AN: I've been asked if I have a legal background and the truth is no, not really. If anything, I might be considered a slightly educated novice in that regard. That said, there is one crucial thing to know before we get started though and that's that there are distinct differences between a trial and an arbitration. I won't go into all the minor differences because the big thing to know is that how an arbitration is run is really up to the discretion of the arbiter. The parties involved do not have all the same procedural rights that they would in a trial, as you'll see, and what the arbiter says goes and their word may well be final.
My background is actually in history, and you'll definitely be seeing that in this chapter too. Some of the gripes I have with the series, and thus some of the backstory this story deals with, really does have to do with things that happened a thousand years ago; I'm kind of a goblin in that regard. So while what Madam Pince is doing may seem to be new and unconnected to anything we've seen so far, it's actually furthering something that I've been working towards in the background since the story began, it's just taken forever to get to this point.
So, let's resolve some lingering issues so we can properly focus on school, shall we?
The wandering vendors that fought against the human tide to try and catch their next sale unawares made for a turbulent journey through the busy marketplace but the only other option was worse, if she recalled correctly. It'd been years since she'd last been here but leaving the streaming flow of human beings to chance finding a quicker route near the sides would only slow you down. Impromptu stalls crammed themselves between the shadowed proper storefronts and colorfully canvas-draped open air restaurants that filled the air with exotic smells from all over the world.
Irma hated it. There were far too many people too close together, the babble made everything unintelligible, and it was far too hot for her tastes. It had to be half again as hot as it had been at Hogwarts, though the dark woolen robe she wore made it feel even worse. She tried to shove those thoughts aside and keep her mind and vice-like grip on her precious cargo in case any antiquity thieves tried to pilfer it but what she really wanted to do was shove all these people aside so she could make proper headway towards the distant tower.
'Not too distant now,' she mentally revised. 'It's better than being thousands of miles away and people are sure to thin out before we reach the bridge.'
It took far longer than she would've liked but soon enough she arrived at a small plaza where the crowd started dividing to travel down the river area side streets which left her blessedly free to approach the arching bridge in peace. As she approached, a dark sandy-complexioned young man in the same sandaled, lightweight tunicked, and narrow strip-like white shawled ensemble that she remembered wearing during her time here stood and made his way towards her.
"Marhabaan bikum fi maktabat al'iiskandariat," he said pleasantly with a sweeping gesture to the spanning bridge and tower beyond as if to welcome her.
The meaning of the last word was somewhat obvious but it still brought her up short. It'd been so long since she'd used any of the local language that it seemed like gibberish to her. The only vague thing that came to mind to say in return though was–
"Sher khan jazzy-lamb," Irma said in reply, hoping that was close enough to what she thought was 'thank you very much' so as not to be a complete embarrassment.
"Français? Italiano? Ελληνικά?" he asked with a curious and comical look on his face.
"English," she said apologetically.
"That is rarer than most, unless you're at the bank," the young man grinned. "Welcome to the Library, are you lost?"
"No, I've just been gone for quite a while," she breathed in relief as she dug out the scroll they'd sent her from her pocket and showing him the broken seal. "I'm Chanter Irma Pince and I should have someone here to meet with, though I'm not quite sure who exactly."
"Initiate Muhammad ibn Ali," he said in return, "and welcome back, Chanter. I'll send word ahead to let them know you're coming. One of the Readers or Scribes should be able to help you find your way."
"Thank you," Irma said as he made to move aside.
"Don't thank me just yet," the young man jested. "We haven't had many visitors lately and the cats have grown bored. I hope you've kept your mind keen," he said with a grin before walking back to his things.
Mentally kicking herself for forgetting about the Library's prickly protectors she started forward, wondering what she might have to come up with to get past them but quickly gave it up as a bad job – they were experts at what they did so there was no telling what they would do. Fortunately, the wind over the river cut the heat of the day so while the sun still beat down at her mercilessly she did get a moment's respite from the worst of it.
It was at the midpoint of the bridge, where she'd have nothing but the wide river below her to escape to if she failed, that they took their ease. The male lounged at the feet of the statue of Plato, the father of transfiguration, eternally pointing skyward to the Forms above, while the female graced the feet of the balding, three-sided pyramid wielding Pythagoras, one of the forerunners of– With an almond-eyed stare the large-bodied male leapt down to block her way while the female's brown-tufted yellow tail languidly flicked, her great clawed paws still flexed though in anticipation.
"Good day to you both," she said to the sphinxes in greeting, hoping to avoid repeating the linguistic embarrassment from before.
"English," the proud-looking male said with a look to the other before turning a curious eye to her. "And British English at that, but not a goblin," he said as he slowly made to circle her inquisitively as she tightened her hold on her precious cargo. "Woolen robes and a Library scroll, newly broken by the look of it," it mused. "So many curiosities. What does it carry that'd take it so far from home? This one is a proper puzzle."
Irma did not like the sound of that level of intrusiveness.
"You will not dissect her, Akhraten," the female said lazily as she stretched on the wall. "Not without a riddle first at least," she added with a cat-like grin when she was done.
"You take her then, Nebetta," the male replied as he came close to sniff her before looking at her shoes. "I am far too interested in this to mind the other."
"I hate being put on the spot," the aforementioned Nebetta said with a look. "Riddles suffer from a lack of planning."
"You could always simply let me go through unchallenged," Irma said to the female as it slid off the wall to sit in the middle of the bridge. "It's sure to puzzle him to no end, making him wonder how getting you to do that fit together with everything else."
"No doubt it would," the female agreed, getting the male to turn back towards her with a look before he began to prowl around her again. "Even just considering it is enough to do that though," she said with a scrutinizing look at her. "So why should I settle for what I have when a simple riddle will give him so much more to think about?"
"Very well," Irma said trying to put on a brave face and forget about the dangerously close sphinx just outside of her field of vision.
"What you lack," Nebetta said meaningfully, teasing things out. "–Is the past act of a thief."
'The past act of a – what?' she immediately thought but dropped it for now as the way to get the answer. 'I'm not lacking anything. I've got the case and scroll. I brought everything I had to.'
Instantly that struck her as wrong.
'Everything I have is only what I need,' Irma mentally revised as her mind engaged with the problem. 'So what I lack would be something completely superfluous, which is something I never would've brought in the first place, and therefore a thief couldn't have taken it.'
Taken. Once again she knew that was wrong. Close, but wrong. There was something tugging at the back of her mind – something about the young man she'd just passed – but blast it if she couldn't put her finger on it.
'Think, Irma, think! Put it together,' she commanded herself as an untouchable answer formed in her mind.
"Oh! She's got it now," the male said, now sitting beside the female and chasing the wordless answer from her mind completely.
'Gah!' she inwardly raged.
"–Or maybe not," that darn cat-man added. "Do I really have to wait? I'm not going to eat her if that's what you're worried about. She may be as interesting inside as she is out."
"Quiet, Akhraten," the female scolded. "Let her think."
Irma clamped her eyes closed to block everything out and tried to picture the young man from the plaza in her mind. Taking him out of the image and replacing him with herself, she tried to recall what her time here was like. The answer had to be there somewhere – in the similarities and differences between then and now.
The two cultures seemed worlds apart at first blush in terms of differences but if you looked at them in the abstract then there were similarities to be found. Both had a reverence for their deep history, though in Britain it went back only about a thousand years while here it was easily five times that. Both cultures though expressed that through their speech, styles of dress, and in how they generally did things – the Library itself being a prime example of it.
The Library of Alexandria was a misnomer in many ways, chief amongst them being that it now towered over Cairo housed in an ancient and supposedly destroyed lighthouse and not in Alexandria, but it didn't stop there. Though the ancient roots of the modern institution went back nearly twenty-three hundred years to its Alexandrian founding it was really only the oldest scrolls, the determination to keep them safe for posterity, the dedication to learning, and the tradition of giving good counsel to the rulers of the day that truly remained from that time.
It was inspirational to think that she was part of the great chain of noble thinkers that had risked death battling fires and invaders' swords to save, preserve, hide and pass down the ancient histories to others but Irma doubted whether she was really the fighting type. It wasn't the peculiar customs or the way they clung to that founding identity – as Hogwarts did to its Founders – though, there was something specific about the attire and how the Library worked that had pulled at her mind earlier.
The light-weight idiosyncratically Greek grab that the Library had their Initiates wear was very different to the heavier black pseudo-robes-over-modern-clothing that Hogwarts favored but they both still suited the somewhat frozen-in-time cultural mentalities of the institutions they served. Chanters though typically went out into the farther-flung world so they weren't expected to keep wearing that get-up when they were elsewhere. That meant that the sphinx trying to go for a robed/robbed play on words was impossible since to complete both parts of the riddle she'd have to be not-wearing them in the first place and she certainly wasn't nude.
The climactic moment of discovery was less enjoyable when arrived at through a process of elimination but it still left the narrow white cloth strip that dangled from around the young man's neck as the focal point of her effort. All Initiates here wore them, in order to tell everyone around in town where they were affiliated with, and she recalled that the strips became wider, longer, different colored, and more decorative as you progressed through Chanter, Reader, and Scribe until the whole scheme changed after that but the problem with it was–
'They aren't called 'strips'!' she berated herself as she angrily clawed through other words. 'They're not furs or shawls, not mantle or wraps – though the High Readers all looked like they wrapped blankets around themselves – and the only thief-related word I can think of is–'
"Stole!" Irma said triumphantly, grinning at the smilingly superior sphinxes. "I'm not wearing my stole–"
"Oh, she isn't, is she?" the infernal Akhraten asked curiously.
"–But unlike what your riddle suggests, that lack has nothing to do with thieves," she explained to the female. "Magical Britain neither knows nor cares about what that stole represents."
"How barbaric," Nebetta chided before shrugging. "You may go," she said, sauntering back to Pythagoras's shadow.
"But I have so many questions!" the male replied as Irma quickly slipped around him and fled towards the tower.
Three-quarters of the way across she looked back to see the blasted cat-man still following her. Irma sped up but from the soft pitter-patter of padded paws she knew that he was still matching her step for step.
Entering the large stone square that occupied a small island in the Nile and housed the Library proper Irma saw another dozen or so sphinxes taking their ease idly scratching in the dirt during the heat of the afternoon sun. She sped up as quickly as her legs would allow to just shy of running as their heads perked up in curiosity. She didn't know what they'd make of one of them trailing along behind her but the last thing she needed was more of them doing the same.
Nevertheless, some of them stood up and trotted over to see what one of their own was so interested in. Irma closed her eyes and wondered what else would go wrong today.
"Lays mjdda! Shw! Shw!" a deep voice cried above her from the top of the Library's entry stairs. "Akh, how can we be protected from pillagers if you chase our Chanters around?"
"She doesn't have her stole," the sphinx said as if that was supposed to settle the issue.
"Back to the bridge with you," the ebony man said with a dismissive gesture as he descended, Irma placing him as the sphinx finally retreated.
"Oba? Olorun Obasanjo?" she asked disbelievingly, recognizing him from her time here as an Initiate.
"Irma!" he said with a sparklingly white smile as he came in for a hug. "It has been too long, my friend."
Irma didn't know if their interactions from so long ago accounted for much in terms of friendship but no one she knew had ever had a bad thing to say about the nearly-never negative Nigerian, so she supposed that it might count for something.
"They made you a High Reader?" Irma asked, finally noticing the gold-belted purple bundle of cloth that the man had draped over his shoulder in toga-like fashion.
"A recent mistake that I'm sure they'll fix just as soon as they can," Oba chuckled.
"You have gone far," she remarked. "The last I heard you were heading out to track down the floating city of Atupal," she recalled. "Don't tell me you found it."
"Found and conquered!"
"Well, it is easy to conquer a place that's more mausoleum than a city, with all the skeletons curiously male," the man said with a spooky tone entering his deep voice. "Such a journey that was! No less than five years it took," he said happily as if he'd wished it'd taken longer, "but the real break came when I heard of a man in Nepal that was growing gravity-resistant trees that could've only come from one place! Apparently, his grandmother was one of the last women to leave the–"
"–I'm sorry to interrupt, Oba, but I'm afraid I'm short on time," Irma said, torn between wanting to hear the man's exploits and deeply envious that they weren't hers. "The Hogwarts term starts today and I have only hours before the vandals arrive to pillage my library."
"Of course," he said with a wave. "We can catch up later. I forgot you start so early; our term doesn't begin for another two weeks. I must say though that from what I've been reading, there are many people who'd be thrilled to be in your position there right now."
"Whatever do you mean?" she asked, brought up short once again.
"Are you kidding?" Oba smiled. "Albus Dumbledore and the Sorcerer's Stone, the lingering question of false gold, I.C.W. involvement, the animosity between the goblins and your Ministry – so much history happening right on your doorstep! It's a marvelous opportunity. You remember what Old Nagi said, don't you?"
"Among his many sayings I can clearly recall, 'we'll know more about current events in fifty years than we'll ever know about them now,'" Irma reminded the man.
"Well, yes," the man agreed, "but how else was he supposed to keep us in our seats for the entire lecture? Half the time we were an inch away from running off to see what was coming from the latest archaeological dig," Oba said before his eyebrow quirked in a disapproving professor's look that he must've picked up from somewhere. "That doesn't mean that he'd approve of you slouching on your responsibility to produce the best quality first- and second-hand accounts of what you can though."
"Consider me appropriately chastised," she told the outranking man, trying not to picture Old Nagi looking disappointedly up at her for her failure to record what was going on around her. "I'll do what I can but the Ministry and others have always guarded their secrets well and I have higher priorities to work on."
"That's all we can ask," Olorun said, gesturing her up the stairs. "So what did you bring? Your academic file said that you'd left to prove that your Merlin was a myth," he said as they climbed, unknowingly bringing up a sore subject for her. "It's very hard to prove a falsehood, unless it's a deliberately fabricated document, but I suppose if you find enough sources that puts traditional accounts in dispute then–"
"–I'm afraid that I've had to abandon that area completely," Irma said sourly. "For twenty years I've been stymied in my search for sources more than a few hundred years old – but not anymore. What I have may well be ground-breaking," she said with pride, "but I'd prefer not to say any more until I meet with this Abdul Ahad–"
Oba's laugh cut her off.
"You are already speaking to him," he replied. "Which surname did I use? Abadi? Nassar? I haven't found a name I like better than my own, though there was a few hours I called myself Botros Boutros Boulos but that was a bit too tough on the tongue."
"You're the one that wrote me?" she asked, holding up the scroll. "And why would you need anything other than Olorun Obasanjo? I can't think of anything else that'd suit you, other than Oba."
"That's what I've been saying but everyone here are slaves to tradition," the man said as they reached the top of the stairs and got to the entryway. "They seem to think that the Library wouldn't be the Library if our positions were filled by anyone without an appropriately Arabic name. Why that has to be stuck in the year 1257 I'll never know."
"I can relate," Irma said sympathetically, "though in my case we're stuck in the mid-1600s."
"The 1600s? Oh you modern girl!" Oba exclaimed, lifting his hands to the heavens. "Let's get you inside before you get arrested for trying to influence the past too much," he laughed.
Molly waved to Mr. Parkinson as she passed his shop before pausing to compare her purchases to the list that Mr. Cuffe had given her. She's seen many of the products before, true, but she'd never bought many of them until now; the humble nature of their living conditions had led her to be surprisingly frugal. The extra slack that Harry had given them on their lease payment meant that she could afford to pay for them now though and once those slips of goblin paper were handed in to Mr. Cuffe's daughter she'd have all the money she'd spent right back again so this job had already paid for itself so far as she could see.
She did wonder how she was going to use some of these things though. She'd always kept a very clean house and with just herself and Arthur – and Bill, of course – there might not be much in the way of troublesome stains and the like to take care of. Molly had never been adventurous herself but Bill might know how to make the right kind of messes.
She could ask Dobby, she supposed, but it might be hard enough keeping him from cleaning those messes himself in the first place. She couldn't imagine what it'd be like to have him make messes for her. Could house-elves even make messes?
'Now that's a mystery for Merlin to mull over,' Molly thought to herself. 'Maybe it'd be best if he spent some time at Hogwarts until this is over,' she surmised before an idea occurred to her. 'If we could then get Bill to out of the house too for a while – or better, if Arthur could get a decent night off – then Arthur and I could go out on a date!'
They hadn't been on a nice romantic date in – well, in far too long in her mind. Marriage might make for a slow social life but they were still far from dead yet. They'd never had a proper honeymoon, now that she thought about it, and more children might be out of the question, since their oldest was getting old enough to make them grandparents if he ever found the right girl, but dating her husband might be just what they needed now that the kids were grown.
'Now if only there was a way to get Arthur to think this was his idea…,' she schemed before a gasp drew her from her thoughts.
For some reason the sound made her turn and look behind her, and when she did she saw a small column of goblins come marching out of the bank. There were only – well, it was hard to tell really – at most a dozen, walking down the steps and down Diagon Alley in rows of three. As small as the group was the goblins hadn't been out in such force since their dragon had almost burned the place down.
The red and gold of their guards – so close to Gryffindor House in color – was well represented but it wasn't everywhere, Molly was quick to notice as she joined the other shoppers that were moving to give them a wide berth. The goblins in the middle of the pack were wearing suits, like the tellers often did. That made her feel a little better, as did the pair of aurors that followed along behind them, because for all the uncertainty surrounding the goblins nowadays she still had a hard time imagining bank tellers becoming violent.
Still, Molly held her breath as they came closer as the time they'd come to hustle Ron and Arthur away for questioning sprang forcefully to mind. So many things dealing with Dumbledore, the goblins, and the Ministry had been swirling around her family lately that she couldn't shake the feeling that they'd stop and take her too for some reason. The group passed her by though and paid her no more attention than they had anyone else.
Molly became thankful for one thing though as they disappeared through the archway into the Leaky Cauldron; whatever was going on, it had nothing to do with her.
"It's an interesting idea, and a needed one, all things considered," Scrimgeour said as he caught her eye. As with everything lately though the man's look spoke volumes about the underlying problems they had in their department.
"If the Prophet's been good for anything lately, Mr. Weasley, it's been to raise this issue to the fore," Amelia said choosing to address the third person in the room rather than the need for massive, Ministry-wide reforms. "If anything's likely to move the Wizengamot it's what the boy's been through but since the hardliners hate creating anything new, it's hard to see which office would be tasked with this, even if they agree."
"There's definitely a law enforcement component to this, presuming that we can get them to outlaw the practice," Scrimgeour said still with that look. "It's not the sort of thing you want to task aurors with though."
"The optics of aurors breaking down people's doors to rip a family apart is not something any Minister would get behind, that's for sure," she agreed.
"I thought that – if it's not done by the Improper Use of Magic Office within the D.M.L.E., that is," the thinning-haired Weasley explained, "that it might be handled by one of the divisions of the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes. They are the ones with the Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee and the Muggle Liaison Office so it might be more their area anyway."
"Not to mention they have the Accidental Magic Reversal Squad," Scrimgeour added. "We've all seen how useful it is to have Obliviators on hand."
"Quite," Amelia agreed, remembering her run in with the boy's relatives before something ticked in the back of her mind. "What made you think of the Improper Use of Magic Office in the first place though?"
"Oh, er – well," the often-overlooked Weasley said in a way that gave away that he really had no reason for thinking so but couldn't really tell them that. "I just thought that since they're monitoring under-seventeens anyway that this might be something else they could look into."
As far as conjuring things from thin air went, Amelia had to give him credit for his reasoning making more sense than most.
"That certainly gives us something to start from," she said as she stood, signaling an end to the short but surprisingly productive meeting. "And I'm sure that the committees will find the information you've provided very helpful," she added as she extended her hand.
"Oh, of course," Arthur said rising to shake her hand in farewell. "Don't let me keep you. I've just been learning so much about the muggle world lately," he said with a smile, "that when I heard this I thought that you should definitely know as much as I could find out."
"It's very much appreciated," Amelia said honestly. "And if you hear of anything else that we could use don't hesitate to let us know."
All smiles, the unobtrusive man left the office to disappear back into the wider Ministry from wince he came. Finally free to get an unvarnished opinion, she looked to Scrimgeour to see what he really thought.
"He's underutilized," the lion-like man said finally. "Overworked, you can tell, but still underutilized. And strangely enough, he seems to genuinely want to make the world a better place; I can't imagine why he hasn't risen higher than he has."
"I think you answered your own question," she said as she returned to her seat prompting him to do the same. "It's a shame that the Prewetts took such a dislike to the man's office or he'd actually have a voice in the Wizengamot."
"However he managed to get on the wrong side of a dead family, do you really think that you can get that idea of his passed?" Scrimgeour asked in return, for once seeming marginally interested in the political matters of their department that he typically left to her.
"It may take a good six months if the hardliners entrench themselves," Amelia commented.
"Never underestimate the desire to claw things back," the old auror said.
"An odd thing for you to note," she said slyly, "seeing as you're so keen to roll things back in the auror department."
"Twenty years ago we were facing a war amongst ourselves," Scrimgeour sourly scowled. "It was the right thing to do to change in order to face that threat, but now that threat is gone. We've stayed the same because people were afraid that he'd come back, and in so doing we've let our community go ignored for too long.
"How many of his people were able to hide because we looked the other way, trying to find what we thought we should've been looking for rather than what's actually there?" he asked ominously. "How many people have suffered because we've been doing the wrong thing?"
"Has anyone ever told you what a happy and carefree person you are, Rufus?" Amelia said with a look before putting on her monocle and looking over the muggle material that Arthur had provided.
"Be that as it may," the man said neutrally, "the man's concern underscores our need to get our officers out of their cubicles and back on the streets dealing with real people's concerns. We need to get back to a more community-oriented approach to law enforcement."
"And you'll not hear me contest that," she replied. "But unless you've come up with something new since our last talk on that subject it still leaves us where we were before. We could send them out to walk the streets all day long but without a way to train them on what to look for or how to handle it then all they'll be doing is wandering about aimlessly, which does no one any good at all."
"Maybe we do have a way to train them and we've just never seen it," Scrimgeour cryptically surmised. "At the very least it might give us something to work off of."
"What do you mean?" Amelia asked, looking up from the material once more.
"During the trouble with those Dursleys last week, the hardest ones to chase down to make sure that Secrecy was kept were the muggle news people and those please-men," he started off but it was clear where he was going with it.
"You want to use these please-men to retrain our aurors to be constables?"
"It makes as much sense as using those muggle ideas to look after children," Rufus said with a gesture to what she'd been reading. "Crime is crime and criminals are criminals; the nature of it and how we go about combating it might be a bit different when magic's involved but there's no reason why we can't take what works from what their lot does and adapt it to work for us. Until we take a look there's no way to know for sure."
"And as luck would have it," she said thoughtfully as she removed the monocle and tapped it against a finger. "We do happen to have someone in the area."
Murmurs from the customers below followed them upstairs but he wasn't concerned. The aurors walking with them were there to protect them from the wizarding public almost as much as they were there to protect the public from them, so things shouldn't get too out of hand even if the public were more ill-disposed towards them than they seemed. Bankor paused for a moment to consider what he heard as half of the guard escort made ready to enter the meeting room ahead of them while the others took positions along the hallway.
While goblins spread their news through discrete bits of information flying around faster than you'd think possible, let alone have a chance to catch at the beginning, humans seemed to spread theirs through a densely-packed low rumble that built up and shot off in various directions, each with its own interpretation of an entire thing that'd happened. He'd seen it before in meetings with the Ministry but had never understood the reason for it. It was like they were telling themselves rival stories with the one that caught on best or lasted the longest becoming the one that was true rather than the true one being what was carried on while everything else was discarded.
It was an odd way of doing things but perhaps there was something he could glean from it. As Bankor listened he was able to pick up a great deal of uncertainty in the general rumbling but mixed in it was a good deal of optimism. That was certainly different from the sounds the people in the alley had given but there was something these might know that the others wouldn't; these might've noticed that people from the Ministry had shown up before them.
What was it that the humans were expecting to happen here today? A quick resolution to the gold crisis? Peace with the Ministry? A release of their hit wizard guests? What it was really about, the fate of the Isle of Gringotts, might even be the one thing that's furthest from their minds. Still, as interconnected as everything was, he supposed there was a chance that some of that might get dragged into it.
A tiny cough drew his attention back to the goblins by the door to see the others waiting to enter and get started. Litigators Bloodwell and Bladvak were too diligent to do anything of the sort but Taskmaster Hobson appeared to be regretting the day he'd been born. There was too much riding on the wavering wizard for him to turn back to the Ministry's side now but he thought that the Isle of Gringotts project would be enough to keep him on theirs.
Bankor certainly hoped that much was true because he didn't want to have to kill him. He'd never killed anyone before and didn't want to start with his own personally-recommended hire unless he had no other choice, which he wouldn't if the part-goblin betrayed them. He pried himself away from the banister and motioned the guards and litigators forward before taking his place between them and Hobson.
As soon as he'd walked into the room the assault began.
"Those goblins aren't supposed to be here," came a sharp human voice, giving him just an instant to act.
'If he's wavering about what he's supposed to do,' Bankor quickly thought as he reached out to stop Hobson from walking in and being seen, 'then the last thing he needs is to be assaulted by that voice. Better to give him some time to mentally prepare.'
"If you're referring to our guards, Mr. Mockridge," Bankor said as he closed the door behind him, "I think you'll find that their presence here was agreed to as part of the pre-arbitration negotiations. I take it that your… illness has been seen to?" he asked in reference to the excuse the Ministry had given to the man's departure.
The barb reminding the once-Head of the Goblin Liaison Office that they were the reason for his sacking soured the man's look but didn't draw any additional comment.
"It's such a marvel what you wizards can do with your magic," Bankor continued, Bloodwell having advised him that it'd be best to agitate early whoever it was the Ministry had testifying for them, though it wasn't something that came naturally to him. "An amazing recovery in only a couple of weeks, though I've heard that particularly hairy conditions might pose recurring monthly problems for you," he said hoping that the wizard would take the implication of possible werewolf-ism as another barb.
"For all of our differences though we do hope that's not the case," he said kindly. "Have you been reinstated?" Bankor asked almost as if hoping it were true.
"He has not," came from the far side of the Ministry wizards on the other side of the room while Mockridge sat there looking more perturbed by the moment.
"Monsieur Cresswell," Deputy Inspector General Delacour said gesturing to the familiar-looking wizard that'd spoken while an aide sat beside Frenchman ready to take everything down. "'E is ze Acting Goblin Liaison for ze Ministry."
The slender Cresswell stood and gave them what Bankor took to be a small-but-respectable bow before saying 'The my honor of it to serve' in a heavily-accented and broken goblin tongue.
"You honor us," he said in a goblin-like reply, though the true goblin response would've been more along the lines of "Where did you learn to speak this?!" while slamming a dagger into something. Nevertheless, he smiled before shooting Bloodwell and Bladvak a look to tell them not to communicate secrets in front of that particular human. They seemed to take his meaning and moved to the table on the other side of the room from the Ministry wizards.
"You gain nothing by trying to be nice to these… creatures," Mockridge said derisively. "They see only weakness in it and will try to walk all over you," the human said revealing his complete ignorance.
"It's hard for us to walk over anyone," Bankor said feeling the need to say something to that charge. "Indeed, some would say that it's impossible for us to do so when we were the ones that were forced to live below ground."
"Gentlemen!" Delacour interjected to cut the issue off before things devolved any further. "If we could please begin ze arbitration?"
"And you're going to let those goblins stay?" Mockridge asked, this time putting the question to Delacour himself.
"Eet was agreed upon by ze proper officials," the Frenchman answered in a tone of finality though the man didn't seem to care.
"Just how incompetent are you?" he snidely asked Cresswell.
"The fact that we're here today says that he's far more competent than you," Bankor cut in on the man's behalf, though admittedly he might be exaggerating a bit. "It was quite refreshing to be able to communicate with someone that was able to see the goblin side of things, even if they disagreed, but was willing to work towards an understanding between our peoples nonetheless."
While it was true that it was Delacour's people had been the go-betweens in setting this up, there had to have been a receptive person on the other end for the dialogue to have been fruitful. A glance to the arbiter in question showed no ill will in him phrasing things this way for he'd often said that a more positive relationship between the two peoples would make things run smoother. Bankor had to wonder if the man would see this day as a success regardless of the outcome.
"If you disagree with the result though," he continued, thinking to give the man a taste of the problem they'd successfully avoided. "Then by all means, you and your Ministry friends are free to surrender your wands to Mr. Delacour until the end of the proceedings and I'll be happy to have the guards wait outside. I'm sure that you wouldn't want to be in a room with people who're trained in combat unless you also had means to protect yourself – and that is the same situation that we find ourselves in."
That got the result everyone wanted, Mockridge shut up about it lest the whole thing break down and blamed on him or they're all be forced to go unarmed.
With a gesture, Bloodwell and Bladvak sat at their table and made a show of opening their small briefcases to pull out the large stacks of legal books, previous treaties, and notes on various precedents that might be useful in countering whatever the Ministry might think to use to counter their claim on the island. Mockridge looked like he wanted to make another snide comment at their expense as the piles became larger but a look kept him quiet. Unlike the Ministry, they had the more difficult task at defending against arguments they wouldn't know about until they were made, but even with Hobson it was always best to come prepared.
"I 'ave ze Ministry assurance that they will abide by ze results of this preliminary arbitration," Delacour said as their preparation drew to a close. "Do you 'ave ze goblin one, Monsieur Bankor?"
"Of course," Bankor replied walking over to Bladvak to retrieve the document and take it to the Deputy Inspector General, and now Arbiter, before going to their table to take his seat across the room from Cresswell – his name being Dirk, a good, strong, goblin-like, and knife-related first name if he recalled correctly.
"This ees in order," Delacour said as he put it to one side. "Now, from what I 'ave 'eard, I believe that we are 'ere because ze Ministry contests ze validity of ze island agreement based on their magical seal being inappropriately obtained. Ees this true?" he asked looking to Cresswell.
"It is," the wizard replied as Bladvak pulled the big book of internal Ministry regulations towards him and flipped through it, ready to check the man's accuracy while Bloodwell looked on to prepare for his own rebuttal. "And for this I'll be calling the former Head of the Goblin Liaison Office, Mr. Cuthbert Mockridge, to give testimony," Cresswell said in a brave show of confidence.
"And in ze pre-arbitration agreement, both sides 'ave accepted ze British standard in regards to oral testimony without truth-telling measures, so long as cross examination and ze presentation of conflicting evidence is allowed, ees this correct?"
"Yes," Cresswell agreed, looking like he was eager to begin.
Bladvak tugged at his sleeve but he knew what the goblin wanted.
"–The pre-arbitration agreement also stipulated the use of rebuttal witnesses if we are able to find them," Bankor added as if merely pointing out a discrepancy rather than making sure they included something that they were relying on.
Delacour conferred with his aide and looked over some papers for a moment before nodding and Bankor held his hands still together on the table and tried not to give anything more away. Mockridge might not be magically prohibited from lying or induced to tell the whole truth but the same would hold true for Hobson. He had no doubt as to the legality of what they'd done, as far as the letter of the law was concerned, but the last thing they needed was his current association with them to be used to color his past actions.
"Monsieur Mockridge?" Delacour said with a gesture to the seat off to one side from him.
As the man rose from one seat and walked to take the other he couldn't help but give them an almost mocking smile. Even out of the Ministry the man was the very image of Ministry vanity. In spite of everything he still thought himself supreme and untouchable, above the concerns of 'lesser races.'
Over the scratching of Bloodwell's and Bladvak's quills as they dissected what the men were saying, the Acting-Head and former-Head of the G.L.O. had a well-scripted exchange of questions and answers as the Ministry put forward its case. Delacour took it all in stride and looked particularly interested when the testimony shifted to all the reasons why the Ministry wouldn't have agreed to the alleged island agreement in the first place. Bankor let the whole thing wash by without interruption, and made notes on what he wanted to pick apart when it came his turn to question Mockridge.
It took perhaps twenty minutes for them to run through their prepared questions and responses before they ended their presentation by providing them all with a copy of the Ministry's proclamation that Madam Umbridge had tried to deliver weeks ago. As Cresswell returned to his seat Bankor put the proclamation to one side and passed his notes to the others before standing, straightening his suit, and walking around the table to the open area between the two camps. Looking up at Mockridge, Bankor adopted his almost obsequious 'you can trust me, I'm the nice goblin' smile.
"That was certainly a very thorough explanation, Mr. Mockridge," he said neutrally while Bladvak got various materials ready for him. "I believe there were seven key points, so let me repeat them to make sure I haven't left anything out. Firstly, it's the Ministry's contention that only the Head of the G.L.O. could affix the Ministry's seal to such an agreement, which you did not do," Bankor said on his behalf.
"Absolutely," the former-Head confidently agreed.
"But even if you were inclined to support the agreement – which you were not," the Overseer quickly added for emphasis as Bladvak turned the big book of Ministry procedures towards him. "–It still would have taken months for the Minister of Magic and the Wizengamot to give their approval for it, correct?"
"That's correct," Mockridge agreed.
"And the reasons you gave against them ever doing this," he pushed on to say, "was that the island agreement was not in the Ministry's interest, it marked a huge departure in Ministry policy, that the Ministry would never approve of goblins living above ground and outside Gringotts bank, that the Island and Tower were already viewed by the Ministry as Ministry property, and of course that they had already written up their own declaration stating as much. Is this an accurate summation?"
"Yes," the wizard replied, not even bothering to glance at Bladvak as he produced one of the newer documents and an accompanying agreement for him to use.
"I must admit," Bankor said as he picked up the Ministry's proclamation again. "I've been rather curious about what this said; I was never able to read it that day. Reading it now it seems singularly high-handed – Your work, I take it?"
"The Minister asked me to write it, yes," Mockridge replied, refusing to rise to the bait.
"Out of curiosity," he said pleasantly, "how many people in your department knew about or saw this proclamation before Madam Umbridge tried to present it to us?"
"Very few," the man replied as if wondering where he was going with this.
"Really?" Bankor asked. "With such a bold and assertive policy like this being announced, you didn't inform your workers about what it involved?"
"That would've run counter to the Ministry's desire to keep it a secret until it was actually delivered," the man explained.
"Ah," he said thoughtfully. "So it wasn't that having a well-informed work force wasn't – how did you say it? – 'in the Ministry's interest,' it was just that the desire to surprise us with this proclamation was more important, more 'in the Ministry's interest,' is that correct?"
"Something like that, yes," Mockridge agreed.
"I suppose that's understandable," Bankor unexpectedly acknowledged as he put the proclamation aside again. "After all, keeping it and what it said a secret lowers the chance that we would find out about it and think of a way around it before it was too late, even if it does hamper your office's ability to function."
"Is there a substantive question here?" Cresswell asked from the other table, prompting a questioning eyebrow at from Delacour as well.
"Forgive me," he said to them demurely, "but it strikes me as a very curious phrase. Mr. Mockridge has acknowledged that the Ministry can have multiple interests and that those interests can conflict, so I suppose my question would be – who is it, precisely, that determines what's in the Ministry's interest?" he asked finally.
"I – I'm not sure I understand," Mockridge said dubiously. "That looks like the Ministry's book of procedures right there," he said pointing to the book before Bladvak. "Shouldn't that make it obvious?"
"It certainly makes an idealized functioning of the Ministry clear," Bankor said equivocatingly, "but there seems to be a difference between how the rules say things should work and how they actually work, and that's the source of my confusion. Perhaps I should list some possibilities and you could explain better from there?"
"I really don't see the point but… if we must," the man said with a put-upon look.
"When it comes to the Ministry's interest," Bankor began, "did the Minister tell you what the Ministry's interest was or did you determine that for yourself as the head of your department? And what happens when different interests conflict, like you indicated before? Is it the Minister that tells you what to do or do you decide amongst yourselves with his input?" he asked, starting to see some parallels between how they did things and what he was asking about for the Ministry. "Is it decided on that level or does it begin even lower, at the individual employee level and is then revised all the way up?"
"A bit of all of them, I think," Mockridge replied with a glance to Cresswell to see if that man knew where this was going. "The various departments have their own policies, procedures, and guidelines that they train their workers to base their actions on, and all of those are based on the laws and treaties that the Wizengamot pass or enter into, and the Minister works with the departments and the Wizengamot to reshape certain things in accordance with his political agenda, but when certain executive decisions need to be made, as in this case with the proclamation and the secrecy surrounding it, then the Minister would have the final say, though a wise one – like Minister Fudge – consults department heads and advisers before making a decision."
Bankor stood there in thought for a moment, trying to picture such a system in operation and relate it to what he knew. There were certain aspects that were similar to what Gringotts has done but others weren't there at all. The Overseers were like the Ministry's department heads in the fact that they dictated how their departments operated but unlike the Ministry's department heads, so far as he knew, the Overseers could command workers in other departments, even if such things would eventually cause problems with the other Overseer given time.
That would seem to make the Grand Overseer akin to the Minister of Magic. That comparison was still too rough though since a unilateral dictate from him could always alter anything… at least it had been like that before Barchoke got the title and somehow changed everything without saying anything. The Overseers were voicing their opinions and voting now, so did that make them a cross between department heads and the Wizengamot? A kind of Gringotts Gobligamot?
Bankor shook his head. Ever since the outlines of this new system had developed the lack of a proper name and a delineation of how things would work going forward had been bugging him. He dismissed the thoughts for now though because it was something to think on later.
"I think I understand a bit better now," he continued. "But you can see the reason for my confusion?" Bankor asked to the room at large. "When you think about it, what the Ministry's interest is could be anything at all."
"What do you mean?" Mockridge asked now taking it upon himself to ask the questions.
"Well, with the way you used it, signing the agreement wouldn't be in the Ministry's interest because the Ministry wouldn't be able to benefit from obtaining and exploiting the island," he explained. "However, another person in the Ministry could look at the same situation and argue that signing the agreement, and thereby preserving the peace between wizard and goblin, actually is in the Ministry's interest, isn't that true?"
Waves of insults, shame, and anger washed over him as mocking Mockridge chuckled at the thought, making him feel cowardly for not being the type of goblin that'd stab him for it, even if this wasn't the time or the place. He hated the feeling but being a coward had gotten him this far in life and it was too late to change.
"You greatly overestimate the threat your people pose if you think the Ministry needs to preserve any peace between us," the man said, making his view of them clear.
"Is that the official assessment of us?" Bankor asked in response. "That wasn't your opinion when you wanted the guards out of the room."
"–Mister Mockridge is not a Ministry official," Cresswell was quick to interject. "As such he is not currently authorized to make official statements on behalf of the Goblin Liaison Office."
"That may be," the goblin agreed, "but he can speak to his views when he was Head of the Goblin Liaison Office, which is precisely what you called him here to do."
"'E 'as you there," Delacour chimed in to say.
"You don't like us, do you, Mr. Mockridge?" Bankor asked the man, no longer sporting the smile. "You've called us creatures."
"I called you creatures because that's exactly what you are," the man said callously, failing to notice the disapproval that was clear on Delacour's face. "There's nothing about your kind to like. You are insolent and contrarian by nature, but that doesn't mean you're a threat."
"Sending dragonfire down the alley tells a different tale," he said in return, gesturing to the room's windows and the alleyway beyond. "As does your firing."
"I stepped down–," Mockridge tried to repeat the lie but cut the man off himself.
"–For reasons that have nothing to do with the seizure of the Ministry's hit wizards and our call for your immediate termination, I'm sure," Bankor said quickly. "But even if your resignation was for the reasons you say, that's not the only thing that contradicts your statement. We heard it repeatedly at the time: 'the I.C.W. is conspiring with our enemies,' 'we must stand up for British sovereignty,' 'the goblins' actions were an unprovoked attack' – the Ministry's said them all, and we have the Prophets to prove it."
"Sensationalized news stories are hardly proof of anything," Cresswell argued as Bankor retrieved the Daily Prophets from their table and took them up to Delacour's aide to be a part of the official record.
"They are proof of what the Ministry thought at the time in question and shortly after," he rebutted. "They clearly saw us as a threat, even if Mockridge didn't, meaning that maintaining the peace was in their interest – which was what they tried to do, in their own way, with the auror presence in Diagon Alley afterwards," Bankor said to Cresswell in order to press the point before turning to Delacour.
"I know that I don't have to impress upon you how tense things were at the time," he said more docilely. "You were, after all, the one who repeatedly urged us to pursue a peaceful resolution. The future may not remember how it came about, much less that one of their people tried to kill one of ours on the street in broad daylight, so I ask that these papers be admitted into the permanent record as showing precisely how close goblins and wizards came to being at war after the agreement they disregarded and are looking to overturn was already in place."
Delacour got an odd look on his face and looked over to Cresswell to see if he had anything to say. The opposing side still seemed at a loss as to what point he was driving at let alone knowing what to argue. Delacour though was a different story.
"I think I see where you are going with this, Monsieur Bankor," the Deputy Inspector General said thoughtfully. "We 'ave been looking at this arbitration as a means to achieve peace and resolving the island issue but you seem to imply that ze goblin stance is that you already 'ad all this and eet is ze Ministry that threatened war by going back on their word."
"That's ridiculous!" Mockridge scoffed.
"That's absolutely right," Bankor agreed, hoping it didn't sound like he was agreeing with Mockridge. "The Goblin Nation did not, and does not, want a war over the Isle of Gringotts. It's an island that we've held as Flamel's protectors and jailers for six hundred years, and it's served as a testament to the Goblin Nation adhering to its word and being a people that you steal from or cross at great personal risk. It's a message that we still have emblazoned on our bank doors.
"But regardless of our desire to avoid a war," he went on to say, "that was precisely what was coming at us if we didn't get this agreement for we were sure that the Ministry would make some attempt to take it from us, as was shown later by their proclamation. It was this agreement – and the fact that we knew that it was arrived at through the Ministry's own legal process – that kept what the Ministry did that day from provoking us into open war, for fighting would've only risked losing what we'd already just secured."
"What are you talking about?" Mockridge asked, looking at him as if he'd never seen the like before. "A preemptive peace? That makes no sense at all."
"Monsieur Mockridge," Delacour said with a bit of weariness in his voice. "While this ees somewhat informal and I understand that you are unused to not being in charge, I must remind you that you are not 'ere as counsel. You are 'ere to answer questions, not to disrupt."
Bankor found it hard to keep a surprised smile off his face when the man said that. The affronted scowl on Mockridge's face seemed to wake up Cresswell though.
"Inspector Delacour," the man said standing. "I can't believe that you're taking this argument seriously. It's patently absurd."
"Eet is not enough just to talk at someone, Monsieur Cresswell," the man said in return, "to truly understand them you must talk with them in ordair to know 'ow they think. Different magical peoples," Delacour said with a gesture to their side, "may think in different ways but that does not mean that they are wrong and should be brushed aside.
"And I am not accepting any argument – in ze legal sense at least," the man continued, "all I am doing is accepting that different views exist and that maintaining peaceful relations ees in ze Ministry's interest, just as it ees in goblin interests, and am accepting ze papers as evidence of just 'ow close to war you came."
Bankor smiled and gave him a respectful nod as a dismayed Cresswell took his seat again.
"Now, you said that allowing goblins to live outside of Gringotts would be a huge departure in Ministry policy–," Bankor started again.
"And indeed it would," Mockridge said testily.
"–But sudden policy changes have been known to happen before, when the need arises," he pressed.
"Not with something like this," the man cut in to say.
"Are you familiar with the Cooperation and Cohabitation Treaty between the Ministry and the Goblin Nation that was proposed in 1975?" Bankor asked as he edged back over to the table.
"I've never even heard of it," Mockridge said with a look. "'75 was well before my time in the Goblin Liaison Office."
"What does this have to do with anything?" Cresswell asked from the other side of the room.
Bankor took the documents from Bladvak and turned back towards them.
"Institutions, like the Ministry and Gringotts, have longer and deeper memories than individual people," he explained. "Quite often anything that's been thought of has been tried in one form or another in the past, and those past attempts will leave records behind showing how they were run and how it went. This, in turn, can help anyone trying to accomplish something similar later on to do it more successfully."
"And eets relevance?" Delacour asked as he stepped closer to him.
"The treaty I mentioned was initially proposed by the New-Minded, or non-Traditionalist, Coalition with the backing of then-Minister Harold Minchum," Bankor explained as he placed the documents on the table before him. "Though talks eventually broke down when our management turned against the deal, you can see from this draft that the main components allowed for limited numbers of goblins to live on the surface in return for our help in going after the funds of You-Know-Who and his followers."
"That does seem to be a change in policy when ze needs arise," the man nodded.
"–I'm sorry but that's not a change in policy," Cresswell quickly stood to say. "If what – er – Mr. Bankor said is true," the man said stumbling a bit on the niceties, "then all that would prove is that almost twenty years ago, the Minister and one strange section of the Wizengamot had once thought about possibly changing the Ministry's stance on goblin surface-dwellers for a very specific purpose, that's all. That is not evidence that any such change actually occurred or that the modern-day Ministry would propose such a thing now."
'Well, it looks like there's a bit of a litigator in him after all,' Bankor approvingly thought of his opponent.
"He's quite right," he said to Delacour with a smile as he continued. "That's why I'd also like to enter into evidence that second document; it's a temporary agreement that was entered into by the Ministry as 'a show of good faith' that was to last until the end of negotiations. It allowed for one goblin family to live on own privately-owned land that was gifted to the then Grand Overseer by Charlus Potter."
Whether it was the surname or the nature of the temporary agreement itself that caused the stir amongst the Ministry wizards he couldn't tell. Either way Bankor had to speak over the frenzied whispering that broke out.
"So while this document does prove that there was a change in Ministry policy that did actually occur on this issue," he explained, unsure whether even their foreign arbiter would follow where he led them next, "it was never our intent to imply that it was the Ministry that proposed going back to and expanding upon this policy. The island agreement that we're here to discuss came from the Goblin Nation and was crafted in a way that our people felt would best reflect how this previously proposed treaty had broken down.
"That treaty was proposed in order to bring about peace in a time of wizarding war," Bankor reminded them, "and the Goblin Nation backed out of those negotiations when the Grand Overseer and his family was killed on the surface by You-Know-Who and the possibility of being directly caught up in that war was made apparent to the rest of management. It was this direct danger that led the goblin's replacement to recommit the Goblin Nation to neutrality and the security that came with it.
"Since we were the ones that stepped away from helping to achieve peace by foregoing the possibility of independent surface-dwelling," he said with a confidence he'd been practicing for the past few days. "–It was felt that presenting a more binding agreement to the Ministry that reflected a bid for peace in a time of greater wizarding-and-goblin comradery would best communicate our desire to forge a lasting peace between our two peoples that some within the Ministry might respond to."
"Which absolutely none of them would have," Mockridge said in response, seeming to accept that they hadn't been out to claim the island first regardless of who might've owned it in the past.
"Excuse me, Mr. Mockridge," Cresswell said as if to remind the man that he was the one in charge before he stood again, having finally concluded his consultation with his aides.
"There's so much in what Mr. Bankor just said that I find it difficult to know precisely where to begin," the man said to Delacour as he struggled to get his thoughts in order. "What he describes sounds like a secret wartime gamble that the notorious hardliner, Minister Minchum, didn't even trust his own Goblin Liaison Office to carry out. For that reason, the Ministry asks for a recess until such time that we have a chance to verify that this actually happened."
"Eet does appear to be ze Ministry's magical seal," Delacour said as he looked over the document in question. "There are individual magical signatures as well, though I 'ave no way of knowing if they are for who they say are – though I 'ave no reason to doubt them as well," he was quick to add with a look to both parties.
"We see no reason why this proceeding should be needlessly delayed just for the Ministry to verify this since we only chose to include it to give the agreement at issue its proper historical context," Bankor said in return. "If it was as secret on their side as they contend then it could take months, if not years, before they're ready for this arbitration to continue when our positive case that the Ministry's seal was properly obtained could be adjudicated within the hour."
"Ah!" Delacour cried delightedly. "You are making ze positive case?"
"Well, yes," Bankor said as if that should've been obvious by his line of questioning. "Though we're well aware that we could move for summary judgement against the Ministry for failing to prove its case," he said quickly, "proving the agreement valid seems the quickest way to settle the issue entirely."
"Now see here," Cresswell said eager to defend his performance. "Mr. Mockridge's testimony clearly proves–"
"–It proves nothing more than he was not the one to make the agreement," the goblin rebutted quickly. "And that was something we were never going to argue because unlike what the Ministry suggests," Bankor said turning to the witness as he felt the chance of a recess pass them by, "you weren't the only person authorized to make such an agreement, were you, Mr. Mockridge?"
"As I clearly stated before," the wizard in question replied tersely, "I was the only person who'd be authorized to do so after a lengthy approval process."
"Ah, but you're talking about the normal Ministry procedures, aren't you?"
"What other procedures would I be talking about?" Mockridge asked incredulously.
"On such an unusual and stressful day," Bankor said to return them all to the time in question and mentally honing in on the flaw they'd found to exploit. "A day where the Chief Warlock had to resign in disgrace and the Minister spoke before the entire Wizengamot about the dangerous international threat they faced, one could easily imagine that the Ministry's emergency procedures might be called upon again."
"Ha!" Mockridge smiled. "Those procedures have only been technicalities since You-Know-Who vanished without a trace."
"But they are still in place, aren't they?" he pressed.
"As I said, technically."
"Apologies, I do not mean to eenterrupt," Delacour interjected. "What procedures are these?"
"Oh, of course. My apologies," Bankor said before going over to retrieve the book from Bladvak, making sure to mark the place as he carried it over. "This is what's commonly called 'the Big Book of Ministry Procedures' and, as the name would indicate, it outlines all of the Ministry's bylaws and procedures along with a rather long description of why they were adopted," he said as he placed the book in front of Delacour and turned it for him to see. "This section here though," he said pointing to the part their case was based on, "is of particular interest to us."
"Noted," the man said cordially before pulling the book closer to him. "A moment, please, while I review."
Silence descended on them as their arbiter read and conferred with his aide. With some head gestures on Mockridge's part the Ministry seemed to have clued into just how key preparation was with something like this and used the wands they were so dependent on to conjure a copy of the book to study on their own.
"Ah, I see," Delacour said to himself before his aide copied that section into the record as Cresswell looked up at them from his side, their strategy now obvious. "You may continue," the Frenchman said with a smile when he was done.
"Since these emergency procedures are still technically in effect," Bankor said as he walked closer to the man, "then there should be someone in charge of the Goblin Liaison Office at all times, and that person is authorized to make such a decision if called upon. Isn't that true?"
"There hasn't been a genuine emergency situation in more than ten years," Mockridge said evasively. "So even if there was someone there the emergency procedures wouldn't apply because it was not an emergency situation."
"Not an emergency situation?" Bankor asked rhetorically, getting back into the swing of things. "Need I remind you about what has already been entered into evidence concerning that day? Need I remind you of the Ministry readying for war by gathering their aurors? Need I remind you of the Ministry's attempt to steal the Isle of Gringotts? Need I remind you of the attempted murder in broad daylight of one of our tellers by an auror and how it took a blast of dragonfire to ensure that the bank doors remained closed? Do you honestly expect us to believe that that day was not an emergency situation when it could have led to war?"
"–All but one of those events happened after this supposed island agreement was to have been sealed," Cresswell said quickly. "As such, I fail to see how Mr. Mockridge was supposed to know that any of that was even remotely possible, giving the lie to it being an emergency until after the procedures were supposedly used."
"Mister Mockridge just testified that a wise Minister consults his department heads and advisers before making a decision," Bankor reminded him. "Is the Ministry now arguing that the Minister of Magic is so incompetent that he purposely stirred up tensions with the Goblin Nation without telling the Head of the Goblin Liaison Office everything they were planning to do?"
For an instant Cresswell looked poleaxed but Mockridge came to his rescue.
"Of course I knew what the Ministry's plans were," he said in the Minister's defense. "Not only did I write the Ministry's declaration asserting our ownership of the island but we also took steps to make sure that what you're insinuating you did couldn't happen."
"And how is that, Mr. Mockridge?" Bankor asked knowing most of what he was likely to say.
"We had the Floo Network between the G.L.O. and Gringotts blocked so that none of your little minions could get through that way," the man said with a smirk, "and Floo access to the Ministry lobby was curtailed completely. That means that if any of you had wanted to propose anything you would've had to expose yourself to the muggle world long enough to get to those entrances, bypass a lobby full of aurors, get undetected all the way through the Ministry until you hit the Goblin Liaison Office, and even once you were there you would've found no one qualified to help you."
"So ze Ministry's intent was to cut off diplomatic relations with ze goblins?" Delacour asked. "That 'as always been a prelude to war."
Cresswell's chair screeched back as he stood, "The Ministry was not–"
"–We were not about to let six hundred years of magical discoveries fall into goblin hands if we could stop it!" Mockridge cried indignantly as Bankor felt a surge of triumph and Cresswell put a hand over his face to hide from this embarrassment and sat back down.
He had long suspected that the Ministry had always taken provocative actions in the hopes of generating a conflict against them and rob them of what was theirs by right and here was the proof! It cast almost all of goblin history in a new light when it was taken into account. The depths of human duplicity truly was–
"It'd be well within their character to sell everything off to the highest bidder, even before anyone knew what was there," the man added in a way that pulled Bankor up short as their own duplicity caught up with them.
His eyes flickered to Delacour's and he could tell that the man still remembered the somewhat underhanded proposal that they'd offered that would've done precisely that. Just as the Frenchman had been far too principled to accept the offer, he'd so far been gracious enough not to hold it against them... except when it came to his intimations that he might share the information if they didn't take part in this arbitration.
'Perhaps humans and goblins aren't too dissimilar when it comes to duplicity,' he thought as he pulled himself together.
"What the Goblin Nation does with its property is not at issue here," Bankor said to get them back on track. "Indeed, if we were to auction off any such discoveries from the tower one could argue that we'd have the most to gain by offering them to the Ministry," he said in the most pleasant way he knew how.
Cresswell got back into the game with a quick, "Would you be willing to make that a part of the ruling of this arbitration?"
Suddenly he felt like he'd been kicked in the stomach. While they'd all been enthralled with the thought of the money they'd have coming to them with the exploitation of the island, it'd be just like the Ministry to give them knuts instead of galleons if any such sale was limited to them. Still, all actions had consequences though and a glance to Delacour's slyly arching eyebrow told him that this was the price they had to pay for his silence so that it didn't horribly slant things against them now.
"Provided–," Bankor said trying to choose his words carefully so that as many doors to profit as possible would still be open after this. "Provided that the Ministry is willing to barter for certain intangible and thereafter irrevocable legal changes with regards to the status of goblins in wizarding society," he smiled to Mr. Cresswell as his meaning became clear, "then I see no reason why the Ministry should have to contend with other potential buyers for any Flamel-related discoveries stemming from our exploitation of the Isle of Gringotts. Failing that, I see no reason why we shouldn't be allowed to look elsewhere for buyers."
"That sounds fair," the opposing counsel nodded in agreement.
"Exemplaire!" Delacour said with a smile as his aide busied himself with his duties.
"What a useless agreement," Mockridge added in turn. "The centaurs will get legal rights from the Ministry before these creatures will."
"All we can 'ave is 'ope that that ees not ze case, Monsieur Mockridge," the Frenchman replied with a wave that brushed away any thought of the future exposure of their prior attempt to bribe the I.C.W. to the goblin side. "Eet is only by realizing that peoples 'ave more to gain by learning from each other than they ever could 'ave from fighting each other that a productive peace can take root. But back on ze main topic?" Delacour said to return them to more important things.
"Even if you didn't think that the Ministry's coordinated plans to deprive the Goblin Nation of any chance to put forward our claim to the Isle of Gringotts while the rest of the world was distracted by other sensational news amounted to an emergency situation," Bankor said trying to get back into the thrust of things for the third-and-hopefully-final time, "it's not really your opinion that mattered then, was it?"
"I am – was – the head of the Goblin Liaison Office," Mockridge said tersely, annoyed at the implication that he wasn't important. "Of course my opinion's the only one that mattered."
"Do I need to have the procedures read out to you?" Bankor needled the man. "Or perhaps the reasons why they were put in place? The department heads of the Ministry appoint the people who are in charge of every shift," he reminded him, "but in an emergency situation they are the ones who decide things, they are the ones who determine if an occasion rises to an emergency or not–"
"–But that's only when their department head is dead, missing, incapacitated, Imperioused, or otherwise unable to be reached," Cresswell interjected, reading from their copy of the big book of Ministry procedures.
"Quite so," he agreed. "But likewise it's the individuals that the department head selected to run the office who're the ones charged in determining when that is – not Mr. Mockridge himself – so his opinion doesn't count."
"That still wouldn't help you," Mockridge said mockingly. "I made sure of that."
"Really?" Bankor asked with a mocking smile of his own. "Well then, since your opinion is irrelevant, we hereby call Mr. Hugh Hobson as a rebuttal witness."
"Oh, this is a crime against humanity," Oba's deep voice said mournfully as he peered at her aged and fragile offering. "Whether it's what you think it is or not, a book should never be allowed to fall into this state; it's tragic."
"And now you see why I wrote," Irma agreed. "It needs extensive restoration the likes of which only the Library can provide and considering the fact that I don't think any attempt to preserve it was done at all – and I found it by chance – it's frankly astonishing that there's anything there to read whatsoever."
"It's certainly old," the dark man said as he hovered his wand over the delicate book. "Not as old as the papyrus scrolls that the goblins unearth for us, but many of them are in better shape," he remarked with an eye on the paper contents. "What makes you think this comes from one of your founders?"
"I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't just the age of it that first gave me the idea," she admitted, "but it's not just that – though I'll get to the specifics later. Its age though blows apart both the traditional accounts of the Founding of Hogwarts as well as my own beliefs on the subject."
"How so?" Oba asked looking up at her from across the work space they'd commandeered.
"Legend – and despite my best efforts that's the best we really have when it comes to British magical history," Irma said tersely. "Well, the legend is that Hogwarts was founded well over a thousand years ago by – who we most modestly like to call – 'the four greatest witches and wizards of the age.'"
"It's human nature, I think, to try and make ourselves sound better than we are," the man smiled before closing his eyes to whisper a spell at the book. "The writing seems to span years," Oba said with his eyes still closed. "The oldest of which is one thousand and …four years old, give or take a few months, which would place this starting in the year 988. A substantial find," he said as his eyes popped open with a smile.
"But even that date would meet with stiff resistance back in Britain," she told the man. "They would insist that it must be far older in order to fit with what they want believe. Any older than the 950s though and you push the founding of Hogwarts back into a very turbulent time in English history. Viking raids were commonplace then and there were several bloody wars spanning the hundred years before which led to an England that was finally a unified kingdom in its own right – though a case could be made that if you turn your head and squint it might've been possible as early as 927, but that's pushing it beyond all credulity," she added in a huff.
"It'd be academically impossible," she continued, "to honestly contend that the greatest witches and wizards of the day would turn their back on their countrymen when they were facing such tremendous hardships and choose to go around collecting students for a magical boarding school instead," Irma said, outlining the underlying problem that she's always had with British magical history as it stood. "That's precisely what Bagshot and the Ministry has always maintained though – even to the point where they erase the bloodshed from history completely, probably because they see it as a lowly muggle concern."
"That's a level of revisionism that borders on delusion," Oba said in disbelief. "I can see why they cut off your Ministry access though," he said with a smile. "They can't have those pesky facts get in the way of the story they like, now can they?"
"Indeed," she agreed, miffed at the thought that anyone could think that way. "It's actually been a blessing in disguise though, in one area at least," she admitted though. "All this time being unable to do a proper magical history has let me get acquainted with the muggle form of it."
"Somewhere, Old Nagi's spirit is dancing with joy," the man across from her laughed. "He always said they were too often forgotten about, especially when you're dealing with a time before we hid ourselves away from them. I've often wondered just how much of their history we ended up changing in order to better hide ourselves," he mused.
"A good question," Irma agreed before gesturing to the book she'd brought, "but I've got my Chanter's work right in front of you."
"Yes, and you're teasing me with it," Oba smiled. "This is revenge for not calling you to work on the Atupali find, isn't it? I didn't know where you were then."
"It was actually their insistence that Hogwarts was over a thousand years old that led me to think that it may actually be far younger than that," she said getting back to her reasoning. "I've always thought that the most likely time in English history for such a founding to happen was just after the Norman Conquest in 1066, which would make us just barely over nine hundred and twenty-five years old – but the age of this find makes that date unlikely now too."
"And this could be nothing more than an ordinary book that somehow managed to find its way to you from some cathedral school's library," the man across from her countered. "I seem to recall that they were rather popular in France during that time."
"In France, yes, but not in Britain and such a story wouldn't survive the first page."
"You opened it?" Oba said with a smile. "That's far more daring than I would've been in your position, but the thrill of discovery can do that to you."
"Yes, well, it was only the once and I took what precautions I could," Irma said defensively. "The binding is deteriorating but not yet so bad as to fall apart completely," she said as she pointed to the area in question. "You can see from the edges though that the paper is cracking there, which makes me think that it may have been constructed with a rudimentary form of the sticking spell rather than traditional muggle glues."
"Now that'd be interesting," the man said to the historical curiosity as he dug into a nearby compartment. "We'd been using a similar spell here for centuries by that time but I didn't think that it'd be developed in Europe for another century, and certainly not in a backwater like Britain – no offense," Oba apologized, his mind catching up with his critical evaluation. "My home's still very much a backwater to this day," he said consolingly.
"As is Magical Britain, to be fair, so no apologies are necessary," she agreed as she took the pair of thin, flexible work gloves from the man and put them on.
Gingerly she touched her wand to the cover of the book and lifted it just enough so that she could take it in her hands to open it slowly the rest of the way without damaging it. Thankfully, in terms of ease of opening goes, the first page had long ago broken free of the binding and seemed to have taken the brunt of time's mistreatment and it was easy to levitate it free from the rest and reveal what was inside.
"That–," Oba blinked before looking closer at the writing. "That almost looks like English."
"Because it is almost English," Irma smiled. "It's Old English, an Anglo-Saxon form common only to Britain at the time that was due to be supplanted by an Anglo-Norman relative of early French in 1066. It'd then continue to develop into the language we're speaking today."
"There's no translation spell on this," he noted, covering his eye to look at it from one and then the other. "A sensible precaution, I suppose you didn't think it worth the risk of further damage?"
"Yes, not to mention that most translation spells only reliably work when you already know what it's supposed to say. Besides," she said with a tight smile, "who'd pass up the opportunity to translate it on their own when they already know a bit of the language themselves?"
Oba laughed, "You know that you don't have to do it all yourself, don't you?"
"I've had twenty years to prepare for something like this," Irma said determinedly, "I'm not about to let someone else come in and take the credit."
"As you will," he shrugged before turning back to the subject at hand. "What about this makes you think it belongs to anyone magical though?"
"Because each of the four founders of Hogwarts is known for something," she said in reply. "Usually it's a magical item, though I don't recall Salazar Slytherin ever leaving such behind besides his reported, and in all likelihood mythical, Chamber of Secrets. His notoriety's always come from a reputed anti-muggle prejudice and his parseltongue ability."
"That's definitely noteworthy," Oba agreed. "That Initiate that you passed on the bridge has only been here two years but already says that he wants to do his Chanter's work on Al'iikhwan min Althaeabin, the Brotherhood of Snakes, a small cabal of parselmouths working in Baghdad around the turn of the millennium, though I don't know if he'll find anything. If he wants to link their break up to the tiny number of other parselmouths throughout history though it'd take more work than anyone could do in a lifetime, so hopefully he'll change his mind."
"The last thing any young person needs is to toil away in obscurity for twenty years," Irma said with a look. "With the other founders, Helga Hufflepuff was known to have left behind a golden cup with healing powers, though that disappeared in during bitter inheritance dispute almost fifty years ago. Rowena Ravenclaw had a diadem that was last reported seen years before her supposed death, and Godric Gryffindor is best known for the Sorting Hat, which Hogwarts has been using – and will be using again tonight – to sort the incoming students into the four houses."
"And this references one of them?" the man asked curiously.
"No, this references something better. This part here," she said, pointing to the first legible part that she could make out, "speaks of recovering from wounds sustained in a battle against sea invaders to the south-west and that the writer is now on his way north to recover his sword from 'the thieving coblyn that made it.' I think that this is a firsthand account of another legend, the one pertaining to the Sword of Gryffindor.
"There are still curiosities, of course," she continued, her mind finally able to rattle off all the questions she'd had for the last week. "If this is Godric Gryffindor – and I know of no one else, magical or muggle, that had a goblin-made sword at this time – then it's possible that he was traveling from Godric's Hollow, his supposed birthplace, but why would he be going north? Everything we know of the goblins has them living in their bank and Godric's Hollow is more west of London than anything else."
"Perhaps they had a northern branch at the time?" Oba suggested.
"None that I've ever heard about," Irma said with a shake of her head. "I'd love to get my hands on their account of what happened though, just to verify things. Muggle histories may be overlooked but I don't think goblin histories have ever been consulted before."
"You're probably right," the man agreed.
"And this is why I've come," the tired librarian said, for the first time feeling the stress of this enormous task settle on her in full. "These are the words of Godric Gryffindor, I know it! If I can show that this book is real and he gives dates and places when things actually happened – they'll have to believe what it says. This could be a cornerstone for a real history for Magical Britain, the kind we've always needed. Oba," Irma pleaded, finally tearing up. "This is too important to let it fall apart. I need the Library's help with this."
"And you will have it," he said, coming around the work table to comfort her. "What do you think we are, barbarians?" her friend said with an arm around her shoulder. "The record restorers haven't had anything new to look forward to since the goblins closed their digs – and that was weeks ago.
"We'll have this done in no time, don't worry," Oba said happily. "But while they work, I insist that you let me take you out for something to eat. If anyone needs time away from worry it's you – then you can go home and kill yourself trying to get it all done in a night, because I know you'll try," he finished with a laugh.
"Anything from the trolley, dears?" the old woman asked with a smile.
She'd sounded so much like her mother when she said that that it had her moving to see what she offered before she realized that she was doing it. Luckily her mum had given her some pocket money before they'd left the Burrow. It wasn't much, just a couple sickles and a few knuts, but it'd be enough to get something and she hadn't given her brothers any money at all.
'It looks like I'd have enough to get one butterbeer or a bar of Honeydukes,' Ginny thought as she quickly compared the options. 'Or I could get two of those small things of Droobles, or I could get a bunch of pumpkin pasties.'
"Did you want anything, Luna?" she asked, unable to decide.
When the other girl didn't respond she turned to see that Luna's eyes were a little larger than normal and she was sitting on the far side of the compartment. She was pushed up as close to the window as she could get, so close that she looked ready to go through it.
"Luna?" she asked, wondering what could've gotten her like this.
The blonde girl just shook her head and kept staring at the old trolley witch.
"Did you find anything you wanted?" the little old lady asked, prompting her to turn back to her again.
"I'll just take… this much in pumpkin pasties," Ginny said as she handed over her money, not knowing how many that'd be.
It turned out that it was eight, which wasn't a lot since they were small but it'd work out evenly if Luna got hungry.
"Pasty?" she asked her unusually quiet friend as she sat.
Luna took it, which she thought was a good sign, but she still seemed more interested in watching through the compartment's interior windows as the trolley lady disappeared than actually eating it. Ginny didn't know what was up with her friend. As they got further and further from the station the quieter she'd gotten, and that wasn't like her at all. She hadn't had anything to say about what she thought Hogwarts would be like, what the other kids would be like, or even about how the Sorting would go.
"You'll want to be careful with those," Luna said as Ginny took a bite of her pasty. "They could explode at any time."
Ginny coughed as her pasty threatened to go down the wrong tube.
"Explode?" she asked once things had gone down the right way.
"Oh yes, but only if she ever gets mad," the other girl cautiously explained, closer to her old self again now that the woman was away. "She's a Cimeldee, an ancient guardian of magical transit ways. They've been in decline ever since the development of the Floo Network but they can still be frightening if they have to be."
"How could that nice trolley witch be frightening?" she asked, not knowing her friend to be frightened of anything.
"She's in disguise, of course, that's what cimeldees do to blend in with what they protect," Luna said seriously. "But when they have to they've been known to transform their arms into giant hooks and large metal spikes, and even make anything they've recently touched into explosives."
"But if she's here to protect us," Ginny said, trying to piece together the other girl's concern, "then why would we ever need to be frightened of her?"
"Because she's not here to protect us," her friend said as everything took a more ominous turn. "She's here to protect the magical transit way – the train; we just happen to be on it. Cimeldees can live for hundreds of years," she explained, "but only if they have regular contact with magical people. So she'd be the first one to welcome you aboard when you arrive but there's always the chance that she'd never let you go if you want to get off."
Ginny had to admit, that was rather frightening when you thought of it. She'd never heard of the trolley witch taking anyone captive before though, and that's something that she thought she would've heard of by now if it were true. Plus, she couldn't see Hogwarts letting her keep students on the train after they'd arrived either, so kidnapping students might be the one way a creature like that would be fired.
That's when a question popped into her head.
'Was Luna afraid of her because she thought she'd never be able to leave the train,' Ginny thought uncomfortably, 'or because she's thinking about leaving the train now and going home?'
As frightening as it'd be to be held prisoner until the professors – or Harry, she supposed, though he'd probably wouldn't even notice that they were gone – came to rescue them, that other thought was even more frightful. As bad as this year was shaping up to be, Ginny couldn't imagine what it'd be like without Luna being there too. She'd even be willing to be in Ravenclaw – like Luna's always wanted to be in – or even go into Hufflepuff if it meant staying with her friend, though she didn't know what her parents would make of that.
"It's a good thing you're here with me then," she told Luna grimly as she ate the rest of her pasty. "If that old trolley witch tries to take you I'll punch her in the nose."
Luna blinked at her for that before settling down to nibble on her own pasty, for once seeming confused about whether something she said was a good thing or a bad thing.
"One good thing about eating the pasties, I suppose," her friend said once she'd finished hers and Ginny had given her another, "is that it gives her one less to use against us."
"And it gives her another reason not to try and take us," Ginny said. "If she does, she may the one to end up on the wrong side of pastries when we use those metal arms of hers to chop her up and bake her into a load of pasties."
Luna looked at her again as if wondering how that could even begin to be possible.
In the end Ginny had to smile; confusing Luna was fun.
"He's nothing more than a glorified janitor!" Hugh heard as the door opened to admit him into the room. "He's not qualified to speak on behalf of the Ministry."
Anger outweighed humiliation as he entered. Of all the people they could've called to dispute what he'd done, he had to testify behind that one. Hugh did as Bankor had suggested though and let it twist in his stomach until he could make a smile that some might take as welcoming appear on his lips.
"Excusez-moi, Monsieur Mockridge," a pudgy man with a pointed beard that must be the Delacour fellow they'd talked about said. "But that is for me to deetermine. You are excused," the man said dismissively.
The tone of casual disregard towards his former boss was certainly enough to get a smile though Hugh still didn't like what today would mean for him. After this, he'd never be welcomed back into the Ministry again. Heck, he might not even be welcome in wizarding society at all and be stuck living like a goblin for the rest of his life.
'Still,' he supposed as he walked forward under Mockridge's heated stare as the man left one seat to join the line of Ministry wizards he recognized. 'With people like that out here, maybe being exiled from them wouldn't be so bad. Besides, the beds in the Tower were nice and maybe I can sneak a private deluxe apartment for myself into the Island plans when this is over.'
"Monsieur 'Obson, I presume?" the foreign man asked, drawing his attention from the nod and reassuring smile that Bankor gave him as the goblin took a seat at the non-Ministry table.
"Er – uh, yes," Hugh said, trying to tamp down the uncertain nervousness that always came from being the center of attention. "You want me to–?" he asked gesturing to the now vacant seat beside the man.
"If you please," the welcoming wizard said with a smile. "And I weel remind you that while you weel not be magically compelled, you are still required to tell the truth."
"Of course," he agreed as he moved to the chair, talking more out of nerves than anything else.
He wasn't about to lie but you had to say something when all those eyes were on you so it might as well be that. Besides, why would he lie when at worst all he'd need to be is slightly evasive, purposefully reinterpretive, or somewhat selective when it came to certain parts? The truth was the truth; he'd done what he'd done, so what was the point in lying about it? It's not like the Ministry'd give him a reward for it.
The seat was harder than he'd been expecting, a solid wooden chair with no cushion, but after a good ten days with the goblins his butt could appreciate the difference between wood and stone. As Bloodwell rose from his seat to move into the space between the tables Hugh wondered if there'd be time to buy a seat cushion before they went back to the bank. He'd ask Nunya for one but she'd either look at him like he were crazy or go around bolting steel plates to every chair she could find – he didn't know what to make of her.
"Mr. Hobson," the goblin began, which made him feel odd about the fact that it now felt odd to be addressed that way; he'd been called 'taskmaster' so often lately that it was almost like a first name now. "Where were you on the morning of Friday, August fourteenth?"
"I was working the Goblin Liaison Office in the Ministry of Magic," he replied by rote, still wondering at how his whole world could've changed so much in only eighteen days. Sometimes it felt more like eighteen years had passed between now and then while at others it was like the whole thing happened eighteen minutes ago.
"And how would you describe your duties there?"
'I tried not to fall asleep,' Hugh wanted to say but instead gave the prepared response of: "My official job was as a clerk but it was a good bit more than that, though mostly less as well."
He couldn't fail to see the way Mockridge was conspiring with the others in whispers but he wasn't going to let that rattle him.
"Could you explain that answer for us a bit?" Bloodwell asked. "It seems a little contradictory."
"Of course," he agreed in an obviously rehearsed kind of way. "At my job at the Ministry I had all the duties that a normal clerk would have: checking files, reviewing goblin and Ministry policies, processing information requests and issuing responses – but because I worked the night shift there was very little work to really be done since most of that arrived during the day shift. Most nights I kept myself busy by reading anything work-related I could find, trying to put the files in some sort of order, or by tidying up the office."
"That certainly explains how it was 'mostly less' than a normal clerk," Bloodwell said smoothly as he continued the exchange, "but how was it 'a good bit more' than one?"
"Well, I worked alone, you see," Hugh replied glancing over to the Ministry wizards and sideways to the not-quite-judge-type fellow to his right. "So technically I was in charge of the entire office almost every single night of the week," he smiled, purposefully putting the best of all possible spins on things. "When you think about it, that's a lot of responsibility they're trusting me with."
"–Ha!" Mockridge laughed at the same time as a blond man he only vaguely knew of as Snider stood.
"Monsieur Mockridge," Delacour scolded the man with a look. "Since your testimony ees at an end I can always ask these nice goblins to escort you away if you cannot seet quietly," he said with a gesture to the Gringotts guards standing behind the goblins' table.
"I'm sure that won't be necessary," the ever-loathsome Snider said sycophantically. "I must protest this goblin's testimony though," he jabbed with a smile. "He was never in a position of authority and–"
"–Deputy Inspector General," Bloodwell cut into the interruption to protest. "We were most patient while the Ministry laid out its case," the goblin said tersely. "Overseer Bankor here didn't interrupt them once – as is, I believe the custom."
"Agreed," Delacour snapped, turning back to Snider. "Zis ees an arbitration, not a trial. Ze Ministry 'as no right to voice objections at zis stage and your wheetness's outbursts 'ave abused any leeway you 'ad when zey 'ave been allowed," the man said, suddenly sounding way more French than he did a second ago.
'Jeez!' Hugh thought warily. 'If they piss off this guy anymore we won't understand what he's saying.'
"You weel all 'old your tongues unteel eet ees your time examine zis wheetness or I weel rule summarily against you, and ze Meenister weel know why."
Snider must've thought it was more than his job was worth to protest because he sat back down, though he did still have the phony smile in place. As for himself, this was really unusual. He didn't know if it was the bigotry or if the man really had simply had enough with outbursts but either way Hugh wasn't used to being around someone who had the power to force other people to stop acting like derisive bullies. It was like walking into a completely different world.
Bloodwell looked to the Ministry wizards with a smile thin enough to cut before continuing.
"Did anyone from Gringotts approach you while you were at work that day?" the goblin asked, finally getting to the heart of the issue.
"Yes, they did," he replied. "Around ten o'clock that morning."
This time it was Cresswell that stood.
Delacour pointed at him with the look that pissed off principles had when they when they were one step away from paddling someone, consequences be damned. The man settled back in his chair, which he was somewhat thankful for. Dirk had been the one to hire him, and had always been a decent guy before he'd been sent to the no man's land of the night shift, so however he had gotten tasked with this Hugh didn't want him to have to face it blowing up because of something he did; losing the arbitration on its merits was going to be bad enough anyway.
"Ten o'clock in the morning is rather late for a night shift worker to still be working, isn't it?" Bloodwell asked, getting them back into the scripted exchange.
When they'd first began preparing his testimony a several days ago Bloodwell had given him a set of prepared questions along with notes about what he'd like his answers to highlight. It was standard practice, or so he said, but they hadn't sat well with him – they still didn't. Each one was a tiny step forwards towards the inexorable conclusion that he'd done it, that he was the one who read and sealed the island agreement on the Ministry's behalf – but it rambled its way getting there and was far too personal to be comfortable.
What was the point of that? Wouldn't it have been better just to come right out and say it? Finally he asked why he wanted to talk about all this personal stuff but apparently it was a part of the goblin's strategy; he didn't say it straight out but it looked like Nunya was right when it came to rumors. Bloodwell seemed to want to recreate the 'I know what it's like to be a goblin' moment in front of the Overseers, but to him it seemed like useless whinging, and the last thing he wanted was to become the half-goblin poster child they trotted out to make everyone feel sorry for him – and then them by extension.
None of that had never helped anything before but now that they were doing it Hugh thought he saw why he'd wanted to do it. Bloodwell was teasing them; he'd phrased his questions and reworked his prepared answers so they'd always be slightly irritating to the Ministry's pureblooded mentality, no matter what was asked. If the outburst from Mockridge hadn't already led Delacour to clamp down on them then how they presented their case would've led him to do it for the whole thing would've made them want to object.
Bloodwell would ask a question that'd require him to do a bit of explanation, either about his upbringing or how his life had taken him to be at the Ministry that day. It really was a factual account, but the negative things that the Ministry probably wouldn't want to admit to would be slightly finessed to be more obvious. It made him seem like the unappreciated and discriminated against employee toiling away at a thankless job in obscurity, but one that had finally found a decent enough job where no one would bother him.
It wasn't the kind of life that anyone would kill to protect, but it wasn't one that you'd risk everything to keep either. So when the time came and he was faced with an emergency situation, he'd done the only thing he could: he sealed the form because it was the right thing to do. Hugh didn't know if it was the fact that he'd made him have to relive all the muck from his past all over again or that he was a slimy lawyer but Bloodwell was certainly the dirtiest person he could imagine wearing a clean suit.
Snider no longer looked falsely pleased when he finally rose to cross-examine him.
"So you, after all the hardships in your life," the man said grandly, "took it upon yourself to chuck aside everything that the Ministry had previously told you to do when important things crossed your desk and chose to make such a monumental decision by yourself. Why? To get back at the Ministry for all the mean people who'd mistreated you?"
"What? No!" Hugh replied affronted.
"Then what, to get a bit of fame then?" the man pushed.
"Of course not," he said defensively. "Look, people were going to die – goblin and wizard both – and it's supposed to be the Ministry's job to make sure that doesn't happen. I didn't want to be there that day," Hugh said honestly, though playing it up a bit. "But I was. When the Gringotts guy told me what happened, what the Wizengamot meeting was about, and what it might cause – I had to do something, and I was the only one there who could!"
"The Head of your office was in the building," Snider said scathingly, "so why didn't you send for Mr. Mockridge?"
"Like I said earlier, he was in the Wizengamot meeting," he replied. "I couldn't leave the guy from Gringotts in the office alone – I'm not even supposed to leave to go to the bathroom. You know how hard it is to hold it for that long and how frustrating it is to run back and forth with short legs?" he added for some flavor. "They get tired pretty quick, I can tell you that."
"And I didn't even know if I could send him a message," Hugh said back on topic. "I'd heard that memos will burst into flames if they try to enter there, and if they did I'd never know, the same if he got it and didn't respond. Besides, everyone who was important in the entire country was there, why would he leave such an important meeting for someone like me?"
"So you knew that you shouldn't leave the office unattended," the man said, zeroing in on something. "But that was the day you quit, wasn't it? That left the office unattended, for all we knew that agreement could've been sealed then."
"Yes, I did, because sealing that agreement made me realize that the Ministry wasn't interested in peace," he admitted as Delacour looked at them thoughtfully. "The only reason I quit–"
Snider immediately came back with, "And you did admit that you have a–"
"–A moment, if you please," Delacour interrupted, back in his calm demeanor again. "I weesh to know about Monsieur 'Obson's reasons for leaving. You did this aftair sealing ze agreement?"
"Er – yes, I did," Hugh answered, not expecting to be asked any questions by the man directly. "I didn't want to quit – I mean, how many jobs can you find where you get paid for doing almost nothing? – but I didn't want to end up in Azkaban for what I did either."
"You thought you were committing a crime?" the Frenchman asked curiously.
"No, but that doesn't mean that I wouldn't end up there anyway," he said quickly before pointing to Mockridge, "not with someone like him in charge. People were going to die and I had a chance to stop it from ever happening, so I know that what I did was legal – I can even quote the regulations to prove it – but that doesn't mean that they wouldn't still punish me for it.
"The note I had waiting for me when I came in that told me I had to stay an extra five hours," Hugh reminded them before going further, "that came from Mockridge himself. They left me alone, tired, ignorant of what was going on – why would they do that? Why would they let me be surprised by a war dropping on my lap? I wasn't prepared for that, but I was the only one there!
"That's when I realized," he continued in a dumbstruck tone that he only had to slightly feign. "I was there so they could blame me for everything when things went wrong. I had the chance to stop the fighting from ever happening – fighting that they might've even wanted to happen – but if I did the right thing to protect the people that we're supposed to be there to serve then they'd blame me for breaking all the rules – which is what they're doing now. But, if I did what they wanted me to and not seal the agreement, then they'd blame me for not preventing all the fighting and deaths in the first place!
"So you tell me," Hugh brazenly said to the other man, "wouldn't you leave a job that did that to you?"
Delacour didn't reply but seemed to take his answer for what it was.
"A moment, if you please," he said instead before turning to speak with the scribe beside him.
"Snide!" Cresswell whispered as he beckoned the questioning wizard over to their table before closing off the sound of their conversation with a flick of his wand.
Hugh felt more than saw the entire goblin side of the room tense with that but if they'd known Dirk better they'd know he man wouldn't've attacked or anything. If there was anyone over there that was able to be reached out to it'd be him; he was a muggleborn after all, so he'd know all about discrimination, if he'd been stupid enough to tell anyone besides him about that that is. Something seemed to have reached Cresswell though because he was now standing to override the silent objections of both Mockridge and Snider.
'Dirk must've realized that letting Snider continue would've made them all look like intolerable bigots,' he thought to himself. 'Maybe I was wrong with that grizzled old man, maybe there was a minuscule chance for people to change. It'd take a thousand years to get Slytherins to use 'non-magical people' though. That term just ain't happening.'
Cresswell must've prevailed because he and Snider changed sides of the table once the sound proofing charm had been dropped, though Snider chose to sit next to Mockridge instead of retaking his former seat. Seeing the movement, Delacour ended his quiet conversation.
"You weel be taking over ze cross-examination, Monsieur Cresswell?" he asked.
"Yes, if it's alright with you," the other man said politely, which almost made you miss the disgruntled looks that Snider and Mockridge were giving him.
"As you weesh," the Frenchman said with a gesture. "You may proceed."
"This person from Gringotts you mentioned," Dirk started out tentatively, honing in on the subject that Bankor had said that the Grand Overseer had specifically wanted him to avoid naming at all costs. "Who was he?"
"Just your run-of-the-mill working stiff like me, I suppose," Hugh said with a shrug. "I don't really remember much about him," he evaded. When he thought of it though, once you disregard everything that made the old man stand out in crowd, there was very little left to say about him. "I actually thought he might've been a new hire until he said where he came from."
"The man presumably got you to agree to something that went against centuries of Ministry policy," Cresswell pressed. "Surely you must remember something about him. His name, his description, anything to help identify who this person is."
"–I fail to see a question here," Bloodwell cut in to object. "The Ministry's no doubt concerned about how their excessive security measures were bypassed that day," the goblin noted, "but this hardly seems the appropriate venue for such an investigation. And I also fail to see how knowing who this individual is helps discredit Mr. Hobson's testimony that he sealed the agreement at issue or that he did so with the full authorization of Ministry laws and procedures."
"Do you 'ave a question on that from this line of reasoning?" Delacour asked questioningly.
Dirk thought for a moment before continuing.
"Did the man do anything magical in your presence that would account for your lack of memory about him?"
"No, not that I recall," Hugh replied before realizing that that could go either way. "I didn't see him do any magic at all," he corrected, "so as far as I know he could've been a squib. I've seen a lot of people in the last two weeks though," he added honestly, "so they may have all blended together, and I think all the night shifts have made me more forgetful too."
That part was certainly true. He hadn't realized just how much better he felt now that he was active during the day again.
"Besides what you've already told us," Cresswell said in a way that screamed that he was coming up with his questions off the top of his head. "What did you and this man talk about?"
"Nothing, really," he shrugged. "The main thrust was the agreement and how everyone but me seemed to already know what was going on."
"I've always known you to have a certain curiosity about goblins, wouldn't you say that's true?" the man asked.
"Well I don't hate them, if that's what you mean," Hugh replied, knowing where this was going from his prior preparation with Bloodwell. "And sure, I admit to being curious about them – for obvious reasons," he said gesturing to his short, goblin-like stature. "It's why I joined the Goblin Liaison Office. But that's not what made me seal the agreement though, aside from not wanting any of us to kill any of them or any of them to kill any of us."
"One could conclude that a more direct opportunity to study goblins and their culture would appeal to you, wouldn't that be fair to say?"
"What do you mean?" he asked with false puzzlement mixed with a bit of faux suspicion.
"Did the man imply that there'd be any sort of reward for your actions, any form of payment or opportunity you wouldn't otherwise have?" Dirk asked with the unpleasant twinge of stepping in manure briefly being written on his face.
Bloodwell cut in immediately with a prepared, "–Sir, there's been no evidence to say–" but Hugh cut him off like they'd planned.
"I am a Hogwarts educated wizard, Mr. Cresswell!" he said outraged. "You think I'd betray the Ministry for a bribe? I'm appalled at the implication! You think just because I have goblin blood in my veins that I'd sell out the Goblin Liaison Office like that? That office was set up to make sure that we don't kill each other," he admonished the man. "What's mind-blowing about someone wanting to live up to that ideal?"
Hugh had to give Bloodwell some credit. He didn't know how he'd thought up this strategy but the way any attempt to question what happened or go against them just made the Ministry look worse was pure genius. He didn't know what Delacour thought of all that but couldn't chance glancing over to him to look.
"It was never my intention to imply that," Dirk said swiftly, eager to clean up the impression that he might be bigoted. "You left nothing at the Ministry though to tell us what happened – and we didn't even know that anything had happened until they sprang that agreement on us – so we had to consider the possibility that something underhanded may have been involved."
"Well, now you know how it feels to be in the dark," he said spitefully.
"–You mean to say," Delacour cut in to say to him, "that not only did ze Ministry as a whole not know of ze agreement at ze time it was sealed, but you left nothing behind to eenform them about it?"
"It seemed a suitable repayment for the way they treated me that day," Hugh said grudgingly. "Besides, it wasn't like they wouldn't know soon enough when it was given right back to them."
Something about that gave Cresswell an idea though and he turned to Delacour.
"Under those circumstances, the Ministry fails to see how we could've been expected to know that any agreement had been made at all," Dirk said in a way that gave him a sinking feeling in the gut. "Likewise, the Ministry couldn't have been expected to know how an attempt to lay claim to the island might be interpreted by the Goblin Nation as a breach of an agreement, since we had – for all intents and purposes – a rogue office manager as the one who sealed it. Therefore, we move that the entire agreement be thrown out and that our Hit Wizards be released at once."
With that, every goblin there that wasn't a guard began to protest at once.
Things hadn't gotten any better in the last week, not since that freak had moved into the house. There were none of those blasted owls and the yelling envelopes anymore, sure, but that only showed just how fickle those wizarding types were. Any normal person would've been outraged for months – if, of course, there had ever been anything to actually have been outraged about, which there wasn't – which just went to show how abnormal these freaks could be.
Still, the pink-haired girl that had invited herself to stay had to be the worst of the lot. Whenever her own sister, Lily, had come back from Freak Land she was lost when it came to the latest television programs and music, even the ones that she'd used to like, and was completely baffled at mundane changes to pop-tops and the like. This girl though didn't know anything about anything and what was worse was that she was curious about it all, which meant that she had to hear about it like she was supposed to be her freakish guide to all things normal.
What did it matter how the television worked, it just did! You plugged it into the wall, screwed in the cable, and it worked. Honestly, to see the way this girl kept poking at it you'd think it was magic – which was almost enough reason to get rid of it if her Dudders wouldn't have objected. Didn't the girl have a job she should be doing or did those freaks not even believe in that bit of normalcy?
'Her supposed orders say they come from some ministry,' Petunia thought, 'but why would the Crown dignify those aimless layabouts with a ministry of their own? It'd be just like them to lie about something like that – not that I could check it now. Lily's shifty husband had lied about not being wastrels too, saying that they had mountains of gold in the bank – like anyone used money that way – so there was nothing that these people wouldn't lie about.'
The more she thought of it the more convinced of it she got. These people lived in a fairy tale land of make believe where everything was handed to them or taken from hardworking people, like her, while the girl that had butted her way in was just pretending to be a member of the freak police. They weren't to be trusted, not a single one of them as far as she was concerned.
'At least my Dudders is safely out of the house,' she thought as she heard the girl ruffle about upstairs and Petunia quickly moved to into the kitchen to better avoid the freak as it came downstairs. 'Yes, Dudders is safely back at ever-normal Smeltings and beating all the bullies up with his Smeltings stick. No matter what those neighbors may think, my Dudders knows what's right, just like Vernon.
'At least Vernon used to know what was right,' she lamented as she put some water on for a cup of tea. 'Now he thinks it best to ignore the girl completely and pretend that the whole thing never happened. Easy for him to do when he could hide from it at work. It wasn't his face that'd been splashed across the tabloids, he wasn't the one people were mocking as a lunatic, and he wasn't the one that spouted gibberish every time he mentioned anything about those freaks except in his own mind,' Petunia mentally grumbled.
The freak walked into the kitchen carrying one of those hand-made parchment letters that her kind used. Petunia quickly turned to give the girl a cold shoulder.
"Hey, Pet?" the walking abnormality inquired, still insisting upon shortening her name just to goad her and ignoring the fact that she wasn't wanted. "How do you use that thing back there to call the Please?"
As much as she loathed everything about her the sheer stupidity of what the girl asked made her turn towards her.
"What are you on about now?" she hissed.
"That thing – out in the hall?" the pink-haired Tonks said with a gesture over her shoulder like little freak wasn't the one that didn't know what the thing was called.
"The telephone," Petunia said tersely. "What of it?"
"Well, how do you use it?" the other woman asked annoyingly. "I tried sticking it next to my head but all I heard was bbbeeeeeeeeeeee," the fool said, mimicking the dial tone.
"That's because you have to dial the number," she smirked at the girl's incompetence. "And not just any number either," she hastened to add lest the girl run up their long distance charges. "You've got to use the specific number for who you want or Lord knows who you'd ring up."
"Then what's the number for the Please?" Pink-hair asked with an annoyed expression.
"Are you talking about the Police?" Petunia asked scornfully, enjoying what opportunities she could find to make those freaks feel inferior. "None of you seem capable of saying it correctly. It isn't hard. Police. Pah-lease – police!"
"What's the Pah-Lease number then?" the girl asked doggedly.
"What do you need it for?"
"Never mind what I need it for," Tonks said through gritted teeth as her hair gained a reddish tint. "Just give it to me so we don't have to be in the same room anymore."
"It's nine-nine-nine," Petunia said waspishly as her water began to boil. "It's the same it's been for more than fifty years."
The girl burst back through the kitchen door without another word.
'Hopefully she'll stay in that room until tomorrow,' she hoped as she took the whistling tea kettle off the stove, though Petunia doubted she'd ever be that lucky.
"Yes, hello? Pah-Lease?" Tonks said loudly from the hall, prompting her to set the kettle down roughly before hurrying for the hall. "Where do I go to join you?"
"What the devil do you think you're doing?!" she asked the stupid woman.
It took quite some time for things to calm down again in their little mock courtroom above Diagon Alley. Objections were raised, voices too, then came accusations and recriminations, and things were brought up that happened three hundred years ago or more. Some colorful new derogatory phrases were said too, but they stopped when Mockridge was forced to leave.
As they sat in that tense silence waiting for Delacour to review and make a ruling Hugh had to wonder if he'd managed to screw everything up. He'd been trained in the proper procedures for his job at the Ministry but he'd always just done his own thing. It was stupid to think that everything they'd done in the last week or so could be washed away because of something he didn't do a week before all that but it looks as though that might happen.
Bloodwell had had him study the emergency procedures they needed until he really could quote them back but he didn't know the laws behind them or any of that other stuff they went on about. Both sides had made arguments that made a kind of sense to him but he didn't know which was right or which would most likely come out on top. If the whole thing with the island failed because of something he'd failed to do before quitting the Ministry – and therefore before he'd gotten the job at Gringotts – would that count as betraying them?
Hugh didn't see how that could be but he'd quickly learned that goblins had an odd way of looking at things so he couldn't be sure. Bankor hadn't stabbed him yet or even made mention of his job with them at all, which seemed to be a good sign. They had wanted to keep that a secret though so they probably wouldn't've mentioned it even if they had thought of it as a betrayal.
'Then again,' he thought, 'Bankor's such a mild mannered guy that he'd probably invite me to his place for dinner and a sleep-over, only to wait for me to fall asleep before he smothered me with a pillow.'
"I am ready to make my ruling," Delacour said with a formal finality that had Hugh fidgeting in a chair that was way too close to the goblins for comfort if things went wrong. "As evidenced by Monsieur 'Obson's testimony, it is clear that 'e failed to notify ze wider Ministry concerning 'is actions regarding ze agreement at issue 'ere today. While it is certainly a good practice to engage in, as opposing counsel 'as correctly pointed out, there is nothing in ze Ministry's emergency procedures that says that 'e 'ad to do so.
"Een addition to this," the man continued as the butterflies in Hugh's stomach started fluttering around like snitches. "Due to ze extenuating circumstances that Monsieur 'Obson faced regarding communicating with 'is superiors, it is unknowable whether any attempt by 'im to notify ze wider Ministry would 'ave been able to alert ze appropriate officials in time to alter 'ow things transpired on ze island. As such, I fail to see 'ow the Ministry could 'ave been reasonably expected to know that any such agreement 'ad been entered into by the time their representatives arrived to lay their claim to ze island.
"And since ze goblins' capture of ze Hit Wizards ees reliant upon a recognition of ze goblins' legal ownership of ze island at ze time in question to back a charge of attempted theft, while I do acknowledge ze very real need for ze Goblin Nation to enforce its integrity against would-be thieves, I cannot see 'ow such a charge can be maintained when that legal recognition 'ad not yet been achieved and could not 'ave been until aftair ze Hit Wizards' arrest. And so, I do 'ereby ordair as part of this arbitration ruling that ze Ministry's Hit Wizards should be released from goblin custody as soon as possible."
Hugh tried to get a look at the goblins around him while keeping completely still.
'So the Hit Wizards were being freed, that can be a good thing, right?' he wondered, trying to picture it in a good way even while knowing that it lessened the goblins' position.
"'Owever," Delacour added in that torturously slow legal tone. "I do not find such reasoning enough justification to invalidate ze Ministry's seal–"
Bloodwell fist hit the table with a thump! but the goblin quickly regained his composure, though a triumphant half-grin still remained.
"–Though ze timing of the seal may be unusual," the Frenchman added, unable to be deterred by the tiny violent outburst. "Ministry legal procedures make clear that Mr. 'Obson did 'ave ze legal authority required to make ze agreement on behalf of ze Ministry, and so, as part of this arbitration ruling, I do 'ereby proclaim ze agreement acknowledging goblin ownership of ze Island of Gringotts, and all constituent parts, to be valid, with any future sale of related physical or intellectual property to be subject to the prior agreement between the two parties."
A wave of relief washed over him as he realized what that meant. The goblins lost the wizards, but they gained the island! He wasn't going to die today, he had too much work to do!
'Ah crap,' Hugh groused, though his heart wasn't in it. 'I've got so much work to do now. I'm gonna need a good cushion.'
She knew that sitting in a compartment with her two best friends fairly soon after agreeing to be an official couple with one of them was neither the time nor the place to hash out the specifics about what the change between them really was – and indeed, ever having that conversation at all seemed an iffy thing to do if she wanted the relationship to be in any way successful by not lumping too much weight on top of it too soon – but at the same time it wasn't like she'd ever been the sort of person to be comfortable with this amount of uncertainty concerning a life-changing event of this magnitude.
Intellectually speaking, being a significant other was an inherently nebulous thing. Like all interpersonal relationships, Hermione knew that what it meant to be in a relationship with someone would be different from couple to couple and that even within a single couple what it meant would grow and develop over time depending on the behavioral dynamic that developed between the two individuals involved. That said, she knew nothing about what such things were actually like at the beginning of them so it was difficult to know exactly what sort of relationship she and Harry would have or should have at the moment, or even what it was likely to be like in the short term.
Of course, that signature lack of definition as to what their relationship entailed did correspond to the similarly spartan definition of the recently-popularized and colloquialized form of 'significant other' that simply meant 'a person's partner in an intimate relationship.' In that, a person becomes their partner's significant other the moment they enter a relationship while all the informal things that truly define what the relationship is like and what makes the people significant to each other is left unmentioned.
In some ways she preferred the scientific definitions of significant other better. They still lacked an implied governing dynamic but had shades of meaning that added definition to what it meant that made being one seem even more important. In psychology, a significant other was a person of great importance to someone's life or well-being while in sociology it described a person with a strong influence on an individual's self-concept.
In one sense those definitions could apply to anyone: a friend, parent, guardian, or teacher – anyone who influenced what a person wanted to be like in the future, like Professor McGonagall was for her or what Lichfield might be for Harry. In a romantic sense though that definition implied a level of emotional intimacy and personal connection that she didn't know if she and Harry really had yet. That had certainly grown between them over the last few weeks but it was still questionable whether they'd reached a level sufficient enough to truly call each other their significant others yet.
But even if they were, what did that say about what their relationship would be like? She could tell that they influenced each other – like he had gotten better about studying while she'd learned that she didn't have to constantly push him to keep at it since he seemed to be able to concentrate better after taking a break from time to time, and she'd thereby become more open to what she'd previously considered 'goofing off,' provided that it wasn't allowed to become a detrimental habit – but she was no closer to defining the core of her identity to be nothing more than 'Harry's girlfriend' any more than he was in defining his to be 'Hermione's boyfriend,' and indeed she wouldn't want either of those to happen.
Of course, going by the overly traditional 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend' monikers would likely only mask the issue because even if they were on the same page about not wanting too much to change too soon since they'd still be relying on their age to communicate to each other, the school, and the wider society that they're not really a "serious" couple yet and therefore overt public displays of affection shouldn't be expected from them. Aside from the potential clash of conflicting expectations that set up though it also invited everyone to ascribe a plethora of other expectations onto them concerning a whole host of other cultural norms that she at least had no intention of blindly following.
Hermione was – and was determined to remain – the same smart, studious, independent young woman that she'd always been and hoped that Harry continued to be the same proud, impulsive, curious (bordering on suspicious), mystery-solver she – that she'd always really liked. That certainly seemed to be the intent on Harry's side of things as well, as far as she could tell. After all, wasn't that why they'd both made an effort to include Ron when they were spending time together during the summer?
True, they had been spending time together at Ron's house, so it would've been rude not to include him, but that hadn't been the only reason to include him in the first place. Since he was an orphan, it made sense to her that Harry put a lot of importance on maintaining his friendships, especially in the case of the Weasleys who'd taken him into their home, as evidenced by the guilt he felt when they'd first started writing letters back and forth that took up a lot of the time that he would've otherwise spent with them.
With all the new things they'd discovered about Dumbledore and the negative effects he'd had on Harry's life there'd been an increasing number of moments that she'd either been silently or overtly called upon to fulfill the close emotional support role that significant others played that could really only be done in a private setting. She didn't know if her doing so was a defiant act against the restrictive gender role that had been handed down to her by her mother or whether it was her surrendering to the wider social norm, but either way Ron had seemed to understand that there were simply some things that had to be addressed between Harry and herself and that they weren't excluding him just to be rid of him.
But even when those sorts of things had started to genuinely shift them into a more couplish dynamic it'd still made sense to keep including Ron in most things too. Even though the boy had never taken studying seriously, only did his homework at the last possible second, and seemed to enjoy poking fun at her in a way that bordered on that maddening 'he annoys you because he likes you' line of stereotypical non-reasoning, they had been friends all last year and there was a kind of comfort in familiarity.
She didn't want to think of their friendship with Ron as a kind of safety blanket they could latch onto out of fear that things would go wrong if they were left to themselves for long and things got more serious than the other was comfortable with but ever since she'd realized that 'discussing the relationship' with Harry would doom it before they ever got to the castle, the part of her mind that was dedicated to worrying over everything started worrying whether that was what they were doing. Hermione had tried telling herself that it was mad to think so because neither she nor Harry were like that, and despite the fact that unequal expectations might lead to such a thing happening, it made sense to keep as many things the same as possible as they transitioned into something more than friends, didn't it?
'Stop being stupid, Hermione, or you're going to poison it,' she scolded herself. 'Harry's been a perfect gentleman. You're the one who's had to take the initiative when it's come to hugs, holding hands, or the rare kiss on the cheek while he's never once pushed for more. He's not going to suddenly demand hour long snog sessions or do things you're not comfortable with now that you're official.'
She made herself take a soothing breath with that as she pushed those irrational fears away, though now that worrying part of her brain wondered if her past actions could be seen as pushing Harry into something he wasn't really comfortable with. Perhaps she'd feel better if she found something to rib them or herself with later on in order to reinforce the fact that they're all still friends and therefore not much has changed between them, even though in some ways it really has. She tried to think about what that subject could be but was pulled from that when Harry's hand tightened around hers an instant before the compartment door opened.
"What do you want?" Ron asked, barely able to contain his antipathy for the snake in wizarding robes that'd just walked in.
"Well, obviously, I'm here to talk to you," Pansy Parkinson said, crossing her arms and sparing him no lack of venom in return. "Why else would I come to a compartment housing those two, if not for you?" she asked, cutting him down completely as she nodded to them.
The whole world had gone topsy-turvy since things between Harry and professor Dumbledore had started to come out and even the previously priggishly pug-nosed Pansy seemed caught up in its wake. The last two times she'd seen her – which would've been two times too many if things had been normal – the girl had run from the Hopefuls meeting crushed and had likewise run from Draco barely an hour gone. The look on Harry's face though had the urge to leap to his friend's defense written all over it, which would only end any digging for a cause before it began, so she tightened her hand on his to hopefully delay him while she went instead.
"Insulting people isn't really the best way to start a conversation," Hermione said presuming that at least one tiny bit of what the girl had said was potentially true.
"And neither is asking stupid questions but that's what he did," the girl swatted back in return, making her doubt her own willingness to retract what she'd thought of her.
"It's not a stupid question when we don't know what you want," Harry said finally, his brow furrowing as if his gentlemanly nature was conflicting with his duty to support his friends over whether or not he should verbally attack a girl and was just waiting for her to do the same to him before treating her like he did Draco.
No matter what was going on between Pansy and Draco, and despite how much she personally disliked such sexist and derogatory slurs, the girl had shown what she was last year. She was a bitch, the fulfillment of every negative stereotype that society had about opinionated women. And it wasn't just that the girl was obstinately and ignorantly wrong about everything, she was nasty about it too, which made her more damaging to society's opinion of women than the label 'bitch' could ever be because she served to validate its use.
If Harry was so much of a gentleman though as to give her a final shot at civility then goodness knows what he'd let someone just a bit less overtly bitchy get away with. Then again, besides the time they'd run into her at the Leaky Cauldron, the run-ins she'd had with the girl had been away from prying eyes and the bad one had only been relayed to him months after it happened. When she looked at it that way, Harry might actually see her like some a remora-like creature that'd attached itself to Malfoy, like a female Crabbe or Goyle.
The real Crabbe and Goyle had been missing when Draco came to call though and it wasn't like him to wander around without his brainless muscle behind him unless it was a personal mission to get them into trouble. So Pansy's appearance now might actually be something that Harry'd be curious enough about to give her that shot. Strangely enough, the girl didn't bite back all but just stood there as if reluctant to even look at him.
"Well?" Hermione asked quizzically, wondering what the girl would do.
"I–," Pansy haltingly started and for some reason glancing at her before going on. "I thought I that should apologize for the way I acted last year," she said, throwing her for a loop and making Ron look like he'd missed something.
Harry glanced at her curiously, the same question she had hiding behind his eyes.
"Why would Pansy Parkinson apologize for that?" she asked, doubtful whether the girl was even capable of a genuine apology.
"Well, it wasn't my fault that happened," the girl said defensively. "Draco wanted me to do it," she said, for once putting as much scorn into the name as they did. "If it were up to me I never would've spoken to you."
"–Wait, what did she do?" Ron cut in to ask, his confusion temporarily outweighing his dislike of all things Slytherin.
"She and some friends jumped Hermione in a bathroom last year and told her not to be friends with us," Harry flatly replied, seemingly more annoyed now than he had been when she'd told him about it.
"Not really," Pansy said with slight smirking glance at Ron. "Just with you. Draco thought he'd be easy to buy off later on. If I knew then what I know now though I would've told the Slytherin beaters to use his face as a bludger instead."
Hermione thought she knew what this was now; Pansy had been sucking up to Malfoy because she'd thought that he was behind the Hopefuls and now she was apologizing to her to mitigate the damage she'd unknowingly done to herself with Harry, who'd actually been behind the money. She would've thought that the girl might've tried to cozy up to Harry like she had Malfoy but either that was beyond her or she'd discarded the idea as doomed to fail even before it began. While giving her a fake apology might help in some regard, insulting Ron was just stupid.
"You're a Hogwarts Hopeful?" Ron asked disbelievingly, telling her that it was yet another thing they'd failed to tell him. They hadn't intended to do it but were they excluding him from things that other couples wouldn't have in that situation or was it acceptable for them to have neglected to mention it since it'd happened during something that had kind of been a date?
"What of it?" Pansy asked him tersely, silently seeming to rebuke him.
"Nothing," he said, recoiling from his attempt to engage her. "Half my family are Hopefuls."
"You know that's not something to brag about, don't you?"
"–It's not something to bash him for either," Harry chided her.
"Who's bashing?" she asked with seemingly genuine bewilderment. "Some people may have to live on your pity but that doesn't make being poor something to brag about."
That put an interesting spin on things for Hermione. She'd seen the Slytherin Hopefuls leave – which hadn't struck her as odd at the time but looking back it kind of was – though she hadn't had the chance to really think of the motivations behind it until now.
At first blush it'd made sense to write off the action as that of a closed-minded group. After all, why would a mess of purebloods want to be associated with Harry Potter, the very symbol of Lord Voldemort's downfall? And while she couldn't discount her seeing it with an "all Slytherins are like Malfoy" bias intermixed with a twinge of the Gryffindor versus Slytherin rivalry, what Pansy said pointed to a different motivation: that of personal pride, a stubborn refusal to be under anyone's thumb, and a resentment against anyone who may think of them that way.
When looked at that way, it made sense why they did what they did. Just like the Weasleys had taken to Harry more because of their involvement with the Hopefuls, Pansy and the Slytherins could've done the same to Draco Malfoy, albeit in a more patron-client type of relationship rather than one of actual friendship. They then could've interpreted Harry bringing them together and revealing the truth as his way of clawing them back in a way that they felt would've demanded more out of them than they were willing to tolerate.
It seemed odd to her for them to attribute all that to Harry, but she knew him while they didn't. Had the shoe been on the other foot though and she'd suddenly found herself beholden to Malfoy, she would've been the first to tell him where to stick his broomstick before he'd had the chance to open his mouth. While that explained the other Slytherins' actions though, it didn't really explain Pansy much at all.
"No one's living off my pity," Harry informed her. "All that money was stolen."
The other girl looked at him oddly for a moment before doing the last thing she'd thought she'd do; she laughed.
"Really?" Pansy asked with a disbelieving smile that made her look not nearly as ugly and pig-nosed as Hermione thought she should be at the moment. "You really don't care about wielding influence at all, do you?"
"Of course not," she said in her boyfriend's defense. "Unlike Malfoy, Harry's a good person."
"Then boy was he born into the wrong family," she scoffed.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Hermione asked dubiously.
"–Nothing," Harry said quickly, making her almost positive that he was hiding something.
While having a long time family friend in Lichfield had opened the possibility to learn more about the family he'd never known, had he learned something that he thought she wouldn't like? Something worse than the horribly bigoted ancestor she'd heard about? No answers were forthcoming from Pansy though because she'd already turned her attention somewhere else.
"Move your stuff," she commanded Ron, looking down at the cluttered seat beside him.
"No," he replied with a look. "I don't want you sitting by me."
"Yes, well I'm through standing," Pansy informed him. "So move your stuff or don't blame me for crushing that rat because I'm sitting there either way."
Ron scrambled to get Scabbers out of the way and what bits of treats they had still left uneaten cleared before the girl plopped down as far as she could get from him, seeming to have made him go through all that effort just because she could. That raised a curious question in her mind; did Pansy not know how rude was being or did she simply not care?
"How could Draco lie about the Hopefuls though?" Harry asked. "Nobody ever knew who was behind it."
"A secret benefactor only makes it easier to lie about them," Hermione explained. "Anyone could take credit for it if they thought they'd never be caught in the lie and Draco's father does have a connection to the Board of Governors," she reminded him. "Is that why you've taken to slapping him?" she asked the other girl.
"–You hit Malfoy?" a disbelieving Ron cut in to ask.
"Are you incapable of listening?" Pansy said to him in return. "I didn't hit him, I slapped him. There's a difference."
"Yeah?" he asked snidely. "How so?"
"Slapping him might only sting his face but it actually hurts him more," she explained. "Any idiot can hit someone – muggles do it all the time. If I'd done that though he would've been able to shrug it off later by saying that I'd been acting like a muggle, which would not only degrade me in his eyes but my reason for hitting him too, so he still would've thought he was right.
"To slap someone though you've got to be a lot closer to them," Pansy said in a way that made her think that she wasn't talking about proximity, "and your anger has to be controlled enough that a slap is all you do; it's as close as a physical act can get to being a hex and he knows it. To deny all that would be more work than he's ever done in his life."
"And yet you slapped him because of the Hopefuls," Hermione prompted her.
"What does it matter why I slapped him?" the other girl rebuffed her. "He deserved it."
"Of course he deserved it," she agreed before swatting back, "but it still matters if you want us to think your apology is in any way genuine and not some trick on his behalf."
"Why would I do anything for him after being lied to like that?" Pansy said with a hostility probably meant for Draco. "The Hopefuls is just the first reason I had to do it."
"So it had more to do with the 'negotiations' then?" Hermione asked, making the other girl look as if she'd been the one that'd been slapped.
"Wait, what negotiations were these?" a Harry who must've missed that part asked.
"Business?" Ron suggested with a shrug as he helped himself to another Chocolate Frog.
"They were more than just business," Pansy corrected him with a scornful huff. "They were marital, if you must know."
"You and Malfoy?" he scoffed just shy of laughing.
"Who'd you think better for him, Granger?" the girl batted back. "There's been discussions between our fathers for years."
That ticked everything into place.
"An arranged marriage?" a scandalized Hermione asked. "That's the sort of thing you hear about in Third World countries. How does that sort of thing still happen in the civilized world?"
"With magically binding marriage contracts?" Harry said in a way that could be taken as either an answer to her or as question to Pansy.
She vaguely remembered Lichfield saying something about them, though precisely what that was Hermione couldn't recall. She did recall wondering if he'd been talking about a magical form of a prenuptial agreement, but what Pansy said now made them into so much more than that. If parents could marry off their children by contract, treating them as property to be bought and sold, then what couldn't they rationalize doing?
That worrisome part of her brain though fought to divert her into fretting about the context it had when Harry had come across it and what Lichfield had said before. Dumbledore didn't have a magical fiancée for him out there somewhere did he? She didn't think so but she hadn't thought the old headmaster would've done any of this in the first place either, so who was she to say either way?
"Those haven't been used in hundreds of years," Ron said to that dismissively, bringing her a bit of relief.
"Whoever told you that must be someone that nobody wanted to marry," Pansy scoffed, taking that bit of relief she'd had and throttling it.
Harry's hand tightened around hers again.
"They told me that too," he said defiantly, reviving a quantum of solace.
'This is way too turbulent for a first day as a significant other,' she sent to her mind's complaint and coping department only to get back the odd thought that if she backdated the start of the relationship to Diagon Alley – or even earlier to the letter asking her out – then they would've been dating for weeks already. That thought helped, but not as much as it probably would have under different circumstances. 'Pansy just needs to leave so I can hyperventilate in peace.'
"The most I know is that I don't have one," Harry went on to say, which was precisely what he should've said before the whole thing even began.
'Honestly, how difficult would that have been?' Hermione thought to herself as she tried to regain her composure. 'Hi, I'm Harry Potter and I don't have any magical fiancées you don't know about, would you like to go out with me? I don't know, Harry, you're about to give me a severe psychological breakdown; I may have to consider that a moment.'
"Why would anyone want them?" he asked.
"Binding marriage contracts are really only used with purebloods nowadays," Pansy said in a different tone before glancing over to poke at Ron again. "Well, they are with purebloods that have anything of value to protect. They mostly fell out of favor when some nutter kidnapped a bunch of kids fifty years ago and wouldn't let them go home until the parents agreed to let them decide for themselves."
Hermione paused a bit to lament how self-determination could end up as the insane choice in this mixed up world of dubious ethics and shoddy morality.
"Draco's parents had one since they have money," Pansy went on to say, "and naturally they'd arrange for him to have one too. If he thinks I'm going though with it now though just because my father agreed then he's got another thing coming. I'm not about to be treated like his property for the rest of my life," she said, throwing her expectations in the air again by sounding like a proper feminist.
"Doesn't that mean you'll die or lose your magic?" Harry asked, managing to put the whole abusive process into an even worse light than it was before.
"No, they don't work that way," Pansy said, looking for a moment like she had a stomach full of bile from withholding the nasty retort she would've lobbed at Ron if it were him. "Most contracts you'd run into don't bind that way and the ones that do you have to go to the Ministry to make the binding go active nowadays anyway. The worst a contract can do though is magically compel you to complete it, usually by making it seem like it's your idea to do so.
"Nothing with me can be binding anyway, unless I agree when I get older," she continued. "That's why it took so long for my father to get one with them in the first place. It's probably the only good thing there is about only having one parent, it takes both of them to bind you against your will."
'Well that did it,' Hermione thought as guilt started to worm its way into her stomach. 'I can't think badly of her now without feeling bad for not feeling sorry that she's a half-orphan like Luna. Was everyone in the wizarding world missing members of their family tree? On second thought, I probably don't want to know.
'I wonder if I could get a wizarding Child Protective Service up and running once we graduate, or perhaps some sort of youth counselling center, though that poses the risk of falling into the pre-established gender role of a caregiver. Forget what everyone else thinks though,' she thought suddenly. 'If it falls within some arbitrary gender role then so be it. It's my choice to make if I want – that's what feminism is about, being free to make our own choices in life – so what anyone else thinks be damned.'
"So are we good?" Pansy asked and it took her a moment to realize that the question was to her.
"Good?" Hermione replied, wondering precisely what she meant by that.
"Better, at least, though I'm shooting at having nothing," the girl said cryptically.
"Well, I wouldn't say we're friends but I don't see us as enemies," she told the... overly brusque girl, assuming that's what she was going for.
Pansy's offhanded look seemed to take it as a given and stood to leave, though she turned back to Harry again before she opened the door.
"A word to the wise," she said in a tone that could pass for cautionary and polite. "Never tell a Slytherin that they don't owe you something when they think that they do. The ones that should've been in your debt will reconsider their plans to change how they treat you while the rest will see you as someone they can take advantage of."
With that the girl left, leaving it up in the air where she fell in that scenario and leaving several hours worth of conversation behind her.
The sun was just beginning to sink below the horizon out of the bank doors when the goblin handed her the portkey, which meant that she'd have two whole hours when she got back before it did the same there. The mischievous little knut-grabbers were making her pay for a return trip that she'd thought had been included in the price before but the joke was on them, what she'd gotten done in the city for free today was worth the price of their portkeys a thousand times over. If she had to pay a galleon or ten to get that done then so be it.
She had just turned to make use of the empty room she'd arrived in when she heard her name being called behind her.
"Irma! I am glad I found you. You walk too quickly, my friend," Oba said with a smile.
"Oh, Oba," she said uncertainly. "I thought I signed all the documentation they required for the document restoration. Did I miss something?"
"No, no. I'm sure everything's fine. I just wanted to make sure that you didn't leave before you had this," he said pulling out a long flaring strip of deep red cloth with a bit of gold needlework around the edges and in the center of its widest part that showed the modern day Library.
"That – that's a Reader's stole," Irma said curiously. "I haven't done my Chanter's work yet to qualify for that."
"It is a common misconception that you have to write in order to become a Reader," Oba said with a smile. "It's the most common way to do so, to be sure, but it's not the only way. I myself got my Reader's stole from simply discovering new things to read and write on; the reading and writing itself in the years that followed are what took me from Reader to Scribe and so it will be for you, I think."
"But you discovered the library remains of a floating city," she reminded him. "All I did was–"
"–Discover the remains of an island lost to time, whose people know nothing of their history," the man said in words that carried far more figurative truth than literal. "I have talked to the others and the restorers have all verified the age of your find and the language that it's written in. Whether it's what you wish it to be or not, a crafty historian that's trying to use other people's sources to try and falsify what you say you've found will quickly be able to gain access to new resources so you can do your work more fully, even without the keepers of those sources knowing what you're using them for.
"With this find being a key that can open so many doors, and your true goal being an authentic history of Magical Britain, how could we not honor such a breakthrough?" Oba asked. "If you do not feel that you've earned this stole," he said as he draped it around her, "then good; go out and earn it with what you do next. And if your people do not respect what it means, as you claim, then by all means make them. If you run into trouble, let us know and we'll raise the issue. That should get some Ministry attention."
"I – I don't know what to say," Irma said, completely at a loss for words.
"That's probably for the best," her friend said with a smile. "I had a small, somewhat impromptu speech prepared when I got mine and that memory still haunts me. You'll forgive me for bypassing the normal awards ceremony for this but – as you pointed out – you have vandals that'll be arriving at Hogwarts any minute now."
"Thank you, Oba," she said as she looked down and touched the stole that made her look more like a Gryffindor than the Ravenclaw she'd been before a thought occurred to her. "Since they want you to take a new name, have you ever considered being a new Nagi? You make a good one and I'm sure Old Nagi would approve."
The man laughed at that.
"Yes, I think he would," Olorun agreed, "and I can just see my Initiates falling asleep as I sing out those famous words: 'Time, what is time?' It's a good thing that I still have two weeks to review his notes, a copy of that lecture has to be there somewhere. No matter what though, you must still call me Oba."
"And that strategy worked?" he asked curiously as the movement to his right turned into some of their human workers rounding the vacant line of teller windows, carrying a bunch of thin square boxes that were stacked on top of each other.
"How much of an impact it really had on the Deputy Inspector General is impossible to know," Bankor equivocated over the tiny Concealer in his hands. "And I believe he'd resolved to rule on the merits of the case no matter what anyone did, but the strategy certainly made any attempt to combat the case that Bloodwell put forward easier to rebound against the person who was trying to do it. I admit to having my doubts when it started – not least because I didn't know the reasoning then – but having Mockridge there, who was admittedly the most likely person for them to call, definitely made the bigotry much more apparent from the beginning."
"And what made him think that Delacour was – what was it you called it?" Barchoke asked, momentarily distracted as a strange spicy, meaty smell wafted through the lobby from somewhere.
"Bigoted against the bigoted," the other goblin replied, "though I don't know if there's actually a word for that. Apparently there was some bits of information that'd been circulating around in the offices for the last two weeks, probably gleaned from our cooperation from the I.C.W. teams. When the arbitration was announced, with him as arbiter, Bloodwell took the initiative to go to France to check up on him, hoping to gain an advantage. The strategy he came up with came from what he found out there."
"And what was that?" he asked, wondering what the smell was and where it was coming from.
"Now I must warn you that Bloodwell felt that this information was too delicate to spread around – or even to write down, for fear that Ministry sympathetic workers might find it," Bankor said both cryptically and quietly, pulling his attention away from the mysterious smell.
"Why?" he prompted him, wondering why anyone would hold back that kind of information a secret from a superior unless it was to use it themselves later on.
Instead of answering, the other goblin led him further away from the small group of hit wizards that were saying goodbye to their pudgy goblin friend, Slaggran, while waiting to be freed from captivity. Apparently even a Concealer wasn't enough for this level of secrecy.
"He thought it best to keep it out of public knowledge," Bankor finally whispered, "because of the adverse effects it might have both on our relationship with him, if he found out we knew, and the fact that it might possibly undermine the arbitration settlement if the Ministry ever found out about it."
"What could possibly be that bad?" Barchoke wondered. There were certainly things that they kept as quiet as possible – like anyone who'd ever died of mismanagement – but that's just the way things were with them. What would make a human do that?
"It doesn't necessarily have to be something overtly bad," Bankor equivocated. "It may simply be something that works against the non-partisan stance that he's tried to take regarding our domestic political matters."
"From what he discovered," he said still in his quiet tone, "something reportedly happened at the magical school that the French Ministry runs. He didn't say what it was," the goblin was quick to add, "but the result was a Hogwarts-age student being expelled and a group called the D.F.D.L. getting labeled as a 'hate group,' which supposedly made it illegal for them to operate in the country anymore – and all of it was reportedly at Delacour's rather vehement urging.
"That's all I know and I've tried very hard not to even imagine what might be at the root of it," Bankor continued, looking around as if suspecting the Frenchman to turn up any second. "We still have to deal with the man on a regular basis and I don't want to be the one to mess it up, especially not with how the settlement news has been received by our side. Did you hear that celebrations have broken out on both the residential and guard levels? Hobson's office has been flooded with all kinds of work transfer requests too."
"Make sure that he's got everything he needs," Barchoke said absently, deep in thought.
If things with the Isle of Gringotts was even a tiny bit uncertain then it made getting things started there all the more important. Simply possessing the island on paper wasn't enough, he knew. They had to get goblins living there and working there as soon as possible, even if what they were doing was mindless busywork. They'd have to tell him to get started on it and figure out the details as he went.
"Even if Delacour's more partisan than he seems, how's that dangerous to us?" he asked trying to figure out how getting fair treatment, no matter how it was obtained, could threaten them.
"Some humans can be particularly finicky about the behavior they expect from others, especially those in an official position," the obsessively finicky Bankor replied. "If the Ministry learned just how partial he could be – especially against those he considers bigoted – then the Ministry may have grounds to object, relitigate, and possibly overturn the arbitration settlement if they take it to the I.C.W. It'd be hypocritical of them of course, seeing how bigoted they are against us, but the I.C.W. may want to avoid even the appearance of impropriety."
Barchoke nodded wordlessly for a moment. The Ministry had seemed so dead set against any I.C.W. interference that getting them into an arbitration at all had seemed impossible. Now though he doubted that resistance to meddling would last if they thought there was a chance to undo the victory that the Goblin Nation had gotten today.
"It may be best to have Non-Disclosure agreements on ourselves and Bloodwell for this," he said to Bankor quietly.
"I had thought of suggesting the same but didn't want to come off as alarmist," said the wary goblin in response. "The likelihood of the Ministry finding out is small, and NDAs could open the possibility that someone in Legal could discover that there's something to uncover, but I'd feel better if things were tightly under control."
Barchoke grunted; he hadn't about that part with Legal.
"Just Bloodwell then," he suggested, "and imply that you and I will be having the same done, then bring it straight to me rather than filing it. I'll keep it on me at all times until Delacour is gone. Bloodwell's ambitious, he'll no doubt see it as an opportunity to prove his loyalty."
"I'll get right on it as soon as our guests are gone," Bankor agreed before shutting off the tiny Concealer and putting it back in his pocket.
"Daddy!" came an excited scream from elsewhere in the lobby as the sound of running little feet across their marble floors drew their attention to a tiny human in a red dress.
One of the Hit Wizards stooped down to pick it up, and for some reason growled as he whirled her around above his head which made her squeal. There was no doubt about it, humans were weird, and humans with little acquisitions were the weirdest of all. The strange duo was quickly joined by the man's apparent mate – er – wife as the others broke up to greet their families as they arrived as well.
Conversations broke out and quickly became muddled as they all talked over each other, ignoring anyone that wasn't a part of their own little group. Curious about the persistent mouth-watering smell though Barchoke headed back through the crowd to find out what it was. The smell got stronger the closer to Slaggran he came but the goblin seemed preoccupied with making nice with the families of the humans they'd captured weeks ago.
Eventually, he managed to get the goblin's attention to pry him away for a moment.
"What's all this?" he asked, gesturing to the aromatic stack of thin square boxes.
"Oh! Those are pizzas," Slaggran wheezed happily, seemingly quite pleased with himself. "Since we're sending the humans home now, it seemed a shame to kick them out empty-handed. This way they can have something good to take home with them; they seem to really like it. I got some extras if you wanna take one."
Barchoke leaned in closer to the boxes to get a good sniff as Slaggran went back to the humans. When he'd ordered them taken he hadn't thought about sending the hit wizards off with a good impression of them but he supposed whatever didn't hurt might was better than nothing. What he really hadn't expected though was to be kissed on the top of the head out of nowhere!
He turned around to find out what that was about only to find himself hugged by a little girl that was almost as tall as he was!
"Thank you, Mr. Goblin!"
Surprised, Barchoke looked up at the laughing, doting parents.
'What the heck is she thanking me for?' he thought to himself, wondering if it'd be rude to pry the girl loose. 'I'm the one who took him captive in the first place!'
He'd always thought Lichfield was odd but these were making him seem downright normal. Thankfully the girl let him go on her own and the little family moved off a ways. Unfortunately, a way out of all this didn't look too likely, especially with Bankor making his way towards him again.
"The reporter from the Daily Prophet is outside, and there seems to be a bit of a crowd," the goblin said, heaping another thing he didn't want to deal with on top of everything else. "While we were preparing this, I took the liberty of coming up with a speech for you that puts the return of our guests in an even more positive light," Bankor added, drawing a rolled up bit of parchment from his suit pocket.
That was the strike of a miner's pick that had the whole tunnel cave in.
"No, no, you go and do that," Barchoke replied before a reason why formed in his head. "You and Slaggran know them better and you were the ones who wanted them to like us in the first place. You deserve to see it through," he said thinking that it was a good enough reason as any to back out.
"Are you sure?" the other goblin asked curiously. "The whole plan was your idea in the first place," he pointed out.
That much was true, Barchoke had to give him that. They had gotten what they wanted, but not at all how he'd thought to get it. His idea had been to use the hit wizards to make the Ministry negotiate their release in exchange for the Isle and a couple of lesser concessions that could be traded away – it really hadn't involved the I.C.W. at all.
"It was a group effort," he said, grabbing one of the pizza boxes and starting to back away. "You go ahead and give your speech. I've got other things to work on," Barchoke lied.
As he retreated from everyone in the lobby he found a bit of solitude behind the line of teller stations as he made his way towards the still-way-too-fast-jumping flipless flip-lift. With nothing he could do about the Delacour danger and nothing that would've changed about Hobson's island plans since that morning, there was nothing for him to work on at the moment so he guessed that it was back up to his office for him to brood some more.
Today was just an upside down day for some reason. He should be happy; it may have started all wonky but they'd gotten what they'd wanted – the Isle of Gringotts was theirs to do with as they wished – so why wasn't he happy? Everyone else was happy about it, even the humans that he'd kidnapped to help make it a reality, so why wasn't he?
'None of those people are Grand Overseer,' Barchoke reminded himself as he entered the flip-lift. 'They can find things to be happy about because everything wasn't on their shoulders.'
Now firmly in a sour mood he hit the button for the top floor and the lift leapt to respond. He half expected this pizza thing to go flying out of his hands and land on the ceiling; it didn't, but if it had it wouldn't've surprised him or dampened his mood any further. He had never wanted the Grand Overseer's job – who would? – and always thought that it'd be the worst job in the world, at least compared to all the no responsibility jobs they had people doing, but the brooding he'd done today had let him know exactly his job had to offer.
Nothing, nothing of any substance anyway, and all the responsibility for things that he couldn't foist onto somebody else. The job had looked bad enough when Largrot'd had it and hadn't done anything with it, but now with everything they were doing Barchoke knew that it was worse. His main duty appeared to be coming up with something to fix the mess that just landed in his lap, scrambling to fix the thing that just went wrong in what he'd done to fix the mess, and then waiting around with a deepening sense of dread in his gut for the next thing to go wrong.
'That's not the kind of life you could find anything to be happy about,' he thought as he passed through the Overseers' meeting room to get to his office beyond. Just looking through the door and seeing his desk made him feel worse though. 'Meh,' he thought as passed through the doorway to the office and turned right. 'Maybe eating this pizza in bed will be good enough to end the day on.'
The door to his bedroom clicked closed in front of him with and it was only then that he noticed light coming from the other side.
'Someone's in there!' Barchoke thought as he quickly set the pizza box on the floor and drew his dagger from his inside pocket. 'It can't be Slaggran or Bankor,' he thought trying to imagine who it was, 'they're downstairs with the humans and Alkrat wasn't likely to miss it the release either, even if no one would understand a thing he said.'
He silently crept closer to the door and kept an eye out in case someone sprang out at him from somewhere else.
'It can't be Braglast,' he reasoned. 'He's so quiet that I'd be dead a month before I ever knew that he was there, and Gutripper either wouldn't have made noise or would've killed me by now. Who'd that leave?' he wondered. 'Fillast? That guy had no reason to reason to kill me even before I gave him the Goblin Regency's Internal Marketplace to run.'
That was it as far as important people went but what if there was somebody else that wanted to kill him? Could it be Hobson? Barchoke didn't know why a part-goblin wizard would've wanted to do that, but he didn't seem the type. Was it Marsh? The human had been humiliated and demoted, so it might be him. If Marsh was on the list though then he had to also consider every other potentially pro-Ministry wizard they had, and that was a lot.
'And it might not even be any of those,' he thought as he pressed his ear up to the door to try and make out what was happening on the other side. 'Did Lognot have any family that'd swear vengeance on me? Did Gropegold?'
Now that he thought of it, he did remember something about Gropegold having a lot of cousins. Barchoke looked back at the office door a moment. He could go and run for the guards but any respect he had as Grand Overseer would be gone completely, and then one of the others might be lying in wait for him next.
That pizza smell hit his nose again making him turn back instinctively towards it. The last time he'd fought in that room it had smelled like filth and he hadn't really had anything to show for it but a job he didn't want. He decided then that if he was going to have to fight in it again then at least he was going to take some sort of trophy from his work in with him so he went back and picked up the pizza box again. If all else failed, he supposed that it might do for a distraction.
Taking care with his dagger, he twisted the door handle and pushed open hard, rushing through with the dagger leading the way.
"Ha!" he cried, trying to look everywhere at once and seeing something strange everywhere he looked.
"That's a big dagger you got there, boss," Trixie said from the bed, wearing nothing but a smirk and completely unconcerned at the change in the room's appearance. "But I knew that already."
Barchoke didn't see anyone else in the room besides them, but the fact that she was there at all was unusual; they'd only merged twice before, once in his old office and once here, so what was she doing here now? And why were the bed hangings different, the furniture rearranged, and the big chest of drawers removed completely? And how was there a door there now and a room beyond? Had that always been there? Just how much more space was there on this level that he'd never even seen before?
"What's with all this?" he asked with a flick of his dagger towards the door that the chest of drawers had once hidden, though now that he got a look it wasn't like he disapproved of what she brought to the room.
"Oh that," she said, moving to lounge on the bed in a different way. "I heard about a possibility of an above-ground life and thought I'd get some practice, so I moved in my stuff. I didn't think you'd mind; a Grand Overseer like you needs his secretary close after all, and there were some extra rooms to go around."
What she was suggesting was quite a change from what they'd had before – if what they'd had before was something you could call having something anyway. But still… it wasn't like he had anything else to do besides a job he didn't like.
Trixie sniffed and gestured to the box with her nose.
"What's a girl gotta do to get a piece of that?" her crackling voice asked, leaving him with only one thing he could say.
"Nothing too onerous," Barchoke said with a feral grin as he began stalking towards her with his dagger at the ready. 'Now here's something to find happiness in,' he thought.
"Are you sure that's what Dolores is doing?" Cornelius asked as he leaned forward in his chair, the sheer audacity of the woman's plans making the man doubt him for the first time in years.
"Unfortunately, yes. My source was very adamant on that," Lucius replied in a falsely lamenting tone as he sat back in the chair across from the Minister. "They've tried to talk her out of it but she insists that it be presented first thing."
"I can see why she'd do it," the Minister confessed, "but people are not going to like it. This was not what she was picked for. It seems as though everyone knows at least one of those kind of people, even if no one will admit it. They won't want to see those things happen to them, or have to explain why they voted that way. It isn't like these are werewolves that we're talking about. How're we supposed to know who's – you know – anyway? They're not going to tell us."
"Yes," he said with a sigh. "You know that I'm all for upholding our traditional values but this is precisely the wrong bill at the wrong time. With that arbitration result today, anything we could do to restrict the goblins would pass easily and yet she wants to squander this opportunity by attacking a group that has quietly lived in the shadows for centuries – Why, because of Dumbledore?" he asked rhetorically. "I can sympathize but this sort of thing is best left to a slow, gradual wearing away of their rights, not an abrupt assault."
"It'll be a nightmare once the Quidditch teams get involved," Cornelius noted. "I've always heard that they're a haven for these – you know – people, but you never want to believe it."
"Certainly not," Lucius agreed before angling the conversation into more comfortable territory. "So what did the arbitration team have to say about their failure?"
"Mockridge and that Snider fellow insisted that we could've won the whole thing if they'd only been allowed to push harder on the whole goblin issue, though Cresswell disagreed entirely," the Minister said with a petulant look upon his face. "He said that they'd put on the best case they could have given the circumstances but once the goblins had called that half-goblin fellow the whole thing was legally over. To hear him tell it, it was only some tricky maneuvering by him that got us anything at all out of the whole fiasco."
"Naturally he'd want to take credit for what there was to take credit for, whether it had actually been him or not," Lucius observed. "He still wants to be the one running the Goblin Liaison Office, though I think this Snider fellow you mentioned has the better temperament for it," he advised. "As commendable as it is for them to uphold the best of human society," he continued, "I think this Cresswell has the right of it."
"Really?" the Minister asked curiously.
"Yes, but not in the way he thinks," he said indulgently. "I'm afraid that this might've been Delacour's plan from the beginning," Lucius said, gently nudging the Minister and the Deputy Inspector General ever further apart. "He's the type that would think that giving something to both sides in a dispute is the magnanimous thing to do and you saw the way he behaved at Hogwarts whenever goblin untrustworthiness was mentioned: he wouldn't hear of it. The man has no wizarding pride."
"None at all," Cornelius agreed. "He took my good intentions and used it stab us in the back. Mister 'I want to believe you' indeed!"
"Yes, but you can't blame yourself for that, Minister," Lucius said though Merlin knew the man had no one to blame but himself. "Delacour tricked you, and Mockridge let you down. It was ultimately his failure that led to this."
"Oh?" the Minister asked, eager to learn how none of it was his fault.
"I can really see it no other way," he explained. "You entrusted the Goblin Liaison Office to him, and what did he do? He not only employed a goblin that would turn on him the first moment it could but had left him with the perfect opportunity to do so. He should've known that you don't trust something vitally important to someone you abhor, you trust it to someone that you know you can trust, someone you know will do the right thing when the time comes for it."
"Quite right," Cornelius agreed. "It's too bad that we can't bring him back to the Ministry after this, it'd really annoy the goblins," the man said, surprisingly hitting on something that he wanted as well.
"Oh, I think we might be able to," Lucius said with a slight indulgent grin. "But only if the right position became available. It couldn't be anything with any real power or decision-making ability though, he's already shown that he's not up to the task without someone telling him what to do."
How Ron's school robes could've gotten so rumpled so quickly Harry didn't know but the other boy looked rather uncomfortable being back in them; pulling at the collar and picking at the sleeves as if already wanting to take them back off. It was another friend that had his attention though as they left the compartment to join the throng of kids exiting the train. That other friend – or he guessed he should say his girlfriend now – took one look at the two of them as if wanting to chide them for waiting so long to change but in the end glanced at him with an almost invisible grin and rolled her eyes like there was no point in saying anything anyway, like he was already beyond all hope.
Harry chuckled. Hermione's humor might be hard to spot sometimes but it was funny.
Being more towards the middle of the train than the back made for slower going this year. Not only were there were more people here but almost everyone was taller than them too. This left Harry sandwiched between Ron and Hermione, trying not to bump into either, while the others all crowded around and slowly shuffled them towards the exit they couldn't see.
The sky was dark and the air held a hint of rain in the offing, but it was still a bit of a relief to hit the platform since people began to disperse again. The three of them were left standing where they were while others moved around them. Most of them were making their way down the platform while others were standing around talking to people they presumably hadn't seen on the train.
It hadn't dawned on Harry until then that he didn't know how they were supposed to get to the castle this year. Last year all the First Years had been taken on a trip across the lake by themselves but everyone else had made it up to the school ahead of them. They weren't First Years anymore though so that wouldn't be for them, only no one had told them where they were supposed to go.
"Do you suppose that we should head that way too?" Hermione asked looking off in the direction that most of the older students seemed to be headed. "I don't recall anything about buses, but there must be some sort of transport. They can't expect us to walk there, can they?"
Ron chuckled at something privately as they set off.
"On the way to the station I heard Fred and George take the mickey out of Percy for wanting to get a private carriage with his girlfriend," he said before he got a thoughtful look and glanced at them as if wondering if they were wanting the same.
That raised something else that Harry hadn't thought about. He knew that being boyfriend-and-girlfriend would change everything eventually but he didn't know what that would be like at all. He didn't know what he wanted, he didn't know what Hermione wanted, and he didn't know what that'd do to everything else in his life. Asking Hermione to really be his girlfriend had seemed the thing to do at the time, but was it a mistake when you didn't even know what it meant?
"It's a good thing that you're here then," Harry heard his girlfriend say as she took his hand. "Otherwise Harry and I might be wandering around all night."
Hermione gave his hand a squeeze, telling him that it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to happen, and he felt more than a little relief at that. Things had definitely changed between them but they hadn't changed too much.
"And that'd be another clever idea to get us all killed," Ron said in a familiar-sounding huff. "Or worse – expelled," he echoed the Hermione of last year.
'Yep,' Harry thought, 'things haven't changed at all.'
Hermione turned to Ron to defend herself when something else caught their attention.
"First Years!" a kind voice rang out, but it wasn't the voice he expected. "Come along now," the portly Professor Sprout said merrily as she made her way through the crowd like a mother duck with her chicks in tow. "This way to the boats!"
'Hagrid's always the one to escort people across, isn't he?' he asked himself
The feeling that he got in his gut from that wasn't the deepening sense of dread that came from already knowing the answer but it was one that made him nervous. Everything with Dumbledore and the Sorcerer's Stone had brought a lot of attention to Hogwarts over the summer, and Hagrid had played some small part in it.
'But all that's Dumbledore's fault!' Harry thought frantically. 'They wouldn't sack Hagrid for it would they? They haven't even sacked Dumbledore yet!'
AN: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has been out for a year but for many reasons I won't go too far into it. For me it was too much like bad fanfiction that spends all its time doubling down on everything wrong with the series but everyone's tastes are different so if you liked it, that's fine and if you didn't, that's good too. The Trolley Witch though was simply too much of a Luna-esque thing not to include when I had the chance, especially when it worked so well here for character and story reasons.
There are so many other nitpicky things I could speak on but instead I'll just say that I'm not a polyglot. Like many others I rely on the often-wrong google translate if I need something written in a different language so there's no telling if what I wrote above was actually what I intended to say (probably not since translating one of them back from Arabic comes up with 'Welcome to Biblioteca Alexandrina,' lol). So as with everything else, if anyone out there can spot a flaw, a typo with anything, a way to fix the flaws you found, or even just a curious observation of what you liked, didn't, and a reason why that is – feel free to let me know in a review or via PM.
As always, thanks for reading.