‘Welcome back, Sarcelle.’ Grise steepled his fingers in his lap. ‘It’s good to have your expertise available once more.’
‘Violette… has fought… hard and… well in… your absence,’ Liliana rasped.
‘Nothing has changed,’ Harry said. ‘Nothing.’
Grise bowed his head. ‘Understood.’ He tapped a finger on the grey swirl of his ring. ‘You may be aware of this already, but the Volsung Confederation has agreed to host peace talks. In the last few days, we have established conditions for key nations to attend.’
‘All of them?’ Harry asked.
‘Almost,’ Liliana whispered.
‘Suleiman demanded the freedom of Magical Egypt from Britain,’ Grise said. ‘We thought he would ask for Greece too, but his janissaries have made little headway against the unspeakables in the Aegean and the Russkayan Tsardom has seized the vast majority of the Crimea very swiftly, so perhaps he is attempting to end the conflict while he is ahead.’
‘Russkaya… wants only… Crimea,’ Liliana said. ‘And the United… States demanded… the return… of its… Caribbean… protectorates… but will… likely ask… for Britain to… hand over… theirs in… the talks.’
‘But neither Spain nor Britain agreed to anything,’ Grise said. ‘The Spanish have remained very quiet, but Alfonso Osuna has now replaced Carlos de Mendoza watching the Pyrenees. That suggests to me that they’re concerned about leaving de Mendoza in the Basque region, which would only be an issue if a large portion of their auror forces were occupied elsewhere. Présidente Desrosiers informs us that she has learnt through unofficial channels that de Mendoza is now fighting in South America, in Panama, where Grant Hardsworth has managed to hold them in check.’
‘Panama?’ Liliana’s whisper hitched. ‘How?’
‘It’s not been confirmed and could be misinformation,’ Grise said. ‘But I would imagine Britain used our portkey routes to move their allies to Sint Maarten the moment they were sure of them and then let de Mendoza reconquer all the isolated and vulnerable territories on the South Coast that the United States took from them a few decades back. Those nations have little defence without the support of the United States and aren’t part of the confederation itself, so don’t trigger the defensive pact allowing the United States to muster its full strength from its member states. We do know that Ginevra Weasley continues to hold the Caribbean against Meghan Tarbeck and Cetanuawaka’s assaults and that Grant Hardsworth is no longer trying to sway British Allies around Kepec into joining their union of magical states — possibly because he is now in Panama.’
‘So Spain has probably jumped in too,’ Harry said. ‘And everyone but Britain and Spain are trying to end the fighting?’
‘It seems that way.’ Grise frowned up at the floating white lanterns. ‘I would imagine, if de Mendoza can’t shift Grant Hardsworth out of Panama, Spain will agree to peace talks in return for keeping what they’ve reclaimed from the United States so far.’
‘At which point… Britain will… probably agree,’ Liliana said. ‘They are… playing for… time to… get as much… as they can.’
‘Or they have something else up their sleeve,’ Grise muttered. ‘They wouldn’t risk losing what they have gained in the Caribbean or somewhere as key as Malta for just Spanish success. They’d want more than that.’
‘What are we going to do?’ Harry asked.
Is this the moment? He glanced at Fleur and Gabby. Will we leave now if Grise wants us to do something dangerous?
‘Présidente Desrosiers seemed optimistic of the peace talks coming to fruition.’ Grise’s frown deepened. ‘I would dearly love to know who is on the other end of her unofficial channel, but she will not reveal their identity to me.’
‘Should we… press more… then?’ Liliana asked. ‘To ensure… Britain… agrees?’
‘No. We’ll be patient.’ Grise watched the white flames dance in the brazier. ‘Whatever Britain is playing for time over, we will counter. Their forces are all stretched thin or pinned down, so it should be easy for us to prevent their success, and they should then come to Copenhagen, bringing Spain with them.’
Harry nodded. ‘So I should keep my ring on me, just in case.’
‘It could be any moment now.’ Grise turned to Fleur and Gabby. ‘I have a separate task for the two of you. Présidente Desrosiers’s unofficial source of information concerns me. Even if they have so far proven accurate, we ought to know who they are. Both of you are able to get into the higher security areas of our government one way or another, find some way to monitor Présidente Desrosiers communication and identify her contact.’
‘Do not… tell anyone,’ Liliana rasped. ‘Présidente… Desrosiers… will be… furious… even if… it is for… the best.’
‘For the greater good?’ Harry murmured.
Liliana twitched. ‘In the end… we must… all serve… our own… idea… of it.’
Grise’s pink eyes flicked back and forth between them. ‘That is all I have to tell you. Malta remains quiet, but Vert and I will now return there to feign another assault, just to make sure Britain still feels pressured.’
‘I’ll wait for the ring to scream at me, then,’ Harry said, wrenching the world back past him and stepping into the kitchen.
Gabby appeared across the table. ‘Fleur—’
‘Non.’ Fleur pulled off her ring and dropped it into her pocket, crossing her arms over her chest. ‘There’s no point. We will be leaving Les Inconnus before we even get a chance to put anything into place.’
Gabby frowned. ‘What if they try and force us to stay?’
Fleur’s eyes darkened. ‘They can try.’
Harry wrapped an arm around her waist. ‘Easy, mon Rêve. Grise will attempt to bargain to keep us, but he knows he cannot force us. He has no cards to play.’
‘Swore the sort of oath she cannot break in any circumstances; it will twist her thinking to keep our secret no matter what. She swore on her soul, wove keeping the secret into her purpose, like the Fidelius.’ He gave her a squeeze. ‘If Grise even thinks about threatening us, I will wipe him away and blame Britain. No risks.’
‘Bon,’ she whispered. ‘Gabby and I will continue to work on La Victoire Finale. We’ll come up with a way to create an emotive trigger.’
‘And I’ll keep drawing rune designs.’ He released a long sigh. ‘I’ve got a spiral planned, it’s slowly coming together piece by piece.’
‘Imagine when it’s done,’ Gabby murmured. ‘No more fear. Just us.’
A faint smile crept onto Harry’s lips. ‘And Katie.’
Fleur’s lips twisted. ‘It’s about her lunch time, let me go find her.’ She flickered away.
‘I’m pretty sure she was with maman painting,’ Gabby said.
‘Maman likes to paint.’ Gabby snickered. ‘So does your little veela hatchling, actually.’
Harry chuckled. ‘Does it mostly involve Katie covering herself and anything nearby in paint?’
‘She likes to cover her hands in paint and then touch everything.’ Gabby beamed. ‘It’s great fun for her. Just don’t let her put her hands in her mouth.’
Harry snorted. ‘Easier said than done. Is the paint safe?’
‘Just watercolours, but it tastes bad and Katie gets upset when she can’t get rid of the flavour.’
Fleur’s footsteps creaked down the stairs and she drifted down the stairs; a paint-soaked Katie floated after her, wearing a huge grin and every colour of the rainbow.
Harry laughed. ‘Oh dear.’
‘Maman let her make all the mess she wanted.’ Fleur rolled her eyes. ‘So now our daughter is wearing most of the paint.’
He slipped his wand out. ‘Let’s get you cleaned up, shall we, baby bird?’
Katie babbled and patted her hands together, staring at her bright-coloured fingers with wide green eyes.
‘I’ll take that as a yes.’ Harry levitated her to the sink and sat her down, cleaning off each splash of paint a bit at a time. ‘How did you manage to get so much paint on you, Katie?’
‘Maman left the paint pots too close.’ Fleur rummaged through a cupboard. ‘Our not so smart little girl got her hands on them and decided the best thing to do would be to tip them over in her lap.’
Gabby giggled. ‘Makes perfect sense.’
‘Of course it does. That’s classic veela hatchling logic.’ Harry tucked his wand away and lifted Katie out of the sink and set her down on the floor. ‘Let me just clear the table, little chick.’ He vanished the heap of Neville’s letters and pushed a stack of books on Russkayan History aside. ‘There we go.’
Katie dragged herself up on the cupboard handle and twisted around, sticking out one small hand toward him with a small frown. She raised one foot, wobbling as she clung to the cupboard and swaying back and forth.
‘Oh? Are you coming over here?’ Harry glanced at Fleur. ‘I think our baby bird is about to have another go at walking, mon Trésor. You don’t want to miss this.’
Fleur swivelled and the cupboard thudded shut. Katie let go of the door handle, swaying from side to side.
‘Go on, Katie,’ he whispered. ‘You can do it.’
Their daughter stuck her tongue through her teeth and scrunched her face up into a frown, lifting her foot up and down, and curling and uncurling her small toes.
‘Come to maman, little chick.’ Fleur crouched down and spread her arms. ‘Come here.’
Katie tottered forward with a huge grin and bright green eyes, meandering across the floor and wrapping her arms around Harry’s leg, squishing her face into his knee.
His heart melted. ‘Aren’t you just perfect, baby bird?’ Harry murmured, bending down and lifting her up onto the table. ‘Well done, Katie.’ He kissed her on top of her head. ‘You did amazingly well.’
Fleur’s warm, soft smile hovered in the corner of his eye. ‘Parfait, Katie.’
Their daughter gave them a gap-toothed grin and babbled, kicking her feet against the stack of history books.
Harry slid an arm around Fleur and pressed a light kiss to her cheek. ‘Happy, mon Rêve?’
‘We made that little angel,’ she whispered, burying her face in his neck. ‘And I love her so much I think my heart might burst.’
Gabby released a soft sigh behind them.
‘Oh come here, harpy,’ Fleur said.
Gabby shot them a tearful smile and wrapped her arms around her sister. ‘This is very nice. I can’t wait until it’s alway like this.’
Harry patted her on the head. ‘Not long now.’
‘That’s all you get, feather-face.’ Fleur pushed Gabby out of the hug and eased herself out of Harry’s embrace. ‘I need to find some lunch for Katie.’
The cupboard door smacked Harry in the cheek and pain flashed across his face like fire.
‘Ow,’ he muttered, rubbing the sore spot.
‘Pardon, mon Amour.’ Fleur kissed his twinging cheek. ‘To make up for that, you can choose between swede, carrot, and parsnip.’
‘Katie likes it.’ She offered him an elegant shrug. ‘I think the carrot is her favourite, though, because it’s a bright colour.’
‘She’ll be onto real solids soon,’ Harry muttered. ‘Her teeth are coming through fast.’
Gabby snickered. ‘I wonder if she’ll get bitey, she does like chewing on things. Mostly her blue spoon.’
‘I’m doing a bit less mushing every time,’ Fleur said, holding the pot of squished parsnip under his nose. ‘See?’
Harry peered down at the chunks of parsnip. ‘Looks very tasty.’
‘Want to try some, mon Amour?’
‘Alright.’ He grinned and dipped the tip of his finger into the pot and scooped up a chunk, sucking it off. ‘That’s not bad actually. Better than my aunt, she used to boil them until they were all squishy or burn them.’
Katie let out a disconsolate cry; a huge pout rose beneath her dark eyes as she glowered at him, little white feathers poked through the sleeves of her small jumper.
‘Oh look.’ Harry laughed as Fleur rolled her eyes. ‘She shares just like her maman.’ He surrendered the pot to his daughter and passed her the blue spoon. ‘There you go, baby bird. All yours. I won’t steal any more.’
Gabby giggled. ‘Just wait until she’s old enough for cake, mon cher frère.’
‘I shudder at the thought.’ A broad smile crept onto his lips, rising up from the warm glow in his heart. ‘I foresee many pâtisserie outings with a very sweet little silver-haired menace.’
Katie’s pout softened as she clutched her spoon, jamming it into the pot and scooping out a huge blob of parsnip.
‘There is no way that’s all going to fit in your mouth, little chick,’ Fleur said.
Their daughter crammed half the spoonful in and dropped the rest down her front. She chewed a few times and swallowed, dropping the blue spoon to grab the bits on her front and squishing it in her small fingers.
Harry snorted. ‘And the mess making begins.’
A high-pitched shriek tore through the room.
He met Fleur’s darkening eyes with a faint smile and pulled Violette’s ring from his pocket. ‘I’ll go see what it is. If there’s any risk to us, we’re done. Is that what you want, mon Tresor?’
She smiled, summer sky blue irises sparkling. ‘Oui.’
‘Then that’s how it will be.’ Harry slid the ring onto his finger and studied the purple spiral. ‘Do you want to give me your rings? Just in case?’
Fleur stuck one hand in her pocket and tossed hers across. Gabby held hers out between her forefinger and thumb.
‘We’re sure?’ he asked, bouncing both rings in his hand. ‘Really sure? I know you both wanted to work there when you were younger.’
Fleur turned her nose up.
‘We’re sure,’ Gabby murmured. ‘Fleur knows what she wants. She always has. And so do I.’
‘D’accord,’ Harry whispered. ‘A bientôt.’
He wrenched the world past him and stepped out beneath the floating glass lanterns of the Sunshine Room. ‘Grise?’
‘Here.’ Grise hurried from the corridor. ‘I was just informing Vert so she could fill you in if you turned up after I left. I’m about to speak with Présidente Desrosiers.’
Harry held out his fist. ‘We—’
‘No time. The Duforts have been sent to Belgium.’
Isobel. Celine. Colette. Guilt knotted in the pit of his stomach and he stared at the glint of silver between his fingers. They stayed. In Kart Hadasht, they stayed. For me.
‘Where am I going?’ He dropped the pair of rings back into his pocket.
Grise tossed him a piece of wood. ‘Some town in Belgium. Rendezvous with the Duforts. They will fill you in. I believe Présidente Desrosiers has spoken with them already and I need to leave immediately. The word is lionnes.’
‘Lionnes,’ Harry murmured.
The glass lanterns lurched forward and he stumbled across cobbles toward a small stone fountain. Three pairs of grey eyes met his across the burbling water feature.
‘Violette!’ Isobel waved both arms. ‘Come over here.’
He apparated past the fountain. ‘Bonsoir, mes sœurs.’
Celine smiled. ‘Welcome back, petit frère…’
‘Welcome back to the fight,’ Colette murmured. ‘The Dutch have made their move, they broke the ward lines along the border and pushed South West toward the main magical community at Tungrorum.’
‘So we just push them back?’ Harry asked.
Isobel grinned. ‘And then some.’
Celine sighed. ‘Sister… Présidente Desrosiers says this is the only flashpoint for full war in Europe not already locked in a covert stalemate, so we need to extinguish it the moment they appear at Tungrorum. Otherwise it might hinder the attempt to start peace talks.’
‘Grindelwald razed the Dutch magical communities when he discovered them secretly aiding his enemies and while many fled to Britain before he could finish the job, most didn’t return to the ashes at the end of the war,’ Colette said. ‘They have very few aurors but likely have some British support.’
So this is what Britain’s been buying time for.
Harry grimaced. ‘Unspeakables?’
‘Probably,’ Celine replied. ‘Those were strong wards they broke through. And without any warning.’
‘It doesn’t matter who we face.’ Isobel grabbed her sister’s hands and raised them aloft. ‘While one of us lives, none of us can die.’ She shot an expectant look at Harry.
He rolled his eyes and smiled. ‘While one of us lives, none of us can die.’
‘We will not allow it,’ they whispered.
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