Gentle thuds rang along the corridor to the edge of the door. Harry hid a smile, watching Katie’s reflection peek round the door frame in the window.
‘What are you up to, baby bird?’ He turned and gave her a small wave.
She took off crawling with a delighted giggle.
‘You’re getting faster.’ He tugged the world past him and apparated onto the landing with a soft snap. ‘But I’m an outrageous cheat.’
Katie froze, hand outstretched.
‘No escape for you, mini-veela.’ Harry scooped her up and carried her back into Gabby’s bedroom. ‘Now, try not to be too loud until I’ve finished replacing various words in Aimee’s escapades with love sausage, because I’m greatly looking forward to Gabby discovering this.’ He put her down on the carpet and summoned Henri the Raven down from the bed with one hand. ‘Here’s your favourite bird, too.’
She babbled, grabbing Henri by the beak and crawling toward the door a few arm’s lengths at a time.
He slid his wand from his sleeve and flicked through to the first section with a folded down corner. ‘Wow.’ Harry skimmed the page. ‘This is steamy stuff. No wonder Gabby has absolutely no shame about making jokes when she knows most of her family has read this.’
Katie giggled and crawled out the door.
‘Oh no,’ he called. ‘I wonder where my veela hatchling could have possibly gone?’ Harry disillusioned himself and tiptoed out.
His daughter waited in the hall, staring back at Gabby’s door with wide green eyes and a huge smile.
His heart flopped in his breast. You’re just perfect aren’t you?
Harry released his magic. ‘Boo!’
Katie squeaked, toppling onto her butt and bursting into peals of laughter.
‘What now, little chick?’ He crouched down. ‘Where are you off to?’
She crawled off down the corridor, leaving one striped-sock and Henri the Raven behind her on the carpet.
‘You’ve forgotten some things.’ Harry summoned Henri the Raven and the sock into his hand and drifted after her. ‘Again.’
Katie made a beeline for the stairs.
‘Merde.’ He wrenched the world back past him and stepped in front of her, sweeping her up into his embrace with one arm. ‘No diving down the stairs for you. It’s a long way and the floor is very hard at the bottom.’
She squirmed against his chest.
‘Not that that is in any way going to persuade you from the fact that crawling down the stairs is what you want to do, of course.’ Harry laughed and strolled back into Gabby’s room, conjuring a large copper bowl with a flick of his wand. ‘That ought to make a good nest for you, baby bird.’ He levitated her blanket, Gabby’s small cushions, and Henri in. ‘There you go, nice and comfy.’
His daughter wriggled under his arm.
‘In you go.’ Harry set her down, lifting up her bare foot. ‘And here’s the sock you lost.’ He tugged the blue and white sock back on. ‘There, all safe for a minute or two.’
Katie grabbed Henri and clutched for the top of the bowl, dragging herself up; it wobbled and she slid back down. A small scowl appeared on her face.
‘You’re stuck, I’m afraid.’ He tapped his word on the page of Gabby’s book, watching the words change. ‘Perfect. This will teach your auntie harpy to wind up your Maman, little chick.’ Harry glanced over his shoulder.
His daughter’s pitch-black eyes glared back, her bottom lip wobbling.
‘Uh oh.’ Harry slipped his wand into his sleeve and scooped her out of the bowl. ‘There you go—’ he set Katie back down on the carpet ‘—free to roam again.’
Her eyes brightened to green and she crawled off into the corridor.
‘Straight for the stairs.’ Harry shook his head and chuckled. ‘Maybe Fleur’s right, you’re not a very smart little chick sometimes.’ He apparated back onto the top step, thrusting his magic into the air. ‘Well, if you’re so determined to come down the stairs, I might as well let you.’
Katie thudded toward him on her hands and knees, pausing on the top step and scrunching up her face. She ooched herself around, lowering her feet down toward the next step.
Harry wrapped the air around her, lifting her off the ground and floating her down to the bottom of the stairs. She plopped onto her butt with a frown.
‘Now what?’ He drifted down. ‘Where are you going to explore next?’
Katie stretched up to the next step and dragged herself over it.
‘Ah, back up the stairs.’ Harry snorted. ‘Of course.’
‘Mon Amour?’ Fleur’s shadow fell over him. ‘What is our daughter doing?’
‘Something that only makes sense to her.’ He grinned and held out his wand. ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got her, she can clamber up and down the stairs all day if she really wants.’
‘She’s a very silly baby bird.’ Fleur drifted to the top of the steps and wrapped her arms around his shoulders from behind. ‘We made that little angel, mon Coeur,’ she whispered, resting her cheek on the back of his neck. ‘Look at how perfect she is…’
‘I know,’ Harry murmured, watching Katie haul herself up the next step. ‘I still can’t quite believe it; a little bit of me and a whole lot of my beautiful bird-wife.’
Katie squirmed around and tried to crawl backwards, sticking one foot onto the step above and trying to push herself up with her arms.
‘Quite a lot of you too, non?’ Fleur laughed. ‘I think she’s stuck, mon Amour.’
Harry flicked his wand, floating their daughter up into Fleur’s arms. ‘There you go. One not so smart little veela hatchling.’
Fleur pressed a gentle kiss to the top of Katie’s head as she buried her face in Fleur’s chest. ‘She will learn; she’s only been crawling for a couple of days and she’s got the hang of that very well.’
‘You should put those wards around her,’ Harry said. ‘Just in case she manages to sneak away from us at some point.’
‘D’accord.’ She released a long, soft sigh. ‘What were you doing in Gabby’s room, mon Coeur?’
Harry grinned. ‘Replacing certain words in her favourite book to increasingly ridiculous things in the scenes she’s folded the pages down for.’
A peal of laughter burst from Fleur. ‘She’s going to get you back.’
‘Oh I’m sure.’ He chuckled. ‘But—’
A high-pitched wail emanated from his pocket and his heart sank.
‘Is that you?’ Harry knelt down and booped a wide-eyed Katie on the nose. ‘It sounds like you, only a bit quieter.’ He pulled Violette’s ring from his pocket and balanced it on his palm. ‘Malta, I would think. Hopefully, not for too long.’
‘As long as last time?’ Fleur murmured.
Katie buried her face in Fleur’s chest and clutching at her dress, curling her fingers into the blue cotton.
‘Maybe.’ Harry gave her a small, helpless smile. ‘It is supposed to be a stronghold. I will do my best to come back as soon as I can.’
Fleur cupped his cheek with a warm hand. ‘Let me know when you’re thinking about me. And be careful, mon Amour. Promets-moi.’
‘I’ll be careful, I promise.’ He covered her hand with his and pulled her into a soft kiss. ‘I will miss you and our baby bird very very much.’
‘Je t’aime,’ Fleur whispered. ‘Say au revoir, Katie.’ She waved one of Katie’s hands at Harry. ‘Or say maman so we can bask in our victory before papa leaves.’
Katie waved her hands and burbled.
Harry laughed and kissed their daughter on the cheek. ‘Je t’aime, mon Tresor.’ He slipped Violette’s ring onto his hand and wrenched the world back past him, stepping into the Sunshine Room.
Grise waited beneath the floating glass lanterns, his fingers steepled beneath the chin of his blank, white mask.
‘Malta?’ Harry asked.
‘Malta.’ Grise dropped his arms. ‘Our preparations are finished and we’re ready to begin making our move.’
Liliana appeared with a loud crack, two pieces of wood in her left hand. ‘Violette… you are… ready?’
‘I’m ready.’ Harry held out a hand. ‘Via Bonifacio again?’
‘Yes.’ Grise strode around the brazier and put a hand on Liliana’s shoulder. ‘We’re hoping this blow will be enough to shock British confidence and force them to talk. Présidente Desrosiers is convinced of the importance of haste. The Unspeakables that severed our portkey access to the Caribbean have returned to Greece, which means Malta is likely unprotected and we can establish a foothold fast.’
Liliana took a firm grip on Harry’s forearm. ‘Poisson.’
The Sunshine Room lurched and they stumbled into the cool stone hall at Bonifacio.
‘Lapin,’ she murmured.
The hall jerked and Harry staggered onto the stop of crumbling stone walls. Small waves rolled across the harbour beyond them and large muggle ships drifted out to sea.
‘Valletta,’ Liliana rasped. ‘Giacomo Ceccaroni is here.’
‘And Zoe de Medici?’ Harry asked.
‘Firenze,’ Grise replied. ‘She has taken over management of North and Central Italy while Giacomo concentrates his efforts in the South.’ He pulled out a small, silver timepiece. ‘Doge Ceccaroni will be here in a few minutes.’
‘Where are the British?’ Harry glanced over the muggle city. ‘This doesn’t seem like the sort of place the stronghold would be.’
Grise snapped his watch shut and slipped it away. ‘The British stronghold is about twenty kilometres south of here on a small island. This is muggle Malta, technically under British magical control, but there’s not a single magical community on Malta as it’s so small, so there’s nothing for us to worry about.’
‘We will… ward this… island,’ Liliana said. ‘Then assault… the stronghold.’
A loud crack rang across the stone wall.
Giacomo strode toward them, Blaise Zabini on his heels.
If only I could get inside your head to find out about the Last Scions. Harry glanced at the pearl tie-pin stabbed through Zabini’s leather jacket. But that needs to go first.
‘Are your aurors in position? Grise asked.
‘Let’s ward this place off, then.’
Giacomo’s jaw tightened as he turned to Zabini and muttered something in Italian. Zabini vanished with a loud pop.
‘What are the preparations?’ Giacomo demanded. ‘Violette?’
Grise’s blank white mask turned between the two of them. ‘Violette has been uninvolved thus far.’ He pulled his wand from his robes and pointed it out at a small muggle fishing boat. ‘I have prepared that ship to sail South close to the island, we will be able to portkey to it and from there penetrate the wards covering the island.’
‘Wards Grindelwald’s followers failed to break?’ Giacomo frowned. ‘I do not think so.’
‘There are two layers of wards on the island,’ Grise replied. ‘The stronghold itself sits on one of the two hills of the island and was created to be all but impregnable, but the rest, while strongly warded, is breachable.’
‘We will… establish… a foothold,’ Liliana said. ‘With this… island… warded… the stronghold… is cut… off from… everywhere.’
Grise nodded. ‘Even if they breach the wards we will lay over the stronghold, they will have nowhere to go but other British territories.’
‘How is the boat going to get there?’ Harry asked. ‘Is it enchanted?’
‘It is being towed,’ Grise replied. ‘By fish. Lots of fish.’
Harry chuckled. ‘Did you raid the fish market or something?’
‘I used the boat’s catch when I appropriated the vessel.’ Grise tucked his wand away. ‘It will take it at least a day for the boat to get there, but that gives us time to plan.’
‘What if there are Unspeakables there?’ Giacomo asked. ‘I agreed under the impression that we are little more than a smokescreen for France, we cannot afford to join the assault.’
‘Ideally, the stronghold is empty,’ Grise said. ‘In that case, we establish our foothold, put up our wards, and once we break into the stronghold, it’s ours without resistance.’
‘And if it’s not?’ Harry asked. ‘I can’t imagine it’s completely empty. Someone will keep an eye on it and maintain the wards.’
‘Britain’s auror forces are all accounted for elsewhere, if they do have anyone official, they will likely pose little challenge to us. Of their unofficial forces, we have encountered only a single team of Unspeakables. They are busy in Greece.’
Giacomo nodded. ‘So it should go smoothly.’
‘I hope so.’
Hoping… That won’t work. Harry ignored the unease bubbling in his gut. It never does.
‘Either way,’ Grise replied. ‘Your aurors are to maintain the wards and watch out. The direct assault will be performed by us.’
‘I suppose, with Violette, you need nobody else,’ Giacomo muttered. ‘Very well. I will prepare my forces to portkey and establish these wards.’ He vanished with a crack.
‘He does… not like… following,’ Liliana rasped.
‘But he will,’ Grise said. ‘He knows he must.’
Harry shrugged. ‘How hard will it be to get through the wards?’
‘The ones on the island, not particularly, not with you here.’ Grise steepled his fingers beneath his chin. ‘Without having seen the wards on the stronghold itself, I can’t say for sure, but the British built fortifications there were raised not long after the reinforcement and renovation of Azkaban, so I would suspect they’re of similar strength and design.’
Azkaban. Harry recalled the bodies sprawled over the rocks and the dementor swarm. I don’t know much about the defences of Azkaban, only that they were strong enough to resist the entirety of Voldemort’s forces well enough to create a bloodbath.
‘The most… important… thing is… to seal… off the… island,’ Liliana whispered. ‘That way… we have… all the time… we need… to break… the wards… and Britain… cannot… use it.’
‘If it is heavily defended, what then?’
‘There is a slim chance we are unlucky and the Unspeakables in Greece return tomorrow for some reason,’ Grise said. ‘In which case, we will attack regardless, seal them in, and attempt to take the stronghold and wipe out the Unspeakables together.’ He fixed Harry with a long look. ‘This, Violette, is the eventuality that necessitates your presence. They will attempt to prevent us establishing any foothold on the island when we appear, and if we fail to do that, then history has demonstrated that taking the stronghold will be all but impossible.’
‘Sounds like fun,’ he murmured, resting his hand over the acorn pendant and his wedding band.
‘If it… goes well… it should… not take… too long,’ Liliana rasped.
Grise adjusted his mask. ‘I must go to the boat to guide it South.’ He raised his grey-marked ring. ‘When I call, that means it’s time to attack. If I do not call by noon tomorrow, something has gone wrong.’
‘And you’ve been eaten by a shoal of undead fish?’
Grise’s mask twitched. ‘I would hope my expertise with such magic makes that unlikely, Violette.’ He vanished with a loud crack.