Hello, everyone. I know this chapter is way overdue, and you have my sincerest apologies. Trust that it couldn't be help. I hope to have updates on more regular basis now about every three to four weeks.
Chapter 5: Instincts and Failed Traps
The sheet wasn't actually so bad. It was quite comfortable, in fact, which was important in a sitting where one couldn't move for long stretches of time. There was some initial awkwardness when Vicky and Baillargeon had stared, transfixed on the curious palm and crescent moon brand on his chest, but professionalism eventually kicked in and both pretended they hadn't seen anything at all. When Harry was being positioned for the sitting, however, he noted that Baillargeon arranged the sheet in just such a way that just a bare corner of the brand was exposed, hinting at what lay beneath.
After that, things got very dull very quickly.
While Baillargeon was sketching, Harry could not move. He couldn't even look around, which was a pity given the veritable treasure trove of objects surrounding him. On the back of his chair, Bobby preened and fidgeted but said nothing. His sole source of distraction was Vicky, who was dutifully reading the dossier on the members of the British representatives he would be meeting in a few hours.
"Lord Aldric Fullenger is recently transferred from Head of Public Information-" which everyone understood to be the department in charge of censorship "-to the Head of the new Department of Trade. He is from Wales and sometimes starts speaking Welsh when he is agitated. He has a daughter named Aldis who graduated Hogwarts two years ago. Does she sound familiar?"
"Lady Celandine Holst is Chairman of the City Council of Wizarding London and the third most independently wealthy witch in the British Isles. She's unmarried, but is the guardian to her four nieces. You probably know one of them; Angelina Johnson."
"Yes, we were in Quidditch and Dueling Club together. She's a friend of sorts."
"You might try starting a conversation with her then. Lady Holst is a good associate to have if you plan to spend time in London. Where were we? Ah... Admiral Almeric Pondsetter of the British Wizarding Navy."
"I didn't know we had a navy."
"Don't tell him that, please. We've had a navy long before we had the Culties. How do you think Britain enforced the embargo? And of course, they're in charge of security around Azkaban. Anyway, he's an older gentleman. Widowed-"
There was a knock at the door, and Harry instinctively turned his head, earning him an angry hiss from Baillargeon. The door opened as a Musketeer Harry vaguely recognized as Fleur's mentor entered the room.
"Her Majesty Queen Ophelia is requesting an audience with Ambassador Potter," he announced formally. Harry turned to Vicky, who looked just as surprised as he did. She cleared her throat.
"Of course," Vicky said. "Please allow Lord Potter a moment to slip into something...more appropriate."
"If it is all the same to you," Balthus said, looking a little amused, "she said she didn't want to interrupt the sitting. Please don't get up."
Harry gaped at him.
"I'm not sure I'm comfortable-"
But the Musketeer was already pulling open the door. Fleur entered and brought in a chair that she set across from Harry so that his head was turned in the same direction it had been before the interruption. She gave him a wink, and he felt himself blushing from head to toe. He could only watch helplessly as Queen Ophelia entered shortly after. Baillargeon and Vicky both curtsied respectfully as she entered. Harry could have curtsied as well in his billowing sheet but hoped she wasn't expecting him to.
"Forgive the intrusion," she said as she took her seat, looking anything but remorseful. She didn't, in fact, look anything but neutral, as if it were perfectly normal for her to have conversations with naked people. And maybe it was. How would he know?
He tried to remain equally unbothered and was surprised when he succeeded. He wasn't, honestly, embarrassed about his lack of clothes. His time at the werewolf colony had cured him of any sort of body shyness, and if no one was there to disapprove of his state of undress then he didn't feel any inclination to be ashamed of it.
What did make him uncomfortable, however, was the Queen herself. He had spoken privately with the woman before, but it had been very briefly and under less controversial circumstances. Sitting alone with her now, her expression unreadable and her intentions equally so, made him uneasy. Whatever she wished to speak to him about, it apparently was too serious for the breakfast table.
They studied each other for a long moment. Harry's eyes darted around from her face to her posture to her bodyguards standing around the room and then to the wand resting in her lap. Her eyes settled on his face and did not waver or blink. She may as well have been the one sitting for the portrait. The tension in the room quickly became oppressive.
Harry and the Queen both jumped at the unexpected cry of the raven. Fleur and Balthus had pulled their wands on instinct as well, but when Harry looked up at Bobby he found him preening his feathers nonchalantly and ignoring everyone. He settled back and so did the rest of the room's occupants.
"Is there something you wished to ask me, Your Highness?" he said now that the tension seemed to have been broken.
"There is, but it is a delicate subject. Would you object to a privacy charm?"
"That would be fine."
In fact, he was quite eager to see her perform magic, having never witnessed her do so before. She lifted her wand, a long and elegant instrument of pale ash wood, and swished it in the telltale crossing motion of a Muting Privacy Charm. She did not speak the words, but her eyes drooped in concentration and for a moment her focus was not on him. Her magic washed over him, a chilly, clean sensation that reminded him of still winter nights. He let out a soft sigh, half expecting his breath to mist in the air.
"We may speak freely now," she said. "Lord Potter, you are known as an honest person, and despite what my advisers say, I don't believe that automatically makes you a fool."
Harry grimaced slightly. He wondered if her advisors would find him less foolish if they knew just how dishonest he could actually be with the secrets he kept, one of them currently preening his feathers above him.
"I believe you are not unaware of the character and the power of your lord and patron, and that for all your showy affection for the man, you have the sense to fear him as well. My question to you then is this; what binds you in loyalty to Lord Voldemort? Fear or love? And how far are you willing to go to support him in his cause? How much will you forgive him?"
Harry was struck speechless. She was not the first to ask him that question. It had been asked by a number of people in different ways and in different circumstances, even by the Dark Lord himself. He should have been prepared with an answer, an honest one as she was requesting because she wasn't a fool either and nothing he said would likely surprise her. The only problem was that despite the number of times he had been asked these questions in the past his answer had never quite been the same each time. Each answer had been customized to the people and circumstances, and even his own understanding at the moment. He hadn't been dishonest, but he had more than likely simplified an extremely complicated answer.
He considered this for a long time. The Queen sensed his deliberation and remained quiet. Across from them, working quickly but mutely Baillargeon sketched away behind her easel, looking up periodically to study him intently. After several minutes had passed, Harry sighed.
"Fear or love... love, I suppose. I've feared plenty of people, some who demanded loyalty too, but it never stuck the same way love did. Having said that though... I need to explain that the reason I am loyal to him is the same reason he terrifies me."
There was a pause, but the Queen did not speak to fill the silence. She had patiently waited for him to think of an answer, and she continued to wait until he had given it completely.
"I'm sorry, I know that wasn't very clear. Do you know the source of the Dark Lord's power?" he asked. She nodded, but he doubted she did. He doubted anyone who wasn't actually a practicing pagan understood what precisely Voldemort had tapped into. "Don't be misled by his title. Dark magic isn't it. Not in the way most people think of it. He is a pagan. His power comes from the earth, just as all magic comes from the earth. The reason he has so much power is because... is because it has been bequeathed to him. The earth wants him to have it. Can you imagine that? It's a terrible, beautiful thing, deserving of both love and fear... and loyalty."
"Especially from a fellow pagan," she said softly, her expression gentling to something almost pitying.
"Yes," he acknowledged. "You asked me how much I would support him. I will support him as much as my conscience allows, which is perhaps more than a lot of people are comfortable with and considerably less than they fear. As for what I could forgive him... I could probably forgive him just about anything. He has a purpose in life, and it's forced him to view the world in terms of centuries and countries rather than moments and individuals. Sometimes it makes him behave cruelly, arrogantly, and self-centeredly, and I try to curb that in him when I can and accept it when I can't. It's a price he has had to pay to maintain his sanity, or perhaps it was the nature of his character to begin with and that was why he was chosen. I don't know, and it doesn't really matter either way."
Again there was silence between them, this time on the Queen's part as Harry waited for her to respond. While he waited, he considered his answer. It was, like all times previous, an oversimplification. He could not, in truth, forgive the Dark Lord anything and everything. Not immediately anyway. Even now he held grudges and resentments. That didn't mean, however, that he couldn't understand why Voldemort had done the things he had done and accept them, and given time he could let them go. Even the situation with Hermione, as much as he despised it, was something he could understand despite the injustice of it. Forgiveness, he thought, would probably come too easily once Hermione's name was cleared and she came home. Even his statement that he was loyal wasn't entirely honest, since he regularly deceived and undermined the Dark Lord, worked for and against him, and usually never felt the slightest twinge of conscience for it. And yet, he did love the Dark Lord, if love was what you could call it. He admired him, certainly, and was endlessly charmed and captivated by him, even as he was disgusted and frustrated and enraged by him. They understood each other in ways that no one else could ever hope to and shared a dreamer's optimism for the future. But they lied and used each other remorselessly and were at odds as often as they were in agreement.
None of that he ever intended to tell Queen Ophelia unless he wanted to make her believe he was completely insane.
"You said he has a purpose," began the Queen after a long moment. "What does that purpose have to do with France?"
Suddenly, he felt like an idiot. He had been so busy thinking of an answer to her question, that he hadn't stopped to consider why she was asking. Of course she was worried about her country and what Voldemort's intentions towards it were.
"I don't know. I don't think he has any intentions towards France yet. Well, nothing he hasn't already made clear anyway."
"Yet?" she asked earnestly.
"What do you want me to say? He's probably going to at least a couple centuries. I can't promise he and France are going to get along the entire time. For the moment, it's kind of a non-issue."
"Lord Potter, it is certainly an issue for me."
He gave her a helpless look. He honestly had nothing else he could offer her. As far as he knew, Voldemort was quite content to let France simply remain his ally, but he wasn't naïve enough to think the Dark Lord might not have some scheme in the works he didn't know about. He genuinely hoped not.
She sensed his genuine lack of knowledge on the matter and let it go. She maintained her dignity by keeping her expression neutral, but he thought she must be irritated with the lack of information. He felt guilty he couldn't find something to appease her, and then relieved that his ignorance absolved him of the expectation.
"Thank you for taking the time to speak with me," she said. "I wish you the best of luck this afternoon with the negotiations. Good day, Lord Potter."
"It was an honor, your Majesty," he replied and dipped his head towards her in place of a bow. She left, taking her bodyguards with her. She forgot to remove the silencing charm, however, and once she had left, Bobby took the opportunity to speak.
"Forgive him anything?" Bobby asked indignantly.
Harry smirked up at him.
"Jealousy doesn't suit you, brother."
The raven was not amused.
"I hope you were lying," he chastised. "Not even Carrigan believed the Dark Lord's ends justified his means. If not, you need to start asking yourself some very hard questions before you end up doing something for that creature that you will never be able to forgive yourself for. Or that anyone else would for that matter."
Before Harry could deliver his reply, an irritated little quip Bobby probably didn't deserve, the silencing charm was suddenly banished, and he was faced with still more scolding, this time by a highly irritated Baillargeon snarling at him in French. Harry was by no means fluent in French, but he believed the gist of it was 'stop moving around, you idiot'.
Somewhat sullenly, he shut his mouth and resumed his pose. Once he had settled, however, he had little opportunity to do anything other than think about Bobby's warning. He did not like where his thoughts took him.
Snape's leg was already starting to ache when he arrived in Paris via the floo station on Rue Euler, a minor street not far from the Arc de Triomphe. His pain was unpleasant, but the resulting limp added some authenticity to his disguise. He had changed out of his finer clothes and into the plain black robes characteristic of potions masters before leaving the palace. He let his hair hang loose and refrained from washing it that morning, so that combined with his limp he gave the impression of being a seedy potions peddler one might find in Knockturn Alley or any other wizarding slum in the Western world.
He cast a Disillusionment Charm while walking the muggle streets, but once he had reached the wizarding street of Rue de Sirène he allowed it to drop away. The place was crowded, and wizards were not the primary denizens. Half-blooded faeries and gypsies had lined the street with stalls or else squawked their wares from lower levels of their tenements, while full-blooded faeries, other sentient creatures, and a few of the braver wizarding folk kept one eye on the merchandise and the other on the roving bands of pick-pocketing street urchins. Snape fit right in and even indulged in snarling like a dog at a freckle-faced pixie who inched just a little too close to him.
He meandered from stall to stall, lingering occasionally at a booth containing rarer specimens of potions ingredients.
"This is good quality hydra skin," he remarked to one of the merchants in French, as he examined a jar of the purple-gray flesh emulsified in what looked like a common muggle bell jar.
"You buying it?" asked the merchant, a young gypsy girl looking exceptionally bored.
"Yes, and some of the dragon's blood. Is it Norwegian Ridgeback?"
"Norwegian's illegal," she remarked, still sounding bored although her eyes betrayed her sudden interest. "It's Russian Ridgeback. Just as good."
"No it isn't," he said bluntly. "Never mind the dragon's blood, then. If you don't have Norwegian then you probably don't have anything else I require. Just the hydra skin."
The gypsy girl took his money for the skin, her dark sharp eyes flickering to his heavy coin purse just as he knew it would. He moved on to some other stalls, repeating this action several times, although he left without purchasing anything more often than not. This continued for another half an hour, the tedium broken only once when he hexed the persistent pixie attempting to slide his slender, bird-like fingers into his cloak after his coins. Barely anyone even looked up when the creature shrieked and ran away, a trail of blue-green feathers falling behind him.
After that he took a break at a small cafe so he could sit down and rest his leg and have some coffee while he waited. The fish that took the bait was a surly looking gypsy with a strong resemblance to the bored girl he had purchased the hydra skin from. He sat himself down across from Snape at his small table and glared at him. Snape simply stared back at him blandly, occasionally sipping his coffee, and waited.
"You looking for Norwegian?" the stranger asked, his French accented with something more Eastern.
"Among other things," Snape said coolly.
"No one here recognizes you."
"I'm from England," he said.
The man looked confused.
"No. I am an English citizen."
"What are you doing here?"
"I don't see how that is any of your business," Snape replied and took a sip of his coffee. "Unless of course, you're looking to do business of some kind?"
The man regarded him suspiciously, but finally nodded.
"It may be I have what you are looking for or can get it for you. It won't be cheap."
"I'm a professional, Monsieur…?"
"…Monsieur Belikoff. I am not a lost tourist nor am I desperate for what you can provide. If you attempt to swindle me, I can and will walk away and find someone else more reasonable, but if you play fair with me I can guarantee you not only my continued business but also recommend you to a number of my British associates willing to travel all the way to Paris for what these foreign markets have to offer."
Belikoff studied him shrewdly, his dark eyes deceptively intelligent beneath his low forehead. Snape stared back with indifferent patience. Eventually sensing Snape was not a man to be either intimidated or dismissed, the man nodded.
"Let's do business. Please follow me."
Snape nodded and followed after the man when he stood. Belikoff lumbered through the back street, parting the crowds with his large frame as he went while the potions master followed behind easily in his wake. They didn't have far to go. At the north end of the street was a tall, narrow shop squashed between two other buildings. The building looked abandoned from the outside, boards nailed over the lower windows and the plaster façade rotting and falling unchecked on the street. The only sign that the building was occupied was a sign painted in some Slavic dialect hanging from the front door. Belikoff knocked once and showed Snape inside.
The room they entered was only a little larger than what it appeared to be from the outside. It looked like a cross between a kitchen and workshop, with cauldrons and knives and hammers and bits and pieces of equipment piled up and strewn about a narrow galley. Reptile skins and herbs hung from the ceiling on hooks to dry, making the air reek of dead things and flowers. It was also dark, the boarded up windows offering little illumination, but Snape perceived a figure working at a table, hovering over the corpse of some beast and steadily rending it down bit by bit into potion ingredients.
Belikoff gestured for him to wait while he went to speak to the figure in a language he didn't know. When the mysterious figure responded, Snape realized it was a woman, and an old one at that. The two spoke for some time, the old woman clearly irritated, but finally conceding something or other. She shuffled out of the room and returned a moment later with a flagon which she walked over to Snape herself. As she drew closer he could see the deep setting of her wrinkles and estimated she was likely a hundred at least.
"Twenty lupes*," she said without introduction.
"No," Snape said just as bluntly. She looked startled for a moment and then narrowed her eyes.
"Twenty or you go away."
"Then I go away and you get nothing."
She put her hands on her hips.
"Not unless you bled the beast this morning," Snape sniffed.
"I might have," she snapped.
"I didn't. Seventeen."
"Seventeen for the dragon's blood and your freshest sprig of weirroot. I see you have some there."
The old woman looked ready to argue, but Snape crossed his arms and glared at her, conveying that he was quickly running out of patience.
"It is a deal."
"You want tea?" the old woman asked absently as she went about wrapping up the flagon and the dried weirroot. "It is too early for real drink, but they say you English like tea."
Snape didn't want to drink any tea she made in her filthy work room, but he nodded and sat down on a stool Belikoff brought him. Now that business was done with, he could get down to his true purpose.
"It seemed rather crowded out on the street. I take it they started crowding into France when the German markets shut down. Must be hard for business, all that competition out there."
The old woman shrugged.
"They are fine. Mostly it is the extended family of the locals. They help their relatives run their businesses while they stay. It's crowded, but that is fine."
"Werewolves?" Snape asked, masking his natural contempt for the word as he glanced pointedly at Belikoff. Amongst gypsies, more than most Wizarding ethnicities, lycanthropy was a relatively common blight.
"Some," replied the old woman. "It is nothing new. Being run out from one place or another. It is less common nowadays, but not unexpected. For Romani, home is with the people, not the place."
"And have you people still in Germany?"
She clearly didn't like to discuss the matter, particularly with a stranger. Belikoff was busying himself with something, possibly the tea, in the darkness at the far end of the shop, but Snape could still feel his distrustful gaze in the dimness.
"You must be relieved the British have won then. I hear Potter is here in person to oversee the release of the werewolf prisoners. He is a powerful ally to have."
"Yes," the old woman agreed with a measured neutrality. Despite her offer of tea, she seemed unenthusiastic about her own hospitality. "Very powerful. Young, but powerful."
"I should like to meet him myself."
The woman just looked at him, apparently not trusting herself to say anything that would reveal how silly and irrelevant she found that statement. He gave her a hard look to reassure her he was not just making idle conversation.
"Who would I speak with to arrange this?" he asked.
"How would I know such a thing? Shouldn't you be speaking to some English government type?" she said impatiently, this time doing nothing to hide her scorn.
"If I were in England, then yes. And I have tried that route and failed. But since I am in France, there are alternative methods and opportunities available."
"Nothing a Romani would know about. That's not a circle we deal with. Not in France, in any event."
"No, but someone with the connections to obtain the blood of a Norwegian Ridgeback and several other illegal potions ingredients I can identify from where I sit without the authorities busting down their door… Well, I suppose you must have connections of a different variety. A connection I believe you have or at the very least have heard of."
She remained silent for a time, considering. On the other side of the work room a kettle started to whistle.
"What's in it for me?" she said finally.
Snape smirked, knowing he was about to get precisely what he had truly come for in the first place.
Harry spent the remainder of his sitting in a special sort of hell. His mind was whirling with anxious thoughts, but he was forced to keep his body still and his expression consistent. His mind continued to circle around his conversation with the Queen, and the more he thought about it the more convinced he became that it had been a minor disaster. She must have come away thinking him a silly child or a fool, just as her advisors had warned her. He certainly felt that way himself at the moment.
Despite his own self-recrimination, he wasn't sure how else he could have responded and that perhaps only made him feel even more stupid. For better or worse, it was likely that he was going to be in similar situations in the future, where he was cornered by some powerful or influential person wanting to question him. He couldn't possibly bumble through such an encounter a second time.
"Is there time to visit Lord Voldemort before lunch?" Harry asked as he dressed behind the curtained backdrop. The props had all disappeared back into the painter's strange box, with the exception of Bobby, who seemed to have disappeared into thin air. Baillargeon was back behind her easel, already beginning to paint despite the absence of a model. Harry would have liked to have seen her work firsthand, but as an artist himself he knew it would be impolite to look before it was completed.
"You have a little while to spare for yourself, but the Dark Lord is probably busy. I doubt he'll be free before later this evening."
"I guess it was too much to expect given the situation," he said. This was a disappointment. He had wanted to tell the Dark Lord about his interview with the Queen and perhaps get some advice on how to handle the situation in the future. He might have settled for Snape's council, but the man had disappeared that morning. He fastened his dress cloak back on and stepped out from behind the curtain.
"Is something wrong?" Vicky asked anxiously. She must have been worried ever since the Queen had left, but Harry wasn't sure what to tell her.
"No. Nothing serious. Come on. Let's go take a walk on the grounds or something. I'm stiff from all this sitting around."
"Of course, Harry."
They toured the garden for about half an hour, Vicky quizzing him on the people he was supposed to know as they walked. Then it was time for lunch. He had hoped he might have the opportunity to speak to Voldemort during lunch, assuring them privacy through the use of Parseltongue. His hope was quickly dashed when he arrived at the dining room and found he had been assigned a seat at the end of a very long table, opposite and therefore furthest from the Dark Lord, who naturally sat at its head. Between them were nearly fifty British wizards and witches who would make up the Dark Lord's council during the negotiations. Even if Harry had been sat adjacent to the man, it was soon clear Voldemort had an agenda for the gathering that would not be curtailed by private conversation.
"Let us go over our approach to the negotiations. I cannot stress enough the importance of remaining civil throughout the proceedings. I will not tolerate sarcasm or rudeness from our side of the room. We are the victors; we have no reason to stoop to petty name calling or fits of indignation. That being said, it is important that we establish our dominant position early…"
The Dark Lord proceeded to lay out his plans for the negotiations as if they were plans for the war itself. Maybe they were exactly the same to the man, Harry thought pessimistically. As the Dark Lord spoke, they all ate silently, at least one eye on their leader at all times. It was lite fare, heavy on sugar but low on carbs. Something Harry might eat before a Quidditch match to keep energized without risk of becoming lethargic.
After the Dark Lord was done speaking, he invited everyone to ask questions. Harry ducked out. Vicky was waiting for him out in the hall. She looked worried about his early withdrawal from lunch.
"It's nothing. It's just not really relevant to me, you know? I'm here as an observer, not a participant. I've got the gist of it."
They returned to his rooms to change into his uniform. He might have only been an observer, but he would also be observed and was required to make a suitable presentation. His uniform, black with its crisp straight lines, had always made him look simultaneously dangerous and civilized. Not to mention taller. The Dark Lord had even presented him with new medals to attach to it, one silver and white and another dark green and black, for 'Exceptional Valor' and 'Exceptional Use of Magic' during the Battle of Kent and the Great Battle of Hogwarts. He couldn't remember which medal was for which battle or which commendation, but it seemed too pretentious for him to ask and even worse that he didn't already know. Then again, the Dark Lord had probably given them to him because they were some of the few medals that didn't clash with the uniform.
He had to forego his usual black, fur-lined coat for a deep gray half-cloak that distinguished his 'dress' uniform from his 'working' uniform. He was also forced to leave behind his wand. No one was allowed to bring weapons into the negotiations, and this extended to wands in particular. Its absence on his person made him feel antsy and vaguely chill. He substituted it with his charmed straight razor, which he folded into his sleeve. With the anti-cutting charm active it wouldn't set off the wards, but a little wandless magic on his part could render it a weapon within seconds.
It was a small but tangible comfort.
"Nervous?" Vicky asked.
"No," he said honestly. "Should I be?"
"I guess not, but you do seem rather restless. Did the Queen say something to upset you? What did you two talk about?" she asked as she straightened his clothes.
"Just things. I think I made a fool of myself."
"She knows you are not a fool."
He smiled at her ruefully.
"That makes one of us then."
She generously changed the subject for him, and they bantered on easier things. She teased him about getting a girlfriend. He teased that since she got married he hadn't been able to look at another woman. Eventually an aide arrived to inform them it was time to head to the assembly.
When he arrived, Harry found that despite his relatively modest attire, he stood out amidst the gathered diplomats and politicians like a grease stain on a Persian carpet. Of the nearly one hundred people there, all were dressed in a rainbow collage of sashes, medals, heraldry, jewels, hair ribbons, scarves and handkerchiefs, wigs, and uniforms. Harry's inner artist cringed at the garish mismatch of colors, while the rest of him felt suddenly self-conscious. Had he made yet another faux pas today by dressing so simply? Should he have worn his family ring? Should he have charmed his cloak green to break up the monochrome of his outfit?
He did his best to conceal his uncertainty as he stepped into the amphitheater and several heads turned to watch him enter. There was a considerable amount of whispers behind hands and contemptuous looks, but it wasn't anything Harry hadn't dealt with before. It seemed all that awkward classroom infamy he had gone through had at least proved to be useful preparation for today.
His seat was clear on the far end of the room and towards the front. He felt the weight of dozens of curious and hostile stares as he moved through the crowded room, and the low burn of agitated magic as he went. If he hadn't been nervous before, he certainly was now, but it was difficult to say if it was his own reaction or some sort of magical empathy triggered by his magus hypersentia. It was unpleasant either way, and he was happy when he finally managed to find his place, one side protected by the window and his back by a group of his own countrymen.
"You shouldn't look so grim, young man," someone said to him in German. Harry turned to the man seated one row ahead of him. He was dressed in white robes with a dark blue cloak with some sort of heraldry on it. He was only about as tall as Harry, but heavier set, a neatly groomed beard with a tuft of silver at his chin, and eyes so dark and cunning they instantly reminded him of Snape. His voice, however, was lower and held a patient amusement his potions master never did. "You look ready to leap on someone and bite their head off."
Harry let his lips pull back into what Hermione had called his 'werewolf smile', all teeth and predatory pleasure.
"Perhaps I am."
The man did not shrink away, but his dark eyes flitted quickly up and down Harry as if to assess him anew.
"Perhaps you are. I am Lord Kruger of Hamburg. It is an honor to meet the infamous Ambassador Potter at last."
Harry's grim smile softened to genuine amusement. He tried to remember what Vicky had told him about Kruger, but the only thing that came to mind was that he was exceptionally rich. Which described just about everyone there.
"An honor I am not sure many of your countrymen share, Lord Kruger."
"They are understandably bitter. You have quite injured their pride on several different occasions."
"But not yours? Do you not consider yourself a German?" he baited, unable to help himself.
The elder wizard, it appeared, had a werewolf smile of his own that he shared with Harry.
"I am a Kruger first and a German second, and as a Kruger I can admire a defeat by a skilled opponent. Especially when that opponent is a fellow Kruger."
Harry gave him a perplexed look.
"Ah, didn't you know? 'Kruger' is German for 'Potter'. We share a great-great-grandfather in common."
It wasn't until then that Harry looked more closely at the heraldry on the back of Kruger's robe. It did, in fact, closely resemble the Potter family crest, although it favored blue over red which was why he had likely missed it at first.
He felt himself suddenly at a loss for words. What did one say in the face of an unexpected family reunion with the enemy?
"One should know their ancestry, Lord Potter," Kruger admonished gently. "Especially in the wizarding world. If you find yourself so inclined, it would please me to show you at least one part of it. The Kruger castle is small but easily the most beautiful wizarding castle in Germany, and one of the most historically significant. There is much that you might find benefit in knowing."
"I will consider it," he said. And really, what else could he say? It was too sudden, and who knew how much if any of it was true? Then there was the small matter of what Voldemort would say to all this. Voldemort had been stingy when it came to releasing his family inheritance and even more so with his family history. Would he want Harry establishing further ties with his relations, especially those in Germany? Perhaps he would, as a means of introducing Harry into German society under the Kruger name, just as the Potter name had established him among the Purebloods in Britain. And if that were the case, did he even want to present the idea and be forced into an alliance with the Kruger family that he didn't truly want to be a part of?
The elder wizard politely withdrew after that and took his seat. A few of his fellow Brits seated behind him asked what the man had wanted, clearly suspicious, but Harry politely declined answering. It wasn't any of their business.
The time to begin drew near and everyone started to take their seats. Harry found a transcribeligraph, or t-scriptor for short, at his desk. He had seen similar ones at Durmstrang, where richer students whose first language wasn't German would use them to take notes for them in class and then translate them to their own native tongue. They were considerably more sophisticated than quik-quote quills. He opened the large black book to the first page, completely blank except for the line running straight down the middle of it. A quick glance around the room showed that everyone else had one as well.
"Please rise for Lord Voldemort, the Great Protector of Wizarding Britain," a voice rang out over the assembly, cutting through the dull roar of voices. The noise died away to be replaced by the harsh scraping and thuds of chairs being pushed back as those seated rose.
Voldemort strode out onto the platform from an antechamber, and the polite silence turned into a stunned one.
The Dark Lord had changed before coming as well. And where Harry had stood out as a grease stain, Lord Voldemort stood out as a blood stain. He was dressed from head to toe in an unvarying shade of deep crimson: his robes, his shoes, his gloves, his cravat, his cufflinks, everything. Even his eyes, which Harry was used to being a russet color, now seemed to glow to match his sanguine attire. It should have been garish, even comically overdramatic, but on the Dark Lord it looked supernatural and ominous, as if one of the old blood gods had deigned to reveal himself to a rabble.
Voldemort's gaze swept the room, unhurried and unreadable, exerting an air of absolute control over himself and the room. His eyes finished their sweep and settled briefly on Harry. The young wizard closed his gaping mouth with an audible click of his teeth. He mentally shook himself and glowered back at the man, irritated that he could still be caught off guard by the man's aura of power even after all this time. He recovered quickly, but the rest of the room continued to stare in muted horror. The Dark Lord, although his expression remained unchanging, basked in their undivided attention and did nothing to break them out of it.
The silence stretched. Harry grew bored and reached for his watch, feeling the familiar pleasure at having it back with him again. Then he snapped it shut, the sound carrying through the silent room like a shattering glass. The sound seemed to break the spell, and suddenly everyone couldn't seem to get back into their seats quick enough. It might have been his imagination, but he thought the Dark Lord sighed in disappointment.
After that, it was straight to business. The Dark Lord presided over the assembly, and outlined the agenda for that day and the general rules all were expected to follow. Voldemort would present the terms of the Treaty, the Germans would concede, question, argue, or request amendments over the terms while the British wizards provided counsel to the Dark Lord.
Harry was bored within ten minutes.
He tried to follow along for another fifteen, referencing his t-scriptor when he found his thoughts had drifted. Eventually he gave up. It wasn't that he didn't understand the importance of what was happening; it was only that there was nothing he could do about it. He was not a counselor. The only expertise he could offer was perhaps on the werewolves, and they were not on the docket that day and probably wouldn't be until tomorrow or the day after.
There were too many other personally relevant matters going on for him to pay much attention to 'Rates of Restitution' and 'Magical Disarmament Policies' and other convoluted subjects he didn't really understand. Bobby's merciless remonstration about his forgiveness towards Voldemort was the first thing to dominate his thoughts, triggered most likely by his ominous presence within the room. The monstrous nature of his patron had ceased to surprise him, but his own acceptance of it was discomfiting. He did not like to think of himself as an amoral person. In fact, he sometimes fancied himself the closest thing to a conscience the Dark Lord had. But it didn't change the fact that there were still things the man did, much of it Harry was sure he was unaware of, that he had no influence over and likely never would. It would be impossible to cut his ties with Voldemort unless the man allowed it, but did that mean he had to be so accepting of the man's dark nature? When would that nature start to become his own? How far would he have to go before Harry could no longer accept it?
This thought inevitably led to others. Hermione was still on the lam for a crime she had not committed, and she would be punished if she was ever found. Meanwhile, Draco, who needed his adoptive sister more than ever, had drifted into a dark place when those most suited to give him support were unavailable. Even Hogwarts, a sanctuary and a distraction, was gone and not likely to reopen any time soon. Snape was precariously perched on the edge of the Dark Lord's bad side and dangerously close to being tipped over it at any moment. Neither Bobby nor his godfathers approved of his relationship with Voldemort, and with very good reason. Selufiare was enticing him to commit treason for Carrigan's box, while her father, Gulandri, waited in the wings to kill him and his mentor.
Only the gods seemed to be pleased with his proximity to the Dark Lord.
Given what the gods had done to and for him that was rather a mixed blessing.
His thoughts wandered to and fro, twisting themselves into a Gordian knot that would never untangle itself and never reach a conclusion. Thoughts wandered into fantasies which wandered into waking dreams. The room which had grown so distant to his perception began to take the foreground once again, even as the witches and wizards became increasingly indistinct. He was aware of the magic filling in the room, volatile and iridescent, as everyone became increasingly agitated. Harry could just imagine reaching out and making the colors swirl around his fingers.
He didn't though. Even in his dreaming state, he was vividly aware of the situation, perhaps more so than when the negotiations had first started. The first clearly distinguishable voice was that of a woman shouting in German.
"You are asking the impossible! We are not England. We don't have the same physical barrier between the wizarding world and the muggle one! There would be no way to enforce it! And even if there were, we don't have the manpower or the money to do so! You have seen to that!" a witch was practically screaming in outrage.
"You think me unreasonable?" Voldemort said blandly. "Do not bore me with your petty complaints. I have demanded nothing of you that I have not first demanded of my own country. From these hardships will come strength. From this humiliation will come peace. If your citizens cannot draw the line between wizarding and muggle territory, then my people will do it for them, and it will be a considerably smaller area than you would otherwise enjoy."
"But you can't!"
Harry vision started to clear, the iridescence fading to transparent pastels. The people in the room seemed suddenly vivid, like a photograph in high resolution. Here a man's face buried in his hand, the rings of his fingers glittering with diamonds and gold etched with Latin phrases. There a woman staring out contemptuously at the rest of the room, the lines in the corners of her eyes and mouth stretching across her face like arithmancy diagrams. Just ahead of him sat Kruger, grim and patient, his gloved finger tapping on the arm of his chair as if keeping tempo to some unheard song.
Voldemort, adorned in the shade of his own violent thoughts, smiled with cruel certainty to the witch all but begging her case. She as an old woman- no, not old, aged. Aged by losses and grief and the strain of her experiences. She was probably only in her middle age, but her hair had turned mostly gray and her skin was shrunken and tight against her thin frame. Her eyes were wide and wild, slipping from despair and into madness.
Harry felt his heart suddenly begin to quicken as the iridescence began to coalesce around the strange woman. Was she performing wandless magic? But no, the magic did not take shape, merely condensed and strained around her. Wild magic, he thought to himself. She is going to hurt herself. No one else seems to notice.
He started to rise to his feet, to do what he wasn't certain, but the aged woman beat him to it.
"YOU MONSTER! I WON'T LET YOU TAKE HIM AWAY FROM ME!" she screamed and suddenly was flying, literally flying, across the room and towards the platform where the Dark Lord stood behind his podium. Something glinted in her right hand, sharp and metallic and pulsing magic in a sickly green shade. Harry was on his feet a fraction of a second later, leaping onto his desk and onto the one ahead of him then straight onto the platform. His straight razor jumped into his hand, the anti-cutting charm breaking with a sharp pulse of his own magic.
She was faster than him, her frenzied magic made her so, and she would have reached Voldemort first if not for one of the Culties guarding the platform who managed to half tackle her as she touched down. She spun around and slashed at the guard with her knife, catching him in the face and sending him back screaming and bleeding. The delay was enough for Harry to reach her himself, and he swung his razor and caught her in the arm. She flinched and pulled back instinctively, but then rushed him with a scream, swinging her own blade violently and recklessly. He dodged and cut her again with his razor, but the weapon was too small and she was too frenzied, and it did nothing to slow her wild swings. One such swing caught him in the armguard, cutting deep but not quite piercing. The hardened leather hissed as poison ate into it.
Screaming like a banshee, she made a rush for him, and he snarled back at her and crouched in preparation.
A hand seized him by the back of his collar and threw him backwards, the force of it sending him sprawling onto his back and causing him to lose his grip on the razor. The dream haze shattered completely, and Harry blinked rapidly trying to bring everything back into proper focus, suddenly confused about what he had just been doing. People were shouting and screaming. Had he just been attacked? What was he doing out of his seat? His armguard was still sizzling with poison, and he regained enough of his senses to frantically remove it before it was eaten away completely.
He searched the stage and immediately found Voldemort standing over a body, his back turned to him. Cautiously, he rose to his feet.
"My Lord?" he said, easing his way around the man so he wouldn't be approaching from his blind spot. As he did so, the body became more visible, as did the means of its death. The woman's head had been smashed into the floor, nothing remaining of it except bone slivers, fleshy pulp, and long graying locks of hair. He turned back to the Dark Lord, intending to study the man's face for a reaction but was sidetracked by the knife sticking out of the man's chest.
"Shit," Harry said, rushing forward.
"A succinct but rather accurate assessment of the situation," Voldemort said conversationally. "A rather futile gesture on her part, but nevertheless extremely uncomfortable. Would you mind?"
He made a gesture towards the protruding handle. Harry grimaced but obediently took the handle in one hand and the Dark Lord's shoulder in another and pulled. It did not come out smoothly or cleanly, and blood spurted from the wound, soaking Harry's hand and splattering his cheek and glasses. He dropped the knife and reached back to press the wound with his hand but his wrist was quickly seized.
"While we share many things, a resilience to poisoning is not one of them. Please be more careful," Voldemort admonished and then released him.
Harry finally recalled precisely what had happened, and realized the man was referring both to his attempted rescue and handling his blood. He must have been the one to grab his collar and pull him out of the fight. It was a rare expression of overt concern, and he felt strangely warmed by it. Whatever else the world thought of the Dark Lord, this was a part of him that none of them would ever know the way Harry did.
It also made him feel strangely embarrassed.
"Well," Harry said with false humor, and gestured at Voldemort's soaked robes. "At least you don't have to worry about stains."
The Dark Lord barked out a laugh and then recanted it with a grimace.
"Go. Get washed up and see a healer. We will talk later," he commanded
"But what about…" He made a gesture at Voldemort's open wound and then to the dead woman at their feet, and the dead Cultie a short distance away, his skull half eaten away and dissolving more with each passing moment.
"Not your responsibility. Go. That's an order."
Security let him through the door with a nod from the Dark Lord, and he stepped dazedly into the hall, confused about what had just happened and how he should feel about it. He turned back just before the door was closed again and saw Voldemort had retaken his position behind the podium, preparing to go on, soaked in blood with bodies and abandoned weapons scattered about him.
He's a monster, Harry thought, but there was no horror in the thought at all.
"Well," Ira began as she stepped through the back door of the cottage and into the kitchen, "that was all decidedly suspicious."
Ron grunted in agreement as he lingered in the doorway, charming the mud off his boots before entering. Ira hung up her cloak and hat on rungs by the door and headed for the stove to put the kettle on. Tea was definitely in order after spending so much time in the winter chill.
"He was probably hung-over," Ron offered, still removing his outer garb. "And she was just covering for him."
They had gone to Malfoy Manor together that morning, just as Ira had planned, with the intention of checking on both surviving Malfoys, but when they arrived they were greeted by Natalie Cypher instead. The girl had explained the Malfoys were both abed with colds, and she had been looking after them since the previous evening. She was a good little actress, but Ira was far from convinced. If Draco had been sick, then her husband would have mentioned it, and Miss Cypher was hardly the ideal choice to look after them if that were the case. The girl had obviously been up to something. Unfortunately, whatever it had been Ira wasn't in any position to question her about it. The young witch clearly had the approval of the Malfoys themselves to be there, given how she scolded and ordered the house elves about, and if she had any malevolent intentions the manor would have forcibly evicted her.
"And I suppose Lady Malfoy just happened to be hung-over as well? I might believe one or the other given the circumstances, but I can't see them both doing it at the same time."
She tapped the stove with her wand and the internal chamber roared softly as it caught alight, quickly warming the kettle resting on top of it. She made her way to the cupboards to find the tea service.
"Perhaps Lady Malfoy wasn't there," Ron said after a moment's thought. "Perhaps she's gone off somewhere and Natalie didn't want you to know she was there alone with Draco."
Ira cast him a disappointed look.
"That sort of speculation is unnecessary and unwelcome, Mr. Weasley. I ask you to keep it to yourself when you leave here. I won't damage Miss Cypher's reputation or stir up more rumors against the Malfoys. Whatever is going on I am quite sure it is nobody's business but their own."
She could recall the very cruel and untrue rumors that surrounded her divorce from her previous husband. For all his myriad of abuses and personal defects, Winston had been very charming in public and the lies he spread about her were too easily accepted by friends and family alike. It had given her a distinct mistrust for rumors and speculation, and an even greater dislike for those who spread them.
Ron didn't cling to the idea. He shrugged. Idle curiosity aside, he didn't much care about what was going on with Natalie or the Malfoy's. Now that Lucius was dead, he fully intended to wash his hands of the whole lot. Satisfied with his disinterest, Ira sat down at the kitchen table to get some work done. She considered writing Severus, but since the only thing she could think to tell him about was her failed visit, she decided against it. She would try visiting again tomorrow and hopefully be more successful.
Ron filled the time by reading a Cultie recruitment brochure. Lately he had been more and more concerned about what he was going to do once he graduated. There was no way he was going to live at his foster parents' house for a minute longer than he had to, and he was not deluded enough to think they would pay to send him to university. He would need a job, and while working for Fred and George was an option, it wasn't his first one. At least in the army, he had all his basic necessities covered, and if he were lucky he could be stationed across the channel and out of easy reach of Snape. With a Hogwarts education, he was sure he could obtain an officer's rank within a few years.
Besides, girls loved a man in uniform.
The kettle came to a boil. Ron made the tea and gave Ira her cup, and they continued as they were with the added benefit of a hot drink to drive out the remainder of the chill. Shortly after pouring the second cup, there came a knock at the door. Ron tensed, and his wand jumped into his hand from up his sleeve.
"Calm down, Mr. Weasley," Ira said, barely looking up from her papers. "It's probably just McGonagall. She said she would be coming by to go over some paperwork. Be a dear and let her in while I make a fresh batch of tea."
He relaxed a bit and went to do as she instructed. There was another knock. He opened the door.
"Hello, Pro-" he started, then jumped back.
It was most definitely not Professor McGonagall.
"Oh," McGunny said, blinking at Ron or more precisely at Ron's wand, now pointed at his chest. "Did I come at a bad time?"
Ron just stared at him. He hadn't seen or heard from Horace McGunny since the boy had graduated from Hogwarts, but he had always assumed that if he were ever to meet him again he would look very much as he had at school. Properly put together in plain but quality clothing suited for teachers and legal clerks, a hair cut every month, and his shoes always shined. McGunny wasn't the sort to concern himself with fashion, but he had always taken care with his appearance and had thus always been confident of it. Ron remembered McGunny's eyes being his most distinguished feature, not because of they were particularly striking but because of how effectively he used them. The elder boy had had a way of looking at a person as if he were disassembling them. He had always been able to see through everyone's bullshit and right to the soul. Ron had respected that about him and had felt rather privileged to have been relied on as much as he had back when they worked on the Hogwarts Herald together.
But those eyes were gone.
In their place was a pair of soft, vaguely confused eyes with the same shape and the same color, but none of their previous intensity. So too had his clothes changed and now were second hand, slightly over-sized, and more suited to working some sort of physical labor rather than in an office or at university.
"What are you doing here?" he finally forced himself to ask.
"I'm looking for Harry," McGunny said guilelessly. "Is he here?"
Harry? Why was he looking for Harry? He knew McGunny had been kind of obsessed with him, despite his attempts to pretend otherwise. Had they stayed in contact even after graduation? He couldn't claim to know Harry well enough to know who he might keep company with outside of Hogwarts.
"He's in France. Left yesterday."
"Oh," was his lackluster response
McGunny kept that same dull, cow-eyed look. It was starting to give Ron the creeps.
"Do you know when he'll be back?"
Theoretically, Harry would return at the end of the week, in time to start attending classes again. Ron had no intention of telling him this. Instead, he said, "I don't know. Why do you want to see him?"
"I need to speak to him," was the unilluminating reply.
McGunny was silent for a moment. Then he blinked and looked around as if confused about where he was and what he was doing.
"I don't remember. Is Harry home?"
Ron felt a shiver run up his spine. Suddenly, Snape's concerns for his wife didn't seem so ridiculous. If she had been here alone, she might have invited McGunny inside, offered tea to this somewhat absentminded visitor. She had probably never met McGunny. She would not have realized he was acting so incredibly strange.
What was it?
A befuddlement charm?
A bad hit of Wormwood snuff."
The signs were all there. The distant stare. The confusion. The fixation on an idea or person. It had to be Imperius. But who was controlling him? Who would have known where Harry lived but not known that the boy was already gone?
He considered stunning McGunny, but quickly dismissed the idea. If he stunned McGunny, the curse would be broken, true, but then the boy would forget what had happened.
"Harry isn't here," he said. "You should come back later this evening. For dinner. He should be back by then."
"For dinner," McGunny repeated and then nodded. "For dinner. I won't forget. I'll write it down. I'll come back. For dinner."
Distractedly, the elder boy turned away and made his way back towards the road. Ron shut the door and hurried to the kitchen. Ira was setting up the good China, but hesitated when she saw him. She must have seen something in his face.
"What's wrong? Where's Professor McGonagall?"
"I'll be right back."
He exited through the kitchen door and ran into the garden and then leaped the fence and followed along it until he came up the other side of the house and could see McGunny on the road, his back towards Ron, and heading towards the village. Ron followed at a distance, ducking in and out of the roadside hedges as he went. He needn't have bothered. His target didn't stop to look back once. Ron half expected him to apparate away or head straight for the village floo station, but instead he headed for the local pub. When Ron peeked into the window, he spotted him immediately at the bar. He waited, expecting the true figure behind McGunny's sudden appearance to appear. After half an hour, he was still waiting.
Eventually, he started to get nervous. What if McGunny's purpose had been simply to verify whether anyone was home? He had left Ira alone and unprotected. McGunny didn't show any sign of going anywhere or of meeting with the true culprit. Mentally cursing himself, he hurried back to the cottage, half expecting to find it on fire.
The cottage was quiet. Ira was at the table, penning some sort of letter. She gave him a concerned look as he entered.
"What was that all about?"
"False alarm," he said, sitting himself at the table. "Cheeky garden gnomes is all."
She didn't look like she believed him, but she didn't ask again. Ron suddenly understood how she could possible love a man like Professor Snape. It must be nice to have such an unquestioning nature.
Later that afternoon, there was another knock on the door. This time it was McGonagall. While the adults were about their business, Ron went back to the village on the pretext of mailing Ira's letters. He swung by the pub, but McGunny was already gone. When he asked the barman about him, he was told, "You just missed him by ten minutes."
"Did anyone come and talk to him?"
"Suzie might of flirted with'm a bit, but she gave up when he kept saying he had to go see someone already for dinner. He was very adamant about it for some reason."
Ron left the man a tip and headed back to the cottage. His attempt to track down the threat had failed, but he would likely have one more opportunity to get it right. If he handled this correctly he might get out of his debt to Snape sooner than expected.
He just had to get everything ready.
He was expected company for dinner after all.
"I would like a room, please."
Hermione, absorbed in L'historie de vampires à Paris 1723-1914, startled and nearly dropped the heavy tome to the floor. She scrambled to close it and set it aside, inexplicably embarrassed to be caught reading at her post.
"Oh! Yes, sorry, of course… I mean… Oui, excusez-moi-"
"None of that, dear. My English is far better than your French, I am sure," the woman said. English did in fact sound like the woman's first language, and Hermione felt even more flustered than before. It was her first day working the reception desk alone, and it had been an easy if somewhat dull afternoon shift up until the time. Only a third of the rooms were occupied, and they weren't likely to have many more guests than that until spring.
This newest potential guest was… unusual. She appeared to be a middle aged woman with dark hair and a thick strip of silver framing the left side of her face, generic features, and curiously mismatched eyes. Nothing unusual in her appearance itself for a witch, but something about how she held herself…
"My apologies," she said, forcing herself to regain her composure. "We have several rooms available. We have singles, doubles, and suites."
"I'll take a suite. It has a fire place?" she asked, her eyes never leaving Hermione's.
"Complete with fire chat connection, as well as a telephone."
The woman nodded disinterestedly, still not looking away. It finally dawned on Hermione what was unusual about the woman. She had a stillness about her, a reserved sort of tension that she had seen in those experienced with fighting. She had seen it in Lucius and her godfather, in Harry's werewolf godfathers, and in Harry himself at times. She had seen it in Viktor.
They briefly discussed the rates and reserved a room for three days, and Hermione led her towards the stairs with growing anxiousness. She intentionally climbed the stairs at a quick pace, and the woman followed deftly behind her, a lightness in her step that was incongruous with someone her age. If not for the sun outside, she would have suspected the woman was a vampire. As it was, she still suspected she wasn't what she appeared. Magical creature or just in disguise? Perhaps she was using polyjuice? Why?
To cover her uneasiness she recited the list of amenities to the woman, which she had memorized in both English and French and could now repeat as easily as Filbert's Theory of Inorganic Magic. Which was to say, very easily.
"We have a complimentary breakfast between 6:00 and 10:00 am, as well as a menu from which you can order lunch or dinner to be taken in your room any time before 9:00 pm. The parlor is open from 8:00 am to midnight, and the bar is open until 11:30 pm-" she rattled on and on, smiling politely as she continued to lead her to the third floor and down a long narrow hallway. The woman must have been wearing shoes charmed against noise, because Hermione kept having to glance back to make sure she was still following behind her. It was decidedly uncomfortable.
At last they reached the room. Hermione unlocked it and presented it to the guest, who accepted it but didn't immediately step into the room. The woman lingered for a moment in the hallway, staring at her intently, as if trying to make sense of her.
"Well… here we are," Hermione said hurriedly, gesturing towards the open door. "I hope you will enjoy our stay with us. If you need anything please just dial zero on the phone to reach the front desk. Good day."
She shied her way around the woman and all but sprinted back the way she came, only turning back as she reached the stairs, half expecting to and find the woman right there. But she wasn't. The hall was empty and the door at the end of the hall was closed.
She hurried back to the reception desk and immediately checked the register for the guest's name.
It didn't sound like a fake name, but there was no real way to be sure. Perhaps it wasn't any of her business. She could simply be a woman who found a reason to travel discreetly. Maybe she was there to meet up with a married lover? Or was running from her husband? Or a criminal running from the law? Or a famous person who didn't want to be annoyed by the press? There were any number of reasons the woman's visit could have nothing to do with Hermione.
It was rather likely that her own scare with Viktor had left her unreasonably paranoid.
Still, the woman's interest had been unnerving. Could she have recognized Hermione? She spoke native English, which meant she could just as easily be a refugee or a British citizen. If she were a British citizen she might have come there purposefully to find Hermione. Or she might have been some member of the negotiation party stationed in Paris while her superiors stayed in Bourges and just happened to choose this hotel to stay in because it was known for having an English speaking staff. There was no way to be certain without a direct confrontation, and she didn't want to do that, but she couldn't risk being reported.
Should she run away again, just in case?
Run where? It had been a stroke of luck to find this job, and she doubted her luck would continue to hold if she tried to go it alone a second time. And Enid, sweet girl, she wouldn't understand if she just up and left. But could she risk staying? For all she knew, Hymnstok was up in her room at that moment calling the authorities.
What should she do?
She picked up the phone at the reception desk and pressed some buttons. It started to ring. After a moment, someone picked up.
"Kitchen, this is Lorelai."
Hermione grimaced. Of all the people to reach.
"Lorelai, it's Heloise. We have a new guest, and they requested I pick up a special cake from Símone. Can you or someone else watch the desk for a bit?"
There was a rude noise on the other end of the phone.
"We don't do those sorts of special requests. Honestly, you didn't let them walk all over you, did you? You should have told their lazy ass 'no'."
Hermione rolled her eyes. She hated asking Lorelai for anything. Even the most reasonable requests turned into a huge drama.
"We make these sorts of special requests, Lorelai. It's just our guests rarely ask for anything like this. Besides, she promised a big tip if I did, and we could use the money with business being so slow. If you don't want to do it, ask someone else."
There was a sigh on the other end as if she were the most put upon girl in the world.
"Fine. I'll do it, but I want some of that tip."
"Of course. I'm just going to run up to my room to get my cloak, and then take the floo. I'll be back in no time."
She hung up the phone before Lorelai could drag out the conversation any longer and hurried up the stairs to her room. She had hoped to catch Enid along the way, but she was nowhere to be seen. In her room, she quickly tossed the few belonging she had laid about the room into her trunk and then pushed the trunk to the end of Enid's bed. If anyone came in, they would assume it was her roommate's unless the girl told them otherwise. She would have preferred to take it with her, but since she couldn't use her wand to shrink it there was no way Lorelai wouldn't see it and question her.
She penned a quick note to Enid and stuck it in her poetry book. Hopefully, she would be back before the other girl had an opportunity to find it.
Throwing on her cloak, she all but ran back down stairs. She was starting to feel increasingly nervous with every passing minute. What if the authorities were coming? How long would it take them? Five minutes? Ten? How long had it been already? Would she already find them in the lobby?
But no one was in the lobby except Lorelai, moping and already looking excruciatingly bored.
"You-" the girl began, but Hermione was already whipping past her towards the parlor. It was empty inside. A stroke of luck it seemed. Grabbing a handful of floo powder from the mantel, she climbed into the fireplace and threw it down.
Ten minutes later, she had made her way from the floo station in the little antique shop on Rue Gargouille two streets over and right back to her own street, albeit on the other side. She went into the small restaurant across from the hotel and took a seat in sight of the front window but not quite in front. From here she could see the hotel without anyone at the hotel seeing her. She ordered a coffee and waited.
Ten more minutes passed.
Still, Hermione waited. Perhaps they had come while she had been circling back and were now waiting for her or had come through the parlor floo? But no one came out and no one went in.
She ordered another coffee and a slice of cake to stop the waitress from glaring at her.
The sun was starting to set, and now she was starting to become more concerned about being caught outside at night than about anyone who might be waiting for her in the hotel. She sighed in relief. It had been a false alarm. The woman had been a little strange, but she hadn't recognized Hermione and likely hadn't cared to. Her little ruse had all been for nothing.
Feeling both foolish and relieved, she decided it was time to go back. She ordered a small cake to go from the restaurant, and returned to the hotel through the front door. Lorelai predictably complained about the wait and asked why Heloise simply hadn't returned through the floo to save time. Hermione told her it would have ruined the cake, and took it upstairs. She did not deliver it to the guest who hadn't ordered it to begin with, but instead took it up to her room.
Having gone through all the effort and expense over nothing, she rather thought she deserved it.
Meanwhile, the woman calling herself Pandora Hymnstok was in her room, curled over the fireplace, speaking into the embers.
"I don't like this," she said. "She's just a child. We shouldn't be involving her in any of this."
"My dear," a voice husky with age replied, the vague outline of a face glowing in the embers. "We are doing more good than harm here. You cannot believe that allowing Viktor to pursue his infatuation with her is to her benefit. It can only end in tragedy."
"Don't play that game with me, Dumbledore. I'm not buying it for a minute."
"You are in control of the situation on your end. If you believe we're putting the girl in danger, then please feel free to use your own judgment to protect her. I trust you, Nymphadora, apparently more than you do me these days."
She was silent for a long moment.
"Fine, I'll stay. I just hope you know what you're doing."
There was soft laugh on the other end and a rather uncomforting, "I hope so too."
A Lupes is a French Galleon (approximately).