Deep within the chasm
lives the man without a name
Day and night were beginning to blur together, and the woman pulled her hood lower over her face, wand clutched tightly within the folds of her cloak. This was not the sort of place she felt comfortable in; she had never been anywhere like it, and the transient normalcy of the grime smeared across the sidewalk and the smoke that curled up from the chimneys, clearly lacking the buzzing, electric snap and sizzle of magical activity, left her feeling more than just a little bereft.
But she could not put this off any longer.
The man at the faded door in the alley seemed to be waiting for her, because he didn’t ask any questions; only heard her pronounce one name and wordlessly drew back, pushing the door open with a hand. She didn’t realize, until she had stepped warily into the darkened building, that she had expected it to smell just as bad as the streets did. But it didn’t; instead, the scent of cold corridors and musty bookshelves enveloped her, disturbingly reminiscent of the house she had just left behind—a signature, she supposed, that all those of the family created around them, willingly or not.
There was someone waiting for her inside; another man, just as rough as the first, scars scattered over his thick neck and arms. He barely spared her a second glance, and she followed him up a narrow flight of dark velvet steps. The silence was menacing. She clutched her wand tighter.
When they reached the door and the man stopped, she pulled off her hood, drew a breath and entered.
The man she had come to see was lying in a large bed at the center of the dimly lit room. Outside, sunlight was fading, but the thin curtains allowed through slivers of grey London sunlight. The man was propped up on some cushions, and the steely look he offered her nearly made her forget that he was an invalid, a dying man.
He had not changed at all.
“So you did come,” he said simply, eyes unblinking.
She drew in a shaking breath, her wand still clutched under her cloak, away from his sight. “I didn’t come for you—I came for her.”
“A worthy motive, I suppose,” he replied, and his eyes examined her critically. It was almost as if he could see the wand in her grasp. “You have grown old.”
Biting down on the inside of her cheek, it took her a moment to respond. “You’re dying.”
“Something finally found a way to kill you, then?”
He let out a short laugh. He was balding, now, which was unusual—his father had never grown bald and neither had her husband—and there was a distinct grayish sheen to his skin which was proof enough of his illness.
“Disease is the most effective murderer, out of any of us,” he said calmly. “I would call it a triumph.”
“You would,” she replied scathingly. “Why did you call me? Is there no one to mourn for you?”
He remained silent for a second, surveying her impassively in the way that had always unnerved her, even when they had been children. What Cassie had seen in him, she had no idea—she supposed there were some similarities of character, perhaps, but though she had loved that character in another, in him she loathed it with violence.
“I want you to take something with you,” he finally answered, turning slightly to look over the edge of the bed. “There are some… items, that ought to be returned to the place they came from.”
She didn’t move.
“It isn’t dangerous,” he continued. “It’s merely a box. Take it with you—I suppose your house will do. It isn’t safe for them to stay here.”
“I don’t live at Ethermont anymore.”
“I suppose that is hard for you.”
At his words, the careful self-control she had shrouded herself in snapped, and her wand was out, pointed directly at his head. “How dare you mock me?” she hissed. “I would have killed you long ago if it weren't for Cassie’s unfortunate love for you—”
“If it weren't for Cassie’s unfortunate love for me,” he drawled, unfazed by the prospect of her wand. “Both of you would be dead.”
“Did you kill my husband ?”
“Does it matter?” he asked, arms crossed serenely over the coverlet, but his expression was dark. “I never did like you. And yet, for Cassie’s sake, I endured your pitiful treatment of my sister in favor of a man that never did anything but hurt you—”
“You killed him!” she cried, tears of rage welling in her eyes. “I know you did!”
“And if I did, then it most likely remains the most noble action I have ever carried out for that House!” his nostrils flared. “You never did care for Cassie as much as she cared for you, and she knew that. The least you can do is accept that the man who tried to murder her is gone—and good riddance. Any other attitude regarding his death is sheer disrespect towards your relationship with my sister, and renders all her sacrifices worthless. You didn’t deserve her; and now you intend to kill the only one who did care for her as much as she deserved to be cared for.”
Letting out a shuddering breath, she stepped back, arm falling limp at her side. Tears flowed unstoppably down her cheeks, and she hated herself for appearing so weak before the scathing truth.
“As strained as the dealings between you and me have always been,” Marius Black continued, now more gently. “Do indulge me—or Cassie, if you will—with this last favor.”
Trembling, she stilled her breathing, and tentatively approached the bed. Beneath the edge of the coverlet, just beside the iron foot, was a dusty cardboard box, similar to a shoe box. Glancing at him again, she reached down and took it in her hands.
Slowly, she pushed off the cover of the box and looked down at its contents, now worn with time and encrusted with dust. It must have been a long time since he had procured them. She sighed.
The clock chimed six times before Cassiopeia finally looked up from the dresser. She caught Marius’ gaze in the reflection.
“It’s not good manners to lurk,” she said dryly, before burying an emerald pin in her dark hair, which was curling into a complicated updo with the help of her wand.
Marius ignored her comment. Leaning against the doorway, he cast a thin, dark shadow against the corridor floor. He was tall, unusually thin, his dark hair curling slightly against his pale forehead. There was a small, crystal Sneakoscope clutched between his fingers.
“Father’s getting impatient,” he stated calmly. “He says you ought to hurry.”
Cassiopeia huffed, dropping her wand and leaning closer to the mirror, examining the finished product of her toils critically. “They can wait,” she said dismissively. “It isn’t as if Mother ever had the intention of arriving on time to begin with.”
Marius’ lips curved into a smirk. He turned the Sneakoscope over in his hand. “They’re all in a flurry about Pollux being back.”
She sniffed irritably, rising from her chair, cream dress robes pooling around her feet. “Frankly, the glee with which they view it all is rather sickening. They’re hardly the first couple to get married in the family.”
“Speaking of which,” Marius said, voice calm but expression calculating as he watched her turn to examine her robes in the mirror. “Don’t you think you might be putting a bit too much effort into this? It was their honeymoon…”
Her dark eyes met his pale green ones with glowering defiance. “And why should that change anything?”
He shrugged and looked away.
She stared at him coldly for another second, as if daring him to say another word, and then reached for her satchel. “I overheard Mother and Father speaking earlier,” she said with an offhandedness that didn’t quite succeed in masking the ice in her tone. “She wants you out of the house.”
“She always has. Father won’t allow it.”
“He might now,” Cassiopeia said, hitching up her skirts and making her way across the bedroom towards the door. “They’re going to wait until Dorea’s wedding. You know,” she slipped her shoes on. “Less of a scandal in the face of all the gossip.”
Marius ground his teeth silently, eyes fixed on the floor. “That’s still awhile off. The engagement isn’t even formalized yet—”
“She’ll be of age next month,” his sister said. “The Potters are adamant that it should happen soon. And you’re nigh twenty now; it’s hard to keep up the charade when you look anything but sickly.”
She passed by him on her way out of the room, and he stuffed his hands into his pockets, following her down the steps.
“I’m surprised they didn’t insist on me attending,” Marius remarked scornfully. The staircase curled down to the ground floor, which was lit brightly, hushed voices coming from the parlor. “I suppose Dorea being at Hogwarts is sufficient excuse to make the visit with only you in tow.”
“They’re already married,” Cassiopeia snorted. “The pretense can disappear now. And it’s not like the Crabbes haven’t known anyway. Everyone knows.”
“Don’t let them hear you say that.”
Marius pulled out a small box from his pocket and stuffed the Sneakoscope into it. It snapped shut, and he put it back into his pocket just as they neared the parlor doorway. His sister glided inside without sparing him a second glance. He stayed back.
"Cassiopeia, for Merlin's sake—we can't keep the Crabbes waiting forever!"
"I thought you said they were family now?" she retorted airily.
Violetta Black crossed her arms over her elaborately sequined robes and scowled at her daughter. She was an elegantly dressed woman—Cassiopeia often muttered that she dressed so to hide her more unfavorable Bulstrode characteristics—, but there was a savage glint to her eye as she looked about the room. "They are, but we owe them courtesy nonetheless; you ought to take a leaf out of that sweet girl Irma's book. Where's the boy?"
She missed the sly curve of Cassiopeia's lips as Marius emerged from the hallway, expression intentionally impassive.
"Well, it is a relief to not have to drag your sorry weight around," Violetta snapped. "Fetch me my cloak."
As their son moved to obey, Cygnus Black stirred in his place by the fire. Tall and grey-haired, his eyebrows were drawn together in a frown of concern. He turned as Marius placed the cloak around his mother's shoulders with the same precision he always employed.
"Have my letter owled," Cygnus ordered, his deep, confident voice in contradiction with the nervous manner in which he crossed his fingers over his lapels as he nodded towards an envelope on the coffee table.
"And change yourself into something more decent," Violetta said, her voice slipping into the snide casualness of habitual distaste. "I won't have you about this house looking like a—"
"Like a Muggle, Mother?" Marius' tone was casual, but Cygnus' jaw clenched.
She turned, eyes flashing, and dug her wand into her son's shoulder. Immediately, a blistering burning sensation spread over his skin. He bit down hard on his tongue, refusing to react.
“Violetta, dear, we must leave,” Cygnus remarked with a sigh.
Violetta reluctantly lowered her wand. "Don't be impertinent with me, Marius," she hissed. "There's no need to advertise your faults; they're evident enough without being put into words.”
He pressed his fists into the pockets of his trousers. He wasn’t really wearing Muggle clothing—at any rate, he wore robes over them, but he said nothing as he waited for the green flames to recede along with his parents and sister.
Once they did, he made quick work of the letter—he had learned how to unseal and reseal envelopes years ago—even though he was already positive he knew what it was about. His father sent his uncle Sirius letters on an almost hourly basis, circling the same subject with all the decisiveness of a sloth. After skimming over its contents and returning it to its original state, he dispatched it with the family owl and left the room.
Ethermont Hall was one of the four houses of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black’s estate. The second best, his mother was fond of sniffing, eyeing Aunt Hesper with vicious jealousy. While considerably large, it was set on the very edge of the St. Katharine docks, much too near to Muggle London for Wizarding tastes; the footsteps, voices, rattling of carts and the blaring horns of ships in constant traffic were noises no silencing charms could completely suppress, and one had to squeeze past masses of people to reach the tall building—the eastern side of which Muggles always seemed to ignore. Marius had been amused to find that, although the Black family thought the building an ostentatious Muggle creation, it was really nothing more than a warehouse, slightly altered to blend in more elegantly with the docks.
The Blacks had always favored more urban homes, or at any rate that was what his father had told Pollux when asked, and the family business had always been conducted near the Ministry’s premises. There was nowhere better to be, except perhaps Grimmauld Place. Why his ancestors had never bothered to move Ethermont elsewhere, when they had the easy option of Apparition, Marius had never known, but it was convenient for him—one of the few favors his unfortunate family had done him, albeit unknowingly—and for that he was grateful.
He quickly climbed the staircase again to the top of the house, a room that mere courtesy stopped from being called an attic. Reaching into his wardrobe, he retrieved an overcoat and hat, and pulled the overcoat onto his shoulders as he walked back down the stairs, tapping his fingers sharply against the weight of its pocket’s contents as he did so.
The hat was on his head when he finally made his habitual way out the series of doors, mostly barricaded by a series of furniture and curtains—his mother didn’t like thinking about their close proximity to London despite the pride she took in it—and he was halfway through lighting a cigarette when he stepped out into the busy, bustling streets of the East End.
Before taking a drag of his cigarette, he stopped on the narrow step just in front of the now closed door that bridged the Wizarding World and the Muggle one, and took a deep breath. The people, mostly sailors rushing about with large cargoes of sacks and crates before nightfall and hurried shoppers whose clinking coins were clutched tightly in their hands or in the safety of their pockets, hardly spared him a second glance. He was not, after all, the sort of person who turned heads—and he counted on it.
Hat pulled over his face and cigarette between his teeth, he strode through the street, leaving the hidden house behind him. Already long lines of workers were leaving the docks, exhaustion carved into their faces. They were the lucky ones—a few hundred more had lost the morning race to employment, though it would all start over the following day. Angry cabbies screamed obscenities at pedestrians, and children traipsed here and there playing games of their own invention. Some of the youngsters, though, clearly had other plans in mind; the two that lingered closer to Marius, recognizing in some manner the aura of higher birth than theirs, were quickly dismissed by a glare on his part—it would not do for them to steal from another thief, and if anything was tacitly understood in the East End, it was the distinct gleam in the eyes of a fellow criminal. Marius had spent the last nine years of his life acquiring it.
He finally stopped at the corner of Gravel Lane and High Street, and put his hands in his pockets once more, the butt of the cigarette crushed into the gutter. Only a few seconds later, she approached him, placing a kiss on his cheek and an arm in the crook of his.
“Evening,” Elaine said lightly, her painted lips curving into a smile.
Marius turned away from the busy street and glanced down at her arm before looking at her face. “Are you ready? You could have come to Ethermont, you know—they’ve all left.”
“Your Elf might talk.”
He snorted. “It wouldn’t. Either way, we should move before nightfall.” His eyes narrowed slightly as he looked at her expression. “You aren’t having second thoughts, are you?”
Elaine sniffed, hand toying with the beaded clutch she held. “I’m wondering how sure you are about this, that’s all. I think it’s much less of a waste of time to take something simple, like a purse, or some jewelry…”
“We’ve moved past that,” Marius said shortly. “Do you intend to be a pickpocket forever? Nolan assures me there’s a chance if we get this done—”
“But they’re Muggles.”
A small smirk appeared on his lips as he steered them into the crowd of people making their way down the street. A chill was rising from the Thames, making the thinly-dressed children near the wall shiver. In the distance, a ship’s horn blowed. “You astound me, Elaine Prewett. After all the things your father has said to you, you still cling to that idiotic ideal.”
“It’s not my fault they think me below them,” Elaine said shrewdly, her grip around his arm tightening. “But I am a Squib, not a Muggle, and I do think there’s a stark difference.”
“Well, you’re missing an ample market by refusing to deal with them.”
“I’m not,” she protested. “I’m just hesitant to commit to something so… long-term.”
They turned into another street. Across from where they stood, a mist was rising from the river, clouding the shadowy buildings in even deeper darkness. Figures loitered in the narrow streets, hands in their pockets. Marius kept his eyes on them; they were going to have to be careful.
Elaine reached up to adjust the hat on her head, tipping it flirtatiously so that it completely obscured her golden hair. Marius reached into his coat as subtly as possible and felt the soft, silky fabric of the Invisibility Cloak there. He steered Elaine into a deserted alley on the western side as soon as he saw the group of men leave the brewery.
“You do know what to do?” he muttered at her, glancing around quickly as he pulled out the Cloak, shaking it to its full length.
“We’ve done this before, haven’t we?” she snapped, though her eyes were a bit wider than normal. “Just… do be quick. You might get me killed if you ruin it.”
He pulled the Cloak over him and she straightened her skirt, pulling the gauzy collar lower—Marius couldn’t protest, really—and she was in her element, exuding the very persona her parents and his parents had tried to punch into them their entire childhood: the brilliant, shining character of high society, elegant and joyful… specimens of cultural perfection to make up for the festering lack of magic that made them both rejects of that very society.
Marius strode stealthily ahead of her. It didn’t take long. They had learned their target’s face long ago, as had everyone in the neighborhood, so he knew Elaine would do her part. The man in question wore a heavy overcoat and cap that hid nearly all of him, except for the large mustache he sported. He was followed by three other men, who kept a sharp eye out for anyone approaching them—and yet they took no notice of Elaine until she bumped drunkenly into the mustached man’s chest.
There was a flurry of movement as two of the men reached into their coats, and Marius heard the familiar click of a pistol. Under the cover of the Cloak, Marius reached for a knife.
The man with the mustache had stumbled backwards slightly, but straightened immediately, pushing Elaine off him… and Marius had already reached into his coat, retrieving its contents into the safety of the Cloak, before Elaine slurred a frightened apology and promptly hurried away.
“Watch where yer walkin’, ya little tramp,” the mustached man called after her, reaching out to clutch her behind, but Elaine managed to stumble towards Marius and make her way into a quiet street before the man could touch her.
Marius only put away the knife when he heard them walk away laughing.
Elaine was gritting her teeth when he pulled off the Cloak, keeping it wrapped around his hand and the stolen objects for good measure. It made a disturbing image, his arm ending at the wrist.
“You’d better have gotten something out of that,” Elaine bit out rather nervously, glancing over her shoulder. “Did you see their faces? It won’t take them long to notice.”
Marius pulled the Cloak over both of them, the shadows and the magical fabric hiding them doubly. There was a wallet in his hand, and a revolver—both had the initials A. L. engraved on them.
Marius handed her the wallet. With nimble fingers, she examined the notes inside, smiling when she was done counting them. She reached in to remove half.
“Don’t bother,” Marius said, eyes fixed on the weapon. “I don’t need money.”
Elaine stared at him for a moment, and then pocketed the lot.
“We can stop here, you know,” she offered a few seconds later, eyeing the revolver with distaste. “You needn’t get yourself entangled in all that.”
He looked up at her in the semi-darkness. In the distance, he could hear voices call out above the buzz of the evening streets. Maybe the men had finally discovered the robbery; maybe they were already looking for them. People would die for the crime they had just committed, but the Cloak would keep them safe. Muggles never looked. His fingers stroked the initials on the barrel of the weapon.
“Oh, I really must,” he replied.
Elaine sighed, and then pulled out the money again to count it. There was a slight desperation to the way she held the notes; Marius wondered how much more she needed to save in order to escape her family. He wondered if she could escape. He wondered, not for the first time, if he could persuade her to escape with him.
At the very least she, like him, had ambitions that were easily fed by the Muggle world. None of the rest really mattered. Looking over her head, he could glimpse the first lights of Wapping glimmering as taverns came to life. The revolver in his pocket was a welcome weight added to his coat, and he had plans for it.
The original name of the pub had been forgotten ages ago. Nowadays, it was merely called The Hangman. Sometime in the past, pirates had been hung there and left on display for the crowds. Though the Law seldom ventured down the narrow stairs that led to its shabby exterior, the place was still remembered, at least in name, for its most infamous punishments—and yet, counter-intuitively, it was criminals who now made their home there.
It was precisely that brand of fame that gave Marius a sort of sinister thrill when he finally stepped through the doors that he had been watching so intently for months, the revolver tucked safely into his coat, the Sneakoscope clutched in his hand.
The place was not yet full, but a group of men sat at the back, and they watched him silently through cigarette smoke. Marius didn’t stare back. Far from young men letting loose after a busy day at work, they had been placed in the pub for a purpose. The barman looked up sharply from behind the mahogany counter, and the way he held a bottle in his hand was akin to a threat. Strangers didn’t wander into The Hangman often.
Marius pulled out the revolver and slid it across the counter.
He heard the scrape of chairs as the men at the back stood up, and didn’t need to look to be sure that they had weapons in their hands. The barman had reached for something under the table, expression dangerous.
Marius ignored their reactions. “I want to speak to the Cook.”