Part the First
Lady Haesel Potter perched on the edge of the brocade settee, the picture of propriety. Her robes were pristine and bore the Potter family crest on the back. Her ebony curls were twisted up in a crown of intricate plaits that most witches were unable to create without magic. Her ice-blue eyes were blank as she listened to her mother and grandmother banter ideas back and forth for her coming of age gala.
“I say let Heir Malfoy have the first waltz,” Dorea Potter said. “His mother’s a Black, and we’re imminently graceful. He’ll show her to her best advantage.”
Haesel’s nails scraped against her robes, wrinkling it in furrows.
“Nonsense, Dorea,” Lady Isadore Potter replied. “Neville is her godbrother; I feel comfortable allowing him that close to her. It wouldn’t do to show the Malfoys so much favor at the outset of the season.”
Eyes that were identical to her mother’s closed in a slow blink of frustration. They weren’t normally like this, and Haesel hated that one stupid event had set them at odds. Not only that, but as the planning had progressed they had started treating her like a doll—someone who would fulfill whatever whims they possessed. Though she was present in the lounge, they were talking about her as if she were unable to speak and held no opinions of her own.
“He’s already been shown favor, what with Haesel constantly riding his father’s Abraxans. It’s hardly a secret, Isadore. I quite like Narcissa’s boy, though. He has good bloodlines in him. And his power is nothing to—”
Gritting her teeth, Haesel stood and left the room without either her mother or grandmother noticing. One of them would likely berate her later for not asking to be excused from such an important discussion, but she didn’t care. She was so sick of this, all of it. She was tired of the bickering inside the manor when everyone usually got along perfectly well. She didn’t want to hear any more debates about who might offer for her (they suspected all single bachelors of any means in England would) and whom her parents would be willing to consider.
But most of all, Haesel could not stand another moment of hearing them argue about who deserved her first public waltz. It was supposed to be a special moment in her life—something truly unforgettable—and neither woman had asked whom she felt comfortable with. No one asked if there was a particular man she wouldn’t mind dancing with and standing in such a close proximity with. Her partner for the waltz would touch her more intimately than any man outside her family ever had, and Haesel felt that she should definitely get some (well, all) say in whose hands touched her person.
“Turning seventeen should be a joy, not a curse,” muttered Haesel as she traipsed up to her chambers. She wanted to scream and throw things, anything to destroy the façade of perfectionism she was being ruthlessly stuffed into. She knew they meant well, all of them, but she couldn’t take being trapped in the manor another minute. She felt stifled, smothered, and so unlike herself that she feared others’ plans and intentions for her would consume her very being.
“I wish I could be sixteen forever.” If it would keep her family from being torn apart, she would gladly never grow up. These past few weeks it had felt like her family had been living under the pall of a Contentious Curse. How else could love and understanding so quickly turn into petty (though always polite) fighting and quarrelsomeness?
Haesel stalked into her room, slammed the door behind her, and then ripped her robes off; she dropped them on the floor and kicked them with one slipper-shod foot. “Stupid, stupid.”
Why couldn’t they just get along? Why couldn’t they agree on something—anything? Why did she have to be the cause of all the recent disputes? “Don’t let my family be destroyed in my name. Merlin, get them to stop!” There had to be something that she could do; Haesel refused to accept that one birthday caused so much strife.
In nothing but her shift (and forearm wand-holster), she stormed over to the full-length mirror in her wardrobe. Her appearance was one of the main factors in this mess. It was common knowledge that petite witches were the most powerful; Haesel was barely over five feet tall. However, she wasn’t just powerful. She was beautiful as well. She was the type of girl that other women wanted to be, and that men wanted to protect or possess—or both.
A half-formed memory came back to her, from her fifth year, when she had felt hot, possessive, protective magic engulf her when she needed it the most. As fanciful as it seemed, it was almost as if she had been loved, as if the magic had been specifically sent to her because someone outside her family loved her and could not bear her tears. “Just a dream,” she muttered to herself, before turning her thoughts back to her far-too-favorable appearance.
Right then, she would have given almost anything to be tall, gangly, and hideous.
“You look lovely, dear,” the mirror assured her.
That was about the last thing Haesel wanted to hear. After toeing off her slippers, she donned a pair of leaf-patterned tights and then slid a long tunic that was embroidered with a magnificent hazel tree over her head. The pale blue fabric with rust-colored stitching clung to her slender form and stopped just above her knees. She stepped into ankle-high boots, as she tied the silk sash around her waist in a knot.
Her younger brother Henry had given her the tunic for her sixteenth birthday as a joke. It was technically casual-wear for young wizards, and certainly something that pureblood witches were not to don. This would hopefully force her family to focus on her instead of the upcoming gala.
“That’s a mite improper, dear. Are you sure you want to wear it?” The mirror sounded scandalized at the thought of a Potter maiden showing not only ankle but also calf and knee as well.
“Quite,” Haesel replied, lips curled in a fierce grin. If this didn’t get her mother and grandmother’s attention, nothing would.
She had just stepped out of her room when a loud whistling sound echoed through the hallway. Haesel glanced to the left to see her fifteen-year-old brother wiggling his eyebrows playfully. He was wearing a similar tunic over a pair of black trousers, though his tunic was a burnished red—one of the family colors. His hair was messy like their father’s, but pale blond like their mother’s. He also had their father’s hazel eyes—though they appeared golden more often than not.
Henry put a hand to his heart and grinned. “The Perfect Pureblood Princess has decided to grace this lowly peasant with her presence. I beg you, Princess, let me grovel at your feet.”
The annoying nickname her fellow Hogwarts’ students had given her usually irritated her greatly, but coming from her brother’s lips, it was nothing but humorous. Besides, the nickname he had received at school was even worse.
Haesel pressed the back of her left hand to her forehead. “Oh! How could a mere princess allow the Golden God to grovel at her feet? Surely the princess would swoon when he appeared before her.” Thus saying, she crumpled toward the floor.
Strong hands caught her, as she had known they would. Her brother was as protective of her as she was of him; their sibling bond was unshakable in her mind—the magic link remained thick and irremovable by anything but death.
Their gazes met upside-down, and then Henry kissed her forehead before righting her. His hands settled reassuringly on her shoulders as she stared up at him. “How bad is it today?” he asked.
She gestured wordlessly to the tunic he had given her.
He winced. “That bad?”
“And what are they fighting about today?” Henry asked as he rubbed her shoulders.
Her lips quirked in a bitter smile. “Who gets my first waltz, Mum thinks Neville should have it. Grandmama Dorea says Heir Draco is the best choice.” Haesel shrugged, causing her brother’s hands to fall away, and then crossed her arms over her chest. Why wouldn’t they ask her opinion? Didn’t she have the right to say who touched her?
“Hmm. Not Heir Smith despite your obvious preference?” he teased.
She was not going to dignify that with a response. He knew she did not have romantic feelings for Zach, despite their closeness.
“I wish I was old enough that it wouldn’t be an issue, Sis. Last I heard Granddad forbade me from attending because I’m not sixteen.” He patted her head. “I would’ve saved you from all this if I could have.” Henry sighed. “I know how much you hate strangers touching you.”
“It’s not your fault. I just . . . I don’t want to give anyone false hope, you know? And whoever they pick is likely going to think I favor him personally.” Haesel glared at the wall. “It’s stupid that I can’t dance with you, even if you are underage; I don’t have to worry about you groping me. And it’s even more stupid that I can’t dance with Grandpapa or Dad because they’re married.” That would have made her life much easier, and she would have felt more secure about the upcoming gala. She always felt safe with the men in her family; they would never willingly let something bad happen to her.
“Neville wouldn’t be so bad,” Henry said. “He wouldn’t dare try anything.”
“I know!” Haesel said quickly. Neville, Heir Longbottom, was unfailingly honorable. She didn’t doubt that in the least. “I know he wouldn’t try anything. But it’s my first waltz, and—”
Haesel sighed, squeezed her eyes shut, and leaned against her brother’s chest. Neville was sweet, honorable, and very dear to her heart; there was no question about that. He came from a good family and would never treat her ill. She knew almost everything about him, because they had been good friends since they were little—a result of the godsibling bond they shared: Lady Alice Longbottom being her godmother and Isadore Potter being his.
“And he’ll think it means something, Henry. He’ll assume I requested him as my partner. Neville will believe I’ve fallen in love with him,” she whispered.
“What’s so bad about that?” Henry asked cautiously. “You have to know he’s devoted to you. Neville worships the air you breathe. He would always treat you well.”
Haesel winced. “I know.” She leaned back, almost breaking the comforting hug her brother had given her. “Your word?” whispered Haesel.
Henry’s eyes narrowed, all hint of humor having vanished. Just like their father, her brother knew when a situation was serious. Besides, no Potter ever spoke those words lightly. A Potter’s word, once given, could never be broken. “You have my word.”
A guaranteed, magically binding vow of silence was all that could get her to speak one of her darkest secrets. Not dark because it was evil, but dark because it would cause great injury to someone she cared about if he ever learned of it.
“Henry—” Her tongue felt thick, as if it had swollen until her mouth was full. She had kept this secret since she was eleven years old and her magic and body began maturing.
“Let me share this burden, Haesel,” Henry said, after she had fallen silent for several minutes.
In a society where godsiblings bonded more often than not, she knew her next words would shock her brother to the core. “My magic categorized his magic into a pseudo-sibling slot.”
Henry gasped and gaped at her. “Merlin and Morgana! Are you serious?” His arms fell to his sides.
“Deadly.” Haesel curled her arms around her stomach and pretended that the toes of her boots were the most interesting things in the world. Despite all the time she had spent with Neville and how loyal and upstanding he was, she could never accept his hand in courtship. The godsibling link between them was frail in her mind, because their magic was so incompatible for her. If she hadn’t been as powerful as she was, he would have been the perfect husband. However, he hadn’t even had a passing fancy for her at eleven, so her magic labeled the stabilizing bond as fraternal. Because of that, her magic wouldn’t let any feelings of love or attraction grow. The worst part—the part that she fervently wished to change—was that Neville’s magic had taken years longer to categorize their bond. So while her feelings for him were brotherly, his weren’t. He was almost compelled into a deep love that she could never return in the way he would desire.
“You’re right,” Henry rasped, still stunned and shaken. “Giving him your first waltz would be exceedingly cruel.”
“I know.” Haesel flinched from her cowardly thoughts. “I don’t have the heart to tell Mum. That’s just not something you tell others; it’s too private. I won’t have him humiliated. I shouldn’t even have told you,” she confessed.
Henry’s blond hair flapped about his face as he shook his head. “No, Haesel, you were right to tell me. I won’t think less of him; few men will be found worthwhile by your magic, as powerful as you are. Besides, you keep my secrets—it’s only right that you allow me to share the burden of yours.”
“Thank you,” Haesel said, a gentle smile on her face. He was correct, after all. She knew many of his secrets, and she knew he would never betray hers.
Henry ruffled her plaits. “Now, what do you say we head to the lounge, you can scandalize them with your daring and improper outfit, and then we’ll get away from all this drama about dancing, dancers, and dances.”
Haesel chuckled, appreciating his attempt to lighten her mood. He was right. Getting out of the manor could only help, and she had already planned to do that when she’d chosen to wear the tunic. Taking him with her, so he could avoid the chaos too, only seemed fair. “All right.”
“I knew there was a reason you were my favorite sister.”
She rolled her eyes at the familiar line. “I’m your only sister.” Her mother had gotten ill while she was pregnant with Henry and almost lost him. Isadore had been unable to conceive again after he was born, but Haesel never wondered about what any other brothers or sisters might have been like. She just thanked Merlin for saving Henry.
“I wouldn’t want any other,” he replied.
“As I would never want a different brother.”
They smiled at each other and then completed the walk to the lounge. When she stepped through the doorway, Haesel had to resist the urge to throw a Blasting Curse at the windows. Her grandmother and mother were still debating candidates for her first waltz partner, and she had been absent from the room for over an hour.
“What about Marcus Flint? He’s a strapping fellow.”
“He just got engaged to that Italian heiress. Cormac McLaggen—”
“Is a womanizing tosser that won’t lay one hand on my sister. Unless he wishes to lose it, of course, because I’ll happily sever it at his wrist,” Henry snapped.
“Language, young man!” Dorea scolded, not looking away from some fabric samples in her hands.
“I taught you better than that, Henry,” Isadore said as she flipped pages in a book of designs for formal robes.
Henry snorted. “You also said that being honest is more important than being politic.”
“I—” Isadore glanced up from the book and then almost dropped it. “Haesel, what in the name of Morgana are you wearing?”
Her mother was obviously horrified, because Haesel barely heard the question. “Clothes.”
Dorea’s lips twitched at the response when she glanced over at them, but then she said, “Don’t get smart with your mother, young lady.”
Henry swung an arm around Haesel’s shoulders. “Sis and I are going out now.”
“Not dressed like that,” Isadore said, her eyes locked on Haesel’s knees, “even if you have decided to riding.” Her comment was ignored.
“And we’re not coming back until you both stop quarreling over my stupid gala,” Haesel said, wanting to end the pointless contention.
“It’s not stupid! We love you, and just want you to have the best of everything!” Isadore protested.
At the same time, Dorea said, “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Quite,” Haesel retorted. “I won’t sleep under this roof another night if you two keep acting like this. I won’t let one day of my life hurt our family.” She hooked an arm about her brother’s waist and made sure she had a tight grasp on him. The last thing she wanted to do was lose or Splinch him whilst she Side-Along Apparated him to their destination; he would never let her forget it. “So before we return, fix this,” she commanded. She wouldn’t be able to thank Uncle Sirius enough for teaching her how to Apparate before she could even qualify for a license. He had made her escape from this hell possible.
“Or else I’ll find Sis somewhere else to stay for a while. I might even join her,” Henry said cheekily.
Before either woman could reply, Haesel and Henry turned in place and Disapparated.
* * *
Marvolo was more than aware of the rumors that had followed him his entire life—or, rather, his entire wizarding life. It was one of the few advantages of being an orphan; he knew how to keep his ear to the ground, or to the keyhole, whatever the situation called for. He would listen to the mumbles and whispers, carefully deciphering them. The skill had served him more than well.
As a young man, it meant that he could gauge others’ reactions to him—first professors, then students, then greater pureblood society. Professor Dumbledore, of all the fools, was his hardest and yet first real achievement. The imbecile had thought Marvolo was dangerous, deranged even. Marvolo could see the suspicion in the way he was watched, so he played the good, little orphan, the noble little orphan, the orphan who wanted a family—and found one, surprisingly, in the Slytherin line.
That caused Dumbledore to watch him more closely, but only at first. Marvolo could have done so much with the information he gathered. He managed to gain access to the legendary Chamber of Secrets, could have wreaked havoc, and yet—and yet—
Still, after all these years, he didn’t quite know why he hadn’t. Something held him back, a conscience that he wasn’t even quite certain he had, or perhaps a subtler form of cunning that whispered to him in the dark: No, not this path, think of how much more you could achieve if . . . if . . .
Marvolo had listened as he studied. He became Head Boy, as he claimed the title of Lord Slytherin and was ushered into pureblood society. No one questioned him then. With the hiring of capable tutors, who needed money much more than they ever needed secrets, Marvolo learned how to hold himself, how to act, how to speak in that strange silver-tongued way only wizards—even Hufflepuff graduates—did. It took him two years, sequestered after Hogwarts, delaying his hard-won Ministry post with words of how he had to put his affairs in order, as the title of Lord Slytherin had been unclaimed for so long.
When he entered wizarding society, it was with the cool grace of a watching tiger, loath as he was to compare himself to any feline. He had chosen, among his many offers, to enter wizarding diplomacy. With his habit of listening and watching, he was soon promoted—higher and higher and higher until it was difficult for him to climb any further.
There were whispers by the time he was thirty-five that he might be the perfect candidate for Minister for Magic—that he could beat even the seemingly matchless Dumbledore. But just like the old fool Marvolo had duped all those years ago, he had little desire for that sort of fickle power. The game of wizarding diplomacy kept his agile mind intrigued, fresh. The players always changed; there was never the same scenario, the same gambit, or the same seduction with his power.
Now, almost fifty years after he had joined the Ministry, he was one of the most politically powerful ambassadors in the entire wizarding world. He was not only Lord Slytherin, one of the oligarchy and the only reigning one in Britain, but he had the honor of being the first ambassador in over four centuries to be accepted to the Lone Islands, where diplomacy was more than just a game; it was a fight for his very life. Where the prospect of death or failure would have once tortured and frightened Marvolo, he now reveled in it.
Still, he never forgot where he came from—never fully failed to recall the parlors and elegant ballrooms where he first cemented himself as the powerful Lord Slytherin.
Marvolo kept his ear to the ground, although he was leagues upon leagues away from wizarding society, and knew that there had never been one such as him to pass through pureblood society. No one with such a lineage, with his sharp elegance, with his sheer amount of power (that he somehow inherited from his Muggle father and practically-a-Squib mother. A witch he had learned to love, somehow, over the intervening years away from the two worlds he had known, if only because she gave him life and his heritage) had ever passed through the wizarding world.
When he had first entered the pureblood world as the young Lord Slytherin—a promising, handsome, and influential wizard with powerful magic—there had been whispers as to whether he would take a bride. Pureblood witches usually married early, often before they turned twenty. The truly desirable of them would sometimes wait for the wizard she deemed worthy of her, but it was rare. Comparatively, sometimes wizards would wait, often for decades after an infant was born, if he desired a chance at aligning himself with her magic or her family.
Marvolo, naturally, had been aware that one of the ways to cement his reputation would be to bond well and to bond relatively early—before he was twenty-five if he could help it and certainly not long after that. A strong pureblood witch with an impeccable bloodline would finally put to rest any rumors on his strange name. Then, of course, there was also the need for an heir.
Heirs were the future, his key to evading death. If his heirs survived, if his bloodline perpetuated into the future, he would live on in more than just the reputation he intended to build. Salazar Slytherin lived in him just as much as the disgusting Muggle sperm-donor had (before he purged the sniveling creature’s tainted blood).
However, he found himself dissatisfied. No one challenged him. Not a single witch had the power he desired, although she might have the pedigree. Also, he didn’t want to feel remotely indebted to anyone. He was Lord Slytherin, after all. Any witch he married should feel indebted to him. No matter how pure her bloodlines, if she was not a member of the oligarchy, then she was hardly his equal.
So he did not bond. He did not court a witch.
Shaking his head, Marvolo glanced around his private apartment on the Lone Islands, his trunk ready for him to leave. Now all he had to wait for was the ten-year full tide, which was due in the next week.
There was a reason why the few wizards who had ever come to these islands never came back. Leaving them was not an easy task. As far as Marvolo knew he would be the first, but that was hardly worth thinking about.
Now, there existed a reason for him to return. A child had been born, a witch, whose power might begin to match his, with a name he could not scoff at, with beauty, poise, and spirit. The thought was intoxicating.
Oh, he’d taken lovers over the years. Just because he hadn’t bonded to cement his position or gain heirs didn’t mean he wasn’t human. Children never came of his affairs; he made certain of it. When he had come to the Lone Islands, he had had few lovers.
His tastes had become exotic over the decades here, in this place almost out-of-time. He hoped the witch who called him home was adventurous. She would have to be for her to retain his interest—and he wanted that. What would be the point of a wife without a bit of intrigue and a hint of respect? He could always leave her at Riddle Manor with the children and return to this place without her. He was Ambassador to the Lone Islands until his supposed death to the outside world, which was the standard two hundred years. It wouldn’t do for a new ambassador to be proposed if the last one was still somehow alive and serving his duty to all of wizarding kind. His line would, naturally, have to continue back in the wizarding world, but a wife, a wife who could satisfy him in those decades, whose power could flicker and burn with his, was a prize that not even he could refuse.
Marvolo was vain. Any wife he took would have to be truly in love with him, enthralled with his power, addicted to his strength and to his body, and soul-bonded to him. Nothing else was suitable. He could not abide with a sham of a marriage as his parents had had, where his father had so callously left his mother simply because she was not a Muggle. Such affection was weak and distasteful.
Marvolo had had enough witches and wizards over the years fall under his thrall that he was certain he could entice Lady Haesel Potter into choosing him from among all of her suitors. He would be a stranger to her, and while he valued his position as ambassador and a member of the oligarchy, he wanted the challenge of having her choose him without knowing of what he was, but simply who he was.
It was, after all, a large chess game. She was the queen that he intended to capture, among the knights and bishops flittering about her. A few pawns might have to be sacrificed, but still, when Marvolo set his mind to something he never lost. He had absolutely no intention of changing that now.
So, it was with a heart full of curiosity and promise (and not full of sentiment, he constantly reminded himself) that he sailed from the Lone Islands and arrived back in England. His father’s manor was in tolerable condition, and he went about setting it to rights; house-elves, after all, could only do so much without an active master. The fashions had altered and Marvolo had changed over the long time he had been away.
With a short note to the International Confederation of Wizards after two months, he announced his return and knew it would be a matter of days before his arrival would be common knowledge in England and across Europe. The gossipmongers would be after him, but as his house was heavily warded, none of them would reach him. Riddle Manor, for all of its sordid history, was his sanctuary and the place of his first murders, even if they were by simple compulsion charms.
A once-small snake, now grown large and lazy, slithered into the living room. He remembered naming her Nagini years ago, decades that had seemed to pass him by. She was a tolerable conversationalist, but after so long among the Islanders, she paled in comparison, especially as she had come to think that the manor was hers by right. He might just have to get rid of her.
Well, now is as good a time as any, he thought.
Snapping his fingers, a house-elf appeared, and Marvolo ordered Nagini’s removal from the wards. “Let her wreak havoc on the Muggles,” he said, looking on the snake that now disgusted him. He couldn’t have her about to frighten the future Lady Slytherin or contaminate his heirs with her laziness. “Get rid of her.”
The house, then, was empty. There were no talking portraits to harass him, no tutors to insist again and again that his posture was not quite right, that the turn of his wrist wasn’t correct just yet, that his bow would insult a pureblood lady.
He almost smirked at the recollection. It was difficult to believe he had been back in England for almost a year now.
Picking up his cloak, he tossed a handful of Floo powder into the fireplace. “Potter Manor,” he said. He didn’t want to exercise patience entirely in this matter, and was tired of the months spent within the walls of his own home, which was nowhere near as familiar as the Lone Islands had become. Fire travel was something he had nearly forgotten, but he managed to right himself elegantly. A house-elf was waiting, and he presented the inferior creature with his card.
Moments later he was led through the hallway, catching snippets of conversation, obviously about his future bride. “I quite like Narcissa’s boy.”
Merlin, Marvolo could think of nothing worse. Narcissa was a Black, and hadn’t she married Abraxas’s whelp of a child? What a bizarre, though magically potent, combination.
A rustle as he turned the corner caused him to see the ends of a young woman’s robe as a feminine figure ascended the stairs, the back of a slipper just visible before the wraith was completely gone.
Marvolo smiled to himself. Ah. Lady Haesel had had enough of that conversation.
He felt the need to follow her, but she was already gone. He would not disturb propriety by following her to the private rooms above them, without an escort, without some form of introduction. Sentiment, he thought. Always sentiment.
Marvolo wrapped his magic around himself. It wouldn’t do for them to meet quite yet, he supposed.
He was led into a private study and was amused at the surprise evident in his old schoolmate’s eyes as Lord Charlus Potter took him in.
“Lord Slytherin—you haven’t aged a day.”
“Hardly,” he deflected, sitting in the chair offered and accepting a glass of Firewhisky. “I’m certain I appear at least twenty-five.”
“Yes, but past that.” Charlus was startled, as Marvolo assumed he would be. Charlus cleared his throat. “To what do I owe the unexpected honor of your visit?”
Marvolo took a sip of his Firewhisky, enjoying the familiar burn that slid down his throat, warming him from the inside.
“So rumors of my return have reached the drawing rooms of England?” It was a counter question, meant to set Old Charlus off-keel, even more than his presence and physical appearance had already. This was, after all, only a game.
Marvolo listened to the tick of a clock and the reverberations of a conversation a floor or so up. Lady Haesel, most likely, and perhaps any other grandchildren Charlus had managed to acquire. Lucky sod. If Marvolo remembered, his heir had been enamored however briefly with a Mudblood. Lucky escape that. Marvolo doubted he would even think of joining his name with a half-blood, no matter how powerful she was. He did have standards, after all—when it came to bonding.
“Naturally,” Charlus answered, trying to be casual. The upper left part of his lip twitched a bit, his tell tale sign that he’d had since Hogwarts. Marvolo had unnerved him. Splendid.
Marvolo took another drink of Firewhisky. “I have a business proposal for you, old boy,” he began, with a quirk of his lip.
Charlus, bless him, almost startled. It was so quaint. “Oh? I didn’t know you were in business.” The rest of the question was left unasked.
“Not of the usual kind,” Marvolo admitted. After all, the acquiring of a bride was hardly everyday business, now was it? Except for the poor beggars who had to make an art of it just to capture one. He looked Charlus over. “I have yet to see the product, but I’ve heard enough to have me interested.” Not the exact truth, but then, he was a diplomat.
Charlus’s forehead creased. “I see.” He took a long swallow from his own glass. “And this product would be . . . ?”
Marvolo waited for several moments, allowing the silence to drag out between them. He had his elbows resting on the arms of his chair, his fingers entwined, his haunting dark eyes gazing unblinkingly forward. He wanted to time it just right.
Just as Charlus was about to take another drink of his Firewhisky, Marvolo licked his lips.
Charlus gagged, which Marvolo knew had to be painful. He almost had to admire the man for his relative calm. His eyes barely watered.
Several long moments passed again, and Marvolo relaxed into his seat and sipped his Firewhisky. His eyes never left Old Charlus as he recovered, swallowing heavily several times and calling for a house-elf to bring him water. Poor sod.
“I beg your pardon? I believe I misheard you,” Charlus finally said when he was sufficiently recovered. His face was tinged red and his collar seemed a bit tight. If not for his impeccable training, Marvolo knew Charlus would have tried to loosen his cravat by now.
“You heard correctly,” was his simple reply.
Charlus looked flabbergasted. Marvolo didn’t blame him. “She is not yet—”
“I know, not until later this month, but the tides in the Lone Islands are such that—well—” He shrugged his shoulders. “If I wished to arrive before she turned twenty-five I had to arrive nearly eleven months early, and ten months in the manor without company after the excitement of the Court . . .” He allowed the words to hang between them.
Old Charlus—he had sunk into his chair, acting the grandfather and not the part of a lord—nodded as if he understood, though of course he didn’t. No one who had never been to the Lone Islands could possibly comprehend.
“Still, it’s a bit early.”
“Naturally.” Marvolo wanted to laugh at his accommodating tone. He didn’t have an accommodating bone in his body. “Still, I would prefer—” He paused, knowing that Old Charlus was waiting on his every word. He wouldn’t interrupt the Lord of Slytherin and survivor of the Lone Islands, a virtual death sentence no matter the honor of his position. “I would prefer,” Marvolo began again, “if your granddaughter was not made aware of my exact identity throughout the process.”
Charlus scoffed, which was bold of him. Then again, Marvolo mused, he had been in Gryffindor. “You don’t even know if you’ll get past a first marriage date.”
Well, at least the idiot was conceding that the family would, of course, accept him. How could he possibly not be?
“Yes, well, one desires a bride to not be enamored with one’s unparalleled position in all of wizardom.” It took every ounce of control Marvolo had not to sound smug with those words.
“Naturally.” Charlus’s response was sarcastic.
“Then we have an understanding?” Marvolo inquired with an arched brow.
Charlus looked like he had swallowed something sour, but he also appeared faintly amused, as if he knew something Marvolo didn’t. “We have an understanding.”
Marvolo did not remain to mince words, but returned in a swirl of robes and flames to his house in Northern England. The event was still two weeks away, but he was impatient. So, with a flick of his quill, he began to write out his formal proposal, reminding himself that his quickened heartbeat was because of the impending chase and not that strange emotion he had deemed sentiment.
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