Katie’s delighted giggles echoed through the kitchen as she spun atop the table on her folded silver blanket. Henri the Raven hopped after her in circles, flapping his wings. She grabbed for him each time she went past, snagging the tip of his wing in her chubby fist and dragging him after her.
‘Poor Henri,’ Harry said, letting his magic fade from the air. ‘What did he do to deserve that?’
Katie babbled and beamed at him with wide green eyes and a huge, toothless grin.
His heart melted into a hot little puddle. ‘You’re so beautiful, baby bird.’
How did I make something as perfect as you?
She clutched for him with her free hand, a small frown creasing her face.
‘You want to go again?’ Harry raised his wand.
Katie’s green eyes darkened to pitch black and Henri the Raven flew across the kitchen into the sink. She stuck both hands up, grabbing at him with her little fingers.
He wiped his mind blank and touched their thoughts together.
A fierce, twist of need seized him, wrapped up about a warm, tall shadow.
‘You want me,’ Harry whispered, blinking back the soft heat of tears. ‘Well, you’ll always have me, little chick. Always.’ He lifted her off the table and rested her weight on his hip. ‘Is that better? Was that what you wanted?’
Katie’s eyes lightened back to green and she buried her face in his chest, balling her small fists in the folds of his clothes. A sense of ease flooded their thoughts, like a soft, thick blanket wrapping itself over his shoulders.
Harry pulled their minds apart. ‘There you go.’ He kissed the top of her head, stroking her head of fine, silver curls. ‘I’m here. Papa’s here.’
Gabby padded in and lifted a soggy Henri the Raven from the sink. ‘Did you attempt to assassinate your daughter’s favourite raven, Harry?’
‘I did.’ He grinned. ‘Bring him over here so I can finish him off, will you?’
She snickered, drying the toy off with the flick of her wand. ‘He’s going to be able to fly, soon. Fleur’s almost finished coming up with some way to make sure he doesn’t fly off.’
‘That would be very upsetting for us, wouldn’t it, Katie?’ Harry glanced down as her eyelids fluttered shut. ‘Oh, nap time is it?’
‘She goes straight to sleep when you hold her.’ Gabby set Henri the Raven down on the table. ‘I think being all warm and wrapped up in your magic is like being back inside Fleur for her.’
‘You think Katie can feel it?’ he asked.
‘Hard to say,’ Gabby murmured. ‘She gets distressed when Fleur gets angry nearby.’
A high-pitched wail burst from his pocket.
‘Merde.’ Harry lifted Violette’s ring out.
Gabby stuck hers on. ‘Both of us.’
‘It better not be dangerous.’ Harry lifted Katie off his hip and sat her on the blanket. ‘Is Fleur about?’
‘Downstairs,’ Gabby replied. ‘I’ll get her.’ She wavered away.
Katie yawned and her eyelids flickered open. Her brow creased and her small hands curled into fists.
‘Uh oh.’ Harry braced himself. ‘Here we go.’
Her bright green eyes darkened to pitch black and little bumps rose along her arms. Harry nudged Henri the Raven toward her. It vanished and reappeared on the far side of the table with a loud pop.
‘I know.’ A soft pang knifed through his ribs as tears welled up in her dark eyes. ‘I’d much rather stay here with you, too, but I can’t, baby bird.’ He sighed. ‘Not yet.’
She wailed, little white tufts poking through her skin, flailing her arms, itching at her forearms. Small red marks rose on her skin.
‘Hey, don’t scratch, Katie.’ He wiggled his fingers into her hands and held them up, waving them back and forth. ‘Don’t scratch. You’ll hurt yourself.’
Fleur and Gabby appeared in the kitchen, wincing at the rising cries.
‘Katie’s not happy her napping spot has to go away,’ Harry said, lifting Katie off the table and setting her in Fleur’s arms. ‘So… here’s your daughter, mon Trésor.’
Katie squirmed, bawling and kicking her feet as clear tears trailed down her cheeks.
‘Ssssh, little chick,’ Fleur whispered, cradling Katie in her arms. ‘Maman’s got you. It’s okay.’ She bounced their wailing daughter, humming until her cries faded and her irises lightened to green. ‘There we go. Is that better?’
The small white tufts of fluff slipped back into Katie’s skin and she relaxed, nestling face into the crook of Fleur’s neck and grabbing two handfuls of silver hair.
‘Do those little feathers hurt?’ Harry murmured.
Fleur gave him a soft smile. ‘They’re itchy when they first come through. And when they become proper feathers in a few years.’ She cupped Katie’s head in her palm, running her fingers through her silver curls. ‘The full change is… uncomfortable the first few times, but you get used to it. It’s not nearly as bad as polyjuice.’
‘Good.’ Harry bent and pressed a kiss to Katie’s shoulder. ‘Hopefully, we’ll be back soon. Or at least Gabby will be.’ He caught the little gleam of worry in Gabby’s eyes as she vanished. ‘We’ll see what it is. And then I’ll do whatever we have to do.’
‘À bientôt,’ Fleur murmured. ‘Let me know you’re thinking about me, mon Amour.’
‘I’m always thinking about you,’ he said, cupping the acorn pendant and his wedding ring against his heart. ‘You’re my bird-wife.’
A warm soft smile hovered on her lips and a little colour rose on her cheeks. ‘And you are mine.’ The smile curved into a smirk. ‘A shiny rock for my nest, just like you said.’
Harry laughed. ‘I’ll be your shiny rock, mon Amour.’ His humour faded as he stuck Violette’s ring on his finger. ‘When I come back.’
Fleur’s smile crumbled. ‘Be careful,’ she whispered. ‘We’re too close to have our sunset snatched away now.’
‘I know.’ He closed his eyes and wrenched the world back past him, stepping out beneath the floating glass lanterns beside Gabby. ‘Why did you call, Grise?’
‘To tell you… what has… happened.’ Liliana leant forward from the chair in the corner. ‘You said… you did not… like us… keeping… secrets… from you.’
Grise stepped out from behind the brazier. ‘Recent developments have Présidente Desrosiers optimistic that Britain will begin to talk about a resolution via the ICW. The magical nations of Africa and the Volsung Confederation are attempting to mediate, backed by a growing number of the magical principalities in India, China, and South America.’
‘There are some… sensible minds… still left,’ Liliana rasped. ‘But they are… small states… united only… to uphold the… Statute.’
Grise nodded. ‘They have the will to intercede, but not the power to do so unless they all act together.’ His pink eyes hardened. ‘And even then…’
‘Even then?’ Gabby murmured.
‘Rome took magic… from so many… places and… combined it.’ Liliana touched her fingers to her throat and broke into a cough.
‘Roman magical knowledge is the bastion of Western power,’ Grise said. ‘All those different magics brought together and a thousand years to build on it. There hasn’t been a power like it of such size anywhere else in the world.’
‘That is why… the Statute is… world-wide,’ Liliana whispered. ‘All who… refused it… were crushed out… of fear they… might reveal us.’
‘What’s done is done,’ Grise said. ‘These small, peaceful kingdoms and states rarely produce wizards or witches greater than someone like Giacomo Ceccaroni.’
Peace doesn’t forge powerful people. Harry stared into the dancing white flames. You need a crucible. Conflict. Purpose.
‘The Duforts, Britain’s Unspeakables, ourselves, the various auror captains, Voldemort, Grindelwald, Dumbledore, they are hard to match for these nations. The price of imposing peace is too high for them to endure.’
‘So they press for talks, but nothing will happen if Britain and the US and the Ottomans don’t agree to sit down?’ Harry frowned. ‘They don’t seem keen to do that.’
‘You said optimistic,’ Gabby said. ‘That doesn’t sound optimistic.’
‘Egypt’s Magical Caliphate has seceded from British power and allied itself to the Ottomans,’ Grise replied. ‘If talks were to happen soon, Suleiman might be satisfied to settle hostilities before Tsarina Bugrov gets involved. Britain has seized control of most of the Free Magical States of the Caribbean and lost a protectorate that was looking for independence already, so they too may decide to let things rest—’
‘And the Americans?’ Harry asked. ‘Tarbeck, the auror captain that came back to Sint-Maarten, she did not seem like she would be happy to settle for defeat.’
‘If the Ottomans and France and everyone else agrees to leave Britain be, then America will be poking the dragon alone,’ Grise replied. ‘And unless Britain attacks a member of the union themselves, they cannot invoke the motion to muster the full force of their member states to fight, they would have to pass a vote, which is difficult for them to do.’
‘So they’d just have to accept it,’ Gabby murmured.
And if there’s no war, there’s no crucible. A little ray of hope warmed Harry’s heart.
He crushed it. ‘It won’t happen.’ The amber-masked figure smiled its raw, twisted smile before his mind’s eye. ‘It’s too late.’
‘Perhaps,’ Liliana muttered. ‘There is… still hope.’
I hate hoping.
‘The American auror captain you met, Grant Hardsworth, has been sent to treat with the British protectorates north of the United States of Magical America,’ Grise said. ‘Essentially, he has been demoted for his failure in the Caribbean.’
‘And Tarbeck?’ Harry asked.
‘Tarbeck is attempting to retake the Caribbean from Calussa in Florida, aided by a third auror captain, Cetanawuaka, who attacks from Nueva Celsa in the Free Principalities of Mexico. Ginevra Weasley has yet to give either of them an inch of ground.’
‘Only a… matter of… time,’ Vert rasped. ‘Odd that… Britain does… not seek… resolution… while it is… doing well.’
‘Spain remains very quiet on the ICW,’ Grise said. ‘I suspect Britain knows it has an ally coming.’
‘As long as I don’t have to go back to Sint-Maarten.’ Harry frowned. ‘How’s Malta?’
‘We have put up wards across the muggle island of Malta,’ Grise replied. ‘The magical stronghold is on a small island further south. We’ve not tested its defences.’
‘Because?’ Harry asked.
‘Because the Unspeakables are likely in Greece retaliating against Ottoman Janissaries in the Aegean and we are going to wait until we’re ready to strike, so as not to bring them back and make our job more difficult.’
‘We hope that… taking Malta… will be… enough… to—’ Vert broke into a raw, harsh cough.
‘Save your voice, old friend,’ Grise murmured. ‘We hope taking Malta before Spain or the Russkayan Tsardom can join the British will be enough to bring everyone into peace talks.’
But it won’t be. Fear’s cold fist clamped about Harry’s spine. We’ll just help steal someone’s dreams. And someone will lose all of their wishes. Someone will become the amber-masked figure. Panic bubbled up, coiling hot and tight around his throat. Black spots floated before his eyes.
‘Breathe,’ Gabby whispered, resting a hand on his shoulder. ‘Nothing’s happened yet.’
‘Violette?’ Liliana rasped.
‘I’m fine.’ Harry clawed it all back down and buried it. ‘But I don’t think it will work.’
‘We must try.’ Grise’s jaw tightened. ‘Vert and I will begin preparations for Malta. If nothing else interrupts us, you will be able to join us in taking it within a couple of weeks, Violette.’
‘And me?’ Gabby asked.
‘Cramoisi, your expertise with wards may be necessary,’ Grise replied. ‘But Violette has made it clear we ought to consider that a last resort.’
‘You should,’ Harry said. ‘The very last.’
Grise’s lips thinned. ‘As you say.’
‘We owe… Violette… that much,’ Liliana whispered. ‘Where would… we be… without him?’
‘I know.’ He steepled his fingers. ‘And I’m sure we will only owe you a greater debt in the future, Violette, but what must be done, must be done.’
‘I know,’ Harry said.
Sacrifices have to be made. He swallowed a stab of fear. But only for La Victoire Finale. That’s all we need now.
Gabby shot him a glance out of the corner of her eye. ‘If that’s all?’
‘For now, yes,’ Grise said. ‘It may change swiftly depending on what others do.’
Harry wrenched the world back past him and stepped into the kitchen. Katie slept upon her silver blanket on the table, curled up under Fleur’s soft smile, Henri the Raven’s legs clutched in one small fist.
Gabby appeared on the far side. ‘Are you—’
‘We need to find a way to create a body for La Victoire Finale.’ A hot little whisper of need coiled ‘round his heart, tight as a noose. ‘Whatever happens next, with Malta, or Egypt, or wherever, it’s not going to stop. It’s only going to get worse. We need it. Or we lose it all.’
‘We’ll keep trying,’ Gabby murmured. ‘There must be a way, it’s magic.’
‘If we don’t find something soon, we will have to choose the other way.’ Harry breathed the whisper out, but the need cut deeper, coiled tighter, burnt hotter. ‘We—’
‘Non.’ Gabby shook her head. ‘We will not. We’ll find a way. There’s still time.’
Fleur rose from her chair and cupped his cheek. ‘Breathe, mon Coeur,’ she murmured. ‘Breathe. If we have to. We will.’
He clung to the sound of her voice, taking deep gulps of air until the need eased.
‘Non.’ Gabby’s grey eyes darkened. ‘Non.’ She grabbed Fleur’s hand and Harry’s wrist, dragging them into the hall. ‘We do not need to. I can’t.’
‘Non, Fleur.’ She released Fleur’s hand and turned to Harry. ‘We still have time, mon cher frére. We’ve come a long way. Tomorrow, I might find something. You don’t want to kill someone you didn’t need to, do you? To take their dreams away for nothing?’
His breath hitched, snagged on Sophonissa’s sacrifice and Zoe de Medici’s blood-soaked dress. The storm of Kart Hadasht howled, a thousand red lights swirling amidst countless screams, breaking like a wave into a deafening wash of whispers.
Ba’alat Tanit demands. Zoe’s bloodstained fingers cupped her stomach as she pressed the tip of her wand to her wrist. Ba’alat Tanit demands sacrifice.
‘Gabrielle,’ Fleur hissed. ‘Shoo.’
Gabby’s eyes lightened. ‘Ah—’ she winced, letting go of Harry’s wrist ‘—pardon, Harry…’
Fleur’s eyes darkened to midnight blue as Gabby retreated. ‘I know,’ she murmured. ‘I know. Sacrifices shouldn’t be for nothing.’
‘I don’t want to do that.’ Harry squeezed his eyes shut and took a long, deep breath until the throb of Kart Hadasht’s heart faded away. ‘I don’t want to take away dreams like ours from anyone else, but…’
‘But they made it this way, mon Coeur,’ she whispered. ‘All those shallow little people chasing their selfish dreams will happily take ours away to get their own. We only get to choose whether to take theirs first or let them tear away the sunset.’ Fleur slipped her arms around his neck and pulled him in close, the faint, sweet scent of marzipan washing over him. ‘Wishes don’t just happen. We can’t just sit and wait and hope…’
‘Wishes are made,’ Harry muttered. ‘I know. I know. But I hate—’
‘You aren’t meant to like it, mon Amour.’ She pressed light kisses along the line of his jaw. ‘But we have to do it. If we don’t, we lose this. We lose Gabby. We lose our sunset. We lose Katie.’ Fleur held his gaze with soft blue eyes. ‘Again.’
Panic clawed its way up, hot as flame and sharp as razors. ‘I can’t—’
‘So we must,’ she murmured. ‘We sacrificed so much for our sunset. Everything we endured, we did it for this. We deserve our dream.’
‘Everything but the sunset itself,’ Harry whispered. ‘Is that enough for La Victoire Finale…?’
It must be. What more can we give?
‘With the Hallows and your horcrux and how much we need this, I hope so.’ Fleur rested her head on his shoulder. ‘I will help Gabby, mon Coeur. We will find a way.’
A gentle wail drifted from the kitchen.
‘Ah, the veela hatchling is awake.’ A small smile tugged at Harry’s lips. ‘And has realised she’s not being doted on by at least three people.’
Fleur flashed him a smile and led him back to the kitchen by the hand. ‘She is probably hungry. We ought to think about starting her on solid foods soon.’
Katie sat on the blanket, her face scrunched up into a huge frown. It faded as she caught sight of them and she stuck out her arms, knocking Henri the Raven over the table edge.
‘Come here, then.’ Fleur swept Katie into her arms and held her close. ‘Here you go, you’ve got everyone’s attention again.’
‘She’s going to be just like her maman when she’s older,’ Harry teased. ‘Is the first solid food we give her going to be clafoutis?’
Fleur laughed and fended Katie’s hand away from her face with two fingers. ‘Sorry, little chick, your harpy of an auntie isn’t going to share her cherries with you, either. It will be some vegetable.’
‘As long as it’s not pumpkin.’
‘Or courgette,’ Fleur muttered.
Harry grimaced. ‘Or that.’
‘How about squashed fruit?’ She shifted Katie’s weight onto her hip and pointed at the small stack of fruit on the side. ‘Banana?’
‘I don’t see why not.’ He shrugged. ‘We just mash it up and spoon into the gaping beak of our baby bird, right?’
‘No beak yet.’ A soft gleam hovered in Fleur’s blue eyes. ‘We’re supposed to let her play with it according to what Emilie left me. So our little chick can explore food textures and make a huge mess.’
‘She is just a walking source of mess, really.’ Harry smoothed Katie’s little silver curls down and pressed a kiss to her cheek. ‘Well, not walking. Not yet.’
‘Not for a few more months, usually.’ Fleur sat Katie down on the edge of the table and stuck her to it with a flick of her wand. ‘Let’s find you something to eat, Katrina. Your papa can entertain you.’
Harry summoned Henri the Raven into his hand and set him down on Katie’s lap. ‘Here you go, baby bird. Your favourite raven.’
She babbled and grabbed Henri by the neck, waving him about.
‘Poor Henri.’ Harry chuckled, a warm glow rose in his heart and a soft smile spread across his face. ‘What did he do to deserve being throttled like that, Katie?’
Katie gave him a huge, toothless grin and threw Henri the Raven down the table. The bird hopped to his feet and bounced across the table, fluttering his wings and sending little crumbs showering to the floor. A delighted giggle escaped his daughter as she turned her head to watch Henri flap his way through the bits of croissant around behind her.
‘Has she said any actual words?’ Harry asked.
‘Non.’ Fleur leant back from the cupboard. ‘She just makes noises when other people talk to her. It’s very cute, but there are no words in there. She’s just mimicking the sounds.’
He grinned. ‘I bet her first word is cake or clafoutis.’
‘It will be maman.’ Fleur turned her nose up, a little smirk on her lips. ‘This time I will win, because Voldemort cannot help you beat me.’
‘It does seem unlikely he’ll help,’ Harry replied. ‘It’ll probably turn out to be Gabby or harpy. Your sister keeps stealing our veela hatchling.’
She hummed. ‘If that happens, I will toast her for corrupting our little chick.’
‘Make sure you get the smutty romance novels while you’re at it,’ he said. ‘So Gabby can’t give them to Katie in a few years.’
‘She would just buy another set,’ Fleur replied, pulling out a small bottle of milk and tapping her wand against the side. ‘It’s a lost cause.’
‘They still sell them?’
‘They’re the most popular series ever released in France, mon Amour.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘Narrowly beating out the High School Incubus series and some teen werewolf romance I forget the title of.’
‘Of course they are.’ Harry sighed through a wry smile. ‘Who wouldn’t want to screw their way through an entire series of hot girls without any consequences?’
‘The werewolf one is about a girl.’ Fleur touched the back of her hand to the bottle and tucked her wand away. ‘She has to make the incredibly difficult choice of which of the two most handsome boys in the town, who both immediately fall in love with her after she gets bitten and miraculously becomes pretty, she wants to date and then marry.’
‘Which does she choose?’
‘Oh she ends up marrying both.’
Harry snorted. ‘Of course.’ He laughed. ‘Did Gabby read that one?’
‘I don’t think so…’ Fleur pursed her lips. ‘Why?’
‘I was just wondering if that’s where her threesome jokes came from.’
‘No that’s all Aimée.’ She waved the bottle in front of Katie. ‘Look what I’ve got, little chick.’
Katie’s bright green eyes lit up and she stuck her hands out, bouncing and swinging her legs off the table edge.
‘Go on then.’ Fleur let Katie grab the bottle and stuff it in her mouth, taking the weight with two fingers. ‘Guess she really was hungry.’
Harry watched Katie suck the bottle empty in huge gulps. ‘Very hungry.’
‘That didn’t last long.’ Fleur tugged the empty bottle out of Katie’s hands as she started to chomp on the teat. ‘Maybe I should get her another one.’
‘Probably a good idea.’ Harry laughed as Katie screwed up her face into a scowl, staring after the bottle with darkening eyes. ‘Or we’re going to have a small screaming fluff ball on our hands again.’