Chapter 4 : The Malediction Perfidious
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Draco levelled a flat, grey gaze at the young woman sitting across from him, her expression as blank and pleasant as that of any witch who had ever sat across from his mother for tea, back at the Manor. He could gather nothing from it as his question echoed between them, his voice catching and reverberating in the empty spaces of the lofted ceilings.
Do the words ‘Epping Forest’ mean anything to you?
She lifted her teacup once again, the placid smile on her face twisting wryly as the tea, still hot, burned her tongue. She smoothly set the china cup back in the saucer and raised a brow. “Epping Forest?” she repeated. “It’s in Essex, isn’t it?”
“It is.” A glimmer of light on the silver handle of the teaspoon caught Draco’s eye as she plunked yet another lump of sugar into her cup and stirred it about. He should be focused, he knew, on nothing but the girl, but for a moment he had to allow his eyes to wander.
Greengrass Hall was a large old manor house. Built with warm red brick, it was smaller and less elegant than his own family seat. The parlour they were sitting in was obviously a lesser-used room, but the whole place carried a certain air of dingy neglect. It wasn’t dust or stains or the smell of mothballs--no self-respecting Elf would allow such disrepair to fall upon a Pureblood home. Still, there was something.
He looked down his nose at the empty cup of bone china seated on the spindle-legged table beside him. It was nice enough, but his mother’s gilded tea set had belonged to some long-forgotten Russian tsarina, and was undoubtedly finer.
Of course, it had been shattered into a thousand sharp-edged porcelain shards when an ill-timed report had come for the Dark Lord. His mother had been too afraid to put it to rights by magic; she knew well enough that Lord Voldemort liked for the things he broke to remain broken.
Draco considered, again, the gloomy aura that seemed to have permeated the house, and then he had it. Despair. Someone had lived here, without really living. Someone entirely without hope. He knew that feeling--had seen it settle in at his own home, where boneless bodies were dragged across the oriental rugs to be burned on the grounds; where the walls of the third floor rooms were now painted in blood.
He reached out his index finger and tapped the cup along the rim, looping his finger through the handle and giving it a tiny flick, so that it spun around in the saucer. The dregs if the amber liquid rippled, and a cluster of tea leaves at the bottom coalesced into an almost-recognisable shape--dark, hunched shoulders, a lump for a head. The Grim. Draco almost wanted to laugh. What an empty threat. Of course death would be his companion. The only question was, how would it touch him today?
The sound of her voice jarred him from his dark thoughts.
“I’m afraid it doesn’t carry much meaning for me at all.”
For a moment, he forgot where he was. It was as though her voice was the echo of his own thoughts, of his own fortune. Then Astoria Greengrass shifted in her seat, drawing his eyes away from his predictably prophetic teacup and back into the parlour room.
Ah, he thought, coming back to himself. The forest. The rebels. The task at hand. He turned his focus back to her, considering.
“And have you ever been there?” he countered.
“I have not.”
“You haven’t heard it come up in conversation, recently?”
“Not that I recall, Mr. Malfoy.”
Not a single flicker of emotion betrayed her. He looked her over, knowing what signs to watch for. He wasn’t sure why he bothered--he was, after all, fairly certain of the eventual outcome. But still, she puzzled him. Her hands did not shake. Her eyes didn’t shift. She regarded him with that steady gaze, the one that said I have nothing to fear from you. The one that said, If this is a game, then it is one I will win.
He shifted in his seat, tapping the downy end of his quill against his knee.
“So you would not have any knowledge of why, seemingly overnight, a large group of rebels might have disappeared, mere days before a planned attack?”
“I would not,” Astoria affirmed, smoothing a hand across her skirt. “I’m not sure what you mean by all this, or how I could be involved. I’ve been at Hogwarts all term, Mr. Malfoy. I’d imagine that could be easily confirmed.”
Draco nodded conversationally, scribbling down a nonsense note in the margin of his file. Sometimes that was all it took to get them worried--to get them to talk.
“I see,” he murmured. “And who are your chief associates at Hogwarts?”
For a brief moment, there was something in her demeanour other than the polite hostess or puzzled schoolgirl. She scoffed, the corner of her mouth curling wryly, like the edge of a paper held over a flame. But then it was gone, the sardonic curve of her lips ironed out and set in faultless order, though the tone of her voice remained dry.
“I do not have many ‘associates’ as you call them. People look away from tragedies, Mr. Malfoy. The girl with the dead mother is no fun at a party.” Her smile, now, was bright and savage. Draco had the thought that, if he weren’t careful, he could cut himself on it.
The thought struck him, and he shook his head. Where was he getting such strange ideas? He found that, in his other hand, he was still clutching the delicate silver tea spoon. He glanced into its polished surface, noting the unhealthy-looking purple crescents that had taken up residence behind his eyes. His image rested, small and turned about in the spoon’s hollow.
It seemed to him an uncommonly accurate representation.
It was time to end this. It was time to go on the offensive.
“Would you consider yourself a friend of Ginny Weasley?”
That odd smile slipped away, corners pulling downward. A perfect, puzzled crease appeared between her eyebrows.
“Ginny Weasley? From that ragamuffin pack of destitute bloodtraitors? You must be joking.”
Draco reached up to adjust his reading glasses. “I assure you, Miss Greengrass, I am not here to joke.”
Astoria Greengrass drew herself up.
“Nor am I,” she responded sharply. “You’re here to ask questions, and I invite you to ask them, but please do not insult my dignity, or my family name, by suggesting that I would associate with...filth.” Her voice caught, just the tiniest bit, on the last word. A less vigilant observer would have never noticed. It could have been distaste--horror--at being linked with such a family as the Weasleys. Or, it could be something else.
“According to your recent medical records, she visited you in the Hospital Wing last term.”
Suddenly, Draco felt a sharp pain pulse through him, heat coursing from the bend of his elbow to the top of his wrist. His eyes darted automatically to his arm, where his Dark Mark was covered by the sleeve of his suit coat and the fabric of his shirt. In a moment, without having realised it, his coat was off and his sleeve rolled up, revealing the tattoo, slashed across his pallid skin, black and unforgiving as the night.
Someone was coming.
He glanced up to see the girl eyeing him curiously. Deftly, he rolled his sleeve back down and fastened it at the wrist.
“Forgive me. Aches and pains, sometimes.” His mouth quirked sourly, not quite a grin, as he thought of how that made him sound--like an old man with a war wound, predicting the weather through his scar tissue. He saw that her eyes were still fixed on his Mark, and he met them, running a finger over the skin, tentatively, as if stroking the head of a snake.
“Hideous, isn’t it?” he asked, his tone almost affable, but there was an underlying current bitterness that surely she could not help but notice. He didn’t know what made him say it. His aunt would probably curse him for such a statement, but somehow, with that awful skull yawning up at him, the serpent peeking out from around its slithering coils, he couldn’t much bring himself to care.
The Greengrass girl, however, neither gaped in horror or stared in awe. Her searching blue eyes considered his Mark for a moment, filed it away, and then turned to meet his own grey gaze, utterly unimpressed.
Absently, she ran a hand down her side, over the bodice of her emerald dress.
“I’d not concern yourself with it,” she advised him cooly. “We all have scars, Mr. Malfoy.”
Hogwarts, Autumn 1998, Several Months Earlier
It had begun about half an hour after her confession, when she told Ginny Weasley to contact the Order of the Phoenix. When she told her mother’s last secret.
At first, it was just like a sting--a sensation of small, irritating bites around her midsection. Then, an itching.
Oh, the itching.
It had driven her mad, in that way only an incessant itch can do. She had lain on the floor of her dormitory in the Slytherin dungeons, pressing her skin against the cool, damp stones, hoping to find some relief.
It wasn’t until the burning started that she began to scream.
One of her roommates--she never was able to remember which--must have gone to fetch her sister. She’d have told them not to, had she been able to squeeze out words from behind her clenched teeth; Daphne wasn’t particularly good in the face of an emergency. But she couldn’t tell them so. The only noises coming from her were wordless, agonised shrieks.
Dimly, Astoria had felt Daphne’s hands tug away at her arms, which were clutched around her middle, and lift up her pyjama top to reveal her stomach.
“It looks like some kind of rash,” her sister had squealed, quickly dropping them hem of Astoria’s shirt and brushing off her hands, in case it were contagious.
Then, the grating voice of Pansy Parkinson, rife with indifference.
“She probably just ate one of those stupid Weasley candies or something. She’ll be fine.”
Daphne looked down at her sister, writhing on the ground and hissing with pain. She didn’t look as though she’d be fine.
“I don’t know what to do!” Daphne wailed, worrying her lip with her teeth.
Pansy scoffed. “Fine. Take her to the Hospital Wing, like any person with half a brain. We’ll give you ten minutes, but if you aren’t back by then we’re leaving without you.”
Astoria could not know what Daphne’s response had been, but she felt her sister’s arms wrap around her shoulder. She screeched louder as Daphne’s attempts to lift her tugged on her tormented skin. Daphne gave up, and Astoria slumped to the ground. A moment later, she was lifted effortlessly into the air. She caught sight of a mop of unfamiliar brown hair--one of Daphne’s boy toys, no doubt, drafted into the effort.
She knew nothing more until she had been deposited in the Hospital Wing, which smelled of the comforting mixture of herbs and antiseptic. Madame Pomfrey could be heard fussing about, and Astoria felt herself being lowered into one of the many open cots. The starchy sheets scratched against her skin when the nurse lifted up her shirt to reveal her stomach once again.
She heard the woman gasp, and then her clipped steps hastening towards the exit.
Possibly she had been left there to die.
She wouldn’t mind, actually, so long as it would hurry up.
“You are employed at this school to heal its students.” The voice: adult, male, set in tones of impolite disinterest, was known to her, but Astoria couldn’t place it. She was barely conscious, and she prayed that, within the next few minutes, she wouldn’t be.
The voice droned on, “If you feel the need to call in help for every bloody nose that comes running to the Hospital Wing, I may have to look into your replacement.”
While Madame Pomfrey had been gone, Astoria’s condition had worsened. It was as if there were a white hot snake coiled around her--a constrictor. It squeezed against her ribs, her stomach, her hips, and she gasped for air.
The Hogwarts nurse made her way over to the girl’s cot.
“What those Carrows are doing is a lot more than bloody noses for me to patch up,” she snipped, and if Astoria had been in her right mind, she’d have been surprised at the nurse’s candour. “But you can be sure I wouldn’t have called you in if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.”
“And what seems to be the problem?”
“See for yourself.”
Astoria felt the hem of her shirt lift once again, felt the momentary relief of cold air kissing the tortured skin. Then the fire-snake coiled tighter, and she whimpered.
A beat of silence, and then,
“I will need infusion of wormwood, my vial of crushed dragon’s scales, valerian, moondew, and motherwort. Send someone to fetch them from my office. Promptly.”
Astoria dimly heard footsteps. Leaving. Returning. Leaving.
The grinding noise of a mortar and pestle. She couldn’t speak. Couldn’t open her eyes. Another rush of pain seared through her middle and she let out a yelp.
“Hush.” It started out as a harsh command, but somewhere around the ‘sh’, the voice gentled, as if thinking better of its severity.
“As if I haven’t had enough curses to heal,” the voice muttered. She felt gentle fingers spread some sort of paste onto her stomach, working with medical precision. She was moved onto her side so that he could put the salve on her back. A spell was mumbled, though she didn’t catch the words.
Immediately, the pain eased. The heat drained from her skin, and the snake, after one last, crushing embrace, released her from its coils.
Her eyelids fluttered, and she caught a hazy glimpse of one image: a hand peeking out of a long, dark sleeve, reaching out to snuff out the candlelight. A chair scraping back across the floor. And, just as she drifted into a fitful slumber, a head of oily, black hair perched atop hunched shoulders, making his slow, exhausted way out the door.
Greengrass Hall, Spring 1998
“I can’t say I remember Ginny Weasley visiting me at all when I was in the Hospital Wing.”
“For,” Draco glanced down, skimming the notes in his lap, “A misfired Incendio, was it? That’s what your medical records indicate.”
“It was,” she nodded. “May I ask where you are drawing this accusation from?”
He nodded in turn. “You may. Everyone who enters the Hospital Wing, both patients and visitors, are recorded magically. In the case of an epidemic, it aids the faculty in discovering the source.”
“And it has Ginny Weasley listed as a visitor when I was there?”
“I am aware that she was supposedly there with her friend. A Miss Megan Wimpole. But it has been suggested that the two of you may have...conversed.”
“I admit that my, “conversing”, as you say, with someone like Ginny Weasley would be an odd occurrence, to say the least. I can’t imagine why I would wish to associate with someone of,” Astoria gave a haughty sniff, “her kind. But is that the reason you’re here, Mr. Malfoy? The family is low-class, to be sure, but I am surprised to find them the centrepiece in an argument designed to declare me a criminal.”
She spoke as cooly as possible, but was suddenly grateful for the high neck of her dress, which kept the young man across from her from seeing her pulse pounding in her throat. He was entirely too close, too quickly. And if speaking to Ginny could truly count as evidence for treason...then Ginny Weasley couldn’t possibly be safe, either.
“The Weasleys,” he responded, his mouth curling around the name with a visible contempt, spitting it out as quickly as possible, “have been declared enemies of the Ministry. They have gone into hiding, but it will only be a matter of time till they are found.”
Hogwarts, Autumn 1998, Several Months Earlier
Astoria woke to bright morning sunlight and a mouth that felt stuffed with cotton. She didn’t move, at first, choosing instead to take in her surroundings. The spicy scent of a poultice tickled her nose, and she could feel long strips of cloth wrapped tightly around her abdomen. Hospital Wing. She turned her head, and then rather wished she hadn’t. The room buckled and swam in her vision, and she heard a small, uncharacteristically pathetic sound claw its way out of her throat.
“Oh dear,” said a voice from across the room, and the rubbery sound of orthopaedic shoes shuffling over the stone floor replaced the slight ringing in Astoria’s ears. Madam Pomfrey clucked, gently adjusting Astoria’s head back so it was centred on the pillow.
“You children. First instinct is always to jump straight out of bed. Here, drink this.” She held a metal cup up against Astoria’s mouth, giving her no choice but to swallow. The contents tasted like liquified moss, but put her dizziness to rights in only a moment.
The nurse paused, her knobby, rheumatic fingers twining together in her spotless white apron. Nervous, Astoria realised as the pain faded and her faculties returned. That, more than anything, worried her. Here was a woman who had seen every injury that Hogwarts had to offer--who had almost certainly seen death. Anything that could phase Madame Pomfrey was worthy of concern.
Astoria longed to sit up properly, but she wasn’t fool enough to go leaping into another bout of dizziness. “May I?” She twitched her fingers vaguely, but Madame Pomfrey understood the motion, pulling her wand from her apron and pointing it at the bed so that the legs of the headboard side slowly grew upwards, creating an incline that had Astoria reclining at an almost-seated position.
Slowly, carefully, she leaned up a bit on her elbows, lifting her head so that she could look right at Madame Pomfrey, who was still standing at the foot of the bed, her chin tucked down, wiry grey eyebrows narrowed as if she were scolding any dust motes that might dare to settle on her pristine infirmary floor. It was nearly impossible to imagine such a daunting personage avoiding eye-contact. This was Madame Pomfrey, who would drag the gargantuan Hogwarts gamekeeper out by his ear if he was causing a disturbance in her healing sanctuary. She was not a woman who was easily cowed.
Astoria cleared her throat. It felt a bit less like she had swallowed sawdust now that the potion was setting in. Still, when she spoke, the words rasped out, more air than substance.
“I’d like to know what happened.”
The nurse sighed, flicking her eyes toward Astoria and then away again. Her voice, however, was as steely as ever. “What you need is to rest, Miss Greengrass. There’ll be time enough for explanations later.”
Astoria set her jaw, knowing she was wearing the same expression her mother had worn whenever someone had attempted to refuse her demands. It was a very effective look.
“Madame Pomfrey, with respect, I think you and I both know that I won’t be able to get any sort of rest until I know why I am in this hospital bed.”
Finally, Madame Pomfrey met Astoria’s gaze and held it. Whatever she saw there seemed to work some kind of change in her. Her shoulders relaxed out of their tight, locked posture, and she shook her head.
“Very well, then. I suppose you’ve a right to that,” she allowed, moving from the foot of the bed to its side and setting the empty metal cup on the small wooden table resting there.
Astoria glanced at it and licked her lips. “Asphodel, knotgrass, star thistle, and...valerian?”
Madame Pomfrey’s eyes widened behind her wireframe spectacles. “Indeed, Miss Greengrass. Also, shavings of dandelion root, but that would be almost impossible to notice under the bitterness of the asphodel.”
Astoria tasted again, and gave a satisfied sniff. Ah, there it was.
“That’s quite remarkable. You must be very skilled in Potions.”
Astoria made as if to shrug, but thought better of it. “I do well enough.”
Suddenly, a new worry sparked in Astoria’s mind. She sat up straighter, causing the room to blur at the edges, but she ignored the fuzziness, gripping tight to the corner of the fleecy infirmary blanket.
“Has my father been Owled?” she asked breathlessly. She could just imagine what a state he might be in. Felix Greengrass wasn’t in a condition to handle a medical emergency. He wasn’t in a condition to handle much of anything. Careful not to move her head, she flicked her eyes over the room, searching out some sign that he had been there.
Madame Pomfrey pursed her lips, inhaling through her nose before speaking.
“Considering the nature of your...injury, we thought it best to wait before informing anyone of the incident.”
“The nature of my injury,” Astoria repeated. It went against her instinct to admit to being confused, but she let it bleed into her voice nonetheless. If they were taking into account her father’s health, that would make sense. But she couldn’t imagine why they would keep information from him on account of her own injury. If it were that serious, one would assume they would tell him either way.
She glanced at her informant, utterly at a loss.
“It was a Curse,” the older witch explained, easing herself into the uncomfortable wooden chair that sat by Astoria’s bedside. The chair that had sat empty all day.
Daphne Greengrass could barely be bothered to get her sister to the Infirmary, let alone visit her there, after all.
Madame Pomfrey continued, busying her hands by pulling a long strip of gauze from her apron pocket and folding down one end, aligning the edges and rolling it into a bandage. “Very old. Called the Malediction Perfidious or, more commonly, the Secret-Breaker’s Curse. It’s a rather crude version of the Unbreakable Vow. With different limitations.”
“Such as?” Astoria’s voice was a croak.
“It’s not as good at killing you, for one.” In some dim, far off corner, Astoria thought she might like to smile. She hadn’t the energy for it, but there was something about the plainspoken nurse that was incredibly refreshing.
Madame Pomfrey went on. “It can also be cast without consent, which makes it different from the Vow. That’s a mutual agreement, you see. A Malediction Perfidious is attached to a piece of information, or to any number of secrets. All it takes is a physical connection, applied by touch, and the secret passed over to its keeper becomes sacred. If that secret is revealed, the curse is enacted. It’s old magic. Blood magic.”
Madame Pomfrey had managed to deliver the entire explanation in a completely clinical manner, her bandage-rolling set aside for the moment on the empty bed next to her. But there, at the end, the nurse trailed off, dropping her patient’s gaze once again.
Astoria knew what that meant; there was more.
Madame Pomfrey’s mouth turned even farther down, the lines in her face etching themselves deeper.
“And it can only be cast by a relative,” she answered, her words exhausted and reluctant, dragged from her against her will. “A blood relative.”
So that was why they hadn’t told her father. Out of fear that it might endanger her. That he might endanger her. Astoria resisted the urge to squeeze her eyes shut. She needed to see the nurse’s face when she asked the question.
Although, for once, here was a riddle she did not want to solve, a secret that might best be left buried and cold in the grave.
But she had to ask, of course. After all, she was her mother’s daughter.
“The Cursework,” Astoria began, hesitant, “is it very advanced, for this kind of spell?”
Astoria didn’t have much family. Lavinia had cut off relations with her own parents, the Blishwicks, long before before her daughters’ birth, and Felix’s parents had died when Astoria was only a toddling infant.
That left only three options. Felix, who was excellent at both Potions and Charms, had never had much skill in Curses. It was one of the reasons she suspected the Death Eaters had never recruited him, despite his blood status. Daphne had also inherited their fathers’ gift for Potions, if not his mild temper, but she never had the patience to learn any sort of complicated spellwork.
And then, of course, there was her mother, who had been near the top of her class in practically all her subjects; who was privy to all the dark spells a Death Eater might know.
“Very advanced magic,” Madame Pomfrey confirmed.
One option, then.
Astoria closed her eyes. She saw her mother, Lavinia, sitting next to her on the window seat in Astoria’s room, her eyes aglow with some new triumph, the tales she would tell only to one person--her youngest daughter. She thought of her mother’s hands--pale and long, narrow-fingered and sure--always combing through Astoria’s hair, or clutching her daughter’s hands in hers during as she recounted an exciting moment of a particularly harrowing assignment, as she entrusted Astoria with knowledge intended for her and her alone. Those were some of the best times Astoria remembered, the only times when Lavinia had truly been motherly.
Remember, little one, secrets are meant to be kept.
She heard the rustle of gauze as the old woman set to rolling up yet another bandage.
“Can you understand, Miss Greengrass, why we have yet to inform your father? We are, I am afraid, in a rather precarious situation.”
“You don’t have to worry about my father,” Astoria whispered, voice soft as it navigated past the tangle of her vocal cords, which had coiled into knots. She cleared her throat, forcing her voice to be strong, if uneven. “Though I’d still prefer that you not tell him.”
The matron’s eyebrows settled low over her eyes, hovering like storm clouds. “It goes very far against school policy, but under the circumstances...”
“It’s for the best,” Astoria finished. “What will the records say?”
“Let me take care of that,” the old woman commanded. For a moment, that steely glint left her eye, and her usual efficiency and detachment departed. She lay a hand on the younger witch’s shoulder, as if to impart some strength. Astoria felt the unfamiliar sensation of a drop of water slipping from the corner of her eye down the contour of her cheek, and Madame Pomfrey tactfully looked away as Astoria reached up and tucked a stray hair behind her ear, subtly wiping the tear away in the same motion.
When they met each other’s gaze once again, the uncharacteristic tenderness was gone from Madame Pomfrey’s face, and the uncharacteristic display of vulnerability had vanished from her charge’s .
“And now, Miss Greengrass, you really do need to rest. I’ll be changing those bandages, and then if you aren’t asleep in half an hour, I’ll have to give you a tincture. Everything else can be figured out later.”
She didn’t wait for her patient’s assent, instead going straight to the task of tackling the bandages, lifting up the linen shirt that Astoria had been changed into and deftly unwinding the old strips of cloth.
It was all Astoria could do not to gasp as the bandages fell away and her stomach was revealed. A band of shiny pink scar tissue wrapped around her middle, a little wider than her finger. It coiled down the length of her torso, starting at her belly, circling around to her back several times, and ending halfway up her ribcage, where the band flared out to become a triangular head, an open mouth.
A scar in the shape of a snake.
Her mind flashed to an image of Death Eaters’ symbol--a skull embellished with a wide-mouthed serpent, and she resisted the next tear that threatened to fall, blinking slowly until the danger was past. If there had been any doubt as to who had cast the curse, it was gone now.
The ancient Hogwarts nurse was halfway through changing the bandages when a sudden commotion sounded out in the corridor and the infirmary door burst open.
“Madame Pomfrey!” a voice shouted. Astoria knew that voice. She quickly drew her shirt down over her scar as Ginny Weasley careened into the room, stumbling under the weight and excessive height of another girl--the gangly Gryffindor who’d had her wand to Astoria’s throat only the night before. Had it only been one night ago? Another of Ginny’s roommates was on the girl’s other side, and was chattering frantically.
“--don’t know what happened. One minute, she was fine, and next thing we know, she’s half unconscious and her lips are all swollen and turning blue...”
Madame Pomfrey, with a strength that gave lie to her age, took the girl from her friends’ arms and lifted her into one of the empty beds, tucking her beneath the starchy sheets and beginning her investigation.
While she was occupied checking the pulse and temperature of her newest patient, Ginny left Madame Pomfrey with her roommates and drifted over towards Astoria’s hospital bed. Leaning casually against the empty cot next to her, Ginny’s eyes remained glued upon her friends even as she quietly, casually whispered, “What’s happened?”
Astoria’s eyes widened, darting over to Madame Pomfrey, but the nurse was too busy with the other girl, who had collapsed into a dead faint, to be concerned with them at present.
Leaning back against the headboard, Astoria allowed her eyes to flutter shut, as if she was overwhelmed by the effort regaining consciousness had taken. When she spoke, her voice was low. You never knew when the walls might be listening. If anyone knew the truth of that adage, it was Astoria Greengrass.
“I’m fine,” she lied.
“You’re not,” Ginny insisted, still not looking at her.
“Why are you even here, Weasley?” Astoria opened her eyes, just slightly, enough to see Ginny’s determined-looking frown.
“Look, you sneak out in the middle of the night to leak top secret, dangerous information, and then next morning I hear you’ve had some sort of accident that’s kept you unconscious in the infirmary for four days--”
“Four days?” Astoria gasped, turning to narrow her eyes at Madame Pomfrey, who was muttering about Azuracea and onset symptoms of Spattergroit as she shuffled through her potions cabinet. The nurse most certainly had not mentioned that.
The hard look in Ginny’s eyes softened.
“Well, technically this is the fourth, so at least you didn’t lose today, too.”
Astoria felt this was an overly optimistic way of looking at it, but she inclined her head, all the same. The room didn’t spin at all this time.
Never taking her eyes off her friend laying several beds away, Ginny leaned slightly closer.
“I need you to answer me something. Honestly.” Ginny paused, her brown eyes flicking towards Astoria and then quickly away. “Did someone attack you? Did they find out that you told us?”
Astoria kept a blank face, considering this. She had already determined that she didn’t want to lie to Ginny Weasley, but that was under different circumstances. How exactly did one explain a situation like this? Oh, well yes, I was attacked for revealing a secret. But, the person who attacked me is my dead mother, so it’s not as though you have to worry about it happening again.
So, lies it was.
“It was an accident,” Astoria repeated firmly, reinforcing it with as much guilelessness as she could muster.
Ginny’s focus darted away from her roommates for a moment as she eyed her skeptically.
“You know, you’re quite good at that. If I didn’t know any better, I’d believe you.”
“Oh, but you know better?” Astoria snipped back, lifting a sardonic eyebrow. It almost made her feel back to herself for a moment. Ginny nodded, folding her arms across her chest.
“I’ve grown up with six older brothers, all of whom have enormously outsized egos. I know what it looks like when someone’s trying not to cry.”
Astoria blinked, surprised.
“And,” Ginny went on, “You don’t seem like the sort to cry over an accident. Unless you’re just in horrible pain.” Her eyes darted back over to her. “Which you don’t look like you are.”
Damn. Astoria loathed observant people.
She also hated having to cut her losses and admit the truth, but she knew when it was the wiser of her options.
“Fine. You were right. I am here because...because of what we talked about. But no one knows.”
“How is that even possible?” Ginny countered. “If someone suspected you enough to attack you--”
“They won’t be a problem anymore,” Astoria insisted, nearly surprised she didn’t choke on the words. The truth came out even smoother than a lie would have, though it tasted twice as bitter.
“How can you be so sure?”
Something--either the bleak look in her eyes or the woodenness of her tone--seemed to convince the Gryffindor girl, because she paused, stunned, and then nodded.
“Do you mind if I ask...?”
Astoria nodded, giving a small flick of her hand as a gesture to continue. There was no avoiding it now. For the first time, the Weasley girl hesitated, showing more than a little reluctance.
“Oh, just spit it out.”
“Fine!” she snapped back. Ginny’s fingers danced restlessly along the the headboard, chipped nails pinging musically against the brass frame. She swallowed. “Did you...did you kill them?”
“No,” she whispered, tracing one finger lightly along the outline of her scar, invisible through the linen of her shirt. “She managed that all on her own.”
Astoria wanted to hate her mother. She hated what she had done. She hated that she didn’t hate her, that she couldn’t.
No doubt it was a skill she could learn, given time.
She already felt the place where her grief had nestled in her chest, a warm and living thing these past months, calcifying, turning hard and cold. There were the kinds of betrayals that could be forgiven. There were those that never could. And there were some, like this, that defied all classification.
“Is that all?” she inquired, clearing her throat against its sudden tightness.
“So that’s why you came here, then? To make sure that I hadn’t sold you out?”
“Well, it’s not the only reason. I also wanted to see if you were okay.”
“Oh, please, Weasley. Like you care.”
Ginny suppressed a smile.
“‘Course not,” she shrugged, sticking her hands into the pockets of her navy cardigan. “I hate stuck-up Pureblood bints like you. I didn’t say I was hoping you’d be okay. I just said I wanted to come see.”
Astoria met this declaration with a particularly potent roll of the eyes--an arrogant gesture she had long ago mastered.
“Yes, well, I despise you as well.” As an afterthought, she added, “Also, that was a horrible reason to come. The last thing we need is people connecting you to me. You can’t be visiting me in hospital.”
Typical Gryffindor. What a foolhardy, thoughtless, stupid thing to do.
Ginny grinned mischievously. “Oh, I’ve got an alibi, remember?” She nodded toward her roommate on the other bed, who was coming round and whose lips looked to be returning to normal size and colour. “A couple Swelling Sweeties and a Tinting Truffle give off the textbook symptoms of Azuracea. Madame Pomfrey’s given her some Pepperup Potion and the effects will wear of in a few minutes.”
“Hmph. So you poison your friends to come ruin the peace of your enemies?”
Now it was Ginny’s turn to roll her eyes. “Please. Meg leaps at any opportunity to unleash her inner actress. Besides which, I now owe her an entire box of Exploding Bonbons.”
Astoria would never fail to be amazed at the idiocy of Gryffindors. All trips to Hogsmeade had been cancelled, and students were unable to receive packages by Owl Post. Their letters were delivered with the seals broken, not even trying to conceal the fact that all correspondence was being monitored.
“So, you’re not only funnelling information to political insurgents. You’re running a smuggling ring from your brothers’ bloody joke shop candies."
Ginny lifted a slender eyebrow. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you figured it out that quickly.”
“And I shouldn’t be surprised that, in a crisis, the Gryffindors would be so concerned with trivial--”
“But,” Ginny cut in, “what you may not realise is how much good something like that can do. A few Dung bombs might not be much of an upset to the Carrows, but any kind of resistance gives people hope.”
Astoria sniffed. “Foolish hope,” she corrected.
Ginny sighed, lifting a hand to pinch the bridge of her nose. It was only then that Astoria, observant though she was supposed to be, noticed exactly how worn the Weasley girl looked.
“Maybe. But it’s a precious commodity, these days. I’ll traffic in what I can get.” She straightened, and the confident grin Astoria had seen from her after a Quidditch victory lit her back up. “Besides, chocolates are excellent ways of sending coded messages. You read, you eat, it’s gone. And getting caught with a box of sugary contraband is a lot less suspicious than getting caught with a two-way mirror, so I’ll take it.”
“Right then, Miss Wimpole. A bit of rest and plenty of fluids. You’ll be right as rain in not time at all,” Madame Pomfrey’s iron-clad voice announced as Ginny’s roommate, now looking distinctly less like a blueberry, struggled to her feet.
Ginny began to walk away, but stepped back quickly. “I almost forgot. Here.” Astoria felt a small, crinkly little packet being shoved into her palm. She clutched her fingers around it as Ginny marched quickly back to her fellow Gryffindors, throwing an arm about her friend’s shoulder as the taller girl pretended to stagger towards the door.
Astoria scoffed. Gryffindors and their flair for the absurdly dramatic.
She kept the object tucked safely out of sight as Madame Pomfrey returned to finish changing her dressings. As soon as the nurse had shuffled back to her office in the corner, nose stuck in what appeared to be a smutty Muggle romance novel, Astoria pulled it from its hiding place and held it cupped in her palms.
It was a chocolate truffle, covered in a nondescript metallic wrapper. Cautiously, she removed the wrapper and bit tentatively into the candy, fearing that she might accidentally swallow a message or suddenly grow a pair of tusks.
One never knew with the Weasleys.
Finding no hidden message, she swallowed the chocolate, which was, at least, tasty. Then she picked up the discarded wrapping paper and eyed it carefully.
She rubbed a thumb over it, smoothing out the miniature landscape of creases and folds. Nothing. Flipped it over.
No sign of any message.
This was ridiculous. She refused to be bested by a fancy piece of scrap parchment! She held it up close to her nose, as if proximity might reveal some new hint, and huffed out an irritated breath that made her wound throb. Then, as the paper fluttered from the force of her breath, words appeared, not written, but burned into the wrapper, the edges of the letters glowing like embers.
Epping Forest Evacuated. Minimal injuries, no fatalities. All safe.
The edges began to darken and curl in on themselves as the message burned itself up. But there at the bottom, tacked on like an afterthought, appeared two blackened words.
The message barely lasted a moment more before the spell was complete, leaving her nothing but a headache and a handful of ashes.
Perhaps Ginny Weasley was not such a stupid girl, after all.
Hola! First of all, so sorry it’s been so long. My excuse is that I was studying in South America. But I truly apologize for the wait. I have no intention of ever letting there be so long a gap between updates, and my NANO goal is to finish this story altogether. Hopefully this--rather sizable--chapter makes up for it. And a bit of Draco POV, even if it isn’t first-person? I tried to make you something nice to make up for the time gap. Please review. It really means a lot, no matter what you write. It’s so encouraging to see a new review come in :D
Also, credit where credit is due: thanks to Elphaba&Boyfriends for giving me the idea that allowed me to break into Draco’s psyche for this scene, and helped to break me to out of my writer’s block!
Next chapter, if all goes according to outline, ought to be a bit more action-packed. More drama! More danger! And after that we should, finally, leave the parlour! Madness, I tell you!
Thanks for reading, lovelies.
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