The tiny, uneven shops hulked over the street monstrously, their dirty windows like black eyes and their roofs crooked as angry brows. But with a fresh fall of snow softening all the edges and masking the collected filth in the gutters, Knockturn Alley was almost pretty. Here, there were no dancing lights or lilting songs – no one marked Christmas with much pomp on this street. Instead, people decorated with darkness. It suited the place's business.
In the ankle-deep drifts, a tattered shawl pulled tight around her shoulders, Merope Gaunt looked like a shadow herself. Her skin was pale and clammy with sickness, her hair thick and black around her face, her eyes hollow from hunger, her mouth slack, colorless, and despairing. And dwarfing all the rest, her round belly curved out into the cold and would not stay covered by the shawl. She rested her hands atop it, and stared down into the fingers small as twigs.
Ten golden coins shone dully in her palms. That's all her birthright had fetched.
She could feel tears threatening, but she closed her hands around the galleons and squeezed until it hurt. The pain brought her back to her senses. No use crying in the cold, for the terrible deed was done: The locket sold, her fate was sealed, and all she had now was this tiny sum and her huge purpose.
Which had nothing to do with her fate at all.
In the bright holiday bustle of Diagon Alley, Merope kept her head down and her arms curled protectively around her belly. A lone and clearly miserable pregnant woman, without a coat or suitable shoes, might have called attention to herself amid the many cheerful faces of wizarding London – but no one wanted to see her, and so their eyes slid right over her as though she did not exist. She was used to this. The lot of the wretched poor in a merry world was invisibility, and that seemed fitting to her.
A quick turn off the main thoroughfare, and Merope found herself in the calm of Bane Alley. Rich merchants had their specialty shops and offices here, and all down the way, cleverly painted signs advertised the services of private mediwitches, high-end potions makers, and aura analysts. It didn't take her long to find the door she sought. Painted the deep azure of a summer evening's sky and decorated with constellations that swirled as she approached, the door read,
I READ THE STARS … FOR THE STARS!
Under other circumstances, she might have laughed. Now she set her mouth in a thin, hard line, and knocked with as much confidence as she could muster. Which wasn't much. Her bony knuckles barely tapped against the wood, and she despaired of being heard.
Moments passed, the cold blowing through Merope's thin clothes as though she were naked. But then, in a burst of warm light and fragrance, the door opened to reveal the most talented seer in Britain.
Tall, ancient-faced, white-haired, and gaudily dressed in silks and talismans from far-off lands, Cassandra Trelawney stood in her hall like a dervish in tableau. Her eyes were closed dramatically and her broad hips tinkled with a sash of bells. "Ahhhh," she intoned in a dreamy voice, "I knew this would be the hour of your arrival, for my tea leaves told of an important visitor who would bring me –"
She came up short upon opening her eyes and taking in the dark girl on her doorstep. "Oh," she said brusquely, the loveliness gone from her voice. "Um. Are you lost?"
"No," Merope said. She held out five galleons. "I'd like a reading."
The seer flicked her eyes to the coins, then to Merope's belly, then to her poorly shod feet, and finally to her bedraggled mop of hair. "I'm sorry, child, but I don't have any openings today. Time, that devil, works ever against our ends, and –"
Swallowing back a weary sob, Merope extended her other hand, which held the rest of her money.
"Well," Cassandra sighed. "It is nearly Christmas, after all." She stood back, allowing Merope to pass, and shut the door against the cold behind her.
The smell of incense set her head spinning as soon as she entered the parlor. It took her a moment to get her bearings and collect herself, to take in the tapestries on the walls, the crystals hanging from the ceiling, the arcane symbols scrawled onto the floor. At the center of the room, surrounded by great mounds of velveteen pillows, stood a heavily draped table topped by a crystal ball of stunning size. It was like nothing she'd ever encountered before, and she felt like a slack-jawed Muggle seeing magic for the first time. Cassandra, meanwhile, was fiddling with the very ordinary-looking wireless set in the corner. "Make yourself comfortable, my girl," she called over her shoulder. Music filled the room, then, a great swelling of horns and violins that set the crystals dancing in the candlelight. Awestruck, Merope settled clumsily into the pile of pillows.
"It doesn't take the Sight to figure out that you're in trouble," Cassandra said when she finally sat at the little round table. "Husband left you, I suppose – or was there even a husband to begin with?"
"Yes, I had a husband. Tom. He left in the summer."
She clicked her tongue disapprovingly and began rummaging around under the tablecloth. "Tea leaves are good for finding wayward men, and we can read his stars to determine the likelihood of his returning." A stack of tiny teak boxes and parchment charts was growing in front of her.
Merope shook her head fiercely. "No. I don't care about him."
Cassandra paused, an ornate cup in her hand. "You don't care about him," she repeated.
The girl's face was fallen in a mask of sadness. "I – I used a love potion on him, and then I couldn't afford the lacewings anymore, and I tried to use morning moths instead, but …." She shrugged defeatedly. "It's just as well. I deserved to lose him. I'm … a traitor."
Cassandra held Merope's eyes for a moment. Then, she commanded, "Show me your palm." When Merope complied, the seer peered into the small, white hand. She murmured to herself and traced the lines below the fingers and around the thumb. "Yes, I see betrayal. I see hardship. Family life is an utter disaster. And yet, your ancestry stands out prominently. It's all tangled up with the disloyalty here, and then, your lifeline –"
She looked up suddenly, fear and pity mixed in her eyes. "You have been untrue to your blood. You will be punished."
Merope nodded. "But … the baby."
"You’re afraid for him."
In a gesture whose tenderness seemed at odds with her ruined appearance, Merope stroked her belly gently. "I've had dreams." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Nightmares."
Cassandra lifted the hand she'd been studying and laid it against the side of the crystal ball. She waved her wand over it, and immediately, it clouded over and began roiling with dark shapes. Some resembled human figures, or twisted faces, or flashes of color – red eyes, green light. "I dream my son is a monster," Merope said in a soft, chanting voice. "He is in pain. He is cold, alone, shunned, despised. And then – destroyed."
Once again, the old woman closed her eyes, but there was no superfluous theatricality about it this time; her brow furrowed with genuine concentration and concern, and the candle flames around her guttered in an invisible wind. She trembled slightly. When she finally spoke, her voice was low, hoarse, and entirely foreign:
"THE CHILD CONCEIVED AS A TRAITOR, BORN AS AN ORPHAN, RAISED AS ONE LESSER, WILL RISE AS A LORD. MANY WILL FOLLOW HIM, MORE WILL FALL BEFORE HIM. IN THE END, THE MARKED BOY WILL REIGN VICTORIOUS."
A chill ran down Merope's spine, and a strange, crooked grin broke across her face. It was the first time she'd smiled in months. She whispered, "Victorious. My boy – a lord – and victorious."
Cassandra shook and shuddered. She opened her eyes, blinked, and looked around as though reorienting herself.
"Well," she said, straightening her noble white hair. "Did you get your eight galleons' worth?"
Merope looked confused. "Eight? But I gave you –"
With raised eyebrows, the seer flicked her wand, and two gold coins appeared on the table. "You've a few weeks left to feed that boy in your belly," she said matter-of-factly as Merope's eyes widened. "Now, can I give you a cup of coffee to warm you before you go?"
When Cassandra Trelawney's starry door closed, leaving Merope alone in the snow, the odd smile still lingered beneath the hollows of her eyes. A biting wind rose out from between the fine houses of Bane Alley and tugged the frayed edges of her shawl off her arms. She barely noticed the cold, though. And when she made her way once again through the busy Christmas shoppers, their arms all laden with packages, some of them did pause to watch her pass by. They watched the poor girl, large with child, walking in the snow without boots or a coat, and saw someone touched by unexpected hope.