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Chapter 20 : Proposal
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Snow was falling around her in a soundless flurry. But that was wrong. That was all wrong. It couldn’t be snowing here, inside these walls. She looked up, desperate to find the source of the snowfall, but all she could see above her head was a yawning, black abyss.
She tried to cry out, but her tongue, like her body, remained heedless to her wishes. She felt her heart beating wildly beneath her ribs, a damp thudding sound, alarming in its incessancy.
Then she caught sight of it: just a flutter of golden wings from out of the corner of her eye. The linnet. It swooped into sight again, and then, gracefully, the small bird circled downward and downward until it landed in her lap.
It looked up at her, its black eyes intent. Then it gave a low, quivering chirp. Like Andromeda, the linnet was frightened. She wanted so desperately to reach out. She wanted to stroke its downy feathers, to whisper words of reassurance. She could do nothing. She was frozen and helpless. The linnet began to tremble.
Then the snow turned blood red.
She woke screaming, her body drenched in sweat, her hands gripped into the satin sheets of Narcissa’s bed.
The lights were flicked on, and Narcissa was awake and by her side.
Andromeda looked up at her sister in a daze, then rubbed at her eyes, willing them to focus. Her head throbbed, her heart pattered wildly. She felt weak and sore in the deep places of her bones. Even now, she struggled to think properly, to convince herself that she was safe, that there was no linnet, that there was no bloodstained snow.
“Andie,” Narcissa whispered. “I thought the nightmares had stopped.”
Andromeda sunk back against her pillow, sweat-sopped curls of hair sticking to her cheekbones.
I thought so, too.
They were traveling by Floo. Narcissa stood beside Andromeda at the edge of the great marble fireplace in the Malfoy’s drawing room. She clutched a massive satchel in one hand, and Lucius was in the process of tugging a full-sized trunk toward the fireplace. Narcissa had never been a particularly light packer.
“I’ll go on ahead of you ladies, then,” said Lucius, straightening up under the mantelpiece and clutching at his handful of Floo powder.
Lucius cast only one nervous glance at Narcissa before throwing the powder onto the flames and saying aloud, with perfect enunciation, “Onyx House.”
The flames turned a blinding green. Lucius stepped into them with Narcissa's trunk and vanished. The green tint flickered away, and the flames diminished into tiny tongues of fire circling a single wooden log. Andromeda was rather impressed that Lucius had offered to go first, knowing he’d be greeted on the other end by his fiancée’s parents.
Of course Cygnus and Druella were overjoyed by the match between Lucius and Narcissa—even more than they had been by Bellatrix’s marriage to Rodolphus Lestrange. It had never been any secret that, out of all the intended suitors for the Black sisters, Lucius was the best pick of the lot. Still, this would be the first time for Lucius to see the Black family after his proposal to Narcissa, and Andromeda imagined that there would be a deluge of questions waiting for him, courtesy of her mother.
That is, until Andromeda appeared on the scene. Narcissa hadn’t warned her parents that she would be bringing along her runaway sister this morning. Andromeda had a feeling that her appearance would overshadow Lucius’ visit. Perhaps that had been what Lucius was banking on. And perhaps that meant that Lucius wasn’t so very brave after all….
Narcissa squeezed Andromeda’s hand. She hadn’t realized until now that it had been shaking.
“I’ll be there,” said Narcissa. “Don’t worry.”
Narcissa threw an extra large fistful of Floo powder onto the flames and pronounced the name of her family home with perfect clarity. Then she and Andromeda clasped hands and stepped into the flames…
…and out of them, into the dimly lit great room of Onyx House.
Lucius was just shaking Cygnus Black’s hand when the sisters arrived. For a moment, all was quiet. Then Druella let out an astonished gasp, and Cygnus dropped Lucius’ hand as though he’d been stung. Both of Andromeda’s parents stared at her as though she were a specter—and an unwelcome specter at that.
“Andromeda,” said her mother in a wildly unstable voice. Then her gaze shifted to Narcissa. “How long has she been with you?”
“Just since last night,” Narcissa said quickly, her smile appeasing. “Far too late for us to contact you. We were afraid you’d be asleep. But isn’t it wonderful, Mummy? She’s safe and sound, and we’ve brought her home!”
Druella said nothing. She and her husband still stood transfixed, and neither of them wore a particularly nice expression. Andromeda felt small. She wanted nothing more than to back away, into the fireplace, and Floo herself back into safety at Malfoy Manor.
But that wouldn’t do. She didn’t make plans just to give them up so easily. She wasn’t going to run away a second time. This time around, she was going to stand her ground.
She slipped her hand out of Narcissa’s.
“Mum, Dad.” Andromeda nodded at both of her parents. “I apologize for causing you undue worry and for any shame I may have brought upon the family name. Running away was a rash decision, and I am willing to accept the full consequences for my actions.”
She had rehearsed the lines so often for the past day. She knew every syllable, every practiced rise and fall of intonation. But as she finally spoke them, they tasted like ash in her mouth.
Still, her parents said nothing. Andromeda had not been expecting a warm or loving reception. But this—this silence….She wasn't prepared for this.
“You mustn’t blame her!” Narcissa cried, crossing the room in a graceful stride and taking her mother’s hands in hers. “Andromeda wasn’t thinking clearly. She explained it all perfectly to me. I’m sure if you just spoke to her, if you heard what she has to say, you would understand. She doesn’t love him, Mummy. It isn’t right. You should marry the one you love, shouldn’t you?”
“Narcissa.” It was Cygnus who spoke, his voice deep and strained. “This matter does not concern you. You’ll kindly take Lucius into the dining room. The house elves will wait on you there. Your mother and I will speak to your sister in private.”
Narcissa wavered for a moment. Then, her crystalline blue eyes clouded over. Andromeda had seen this look countless times before, since Narcissa had been old enough to toddle. It was an inevitably each and every time Narcissa didn't get precisely she wanted—whether it was the prettiest porcelain doll in the nursery or the most expensive gown in the shop. For a brief moment, Narcissa lost her composure entirely. She shoved her mother’s hands away and stomped her foot angrily.
“This matter does concern me! Andie is my sister, and if she’s not happy, then I’m not happy.”
Andromeda saw her mother’s lower lip wobble, as it always did when Narcissa threw one of her tantrums.
“Cygnus—“ Druella began, but Cygnus gave a sharp wave of his hand, and she went silent.
“Cissa, my sweet.” Lucius placed a hand on Narcissa’s waist, his lips at her ear. “Perhaps it would be best if we left them alone.”
Not so brave at all, Andromeda thought derisively. Though she really couldn’t blame Lucius. Of course he didn’t want to be embroiled in family drama that had nothing to do with him.
Narcissa glanced back uncertainly at Andromeda. If she asked, she knew that her sister would stay by her side. She had promised. But it was selfish to put Lucius and Narcissa in this position. She had been the one to run away, to cause a rift. It was her responsibility and hers alone.
“I’ll be all right, Cissy,” she said, pleased with the steady way she managed the words. Her parents couldn’t possibly know the fear that was seizing Andromeda. She was terrified to be left alone with her parents.
Narcissa still look unsatisfied, but Lucius leaned back in and whispered something inaudible that cleared the clouds from her eyes.
“Very well,” she murmured, slipping her hand around Lucius’ proffered elbow. “We’ll wait in the dining room.”
Together, the two left the great room through black wooden doors that heaved shut behind them. Even as they closed, Andromeda saw Narcissa cast back one last anxious glance. Then they were both gone, and Andromeda was sealed up in the dark room with her grim-faced parents.
“Take a seat,” said Cygnus.
It was a command that left no room for discussion. Andromeda took a seat in the worn leather armchair nearest the fireplace. Her parents remained standing.
No words were exchanged for one full, excruciating minute. Andromeda could feel her father’s dark gaze bearing down on her. She saw her mother wring her hands against her tafetta afternoon gown. She waited. She knew that her father wished to be the first to speak. This silence was part of his speech. It was part of her punishment.
“You have disgraced us.”
Andromeda lowered her eyes to her lap. She couldn’t look at him.
“You have disgraced me, your mother, your sisters—the entire name of the House of Black. Did you even think, when you pulled that reckless stunt, of the worry, the trouble, the embarrassment that you would cause your family?”
“No,” she whispered truthfully. “No, I wasn’t thinking at all.”
“Do you know how difficult it was to conduct a search for our missing daughter while simultaneously keeping the shame of your actions from reaching the general public? What our acquaintances would say if they discovered that our daughter had willfully disobeyed her parents and run away from home to God knows what hovel in London?”
“I wasn’t in a hovel—“
“It is of no concern to me where you were!” Cygnus slammed his hand down on the mantelpiece, whipping around toward Andromeda with a visceral glare she had never before seen him wear. “Your mother and I do not wish to hear what you did, who you saw, or what other sins you committed abroad. All you need know is that your flirtation with rebellion is over. I will not be made a public figure of shame because I cannot control my own daughter.”
“Bella and Cissa play the marionettes very well,” Andromeda said icily. “Isn’t that good enough for you?”
“How dare you speak to your father that way!” cried Druella. “I don’t know where you’ve picked up this insolence, Andromeda Lyra Brlack, but it has no place in this house.”
“Insolence doesn’t, but the Dark Arts do?”
Druella made a choking noise. She and Cygnus exchanged a troubled look, and Andromeda knew that she had struck a deep, sensitive nerve.
“It’s true, then,” said Andromeda, the reputation we’ve earned. Don’t think I haven’t heard my classmates whisper about how the Blacks dabble in Dark Arts, how we’re a lineage of black-hearted witches and wizards. I bore those stupid whispers with pride before. But it’s true, isn’t it? What Aunt Walburga did to me wasn’t an isolated instance, was it? You see nothing wrong with what she did."
“Walburga’s method of discipline was unwise,” Cygnus said coolly. “It was out of line. But for you to so flippantly dismiss the use of the Dark Arts demonstrates just what a naïve perspective—“
“Naïve?” Andromeda flung the word back. “I'm not naïve. I know the Dark Arts inside and out, Father. I’ve made careful study of them, made top marks in all of my classes. But we're trained to defend ourselves from dark magic, not to practice it on others. That’s as it should be.”
“Sweet Salazar, listen to your daughter lecture,” Cygnus laughed to Druella. “It would’ve been better for you to have given me sons. Better, then, to have sent them to Durmstrang, where none of this nonsense had been chiseled into her weak, impressionable mind. She's been taught to abhor the Dark Arts on principle. I suppose, Andromeda, that it’s all very black and white in the classroom, isn’t it?”
“It is black and white,” Andromeda shot back. “There's a reason that certain curses are considered unforgiveable.”
“And who do you suppose deemed them so?” her father demanded. “Laws are made by the weak—by the weak who are too afraid of the powerful. Dammit, girl, you’re smarter than this. Do you honestly believe all the drivel they feed you in that school? Do you think that a couple of essays make you a qualified judge of the Dark Arts? You presume to disparage this family with your schoolgirl code of morality!”
Andromeda shook her head in disbelief. “I can’t believe you’re defending her. What she did was wrong. The Dark Arts should never be tampered with. Witches and wizards have believed that for centuries, and yet when I say so you treat me like I’m nothing more than a child!”
“You are a child!” roared Cygnus. “You are my child, and you live under my roof, and so long as you intend to carry on my family name and fortune, there are certain behaviors that are absolutely unacceptable. One of those behaviors is running away. Another is refusing marriage to a man that your mother and I have deemed to be the most appropriate match.”
Andromeda crossed her arms tightly. “He isn’t an appropriate match. He isn’t appropriate at all! Do you want for your child to be the laughing stock of Slytherin? Everyone knows now that he’s a cheater. I’ll be marrying an unfaithful man. You want for me to have that reputation?”
“You speak,” said Druella, “as though you still had a reputation to salvage. Your aunt was right before: no other prospective suitor will want you if you turn down Rabastan. The two of you have been courting for far too long. They will assume you have already lost your virginity to Lestrange, and no boy wants a spoiled bride. And they will assume—rightly so—that you are unable to contain your temper, that you are incapable of honoring and obeying your husband. Tell me, Andromeda, please, what suitor wants that?”
Andromeda blurted out the first name that came to mind. “Evan Rosier.”
Druella scoffed. “Your second cousin? Believe me, dear heart, I know his mother only too well. She would never agree to a match like that. She has a strong prejudice against your father’s line. An inferiority complex that the Rosiers have always suffered from. Believe me, as a Rosier, I would know.”
“You will marry Lestrange,” said Cygnus. “Your mother informs me that you’ve already sent him an apology, and he’s sent his own reply, offering his forgiveness. He expressed a wish to visit Onyx House. Your mother and I anticipate a proposal during this visit. You will accept.”
Andromeda sat up taller in her chair. “And if I don’t?”
Cygnus walked from the mantelpiece to where she sat. He stooped to her eye-level, the way he had before when she had been a little and he had knelt to answer one of her questions. Unlike those times, though, there was no warmth in her father’s eyes, no smile on his lips.
“If you don’t,” he said, “then I will no longer call you my daughter. You will no longer be welcomed into this home. Your inheritance will be split evenly between your other two sisters. Do you understand what I am saying, Andromeda?”
Andromeda understood very well. She nodded, just once. Cold determination had gripped her.
“Now then. What are you going to do?”
She spoke without hesitation. “I’m going to accept Rabastan Lestrange’s proposal of marriage.”
She sat in the conservatory, on a wrought-iron bench beside her mother’s prized collection of geraniums. She was wearing her best dress—a black, floor-length gown lined with silk fringe and diamond teardrops that unabashedly showed off the curves of her hips. Andromeda wanted to look her best. This was a special day, after all.
There was a light tapping at the conservatory’s glass door. Andromeda did not turn to face it. She heard the slide of a latch, the creak of the door, and swift footsteps against the tile flooring. Still she did not turn. She waited until Rabastan had circled around her bench and had kneeled at her feet before she bestowed a glance upon him.
He took her hands in his. He pressed a long, profuse kiss against her knuckles. His lips were hot and dry, just as she remembered them.
“Andie, I swear, what happened before—I’m never going to make that mistake again. I swear it to you. I love you.”
Andromeda watched Rabastan closely, her mouth sealed shut. His dark hair was cropped close along his ears, his jaw line as sharp as she had remembered it. He was handsome, there was no denying it. He had a spotless pedigree. He was well liked by his peers. He did tolerably well in school and, regardless of his marks, he would land an excellent job. All the same, he was a Lestrange, not a Black. His family’s name did not have near the reputation that Andromeda’s did. His father was close to bankrupt. His inheritance was not even a tenth of what Andromeda’s would be.
Andromeda smiled down at him. Only she would need to know that it was a contemptuous smile. She removed her hands from his.
“Of course you do,” she said.
Rabastan nodded passionately. “Yes,” he said, “of course I do. That’s why—“ he fumbled at the inner pocket of his dress robe, produced a green velvet box, “—that’s why I’m asking you to be my wife.”
He opened the box. The diamond was stunning. It was, Andromeda noted with satisfaction, larger than both Bellatrix’s and Narcissa’s engagement diamonds. The stone was offset by a circlet of emeralds set in pure silver. It was decidedly in Andromeda’s taste.
She extended her left hand, curling her delicate fingers ever so slightly in Rabastan’s direction. He looked up at her with a cautious expression. Andromeda arched an eyebrow.
“Is that a yes then?” he asked.
“It’s a yes.”
A relieved smile broke across Rabastan’s face.
He had such a disarming smile.
He took her hand in his and gingerly slipped the ring onto Andromeda’s finger. It fit snugly, perfectly. Andromeda was still smiling when she suddenly gripped his hand, her nails pinching into the soft skin of his palm.
He looked up in alarm.
“Andie—?“ he began.
She shook her head, placed her forefinger against his lips.
“I want you to listen to me, Rabastan,” she said. “Listen carefully. I’ve accepted your proposal. Now I’m going to tell you my terms. You need me. I know that. I’m the best you can do. When you and I tie the knot, you’ll have the benefit of my social standing and of my wealth. You need that from me, just as much as Rodolphus did from Bella. You think you’ll be as lucky as him, and perhaps you will be. But on my terms.”
She tightened her grip into Rabastan’s palm. He did not move. His eyes were wide, locked on hers. Andromeda knew that she was doing it again: she was behaving just like Bellatrix. And this time, she didn’t fight the inclination; she welcomed it, reveled in the cold and emotionless power it gave her.
“You’re a bastard,” she said crisply. “I don’t know how long you were cheating on me before, but I know you’ll do it again. You’re probably doing it even now.”
Rabastan tried to speak, but Andromeda only pressed her finger more firmly against his mouth, only tightened her grip.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I don’t love you. In fact, I’m not sure I ever have. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I hold the trump card, don’t I? If I refused to marry you, you’d be a shame to your parents. You’d have no chance of lifting yourself up in society, of the dowry that you’re after, would you? You’re powerless without me, so you’ll do as I say. No more giving the orders. No more telling me who I can and can’t cavort with, when I can talk, what I can talk about. And no more touching me. No kissing, no slipping your filthy hand around my waist. I don’t want any of that. And if you dare to so much as rest a finger on me, Rabastan Lestrange, I swear I’ll make you suffer for it.”
Andromeda removed her finger from Rabastan’s lips. She wasn’t done talking yet, but she knew that she had petrified him into silence by now. He was staring at her like she was some unearthly creature that had sprouted wings and horns and breathed out fire.
“You’re in no place to judge me, to give me orders. And you know that, don’t you? You’ve known it all along.”
Andromeda smirked. She released Rabastan’s hand entirely. “Get up off of your knees. Kiss my hand, and then go back into the hallway to be congratulated by my father. You’ll then make your excuses. You have pressing matters at home and won’t be able to stay for dinner. Then you’ll leave. I don’t want to receive any owls from you. I don’t want to see you aboard the Hogwarts Express. You and I will sit together in the dining hall and the common room on occasion, to retain the façade that we’re happily engaged. Otherwise, I don’t want your vile presence anywhere near me. Understood?”
Rabastan rose to his feet. He shook his head wonderingly.
“I underestimated you.”
His words were cool and unaffected, but Andromeda could see his hands shaking. Good. He was right where she wanted him. She leaned back against the iron bench. She cross her legs in a slow, deliberate manner, well aware that it showed off the curves of her body to their best advantage. She crossed her hands primly in her lap. Let him stare at what he couldn’t have.
“I’m sure,” she said, “that you won’t make that mistake again.”
“I just don’t understand.”
Andromeda sat in her childhood bedroom, at her marble vanity, dressed in her nightshift. Narcissa was making careful work of unthreading the plaits Andromeda had wound her hair up into for dinner that night. Her fingers worked with adroit precision, even as her words faltered. Her composure was clearly rattled by the events of the day.
Narcissa had been shock-faced when Andromeda had emerged from the library and announced her intention to accept Rabastan Lestrange’s proposal after all. Andromeda had politely ignored her questions all day, both after the events of the conservatory and throughout dinner. Narcissa was distraught, and it pained Andromeda beyond measure to see her that way. But she couldn’t let her guard down in front of her parents, and not even in front of Lucius. She remained placid and smiling and had gently told Narcissa that she had merely “changed her mind on the matter.”
But tonight, after dinner, when both girls were left alone in the bedroom, Andromeda finally allowed herself to drop the icy exterior she’d assumed that day. She didn’t realize how exhausting the act had been until she sat at the vanity and let out one low, cleansing breath. Her cheeks ached from smiling, her body was weak from straining at good posture the entire day through. And in her chest, she felt a small but discernable hollowness. She winced and rubbed at her sternum in an attempt to relieve herself of the unpleasant sensation.
She glanced up at the reflection of her sister in the mirror. Narcissa looked concerned; she also looked angry.
“Andie, why are you acting like this?”
Andromeda sighed. She reached up and clasped Narcissa’s hand in hers.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I’m so sorry, Cissa. I’m afraid I wasn’t entirely truthful with you before.”
“What do you mean?” Narcissa stopped her work with Andromeda's hair and took a seat on an ottoman by her side. “What haven’t you been truthful about?”
“My plan to make things right again,” said Andromeda. “I never really thought that Mum and Dad would let me refuse Rabastan. There was the hope—and I think perhaps Mum really would have given in if it weren’t for Father and Aunt Walburga.”
“Aunt Walburga? What does she have to do with—“
Andromeda shook her head tiredly. “I suppose deep down I wanted you to be able to convince Mum otherwise, but I only had to be in that room with them for thirty seconds to know where things stood. I could never convince them, and neither could you or anyone in this family. I think I’ve known that ever since I left Grimmauld Place. I just kept hoping…. Well, hope is a very silly thing, isn’t it?”
Narcissa’s eyes were tearing up. “Darling, don’t talk like this. You’re frightening me. The way you’ve been acting all day, like you’re perfectly happy to wear Rabastan’s ring when I know it isn’t what you want. You’re not happy.”
“There are more important things than being happy,” Andromeda whispered. “Family is one of them. And I don’t mean Mum and Dad. I mean you, Cissy. If they were to cut me off, we wouldn’t be able to see each other again."
Narcissa shook her head. “Mummy and Daddy would never—“
“Yes, they would,” Andromeda cut in. “A year ago, I wouldn't think them capable of it. But I’ve seen Father look at me in horrible ways today, ways he’s never looked at me before. I understand now: they value the family honor more than they value me.”
Narcissa looked ready to refute the statement. Then she paused, shook her head, said nothing.
“You know that’s true,” said Andromeda. “I need you in my life. I need a future, too, and I don’t have that if I don’t have any money. I don’t come into any part of my inheritance until my eighteenth birthday. If they cut me off now, I’d be destitute. I can have the best marks and the best incentive in the whole of the wizarding world, and I still wouldn’t be able to get off my feet, not without some sort of financial support at the outset. I’ve thought it through, and it’s impossible. I care more about family and a future than I do about marital happiness. It’s as simple as that.”
“But it isn’t simple at all!” Narcissa cried. “You shouldn’t have to decide between the two."
“Perhaps I shouldn’t. But I must. And if I must, then I’m going to at least do it my way. I’m still going to remain independent. I have the upper hand, and Rabastan knows it. We’re going to play by my rules from now on. He won’t control me. And to me, that’s what’s most important.”
“But it’s so very wrong.”
“It’s unfair, yes.” Andromeda smiled without feeling. “But you at least are lucky enough to have both a future and a happy marriage before you. Think on that instead, Cissy.”
“I can’t think on something like that when you’re so unhappy!” Narcissa rose to her feet, a sort of wild energy animating her limbs. “I see what you’re doing. Don’t think that I’m blind. I’m your sister, Andie. I know you. You’re acting like her. You’re putting on Bella’s little Ice Queen routine, acting like nothing bothers you, like you’re untouchable. But you’re not her. You’re not that. You aren’t cold and calculating, Andromeda. You weren’t made for a loveless life. It’s going to kill you.”
Andromeda shrugged, threading her fingers through the remaining kinks of her long, chestnut hair. “Then I die young. You know I never wanted to outlive my beauty, anyway.”
Narcissa wiped away the tears trickling down her cheeks. “It isn’t right,” she whispered again, sinking back against the bed.
But Andromeda could see the truth settling over Narcissa, could see realization darkening her eyes. It wasn’t right, but it was the way things would have to be. Andromeda felt tired, not just with the events of the day, but with an aged sort of weariness. She felt as though she had grown decades. Her father had called her naïve that morning. She refused to be called naïve again.
This had been her plan all along, and nothing would throw her off course.
It wasn’t until after the lights were off and she lay alone in her childhood bed that she allowed herself to shed a solitary tear.
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