The day before the New Year's Ball was predictably chaotic. Hermione had been doing her best to avoid the most severe of Narcissa’s moods. It was clear that the pressure this year was even greater than in the past. Though they hadn’t yet been given in depth orders, it was clear that the event was going to be an important piece of the mounting conflict. Even in the outbursts of intense anger and frustration, Hermione found the blonde gorgeous. She’d already endured a final fitting of her gown for the next evening. The appointment itself was a practical necessity, but the blonde’s touches were intentionally provoking. With the excuse of showing the seamstress where the dress should be altered, Narcissa publically and intimately handled the young witch. Bellatrix grinned smugly from her seat across the room as Hermione attempted not to squirm from the attention. Narcissa and Bellatrix seemed to be falling into the unfortunate habit of stoking Hermione’s arousal, but never allowed her completion. If it continued, she realized she should have to take decisive action.
Any plotting was put on hold when her wife strode purposefully into the room. The coming action clearly agreed with the woman. She was practically glowing with anticipation. As she saw Hermione, her face broke out in an impossibly big smile. The open affection was irresistible. The young witch rose in expectation of an embrace. As the dark witch reached her, she wasn’t disappointed. Even after brief separations she was treated to enthusiastic greetings.
“Hello, my darling,” Bellatrix cooed in her ear.
“Hi, love.” The brunette’s response was breathy and light. The amount of love her wife provided was beyond even her wildest dreams.
“I see Cissy is in a mood.”
The young witch hummed in agreement watching the frantically rushing blonde. Before she could voice a response, her entire body was overcome with a powerful sensation. In a moment of panic, she stared at her wife. It was rare the dark witch shared sensations with her that weren’t seductive. It wasn’t exactly painful but it felt incredibly urgent.
“He is calling,” Bella said simply holding out her mark in explanation.
Simultaneously Draco and Lucius entered the room with purpose. “He wants us all,” Lucius declared crossing the room to his wife.
The dark witch extended her arm to her wife in order to apparate them away.
“You know I can transport myself, right?”
Bellatrix turned slowly. Her eyes were colder than Hermione had seem them in many days. “I am well aware of your abilities. But without a mark you won’t know where we are going.” She illustrated her point by gesturing to Narcissa holding on to Lucius’ arm.
“Sorry,” Hermione whispered stepping firmly into her wife’s arms instead of standing at her side, burying her face in soft curls. “I will go anywhere you take me.”
“That you will.” They reappeared in an antechamber to the throne room.
The Dark Lord temporarily relocated his headquarters away from Malfoy Manor to allow the small family quality time together. Had he still been human, he would have been tempted to dismiss everyone else and join them. But as he was unable to feel anything aside from ambition, it seemed a waste of everyone’s time to attempt it. He would return after the ball for the remainder of the school year or perhaps the entire war.
Severus stood at his side as the others finally entered. He hadn’t ever planned to have the conversation he was about to begin. He’d not considered the possibility of having an advantage like Hermione and Bellatrix, nor had he considered that he would have an inner circle he trusted enough to share such a critical secret.
“My Lord,” Bellatrix said leading the small group in. They bowed in deference a few feet from the table at which he sat.
“Good evening. Have a seat. We have much to discuss and I suspect that there are still a few last minute preparations for tomorrow that will require your attention.” He watched carefully as Narcissa tensed. She was obviously under a great deal of stress. No matter. What he was about to discuss would most certainly distract them all, if not for a few moments. He looked at the faces around the table. The open expressions of curiosity were endearing. He knew if he were to probe at any of their minds, no defenses would be raised. This group of people had entirely committed to him.
“I am afraid that we must begin with a secret keeper oath. While none of you would ever betray me of your own will, we cannot risk the possibility of one of you disclosing information under duress.” He nodded to Severus who immediately drew his wand. He observed the efficient administration with his closest approximation of affection.
“Excellent. As you might have already guessed this piece of information is not widely known. Only a handful suspect and until now, no one will have confirmation.” He paused to gauge their reactions. Pleased that they had been drawn in, he pressed on. “When I was a young man, I realized that to achieve the sort of power I sought, I would be continually hunted. And so it was a necessity for me to devise a protection strategy that would make it damn near impossible to kill me. Obviously I was correct, as you all know so well. My choice was not without consequences. When I split my soul, I lost the human parts of me. It was gradual to the point that I didn’t notice at first. It was a necessary sacrifice. Unfortunately I have reasons to believe my secret will soon become known to the Order and it will cause an additional vulnerability.” He paused to allow his words to sink in.
“You created horcruxes?” Hermione asked immediately.
“You are correct, Madame Black.”
“Who knows, my Lord?” Lucius asked.
“Dumbledore, for one. The escapade with the diary did not escape his notice. I learned recently that it was entirely destroyed. I believe he has another in his possession. He has not yet managed to get past its defensives and it has caused him some damage. I believe it is only a matter of time before he is able to confirm it. Then he will tell the Potter brat and all of the horcuxes will be in jeopardy.”
“I vote we kill the old man,” Bellatrix offered.
“In time, Bella. But as we have discussed, you must be patient.”
“Who else knows?” Hermione pressed sensing there was more.
“Our dear potions professor. When I was a student, I once asked him about the consequences of such a decision. He has done a marvelous job of keeping my secret thus far. But the headmaster has been stepping up the pressure on him.”
“Which is why Draco and I have been wooing him. Why he must attend tomorrow. Why he must take the oath.” Hermione finished his thought.
“Well put. He needs to do so tomorrow. But he must be willing or it will not work. Hermione, I will rely on you to ensure this happens.”
“Yes, my Lord,” she answered sincerely.
“Then there is the matter of the horcruxes. I believe that I will be better protected if they are directly under our control. Unfortunately in the years of my absence, they were scattered across Great Britain. Lucius and Bella, begin your research. Then we will discuss plans to retrieve each one in time. Severus will share the list with you. Draco, the vanishing cabinet is still your primary focus. It will be incredibly important in the coming months. And finally, Madame Malfoy, I will return to the Manor after the New Year. In the past you’ve been relegated to medic duties, however, your participation in direct conflict will be inevitable. I trust that you can prepare yourself appropriately.”
“Of course, my Lord,” the very shocked blonde replied.
“There is much to do. Off you all go. I will see you all tomorrow evening.”
“Thank you, my Lord,” they chanted in unison.