A/N: I will be updating this, though it will be sporadic. The Five Winters is still my priority. However, once that is complete, updates to this story will become more regular.
Thank you for the great reviews last chapter. =)
Some of you have expressed concern over abandonment of the story. Rest assured that that will never happen. However, my priority right now is The Five Winters, and until such a time as that is completed (which should be soon!) my updates on The Willow Demon will be rather sporadic. But once I'm done and have had a week or two to celebrate, I will figure out a regular, more prompt posting schedule for this story. I will NEVER post a story that I have no intention of finishing. I refuse to engage in such discourtesy to my readers. I may take breaks when I'm overwhelmed or suffer through bouts of depression, but I will inform you when that happens and assign a date when I plan to resume. Alright, my friends?
I hope you enjoy this chapter.
If you're trying to imagine how Hermione and Mitsuki are singing it, imagine it's being sung by two opera singers. That's the closest I can get to describing it.
Thanks to April93 for her awesome beta-ing skills. =) Seriously, she is absolutely amazing. Please give her a round of well-deserved applause.
Upon returning to the Magic Eye, Hermione was immediately greeted with a hug by Mitsuki—who had been worried about her abrupt departure—and had her feet tackled by an extremely concerned half-kneazle, who had apparently not taken her absence well. Hermione reassured them both, made her excuses to her sister, and then tactfully locked the door to her room.
She spent a week—and then two— waiting anxiously for a reply from Harry and Ron that she knew would not arrive for another month, and in her spare time between helping Mother and the other girls, returned to her private studies, which had been severely neglected in the last few months.
Severus returned seventeen days later, accompanied by Lucius. Hermione let Severus in and called for Mitsuki, asking her to kindly entertain Malfoy senior and take care of whatever needs arose, and redirected them to one of the private rooms. Lucius loved their music, but like any other greedy art collector, enjoyed viewing their finest works in private, lest anyone else get pleasure from it.
As soon as Hermione had that taken care of, she returned to her room, expecting Severus to be sitting on the bed as he usually did. She was therefore surprised when she opened the door and was promptly dragged in by the front of her tokuemon. She had enough presence of mind to pull the door shut and set the latch into place as Severus's hungry mouth took possession of hers.
He had not seen her for two and a half weeks. Despite how he'd treated her when she had only been trying to help him, he seemed to expect that nothing had changed between them. Hermione wasn't about to refute that—if she did and he distanced himself from her, her hard work would be thrown back several steps. She let him do what he liked—it was her job, after all, she thought somewhat bitterly—and subsequently found herself once again without clothes and between his body and her sheets.
It was an hour later, after Severus had thoroughly restaked his claim on her—which was what it was, really. It couldn't possibly be classified as anything else—that he sleepily reminded her that Lucius' birthday celebration would be at Malfoy Manor. Hermione had already informed Mitsuki, who had excitedly agreed to the prospect, and both had begun rehearsing, as Hermione's skills had grown a bit rusty.
"I've already agreed to go as entertainment," Hermione assured him, resting her head on his arm and tracing circles on his chest. He liked it when she did that. "You needn't wring out another promise from me."
He scowled blackly at her. "Do you remember the other promise you made?"
Hermione tried for a sense of reassuring camaraderie. "That if Draco Malfoy so much as touches me, I'll string him from a flagpole with Muggle shoelaces?"
It worked. His expression became less haunted, less worried, and he seemed to relax slightly. "Yes."
"Don't worry about it, then."
Hermione glanced around at the ballroom, dithering in the entrance with Mitsuki at her side. She remembered this place. No, not this room, but Malfoy Manor itself. In fact, she'd passed the very place where Bellatrix had dragged her from Harry and Ron and proceeded to torture her. She swallowed. She'd learned to deal with Lucius, but this place still held horrible memories for her.
Mitsuki tugged on her hand.
"Sakura, the music's about the start!" she said plaintively. Her face was masked in the same makeup and style as a professional geisha, as was Hermione's, with the exception that Hermione had been given fox eyes and Mitsuki's were exaggerated, making them child like thanks to Mother's gnarled but expert hands. "We're supposed to start with Angel of Music—"
Hermione adjusted her tokuemon slightly. "Alright. I just needed a moment."
"This place is amazing," Mitsuki said with wonder as they crossed to the centre of the room. "I would love to live here."
And I wouldn't want to sleep here for a single night even if you paid me. "Of course," she replied loftily, "It is quite grand."
True to Mitsuki's words, the music started up, and Hermione and Mitsuki—their voices enhanced with a Sonorus spell—began to sing as they moved in time to the story.
Brava, Brava, Bravissima…
Hermione's voice, deepened by choice, cut clearly through the room. It suddenly occurred to her that Severus's voice would be much more appropriate for the part, but brushed the thought aside. Falling silent to let Mitsuki begin with the opening—
And then she returned her voice to normal, for it rang high, clear, and lovely throughout the room.
"Father once spoke of an angel…"
And so they began. They sang, and though Hermione gave her partner her full attention, she was very aware of where Severus and Lucius were sitting, of the men and women that were watching them, scrutinizing them. She caught sight of many familiar faces; some that made her stomach want to churn. Former classmates—Parvati and Padma Patil, who were dressed like elegant statues and were hanging on the arm of some important-looking man, safe in this crowd of crocodiles by their pure-blooded status and pretty looks. Theodore Nott, who Hermione remembered as a weedy boy from Slytherin. Vincent Crabbe, Gregory Goyle, and Warrington, all of whom had not improved in demeanour or looks since she had last seen them.
"Insolent boy, this slave of fashion, basking in your glory!" Hermione's voice once again took on a deep foreboding tone, one that she had not known could exist until she had begun attempting to sing the part of the Phantom, and Mitsuki, who was taking on the temporary role of Christine for this part, responded. "Ignorant fool, this brave young suitor, sharing in my triumph!"
Mitsuki's voice rang high and clear, like a crystal lake. "Angel I hear you; speak, I listen…"
Severus's eyes were watching her intently, and Hermione felt a bit like a sheep in the eyes of a wolf-headed herdsman who was about to reach out with his crooked cane and drag her back to him by the leg. It was that disconcerting. Lucius, on the other hand, was quite relaxed, sipping wine and talking animatedly to his wife and gathered friends.
Hermione glanced at the expensive floor, wondering how much blood had been spilled on it as Mitsuki began walking toward her as though held by the Phantom's hypnotic gaze. How many bodies had fallen on the floor and had the stains removed once the source was no more? It was chilling, and Hermione shivered slightly as Mitsuki approached. It was easy to forget what monsters Malfoy senior and junior were.
"I am your angel of music… come to the angel of music…" The music in the background turned haunting, and she repeated once more: "I am your angel of music… come to the angel of music…"
And then the spell was broken as she interrupted her own words; "Christine!" Anguished. "Angel!"
And so Phantom of the Opera began.
Hermione and Mitsuki were forced to dance two hours to tell the tale properly, with only the two of them as actors to do the job. It was tiring, exhausting, and it was more than either of them had ever been asked to do, but Hermione pressed on, as did Mitsuki with admirable vigour, so desperate was the younger girl to earn the approval of her favourite patron.
But even when they finished, they could not simply find a chair and rest their poor limbs. No, Hermione thought bitterly as she watched Mitsuki walk determinedly to one of the tables on legs that should not have been so steady. They were still expected to entertain. What cruelty.
She forced her sore legs to walk her gracefully over to where Severus was seated. Bending over to kiss his cheek, much to the amusement of the gathered guests—it wasn't every day you saw a pretty girl kiss the Lord of Britain—and convinced her aching body to cooperate as she slid gracefully onto his lap. He pushed back his chair slightly to give her room, and she wrapped her arms around his neck, facing the table. She found it the most debasing thing, but it was expected, and it was her job to meet those expectations.
Making herself as comfortable as was allowed, she entertained the seated table with a story of a Bamboo Cutter that she had heard from one of the geishas she had been lucky enough to meet, who claimed it was a story that she had learned from her own parents as a child. In essence, it was a childrens' tale, but it held enough interesting aspects that, when embellished, made it very interesting to the listening aristocrats who had never heard it before.
Her throat was sore, but she forced herself to create inflections with the voice, polishing the tale with appropriate moments of surpraise, curiosity, and wonderment. As soon as she was done, she stood up—silently wincing in pain at her legs, which had grown stiff—and stood up to refill the table's drinks, as was expected.
Draco was sitting between Theodore Nott and his mother. He glanced smugly at her when she approached to refill his wineglass, and Hermione's practiced eye could see all the particulars of his body language; he turned to face her slightly, his eyes were locked on to her breasts, and he was sitting up straight in his chair, trying to make himself appear taller and more important than a slouching figure would have accomplished.
Hermione payed him no mind, gave no visible signal of acknowledgement, and moved on to serve Narcissa and then her husband. She dared a glance at Severus's face as saw his eyes glittering with well-disguised rage. It was strange to see them sparkle, for they reminded her distinctly of the way Headmaster Dumbledore's eyes had twinkled and how the corner of Hagrid's eyes would crinkle with warmth. The two men's eyes had always shone with a kind of gentleness and bright light, but Severus's was an anathema to the trend—his were cold, like black ice, and she had no doubt that cruel tortures that would never actually be carried out for the Malfoy heir were on his mind. They glittered with an ill-disguised predatory gleam.
It was rather frightening, seeing this possessive black mongoose lying in the midst of a dozen or so colourfully helpless masquerade of birds and snakes.
Hermione bade permission to excuse herself, for she and Mitsuki would be returning to entertain the room as a whole, and a sharp nod from her danna released her to leave the room, followed shortly by Mitsuki.
The minute they were safely behind the closed doors, Mitsuki's face twisted into a groan.
"Sakura, you wouldn't happen to have anything with you?"
"I'll go ask one of the house elves," Hermione said. "You go on in—if they ask where I am, tell Lord Snape or Mr. Malfoy, but no one else."
Mitsuki nodded and ducked back into the ballroom.
Hermione started off down the corridor, hoping to find a house elf cleaning a room or preparing the elaborate meals that were present at the party. As she walked, she felt a bit like a fugitive sneaking through the house, or a thief, though she berated herself for it. She wasn't spying right now—not consciously, anyways. She was just looking for some Pain-Relief Potion—
A hand came to rest on her shoulder and Hermione let out a startled half-squeak and whipped around.
Draco Malfoy raised his eyebrow at this, but put on a friendly, endearing smile.
"Is there a reason why you're wandering through the house?"
"I was looking for a house elf," Hermione replied, immediately regaining her composure, giving the impression of lofty disinterest. "I was hoping they might fetch my sister and I some Pain-Relief Potion." She let out a chime of laughter. "Dancing all night is harder than it looks."
Draco gave a courteous half-bow. "Of course." He smiled in what Hermione assumed was supposed to be warm and inviting, but perhaps it was merely Hermione's perspective that made it seem as though he were a snake with too many teeth. "I'll be more than happy to fetch you some myself. Why don't you go wait at the Entrance Hall?"
Understanding that she was dismissed, Hermione bowed in thanks, straightened up, and walked back the way she had come.
She felt Draco's eyes watching her as she left.
Hermione delicately sniffed the bottle of what she assumed was Pain-Relief Potion. She was suspicious of anything Draco might give her, but it didn't smell off. Love Potions were easy to detect if they were mixed with other potions, if you knew what to look for, and this batch showed no signs of having been tampered with.
She took several sips, roughly the equal of one dose, and then passed the flask to Mitsuki, who helped herself to it before handing it back to Hermione, who screwed the cap back on and placed it on one of the torch holders, tucking it in the corner where it would be largely out of sight but available if they needed more.
Mitsuki sighed in relief as they pain began to withdraw from her body. "Thank the gods for potions."
Hermione smiled thinly, but made no comment.
"We'd better go back in," Mitsuki said, lifting first one leg, then the other, to loosen the cramped muscles. "They'll be expecting us."
When they next entered, it was for their final act of the night. Hermione and Mitsuki would be singing a duet centered around the story the two girls had told Lucius all those nights ago. They walked in, their long half-robe half-kimonos covering their feet and giving the impression that they were gliding, and circled once around the centre of the room before they came in to begin.
"In the meadow of willows and flowers
The dancers and courtesans circled
Like leaves in the wind…"
Dramatically, the tale began.
"Like a ghost on silent feet,
An enchanting wraith brought to life
She came one night
And asked to stay…"
Hermione and Mitsuki unfolded their fans. Hermione was wearing a Conjured porcelain mask painted exaggeratively to look like the face of a beautiful geisha.
"She earned her pay,
She danced, she sang, and entertained the night away
She was the most delicate flower, supported by a willowy branch,
Her backbone bent…"
Slowly, Hermione flipped her fan sideways, raised it above her head, and leaned backwards, bending her spine in a near-perfect curve, a feat that had taken years of practice to achieve. There were several gasps of admiration from the crowd, and Hermione held the pose as Mitsuki finished her line, before slowly righting herself up the way she had gone down. It was a painstaking feat.
They continued to sing as they circled, Mitsuki—who was almost but not quite as physically flexible, good at dancing, or musically successful as her older sister— played the part of the courtesan as Hermione used her abilities to her full advantage to tell the tale. Hermione was a better dancer; Mitsuki was the better actor. Mitsuki put on a porcelain mask that changed faces drastically as she took on the role of many customers, each with their own thing to say, to admire about the enchanting beauty that had been the willowy girl.
But most important of all was Hermione's demonstration of how much the Willow Dancer had cared for her sisters at the teahouse they worked in; at points where Mitsuki would take her mask off and become a geisha once more, Hermione would step forward and sing and dance with affection. Mitsuki would respond with delight, warmth, and a bell-like laugh that made her seem like nothing more than a young girl taken under an older sister's wing. But the connection was made clear.
And then the pre-climax arrived, with the final customer arriving late one night, drunk. Mitsuki's mask changed into one with an appropriately inebriated smile, with colour high on the cheeks, and lips parted exaggeratively, as though he were a loud talker.
"The Willow Dancer's rest was disturbed one night,
When, at closing time, the drunken man arrived,
Late to the party, late to-night,
He had travelled the way from Yamashino,
A distant land far, far away,
And would not be deterred to-day…"
Hermione could see the audience leaning forward to listen now. They had talked quietly throughout the performance, but now the girls had the attention of everyone in the room. They were spellbound, their interest captured as the tale began to develop some real action.
"The girls tried to turn him away,
Asked him to come back another day,
But the man's eyes landed on the dancer,
Caught alight with fire,
And he demanded she dance,
For him… for him…"
The music that Mitsuki had requested Lucius to put on drew out a long, haunting tune that sent shivers down the dancers' spines as they continued the tale.
"She politely refused,
But he insisted,
And though the girls protested,
It was a late hour, the witching hour
A time everyone should be in bed, well-rested,
The foxy Willow Dancer relented,
And sent her sisters away…"
Their dancing, which had cumulated into a circle of the drunkard grabbing clumsily and trying to persuade the dancer, slowed until they were facing each other.
"The door was shut,
The man was doomed,
For the hour struck twelve,
A dozen past noon,
And the Willow Dancer's form broke
Like a kokeshi doll fallen to the floor…"
The haunting tune struck another chord, a foreboding tone, and another shiver ran through the audience as Hermione whipped off her porcelain mask. The makeup that Mother had so painstakingly put on for her had been charmed to bolden and brighten with the removal of the mask, and her demon fox features were made startlingly clear.
"Horrible screams escaped the room,
The teahouse was stained with blood;
The Willow Dancer became the Yanagi demon,
And pulled retribution for her brood,
Paid in the blood of the noble from Yamashino,
The palace built to reach for the moon…"
Mitsuki did not scream, for that would have ruined the effect of Hermione's hauntful song, but she took a step back, clutching her chest, her neck, her face, and wriggling and twisting as though being eaten alive, the mouth of her mask opening and closing soundlessly.
"And the man dropped dead,
No riches would save his head,
And the geishas of the teahouse
Saw what their sister had become,
And fled, afraid, in fear
And so in sorrow, the demon fox departed,
And vowed to disappear…"
Mitsuki dropped to her knees on the floor and threw off her mask, which skidded to the side, and then stood up, wide-eyed and child-like in her expression as she continued to sing in tangent with Hermione.
"The demon fox had a favorite,
Among her sisters, the youngest,
Whom she loved so
And so the fox demon vanished inside a willow tree,
And gave a branch to the girl,
A final gift, a stick of remembrance,
A silent guardian of hopeful prayer…"
Hermione swayed and then spread out her arms, imitating a willow tree swaying in the wind.
"The beautiful Willow Dancer, who had become a demon,
Became a fox, tried by the onigiri-ousama for treason,
And resigned as a peaceful willow,
The possessor of the dancing tree,
A final gift she gave,
This Willow Demon who longed to stay…"
Hermione grew silent, and Mitsuki took up the final line.
"Years passed, and the tree remained,
The Willow Demon danced and sang
With the power of branches, the chimes of wind,
The teahouse prospered, the girls stayed,
Forever to tell the tale of the Willow Dancer who swayed
In the wind…"
Mitsuki's voice trailed off as the music came to an end, and then both Hermione and Mitsuki frozen completely, silent, like statues as their duet came to an end.
The lights dimmed somewhat, signalling that the show was over, and after a moment of stunned silence, the audience began to clap, some vigorously, some politely, some with smiles or looks of astonishment. A few people looked incredibly bored, as though they were clapping for the sake of not standing out, but it was clear that their duet had made an amazing impression.
Hermione and Mitsuki bowed politely, formally, and then glided out to the entrance hall for another dose of Pain-Relief Potion.
Their backs were going to stalk, ambush, maul, and kill them in the morning. Along with the rest of their limbs. They closed the door quietly behind them, and Hermione stood up on her toes to reach for the flask, and both girls readied themselves for another dose.
"Finally," Mitsuki said, taking the flask from Hermione and gulping down a dose and a half of the potion. "I thought my legs would be about to give out—and my throat hurts. We haven't danced this intensely for years, and we haven't done much dancing together at all since Lord Snape became your danna."
Hermione winced as she swallowed down the potion. "We're merely objects of entertainment to them. They expect us to manage it somehow."
"Clearly," Mitsuki said, summoning a glass of water for herself and downing it. "Somehow."
"We're not required to do any more dancing or singing for tonight," Hermione said helpfully. "We can relax and listen."
"Most of the men here look taken, and I know better than to get between a Pureblood witch and her husband, but I think the younger ones might be worth trying."
"Don't forget to make them pay before you indulge them," Hermione reminded her.
Mitsuki sniffed. "I haven't forgotten."
"I had to hex him for you," Hermione said, giggling and clasping her hands over her mouth in a manner most unlike Hermione Granger.
"I haven't forgotten," Mitsuki repeated, but she too was giggling now. "Let's go in, shall we? I do expect Lord Snape would like to see you after that performance."
Hermione nodded, and Mitsuki re-entered the ballroom while Hermione levitated the flask of Pain-Relief Potion back into the crock of the iron torch bracket.
"Steady does it…" she muttered.
"Steady indeed," a voice said to her from behind. Hermione whipped around to find Draco once again standing behind her, and she drew herself up. Appearing afraid would make her an easier target. Appearing strong and confident might deter him, or at least make him hesitate. "That was some very nice dancing, Sakura."
Politeness forced Hermione to make a short bow of thanks for his compliment.
"You've rather enchanted me, I must say," Draco continued smoothly. "Would you do me the honour of accompanying me upstairs?" Sensuously—something that made Hermione a bit sick to her stomach—he added, "Perhaps you could show me what else you know?"
How subtle he'd been.
"My apologies," Hermione replied coolly. "I service no one but Lord Snape."
"But you can be bought," Draco pressed, eyes glittering excitedly.
"I don't abrogate on my agreements, Mister Malfoy. I work for Lord Snape and Lord Snape alone, whether it be for potions research or other… things."
Draco drew himself up. "I know my godfather—he is a brilliant man, and cruel at times—" the admiration in his voice made Hermione want to punch him again. Had Draco truly enjoyed seeing Severus be so horrible to his students while he was a student himself? What sadism! "—but he is rather lacking in the looks department. A pretty girl like you deserves a better man—why not let yourself go for one night?"
"I'm not interested," Hermione replied staidly. She might have tried to push past him, but she knew better than to put herself in closer contact with him. If he grabbed her, he would have the advantage physically. "I enjoy my work with Lord Snape and would rather not do anything that might jeopardize our contract."
"Just one night," Draco insisted, stepping forward.
Hermione pulled out her wand from the bun her hair had been drawn up in and pointed it at him.
"Please leave, Sir."
With a frustrated sigh, and to Hermione's great relief, Draco backed away and gestured for her to go. She walked past him, shoulders straight and back erect, and wearing a mask of haughty indifference.
"You remind me of an ex-classmate of mine," Draco said, his face twisting strangely. "Surely you would indulge me this one fantasy…"
Hermione didn't even bother to look at him. She was afraid that if she did, she might be tempted to punch him. Working at a teahouse was more labour-intensive than people ever gave credit for, and if she landed a blow on him, she would probably end up breaking his nose.
She slipped into the ballroom and shut the door firmly behind her.
Glancing one around the room, she spotted her danna, still sitting next to Lucius, and gratefully glided over to where he was. His presence would be a protection for the rest of the night, and a chance to further earn his trust and be a favourable reflection upon him—a man like him would be judged on the performance of the people he hired—and Hermione would much rather be working on that than trying to dissuade Malfoy.
Her fingers lightly brushed the jewel-encrusted Basilisk fang he had given her, the chain of which she had wrapped around her wrist so that if she thrust her arm forward, the tooth would be within reach of her hand and she could pull it out in self-defence. It was much more efficient than attempting to unclasp it from around her neck if a scuffle should ensue.
She shook the necklace further up her arm and took a seat next to Lord Snape.