Harry was telling stories to a rock.
The resurrection stone rested between the wooden slats of Petri's workbench, in a tacky stain of dried-up brine. Behind it stood a bronze looking glass that to Harry's eyes reflected a smiling, elderly woman. Harry's wand hovered over the mirror like a paintbrush, his muttered words lending imaginary depth to the image's expression.
"He'd turned all the silverware into chopsticks," Harry mumbled, still peripherally aware of Petri sitting in a chair in the corner and judging him silently. The scrolls with the conjuration formula that had seemed so interminably long at the outset had been exhausted and lay half-furled all over the table.
Honestly, Harry had no idea what he was doing. Had he been asked his plans earlier that evening, he would have confidently declared that he was going to put just enough detail into the conjuration to make it work and not one bit more. But now that he was here, holding the slippery essence of Euphemia Potter between his mind and wand, it was impossible not to see how flat and imperfect the picture was.
Certainly, it was unmistakably his grandmother and no one else. That ought to have been enough. But it was like an artist's rendition of a tree, held together by context and expectation rather than its own substance. No matter how much light and shadow he applied, the brush could not transform illusion into reality. Still, would it not be a mistake to give up before trying everything?
So Harry told the stone everything that Euphemia Potter's painting had told him, and everything else he knew about her world besides. It was a picture of a picture, recorded by someone who had never even seen the real thing. But stories had power independent of reality. That was what his grandmother had believed, and that was the message he had to preserve.
When he had run out of things to say and run dry of spit to say them with, Harry touched his wand to the stone and ended his spell at last. Euphemia's image faded from the mirror, and the stone was warm when he picked it up, like an incubated egg.
"Finally," said Petri, leaping out of his seat. He pinched his thumb and forefinger together. "I was this close to interrupting you. You could have finished hours ago."
"Just making sure it worked," Harry muttered.
"I'm astonished that you had the patience," said Petri, shaking his head. "I expected the opposite."
Harry considered taking offence, but had to admit to himself that Petri had a point after having spent all week hearing him complain about the length of the conjuration formula and how he would never remember it all.
"Should I try to use it?" Harry asked, turning his gaze to the stone. It felt unreal in his hand. This was a proper magical artefact, one that he had created from start to finish.
Petri's brow wrinkled slightly. "Are you not tired?"
"I'm exhausted," Harry admitted, and it was as if the words had broken a dam. The burden of hours of precision focus flooded his mind with a roar of throbbing white noise. His wrist twinged as he tried to relax his stiff wand arm.
"You should take a break. The dead aren't going anywhere," said Petri.
Harry paused to check the time. It was nearly two. "Food?" he asked, peering at Petri through his fringe.
"I'm afraid I sent Rosenkol to gather wood," said Petri, turning towards the potion cabinet.
"I'll make it myself," said Harry hastily. He held up the resurrection stone. "Where should I put this?"
"I shall store it with the others," Petri said, reaching out a hand. Harry deposited the stone into his palm and watched as he locked it inside the leftmost drawer of the chest underneath the workbench.
They proceeded out of the workshop together, Petri leaving Harry in the antechamber of the trunk where Rosenkol kept all the food. Ducking down, Harry threw open a cabinet at random and inspected the contents: bags of flour. A sack of onions peeked out from behind them. He closed it and moved to the next. Garlic. Harry slammed the door shut, reeling as his eyes teared up. The sudden fit ended as quickly as it had started, and he glared at the grainy wood as his vision cleared. He couldn't even look at garlic now? That wasn't how allergies worked!
It wasn't actually an allergy, though, was it?
'Unreasoning madness', Silviu had called it. After an uncomfortable beat, Harry carefully checked the remaining cabinets. They were stuffed full of cabbages.
With a sigh, Harry turned to climb out of the trunk. He was too tired to figure out how to spell these meagre ingredients into proper food. A stove and a pot of water would have been convenient about now. Begrudgingly, he again conceded the point about over-reliance on magic to an imaginary Lupin in his head.
Still, today marked the first time Harry had ever cast magic for hours straight, so an exception ought to be made. Grumbling under his breath, he stared up at the closed trunk lid high above and took out his wand. At least this spell was a straightforward one.
After a moment, a rope ladder unfolded out of nothing, its frayed ends tickling the floor. Harry clambered up it and popped out of the trunk. Petri was stooped over the table, sorting through a pile of correspondence that had arrived earlier during the day. He glanced up, one eyebrow raised.
"There's only cabbage," Harry said by way of explanation, and Petri wordlessly summoned a potion vial from a box on the counter behind him. Harry snatched it out of the air and drank its bland contents, which immediately quieted his grumbling stomach. He set the vial aside for vanishing and peered at the post strewn across the table. There were two notices from Gringotts, identical except for the vault number; a letter from Mrs Figg that had been wrapped around a stack of cat polaroids, which Petri was presently examining; a thick scroll sealed with the Hogwarts crest that no doubt comprised next week's assignments; and a folded note with Harry's name written on the back in an elegant hand.
He snatched up the parchment and pried off the clear wax holding it closed.
I have arranged to catch up with Horace Slughorn later this week at Eternelle's Elixir. If you haven't been, it's a delightful little cafe in Carkitt Market with a unique selection of refreshments. Please let me know which of these dates and times suits you and your guardian the best (simply make a mark on the parchment and I will see it).
Below this was a series of dates and times, which probably worked similarly to the charms club membership sheets. Harry showed it to Petri.
"Lupin and Eldred wanted me to meet this person. Apparently he used to be their professor at Hogwarts," Harry explained, tapping Slughorn's name. "It says me and my guardian. Do you want to come?"
"It's fine if you go alone. I doubt my presence will be necessary," said Petri. He glanced briefly at the note. "Not tomorrow. You'll be busy all night with necromancy."
Harry's head whipped up. "Really?"
"I see no reason to delay further, now that you have your own resurrection stone," said Petri. "Get some rest for the remainder of today and we'll start early in the evening."
Harry swallowed a deluge of questions, catching the knowing look in Petri's eye. Rest. Right.
Glancing down at the note still in his hand, Harry circled Tuesday at seven o'clock and returned the parchment to the table, reluctantly trading it for his homework packet. He paused as he glimpsed the Daily Prophet headline that had been hiding underneath it: 'Berkshire family killed in tragic werewolf attack; ten-year-old daughter survives'.
Caught by morbid curiosity, Harry read on. 'Janus and Martha Greengrass and their five-year-old son, Joshua, were found dead in their home on Thursday after the night of the full moon. The Greengrasses' ten-year-old daughter, Alissa, survived and is recovering in St Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries.
'Aurors say they were notified of a werewolf attack on Thursday morning at the Greengrass residence. They found the murdered couple and their son, as well as the surviving daughter, who heroically issued the summons despite her own injuries. The werewolf escaped and is still at large, though based on Alissa Greengrass's testimony, aurors suspect that the attacker is none other than Fenrir Greyback, known wizard-killer.'
Harry grimaced and tore his eyes away from the article. Those names were familiar, and not only because there was a girl named Greengrass in his year. He recalled the scent of parchment and dust, the gleam of chandeliers, and the taste of tedium. Janus and Martha Greengrass were two of the names that the Death Eater at the library had written down. And Greyback was the name of the ragged man who had been wolfing down roast beef at Lucius Malfoy's table.
"Monstrous creatures," Petri remarked, glancing over to the paper. "They shouldn't be allowed to masquerade as wizards."
"Lupin's a werewolf and he's perfectly normal," Harry pointed out. "He's not out randomly attacking people."
"Only because he locks himself up. Werewolves are cursed to hunger endlessly for human suffering. If you met him on the full moon there's no doubt he would tear you to pieces," said Petri.
"The full moon's only once a month," Harry said.
Petri jerked his head at the article. "Once is more than enough."
Harry frowned, unable to deny this point. His thoughts wandered back to the awkward dinner party he had witnessed through the Dark Lord's eyes. Was he responsible for organising this attack? It seemed like too much of a coincidence for it to be otherwise. But then, that meant that Hannah's family could be in danger, for her name had been on the list. He clenched his fist, nails digging into the parchment in his grip. He needed to warn her, but how? It wasn't as if he could reference evidence gathered from spying on Death Eaters.
The obvious answer came to him. Divination. He had credibility now, enough that Hannah would probably believe him at face value if he claimed he had foreseen a threat. The problem was that, just like with real divination, knowing about what was coming didn't necessarily make it easier to escape it.
"Is there a way to defend against a werewolf on the full moon?" Harry asked.
Petri scoffed. "Apparate away. Fly off. If you have to fight, use the darkest magic at your disposal. They're immune to ordinary spells, and they're very fast. Any wound they inflict is cursed. You lose more than just the fight if they get even a single scratch in."
"Right," Harry muttered. That didn't sound promising at all. And he didn't even know if werewolves were the only danger. The Dark Lord had plenty of capable dark wizards following him, and they weren't restricted to attacking once a month.
For a moment, he itched to do actual divination on Hannah, but of course that would be completely foolish. The last thing he wanted was to condemn her to a dark fate in the course of trying to prevent it.
A vague warning had to be enough.
Harry swept some of the clutter on the table aside so he could compose a letter. It was about time he wrote to his friends anyway. Somehow, it had already been a month since Hogwarts had closed down.
Since telling Hannah that her family might be attacked would probably scare her, and also make him look ridiculous if nothing of the sort happened, he instead wrote that she should have an escape plan ready in case of a 'sudden upheaval'. After some hesitation, he cited the recent werewolf attack as an example, in case she got the wrong idea entirely. Duty completed, he moved on to friendlier matters, asking Hannah whether she had read some of the books that his grandmother had recommended to him. He composed a similar letter to Neville, minus the warning, and set them aside to post later.
Remembering that he could leave a message in Vince's mirror, he retreated to the bedroom and dragged his trunk out from under the bed, digging around for the cloth-covered artefact. As soon as he jostled it, it began to speak in Vince's voice.
"Harry, are you there? Call me when you're free."
Quill nibs and the corners of books dug into his skin as Harry scrambled to extract the mirror.
"Harry, I need your help. Call me when you have the chance."
A wide-eyed Vince peered at him, haloed by bright sunlight from an open window. The image flickered, the background darkening to reveal a four-poster bed with forest green hangings.
"Harry, I know you're probably not checking this, but if you see this, please call me as soon as you can. I need help but it has to stay a secret, and I don't know who else to ask. My mum is in trouble."
The mirror went back to normal, showing only Harry's own worried face.
"Vince? Vincent Crabbe?" he said into the mirror, not even bothering to get up from the floor. He felt his chest seize up in alarm, though he had no idea how long ago Vince's message had been recorded. Harry had all but forgotten the mirror's existence until now.
There was no immediate response, and Harry remembered that it was two in the morning, and his friends weren't nocturnal like he was.
The image in the mirror grew blurry, proving him wrong as it began to reflect Vince's pale face.
"Harry? Thank Merlin, I thought you'd lost your mirror or something," said Vince. "Why are you up so late?"
"Sorry," said Harry, "Did I wake you up?"
"No, it's good. I couldn't sleep," said Vince.
"Sorry," Harry said again. "I should've checked this earlier. Are you all right? Is your mum all right?"
"I don't know! They took her while Father was at the Ministry. I don't know what to do, and you're the only person I could think of who could help, because you can keep a secret," Vince suddenly babbled.
"Hold on, who are 'they'?" Harry asked.
"The trolls," said Vince, taking a breath. "I couldn't do anything to them. I hit them with my best spells and they just ignored them, and they had these huge clubs. They would have flattened me if Mum hadn't stopped them."
Harry blinked rapidly, equal parts alarmed and bemused. "Your mum stopped the trolls but they still took her?"
Vince shook his head. "No, that's how she stopped them. She said she'd go with them if they promised not to hurt me."
Harry didn't know a whole lot about trolls, but he was under the impression that they were very stupid, which was why Troll was the mark reserved for abject failure. Striking a bargain instead of just smashing and grabbing seemed to break that stereotype.
Somewhat unsure of himself, he said, "This seems like something you should call the aurors for."
"No!" cried Vince, lurching forward. "You can't. Father says it's something to be settled between him and his rival. If aurors find out they'll lock everybody up in Azkaban and then the—" Vince's voice dropped to a whisper, "—the Dark Lord will be very angry."
"Right, can't have that," said Harry hastily. Why did the Dark Lord seem to be involved with everything these days?
Vince pulled back, nodding in clear relief. "So you'll help me?"
"Er, how exactly am I supposed to help?" Harry asked. "It sounds like maybe your father has it handled?"
"He doesn't at all," muttered Vince. "He said that he was going to get her back, but he's locked himself up in his study and I peeked inside and he was drinking firewhisky again. And he has to go to the Ministry again tomorrow, so when is he going to do something?"
"This all happened today?" Harry asked.
"No, last Friday," said Vince, and Harry grimaced.
"Your father's been drinking for two days straight?" he checked, just to be sure.
Vince nodded vigorously. "That's normal, but I can't believe he's acting like nothing's wrong when mum needs him to save her. I don't know what to do, though. He won't listen to me when he gets like that, and I'm not a bloody Gryffindor. I can't go running after trolls on my own. But then I thought of you."
He stopped there, and Harry stared for a few moments in awkward silence, expecting some kind of follow-up. When none was forthcoming, he said, carefully, "You know I can't fight a troll, either, right?"
"Well of course you can't, but you can find my mum, right? You found me that one time in the forest, with your divination," Vince reminded him, and Harry realised it was a completely reasonable suggestion. He felt momentarily ashamed for assuming that Vince had something unrealistic in mind.
"Yeah, I can do that right now," he said, though he immediately felt the gut-churning worry that they were already too late, that the worst had come to pass.
"Wait," said Vince. "You can only do that once a day or something, right?"
Harry blinked, surprised by Vince's knowledge, before nodding.
"No point doing it right now in the middle of the night. Do it tomorrow—later today, I mean, in the morning. My father will be out, so we can meet up and do it together."
"It'll have to be early morning," Harry said, thinking of the promised necromancy lesson tomorrow evening. If only it had come even a day earlier! But he couldn't ask Vince to wait even longer for such critical information, so xylomancy would have to do.
"Eight?" Vince suggested. "You live in the Alleys, right? I can meet you at Fortescue's."
Harry agreed to the time and place, and a visibly relieved Vince left to attempt a few hours of sleep. Setting the mirror down on his nightstand, Harry got to his feet, wincing at the stiffness in his joints. He jumped onto his bed and rolled around in discontent, wishing that he had asked Vince more questions. How in the world did some project of the Dark Lord's end up with Vince's mother carted off by trolls? Harry recalled the troll that had been found in Hogwarts in his first year. Were trolls talented at breaking and entering?
After his own misadventures smuggling dementors onto Hogwarts' grounds, however, he knew that the walls were not easily breached from the outside, and he could hardly imagine a troll waltzing through the front gate without being spotted. Perhaps it had received inside help. Now that he thought about it, it seemed likely that the Dark Lord had also been involved back then.
But why trolls? Harry flopped over the edge of the bed and reached again for his trunk. Feeling lazy, he took out his wand and waved it in a tight circle.
"Accio Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," he said, and his whole trunk shuddered and spat a thick volume out onto the floor. Harry grabbed it and righted himself, paging to the entry on trolls.
The chief magical trait of a troll was apparently its strength. An average adult troll could easily lift several tonnes and could knock down unprotected walls with a single blow. Trolls also had excellent endurance, healed very quickly from minor abrasions, and, due to their size and tough hides, were resistant to most spells. They preferred cold, dark environments and were usually found atop mountains, in grottoes, or under bridges, living in small tribes.
In modern day, trolls were also commonly found working in security, construction, and mining. Despite this, they were classified as beasts rather than beings due to generally being too stupid and violent to operate in polite society without handlers. They were also opportunistic carnivores known to prey on humans if given the chance.
Harry grimaced as he read this last bit, snapping the book shut. He still didn't understand what use the Dark Lord had for enhanced manual labour, given all the magical forces at his disposal, so he supposed he would have to ask Vince for more detail later.
Harry busied himself with homework until early morning, when Rosenkol returned from his foraging with not only Petri's wood but also a fresh fish, which he prepared with braised cabbage according to a recipe from Mrs Figg's collection. Though it turned out somewhat overcooked and bland, Harry appreciated the solid food all the same, and fancied that he could taste something of the elf's determination in the dish.
More than ready for pudding and answers, he grabbed his cloak and headed up to Diagon Alley.
He found Fortescue's under the baleful surveillance of a dozen dementors, all piled atop Gringott's across the street. A handful of patronuses guarded the alley at ground level, warding off the chill, but still no one was daring enough to sit at the tables and chairs outside the ice cream parlour.
A healthy crowd had built up inside, however. As he entered, Harry had to search the packed dining area several times before he finally spotted Vince in the corner at a round table for two. The large boy was hunched over an overflowing bowl of bright blue ice cream topped with fudge and nuts, mechanically shovelling spoonfuls into his mouth.
Having only been to the ice cream parlour once, before the fidelius charm had been broken, Harry was unprepared when Mr Fortescue waved at him enthusiastically from behind the counter. "Why, if it isn't Harry Potter," he exclaimed, fortunately in a low enough voice that only a few heads turned. "Welcome to my humble shop, Mr Potter. What will it be for you today? Here, try all the flavours before you decide."
He whipped out a handful of tiny spoons and dipped them into each of the buckets, and Harry found himself laden with samples of everything from chocolate to peanut butter to 'ocean spray', which looked to be the blue flavour Vince was presently enjoying. He chose strawberry with cake crumbs for his order, for which Mr Fortescue categorically refused to accept payment, citing it as the least he could do after how Harry had 'saved them all'.
Trying to avoid any further undue attention, Harry accepted graciously and hurried over to Vince's corner. The other boy had evidently been wrapped up in his thoughts, for he started at Harry's appearance, spilling a glob of ice cream onto his robes.
"Tergeo," said Harry, whipping out his wand when Vince showed no sign of doing something about the stain.
"Oh, hello, thanks," said Vince. "Sorry, I'm a bit out of sorts. Thanks for coming. You brought your divination things?"
In response, Harry unloaded his tarot deck and a bundle of notched twigs onto the table. He had borrowed a real xylomancy set from Petri's collection of divination paraphernalia, figuring that it had to be better than transfigured chopsticks.
"Do you have any more details you can tell me?" Harry asked. "Anything helps."
"Yeah, but not here," said Vince, glancing around very suspiciously. Harry waved at him to regain his attention.
"How come we didn't just do this at your house?" he asked.
"Floo's locked to strangers," Vince muttered. "We could go to your house."
"Can't, it's under protective charms," Harry said. Not to mention that it was a coffin. He frowned, racking his brains to come up with a suitable location. "We could try the Leaky Cauldron. It has rooms, right? But I'm not sure I have enough money."
Vince shot him a strange look. "We won't need that much time."
Harry didn't think that one could rent a room for less than a day, but was soon proven soundly wrong. He and Vince finished their ice creams and trudged up the street to the crowded tavern, where they were able to secure one hour of uninterrupted privacy for only a sickle. Unlike at the White Wyvern, the rooms in the Leaky Cauldron even came with imperturbable charms to stop sound from passing through the walls.
"Right, so, I have loads of questions. How come there were trolls at your house? How did they get in?" Harry asked, taking a seat on the springy bed.
"They smashed a hole in the wall," said Vince, pulling up a chair.
"But aren't there charms to keep them out?" Harry asked.
Harry decided to move on. "Do you know why they wanted your mum?"
Vince leaned forward. "You've got to keep it a secret. From everybody, even Draco and Neville and Hannah."
"All right," Harry agreed.
"Promise," said Vince.
"I promise," said Harry, beginning to get a little worried.
Vince stared into his eyes for a long time before turning his gaze to the floor. "I… I'm not pure-blood." He winced, as if startled by his own words, before repeating them more firmly. "I'm not pure-blood. I'm a half-breed. My father's a blood traitor who married a part-troll."
"Oh," said Harry after a moment.
Vince looked up, his eyes darting to and fro. "I didn't even know," he said, clasping his hands. "I swear, I had no idea, not until I saw what Mum actually looked like. Father confessed after that. She wasn't ill at all—just, the magic he was using to hide her face wore off and she couldn't go outside anymore. And he had to keep me out of Hogwarts in case I started showing any… signs. I didn't know…"
Harry reached out and put a hand on Vince's knee. "It's all right," he said.
"It's not all right," Vince muttered, face crumpling. "It's—I'm disgusting."
"You're not," said Harry. When Vince narrowed his eyes at him, he added, "Well, you kind of are, but not because you're part-troll or whatever."
Vince grimaced. "Thanks, I suppose. I knew you wouldn't care. That's why I told you. But you don't get it, Harry, because you're weird."
"I get it," Harry protested. "I know why you can't tell Draco. But I'm not that weird. I bet Hannah wouldn't mind either. Her mum's muggle-born."
Vince shook his head. "No, that's completely different. See, you don't get it. Half-breeds are so much worse than half-bloods. I'm not even human! My father… he just… look, I don't want to talk about this anymore. You promised not to tell."
"I know. I won't tell anyone," Harry affirmed. Vince let out a heavy sigh.
"So that's why the trolls took my mum away. She's their kind, and all," he said. "Can you find her now?"
Harry pressed his lips together, bracing himself to ask an awkward question. "I need to know. So did she go with them willingly? Was your father keeping her, erm, locked up?"
Vince waved his hands frantically. "No, it's not like that. They're married in blood and everything, and I'm a real Crabbe. At least there's that. Mum never let on what she was, but she always calls her relatives brutes. I'm sure she didn't want to go with them. Only did it because they threatened me."
"All right. One last thing then," said Harry. "You mentioned the Dark Lord earlier. What's he got to do with this?"
Vince wrung his hands, hunching down even further in his seat. "There's a Death Eater, I think, who's to bring some trolls to his cause."
"I guessed that, but that's what I don't really get," Harry muttered. "What does he need trolls for?"
"To smash things?" Vince suggested, smacking his fist into his palm indicatively. Somehow, Harry doubted that that was the case. One spell from Lord Voldemort could probably smash something faster than a dozen trolls.
"Right, I suppose we have no idea," said Harry, taking out his tarot deck. "So first I was going to do a reading for you to get more context, and then try to get a direct lead on your mum's location with xylomancy. Does that work?"
Vince shrugged, which Harry took as assent. He cut his deck and brought his focus to bear.
"So we start with your past," he said, drawing a card. The five of swords. Harry had a hunch that Vince had yet to scratch the surface of his parents' story. "Broken trust and deceit. You said your mum doesn't like her relatives, and your parents are married normally? So it was under false pretences that she and your dad got together. Her troll family didn't approve of him and I reckon your dad's parents wouldn't have approved of your mum either."
There seemed to be more to it than that, but whatever it was remained at the tip of Harry's tongue, eluding his grasp. He moved on, turning the next card.
"The Moon. That's not surprising. You're feeling scared and uncertain right now because of what you found out, and it's affecting your memories and your thoughts about the future. This card is saying that you might be making things worse for yourself than they have to be. Maybe you're overthinking things. I for one know plenty of half-breeds and they're all great people, and I think you'll be all right."
Vince grunted, and didn't look like he believed him.
"Let's see the future, then," said Harry. "Nine of cups. What's lost will be returned."
At this, Vince brightened considerably, drawing the obvious conclusion. Harry squinted at the card, however, as secondary interpretations came to him. He doubted that Vince's mum would simply turn up without their intervention, not when Vince had made it clear that his father wasn't trying and that the trolls had meant serious business. Seeing such a positive sign, however, meant that they had the ability to get her back. And the hint for how to do it lay right there in the same cards.
"We have to trade something. The trolls took her because they lost something—no, that's not it, they didn't get something they were promised," Harry said, eyes flickering back to the five of swords. Broken trust. "In return for your father marrying your mother. So we need to figure out what that was and give it to them. Could you ask your father?"
Vince grunted again, and Harry sensed reluctance.
"We can figure it out. Let's try to find your mum, then," said Harry, clearing away his deck and taking out the xylomancy set. He rolled the twigs around in his hand, trying to get a good look at them. Some of them had a varying number of notches on their ends whose meaning eluded him. He decided to ignore those. Holding his question firmly in mind, he scattered the sticks on the ground.
They formed into four uneven piles, clearly indicating to him the cardinal directions.
"Southwest of here," said Harry, frowning. "Where's your house, again?"
"Bristol," said Vince.
"That's west of here?" Harry muttered, trying to remember what might be south of Bristol. The Malfoys, probably, but he doubted they lived anywhere near trolls.
Vince didn't know, either, but Harry managed to go downstairs and borrow a map from Tom the barman.
"All right, so, Cornwall or Dorset or Surrey?" he asked, and threw his divining sticks again. "Cornwall, definitely Cornwall."
He peered at the major cities labelled in the peninsula and found them largely unfamiliar.
"Do any of these look like trolls would live there?" Harry asked, momentarily forgetting himself as he showed Vince the map.
"Don't know," said Vince, peering at the parchment blankly. "Never used one of these. How does it work?"
"Well, it shows places. Like here's Bristol," Harry said, pointing to Vince's hometown.
"Why is it so small?" Vince asked. "And why is it pink? It doesn't look like Bristol at all. Where are the trees?"
"Never mind," said Harry quickly, taking back the map.
Vince shrugged. "All right, then. What now?"
Harry found himself stumped as well. He might be able to narrow the location down a bit more, though a third round of divining would be pushing his luck. Studying the map again, Harry found that Knight Bus stops were indicated by purple squares, which meant those were places they could feasibly go to. Collecting his sticks, he went in for a last toss: Falmouth or the Lizard?
The sticks landed in a haphazard pile without two particularly distinct areas, and had an odd number of crossings. Harry bit his lip. Did that mean somewhere in between or neither? Giving up, he said, "All right, so we found out your mum is in Cornwall somewhere and to get her back, we need to give those trolls something they were promised."
It wasn't a lot to go on, and Harry wished he could have done better. Vince looked lost, so Harry tried to change the information into something actionable.
"You try to get your father to tell you more about what he promised your mother's family, and I'll look into where trolls could live in Cornwall," he said. "It doesn't sound like your mum is in immediate danger, so I think we have some time."
"Right," said Vince, coming back to life somewhat. "I—I'll try, with Father. Thanks, Harry. I really don't know what I would've done without you."
Harry ducked down to gather up his xylomancy twigs and slipped them into his pocket. He stood up and, after a moment, clapped Vince on the shoulder. "You'll get her back," he said.
Vince nodded and made for the door. "Check your mirror. I'll tell you what Father says."
They parted downstairs, Vince heading for the floo while Harry returned the map and the keys. Deciding that he wasn't in the mood for a walk, Harry took advantage of the free floo as well to return home instantly, where, feeling dead tired despite the early hour, he went straight to bed.
As promised, Petri commenced the necromancy lesson first thing in the evening, taking him to the workshop to retrieve the resurrection stone. Rather than stay there, however, they returned to the hexagonal room with only the table and the portrait of Harry's grandmother. Petri cast a spell at the portrait, which froze its occupant in place so it appeared like a muggle painting, before he launched straight into a lecture.
"Tonight I will be showing you how to hold a séance. The séance is unlike the other types of necromancy you've experienced to date, in that it is as close as we can get to a direct connection to death. By now you don't need me to impress upon you how dangerous that makes it, but I shall tell you again anyway. A poorly directed séance has been known to cause participants to kill themselves on the spot.
"It's absolutely vital that you maintain control of the spirit and do not allow it to say whatever it pleases. Remember that you can only hear its words if you want to hear them. You've had some experience conjuring Ulrich before, so you know that your expectations shape every aspect of the interaction. It's mostly a matter of self-discipline."
Harry's face twitched. He hadn't known that, but that explained a few things, such as the way Ulrich's personality got markedly nastier with each iteration.
Petri continued, "The difference between a séance and a conjuration lies in the spirit's distance from death. When we conjure, we want to bring up a person as they were when they were alive, or as far from death as possible, which means they are equally far from any prophetic knowledge. When we hold a séance, we barely pull back the veil of death, using the forms of the departed as anchors. Normally, these forms would be drawn from the subconscious in an uncontrolled manner, but we have the advantage of using resurrection stones to specify the spirit's identity. Without this ability, we would have to resort to crude constraints like ouija boards to protect ourselves, which severely distort and limit what we can learn."
Harry frowned. "But how is it safe even if we pick the spirit? Wouldn't direct fateful words still be really bad?"
"When we control the spirit's identity, we control its core values, limiting the sorts of things they are willing to do. As a rule of thumb, if a person would die before doing something, then their spirit cannot do it. So, we simply need to call on an identity that would die before seeing us come to irreversible harm, and who has our best interests at heart. Hence, somebody who loved us dearly," said Petri.
"But then why couldn't I have conjured my mum?" Harry asked. "She actually did die for me, so isn't that proof that she loved me?"
Petri sighed. "Proof is not a passion. You control the séance, and you do not remember her. You do not know what it's like to be loved by her."
Harry stiffened. The lines in Petri's face softened slightly, and he added, "It would not be impossible, no, but it would be risky. And now is not the time to be taking unnecessary risks."
"I don't really know my grandma that well, either," Harry pointed out, glancing at the frozen portrait. "I mean, I know a lot about her, but weren't you saying that's not the same thing?"
"It's a balance," Petri said. "As I've said before, you aren't as emotionally susceptible to your grandmother. It's enough for you to trust that she would never be actively malicious towards you. Less direct methods of leading you to your doom only work if you cooperate."
"And you think I'd be tricked by my mum?" Harry asked, furrowing his brow. "But I'm not stupid. I know she wouldn't be real. I just…"
Petri cut him off. "She would be real. The moment you doubt the reality of what you are seeing is the moment you lose control. You remember reconstruction, don't you?"
Harry scowled. "I still don't understand what I was doing for that."
"You were acting as if the people in the memories were real," Petri said.
Harry thought back to his very first taste of necromancy as a completely ignorant little child and suspected that he had believed just that.
Completely missing the point, Petri said, "If you could manage that even with memories, I assumed that doing so during a séance wouldn't be a problem. Am I mistaken? If necessary, I can work some mind magic that might help."
"I thought you said you didn't know any mind magic," said Harry, his eyes involuntarily skating past Petri's nose. If the man had been able to do legilimency all along, Harry thought he might perish on the spot.
Petri made a wobbly motion with his hand. "This is more of a trick than a proper technique. I can hypnotise you before we begin."
Harry peered at him suspiciously. The first thing to pop into his mind was a memory of Aunt Petunia shrilly decrying hypnotists on the telly, which in retrospect was probably evidence that hypnosis was real. The next thing that now occurred to him was that if hypnosis was real, then it might well be as catastrophic as the imperius curse.
Petri coughed and said, "I know it sounds muggle, but it does work if you put a little magic in."
Harry blinked, taking a moment to digest this misplaced assurance. "It's okay. I'd rather not," he said, after a moment. "I think I can manage on my own. I just need to believe in what I see, right?"
He took a breath and tried to shove his doubts to the back of his mind. It wasn't far-fetched, anyway, to think that maybe he was mistaken about the true nature of souls after all. Even if conjuration wasn't perfect, did that necessarily mean that perfection was not possible? Some part of him still clung to hope, the part of him that had seen his mother and father in the magic mirror. Unbidden, Lord Voldemort's words came to him: to claim that something was impossible was to be an arrogant fool who thought he knew all the secrets of the universe.
Seeing the faces Harry was making to himself, Petri sighed and said, "Try to take the entire process at face value."
"Process?" said Harry, drawn from his reverie. He had been expecting to learn a new spell and be set to practise it.
He was soon disabused of this notion when Petri tapped his wand on one of the carved stone faces on the side of the table, transforming it into a brass knob. He pulled on it, and a drawer slid open to reveal stacks of multicoloured candles, brushes, twine, and various other knick-knacks.
"These tapers are made specially for divination. We shall use the white ones, which clear your inner eye from distractions, and the blue ones, which sharpen mental images," Petri said, selecting three of each candle and setting them into silver candlesticks.
"What do the black ones do?" Harry asked.
"Those are for protection against hostile spirits, but that will be unnecessary since we shall be directing the process with a resurrection stone. We shall also burn frankincense to bolster our perception." Petri knelt down and opened a larger compartment, from which he extracted a large drawstring pouch and a tetrahedral censer decorated with stylised eyes.
He instructed Harry to arrange the candles on the stone table in alternating order, with each one corresponding to a corner of the room. As Harry carefully lined up the candles, the point of the exercise suddenly became clear. This room, with its six sides, served as a symbolic container. The candles placed in the same shape opened a narrow passage, a funnel. But something was still missing from the picture.
Returning to the open drawer, Harry grabbed the ball of twine and unravelled it, weaving rough strands around each set of candles to form a hexagram. Triangles, for secret knowledge.
Meanwhile, Petri pressed his wand to a coal sitting inside the censer until it began to smoulder, then scattered a handful of yellowish stones over it. He replaced the lid, and fragrant smoke streamed from the carved eyes. The apparatus went into the centre of the array.
Petri vaulted onto the table with surprising agility and sat down cross-legged, robes fluttering, beside a white candle. He indicated for Harry to do the same. The last white vertex pointed to the painting of Euphemia Potter.
"Are we using the portrait?" Harry asked, his voice coming out in a whisper. The atmosphere of the room had begun to feel strange, simultaneously secretive and exposed, like a clandestine meeting that could be discovered at any moment.
Petri nodded. "It serves as a focus. It's not strictly necessary, but we have no third participant and need something to complete the circle," he explained in a similarly low voice. "You have the resurrection stone?"
Harry retrieved it hastily from his pocket and held it up.
"You will be using it to direct the séance. It begins with three turns of the stone and ends when you release your grip. When the spirit appears to you, you may ask it questions. As this is merely for practice, there is no need to take undue risks. I suggest you choose a single, relatively unimportant question about the near future," said Petri. "You may begin when you are ready."
Falling silent, he swished his wand above his head in a circle, and all the torches went out. A moment later, the candles flared to life, pinpricks of orange flame that warped and flickered eerily behind a curtain of smoke.
Breathing in the earthy scent, Harry closed his eyes and turned the stone in his hand. Once. Twice. Thrice. When he reopened his eyes, it was like a veil had been lifted from his sight. He pierced the apparent chaos of smoke and shadow, finding within them a solid presence that looked back. A heavy shape unfurled in the darkness, coursing around him, then through him, somehow gleaming without light as it coalesced into human form.
Faint as the sound of crumbling ash came a voice: "…you… listen…"
Harry strained to do just that, as the candle flames flared higher and a cloud of incense billowed around him. The edges of his grandmother's spirit sharpened.
"Are you… listening?" she asked, sounding far away.
"Yes," Harry whispered. Somewhere in the back of his mind drifted a mote of confusion. Wasn't he supposed to be the one asking questions?
The smoky form drew close. "Your parents… they want you to know… they love you very much. They want to see you," she said, each word a laborious susurration. Now her lips were beside Harry's ear, and even then he struggled to hear her. "You must take care… trust in yourself… seek out the unknown… do not place your faith… in the past…"
"Why?" Harry asked, though he knew he was playing with fire. The hand holding the resurrection stone twitched, then stilled, waiting.
His grandmother answered slowly: "The past… is only a story… you tell yourself. The characters… are not real…"
Look who's talking, Harry couldn't help thinking, and immediately knew that it was over. He opened his hand. The stone clattered onto the table and the candles went out in an instant, plunging the room into darkness. It lasted only a moment until Petri rekindled the torches.
"Was that normal?" Harry asked, regretting how he had been too caught up in the moment to ask about Vince's mother. "She sort of gave me advice on her own."
"Yes, that's the idea," said Petri, swinging his legs over the side of the table. "Advice is preferable to a warning or a prediction. You can choose whether or not to listen to it."
Harry made a face. Petri seemed to be doing a good enough job at not listening to even a clear warning of his death.
"But how am I supposed to choose? Won't I have got bad advice if it turns out I follow it, and good advice if it turns out I don't?" Harry asked, considering how divination usually worked.
Petri gave a short laugh. "Why do you think we went to all the trouble of preparing a completely directed séance? It's good advice. It's the advice your real grandmother would have given you if she were omniscient. Whether that means you should follow it is another story."
A story… Harry frowned. What had his grandmother meant by the past being only a story? His first instinct was to assume that it was about the subjectivity of his identity. But that didn't seem right, not when she had also told him to trust in himself. She had mentioned characters, which meant other people.
Harry glanced at Petri, who had begun tidying up the séance supplies. He certainly counted as one of the characters of Harry's past. But why wouldn't he be real?
No, of course he was real; the whole thing was metaphorical. It was Harry's understanding of Petri that was in question—that was what his grandmother had meant, wasn't it? That was nothing he didn't already suspect. He wasn't anywhere nearer to discovering what Petri had done with his horcrux. But perhaps his grandmother hadn't been able to speak of it, with Petri right there.
Or perhaps, it was exactly as Petri had warned him, and the dead were making an oblique attempt to convince Harry to destroy the horcrux. Would that still count as his grandmother's good advice? Harry couldn't be sure either way.
"You can reuse the tapers, but they need to be the same length," Petri was saying as he smoothed out the wax of the used candles and measured them against each other. He seemed to be in a pleasant enough mood. Harry wasn't sure now if Petri had heard what Euphemia had said to him. Though it had seemed real enough, he suspected that, as with any other form of divination, the whole conversation had actually taken place inside his head.
Harry reached for the bits of twine to wind them up, but Petri, in a rare show of extravagance, vanished them with his wand.
The last of the tension in the room disappeared along with them, no trace remaining of the séance's peculiar atmosphere. Harry frowned at the now-bare stone table.
"That didn't take very long," he said. "I thought you said we'd be busy all night."
"That was only the practical demonstration," said Petri, putting his wand away. "I find it much more instructive to begin with the hands-on portion when it comes to divination, given how intuitive the art is. Unfortunately, intuition only gets us so far in this case. But first, did anything stand out to you about the process?"
Harry considered for a moment, then said, "There were lots of threes. Secrets and strife." At least, that was what the runic three symbolised.
Petri nodded. "Three is an important number to rely on when using the third eye. What else?"
Uncertain what Petri was getting at, Harry reviewed the experience once more in his head. Then he remembered his main concern. "I didn't actually get to ask my question, the one I was thinking of beforehand. My grandma just started talking. Did I do something wrong?"
Petri did not answer for a moment, staring at him with a blank expression. "You didn't ask your question. That's what you did wrong."
Harry scratched his head, feeling foolish. "It felt rude to interrupt her."
Petri sighed. "No matter. It wasn't a serious attempt. Did you notice anything else? How did it compare to other forms of divination?"
"Oh," said Harry, thinking back to the cryptic advice of the spirit, "It's like with the human skin book—the psychography. Or dreams. I didn't get any certainty like I sometimes get when I do tarot readings. Does that just mean I'm not good at it?"
"No, that's unrelated to your talent," said Petri. "That 'certainty' that you are talking about only manifests when you are giving fateful words—serving as the medium for telling someone else's fortune, as it were. Recall that you cannot give yourself fateful words."
Harry frowned. "What's the difference? Isn't the séance basically me doing divination on myself? What about dreaming? How is that not giving myself fateful words?"
"Those are both examples of receiving words, not giving them. When you read for someone, you serve as the medium. You see a portent, interpret it, and transform it into words. These words then influence the recipient, who nonetheless does not know exactly what you saw. Similarly, you do not know exactly what the advice you got from the séance means. If you did, it would be completely specified and unavoidable, which is why it doesn't happen," said Petri.
"Oh right," said Harry. Being able to see the future perfectly would mean that the future was predetermined, which he was glad wasn't the case.
"Anyway," Petri continued, "You are correct that many types of necromancy, including séance, result in you receiving fateful words instead of relying on other symbolism. This is an important distinction. Words are much trickier than numbers and images. They can be far more specific, yet also more ambiguous. That's why I want to start properly teaching you grammatology before we go any further. Séance is especially difficult because you are engaged in active dialogue, and you will get better results if you can interpret as you go. Perhaps I was being uncharitable earlier. You probably failed to ask the question you intended because you were too focused on understanding and responding to what you were hearing at the time. Studying grammatology will help."
Studying grammatology was not a one-night endeavour, and Harry soon understood why Petri had led with the séance demonstration. If they had started with the grammatology, they would have never got to the interesting part, and Harry might have decided to write off this type of necromancy altogether.
Some time ago, he had explored the basics of grammatica, the application of grammatology to influencing outcomes, and had found it intriguing enough. The area of grammatology used for interpreting divination, however, might as well have been a completely different subject.
It was something like analysing poetry, except the poet was not only dead, but wanted the reader dead too. Avoiding the pitfalls of misinterpretation meant consulting references on top of references. Syntax, diction, and even breaths and pauses were all to be dissected for meaning until every ounce of magic had been sucked from the words.
Worst of all, the words never seemed to mean what a normal person might expect them to mean. 'Parents' and 'children' could figuratively refer to causes and effects rather than literal parents and children. 'Unknown' also meant danger or calamity. The past was not only what had happened, but the expectation that it would happen again.
By the time he went to bed that morning, Harry felt like he had forgotten how to speak English. He also didn't feel any nearer to understanding his grandmother's advice. If anything, it had started out straightforward enough, before becoming increasingly confusing the more he tried to interpret it.
Petri hadn't been much help either. Harry had only shared the first part of the message with him, the part that went: 'Your parents, they want you to know, they love you very much. They want to see you.'
According to Petri, given the repetitive structure and the direct address, the words seemed to be meant literally. That was to say, literally in the arcane language of fateful words, so something along the lines of Harry's parents arriving soon to protect him from the consequences of a discovery. How exactly Harry's very dead parents would be doing anything was unclear; Petri thought they might come to him in a dream.
Harry did not dream that day, though, not that he could remember. He woke up refreshed and very glad that he had a prior engagement for the evening to delay his return to studying. Whether or not meeting Slughorn turned out to be worthwhile, it couldn't be worse than spending another three hours second-guessing the definition of 'past'.
Checking Eldred's note to confirm the time and place, Harry put on his cloak and made his way around the fence behind the graveyard. There wasn't quite a proper street connecting Knockturn Alley to Carkitt Market; one had to go via Horizont or Diagon Alley for that. But there was enough space in back alleys and through overgrown courtyards to meander one's way up the hill and onto Towed Road on the south side of Carkitt.
Eternelle's Elixir of Refreshment was situated on that very corner, across from the museum. Though Harry had never gone inside the cafe, its excessively flashy architecture was hard to miss. The building was shaped like a giant potion bottle and made of faceted glass panels that slowly cycled through the colours of the rainbow. Rivulets of seemingly molten metal cut across the surface in a network of silver lines, and sparkling crystal steps led up to double doors carved to resemble a butterfly's wings.
Harry felt distinct doubt about whether he had brought enough money, despite having deliberately slipped several extra galleons into his pocket earlier, knowing that Carkitt Market was an expensive place. Then again, perhaps Eldred would pay for him, seeing as he was the one who had invited him. Harry soon spotted the portly man pacing back and forth along the edge of the market square and called out to him.
"Harry, good, there you are," said Eldred, looking relieved, as Harry approached. "I'm sorry, I thought to meet you in the graveyard and walk together, but for the life of me couldn't remember which house number was yours."
"Don't worry about it. I probably never told you," said Harry hastily, seeing the symptoms of fidelius-induced stress forming in the lines of Eldred's face. He changed the subject before Eldred could ask where he lived. "Are we still waiting for Slughorn?"
"Yes, we're a bit early. Let's go order something first," said Eldred, glancing around the expansive outdoor seating area. Despite the hour, it was nearly as bright as day, for each table was festooned with fairy lights and visited by the brilliant, flitting forms of actual fairies. A shining silver lynx patrolled the square at an even pace. Harry didn't think a single patronus was going to do much good if all the dementors haunting Diagon Alley decided to fly up at once, but it did look appropriately impressive.
Eternelle's butterfly doors parted on their own as Harry and Eldred approached, revealing a surprisingly sparse interior. The floor was simple white tile, which let it display the shifting colours of the light pouring through the glass walls and ceiling to their fullest effect. The tables and chairs were all white too and similarly unadorned, and the old wizard behind the counter was dressed in a white robe so airy that one might mistake him for a ghost.
He proved his corporeality quickly enough by snatching up a bottle and pouring out a measure of golden liquid into a glass of water. Sparks flew out on contact and the liquid precipitated into translucent pearls the size of gobstones, drawing appreciative exclamations from the pair of witches at the counter. The taller one grabbed the glass and turned to go outside, followed by her friend, who was sipping at a frothing magenta concoction.
Harry's eyes flickered up to the white ribbons floating lazily in the air above the barista's head, which curled artfully to spell out the menu—in theory, at any rate, for Harry couldn't read a word under the variegated light. He did manage to make out, however, that the drinks were priced in galleons.
"What's good here?" he asked Eldred.
"I usually like a bit of Crimson Charm, but I suppose that's not particularly appropriate for today's meeting. Golden Joy and Pure Peace are always safe choices. Hmm, but I think I'll have the Emerald Eloquence today." This last part he directed to the barista, who promptly poured out half a glass of water from a pitcher wriggling with murky green strands that Harry hoped were kelp and not the tentacles of some sea creature.
"That's gillywater," Eldred said, before Harry could even ask. "All right on its own, but has a wonderful reaction when it's combined with certain classes of elixirs."
"Those are actual potions?" Harry muttered, peering more closely at the rows of bottles on the shelves behind the counter. They were all made of thick, partly opaque glass that masked the colour of their contents. The barista selected one of these and poured out a tar-like black substance that sank to the bottom of the gillywater like a stone. He then added a drop of clear potion from another, smaller bottle, and bright green bubbles began to surge through the liquid.
Eldred paid him a galleon and four sickles and indicated for Harry to order.
"Er, Pure Peace for me," Harry said, since it had been named 'safe'. He glanced askance at Eldred's drink and asked, "What exactly is in that?"
"Surety syrup and wit-sharpening potion—a potent combination!" said Eldred, taking a sip. "Of course, the real magic is how they make the taste so pleasant. Alas, I still haven't yet figured it out."
Harry's order ended up looking exactly like a very expensive glass of milk. "And what's in this?"
"That one's very tame. A draught of peace with a dash of enlightenment," said Eldred. Seeing Harry's hesitation, he added, "Not a full dose. Just enough to take the edge off your worries."
Harry took a sip and was pleasantly surprised by the refreshing flavour. It was creamy and slightly sweet, but had a cool aftertaste like peppermint. He felt the tension drain from his body.
He followed Eldred outside and under the fluttering shade of a large umbrella. A cluster of fairies hovered overhead, just below the canopy, staining the whitewashed table with their iridescent glow.
"Nearly seven already," Eldred mumbled, setting his drink down and checking the time on his wand. "He'll be fashionably late, I'm sure."
"What am I supposed to say to him?" Harry asked.
"Nothing in particular. Just talk to him a bit. Be yourself," said Eldred.
Harry frowned. "What about the bill that you and Lupin were talking about?"
Eldred waved his hand. "Just make it clear that you care about werewolf welfare."
Harry opened his mouth to press for details, but closed it as he saw Slughorn cresting the hill. Contrary to Eldred's prediction, he had arrived right on time. Harry recognised him instantly despite having met him only once, for he cut a distinctive figure, half as wide as he was tall.
"Horace, there you are!" Eldred waved him over to their table, jumping to his feet.
"Eldred! You're looking well. Haven't seen you since… Christmas, was it? How goes your latest book?" Slughorn asked, adjusting the somewhat crumpled collar of his chequered robe as he approached. A sheen of perspiration glistened on his generous brow.
Eldred waved. "Oh, you know, it's going. I've got a few more interviews lined up in the coming months. I expect it'll come out by the end of summer."
"Excellent, looking forward to it," said Slughorn. "It'll be a sequel to your history on the Holyhead Harpies, if I'm not mistaken? I remember Gwenog mentioning something of the sort."
"That's right. You'll have to wait to find out the details, though," said Eldred, winking. "How have you been holding up?"
"I've been busy! Busy but well. It's the season for new apprentices. Plenty of promising talent this year," Slughorn said, rubbing his hands together, before he turned to peer at Harry. "Oho, now, is this—"
Harry stood up as Eldred motioned for him to come around the table and into the light. "Harry Potter, as you might have guessed. Harry, this is Horace Slughorn, my old potions professor at Hogwarts and now High Warden of the MESP."
Slughorn reached out and shook Harry's hand vigorously. "Delighted. Pardon me, but I think we've run into each other before."
"At the Athenaeum," Harry reminded him.
The corners of Slughorn's eyes drooped momentarily, and he glanced over at Eldred, before turning his attention back to Harry and finally releasing his hand. "Well, I don't know how I missed it before. Harry Potter, but of course you are! You look very like your father, you know. Except for your eyes. You've got your mother's eyes."
"You knew my parents, then?" said Harry. "Eldred mentioned you taught my mum, but you must have taught thousands of students, so I wasn't sure how much you'd remember."
"Oh, I could never forget your mother," said Slughorn. "One of the brightest I ever taught. And you'll be the same, I wager. Ravenclaw, if I recall? You know, it usually goes in families, but your parents were both Gryffindors, so I expect you're a cut above the rest of your house."
Harry was rescued from answering when Eldred supplied, "There's no doubt about that. He's a Ravenclaw through and through. Why, just the other day, he came over to my place to discuss advanced topics in runes. All before having had a single Hogwarts lesson on the subject."
Slughorn's whole face lit up. "Oho! Interested in cracking codes, are you? I could introduce you to an old student of mine, Caroline Graves. She sets the runic crosswords for the Daily Prophet."
Harry, who had no interest in the regular crossword, let alone a runic one, smiled awkwardly, and Eldred quickly reminded Slughorn to go and get himself something to drink.
"Is he always like that?" Harry asked, when Slughorn's broad figure had been obscured behind the cafe door.
"Quick to jump to conclusions, you mean?" said Eldred, and Harry nodded. "Oh yes, but he means well, and you've nothing to worry about. He's made it his business to connect influential people, and you certainly count among them. If he wants to introduce you to a few ex-students, best go along with it."
Slughorn soon returned with a tall, frothing concoction that alternated between deep blue and shocking yellow at random intervals. The wooden bench creaked as he settled down across from Harry.
"What's that?" Harry asked, pointing to the drink before Slughorn could remember about the crossword lady.
"Night and Day Dream, they call it. Elixirs of melancholy and ebullience. Now, you would think those two would cancel out or wreak havoc when combined, but they're kept in perfect balance by the gillywater for a consistent and tempered good mood," Slughorn said, taking a sip.
Harry thought he was beginning to see the pattern in these drinks. "So gillywater is an inhibitor? Is that how it lets you mix two potions without ruining them?"
"What's this, are you an aspiring potioneer as well?" exclaimed Slughorn, putting his glass down. He turned to Eldred with a raised eyebrow. "Have you been giving lessons on the side?"
As Eldred professed his innocence, Harry said, "It's not that. It's just that Professor Snape has high standards." Unfair standards would be a more accurate description. His essays invariably required additional research outside of their textbooks, and his quizzes were full of nasty surprises.
"That's right, Snape has got my old spot at Hogwarts now. Brilliant boy, that one was. A shame he fell in with the wrong crowd back then," said Slughorn. "I was shocked, to say the least, when Dumbledore chose him to be my replacement."
"Dumbledore's never been afraid of controversy," said Eldred.
Slughorn shook his head. "He's never been afraid of anything. Even losing his position at Hogwarts has only made him bolder. You've no doubt heard what he's been saying about werewolves being misunderstood. It's unfortunate timing, with what happened to Aequitas Greengrass's cousin. Horrible business."
Eldred's face screwed up. "Oh yes, terrible. Greyback gives the rest of his kind a bad name. But Dumbledore's right, you know. We can't judge all werewolves based on the actions of a few. That would be like judging wizards by the conduct of You-Know-Who."
Slughorn shuddered visibly, before raising his glass in a half-hearted toast. "Well said. You mustn't think me prejudiced. Why, in my time we even had a werewolf student at Hogwarts, and he was as fine a lad as any. But you have to admit that the public doesn't have such positive examples to draw upon."
"Then we'll have to make some," said Eldred, setting down his glass. "I'm worried about the registry disclosure proposal, though. It'll be difficult for werewolves going forward if they're barred from stable employment. Most are living at the edges of society as is. It's a vicious cycle. The last thing we want is to create more Greybacks, but here we are."
"I don't disagree, but it looks to me like a done deal, with Aequitas's support," said Slughorn, taking a gulp of his drink.
"Surely he can be made to see reason?" said Eldred. "Disadvantaging werewolves further will neither avenge his family nor keep others safe."
Harry, figuring that they were talking about the anti-werewolf bill that he was supposed to express disapproval of, said, "Isn't it sort of suspicious that a werewolf happened to attack Greengrass's family right now? Maybe Greyback wants to, well, create more Greybacks by making things worse for other werewolves."
Slughorn shifted. His pale eyes focused on Harry's and his knuckles tightened around his glass. "You're a sharp one, aren't you? The thought occurred to me, of course, but a fugitive werewolf like Greyback hardly runs in the same circles as those privy to the inner workings of the Wizengamot. How would he have even known who to attack?"
Harry frowned. He knew that Greyback wasn't just acting on his own. There were Death Eaters and the Dark Lord behind him. "Somebody else could have sent him. Somebody who did know," he said.
Slughorn looked deeply discomfited by this idea. "I shudder to think that any of our councilwizards could have done such a thing," he murmured, shaking his head. But his expression remained sober, and Harry didn't think that Slughorn had disbelieved him.
Harry did not press the subject, and instead asked Slughorn if he knew many members of the Wizengamot personally. This seemed to be the right move, for the man brightened up and began to mention a series of no-doubt important names, to which Harry nodded along politely.
"… and there's Aequitas Greengrass, of course, representing Tintagel. He's also one of the MESP's best alchemical quartz suppliers. I believe he has two daughters around your age. You wouldn't happen to know them?"
"There's Daphne Greengrass, right? I've seen her in lessons," said Harry, but of a second Greengrass girl, he had no idea.
Slughorn tapped his chin. "That sounds right. Daphne and Astoria. Aequitas is always busy keeping them out of mischief. I recall one time he and I were out hunting for nogtails, and he brought his family along to enjoy the countryside. The girls were meant to stay in the lodge with their mother, but they disappeared before we even set out. Gave us a right scare…"
The anecdote continued along these lines, as Slughorn seemingly lost himself in pleasant reminiscences. Harry learned a lot about nogtails, which were apparently dark creatures that went around cursing livestock, and not much at all about Greengrass, except that he was very rich and had a white dog. Nogtail hunting appeared to be a popular pastime for people with too much money and time on their hands, for Slughorn proceeded to recount similar episodes with Bertie Higgs, a Wizengamot Elder, and Rufus Scrimgeour, the head of the Auror Office.
"That's right," said Slughorn, finally taking notice of his audience again, "I'm planning on hosting a little get-together for Midsummer. Nothing extravagant, but Bertie, Aequitas, and all the others will be there, and I'm sure they would love to meet you. I'll send you an invitation."
Harry tried not to grimace. Midsummer was not for another month and a half, probably too late as far as the anti-werewolf legislation went, and he certainly had no desire to attend a stuffy adult party full of politicians.
"Sorry, my uncle and I always celebrate Midsummer at home," Harry said, barely managing to keep a straight face at the thought of Petri deigning to honour a holiday.
Slughorn still bought it, or at least had the grace not to press him, and instead said, "You live with your uncle? I'm afraid I don't recall teaching any other Potters during my tenure…"
"He's a distant relation," said Harry. "You won't have heard of him. He went to Durmstrang. He's a shopkeeper."
The very idea of a shopkeeper seemed offensive enough to Slughorn that he dropped the subject post-haste, taking a great gulp of his drink. He focused back on Harry afterwards. "Where were we? Yes, I'm sorry to hear that you won't be available at Midsummer, but of course, family traditions are important. Perhaps a different occasion…you know, I was planning on visiting the Greengrasses some time next week. How about I bring you along, Harry, and introduce you?"
Grasping wildly for another excuse, Harry said, "I don't think I'd be comfortable around somebody who's against werewolves. I'm friends with a werewolf."
He wondered for a moment if he had come on too strongly, but Slughorn didn't look surprised.
"Understandable, understandable. Your father was pals with that werewolf at school as well, wasn't he? Remus Lupin," he said, and Harry nodded, wondering if there was anybody Slughorn didn't know. After a pause, Slughorn said, "I don't mean to have painted a poor picture of Aequitas to you. He's very open-minded. You'll see if you meet him. Only recent events, you understand…"
Harry didn't understand. Not caring if he was being rude, he said, "Someone who makes decisions based on their emotions instead of the facts doesn't sound very open-minded."
Slughorn shook his head. "No, of course, you're right. You mustn't think Aequitas is like that at all." He pursed his lips, staring a little past Harry for a moment in contemplation. Finally, he said, "How about you come along with me next week, and we'll see what we can do about changing his mind?"
Having not expected it to get this far, Harry mumbled, "Is that really all right? Shouldn't you ask him first?"
Eldred, unfortunately, was giving him an encouraging look from across the table.
Slughorn waved. "Don't you worry. Aequitas will be most pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Can you tell me a little more about him, then?" Harry asked, hoping at least not to repeat the circumstances of this meeting, where Eldred had practically made him go in blind.
His wish was not to be fulfilled, however, for Slughorn responded with another meandering, largely irrelevant anecdote about how Greengrass, in his seventh year at Hogwarts, had agreed to mentor a variety of students. Among them was a muggle-born wizard who later became the head of the Goblin Liaison Office and a witch who was now a famous singer.
"Oh, it's getting quite dark," said Slughorn, interrupting himself as the sun dipped below the crooked Knockturn rooftops in the distance, casting the market square in shadow. Many of the fairies had gone out, too, suspended in slumber within pale moonbeams.
"Best not stay out too long after dark, with the dementors about," Eldred said, and Slughorn nodded in agreement, getting to his feet.
"It was good meeting you," Harry lied, shaking Slughorn's hand again.
"The pleasure was mine, Harry! You exceeded all my expectations. Now then," said Slughorn, taking out a small leather-bound notebook and squinting at it under the moonlight. "Are you free next Saturday evening at six?"
Harry reluctantly confirmed that he was, all the while wondering what expectations Slughorn could have possibly had.
"Splendid. Here, let me give you my floo address. We can leave for the Greengrasses from there. Do feel free to drop in at any time, as well." Slughorn tapped his notebook, and a piece of parchment detached itself and flopped onto the table. Harry pocketed it.
They said their goodbyes, Slughorn stepping off to the side and disapparating in a whirl of green and white. Harry turned to pick his way back down the hill to Knockturn, but Eldred offered to side-along apparate him, and brought them instantly to the end of row C of the coffin houses.
"Thanks," said Harry, letting go of his hand and moving to part ways.
"Of course. By the way, you did wonderfully," Eldred said, and Harry could practically hear him beaming. "Couldn't have hoped for a better outcome."
Harry tried not to scowl as he turned back around. "I didn't do anything."
"You charmed old Slughorn through and through. He'll work hard to bring Greengrass over just to show off," said Eldred. He met Harry's blank look with a knowing nod.
"Can you tell me anything about Greengrass?" Harry muttered. "Something useful, not who he tutored for extra credit or what his dog likes."
Eldred laughed. "I don't know him personally, but from what I've heard, he has a knack for business. The Tintagel mines have been in his family for generations, but Aequitas Greengrass hasn't been idle with that wealth. In the last decade he's bought up most of his competitors and cornered the market on rare alchemical reagents. As you might imagine, he's a Wright and he's very popular with his constituency. But you don't need to worry about any of that. Slughorn will have his case prepared."
"Why do I even need to be there, then?" Harry asked.
"Come now, my dear boy, surely you know why," said Eldred, slipping into a cajoling tone. "You need to be there for the same reason you needed to be here today to be seen by Slughorn. You're a national hero, and people care what you think. Your presence alone exerts pressure."
He sounded rather like Lockhart, Harry thought, pressing his lips together, but unfortunately, he also seemed to be right. Harry's fame had worked on Slughorn, and from what he had learned so far, Greengrass sounded like the same type—a Slytherin.
"Come over for breakfast?" Eldred offered, and despite his momentary irritation Harry couldn't refuse free food. Eldred led the way to his coffin, cursing at the venomous tentacula to clear the path.
"Welcome home, my love!" Sanguini yelled the moment the coffin lid slid open, at which Eldred's face went bright red. The vampire bounded up the steps, sliding behind him and wrapping his arms around his chest. Noticing Harry, he grinned. "And young Harry, too. Shyverwretch was just looking for you for game night, though she left already."
"Game night?" Harry repeated.
Sanguini sighed, his whole face drooping. "Oh, but you really must pay more attention to your own company. The primaries hold a fortnightly game night at the Wyvern. Socialisation is extremely important for your health, you know."
Harry was of the mind that breakfast would be even more important for his health, but after Sanguini offered to 'walk' Harry to the pub, Eldred declared that they might as well all eat out, leaving Harry unable to refuse. He searched furiously through his memory for any mention of any game night even as a warm, viscous shadow engulfed him, and found nothing.
He soon learned why. As they entered the Wyvern, Ness, sitting at the nearest table and facing the door, noticed them immediately and demanded, "You seriously invited Harry?"
Shy sprang to her feet, sending her chair skidding back into the wall with a loud bang as she skipped over to meet them. "Harry, great, you came," she said, grabbing his limp hand and shaking it from side to side in greeting.
"He's a little kid!" cried Ness, dropping the cards in their hand.
"He's a primary too," said Shy, glancing back. "And he's not that little. I wasn't much older when I became a friend, and it's not like we're doing anything bad."
"We're gambling," Ness groaned, their face buried in their hands. Next to them, Leticia let loose a hearty cackle.
"He doesn't have to wager. He can have some of my chips," said Shy, dragging Harry over to the table. She swept a handful of wooden tokens off the edge and into his hand.
Harry made a bewildered noise as Shy steered him into a chair, shoving dark bottles and discarded glasses away in a clinking mess to clear the space in front of him.
"Sanguini," said Eldred, who had taken a few confused steps towards the table. "Did you know—"
Sanguini put a hand on his shoulder and steered him away. "My dear, is it not right that a boy who bears adult duties should be allowed to enjoy some harmless adult pastimes? Let's leave him to it."
"Well said, old geezer!" Shy yelled. "Come on, Harry. Have you ever played king's levy?"
Harry shook his head.
"Right, well, remember when we played that guessing game? This is like that but better," said Shy. "Here, you can watch us finish this round. Basically, one person is king each turn, and plays a tax collector. Then they collect lower cards in the same suit from everyone else. The twist is, you have to ask for the card you want to take, and if they don't have it, then you have to give up your tax collector and your turn is over, and everybody gets their cards back. Mind reading is allowed, and no breaking eye contact. The game ends when someone runs out of cards and loses."
Harry stared at her blankly. Shy dragged another chair up next to his and plopped down, before slapping a queen of hearts on the table. Turning to her left, where Sam Moribund, the company solicitor, was sitting, she held up two fingers. Moribund played the two of hearts. Then Shy looked to Ness.
"Four," she said. Ness scowled and tossed the four of hearts on the table. Finally, she asked for the ten from Leticia, who made a funny growling sound and handed it over. Shy scooped up all the cards and tucked them into her hand.
Moribund put down three jacks, demanding three cards from each of the others, one from each suit. He raked in the pile of cards with a satisfied smile.
"The rich get richer," muttered Ness, putting down the seven of spades. "Pass," they said to Leticia, before pointing to Shy. "Ace." And then to Sam. "Five."
"Not so fast!" screeched Leticia with a crooked grin. She slammed the six of spades on the table. "Bandit strike."
Ness groaned, snatching back their seven and pushing the rest of the cards to Leticia. "It's over for me."
"If the king skips you but you have a card that you can play, you can do a bandit strike and take their taxes, if your bandit card is high enough," Shy explained.
Harry thought he was beginning to understand the game a little. The goal as king was to collect as many cards as possible by using memory or legilimency to name other players' cards. Conversely, when one was not the king, the goal was to defend one's position using occlumency, forcing the king to guess one's hand. If the king guessed wrong, they had to hand over their tax collector, a high card, which eroded their power the next time they were king and enhanced the receiver's card collecting ability.
It didn't take long for Ness to lose their last two cards, and then wooden tokens exchanged hands as they paid up, adding a handful to Moribund's already overflowing pile and giving two each to Leticia and Shy. Shy scooted over to the right, making more space between herself and Harry, as Moribund gathered up all the cards and shuffled them with impeccable technique.
He dealt out five piles of cards, and Harry reached for his with some trepidation. He picked them up and held them limply, uncertain how he ought to organise his hand.
"Oh wait. Here," said Shy, setting a tiny empty glass in front of Harry and pouring a dark drink from a clay jug. It took a moment for Harry to realise that it was blood. "Courtesy of the chairman. You'll need it to mind read, but make sure to ration out your power. Only one shot per set."
Harry frowned. Did Silviu really just disburse jugs of his blood for recreational purposes? If he'd known that a year ago… then again, a year ago he never would have been casually invited to game night like this. He had been an outsider, a sort of pity case that had turned out to be useful. Now, the company still wasn't exactly family, but they were friendly enough.
He drank the blood and felt immediately in focus. The disorganisation of the cards in his hand screamed at him, so that he had to arrange them in ascending order by suit and colour with haste.
"Pass it around," said Shy, and everybody passed their hands to the left. Harry scrambled to follow, shoving his cards at Moribund and raking Shy's cards towards the edge of the table to pick them up. It occurred to him that it would have been better to leave his cards in a jumble, to make them harder to memorise. Only, when he fanned out Shy's cards, he saw that they, too, were perfectly sorted. He squinted, trying to commit them to memory, before they all passed to the left once more.
Again, Leticia's cards were arrayed in beautiful order, and so were Ness's and Moribund's. Bemused, and nonetheless already woefully mixed up about who had what cards, Harry received his own hand back with a frown.
Ness, who had lost the last round, got to be king first. They sighed and played the king of diamonds as their tax collector, successfully claiming cards from everybody else. Harry had to give up his ten of diamonds. He thought he understood what to do: start off by nabbing everyone's high cards so that when it came time for them to collect, they would have fewer options. Of course, the success of that strategy was predicated on correctly naming other people's cards. It was also thankfully impossible to take other people's kings, since the taxed cards had to be the same suit as the tax collector.
Harry's frown deepened as Leticia took his queen of clubs. His hand wasn't great, and he had been planning to lead with that. Then it was Shy's turn, and she played the ten of hearts, glancing towards him. Harry thought to his jack of hearts, but reflexively cleared his mind, staring deeply into Shy's poisonous green eyes, focusing on their colour. Green bled to red and red threatened to jump to hearts and to his ei—nine of hearts.
"Nine," said Shy, grinning.
Harry smirked back in triumph. "Haven't got a nine of hearts."
"What?" she demanded, slamming her elbow down. "Check that," she said, drawing a card from her hand and sliding it face down towards the centre of the table.
"Ha, he's telling the truth," said Leticia, displaying her nine of hearts to everyone. She took the card Shy had put down and added it to her hand, shrieking with laughter. Next to Harry, Moribund let out an uncanny chuckle.
"Well played," Shy grumbled, handing Harry her ten of hearts, though she was smiling, and Harry couldn't help grinning back.
Then it was Harry's turn to be king. He pursed his lips as he surveyed his hand and tried to judge what he remembered of the others' cards. The verdict was that he didn't remember much at all. Shy had implied that the little glass of blood wouldn't last him too long, but conserving legilimency wouldn't help him if he lost outright.
Shrugging, he put down the jack of clubs and turned to Moribund, focusing hard on the man's clear blue eyes behind the thick glass of his spectacles. He felt suddenly cunning, like he was about to win a wager, and then amused as he considered his clubs: three, five, seven, ten—Harry jerked his head to the side, reeling. What in the world? Those were his own cards. He peered up again at Moribund's smug face.
That hadn't been occlumency, Harry thought, feeling impressed, but rather a legilimency counterattack. Either way, it certainly had been effective in throwing him off.
Turning his attention inward instead, Harry tried to recall Moribund's cards. It was the last hand he had seen, and he thought it had been very red. Leticia had just played clubs earlier and had the two, four, eight, queen, and king.
"Pass," Harry said, hoping he hadn't made a big mistake, and turned to Ness. He was pretty sure Moribund didn't have the nine, because Ness had it. "Nine."
They handed over the card, and he demanded the ten from Leticia, wishing all the while that he could have his queen back.
He couldn't for the life of him remember whether it was Shy or Moribund who had the ace of clubs, so he passed on Shy as well, as she could hardly stage a bandit strike with the lowest card. Collecting his meagre bounty, he ended his turn.
Moribund proved himself to be a monster again as he led with a pair of queens, hearts and diamonds, and robbed everyone blind. He didn't even use his legilimency on Harry, either remembering or deducing what he had left. Harry reluctantly gave up his only other diamond, the seven. He was going to be locked out of diamonds unless somebody tried to collect on him and failed.
Ness struck back, playing kings of those same suits, clearly intent on taking Moribund's recently revealed queens. Harry was just beginning to wonder if multiple kings were simply too powerful in this game when he witnessed their downfall: Ness passed on Leticia, who cackled and threw the ace of diamonds on the table.
"It's a coup!" she cried, holding out her clawed hand.
Ness swore, before glancing sheepishly at Harry and covering their mouth. "Sorry. I was so sure Shy had the ace. Ugh." They flicked their king of diamonds to Leticia and took the ace in trade.
"How does that work?" Harry asked.
"You can do a coup if you get passed and have a card that's consecutive with the tax collector," Ness explained. "Aces and kings count as consecutive."
This apparently ended their turn, despite their remaining king, and Leticia gleefully applied her newly acquired king of diamonds alongside her king of clubs. She didn't seem to be much good in the way of either legilimency or memory, however, because Harry quickly misled her into thinking he still had the ten of diamonds and scored both of her royal tax collectors. She pouted at him in an exaggerated fashion.
The game went quickly after that. Shy finally broke out the spades, while Harry had learned from others' mistakes and used his kings one at a time to prevent getting confused and losing them both. He managed to accumulate most of the clubs, though Moribund remained in a war of attrition with him on diamonds, somehow configuring his ever-dwindling numbers into pairs or even triplets every turn. Harry realised too late that he had been stalling in order to drain the rest of Leticia's hearts and end the game.
"How'd you like the game?" Shy asked Harry, as Leticia disbursed her tokens around the table.
"It's great," Harry assured her, and meant it. The game was much more interesting than exploding snap, at any rate, and the casual atmosphere was welcome. "Made me hungry, though."
"Go and get whatever you want," said Shy, waving towards the bar. "You can put it on the company tab."
Harry jumped to his feet, and Moribund stood up with him, tapping his shoulder and meeting his gaze. After an awkward moment, Harry realised that he was supposed to use legilimency and stared harder, losing focus on his surroundings. He suddenly had a craving for flaky white fish and tartare sauce, which then flashed into a fantasy of savoury sausages embedded in a crispy, chewy yorkshire pudding.
After a moment of consideration, Harry picked the latter option, screwing up his face in concentration to convey his message. Moribund's eyes crinkled slightly as he nodded, and Harry felt a fond ebullience in his chest, as if he were looking at something cute. He blinked, flummoxed.
Moribund laughed again in that unsettling way of his and broke eye contact, striding towards the bar. He gestured facilely at the barkeep, Charles, who soon gave him a thumbs up. A few minutes later, a massive pan of toad in the hole came zooming through the air onto their table, along with a tureen of peas and a stack of plates and utensils. Drinks followed, dark mead for the adults and a frothing butterbeer for Harry.
"Excellent," said Shy, reaching for the plates and passing them around. Ness declined, so the rest of them split the dish four ways, claiming two fat sausages each. Harry poured peas all over his portion, getting a funny look from Shy.
"Good thing about being a vampire is you haven't got to eat your vegetables," she said.
"You're a terrible influence. You haven't got to eat anything," Ness pointed out. "And that rubbish is still not good for you."
"Whassit gonna do," mumbled Shy, having already stuffed her face, "kill me?"
Ness sighed and snatched up the jug of Silviu's blood, pouring themselves a generous glass.
"Hey, we need that for the game," Shy protested.
"No you don't. If anything, Sam needs to be banned from blood to give us a fighting chance," said Ness, nodding towards Moribund, who grinned.
"He'll still win," said Shy. "At this point, we just come here every fortnight to pay his salary. Hey, if you drink it all, you're going to have to be the one to ask for more."
"So be it," Ness declared, and upended the jug over their glass.
"Where's the chairman anyway?" Harry asked, smiling at their antics. There were other primary company members scattered around the pub, but he noted that Silviu and Annette were nowhere to be found.
"Still working," said Ness.
"Dating," said Shy.
Ness scowled. "He and Ettie were meeting with a supplier—"
"Or so they claim," Shy interjected, grinning. Ness rolled their eyes.
"He's much too old for her," they said.
"But is he too old for the supplier?" asked Shy, earning a giggle from Leticia.
Ness pretended to retch over the side of the table. "That was the worst mental image ever. I dare you to look."
Shy made eye contact, and then they were both laughing and making exaggerated sounds of disgust.
Something made Harry glance over to the entrance, just as he heard Ness mock-groan behind him, "Oh no, you've gone and summoned him."
Indeed, the door creaked open to reveal Silviu in a midnight blue travelling cloak and Annette behind him in velvet dress robes, with her hair done up in a long braid and the scar across her nose mostly concealed by some charm. She had straightened up out of her usual slouch, and Harry saw an echo of Yaxley in that bearing, an inkling of haughty assurance. The illusion faded as she tore the ribbon from her hair, which she shook out into unruly tresses that obscured her face.
"You're late," Shy told Silviu, standing up to greet him. A sizable fraction of the company members at nearby tables stood as well, but Silviu quickly waved at them to sit back down.
"Apologies. It took longer than I expected to come to an agreement," he said, briefly clasping her hand. "But we did secure the deal, so nothing to worry about. How is the—" his eyes wandered down to the left for the first time and widened. "Harry?"
Harry waved at Silviu, wondering if somebody might be in trouble, but a moment later the chairman overcame his surprise and smiled.
"Didn't expect to see you here," he said. He glanced at the table, eyeing the mountain of tokens in front of Moribund, before looking back at Shy. "Come now, you subjected a beginner to a five-player game with Sam? Harry, how about I rescue you and we'll start a new table over here?"
As he gestured, an unoccupied table indeed revealed itself adjacent to theirs, though Harry could have sworn it had not been there before. Silviu grasped the back of his chair and, in one effortless motion, shifted him to the new table. Harry let out a thrilled laugh as he landed next to Annette, who jumped and shot Silviu a reproachful look. Ignoring her, he removed his cloak and tossed it over the back of a chair, making to sit down.
"Can't you rescue me from Sam too, chairman?" Ness asked.
Silviu held up his hands. "You lot dug your own graves."
Moribund grabbed the empty blood jug and tapped it on the table with a sly look. Sighing deeply, Ness took it from him and passed it to Silviu, who shook it, eyebrows rising.
"Really?" he said, and with a twist of his hand vanished it into a shadow. Like a muggle magician, he produced a new jug in his other hand and set it in front of them.
"Did Shy invite you?" Annette whispered to Harry, one grey eye peeking out. He turned to nod at her, and she mirrored him. "I'm glad. I apologise for not including you from the start. We were all wary at first, given the circumstances, but that's hardly a proper excuse. You are as much a part of this company as any of us."
"Thanks," Harry mumbled, a foreign feeling bubbling in his chest.
Silviu sat down across from them, revealing a pack of playing cards in his hand.
"How much shall we wager?" he asked.
"I have no money and Harry's a child," said Annette. "No wagering."
Looking put out, Silviu nonetheless agreed and brought out two shot glasses, over which he bled himself. The scent wafted enticingly across the table, drawing some nearby attention, but a stern look from Silviu and everybody quickly turned away. As Harry took his glass and drained it, he felt unusually solid, as if he had been a ghost but was now flesh. He could sense the space around him, not only air, but also the shape of the things and people within it, and the boisterous press of the company around him was comforting.
Silviu dealt the cards. Divided across three players rather than five, they would be easier to remember, and Harry thought he might have a proper chance. Recalling his observations from the previous game, he tried to leave his hand disorganised.
He couldn't. Before he had so much as formed a sliver of intent, his fingers had sorted everything. They locked up when he tried to shuffle the cards.
"Give it up," said Silviu, eyeing him knowingly, and Harry did, though not without frowning inwardly. Was this what Silviu had meant when he had spoken of 'compulsions'? Harry hadn't meant to sort the cards, had even intended to do otherwise. But something—and it had to be the blood, for Harry had never been a particularly orderly person—had simply moved his body without his conscious command.
Play proceeded, and despite Harry's worries about Silviu's prowess at mind magic, the chairman proved to be mediocre at the game, perhaps because he wasn't exerting his full powers. Annette, like Moribund, was proficient at using legilimency to redirect legilimency, and Harry could occlude, leaving all three of them effectively as useful as muggles against each other. They were forced to rely on memory alone, and it was a riot of amusing mis-steps.
Whether for strategic reasons or out of boredom, Silviu soon began to make small talk, which succeeded in distracting everybody and sending tax collectors bouncing back and forth.
"How was Hogwarts last term?" he asked Harry. "With the early end, were you able to take your final exams, or will you have to take them later?"
It was the sort of question a concerned parent might ask, the sort Petri had never bothered with, so Harry answered him, and kept on answering inane inquiries about his favourite subjects and his friends even as his hand began to look dangerously reduced. Talk of his friends, however, reminded Harry of Vince's troubles at home, and he grew reticent, thinking guiltily that he ought to be at the library looking into trolls instead of at the pub playing card games.
Silviu caught on to his shift in mood and fell silent as well, giving Harry space to share his burdens if he wished. And though he almost reflexively swallowed his words, Harry realised then that he didn't have to. After all, this was no top-secret mission entrusted to him by the Dark Lord himself. He could ask, so long as he was circumspect about the details.
"This is a bit random," he said, choosing his words carefully. "But do you know anything about Cornish trolls?"
This was obviously not what Silviu had been expecting. He exchanged a glance with Annette.
"Funny you bring that up," he said. "We were just in a meeting featuring Cornish trolls."
It was Harry's turn to be stunned. He looked over their fancy attire dubiously. Annette gave a dry chuckle.
"A meeting that mentioned trolls, not a meeting with trolls," she clarified.
"Oh yes, the meeting was with stuffy wizards, unfortunately," said Silviu.
"Where do they live?" Harry asked. "The trolls."
Silviu continued to look oddly at him, but answered, "In the Tintagel mines, I'd imagine. At any rate, that's where they work."
Tintagel. Harry stopped paying attention, even as he lost the card game about a minute later. He'd heard that name not more than an hour ago, from Eldred and from Slughorn. It was where Greengrass lived. Was it all a massive coincidence? Harry couldn't fathom how it all fit together, but regardless he had a proper lead now. He had half a mind to leap from the table then and there and run all the way to his two-way mirror so he could update Vince.
But Silviu was already dealing them in for another round, and Harry came to his senses, relaxing into his seat. Something lost will be returned, he reminded himself. There was no need to rush. He would meet Greengrass himself on Saturday.
Absently, he sorted the cards in front of him, enjoying the lovely cascade of colours, numbers, and shapes. They passed their hands around, Silviu and Annette both groaning as they saw his. Harry paid more attention when he got it back and noted that he had three kings. He smiled.
Perhaps it was an auspicious sign.
Note: Thanks to Relative_Moralist for betaing.