A candle provided the lion’s share of the light in the room where Ambrosia and Bellatrix sat, their heads bowed over the same piece of parchment. Sirius’s reply had arrived several minutes before, just after nightfall, and contained precisely the amount of unpleasantness that Ambrosia had feared:
Your letter to me is more proof that you don’t understand why I left home any more than anyone else in the family. I don’t care about the inheritance I will be giving up, and I don’t give a damn that all of you think I am a disgrace to the name of Black. If leaving home and having James as a friend make me a disgrace, I’ll happily shout from the top of the Hogwarts astronomy tower that I am Sirius, disgrace to the name of Black. As for my mother, I never got the impression that she had a heart, or wanted sons for anything other than reputation’s sake. The claim that one of her sons leaving has broken her heart, then, doesn’t make sense.
As for the concerns about Andromeda, (Mostly Druella’s from what I gather) know that they are absolutely founded in reality, as I’m sure you have long suspected. Whether I influence her or not is irrelevant, and I don’t see why it would matter to you anyway, since you seem to detest her company almost as much as she detests yours.
Bellatrix made an exasperated sound and looked up from the letter. Ambrosia lingered for a moment on the last line until she too surfaced from the words, wearing a disgusted expression.
“There was no harm in attempting it,” said Bellatrix bracingly. Ambrosia shook her head slowly.
“No,” She agreed. “But no good came of it either. Do you think mother’s right, and he is the cause of Andromeda’s foolishness?”
“Not the cause,” Bellatrix replied after a moment. “Certainly what he says in his letter though. An influence. Regulus has never said anything about Sirius trying to influence him, so there must have been some wayward tendency in Andromeda from the beginning. It seems, especially now, that she is headed the same way as he’s gone.”
“By Merlin I hope not,” Ambrosia said wearily, her mind recoiling from the very thought.
“For mother’s sake, if nothing else.”
“That’s not to say it wouldn’t be horrible if she turned out to be as much of a blood traitor as Sirius,” said Bellatrix defensively. “I simply meant that she seems to look up to him more than to any one of us with a sense of propriety.”
“And unfortunately there is a great deal of truth in that,” Ambrosia agreed, thumping her hand over the letter in a weary gesture as she set it down on the desk. She sighed and relaxed in her chair, tilting it back on two legs. “I would say I hope that mother isn’t worrying too much over this, but I know differently. I recall over the summer that her only concerns about you and I were whether we would marry in good time or at all, and have her grandchildren. What is that in comparison to the fear that Andromeda might marry a Mudblood and carry that spawn into the world?”
“I refuse to think of it,” said Bellatrix hotly. “She is only fifteen and has time to see the flaws in the filth she insists on dating. She already broke up with Dirk Cresswell.”
“And now she is with Ted Tonks! Narcissa says she overheard the pair of them talking about staying with Sirius and the Potters this Christmas!”
“Well, perhaps Narcissa’s relationship with her new boyfriend will set a meaningful example. Lucius drops by so often now that Andromeda would have to shut herself in her room every time there is a knock on the door if she wants to avoid seeing how happy Narcissa is with him.”
At this, Ambrosia laughed. “Yes, perhaps that will be so. I’ve scarcely seen her more obsessed with anything than with this relationship. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they got married?”
“It would take some of the pressure off of us,” said Bellatrix with a smirk. “Mother wouldn’t think of anything else from the engagement until their first child. If Narcissa is the first in the family to marry though, we’ll never hear the end of it.”
“She might have the same logistical problems as us, with Lucius being a Death Eater,” Ambrosia pointed out.
Bellatrix snorted. “Oh, Abraxas Malfoy’s an integral part of the Dark Lord’s inner circle. Mostly deals with the political side of things. But his son only joined up a few months ago. Abraxas has been taking Lucius to the Ministry constantly to try and get him connected, so he can take Abraxas’s place one day. But he has yet to have any demands on his time serious enough to impede wedding preparations. I think that if anything holds up a wedding they plan, it’ll be Lucius. He never kept the same girl for any length of time when he was in school from what I hear, before Narcissa anyway.”
“Well, Narcissa’s the perfect example of exactly what he’s always gone after though, isn’t she?” Ambrosia said lightly. “Blonde, pure-blooded, and impressed by his stories.”
Both of the sisters laughed briefly, and not unkindly; but it was a short-lived mirth which soon ceased. They were left to their own thoughts in the familiar, comfortable silence that they both treasured the ability to have with one another. Bellatrix had picked up the letter and begun to examine it, clearly reading it through once more, the laughter fading further from her face with each line. Ambrosia contemplated writing a reply for several minutes but ultimately decided against it, and was reduced to twirling the quill absently between her fingers. She knew there was nothing she could do about Sirius and Andromeda, but that did nothing to lessen the sinking feeling in her chest as she pondered the fact that she had truly lost them. All she could do was remind herself of Regulus, and his desire to follow in her footsteps by taking leadership of the duelling club; of Narcissa, who considered the honor of her blood in everything she did; and of Bella, to whom she was even closer now than ever before. She turned her head at this thought and took in the sight of her sister, who had put the letter down and was gazing at it in utter contempt.
“Come on,” Ambrosia said, picking up the quill she had abandoned. “We still have real family. We have friends that know how purebloods ought to conduct themselves. There is no use dwelling on a lost cause or two, so let’s write to them instead. Have you done all your wedding invitations yet?”
The wedding invitations had taken a great deal of time to write out. The task had certainly distracted both sisters from their current family predicament, as they had spoken all the while about the people to whom the invitations were to be sent. It had been of utmost importance, though not difficult, to make sure that the only people who received invitations were purebloods of untainted reputation. Comforting as it was to realize how many proper pureblood friends there were to invite to the wedding, Ambrosia rather thought that her hand was still sore a week later; as she stood by the river that was the meeting place that evening and waited for the rest of the Death Eaters to arrive.
The sun was below the horizon; not so long departed as to erase the residual deep pink and dark blue hues from the sky completely, although Ambrosia knew it would be only a matter of minutes before they faded. The secluded place in the mountains seemed to be close to the apex of the river, and Ambrosia had been surprised but pleased to find that the only quality this place had in common with the forest clearing in which she had first met the Dark Lord was its beauty. Bellatrix stood next to her, absentmindedly massaging her own hand and laughing as a harried-looking Travers Apparated belatedly several meters outside the circle and had to run forward to take his place. Several other Death Eaters laughed as well, but the Dark Lord merely scrutinized Travers with a raised eyebrow as he settled himself within the loosely formed perimeter.
“Now that we have all arrived… successfully,” said the Dark Lord icily, stretching the last word into syllables and keeping his eye upon Travers until the latter bowed his head to avoid the intensity of the gaze; “We can proceed to our first order of business. I believe that we have a matter on the other side of the mountain that needs to be reported on?”
Travers was nodding his head, and as Ambrosia looked around the circle she saw Dolohov nod once as well. What struck her most as she took in the meeting was stark difference in the size of the circle- it was less than half the size it had been when she had attended the first meeting, and she knew a much greater proportion of the people in it. Different, as well, was the fact that she could identify them – none of those present concealed their faces tonight. She noticed that the powerfully built man charged with recruiting the giants for the Dark Order was among those who were absent, and assumed he had taken some of the others with him. Evan Rosier winked at her from behind the Dark Lord’s back. She smiled involuntarily, punished him for providing this inappropriate amusement with a halfhearted mockery of the evil eye, and turned her attention back to the conversation.
“-in a matter of moments my Lord,” Travers was saying.
“So am I to assume that the reason for your lateness can also be traced back to Fenwick’s death?”
“I fear so my Lord, and beg that you would forgive me,” replied Travers, clearly pleased that it had been the Dark Lord who had offered this as a reason for his lateness rather than he himself.
The Dark Lord nodded wordlessly, but Travers seemed to relax nonetheless.
Ambrosia remembered what Bellatrix had said nearly a month ago now about latecomers sometimes being accidentally cursed, and resolved never to make Travers’s error herself.
The Dark Lord was now stalking gracefully around the inner perimeter of the circle his followers formed. Ambrosia watched her fellows with interest as he passed them, interested to see who stood firm, who flinched, and who looked as though they longed to step back from him, but did not dare to do so. Dolohov stood firm as the Dark Lord reached him and stopped in front of him.
“Dolohov,” He said slowly, as though he were contemplating some small but important decision, “Step forward.”
Dolohov did so, moving a good two meters inside the perimeter with only a momentary expression of puzzlement. The Dark Lord resumed his slow walk.
“As my highest ranking followers, I am sure all of you pay enough attention in our gatherings to have noticed that the last one was witnessed by a new woman, who wishes to aid our cause.”
He stopped before Ambrosia.
“She was the founder, I have heard, of a rather notorious Duelling Club at Hogwarts. I wish to see if her reputation for skill in the Art is as well-deserved as it would appear.”
His icy eyes met hers, and just like on the night of the previous meeting, she thought she saw them melt infinitesimally as he looked at her. His attractiveness struck her again momentarily before the knowledge of the impending duel crowded all other thoughts from her head. She knew instinctively that she could not be distracted.
“Ambrosia Black,” The Dark Lord said to her and to the assembled Death Eaters. “I will ask you to come forward as well, and to face Dolohov. You will duel against one another only for the sake of displaying skill. You will not cast any spell with the ability to cause prolonged incapacitation. You will observe all necessary etiquette. Begin.”
Ambrosia and Antonin put the necessary amount of distance between themselves before turning around and bowing to each other. Ambrosia knew nothing now except the peace she always knew before a duel of any sort, that quiet place where she could draw effortlessly on everything she knew; that left no room for nerves. She would be nervous in retrospect, after she was finished.
Dolohov’s first spell was a jet of orange light that she repelled with a sharp upward slash of her wand. She sent a Stunning spell flying on the way down from this gesture, which he repelled with equal ease.
The next few minutes were pandemonium.
The circle doubled and then tripled in size as its members made an effort to get as far away as they could from the battling pair and still keep the circle whole as they watched. The Dark Lord alone did not retreat, and stood closest to them in front of a large spruce tree as they circled each other and duelled fiercely enough that one of the other nearby trees caught a stray spell and was set ablaze. Ambrosia directed her wand at the fire and drew it around herself in a red-orange rope to shield herself from a ghostly wolf that Dolohov had conjured. As the fire faded, it seemed to Ambrosia’s momentary amazement that she was gaining the upper hand. She was forcing Dolohov back from her, towards the river.
He sent a volley of Stunning spells her way, and she parried the ones that would otherwise have hit her, ignoring the others. At the slightest break in this barrage, she fired a pair of Impediment Jinxes Dolohov’s way, one of which hit him squarely in the chest, the other sailing into his left shoulder. He was blasted backwards onto the nearer bank of the river and, as though from a great distance, Ambrosia heard Bellatrix’s shriek of delighted surprise and Evan’s loud “Yes!” from behind her. She grinned in spite of herself at these exclamations, but the only person she really had eyes for was the Dark Lord, who strode over to the riverbank to briefly assess Dolohov’s injuries before returning to the middle of the still-shrinking circle. He was regarding her intently now, his expression utterly unfathomable.
Only when some sense of order had returned to the proceedings (Dolohov had risen rather gingerly and returned to the circle, filling in the gap and returning it to its pre-duel state), did the Dark Lord break the expectant silence.
“I believe we have found the newest member of our ranks,” He said softly, turning to Ambrosia. “A most impressive performance. You deserve all that I have heard about you and more, Miss Black.” He dropped his voice, so as not to broadcast his next words to the assembly. “I would have you remain here once again, after I have dismissed all the rest.”
She nodded and then bowed to him politely, as low as she could while remaining ladylike. “Thank you, my Lord,” she responded serenely. Her tone of voice could not have been more at odds with the feeling in her chest, which was tight and exhilarated. She felt as if her heart were racing around exuberantly in the confines of her body, trying to find a way out so it would have more room to dance. She did not know what to expect from the Dark Lord in the way of further attention that night, and could not help but wonder whether she was about to be brought at that moment into the ranks of the Death Eaters as he had hinted. But he turned away from her and began addressing Lucius about some meeting at the Ministry.
Bellatrix clapped her on the back as soon as the Dark Lord had finished speaking to her. Ambrosia turned to face her sister, who was positively beaming. She grinned back, showing only her elation, for there was no need just now for Bellatrix to know that she was also battling with the bothersome knowledge that because initiations took place at just this sort of meeting, the Dark Lord turning away from her seemed to signal the end of any chance that this duel would secure her place in the Dark Order; as Bellatrix's defeat of Travers had done for her.
At the end of the meeting, most people did not linger for long. Dolohov had come over briefly to shake her hand, but after they had remarked politely upon one another’s skill, he had Disapparated like everyone else. Evan, Bellatrix and Ambrosia were the exceptions. Evan had come running toward the pair of them after Dolohov had left and laughed in delight, wasting no time in congratulating Ambrosia on the duel.
“See, you did win!” He insisted happily, his hands firmly on her shoulders, making her laugh in an almost grudging manner. “Pressure or no bloody pressure, you were brilliant!”
“Thanks,” she said, grinning broadly and swatting his hands away. “Still think Dolohov’s better than you?”
“Merlin, no.” Evan replied in a serious voice, the corners of his lips twitching. “No, I am certainly much better than Dolohov.”
All three of them laughed at this. Behind Evan and Bellatrix, Ambrosia saw the Dark Lord waiting calmly in front of the tree that had caught fire in the duel. She half expected him to gesture to her or hurry her in some other way, but he did nothing of the sort. The only gesture he made was to lift his wand to the tree and repair the damage that had been done to it.
“He wants you to stay again, doesn’t he?” Bellatrix asked in a whisper, realizing where she was looking. Ambrosia nodded mutely. Evan looked slightly surprised, but Bellatrix smiled. “We won’t keep you then,” she said, turning to Evan. “I’ll be waiting at the house. And don’t be too hard on yourself. It’ll come soon,” she finished, with entirely too much understanding in her smile. How was it that Ambrosia’s sister always knew or guessed at exactly what was bothering her?
All Ambrosia did was give her sister a small smile and a nod, but Bellatrix did not require more. She took hold of Evan’s arm and Disapparated, leaving Ambrosia alone once again with the Dark Lord.
There was only the sound of the river as he allowed her to close the majority of the space between them, stopping respectfully several meters away and bowing to him. She did so not in the traditional, exclusively feminine way that her mother had taught her from an early age, but as a duellist might. She felt that this was more appropriate to her current situation, an impression that was reinforced when the Dark Lord inclined his head very slightly to her. He seemed also to take issue with the amount of space she had put between them, closing it enough that he could reach out and touch her if he so desired. She knew this test, and held her ground, thrilled once again by his proximity to her and shocked by how natural it felt to make eye contact with him.
“Ambrosia Black,” he addressed her; mirth apparent in his features, stretching her name out gracefully. “That was certainly the most skill I have ever seen from one of my followers in the first duel I present them with. I have no doubt that you will quickly make a name for yourself.”
Ambrosia could not stop herself from giving him a small smile at this, and simply did her best to keep from laughing out loud. His words made her almost giddy.
“Thank you, my Lord. I must say that you flatter me.”
“Not at all, Miss Black,” he replied. She couldn’t help but notice that he still addressed her more formally than any of his Death Eaters, whom he referred to by last names only. She wondered idly if it meant anything. He paused for a moment, thinking.
“Do you remember the bookstore I told you of on the night of your first meeting?”
At her nod, he continued.
“I want you to be in front of it tomorrow night, at exactly one in the morning. At that time, we should have privacy there.” There was a knowing gleam in his eye, but perhaps Ambrosia was only imagining it. How could he possibly have noticed that her breath caught in her throat at his words? Wearily, she banished the matter to the back of her mind once more. Yes, he’s handsome, she told herself firmly. It is an irrelevent thing, and your immunity to it would serve you and your purposes well. She was able to pause only briefly before answering him.
“I will be there, my Lord,” she told him quietly.
“Good. I have business to attend to later this night, and I must dedicate myself to it now, but I will meet you tomorrow. Do not be late.”
“Of course not, my Lord.”
She was about to turn and Disapparate when, to her complete surprise, the Dark Lord reached out and caught her hand. She froze immediately, her pulse racing again, and allowed him to steer her around to face him again, to lift her hand, and to press his lips to the back of it. A splendid chill swept through her at this touch, and it was all she could do to keep her eyes from closing.
He drew away slowly, allowing her to register what had just happened. A smirk played along his lips as he released her.
“Until tomorrow, Ambrosia.”