A gentle hand shook him from sleep. ‘Mon Amour, you are sleeping on the job.’
Harry cracked an eye open. ‘What’s the job?’ He stifled a yawn. ‘What’s the time?’
Fleur’s soft blue eyes hovered a hand’s length from his face. ‘I cannot reach my feet and my sock is falling off.’ A little pout crept onto her lips and she plopped onto the edge of the bed, resting her hands on her belly. ‘I am meant to have a loving husband to fix things like this for me.’
He chuckled and wriggled out from under the blankets, sliding to his knees and tugging Fleur’s sock back up to her ankle. ‘All fixed, my beautiful bird-wife.’ Harry pressed a kiss to her bare leg. ‘How did you sleep?’
‘Bien.’ She curled her fingers into his hair and drew his head up against her stomach. ‘Can you hear the baby?’
Something twitched beneath his cheek. ‘I think the baby just kicked me in the face.’
A quiet laugh slipped through Fleur’s lips. ‘I am going to waddle downstairs and get a glass of water, mon Cœur.’
‘Or…’ Harry slipped an arm under her knees and heaved her off the bed. ‘You could not have to waddle, as cute as it is to watch.’
‘That would be even better.’ She buried her face in his chest, huffing silver hair off her cheeks. ‘Thank you.’
He glanced down. ‘Although I’m a little underdressed. Can you reach my wands?’ Harry stepped across next to the desk.
Fleur grabbed his wands and conjured a loose set of clothes for him, sliding his wands into his sleeves one at a time. ‘There, no show for the little harpy.’
‘She’s got enough pictures.’ He cocked his head. ‘Actually, how does she have pictures? I never asked.’
Fleur hummed. ‘I don’t think she actually does. I checked her stash after she started teasing me.’
‘Her… stash?’ Harry chuckled. ‘She has a stash?’
‘She has enchanted some of the Aimee books to hold objects because she thinks nobody else is going to read them anymore.’ Fleur wrinkled her nose. ‘Mostly just her attempts to write her own version of Aimee’s steamy little veela romances.’
‘Did you read them?’ He squeezed through the door and headed down the stairs, feeling his way down over each step with his feet..
‘Some of them.’ A little smirk tugged at the corner of her lips. ‘I missed you while you were off floating around being a spirit. Gabby’s more recent stories have a very obvious source of inspiration.’
‘Maybe we should read them all and start quoting bits to her,’ Harry whispered, finding the flat floor of the hall beneath his toes. ‘For revenge.’
Fleur’s smirk broadened. ‘Yes. That will teach her to do so much chirping.’
A gentle burn settled into his arms and he shifted Fleur’s weight, cradling her closer against him. ‘Nearly there.’
‘I am too fat to carry about for very long,’ Fleur muttered as he hooked a chair out from under the table with one foot. ‘Your arms are shaking.’
‘You have put on a little weight recently.’ Harry eased her into the chair. ‘I warned you what would happen if you ate all that cake.’
She turned her nose up. ‘You should have warned me what would happen if you put a baby in me.’
‘Well, for that, I would’ve needed to have been told it wasn’t a safe day before we got carried away.’ He grinned and dropped into the chair beside her. ‘But my devious bird-witch decided she preferred happy surprises.’
A little pink coloured Fleur’s cheeks. ‘It was going to happen eventually anyway, and it was more perfect as a happy half surprise than if we’d planned it all out.’
‘Imagine improvising.’ Harry wagged a finger at her. ‘After all those times you stamped on my foot or scolded me about doing it.’
‘I wasn’t risking my life.’ She folded her arms over her tummy. ‘And I did not improvise entirely. If I had done that, I would have been pregnant when we were still at the Meadow.’
His breath caught. ‘Wait, what?’
Fleur’s flush darkened. ‘It occurred to me what a perfect moment it would be a long time before it actually happened.’
‘I would’ve missed our baby being born,’ he whispered, a chill prickling down his spine. ‘And if you’d been pregnant and not able to apparate…’
‘Are you panicking about something that didn’t even happen?’ Fleur demanded. ‘Stop fretting and get me my glass of water, mon Amour.’
Harry twitched. ‘I wasn’t panicking…’ He plucked a clean glass from the cupboard and filled it from the tap. ‘I was just thinking about alternative events that I didn’t like.’
‘Fretting.’ She accepted the glass in both hands, taking little sips. ‘You are fretting. About something Gabby talked me out of and didn’t even happen.’
‘I just don’t like the idea of you having our baby alone.’ A horrible cold sickness settled in his stomach. ‘It makes my skin crawl.’
‘I am fine. The baby is fine.’ Fleur took another sip of water. ‘If you must worry about something, worry about what a bad influence Gabby will be when our baby’s old enough to understand her.’
‘Oh dear.’ Harry sighed. ‘She’s going to give those Aimee books to our baby, isn’t she?’
Fleur spluttered water into her glass.
‘I guess they are basically a Delacour family heirloom at this point.’ Harry chuckled. ‘I have ancient magical mirrors and you have about a dozen smut novels.’
She stuck her lower lip out at him. ‘You are Henri Delacour now, you will have to read them.’
‘I don’t think I want to,’ he murmured, bending to press a soft kiss to her cool, damp pout. ‘It’s probably a harrowing insight into the mind of my younger bird-wife.’
Fleur’s pout curved into a smile against his lips. ‘You’re going to get a lot of insight anyway, mon Cœur,’ she whispered. ‘Some of those fantasies I came up with while you were… away are from them.’
‘Careful,’ he said, trailing kisses down the side of her neck. ‘Too much talk like that and I’ll get tempted to carry you back upstairs.’
A little shiver swept through Fleur. ‘Even though I’m all big and round.’
‘It really doesn’t make you any less beautiful.’ Harry crouched and slid his arms around her. ‘Although we’d probably have to be gentle.’
She hummed, resting her head on his. ‘The fantasies can wait until afterward. Once the baby is born and everything is back to how it was before, I’m going to make these months up to you.’
‘Make them up to me?’ Harry quirked an eyebrow.
‘It has been a little while, mon Cœur,’ she whispered. ‘I’m sure you’ve missed it.’ Her irises darkened a touch. ‘You had better have missed it.’
‘A little bit.’ He gave her a wry smile. ‘Well, actually quite a lot, but only for a few short moments here and there.’ Harry traced his fingertips across the swell of her stomach. ‘It’s a very small sacrifice for something so perfect.’
‘And the more it hurts to have…’
‘The more you seem to enjoy it sometimes.’ Harry chuckled at the pink blossoming on her cheeks. ‘You’re a weird girl, mon Rêve.’
‘I am perfect for you.’ A little heat rose in Fleur’s blue eyes and Harry’s pulse quickened. ‘And you’re just as weird as I am, mon Amour.’
Footsteps padded down the corridor and low voices echoed from the hall.
‘Ah, ma petite Fleur.’ Apolline swept into the kitchen. ‘You’re looking radiant.’
‘But not very petite,’ Laurent said.
Fleur narrowed her eyes at him.
‘Oh?’ Laurent hid a grin behind his hand. ‘No tantrum, Fleur?’
‘Harry has put me in a very good mood,’ she said, turning her nose up. ‘And Emilie said the baby might come a little bit early, which I am still happy about.’
‘Ah.’ Apolline smiled. ‘There does come a point where you would just quite like the baby out of you.’
‘Why did you have another one?’ Fleur asked. ‘Was doing this once not enough?’
Laurent laughed. ‘Your Maman felt you ought to have a brother or sister, especially when you kept crying every time we left you alone for more than a few seconds.’
Fleur flushed. ‘I did not.’
‘You did, ma Chérie,’ Apolline said. ‘You were a very sweet baby as long as everyone did exactly what you wanted them to, but when they didn’t…’
‘So she’s really not changed at all,’ Harry said, pressing a kiss to her cheek and straightening up.
Laurent chuckled. ‘Her tantrums are a little more dangerous than they used to be. Before it was just little bits of white fluff, a huge pout, and a lot of screaming. Now there is fire and that rather sharp-looking beak. And that’s if you’re lucky and she doesn’t have her wand nearby.’
Apolline smiled and smoothed Fleur’s hair back off her forehead. ‘You’re doing amazingly, Fleur. You may find you change your mind about having just one child, we weren’t originally thinking about a second, but we certainly do not regret having Gabrielle.’
‘I regret you had her. She is annoying.’
‘Fleur,’ Apolline murmured. ‘You have doted on Gabby since you first saw her. There are endless pictures of you holding her as a baby. I nearly had to yell at you to get you to give her back to me at times.’
‘I have not doted on that chirping little chicken.’ Fleur turned her nose up. ‘I just made sure she wasn’t up to anything.’
Laurent hid his smile. ‘Until you hit your early teens, you were inseparable—’
A bright purple glow and a high-pitched ringing emanated from Harry’s pocket.
Cold shock jolted through Harry’s veins. Is it time to fight Julien?
‘I’ll be back as soon as I can, mon Amour.’ He pulled out Violette’s ring and slipped it onto his finger. ‘I better not have to go to the Caribbean again.’
‘Be careful,’ Fleur whispered. ‘Wherever you go. You are not allowed to die. And you are especially not allowed to die just before our baby is born.’
‘No risks and nothing reckless,’ he said, pulling her close.
She grabbed the front of his robes and dragged his mouth down onto hers. ‘I will be waiting and stressing, and stress is bad for the baby, so do not make me wait long.’
‘I’ll do my best.’ Harry held her against him, burying his face in the silver cascade of her hair and breathing in the soft scent of marzipan. ‘You smell very nice.’
‘I always smell like that.’ Fleur cupped his cheek with a warm hand. ‘I’ve smelt of almonds since before I met you.’
‘I know.’ He pressed kisses to each of her fingers. ‘I very much like it, though, I know it’s you.’ Harry sighed and slipped his wand from his sleeve. ‘Here, mon Amour, so you have a piece of me to yell at if I’m late.’
Fleur clutched his wand to her chest and watched him step back with soft blue eyes. ‘Promets-moi?’
‘I’ll be back soon, I promise.’ He wrenched the world back past him and stepped into the Sunshine Room. ‘Grise? Vert?’
‘Here.’ Grise stepped out from behind the flickering white flames of the brazier. ‘We have an emergency.’
‘It’s not Julien?’
‘Non.’ Grise tugged a bushy, white sideburn. ‘One of France’s few remaining magical communities in central Africa has called for help. It’s suspected to be the British retaliating to those they think are causing them trouble.’
‘Who am I dealing with?’ Harry eyed the slim pieces of wood in Grise’s hand. ‘And how many portkeys am I going to have to take?’
‘Whoever is responsible has let loose a Nundu.’
‘That sounds like a them problem,’ he replied. ‘I know very little about magical creatures.’
‘You just need to kill it and figure out who unleashed it,’ Grise said. ‘The mayor of the town gave assurances there must have been tampering for it to get through their wards.’
‘Is it worse than a dragon?’ Harry asked.
‘Surprisingly similar,’ Grise replied. ‘It has toxic breath, is highly resistant to magic, but unlike a dragon, it is very nimble and fast on its feet. Don’t stand in the same place for too long if you can’t see it, they like to jump on their prey from a high vantage point.’
‘Wonderful.’ Harry held out his hand. ‘Give me the portkeys. This had better be important. If I get eaten by a giant cat, my wife will drag me from the afterlife just so she can send me back there herself.’
‘Our aurors are tied down in North Africa and in Corsica,’ Grise said. ‘It’s us or the nundu gets to run amok for another two days until the Dufort sisters have left North Africa and taken over from Gui in Corsica. The portkeys will take you to Bonifacio in Corsica, then Hadrumentum in North Africa, and then to the town.’
‘How’s Corsica going?’
‘Vert and I have gone through the outposts while Le Cancrelat is trapped in his stronghold. They were all empty.’
‘I would wager they’re at the stronghold,’ Grise replied. ‘Le Cancrelat probably keeps them close and until we turned up, they could apparate in and out of those outposts whenever they needed.’
‘As long as Julien is still trapped.’ Harry waved the first piece of wood. ‘What’s the word for these?’
The corner of Grise’s mouth twitched. ‘Chat.’
Harry shot him a flat stare. ‘Really?’
‘It felt appropriate.’
‘Chat,’ he muttered.
The Sunshine Room jerked forward and he staggered into a cool, stone hall.
Harry switched the portkey for the next. ‘Chat.’
The hall blurred into a small, pale stone chamber with a worn, red rug.
He grabbed the last from his pocket and stuffed the rest away. ‘Chat.’
A pale stone room lurched sideways into smothering heat and bright light.
‘Violette?’ A deep voice boomed over his shoulder.
Harry slipped the Elder Wand from his sleeve and blinked a few times in the fierce sun. ‘I’m here.’
A plain, sandstone arch framed simple, squat cone-shaped roofs rising from a swathe of pale red sand and crumbling stone. Shimmering heat haze stretched to the horizon and a broad, blue sky spread over the sand.
‘Just you?’ A broad shadow fell over him.
‘Just me.’ Harry squinted up into a tanned, weathered face and stuck the portkey in his pocket. ‘Where’s the cat?’
‘Out there, hunting.’ A huge hand stuck from a loose, dark robe. ‘I am Ismael.’
Harry shook the huge hand, stifling a wince at Ismael’s crushing grip. ‘Hunting what? And what happened to the wards?’
‘They have faded over the years,’ Ismael said. ‘Our ashwinder farms are struggling, France has poured money into its territories on the North African coast to appease dissidents there and it has left us behind.’
‘So… no sabotage?’ Harry fixed him with a flat stare.
‘There is still a nundu.’ Ismael gave him a sheepish look. ‘We cannot leave this building while it is out there. We are fortunate it was focused on the ashwinders and nobody has been harmed.’
Harry spun the Elder Wand in his fingers, showering the smooth stone floor with silver sparks. ‘Is there anything else you’d like to share?’
‘Watch out for the ashwinders. They are lazy in the heat, but their bite is still deadly and it is laying season.’
Harry pinched the bridge of his nose and stifled a flash of irritation. ‘In other words, there’re lots of exploding eggs tucked away in hard to spot places as well as a giant man-eating cat.’
‘Yes.’ Ismael pulled his wand out. ‘I will come, too.’
‘I don’t think that would be smart.’
I can’t speak to the ashwinders if you’re out there with me. Harry glanced down and transfigured his clothes into tight, dark blue auror robes. Better. He charmed a silver willow tree onto his breast in place of the gold fleurs-de-lis and smiled. Much better.
Ismael tucked his wand away. ‘If you are sure, Violette.’
‘I am.’ Harry stepped out through the arch and glanced about. ‘Let’s see if I can’t find it.’
He disillusioned himself, pouring magic into the spell. There, that ought to make it impossible for it to find me even by the sound of my footsteps or smell. Harry apparated up atop the highest roof with a soft snap.
A low rumble echoed over the crumbling sandstone and ice flashed through his veins.
But not the sound of me apparating right on top of it. Harry twisted around, holding his breath and willing his hammering heart to still.
Thick muscles rippled beneath sleek, pale fur as the nundu rose to its feet and yawned. Its red tongue flopped over a pair of yellow teeth as long as his wand and thick as his wrist. Golden eyes swept the roof where he stood and its tall ears twitched.
Harry levelled his wand at its head. Probably best to start with something simple to see how resistant to magic it really is.
A red flash struck the nundu in the face and it slumped to the ground, still as a stone.
He let his disillusionment unravel. ‘That wasn’t so bad.’
Gold eyes snapped open and a low growl thundered in the back of the nundu’s throat.
‘That’s cheating.’ Harry apparated to the next roof.
The nundu roared and whirled, clawing at the stones. A cloud of dust swirled over it, veiling everything but its long, dark, lashing tail.
How on earth did it get back up so fast after my magic stunned it? He spun his wand in his fingers and edged across the roof, keeping one eye on the shadow inside the dust. That’s not magical resistance, that’s something else.
An ashwinder coiled on the flat stone lip of the roof.
‘Hello,’ Harry said in parseltongue. ‘You might want to move.’
‘Why?’ The dark-spined serpent slithered about to point its nose at him. ‘This one warm. Full. Eggs here.’
‘There’s a very large cat coming.’
‘Two-teeth. Cold-breath. Many-lives.’ The ashwinder slunk down into the shadows of the roof. ‘This one hide.’
‘Many lives,’ Harry mused. ‘It better not be nine.’ A low sigh escaped him. ‘But I bet it is. It’s a pretty magically powerful number.’
The nundu bounded from the dust cloud and roared, spewing dark mist from its jaws. Ashwinders boiled from the sand, zig-zagging across the red sand into the crevices of the crumbling stone walls. A handful slowed and writhed, thrashing in the sand. The nundu pounced on the nearest and bit its head off, spitting it away and swallowing the body whole.
Best not to mess around if it’s got a magically resistant hide.
Harry drew his magic out into a swirl of white sparks, compressing it to a point at the tip of his wand. ‘Fulminis.’
A white flash seared his eyes.
The nundu lay on the sand, smoke rising from a charred hole in its ribs. Harry crouched down, spinning his wand in his fingers.
Pink scar tissue crept across the wound and the nundu leapt to its feet with a snarl. Its narrowed golden eyes fixed themselves on him.
‘Wonderful,’ he muttered. ‘Somewhere between one and eight to go, probably.’
The giant cat burst into a run, bounding across the sand. Harry apparated back to the other roof as it clawed its way up the wall, hissing and spitting. The nundu whirled and leapt toward him across the rocks. He drew his magic forth again, back-stepping to the highest point of the roof as it rose over the wall.
White light flashed.
A loud thud echoed up through the building, shaking dust and sand from the stones.
Harry edged to the lip.
The nundu shook itself and rumbled, slinking away into the weathered sandstone on soft feet.
He disillusioned himself and apparated to the far roof. Where have you gone?
Ashwinders coiled on the red sand as he strained his eyes into the brightness, peering across the shimmering heat haze rising off the rocks.
A soft click of stone came over his shoulder.
Merde. Harry apparated as four lines of fire tore across his back, stumbling across the opposite roof.
The nundu prowled the roof, its golden eyes fixed on him and its tail lashing back and forth like a whip.
A searing throb settled into his spine and he pushed himself to his feet. ‘Vulnera sanentur,’ he muttered, jabbing his wand over his shoulder.
Hot, sticky damp robes clung to the skin of his back as the pain faded. He stretched his back, holding his breath. New skin flexed across his shoulder blades and spine.
The nundu slunk off the far side of the roof.
It’s probably going to try that again. Harry apparated out onto the flat sand.
A soft crunch came from beneath his heels.
Merde. He apparated atop a cluster of red rocks as fire billowed across the red sand and wiped sweat off his forehead. This place is a death trap.
The nundu swung its paw atop the roof he’d left and snarled.
‘Yeah, I’m not falling for that again.’ Harry tugged his blood-stained robes off his back with a grimace and abandoned his disillusionment. ‘In fact, let’s just not play hide-and-seek at all.’
The nundu’s head snapped up and it dropped to the ground, stalking toward him over the red sand.
Harry drew a spiral of white sparks about the tip of his wand. ‘Here, puss, puss, puss,’ he muttered. ‘Here, puss, puss, puss.’
It broke into a run, zigzagging across the sand.
He unleashed his magic.
A crackling beam of lightning exploded in the sand. Fragments of steaming, molten glass rained down on him, searing his hands and the back of his neck. The nundu bounded through, fangs bared.
He ducked the swipe of its claws and conjured a whip of flame, snaring its legs as it sailed over his head. The nundu sprawled into a heap. Harry unleashed a hail of piercing hexes, but they burst against its fur leaving small, red cuts on its flank. Dark mist streamed from its jaws as it leapt to its feet and roared.
He apparated behind it at the first touch of the cold breath and transfigured the sand into a great stone fist, clamping its fingers around the Nundu’s body. It snarled and writhed, striking sparks off the stone with its claws.
‘I should’ve done that to begin with.’ Harry dusted sand off his robes and sighed, levelling his wand at its eye. ‘Lacero.’
The purple spell ripped through the glaring gold iris and the nundu fell still.
Harry spun his wand around. ‘And one… two… three…’
The nundu hung limp in the stone fist.
He crouched and studied its still chest. Finally dead. Harry let out a long breath. About time.
Pink scar tissue crept back across the bleeding eye socket and the nundu growled.
‘Or not.’ He forced his magic further into the stone hand, forcing the fingers closed.
Bones crunched and snapped, bursting through the pale fur and spattering the sand in crimson drops. The nundu yowled and screamed, gasping tatters of dark mist across the ground.
Harry retreated a few steps until it fell still and sat down on the hot sand. ‘I can do this all day, you know.’
Blood trickled down from the gleaming shards of shattered bone into the sand. A pile of glistening blue and purple entrails flopped to the ground and a thick reek drifted to his nose.
‘No, I learn from my mistakes.’ He pointed his wand at its head. ‘Up you get.’
Flies settled on its head, creeping into its mouth and onto its lolling red tongue.
Harry jumped to his feet. ‘Okay, maybe you actually are dead this time.’ He paused, the undead tarantula scuttling before the eye of his mind. ‘And speaking of dead things…’
It’s very magically resistant, but worth a try.
Thrusting his wand out, he poured his magic into the nundu’s corpse. His magic splashed back off it like water off flat, hard dirt. Harry gritted his teeth and forced it in, driving it through the corpse like worms burrowing into soil. A soft, yellow glow arose from it as fatigue began to bite, tugging at his bones.
The nundu’s body shuddered.
‘Nope.’ Harry let his magic go as it wavered. ‘Maybe if I’d not been fighting.’ He dragged up the last dregs of his magic and pictured the amber-masked man, clawing sharp, cold hate up from his heart and bathing the nundu in Fiendfyre.
The corpse crumbled to ash and the stone hand wept, melting away into a glowing, shivering pool of lava.
Ismael stumbled across the sand, his wand clutched in his fist.
Harry smothered the amber-masked man beneath Fleur’s delicate pout and squashed the Fiendfyre into a wisp of dark smoke.
‘Thank you.’ Ismael stared at the cooling lava. ‘I’ve never seen magic like that.’
‘Fix your wards. Then you won’t have to see it again.’
He shook his head. ‘I’m going back to France. We all are. We can’t afford to restore the wards and the nundu ate half our ashwinders.’ Ismael’s tanned face fell. ‘This was the last magical French town south of the Mediterranean.’
‘Where’s the nearest town?’
Ismael shrugged. ‘There are some muggle ones, but the magical kingdoms here are pretty friendly. We’ve been swapping pieces of magic with them for about three hundred years now, so we’ll go there to say goodbye and then find our way back. They can have the ashwinders if they like, it’s kind of a sacred creature to them.’
Harry dug in his pocket for the first portkey. ‘Bon courage.’
‘Chat.’ He stumbled across the red rug, tossing away the portkey and grabbing the next. ‘Chat.’ Harry let out a long sigh in the cool of the hall, letting it soak into him as he pulled the last portkey out. ‘Chat.’ He staggered into the Sunshine Room and slumped into a chair with a long sigh.
‘Who sabotaged the wards?’ Grise sat on the far side of the brazier, watching the flickering white flames. ‘Britain?’
Harry shook his head. ‘They were just old. They lied to get us to help with the nundu.’
Grise steepled his fingers. ‘I see. Is it dealt with?’
‘It is. The town’s finished, though.’
‘That was inevitable,’ Grise replied. ‘We founded a swathe of towns out there when we were building an empire a few centuries ago, but found there’s nothing but sand and some very old, small native kingdoms that were already happy to trade secrets with us out there. Once we realised we had more useful secrets than they did, all those towns began to fade away.’
Harry rested the back of his hand against his warm forehead. ‘I think I’m sunburnt.’
Grise peered through the flames. ‘If you cannot heal it yourself, I recommend a potion called Lawrence’s Veil. It’s a pain to make or expensive to buy, but a couple of drops fixes it. I found it useful.’
Harry snorted. ‘I imagine you sunburn worse than I do.’
‘Quite a lot worse.’ Grise rested his hands on his lap. ‘Are you injured at all?’
‘Just sunburnt. It got me once, but not so badly I couldn’t heal it.’
‘I’m sure Sarcelle or Cramoisi can check to make sure you’re healed.’ His pink eyes rested on Harry. ‘It would be wise to be at your best. The Dufort sisters are moving to Corsica in three days.’
A bright little thrill caught Harry’s breath in his throat; its whisper sung through his veins. Finally. It’s time. He shattered the amber mask before his mind’s eye. I’ll show you, Julien. Sunsets can last forever. You just have to want it enough.