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Chapter 1 - Magic and Machination by A.J. Hall

“Sir,” the voice said, “I should take it as a great favour were you to turn my portrait round. The plaster work on this wall, while excellent of its kind, is not the most convivial of companions.”

Neville suppressed a gasp. The original purpose of his visit to the small third floor box-room fled his memory. The painting which had spoken was currently showing only the reverse side of its stretched canvas, which bore fragments of a label from the name of some long-gone art dealer in Diagon Alley. He picked the picture up and turned it over.

The lady in the sprigged muslin dress rose from her chair and dropped him a graceful curtsey. “Thank you, sir. You must think me very forward, as we have not been introduced, but the usages of polite society do sometimes have to give place to practicality.”

Clouds of dust danced in the thin shaft of December sunlight that slanted in through the mullioned window. Neville sneezed.

“Bless you, sir,” the painted lady said.

There was a certain edge to her tone.

Nineteen years with his grandmother had taught him to judge with precision the moment when a conventional response should be read as a broad hint, and how long he had -– in seconds — before broad hint mutated into veiled threat.

“Would you like me to take you somewhere more comfortable?”

She raised her eyebrows. He flushed, acutely conscious that his usual jeans, rugby shirt and trainers were hardly the sort of thing a lady of her type would consider the dress of a gentleman. But he could hardly leave the portrait here, either; quite apart from anything else if Hermione ever found out about it he’d probably be spending the rest of the century as a drop-leaf table. Not that she’d shown any signs of crusading on behalf of neglected wizarding art treasures so far, but given the success of her ‘Think Elfish, not Selfish’ campaign she’d no doubt soon be in the market for the next Good Cause.

Uneasily he wondered how the Wizangemot characterised the removal of wizarding portraits against their wishes. Surely it was more likely to be classed as abduction than as art theft? Though there was a certain glint in the painted eyes of the portrait that suggested that she might not, necessarily, object to abduction in principle. At least when compared to the charms of looking at the cracked plaster of a box-room wall. He pressed home his advantage.

“I – ah – I do live in the Manor, you know. Neville Longbottom.”

“I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr Longbottom. I have grown sadly out of touch with events during my sojourn up here. I had understood this to be the ancestral residence of the Malfoys. While I suppose I ought as a good Tory to deplore the driving forth of ancient families from their former haunts and strangers occupying their place, I am more than prepared to make an exception in the case of that ancient family.” She sniffed. “No doubt the Malfoys entangled the estate so far with their ruinous extravagance and ill-judged political excursions that they had no choice in the end but to bring it under the hammer?”

Neville gulped. “Not - um - quite,” he said. “I mean -– we -– Draco — had to sell part of it, but he’s still here – well, he’s up in London today Christmas shopping with his mother, but he’ll be back for supper. We just – ah, we just both live here. Together.”

The portrait looked thoughtfully at him and he clenched his fists inside his jeans’ pockets, internally praying that she would not pursue the subject further. It was not that he was ashamed of anything, no, of course not, but in her case – she might be no older than her late thirties, and not unattractive as painted, but everything about her bespoke “maiden aunt”. And, judging by her dress, from the early decades of the nineteenth century, too. He’d only the vaguest notion about what unmarried ladies would have known and talked about back then, but probably no-one had ever told her that sex could happen otherwise than between the sheets of the marriage bed, with the bride dutifully fixing her eyes on the ceiling and thinking of England.

It occurred to him that if he was going to move her portrait to one of the more frequented parts of the Manor he was going to have to have a very, very serious talk with Draco about language. And behaviour. And dress. And – he gulped – undress. Especially undress, come to think of it.

She smiled. “I should be most grateful, Mr Longbottom, if you were to change my quarters. Somewhere where there are books, if you would be so good? To sit at one’s ease behind a good writing desk and look out on shelves of books is, for me, the most perfect refreshment.”

As he turned the handle of the library door he caught the briefest possible disapproving “click” of tongue against teeth. Evidently the portrait drew the line at sharing living quarters with the Manor grimoires. He could hardly blame her. Judging by the rustling and snapping from within they were more likely to regard her as “perfect refreshment” than the other way round. He made a mental note to tell Mrs P. to come up and feed them, pronto.

“Down this way,” he said, tucking the painting under his arm with a fervent hope that she would not take it as an appalling over-familiarity.

Judging by the small, pleased sound which she made as they entered the sitting-room where he and Draco had taken to spending most of their evenings he had made the right choice. The books – an odd assortment of battered paperbacks – apparently met with her entire approval. It occurred to him that loved and read seemed to make up for all the fine bindings in the world in her estimation. He felt a surge of fellow-feeling.

“Well,” he said, getting out his wand and eyeing up the picture rail, “tell me where you’d like to be?”

“Oh, yes. I was meaning to tell you, but it sort of slipped my mind. I found her up in the box-room and – well, it seemed rather rude just to leave her there. She’s spent years and years facing that wall, you know.”

Draco put his tumbler of whisky down on the little side-table and strolled across the room until he was standing just underneath the portrait. “Well? Why didn’t you come visiting one of the other portraits if you fancied a change of scene?”

The portrait lady drew herself up. “To tell you the truth, sir, given the circumstances of my original reception in your house, I feared to make my presence more widely known.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Original reception? And when was that? I have to say, I’ve never seen you on any of our catalogues.”

“I fear not, sir. I arrived as a wedding present for - ” She looked him over appraisingly. “For your mother, I presume. From an old school friend. I understand it was something of a private joke between them.” She gave him what was, in every sense of the word, an old-fashioned look. “Not, it seems, a joke your — ah -– father shared. I believe that had I not been smuggled to the box-room the alternative was the brew-house furnace. And in the box-room I have been ever since. Tell me, how is your dear mother? I confess to have spent some years worrying about her. There are always the gravest dangers when someone of Miss Black’s temperament contracts an – an unequal marriage.”

“I think my father – my late father – might have done better if he’d thought of that, too.” Absently Draco Accioed his whisky and raised it in a toast to the portrait lady. “So, why did he object? You are – surely in the circumstances you must be one of us?”

She coughed, raising a lace handkerchief to her lips. “Not – not as such. That is, my brother George became Headmaster of Hogwarts and I understand was widely believed to have occupied that position with great distinction. It was he who insisted on having my portrait taken, as a birthday present. But as for the rest of us, our talents did not seem to lie in that direction. Save for dear Cassandra, of course, and she asserted that she had no intention of going to any school where I could not follow, and for all our attempts to persuade her otherwise she remained adamant. I trust, sir, my descent causes you no embarrassment?”

Neville stirred amid the cushions on the sofa. There was a heart-breakingly familiar note in that voice: brittle, challenging, vulnerable.

Draco looked up into the eyes of the portrait. His face was pale, serious; the grey eyes intense.

“I think,”he breathed, “that as you’ve met my father, you’ll understand why I’ve no room to cavil at anyone’s descent. Whatever I might have thought. Once.”

The sitting room was empty; the house’s inhabitants retired to their slumbers, the fire burning low on the hearth. She did not need its light; George had taken care to have her painted in bright sunlight. Dear George! She had always hated going along with Mother’s pretence to the parish that he was somehow ‘lacking’ and, as such, had been left to be cared for in some remote farmhouse. Not that he’d ever seemed to resent it. It was his generosity which had fitted out this painted sitting room with every convenience a loving brother might chuse to give pleasure to a favoured sister. Including inexhaustible reams and quires of paper, and a store of sharp quills which never lacked for ink.

She smiled, stretched out her hand and began to write.

At the age of seventeen Mr Draco Malfoy, secure in all the advantages of birth and wealth, and possessing all the ineffable superiority which a handsome appearance in conjunction with the prior two blessings is apt to confer upon its possessor, could have thought that War, political reverses and financial streights were as far from him as the land of Thibet or the islands of the South Seas.