Lucrezia Gaunt loathed waiting. Especially waiting for something as important as her first ball. Well, the end of her first ball. There was nothing worse than waiting for something you didn't want to happen, anyway. She sighed, and settled back into the window seat where she had hidden herself.
Unlike her female peers who filled the room with her, Lucrezia was a scholar. She much preferred reading arcane texts to dancing and light conversation. In fact, she'd , had had to work harder at learning how to chat about inconsequential fluff than she had worked to learn Latin. Perhaps if the chat was in Latin . . . So here she sat, in the quietest corner of the crowded room. Waiting.
Lucrezia studied her appearance in a night-darkened window. Her skin was still pale, despite the heat of the room and her excitement. Her dark brown hair was piled on top of her head in the latest style from France, with her face a small, pointed oval beneath it. Her eyes were blue and piercing and entirely too large for her face, giving her gaze a sharp directness startling in such a young woman. Lucrezia frowned at her reflection. She didn't think she was particularly attractive, not compared to many of the other girls. She had never tried to be, so perhaps it was just lack of practice. Perhaps she would be a beauty one day. She snorted. It had never been important, before this.
She supposed that she oughtn't to be sitting; it was probably creasing the back of her silk dress robes. They were the finest she had ever worn: lustrous green with silver scrollwork embroidered on the neck, hem and sleeves. If you looked closely enough, you would see that the scrolls were actually tiny snakes. Her only jewelry was a large, heavy silver locket engraved with an ornate letter S. It seemed plain next to the elaborate jewels the other girls wore; but her locket was far more precious, and significant, than all the diamonds in the room together. Her locket had belonged to Salazar Slytherin himself.
She turned from the window, looking at all the other girls in the room with her. They were all dressed as she was, in elaborate, shimmering robes: some were encrusted with jewels and fine lace, some were worked with the finest embroidery magic could make. The candlelight was caught and magnified by magnificent jewels and glossy hair. Lucrezia noted that a fine dress and expensive jewelry could make the ugliest girl look lovely. She herself was proof.
They were gathered into nervous packs, giggling and working their fans furiously to keep their complexions from shining. Lucrezia thought they resembled nothing so much as livestock for auction. In a way, they were, and so was she.
She knew them all, and the names of their parents, grandparents and, for some, even further down their family trees. They all knew the same about her. Some had been at Hogwarts with her; some had not been sent to school. Education, after all, was a luxury some families couldn't afford, or didn't think worthwhile, for a daughter. They all, however, had received equally thorough schooling in one thing: how to obtain a husband. Lucrezia sighed. She, too, had the same goal, after all. Without a husband, she would have nothing when her parents died; she would be sent from one relation to the next, with no real home of her own. She supposed it would be marginally better to be someone's wife.
So, they had gathered in this room, to wait. Wait to be presented to society at the Winter Solstice ball. Each girl had reached sixteen years of age in the past year; each was now old enough to mix with adult society, to dance, and chat with young men without being too closely watched by their mother, to talk of nothing, and to pretend to be absolutely fascinated by it. She thought it would be a thoroughly wretched evening.
She sighed again, and walked over to her friend, Artemisa. Artemisa Malfoy was lauded as the beauty of the century. Lucreizia couldn't deny that; her friend was tall, especially with her almost-white hair piled on top of her head. Her skin was pale and flawless; her black robes making her seem paler still. Her heart-shaped face and tilted green eyes gave her as lightly fox-like appearance, but no one other than Lucrezia seemed to notice this.
"What are they keeping us here for? Surely everyone except Merlin himself has arrived." Lucrezia always got peevish when forced to wait.
"Patience, my dear," Artemisa could wait forever, if assured of the outcome. "They'll come and get us soon."
As if the words had been a summons, the doors to the ballroom opened. All the girls in the room turned, as one, to the open doors. What they could see of the ballroom was glorious. Even Lucrezia, who did not care for such things, gasped. The light from thousands of candles blazed down and was reflected from the polished golden marble floor. Great swags of imported flowers hung from the ceiling and between the columns that ringed the room. Lucrezia could see hundreds of elegantly dressed wizards and witches gathered between these columns. Just outside the doors, their escorts were waiting: mostly cousins and brothers too young to marry yet. It wouldn't do for the young ladies to be thrust upon their prospective husbands so soon.
Each girl was to walk out when her name was announced and curtsy to the Head of The Wizengomot and his wife, who were standing directly opposite the door under a bower. She was to take the proffered arm of her escort, and take her place on the dance floor. After everyone was announced, they would perform a well-rehearsed and much-hated figure dance; then they were free to mingle as they wished.
The order in which the girls went was determined by some arcane formula made up of wealth, family standing, and purity of blood. Lucrezia was last to go, being directly descended from Salazar Slytherin. Artemisa, whose ancestors were only slightly less impressive, was next-to-last. This afforded them a final opportunity to observe the ballroom and gossip.
"Ah, Lucinda Prewitt. It seems her parents had to sell the last of their silver to buy those robes." Artemisa was worth eighty thousand Galleons, enough to make the choosiest man drool.
"I heard that Antoinette Nott's brother just ran off with a Muggle girl he put in a family way." Lucrezia's father would have killed the Muggle girl. And possibly her family.
Artemisa snickered "Poor Morgana Goyle. Her fifty thousand Galleons is the only attractive thing about her." Indeed, the girl's features looked as if they had been made by a blind man. Her single, thick eyebrow was particularly unfortunate. And she had the figure of a Troll.
Lucrezia frowned, "Why is Aurore Longbottom being presented? I thought she was all but promised to William Weasley?" She couldn't imagine putting oneself through this if it wasn't necessary.
"Well, nothing is official, yet," Artemisa replied, "and there's always the possibility that someone a bit. . . oh, wealthier, could become interested." Artemisa smirked; the smile of someone who did not have to worry about what the future would hold. "Oh look, there's Sargit McPhair. Davida Crouch told me she had heard that Sargit is no longer . . . intact." Artemisa shook her head. She had no patience for anyone who could not control herself for her own good.
"Two of three of the "eligible men" we are to meet tonight are not intact." Lucrezia often wondered at the double standard.
"Well," said Artemisa with a most inappropriate grin, "someone's got to lead the way."
On they waited, until it was just Lucrezia. She heard her name and took a deep breath. She stepped out into the fierce light and looked around the room. Hundreds of eyes looked back at her. So, she thought bitterly,someday, I will belong to one of these men. She glanced at the door. Should I run?No. Only rabbits run. She straightened her back and made the most elegant curtsy she could muster. She did not, however, bend her neck as the other girls had done. She took her Cousin Theodore's arm, and the dance began.
Many hours later, Lucrezia reflected wryly that she had had no idea that there were so many eligible, worthy, thoroughly boring young gentlemen in London this year. She supposed they were just doing their best to be charming and inoffensive. Perhaps later, some of them would prove more interesting. She hoped so. She couldn't imagine talking to any of them every day for the rest of her life.
Excusing herself from another dance, she went in search of her parents; it was time she went home. Artemisa soon joined her. Linking her arm in Lucrezia's, she steered her around the ballroom.
"Do you still think this is a big waste of time?" she smiled and gestured around the room. "At the least, you cannot deny that dancing is pleasant exercise, and the food and drink have been superb."
"Indeed," Lucrezia said, airily, "The food and drink were most delightful. And the dancing was quite fun, actually." She gave a satisfied nod. She had enjoyed the dances very much, especially the ones where one didn't have to talk to one's partner.
" 'Quite fun, actually'?" Artemisa laughed, "You danced every set! You are on your way to being the most popular partner of the season! If I didn't know you as well as I do, I would be jealous! You don't have to talk to them much, dancing, do you?" Artemisa knew her well, indeed.
Lucrezia sighed. "I truly cannot imagine spending my life with any of them. If I had property, or an income, I would not marry." This last she said fiercely, with another nod of her head.
It was Artemisa's turn to sigh. "Well, you don't. Sometimes I don't relish the idea of marriage, either. But it is a better alternative than living out my life in my parent's house." She brightened. "But meanwhile, this is fun. Oh, there are your parents!" She gestured through a door, into the card room.
There, indeed, were her parents. In fact, her father was hard to miss; he was tall and angular; white-haired and tremendously jolly. The perfect foil to her mother, who was small and rounded, with rosy cheeks, glossy brown curls, and a soft manner that instantly made anyone feel at home. Together, they looked like a Stork and a Meadow Thrush. They were deep in conversation with a man she did not recognize.
Lucrezia studied him from the doorway; there couldn't be anyone here that she didn't know. He was tall, and his face was somewhat swarthy, with a heavy brow. He had black hair tied neatly at the nape of his neck. He was elegantly, if plainly, dressed in finely cut black silk. His looks seemed slightly familiar to her; yet she still had no idea of his name.
"Artemisa, do you know that man talking to my parents?"
Artemisa looked thoughtful for a moment. "I'm not sure, but I think that he is Romanus Black; Aunt said he had just arrived in town yesterday." Artemisa frowned. "I am quite surprised to see him at a ball; Aunt said he has been out of the country for five years. Surely he can't be settled in enough to go out."
Lucrezia goggled at her as they crossed the room. "How do you hear all these things? Do you listen at the keyhole when your aunt visits?"
Artemisa shrugged. "No, my aunt Hortensia does not scruple about what she says about anyone. I have but to sit and listen." She smiled as they reached Lucrezia's parents
"Lucrezia! Miss Malfoy!" said her father, his blue eyes twinkling, "This is Mr. Romanus Black! His father was a great friend of my father's."
Both girls curtsied. "A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Black," they chorused.
He made a small bow. "It cannot exceed my pleasure in meeting you, Miss Gaunt, Miss Malfoy. Are you enjoying the ball?"
"Yes, thank you, very much so." Lucrezia barely kept from sighing. She was really too tired to dissemble. She noticed he seemed to be staring at her locket.
"We have certainly never seen it's like," Artemisa could always think of something charming to say. "Oh, there are my parents! If you would all excuse me, I think it is time for me to go home." She dropped another elegant curtsy. "It was lovely to meet you, Mr. Black. Good night, Mr. Gaunt, Mrs. Gaunt." She kissed Lucrezia on the cheek. " I will see you tomorrow, perhaps? Goodnight, Lucrezia."
"Goodnight, Artemisa." Lucrezia took her friend's hand and squeezed it, turning back to her parents and Mr. Black as Artemisa left.
"Mr. Black was telling us he has just arrived in town." Lucrezia's mother smiled warmly at them all.
"Yes, yesterday afternoon. I've barely settled in." He was still staring at her locket. It was unsettling.
"Oh, Mr. Black, you must come round to dinner." Said her mother. "Your house here has been closed up for so long that it will be days and days before you will get a decent meal out of your kitchen." To Mother, a decent dinner was the most important part of the day.
"I shall come to dinner as soon as you wish." Mr. Black had finally lifted his gaze from the locket to address her mother.
"Then you shall come tomorrow. I'll send a card with the time, and directions to our house." Mother was delighted. She couldn't bear to the thought of anyone of their acquaintance eating a wretched meal alone.
Lucrezia them prevailed upon her parents to leave, as she was quite worn out from all the excitement and dancing. They made their goodbyes with Mr. Black. As they left the card room, Lucrezia had a strange feeling, as if someone was watching her. She turned and found Mr. Black staring after her; his look was quite unsettling, as if he were considering purchasing her. She hurried after her parents, but could not rid herself of the unease meeting Romanus Black had given her.