The sun set beyond the copse of trees and the swathe of wildflowers, sinking down over the horizon in a wash of orange and pink.
Harry watched its light fade with a frown. ‘Is Gabby okay?’
‘She’s fine.’ Fleur glanced up from her desk and a patchwork of runes. ‘She was just upset.’
‘Is she still upset?’ he asked.
‘Really?’ Harry turned away from the window. ‘You said she was okay with it when you told me about the rings before…’
‘I thought she was,’ Fleur murmured. ‘I don’t think that’s what was really worrying her. She’s a sneaky little chick, she wanted us to promise.’
‘Why?’ Harry frowned. ‘I don’t understand. She knows what we want is to be here.’
‘Don’t worry about it, mon Amour,’ she said. ‘Gabby got her promise.’
He raised an eyebrow at her. ‘What happened to no more secrets, Fleur?’
Her lips twisted. ‘I suppose that is fair.’ She sighed. ‘Gabby is not worried about you, she is worried about me.’
‘Because sometimes, when I try to imagine something beautiful, I can only see it if it hurts first. That way I know for certain it’s going to be a perfect moment lighting up our dark, ugly world,’ Fleur whispered. ‘And we’re so close to being free.’
Harry stepped behind her and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. ‘We already suffered and sacrificed, mon Rêve. This is our perfect moment.’
We just have to stop the sunset from being stolen.
‘Almost,’ she said, leaning her cheek against his. ‘One of us has to make sure nobody can come to take away our dream.’
‘I’ll find them,’ he promised. ‘You know I will. Anyone who knows, I’ll wipe them all away.’
‘Je sais, mon Cœur. I know you will.’ The corner of Fleur’s lips curved against his jaw. ‘And the other one of us has to push a baby out of her, which will hurt, probably quite a lot.’
‘Can’t you make it not hurt?’ Harry glimpsed the answer in the flicker passing through her blue eyes. ‘You can, but you don’t want to, do you?’
‘It’s going to hurt, mon Amour,’ she breathed. ‘And then we’re going to hold our baby and it’ll never hurt again.’
‘In a little over six months,’ he said.
‘Thereabouts,’ Fleur replied. ‘It’s not exactly nine, it might be a little more or less, depending on how quick our baby wants to be out here with us.’
Harry cupped her stomach with his hands, tracing the gentle curve of her belly and blinking back the faint, hot prickle of tears. ‘I still can’t believe our child’s in there.’
‘Just wait,’ she grumbled. ‘Soon I’ll be so round it’ll be impossible to not believe it.’
‘I’m going to have to make you a nest.’ He grinned. ‘Presumably out of cake. That seems like the sort of thing you’d want your nest to be made of.’
A peal of laughter burst from her lips. ‘Oui, mon Amour. I would like a huge nest of meringue, s’il te plaît. And then I shall lay a big white egg and sit on it for another year until our baby hatches out. Gabby will help as well, because that’s what closely related veela do in the nudist veela commune.’
‘Seems entirely truthful,’ Harry said. ‘Is it because of our multi-way soul bond?’
‘I’m starting to fear you’re actually reading Gabby’s book collection.’ Fleur wrinkled her nose. ‘I don’t have a bodice for you to rip. Pardon.’
‘And there was me hoping that would be our next exploration of all the fantasies you had while I was… away.’
‘Would you like that?’ Fleur threw a sultry look over her shoulder. ‘Tearing my clothes off me?’
Harry chuckled. ‘I always like taking your clothes off.’
‘Not as much as you did before I looked so fat,’ she muttered. ‘I hope everything goes back to normal afterward.’
He pressed a kiss to the back of her head. ‘Of course it will.’
‘As if you know anything about what happens to women after giving birth.’ Fleur rolled her eyes. ‘If you did any reading, it probably stopped the moment you realised my breasts were going to get bigger.’
‘I probably should read up,’ he admitted. ‘I ought to know, just in case.’
‘There’s nothing to worry about, mon Amour.’ She sighed. ‘Not that you will believe me. Childbirth isn’t fun, but with a few potions and a certified healer most of the risks are gone.’
Anxiety gnawed at him. ‘Which you’re going to take?’ He smothered images of Fleur on red-stained sheets. ‘You’re not going to say no because you want it to—’
‘I’ll take them.’
‘I promise,’ Fleur murmured. ‘Happy, mon Cœur?’
‘Happier,’ he said. ‘I’d still rather you didn’t let it hurt you.’
‘I want it to hurt a little.’ A little heat sprang up in her eyes and in the faint smirk on her lips. ‘I don’t hear you objecting at other times…’
‘I can’t refute that accusation,’ Harry confessed. ‘I still don’t like it hurting you, though.’
‘It’ll be worth it.’ Fleur checked the floating silver cogs on the corner of her desk. ‘And you need to go to work, Violette.’
He squinted at the enchanted clock. ‘That or it’s early morning, you really can’t tell very easily.’
‘Hush.’ Fleur flashed him a small, warm smile. ‘It’s a very pretty clock, that’s what matters.’
Harry pulled Violette’s ring from his pocket and slipped it onto his finger. ‘Off I go, then. Hopefully, this time, I find something a bit more useful.’
‘The last thing we need is Le Cancrelat announcing you’re still alive to the world,’ she whispered. ‘Catch him quickly. And, if you see any shops, I quite fancy something spicy, but paprika spicy, not chilli spicy.’
‘I’ll keep an eye out,’ he said. ‘I’m sure I can find something for you to snack on.’
‘Au revoir.’ Fleur caught his fingers, clutching them against her stomach. ‘Je t’aime. Je t’aime à la folie.’
‘À bientôt.’ Harry kissed her on the neck.
He apparated into the Sunshine Room with a soft snap and glanced around. Grise sat in one of the chairs before the brazier, staring into the flames.
‘Are we going?’ Harry asked.
‘I’ve located the base, in a town called Thionville.’ Grise stood up. ‘They will have completed their check-ins by now, but we can’t go after the main base tonight.’
‘No?’ Harry raised an eyebrow. ‘Why not?’
‘Because from how little we observed while searching, I suspect some of the subcells are across the border,’ Grise replied. ‘Karsten Metternich is in charge of things over there, and we need to speak with him before we start any operation to know the lie of the land.’
‘Politics are a necessary evil.’ He glanced down into the flames of the brazier. ‘Metternich is a notable wizard with an excellent knowledge of obscure magic. He’s a little conservative, but most his age are, and he’s kept the Rhineland states free of trouble for decades.’
‘What about the small bases on this side of the border?’ Harry asked. ‘I could hit them, you can take them over, and then we hit the main base in the morning.’
Grise studied him with an odd gleam in his pink eyes. ‘You are eager.’
‘I’d rather get rid of Le Cancrelat before they can stir up trouble,’ Harry replied. ‘I was planning on enjoying as much of the rest of my life in peace and quiet as I can. The world doesn’t need any help to ruin that for me.’
‘Especially not at the moment,’ Grise muttered. ‘The papers have not yet been informed, but the mess in the Caribbean is spreading. Britain’s protectorates have been all but independent states for the best part of a century and drifting further and further from London’s influence. The United States has reversed a century of divergence and now this Ginevra Weasley’s out there with a squad of aurors, turning what was a string of irrelevant small magical communities into highly-fortified British strongholds.’
‘The U.S. isn’t going to like that.’
‘We don’t like that,’ Grise said. ‘Over half of the islands in the Caribbean there are bubbles of wards so thick it’d take weeks to get through them. It’s like marching an army up and down outside your neighbour’s border and every time this escalates, the chance of someone doing something stupid increases.’
‘Or someone like Le Cancrelat finding a way to light the fuse,’ Harry murmured.
Grise’s pale forehead wrinkled. ‘Yes. With that in mind, we may as well destroy those small bases tonight, Violette. The quicker we’re done with Le Cancrelat, the quicker we have one less thing to worry about.’ He held out a piece of wood. ‘I’ll come with you, Vert is… indisposed.’
Harry took hold of it with one hand, slipping his wand out of his sleeve. ‘Anything Ι ought to know?’
‘The one good thing is that Le Cancrelat sets all his subcells up the same way. There’ll be a small number of wizards and witches, no more than three, and out there the wards won’t be strong, in order to avoid detection.’ Grise raised the piece of wood, lifting Harry’s hand. ‘Oiseaux.’
Harry swayed against a dirt-smudged, white-plastered wall, glancing down empty roads between a scatter of small houses. ‘Where are we?’
‘A few miles from the border between France and the Rhineland states.’ Grise stepped past him, studying the street signs and tossing the piece of wood into a hedge. ‘The peach-coloured farmhouse at the end is the one they’re in.’
‘How do you want to do it?’ Harry asked.
I need to make sure they all die, or at least that they don’t know anything. He spun his wand in his hand. This might be tricky.
Grise stared at the farmhouse. ‘As far as I’m concerned, these men are already dead. We’ve established, from your work, that Le Cancrelat carefully regulates who knows what, which means at best the leader of the Thionville base might know something useful. Out here, I doubt it.’
‘Are you any good with wards?’ Grise asked.
‘I can throw up some,’ Harry said. ‘It’ll be more of a brute force wall than an elegant net, though.’
‘As long as they can’t get out by magical means.’ Grise murmured something under his breath and pulled a thimble-sized glass jar from his pocket. ‘Throw them up now.’
Harry thrust his magic into the air, layering a thick bubble of magic over the farmhouse and pinning the world in place beneath it. No way out of that without breaking through and I doubt there’s anyone in there who can win a direct confrontation of power with me.
‘Engorgio,’ Grise whispered, dropping the small glass jar.
It shattered on the street and glass shards spilt across the cobbles. A dark tangle of legs tumbled into the gutter.
‘What is it?’
‘A tarantula. I breed them.’ Grise tugged his wand out from within his robes and thrust it at the spider. ‘Engorgio.’
It shivered and swelled up to the size of a large dog. Yellow light glimmered about its limbs as the carapace darkened, pale spines sprouting from its surface and seeping a thick, cloudy mucus.
‘Lovely,’ Harry remarked.
‘Effective.’ Grise flicked his wand and the spider charged down the gutter toward the farmhouse. ‘Grindelwald taught us a harsh lesson in practicality. Dead things are just another resource for a duellist to utilise, a true expert can turn an inferius into a very dangerous weapon with a few enchantments.’
‘How easy is it to become an expert?’ Harry watched the spider climb the side of the farmhouse and smash in through the window.
A violent scream tore through the night and flashes of magic burst within the farmhouse.
‘Not easy,’ Grise said. ‘It takes practice and… creativity. Most people don’t naturally have the ruthlessness to turn a corpse into a killing device, nor the motivation to learn it. And, for all my experience and experimentation, Grindelwald eclipsed me with ease. He had power I don’t. Everything I can do to that spider, he could do to a bull. I heard he even managed to reanimate a griffon.’
‘I heard that as well,’ Harry murmured. ‘Is it so hard?’
‘It takes incredible power to bind something of that size, especially creatures with a natural magical resistance.’ Grise vanished the glass from the street. ‘I can manage a bull or a horse, but there’s not much I can do with the corpse to make it effective without exhausting myself. To do it to a griffon and to then enhance the magic…’
A wizard smashed through the second floor window and hit the cobbles with a crack and a shriek of pain. He crawled forward, scrabbling for his wand. The spider scuttled down the wall, smoking, dragging three legs, and glimmering a brighter yellow.
Harry apparated in front of the wizard and plucked his wand out from before his fingers. Grise’s spider leapt onto the man’s back, biting deep into the back of his arm.
‘S’il vous plaît,’ the wizard gasped, catching Harry’s eye.
Pain drenched his thoughts, a thick, hot red sea drowning each image Harry tried to slip into their shared minds. Fear of the spider twisted every impression, contorting Pansy’s limbs into spider’s legs and stretching her brown eyes into countless dark pairs.
He tugged his thoughts away, levelling his wand at the wizard. The spider leapt at his face.
Harry apparated back beside Grise. ‘It’s not very friendly.’
‘It’s not meant to be.’ Grise twisted his wand.
The spider’s yellow glow bled crimson and it burst in a shower of steaming black goo. The wizard screamed and convulsed as the dark mucus melted through his flesh like fire through glass, kicking his heels until the shrieks faded to a faint, hoarse whistle and he stilled.
‘A favourite of Grindelwald’s,’ Grise muttered. ‘An advanced adaptation of the blood-boiling curse added to a little enhancement of the inferius. I’m not sure my variation is the exact same as what I observed from Grindelwald, but it’s effective enough.’
‘It does leave a mess, though.’
‘The less secret version of Les Inconnus will be here to tidy up soon enough,’ Grise said. ‘They’ll take over the outpost just in case we need to give the dawn check in reply.’ He held out another piece of wood. ‘One down, two to go.’