CHAPTER 22 – The Deceptive Duo

The trade was brisk in Diagon Alley on that particular late afternoon. The street was well on its way to recovery following the ravages of the war years, with only one or two shops left boarded up. Colourful, glittering displays of spellbooks, potion ingredients and other magical ephemera sat behind sparkling clean glass windows with fresh paint on their frames. Market stall holders shouted out their wares, owls hooted to each other in cages outside Eeylops. It was almost like it had been when Harry had first stepped foot in it.

Knockturn Alley, by contrast, was much the same as it ever was. Dark and dingy, its shops and inns seeming to hunch maliciously over the narrow street beneath. Shop and alehouse signs loomed above, and nooks and side alleys sat in deepest shadow. Harry peered cautiously out of the corner of his eye into each dark doorway as he passed, never relaxing the grip on his wand for a second.

The last time he had visited the alley Harry had been more naive, younger and otherwise distracted, so of course the one thing he hadn't noticed before were the other kinds of signs and symbols proliferating the place; an illuminated sign above one shop had the silhouette of a seductively reclining witch on it, another sign beckoned him with a finger as he passed, promising, 'erotic enchantments,' On street level he spotted a plain black door which had a pair of heavy iron, human-sized manacles serving as the door knocker.

As he passed one shop window full of human and animal skulls, he noted his own reflection in the glass. The Polyjuice had performed its work well, he looked just like the fair-haired, square-jawed Muggle Snape had procured a hair from. Amongst other things he was wearing several gold rings on his fingers, a fine ebony wand sheath, expensive-looking Dragonhide boots, and a side-buttoned, gold-braided, hussar-like grey doublet that gave a strong nod toward the militaristic style of dress preferred by students of the Durmstrang Institute. To anyone else here he would just seem like a pretty well-off wizarding stranger from abroad.

As was part of the plan, Snape was not disguised in any way, though he did take care to shave and smarten himself up a little. For this plan he needed to be nothing more than Adrian Pucey.

"This outfit's far too tight. Why do I have to be Hungarian, why can't I be German or Swiss or something?" Harry had complained before they had set out.

"Because, Potter, Pucey's mother was from a pureblood Hungarian family with connections to the dragon trade, so rich friends are plausible," Snape had replied smoothly. "And besides, you would utterly fail to convince anyone as a German wizard: all Hexenmeister have a better grasp of English grammar than you do."

"Whatever," Harry had groused.

After they had passed a third foreboding-looking alley, Snape came to a sudden halt outside a boarded-up shop covered with faded, torn posters. Next to the posters was a dull green door, its paint cracked and peeling. Snape shot a look back to Harry, who gave him a slight nod in response.

Snape glanced upwards at the window above the shop, from which a faint glow was emanating, took a hold of the brass knocker, and rapped three times.

After a few moments the door cracked upon slightly, revealing a man with a greyish face, and piercing, steel grey eyes. "Yes?" He hissed.

Snape lifted his chin with an air that reminded Harry of Draco Malfoy in his prouder, younger days. "We wish to see Madam Malefice."

The steel grey eyes blinked once. The door creaked open wider. "You are admitted."

They followed the grey-haired man up a narrow, winding flight of wooden steps to a small, dimly lit room. As they entered they saw a dour-looking woman dressed in black robes sitting behind a desk, atop which sat various divination tools, including a crystal ball. Snape gave a slight bow of his head which encouraged Harry to do the same.

The woman returned the gesture. "Gentlemen, what brings you to Madam Malefice?" she enquired.

"We have come here to express our interest in your husband's cause," said Snape.

"What are your names?"

"My name is Adrian Pucey. My associate here is András Sike; he is visiting from Hungary."

"My grandmother was Székely; Hungarian blood but raised on Romanian soil. I remember little about her, unfortunately," The Fortune Teller remarked. She scrutinised them a long moment, her gaze lingering a fraction longer on the gold rings adorning Harry's fingers.

"You are late for this meeting, it is almost over," she said finally. "But I think Aelius will see you."

Snape and Harry were lead through into a room out back with blacked out windows. A large table sat in the centre of the room, and torches illuminated those sat around it with a sickly yellow light. Harry could count no less than seven wizards and one witch, not many but certainly more bigoted individuals than he'd hoped to see in one room all at once. There were four or five empty chairs, also.

The man at the head of the table – presumably Aelius Malefice - stood to welcome them. He looked to be in his fifties or sixties, and had a small, sharp nose, long grizzled hair and beard, and a shrewd, beady-eyed expression. He wore a long, black robe with a golden clasp in the shape of an eagle claw. As he welcomed them and shook both Snape and Harry's hands, Harry could feel the others in the circle eyeing him closely. He felt distinctly unnerved.

They sat.

Malefice remained standing and addressed the room. "Now...Ongoing donations, as those more frequent attendees know, are vital to our cause if we are to make any headway in these times. These gestures can be forwarded to the address I provided earlier, or should you prefer, given privately at the end of this meeting, which is now imminent." His leaned forward on the table, gnarled hands grasping the edge, his eyes scanning the room. "Before we draw things to a close: Any questions?"

There were a few moments of awkward silence, 'til a sour-faced, brown-haired young man - who could not have been more than eighteen years old - spoke up. Harry's suspicions that the man had been in Slytherin, perhaps a year below him, were quickly confirmed.

"Weren't you a Chaser in Hogwart's Quidditch team once?" He enquired of Snape.

Snape gave a nod. "Indeed I was. Took the greatest of care to knock that bastard Potter off his broom whenever I could..." He gave a lazy smirk.

The young man snorted in amusement. "Good to hear it." He gestured toward Harry then. "Where does your blond friend hail from?"

Snape watched the entire tables' eyes turn back to Potter. The Gryffindor seemed to be playing the part pretty well. Probably unsurprisingly, he thought, the Boy Saviour was well used to being stared at...

"András Sike is a friend from my mother's side of the family, and he deeply sympathises with our cause. He is currently on a short visit from Hungary, so you'll have to forgive his less than remarkable grasp of English," he added coolly.

"Sorry, a leettle English only," enunciated Harry in what he hoped was a half-decent impression of a Hungarian accent. The only witch present in the room was staring at him, not in a piercing, Legilimens way, but just as if she believed not knowing much English was some kind of heinous crime. He responded to it by sitting up and staring back defiantly. She dropped her gaze.

The meeting came to a close then, much to their relief. Malefice gestured at them to remain behind, while the rest of the congregation stood and filtered out of the room, using a rear door which had previously been invisible.

When the room had emptied save for them, Malefice closed the door with a flick of his hand, and produced a quill and parchment from his robes.

"Gentlemen; As you well know these are prejudiced times; magicfolk are jaded by war, smarting from losses. The pureblooded amongst us have suffered the most; unnerved by unstable, megalomaniacal dark wizards hijacking and twisting our beliefs and values on the one side, frustrated by the Ministry's weak-kneed stance on bloodlines and lack of common sense on the other.

There are only three rules here, my friends; these rules are written upon this parchment. If you will be so kind as to read them, and in addition, provide a drop of blood alongside your signature...for administrative matters, as you should understand..."

At this Harry's eyes flicked up in alarm, momentarily forgetting he was supposed to be acting like he understood few words of English. Beside him, however, Snape seemed unsurprised by what he'd last heard.

"Blood to confirm Pureblood status, perchance?" He enquired.

Malefice gave a slow nod, his sharp eyes scanning their faces. "That, and it will also allow creation of security spells surrounding the group. My wife and I have extended a great deal of trust to you already, as you will understand, but as I mentioned earlier, these are troubled times...we cannot be too careful..."

Snape gave him a stiff nod, and uncurled the scroll, tilting it so that Harry could read it, too. The first rule gave detail of a certain magical cipher which was to be used in all communications. The second rule covered income and donations, with a usual tithe of ten percent on all earned income to be paid to the Alliance. The third rule...

Harry's heart skipped a beat in horror. He felt a small trickle of sweat roll slowly down the back of his neck.

If Snape had been fazed by the third rule and request, he did not betray it; instead he straightened up and peered coolly across the table at Malefice. "These terms are agreeable, but as you can no doubt appreciate, Mr Malefice, my Hungarian friend will require this translating before he can sign his name beneath. I can provide a translation for him in a moment."

Malefice tilted his head. "That is fine."

"Before I do this however," Snape continued, "I feel now is the time to confess that Sike is, infact half-blood. Regardless, this young man's connections and wealth are as unquestionable as his desire to help our cause...I am hoping that perhaps the distasteful matter of blood status could be overlooked if you find other things on his plate more...palatable..."

Harry tried his best to pretend not to look like he understood what Snape was saying, but afforded himself a glance or two between the men as they communicated. Snape was leaning forward with his left hand flat atop the scroll, he had one eyebrow raised slightly, and his voice was smooth, convincing. The sly negotiator of old.

Malefice, by contrast, had started off looking stiff and defensive, until Snape had smiled a few times and mentioned the words 'wealth' and 'connections' in the same sentence. After this the man visibly relaxed, and had even began to smile back.

Funny that, thought Harry.

Malefice sat back in his chair, steepling his fingers beneath his throat and eyeing them somewhat greedily. "Mr Pucey, in Mr Sike's case, I feel that such a matter can most certainly be overlooked. In fact..." Malefice reached forward and pulled the scroll back toward him, pocketing it. "I feel we may safely overlook these administrative matters altogether."

Snape returned the man's smile. "Most acute of you, Mr Malefice. However, we would not wish to disrespect the rules of this circle. I feel an initial gesture would only be polite...

At this he turned toward Harry, "András, egy tipp a barátunk..."

The agreed signal. At this Harry nodded back and offered back his one learned Hungarian word, "igen." He reached down to a pouch and brought out a velvet bag of coins, and dropped them down on the table with a weighty clunk. He looked intently toward Malefice then, "For my friends, the P.B.A," he enunciated, taking care to spread his lips into a wide smile.

"A small token, as you understand," added Snape, as Malefice opened the bag, his eyes widening in surprise at the sight of the one-hundred Galleons shining within.

Once Malefice had discerned that they were real, genuine coins, he was all gracious smiles. "This is much appreciated, Mr Sike. Mr Pucey. We dearly hope that you can make the gathering next week..."

After shaking the wizard's hand once more, they were ushered down a back stairs and through a door which opened out into a gloomy side alley.

Walking swiftly, Snape and Harry left Knockturn Alley and slipped back into the lighter bustle of Diagon Alley, mingling with the crowds.

"Well that wasn't quite as horrifying as I thought it would be," said Harry dryly, once they had apparated back to the edge of Hogwart's grounds. "No blood or semen taken, thank Merlin...!"

"Obviously I would have not allowed it to get that far..." said Snape. "Fortunately, money remains most powerful persuader of all..."

Harry frowned. "Makes me sick that I even had to waste money on appeasing such bigots and bastards."

"Better coins than bodily fluids, Potter...I would dread to imagine what the hell they plan to get up to with those..." replied the Slytherin darkly. "As consequence of the payment, we are free to relay invaluable information back to Aurors regarding whereabouts of this group and its members, giving them time to gather forces and set up a sting. Furthermore," he added, "we also have their cipher."

Harry looked both stunned and impressed. "You memorised it!?"

Snape looked vaguely amused. "I am flattered you believe me capable of such a thing...However..."

The Slytherin raised his left hand and turned it over; his entire palm was covered with lines of blue ink. As Harry peered more closely, he recognised the lines to be an imprint of the cipher spell on Malefice's scroll, but mirrored.

"My hands got a little clammy during the meeting...this proved somewhat useful when I noticed the dunderhead had unbelievably failed to use colourfast ink..."

Harry blinked, then a genuine smile spread across his face. He let out a short laugh. "Smart thinking!"

Snape allowed himself a small smirk at the young man's compliment. Perhaps he could tolerate the Gryffindor a little better than he'd previously thought...

"Before you share this information with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Potter..." he continued seriously. "We shall wait a day or two for rumours to circulate about the rich donor and his turncoat, parent-deserting, Muggle-loving Hufflepuff associate...I've a feeling that whoever he is, once he finds out 'I' escaped death, he will have a strong and sudden wish to finish the job. I will need to be extra vigilant from now on...just like the good old days..." He added sarcastically.

His words implied dark humour, though, as Harry noted, his expression showed precisely none.

"You want revenge on this man, don't you?" Observed Harry.

Snape's eyes narrowed and he gave a sharp nod. "Pucey deserves that much."

"Well then...if so, I promise I've got your back," the Gryffindor declared, determination flashing in his eyes like emerald fire.

Snape looked at him, at this young wizard standing by his side, being his friend. He did not respond; truth be told he wasn't sure what the hell to say.