The New Year's party started early, at nine in the evening, and was literally right outside on the south side of the graveyard. Harry had never had occasion to walk that way—there was nothing past the coffin houses but an overgrown triangular stretch of grass. Tonight, a huge tent had been put up in its centre, and underneath the canopy, long tables covered with funeral shrouds groaned under the weight of a generous selection of refreshments. A string quartet on a raised platform under the tent warmed the atmosphere with an upbeat rondo.
Harry had barely made it out of the rows of coffin houses before he was accosted by a grey blur. Despite his great speed, Silviu's hands came gently down on his shoulders and his eyes glimmered with concern. Harry felt his chest tighten, then relax.
"Harry. You're all right?" Silviu took a long look at him, his relief palpable.
"I'm fine," Harry said. His eyes traced over Silviu's features carefully, as if expecting to see some trace of his fate written there. The vampire looked middle-aged today. Fine wrinkles collected at the corners of his mouth when he smiled. His eyes remained gloomy, almost haunted.
"Can you forgive me?" Silviu asked, and Harry blinked at him. He immediately clarified, "For allying with the Dark Lord. I swore I'd keep you safe, and then I went ahead and did the opposite. I don't know what I was thinking—it's like it completely slipped my mind that he'd want you dead."
"It's okay," Harry said, his own guilt deepening with every word. It wasn't Silviu who needed to be apologising this time. The vampire was the one who had been hurt on the Dark Lord's behalf, though he did not know it.
"I'll break it off," Silviu declared. Harry's hands shot up to grip his wrists.
"No, you can't, are you mad?" he hissed, appalled. "He'll kill you all. You have a whole company to think of. And he'd still want to kill me and you wouldn't be able to stop him."
Bile rose in his throat as only that last reason seemed to drive the reckless glint from Silviu's eye.
The vampire coughed, pulling back, and Harry let him go. "You're right. I don't know what I was thinking there." He ran a clawed hand through his hair. "My emotions got the better of me, I suppose. Look at me, ruining a happy occasion with such serious talk. I apologise. I'm sure you'd rather be enjoying the celebration. I'm glad you came tonight."
He took his leave before Harry could respond, hurrying off to greet other newly arrived guests. A little shaken by the conversation, especially Silviu's momentary lapse in judgment, Harry continued to the refreshment table and poured some ice water from a pitcher into a fancy crystal goblet. It was unpleasantly cold, but it helped to clear his head.
He looked around, noting with unease that there were more people than he'd realised before, several dozen at least, and that he didn't recognise anybody in his immediate vicinity. He didn't know how he was meant to find Shy in the muddle of adults—she was even shorter than him. Perhaps he should have stayed home after all. His stomach sloshed uncomfortably, filled with only water, and he decided he would leave after getting something to eat and perhaps take a walk around the graveyard.
Though the tables seemed to be laden with drinks of all kinds, he found only a tiny, neglected square in the corner offering solid food, and only an uninspiring spread of tinned biscuits at that. He reached for one, but before he could close his fingers around it somebody shoved the whole tray aside and dropped a cauldron onto the table with a thunk. Harry gaped at the culprit—a portly man who stood at eye level and turned to peer at him cheerfully through a thick-rimmed pince-nez.
"My apologies, my dear boy, I didn't see you there. It's frightfully dark," he said, adjusting his glasses.
Harry glanced around and realised that the man was right. The waxing moon was hidden behind a murky bank of clouds, leaving only a meagre collection of stars and some weakly glimmering fairies for illumination. Somehow, Harry had no trouble seeing at all, though the night vision on his spectacles remained disengaged.
"Right, it's no problem," he murmured. Unable to help himself, he craned his neck to get a glimpse of what was in the cauldron.
"Boiled sweets!" said the man, gesturing expansively. "Home made. They're a must-try. Oh, well, for vampires, anyway. They're blood-flavoured. Sorry. I suppose they don't have much in the way of human food at these things."
Harry squinted at the man, thinking he'd never seen a fat vampire before. Then he remembered that the man had said it was dark, so he probably wasn't a vampire after all.
"Aren't you human too?" he asked, hoping it wasn't a rude question.
"Oh, yes, right in one," said the man, smiling with blunt teeth. He stuck out a hand. "Eldred Worple, at your service."
Harry recognised the name. "You're the author of Blood Brothers," he said, taking the hand gingerly in his silver one.
Worple let out a startled noise, perhaps at the unexpected chill. "Oh, you've heard of me, then? Yes, that I am. And you would be?"
"Harry Potter," said Harry, thinking it unlikely that he could have prevaricated for long anyway.
"Harry Potter?" Worple exclaimed, surprise flashing across his face. He leaned closer, as if for a better look. "The Harry Potter? Well, of course you are. Harry Potter, I am simply delighted! And shocked! What brings you here, of all places, tonight?"
"Well you see, I got this invitation," Harry began, but soon realised that his attempted sarcasm was sliding right off, as Worple stared eagerly at him. "I live here. We're neighbours. You're the one with the venomous tentacula, right? At B Thirteen?"
Worple beamed, his mouth forming into a surprised O. "Oh, yes, that's exactly correct. Neighbours, really, and I had no idea! It seems you know much more about me than I know about you. A most curious state of affairs, when you are a national hero and I a mere biographer. You realise, that you, the boy behind the Boy-Who-Lived, are shrouded in mystery? The world heard about your safe arrival at Hogwarts and your sorting, of course, but for the very next piece of news after such a long silence to be such a horrible circumstance—you're recovering all right from the accident, I hope?"
Harry, a little dumbfounded, just nodded. He hadn't been aware that his sorting last year had made the papers. That seemed mad. And 'national hero' was blowing his fame a little out of proportion.
"Have you any plans to have your biography written?" Worple continued.
"I haven't lived that long, yet," Harry managed incredulously. "What would there be to write about?"
Worple ducked his head a little sheepishly. "Well, in a few years, perhaps. You'll keep me in mind, won't you? I would be delighted to write it. I'm sure you'll go on to do great things."
Harry nodded absently, his gaze flickering to the side as a towering shadow rose up next to Worple.
"Zuccherino, are you talking to the refreshments again?"
The shadow resolved into a tall vampire who spoke in a low, exasperated voice. Harry noted with a thrill of awe that his beaky nose was even bigger than Snape's.
Worple jumped a foot into the air. "Oh, Sanguini, I didn't see you there. No, he's not food, this is Harry Potter. Our neighbour. Harry Potter!" he repeated, as if he still couldn't believe it.
The vampire fixed burning red eyes on Harry for a tense moment. Then his gaze cooled to a green like old copper, his lips quirked into a small smile, and he held out his hand at chest level. Harry, vaguely remembering this hand shake from when he had first met Shy, reached up from below and clasped Sanguini's large, clawed hand.
"Giuseppe Coppola, but everybody calls me Sanguini. It's nice to meet you, Harry Potter."
"You can just call me Harry," said Harry quickly. "Nice to meet you too."
"Very good, Harry. You are one of Chariman Vlaicu's?" Sanguini asked.
"Such eclectic company he keeps," Sanguini said, chuckling. "I am always surprised to see what the youth are coming up with these days."
Harry wasn't sure how to respond to that, so he asked instead, "You're in a different company, then?"
"I prefer to wander alone," Sanguini said. He slung an arm around Worple's shoulder and pulled him close. "Aside from a dedicated human companion like my sweet treasure here."
"Sanguini!" Worple hissed, cheeks reddening, but the vampire only grinned and patted his curly hair like he was an errant child.
"But it's true, you are perfectly sweet inside and out." Still smiling, Sanguini reached a long arm into the cauldron that Worple had brought and plucked out a round, ruby red sweet, which he popped into his mouth.
Harry turned curiously to the cauldron. "Can I try one?"
"Of course. They're excellent," Sanguini assured him, even as Worple protested.
"They're blood-flavoured, like I said—"
But before he voice any more concerns, Harry had already helped himself. He had expected something like a blood pop, but couldn't hold back a sound of surprise as the first sticky, treacly layer melted on his tongue. He felt alert.
"Is it real blood?" he asked, and, seeing Worple's concerned expression, added, "It's really good."
Worple accepted this evaluation with a bemused smile. "Well, thank you. It isn't real blood, actually. I've spent years perfecting this formula to resemble it as best as possible, but it's made of one hundred percent plant material. Palatable potions are a hobby of mine."
"There he is, being all modest again," said Sanguini fondly. "Dear Eldred here has created friendlier versions of nearly all common household potions."
"That's an exaggeration, and anyway, they're much too convoluted. An apothecary looking to turn a profit would never accept recipes like mine. No, I'm happily a writer and not a potioneer for a reason," Worple maintained, though he glowed smugly.
"You mean, you've made things like Pepper-Up and blood-replenishing potion taste good?" Harry asked.
"What about nutritive potion?"
Worple shook his head. "I'm afraid I haven't worked on that one, my dear boy. It's already supposed to have a neutral enough taste, isn't it?"
Harry made a face. "I suppose you're right. It's just so bland, though, and sort of chalky."
"You've tried it before?" Worple asked, raising his eyebrows.
"I drink it all the time. It's a food substitute, right?" Harry asked. He narrowed his eyes, wondering if he was about to hear that Petri had been slowly poisoning him without his knowledge.
But Worple, though he looked concerned, nodded. "Well, yes, but it's supposed to be an emergency ration for hit-wizards on the go, not something for regular consumption. I'm sure it wouldn't be harmful, but it would be dreadfully boring, wouldn't it?"
"It really is," Harry agreed. "But it's cheap."
"My dear boy, a hearty stew is cheaper to brew than a cauldron of nutritive potion. Honestly, the recipe's not much different, but the former is far more satisfying," Worple told him, looking a little agitated.
"You're sure?" Harry demanded. He had to deliver this news to Petri immediately. An argument from money was sure to win him over. Though the food situation had improved drastically now that Petri allowed Rosenkol to experiment with cooking, the elf still only did it sporadically.
"Of course! Sanguini and I help organise the Purefair Alley Soup Kitchen, so I daresay we're intimately familiar with the ins and outs of feeding a crowd on a budget. We've got a place set for anybody who wants to eat there," Worple said, glancing at him meaningfully.
Flustered, Harry raised his hands. "It's not—I mean, I've got money of my own, I just…" He trailed off, unable to find the words to explain his situation.
"Anybody is welcome," Worple insisted. "Though if you've got money, we wouldn't say no a donation. Or if you'd like to volunteer, we'd appreciate that even more. I know you're busy at Hogwarts most of the year, my boy, but it would be valuable experience for you to come around during the summer. The Ministry of Magic loves to see applicants who do charitable work, you know! And there's really no better way to bolster your public image than to help those less fortunate than you."
Harry, a little bemused at Worple's direct appeal to his self-interest, nodded vaguely, unwilling to commit to anything but also unable to contain his curiosity. "Are there a lot of people who eat at the soup kitchen?"
Worple's excitable demeanour melted away. His eyes misted. "Oh yes, unfortunately. It's difficult for the wandless to find gainful employment, so they're often dependent on the goodwill of others. And the wandless population has grown explosively in the last decade. It's a problem, no doubt, but on the other hand I suspect it's because they're not dying as often of preventable causes."
"Sorry, by wandless, you mean squibs?" Harry asked. Worple certainly couldn't have been referring to creatures like vampires, who seem to do well enough for themselves.
"A common misconception," Worple said, sighing. "True squibs without an ounce of magical ability are few and far between. More common are people who never manage enough accidental magic to gain them admission to Hogwarts. Some of them buy their own wands and pass their OWLs anyway, but the majority can't afford the steep price or find self-study and correspondence courses too difficult. And no OWLs means no right to carry once they're of age."
"You mean, if I failed my OWLs, they'd take away my wand?" Harry demanded.
"Yes—anybody who can't make at least one OWL in a wand subject by the time they're seventeen will get a visit from the Improper Use of Magic Office to have their wand destroyed." Worple quickly held up a reassuring hand. "You have nothing to worry about, of course, my dear boy. You're a beloved public figure! Imagine the scandal. You're in Ravenclaw, anyway, and I've never heard of a Ravenclaw who didn't end up with a respectable handful of OWLs to their name. In fact, almost all Hogwarts students have no trouble meeting the minimum requirement."
Harry frowned. "I suppose I never realised that there were a lot of people—wizards, I mean—who didn't get into Hogwarts."
It was silly, because he personally knew an example, even. Annette was clearly capable of magic with a wand, but had not been accepted to Hogwarts as a child. Had she passed her OWLs, if she couldn't even read?
"Nobody likes to talk about it," Worple said, running a hand through his wispy hair. "And changing things is certainly out of the question. Hogwarts has always been very proud to have never mistakenly accepted a squib. No headmaster or board member would dare propose something that could tarnish its reputation."
"Aren't there other schools?" Harry asked. Worple shook his head.
"Not physical schools, not on this side of the channel, and certainly not for weak wizards. Can you imagine a qualified wizard willing to waste their time trying to teach people who can barely make sparks, without handsome compensation? I don't think equipping the wandless with wands is the proper way to go anyway. That won't really help them. What they need is a way to use the talents they do have to make a living." Worple coughed. "Excuse me, my dear boy. I didn't mean to get up on my soapbox like that. I hope I haven't bored you."
"Not at all, Mr Worple," Harry said quickly.
"Call me Eldred, please," said Worple. "We're neighbours, after all. You don't need to be shy about paying us a visit, either. We'd be delighted to have you over." He glanced at Sanguini, who nodded.
"Yes, simply delighted," the vampire echoed. "My sweet and I both work at home, so we are almost always there."
"What do you do for a living?" Harry asked Sanguini.
Sanguini smiled. "Me? I am an alchemist of sorts—a doll maker. I would be happy to show you my collection, if you are interested."
"Ew, no, don't fall for that," a familiar voice yelled. Shy elbowed her way into their circle, making a face at Sanguini before turning to Harry. "This guy's creepy dolls gave me nightmares for weeks. Trust me, Harry, you don't need that in your life."
Far from being offended, Sanguini laughed. "Shy, as eloquent as ever. I see you've brought one of your pets. Surely dolls cannot be nearly as frightening as venomous snakes."
Harry did a double take as he realised that the huge, raised collar swallowing half of Shy's face was in fact concealing a serpentine passenger. The dusty golden coils looped around her neck were thicker than Harry's arms.
"I disagree. This is Harry, and he's adorable and perfectly well-behaved," said Shy, patting the snake, who shifted sleepily. Its wedge-shaped head peeked above the collar and its tongue flickered out, before it withdrew a moment later.
"Harry, named after Harry?" Sanguini asked, looking from the snake to the human.
"Who else?" said Shy. "Come on, let's go somewhere with more space so I can let him down."
She dragged Harry away, and he waved goodbye to Eldred and Sanguini when it seemed they would not follow.
"Ha, you're lucky I showed up before Sanguini decided to give you a full tour of his house. That old geezer has his whole life's work in there, like hundreds of dolls. I'm not even exaggerating, and every single one of them is creepy as f—heck," Shy coughed, winking at him. "Now, don't get me wrong, I know I'm obsessed with snakes and that's weird, but at least I ask if the other guy likes snakes too before siccing them all on him."
"How old is he?" Harry asked. "Sanguini?"
Shy waved abstractly. "Like two hundred or something. Ancient."
"Can vampires live forever?" Harry asked.
"Well we're technically dead, so is it even living?" Shy pointed out, shrugging. "But probably not. I hear there's all sorts of nasty stuff that comes with old age, like you have to drink a lot more blood to keep the wrinkles away and you're liable to go stark raving mad. Sanguini's the oldest guy I know. I suppose he's still pretty in touch… for a geriatric corpse. Come on, Harry."
She was addressing the snake, crouching down and urging it to slip into the grass. It growled in a disconcerting way, but obligingly descended.
"Sleepy…" it murmured, rustling about in discontent. "Cold."
"He's cold," Harry said. "Should I cast a warming charm?"
Shy shrugged. "Go ahead."
"Calesco!" Harry cast. A hot burst of air shot out of his wand, and the snake reared back, hooding up with a pained hiss. Harry swore. "Sorry, I forgot—my magic's a bit finicky still. New wand." He bent down to apologise to the snake as well.
"Too cold. Too hot. Difficult," the snake summarised, calming down again. It slithered closer to Harry and tentatively began to wind up his legs. "Warm."
"Great, he likes you," Shy concluded, grinning. "Can you hold him for me for a sec? I want to get a drink but I can't bring him near the friends. His venom's deadly to them. You should be fine, since you're a wizard and all, but let me know if he bites you… I mean, it'd probably still hurt."
Harry blinked, and she was gone, leaving him to snake-sit a three metre long monster, which was now curling around his shoulders. He patted it awkwardly.
"So, where are you from?" he asked the snake. It turned and glanced up at him with round, guileless eyes.
"A warm place with moving water," the snake said.
"Do you miss it?" Harry asked.
The snake shifted its considerable girth. Harry felt squished, like he was wearing a heavy blanket. "No. My new home is good. There are nice hiding spots and plenty of prey, though it is always dead. The live ones talk too much, and are annoying, but I cannot get to them." A discontented hiss.
Harry blinked, trying to decipher what the snake was talking about. Did it eat other snakes?
It continued, "The one that brings the prey sometimes talks like you do, but it never listens to me. You are listening to me, right?"
"I'm listening," Harry confirmed.
"I am cold. Make it warmer," it ordered. Raising a brow, Harry took his wand out and practised the hot air charm a few times to the side to make sure he could do it properly, before casting it on himself and the snake. "Yes. Now carry me to the trees," the snake commanded, flicking its tongue out in the direction of the yew grove.
Harry glanced over to the refreshment table, where he saw several vampires with their faces buried in the necks of Silviu's friends. He winced, something about the sight of their slack, placid faces unsettling him. The scar on his own neck twinged. He finally located Shy, waiting in a queue, and decided that he had some time before she returned, so could indulge the request.
As soon as he neared the grove, the cobra slid down onto the ground and shot towards the nearest tree, wriggling expertly up the veined trunk until it reached the first branch, where it slung its weight over the side and paused to look around. It occurred belatedly to Harry that it would be awkward if he ended up losing Shy's snake. But it wasn't like he was strong enough to wrestle three metres of sinuous muscle, so she couldn't blame him, could she?
"You're coming back, right?" Harry called after it, hoping he could simply talk it down.
"I wish to explore this place," it shouted back. It was strange—the wind was blowing the wrong way and Harry was sure no sound as soft as a hiss could have carried that distance, but he heard the snake's words clearly, as if they'd been said into his ear, and obviously it had understood his question well enough to respond.
Narrowing his eyes, Harry stepped back a few paces, until he couldn't make out the murky gold of the cobra nestled in the tangle of bare branches. He knew it was still there, though.
"Can you hear me?" he whispered.
"Yes. Where are you going? Are you bringing food?" came the snake's voice, but the sound simply could not have travelled that far. So of course, it wasn't a sound. It had never been a sound, obviously. Snakes didn't communicate with sound.
Heart racing, Harry took a few more steps back, finally daring to turn around and walk towards to the tent. "I'm testing something," he murmured under his breath, still picturing supple coils and curious eyes. "I'll see if I can get some food."
"Hurry," the snake agreed.
How far was too far away? He didn't notice any difference in response time.
"Let's keep talking," Harry said. "Tell me about… your food. What kinds of food do you like?"
"Inferior snakes are satisfying prey. Sometimes I eat the short ones that skitter about. If I smell them, I will follow them, and then I strike! But I smell only tiny scaleless creatures here, nothing good to eat, or others of your kind, larger than you. Be wary of them," the snake said.
Harry supposed it thought that people also ate other smaller people. Then again, he supposed, glancing at the vampires drinking the friends' blood, it wasn't exactly wrong.
"Harry—where's Harry?" Shy whispered, and Harry realised that he had ventured too close to the tent. An unknown vampire leered at him with interest, but Harry ignored him.
"He's there," Harry said, pointing towards the trees. "I'm trying to test how far I can hear him from."
Shy's worried look didn't ease, but she nodded. "And you can still hear him from here?"
Harry cleared his throat and focused on the snake again. "Hello, Harry, can you still hear me?"
"Have you found food yet?" came the reply with alacrity. Harry nodded.
"Yeah, he wants food," he said.
Shy relaxed and rolled her eyes. "He ate two days ago. That glutton doesn't need more food."
"I sort of promised, though," Harry said, wondering how he was going to get a cranky snake down from a tall tree. Perhaps if he commanded it, he could test whether Parseltongue could actually control snakes rather than just communicate, but he didn't want to see the results if it didn't work.
"Why don't you magic up a python to tempt him with? When it disappears just tell him it got away and he should work harder next time," Shy suggested.
Harry had forgotten all about serpensortia, but Shy made a good point. He thanked her and ran back towards the yew grove. He didn't really know what a python looked like, but the metre-long reticulated snake that shot out the end of his wand was certainly nothing like the little grey one he'd conjured last week, so he counted it a success.
Harry the snake perked up instantly in the tree and dangled over the branch until it dropped down entirely into the grass with a faint rustle. "Scent… stalk… strike…" it hissed, repeating these words like a mantra. The conjured python curled up sluggishly where it had landed, saying nothing. Human Harry wondered if he'd left out its brain, since it didn't seem to notice the enormous predator practically announcing its intentions just metres away.
"Shouldn't you be more subtle?" Harry asked. The python swung around to face him in confusion.
"Yes, distract it," said the rapidly approaching king cobra, "distract it, and I will strike!"
A wide-open mouth shot out of the grass, closing on open air. The cobra's face smashed into the dirt as the python vanished with a faint pop. A comical moan of devastated bewilderment seemed to hang in the air. The cobra's head came up, hood flared in consternation.
"How?" it demanded, swaying in all directions and flicking its tongue out rapidly. "Where has the prey escaped to? I cannot smell it any longer. How can this be?"
Despite himself, Harry had to slap a hand over his face to keep his laughter in. It was a mean joke to play, he thought, but he couldn't let on that he had had any hand in it.
"That's unfortunate," he said, lip twitching. "Maybe next time."
"It was good of you to distract it," the snake allowed. "My strike should have landed. I saw it right there, right in front of me. But then it was somehow gone."
"How come it didn't notice you?" Harry asked.
The snake looked up at him and Harry felt like he was being judged. "I was being very stealthy. You wouldn't have seen me either if I hadn't signalled you. Pick me up. I want to nap. It's cold again."
Harry grabbed its tail gingerly in both hands and heaved it over his shoulder. The snake swung around him in a loose coils, and Harry stroked its soft scales absently. He had to experiment more later, perhaps with conjured snakes. If Parseltongue wasn't based on sound, then it stood to reason that the cobra really could have spoken to him alone without alerting another snake. And if that was the case, then combined with the long range whose limit he hadn't yet found, the opportunities for spying on people seemed endless.
Not that Harry wanted to spy on people randomly, but he could think of a few situations where it would have been helpful. He could have tailed Quirrell far more easily last year (though perhaps using snakes to watch the Dark Lord would not have ended well) and he could have had a snake report on Penelope's status instead of having to check it himself at every opportunity.
Well, that was supposing he could get his snake conjuration to last more than an unreliable few minutes.
Shy appeared at his side a few minutes later, brow furrowed and fists clenched. Harry couldn't help taking a step back as she turned to him with a burning glare. It softened momentarily as she took in his flinch.
"Sorry," she muttered, looking away. "Thanks for watching Harry. I'll take him back now."
She held out her arms, but neither Harry moved.
Wizard Harry pressed his lips together, on edge. "Are you all right?"
Shy heaved a sigh. "I'm fine. I'm just annoyed. Some people are so careless."
Harry blinked at her in confusion. A moment later, a pale blur rocketed between them, resolving into a somewhat dishevelled Ness, clad in a long white coat.
"Are you okay?" they asked Shy, who groaned and buried her face in her hands.
"I'm not the one who's not okay," she said. "Trocar's killed Sean. I'm just mad."
"Damn it, of course it was him! I'm sorry," said Ness, pulling her into a hug. "I'll talk to him."
"No, I'm sure the chairman will do enough talking," Shy murmured, shaking her head.
Harry, who was still standing there under five kilograms of snake, was trying very hard to make sense of this conversation. Finally, he couldn't help blurting, "Sorry, who's been killed?"
Ness tensed, apparently only just noticing him. They glanced around nervously, as if searching for something, but relaxed after a few moments. "One of the friends," they said. Harry's head whipped back towards the tent, but he saw no sign of any scuffle or disturbance that could suggest that someone had died. People were still milling about casually, and light chatter filled the night.
"This happens every year," Shy muttered. "I should get used to it. It's funny, I never used to care back when it could have been me. I know none of them care. They want it, even. Sean was probably ecstatic to let Trocar drink him dry. I don't know. It just puts a bad taste in my mouth."
Ness didn't say anything. They held Shy more tightly and stared into the distance, expression conflicted. Harry approached and cautiously set the snake's head on Shy's arm. Whether this was an appropriate gesture of comfort or not, Shy still accepted it, stroking the cobra on the back of its hood and coaxing it to slide onto her shoulders.
Harry couldn't stop staring at the tent, desperately looking for some kind of evidence that anything out of the ordinary had happened. But no sign was forthcoming, no matter how long he watched. The name 'Sean' rang a bell, and he could almost put a face to it. A gangly, smiling boy.
"Will he become a vampire?" he couldn't help asking.
Shy sighed heavily. "They never do. They're too happy for it. I'm the only one who ever—forget it." She pressed her lips together. "I'm going back to the shop. No, Ness, you stay here. Seriously, I'm fine."
She stalked off, disappearing into a shadow. Ness laughed tonelessly. "I'm sorry you had to hear all that," they told Harry. "Shy's gets so sentimental about the friends, projects her own feelings onto them. I suppose she's still young. But you shouldn't get the wrong idea—they're really just muggles, nothing like you or I."
Ness said this with such earnestness that Harry didn't know where to start.
"Didn't Shy used to be a muggle?" he asked finally, wondering if he'd remembered wrong, but Ness nodded, waving their hand dismissively.
"Yes, but it's not like wizards with pure-bloods and muggle-borns. We get our magic from our company, and the change burns out any impurities. I mean, just look at how clever Shy is now. No trace of mugglishness there." They smiled fondly.
"Do you change a lot when you become a vampire?" Harry asked, sceptical. From what he knew, it seemed like vampires kept the same soul from before they had died, so it stood to reason that there ought not to be any personality changes.
"Not normally, I don't think," Ness confirmed. "But with muggles it's a much bigger change, isn't it? They weren't even magical before—it's a total transformation. For me, it wasn't much different, really. I was practically born a vampire."
At Harry's confused look, Ness elaborated, "My parents were both in Granny Trocar's company. She was the old chair."
"Trocar?" Harry interrupted, glancing back to the tent. "Like the one who—"
"Yeah, that was Lionel Trocar, her grandson and my cousin," Ness said, rolling their eyes for some reason. "But Granny Trocar's been dust for years. Thank Merlin I hadn't changed before the chairman deposed her."
'Deposed' sounded ominous, but Harry didn't ask. Instead, he said, "I don't think I've met this Lionel Trocar before. Is he in the company? What's he look like?"
"He's a secondary," said Ness, smiling with their fangs on clear display. "I was the one who changed him, and I reckon he'll be sour about that for the rest of his sorry life. He's over there, if you want to meet him, but I don't recommend it. He's a right prick."
They nodded towards the far side of the tent, where Silviu was talking to a pasty blond vampire. Harry finally realised that some of the tension in his shoulders was actually external, from his mental connection to Silviu. The blond vampire, Trocar, had his arms crossed like a petulant child. He didn't look like a murderer. Perhaps he didn't realise that muggles were people either. Harry shivered.
"Why did you… change him if you don't like him?" Harry asked.
"You're right. I should have left him to die," Ness said cheerfully. "But no, we needed him. He's good at what he does—the best. Don't tell him that, though, or his overinflated ego might just burst."
"What does he do?" Harry asked. He glanced in Trocar's direction again, and for a moment, their eyes met. The vampire broke eye contact almost immediately.
"He's an undertaker. That was the old company business, but the chairman's expanded us far beyond that now. Oh look, he's coming over here. You'd better leave if you want to spare yourself a headache," Ness said.
Harry's curiosity had been piqued, so he stayed where he was, eyeing the approaching vampire warily. From this close, the resemblance to Ness was striking, though Trocar had a much stronger jawline and a pale blue spiral tattooed under his left eye.
"Ness," he greeted with a nod, "have you seen Shyverwretch? I'm to apologise to her for eating her favourite friend. Really, if she wanted him for herself, she should've claimed him first—"
"I don't recommend telling her sorry and then blaming her in the same breath. Somehow, I don't see that working out for you," Ness said. Trocar grunted.
"I shall take that under advisement," he muttered, looking around. "Where is she?"
Ness shrugged unhelpfully. Trocar's cold blue gaze lingered on Harry for a long moment, before his eyes widened.
"Are you—you're Harry Potter?" he blurted, and then to Harry's immense surprise, dropped to one knee.
"Merlin, Trocar, stop embarrassing yourself in public," Ness yelled. Then they did a double take at Harry. "You're Harry Potter. I didn't—no—I knew that, of course I did…"
While Ness was processing this revelation, Trocar raised his head and gave Harry an expectant look. Uncertainly, Harry held out his silver hand, and the vampire clasped hands with him. "Lionel Trocar, at your service. I did hear that there was a new primary, but I didn't realise that the chairman had recruited such a distinguished figure. Please allow me to pledge my blood to you."
Ness's palm met their face with an audible smack. "Are you seriously trying to smarm up to a kid with etiquette from the last century? You're more out of touch than I thought."
Since Ness didn't expect him to know what was going on, Harry thought it would be safe to ask, "What does that mean? Pledging blood?"
"It means he's shamelessly trying to replace his boss right in front them," Ness said, scowling.
"What's the harm? It isn't as if you care for me, cousin," Trocar said, getting to his feet. His eyes were locked on Ness now, and he took a threatening step forward. Ness's arm shot out and seized the front of Trocar's robe.
"Watch yourself," Ness hissed. Trocar grinned, tilting his head back to expose his throat.
"I apologise," he said, eyes gleaming entirely unapologetically. "Perhaps you should punish me for my insolence?"
Ness dragged him closer, leaning in, and for a moment Harry thought they would bite Trocar. But they only said, in a harsh whisper, "I would love to, but I know you're just trying to get me in trouble with the chairman. Do you think I'm some kind of moron? Get out of my sight, and I don't want you talking to any other primary members unless it's for business."
Ness shoved him away, and Trocar twisted into a bow, though his raised eyes glinted mockingly. "I understand, but what about Shyverwretch? The chairman said—"
"I'll pass along your apology," Ness said with finality.
"Much appreciated," said Trocar with a smug smile, before he turned around and walked off with purpose.
Ness swore. "Of course, that was exactly what he wanted."
Harry felt awkward to have witnessed that family spat. Ness finally seemed to remember that he was there, and shot him an apologetic grimace. He shrugged and tried to move to a better subject.
"I've been wondering—what exactly is this handshake?" Harry held out his hand again with his elbow pointing down.
Ness sighed. "It's just a formal greeting, like you agree to be civil and not fight. You did it correctly with Trocar. Don't take him too seriously. He's obsessed with our traditional customs. Can't get over the fact that he had to sit through years of Granny grooming him to be the heir, only to be rendered irrelevant."
"Sil—the chairman mentioned something about customs to me once, I think," Harry said, screwing up his face as he tried to remember. They hadn't discussed any details, but for some reason he felt like he could recognise whether something was polite or not if he were to see it.
"We don't really care about them these days," Ness said. "The chairman's philosophy is that we need to integrate ourselves into wizarding society if we're ever to get respect. Since we don't live in isolated conclaves up in the mountains anymore, it doesn't make sense to continue traditions based on that kind of lifestyle."
Ness reported all this as a matter of fact, though there was ambivalence in their eyes.
"Gather round, everyone!" Silviu's amplified voice cut through the ambient noise. The background music came to a halt. "It's almost time for Auld Lang Syne. Gather round!"
Ness perked up. "Right, I should go get Shy, tell her the coast's clear if she wants to come back."
They darted off with a parting wave, and Harry was alone in the crowd. He tried to spot Eldred or Sanguini, but one was short and the other dark so he was met with little success as a multitude of taller bodies jostled him about. He eventually found himself with his arms crossed, holding hands with two of the friends. They seemed to have all emerged from the refreshments tent to join the festivities, many of them smiling openly.
A little disturbed, Harry turned to the girl on his left with a cautious, "Hello."
She glanced at him with a cheerful mien. "Hello! Oh—your hand. Is it made of metal? I thought it was cold because you were one of the vampires. Sorry. I'm Cindy. I don't think I've seen you around before. Are you new?"
Blindsided by this sudden stream of chatter, Harry stared dumbly at her for a few moments before he managed to respond. "I'm Harry. My hand—I'm not actually sure what it's made of. I'm not a friend, exactly… the only other person I really know is Sean. Do you know him?"
He almost cringed at his own question, but Cindy's smile hardly faltered. "Of course I do. Oh, he was so lucky to be chosen!"
"Chosen?" Harry repeated, narrowing his eyes.
"You didn't hear? One of the secondaries picked him to change. I'm so jealous." Cindy sighed. Harry blinked. Did they believe that Sean was going to become a vampire? Shy and Ness had dismissed the possibility earlier.
The boy on Harry's right laughed. "What's there to be jealous of? He won't make it."
"Probably not," Cindy agreed. "Still. Just the chance of it is worth it, don't you think?"
"I suppose so," said the boy.
The string quartet began to play, and Silviu led the circle into the first verse: "Should auld aquaintance be forgot…"
Harry's mind blanked, like a large hand had swooped in and physically crushed his thoughts to smooth sand. He was suddenly beyond himself, everywhere in the circle, cradled by the powerful timbre of Silviu's baritone resonating with a dozen others in an enchanting web. Harry's mouth moved along automatically with the words. They finished the verse. Or had they just started it? The drone of voices rattled his ribcage in time with the pounding of his heart. He could hear the rushing of a river of blood through the circle, one pulsing, living entity stitched together by that sound.
A deafening bang brought Harry back to his senses. He wasn't holding hands with Cindy and the other boy any longer—somehow he'd fallen over and was lying on his back in the damp grass, staring up at a starburst of dazzling colour. Belatedly, he realised that it was a firework. His ears came back to life with a sucking sensation and all around him he heard people laughing and wishing each other a happy New Year.
"Harry! Harry, come up here." Somehow, Silviu's voice cut straight through the din without him shouting. Harry scrambled to his feet and followed it up to the very top of the hill, where Silviu was standing with Eldred and Annette. All three of them had their wands pointing overhead, spewing colourful sparks into the night sky.
"There you are, Harry, come and help us put on a show," Silviu said, clapping him on the back with his free hand.
The audience shouted and whistled as Eldred sent a bright blue spark dragon rocketing through the air, spitting orange fireballs.
He winked at Harry. "Come on now, my dear boy, plenty of adult supervision here tonight. Show us what you've got!"
His good cheer was infectious. Harry, forgetting his trepidation, raised his holly wand to the sky, straightening up and facing the crowd with a grin as confidence surged through him. "Vermillious!"
A blinding ball of red light shot into the sky, exploding into a geometric shower of sparks. Changing the pattern was probably something like manipulating flagrate after casting, Harry thought. He shot off another overpowered bunch of sparks, willing them to disperse in a spiral. The crowd cheered and clapped as they produced ever more ambitious designs. Harry's head started to ache just behind his eyes from the exertion of it all.
After the impromptu fireworks show, most people began to meander back towards the block of coffin houses. Annette herded the friends into a corner, where they queued up neatly like schoolchildren, while Harry found himself wedged between Eldred and Sanguini, who had melted out of the darkness to meet them.
"Marvellous work, my sweet, and you as well, Harry," he praised, still clapping. "A lovely show to welcome the new year. Would you be interested in joining us for a spot of lunch?"
"You've read my mind," said Eldred, chortling and turning to squint expectantly at Harry. "I was just about to extend the invitation."
Remembering Shy's warning about Sanguini's dolls, he felt the familiar onset of a morbid curiosity that would not be denied. "Sure, I'd love to, if it's no trouble."
"No trouble at all, dear boy, no trouble at all," Eldred assured him. They made a brief stop at the refreshments table so that Eldred could retrieve his cauldron, then traversed the row of neat headstones opposite the path Harry usually took, pausing just out of reach of a patch of thorny vines. "Now, don't be intimidated by the tentacula. You can scare it off with an angry voice. Swearing at it usually does the trick. If you'll pardon my colourful language…" Eldred cleared his throat, took a firm step forward, and used his wand to swat at the tentacles that came shooting at him. "Fuck off!"
The vines fucked off, with some help perhaps from a wordless severing charm. Harry stifled a giggle as Sanguini ushered him through the cleared path up to their front door. The coffin was a traditional one, with bevelled edges and a dark varnish, and the lid had to be shoved aside.
The interior was simply astonishing. Harry's jaw dropped as he descended into a brightly-lit chamber that he could only liken to an auditorium. It wasn't overly large, but it was deep, almost twice as high as a normal room, and its terraced walls were absolutely crammed with people. Dolls, Harry's logic reminded him, but his eyes begged to differ. They sat, frozen but uncannily vivacious, like a snapshot of an audience at the theatre. Some stared eagerly forwards, gripping the edges of their seats, while others leaned back in relaxed inattention or were preserved in the act of whispering to their neighbours. Every one of them was life-sized, and there were adults and children, men and women, humans but also a variety of humanoids in an assortment of shapes and colours, all clad in sumptuous finery. Shy had been right; there had to be a hundred of them at least.
A gentle nudge from behind him reminded Harry that he was blocking the door. Tearing his eyes away from the walls, he finished traversing the rest of the steps. When he finally reached the bottom, it felt like stepping onto a stage outfitted with a table and chairs to look like the inside of somebody's house. It didn't seem real.
"Don't mind the dolls," said Eldred, waving his wand in a wide arc. A thick velvet curtain drew itself around the room, and the prickling sensation of being watched vanished, though Harry knew intellectually that there hadn't been any real eyes in the first place.
"Oh, zuccherino, you're no fun," Sanguini complained, slinking down the steps.
"You can show them to Harry later, if he wants to see them. You know most people find them unsettling," Eldred admonished with fond exasperation. He turned to a stone table in the back of the room which was outfitted with several hot plates and shoved the cauldron in his hand underneath it. He then took out a different cauldron and set it on top.
"Can I help?" Harry asked. Eldred waved a hand.
"I'm just whipping up a quick minestrone soup. It'll only be a few minutes," he said, levitating carrots and potatoes out of a box and setting an enchanted knife to dice them.
Harry, unable to help himself, turned to Sanguini and asked, gesturing to the closed curtain, "How did you make them so lifelike?"
"Meticulous study of the human form, along with a good understanding of alchemy," the vampire said.
"Alchemy, you mentioned that before," Harry remembered. "I thought alchemy was about changing things into other things? But not like transfiguration."
He flushed, realising that he clearly didn't know what he was talking about. Sanguini nodded, edging towards the curtain and beckoning for Harry to come closer. They both glanced at Eldred, who was humming to himself as he filled the cauldron with water.
They slipped past the curtain, and Sanguini stroked the cheek of a girl dressed in a bright blue pinafore dress. The doll sprang to her feet, and it took every ounce of self-control Harry had to swallow a surprised yelp.
"Yes, you can think of alchemy as the union of transfiguration and potions—the outward effect is similar to transfiguration, but what is actually happening underneath is an irreversible reaction, a fundamental change," Sanguini explained. "Observe the eyes."
Harry looked, and it was exactly like meeting the eyes of a living girl. Limpid grey gazed back at him with demure interest.
"They're—very realistic," he said, swallowing.
"Because they're real," Sanguini said, smiling like a cat. Harry's heart lurched in horror before the man elaborated, "I have painstakingly crafted them to match the living human eye… it is the only way to capture a properly lifelike look, I've found. Glass eyes have a hardness to them that cannot stand up to discerning inspection."
"Are they… alive? I thought you can't make living flesh with magic," Harry said.
Sanguini shook his head. "Living flesh—there's nothing that distinguishes it from any other substance in nature. The exception that you are thinking of is transfiguring something that can interface with an existing living thing." He gestured to Harry's silver hand. "A replacement limb, for example. Even that may not be strictly impossible to transmute, but of course the dangers far outweigh the possible benefits."
"What are the dangers?" Harry asked.
"Transmutation is irreversible, as I mentioned, and transmutation of living things is extremely delicate and not entirely controllable. One stroke of misfortune might result in anything from a set of extra joints to a cancerous growth. Even if all goes well physically, there's no telling how the soul would be affected," Sanguini said.
Harry frowned. "You're saying alchemy changes the soul?"
"Not usually," Sanguini said, holding up both hands. "It's not dark magic. Still, better to stay away from human transmutation just to be safe. I create flesh and blood only for my dolls."
"Blood?" Harry asked. "They even have blood?"
Sanguini smirked. "Not the drinkable kind, alas, but they do have something like a circulatory system, to help them retain colour and warmth. See for yourself."
The girl doll reached out and grasped Harry, her slim hands on his arm soft and warm. Harry swallowed as a strange feeling overtook him. He could feel her pulse against his skin, regular but strangely intense.
"Ah, ah," sighed the doll, and he jumped.
"Can they talk?" he demanded.
"Not in words, no," said Sanguini. "That's the circulation mechanism you're hearing, and they can make some basic sounds. Sometimes Eldred will charm them to say things, but that's going a little far, in my opinion."
"I can hear you, you know!" Eldred called through the curtain. "Come out here. The food's nearly done."
Sanguini laughed, but obligingly tapped the doll's shoulder. She sat back down and folded her arms, going still, and he brushed the curtain aside, gesturing for Harry to precede him. They settled at the table just as Eldred levitated a steaming cauldron of soup onto the centre, along with three bowls. A ladle flew through the air and landed in the cauldron with a splash, where it then proceeded to serve each of them a generous portion.
"What are they for?" Harry asked Sanguini, gaze still fixed on the curtains, though he could no longer see the faces behind them.
"Oh," Sanguini began with clear hesitation, and to his right, Eldred spluttered and went red for some reason. "Well, you can use them for anything that you'd normally use a doll for. For example, er, puppet shows."
"Quite right," said Eldred, coughing into a handkerchief. Harry got the feeling that they weren't being completely forthright with him, but he supposed it probably wasn't important, so he tucked into his soup.
"This is really good," he said. The soup was rich with savoury tomato and fresh herbs, along with an assortment of pasta and veg. As hungry as he was, he cleared his bowl almost as quickly as if someone had cast a vanishing charm.
"I'm glad you think so," Eldred said. "Cooking is just a step to the left of potion-making, so I should hope to be passable at it. Do you enjoy potion-making, Harry?"
"It's all right. I'm not very good. I mean, I can follow the instructions, but my stirring is never exactly right," Harry mumbled.
Eldred leaned forwards with a conspiratorial mien. "I'll let you in on a little secret that I'm sure your texts haven't covered yet—there are two types of stirring. Stirring unreactive ingredients distributes them physically, while stirring reactive ingredients combines them magically. Instructions will often say to stir a certain number of times, but you only want to count exact stirs for magical reactions. Otherwise, you should pay attention to the colour and consistency of the brew and let those guide you. Intuition is very important for a potioneer." He tapped the side of his head with one finger.
Harry had a feeling that this advice was actually very advanced. He had no idea how he was supposed to tell if he had stirred the right amount or not, and thought he'd rather take his chances with the instructions. At least then, there was only a limited number of marks he could get off. Still, he smiled and nodded. "Thanks, I'll try that next time."
He admitted that he had no stove or hot plate at home, and was referred to half a dozen shops when he asked Eldred about where he got his potion-making equipment.
"The cauldron is all you really need," Sanguini protested. "You can impart heat magically."
"My dear, don't mislead the boy. He hasn't got a hundred years to practise wandless magic," Eldred said.
"It's simple," Sanguini insisted.
"Wandless magic?" Harry repeated, and Eldred groaned. Sanguini grinned.
"You apply it directly with your hands and your eyes. We vampires are not allowed to carry wands, as I'm sure you know, so we must make do. The effects we can achieve are smaller, subtler, but no less useful."
"It's far too difficult to bother with, if you've got a wand," Eldred said. "He's tried to teach me for years and has had nothing to show for it, so now he's setting his sights on a new target. My dear boy, don't be fooled. Humans are tool users! We aren't meant to do magic with only our bare hands."
"My sweet is spoiled, so used to getting whatever he wants," Sanguini murmured, reaching out to pat Eldred slyly on the head. "If he never wishes to practice, how can he learn?"
Eldred rolled his eyes. Sanguini turned to Harry again, sobering.
"I'd noticed that your wand hand is your right hand," he said. "If you'll forgive me for the impropriety, I'm very curious about your prosthesis. I wasn't aware that it was possible to connect to a wand through quicksilver. May I ask who the maker is?"
Harry blinked down at his hand. It did look quite like quicksilver, packed into a solid form. "I don't know. Sorry," he said. Sanguini stared at him with a piercing greenish gaze, and Harry wondered if he could tell that he was lying.
"Quicksilver is the traditional alchemy base for transmuting living matter," Sanguini said. "However, it is a very poor conductor of magic, and difficult to work with, so that is why I'm surprised. Would you mind terribly if I were to examine it?"
"Sanguini!" Eldred cried, flushing. "My dear boy, I must apologise—Sanguini has a one-track mind when it comes to his craft."
It would probably be better to deny him, Harry thought. Close inspection might reveal that the hand was cursed, and that would raise all sorts of awkward questions. Any incautious tampering might even trigger some unpleasant side effect from the curse.
"It's all right," his mouth said without the permission of his common sense, because he wanted to know. He extended his arm. "Have a look."
Sanguini gestured for him to scoot his chair closer, then took his hand delicately into his larger one. The vampire tapped a finger gently against Harry's prosthesis. Though the tip of the claw looked like it had been filed down, it was still thick and hard, and made a tinny sound, as if striking solid metal. Harry felt only a glancing pressure.
"How strong is your grip?" Sanguini asked. "Close your fist and try to prevent me from prying it open."
Harry did so, bracing himself, and watched in astonishment as Sanguini tried to wedge his claws under the silver fingers but met with no success.
"Fascinating," Sanguini murmured. "It's as I thought. Quicksilver is ever passing between life and death. It should yield like flesh, and yet become immovable when called upon. But to make a false limb of it! It must be monstrously strong. Hmm. Yes. Try to break the table."
"I'm sorry, what?" Harry said. A panicked Eldred levitated the leftovers out of the way just as Sanguini turned to demonstrate, slamming his fist into the wood. It splintered with a horrible crack, and the vampire grunted, pulling back his bloodied hand with a resonant hiss.
"Like that," he said, rubbing at his fingers, which restored themselves peculiarly before Harry's eyes, blood sinking back into the pale flesh. Muttering under his breath, Eldred repaired the table with a sweep of his wand.
"Are you sure?" Harry asked after a pause, glancing to Eldred, who shrugged at him and rolled his eyes. Gritting his teeth, Harry braced himself and punched down with all his strength.
Harry overbalanced and found himself up to his shoulder in table splinters, with Eldred and Sanguini staring wide-eyed at the hole he'd made.
"Are you all right?" Eldred recovered his wits first, rushing forwards to check Harry for any injury. "I should've known it would be a bad idea… I didn't think it would actually—"
"I'm fine," Harry said, a somewhat bewildered laugh tumbling from his lips. Wincing, he extricated himself and rubbed at his shoulder, which was a little bruised but otherwise unhurt.
Sanguini clapped his hands together in delight.
Eldred cast a healing charm at Harry and sighed. "I think that's enough experimentation for tonight."
"Thanks. Sorry," Harry said sheepishly, but Eldred shook his head.
"Oh no, no need to apologise, my dear boy." He swivelled around to face Sanguini and pointed at him. "I'm talking to this one."
"Yes, yes, of course, my sweet. No more experiments," Sanguini agreed, holding up both hands. "Thank you for indulging my curiosity, Harry."
"Right. Thanks for lunch," Harry said, smiling apologetically at Eldred as he glanced to the repaired table. "I… I'd better get going. My uncle's probably wondering where I am."
Petri obviously hadn't been wondering any such thing. When Harry descended into their coffin, the man hardly looked up from where he was sitting in the back, measuring out strands of some sort of silvery hair. Harry sighed and headed for the trunk to try conjuring Ulrich again.
Setting up the mirror in front of a tall stool and taking out the resurrection stone had become routine by now. Harry took out both his wands, considering each of them briefly, before putting away the willow. His right-handed magic still worked much better, and he needed every advantage he could get. He pressed his lips together as he glanced into the mirror, testing his wand movement. He wasn't really even expecting it to work. That was bad, wasn't it?
There wasn't anything wrong with his wandwork. At the first murmured, "Spiritus revocatur," the image of Ulrich's face, now as familiar to him as his own, solidified in the mirror. But it was static. It did not think, did not know.
Some time later, soft footfalls and the rustling of robes alerted him to Petri's entrance. Harry did not glance up until the man's reflection appeared in the mirror, looking over his shoulder.
"Still nothing?" he asked.
"Hm. Not unexpected. It's a difficult exercise, though I admit… I'd hoped that it would come naturally to you, as reconstruction did," Petri said.
"What does this have to do with reconstruction?" Harry asked, glancing automatically to the locked cabinet that held the pensieve. The people in memories were, well memories. This was the conjuration of an actual soul!
"It's the same concept, really," Petri said, furrowing his brow. "You must connect to the dead, as if they were living. Only, I would think it's more difficult to achieve in reconstruction, since you have no direct control. With conjuration, you are at least holding the wand."
Harry glanced down at his wand, still uncertain how that was relevant. One thing had suddenly become clear to him, however. Petri was right. He hadn't been thinking of Ulrich as a person. He'd been so focused on the image, on Ulrich's personality, his memories—but for all that he had still been a something, not a someone. Ulrich's spirit, rather than Ulrich himself.
"You should eat," Petri said, setting a phial of nutritive potion on the table with a soft clink. Harry looked up and wrinkled his nose.
"Eldred told me real food is cheaper than nutritive potion. Stew, I think he said," he said. Nonetheless, he picked up the phial and downed the potion.
Petri snorted. "If you make it yourself, perhaps. But time is money."
"We have Rosenkol," Harry pointed out.
"I prefer to conserve Rosenkol's usefulness," was Petri's cryptic response.
"What does that even mean?" Harry demanded.
"Exactly what it sounds like. The time he has left to manifest without a proper house is limited. The more house-elf-like tasks he has to do, the more it taxes his coherence," Petri said.
Harry sat up straight. "The time he has left—you don't mean he's dying?"
Petri sneered. "Everybody is always dying. But yes. House elves need a house, one steeped in generations of history, in order to manifest properly. Take away their purpose and they will fade away, vanishing forever. I have tried to give Rosenkol a new purpose, enough to keep him alive, but it is difficult enough for him to keep him away from his nature without the added complication of expecting him to do menial tasks."
"Wait, so I've been killing him, trying to show him how to cook?" Harry demanded, horrified.
"Don't be dramatic," Petri said, rolling his eyes. "He can survive cooking if he wants to, as long as he does not have to."
"He needs a house, right? So what if you sent him to work at Hogwarts?" Harry asked. There were dozens of house elves there, so the castle had to count as a house, right?
Petri rolled his eyes. "And allow Dumbledore to get his hands on all my secrets?"
"But then Rosenkol wouldn't die," Harry protested. "I thought you cared about him."
"I care about him, because he belongs to me," Petri said, his tone clipped. "The situation isn't so dire, anyway. Like I said, I've been able to divert his purpose for the most part."
"How did you get him, anyway?" Harry asked, shoving his dissatisfaction down into his gut. He knew better than to argue further.
"I inherited him from a friend," Petri said.
"Wait." Harry narrowed his eyes. "I thought Rosenkol killed his last master?"
"The one before that. My friend's father," Petri confirmed, his expression closing off. "An extremely unpleasant man, by any account."
Petri fell silent, perhaps lost in a memory, and Harry let the subject go, turning back to his conjuration. He had to really want to find Ulrich. But what was it that made Ulrich who he was? The more he thought about it, the less it made sense. It didn't seem like any quality of a person could actually be requisite for their identity. Everything about them was important, certainly, but at the same time, nothing, no one thing, was important by itself.
But he didn't have to conjure Ulrich out of nothing, he reminded himself. Ulrich was already tied to the stone. Harry twirled the stone absently in his hand. "How exactly does the stone work, though?"
He glanced to the side and his heart skipped a beat as he found no one. Twisting around, he searched the entire room, but Petri must have left without his noticing. Chuckling nervously to himself, Harry held up the stone and peered at it, as if he might see a miniature Ulrich staring out at him from inside.
Well, why not? He couldn't see anything but his own blurred reflection in its opaque surface, but if Ulrich was already inside the stone, why couldn't Harry just pull him out and put him in the mirror?
"Spiritus revocatur," He began, and instead of focusing on the mirror, held the stone up to eye-level as he sketched the trefoil knot, imagining that he was drawing something out and directing it to the glass.
Ulrich's image sharpened and blinked at him.
"Hello?" he murmured, squinting. "Who are you?"
Harry almost dropped his wand. After everything he'd tried, it was this that ended up working? It took him several seconds to pick up his jaw, during which Ulrich seemed to have come to some conclusion.
"You're Harry Potter, right?"
"Yes, I'm Harry. You remember me?" Harry asked. Ulrich blinked.
"Should I?" he asked.
"Never mind," Harry said quickly. The dead probably couldn't form new memories the same way the living did. But then how did Ulrich know his name? For that matter, how did Ulrich understand him? "We're speaking English right now."
"You're speaking English," Ulrich agreed, shrugging. "I'm not speaking at all."
That was true, Harry realised suddenly. There was no sound coming from the mirror. Why would there be? It wasn't enchanted to speak. He was reminded immediately of Parseltongue. But Ulrich wouldn't know anything about that.
"Why did you conjure me?" Ulrich asked.
"Oh. I was practising," Harry said, holding up the resurrection stone. "Master Joachim just started me on conjuration."
"I see. He's gone and replaced me, then?" Ulrich muttered. Harry blinked, half-remembering that Ulrich had said much the same thing the last time he'd been conjured.
"You're looking at me like we've had this conversation before," Ulrich said, his lip quirking, though his eyes remained cold. Dead. "How many years has it been since I died?"
"I don't know," Harry said, a trickle of discomfort pooling in his stomach as he realised there was so much about Petri's past that he had no idea about. How long had he been at this, trying and failing to pass on his craft?
"It doesn't matter," Ulrich murmured. "Time is difficult, anyway. If you don't need me for something, will you let me go?"
"What, do you have somewhere to be?" Harry asked incredulously. He had just succeeded in his first conjuration, and wanted to have some time to savour the result.
"It hurts to be like this," Ulrich said, looking down as if he had admitted something shameful.
Harry bit his lip. "Oh. Sorry. I didn't realise. Did I mess something up?"
"No," Ulrich said immediately, smirking. "Relax, I was just joking. The only thing that hurts is how clueless you are."
"That's not funny," Harry muttered. He was already uncertain enough without getting deliberately misled.
"You're no fun. I can't believe the master replaced me with a dead serious twerp. How old are you, anyway?"
"Twelve," Harry said.
"The stodgy genius type, I see," Ulrich mused, tapping his chin. "So I'm guessing you don't want to hear juicy secrets about the master?"
"What? Of course I do," Harry said, sitting up straighter. He suddenly realised that this was his opportunity to properly use necromancy for what it was meant for—getting information from the dead.
"He's not standing right behind you or anything, is he?" Ulrich asked, and even though Harry was fairly certain that the answer was 'no', he still glanced behind him guiltily.
"No," he confirmed, turning back in anticipation. "So spill."
Ulrich snickered. "What do you want to know?"
Recalling the conversation from a few minutes ago, Harry eagerly asked, "Can you tell me about Rosenkol? Do you know how the master got him?"
"The secrets of the dead are open to you, and you ask about a house-elf?" Ulrich demanded, rolling his eyes. "You're weird, kid. But yes, I do know. Back during the war, the master was pretty high up in Grindelwald's ranks, one of his acolytes. Rumour has it that he got that position because of how he turned the Eberstadt heir to Grindelwald's cause."
"Who?" Harry asked.
"Eberstadt, you know, one of the oldest families in Switzerland? No? Well anyway, Rosenkol used to belong to Eberstadt, and when he died, Master Joachim got him since they were close. And probably since he's defective, in case you haven't noticed. Ran away from the main family and was just out there, doing who knows what, after killing Eberstadt's father. To be honest, he's always creeped me out. I don't know how the master can stand to keep a wizard killer near him," Ulrich said, shuddering.
"He had his reasons," Harry protested.
"Did you know he taught the elf to conjure?" Ulrich asked.
"Yeah," Harry said after a beat, wondering if he ought to reveal that it was Rosenkol who had conjured Ulrich for him the first time.
"That's perverse, isn't it?" Ulrich demanded. "He treats him like a wizard."
Harry shrugged. "Well, his magic is pretty strong."
"It's unnatural, is what it is. How can an elf with no house, who never does any chores, have that kind of power? That's not how they're supposed to work," Ulrich complained.
Harry thought that maybe Petri had the right of it, and most wizards just had an inaccurate view of house-elves because they regarded them as inferiors. Ulrich was dead, though, so there was no point in trying to argue with him or change his mind. Instead, he asked, "So what was the juicy secret that you wanted to tell me in the first place?"
"Hm, well, depends on what you know already. Did you know that Master Joachim knows how you're going to die?" Ulrich asked.
"Yeah," Harry said, unimpressed. "I know how I'm going to die too."
Something flashed in Ulrich's eyes. "Killed by the Dark Lord. How does that make you feel?"
"How did you know that?" Harry demanded. Ulrich grinned.
"I'm dead, remember? It's my business to know that kind of thing. So how does it make you feel? Are you scared?"
Harry wasn't scared. He was angry. He glared into the glass, raising his wand to—what, cancel the conjuration? He didn't know how, he realised, and didn't want to embarrass himself trying finite incantatem. It wouldn't work, anyway, he figured a moment later, because a conjuration wasn't an ongoing spell.
Ulrich was still talking, had even sped up a bit, probably because he knew he was testing Harry's patience. "I know I would've been. I mean, if I had known that Master Joachim would kill me, with no context, that would've changed everything. Do you think it would have happened the same way? Probably not. I probably would've died even earlier. That's what happens when you try to run away from fate."
"What are you trying to tell me?" Harry demanded, narrowing his eyes.
Ulrich stared back slyly. "You want to hear more? Okay, how's this? The Dark Lord kills you and you don't even fight back."
Harry gripped the edge of the mirror so hard that it hurt. "What? I thought it was a duel."
"Hm," Ulrich said, furrowing his brow. "You're not wrong. It's a duel. Actually, no, maybe you kill yourself."
"Excuse me?" Harry set the mirror back down. "Is this another joke?"
"No, it's not. I wouldn't—I can't joke about this. It's just a bit unclear, okay? That happens sometimes," Ulrich murmured, holding up both hands as if to proclaim his innocence.
Harry didn't believe him at all. He didn't think Ulrich could be lying outright, but there was definitely a tinge of malevolence behind the words he spoke, some unseen, malicious agenda.
"You're not Ulrich, are you?" he said in sudden realisation. "Did I—no. I didn't do something wrong. This is just how it is. You're not really Ulrich, because it's not actually possible to bring back the dead, not even in spirit."
"What are you talking about? Of course I'm Ulrich," said the boy in the mirror, sniffing in affront.
"How did you know my name?" Harry asked.
"You're well-known. You've got the lightning-bolt scar," Ulrich said, and he wasn't lying, of course, but Harry could see though him now.
"You died before I was born," Harry said. He didn't know, but he thought it was a good bluff, and Ulrich looked taken aback.
"Yes," he admitted. "But I'm dead. I'm allowed to know things."
Harry considered this in sullen silence for a few moments. It didn't matter if this was Ulrich. Harry had never known Ulrich, not least because, as they had just discussed, Ulrich had died before Harry had even been born. Was it even the same Ulrich as the one Rosenkol had conjured, or the one Petri had placed into the inferius body? Maybe. There had been something mean and dangerous about that one, too.
"If you know things," Harry began, mind racing through all the forbidden things he might like to know, "Can you tell me about this hand? The thief's curse. Is there a way to…" He trailed off, considering that voicing any serious intent to remove or subvert the hand might well count as a traitorous act.
Ulrich laughed. "I don't know just anything. Only things that are the business of the dead."
"Like souls?" Harry tried.
"What about souls?" Ulrich asked. "Master Joachim could tell you about those. Except he really hates the word, and you know, I don't blame him. It's a slippery one."
"Can you tell me about horcruxes?" Harry asked, taking another glance over his shoulder in case Petri had silently returned. He hadn't.
"They're evil. You don't want one," Ulrich said immediately.
Harry narrowed his eyes. "Evil? What's that supposed mean?"
"No good? Very bad? What do you think evil means?" Ulrich asked, raising his eyebrows.
"But why? How?" Harry pressed.
"You have to kill someone to make one, but more importantly, they don't work," Ulrich said, lowering his voice as if he were imparting a grave secret. "The more you try to evade death, the closer you bind yourself to it. Death doesn't like cheaters, and everybody dies in the end."
That did rather sound like the moral of the fairy tale that Luna had sent him, but Harry failed to see how it had to be true in principle. "How do they not work? Actually, first, how do they work? How do they keep you from dying?"
"Well, as long as part of you is still alive, then you're still alive. By definition, so to speak," Ulrich said.
"That's not cryptic at all," Harry muttered. Ulrich shrugged.
"I don't know the details. Asking a dead man how to evade death is clearly unproductive, don't you think?" he said.
"Fine. Who should I ask, then? Master Joachim doesn't want me to know," Harry muttered.
"Clever of him," Ulrich said unhelpfully.
Harry sighed. "Right. Listen. He forced me to make a horcrux and then memory charmed me so I didn't remember it. I just want to know what happened."
"Oh. Hm," Ulrich murmured. He stared glassily at Harry for a few moments before saying, "That tracks."
"Explains why your fate is all…" Ulrich reached out and swiped his hand across the glass, "…scattered. Maybe. So, I take it that you don't want to have a horcrux?"
Harry swallowed, suddenly uncertain. Was that true? Would he rather not have the horcrux?
"I don't know," he said honestly. "I don't think I have enough information."
"If you want me to tell you more, you must promise that you'll destroy your horcrux if you are ever in a position to do so," Ulrich said.
Harry squinted into the mirror, and Ulrich's impassive face stared back. "I thought you said you didn't know the details." And Harry was pretty sure the dead couldn't lie.
"I don't, but I know where you can find the information you want," Ulrich clarified.
What was it that Petri had said? The dead didn't give out just any information. They said the things that were most likely to drive you to join them. Destroying his own horcrux did sound rather like a form of suicide, or at least self-harm.
"No deal, sorry," Harry said. "Why don't you just tell me, and if you're right about me not wanting to have one, I'll decide to destroy it anyway?"
"Hm," Ulrich said, tapping his chin. "No. No deal." He smirked.
Harry scowled. "Fine. I suppose we're done here, then."
"The original offer is still open," Ulrich said, glancing up coyly.
Harry ignored him, waiting to see if the conjuration might disperse on its own. No such luck. After a few moments of awkward silence, he tipped the mirror over and smashed his silver fist into it, shattering Ulrich's smug face with petty satisfaction.
Notes: Is Sanguini actually an immortalized Coppelius from Der Sandmann? Maybe.