Harry poked little pieces of stone over the edge with his toe, watching them fall down into the dark beneath the crumbling dome.
A loud crack sent ice flashing through his veins.
‘I thought… I might… find you… here.’ Liliana drifted round to the far side of the hole. ‘Are you well… Violette?’
‘I’m rapidly losing affection for Malta,’ he replied. ‘Where is Grise?’
‘He will be… here soon.’ She swept her hood back and smiled at the clear blue sky, brushing her fingertips across the dark veins marring her cheek. ‘Présidente… Desrosiers… must still… be speaking… with him.’
‘Are the Italians happy?’ Harry asked. ‘I looked for Zoe, but she’s not here.’
‘They are… as happy… as anyone… stuck here,’ Liliana replied. ‘Serving the… greater good… does not… bring bliss.’
‘No, I don’t suppose it does. Not unless you’re your own greater good.’
‘That is not… a greater… good.’
‘Are any of them?’
‘The Statute,’ she rasped. ‘All the… rest is… ambition… and worse… but the… Statute… is not.’
‘It comes with a high price.’
‘It does.’ Liliana studied him with her dark eyes. ‘But if it… wasn’t worth… that price… we wouldn’t… be prepared… to pay it.’
‘Maybe we think it’s that valuable because people pay the price,’ he replied. ‘Can you imagine being born into the muggle world, into concrete and tarmac and orange tiles, and then seeing all the wonders magic can do? Would you really hate and fear it?’
‘And all the… horrors,’ she whispered. ‘Magic is… magic… but also… power. Those without… fear those with.’
Harry sighed. ‘I can’t argue with that.’
A hoarse little laugh escaped Liliana. ‘I could… not either. Grindelwald… was right… about… that much.’ A dark look crept into her eyes. ‘He knew… people well.’
Footsteps thudded up the steps.
Harry turned to find Grise making his way up over the weeds and marble. ‘Here he is.’
Liliana pulled her hood up.
‘Présidente Desrosiers is pleased.’ Grise paused at the edge of the dome. ‘We have British forces spread thin and Grant Hardsworth has kept the Spanish aurors under de Mendoza in a stalemate in Panama. Ottoman Janissaries are making small gains in the Aegean, but Tsarina Bugrov will likely finish liberating Crimea or the vast majority of it before they make much progress. Nobody is winning. Everyone is at risk of losing.’
‘So peace talks are appealing.’
‘The Americans are probably the most reluctant, but they first poked at Britain and started this mess, so nobody’s feeling too sympathetic.’
‘That’s the good news…’
A faint smile crossed Grise’s lips. ‘The British, Spanish and Russkaya have formalised a defensive agreement should any of them be openly attacked. This is the bad news, but it’s not so bad that it hinders the Volsung Confederation’s peace talks.’
The Last Scions will have some plan for this. Something to ruin the peace talks. He smothered a flutter of anxiety. And then everything will go up in flames.
‘The Germanic States have finally agreed to declare themselves neutral, much to the relief of Polans, who know they’re next on the list of Slavic magical nations Russkaya believes ought to be part of a greater whole.’ Grise steepled his fingers. ‘As part of this neutrality, Ansgar Fürstenburg is overseeing the Dutch magical communities where aurors are needed, to demonstrate France is not interested in making territorial gains beyond the return of Sint Maarten and perhaps keeping Malta.’
‘What about… the ICW?’ Liliana rasped.
‘The ICW are confident Britain and its allies will rejoin for further discussions after the talks in Copenhagen reach a positive outcome,’ Grise said. ‘Présidente Desrosiers’s unofficial contact, whoever it is, has indicated they believe Minister Diggory is personally satisfied that British strength has been demonstrated to those who thought to question it and will now seek to settle matters diplomatically. No doubt he hopes to take advantage of the ICW’s disapproval for America’s role in provoking this conflict to strip them of the bits of the Caribbean Britain has taken. The présidente seems very confident that Britain will decide to enter these peace talks, despite the rhetoric of the more radical elements of its Wizengamot. Her contact did imply that there may be some last move made by Britain to ensure it has the strongest negotiating position possible, but they weren’t aware of what it was because it wasn’t happening within their oversight.’
Harry frowned. ‘Has Britain actually agreed to anything?’
‘Then this is just hope.’
And I hate hoping. He crushed the amber-masked figure and their whisper down into the empty place beneath his heart. But I don’t have to hope and wait for much longer.
Liliana folded her arms. ‘What are we… to do?’
‘For now, old friend?’ Grise glanced back at the stronghold rising on the far hilltop. ‘Apply a little more pressure to make sure Britain knows full well it’s best to quit now with minor gains than risk a major loss.’
‘I’ve sealed the tower with blood wards,’ Harry replied. ‘We can’t get in. They can’t get out.’
Grise’s pale forehead creased. ‘We only need to make sure they feel our presence.’
‘Well, we can probably manage that,’ Harry muttered. ‘Without Zoe’s willingly given blood, nobody can cross the arch. I don’t want to try and cross into whatever traps are there, either. I’d rather you dug up another graveyard and tried to scale the walls.’
‘I can arrange something of that nature.’
‘Can inferi cross… your wards?’ Liliana asked. ‘They are not… alive.’
‘Only if Grise wants to drink all that seawater. Or if we have a drop of Zoe’s genuinely willingly given blood.’ Harry let the weight of his words hang on the tip of his tongue. ‘I’m not sure how keen Zoe is to start a fight here with peace as close as it seems, so I’m not sure I would trust her to be fully willing even if she does give us blood.’
‘Better to attempt to scale the walls with inferi.’ Grise rubbed his palms together. ‘I can probably make this happen. I have ample materials.’
‘You just keep them lying around at home?’
‘I cannot afford to enter a fight unprepared. I am no duelist.’ He drew his wand. ‘I will return to the foot of the hill momentarily. If you could sweep for traps that would speed up our demonstration and if you want to linger ominously, Violette, that too would likely help. Your reputation is going to be no small weapon for us in the coming years.’
‘Why not.’ Harry glanced at Liliana. ‘Even if they choose this moment to break my wards, they’ll be exhausted and Vert and I will be fresh to the fight.’
‘I hope they’re that foolish.’ Grise vanished with a loud crack.
Harry wrenched the world back past him and stepped out onto the slope with a soft snap, slipping his wand from his sleeve.
Liliana appeared beside him in a loud pop. ‘They cannot… have trapped… anything… outside.’
‘Not unless they have some secret passage out,’ he said. ‘But I think if they did, they’d’ve used it by now to escape or counterattack.’
‘We know… the layout… from when… we were… allies… against… Grindelwald.’
He drifted up the slope until he could see through the arch. Gryphon and Dragon stood within, wands drawn.
‘They’re… prepared… for an… attack,’ Liliana rasped.
‘We’re only here to watch Grise’s inferi try to climb the walls and die.’ Harry glanced up at the top of the tower. ‘Unless you can fly, you can’t get in or out.’
‘I don’t think… they have… brooms in there.’
‘Neither do I.’ Harry shrugged. ‘And even if they did, they’d only fly out of the tower and into the fire, the wards prevent them from leaving the island.’
Grise appeared in the corner of Harry’s eye, sending a loud crack echoing across the island. A tangle of pale dead limbs sprawled from his feet, flickering an eerie yellow.
‘How will they climb?’ Harry asked.
‘Grise will… have a way.’ Liliana touched hand to her throat. ‘But it is… smooth stone… and very… high up.’
‘Well it doesn’t really matter if they get in, I guess.’
‘It just has… to show that… they are… not safe.’
He cocked his head. ‘How’s your throat?’
‘Better than… before my… oath,’ she whispered. ‘It is no… longer… getting worse, but it still… troubles me.’
A score of inferi scrambled up the hill; thick clear liquid oozed from open sores on their skin as they poured past and leapt onto the walls. They clung to the smooth stone like starfishes, dragging themselves up by their palms.
‘Grise managed something,’ Harry said.
‘A little alchemy and a lot of enchanting.’ Grise strode up the slope, his pink eyes on the inferi scaling the tower. ‘I was forced to dabble in several fields of magic to counter Grindelwald’s use of inferi, but now it is often useful.’
‘The fluid,’ Liliana rasped.
‘It is a strong adhesive while warm,’ he said. ‘So they stick for a few moments after it leaves the body and then can move once it’s cooled.’
An inferius plummeted from the wall and crunched into the rocks.
‘And they can just keep trying if they fall.’ Harry watched the inferius’s bones jerk and snap back into place. ‘So it doesn’t need to be perfect.’
The inferius leapt back onto the wall and crawled up the smooth stone. The dark figures climbed higher and higher as the unspeakables stared out through the arch with the blank, wide eyes of their masks.
‘I wonder if the door is open at the top,’ Harry muttered. ‘There’s no windows, they might not notice until they’re in.’
‘I doubt we are that fortunate,’ Grise replied.
An inferius fell, knocking two more off the wall. They splattered across the stone path before the arch, spraying red over the rocks and dirt.
Gryphon whirled and sprinted back into the tower.
‘I guess they know now.’ Harry squinted at the top of the tower as the first inferius dragged themselves over it. ‘Did you put any nasty surprises in?’
A faint smile crossed Grise’s face. ‘Inferi are always a nasty surprise. I couldn’t do too much, though, not without ruining their ability to climb.’
‘It will… be a short… fight then,’ Liliana said.
‘We only want to keep the pressure on, old friend. We nearly lost Violette and Cramoisi trying to take it. Better to keep them safely pinned.’
Harry twisted Violette’s ring around his finger. ‘It’s not worth the risk trying to take it.’
A flash of white burst from the top of the tower. Pieces of inferi rained down around the foot of the tower and a gout of flame billowed over the wall, searing the handful of climbing stragglers.
‘And that’s that,’ Grise said. ‘It seems they trapped the door on the tower top as well.’
Good thing I escaped out and didn’t try to get in. Harry swallowed a cold sick feeling. No more risks.
‘And now?’ he asked.
‘Présidente Desrosiers expects to hear from the Volsung Confederation in the coming week to announce their success in hosting talks.’ Grise polished his palms together. ‘With luck, this may be the last action we have to take.’
It won’t be. A faint smile crept onto his lips. Well, not for you. Soon I’ll be able to relax and enjoy the sunset with my family.