Chapter 3 : Search and Acquire
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“Here they come,” Andromeda whispered, snatching her hand away so that the curtains would slip back into place. “They’re here.”
Father peered curiously through a narrow gap in the yellow curtains, his glasses sliding down the tip of his nose. Andromeda and I exchanged terrified glances. “Breathe,” she reminded me. “Just breathe, Cissy. We don’t want them to be suspicious.” She placed her hands on my shoulders, her eyes leveling seriously with mine. “Whatever you do, don’t look around at the places where things are hidden. They’ll be watching us very closely.”
I nodded, trying to smother my nerves. “Put your hands in your pockets,” she added under her breath just as we heard the tell-tale stomp of boots crunching over gravel outside the front door. “That way they won’t see how you’re clenching them into fists.”
I glanced down at my hands, and sure enough, they were tightly balled. Tiny half-moon shapes were embedded in my skin from where my nails dug into it, and I obediently slipped my hands into the pockets of my oldest, most raggedy brown robes. It was extremely important to appear as dirt-poor as possible (which we already were, anyway, despite our few valuable possessions which we refused to part with out of pride), so that the Ministry would hopefully take it easy on us and drop the charges.
Without a doubt, there would be many neighbors watching us today with their noses over their fences, chattering like it was grand old gossip. Andromeda and I had begged Bellatrix for money, but whether or not she ever received the letter, we would never know. Our next step was to ask our neighbors for donations. A few of them had kindly given us what knuts they could – but for the most part, many of them thought we deserved it. It was no secret that Wasteir thought Cygnus Black to be a lunatic. Look at the way he lets his daughters run wild! Serves him right! He ought to be chucked right out of town, and good riddance.
Three loud knocks echoed throughout the kitchen. I could detect a low scattering of voices outside, and caught sight of the forehead of a man trying to peek through our window. “Her wedding ring,” Father said suddenly, clinging to Andromeda’s wrist. He abruptly looked old and shrunken, and so vulnerable that it frightened me. “Where is Druella’s wedding ring?”
“I have it,” I assured him. The delicate crystal band had been sewn right into the lining of the robes I was wearing, along with two antique ivory needles Mother once used for embroidering. The robes chafed against my skin, coarse as a potato sack, and I could feel the stowaway objects burning right through the material. Andromeda, whose own hem contained ten sickles, moved coolly and collectedly toward the door. No sooner had her fingers turned the knob than our kitchen was invaded by a horde of Ministry men and women, their hawk-like eyes already sweeping the room from floor to ceiling.
“Cygnus,” a woman named Griselda Marchbanks greeted him, bestowing my father with a courtesy nod. My father nodded slightly in return while staring in disbelief at one man in the center of the swarm.
“Senior Undersecretary,” Father blubbered, stepping forward. “What a pleasant surprise. It is not usual practice for someone of your status to come along for this kind of thing. I am so honored –”
Gaspard pushed past him, inviting himself into our pocket-sized dining room just off the side of the kitchen. I couldn’t stop my mouth from turning down at the corners into a resentful scowl. My eyes watched him, fuming as he ran his fingers over our stubby candlesticks, over our modest collection of books, over the tops of velvet-upholstered chairs. My mind was already two hours ahead, mentally wiping down every surface he had touched. The whole house would have to be sanitized immediately.
“That,” Gaspard murmured to one of his fellows, pointing at a silver picture frame on a shelf. I closed my eyes, angry with myself for forgetting about that one. The silver picture frame had been a part of the room’s scenery for so long that I didn’t even think about it. I barely ever noticed it was there. In an instant, the man with a pointed red cap took the frame, picture and all, and it was swallowed up by a black bag slung over one of his shoulders.
They proceeded into Andromeda’s bedroom, turning items over and inspecting them with critical eyes. My sister remained utterly calm, not even breaking a sweat as one woman flipped over the mattress and shook out the sheets. One of the men stood directly over where a pair of amethyst earrings were hidden beneath the floorboards. “That,” Gaspard said again, nodding his head at a Goblin-made hair comb resting on the dresser. Andromeda frowned, but it was just for show. She had left the comb there on purpose so that they would think they were uncovering all of our petty treasures.
I stayed in the hall while the Ministry searched my bedroom, not trusting myself to disguise my skittishness. I heard one of the men say, “What is this?” in a curious voice, and my nerves began to jumble together, the blood rushing under my sensitivity-heightened skin.
But a moment later, another voice – female – replied, “It’s just a diary. It’s of no use to us.”
“Oh, you never know,” someone else spoke, and I recognized it to be Gaspard. “Let’s take it, anyway…to serve as a lesson…”
Andromeda’s hand reached around the doorway and caught my wrist, stroking it soothingly with her thumb. I forced my pulse to slow, reminding myself that it was just parchment in binding. It was replaceable. There was very little in there that would be of any interest to anyone – it was more of an account for how much I was able to sell every day in town. I felt myself smile somewhat. Let them read it all they like. It was just a record of how poor we were.
We gradually moved into Father’s bedroom. My father bobbed up and down between the inspectors, wringing his hands nervously. It couldn’t be more obvious that he was terrified they would find something of Mother’s we had forgotten to hide. Andromeda and I shot him warning glances, hoping he would back off, but he looked very nearly on the verge of a breakdown. He brought his hands to his face, whimpering and moaning when they plunked out Mother’s drawers and rummaged through everything, leaving it in careless disarray. Portraits on the wall of Blacks and Rosiers tittered amongst themselves, aghast that anyone would dare insult us in this way. But, as we had threateningly instructed them earlier, they refrained from shouting any obscenities at Gaspard.
They found more success in Father’s bedroom than any other room in the house – they made off with three phoenix feather quills, a tarnished brass set of scales, a broken bracelet fashioned from ugly chains, Mother’s silk wedding gown (Andromeda gritted her teeth at this, as Father was supposed to have shrunken it to look like a handkerchief but was evidently unable to taint the beloved garment in any way), and one item in particular that made all of us gasp in horror, even Andromeda.
“Her wand!” Father implored. “Please don’t take my Druella’s wand.”
Gaspard examined the stick, which had been tucked inside a hollow curtain rod in the window overlooking Father’s bed. The man’s mouth cracked open just a fraction, and the evening light glinted off his teeth like prisms. “Is this willow?”
Father swallowed, his forehead heavily lined with distress. “Yes. I believe so, yes.”
“And the core?”
“Unicorn hair.” Gaspard nodded appreciatively, and Father added, “But please, sir, don’t take it. It’s my Druella’s. It belongs to my Druella…” His hands were shaking as though he was afflicted with tremors, his thin chest rising and falling rapidly with wheezy breathing. “I beg you. Take anything else…”
“What does a dead woman need a wand for?” Gaspard Pravus mused, handing the wand to the man with the black bag. Andromeda’s fingers tightened in my grip as our mother’s most prized possession – her lifeline to magic – disappeared into its depths. I couldn’t stop staring at the black bag. My eyes stung, livid.
How dare they treat the noble Black family with such utter disrespect?
We trailed after Gaspard as he meandered back into the kitchen, his hands clasped pompously behind his back. Andromeda scurried over to the door, opening it wide in hopes that they would leave, but Gaspard’s eyes flitted lazily over the cauldron in the fireplace, the worn shoes on the rug, the painted wooden soup ladles nailed to a wall over the sink.
“Accio galleons,” he spoke.
Several seconds passed without incident. When nothing happened, he looked all around, his thin black mustache twitching. “Ah. Worth a try, I suppose. It’s too bad, Cygnus, that you didn’t have more. Just to think – had there been just another cheap brooch, or just another gold-hinged wand box, we would be done with you here. So whether it is due to your genuine poverty or due to your deception and a stubborn unwillingness to surrender what you owe, I regret to say that what we have found is not enough.”
“Sir,” Griselda Marchbanks rebuked, her eyebrows furrowed.
“Be quiet,” Gaspard ordered, still scrutinizing my father with his strikingly strange-colored eyes. “What would you say, Cygnus, is a fair trade for your long history of breaking Wizard Law?” Silence filled the room like smoke, and my father spluttered unintelligibly.
“I don’t – I’m sure I don’t know –”
And then, just like that, the black-haired man reached out and removed the wand poking out of my father’s pocket, and snapped it in half. Andromeda’s face paled, absolutely stricken. We stared at the broken pieces in the man’s slim hands, and he let them fall to his feet with an empty clink. They rolled into the grimy grooves in the stone tiled floor, broken beyond repair. It was nothing short of a sin, destroying such magic.
“You!” Andromeda accused, her face twisted with rage. She looked so much like Bellatrix when she was angry, and I thought it was very intimidating. Gaspard, however, only raised an eyebrow in disdain. He held up three fingers to his round of guards, who withdrew their own wands at once and advanced on my sister. Andromeda moved away from them, sliding a protective arm around Father, who was still staring at his ruined wand with unfocused eyes.
“I am done here,” Griselda announced resolutely. “I think we have done quite enough. Let’s go.” She nodded at another woman with strawberry blonde curls, and they both exited quietly. Gaspard did not follow their example.
“The law, Cygnus,” he drawled, “is not something you can choose to obey when it pleases you. You must obey, or there are consequences. You will come to understand, in time, how I am right.” His pale eyes locked on mine, sparkling in a sinister sort of way, and he pointed at me with one long finger. “That,” he said to the fellow with the red pointed cap.
A wand was raised, a jinx was fired, and I fell into an unconscious heap on the stone floor.
“More than fair trade –” someone was boasting. It was a reedy voice, the kind you would expect would belong to one of those shady characters at the market, trying to hawk cursed crystal balls and handing back two-headed Sickles as change.
“Absolutely,” replied a second voice. I could tell just by the sound of him that he was portly. With my eyes still closed, I studied my surroundings.
We were moving. I was not accustomed to this kind of moving. It was shaky and clattering, like the trolley I use for my Pumpkin Pasties. At first I thought I might be in some kind of lift, but then I felt the smooth dragon hide interior sliding around under my fingers and legs and recognized it at once. A carriage. A windowless carriage, too, judging by the fierce gusts of warm wind blowing in from all sides. There was no click-clack of horses, which meant that it must have been pulled by thestrals.
My long blonde hair was trapped behind my back, and the way that I was seated against it made it tug at the roots in my scalp. I wanted to adjust my position to free it, as it was quite painful, but I didn’t want to give whoever was in this carriage any kind of clue that I was conscious.
“The girl’s awake,” Portly Man declared. “Her hand just moved.”
“Oh, really?” Shady Character sounded mildly interested. I could feel him cocking his head to examine me. Being in such an enclosed space with these two strangers sent a violent sense of uneasiness stirring deep in the pit of my stomach. “No use pretendin’, Narcissus.”
My eyes flashed open. “Narcissa.”
“You’re goin’ on a trip,” he announced brightly. Both men smiled at each other in sneaky camaraderie, clearly pleased with themselves.
I sat up somewhat, patting my pockets for my wand.
“Lookin’ for this?” Shady Character inquired, jerking his thumb at my wand. It was perched on top of the black bag that rested between Shady Character’s left thigh and Portly Man’s right thigh. “Don’t even think about it. You move an inch, an’ we’ll curse you.”
My jaw clenched. “What am I doing here?”
Portly Man merely laughed. His robes were stretched tight over a ballooning stomach, and he brushed the crumbs from some previous meal off of it. Suddenly, I was feeling extremely hungry. I frowned in confusion, staring up at the brilliant blue sky, the sun unusually high in its roost. “It’s a different day,” I observed accusingly. “What day is it?”
It was Shady Character’s turn to laugh. “It’s been a whole day since you got conked out,” he sniggered. “You slept rock solid all night. Abrams here thought you might be dead.” He slapped his knee. “But choo weren’t, o’ course, an’ now we’re involvin’ you in a bit of business. Teachin’ your father a lesson, he said.”
“Teaching your father a lesson,” his friend echoed jovially.
“What kind of business? What lesson? Where is Gaspard?” My eyes widened, remembering Father’s broken wand. “Where’s my family? What the hell did you monsters do with my family?”
“Oh, calm down now,” the man who was apparently called ‘Abrams’ chided. “Your family’s just fine. And you’re fine, too, if you play your Gobstones right. Mr. Pravus put you in our care, said to get you to this place up north. He trusts us with this kind of job, see.”
“But the problem with that, is that we can’t app’rate,” the other man cut in. “Not witchoo with us. You try an’ app’rate with an unconscious person, they’ll get splinched! Damaged goods, see. An’ you can’t floo with ‘em, neither, since they’re dead easy to lose hold of. No, no, it’s much safer to just travel the long way.” He beamed again, amazed by his own genius. One of his eyes rolled the wrong way, making him look even more demented.
I could feel my insides crawling. “Where are you taking me?”
Abrams wagged a pudgy finger at me. “Well, I can’t tell you! You’d try to escape! Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.” He reached into his pocket, groaning from the exertion of it, and pulled out a squashed Chocolate Frog wrapper. My stomach grumbled audibly, and he winked at me before ripping it open with his teeth and unsticking the melted chocolate from the foil.
He plopped it into his wide mouth, swallowing it whole like a bullfrog swallows a hornet. Still grinning, and now with chocolate smearing his teeth, he said, “We still have today and a whole day tomorrow to go. I’m doing you a favor, not giving you any food. Best get used to being hungry; where you’re going, there are no Chocolate Frogs.”
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