"There are too many unknown variables in this situation, Kingsley. We need to know what McNair was doing on Cormorant Island and what artefacts he was trying to smuggle in or out of the country. From Mundungus' reports we know he had long been on commission to procure a specific item of immense power, but in all this time we've had no success in determining which object, or the names of his employers."
Kingsley nodded solemnly. "That's true up to this point, but we may have a lead on the location of the people who contracted him. Recent travel records indicate McNair last took an international Portkey to Prague. He stayed in the region for two days before returning home. I've dispatched an Auror operative to try and track his movements there. The last report mentioned that McNair was not in contact with any of the better known Dark Arts practioners or antiquities dealers in the area, so he wasn't there conducting general business—he had a specific contact and destination. If we can determine where and who, perhaps we can discover what he received or delivered."
Dumbledore agreed that this was their best avenue of investigation for the moment and advised Kingsley to keep him apprised of any new developments. Hilary McNair had carved himself a niche in the post-war underworld as a procurer of Dark antiques, but he had proven wily and had been able to evade charges and prosecution for smuggling and Dark Arts dealing until his death. The blue residue around his nose and mouth was an unknown poison, and the Ministry had analysts working to identify its components.
Clearly this was a case of jackals turning on each other. Maybe a case of retaliation for a double-cross, or perhaps to silence the man about dealings he'd had with a particular client, but what worried the wizened wizard the most were the whispers that had surrounded McNair for years—that he was searching for a means of resurrecting Voldemort from the dead. Dumbledore was very concerned that perhaps the dealer had stumbled on some ancient tome or object that would rally the remaining Death Eaters still at large, granting them the power to unleash Voldemort's brand of evil on the world once more. Little did he know that the reality was far worse than his imaginings.
Deep in the catacombs beneath House Uncas, Barnabus carefully prepared a ritual floor. Painstakingly he copied the archaic symbols from the decaying grimoire to the newly polished stone. All he'd undertaken over the past years was coming to fruition. The loss of Prakash was a regrettable setback, but ultimately the traditionalist was expendable. What mattered most was gaining the power of the blade so he could kill the upstart Lord Draconis during The Choosing and take control of the Clans.
One of his spies among the city guards had brought him word of Casimir's imminent arrest that afternoon, which was another regrettable loss as the man had proved exceedingly useful over the years, serving as Barnabus' agent in the dining rooms and parlours of Kindred high society and subtly recruiting to his cause, gaining financial and political support, being his Barnabus' eyes and ears, but the courtier had been too cavalier and careless in handling the Prakash situation. Using the same poison the Tipu lord had used to dispatch the whelp McNair had a certain poetic irony, but to do so where he could be so easily caught had been a sophomoric mistake. One that would ultimately prove fatal, Barnabus reflected with a smirk, and he dipped his stylus into the unicorn blood for the next sigil.
"Elos Anderson of Gwalchmai, Andrea Lois of Herzl, Dubey Fuinel of Uncas..."Casimir struggled but succumbed again to the power of Marjeta's magic. "Cas Winterlove of Tor, Regina Sohoor of Romney..." The list of names continued in a wooden monotone as Marjeta forced her way through the man's mind, crushing his will with her own. Draco stood in the corner, his lips tight and demeanour foreboding as the list of those conspiring against his rule grew.
"Who else?" Marjeta growled from across the interrogation table. "Who else plots treason against our Lord?"
Casimir moaned softly, cradling his head as she released his mind for a moment. "No...no one...no one b-but—"
"But who?" Lightening-fast, Draco crossed the room and lifted Casimir from his chair. Fist tight around Casimir's collar, Draco shook him violently, the man flopping like a rag doll in Draco's vise-like grip. "Who else would betray me? Who leads you, jinrij?"
Casimir gurgled and clawed at his throat. "Answer me!" Draco commanded, shaking him once more. He released the traitor, letting him drop to the floor.
"I—I cannot," Casimir gasped, panting harshly. "Please, have mercy." Claws out, Draco slapped him, tearing bloody gashes open across Casimir's face.
"Denvit pja! You dare ask me for mercy?" Drawing back his foot, Draco kicked Casimir in the stomach, causing him to double over. "On pain of death you will answer—who is the leader of this rebellion?"
Pale-faced and shaking Casimir shook his head. "I have sw-sworn an oath. I cannot answer."
Draco's lip curled with derision. "I care nothing for your so-called honour. You can tell me freely or—" he paused and looked at Marjeta and the feral light of anticipation gleaming in her eyes— "or I can leave you to the Lady Castellan's tender mercies."
Casimir paled further, his eyes widening as he whimpered, "No! No, please, please! I cannot bear her tearing through my mind! It burns—sears like acid, freezes like ice. No more of that torture, I beg you!"
"Then speak, Casimir."
Realising his utter defeat, the disgraced man resolutely raised his face. "Our leader will be High Lord of the Clans. His majesty will purge the blight of your reign from our noble history. Long may he rule all Kindred in glory." He took a stuttering breath, the one he knew to be his last as breaking the oath would end his life. "Hail, Lor—"
The oath's magic closed his throat as spasms shook his body. Casimir's eyes rolled to the back of his head and bloody froth poured from his mouth. The room's two guards rushed forward to hold him as he thrashed violently at Draco's feet, but even as they reached to lay hands on him the convulsions stopped. Casimir lay staring into nothing as his lungs collapsed and his heart burst in his chest.
Draco spat on the ground beside the fallen courtier. "Oronle wen bacil, dzien ka hia nal. Bastard." He waved his hand. "Take him away. Send a message to Lady Victoria of House Romney that Eudora Stanislaw may claim her son for private internment. There will be no rites for the traitor."
"As you will, my Lord." The guards stood and conjured a stretcher. As they levitated the body away, Draco turned to his seneschal.
"Twenty-seven conspirators. I want them all brought in now and questioned as soon as possible. I will have the name of their leader even if their damned oath kills every last one of them."
"Of course, Abre hir. I will dispatch guards with warrants immediately." Marjeta bowed her head.
"The interrogations will take time, but postponing the Amoraj further is unacceptable. I will attend the fires tomorrow and proceed to the Courting the day after as planned. I am at greater risk the longer I am unmated, so The Choosing must not be delayed."
Draco pinched the bridge of his nose and huffed out a sigh of frustration. "Have the arrests made and put all suspects in holding. It's late and we all need some sleep before morning. I want you fresh for this, Marjeta. You'll be pushing your skills to the limit in the coming days."
"I know, but it's worth it to keep you safe." She stood and crossed the room to take his hand. "We will stop them, Draco. This I promise you."
The High Lord offered her a faint, tired smile. "I know, Cousin. Thank you."
"It is my honour and pleasure to serve, Abre hir. You have led us well and will do so for centuries to come."
Draco squeezed her hand gently. "By Gaea's grace. Now to bed, enough of this for now. Let's go get some sleep."
"Tonight let me hold you," he whispered. His lover was tired. So tired, soul-weary. They lay on their sides before the warm flames, snuggled down in a bed of furs. The brush of soft bristles tingled on his skin as he moved closer to this lover, pressing his chest against that strong back, sliding his tawny hand across a naked hip and up over the striated muscles of his belly. His lover relaxed further into him and sighed contentedly. "Amta naur."
They moved together languidly, trading kisses and tender caresses as the fire warmed their bodies and their ardour heated their blood. He held him ever closer, wanting nothing more than to meld with this man, to claim and be claimed by his perfect body. But there would be time for that; now was for gentle loving, for the touches that said, "I am here, your cares are safe with me." He kissed him again, smoothing his hand down the hard planes of his chest. "Who are you?" he asked, licking a stripe over the shell of his lover's ear.
"You know me, amta ame. I am yours."
Harry yawned and stretched.
Another night, another dream. I really need to ask Etienne about this. He'll know what's going on.
Today he rushed through his morning ablutions and quickly drew on the white robes Etienne had told him were best suited for attending the funeral fires, as white was the customary colour of Kindred mourning.
Elly was just serving him breakfast when Etienne arrived. "Good morning, Harry."
"Did you have good news from your friends and did you sleep well?" Etienne asked, serving himself eggs from the bowl on the table.
Harry nodded around a piece of toast. "My friends are fine. They just want me to have a good time. And I slept well. I always sleep well here, but I've been having strange dreams."
Etienne looked up sharply from his plate. "What sorts of dreams?"
Harry shrugged. "I don't know exactly. Mostly," he blushed, "erotic dreams of a shadowy lover. I can't ever see him, but I feel I know him. It's like we've always been together, but what's weird is he speaks to me in Lurèaldon, so I know these aren't normal dreams. Do you know what's happening to me?"
Etienne smiled faintly. "Yes. These are Mates' Dreams. You have a Kindred mate, Harry. Whether he is the High Lord or not, I cannot say for I do not know, but I can say there is a soul that calls to yours for completion. These dreams happen rarely. You've been granted a gift."
"So," Harry leaned toward his guide, "these aren't something the High Lord sends to all the Intended?"
"Oh, no." Etienne shook his head. "No one can control such dreams. They are highly personal between mates. Perhaps they are guided by the gods and fates, but when the time is right your mate will be revealed to you. You will see and know his face."
Harry frowned. "But will I know soon? It's weird that I'm—well, it's like I'm being courted by two different people at the same time. I'm here for the Amoraj, and there's no guarantee that I'll end up with Draco, but I'm also meeting a man in my dreams that might or might not be Draco. How am I going to know who's the one for me?"
"The lover of your dreams is your mate. And perhaps it is our Lord. Though if it is not, there is no obstacle to you becoming friends with your one-time rival. The Courting invites a certain intimacy and it is my hope you will finally be able to put aside all traces of your former animosity toward Lord Draconis."
"Maybe." Harry shrugged. "I'm more willing to get to know him better. I like the man I've met, so far. It's just all very confusing, Etienne. I don't have any ready answers to anything."
"And no one says you have to at the moment, Harry. Continue as you have been, learning about us, being among us. You'll find the answers you seek. I must say that I am quite pleased about your dreams, that you will have a Kindred mate. I've grown quite fond of you and would like to have you around for some time yet."
Harry held his hands up in alarm. "Whoa, now, Etienne, don't go marrying me off just yet. I have a life in Britain, and I'm not just going to give everything up to move to The Citadel. If I have a mate here, then we're going to have to compromise."
"True, and those compromises will be for you to work out later." Etienne nodded gently. "But in the meanwhile I can start you on learning more about what you'll need to know as a mate. Things about bonds and our laws and customs. Things you'll eventually need to know should you accept your mate."
"What if I don't?" Harry sighed. "What if I just can't accept that I'm mated to a Kindred? In a way it's like having the fates mess with my life even more. I don't even get a choice in who I'll spend my life with? And what about kids? I want kids, Etienne. My dream lover is a man. I just don't know if any of this is going to work."
"Stop fretting, Harry," Etienne sighed. "Such a worrier. It will be...difficult for your mate should you decide to decline the bond. Very difficult. Kindred are not meant to go through life alone. It will be harder for him than it will be for you, as he will pine for perhaps a very long time, and eventually perish from grief."
Harry was horrified. "He'll die?"
"Yes." Etienne's mien was sober. "As I said, Harry, we are not meant to be alone. To be mated is our highest aspiration. That bond is paramount, and so profound that upon the death of one, the other will shortly follow, as the soul cannot be long separated from its twin. An incomplete bond will wear at the Kindred soul until there is no more lust for life, no more instinct to survive, and the spirit will fade."
"I'm holding the power over someone's life or death? Etienne, I don't want that kind of power!"
"It is as it must be, Harry. The fates have chosen you. There is nothing so sublime as bonding. This is not a punishment or a burden, Harry. This is a gift. Embrace it."
"So much to try to understand, to struggle with." Harry shook his head.
"Then take your time and work through it. I was going to bring you to the Great Gallery this morning, but I think instead you should take some time to do some reflecting. Go wander the Kynaston and I will find you when it is time to attend the fires."
"I think that might be a good idea. If I get lost can I call Elly from anywhere?"
"Yes," Etienne nodded. "She can find you anywhere in The Citadel and guide you back here. So, really, go exploring." He stood and smoothed down his long white tunic. "I hope you will find some peace in your wanderings, Harry."
Harry offered him a wobbly smile. "I'm going to try, Etienne. Thank you."
Harry set off, intent on going in whichever direction his feet took him. He stopped now and again to admire a sculpture here or a mosaic there; to make out the stories told in the carved banisters; to admire the detailing in the leafy cornices and the genius of the patterns on the tiled floors. For a long while he was content in a courtyard of fountains; and as spouts of water leapt merrily across a wide reflecting pool, he wondered.
Can I really tie myself to a stranger? Bind myself to him to save his life? What about my life? Would I be giving up everything? I love my job, helping people get well, but there are Healing Houses here and in other Kindred settlements. I love my friends, but there's nothing to say we can't still live near each other or visit often. Actually, there's nothing to say I have to make my life where he is...unless he is Draco, and then everything changes. I'd have to be a leader if my mate is Malfoy, someone people would depend on to help them run things. That'd be...a challenge. I'd have to learn all the intricacies of high society like I did for the Ministry those few years after the war before I started Healer training. But then I could really help change things, maybe—be that ambassador to help bring Kindred and Wizard society together. And I'd have the time to do it, since I'd be turned.
And Merlin, there's a frightening thought as well. What will it be like becoming a vampire? Enhanced senses, increased strength, longer life—nothing so terrible. Sharing blood? Etienne and Jasmine made it seem like something wondrous, miraculous even. I've always wanted to bond to someone deeply. To love and be loved like we're a universe unto ourselves...just like I feel in my dreams...
Harry sat back with a smile. They'd work out the details, but the rightness of acceptance resonated within him. Just like that it all clicked into place. He was going to be mated.
Despite the minefield he was currently picking his way through, Draco felt rested and clear-headed. He sent up a prayer of thanks to the gods and thoughts of gratitude to his faceless mate. For now he set his mind to the sparring grounds. From now on he planned to wear his knives at all times, and he needed to keep his skills as sharp as his steel. He'd taken a serious hit from the Hunters and could ill afford another such mistake, with so many enemies closing in on him.
He dressed in a white linen tunic and fawn dragonhide breeches, pulled on tan leather boots worn butter-soft by so much use, and set out to met Fidel on the field.
His guards posted sentry on the balconies above the training ground and Draco climbed down the flight of worn stone steps to wait for his training partner. The ground was hard beneath his feet; beaten and tramped down over countless centuries, the earth was packed firmly.
He stood waiting, stretching, oblivious to how the sun beamed down, burnishing the white-gold tresses that tumbled down his shoulders. Unaware of the beauty in his poise or the brilliant flash of life in his quicksilver eyes.
Centred and ready, he went through the motions of his routine. Through countless practices the movements had become second nature, the rhythm ingrained. It was like a dance he could lose himself in, step following step, thrust following parry; over and again he glided through each stance, every movement offering an attack or defence against unseen foes.
Fidel arrived and the combatants saluted each other. The newcomer charged first. Draco offered little challenge in the beginning, choosing to allow his partner to push him back. But he met the charge with fluid economy of movement, blocking blows easily.
He surged forward then, advancing toward Fidel and pushing the sword master back, attacking faster and faster, the flashing blades swinging dangerously as he targeted the other man's stomach, arm, then neck and chest. They circled each other, dancing a hazardous waltz.
From the fountain courtyard Harry had followed the sound of clanging steel and stood now on a balcony overlooking the training yard. He was amazed by the strength and speed and agility of the sword fighters. And his breath caught when he realised that one of the fair-haired warriors below him was Draco.
He watched, mesmerised, as the pair traded attacks in an unpredictable rhythm, faster and more ruthless as long minutes passed. Finally he saw where Draco's opponent had left his right side exposed, having not shifted back far enough to align himself after his last parry. It was a minor flaw in his stance, but the High Lord pressed his advantage, and with a swiping thrust he backed the other man into the wall with a blade against his throat.
"I yield," Harry heard the man say. Then Draco took a step back and they bowed to each other.
Unable to help himself, Harry clapped his hands in appreciation of the amazing display of strength and strategy he'd witnessed. He realised a moment too late that the combatants hadn't known they'd drawn a spectator, and he flushed with embarrassment but called out anyway. "That was fantastic!"
Draco raised his hand to his eyes to make out the figure on the balcony. After a moment, he realised it wasn't the bright sun that obscured his vision and grinned. "Seketh ame! Well met. Come down and join us!"
Harry felt out of place but did as he was bidden, making his way slowly down the long stone staircase. "I didn't mean to interrupt," he said as soon as he was near enough to be heard without shouting.
"No, it's no problem really," Draco smiled. "Fidel and I could use the constructive criticism if you have some to offer." He shook his head, chuckling. "Don't bother if you're just going to tell me how much I was off form, though."
"I don't know enough about swordplay to tell either way, I'm afraid." Harry shrugged. "But I did think you were both very good. Congratulations on the win, your Lordship, er—Highness, um..."
The High Lord chucked more again. "Just Draco, Raure. Which reminds me that I have no manners. Sword master Fidel, this is Intended Raure. Raure, sword master Fidel of Corbinian."
"I am honoured to make your acquaintance, Intended." Fidel bowed deeply.
"And I yours." Harry held out his hand and the two men shook. He was taken aback by the heavy calluses and the number of scars on the sword master's weathered hand.
The ruddy-faced Kindred smiled at Harry's shocked look. "I've taken many hits over the years. Not all of my students were as fast to learn as our Lord."
"Flattery will get you nowhere, old friend." Draco smirked and slung a nearby towel around his neck. "I plan to pummel you tomorrow as well."
"You can try." Fidel inclined his head slightly. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have second year guards to train in fifteen minutes."
"Of course." Draco nodded. "Thank you for the match."
"It is my pleasure, Abre hin."
As the sword master walked away, Draco turned to Harry. "What brings you this far into the Kynaston without your guide, Intended?"
"I just needed to clear my head a bit. I was planning to call one of the house servants to help me get back."
"Well, then, since I need to go that way, how about if I accompany you instead?"
"Is that allowed? I mean, it's not our Courting day yet. Is it okay that we're together?"
"Yes." Draco smiled again. "It would be very inconvenient if I had to avoid all the places I might run into an Intended through the entire Amoraj. The Day of Courting is for us to spend some concentrated time together, but there's no rule against us conversing or meeting each other outside of that time. Abigail Joyce, one of the newly Honoured, was here a month before the next Intended showed up. We spent several evenings together playing chess, actually. Delightful woman."
"I noticed that all the Honoured were women. Do you have a preference for men?"
"No, I have no preferences—or had none, I should say—but I felt that my mate would be male. And the Presentation just confirmed it."
Harry cocked his head and shot Draco a sideways look. "Does it bother you at all, having to marry someone you barely know? Tying yourself to someone for life based on a few days of talking?"
Draco guided Harry up the stairs with his hand on the small of his back. "Not really. Before my transformation I had expected that mine would be an arranged marriage. I look at this a little in the same vein. We won't know each other all that well in the beginning, but with time and effort we will grow something fulfilling and moving for both of us. The Great Mother has led me to this point in my life, Raure; I have not been wrong to trust in her. She will guide me to the one I am meant to be with, I fully believe that. And honestly, I look forward to it."
"I'm glad you have that kind of faith."
"Do you not?"
"No, I do. I've come to accept a lot of things in the last few days. And I think things will work out exactly as they're meant to."
"It's good to have faith." Draco patted the spot where his hand sat on Harry's back, sending a rush of warmth through Harry, and the wizard smiled.
It took them nearly an hour to get back to Harry's apartment. They talked a fair bit of the things Harry had enjoyed best during his stay so far. Debated the outcome of the last Quidditch World Cup. And of course, Draco answered Harry's stream of questions. He was laughing heartily at his companion when they reached the suite's doors. "You are too much, Raure. Etienne was so right about you."
In good spirits Harry playfully narrowed his eyes. "And just what was that?"
"Oh, no! Don't go getting me in trouble, my Lord." Etienne turned the corner and came up quickly on the High Lord and Intended.
"All right," Draco smirked, "I'll keep your secrets. And leave you to your charge and his thousand and one questions." The vampire lord turned to leave. "It was good to have some time with you, Raure. I will see you both at the fires. Goenan rindha."
He'd rounded the corner when he heard Raure ask his guide, "What does that phrase mean?" and laughed aloud. The wizard's curiosity and impetuosity were so refreshing. Raure was proving more intriguing upon every encounter.