Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France.
The one everybody started respecting when they saw her standing on a filthy cart on her way to the guillotine, the 16th of October, on that year built with blood and tears that was the year 1793.
Before that day, before Fouquier-Tinville had sentenced her to death for being the King's wife – the King's widow –she was despised and hated. Only when she stood in front of the silent crowd, her head held high in spite of her dirty, ragged clothes and her blonde hair cut short so as not to get in the way of the blade, only then did they bow to their Queen's courage.
And thus was brutally ended the life of a frivolous and joyful woman, married too young to a man she hadn't chosen.
Many years have passed since the young Queen's death in 1793. But no matter the time or place, people should never call their child Marie-Antoinette. There is no happiness in this world for a girl called Marie-Antoinette.
My fate was sealed the 16th of October, 1983. One hundred and ninety years exactly after Queen Marie-Antoinette's death at the infamous Place de Grève.
"Mademoiselle de Syrnac!"
Madame Maxime's booming voice rang in the classroom, startling all of us. My best friend Aimée, who had collapsed on her desk and was sleeping soundly with her head in her arms, jumped so suddenly she fell off her seat in a heap of blue silk onto the floor.
All heads had turned to look at me. Madame Maxime, our gigantic Charms teacher and Deputy Headmistress of Beauxbâtons Academy, was waiting for me at the door with her brow furrowed. I rose, nervously smoothing my blue uniform, and joined her as whispers erupted all around me.
Admittedly, I wasn't usually one to draw attention to myself. I had reasonably good marks but I wasn't extraordinarily gifted in any subject. I didn't play on the Quidditch team, I was shy and a bit delicate, and I wasn't stunningly pretty. My name didn't come up often in conversations; therefore, hearing Madame Maxime literally shout it during a lesson of History of Magic was nothing short of shocking.
I followed her in the corridor, my anxiety and confusion growing when she told me we were going to the Headmaster's office.
"What… did I do… Madame?" I panted, as I jogged to keep up with her enormous steps.
"Nothing whatsoever, Marie-Antoinette, don't be nervous," she said.
Her answer did nothing to ease my apprehension, though; she sounded a bit worried, which was all the more unnerving since I was used to the aura of calm strength she usually displayed.
We reached the statue of the Penseur, a man sitting with his chin in his hand, in an attitude of thoughtfulness. I had passed by that statue countless times in the seven years of my time at Beauxbâtons, barely noticing it, and I was shocked – to say the least – when Madame Maxime stopped in front of the Penseur and asked him if Headmaster Tinville could see us immediately. The Penseur's head jerked upward to look at Maxime's towering figure; then he nodded and tiredly stood up to reveal a thin loophole in the wall behind him.
"Sorbet Citron", said Maxime in a bored voice.
The loophole widened immediately to become a broad door and let us in the corridor beyond.
And so I stepped, for the first time of my life, in the chamber of Beauxbâtons palace which was strictly reserved for the Headmaster.
Monsieur Tinville's office was a large square room, furnished with bookshelves – there seemed to be only that: bookshelves – loaded with what must have been all the books ever written since men had mastered the ability to write. The high windows on one side of the room offered an extraordinary view on the grounds, and on the other side a wide marble fireplace was set under a big mirror, so large the whole room was reflected in it.
Monsieur Tinville was seated behind his desk, and a stranger sat in an armchair in front of him. When he saw me, Tinville got to his feet and gestured in my direction.
"Mademoiselle de Syrnac…" he said, sounding somewhat nervous, "meet Rodolphus Lestrange."
Lestrange hadn't bothered to stand up when I had entered the room; he just turned his head to look at me, then motioned for me to come closer, which I did, tensing more at every step I took. Lestrange examined me from head to foot with a slight smirk. I squirmed uneasily under his negligent gaze, but neither he nor Tinville seemed to take notice of my embarrassment.
"Mr. Lestrange," Maxime's voice snapped from behind me, speaking English with a strong but oddly pleasant French accent, "perhaps you could greet Mademoiselle de Syrnac. She has a History of Magic lesson; she can't stay very long."
I felt a wave of relief and gratefulness as Lestrange's eyes briefly turned away from me to flash towards Maxime, his upper lip curling in what looked like disgust; nevertheless, he stood up and bowed his head to me.
"Mademoiselle," he drawled. "I am, as you may know already, the Minister for Magic in Great Britain. It is a pleasure to meet the only heir of such an ancient and respectable family."
His diction was perfectly clear and his English was pleasantly fluid to my French ears. I curtseyed lightly and muttered some commonplace polite sentence, wondering why on earth the British Minister for Magic had come to see me.
"Please take a seat, Mademoiselle," Tinville said curtly. He was speaking English too, with that horrible accent we made fun of every time we had the occasion.
I obeyed, still feeling Lestrange's eyes on me. Both men sat in their armchairs and Madame Maxime conjured a chair to sit with us.
"Mademoiselle, Mr Lestrange 'ere came to Beauxbâtons zis morning to see you," said Tinville solemnly.
I hid my increasing confusion behind an expression of polite interest. Tinville cleared his throat.
"You are aware, I'm sure, of ze… events of ze past years," he said slowly. "Ze recent disturbance in ze wizarding world. What do you know about it?"
I started fidgeting with the hem of my shirt. My natural shyness wasn't eased by my taking notice that, although I had fought off my smirk at Tinville's ridiculous pronunciation, Lestrange had not bothered to do the same; he was openly sneering every time Tinville spoke English, and I was scared he would make fun of me. I hated being ridiculous.
"Very little, I'm afraid," I stammered, my voice sounding horribly false and snobbish to my own ears – as it always did when I ventured a sentence in English. "There was a… war, wasn't it? Between the Headmaster of a British school –" I searched frantically around for the name of the school, and had to give up under Lestrange's contemptuous look "– and a wizard calling himself the Dark Lord. And the Dark Lord won the war about two years ago…"
My lamentable attempt at an explanation provoked a snort from Lestrange and a sigh from my Headmaster. Madame Maxime's hand found my shoulder and, to my utter astonishment, squeezed it gently. She was usually all but friendly with her students. The whole situation was so strange, I was actually wondering if I had fallen asleep in History of Magic and was having a weird dream.
"I suppose that sums it up quite right," Lestrange sneered, "if one can sum up the greatest victory of all times in two sentences. And of course, reducing the great battle the Dark Lord led against the filth and the mire of the wizarding world to a catfight between him and that fool Dumbledore, ex-Headmaster of Hogwarts –" he articulated exaggeratedly the last word, smirking down at me "– is one of the most ridiculous shortcuts I've ever had the misfortune to hear."
"Why don't you enlighten all of us, Mr Lestrange?" Maxime barked. "Maybe we wouldn't be wasting so much time. Neither I nor Mademoiselle de Syrnac have all day to devote to hearing your insults."
I started at her outburst and hazarded a glance at her. Her nose was wrinkled in distaste and I could almost see the sparks flying from her black eyes.
Lestrange's cold eyes narrowed as he surveyed her with the same expression of utmost disgust I had seen on his face earlier.
"Perhaps we could talk more freely to Miss de Syrnac if we were alone," he said coldly, returning his gaze to Tinville with his eyebrows raised.
Tinville nodded and asked Madame Maxime to leave us, which she did after squeezing my shoulder again in a reassuring fashion. I felt sick and abandoned when I heard to door closing behind her. Lestrange, on the other hand, let out a sigh of relief.
"Good," he said, fanning himself with his handkerchief. "Now I can breathe. I still can't understand why you are letting this half-breed pollute your school."
"She's a good teacher," said Tinville, his voice apologetic, "and she knows better zan anyone ze ways zis academy works. I 'ate ze administrative fings," he finished lamely. He probably intended to make himself sound like the intellectual one, incapable of taking an interest in material contingencies. Oh how I would have loved to snort at this.
Lestrange was now watching me – he was actually scrutinizing me, as a falcon would eye its prey – and I felt very much like a trembling rabbit about to be eaten.
"Mademoiselle," he said in his cold, drawling voice, "given your lame re-telling of the last war, I highly doubt you know the principles that motivated the Dark Lord's great actions. He was the first since the great Salazar Slytherin himself, one of the four founders of Hogwarts School, to openly claim purebloods' supremacy in the wizarding world. His words were not welcome to fools and Muggle-lovers such as Dumbledore, and the Ministry itself had dared classify the Dark Lord as a dangerous criminal. Now they have paid for this," he murmured, his eyes alight with fervour.
He gazed into space for a moment, a triumphant grin stretching his lips as if he was reliving delectable memories, before resuming:
"So the Dark Lord, tired of the wizarding community's perpetual refusal of hearing the most obvious truths, decided to force these truths upon them all. And he won. Dumbledore fled and is, in my opinion, more dead than alive. The Dark Lord is all mighty; now most of the European Ministries of Magic have bowed to his immense power.
"Of course, one of the first measures he took to ensure the preservation of the purity of blood was dissolving the marriages contracted between purebloods and people of lesser lineage. Now we're trying to establish a list of the young ladies that could make suitable brides, so that pureblood wizards can choose their wives more easily. This is a considerable opportunity for girls who would have no chance to get married soon otherwise. Now their lineage is the key to marriage. The Ministry is actually considering arranging a few marriages, so as to favour this new trend.
"This brings me to the offer I came to make you. I would like to set up your wedding."
In spite of all my self-control, I couldn't prevent my eyes from widening. This man was talking about my wedding – when I had never even thought about getting married – as naturally as he would have suggested I should get tutored in Transfiguration. This was, to put it simply, the most grotesque thing I had ever heard.
"My wedding?" I blurted out. "I don't understand…"
"It is very simple, though," he snapped scornfully. "You are seventeen, heir of a prestigious family – but you possess nothing other than a famous name since your family was ruined three years ago. You are an orphan and your only relative is your uncle, who is also your legal guardian. I have already seen him and he has totally agreed on every point we discussed: he told me you were fragile, delicate and used to luxury. How did you expect to make a living once you're out of school?"
I stared at him wordlessly for a few seconds. I was still stunned at his proposal, and now I was also hurt to hear what my uncle had told Lestrange. The poor man cared for me, but once he was drunk he would tell anything that was suggested to him. And I knew he was greedy; the loss of my family's fortune – already considerably lessened by my father, an adventurer whose dangerous whims had caused his and my mother's deaths – was mainly due to his preposterous investments in ridiculously complicated industrial plans.
I finally summoned my courage to answer Lestrange's question.
"I intended to teach," I said in a low voice.
He snorted again. "Are her grades exceptional?" he asked sharply, turning to Tinville.
"Zey are decent enough, but noffing more," answered the Headmaster. I hated him for that sentence.
"And her socializing abilities, that we all knew are fundamental in the tedious task of teaching?" Lestrange went on, a smirk stretching his lips.
"Reduced to ze bare minimum," Tinville answered, pushing me a little deeper in the grave I had dug for myself with one sentence. "She 'as one friend and doesn't mix up wiz ze ozer students."
I managed to keep a straight face, even though I was so ashamed I wanted more than anything else to crawl into a hole and never come out of it again. But if my mother had ever taught me anything, it was to never show my emotions to anyone. They were a weakness. I may have been the heir of a ruined family; it didn't mean I could stop acting as if I was no longer part of the old French nobility.
Lestrange spun his armchair around to face me again, still smirking.
"I don't think we need to elaborate," he said viciously. "It seems that the only way you can continue enjoying the way of life you've become accustomed to, is to marry a wealthy man. Which is exactly what I'm offering. I can't see why you would push that away. Unless… Are you a romantic girl, Mademoiselle?"
"No," I answered, which was true. My best friend Aimée was romantic enough for the two of us; all she was talking about was true love.
"Then I don't see the problem," Lestrange concluded smoothly. "It's only a benefit for you."
"And what is your benefit in that, if I may ask?"
He raised an eyebrow at me. "There there, Miss de Syrnac," he said in an unctuous voice. "Since when do young ladies think a man seeks his own benefit when he just cares about their future?"
I kept quiet this time, inwardly cursing my stupidity. As if he was going to tell me just because I had asked him.
He rose and extended his hand for the Headmaster to shake. "I shall arrange Mademoiselle de Syrnac's trip to London and her wedding," he said curtly. "I will send you the details."
"Who is the man you want me to marry?" I said quickly before he had the time to say his farewell.
He slowly turned to me, enveloping me in a gaze that was almost appraising.
"You don't know him," he said quietly at last. "He's the young heir of one of the most ancient magic families of Great Britain. His family may not be exactly as ancient as yours, but –" he gave a cruel smile "– they were wiser than yours in managing the family inheritance."
"His name?" I pressed on. "If I may venture such a request?" I added softly, as any well-bred girl would have said.
His smile widened as he heard such solemn and pompous words coming from a seventeen-year-old.
"James Potter," he said, letting the name negligently fall from his thin, aristocratic lips. The name hung in the air between us and echoed in my ears. A shiver ran across my spine as I realised that name was about to become mine.
Having nothing left to tell me, Lestrange wheeled around and walked up to the fireplace. He reached towards a silver bowl on the heavy marble mantelpiece and took a fistful of glistening Floo Powder. Throwing it in the fireplace, he stepped in the emerald-green flames and shouted: "Ministry of Magic, Great Britain!"
And then he was gone.
I stared absentmindedly after him for a few seconds. I felt sick again. Then I turned to Tinville.
"Can I go now, sir?" I said timidly.
He glared at me before answering.
"I expected you to behave better than this, Mademoiselle. What were you thinking, questioning such an important man's decision? You nearly embarrassed me. I will not punish you today for your cheek, but I would advise you to watch your mouth from now on. For once, I forbid you to reveal anything that happened here to anybody. Including Mademoiselle Aimée Solange. This is a secret negotiation between our country and the United Kingdom; the marriage we've been discussing is key to the negotiation. I feel proud of helping to seek an alliance with the new government of Great Britain. You should feel proud as well."
I nodded numbly, unable to think of an answer.
"Now you may go," he said irritably, dismissing me with a wave of the hand.
I left Tinville's office in a sort of daze. When I thought back about the way Tinville had done nothing to save me from the fate Lestrange and his Dark Lord had sealed for me – how he had actually pushed me in the arms of that Potter – I reflected on how, no matter the time and place, men called Tinville were condemning girls called Marie-Antoinette, on the 16th of October.
I was a quiet, shy girl. Why did this happen to me?
And I didn't even know what James Potter looked like.
James Potter. His name seemed to ring in every sound I heard. The wind hissing in the chimneys moaned James Potter's name. The thundering footsteps of hundreds of students chanted James Potter's name. The rain that soon splattered the high windows chuckled out James Potter's name. And even in the pounding of my heart against my ribs, I could hear James Potter's name.