War, weary of wielding his sword and scour, had yawned hugely and returned to his cave, where he rubbed his eyes and went to sleep on his blood-red bed of skulls and bones.
The humans who had fought, died, killed and suffered could not enjoy such luxury. The war was over, and its aftermath began. And even though they were magical human beings, witches and wizards, the cleaning-up was a long and painful affair.
Every war has its heroes and villains. This war, the second and final one the wizarding world had fought against Lord Voldemort, was no exception: the major villain, Voldemort himself, was dead, slain by the hand of eighteen-year-old Harry Potter. Harry was the undisputed hero; when the events of the past year became public knowledge, though, his two friends Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger quickly acquired hero status as well.
The story of the three on the run, hounded by Death Eaters and Snatchers, was the stuff legends are made of. Wizarding England's own Odyssey, complete with dragons, werewolves, mythical monsters (Nagini), heroic deeds and all the other ingredients was raw material for reporters (Read the Full Story in the Daily Prophet Sunday Supplement!), writers of children's books (The Tremendous Three Save a Muggleborn, The Tremendous Three Go to Gringotts, The Tremendous Three Strike Again), writers of cookbooks (Hermione Granger's Compendium of Frugal Repasts); there were also rumours of an epic poem (The Potteriad), which nobody had seen or read yet, and of a giant mural Hogwarts' board of governors had allegedly commissioned. The heroes were young and looked excellent on a centrefold and even better on Chocolate Frog Cards.
Most of the time, Harry and Ron rather enjoyed giving autographs and delivering yet another account of the hardships they'd faced. Ron finally got the attention he craved, and Harry said he found it therapeutic.
Hermione, on the other hand, didn't like being worshipped. She didn't even feel particularly heroic, just very tired. And she was rather fed up with the wizarding world, its old-fashioned, male-dominated society, its bigotry and its complete inability to assimilate some of the more positive developments Muggle society had achieved over the past three hundred years. She was the only child of two now-almost-middle-aged, typical 68-ers, and as such had participated (if passively) in more demonstrations and committee meetings than she cared to remember. All this had taken place before she went to Hogwarts, and she hadn't really understood most of it until a few years later. Nevertheless, her parents' active engagement in a plethora of controversial political issues had given her the unshakeable conviction that the world could be changed for the better. Hermione also knew that changes could only be brought about by people who actively worked for them instead of sitting in front of the TV, moaning about the Conservatives winning yet again and conveniently forgetting that they'd stayed home watching Eastenders instead of going down to the polling station to vote.
The wizarding world seemed unaware of the fact that political change was necessary. They also appeared to be completely oblivious to the fact that change, while not always a good thing, often led to remarkable improvement of the lives of many, many people. When the war was over, Hermione had the impression – and unfortunately it was entirely correct – that her fellow wizards and witches wanted nothing more than to forget as quickly as possible. She could understand the desire for peace and prosperity to return, but what she felt unable to deal with was a society that looked backwards in order to reconstruct its future.
'But everything was alright until a few years ago!' Ron, the guy everybody except Hermione thought of as her ideal boyfriend and soul mate, was also the embodiment of the wizarding world's outdated beliefs. 'How can you say it's all wrong?'
They were sitting in the library of Harry's house at no.12, Grimmauld Place, waiting for their third to return from a meeting with the rector of the Aurors' Academy. Ron's interview with the rector was scheduled for two days later.
'I'm not saying it's all wrong.' Hermione took a swig of butterbeer. 'I'm saying that now is the time to implement some necessary changes. Modernize the law, introduce a fair tax system, reform the Wizengamot… There are hundreds of things that could and ought to be done.'
Ron shrugged. 'I don't see why. The system has been working okay for hundreds of years, why change it?'
He just didn't get it. Bravely withstanding the temptation to hurl her empty butterbeer bottle into her friend's face, Hermione took a deep breath and tried to remain calm. 'I don't think you can claim a system works fine, if a dictator can make it his own in less than two months. If at least there had been a division of powers, a democratically elected parliament to make laws, an independent executive to…' She fell silent, noticing that he was asleep.
With a sigh, she put on her shoes, grabbed her backpack and ascertained that her wand was securely fastened to her left forearm. She briefly thought about putting a magical tattoo saying "NINNY" on Ron's forehead, but abandoned the idea as too childish.
Her parents still hadn't quite forgiven her for their Australian adventure, but at least they were sensible people she could talk to. Somehow she'd reached an all-time low tonight and needed to discuss her situation with them. They, too, were biased, but at least they were biased in her favour, and not in favour of some old-fashioned idea of how the world ought to be.
The candles had burned down to stumps. Hermione cast flame-containing charms on them and Apparated home as silently as she could.
The smoke of cigars and pipes was wafting dense and blue in the candlelight. It was hot inside the meeting room; outside, dusk had given way to darkness, but the day's heat had remained almost unbroken. The trees stood still, their leaves immobile. There was no breeze to alleviate the moist warmth that pressed in from all sides.
The men sitting around the table had been there for many hours, discussing the future of the wizarding world. Robes had been discarded and shirtsleeves rolled up; sweat was glistening on foreheads and beading on upper lips.
'What about the Muggleborn problem?' a grey-haired wizard broke the silence. 'We have to address it, and quickly. I have it on good authority that many of them plan on leaving our world.'
Percy Weasley who, due to his junior rank, hadn't yet dared free himself of his robes, wagged his red head. 'Maybe that would be the best solution?' he said, looking anxiously at the serious, sweaty faces.
'It would neither be a solution, nor would it be a good thing for us,' Kingsley Shacklebolt said. He cast another cooling charm on himself and continued, 'We'd have to obliviate them and confiscate their wands-'
'Entirely feasible,' his elderly neighbour interrupted him. 'Not without certain risks, but entirely feasible.'
Percy nodded and sat up straighter.
'But,' Kingsley said, raising his voice just a little, 'we ought to think of the consequences. Firstly' – he gave his neighbour a sharp look – 'we have a responsibility for these people. Can you imagine what their existence would be like if we cast them back into the Muggle world, without a memory of their lives after the age of eleven, with no professional training and prey to accidental bouts of magic?'
The wizard sitting to the first speaker's left cleared his throat. He was wearing dark green Unspeakable robes. 'Maybe I ought to mention an ongoing research project, which has been started a few years ago. It was originally intended to provide an alternative to imprisonment at Azkaban, but there is no reason why-'
'Stop right here,' Kingsley interrupted him. 'I know about the project – don't give me that look, Wulfric, I am the bloody Minister, I have to know. There is no way, I repeat no way, that I'll be using it on Muggleborns. In my opinion, draining criminals of their magic is morally questionable. Doing it to Muggleborn wizards would be despicable.'
'Hear, hear!' the first speaker exclaimed. 'If I may add my two knuts, Minister…'
Kingsley nodded. 'Of course, Thaddaeus. Tell us about your ideas.'
Thaddaeus Horne, who'd recently been appointed to the Wizengamot, gave the Minister a brief nod. 'Thank you. There is an old Muggle saying: "If you can't beat them, join them." Apart from the fact that I entirely agree with Kingsley on the dangers of exiling Muggleborns from our society, I would like to suggest that we look at the problem the other way round. There is no way to throw or keep Muggleborn wizards permanently out of our world. So why don't we bind them to it? So tightly that they can't and, most of all, won't even want to leave it?'
'Unbreakable vows? Blood oaths?' Kingsley's right-hand neighbour chuckled. 'That's a bit… drastic, I'd say. Not to mention antiquated.'
'That wasn't at all what I had in mind. I was thinking of marriage.'
Horne's words were followed by a long, ruminative silence.
'You can't force people to marry,' the Minister finally said.
'If we make a law, we can.' Horne shrugged. 'Why not combine the two ideas? Either they get married and stay, or they'll be obliviated and exiled without their wands. Our population has drastically diminished during the war – we need families and children. Besides' – he opened his arms – 'think of the old pureblood versus Muggleborn conflict. The rift has deepened tremendously, and it must be mended, unless we want to face more of the same difficulties in the years to come. So why not state specifically that Muggleborns have to marry purebloods?'
'If you really go through with this completely absurd idea,' said Thomas Clearwater, head of Magical Law Enforcement, 'I demand more staff. Domestic violence is going to go through the roof.'
'I don't think it's absurd,' Percy muttered. 'But we'll have to think twice about how to sell it to the people.'
Kingsley nodded. 'Absolutely. Muggles have these people called spin doctors – I learned a thing or two about them while I worked for the Prime Minister. If we manage to get the media on our side, and maybe some celebrities-'
'And if,' Percy said, completely bewildered by his own brilliance, 'the law stipulates that the Mudblood chooses the pureblood, not the other way round…'
'Don't say Mudblood!' Clearwater snapped.
Percy went beet red. 'Sorry. But everybody-'
'Everybody used to say it,' Horne interrupted him. 'But this is a new era, and so we call them Muggleborn. Understood?' Percy gave a contrite nod. 'Anyway,' Clearwater continued, 'the idea is excellent. Our Muggleborn brethren will be the ones who choose their pureblooded spouse. Now we just have to find someone… a figurehead, a wizard or witch from a Muggle background, with an untainted reputation…'
The room was so silent that the soft hissing and guttering of the candles was clearly audible. Rivulets of sweat ran unchecked down temples and necks, cigar ash dropped on the table, unheeded.
'Erm…' Percy Weasley inched a finger between his shirt collar and neck. 'Maybe… maybe Hermione Granger?'
The decision to stay a while at her parents' house had been a good one, Hermione thought. There was no denying that she'd loved being a witch from the moment she'd learned the truth about her magical abilities, but being a witch and making use of those talents didn't equal acceptance of the wizarding world as it was.
Three weeks had passed since she'd left Grimmauld Place after her last altercation with Ron. After a good night's sleep she had written a letter to the boys, explaining that she needed some time to herself and that she'd get in touch when she was ready. She'd spent the time catching up on her native Muggle world, enjoying the comforts of electric light and takeaway food and talking to her mum and dad. They'd made her realize under how much pressure she'd been during the last years, and encouraged her to take a break. If she needed money, she could work part-time as a receptionist in her parents' dental surgery, and in the meantime she was at leisure to explore her options.
Right now, she was tending towards living a Muggle existence with occasional outings to the wizarding world, but Hermione knew that this was just her way of reacting to the emotional and physical stress of last year. Sooner or later, she'd want to finish her formal education and pass her N.E.W.T.s. All the knowledge and skills she'd acquired at Hogwarts would be completely useless anywhere but in the wizarding world, and she didn't fancy herself stacking frozen meals at Tesco's. After a period of rest, she was sure that she was going to find her very own way of wandering back and forth between the two worlds.
The heat wave that had driven everybody to distraction had ended a couple of days ago with storms and heavy rainfall. Now the world seemed clean and bright, the smell of wet earth and crushed petals was still lingering, and Hermione decided to go and have breakfast in her favourite café. She'd just put on a pair of linen trousers and a white linen shirt, and was deliberating whether to wear sandals or trainers, when an owl landed on the windowsill and knocked against the glass with its beak.
Why couldn't they just leave her be, she thought grimly and opened the window. Probably the Aurors' Academy had decided that they needed to pass an entrance exam in spite of being war heroes, and now they needed her help. Wasn't that typical? First they asked for her assistance, only to complain and call her Miss Whiplash, once she took things in hand. It wasn't fair, and it had happened too many times while they were at school. While rummaging through her things in search for an owl treat, she was mentally composing an acerbic reply.
The letter the owl was carrying looked official, though.
Hermione stared at the Ministry seal for a while before breaking it open. What if they wanted her to be keynote speaker at yet another stupid ceremony? She couldn't very well decline, could she? Maybe it was best to refasten the missive to the owl's leg and send it away.
Curiosity won, though, as it always had. And, as almost always when her inquisitiveness rode roughshod over her instincts, she cursed herself for giving in to it. An invitation to a private appointment with Kingsley Shacklebolt couldn't possibly mean anything good. Ministers didn't talk to young girls – war heroines or not – unless they were angry or wanted something. Since Hermione could think of nothing that might have attracted ministerial wrath, she was pretty sure Kingsley was going to have some kind of request.
The mere idea of having to deal with demands made her cringe. Being the clever girl she was, though, she told herself that, if Kingsley sent her a handwritten letter asking to see him in private, it had to be important, and if it was important, he certainly wasn't going to be deterred by an unsuccessful delivery. Sooner or later she'd have to go and see the man, short of leaving the country for an indeterminate amount of time. Since Hermione had no intention of going on a spontaneous trip o Inner Mongolia, she decided that it would be better to get it over with. There was still time for breakfast, and a shower and a change of clothes after returning home.
Trying to ignore the feeling that this beautiful, clear morning had somehow been tainted, as if a layer of grease and ash had settled over it, Hermione grabbed her purse and book and walked out of the house.
She strode down the street, whistling to herself. When she realized that the tune she was whistling was the death scene from Madame Butterfly, she stopped abruptly.
At eleven a.m. sharp Hermione was standing in the anteroom of Kingsley's office and trying to ignore his secretary, whose eyes were resting on her with unveiled curiosity. She'd changed into a dark blue, linen trouser suit and put on another white shirt. Ironing wasn't a chore for a witch, after all. The sandals she'd chosen were a bit uncomfortable, and she hoped that she wouldn't have to wait for too long. Nobody had offered her a seat, and the soles of her feet were beginning to burn.
She'd just decided to disregard etiquette and sit down in one of the comfy-looking chairs, when the door opened and Kingsley's large form emerged. She'd expected him to shake her hand, but he enclosed her in a big hug, which she hesitantly returned.
'You look fabulous,' he said, holding her at arm's length and looking her up and down. 'So you have recovered well from… well, everything?'
The secretary's face fell when her boss ushered Hermione into his office and closed the door after them. Her lunch break was about to start in half an hour's time, and she would've loved to tell the other girls about meeting a war hero.
Five minutes later Hermione's face fell, too. 'You can't be serious!' she croaked, her mouth suddenly dry.
Kingsley nodded sagely. 'I know it must come to you as a shock, but try to look at it from my point of view.'
'I think I'd like to look at it from my own point of view. You've got enough underlings who are keen to look at everything from your point of view. Come to think of it, what is your point of view?'
'Well, firstly we absolutely have to solve the age-old conflict between pureblooded wizards and wizards from a Muggle background.'
'Minister, I'm sure you won't be able to fully appreciate my reasoning, because you probably don't know a lot of Muggle history. But I assure you that after the Second World War the Allied Forces didn't advocate marriages between survivors of concentration camps and SS officers. You can't just throw archenemies together in marriage! You have to educate people first, make them see-'
'You're right,' Kingsley interrupted her. 'That's exactly what I would do in an ideal world. As things are, we have to make fast progress. We can't wait thirty years, hoping that education is going to close the gap.'
'This isn't progress, Kingsley. This is a breach of every human right I can think of. It's absolutely outrageous!'
'It won't remain the only measure we take. There will be education, and there will be laws…'
'Made by whom?'
The minister frowned. 'Well, by me of course.'
Hermione had to close her eyes for a moment in order to stay calm. 'So that's what you call progress,' she said softly.
'It's what I call a beginning.' His voice betrayed a rapid loss of patience.
'What if I say no?'
The minister sighed heavily. 'You don't have to decide right here and now. You have twenty-four hours-'
'Twenty-four hours? To decide if and which pureblooded git I'm going to marry?'
'You have twenty-four hours,' he continued unperturbed, 'to decide whether you are on our side. My secretary will give you the complete text of the new Marriage Law, so you may read and think it through. If you say no, you'll be the first to be obliviated and leave the wizarding world. I'm sorry, Hermione, but that's how it is.'
'That's how it is,' she repeated, feeling as if she was having a nightmare, all the more terrible for being so realistic. 'That's how you say thank you for all I've done. That's what you've learned from hundreds of people dying for our cause. That's your rejection of racism.'
For a moment she thought she saw compassion in his eyes. Then the fleeting expression was gone. 'It's been all over the papers for two weeks. People are enthusiastic. The law will enter into force tomorrow at noon, and you'll be the first to set an example. Which way is up to you.' He rose from his chair. 'I expect you here tomorrow, at the same time.'
Ignoring the minister's proffered hand, Hermione heaved herself out of her chair and staggered towards the door. The secretary, who handed her a substantial scroll of parchment, gave her an inquiring look. 'Are you all right, Miss Granger?'
'Never better,' Hermione said, resisting the urge to break out into hysterical laughter.