Chapter Seven: Charade
I was running. There were too many injured, too many people that needed to be helped. We wouldn't be able to help them all before the Death Eaters attacked again, but we had to try.
Someone grabbed my arm. I spun around and my cheeks flushed red.
Ron brushed my hair out of my face. I winced when he bumped a cut over my eye. He frowned.
"You're taking care of everyone else, but who's taking care of you?"
"It's nothing," I said, starting to pull away. "Just a scratch."
He held firmly to my arm with his left hand, and drew out his wand with his right. With a wave, the cut was clean, and throbbed considerably less. I couldn't help but smile.
"See? I was paying attention to some of what you taught me."
"Ron Weasley, you surprise me every day."
He pulled me in close and pressed his lips against mine. They were so warm.
I broke off the kiss and stepped away, my cheeks turning even redder when I noticed people staring at us. "There's not time for this. We have to help the injured."
He reluctantly let me go. I turned and headed for Pansy Parkinson, who'd broken her leg somehow. As I neared her, I heard someone shouting, and turned. Two girls, both in Slytherin uniforms, were screaming at each other. I hurried over.
"What if they win?" a blonde girl said, anxiety in her voice. I recognized her—Daphne Greengrass. She was in our year.
"And what if they don't win? What if he does?" the brunette was saying. She seemed to be a couple years younger than Daphne. "Think of what you're doing to the family!"
"Is there a problem here?"
The brunette whirled around. "Yes. The problem is you, and everyone else fighting in this stupid battle. We should all just join him, for Merlin's sake! What are you even fighting for?"
She stomped off. Daphne watched her go, her eyes filling with tears. I bit my lip and put a hand on her shoulder.
"Hang in there," I whispered. "We're going to come out on top. You'll see."
She forced a smile, then took a deep breath. "Go, take care of Pansy. She looks like she's in a lot of pain."
I turned and ran straight into Ginny.
"Where is he? I can't find him anywhere!"
"Gin, calm down! Where is who?"
"Harry! Have you seen him?"
I opened my eyes and stared up at the ceiling of Malfoy's bedroom. I looked to my right—he was still sleeping soundly. Slowly, I climbed out of bed and threw on a robe. I fumbled around in the darkness until I'd found Astoria's diary, then left the room.
Astoria was the brunette that night, during the Battle of Hogwarts. I'd completely forgotten about seeing Daphne there, about her fighting on our side. If my memory was right, Astoria was the one who was rooting for Voldemort. Daphne had a change of heart.
Could it be that she didn't mean all the horrible things she was saying now? Was she, just like me, putting on an act to survive?
I shook my head and set aside the thought. Finding a bench, I sat down to read. The more I read, the more I despised the person I was pretending to be. She was heartless, always exploiting others for her personal gain, and one hundred percent loyal to the Emperor. How Malfoy had pretended to be in love with her was a mystery to me. How I was going to pretend to be her this evening was an even bigger mystery.
By the time the sun came up, I was on the last entry.
Well, Diary, I'm pregnant.
I didn't really plan this, but I can use it to my advantage. Draco still doesn't suspect me, and once he finds out I'm carrying his child—well, we'll be closer than ever.
I know I'm close to figuring out something big, I just don't know what. He's been getting mysterious letters lately that he won't let me read, and he keeps them locked in his desk. If I can just get it open, I'm sure to find something that the Emperor will reward me handsomely for. If I wrap this up quickly enough, maybe I won't have to go through with having the baby anyway, and I can finally take this eyesore of a ring off my finger.
I closed the book. How was I supposed to act like that?
As I walked back to the room, I came to the conclusion that Astoria probably wouldn't show her true colors in public, anyway. If I could somehow channel everything I'd read into a more proper, polite setting, I could pull this off.
When I opened the door, Malfoy was just getting out of bed. He blinked, obviously still half-asleep.
"How long have you been awake?" he grumbled.
"A few hours. I didn't want to wake you, so I stepped out."
He yawned as he stood. "You should try to get some more sleep. Rest up for the party."
He pulled off his shirt and headed for the bathroom. I quickly looked away. Seeing him shirtless made me oddly uncomfortable.
Instead of climbing back into bed as he suggested, I went into the closet and picked out an outfit. I would obviously change before the party tonight, but I might as well wear something else suitable until then.
The day went by much too slowly. I spent less time in the library than the day before, merely to avoid suspicion. And it wasn't like I had nothing to do—people were coming in and out of the house constantly, decorating it for the celebration. Lady Greengrass asked for my opinion on a few things, but I barely had time to give it before she'd made the final decision. That was fine with me—this wasn't really my engagement party, anyway.
I noticed that Daphne was very quiet throughout the whole day. I remembered something Astoria'd written in her diary, how the Emperor initially suggested Daphne be the one to seduce Malfoy, but her father chose her instead. It seemed an odd thing to be upset about, not having to pretend to be in love with someone to uncover their secrets, but I had a feeling there was more behind it. "You always were his favorite," she'd said.
Regardless of how the real Astoria would have acted, I decided to say something to her, try to cheer her up. As I approached her, I felt a strong hand on my shoulder and turned around.
Blaise Zabini was grinning at me. "Well, well, if it isn't the bride-to-be. Charming to see you again after so long."
I grinned back. I'd been expecting this—Blaise and Astoria dated right up until she started going after Malfoy.
"It's good to see you too, Blaise," I said. "I'm glad you got your invitation."
"Wouldn't miss it for the world," he said mischievously. He pulled me into a tight hug and pressed his lips against my ear.
"I can't wait for Malfoy to be out of the way, and we can be together again," he whispered, then kissed my cheek.
I suppressed a shiver. That was a detail she neglected to include in her journal writing.
"You're early," I said as I stepped back, keeping my voice steady.
"Draco asked me to pop in. I expect he's going to ask me to be the best man." He winked.
I felt like vomiting. "I was just about to head upstairs, I'll send him down."
I passed Daphne on my way to the bedroom, but decided I could talk to her during the party. At the moment, I just wanted to get as far away from Zabini as possible.
Draco was leaving the bedroom just as I reached it. I told him Zabini was downstairs, then hurried inside to change. The party was starting in just under an hour, and I hadn't decided what I was going to wear yet. After a few minutes of deliberation, I chose a stunning blue, floor-length gown with a low V-neck and lower back.
When I was dressed, I stared at myself in the mirror. Hermione Granger would never wear something like this, but it was exactly what Astoria Greengrass would wear. She wanted to be noticed by everyone.
With a flick of my wand, my hair was perfectly straight and sleek. I retrieved a pearl headband and pearl earrings from Astoria's jewelry box, completing the look. I looked almost frighteningly beautiful.
By the time I got downstairs, guests had already started arriving. I put up walls around my thoughts, feeling incredibly fearful. Despite my fear, I greeted each guest with a smile, saying as little as possible. I recognized many of those in attendance—from fighting them.
At length, I caught a glimpse of Malfoy on the other side of the drawing room and made my way toward him. As I was about to reach him, a shrill voice stopped me dead in my tracks.
"Let's take a look at the girl who's going to marry my nephew, shall we?"
I slowly turned to see Bellatrix Lestrange, but she wasn't the Bellatrix I remembered. Her wild hair was tamed in a complicated updo. Her dress was still black, but it put mine to shame. She had a black boa draped across her shoulders, and twirled it as she approached me.
"Good evening," I said, trying to forget what happened the last time the two of us were in this room together.
She eyed me for a moment before leaning in. "You know, I have to warn you," she breathed on my face, "marrying into the Malfoy's could be your undoing. It certainly was my sister's."
"I have all the faith in the world that Draco's more loyal than his father," I said as confidently as I could.
She considered me for another moment before straightening. "Well then a hearty congratulations to you both," she said loudly, raising her glass.
"Well said, my pet."
I caught my breath. The crowd in front of me parted to reveal the Emperor himself. He seemed to glide, not walk, toward me. Bellatrix gazed at him lovingly and took his arm when he offered it.
He looked me up and down, finally locking his eyes on mine. "You must be the enchanting Miss Greengrass I've heard so much about. What a pleasure to finally meet you."
I lowered myself to the ground in a deep curtsy, harboring hatred in my heart.
"The pleasure is all mine, Your Imperial Majesty."
"My Liege! It is an honor to welcome you into my home."
I straightened. Sometime in the last few minutes Draco had made his way over to me. I took his arm, avoiding the gaze of those horrid red eyes.
"How could I miss your engagement party, Draco? You're like a son to me," said Voldemort, the lie gliding easily off his tongue.
"And you a father to me," said Draco.
"And as a father figure, I believe it is my duty to interview the lady on your arm." He released Bellatrix and extended a hand to me. "Shall we, Miss Greengrass?"
I felt a stab of fear, but ignored it. I put on my very best smile, kissed Draco's cheek, and took the Emperor's arm.
"I am very humbled, my Liege," I said.
The crowd parted for us as we walked out to the gardens. People weren't staring, however—even the most loyal Death Eaters were avoiding eye contact with the Dark Lord, still afraid of him. No one wanted him to notice them—they just wanted to stay out of his way.
Astoria wasn't like that—she would relish this opportunity, to speak privately with the Emperor. It was what she'd been working towards, what she was hoping for. Somehow I needed to convince him I was excited, rather than terrified.
"Your father speaks very highly of you," he said once we were out of earshot of the party. "He has complete faith in your abilities."
"I hope to instill the same faith in you, my Liege," I said.
He let out what I thought was a small laugh. "I admire your confidence."
And then, I felt him prodding at my mind. I resisted the urge to push him out, but didn't let my walls down either.
"I see you value your privacy," he said, a note of warning in his tone.
"A precaution only," I said, surprised to hear how steady my voice was. "I do not think Draco suspects me, but I keep my thoughts guarded at all times, just in case."
The prodding stopped. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his lips twist into a smile.
"You are a very intelligent young woman," he hissed with a hint of approval. "I see why your father has such confidence in you."
I sighed inwardly, masking my relief. I just lied directly to Voldemort and got away with it.
"What are you observations of him as of late?" he asked as we turned and headed back toward the house.
"He spends a lot of time on his own—I'm sure he's working on something. And during the funeral service yesterday, and afterwards, he seemed distracted."
His expression hardened. I knew I was on dangerous ground mentioning the funeral, but I couldn't help myself. If there was even the slightest chance he would tell me something, I had to try.
I stopped walking and turned to face him. "If I may be so bold, I was appalled by the treasonous display at the end of your beautiful service. I wondered if there was any way I could be of use in tracking down those responsible."
Voldemort eyed me with an expression I couldn't quite read. I held my breath.
"Unfortunately, the culprits are still at large," he said at length. "The explosion was remote, and they were nowhere near Hogwarts when it went off."
I masked my delight and frowned instead. "Do you have any idea who's responsible for the incident?"
"The same people who have been evading capture for the past seven years," he said, malice in his voice. "I am sure there is a traitor within my council helping them. That is why, once you've finished with Draco, I would like you to come work with me as a private secretary and investigate each member of my council one by one."
"I would be incredibly honored, my Liege," I said with a slight bow.
He grinned at me and took my arm once more. "Your loyalty will not go unrewarded. When Draco is taken care of, you will receive Malfoy Manor to do with as you please."
"You are too generous," I said, feigning surprise. "The opportunity to serve you is reward enough."
He laughed. "You're even more intelligent than I thought, Astoria Greengrass. It will be a pleasure having you in my court."
We'd reached the manor again, and he kissed my hand before releasing me and gliding over to Bellatrix.
Almost immediately, Draco was by my side. "How did it go?" he asked, handing me a drink.
"Couldn't have been better."
He grinned. "Well then, I think it's about time we made our announcement, don't you?"
I took his hand and kissed his cheek in response. Together, we made our way through the crowd to the entryway and up to the top of the staircase. Once there, Draco cleared his throat loudly.
"Can I have everyone's attention please?"
After a few moments, the crowd died down. People who were in other rooms crowded into the entryway. I smiled down at all of them, and for the first time it wasn't forced. Knowing that George and whoever else was involved were safe was enough to keep me smiling all night, no matter how unpleasant the company.
"Astoria and I would like to thank each and every one of you individually for attending our engagement part—but seeing as there are so many of you, this public thanks will have to do."
A chuckle ran through the crowd. I joined in.
Draco continued. "Many of you have been asking me for weeks what date to mark on your calendars, and I'm pleased to put an end to the suspense. My darling fiancé and I will be married June 25th of next year."
Everyone broke into a polite applause. Draco looked down at me, a loving smile on his face. Though I knew it was all part of the act, there was an uncomfortable tightening in my chest when he looked at me that way. I stood on my tiptoes and kissed him, and there was even more applause and cheers from our guests.
Suddenly, all noise stopped. I looked out into the crowd. The Emperor was approaching the stairs, Bellatrix still hanging on his arm.
"Surely you two don't want to wait almost a full year to say your vows," he said in his high-pitched voice. "No, your wedding will be held on New Years Eve, at my palace. I will not take no for an answer."
Draco looked stunned. For once, I recovered more quickly.
"As always, your generosity is incredibly humbling, my Liege. Of course we will accept your offer."
"And what better way to bring in the new year than by joining two people in love?" he said, a horrible smirk on his face. "We will begin planning for the occasion immediately."
Again, the crowd burst into applause, but though it was louder, it was considerably less genuine. Draco and I both bowed to the Dark Lord, hiding our discomfort. We glanced at each other, and I knew we were both thinking the same thing.
Harry better get out of that coma before December.***
A/N: Longer chapter, but I think you'll agree it was worth it. I hope you're having half as much fun reading this as I am writing it! Please review!