Chapter Nine: The Garden
"It's starting to look good, Mistress," said Anne with enthusiasm.
I raised my head under my hood. The trees were loaded with several days of continuous, heavy rain; large drops fell upon us at times and hit the fabric of our raincloaks with dull sounds. The ceiling of naked branches which had once been tightly wrought together was now pierced with large gaps. Through them, a blank sky diffused a bleak, weary light, and here and there it was crossed by a wisp of grey. It shone dully upon the patch of squelchy ground stretching between the ancient oaks and the pond, now clear of scrub, allowing for a smooth-lined clearing to be seen; the bushes bordering it had been pruned, the dead tree rotting in the pond had been pulled out. Behind us, the swears and shouts of the gardeners' main d'oeuvre echoed over the fallen trunks of two bent pines.
"We'll see what it looks like next spring," I said. "I have a feeling spring might come earlier in this garden."
"What do you mean, Madam?"
I scanned the clearing, trying to find the right words to voice my thoughts.
"Well," I said slowly at last, "I distinctly remember seeing bindweed flowers here, a month ago, before I started working on this clearing. Bindweed blooming is usually finished in October. There is something special about this garden—it probably is an old magical garden that was left on its own for too long, and grew an independent mind."
I caught my chambermaid's startled glance before she had time to hide it. "Sorry, Madam," she quickly said as I raised my eyebrows. "But… Plants with an independent mind?"
"You'd be surprised how vicious plants can be." I smiled at Anne and turned away from the clearing, slipped out of the tree shade and walked back to the house, through the mud of a newly-cleared space before the terrace. Dead heaps of bush and brambles lay here and there; two of them burnt wetly in the feeble November light. Winter brought a new sharpness to the morning air, a promise of frost and sleet for the night. I caught myself wishing the bad weather would bring me an owl from the Lestranges, declining my invitation for the night.
"Is everything ready for tonight's dinner, Anne?" I asked.
"Yes, Mistress." Her voice was small. She was terrified by the prospect of the first invitations in my house, and I had been forced, in front of her distress, to relegate my own nervousness to the back of my mind.
"You aren't required to speak to them," I told her, for what felt like the hundredth time. "If they talk to you, just answer with 'yes sir', 'no madam', and so on. Keep your eyes downcast. They won't notice you."
"Have you seen Mr. Potter today?"
"No, Madam. He asked for a cup of tea to his room this morning, but only Pomy is allowed in there."
I shot her a look over my shoulder; she was trying to look neutral, but there was something keen in the eyes she levelled on me. Anne was curious about her master and my relationship to him. She never said a word, but I could feel her stealing glances at us whenever we were talking or meeting in her presence. Despite Pomy's firmly established prerogatives, she had repeatedly tried to have a hand in James Potter's service, as my husband's obstinate reclusion in the secondary bedroom only served to sharpen her curiosity.
When I had noticed all that, my first thought was that she was going to babble to everyone about the Potters' simulacra of marriage. However, I now suspected Anne's interest wasn't motivated by the love of gossip that was common in female servants. There was something solicitous and friendly in the way she strove to make my life more comfortable inside the house; only two days before she had expressed her wish to stay in my service all her life, with the candour of her young age, and such fervour I wondered how miserable and solitary her life in the Muggleborn village had been.
No, I repeated to myself, Anne wasn't trying to spy on her masters; she was concerned about us, as though we were her family.
"Go get ready, and check everything is perfect," I told her as we stepped onto the terrace. "And don't worry about your master: he will call you if you are needed."
She blushed, nodded, and slipped inside the house through a side door dissimulated under an arbour.
I followed her retreating back with my eyes. My travelling gaze fell on a patch of muddy grass leading away to the left, beyond the house, up to the great wall that encased the garden.
Rain or magic had erased the footprints I had glimpsed there, leaning out of my window, on the night James Potter had received the front door in the face. I had distinguished at least three different sets of footprints in the soft mud. But the silhouette who had fled across the terrace while James Potter stalled me in the staircase had been nowhere to be seen.
I averted my eyes, walked into the hall through the garden double doors and started ascending the stairs to the first floor and my husband's room.
I knocked. His voice filtered through the thick wooden panes: "Come in!"
The room had not changed at all since the last time I had been there. The same boring, uncomfortable grey seats sulked next to the fireplace, which this time hosted a great crackling fire; the desk might have been pushed a little closer to the window, there might be a little more parchments scattered over it; the floor was still bare, the narrow bed had not been undone and the bedspread was slightly creased, as though someone had recently thrown themselves over it without taking off their clothes. It looked unloved, seldom lived in, and grudgingly used.
"Morning," said James Potter.
He had been leaning against the window and staring out at the garden, one hand raised and holding the curtain back. In the firelight, the faint blue mark still circling his eye was barely noticeable. A thin pink scar marked his eyebrow.
He waved his wand in my general direction and the door swung shut behind me, screeching on unoiled hinges.
"Take a seat," he said. Ever since the incident in our entrance hall, he had adopted towards me a civil, yet aloof attitude; that formal tone unsettled me more than his usual rough manners. I thanked him and did as he asked. He dropped the curtain and tugged on it, blocking out the avaricious daylight, and strode over to the seat opposite mine.
"What can I do for you?" he asked as he settled in it, wincing a little at the hardness of the cushions.
I shifted in my own seat and folded my hands in my lap to avoid fidgeting.
"I merely came to remind you that we have the Lestranges over tonight," I said maladroitly.
To my surprise, he nodded. "Yes, I know. I had Pomy work in the kitchens alongside your Lali. Did you invite anyone else?"
"The Malfoys and the Wilkes, but both couples declined."
Potter emitted a low whistle. "Just sweet Rodolphus and Bellatrix, then. Well, I would warn you against saying or doing anything that'd look suspicious to them, but I don't think I need to—you're getting along with them just fine."
I bristled at this. "He is the Minister for Magic," I pointed out. "And they have invited us already. It would be rude not to return the invitation."
"Oh? So you don't like them?"
"You don't like them. And as your wife, my opinion matters little."
He ensconced himself in his armchair, in such a way the flickering light playing on his glasses made it hard for me to make out his features.
"What makes you think," he said, his voice disinterested, "that I'd expect you to be loyal to me? I'm a bit of an outcast, you know."
"I realised that, when most people refused to work for me because I bore your name."
I paused for a second and thought about the appellation of blood-traitor that Narcissa had so casually dropped. I wondered again what terrible deed he had done to deserve such a name, before chasing the thought from my mind; now was not the right time for it.
"And it's not a question of loyalty," I went on, trying not to sound impatient, "but of good manners. I side with you, because it's not proper to argue before strangers. Besides, when the Minister picked me to be your wife, that's exactly what he expected of me: that I smile and nod. I don't believe it's either wise or prudent not to meet his expectations. As for your Bellatrix Lestrange, she would love to see how much you hate me—and I won't give her the satisfaction."
"She's not my Bellatrix, and I don't—" He stopped talking abruptly and bit down his lip.
Silence stretched between us, hardly disturbed by the loud cracks spat out by the burning logs. Then he said quietly, "Speaking about Lestrange's expectations… I realise this is asking a lot from you, but I would appreciate it if you could act as if we're… getting along."
I stared at him, puzzled. "What do you mean? This is exactly what I—"
"I don't mean just agreeing with me at dinner," he interrupted. "You've done a good job on the house and garden; Lestrange will be impressed. But because of—how to put it—past history between the two of us, he doesn't trust me. Or you, by extension."
"I noticed," I muttered.
"Just like you said, Rodolphus Lestrange's mistrust isn't something to be taken lightly," said Potter, growing sombre. "This… marriage… is a test. We need to appear quiet, resigned, and reasonably happy with each other. If it softens Lestrange's wariness, trust me, both our lives will be a lot easier."
I said nothing. He shifted a bit in his seat, and though his face betrayed little emotion, the tension in his shoulders and arms, the way his fingers clenched at times on the armrests, his entire body screamed he would rather be anywhere but sitting there, telling me these things.
"I might need to move some of my things into your bedroom," he muttered without looking at me. "There's little chance that they investigate the first floor, but—"
"I understand. Do what you think is necessary."
"We don't need to overdo it," he added, very fast. "It would look strange if we tried to make them buy we're head over heels for—"
"I think there is no risk of that," I interrupted coldly.
There were metallic accents in my voice that rang strangely to my own ears. Potter fell silent, and I thought I saw a little colour rise to his cheeks. He averted his eyes and heaved a deep, long-drawn sigh.
"Right, then," he said at last. "If that's any consolation for you, I'll try to be as well-mannered and politically correct as I can stomach it."
"It is a consolation," I agreed, and rose from my seat. "I'll let you get everything in order, then; I have to see Anne about her service tonight."
He nodded without tearing his gaze from the fire. As I stretched out a hand to seize the doorknob, I paused and asked, "What's my first name?"
There were two seconds of loud, stuffy silence. Then the floorboards groaned and the armchair's legs scraped briefly across the wooden parquet.
"Excuse me?" Potter asked, sounding on his guard.
I turned on my heel to face him. "My first name," I repeated. "I never heard you say it, and I hear that's common between husband and wife to call each other by their first names. What is it?"
He raised his eyes to the ceiling, as though hoping to find the answer written on the underside of the mouldings. "Marie-Antoinette," he said at last.
I blinked in surprise. He had a small, forced, bitter smile. "I read your signature at the bottom of the marriage contract," he explained. "Marie-Antoinette de Syrnac. No contraction, no shortcut, no flourish. Don't worry; as long as I'm alive I'll remember that name."
James Potter had been right in assuming the Lestranges would be interested in how well our marriage worked. While he kept up a flow of platitudes and bland considerations about purity of blood, as though trying to educate me in the matter, Rodolphus Lestrange laid a piercing eye over everything that was presented to him. The furniture, the service, the garden, and the couple sitting across from him were each in turn subjected to his steely observation. Had any true affection existed between me and James Potter, this—although discreet—scrutiny would have been enough of a reason to avoid displaying it.
His wife was not to be outdone. Half an hour into dinner, she had excused herself and stepped out of the dining room. She was gone for as long as twenty minutes, and when she came back, she was struggling to keep her expression blank. I could not tell whether she was disappointed or suspicious.
Courses came and went, the dishes appearing and vanishing thanks to the skilled and—for once—coordinated work of our two house-elves. Rodolphus and I made the most of conversation while James kept a polite but closed face and ate in silence, and Bellatrix, playing with her food and absorbing nothing, threw in a monosyllabic word now and again.
It was only when they both took their leaves that Bellatrix Lestrange suddenly had one of her vicious, unpredictable reactions.
Anne had greeted our guests, served them a drink before dinner and another after dessert, provided men with cigars and Bellatrix with cigarettes—I remembered the brand she used and had kept a pack ready—but it was only when she brought their cloaks in the entrance hall that Bellatrix took notice of her.
"Oh, but that's the chambermaid!" she suddenly hissed, ripping her cloak from Anne's hands and gaping at her in the torchlight.
Taken aback, Anne stared at her with wide eyes. It was then that Bellatrix stroke, fast as a snake: the sound of the slap rang obscenely loud in the cavernous hall. I jumped, James took a step forward and half-drew his wand, and Rodolphus Lestrange slowly took out his, a look of puzzlement troubling his handsome features.
"Lower your eyes when your betters are speaking, filth!" Bellatrix eructed.
"Anne, you are dismissed," I said loudly over the woman's words.
"Oh no, you aren't, you little Mudblood scum," Bellatrix growled, and before any of us could do anything, she seized the girl's hair and pulled her fist back.
I started forward but I was slower than James: in two strides he was near Bellatrix, in one sharp gesture he had grabbed her wrist and twisted it. Bellatrix shrieked with equal shares of pain and rage.
"You heard your mistress, Anne," James said, controlled rage in every syllable. "You may go."
Anne turned a calm face towards me. Her left cheek was a little redder than the right and her eyes shone wetly, but her expression was dignified, almost solemn. She lowered her eyes and trotted out of the hall in ringing silence.
James let go of Bellatrix's wrist—the same wrist, I noticed, that Lestrange had slapped down so hard on our first dinner at their house. Her contorted face showed she was seething with fury; and she cast me such a look—a look of disbelieving rage—that I was struck by a mental image of her, her long body scaly and twisted atop a rock, while she breathed fire like a dragon. I felt my hand closing around the wand that was tucked in my belt.
"Mrs Potter," said Rodolphus Lestrange mildly, "that was a lovely dinner. I do appreciate the way you've arranged the house. Your taste is excellent."
"Thank you, Minister." My right hand was still resting on my hip, and I could feel the familiar lines of my wand under my palm. A soft heat was emanating from it. "Please forgive my servant's involuntary cheek. She's still untrained, and the situation was new to her: using of corporal punishment isn't my habit."
"To each their own ways, as they say," he said lightly. "Everyone can make mistakes, dear. I've already forgotten the incident."
James left Bellatrix's side and took a few steps that rang oddly on the tiles; the sound echoed within the high walls.
"Well, goodnight then," said James. His voice came from my right side. I had not paid attention to his moves, and didn't expect him to be so close. My eyes were still glued to Bellatrix, who was slowly composing herself; I had a strange feeling that if I stopped surveying her, she might strike again. Strike me, this time.
"Goodnight. Thank you, again, for this lovely evening." Rodolphus walked over to his wife and helped her, not too gently, to fasten her cloak over her shoulders. Then he took his own cloak down the coat stand.
Bellatrix was still staring at me, and I at her.
James's fingers closed around my right hand, a new, disconcerting sensation coming between me and the touch of the wooden wand, breaking the charm and shutting off a strange connection I had never felt before. He gently pulled my hand away from my hip and let it hang, still linked to his, between us.
An odd expression crossed Bellatrix's face; the silent challenge that had risen and tightened between us vanished into thin air. I averted my eyes, and found Rodolphus, watching James and me with the same odd look on his own features.
It lasted a second. The two Lestranges smiled, James dropped my hand, and we showed them to the door.
The moment they Disapparated, James shut the door and bolted it. He was a little pale, his eyes a little wide in what looked like wonderment.
"I'll go and comfort Anne," I said, as he performed two extra locking charms. However I had barely turned my back on him that his hand gripped my upper arm, wheeled me about, and I stood there looking into his face while he grasped me by the shoulders.
"What, on earth, were you thinking," he bit out, "drawing your wand in the face of Bellatrix Lestrange?"
"I didn't draw—"
"What did you have in mind? You wanted to duel her?"
"She's ten times the witch you are!"
"You don't know that," I interjected, a little stung.
"Yes, I do." He squeezed my shoulders a little. He looked alarmed, a look I had never seen on his face, and I was starting to feel nervous. "I do, because you're ten years younger than her, you didn't finish school, and she's one of the best Death Eaters there is—she's Voldemort's best lieutenant, for Merlin's sake. She'd obliterate you."
Death Eater. There was that word again.
"All right," I said soothingly. "All right. I won't do it again."
He let go of me and straightened up; he was still staring down at me with a mixture of amazement and anger.
"You won't do it again," he repeated. "What—this isn't a game, you know. You could've got us all killed, including Anne. Why was Bellatrix so angry at her, anyway?" he asked with sudden pensiveness. "Even for her, that came a little out of the blue."
"She wasn't expecting Anne to be my chambermaid," I said. "She's tried to manoeuvre me into hiring another girl."
James raised his eyebrows, surprised and interested. "Really?" he said. "Who did she want you to hire?"
I was about to answer—I still remembered with startling accuracy the slim, pale, red-haired figure, and the small boy clutching her skirt—when I was struck by the fact that James expected to know the person I was about to name. And it made sense. The Muggleborn woman had not looked like Bellatrix's personal spy; she had looked too poor, too thin, too sincere—and with a personality too strong to agree with Mrs Lestrange's. She obviously had no link whatsoever with me, she may have no link at all to Bellatrix Lestrange…
And yet, Bellatrix had intended her to come to my home. Why?
In the end, I just looked mildly puzzled and replied, "Oh, I don't really remember. I suspect it was one of her creatures, a spy of some sort."
He nodded, looking unconvinced. "Maybe."
Anne slipped into the Entrance Hall through a door dissimulated under the stairs, which hid a staircase spiralling down to the kitchens. She was sniffing a little as she shuffled over to the bench seat where I sat, waiting for her.
"Are you going to fire me, Madam?" she asked without looking at me.
Anne sniffed again and cast me a furtive look under the scarf she wore over her hair. She had been crying.
"I've—I've been slapped by the Minister's—wife," she stammered. "She w—will want you to get rid of me, won't she? She'll send me back to the village!"
"I can't keep you as a chambermaid," I agreed quietly.
Anne's face contorted and she hid it in her hands, her shoulders shaking with silent sobs.
"How good are you with numbers, Anne?" I asked a little louder, trying to pierce the carapace of woe the girl was working around herself.
She hiccoughed, looked at me through the spread fingers of her hands, and blurted out, "N—numbers?"
"Yes," I repeated. "Accounts. Bookkeeping. I can't deal with all of it, I just don't have the time to go to the market and compare prices. I need something like an intendant."
"I—I could do that," Anne said, dropping her hands and staring at me with wide eyes. "Yes, I could do that. But who will be the chambermaid?"
"Well," I said slowly, "our two elves managed to cooperate for today's dinner. Maybe we can bring them to share tasks, and have one of them do the cooking and service while the other keeps the house clean."
"But will the Minister's wife agree, Madam?" asked Anne fearfully, her eyes wider than ever.
Her fright annoyed me. I did not like to see how ascendant Bellatrix was on her.
"She doesn't need to know you stayed in my service," I said, a little snappishly. "As long as you don't claim it on rooftops, you should be fine. You just need your master's approval now."
"Should I ask him?" she said at once.
I started to say no, that it was not her place to ask him directly, and that it was a task that fell to me. I stopped abruptly.
"Yes," I said. "You should ask him in the morning."
The clock rang twice. I was exhausted and still agitated from the confrontation with Bellatrix Lestrange; Anne, who had been working hard to prepare the house since morning, was swaying with fatigue. I sent her off and ascended the stairs, knowing I would not be able to sleep, however weary I was.
I was partially right; after several hours spent tossing and turning into my bed, slipping into drowsiness from which I woke with a start at every small noise, I finally fell asleep a little before seven o'clock.
My rest was short-lived though. It felt as though I had closed my eyes for only a few minutes when someone barged into my room, waking me.
"You're smart, aren't you?" said a furious voice.
I adjusted with difficulty. Murky daylight streamed into the room through the gap between dark-velvet curtains; it had to be around nine or ten in the morning. My eyelids were, at the moment, the heaviest things in the world, and my mind was still bogged down into the leaden slumber of insomniacs. My too-short night had built up painful tension at the back of my neck. At the moment, I would have gladly blasted James Potter out of my bedroom so I could resume sleeping.
"What now?" I grumbled, making no effort to sit up in my bed. The side of my face seemed to be glued to my pillow.
"Anne came to see me this morning." James was pacing up and down; my eyes were level with his knees and I drowsily watched their alternative motions, finding a rather soothing quality to it.
"She said she couldn't stay here as chambermaid, which I think is true, now that Bellatrix has taken to dislike her. Thanks to you."
"Thanks to me?" I yawned hugely. It occurred to me a second too late that it was not polite. I gave up.
"Yes, thanks to you! You picked a chambermaid Bellatrix didn't like—"
"What, you think it's a good idea to follow your precious Bellatrix's suggestions now? Because she's all nice and good and wants what's best for us, right?" I grumbled.
The sound of his paces stopped. I made a small noise that would have embarrassed me in other circumstances, turned my face into the pillow, and started slipping back into sleep.
I heard a deep sigh, and the bed sagged a little near my knees.
"Open your eyes and listen to me," said James, more calmly.
"No," I pointedly said. "I've been awake all night, I've just now started sleeping. Leave me alone."
An invisible hook abruptly grabbed my left ankle and hoisted me up in the air. Before I had time to understand the situation I was hanging upside down over my bed, one of my sheets mercifully tangled in my legs and covering me up. James Potter sat on my bed directly below me with his wand in his hand.
Fully awake now, I swore loudly in French as I disentangled the sheet from my legs and slammed my hands down my nightdress, maintaining it on my lower body.
"Is that your idea of fun?" I spat at James Potter.
He blinked up at me for a couple of seconds. "It's how I woke my friends, back in Hogwarts," he said, frowning faintly as though trying to determine how the spell had worked.
"Oh, I feel so flatteredyou consider me like a Hogwarts friends!" I screeched. "Why didn't any of them blast your head off back then? It sounds like there were plenty of opportunities for it!"
"Easy there," he said mildly, and suddenly the invisible hook vanished and I fell down on my bed head-first.
The landing, though softened by the mattress, finished to shake my mind free of the sleep-deprivation that fogged it; instead of struggling with the bundled-up sheets that veiled my face, I remained still and took the time to come back to my senses.
I reflected on the few minutes that had just passed, and it seemed to me I could hear my own voice—high-pitched, ferocious, spiteful, all mandatory sweetness and melodiousness forgotten, yelling at my own husband for waking me up a little harshly. I cringed; had my mother witnessed my prowess, she would have died of humiliation.
I expected to feel the heat of shame rise to my neck and ears. To my surprise, it did not come. I did not even feel the need to crawl under the bed.
In the ringing silence, James Potter said, "I never noticed how damn strong your accent is when you get angry."
"That's because I don't get angry," I replied.
"You should. It makes you a bit more interesting than that shy, anxious and proper act you've got going on."
I disentangled myself from the sheets and sat up. My hair wasn't braided, and it fell about my face and upper body, getting in my mouth and eyes. I pushed it aside and twisted it to try and look semi-civilised; I already knew it would take me hours to comb it clear of knots.
"I," I said, looking at James Potter in the face, "am shy, anxious, and proper. I also need sleep. Is there any reason why you would barge into my room and start yelling, just when I'm trying to get rest?"
He stared at me with strange intensity. We sat quite close. I remember he wore a worn-out tee shirt, slightly oversized and framed at the edges, black with red lettering on it, and blue jeans. It was the first time I saw him in casual Muggle attire. His hair was more tousled than ever, his eyes, of a pleasant nutty brown, were blood-shot and circled with shadows that bore testimony to insomnia worse even than my own. He was thin, pale.
"Sorry for waking you up," he said after several minutes that stretched like hours between us.
I found I liked this tension, this long gazing. It was like having a conversation.
Then he rose and left.
I sat there in my bed, staring at the sheets disturbed by his recent presence. The items he had planted in my room to make Bellatrix believe we were an actual couple had magically vanished before I had gone to bed, but with these few minutes spent sitting on my bed, he seemed to have left a lot more of himself behind than he had ever intended.
Anne became my housekeeper, with the effect I had intended: my budget was taken off Pomy's hands to be handled by those, infinitely more benevolent, of my little Muggleborn servant. She was smart and rational beyond what I had hoped. While relieving me of duties that I had always found rebarbative, she developed talents at managing that would have been quite wasted if she had remained a simple chambermaid.
The house became her responsibility; however, the garden was my domain. I spent there all the time that was not devoted to organising dinners—and we had quite a few of these, for I was keen on returning the invitations that were starting to flock. As weeks drew by, the kitchen constantly buzzed with the flapping and hooting of owls, and about two nights a week the house sounded with the joyous chatter of the young and less young.
James and I were, I was starting to understand it, the newest attraction in the small circle of the Dark Lord's court. People invited us and came to our house out of curiosity, and although they strove to hide it, it was plain that they were all avid to see how my husband felt about his new life… It made me wonder more and more about what his old life had been like. I was soon to learn more about it.
He put up with it for a whole three weeks. Then one afternoon, as I sat on my windowsill, reading my mail at the light of the first snow of the year, he gave a brief knock on my door and pushed it open for the second time since our wedding.
"Please tell me that's not another invitation," he groaned when he caught sight of the parchment I read. "I can't take it anymore. I tried to be polite to all these people and give you satisfaction—I need a break. Please."
I smiled. "They do look very interested in you," I said. "From the way they question me about you, one would think you are the newcomer, and not I."
He snorted, stepped fully into the room and closed it with his heel. "Bunch of hypocrites. All my life I refused to act like them—the pureblood clique. Giving pureblood parties, getting hired by purebloods to do pureblood things, marrying purebloods and making very pureblooded babies. I suppose they just want to see how I'm faring now that I'm married to the purest blood in Europe."
I raised an eyebrow at him. He shrugged.
"It's neither a compliment nor a criticism," he said. "You've obviously been raised in the same world as they have. You know their codes better than anyone I ever met, and that's creepy, given how young you are. They don't need to get to know you—you're one of them. But I'm the black sheep, see. Now they've thrown me together with you, they want to see if I'll go mad, or if I'll turn out like I'm supposed to."
I laughed a little in utter disbelief. "Was it so important for the Dark Lord to have you behave according to your social standing, that he would send his Minister to pull me out of my school and my country and throw me together with you?" I asked. "It would have been simpler to just kill you, don't you think?"
I had gone back to my reading, but when he did not respond, when he did not make a single sound, I raised my head again to find him staring at me intensely.
"Yes, it would have been simpler to kill me," he repeated. I gulped a little, embarrassed by the way he planted his eyes into mine, unable to escape his scrutiny. He slowly walked towards me. My hands were tingling, my back was glued to the side of the window. He leant against the wall, just across the window, the white luminescence of the falling snow drawing thin shadows across his face.
"Do you ever wonder about that?" he asked in a low voice. "About why you were pulled out of your small, tidy life and thrown into this one? About why you were condemned to stand at the side of a man you don't know or care for? Do you ever ask yourself if there is a reason behind all that?"
"I don't know what you mean," I stammered.
"No?" He cocked his head to one side, this same, disturbingly intense gaze searching my face. "What happens when you wake up, and start the day, and answer your mail? What goes through that little head of yours? Why do you do it? What are you hoping for?"
I tried to think of an adequate answer, but I could not bring my mind to the task—it was frozen, paralysed like a rabbit fascinated by a snake's slow undulations. I heard myself say, "I'm not hoping. I'm just trying to survive."
He did not touch me at all. He bent his upper body slightly, just enough to close the distance between us. I felt the kiss through a haze of stupefaction. The cold of the falling snow slithered inside my bones and glued me to the cool glass, my fingers were full of pins and needles and, as they went slack, they let the letter slip from their grip and glide down my robes in a sigh of parchment against silk; my head was filled with cotton wool.
I felt his breath on my face when he whispered, "Life is about more than just surviving, Marie-Antoinette."
He seemed to hesitate a second then kissed me again, more forcefully; his hands brushed against my arms and came to rest on either side of my face.
I let out a little cry of sudden distress, ripped my lips from his mouth, my face from his grip, and fled the room.
Half-choking with repressed sobs, I ran down the stairs, blind to everything that was not the incomprehensible pain that exploded within my ribcage. Just as I had done on my wedding night, I stumbled into the hallway towards the garden doors. They opened of their own accord before me; I rushed out, lost and panicked and half-out of my mind.
Winter had taken hold of my garden. That first snow was soft and pure, soothing in ways I hadn't expected, and it hushed out the pitiful sounds that escaped my throat as a mother would—as my mother had never done. I walked on into the wood, to the clearing, while snow mingled in my hair and clung to my eyelashes, while my shoes and robes got soaked and heavy, while the sharp cold enveloped me in hands that were soft as death.
I sat by the pond on the stump of a dead oak. The snow covered me up, and I shivered. My garden breathed in the cold calm of the young winter; the pain started to recede.
Why had I run?
I thought about the past weeks, the invitations, the dinner with the Lestranges. I thought about the small things that were now regularly placed in my bedroom, on the nights when we had guests, so people would think James lived there.
That second kiss had felt exactly like that—a small thing planted in my bedroom for other people to see.
But the first kiss, what of the first kiss?... It had felt like one of the looks James sometimes gave me, one of these intense gazes that wrapped around my mind and stretched the time, and left me to wonder after he had gone.
The things placed in my room, the kiss placed on my lips, would not hurt so much if it was not for the looks and for that first kiss.
I wrapped my arms around my knees and stared straight ahead. The pond had frozen. Snowflakes were chased around in wild circles across the smooth glassy surface. Because of the snow, I did not hear him come close.
He detached one of my arms from around my legs and placed it on his shoulders; one of his own arms came behind my back, the other slid under my knees, and he lifted me up. I did not think of protesting. I hid my face against his chest.
"There," he said gently. "Don't cry."
"I'm not crying."
He paused at my answer, but resumed walking without a word. He took the wrong turn after the clearing and I did not correct him. We sunk deeper into the wood; trees and bushes got wilder, more intricate. I had never ventured that way. I could hear the trees rustling behind us as though they discreetly closed the exits—as though my garden was pushing us into the direction it wanted.
James finally stopped walking. I did not open my eyes, but I knew, by the sound and smell of the air, that we were nowhere near the house.
"You look completely frozen," he said. I looked up. Holding me up and walking had kept him warm, but the cloak he had thrown over his shoulders was damp with melting snow, and I had felt him shiver uncontrollably once or twice. As for me, I wore nothing but my silk Beauxbatons robes. The cold swaddled me.
"We're lost, I think," he went on. "It might be a good idea to wait for the snow to clear up a bit in that hut."
I twisted my neck to see what he was pointing at. It was indeed a gardener's hut, squeezed between two great oaks and half hidden in twisted branches of creeping ivy. Bushes and small trees grew upon its roof. A window was blinded by a yellowish curtain.
I slid from his arms and took a couple of staggering steps, wrapping my arms about my upper body as I went. It hurt to move. But the stones, the trees, the snow, everything in my garden pushed me gently towards the hut. I stumbled up to the door—and it opened before me just like the garden doors had, back at the house. I stepped inside.
A few moments passed before James joined me and closed the door behind us. "I can't believe I got lost," he sighed. "This wood's way deeper than I thought, I didn't even know we had so much ground to go with the house. We're lucky we ever found this place, I might have been able to Conjure up a tent to keep most of the cold out, but it wouldn't have worked nearly as well. There—" He flicked his wand and a low armchair appeared out of thin air, just behind me. "—sit down while I get things in order."
I obeyed. He shrugged off his cloak and let it fall to the ground, then started waving his wand this way and that, lighting a fire in the tiny hearth, cleaning up the dust, mending an old table with a single touch and sending abandoned gardening tools to pile up in a corner. The wind hooted softly in the cracks of the walls. I rose silently, took out my own wand and approached the window. I touched the tip to the glass pane and whispered a word—and outside the creeping ivy came to life, it shivered and grew thicker around the hut, obstructing the gaps in the wooden planks and enclosing us both in a protective blanket of vegetation. All exterior sounds died. The ivy grew over the window and dimmed the light.
"Good one," said James behind me.
I turned round. He stood there, arms dangling at his sides, in front of the fireplace.
"I can't believe I got lost," he repeated awkwardly. "I hadn't thought the weather would turn to a snowstorm, either. It shouldn't last long. We'll soon get out."
I left my wand on the windowsill and took two steps towards him. He watched me approach without moving, as though rooted to the spot.
"I was worried when you ran out," he went on, tripping over his own words. "It was near dark and the snow fell thick—and I didn't mean to frighten you or anything, I just—"
"Hush," I said, and he shut up.
I felt quite strange. The hut, the garden, the snow, it all lived within me and shivered in my moves. I had never experienced anything like that. I had never felt so composed, so powerful, or so little civilised. There was something else at work there, away from the little schemes of an anonymous Dark Lord, away from the prying eyes, from the too-large house, from the pureblood traditions, from the letter on the floor of my bedroom.
I joined him before the fireplace, and my hair, as though electrified by the force breathing through me, sprang free from my bun and fell about me. He stared down at me with troubled eyes.
"There is no one here to see or hear anything," I said. "No one to perform for."
"You don't get it. I can explain, listen—" he started, his eyes gone a little wide.
"There is a time for explanations." My accent was thick, thicker than I had ever heard it. It did not sound like my voice at all. "You missed it."
I rose on tiptoes and kissed him. I felt, more than I heard, his groan against my mouth. His hands contracted on either side of my waist, and for a second he was about to push me away; but it could not happen, not in this hut, not with my garden around us, not with that strange will coursing through me.
He gave up. We slid down to the ground on James's cloak.
"What did you do?"
I opened my eyes. I was sore and my skin felt sticky. The fire had died down and it was cold inside the hut.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
James shook his head. He sat on the cushions beside me, his eyes unfocused and larger than usual without his glasses. "You know what I mean. I never meant for anything to happen in this place, and—well, it did."
"You didn't mean anything to happen in my bedroom, either?"
He sighed, sounding exasperated. "That's different. It was an impulse. And—well, as you said, people might have been watching outside your window. I can't fool them long with a pair of socks on your bedroom floor."
"How flattering," I said, my voice cutting like broken glass.
In the obscurity, I thought he was reddening a little.
"I know it's not right," he murmured, his voice breaking a little. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for everything that's happened to you. You don't deserve it—not if you're not a Voldemort spy; and I don't know why, but no matter how I look at it, I can't believe you could be one. But you need to understand… I was married. Before you, I mean."
I said nothing.
"She's Muggle-born, and a very gifted witch. We were both fighting Voldemort. I don't know why he didn't just kill us after he won. I don't know why he decided to keep me within his court; but I always assumed you were his means of controlling me. Whether you knew it or not."
I said nothing.
James swallowed hard. "We have a little boy," he went on hoarsely. "Harry. He's three years old. I haven't seen him in four months. I don't even know if he's dead or alive."
He shook his head, took his wand from the floor beside him and whispered a word. His clothes flew to him and he hastily got dressed in the dark.
He spoke to the fireplace where a few embers still glowed dully. "Tonight shouldn't have happened. It can't happen again."
I said nothing. A couple of minutes passed in painful silence, then I rose, shrugged into my robes and tied my hair back.
"The snow's stopped," I said in the empty night. "It's time to go."