Dusk hung over the neat lawns and tall, trimmed hedges. A soft half-light settled over Malfoy’s manor and grounds with a cool mist. Faint birdsong chorused from all around and distant stars flickered against a moonless backdrop of deepest velvet.
‘Boring.’ Bella kicked her bare feet through the dew-laden grass between the neat topiary and the white roses. She swung her boots back and forth in her hand, batting at a patch of geraniums. ‘Boring. Boring. Boring.’
White petals drifted down into the dew. Bella squished them into the grass with her toes.
Find something to do, Bella. She huffed and brushed her curls back over her shoulders. But there’s nothing to do in baby Cissy’s silly cage, Bell.
A peacock cried from the other side of the hedge.
Bella giggled. ‘One of Cissy’s silly birds.’
Let’s grab it, Bell.
She crept along the line of the hedge, sticking to the shadow and tiptoeing past marble busts. In the deep shade, the grass turned ice cold on her toes. A second cry echoed past the last pale stone statue.
It’ll see us, Bella! She plucked her wand out and disillusioned herself. Not anymore, Bell.
A shimmer padded through the grass where her feet had been as she slipped ‘round the bust and corner of the hedge. Cool grass tickled her toes. The breeze flattened her dress against her skin, sending little ripples down the silk. A large, white bird strutted along the edge of a small pond, bobbing its head.
Bella giggled and prowled a couple of steps closer. I’m gonna get you birdy!
A blur lunged from the base of the hedge past Bella’s feet. Nagini seized the peacock by the neck with its fangs; its white wings beat against smooth, dark scales. The peacock screamed, then shuddered and fell still. Nagini dragged the bird into the long grass and unhinged her jaw, swallowing the peacock a few inches at a time.
‘Silly birds.’ Bella dispelled her charm. ‘Pretty and stupid and easy prey.’
A small, dark bird fluttered down from the dusk and alighted on Bella’s hand. It spilt into ink upon her palm and twisted into words.
‘Number five, Church Road, Hasketon, Woodbridge.’ Bella giggled. ‘Found you, Andi!’
A useful muggle, Bella. She pouted. Even boring cattle have uses from time to time, Bell.
The ink seeped into her skin. A red-tiled, flint-walled, round-towered church and a neat row of houses behind a green common and scattered trees flashed through her mind.
More than enough to apparate to.
Bella smiled and bounced on her feet. ‘Now, I’ll make you come back to baby Cissy and I.’ She pictured the image the ink raven had given her and apparated.
A small, neat house with a white fence, door, and windows sat midway in an identical row. Striped grass flanked a small stone path and above the black letter five on the door swung a small raven wind-chime.
‘Andi!’ Bella darted across the grass.
Don’t let anyone see us, Bella. She froze and ducked behind the hedge. Why not? Andi’ll be happy to see us! She’s our sister.
Bella frowned. ‘But Cissy did say she was being silly, marrying a mudblood and living in the muggle world. She might refuse to talk to us.’
She peered through the hedge and into the window. A tall man stood with his back to her. A slim, pale pair of arms wrapped ‘round his chest and dark curls hung past his right shoulder.
Andi! Bella edged closer. A little fire bubbled up in her blood at the way those small fingers clung to the mudblood. Time to come back and be a weird sister with us again, Andi. We need to cheer up itty bitty baby Cissy and make her fun again.
Her forearm burnt and stung. She huffed and tugged her indigo sleeve back. The serpent writhed around the skull beneath her skin.
‘Awwwww.’ Bella hurled her boots into the hedge and watched them bounce back across the grass. ‘I wanted to see Andi.’
We can wait, Bell. She stomped across and shoved her feet into her boots. We already waited for fifteen years, Bella.
Bella cocked her head and dried her feet with a flick of her wand. ‘I guess we can wait a few days longer, Bell.’
She apparated back into the main hall of the mansion.
The Dark Lord stood in the faint light of the oculus. A silhouette of dark silk framed the soft glow of slitted, crimson eyes. Malfoy, Rookwood, and Strange Boy knelt in the shadows around him, their shining silver masks in their hands.
‘Bella.’ The Dark Lord crooked a finger. ‘You’re late.’
‘Sorry.’ She skipped across to join them. ‘I was watching Nagini eat a peacock.’
A quiet groan slipped through Malfoy’s lips.
She giggled. ‘Cissy’s not very happy the snake keeps eating her pretty pets.’
The Dark Lord’s lips twitched. ‘I’m sure Lucius can procure more peacocks, his fortune has grown great while others languished in Azkaban…’ He waved a hand. The air shimmered, and the other three were drawn upright. ‘Now. You have been making plans, Lucius.’
‘Of course, my lord.’ Malfoy dipped his head. ‘I’ve bribed an official to let myself and Bellatrix–’
The Dark Lord tutted and his crimson eyes flicked up to Bella’s. A faint, dry heat washed over them. ‘Hush, Bella. I wish to hear Lucius’ plan uninterrupted.’
Strange Boy sidled a little closer, shaking his head.
What does he want? Bella gave him a shrug. Oh well, Bell.
Malfoy swallowed. ‘Severus informed me that Dumbledore’s sycophants are spread thin and tied down. The official I bribed will be absent from the atrium, so we’ll be able to descend straight down to the entrance to the Department of Mysteries unimpeded.’
‘Adequate.’ The Dark Lord turned to Rookwood. ‘I will inspect the doorway myself in the coming days. Should it prove necessary, I will send you along with Bella and Lucius to remove any key wards.’ He raised a long, pale finger when Rookwood opened his mouth. ‘That’s all, Augustus. You may leave.’
‘Yes, my lord.’ Rookwood bowed and scrambled out.
The Dark Lord extended a black-sleeved arm at Strange Boy. ‘You as well.’
Strange Boy shot a look at Bella, then bowed and retreated back into the gloom of the mansion’s corridors.
‘The next step, Lucius.’ The Dark Lord stared up through the oculus at the stars. ‘I trust that there is one.’
‘Of course, my lord.’ Malfoy tugged at the collar of his robes. A faint sheen of sweat gleamed at his temples. ‘Once the key wards on the door are removed, my lord, either one of us can use fiendfyre to enter. We merely have to make sure Dumbledore’s guard is taken care of first.’
A little thrill swept through Bella and she beamed. ‘Fun. Fun. Fun.’
‘Yes, Bella.’ The Dark Lord’s lips curled into a thin smile. ‘A little game for you.’
Win or die, Bella. She curled her fingers round her wand. Feel alive, or lose, Bell.
Malfoy shifted his feet. ‘Once we’re inside, my lord. Is there anything you wish from us?’
The Dark Lord contemplated Malfoy like a viper studying a mouse. ‘Yes. Once you’ve cleared the entrance, you must find the Hall of Prophecies. Ensure there’s nothing untoward lurking there, Dumbledore would love to trap me for the world to see and undo the progress we’ve made in the shadows.’ His wand slipped from his sleeve. The tip hovered before Malfoy’s eyes. ‘Do not fail me, Lucius. Or there will be consequences.’
‘I would never, my lord.’
The Dark Lord’s wand vanished. ‘Then you also may leave.’
Bella cocked her head. ‘And what about me?’
‘Bella.’ The Dark Lord’s crimson gaze swept over her. ‘You’ve not been taking the potions Severus prepared for you. Word has reached me you… refused.’
Stupid Strange Boy tattled! Bella balled her hands into fists. I hate those silly, lumpy, bitter drinks.
She screwed up her face. ‘They taste icky.’
‘They’re good for you.’ The Dark Lord raised his hand. ‘You will take them, Bella. If you don’t, you will spend your time here rather than playing with my opponents.’
Bella pouted and buried the brief heat that bubbled up in her blood. ‘Fine. I’ll take them.’
‘I suspect there’s a good chance Dumbledore will attempt to trap me into a confrontation at the Ministry.’ The Dark Lord’s red eyes gleamed bright. ‘He knows if the truth is not revealed soon, it will be too late to stop me…’
It’s already too late, Bella. Dumbledore’s all old. Bella giggled. His game’s nearly over anyway, Bell.
‘You want me to play with him instead?’ she asked.
‘No,’ the Dark Lord whispered. ‘When the path is clear, you will use the mark I gave you to notify me. I will slip in undetected and retrieve the prophecy myself. No other can remove it save Harry Potter himself and I doubt Dumbledore will risk his most valuable pawn being lost to the Ministry’s justice.’ He steepled his long fingers. ‘Should there be any other unwelcome guests, you’re to kill them, all of them, save for Dumbledore himself. If the old fool arrives, you’re to get yourself out by any means you can. Leave Lucius if necessary.’
But imagine what a great game that would be, Bell. The pain, the struggle, then sweet victory. She stifled a small sigh. But he won’t let us, Bella. He wants to play that game himself.
Disappointment ate at Bella. ‘Awww.’
The Dark Lord’s lips curved into a cold grin. ‘I know you wish to play with the old teacher, but I don’t intend to risk losing such a valuable follower as you.’ The slight smile faded. ‘Now, there’s another matter I wish to discuss with you, Bella.’
‘Oh?’ Bella bounced on her heels. ‘A game?’
‘Someone cast the Dark Mark at Godric’s Hollow.’ The Dark Lord’s crimson eyes burnt with fury. ‘I have allowed my followers to believe it was myself, but one of my inner circle is to blame. They’ve either shared the spell I created for them, or risked exposing us before I have commanded it.’
‘Who was it?’ A brief, cool rush coursed through her veins. Bella licked her lips. ‘Can I play with them?’
‘Only if they’re proven guilty or it happens again.’ The Dark Lord reached out and caught her shoulder. His fingers were cold as the scales of a snake and so tight they dug into her skin. ‘Keep an eye on Lucius. He has the most to lose of those who follow me. If it’s truly a betrayal, it’s most likely to come from Lucius hoping to cast me down before any conflict arises to cost him his influence or riches.’
‘Cissy will be upset if I beat Lucius.’ She shrugged. ‘But he’s made her sad, so maybe beating him will cheer her up. She can buy her own peacocks, then!’
‘Perhaps.’ The Dark Lord’s lips curved into a thin smile. ‘Keep your eyes open for whomever’s responsible, Bella. The longer we can move in the shadows, the easier our victory will be.’
‘Is that it?’ Bella swayed back and forth on the spot. ‘When are we going to the Department of Mysteries?’
‘Lucius has chosen a date.’ The Dark Lord’s red eyes met hers. ‘You won’t be doing anything other than recovering, Bella. I will summon you when it’s time.’
Nope. A little smile crept onto Bella’s lips. We’re going to find Andi and bring her back to us, Bell. Sisters are forever.
She giggled. ‘Of course.’
‘Good.’ The Dark Lord’s whisper came soft as the brush of his silk robes across the marble floor. ‘I would be displeased if I learnt you risked my venture for some childish whim, Bella. Very displeased.’ He vanished with a soft snap.
Bella stuck her tongue out at where he’d stood. He’s more boring than he used to be, Bell.
‘But he’s the best player.’ She tapped her heel on the marble and listened to the click echo back off the empty walls. ‘So he makes the rules, Bella.’
Until another player comes to beat him, Bell. She fingered her wand. A faint thrill coursed through her veins. Everyone loses in the end, Bella.
Bella nodded. ‘Even us, Bell.’
The room echoed the words back at her as she stood alone beneath the glass dome.
Even us, Bella.