“Friends, honoured guests!”
As his father called to the crowd, magically enchanted voice ringing over the music and chatter, Ron felt his face fall into a sulky glare.
It wasn’t particularly surprising. This was it, after all; the hour when their ‘fates’ were revealed. ‘Doom’ might be a more appropriate way of phrasing it. He glanced over at his sister. Ginny was shaking and for once it wasn’t from anger but fear. However, for all her terror, she’d managed to confine those convulsions to only a slight tremor in her hands. Her face was the same wooden mask of courtly indifference she’d been wearing all evening; she wasn’t going to let Potter have the satisfaction of her fear.
Seeing that Ron straightened up and schooled his expression into that same veneer of calm. He knew Countess Lily wasn’t there to see his bad temper; that she was sailing away to her precious Spaniard. Even so, he wanted to show to everyone that he didn’t care one jot about Countess Lily or the broken heart she had left him.
“It gives us great pleasure,” his dad was saying, “on this festive occasion not only to honour Master Ollivander and Master Dumbledore, who, um, seems to have disappeared – ”
Ron pricked his ears up at that. Where had the eccentric wizard gone? Ron had spied him earlier, performing a series of elaborate enchantments for a group of giggling younger courtiers. ‘Probably doesn’t want to witness our spectacular failure,’ Ron thought, briefly succumbing to gloom once more. This ‘true-love-in-five-days’ thing had been his idea after all.
“ – but also to tell you of a long-awaited decision. So, without further ado, I am… erm, honoured to announce the engagement of our daughter, Princess Ginevra, to Earl Harry Potter.”
There was a round of applause and the moronic Earl prance up gleefully to grab Ginny’s proffered hand. There was a slight surge in the number of whispered conversations at that but when the applause died off so did any chatter. Ron couldn’t help but give off a snort of derision at the sight of Dursley at the front blubbering into a handkerchief.
“We want to extend our warmest welcome to Earl Potter and his aunt, Lady Dursley, to our court and to our family,” the King continued, although even Ron heard the slight stiffness in the way he said ‘welcome’. For the umpteenth time Ron wondered why they were doing this to them.
“On a similar note,” the Queen took over, beckoning at Ron he walked woodenly over to her, “it is my great privilege to announce our son – youngest son,” she corrected, smiling at the titters that broke out, “Prince Ronald is to – ”
Ron flung out his arm and stopped her.
She turned and glared at him, he knew, but he didn’t care; he had eyes but for one person.
Countess Lily was standing at the top of the steps to the courtyard, silvered dress glowing in the dark of the night. She wore no mask, but the white, silver and lavender wings were costume enough. The distance between them was too great for him to be able to see her expression but he knew she was looking right at him, appearing like a wondrous vision, just in time to save him.
For a moment Ron doubted himself; maybe she was just a hallucination. And then he heard his father whisper to his mother, “Who is she, dear?”
As his mother whispered back, Ron caught Ginny’s eye. Her façade had dropped and now she just glared at him, jerking her head towards the apparition-that-was-not-an-apparition.
Startled out of his shock, Ron felt his face break into his first genuine smile since earlier that morning and he began walking towards his lady. He spared no thought for the noises of outrage coming from Dursley, or the muttering of the crowd; all his attention was firmly on the small nervous figure ahead of him.
Unlike the gaudy, complicated dresses of his peers, Countess Lily wore a simple silver gown, no jewels or embroidery on the silky fabric. It didn’t, as Ron had first thought, even have a luminescent enchantment; instead the colour was so pure that it shone unaided. The delicate dragonfly wings were a sheeny white and shot through with delicate veins of lavender and silver. They looked so realistic that Ron would not be surprised if they really would let their wearer fly.
And her face…
Even in his jubilation, Ron had been worried about meeting the Countesses eyes. The last memory he had of her was of cold, indifferent eyes that spoke of nothing but disdain and unconcern to his pain and heartbreak. In a way the Countess had been as much a wooden doll as Ginny had been that evening.
Now, looking up into eyes that were once more full of feeling and warmth, he wondered if she had worn that mask just to keep from letting her true feelings out, just like Ginny; just like he had been.
As her jogged up to her, Lily’s expression was happy but also extremely nervous. Her eyes flicked from him to the surrounding crowd as he guessed she was jumpy about having an audience for their reunion.
Ron himself couldn’t care less.
“Shouldn’t you be in Spain by now?” Ron said stupidly, the first thing that came to his mind.
The lady winced but clasped her hands together nervously. “I – there’s been a change of circumstances,” she said somewhat obliquely before rushing on, “but there is something I need to talk to you about now, before anything else happens.”
Ron couldn’t hear anything else past… “So, you’re not engaged?” he clarified.
Lily’s face broke out into a small smile. “No, I’m not,” she agreed and Ron felt his spirits soar.
“Thank bloody Merlin,” he said with relief and reached out to take her hand. “This could’ve been the worst moment of my life otherwise. Come on,” he added, pulling on her hand, “there’s someone I want you to meet.”
As Ron began jogging back to his parents the drag on his hand increased. “No, wait!” Lily hissed, sounding a little frantic. “Please, there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“Whatever it is my answer’s yes,” Ron said, shooting a quick grin over his shoulder at the lady who was hurrying after him. He just wanted to introduce her – the wonderful, amazing, brilliant, intelligent woman who he loved – to his family, shout from the rooftops that she was his one love.
The crowd’s murmuring increased tenfold as he raced back through the assorted astonished noblemen and women, pulling Lily behind him. The singing in his head and the mutters from the crowd ensured that he didn’t hear Lily’s pleading to stop and listen.
“How dare you!”
Lily’s hand was suddenly wrenched out of his and he turned around, astonishment quickly turning to rage as Dursley wrestled one of Lily’s beautiful wings off her costume. As she threw the mangled remains to the floor she glared at the distraught Countess with a vehemence the like of which he had never seen before.
“Oi, what are you doing?” Ron yelled, rage and utter confusion putting paid to any sense of courtly decorum. ‘What the bloody hell is her problem?’ he wondered, perplexed. Was she annoyed that the Countess was taking attention away from her own loathsome nephew?
Dursley looked slightly affronted to be referred to as ‘oi’ but made no protest. Instead she thrust a malicious finger at Lily’s teary face. “She is an imposter, Sire!” she snapped, finger trembling with rage.
Lily shook her head fretfully, tears swimming in her eyes. “No!”
“Her name is Hermione Granger,” Petunia continued without stopping. “She has been my servant for four years.”
The shocked silence was only broken by the Queen’s angry call. “A servant, Ron? Is this some kind of joke?”
Ron ignored his mother and instead continued to glare at Dursley. “You’re on dangerous territory, Dursley,” he growled.
Dursley scowled at him. “Ask her yourself!” she retorted, sneering at the distressed Lily. “She’s a grasping, devious little pretender… and it is my duty to expose her as the scheming hoax she is!”
Ron had had enough. “Tell this woman who you are, Lily,” he ordered, waiting for his Countess to lay into the foul woman before him. “Come on, tell them.”
Lily only looked at him tearfully.
“Bow before royalty, you insolent fraud!” Dursley snapped into the silence.
And, for the first time, doubt began to creep into his heart. “Bloody Merlin… it can’t be true,” he said, staring at Lily in shock. She just continued to stare at him, hands shaking and tears falling. “Lily?”
Lily bit her lip and closed her eyes painfully. “My – my name is Hermione,” she whispered eventually. “I’m a – a servant, like she said.” She opened her eyes and looked up at him then. “But if you would just – ”
“The maid with the broomstick? That was you?”
Ron turned and stared confused at Ginny who had called out. That made no sense to him whatsoever but Lily – no, Hermione – just tearfully nodded her head. “I can explain – ”
“Well, someone had better!” the Queen snapped from the dais, glaring at her.
Ron wasn’t listening to his mother. His head was just stuck in a never-ending cycle of horror fuelled thoughts. “First you’re engaged… and now you’re a servant?” he said, staring at the woman who had deceived him; who he thought he had loved.
Who had broken his heart twice in one day.
“I’ve heard enough,” he snapped and turned his back on her, walking away, away from this nightmare of tittering, whispering and murmuring nobles; away from his confused and disapproving parents; away from her.
The crowd gasped and Ron stiffened. That she would dare to talk to him like that… “I am a Prince of England, madam,” he said rigidly. “You refer to me as ‘Your Highness’. And you… are just like them,” he finished in barely more than a whisper before he fled the scene, vanishing into the darkness.
watched Ron disappear into the night and felt as though her world had
shattered. She knew he would be angry –
and he had every right to be – but she also thought he would have listened. And he may well have done, except…
“Come with me,” Petunia growled, gripping Hermione’s upper arm in a vice-like grip. Hermione offered no resistance. She felt a bit like a puppet whose strings had been cut, as though she didn’t have any control over any of her extremities.
As she was dragged backwards through the court whispers and titters followed her and her vision was filled with sneering, inquisitive faces of courtiers blurred by the tears still welling. Snatches of their conversation also reached her ears, all talking about what a deceitful little bitch she was and how she had humiliated the royal family to get a little bit of fame and fortune. Their words were nothing new; she had been called a slut, a whore and many more worse things when she had been living on the streets. Their hateful, arrogant words simply bounced off her.
What seemed to be sticking, however, was the sight of Ron recoiling when he had said servant. That and the way his voice had formed the word itself; as though even just saying it was abhorrent. It just looped round and round in his head, hurting her more and more every time she relived it.
She had thought he had changed over the past few days; that he had come to realise servants and commoners in general were people just the same as the nobility. That afternoon talking with Riddle, dancing and laughing with outlaws and criminals as though there were everyday acquaintances, seemed like a lifetime ago now. The stolen kiss in the firelight seemed more like a dream or hallucination than a real moment in her life.
All was lost.
Belatedly Hermione realised that the pressure on her arm was gone. Blinking herself out of her miserable memories she was greeted not with the sight of the palace or faces of sneering nobles; rather she was sitting inside a carriage and facing Petunia.
Petunia was ranting a mile-a-minute and from the curious purple colour of her skin Hermione guessed that she had been at it for quite some time. A very small part of Hermione felt a small vindictive joy that Petunia had been raging pointlessly for a good few minutes but it was a very tiny part. She was too numb to take any real pleasure.
“You almost ruined it all, you ungrateful, disgusting freak!” Petunia was saying at that moment in time, poison dripping off her every word.
Hermione just blocked her out again, that same image of Ron starting to replay once more in her head. If only she had insisted more on stopping him, making him listen to her somewhere private. She was sure most of his anger came from being humiliated by Petunia, but then she wasn’t completely positive about that.
‘After all, I said it myself; I deceived him awfully,’ she gnawed at her pain fretfully. ‘I said it – I told Dumbledore and Luna that he wouldn’t listen.’
But Dumbledore and Luna had been so confident that Ron would listen to her, help her, that she had begun to believe it too. Her confidence had been further boosted by the costume Luna had somehow managed to whip up out of some clean bedsheets and onion skins (luckily the smell had not transferred across as well). At first she had wanted to make her into a crumple horned snorkack but Hermione had quickly stamped out that particular notion. It was going to be difficult enough facing Ron as it was without wearing some ridiculous costume of a creature that all foremost experts in the field agreed did not exist.
‘I’ve lost a shoe,’ Hermione realised suddenly, feeling detached from the situation. She flexed the toes of her right foot to confirm. She wasn’t quite sure when but she thought it a bit of a shame; faced with a lack of materials, Luna and she had managed to create the shoes from a couple of wine glasses. She would have thought that glass slippers would have been uncomfortable but they were surprisingly comfortable.
At bump in the road they were travelling along suddenly jolted Hermione out of her bizarre mind set and she found herself suddenly back in her body, mind clear again.
‘What the bloody hell am I doing?’ she thought suddenly, anger clearing away misery for the time being. ‘I’m moping around like a bloody love-sick fool. I am Harry and Sirius’ only hope! I have to go back and make that oaf listen to me, no matter what it takes.’
She looked up at Petunia. “Let me out,” she snapped.
Petunia paused in her diatribe and sneered at her. “Finally found your insolent mouth once more, have you?” she jeered, hands clenching into angry fists in her lap. “And not to worry, freak; I’ll let you out, but not until we reach our destination.”
“I’ve escaped from your clutches already, my lady,” Hermione said angrily. “So has Harry. I can do it again. Let me go now, get your disgusting son and husband and run; you won’t escape this time, I swear it.”
Hermione was expecting Petunia to pale at that or retort angrily. She certainly wasn’t expecting the cool smirk that settled onto her features. “You are not my problem anymore,” she said calmly, although every word dripped poison. “I’m taking you somewhere you’ll never escape from. And, let me promise you Granger, you’ll spend your every waking day wishing that you’d stayed in the cellar at Godric’s Hollow. Your fate would have been much nicer if you had.”
Hermione felt a bone-chilling coldness seep into her at that. Most people making a threat like that could never live up to it. Not Petunia; when she threatened something she always delivered. For the first time Hermione felt a glimmer of fear for herself.
“Wh – where are you taking me?” she managed to get out eventually.
Petunia’s smirk grew. “Don’t worry, we’re almost there now.”
As if on cue the carriage slowed down and trundled to a halt. In a rare move Petunia actually opened the carriage door herself and got down before the driver could reach her. “Out you come, Granger. Come see your fate.”
The shaking was back as Hermione nervously inched towards the open door and dropped to the floor. She didn’t even notice as her unshod foot landed into a muddy puddle. The rundown looking castle was as unfamiliar to her as the surrounding landscape of hills and trees.
She did, however, recognise the man waiting for her.
Ginny was absolutely furious.
It made a change from desolate and devastated beyond all saving but her mind wasn’t quite functioning on that level. All she knew was that she was absolutely livid and that Ron was the cause of that anger.
“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” she yelled at him.
Ron jumped and turned around from where he was gazing out unseeing to the Royal Forest. His eyes were red but his expression was stoic and inexpressive. She knew that expression well; it was the one she’d been wearing all evening after all. “I’m a Prince, Ginny; I have responsibilities.”
“Bollocks,” she retorted, almost snarling she was so angry.
The façade cracked slightly as he frowned at her. “Ginny,” he started but she cut him off.
“You’re an absolute idiot, Ron; a Merlin damned IDIOT!” she snapped. “She loves you and you love her. Don’t you understand how special that is? How lucky you are?” She almost choked on the next part. “Look at the absolute horror I’m stuck with; how could you turn down a chance for actual happiness?”
“She lied to me,” Ron retorted, sounding more like the sullen brother she knew.
Ginny made an exasperated noise. “Yes, she did; so do you have any idea what it must have taken for her to come here tonight?”
“She just wanted a crown,” Ron spat. “Just like the rest of them.”
Ginny didn’t say anything for a while, just looked at him pointedly until he sighed in defeat. “No,” he admitted sadly. “No, she didn’t. She was different. But she still lied to me,” he added mutinously.
“I know and it isn’t right,” Ginny agreed before asking, “Do you remember what she was doing when you first met her?”
Ron looked at her strangely. “Yeah, she was arguing with a guard.”
“Arguing for the guard to release her servant – James,” Ginny corrected, ignoring various images that his name brought up in her mind. “She was trying to save her best friend, Ron; you just happened to catch her at it. She had no choice but to keep up the pretence else they both would have been arrested.”
Ron didn’t say anything for a long time and Ginny didn’t push him, anger cooled slightly. It must have come as an awful shock to him although the more Ginny thought about it the more it made sense of the enigma that had been Countess Lily. Ginny had never met any noble who cared about servants as much as Lily – Hermione before and now she knew why; they simply did not exist.
That was a thought that made Ginny sad.
Her thoughts skipped back to the witch who had attacked her that fateful morning when she ran away. That day felt a million years ago but in reality it was only a few days. It seemed as though everything had been set into motion from that point. Aside from rousing a curiosity in servants in her it also sparked the entire Countess Lily façade or so she assumed. After all but a few hours after she had given the maid – Hermione, she amended – a bag of gold had she then appeared at Court, trying to buy James’ freedom.
Ginny shuddered at how close James had come from being exiled from the country forever. If she had never run away from home then she would never have met him, never realised that a servant could be just as funny, intelligent and damn good at flying as any noble. Better in some cases, she corrected, thoughts jumping briefly back to snivelling Potter with a shudder. And how ironic that talking to Hermione had made her want to talk to that maid she’d scared that day without realising she had been talking to her the whole time.
Although she did wonder briefly if James would have been better off in the Americas, away from his oppressive mistress, that awful cow Dursley –
‘Oh, bloody Merlin!’ Ginny swore internally, feeling her face flush with heat as she realised the implications of her marriage and James’ household. ‘He’ll be my servant – Hermione too,’ she added, although she doubted the girl would still have her job after this. ‘I can’t be his mistress, I just can’t…’
“She is still a servant, Ginny,” Ron said suddenly in the quiet jumping Ginny from her thoughts. “I am a Prince, a servant of the crown and I will do my duty, just like you. I will not be humiliated like this.”
He half flinched at the end of his pronouncement as though expecting to Ginny to fly off into another rant. Instead Ginny just felt tired, sad and guilty. It was all very well to yell at him for sticking to propriety over true love but was she any better? Her thoughts lingered on James; she hadn’t wanted to admit it but she liked him and not as a friend. The way his dark hair stuck out every which way on his head; how he made her laugh; how his green eyes watched her with a strange intensity; the way her arm had tingled when he had held her.
But he was a servant and so she had tried to ignore the feelings, even when it seemed impossible to keep him from her thoughts. At the end of the day, she was too much of a snob and a coward to do what she was berating her brother for not doing.
She sighed and looked at the glass slipper in her hand. Hermione had left it behind as she was leaving – if being dragged by Dursley could be called leaving. It was a pretty thing, very unusual. She didn’t know why she’d picked it up, why she’d brought it to her idiotic brother. It wasn’t like one shoe would change his mind if logic and true love couldn’t. She put it on the wall next to him anyway.
“Then you don’t deserve her,” she told him quietly and walked away.
‘Just like I don’t deserve James.’