It was a striking sensation to wake shed of strife. In the moment before the delicate stasis between rest and awareness dissolved beneath the ashen candlelights, Pyrrha was already pondering the basis for another approach toward the resuscitation of their parents—theirs, hers and Ashlin's, who yearned for them and deserved them like nothing else. The belated state passed by the time her eyes opened to the patter and pulse of glowing drops across the ceiling. Then the neglected sorrows recalled their element and settled back in to roost among their kindred, numb pinions fluttering between her ribs, painfully rasping stone talons finding their grooves and perches inside her hollow chest.
Nothing in the world weighed so much as her coverlet did then, or her arms—her arm lifting it away. Pyrrha had a notion of a familiar hand in hers supporting her as she rose, guiding her away from the bed and the pall of despondency that clung loving and possessive around her, like the embrace of a devoted consort. The scar faintly prickled and chased away the chill in the air.
With a soft word and gentle nudge Daisy was roused. They spoke bleary nothings in undertones while carrying out morning routines, pensive and distantly anxious, dawn's quiet grey spirit sinking into the dim-lit den in spite of its windowless isolation. Pyrrha waved her hand and the candle wicks flared into renewed life, like trembling stars signaling their twilight hours. By the bone-white glow she rummaged through the enchanted armoire for all that the day may call for. At her shoulder Ashlin glowered at the closet, and the memory of yellow eyes in the foe glass flickered. Pyrrha shut the sturdy doors.
Daisy emerged from the bathroom wrapped in a fluffy towel, golden hair dripping, and she cringed back at the threshold.
"Damn, I forgot how cold it was in here!" She scurried out to snatch her forgotten robes from her bedside and darted back in. "And what's with that light?" she called from beyond the door. "It washes the room out something awful, you know."
Far from being an annoyance, the nitpicks were a comfort in their familiarity, their normality. Pyrrha had always been divorced from normal, and obvious social conventions could escape her as a result. She had oftentimes appreciated Daisy's kindly-worded course correction. The echo of their dynamic fulfilled something in her.
A small sigh slipped from Pyrrha, and she gestured; the temperature rose and the candlelight shifted to a warmer, more natural tint.
"Any other problems?" she asked with a faint lilt of sarcastic accommodation when Daisy reemerged not a minute later, fully robed and hair done flawless.
Daisy grinned, and then it fell a little; Pyrrha's satisfaction sank with it. "There certainly are," she said heavily, "but nothing you can sort with a flick of the wrist."
The atmosphere adopted a somber weight as their minds settled back into the situation, considered the scope of all that was against them. The continuous relocation of the Lodge set them ahead of Morrigan's eternal pursuit, ahead of the dark ends of which they could only speculate; there were many fates worse than death, and any of them could be the purpose for Pyrrha's capture. It didn't matter—she didn't intend to learn firsthand.
"No," Pyrrha said quietly, "but sort them I will."
Daisy had turned the scribing chair away from the desk and settled in with her legs tucked up. She watched Pyrrha with old fondness. "I've always admired that—how you never doubt yourself, that you have it in you to do what needs to be done . . . no matter all you're up against."
Across the room Pyrrha perched upon the foot of Daisy's bed, staring down into the glossy reflected lights waving as if beneath the surface of the polished wood floor. "It's an outlook that has served me well on countless occasions . . . and on others—disastrous. But I can't approach the world any other way. To rely upon forces outside of one's own control to ensure needs are met invites disappointment at best."
"I remember your mum saying something like that," Daisy said thoughtfully.
"It was a favorite maxim of hers. 'Only count on yourself'."
Daisy giggled. "You've always been her little twin. I remember when we were kids—sometimes you'd say the same things, or react the same way at the very same instant, and then she'd laugh, and you always got all quiet and pink."
"Yes," Pyrrha said, enjoying a small warmth in her stomach, for once nothing to do with the curse. "I was afraid for your reaction, when it became clear that my parents were my closest friends."
"As if I hadn't a clue already!" Daisy said with a good-natured laugh. "You never ate at Hogwarts without a fortress of books between you and everyone else. D'you remember the look you gave me when I nearly dripped jam on that Galvanizing Charm treatise? Absolute murder."
"I . . . yes." Less welcome memories of Pyrrha's asocial behavior trickled in to dampen her mood with shame. "I apologize for how I treated you then. I still can't quite believe your resolve to badger me, though I'm glad for it . . ." The question came so naturally she wondered that she never asked before. ". . . but why? After the way I acted, what inspired you to persist?"
Daisy grinned a little uneasily, a trace of pink blotching her face and neck. "Well, actually, I—er—after that first incident in second year, I decided you were awful and I wouldn't be speaking to you if I could help it."
The encounter in question had occurred in the transfiguration classroom. Partnered up cross-house by the Professor, they had made stilted introductions, and Pyrrha had proceeded to satisfy her share of the assignment in minutes and then retreat into a book. Daisy had struggled and pelted her with questions, and Pyrrha's answers seemed only to confuse her further; at the time Pyrrha had been near certain the girl was feigning ignorance, in order to get on her nerves. The irked declaration she'd made to the teacher still echoed in the back of her mind to bring waves of shame when the memory dredged itself up.
"Go on," Pyrrha said gently; Daisy had anxiously awaited her reaction, twining her hands.
"Right, and so . . ." Daisy took a steadying breath, and her voice leveled out. "So that summer I came home and told my parents everything—quidditch and lessons and nasty teachers and new friends, the whole lot. And one of those days I mentioned you, of course, and I told Mum just what I thought about you and your attitude."
The direction of the narrative became clearer, and Pyrrha felt a brush of fondness and guilt for Mrs. Pitcher.
"I still remember the look on her face while I described you, sort of angry and let down, right? I couldn't believe she wasn't with me." Daisy leaned back to face up at the floating candles with a faraway look. "She told me I hadn't a clue who you really were or what you were feeling, that the way you presented yourself, the way you alienated people might be a defense. Anything might have happened to you to cause that deterrent behavior. She told me the only right thing to do," Daisy recited carefully, "was to show you the kindness you needed, even if I wasn't rewarded for it—especially not then."
"Wise of her," Pyrrha said. "I don't suppose she thought well of my parents."
Daisy smiled. "Not until she met them, no."
"But that doesn't explain why you attached yourself to me thereafter."
"Well," Daisy said with a tilt of her head, "after what Mum said, I was disappointed. Sad at myself, and for you, but it wasn't because I pitied you. Only being nice in passing felt like the barest minimum; I wanted to do more, be more; I wanted to actually help, to do my part to counterbalance whatever awful thing might have happened to you. So," she finished simply, "I decided to make you my friend, and let you figure it out in your own time."
Something seemed to stir inside Pyrrha, and she depressed it back into sedation. It was at once both startlingly clear and inconceivable how entirely alone she could've ended up were it not for the Pitchers. Solitude was a state from which she took great satisfaction, but there was a fair span between solitude and isolation, and it dawned anew that the good fortune bestowed on her was most undeserved.
"You remind me of another of my mother's adages; deserve what you want." Pyrrha rubbed idly at the prickling scar, feeling as if her person hoarded debt for a perverse sort of greed, without prospect for satiation. "I fail her. I can't even venture to say that I deserve all you've already afforded me, but that won't keep me from the pursuit of it. Thank you, Daisy."
Daisy's face took a familiar shape, some mixture of sympathy and exasperation, and what she would say was already rising up behind her eyes; Pyrrha headed off the fruitless assurances.
"Much as we might like to while away the day, we've things to accomplish . . ." Pyrrha stopped with her hand halfway outstretched toward the armoire, instead drawing her wand and conjuring a full-length mirror. It floated between them at an angle for both to see by. "Byron Berners," she instructed, bespelling it with a gesture.
"We do?" With a motion of her own wand Daisy set her chair drifting until it came to rest nearer. "I'd thought, with that odd woman after the harp . . ."
"I expect Wasila to yield results before sunset tomorrow," Pyrrha said. "We'll await her, but not idly. Our task today has naught to do with Morrigan."
Before Daisy could respond, the mirror's empty black surface rippled and resolved into Byron's quarters. What was on display was so orderly as if to belong to a complement of house elves; every article of furniture sat in perfect alignment at ratios that appealed to the eye. Nothing was askew. The style was modern and unpretentious in the way of one with concerns magnitudes beyond trivial decor, functional above all, with a glaring exception.
The room was set afire by a coruscating phenomenon contained within a frosted globe anchored by a sturdy silver frame in the center of the room. An alchemical reaction captured at the moment of catalyzation, the flaring and bubbling energy within the globe exhibited a beautiful array of aurora-esque colors that churned with none of the swaying grace, a spectacle of radiant volatility entrapped in glass. The light cast off by the centerpiece filtered through the vessel into steady brilliance that seemed to shine from anywhere, as if wherever one sought to look, a modest sun tucked just out of sight lit the view at the perfect angle.
Nestled in a fine leather armchair at the globe's periphery was Byron, returning their looks with wary anticipation behind his crooked spectacles. A book sat open over his knees.
"I set it stirring just an hour ago," Byron said, sounding a touch defensive. He scratched at his unruly brown hair. "I expect we're near halfway to Singapore."
"Good," Pyrrha said. "The vapors remain your priority, but I'm calling on you now for another purpose."
She paused before elaborating to evaluate his reaction. His frown deepened a shade and he shifted awkwardly, leather upholstery faintly creaking beneath him. He remained ill at ease around her; he was right to. "Might I inquire, ah—?"
"Naturally, but I'll save you the breath. I have need of your Polyjuice brew—eight hours' worth, at the least. Convey it to my quarters directly."
"Oh," Byron said, failing to conceal the relief lifting his tone. "Polyjuice? Yes, of course. I'll, erm, have it sent right over. My most refined mixture will hold a shape for ninety-three minutes per standard dose," he added, "provided that no incompatible substances are imbibed or otherwise introduced in the same timeframe, of course. I've managed to narrow the margins of body mass variance into negligibility."
"Ninety-three?" Daisy sounded impressed. Then she frowned, and Pyrrha felt her recall the expertly crafted Kindledrake trap; her tone flattened to the barest overture toward civility. "That must've taken quite a bit of work—but I imagine the results have paid off tenfold." The word results carried a hint of pointed disapproval.
Byron picked at his stubble, a tic of irritation. His voice came similarly stiff. "Not quite—not for me, at any rate. I provide for the Lodge's needs, as well as my own. Incidentally," he said more lightly, "a great friend of Pyrrha such as you should consider yourself more than welcome to approach me with any professional inquiries. I'm sure I could be of some assistance in elevating your technique to match her exacting standards."
Daisy's cheeks colored, but it seemed to mark ire more than embarrassment. "That's quite the boast, unless it's somehow escaped your steel trap of a mind that the brew takes a full moon cycle to mature."
"Short notice, of course," Byron said absently, his eyes back on the tome in his lap. "I take it she asked after your stores before putting this request to me?"
"Obviously." Daisy bit the word off, driving a glare at Byron's bowed head.
"I've not finished with you, Byron," Pyrrha said after a moment. "Close the book."
His face gave an irritated twitch as he complied, and Pyrrha felt a flicker of contentment to have nettled him as he had done Daisy; in so doing he had meant to stake claim to what little autonomy he could scavenge, even framing the demand made of him as a request. She let the phrasing pass and waited until his eyes were on hers again.
"I find myself with time to spare," Pyrrha said, "and an overdue conversation to engage in."
"Oh joy," Byron said with a sigh. Tension seemed to wire his limbs rigid despite his indifferent front.
"My sentiments precisely," Pyrrha said. "I believe I have a thorough reckoning of you, but I want to hear in your own words why you thought to stand against me."
The answer came readily as it was anemic. "You know well that I really had no other option."
His gaze wavered and darted while Pyrrha waited, maintaining an expectant look across the mirror portal. Silence crawled heavily between them, capricious as an aged beast, and Pyrrha thought for a moment to spot Hati sitting staunchly beside her and matching her penetrating stare. There was Daisy instead, brow furrowed over a complicated frown that meant disapproval mixed with sympathy; for all her displeasure toward the man she was loath to take satisfaction in Byron's intimidation. Her expression appeared as a silent plea for him to break the stalemate.
Always was Pyrrha skirting the thoughts of those around her, a practice that had gradually become second nature. Refined by the years, she could feel foreign intentions and ideas brush gently among her own like converging currents of air, like traveled breaths passing across her neck from all who shared her relative space. Her own liminal touch was lighter than air, lighter than breath, and it ghosted unnoticed among the sacrosanct dimensions of the minds that surrounded her. While she watched Byron she exerted herself that he may feel the presence that ever enveloped him; she impressed her will no further than the outskirts of his occluded consciousness, and he gave a wide-eyed wince.
"No need for that." Byron's voice cracked a little, and he cleared his throat. Pyrrha rewarded his response with a cessation of pressure. He went on after a gathering pause, face set in a reluctant grimace. "I'm afraid any explanation of mine might only be so many more words to say what I've said already; I chose the only option available to me, truly. Ask me what you like, if it'll get at the heart of this."
"There has never lived a soul with but one course of action before them, and you are not the exception." Pyrrha's words fell infused with iron, low and intense, and she felt as though her glare could melt the mirror glass dividing them. "Are you so narrow-minded that I must present you with each and every alternative you failed to consider? I haven't the time. Take into your smog-addled head the fact that every breath since your betrayal is drawn at my leave, and keep that well in mind before you think to test my patience evading explication."
"Merlin's bloody beard," Byron said, running a tremulous hand across his pale forehead. "I'm sorry, Pyrrha, alright? It's—it was—everything was normal, and then it all went to hell in a matter of minutes, there was no time to reflect—Aradia rounded us up and declared you a traitor, a madwoman and a terrorist who had set loose a monstrosity! I could hardly believe it, except—well, the look on your face after the meeting, I . . ." He shook his head a little, delivering his words toward a point past Pyrrha's shoulder. "I didn't know what to believe, frankly, but Aradia was there and you weren't. She was our overseer. Even had I thought I could've defied her edicts and live to tell about it, even if I were sure it was the right thing to do, I wouldn't have done it. I need the Cabal."
His voice hardened into a semblance of resolve at the last few words, a sort of self-affirmation apparent in his inflection. A thought was shining in his eyes, fixed and distant, but as real before him as the book in his lap. The nature of it was veiled from Pyrrha, but a sense of love and duty emanated from him in a sensation reminiscent of Ashlin's influence on her own mind. The insight did something to settle her.
Pyrrha didn't let on. Her voice still chilled the air like a mortal keen; she leaned forward into Byron's eyes, hand in her lap resting over the sundered wrist, and said, "I am the Cabal."
" . . . So you are." Byron inclined his head, wary and weary, all strain and stress throughout every movement.
"I would know my role in your ambitions."
Byron's eyes shot up to meet hers, incredulous and worried. "You mean to pry into my affairs unprompted? That's against Cabal conduct."
"I must applaud your extraordinary gall—"
"May need a hand for that," Ashlin snickered.
"—to raise any sort of protest against the very one whom you profess to need." Pyrrha quelled the old smile threatening to crack her composure, the reflex exhumed by Ashlin's irreverence. Her heart had lifted and settled in that precious moment. She went on as though it hadn't: "Codes of conduct are subject to change or dismissal at my discretion . . . I suggest you abandon your desire for privacy if you wish to remain."
Pyrrha said the last with a murky ambiguity, and she was gratified to see the alarmed wonder crossing Byron's face. Beside her she heard Daisy's robes rustling, shifting with unease in the pause that followed.
"You—is this what you wanted?" Byron's stained fingers clenched white around his book. "You called in to wrench this away from me, didn't you? Not to hear and understand my side of things."
"Don't forget the Polyjuice," Pyrrha said, sitting back with patient contentment.
"Goddamn it," Byron snapped, snatching off his glasses to rub at the dark rings under his eyes. "I'd always imagined there might be some semblance of humanity beneath that bloody blank stare of yours, but you've made it quite clear I was mistaken."
The barb merely pricked at her, a brief snag to be shrugged away. Pyrrha allowed the silence to resonate in his wake and did nothing but favor him with the look that unnerved him so. Once she would have disliked to find herself at odds with Byron, whose company she had considered rather pleasant, but such sentiments had died when his trap sprung around Daisy and herself, a devious flexion of the full extent of his abilities. He hadn't held back; neither would she.
Byron lifted his head from his hands and glared between the pair before him. "Must I broadcast my business?" he asked sourly, jerking his head toward Daisy, who sat forward with a look mingling pity and curiosity.
Pyrrha considered a moment, shook her head, then rose from her chair and strode through the mirror. The light that enveloped the room was dazzling but not blinding, not glaring; she saw with crystal clarity Byron startle backward in his chair at her entrance, saw the little beads of sweat glistening along his hairline, the bunching wrinkles in his upshot brow. The chamber smelled pleasantly of spring water and cedarwood.
"Blasted hell! How'd you—?"
"I thought I'd been clear," Pyrrha said, eyes roving the chamber, "regarding my distaste for wasted words."
Outside of the mirror's purview, bookshelves housed fine-lettered spines spelling titles for an encyclopedic range of content that comprised an indiscriminate mix of the practical and the recreational. Apart from the shelves sat expansive vitrines packed with hinged wooden cases, racks of vials, decanters, flasks, neatly sorted drawstring pouches, a tiered arrangement of hazelwood bowls filled with organic additives, and a dozen pale jars sculpted from floo ash, smooth and glossy as a fissure eel's underbelly.
The slap of a discarded book upon the nearby side table drew Pyrrha's attention back. Byron stood with the same stiff unease and shifted as if to step back, yet his heels were set against the chair behind; Pyrrha's half-step forward brought them within the scope of mutual discomfort, decidedly imbalanced in influence. Byron's taut expression remained aimed at the floor.
"Eilith tried to kill you too," Byron whispered bitterly. "More than once, and, might I add, employing rather more deliberate methods. But you've let her be."
"I have her bond." Pyrrha spoke just as quietly, though they were alone, less than an arm's length apart. The vibrant illumination of the muted chamber imparted an unearthly quality to the air between them, as if they had convened within some deafened, blinded realm displaced a step outside the bounds of reality. "I understand her. Regrettably, it seems such an accord between ourselves is further from fruition . . . yet more words that I didn't care to hear, Byron; I'm afraid you've left me with a revulsive set of options."
She drew her wand, gave it a neat backward flick and stepped aside in time to miss the gout of blood from Byron's throat. He stumbled to his hands and knees after the dripping red tongue ripped away, the appendage floating just out of reach, and there he knelt before it, gasping, gagging and retching against the font of gore that sputtered from him and drenched the carpet, coated his convulsing chest. The blood gushed with the gentle sound of water from a weak faucet.
Wet coughing and choking gasps were all the sound in the room for a calculated interval. From the vacated chair Ashlin looked on with a distaste that seemed to twist her face into a shape it wasn't meant to take. Byron shuddered and flung out one sodden hand from where it had been clamped over his mouth, lunging toward the tongue and stumbling to the floor just short, his movements already sluggish and uncoordinated. Pyrrha could almost feel the familiar cold lightness beginning to take hold, the numb panic and the deathly stupor. She watched his frantic pleading eyes and felt only a sharp irritation at what his defiance had driven her to.
There were bounds to blood loss that couldn't be crossed without risk of no return, and Pyrrha had an acute sense of their extents, but it wasn't her own life draining away this time. An upward flick and Byron was wrenched above the floor by the neck, and a prod forced his grisly jaw to gape—it gave way with a low crack. Another motion aimed with care, and he shrieked himself hoarse while smoke billowed from his throat and the sizzle of searing flesh inundated the air with rare sensations. Pyrrha's arm fell; he collapsed to the floor again where he writhed and clutched at his face, bleating ragged noises.
"Turn away, Daisy," Pyrrha called; from the corner of her eye she saw the horrified expression pressed against the mirror.
Another drunken lurch missed the riven tongue; Pyrrha had nudged it further away with a gesture. She noted with nebulous interest the futile fixation Byron's panicking mind had seized upon, as if reclaiming what he'd lost was all that would save him. His low guttural moan dragged on and escalated into an insensible roar of pain and rage.
"I'll grant you that outburst," Pyrrha said over the wet, hoarse groaning. "However, I'd much appreciate that you finally absorb the lesson I'm attempting to impart. I've made no more than the necessary inquiries, and you've responded in every which way but the correct one. I'll return your tongue," she said, setting it drifting out of reach yet again, "when you demonstrate to me that we've reached an understanding, you and I. If you're quick, I might even consent to mend it."
The distressed rasping and gurgling carried on and fell into a sort of tortured rhythm, and Byron began to gather himself. Planted on all fours, he stared at the floor and shook and shuddered, body heaving against the breadth of the pain coursing through it. With another raw groan he shoved himself upright on his knees and teetered a little. Glimmering blood coated his ashen face and slicked his neck, a few thin rivulets still trickling, trailing, winding down like lurid tears. His gaze was that of detached shock, wide and glassy; it wandered the walls and at length found Pyrrha, and then to her he nodded jerkily, crooked mouth still hanging agog to expose the blackened base of his tongue.
After some quiet contemplation, Pyrrha said, "Very well. Use it wisely; you've not yet breached the bounds of my patience, but the moment draws nearer each passing second I spend in this room."
With a series of elegant swishes and whirls Byron's restoration took effect; first came the click of the jaw bone setting itself back into place, relieving his face of its ghoulish slack-jawed grimace. Then with a faint hiss Byron's mouth emitted a dim white light as if he'd caught a starfly inside. He breathed a relieved sigh while the flickering spell ran its course, the breath tinged with a leafy scent that carried unnaturally far and faded along with the glow; the pain was sapped away, the damage undone, and his rigid posture came unwound.
A final flourish guided the tongue into its place and mended the flesh, melded it back together while Byron coughed and grunted in discomfort at the sensation. He was slick with sweat, caressing his jaw with pale hands that tremored as they probed and pressed at the set of it, and he flinched away when the congealing blood coating his person puffed into mist and subsided. Byron appeared to assess himself, mouth working experimentally, one hand sliding from his jaw down to depress the pulse at his neck while he counted in a barely audible murmur. Then he hauled himself to a stand and made unsteadily for the reading chair, collapsed into it, and turned his baleful, dazed gaze back on Pyrrha, his every breath strained and rattling.
"I . . ." Byron coughed and cleared his throat. His voice came hoarse. "My intentions haven't changed, nor has my—" he coughed again "—my arrangement with the Cabal. My assistance for yours." He broke from his jagged glare for a moment to glance at the mirror behind Pyrrha, then lowered his voice. "I'm developing a cure for the vampiric condition."
A few laborious beats of silence marked the gravity of the admission, silence weighted with the vulnerability Byron had at last exposed. Long past was the necessity for threats; Pyrrha had manifested her will, and it was beyond doubt to both of them that she wouldn't hesitate to use the knowledge wrested from Byron to devastate him, to despoil all that he hoped to preserve and protect, as his betrayal would have wrought upon her. It wouldn't come to pass; arm in arm with outrage and trauma, she could nevertheless mark the defeat in his eyes.
"Ah . . . I see. Ambitious. A cause worthy of your prodigious talents, I should think. Thank you for sharing this with me." Pyrrha disregarded his incredulous expression, turning back to draw up to the mirror. Daisy watched her bloodlessly. "I can imagine no reason that our alliance should fail to prove equal to this aspiration of yours, in good time. All I would have in return is your loyalty until the day we resurrect Aradia, whereupon I plan to abdicate in her favor."
"If Morrigan doesn't have her way with you first," Byron muttered through gritted teeth.
Pyrrha looked at him over her shoulder, and he winced. "Either way, we need not suffer each other for too long. Something to look forward to, yes?"
She motioned Daisy back without waiting for an answer, preparing to pass through the mirror again, but she stopped with the spell at the edge of her thoughts. Her pause had frozen Byron; his faint creaking shifts in the chair abruptly silenced.
"The inferi in Furnival's home." Pyrrha's tone brooked no digression.
"Oh . . . yes," Byron said, sounding stricken, strained with something apart from anger. "Yes, they were vampires. My patients . . . former patients. Didn't survive the procedures . . . I—thank you. For reclaiming them," he said when Pyrrha tilted her head. His words came a shade thicker and more precise, as if he were clinging tight to his composure. "I didn't want to debase them like that, I loathed it, but Aradia had led me to believe—they deserve better, and now I can—I can give it to them . . . I hope it's enough." The last seemed meant for himself in a whisper.
Without call for an answer Pyrrha worked the spell and passed through the mirror again, vanishing it behind her with a flick. Daisy had reclaimed the scribing chair and watched her from it grimly, curled in on herself.
"That was barbaric," Daisy said immediately.
Pyrrha left the bedroom and strode up the hall, past Nona's door, past ignited oil lamps into the strange hues of green and blue that faintly pulsed and swirled across the dark surfaces of the study, thrown by the dull radiance of the brimming vats and the neural nebula. Determined footsteps clicked doggedly from the hall behind. The muddled smells of blood and antiseptic and the subtle ozone of magic served to let the tension from her bearing; this was the refuge from which she would mend what shouldn't have broken.
Daisy battered the door open. "Did you really have to work him over like that? I know you're not such a cruel person."
There were several texts resting out of place upon one of the workbenches, plucked up and perused with intent by Daisy, judging by the fair progress through each. The evidence of her investment was oddly heartening. Pyrrha marked their pages with a charm and stacked them orderly.
"You can't just ignore me!"
"Can't I?" Pyrrha said irritably. She felt an instant stab of regret burying itself in their history.
"It's like that, is it?" Daisy said, the anticipated hurt in her voice no less painful to hear for it.
"I'm sorry." Pyrrha pressed at the burn that tingled beneath her temple. With conscious effort she turned to meet Daisy's wounded gaze. "I didn't mean that. And I certainly didn't relish Byron's treatment, but his defiance called for quelling. We can't afford subversion or dissent undermining our efforts in light of what we face."
"And torture was the best way to bring him 'round?"
"What else would you advise? That I should treat the artificer of our premature deaths with compassion and tenderness? I would do as well to invite another knife in my back."
"I don't know," Daisy said. She paced along the length of a brewing table, wringing at her hands. "Surely, though, there was another way? You heard him, he said he'd been forced into it—couldn't you have reasoned with him, got him on side?"
"You heard me, as well. It was an elusion of responsibility; there are ever countless ways in which we may choose to react. Byron is a rational man, and he made an informed, autonomous decision to throw in his lot with Aradia over myself. I can't place my trust in his reason, but I can give him good cause to reevaluate. And so I have. I don't believe he'll make the same mistake twice."
"I should bloody well hope not!" Daisy said. "Who knows what parts he might lose next time?"
"I do," Pyrrha said. Daisy gave an appalled sort of laugh and shook her head in disbelief. "I've done him no permanent harm. Put him out of your mind now; we've a delicate matter to resolve."
A cauldron appeared from nothing on the table beside Daisy. Within, a mudlike substance bubbled.
Their plan—Pyrrha's plan was a sound one, if not entirely satisfactory in scope; the interminable trend of disregard for her own wellbeing had stubbornly soldiered on despite Daisy's urging. Her excuse was that anything more convoluted than what they had devised would necessitate her direct involvement, which she had discounted as an option from the outset. Morrigan soared ever onward, never tiring, a dreadful flight that need not alight 'til the sight of its prize.
The sky above Dublin's Merrion Square Park was blessedly free of storm clouds, instead lidding the forest with a dense slate blue that Daisy wanted to pause for and appreciate, just for a moment that wouldn't be missed, but she refrained. Her eyes never strayed from the impalpable path ahead.
At the center of the park the trees were broad and towering, and they had ample room between them to stretch freely their great limbs like revelers joined hand in hand. Among the veinlike roots grew springy grass freely interspersed with wildflowers, and magically absent was any other form of more unsightly undergrowth, affording the landscape an inexplicable liberated feeling as Daisy made her way further on. Laughter rang out from some far-flung edge of the grounds: a sound that, around the liminal woodland, might have belonged to muggles or to magicals.
Light the shade of embers angled in between the trunks and branches to betray the sun as it peeked vainly into the forest from over the western horizon. The wind blew with a sound like distant ocean waves, and it carried trilling birds and their songs along on its currents and crests. A cluster of trees more dense than the rest marked the edge of the copse Daisy sought. As she drew nearer she could make out other robed forms advancing upon the grove as she was, witches and wizards closing in from every direction with the same carefree ease; Daisy wondered if the ataractic effect of the forest upon its travelers wasn't entirely natural. Perhaps it was only a flight of her imagination, a whimsy stoked by the felicitous spell Pyrrha had worked to ensure her success.
Daisy passed through the perimeter of the copse and found only further emptiness split by the smooth oaks. The thicker canopy made for better shade, but Daisy could still see green as far as her eyes would allow in the forest's interstices; the land seemed to span a far greater area than its municipal boundaries should permit. Doubt upon doubt niggled in her head and were summarily quashed while she walked directly onward, breathing deep of the lush scents permeating the air. She kept a steady pace until she spotted a pair of wizards leaning against a trunk, engaged in conversation; then she knew she'd found the area Pyrrha had described. The pair looked askance at her as she passed, and she was sure she felt their stares on her back, but she betrayed no reaction and delved further in until the gloom and huddled trees concealed her again.
Anticipation rose in Daisy's gut as she came to a halt and peered around at the forest that now seemed rather eerie in its near-featureless uniformity. No birds twittered, no leaves rustled. She chose a trunk at random—they were all spelled the same, she'd been told—and she stood opposite, wringing her sleeve for the barest few seconds before snatching her hand back, chastising herself with a muttered oath; she'd already broken, and she wasn't even inside yet. Starting off at a limp, Daisy thought. This'll go splendidly, I'm sure. Yeah, and the plan? It's not absolutely mad. Not at all.
A shake of the head dislodged her doubts. Pyrrha had been assured of her capability; Daisy had watched her face intently for signs of misgivings, but there had been nothing to see but that ever-present indomitable gaze, the look that said Pyrrha would sooner renounce all magic than surrender to anything. It was the same look she'd had while maiming Byron.
A shiver rattled Daisy. Before she could explore her disquiet much further she was spurred to action; she pressed her palm to the smooth bark of the tree, and her pale hand sank through the trunk like it was made of wet clay. She withdrew herself with little effort, wondering at the sensation, then raised her arm again and pushed herself into the trunk until it enveloped her. She couldn't breathe, couldn't move, but felt no need to do either. The magic at work felt something like apparition, yet quite different; the darkness compressed her body and smothered her senses as if she'd been interred in a quagmire, the only sound that of the throbbing pulse in her head.
The sound began to fade, and she thought she must be alarmed at that, but her body was no longer conscious of any feeling save for a vague sinking sensation. All that was left in her was a strange sense of vertigo that heightened in tandem with the ceaseless downward momentum. Down, further down, deeper down, lower. Her thoughts formed less and less coherent, more and more labored, and the last one was dawning terror setting her fading mind afire for a fleeting second, a flitting spark flickering in and then out.
Seconds or centuries escaped notice, and then Daisy's skin itched. The shock of consciousness shot her eyes open and she gasped, nearly inhaling a rough, wiry length of something curled about her face. The pungent smell of earth choked the air. She was still descending, she realized, and in her addled state she struggled fiercely and felt herself sway in response; her body was suspended. By the time she'd gathered the wits to process what she saw and felt—roots twined and tangled all around her dangling body like a day's knitting gone entirely wrong—she had been released unceremoniously onto her feet. Unprepared, she collapsed onto smooth stone tiles.
"God," Daisy breathed. She staggered to her feet and shakily brushed scattered bits of dirt from her murky viridian robes. Pyrrha had neglected to brace her for whatever had just happened in transit.
A laugh sounded from a distance aside, echoed a few times all around. "First time?" the man called.
Daisy suppressed her self-deprecating instincts and responded how she ought, attempting to regain some semblance of dignity. "One of the sharp ones, are you?" There were a couple snickers at that, but Daisy paid no further mind to the people milling about.
She'd been deposited beside a magnificent marble fountain near the center of what appeared to be an enormous grotto housing a wonder of stonework and magical flora, giving rise to the impression of an ancient garden preserved beneath the ground. A vast expanse of dirt yawned endlessly overhead as the roof of an unfathomably massive cavern. Roots protruded and hung down in gnarled bunches across every corner of the great earthen canopy—Daisy glimpsed the tangle that had conveyed her as it retracted back into the soil. Over the limestone colonnade that girded the surrounding courtyard she could see more root systems creeping upward and down from the darksome heights, some snarls bearing the robed figures of witches and wizards in their clutches.
There were plots of rich black soil perfectly interspersed throughout the courtyard, each blooming with the riotous colors and peculiar shapes of all manner of magical plants: plump and verdant bouncing bulbs bobbed merrily from their stems; the silky tendrils of flitterbloom shrubs waved and weaved gracefully as if transported from an ocean floor, vibrant lamplight sliding down to gloss their forms; striking bursts of midnight blue evinced the handsome teardrop petals of the moondew flower set prominently among the efflorescent plots. The attendant scents themselves seemed delightfully alive when Daisy breathed them in and out.
From stone benches and alcoves unfriendly eyes lingered on her face. What had been a pleasant buzz of chatter had devolved into overt muttering, uneasy shifting and shuffling, and suspicious gazes swiftly averted themselves when Daisy met with them. Such negative public scrutiny was a novel experience for her, but there were more pressing things to consider; the papers had evidently fulfilled their function admirably. The plan had been set in motion, and it was down to Daisy to guide it to fruition.
The heels of her boots clicked dully against the tile. She set a brisk pace to project an air of purpose, striding between blooming allotments and loose congregations of Ministry employees whose streams of conversation lapsed as she passed by. Lofty lampposts shined like lighthouse beacons along the smooth pathways, and by their light Daisy located an open archway in the perimeter colonnade, traversed the roofed passage, and came out to yet another breathtaking spectacle.
The stone walls and pillars of the courtyard had hidden the true extent of the grotto; Daisy was faced with a grand flagstone esplanade spanning along the banks of a massive lake. The scope of the subterranean landscape was such that it seemed to take the world above for a hollow shell formed protectively around its secret heart. More lampposts erected evenly down each edge of the walk were the sole bulwark against total blindness in the omnipresent murk. The path traced the rim of the lake and veered off to terminate at the foot of a seven-story facade of gleaming wood and iron and glass, its dozens upon dozens of windows glowing with warm light like the hollows of a bonfire.
All was quiet and fragile as melting ice. The lake seemed smooth and depthless as a mirror starved of light, yet a fleeting sound at the edge of hearing prompted a second glance as Daisy set off; faint ripples echoed across the water a fair distance from the shore. The yearning to turn back and watch a bit longer was a pleasure to ignore until she heard another sound, a series of them jumbling together, something like a cross between a bark and a dolphin's rapid-fire clicking. She longed for a glimpse of the creatures—she heard their playful splashes slapping at the water as they surfaced and submerged—but there was nothing the diversion could do to complement her task, and so the drive to proceed overruled her.
The Ministry building loomed ahead as grand and stately as Daisy had anticipated, abutting the lake and the outer edge of the cavern's walls, looking as if it had fallen right through the ground from its proper location on the surface and made a perfect landing. Banners the color of ivy hung from its face, each emblazoned with the same symbol in the center; a simple three-lobed Celtic knot woven in bronze. Roots seeped down and swept up before the building's entrance with regularity as Daisy drew nearer, going some way to explain the paucity of foot traffic along the esplanade.
Her solitude broke with a series of loud cracks. She was surrounded by raised wands. Nothing of her trepidation found its way to her face as she regarded the wizards with studied indifference, or so she hoped; her brief practice session in the mirror had often as not resulted in her appearing half-asleep.
The man directly opposite her was well-groomed and composed, making the missing right ear all the more glaring. He spoke first, voice smooth and dry as snakeskin.
"I'm pleased you've chosen to turn yourself in, Ms. Clay. You'll end up the better for it, I assure you—you need only surrender your wand peacefully to secure my goodwill, such as it may be warranted. My department has more than a few pressing questions for you."
"Howard MacLeod, I take it." A simple start to test the tenor of her voice. To Daisy's relief, it sounded properly dismissive.
"Correct. You'll forgive my manners as I'll forgive yours," he said, lowering his wand in favor of the other empty palm, "for not complying with my instructions immediately." The others surrounding her hadn't moved an inch, even in their stern expressions.
Daisy drew Pyrrha's wand gingerly by the tip and passed it over, already with the sinking feeling of being out of her depth. MacLeod's intent stare was unsettling, and she was relieved when it fell to the wand he turned this way and that in his hand. The wood was pale and slender, evenly knotted down its length, reminiscent of the hand that wielded it. Among the anxieties swirling in Daisy's head another took root seeing Pyrrha's wand in someone else's clutches, a feeling like sacrilege, twisting and churning in her chest as if she'd done something vile. MacLeod concluded his examination with a few smart waves of his own wand and nodded to himself.
"Pine and dragon heartstring, thirteen inches. Rigid. In keeping with the record," he said to the others. He slipped the wand into his robes and glanced around at his entourage, then waved them down; they lowered their arms but remained where they were. "These gentlemen will escort you inside and situate you in a private room. I'll be along shortly after, and then, if you prove agreeable, I should like to have a frank and lengthy discussion."
"I'm not here to satisfy your inquiries, Director," Daisy said, "only to distance my good name from the more newsworthy events of the past week."
MacLeod's eyes glinted. "A township's massacre by fiendfyre is an event, is it?"
The condemnation in his inflection was carefully aimed to chink Daisy's implacable armor, and it nearly succeeded in getting an indignant rise from her. After a beat she said, "A consequential occurrence, yes . . . and you might consider controlling your tone if I'm to take you seriously. Such purposeful and blatant misinterpretation doesn't portend well for the productivity of our interview."
Daisy had been around Pyrrha enough to grow accustomed to her somewhat formal and wordy speech patterns—at times so overstuffed with syllables it was a wonder the woman never ran short of breath—but the experience made the impersonation no less strange. Daisy wondered if it might come easier if she'd spent half as much time buried in old books instead of anything else.
The answering smile didn't reach MacLeod's eyes. "Perhaps that was unfair of me," he said. The propped-up expression dropped even as he jerked his head back and turned for the Ministry's gleaming edifice. "Chamber eight," he barked over his shoulder; the wizards behind prodded Daisy into step behind the Director. "With some vigor, if you don't mind."
Daisy couldn't be sure if he'd been speaking to her or her wardens, but they didn't move to handle her more directly. She kept pace with the Director all the way to the light spilling out from the marvelous entrance. Aside on the lawns, roots crept soundlessly down upon a pair of waiting witches at their word, wrapping beneath their arms and around their waists; they shifted and leaned to accommodate the process while they conversed, faltering only to glare at Daisy as she was steered around.
Their grim procession climbed the steps and emerged into a lobby that glimmered with refracted radiance everywhere she looked, from the lacquered wood floors and wall panels, pristine glass partitions and windows, to the polished iron and bronze fixtures adorning every facet of the chamber's construction. The ceiling soared high and open to grant glimpses of higher floors through the gaps in the banisters ringing the lobbyside edges, and between the slim posts there was the flutter of parchment missives and the bustling, flapping, swishing of countless robe hems and cloak tails flowing along the balconies to disappear down one hall or another. The space echoed hollowly with busy footsteps and indistinct conversations held just out of earshot.
MacLeod parted without a word, slipping through one of many office doors down an adjacent hall. The chaperones herded Daisy across the vast lobby, past the reception desk broad enough to be manned by six, and through a set of doors into another adjoining hallway lit by charmed sunrays beaming down through a steepled grid of skylights. Thus Daisy was carted with such efficiency that she hardly had moments to memorize the latest twist or turn before they had moved on. Down a wide flight of stairs and round a corner put them smack in the middle of a sweeping cubicle farm with near as much air traffic as an owlery. They edged around the outskirts, Daisy pointedly ignoring the mix of curious and rapt looks drawn by the scar on her head; one of the nearer witches called out before they reached the next doorway.
"Smythe and Tibbetts! Hell—how'd you bag that one? She hasn't been sighted since Hogwarts!"
"Turned herself in," one of the wizards at Daisy's side responded, patting her shoulder like that of a well-behaved pet. She shrugged him off. "Picked her up right outside the building."
An overweight wizard in the next cubicle snorted. "Naturally. Tibbetts couldn't catch a cold if he skated starkers up the Shannon."
"You ought to stop tormenting yourself with those kinds of images, Flannigan," Tibbetts said as he led them through an open doorway. He called over his shoulder, "For the last time, I'm married—to a woman! It'll never happen!"
An upsurge of laughter followed them out into yet another clinically bare hallway, broader than the others and set with several sturdy-looking portals. They marched down and stopped at a door with 'C8' stenciled in black on its otherwise featureless face. Daisy was shuffled inside and left behind without another word, the door slamming shut with a rush of air and a clangor like that of an impenetrable vault. The notion of being locked away was a purposeful implication, she knew, an opening tactic, but it cooled her blood despite Pyrrha's forewarning. She ambled to the oak table and chairs set down in the center and sat, drawing some comfort from the fact that she hadn't yet bungled the plan. She ticked off the steps in her head one by one, and drummed at the table with her fingers—she sat bolt upright. She'd nearly forgotten her next dose.
Darting a glance at the door, Daisy went for her robe pocket and paused to listen, but it was useless; the door was evidently soundproof, having cut off the office chatter completely upon closing. Quickly, then. The flask sloshed thickly while she fiddled with the cap that required far too many turns to open. She recalled Pyrrha's brew—a storm cloud grey that swirled and ebbed mysteriously—and frowned before downing another dose. The sharp and acrid taste of charcoal nearly made her shudder as she stowed it.
Calm enough at last to have a proper peek around, Daisy did just that, but there was hardly anything to see. The room looked much like an empty office. The pallid walls were as bare as blank parchment, the table and chairs utterly utilitarian in design, as if conjured by someone who'd had their imagination magically extracted, and the pale white wall lamps gave the whole room a spectral cast. She hadn't noticed the subtle chill until the door swung in and breathed a hint of warmth in the Director's wake.
MacLeod prowled over and sat opposite Daisy with a smile honed a touch too sharply. "Pyrrha Clay. As you surmised earlier, I am the Director of the Department of Magical Justice, Howard MacLeod. I'll be conducting this interview personally—you can imagine how important the resolution of matters like ours are to the general public. The purpose of this exercise is to determine what role, if any, you played in Leitrim's fiendfyre massacre and the attack on Hogwarts' staff. I aim to do right by those affected, and bring justice where it's due."
The spiel called for no reply, so Daisy merely waited.
MacLeod was unruffled. "Nothing? Straight into it, then. Our conversation is being monitored and transcribed. Do you understand that, and offer freely your informed consent for the practice?"
"Then please state your full name for the record."
"Pyrrha Eleanor Rhiannon Clay."
"Eldest daughter of John Clay and Aphra Slane, correct?"
"Excellent. Know that you have the right to legal counsel and may request it now or at any point throughout, though that would severely limit our options moving forward. Do you understand?"
"What 'limits' might counsel incur?"
MacLeod rubbed at his clean-shaven chin. "Put plainly, your appointed barrister would in all likelihood advise you not to speak to me at all—at which point I would be forced to formally arrest you under the evidence we've compiled, and we'd be right back where we started. I'm quite sure neither of us wants the trouble."
"You sound confident in the veracity of this evidence," Daisy said with a hint of derision. "Why not resort to arrest in the first place?"
"We have no reason to," MacLeod said simply, "as long as you're willing to hold this conversation. The ties we've uncovered between you, the fire, and the attack on Hogwarts' staff are strong but thus far only circumstantial, nonetheless. Strong enough to detain you and launch a more . . . thorough inquiry, yet . . ."
Daisy thought she'd picked up the thread; Pyrrha had already predicted the Director's predicament. The subjects of due process, false arrests and incompetence in law enforcement had become dramatically more sensitive in the wake of Voldemort's takeover, even in neighboring territories.
"Yet if you act upon faulty suspicions, particularly on such a high profile set of cases, you and your department suffer."
"Just so," MacLeod said, twitching up an eyebrow. "That in mind, would you like to request legal counsel at this time?"
"I'll manage fine without."
"Very well." MacLeod withdrew a sheaf of parchment from thin air and pored through the pages for a minute. "Pyrrha Clay . . . ten years old. Abducted in broad daylight by way of the Imperius Curse while shopping with your parents in Diagon Alley. Sold back to them after three weeks missing. I still remember my predecessor describing this case." His inscrutable eyes parted from the papers to meet hers. "He was never caught, was he? Never identified."
Daisy felt ill. Pyrrha hadn't ever gone into detail about the ordeal. "No," she whispered.
There was a pause between them in which Daisy found sharp anger needling her nerves for the fact that MacLeod had sought to exploit the trauma, to unbalance her equanimity, and he had succeeded.
"What's the condition of your sister, Ashlin?" he asked abruptly. "Where can we find her?"
A hard lump formed in Daisy's throat. "Dead," she said as shortly as possible, forcing herself to add, "burned to death in the fire."
MacLeod looked disheartened for a brief moment before sinking back into flat professionalism. "Dead . . . I'm sorry to hear that. Where are her remains?"
"Obliterated." He had to have known that already; again he'd meant to trip her up.
"The fire originated near your land in the forests of County Leitrim. Do you know anything about how it began, who conjured it?"
"Yes. We were attacked in my home by a witch; she conjured the fiendfyre that killed my sister. I barely escaped," Daisy said, turning her head to bare the scar, "as you can see."
"A witch called Morrigan?"
A startled pang struck Daisy, and she held herself from squirming. "That's right," she admitted; there was no point attempting denial if he already knew. "How did you learn that name?"
"It was the name you gave in your warnings," MacLeod said, leaning forward like a hound intent on a scent, "during firecalls to the households of Gresser and Espinosa, by their independent testimonies. Correspondence which, on the reckoning of our experts, took place a short time before the fire's ignition. You supposed ahead of time that this witch was en route, with hostile intentions for other persons as well as yourself. Tell me: if that were the state of things, why did you never contact law enforcement?"
The deadened isolation of the room honed each question to a puncturing point in the barrage that MacLeod aimed at Daisy. Circular queries begot circular explanations that obscured as much or more than they unveiled; Daisy did her damnedest to paint a credible picture of victims of cruel and random circumstance, a case that proved not at all compelling to the Director. The edge in his voice whetted itself sharper each time a repeated and rephrased question met with precisely the same unsatisfying answer. There was nothing to be gained and life to be lost in having the DMJ on Morrigan's trail, and so Daisy's focus was solely on Pyrrha's extrication for as long as she could keep it up. MacLeod had quickly tired of it.
"Describe the witch." If she exists, was the unspoken addendum.
The thought of relating Morrigan's wasted appearance on top of every other nonsensical detail was faintly amusing from an outside perspective; Daisy felt she'd be exasperated as well to be subjected to such a broken narrative. "I can't. She attacked from the dark of the forest. I only ever saw fire."
"And you didn't apparate?" MacLeod barked for the fourth time.
"We were repelled," Daisy responded for the fourth time.
"You've provided not a shred of evidence thus far for this mysterious person's existence or motives." MacLeod sat back and ran a hand across his face, hard gaze flicking to the scar and returning. "I think neither of us wants for the focus of my department's theories to take a fratricidal turn."
"No," Daisy said, returning a cold look of her own. "But it's not my responsibility to accumulate evidence and reconstruct the crime, Director, unhappily for you. Dispense with your frustrated threats, or I'll take my leave of you."
MacLeod shook his head, brows clenched down. "As I've told you, that would be to the detriment of us both, but you far more so than me; I and my department can bear a bit of bad press to get at the truth. It'd be far from the first time . . . So," he said, leaning forward on his arms again as if to pin her in place with his gaze, "you'd known quite a bit about this witch before she ever allegedly arrived at your property on the twenty-third of August. Tell me how that came to be."
MacLeod's stare twitched a bit narrower. "One would think you'd be clamoring to provide all the information you could on your sister's murderer."
Restlessness had begun to tingle along Daisy's arms and legs, but Pyrrha never fidgeted. She remained impassive and summoned up in herself the unyielding will that Pyrrha embodied.
"You presume that I want her found by your department."
"Ah." MacLeod sat back and studied her with new eyes, sharper and more critical. "I don't suppose it would deter you to know that vigilantism carries a sentence of up to twenty years toiling in the bowels of the Agon Ergastulum. Twenty years of torturous labor without the sun on your face, the wind in your hair . . . twenty years without even the briefest instant of quiet. I've had the distinct displeasure of visiting the place often enough in my tenure, as you can imagine; I can attest to the rumors. The inmates never stop howling."
A shiver crawled across Daisy's skin. Wizarding Ireland's maximum security prison—originally built by ancient Roman spellcasters to contain and exploit captives during their incursions into Celtic territories, according to Pyrrha—was right beside Azkaban on the list of places Daisy never wanted to see the inside of. Though she knew Pyrrha would tear the government and its infrastructure to ribbons to keep her out of prison, even the suggestion of her incarceration was disquieting, not least because she felt more and more as if she might deserve it. Byron's slack grimace flashed in front of her eyes. He'd looked to her for help, and she'd watched.
"It needn't come to that, though," MacLeod said, misreading her expression. "If you can find it in yourself to put aside the idea of personal revenge and cooperate with us, I'm sure we can—"
The door swung open and shut to admit a dark-haired witch of imperious bearing. Her features were arrestive, iconic, like that of a reverently crafted idol born into irony for inspiring only envy in the hearts of all beholders. Polished stone eyes shifted from Daisy to the scar, and finally onto MacLeod, who looked back with an expression torn between astonishment and annoyance.
"Rude of you to start without me," she said. Her accent wasn't thick enough to mar the low melody of her voice, like the lulling hum of some bewitching predator. "Have you forgotten? We were to investigate our terrorist together. This is the meaning of 'joint operation'. Or do you find your Minister that easy to disregard?"
"Despite your repeated assertions," MacLeod ground out, "as yet there's nothing linking Pyrrha Clay to your incident with the giants—"
"Bah! My findings hold the same weight as yours, and yet her face is plastered over posters and papers clear across your country. Do not insult me further by pretending—poorly—that this," she said, flicking a hand at Daisy, "was not a juvenile attempt to exclude my government."
"Introductions would seem to be in order," Daisy said, clasping the stump beneath the table to keep herself still. The blunted end, smooth and deformed and deficient, gave her a disturbed thrill of secondhand pain.
"Would they?" The witch's eyes burned into Daisy's. She conjured a high stool and sat halfway on, perching beside the table so as to loom a little even over Pyrrha's stature. "I have the distinct impression we have met once before."
"Ms. Clay, this is Rosalind Baranov of Russia's FS3, Motherland Security branch. I hadn't meant for you two to make acquaintance quite so soon," MacLeod said, pressing white-knuckled hands over the spread of parchment before him; he looked disturbed enough to be considering a sudden shift of the table to dislodge Baranov's stately frame. "If at all. It seems someone within my department has elected to abet a foreign witch hunt. We'll have a full sweep for anomalous influence completed before this interview's conclusion," he said, eyes momentarily flicking toward the bare wall opposite the door. "And a thorough personnel audit straight after."
"I expect it will bear much the same fruit as your last several such attempts," Baranov said without turning from Daisy. "But let us postpone this pissing contest. Bring me up to speed, will you?"
"Outside." MacLeod gathered his papers and led the way through a door that hadn't been there a moment ago, set in the blank wall he'd glanced at; it vanished again when Baranov shut it behind her with a parting glare.
The situation seemed to mutate with a new complication every minute—that was how it felt in Daisy's racing heart, but really, nothing about the plan had changed apart from the preceding ordeal. Pyrrha had mentioned the FS3 only in passing, evidently not as concerned as she ought to have been, and now Daisy was in for double the pressure bearing down on her. She found she missed the feel of Pyrrha's wand in her hand, pernicious and empowering in a way that was nearly intrusive, akin to wielding a thirsty dagger in a parlor teeming with tender throats.
It was clear MacLeod had been beating around the bush to some extent, seeking to apply enough pressure to tease out any sort of inconsistency or contradiction in her story and then capitalize on it to fluster her, goad her into greater missteps. But Daisy gained nothing from allowing the interrogation to drag. She huffed and stared into the table's smooth grain, tracing the winding age lines and rings with her eyes, and as the seconds ticked by restlessness roused itself in her body again. The solution it thrust up before her was immediate and selfishly inclined, yet, she was surprised to find, straightforwardly effective in theory.
The chair scraped a little against the floor as she straightened her posture and aimed her impatience first at the blank illusory wall, then pointedly at the exit. As she'd not been formally arrested, the door was in all likelihood unlocked and waiting for her to effectuate her earlier threat, heedless of the appropriated wand; of course, she hadn't a real hope of quitting the building unmolested. No reaction from beyond the wall was forthcoming, the close chamber still and silent as a breathless wake. The sturdy door bore her blatant gaze for a minute counted under her breath, and then another.
For a beat she stalled, half-expecting a reaction, and on being disappointed she emulated Pyrrha's economical stride to cross the room and seize upon the door handle, which clunked and turned at her will. To Daisy's faint disappointment the portal's heft precluded any notion of dramatic flinging.
"Something urgent, Ms. Clay?" She turned back at MacLeod's dry voice. He emerged and reclaimed his chair, Baranov sweeping in at his heels. His stare was expectant.
"I value my time."
"And I, mine . . . so I will strike at the heart of the matter." Baranov stalked around the table to stand opposite Daisy, tense and coiled, seeming poised to react in an instant. "Who are you really—and why have you come here wearing the face of Pyrrha Clay?"
A thrill jolted from Daisy's neck down her spine. "Explain yourself," she said flatly, her heart tumbling.
"You were observed," MacLeod said, tilting his head at the charmed wall, "taking a dose of Polyjuice Potion. You withstood the natural urge to shiver quite admirably. However, under sufficiently diligent attention, one can't hope to conceal the characteristic fluctuation of the flesh, fleeting though it may be."
Daisy crossed her arms to forestall their trembling, and she regarded the pair with a cutting distaste. " . . . You deliberately interrogated an impostor."
"It's worthwhile to know what someone's willing to share with an accomplice," MacLeod said, "even if every last word is a lie." He shot Baranov an irritated look.
The still air was tense and charged between them, strained with impending action, for all that Daisy was without a wand, hopeless to resist. Baranov had her own wand out, eyes narrowed and probing, as if Daisy might suddenly produce a fistful of instant darkness powder and take off running. The Director watched her with equal intensity. In plain view the marred side of his head displayed a stretch of unmarked skin where an ear or its hole should've been, eerily smooth and doll-like. His wand lay inches from his clasped hands upon the table.
Daisy was caught. The thought caught her breath in turn.
Her mouth was bone dry. "And now?"
Baranov cast so quickly there wasn't time to flinch. "Revelio!"
Every inch of Daisy's flesh itched and bubbled as if she'd fallen into a vat of Famke's Facial Effacer. She could only look down at her body's willowy frame shrinking, ashen skin reclaiming a healthy olive tint, the stump of her wrist sprouting up her hand as if it were a glove being turned right side out. Faint silvery-pink scars, nicks and burns traced themselves back across her knuckles and fingers like the etchings and blots of a slipshod quill. When she raised her eyes to meet Baranov's statuary stare again, she found she was no longer the taller.
Reacting far too late, Daisy tried the door again, the sleeves of Pyrrha's robes falling past her hands to slip up her palms on the metal handle. She fumbled and strained and the mechanism gave not an inch.
"Whatever sort of game you were attempting to play here, you have lost." Baranov sounded at once victorious and livid. "Now you are under arrest. Sit back down and answer our questions—I will know a lie—and you may yet dare hope to leave this room without the promise of a swift execution."
MacLeod made a sharp tsk of reproach. "That will be the Tribunal's call to make, Ms. Baranov, as she was apprehended within our jurisdiction."
He went on to read the rights of the accused directly into the roaring void of Daisy's head. The room felt set adrift on an axis as she shuffled, unsteady and stumbling over her robe hem, toward the empty chair that seemed to glide away as she made to edge nearer. Pulse after pulse railed against her ribs and swelled in her skull until she'd stopped seeing what her eyes aimed at, and all thought was only for not drowning on the air her lungs forced inside. She sat, or her legs gave up, and she watched MacLeod speak at her with his brow creased in a stern and probing sort of concern, and the calm noises from his mouth started to repeat themselves, beating their way into her head until they registered.
"Do you understand your rights and recourses as I've outlined them?"
"I—yes," Daisy said. "And I have . . . nothing more to say."
The words seemed to flare up from her burning lungs to become a breathless hiss, like sparks out of throbbing embers, and the feeling that stole her breath and drained her impetus and emptied her thoughts wasn't dread, or terror, or madness: it was not even desperate fury that set her limbs shivering with adrenaline spilling down from the flooding well of her brain.
"We will discover what we need to about you with or without your cooperation," Baranov said, pacing nearer to press her palms to the table and level her piercing eyes to Daisy's. "The fate that awaits you if you choose not to speak has already been clearly defined. You do not want it—no one would. But not everyone has this chance to escape it." She peered into Daisy's face for something she failed to find, lips drawing thin. "Begin with your name."
What engulfed Daisy then was exhilaration.
"Ah . . . no need." MacLeod's expression went nearly slack with surprise; he plucked up his wand and appeared to consider, then performed a complex twirl that engendered a sourceless emotional pall which abated when the spell did. His eyes widened further. "I recognize this woman—her name is Daisy Pitcher."
Baranov straightened and frowned down at her. "The missing professor of your Hogwarts? She was presumed dead."
"She was, but as we can see, she's quite alive." MacLeod turned his disquieted gaze up to Baranov. "And she's under the Imperius Curse."