Chapter 1 : Imperial
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13th September, 1941; München, Germany
It falls from between his fingers in a single, smooth movement, lacking direction, lacking control. Swaying from side to side, tossed and turned about by the still air inside the room, by its own mass and dimensions, it takes an age to sink. Like the Titanic, it is slow and steady and contains a certain grace that only something so utterly uncontrollable could have.
Grazing the top of the royal blue carpet, it comes to a halt, the movement rushing through it one last time like a shiver through a body as muscles relax, tension seeping out of them, vanishing into nothing. Blank white paper stares up at him, the words inked into it in handwriting as familiar to him as his own hidden from view, covered over protectively, away from his eyes.
Out of sight, but not out of mind.
He stares at the piece of parchment, frozen in place, his eyes having followed its meandering path to the floor. In his mind, neatly written letters scrawl themselves across his vision, one after another, replacing each other implacably, unstoppable. Closing his eyes, he knows, wouldn’t help. It never has before now and he sees no reason why that should have changed in the last eight months since the author of the letter last wrote.
His fingers and thumb rub together slightly, as though needing the friction to prove that the letter is no longer held there, the parchment separating skin from skin. Lowering his hand to the armrest of his chair, he draws in a deep breath, an inverted sigh. He never was one to do anything conventionally.
Contemplating the letter on the floor, he is surprised to find himself thinking of nothing. The characters in his mind fade to grey, blending in with the background of thought. He can no longer see them, no longer consider them, no longer remember the exact strokes of the pen so clearly. His thoughts have slowed down, plodding through his head like a cavalcade of tired turtles.
Hesitantly, he reaches down, bending, his arm extending and stretching, reaching for the piece of parchment. He doesn’t want to read it again, doesn’t need to read it again, doesn’t know what he’s going to do with it once he’s holding it, but he picks it up nonetheless. The parchment is still cold, despite the almost tangible warmth of the room. Soon, he knows, it will lose that faint reminder of the night air, succumbing to the climate he has created inside his room, but it will last a little longer. Long enough for the cold to seep into his fingers, long enough for it to return the letter’s words, those infernal letters, back to the front of his mind, black against pale grey.
In his hand the parchment turns, bending, curving, allowing him to re-read the beginning of it again. His name stands at the top, printed in that neat hand he recognises without a second’s thought: Gellert. There is no ‘dear’, no ‘to’ - nothing. Just his name, solitary on the page, a comma its only companion. That single word, those seven letters, hold his attention far longer than the rest of the letter ever did, even the first time he read it.
It is so familiar, his name written in that handwriting, the ‘l’s looped and curved, running into one another, every letter linked, and it has become more familiar than before in the last few years, since the war started. Familiar and yet not familiar, because his name now always precedes a letter no longer excitable, from one friend to another, prolonging that day’s debate, but a plea, a string of arguments against his actions and those of his troops; begging, hollow words.
He ignores each and every one. Every argument is carefully read, considered and then dismissed; every word is weighed up and never deemed to meet expectations. The pleas are dissected inside his mind, the actions and intentions behind them explored, and then left there, a bloody mess, sliced open with clinical fervour.
Without looking, he folds it in two, not bothering to make sure the edges line up. The corners are exposed, all the lines diagonals, straight and sharp. Running his fingers back and forth along the bend, flattening it down, he stares at the floor, at the smooth expanse of blue. He drops the letter onto the small table beside his chair, returning his hand to grip the end of the armrest.
He won’t sleep, not now. Even if he could sleep after being woken up by the sound of the owl tapping on the window with its beak, the contents of the letter will keep him awake. They are already lurking in the back of his mind, thrumming softly, slipping out of their hiding places every now and then.
Out of sight, but not out of mind.
Restless, he taps his fingers on the velvet arm in a steady, jerking beat. Slow, quick, slow, quick, quick, slow, quick, slow… the simple repetition of the action calms him, soothes him, and he focuses hard on it, pouring his concentration into such an easy thing in an effort to turn his mind away from the letter, its contents and its author.
Its author… oh yes, its author plays so much of a part in his inability to sleep, in the thoughts creeping along the edges of his mind, those thoughts conjured so easily by the letter. He knows he cannot discount the letter’s author, knows that the author cannot be discredited, cannot be shamed or conned or tricked into hiding and staying silent. He knows the author well, and is more than aware that the author knows him well too – both a blessing and a curse.
He doesn’t doubt for a moment that this knowledge they both share, and the understanding that they both still have this knowledge of each other is the reason that the letters come in the dead of night, flown to his window by a tawny owl, common and unremarkable. It could be from anyone –another report on the war, another communication from one of his generals back in Prussia or in Egypt – and this anonymity is useful for them both. The author is allowed to hide behind inaction, to hide the pleas and the words and the desperate begging under the cover of darkness, tucked away in his school in Scotland, kept safe by high walls and strong wards. He himself does not have to acknowledge that the letters ever existed, does not have to reply, does not have to answer for his actions.
So the author keeps writing, and he keeps his silence.
There are times when he considers it to be like a miniature war, a tiny battle between the two of them. He is too proud to bring himself to reply and the author is too stubborn to stop. It is a soft war, a gentle war, almost a break from the harsh reality of the Eastern and Western Fronts, but one he refuses to lose. He does not like losing - to anyone, for any reason. To lose would be to admit weakness, to admit wrongdoing and he won’t put his name to either of those.
It is for the greater good of the world – of the entire world, of every person the world knows and will know – and so it cannot be wrong. Everything he does can always be justified because the happiness and security of many always outweighs the sufferings of a few.
Standing up, he releases a breath: slow, controlled, measured. His thoughts once more perfectly in order, no longer disturbed by words he doesn’t want to read, he reaches down for the letter, plucking it from the table. Before it had felt heavy, weighed down with the force of the words, the emotions it carries, the ink the quill inscribed onto the surface leaving so much more than black liquid behind. Now it feels weightless, almost airy, and he rolls it easily into a thin scroll.
This is all part of the routine, the one he and the letter’s author have developed over the last few years. Every letter is treated in exactly the same way and he doesn’t deviate from the path he set out for himself years ago, when there were only the threats of war, the rumours of violence committed in his name, of murders and mass killings and civilian deaths, when the first of these letters arrived. One day, he knows, there will be no more letters – one of them will eventually be the last letter. In a way, he hopes it isn’t soon. He finds it hard to break routine.
With a swift flick and twist of his wrist, then a shimmer of displaced air, a ribbon falls into his grasp, silken against his skin. Balancing the scroll in one hand, he wraps the ribbon around it, tying it neatly with a single knot. A man more paranoid than he might secure them with wax or charms or hexes, but he is confident enough in his power and position to believe that no one would dare look in his personal effects. Not for letters, at any rate.
He crosses the room, his feet padding softly across the carpet, the little noise created stifled by the material underfoot. Fingers closing around the handle of a drawer in his desk, three down on the left, he pulls it open, the dark wood and the shadows from the light of the candles interspersed about the room making it look bottomless, a chasm, untouched by light and time. As he tugs it further out of the body of the desk, the torch on the wall reveals rows of neatly stacked scrolls, each bound with a ribbon, lined up against the back of the wood.
There are fourteen letters already in there. The one in his hand is number fifteen, and he knows there will be more, has made provisions for more. This war of his will continue, and so will the letters, until either the author stops or his war stops. He isn’t sure which will happen first.
Adding the scroll to the drawer, he rests it on top of another, space for two more on its right-hand side. He looks at it, considers it, bathed in candlelight, white ribbon glimmering tantalisingly, before shutting the drawer abruptly, cutting off that shimmer, that shine. It is mesmerising – they all are – tempting him to unwind it, read it again, bring back those thoughts he fought so hard to escape. He has learned sometimes to avoid temptation altogether. It is easier that way.
Walking away from his desk, he clasps his hands behind his back, moving over towards the map on the wall. He knows the contours of it so well, knows every line and every stroke of the brush which created it, knows every slight detail from examining it so often over the years. It takes up most of the wall, a huge image: Europe on parchment, carefully, delicately inked in with greens and blacks, names of cities inscribed in silver. Mountain ranges are marked out in purple, countries in gold. Beautiful, a real work of art – but he doesn’t use it for that purpose. It’s a map, so he uses it for that purpose and that purpose alone.
Across a large majority of it, making the golden letters and boundaries – boundaries decided, in many cases, less than twenty years ago in a gold-and-crystal corridor – stand out like a sore thumb, lies a translucent, crimson cloud. A long time ago, it was small, intense, focused on Germany, on his fatherland. It has grown, greedy and ambitious, expanding with his vision, with each victory, until it covers most of Europe. He smiles to himself as he looks at the visual representation of his success, of his glory, of his power.
Every now and then, another city, another country will fall and the red cloud will move on, growing larger, swallowing it up. It would be a great thing, very great, he thinks, to see the entirety of the map, save for the sea, tinted scarlet. To have the whole of Europe at his feet, to have created his perfect world, that sorcerer’s Utopia. It will be difficult – it will require time and patience and continual effort to batter down the French Resistance and the British and the Russians – but he has every faith in his own ability to succeed. He has got this far, after all, how could he fail now?
He will leave, as planned, Britain until last. Once Russia has fallen, once their wealth and their power and their strength is combined with his, nothing and no one will be able to stop him. The Russians are more dangerous than the British, but also more foolhardy, more prone to wild, spontaneous action, more likely to expose their weaknesses. Yes, Russia first, Britain second.
Of course, there is in Britain the small matter of the author of the letters – those wrapped in white ribbon – and that, for all he calls it small, is likely to be the biggest challenge he will face. Despite all the Russians fervour and desire to defeat him, to watch his empire crumble into the dust, to have his head on a silver platter, they have no leader, no one who can match him in either intelligence or talent. They are a snake without a head, a body without a heart.
Britain has Albus Dumbledore. His equal in everything, his opposite number, the only one who ever challenged him, the only one with either the power or ability to defeat him. Yet, the other has done nothing so far. Millions have died and all he has done is write letters. Albus knows – they both know – that letters will not do anything.
If he is honest with himself, he doesn’t want it to come to a fight between the two of them. He isn’t sure who would win and who would lose. Even with the ace in his hand it would be a close battle, a titanic clash of giants, like nothing the world has ever seen or would ever see again. It would be incredible, glorious, a magnificent display of talent and courage and innate skill. It would be devastating for whichever of them was the loser in the end.
No, he would much rather have Albus Dumbledore on his side, by his side. That way Albus’ intellect, his knowledge, his skill couldn’t be used against him, couldn’t be used to bring him down. Keep your friends close but your enemies closer, as the old saying goes and how very true he believes it is in this moment.
Stilling, he pauses, his eyes fixed on the small silver letters spelling out ‘London’ towards the south of the little odd-shaped islands that make up the British Isles. Behind his back, his knuckles gleam white through the skin as he clenches his hands tightly. His eyes glitter, capturing the light and holding it prisoner.
He can feel a tendril of excitement working its way up his spine, from the pit of his stomach. It’s heady, strong and quick to rush up to his brain, overtaking his heart and his nerves, threatening to overwhelm his mind. A spark has been lit, ignited within him as he wonders how – how, in Circe’s name, for the love of Paracelsus, how – he didn’t think of this before. It makes perfect sense now; it’s the perfect solution to this irritating problem of Britain and those letters.
There’s a bounce, a purpose in his step as he strides back to his desk, his face alight with the exhilaration of random inspiration. He is pulling his griffin-feathered quill towards him before he knows it, a pot of his preferred charcoal grey ink already open, waiting. A jabbed dip to load the nib with ink and he stops, quill hovering in mid-air, held at just the right angle so that the mercury liquid doesn’t drip onto the pristine parchment.
He has no idea what to say. For all his fabulous ideas, the visions of empire and imperial power, futuristic dreams and theoretical wonderings about the very principles of magic most people could never hope to understand, he has no idea what to write in a simple letter.
Only it’s not so simple and he knows that. There is so much left unsaid, so much he perhaps should say and might need to say before Albus Dumbledore would ever even consider joining him in his ventures. It has been so many years since they last met, and there are so many things they could have done but never did in the end, so many thoughts that were never shared.
He will need to be careful about what he writes, this much he is certain of. Regardless of the history they share, the ideas they discussed – for Albus Dumbledore knows more about his personal plans than do his top generals and closest advisors – the other is clever enough to read between the lines, to not merely accept the words at face value but delve beneath that first impression down to the heart and core of the word and the meaning in context. One wrong word, one wrong phrase, one wrong implication could spell disaster.
It is a challenge, and he quite likes challenges. He hasn’t felt he’s had enough of them recently.
After he’s traced his bottom lip with the tip of his quill for the eighteenth time, he starts to write. Unlike Albus, he will not start it simply with the other’s name, and unlike Albus, he will have the grace to write in the other’s maiden tongue – English. He has not had much chance to practice the language recently, either reading or writing, and it feels somewhat clumsy and rough in his head, as though he’s simply throwing words into a cauldron with little idea of what they combine to make and expecting something at the end of it. Nevertheless, it feels only right to at least try. If he really feels he hasn’t conveyed any of the ideas he wanted to or come across as a murdering dictator who believes himself threatened by Dumbledore and is attempting to seduce him with a single letter filled with promises of glory and a better world over to his team – which is, really, unfair, and not entirely true – he will include a German version to clarify his thoughts.
It’s a simple beginning, but, like with all things, he finds that once he has started it is easier to go on, easier to find the words he wants to say, to find the ideas and beliefs he wishes to convey. Each word is carefully selected, each phrase revisited three times, each sentence and paragraph considered separately and again all together. This has to be right, he knows. There will be no second chance.
He doesn’t mention anything of their plans before, that one summer long ago, nor of the reason for his leaving so abruptly. Cowardly of him, perhaps, but he cannot bring himself to write it. He knows it wouldn’t go well, whether he confessed that it had been his wand to fire the curse or to deny all guilt in the matter.
The letter is short, barely covering a side of parchment, with large borders around the sides and a nice, scrawled signature at the bottom. He has left it open, though, should Dumbledore wish to reply and discuss his proposal. Revealing all his cards so early on would be foolish and he is anything but that. One does not become ruler of an empire by being foolish.
Crossing the room once more, he halts in front of an elaborate golden perch, five feet off the ground to allow space for the long, trailing tail. He doesn’t dare send the letter by owl. A sentimental gesture, in a way, to not want his opponent to get caught exchanging letters with his enemy, but their whole correspondence so far has been kept in the dark and there is nothing to gain from changing that position.
In a soft voice, he instructs the bird on where to take it, whom to deliver it to and holds the letter out, sealed shut with a round blob of wax, the sign of the Deathly Hallows – his sign, but, oh, it could have been theirs – stamped into it. Accepting it with an outstretched claw, the bird lifts its wings, taking flight with four short, powerful beats, forcing him to step back, allowing it room.
Fluttering, hovering, the bird hangs in mid-air before disappearing in a flash and a burst of golden-red fire, leaving behind only the faint scent of smoke and a single, solitary red feather.
He bends down, collecting the feather from the ground, twirling it absently between his fingers, the coarse texture of the feather underneath his fingertips a contrast to the parchment that was there before. This is alive, was alive – it has that feel, that aura of life about it, that scent of something living, something of flesh and blood and bone in it.
A smile slips over his face, his eyes light, and the simple expression takes years off his age, off his looks. He could be thirty, forty maybe. No longer young, but not yet old. Somewhere in the middle; impossible to describe, impossible to place.
Laying the feather on his desk, a burst of colour amongst the browns and pale yellows of the woods and quills, he retreats from the room. A casual wave of his hand extinguishes all the torches in the room, each candle blowing out one by one, the farthest first. As the last one snuffs its own life out, he closes the door behind himself.
There is no need to wait for an answer, one will not come immediately. He will have to be patient, calm and controlled. Albus Dumbledore will write back soon enough – even if his answer is a simple refusal, a mere three words on a piece of paper, and he is sure the answer will be much, much longer than that. Dumbledore always did long for power, for glory; he will at least consider the opportunity.
14th September, 1941; Hogwarts, Scotland
Thunder clashes and rages overhead. Down in the Great Hall, Albus Dumbledore looks up at the enchanted ceiling – his own handiwork and masterfully done, if he dares be so bold – and watches the fury of the storm. Rain is lashing down, relentless, seeking to drown the entire land under its weight; wind whips at the drops, driving them diagonally, diverting them from their original path.
Apart from the storm, it has been a quiet night. All of the students are in bed, save for those whose duties require them not to be. Tom Riddle passed him in the corridors four hours ago, muttering a quiet, hasty ‘good night, professor’; Professor Merrythought retired early from the staff room, shaking her head and muttering about how she couldn’t bear to listen to the radio any more. Not when all they talk about these days is death and violence. All in all, it has been a fairly average evening. Calm, ordered: the perfect time for solitude and reflection.
Overhead, a spike of lightening plummets towards the earth from the sky. A crash rumbles through the hall, echoing, rolling back and forth between the walls, the sound prolonged.
On Albus Dumbledore’s bed, on his pillow, slightly off centre, lies a letter. The flash of lightening illuminates the wax seal on it, keeping the two ends bound together, highlighting the grooves in the substance where lines have pressed in, forming a strange, eye-like shape.
The owl to one side hoots, her feathers soaked, looking up from her well-earned feast of harvest mouse. Something was there, she can sense it, but, seeing nothing other than the rain and the lightening, hearing nothing other than the thunder, she turns back to her meal.
Four floors below, Albus Dumbledore begins the long climb up the sweeping marble staircase. His mind is not on the war on the Continent, nor examining ages past, nor contemplating one of the many philosophies of power and leadership. He is planning a lonely evening: a bath, a quick tune-in to the Wizarding Wireless Network for their chamber music hour and four chapters of Bathilda Bagshot’s latest book on goblin wars which he received in the post – a signed edition, hoping he’d like it – earlier that week.
He hums to himself, content with life as it is. One would hardly guess that he was waiting, every day, for a response he has never thought would come, to hear news on the radio of a retreat, a change in policy, an end to the violence and the bloodshed. Optimistic, perhaps, but he is a teacher and children must be taught to have hope.
A/N: the quote 'keep your friends close but your enemies closer' was originally said by Chinese general Sun Tzu, and is therefore not mine.
Likewise, the summary quote 'it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live' is from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, page 157, and belongs to JK Rowling.