The morning sun rose behind the dome of the Pantheon, throwing long faint shadows across the piazza to the edge of their table.
‘You’re certain they’re back in Malta?’ Giacomo asked. ‘Absolutely certain?’
‘It’s a lot of ground,’ Zoe murmured, sipping coffee from a small mug. ‘They could have fled anywhere in the South of Italy.’
Colette leant forward. ‘We can’t say for sure, but they fled using a portkey and nobody has breached or tripped any of the wards we set up over the coming days or turned up in our sweeps.’
It’s fine. If they come back, we can just come back. Harry stifled a sigh and poked at the earpiece chafing his ear. Let me go home.
‘Either they’re travelling and hiding without magic or they went back to Malta,’ Celine said. ‘And we—’
‘Don’t think there’s any reason they would stay here to be hunted,’ Isobel said. ‘When we leave, their main targets also leave.’
‘So you are leaving,’ Giacomo said. ‘And your aurors?’
‘Also leaving.’ Colette tugged Celine’s cup of coffee across the table and took a long sip. ‘The magical communities of Italy are yours to watch over, Giacomo, Zoe. We must return to Paris, but should there be trouble, La Belle France will offer her help.’
Mostly Giacomo. Harry watched the sun’s edge creep over the Pantheon’s dome. I doubt Zoe will care much about ruling Italy right now.
‘And Italy?’ Giacomo folded his arms. ‘You know what we hoped for.’
‘Présidente Desrosiers has an offer for you,’ Isobel said, exchanging a long look with her sisters. ‘It is not one we personally approve of.’
‘Say it.’ Giacomo’s face tightened. ‘What is the price of Italian independence?’
He sucked in a sharp breath. ‘Malta. Grindelwald failed to take Malta. Twice. It is an unassailable stronghold.’
Isobel nodded, her grey eyes sharp and serious. ‘We know—’
‘We do not agree,’ Colette said. ‘But—’
‘We can only tell you what Présidente Desrosiers decided.’ Celine held Giacomo’s dark eyes. ‘And that is Malta.’
‘That is declaring war on Britain.’ Giacomo shook his head. ‘They will swat us like a fly.’
‘They are stretched very thin,’ Isobel said. ‘This is not Britain before Grindelwald—’
‘Nor is it the Britain from immediately after Grindelwald,’ Zoe said. ‘We saw what the papers said, how they were weak, how they were crumbling, how Dumbledore’s death and Voldemort’s civil war had finally brought them down—’
‘None of that is true,’ Celine said. ‘But Britain is fighting in the Caribbean. In Greece. In Egypt. And all after its auror forces were decimated by Voldemort.’
‘And then rebuilt with fanatic child soldiers by Amelia Bones,’ Giacomo snapped. ‘No. This is not a price we can afford to pay. We will not pay it.’
‘Présidente Desrosiers is not offering an alternative,’ Colette murmured. ‘This is the only way. She will not risk you siding with Britain, not after this trouble about Rome.’
Zoe caught Harry’s eye and rose from her chair, wincing and leaning upon it. ‘Violette, may I trouble you to assist me to the bathroom.’
‘Sure.’ He slid out of his seat and extended an arm.
Let’s see what she really wants.
Zoe leant her weight on it and let him lead her through the chairs. ‘Stop here,’ she said, as they reached the bar. ‘This is far enough.’
‘Go on,’ Harry said. ‘No point dancing about it.’
‘This offer, do you know anything about it?’
‘No.’ He shrugged. ‘Présidente Desrosiers doesn’t talk to me. I doubt she talks to the Duforts much either, save for exceptional circumstances like these. I get the impression she’s quite removed from everyone else.’
‘And Britain? What about them? Are we just going to be slaughtered against the wards of Malta?’
Harry glanced up and down the bar. ‘From what I have seen, Britain has two auror captains, one is in Britain, chasing this terrorist organisation that murdered Amelia Bones, the other is in the Caribbean. Their Unspeakables are harder to track, but there seems to just be one team on Malta from the timing of their involvements in North Africa and Italy.’
‘That one team is still too much.’
He weighed his words. ‘I think, when they suggested you could ask for French help should you encounter trouble, that meant both official help and unofficial help.’ Harry glanced back over his shoulder at the table. ‘I can’t make any promises, but I would be surprised if I or others like me weren’t sent to lend a hand. Malta is important.’
‘Malta is the keystone of Britain’s strategy,’ Zoe murmured. ‘You want to prise it out, but you cannot do it openly.’
‘I suspect something like that has been thought up, yes.’
‘So we would just have to declare war and lend a few wands to upholding wards,’ she said.
‘Keeping Malta locked down is also a victory for France,’ Harry replied. ‘It will prevent the Unspeakables from causing trouble elsewhere.’
‘I see.’ Zoe smoothed the front of her purple dress down, her fingers lingering over her stomach. ‘I owe you a debt, Violette. A debt of life.’
‘Unless I’ve wandered into the world of some questionable literature involving strange magic and a lot of steamy liaisons, that’s not a real thing.’
She blinked. ‘It is not like a magical oath, but it is a debt owed all the same.’ Zoe leant forward. ‘Cesare Alfonse de Medici,’ she whispered in his ear. ‘I do not know your face, or your name, or your voice, but only you and I know that name now. If, one day, someone were to repeat it to me, I would honour this debt no matter what they asked.’
He held her gaze, measuring the weight of it. ‘That’s kind of you. I won’t forget.’
‘It is a personal debt, between my family and yours,’ Zoe murmured. ‘I ask only that you do not use it against us. You spoke of children with fondness enough that I hope you understand my concern and are not offended.’
‘I understand.’ Harry offered her a smile. ‘I won’t use it to make sacrifices for France.’
‘Grazie,’ Zoe whispered. ‘We should go back. I will speak to Giacomo.’
He helped her back through the tables and into her seat, retaking his own.
Zoe leant across to mutter in Giacomo’s ear and resignation settled on his face.
‘Very well.’ Giacomo sighed. ‘We will pay this price. I can muster aurors and volunteers enough to maintain wards over South Italy and Malta itself, but I cannot assault the British stronghold itself. Not against the Unspeakables.’
Isobel glanced at him, at her sisters, and nodded. ‘Done, then. Présidente Desrosiers will be pleased.’
‘And Italy might finally have some semblance of peace without being used as a puppet.’ Giacomo stared down into his espresso. ‘I suppose I should thank you for helping, but I can feel the strings I’m hanging from going all the way back to Paris.’
‘À bientôt,’ Celine said, stealing the last of Colette’s coffee.
‘Home time, little brother,’ Isobel whispered in his ear as they stood and strode across the square into the cool of the Pantheon. ‘Aren’t you happy?’
‘Don’t I look happy?’
She laughed and pulled a pair of pink and green macarons out of her pocket. ‘At the moment, you have a very impressive beard.’
Harry touched his chin. ‘White?’
‘I never really considered what it looks like for other people.’ He paused as Colette and Celine joined them in the ring of light beneath the oculus. ‘I guess this is goodbye for a little bit?’
‘Have some edible portkeys, macaron thief.’ Isobel pulled him into a hug, pressing the macarons into his hand. ‘I would say we hope to see you soon, but I think you’d probably prefer we didn’t, right, little brother?’
Harry patted her on the back. ‘Unless it’s something unofficial.’
‘Isn’t everything unofficial for you?’ Colette flashed him a smile
‘You know what I meant.’ He chuckled, slipping his wand from his sleeve and picturing Bonifacio as he enchanted the green macaron. ‘Au revoir, girls.’ Harry bounced the macaron on his hand. ‘Fleur.’
He stumbled out onto the worn stones and took a deep breath, staring up at the plain arches above his head. It feels like it’s been forever. A fierce longing seized him and he jabbed his wand at the pink macaron, picturing their kitchen. ‘Katrina.’
The grey walls lurched and he smacked into a cupboard door, pain flashing through his cheek.
‘Ow.’ He squeezed his eyes shut until it faded. ‘I think I’ve hit every bit of furniture in this room now.’
‘Welcome back, mon cher frere,’ Gabby chirped, closing the cupboard. ‘Are those macarons for me?’
Harry crammed both his portkeys into his mouth, enjoying the wash of sweet cherry. ‘No—’ he swallowed ‘—that’s mine.’
‘Awwww.’ Gabby pouted. ‘How was it?’
‘Long.’ He sighed, breathing out all the days he’d been away until the weight lifted from his shoulders and tugged off Violette’s ring. ‘It felt like forever.’
‘Well, you’re back now.’ She bounced across the kitchen in her small white socks and hugged him. ‘How long for?’
‘Hopefully for a little while.’ Harry grimaced. ‘But something tells me it won’t be.’
‘Things do seem to be going that way,’ Gabby murmured, stepping back to rummage through cupboards again. ‘I think Fleur has stolen my meringues.’ She glanced up. ‘How much are you fretting?
‘On a scale of one to panic?’ He let it bubble up, flashing hot and cold in his stomach and clamping around his throat, tight as a noose, goading his heart into hammering. ‘I think we’re about halfway.’
‘So just a couple of notches below panic.’ Gabby tutted at him. ‘We can just leave, you know. If we have to.’
‘No we can’t,’ Harry whispered. ‘We need La Victoire Finale, and we need to stay for that, and even if we don’t need to stay, someone will come hunting anyway. Britain is being stretched thinner and thinner. They must be getting desperate to find another Dumbledore, desperate enough to listen to Neville even though he has no real proof. And if it’s not Neville, it’s the Last Scions, or—’
‘Or the body we’re growing in the Chamber of Secrets.’ Gabby grinned. ‘Maybe your wand will possess it and decide to kill you off.’
‘It can’t possess it unless you’ve given the body a soul.’ Harry levelled her with a flat look. ‘Which you better not have done. One of me is enough.
‘I haven’t. I wouldn’t even know where to start.’ She pulled out a tin of hot chocolate powder and grabbed a spoon. ‘Tomorrow Fleur and I will go check on that body.’
A little of his fear clawed its way back up. ‘We need to start making progress. I have some runes, but…’
‘We have time.’ Gabby scooped a heap of hot chocolate powder into her mouth and coughed, spluttering bits of chocolate over the side.
‘You haven’t seen what’s happening,’ he murmured. ‘They’re ripping things away from each other. Stealing dreams…’
And someone will have too much taken away. Like Tom. The amber-masked figure hung in red skies, burning with golden light. And they will come to take everything away from us.
‘Tomorrow.’ Gabby rested a hand on his. ‘You’ve only just come back. Don’t work yourself into a mad frenzy, Harry. Tomorrow we can work on La Victoire Finale. Today, you need to breathe.’
Harry released a long sigh. ‘Where’s my baby bird?’
‘With her meringue-thieving maman.’ She pouted. ‘Down in the garden near the orchard. Your little chick likes to watch the real birds.’
‘Merci, Gabby. Enjoy your tin of hot chocolate powder.’ He pictured the small cluster of fruit trees and stepped into their shade.
Ravens cawed and hopped about in the branches above. Fleur pointed up at them, through the fluttering leaves, facing away toward the meadows and the river.
‘Mon Trésor?’ Harry called.
She whirled around, cradling Katrina in her arms. ‘Mon Coeur,’ she breathed, a soft smile spread across her face. ‘You’re finally back.’
‘I’m sorry it was so long.’ He strode through the grass and wrapped them both into his arms. ‘How has our little veela hatchling been?’
‘Mostly happy.’ Fleur waved Katrina’s chubby hand. ‘Say hi to your papa, little chick.’
Katrina smiled a toothless smile and stared at Harry with bright green eyes, clutching for him with both hands, her small fingers grasping at his tight robes.
His heart melted. ‘Look at you, baby bird,’ he whispered. ‘Your eyes are all green now.’
‘She’s got your eyes, mon Amour,’ Fleur murmured, brushing wisps of silver hair off Katrina’s face. ‘There’s still some blue in there, but I think they’re going to be very green when they stop changing.’
‘Our tiny angel.’ He pressed light kisses to Katrina’s little fingers. ‘You’re going to be just as perfect as your maman, aren’t you, baby bird?’
‘She definitely has my temper,’ Fleur said with a small smirk. ‘We left her to fall asleep by herself a few days ago and she screamed until everyone was in the room fussing over her.’
‘No fire or feathers?’ Harry wiggled a finger into Katrina’s fist and let her tug on it. ‘She’s too young to be bribed with cake like you.’
‘She is also too young for fire and feathers.’ Fleur smiled. ‘But as soon as she had everyone there paying her attention she shut her eyes and went right to sleep.’
‘Just like her maman.’ Harry chuckled. ‘Your maman also hates it when people don’t pay her attention, Katie, she stalks them and sabotages their dates.’
Fleur turned her nose up. ‘I only stalked you because you were my competition and I was curious.’
‘And guess what she does then, baby bird. She kisses them and runs away for months.’
A little pink rose on Fleur’s cheeks. ‘Do not listen to your papa.’
Katrina jammed Harry’s fingers in her mouth and chewed on them with warm, soft gums.
‘I’m fairly sure she’s not listening.’ He laughed. ‘Am I tasty, Katie?’
‘Here.’ Fleur shifted Katrina into his arms. ‘You hold her. She’s missed you.’
‘Has she?’ A little smile tugged at his lips. ‘Really?’
‘Well…’ Fleur gave him a small rueful smile. ‘She’s clearly happy you’re back and recognises you’re someone she likes.’
‘Someone she likes to try and eat.’ Harry glanced down at where Katrina chomped on his fingers. ‘I suppose it could be worse.’
‘She’s still very small, mon Coeur,’ Fleur whispered.
‘I know.’ He drew her in close and kissed her on the nose. ‘I just hope I’m not away too much, or she’ll think you and Gabby are her mamans and forget all about me. That’s going to be very difficult to explain to everyone but the Duforts.’
Fleur pulled him into a kiss, tangling her fingers in his hair. ‘It’s time for our baby bird to have her nap,’ she murmured. ‘So let’s wander slowly back to the house and find something to keep her happy until she dozes off.’
‘Has she got any new toys?’
‘I made her an animated fluffy raven.’ A little smirk spread across Fleur’s lips as they drifted through the small orchard. ‘Called Henri. She is very fond of it, although she was a little surprised and scared when she learnt it could flap its wings.’
‘I would make her a Fleur one, but I don’t know what animal to make it,’ Harry teased.
‘And because you can’t enchant something like that.’
‘And that.’ He laughed and slipped his free arm around her waist, resting Katrina on his shoulder. ‘But I can turn into a raven and fly, you’re a flightless bird-witch, mon Ange.’
‘Veela don’t have animagus forms,’ she replied. ‘It is the soul magic, I think. We already have another form that suits us.’ Fleur smirked. ‘And I have a much bigger beak than you do.’
‘It’s the fire that worries me most.’ Harry gave her a little squeeze. ‘I like my feathers uncrisped.’