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Chapter 11 : Paradox
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A cloaked figure stooped through the cold sheet of rain, raising a hand against the downpour that overflowed from the gutters of a shop and over the eaves. It was the only shop on the crooked avenue still lit from within, and a sinister tinkle of bells echoed to the corners of the main room when the door was pushed open. The figure slid past a weary sign that read Borgin & Burkes.
“Back already?” a man called out. He was bent over his till, relocating the coins he had earned during the day into a bare flour sack.
“Yes,” the newcomer replied, sounding irritated. “Despite your ridiculous prices, I feel that I have no choice.”
The man cackled, unashamed of himself. “Have a look around, then. I’m just about to close up.” He paused, narrowing his eyes suspiciously and debating whether or not he dared to ask. On one hand, business was drooping and he’d like this person’s gold. On the other hand, he was morbidly curious. “Why do you need something from here, anyway?” he finally blurted.
The answering tone was clipped. “There is a girl.” The shop customer veered around a shelf spilling with cursed candles – whoever lit them would immediately become engulfed in a mass of fire. “She is becoming quite a nuisance and I need to get rid of her. It is of the utmost importance that I prevent her from breaking a curse.”
The shopkeeper thought to himself that this person was perhaps a little bit touched in the head, but said nothing. After all, he was severely lacking in Galleons lately. He might be going home tonight with a heavier money sack thanks to this nutter. “If you have any questions, just ask.”
The figure said nothing, examining several artifacts with increasing impatience and moving faster between the rows of merchandise. The candlelight flickered softly, blowing sideways in response to the strong storm pelting Diagon Alley, casting long shadows over the dirty tiled floor.
“What is this?” The person had come to a standstill, and was poring over a rickety table in one dusty corner.
“Oh, that?” the man behind the counter asked mildly, rubbing the back of his neck in an absent sort of way. “That’s a rather sensitive item, if I do say so myself. Does just what that little flier says, but you’ve got to be extra careful. Dangerous sort of magic, that one. Just my specialty, but I admit that it’s not something to be trifled with.”
“But it will succeed in getting rid of her?”
The man stared at the cloaked figure. “Undoubtedly.”
The responding voice was filled with glee. Three pairs of eyes glittered in the dark room, the third one the most triumphant of all. “Then I’ll take it.”
I awoke the next morning with no memory of how or when I fell asleep the night before. A soft humming in my ears had disturbed me, and turning my head, the tip of my nose and chin were submerged in a shaft of warm, golden light. It was a stark contrast to the frosty temperature of my bedroom; with a sleepy mind, I swung my feet over the edge and darted across the room. I stopped short just before I passed my dressing table, wondering where the sudden jumpiness had come from.
I paused at a small mirror embedded in the wall that the house had acquired overnight, measuring my snarled hair and the circles under my eyes, and smiled because it didn’t matter.
My hand turned the knob, and stepping into the corridor, the humming grew into a much louder, sweeter pattern. I could feel the essence of something exciting flooding through the walls and ceiling and floor, and the castle’s inhabitants seemed to be straining to hear it. The shelf Lucius had broken during my first week in Malfoy Manor had shifted itself, and several chairs were cocked at just the right angle to signify that they were indeed listening.
I walked briskly to the end of the hall, marveling at the way everything in the castle orbited around its master, both rewarding him and punishing him at once. I passed Miu, who was staring at the ceiling as though transfixed. Ramien was looking after her from an obscure alcove between a cabinet and a vertical succession of tiny round windows, his eyes clouded. I passed him and he acknowledged me a few moments too late with a wink.
Wren was curled against the wall in the corridor above that one, stationary. “What’s going on in there?” I asked, pointing at Lucius’s bedroom door.
“He decided it was time for you to wake up.”
Shaking my head slightly, I pushed through the door – and was nearly blown back into the corridor again by the surge of sound. Flute, violin, drums, and of course, piano. Lucius provided the piano and the house had done the rest. His glass instrument looked strangely right at home under the swaying branches, its transparent top swimming with the ripples of yellow and red and burning orange. It was autumn in Lucius’s bedroom, the seasons passing through like a freight train. I watched one ruby leaf swirl through the air three times before splashing lightly onto the pond mirror. It tipped into the glass, disappearing.
Questions pooled on my tongue, wondering why he had moved his piano down from the isolated tower, and if he’d learned the dark figure’s identity yet. These questions dissolved as soon as he swerved his head to face me.
Lucius’s eyes slid open, black to the edges. His pale hair fanned out on his dark clothing like flayed strips of aspen, and he acknowledged my presence – not with posture, not with words, but by flecking the melody with tones richer than before. I could see the facets of his song rising up, up, up – so intricate and precise, like they were visible in hues of every color.
Even in stillness, Lucius could be perpetual movement, like an underwater creature. He seemed always to be moving even when he was not, breathing in more ways than one. It was not any abnormality of his physical appearance that caught me, however; there was a brightness exuding from him, an emotion that overwhelmed when displayed on his face. It danced across his lips with a smile, and Lucius himself seemed like a crescendo.
He gestured to the vacant expanse of bench beside him. “Would you like to…?”
I promptly seated myself, mesmerized by the fluidity of his fingers over the keys, and watching them dance beneath his touch. A thin mist clung to the air, drizzling through the treetops in a quiet rain. It smelled tauntingly natural, ripe with earth and worms and the smolder of rotting leaves.
“Why did you bring this down from the tower?”
A grin etched into his papery skin. “Because you can’t hear me as well when I’m up there.” I arched an eyebrow, and as though in response, he added, “I was going to set it up outside your bedroom door, but Wax advised against it. He said it was too…”
Lucius’s hands moved deftly along the keys, sending up a quick flutter of notes that spoke for him. My mind grasped at them, eager to define.
Hope. Determination against the odds. The steep, strangling number of impossibilities. Even still, there was hope that remained even if the house of cards began to fall, collapsing in on him like sand. It was a war between maybe and never, and I found myself wondering, astonishingly enough, which side would win.
The castle’s invisible instruments coursed along with his piano, the tree branches curling toward us like greedy hands wanting more. How long had it been since Lucius last played in this way? I remembered Miu and Ramien downstairs, still as statues as they absorbed the music. It shattered the gloom, flying over the shadow-people and the empty portraits and the scattered, jaded staff; tables, fireplaces, braided rugs – the very atmosphere itself – was gazing at Lucius’s piano at this moment. I felt a shiver bursting through my blood, pleased in the belief that I might be the reason why.
It was an alarming admission, considering the fact that I might be allowing myself to feel charmed by Mr. Malfoy. There was a danger in it, because once I gave way to that sort of thought, it would have free reign to blossom and cause panic. It would destroy all of my prior notions of what was charming and what was an abomination.
All the same, there was a peculiar pleasure that came with entertaining these treacherous thoughts, with dwelling on the sparks that shouldn’t even be permitted to exist. I was Narcissa Black, and no one else’s ideals would define how I viewed others. The imaginary disapproval of anyone would not have an effect on me. Malfoy Manor, after all, was beyond the judgment of others. We were all under our own law here, and the law of the castle. It was a completely different world.
I hazarded a glance at Lucius, hoping slimly that I might wince and recoil as I once had. There was a savage satisfaction when I did not respond in any negative way. “You’re looking at me,” Lucius mused, focusing on the piano.
I blushed. “You don’t know that.”
He raised his eyebrows. “I do.” He was silent for a few moments, and the castle took the opportunity to show off with its unseen musical performance, inviting a penny whistle and mandolin to take precedence. “I often imagine the Lady of Fairnon when I think of you.” He averted his face, and I wondered if he was blushing himself. “Did you ever read that story?”
“Yes. My sisters and I used to play it when we were children.”
“Did you play the Lady or the grandmother?”
“Neither,” I admitted with a laugh. “I was always the snake.”
He seemed very amused by this. “Of course you were.”
The Lady of Fairnon was a tale about a young woman who found a phoenix-feather quill on the forest floor when she was traveling. A snake told her that if she wrote down the name of a person who was deceased, they would come back to life. In that person’s place, however, someone else must die. “The choice of whoever dies in their place is entirely random,” the snake warned. “But if you wish to see the dead again, you may think it worth the sacrifice.”
The Lady’s two companions argued with her, but the Lady was already entranced. She had grown up all her life hearing about the accomplishments and adventures of her grandfather, who died long before she was born. The Lady wished to hear more stories from him, so she took the quill and wrote Timothy upon her own hand.
No sooner had the man materialized than the Lady herself vanished, presumably taking his place in the afterlife. The Lady’s companions were horrified and ran away, and Timothy was very confused. “How did I get here?” he asked no one in particular.
The snake slithered out from a hole in a tree and said to him, “You have been brought back to life by a magical quill. If you write down the name of a person – anyone you want, so long as they are already dead – they will come back to you.”
Timothy excitedly scrawled the name of his wife on a bit of scraped bark on the tree. Within seconds, he was gone and replaced by the Lady’s grandmother. The snake explained the quill’s enchantments to her, but this woman was not interested. “I have no wish to be reunited with anyone in this life,” she replied. “I was perfectly content with the one I just left.”
Dissatisfied, the snake said, “There is no one else you wish to see alive?”
The woman did, indeed, have someone in mind that she wanted to see alive again. Resolved on retreating back into the grave herself, she wrote Snake in the dirt.
The snake, who was actually Death in disguise, was of course already there in the world meant for the fully living. The woman’s request birthed a paradox, and the enchantments broke – regurgitating all former captives of the spell. The Lady of Fairnon popped back into the forest, surrounded by a troupe of other people who had also been fooled. One of them, a young man who had been the first to suffer the quill’s tricks, secured the Lady’s hand in marriage and they lived happily ever after.
I remembered an illustration of the Lady of Fairnon, and knew that being likened to her was doing me far too much credit.
“You are offended?” Lucius ventured.
“No,” I assured him. “Not at all. I take it very much as a compliment that you see me that way.”
I bit my lip, watching him play, and my reverie of snakes and ladies was soon interrupted by a knock at the door. Lucius called for them to enter, and I tried to conceal my disappointment. I much preferred the calm solitude with Lucius, without others there to interfere.
It was Mrs. Macnair. “Good morning,” she greeted us cheerily. “I heard your music from the other side of the castle, and wondered if you wanted me to copy it down, as you usually like.”
“Oh,” Lucius said. “No, thank you. This isn’t a song for the collection.”
“Really? But it sounds so lovely. Are you absolutely sure?”
“Yes.” He hesitated and chanced a look at me, envisioning someone with a tumbling mass of golden hair, perfect pink lips, and sparkling, witty eyes. The Lady of Fairnon. “This one is reserved for Narcissa, so I don’t want anyone else to ever play it, if someday people come across my other songs.” Mrs. Macnair did not speak, her mouth dropping open slightly. Lucius was obviously embarrassed due to our silence, and went on much more quietly, “I wrote it for her.”
I colored deeply, thankful that he couldn’t witness it. Mrs. Macnair was staring at me. “Very well then,” she replied at last, politely bowing herself out.
I sat there for an awkward five minutes, unsure of what to say. “I know that it’s impossible to even consider for a second…” Lucius said in a tentative voice, his fingers hovering over the piano keys. Suddenly, I found them repulsive again. I looked away so that I would not have to see the blood tracing in his veins. “For you, it must feel like an insult.”
I opened my mouth but found I had nothing sensible to say.
My unremitting stillness was mortifying for Lucius, and he had no choice but to continue with, “I assure you, it was only a gesture of friendship. I have written songs with Horatio in mind, as well as Ramien and Charlie and Wilda. Especially of Charlie and Wilda. I do not actively entertain any unfeasible expectations…I am perfectly aware of the limitations here.”
I toyed with a loose thread on my sleeve. “It’s not…completely…well…”
The door flew open, and Mrs. Macnair’s face appeared once more. Her eyes were wide and distraught. “Master Malfoy!” she declared. “A horrible devastation! A most terrible accident! I do not know how it happened.”
Lucius clutched the bench. “What is it?”
“Your music,” she moaned, covering her eyes with trembling hands. Her white hair was plastered with soot, and she smelled like singed fabric. “It’s just…it’s gone. It’s all gone. There was nothing I could do to put it out.”
Lucius stood to his feet, fierce and intimidating. “What do you mean, ‘gone’?”
We both drew parallels to the burning odor at the same time, and Lucius sank back to his bench as though on the verge of fainting. His face was more pallid than usual, as colorless as death. “I’ll go look,” I told him, touching his shoulder.
“Nothing you can do,” Mrs. Macnair cried, hiccupping and hysterical from fear of reprimand. “I tried, sir. I did everything in my power, but the house’s will is the house’s will. It would not be put out for anything – was completely impermeable to water. Scorched. Gone. Seven years of your compositions, all up in flame.”
I raced past her, heading to the abandoned western half of the castle. The smell of fire preceded me, growing stronger with each step I took. Ramien and Wren were already in the small room, the door thrown open wide. They were fanning smoke and trying to shout over the ticking of the grandfather clock, which had seemed to increase in volume until it was drowning out every other sound in the castle.
Stacks and stacks of parchment, categorized neatly in an array of cardboard boxes, were now aglow with flame. Cinders floated through the air, and miniscule scraps of what had once been Lucius’s hard work – his only pleasure during an eight year exile – fluttered onto our shoulders and the tops of our heads in a choking ash. I could feel my hair curling with the heat, sticking furiously to my neck.
“No,” I whispered, frantic. No one could hear me. Wren was flapping a blanket at the debris, trying to kill the fire, and Ramien was attempting to douse it with a pitcher of water. Every time he went to fling the pitcher’s contents at the blaze, the water would spill through midair for a brief second before retracting back inside the ceramic pot like a turtle hiding in its shell. We were forbidden to put the fire out, and watched helplessly as it devoured the boxes of sheet music. It seemed intent on destroying only the music, and nothing else, as the fire spread no further than the boxes.
“Who’s going to tell him?” Horatio inquired from behind us, his pitch high and squirrelly. “I’m not. I’m certainly not telling him.”
“He already knows,” I deadpanned.
“He’s going to be very upset,” Horatio warned, fumbling with his pocket watch again. “Very angry, indeed.”
My memory flickered to the sadness in Lucius’s expression, and his fear – and I wasn’t so sure that Horatio wasn’t underestimating his master. While Mr. Malfoy did possess a temper, it was not equal to his melancholy.
“We can replace them,” I resolved. “We can write them over again, at least the songs he remembers. He must have his favorites memorized by now, right?”
Wren and Ramien exchanged nervous looks. “You might propose that,” Ramien answered meaningfully. “He might not be hostile if you were the one to suggest it.”
We didn’t have any other options. I left Ramien and Wren to uselessly fan the ruins of a composer’s greatest work, and found Lucius’s bedroom again.
In the dim, artificial sunlight that canvassed the room, the piano looked as green as bottle glass. Leaves of ocher and garnet spun away from the trees, coming to a rest on the lid. Lucius himself was leaning peacefully against his beloved instrument, eyes closed.
It would be the most natural thing in the world to assume him dead, what with his complexion. I looked at his hands, however, and noticed that one of them was pressing weight onto four keys. An amber leaf spilled onto his hunched shoulders, and I could taste all of the mixtures of autumn – pumpkin and cinnamon, firewood, musty coverlets brought down from the attic, spiced candles, nutmeg, freshly uprooted onion grass… But there was no suffocation in the room, no scent of death to tamper with the otherwise relaxing atmosphere. It was airy and light; Malfoy Manor’s only reprieve.
I examined Lucius’s motionless fingers on the glass keys, limp and lifeless. His blood still rushed through them as usual, coming and going like fisherman’s ships. He was not dead, of course. He had finally played the wrong note on this poisoned piano, just like his mother. The ghost of his last executed notes hung high above us, flitting from tree to tree as if trying to escape.
He would suffer the fate of endless sleep.
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