A/N: I just got an anonymous review, from someone who was shocked by Marie-Antoinette's ignorance regarding the fate of Parisian Muggles (in chapter 1, "Adieux and Exile", after the Prologue). This oddity was to be explained in later chapters; however, what I had written in the original chapter drove the reviewer to wrong conclusions, instead of making them wonder what was going on. This is my mistake as an author.
I have no other means to respond to this - rather virulent - review but through this AN, so let me tell you here: I posted a modified version of the incriminated chapter. I hope it will remove a few doubts and keep you interested.
Chapter Eight: Spilt Blood
"So how do you like England, Mrs. Potter?"
I smiled at the banal question as though I heard it for the first time. "I am all prepared to like it, Mrs. Jugson," I answered sweetly. "But I'm afraid it does not like me much."
Thunder exploded at that moment, in a torrent of noise that hammered against the high windows of Malfoy Manor and shattered the Soundproof Spells laid on the glass panes. Overpowered, the magical protections went out with sad, exhausted little snaps, which were soon lost in the uproar of the sky's fury.
"… as you can see," I finished, gesturing towards the darkened windows.
The Malfoys' small tea room rang with high-pitched peals of polite laughter. Mrs. Jugson forced her plain, pasty-white features into a grin.
"I think our good old England doesn't like anyone much, right now," Narcissa Malfoy intervened, setting her cup and saucer back on the coffee table. "Excuse me for a second."
She rose from her armchair and left the circle of ladies, holding up the folds of her long robes in one hand to keep herself from tripping over the hem. As soon as she had disappeared from my field of vision, five pairs of eyes shone towards me again, gleaming golden in the firelight, eyeing me with the ferocious curiosity displayed by vultures before a wounded rabbit.
There sat Mrs. Amy Jugson, wife to an obscure undersecretary at the Ministry for Magic; she looked around thirty, had a little more weight than was fashionable, and her features and mind were equally boring. She had come with her young cousin, Rosemary Rookwood, who curled up on a cushion at her feet, her skirts spread out around her in a cleverly disposed mess. Because of her tiny form, slim and supple as a snake, Rosemary's upper body seemed that of an eel-like creature emerging from a pool of silk. I suspected she enjoyed enhancing the unsettling side of her physical aspect.
On Mrs. Jugson's right, a low armchair had received the young Mrs. Wilkes. Laura Wilkes was, at only nineteen, closest to my age. Her face, pointy and freckled, was the least expressive I had ever seen: even when she smiled the lines of it hardly moved. She seemed to be a little ill and had barely said two words all afternoon. Her gaze wasn't as intimidating as the other ladies'—perhaps this was so because she seemed lost in her own thoughts, and only turned her glassy eyes on me because everyone around her did.
Mrs. Wilkes noticed I was watching her and straightened up in her seat with the look of a schoolgirl caught slouching by her governess. Porcelain chinked in protest as her cup teetered in its saucer, spilling hot tea over her hand and wrist.
"Ow!… No, don't worry, it's not that hot. I'm just so clumsy!" the girl lamented as two other ladies hurried forward with a napkin and concerned exclamations.
"Don't fret, darling, by the look of it Cissy's carpet can take a few drops of tea," Rosemary Rookwood said. "Spill enough and she might even give it to you!"
Mrs. Wilkes went scarlet at Rosemary's words but bravely tried to laugh with the others. I didn't laugh. It wasn't necessary that I partake of the general hilarity since I didn't know what Miss Rookwood was referring to; it suited me fine, as I was starting to dislike her with all my heart. I hated her voice most of all: it drawled on certain syllables, and the pitch of it changed unexpectedly at the ends of her sentences. It gave me odd chills, not unlike those I got when I heard nails screeching on a blackboard.
"There," Narcissa's voice called from behind me. "Forgive me for this absence, I had instructions to give…"
She had not finished speaking that the Soundproof Spells came back to life, forming blue halos that spread and flickered over the windows like burning gas, at the command of invisible hands. The howling of the wind dimmed. I strained my ears but did not catch the lightest pattering of feet or snapping of fingers; Narcissa's house-elf was a skilful one.
Smiling in satisfaction, our hostess stepped back into the circle and sat back in her armchair in a graceful fluttering of robes. "So what did I miss?" she asked, a playful expression on her face. "Did Rosemary burn a hole in the carpet with her venom?"
"Not quite yet," replied Rosemary promptly. "Laura beat me to it."
Her pixie-like face bore a mischievous grin. Narcissa threw her head back and laughed as poor Mrs. Wilkes's blush deepened. Apparently not noticing her guest's embarrassment, Mrs. Malfoy picked up her cup of tea again and, still chuckling, raised it towards Rosemary as though saluting a particularly witty word. Rosemary bowed her head a little in answer.
I was looking at them both from behind my cup of tea; I now had the absolute certitude that these two women detested each other.
"I'm so sorry, Narcissa," stammered Laura Wilkes. "It's just a few drops of tea, I hope you—"
Narcissa waved the apology away in a negligent move of her hand. "It's fine, love, don't trouble yourself over that. Carpets can be cleaned up. And thank Merlin for it," she added with a giggle. "My little Draco drooled milk all over Lucius's new Persian rug yesterday! I thought he was going to curse something."
Sonia Laurenson, one of the two guests who had rushed to Laura Wilkes's aid with a napkin, straightened up in her seat and jutted her chest forward as though defying anyone to contest her right to speak up.
"Fathers," she sententiously said, "have no idea how to deal with babies. Did you know I caught my Albert trying to reason Leila the other night? I said to him, 'Albert, you're an elite wizard, but you know nothing about children!'"
"Don't get me wrong," said Narcissa. "Draco has Lucius wrapped around his little finger; even if he wanted to scold him, he would be unable to. But that rug was truly beautiful."
"Of course, of course," Sonia muttered, deflating like an old balloon. Rosemary snickered.
"Where's little Draco, Narcissa? I would love to see how he's grown," intervened the other lady who had helped wiping up the spilt tea. She was an ageless girl, with pale skin, pale hair, pale eyes—but contrary to Narcissa, who was beautiful as white gold, she just looked colourless. All throughout the afternoon the other ladies had rarely taken any notice of her, and she had been trying to make up for it by constantly flattering whoever she was talking to. Her name was Harriet Selwyn.
"He's asleep, thank heavens," Narcissa replied. "And the house-elf will take care of him should he wake up. Which reminds me, I really should get a new chambermaid. If the first thing Draco sees is the elf's face when he wakes up, he will have nightmares."
"A new chambermaid? What happened to your Mary?" asked Mrs. Jugson. "She looked like a fine, competent girl. Unlike my Lydia, who's been awfully neglectful lately. I hardly recognise her!"
Narcissa pursed her lips. "I dismissed her."
Her final tone wasn't lost for anyone. Harriet hurried to change the subject by remarking the storm seemed to be slightly calmer than it was a few minutes ago, and we all hastily agreed. Rosemary yawned ostentatiously.
"Oh, look at the time," she suddenly exclaimed. I blinked. She wore no watch, and there was no clock in the room.
"What time is it?" I asked.
Rosemary's face split again in that malicious grin of hers.
"Time to go to the theatre, of course!" Her girly voice went so high-pitched on the last word it was almost a scream. Muscles in my back involuntarily contracted.
"Is it really time already?" asked Mrs. Jugson, eyeing the rain-washed windows with a disgusted expression.
"Of course, we mustn't be late. There is a most wonderful play tonight, people will murder for seats." Rosemary Rookwood rose from her cushion and twirled on the spot to force the liquid folds of her dress to fall correctly into place. Taken by surprise, the other guests stood a little late; Narcissa was frowning.
"Ah well, if that's so, I imagine we have to leave you, dear Narcissa," Mrs. Jugson sighed.
"Oh, wait!" Rosemary suddenly cried. "Wait, wait, wait! Cissy, I just had the most perfect idea!"
"Tell us, dear, we can hardly wait to hear it."
"Why don't we all go?" Rosemary looked round with the face of a five-year-old being presented with a piece of candy. "As a gang of girls?"
Mrs. Jugson looked uncertain. "My… my dear, are you sure this would be considered proper?"
"To hell with proper!… I can get you seats, I know someone. That way we'd all spend the evening together!"
I cast a quick glance around. Harriet Selwyn and Sonia Laurenson were clearly tempted; Laura Wilkes, although she looked sicker than ever, was trying to smile and appear interested.
As for me, I was thinking that, if theatres in London were anything like those in Paris, I couldn't afford half a seat—let alone the kind of clothing that was required to sit in it.
"This is very tempting, and I'd very much like to go," I said in my shyest, most polite voice. "But… Right now, there are two architects, five workers, two house-elves and a chambermaid in training who all require my supervision. I can't afford to leave them on their own for more than a few hours."
"Oh, come on dear! You have a husband!" Rosemary shrilly protested. "And not any husband—James Potter himself! I'm sure he'll do all the supervision you need!"
There was something I didn't like in the way she had said my husband's name. Her tone was heavy with insinuations. What didn't help was that I had the feeling she had waited a long time for the perfect opportunity to say it—in exactly the right tone.
"It's not my husband's place to command to the servants," I said rather stiffly.
"Marie is right," Narcissa unexpectedly declared. "I have a lot of duties that I wouldn't ever leave to Lucius, competent wizard as he may be. And that's why," she turned to Rosemary, "I see myself forced to turn down your invitation as well. But we'll meet again very soon, and when we do, do tell us everything about the play!"
"I won't go either," said Laura Wilkes in one breath. "I'm not feeling well."
"Of course, darling, you shouldn't go running to a play in your current state!" said Harriet Selwyn. "Go home, go home. Rosemary—Sonia and I will be delighted to—"
"Yes, you're right," Rosemary interrupted. "Better to save those seats for another time, right? I'll just go with Amy then."
Amy Jugson said something about things being more appropriate that way, and both witches bid Narcissa farewell. Rosemary's choice of interpreting Harriet's words as another refusal rather than an agreement had left Sonia and Harriet crestfallen, and they couldn't hold back a few bitter words as they, too, departed, taking Laura Wilkes with them.
"I spent a very nice afternoon, Narcissa," I said when I was left alone with my hostess. "The tea was delicious."
She flashed at me a bright smile. "Thank you, Marie; indeed the tea was drinkable. But I hadn't expected these five to stare at you all evening. I hope you didn't take it the wrong way…"
"Don't worry about that. I'm new, I would have been naïve not to expect it."
"Still, it was bordering rude." She had beckoned me closer and we were now walking through the corridors of Malfoy Manor, talking idly. "Rosemary isn't ever a model of courtesy, come to think of it. She loves nothing more than making people laugh, most often at other people's expenses. Laura is an easy target—she's usually livelier than that, but it's her first pregnancy and she's terribly sick. As for Amy Jugson, well, you can't blame her if she doesn't like you. She's fat, ugly and boring."
The last part was so unexpected I spontaneously burst out laughing. Narcissa joined me in my laughter.
"Marie," she said once we had calmed down a little. "Do me a favour. Call me Cissy. Narcissa sounds so solemn."
I smiled at her, inwardly noting she had already taken the initiative to shorten my own name. "With pleasure."
We had reached the main hall of the Manor; hardly any light filtered through the two loopholes that pierced the façade wall. The moving candlelight caught in the folds of Narcissa's robes. She had familiarly linked her arm with mine, and maybe it was that closeness that gave me the courage to voice my thoughts.
"From your letter, I had understood that they were your closest friends…"
She turned her face to me, looking a little surprised.
"Oh, but they are. Amy Jugson is a vague cousin of mine, very concerned about what's proper and what isn't—as you noticed. She used to babysit me when I was too young to go to Hogwarts; she's fond of me and very faithful, the poor darling. Rosemary was my Hogwarts best friend… We're not as close as we used to be." She paused, then added, lowering her voice, "She had hopes of marrying Lucius, you know."
I was shocked to silence for a few seconds. "I can see how that must have strained your relationship," I ventured at last.
"Yes." Narcissa sighed. "We never ever talked about it, of course, but I know she's still a little bitter. I can't really blame her. My dearest wish is that she would find a good husband and be happy, so we can be best friends again. I love her with all my heart."
The lie was so smooth I was almost convinced I had misread Narcissa's attitude earlier. Unfortunately, she couldn't help casting a furtive glance in my direction, destroying in a fraction of a second all the effects of her little speech. The charm was broken; I was on my guard at once.
"It shouldn't be so long," I said with wide-eyed enthusiasm. "She is very pretty. There's something special about her."
"I know exactly what you mean!" Narcissa smiled to me again. I smiled back.
"What about Laura?"
She giggled at my childish curiosity. "I know what you're going to say," she said. "Laura is dull and impossibly shy, but she's very pleasant company when you get to know her. I helped her furnish her house when she got married, as she's not very rich. It was no bother at all—I had enough old furniture to fill up every house in Suffolk."
And give Rosemary the opportunity to jeer at both Narcissa and Laura, I privately thought. Spill enough tea on the carpet and she might give it to you.
"… As for Harriet and Sonia," my hostess went on, "they're Laura's friends from Hogwarts. Nice girls—always ready to help."
"And where do I fit?"
"You, darling," Narcissa said with a broad grin, "are my friend from France. It's so chic!"
We laughed again.
Narcissa led me outside the Manor through a little door hidden behind a tapestry. Iron grey clouds rolled across the sky, torn here and there by forked lightning bolts that licked the ground and vanished in a flash. The wind flung around heaps of rain and dishevelled the distant woods. My last goodbye to Narcissa Malfoy was drowned in a rolling of thunder, and I saw her smile and wave her hand, signalling me she had understood. I waved back, hauled my hood over my head and stepped off the doorstep to Disapparate.
I stumbled on my own threshold and instinctively grasped the bell chain to hold myself straight; I understood my mistake a second too late when my new shoes slipped on the wet tiles, just as a dull, low, awfully loud note boomed mournfully throughout the house. Cursing to myself, I staggered upright and unlocked the door with a flick of my wand. The granitic house was still humming with the echoes of the bell chime when I leant all my weight on the door, trying to escape the redoubling rain.
The door swung open, I rushed forward—but my momentum was cut short by a loud thud, a yelp of pain, and James Potter fell back to the tiled floor, clutching his face.
I remained rooted to the threshold, my hand still on the door and the rain wetting my back, while Potter grunted out a long, hoarse "Aaahhhhh." He was sitting on the tiles; both his hands covered his face where the heavy oak pane had hit him. He must have been standing just behind the door when I had pushed it open.
"What did you ring the bell for?" said Potter testily. He lowered his hands to blink up at me, and my stomach lurched: blood was pouring out from his eyebrow, covering the right side of his face in a sleek coating that glistened black in torchlight. His glasses were broken.
"What did you stand behind the door for?" I asked in return, in a voice that was a lot higher pitched than usual. I couldn't look away from the blood spurting from between his fingers and drawing long, lazy lines across his hands.
"I was answering the bell," Potter growled. "Hey, would you close the door? I'm freezing."
I did as he asked and approached him cautiously. He had not made a single attempt to rise from his sitting position—which was just as well, as he might be dizzy from the impact; for the moment he was trying, without much success, to mop up the blood from his face and press his fingers to the wound at the same time.
Speaking from such a height was strange. I crouched down next to him.
"Why would you have to answer the door?" I asked, trying not to look at the blood now marring the tiles. "Where's Anne?"
"I gave her the day off. Here, give me your hand."
I opened my mouth to protest but he had already grabbed my wrist and pressed my palm to the arch of his eyebrow. I swallowed hard. His forehead was wet and sticky with his own blood, and my nostrils were now full of the tepid, coppery smell of it.
"She came back from the garden looking as if she'd been wrestling with a Devil's Snare," Potter went on. "I thought she deserved a little rest. I wasn't expecting you so soon, by the way."
"The other guests left to go to the theatre," I replied, my mind elsewhere. A trickle of blood slid down my wrist.
"Keep pressure on the cut," he said. "As soon as I can find and mend those blasted glasses, I'll take care of it—though if you had a mirror, it would help, it's kinda hard to fix my own face…"
"I—I have a mirror—upstairs. Lali could…"
"Nah, don't bother. Just keep pressing your hand to the cut, I can't see anything through all that blood."
Wiping his eye and face with one hand, he groped around the floor for another few seconds until he found his glasses; he touched them to the tip of his wand and placed them back on his nose, wriggling the arms so they slid under my hand and wrist.
"I don't suppose you know any healing charm?" he sighed. "That would save me the trouble of aiming at my own eyebrow."
I shook my head, lips tightly shut, eyes diverted to the next wall.
There was a silence. Then his fingers closed over my wrist and gently pulled my hand away from his face. The air felt cold on the coagulating blood that covered my palm.
"Not fond of the sight of blood, are you?" he said with uncharacteristic kindness.
I inhaled deeply through my mouth to steady myself.
"I'm fine," I said.
"You're whiter than the tiles. Not that they're so white, now, come to think of it—I repainted them just fine—"
"Don't, please," I whispered in a very, very low voice.
He snorted, a derisive sound—but not quite as derisive as I expected.
"Scourgify. Here you go, the tiles are clear. I don't dear use this spell on your hand though—it might skin you. You'll have to make it to the bathroom."
"I don't care about dried blood," I managed to utter through gritted teeth. "Just stop the bleeding."
"I'd like to see you try aiming your wand at your own face," he countered. "Why don't you do it? The word's episkey."
"I know that."
My wand was still clenched tightly in my right hand. I raised it and glanced at James Potter—he was observing me with a kind of amusement on his face; to my surprise, it was an expression devoid of malice.
I pointed the wand at his eyebrow, said the word, and was immensely relieved to see the bleeding stop at once. Coagulated blood closed the gaping cut, but it was not healed: the slightest impact would reopen it.
"Not bad," Potter commented.
"We should go clean up, now," I said hastily, starting to rise.
But he seized my arm around the elbow and gently pulled me back to the floor. "I think I might be a little wobbly from you throwing a door in my face," he said. "And you don't look so well either. We'd better stay here for a minute or two."
I did not object. The queasiness was starting to ease, but I did not trust my legs to support my weight. I sat on the floor quite close to him. My ears were full of whistling and whooshing sounds, which I wasn't sure came from the wind rushing through an open window or from my own blood running through my skull.
"Nice and quiet," murmured Potter. I saw him glance furtively to the glassy doors leading into the garden, then back to me.
"I'm fine," I said again.
A tense silence settled as we sat there side by side, uncomfortable and embarrassed, on the cold tiles of the high-ceilinged hall. A floorboard creaked in a room upstairs. A window slammed shut somewhere in the house, taken in a gust of air.
"How did you like Malfoy manor?" James Potter asked point-blank.
I threw at him a shifty, sideways look, amazed that he would know and remember—much less care about—my whereabouts of the day. When I had left the house, after another lunch he'd spent locked up in his room, I had been convinced he would not even notice my absence.
"It's… impressive. Grandiose," I said. "And Narcissa is a charming hostess."
He smirked. "Of course. You're awfully at ease with that sort of people; looks like you didn't have much fun when you were a kid, did you?"
His callous remark stung. Absurdly sitting on the floor next to a man who had blood all over his face and clothes, unsettled by his newfound loquacity, I had let my guard down and was reacting a lot more instinctively than usual. At any rate I felt a hot surge of indignation at the disbelief in his voice, directed at a dead woman.
"You're right," I snapped. "It was very dull and painful to be brought up by my parents. Thank God they died, and I got married. I am having the time of my life."
I stopped, shocking myself with the venom I was spitting. In the ringing silence that followed it seemed to me the entire house was straining its ears for James Potter's reaction. I would have gladly left him there, now, to slouch on the floor on his own, in an attempt to save my dignity—but the way we sat, I couldn't get up without brushing against him or first crawling away from him. I stared moodily at the opposite wall with tightly closed lips and stayed put.
"That wasn't what I meant."
I did not unclench my teeth.
"I didn't even know you were an orphan. Though I suppose I should've guessed. I'm sorry if I offended you."
"Why are you saying you should have guessed?" I blurted out, unable to stay quiet. "Do I look like a… an abandoned puppy? Is that it?"
"No. It's because of Lestrange."
I turned my head to look at him. His eyes wandered around the hall, unfocused, but never turning to me, as he went on, "Whenever Lestrange wants something to happen, he makes sure all the odds are in his favour. He found ways of pressuring me into doing pretty much anything he asks. I suppose it's the same for you: maybe, if you had parents to defend you, you wouldn't be there."
"That's me. The defenceless schoolgirl," I muttered through gritted teeth.
This time he planted his eyes into mine. His full attention was on me, and something like interest stole over his blood-marred features.
"Well," he said, "if that's really how you define yourself, Lestrange must be very happy he picked you."
And he said it calmly, neutrally, without a trace of harshness or scorn. He was scrutinising me with his brow furrowed, as though seeing me for the first time—as though I was an incongruous, but interesting object he was attempting to decipher. Suddenly ill-at-ease, trying to avoid his gaze as much as to regain some composure, I looked away and shut my eyes.
Potter might have misinterpreted my attitude: be that as it may, his hand came up to rest against the back of my neck. His thumb and middle fingers dug into the shifting tendons on either side, firmly, as though he was intending to keep me erect by the sole pressure of these two fingers on my neck.
His voice drifted to me through my shut eyelids. "Feeling dizzy again?"
It was easier to just nod, so I did. I was a little light-headed, to tell the truth.
"Just don't pass out on me, okay? You're still kind of pale."
The contact of his fingers disrupted my concentration, as it had done during dinner at the Lestranges'; I desperately tried to focus on the small noises of the falling night, rather than on the unusual presence besides me. The wind had ceased. The rain was no longer pit-patting on the upstairs windows. There was another creaking noise coming from the first floor, a groaning of badly-oiled hinges—a window had probably been left open.
Then silence fell. The house lay in waiting.
I opened my eyes.
"All right now?" asked Potter, with something like relief in his voice. "Can you stand up?"
I couldn't find words to answer, couldn't even look in his direction, ashamed as I was of my weakness; I merely shrugged.
He got to his feet with unexpected promptitude, for a man who had claimed to be 'wobbly' not five minutes earlier. He pulled me up, paused for a second, then removed from my shoulders the sodden cloak that I had never had the chance to take off. I watched him as he walked up to the coat stand and hung my cloak on a lower peg. Blood still stained the side of his face and neck, and his hair was glued with it.
"Sorry," I said awkwardly. "About the door."
He turned to me, his intact eyebrow raised. "I thought you'd never spit it out," he said. "Forget it. Come on, we both need a good long shower."
And with sudden hurriedness he took my arm again to lead me upstairs, walking a step behind me rather than fleeing up the stairs as he usually did, pushing me gently every time I halted, every time I faltered. When I paused at the top of the stairs to look back at the entrance hall, he told me, in a mild voice, that if I did not mind he would like to wash up sometime before nightfall.
It was too late, though. I had already glimpsed a shadow fleeing across my garden, through the glass panes of the terrace doors.
I said nothing and let my husband lead me away from the hall.