FIRE & ICE
Deliberate violence is more to be quenched than a fire
Where's the fire,
What's the hurry about?
You'd better cool it off
Before you burn it out
Vienna: Billy Joel
I was having trouble sleeping.
I was used to nightmares, I had seen enough horror to fuel a lifetime of bad dreams. I was used to waking up, gasping for breath with my heart racing, and an unnatural sense of intense unease pounding through me. I would relive the endless emotional stress, the maimed and mangled bodies, the torture and the deaths. Hermione had said the perpetual fear, the running and fighting, meant adrenaline was constantly coursing through our veins. In small doses, it was beneficial, but too much was toxic.
This was something new, something beyond the ordinary panic. I was restless. I tossed and turned for hours in the dark, tangled in hot and sweaty sheets, unable to clear my mind. Every time I closed my eyes, an endless reel of images played over and over, each more terrifying that the last, and head rang with cold, cruel laughter. I longed for the windows of the Gryffindor common room, so that I could breathe in night air and press my face to the cold glass, friendly stars twinkling through the gap in the curtains. Down here, underground, I felt suffocated.
I felt toxic.
When I eventually dozed off into a fitful sleep, I had the same dream. I was lying on something hard. There was wetness all around me, but I couldn't tell if it was blood running from me, or water soaking in. The darkness pressed in on all sides, like a physical force. I was so cold. I heard someone crying, soft pitiful sobs, and I knew I had to help them. I pushed myself to my feet and staggered about, my bare feet slapping against the rough stone. The cries grew more urgent, echoing louder and louder, and I started to run, forcing my heavy legs to pump hard. I ran and ran, calling out, I couldn't find the little girl. I was going in circles. I was lost. I was trapped. There was no escape and I would die here, alone, underground in the freezing, endless blackness. Breathing became hard. I tripped over something solid and soft, and smacked into the ground. The crying was louder now, coming in great panting gasps — I realised I was crying. I scrabbled blindly about for the cause of my fall. My hands were going numb. I felt something smooth and supple … skin? My chest contracted. I felt an arm, a hand with five fingers, and a chest and a head and lots of long, wet hair. I shook her, frantically pleading for her to wake up, and she lolled limp as a rag doll in my arms. She was heavy and waterlogged.
"We have to get out of here," I said, my voice not quite my own. "Please, wake up. We have to get out of here."
A light burst from above, as blinding as the darkness as had been.
"You won't wake," said a soft voice.
I looked down. My face was a bloodless, beyond white, and my lips were blue. Ice had crusted on my eyelashes and hair, which was almost black with water. My chest was still and my hands a dull mottled purple, bloated with static blood. I screamed, but no sound came out, and freezing water rushed into my lungs, and I couldn't breathe, and there was only consuming darkness.
Out of the darkness, I saw two lights above me, like guiding stars. I reached for them, one last desperate snatch at life, but they were impossibly far.
"You don't have fight anymore," said the soft voice, stroking my hair back from my face. His touch was anaesthetising, like a paralysing toxin, and it made me want to sleep. He caught my flailing hand and held it. Instantly, the flesh froze, and the inevitable cold spread up my arm into my heart like a deadly poison. "There's nothing you can do. You know you cannot win … Close your eyes, Ginny."
I woke up, bolt upright, eyes wide open, my mouth gaping a silent scream.
Some say the world will end in fire
Some say in ice
By Friday morning, Juliet demanded to know what was wrong. Her infuriatingly sharp eyes, practised from ruthless policing of every untucked shirt, stray shoelace and lopsided tie in Hogwarts, narrowed in on the dark shadows under my eyes. She pointed her wand dangerously at her bureau, her cosmetics hovering ominously — poised to attack — and I slunk into the seat, too tired to argue. Juliet stared balefully over my shoulder into the mirror. Tutting disapprovingly, she busied herself concealing my fatigue beneath liberal make-up.
"For heaven's sake, Ginevra, do something about it!" she said, exasperated, when I told her I was having bad dreams. "How utterly nonsensical it is to suffer with nightmares, and spend your day shuffling around like some confounded Hufflepuff, when all you need do is ask Madame MacGreggor for a Dreamless Sleep Potion. You wouldn't be the first and you certainly shan't be last. She couldn't possibly refuse you, you look like death warmed over."
My retort was lost in a yawn.
"If you don't seek help for it, I will," Juliet promised grimly. "You look ghastly and you yawn constantly, which is the height of rudeness. You are of no use to anyone in this state."
"It's nice to know you're so concerned about my wellbeing," I snapped back waspishly. I was well aware of the Dreamless Sleep Potions, and its effects — namely its addictive properties. "But, really. I am fine. I don't need a potion."
My reflection confirmed the lie. Thanks to Juliet's handiwork, I looked fresh-faced with dewy skin and bright eyes. I brushed my hair through and fixed it in a bun atop my head, wrapping the green scarf around it. Regan had not sought me out since out little meeting on Monday morning, for which I was most thankful. Riddle had also left me alone. We had not spoken except for necessaries pleasantries at inevitable run-ins, at lessons or mealtimes. Instead of giving me relief, the distance had me disconcerted. The Riddle I remembered, self-obsessed and power-hungry, would have been insatiable until he had forced me to reveal all I knew about him.
Then again, he was impossibly patient, like a predator skulking in the shadow, waiting for the ideal moment to strike. I read somewhere that certain snakes could go for years without feeding.
I had slipped up at the party, momentarily blinded by rage, but I was trying to make it work to my advantage. I had deliberately dropped more hints, subtle and surgically precise. It was the best way I could think of to get his undivided attention. To Tom Riddle, other people existed only as means to an end; they were either a threat or an asset to his grand ambitions. My information instantly had me marked as a threat, but I was sure he would want to explore the scope of my knowledge, and identify its source. He had an uncanny ability to twist an unfavourable situation to his advantage. I wanted him to pursue me, like a dog at a bone, desperate to know what I knew. I sought to unsteady him, casually flaunting my intimate knowledge of his darkest secrets, dropping them like a trail of crumbs … the problem was, it was a dangerous road and I didn't know where it led.
The hope was he would become so obsessed — frenzied — that he would make a mistake. If he alienated his followers in the process, by seemingly favouring me over them, that was an added bonus.
The very real danger was he would discover everything. He would use me, drain me of all I had, and then he would leave me to die.
I had baited the trap. It was only a matter of time before he bit. I tried to think through the various ways he might chip at my defences, hoping to anticipate the attack. Given my outward hostility, I suspected he had sense enough not to try charm me into divulging my secrets. That was an act I had fallen for once before. Like a disease, it had consumed me — very nearly killed me — but I was stronger now, and immune to such insidious manipulation. I had already proved myself a capable witch; he would not underestimate my magic. I doubted he would attack me out right. Whatever he did, it would be subtle.
It wasn't the questioning I was afraid of. I wasn't scared of torture. Iwas scared of Riddle; too much had happened there to overcome — but my hate eclipsed my fear. The very thought of him made my blood boil. Whenever it become too much, I remembered why I was here, the people I had lost, and what I stood to gain, and I was fortified. The curious thing was, when facing him, I was resolute — I had a known enemy, someone I could look in the eye, and fear became pure energy. It was the waiting that gnawed at me, the stretches of time when I didn't know where he was, when he could be doing anything … When I couldn't see him, I was quietly terrified.
I was constantly on tenterhooks. I slept with my wand clutched to my chest. Riddle had the entire castle under his thumb; an attack could come from any side. I thought of Veritaserum, Amortentia, Polyjuice Potion and poisons, a hundred different potions he could use against me, and mealtimes had become unbearably stressful. I avoided the common room, spending my free time in the grounds or the library — Hermione would have been so proud. I read up on Occlumency; my defences were rudimentary at best. What is he used Legilimency on me? What if he saw everything — our past, so intertwined, and his future? What if, instead of undoing his evil, I gave him the very tools to destroy those I sought to protect?
The tension twisting my insides was making me ill.
I checked myself in the mirror and hitched a smile onto my face. I rapped my knuckle against the glass. The facade had not yet cracked. I was made of tougher stuff.
Already loitering outside the dormitory door, Abraxas walked me to breakfast. He had not left my side since Monday. I had protested all through Tuesday, ignored him on Wednesday and then resigned myself on Thursday, when I had opened the dormitory door to find him lounging against the wall. Exhausted and furious, I demanded at wand-point he explain why he was stalking me.
"So help me, if you lie, I will permanently fix a bat bogey to your stupid face. Do not test me!"
Abraxas only laughed, an easy grin stretching his handsome face. "For someone so small, you certainly are ferocious … but also rather dim, it would seem. Can't you tell I am here in my White Knight capacity? I am a champion defending his fair lady. It's all very chivalrous, you have to agree."
"That excuse is getting old," I said bluntly. "Who put you up to this? Regan?"
"You are, without question, the most stubborn, suspicious, irascible girl I have ever met. My grandmother is nearly one hundred and four, and I thought she was a cantankerous old bat — but she doesn't hold a candle to you! Leave it to you to find fault with me, selflessly laying life and limb on the line, to ensure you don't get hexed six ways to Christmas on your merry way to breakfast — has it escaped your attention that the whole house is out after your blood? With gallantry like this, I should be in Gryffindor! It's nauseating." He sounded appalled at the very idea. He scowled down at me, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "If anything, it's you who should be begging me for protection, and not trying to wriggle out of it!"
I fixed him with a hard, appraising look. "So you're protecting me?"
"Yes!" he exclaimed, as if I was a very slow toddler who had just grasped a very simple concept after protracted efforts. "I am attempting to, at the very least, no thanks to you. Your continued resistance is most ungracious, I'll say. It's lucky I cut such a formidable figure," he added smug, sweeping a hand through his blonde hair. "Clearly, the very prospect of my wrath has terrified all potential assailants."
"Yeah, or you told the Quidditch team to lay off," I said, unimpressed.
"I may have mentioned something," he said loftily. "As the captain, I do exert some influence."
I still got the lion's share of funny looks, but admittedly no one had tried to jinx me with Abraxas hovering at my shoulder. Surprisingly — grudgingly — I enjoyed his company. He was lazy and arrogant, but somehow he also managed to be charming — in a brash, unapologetic way. It was though his own superiority was so assured, it wasn't worth mentioning. He even said talking about Blood Status was vulgar, and only done by those with something to compensate for. "If you have to waste your breath convincing people you are Pureblood," he said disdainfully, "it's obvious you're not."
However, his protection was a double-edge sword. Though I liked Abraxas and his bluff humour, I had to remind myself who his best friend was. Riddle had him bought and sold. I could not relax around him. There was no shaking the feeling that I was being watched.
As we passed through the common room, Abraxas motioned me to stop briefly. He perused a list of names tacked to the noticeboard. Squinting around his back, I saw the parchment was headed with Quidditch Tryouts.
"How are the applicants looking?" I asked with mild interest.
"Pretty dismal," he said bracingly. "All shall be revealed tomorrow morning. Trials are at eleven O'clock and spectators are discouraged. No doubt it will a triumph of mediocrity."
"Are you still planning on playing with four Chasers?"
"I should expect so," Abraxas said. "I rather hope it will cause all sorts of confusion — which will only work to our advantage. Unorthodox but brilliant — if I do say so myself."
I raised my eyebrows, unimpressed. "It's illegal."
"It's ingenious," Abraxas countered. "And I wouldn't call it cheating — rather, a 'loose interpretation' of the rules. Obviously, no one but the Seeker may touch the Snitch, otherwise it's a forfeit. But there are no official rules to say a Seeker can't touch the other balls. And besides, Ginevra, what's a little bit of cheating in the name of winning?" he said emphatically. "That's what Quidditch is all about, after all. Winning! Once you win, who gives a damn how you do it? Ten years from now, when someone looks at the Quidditch Cup, and sees our names engraved on it — Slytherin 1944 — they're not going to remember how many Chasers we played! They're going to remember we were victorious! We will be legends."
"So the ends justifies the means," I said coolly. I couldn't help thinking of the parallels.
Abraxas winked. "And now you're talking like a Slytherin."
Breakfast was yet again endured in contemptuous silence. I sat next to Abraxas, only two places left of centre — closer than any other girl, apart from Regan. It was a testament to Abraxas' standing in the Hierarchy that no one challenged my seemingly rapid promotion through the ranks, at least not openly. Most people pointedly refused to acknowledge my existence and some sent me nasty looks. Regan greeted me, always aloof and impeccably mannered, and her eyes would quickly scan for the scarf — Juliet insisted I wore it. Diomedes Zabini had a roguish grin or a roving eye, which was returned with a smouldering glower. Vivian, Persephone and Walburga Black all communicated their feelings through a daily display of murderous smiles, ongoing from dawn to dusk. I almost admired their restraint.
When the bell sounded for dinner that evening, I felt relief like nothing before. I was tired in my bones. I trudged back to the Great Hall after a particularly gruelling Transfiguration lesson, Abraxas doggedly at my shoulder. Dumbledore was an exceptional teacher. His immense talent demanded the class' undivided attention, but he was encouraging and patient, with the ability to make very complex theories seem simple. His lessons were fascinating and his very presence settled me, as instantaneous as a Calming Draught. There was a unique air of mutual respect in his classroom. For him, teaching was a vocation, and opportunity to pass on magical secrets to eager young minds was a delight and a privilege.
There was only one person who did not seemed awed by his presence; Riddle passed the class in polite indifference. His skill was just as prodigious as Dumbledore's; nothing seemed to trouble him. He preformed spell after spell with enviable ease; I was certain not even Hermione could have competed with him. While others scribbled notes and cross-checked textbooks, he just sat there, patiently waiting for the bell to ring. His handsome face was expressionless, never disrespectful, but his eyes followed Dumbledore around the classroom. When the Professor's back was turned, they flashed, as cold and hard as diamonds, betraying the contempt simmering below the surface.
Almost unconsciously, I found myself watching him. As I always sat beside Abraxas, we were invariably sitting around the same table, with a varying combination of other Slytherins — Zabini, Vivian Rosier and Sebastian Avery among them. Juliet and Alphard sat separately. Once or twice, he had caught me inadvertently staring. He winked and I started, losing my concentration, and the kitten I was supposed to be Vanishing was showered in sparks. It yowled and swiped at me, slashing three smarting cuts across the back of my hand. Fuming, ripped Regan's silk scarf from my head and wrapped it tight around the cuts. I shook out my mane of red hair, letting it fall like a curtain around me, blocking out the sniggers.
For the rest of the class, my temper boiled, and I made no more progress. My kitten, though eerily colourless, remained resolutely present. Riddle had lazily Vanished his rooster on the first attempt.
My hand was still smarting after the class ended. As we passed a bathroom, I excused myself from Abraxas' company to duck inside and hold it under the cold tap. "And don't even think about following me," I threatened, though he made no sound of protest. For good measure, I slammed the door behind me, a little unnecessarily.
The bathroom was mercifully empty. I let the tap run at full blast and closed my eyes, enjoying the solitude, until —
Suddenly, with a great whooshing hiss, water sprayed everywhere. I staggered backwards, dazed by my sudden soaking, now wide awake. All the taps were pumping out water. It quickly sloshed up over the basins and flooded the tiles. Steam rose up and fogged the mirrors, making the air close and muggy.
My wand was out, just in time to deflect a streak of yellow light — the spell collided with the mirror and it exploded. I threw my hands up over my head to protect myself as glass sprayed everywhere.
There was muttered spell and the door snapped shut with a menacing clunk.
A sickly sweet voice rang out, "You didn't really think I would let you off unpunished, did you?"
Vivian Rosier, flanked by her cronies, appeared through the steam. She jabbed her wand at the door, muttering Colloportus, and it locked with a menacing click. The short, fat girl moved to stand in front it, bearing her uneven teeth and barring the way.
"It seemed to good to be true, yeah." I was grinning, inciting her challenge.
If she was expecting fear, Vivian was sorely mistaken.
"At first, I thought you were just a pathetic orphan, too stupid to understand how a proper society works. But you're not so innocent. You're a scheming little bloodsucker, grubbing for some power. You I don't think know exactly what you're doing? You think you can just waltz in here, with your pathetic second-hand clothes and hideous hair, and skip right to the front of the queue?"
My heart was pounding, my every nerve tingling, and I shifted my weight to centre — ready to attack. I wasn't scared in the least … I was excited.
"You have no idea whose toes you stepped on, you stupid little troll," she spat venomously. "No one curses my brother and gets away with it! We are Rosiers. We are practically royalty and you — you are nothing. I'm going to teach you, for once and for all, to respect your superiors."
I laughed loudly. Vivian was a pampered princess, who bullied her way to the top. She was no match for me. I almost felt sorry for her.
"You won't be laughing when I'm done with you," Vivian threatened lightly, still thinking herself the dominant witch. "I don't know what you've done to Abraxas, if you've poisoned him or cursed him, but it doesn't matter … He's not here to save you now."
"And what's make you think I need saving?" I retorted cockily. "I beat Lestrange. I beat your pig of a brother. I even burned Tom Riddle … After them, you're hardly worth the effort!"
Vivian's eyes widened in shock and fury. "You! You hurt Tom? Oh, you'll pay for that, you bitch! — Inducere Emesum!"
She sent a Vomiting Curse at me. I parried it with a slash of my wand.
I took a step forward. "Don't try to hard, Vivian. You might break a nail."
I dodged it easily, unfazed. "It's that the best you can do?" I laughed mockingly. "Rot my teeth?"
Vivian's spell rebounded off my Shield Charm and slammed into a sink, gouging a dark crack in the porcelain. She was a capable spell caster but she couldn't duel. I stepped forward again, and she staggered backwards.
None of her curses breached my defences. I grew an inch taller with every hex that smashed, useless, into my Shield Charm. I was confident, I was invincible … I was enjoying myself. The thrill of battle energised me. Steam billowed everywhere, the rushing water pounded in my ears, soaking our feet, and I advanced ever closer.
Vivian panicked. "Don't just stand there like an idiot, Philomena!" she shrieked, firing wildly. Water splashed everywhere as her spells shot wide. "Help me! — Diffindo! IMPEDIMENTA!"
I blocked the Impediment Jinx head-on and, gritting my teeth against the surge of power, pushed it back outwards. The shockwaves caught Vivian in the chest and she toppled over, screaming and flailing. I kicked water in her face, temporarily blinding her, and my foot caught her wand. It went spinning from her hand and rolled out of sight. She was completely at my mercy.
For a split second, I hesitated — I could just walk away, stepping over her body, undefeated in both duelling and morality. I imagined Hermione would do this … Or I could leave her scrabbling on the dirty bathroom floor with giant bat-bogeys flapping around her face, and everyone would know I had beaten her, just like I had beaten her beastly brother.
Vivian lunged for Philomena's wand —
With lightning reflexes, I sent the curse rebounding back to hit Vivian full in the face. We both crashed to the ground, knocked over by the force of the curse. I rolled over, springing back to my feet, wand raised — but Vivian was overcome by the spell. She howled like a Banshee and clutched at her face, writhing and splashing in the water. I nudged her tentatively with my foot — Her face seemed be moving beneath her fingers. It was both disgusting and fascinating. Whatever it was, it looked horrendous, and she deserved it. A cold, vindictive pleasure gripped me.
There was a bang, and the door flew open.
Gertrude had her wand pointing at my head. Juliet had her own wand out, trained on Gertrude.
Tom Riddle said, "I wouldn't, if I were you," and Gertrude dropped it like a poisonous spider.
Juliet quickly summoned it, and then Vivian's and Philomena's. She looked appalled, surveying the damage with her hands on her hips. Riddle looked faintly amused. He waved his wand and all the taps snapped shut.
"Anyone care to explain what happened here?" he asked quietly, his eyes on me.
"She attacked Vivian!" Philomena burst out, stabbing a condemning finger at me. "She just came storming in and attacked us. She's mental!"
I knew I looked guilty — panting and thoroughly soaked, sweat pouring down my face, with my wand in my hand and Vivian whimpering in a heap at my feet. I opened my mouth to object fiercely, but Riddle got there first.
"You are in trouble enough as it is, Miss Bullstrode. Do not make things worse for yourself by lying. Go to dinner and keep your mouth shut." His soft voice was steel, without an inch of compromise. There would be no lying, no arguing, nothing but complete obedience.
The bathroom was still boiling but suddenly I was shivering. I remembered that voice.
Philomena hung her head and sprinted from the room, Gertrude in tow. Riddle looked expectantly at me. "I might have guess you were involved," he said, eyes glimmering. "You have quite the appetite for destruction."
I bristled. "Don't look at me! It's not my fault if you people are stupid enough to keep attacking me."
A smile played at the corner of his mouth. His eyes turned to Vivian, surveying her with cool interest. Her beautiful face was transfixed, the skin rippling bizarrely, like thousands of tiny insects were swarming beneath it. She looked absolutely terrified — "Get them off me! Get them off!" — tearing frantically at her skin. Her cheeks were latticed with red scratches. Juliet had crouched down beside her, and was attempting to restrain Vivian's flailing hands to stop her inflicting any more damage.
"I have no idea what she did," I said defensively. "She tried to curse me and I sent it back at her. She caught a face full of her own medicine."
"It's a Haitian Skin-Crawling Curse. Where did you learn Black Magic like that, Vivian?" Riddle asked her, playing the role of the serious, concerned Prefect. "If you read it in a book, it will need to confiscated, to keep the other students safe. Magic like that can be exceptionally dangerous if not used properly."
Riddle probably wanted that book to read himself.
"I'm sorry — and what constitutes the proper use of Black Magic?" I demanded scathingly.
Vivian gave her loudest wail yet. Devoid of compassion, Riddle stupefied her.
"Not using it on yourself, for one," he said, a sardonic smile quirking his mouth. "Juliet, you had better take her to the Hospital Wing. Call it an experiment gone wrong. I can finish straightening up the bathroom. I don't see the need to involve any staff here. We are all Slytherins. We can resolve this matter in-house. Unless, of course, you wish to pursue the matter, Miss de Valera …" His tone was cordial, but it was clear he wasn't asking my opinion.
I shook my head. I was happy Vivian had got her just desserts, but pushing the issue seemed foolish. We were already enemies, I didn't need to provoke any further animosity. Riddle looked satisfied — which irked me.
For the first time, Juliet spoke up. "This is a girl's bathroom, Tom. I think it would be more appropriate if I cleaned up here."
"You do seem very at home here, Tom," I echoed, deliberately causal. "Do you spend much time in girl's bathrooms?"
"My Prefect duties take me to all manner of unexpected places," he said placidly. He smiled agreeably at Juliet, "Of course, Juliet. Whichever you think preferable."
Juliet assured him she was more than capable of restoring the bathroom, and that Tom and I ought to get going. "Don't be ridiculous, Ginevra," she said firmly, when I protested. "You need to see the Matron. You are bleeding."
I wiped a mirror free of condensation, peering at my reflection. Juliet was right — blood ran in red rivets down the side of my face; I was so wet, I had mistaken it for water. I turned my head, to get a better look at it, and something flashed in the flickering candlelight.
"Is that glass?" Juliet barked, appalled.
"Must be," I said. "From the broken mirror."
"And you didn't notice it?"
"I was a little distracted, being attacked and all," I retorted. I ignored her flapping and had a good look in the mirror. The side of my face was peppered with shards of glass. Most were tiny, but one was sizeable enough, and responsible for most of the blood. It stuck out from a gash on my cheek, about an inch long. I could see Riddle's blurry outline in the mirror, watching me intently. Gritting my teeth, I pulled at it — it moved and then stuck, tethered in my flesh. I bit down on the shooting pain. Blood oozed freely and I was suddenly aware of its hot, sticky trail down my face.
"That's quite enough," Juliet flustered. "There is no need to preform commando Healing in a filthy bathroom when the qualified Matron is one floor below us."
I shrugged her off, meaning to try again.
I cried out involuntarily as the piece tore free. Riddle held up the offending shard, examining it under the light; it was a vicious, curved thing. The blood was now pouring from the wound, splattering onto my blouse.
"Stop it, both of you!" Juliet said sternly. "She's bleeding everywhere. It's hardly hygienic."
Riddle raised his wand again. "Hold still. I promise this won't hurt at all," he said, sounding calm and responsible, like he did this all the time.
Quickly, I cast an Episkey myself, the edges of the larger cut zipped together, good as new. I wasn't about to let Riddle anywhere near my face.
"We can add Healing to the list of Miss de Valera's accomplishments, Juliet," Riddle said, his eyes locked on my reflection. "But perhaps she will acquiesce to allow Madame MacGreggor look her over?"
Juliet seemed insistent, her expression smug — but there was no way I was discussing my nightmares with Madame MacGreggor in front of Tom Riddle.
"I'm fine, really. I'd rather not to trek to the Hospital Wing." I made a swift, slicing motion across my throat behind Riddle's back, and thankfully Juliet caught on.
"Well, if you insist," Juliet said, business-like. "In which case, maybe you'll be so good as to help me tidy up here? It is your handiwork, after all." She couldn't resist the disapproving snipe.
It was a moment when I sounded a lot braver than I felt. I shook back my sleeves and said brightly, "With pleasure, Juliet. A bit of teamwork and this place'll be good as new. So, Tom — unless you're a Domestic Goddess in disguise, you can pop off. See you later."
I waved cheekily, Juliet let out a rare laugh, and Lord Voldemort was dismissed.
Some say the world will end in fire
some say in ice
For the first time since my arrival, I went to dinner happy. I practically bounced down the marble staircase, grinning broadly at Minerva McGonagall as we crossed ways. She seemed a little taken aback by my enthusiasm and her friend eyed me suspiciously over her shoulder. I recognised him as Erskine Proudfoot; Abraxas had pointed him out as one of the Gryffindor Quidditch team. I vaguely wondered why they hadn't reciprocated the friendly gesture — then remembered I was in Slytherin, and that we were sworn enemies. I laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of it all.
Suddenly, a brilliant idea struck me, and I wheeled around. I charged back up the stairs, two at a time, calling her name.
"Professor McGon — Minerva? Minerva! Wait!"
They stopped. Erskine Proudfoot hooted with laughter. "Did she just call you Professor?"
I flushed. McGonagall flattened him with a tart look. "Kindly give us a moment, Erskine. Miss de Valera," she said crisply, taking in my dishevelled, damp, blood-stained appearance with raised eyebrows. "What has happened to you? I sincerely hope you have not been brawling again."
"Only with a toilet," I said brightly, without missing a beat. "A Regurgitating Jinx. Someone's poor idea of a joke."
Her eyebrows knotted together, her expression concerned. "And have there been many such incidents?"
"Nothing I can't handle. Anyway, I wanted to ask you — Are there any girls on the Gryffindor Quidditch team?"
"I am pleased to say there is, which is more than I can say for Slytherin. Why do you ask?" she sounded semi-accusatory. It seemed Quidditch held a special place in her heart even now.
I couldn't help the silly grin spreading across my face. "Because I want to borrow their gear. I want to try out for the Slytherin team."
McGonagall had clearly been expecting a different kind of question. She rallied and smiled warmly. She pointed out a tall girl with a messy black ringlets standing by the doors to the Great Hall. "Ciara Quigley is one of our Chasers. You can tell her I sent you. I won't wish you luck — that would be a blatant lie. And I certainly won't remind you that the ban on duelling extends to the Quidditch pitch." Her lip twitched as she resisted the urge to laugh. "I tip my hat to your gumption, Miss de Valera," she said. "But don't for a second think you'll beat us!"
I thanked her and skipped on down the stairs .I hadn't thought it out at all, I hadn't even put my name down on Abraxas's list, but suddenly playing Quidditch had become monumentally important. It was something I wanted to do, just for myself. I had to live too.
Ciara Quigley proved much easier to persuade than anticipated. She said yes almost instantly — so quickly, in fact, that I did a double take. "Wait — what — really? Thanks!" I stammered. "You'd really loan your gear to a girl you don't know?"
"I'm mad for any girl playing Quidditch," Ciara said simply. She was built like a greyhound, with lots of sharp edges, and even more freckles than me. She had a thick, Irish accent, a cheeky grin and foul mouth. "And sure I only hate that Rosier, he's an awful feckin' gobshite. I saw yee hex him that time, and I thought to meself, there's a girl after me own heart. I'd watch me back when yeh're flying, mind. I wouldn't put it past him to try hit yee back, the dirty pox."
"I'd like to see him try!"
"Sure, that's the fighting talk," Ciara said rousingly. She shook my hand. "It'll make a nice change, to have some decent competition. We stuffed it to yiz last year, so we did, the holy mortifyin' shame of it … Tell yee what — I'll lend yee the pads, if I can come down and watch yee fly rings around them. Muppets, the lot o' them! The looks on their faces, sure it'll be priceless."
"I'm not on the team yet," I said. "How'd you know I'm not abysmal?"
Ciara waggled a disapproving finger at me. "None of that now. Don't be all coy, like. Yee wouldn't have asked me, if yee weren't any good."
I grinned. "I'll see you tomorrow morning, then."
Buoyant, I sashayed into the Great Hall, and sat down beside a surprised Alphard. Juliet had opted to detour by the Hospital Wing, out of commitment to her Prefect Duties.
"Close your mouth, Alphard, you'll catch flies." I said cheerily, piling an exorbitant amount of Lemon Crunchie Pie onto my plate.
Alphard looked wary. "And what brings you to this desolate corner of the social wasteland? You are, of course, most welcome — but I must say, seeing you so chipper rather makes me feel we are all in mortal peril. I warn you, I did not dress this morning for a duel!"
"Don't be such a worry-wart, Alphard, it's Friday!" I said, all too exuberantly. "I'm in the mood for something fun. What are you doing tonight?"
"I would hasten to suggest that our ideas of what constitutes fun may not exactly intersect, Red," he said seriously. "You like righteous anger and hexing people— "
"Do not!" I protested thickly through a mouthful of pie.
" —which is all very commendable, but I find crusading for justice is intolerably sweaty work," Alphard said with a delicate shudder. "I prefer the wholly more civilised pleasure of chess. I shall eat my fill, retire to the common room, and immerse myself in a world of intellectual warfare."
"Who are you playing?" I asked.
"The most fearsome of opponents," he said impressively. "Myself."
I snorted. "Chess with yourself? Sounds riveting."
"One of the few inconveniences of exile," he admitted. "But it does afford me plenty of time to practice my game … You may sneer, Ginevra de Valera, but some of us appreciate the exquisite satisfaction of delayed gratification." I grinned around another spoonful of dessert, and Alphard launched into a dramatic retelling, "You see, I am a great sleeping dragon, honing my craft and binding my time, until a worthy adversary comes along. Crowds will flock from far and wide to witness the spectacle of strategy and cunning. Our battle will be the stuff of legend — black versus white, good versus evil, fire versus ice — Our matched wits seemingly at an impasse … until I finally emerge— " he closed his eyes " —victorious … "
"You certainly thought a lot about this," I said dryly. "Bit much to expect from a chess match, though. They're usually really boring."
"If you can say that, obviously you haven't played enough chess," Alphard said.
Under normal circumstances, I avoided chess like the plague — mainly because I wasn't any good at it. It was one of the few things that Ron was much better at than I, and he never missed an opportunity to rub my nose in it. Yet, tonight, the prospect suddenly excited me.
"I'll play with you tonight, if you want," I offered, almost eagerly. "But can we play in here? Or in the courtyard? I find the common room really stuffy."
"And by stuffy — you mean stuffed with a hostile horde at the beck and call of a vengeful god? Yes, quite. Your absence has not gone unnoticed," Alphard remarked shrewdly, as observant as ever. "A wise move, but the library's gain is certainly my loss." At this, I smiled, feeling a rush of warmth towards the flamboyant boy. He continued, "However, considered yourself in luck. Friday night portends a mass exodus of the good and the great — nocturnal escapades, and the like."
"Like what?" I asked, interested.
"Oh, you know. Quidditch, romantic rendezvous, those sycophantic little suppers Slughorn presides over — and that's only the official schedule," he finished saucily.
I rolled my eyes.
A steady stream of banter carried us through dinner and back to the common room, which was — as Alphard had promised — unusually empty. The remaining occupants were scattered randomly, talking quietly or tackling homework. I noted the prime seats were unoccupied, and Alphard answered my unasked question with a significant look. It seemed the Hierarchy's fastidiousness for seating arrangements was omnipresent. Alphard made for his usual spot, scrunched into a dark, forgotten corner, but I was having none of it.
I threw myself down on a dark leather couch, slapping the space beside me. "Malfoy sits here, right? Well, I sit beside Malfoy. I'm bad enough at chess as it is, Alphard, without being blind too. And besides," I added, grinning cheekily, "I thought you liked to walk on the wild side?"
Alphard paused, torn, then said, "Checkmate."
Ignoring the stares of the other occupants, he set up the chessboard between us. I thought of Ron, and my heart throbbed like an open wound. I remembered countless evenings spent looking on as my brothers battled it out; sometimes, I played on Bill's 'team', moving the pieces on his whispered instructions. I had never had much time for the game myself. It moved too slowly for my liking.
I reiterated this, feeling it only fair to give Alphard ample opportunity to back out. "You do actually know how to play?" he asked politely.
I nodded. "My brothers played loads and they taught me. I just never got the fascination. I don't have the patience, you know. I never took the time to examine the board, all the pieces, and whatnot. My brother Ron, he was probably the best of us — not that you'd ever suspect that to see him, the great prat. He was always thinking ten moves ahead. Whereas, I would make the first move I saw and then just deal with the results as they came. Invariably, I lost."
Alphard did not look surprised. "Chess is not a game for the rash."
"Now, if you wanted to play Exploding Snap, I'm your woman," I said, grinning.
"Competitive, frenzied and with definite potential for violence? Sounds most suitable … Well, consider this an education, Miss de Valera. I shall strive to teach you the virtues of patience, perseverance and self-preservation."
"I'm pretty sure that's not a virtue," I said skeptically.
Alphard waved me away. "Depends on your perspective … As always, white makes the first move."
The marble pieces were old and heavy, their edges worn smooth after years of handling. Alphard had been playing with them for some time, and they trusted him implicitly. Suitably, he was playing black. I ran my hands over the line of white pawns, as if trying to bond with them, then nudged a central pawn forward two spaces out into no man's land. It was the same opening move I had made the first and last time I beat Ron.
I rather felt like that lone pawn, taking the first brave steps, facing enemy ranks.
Alphard leaned forward, nodding, his face set. "Chess is as much about the opening moves than the endgame," he said, in a hushed, reverential tone. "Games can be won and lost in the first few moves. A good opener aims to confer both a immediate defensive advantage and set up your future attack. You want maximum mobility — that means moving your pawns — so you can develop the stronger pieces as the game advances." Alphard indicated to his second row of pieces, laying a finger on his Queen in particular. "You want to gain control of the centre of the board, here in front of your King and Queen. This area is where most attacks originate from."
He urged the corresponding pawn forward so that they faced each other, black and white squaring off.
"Given the complexities of the various pieces, they way they move and interact, there are infinite possibilities of how a chess game can unfold. However, there a limited selection of openings. Most proficient players have these memorised. You just used the King's Gambit."
"Are you trying to intimidate me, Black?" I muttered.
Alphard's face was impressively impassive. "I wouldn't dream of it."
Though aware chess was not my strong point, I was loathe to lose to Ron. I wrote about my perpetual defeats in my diary — and my diary did not disappoint. Move by move, Tom Riddle had constructed a game for me, based off my observations of Ron's plays. I had thought him the smartest person I'd ever met. I noted down his carefully drawn diagrams, the various stems springing from each turn, and I waited. One rainy Tuesday in November, because he was bored or perhaps on urging from a kindly Hermione, Ron asked did his little sister want to play. After I'm finish slaughtering Harry, he had said.
I said I would play white. I took my time, examining the board to matching the pieces to Tom's instructions. When the black pieces huddled dejectedly along the sidelines outnumbered the white, Harry and Hermione began to watch, eager to see Ron defeated. I remember blushing from the attention, that visceral heat steaming from my face, and forcing myself to stay calm. I thought of how disappointed Tom would be, if I lost because of Harry, and how happy he would be for me should I win.
I had been so proud of that single victory, and it wasn't even mine.
Now I didn't care. I continued playing Riddle's game. Alphard moved a second pawn forward
"Technically speaking, your pawns are the least valuable," he said. "They're the most restricted in terms of movement, and so they're often overlooked for the flashier pieces. However, they are your first defensive line and can be tenacious little invaders, doggedly pursuing the attack in the endgame. I like to think of them as the Quidditch Idiots and Squabbling Sycophants."
I raised my head, intrigued. Alphard met my gaze, his dark eyes serious. He dropped his voice, quickly checking over his shoulder for eavesdroppers.
"I am an observant man, Red. I may have been sidelined, but that only affords me a better view of the game. I can watch all the pieces move without getting pulled in by any … Avery, Dolohov, Flint, Vaisey, Mulciber, Nott, Orion Black and …" He prodding each pawn with his wand, naming them all. He moved another forward. "Red."
"A pawn can kill just as well as any other player. And remember, if they cross your opponent's end line, a pawn can become anything. A lowly little pawn can be become a Queen." Alphard waved his wand and the pieces rearranged, leaving only three intrepid white pawns facing a more robust black battalion. "In the Immortal Game, possibly the most exquisite game of chess ever fought, it is the three remaining pawns that force the mate, after everything else has been sacrificed. The move was unprecedented. By giving up their Queen, white here can used black's superior numbers— " He pointed out the two black Knights and a Bishop " —against him, and trap him in checkmate."
The black King toppled to his knees with a defeated thunk.
Alphard picked him back up, gently setting him on his feet. "Not to worry, old boy. Things aren't quite so bleak yet."
The board reverted to our ongoing match and we battled on. I sprung my Knight free, leaping over a pawn.
"I'm impressed. I feared you were going to advance that pawn line, piece by piece," Alphard said, rather sneakily. "So you're better than advertised … Were you trying to lure me into a false sense of security?"
I smiled mysteriously. "I still have a few tricks up my sleeve, Black."
"I shouldn't have expected anything less."
In reply, Alphard sent his Bishop skating diagonally across the board. "Obviously, when you make a move and mobilise a player, you have to consider both your own attack and the threat posed by your opponent. For strategic purposes, if you have one piece flirting with danger, it is advisable to cover their square with second, to dissuade capture. Only the immature opponent will jump blindly at a baited trap. The winner in chess isn't necessarily the man with the most pieces on the board, it is the man who strategised. If sacrifice is indeed necessary, be sure your gain is worth the loss."
"What would you be willing to lose?"
"That Bishop I just moved, I call her Lady Trevelyan. She is dispensable."
"A little cold," I said, scooting my King back to safety in the Knight's vacated space.
Alphard gave me a stern look. "This is war, Red. Highly sophisticated and civilised war. It is raging both on this chessboard and between our two minds as we speak. I am an experienced general, bearing scars from years of battle, and you are a young upstart, passionate and impulsive. I have a plan, a preconceived strategy that I will, with seasoned expertise, adjust as befits the unfolding circumstances. I don't expect to fully execute my plan. I anticipate you will make several fatal errors, entirely independent of my workings, and dig your own grave."
His ominous prediction sent a cold wave of dread into my stomach, quite separate to our chess match, but I shook it off.
"If you don't stop talking and make your move, I will probably be in my grave before this game ends."
It was probably the most enjoyable game I had ever played, and definitely the longest.
Alphard was clearly a skilled player, patient and cunning. He took his time in making a move — something I might have previously found tiresome — here it just added to the game. As we played on, the common room began to fill around us, but the vacant seats on our couches remained empty. As the noise level rose, our voices sunk to conspiring whispers and compelling looks.
The board was busy and pieces began to litter the sidelines, many of them victims of Alphard's crusading Knight — aptly embodying Slevin Lestrange. Had I not been following Riddle's old plan, I would have been hopelessly out of my depth. I was surprised though, at how well it was working against this new opponent. I was playing with two particularly merciless Bishops, that darted across the board smiting the sinners. Alphard kept his second Bishop close, defending the King.
"Abraxas Malfoy," he said.
"I thought Malfoy would be a Knight?"
Alphard shook his head. "The Knights are good offensive pieces, but they are limited and finicky. Effective when used judiciously, but sadly easily captured. They are best used when surrounded by pawns." He nodded the paired piece, lying lame on the side with a dented helmet. My Bishop had made short work of Aidan Rosier's Knight. "A Bishop must always stay with its colour, which effectively halves its attacking potential. In the early stages, they're restricted. But, as the game progresses, and the squares empty, their long range becomes invaluable. They do their best work in pairs, when both colours can be defended."
"And who's that," I asked, as Alphard's Rook set upon on of my pawns.
"Rooks are more valuable than Bishops or Knights. They are the most mobile, can attack all fourteen squares, and therefore capable of wrecking serious havoc." My remaining Knight shrieked as the Rook pummelled him relentlessly.
"Kicking when they're already down? You must be Vivian Rosier."
"Very astute," Alphard remarked dryly.
"That's quite enough of that." On sudden inspiration, I sent my vengeful Bishop to dispatch the Rook, feeling a surge of vindictive glee as it was dragged, kicking and screaming, from the board.
Alphard, however, was not feeling the keen loss I expected. He shook his head sadly. "And I had such high hopes for you, Red."
Triumphantly, he unleashed his Queen. In a single, killer blow she descended upon my Bishop. She wrenched the crook from his hands and struck him over the head with it.
I stared at the board, unable to understand. The white pieces rounded on me, yelling and shaking their tiny fists. Alphard's King had not moved a single square. He had lost both Bishops, a Knight and numerous pawns — but my little counter was still playing, a mere square away from the endline.
Then I glared at Alphard.
"You played me," I accused. "You said it was Vivian Rosier. You knew I would— "
"Wouldn't be able to resist?" Alphard sat back looking very smug. "Beginners play the game. The experienced play the player."
Resentful, I knocked over his victorious Queen with a swipe of my hand. She clattered sideways and rolled off the table. The dull crack of marble on hard stone made me think of cracked skulls and smashed up bodies. I sorely wished it was as easy to eliminate the real thing.
"No prizes for guessing who that was?" I snapped.
Alphard shrugged. "Who else?"
I paused, momentarily stumped. "But then … who's the King?"
"Just the question I was going to ask." A pale, long-fingered hand repatriated the Queen with a gentle touch. Riddle scrutinised the chessboard, his delicate fingers trailing over the black pieces, as if retracting a familiar pattern — with an unpleasant jolt, I noticed a fresh bandage wrapped tightly around his palm.
"There is no King — I am the King!" Alphard proclaimed in a deep, dramatic voice. And he brought his fists smashing down onto the boarding, upsetting all the pieces. "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams."
I hadn't a notion what Alphard had just said, but Riddle seemed to. Idly, he began reordering the board.
"It seems his Highness is in need of a new opponent," he murmured dryly, smiling ever so slightly at Alphard. "If chance will have me King …"
It was hard to say who was more shocked, Alphard or myself, when he sat down. "Y-yes — Of c-course," Alphard spluttered, sounding far from his usual eloquent self. He knocked over two pieces in his haste to help. With a lazy flick of his wrist, Riddle summoned them, both landing neatly in his waiting palm
"Shall I play white?" Riddle asked pleasantly. "I presume you have an affinity for black?"
Alphard laughed breathlessly. I kicked him under the table and he seemed to sober up.
A crowd had gathered, forming a tight ring around the couches. Whether they were actually watching the game, or waiting for the fallout of an undesirable encroaching on the throne, was yet to be seen. The silence was deafening. The sound of marble on wood, as the small pieces were deployed, seemed to echo like grown men's footsteps. Though slower than our match, with protracted pauses, this game was much more competitive. I could almost hear Alphard thinking between moves. His dark eyes rested on Riddle's face just as often as the board.
I felt oddly stranded by their dynamics. I remained sitting beside Riddle, because moving would have been painfully obviously, but he paid me no attention. I was almost thankful when Abraxas and Regan joined us. Malfoy threw himself down on the couch with a startling crackle of leather, while Regan seated herself with poise, shaking her magnificent hair over her shoulder. Slevin Lestrange came next, and Regan leant back against his chest; he stroked her perfect hair and kissed her forehead. Diomedes Zabini perched himself on the couch arm, reclining across the back like a Roman Emperior. None of them spoke, however, having respect enough not to disturb the hallowed peace.
Aidan Rosier had no such qualms. He threw his wand down on the chessboard.
"I want to call a quorum."
For a moment, Riddle did nothing. Then he sat back, crossed his legs and surveyed Rosier with an courteous expression. "Very well," he said softly, with a curt nod. "Alphard, please excuse the interruption. We must continue at a later date. A worthy opponent is a rare commodity in these parts."
"What I am?" Malfoy chipped in, feigning affront. "Chopped liver?"
Rosier cleared his throat threatening. The crowd dispersed with alarming speed, leaving only a handful of familiar faces — the Blacks, Avery, Dolohov, Nott and Mulciber. I made to stand up, feeling suddenly exhausted, but Regan sent me a warning look. Still collecting up the chess set, Alphard hadn't left. He was, however, sitting on the floor, his seat now occupied by his cousin Orion. I pressed my foot against his, trying to communicate a plea for him to stay — he slowed down a snail's pace, going so far as to polish each piece with his handkerchief before placing them lovingly the in velvet-lined repository built into the wooden board.
"I count thirteen," Riddle said.
Rosier pointed an accusing finger at me. "You've got some nerve," he spat. "Sitting at our table, playing fucking boardgames with that abomination, while my sister lies in the Hospital Wing. That's three times she's violated the Order. I want retribution."
"If I'm not much mistaken," said Riddle, his quiet voice making it very clear that he wasn't, "it was your sister that attacked her. Vivian is an accomplished witch. You can hardly blame Miss de Valera for defending herself."
Rosier's face darkened. "I don't care if Vivian tried to push her off the Astronomy Tower. My sister is Hierarchy, she's a Rosier, and she earned her place at this table. She can do whatever the fuck she likes. It's her birthright … But who the blazes is she?" he thundered. People around him muttered in assent. "And where does she get off, walking in here off the street, treating us like we're the slime under her shoes? She's attacked three of us now — Slevin, myself and my sister— "
"Excuse me!" I bristled. "They hexed first! … And you were a pig."
But no one was listening to me. Rosier was raging on, " —blatant disregard for our rules. You can keep her as a pet Malfoy, if that's what you like, but she needs training."
I was about to explode when Alphard shot me an imploring look. I swallowed the words, feeling like boogies were sliding down my throat.
Regan acknowledged Rosier's rant with a imperious nod. "Your complaint is noted. According to the code, any attack on a Higher Rank must be vith a formal challenge or else is subject to punishment." She addressed me, as cool as ever, "Did you issue a Challenge?"
"She doesn't even know what a Challenge is," Orion cried derisively, as if this was the height of idiocy.
"I wouldn't have called it a challenge, to be honest," I said, stoney faced. "Vivian cursed herself."
Zabini snorted. Rosier made a swing at me and Abraxas grabbed him, pulling him down onto the couch.
"See!" Walburga seethed righteously. "She is laughing! It is clear she has no respect for our traditions. She does not belong here."
"Oh, Wallie," said Abraxas lazily. "Don't get your knickers in a twist."
"She made a fool of you at dinner, Brax," piped up Avery. "She sat with that degenerate. I say she needs a good cleansing … It's obvious her brains are already addled, so she won't be much of a loss." His ugly face was transfixed with an evil glee. "I'm a little rusty after the summer. I could do with the practice. You can take the first round."
"Enough," said Riddle softly, and the silence was immediate. He looked hard at Rosier. "What do you have in mind, Aidan? Should I set her some lines?"
"I want her to apologise to Vivian," Rosier said.
"But she attacked me!" I fought furiously. "It's me who's owed the apology!"
Riddle turned his baleful gaze on me. "If you insist on speaking out of turn, Miss de Valera, I will be forced to silence you … Aidan. Continue."
"She has to apologise in front of the common room," he leered, clearly relishing his power. "And I want ... a kiss. I want her to kiss my feet. Her mouth's dirty enough as it is, I don't want it anywhere near my face."
I leapt to my feet, launching myself at Rosier, ready to claw his eyes out — "You filthy pig!" — but Slevin Lestrange came out of nowhere and encased me in his bear-like arms. He lifted me bodily off the ground and I kicked uselessly at the air, to gales of raucous laughter. I writhed and twisted, and he held me at arms length, like a smelly animal.
"Put me down!" I shrieked, struggling to beat at his hands with my fists. "Put me down!"
"Put her down, Slevin," said Riddle, in a bored voice. "We wouldn't want a repeat of last week."
Lestrange shrugged and let go. Before I could find my feet, I hit the hard stone floor. I just about managed to tuck my shoulder under and roll over, scrambling back to my feet, to face—
"Silenco," Riddle said coldly, pointing his wand at my face. "Now kindly sit down."
When I didn't move, he gave his wand a sharp jab. I was thrust backwards, winded, as though punched in the chest by an invisible hand. Alphard grabbed me, guiding me safely down onto the ground beside him. He held both my hands, though loosely, and whispered, "Patience."
"Aidan, I hear your demands, and you have Rank. However, the circumstances are on Miss de Valera's side." He paused for a moment, as if daring someone to object. "So here I what I propose. You are a betting man. You have two choices. You can either have one of the pair, and choose between an apology or a kiss … Or you can role those dice of yours. If you win, you get whatever number the dice decide."
Dice? What dice? — I opened my mouth, but no sound came out.
The greed on Rosier's face was nauseating. He stuck his hand in his pocket, pulling out a small pouch of green velvet. On to the table where Riddle and Alphard had played chess rolled five heavy silver dice, inlaid with tiny emerald dots. I suspected they were worth more than my father ever earned in a year, and a burning hatred for Rosier rose like bile in my mouth.
I did a quick calculation — the lowest Rosier could accumulate was five, and the highest was thirty.
"And if I lose?" he said dismissively, as if such a thing could never happen.
Riddle's smile was chilling. "If you lose … you get nothing. They are your odds to play, Aidan."
"How does he lose?" Alphard asked quickly, sensing my extreme distress.
Riddle waved his wand. The dice tumbled over themselves, all landing with a single emerald facing up. "If the total number is odd, Aidan wins." He waved it back the other way and they rearranged themselves to show only sixes. "If it is even, he loses."
Rosier wasn't listening — he had snatched up the dice and was shaking them in his clasped hands. People were murmuring in agreement, already making bets among themselves. I vaguely heard Abraxas' voice, offering to buy the favours.
"Fifty-fifty," Alphard murmured encouragingly, nudging me.
Regan sprang into action. "Ve vill use three dice — that is three at the least, and eighteen at the best, I think that fair." She passed the surplus two on to Riddle to mind. "Aidan vill haff one throw. I vill count the dice. No vun vill interfere. The decision is final … First, Aidan and Ginevra must submit their vands."
Rosier ventured his confidently. Lestrange reached down and physically wrested the wand from my grip, tossing it to Regan. I felt like he had amputated a limb.
Lestrange levitated the table out of the way, and Riddle traced a large circle on the stone floor — it reminded me of Dumbledore's Age Line, the one protecting the Triwizard Cup. Presumably, it would keep the dice in, and magic out.
I pitched forwards, crouched on my hunkers, ready to spring if Rosier tried anything. My record with non-verbal spells was patchy, so I would have to be prepared to duck. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw both Alphard and Abraxas slacken their grip on their own wands.
I breathed deeply. I had come through worse odds than fifty-fifty … not that I had any attention of complying with Rosier's humiliating demands, should he win.
"Ready?" Regan called.
Rosier blew on his fist — shaking it one last time — and let go.
Riddle said quietly, "Alea iacta est."
There was a great hiss, like the whole room breathed in at one, and the air seemed dizzying light. I swear time slowed down. There was a brilliant flash of silver and green, a striking crack of hard metal on stone, and I watched, transfixed, as they bounced and rolled and came to a final stop.
"Step back," Regan ordered. She waved her wand so the scattered dice lined up in the middle of the circle. "Six … Six …"
I couldn't bear it. I closed my eyes.
"Six," Regan declared. "Even. Ginevra wins."
"Tough luck, old chum," Abraxas crowed.
"She fixed it!" Rosier howled, outraged. "She fixed it, the little bitch. I know she did! Give me my wand— "
He swiped wildly at Regan, and Lestrange reared up to protect her. He dove at me, hands outstretched — but I was faster, grabbing Alphard's wand and rolling away, back up onto my feet. Zabini stuck his leg out, knocking Rosier off balance, and he crashed to his knees.
For the second time that day, a Rosier was defenceless before me.
Riddle slowly stood up. He hadn't even drawn his wand but Rosier recoiled. He seemed to shrink into the floor, as if basic instinct prompted him to make a smaller target.
"You played the odds, Aidan. You lost. And now you must face the consequences."
"What … what does she get?" Rosier croaked.
Riddle tossed me careless glance over his shoulder. "She gets the same as you, Aidan. She gets nothing. And if you bother me with such petty drivel again … " He left the threat hanging, allow it diffuse through the room like a poisonous gas. He held up the spare two dice, turning them over in his nimble fingers, the many emeralds flashing a secret code. He let one fall. It thudded to the ground like a dead weight.
For a split second, I thought he might hit Rosier with the other, imagining the wet crunch of metal on bone, the spray of blood and Rosier's screams of pain.
But that never happened. Riddle held up the last die to the light, then put it in his pocket. "I call this Quorum closed."
No one said anything. Barely audible above the crackling fire, his voice awed, Alphard breathed, "Ave Imperator."