Harry dangled Katie over the kitchen table, lowering her toward Henri the Raven with his wand and whisking her up as she grabbed for his beak with her small hands.
‘You missed, baby bird.’ He bobbed her up and down, smiling as she giggled and beamed. ‘Aren’t just you a beautiful mini-veela hatchling?’
Katie babbled through the silver hair falling across her face and wrapped both arms around Henri the Raven’s neck squishing him against her face.
‘I think I would be very sick if someone did that to me.’ Laurent shuffled past and tapped the kettle with his wand, splashing cold water on his face from the tap as the kettle began to bubble. ‘But my granddaughter seems to be enjoying herself.’
Harry chuckled and spun Katie around, plopping her down on the table and sticking her to the top with a quick charm.
Laurent spooned coffee into a mug and poured the half-boiled kettle in, swirling it together. Apolline watched from the door, a half-full glass of juice in one hand and tears in her eyes.
‘In a hurry?’ Harry grimaced as Laurent took several gulps. ‘A big hurry?’
‘Important meeting.’ He drained the mug with a shudder and dropped it in the sink. ‘We’re trying to persuade the Volsung Confederation to host talks between Britain and its allies and everyone else involved.’
‘Where?’ Harry asked.
Apolline shook her head. ‘Now you’ve done it, Harry.’ She drifted past to fuss over Katie’s little socks. ‘Laurent will never pass up a chance to talk about history.’
Laurent laughed. ‘The Volsung Confederation is the group of almost all the magical Nordic states.’ He gave his mug a quick wash. ‘We hoped the Germanic States would play host as they’re also close by, neutral, and Polans was keen, but Ostirrikia and Alemannia objected.’
Harry raised one eyebrow. ‘Why was Polans keen?’
‘Because the Russkayan Tsardom was founded as a magical Slavic nation after the Sunset Princedoms began to expand, driving many of the magical Slavic communities out of Eastern Europe. They had ambitions of incorporating Polans and the Varingian kingdoms into their realm until the Ikhanate invasion swept out of the steppes and destroyed Russkaya. When Britain resurrected the Tsardom to help fight Grindelwald, they reopened that can of worms and Tsarina Bugrov’s predecessor kept hold of the Varingian Kingdoms after Grindelwald’s second defeat.’ Laurent checked the time. ‘I’m surprised Marie Renner and Ansgar Fürstenburg objected to Polans hosting, actually. The Germanic States are Polans’s closest allies. Wendburg and Ostirrikia are originally Slavic, too, so should Russkaya ever achieve their ambitions for Polans and Crimea, the Germanic States would likely be next…’
‘Will the Nordic States agree to host?’
‘It’s looking likely. There’s a lot of pressure, as they’re the last good option to play host, and the Volsung Confederation have hosted talks like this before for nations and the ICW.’ Laurent sighed. ‘I’d best be off.’ He reached across and ruffled Katie’s silver curls. ‘Have a happy day playing, Katrina.’
Harry smiled at his daughter’s curious stare. ‘She’s going to get very upset soon. Gabby and I are going to Malta today, and that means I can’t chase Katie around the house as she crawls about.’
Katie dropped Henri the Raven, sticking her arms out at Harry and grabbing for him. Apolline stepped back and sipped her juice with a small smile.
‘Up?’ Harry unstuck his daughter from the table and lifted her into his arms. ‘Was that what you wanted, little chick?’
She buried her face in the crook of his neck with a quiet, satisfied murmur and a faint smile crept on Harry’s face. He stroked her back, bouncing on his heels as she circled the table.
Fleur flickered into view beside the sink. ‘So this is where you both are. I thought Gabby had abducted our daughter again.’
‘Not yet.’ Harry’s smile faded. ‘And she can’t today.’
‘Be careful,’ she whispered. ‘No risks, mon Amour.’
‘Nothing will happen to Gabby.’ He leant Katie onto one shoulder and wrapped an arm around Fleur’s shoulders. ‘I promise.’
‘Or me.’ Harry kissed the tip of her nose.
Katie’s hand bumped him on the mouth, her fingers grabbing at his lip.
‘Ow. Ow. That’s part of my face, Katie. I’m attached to it.’ He eased her hand away and smiled down at their daughter’s small frown. ‘Our little hatchling wants more attention, mon Rêve. She’s already just like her maman. Aren’t you, baby bird? Aren’t you?’
Fleur rolled her eyes. ‘Do you want me to hold her? So there’s less drama in a few minutes.’
Harry sighed and nodded. ‘Here you go, one armful of tiny squirming veela hatchling.’
Katie’s eyes darkened and she grabbed two fistfuls of his robes. He lifted her up and held her out as she wriggled and kicked her feet against his ribs.
Fleur laughed. ‘Mon Coeur, your daughter has stuck herself to you again.’ She pulled her wand out. ‘Hold still while I pry her lose.’
Harry chuckled. ‘What a difficult baby bird you are, Katie.’
She glowered at him with black irises and a trembling lip, little white feathers poking through her skin.
‘It’s okay.’ He pressed a kiss into her silver curls. ‘I’ll be back soon. Me and Auntie Harpy are going on a brief holiday to Malta.’
Fleur gathered Katie into her arms and bounced her until the feathers slipped back under her skin and her eyes lightened to green. ‘There we go, not so unhappy now. Papa won’t be gone for long. He’ll come back and chase you around the hall soon.’ She shot Harry a sharp look. ‘Or I will also be angry with him and we can both yell together.’
‘Twice as many little white feathers.’ Harry grinned. ‘Very cute.’ He frowned. ‘Where’s Gabby?’
‘I’ll find her.’ Apolline finished her drink. ‘You two stay with Katie before Harry has to leave again.’ She bustled into the hall and up the stairs.
Harry listened to the creak of footsteps up the stairs and along the corridor above their heads. ‘I’m going to miss you both,’ he whispered.
‘I know,’ Fleur murmured. ‘I know. We’ll miss you two, mon Amour.’
‘Is Gabby getting closer?’
‘We found a small stack of writings on top of the shelves, perhaps they’ll help.’
‘We need to get there soon.’ Cold fear bubbled up the pit of his stomach. ‘We don’t have too long left. There’s a bunch of purebloods who’re pushing Britain toward war behind the scenes, they’ve got their teeth into some covert little group Amelia Bones was part of or started or something. Whatever happens in Malta won’t be enough. They’ve got nothing left to lose. No dreams. And they’re coming—’
Fleur put her finger to his lips. ‘Breathe, mon Coeur. Breathe. Nobody knows about us. Nobody. We still have time. La Victoire Finale has to be done perfectly.’ She trailed her fingers over the wand in his sleeve. ‘You got lucky once. We won’t get lucky twice.’
He sucked in a huge gulp of air and breathed it out through his nose until his heartbeat steadied. ‘I know. I just… it always gets taken away.’
‘Je sais.’ She shifted Katie onto her hip and wrapped her arm around him. ‘But not this time. We’ll find a way.’ Fleur drew him into a soft kiss. ‘We nearly have. There are just a couple steps left now.’
‘Are we going?’ Gabby appeared in the corner, bouncing her silver ring on her palm. ‘I don’t want to hang around and wait. Just get it over with.’
‘Let’s go then.’ Harry bent and kissed Katie on the cheek. ‘Be good, baby bird. Je t’aime.’ He pulled Fleur into his arms and breathed in the soft, sweet scent of marzipan. ‘Je t’aime à la folie, mon Rêve.’
‘Au revoir,’ Gabby murmured, sticking the ring on her finger. ‘How are we getting there? Portkey?’
He reached into his pocket and slipped on Violette’s ring. ‘I’ve got portkeys.’
‘Two.’ Harry dug a couple of white pebbles out of his robes. ‘One to Bonifacio in Corsica and then one down to Malta.’ He held out his hand. ‘Ready, Gabby?’
She swallowed and grabbed his hand, sliding her fingers into his and holding tight. ‘Sorry, Fleur.’
‘It’s okay, Gabby.’ Fleur rested a hand on her sister’s shoulder. ‘Don’t let this idiot do anything reckless or risky. And be careful.’
‘As little improvisation as possible.’ Harry shared a look with Fleur and she dropped her hand. ‘Avocat.’
The kitchen lurched left and they staggered into the cool grey stone hall in Bonifacio.
Gabby’s fingers tightened on his. ‘I’m ready.’
‘Pamplemousse.’ He stumbled over the crumbling dome of Mal Hadasht, tugging Gabby back from the hole. ‘Welcome to Malta.’
She stared across the ruins at the dark, jagged tower. ‘Is that…?’
‘Yes.’ Harry bounced the white pebbles on his palm, tilting his palm until they slid off and fell into the dark beneath the dome. ‘Ready?’
‘I’ve never done anything like this,’ Gabby whispered. ‘Nothing.’
‘You take apart Fleur’s wards all the time,’ Harry teased. ‘Usually the ones on our bedroom. That’s all you’re doing here.’
‘What about the unspeakables?’ Gabby pulled her wand out and held it up; its tip trembled in the air. ‘What about them?’
‘That’s for me and Grise to worry about.’ He led her down the slope to where Grise directed Giacomo and his aurors. ‘You do the wards and you portkey out. Right out. Back to Bonifacio and then home. Don’t stay for anything.’
She nodded, grabbing a couple of bits of brick and murmuring under her breath as they descended into the small camp. ‘I’m ready.’ Gabby dropped her pair of portkeys into her pocket.
Grise swivelled on his heel. ‘Violette. Excellent timing. Doge Ceccaroni and his aurors are going to be ensuring the wards stay strong. I will provide the distraction to let you and Cramoisi reach the entrance.’
Harry frowned. ‘And then?’
‘Cramoisi lets you in, you take advantage of their dead transfiguration specialist to split them up. Once they’re divided, let the inferi scatter them and go after Dragon or Gryphon. If we kill the ward specialists, they won’t be able to hold out for long.’ Grise drew his wand. ‘I will get things started now and come to support you once the wards are down.’
‘Alright.’ Harry nudged Gabby with his elbow, taking her hand. ‘Got any better with that Disillusionment Charm?’
‘A little.’ She vanished from sight with a faint ripple.
Harry slipped his wand from his sleeve and disillusioned himself, squeezing Gabby’s fingers and apparating them to the edge of the ruins. Inferii scrambled over the crumbling brick walls and through the pools, sprinting up the slope toward the tower into flashes of blue and a hail of pink and orange curses. They skirted the path, picking their way along the edge of the beach and up to the base of the tower.
‘Remember,’ Harry murmured in Gabby’s ear. ‘Just take the wards down and portkey out. Don’t worry about anything else.’
The inferi hurled themselves into a shimmer of magic between two stone columns, clawing at the ward with talon-length, yellowed nails. Bloated pustules swelled on their pale skin, bursting in splashes of dark liquid when spells punched through them.
Gabby clutched his hand tight. ‘These aren’t simple wards; they’re woven into the stone really deep and tight. This is as good as it gets.’
‘Can you do it?’
‘I can,’ she whispered. ‘But it will take me a few moments, I need to do the same thing Fleur and I did to the rings, only I have to do both parts myself, which is really fiddly.’
‘What are you doing?’
‘Sticking my magic to all the threads of the enchantment like glue and reweaving them until I can pull parts away. I have to subtly alter the associations between the individual enchantments to do it. Without my gift, I wouldn’t be able to understand enough of the magic to use them. I’m not actually sure Fleur could do this.’
‘So it’s like ripping loose bits out of a rope, but harder.’
‘I have to find a way to get them loose first.’ Gabby took a shaky breath. ‘Now hush, I need to focus.’
Harry watched the inferi hurl themselves into the ward. Spells tore through the pack, splattering dark fluid across the ground. A gout of fire rolled through the group, leaving tongues of yellow fire flickering on their skin.
‘Non.’ She squeezed his hand. ‘Hush.’
The pustules on the inferi’s skin swelled in the heat of the flames and burst in splashes of thick, black liquid. The fires guttered into wisps of dark smoke beneath it.
‘I’ve got it,’ Gabby hissed. ‘I’m—’
A shimmer of magic fell over them.
Harry’s blood ran cold. It’s a trap.
White runes flickered beneath their feet, lighting up in a ring in the entrance. He dragged Gabby into the tower and shoved her behind him.
Blinding white light seared his eyes.
Dust settled in the entrance. Bits of bone and scraps of flesh rained down onto the slope. Grise sprinted up the slope, throwing curses at the entrance.
Merde. Harry wrenched at the world, but the dark stones remained still. Okay. Gabby sneaks out and then I attack. He glanced left, noting the narrow stairs leading into the gloom of the tower and the open circle of stone between it and the entrance.
Gabby tugged at his hand. ‘I can’t apparate.’
‘Dragon, keep those wards up.’ Gryphon darted out from behind the column on the far side of the door and shielded against Grise’s curses. ‘Be ready.’
Dragon stuck their head out. ‘I’ve got them. Whoever took the wards down isn’t dead. There’s not enough blood. That’s just the inferi.’
Gryphon froze. ‘Sweep the tower!’
The other unspeakables descended from the stairs, wands drawn.
They’ll find us.
Harry pushed Gabby back into the alcove behind the column on their side. ‘Stay here. Keep hold of me. Take those wards down and portkey both of us out the moment you have.’ He thrust his magic into the stone floor, sweeping it up into a wall between Dragon and Gryphon.
Acromantula and Werewolf turned toward him as his Disillusionment Charm unravelled, hurling orange and blue hexes at him.
‘Grindylow, stick close.’ Dragon threw a shield out in front of the four of them. ‘I can’t duel and hold the wards tight, so I’ll shield. You three take down Violette.’
Harry batted their spells back. ‘Don’t be slow, Cramoisi.’
She clutched his hand tight with sweat-slick fingers. ‘I’m tired… I can’t… the magic won’t—’
‘You have to,’ he said, smothering a stab of fear. ‘You have to. Or the only way out is through them all.’
Gabby’s hand trembled. ‘I’ll get them down. I promise.’
Magic stabbed into the wall of stone. Harry threw up his shield and grit his teeth, forcing more of his own in, flooding it until he crushed every drop of Gryphon’s power from his transfiguration. A soft ache crept into his limbs.
Yellow curses bored into the stone at his feet, leaving smoking fist-sized holes. Harry swatted them back, slipping his own piercing hexes into the mix, punching through Dragon’s shield and grazing Acromantula’s thigh. A damp patch spread across the unspeakable’s tight, dark robes.
‘Fuck.’ Acromantula growled and conjured a lash of water. ‘Grindylow.’
Grindylow pressed their wand against the wound and the damp patch stopped spreading. They fired pale green curses from between Acromantula and Werewolf.
A healing specialist. Harry clenched his jaw and forced his wand arm faster, deflecting all their spells back.
They splashed off the dark walls and scorched holes into the ground. An orange hex punched a hole through Werewolf’s hand, but Grindylow healed it with a murmur and a flicker of green magic. Acromantula and Werewolf strode closer, redoubling their efforts.
Harry batted the first few away and threw up his shield, watching the spells burst into sparks on the wall of white magic. ‘Cramoisi…’
‘I’m getting there,’ she whispered. ‘But they’re holding the ward themselves rather than casting it, so it’s not just a normal ward to pull apart, they pull it back together. I don’t think I’ve got enough magic left to overpower them.’
‘I’ll distract them. When you break through, just get out.’ He tugged his hand free. ‘Stay out of sight in the alcove.’
‘Harry,’ she hissed.
Harry dropped his shield and circled around, deflecting their curses back. He dragged up more of his magic, thrusting it into the air and clenching it like a fist. Three shield charms sprang up, trembling in the grip of the air.
We just need a second.
He let the air go, pouring his magic into the tip of his wand and whipping the silver spark into the ground.
The flash burnt his eyes.
Pain tore through his thigh and exploded across his shoulder. He threw up a shield, glancing over his throbbing shoulder as spells burst against it.
Shadows lurked in the alcove.
Gabby’s out. Harry wrenched at the world.
The tower remained still.
‘Merde.’ He twisted around; his injured arm ached and burnt, hanging limp at his side. Harry clawed his magic up and pictured the amber-masked figure. ‘Avada kedavra.’
The flash of green tore whispered past Grindylow’s head and splashed on the dark stone. Harry poured Fiendfyre at the four unspeakables, sweeping cherry-red flames over them and hobbling toward the stairs.
Fatigue bit deep, ripping a groan from his lips.
The crimson flames guttered out behind him.
He dragged himself up the steps, ignoring the pain lancing through his thigh with each step.
‘There’s no way out that way, not with the wards up,’ Dragon shouted. ‘Chase him down and kill him.’
Harry staggered up the steps, pressing one hand to his bleeding leg. Dark rooms lurked through stone arches, swimming with shadows. He hauled himself up the narrow stairs, hissing with each flash of pain through his leg.
A yellow curse tore past him and splashed against the wall.
‘Merde.’ Harry twisted on his good leg, batting away two more blue hexes and throwing up his shield, stumbling back up the stairs.
‘We’ve got you, Violette.’ Werewolf’s silver-marked mask gleamed in the faint ray of light shining from above. ‘There’s no way off this tower. It’s just a very long drop.’
‘Unless I go through you,’ he replied, clawing up as much magic as he could.
‘You look too tired for that.’ Gryphon stepped out behind the rest. ‘Dragon, you fall back and make sure the wards stay up. We’ll keep pressing him until we break through.’
Spells burst against his shield as the white wall of magic flickered. Sweat trickled down Harry’s temples as he forced himself up the steps, holding onto the last of his magic as the unspeakables lunged after him, hammering yellow spells into his trembling Shield Charm, their hoarse gasps echoing off the walls.
You’re all as tired as I am. Harry glanced over his shoulder at the steps up onto the roof. But I’m out of stairs to retreat up.
He dropped the Shield Charm. ‘Ardens flagello!’
A swathe of purple flame surged down the stairs, ripping through the Shield Charms. Werewolf screamed and thrashed on the ground, violet flames flickering on their left arm and leg. Grindylow crouched over them behind Gryphon’s shield, extinguishing the flames.
Acromantula darted forward from under the shield, hurling yellow curses at him. Harry batted them aside and thrust his magic into the air as a blue curse ripped a line of fire through his ribs. He twisted his wand, knocking Acromantula back into Gryphon and spilling them down the stairs. Harry dragged himself up the last few steps, clawing the dregs of his magic up and forcing himself into the shape of the raven as he hurled himself off the top of the tower.
Agony flared through his left wing as it caught his weight and his head span, black spots circling before his eyes. Harry angled himself toward the dome of Mal Hadasht, spiralling down into the dark and collapsing on the shattered tesserae.
He slumped back into his own form with a quiet sigh.
Pain tore through him in sharp throbs as he gasped for breath and red crept across the broken mosaic, pooling beneath him; the warmth soaked into his robes. A great weight hung on him, heavy silence hovering at the end of each trembling breath out, drawing his eyes closed. The dark dome drifted into the distance.
Heat flared against his heart.
Fleur… Harry dragged one hand to the acorn pendant and his wedding band, pulling them up out of his robes; the soft white glow spilt through his fingers as the acorn flashed hot over and over and over, burning his fingers. Je t’aime. Je t’aime à la folie.
He reached deep, groping for magic with a guttural groan. ‘I am… not allowed… to die.’ His words echoed back off the dome in half a hundred whispers and he clutched the glowing wedding band tight in his bloodstained fist.
I promised. No more fear. Harry pressed the tip of his wand to the bleeding wound between his lower ribs. Just the sunset.
‘Vulnera sanentur,’ he murmured, clenching his jaw as the pain faded and his wound crept closed. ‘Vulnera sanentur.’
The wound on his thigh melted shut.
The pain in his shoulder faded away.
Harry released a long sigh and flopped onto his back on the ground, cupping his wedding ring in his hands. ‘Fleur’s going to be absolutely furious with me.’ A soft pang of guilt twisted in his breast as he fed the last of his magic into the acorn. ‘I’m sorry, mon Rêve. No more risks. Not even ones that should be little ones.’
Just La Victoire Finale. He closed his eyes and pictured it. Sunset-bright light broke through his thoughts, spilling over a quiet, gentle world of green willow fronds. How perfect it will be.