If there was one thing that Harry Potter had become used to in his eighteen years upon the earth, it was being lied to. Even those who called him their friend - or, Merlin forbid, their family - regularly kept vital information from him for, as they described it, his own good.
And today, sadly, was no exception to that rule.
As he sat in the faded but comfortable high-backed red leather chair opposite his godfather, he didn't know whether to laugh or cry at this latest occurrence. Or better still, to just get up and leave.
The window behind his godfather was filled with the orange glow of the late summer sun slowly sinking behind the horizon. He watched the dust motes dance chaotically in the golden beams as he waited for Black to provide more details. He bit his tongue when all he received from Black was a rakish grin, which reminded him why he never brought his wand into meetings like this.
Neither of them was prepared to break the silence and thus lose the initiative. Uncomfortable though it was, Harry fought the rising tide of anger that swelled within him.
Eventually Black stood up and wandered over to the window, his hands clasped nonchalantly behind his back as he stared into the sunset.
Finally, Harry had had enough.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me this before, you old bastard.”
Unfortunately, that too was a lie. He could easily believe that this had been kept from him. After all, was that not what they had done to him all his life?
I wonder what excuse that randy dog is going to come up with this time.
To his godfather's credit, if there was any to be gained from this sorry exchange, he turned around and looked Harry straight in the eye. “I thought I’d wait until an opportune moment came.”
He followed up the statement with his trademark throwaway gesture and cheeky grin. That look worked well on witches and wizards too in awe of the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement to think straight, but Harry had long been immune to such party tricks.
“Well, Padfoot, me old mucker, this is as inopportune as you can get.”
How or why my parents ever thought that this was the man to raise their son I will never know, he thought sadly. They must have been either desperate or stupid. Or both.
“I knew you’d take it badly. I told Remus that-”
“Yes,” said Black, as if it were common sense that the other Marauder would be a party to the deceit.
“Has he always known?”
Harry did not know why he was asking. If there was one thing that had become common during his life, it was that whatever secrets were kept from him, three men - Albus Dumbledore, Remus Lupin, and Black himself - would all know about them before Harry did.
"And what about Aunt Bella? Does she know?"
"Er, no, she doesn't."
There was an awkward silence, which one less skilled in verbal badinage would have felt compelled to fill. But Black was no amateur, and thus it fell to Harry to continue.
"And I suppose that you kept this from her because you knew that she'd tell me?”
Black did not answer, but the fact that he now tried to avoid Harry’s gaze said it all. told him all he needed to know.
“I thought as much. Not as prone to keeping secrets from me as you are, is she?”
Again his godfather remained silent, ignoring the challenge. Instead Black merely shrugged his shoulders, as though the less he said the better things would be.
“After all,” continued Harry, eager to cause Black as much discomfort as was possible, “once you've had your husband cast an Imperius curse upon you so he could have you inducted into the Dark Lord's inner circle, you tend to think twice about manipulating others, don't you?"
Again, Black said nothing, but the expression that crossed his face told Harry all he needed to know. He waited to see what else the rogue had to say for himself, but his godfather remained silent.
“Anyone else?” he asked in response to the guilty silence.
“I might have guessed that old fruit would have known. Meddling bum-bandit, why couldn't he keep out of everyone's life just for once?”
“… and the girl’s father.”
Harry waited for one final name to be added to the list, but Black folded his arms, signalling that all the conspirators had been named.
“You mean to tell me that the girl herself has no idea?”
“No, she doesn't."
Harry was incredulous.
Poor cow! How could her parents be stupid enough not to let their daughter know what life had in store for her?
In some ways, if it had not been part of a long line of secrets that had been kept from him, Harry would have understood Black’s waiting until Voldemort was dead before telling him. But for the girl's parents to have kept it hidden from her . . . well, that was just cruel.
“And neither does her mother,” Black added almost as an afterthought.
Now Harry was surprised. He had hoped that both the girl's mother and the girl herself would know about the predicament that she was in. That would have made it easier to deal with. But the fact that only the father was aware was going to make the whole thing a complete nightmare.
“Well, whoever her father is, he’s dead. If his wife doesn’t kill him, I'm sure that his daughter will.”
“Arthur was constrained by the-”
“Arthur Weasley? The Muggle fanatic with the big family?”
The Weasleys were not a bad family: they were loyal to the light and to Dumbledore, and although they had not been particularly useful in the fight against Voldemort, at least they had been prepared to stand up and be counted. As they were a pure-blood family, he supposed that he could have done a lot worse.
“Hardly a subtle appraisal of the Weasleys, but yes, it’s Arthur Weasley.”
There was a female Weasley? As far as Harry knew, they were infamous for churning out boys by the cauldron full.
“And the girl?”
“Ginny. Or more properly, Ginevra. First girl in many generations and good-looking by all accounts. If the contract didn’t exist, then Arthur would have had a succession of suitors for her.”
“I thought that no one else knew of the contract.”
“No one else does. The magic in the contract dissuades potential suitors.”
“And what about the girl herself? You can't be telling me that she's gone through school without a single boyfriend? ”
“She is untouchable. No one, save her family, can have any physical contact with her.”
"So how am I supposed to manage, then? I may not have spent much time around girls, but even I know that no girl is going to marry me without at least holding hands first, never mind kissing."
Black laughed derisively. He had been on the back foot for a while and now appeared grateful at the opportunity to regain the initiative.
“You're her husband to be, you idiot. You're allowed to touch her, even to kiss her, but bear in mind that there are strict rules about what is and what isn't allowed. So behave yourself."
"I will, you old lecher. Not every wizard sees a witch as another notch on their broomstick."
"Is it my fault that I’m popular with the ladies?"
Harry declined to answer. He put the succession of partners that passed through his godfather’s bed down to his position of power together with his inability to make a relationship last for more than a week.
"I don't suppose that you have made arrangements with Albus so that the girl and I could have a private meeting once we get to Hogwarts, have you? It would be good to establish some degree of normality in the midst of this madness."
"Albus wanted to, and I quote, ‘Allow true love to take its course’."
His godfather grinned as he said that despite the fact that it was clear that Harry found nothing at all amusing in what he was telling him.
"So what happens if I decide that I'm not going to put either myself or this poor girl through the mill, and I just ignore her?"
The amusement disappeared very quickly from Black’s face. “I'm afraid that’s not really an option."
“And why is that?" asked Harry, not really sure that he wanted to know the answer.
"Because if you go past the deadline without actually getting engaged to her, then the magic starts to settle the debt in other ways."
“There’s a deadline?”
"I don't like the sound of that."
"You'll like it even less when I tell you what it means."
"Go on then, it can't make things any worse than they already are."
Black gave him a look that told Harry that there was, indeed, worse to come.
"The debt has to be settled, and if it is not settled by the giving of the Weasley girl's hand in marriage, it will be done by taking its pound of flesh from the Potter heir who is supposed to fulfil the contract.”
"And what does that mean?" asked Harry, even more convinced that he would not like the answer.
"It means that your magic will be drained until such time that the contract believes that it has been fulfilled."
"And how much magic will be required? Perhaps we can get away with it that way; after all, I'm quite powerful magically."
"If it was just a case of magical power, Harry, I would agree with you," said Black, "but we're looking at more than that. It's impossible to put a value on the first Weasley girl in generations, and not even you, with all your magical power, are strong enough to balance that out."
"So, are you telling me I have no choice in the matter, and neither does she?”
Black was silent, but a satisfied smile slowly spread across his face. He shrugged his shoulders again, a sure sign that he felt he had said all that needed to be said and that anything else would be superfluous.
“Remind me, Black, when all this is over, to make sure I come back and wipe that grin off your ugly mug."
"Do you honestly think that you can beat me in a duel, Harry?" asked Black with a laugh.
"Maybe, maybe not, but I'm sure that with the help I'll get from the girl and her mother, we won't have too much problem."
"You think the three of you could beat me, Moony and Albus?"
"By the time I leave Hogwarts, Moony and Albus won't want to get involved, believe you me. And if pushed, I'm sure that Aunt Bella would love to teach you a lesson. Now, unless you’ve got any more nightmare scenarios that you want to spring on me, I'll go and check that Kreacher has packed everything I will need.”
Black waved his hand nonchalantly in dismissal.
Harry stood quickly, wanting to leave as soon as possible. Upon reaching the door, he turned and spoke. “By the way, where am I meeting Tonks tomorrow?"
“Should be here by nine o'clock. You can Apparate to the platform together."
"See you in the morning, then."
"Oh, and Harry?”
"What now, Padfoot?"
"You don't have much time, so don't hang around."
"How much time is not much time?"
"You have a month from when the girl comes of age."
"So when is she seventeen?"
“She was seventeen on the 11th of August, so you have until the 11th of September to get this sorted."
Harry was about to ask why no one had told him this before, but he decided against it. After all, what was there to gain from another round of arguing? The deadline would not change, Black would still be as useful as a Squib in a duel and the girl would still be ignorant of her fate.
"I hate you, Padfoot," he said. And he did.
As he closed the door behind him, he set off to see the one person who had been able to help him make sense of the abnormality that pervaded his life. She alone had guided him through the machinations of the Wizarding world, offering him a more thoughtful opinion than the ‘white-is-white-black-is-black’ dogma of Albus Dumbledore and his Gryffindor cronies. With a shake of his head at the latest bizarre twist in his life, he set off for the other wing of the house to see his aunt, Bellatrix Black.
His progress along the dimly lit corridors that typified this wing of the house was purposefully slow. Despite the many ups and downs of his life and the fact that the circumstances were likely to change -- normally for the worse -- at the drop of a hat, he had been shaken by the revelation that he was, to all intents and purposes, married.
Just as he had come to expect the worst from his godfather, so he had come to expect his aunt to suggest solutions to his many problems. To the outside world, she was a conundrum. The former wife of a now deceased Death Eater, she had been linked to many crimes committed by Lord Voldemort's followers. She had even been put on trial by the Ministry, only to be freed once it was realised that for once, a suspected Death Eater had actually been subjected to the Imperius Curse.
Harry stood outside her door for a few moments, wondering whether she really was the right person to talk to about his predicament. But then he realised that if anyone could empathise with having their life arranged in such a way, even to the extent of an arranged – and, in her case, loveless - marriage, then it was the former Bellatrix Lestrange.
Although she had never spoken in detail about her marriage, Harry knew that it had been a nightmare from beginning to end. Her husband had regularly used the Imperius Curse to ensure that she acquiesced to his demands, no matter how revolting the deed.
He knocked softly on the heavy wooden door, his reticence growing as he remembered how she hated to be disturbed once she had retired for the evening. Part of him hoped that she would ignore him or send him away with a pixie in his ear, but deep down he desperately wanted her help. To his relief the door opened, and she greeted him warmly.
"Harry,” she said with a vivacity that surprised him, “this is a surprise. What brings my dear nephew to my boudoir at this time of the evening? I would have thought you would have been busy preparing for your big day tomorrow."
Although she was smiling, he noticed the bags under her eyes and a strained look on her face. He knew that she had trouble sleeping, and Imperius Curse or no, she still felt responsible for every vile deed she had committed. In a rare moment of weakness, she had once confessed that her victims’ accusing voices haunted her nightmares.
"May I come in, Aunt Bella?" he asked tentatively. “There are matters of some import that I need to discuss with you.”
Her normally stoical face flushed with embarrassment as it dawned on her that she had dropped the pure-blood dowager persona she used to keep an unfriendly world at bay and revealed the doting aunt beneath. But as quickly as it had come, the lack of composure vanished, and the distance between them was re-established.
"Forgive me, nephew,” she said as she lowered her gaze in an act of contrition. For a moment an embarrassed silence intruded between them. “You must think me no better than a drab. Please excuse my poor manners, and yes, please do come in."
She stepped aside to permit Harry entry into her parlour, and he allowed himself a small smile at the palaver which his aunt’s adherence to formality made of any conversation. If it were not for the occasional glimpse of the woman she could have been if she had escaped being the peace cow in the machinations of pure-blood politics, he would have left her to fade from existence undisturbed.
It had been a while since he had been allowed into her inner sanctum, and he marvelled again as to how stuck in the past the décor was. Whereas Black and Harry had tried their best to lift the gloom from the dark and dingy interior of Grimmauld Place through more modern decoration, Bella had made no such concessions to the late twentieth century. Her tastes were still firmly rooted in the middle of the nineteenth.
The dado rails were painted a light bronze green and the walls a deep crimson, whereas Harry preferred natural wood. The flickering yellow light cast by the candles did little to lift the gloom, merely emphasising the shadows that danced across the creamy, off-white ceiling. Despite the warm evening, a fire blazed in the grate, creating an impression of homeliness but thankfully little in the way of heat.
“What troubles you this eve, nephew? I hope that you do not find the actuality of going to Hogwarts a disturbing prospect. I would have thought that such a gifted mage as yourself would have little to fear, even from that old fool Dumbledore.”
Harry felt emboldened by her dismissal of the man many wizards held in awe. Unlike Black, Bellatrix saw through the kindly grandfather image the headmaster liked to project and recognised him for what he was: a manipulative and secretive schemer.
“You are correct, aunt. Whilst Albus Dumbledore may be lauded by the rest of the Wizarding world, to me he is no more than a relic of the past. True, his accomplishments are many - I'm sure that dragons all over the world thank him for hastening their extinction - but you are correct. I have little to fear from him."
His aunt regarded him with her normal suspicious gaze, and Harry marvelled at how, even after all these years and after all he had seen and been through, she still had the ability to make him feel uncomfortable.
Finally she spoke. "If you treat him as a relic of the past, then you will have a great deal to fear from him. Do not judge your enemy by his mistakes but by his accomplishments. His mistakes are the means by which you bring about his downfall, but his accomplishments are the way in which he achieves yours. An old, sentimental fool he may be, but he is still a powerful wizard.”
“Your warning is noted, aunt. But-”
“…but you didn't come to see me to discuss the headmaster, did you?"
He paused, calming himself to enable him to continue in seemly manner.
"No, aunt,” he replied, “I did not. It is something of a more personal nature.”
He paused, this time because of embarrassment rather than decorum.
“In truth, I do not know where to begin. Such is the magnitude of the revelation I have received."
He waited, struggling as to how to continue, hoping that she would take the initiative and slowly tease information from him as was her wont. But to his dismay she remained silent, watching impassively and waiting for him to continue.
"It involves marriage," he said hoping that she would step in. When she did not, he continued. "An arranged marriage. A betrothal contract, to be exact."
"And your bride to be is currently a student at Hogwarts?"
"Yes," he replied simply.
"I hope for your sake that the girl is close to your age."
"Yes, she is," he replied puzzled her remark. "Why shouldn't she be?"
"Arranged marriages and betrothal contracts do not care about the ages of the parties involved. As long as the girl is of childbearing age and the man capable of fathering children, the marriage will go ahead. It is not unknown for men in their middle years to marry girls who are barely old enough to go to Hogwarts."
"Immoral? Unfair? Illegal? "
"It is all of those, Harry, but it is what the pure-blood community has done through the centuries to protect its bloodlines. Parents would rather see their daughters married to a pure-blood who is on the wrong side of fifty than see her marry a younger man for love.”
"What about the girl needing to be of age?" he asked, horrified at the thought of an eleven-year-old girl being forced to marry a middle-aged man.
"As long as the girl has started her menses, all that is needed for the marriage to take place is her parents’ consent. Now, enough of your squeamishness, and on to the practicalities of the matter."
Harry’s heart sank as she spoke. Rather than provide him with a solution, she had swept his concerns aside as if they were no more than wheat chaff. The only comfort he took was that she appeared to be untroubled by the whole affair, and although she was not going to rescue him, she was going to ensure that he did not stumble through it blindly.
He proceeded to explain what had transpired between himself and Black and how the only member of the Weasley family who was aware of the betrothal contract was the girl's father. When he had finished explaining, he waited for her to respond.
"It is a sorry mess, to be sure, but not one that is beyond repair. The girl is from a good if impecunious family and is, by all accounts, fair of skin and comely to behold. Given the plethora of siblings that share the same surname, I have no doubt that she will produce enough heirs to ensure the continuance of the Potter name. That being the case, what troubles you? You are hardly without your own attractions. True, you are a half-blood, but that will not matter to her family as you are independently wealthy and heir to many hereditary titles. In short, whatever the girl lacks in her life at home she will have in abundance as your belabour.”
Harry opened his mouth to respond but found that the words did not come. Despite it all, he had still expected his aunt, with her experience of the Wizarding society, to not only empathise with him, but also to present him with a detailed and effective method of negating the predicament that he found himself in. To his dismay, she remained untroubled by the prospect of her nephew’s arranged marriage. She was satisfied that the girl in question was of pure enough blood and of satisfactory breeding stock to populate the Potter line in sufficient quantities to make any pure-blooded Wizarding male proud. In short, they could have been talking about a horse for all the concern she expressed.
As he continued his internal struggle, he became aware of her gaze. Her eyes narrowed in concentration until finally he felt compelled to answer her.
"Is it not the case that..."
Try as he might, he could not articulate his dismay and disgust at the predicament that he found himself in. He felt his anger begin to rise. He expected very little from his godfather other than tips on how to bed all and sundry, but from his aunt he expected better. Had she not been the person who had steered him through the minefield that was pure-blood society? Was she not the one who had equipped him with the skills necessary to negate the handicap of his mixed parentage?
As he returned her gaze, his anger began to subside and a sense of betrayal began to overwhelm him.
"You are disturbed, are you not, that I do not have a prêt-à-porter solution for you?"
When Harry did not reply, she shook her head slowly in disappointment.
"At times I forget that you are not a pure-blood and that the ways of true Wizarding society are often a mystery to you. There is no clever incantation or whimsical wand waving that would manifest an easy solution for you, Harry. If you came expecting me to provide you with a means by which you could avoid this marriage then I'm afraid you will be disappointed. This is our way, Harry. And yes, I know that it is a tradition fraught with difficulty and open to abuse. Am I not proof of that? And yet, I cannot condemn the arrangements that have been made on your behalf. This is our way, Harry. This is how we survive. Blood should - nay, will - out."
Her features softened as she spoke, and again the doting aunt returned, this time without embarrassment.
"You are young, Harry, powerful and rich and handsome. Yours cannot be a love match. And yet the fact that your marriage is arranged does not mean that it must be loveless. Arthur Weasley is a kindly yet simple man. The world to him is black-and-white. There is good, and there is evil and there are no grey areas. From what I understand, his child is not only fair of face but, as is normal in a filly bound in this way, gentle of nature. She is not one given to loud opinions but instead applies herself diligently to the tasks befitting of a lady. True, she has a passion for Quidditch, but that expression of vitality is not unbecoming in a single woman.
“I urge you, Harry, do not let yourself become bitter over your circumstances. Once you have progressed through Hogwarts, you will be your own man. This marriage is unavoidable; do not let your anger destroy any chance of love before it has had the opportunity to flower."
"Are you saying that Black was right to keep this from me? Do you think that I should just shrug my shoulders and accept things?"
"No," his aunt replied, "my cousin is a cad of the first order. Rather than hide this from you, you should have been groomed for the role you need to fulfil. And no, I'm not saying that you should just shrug your shoulders and accept things. The marriage contract, as you have no doubt been informed, cannot be broken. But that does not mean that the resulting marriage has to be as dry and dusty as the parchment upon which the agreement was written.
"It is getting late, Harry. You have a busy day ahead of you, and I find that our discussions have given me a headache. If I may take my leave of you?"
"Of course," Harry replied. “I'm sorry to have troubled you at such a late hour."
"My door is always open to you, dear nephew, but I fear that age is catching up on me, and I must take care more than I used to."
Harry placed his hands lightly upon her shoulders and kissed her gently on each of her pale cheeks.
As Harry walked away from her door, he struggled with the myriad of emotions that the day had stirred within him. Threatening to overwhelm everything, and therefore capable of obscuring all sound judgement, was anger. Anger at Black, at his ancestor and, to his regret, at his aunt.
The anger against Black was easy to explain and therefore, as it felt justifiable, it was a spur to carefully considered action rather than to any outbursts against the man. He knew that he could not reach his ancestor, and so he resolved to ensure that regardless of the demands of society, he would not inflict any such fate on any future issue. No, it was the anger that he felt towards his aunt that troubled him and threatened to cause the most damage.
In the background, he could hear the voice of reason, which told him that she was treating him in the way he had always demanded of everyone: as an adult. And being an adult meant dealing with uncomfortable situations and making the best of them. It was, as the voice continued to insist, the action of a spoiled child to demand that the predicament be taken away from him in the same manner as unwanted vegetables. But a louder voice demanded that he take revenge upon those who had wronged him and that his aunt be the first to appreciate how foolish it was to betray him.
However, before his indignation could goad him into action, Kreacher appeared before him and bowed low. "Kreacher has packed all of Master Harry's belongings and wishes to inform the young master that suitable refreshments await him in his quarters."
For a moment he was tempted to lash out at the house-elf, but he knew that the anger in him would not be satisfied by attacking such a passive creature. No, Kreacher would regard such an attack as normal for a house-elf, and thus deny any sense of satisfaction on Harry's part.
"Thank you, Kreacher," he replied with as little politeness as he could muster. "I will be there shortly."
"As the young master wishes," Kreacher replied and then disappeared with an unnervingly loud crack.
Harry took the house-elf's indignant departure as a reproof, which helped to derail the anger which was building up a head of steam unchecked. With a deep sigh, he leaned back against one of the walls and closed his eyes.
When will this ever end? he asked himself. When will the manipulation finish? When will my life be my own?
And with that he gathered himself together and set off for his own quarters.