They landed on a dusty forest path, just outside a totally uninteresting barn.
Well, it would have been a totally uninteresting barn if there weren't bouncers lurking just outside, anyway.
The bouncers were a Crabbe-and-Goyle, of course, though not one Harry had met; probably they were not very closely related to Draco's or Lucius's sets. You never knew with purebloods, though. Both squinted suspiciously at Harry and Sirius as they approached. The Crabbe actually sniffed, as if he might be able to smell treachery on them. "Who're you?" demanded the Goyle brusquely. Fair question, really; the wizarding world was an insular enough place, especially among the so-called nobility, that merely being unfamiliar-looking rendered them suspicious. "Whatcha want?"
Sirius shrugged, as disarmingly as possible. "Heard this was where to go if you're good at fighting and wanna make some gold," he explained. He sounded strange, to Harry's ears; they'd found a voice distortion charm in a prank book that made them sound German.
"Only if you keep your mouth shut," growled the Crabbe. Harry was sure an ordinary person would be intimidated; he, on the other hand, had to stifle a giggle. "The bosses don't take kindly to idiots who talk when they shouldn't."
"We went to Durmstrang," lied Sirius, because this was their agreed-upon excuse for being unfamiliar, and also the reason they were pretending to be German. "We know how to keep quiet, I assure you."
The Goyle leaned forward slightly. If they had actually been frightened of him, it might have been said that he loomed. "And what's that got to do with it, huh?"
"Tell me," suggested Harry, smiling, "do you know how many students attend Durmstrang Institute every year?"
The guards both frowned at him. "Lots, probably," shrugged Crabbe, "what's your point?"
Harry nodded. "Lots," he agreed, "and have you ever met anyone who will tell you where to find it?"
There was a certain pause.
Because Harry did not have a lot of faith in the collective deductive ability of a standard Crabbe-and-Goyle, he decided to draw the connection aloud. "That's because everyone at Durmstrang knows how to keep secrets," he explained.
"Ah-huh," muttered Goyle. "That makes sense."
"It does, doesn't it?" chirped Sirius brightly. "So who do we give our cover charge to, please?"
"Guy with the books," rumbled Crabbe, as Goyle pulled the heavy doors apart. "Can't miss 'im."
Books? wondered Harry, puzzled. All the same, he and Sirius strode confidently into the strangely persistent shadows beyond the doors. Naturally, someone had put darkness charms on the entrance, so that no one could see in from outside even if the doors were open. Harry was moderately impressed. The shadows actually managed to obscure his vision even in spite of the several augmented vision charms he was using. Even Sirius looked like he couldn't see very well, despite the fact that - having done this sort of thing before and gotten used to walking around with a half dozen extra senses - he was actually carrying a much larger number of observation spells than Harry was.
It took a moment, even at a reasonably brisk pace, for them to pass beyond the shadow, and for the room to come into view. As it did, Harry made an involuntary whistling noise, impressed. The place was huge. He was almost certain, in fact, that it was larger than the actual volume of the building. It also didn't look the slightest bit like a warehouse. It did not even seem to make any particular concessions to the fact that it was hidden and illegal. Everything was bright and open and shiny, white and silver with occasional accents of green or blue. There was a bar over on the left-hand side. It was backed by a wall of bottles and staffed by a pair of house-elves, who were wearing spotlessly clean tea-towels embroidered with crossed blue swords.
In the center of the room, taking up much more attention-space than actual space, was an arena. Steps led up to a raised white stone surface at about head level, making it easy for everyone in the room to see what was happening atop it. There were no apparent rails or walls. When Harry and Sirius came in, a stocky dark-skinned woman with dramatically green hair was politely offering a dragonhide-gloved hand to her erstwhile opponent, a pale blond teenager with nearly a foot of height on her, who had a bloody nose, a tailored green-and-silver duelling tunic, and a rather dramatic pout. Floating red text, about fifteen feet above the arena surface, indicated helpfully that AZRA SHAFIQ had DEFEATED ANTONY ROWLE in 0:00:55 (presumably, fifty-five seconds).
Various purebloods milled about, many holding drinks. Most were wearing sweeping, voluminous robes and cloaks in various bright colors; Sirius had explained that, since cooling charms existed, the wizarding elite had developed a fashion sense which typically involved showing off your wealth by wearing as many different heavy, expensive fabrics as you could manage. Not everyone was dressed that way, however - many of those present, naturally, were dressed to duel. Duelling attire varied widely even among professionals, and there was even more variance here, but there were some common features that made it possible to identify them from spectators. Although some duellists liked flashy, decorative things like jeweled fabrics and feathers, and some preferred darker, dramatic leathers and hides, no one was wearing a cloak or hat or hood. Most were wearing trousers of some kind. Some had elaborate belts covered with trailing fabric or braided material, which approximated the skirt-like silhouette of robes without so dramatically impeding movement; some were wearing almost medieval tunics or surcoats. Many were wearing soft flexible shoes or heavy metal-toed boots, and a few were barefoot. Harry spotted Fenrir Greyback, enormous and scarred, lurking by the bar wearing nothing but knee-length trousers which he suspected - although he couldn't tell from this distance - were made of dragonhide.
He could find a few others who were dressed approximately the way he and Sirius were, which Sirius had described as "The new kids' standard budget duelling outfit": ordinary robes separated along the sides for ease of movement, often with the sleeves cut off, over often ill-fitting trousers. They'd kept their sleeves, because it felt strange to wear a wand holster without them, but made sure to wear clothes that fit.
"It's shinier than I expected," said Harry, bemused.
Sirius snorted. "Man, you really do not spend a lot of your time around purebloods, do you?"
"I really do not," agreed Harry. "So ... uh ... guy with books? Do you know what he - oh." Halfway through the question, Harry had realized how extremely accurate it been for Goyle to say can't miss him. As soon as his instinctive visual sweep of the room had covered everyone in it, he saw the obvious referent of this statement. It was blindingly obvious. A tall, thin wizard, completely bald and with his snow-white beard short viciously short, was leaning against the wall with his hands in the pockets of his plain, severe black robes. His only ornamentation was a heavy pendant, shaped like a crescent moon, which looked as if it were carved entirely out of a single enormous purple gemstone.
He was surrounded by a small flurry of levitating books. A slightly smaller flurry of black quills attended them, some currently scribbling away and others hovering patiently.
"Ah-huh," muttered Harry. "Books. I suppose I should not introduce him to my favorite book nerd."
Sirius shuddered visibly. "No," he said. "No, you absolutely should not." Nevertheless they'd been instructed to talk to him, so Harry led the way toward the mysterious bookkeeper. Sirius explained quietly, as they walked. "That's Jarred Nott. Probably a Death Eater, definitely dangerous. He's extraordinarily wealthy even by pureblood standards, probably compensating for not being one of the Noble Houses. I didn't know he was the bookkeeper for this, but I am not surprised."
A moment later, Harry stopped in front of the cloud of books and said, "Excuse me," as politely as possible. "I was told you were the person to sign up for duels?"
Nott tilted his head very slightly at the pair of them, one sharp grey eyebrow arching curiously. "That is correct. I require your names and five Galleons each."
Harry counted out ten Galleons from his pocket, and held them out. "Alexander Katz," he introduced himself, "and this is my brother Samuel." New names, again; it didn't seem likely that Apolline Delacour knew any of these people well enough to have mentioned her cousins the Murphys, but it was not strictly impossible and so he and Sirius had decided it was better to be paranoid than dead. Nott didn't move, but one of the books floated over and snapped up the gold like it had teeth. Harry blinked bemusedly at this, and then repeated the lie he'd given the bouncers. "Thought we might have some fun testing Durmstrang's duelling lessons against people who went to Hogwarts."
"I see," said Nott, quite neutrally. One of his books chirped, "Alexander Katz and Samuel Katz, recorded!" Another book flipped several pages and presented itself to him, several lines in the schedule highlighted. They'd been scheduled to have their first duels in about fifteen minutes, and to fight again about five minutes later. "If you win at least once you get more fights," explained the schedule book brightly, and another added helpfully, "It's double elimination!" They sounded quite like house-elves, which was moderately disconcerting. Harry hoped they were not literally made of Transfigured elves, but he sort of suspected, with an uneasy sense of background horror, that they were.
"Okay," agreed Harry, and he nodded politely at Nott and added "Thank you," mostly to the books-that-were-maybe-elves but plausibly to their owner.
When they'd gotten about fifteen paces away, Sirius reported quietly: "Old Nott's shielded to hell and back, but I think I can get almost anyone else here, if I can stand close enough to them for about that long without having to talk."
That seemed like good news. Harry nodded, and meandered casually into the crowd. Although he would have liked to start immediately going after the most dangerous Death Eaters still outside Azkaban, Sirius had pointed out - rightly, Harry thought - that there was no benefit to doing that. They were vastly outnumbered, for one thing. For another, the Death Eaters weren't actually doing anything at the moment. If Harry and Sirius took some time to practice burglary on less hazardous targets than the Malfoys, it wouldn't get people killed like it would have if there were a war currently ongoing. It helped that most of the most dangerous ones were still in Azkaban - Dolohov, Rookwood, the Lestranges - and so Harry did not need to worry about prioritizing takedowns of people who were likely to do damage even outside of wartime.
Unfortunately, the number of people he knew were Death Eaters was relatively few. Hermione had, reasonably enough, objected to his and Ron's proposed plan of putting the entire wizarding population under Veritaserum and asking them if they'd ever murdered anyone, since Veritaserum was extremely expensive and also it would be a spectacular violation of due process. Even if they'd done that, Harry was sure he'd never have actually remembered the answers. More problematically, though, purebloods were people who had relatives. He knew that ten Death Eaters had been broken out of Azkaban in 1995, but he'd forgotten almost half of their names. He only remembered the ones he'd met - Dolohov, Rookwood, Mulciber, and the Lestranges - and couldn't think who the others might have been. He supposed he could find that information by looking up the prison records, but there was no such record for the Death Eaters who weren't dead or in prison. He could probably recognize Avery on sight, the one who'd prostrated himself at Voldemort's feet in the graveyard and begged for forgiveness, but that would require that there was only one - what if there were several Averies, all similar-looking enough, who were brothers or cousins? He didn't know the man's first name, much less the arrangement of his freckles or whatever.
There weren't a great many purebloods - Britain simply wasn't big enough - but there were just enough that this was likely to be a problem around any of the Death Eaters less unique than Lucius Malfoy.
Still, they weren't all indistinguishable or horribly dangerous.
With all this in mind, he drifted in the general direction of Fenrir Greyback.
"Good evening," he said brightly to the first person who made a polite gesture in his general direction, a short, slender man with an enormous shock of black curls who was gesturing expansively as he chattered to the portly wizard standing next to him. The difference between them was striking, and not just because of their difference in stature; where the larger wizard was wearing enormous swathes of dark orange wool and velvet, the smaller one was wearing tight dragonhide trousers and boots and approximately half a dozen belts, all dyed in different bright colors, and the poofiest blue silk shirt Harry had ever seen. He even had glittery paint on his face in matching colors. The resulting combination looked much like an enormous furry peach talking to a butterfly.
(Approximately three feet to their left, just inside convenient range, someone who might be the right Avery was talking to a woman who looked vaguely like Pansy Parkinson.)
The furry peach made a much less friendly face when Harry looked their way. "More foreigners," he complained.
The butterfly's enthusiasm dimmed slightly at that. "I was invited," he sniffed. Harry resisted the urge to squint puzzledly at him; the man's voice sounded familiar, but Harry couldn't place the vaguely Middle-Eastern accent.
Instead, he said cheerfully, "I wasn't! Alexander Katz, pleased to meet you, how'd you get an invitation?"
"Avram Meyer," the duellist introduced himself, holding out a hand to shake, and Harry felt a sudden spark of recognition go off in his head. He'd met this man once before, at Viktor Krum's twenty-fifth birthday party. By then he had retired from his extremely successful professional duelling career and was teaching Battle Magic classes at Durmstrang. Harry vaguely recalled Krum saying that Meyer was the first Jewish professor at the Eastern European school of magic since before Grindelwald's war. "British boy on vacation challenged me to a duel because he didn't like my shoes, lost, and then invited me to this lovely event," continued Meyer, once Harry had shaken his hand. He cast about - spinning more than once around in a circle - and then pointed into the crowd. "That one!"
He was pointing at someone Harry didn't recognize, so Harry shrugged and said, "Cool. Having fun?"
Meyer actually bounced up and down on his toes when he said "I am!", which looked much less strange now than it had when he was fifty. "I am awesome at duelling. Did you just show up?"
"And then explained politely to the bouncers that Durmstrang students know how to keep secrets, yes," agreed Harry. "Who was that?" he added, indicating the large and apparently slightly racist wizard who'd wandered off when Harry joined the conversation.
"Benjamin Selwyn," supplied Sirius helpfully, which - in addition to its actual informative content - told Harry that Sirius was done reading the Apparition traces off of the nearby Avery. "Oh, I'm Sam, by the way," he added, when Meyer gave him a somewhat startled look.
They meandered off, wishing Meyer a polite good-luck on his next fight which was cheerily returned ("Unless you're fighting me, of course!"), shortly thereafter. Harry wanted to introduce himself politely to a sufficient number of people that they could come back again and be remembered positively. Assuming they didn't murder anyone and get banned, anyway. To this end, he went about smiling at people, telling them how he hoped to make interesting British friends and maybe also some gold, and introduced them to his "brother, who zones out thinking about runes a lot, sorry about him, he's really very friendly if you catch him paying attention ..."
They were about halfway across the room when the clock indicated that the next fight up was ALEXANDER KATZ vs. ANDERS ROWLE.
Harry excused himself politely from trying to answer Helen Greengrass's question about the Battle Magic curriculum at Durmstrang, feeling relieved. He had a non-zero amount of information, since he'd talked to Krum about it before and also had listened to at least one Hermione-lecture about the curriculum differences at different wizarding schools including Hogwarts, but he was trying not to give away that he did not have the fidelity of information you'd expect from someone who'd actually gone to Durmstrang. With any luck, Greengrass would keep the realization to herself if she noticed, or try to blackmail him, as opposed to completely blowing his cover in the middle of a large gathering of his enemies. At least the Greengrasses were a reasonably neutral party. He was optimistic.
Harry got into the arena easily enough, with a little tick of Apparition; there were probably stairs around the back of it, but why bother?
Rowle, a big blonde man that Harry would definitely not have been able to tell apart from the Death Eater one (Thorfinn Rowle was probably this guy's cousin, or something?), imitated him, with a much louder crack and an irritated frown. "Don't like show-offs," he grumbled. It sounded louder than it should have.
"Then professional duelling is probably not for you!" replied Harry cheerfully. He could hear the arena bouncing his voice to all corners of the room, too, so that was probably built-in, not just something Rowle was doing. It sounded strange to his ears, because he already didn't sound like himself. Above their heads, a bright red countdown ticked from two digits to one; Harry stretched his arms and drew his wand. "Do I get bonus points if I beat you really fast, is that why there's a timer?" he inquired curiously.
"No," said Rowle, rolling his eyes, "Nott likes to do statistics."
Harry giggled. Rowle gave him a profoundly annoyed look.
The timer ticked to zero, and there was the sound of a bell ringing. The names and the clock turned blue, and the clock began counting forward.
"Stupefy!" shouted Rowle at once, wasting no time trying the easy thing. Harry ducked the red bolt and skittered sideways, still giggling. Statistics about illegal duelling, honestly. He was going to have to steal Nott's records and give them to Hermione as a present, she'd love that. He hummed a stickfast hex, dodged an Asphyxiation Curse, and grinned when Rowle tried to take a step sideways and couldn't. "You irritating little shit," complained Rowle, twisting around uncomfortably as Harry skipped around his side.
"I try!" replied Harry cheerily. He was probably about to say something else rude, but he keeled over when Harry smacked him in the temple with a stunner.
The bell rang again, and the clock above turned red and stopped at 0:00:32.
Harry pondered, as the arena roused his opponent and shooed them gently offstage via some sort of bizarre space-bending, whether it would be too gauche, given his pretend name, to dress up like the Cheshire Cat.