Excerpt from Year of the Snake
DISCLAIMER: I still own nothing (except for Reina and Paulus). I have no desire, design or intent to profit from either OUAT or Harry Potter, though I am really enjoying their collective sandboxes. Thank you, g.a.m.p.
A/N: This really isn't the next chapter in Regina's story, though I have been working on it. Somewhat feverishly, really. However, Creevey's Corridor is probably a one off in my private universe (though it's too early to say for sure). This peice is set at the very beginning of that tale.
Originally, like many other people, I assume, I envisioned my own private character playing with the famous and marvelous. After some reflection I thought it would be bad form to make it all about my girl, after all, you're not here to see Reina, you want the ones you already know. Unfortunately, I banged this off right after I put up Creevey's and before I reflected. I wanted to put it up to show that I was working. Honestly. Use this as background for things to be revealed later. And yes, this is the Miss Selcouth to which Headmistress MacGonagall refers.
Hope you like it. Oh and blackstar48, tyvm.
NOTES/EXCERPT FROM Year of the Snake
The air of London burned her lungs. It was sharp and wretched with a thousand different smokes and chemical stinks. She nearly cringed at the growl of colored metal stench monsters grumbling past as she and Paulus approached the edge of the sidewalk. Paulus, ever the proper tutor; tall, strong and stiff, held her small hand as they waited for the yellow sigil boxes on the poles to change. Reina glanced up and was somehow relieved to see his face set, miserable in its rigidity.
"Let's go," he gave her hand a little warning jerk before he stepped off the curb.
They strode quickly across the heraldically striped patch of road, uncomfortable before the growling wall of metal beasts and bared chromium fangs, both concealing their fears beneath hard scowls.
"I hate this place," the little girl wiped at her watering eyes. "It stinks worse than the bone-pits."
The iron haired man gave a little snort. "I never thought I'd agree with you, but the sooner we accomplish our duty, the sooner we get away from these... these..."
"Muggles," the girl finished for him. "Mother says to use their words. Lesser humans are muggles."
His fingers tightened on her own, reflex from having to accept correction from a child. The warrior wasn't about to object. Duty forbade it, but nothing could prevent him from bridling at the insult.
The pair continued forward; he bitter, she resigned. They were both grateful when they turned off of busy Charing Cross, but as they drew nearer to their destination, Paulus slowed their pace. His old reflexes made him look around more carefully; an eye-flick to the roofline, others towards nearby alley mouths.
The black door to The Leaky Cauldron opened with a slight creak and the pair stepped inside, hurrying, but trying not to look like it. Warmer, yeasty air brushed their cheeks and settled on their clothes as they stepped into a dingy, somehow older light. When Paulus closed the door behind them, they both felt that he was shutting a strange, foreign world out, instead of shutting them in.
"I need a drink." The long burn scar on the old man's cheek was nearly glowing in the half-light. He jerked his chin towards one of the corners. "Get a table. I'll get something for both of us. Keep your trap shut until I get there."
Reina frowned, but did as she was told. There weren't very many people here yet; the sun hadn't been up very long at all. Only one person sat between her and the table Paulus had nodded towards and he seemed more intent on his book than anything else. Still, she kept well away from the dark-haired man who'd charmed his spoon to stir his cup of roasted nut something.
"We should be going soon," Reina suggested when he finally returned. The glass of orange sludge in front of her smelled as noxiously vegetable as it tasted. 'Pumpkin juice,' she frowned. 'How do they drink this stuff?' As usual, whatever he had in his mug smelled better.
"We have time enough for some review," he graveled as he sat, putting his back to the wall. "The sorting hat will be your first great hurdle..."
Those were the exact same words her mother had used so many months ago when she'd lived. "I know," Reina returned. "I remember. Our spies say that it puts us in the right clutch depending on some weird arcana..."
"House," Paulus growled. "Not clutch. Don't slip up."
"I won't," she took a nervous sip of sludge. The stuff made her frown as she fought not to gag. "I'm supposed to tell it that I don't want to be in Slytherin. If mother's right, the hat will put me somewhere else."
"Right. You'll ask to go to..."
"Ravenclaw." Reina pushed the awful glass away. "Gryffindor's too obvious. At least I think so. Everybody wants to be in the house of heroes." Something in her choice of words made Paulus' frown deepen. He took a deep draught of the stuff in his mug as she continued. "If the books you've gotten me are right, Ravenclaw will work. They're supposed to value intelligence. 'Wit beyond measure is man's greatest gift' is their saying. Any questions I ask can be explained by that."
"You might be right," the older man wiped his lips. "Still, you shouldn't get too far from the plan. The old snake might not like it."
Reina stifled her grin. 'Old snake' was far more charitable than some of the terms she'd thought of, but she didn't let on. Part of Paulus' job was testing her.
Across the room, a small troop of people marched in and out through the back door. She glanced up at the older man. He'd seen them too, but hadn't moved yet.
"You've only got six years to find it." Paulus said. "Probably less."
"That's not fair, is it?" She scowled up at him. "It's been missing for six hundred years, and now I get this little bit of time..?"
"Life's not fair. You should know that better than anyone else," the old man gruffed. "If You-Know-Who finds it, then it'll go worse for your family than the rest of us." He didn't move when the next little pod came through the pub. Or the mob that blundered in shortly after that.
"Mother told me that if he finds it first, I won't live long enough to hear it blow," Reina's voice was quietly afraid. "Do you think..?"
She was interrupted by the door banging boisterously open. When a gaggle of man, woman and several children had made their way through, he finally drained his mug and rose.
If the air of Muggle London had been tortured by the stinks it was chained to, then the atmosphere of Daigon Alley carried its own burden with all the contentment of a farmer bearing his goods to market. There was time here, centuries hanging in the clear air. It Reina was amazed at the nose-blindness of humanity. Here there was old earth, a thousand years of animals and pure water hidden in furtive moss. The cleansing odor of lightening shared the morning breeze with... Sugar? The girl half turned to follow the out-of-place scent when Paulus tugged her back.
"The map back at your house says Olivanders is this way," Reina nodded up the gaudy street. Pointing would have been far too obvious.
"It is and we'll go there, but need to go somewhere else before the crowds start," Paulus replied. He tightened his grip on Reina's hand and strode with a nonchalant sort of hurry in the opposite direction.
"If you didn't want to be seen, then why wait until all those others had come through?"
"Never, ever go through a door first." The old warrior began speaking sing-song, as if remembering a nursery rhyme. "First one through buys a fine plot. The second tills it. The third fills it." Reina looked up to capture his expression. He was looking somewhere else, somewhere long ago and far away. "Anyone after that harvests what the other three have sown and grown."
"So where are we going?" Reina asked, hoping he might actually give a straight answer.
"Goldskin's." He blinked and then sighed. "He's a slimy one, so don't speak when we get there. He'd sell poison in the desert to people who want a drink."
"What's the point of that?"
Paulus sighed again, even more impatiently. "It's sort of a parable." He glanced down, frowning at her ignorant expression. "Look, it's simple; if they can buy anything to drink, they've got money. When they die, he can loot the corpse for what's left." Paulus frowned.
Reina thought about that as he led her along. "Seems a waste."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, if he poisons them so that they die, then he's throwing away some of his profit," she suggested thoughtfully. "It would be better to drug them unconscious and sell them for slaves to the next bunch. That way he makes money on them three times instead of just twice. Or better still, he could sell the healthy ones, kill the weak and sell bits of them as fresh meat."
Paulus shuddered. "You're your mother's daughter, do you know that?"
"Don't tell her that. She'd roast you alive."
It was too early for anyone to be out in the close, winding way he'd turned them into and somehow Reina was grateful. The leaning, crooked buildings matched the steep, often uneven cobbles in a way that went far deeper than natural decay or neglect. Somehow the walls, the ground and even the atmosphere here seemed to close in, wrapping the pair in a cloying mantle of evaporated blood, misery and concealed screams. This place was a grim, urban wilderness where the lines between predator and prey blurred. Both knew how easily one could turn from one to the other, especially here.
Reina felt her teacher force his muscles loose. According to the little her mother had let slip, Paulus had once been a fierce and very experienced member of his race, but he was only human and that meant he was mostly sense blind.
She decided that it was safer to just let him steer while she half watched the cobbles near her feet. Her other senses reached out; listening and scenting anything that might become a danger. In a way, she felt as though she'd come home again. Maybe if they hurried they could get out of here soon.
The older man steered them towards a shop that had managed to shoulder itself between something that smelled like an abandoned slaughterhouse and something else that looked like a dilapidated asylum. It was an unlovely little place that looked like it might have once sent Charles Dickens running. The old fashioned hanging sign declared 'Goldskin's Midnight Emporium' in faded, flaking letters. Taken all in all, Reina found herself wishing that she could run away too. Paulus paused at the door and put his face close to hers.
"Remember what I said; do not speak. Not even if you're spoken to," his whisper was harsh and laden with fight-fear. "I mean it."
"I understand." Reina nodded. "He poisons people stupidly.
The door opened before he touched it, yawning like a maw. Both froze, half expecting to see jagged teeth. Instead, they were met by islands and shelves; cliffs of strange, dusty jetsam. Paulus led the way inside, more out of habit than desire. Reina froze at the threshold.
When the crypt-cool air wafted out around her ankles, something else seemed to come with it. She could feel a cold, curious and hunger nosing invisibly around her feet. She tugged at the big man's hand. "Don't go in," she whispered. "Everything's dead in there. Everything."
For a moment the big man looked silently down, as if studying, weighing what she'd said. He glanced in and back down and nodded once. The gesture unnerved her more than the grave-dust smell of the place. In the whole year she'd been with him, with his family, this was the first time he seemed to put any real weight to anything she'd told him. Unfortunately, as soon as he'd acknowledged, he tugged them both inside. When the door shut itself behind them, there was a finality to the faint click the bolt made as it shot home.
The dim, chaotic place made her think of the wight-haunted tombs of fairy tales and vindictive curses that had worked too well. Near the door an elephant's foot held a few notched swords instead of umbrellas. They started whispering when they noticed her. One of them giggled when she stepped back and stumbled over Paulus' feet.
"Sit still," he whispered harshly, jerking her straight. "Don't move from this spot and touch anything."
Within a moment she was alone. Other goods in the shop seemed to sense her isolation and began pressing themselves against her mind. Everything wanted to be seen and touched. There were books haphazardly stacked that wanted reading and even a few terrified toys that silently cried out their loneliness, but the worst thing were the Christmas balls.
There were three of them, all made of clear glass, all hanging from a triangle of beaten iron. Reina looked back for Paulus, but he had disappeared into the shadows. She stepped out of the spot he'd selected and over to see. As she drew nearer she could see that there was something at the bottom of each dusty globe, though in the dim light, it was hard to tell exactly what. Only a few feet remained when she saw that one had tiny, wavery letters wiped in the dust.
The words were on the inside. Horrified, but unable to look away, she squinted and saw a pair of what looked like butterfly wings, only broken loose and half covering a tiny, tiny curled up skeleton.
"And just what are you doing here, deary?" The weird little man had appeared out of nowhere.
Reflex caused Reina to drop her hand trying to unsheathe her talons.
"Interesting. Very interesting indeed." His odd, gold-flecked eyes flicked to her mundane fingertips and back to her face. "So just whose little... girl are you?" His voice held no surprise or concern. Indeed, he sounded almost pleasantly curious.
"She's with me," Paulus' heavy footfalls sounded like a rescue as he strode out from behind a high-piled shelf. "We've got business."
"Business?" the strange little man tilted his head with a birdlike jerk. "Business? I don't recall any business with you."
"You do. I'm the agent for Lady Selcouth. She's already paid you..."
"And you would be the selcouth child yes?" He leaned near Reina's wide eyed face. He giggled when Paulus kept her from swinging with useless human nails. "Now, now, deary, little girls don't typically rend total strangers, now do they. Only little beasts do that." Reina said nothing as his long, oddly glistening finger crept towards her face. "Do you know your mommy bought a bit of jewelry off me some time ago? Have you seen it? A cameo on a bit of shiny glass?" His eyes flicked over her again. "Are you wearing it now, I wonder?"
"Get on with it, Goldskin," Paulus' growl seemed to annoy the man.
"Lady Selcouth, Lady Selcouth." His stride was nearly a skip as he made his way past the pair. "Yes, she asked me for a book some time ago, a rather special book. Follow, follow. Follow me." The strange little man giggled his way back into the shadows.
Reina and Paulus exchanged the same look, took a breath and followed the skinny, stiffly dressed gnome through the jagged darkness towards the back of the narrow store.
"I have it here!" The man's voice was almost as loud as the accompanying slam of something flat on a counter. "Yes, yes, a very rare type of book indeed. So rare that I had to make this one. But that's the thing, isn't it?" He grinned broadly as the pair arrived. "There can be only one, so they say. Only one of you," he grinned at the girl, "only one book for you."
"There should be a letter to go with it," Paulus grumped. He reached out, spun the beaten leather volume around and tried to open it.
"It doesn't work that way, friend," Goldskin purred.
"The cover is skin," Reina breathed. "It's bound up in human skin."
"Skin of a murdered wizard, yes yes," The man agreed quickly enough. He winked at her. "So glad you could finally join us. It needs you to work. Your blood will bring it to life."
Paulus grabbed her wrist and squeezed hard before she could say more. "The letter, freak."
"Oh no. She gets the instructions when she accepts the book," Goldskin said. "It's all hers after that."
"Wh-?" Paulus squeezed her to silence.
"What does she have to do?"
"Just a little blood." He flourished a needle bladed stiletto from one sleeve. "What's a little blood between friends?"
Reina tried to pull away.
"Oh come now, deary, all magic comes with a price," Goldskin tittered. "And the price for this was very high indeed."
Paulus' growl had a hard time escaping the grinding cage of his teeth. "What. Does. She. Have. To. Do."
"Not much," the little man rolled his eyes, apparently disappointed that no one else wanted to play. "I prick her finger, she presses it to the cover and voila, it opens for her and only her."
"I'll do it." The knife the old warrior produced from the small of his back looked more like a cleaver to Reina's wide eyes. "Sit still."
She barely felt the tiny slice on her smallest finger.
"Put it on the cover, deary."
She did. Instantly the book grew warm beneath her fingers and glowing letters began to form. "Liber Regina? But that's not..." Paulus hushed her.
There was a crash from somewhere in the dim behind the counter, as if something had fallen over in the back of the store. Reina looked over the counter as the two men jumped, startled.
"Please excuse me," Goldskin began to turn, but Paulus snatched the little man's collar before he could get away. A look of rage sharpened his narrow features. "How dare you..."
"Save it. You're not going anywhere before we get that letter," Paulus rumbled.
"Letter?" Another something rustled in the back. Goldskin rolled his eyes and fished an envelope out of his lapel. "Here. Now let me go."
The little man stumbled as the old warrior let go. He started to totter away when Paulus spoke again.
"This better be the right thing." There was no answer except for the sound of quickly receding footsteps.
PS, Some of you might detect a particular typo. It's not. It's a hint. Sort of.