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House of Cards by Aphoride
Chapter 1: Two of Spades
Two of Spades
Thick, midnight blue drapes hang either side of the huge, arched windows which line the whole of the wall, metal candelabras standing between each one. The flames flicker gently, a white-hot yellow, illuminating the room, throwing long shadows away towards the painting on the opposite side, obscuring the face of a simpering young girl, her hair done up in ringlets, a fan in hand, twirling along a deserted beach, dress smoothing down the sand around her, leaving footprints, track marks revealing her swaying, dancing path.
The mood of the girl in the painting stands in stark contrast to the aura surrounding the table which fills most of the room. Easily big enough to welcome thirty people, the vast majority of the wood is bare, polished and gleaming underneath the candlelight. Only eleven places are set this evening; only eight of those are filled.
Soft sobs splash into the silence, sending ripples racing out across the room, hitting every person there. A gentle plea, barely loud enough to be heard by anyone, let alone the one it is intended for, slips out of a pair of lips; a kiss is administered to a cold, limp hand.
Pollux Black looks up from where he is kneeling beside his son, his face hard and set, as though it were carved from granite.
Orion Black lowers his head; Narcissa claps a hand in front of her mouth, tears stinging her eyes; even Sirius, apathetic as he is towards his family, looks vaguely upset. Besides Cygnus’ body, a heap on the floor, Druella continues to sob quietly, clutching his hand in both of hers, rocking backwards and forwards. None of them look at her, although whether this aversion is out of respect or embarrassment, it is impossible to say.
Only two people seem completely unaffected: Bellatrix, already tucking a stray black curl behind her ear and preparing to leave, and Barty Crouch who’s regarding the corpse with something akin to curious interest.
Slowly, Pollux raises a hand and brushes his fingers over his son’s open eyes. Dark eyelashes flutter down, hiding his blank, sightless gaze. If someone had walked into the room at that very moment, they would be forgiven for thinking that he was merely sleeping. A slight, watery smile crosses his face and then he rises to his feet, leaning heavily on his cane.
“Well, I should really be going,” Bellatrix announces, standing up, the creak of her chair on the ground loud. A wooden chair leg lands on her back of her mother’s rose-pink robes, pressing a rectangle into the soft fabric.
Heads turn to look at her. Regulus appears stunned, frozen, and he exchanges a brief glance with Sirius, charcoal eyes meeting light grey, before staring back at his cousin. A lace handkerchief dabbing at the tears on her cheeks, Narcissa doesn’t appear to have heard her sister.
“No,” Orion Black’s voice cuts through the shock as easily as a knife moves through butter. Harsh and staccato, the word crashes down into the silence. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Bellatrix stiffens and flicks her gaze up to fix her uncle with a fierce glare.
“You have no right to tell me what to do! If I want to go, then –“
“No one is going anywhere,” Pollux ends the argument, moving to stand next to his empty chair at the head of the table, one hand on the armrest for support.
Although she glares at him in turn, Bellatrix seems to shrink a little before her grandfather and then, a long moment later, dips her head. She refuses to sit back down, though, her hands gripping the side of the table tightly, her knuckles white.
“All of you will go to the drawing room and wait there,” he orders, his gaze flicking over Bellatrix to Orion, then down to Barty Crouch and Sirius. “All of you. Anyone who runs will be brought back, kicking and screaming if necessary.”
They all look at him, none daring to question if they would be brought back – Pollux Black is a man who has means of accomplishing everything he sets out to do and his family all know it well – or how they would be brought back. A pause, pregnant and expectant, and then Sirius pushes his chair back, hands in his pockets, striding off across the hall, heading for the doors. His father follows him, tall and straight-backed; Regulus catches Barty’s eye and the two of them leave next, side-by-side.
In the drawing room, Sirius immediately sinks into an armchair tucked away in a corner of the room, slumping in it, grateful for the momentary relief, the momentary lack of relatives surrounding him. It doesn’t last anywhere near as long as he wishes it would as his father enters a moment later, Regulus flinging himself onto a black leather sofa, Barty falling down next to him. Catching the eye of the somewhat disgraced Black heir, the blond boy gives him a toothy grin which vanishes quickly as Narcissa and Lucius sweep in together, the latter’s arm around his wife’s waist.
“Why has he insisted we all come in here?” Lucius breaks the silence, glancing around the room with a faintly demanding air, as though he expects the answer to be written on one of the walls, or stitched into the cushions.
Regulus shrugs lazily, elegantly; Sirius barely glances at him and Orion moves to speak, but someone else beats him to it.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” Barty looks up at the older wizard, his green eyes alight. He doesn’t grin, though, knowing that it would be rude to smile about a man’s death in front of one of his daughters. “Cygnus Black was murdered and one of us did it.”
A fresh wave of shock rolls through the room. Even Sirius, pretending not to be paying attention, looks up at that, watching Barty intently, curiously. In the doorway, Bellatrix halts, regarding the scene, one hand on the doorframe, the other fingering the handle of her wand.
“What do you mean?” Narcissa stares at him, the tear tracks down her face catching the light from the candles overhead and shining, a transparent reminder of the loss their company had just suffered. “What do you mean my father was murdered?”
Sirius rolls his eyes and shakes his head, a pitying smile now gracing his face.
“Oh, come on, Cissy, don’t be so naïve,” he snorts. “Crouch means exactly what he said: Uncle was murdered and one of us lot at dinner did it. It makes sense – he just collapsed didn’t he? Barely any warning at all. We’re the only people in the house, so if he was murdered, then it has to have been one of us who did it. Is that really so hard to believe?”
“No,” Narcissa declares, drawing herself up to her full height, brushing down the front of her dress. “I refuse to believe it. It’s not true.”
In the doorway, Bellatrix gives a slight cough, looking at her sister with a mocking, superior smile curling the corners of her lips. She says nothing, however, merely sustaining her sister’s defiant, blue-and-red gaze before dropping, surrendering. Releasing a faint sigh, she perches on the edge of the sofa, making sure to keep her wand and robes well away from Barty Crouch, a suspicious look rewarded with an innocent, wide-eyed glance.
Footsteps in the corridor, loud and heavy, alert them to the approach of Pollux, the thud of his cane on the floor like the murmur of an extra, fading heartbeat, half a second behind every other step. None of them look at each other, Barty’s insane, terrible proposal still lingering in the air, mixed in with the traces of dust on the tables and the glass and the books. They are all thinking the same thing: if Cygnus Black was murdered and one of us did it, then who is the killer? Who is the murderer? Who, in this family of wolves, has bathed their hands in the blood of one of their own?
Oblivious to the flicked glances and the sense of such heavy, pressing thoughts, Barty swings his legs backwards and forwards, each time stopping an inch before he hits the front of the sofa, and hums to himself inside his mind.
Druella is no longer crying when she enters the room, supported by her sister-in-law, Pollux close behind them. Both women bear signs of tears – a handkerchief pokes its head out of Walburga’s pocket – but they hold their heads up high and simply absorb the gazes of the others. At a sign from his mother, Regulus slips his legs off the sofa, sitting up properly and shuffles along to sit closer to Barty, allowing space for his aunt to settle next to him. She mutters a quiet ‘thank you’ which he does not return.
Pollux Black stands in the centre of the room, three and a half feet away from the door, surveying them all. His gaze passes over each of their expressions, his mouth turned down, the look in his eyes somewhat softened by the watery rims. Both hands resting on the top of his cane, he takes them all in, one by one: Orion, who watches him closely, all business; Sirius who stares at the floor; Narcissa and Lucius, just in front of him, holding onto each other; Bellatrix, her long nails tapping in a sort of nervous fashion against the arm of the sofa.
They are all one family, one blood, one kin. Well, and his gaze lingers for a moment on Lucius, on Barty, almost all.
“Cygnus is dead,” he begins, the words tasting foreign in his mouth. “I have had his body moved to the crypt before burial. All those who wish to say their final goodbyes will have a week while the mediwizards prepare him for the ceremony to do so. As executor of his will, I shall look over it in the next few days and divide up his property as per his wishes. There is no need for any of you to speak to the mediwizards – I will inform them of the incident myself in the next few minutes. Tomorrow morning I will let you all know when they will be coming to conduct their final examinations and of the conclusion they reach as to the cause of death. For now,” he pauses here, allowing a weary sigh to escape, the yellow flames highlighting the grey streaks in his hair. “I suggest you all go and get some sleep.”
It’s a relatively short speech, quick and to the point, delivered in a slight monotone. Pollux watches as Lucius, in a far better state than his wife, gives him a curt nod and gently leads Narcissa from the room. She doesn’t look at any of them as she leaves, fishing for the scrap of lace in a pocket of her dress again and as she walks out, her grandfather sees that her eyes are swelling up again.
Slowly, bit by bit, the Blacks all trickle out of the room, a small procession of people heading for the same, sweeping staircase, the two torches at the bottom of it creating domes of light, the emerald green of the carpet gleaming. The rest of the staircase is dark, the house-elves having put the candles out before dinner had even begun, and those furthest up it look dark and tall. Sirius’ black robes almost blend in, his hands and the back of his neck giving his position away.
It’s on the staircase when they start to remember, to recall the events of the evening in exquisite, perfect detail. In their minds, they hear the clatter of metal as knives and forks fall to the table, a shrill scream and the sound of chairs being pushed back and then the terrible hacking, rattling coughing – the cough of a dying man. A breath, then two. A third never came, drawn in but never blown out, lips parting silently, releasing oxygen which never made it to the blood. The smell of roast lamb waves over them tantalisingly, forgotten about in lieu of the sight of the man on the floor; the taste of rich red wine is replaced by shock, bland fear and the unmistakeable bitter flavour of death.
They see it all, over and over again, a constant reel, playing inside every mind, a film flashing in front of every eye.
“There was no blood,” Druella remarks suddenly.
Regulus glances at his aunt, hand resting lightly on the cool marble bannister, half in shadow; further up, Bellatrix stops on the top step and turns, the gentle swish of robes muffled by the carpet, to listen. Orion averts his eyes from his sister-in-law, squinting in the light.
“There was no blood,” Druella repeats, pale and thin in the harsh torchlight. Her eyes, wide and blue, stare around at them all, although she doesn’t seem to really see any of them. “It was strange. I thought there would be blood – there always is at these things – but there wasn’t. No blood at all. Strange.”
Leaving the remainder of the family behind her in silence, she glides up the stairs, sedate and almost serene, an evening daydream, turning left at the top and disappearing into the bowels of the house. Behind her, glances are exchanged, received, shot from one to another, crossing over and over, mismatching and reserved. None of them had ever considered it before, it was a thought which hadn’t crossed any of their minds, too busy wondering how and where and when and why and who to consider something like that.
There was no blood.
Visibly uneasy, Orion starts up the stairs, taking them two at a time, his pace quicker than his sister-in-law’s. He says nothing to anyone, acknowledges none of them, and slips past Bellatrix. Her gaze follows him into the darkness, beyond sight. She smiles slightly as she watches the night settle down. In her pocket, her fingers are running, restless, over the handle of her wand.
Barty just grins and in his head, the music he’s playing reaches a familiar section. Climbing up the stairs, he falls behind Regulus, marching in time to the music.
Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B Flat Minor, Opus Thirty-Five, Number Two.
The Funeral March.
In a secluded part of the house, at the end of a long corridor lined with portraits of long-dead ancestors, all bearing similar high cheekbones and grey eyes, two men stand inside a study, the lamps stuttering to life as they sense the presence of the men, casting an obnoxiously yellow gauze over the entire room.
“I do not understand why this conversation must be kept in such privacy,” Orion comments, watching as Pollux locked the door with a seemingly innocuous silver key, the lock glowing bright blue for four seconds. “What is it that you know which can’t be revealed to the rest of the family?”
Pollux says nothing for a while, limping over to the chair behind the desk and lowering himself into it, the leather creaking as it takes his weight. In front of him, on the table, lies a round brown case, the top of it sealed shut with a green ribbon, a seal in black wax stamped to hold the two ends together. Running his fingers over the imprints in the wax disc, he takes a moment to organise his thoughts before speaking.
“There is a discrepancy,” he says flatly.
“A discrepancy?” Orion raises his eyebrows, a frown creasing his features and it’s clear he didn’t expect that answer. “A discrepancy in his will? How?”
“A couple of changes to the wording, a few differences in what is to go to his daughters and to his nephews, to his wife and to his sister, to me and to you. Little things – nothing large, I assure you – but enough to make me concerned that someone may have tampered with the latter one. The amount of money moved around is small enough that it might have gone unnoticed but, nevertheless, enough to do damage were it shared out the way it is planned to be,” Pollux explains, his eyes resting on the case containing the wills.
Orion regards him for a moment, silent, the cogs in his head turning, spinning, whirring as he considers what he has just been told.
“Monetary changes?” he presses.
“Mostly,” Pollux nods, glancing up at his son-in-law for the first time throughout the whole conversation. “Some of the jewels and statues were re-assigned as well; two of the family heirlooms I gifted him now intend to go to different owners.”
“I see,” Orion’s voice is quiet, a low hum which buzzes happily in the room, the sibilant hiss of the phrase diluted.
The lamp in the corner flickers, fades, nearly dies. A tinkle of dripping liquid onto metal, a faint splash and then it surges into life again, burning brighter than before, brighter than its companion above the men’s heads.
“Should we be concerned about this?” Orion enquires. “Could it split the family if the changes made were enacted?”
With a heavy sigh, Pollux closes his eyes and nods once. It’s a slow nod, a sure nod, a definite nod. There’s no need for him to say ‘yes’, for him to affirm it out loud; his very reaction has confirmed it.
“So then we keep it quiet,” Orion decides, his fingers brushing the velvet on the chair the wrong way, revealing a deeper, darker green underneath. “We say nothing about it. Try and find a way to reverse the changes – return the will to its original state. That way, we have nothing to worry about. We have time, after all: it would hardly be suspicious if we were to take the full month to find it, look at it and choose to enact it. Other families have done it before.”
“And if it hasn’t been changed? If that is the original will? What do you propose we do then? Destroy it?” Pollux asks. His tone holds a trace of scorn, but it is tempered by the thread of concern and anxiety which betrays him. He is just a man, and he must try and hold his family together through this – lies and secrets and discrepancies do not help such matters.
“Precisely,” Orion confirms. In the torchlight, his eyes are cold and hard.
“We cannot afford another split, another scandal,” Pollux murmurs after a pause, his eyes tracing the grains in the wood. “Not so soon. We have to hold together, no matter what, or we will fall apart and, in the process, be destroyed.”
Orion doesn’t reply to that – what is there to say? He knows Pollux is talking about the elopement and subsequent disowning of his granddaughter, Andromeda, and he wonders, curiously, what could be so terrible, what changes could have been made to the will which would be enough to tear the family apart? They are hardly unified, but Andromeda’s betrayal had pushed them closer together, made it all the more important to show the world they were united, they were one family and one clan and one wand. Now, it looks like that façade might be shattered, could be shattered, for once and for all.
“I must go to my wife,” he says eventually, his gaze not moving from his father-in-law. “And my sons. Will you,” he feels somewhat foolish for making the suggestion, and the hesitation makes it all too clear, “Be all right down here? I can send for a house-elf if you need anything.”
“No, no,” Pollux waves it away, skating over the insinuation that he is incapable of calling a house-elf on his own. “I will be fine, Orion. Go and see Walburga and the boys. I don’t doubt they are upset by the evening’s events.”
With an inclination of his head, Orion rises from his seat, the ancient wood creaking as he shifts, and makes his way over towards the door. His long robes drag themselves reluctantly off the velvet and then tumble to the floor behind him, hanging off his frame as the current style dictates. He has one hand on the door handle, his wand in hand to remove the locking charm, when he halts.
“Barty Crouch thinks Cygnus was murdered,” he tells Pollux, his eyes on the metal handle. In it, he can see the reflection of his wife’s father and enjoys the carefully blank, emotionless expression placed so delicately on his face. He savours it for a moment, before continuing, “And that one of us killed him. All nonsense, of course, pure rumour made up on the spot by a boy. Naturally, I shall ask him not to say anything more on the subject – rumours of murder are almost worse than the act itself, for no one can catch a fictional killer. Regardless, I thought you should be aware. Goodnight, father.”
Pollux Black watches as his son-in-law taps the door handle with his wand and leaves, letting the door swing shut behind him of its own accord. His fingers still rest on the brown case and his eyes are sharp.
It is the first time Orion has ever called him ‘father’. He suspects it will not be the last.