Katie clutched her bowl of fruit pieces with two sticky hands, watching with a small frown as Fleur washed her blue spoon.
‘That’s what happens when you throw your spoon on the floor, baby bird.’ Harry chuckled as their daughter’s frown deepened into scowl and the green of her eyes darkened. ‘Pouting won’t speed up time, silly.’
Katie stuck one hand out toward Fleur and babbled.
‘She thinks with her stomach, mon Cœur,’ Fleur murmured, pulling her wand out to dry the spoon.
‘Amamamamamamam.’ Their daughter fidgeted, bouncing from her perch atop the table. ‘Mamamamamama.’
‘Maybe we should get a second spoon.’ Harry inspected the little tooth marks in the blue end as Fleur held it up in the light. ‘She’s going to chew this one up eventually.’
Little white feathers prickled through the loose knit of Katie’s clothes and her eyes flashed black. ‘Mamaaaan.’
Harry’s heart fluttered. ‘Was that a word, Katie?’ he whispered. ‘Did you say maman?’
A huge smirk spread across Fleur’s face. ‘Can you say it again, Katie?’ She waggled the spoon under their daughter’s nose. ‘Go on. Just to rub it in your papa’s face.’
Katie grabbed the spoon and scooped half a cherry into her mouth. Her eyes brightened back to emerald green and a big grin appeared on her face as she chewed.
Harry laughed. ‘I think one was all you’re getting, mon Ange.’
Fleur’s smirk faded into a soft, warm smile. ‘It still counts.’
‘You win this time, mon Rêve.’ He slipped an arm around her waist and drew her close to watch Katie smear fruit over her hands, face and anything in reach. ‘She’s such a messy little chick.’
‘I love her so much more than I ever thought I could,’ Fleur murmured. ‘More than anything. We made her. And she’s so perfect.’
‘I know.’ He swallowed a thick lump in his throat and pressed a light kiss to Fleur’s cheek. ‘If my younger self could see this…’
‘Perfect wishes,’ she whispered.
They do come true. Hot tears welled up and he squeezed his eyes shut. Who would have known?
‘Je t’aime, mon Cœur.’ Fleur leant her head on his shoulder, spilling her silver hair down his chest in a faint wash of sharp, sweet almonds. ‘And our little angel loves you very much too. Gabby is right, she’s a little daddy’s girl. Always crawling off to find her papa and getting upset when she can’t find him.’
Katie abandoned her blue spoon and empty bowl and stuck her arms out at him.
‘Okay, let’s get you cleaned up, baby bird.’ Harry slipped his wand from his sleeve to tug the mess from the fibres of her clothes, sweeping it off her cheeks and the tip of her nose. ‘There you go.’ He stepped away from Fleur and lifted Katie up into his arms. ‘What would you like to do now?’
She squirmed for the floor.
‘Ah, off to explore.’ Harry tucked his wand away and lowered her onto her feet, holding her small hands as she tottered across the kitchen, pausing to pull open each cupboard. ‘Look, mon Trésor, your daughter is already raiding your cake hoard. Not quite eleven months and already learning the ways of the veela.’
Fleur laughed. ‘We can share cake together soon, little chick. That’ll be something new for you to try.’
Katie babbled, poking her head into the cupboard and sticking one food into the bottom part.
Harry snorted. ‘Oh, she’s going in.’
‘Not such a smart little chick.’ Fleur stepped across to extricate their daughter, cupping her head away from the door. ‘You’re very sweet, baby bird, but you’re not meant to be in the cake cupboard.’
Katie meandered around the table, hanging from Fleur’s arms with a huge gap-toothed grin and stomping across the tiles.
A little smile crept onto Harry’s face as he watched her silver curls bounce with each step. ‘She’s getting the hang of this pretty fast.’
‘Gabby’s been running her around the house like this,’ Fleur said. ‘And Maman too.’
His smile shrank. ‘But not me.’
‘Soon you’ll have nothing but time to spend with her,’ she murmured. ‘It’s okay, mon Cœur.’
‘Soon.’ Harry poked a chair leg out of the way with one toe and Katie tottered around the table corner. ‘There we go, nothing to get in the way.’
Katie surged forward and buried her face in his knee, tugging her hands free to hug his leg.
His heart lurched. ‘Hello, baby bird,’ Harry whispered, bending down and stroking her silver hair off her face. ‘Je t’aime.’
She clung on tighter.
‘I have post.’ Laurent strode in from the hall, brandishing a fistful of letters. ‘My work. My work. Your Maman’s work. My work—’ he fished one out of the stack ‘—and your weekly correspondence with Mr Longbottom.’
‘Fantastic,’ Harry muttered as Apolline drifted in.
Fleur plucked the letter from Laurent’s hand and ripped it open with her finger. ‘Let me see.’ She skimmed the page, her eyes darkening with each line until little blue flames rose on her fingers and the letter curled into ashes.
Katie shivered against his leg.
‘Fleur,’ Harry murmured, lifting Katie up into his arms. ‘Careful.’
‘Pardon.’ Fleur took a deep breath and balled her fists, squishing the flames out and letting the dark drain from her eyes. ‘He is still the same boy who begged you to come save him after he turned his back on you and got your godfather killed.’
‘What did it say?’ Laurent asked. ‘Anything new?’
‘He wants Harry to come back and be Dumbledore. He thinks it’s the only way to change the British political landscape and dissuade other nations from any minor provocations that will give Britain’s die-hard nationalists an excuse to go to war.’ Fleur’s eyes narrowed. ‘Amos Diggory is raising the stakes to force peace, but Neville fears it might not last with the current political climate, so he wants you to come back.’
The Last Scions. Harry grimaced through a cold stab of fear. They’re still pulling the strings.
‘Raising the stakes?’ Laurent’s forehead creased. ‘What does that mean?’
Fleur gave an elegant shrug. ‘I do not know. That was all he said.’
Katie wriggled with a disconsolate noise and a small frown, grabbing hold of Harry’s ear with one hand and tugging.
‘Ow.’ He eased her fist off. ‘Don’t pull my ear off, little chick. I need it.’
‘It takes a few days for letters outside France to reach us now,’ Laurent said. ‘They sweep them all for any magic that might pose a risk. They’re not allowed to open them, of course, particularly not if they’re sent to the home of a senior government official.’
‘So we’re probably about to find out,’ Harry muttered, lowering an armful of his squirming daughter to the floor and holding her hands as she stomped along the tiles. ‘I don’t really see how the stakes can be raised.’ He followed Katie around the table as she padded around the table, the ends of her striped socks flopping off her toes.
Apolline watched with soft blue eyes. ‘Why do your socks never manage to stay on, Katrina?’
‘She tries to pull them off,’ Fleur replied. ‘She likes to feel what she’s walking on, don’t you, baby bird?’
Katie beamed as she tottered past the sink, hanging off Harry’s arms.
‘Some kind of official declaration.’ Laurent reached for his coffee mug. ‘Maybe an even closer alliance with Spain and Russkaya or something about the Caribbean and the covert conflict in the Aegean.’
‘If this was sent a few days ago, it’s probably already happened,’ Fleur said. ‘But we have not been called on.’ She exchanged a quick look with Harry. ‘And Présidente Desrosiers would have known right away or even before…’
‘She would?’ Laurent fumbled coffee grains over the side and sighed, reaching for his wand. ‘How?’
‘There’s an unofficial contact in the British government she’s speaking with,’ Harry said. ‘We don’t know who it is, but if it’s as big as Neville makes it sound, then they would have known and passed it on. It will affect the peace talks the Volsung Confederation is trying to host.’
‘I’m sure she has her reasons,’ Laurent replied, sweeping the grains back into his mug with a swish of his wand. ‘She’s been an exemplary leader for her three terms.’
It doesn’t matter. Harry breathed the flutter of anxiety out in a quiet sigh as Katie tugged him on another lap of the table. All that matters is la Victoire Finale.
Laurent froze. ‘Ah.’ He dipped a hand into his pocket and pulled out a slim piece of dark stone bearing a single glowing red rune. ‘Présidente Desrosiers has summoned me for an emergency meeting…’
Harry dipped a hand into his pocket and cupped Violette’s ring in his palm. ‘No doubt we’ll have our own meeting soon.’
‘No doubt.’ Laurent stuck the stone tablet into his pocket and slid his coffee mug beside the sink. ‘Au revoir.’ He vanished with a loud crack.
Apolline leant forward off the side. ‘You can leave Katrina with me, if all three of you have to go.’
‘Thank you, maman.’ Fleur glanced at Katie’s grin. ‘I’ll find Gabby, see what she’s up to. I think she’s reading some old books.’ She flickered away.
Harry eased one hand out of Katie’s grasp a little bit, letting her take her own weight. ‘Go on,’ he murmured, when she wobbled to a stop. ‘You can do it. You’ve still got one of my hands.’
She scrunched her face up and continued her stomping, meandering over the tiles and yanking on his hand with every teetering step.
‘It won’t be long until she’s walking all by herself,’ Apolline said.
‘Imagine the trouble she’ll be able to cause then.’ Harry grinned. ‘It’s a good thing Fleur’s bubbled you up in wards, baby bird.’
Katie twisted around and babbled at him, hanging on his arm.
Apolline smiled. ‘Still no words?’
‘I think we got a maman this morning.’ Harry chuckled, swinging Katie from side to side. ‘It’s hard to tell if it was really meant to be maman or not, but Fleur is claiming victory, of course.’
She laughed. ‘Of course. My eldest daughter is very fond of winning.’
‘It makes her happy.’ A small smile crept across Harry’s lips. ‘And you know what they say, happy bird-wife, happy bird-life.’
Apolline’s eyes crinkled. ‘She seems a little less volatile than when she was younger. You and Katrina have made her very happy.’
‘I do my best,’ he murmured. ‘Katie’s better at it, she’s much sweeter and more perfect than I am.’ Harry crouched down and swept her into his arms, mussing her silver curls as she beamed at him with a bright glimmer of cheer in her green eyes. ‘Aren’t you, baby bird? You make your maman really happy, don’t you?’
‘Maman,’ Katie burbled.
‘That was a word,’ Apolline said.
Harry grinned and held a finger to his lips. ‘Don’t tell Fleur.’
She laughed. ‘I don’t think Katrina’s going to stop saying her new word.’
‘No, I’ve definitely lost.’ He smiled as his daughter babbled into his chest. ‘But that’s okay. I can teach her all sorts of bird jokes later on to make up for it.’
Katie clutched at his robes. ‘Maman. Maman. Maman. Maman.’
‘Maman?’ Fleur apparated in before the sink.
‘It sounds like maman, but she’s really saying papa,’ Harry said. ‘I’m very sure.’
A peal of laughter escaped her. ‘I don’t think so, mon Coeur.’
‘Maybe it’s a very strange pronunciation of auntie harpy…?’
Apolline hid a smile behind her hand.
‘It is maman, mon Amour.’ Fleur turned her nose up at him with a little smile. ‘Isn’t it, little chick?’
Katie wriggled around and stuck out one hand. ‘Maman.’
‘It’s getting really hard to convince your maman that you’re saying papa, Katie.’ Harry chuckled and helped her totter her way across to Fleur. ‘There you go, mon Ange, one talkative little veela hatchling. All yours.’
‘Come to maman.’ She swept Katie up into her arms. ‘Have you got any other words, Katie? Can you say papa—’ Fleur pointed one of their daughter’s small hands at Harry ‘—say papa?’
Katie scrunched her face up and stared at him with a confused glint in her green eyes. ‘Maman.’
Harry laughed. ‘I guess everything is maman, huh, little—’
A high shriek tore through the kitchen.
‘Here we go,’ he murmured, lifting Violette’s ring out of his pocket. ‘Apolline?’
‘I’ll look after Katrina.’ She stepped forward and held out her hand. ‘Shall we go explore, Katrina? We can go find your shoes and coat and walk around outside?’
Fleur nudged Katie forward. ‘Go on little chick. We’ll see you soon.’
‘Try not to be too much of a tiny feathery monster,’ Harry said. ‘Or do any weird accidental magic.’
Fleur tutted. ‘She is not a monster.’
‘See, she doesn’t mind.’
‘If she understood, she would—’
‘Pout.’ Harry grinned. ‘Just like her beautiful maman.’
Fleur rolled her eyes and laughed. ‘Come on then—’ she slipped on her ring ‘—let’s see what this is about.’
Harry stuck Violette’s ring onto his finger and wrenched the world back past him into the Sunshine Room, glancing up at the floating glass lanterns above as everyone else apparated in.
‘Good.’ Grise stood up from the chair beside the brazier. ‘We don’t have long.’
‘What has… happened?’ Liliana rasped.
‘Présidente Desrosiers has informed us and some of the heads of relevant parts of the government that Britain will officially announce a new relationship between itself and its protectorates in the next day or so. A treaty similar to the articles binding the United Magical States together beneath their state-elected representatives and their president. If any of them are attacked, they are all obligated to respond in full.’ Grise steepled his fingers. ‘It has some pretty diplomatic language to make it look sweet and kind, but we have a word for when multiple smaller states are folded beneath the umbrella of one more powerful one. Empire.’
‘That is raising the stakes,’ Harry muttered.
Gabby edged around to stand beside Fleur, glancing between them.
‘That is… madness,’ Liliana whispered. ‘Greece. The Caribbean. Malta. They are… all full… wars now… if anything… continues… and how will… Suleiman… know?’
‘All hostilities have been ceased by us as of—’ Grise pulled his pocket watch out ‘—half an hour ago. We’ve pulled back from Malta and Zoe de Medici has brought down the wards there. Other nations will likely follow our lead in this as soon as they learn.’
‘Even… America?’ Liliana asked.
‘Yes, but possibly only because it will help them to fight against De Mendoza in Panama.’
‘What about the peace talks?’ Fleur asked. ‘Are they abandoned?’
‘Présidente Desrosiers delayed telling us to protect the identity of her contact, which suggests whoever they are, they are well-placed in the British government. That person also informed her that Amos Diggory has taken this move to ensure those peace talks happen by forcing other nations to either declare full war or meet in Copenhagen.’
‘That lets… Britain keep… everything… if the talks… favour them.’
‘Quite possibly.’ Grise steepled his fingers. ‘They will cede Egypt, but in return they have claimed most of the Caribbean and used the situation to form an alliance that a few decades of good diplomacy will turn into the closest thing to Rome the magical world has seen in a thousand years.’
Rome. A single red spark rose before the eye of Harry’s mind and Sophonissa’s whisper welled up from the back of his mind. Ba’alat Tanit demands sacrifice. Eclipse them all. A grim certainty gripped him. The Last Scions have built this. Somehow. And the amber-masked figure will be the one who rises from it.
‘What are we doing?’ Fleur asked.
‘Waiting,’ Grise muttered. ‘Présidente Desrosiers is speaking to the aurors herself imminently. Violette, you are… close to the Duforts, I believe.’
‘They will be there. I want you to learn anything you can from them about this contact of Desrosiers. Sarcelle and Cramoisi, forget your previous task, if the présidente is keeping this card as close to her chest as it seems, it’s a waste of time and may only jeopardise our hopes of peace talks.’
‘La Déesse.’ Grise frowned. ‘Vert can side-long apparate you, there’s no time to floo.’
Liliana held her arm. ‘Vio…lette?’
‘A bientot,’ Harry said, throwing a long look at Fleur and Gabby.
The Sunshine room spun and he stumbled across smooth stone flagstones into a plain, white wall.
‘La Déesse?’ he asked, pushing himself off it and glancing around.
Plain white columns held up the balcony above and a slim iron bannister guarded the drop down to a neat square of blue aurors standing stiff to attention in the courtyard below.
‘There is an… old mosaic… in the… foundations… from the… Roman ruins… the hall… is built on,’ Liliana rasped. ‘It is named… after that.’
‘Is everything built on Roman ruins?’
Liliana’s hoarse laughter echoed beneath the columns. ‘He said… our whole… world is.’
A flicker of gold caught the corner of his eye.
The Duforts strode along the far side of the building surrounding a slim, iron-grey-haired woman in stark, black robes.
‘Présidente… Desrosiers,’ Liliana whispered. ‘I must… leave now.’
‘She knew Liliana.’
‘We were… friends once.’ Liliana vanished with a pop.
Harry leant over the railing, studying the stern expression on the lined, pale face of Présidente Desrosiers as she stepped forward to the edge.
‘Brave aurors of France.’ She drew herself up. ‘I will not diminish the importance of your duty by wasting your time with flowery words. You have performed with the greatest merit one could hope for. We are all proud.’ A fierce glint shone in her brown eyes as she pressed her fist to her heart. ‘In the coming days, there will be disconcerting news. Britain, harried by impetuous, rash nations has taken a step back toward a darker time in our history. I hope in the next month to stand here and tell you that you fought for peace, that those who gave their lives, have done so to save the lives of hundreds more. I am confident that this conflict will reach a peaceful resolution for no witch or wizard could possibly be so foolish as to plunge us back into the awful cauldron of war we experienced twice over with Grindelwald…’
Harry snorted and apparated across the gap into the midst of the Duforts. ‘Bonjour, mes soeurs,’ he whispered.
They started and a quiet squeak escaped Isobel.
Harry smothered a laugh.
‘Violette,’ Isobel hissed. ‘You made us jump!’
Présidente Desrosiers speech rang on behind them.
‘Any idea who it is she knows in Britain?’ he whispered.
Three pairs of grey eyes met his.
‘We don’t,’ Celine replied.
Colette shook her head. ‘But whoever it is, Présidente Desrosiers trusts them greatly.’
‘She doesn’t like blood purists, or nationalists, or extremists of any sort,’ Isobel said. ‘She is a firm believer in a temperate, moderate attitude to ensure continued stability and peace.’
Harry glanced past Isobel’s gold curls at the iron rose holding Présidente Desrosiers’s hair in place. ‘She seems like a formidable witch.’
‘A healer in both wars,’ Celine murmured. ‘A politician afterward when few voices stepped forward that were not either for Grindelwald and disgraced, or against him and dangerously fervent.’
‘She serves La Belle France well,’ Colette whispered.
Présidente Desrosiers’s voice faded away and her steps rung across the stone. ‘Who is this, captains?’
‘Violette,’ Isobel replied.
‘Ah.’ Présidente Desrosiers’s brown eyes fixed themselves on Harry’s face. ‘Another faceless wizard fighting for France in the shadows. You have my gratitude, Violette, but I will not pretend I have anything more than abhorrence for the necessity of your existence and the actions you must take.’ She extended a hand bearing a gold signet ring marked with an oak tree. ‘However, I do recognise the value of your achievements and personally thank you for putting an end to Julien Aguillard. He was a most dangerous man.’
Harry clasped her hand tight. ‘It’s a pleasure.’
She measured him in one sharp look. ‘But you’re an even more dangerous man from what I’ve heard.’
‘I wouldn’t be very useful if I wasn’t.’
‘Just so.’ Présidente Desrosiers dipped her head. ‘Grise has marked you as his successor and confided that you are likely to prove far more effective than he has with a little more experience to temper your recklessness. He laments the state of Les Inconnus and I am inclined to agree with him. Once this current political climate ends, I wish to ensure we are better prepared to deal with the next. Therefore, you will take Grise’s place should the talks with the Volsung Confederation go ahead and begin to gain the experience you need to lead. Grise will be left to work on restoring the recruitment strategies Julien Aguillard destroyed when he betrayed France. I will inform Grise of this slow transition myself later today. I doubt he will have many objections. I understand that the rings you bear ensure personal feelings and motives cannot come into play.’
Harry smothered a faint smile. ‘They do.’
‘Very well.’ Présidente Desrosiers drew herself up. ‘Then it is resolved. Adieu.’ She vanished with a sharp crack.
‘Our petit frère is moving up in the world,’ Isobel teased.
‘Congratulations,’ Celine murmured.
Colette sighed. ‘Sisters… I don’t think Henri wished to spend a week or so in Copenhagen away from his baby girl and his wife.’
‘No.’ He stifled a flare of irritation. ‘I did not, but… La Belle France demande.’
‘Always,’ they whispered. ‘But she loves us all.’
And I can leave if I must. A little of the weight lifted off his shoulders. La Victoire Finale is close now. Just a few steps away.
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