The floating, glass lantern spun before the tip of Harry’s wand, its soft, white glow throwing gentle shadows across his arm. Magic streamed from the orb of glass within the lantern like light from a bulb.
‘What are you doing?’ Gabby asked, craning her neck from the door. ‘Stealing a lantern?’
‘No I was just curious how they worked.’ He tucked his wand back into his sleeve, and jumped down from the arm of the chair. ‘Katrina’s got a lot of nice things that you and Fleur have made for her, but nothing from me.’
‘I don’t think a glass lantern is a great idea. It might break.’
‘I was going to give her an orb. And charm it so it’s more or less unbreakable.’
‘Just a ball of glass?’
He shrugged. ‘I haven’t got to the clever part yet, maybe I’ll try and make it change colours when she shakes it or something, she likes bright colours.’
A loud crack rang through the room.
‘Ah, here comes the bad news,’ Harry murmured.
A pink-faced, peeling Grise strode around the brazier.
‘Someone forgot their suncream,’ Harry muttered.
Gabby giggled. ‘Maybe that’s the bad news.’
A faint smile passed across Grise’s face. ‘Egypt and my skin are not a good combination, but things are progressing well there.’
‘The Ottomans have already set things into motion. Vert and I, we’ve been nibbling at the edges of British control, but we have more important things to consider.’
Don’t say Italy.
‘The Caribbean?’ he asked.
Harry’s blood ran cold. ‘Of course it is.’
Rome’s worse than Italy. He took a deep breath to still the unease gnawing at his gut, squashing its anxious flutter. That’s just how things go. Anything that can go wrong, does.
Gabby nudged his elbow with hers. ‘Don’t fret,’ she whispered.
‘How is Sarcelle?’ Grise asked.
‘Enjoying early motherhood,’ Gabby replied. ‘I don’t think Violette or Sarcelle will be pleased if they both have to go somewhere together and risk their baby having no parents.’
‘Understandable.’ Grise nodded. ‘I must return to Egypt and continue to undermine British loyalists there with Vert. The Présidente is keen to break the chain of territories Britain uses to shackle the Mediterranean.’ He steepled his fingers. ‘But someone who can duel well will have to go to Rome.’
‘I’m going to Italy, aren’t I?’ Harry sighed and dug the translating earpiece out of his pocket, huffing off a piece of fluff and sticking it in his ear. ‘There aren’t any things to do with eclipses in Rome, are there?’
‘In Rome? No.’ Grise’s brow furrowed. ‘But there will be one in about a month. A full one.’
I hate prophecies. Harry scowled into the white flames. But if it’s worth doing, I’ll do it. Red motes swirled in his mind’s eye, spun from a thousand screams. So at least it wasn’t for nothing.
‘What am I doing there?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know.’ Grise folded his arms. ‘What I do know is that the South of Italy, Sicily and Sardinia have decided to declare war on Venice and that Giacomo Ceccaroni is in Florence right now waiting to meet with the Duforts to explain what the hell is going on and why we should help him.’
‘I take it that I’m also going.’ Harry grimaced. ‘Is there a portkey?’
‘The Duforts are waiting at the other Les Inconnus department opposite the riverside entrance to here. They’ll get you there.’
‘And I’m just here to watch?’ Gabby asked.
‘Non.’ Grise shook his head. ‘You’re the best we have at taking wards apart; we’d like you to test out the ones that are being set up to shield France and Corsica and make sure nothing can easily slip in and out. The auror department is expecting you.’
‘Alright. I will share the news with Sarcelle.’ Gabby shared a long look with Harry and wavered away.
Fleur’s going to be cross.
Harry stifled a sigh. ‘Is that it?’
‘That’s all I know.’ Grise slid a piece of wood from his pocket. ‘I would suspect, though, that if we can put an end to the Italian turmoil and provoke an Egyptian Secession, Britain will start to feel stretched and may back down on at least one front.’
‘Hopefully.’ He sighed. ‘I’m not sure where exactly the British Unspeakables are; this Italian mess may be a smokescreen for them to retaliate in Egypt. If Vert and I do not return, Violette, I have listed you as my replacement. It should be Sarcelle, by seniority, but given you and her are involved, it makes little difference, and you have been here in the thick of things more frequently of late.’
‘If you and Vert don’t come back, Les Inconnus is going to become a family business,’ Harry joked.
Grise’s forehead creased. ‘Yes. Noire stole most of our potential recruits when he began his movement, using his reputation and influence in the places we tend to recruit from, and then Rouge and Blanc were killed…’
‘Is there nobody else to recruit?’
‘The sort of person that flourishes down here in the catacombs is hard to find, especially after so many years of peace.’ His frown darkened. ‘I warned my superiors when Voldemort reappeared that we should begin to prepare for a Britain more willing to bleed for itself than we had grown used to. I was ignored.’
‘Well, I guess you can say I told you so.’
‘Présidente Desrosiers doesn’t take that sort of thing well. She is prickly.’ Grise waved the portkey at him. ‘Go find the Duforts. They requested you, with an apology, and every second wasted is one we may come to regret later.’ He drew himself up. ‘Sphinx.’ Grise vanished with a loud pop.
Regret during some eclipse in Rome. Harry pictured the Bridge of Secrets and wrenched the world back past himself into the shadows beneath.
He clambered up the steps and drifted across the bridge, scanning the faces for Isobel, Colette and Celine.
They sat on a bench in the middle of a ring, squabbling over a box of colourful macarons. Harry drifted toward them through the sun, patting the worst of his tufts down.
‘It’s my turn to have the last one,’ Isobel declared, fending off Colette’s hands. ‘Stop that, sister. It was you last time.
Celine shook her head. ‘It was you last time Isobel.’
Colette stuck out her fist. ‘Rock, paper, scissors for it.’
‘Fine.’ Isobel thrust out her hand.
Celine held her arm out. ‘On three.’
Harry stole the last macaron and took a bite. ‘Hello ladies.’ He savoured the sweet cherry flavour. ‘Cherry. Good choice.’
Three outraged pairs of grey eyes bored into him.
‘Henri, you thief.’ Isobel put her hands on her hips. ‘You give the other half of that back.’
‘Not going to.’ He ate it with a huge grin. ‘Older sisters are meant to suffer the mischief of their younger brothers.’
Colette held out a pair of dark blue robes. ‘Here, a present.’
Harry took it, holding it up to admire the silver fleur-des-lis upon the chest. ‘What is it? Dress robes?’
They shook their heads.
‘Auror robes,’ Celine replied. ‘You can’t match us, we checked the rules, but this is close enough anyone will think you’re with us.’
‘And now you match your older sisters.’ Isobel beamed. ‘Put them on!’
Harry kicked off his dragon-hide boots and pulled them on over his robes, vanishing his old clothes once he’d got everything in place.
‘It looks good, little brother,’ Colette said.
‘Silver is a favourite of mine. Blue, too.’ A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. ‘Even if it’s a touch darker than my absolute favourite. Merci.’
‘They’re enchanted to be lightweight and help you stay cool or warm if you find yourself somewhere with terrible weather.’ Celine transfigured the box into water and swept it over the padlock-adorned fence and into the river. ‘Let’s go. Florence awaits.’
‘And then Rome,’ Colette murmured.
Harry shot her a wry smile. ‘There’s an eclipse in a month, too.’
Isobel’s eyebrows drew together into a frown. ‘What did the hot Carthaginian woman say?’
‘Two of the Adirim for the flames, one to eclipse the legacy of Rome,’ he said. ‘If that was all of it…’
It was in the Herald of Foes, they would have seen more than just words. Harry shoved the knot of unease deep down. Forget it. All you need is La Victoire Finale. You saw that yourself.
‘I don’t think French was her first language, either,’ Celine said. ‘So it might not have been quite right.’
‘Forget about it, little brother.’ Colette pulled a four-handled block of wood out of her pocket and enlarged it. ‘We don’t even know what’s really going on yet.’
Harry grabbed a hold of the nearest one.
Isobel glanced down and placed both her feet on his with a grin. ‘Payback.’
‘Seems fair,’ he said.
‘La Belle France,’ Céline said.
The Bridge of Secrets and the Seine lurched sideways, and Harry stumbled onto a narrow cobbled street. Green and white stone rose above the pastel orange walls of the shops and houses.
‘The duomo,’ Colette said, pressing the buzzer on the nearest. ‘We’re not going there.’
The door clicked.
Isobel pushed the door open. ‘In we go—’
‘Wait,’ Celine murmured. ‘Henri, it would be best, unless you have something that must be said, for you to keep a low profile.’
‘If there’s anything we should know, best to tell us now,’ Colette said.
‘All I can think of is that it could be British Unspeakables stirring trouble up here so they can keep us busy and go and quell the growing unrest in Egypt,’ Harry said. ‘But the only evidence we have of them being in the area is Gui’s portkeys being messed with and the anti-apparition wards at Kart Hadasht.’
‘Are we in Egypt?’ Isobel asked.
‘I think the Egyptians are pretty unhappy already and the Ottomans have almost certainly been helping with that.’
‘You didn’t answer the question,’ Celine said.
‘No.’ He grinned. ‘I don’t think I’m meant to confirm or deny things.’
‘I suppose not.’ Isobel skipped up the steps. ‘Let’s go, then.’
Harry followed her up a pale marble staircase and out onto a sun-soaked balcony decorated with orange and lemon trees in large terracotta pots and shaded by a trellis of grape vines. A familiar group sat about the marble table at the centre and Blaise Zabini leant over the balcony behind them, smoking a thin, white cigarette.
‘Benvenuti a Firenze.’ Zoe stood, smoothing her wine red dress. ‘I am Zoe de Medici. My home is not as grand as the mansions of France, but our cities are old, and there’s no space for great halls and galleries.’
Giacomo’s lips crooked. ‘Do not be fooled, Zoe has a very large and beautiful manse in the hills just to the North of here.’ He dipped his head. ‘A pleasure to meet the famous Trois Lionnes. Giacomo Ceccaroni, Doge of Venice.’
Zoe laughed, flashing them a smile. ‘I do. I do. And it has been a good year for wine, too.’ She indicated the others at the table. ‘This is Davide de Sforza, of Milan, of course, and Leonardo Albertazzi, Doge of Genoa.’
‘And Blaise Zabini,’ Giacomo indicated Blaise. ‘He is, how would you say, an asset of mine.’
Or you’re an asset of his. Harry ran his eyes over Blaise, noting the pearl tie-pin stabbed through the lapel of his dragon leather jacket. Damn. He’s still wearing it.
Harry caught Blaise’s eye. ‘Violette.’
Blaise twitched and the Italians exchanged a few quick looks.
So you know of me by this name now too. A faint smile curved Harry’s lips.
‘We are pleased to see that France has decided to stand with us,’ Zoe said, retaking her seat and picking up a glass of spritz. ‘I can’t imagine they would send all four of you for anything less.’
‘We are here to defend our allies,’ Celine said. ‘But we hope you will shed a little light on the situation first.’
Giacomo leant forward across the table, his expression darkening. ‘It is not a long story. Sicily, Sardinia, Bari, Naples, Cosenza, and the smaller principalities in their sway have decided to unite beneath one flag. Domenico Calabria de Bari has called it Rome.’
Zoe sipped her spritz. ‘The dream of Rome is a powerful one.’
Giacomo’s lips twisted. ‘Rome is mine.’
‘That is why they have declared war, my friend.’ Zoe laughed. ‘Leonardo, dear, would you be so kind as to find that map from downstairs.’
‘Of course, Zoe.’ Leonardo jumped from his seat and strode through a side-door into the shade of the house.
Davide chuckled. ‘As always, Zoe’s lightest touch commands the obedience of the city of Genoa. One wonders how she acquired such influence.’
A smile curved Zoe’s red lips. ‘We share much in common, Leonardo and I.’
‘A bed, I heard,’ Davide muttered. ‘And your fatherless children all bear a remarkable resemblance to our dear friend, the Doge of Genoa.’
Zoe arched an eyebrow. ‘A Sforza, giving voice to baseless rumours? That’s mightily brave. All sorts of things are whispered about you, Davide. And still nothing to prove the stories wrong…’
Giacomo shook his head. ‘Our guests are not interested in your little games. They are here for Rome.’
‘True.’ Davide raised his hand. ‘I apologise.’
Zoe dipped her head, flicking her long, dark hair over her ear. ‘Rome, as Domenico Calabria pretends this Southern Alliance is, offered us the chance to join them. For various reasons, we refused. They then declared war. As if they are even a nation with the right to do so.’
‘You were not interested in a unified, magical Italy?’ Isobel asked.
Giacomo clenched his jaw. ‘It is the ambition we all share, to cease our petty squabbles and build some unity after so many years, but these cornuti have tainted it.’
Davide studied the marble between his hands. ‘Our neighbours Ansgar Furstenburg and Marie Renner both refused to assist us. We think, perhaps, they fear getting caught in the trouble if they come to help.’
‘Furstenburg is a crusty old aristocrat with none of the elegance and charm of his forebears,’ Zoe said. ‘No doubt, closeted supporter of magical supremacy that he is, he sits in Alemannia and hopes Rome rises again.’
‘And Fürst-Elect Marie Renner is a cold-hearted Ostirrikian queen,’ Leonardo said, returning to spread a map of Italy across the table. ‘Unless every other Germanic State agrees to drag her out of Vienna, she’s not moving.’
‘She has the aggressive Ottomans and the ever-scheming Sunset Princedoms at her back,’ Giacomo said. ‘But it was worth asking.’
‘Why ask when you are under the protection of La Belle France?’ Isobel demanded. ‘You think any of the German states are in a rush to fight a war again?’
‘La Belle France… has been busy recently,’ Zoe said, swirling her glass. ‘Grazie, Leonardo.’
‘We were not sure how thin Britain had spread you after that unfortunate incident in Hadrumentum, but here you are.’ Davide studied the map, tapping his finger on Rome. ‘This is what Domenico Calabria wants most. The magical community in Rome is tiny; it has no defences, no wards, not even any real aurors of its own. We have concentrated our forces there to defend it and so far nothing has tested the new wards, but they are gathering in Naples to assault us.’
‘Domenico cannot have Rome,’ Zoe said. ‘Rome is a dream of many, if they raise a flag above Rome…’
‘Why not join?’ Colette asked. ‘Rome can remain under the protection of France.’
‘Rome is not intended to be another puppet for Britain or France or anyone.’ Giacomo’s hands tightened into white-knuckled fists. ‘These cornuti would shackle us all to Britain just to change the name of our loose alliance and you would keep us yoked to France. Rome will be free. Truly free. And united.’
Zoe raised her glass. ‘As you say.’ She took a sip. ‘If they are allowed to, this will taint the name of Rome and prevent us from achieving our goal of peaceful independence.’
The Duforts exchanged a swift glance. ‘We are not given the authority to change agreements of that nature.’
Blaise stubbed out his cigarette upon the balustrade and flicked it down into the street. ‘Giacomo…’ He bent to murmur in ear of the Doge of Venice.
Giacomo nodded. ‘Independence is not in your power to grant. We understand. But for those who do hold that power, let me be plain. If we cannot raise heaven, then we will raise hell.’