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Chapter 28 : Italy
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With a sigh, heartfelt and mournfully romantic, dusk would arrive in Siena: carried in on the back of a flutter of wind, tugging gently, delicately at lace-thin curtains, translucent and shimmering; it would grow, shepherded along by the push-pull of breath, like the tides of the sea as it rolls in, slowly, slowly, until the sky was a burst of blood orange and soft, tawny gold, white-blue and ribbons, here and there, of red on the undersides of clouds, dark and full of rain. It dyed the whole city – pink and plump in the daylight – burnt orange and persimmon, glinting gold and winking, twinkling.
I would see, always, the way the light played on my skin, thrown over my balcony in a thousand shades of orange-gold-red, how it twisted to envelop me, how it caught lines of muscles and ridges of bone alike, how it turned the scar on the back of my left hand rose-gold in turn, a gleaming, glimmering thing in its own right.
I would see it, always, and wonder, absently, caught somewhere between dreaming and waking – tumbled, elegantly and silently, into a wonderland I could not resist – what it would do to your hair: how it would catch the copper threads, make them gleam, deepen and darken your eyes as I had seen a hundred times until they echoed like wells and I drowned; how it would play, tapping and skittering, across the backs of your hands on the metal railing and how I would watch you there, drinking and drinking and drinking.
Imagination is a gift, my Albus, and a curse when it drives us to madness.
How often to have to dream something, see something, imagine something for it to become half a memory? A shade of a potential future you could once taste and feel and know? How long must you cling to it, those shards of possibility, a kaleidoscope of colours and scents and thoughts you never thought, before you are lost to it?
You see, in this prison of mine, in this cage you locked me in, I wonder and I dream and I see places I have never been, people I have never known, and I remember, clear as my hands in front of my face and the rusting bars on my windowsill, things I have never said or heard said, voices which ring with something, something I cannot name, but I waver, caught between certainty and uncertainty. I imagine, endlessly – and I wonder on imagining and imagine imagining, imagine imagination.
Oh, but it is relentless, Albus, this madness: it creeps towards me just in front of dusk, like a herald coming to announce his master’s arrival, and it hovers over my shoulder as I sit and read or stare out of the window, counting birds and wolves, watching dark dots race about hundreds of metres below, idly cloud-gazing and, staring blankly, predicting the weather for the next day and the next and the next and the next.
I am never wrong – I am precise down to the second the first raindrop will land on my hand when I thrust my arm through the bars and wait for it.
There is a storm coming to Scotland; it will arrive in Hogsmeade at forty-six minutes past three on Wednesday morning; it will last six hours and twelve minutes exactly; the drive will flood and you will forget your boots, splashing mud halfway up your thighs. You will smile, and Aberforth will curse you.
Child’s play – weather-calling; a trick only useful to impress those easily enthralled.
Somewhere outside my window, to the south, there is Italy. If I turn my head and press my face against the bars until the bones ache, I still cannot see it – it is too far, hidden from me behind the tall, capped mountain-peaks and all the dips and valleys of Switzerland – but I know it is there.
For some reason, the sunsets always seem more beautiful on the south-side.
There is a viewing station on the south-side of Nurmengard: a tower, hexagonal and cold, furnished in the old days with a handful of fur rugs and thick, velvet curtains which folded onto the ground in layers upon layers, the huge archway, carved into the rock of the prison itself, two feet thick, gaping out into the world beyond. I have asked them to take me there, for the sunsets in summer – I have claimed I am dying, that it would be a kindness, a folly to indulge in one last time.
They do not believe me; it does not surprise me, they think I am a liar too: that I will bind them in words alone.
Such foolishness; such ignorance; are these the folktales they tell about me? If so, they are not the tales they should be telling, no?
You and I have seen all things together: moons and sunsets, dawns and witching hours, cold and bleak – in our fervent romanticism, we missed them that summer, I think; we did not linger over them, sit there, curled in the grass, my head on your shoulder, our fingers tangled together, warm and cold at once, and just watch, silent and serene. Their seduction bypassed us even as we whispered promises to each other, lovesick and beguiled.
In Siena, I spent so long in the evenings standing on that balcony, looking south down to the Mediterranean with Germany at my back, wrapped in a robe, warm and still, until the sun had sunk and the stars shone in the sky, a sprinkling of diamonds, white-silver in a dusky, gold-brushed midnight blue, and then the breeze would stir me, licking at my ankles and my neck, tossing my hair in gleeful, wild handfuls, and I would return – from here, from there, from a wonderland halfway in between.
I think, then, if I lied to anyone, I lied to myself.
12th August, 1934; Siena, Tuscany, Italy
The conference room was long and slender, lined with velvet-covered seats in deep, verdant green, counted out beneath paintings of cityscapes: Rome some centuries before, Naples and Verona, Florence and Venice when they had been great city-states, tussling over land and wealth and the Papacy; along one wall, in place of paintings were tall, rectangular windows, looking out into the famous pink-bricked square, nestled at the end of the fan’s curve, sunlight streaming in and over the walnut table stretching across the rest of the room in a blank, brown oval.
At one end, the two flags – Italy’s tricolore and my Germany’s black-red-yellow, our federal colours – stuttered softly either side of a table bearing a small, gold-plated carriage clock which ticked away quietly and a vase, china and patterned with blue etchings, spilling over with crimson amaranth and tall, white lilies, yellow roses dotted about underneath, peaking out of a forest of leaves.
Perfume wound about everything, light and heady, the heat thickening the air minute by minute, a slow and steady scorching.
I sat with the sun on my shoulders, glaring over my head at the wall opposite in a spray of gold and cream, and waited.
Like fighters in a boxing ring, the Italian Minister opposite me studied me just as I him: his eyes flicked over my hair, my face, the turquoise robes and the high, white-edged collar; he lingered for a moment on the papers in front of me, briefly, and then, finally, he smiled.
“Signore,” he pronounced, the syllables rolling, half-purring. “Welcome to Italy – I trust you are having a pleasant visit?”
“Very much so, grazie,” I responded, smiling easily, lightly. The question was a falsehood: he had supplied enough for me in the suite of rooms I had been given that I could not have found fault with it and he knew it – from a chilled bottle of prosecco appearing every day without fail or fanfare in a tall, bud-shaped wine cooler, to the fleet of handsome, twenty-year-old footmen and waiters and attendants awaiting every whim and command, he had thought of everything, given and arranged everything.
He inclined his head, a quick thing, pausing in the half-bow with a smile, the picture of a gracious, humbled host.
“As agreed,” he began, glancing over a sheet of parchment slipped underneath the top one, both of them covered, it seemed, in a flowing cursive in crimson ink. “We will today discuss the conclusions of our earlier negotiations by Floo – meaning the terms of our treaty and mutual political support within the International Confederation – with a view to signing the documents on Friday. Is this still the case?”
“For our part, yes, that is still the intention,” I replied softly, plainly, the smile gone now – this was business, all business, and there is no room for kindness in politics.
It is, in truth, a battle of shifting, changing shadows, darting and dancing about the room from corner to corner and floor to ceiling, a thousand shades of white and silver-grey and obsidian, blending and blurring into each other so it seems it does not change. Temperamental and fickle, it is a game of chess you play against a hundred opponents at once, half of them invisible and unknown; across the board from you, Time sits and slowly, patiently, wears you down piece by piece by piece.
Like the Dark, it is unnameable and untameable; to defeat it, you must first understand that you cannot.
In politics, everyone is a friend and everyone is an enemy at the same time.
So, in time-honoured tradition, Eliseo and I battled over the locations of our meetings, over the words and the phrases used in the agreement, the colour of the ink we would both sign it in, our preferences for the flowers lining the trellises and pathways as we strolled through the gardens of the villa the Ministry had lent me; petty, childish differences, spiteful and wickedly sharp.
Still, we found common ground – we were both children of the new age: industrial and revolutionary in equal measure, dreaming of steel-coated futures and legacies of marble and gold.
One night, with the culmination of our efforts behind us – the mountain now scaled, we saw an oasis before us – he and I sat in the veranda of my villa, tucked away inside the four walls of the house, a parade of columns lining one side of it, rose-veined marble and wound about with wisps and licks of ivy, a bottle of wine striking the centre of no man’s land between us and the sunset washing over us in a jasmine-tinted wave.
“There comes a point,” I said, slowly, lazily. “When it is not enough to simply sit and wait for the world to change. If it must be changed, why not seize it? Control it? Direct it? Change does not happen in a vacuum; it is spun by human hands alone, from human thoughts and human emotions.”
I had a glass of wine in my hand, vermillion and sparkling brightly, and I watched as the wind rolled it around between my fingers, teasing it forward and backward to sway to and fro.
Across the table, Eliseo leaned back in his chair, short and stocky, his hands folded over his stomach in a lattice which set his wedding ring to shine, a sliver of gold caught around his finger; he seemed to be contemplating the fountain a few metres away, tall and cascading down over the shoulders of a Roman emperor long dead, but his dark eyes were calculating, blinking slowly.
Lizard-like, he was cold-blooded and patient, far more so than I have ever been.
It is perhaps a good thing you never had the fortune to meet him, Albus – you would have loathed him: he was the antithesis of you; studied but never quite talented, manipulative and subtly, pleasantly charismatic, so unmemorable that he was remarkable.
Unlike you, he understood that revolution was just; that the victory would be worth the cost we would pay to take it.
“A people may change their mind,” Eliseo murmured, his voice soft and his English heavily accented. “But they may need someone to show them how it has changed.”
“It is a question of guidance,” I agreed, taking a sip of the wine – rich and fruity, full-bodied and settling heavily in my stomach, lulling me, cajolingly and enticingly, towards sleep. “And of righteousness.”
There was a long pause, punctured only by the soft whirrs of motorcar engines on the roads behind us and the chirps and twitterings of birds, hidden from sight in the leaf-laden boughs which lined the square garden, sweet and light. It was a friendly thing, content and smooth, as though our earlier friction had been cleaned away entirely, replaced by a plain, cautious camaraderie.
As they say, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, no?
“I will be attending mass in the cathedral tomorrow morning,” Eliseo said eventually, stirring himself into movement as I stayed seated, enthroned in wicker, looking up at him – half like a child, half like a king. “You are most welcome to join me, should you wish to.”
His face was pleasant, smiling and carefully poised: simple and open; in that way, too kind and too generous, he revealed himself.
Faith is not something shared: it is a private homage, a private devotion, a dedication and a reminder, timely or not, that there is something greater than man, stronger and wiser than we would wish to be; a barrier to the glories of man, it humbles and rebuilds in one breath, drawing boundaries in our very being that we cannot see, but only feel instinctively, naturally.
In me, it is the last memory of my mother, a taint in my soul I have never had the courage to forego, silent and secretly reverent; a keepsake imprinted into my neck in gold-and-pearl, worming its way under my skin and through my blood, burning whenever I railed against it and damned it.
(To be betrayed so… to be so abandoned, floundering, at such a statement! To hear someone speak so easily, so simply, of things I had forbidden so long ago, things I had locked away years before, never speaking, never breathing any syllable of them. Confronted with my own burdens, my own unfailing piety, so casually, so thoughtlessly, as though it were nothing, as though it meant nothing…
Albus, it stung, furious and weeping, deep inside my chest, and it flattened whatever temple he and I had begun building together, setting my mind to hum and the Elder Wand to whisper softly about silver and blood and recompense for treachery.
Albus, my Albus, there are things men like you and I do not share with the world, they remain with us, tucked underneath our shirts, hidden from mortal sight, and there they lay, for good or for ill, until we choose to reveal them, display them, repeat them to the world.
Secrets are secrets are secrets: they define us and destroy us, and they are a poison to be administered by our own hands alone.
If secrets are not safe, then, oh, the world itself will sunder and every man will fall.)
I smiled too – a razor-thin edge, cold and quiet – and, for a moment, thought of my mother as I had last seen her, frail and sickly, jaundiced with her rosary in one hand and the words of the Lord’s Prayer pushing past her lips in a hacking, halting whisper.
“If you have no objection, I would be delighted,” I responded, languid and placidly polite, but I remained unsettled for hours after he had left, wandering the garden until night had fallen and midnight approached, slipping in and out of bed in a hazy delirium, flitting from thought to thought and trouble to trouble, rocked so absolutely I stumbled every now and then, dizzy and burning with a sick heat.
In silk robes and barefoot, I wound my way down through the villa and round and round the outer edges of the garden, slipping between the columns in a weaving dance borne of the swaying and twisting of my mind, as the house rolled around me, ship-like and water-thin.
The night air was cold, resting now but still biting and scratching, no matter how lamely, and it sunk deep into my bones, chilling me and turning the water on my arms and my neck, on my forehead and which clumped strands of my hair, to ice. Still, underneath the blue-white coating, I smouldered, smoke rising from my skin wherever I looked, hearing echoes of screams not yet shouted and feeling shadows of sensations not yet felt.
It was controlling, demanding, relentlessly pulling at the edge of my sanity, scattering thoughts and sending them tumbling; it felt like breaking, like watching myself collapse in a flutter and clatter of bone and hair, a macabre house of cards.
From memory to prophecy, it rocketed back and forth, back and forth and back again, careering wildly and helplessly, until I could not remember, could not tell which was true and which was false, which had been real and which was merely possibility.
I saw my mother die, her last breath rattling through her throat with a ghostly, childish air; I heard the cries and wails of women in mourning as coffins lowered, one after another after another, until the streets echoed with them, grey and pale, a vivid underworld; I saw men fall by the thousand, lines of gravestones stretching out back into the sunset. I saw a man fall from a tower, and a funeral casket decked in Prussian blue, bathed in a kaleidoscope sunlight; I saw you and I, young again, running through the fields in a paradise which felt familiar.
I felt a sharp, searing despair and heard the minuscule whimper of a heart cracking in two, and the fury and madness of gods; I watched you die, cut down by my own wand, shamed and wrecked and broken, and I returned to myself lost.
There, I awoke, in the garden in Siena, an arm hooked around the leg of Caesar Augustus, breathless and freezing, shattered into a mocking mosaic.
Konstantin found me there, my velvet robe draped over his arm, lying on the edge of the fountain, more awake than I had been in days, exhausted beyond measure. Without saying anything, watching me warily, his concern bold and startlingly clear on his face, he laid the robe by my head, sat in a wicker armchair, and waited, dark circles under his eyes and his cheeks wan, for me to recover myself.
It was not the first time for him and I, and it would not be the last; in other times, he would allow himself greater liberties, tugging my upright and pushing the robe around my shoulders, fetching me water, running me a bath, tucking me back into bed like a child who refused to sleep. This time, though, he did not touch me, did not come near, and I wondered later what of it all had shown on me, in the grazes on my hands and feet, in the wild horror still in my eyes.
A less sentimental man would have been suspicious of him, would have wondered whether Judas was at his back and in his bed – for my part, I never considered it.
Minutes, hours later, when I shrugged on the robe and he followed me back to bed, he would murmur across the divide between us,
“You cannot lose, it isn’t possible. God will not allow you to lose.”
The next morning I awoke with an arm wrapped around his waist and my head buried in his neck, lazy and soft, and he stared at me all day, smiling faintly and gloriously in love.
Lucifer though people may brand me, I did not have the heart to crush him by telling him, however truthfully, that I could never and would never love him in return.
As I sat at my desk, day breaking beyond the windows, over the spires and rooftops of Siena, he brought me coffee and almond-and-lemon cakes, handing me a pile of letters all bound up in red ribbons and stamped with the German seal: a gold griffin in relief on black; there was a stack of newspapers to one side of them, all of their headlines proclaiming dull, ordinary news – the month’s events forgotten in the busy, rushing memory of print.
How much terror can a single night bring? How much fear can a population hold before it spills over, before people feel compelled to act on it, to do stupid and thoughtless and violent things as a reaction, base and inhuman, to a powerlessness they cannot name? How long until civilisation collapses under such a weight?
Fear is a weapon, and it is the sword against which every great leader must test himself, sooner or later: how do you handle a people who are blindly, sharply frightened?
Six weeks since the Night of the Long Knives, as it was named later; six weeks since I had declared, in front of the newspapers and the photographers, my Germany’s state of emergency; six weeks since the International Confederation had done nothing, said nothing other than some meaningless, empty murmur of sympathy, of support which did not exist and would never, ever emerge.
They were worthless and weak, and any disdain I felt for them was overshadowed by a blaze of anger which tempered into a hushed, lingering hatred: they did not care about my people’s worries and troubles, so what should I care for them? What help or courtesy should I extend to those who abandon me and mine when we need it?
Nein, these things are a question of reciprocation, of compassion; I will not give it only to receive nothing. I will not waste my breath.
(Tell me, Albus, when you sat in their meetings, honoured and revered by those political, paranoid figures for being cleverer than they were, better than they were, when you heard them speak, heard the hollow ringing of their words around their marble-fronted halls, what did you think then? What did you feel as you sat there, signing your name to a bland statement read out in a monotone to newspapers and journalists, tucked away from the reality of it all, from the fear and the anxiety and the full-throttled hysteria of it all?
I know you well enough to know you will have seen beneath the façade – you have always had an uncanny ability to sift through lies and find the one, tiny grain of truth buried at the bottom, to see through a man’s mask to the core of him – and I wonder, I wonder even now why you stayed silent.
What did it serve you to say nothing? What did it cost you, perhaps, to feel so important and so impotent at once?
What did it serve you to wait, cowardly, for the moment we both knew would come – when you would return to me again, when the circle would close and you and I would be as we had always been?)
Then, in August, so soon after history shuddered into life, while Death readied his horse, I knelt in a cathedral, white-boned and cavernous, the columns striped and the ceiling patterned with stars which glitter still after centuries, warm and hazy in a flare of sunlight streaming through the windows and setting fire to the building entire, from the sept to the huge oak doors, licking and twisting along the lines of bodies and crucifixes in frescoes, the Redeemer deified again.
With my hands clasped, my mother’s rosary dangling from my fingers in a delicate trail of white-and-gold, I found myself praying, sincere and pious as I had not been in years, the words tumbling off my tongue with all the grace and fervour my mother had given me.
They fell easily, almost without thought or reason, but they seemed to reverberate around my head and my chest, anchoring me to the ground, tethering myself to myself again.
Head bowed, suppliant, the image rose, unbidden, in my mind of the way Konstantin had looked at me that morning – how he was still looking at me, eyes and heart jumping even as we prayed in silence, we hidden sinners, sneaking glances from under his eyelashes, hopeful and wonderfully, blissfully furtive – and I could not help but wonder, flashes resounding in my mind of visions and memories still scrambled, if I had ever looked at you like that; if I had ever appeared so gloriously happy, so light and carefree and beautifully enamoured.
All I knew for certain was that that summer I had felt like I was drowning, my head swimming under a heady, enthralling swell of something – something I could not, did not dare to define; there was something lingering, even then as I traced the lines of my bones in my hands and avowed my faith to Mary, mother of God, beyond everything, which bloomed and swelled like music when I read your name in the papers, when I thought of you and what we had shared, when I saw pictures of you and hoped, wondered, bitterly demanded that you would come to me again, that we would have again what we had shared so freely and so fully all that time before.
I could not remember – I cannot remember now either; my certainty is gone, my faith slips and falters and rockets back and forth between absolutes, and I do not know what of my own self I should believe – whether or not you had ever looked at me like that, whether after Ariana’s death you had ever had the same pooling delight when you had seen me.
Did you? Did your affection for me hold beyond that summer? Did your affection, in the end, last beyond a brief boyhood infatuation with a boy who promised you freedom?
Albus, oh Albus, I thought, I felt, maybe, that once upon a time, that perhaps there was still something, that there was still the possibility of something: shaken and troubled, I doubted myself, doubted my own, damnable instinct, that you and I would never be parted, never be anything other than you and I and all our cursed, leaden history.
I doubted and I wondered and I wavered – and Albus, I dreamed at night of a thousand and one ways to provoke you, to push you; of the thousand and one things I would say to you, clever and witty and perfectly crafted; in the end, I dreamed mostly of your blank, unsmiling face, trying and failing to impose on it the warmth and affection Konstantin settled on my shoulders, and woke every night lonely and so very afraid.
A/N: Any references to Caesar Augustus, generic Roman emperors, etc. are not mine. The quote 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' is not mine, either.
The Night of the Long Knives is a real historical event, and was a series of extrajudicial murders committed by members of and supporters of the German Nazi Party, to consolite Hitler's power over the German republic at the time. Public reaction was a mixture of applause (for 'nipping treason in the bud') and outrage (it was considered to be the start of a move away from the rule of law and democracy and towards a dictatorship). It is today widely considered to be a coup d'etat, and opinion from the time suggests that it effectively restricted and cropped any potential opposition to the rise of the Nazi regime. Furthermore, it was a first test for the new regime, and it has been suggested that it was the first time the regime could see that its propaganda machine was seriously taking hold among the German population.
I don't use it to provoke any kind of insinuation or to take it or treat it lightly, but it would be the kind of event which would have had an impact outside of the (for the purposes of this story) Muggle world, and would like have provoked a reaction of some kind, from one budding dictator to another.
Signore = Mr. (Italian)
Grazie = thank you (Italian)
Nein = no (German)
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