Lucrezia arrived home to an empty seeming house. Within seconds of her arrival, however, a house-elf appeared in the hall to take her cloak and gloves.
"Lail, where is everyone?"
"Madame is upstairs with Miss Edwilda and young Mr. Gaunt." The house-elf bowed. "She wishes you to go up to them."
"Thank you, Lail." Lucrezia tweaked the elf on the nose and went upstairs.
"Lucrezia? Is that you?" Her mother's voice floated down the hall. Lucrezia found her in the upstairs parlor with Edwilda and Constantine. "Did you have a nice visit with Artemisa?"
"Yes, I did. Who is coming to dinner tonight?" Lucrezia sat in the chair next to her mother.
"The Goyles and the Longbottoms. And, of course, Mr. Black." Mother beamed at her, "I've laid out the dress I want you to wear, and Mignonette will do your hair. Please wear the locket tonight, darling." She patted Lucrezia's hand. "Say goodnight to your brother and sister and go get ready!"
Lucrezia went over to the fire. Edwilda jumped up from her chair and flung her arms around Lucrezia's neck.
"I've seen the dress Mother chose, it's the red one; you'll look stunning," she whispered in Lucrezia's ear, "Just don't start talking about books and 'fascinating things' and you'll be fine." Edwilda kissed her cheek.
"I'll be returning to school tomorrow, please don't sleep through breakfast. I would like to see you before I leave." Constantine was trying to be so grown up, but she knew he had a superstitious fear that something horrible would happen to anyone he didn't see the morning he left for school.
"Good night, Constantine." Lucrezia hugged him. She bent over and kissed the top of Edwilda's head. "I promise, my love, that I will not bore the dinner guests with 'fascinating things'. See you both in the morning!" She called gaily over her shoulder as she left the room.
When she opened her own door, Mignonette was standing just inside, wringing her hands.
"Oh, thank goodness, Miss, here you are! I was beginning to think I would not have enough time to get you ready! Come, come, hurry! Get out of those clothes! Go and wash! I must have time to do Miss's hair!" The elf was frantically flapping her hands at Lucrezia.
Lucrezia did as she was told, even if it was taking orders from a house-elf; sometimes it was easier if you just did what you were told. So her clothes went over the back of a chair, and she quickly washed at the basin. When she turned around, Mignonette was standing behind her holding a new shift.
"I'll change my shift in the morning, like always, Mignonette." Lucrezia eyed the new shift, it was filmy and looked smaller than her others. "I think that must belong to Edwilda, anyway, it looks too small for me."
"Oh, no, Miss, this shift goes with the dress Madame has chosen for you to wear tonight." Mignonette held the shift out to her.
"It goes with my red dress? I don't remember having a special shift made f or it." Lucrezia's voice was muffled as she pulled the shift over her head. Once it was on, she was alarmed to find that it didn't cover much of her bosom. She didn't say anything, though; it was just a shift, and surprisingly soft and comfortable. She took the under-robe that Mignonette handed her, and noticed that it, too, was different from what she was accustomed to wearing.
"This isn't the under-robe I wear with my red robe; that one is white, and this is ivory-colored." She felt the fabric. It was very fluid and it shone softly, like pearls. "This one is nice, though, where did it come from?"
"Madam brought it in while you were out, Miss. Please, put it on." Mignonette was fairly bursting with impatience.
Lucrezia put on the under-robe, and was further alarmed to find that it didn't cover her any better than the shift. Now she knew why she had needed the new shift. Finally, she put on her over-robe. The red robe was her favorite. It was a deep scarlet silk, with vines and leaves of the same color embroidered all over it. The fastenings at the waist were of ivory carved to look like roses, they matched exactly the color of her under-robe. She turned to look in the mirror, but Mignonette stopped her.
"Don't look, Miss, until I've done your hair." So Lucrezia sat very patiently while Mignonette expertly piled her hair on top of her head. Next came the locket, and she was ready.
"Look now, Miss." Mignonette beamed at her.
Lucrezia turned to the mirror. The first thing she noticed was the expanse of skin that showed above the neck of her robes; she had never worn a robe that showed so much of it. She stood up straighter, covered it with her hand, and then determinedly put her arms at her sides. She would have to get used to this, it was the fashion, and she was now a fashionable young woman; the dress was not immodest, and she loved the luxurious golden fabric of the under-robe, which had somehow arranged itself into a graceful drape above the red robe.
Lucrezia thought that with her hair done up, and her new under-robe, she looked very grown-up, indeed. I think I'm becoming fond of fancy clothes and nice parties, she thought wryly. She took a deep breath, thanked Mignonette, and went down to the drawing room to greet the guests.
Mother and Father were already downstairs, of course, and the Goyles and the Longbottoms had arrived. Romanus Black, however, had not yet come. The gentlemen were gathered around the fire, conversing quietly; the ladies were sitting together, politely listening to Morgana Goyle, who was playing the harp. She was quite good; Lucrezia thought sardonically that a girl that was ugly as Morgana had better be very talented at other things. When she finished, everyone applauded enthusiastically. Mother turned to Lucrezia.
"If Miss Goyle plays for you, will you sing, darling? I would love to hear My Love is Like the River Alph. Do you know that song, Miss Goyle?"
"Oh, yes, it's one of my favorites." Morgana simpered. She had a surprisingly soft, girlish voice for such a bulky, thickset thing.
"I would like nothing better than to sing for you." Lucrezia lied with a smile. Of all the things she had learned to do in the past year, singing was the most loathsome.
Morgana played the opening notes, and Lucrezia took a deep breath and sang, in a high, clear, and very cold voice.
"My love is like the river Alph, flowing deep and free. It flows and I flow with it, Down to the darkest sea. My love is like the Nightingale, In looks as plain as pie, Willing, she gave her life for love, And darling, so would I. My love is like the Crystal Cave, So powerful and pure. It is as good a prison, love, To hold me fast and sure . . .
From her spot by the harp, Lucrezia had an excellent view of the door, so she knew immediately when Romanus Black arrived. He stopped just inside the door, nodded to her parents, and stood, waiting politely for her to finish. Watching her, or rather, watching her locket.
Lucrezia went cold, and then hot. She was not usually disconcerted by people looking at her, but the frank gaze of Romanus Black made her a bit dizzy. She grasped the back of Morgana's chair and managed to finish her song, a bit breathlessly.
She accepted her applause, she hoped graciously, and hurried to sit by her mother. Unfortunately, she hadn't noticed that her father was bringing Mr. Black over to greet them; she had no choice but to rise and speak to him.
"Good evening, Mrs. Gaunt, Miss Gaunt," he actually met her gaze as he greeted her! "I apologize for being late; I had a small matter to settle before I left home."
"No need to apologize, Mr. Black! We have just been enjoying the girls' entertainment." Mother beamed at Lucrezia. "Now that we are all here, let's go in to dinner."
Mr. Gaunt escorted Mrs. Longbottom, the most senior witch of the party, to the dining room; as was customary, the rest of the ladies followed, and then the gentlemen. Mrs. Gaunt took Lucrezia's arm as they left the salon.
"Lucrezia, would you mind taking the foot of the table tonight? I would like to sit next to Mrs. Goyle."
"Yes, Mother, of course." Lucrezia had been hoping to sit next to Mrs. Goyle herself; the lady didn't require much conversation, and Lucrezia wished to avoid Mr. Black. By placing her at the foot of the table, Mother was forcing her to sit amongst her peers.
Lucrezia took her place at the foot of the table; Aurore Longbottom sat to her left. She was a very pretty girl, with golden brown hair, large green eyes, and dimpled cheeks. She would have been considered a great beauty if she had not had Artemisa Malfoy as a peer. She was also quick-witted and sharp, and prone to thoughtlessly saying whatever came into her head.
Romanus Black took the seat to Lucrezia's right. Morgana was delighted at this; she had the seat on Mr. Black's left. This left Dominick Longbottom to sit next to his sister. They were alike as bookends, though Dominick was able to school his tongue better. He also seemed a bit more feminine than his sister. The effect of them together was a bit disturbing.
When everyone else was seated, Mr. Gaunt sat and rang the bell for the first course. Fifteen house elves trotted in, bearing fifteen splendid meat and vegetable dishes above their heads. There was a splendid roast swan, it's feathers still on; a roast piglet with a pomegranate in it's mouth, a platter of braised larks, an entire salmon surrounded by figs, a huge tureen of leek-and-ginger soup, a mound of boiled potatoes with parsley, mashed parsnips with candied nuts, French Beans, and many other steaming dishes. The house elves circled the room and, at another signal from Mr. Gaunt, levitated the dishes to their places on the table.
Lucrezia was disappointed when the swan was placed at the center of the table. Roast Swan was her favorite dish, but as the centerpiece, it was not to be eaten tonight. The best she could look forward to was cold roast swan for lunch tomorrow.
Mr. Gaunt stood and toasted his guests, his wife, and the meal. The company returned a joyful "Good Fortune to the House of Gaunt!". The formalities over, the meal began.
As the Foot of the Table, it was Lucrezia's job to make sure everyone around her had what they needed, and direct the conversation. After everyone's plate and glasses were full, she turned to Morgana.
"You play so beautifully, Morgana, how long have you been studying the Harp?"
"Thank you!" Morgana blushed and tittered. " I started learning to play when I was eight. You sing very well, yourself, Lucrezia."
"Thank, you! Does anyone else play an instrument?" Lucrezia was pleased with herself. She knew that the Longbottoms all played the Violin. A discussion of music was just the thing to keep them all talking for the duration of dinner without much help from her. She could sit quietly and eat.
"Do you play any instruments, Mr. Black?" Morgana Goyle's shrill voice pierced Lucrezia's reverie. Morgana batted her lashes at Romanus and blushed. It made her look like the pomegranate in the roast piglet's mouth.
"Yes. I play the Lute, and the Indian flute. " He smiled a self-effacing sort of smile. Lucrezia noticed that his eyes crinkled when he smiled, just like her father's.
"The Indian flute?" Dominick Longbottom frowned. "I've been to India many times, and I don't recall ever hearing of it. What parts of India have you visited?" Dominick loved India; Lucrezia was sure that he would go there to live after he was married.
"I've never been to India, actually." Romanus smiled again, a very handsome smile. "I was referring to the American Indian Flute. It's made of wood; it has a deep, breathy, soothing sort of sound. I'm not very good at it, though. I just started playing it last year. I've played the Lute for twenty years, though, so I suppose I play it well enough."
"You've been to the Colonies?" Aurore's eyes were round with surprise. "What is it like? Is it really as wild and uncouth as they say?" Aurore knew almost as much gossip as Artemisa. She did listen at keyholes to get her information, though. When they were at Hogwarts, everyone had gotten into the habit of looking around for Aurore before they spoke.
"Yes, I've been to the Colonies, and beyond, west of them." Romanus paused, thinking. "Life is a bit…rough there, but I wouldn't necessarily say uncouth. It's hard to make a living in the Colonies, and they don't have all the luxuries that we have at our fingertips." He gestured at the elegantly laid table and fine foods. "Most of the wizards and witches there are genteel and well-educated; they are doing exciting work, discovering a new land and forging a new community." He nodded once, as if pleased with himself, and took a sip of wine.
"Have you met any of the Natives? I hear they are illiterate, ignorant cannibals, and they live in animal-skin huts, and are naked most of the time!" Although Morgana sounded scandalized, there was an avaricious gleam in her eye that said she would relish any tale of barbarism. Romanus gave her a hard, thoughtful look before answering.
"It is true that most American Natives do not speak or write English, although some of them have learned to. They have their own languages and writing, though they don't record things the way we do. Instead of writing histories, there is an elder, sometimes even a wizard, what they call a Medicine Man, who keeps an oral history of their nation.
"Some of them do make their homes out of cured skins; they are nomadic, and so their houses need to be taken apart and moved. Some of them live in sod houses; some of them live in timber houses. It depends on which nation they are. They wear . . . less . . . clothing than we do, depending on the season and what they're doing, but they are not habitually naked. And they are not cannibals. They eat many of the same things we do here. Those potatoes are actually native plants of the Americas." He gestured to the pile of potatoes on Morgana's plate and smiled mockingly at her.
Lucrezia realized that the whole table was listening to their conversation, which had just reached a rather stunning pause.
"What did you do in the Americas, Mr. Black? You sound as if you are quite . . . intimate with the native people." She should have changed the subject, but, propriety be damned, this was a fascinating conversation.
"I traveled, mostly. I wanted to see for myself if the rumors, such as the ones Miss Goyle has heard, are true. I wanted to see if it truly is a land of endless resources and possibilities. I wanted to see what I could learn from the native magical folk. I actually spent my first year there with another British wizard who had been living among the natives for ten or more years."
"What happened to him?" Aurore asked breathlessly.
"He died. He was very old, and no longer able to tolerate the climate. I have all his journals, and belongings." He smiled sardonically "I would be happy to show some of them to you, if you would like."
"Oh, no, thank you!" Aurore looked alarmed, but Lucrezia wanted very much to see what sort of strange artifacts Mr. Black had brought back from the Colonies.
The first course was finished, and the house-elves cleared it away and brought the second course. The conversation turned to more mundane things. Lucrezia paid very little attention for the rest of the evening; she was too involved in watching Romanus Black.
Later, after the dinner guests had left, and her parents had gone to bed, she lay in her bed, mulling over the night's conversation. She had never met such a fascinating man as Mr. Black, nor one who had done such unusual things. She found herself actually looking forward to the next time they might meet. When she finally went to sleep, she dreamed of a limitless plain of waving grasses, across which stretched a line of almost-naked people, carrying huge bundles of skins and sticks on their backs.
A/N 1,000 Thanks to my Beta, Kelley, who is so very patient with my ignorance of virtual publishing; to my husband, who reads and encourages; to my daughter, who thinks it's cool that Mummy is writing a story; and, most of all, to the Queens of Awesomeness: Dogstar, Songbird, Seaspray and Skruvsta. Thank you for all your help and encouragement. This is for you.
The HP universe belongs to the magnificent JKR. I merely conjecture.