wait long enough, families die out heirless and then the artefacts can be reclaimed."
"Forgive my ignorance, Alved- nûr." Severus offered, trying to appear properly mortified. "I had heard the rumours of such transactions after the second revolt, but had thought them just that; rumours. But they're true? I have studied the revolts, as all wizards do, at school, but I never heard of such incidents."
"I suppose you're not taught that at your Hogwarts!" Alved stated vehemently. "How could you be, when your school's very Founders were included in those that profited from our plight?"
"Surely not!" Severus exclaimed in a scandalised tone.
"I can assure you, they did!" Alved insisted. "Have you not heard of the Treasures of the Founders Four?"
"I do not believe I have heard the term." Severus admitted, quite truthfully; he had never heard any objects of the Founders being referred to with such a name. He suspected he knew which they were though; the famed diadem of Rowena Ravenclaw, he supposed, was one of them. The sword of Gryffindor and Slytherin's locket made three and there was a rumour circling around the school for Helga Hufflepuff's golden cup, one she favoured during her days at Hogwarts.
"Slytherin's locket, Gryffindor's sword, Ravenclaw's diadem and Hufflepuff's cup." Alved recited. "All priceless, all stolen. None ever returned."
"I have heard of the stories, but I thought them myths and fables. Surely, who hasn't heard of Rowena Ravenclaw's diadem that made its wearer wise?" Severus wondered.
"Myth and fable indeed!" The goblin agreed. "There's no crown to make the thoughtless wise!" Just the thoughtless cockier, Severus privately agreed. "But they exist, professor Snape, make no mistake." The goblin was now speaking with the air of a connoisseur and Severus decided it was time to approach the subject that truly interested him.
"But if they're priceless, as you say, how come I have never heard of them, or seen them exhibited?" He wondered. "They're not in Hogwarts still, are they? Are they in a private collection? You surely must be keeping watch over them!" He gave his best to sound interested, not a difficult feat as he desperately was.
"Oh, but we do!" Alved agreed and raised his right hand, his clawed pointer finger turned towards a bookcase a good fifty feet from were they stood. A single file flew from one of the highest selves in a cloud of dust and landed loudly on the desk in front of them. Severus' heartbeat increased to dangerous levels, his head spinning.
"You do?" He asked, trying to fight his dizziness away.
"The treasures of the Founders Four are prime examples of the work of the goblin master-smiths of old." The curator stated, opening the large file with steady hands. Severus looked on transfixed, afraid to even breathe too loudly or even twitch in case Alved saw it fit to not share the information he had after all. "This here, is the main file we keep on them; it's accompanied by a number of reports on each object." The goblin shook his head, anger burning bright in his eyes. "In here lies all proof one would need to convince themselves of the treachery of wizards!" Alved seemed momentarily taken aback by his own declaration, looking at the potions master next to him. His anger hadn't abated in the least but he seemed to finally recall that Severus was not only a wizard himself but one of the most prominent clients of the bank in the country. Hastily, he backtracked; "I may have come out insulting to you but, I assure you, I did not mean..."
"It's absolutely understandable, master goblin, to feel enraged over such a slight towards your nation." Severus offered eagerly, surprising himself with his eloquence in the face of his terror; he would have said anything if it kept the goblin speaking, his frantic mind supplied. "Though, I must admit to some curiosity, for I have never heard of the goblin side of this story!" He said, looking at the curator earnestly, eyes wide and hopeful, fully aware that he looked the part of the eager student he had once been, during his first year at Hogwarts. Thankfully, Alved thought it rather fluttering, having captivated the attention of such an esteemed wizard and important client of Gringotts and -now that he had the added reassurance that he had not, in fact, insulted said client- was more than eager to carry on with his story, not much looking for the motive behind Severus' excitement.
"Very well, professor. Wizards, I believe, should be aware of how they mistreat other races. The Ministry has the unfortunate notion of being infallible when, in fact," he opened the file on the very first page, Severus' eyes poring over the lines, "they couldn't be farther from the truth." Some tiny part of his mind idly agreed with the goblin's conclusions about the Ministry but those stray thoughts were all he could spare from the documents in front of him.
"Are some of those treasures in the possession of the Ministry?" Severus asked, using the term the goblin had given to the four heirlooms for added effect.
"The Ministry, I can assure you, will never have them." Alved stated with conviction. "They can only be passed down from one wizard to the next and not to an institution. With nobody to claim them, they would pass to Gringotts." His demeanour turned even darker. "Or, as things stand, they should have passed to Gringotts already."
"No surviving heirs?" Severus asked, knowing fully well at least one of them had an heir to claim it. Could the fact that Gringotts knew nothing of Voldemort's parentage mean that he hadn't acquired the locket legally? Not that it would surprise him, of course.
"Not any more, no." The goblin stated. "Some distant relatives of course, but none of them mentioned in any will."
"And yet you have not claimed them?" Severus asked.
"We would have, could we find them!" Alved exclaimed, flipping through the pages of the report, yellowed parchment filled with neat script rolling under his clawed fingertips, until he reached the page he wanted. He turned the file towards the potions master.
"Which means one of them has gone missing?" The potions master asked, eager to hear of the locket and its origins. The answer he got was not exactly the one he had expected.
"Which means all of them have gone missing!" The goblin answered, pointing once again at the page in front of them. It concerned the sword of Gryffindor, one of the heirlooms which Severus knew exactly where it was. Gringotts, apparently, didn't. Albus did like his secrets, did he not?
"The sword of Gryffindor?" Severus asked, deciding that simply encouraging the goblin to speak on his own time and controlling the flow of the conversation would serve him better than outright asking for the whereabouts of a single object. Less suspicious in any case.
"Godric Gryffindor left it to the school in his will." Alved explained. "At the time there was nothing Gringotts could have done but, six centuries later, an official correspondence started between our president and Hogwarts." The goblin grimaced, sharp teeth clenched. "No good came from that; the Headmaster of the time denied having ever seen the sword, or even having heard of it mentioned as anything else than a fairy tale. Nonsense, of course!" Alved proclaimed. "As if it was possible for the very Headmaster of Hogwarts to be unaware of an item of such importance that had been left in the care of his school!" On the other hand, it was quite possible, Severus inwardly commented, recalling exactly how the sword came into the hands of the current Headmaster, having been, literally, pulled out of a hat.
"And you have never tried to contact the school since?" Severus asked.
"Of course we have!" Alved said. "Every time a new Headmaster is chosen, a missive is sent from Gringotts to Hogwarts. No Headmaster has ever admitted of having the sword and we can't simply storm the castle to look for it!" But you would have, if you could, Severus mused.
"That is horrible, simply horrible, master goblin!" Severus exclaimed, playing the part of the appalled, concerned wizard perfectly. "And is there nothing that can be done?"
"With no proof that the sword is in the possession of the school, no search warrant can be ordered." Alved shook his head in contempt. "And if you need proof, professor, that your school is not all it appears to be and your Headmasters are not the pillars of the magical community they style themselves as," Alved said, his resentment towards wizards and witches returning full force as he flipped through yet more pages of the file, "what happened to the Diadem once in possession of Rowena Ravenclaw should provide it to you."
"The Diadem was also left to the school?" Severus asked, not having heard of such a version of the story. According to myth Rowena's Diadem appeared to those few wise amongst the race of the wizards when an extremely difficult decision had fallen on their shoulders. The wizard in question had to ask for the help of the Diadem and would receive it, if deemed worthy. It was said to be carried to the witch or wizard in need -by a wolf-sized raven with sharp claws of silver that spoke the tongue of men- and left with them for three days and nights. It supposedly gave the wearer clarity of mind and wisdom beyond their years to make the best decision possible. A different, much darker, version of the myth had the raven kill those who weren't worthy of the Diadem but dared ask for it, or those who, despite using it, made the wrong decision anyway.
All stories concluded that should one find where the Diadem was hidden, they would have to give the answer to three riddles asked by its guardian -that very same raven. Should they answer correctly, the Diadem and infinite wisdom would be theirs. Should they answered incorrectly, they would be, unsurprisingly, killed. It was that myth -sans the killing part, of course- that had inspired the raven statue that asked the riddles students needed to answer to gain entrance to the Ravenclaw Common Room. Nobody however had ever mentioned the fabled hiding place of the Diadem being Hogwarts herself.
"Not quite, professor." The goblin stated, fists clenching. "The Diadem was left, after Rowena Ravenclaw's death, to her only daughter, Helena Ravenclaw." He pointed at a copy of Rowena Raveclaw's will, the parchment yellow and frail but the script perfectly legible. "She was presumed dead soon after her mother, leaving no heirs. Gringotts, at the time, was not in position to acquire the Diadem, as I have already told you."
"So, Hogwarts claimed it?" Severus asked.
"Not in paper, no." Alved sneered. "But Rowena Ravenclaw lived in the castle at the time. And then she died, her daughter never returned to the school and the Diadem disappeared. There have been no attempts to sale it since, it has never resurfaced in a private collection in over a thousand years." The goblin shook his head. "Unless it has been stolen and lost -or worse, reforged by some ignorant imbecile- it must still be in the possession of the school. I could bet you your weight in gold that it's locked away in the very same room with the sword, a well kept secret passed from one Headmaster to the next." I would take you up on that bet, good sir, Severus internally commented.
"And that's what's happened with all of the treasures? Are they lost somehow or in the possession of Hogwarts?" The potions master asked, feeling he was finally getting closer to the subject that interested him the most.
"Worse." The goblin stated dramatically, causing Severus' heart to skip a beat. "Those two items are in possession of Hogwarts and thus can be potentially retrieved. The Locket and the Cup however… we have watched them being passed on from one generation to the next, long after the names Hufflepuff and Slytherin became extinct. Until, about seventy years ago, their fates intertwined."
"Excuse me?" Severus exclaimed, marginally managing to pass his utter and complete shock as interested confusion.
"Yes they did." Alved offered, satisfied with having kept his audience captivated for so long and proud of his prowess at storytelling. "The last family that inherited the Locket was the Gaunt family, three centuries ago. The family fell into dismay and grew poorer and poorer but the Locket remained in their possession until it was passed down to a certain, Merope Gaunt. She died somewhere in the streets of London alone. The Locket had been nowhere to be found. Until in the mid-twenties, it was rumoured to reappear in the private collection of a Lady Hephzibah Elvira Smith, a distant descendant of the Hufflepuff line, that was also the heir of the Cup."
"She was?" Severus asked, his head spinning, why was an heirloom of Hufflepuff's of importance to Voldemort, the very champion of the superiority of Slytherin House?
"Yes. All our sources said that she had come into possession of the Locket through the infamous establishment of Borgin and Burkes; as it is normal for that business, the money exchange was carried on in complete secret and the Locket was bought for a price possibly a hundred times its weight in gold." Alved pointed at the page where the acquisition of the Locket by Miss Smith was first mentioned, Severus never taking his eyes of the paragraphs in front of him as the goblin summoned a few more files from various bookcases around them. "These here," he said, pointing at the new files, "are all of Gringotts' lawsuits issued against Hephzibah Smith in the span of twenty years. She hid behind and army of lawyers until her death in 1946. Most of her fortune was left to various institutions and some scraps to distant nieces and nephews. The Cup and the Locket were never recovered."
"Neither of them?" Severus asked, looking at the pages in front of him in alarm. Whatever did that mean for their Horcrux hunt, he wondered.
"Neither." Alved informed him. "The Cup was insured, of course, and the money went to the closest of kin, with Hephzibah Smith dead. It would be very, should we say, beneficial for her slighted relatives to inherit the three million galleons insurance, no?"
"Of course." Severus agreed, lost in his own thoughts. "Of course, it would be."
"And they would get the added boon of the Locket too." So would a certain Dark Lord, the potions master mused, his thoughts in disarray once more.
"And, if I may ask, Alved-nûr, how did Miss Smith die? I think I have heard something about her death?" He asked, trying to confirm some newly formed thoughts of his. "Maybe I'm mistaken, but wasn't her death investigated by the Aurors?"
"You would be right in that." Alved agreed, nodding. "It did however turn out that it was a mistake of her house elf; the creature was old and senile, from what I've read. It wasn't murder. Make no mistake, professor; the real crime here was insurance fraud and the theft of our cultural inheritance." If only, Severus thought, looking at the files in front of him in wonder, organising his next steps based on the new information at hand.
"You have given me much food for thought, Alved-nûr." The potions master stated truthfully. "I would like to look more into this matter, if I may be allowed. I work in Hogwarts, you understand, and never having heard of this story is not something I take pride on."
"It is not very often that one meets a wizard interested in goblin history." The goblin muttered in gobbledegook.
"It is not often that a wizard has access to different sources of information than those in his school texts." Severus answered in the same language, surprising the goblin out of his thoughts.
"I have heard rumours that you and Mr Potter spoke our language, professor, but I never had believed them up to now." The curator stated.
"After working in close contact with goblins for so many years, it was only natural to get interested in your language." Severus stated. "It is also one of the few ancient languages still alive in its original form; I found myself enthralled."
"Too true, too true." The goblin stated pleased. "It is a very rich language."
"As I was saying, I would be interested in reading more on the Treasures of the Founders Four." Severus offered, bringing the conversation back on track. "And I'm sure Mr Potter would be interested in the subject too. Tell me, Alved-nûr, what type of forms would I need to fill out to copy those documents? Is it even possible?"
"It is quite possible." Alved offered. "The paperwork is rather… extensive, shall we say, but, as you already have the file in front of you, it's only a matter of filling out the forms." He flicked his wrist and a small pack of documents landed in front of the potions master. "You will have to fill these out and bring them to my desk; I will copy the files for you." A sly smirk formed on the goblin's lips. "I should leave you to it, professor; the task you have chosen to undertake is quite time consuming." If only you knew, Severus thought to himself, summoning a quill from his briefcase and started working on the documents.
It was, true to Alved's words, a time consuming process; but with the main file in his hands, Severus could write down all side files cited in it concerning the four heirlooms of the Founders. And, after the revelation concerning Hufflepuff's Cup, there was no way he could overlook the remaining two objects. He even asked for the files concerning the sword of Gryffindor, hoping for some details that could be find concerning the Diadem, at least, since both were supposed to have been hidden in Hogwarts. And, even if the goblins were mostly wrong about the sword, the fact remained that it was indeed hidden in the school. Maybe they were on to something with the Diadem too.
One and a half hours later, a very dizzy Severus deposited the stack of parchment in front of a highly amused Alved. Unable to get mad at the goblin after his unwitting help -despite his smug expression- he looked on anxiously as the files were copied, making certain the spell used left nothing out, even if the magical contract the goblins had signed when the Archives were created prevented Alved from doing that. When in war, corrupt politicians, as always, had their uses; even the dead ones, Severus mused. Placing the files in his briefcase with the utmost care -praise Merlin and good tailors for extension charms, Severus thought, for there was no way he could have fit everything into a single briefcase otherwise- he bid Alved goodbye, promising he would return to further converse on the injustices inflicted on the goblin race by wizards and left the Archives and Gringotts behind, his next destination clear in his mind.
Originally, he had planned on returning to Silbreith with whatever information he had managed to scavenge. Now? He winced as he walked down the marble stairs of Gringotts and into Diagon Alley, the midday summer sun blinding him after so many hours indoors, his headache intensifying. Now he planned heading for the Ministry and visit the archive section there. Borgin and Burkes, despite its shadier dealings, was still an antique shop, handling potentially dangerous magical artefacts and, as such, were forced to report the names of all their employees. Maybe, if he was lucky, he could track down one of their employees of the time when the locket was in the shop's possession and question them on it. Voldemort had to have found out of its existence somehow, after all.
He walked towards the Leaky Cauldron in a daze, thinking of all the new possibilities his trip to the Archives had created. Harry had thought there could be more Horcruxes than those they had found -stumbled on, semantics really- so far and he tended to agree with his son's conclusion. The disappearance of the Cup at the same time with the Locket could very well be connected with their search. Or it could be an insurance scam as the goblins suspected, though he clearly doubted that; something told him that Miss Smith had died of something else than an accident and Voldemort wouldn't just pass by the chance to acquire the Cup of Helga Hufflepuff when it practically landed on his lap. Nodding to Tom the barman absentmindedly, he grabbed and handful of floo powder and made good use of his clearance to floo straight into the Ministry's Fireplace Hall; being the inventor of the permanent Wolfsbane and having to taste it under the watch of the Ministry did have its perks.
The Archive Department of the Ministry was much more organised than the one of Gringotts. Smiling kindly to the elderly secretary, he mentioned that he was trying to locate a specific type of cauldron that was last smithed over half a millennium ago. All very obscure and conveniently vague, of course. It was for a new project of his, Severus explained, smiling even wider at the secretary who blushed brightly in return, and he needed to see the files of Borgin and Burkes from the beginning of the century as it was there that a cauldron of the sort he was looking for was last seen at.
"Of course, Mr Borgin is not being very forthcoming but I know they sold a cauldron of that kind during the seventies; I just need to reach one of his employees and find out who their supplier had been." Severus confided to Mrs Lloyd, the secretary, shaking his head in exasperation.
"Horrible establishment that one," she readily agreed, "but has al shorts of interesting magical objects. And not wanting to help you, of all people…" And she shook her head in turn judgingly, pointing the amused -beside himself and his headache- potions master towards the correct direction. Severus thanked her, rubbing his temples tiredly trying to ward off his headache. His smile only widened as Mrs Lloyd offered to bring him some tea as soon as he admitted to his headache.
"I've been dealing with Mr Borgin for the past couple of hours and I was working on my lab since the crack of dawn." Severus had explained and Mrs Lloyd hastened to assure him that she could overlook the rule of no drinks in the archives, just this once.
"Poor darling, working himself rugged." He heard her mutter when she thought she was out of his hearing range and chuckled softly as he walked towards the selves he had been directed at. The Archive Department of the Ministry was quite different from the Archives, the room just as vast but well lit. Severus was not surprised to see he was not the only visitor though the room was far from crowded. Smiling not-so-much-apologetically at the middle aged man two desks next to him who sent him a pointed glare the moment Mrs Lloyd returned with his tea, Severus pulled out an empty parchment and his quill and placed them on the desk was he looked for the files concerning his research.
He wouldn't need to sign the entry ledger just for visiting the Ministry's Archives but he would have to do so if he intended to copy a file. And while he trusted the secrecy of goblins and, most importantly, their magically binding client confidentiality contracts, he didn't feel the same about the Ministry. Even if it was highly unlikely somebody of importance would ever find out about his visit in the Archives -his visit to the Ministry was nothing unusual and he would make a point to pass by the Experimental Potions Division to check on the daily reports of his eyesight-correcting line later- he would take no chances by leaving a paper trail of it behind.
He soon found out the files he was looking for, a few selves away from the ones he had asked Mrs Lloyd for. The information he was looking for was separated into seven different files, one separate file for every five years of work. He knew the Locket was sold somewhere during the mid twenties and Tom Riddle was born in the early years of the same decade. If the Locket was sold by his mother, this Merope Gaunt, quite possibly, then it should have been brought to the shop somewhere around that time. Borgin and Burkes wouldn't have held onto an object such that for too long, not with Gringotts hot on their tails. Just to be on the cautious side, he pulled out the books from 1915 to 1950, covering the time from ten years before Miss Smith had bought the Locket to three years after her death.
He found the list of names of Borgin and Burkes employees' in each ledger, amidst the lists and catalogues of the objects deemed harmless enough to have been reported to the Ministry, and jotted them down, initially paying special attention to those that worked in the shop around the time the Locket had been sold. The lists mostly consisted on freelance estimators of antiquities and the odd young witch or wizard that needed the job to start off in the antique selling business, bright out of school. Nothing unexpected or out of the ordinary until he reached the list from the year 1944. He promptly found himself chocking on his tea -the middle aged man from before sending him a self-satisfied look which the potions master easily ignored- as he tried to breathe normally and swallow his tea properly, rubbing his eyes to ascertain he wasn't imagining things out of his tiredness.
For in the year 1944, Tom Marvolo Riddle had been hired at the antique shop. What in the world had the bloody Dark Lord been doing, finding work at an antique shop? Severus hastily jotted down his name and the exact date he was hired, thanking each and every deity for the detailed paperwork the Ministry required of antique dealers. Next to every object that had been reported sold or bought, the name of the employee overseeing the sell was referred. It was in such a way that Severus found out Voldemort had sold antiques of various extravagant prices to Miss Smith during his two year stay at the shop. Because, in 1946, his name suddenly disappeared from the lists and didn't reappear. 1946, Severus mused. The very same year Hephzibah Smith met her unfortunate end and the Locket and the Cup disappeared while in her possession. This was no coincidence, he knew. Placing the files back in place, Severus tacked away his notes and walked out of the Archives, his mind buzzing with the new information.
"Did you find what you were looking for, dear?" Mrs Lloyd asked, looking at the potions master concerned.
"I'm afraid not, Mrs Lloyd." Severus stated, trying to act naturally. "It was a long shot anyway; I should have suspected Mr Borgins wouldn't have sold the cauldron legally, what with all the fight he put in not telling me where he got it from. Unfortunately, there is no proof that he ever had it in the first place."
"Shady establishment that, I've always said so." Mrs Lloyd said once again, nodding knowingly.
"It matters not." Severus assured her. "Thank you for your help, Mrs Lloyd, and for the tea. You've been very kind."
"Nonsense, dear, just doing my job." She said, blushing a deep red. Severus said his goodbyes and headed to the Experimental Potions Division, losing his way twice, deep in thought as he was. After a perfunctory meeting with the Ministry's healers, he stumbled his way back to the Atrium and the fireplace hall. Arriving in Silbreith in as much of a daze as he left the Minstry, he unknowingly collapsed on the same armchair his son had favoured a few hours ago, pulling his briefcase close to his chest.
"Master Severus?" Minnie's voice echoed in the hall, soft, shuffling footsteps announcing her approach.
"Hello, Minnie." He muttered, allowing himself one more moment of shocked numbness before snapping back to his senses. "Is my son home?" He asked, twisting his body so he could look at the house elf.
"The young master returned from his castle two hours ago and left again through the fireplace, master Severus." Minnie offered, taking his travelling cloak that lay discarded on the floor and folding it carefully, noting how weary he looked but keeping quiet.
"Are Neville and Draco back from Orbein too?" The potions master asked.
"They returned with the young master, sir. Should I call them for you?"
"If you could, Minnie." Severus offered, rubbing his eyes. "Thank you." The house elf bowed and disappeared with a faint pop. Severus made an effort to seat up straighter on the armchair, his briefcase still held tight in his hands. He used the time it took for Draco and Neville to climb the stairs from the training rooms in the dungeons to rearrange his thoughts in a way that the new information made some semblance of sense.
Voldemort, when he was still merely Tom Marvolo Riddle -had he ever been merely Tom?- had graduated from Hogwarts as a Head Boy in 1943. By 1944 he had got a job in Borgin and Burkes. At that time, he had already created at least one Horcrux, his diary, with the murder of the now Moaning Myrtle. He probably came in the possession of the Locket and the Cup next. They already knew he had made a Horcrux out of the Locket, probably by murdering its previous owner, Hephzibah Smith. Should they presume he had made a Horcrux out of the Cup as well? He didn't even know any more. And if he had, what would that mean for the Diadem? If he had two out of the four heirlooms of the Founders, would he hunt for the remaining two? He hadn't located the Sword, for one.
He groaned at his thoughts. There was little they could do before reading through the documents carefully, following any leads they, or Skeeter, would present them with and then questioning the Horcrux. All he had was theories. Not for long, he promised himself. At least now they had leads; no more fumbling in the dark, he decided, looking at his briefcase. Solid leads, for one.
"Sev!" Neville called, being the first of the two teens to reach the potions master. "Why do you and Harry always pick that specific armchair to collapse on?" Neville, asking all the important question since time immemorial, Severus thought smiling fondly at the young Gryffindor.
"How did your research go?" Draco asked, following Neville into the room.
"Surprisingly well." The potions master admitted. "Much better than I thought it would go, to be honest. How did Harry's meeting with Skeeter go?" Neville took it upon him to narrate everything that had occurred between Harry and the journalist, Draco intervening to add a few details here and there.
"Bottom line, she said she's have the information Harry asked of her in a week." Neville related.
"A week." Severus pondered. "We can wait a week, I suppose." He looked back at the two teens and then at the grandfather watch at the other side of the room. "Did Harry mention when he'd be back?"
"He said he'd try for an hour, when he left." Draco supplied. "That, of course, was two hours ago, so he was probably being optimistic."
"He should be returning any moment now." Severus offered. "Have you eaten yet?" The teens shook their heads negatively. "Then we should grab something to eat while we wait. What I found… Harry should be here to hear it."
"That good?" Neville asked, eyes alight in hope.
"I'm not sure "good" is the term I'd use." Severus said. "Interesting and absolutely useful, more like."
"I'll take that, thank you." Draco muttered, turning around and heading for the kitchen. It was thirty minutes later yet, when they were finishing with their diner, when Harry walked into the room, looking dejected and annoyed.
"Harry? Everything alright?" Draco asked tentatively. The green eyed wizard scoffed.
"Adrian." He offered as a way of explanation.
"What did he do?" Neville asked, rolling his eyes in advance.
"He may or may not have insinuated that I should better return here and design a new broomstick or something, considering staying at the Headquarters and being privy to confidential information would probably make me a liability." Harry explained. "He didn't use the exact words, of course." He added. "He also offered some vaguely concealed criticism regarding the company I keep." He smiled widely, assuming the look his family knew well to mean "I'm about to curse somebody".
"What a twat." Neville commented gleefully, returning to his desert.
"Couldn't have said it better." Draco muttered.
"Let's not talk about it." Harry pleaded before changing the subject. "So, Dad, how did the research go?"
"Well." Severus said, taking a bite from the carrot cake Minnie had baked for them in contemplation. "Would you mind we take this conversation to the library? We'll need a bigger table than this one, trust me." He stated and looked at the briefcase he had carried along with him. Relocating to the library was a quick affair. For one, all three teens were curious to find out what it was exactly that Severus had uncovered. On a side note, the potions master only had three more hours before he needed to get ready for the gala.
"How did the research go then?" Harry asked once more. "Did you find anything useful?" The potions master cocked an eyebrow at the question and opened the briefcase, pulling out stacks of documents and placing them in separate piles along with the notes he had kept in the Ministry's Archives.
"Let's see." He started, arranging the documents by subject so that he could point to the relevant pile when necessary. "Let me sum up everything before I go into specifics; I found out that the Locket was sold at Borgin and Burkes by one Merope Gaunt in the early twenties. A few years later, it was bought by a woman called Hephzibah Smith, the very same witch that had inherited one of the other heirlooms of the Founders, Helga Hufflepuff's Cup. And almost twenty years even later, Miss Smith was in regular contact with a certain Tom Marvolo Riddle, a young employee at Borgin and Burkes."
"What?" The three teens echoed in wide eyed disbelief.
"Yes. That… that was my reaction too, when I found out." The potions master offered, pinching the bridge of his nose, eyes closed. "I also found out Miss Smith died in 1946, the very same year Tom Riddle stopped working at Borgin and Burkes. Her death was ruled an accident, blamed on her house elf. Neither the Locket nor the Cup were ever recovered. The goblins thought it an insurance scam. Seeing how the Locket turned out, I'm not so certain." Complete silence met his explanation.
"How in the world did you find all that in a single morning?" Neville asked for all of them. Severus smiled ruefully and narrated his whole morning, from his conversation with Alved in Gringotts to his short visit to the Ministry.
"What drives me crazy," the potions master said, "is that all these files are technically open to the public and still, gaining access to them is highly unlikely. Our side could have had this information decades ago."
"Bloody Ministry; only they could push the goblins to make their records public -without making them public at all- and then leave it to that!" Neville supplied, Harry agreeing wholeheartedly.
"And who would ever think to look for the Dark Lord's past in a list of old employees at a barely legal antiques and dark artefacts shop?" Draco wondered.
"Nobody." Harry answered.
"I too, simply stumbled upon the information." Severus said, agreeing with the line of thought of the two teens. "All I wanted to search for were the names of the employees that worked at the store around the time the Locket was first sold to them and when it disappeared, after the death of Miss Smith. Voldemort working there was the last thing I could have ever thought possible."
"And now we know that Voldemort had, at one point in time, two objects connected to the Founders that he could have turned into Horcruxes." Harry said, looking at the report in his hands contemplatively, eyes trailing over a detailed drawing of the golden Cup. Would Voldemort have done it? Of course he would have.
"So, is it the Cup then, one of the other Horcruxes we're looking for?" Neville asked, looking at his family.
"He had the means to make Horcuxes at the time he found it." Harry stated, green eyes searching his father who was nodding in accordance to his thoughts. "He also had the opportunity to get his hands on the Cup; I can't see how he would pass it up. Because Helga Hufflepuff's Cup?" He pushed the document he had been holding towards the middle of the table, pointing at the drawing. "There's a part of Hogwarts' history, right there. An important part of the country's magical heritage, even. It does strike me as something he'd do, collecting artefacts as such to place parts of his soul into."
"So we can put the Cup down as the most probable vessel of his third Horcrux." Draco offered, looking at the piles of parchment contemplatively, before touching a different pile of reports with his index fingers. "We know that the Gryffindor's sword isn't a Horcrux." He pointed out.
"I can vouch for that." Harry offered with half a smile.
"What about the Diadem though?" The young Slytherin asked, absentmindedly returning his brother's smile. "Could Voldemort have found it too?"
"If he had it must have happened in the years after he left Borgin and Burkes, mustn't it?" Neville asked. "Unless the goblins were correct and he found it in Hogwarts? I mean he did discover the Chamber of Secrets when he was sixteen."
"There's no way of knowing that, at this point." Harry pointed out.
"Still, we know he had the Cup in his possession for certain." Severus reminded them. "Too big of a coincidence for it and the Locket to have gone missing at the same time; if it truly was an insurance scam, I believe the Cup would have popped up somewhere since 1946." The potions master reasoned. "And, if we come up with a clever way to word it, we may just find out something about the Diadem from the Locket Horcrux."
"At least now we have something specific to mention to the Horcrux." Harry agreed, nodding thoughtfully.
"The Horcruxes we have so far then are the Locket, the Diary and, quite possibly, the Cup." Neville counted, lifting a finger for each Horcrux. "Three." He stated. "Reasonably speaking, three is a strong magical number. Could he have stopped there?"
"You think he paid attention to that?" Draco wondered.
"If we don't factor the Diadem," Severus offered, "three could be our guess."
"I pray he didn't pay attention to it," Harry stated, shuddering at the thought, "for seven is the most magically powerful number. And that would mean we'd have to look for five more Horcruxes. Or four," he amended, "if we take into account the piece of his soul that still lives in his body. And that's, plainly speaking, sickening."
"By Merlin, let's all pray for three!" Neville exclaimed, his expression turning sour.
"Let's work on the hypothesis that the Cup is indeed a Horcrux." Severus offered, trying to pry the boys' thoughts -and his own- from the number seven. "Where would he hide it?"
"Could he have given it to a Death Eater?" Harry asked. "A person he trusted perhaps?"
"He did give one to my father." Draco muttered, eyes downcast. Harry and Neville moved simultaneously, punching the blond Slytherin playfully on the side and throwing a hand over his shoulders respectfully.
"We've talked about this before." Neville stated. "Define yourself with something your father has done once more and I'll kick you."
"I'll help." Harry offered, smiling brightly to both his brothers.
"I'll endeavour not to." Draco gave his word, jabbing them on the ribs as if to seal his promise.
"You evil Slytherin you." Neville muttered, glaring at the older boy. Draco teasingly hissed at him.
"Now that you mention that…" Harry spoke in Parseltongue instinctively, gaining their attention.
"Didn't quite get that." Severus noted, smirking at the shocked expressions on Neville and Draco's faces. The two hadn't heard Harry actually speaking in the language of snakes before.
"Sorry, just thinking out loud." Harry said, smiling apologetically. "I meant, handing a Horcrux to a Death Eater is a possibility too, but I would suppose that would be more probable if he had made more than three Horcruxes. If he only has one more, don't you think he'd keep it hidden somewhere safe? And I figured, perhaps, inside the Chamber of Secrets?"
"In Hogwarts?" Neville asked perplexed.
"You must admit, if he ever managed to have access to Hogwarts after he graduated -and it wouldn't be that hard before he styled himself as the Dark Lord, the school's doors are always open to past students- the Chamber would be the ideal hiding place." Harry said, fingers tangled in his hair. "The Chamber opens only for a Parselmouth, it's hidden beneath a castle that's considered safer than Gringotts and was, until recently, protected by his pet basilisk."
"Then again, would he take the risk to reopen the Chamber after he graduated?" Severus wondered. "Dumbledore must have been monitoring the bathrooms ever since Myrtle's death; if the entrance was opened on the very same day of his return…"
"True." Harry acknowledged the logic in his father's statement. "But I think it's worth a second look. Not that Dumbledore will let us get close; he's probably monitoring the bathroom still."
"And we wouldn't want you being caught opening the Chamber." Neville noted. "It's Adrian that's supposed to have opened it the last time."
"That too." Harry admitted, slightly crestfallen.
"You know what would be truly malicious though?" Draco mused, a tight lipped smirk on his face.
"What?" Harry asked.
"You say that Hogwarts is safer than Gringotts." Draco said. "Wouldn't be the greatest irony if a Horcrux was actually hidden in Gringotts?"
"You think the Cup the goblins have been looking for practically forever could be hidden inside their own bank?" Neville asked contemplatively.
"The goblins take a blood oath not to enter occupied vaults without the owner's permission as long the bank stands." Draco reminded them. "And, while the Ministry searched through all the estates of incarcerated Death Eaters and confiscated many of their possessions that were considered Dark artefacts, due to Gringotts' policy they didn't even make it in front of their vaults, let alone inside them. Harry only got permission to enter a vault that isn't his own only in the case the bank has left goblin management, when it would have, in a sense, collapsed into itself. And he had to entice them with mithril to do so!"
"And what about the Death Eaters that weren't arrested?" Harry asked. "Couldn't they have hold of a Horcrux?"
"Nobody else from the inner circle is out of Azkaban still." Severus said. "With a few notable exceptions, of course." And he smirked, pointing at himself. "I can assure you, all Voldemort ever gave me were orders."
"So, Gringotts is an actual possibility?" Neville wondered and smirked widely. "Wouldn't you like to be a fly on the wall when somebody told president Melvoz?"
"Even if it could be in Gringotts," Severus said, chuckling lightly at the imagery Neville's words painted, "we shouldn't rule out anything yet. And with Skeeter looking? We might have more information on potential hiding places for Voldemort's Horcruxes; the Gaunts were his last connection with his Slytherin ancestry and, from what we know, we can all agree his lineage has always been of extreme importance to him." One couldn't easily forget Voldemort's interpretation of what his duty was as Heir of Slytherin and how he had acted based on his beliefs. Their conversation continued and carried them through the next three hours effortlessly; Severus left the teens in the library and went to prepare himself for the night that would follow.
He held no misconceptions of what would happen; he would have to spend the entire evening in the company of the Minister, trying to gauge the extent of his intended involvement into Howarts' affairs. He would have to keep an eye on Thicknesse too, see how deep he had sunk his claws into Fudge, all the while knowing he would probably be of more help to his son and the coming war if he remained home. If The Minister's newly established boldness was influenced by Thicknesse, there was little the later would dare declare in a public setting, with Dumbledore's people potentially listening.
"And the Ministry's galas are tedious enough without having to constantly endure the Minister's presence." Severus grouched at his reflection in the mirror, towelling himself dry. He wished he could have been able to make a hasty escape, but he wouldn't want to miss something of importance just because he couldn't stand the fumbling idiot that governed the wizarding community of the country. Idly wondering if he could use the ritual Harry had discovered for his Second Task and defect to the Merpeople, he amused himself as he picked his robes for the night. He fixed his dark green cravat and added a pin that matched with his cufflinks, combed his hair and sighed tiredly at his reflection, wishing for a way to magically flash forward through the next five hours. Finding none, he surrendered to his fate and left Silbreith.
The gala was held in the dancing room of Stonehold Manor, the residence of the country's Ministers of Magic since the early seventeenth century. The Manor was initially owned by Marianthe Stonehold, who had remained a Minister for over fifteen years. After her death, she had left her ancestral home to the state and it had become the Ministerial House for the Ministers that followed her since then. It was located right outside London and was only accessible through the Ministry itself. For the night, Mrs Fudge had decorated accordingly and with her own personal taste. Seeing how her taste leaned towards everything ostentatious, Severus didn't even know why he bothered to feel surprise when laying eyes on the three, overdone, crystal chandeliers that were illuminating the room; even if he knew they were there, they caught him by surprise every time.
"Monstrosities." He muttered to himself, eyes scanning about before he approached the staircase that would lead him to the actual room; he would then be announced and any chance he now had to observe the setting before he was noticed would disappear. The room was decorated in a manner befitting a Tsar, if a Tsar ever felt the need to show off to his subject that was; rich damasks curtains were pulled on both sides of floor-to-ceiling windows great statues between them, facsimiles of Atlas, seemingly holding up the ceiling. In addition to the three chandeliers, crystal baubles were suspended magically in different heights, varying from close to the ceiling to halfway down the room, illuminated internally by fairy lights. A great banner in red silk hung at the far side of the room, proclaiming this to be the "126th Annual Gala for the Promotion of International Cooperation", silver letters in elegant embroidery.
'Just what one needs to promote unity at a time of war,' Severus thought sarcastically as he walked towards the staircase, the mindless chattering of the crowd -Ministry officials and members of the country's aristocracy alike- a mild torment to his enhanced hearing. 'Forget councils of war, a gala where Mrs Fudge can gossip and the wizards that should be making plans get drunk, is what we need. All that's missing to complete this image of thoughtless extravagance is live peacocks,' he mused, before chuckling to himself as he took better stock of the crowd and adding a 'never mind that', upon locating Lucius Malfoy in the Minister's company.
"His Grace, Lord Snape!" The herald announced, causing the potions master to wince slightly at the use of his official title. Titles were rarely used in everyday company in their time, reserved only for formal meetings such as this or for the extremely conceited. Severus hadn't stepped foot in Wizengamot since he had tasked one of his lawyers to hand his votes in for him due to the fact that his work kept him away from London for the majority of the year. Not hearing himself proclaimed as "Lord" Snape, a title that had been passed down to him by a family that hadn't bothered to even write to him once since he was born, had been a plus. Still, he couldn't begrudge the power his title held, not in times like these. He plastered a polite smile on his face and descended the stairs towards the Minister; Fudge had turned around to look at him as he nodding kindly at the people he knew in the crowd, exchanging pleasantries with a choice few amongst them.
"Severus Snape!" The Minister exclaimed, stepping forward from the small circle of witches and wizards that surrounded him to shake his hand enthusiastically. "So glad you could make it tonight!"
"It's an honour to be invited and a pleasure to be here, Minister." The potions master said, cursing internally as Fudge preened.
"Let me introduce you, Severus." Fudge offered, reverting to first name basis, a courtesy Severus didn't quite recall extending to the man. "This is Mrs Mashira Nahas, the Egyptian Minister of Magic, as you well know." Severus bowed softly and smiled at the Egyptian Minister; she had been a pioneer in Warding Charms before she went into politics and he had read most of her published work to date. "My wife you have met before," Fudge carried on, moving clockwise as he introduced the people around him, "and this is Monsieur Antoine Poligny -am I pronouncing it correctly?- the French Minister."
"Lord Snape and I have met before." The foreign Minister spoke in a slightly accented voice, smiling sociably at the potions master, the two men shaking hands. "Almost a year ago I believe, in Paris?"
"At the World Summit for the Healing Arts." Severus offered, recalling their last meeting. The summit in question was held in a different country each year and last year, when it had been time to introduce his Wolfsbane to the world, it had been France's turn.
"And have you met my new Head of Directors, Mr Pius Thicknesse?" Fudge asked, introducing the middle aged man with silver streaks through his hair and beard that stood next to Mr Poligny.
"I haven't had the pleasure." Severus offered, studying the man opposite him. He would have to watch his interactions with Fudge closely tonight. And that, of course, left…
"But you surely have met Lord Malfoy!" Fudge exclaimed, as Lucius and Severus nodded to each other.
"We have indeed met." Lucius offered, managing to only marginally sneer at the potions master. Severus felt an odd sense of self-satisfaction at how irritated his mere presence made the older man. "Severus, you missed our last gathering." And it was the potions master's turn to almost sneer at him.
"A busy schedule, I fear." He stated airily. "It allows no time for such… frivolities any more." You almost ruined a good man with your idiocy, Severus thought, looking at Lucius' aristocratic characteristics -so similar to his son's- meld into a cold smile. Draco had barely escaped a horrible and undeserving fate, Severus decided, being groomed to become a mirror image of his father.
"You work too much, Severus!" Fudge proclaimed before the animosity between the two became overly noticeable.
"I might." Severus offered, before the French Minister claimed his attention, wanting to talk about his latest line of healing potions. With only half his mind in his current discussion, the potions master paid attention to the people around him, especially Fudge; the Minister spent twenty minutes talking about one thing or another until the conversation shifted to one of the topics that interested Severus.
"Yet I heard you were planning an educational reform, Mr. Fudge?" The Egyptian Minister asked, carrying the conversation on from where it had been concentrated on a few minor changes in her own Ministry's administrative structure.
"Why yes!" Fudge exclaimed. "This might interest you too, Severus, seeing how you work at Hogwarts!"
"What might interest me, Mr Fudge?" Severus asked, his full attention now on the Minister.
"Why, I've been thinking," Fudge said, Thicknesse smirking slightly on his left, making Severus wonder just how much of what was to follow the Minister had thought alone, "that it's high time the Ministry looks into the matters of Hogwarts!"
"In what way, if I may ask?" The potions master spoke softly, not showing any traces of agreeing or disagreeing with the Minister.
"You understand, Severus, it has come to my attention that there is little to none supervision over the chief educational institution of the country." Fudge proclaimed seriously. "I'm planning on correcting that." Could you be more vague? Severus wondered, face still blank.
"Quite right." Lucius offered, nodding encouragingly at Fudge. "As a parent of a son currently at…"
"Her Royal Highness, Princess Evelyn of Norway!" The herald announced, all conversation in the room ceasing momentarily, eyes diverted towards the staircase. Unwittingly, Severus' attention was diverted too. He had heard the name before, of course; a princess finding herself part of the Sisterhood in the tender age of eight had made the headlines of the newspapers for almost a whole week, even away from Norway. He had just never put a face to the name. Princess Evelyn was, certainly, no longer eight years old, Severus mused, blinking once, then twice, as the woman in question descended the stairs. Mr and Mrs Fudge bid their momentary leave and hastened to greet her.
Her skin was fair, her hair was golden, pinned carefully up, and she cut an impressive figure as she walked elegantly towards Fudge. She was dressed in a pale grey-blue gown that floated around slightly her as she moved, making Mrs Fudge -who was dressed in an overdone plum coloured gown- appear like a badly baked wedding cake standing next to her. As the Minister and his wife made a point to introduce her to as many people as possible before returning to their previous group, Severus wondered why she was here; Fudge was excited to have her, of course, but he must have invited her and any other members of the few remaining magical royal houses of Europe to his galas for years. Why was she here now? And why do I even care? He thought to himself as the company of three moved closer to him still. Whispers followed them around, many wondering the same thing as he.
"Did you know the princess of Norway would be here today?" Mr Poligny asked, fixing his tie instinctively as he spoke.
"Mr Fudge did mention a surprise honoured guest," Lucius offered, patting down his own vest, "but he didn't specify." Severus simply observed the woman in question as she greeted the people she was introduced too. She had an air of gentility as she spoke, smiling and laughing softly at whatever joke the people around her made. She seemed the perfect image of how princesses were described in the fairy tales Harry had loved as a child, as if one of the drawings in his son's old books had taken life and escaped their pages.
She's beautiful, that now familiar, traitorous voice in the back of his mind commented. 'Whoever asked you?' Severus debated internally. Because, yes, he wasn't blind. And yes, thank you, he could clearly see how beautiful the woman was with her soft characteristics and big eyes -how were her eyes that shade of blue, how was such a shade even possible, such a vivid shade of cobalt?- but what was he supposed to do with that knowledge? His family's survival and the war were all that mattered to him at the point, all that had mattered since last July and all that would matter until Voldemort was nothing but a bad memory. What if her eyes were blue? He chastised himself and mentally prepared to be cordial but detached to the princess for the rest of the night.
"And here we are, your Highness!" Fudge exclaimed, hand extended towards the group of people Severus was included in. The princess' eyes were sparkling, whether with mirth or recognition of the people in the group she was being introduced to, Severus couldn't tell. Fudge introduced her to the Ministers first and proceeded from there.
"And this, of course, is Lord Snape." The Minister offered. "You have heard of the permanent Wolfsbane, I presume?" The princess simply cocked an eyebrow elegantly at the question, no other traces of mockery at her part; the slight reaction was enough for Severus to remind himself that this was a member of a secret and ancient covenant, the members of which had powers not commonly discussed out of the confines of the Sisterhood. And Fudge had pretty much just asked her whether she had lived under a rock during the past year; the potions master cringed involuntarily at the Minister's crassness but the princess simply smiled at him, eyes now positively twinkling.
"A pleasure, your Grace." Her voice was clear and soft and it didn't take long for her to integrate herself into their group and their previous conversation. She seemed, in fact, quite pleased to talk about the educational reform the Minister was planning.
"As I was about to say," Lucius spoke once more, his air even more self absorbed not that he found himself in the presence of royalty, "I have a son in Hogwarts myself. I find myself reassured to know the Ministry will ascertain the quality of the education offered to him."
"If I may be so bold to inquire," the princess spoke, "in what capacity will this reform happen? I have been homeschooled myself but I have only ever heard good things about Hogwarts!" Well, thank you for breaching that subject, your Highness, Severus thought, inwardly sighing in relief; finally, this conversation was getting somewhere.
"It's mostly about supervision, you understand, your Highness." Fudge offered, slightly stumbling over his own words at his hastiness to answer. "Then we will see about the changes that need be made; the Ministry, as Lord Malfoy correctly stated, has to keep vigilant watch over the greatest educational institution in the country!"
"And I fear, if I may say so myself," Lucius offered, "the current Headmaster, Dumbledore, has been quite lenient to the people he's allowing to teach." Very subtle Lucius, Severus mused, just barely managing not to roll his eyes at the veiled accusation. I'm hurt.
"Why exactly!" Fudge exclaimed, completely missing the point.
"Is that so?" The princess asked, looking at the Minister intently, under the pressure of those blue eyes, Fudge felt the need to elaborate further, looking at his fellow Ministers, Severus, Lucius and the princess in turn as he spoke.
"Did you know that the professors teaching Defence against the Dark Arts, rarely stay for longer than a year?" Fudge asked. "One of them ended in St Mungo's two years ago with severe memory loss! And History of Magic is taught by a ghost, of all things. A ghost!"
"Un specrte?" Mr Poligny asked, his tone confused.
"I have never heard of a ghost allowed to teach." Mrs Nahas commented, just as perplexed as her French counterpart.
"Did you say a ghost teaches History of Magic, Mr Fudge?" The princess asked, her eyes twinkling again.
"Yes, a ghost does!" The Minister stated. "And… but aren't you a historian yourself, you Highness?" Fudge wondered, looking at the princess with a newfound interest. Was she, Severus wondered.
"You would be correct." The princess offered.
"And specialised in you Europe's magical history, if I'm not mistaken." The French Minister stated, not wanting to be left out of the princess' attention.
"Correct once more."
"Why, you would be a much better candidate for the job, your Highness!" Lucius exclaimed, obviously considering the prestige of having his son taught by a princess. And while Severus rolled his eyes internally and expected the princess to laugh at the Malfoy's exclamation, she simply said;
"Would you think so?" And she smiled. "I am certified to do so, you see and… Oh, I've always wanted to teach!" Severus almost chocked on his own breath, as silence descended on their group and Fudge's eyes bulged.
"Your Highness, would you consider… it would be a great honour, the greatest even…" The Minister stuttered, eyes even wider as he fully comprehended what he was being offered, all the good press that could come from such a move. "Is her Highness certain?"
"I have taught for a year before you know, as a visiting professor in the High School of Magical History of Norway." Only the most prestigious school of history and archaeology in the world, Severus mused, his own mind numb; what was happening again?
"Yes, I have read some of your published articles in comparative history, published by the School. Excellent work, or so my Director of History and Archaeology tells me!" The Egyptian Minister offered, mostly amused by Fudge's shocked expression.
"Merlin's beard!" Fudge exclaimed before remembering himself. "And would you be interested in working at Hogwarts?"
"I have always heard the best of the school, as I said." The princess stated. "If there was a job opening, I would be thrilled to subject my candidacy, rest assured." I'm missing something crucial here, Severus mused, eyes trailed on the princess. She smiled just a gently as before but there was something in those cobalt eyes of hers he couldn't read; what was it?
"Your Highness, let me assure you in turn, the job opening most definitely exists!" Fudge was now exuberant, already planning how to spring the news on the press and the potions master found himself at a complete loss of words. Fudge swiftly summoned his Secretary, the woman in pink Severus recalled from his visits at the Ministry, and explained the situation to her. The Norwegian princess gave the address of her lawyer where all paperwork should be sent, speaking clearly and efficiently and, before Severus could begin to comprehend what had happened, the deal had been struck. And while Severus agreed that removing Binns from his position was, perhaps, the only change Hogwarts desperately needed education-wise, having Evelyn of Norway as a professor was not something he had ever considered. He wondered once again if her attendance tonight was accidental or not, after all. If it was, she had certainly taken everything in a stride!
It was in a sense of excitement that Fudge carried on with the conversation for the next half hour; Severus was keeping up, adding his own opinion here and there, feeling more and more certain he'd have to have a private talk with the princess after all. His window of opportunity presented itself as the orchestra that had been playing for the whole evening started on a waltz, signifying the dancing part of the night was about to begin. As the centre of the room cleared out, the guests gathering peripherally around the dance floor, a dozen or so couples remaining for the first dance.
"If her Highness would allow me," Severus offered, bowing slightly towards the princess in question, "may I have this dance?" Almost as if she had expected it, she bowed her head in agreement.
"You may." She said and Severus offered his hands for her to take. The whispers intensified around them as they nodded at their group and walked towards the dance floor, Mr Poligny sending Severus a conspiratorial wink, well in his ninth flute of champagne. Lucius looked as if he had tasted something sour and Severus allowed himself a small smile over that. He was completely focused when they reached the dance floor, arms and hands positioned in their proper place; he had perfected talking and dancing some years back. All that he needed now was a good conversation starter. If only he had thought that far ahead, he mused, cursing his own stupidity; it was the princess herself that stroke conversation in the end.
"So, your Grace," she said, "to what do I own the pleasure of this dance?"
"Could I not have simply asked you to dance because I wished it?" He asked in return and watched her blink a few times confused, a soft blush colouring her cheeks, as if she hadn't considered that possibility at all.
"Ah, well…" She stuttered slightly, looking, for the first time since he had laid eyes on her, like the twenty something woman she was. Unexplainably, he found himself smiling at her. Whatever are you thinking, you idiot? He berated himself. Her flustered disposition only lasted for a moment longer before the polite mask from before slipped back into place. "You say that and yet you've been trying to understand what angle I'm working the whole evening. I watched you as you watched me, your Grace." She stated, Severus recalling her polite glance, seemingly nothing more than what she had spared for the rest of their group. Had it been more?
"I must admit to some curiosity, your Highness." Severus offered, easing himself into the subject he wanted to talk about the most. "I have never heard of you attending a gathering of this country's Ministry and yet here you are, ready to place your candidacy for a job opening at Hogwarts the very same moment the Minister decided to get involved with the school." He smiled once again as they circled round and round. "I work at Hogwarts, you see. This reform of the Minister's interests me personally."
"It would, wouldn't it?" She asked and smiled differently than before. An honest smile, Severus realised, noting like the polite ones from before. This one lit her eyes, made them crinkle in the corners; she was enjoying this conversation, the potions master realised, finding himself at loss. "I suppose it would." She concluded.
"You see, then, why I'm asking." He persisted, curious to hear what she'd answer, if she answered at all.
"Oh, I see." She said, her smile widening, as if she was indulging in a private joke. She paused for a few moments and simply danced; just about when Severus was considering to push for an answer, she started speaking once more; "You're right in saying I don't usually attend such gatherings." She offered. "And I must admit to some, let's say, premeditation considering my offer to cover the History professor job at Hogwarts, even if I hadn't planed it exactly that way. I'm here for personal matters, in a way."
"You are?" Severus asked, brow furrowed in thought.
"Quite." She answered. "I was looking for a way to stay close to my sister throughout the year and this job was the perfect opportunity. Luck smiled at me I think. Or fate." Now Severus looked at her in complete confusion; he would be the first to admit he knew little in the way of royal houses, but even he had read in the newspapers, all those years ago, that she was an only daughter.
"I thought you only had brothers?" He asked and she smiled.
"And I never thought I'd run into you here, of all places." She offered, not answering his question. "Yet here you are; I thought my sister would have to contact you first but…" She shrugged slightly, never missing a step. Severus almost stopped dancing altogether, his muscle memory all that kept him dancing.
"Were you looking for me personally?" He asked. "And what sister?" His expression was blank, the icy mask he had developed in his time as a spy.
"I was looking for you." She admitted. "And thought, by birth, I only have brothers I'm a part of the Sisterhood. And I was looking for you on my behalf and that of my sister who is not may sister." Severus' heart skipped a beat. What had she said? The words of Morgana's prophecy came unbidden to his thoughts; could it be?
"How did you know? What are you… What?" He asked, dark grey eyes borrowing into cobalt blue, voice tight with shock. He held onto her tighter, instinctively, and she smiled apologetically.
"There." She said. "I had to say it and there was no easy way to. But I can't say more, not here; we're already being watched as it is." Severus nodded and relaxed his stance slightly; they twirled around the floor as the waltz reached its end.
"You have to explain." He simply stated.
"I know. And I want explanations too." She stated. "This is quite new to me. And it came out of nowhere; from what I understand you were in possession of such knowledge for quite some time?" Severus nodded. "It's only been a week for me." She said. "I'll be leaving here in half an hour and I'll go fetch my sister. If you have a private location for us to speak…"
"I do." He offered, a new urgency in his voice.
"Then we'll meet you at the Leaky Cauldron, isn't that how that pub is called?" Severus nodded. "In two hours from now, then." She continued. "We'll be wearing the green cloaks of the Sisterhood; you may want to come disguised." Severus nodded once again. The dance ended and they bowed to each other, eyes still locked. "Don't fret," she whispered, as he offered his hand to lead her away from the dance floor, "we're here to help."