Chapter 7: Blood in the Water
The knock on the door came shortly after six o'clock. McGonagall and Ira were still hard at work in the kitchen but had pulled Ron away from guarding the front door in order to work on dinner. He was not happy with the distraction but couldn't argue with them. When the anxiously anticipated knock finally came, he dropped his ladle into the stewpot and practically ran for the front door.
"I'll get it!" he said before either woman could so much as look up.
As the kitchen door swung shut behind him, he flicked his wand into his hand. He slowed down as he approached the front door, moving silently. Quietly he cast a charm on the door and for just a few seconds it became transparent.
It was not McGunny. Could this be the puppeteer?
Ron's heart leaped into his throat. His hand tightened around his wand.
There was another knock.
Stiffening his spine, Ron answered the door with his wand clearly visible and pointed at the unknown visitor. The man blinked at the wand, then looked up at the young wizard curiously.
"Well, this isn't the friendliest greeting I've ever had, but it certainly isn't the worst either," the man said conversationally.
"Who are you and what do you want?" Ron said bluntly. "Potter isn't here."
The man shrugged.
"I am aware of that. At least I know I have the right address. Is Mrs. Ira Snape available?"
Now Ron felt a moment of uncertainty.
"Sentinel Inspector Amelon, at your service. I would show you my badge if I didn't think you'd curse me before I reached it. And you are?"
Ron gave him a horrified look which was followed by a very flustered, "S-sorry! I'll go get her. Just… uh… wait here a minute!"
The door was promptly shut in the man's face. Ron flinched and slapped himself in the forehead as soon as he had done it. No helping it now, he decided, and hurried back to the kitchen to find Ira. He found her levitating his forgotten ladle out of the stew pot and into the sink and told her about their guest.
She made a heavily put-upon sigh.
"That man again. Will we ever be done with him? Here, Mr. Weasley, pepper and salt this and then let it simmer. I might be a while. Minerva, help yourself. There's no point in being formal about it."
Ira didn't find Amelon in the front room as she had expected, and she made a mental note to lecture her young 'assistant' about the proper way to receive a guest when she found the man still standing on her stoop. At least he looked more amused than insulted, but then again he had looked the exact same way any time she could remember seeing him. It was perhaps the reason she disliked him although he had given her no personal insult. Anyone who was perpetually amused by the world was in turn condescending to it and everyone else in it.
"Inspector," she greeted, opening the door wider to let him in. "What brings you by at this hour?"
"My apologies for the lateness, but it couldn't be helped. I was chasing down a new lead on the case, and I hadn't the opportunity to come any earlier and yet I didn't dare put it off 'til tomorrow."
"A new lead? Does this mean you've had some luck finding poor Miss Granger?" she asked, unsure of whether she should be pleased by the notion or not. The idea of Severus' goddaughter being arrested was an awful one, but the absence of any word from her was distressing in and of itself.
But he merely shook his head.
"No, I'm afraid not. This is a lead in a different direction."
"You have another suspect? Aside from my husband, I mean?" she said with just a touch of venom. She had not forgotten the distasteful suggestions he had made at Malfoy Manor shortly after that terrible night. He gave her a rueful smile that looked anything but sincere.
"My apologies, Mrs. Snape. I have been repeatedly assured of Professor Snape's good character from a myriad of sources and regret my insinuations."
She gave him a non-committal reply and urged him to get to the point. She didn't want to drag this out longer than necessary. They moved to the living room where Ira took her husband's usual chair and the investigator sat himself across from her on the loveseat.
"I wanted to talk to you about that night at Lucius' party again."
"I can't think of what else I could tell you. I told you everything I could remember that night, and I am afraid my memory of the evening is fading. My only clear recollection is of Harry's fall itself. I think that memory will haunt me for the rest of my life."
Even as she said it, the images rose up in her mind and her heart began to race in remembered horror. Her palms began to sweat, and the wet feeling reminded her of Harry's blood running through her fingers. There had been other horrors since then, considerably more gruesome and grander in scale, but it had done nothing to dim her first true experience with violent death.
"I wish I could let that ghost lie," Amelon said, not without sympathy, "but I am afraid I have to resurrect it just this once."
She took a deep breath to compose herself and nodded.
"So be it. Ask your questions."
He promptly took out his notepad and quill from his pocket.
"Would you please tell me again everything you can remember from that night, paying special attention to any observations you made regarding Lucius Malfoy, Bartimus Crouch, Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Reginald Stratus?"
"Reginald Stratus? Is that your new suspect?" she said, disbelieving. She had not interacted much with the man directly, but from what she had seen of him she thought of him as a perfect gentleman. Her husband had thought him too soft and simple to be a worthy fiancé of his goddaughter, but she rather suspected that Snape wouldn't have approved of anyone vying for Hermione's hand. He hadn't seemed to think the man too soft or simple to protect Harry during his various excursions after the final battle at Hogwarts, and she could quite clearly recall him hovering with genuine protectiveness beside his young charge as he walked him to or from Snape cottage. Surely Amelon didn't suspect such an earnest man of something nefarious?
"I hope you aren't just randomly accusing people until something sticks; or do you actually have some evidence this time?" she said.
He gave her the same disingenuous smile of contrition.
"You misinterpret the situation, my dear. I do not accuse Captain Stratus of anything. Quite the contrary, I suspect he may be yet another victim."
"What do you mean?"
"I would really rather you go over your account first. I wouldn't want what I say to influence your recollections."
She felt an intense urge to hurl something at him but politely refrained.
She did her best to recall the events of that night, but even after only a few months, her memory was not very clear of all that had happened. She had a general idea of the evening's events, but conversations and faces had become muddled. In regards to Stratus specifically, she could recall very little except that he had been with Lucius for much of the evening, more by Lucius' inclination than his own, it seemed, but had escaped when the Dark Lord had summoned his Death Eaters to the parlor. The Dark Lord had sent her to look after Harry, but Harry hadn't been in the ballroom. She had left the ballroom and had run into Stratus along the way, and then it had been the scene at the top of the stairs that had ended so disastrously.
"So you and Stratus arrived at the same time? You didn't arrive and find him there? You are sure?"
"I'm positive about that much, at least. We both ran into each other just inside the ballroom. He was looking for Lucius and I for Harry, and we both had the same idea to ask one of the house elves for assistance. We heard Harry cry out and ran to find Lord Malfoy twisting his arm behind his back. Then… then… oh you know what happened then. I couldn't tell you what all happened after that, to Stratus or Lucius or anyone other than Harry, I was so caught up in trying to help him."
A shiver ran up her spine as she recalled it.
"Do you recall Stratus speaking to anyone or being spoken to any time between having left the balcony and your leaving the ballroom together?"
"Not that I recall, but he must have since Lord Malfoy had ordered him to help round up some of the old death eaters to meet in the parlor."
Amelon nodded absently.
"Did he say why he was looking for Lucius? Shouldn't he have looked in the parlor if that was where they were meeting?"
"Perhaps he did and didn't find him there. I couldn't say, and I didn't have a reason to question him about it."
"Do you remember what he did after the wards were de-activated?"
"I can't say I paid him any attention afterwards. The medi-wizards came and took Harry to the hospital, and Severus took me home long enough to take a shower and change, then we followed after him. I don't think I saw Stratus again until we brought Harry back to Malfoy Manor to rest in one of the guest suites. Severus wanted to have Harry close by while looking after Draco and Narcissa, and the Dark Lord practically insisted on it."
"And what were the circumstances of your next meeting?" Amelon asked with genuine curiosity.
"I can't say that we met again until the final battle at Hogwarts, or rather, afterward. He and his squadron helped evacuate the castle. After that, he came by the cottage a couple of times to drop off or pick up Harry. He is in charge of Harry's security while on government business, I believe."
"And does Lord Potter get along with him?"
"Harry's never talked about him as far as I know," she said uncertainly. "Is… is Captain Stratus a danger to Harry?"
"No, no, nothing like that," he said but didn't elaborate. "Do you know if Lord Potter knew Captain Stratus before the Christmas Ball?"
"I don't know, but Harry meets so many people he never talks about. He probably has, but I don't know for sure."
"He's a teenage boy, of course he's secretive," Ira said with some amusement, but added more soberly, "But mostly, I think he just doesn't like to talk about things to people unless they're already involved. Severus would certainly know more about Harry's relationship with Stratus, if there even is one. They're thick as thieves in some ways."
"And how does your husband get along with Stratus?"
She told him her husband didn't care for him one way or the other, even if he was somewhat annoyed with his betrothal to Hermione. How long had her husband known Stratus? Where did they meet and under what circumstances? Did he ever talk about Stratus, specifically Stratus' relationship to Lucius Malfoy or Bellatrix Lestrange? Did she know Bellatrix Lestrange? Had Lestrange ever talked to her about Stratus? What were her impressions of Stratus? Did she know anyone else who knew him?
She answered these questions with non-answers, since she herself didn't know anything for certain, and with a quickly diminishing patience, until finally she would answer no more.
"Please tell me what is going on, Inspector! You said you don't suspect Captain Stratus of wrong-doing, and that he might be some sort of victim," she insisted.
"Ah, yes, that. You are aware, of course, that Lord Malfoy was killed by Mister Crouch while the man was under the Imperius Curse?"
"There is a possibility Stratus was similarly under Imperius Curse either before or during the murder as well."
"What? Who would… who could have… you can't Imperius two people at once!" she said.
"Which would mean accomplices, and that would make the murder a conspiracy. Nasty business all around. I ask you to not share this information with anyone. I am only telling you because—"
There was sudden knock on the door. Ira jumped in her seat. The both of them turned to look at the door. Another knock.
"Are you expecting someone else?" he asked.
The kitchen door banged open, causing them both to jump in their seats this time, and Ron Weasley hurried past the living room in his trek to answer the door, his wand once again out and at the ready. They watched curiously as the boy cast a transparency spell on door before answering, revealing their latest caller. It was a young man, not much older than Ron himself, dressed in a clean but somewhat shabby set of robes looking around absent-mindedly. Ira didn't recognize him.
Ron opened the door and greeted the boy with a "Petrificus Totalus!"
"Mr. Weasley, that is not how you answer the door!" Ira shrieked in alarm.
It was already too late. Their new guest had already stiffened and tipped forward into the open doorway and onto the floor. Amelon sat watching the scene play out and felt oddly grateful suddenly about his own welcoming.
Ira was quickly on her feet and hurrying to the thwart any further assault attempts by her obviously insane assistant, but he was too busy looking outside for any more potential victims to bother with the one on the floor. McGonagall appeared from the kitchen a moment later, attracted by the ruckus.
"Good heavens, what is this all about?" she asked, hurrying to assist Ira in righting young man on the floor.
"Don't un-petrify him yet, Professor!" Ron said as he returned inside and shut the door. "I can explain."
"You certainly had better!" Ira said angrily as she and McGonagall carried their charge to the living room and set him leaning somewhat awkwardly against the loveseat Amelon had quickly vacated. Ron was on him an instant later, looking through his pockets and patting him down. Ira turned to McGonagall, expecting the venerable witch to have thing or two to say to the boy, but the elder woman wasn't paying Ron any attention at all. She was looking at the stranger with a look of utter disbelief.
"Horace McGunny?" she whispered and slowly moved away to collapse into the chair Ira had been sitting in.
"Minvera, what is it? You know this person? Oh for the love of…! Finitum incantatem"'
Ron, who had still been searching his pockets for a weapon, leaped back and drew his wand as if expecting the now free McGunny to fly out at him. McGunny did nothing of the sort. Collapsing into the cushions of the couch, he let out a pitiful groan and rubbed his forehead where it had smacked the floor.
"That hurt!" he objected. "Why did you do that? I knocked!"
"I would certainly like to know that myself," Ira said pointedly, and then more gently to the injured party, "I'm so sorry. Are you alright? Do you need a pain potion?"
The poor young man looked terribly confused, Ron was still being a crazed lunatic, pointing his wand threateningly at him, McGonagall just continued to stare as if she had seen a ghost, and Amelon was sitting in his chair and watching the scene play out as if watching the latest theatre house drama.
"Is Harry here?" the young man asked.
"No, dear, Harry isn't here right now. Are you a friend of his? Mr. Weasley, put down your wand! What is wrong with you?"
"Don't trust him, Mrs. Snape, he's under Imperius!"
"What?" Ira and McGonagall said simultaneously. Amelon leaned forward his in chair.
"Am not," McGunny protested childishly.
Ron explained to them the specifics of McGunny's previous visit, his strange and uncharacteristic behavior, his conclusion that he was under Imperius, his failed attempt to follow the elder boy back to his curser, and his waiting for his reappearance.
"You're mad," Ira said bluntly. The young wizard snorted.
"I knew you'd say that, so I didn't tell you. You don't take this sort of thing seriously enough, Mrs. Snape. That's why your husband told me to look after you while he was away."
She bristled at the implications of her perceived helplessness and was just about ready to order him out of her house, but McGonagall came unexpectedly to his defense.
"I am afraid, Ira, that at least in this case, Mr. Weasley may indeed have the right of it. What do you think, Mr. McGunny?"
McGunny, who had been sitting quietly through all of this, stared at her blankly for a moment, and then tilted his head.
"I'm not under Imperius. I just need to talk to Harry."
"A fixation on an idea or person, the most obvious sign of the Imperius curse. Why do you need to speak with him?"
"So I'll remember."
"What do you need to remember?"
"I don't know. Thinking about him helps me remember things. I remember you're Professor McGonagall, but I only remember that because you teach at Hogwarts, and I only remember Hogwarts because that is where Harry goes to school, and I only remember Harry because… because…. "
Watching the young wizard grope for what he trying to say was painful to watch. He looked lost, grief stricken, not because of the loss of a person or a thing but because of a loss of self. He looked around the room, at their faces, at his clenched fists, seeking out answers that couldn't be found there and ultimately collapsing into himself in frustration at his failure.
"It's alright, Mr. McGunny, don't fret," McGonagall said gently, coming to sit down next to him. "Here's a different question, and you can take as much time as you need to answer it. Where have you been for the last two years?"
Snape blinked and found himself tied to a chair. The alleyway was gone. His wand was similarly absent. Viktor remained. He loomed over him, his dark features and brooding expression making him look older than the child he was. Or perhaps it was only because he was a vampire now. He realized this alarming and incongruous fact within seconds of realizing he had been Mesmerized. Snape spared only a brief moment to wonder how the sulky teenager he had known from three years ago had become a vampire. Three years, he supposed, was plenty of time for such a thing to happen. Truthfully, it wasn't important at the moment.
What was important was that he had been taken prisoner once again and appeared to be in an underground catacomb. There were torches burning along the wall, illuminating hundreds of skulls leering out at him from little cubbyholes built straight into the wall. There were a dozen vampires scattered around the small room, their bone-white faces barely distinguishable from the crypt's rightful residents. Directly in front of him stood Viktor. He glowered at the boy, but carefully kept his eyes focused on his broad forehead.
"How tedious," he said, feigning boredom. "So who is your master now, Krum? Dumbledore or Clarion?"
A vampiress hissed angrily, taking a step forward, but Viktor lifted his hand and she hesitated. Snape watched curiously as she sheathed her fangs and stepped back. The boy vampire did not turn to acknowledge her, his expression never wavering as he continued to stare down at his captive. After a moment, Viktor moved, circling him once, predatorily, before stopping to crouch down to Snape's left. The wizard tensed as he felt the vampire lean in close to whisper into his ear, as if no one else there could hear them easily.
"Vhy are you here, Professor? Vat errand does your master have you on?"
Snape smiled mockingly out into the room, still careful to look no one in the eye, especially not Viktor, not even out of the corner of his sight.
"Errand? I'm not on an errand. I'm sight-seeing. Since Dumbledore helped blow up my school, I've found I have an abundance of free time."
The room went quiet. Snape let his eyes fall shut, purposefully relaxing his body in preparation for the coming blow. It came as vicious tug on his hair and harsh bite to his neck. There was a moment of shock, followed by the primitive panic of being savaged by a predator. Snape struggled to control his fear, his body, but his mind was thrown back to his youth when the cruel joke of his adolescent rivals had put him within inches of death by fangs and claws. This was simultaneously worse and better. There was no fear of the hunted. The hunt was long over, now there was only the agony of the end.
Viktor pulled away, and Snape felt his blood warm and wet against his skin, soaking into the torn collar of his robes. He felt dizzy and breathless. Had the carotid artery been cut? Was he bleeding out? He couldn't remember if he had screamed or not, but he wanted to scream now. He hadn't the strength to try.
"That vill not kill you," Viktor said into his ear again. "I just vant you to understand that I will kill you if I have to."
Snape mustered his courage and sneered between his gasps for air.
"I've never doubted your capacity for murder, Krum."
There was another moment of tense silence, and Snape closed his eyes again in preparation for another attack, but Viktor merely stood and moved away. The room instantly felt colder.
"Nor I yours, Professor. I am, however, vondering if you have any boundaries you vill not cross. You've come a very long vay and to a very dangerous place. How desperate is your master for his quarry? Vat vill you do ven you find them?"
Snape almost rolled his eyes. What did Viktor think he was going to do? Sit Dumbledore down and reminisce about the 'good old days'? Why was Viktor even talking to him? There had to be those more skilled at interrogation in Clarion's coven, and this was not the basement he had originally been brought to. Something felt off about the whole thing. Had Viktor taken him from Clarion without the vampire's knowledge? Why? Was Viktor, despite having been turned, still under Dumbledore's influence? But how? Everyone knew once a person became a vampire, their Master was their sole priority, regardless of whatever ties they may have had as mortals.
He felt light-headed and slow from blood loss. If only Viktor had just punched him, then perhaps he could have remained clear headed enough to figure out what was happening.
"I can make you tell me," Viktor said when Snape remained silent. "I could have made you tell me in that alleyway if I had vanted to. Just a little trick of the mind. I am very good at it. I have servants who are even better at it here in this room."
Servants? Viktor was a Master?
"But it vill destroy you. Not kill you, but… for a man who values his mind as much as you, it might be vorse."
Snape felt the first true inklings of fear. Viktor was cleverer than he had given him credit for. Snape had been tortured several times throughout his life, but it had been mostly physical torments. He had lost all sense of physical vanity early in life, but his mind was a different matter altogether. His quick wits and mental discipline had seen him through times of war and peace. They were essential to his character and to his survival. Losing his mind would be far worse than losing a limb.
"And if I answer your questions? Then what is my alternative? A quick death?"
"I vill vipe your memory and let you go. Aside from some disorientation, your mind should remain intact."
"How merciful of you, especially given how intent Clarion was on my torture and death," Snape scoffed. "I don't think you have any authority to be making deals. Let Clarion make that promise to me in person."
Not that he would believe Clarion any more than he would Viktor, but it would buy him some time. He needed time to figure out a plan, to create an opportunity to escape.
"Clarion has no authority over me or mine," Viktor said without hesitation or inflection. At first, the words didn't register with Snape. They sounded like nonsensical boasting. But when they sunk in he turned sharply to Viktor. He met the boy's cold crimson eyes, so like Voldemort's in their own way, absolute and uncompromising. Completely honest about the truths you didn't want to know.
"I am my own Master," the vampire repeated. "On my vord and honor, I vill not harm you if you tell me how close the Dark Lord has come to finding her."
Merlin, this was about Hermione.
Snape felt another wave of light headedness, but this time it was elation. Viktor wasn't here to protect Dumbledore or Clarion. Viktor was a soppy moron worried about his old flame. It was a struggle not to burst out into laughter, and an even greater feat not to let any of his amusement show in his face. He could use this. He could use this in so many ways.
"He doesn't know anything."
Viktor's lips drew back in snarl, and Snape flinched back instinctively as the vampire moved towards him again.
"Potter!" he shouted.
He heard the audible click of teeth snapping shut, and a cold breath of air against his still bleeding neck. Viktor pulled back.
"Potter sent me. He told me she was in Paris, and how to get in contact with her. He helped her escape to Paris in the first place."
The vampire gave him a considering look. Perhaps Viktor knew that or perhaps he didn't, but either way Snape knew the best way to sell a lie was to mix in just enough of the truth.
"And vy vould he tell you dat?"
"He knows I would protect her. She's my goddaughter."
Here Viktor looked more skeptical, which meant love hadn't turned him into a complete fool.
"And he was desperate," Snape added to further sell the lie to come.
"And vy was that?"
"He needed someone to warn her, to find another place for her to hide. She's in grave danger."
Viktor stiffened. Snape could practically smell the machismo wafting off of him at the thought of his damsel in distress.
Draco woke in the middle of the night and was too well rested already to even attempt to go back to sleep. Natalie had made him nap through much of the afternoon, and Robert had been insistent on finishing their business early enough for him to get to bed at a reasonable hour. It had felt wonderful at the time, but now he was awake, alone, and with nothing to do. After weeks of being overwhelmed with matters requiring his attention, he felt strangely uneasy, perhaps even guilty for his sudden idleness.
So he climbed out of bed and put on his dressing robe and slippers. He would go to the kitchen and have a house elf make him something. When there were no alternatives, the house elves weren't bad company. They weren't much for intelligent conversation, but they had plenty of stories to tell. There were elves in the manor who had served his great-great-great-grandparents, and if he expressed an interest, they delighted in telling him about his ancestors. Not the grandiose sort of things his father told him about, but funny little tales and personality quirks about them. Like how his great-unle Cetus's hair had turned from black to white when he performed his first bit of accidental magic, or how his great-aunt Amaryllis had kept nearly forty ravens as familiars, or how his own father had gotten lost in the manor for nearly three days when he was five and refused any help to find his way.
When he was about seven or so, he had told his father one of these little stories, he couldn't remember which one now, and he was soon made to regret it. His father had called him a liar and scolded him for making up such nonsense about his forbears. The telling off had been so savage that Draco had started to cry and that had only made his father angrier. His father had taken him by his arms and shaken him. He had hurt him.
It was the first time he ever felt hatred.
The memory was an unpleasant one to have while wandering the halls in the dark with the oppressive emptiness of the manor closing in on him. The place had a feeling of ghosts about it that night, and he half expected to see his father's spirit when he reached the staircase.
He didn't, of course.
No ghosts haunted Malfoy Manor. It would be too undignified.
But there was someone at the stairs, and the sight of her was so shocking that Draco may as well have seen a demon.
His mother stood in quiet contemplation, dressed in one of her finest day dresses, deep green damask and black lace, and black silk gloves and boots with heels so tall and narrow they could be counted as lethal weapons. She was dressed as if she were on her way out for an afternoon of shopping or visiting her society 'friends', but she wore no makeup and her hair was left undone. The incongruity made her seem gently mad, like poor Ophelia in Hamlet, looking down into the stream she would soon leap into and seeing… what?
"Mother," he said softly, as if afraid to wake her.
She didn't move for a moment, did not seem to sense him at all, but slowly she turned from looking down the stairs to face him. Draco expected to see some evidence of her insanity in her eyes, a dreaminess or a mania, but her eyes were as they had always been. Shrewd and deep and ever so slightly pleased to see him. Had she suddenly returned to sanity? Simply snapped out of it? Such things had been known to happen, but he was too terrified to hope. He wanted his mother back, back to the way she had been, brilliant and strong and prideful, but if this was all simply an illusion, he would die. Or he would murder. He didn't know which.
"Hello, darling," she said. "You're up late. Or is it early?"
She sounded so reasonable.
"So are you," he said, but it came out stilted and rough with sleep.
"I don't sleep well these days. It feels so lonely here without your father."
He stared at her. Was she… was she acknowledging her husband was dead or was this just another facet of the delusion she fostered that Lucius was busy leading the army? He couldn't think of what to say, couldn't bring himself to say anything and shatter the illusion that she was once again herself.
She smiled at him, tired and sad. Slowly, she moved towards him until she was standing before him.
"We haven't talked in a while," she said. "Talk to me, Draco."
"I miss him too," he said without thinking and felt the emotion catch in his throat. He paused, swallowing down the feeling that welled up with the words. He missed his father terribly. He missed his mother. He missed Hermione. And he resented that they had all left him in one way or another.
"Walk with me," she said. "We'll keep each other company for a little while."
So he hooked his arm in hers, startled by the frailty of her slender arm and that he was an inch or two taller than her despite her ridiculous heels. He expected to look into her face and find an old woman staring back at him, but while her skin was pale and her eyes shadowed, she still looked strangely lovely.
They walked down the stairs and into the west wing of the mansion, a rarely used portion of the mansion that housed the overabundance of Malfoy heirlooms and treasures like pieces in a museum. Draco and Hermione had been scared of this portion of the house when they were younger, which also meant that it was their favorite place to play hide and seek when the weather wasn't good for outdoor play. It had felt so excitingly naughty and unnerving to hide behind suits of black armor laden with cursed cudgels and enchanted broadswords and slip inside ancient armoires that smelled of musty herbs and old blood. Sometimes they would accidentally bump something they shouldn't and would get a nasty magical shock or the wards would go off and start shrieking terribly. They would both run screaming back to one of their rooms and hide in the closet, convinced the offended object was cursed and somehow chasing after them. Sometimes, it had been.
Now the corridors seemed cold and melancholy, but unthreatening, the half-familiar objects now the receptacles of childhood memories. He glanced at his mother and found her smiling slightly, as if she were remembering those days as well. He felt the stirrings of hope inside him.
"I'm sorry, Draco," she said at last.
"For not being here for you. I know things have been very difficult for you lately, and I have been distant."
That was one way to describe her behavior, he thought sourly, but didn't say.
"I want you to know that I still want what is best for you," she said. "I don't say it often, at least not in words, but I do love you and I'm very proud of you."
He was struck dumb. She was right; she rarely said it. He couldn't remember her saying it since he was five. He knew it, of course, she was demonstrative in her own prideful way, but rarely had she been overt. Thinking back on it, he couldn't remember that last time he had told her he loved her either.
"I'll do better from now on," she said. "I promise."
He wanted so badly to believe her.
So he didn't say a word.
Voldemort hadn't slept in three days and still didn't feel the need to. That was good because his days were not about to get any less busy despite his overwhelming victory. He felt the urge to smile, but controlled himself. It wouldn't do for the queen to see him looking too smug while lying in her bed. She might get the wrong idea. Or the right one.
He was naked with the linens bunched around his ankles, reclined against a pile of overstuffed pillows. He felt positively decadent. His body was beautiful. He had always known since he was old enough to have a concept of masculine beauty, and there had been no one to challenge his claim to it. Any criticism towards his looks had stemmed from jealousy, and transparently so. He had shed any sense of prudishness towards his own body long before he ever left Hogwarts.
The grace of the Goddess had ensured it would always be so. Already in his sixties, he still appeared a man in his mid-twenties who had led an active but unchallenging life. At the moment, the illusion was marred slightly by the reddish scar on his abdomen where he had been stabbed the previous afternoon. It itched slightly, but was already fading rapidly. Tomorrow night it would be gone completely.
He looked over at the queen and caught her staring at him. She was sitting in front of her bedroom vanity, a black silk robe embroidered with elegant black swans in flight hung open around her shoulders. He regarded her with the same open admiration she regarded him. The queen was not the most beautiful woman he had ever slept with. She was a little older than most of his lovers, her facial features attractive but not particularly remarkable, and her body lacking in the toned athleticism current conventions of attractiveness seemed to require. She was, however, definitely a favorite. She had incredible skin, creamy white that flushed the loveliest shade of pink, and a great abundance of it. She was plump, some fool might even call her fat, but it clung to her like a layer of softness rather than misshapen lumpiness of true obesity and served to emphasize her femininity rather than detract from it. She would have been adored by the Renaissance painters of old. He liked her eyes most of all. They were light brown, an uninteresting color, but she managed to convey a remarkable intensity with them despite that.
There was a knowing look to her always. Sometimes it was a pleased knowing. Sometimes it was a cold knowing. It gave him the feeling that while he might be able to challenge her, he would never be able to surprise her. She might be the closest thing to an equal he ever met, intellectually speaking.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked after a minute or two of intimate scrutiny.
"I was thinking that you looked like Psyche in that painting you have hung in my chambers in Paris. Did someone else point out the similarity to you before? Do you keep all your lovers in that room?" he asked, letting a touch of flirtation enter his expression.
"Perhaps," she said without really answering. "Do you suppose that makes you Cupid?"
His expression turned self-depreciating.
"I suppose the hope for metaphor died on the vine right there."
"Neither of us has time to wax poetic with metaphor and simile. It's almost dawn."
Dawn would be the start of both their days. Soon the queen's ladies-in-waiting would be at the door, ready to groom and dress her royal highness for a day of meetings and interviews. His aides and diplomats would be knocking on his door requesting signatures and instructions and bringing him news from his spies. He needed to be in his own room before then, a matter simplified by the secret passageway between their two chambers.
He sighed and reluctantly sat up, making a show of stretching. She watched him appreciatively, but with her characteristic knowing. She raised a brow at him. He grinned at her and climbed out of the bed.
"Will you be at the treaty signing this afternoon? I have a place reserved for you and your entourage," he said as he hunted down his scattered clothes.
"No, I am afraid not. I am afraid it would send a contradictory message, and I don't wish to appear disingenuous."
He hesitated and turned to her.
"A contradictory message?"
"I have a press conference of my own this morning. I intend to express my pleasure at the peaceful conclusion of the military conflict between Germany and Britain, but my disapproval of the WYRA and MCSA initiatives. I will make my intentions of dissuading you from implementing them known."
His expression hardened. Her expression didn't change at all.
"How do you intend to do that?" he asked. He tried to keep his tone neutral but didn't think he had succeeded. Mentally, he berated himself. He had known she disapproved of the separation of wizarding kind and muggles, of the concept of WYRA in particular, and there was no reason to be surprised that she would act on her conviction. In truth, she didn't have much of a choice. France was pro-integration, for the most part, and to side with Voldemort on policies of segregation would inevitably cause civil unrest. Her timing was perfect. If she had objected before peace was assured she would be accused of attempting to drag out the war for her own benefit and if she had waited until after the signing of the treaty she could be labeled a hypocrite. Or 'disingenuous,' as she had said.
"I will be offering asylum to German families of mixed magical ability."
He took a deep breath.
"That would severely compromise security between all three of our countries."
"Then you should consider delaying the WYRA and MCSA initiatives until it is proven that they are in fact necessary."
"I can't do that."
For a hundred different reasons, both practical and philosophical, he couldn't do that. Most importantly, it would be a betrayal to the Earth. The segregation of wizarding kind from muggles was essential to the rebirth of the pagan arts.
She did not seem alarmed or concerned with his refusal.
"We will see."
He left through the secret passage without saying another word. There really was nothing more to say. They had gone from lovers to adversaries in less than ten minutes. To make matters worse, they would still have to maintain the charade of their alliance. He had sold the reputation of his government as being legitimate on its ability to form a peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship with France, and if he turned around to make war after just having finished one that same day, he would be seen as a warmonger.
He would have to take the long route, the peaceful one. He would have to convince the French people that WYRA and MCSA were reasonable measures to take in Germany, a task he was not entirely sure he was capable of, or he would need to abandon his alliance with France without somehow instigating war and rely solely on Britain's resources to hold Germany. He could probably manage the latter option, but it would be an immeasurable waste. One his own citizens would not readily forgive him.
He would think of something, but he would think of it later. He had other matters to attend to. There was the signing of the treaty itself and all the subsequent publicity and logistical matters that would follow, Snape and his pursuit of Dumbledore, Harry's sudden risk of possession during the approaching full moon, and Lestrange's disturbing suspicions regarding Stratus. He frankly didn't have time to be worrying about Ophelia's exceptionally inconvenient display of independence.
Still, the matter irked him. He needed something to… relax him. Since torturing people was currently out of the question and Ophelia was unlikely to indulge in another tryst unless he succumbed to her demands, he would have to find relief elsewhere and soon.
Perhaps Lestrange was up by now.
Viktor glanced anxiously at the sky. It was still dark, aided perhaps by the abundance of clouds, but his preternatural senses were already beginning to detect the first traces of the approaching dawn. He had a little over an hour, he estimated, perhaps a little more if the clouds remained thick, and still a few minutes more if he were willing to hole up in a sewer for the day.
Hopefully, it wouldn't prove necessary.
Hopefully, Professor Snape was just a particularly clever liar and nothing more.
But he had to be sure. That Snape had known of both Dumbledore's and Hermione's presence within Paris gave enough credence to what he said that Viktor couldn't risk ignoring him. Not with Hermione's life on the line. As angry as he was with her little trick at the canal, he could admit now that he had likely deserved it. She had rejected his feelings for her and her own feelings for him, but he could hardly blame her. He had betrayed her after all, and what could he offer her in recompense? What could a vampire offer anyone except to make them a vampire? A fate she didn't want and one he didn't want for her.
At the same time, he couldn't bring himself to let her go. She was the first thing since his becoming a vampire that he felt any sort of passion for. To lose her was to die all over again.
If he could do nothing else for her, he would at least protect her from Dumbledore.
The Hotel Raoulin was quiet as he approached. The lantern was lit by the door and a faint light glowed from the window, but all else was dark. He scanned the street, sniffed the air, and listened for the slightest sound. There was nothing unexpected or ominous to be found.
Dawn loomed ever closer, but still he lingered.
His uneasiness wouldn't abate until he saw her himself. He contemplated climbing to the roof and peering in through her window. If all was well, she would be in bed, asleep. It was tempting. He wondered what she looked like asleep, her expression softened by somnolent repose. He shook off the urge. He had no intention of lurking outside her window like a lovelorn ghoul. It was a cliché that he felt vaguely nauseated about playing out.
For her benefit, he would conduct himself like a man.
He entered through the front door, a bell tinkling above him as he stepped into the foyer. He felt immediately uncomfortable. He had not been invited inside, but unlike houses, hotels lobbies stood on the grounds of open hospitality to all. The invitation was limited. He could not enter any of the rooms already occupied and the back rooms restricted to staff would prove unreachable. Even the relatively public space of the foyer felt unpleasant, as if he were being watched by a thousand hostile eyes. He had played quidditch professionally, however. He was used to thousands of people wishing for his absolute destruction.
A girl he didn't recognized was sitting behind the front desk, flipping through a magazine. She looked up at the ringing of the bell, startled.
"Oh! Hello, welcome to the Hotel Raoulin. My name is Lorelai. Did you wish to reserve a room?" the girl chirped in slightly accented French, smiling at him coquettishly.
He managed a polite, if slightly strained smile back at her.
"Bonjour," he replied. "I am afraid I have not come for a room. I am here regarding one of your employees. Her- Heloise?"
Rather than looking put out, Lorelai looked positively delighted.
"Oh! Oh my, you're him aren't you? The gentleman who sent the flowers?"
He tilted his head in acknowledgment.
"Is Miss Heloise here?"
"I should hope so," she said, glancing at the wall clock mounted behind her.
"I apologize for the hour, but it is a rather urgent family matter."
"Family? I didn't know Heloise had family in Paris," she said curiously, although a touch of suspicion had entered her gaze.
"Her godfather was coming to see her," Viktor said. "He ran into some trouble, I am afraid."
"What sort of trouble?"
"My apologies but I would rather speak to Heloise about it. She is a rather private person."
She gave him a calculated look. How much of it was genuine suspicion and how much simple curiosity? Perhaps she recognized him. He had been quite well known in the magical sports world and his face was rather unique. People did still occasionally recognize him. He made it a point to kill said people, but he didn't think Hermione would approve of it under these circumstances. Or possibly any circumstances.
"It's too early to wake her up unless it's something important," she wheedled.
He smiled grimly at her.
"I wouldn't be here so early if it weren't important."
They stared at each other for a long moment and gradually Lorelai seemed to perceive there was something 'off' about him, because she started to tense and unconsciously lean away from him. Finally, she looked away.
"I'll tell her, but if she doesn't want to get up, I'm not going to make her," she said sulkily and tromped up the stairs. Viktor watched her go but didn't follow. Couldn't follow.
Would Hermione be angry with him for coming here? Undoubtedly, although she might forgive him with the warning he brought. Except, if the warning were genuine she might be even angrier with him for having accosted her godfather in the process of obtaining said warning. The man was alive however and relatively unharmed, if half a pint lighter, so the situation was probably not unsalvageable. If she wanted to see the man, then Viktor would be singularly responsible for bringing them together, and if she declared that her godfather was in fact now her enemy, well… he could do her a favor there as well.
Footsteps on the stairs drew his attention, and he turned expecting to see Hermione, sleep tousled and pensive. But it wasn't Hermione. It wasn't even Lorelai. At first, he didn't recognize the woman who came down at all, and perhaps he wouldn't have bothered looking at her more closely if she hadn't stopped and stared at him with far more shock than he thought he warranted. He frowned. She pulled a wand.
The wand he recognized immediately. The woman, despite the slight distortions of her face and her unusually subdued coloring, he recognized a half second later.
She had paled. Clearly, she hadn't been expecting him. Likely, she had thought him dead, although Dumbledore surely must have warned her. Yet, her expression was so stricken and, inexplicably, he felt a stirring of sympathy for her. It was a pale shadow of the emotions Hermione brought out in him, but it was something nonetheless.
That was unfortunate.
Her presence meant Snape had told the truth. Dumbledore had sent Tonks to kidnap Hermione. The sound of more footsteps approaching drew both their attention back up the stairway, but from his angle Viktor could not see who approached.
"Don't move," Viktor snarled sharply.
Tonks flinched. Up the stairs, the footsteps stopped.
"Viktor?" came Hermione's hesitant voice.
"Go back," Viktor said more gently this time. "This woman is dangerous."
There were more voices, soft, frightened voices of other girls. He recognized Lorelai. Who was the other? The girl who had called Hermione by the other name at the newspaper stand, perhaps? Hermione herself remained silent. Slowly, very slowly, he heard her begin to retreat. Tonks tensed, seeing or sensing the escape herself.
"Praeterolumos!" Tonks shouted, filling the room with blinding light even as he sprung for her. Viktor snarled angrily but cowered instinctively, expecting to feel the burn of sunlight scouring his preternatural flesh to ashes. The burn didn't come. It was blinding but painless. He fought his sense of shock and stumbled towards the stairway, seeking out Tonks with his ears and sense of smell.
She was already hurrying away, giving chase of escaping prey. Viktor could follow the movement of several people running away, up the stairs and into rooms, but he could not tell who was who. At the stairs, he felt himself being repelled, this time by his lack of invitation. He had not reserved a room and had not been invited upstairs. He could go no further.
"Hermione!" he shouted, "Invite me in! Hurry and invite me in!"
But she didn't hear him or maybe she even ignored him, and no invitation came. He snarled and punched the wall in frustration, and then stormed back down the stairs in a futile search for other means of helping her. There was nothing in the foyer but the light spell, still burning strongly, and he couldn't find any way further into the hotel from there. He turned this way and that, frantically seeking out some hidden route, but there was nothing. He was just about ready to run out the door and attempt to climb up the side of the building when he heard the scurry of feet from somewhere else on the first floor. There was the sound of rattling dishes and pans, the shattering of a glass from what must have been the kitchen, and then more sounds of running feet.
Frozen with expectation, he waited, listening and sniffing the air.
And there, that familiar scent of flowery shampoo, musty books, and Hermione.
"Viktor! Are you there? I can't see in this!" she cried as she burst into the foyer. He couldn't see her either, but he found her immediately. She let out a startled shriek as he hauled her up into his arms and sprinted for the door. He kicked it open without hesitating and raced into the soothing darkness. Hermione clung to him instinctively with one arm, while in her other hand she held her wand in a trembling grasp.
"I have you," he said. "You are safe."
But he didn't stop running. Couldn't stop running. Tonks might be following, and while she couldn't run as fast as him, she could still apparate ahead of them if she knew which direction they were going. If that weren't enough, the sun was coming up.
"How did you get downstairs?" he asked.
"There are service stairs to the kitchen at the other end of the hallways," she said breathlessly. "Who was that woman? Why was she after me?"
Viktor paused and looked around briefly, orienting himself to their current location and time they had left. His vision was starting to clear in the dim light of the back street. Hermione was less quick to recover, and she continued to blink rapidly up at him without actually appearing to see him. Under different circumstances he would have thought it adorable, but at the moment, he hated her being so vulnerable. The entrance to the crypts wasn't far, but he didn't dare return there directly. If they were followed, they and all of Viktor's coven would be trapped.
"Her name is Tonks. She is one of Dumbledore's agents. He must have sent her to spy on you before they kidnapped you."
"Dumbledore?" she said, disbelieving. "Why would he want to kidnap me?"
She took barely half a breath before reaching the obvious conclusion.
"Harry. He wanted a hostage against Harry."
He turned into a darkened alleyway and followed it to the adjacent street. The street was quiet, but there were cars parked along the sidewalks and lights were turning on apartments above the shops. He ducked into another alley and followed it until it emptied into another wizarding street. Morning was drawing nearer, and Viktor felt the intense unease of one hunted by something far more powerful than himself.
"How did you know?"
"I didn't, but your godfather varned me."
This resulted in a flurry of more questions, which Viktor hadn't the patience for. Sunrise was minutes away, and he still didn't know where they should go. They had appeared to have lost Tonks, but that didn't mean they were safe. To make matters worse, Hermione had started to shiver.
For the first time, he noticed that she was still wearing a night gown. It was a simple blue flannel nightgown over which she had thrown a light cardigan. Plenty enough to protect her modesty, but hardly effective protection outside of doors. She had managed to throw on a pair of boots, but they were too big to be hers and were practically sliding off her feet as he carried her. He quickly set her down and threw his own coat around her shoulders.
"This von't vork. You need to get somevere varm."
"I'm fine," she insisted even as her knees began to shake. "It's just the excitement."
He shook his head. Already, he knew he was out of time. The sky had started to lighten, faintly, and he would need to stick to the shadows from here on out and attempt to remain unseen by passersby. He might take shelter in the drainage sewers for the day, but it would be far too cold and wet for Hermione.
"Do you have any place safe vere you can hide?" he asked. "Someplace you can apparate to?"
She stared at him and then glanced around her, putting together the situation they now found themselves in.
"Nowhere you could follow," she said.
"But safe for you?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Then go there. Ven night falls, meet me at the newspaper stand and I vill bring you to your godfather. He must have prepared some place to keep you safe."
"There is no time," he said and kissed her softly on the lips.
It was quick and chaste, but when he pulled back he could see her cheeks were already burning. He felt pleased by this. Even more so when she didn't scold him for it. Instead, she glanced around furtively before mumbling a soft "be safe."
And then she was gone, nothing to mark her absence but a faint echo against the alleyway stones as she apparated away.
Harry didn't sleep well that night. Whether it was the result of his failing wards or just his own anxiety about them, he didn't know, but the result was a restlessness that bordered on distress. Had it been like that before the ward, he wondered? Before the possessions got out of control and he had only the moon madness to worry about? He thought he could remember being restless the day before the full moon but never to this extent. Except then he had been in places he felt comfortable and with people he trusted. Now he was in a foreign land, surrounded by people he didn't know and many of them potentially dangerous. His only available allies were Vicki, whom he had stupidly sent home for the night, and Voldemort, who had far better things to do than babysit him at the moment.
He hadn't been this lonely since his days in Durmstang.
At four in the morning, he had given up trying to sleep and instead broke out his sketchpad. He didn't even attempt to make a serious attempt at a drawing. He was far too agitated and his hands were trembling slightly. Instead, he unburdened the chaos of his thoughts onto paper, filling pages with arithmetic diagrams and Old Magic wards, runes and hieroglyphs, simple doodles of magical beasts, his family coat of arms, geometric shapes fashioned into haphazard mandalas, patterned lines that devolved into swirling chaos, the sword of Gryffindor, and twelve different phases of the moon.
This was how Vicki found him hours later, hunched over the writing desk and scribbling out his thoughts like a mad composer of a great symphony. He didn't even notice her when she came in, and when she finally interrupted him by placing a breakfast plate beside him he nearly jumped out of his chair in surprise.
"Merlin!" he blurted, clutching at his heart dramatically. "How long have you been here?"
She gave him an amused look, which faded somewhat as she stared down at what he had been working on. He felt suddenly embarrassed by it. It wasn't beautiful by any means, but it was still an intimate portrait of his anxieties. He snatched up the sketchpad quickly and threw it into his open trunk, startling them both with his sudden defensiveness. Vicki was kind enough to pretend she hadn't noticed.
"Long enough to set out your clothes and start a bath for you. You got out of breakfast with the rest of the British assembly this morning to help with your 'recovery', but you still have that sitting with Baillargeon later this morning, and then the treaty signing almost immediately after. Then you'll be following Voldemort around for most of the day. Press conferences mostly, some private audiences, and then a banquet this evening."
Under normal circumstances, all of that would have seemed perfectly manageable to Harry, but in his current state of mind and with the full moon rising tonight it felt impossible. There was also no way out of it.
"How long before my sitting with Baillargeon?" he asked.
"Not for another three hours."
He spent the first of those three hours in the usual morning ablutions: breakfast, a short bath in lieu of a shower, getting dressed, and making a cursory attempt to tame his hair. He expected to look exhausted and sickly at the end of it, but when he looked in the mirror he was surprised to find he looked normal, if a bit moody. If his eyes were a little shadowed, it only served to make his green eyes seem to glow that much brighter in his face.
Suddenly, he couldn't stand the idea of spending a moment longer trapped in his rooms.
"Let's take a walk."
The sun was just starting to rise when Harry and Vicki entered the gardens. A brilliant pink and orange sky glowed behind the black skeletal silhouettes of barren trees and filled the courtyard with long shadows amidst an orange glow. It had a surreal feel to it that Harry rather liked. Aside from that, the garden presented a dismal scene. Winter had robbed the garden of its brilliance of greenery and flowers, and the approaching spring had robbed it of its pristine layer of snow. What was left was a landscape held in suspense, tidy and manicured and still ugly in spite or perhaps even because of it.
It was still far better than being inside.
Despite the early hour, there was still a surprising amount of activity on the grounds. The layout of the palace was such that sometimes it was simply more expedient to cross through the gardens to a different wing than to follow the corridors around, and so there were a number of servants and assistants of some kind passing along the main walkway. So Harry stepped off of the main walkways and went in search of the lonely recesses of the garden. There were several places to choose from: a hedge maze, a walled in rose garden with a magnificent fountain at its center, a large pond obscured by a willow grove, and a wooden glen that bordered the garden and most of the palace.
They visited each but lingered only in the wooden glen. It was a parody of wildness; the undergrowth was too thoroughly cleared, the trees too carefully groomed, and the winding pathway as smooth and clutter-free as one would find anywhere around the palace. But it smelled almost right. Like earth and damp bark and rotting leaves. If he kept his eyes skyward, he could almost pretend he was back in Britain, meandering the forest trail from the border of the werewolf lands to the colony homestead on his way to see his godfathers, and the soft tread of feet behind him was Luna following behind in easy silence.
Time stretched. A breeze picked up and his fingers and toes began to go numb in the morning chill, but still he walked. He could feel his mind finally starting to settle into his body, his restlessness condensing into a weighted sensation, something akin to grim acceptance. Accepting of what, he didn't know.
"Lord Potter," Vicki said quietly behind him, and instantly he was alert. She never called him 'Lord Potter' when they were alone.
He turned his focus from the brightening sky and overhanging branches to the path ahead of them. He stopped instinctively when he spotted the source of his friend's concern. There were three people: a tall, stately woman with dark wavy hair, and wrapped in a dark blue cloak and flanked on either side by two men in German uniforms. He glanced back at Vicki, who gave him a worried look.
"We should go back," she said. He understood her reasoning. They were alone, only Harry had a wand and he was still magically weak, and these people had an air of menace about them and plenty of reasons to see harm done to him.
"We can't," Harry said, wondering if some part of him had known this confrontation was coming and that was where the grim acceptance had come from. Perhaps he had in fact been willed to it by some god already slipping through his weakened defenses. Whatever the reason, they couldn't run now. Not with the witch bearing down on them so intently but without obvious intentions. It would be too humiliating to turn around and run away. If they truly meant them harm…
They would not be the first to have underestimated him.
Slowly, he started to move forward again, and after a moment's hesitation Vicki began to follow. When at last the two parties met, it was the German soldiers who hesitated first, but the woman kept going until she was standing right in front of him and his path. Up close he could see she was in her forties with a pale, hawkish face that was neither attractive nor ugly and fierce black eyes. She was tall for a woman, several inches taller than him at least, and she used that extra height to loom over him. He was strongly reminded of a feminine version of Snape.
"Do you know who I am?" she demanded in low, growling German.
The blue cloak had thrown him off for a moment, but now he did recognize her from her photographs. Vicki had warned him about her. More telling, Voldemort had warned him about her as well. She was Hildegard Amsel, the Head of the Department of Magical Creatures in the German Ministry, and the longtime nemesis of every werewolf in existence. The extent of her involvement in the attack on the Goddess Colony wasn't known, though certainly she must have at least been consulted about it, but her role in the persecution of werewolves in Germany both before and after war had been officially declared was well documented. Harry had only seen a fraction of those documents, but he had heard more than enough firsthand accounts from German refugees during his time touring the new French werewolf colonies.
He knew enough to despise her.
She started down at him with absolute loathing, and the look she must have received in return could not have been much better.
"So the rumors are true," she sneered. "You are a lycanthrosis carrier. You have that disgusting animal look in your eyes."
At this, Harry threw back his head and laughed. Amsel stepped back, and from behind her men reached for their wands. She turned her head and hissed at them sharply, an animalistic sound that had him laughing all over again from the irony.
"Madam, they don't have name for what I carry," he laughed.
Then he stopped. His smile slid away as though it had never been there, and he glared at her.
"What do you want?"
She met his stare and returned it with equal venom. He could almost admire her if she didn't represent everything that disgusted him in lycanphobes.
"I want to kill you, Lord Potter," she said bluntly. Behind him, he heard Vicki's sharp intake of breath. He simply waited. "As I am sure, you want to kill me."
He tilted his head in acknowledgement. He didn't spend his days contemplating who and how he wanted to kill people, but now that he was facing Amsel he could acknowledge that he did in fact feel the urge to murder.
"You are proposing a duel?"
"It seems you cannot be accused of being stupid, at least. Yes. A duel."
"Why should I? I've already won. You're ruined. If not today, then soon. Very soon. You'll have to stand trial for all those people you robbed, tortured, imprisoned, and murdered. I just have to wait. If you're not killed outright, you'll receive the Kiss. You know what the Kiss is, don't you? I don't believe you have it Germany."
Judging by her pinched expression, Amsel knew what the Kiss was.
"Maybe you'll be lucky, and they'll offer you to the werewolves to be turned. They won't, of course. They'll just tear off all your limbs or perhaps start eating you while you're still alive or—"
"Lord Potter," Vicki said sharply, pleadingly.
He stopped. He shrugged.
"Are you a coward then? That you would not take up the challenge yourself?" Amsel demanded.
"And here I thought you weren't going to accuse me of being stupid," he muttered and moved to step around her. She stepped in front of him, blocking his way yet again. This time, however, he shoved her away from him, and she stumbled backward and was only saved from falling by one of her men catching her. She righted herself swiftly, but he was already past her and stalking away, already dismissing her.
He had been in a fair number of duels in Dueling Club, but he had learned long ago that any duel that was personal was a terrible idea. His duel with McNair, although it had ended to his satisfaction, had caused far more problems than it had solved, and then there was his disastrous challenge with Ron that had been sabotaged from the beginning and had somehow ended with him stuck in the infirmary with Blue Pox for weeks. Besides, with his magic still so weak, and Amsel having obviously come fully prepared physically and mentally for a duel, he was at such an obvious disadvantage that it would be downright absurd of him to accept.
"Potter!" Amsel snarled, but he didn't turn back. Vicki was already behind, no doubt watching the threat for him. He doubted it would come to that. If Amsel were going to assassinate them, she would have attempted it already. She had wanted the duel, for whatever reason, not a murder.
But apparently, she was willing to settle for a murder.
"Potter!" she snarled one last time.
"Harry!" Vicki cried, and he swung around. Amsel had pulled her wand, a curse already on her lips.
His wand was in his hand in an instant, but it was already too late. If it had been pointed at him, he would have been forced to dodge it, but it wasn't pointed at him. It veered wide, towards his left, catching Vicki directly. She cried again, this time in pain, and was thrown to the ground by the force of the curse. Harry's heart leaped into his throat, half smothering the words to the Shield Charm he threw up before leaping to Vicki's side. She was staring up at nothing, her eyes wide from the sudden shock. It seemed she was trying to breathe, but could only manage series of tiny gasps. A line of crimson was blooming across her chest, and as he quickly pulled open her cloak to see still more blood welling through the split flesh beneath it.
He sucked in a shaking breath. It was a mortal wound.
He pressed his wand to her chest.
"Corpusalitaris!" he cast. His magic poured into the wand and from the wand into the wound, but no sooner than it seemed to close than it hesitated and fell back open. Vicki wheezed painfully, her left hand twitched and grasped at the air. In her right hand was a wand he had never seen before. He didn't have time to wonder at its meaning. He tried the spell again. Then again. Still, the wound wouldn't close. The spell was too weak or he was too weak or the curse too specialized. He tore off his cloak and pressed it to the wound.
He pointed his wand in the air and a line of brilliant red light shot from the tip and high into the sky where it burst loud and bright against the blue morning sky. A distress signal. He couldn't think of anything else he could do.
Beneath his hand, he could already feel the blood seeping through. His wide green eyes found Vicki's, frightened and pained.
"Victoria," he whispered soothingly, "help is coming, just stay calm. You'll be okay."
He threw his head around to snarl at Amsel.
"What did you do?!" he demanded.
The hawkish woman stared back at him with a cool, satisfied expression. After the first attack, she had not bothered with a second, nor had her cohorts done more than grip their wands tightly in preparations of self-defense.
"I defended myself. The girl drew her wand on me," Amsel said, sounding like the most reasonable person in the world.
"Liar!" he snarled.
"How would you know? Your back was turned," she rejoined. She didn't smile, but something about the gleam in her eyes told him she was enjoying this.
"You filthy bitch!"
He would have attacked her there, could have torn her apart with his bare hands at the sudden swell of rage, but if he did, Vicki would bleed out in seconds.
"Those sound like fighting words, Lord Potter," she said. "Are you challenging me to a duel?"
Before he could reply, the wooden glen was suddenly swarming with people. Musketeers in their blue and silver uniforms appeared from thin air, apparating by some unknown method within the warded interior of the palace grounds. They appeared on the pathway and through the trees, and converged on the tableau of violence. Two of the musketeers hurried to take Harry's place over Vicki, and he hurriedly told them the curse that had been cast on her and his own attempted healing charms. They nodded at him solemnly, and then with Vicki ensconced safely between them they apparated away.
The only sign she had been there at all was his blood-soaked hands and clothes.
A hand touched his shoulder and he whirled around, ready to knock away the hand. He didn't want to be touched. Not now. But the hand on his shoulder was slender and delicate and the eyes that met his were familiar and kind, and he hesitated. Fleur's expression was the definition of friendly concern.
"Are you alright, 'Arry?"
He stared at her. He didn't know how to answer that.
"Are you 'urt?" she tried again.
He shook his head.
"What 'appened?" she asked.
Looking back towards Amsel, he could see she and her cohorts had been surrounded and disarmed, but the woman herself did not seem particularly concerned. Already she was telling them the same thing she had said to Harry, that Vicki had drawn her wand on them and she, supposedly, had defended herself. Harry felt the protest on the tip of his tongue. Vicki hadn't drawn her wand! Vicki didn't have a wand! She was a squib! A defenseless servant girl who had the bad fortune to be serving a stupid, self-absorbed child who had been so unconcerned about his own safety that he hadn't thought to consider hers either.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, Harry!
But he couldn't say that. Because Vicki had a wand. He didn't know why she had a wand, but she did nevertheless, and thus presumably knew how to use it. Had she been lying to him? Why?
Goddess, it didn't matter.
She had been his friend. She had been his friend and now she was… was going to…
"Madam Amsel," he said softly. "I challenge you to a duel."