“It's smaller than I thought.” Lady Heloïse pouted slightly, and Draco rushed her inside to draw her attention to the remarkable frescoes, leaving Severus to observe the reactions of her companion.
“It's magnificent,” Miss Granger breathed. “The proportions –“
“It is considered to be in quite a different style to his other villas, reflecting the status of the owners.” The facade had the starkness of a Roman temple, with the entrance one level up from where they were standing. “Shall we?” He offered his arm, and together they ascended one of the twin staircases.
They stopped at the threshold of the entrance hall, content to observe in silence. Further along, Severus could hear Draco hold forth on nymphs and pagan gods, weaving in a graceful compliment at the same time.
Apparently, he could acquit himself reasonably if given time to prepare.
He knew his audience, too – it didn't take long for the topic to take a more contemporary turn. Draco and Severus had left England many months after Lady Heloïse, providing plentiful food for conversation.
Meanwhile, Severus explored the main hall and the adjoining rooms with Miss Granger, pausing occasionally to explore a particularly interesting fresco. Entirely unexpectedly, Miss Granger turned out to be well versed in Renaissance art.
“Imagine,” she said, looking out over the small formal garden at the back, “the plots that were hatched here, back when Venice was still a republic.”
“Oh, I can. I doubt if you're able to, though – Gryffindors often display a remarkable lack of ingenuity in these matters.” Severus had found a small collection of Byzantine miniatures, which he was inspecting dubiously. The light was poor, but he doubted they had ever been east of Rome.
“I have a very healthy imagination, thank you very much. Unfortunately, women seem to have been sadly absent from most of the political life of old Venice. Perhaps I could have been a courtesan, brought here by her protector.”
“Perhaps you could have been the kitchenmaid,” Severus said crushingly. “I would rein in my flights of fancy if I were you – be careful what you wish for, foolish girl.”
“Were you always such a prude, or is it a recent development?” Miss Granger asked with an air of great interest. “I cannot precisely remember from Hogwarts, but it seems rather unlike you to attach any extraordinary interest to other people's opinions.”
By prior arrangement, the housekeeper had provided tea – Italian tea, but one must make sacrifices when travelling – and light refreshments in one of the salons. Severus was so incensed by this latest idiocy that he did not even look around to see if Draco and Lady Heloïse had arrived yet.
“I, Merlin be praised, am not a witch. Therefore, I am not obliged to safeguard my reputation, which, I assure you, is of the highest importance for your sex. The life of a courtesan may seem romantic to you, but I'm afraid the reality would have been vastly different.” Severus still felt the cloying taste of bad champagne in his mouth from Lucius' select Paris brothel. He remembered the empty eyes of the witches lining the walls, waiting to be picked by the next visitor. If he had wanted, he could probably have ticked off a dozen potions used to make the women more amenable and their charms more appealing to the patrons.
Instead, he had tried very hard not to vomit.
Miss Granger perused the array of pastries, gingerly selecting something covered in chocolate. “I do not doubt you – I merely think you have a highly exaggerated view of the rewards of virtue for poor females with no beauty to speak of. If I would have ended up in penury anyway, does it matter how I got there?”
“Fortunately, you have no idea of which you speak. To a delicately nurtured female, that is all I will say.” Severus eschewed the tea for something stronger – the bitter taste of coffee suited his mood.
“If it makes any difference, I have no inclination to ruin myself – it would be rather unfair on my relations. It was purely a hypothetical consideration.” Miss Granger turned her nose up at the tea, eyeing Severus' coffee with interest.
Severus selected something that looked like a scone. It would not taste like one, but at least he would have the pleasure of anticipation. “My sense of relief is overwhelming,” he said, just as Malfoy the younger appeared.
“Stop bamming it – you had at least three sausages at breakfast!” Draco showed his usual ability to grasp a situation. Like a wasp, he could not be got rid of easily when refreshments were offered.
“You seem to have lost Lady Heloïse along with your sense of propriety. I hope at least one can be speedily recovered.”
“Never fear,” a melodious voice said behind him, and Severus' shoulders twitched. He twirled around, making sure his robes billowed impressively, to bow to the lady. It had the advantage of being perfectly civil, while not requiring any bending of the truth.
Desultory conversation followed, before the company decided that a stroll in the gardens was in order before returning to Venice. Lady Heloïse required her shading charms before venturing into the sun; Miss Granger eschewed such fussiness, or else she was more proficient at making potions, and Severus found himself escorting her yet again out of earshot of their esteemed employers.
“Look at the herbaceous border!” she exclaimed. Severus was filled with a sense of impending doom – he had no interest in gardens, and Miss Granger displayed all the signs of someone about to bore on for hours about their favourite subject. “All the plants are potions ingredients – at least I think they are, but they're not in bloom yet.” She prodded some sad, brownish stalks. “Could this be Belladonna, do you think?”
Severus' professional curiosity was aroused. Together, they examined every inch of scraggy plants, searching for half-rotted leaves or hints of roots when there were no fresh shoots.
Unsurprisingly, the Know-It-All knew her herbs. Surprisingly, it was actually enjoyable to puzzle out the unknown Potions master's handiwork with her. Severus did not even care that Draco had graduated to whisper sweet nothings in Lady Heloïse's ears beneath the cherry tree.
Miss Granger straightened up, her cheeks pink from stooping and her eyes glowing with pleasure. “I haven't had so much fun since I discovered a Bundimun infestation in our lodgings in Munich.”
“It must indeed be difficult to return to those lofty heights.” Severus brushed some dirt from his robes.
“When was the last time you truly enjoyed yourself? Apart from just now.”
To his chagrin, Severus wasn't able to articulate why the question was impertinent, and as he could not think of anything better to say he answered honestly: “Last week, when I successfully brewed a Shrinking Solution.” It did not sound like much of an achievement for a Potions master, but Severus had been flush with pleasure when he finally got his portable cauldron to achieve the proper temperature.
“But the fumes – won't the landlady notice the purple marks on the ceiling?”
“There were no fumes,” Severus replied, unashamedly smug. “I find shaking the Shrivelfig before adding it makes all the difference.”
“I must try that.” Miss Granger had abandoned all interest in pastries, her coffee cooling unnoticed on a side table. “Did you ever try doing a figure of eight with your wand at the end?”
Severus almost dropped his own coffee cup. “Using my wand? When brewing potions?”
She coloured. “I've been experimenting – Well, as much as I am able, it really is ridiculously difficult to attempt any serious potions work without a proper laboratory. I've had some promising results using my wand, and I think combining Charms and Potions shows serious potential...”
Severus finally found his voice. “You think combining foolish wand-waving and Potions show potential? Have you checked the water supply at Palazzo Sanguini for contamination? Sounds like lead rather than ingenious invention may be at work here.”
“I'm not delusional, thank you very much for your concern,” she snapped. “I simply believe sticking to narrow disciplines simply because that is the way magic always has been done shows a sad lack of imagination.”
“You would be the witch to turn it all around, spearheading a revolution in the practise of magic?” Fortunately, scorn and sneering came naturally to Severus – apparently, copious quantities of both were required.
“Obviously I will not, seeing as I'm stuck playing third wheel to a lady of – of quality.” Miss Granger cast around for her employer, belatedly recalling her duty. She sounded more resigned than sad, and unexpectedly it pierced Severus' heart more than lamenting her restricted options would have done.
There was no more time for private conversation – as soon as they had disentangled Draco and Lady Heloïse from the cherry blossoms, it was time to catch the return Portkey.
“I say, Severus,” Draco said over breakfast the following day, “I'm finding Venice sadly flat now that the carnival is over. You don't mind if we continue onwards to Florence, do you?”
Severus was surprised to find he did – speaking to Miss Granger had been unexpectedly pleasant. He put it down to the two of them occupying the same uncomfortable position, hovering between their exalted employers and paid servant.
However, the immediate necessity of putting as many miles as he could contrive between Draco and the fatally attractive Lady Heloïse took precedence.
“I do not. Would you like me to owl your father's acquaintance there – Signore Pitti, I believe?” Severus had been furnished with a long list of Lucius' cronies around Europe – so far they had turned out to be impeccably pure-blooded, richer than Croesus and thoroughly unpleasant to a man. The unknown Signore Pitti was unlikely to be any different.
“I rather thought we could proceed there as soon as we can contrive to. We have spent months in Venice – there is not much left to see here.” Draco dismissed centuries of art with a wave of his arm. “I am sure there is a hotel or some such in Florence that will make do for a few nights, before we can establish ourselves properly.”
“Very well, then.“ Severus summoned his quill and parchment – the city clerk in Venice could supply them with a Portkey, and his equivalent in Florence could no doubt provide them with the direction to a suitable hotel.
He did wonder how Draco had gone from flirting with Lady Heloïse one day to fleeing the the city the next, but his long experience of teaching brats meant he knew better than to ask.
Severus was destined not to remain in the dark for long.
The piazza in front of the Duomo in Florence was a favoured haunt of the upper echelons of Florentine society, magical and Muggle. The miraculous appearance of a dark-skinned, elegant lady among the females taking their evening walk while admiring the architectural masterpiece towering above them told him all he needed to know.
He did not even bother looking for Miss Granger, who promptly appeared at his left elbow.
“Such a charming surprise, Mr Snape. I thought we had left all our friends behind when we departed from Venice.”
“Spare me your flummery, woman – what is the meaning of this? Was cavorting in Venice not enough?”
Mercifully, Draco had not spotted Lady Heloïse yet. He was inspecting a set of ridiculous white-topped riding boots in a shop window. If he seriously was considering bringing home a pair of those monstrosities, Severus may have to wash his hands of him completely. Lucius, a natty dresser himself, would surely understand, and Severus would not have to worry about Lady Heloïse any longer.
“It does get boring after a while, don't you think? All that water.” Miss Granger said, following his gaze.
They both looked away hastily as Draco turned around, finding something else catching his eye in the unexceptionable jeweller's next door.
“In all seriousness, I'm sure you will realise the reason for the change of scenery momentarily.”
If the chit wanted to play games, she would find Severus Snape was up to all tricks. He was just resolving not to give her an inch, as she continued immediately afterwards. Gryffindors had no patience.
“Exhibit B over by the Baptistery – blue coat, black boots – is Atticus Fawley, last seen at the Wizarding Assembly Rooms in Bath. He is speaking to Count von Schwarzingen, one of the leading lights at the Wizarding court in Vienna. Florence is bursting with Britons and Germans making their way to Rome, or who have taken up permanent residence here. One can be spoilt for choice.”
“No reason to leave one's old admirers behind, however,” Severus observed, and was rewarded with a smile that mostly was in her eyes.
“You can rest quite easy now – I am reliably informed the Count's fortune exceeds even the illustrious Mr Malfoy's.”
“As long as von Schwarzingen cannot count thirty generations of pure-blooded ancestors preceding him, Mr Malfoy will remain unmoved.” Listening to the passers-by, Severus could overhear snatches of conversation in both English and German, interspersed with occasional phrases of melodious Italian.
“Being a plain mister must sting, though, don't you think?”
Having little regard for titles, Severus had not spent much time considering the vagaries of English wizardkind leaving the peerage a Muggle preserve. Once he considered it, however, it was obvious Lucius would rather be at least a baronet rather than being outranked by a foreigner.
“I must send an owl to Malfoy Manor to confirm our safe arrival in Florence.” Severus was already hunting for a quill in his roomy pockets, enchanted to fit half a dozen potion vials without bulging. “It's so important to stay in touch with home, don't you think?”
Miss Granger gave him a searching look.
“Do I have something on my nose?” Having located his handkerchief instead of the missing quill, Severus made a show of wiping his admittedly rather large appendage.
“I thought you were one of Lucius Malfoy's bosom friends,” Miss Granger said in the grand manner of someone who wouldn't know subtlety if it was dropped on them from a great height.
“Hardly. Lucius would rate me somewhere between the house-elves and his thoroughbred winged horses.” It must be the opportunity to say whatever he liked without fear of becoming a social outcast that made Severus blurt out whatever was passing through his mind in her presence. Apparently, the curse of being honest was addictive.
Miss Granger curtsied to an acquaintance, a vacuous smile on her face – unlike many Gryffindors, she had mastered doing several things at once. “Does it matter what he thinks?”
“It matters,” Severus said, “when he holds the pursestrings. Lucius thinks I have ideas above my station.”
“That is true, though, is it not? If you did not, you would happily have returned to your father's house after Hogwarts and shackled yourself to some miller's daughter.”
Severus told himself the story of his life must be well-known in the Hogwarts dormitories – he had rid himself of his northern accent within his first year at school, but there was always some graceless sod who remembered his first appearance. Either that, or Miss Granger added Second Sight to her achievements.
“Is that what you think I ought to have done?” he asked.
“Clearly not – in that case, I would be tending to my aunt's numerous progeny as we speak, without a single spark of magic in my life.” Miss Granger tilted her parasol a little, so she could see the full outline of the Duomo, all the precise rectangular tiles of marble forming a glorious testament to the power and abundance of Florence of the Renaissance.
She did not look like a woman pining for a life of domesticity.
“Did you not mention your mother?” Severus could not recall her precise circumstances at school, but Miss Granger was certainly the daughter of a gentleman, however Muggle, and there had been some wealth there.
“She is living with my aunt at present. My father's income was sufficient to support us in some comfort, but when he died –“
Severus had toasted to his own father's demise some years ago, but he acknowledged other people felt differently about their progenitors. “I am sorry,” he offered.
“He would not have wanted me to give up magic either. I remember him being so excited when we found out about magic – how witches are just as powerful as wizards.” She sniffed in defiance. “I'm glad he never found it wasn't quite true, that the same strictures apply to females whether they are Muggle or witches.”
Severus was only too familiar with the difficulties of practicing magic surrounded by Muggles – one of the few advantages of his parents' marriage had been that his father had been co-opted into the Statute of Secrecy. No such provisions applied for aunts and cousins, and anyone living in a Muggle household would be taking great risks if they tried to employ magic.
“I think you will find the constrictions you speak of affect anyone without the means to support themselves independently,” he told her. “I have spent more than a decade trying to establish myself as an independent brewer of potions, to no avail.”
There had been a small laboratory, in a Muggle barn.
Severus had used most of his savings converting it for safe magical use, stocking up on basic Potion ingredients, and put an advertisement in the Daily Prophet:
Superior Potions, Brewed to Order, For The Discerning Witch Or Wizard. Bewitch The Mind And Ensnare The Senses Through The Subtle Art Of Potion-Making. For Catalogue And Sale Apply Through Owl Order. Reasonable Rates.
Some replies had trickled in – some of his customers had even paid him. Severus had rather enjoyed distributing retribution on those who failed to do so, but it had not changed the unpalatable fact that he eventually did not even have enough money left to eat.
He had crawled back to Lucius, the humiliation made worse by the brief taste of independence.
Severus did not indulge in false modesty – he knew he was no ordinary Potions Master. Given the chance, he could achieve great things, but without commanding his own time or access to a properly equipped laboratory he would be forever doomed to dabble in trumpery.
Some of the bitter disappointment must have shown on his face, because Miss Granger gently put her gloved hand on his arm. Mercifully, she didn't say anything – the warmth of her fingers simply rested there, until a young buck in moleskins bumped into Severus.
Amid his apologies, the moment was lost – Draco returned from his shopping exhibition, and Lady Heloïse reluctantly recalled a dinner engagement and summoned her companion to accompany her to their apartments on the other side of the Arno.