She has us.
Nadia's eyes played over Charlie's burnished hair and the freckles she wanted to kiss individually. Being strigoi brought many losses, but the gain of this man made her newly thankful she had chosen to live. She hugged his arm close to her side and smiled at Emil in appreciation of his support.
Emil, who retained dignity even with his bony wrists protruding from the sleeves of a baggy coat said, "We should go."
Nadia agreed, but first, she would try to get what they needed another way. She asked Alexandru, "If you can do nothing, will you at least permit Jakab to help?"
Alexandru inclined his head. "He is free to do as he chooses."
Unlike his master, ruled by the Council. Nadia turned to the man who stood brawny and impassive just inside the doorway. "Te rog, please, Jakab. We need someone with the Gift." She heard Charlie's indrawn breath when she pulled Jane's Quick-Notes Quill out of her pocket. Was he surprised that she had taken it or that Jakab had the Gift of psychometry? She held out the quill. "Touch it. Tell us where she is." In the past, Jakab had entertained her by picking up objects and telling her details about the former owners. Surely, he could use his ability to find Jane.
"I would sense only past emotions and impressions. I do not have enough of the Gift."
"But you know someone who does," Nadia said, reading his tone.
Jakab looked to Alexandru as if for permission. "My sister is able to trace the line of energy from an object to its owner, if she is willing." He shrugged. "Margo is old and like a mule in her stubbornness."
"We don't need her," Emil said. "We can use spells—"
"They won't do any good if Marko's used the right counter-wards," Charlie said.
Nadia asked Jakab, "Is Margo susceptible to Glamour?"
"She has been."
Nadia didn't miss the way his gaze flickered past her. She pivoted to face Alexandru. "Help us persuade her, that is all I ask."
"You asked me for Jakab's assistance."
"Te rog, Father."
A golden eyebrow arched. "You acknowledge me?"
If she had to humble herself, she would. "Your blood is in my veins, you are the reason I live."
In a flash, Alexandru stood before her. He gently kissed her forehead. "You will answer my letters now?" he murmured, his voice a breath of sound only she could hear.
He was a conniver, but a caring one. It had taken fifty years for her to see it—an extended strigoi adolescence? "Yes, Papa."
Alexandru ran a finger down her cheek and said to Jakab, "If you Apparate with Mr. Morgenstern, I shall transport my daughter and her friend, Mr. Weasley."
She held hands with Charlie as they followed Alexandru out of the room with Emil and Jakab trailing behind.
"Did I hear you call him 'Papa'?" Charlie asked in an undertone.
Since Alexandru's back was to them and the other two men wouldn't be able to see her move so quickly, Nadia gave into temptation. She kissed Charlie's earlobe and then pulled back to say, "What attractive ears you have."
Charlie touched his earlobe, a bemused did you just do what I think you did? expression on his face. "In the fairy tale, the girl said to the wolf, 'What big ears you have'."
"How rude. I never heard of such a tale," Nadia said as she stepped into the chilly night. "Your ears are perfect."
Alexandru was smirking. He had heard what she said. Right before Side-Along Apparation, he bent down to whisper, faster than the human eye would register. "You like freckles?"
She looked at Charlie and felt a smile bloom inside. "I love them."
The sensation of Apparation affected her much less than when she was human. She barely felt the squeeze out of nothingness onto the slush covered pavement adjoining a block of flats far removed from the Soseaua Kisseleff—or any other tree-lined boulevard.
Alexandru curled his lip. "Communist architecture."
A window on the second floor opened. A boy of about nine or ten stuck his head out. He yawned and then shouted down to them.
Nadia moved to Charlie's side to translate. "Doamna Lautaru does no favours for strigoi." She listened to Jakab's reply and said, "He is telling the boy—Pali—that his little sister owes Alexandru a debt she cannot repay in two lifetimes."
The boy withdrew into the flat and shut the window.
"I saved her virtue twice," Alexandru said in response to Nadia's questioning glance. "First from a group of thugs, and then later, from her own determination, shall we say, to repay me."
"When did that happen?" Nadia asked.
"1921." Alexandru chuckled. "Jakab has held it over Margo's head ever since."
"The right of a brother," Jakab said solemnly with a twinkle in his eyes.
After a few minutes and the rattle of multiple locks, the boy led them into the building and up a narrow stairway that smelled of smoke and cabbage.
"Salut, Pali, will you go to Durmstrang next year?" Nadia asked in both Romani and English. She didn't want Charlie to feel left out of the conversation.
"Gadje wizards do not allow Roma in their school," Pali said in English. He spoke matter-of-factly, as if discussing the weather. "We teach ourselves."
"I am sorry," Nadia said. "I did not know." So much had changed in the world since her schooldays. How sad old prejudices remained. "I am sure you will be an excellent student."
When they reached the second floor landing, the boy threw her a cheeky look and pointed. A door opened. He ran inside calling, "Puri daj, they are here."
Nadia asked Jakab, "Grandmother? I never knew you had relatives a—around."
If he guessed that she had almost said "alive," Jakab didn't show it. He said in the same factual tone Pali had used, "I was declared unclean. When my sister is gone I will have no family."
"I still breathe," a woman's voice said dryly.
Nadia met the green gaze of a sprightly old witch. Was this what she would have looked like if her years at the centre had passed in human fashion? "Sastimos," she said. "I apologise for the intrusion. There is a young woman—" she broke off, startled, when Margo touched her arm.
"I see only a dragon."
"She's never met Jane," Charlie said. He held out his hand.
Margo clasped his hand between hers. "Yes," she said, her eyelids fluttering closed. "A pawn of the walking dead. I see her." Margo opened her eyes. "This Jane is a dilo, a fool."
Nadia didn't miss the pointed look that accompanied the declaration.
Alexandru gave a husky laugh. "You were never foolish. Young and susceptible, perhaps. Have you never forgiven me?"
"You know I have," Margo answered, "but I am no longer swayed by your charms. I will find this girl of my own free will."
Margo inclined her head in a way that mirrored Alexandru's earlier gesture. "Enter and be welcome," she said.
"Even me?" Alexandru asked.
"May I return another time? Circumstances, regretfully, do not permit me to stay."
Nadia thought "Papa" was pushing his luck, but Margo slowly nodded. In a blur of motion, Alexandru kissed the woman's cheek and Disapparated.
"Come," Margo said, leading them into a dimly-lit room crowded with wood furnishings painted with floral designs. Pali obediently curled up under the covers on the settee when his grandmother told him to go back to sleep.
At the other end of the room, the adults sat at a table covered in cream-coloured lace. Nadia positioned her chair close to Charlie.
"Each of you cast a Lumos spell," Margo said. "I must be surrounded by white light to counter negative energy which might hinder the search."
Nadia hadn't used a wand since she became strigoi. She conjured an illumination orb and held it in her palm.
Margo cast a spell to light the candelabra on the dresser behind her chair. "Clear your minds of all that is Dark." She closed her eyes. "Place the object in my hand, Jakab." Margo held the quill in her left hand, chanting beneath her breath. Suddenly, she grabbed her brother's left hand—the receptive hand in Divination—with her right, the dominant hand used to transmit impressions.
Jakab shuddered. "I know where to find the girl. She is alive."
Margo patted his cheek. "Trust in your Gift."
"Yes, Puri daj."
She pinched his ear. "Ascultă cu urechile, vezi cu ochii, dar taci cu gura."
"A Romanian proverb. Use your ears to listen, use your eyes to see, but use your mouth to shut up," Nadia whispered to Charlie.
"Ginny usually tells me the last bit."
"Do you tease her?" She pretended shock.
Charlie winked. "It's the right of a brother."
"Take mine and go, leave an old woman in peace," Margo said.
Nadia hadn't noticed the others rising from their chairs. Obviously, Jakab was not the only one who needed to heed the proverb. She added her thanks to the men's and waved to Pali, who sat up to watch them leave.
Downstairs, Nadia asked Jakab, "Where is Jane?"
"In a hotel near Gara de Nord."
"The North Station," Charlie said before Nadia could translate. He smiled a little. "I'm learning."
Emil said, "Which hotel?"
"That's Muggle. Why go—" Emil broke off, a scowl expressing his realisation that it was easier for Marko to bypass security and leave no trace of his crimes in a Muggle hotel.
Charlie asked, "Where should we meet you two?"
"The lobby," Jakab said. "I saw the hotel room, not the number."
Nadia said, "We will find her."
It took only a few seconds to Apparate. The hotel was two hundred metres from the railway, a prime location. The car park was full.
Jakab cast a Disillusionment Charm. "Distract the clerk while I use the Gift."
She strolled into the lobby. The hotel's draw was convenience, not elegance. The floor tiles were dingy and the air smelled of tobacco. The young clerk slouched in a chair behind the reception desk looked on the verge of sleep until he caught sight of her. He jumped to his feet. "Bine ai venit, welcome!"
"Bună ziua. Hello. A friend of mine is staying here, but I forgot her room number." She sighed. "You aren't allowed to tell it to me, are you?"
The clerk's long face became even more doleful. "Nu."
She looked into his eyes. "I haven't seen her in a long time. Is there nothing you can do?"
Even without using Glamour, the clerk was easy to sway. His eyes glazed over even as his heart rate sped up and his skin flushed. He gave a smile that revealed teeth stained by nicotine. "Tell me your friend's name and I'll call her room."
"I have it," Jakab whispered.
Nadia snapped her fingers. "I just remembered. Thank you for your help." She strode to the lift.
"Anytime. I get off work at eight."
She pretended not to hear.
In the lift, an unseen finger pressed the button for the top floor. When the doors closed, the men became visible. Charlie stood close beside her.
Emil frowned. "You could have told him you have a boyfriend."
How sweet to be indignant on a friend's behalf. Not that Nadia would say it aloud.
Charlie looked amused. "I wasn't threatened."
There was something sexy about confidence. Nadia pressed her lips to Charlie's—slowly—so there was no question whether or not she had really done it.
He'd never had a girlfriend kiss him in front of other blokes before. Charlie wasn't like Bill. He preferred private displays of affection. Until now.
A soft ping announced their arrival at the top floor.
Jakab was the first one out of the lift. "I will knock and say I am management, that there has been a complaint." He went to a door, rapped once, and then froze. "Marko is gone. Jane is on the bed," he said tonelessly.
Charlie said, "Alohomora!" The door unlocked. He burst into the room. Jane was fully dressed and did not appear physically injured.
Nadia darted past him. "Her pulse is steady," she said, merely by listening. "Her eyes are not dilated."
"What happened?" Charlie asked.
"I don't know." Jane made no effort to sit up. She yawned. "Hullo, Charlie, Emil. Are we having a party? I must have drunk too much. I'm sleepy."
Nadia asked, "Where's Marko?"
"Dunno. Who's that?" Jane yawned again. "Who're you?"
Jane giggled. "That's funny. I heard he prefers dragons to women." She continued giggling to herself.
Charlie clenched his jaw. "We can't allow Marko to get away with this."
"She needs immediate treatment in a spell damage ward," Jakab said, "while it is possible for the Memory Charm to be reversed."
Emil said, "I will take her to St. Vasilica's and contact Dimitrie."
"Marko has gone to the House of Elders—to Catrinca." Jakab regarded them solemnly. "If you confront him, it must be on your own. I cannot endanger my master's position with the Council."
"You did what you could. Thank you." Charlie held out his hand.
Jakab shook it. "You are not strigoi or servant. You will not be permitted entrance."
"Then we'll sneak in."
"There is a side door at the rear that leads down to the kitchens," Jakab said. "Sometimes, it is left open for deliveries."
Charlie didn't ask what kind of deliveries. He wrapped his hand around Nadia's forearm and braced for Apparation.
His insides felt like a wet flannel squeezed of excess water when they returned to the mansion district. He watched a grand abode spring up between two Muggle estates and said, "Will you be in trouble for revealing the House location?"
"If I am fortunate, they will ban me from Gatherings."
That would be fine by Charlie. He cast a night vision spell.
Halfway around the perimeter of the house, Nadia made one of her quicker-than-the-eye moves and breathed in his ear, "Luchian's hellhounds are on our trail. Be ready."
Charlie shivered. True hellhounds? If only he had a camera. He whistled multiple "pips" the way Hagrid taught him.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm calling them."
She said something in Romanian Charlie doubted was complimentary to his intelligence. He grinned to see two enormous black dogs with glowing red eyes bound toward them, running on top of the snow. He gave one long whistle.
The hellhounds sat.
Nadia remained tense. "You put the hounds off guard so we can Stupefy them?"
"No, I wanted to stabilise the situation and let them get used to us, sense that we're not a danger to their master," Charlie said. "Don't look them in the eye, stretch your arms out to the side, relax, and turn away slightly."
She did what he asked. "Why?"
"So they'll come close enough to pet." He whistled again.
The hellhounds padded over, approaching them from the side: a sign they were friendly and curious. Charlie slowly stroked each dog's neck below the jaw. The fur was coarse and stiff: natural protection. "Amazing," he murmured.
"I agree," said the man who materialised out of darkness. "My hounds are trained to hunt intruders, not be tamed by them."
Charlie ran his hands across strong canine backs. "Animals so dangerously majestic can never be tamed."
"We come for justice, Noble Luchian, most wise of Elders," Nadia said.
Charlie thought she overdid the deference, but the elder-whatever seemed to take it as his due. He gestured for her to continue.
She said, "Marko Vasile enchanted a woman at the centre, made her his thrall to steal scales and—"
"Where is this woman?"
"In the hospital, Noble One."
"No judgment can be rendered without proof," Luchian said. "A strigoi must be allowed to face his accuser."
Nadia said, "Then I accuse him."
"Before the Council?" Luchian said sharply.
Charlie gave the hounds a final pat and stood. "So do I."
"So be it," Luchian said.
"No!" Nadia cried. "He is human, Luchian. He does not know our ways."
"Then teach him quickly. I go to prepare the Council and deliver your challenge."
A second later, Luchian and the hounds were gone.
Charlie said, "Challenge. That sounds like a wizard duel."
"It is trial by combat." Nadia threw her arms around him. "I am so sorry."
He held her close. "I'm not. The bastard deserves a hex and a right pasting, if he gets close enough for Muggle Duelling."
"Your heart is beating faster," Nadia said. "You want to fight."
"Don't you?" Charlie felt her nod.
"But I have no experience Muggle Duelling."
He tipped Nadia's chin up to give her a swift kiss. "I'll teach you a few moves."
They took their time retracing the path to the front of the house. Nadia agreed that the best plan was to strike first, strike fast, and not let up. "We must put him on the defensive, gain the advantage."
Charlie was surprised to see Alexandru waiting for them on the steps. "What are you doing here?"
"I am Council-elect. I was summoned."
That explained the black dress robes, but why the grim face? "If you're worrying about Nadia, you shouldn't," Charlie said. "Marko's nothing compared to a broody dragoness."
Alexandru bit off his words. "Due to your interference, Mr. Weasley, Marko has also been permitted a second. He chose Catrinca."
Nadia remained composed. "She will underestimate us and pride will be her downfall."
"She will entrance your foolish lover and use him against you!" Alexandru reached into his pocket and threw an object at Charlie. "The Rune Eoh for strength. Your will must be immovable."
And if it wasn't, Alexandru would make him pay . . . if he wasn't already dead. While Nadia hugged her Papa, Charlie studied the amulet hung from a black leather cord. He'd always liked green. "Thanks. What kind of stone is this?"
"Moss agate. I was told it enhances concentration, endurance and success."
Told by whom? Jakab? Margo? Charlie slipped the necklace over his head.
"The agate of warriors," Nadia said. She placed her hand over the stone, over his heart.
Charlie didn't care if every strigoi in the place could hear his pulse spike. He was ready to fight, win, and—if fortune held—celebrate. "Let's go."
Alexandru led them into a grand foyer filled with people who regarded the challenge as an opportunity to dress up, unless formalwear was their everyday clothing. It reminded him a little of the Gryffindor common room before a Quidditch match. He could read the same questions on their faces. Are you ready? Will you win?
"Are these Council members?" Charlie asked.
"Uninvited spectators. The Council awaits," Alexandru said. "Remember not to speak unless spoken to. Only victors earn the right to be heard."
No appeal process. Convenient. Charlie wondered if the Minister for Magic was considering it. Fudge seemed the type.
Inside a mirrored ballroom, enchanted candles floated above men and women in black attire who lounged on gilt-covered chairs. Waiting for the entertainment to arrive?
On cue, a side door opened. A doll-like blonde woman swept into the room with her consort trailing behind her. Catrinca and Marko. The two wore robes in matching shades of dark red. So blood wouldn't show? Catrinca flung her arms out dramatically. "We have come to cleanse our sullied honour!"
Our honour? Marko was the one accused. Catrinca was a bigger narcissist than Vain Jane could ever be.
Alexandru said in a ringing tone, "A challenge was given and accepted. The Council has convened. None may leave until judgment is rendered." He added in a low voice to Charlie, "If you have any questions, this is the time to ask."
Charlie didn't hesitate. "If a spell hits a mirror, will the glass shatter?"
"Nu. The spell will bounce off."
"And the Council?"
"Will be shielded."
Of course. "How long does the challenge last?"
"Until you are victorious or incapacitated. The only rule is that there are to be no cursed or grievous wounds."
Nadia said, "Only the Council inflicts those."
"Nice." In a weird way, Charlie meant it. What Marko had done deserved harsh punishment.
Alexandru responded to Catrinca's shriek with a mocking bow. He joined the other Council members.
The air in the ballroom crackled with tension. Charlie could almost hear the blast of Madam Hooch's silver whistle.
Luchian stood. "The challenge begins."
Charlie aimed his wand at Catrinca. "Silencio!"
Catrinca clutched her throat.
"Incarcerous!" Nadia yelled.
Thick ropes wound themselves around Marko. He didn't appear to notice. "Catrinca! Fin—Finite Incantatem!"
Pali's words to Nadia raced through Charlie's mind.
Gadje wizards do not allow Roma in their school. We teach ourselves.
Marko and Catrinca might be faster and stronger than a human wizard, but they each had magical handicaps. To believe they had any chance of winning a duel was blind arrogance.
Nadia took out Marko a second too late. Catrinca regained her voice and cast a Petrificus Totalus.
With Nadia immobilised, Charlie copied a page out of his sister's book of spells, aiming a Bat Bogey Hex at Catrinca. While she fought off winged bogeys, he hit her with another Silencio. "Surrender," he said. "Marko isn't able to give you your voice back and you can't cast a nonverbal spell!"
She began to cry.
It was the last thing Charlie expected. He watched tears well and fall, unable to look away or cast a spell that would end the challenge. Catrinca was helpless, fragile. How could he think about hurting her? He'd been raised to treat women better than that.
A spot on his chest burned. In a daze, he looked down at the Rune carved into agate. It glowed white. He clutched it and felt his foggy brain clear. Catrinca had used Glamour!
He turned to Nadia.
A shove knocked Charlie to the parquet floor.
Catrinca pinned him down and bared her teeth. Charlie drove his fingers into the small notch right below her windpipe at the base of her neck. In and down—exactly the way he'd shown Nadia.
Although Strigoi didn't breathe, they could still gag and sputter. He hit Catrinca with a Repello charm that blasted her into the air. Immediately, Charlie rose to counter the spell on Nadia. "Rennervate!"
She started to smile and then her eyes widened. For the second time, he was pushed off his feet. This time it was to the side as Nadia thrust him out of the way. Catrinca rushed in. Instead of trying to punch or kick, Nadia grabbed her adversary's shoulders, put a foot on her hip, and sat down, using Catrinca's forward momentum to throw her across the room.
Before Catrinca could do more than pick up her head, Nadia hurled spells. "Densuageo!"
Catrinca's front teeth rapidly grew to overhang her chin.
Hideous boils covered Catrinca's face. Yellow-white pus oozed and crusted around grotesque red lumps.
There was a metallic click, and then a faint clatter. Catrinca's mouth opened in a silent scream. She scooped up her cut off fingernails, weeping, until Nadia's Body-Bind Curse transformed her into a statue of hideousness.
Charlie had no sympathy. He looked at Nadia and fought the urge to kiss her in front of the entire damn Council. "You hit her where it hurt—her vanity—and didn't let up."
"I remembered what you told me."
He closed the distance between them. "You used the Talon-Clipping Charm."
Her lips curved. "I meant no insult to our dragons."
Our dragons. Charlie liked the sound of that. There was no place he'd rather be than the centre—unless it was Nadia's house. Before they could leave, though, there were a few issues to clear up. He cast a Rennervate and told Marko, "You lost the challenge. Unless you want to share Catrinca's punishment, your only hope is to tell the truth."
Marko stared at his lover, disgust and horror in his eyes. "Anything."
"Tell them you made Jane Whatley your thrall to steal scales," Nadia said. "Confess you erased her memory."
"It was Catrinca," Marko said hoarsely. "I have difficulty with spells. She cast them for me."
The watching Council members erupted in a frenzy of shouted questions and exclamations. Over the clamour, Luchian said, "Silence! The Council will deal with its own in private."
"As it did before?" Nadia asked. "Warnings and empty promises aren't enough. The next time a strigoi endangers a dragon I will notify the authorities from the Head Keeper to the Head of Aurors."
"There will not be another incident," Luchian said in a forbidding tone.
Marko whimpered. "Have mercy. It was Catrinca."
Luchian's hawk-like gaze travelled from Charlie to Nadia. "Go. You are no longer welcome here." His eyes blazed.
The ballroom disappeared.
Charlie and Nadia stood on snow-swept pavement facing a wrought-iron fence that provided security for Muggle estates.
"This isn't where we were before," Charlie said.
"Luchian has adjusted the spell, making the house Unplottable to us."
He put his arms around her. "I'm sorry," He said, not knowing what else to say.
Nadia laid her head on his shoulder. "I never wanted to be one of them."
"You're not." He brushed his lips across her hair. "You're nothing like them, you're different." Charlie tilted her face up and kissed her brow, her eyelids. "You're incredible," he said, settling his mouth over hers, kissing Nadia the way he'd longed to in the ballroom, holding nothing back. He wanted to kiss her forever. "Some night," he said between kisses that made it hard to think, much less speak. "You invited me to come over some night." He slid his hands down her back. "When—"
"Tonight, if you desire."
He answered with another kiss, remembering the way he once invited Nadia into his life without a clue how things would change. Now, he knew exactly how he felt and where this talk would lead.
Charlie couldn't wait to get there.
A/N: And they lived adventurously ever after . . . .
How could our lovers do anything else? Even if Catrinca and Marko turn "vegetarian" and never plot revenge, (yes, I'm smirking at the unlikelihood), the lure of easy money from dragon scales will always draw poachers. Whether from a strigoi Rom or just the "average" wizard, dragons continually need protection—and that's just the way our couple likes it. Charlie and Nadia won't get married (hence the misleading belief that he prefers dragons to women), but they will be life partners. If anyone wonders if Emil and Maia ever got together or if Charlie one day chooses to bond with Nadia in different, keep-the-dayshift-but-never-get-wrinkled kind of way, I leave that to the imagination. At the same time, I'll admit that in my own, Emil's second son and Harry's have the same middle name, and Charlie will always look young.
There's an Ibis Bucuresti hotel I didn't want to malign by describing as seedy, so I googled long-legged wading birds found in Romania and altered the name. I had fun looking up everything from proverbs and psychometry to fairy tales (Vasilica the Brave became St. Vasilica's), runes and hellhounds (I found out the US SciFi channel filmed a movie called Hellhounds in Romania this past September), so every reviewer who has ever commented that you enjoy the details (and the author notes), I heart you for that! :D
I want to thank every reader and give special thanks to MollyCoddles for being a fabulous, eagle-eyed, and sharp-witted beta.
The readers whose reviews last chapter inspired me to fight NaNoWriMo burn out (writing 50K in a month is something I'm glad to have done and yet don't want to do again anytime soon) and finish this story before Christmas were . . . .Alex the Anachronistic, alix33, Bartimus Crotchety, Bell, Calenmarwen, Carnivalgirl, cinroc, ElspethBates, HungarianWitch22, I'myoursweetestgoodbye, Itsa Mia, Jo Claire, judypkoi, Lady Adrienne Wolfe Gentry, Meggily, MollyCoddles, Moontime, PhoenixDreamer55, RahNee, Rose of the West, Slipknot-3113, sofia666, sunny9847, tambrathegreat, Tragedy Catalyst, WeasleyWeakness, and Zephyr of Shadows.