Chapter 24 : The Ball at Malfoy Manor
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Lovely chapter image of the Greengrass-Yaxley ladies by starcrossedsoliders @ TDA!
It’s a tradition in the pureblooded community around London to attend the Malfoy manor New Years Ball. The parties range from boring to downright hilarious – like two years ago, in which ice princess Daphne finally cracked with a good portion of champagne and ended up doing the House Elf Hustle on top of one of the tables. Father was furious when he saw and carried her away over his shoulder. Honestly, it was pure gold, that year. My sister is a horrible dancer, and the House Elf Hustle is a humiliating dance even at the best of times.
Unfortunately, this year’s party looks much grimmer. A great cloud is the absence of Mr. Malfoy and other prominent figures in the pureblood community, such as Mr. Nott. The manor itself was searched twice shortly following Mr. Malfoy's arrest after the incident at the Ministry and cleansed of many valuable objects, though it has been restored to its former glory and intrigue in the past few months. Regardless of these shortcomings, Narcissa Malfoy has put up a great show: the grand rooms, which have been magically enlarged and cleared of all furniture in preparation for this event, and sparkling with eminent luxury, chandeliers dripping diamonds and piles of food and drink heaped upon the guests. Their library makes ours look like a broom closet.
Apparently, Malfoy manor dates back to Stuart times, though it has undergone several renovations since. Also, it wasn’t always Malfoy manor: my father told me once that it was gained mostly on bloody money, swindling and Muggle manipulation, and has only belonged to the Malfoys within the century.
In my childhood, Daphne, Pyxis, Theo and I always dreamed of playing hide and go seek in the manor. Naturally, this was never permitted, and we instead were forced to sit stiffly in uncomfortable chairs, sip sugarless tea and pretend not to understand the worried tones in our parents’ voices.
The evening of the party, the New Year, is chilly and brisk. The snow has begun to slowly recede, but it’s memory lingers in the air and brings goose bumps to my skin. Our Portkey tonight is a silver spoon: while the manor is not far from home, it is much cleaner and quicker to go through Portkey than Floo Powder. Theo, who has taken a few shots of Firewhiskey in his room, looks rather unsteady as we stumble to the grand, dark front gates of Malfoy manor, a few hundred meters away from the actual house.
Daphne will turn seventeen in the new year, as will Zabini. Oh yeah, Zabini is here too, as Daph’s date. I just tend to forget about him after a while because he doesn’t say much. He’s like a very pretty, yet sour piece of furniture.
“Why did we have to Portkey at this end of the driveway?” Pyxis mutters mutinously. Teeth chattering, I can’t help but agree. Mum, walking a few steps ahead and very tall in her high heels, whirls on him and glares.
“Because, you ungrateful children, there are wards preventing any wizard from arriving by magic within the vicinity of the grounds. And you would do well to keep your mouths shut and whinging inside your heads once we’re inside.”
Well, clearly she’s in a mood. I look curiously at the large, silver fountain singing to the left. In the summer, these gardens must be splendid. I can make out the ghostly skeletons of bare trees and dead leaves poking out beneath the snow.
Theo falls back in step with Pyxis and I.
“I can’t wait until you get your Apparition license, mate,” Pyxis tells his brother. “I’m going to make you take me everywhere.”
“If I ever pass my test,” Theo remarks glumly. “I’m rubbish, even Parkinson’s better than me. The whole thing creeps me out.”
“A friend told me a story about a wizard who forgot his towel when getting out of the shower, and tried to Apparate into his bedroom,” I offer wisely. “But he missed and Splinched off his-”
“I would ask that you not finish that sentence if you know what’s good for you, Astoria,” Mum calls from a few paces ahead. Pyxis snickers, but Theo looks a little green.
“Mrs. Yaxley’s just nervous because Headquarters has been set up here,” Theo whispers. “Malfoy was telling me all about it when he was round the other day. Apparently You-Know-Who has taken up the main study as the Death Eater central meeting hub, and several of them are actually staying in the spare rooms.”
“And how does Malfoy feel about that?” I ask, voice hushed.
Theo shrugs. “It’s their duty, I suppose.”
“Better him than us,” Pyxis says darkly, and I can’t help but agree. Serving the Dark Lord is one thing, but having your own home overrun with strange, sinister men and women?
“Now, children, remember to behave yourselves, and speak only of things that can’t get us into trouble,” Mum says, drawing her shawl closer around her shoulders before rapping with the grand silver snakehead knocker. “Boys, stay away from the wine. Daphne, don’t let me so much as see you thinking about doing anything resembling the House Elf Hustle.” She gives my sister a stern look, and Daphne pretends to be very interested in the murky stars overhead. Mum turns to me. “Astoria, if I find out you’ve brought that bloody Pygmy Puff hidden in your purse…” She ends this train of thought with a threatening glare at all five of us, then turns towards Malfoy Manor.
My mother is quite pretty, really, for a woman on the wrong side of forty. Definitely pretty than that pale, pinched Narcissa Malfoy, who welcomes her with a cold kiss on each cheek, and smiles a tight smile at the Notts and I, ushering us inside.
“Orpheus, they’re waiting for you in the study,” Narcissa tells my father hurriedly, who shakes his head briskly and marches off into the manor without stopping to remove his cloak. Narcissa sees me peering after him curiously and turns to me sharply.
“Ah, Tor, how lovely you look. Draco was telling me all about the shenanigans you kids cajoled him into the other day- a snowball fight! Imagine it!”
Narcissa doesn’t seem embarrassed: indeed, speaking of her son fills some colour into her high cheekbones, and she smiles a little wistfully.
“Good for you all to have fun while you can- while you’re home for the holidays, I suppose. Now, I must check on the hors d’oeuvres: see yourselves in, dears.”
“Let’s get some champagne, Blaise,” Daphne says quickly, clearly not enjoying the way her boyfriend’s eyes are following Mrs. Malfoy’s backside as she hurries away from us. I notice Theo straying the same way and give him a brisk smack on the arm.
“Do you mind? She’s twice your age!”
Mum rolls her eyes irritably. “Thank you sweet Salazar that I am not burdened with a teenage son. Now scat, you lot, and try to act mildly mature.”
“But you love us, Mrs. Y,” Pyxis protests, and Mum gives him a little smile, her resolve to be fierce and angry tonight weakening. I think Mum has always had a bit of a soft spot for the Notts, in a way that she can’t feel for her own daughters. They will always be motherless waifs in need of guidance, but Daphne and I will always disappoint her.
Ten minutes later, Pyxis and I are slouched on a sofa tucked into the corner of the Malfoy’s large reception chamber, which has been turned into a mock ballroom. A set of bows play grating, sharp notes on a set of metal strings, the instruments magically enchanted to sing on their own. Wait wizards wearing ties and long dress robes dart throughout the room, offering cool wine and measley portions of expensive tidbits on well-shined silver trays off which the candlelight reflects. Mum has already confiscated two glasses from Pyxis and I, though I notice Daphne and Zabini are left to blissfully sway close to the quartet. The whole place smells like gaudy money. Throughout the room, witches and wizards float, murmuring in small groups, high heels clicking on rich marble floors kissing each other’s winter-chilled cheeks, conversing mundanely about the snow and their children’s schooling and how run-down Narcissa Malfoy looks this New Year’s Eve, poor thing.
“Phonies, all of them,” Pyxis comments, swiveling his head to watch a pretty girl in a backless dress whirl by, laughing heartily on the arm of a turban-clad wizard. “Everyone knows the real business goes down in the back rooms. There are whole wings which nobody ever sees.”
I turn to him, intrigued. “What business exactly are you talking about?”
Pyxis smirks, happy to know something I don’t. “My father told me. This whole thing is just a ruse, really, to get the… inner circle together. Last year, they went on three raids, since nobody expects to be attacked on days like Christmas or New Year’s Eve. It’s brilliant, if you think about it.” His voice twists, his expression curdling, and he looks down at his hands. I think of Ginny.
I motion with my eyes to the groups of purebloods assembled.
“What are this lot for, then?”
Pyxis shrugs. “Recruiting, I guess. Some prominent members of the pureblood community have been coming for years, since old Abraxas Malfoy used to host before he got that nasty case of dragon pox. The Ministry knows these events happen, they wouldn’t suspect a thing.”
“Even though Lucius Malfoy is locked up and convicted?”
“I’m sure your father’s taken care of it,” Pyxis says breezily. “Useful to have a parent so well-placed at the Ministry, innit?”
“Perhaps. Or it could mean we just have farther to fall,” I tell the ground. Pyxis looks at me curiously, but doesn’t say anything. I catch Theo’s eye: he is currently chatting with a young, dark-haired wizard wearing a handsome set of navy blue dress robes.
Theo keeps his eyes on us as he leads the navy-robed wizard towards our refuge. His mouth tips open in unknown words, a well-trained curl to the corner. More and more I find myself remembering the Theo of my childhood, a solemn, thin-faced sprite with dark hair sticking to the back of his neck, who would catch my eye across the dinner table and roll his eyes in imitation of his father's earnest gestures, showing off to Pyxis and I that he could read then caving in and sneaking into my room on sleepovers to read me Babbity Rabbity and the Cackling Stump when I couldn't sleep, staring seriously as Ollivander explained the finer points of Theo's own rosewood and unicorn hair wand. So often I idealize that boy-child in my memory, forgetting the straight-faced, nearly chilled young man that Theo so often becomes. Yes, perhaps that is it. Theo is cold, yet it took me years to realize it.
In a quiet, controlled voice Theo introduces us to his companion: a twenty-something called Christian Haynes, who greets me with a firm, lingering handshake and a set gaze in eyes which hint at twinkling.
"Pleasure to meet you, Astoria, Pyxis," Haynes says smoothly, a charming smile dancing across his high cheekbones. There's something almost Mediterranean, exotic about him, though when I try to settle on one feature they seem to swim within my eyes, limiting his face to a charismatic whole. His neatly trimmed dark hair bobs a few inches above Theo's.
"How do you do?" I ask politely, in my best imitation of a posh London accent. Pyxis' shoulders rise in a silent chuckle, while Theo looks irritated behind Christian Haynes' head. "Are you a friend of the Malfoys?"
"A friend of sorts," the young man replies, a grin twisting on his handsome face. A small silver earring winks from the upper shell of his ear, and he tugs at his sleeve unconsciously. That is when I know, as well as I know my name, that this man is a Death Eater too, and not someone to mess with. There's something dangerous lurking within him, the same darkness that pervades even my father at his kindest, Professor Snape at his grumpiest, Draco Malfoy at his most arrogant. Perhaps the Dark Lord leaves marks which cannot be traced by means of the flesh.
"Christian has been abroad for the past few years," Theo explains. "You were just telling me about Russian wizarding revolts during the Cold War- fascinating stuff."
"I've been quite lucky," Christian says modestly. "Russia was particularly eye-opening, though nothing compared to the Absolute Purity regime that held power in the Austrian Ministry for so many years. The current Minister is a real card-"
"Fascinating," Pyxis says drily, eyeing a server strolling by with a plateful of tiny, intricate cakes. Meanwhile, Theo laps up every word through his dry, cold eyes, fixed on Christian's proud lips.
The awkward conversation is interrupted by a black robed man sweeping up to Christian and murmuring something illegible in his ear. Theo's new friend nods curtly as the man fades away as smoothly as he entered, like smoke on marble. Christian turns to Theo with a questioning, testing look.
"Well, Theodore? Everything is ready."
Pyxis looks up at his brother from his slouched position on the couch: the proud, straight shoulders and alert head of the elder Nott brother. Theo doesn't meet his eyes.
"I'm ready," he says, and as Christian turns away Theo smirks. "Bye, guys. Enjoy the party." And with that he is gone, and neither of us think to call after him.
I frown at Pyxis. "What was that all about? Who is that guy... Christian?"
Pyxis yawns, playing at indifference, but I feel the tension in the clench of his arm beside me. I feel a fleeting urge to bury my face in his familiar-smelling chest, to stroke Lancelot the Pygmy Puff as he purrs soothingly, to see my mother's reassuringly scornful smile.
Theo follows Christian silently through the crowd of semi-strangers, faces he recognizes as cooing over how alike he and his brother look, or congratulating him on making Slytherin. Haughty, magical faces with the practiced indifference of should-be strangers, linked by something stronger than blood, perhaps the will to believe in blood.
He follows Christian as the older man passes straight through a tapestry as though it were air: Theo takes stock of the hanging before cautiously testing it's lack of substance. The carefully woven threads depict a dying knight lying across his lady's lap, cast out like a lump of uncooked meat on the butcher's block, his eyes weeping tears of blood which trickle and pool, staining the green grass which sways slightly in a wind existing only in the loom-borne realm.
"Christian," he asks, hating the hint of a quaver in his own voice, which he has been practicing so tenderly. "Can you tell me what exactly is going to happen. Will... who will be there..."
Christian, the ever-confident cosmopolitan, gives Theo Nott a reassuring smile that smoothes across his face like heated butter.
"Don't stress mate, this is what you wanted. It will be an introduction, a small test, nothing more. Just stay focused, yeah?"
Theo nods, hating the warm saliva in his mouth, gurgling in his throat. He's been in correspondence with Christian for- well, it must be months now. He was Christian's test, his project, to refine and groom like a work of art, preparing him for the Dark Lord's presence. Today is the final exam, and the first class for Theo himself.
He wonders what he'll have to do to prove himself, to redeem the name of Nott.
For some reason, in this crowd of people I know and some whom I love, a pang of longing for Terry Boot spreads through my body. I try to picture his laugh in my mind, his slightly crooked bottom teeth, the warm feel of his arm tugging me towards him, fingers splayed across my stomach, the particular smell of his skin after he's just shaved. As the days since we parted have passed the longing has grown, a memory dancing in the corners of my mind, ducking into my train of thought at every opportunity. I imagine telling him things in my head, like the tongue-lingering taste of the cinnamon toast my mother made this morning, or about the magazine edition from Margaret Macauley, Professor Burbage's editor friend, that I received and stashed under my mattress disguised as a pamphlet about South American curse breakers.
Sometimes I can no longer hear his voice in my head, and other times I feel myself thinking in his looping, relaxed dialect, quirking my eyebrow in the semblance of a wink. Perhaps we have bled into each other, embodied each other in absence, waiting to emerge when least expected.
Happy new year, Terry, I say silently, thinking of him across how many kilometers, and perhaps it is my Legilimency or simply a ruse of the imagination but I hear some version of his voice resound in my head. Happy new year, Feisty. I'll be seeing you.
“Come on Pyxis,” I sigh, chasing these thoughts from my mind. It's been a few hours since Theo has disappeared, and wondering what Christian wants with him has made me tetchy. “Fancy raiding the wine cellar?”
Pyxis nods enthusiastically, his mouth still stuffed with chocolate strawberries. Checking that nobody has picked this moment to pay attention to us, I grab Pyxis by the wrist and drag him towards the door that I saw the serving boy use, tucked behind the tapestry of Saint Eulalia, her small head poking and peering at me from a barrel full of nails as she stubbornly persists in surviving.
Similar to probably many obscure staircases hidden throughout Malfoy manor, the steps to the basement are a far fall from the finery of the public rooms. Pyxis looks around with disgust.
“I better not get any dirt on this suit,” he informs me. “Or Merlin forbid, if one of those nasty spiders falls in my hair.”
I roll my eyes, though I doubt he can see in the damp, barely lit little passageway that descends into the earth. Really, servants back in Stuart times must have been tiny.
"Left or right?" I ask Pyxis, peering at the slight fork. Pyxis frowns.
"Do they turn this into a labrinth on purpose, to confuse the poor sods serving?" He grumbles.
I ignore him, examining tread-marks in the path forking left. “ This looks more used. But you are such a princess. Really, remind me to find some manlier friends. That Zabini seems pretty brave.”
As expected, Pyxis puffs up with indignation. “That tosser? He’s so vain, it’s basically a requirement of being a Narcississt. He probably carries a mirror around in his presumptuous pocket--"
“Be quiet,” I hiss at Pyxis, hearing a noise. Thankfully, he shuts his mouth, though I’m sure the damage has been done. I draw my wand and hold it in front of me, slowly approaching a slight bend in the stooped corridor and trying to ignore the dirt creeping upon my expensive shoes as if it has a mind of its own.
“Wait here, I’m going to make sure the coast is clear,” I whisper to Pyxis, who nods with the eager look of the already drunk who wants to be even drunker. Quietly, I round the bend and find myself facing a small, iron-barred opening. It looks like some sort of cell, large planks of metal holding up the ceiling and keeping whatever is inside from escaping.
"Do it, Theodore," the Dark Lord whispers, sending shivers trembling in the spaces between the bones of the boy's spine, sweat running cold and fearful soaking a steady pace through his clothes. He remembers the tapestry of the knight, streams of blood, and wonders who he hurt to be injured as such. This is different. He needs to do this. He deserves it. Yet his skin itself recoils from the cold touch of the Dark Lord, the strange scentless presence. Theo clears his throat, steadies his unicorn-horn wand.
As I approach, my heart thuds into my throat. There’s a dark figure on the ground in the cell: my eyes are adjusting to the dark and I squint, trying to make out whether it is human. I am nearly touching the iron bars of the cell with my cheek, and can smell the cold, tangy scent of old metal. What are the Malfoys keeping down here? I peer inside, hearing Pyxis’ sullen footsteps thudding behind me, and hold out my wand.
And there, beautiful and lifeless, still hands clasped gently over a familiar moleskin notebook, blue eyes shaded by motionless lids, pale face serene, he lies, cold and captured in the cellars beneath Malfoy Manor.
A scream pierces the air, and something in me registers that it’s mine. As if in another life I feel Pyxis running up behind me, his hands shaking my shoulders as I collapse to the dirt floor in my elaborate dress. I fight him off like a wildcat.
My hands grip and try to wrench apart the metal bars of the cell, the horrible prison holding the body of Terry Boot.
Happy new year, Feisty. I'll be seeing you.
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