Oh, how he wished he could have afforded a private one. He was sure the Malfoys and Mulcibers and such would never have to endure fat, anxious mothers and gaggles of squabbling brats when they travelled abroad!
One day, he reminded himself, when you're a rich and celebrated Potions Master and a favourite of the Dark Lord, you'll travel with every luxury imaginable. Or not travel at all!
Now that was a good thought; he lost himself in the pleasant fantasy of having his own, spacious and perfectly furnished lab, complete with state of the art equipment… he wouldn't ever need to leave, he could have a set of connected rooms, a library and a bedroom and a small sitting room to retire to, and a small garden to grow some herbs of his own and enjoy the sun at times… all the best publications would be delivered there regularly; he would have helpers to send wherever to find this or that ingredient, or the latest implement… perhaps a house-elf, even, for cooking and cleaning and the like… the fame of his skills would bring customers to his door, even the most proud purebloods begging to have him brew for them… he would experiment to his heart's content, creating new concoctions, improving the existing ones, making amazing breakthroughs in the field… he would be rich, wanting for nothing, and respected and honoured for his ability…
He was determined to have all that someday; but for now… he hadn't even achieved his Mastery yet and so he was playing errand-boy for his tyrannical, disagreeable Master. 'A Journeyman is supposed to journey' indeed! What a convenient excuse to send him continuously here and there to fetch this or deliver that, instead of letting him brew in peace!
So now here he was, in Lisbon, Portugal.
He shook himself and went to sneer at the first view of the city he could get from the Miradouro de Graça, the high belvedere where the odd position of the church, off to the side, allowed for a few good spots for discreet international portkey arrivals.
The landscape was unlike any he'd ever seen: all broken lines and irregular angles, roofs stacked upon roofs and buildings clinging to the hill-slopes, creating a perspective like a multilayered puzzle upon which the eyes could only flicker incessantly, forever caught by a colour here, a shape there, a patch of trees or a rising dome, landing now on a church, then on a garret…
He was momentarily surprised to see an expanse of water circling the city – Lisbon wasn't by the sea, was it? – before realizing that it must be the river Tejo. It did not look like a river. So very blue… so wide… much more like a bay of slight sea than a fluvial waterway.
He refused to let the play of the sun highlighting the vivid colours impress him. He was determined to loath this damn city, for no other reason that he was forced to be there instead of in a lab, and no amount of picturesque views would convince him that there was anything worth while to see here.
At least this time the trip is to a somewhat interesting location, he snarled within himself, torn between resentment and resignation.
And interesting Lisbon was, indeed.
Portugal had attained a world-lead in the Potions making field centuries ago, during the so-called Século de Ouro, the Golden Century of great naval explorations: in less than a hundred years they had completely reinvented the art, introducing remarkable innovations that revolutionized the field and creating almost 70% of the most common Potions still in use nowadays – though, Severus thought sourly, that wasn't so big a thing if you considered the sheer amount and variety of ingredients their voyages brought back. Any brewer was bound to make wondrous discoveries if he suddenly had access to tons of completely new components!
Nevertheless, the contribution of this country to the art of Potions making was undeniable and Portugal had clung to its record viciously, even when its ships had lost the dominion over the seas to Spanish and then British vessels.
What made this country a true heaven for brewers though was the surprising way in which Potions making had remained widely practiced and somewhat accepted – under various labels, medicine, pharmacology, apothecary, elite grocer – even when the Muggle Catholic Church ferociously persecuted magic users, to the point that magic was very nearly eradicated in the Iberian Peninsula, due to the efforts of a few mudbloods who'd been accepted into the Jesuitical order and became even revered – miracles my ass – their fanaticism going so far as to betraying their own people.
To this day, wanded magic in Portugal was illegal and prosecuted, while draughts and concoctions were fairly common and widely accepted. Perhaps the country's close ties with Brazil, similarly famous (or was it notorious?) for its mind-controlling concoctions and deadly venoms, had helped this strange state of things along as well.
So yes, he could admit it: a journey to Lisbon and its world-known Apothecaries was a must for any true brewer. He still didn't like it.
But… there were compensations, this time. Lucius Malfoy had taken advantage of his forced trip to order him to find a few rare ingredients, and as irritating as his condescending, patronizing attitude was, the blond was also very generous, at least when it came to gold: if Severus haggled carefully, he could spare enough of the pureblood aristocrat's Galleons to buy something special for himself, Displacer Panther's eyes perhaps, he'd been dying to try his hand at the Split Vision Draught ever since he'd read about it in Pombar's only published work-journal…
Immensely cheered by the prospect, he moved briskly away, following his Master's directions to navigate the narrow, steep alleys of Alfama.
The Morisco neighbourhood was piled with irregular houses, built like in a fabled Kasbah of Arabia. He was surprised by the colourful walls and the beautiful 'azulejos', the fine-looking ceramic tiles with complex drawings that graced most facades. Given the utter poverty he could recognize in so many signs – the dirt, the state of disrepair of the buildings, the repulsive children running savagely around, the sunken-eyed women getting loud in the narrow streets – he would have expected a greyer landscape, the sort of depressed atmosphere he'd grown up in. Not this almost welcoming cheer, this feeling of life lived to the fullest oozing from cloths hanging from the windowsills and painted vases of green, green bean plants, and fuchsia bougainvilleas glinting in the sun, and blue drawings on gleaming white tiles.
He shuddered and sped up.
He did not want to feel welcome in a place like this!
He'd promised to himself long ago, he was going to leave poverty and obscurity behind!
As soon as possible, he caught the muggle contraption commonly called 'tram' to Belém, the newer neighbourhood further down the Tejo, where the old Monasteiro dos Jerònimos had offered complicit shadows to the hidden Potions market for decades and continued to do so even now, when the Muggles seemed determined to invade the place with their silly monuments.
Firmly gripping the nearest metal bar for balance against the jolts and jerks, Severus gritted his teeth to prevent the grumblings from escaping. Cold, glaring silence was more dignified than the shouted insults that this yellow jalopy surely warranted.
Too bad it was so dangerous to apparate blindly. He would most certainly not be taking the thing on the way back.
He fidgeted uncomfortably, unable to stay properly still. The hot was unbearable! He couldn't believe the law here forbade every use of a wand… of course, he had his anyway, carefully hidden under the numerous layers of his standard black robes, for emergencies. He debated if a cooling charm could be passed off as an emergency under the circumstances. Then again, it was probably for the best that the wand wasn't within easy reach at the moment. He was sorely tempted to curse the idiotic tourists that were gushing over the 'picturesque machinery' into oblivion!
Portuguese people, he discovered upon arriving in the area of the monastery, didn't even know the meaning of 'being helpful'. No-one around was willing to give him a shred of directions. It wasn't even that they were rude or hostile. Far from it. They were simply indifferent.
Even once he located the right Apothecary and asked after the 'friend' his Master had sent him to, it was as if he was invisible, or unimportant – right until he'd been at long last identified as his Master's Apprentice thanks to an introduction letter. Then, he was welcomed instantly as a member of the family, and it made him feel even more uncomfortable.
The short, portly man with salt-and-pepper hair and a too-wide smile mumbled and muttered over the list of ingredients Severus' Master needed and finally proclaimed that he had 'almost everything', but there was no need to worry, for he was awaiting a shipment that very afternoon and he should be able to fulfil the order in its entirety.
"A little patience is all is needed!" he concluded cheerfully.
Severus' heart sped up with hope. Would he be allowed to browse the place in peace while he waited? He stole a quick glance at the rows of shelves through the inner doors, the barrels, the boxes, the chests that promised alluring treasures, the barely-visible brass pots and skeins hanging from the ceiling, beckoning. Oh, how he itched to go in there…
But it was not to be. The fat man shooed him out, blathering about 'young men always wanting to escape the labs when on this sort of trips' and 'the nearby café being full of youthful people at all times'.
Severus glared at the other's stained apron and tried to protest that he much preferred to examine the Apothecary.
Unfortunately, the Portuguese just laughed merrily: "Not to worry, young man! I won't tell a thing to your Master! Lord knows he could use some fun himself, the grumpy hermit! Go, go. Here, I'll give you a note for my brother at the café… you must taste our Pastéis, you simply must!"
And he waved a spluttering Severus out. The British gave him a flat look that should have conveyed in no uncertain terms how ludicrous the idea of choosing pastries over Potions ingredients was, but alas! To no avail. The wooden door closed behind him, leaving him under the glare of the sun in the street, before he could even formulate his protest.
With a livid sigh, he marched off. Might as well get inside this damn café and hope it was cooler than here…
The place was, indeed, full and most patrons were around his age, Muggles and Magicals mingling indifferently. Had Severus been at all inclined to socialize, he would have had plenty of opportunities there. Instead, he managed to get ensconced at the darkest and most out of the way table he could find and from there he glared at the world in general, his scowl protecting him from unwanted approaches and allowing him to daydream about the brewing process of the Split Vision Potion.
The promised pastries, however, managed to distract him.
Pastéis de Belém.
They were – they had to be – magical. No way mere Muggles could achieve such a divine taste… the inviting fragrance of the delicate fillo dough – Arabic heritage of old – and the succulent sweet richness of the creamy filling – so lusciously European – topped by just a hint of sprinkled cinnamon – the touch of exotic Portugal couldn't seem to give up, last vestige of their by now far past of undaunted voyagers and glorious explorers!
He was conquered and he knew it. Though, if he managed to prevent anyone else from finding out, he could live with that…
When he deemed enough time had passed, he went back to the Apothecary, where the portly man cheerfully persisted in his misguided attempt at giving him 'a chance to experience the real fun in town!'
Completely unable to oppose the evidently deaf man, Severus found himself trapped into a dinner at 'a famous restaurant downtown' with the bloke's son, who was just a little older than him. "You'll have a taste of true fado, just you wait and see, no-one stays indifferent…"
Severus highly doubted the evening would offer anything of interest, but since after reluctantly agreeing he was finally – finally – admitted to the longed for inner rooms, he resigned himself to endure it with politeness.
Then he put the whole thing from his mind entirely, because the whole wide world was spread under his eager eyes, in an endless series of offerings of the most rare, exceptional ingredients a Potionist could dream of: he lost himself in the perusal with true joy.
Much, much later, when the night had wrapped the city in its cloak of darkness, bringing a pleasantly chilly breeze along to play in the narrow streets, Severus let himself enjoy the unusual dish of sardinhas assadas, rejoicing in recollecting the marvellous substances he'd acquired.
A glass of Porto the likes of which he'd only ever tasted the rare times Lucius Malfoy had deigned to include him in an invitation to the Manor in his hands, he relaxed with satisfaction.
He let the flavour of red fruits fill his nostrils and seduce his palate, warming his blood, exalting the tasty fish he was savouring.
Once my position in the Dark Lord's inner circle is secured, I'll taste this as often as I like, he thought with dark satisfaction, watching the captivating play of reflexes as he swirled the red liquid in his glass.
Every sacrifice, every compromise, every servitude he was enduring would pay off a thousand times once he was firmly recognized as an inner circle Death Eater, he was sure of it. Wealth, power… complete freedom from the tethers of poverty and dependence. That was his ultimate goal – what the Dark Lord would grant him the chance to achieve.
The soulful voice of the woman – a well known fadista – singing for the patrons poured into him like heavy dollops of honey, as full and as flavoured as the rich wine.
The elegant long shawl, as black as her eyes, the sober hair-style framing her strong features, the grace with which she held the long fringes and moved slowly in the dim shadows, were captivating.
He perceived her in details – the white curve of a hand, the sparkle of a cross-shaped pendant, the refined line of a cheekbone: like a painting, or a statue, a work of art that he could enjoy bit by bit, as the ever-moving shadows unveiled her and the rich voice modelled her form further.
That voice… so full and yet so polished, so feminine and yet so deep… the slow, doleful cadence of the foreign words, blending into one another in a continuity of 'sh' and 'ou' sounds, ensnared him.
She moved among the patrons slowly, deftly, sadness and levity, hope and fatigue mixing in the incomprehensible words and pouring into her rapt audience like warm wine, alighting the chilly stillness of the night, the peculiar sounds of the two ten-strings guitars in the background almost drowned by the wholesome force of her tune.
Irresistibly, Severus searched her gaze and for the first time in his life, his eyes were met, and matched, by two pools of black as deep as his own.
Those dark orbs weren't perhaps as beautiful as a certain pair of green ones… but the well of emotions in them, so strictly held back, so carefully released only in the modulated notes resounding so beautifully in the almost dark room… the promise in them was so strong, so tempting, and Severus felt his own soul vibrate in tune with it.
For an instant, it was as if she sang for him alone.
He tore his gaze away and made an effort to recover his steely armour of cool disdain and ruthless ambition. This Merlin forsaken stripe of land at the furthest edge of Europe wasn't the place to find… what, anyway? What could possibly be better than the brilliant future he was so painstakingly building for himself?
He was so close now, to his Mastery – earlier than anyone could have expected, he would be one of the youngest Potions Masters ever! – and to a place among the elite of wizardkind – he had no doubt that his Mastery would be judged useful enough to grant him the Dark Mark.
That was all that mattered. What else could he possibly look for?
Certainly nothing that could be offered by a mere illusion of voice and wine.
Cold rationality returned to him by grades and he got himself under control once more.
"Isn't she extràordinaria? Amazing?" asked his winking companion, who was a younger version of his fat, merry father.
"Passable", retorted Severus rigidly, trying hard to imitate the cool drawl the purebloods at home used. He was firmly determined not to let it be known how much he'd allowed himself to be moved. "Local folkloristic shows do have their points of interest, I suppose"
The irritating look of his Portuguese acquaintance, knowing and pitying and disappointed and mocking, let him know he was falling short of his mark of supercilious aloofness. By far.
Angered, he turned brusquely and fixated his furious gaze on the black and white tiles of the floor, barely even hearing the soft music anymore.
The following morning, after awakening at his usual early hour only to find that nobody in Lisbon moved before ten o'clock at the earliest and spending the wait perusing his acquired goods and fantasizing about their uses yet again, he apparated to the Miradouro de Graça once more, ready to leave this disquieting city behind.
As he waited for the other six people who would take the same port-key to sort themselves out – and why the incompetent fools wouldn't just shrink those trunks already was beyond him – he let his gaze wander once more over the odd skyline of this strange city, wondering how it could have affected him so strongly and in so many subtle ways despite his being there so short a time.
So dark yet not gloomy, so closed off yet beckoning, not welcoming yet not uncomfortable, so hard to understand yet so subtly intriguing.
A mirage of different worlds, of different paths…
He grimaced and turned his back firmly to the scenic roofs glinting in the hot sun. His path was one and one alone, chosen and fixed already, and would unwind in the familiar, rainy cold of British Dark.
Anything else was mere illusion, and he was far too sensible to fall for such dubious, if undeniable, charms.