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Chapter 10 : Skill
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The glimmering colors of my reflection twisted into a whirlpool, glowing as bright as a Patronus. I watched as the glass smoothed out once again, sucking my own image into oblivion as it was replaced by another scene entirely.
There were trees, just like in Lucius’s bedroom, but I knew that these were natural and located in a woodsy area outside. Hazy sunlight filtered through the gloom, and the tips of branches swayed back and forth against each other, waving like a drowned man’s arms underwater. Collected at the very bottom of this forest was a sizeable group of people seated in ivory high-backed chairs. An emerald-green length of silk split down the center between two herds of chairs. And at the very end of it, Andromeda stood upright in a lacy white wedding dress, a clump of narcissus and belladonna woven together as a bouquet in her hands.
A man I did not recognize was facing her, smiling respectably and wearing black satin robes. Andromeda was not smiling at all; her eyes were strained and her mouth was set in a firm line that wavered – almost as though the delicate act of pressing her lips together was the only way to prevent something right on the tip of her tongue from flying away; from betraying her completely in front of the other villagers as well as my father.
Bellatrix, I noted, was nowhere in sight.
“What is she doing?” I murmured, completely aghast. Lucius was silent, waiting in trepidation for me to explain. My fingertips curled over the stones around the mirror, my nose almost grazing the malleable surface. The whole panorama on display before me was oddly distorted, with streaks of white and gray passing over everything like paint blurring a canvas. Ethereal beads of mist formed on my cheeks and temples, clinging to the mirror in droplets. The mirror, it appeared, had taken the form of a waterfall on the other side.
Griselda Marchbanks was presiding over the ceremony, wearing staunch amber robes that gripped her wrists and throat. She cast her eyes over the pair, speaking so quietly that I could hear only a whispering sound, like the rustle of a breeze through tall grass. But I could hear the man’s voice after that, loud and uninviting, and then Andromeda trilled in a pinched response, “I do.”
“This mirror is a fluke,” I growled without looking away. “This cannot really be happening.”
“The mirror is always truthful,” Lucius said lightly. “What is it you see that disturbs you so much?”
My father turned his head, as though he had heard Lucius and me speaking, and I watched as his eyes traveled up the current of white and blue, peering through the droplets. His eyes widened, revelation striking him, and he immediately sprang out of his chair and came hobbling over to where I stood with my face suspended over the water – so close to where my father existed, and yet so horridly far. I could see Andromeda’s eyes darting around as well, trying to figure out what Father was doing.
“He can see me!” I exclaimed to Lucius. I turned to glance at him, growing excited. “My father can see me!”
But when I turned back, I saw only the perplexed expression on my own face, and the rippling trees in Lucius’s muggy bedroom. I stared hard at the mirror. “Where did it go?” I tapped the lacquer with one fingernail. It felt slick and wet, like ice; trails of condensation dotted my skin. “It stopped working.”
“Did you break eye contact?”
“Well –” I frowned, confused. “Yes. You never told me that I couldn’t. It was only for a second –”
“Doesn’t matter. You cannot break eye contact or else the connection dies. Everything has disappeared on the other side, and his world cannot see you just as you cannot see his world.”
“All right,” I said impatiently. “How do I make it start again? I’m concentrating on it now and nothing’s happening.”
“The mirror,” he said in a thoughtful voice, “believes that it has already shown you what you wanted to see. It will not go back to the same place again.”
I withdrew from the pond’s edge, sulking resentfully. “Two weeks,” I spat. “I’ve been missing for two weeks – I could be dead for all they know – and my sister wasted no time at all in getting married!” I glared at the mirror, ignoring my stormy face and the way my eyebrows knotted together in anger. “Who was that man, anyway? I’ve never seen him before in my life. Two weeks! Two weeks, I tell you!”
“You saw your sister’s wedding?” Lucius inquired curiously.
“Yes.” Suddenly, I didn’t care that the mirror had stopped working. I didn’t care that I didn’t get the chance to speak to my father. My mind was reeling from the fact that they had so quickly moved on with their lives, and so bluntly did not care what had become of me. A wedding! I couldn’t believe it.
“You don’t sound very thrilled.”
“It doesn’t matter.” I stood to my feet, staring bitterly at the fissures splintering out of the marble floor, gouged apart from the force of snarling roots. “As far as I’m concerned, Andromeda is dead.”
My suspicions began to rise soon after overhearing a conversation between Lucius, Horatio, and Ramien (as eavesdropping was one of the only activities in the castle I could amuse myself with):
“It’s good to see that you’re softening up, at least.”
“I won’t deny feeling a bit of relief myself,” Horatio spoke up. I smirked in the darkened corridor, envisioning the man sticking his nose pompously up in the air as though doing everyone a great favor by sharing his opinion. “You seem to have realized that this is your only chance.”
“Well, it isn’t just that,” Lucius responded defensively. “I mean…well…you know…”
“What are you trying to say?” Ramien asked slyly.
“Oh, shut up,” Lucius said after a while.
“She hasn’t been in a very good mood lately,” Ramien said.
“I’d expect not. It took two weeks for her family to resume to normal – and she was alarmed by the speed at which her sister decided to marry. There is not much waiting for her in Wasteir.”
“Luckily for you.”
I raised my eyebrows, tilting my weight against the doorframe so that I could hear them better. Miu Mori, the Japanese maid, passed me in the corridor, silently going about her usual cleaning and pretending that she didn’t notice me hovering outside of Lucius’s study. I waited to hear Lucius’s response to Ramien’s statement, but he did not give one. They were all quiet for a spell, and I decided to hurry off before one of them came out.
When Lucius began approaching me with questions soon after that, I knew that something was brewing in the back of his mind. “What are your hobbies?” he would ask.
I found myself, shockingly enough, drawing a blank. In my Hogwarts days, I tried an array of things for entertainment. I read books, but not such a variety of them that I could be considered brilliant. I sang in the choir, but wasn’t dedicated enough to really discipline myself and become a great singer. So many things I dabbled in – Gobstones, Quidditch, Runes, Arithmancy. I practiced them all halfway and then gave them up, dissatisfied, whenever it suited me. I didn’t linger in anything long enough to become accomplished. My skill, I found, did not lie in hobbies.
After my mother died, I devoted all of my time to figuring out ways to peddle cheap items to Wasteir for unfair prices. I was good at it, too. I would stay up late into the night, scribbling in my diary with ink-stained hands, brainstorming about what I could obtain in bulk for rock-bottom prices, things that I could turn around and resell at a higher price. Profit was my obsession. I was elated with any small success, always proud of myself when I managed to persuade the middle-aged men with their wandering eyes, with my words like purrs.
I would swirl my skirts and smile up at them through dreamy lidded eyes, and they would purchase my stock without even realizing what they were doing. I had the beady gazes of the village’s women trained on my back, the wives of these men piercing me with their hateful stares. I found it difficult to care when I counted my Sickles at the end of the workday, imagining how content I would feel once I paid off our taxes at last and bought more of the essentials that we always seemed to desperately lack.
Those sleazy men were my biggest customers, and for a very long while, my only pastime was scheming how to peel more money away from them. Greed was my plaything, my delight. I gained more and more confidence in myself and began to cater only to these men, telling them stories in a sing-song voice and portraying myself as a pitiable damsel in distress. Eventually the women banded against me, shutting their husbands inside their houses and leaving me and my inflated minced pie stand deserted in the street. Other market-goers would pass from the booth on my left to the booth on my right without so much as shifting their eyes toward me.
Yet, I did not give up. I greeted it as a challenge, and enthusiastically set to devising ways to overpower those who did not like me, and to crumble their resistance easily between my hands. I wanted to sprinkle my influence over them all and revel in knowing that I had tricked those who had hated me the most into believing in my sincerity, into filling my pockets with Galleons and Sickles for items that they didn’t really need and could have definitely found somewhere else for a lower price. The only thing that amused me was the idea of a challenge, and of trumping that challenge.
“I don’t know,” I had told Lucius unsteadily. “I suppose that my hobby is thinking.”
Lucius looked as if he didn’t know how to take that, and busied himself by pretending to be fascinated with the tablecloth that he couldn’t see. Finally, he said, “Then what can satisfy you here? If it is not a library full of books, or musical instruments or drawing or flying, then what can I do to make you happy?”
I eyed him. “There is nothing you can do to make me happy.”
He considered that, and bestowed me with a hollow smile. “If you say so.”
But Lucius did not give up. I soon began to expect him every morning, awaiting me outside my bedroom door, so that we could walk together down to the dining room. It was always a silent walk, but an expected one, and there came a morning that I opened up the door, saw him standing there as usual, and did not flinch. And every single night, without fail, he always asked me the same question before he advanced to his tower.
“What do I look like?” he would question.
Always skirting around the subject, I made a game of it. I might ask him a riddle in response, or tell him that I was so tired that I could not possibly answer, or announce that I had already answered him the previous night, and he must have forgotten it. I could not be blamed for his poor memory, after all.
One night in early November, however, I hesitated after he asked me. He’d caught me off guard, as he didn’t wait until we were standing at my bedroom door to propose the question. Lucius surprised me by asking while we were passing through a corridor – just about to enter the adjoining corridor that contained dementor’s skin used as window curtains.
I paused, studying his dark outline. His wonderment that I did not directly change the subject was obvious, and he waited wordlessly as the shadows all around him pressed the air. My gaze flitted over the shadows, watching them move of their own accord even though both of us stood still. It was a strange place, Malfoy Manor – a place where shadows without people to guide them can pass along the walls before you, twisting with their silhouetted faces to watch you as steadily as you watch them. They take flight up the walls, through the rafters and onto walls of the rooms above, flapping with bat wings.
Their bodies were skinny, like spider legs, and if you stayed in one room alone for too long, they would whisper to you, persuade you. They would cock their pointed faces, speaking with their thoughts. “Come,” they would hiss, pointing to the rafters. They would move their fingers as if maneuvering marionettes, and I could see the strings of my own shadow being tugged forward. My shadow would pull toward them, and I would stumble behind, and together we would move up, up, up the wall. If you didn’t remember yourself quickly enough, you would soon be rocking back and forth on the balls of your feet on the slender wooden beams, staring down through black space at the empty floor twenty feet below and completely at a loss as to how you got there. “Jump,” they would whisper with voices as frail as smoke.
Ramien said that they were demons, evil that was born from the curse. Evil breeds evil, he had told me. Circe didn’t create them, but her curse did. It was because of these creatures, who hid between the walls during the day until they caught the spark of opportunity, the lone person wandering a corridor, that I was warned by Lucius to always keep company with me. And because of this, I found myself frequently strolling the halls with Lucius himself, and the shadowy creatures stayed far away from him. Even the demons were frightened of Master Malfoy.
I faced Lucius, mulling over the question he so often repeated. “Do you really want to know?”
Lucius moved his head, looking at me without seeing me, and the way that his lips slightly parted told me that he wasn’t sure himself if he really did want to know. His sudden apprehension kindled the words spreading in my mind, right there at the ready to stab him to pieces. The power I held, the power to harm him, provoked me. I did not wish to hurt him, of course, but I enjoyed knowing that if I wanted to, I could. The power was mine.
“You…” I cleared my throat, suddenly nervous. Lucius looked nervous as well, but he did not interrupt. “Your hair is so blond that it’s nearly white.”
He nodded. “That’s a relief. It was always that color.”
“Your eyes,” I said. “What black eyes you have.” Just looking at them made me feel cold. The early winter from beyond the manor began to drift through the gaps in the mortar like a fine layer of snow. I shivered slightly, and the wide black eyes were fixed unblinkingly upon my face. I wondered for the space of a heartbeat what he pictured when he thought of me.
“Black?” he repeated. “That is strange. Blind eyes usually have that white film over them.”
“And your teeth,” I continued, unwilling to discuss his eyes. “What long teeth you have.”
“I knew that.” He sounded dejected, and rubbed his mouth with the back of one hand. “It’s rather uncomfortable. I’m still not used to it.”
If my teeth could draw blood from my own lips just by the softest touch, I doubt I could ever grow accustomed to it, either. “Your skin,” I told him next, “is the thinnest I’ve ever seen. It’s like a deep-sea creature.” Lucius winced at that comparison, lowering his eyes to glare at the floor. “On your arms and hands, it’s the thinnest. I can see the veins there, like blue lines on a map. I can see your pulse, your blood.”
“I guessed as much.” His tone was defeated and quiet. “It feels like tissue paper.” He rubbed two gloved fingers together. “I wear these as protection, because the smallest prick causes my skin to bleed. I am sorry that you’ve ever had the misfortune to look at it.”
And because he was so sorrowful, I felt pushed to look more closely, to examine him as I had scarcely allowed myself to examine him before. I suffocated the impulse to glimpse only fleetingly, and studied Mr. Malfoy – really studied him – for the very first time.
It was like a needle digging into my flesh. The nausea and anxiety peaked before it actually happened, and once the initial sting was over, I felt strangely calm. I discovered my own threshold and realized that it wasn’t quite as bad as I anticipated, now that the needle was already in there, penetrating.
“The shape of your face is, I presume, the same as it was before the curse,” I remarked. “You have very fine, elegant features. Your nose, your chin, your forehead and jaw…everything about it is normal.” More than normal, however; it was somehow, despite his other characteristics, pleasing to the eyes. I plowed on, astonished by this, and added, “Your build is nice. You are arranged rather regally, with your air and clothing and posture, which indicates that you are well-bred.”
His lips, I saw, were not quite as thin as I had supposed. The whiteness of them, and the way they seemed to blend in with the rest of his chalky complexion, could be deceiving to another person’s swift glance. In the darkness, with his black robes and ghostly, luminous skin, he was less something to fear and more something to admire. The plane of his forehead, the well-carved cheekbones and hair smoothed away from his face, gave the distinction of someone who had once been beautiful; someone who did not realize what he looked like now, and still harbored all of the pride and dignity that he used to have reason to possess.
His eyes flickered to mine, impossibly. He couldn’t have known he was looking directly at me, but I absorbed it with an overwhelming impact. My lungs hitched for a moment, unsure of how to feel. Wintry breath rippled across my skin, splashing my senses with raw, excruciating gales. It could not be possible that I was discerning the person who had once been beautiful; that I could see what existed a lifetime ago in the man that now stood before me.
As though it were a trick of the light, I could see the phantom of what had been, blossoming on his skin once more. Pale eyes, the whites gleaming naturally. Skin with the luster of diamonds, but with warmth and hue that coursed along his arms and up his neck. A flush of something much more alive, and a smile playing on his dragon-heartstring lips. From this strange angle, I could imagine it all perfectly, right down to the unnerving glint in his eye that he might have reflected if he were to lock eyes with a person, really seeing them. If he were really in this room with me and not buried behind the murky veils of his blindness.
A rumbling sound, like pebbles crunching under the wheels of a carriage, carried through the air and Lucius’s profile snapped up, instantly alert.
“What was that?” he asked sharply, and I exhaled a gust of air I had been suppressing.
I edged over to a triangular window, feeling Lucius hovering just over my shoulder, and I gazed down over the stark exterior of the castle.
“I can feel something.” He pressed his fingertips to the stone, closing his eyes. I closed my eyes, too, taking in the faint vibrations under my feet, in the walls. It seemed like it was coming from far away, like a traveling echo; similar to the thuds of a hammer against rock in the depths of a mine. Bits of graphite would ricochet off, pinging against the other rocks, pooling together in shallow basins of dirty water. I imagined it all like it had been planted there by the castle itself, and when I finally opened my eyes again, I could clearly see what I had not seen before – what I had not been privy to see because of the castle’s warps and illusions.
Something was sliding down the length of the castle, not quite fifteen feet away from where we stood rooted to the ground. Its form rotated like a whirlwind, and I could make out no more than fingers splayed far apart, grappling at the air, reaching for substance. A thin stick appeared in the person’s hand, as though dropped into their palm from heaven. And just as the person was about to smack into the frozen, compacted soil below, they turned on the spot for one last time and vanished with a crack that sliced through the night.
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