Chapter 2 : The Entrepreneur
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“I’ll sort this out, I promise,” I replied through the open window before turning out the garden and swinging the gate shut behind me. Father nodded sleepily, glasses askew and shining a milky opalescent in the reflected sunrise.
Starting down the road, I noticed that as was usual, the only people stirring in their houses were the older women whose children were grown. They took it upon themselves to get the chores settled first thing of the day, and wrung out wash on the lines to dry while their husbands flitted around inside trying to avoid helping. Other gardens I passed were strewn with toys and untethered animals, clearly marking the dwellings as belonging to families with young children. A baby centaur cantered joyfully through a vegetable patch, chasing squawking chickens as the town’s inhabitants snoozed lazily despite the rising ruby sun.
The air was unseasonably heavy and warm for an early September morning, and as I passed a thin bubbling stream I was extremely tempted to take a dip; however, my father counted on me to make a plea on his behalf, and I didn’t want to keep important business waiting.
Truth be told, I was terrified. I had only been in the castle once – when I was born, to be introduced to the Wizengamot – and of course I have no memory of that event. The small castle – which serves as the quarters for the Minister for Magic’s appointed administrators in this region – was perched on top of a steep hill overlooking the large village of Wasteir, its seven golden flags rippling in the morning wind.
Cows lowed in a wide pasture as I turned down the pebbly street on the outskirts of the village. From behind me I could distinctly hear the rattling of carts loaded with diseased beetle eyes and overpriced potions working their way toward the heart of the town, the greasy scam artist salespeople dressed to the nines in their very best robes because they thought it made them look more professional. No one noticed that at that moment, a girl of nineteen was cresting the hill with her head held high, trying to summon all her bravery and mentally calculating the best arguments to make.
As was usual, the castle entrance was flanked by four tall guards wearing stiff red tunics and heavy black boots that thudded against the earth in their circling formation. When I approached them, two of the men crossed the blades of their swords in the air over the doorway to bar my path. The stoutest of the four, a wide fellow with a curling ginger mustache, drew his wand and spoke in a crisp voice, “What business does madam have today?”
“I am here to discuss fines,” I told him evenly. “With the Minister.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Discuss? Odysseus Pravus does not discuss fine policies with his subjects. He gives orders and you’re expected to obey them. There is no negotiation.” I wanted to shoot back that I was not a subject, and that Pravus was not a monarch no matter how much he may have wished otherwise. The Pravus family had somehow maintained Ministry control for the past thirty years, and reckoned themselves royalty because of it. Since I wasn’t about to spoil my chances of saving my family from living on the streets, however, I kept my mouth shut.
I continued to match the guard’s gaze, indicating that I was not going to back down. He sighed and motioned for the other men to drop their swords, and I slipped through the thick wooden doors into a splendid hall. The walls stretched high into a cathedral-style ceiling, sparkling like garnets in the extraordinary stained glass windows; and the diffused light cast a rosy glow over a relatively good-looking man occupying the Minister’s chair. His black hair was clipped short and parted neatly at one side, and there was a thin mustache over his lips. His chin was resting in one hand and he looked vaguely bored. A tiny little courtier elf bounced around nervously, straightening the silver-threaded rug and shuffling papers.
When the elf saw me, he rushed forward and spoke his words in one quick breath, and I had to ask him to repeat himself. He jerked his head in apology and replied, “Please be waiting right here, miss, while I alerts my master.”
He ambled back up the long narrow rug and relayed to the man in the jeweled chair, “My Highness, there is young lady here, sir, to see you, sir.”
The man reluctantly swiveled his head to peer at me, and waved his arm lazily. “What is her name?”
The elf ran toward me again, panting and clutching a stitch in his side. “Master wanting a name, miss. Have you be having one?”
“My name is Cissa,” I told him. “I’m here to represent my father, Cygnus.”
His eyes woozy with exhaustion, the elf tottered back to the throne-like chair and squeaked, “Master, it is Sitters, here to be giving you presents of feather cypresses.”
At this point I stepped forward, fingering the wand in my pocket. “If you please,” I replied, continuing despite the elf’s astonished expression. His eyes were nearly popping out because I addressed this apparently important person without invitation, but I’d never had the patience for formalities; it was not how I was raised. “I am here to see the Minister.”
“You will talk to me instead,” he replied. “The Minister is busy elsewhere.”
I hesitated. “He can’t Floo in for a few moments? Who are you?”
He looked highly affronted, and narrowed his eyes. “I am his son, Gaspard,” he informed me in an annoyed tone. “As well as Senior Undersecretary. You may not recognize me; I have been quartered in the country of Doorturn these past eight years, which is a customary tradition for Ministry heirs. You are Sitters, then? I do not remember anyone of that name on the census.”
“My name is Cissa – Narcissa,” I amended, wondering what he meant by ‘heirs’. The position of Minister had been passed down within the same Pravus family for years, yes, but that was due to the Wizengamot’s votes. Gaspard couldn’t assuredly know that he would be next in line quite yet.
“And your parentage and location, Miss Narcissa?”
“My mother was Druella, but she is dead. My father is Cygnus Black. We live in Wasteir and I am here to see the Minister on my father’s behalf. He could not come, because it is imperative now more than ever that he not miss a single day from working.”
“My father has dragon pox,” Gaspard responded sharply. “I will be attending to his business today.”
I nodded and straightened my posture before looking him squarely in the eyes. My father taught me to always look people in the eyes when speaking to them, for he believes that it siphons a little of their power and confidence into you. “We have been warned that my father is behind on his fines that he owes from breaking the Statute of Secrecy on multiple occasions, you see,” I stated calmly. “You sent a letter.”
“Cygnus Black has committed a heavy crime,” he stated matter-of-factly, settling back into his chair and curving his fingers into a steeple. “It is my understanding that he builds inventions for Muggles, correct?”
I gave a tentative nod.
“He knows the law. You are prohibited to use magic on any items created for distribution to Muggles. The magic will not work properly with them; we have had reports of broken fingers and noses from up and down the country because of his crackpot creations that backfire on Muggle owners. We have warned him several times about the law. I believe this was made quite clear in the letter?”
“Yes.” I took a steadying breath. “But my father cannot afford the fines, you see. He has given everything he has to fulfill his debts, and inventions are the only way he knows how to get by ever since Mum died.”
My mother was strictly against Muggle interaction and now Father’s a bit out of practice after so many years of being forbidden to make anything, and that was partly the reason why he was forever forgetting that he couldn’t use magic on his inventions. At one time, he had been a very successful merchant, until one of the ships carrying his cargo got lost in the Bermuda triangle, and after that he decided to try his hand at being an entrepreneur of sorts. He made whatever he believed the Muggles were lacking and would consider in-demand.
“We simply do not have the gold. My father has been struggling with sales; he is drowning in the attempt to pay what he owes while leaving my sister and I something to survive on. It seems to me, sir, that the steep fines are somewhat unfair. They don’t really fit the crime. Mostly, the problems with Muggles and his business efforts have been relatively harmless. Just a sprained ankle here, a coma there…” I trailed off, hushed into silence by his expression.
The Senior Undersecretary leaned forward, his eyes stony. “Are you accusing your government of being unreasonable?” he thundered. “Is this how you repay us for our tolerance and lenience?”
“No!” I rushed quickly. My palms were beginning to sweat. Gaspard watched me beadily, and I wished he would break eye contact for a few seconds. His steel gaze was unnerving, his irises an abnormal shade of pale blue – so pale they were almost clear and colorless – and I could feel my chances of a plea bargain slipping through the cracks. “I only meant that it is impossible for my father to come up with sixty-five Galleons in the time frame that was dictated in the letter. Our vault is empty. We have nothing to give you. If we did…if we had any money at all…it would be yours.” I rubbed my hands together earnestly, hoping against hope that he would see how sincere I was trying to seem.
His gaze slid to a man standing near the door and he motioned with two of his fingers. “Enough excuses. We have put up with Cygnus for far too long, and he is a joke and a liability to the wizarding community.” The other man stepped forward, gripping my arm tightly in one gloved hand.
“But –” I entreated desperately.
He cut me off. “I do not care how poor you are, Miss Cissa. If your family does not provide the amount owed in three days, my people will come to your house and take something worth selling to pay his debts.” A second guard seized my other elbow and they bullied me through the arched wooden doorway as Gaspard turned away from me. In a lofty voice he called, “If I were you, I would hope he finds a way to raise some money.”
I tried to resist, but the guard on my left whispered, “Best not make a scene, miss, or it’ll be Azkaban for you.” I gave up my struggle and followed him out into the bright morning, feeling gloomy and worried. The event had not gone at all according to plan; I had rehearsed several speeches and arguments in my head but never got the chance to repeat them, and Odysseus Pravus’s absence had thrown me off. The Minister was marginally fairer than his son had been, and always listened to the entire case before making a decision.
Despair swelled in my chest. I took the long way home, around the creek and across the narrow stone bridge where blue hollopy fish jumped out of the water in vibrant arcs. We didn’t have any possessions worth sixty-five Galleons. Mother’s jewelry might fetch a fair price, but I couldn’t bear the thought of parting with her things. The tarnished silver chains inlaid with sapphires were the only truly valuable belongings of Mother’s we still owned; everything else had long since been sold or lost under the jumble of cogs and pipes and busted sheet metal that Father dragged home.
When I warily entered our cottage, the distant tinkling of bells and whistles signaled that Father was hard at work in his shed. I traipsed through the back garden and found him bending over a mammoth gray contraption, wiping sweat and soot from his brow.
“Cissa, dear, will you help me find my Wrippet Wrench?” He waved his wand over the rubbish scattered at our feet. “I seem to have misplaced it.”
I had no idea what a Wrippet Wrench was, but I hastened to crouch on my hands and knees and began picking through everything, ducking my head so that he could not see my face. “The Minister wasn’t there,” I told him with an attempt at nonchalance. “So the Senior Undersecretary listened to me, and I’m afraid he was not in any temper to go easy on us.”
A few bolts from the creaking gray contraption shot out at odd angles, and a copper one whizzed by my face, missing it by an inch. Father shoved his glasses farther up the bridge of his beaky nose and ran a leathery hand through his tuft of white hair, sticking straight up like stretched cotton. “This Purification System is missing something, but I just can’t put my finger on it,” he lamented. “It’s supposed to clean water, you see. All you do is pour in your old dirty bathwater or dishwater through this slot,” he jabbed a funnel jetting out of one end, “and it goes through here.” He thumped the side of a large iron gray cylinder and sighed.
Father picked up a bowl of murky green water and tipped it into the funnel. I heard some funny sloshing noises as it swirled around the cylinder, and then it spurted out the other end and into a basin. If possible, the water was even dirtier than before. “It’s supposed to be clear,” he murmured, scratching his chin. “And then you can use it again, good as new. I nearly had it working last night; it was just a bit peppery looking… If I could get this to work, Muggles would pay me a fortune for it. But I can’t seem to get it right without using magic. Maybe if I just gave it a simple spell or two…”
“They refused to give us an extension,” I told him flatly, unable to put it off any longer. “If we don’t pay the fine in three days, they’re going to come and loot the house.”
“You found my Wrippet Wrench?” he wanted to know, turning in circles in his distraction. “I just need to tighten a few things and that should do the trick.”
I picked up a dirt-encrusted tool with a few springs dangling from a bulbous knob on the handle and offered it to him. His eyes lit up and he grabbed it at once, plastering himself to the machine with his tongue poking out, concentrating hard. “This should do it, Cissa,” he muttered. “This should do it.”
I stared at him. “Did you hear what I just said? They’re going to come to the house. We’re out of chances.”
Father turned to look at me as though he didn’t quite understand how I had gotten there. “We come from a credible pure blood family,” he replied, brushing it off with a warm smile. “We keep a low profile. We’re not criminals, for Merlin’s sakes. I don’t see any reason why they should come to the house. It’s just an empty threat, Cissa. They have to act firm for the sake of appearances. Don’t worry.”
“But we don’t keep a low profile,” I argued. “Everyone thinks…” I picked at my skirt, unwilling to go any further. The words burned on my tongue. Everyone thinks you’re mad.
“Everyone thinks what, dear?” He scratched his head absently, peering around the side of the basin. He tapped it once, twice, and smiled at the reverberating ping sound. “Hear that? Isn’t it beautiful? I love the sound that copper makes.”
I sighed and reached in to give him a swift peck on the cheek. “I’m going in. I’ll call you when supper’s done.” I hurried into the house, ducking through the tilted doorways in search of my sister. “Andromeda!”
“In here!” a voice shouted. I trekked toward the sound of the voice, which was coming from the attic, and found her immersed up to her elbows in fabric that was streaming out of an old trunk.
I stopped short, my throat constricting. “What are you doing in Mother’s clothes?”
She smiled apologetically. “Bellatrix owled me with a letter asking for Mother’s blue robes. Remember that one with the lace collar and all the taffeta?”
I crossed my arms stiffly. “What does she need it for?”
Andromeda turned back to sifting through the trunk, her eyes wistfully lingering over jade-green robes. “You forget that she doesn’t have any memories of Mother at her new house,” she told me softly. “Ever since she got married, Bella’s been quite lonely. She doesn’t have a lot of reminders of Mother, and I think she just needs something to hold.”
I leaned against the doorway, slumping in defeat. “Maybe it would be a good idea to just send the whole trunk to her. If it stays here, we’ll lose all of Mother’s clothes.”
Andromeda’s head snapped up. Her black hair was curling with the humidity, her face veneered with sweat. “What do you mean?” she asked sharply.
I told her about Gaspard’s ruling, and the warning that Ministry officials would be coming in three days to acquire enough belongings to recompense our debt. Andromeda’s mouth dropped open in horror. “Her telescopes! We still have those silver ones in the cellar. And those bracelets with the serpents on them…we can’t let them take her things! Have you still got that comb you inherited from Grandmother? What about the glass jewelry box that boy gave you?”
“Yes,” I admitted, “I have them, Andromeda, but they won’t be enough. And no one –” I glanced at the small oval window that overlooked Father’s work shed. “No one is going to buy Father’s inventions; they never buy Father's inventions,” I went on in a lower voice. “He’s working on something out there right now, but we both know it’s going to be a failure.”
She winced at the cruelty in my words, but she knew just as well as I did that I was right. “I wish I could contribute,” she said, “but the apprenticeship doesn’t pay. I still have six months of training left before I get on a payroll.”
I bit my lip. It was all my fault, really. I had finished Hogwarts two years ago, but had yet to enter some kind of field of employment. At the time I left, I had fully expected to work as a Historian. There was an opening for trainees in Northampton, and I was all lined up to take it. I would be studying under Bathilda Bagshot’s experienced eye along with two other lucky classmates who’d been squeezed into the opportunity; but then Mother caught a nasty sickness and I had to care for her. Bellatrix wasn’t patient enough to brew the potions for her ailment, or to tidy up the house. And although Andromeda had the perfect disposition for caretaker, she and Mother had never seen eye to eye. In Mother’s final days, the pair of them didn’t speak at all.
Now that I had been out of school for two years, I felt that my opportunities would be thin on the ground. I couldn’t remember half of what I had learned in History of Magic, and I hadn’t been keeping up with my book-reading as well as I should have. Most of the time I found myself running around like a hippogriff with its head cut off, trying to clean the house and care for my father while baking Pumpkin Pasties and the like to peddle downtown. It didn’t bring in more than a dozen sickles a week, but it was enough to buy a few scant necessities. Most of the money we acquired after Mother’s death was shipped directly from my eldest sister Bellatrix, whose husband Rodolphus was quite rich.
Last year Bellatrix gave us as much as she was able to, whenever she got the chance. Lately, though, the post had been coming less and less frequently; and now, we didn’t expect much from her except for perhaps a few knuts. It was a touchy subject with Andromeda, who worked all day long for no money at all at her apprenticeship, and she resented Bellatrix for being selfish. With all of her resentment, however, she still loved our sister dearly and would deny her nothing.
“We’ll have to hide everything,” Andromeda told me, gesturing around the attic. “Transfigure the jewelry to look like old parchment; bury the telescopes; Vanish Father’s tools. Anything else will have to go, even Mother’s perfume bottles. A few of the stoppers are emeralds and those will account for a nice bit of gold. If the Ministry thinks that we’re giving them everything we possibly can, then they’ll leave with the little we show them and be none the wiser.”
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