Chapter 8 : Malina
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Alanna could feel the difference as soon as she walked through the door. The music’s comforting presence was missing and there was nothing to alleviate the autumn chill from her bones. Looking around in a daze, Alanna wandered over to a small room near the stairs that led up to the lodging rooms. A dirty placard hung on the door:
Slowly Alanna raised her fist to knock. The door was yanked open before she could get a third knock in, and she found herself face-to-face with a friendly-looking old wizard with kind, wrinkled eyes.
“Tom?” she asked, suddenly feeling shy and unsure.
“Yes. How can I help you?”
“Well, I…” Alanna started. “I was only wondering what happened to the piano man. Where did he go?”
Tom blinked at her. “You mean Pierre? The old man who used to play for us during the day? I’m sorry, dear, but he isn’t coming back. He told me he’s taking a permanent leave of absence—I think the cold winters have finally gotten to him.”
“Oh.” Alanna pressed her lips together to keep them from quivering in disappointment. “I mean—it’s alright, I was only asking because I play piano also, and I was wondering if maybe you could tell me where I might find him so I can…”
She trailed off in embarrassment, staring at Tom’s shoes. The old wizard’s expression softened as he saw the girl’s fingers tapping reflexively against her jacket pockets, as Alanna did whenever she was agitated. Rabastan had commented on the habit only once before Alanna knew that she had to hide it from him, so whenever he was around she would always try to block her hands from view.
“I’ll tell you what,” Tom said, opening the door wider and motioning for Alanna to step inside his small office. She took a seat in the deep purple armchair situated opposite his desk. “I can’t say I know where you’ll find Pierre, but if you’re willing I’d like you to take his place.”
Alanna swallowed, her voice suddenly gone. Taking the old piano man’s place would mean that she would have to play. She would have to play every day—in front of a crowd of people in the restaurant, in front of an audience.
In all her years, she had never wanted an audience. She could not even feel comfortable playing for John D. Lestrange.
She coughed to clear her throat. Her hands clenched together in her lap to keep from trembling. “I don’t think so,” she rasped, ignoring her sinking heart as she saw the old wizard’s expression drop into disappointment. “I—I can’t.”
Tom shook his head. “Don’t worry. I understand if you already have employment elsewhere.”
“I don’t,” Alanna said quickly, then bit down on her lip to keep from saying anything else. She didn’t know why she’d said that to him—it didn’t matter whether she had a job elsewhere or not, because she was not taking this one.
“I only asked because the business has not been doing well lately, and if I don’t keep up the effort to make this place as nice as it can be, I might have to shut it down altogether,” the old wizard said, smiling sadly.
“But why is business not doing well?” Alanna asked. “Your food is wonderful.”
“The world is getting darker these days, my dear. People are not as carefree as they used to be. They tend not to venture out and spend their money on good food and drink when they are afraid that their neighborhoods may be attacked and their families hurt.” Alanna looked shocked, and Tom squinted at her in dry amusement. “You don’t read much news, do you, my dear?”
Alanna shrugged off the question, abashed that her ignorance of the world outside the Lestrange home was so apparent. “I read when I can,” she settled for replying. “I’m sorry about your business. This really is a nice place. Is there anything I can do to help?” She reached into her jacket pocket. “I don’t mind contributing—”
Tom smiled widely at her, revealing a few gaps in his teeth. He was growing to like this strange young woman, but it was clear to him that she was lost. No job and completely oblivious to the dark forces gathering around her—the world was too dangerous for a girl like her.
“The only thing you can do to help is go out there and play for a few minutes,” he told her kindly. “Just try it out and see how you like it. It’s what Pierre would’ve advised you to do. And I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
Alanna shook her head, panic rising in her throat. “I’ll go home and get the key to my Gringotts vault—“
“I won’t accept any money from you,” Tom said firmly.
Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. Alanna’s fingers fluttered on her kneecaps at an alarming speed. She wanted to try it—oh, she wanted to try. The warmth of blue music was no longer a misty memory hidden beyond her years with Rabastan. She had heard it and felt it not an hour ago and she was still trembling from its effect and the cold autumn wind. In this state her agitated nerves would not rest, but the stone-cold barrier of four years had been broken only that morning and she was scared that she had gone too far.
“No, I can’t,” she murmured, rising from her seat and turning to go. “I’m sorry, Tom, I’m sorry but I can’t…”
The old wizard watched as the strange young woman yanked open the door to his office and stumbled outside into the bar area. Her steps toward the main door that led outside were slow and halting, unsure. Every few strides she would hesitate and cast a sidelong glance towards the mahogany instrument on the dais at the back of the room. Tom watched her jerky movements with a smile. She could not help herself.
Alanna was halfway to the door before she turned back around and met the old wizard’s kindly eyes. In that instant, she saw something of her father in him and her resolve crumpled to her feet in a heap like shed skin. She took a seat at the bar, newly exposed, her arms quivering. She buried her face in her hands. Tom crossed the room to stand next to her again.
“I’ll need to practice,” she said to Tom, pointing at a bottle on the shelves behind the bar when the bartender came over to ask what she wanted. She didn’t know what kind of liquor it was, but on the label there was a silhouette of a man and a woman walking together and Alanna liked it.
Tom chuckled. “Oh, you don’t want to drink that, dear. That is not for the faint of heart.”
Alanna shrugged, then gestured toward the deep red drink she had ordered the last time. She clenched her hands into fists underneath the bar top. “I’ll need to practice before I can play,” she repeated, but the old wizard did not seem concerned at all.
“Practice away,” Tom said, extending an arm out towards the piano. “Your drinks are on me today—and always, if you decide to take the job.”
“No, no, I don’t mean…” Alanna trailed off. Why couldn’t she practice here? At the Lestrange house there would be a constant danger of Rabastan returning home, and the house was empty and cold with no company but the house elves. Here, among the chatter of patrons and the clink of glass—even the dimmed lights and worn upholstery—everything was all the opposite of the frigid old house.
She looked back at Tom, who was watching her and grinning ear-to-ear. Maybe she had even made a new friend.
The bartender set her drink down in front of her. Alanna took a sip for strength and courage and, holding tightly onto the glass, approached the dais.
It was late in the afternoon when she returned home to find Rabastan sitting alone, pale and anxious, at the dining room table.
His head snapped up as she entered the room. His dark gaze examined her cheeks flushed pink and her eyes sparkling. Pushing aside his questions in favor of a more immediate concern, he told her, “I am expecting a guest for dinner tonight.”
“What?” Alanna exclaimed, startled from her warm daze. The house was so cold in comparison. “How many people are coming?”
She glanced at the clock through the doorway. It was nearly six o’clock and she had not even instructed the house elves on what to cook for supper before she left. There would be nothing to eat. With fleeting disgust, she thought that perhaps Rabastan meant to humiliate her in front of his friends with this ploy in retaliation for their argument.
There was a slight sneer on his face. “I would have given you much more notice, but you were nowhere to be found when I got home. However, I took the liberty of planning out the meal myself. There is only one guest joining us tonight, but she is an important one.”
She, indeed. Alanna’s heart rose into her throat in anger, and she clasped her hands behind her back to still them. She would not give him the satisfaction of seeing that the way Rabastan spoke of the guest irked her.
“That’s perfectly fine,” she replied calmly, moving past him toward the stairs. “I’ll go change into more proper attire, then.”
But before she could take another step, the doorbell chimed loudly and Rabastan announced in a smug voice, “There she is, love. Will you go welcome her in while I check on the house elves?” She turned to comply, but he did not get up from the table. He watched Alanna’s retreating back as she left, his eyes narrowed in thought. Something unsettling was happening to her, and he didn’t like it.
Rabastan adjusted the silverware in front of him. Oh, well, he thought. It was no important matter. Alanna was only in another one of her moods. Tonight’s dinner would surely straighten her out.
Alanna led their guest back into the dining room, where a house elf was setting out the plates and silverware for three places. Rabastan would sit at the head of the long table, with each of the women flanking his sides.
Rabastan smiled sincerely as the two women entered—Alanna was now wearing her usual nervous, uncertain expression again, all of the pink flush gone from her cheeks. The woman who followed her was dark-haired and pale like Alanna, but that was where the resemblance ended. Malina Zabini, the wife of weapons-master Gabon Zabini, held her head erect like a queen. Her eyebrows arched lightly above smoldering brown eyes and the corners of her lips twitched in perpetual disdain. She took long, swinging strides with grace and confidence, like a woman who was always obeyed. Next to her, Alanna’s shuffling gait was mouse-like, but far from feeling ashamed of this Rabastan felt a savage delight in noting the comparison. He realized that though Malina couldn’t be more than a few years older than Alanna, it was her regality which gave the impression that she was much more adult than the other.
“Malina, this is Alanna Lancaster,” Rabastan said cheerfully, rising from his seat to greet the woman. She grasped his hand warmly, and then to Alanna’s chagrin, kissed him on both cheeks. Her lips seemed to linger over his skin, but the moment was over instantaneously and Alanna couldn’t be sure afterwards that she had not only imagined it. Then Rabastan turned to her, his smile smug. “Alanna, meet Malina Zabini. She is a…friend from the organization that I work for.”
Alanna afforded the beautiful woman a tense smile as they took their seats. “How nice,” she said. The house elves trailed out from the kitchen, bearing small bowls of soup and platters of appetizers. “So, what is it that you do there?”
“Oh, Rabastan gives me too much credit,” Malina said. She tossed a hand out and smiled with seeming carelessness, but somehow Alanna felt that even the tiniest of this woman’s movements was painstakingly measured and planned.
Unsurprisingly, her speech was no less precise. It was not until later, when the conversation had slipped out of reach altogether, that Alanna realized the other woman had managed to escape her questions without really answering.
“The work I do,” Malina continued now, “it is more social than anything. I help my husband with his affairs, hosting networking events for him and such other things.” She watched Alanna’s discomfort curiously even as she laughed. “As you undoubtedly know, these men would be hopelessly inept at hosting social events if it were not for us women.”
The other woman’s scrutiny did not escape Alanna’s notice. Avoiding Rabastan’s warning glances, Alanna replied airily, “Actually, Rabastan is so inept that we have given up even trying. I don’t think we’ve thrown a party in…oh, how long has it been, dear?” She addressed an unsuspecting Rabastan and smiled, showing teeth.
The two women turned expectantly to Rab, who hid his face in his soup bowl. He sipped for a few moments, then swallowed with an audible gulp. “I can’t remember,” he said finally, his voice faint. “It has been a long time, to be certain.”
“Well, you should consider it,” Malina told him, her face dark and her tone suddenly serious. “Especially in your current situation. It is an important tool—a crucial weapon—that too often goes unused and forgotten by those who most need its aid. And I hope you realize that you will need every edge you can get in the coming battle, Rabastan.”
“Malina, please,” he warned, looking strained. “Let’s not talk about our affairs here. We needn’t worry Alanna.”
The Zabini woman’s responding gaze was now both questioning and desperate. Her elegant eyebrows furrowed as she glanced between Rabastan and Alanna. Then she blinked, and the concern that clouded her eyes was gone. She was smiling again. “Well, then, let us talk of something lighter. The food is wonderful.” She nodded at Alanna. “Do you cook?”
Alanna flushed and shook her head, confused. After taking a meal with Bellatrix Lestrange and her poorly concealed malice, this woman Malina was nearly inscrutable. “No, we have several house elves that do our cooking and cleaning.”
“Ah, of course,” Malina said, changing the subject with grace. “You know, there are those who argue that the enslavement of house elves is inhumane and unjust. However, the practice has been around for so long that freedom is nearly inconceivable to the creatures. Even if the Ministry were to free them legally, they would undoubtedly return to serve their old masters because they know of nothing else.”
Rabastan shrugged in disinterest as he chewed. As long as the conversation took no more dangerous turns, he was free to let his mind wander. Now that Malina realized beyond a doubt that Alanna was the reason he was not free to speak in his own house, there would be no more confusion. After all, he had requested that Malina come here as a dinner guest for one reason - to remind Alanna of her place.
There were certain types of women that belonged out in the world, that could fend for themselves and act for themselves. There were women like Malina Zabini, who were deserving of Rabastan’s friendship and confidence. And there were others…who simply didn’t.
“…so the election of the new Head of MLE next year will be quite a spectacle, I expect. With the Department of Magical Games and Sports publicly shamed due to that mermaid scandal and the Office of the Improper Use of Magic in chaos from Campbell’s resignation, the Ministry doesn’t seem to know left from right these days.”
Alanna nodded vaguely. Her appetite was spoiled by the sound of Malina Zabini’s careful, cultured voice speaking so quietly and easily about things that she could barely follow from the snatches of news that she heard in between programs on the wireless. A weak draft that issued through the room raised goosebumps on her neck and shoulders, and Alanna wished for nothing more than to be back in the Leaky Cauldron, where it was warm and dim and colorful.
She cut her slice of roast into little pieces, but could not bring herself to eat much. To her left, Rabastan was wolfing down his meal like he had not eaten in days. The sly smiles that Malina shot him made Alanna sick to her stomach. She rose to her feet and excused herself.
She exited the dining room, crossed the hall, and entered the washroom. She closed the door until only a tiny sliver of space remained, then turned on the sink and ran cool water over her trembling hands. After a few seconds, she could hear the low rumble of Rabastan’s voice over the running water. The sink emitted a small squeak as she turned the knob closed. Then she pressed herself up to the crack in the door to listen.
“Please, I insist, keep your voice down,” he was begging.
“You are not in a position to refuse to listen to me, Rabastan,” Malina retorted. “You know how urgent your current situation is.”
“Malina, we cannot talk here - ”
“Then where?” the woman exclaimed in a whisper. Her controlled speech had slipped away in her agitation, and now Alanna could hear traces of a usually well-hidden South African accent seeping through her words. “If not in your own house, then where? I’m telling you, Rabastan - now that the game has begun, there are spies everywhere. We cannot talk in our meeting places anymore, no. Restaurants, lodging houses - all these places can be compromised.”
Restaurants? Lodging houses? Alanna’s temper flared white-hot. She gripped the gold handle of the bathroom door and rested her entire weight on it, feeling the wooden door creak under the burden, but she could not move an inch. She knew that rushing out and demanding an explanation from Rabastan once and for all would do no good. Only from staying out of sight and listening closely would she ever find out anything.
Back in the dining room, Rabastan scoffed. “Rosier’s reach is so limited, and we are so careful, that I cannot imagine how he would ever manage to compromise us.”
Malina cast a glance at the darker corners of the empty room, and then at the doorways. Nothing of her regal mannerisms were diminished - only her overly alert, darting eyes betrayed her anxiety. Leaning forward, she murmured to Rabastan, “I think he has ordered someone to follow me.”
Rabastan went very still, but his upper lip curled in disbelief. “Here?”
Malina shook her head. “I took all precautions,” she said quietly, her words short and clipped. “Rosier is a dangerous opponent, whether you believe it or not. He is not clever, but he has many loyal friends and allies who are.”
Rabastan frowned, the first signs of true worry drawing lines around his eyes and mouth. “But there is nothing he and his friends can do - I have the winning proposition. You said so yourself.”
“That is not important right now, Rabastan. You must put all of your assets into play immediately, because you do not know what the other side is doing.”
Malina rose slightly out of her seat and reached across the table towards him. Rab caught her hand and, before she could speak, pressed her fingers gently to his lips. He smiled at her and rose completely to his feet, taking her by the hand and drawing her out of her chair and very close to him. Her lips went instinctively to his collarbone; his to her hairline. The time they spent together had, over the years, worn away their edges until they fitted together automatically, comfortably, like puzzle pieces. A woman and a man ice cold like marble, but warmth sparked wherever they would touch.
“Hold nothing back,” Malina whispered urgently into Rabastan’s collar. “You must believe me - I have seen what can come of these competitions which our Lord finds so amusing. Don’t make me fear for you, Rabastan.”
He only kissed her in reply.
Alanna pressed her forehead savagely against the cold grooved frieze that marched around the door to the bathroom and stared at the floor, counting the patterns of black and green tiles to sooth herself. The shells of her ears flamed and the tips of her fingers were still damp and freezing from the sink. Her mind raced. Games and propositions and lords and roses - Alanna could make sense of nothing that they said.
“I came to warn you, Rabastan. You are one of my greatest friends,” Malina breathed, her voice trembling. “I could not bear to see them mar you like they did my husband.”
At these words, the corners of Rabastan’s eyes creased in compassion and he traced her smooth left shoulder blade gently with the pads of his fingers, down the same path where two rope-like scars disfigured the back of her husband Gabon Zabini. “Well, he survived,” Rab replied softly. “And he is no less the man for it.”
Malina buried her face in Rabastan’s shirt and sighed. “He is in favor again, but for how long, I don’t know. As it stands, our Lord is now in need of the services that he offers, but he cannot learn to keep his tongue in check. He never listens to me.” She frowned up at Rabastan. “Do not make that mistake. Do not discredit my advice simply because I am a woman. Women see and hear things that men disregard, and we go unnoticed where men cannot.”
“But Rosier has taken notice of you,” Rabastan remarked darkly, his eyebrows raised in a half-question.
“Not like that,” Malina said firmly, her brown eyes glowering. Rab released a subtle sigh of relief. “That imbecile? I’d never allow it. He just has one of his following me.”
She placed gentle kisses on Rabastan’s cheeks before withdrawing from his embrace. He tried to pull her back, but she shook her head and stepped away. They both returned to their seats.
“Not while she is in the other room,” Malina murmured. “I am a proper woman and a woman of honor.”
A smirk spread across Rabastan’s face. “As I’m well aware,” he said dryly. “Believe me, I had no twisted intentions for tonight. I invited you here for supper for one reason and one reason only.”
“And what was that? To subdue a mouse?” Malina retorted, her eyebrows raised. She cast a pointed glance towards the door through which Alanna had exited the dining room minutes ago. The pitiable girl was probably perched on the porcelain lid of the toilet as they spoke, crying her eyes out because she assumed the worst. “Rabastan, you have my loyalty and my heart for as long as I live, but of this I do not approve,” she said sternly. “I do hope this is not one of your little games, to manipulate hearts and minds for your entertainment.”
Rabastan opened his mouth to reply, but the sound of footfalls on the floorboards of the hallway separating the dining room from the bathroom silenced him at once. His eyes begged for Malina to keep quiet, and the woman nodded her acquiescence.
When Alanna returned to her seat, both he and Malina were eating peacefully, their faces blank. She smiled at one, and then the other. The meal continued without a word.
A/N: HAPPY NEW YEAR! It's been 6 months since I updated, but I decided to power through this chapter as a new years present to any readers I might have left. I'd love it if you could leave a small review in return letting me know what you thought! =]