“It is imperative,” Ramien said, his voice desperate. “You’ve got to tip the odds in your favor, Master. It’s never going to happen if you keep up this negative attitude.”
“Don’t you remember the specific words?” Lucius shot back testily. “I’ve told you a thousand times, Wax. The spell doesn’t mention anything about me changing; otherwise, I might’ve tried to develop a conscience years ago. It just says –”
“I know, I know,” Ramien cut him off. “‘In all of your disdainful arrogance.’ Pray tell, what kind of person would want someone who is arrogant? I must say, sir, that I don’t find it a quality trait. And then there’s also the requirement that you have to reciprocate those feelings…”
“Are you saying that I’m incapable of that?” Lucius hissed. “Judging by Miu’s running out of every room I enter, I must be a nasty sight to behold. Just because people can’t feel for me doesn’t mean I can’t still feel for others. It’s not impossible.” He sighed. “They say I look like a corpse. But that doesn’t mean I really am one.”
“It’s true,” Ramien remarked. “You do look rather dead.”
“Mr. Wax!” Horatio cried hoarsely. “How could you say such a thing? Of course Master does not look dead. He looks – well, he looks quite fetching, I’d say. I’m sure that if the castle were open for business, beautiful women from all over would be flocking outside, fighting each other for his hand.”
“Don’t lie, Horloge,” Lucius rebuked, sounding bored. “I always know when people lie.”
“We’ll have to try a different approach,” Ramien confidently decided. “Trim up your hair a bit. Get Wren to make you some new clothes. The girl could tell us all about the latest fashions – I’m sure your robes are long out of style. We’ll dust you off and play up your finer aspects, and the spell will be broken in no time.”
“What did I tell you?” Lucius was exasperated now. “It’s not her. We’ll just have to wait.”
“We’ve been waiting for years,” Horatio muttered under his breath.
“I agree,” came a female voice. It was prim and severe, with an irritated edge to it. “With Master Malfoy. This girl is not the one. In my opinion, it would be best for all of us if we were to get rid of her…”
Ramien gasped. “Are you mad? Why must you judge so quickly? She’s only just arrived. No one even knows her yet.”
“I have a sense for this sort of thing,” the severe voice responded. “And so does the house. Haven’t you noticed the chairs sliding away from her, the portraits sucking back into the wall as far as they can go whenever she walks by? Everywhere she goes, the curtains get all stiff and the lights go awry. The house knows she’s not the right one. It doesn’t want her here.”
“You’re trusting the house’s judgment?” Ramien replied, sneering a little. “The house is cursed. It’s evil. It doesn’t want us to ever leave and it doesn’t want us to break the spell. In my opinion, the fact that it’s behaving so strangely is further proof that this go round, we’ve got it right. If you remember last time…”
The room went suddenly quiet.
“Well,” Ramien continued carefully, “it didn’t act this way. Nothing out of the ordinary happened. And obviously, that wasn’t the right one. So here we are, years later, with another shot at it. I beseech you, Master, not to be selfish.”
“Selfish?” the stern woman repeated, her tone rising angrily. “Selfish? The house will kill us! We must find a way to dispose of her before we find ourselves being strangled by our very own bedclothes. If you pull your head out of the clouds for two seconds, Mr. Wax, you will see how selfish you are being. You’re so eager to leave this castle that your judgment is clouding up. Our lives are in danger. If we just submit to what the house wants, we’ll be fine.”
“Of all the horrid things to say!” Ramien now sounded just as livid as the woman. “Don’t you recall what this house did? Don’t you remember what happened because no one was allowed to leave it? Two people, Wilda! Two. Yes, of course I am anxious to leave. The history of it is suffocating. And might I remind you that it is not the house itself that killed them. It is that fairy witch, and her curse. It seems that seven years is not a long enough punishment. Fairy or half-fairy lifespans are shorter than full-blooded witches and wizards, and for all we know, she’s dead by now. And because of a spell she’s probably forgotten all about, the grudge will hold forever and we’ll always be stuck here. So yes, excuse me for thinking positively and hoping that this new situation is the answer to our despair.”
“No more,” Lucius ordered. “That is enough arguing. Wax, your words are worth some weight. I’ll consider them –”
“Master Malfoy,” the woman said through gritted teeth.
“Enough,” Lucius told her. “Accompany me to the tower so that I can play this out.”
Several chairs grated against the floor, and I took the opportunity to slip away from where I had been crouched just outside Lucius Malfoy’s personal study, flying down the hall and into a circular powder-blue room. Golden letters were burned over the entrance, marking it as Narcissa’s Quarters.
I flung open a door to the wardrobe and fit myself inside it, shutting it after me. Ever since I was a small child, I’d always hidden in wardrobes when I was frightened or just wanted to be alone. In this case, it was a mix of the two.
The wardrobe itself was white and sturdy, plenty large enough for me to hide inside its bowels. Most of the furniture in the room was a matching white, with gold accents on bedposts, pillows, and the dressing table knobs. Everything else – the coverlet, the walls, the ceiling, the floor – was the color of blue sky. It was a pretty room. Andromeda would have loved it. But the only part of the place I found to my liking was the darkness when I was shut up in the wardrobe. It swaddled me in a false sense of refuge. Presently my heart beat fast, wondering if anyone had seen me running away from the study, knowing I had eavesdropped on what looked to be a private meeting of sorts.
The woman called Wilda was right about one thing, at least: the house certainly responded to my presence. Every time I pointed at a candle, imitating Ramien, it flickered to flame for a few seconds before snuffing out again. It didn’t allow me to use its magic like it did with everyone else. What did it all mean? I couldn’t make sense of it.
Wilda had mentioned disposing of me. Did she think that getting rid of me would keep her safe? How would they go about killing me, anyway? If they couldn’t use strong magic here, it would have to be some sort of Muggle murder, with a sword or something. Or maybe they would just throw me into the fireplace and wait for the house to do the honors. A sacrifice.
“Knock, knock,” someone gently called. I jumped a foot in the air, startled out of my wits. “I know you’re in there, Narcissa.”
I remained frozen, eyes large and trained on a thin crack in the wardrobe door. A shadow moved over it, standing just on the other side. I wondered how whoever it was knew I was in there. My curiosity got the better of me, and I blurted out, “How did you know I was in here?”
The person laughed. It was a friendly tone, female. “My dear, the wardrobe told me.”
Ever inquisitive, I poked the door open and swung my legs out. A hand the size of a watermelon greeted me, offering to help. I climbed out, ignoring the gesture, and stared in incredulous stupefaction at the enormous monster of a woman towering high over the wardrobe, even when hunched. If she were to straighten herself out, her head would probably scratch the lofty ceiling.
She was absolutely massive. And she was grinning broadly at me, her lips stretching out as lines crinkled around her eyes. Her hair was carrot-orange and springy, spiraling out in every direction like corkscrews in one of my father’s failed inventions. Freckles the size of raindrops splotched every bit of her skin, even her fingers and under her pale eyebrows.
“I’ve never met one of you before,” I said bluntly.
The giantess blinked her eyes, but smiled cheerily all the same. There were inch-wide gaps between her humongous teeth, and they all curved slightly outward. “Well, now you have.” She pointed at the wardrobe I had just stepped out of, and I found myself marveling at her fingers again. They were as thick as baby tree trunks. “See how it gave you away?”
Unfeasibly – but true enough – the wardrobe had rearranged its features. The gold paint that embellished the woodwork, thin as thread, twisted down into a pronounced grimace. The carved eaves were knotted like eyebrows, and some paneling on the bottom had shaped itself to look like a wide mouth frowning in disapproval. The furniture was actually glaring at me.
So now the wardrobe was against me, too. There went my only sanctuary.
“I’m surprised it didn’t swallow you,” the woman remarked with raised eyebrows, sounding genuinely amazed. I backed away from the piece of furniture, imagining a pink fur coat stretching out of it like a large tongue, licking me up as a bullfrog would and devouring me whole. Just as the thought flitted through my mind, the wardrobe rattled a bit. It was clearly discontent with me staring at it.
“Well, I don’t want me to be here, either,” I informed it hotly. “So if you don’t like it, then you can just sod off to another room.”
And with that, the wardrobe’s four clawed legs arched themselves, heaving the white frame off of the ground, and it waddled over to the door, turning sideways to fit itself out. I heard it clanking along the corridor, searching out somewhere else to go. My mouth dropped open. “It heard me! It actually understood what I said.”
“Of course it did,” the giant clucked. “What’d you expect? Wardrobes have such touchy personalities. Still, that was downright polite compared to some other characters in this castle. If you’d told a kitchen dresser to bugger off, it would have spit knives at you. My name is Wren, by the way.” She stuck out her hand again, swinging it fast like a giant pendulum, and I jumped away from it before I could stop myself.
“Sorry.” She looked embarrassed, her cheeks tingeing pink. “I forgot myself. Sometimes I move a bit fast and it makes people jumpy.” With all of her obvious power and extraordinary strength, she seemed to possess the ferocity of a butterfly.
I reached out and shook her hand. Her skin was rough and bumpy, and she could have easily crushed me in her grip. I could feel the grooves of her fingerprints, and found it oddly fascinating. I’d always imagined giants to be loud, savage things that didn’t know how to use proper utensils for eating. “You may call me Cissa.”
“Lovely to meet you, Cissa,” she beamed. Wren pointed at a metal tape measurer lying on the ground, and it began to float through the air, bouncing over to us like a stone skipping across a lake. “If you’ll just hold still for a few moments…”
The tape measurer stretched out, circling around my waist, measuring my legs and arms and the circumference of my neck. “What’s it doing?” I asked, trying to swat it away.
“You’re getting measured,” Wren told me, as though it should have been very obvious. “You can’t go round wearing a potato sack forever.”
I glanced down at my brown robes, flushing slightly. “I wore this…on purpose,” I insisted lamely. Wren arched her eyebrow but didn’t comment.
“Besides, the Master will want you looking your best at dinner this evening.”
“Dinner?” I wrinkled up my nose in disgust. “With him?”
“Yes.” Wren held a color wheel against my skin. “Hmm. Never would’ve pegged your season as spring. Looked more like winter, but here’s your proof.” The color wheel was pinching one of my ribs from the force of her gigantic hands, but I tried not to stagger back. She probably wasn’t aware that she was exerting any pressure at all. “Maybe a nice soft green?”
“I don’t like green,” I rejected at once. I was too used to green. It was all over my father’s house in Wasteir, because of Slytherin. I was immensely proud of my Slytherin roots, but I didn’t fancy wearing the color all the time. “Besides, I look better in blue. It brings out my eyes.”
“Green it is!” she said brightly. I was vain enough to frown about the choice.
“I’m still not eating with him,” I announced. “I’m too tired, anyway.” I wasn’t lying about that. I’d spent the whole of the previous night, as well as all morning and afternoon, searching out doors and windows in the castle and trying to escape through them. The results had been fruitless, and one set of curtains had pulled my hair, ripping out several stands. I’d stumbled back into a door, which flew open at once and knocked me into a little decorative table. A flower vase that had been sitting on the table then proceeded to hammer me on the head. I was not feeling very welcome, nor was I pleased about the circumstances.
“I need to get home,” I repeated for the fiftieth time that day. Just as with everyone else, my plea fell on deaf ears. “My father needs me. I have to find out what happened to him and my sister.”
“And dark green ribbons around the waist, I think,” Wren mused. She narrowed her eyes, studying my shoes. “Those are just awful. They’ll definitely have to go.”
“I don’t care about my shoes!” I exclaimed. “If you have any soul at all, you’ll try to get me out of here. There’s got to be a way to break the spell, or get around it.” I paused, examining how her face had abruptly gone blank. “How do you break the spell?” I questioned.
Wren collected her tape measurer, pretending that she hadn’t heard me.
“There’s got to be a way,” I went on. “There are almost always loopholes to enchantments. I’m sure that we could find one. Isn’t there a library in this castle?”
“Only the biggest library in Wauning,” she laughed. “It’s in the dungeon. Wall-to-wall books, or so they say. I can’t go down there.” She gestured to her head. “The ceiling’s too low for me.”
“Wauning?” The word felt foreign on my tongue. “I’ve never heard of such a place.”
“You and the rest of the world,” she added quietly, pushing back one of my sleeves. “Then it’s settled. A nice pale green dress with forest green ribbons and ivory robes.”
“What are you, a seamstress?” I asked sarcastically, folding my arms together. I was in an exceedingly cantankerous mood. I knew that if I stopped being irritated, the sadness would settle in with sharp pangs. And gloom was far worse a companion to have than anger.
“That’s right,” Wren confirmed.
“How do you break the spell?” I asked again, trying to catch her off her guard in hopes that she might answer me. Just like before, she seemed to have fallen mysteriously deaf. “Fine,” I growled. “Don’t tell me. I’ll just ask Mr. Malfoy.”
Wren chuckled darkly. “Go right ahead. But I warn you…you might not like what you hear.” And with that, she ducked her head and squeezed herself sideways through the door. I suddenly understood why so many doorways were gouged apart around the edges. “Your clothes will be finished in about three hours.”
“Take your time,” I shouted after she was already gone. “I’m not wearing them.”
True to her word, thunderous footsteps clamored back into the bedroom three hours later. I had been sitting in a bare corner on the floor, having pushed the dressing table up next to the bed. I didn’t trust any of the furniture and refused to touch it more than necessary. I resolved to recline against the wall until the spell broke, hoping the wallpaper wouldn’t bite me in the meantime.
“All finished,” the giantess chirped. “Here we are.” She shoved me behind a Victorian-style dressing screen and draped the clothes over the side. “Try it on, then.”
Muttering, I pulled the green garment over my head and then threw on the white robes over top. I stared at the dark green ribbon in my hands, not sure what to do with it. In the end, I tied it in my hair. I stepped out from behind the dressing screen, arms extended. “Ta-da.” I let my arms flop to my sides.
“What did you…?” Wren’s face split into an amused smile. “No, no, dear. That’s not what the ribbon’s for.” She loosened the white robes, which had been tightly fastened, so that the green dress was visible and the robes hung like scarves on either side. She yanked the ribbon out of my hair, ignoring my protests about how much it hurt, and looped it around my waist. “There.” She admired her handiwork. “Don’t you just look darling?”
“I look like celery,” I told her, picking at the ribbon. “And that’s not how robes are worn anymore. They’re supposed to cover up your other clothes, right up to the neck. That’s the fashion.”
“Not in this castle,” Wren murmured. “We’re a bit behind the times.” She cocked her head. “It doesn’t much matter what you’re dressed in, in my own opinion. But these are the Master’s preferences, so it’s best to just do as told.”
I was about to ask why everyone obeyed his orders even though he couldn’t very well chuck them out of the castle, and then remembered his translucent skin and the long, sharp teeth that drew blood from his lower lip.
“Is she ready?” someone spoke, and Horatio’s head popped into the room. He was fidgeting with his pocket watch. “It’s ten ‘til eight. The table is set, the candles are lit, and Master is waiting.”
“Dinner,” he and Wren both answered at the same time. Wren smoothed my hair away from my face.
“Oh, I’m not going,” I answered breezily.
Horatio gave a little spasm. “Not going?” he choked.
“But of course she is going,” Ramien’s voice cut in smoothly, and his long legs strode into the room. “Everything is ready.”
“Actually, I wouldn’t mind some sleep,” I said. “I’ll need a full night’s rest before my journey tomorrow.” When their faces remained expressionless, I added, “For when I go home. It’s quite a long walk.”
There was a pregnant pause, and then Ramien turned to Horatio and said, “Is it the lamb soup or the vegetable tonight?”
“Lamb, I believe.”
“Excellent. I personally suggested that dish to Cook, you know. It always makes the best first impression.”
I opened my mouth to refuse them again, but my head was already consumed with the thought of food. I could have been merely imagining it, but I suddenly thought that I could detect a waft of chocolate cake. My stomach rumbled audibly. I hadn’t eaten a thing since I left home. Suddenly, my limbs felt thin and weak, incapable of supporting me. Perhaps I would do well with a square meal before I set out on my trip home.
“I’ll eat,” I agreed. Their faces broke into smiles of relief. “Up here. In this room.”
“But you can’t!” Horatio was aghast. “It’s already been decided that you would dine with Master!”
“Him?” I winced. “That would destroy my appetite. I can’t eat while looking at that – that beast.”
A loud crashing noise erupted from the corridor, and I gave a start. Horatio, who was closest to the hall, poked his head around. When he turned back, his face was stark white. “That was Master,” he reported dazedly. The man looked like he might keel over in a faint. “He heard you. We’re going to die. We’re all going to die.”
Ramien fanned Horatio with his hand, and Horatio was swaying back and forth, perspiration dotting his clammy skin as his eyes fluttered. “This is not good,” Ramien muttered, exchanging a serious look with Wren. Wren was absolutely terrified. I peeked into the corridor and saw that a shelf had been smashed to bits. Chunks of rubble showered the floor, some of the pieces stirring pitifully as though trying to mend itself. Ramien motioned with his hand and the pieces flew into the air, regenerating into the shelf it had been only seconds before. The proof of damage was gone, but Ramien’s eyes were still heavy with worry.
“This is very bad,” he said for emphasis. “Very bad.”
I bit my lip, observing the fear in the three of them but not quite absorbing it myself. “Mrs. Macnair,” Wren suggested from nowhere, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. I could feel the floor groaning in reaction. Or perhaps I had heard it groan…
“What can she do?” Horatio snapped, his eyes focusing again.
“Who is Mrs. Macnair?” I wanted to know.
“A very fine lady,” Wren answered me. “She is the Master’s assistant, and in charge of how most things are run in Malfoy Manor.” She nodded vigorously. “Highly efficient, too.”
“Let’s not involve the higher-up’s,” Ramien said. “Myrtle, you’ve got to apologize to him personally.”
“Who is Myrtle?” Wren asked, just as I responded with, “Absolutely not.”
There were many sighs all around. “You don’t get a choice on this one,” Ramien told me, his tone colored with warning. He opened the door and Horatio and Wren jostled me from behind, pushing me out into the corridor. I eyed the nearby shelf warily, imagining that no one would probably be able to fix my skull in the same way if it shattered all over the floor.
“Go on,” Ramien urged. All three of them looked violently ill. They had barricaded the door to the room designated as mine. I had nowhere else to go. Frowning moodily, I stomped off downstairs. On the way, I pulled out the ribbon and left it on the floor, and then fastened the white robes in the modern style, to cover my sliver of exposed dress so that I would not look like some kind of common Muggle.
When I reached the dining hall, I found it empty. Elaborate silver dishes were filled with all sorts of mouth-watering things – hot rolls, steaming bowls of soup, roasted chicken, potatoes and boats with gravy, tossed salad…and there, right in the middle, was the largest blackberry tart I had ever laid eyes on. My stomach lurched, and I felt my feet shuffling forward. I pulled out a chair, preparing to eat, and it promptly tipped itself over. As I had been ready to sit on it, I plummeted to the ground.
I swore loudly, kicking the chair. It tilted back onto its two hind legs like a scorpion defending itself. I turned my attention to the food on the table. Reaching out for the blackberry tart, a bowl of tomato soup began to spray at me. I moved away before it could scorch my face, but several droplets splattered on my arm. I swore again, kicking everything in my immediate radius. The table picked itself up and moved away, the contents of the soup bowls sloshing madly.
“Fine!” I yelled. “I just won’t eat, then.” The table stopped moving, satisfied. I wanted to throw something at it, but figured that I would end up with more burn marks on my arms.
“They’ll let you eat after you’ve apologized to Master Malfoy,” someone said.
He reminded me of a wisp of smoke. He was tall – even taller than Ramien – and had an insubstantial way about him. His eyes were gray, his hair was gray, and he stepped swiftly and silently. He wore a black apron and a white hat. I took this man to be the one Ramien referenced as ‘Cook’.
“He’s not here,” I said, waving my arm around all the empty chairs.
“No, he’s not,” Cook agreed, his expression calm. “He was too upset to eat. He is in his tower.” He studied me, the solemn gaze unflinching. “You will go directly up there right now and tell him that you are sorry for your quick judgment and cruel words. You will apologize and you will mean it.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. I was honestly intimidated, and scared to contradict him. “All right,” I ended up saying in spite of myself.
He nodded. “Good. Hell awaits you here if he doesn’t forgive you.”