Spiders hung beneath the crumbling brick arches, their shadows looming over Fleur’s head as she led him along the river’s edge.
‘The bridge of secrets.’ She pointed a finger up at the drum of feet over their head. ‘A more appropriate place for the entrance, there is not.’
‘Plenty of more convenient ones, though,’ Harry muttered, clawing cobwebs away from his face. ‘How is it that you went through first and didn’t get a single strand of web on you but I’m covered in them?’
Fleur smirked. ‘Luck, mon Amour.’ She raised her fingers, wiggling them in a shimmer of heat haze. ‘And a little magic.’
‘Cheat,’ he grumbled. ‘I feel like I’m wearing a thousand little spiders.’
She reached over and brushed off his shoulder. ‘Just the one spider, actually.’
Harry slipped his wand from his sleeve, transfiguring his face, hair and eyes. ‘Enough of a disguise?’
‘I do not like it when you change your face.’ Fleur wrinkled her nose, pulling a silver ring from her pocket.
A teal spiral marked the flat top of it, soft light glimmering within the coloured pattern.
‘This is important,’ she said, ‘but they’ll tell you all about that once they accept you.’
‘If they do.’
She laughed. ‘Grise has no choice. There are four of us, and Gabby and I refuse to do anything but research. He’ll test you, to make sure you’re not a liability, but between the magic on that ring and how desperate he is, he’ll say yes.’
‘What magic is on that ring?’ Harry eyed its gleam. ‘Nothing dangerous, I hope?’
‘It prevents anyone betraying Les Inconnus,’ Fleur said. ‘It took Gabby and I a lot of effort to be able to tweak the enchantments so we can act freely.’
‘As long as I’m not about to shackle myself into the service of some shady government agency…’
She smiled and slid the ring onto her finger. ‘I was very careful, mon Amour. I needed the resources of Les Inconnus to bring you back, but I made absolutely sure I wasn’t bound to anything that might’ve got in the way of that.’
‘What colour will I get?’
‘It won’t be teal, grey, green, red, white or crimson,’ Fleur replied. ‘Those are taken.’ She pressed her ring to a ring of rust upon a crumbling brick and the wall shivered. ‘In we go.’
Harry followed her through, stepping through a faint veil of cool magic into a small marble hall.
‘Sarcelle.’ A low, rough voice rang out through the hall and a grey-robed figure appeared with a quiet snap. ‘And Henri Decolmar, I assume.’
‘Grise.’ Fleur tucked her wand away. ‘You said we were short-handed, you keep saying it, so I convinced Henri to come.’
‘If he’s good enough, he’s in.’ Grise strode down the hall, smoothing down the long, thick white sideburns of his beard, and pinned Harry with a serious, pink-eyed stare. ‘What exactly is your relationship with Sarcelle, Monsieur Decolmar?’
Harry stepped forward. ‘I’m—’
‘He is my husband now. Henri Delacour.’ Fleur tossed her hair over her shoulder. ‘I already told you we were involved, so there’s no point fishing for more. And since I’m pregnant, you will need him all the more.’
Grise’s pink eyes flicked between them. ‘Beggars can’t be choosers, I suppose.’ He pulled his wand out, a grey-spiralled ring shining on his finger. ‘I will test you, Monsieur Delacour. Sarcelle, you may as well continue with your research.’
‘Au revoir, mon Cœur.’ Fleur wavered and vanished.
Grise’s pale brow wrinkled. ‘What are your strengths, Monsieur?’
‘Duelling.’ Harry met the pink irises. ‘And some more abstract magics.’
‘The sort of stuff you’re side-stepping around saying carries no stigma here,’ Grise said. ‘Necromancy is my forté.’
‘Duelling will be more useful to us in the immediate future.’ Grise pulled out his wand. ‘Let’s see how good you are.’
He slid the Elder Wand out and raised it. ‘If you want.’
‘Confident,’ Grise muttered. ‘Or arrogant. Real fighting isn’t the same as the duelling circuit, monsieur Delacour.’
Harry smiled. ‘I’ve never been on a duelling circuit.’
An orange spell flashed from Grise’s wand, followed by a string of poisonous yellow ones. Harry batted them back at him, watching them fizzle out against a bright, white wall of light one by one.
I probably shouldn’t use anything anyone might’ve seen Harry Potter do. He conjured a string of bright silver sparks, pressing his magic down into little glowing pinpricks and sweeping them across the hall.
They burst against Grise’s shield with a thunderclap and blinding silver light seared at Harry’s eyes through his eyelids.
‘Putain,’ Grise growled, his shield wavering.
Harry sent a volley of Hiccuping Hexes at him, punching through the shield, then ripped his wand from his hand with the Disarming Charm.
Grise grunted, squeezing his eyes closed. ‘Whatever that spell is, monsieur, I don’t like it.’ He held out his hand. ‘You’re good enough. Not that I’m the best test of that.’
‘Not a dueller?’ Harry asked, tossing the wand back to Grise.
Grise plucked his wand from the air and shook his head. ‘As I said, I specialise in Necromancy. I joined during the second war against Grindelwald with a passable knack for enchanting and out of necessity was forced to specialise. Your wife and her sister are the real deal, as I’m sure you’re aware, monsieur, but there is nobody else to run this place save myself and Vert.’
‘You will meet her in due course. She’s off tracking Le Cancrelat, whom I hope we will all be meeting soon.’ Grise sighed. ‘Perhaps we were too picky during peaceful years. Rouge and Blanc both died attempting to infiltrate Neo-Grindelwaldian groups in the last year, and now I find my department is all from the same family…’
‘Beggars can’t be choosers.’
‘Indeed not, monsieur.’ He tucked his wand away. ‘Come with me.
Harry trailed him through a wood door in the corner into a brick passage. ‘Where are we going?’
‘Down, monsieur.’ Grise pressed his ring against the wall and balls of soft, white light drifted down from the ceiling. ‘The catacombs beneath Paris are the perfect labyrinth to hide our work and have proven invaluable in the past. Our outpost here was the hub of resistance to Grindelwald when he threatened to conquer Europe.’
Harry stared down at the wall of dark. ‘Is it far?’
‘It won’t feel like it.’ Grise took a step forward and the air shimmered; he appeared at the edge of the black further down the slope.
Harry stepped after him. The walls of the corridor stretched and shrank, then he was standing beside Grise.
‘They’re useful for both speed of movement and defence,’ Grise said. ‘If I had not activated the magic with my ring, you would’ve ended up somewhere quite different. In fact, monsieur, without a ring, you might end up spending a great deal of time stuck down here.’
Harry glanced down at the glowing silver band on Grise’s ring finger. ‘Do I get one?’
‘In a moment, monsieur.’ Grise stepped forward again.
Harry followed him, matching his steps as they twisted and turned through a blur of brick corridors and old, worn limestone passages. I see what he meant about getting trapped.
‘Here we go.’ Grise touched his ring to a rough fish drawing upon the stone and the catacomb wall shivered. He stepped through.
The lights went out.
Harry darted through after him.
A glowing marble brazier and floating glass lanterns illuminated a scatter of chairs and dwarf trees in ceramic pots with the brightness of a summer day.
‘This is the Sunshine Room, our little downtime room and the centre of things,’ Grise said, taking a seat beside the brazier. ‘We can have our introduction meeting here, monsieur.’
‘Fair enough.’ Harry took a seat opposite him, watching the light of the brazier flicker in Grise’s pink eyes. ‘What’s first?’
‘The ring.’ Grise dipped a hand into his pocket and held out a silver ring with a purple swirl on its surface. ‘You will be Violette. It may be difficult given your relation with Sarcelle and Cramoisi, but, once you put this on, you must only refer to yourself and others by our codenames.’
‘I’ll do my best.’
He nodded and dropped the ring into Harry’s hand. ‘Grise. Vert. Your wife is Sarcelle. Your sister-in-law is Cramoisi. You are Violette.’ Grise folded his arms. ‘The ring’s enchanted very carefully; while wearing it, you will be incapable of making choices that you don’t truly believe are in the best interest of the department. Those enchantments can’t be altered without destroying the ring and you need the ring to enter or leave here.’
So that’s what Fleur and Gabby tweaked.
‘So I only have to wear it when I’m here.’
‘Or if you’re out acting under our directives.’ Grise held his own ring up into the light. ‘Which, monsieur, brings me to my next point. Les Inconnus are not a normal department, and despite what you will read and hear about, we are the entire department. There is a lovely group of admin staff, researchers, and specialists on the riverbank ten miles from here who are Les Inconnus. Except, of course, they are not. They deal with everyday mysteries. Prophecies. Minor espionage. Less controversial research. They are unaware we exist, although you will find that should anyone ask or check, you also work in that office.’
‘So who does know?’ Harry asked, toying with his ring.
‘There are only three individuals in the French Government who know we exist.’ Grise leant back. ‘They are unable to reveal our identities except under two conditions. If one of us breaks the Statute of Secrecy, which we’ll talk about in just a moment, or if we die.’
‘An Unbreakable Vow.’
Grise scrutinised Harry with a curious gleam in his pink eyes. ‘What do you know about the Statute of Secrecy?’
‘Not to break it.’
A flash of humour passed across Grise’s face. ‘That’s about all they tell you unless necessity dictates otherwise.’ He pulled his wand from his sleeve and sketched three numbers in the air. ‘313 AD was the year in which the Roman Empire officially accepted Christianity as a religion. By 380 AD, it was the official religion, and after suffering years of persecution, Christians began to try and suppress the old religions that’d looked down on them.’
‘A history lesson?’
Grise nodded. ‘Before the Statute of Secrecy, religion and the magical world walked hand in hand. Where did we get magic from, if not the Gods, monsieur? However, the division between Christianity and Islam, and the pagan religions that came before, resulted in great distrust of the magical. Whereas before magical people were seen as kin to the gods, even if those gods might be hostile or strange, now they might be seen as demons, or in league with them. The difference between enemy and evil isn’t such a small one, monsieur. Enemies may be great or kind or clever, but evil… evil cannot be redeemed regardless of its qualities.’
‘Those came much later.’ Grise vanished the glowing numbers between them. ‘From 380 AD onward, there was a social revolution. It was no longer wise to risk being known as magical, especially as tensions rose and violence spread, and those that were known were cast down or forced to flee elsewhere. The Statute of Secrecy wasn’t officially declared anywhere for another eleven centuries, but it began then.’
‘So that’s where you’re going with this.’
‘It’s important to understand exactly what the Statute of Secrecy is. It is treated as a debate of high-handed ideals by too many people sitting in peace and comfort, but it’s the only thing standing between us all and the risk of plunging back into a mire of bloodshed.’
‘If them knowing is a risk, they shouldn’t know.’
‘Exactly, monsieur.’ Grise conjured another date. ‘Christianity has a long and bloody history with both the muggle and the magical world but, by the 900s, the magical had once again risen toward the top of society in Christian Europe, only this time, they agreed to keep their magic a secret even between enemies. The earliest written form of the statute was signed half a millennia later between the states of the Holy Roman Empire and the following four hundred years of conflict and expansion in Western Europe were as much magical as muggle; various inventions allowed magical communities to spread and share knowledge in ways not possible since the decline of Byzantine power. Magical communities all around the world were absorbed into Western Empires and the risk of exposure was now no longer a matter of individual risk or even small communities, but a shared threat. A global magical world decided, by the later date that you’re familiar with, to create the ICW and declare the Statute of Secrecy as magical law.’
‘Which everyone is very happy about.’
‘It’s a problem that cannot be solved, monsieur,’ Grise said. ‘You try telling a muggle that his neighbour can kill him without leaving a trace but that he shouldn’t be afraid. It will not work.’
‘No, I imagine they’d want to strike first.’
‘As people often do. He who doesn’t strike first, is first struck.’ Grise changed his number into Grindelwald’s mark and Harry smothered a small smile. ‘Grindelwald’s argument is a seductive mix of practicality and emotion; individuals like him are the reason the ICW and magical governments were created. They risk us all with their actions.’
‘So what do we do?’ Harry asked. ‘Assassinate people?’
‘Hardly, monsieur. While magical governments have evolved from small councils into large departments and now can deploy squads of aurors or hit-wizards, there are wizards of greater power that require more management than the accidental magic of a toddler. In my opinion, it is the primary reason for our existence. We are the shadow hand of France. Within France’s realm of jurisdiction, it is our duty to ensure the Grindelwalds and Les Cancrelats do not set our world ablaze.’
‘And the research?’
‘It is best to stay ahead of the curve, monsieur.’ Grise’s expression darkened. ‘Grindelwald was ahead of us in the second war, using magic we’d never seen before. He came within a step of victory and breaking the Statute of Secrecy so seriously it couldn’t be repaired.’
‘And Le Cancrelat?’
‘He is not Grindelwald,’ Grise replied. ‘Not as brilliant, not as powerful. But in his own way, just as dangerous. We’ll talk more about him and other things when Vert returns.’
Grise pulled a silver pocket watch from his robes. ‘I have to go meet with those three people who know we exist and explain to them why Le Cancrelat is still scuttling about. I suggest you return home, Violette. I will see you in two days time at precisely fifteen minutes past twelve.’
‘Au revoir.’ Harry glanced at the ring. ‘Can I…?’
‘When it’s on, yes. However, you can’t sidealong apparate anyone not wearing a ring in or out with you at any time, monsieur.’ Grise disapparated with a crack.
Harry studied the purple swirl. No. I’m not putting you on until Fleur’s changed the enchantments. He stood up. Which means I’ll have to wait here until she’s ready to walk me out. He sat back down. Merde.