LUNCHEON ON THE GRASS
Rien n'égale Paris ; on le blâme, on le louë ;
L'un y suit son plaisir, l'autre son interest ;
Mal ou bien, tout s'y fait, vaste grand comme il est
On y vole, on y tuë, on y pend, on y rouë.
On s'y montre, on s'y cache, on y plaide, on y jouë ;
On y rit, on y pleure, on y meurt, on y naist :
Dans sa diversité tout amuse, tout plaist,
Jusques à son tumulte et jusques à sa bouë.
Mais il a ses défauts, comme il a ses appas,
Fatal au courtisan, le roy n'y venant pas ;
Avecque sûreté nul ne s'y peut conduire :
Trop loin de son salut pour être au rang des saints,
Par les occasions de pécher et de nuire,
Et pour vivre long-temps trop prés des médecins.
Isaac de BENSERADE (1613-1691)
Nothing compares to Paris; they blame it, they praise it;
One seeks his pleasure there, another his interest;
Good or bad, anything goes there, vast and grand as it is
One steals there, one kills, one hangs, one tortures.
One shows oneself there, one hides, one goes to court, one gambles;
One laughs, one cries, one dies, one is born there:
In its diversity, everything's a joke, everything pleases,
Down to its noise and its mud.
But it has its faults, as it has its attractions,
Fatal to the courtesan, when the king isn't there;
No-one can be sure of his movements there:
Too far from grace to be counted among the saints,
Because of the opportunities to sin and harm,
And because of living too long near the quacks.
CHAPTER ONE - Rien n'égale Paris / Nothing Compares to Paris
Paris… Is there any city on earth more fraught with clichés, on-dits, expectations and glamour?
New York may be a Big Apple, which frankly isn't too alluring whether you think of it in botanical or biblical terms. Apples do rot, after all. Or there might be a snake in the vicinity, and someone prods you with a flaming sword faster than you can say fig leaf.
London has, well, a queen (or king, as the case may be). And unarmed policemen, and men with rather strange, furry headgear guarding the Queen's palace. People form queues in the most outlandish places and have very strict views on what you put in your tea. And in which order.
And so on, and so forth.
But Paris… Forget Paris, Last Tango in Paris, Is Paris Burning, Paris City of Lights, Paris City of Love, Paris of the Rive Gauche, Paris of the Eiffel Tower (it's probably not a coincidence that Gallic rhymes with phallic…) Paris is a myth, but a living one, which everybody is free to discover for themselves and make it their own, provided they have a bit of money and don't mind being snubbed because they don't speak perfect French.
Maybe it would be a good idea, though, to remember that Paris was the one to start the Trojan War by abducting Helena, whose beauty was such that a mighty fleet of ships set out to get her back. Love, or at least lust, and danger. Because that's Paris, too: danger.
The war had been over for a month. England's wizarding population had come out of its euphoric stupor. Whether alcoholic, drug-induced or euphoric, the end of a stupor inevitably comes with a hangover, and that's exactly what happened once the celebrations were over. People looked around them and shuddered at the mess they'd have to clean up. Unfortunately it wasn't just broken glass and puddles of vomit. They had to rebuild their whole society, and it was going to be a long, painful and, in every sense of the word, costly business.
And it wasn't as if there'd been a clean cut – the past was closer and more alive than many would have wished. So many had died, which was a tragedy, but at least death was something final that enabled the survivors to turn their backs on the past and start anew.
It was those who weren't dead who posed a problem.
If Severus Snape had had the good grace just to die in the Shrieking Shack, if Lucius Malfoy had been so kind as to get himself killed during the Battle of Hogwarts, if Voldemort's henchmen at the Ministry for Magic had had the decency to commit suicide when all was lost, the new government would've been free to roll up their collective sleeves, give everybody a decent funeral and get on with the job of rebuilding. As things were, Snape was slowly but steadily recovering at St. Mungo's, Malfoy was offering large bribes all over the place, on condition that the recipients have a look at his memories of the past two years, and various Ministry employees had been clever enough to start falsifying their records while everybody else was still celebrating. And, strangest of all, it seemed that Voldemort had commanded no more than twenty-seven Death Eaters, twenty-five of whom were dead. Conc. the remaining two, see above.
It was a mess, and not the kind the wizarding world was used to dealing with. Needless to say that they thoroughly bungled it.
Delicious fumes were wafting though the kitchen. Molly Weasley was cooking for the assembled clan and had declined everybody's offers of help. Only to complain afterwards that she had to do all the work, of course.
'Paris?' Molly said, eyeing the one person who'd successfully withstood her semi-violent shooing.
'Exactly. Paris.' Arms crossed and with a somewhat belligerent expression, Hermione Granger glared back at the red-faced matriarch.
Molly wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and turned back to the phalanx of bubbling pots on the cooking range. 'Out of the question,' she said sharply. 'You're not leaving the county, and you certainly won't drag my son with you to… to Paris, of all places.'
Hermione hadn't expected her idea to meet with unbridled enthusiasm and therefore planned this conversation carefully (complete with Plans B and C, although the use of Plan C would have landed her in Azkaban, war hero or not). First, she'd decided, she was going to try the rational approach. 'Look here, Mrs Weasley,' she said as calmly as she could, 'I'm over eighteen and therefore free to make my own decisions. So I'm going to Paris whether you like it or not. We've got a whole month of holidays left before school starts again, our Orders of Merlin came with a good deal of money, and with the situation being as it is… A few weeks away from all this hullabaloo would do me, erm, us a world of good.'
She felt a frisson of fear when Molly brandished the cooking spoon at her – the memory of the Battle of Hogwarts was still a bit too fresh for her liking.
'You have a responsibility here!' Molly snapped.
'With all due respect, I think it really isn't your place to say such things. I discharged any obligation I might have had during the last year. I risked my life more than once for the common good. And I've spent the last three weeks answering the Aurors' stupid questions, so I think I've done more than enough. I need a holiday. Ron needs a holiday.'
'What's wrong with spending it here, at the Burrow, like Harry and Ginny? You're safe here, and surrounded by friends and family.'
'Not by family,' Hermione replied, 'but certainly by friends, yes. Anyway-'
'What do you mean, not by family?'
Patience dwindling rapidly, Hermione did her best to keep her calm. 'Not family means that I'm not related to anybody here, Mrs Weasley. In any case-'
'Not related? You're going to get married to Ron, of course you're family!'
That was the point where Plan A went the way of all well-laid plans, closely followed by Plan B. C lingered for a bit, lovingly toying with the sharp edge of its axe, before it decided to join the other two and have fun watching.
'Who said I'm getting married to Ron?' Hermione's voice was becoming decidedly shrill.
In the face of the young witch's growing wrath, Molly suddenly went smug. 'Well, Ron does, for one, and everybody else does, and besides, after spending almost a year on your own with two boys, you ought to be grateful to Ron for making an honest witch of you. With a reputation like yours…' She shrugged meaningfully. 'I'm quite open-minded, so I don't have a problem with it, but believe me, there are mothers who would-'
In one single outburst of raw, uncontrolled magic Hermione made all the pots, bowls and saucepans explode and spill their contents before she left the kitchen. She did, however, have her priorities sorted out: it would've been a grand gesture, leaving without looking back, banging the kitchen door shut and shaking The Burrow's foundations. She did glance back, though, because Molly, covered from head to toe in rapidly cooling Sauce Béchamel, to which salad leaves, onion peels and minced meet were clinging, was a sight she wouldn't have wanted to miss. And only after she'd thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle did she shut the kitchen door with an almighty crash. There was a smile on her face when she heard the lilting clash of Staffordshire figurines on the kitchen's stone floor.
She'd always hated those figurines.
The two Slytherins currently sipping tea in Kingsley Shacklebolt's office would've had less trouble controlling their tempers, firstly because they were Slytherins and secondly because they'd never attributed any value to reputation, the lack thereof, or other people's opinion of them in general. Besides, they didn't have any reason to lose their temper, not at that precise moment anyway.
'You see,' Kingsley said, 'I'm convinced you're clever enough not to do anything stupid in the, say, next ten years. Severus wouldn't have gone to prison in any case, and I suppose we couldn't sentence you' – he shot Lucius Malfoy a sharp glance – 'to more than five years, since you seem to have convinced everybody of your newfound identity as Voldemort's victim. Well, not exactly newfound.'
'Not entirely,' Lucius agreed, inclining his head. 'But it's with identities as it is with clothes, minister – they may go out of fashion for a few years, only to become the epitome of good taste with the next generation. An interesting phenomenon, isn't it? Never ceases to amaze me.'
Severus cleared his throat. The wounds Nagini's fangs had torn had healed well, and the mediwizards had succeeded in purging his body of the remaining venom, but there still was a lingering soreness. 'I suppose,' he said slowly, 'that such generosity doesn't come without a price.'
Kingsley refilled their cups and offered the sugar bowl and milk jug which were politely declined by both his guests. 'I wouldn't call it a price so much as a… stipulation. A proviso, if you will. Then again, I'm sure you're both eager to prove to your fellow wizards the depth of your, erm, commitment to our new society.'
'Since what I've done during the last twenty years somehow doesn't seem to count,' Severus remarked dryly, 'I suppose I have no other choice.'
'Oh, it does count, don't doubt it.' The Minister pulled a face and added sugar to his tea. 'I have no idea how you can drink it unsweetened… Anyway, concerning your past actions, Severus, I appreciate what you've done, believe me, and so do the other Order members. Being the Minister, however, I have to consider things in a larger context.'
'I wonder,' Lucius interjected, 'who coined that phrase. It's really one of the best, on a par with "Appropriate steps shall be taken" and my favourite "We have to regard this situation with an open mind". So basically you have no idea what to do, but are prepared to do anything that will benefit you and help to maintain you in power for as long as possible.'
'That's an unnecessarily harsh way of putting things,' Kingsley replied, sounding rather piqued.
'Maybe, but it's the truth nonetheless.' His fingers playing with the snake-head of his cane, Lucius mustered the minister from under half-closed eyelids. 'So what is it you want? Money?'
'And, since I don't have any, what else?' Severus added.
Kingsley leaned back, arms crossed. 'Well, I certainly wouldn't object to a donation, since the Ministry's finances are somewhat depleted, and there are more than enough good causes… But that's optional.'
'Which of course is all the more reason to do just that,' Lucius said virtuously.
Severus merely snorted.
'What I really do want you to do is something else, though,' Kingsley continued. 'You know – and the two of you probably know a lot better than I do – that many of those who rightly ought to be accused and tried and put behind bars have fled the country, the majority of them to France. Now, my Aurors can't chase them, for two obvious reasons: one, we are terribly understaffed, and two, our jurisdiction ends right at the border. So far, my requests for cooperation, especially to my French colleague, have not met with much enthusiasm. Which is bad, because I'm under pressure here – the media are starting to get interested.'
'Now there's a big surprise,' Lucius said. 'Given Crédit Sorcier's reputation for being discreet even under pressure from outside, do you think anybody who didn't absolutely have to was stupid enough to put their money into a Gringotts vault? The risk of the Goblins collaborating with Scrimgeour was always imminent, and Apparating to Calais is something a Squib could manage. You know the old adage about Crédit Sorcier sneezing and France having a head cold? The French economy would have to face serious problems, if all British customers of dubious reputation retrieved their money from Crédit Sorcier. So of course the French minister isn't keen to cooperate.'
'True, true.' Kingsley took a pensive sip of tea. 'But dead people do have a bit of trouble retrieving their money, if you get my meaning. Or Azkaban prisoners, for that matter. Besides, consider the advantages of being out of the country for a while, capturing rogue Death Eaters, no less. The reputations you'd be able to build…'
Severus closed his eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose. 'Is that what you want us to do?' he finally asked.
'In a nutshell, yes. You may of course keep your wands, but you'll have to stay mostly in the Muggle world. And it might be a good idea to get rid of your more, well, conspicuous characteristics.' He glanced meaningfully at Lucius's blond mane.
The two Slytherins exchanged a look. 'What if we run into trouble?' Severus inquired.
'That depends on which kind of trouble you run into. In case of imminent danger for your lives, each of you will have a portkey that brings you right back into this office. Should the French Aurors cause you problems, you're to report directly back to me as soon as you can. The fireplace we created in your hotel room in Paris has already been connected to the Floo network. You'll be working from Paris and Apparate wherever you need to go.'
Always the one to spot serious problems, Lucius stared at the minister, completely aghast. 'We are to share a room?'
'It's a suite, and that's the best I can do under the circumstances. The budget is already overstretched as it is,' Kingsley replied amiably. 'Besides, establishing one illegal Floo connection was more than enough trouble. Quite a nifty bit of work, if I say so myself.'
Severus, whom a lifetime of thrift and unsuccessful attempts at getting a pay raise had taught the importance of money, frowned. 'I'm not going to pay for that trip with my own money.'
'Of course not. We're going to pay you a premium for every Death Eater you manage to capture, alive or dead, and all expenses will be covered by us, provided they're reasonable.'
'When in Paris, anything is reasonable,' Lucius said, a dreamy smile on his face.
Kingsley rolled his eyes, but had obviously decided not to linger over minutiae. He was a busy man after all, and the files on his desk weren't going to sign themselves. 'One last thing,' he said. 'Miss Hermione Granger put in an application this morning for a Portkey to Paris, to be activated tomorrow at five p.m.. I think that keeping an eye on the girl might benefit both you and her. She's bound to attract enemies like a magnet.'
'Like a cowpat attracts flies, more like,' Severus muttered. 'There goes my dream of glamorous spying – we're to play babysitters to a teenager.' He didn't miss the sudden glint in Lucius's eyes though. Lucius had seen the girl writhe on his carpet, and once Lucius had seen a woman writhing – little did it matter whether in embarrassment, pain or ecstasy – he wanted to see her writhe again. Generally underneath him, deprived of clothing but playing temporary host to one or more of his body parts.