AND THE DEATH EATER MENACE
Harry Potter and all associated characters and situations are the property of J.K. Rowling. I make no claim to ownership.
CHAPTER 11: Reactions and Overreactions (Finale).
5 August 1993
The Office of Chief Auror James Potter
"I want to thank you boys for bringing all this to our attention," the Chief Auror said earnestly. "At this point, every lead helps, and finding out that there's a connection between Azkaban and that business with Lockhart last term is a big one."
On the other side of James's desk sat three members of the Weasley family: Arthur, Percy, and George. Also present in the room were Senior Aurors Shacklebolt and Thicknesse and newly-commissioned Auror Proudfoot, who'd had an unexpectedly stressful first few months on the job.
"Think nothing of it, Chief Auror," Arthur said. "As soon as the boys told me last night that Professor Lockhart had put them to work on experimental portkeys and modified Polyjuice Potions, I knew we'd best let the aurors know."
For their part, Percy and George both looked contrite but also relieved that they weren't in any trouble.
"Do either of you still have any notes from your Lockhart research?" James asked. At that, Percy immediately produced a stack of parchment which he eagerly handed over.
"Here, sir. I always make a point of duplicating any reports or papers I turn it at school, especially near the end. Sometimes, especially near the end of term, the teachers don't always return them to us."
"I, ah, don't have anything, I'm afraid," George said apologetically. "I turned everything I had over to Auror Proudfoot." A soft growl came from the man himself who was standing a few feet behind the Weasleys. George winced. "Ah, sorry. To whoever it was who was pretending to be Auror Proudfoot."
"Quite so, quite so," James said while shooting the real Proudfoot a dirty look. "Well, I think that's all I need right now, but we'll contact you if we need any more information. Again, thank you for coming to see me. Arthur, boys."
The three Weasleys departed, leaving the office to James, his senior staff, and a visibly angry Michael Proudfoot. James noticed the young man's mood.
"Michael, I know this is all very upsetting to you, but if you want to stay on this case, you need to control your emotions. Otherwise, I'll have to reassign you until this investigation is over."
Proudfoot grimaced. "Sorry sir. It won't happen again."
"So," said Kingsley, "where does that leave us?"
James sat back in his chair, acutely aware of the fact that Rufus Scrimgeour, the man he'd replaced, was a deductive genius who would be brimming with ideas at this point. James knew he was not so gifted but was determined to fight his way through somehow.
"Well, we now have a clear connection between Azkaban and the Gilderoy Lockhart affair." Then, James perked up. "Maybe it's time we put some more effort into getting Lockhart his memories back."
"Is that possible?" asked Thicknesse. "If the spell that hit Lockhart is really the same one they use down under in place of executions, it's supposed to be permanent."
"Maybe so, but I'd rather get it from the horse's mouth. Kingsley, get an owl out to the Australian DMLE. See if they can send us somebody who's got experience with the Tabula Rasa Charm and can confirm that it's what took Lockhart's memories. And maybe they can give us some ideas about who could have learned that Charm without swearing an oath against using it illegally."
"On it," Kingsley said as he made a note on his pad.
"Now then, Auror Proudfoot, let's get back to your interactions with this 'Maria Gambrelli' person who you think is the one that stole some of your hair for Polyjuice."
Auror Proudfoot blanched. It was not a conversation to which he'd been looking forward.
Harry's Room, Longbottom Manor
Harry's eyes fluttered open, and then he winced sharply in pain. The boy had mostly recovered from the psychic attack he had suffered from the locket-horcrux the night before, but even the next morning, he still suffered from a splitting headache and heavy nausea. After returning from Grimmauld Place with Regulus, he'd gone straight to bed (in part to avoid questions from Sirius), and he was surprised to note from the clock on his night stand that he'd slept until 9:30. It was perhaps the latest he'd overslept for years, and for a moment, he imagined his Uncle Vernon bellowing at him for his laziness and sloth. Then, he remembered the vision of his uncle that the horcrux had shown him the night before and shuddered.
Shaking off the bad memories (if not the physical symptoms), Harry staggered to his bathroom to relieve himself and splash some water on his face before returning to his bedroom. There, to his surprise, he saw that his bed had already been made and the dirty clothes he'd simply dropped on the floor the night before had been removed. In their place, to Harry's greater surprise, was Dobby. The elf's dingy Malfoy tunic had been replaced with a tiny but surprisingly crisp black three-piece suit under which he wore a white wing-collar shirt and plain black tie, though like every house elf Harry had ever seen, Dobby was still barefooted. Even more surprisingly, Dobby's former cringing and broken-down demeanor was now replaced by a look of cool confidence and (Harry sensed vaguely) the barest hint of haughtiness.
"Good morning, Master Harry," Dobby said cheerfully, but not quite so cheerfully as to exacerbate Harry's headache. "Dobby has completed his instructional period with Master Harry's associate Blaise Zabini and is ready to resume his service to you, sir." Then, the elf cocked his head curiously, as if noticing Harry's physical condition. He coughed softly. "And adventuresome evening last night, sir?" he asked diplomatically.
Harry nodded and tried to reply, but nothing but a scratchy gurgle came out. He cleared his throat. "Something like that," he finally managed to get out.
"Ah, Say no more, sir. Dobby shall return momentarily."
With a soft pop, Dobby vanished. Harry looked around the room in befuddlement, idly wondering if he had enough time today to get back in bed for a bit more sleep. Before he could decide one way or the other, Dobby returned bearing a silver tray upon which rested a glass goblet containing a suspicious-looking red liquid and a small brick-shaped bit of foodstuff on a saucer. Harry studied it cautiously. It looked remarkably like a Muggle power bar.
"If you would drink this, sir," Dobby said with faint smile as he held out the glass.
"S'at a potion?" Harry asked blearily.
"Regrettably, house elves are forbidden to brew potions, sir," Dobby replied. "It is simply a little preparation of Dobby's own concoction. Dobby believes Master Harry will find it extremely invigorating after a late evening."
"N' the other ... thing?"
"Just a little something to tide Master Harry over, as it were. Dobby regrets that Master Harry has slept through breakfast, and while Dobby would certainly be delighted to prepare a more substantial repast, he fears that his master would have no time to eat and digest before his ten o'clock meeting."
"Oh, yeah," Harry thought to himself. "Mr. X will be here at ten for his interview. Guess a granola bar probably is all I'll have time for."
He took the glass with a dubious expression before shrugging and tossing the whole thing back. For a few brief seconds, his nausea actually worsened and he practically had a spasm in response to the taste. But then, almost instantly, his sick feelings vanished completely, and the boy stood upright as his headache disappeared. The effects felt almost like a Pepper-Up Potion but without any of the usual magical side effects.
"I say!" Harry exclaimed despite himself, and he realized that his sore throat had also been miraculously cured. "Wow! That's ... remarkable! What's in it?"
"Regrettably, sir, Dobby cannot divulge that information. Secrets of the guild, one might say."
Harry nodded slowly. "Um, okay, I guess."
"Now, then, Master Harry, Dobby has consulted with the Longbottom elves regarding his master's regular schedule." He paused and looked somewhat contrite. "As an aside, Dobby is profoundly apologetic for any lapses he may have shown in anticipating your needs thus far in his employment. Dobby has been ... unwell. But Dobby guarantees Master Harry that his future service shall be impeccable."
"Good do know," Harry said slowly before biting into the breakfast bar. It was actually quite delicious for what tasted like granola, honey, and some kind of chopped fruit. Figs, maybe? As he chewed, Harry couldn't help but wonder what in hell Blaise did to this elf in just one day to achieve this sort of transformation.
"But Dobby digresses. Hoskins informs Dobby that Master Harry regularly rises before dawn and spends several hours cooking as a way of relieving stress. Does Harry wish to continue using Hoskins as his sous-elf, or does he desire for Dobby to assume that role? Although Master Harry will find Dobby quite proficient in the kitchen, all house elves have specialities, and, respectfully, Dobby's most efficient usage would be as a personal valet and manservant, at least while Master Harry resides in the House of Longbottom. Also, Dobby is loathe to intrude upon Hoskins' domain, as it were, unless ordered to do so. It would be ... impolitic."
Harry stared at his valet and manservant for several seconds while he processed that. Honestly, he was finding the conversation almost dreamlike in its surrealism. "I'll consider the matter and let you know, Dobby."
"Very good, sir. Finally, Master Harry's dogfather has requested you to come and meet with him prior to your ten o'clock appointment."
"Dog... father," Harry asked uncertainly.
"Godfather, Master Harry. Dobby said godfather."
"... right," Harry sighed. "Well, then, best not to keep my godfather waiting. I'll go get a shower."
"Very good, sir. Dobby will prepare Master Harry's clothes for the day."
The elf popped away while Harry shook his head and went back to the bathroom.
Fifteen minutes later, Harry stood in front of the door to Sirius Black's room. After a moment's hesitation, he knocked softly, and from inside, he heard some coughing, followed by a raspy "Enter." The boy stepped into his godfather's room.
Sirius was still in bed, naturally. Regulus had indicated that he would be many months recuperating from his time in Azkaban. Surprisingly, the physical effects of incarceration were not the worst problem. In fact, the Azkaban staff apparently put a lot of effort into keeping their prisoners alive as long as possible, presumably to maximize their suffering. According to Augusta, Sirius would be on a regimen of healing potions for many months but should make a full recovery. Well, a full physical recovery, at least.
The real problem for Sirius Black was not in his body but rather in his mind and his soul, both of which had suffered terrible assault over his ten-plus years of constant Dementor exposure. Regulus compared it to the Muggle condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder, though the wizarding equivalent had more tangible effects. Whenever Sirius suffered a flashback, he would become ravaged by physical symptoms of his former suffering as his own magic caused his memories of pain and suffering to manifest bodily. The effects were not unlike those of extreme boggart exposure, but much harder to treat. It was possible that he might never fully recover from his experiences.
"Ah, Harry," Sirius said before he was interrupted with a brief coughing fit. But the brilliant smile he offered his godson belied his weakness. "Come in, come in!" He gestured to a chair near his bed which Harry took.
"How are you feeling ... Uncle Sirius?" Harry asked uncertainly. "I'm ... not sure what to call you."
"Just Sirius is fine, I guess. I haven't been around to look after you and your family like I should, so I get why you don't actually have any familial connection to me."
"That's hardly your fault," Harry chided.
"Maybe, maybe not," Sirius replied somewhat bitterly. "But as impossible as it seems, I let Wormtail get the best of me and paid the price."
"Wormtail," Harry said. "That's an odd nickname. Where did it come from ?"
Sirius grimaced. "Can't tell, I'm afraid. Took an oath. A stupid one as it turned out." He sighed dejectedly. "Doesn't really matter. He doesn't deserve the name anyway."
Then, he shook himself, as if to fight off encroaching depression. Sirius smiled again at his godson. "So, enough about that. We didn't get to talk for very long last night before you rushed out. And I know you've got a meeting with some Legilimency bloke in a little bit, but I'd like to ask a few questions, if you don't mind."
"Okay," Harry said cautiously. "Where do you want to start?"
"Well, you're at Hogwarts, I know. What house are you in?"
Harry opened his mouth and then shut it swiftly. "Yeah, Dogfather," he thought to himself. "Why don't we start with that. Oh well, might as well rip the band-aid off all at once."
"I'll be a Third Year next month. I was Sorted into Slytherin."
Sirius stared at him unblinkingly for several seconds. Then, he snickered softly. "So that explains it."
"Explains what?" Harry asked quizzically.
"This morning, Augusta came in here to join me for breakfast. I said a few unkind things about Slytherins, and she rather pointedly told me never to disparage anyone for being a Slytherin while I was in her house. That it was four Slytherins who rescued me from Azkaban because they were committed to destroying You-Know-Who, and if I couldn't respect their efforts enough to stop bad-mouthing their house, she'd put Draught of Living Death in my tea and lock me up in the attic until this whole horcrux-hunt business was over."
They both laughed at that.
"Of course," he continued. "She neglected to mention your Sorting or the names of any of my rescuers other than Reg. Were you actually one of the four who helped save me?"
"Well, I didn't go to Azkaban or anything exciting like that, but I helped however I could."
"Thank you," Sirius said simply. "Augusta was right. I have ... issues with Slytherins. I know that, and I'm not sure I'll ever get over them. Nearly every Slytherin I went to school with either joined the Death Eaters or ended up dead at a Death Eater's hands for being a blood traitor. But I promise you, I will never hold your Sorting against you."
"I'm glad to hear that," Harry replied.
"So, how did James react when he got the news? I may have had issues with Slytherins, but he had whole bound volumes."
Harry shrugged. "He didn't take it well, but that was a long time ago. He seems to be over it."
Sirius grinned. "I'll bet he made some big ridiculous scene."
Harry nodded slowly. "Yeah ... I guess you could call it that," he said evasively.
"Ha! I knew it. What did he do? I can't wait to rag on him about it, you know, after I get cleared."
The boy looked down at the floor. Sirius noticed and his smile faded to be replaced with a look of concern. "Harry? What did James do?"
Harry looked away for a moment before answering. "He got drunk. And then, he sent me a Howler that went off in the Great Hall during my first breakfast at Hogwarts. Among other things, he said if put one foot out of line, he'd disown me, snap my wand, and send me back to the Dursleys."
By now, Sirius's look of concern was replaced by one of horror. "He ... what?!"
"Sirius, it's okay. Believe me. It was pretty awful in the beginning, but we've both worked hard to get past it and become a family again."
"Uh-huh. And that's why you're spending your summers with Augusta Longbottom instead of that family you just mentioned?"
Harry made a sour face. "Well, okay then. I guess I should say we're both working hard to get past it, even thought we're not there yet."
Sirius said nothing for a moment as he thought about what his godson had said. "Back ... to the Dursleys. Who are the Dursleys? And why was sending you back to them a punishment that was on the table?"
"Harry, please. I want to know everything. Do you mean to say that you didn't even live with James and Lily while you were growing up?"
The boy looked up at the ceiling as if trying to decide how far down this rabbit hole he wanted to go. He saw little need to open up his own wounds, particularly if it might cause his godfather to become ill again, but he also felt the man wouldn't drop it until he had the basic picture.
"When I was a baby, several healers and also Professor Dumbledore came to the mistaken conclusion that I was a squib, and James and Lily thought it best to have me shipped off to live with Petunia and Vernon Dursley, Lily's sister and brother-in-law. I stayed with them until I started Hogwarts."
"Petunia and...!" Sirius sputtered. "That awful horse-faced wench whose letters made Lily cry at school?! And I suppose Vernon was that mustachioed whale she married!"
Harry did a double-take. "You went to Petunia and Vernon's wedding?!"
"No, of course not. But your mother kept one of their wedding photos on the mantle at Godric's Hollow, so I know what they looked like. Petunia didn't even want Lily and James to attend their wedding, but your maternal grandmother Rose insisted. Though that didn't stop them from insulting your parents every chance they got. James was livid when he got home."
Sirius shook his head in amazement before studying his godson more carefully.
"And you lived with them until you turned eleven? And now you're living here with the Longbottoms?" His eyes narrowed. "How did they treat you, Harry?"
"It's not important. I won't be going back there."
"Sirius," he interrupted calmly but firmly. "It really doesn't matter anymore."
There was a brief silence between the two that was broken when Hoskins popped into the room bearing a serving tray.
"Begging the two gentlemen's pardon, but Hoskins has Lord Black's ten o'clock potion. Also, Master Harry, your own ten o'clock appointment has arrived, and Her Ladyship requests your presence."
"I'd better go," the boy said.
Sirius nodded. "Yeah, that's fine. This potion will knock me out cold for a few hours at least. But I'd like to talk some more after your meeting. We don't have to talk about James or the Dursleys or anything. I just want to get to know my godson better."
"Sure," Harry said warmly. Sirius watched the boy leave, and as soon as the door closed, his relaxed expression became pensive. "Dammit, James!" he thought furiously. "What the hell have you been doing all these years!"
At that same moment, at the Granger Residence in Crawley...
Hermione looked up from her reading at the sound of a soft tapping at her window. It was the mid-morning Post Owl bearing a copy of the Daily Prophet. She frowned. At Hogwarts, her copy was always delivered at breakfast, and she knew from conversations with Neville and Blaise that it was the same for them at home, even for Blaise who traveled extensively during the summers. Yet her copy delivered to a Muggle address in Crawley always came hours later and sometimes not until the afternoon. Idly, she wondered if Wizarding culture was actually so petty about blood purity that even newspaper deliveries for Muggleborns got bumped to the end of the list. She pushed the idea aside for the moment. There was no use in looking for soft bigotries everywhere, for she was sure to find it whether it existed or not. She paid the owl and handed it a treat before taking the newspaper over to her writing desk. The headline was every bit as lurid as she'd come to expect from the newspaper. She wondered if the wizards had learned about "journalism" from reading Rupert Murdoch's tabloids.
FUDGE UNVEILS CONTROVERSIAL NEW PLAN!
WILL USE DEMENTORS TO GUARD HOGWARTS AGAINST
DEATH EATER MENACE!
Hermione sighed loudly and hard enough to ruffle the bangs of her frizzy hair. Then, she set the paper aside and pulled out the Monster Book of Monsters that she'd recently purchased. She stroked the spine for a few moments until the book calmed down and then opened it up and flipped through to the section on Dementors. After a few minutes of review, she set the book aside with an even bigger sigh and reached for the list of school supplies she'd been working on. She added one item to the bottom and then frowned.
"How on earth am I going to persuade Mummy and Daddy, both dentists, to let me take a large supply of chocolate to school with me?!"
Meanwhile, back in the Longbottom conference room ...
Six people sat around the great circular table, and Harry studied the five adults casually. Mr. Malfoy and Lady Augusta looked as composed as always, while Reg was back in his Mr. Cato face, that of an older vaguely-familiar man with Chinese features. Upon meeting him, Mr. X actually crooked an eyebrow, and when Lady Augusta actually introduced him as "Mr. Cato," he almost seemed amused before his Occlumency clouded his features once more.
As the group took their places around the table, Harry contemplated his peculiar relationship with Mr. X. He could count on one hand the adults he trusted implicitly and have a thumb left over. Artie, Augusta, Snape (to an extent – Harry understood that his relationship with Dumbledore introduced complexities to their relationship), and Mr. X. Even Reg and Malfoy he didn't trust completely. Both were former Princes of Slytherin and both had their own agendas which were congruent with his for the moment but could easily diverge under the right circumstances. Honestly, Harry suspected that if Voldemort actually did return to full power, the odds of Lucius turning on them to rush back to his former master were somewhere around 50-50. Of course, Harry had to trust Mr. X in a way. Their relationship as mentor-student meant that Mr. X was privy to Harry's innermost secrets other than those protected by the magic of the Lair, and while the Memory Lock ensured he wouldn't remember anything he learned, the man had never once given the impression of either judging or pitying Harry for what he discovered, a kindness which the boy genuinely appreciated.
And yet despite all that, Harry still knew very little about the man himself. All he'd ever let slip during their sessions was that he had a wife and children, and the complex web of Notice-Me-Not Charms and other glamours concealing the man's identity meant that Harry was literally incapable of directly perceiving anything about his true appearance and wouldn't even recognize his tutor if he bumped into the man on the street. He simply had an impression of an incredibly bland and ordinary individual with absolutely no memorable features save a tendency toward dry humor and occasional sarcasm.
In fact, Harry suddenly thought, technically even Mr. X's gender could have occluded, and it was entirely possible that his teacher had been a woman this whole time. But Harry found that unlikely. Even if he couldn't perceive any details about Mr. X's true appearance, he'd dropped enough clues at least to hint at being male, and not even Harry could fathom the insane level of paranoia needed to pretend to be of a different gender just to make a few galleons from tutoring. He was still amazed that Reg had actually transformed himself into the form of a beautiful Nordic blonde woman in order to seduce Michael Proudfoot and steal some of his hair. Harry wasn't sure exactly how far Auror Proudfoot and "Maria Gambrelli" had gone as part of that ruse, but Reg once muttered disdainfully that Proudfoot wasn't his "type." And also that he had bad breath.
Unlike Marcus Flint, the conspiracy would not be binding Mr. X to an Unbreakable Vow at first. Instead, he would simply be swearing a high-level secrecy oath which would strike him with an extremely debilitating curse if he revealed anything he learned during this initial meeting. For that alone, Malfoy was paying him 1,000 galleons for an hour of his time with the understanding that he would consent to a Memory Lock if he did not wish to proceed any further. If, on the other hand, he was agreeable to helping them (at a fairly outrageous price), he would reveal his true identity and swear an Unbreakable Vow.
"Now, to business," Mr. X after completing his secrecy vow. "And I am most eager to find out what the business is that requires such high levels of secrety and also involves such esteemed personages as Lucius Malfoy and Augusta Longbottom. To say nothing of the reclusive squib manservant and subsequent heir to the notorious Gilderoy Lockhart. Mr. ... Cato, I believe you said?"
"Yes," the metamorphmagus said amiably. "That's the name."
"Of course it is," said Mr. X with a drawl.
Harry frowned. There was some subtext here that he was missing, but he thought he detected a whiff of disdain from Mr. X directed towards Reg's current persona. "Is Mr. X bigoted towards Asians?" he thought curiously.
"Let us get straight to the point, Mr. X," said Augusta. "You are here today because we desire your aid in bringing about the final destruction of You-Know-Who."
Mr. X stared. "I see. Most people are under the impression that the Dark Lord's destruction was achieved twelve years ago through the power of the Boy-Who-Lived. I am ... aware that Mr. Potter here believes differently, but I should like to know what your cabal has uncovered that leads you to think you can succeed where so many others have failed. Also, I must admit to some surprise as to your involvement, Mr. Malfoy, given your own history with the Dark Lord."
Malfoy puffed up a bit. "As I'm sure you know, sir, I was found not guilty of being a Death Eater due to an ironclad Imperius defense. In any case, whether you believe I was a Death Eater or not, let me assure you that my current opposition to the Dark Lord is implacable."
"Indeed," Mr. X said languidly. "So how, exactly, do you all propose to destroy the Dark Lord? And what will my role in these machinations be?"
Augusta spoke. "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named secured for himself a limited form of immortality through the use of cursed objects known as horcruxes, into each of which he has inserted a fraction of his very soul. As long as these objects endure, he can never truly be slain. Presently, he exists in a spirit-like form in which he is able to possess others and potentially communicate with his supporters. And we believe it is possible for him to eventually reconstitute a body for himself unless all of his horcruxes are destroyed first."
"To that end," continued Malfoy, "we have liberated the Dark Lord's most trusted advisors from Azkaban. It is our desire for you to probe them with Legilimency to determine if any of them know anything about the nature and location of his horcruxes, as well as exactly how many horcruxes he made if it be known."
Not all of Mr. X's poise and Occlumency could keep the shock from his face. "You?! You people engineered a breakout from the most dangerous prison in the word? And your purpose was simply to interrogate the Dark Lord's five most dangerous and loyal followers? I cannot decide whether to describe your actions as bold or deranged!"
"Why can't they be both?" Mr. Cato asked mischievously. "And I'd like to correct you on one point. We broke out four of You-Know-Who's closest followers and one innocent man. We believe that Sirius Black is innocent of the crimes of which he was accused."
Mr. X went silent for several seconds, and when he spoke, his voice was suddenly very cold and precise. "I'm sorry. Could you repeat that?" Across the table, Harry stiffened as his curiosity suddenly became concern for reasons he couldn't articulate even to himself. He focused all of his Legilimency awareness on his tutor.
"Exactly what I said," continued Mr. Cato who was oblivious to Harry's growing apprehension. "We believe Black is innocent. We'd also like your assistance in proving that if you can, as well as your help in healing the mental damage he's suffered."
Mr. X nodded slowly. "And where is the poor innocent Sirius Black now?"
"Um, Cato?" Harry began nervously as his apprehension blossomed into outright alarm, but Augusta spoke over him.
"The four Death Eaters are incapacitated in the dungeon beneath this house, but Lord Black is resting comfortably in a bedroom right down the hall..."
Suddenly, before Augusta could continue, there was a blur of motion from the Occlumens. His wand seemed to appear from nowhere, and he stabbed it at the table which instantly dissolved into a whirlwind of sawdust that blew into the faces of those others present. Forewarned, Harry dove for cover, while Mr. X targeted Cato before the other man could recover from his surprise. "INCARCEROUS!" he shouted. The spell struck with such force that it knocked the man out of his chair before leaving him bound and lying on the floor.
Augusta and Lucius were quicker to respond despite the sawdust whirlwind which now seemed to be more of a distraction than an actual attack. Malfoy lashed out with a Stunner, only for Mr. X to casually parry it straight into Augusta Longbottom who fell to the ground before she could utter a single spell. Then, for good measure, Mr. X chained his parry into another spell, one Harry had never heard of before. "LEVICORPUS!"
Suddenly, Malfoy was jerked off the ground by his right foot and suspended upside down several feet above the floor, and he dropped his wand in surprise. Nearby, Cato's eyes widened, and he glared at Mr. X before closing his eyes in concentration. From behind a nearby sofa, Harry yelled out to the Occlumens.
"Why are you doing this?!"he exclaimed in a fury.
"Stay out of this, Potter. Don't think about trying to intervene unless you want the Ministry drawn to the scene for your underage magic!"
"I chose you for this because I trusted you!" Harry yelled angrily. "You swore an oath!"
Mr. X sneered. "Yes, Potter, I swore an oath of secrecy, but that was all. And I can assure you I will take to my grave the tale of how I killed that miserable bastard Sirius Black!" The man started to turn to the door but was then distracted and did a double-take. While he was talking to Harry, Mr. Cato had somehow stretched himself from a somewhat short Asian man to one who would be over seven-feet-tall if standing upright. His arms and torso had grown incredibly thin as a result, and Cato had successfully wriggled out of his conjured ropes and was now pulling out his own wand.
Angrily, Mr. X targeted Cato for a Stunner, but just before he could fire, Harry dilated his perceptions so that he could time his move. At the last second, Harry hurled himself forward and took the Stunner in place of his ally, Cato. The boy dropped to the floor and slid into the wall already unconscious. Shocked by the self-sacrifice, Mr. X was unable to defend himself when Cato fired off an Expelliarmus that knocked the man across the room while sending his own wand into Cato's waiting hand. For good measure, Cato then fired off an Incarcerous of his own to bind Mr. X before pulling off the rest of his ropes and climbing to his feet. As he did, he shrank back down to his normal height before casting Renervate spells on Harry and Augusta.
"Well," said Lucius irritably with as much poise as he could muster while hanging upside down by his ankle. "Kindly don't leave me hanging, if you'll pardon the pun." Harry was suddenly pleased that Malfoy's devotion to wizarding traditions did not extend to robes with nothing but underpants beneath them, and the man's anachronistic but otherwise Mugglish suit kept everything in its proper place.
"Sorry, Lucius," Cato said. "That's a very special curse that I've seen in action but never had the chance to learn. Unless you know the specific countercurse, you can't break it until it wears off after about an hour."
"And let me guess," Malfoy grumbled. "You don't know the countercurse."
"No," Cato replied as he moved towards the bound and seething Mr. X with his wand pointed and ready for any further attack. Harry moved to stand next to him, his face still a mask of shock and betrayal.
"Happily though," Cato continued, "I believe that the spell's creator is close at hand. REVELIO!"
The spell washed over Mr. X, and slowly his generic unmemorable hair darkened to a slick black, his generic clothes changed to ebon robes with perhaps too many buttons, and his generic face morphed into sallow features with a nose that seemed entirely too big for the face. Harry gasped. Mr. X was gone, and now it was the familiar face of Severus Snape that glared up at them both with an expression of boundless fury.
Five minutes later ...
"Explain!" Harry said irritably.
"Manners, Potter," Snape said imperiously. "I am still your teacher and am owed a measure of respect."
The group had reassembled back back in their chairs around the pile of dust that was all that remained of what Lady Augusta grumpily described as "a Hepplewhite table that's been in the family since 1810." Snape had been allowed his wand long enough to countercurse Malfoy (Harry made a mental note of the wand movement and the incantation, Liberacorpus), but Mr. Cato then confiscated it once more and handed it off to Malfoy who secreted it inside his jacket. Now, Harry and all the grownups sat guardedly with three of the adults pointing their wands at the fourth. Harry was not pointing a wand for obvious reasons, which was a good thing as he was having more difficulty than usual in suppressing his temper. In fact, he was probably angrier now than at any point since he'd started studying Occlumency.
"Don't talk to me about respect, sir," Harry said through gritted teeth. "It's summer, and school is out. And I don't expect to consider Mr. X a teacher of any sort ever again."
"Harry, calm down," said Cato.
"No, don't anyone tell me to calm down." He glared almost murderously at the Potions Master. "Not ten minutes ago, I was actually thought to myself that there were at most four adults in the world I really, truly trusted. Four! And I have just learned that two of them were actually the same person who has been lying to me from the start! So I'll ask again – explain yourself!"
Snape let out a long-suffering sigh. "If you will recall, Mr. Potter, I was the one who first detected your natural skill at Legilimency and realized that you would likely become a skilled Occlumens as well if led to apply yourself. I quickly realized that, modesty aside, there was simply no one else in Britain who could possibly teach you as well as myself, with the possible exception of the Headmaster, who you would never accept as an instructor, and a few certain individuals with Death Eater connections who were as likely to murder you as teach you. And yet, I also knew that even if you agreed to let me instruct you, an uncertain prospect at best, you would never develop your abilities to their height under my guidance. Teaching the psychic arts requires a powerful bond of trust, and between me being your head of house, my oaths to the Headmaster, and my ... relationships with both your parents and also your brother, I knew you would never trust Severus Snape enough to fulfill your potential."
"So you invented Mr. X and then encouraged me to study under him," Harry concluded in a cold voice.
"Don't overexaggerate your own importance, Potter. I didn't invent that persona just for you. Mr. X really is the anonymous identity I use for teaching private Occlumency and Legilimency lessons during the summers to supplement my income. Despite or perhaps because of the rarity of the two gifts, teaching either or both of them is a very lucrative field, and my reputation as Mr. X is well-known, at least among the somewhat insular subculture of devotees of the psychic arts. After you acquiesced to my recommendations about studying Occlumency, it was a simple matter to arrange for Mr. X's resume to pass into the hands of your solicitor who hired me on the merits. And also at a significant discount on my usual fee, I might add."
Harry rolled his eyes but then furrowed his brow in confusion. "Hang on, a minute! You said you had a wife and two kids!"
"Oh think it through, Potter! You're a Legilimency deductive genius. Unless I diverted you somehow, it was inevitable that some slip-up would allow you to realize that Mr. X and Severus Snape were the same person. So I made a maudlin display of tearfully revealing the existence of a fictitious family for whose safety I was concerned. You accepted that at face value and thereafter ignored any points of comparison between the two personas."
Snape's statement shocked Harry, and as he thought about it, he realized it was the truth. He'd actually lost count of the number of times that he'd noticed how much Mr. X reminded him of Snape, especially in their shared tendency towards biting wit, but he'd never considered the possibility of them being the same person.
"Is that why Mr. X constantly insulted Severus Snape and discouraged me from following his advice?"
"In part. But it was also valuable to your training. As Severus Snape, I could drive you to develop your powers to the fullest, while as Mr. X, I could warn you about the potential risks of pushing too hard. And also, I suppose, about the dangers of placing too much trust in someone with loyalties as conflicting and complicated as mine. Whose advice you chose to follow was ultimately your own choice. Besides, at this point in my life, sarcasm is second-nature to me, and by directing it at myself, I further separate the two personalities in your mind."
"Speaking of sarcasm," Malfoy interrupted, "this is all fascinating. But can we please get back to this matter for which I've paid a thousand galleons just to ensure your presence here. You know what is at stake with the Dark Lord's horcruxes. Will you help us? That is, I suppose, without making the murder of Sirius Black a precondition?"
Snape sat and thought for a long moment. "I will swear an oath to maintain the secrecy of your cabal and its agenda and also to aid you in probing the minds of your captives, but only to the extent it is safe for me to do so. The Lestranges have all had Occlumency training from Augustus Rookwood, and a probe of their minds could be highly dangerous unless undertaken with the utmost care. I believe I can penetrate the defenses of the three Lestranges, but you are all being quite naive if you think it can be done anytime soon. It would likely take weeks to prepare myself for even a preliminary scan. And I will tell you all right now, I would never attempt to enter the mind of Augustus Rookwood unless I were persuaded that the fate of the world depended on it."
All of the conspirators looked dismayed at that news. Finally, Augusta spoke.
"We quite understand, Professor Snape. And I hesitate to ask, but about Lord Black...?"
Snape barked out a laugh. "So he's a Lord now? Typical! No, Lady Longbottom. I will not lift a finger to help that animal in any way. If it is essential to defeat the Dark Lord, then I will swear an oath not to raise my wand against him except in self-defense until the Dark Lord is finally defeated. But once that is done, Sirius Black and I will have a reckoning. Of that, I can promise you."
Throughout Snape's speech, Mr. Cato grew progressively angrier, but it was Lucius who spoke first.
"What exactly is the source of your obvious hatred for Sirius Black beyond schoolyard rivalries?" he inquired. "We are certain that he was never actually a Death Eater."
"Frankly, I don't give a damn whether he was a Death Eater or not," Snape snapped. "Either way, he was a cruel, vicious bastard who deserved what happened to him." Then, the Potions Master turned his attention to the fuming Mr. Cato. "But before I say anything more, since we're all laying our cards on the table, perhaps Sirius Black's brother Regulus might do me the courtesy of dropping that ridiculous disguise and showing his true face!"
Silence fell on the room, and Cato's expression of anger was replaced by one of astonishment. "How long have you known?" he finally asked.
Snape snorted. "I've had most of the clues for months, but it was only in the last few minutes that all of the pieces fell into place. I was the first to suspect Gilderoy Lockhart's imposture by an unknown wizard with some form of shapeshifting magic after I noticed his apparent ignorance of events from the real Lockhart's school days. I reported my suspicions to James Potter, but naturally the imbecile leapt to the wrong conclusion and assumed that it was the real Lockhart who had simply gone dark. The newspaper accounts of Lockhart's histrionic confession followed by his apparent self-lobotomy – not to mention the report of him leaving all of his wealth to an Asian squib manservant named Cato – strongly suggested that the shapeshifter had simply assumed a new identity after disposing of the real Lockhart. However, I kept my suspicions to myself because I could not prove anything nor could I divine why the mystery shapeshifter posed as the Hogwarts Defense instructor in the first place. But when the Azkaban breakout occurred and was apparently facilitated through shapeshifting magic, I realized that the imposter was involved and as Lockhart had tricked the best and brightest of the Hogwarts student body into giving him the means to defeat Azkaban's defenses."
He smirked at Cato who was still speechless. "And then, I was invited here to finally meet the elusive Mr. Cato and more connections were made. I realized at once that the shapeshifter was raised as a Pureblood but later spend considerable time either among Muggles or in some foreign Magical culture where association with Muggles was more common than Britain. I also knew that the only known British Metamorphmagus of this era was Nymphadora Tonks who inherited her gift from the Blacks. Your personal interest in exonerating Sirius Black was the final clue I needed. Obviously, Regulus Black was a secret metamorphmagus who faked his own death and fled Britain for either the Muggle world or a foreign Magical society with strong Muggle ties, and he stayed there for many years before returning in the guise of Gilderoy Lockhart in order to manipulate the top Hogwarts students into giving him the means to rescue his miscreant brother from prison."
Snape glanced over at Harry and sniffed disdainfully. "I may not have born with your natural affinity for the deductive aspects of Legilimency, Mr. Potter, but I am a master Legilimens, and that includes developing such skills."
Cato shook his head in confusion. "How did you know that I was a Pureblood who went Muggle?!"
"Elementary, my dear Regulus," he said smugly. "For one thing, only an insular paranoid Pureblood family like the Blacks could have concealed the existence of a Metamorphmagus from the Conscription List. But more importantly, only someone thoroughly immersed in Muggle culture would be aware of the existence of a somewhat obscure Muggle fictional character such Cato from the Pink Panther film series. And only a Pureblood would be so fatuous as to disguise himself as Cato from the Pink Panther film series and never imagine that his false identity might be obvious to any Muggle-born or Muggle-raised wizards he encountered. Honestly, Regulus! I lived among British Muggles throughout the 1960's and 70's! Of course, I know who Burt Kwouk is!"
The others all turned to look at Cato who was suddenly blushing.
"Burt ... Kwouk?" Harry inquired.
"He's a Muggle actor. He, um, he played Inspector Clouseau's manservant Cato in the, ah, Pink Panther movies." The others continued to stare at him. "They're really very funny. A Shot In the Dark was my favorite. You should watch them sometime." More staring. Finally, he sighed loudly and shook his head vigorously to reset his appearance to that of Regulus Black.
"Better?" he asked Snape.
"Marginally," Snape drawled.
"Professor Snape," said Augusta. "I know what Sirius Black was like when you were at school together. My son Frank spoke of James Potters band of hooligans many times. But you both graduated from Hogwarts nearly a quarter-century ago. In the face of a crisis as serious as a reborn You-Know-Who, surely you can put aside whatever bad memories you have of his past bullying."
Snape straightened in his chair. "With all due respect, Lady Augusta, It was far more than childish bullying. When I knew him last, Sirius Black was a psychopath, and I have no reason to think that a decade in Azkaban has improved either his disposition or his character."
Regulus's lip curled in disgust. "You know, Severus, I must say I really do find it astonishing to see what a monumental hypocrite you've grown up to be. Breath-taking really."
Snape's eyes flashed dangerously, and Lucius casually shifted in his seat. Snape's wand was still in his pocket, and he didn't want the other man to summon it wandlessly and resume conflict. Like Augusta, he grieved slightly for the ruined Hepplewhite table and wished to see no more irreplaceable antiques destroyed today.
"How. Dare. You!" Snape hissed at Regulus.
"Oh knock it off, Severus," the other man interrupted. "It's me. Regulus Black! I was a Slytherin just one year behind you. We spent six years sharing a dormitory. I know you. You may have ruined your friendship with Lily Evans by losing your temper and calling her a Mudblood to her face, but we both know how free you were with that word while it was just other Slytherins around. And you may never have bullied anyone personally, but you were perfectly happy to be the evil genius behind Mulciber, Rosier, and Avery. We both know that nearly every dark curse they learned at Hogwarts came from you."
"Do not presume to equate the childish pranks of Mulciber and Avery with what Sirius ...!"
"MARY McDONALD!" Regulus shouted angrily. Instantly, Snape went silent with his mouth still hanging open in surprise.
"Oh," Reg continued in a more reasonable tone of voice. "So you do remember poor Mary McDonald. Or as I believe you used to refer to her, "that jumped-up little Mudblood from Aberdeen." Refresh my memory, Severus. Did Mary McDonald ever return to Hogwarts after that breakdown she had during her OWLS? For that matter, were the mind healers at St. Mungo's ever able to cure her of that persistent delusion that she had cockroaches crawling around under her skin?"
Harry looked from Reg to Snape in shock, and Snape himself bore an expression of shame that the boy had never imagined his rigidly-controlled teacher could display.
"What happened to Mary McDonald was ... unfortunate," Snape said much more quietly. "A schoolboy prank that went wrong." Then, he looked up at Reg, determination returning to his face. "While I regret it, it was not comparable to what Sirius Black did to me."
"No? Then share with us, Severus. What exactly did my brother, who was only two months older than you, ever do to you that was as bad as what you helped Mulciber do to Mary McDonald."
Snape locked eyes with Regulus, and a fierce righteous anger seemed to fill him.
"He tried to murder me, Regulus."
"I don't believe you," Regulus finally said in a quiet voice.
"Believe what you want, Regulus, but it is the truth. In the fall of 1976, your brother Sirius deliberately and with malice aforethought tried to bring about my death. I cannot reveal all the details due to oaths I was compelled to swear for the protection of innocent parties. But make no mistake. Sirius Black actively tried to murder me, and he only failed because of the last-minute intervention of James Potter to whom I owe a life debt over the matter even though I know perfectly well that the arrogant sod only acted to save me to prevent his friends from being harmed or punished for Black's actions. Sirius Black tried to kill me, and I shall never forgive him for it."
"No one is asking you to embrace the man as a boon companion, Severus," said Lucius while wearing a speculative expression. "Merely that you work with us and by extension him. If the passage of time cannot heal your wounds, what else would do it?"
"There is not enough gold in all the Malfoy vaults to persuade me to work with Sirius Black." Snape said with a sneer.
Lucius smiled. "Well actually, I wasn't going to offer gold from the Malfoy vaults ... Regent Prince."
Snape went very still. "... what?"
"I have found you an Heir, Severus. A wizard of the line of Prince. Someone who can exercise a legal claim to the Prince seat but who, for a number of reasons, cannot formally take it for at least three years and perhaps as many as ten. Someone who is willing to reinstate you to the Prince family and appoint you as his Regent until he comes of age. Someone also willing to share with his only magical kin the bounty of the Prince vaults in exchange for helping to transition fully into our world."
"A Muggleborn descended from squibs of the Prince line," Snape said slowly. Then, his expression hardened. "And you think dangling the Prince inheritance in front of me is enough for me to let go of my hatred of Sirius Black?"
"I think that dangling the Prince inheritance was enough to get you to take the Dark Mark, my old friend. A decision that you have regretted ever since. And I think that offering you that inheritance once more, conditional on you doing whatever you can to help defeat the Dark Lord, will purge you of those regrets."
"And just like that," Harry thought to himself, "Malfoy's got him." The boy marveled internally at what he'd just witnessed, a demonstration of why Lucius Malfoy had been worthy to become a Prince of Slytherin. Some Princes had magical gifts that eased the way like Parseltongue or Metamorphmagic. But others, like Lucius, simply had a knack for knowing what people wanted and how to get it for them.
The group spent the remainder of the hour discussing terms before Snape left for Hogwarts. One of his terms was that he would need the Headmaster's permission to miss school on those occasions he returned here to psychically interrogate their prisoners, though naturally he would not be able to explain the true reasons for his absence. But assuming Dumbledore consented, Snape was on board. He even promised to try to help Sirius with his various mental issues, but only while Sirius "keeps a civil tongue in his empty head."
Later that afternoon, Harry went to visit Sirius once again after the man's long nap.
"So how did your meeting go?" Sirius said groggily. "Is your Occlumency guy on board?"
"... he is," Harry replied.
"Good news. I look forward to meeting him sometime."
"Yeah," Harry said with his best fake smile. "That'll definitely be an interesting conversation."
Dark Peak Moor, Derbyshire
Cassius Warrington fought down the urge to adjust his collar as he struggled to eat his Bisque de Crevettes without dribbling it down the front of his shirt. It was the boy's first visit to Cauchemar Abbey, the ancestral home of the Selwyn family since some time around the Eighth Century. Initially, Cassius had thrown a bit of a tantrum which his father had told him the night before that he would be attending a "family dinner party" when he'd already made plans to spend the weekend with Miles Bletchley. He complained rather loudly about the imposition ... and then was shocked into obedience when his father slapped him for the first time in his life. He was even more shocked when he looked up at his father and realized that the man wasn't angry with him.
He was afraid.
Cassius put that insight out of his mind and focused on his soup. He had no idea what Bisque de Crevettes was though he suspected it was something to do with shrimp. He also had no idea what "Cauchemar" meant beyond the fact that, like his soup, it was something French. Probably something awful to judge by the frighteningly oppressive architecture and Gothic furniture in the old manse. He'd ask Miranda about the name, as she spoke French, but the girl was no longer on speaking terms with him.
Which made things rather tense since the girl was sitting to his left and resolutely ignoring him.
Though not directly related to the House of Selwyn, Miranda Bonnevie was a part of the extended family by way of the Warringtons. Specifically, she was the niece of Cassius's mother, Juliana Warrington née Bonnevie. It had been his family's hope that the Bonnevies might someday be brought into the larger Selwyn family network, thereby extending the Selwyns' reach into France where most of the Bonnevies reside. But all his parents' work on that front had apparently been ruined by Cassius's disastrous screw-up the previous term. The plan had been to lead Jim Potter, the Heir of Slytherin, into a greater appreciation of dark magic and eventually Pureblood ideology. It ended with Cassius suspended and forced to repeat Fourth Year and Miranda expelled and on her way to finish her last year of education at Beauxbatons. Understandably, relations between the Warringtons and the Bonnevie's were strained, which was why it surprised Cassius when his father announced that Miranda would be coming with them to tonight's dinner party. Surprised and perhaps troubled. Cassius Warrington was by no means the most astute of Slytherins, but even he was aware of a terrible undercurrent of tension that flowed beneath every bit of casual dinner conversation so far. It was as though nearly everyone in the room was waiting for an axe to fall. But on whose neck?
Cassius looked around the room. The throne-like chair at the head of the long table was empty. It had been reserved for Adramalech Selwyn who had been Lord Selwyn since before Cassius's grandfather had been born. But these days, Lord Selwyn was rarely seen out in public, or even in private for that matter. Cassius assumed it was due to declining health since he was pretty sure the man was over 160 years old. To either side of empty chair sat an elderly witch and a positively ancient wizard, Auntie Camilla and Great-Uncle Merihem, Adramalech's younger siblings. Merihem's grand-daughter, Cassilda (the House Seneshal despite her youth) sat between Merihem and Aldones Selwyn, Cassilda's father and Merihem's son. Cassilda's older brother Hyades, a neckless hulk of a wizard who rarely spoke, sat beside Auntie Camilla. One thing that had been drummed into Cassius's head by his parents was that Adramalech was Grandfather, Camilla was Auntie, and Merihem was Great-Uncle. Their given names were not to be used in casual conversation, and their actual familial relationships were deemed irrelevant. As for the rest, anyone outside one's immediate family was simply "Cousin" regardless of any actual family relationships.
Moving down from the head of the table, Corban Yaxley sat with his three children: two boys (Giles and Albert) who attended Durmstrang and a daughter (Viola) who would be head girl at Beauxbatons this upcoming year. It was expected that she would help Miranda "adjust" to her new situation. After the Yaxleys came the Carrows. Amycus and Alecto sat across from each other, and each had one of the identical twins, Hestia and Flora, sitting beside them. Cassius had once jokingly asked his father whether Amycus and Alecto were brother-and-sister, husband-and-wife, or both. His father immediately grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him furiously while shouting almost hysterically "Never ask such things where anyone else might hear!' Flora and Hestia rarely spoke at dinner, but they constantly gave each other significant looks, as though they could hear one another's thoughts. They also took turns glancing at Cassius and smirking, as if to suggest to him that they knew something vitally important that he did not.
The Warringtons were seated near the far end of the table from the great chair, and even Cassius was not so oblivious as to miss the significance of the seating arrangements. The only one farther away from the Selwyn end of the table was poor, pitiful Uriah Travers who ignored everyone else while slowly dranking himself into a stupor. His wife, brother, and two of his sons had died during the Wizarding War, while his third son was a convicted Death Eater who was not among those that had been rescued from Azkaban earlier in the week. Uriah never took the Dark Mark and even gave testimony against his son which is what secured his own freedom and Lordship, but now, twelve years later, he had nothing left to offer anyone save the five votes he cast in the Selwyns' favor whenever called upon to do so. Whenever he eventually finished drinking himself to death, the House of Travers would likely die with him.
The food was excellent, as to be expected for an Ancient and Noble House at the height of its power, though poor Cassius, who had not received the deportment training one might expect of, say, a Malfoy or a Longbottom, struggled a bit with which fork to use on each course. And each misstep brought another smirk from the Carrow girls which only caused the boy to grow angrier as the meal progressed. Through it all, however, there were no discussions of politics or current affairs which, as Auntie Camilla reminded everyone, were not proper topics for the dinner table. Discussion instead focused on banal observations about fashion, Quidditch, recent theater productions, and the occasional Mudblood joke.
Finally, after the dessert plates were taken away, everyone moved from the dining room to a large study and billiard room where the house elves served drinks: butterbeer for the minors, wine for most of the women, scotch for most of the men. Cousin Cassilda, Auntie Camilla, and Great-Uncle Merihem eschewed all those drink options in favor of a thick ruby-red beverage that looked like some sort of cherry cordial served in tall fluted glasses. The house elves served the drinks in silence, and none of them so much as made eye contact with anyone in the room. Cassilda took a sip from her drink, licked her lips as if to savor the taste, and then leaned back against a billiard table before addressing the group.
"Let me begin by saying that Grandfather is still resting and will not be joining us this evening," she said. Immediately and to Cassius's surprise, a good deal of the tension in the room drained away, and Cousin Uriah actually exhaled in obvious relief.
"However, I spoke with Grandfather at length, and he has a number of questions which he finds vexing. Let us begin with the most obvious ones. I feel certain that none of you would be so ... presumptuous as to involve yourselves with the shocking events from Azkaban Prison that have captured the nation's attention this week. Or at least, none of you would have done so without at least consulting with us beforehand. However, if any of you have any information you feel might be useful to the Family, please share it now."
At first, there was silence as the assembled family members waited to see who would be the first to stick his neck under the blade. It turned out to be Corban Yaxley, who was not only Lord of his own House but also an official of some importance within the DMLE.
"In the confusion surrounding the Azkaban affair, I was able to filch the incident report on a mysterious fire that broke out in the community of Thurso on the coast of Northern Scotland. Twenty Muggles were killed that night."
"Bah!" said Uriah with a loud belch. "What do we care for burnt Muggles, Yaxley?" Then, the drunken old man noticed Cassilda staring at him. He clamped his mouth shut and began studying the carpets intently.
"I found it significant, Travers," Yaxley said with annoyance, "because Thurso is the only Muggle settlement that lies outside the Ministry's early warning system, which means it's virtually the only place where more than three wizards could enter the country via international portkey simultaneously without it being detected. And also because the Azkaban breakout happened the very next night!"
Cassilda nodded. "So you suspect that whoever was responsible entered the country via Thurso and then killed all the Muggles who saw their arrival. Well done, Cousin Corban. Please continue your investigation."
Auntie Camilla snickered. "I always said you were my favorite, Little Corby." Corban's smile faltered, and he swallowed at the possible implications of gaining the favoritism of this particular witch.
Amycus Carrow spoke up next as if eager not to be upstaged by Yaxley. "By an interesting coincidence, our sources in Eastern Europe have told us that within the past week, Fenrir Greyback has pulled his entire pack out of Lithuania. Their current location is unknown, but their disappearance coincides with the timing of the events in Thurso that Yaxley just described."
"I find it highly unlikely that either Greyback or any of the Magical werewolves who follow him can produce a mass portkey," said Yaxley with contempt.
"I agree," said Cassilda, "but that might mean that he is acting as a catspaw for someone who can produce such a portkey. Cousin Corban, Cousin Amycus, reach out to your spies in the Ministry. Get us a list of British underground portkey artificers who might have the skills and inclination to produce a portkey for Greyback's entire pack. Other than that, Grandfather would like all of you to keep your eyes and ears open for any information, but do not draw any untoward attention to our Family in these tumultuous times."
"Moving on," said Great-Uncle Merihem as he lit up his signature pipe, the one that had been carved with the face of a leering daemonic imp, "has anyone heard any juicy rumors about the other members of our noble fraternity that might have any bearing on recent events."
Juliana glanced at her husband before speaking up. "It is likely unconnected to these affairs, but I have heard rumors that Tiberius Nott has entered a sealed marriage contract. I have not yet heard who the intended bride is to be, but if the Family thinks it important, I will make further inquiries."
"Please do so," said Cassilda. "That is indeed an interesting rumor, coming on the heels of the remarkable lengths to which Tiberius Nott went in order to mark his younger son as an outcast. Has anyone any thoughts on his motivations for either his upcoming nuptials or his unseemly vengeance against the No-Name boy?"
Uriah barked out a crude laugh. "I think I've got an idea. Mainly because the bastard told me about it after too much fire-whisky last time we went out whoring together. The fool is still trying to get me to forswear myself to the Selwyns and join his alliance. I won't, but I'll still enjoy m'self on his coin."
"The Family is grateful for your continued loyalty, Cousin Uriah."
Uriah snorted. "Like we don't both know the price I'd pay for disloyalty, Cousin Cassilda. Anyway -hic- Tiberius thinks that Theo No-Name was never actually his spawn. Thinks his wife and Lucius Malfoy cuckolded him."
"Ah!" exclaimed Auntie Camilla. "And poor old Lucius cannot rescue little Theo No-Name from his awful fate without confirming the cuckoldry and paying a heavy price for it. How charmingly diabolical! I wouldn't have thought Tiberius Nott would have such cunning in him."
Cassilda turned to Alecto Carrow. "See that this rumor is passed via third parties to the Skeeter woman. We will let her investigate and expose Malfoy if the rumor is true ... or, I suppose, if the theory is plausible enough to escape defamation claims. Regardless, the Family will not take an obvious side in any future Malfoy-Nott feud."
Then, her gaze returned to the Yaxleys. "Is the Malfoy heir still on his way to Durmstrang?"
Corban nodded. "He is. I have already instructed Giles and Albert to afford young Draco every courtesy. I have also advised them on how to undermine the boy if it appears he and his father are no long loyal to the fraternity. Given the way dear Narcissa has cut them both off, that seems likely the case."
"Keep us informed." Cassilda thought for a moment. "It is interesting, now that we mention it, that both the Malfoy Heir and the younger Nott should undergo such dramatic life-changing events at the same time." Her gaze scanned across the entire room. "Do they have anything in common?" she said with an almost exaggerated curiosity.
There was silence at first, and then Miranda Bonnevie spoke up.
"Harry Potter," she said with barely disguised bitterness.
"Oh, Cousin Miranda? Do tell us more."
Miranda looked over to the Warringtons for a second and then stood.
"Harry Potter has been a close friend of Theo No-Name almost since their start of school. Potter and Draco Malfoy initially started an antagonistic relationship until Easter Break of 1992, when ... something happened. I've never been able to find out what, but the end result was that Harry Potter somehow acquired the loyalty of Draco Malfoy as well as that of both Slytherin prefects and the Quidditch captain in a single night. No one knows what he did to achieve that, but it resulted in a significant alteration to Malfoy's own character over the course of the next year, to the point that Draco also developed an extremely close friendship with ... a Mudblooded Hufflepuff!"
The rest of the Family began to murmur at that news until a barely audible cough by Merihem caused them all to instantly go silent.
"These are remarkable claims, Cousin Miranda. And refresh my memory. Was it not also this ... Harry Potter who played a role in your own unfortunate reversal of fortune?"
Miranda returned Cassilda's gaze levelly and did her best not show fear. "It was," she said.
"Please," Cassilda purred almost seductively. "Tell us more."
Miranda spared the merest glance at her aunt's family before she began. "It began with a plan by Cousin Cassius. As I'm sure you all know, the Boy-Who-Lived was revealed this past year as a Parselmouth. Cassius believed that this was a sign that he was the Heir of Slytherin and had somehow been Sorted incorrectly into Gryffindor. He proposed that we ingratiate ourselves with Jim Potter and introduce him to certain darker magics than he was accustomed, with the goal of seducing him to our ideology. Cousin Cassius asked for my assistance, and I acquiesced."
"And you thought that likely that this scheme would work?" Corban Yaxley said incredulously before ducking his head in response to a casual glance from Cassilda.
"Honestly, no," Miranda said bluntly. "But I did think it possible that we could manipulate him into using potentially illegal curses in some capacity so that we could either engineer his expulsion or further damage his reputation. Failing that, there was always the possibility of blackmail."
Auntie Camilla nodded in seeming approval. "And what went wrong?"
"As I said, Harry Potter. He somehow learned of our scheme and blackmailed Cassius's lackeys, Derrick and Bole, into betraying Cousin Cassius. Who, in turn, betrayed me!"
"That's a LIE!" Cassius said, jumping to his feet. Instantly, his mother and father each grabbed him by a shoulder and roughly shoved him back into his seat.
"Be SILENT!" Antonius hissed furiously at his son through gritted teeth.
Cassilda glanced at the three Warringtons almost diffidently before turning her focus back to Miranda.
"Grandfather was most displeased to hear of your expulsion, Cousin Miranda. We have all invested a great deal of time and effort into both you and the House of Bonnevie. He desires ... an accounting. Are you willing to meet with Grandfather? One-on-one, as it were?"
Miranda swallowed painfully. "If it is Grandfather's desire that I plead my case for myself and also for my family, then of course, I will honored to do so."
Cassius grew even angrier. "She gets to see Grandfather but not me? No way! She's not going to scapegoat me and get away with it!"
Before his parents could stop him once more, Cassius Warrington leapt to his feet. "No! The plan was mine. And it would have worked if Miranda hadn't lost her nerve in Dumbledore's office! Let me speak to Grandfather! I demand to see him!"
Several people in the room gasped aloud, even as Cassilda Selwyn fixed the impetuous boy with a piercing gaze. Along with a smile that was somehow unlike any other smile Cassius Warrington had ever seen before. Who knew that a pretty lady's smile could be so frightening? And though he could not see them, Auntie Camilla and Great-Uncle Merihem were also grinning in utter delight.
Both Antonius and Juliana moved to rise and apologize for their son's outburst, but Cassilda simply raised her right hand without taking her eyes off the boy, His parents both froze instantly. The Seneshal then held up her left hand in the general direction of Miranda without taking her hypnotic gaze off of young Cassius. She waved her fingers dismissively towards the girl, who took the meaning and swiftly sat down.
"You ... demand to see Grandfather?" Cassilda repeated almost deliriously as if she couldn't truly believe what she had heard. Then, she shook her head with what might have passed for pity to anyone who didn't actually know her. "You don't know anything about what's going on, do you Cousin Cassius?"
Before he could reply, she looked back and forth between Antonius and Juliana, like a cat trying to choose which of two captured birds she should play with. "The boy knows nothing. You actually brought your fifteen-year-old son to the Abbey of Nightmares for his first visit ... and he knows nothing about who we are. About what the House of Selwyn truly is. Astonishing!"
Then, she turned back towards Cassius, who had taken the opportunity to study the faces of his kinsmen. Their expressions ranged from utterly aghast to viciously amused depending on each family member's capacity for empathy.
"Well then, Cousin Cassius," Cassilda said. "If you are so ... eager to face Grandfather's judgment, who am I to deny you?"
"NO!" Juliana shouted as she finally jumped to her feet. "Cousin Cassilda, the decision to ... to not tell Cassius about ... about how things are... it was made by my husband and I. We are the authors of our son's ignorance. We are the ones responsible for his ... lack of decorum and cunning." Then, Juliana took a deep breath before continuing. "And I, I am Miranda's aunt. It was my desire to bring the House of Bonnevie into harmony with that the House of Selwyn. That makes me responsible for any missteps on Miranda's part. Please! Allow me to be the one to meet Grandfather and plead our case to him."
"Yes," Cassilda said almost dreamily. "I'm quite sure there will be some pleading involved on someone's part. But I am deeply moved by the maternal devotion reflected in your speech." Then, she turned to look at Antonius who was still sitting in his chair utterly speechless.
"And what of you, dear Cousin Antonius. You are Lord Warrington, after all. Will you now take this moment to display your sense of chivalry and heroically demand to take the place of your wife and son?"
Antonius simply stared unblinkingly at the woman, his mouth open and quivering as if he wanted to speak but simply couldn't bring himself to utter the words.
Cassilda laughed softly. "No," she said, her contempt obvious despite her soft tones, "I thought not."
She turned to the rest of the Family. "This meeting is ended. All of you, please consider the matters we have discussed. If you have any information to share, you know how to contact us. If Grandfather has any instructions for you, they will be disseminated by the usual means."
Juliana Warrington turned stiffly to her flummoxed son and kissed him on the forehead before following Cassilda out of the room. Meanwhile, Viola Yaxley invited Miranda Bonnevie to come home with her family for the evening so she could tell the other girl all about Beauxbatons. She promised that she and Miranda would be "such great friends," a prospect that Miranda did her best to view positively. While they were talking, Auntie Camilla waddled over to Hestia and Flora Carrow.
"Well look at you two! You've grown so much, haven't you!" The two girls smiled and curtsied.
"Thank you, Auntie Camilla," they said in perfect unison. Amycus and Alecto Carrow stood behind them, beaming like a proud Mother and Father. Or perhaps a proud Aunt and Uncle. Or perhaps even proud older siblings. It was difficult to say.
"Soon, my pretties," Camilla continued. "You'll be at Hogwarts, hehehe!"
"Yes, Auntie Camilla."
"And of course, you'll both be sorted into Slytherin!"
"Of course, Auntie Camilla."
The ancient crone bent down over the young girls. "And you'll keep an eye on this little Harry Potter snot and burrow out all of his nasty little secrets, won't you my pretties?"
"Naturally, Auntie Camilla."
Camilla smiled and pinched each of their cheeks. Flora and Hestia smiled up in perfect unison at their Auntie Camilla. A painfully naive person would have said they looked angelic.
Minutes later, everyone was gone save Cassius and Antonius. The boy was still looking around as if not quite sure what had happened. The father finally rose from his chair and wandered over to the drinks cabinet in search of more scotch.
"Father?" Cassius asked once he'd finally and far too late realized he should be nervous. "What ... what's going on here?"
"Shut up, Cassius," Antonius Warrington said while pouring another drink and without even looking back at his son and heir. "Just ... just shut up."
The two sat alone and in silence for nearly two hours before Juliana was returned to them. Hyades and Aldones Selwyn supported the woman by her arms as she was too weak to walk under her own power. Her skin was as white as driven snow, her eyes were glassy and unfocused, and her hair was disarranged. The sleeve of her gown had been ripped away from her right arm, and bandages were wrapped around that forearm from her wrist almost to her elbow. Very thick bandages, thankfully, so only a little bit of blood seeped through.
Antonius and a horrified Cassius took Juliana home to Warrington Manor via Floo and then put her to bed. Immediately, Antonius summoned their family healer who prescribed a regimen of potions for the lady of the house. Over the next two days, Juliana Warrington would consume four Blood-Replenishing Potions, three Draughts of Peace, and two Dreamless Sleep potions. On the third day, she had recovered enough to speak and summoned Cassius and Antonius to her bed chambers so that Antonius could bind their son to an Unbreakable Vow.
It was only then that Antonius and Juliana told their son the truth about the House of Selwyn.
Next: Back to Hogwarts!