Chapter 1 : The Man of Many Masks
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She first met him at a party held in the subterranean dungeons of St. Tenebris.
The structure itself was a legend deeply entrenched in the town’s culture of superstition, castle towers of gleaming black stone twisting out of the wet bedrock. Night and day, floating candles lit in each of the rooms surrounding his balcony winked upon a broad lawn, forty candles becoming eighty when reflected in a battalion of glass windows. The pattern these candles formed was an oval and the flames themselves were white flares set deep into a black airless cavity – which lent it the nickname ‘Jaws of St. Tenebris’, affectionately invented by other villagers and only murmured from a safe distance.
On the particular night of her initial visit, these jaws weren’t distinguishable amid a haze of other candles illuminating each and every above-ground chamber. Even though the sky was raining heavily, her spindly shoes didn’t sink into the earth as she followed dozens of shadows along a footpath to a pair of doors cranked wide open. There, blending into the onyx frame with his black silk cloak, a valet with stooped shoulders bowed them inside politely, accepting their embossed invitations in the deep bowl of his hat.
Having been encouraged to attend the party at the constant request of her friend Mafalda, who had spent the past two weeks boasting about being invited by Riddle’s valet himself (pulled out of bed at five in the morning to answer her doorbell, no less), Pomona hadn’t realized that this event was limited to those on a predetermined list.
“Invitation-only?” Pomona repeated, flushing with embarrassment. Mafalda grinned apologetically at Pomona over her shoulder before hurrying inside, giggles ringing off the high vaulted ceiling as she clutched either arm of Mr. Ertwhistle and Mr. Gabor.
Left alone on the cement front steps, a late October breeze shuddering the hem of her knee-length gown, Pomona cleared her throat nervously and tried for a convincing smile. “Maybe I’m on there under ‘Senora Hill’. That’s what my friends sometimes call me. As a laugh.”
“Nice try,” the real Senora Hill announced dryly, elbowing past her through the door as she dropped her hand-addressed card into the hat. Upon closer inspection, Pomona could see that the lettering sparkled blood-red, still wet as if freshly written.
“No entrance unless you’re on the list,” the valet replied tonelessly, eyes already passing over her to survey a queue of guests bolting down the lawn. “Exclusivity is key to Master Riddle’s desired atmosphere.”
Half of Pomona was desperate to get into St. Tenebris, if only to escape the humiliation of being barred from it, and half of her wanted nothing more than to turn around and go home. She was just withdrawing to the second step when a white-gloved hand touched her wrist. Pomona’s eyes flicked upwards, meeting the pale, unsmiling face of Mr. Riddle. The shadow cast by his brimmed hat sliced his face in half, obscuring his eyes. He removed it at once, pinning the black satin shape to his side.
His eyes were like two shining drops of ink. They glinted peculiarly in a way that reminded her of movement, betraying the smile he withheld from his lips.
“Gate-crashing?” he asked. His voice was smooth and lithe, winding easily around Pomona’s throat. It left her breathless.
“I – I should be on the list,” Pomona stammered. It was no use lying, especially to the party’s host. She wasn’t sure what had compelled her to say it.
Riddle raised one eyebrow, examining her young face. It was heart-shaped but softened by the roundness of her cheeks, eyes drawn slightly too close together over a long and narrow nose. The shade of lipstick she’d chosen was too dark for Riddle’s taste, but he supposed he could make allowances for costume make-up at a Halloween party. Eyes cutting to his valet’s scroll of invitees, he questioned, “And what is your name?”
“Pomona.” She swallowed, unable to resist taking a peek at the valet’s scornful expression. “Pomona Sprout.”
“There is no Pomona Sprout on this list,” the valet answered shortly, frowning at his employer. “I can have her escorted off the property, if it pleases you.” A shiny brass badge on his lapel read Marco Henshaw.
Riddle blinked lazily, then gestured to Henshaw’s floor-length roll of parchment. “If the young lady says she’s there, then she must be there. Check again.”
Pomona watched the valet’s features crinkle in befuddlement as Sprout, Pomona appeared at the top of the register. “But – how –?” he sputtered as Riddle smiled at him. His skin was unnaturally hard, unyielding, the corners of his mouth pinched from too much force. His teeth, however, were straight and blindingly white, and Pomona could see her own astonished face repeated in them.
“Pomona,” he said quietly to himself, leading her down a tiled foyer. Pomona turned to him, meaning to respond, but understood that he wasn’t speaking to her. He kept his gaze trained on the eyes of painted figures passing them by, just as still and poised as Muggle art – not by choice but by obedient surrender to the will of their master. He didn’t like the way they moved, the many ways they could think and fidget that he couldn’t orchestrate.
Possessions should be easier to control.
Pomona felt Mafalda’s gobsmacked attention fixated on her as they brushed past, Pomona barely able to contain her own pleasure as an indifferent Riddle continued to see nothing while sweeping his eyes over half the town spilled into his banquet hall. Out of nowhere, he extracted a dragon fruit from midair and took a crisp bite of it, skin and all. Juicy red flesh rife with seeds oiled his lips, ruby imprint of his hand staining through the flimsy glove.
“I didn’t know you could eat it like that,” Pomona offered, attempting conversation. She wondered how long it would be before he thought up an excuse to slip away to find more invigorating company. “The skin is supposed to be unhealthy to ingest, I’ve heard.”
“I’ve built up an immunity to many poisonous things over the years,” he said in a voice almost too low to be overheard. It flitted at her right ear like a winged creature, shifting the loose hairs tumbling out of her chignon. “Worry not. It would take a lot more than dragon fruit to harm me.”
This man is even stranger than the rumors, she thought privately. No wonder they call him Riddle.
“Please, call me Tom,” he told her with a sly smile that displayed many red-stained teeth. “Your charms have held me captive, I’m afraid, and now I’m quite in danger of becoming an ungracious host. You must excuse me so that I may pay my respects to the other guests, though I would love nothing more than to learn all about you.”
Pomona’s nerves stuttered. “You would?”
He winked. “Another time, perhaps…”
She could scarcely dream up words for a response. “Yes. Yes, of course. Shall I look for you later?”
Mr. Riddle appeared not to have heard her. He pivoted his body sideways to slide between two strangers sipping flutes of firewhisky, departing without a second glance at Pomona. She watched him introduce himself to bouquets of smartly-dressed socialites, never lingering in one conversation for more than twelve seconds. He nodded and bowed in all the right places, but she observed that his muscles were remarkably stiff. Each smile was tense. She wondered why he’d bothered to put on a party at all if he so obviously did not care for it.
“I can’t believe you were just talking to Mr. Riddle!” a giddy voice at Pomona’s left gushed, taking her by surprise. “Oh my goodness, he’s so handsome.”
“Is he?” Pomona returned distractedly. She fretted her fingers, almost stumbling into a tapestry illustrating Salazar Slytherin’s family tree.
“What did he say to you? Did he tell you about his acquisition of Cyntia Herald’s finances? I heard tell from a gentleman over there that old Cyntia was extremely fond of our Mr. Riddle.”
Pomona felt mildly agitated by Mafalda’s use of ‘our Mr. Riddle’, as though she was an intimate acquaintance of his, and he, communal spoils to be enjoyed by all. The only thing she said, however, was “Oh?”
Mafalda nodded importantly. “Wrote him into her will just in the nick of time; and by a stroke of luck, he’s recently come into his inheritance early!” She clucked her tongue. “Good for him, I say. Cyntia was a hag. Anyone who spent a single second of their time with her deserves compensation for it.”
Pomona didn’t answer, walking aimlessly in the direction of her friend’s tugging with her eyes locked firmly on Mr. Riddle’s retreating back. He somehow managed to disappear even under her intense scrutiny, which she tried to make as inconspicuous as possible. She craned her neck, ready to ask Mafalda if she knew where he’d gone, when a cool, sinuous voice broke over the room.
“As many of you have heard, Mr. Riddle has generously offered the use of his own castle for the Halloween Masquerade Ball,” declared Walburga Black, a willowy sophisticate around Mr. Riddle’s age. Walburga’s black hair was cropped under the cheekbones, face-framing tendrils curling towards her mouth on either side to provide the illusion of a maliciously wide smile.
“Masquerade ball?” Pomona echoed sharply in her friend’s ear. Mafalda jumped up and down on the skinny pegs of her heels, clapping delightedly. Pomona looked wildly around, confused. “But none of us has got masks on. Were we supposed to wear masks?” She yanked furiously on Mafalda’s arm to get her attention, ready to attack her. Mafalda only laughed and wriggled away.
“Oh, shush, Pomy. Obviously they don’t expect you to bring your own. What sort of place do you think you are, anyway? This isn’t exactly Darlsbury Park.”
As though overhearing Pomona’s distress, Walburga’s painted grin bunched into a sneer. “This is no ordinary masquerade,” she explained, descending the stairs slowly and gracefully. The fabric she wore was clingy, outlining every bump on her body. Pomona was horrified to see that the material was nearly see-through – a gauzy gray thing that dipped low enough in front to embarrass anyone within ten feet. One of Mafalda’s plus-ones, Mr. Garbo, rubbed the lenses of his tortoiseshell spectacles onto his robes and replaced them to the bridge of his nose, squinting expectantly.
“A jar is being passed around,” Walburga informed them. Mafalda nudged Pomona, indicating to a long glass tube making rounds in the banquet hall. Pomona had rather expected a normal mason jar, but this one was massive, inlaid with the design of a snake spiraling around and around, its base stuffed with what looked like a clog of human hair. “Kindly pluck one hair from your head and drop it inside. Take care to ensure it’s just the one hair.”
“That’s disgusting!” Pomona whispered in revulsion, but Mafalda had already yanked out one of her own hairs and held the coarse strand between two fingers. She pinched it so tightly that the tip of her thumb pulsed a stark white.
“I think it’s brilliant!”
Pomona tried to resist joining in when her turn came, wrinkling her nose at the sight of so many mismatched hairs knitting together in the tube, but Mafalda distracted her by exclaiming, “Look! It’s Mr. Riddle!” and pulled one of Pomona’s hairs out.
“Ouch!” Pomona cried, rubbing her scalp. She eyed Mafalda’s hand resentfully, noting the brown hank. “It only has to be one strand.”
“Stop whining,” Mafalda chided. She passed the tube on, traveling from person to person in a soundlessly suffocating room, no one daring to speak, until everyone had contributed to it. When it finally rested between Walburga Black’s long talons again, she appraised them all victoriously.
Thunder clapped outside the castle walls, making the floor quake. Pomona’s grip on Mafalda’s wrist squeezed harder without realizing it; Mafalda only looked more enthusiastic. Thousands of floating candles overhead dripped wax upon their shoulders, sprinkling all over the floor in a scalding new-fallen snow. Pomona became suddenly aware of how warm the air was, how her snug hairstyle now felt like it was choking her. She absently pulled at loose brown threads around the nape of her neck.
“What’s the matter with you?” Mafalda hissed before turning back to view Walburga. “You’re perspiring like a pig.”
Pomona made to wipe her face, but thought better of it lest she rub charcoal everywhere. Her eyelids kept sticking when she blinked because of the excess cold cream dabbed onto her kohl eyeshadow. It was a trick her sister taught her to make her eyes look dewy, but under the blaze of candlelight it felt like hot water beading on her skin. The warmth peaked just then, making her almost nauseous as heat washed up and down her body in torrents.
She glanced up by chance and caught Mr. Riddle’s arrested attention, his inscrutable eyes watching hers from a cobwebbed corner far behind Walburga. A solitary candle bobbed along above him, throwing its black duplicate upon the wall and elongating his own shadow. He was a tall, lean man, but his presence alone was so intimidatingly hulking that it distorted him; made him queerly swollen.
He severed his unnerving gaze and the fire on Pomona’s skin immediately died away.
Pomona allowed herself to be buffeted this way and that, not listening to Walburga’s instructions about how the midnight party was to proceed. Next thing she knew, someone was pressing a cup into her hand. She drank without cognizance, gagging uncontrollably when a flavor like spoiled buttermilk filled her mouth.
“What is this?” Her mouth puckered, souring even further when Mafalda burst into guffaws of laughter. “What?”
“It’s Polyjuice Potion, you dolt! Drink up.”
Magical instruments situated sparsely apart around the room took themselves up of their own volition, sprinkling melodies over the dying reverberations of thunder. Lightning crackled beyond skylights and windows left open with parted curtains swirling, bleaching a sea of dress robes with jagged streaks. Walburga’s lips curved, blinding Pomona’s vision as every candle extinguished in one fell swoop and left only the spasms of lightning flashing over Miss Black’s laughing mouth.
Pomona clutched her throat, which stung as though she’d just inhaled shards of glass. “That drink you gave me,” she choked. “It hurts.”
“That’s just the change,” Mafalda replied casually. Pomona sought one of the many dazzling windows that made up the Jaws of St. Tenebris, the dim silhouette of Minerva McGonagall blinking back at her. She’d had no idea that Minerva was anywhere in attendance. It surprised her. Pomona and Minerva got on quite well, and she admired the latter, but Minerva wasn’t usually the type to attend middle-of-the-night parties at an ancient abbey constructed from volcanic rock.
“You should be starting to adopt someone else’s form,” Walburga announced. “If you keep your eyes peeled, you just might find yourself wandering somewhere around this castle.” She drifted down the final step of a curving stairwell, music rising in volume to signal that the masquerade ball was now officially on its feet.
“What are we supposed to do?” Pomona muttered. She felt Mafalda shaking her head, half-smiling.
“Dance! It’s a ball. What else would we do? Although if you’re McGonagall, you might want to go find a library to be boring in.”
Pomona bit her lip, trying to see through the darkness. Why hadn’t anyone re-lit the candles? She spied a surge of bodies emptying down another stairwell at the urging of Mr. Riddle’s staff, who recommended the dungeons as an agreeable place for exploration. An appropriate venue, Pomona thought, given that the date was October thirty-first.
Where was the infamous Mr. Riddle lurking in this maze of familiar strangers?
She didn’t know Mr. Riddle personally, but his accomplishments and humbly charismatic personality had trickled into every hidden corner of Britain. The parentless man who unexpectedly took up residence in a cursed castle, they said, could replicate anyone at the drop of a hat. He didn’t so much impersonate someone else as much as he became them; and in that way he could be anyone. Anyone at all.
Crystal chandeliers lighting the dungeon tunnels swung from people walking on the floors overhead, their diamond drops tinkling harmoniously. The hall Pomona was crowded in opened into a colossal underground cavern, slick walls dripping with an oozing green substance not unlike dragon’s blood. Twenty paces up one wall, a man stood on a balcony carved out of the rock. He gripped the railing, menacing leer boring down on them all. As Pomona halted in her tracks and stared upwards, they locked gazes. He then kicked hard off the ground while revolving on the spot, vanishing.
She frowned, searching over the heads of people pairing off to dance. Thinking she spotted Mafalda's dress on a girl with red pigtails, she meandered over towards her.
“Enjoying the party?” interrupted a gentleman’s voice hovering just behind her.
Pomona jumped, hand leaping to her heart. “Are you – who are you?”
He tilted his head, eyes flashing intently. “You don’t recognize me, Pomona?”
It took her a moment to register that she should be surprised he recognized her, since she was masquerading as Minerva, and examined him more closely. He wore a silver and emerald brocade cloak that trailed the ancient stone floor. She tried to focus on the blond thatch of hair and vivid blue eyes, knowing she must be acquainted with this man’s costume in one way or another since he looked so familiar; but she found herself unable to concentrate on anything at all. It was his presence that she recognized – massive and fairly frightening – and something in her chest lurched forward as if eager to jump out of her body and into his.
“Does my disguise disarm you?” he questioned. Right before her eyes, his cropped blonde locks began to lengthen, blue irises dyeing darker and darker until they were almost as black as his pupils. He stepped forward, brushing a strand of hair out of Pomona’s forehead, and she instantly transformed into her usual likeness, as well.
“I think I like you better as yourself,” he decided, a crease developing between his eyebrows as his gaze roved over the rest of her face. “But a little less lipstick next time, yes?”
Pomona flushed, raising one finger to chafe at the color stained on her lips. Mr. Riddle smiled coldly, eyes glittering. “Now, now. I hope I didn’t bruise your feelings. I only want to be honest.” He suddenly cupped her face in his hands, catching her off-guard. “Shouldn’t we both be honest?”
She gaped at him, nodding dumbly. “Yes?”
“Good answer.” He leaned away from her, balling up one hand into a fist. His fingers flexed open again, procuring an orange begonia flower with its long roots still attached. “A memento of me,” he whispered silkily, sliding it into a pocket of her dress that had not previously existed. For a fleeting moment she could feel the warmth of his hand through her clothing, bruising her skin.
Mr. Riddle leaned in close, palms digging into the wall on either side of her, and kissed her softly at the base of her throat. As Pomona gave way against the cool rocks, knees buckling, he angled his face away from her to hide a smirk.
“It was a pleasure to meet you,” he said at last, backing away instead of assisting her to her feet. He melted into a throng of enthusiastic guests, some of them inexplicably blindfolded, leaving Pomona to stagger out of the dungeons by herself.
From somewhere in the depths of her muddled mind, she could already hear Mafalda: But why would he give a flower to you? Are you sure he didn’t think you were someone else? I mean – you’re adorable, darling, sweet as anything – but still, why you?”
Her fingers shook as she delved into her pocket to retrieve the begonia, its roots curled inward like a corpse’s rigid fingers. Remnants of dirt coated their pale ends, as if Mr. Riddle had paused life in his castle with a click of his fingers and transported himself to a garden somewhere to rip it out of the soil, returning before she realized he ever left.
Which he very well might have done.