The glass lanterns drifted overhead beneath the grim, grey stone ceiling, sending the soft shadows of the cluster of chairs around the brazier sliding along the floor.
‘We’re early,’ Gabby chirped. ‘For the first time ever.’
‘It’s the first time you’ve been early for anything,’ Fleur replied. ‘I used to have to tell you we were leaving an hour before we really were for you to be ready, harpy.’
She snickered. ‘And it still barely worked.’
Harry stared into the flickering white flames. ‘Desrosiers wants me to do what Grise does. This is probably part of what this is about.’
Gabby tensed. ‘You mean… lead?’
‘I think so. Eventually, at least.’ He sighed. ‘It means I’ll end up in Copenhagen, but if things somehow go well and the war ends, I suppose I can lead this place. It won’t be risky then. Or as risky.’
Especially after La Victoire Finale.
‘Of course she wants you to lead, mon Amour,’ Fleur murmured. ‘You’re greater than all those little shallow people. They want you to play hero. To change the world. To be great. So they can look up at you and pretend they’re all less ugly than they are. So they can live through you. And if you are ever less than perfect, they will hate you for taking their delusion away.’
A thousand shadows hung among his thoughts, staring up with awe-filled eyes, blurring with the Duforts’ aurors beneath the dome of Kart Hadasht and in the gloom of the eclipse on Bari.
I mustn’t dream his dreams.
‘I don’t want that.’ Harry stifled a stab of fear. ‘I don’t want to be great. I just want—’
Grise appeared with a loud crack. ‘You’re all early.’
Liliana apparated in on the far side of the flickering white flames.
‘Let us begin.’ He polished his palms together. ‘First, from what we can observe any backlash against Britain’s new treaty arrangement has been swiftly squashed. It was presented well as defensive unity against current hostile forces.’
‘The sun will… never set… upon the… prosperous… friendships… between our… nations,’ Liliana rasped. ‘A new and… resplendent… chapter… in our history… will now… begin.’
‘Lovely words,’ Fleur said.
‘It allows Britain free movement of its forces across all its protectorates and should any of them be attacked, they are all obligated to fight together under British command.’ Grise’s brow creased. ‘For all intents and purposes, it is an empire, even if it’s defensively orientated for now. It’s similar to the treaty binding the magical communities of America and very similar to the early era of the Ottoman Magical Caliphate. That was formed of many magical communities all subject to the Caliph in Nicea should they be attacked. And over time, those magical communities became less and less independent until eventually they became regions of the empire when its capital moved to Constantinople.’
‘It is… done now,’ Liliana whispered.
Grise nodded. ‘We’ll see where it leads. Hopefully to Copenhagen and then back onto the ICW. If the threat fades, Britain will relax its hold once more as it did since Grindelwald.’
The Last Scions will have a plan for the peace talks. Harry’s stomach clenched into a tight, cold knot. They wanted to rise from the ashes of war. They need a war.
‘Violette…’ Grise turned a cool pink stare on Harry. ‘You will be going to Copenhagen in my stead. Présidente Desrosiers sees you as the natural leader of Les Inconnus once you have the experience.’
‘She is… correct,’ Liliana rasped.
Grise nodded. ‘I agree with her assessment.’
Harry twisted Violette’s ring around his finger. ‘So I go to Copenhagen and…?’
‘Establish a rapport with Présidente Desrosiers.’ Grise fixed him with a pointed look. ‘She has served three terms now, twenty one years of stable leadership, and whoever succeeds her in a couple more will likely be of similar mind.’
And maybe, while I watch the politicians talk, I’ll find someone from the Last Scions I can pry some answers out of. A soft thrill fluttered through Harry’s veins. I can find the amber-masked man, for once La Victoire Finale is done.
‘After Copenhagen we’ll see if Présidente Desrosiers is correct and whether things calm down,’ Grise said. ‘If they do, Violette. You will take my place bit by bit so I can restore the recruitment structures that Noire hijacked and destroyed to create his following. Les Inconnus has suffered since Grindelwald and nearly fell apart with Noire’s betrayal. Noire was meant to take my place. Now, it will be you.’
‘So it all hinges on Copenhagen?’ Fleur asked.
‘Yes, Sarcelle,’ he replied.
‘Ideally, this conflict will fade,’ Grise said. ‘Vert and I will restore our recruitment as Violette takes over. Sarcelle and Cramoisi will head our research and we will rebuild until we are back to the same strength we had before Grindelwald’s second war.’
But it won’t fade. War is inevitable. The amber-masked man is coming, and he can only come from a crucible like I did.
‘Copenhagen it is,’ Harry muttered. ‘I can’t wait.’
A faint smile passed across Grise’s face. ‘When Présidente Desrosiers forced the role on me after Grindelwald fell, I told her I did not want it. She told me that was why it should be me, because I would treat it as a responsibility and not an opportunity.’ The smile faded. ‘When Noire began to grow into more than just a duellist, I leapt at the chance to pass it on to him. Now I see why it was important to give it to someone who did not want it.’
‘Well, I can promise you I don’t want it,’ Harry said. ‘I would much rather go home than do any of this.’
‘But you… cannot,’ Liliana said. ‘Because if… you do… there will… be no home… to go to.’
He caught her dark gaze beneath her hood. ‘Well, there’s one I can go to now…’
‘You are free to go home, Violette,’ Grise said. ‘We all are for a little while. The Volsung Confederation have declared talks will open in a little over a week, to give Britain and other nations still not on board time to decide. However, most of the hostilities have ceased thanks to Amos Diggory’s proclamation of this new British treaty and I would be surprised if they had not almost all agreed to attend the talks over the next two days.’
‘Only… America… might refuse.’
‘They will not want to face Britain and Spain alone.’ Grise steepled his fingers. ‘They will probably make one big push to defeat De Mendoza in Panama and reclaim some of the protectorates they lost first, but once they have, they will agree regardless of the conflict’s outcome.’
Harry released a long sigh. ‘Au revoir, then.’ He apparated back into the kitchen and ripped Violette’s ring from his finger, dropping it into his pocket.
Fleur and Gabby appeared on the other side of the table.
‘I don’t think those peace talks will work out,’ he said. ‘I saw it. In Ba’alat Tanit’s Looking Glass.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Gabby said. ‘We leave when we must.’
‘Don’t fret, mon Coeur,’ Fleur murmured, glancing into the hall. ‘Let’s go to the willow tree. Maman and Papa may be about with Katie, and we don’t want them to hear about La Victoire Finale.’
Harry cupped the acorn pendant against his heart. ‘Argent.’
The kitchen lurched right and he staggered onto white pebbles.
A gentle breeze set the green fronds of the willow swaying back and forth before the rippling river and the wild meadows; its cool touch brushed through Harry’s hair and whispered through the leaves and long grass.
‘I have been thinking.’ Fleur swung her legs from their branch above. ‘The Hallows are Death, they can represent the touch of Death to us, but only if we add to the piece of magic to make it ours.’
Gabby appeared on the pebbles and glanced around. ‘Oh, there you are, Fleur.’
‘So the Hallows will be part of it and part of the sacrifice,’ Harry said. ‘And then everything we did to get them is, too. Everything we’ve ever done to reach our dream will count.’
Fleur wiggled her toes in the breeze and nodded.
‘We will need to recreate the magic used to create phoenixes,’ Gabby said. ‘Or, we need to find a phoenix…’ A little shiver swept through her. ‘It would be reborn after the ritual, right?’
Harry exchanged a quick look with Fleur. ‘I’m not sure.’
‘Hopefully,’ Fleur murmured. ‘But the more we sacrifice to get it…’
Gabby stared at the white pebbles beneath her feet. ‘I don’t like it.’
‘We’re not meant to like it, Gabby,’ he said. ‘It’s a sacrifice. A demonstration of the strength of your intent to power the magic.’
‘I know.’ She shuddered. ‘But what did the phoenix ever do to us?’
‘We’ll try and recreate the magic,’ Fleur said. ‘I don’t know where we would even find a phoenix let alone how to snare one.’
Gabby’s expression lightened. ‘Then, we just have to do what you were talking about, Fleur.’
‘I thought the best way to create what Salazar describes as the touch of death for us would be to gather symbolic items to form a representation of what death is for us,’ Fleur said. ‘How we feel about it.’
‘And then the gathering helps power the sacrifice.’
Fleur offered him a soft, warm smile. ‘It will be enough, mon Amour. We have given everything for our sunset. All our dreams but this one. The Hallows. Your horcrux. Whatever we decide best represents death to us.’
‘I hope so,’ he whispered.
Unease stirred in the pit of his stomach. But I would trade all of that in an instant. Even if those dreams once seemed so dear, they might not be enough now.
Gabby rested a hand on his arm. ‘Breathe, mon cher frere. We are two steps away and have all the time we need.’
Harry shoved the tightening knot of anxiety down and buried it under a deep breath. ‘I know. And we have time now before I’m in Copenhagen and while those talks happen.’
‘I can’t imagine those talks will be simple and short,’ Fleur said. ‘And I know how you feel about death, mon Coeur. It won’t take Gabby and I long to come up with one of those steps.’
‘Or the alchemy powered by the blood magic of phoenixes,’ Gabby said. ‘I learnt how to create a human body already. I just have to change how it’s done.’
A warm little ray of hope rose in Harry’s heart. Perfect wishes do come true. He thought of Katie’s huge grin and happy babbling as she tottered across the kitchen. I know they do.
Gabby beamed. ‘I can feel that, mon cher frere.’
‘Get out of my feelings,’ he muttered. ‘Nosey harpy.’
‘Can’t.’ She snickered. ‘And won’t. It feels nice.’
Fleur rolled her eyes. ‘She will not. No matter how much you try to stop her. She is an annoying chirpy little bird.’
‘I’m going to kidnap your little chick,’ Gabby declared. ‘You two can stay here for a bit if you want.’
‘Merci, Gabby,’ Fleur murmured. ‘Try and give Katie something new if she gets hungry, but not cake. I want her first cake to be for her first birthday.’
Which is really soon. The bottom dropped out of Harry’s stomach. It’s already nearly been a year.
‘Bien sûr!’ Gabby vanished.
‘Coming up, mon Coeur?’ Fleur asked.
Harry apparated up beside her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. ‘It feels like forever since we were last up here.’
She hummed. ‘We were struggling desperately for our dream… and now we’re nearly certain of keeping it.’
‘So close,’ he whispered, brushing her silver hair back over her ear and pressing a light kiss to her cheek. ‘Je t’aime, mon Rêve. Without you, there would be nothing.’
‘I will always be here.’ Fleur drew him into a soft kiss. ‘Me, Gabby, our baby bird as she grows up. Always.’
A hot lump welled up in his throat. ‘I can’t imagine anything that would make me happier.’ He grinned. ‘Well, maybe a—’
‘If you say veela sisters threesome I will push you out of this tree, mon Amour.’ The corner of Fleur’s mouth crooked. ‘You are mine. My shiny rock for my nest.’
A soft sigh escaped her lips as she rested her head on his shoulder and breathed in the gentle scent of the river and the willow. ‘I never really ask you about… before. I don’t need to. Only, if there’s something in particular that represents death to you…’
What’s so pretty about roses? He shivered at the memory of the red flowers and the bead of blood welling up on his fingertip. Poor Romilda.
‘I used to trim them for Petunia when I was nothing,’ he murmured. ‘And I would catch my fingers on the thorns, but it wouldn’t hurt. Not really. The pain was so far away. And I’d wonder… if it doesn’t really hurt, would it be so bad if I just kept on bleeding until I disappeared.’
Faint heat haze wavered around Fleur’s fists. ‘You are not allowed to disappear, mon Coeur.’
Harry smiled and reached across to give her fingers a gentle squeeze. ‘If you want to use roses for part of the representation, then I think it would work, yes.’
‘I used to love roses.’ Her words tickled his collarbone. ‘They meant you were loved.’
‘I bet Gabby still loves roses.’ He cupped her cheek through the cascade of her silver hair. ‘I bet she’s loved them since you decided you didn’t anymore.’
‘Of course.’ The warmth of her quiet laughter washed over his skin. ‘She is a sneaky little chick. She knew why I stopped loving them.’
Because you wanted them more than anything. And lost hope in what you wished for. Harry kissed her on the tip of her nose and pulled his hand back, slipping his wand from his sleeve and conjuring a perfect red rose.
‘Here you go, mon Rêve,’ he murmured, holding it.
Fleur admired the fluttering petals with a soft gleam in her wide blue eyes. ‘Merci, mon Amour,’ she whispered, lifting the flower up before her by its stem. ‘I will keep it safe. Forever.’
Harry’s heart lurched. ‘You can have as many as you ever want.’
A bead of red welled up on the tip of his thumb.
What’s so special about flowers? He watched the crimson swell as Fleur cupped the rose against her heart with a soft warm smile that sent his heart flopping about in his breast. This. This is what’s special.
‘You’re bleeding,’ she murmured.
‘Roses have thorns.’
Fleur held his gaze with a soft gleam in her eyes. ‘They do.’ She took his wrist and lifted his thumb to her lips, sucking the droplet of red away. ‘There, mon Amour. All better.’