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Chapter 12: Message in a Bottle
I paced the corridor, briefly glancing in through the doorway of Lucius’s bedroom whenever I passed. Ramien, Horatio, Wren, Mrs. Macnair, Miu, Cook, and even Charlie were all standing in a circle around their immobile master, gaping in pure disbelief.
“After two decades of playing this instrument, it just now happens,” Cook said to them in an accusing tone, his sharp eyes darting to mine. His mouth was twisted into a disgusted grimace, and I could sense his genuine respect for Lucius. Unlike Horatio and Miu, who were only curious and shocked, Cook held a true regard for the pianist. He blamed me completely.
“I wasn’t even in the room,” I shot at him before he could say any more. He broke our gaze, his gray eyebrows still pulled together with grief and anger.
“What do we do?” Wren moaned again. It seemed to be the only words she was capable of uttering. The giantess alternated between biting her already-stubby nails and twisting the hem of her apron into a tail.
“Nothing,” Ramien replied tonelessly. “You know what happened to Tulia. There is nothing we can do.”
“Wait,” Mrs. Macnair said suddenly, holding out one palm as she mulled something over in her mind. “I’m remembering something. I don’t know how much merit is in it, but I’ve heard tales of a great sorcerer…of a man who is even more powerful than Circe. I daresay he would be able to break the piano’s spell.”
“And the spell over the castle, as well?” Miu asked eagerly. I gawked at her. It was the first time I had ever heard the woman speak.
“The only problem with that,” Ramien said in a terse voice, his eyes never lifting from where Lucius still sat curved over the glass piano, “is that there is no way to contact anyone from the outside world. There is no hope at all.”
They all fell silent, and I resumed my pacing. There was a nagging feeling stirring in the pit of my stomach. I was feverishly churning through my thoughts, trying to pinpoint exactly what it was that I felt. A determination arose from nowhere – a ravenous, potent determination that multiplied by the second. I thought of Lucius glancing sideways at me on his piano bench, seeing nothing, and smiling only because of my words, affectionate only because of my personality. Lucius did not require eyes to love, condemn, or approve of a person.
A hush swept over the castle, and my own disquiet grew more and more consuming. There was a gentleness to Lucius that he had just been beginning to reveal – an easiness of temper that even some of his closest companions for these last several years were yet unaware of. I suspected that I would be restless until the man awakened, always wondering what was hiding underneath that waxy, frightening exterior. I wanted to sit next to him again and hear his quiet voice as he spoke to me and only to me, and then I would be able to formulate a lucid decision about how I felt about the strange sensations wrapping around my heart like twine. If Lucius did not require eyes to approve, then neither would I.
And if he did not awaken?
No, that would not do. I was too impatient to consider it. I studied the walls, concentrating hard. There had to be something I could do. There is always a loophole to every iron-clad rule, if you just examine it closely enough. I stood in a beam of light protruding from a window, allowing my eyes to rove over deep puddles of water collecting in the landscape below. Rain and sleet continued to pour from the heavens, unrelenting. Just as I observed this to myself, a howl of wind pierced the air, spraying droplets across the glass and abstractedly reminding me of a waterfall.
“There is a way to summon him,” someone was saying. I barely maintained a grip on the conversation, as I was lost in a fog thousands of miles away from them. “Powers like you cannot even comprehend.”
The winds whistled and the walls rattled, causing a portrait hanging several yards away
to shake violently. There was something about the word whistle that struck me. I drew it to the center of my muddled thoughts, ignoring the speedy, frenzied pulsing of the clock. It became louder, more insistent, as though intentionally trying to dilute my ability to plan. I pictured air gushing through a tube, just a fleeting image –
My feet were moving before I could even appreciate the revelation. Of course! How could no one have ever thought of it before? My face split into a smile, and I picked over the new invasion of possibilities. If witches and wizards congregated together, traveled to the castle and dismantled it without entering… If they tore it down from the outside, then we would finally be freed. I could go home…
I descended the stairs and headed to my bedroom, searching desperately for a scrap of parchment and a quill. As soon as the wish entered my head, the wallpaper to my left began to peel away from its roots, like a snake shedding its skin, and a fresh, white sheet of parchment fluttered to my feet. A brass quill born from a chandelier’s candle-holder above me fell through the air and rolled across the floor, already loaded with ink.
I doubled over the parchment, tongue between my teeth as I wrote:
Please pass the message to Cygnus Black of Wasteir that his daughter, Narcissa, is trapped in the forest of Wauning, inside a castle that has a curse preventing anyone who enters from ever leaving. Please gather as many people as possible and come to Malfoy Manor, but do NOT enter it! You must destroy the castle from the outside.
Now the only thing left to do was to figure out a way to get the message into the pipes. I scoured the room for a corked bottle to put it in, wondering where the pipework would carry it, and if anyone would ever find it. It was a long-shot, but there was nowhere else I could store my faith.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a pearly glimmer. Hoping that the castle had produced a bottle for my use, I turned my head and saw someone identical to myself turning as well.
The mirror that had appeared just that morning was malignant, having expanded to be quite as tall as I was, and twice as wide. Whereas earlier it had been a bit murky in color, a bit rounded – rather like seeing myself in the back of a spoon – it was now crystal-clear. I couldn’t even make out opaque streaks of reflected light; the surface was as smooth and insubstantial as air. And when I shifted my position just the slightest bit, my own mirror image vanished completely.
I caught the sweet fragrance of roses before I laid eyes on them, flowing steadily inward on the current of a warm summer breeze. The freezing sleet beating against the windowpanes in my room shrank to muffled echoes, my ears closing around them with deafness. November ceased to exist and the only thing I could focus on were the tremors of an August wind tumbling over everlasting moors.
Rose petals sank across the lush grass, and I leaned close to see them, to drink in their perfume like wine and marvel at how real it all seemed. I could see every thin vein webbing beneath their skins of velvet; I could smell and taste all of the rich flavors of wildflowers with their blooms like pink polyps, of thickets dense with springy moss and dogwood.
Sunlight seared my skin, glowing right through the mirror and basking my arms and face in a blush of heat. I watched in amazement as a brown spike broke through the earth, slithering upwards. Branches climbed the blue sky, fighting each other as they twisted, and the buds of leaves blossomed all along them. Round, ripe apples sprouted from the newly-grown tree, bobbing so close to where I stood that I could almost feel the weight of them as they pulled the branches down.
I stepped closer. Every single apple in the tree was a pretty, pale green – except for one that hung the nearest to me. It was just a fraction of a centimeter away from spilling through the glass, blood-red and swaying harmoniously.
I eyed the peculiar red apple, reaching out to pluck the fruit as though it were not all a mirage. My fingers pierced the mirror, sending small waves shivering down the glass from my touch. It was as cool and acquiescent as liquid, and it seemed to suck my wrist inside it, closing around me more tightly as my arm plunged into the scenery. The substance grew sticky, suctioning to my skin like the mouth of a predator. I could see the apple dangling there, delicious and saccharine, and my fingertips moved through another dimension, inches from skimming it.
My arm extended further and further, the apple somehow eluding me; and then, quite unexpectedly, I felt a rough hand seizing my own, and it pulled me right through the mirror.
I screamed, thrashing against the fingers clasped firmly over my own. My legs kicked the air, and I was falling through a gush of fluid, drowning in a waterbed of tangled colors that wavered in the darkness. I could not see the hand that tugged on mine, guiding me through the water. I felt disconnected from the universe, swimming through molten glass that pressed on my lungs with hungry, monstrous vigor. Just as suddenly as I had been heaved into the mirror, however, I was out of it again.
Miraculously, I was dry. I stared in disbelief at the last residues of liquid glass dotting my skin like perspiration. I shook my arm and they popped off, falling to the floor with the ringing noise of clattering jewels. I appeared to be standing in a dungeon. Raising my gaze, I discovered with a skip of the heartbeat that the grip crushing my fingers belonged to a terrifyingly familiar man.
“Well,” Gaspard Pravus mused, looking down at me through clear eyes that were narrowed to slits in victory. He reveled in my shock, quietly exuberant. “I have had men searching up and down the country for you for the past three months, and here you are. You stepped right into the palm of my hand.”
I whirled around, absorbing the familiar floor-length mirror that was attached to a stone wall. Beyond it, I could see my bedroom in Malfoy Manor, silent and unchanged. I could feel the sting of sleet once more, the cold draft slipping between cracks in the walls. Straining my ears, I thought I could hear Ramien and Wren speaking to each other.
“Take that away,” Gaspard replied in a loud voice, snapping his fingers behind him. Two elves dressed in tattered linens bumbled past, lifting the mirror away from the wall. “There will be no more need for it.” They held it unsteadily between them, their feet zigzagging across the concrete floor in efforts to keep the hefty object aloft.
The area where the mirror had been situated was now entirely black, like scorch marks. I could see small indentations in the shadowed stone where it had melted, dried up, and melted again. It had burned away a layer of stone, distorting it. I pictured the clear-eyed man watching me through that mirror, a smile curling his mouth as I reached for an apple that wasn’t there.
I was too horrified to speak.
Gaspard did not seem to mind this, as he evidently wanted to dominate the conversation. “You Stunned two of my workmen,” he said lightly, dangerously. He began to circle the damp dungeon, hands laced behind his back as he lingered over his triumph. “And all this time, you were there. What are the odds?”
My fist tightened over the strip of parchment, the message I had intended to release into the pipework. My only salvation. Gaspard smirked and ripped it away from me, reading it before I got the chance to try to swipe it back from him.
“Malfoy Manor,” he repeated to himself, his tone peppered with scorn. “Looks like I saved you, didn’t I?”
“I would rather be back where I was,” I responded.
“Really?” He cocked his head, analyzing me shrewdly. “Even with someone like Mr. Lucius Malfoy there?” I raised my eyebrows in surprise, and he added with a smile, “Oh yes, Narcissa Black. I am quite aware of the inhabitants of Malfoy Manor, as well as the restrictions set upon them. I have happily ignored Lucius’s predicament for the past…oh, how many? Seven years? Nine? One can never tell. I confess I am not much bothered by it. I daresay that you will thank me now, for rescuing you from the claws of a person like Malfoy.”
I matched his gaze, not even trying to conceal my hatred. “Lucius is twice the man you could ever hope to be, you miserable bastard.”
He made a hissing noise. An alarmingly ugly look flashed across his face, and he sneered, “We’ll see how quickly your attitude changes.” He flicked his wand and a door leading upstairs swung open. “Walk.”
I glared at him for a few moments, deciding whether or not it would be worth it to try and defy him. It was only the presence of his wand, and the prominent lack of my own, that set my feet in motion up the narrow stairs.
“Where am I?” I asked as we traipsed down a bright corridor. Gaspard ignored me.
The dungeon, it seemed, was separated from the main building by a long corridor that reminded me of the bridges at Hogwarts. Two long windows ran the length of both sides, inviting a flood of light to pour through. To my left, there were red valleys sprinkled with snow. To my right, I could see gray ocean waves lapping over a slender strip of shore. “Where are we?” I demanded to know again. The landscape was foreign to me – we must have been hundreds of miles from Wasteir. I remembered passing hills on the Hogwarts Express, but those had been painted the soft pastels of yellow, blue, and green. They weren’t anything like this terrain – stained brick red as though the grass had been sunburned.
“This is where you will be working,” Gaspard said. “It is precisely what you owe, and what your father owes. Cygnus may have found himself a new situation, as his daughter had the wits to marry someone who could afford to clear his debts and move them both away; but I feel that is nothing short of cheating the system. Cygnus did not earn that money. You can either stay here and work off the debt yourself, and go home after two months or so; or you can walk home now and I will see to it that your father is sent to Azkaban for a period of two to three months. The choice is yours.”
Gaspard did not wait for my reply. The door at the end of the long corridor was creaking open, and he pushed me into it before shutting it once more, from the other side, and locking me in. I beat on the door. “What are you doing?” I yelled. I could hear the key turning, followed by the thudding retreat of Gaspard’s footsteps. “Where the bloody hell am I?”
“Doorturn, Miss,” a voice squeaked from behind me.
A row of elves. Seven of them, lining one wall with timid expressions on their snouted faces. One of them was cowering in the corner, a wooden bucket over his head as he trembled and shook. The elf who had spoken to me stepped forward, and I saw that he had strung together potpourri as a crown, and wore it on his bald head. Tufts of orange hair sprang out of his floppy ears.
The room around us was wide and open, with rosewood rafters crisscrossing amongst the low ceiling. Seven hammocks fashioned from fisherman’s rope were suspended from the ceiling, topped with potato-sack pillows and ragged quilts. Most of the right-hand wall consisted of a granite counter, on which four complex-looking machines that reminded me of something my father might have built were spread. There was a miniature kitchen, and an even tinier toilet sealed for privacy with a banged-up bit of sheet metal operating as a door. Everything was sized according to the elves – impossibly small and simplistic. I felt like Wren, with my head perilously close to brushing against the ceiling.
“What are you all doing here?” I wondered aloud.
“We works here,” another elf piped up, looking very proud of himself. “Very important, secret work.” He pointed at a delicate-looking hammock that could have fit a toddler in it. “You can have Totty’s bed, if you like! Totty will sleep on the floor, he does not mind.”
I grasped the wall, my sensations clammy as I felt a strong influx of vertigo threatening to spiral me to my knees. “I don’t suppose that any of you have got wands,” I muttered. Totty leaned across to see my face, offering me a childlike smile.
“What would we be needing wands for? We are having everything we needs right here. You will enjoy it very much.”
I felt a very different pair of eyes settling on me, and I looked up to see a woman painted in a frame, her face pale and elegant. The woman’s lips pursed, eyes brimming with pity. Her expression was enough to make something in my stomach drop painfully fast, and with that sinking feeling, I glanced once again at the seven elves. They were all climbing into their hammocks, even though it was only sunset, chattering happily. Totty patted the firm stone next to a fireplace, as if to try and cushion it, before he curled up like a kitten and closed his bulbous eyes.
When I turned back to the woman in the portrait, I found that she had walked sideways out of her frame and disappeared, leaving only a yellow wooden chair behind.