The sight of Richard Thomas struggling against his bindings made Regulus sick to his stomach. The older man usually intimidated him because of his stature, deep voice, and direct way of speaking. More often than not, Regulus felt afraid of Thomas because of the power the man could wield over Regulus’ future and his very life. That fear had been even more constant in the past few days, but he had never expected this. The Dark Lord had been the one to tell him to keep a low profile because of Thomas’ disappearance, yet he had been behind it all along. He had kidnapped this man for no foreseeable reason.
Patience, Regulus told himself as his mind surged forward. Don’t make connections that don’t exist. There must be a rational explanation.
Perhaps Thomas had been conducting reconnaissance and had startled a group of Death Eaters? Surely, that had to be the answer. The Dark Lord would not have held this man without cause; he had to have been the first one to attack. It was not an unreasonable answer. Regulus knew better than most people the feelings that Thomas felt toward the Dark Lord and his actions – the man was engaged in ferreting out answers regarding Death Eater activities and moles within the Ministry of Magic. Perhaps Thomas had been following one of his leads?
I’m his most recent lead, Regulus reminded himself. Perhaps this kidnapping, if it was even a kidnapping, was the result of the Dark Lord protecting Regulus. After all, the Dark Lord himself had not even told Regulus to stay low. That had been Severus. They were supposed to meet at the bar as a way to keep up day-to-day activities in polite society so that no one would suspect Regulus. What if the Dark Lord had not told Severus to warn Regulus? What if that had been Severus’ way of protecting Regulus from the truth?
Or maybe neither of them are trying to help me at all.
Regulus glanced at his sometimes-friend out of the corner of his eye. Severus appeared just as tense as he was. He had none of his usual serenity – his lips were pursed in a thin line, his body was rigid and, if possible, his skin appeared even more sallow and pale than usual. What did Severus know that Regulus did not?
“Welcome, friends,” said Lord Voldemort. Regulus shivered. It was not enough that he had run out of the pub without his overcoat; the Dark Lord had to call them to an open clearing in the frigid air and then speak in that silky, icy drawl.
“I am so glad that you have joined us. I was beginning to think that you were ignoring our company.”
Regulus heard Severus grind his teeth.
“Never, my lord. We figured it would be best to keep a low profile, given my brother’s close working relationship with this scum.”
So Severus had been the one to devise the hideout scheme, but why?
Thomas shifted toward the voice. “Who is it? Who is there? I knew there was someone in the department who was passing information to Voldemort. Make yourself known! Finch? Prewett? Kingston?’
“Kingston?” Severus whispered under his breath, turning toward Regulus. “Who is that?”
“Alec Kingston, he works near me, Half-Blood, married to a Muggle. I can’t imagine why Thomas would suspect him.”
Severus shook his head. “I don’t understand. He didn’t name you. Did he not suspect you at all?”
Far from confusion, Lord Voldemort looked triumphant. His voice dripped with pleasure.
“You mean to say, you don’t even know who my agent is? He’s that good at hiding his true loyalties?”
Thomas ceased his movement and was perfectly still. “I was wrong? Who else could it be?”
The Dark Lord beckoned Regulus forward. His mind willed his feet to remain planted on the frozen ground, but his feet refused to listen. Regulus thought he felt the nudge of another mind against his own, yet he determined to either keep the other mind out or find a way to think only of his rapidly-dwindling loyalty.
I belong to the Dark Lord, I belong to the Dark Lord, he repeated over and over again in his head as he grew closer to the centre of the circle to stand beside the source of his terror. Lord Voldemort was delighting in this man’s pain. Though Thomas had admitted that he had no idea who was the real Death Eater in his department, Lord Voldemort still refused to let him go. Moreover, he had maniacally decided that the next logical course of action was to reveal the true identity of the spy. Regulus had never meant for anyone to get hurt, yet he could only anticipate the look of betrayal and outright hatred that would be present on Thomas’ face when the blindfold was removed. He deserved every bit of it. He was sure that he was the one who had put this man in danger.
Regulus put his trembling hands in his pockets and looked up. The Dark Lord gestured toward the blindfold with a finger.
The trembling became more persistent as he undid the knots slowly, stepping backward behind Voldemort as quickly as possible before Thomas could get a good look at him up close.
“Black? Regulus Black? It was you?”
“Yes, dear Richard, right under your very nose. As if any of the others could have been worthy of my service! A Half-Blood married to a Muggle? What kind of follower would Alec Kingston make?”
Regulus registered the voice, but saw only the confusion, horror, and betrayal in Thomas’ furled eyebrows and bent stature. The frigid air was gone, replaced by flames of guilt in his veins. Liam had been right, Liam was right. Voldemort was a maniac. There was no logical sense ruling these affairs, and there was nothing he could do about it.
“I – I’m …” he whispered, intending to apologise, but self-preservation won. He straightened and shut his mouth. I belong to the Dark Lord. I belong to the Dark Lord.
“Yes, you do,” purred Voldemort. “And I’ve decided that you’re worthy of the task that must be done here tonight.”
“After you told Severus about the conversation you overheard, well, I knew that we couldn’t take any chances. We went to the flat he shares with his lovely Muggle wife …”
“Don’t you touch her! Or our son! You leave them alone!” Thomas’ voice broke, and Regulus realised that this would likely be his last request. Thomas was resigned to death.
“Oh, don’t worry. She’ll just wonder what happened to her wayward husband, always spending late nights at work at a place he could barely describe to her. She has no idea what you do, does she?”
Regulus’ mind reeled and the guilt increased with each new revelation.
“I have always been faithful …”
“And now you’ll disappear without a trace. How do you think she’ll feel? She’ll probably just think you left her. It really is unfortunate that my servant overheard you at work. You needn’t have died, but I can’t have you live knowing who is in my service, now can I? Certainly not.”
He wheeled to face Regulus.
“Would you do the honour?”
He wanted to refuse. He wanted to run as far away as possible from the place where he stood, but he knew what would happen if he did. Voldemort had just made the truth abundantly clear – he would allow no one who was not loyal to him know the true nature of his work. Regulus had to find a way to thwart his plans, and the only way to do that was to follow along. For now.
“Yes, my lord.” He almost spat the word, but maintained his composure. Regulus hoped that his face would tell Thomas what he really felt about the situation before he followed orders. He could not risk saying anything out loud. He steeled himself for the task and tried to say the spell in the most monotone, uncaring tone he could manage.
“Goodbye. Avada Kedavra.”
The words echoed in the night. Regulus stumbled back to the edge of the circle and huddled behind Severus while Voldemort addressed his followers again, and then it was over. The rest of them were gone and he was still shivering beside Severus.
“ … have to get up. Let’s go, we can’t stay here,” Severus pleaded.
“Get away from me.”
“He was testing you. I had no idea what his plan was. I was only trying to help …”
Regulus straightened and took a step backward. “An innocent man is dead! He had no crime, the blame rests completely on the both of us; you for accusing him, and me for carrying out the action.”
“Look, I’m in shock here, too, all right? I never thought he would kill Thomas. I was trying to help you.”
“Help me?! You know what, get away from me, all right? So far, you helping me has only resulted in more and more people getting hurt,” Regulus spat. “First Aislinn, then Nicolai, and now Thomas.”
Severus clenched his fists. “We’ve been over this. None of that was your fault, you were carrying out your duty. You seem perfectly capable of doing that with a straight face.”
“I may be a Slytherin, but that doesn’t mean I lack a conscience.”
“Your moral compass doesn’t point due north either.”
“Maybe not, but neither does yours. Stay away from me, and don’t go trying to protect me from anything else. I can take care of myself,” Regulus insisted. And I have a better shot of staying alive without you on my back.
Severus gritted his teeth. “Fine.” He was gone.
Regulus promptly doubled over and threw up behind a tree. Nicolai’s cold, lost eyes as he had fallen toward the Stratford-upon-Avon cobblestone had held nothing to the horrified vacant depths of Richard Thomas’s. At least Nicolai’s death had actually been for self-preservation, and to keep someone else safe. There was no point tonight. Richard Thomas had died for no other reason than Voldemort’s amusement.
What else was a lie?
Without another thought, Regulus Apparated back to the flat. He had been doing some tidying up since planning his surreptitious trip to Ireland, though he had hoped to find the needed information quickly. There was too much at stake to risk running into his former-best mate. Yet there was one area of the room that Regulus had not cleaned, underneath his bed; and there was something under his bed that might prove useful in an attempt to discern the depth of Voldemort’s treachery.
He wasted no time trying to keep the bed in order – the sheets were promptly mussed and pillows flew everywhere as Regulus tried to jam his hand between the headboard, the wall, and the floor. His fingers felt the crumpled parchment and he grabbed at the paper until he could crush it firmly to his palm. His body curled against the wall as he sat back and took a few deep breaths, preparing himself to open the paper and see the map that Liam had seen in late August.
Regulus opened the parchment, clearly picturing the map he had drawn for Voldemort. He had been too pissed the night that he got the map back to care what had been written on it. He had seen the word “deserted” and that had been good enough. He hadn’t chosen to give it a second glance since, especially after the map had instigated Liam’s departure. Regulus had wanted to believe in the Dark Lord’s mission. Though he was frustrated that night, he still never thought that the Dark Lord meant to murder anyone. Now he was not so sure.
Regulus realised that if he was Voldemort, he would do anything to keep his new recruits loyal. He would even play into their fears and idealism to gain their trust. If Regulus was the Dark Lord, he reasoned that he would have asked a young recruit to draw a needed map, but not reveal why it was needed. It would be all too easy to add more information to it later after the deed was done. Luckily, Regulus’ handwriting was unmistakably messy; if someone else had tried to duplicate it to set him up, he would know. There was a bit of water damage on the paper, and Regulus remembered that it had been raining the night that Severus had returned the map to him, but there was no mistaking what he saw.
His cramped handwriting marked the blown-out building as a shop, a normal, average, Diagon Alley enterprise, just as Liam had said. The red circle with an X on the shop was done in a different pen, and the letters forming the word “deserted” next to it looked suspiciously familiar, and yet completely different. They were not written in his own hand.
The map fell to the floor.
“All right, let’s go over this again,” Aislinn prompted. “What do we know for sure?”
Liam sifted through the growing pile of papers on his desk. “We’ve got birth certificates for Grandfather Callum and the rest of our family, and for Devon’s family. We have a copy of the marriage certificate for Desmond Donnelly and Devon’s mother-in-law. We have circumstantial evidence linking Callum and Desmond, but nothing definite.
“In terms of actions, Callum acted just as Devon described the actions of Desmond’s young cousin. And, if this is all true, it would explain why I ended up in Slytherin. Both Desmond and his cousin, who could very well be Callum, were part of Slytherin house.”
“But they both married Muggles,” Aislinn pointed out. “There’s something that doesn’t quite fit there.”
Liam shrugged. “You can’t always help who you fall in love with, and Desmond left. Maybe he didn’t mean to have a child. Callum, at least, became disenchanted by what he knew of the wizarding world and abandoned it entirely. It may have been because of our grandmother.”
Aislinn nodded her agreement. The pair had been gathering evidence and following threads of information for two weeks in an attempt to make a breakthrough, and though they had found bits and pieces to corroborate Devon’s story, they still were not able to prove definitively that Callum Donnelly was Desmond Donnelly’s young cousin and potential partner. Liam knew that it would be easy enough to do if he were in London; the Ministry of Magic kept careful records of every witch and wizard for security purposes. But he was not so sure that solving the mystery of his family background was a good enough reason to go back.
“You talked to Ma about Callum’s personal effects, right?”
“Yes, and I’ve sifted through them,” Liam insisted. “There was nothing in there that seemed of any use.”
“What about his house? Do we still own that?”
“Well, I suppose so. Ma and Pa are using it for extra storage, I think,” he replied. “Do you think we could find anything there?”
Aislinn leaned forward on the bed. “I think it’s worth a shot. What are you doing tomorrow?”
“Er, tomorrow is Tuesday, right?”
She laughed. “Yes, Tuesday, 11 December.”
“Working, mostly. I think Silas wanted me to process some shipping orders. Haven’t you got school to be at?”
“It’s a half-day. I was thinking that we could go up to Fanore in the late afternoon,” she explained. “You could leave Ballyvaughan around three and be there by a quarter until four, and I could go earlier, straight from school. I think that we could get a fair bit of searching in, and we could always go back on Wednesday if we felt like it, or over the weekend.”
It was a reasonable plan. She could poke through everything that was available to the ordinary eye and make sure that there was nothing they had missed previously. That would take longer than his assessment of the property for hidden magic, and they might be able to find some other threads of information.
“It’s worth a shot, and we haven’t anything else to do,” he agreed. “Shall we go down and see to dinner?”
Aislinn shook her head as she stood up, and then gave him a parting kiss on the cheek. “I’m making dinner with a friend. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Liam nodded and followed her out the door. Michael Merric was washing dishes while Kate finished cooking dinner. Liam took a place next to his father and began drying with a dishrag.
“Thanks,” Michael grunted. “One can only do so much.”
“I’m glad to see that you and Aislinn have been spending so much time together. What have you lot been up to?”
Liam shrugged. “Not much, just doing a little family research, that’s all.”
Kate cut in. “Family research?”
“Er, yes. We’re just curious, that’s all,” Liam replied nonchalantly. “It can be interesting to trace your family history.”
“I’m sure that they’re just interested in finding out more about their past, Katie,” Michael reasoned. “I’m sure it’s difficult for them not knowing much about your father and everything. He was a complex and private man.”
“You have no idea,” Kate muttered.
Michael acted as if he had not even registered her comment, reaching for a large pan that Kate had just finished using. Liam had reasoned that Michael knew nothing of Callum’s secret life, but it was then that the full gravity of that truth finally meant something. Kate had gone to great lengths to keep Callum’s secret, even from her husband. Was she hiding some crucial piece of information?
Only time would tell, and time seemed to pass quickly. Liam finished his work for Silas in record time the next day and was soon on the road to Fanore. The town was just up the coast from Doolin, but it was not along his usual route home. There was an inland highway from Doolin to Ballyvaughan that the Merric family took because it was faster than driving along the coastal road, but the coastal road was certainly beautiful. Liam put the car in gear and enjoyed the hum of the engine as he made steady progress along the somewhat-less-kept road. The fog was already rolling across the waves, obscuring his view of the harbour. He noted, disappointed, that this meant he would not be able to see the Aran Islands in the distance from Fanore.
Aislinn had been working for several hours when Liam arrived and seemed to be somewhat excited by a discovery.
“Liam! Lovely. How was work?” she called from upstairs as he walked through the front door and tossed his overcoat across a chair.
“Work was work, I’m glad it’s over. You seem fairly ecstatic. What have you found?”
She poked her head out of one of the upstairs rooms and her expression confirmed his assessment.
“A link to Desmond Donnelly.”
He was up the stairs in a flash.
“What?!! That’s brilliant. In what form?”
Aislinn was sitting cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by stacks of paper and parchment. A cursory glance around the room revealed several empty boxes stacked in a corner, and Liam saw the ceiling door to the attic lying open, ladder extended to the floor. Aislinn picked up a single piece of parchment lying next to her right knee, away from the piles she had carefully created in front of her. She held the parchment out to her brother and he took it gingerly.
“It’s not much, but it’s all that we need to corroborate the link between Callum and Desmond.”
Liam turned the paper over and found what looked like a shopping list, but he soon reasoned that it was a list of items bought for or purchased from Desmond Donnelly. The note was written in Callum’s hand and the items were all of magical nature: a cauldron, various potion-making materials, butterbeer. All of the prices were in Galleons, Sickles, and Knuts, and the heading at the top of the page read: “Things I have borrowed from Desmond. Must remember to pay him back before the holidays.”
He appraised his sister, now sprawled on the floor examining his reaction. “An I-owe-you list?”
She frowned and countered, “I never promised you that it was a picture of them at one of their weddings. All I said was that it was a link, and it is!”
“What if Callum knew someone else who was a wizard?”
“Someone else who was a wizard named Desmond from whom our grandfather would have been able to borrow whatever he needed?” she asked quizzically. “No offence, but the likelihood of that option seems slim. It’s more likely that this is also Desmond Donnelly, our grandfather’s older cousin.”
“I suppose,” Liam mumbled, examining the writing again. “What do you suppose he needed all of these things for?”
Aislinn shook her head. “I haven’t the faintest idea. I was hoping you might be able to shed some light on that. What are those potion ingredients for?”
“Nothing that I’ve ever made,” he admitted. “I’d have to go through the index in my spell books to see what some of these less-common ingredients go into. It seems that our grandfather must have been an experimental potions master of some sort.”
“You mean he was involved in creating potions?”
Liam nodded. “It’s possible, and it would fit Desmond’s profile as well. Devon said that Desmond disappeared after an explosion in his workshop. Perhaps he had invited Callum to move to County Clare with him to experiment in private. They would have a lot more privacy here than other places in the wizarding world. I should know.”
Aislinn frowned again. “Still, it would make more sense for them to have another workshop somewhere. Why would Desmond and Callum do all of their experimenting at home, when it seems that there was so much danger inherent in their activities?”
“I don’t know, maybe they did have another workshop,” Liam reasoned. “Maybe that’s why we’re lacking so much physical evidence to expose Callum’s identity as a wizard. Maybe that’s where he was when he died.”
“But that could be anywhere! How can we know where to look next?”
He shook his head. “I really don’t know that either. We’ll have to think about it and see what we can come up with, maybe meet with Devon again. Honestly, there’s no rush. We have all the time in the world.”
“I suppose,” she conceded softly. “I had been hoping that we would make a major breakthrough today. I guess we need to find another way to get resources.”
“We’ll figure it out,” he assured her. “How about we take a break tomorrow? I need to find some good Christmas presents for Clare, Alanna, and Silas. Do you want to go shopping with me? We can meet in Ballyvaughan after dinner.”
Aislinn brightened and she nodded. “That should work for me, say seven o’clock?”
“Perfect. Let’s tidy up and reorganize so that Ma and Pa don’t become suspicious.”
Regulus felt numb as he stood at his father’s gravesite, the last remaining mourner for Orion Black. There had been no sign of Sirius or his band of friends, probably due to his not-so-friendly encounter with them at the Leaky Cauldron Monday evening. Had it really only been two days? It felt like an eternity since he had stood in the centre of the circle of Death Eaters and sentenced Richard Thomas to death. Everything had changed with the discovery of Voldemort’s treachery. It was as if the revelation of how truly insensitively evil the dark wizard could be had ripped the blinders of power and opportunity from Regulus’ eyes. Regulus was no longer able to think of him as Lord Voldemort, much less as the Dark Lord. He was quite grateful that he had had zero contact with other Death Eaters since that night. Severus was generally the only person who sought him out directly, and that line of communication had been effectively broken.
Once again, Regulus was alone, both physically and mentally. The funeral had been quite small, exactly how his mother had requested. She had made no new demands on him since asking him to take over the family assets. It looked as though his family commitments, for the moment, rested in bearing the name alone.
Voldemort was another matter entirely. Regulus had spent the previous day looking over all of the information he had about this Desmond Donnelly, but he had not found any new leads. Potion-making, the Dark Arts, Slytherin House, a brief spell as an instructor, and County Clare. The Hogwarts personnel files listed his siblings and cousins and their known locations, but few were alive, and some had disappeared themselves. It was as if the entire Donnelly family had disappeared off of the magical radar. It made no sense to Regulus, and he was at a loss as to how he would find the information Voldemort craved.
It seemed as if Donnelly had been working on a specific potion that Voldemort was interested in, but he would only reveal a few of its properties to Regulus. The potion was undrinkable – it would produce liquid fire within a person that would only become worse if they tried to drink water. Donnelly had never perfected the idea, only mentioned it to a few associates. Voldemort was anxious to know if the elusive wizard scientist had succeeded. The matter seemed to be of utmost importance, yet Voldemort was regarding it with even more secrecy than usual.
Regulus felt queasy as he thought of the potion and its potential uses. Surely Voldemort was looking for a new way to torture his victims. The secrecy of the matter remained puzzling – was Voldemort using Regulus in this secret way so that he could dispatch of him easily when he was done? Every new realisation prompted further feelings of despair. He was in too deep. There was no way that he would be able to get out without a fight. But maybe, just maybe, he could find some source of help in Liam Merric. If he said nothing else, Regulus wanted to make sure that Liam at least knew that he was sorry. Severus had said that Voldemort’s purpose was to test Regulus. He was relatively sure that he had passed that test, but he could not be certain. Regulus knew that he would be killed at some point if he turned on Voldemort like he was planning to do. He had no idea how he would do it, but he knew that he could not continue to help the man carry out his schemes. That part of his life had to be over.
It was time to leave his father’s grave. Regulus had opted to use Muggle transportation, a plane, to get to Ireland. This was mostly because he was worried about Apparating to a place he had never been before, but it was also because he wanted to take more time to think through what he would say to Liam when he saw him. The tube ride to the Muggle airport did not take nearly as long as he thought it would. Regulus shrank his luggage to a manageable size and pocketed it so that he would not have to deal with figuring out how to give it to the airplane company. The idea of releasing his belongings to Muggles he had never met made him anxious in any case, but his bags contained evidence that could send him to Azkaban without so much as a trial. That was much worse.
He arrived safely in Dublin at half-past two and proceeded to the train station. At least trains were something he understood. The ride to Galway, the nearest city with a train station to Ballyvaughan, which seemed to be the largest town in Liam’s area, would take a few hours, and he would reassess the situation once he arrived. Regulus had no way to contact Liam, nor was he exactly certain how he would manage it. All he knew was that he had to find a way.
He slid into a seat by a window and settled in for the second trip of the day. The train car was mostly empty, but there were a few individuals sitting alone and a mother with three young children. One of them, who seemed to be the youngest, was already asleep, but the other two, a girl and a boy, were bickering in hushed voices. The mother cradled the sleeping child in her arm while she tried to quiet the others. After a few minutes, they both seemed content to read, separated from one another on either side of their mum.
“Hullo, where are you going?” asked a man in a thick Irish accent.
Regulus smiled. “County Clare, Ballyvaughan.”
The man nodded. He appeared to be only a few years older than Regulus. “Oh yes, beautiful place, not a good time of year to visit, though. You’ve missed the fall music festivals, and I daresay you’ll have a hard time convincing a boatman to take you out to the Aran Islands. They’ve been having quite a windy and foggy spell lately.”
“I’m going to visit a friend, not to enjoy the sights,” Regulus explained shortly. He turned slightly toward the window as the train began to move, feigning an interest in the countryside as they left the city.
The man would not be put off. “A friend! Who are you going to see? I’m from County Clare myself.”
Regulus thought for a moment. “I, er, I’m going to see Aislinn Merric.”
The man shook his head. “Don’t know her, but I do know of the Merrics. They have a daughter attending school here in Dublin.”
“Tara?” Regulus offered, startled. He regarded the man with interest for the first time.
“The very same,” he agreed. Regulus noted that he had dark brown hair, but the purest of blue eyes. He had a briefcase leaning against his feet, and he was dressed quite well.
“Where are you off to?” Regulus asked.
The man looked down and assessed himself. “I’m staying in Galway actually. I’m interviewing as a physician’s assistant for a new hospital there. Tara Merric is studying to be a nurse, that’s how I know her. She gave me the name of a friend. Amazing what fate will bring you, isn’t it?”
“Indeed,” Regulus agreed. “Pleasure to meet you, and best of luck in the job search. Say, would you have any idea how to get to Ballyvaughan from Galway, and then on to Doolin?”
“You’ve never been?”
“Not yet, no, and I’m surprising Aislinn. She doesn’t know that I’m coming,” Regulus explained. “I’d like to try to do as much as possible on my own.”
“Right, naturally. There isn’t a train there, both Ballyvaughan and Doolin are a bit small for a train station, but you can hire a car.”
“At the train station?”
The man nodded. “Exactly. Just look to your left after you’ve departed and you’ll see an advert for it.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Regulus replied sincerely.
The man smiled, nodded again, and then leaned back in his seat. Regulus saw him open his briefcase, but then turned toward the window to look at the Irish countryside. They had sped out of the city and were whizzing by green hills with small villages tucked in their folds. The knowledge that he could find his way to Doolin was somewhat comforting to Regulus, even if he was still unsure of how he would broach the subject of his arrival with Liam, let alone even begin to discuss what had gone wrong during the summer.
It would probably be easier to bring it up with Aislinn, he thought to himself. Unfortunately, finding Aislinn would not be as easy. Regulus knew that she worked at a grammar school, but he had never been quite clear as to where she worked. She may have moved out of Doolin, seeing as it was a small town. Did she have a job in Ballyvaughan? Regulus knew that Ballyvaughan was the closest large city to Doolin, though he had no idea of the actual distance. Would it make sense for Aislinn to work there and still be close enough to the family?
At least Aislinn would probably listen and think rationally about what Regulus would have to say. Liam, on the other hand, had every reason to be enraged and to hex Regulus to no end. What could he say? What should he say?
The only answer that Regulus had when he arrived in Ballyvaughan at a quarter past seven in the evening was five words: I’m an idiot. I’m sorry.
He disembarked from his hired car, paid the driver, and found himself standing on a crowded street in the middle of Ballyvaughan. There was not much to the town, only a few shops, some more scattered restaurants, and what looked like to be miles of houses and more greenery. Regulus could smell the salty air from the nearby ocean and considered walking down that way, but decided that his hungry stomach was a much more pressing problem.
He noticed a small pub upon a quick survey of the area and figured that it was as good a place as any to eat. A small woman was hurrying toward the door to the pub as he himself walked toward it and he beat her there, smiling as he courteously held the door open for her.
The woman’s eyes grew wide with shock and his jaw dropped as he examined her surprised face. It was Aislinn.
Liam finished work at a quarter-past-seven and rushed to put everything in order before hurrying out the door to meet Aislinn. He was late and he felt bad about it, though he had called her earlier to warn her of the possibility. It had sounded like she might end up being late as well, so he felt a bit better about his tardiness, but not much.
Spending an evening with Aislinn without thinking about Callum or Desmond or magic would be good for him. Liam knew that it was important to take a break. Aislinn was right; he had all the time in the world to solve the puzzle. It was not like Callum Donnelly’s identity and exact familial relationship with Desmond Donnelly was of utmost importance to Liam’s schedule. He could learn more about his elusive grandfather and potentially evil great-uncle later. Tonight would be all about Aislinn, and their family.
Liam approached the pub at half-past seven and sighed as he pushed the door open. There was really no way that he could have arrived sooner. He gave the pub a quick glance, looking for his sister’s blonde curls, extending just past her shoulders now.
He did not expect to see her sitting at a table with another, seemingly younger, man. Who was this bloke who was holding his sister at such rapt attention? Aislinn did not even look up when Liam came through the door. She was absolutely transfixed with the man’s story, leaning forward on the table and nodding along with his hand gestures. Was he a co-worker, or just some random man who thought Aislinn was beautiful?
Both curious and protective, Liam approached the table cautiously. Aislinn finally realised that her brother had arrived and squeaked a hello.
“Liam, you’re here.”
The man at the table started and whipped around. Liam felt like he had been hit by a stray yard off of the mainmast of one of his family’s boats. Regulus Black … sneaky, conniving, traitor Regulus Black was fraternizing with his sister in this pub. How had Black even found his way to Ballyvaughan? How had he found Aislinn? Was he planning to hold her for ransom? Had he been sent to Ireland to kill them? Surely Voldemort and his minions could not be far behind this lacklustre, immoral excuse for a friend.
Regulus, too, seemed unable to form words. He did not look good, Liam thought smugly to himself. Regulus’ face was thin, as if he had not slept or eaten well in weeks. His hair was pulled smoothly back into a ponytail, like he had been at some formal occasion that morning. He did not appear to have any luggage and his wand was conspicuously missing. Had he really only been talking to Aislinn?
“Liam.” Regulus uttered. “You’re probably wondering why I’m sitting at this table with your sister.”
Liam gaped and stuttered a reply. “Among other things, yes. That would be a question on the forefront of my mind. I’m also curious as to how you found her, how you got here, and whether or not the two of us are in mortal danger. Personally, I think Aislinn has been exposed to enough of Voldemort’s murderous impulses. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Regulus took a deep breath and nodded. “Wholeheartedly.
Liam raised an eyebrow. “So you’re finally done languishing in deviance?”
“Something like that,” Regulus replied, laughing shortly. “Though it is a bit more complicated.”
“It always is, it seems, with you.”
“I was just attempting to explain myself to Aislinn,” Regulus continued, pushing up on the table with his hands and standing to meet Liam’s eyes. “I – I don’t really know what else to say except that I’m sorry and I’m an idiot.”
“Er, you meant to say a murderer, right?”
“Aislinn! How can you sit here talking to him casually as if nothing were wrong?” Liam hissed, stepping forward so he could keep his voice down and avoid the gaze of onlookers.
“Listening is an important skill. It might do you good to try it.”
He could feel the rage building inside of him and it was all Liam could do to maintain his composure and speak rationally. Five breaths, steady, in and out. Don’t do anything you’ll regret.
“If you mean any harm to my sister or my family, so help me, Regulus, …”
“I haven’t any designs for harm, really,” Regulus began. “I never have, I swear. I never meant harm to any of you.”
Liam lost it. He swung his right fist and hit Regulus square on the jaw. Aislinn gasped and leapt up to help Regulus steady himself as he fell against the table.
“Do you want to reconsider that position, mate? You’re the one who willingly joined up with a lunatic. I have half a mind to turn you in to the Ministry right now. How do I know that you don’t have Evil Eater friends on your tail? How do I know that there aren’t men in the pub at this very moment waiting to kidnap and torture my sister?”
Regulus shook his head, massaging his jaw and sinking back into the booth again. “I deserved that, and I promise that that isn’t the case at all. Please, hear me out, and be careful what you say in here! I know that I botched things up. I meddled in affairs that I shouldn’t have any knowledge of and my actions led to several deaths, not even ones that you know about. All I’m asking for is that you will hear me out. You can choose to do whatever you want after that. I’ll even willingly go to Az –er—prison if that’s what you want to do, but I do have designs to thwart some of Voldemort’s plans. At least, that’s what I want to try to do.”
“Please sit down, brother, if you’re done being an overprotective arse,” Aislinn pleaded. “People are starting to stare. The last thing we need is trouble from the management of the pub, especially since Regulus himself is in danger.”
That piqued Liam’s interest. Regulus was in danger, the special servant to the Dark Lord? The thin man certainly did not seem like he was much of a threat. Perhaps there was more to the story than he realised.
Liam sat next to Aislinn, slipping his wand out to hold in his lap, absolutely at the ready to respond to whatever might happen during the meeting.
He nodded. “All right, Regulus. I’ll listen. You have my attention.”
Regulus nodded and looked down at the table, not saying anything for a long moment.
“I’ve been going over and over what I want to say in my head, but I still haven’t a clue where to begin,” he admitted. His voice was so soft and hesitant. It held none of the confidence or brash arrogance that Liam remembered from the summer.
Regulus kept his gaze on the table as he continued, almost at a whisper. “I’m only just beginning to understand everything myself. I suppose the first thing I should explain is that you were right, but so was I. I swear to you, Liam, I never meant to hurt Aislinn. I really did believe that I wasn’t doing any harm when I made that map.”
Liam snorted. “Bullocks.”
“I’ve been blind, I know that, but I only just discovered it recently. Up until two days ago I sincerely believed that Voldemort did not mean real harm to anyone. You have no idea the depths of the treachery that I’ve been exposed to. I’ve been involved in giving confidential information to Voldemort from within the Ministry, I’ve been spying on Ministry employees, I’m directly responsible for, eh, several deaths. Honestly, there are enough charges against me to send me to Azkaban for a long time.
“It was not until earlier this week that I ever saw Voldemort kill a man for no reason,” Regulus admitted darkly. “That changed everything, seeing the senseless despair and emptiness. I could barely maintain consciousness long enough to get through the meeting and get myself back to the flat.”
Liam was watching both Regulus and Aislinn carefully. Aislinn could not tear her eyes from Regulus’ broken expression. That look did more to convince Liam that Regulus was telling the truth than any words he could possibly have said. What had this man, this eighteen-year-old traitor-spy, experienced that would result in such a lost, vacant, yet ultimately aching disposition? There was so much hurt radiating from Regulus’ face, his speech, and his heart. What choice did Liam have?
Regulus continued in a softer voice. “After that, the first thing I did was to find the map and realize that we were both right. They changed what I originally wrote. It’s a decent representation of my writing, but I knew that it was not my own as soon as I saw it. They fabricated evidence; the map could easily be used against me in a court of law. So, really, we were both right on that count.
“But that isn’t the reason that I had to come to Ireland. I was planning to come to County Clare anyway, on Voldemort’s orders.”
Liam gripped his wand more tightly. “What does he want with County Clare? There’s nothing here for him.”
“You know that’s not entirely true,” Aislinn muttered, but Liam elbowed her in the ribs.
“Ignore her,” Liam insisted. “Go on.”
Regulus furrowed his brow, but did not press the point. “Voldemort seems to be interested in some wizard who disappeared years ago. He was working on some experimental potion that sounds absolutely ghastly. Honestly, I’m not sure if I even want to find out what his results were. I have no idea what Voldemort wants with the information, but I’m sure that he isn’t planning to use it to spawn furry white bunnies.”
“What was the wizard’s name?” Aislinn questioned casually.
Liam elbowed Aislinn again to keep her quiet.
Regulus looked more confused than ever. “Am I missing something here?”
“Look, mate, I can tell that you’re broken up about this,” Liam began. “But I still don’t know how much I can trust you. Don’t blame me for being careful.”
“I suppose that’s fair,” Regulus conceded. “At the very least, it should keep my bones intact.”
Liam couldn’t help laughing. “Sorry about that, but, you did deserve it.”
Regulus nodded. “I understand your caution. Honestly, I haven’t shared everything with you either. I don’t know if you’d be willing to help me find out more about this Donnelly character or if you’re even interested in ever seeing me again, but whatever aid you can provide, I’d be grateful. I have a death sentence waiting for me back in London. It really will not be long before Voldemort figures out that I’m not completely loyal to him anymore, and I’m beginning to come to terms with that. The most important thing now is to try to thwart him in any way possible while still trying to appear like I’m on his side.”
Liam was quiet while he considered this turn of events. Everything had changed in the past twenty minutes. Had it really only been that long? His entire world had been turned upside down once again. Did he really want to take this chance?”
“I’ll make you a deal, mate,” Liam offered. “Give me a day. Let me talk to my parents, and let Aislinn and I consider what you’ve told us, and we’ll meet back here tomorrow night to discuss whether or not we can work together. I need some time to think about this. Does that seem fair to you?”
Regulus’ face fell slightly, but he nodded. “I suppose so. Do you think I can find somewhere to stay in Ballyvaughan, or am I better off going back to Galway?”
Aislinn answered, “You can hire a room down the street, I’ll show you were to go. Liam and I were planning on supper together and then Christmas shopping. Do you mind if I take you there now, and then we’ll meet you back here tomorrow at half-past seven?”
“That sounds fair,” Regulus agreed. “Thanks for considering what I’ve told you. I really am sorry, and I really do care about you both.”
Liam could not speak. He pressed his lips together in a thin line and nodded. The shock, the hurt, and the realisation of just how much power he wielded over this broken man in that moment was catching up to him. He stepped out of the booth to give Aislinn room to exit and take Regulus to the pub and waved goodbye to them both.
Voldemort was after Desmond Donnelly. Why?
Author’s Note: MANY thanks to my betas: Arnel, Cygnus, and Utterly Absurd. I always look forward to and value your contributions to making my story the best that it can be. Thanks for playing in my playground with me!
I’ve been planning this chapter forever, and it is so good to get it out in the open! I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. This chapter is dedicated to my Teacher Family.