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Jewel of the Nile


Chapter One
“I don’t care what you say, Hermione,” her mother said firmly. “He’s not going. Bad enough you’ve
talked us into sending you.”
They were in the midst of what was the latest in a long string of petty arguments, though the ante was
certainly upped for this one. Hermione rolled her eyes, making sure her mother couldn’t see her do it,
and prayed - not too hopefully - for patience.
“Mum,” she said, exasperated, “of course I’m taking him. How could I not? He’s my familiar.”
“He stays,” Kate Granger said, her jaw set. “You know how thick his fur is; he’ll hate the heat -“
“ - Mum, the flat’s air-conditioned -“
“ - and God knows what would happen if he got out,” her mother finished, her voice full of morbid
triumph. “Someone would probably eat him. If he didn’t get himself run over first. And let me tell you
something else …”
“Mum.” Hermione put her hands on her hips. She couldn’t seem to keep her voice from rising; if this
was what happened to all adult children still In The Nest, she couldn’t imagine how some people
managed to move back home after college.
One more week.
Which might as well be forever, the rate we’re going.
“Ever hear of the goddess Bastet?” she inquired, eyes narrow. “Egyptians don’t eat cats, Mum - they
worship them.”
Or at least they used to. Not sure how that works now, exactly.
“Hmph,” her mother said doubtfully, with a cocked eyebrow that said Kids - think they know it all, as
clearly as if it had jumped off her face complete with a soapbox and a little megaphone. “I still say he
won’t like it.”
“We’ve been over this,” Hermione snapped. “He liked it fine in my dormitory room, didn’t he?”
“That’s different,” her mother rejoined. “He had the run of the castle; he was all over the grounds,
you’ve said so yourself a million times. He’d be miserable, cooped up in a poky little flat all day.” She
pointed to the slumbering pile of ginger fur, splayed on the shag carpeting next to the living room’s
south-facing picture window. “Look at him - just look at him, Hermione, at how thrilled he is to be
home. How content.”
Hermione, tasting defeat in the air, shrugged wearily and looked.
Indeed, Crookshanks seemed to have achieved Cat Nirvana. Having laid his daily mouse on the front
stoop as an offering to the house-gods, he had since hunted butterflies in the garden, rolled in the bed of
catnip planted especially for him, made his daily inspection rounds of the library aquarium and the big
cage of chattering finches on the patio, polished off three entire cans of fancy white anchovy fillets, and
slaked his thirst from the Fine Feline water fountain Hermione’s mother had bought for him one
holiday. Now, after careful, measured consideration of the afternoon sunbeam on the living room rug,
he had located the spot which afforded him the maximum amount of sunbathing time, and was
stretched out on his side, snoring.
This battle was a foregone conclusion, Hermione realised; Kate Granger had that look on her face
again, that my-only-child-is-abandoning-me-for-the-infidels Empty-Nest-Syndrome look. And there
was no arguing with That Look.
On the other hand, she had one last card to play.
“Mum, he’s not an ordinary cat. He’s half-Kneazle,” she said. “He’s magical. He belongs with me.”
“Ha,” said her mother, utterly unimpressed by Hermione’s invocation of the M-Word. “He’s an English
garden cat, that’s what he is, and he’s my baby.”
“Mum -“
“He stays.”
They had another argument three days later, about her parents’ purchase of a London-Cairo airline
ticket for her - “I don’t care if it’s easier to Apparate,” her mother had shrieked finally, over the top of
Hermione’s protestations; “after you walk up that ramp, you can do whatever you bloody well please.
But I am still your mother, and I Will See You Onto That Plane!”
Following this outburst, she’d muttered something about “closure”, and sunk weeping into an armchair,
where Hermione’s father patted her arm consolingly from a cautious distance, and mouthed
‘Menopause’ to Hermione from over the top of her head.
Even if it’s just hormones, I can’t take another four days of this, Hermione decided, and took the
coward’s way out of the argument.
She escaped to Gram’s.
“Hermione, dear, that’s a lovely bracelet,” Gram said the second afternoon, over tea. Hermione glanced
down at her wrist and shook the silver charms in the air, a bit self-consciously.
“It was a gift,” she said, then corrected herself. “Well, two gifts, actually. The bracelet and most of the
charms came from one person - the little malachite scarab came from someone else.”
Gram looked amused.
“You’ve taken up juggling, then, I gather,” she remarked - “a dangerous sport, but the thrill’s more than
worth it, if you have the stamina for it” - and set down her teacup so she could reach over and examine
the charms a bit more closely. Hermione noticed that the cat-charm didn’t move under her touch; anti-
Muggle security in everything, these days, she thought, and sent a mental shout-out to Arthur Weasley,
wherever he was.
“Malachite, you say?” Gram asked, fingering the green scarab. Hermione looked surprised.
“I thought it was,” she said, reaching for another biscuit. “I haven’t had it appraised or anything, if
that’s what you mean. But I rather thought - well, if you knew the whole story - “ She trailed off. “Well,
it just makes sense, that’s all.”
Gram shook her head. “Now, I’m no expert,” she said, turning the scarab over to examine its back.
“But I’ve seen a bit of jewellery in my day, you know -“
“A bit?” Hermione asked, and muffled a giggle with the last of her biscuit. Gram cocked a serene
eyebrow and kept going.
“—and this looks like jade to me. Which is a lot more valuable, of course - and this little bauble’s very
finely carved. Just beautiful.” She let go of Hermione’s wrist, dabbed at the corners of her mouth with a
creamy linen napkin, then rose gracefully. “It’s very like a piece I was given once - in Jordan, I believe,
after a command performance. You may not have seen it before; I thought it so unusual that I kept it
apart from the rest of the Proposal Scrapbook.”
Intrigued, Hermione followed her.
It had been a long time since she saw the Proposal Scrapbook and its accompanying tangle of glittering
gems, a long time since she’d watched Gram’s hands - old and knotted with arthritis now, but still
amazingly steady - turn the dial and swing open the door to reveal the treasures inside. Now, she took
the carved, lacquered box - surprisingly heavy - and cleared one of the side tables by Gram’s armchair
to make room for it.
“Ah,” Gram said, removing the boxed items to a careful stack on the table and sweeping the loose gems
to one side. “Here we are - you never knew this had a false bottom, did you?”
Hermione shook her head.
“Ha. Just goes to show you - if you lead an interesting enough life, you can have secrets from your
grandchildren when you’re seventy-eight, too.” She slanted a sly, mischievous look at Hermione from
under her eyelashes, and Hermione laughed; in the muted multicoloured light from the Tiffany lamps,
with that conspiratorial, young look on her face, Gram was still Every Inch A Diva.
Now, she felt carefully under the false bottom of the jewellery box and drew out a small black-velvet
bag. “There’s a note, too,” she said, looking a little wistful as she handed it over. “You read it, darling -
my eyes aren’t what they used to be.”
Hermione opened the little envelope gingerly, and sighed as the long-encased scent of flowers reached
her nostrils. “Jasmine,” she said. “And lily-of-the-valley. That’s so sweet.”
The note was short, the ink still black and fresh-looking, scrawled in a strong slanting hand:
For Martina, who is all the goddess I shall ever want or need - a token of my regard.
“Oh,” Hermione said, and read it over to herself again before refolding it and putting it back into its
envelope reverently. “Oh, that’s romantic.” Gram laughed.
“Wait until you see her,” she said. “She really is a goddess - he told me she was taken from a tomb in
the Valley of the Kings and sold to one of his ancestors, so it’s quite appropriate that we should take her
out before you leave for Cairo. Jade wasn’t so common in Egypt back then either, according to the
jeweller who appraised her for me, especially Burmese jade like this. She must have been valuable,
even then.”
Holding her breath, Hermione unloosed the silk cord drawstring that held the bag closed and tipped the
little statue out onto her palm.
It was small enough for her to close her hand around, an exquisitely carved slender woman with the
head of a lioness, holding a scepter in one hand and clasping an ankh to her breast with the other. Her
expression was stern, her stance challenging - feet slightly apart, high small breasts in careful, almost
defiant, relief. Obviously she had been worn as a necklace; her creator had given her an intricate choker
of hammered silver, to which was attached a silver chain, crafted in a similar style but newer-looking.
Hermione, examining the clasp, saw the modern sterling mark on it - apparently Gram’s admirer had
gone to a bit of trouble.
“She’s beautiful,” she said, feeling the cool stone turn warm in her hand. “But shouldn’t she be in a
Gram shrugged.
“Possibly,” she said. “Like I said, the jeweller who appraised her - an Egyptology expert - said that the
use of jade in ancient tombs wasn’t common. He seemed to think that she might have been a derivative
piece, made in an early style and passed off as an artifact. I don’t know, though.” She smiled faintly.
“My admirer was quite adamant about her origins. And she feels old, to me.”
Hermione nodded; she knew exactly what her grandmother meant. Despite its small size, the little lion-
goddess felt weighty and solid, like a bit of the earth’s core drawn out and chiselled into temporary
“Who is she?” she asked. “Did you find out anything about which goddess she is?” Gram shook her
“That’s your job,” she said, and laughed at Hermione’s look of patent disbelief. “Well, really - do you
know anyone else in this family who’s likely to appreciate her?” She looked pensive. “You might as
well know that the scrapbook and the jewellery are yours, eventually; your cousins might appreciate the
glitter, but they’ve never been remotely interested in the stories behind it. Consider the little Lion
Goddess a bequest in advance.”
“Besides,” she said, settling back into her chair and motioning for Hermione to re-fill the box, “if I
know you - and I think I do - you’re not going to be happy in Cairo, unless you’ve got a mystery to
The girl was running.
Just an hour ago, she’d been dancing, in high heels that hurt her unaccustomed feet even then.
Now, she’d kicked them off, and she was running for her life.
Past the bright lights. Down the littered streets. Pushing through the crowds, until she took a wrong turn
and there was no longer a crowd to hide in.
Stupid, she berated herself. Stupid, to think you could do it - to get away with it. Stupid to think they
wouldn’t find out.
Her feet were cut, her legs aching, her chest one bright hot burn of labouring lungs.
Twist, turn, double back. Keep running.
If you stop, you’re dead.
They were gaining on her. She was lost.
If they caught her. If she went home. If she ever showed her face again.
The night of dancing hadn’t been worth it.
Down a blind alley - slowing, hugging her burning side, blinking back tears. Mud bricks on either side.
No lights, and less hope.
It was almost a relief when she hit the wall, and knew there was nowhere else to go.
Dishonour. Shame.
She saw them raise their clubs, and closed her eyes.
And in a cool English bedroom three thousand kilometres away, Hermione Granger woke with a
scream on her lips, the tiny lioness burning in her clasped hand.

Chapter Two
Now she knew how Harry must have felt.
Gasping, she sat up in bed and groped for the switch on her lamp cord. With a soft click, Gram’s guest
bedroom, the one Hermione had slept in on every overnight visit since she was four years old and tall
enough to climb in and out of the bed by herself - rose walls, English Colonial furniture, a particularly
lovely Aubusson in luminous shades of ivory and gold - came into reassuring focus.
Whatever scary bogeymen lurked underneath her eyelids, nothing bad could possibly happen to her in
this room.
Hermione sank back against her pillows, still breathing hard, and turned a wary eye on the jade
pendant, now glowing green against the white chenille bedspread. It took a few moments before she
could bring herself to pick it up.
It was still warm from the clutch of her hand. But that sick, icy jolt of panic she’d felt just before
waking didn’t resurface. Her heart rate began, slowly, to return to normal.
Just a dream, then.
But it had felt so real.
Ironically enough, it had started out happily, though slightly disconcerting - she’d had that feeling,
peculiar to dreams, of being herself, but looking out through someone else’s eyes, as if she’d put on a
strange character like a dress in a department store. Still, her character wasn’t so different from her; a
young girl, slightly built, stepping out of a puddle of black robes and putting on lipstick and a pretty
pair of sandals.
Dancing sandals. She’d been dancing, all by herself in the middle of someplace crowded - light and
laughing and feeling free, away from that heavy black tangle of concealing fabric.
Lights on her skin, in a dapple of red and blue and silver sparkles. Fast music, buzzing through her
body like a drug.
And then, danger - sensed, then seen - and the pleasure had faded to sick, cold fear. All bad dreams
were like that, really; sweet floating dissociated fantasy, with the nightmare just around the corner.
She - the dream-Hermione, the Hermione-who-wasn’t - had run - a long sickening dash through dark
streets, terror metallic just behind her teeth, feet so heavy, so slow, despite the frantic beat of her heart,
the grinding ache at the back of her thighs. Black cloaks pursuing - rather like the Shadow, but not -
broken-off pieces of the night itself, encircling, creeping ever closer.
Cornered, she’d turned to face them; had whispered, as the cudgels came up and she saw one rage-
distorted face pop out of the darkness in front of the others, one short broken word that she’d never
heard before, never seen - but that felt bitterly familiar on her tongue nevertheless, its sound and
meaning still in her brain, even now that she was awake, as firmly and instantly as if it had Apparated
Reliving it, she shuddered, determinedly swallowed the bile that had risen in her throat, clutched
Gram’s 300-count cotton-percale sheets with their eyelet edging just a little closer around her
Granger, you are seriously fucked up.
Not only that, but she wasn’t even particularly deep: this didn’t take a doctorate in Jungian analysis to
figure out, Hermione thought, scowling, or even one of those cheap dream analysis supermarket
booklets that you could pick up in the checkout aisle.
Even Trelawney could have handled this one.
Those robes she’d stepped out of, for instance. Her school robes, of course - she’d left them behind in
the dream, the same way she’d left Hogwarts in real life. The nightclub had to be Cairo, and the
freedom it promised to deliver; the black-robed pursuers Voldemort and Malfoy - both trapped, for the
moment, but still plotting, still in the picture.
And the vengeful, destroying man she’d called “Daddy” - the one meant to protect her, who’d betrayed
her instead - who could that be, except for Cornelius Fudge?
As always, explaining it away made her feel a little better. She was still shaky, though - and there
weren’t powers or principalities on the planet Earth who could make her close her eyes again tonight;
she’d felt that scream like a physical blow, and she could swear that the statue …
Whatever. Swinging her feet from under the sheets and onto the Aubusson, she shook her head, stifled a
yawn, and headed for the kitchen and Gram’s stash of Ghirardelli cocoa.
It was hard to believe, but it looked as if she’d have to leave England to get a good night’s sleep.
Her apartment building in Cairo wasn’t particularly picturesque - the affluent, professional-class suburb
of Doqqi featured blocks upon blocks of functional but uninspired concrete slabs, dating from a period
of late-twentieth-century architecture singularly lacking in imagination.
That was the outside.
Once you were past the security doors - one set modern glass, the other reinforced pine - the landscape
changed entirely. Apparently, apartment-dwellers in the magical community didn’t content themselves
with redecorating their rooms - the areas of connecting hallway adjoining their entrances took on the
personality of their tenants, as well. Hermione’s apportioned section of hall (for the moment blank, as
she hadn’t yet decorated) was adjoined on one side by a thick, ceiling-height blanket of trumpet-flower
vines, from which she could have plucked real blossoms if she’d so chosen, and on the other by a
constantly shifting seascape, over which the sun rose in the morning and set at dusk. Other sections of
corridor she’d traversed so far had showcased talking paintings along the Hogwarts vein, discotheque-
style strobes, an interactive chalkboard that reacted verbally to any comment placed upon it, and a six-
foot section of barbed-wire fence, behind which a large dog patrolled, sniffing at the feet of passersby
and growling.
Bill’s wall featured a jazz combo; piano, bass, drums, and a languid, Ella-Fitzgeraldesque lead singer
named Maxine, who would occasionally belt out a tune for an appropriately entranced listener, but who
spent the rest of her time flirting with the pianist, massaging her corns, and counting her tips.
Hermione, who hadn’t seen much of Bill - or anyone else, for that matter - during her first few days in
town (she wasn’t due at the Consortium until the following Monday), decided that the combo was as
likely a source of information as any of her eccentric neighbours, and took a midnight stroll over to the
other side of the apartment building her first Friday night in residence, bearing chocolate-chip cookies
for the band and a bottle of nail polish (Desert Passion) for Maxine.
It turned out to be a good move.
“Aren’t you the sweetest little thing since soda pop?” Maxine said, studying the little pink bottle with a
practiced eye. “Pretty color. Suits me. But then, they all do.” She turned her scrutiny upon Hermione.
“What’s your name, honey?”
“Hermione Granger.” Hermione extended her hand, and was surprised to find Maxine’s soft and quite
realistically human, though a bit cool to the touch. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Call me Maxie.” She jerked her head toward the pianist. “This is Dave. Man on the skins is Lester.
Bass player doesn’t talk, so we don’t know his name. Hasn’t said a word for four years. Mostly, he just
Indeed, he was drowsing against the side of his battered old instrument. Hermione wrinkled her brow.
“It must be hard on you, being stuck in the wall all the time,” she ventured. Maxie shrugged.
“We’ve all got our cross in life to bear. You’re from England, aren’t you?” At Hermione’s nod, she
rolled her eyes slyly toward Bill’s door. “Saw you the other day, taking the tour. How do you know our
boy Bill?”
“I don’t really know him at all, except to speak to,” Hermione said. “I went to school with his younger
brothers and sister - we’re quite good friends, Ron and Ginny and I. And I’ve spent a couple of weeks
with his family, during summer vacations.”
Maxine hummed. “His mama, she’s a good person,” she said. “You ask me, Mr. Footloose-and-Fancy-
Free could stand to spend some time with a woman of sense. Maybe then he wouldn’t need to go
digging around in the dirt quite so much.”
This last was directed over Hermione’s shoulder; startled, she glanced backwards and was slightly
embarrassed to discover Bill himself behind her, decidedly dusty in a battered safari jacket and another
pair of khakis with a series of three parallel horizontal rips bisecting one thigh. He set down the
rucksack he was carrying with a dull thunk, nodded at Hermione, and gave Maxie a tired-but-flirtatious
“Who needs a woman of sense, when you give me more than I can handle?” he asked. Maxie raised a
contemptuous eyebrow.
“There you go,” she said darkly, “making fun of good advice. Out till all hours, playing tag with things
that try to take chunks out of your scrawny worthless ass. It’d serve you right if something did, some
“Aw, Maxie.” He sent her a mournful puppy-dog look. “You don’t mean that.”
“Don’t I, though.” She scowled. “Least you could do is stop gallivanting around with belly dancers and
take this girl out to dinner.”
At this, Hermione laughed out loud. “Belly dancers?”
Bill rolled his eyes. “I’m admitting nothing,” he said, “that would bring my mother swooping down
upon me, should the news become public.”
He muttered an Unlocking Charm at his door, then stooped to pick up his rucksack again, wincing a
little as it grazed the injured thigh. “As for dinner, I’d like nothing more - I’ve been hanging out with a
camel, eating stale bread and beef jerky for the last three days - but I don’t think I’m up to an outing
tonight.” He gave her a comical look. “I’m too smelly, for one thing.”
“That’s okay,” Hermione said, then gave him a more careful once-over.
He looked like hell. Strange, how sexy that was - dirt, dishevelment, and all, she still wouldn’t kick him
off her couch in the middle of the night.
Even if he did smell like a camel.
“Um …” she began, then broke off. He looked inquiring.
“Well, if you don’t want to go out to eat -“ she said. “I mean, it’s a little late to find a table now, right?”
Bill brightened.
“Don’t tell me,” he said, “that you’re offering to cook. I’d trade you every Duke Ellington CD I own, in
exchange for one decent omelette.”
Hermione grinned. “That won’t be necessary,” she said. “Just come on over. After you’ve showered.”
“Honey, I knew as soon as I saw you that you were a smart cookie,” said Maxie as soon as the door was
closed behind him. “But I haven’t seen a girl move in that fast since FloJo ran the hundred-yard dash.”
She shook her head admiringly. “You are good.”
“Vive la weekend,” Hermione said, winking, and slipped off down the hall to beat some eggs.
Her night was looking up.

Chapter Three
Bill had had some close calls before, but this time he’d almost bought it, for sure. Stepping out of the
shower, he towelled himself dry - gingerly, in the case of his injured thigh - then knotted the damp bath
sheet around his hips and padded off to the foyer to dig his wand out of the pocket of his safari jacket.
Now that he’d gotten the worst of the grime off - finally! - he needed to close up those claw marks
before they turned nasty. He wasn’t much of a mediwizard, but no curse-breaker got far in this town
(or, in fact, this business), without being capable of basic self-diagnosis and first aid. He doused the
gashes with peroxide, just to be on the safe side - what the Muggles couldn’t match in fast healing, they
made up for in sterilization procedures - then muttered a rudimentary healing spell and watched them
crust over.
There. Not exactly at Poppy Pomfrey’s level, but it would do. Dropping his wand on the bed, he headed
off to his closet in search of some clean pants.
It hadn’t even been a terribly difficult assignment, that was the galling thing about it. Just a garden-
variety collection, from some poor schmo of a wizard who’d been stupid enough to take out a hefty
loan from Gringotts, and cocky enough not to think he had to pay it back.
Well, Collections had fixed his wagon - Bill was surprised he’d been able to give them the location of
the goods, after they got through with him. Not that Bill himself had anything to do with the rough
stuff; they only called him in once they had an address - in this case, Old Alexandria. The bank had
given him a week to do the recovery, along with a one-way Portvault in which to deliver the gold and a
fifty-Galleon advance against expenses incurred.
Well, he’d needed it - the time, at least, if not the money. The Alexandria address he’d been given had
turned out to be half a mile underground, in the middle of the Kom’esh-Shoqqafa Catacombs, in a
secret passageway behind an alabaster relief that depicted Ra and Jupiter having a communal Egypto-
Roman beer. He deserved the Hollywood Archaeologist of the Year Award, just for finding it.
Behind the hidden door, the passage itself had been guarded by a couple of Sahara sand trolls - smaller
and more clever than their big dumb mountain cousins, they were nevertheless nearsighted, with piggy,
heavy-lidded little eyes that they kept shut most of the time against blowing sand. They navigated and
hunted mostly by smell, which made them useful guard dogs in small dark passageways like this one;
‘human’ was an unaccustomed scent to them and therefore easy for them to track.
Hence - three days in the company of the camels. After that, Bill hadn’t even been able to smell
Once the trolls were located and neutralised - Bill was justly proud of his Stunning Spells - it had been
a simple matter to identify and break the wards on the sarcophagus that contained the gold, pile the
money into the Portvault, and send it back to Gringotts. In fact, his injury had nothing to do with the
assignment itself; it was merely his bad luck to have been sent after a sarcophagus that was hidden in
the same niche as a denning caracal with a not-yet-weaned litter.
By the time the first curious kitten came sniffing around his ankles, all bright eyes and silky black ear-
tufts and fuzz, he’d known he was in deep shit. Still, he’d accidentally disturbed wild animals before,
and they usually backed off once he’d apologetically vacated their marked territory. This miffed mama-
cat, however, had chased him all the way back to the exit, and given him a wicked little souvenir to
boot, courtesy of her claws.
Shrugging, he located his pants and was about to pull them on when he heard an odd sound coming
from the foyer.
It almost sounded like …
Oh, fuck.
Still in his underwear, he strode to his rucksack, yanked open the drawstring, and slapped his forehead
with a groan of disbelief.
Mama Caracal had gifted him with more than an attempted vasectomy, it seemed.
Inside the rucksack, wedged securely between his pickaxe and the small waterproof bag of Filibuster
fireworks he’d nicked from the twins to use as emergency flares or last-ditch weapons, a dust-coloured
puffball of a stowaway was curled up, purring like a freight train.
“She’s adorable,” Hermione said, stroking the fuzzy baby fur. “What a sweetheart. What are you going
to do with her?”
It took Bill a moment to answer, as his mouth was full. The omelette was a fluffy, delectable inch thick,
stuffed with chopped fresh herbs, caramelised onions, and crumbled gibna beida, the Egyptian variant
on feta cheese. His taste buds were weeping with gratitude, and from the looks of the little lynx - who’d
dined on a soft-boiled egg and was presently licking canned salmon paté off Hermione’s fingers - she
was similarly impressed.
“This is incredible,” he said, swigging mango juice. “You, Hermione Granger, are my hero; if you
hadn’t come to rescue me, I would have gone to bed on stale pretzels. You may find me on your
doorstep every night from now until you move out, salivating and begging for an encore.”
Hermione rolled her eyes. “Well, thanks. And you’re welcome any time - it’s just eggs, it’s nothing.”
She smeared more paté on her fingers. “What are you going to do with the cat?”
“Caracal,” Bill corrected. “Desert lynx. And I haven’t a clue.” He shrugged. “Now that we’ve touched
her, her mother won’t feed her any more, and might even kill her if we take her back. She’s too young
to survive on her own. And I wouldn’t wish the Cairo Zoo on my worst enemy; the animals there are in
terrible shape.”
The orphan in question flattened her tufted ears and yawned, displaying a row of tiny milk teeth and a
bluish-pink tongue. Hermione obligingly rubbed her under her fuzzy chin and melted as the kitten -
warm, full-bellied, and the centre of attention for the first time in her young life - began to purr.
“So you’ll keep her, then?” she asked, her voice carefully neutral. “Or do you have a familiar already?”
“Owl,” Bill said. “Name’s Satchmo. I’m away a lot; if I had a cat, it’d just be pissed off at me all the
time.” He frowned in recollection. “Where’s your cat, anyway? The big ginger tom with the squashy
“Crookshanks? Retired,” Hermione said, not without a touch of bitterness. “Mum’s really attached to
him; she didn’t want me to bring him - and he is getting on a bit, I suppose. I’m not sure how old he
was when I bought him in Diagon Alley, but he’s really slowed down in the past year or so.”
She caught her lower lip between her teeth, a gesture Bill found unspeakably sexy.
Actually, there wasn’t much he wasn’t finding sexy about her - Ron’s bookish little chum had grown up
and filled out in a most satisfactory fashion, and the fact that she could cook like Julia Child just put the
coconut icing on the German chocolate cake. Once she’d realised how hopeless her two older sons
were in the kitchen, his mum had made Ron and the twins learn basic culinary arts - boiling water,
making toast - but it was too late for Bill, and Charlie wasn’t much better off.
Of course, Bill liked good food, appreciated it. Whereas Charlie was more apt to put a chunk of raw
meat on a stick and hold it in the nearest stream of dragon breath, when he got hungry.
The nut.
Back to Hermione - well, it was clear that she and the caracal were in love, and that suited Bill down to
the ground. As the kitten’s foster father, after all, he’d have an excuse to drop in a few times a week -
bring a catnip mouse, a bottle of wine, settle down for dinner … and maybe, just maybe, convince
Hermione to put those pretty white hands all over him, too.
After all, the kitten seemed to be enjoying it.
“Looks like the two of you suit pretty well,” he remarked. “And a caracal would be a kick-ass familiar,
come to think of it - she’s just a fluffy little baby right now, but she’s going to grow up into one big,
scary mofo of a cat: fifteen kilograms, give or take, and two meters long. Great hunters, caracals - the
Iranians keep them tame for that very purpose. I’ve seen one leap six times its height to take down a
bird in flight; they can change direction in midair. A full-grown male can kill an antelope, if it’s small.”
He grinned at her. “Think you’re up to it?”
“There’s a basket on the kitchen counter,” Hermione said. “If we put a pillow in it, it’ll make a pretty
decent cat bed.”
Well, Bill thought, that settled that.
“I’ll get it,” he said, and unfolded himself from her far-too-comfortable sofa. “No sense waking her
Hermione wasn’t quite unpacked yet, he noticed on his way into the kitchen; there were still boxes in
the corners, piles of linens in neat plastic zipper-bags in the living room. Her furniture was good - she’d
obviously gotten top marks in Transfiguration - but it didn’t look as if she’d figured out where she
wanted it, yet.
Well, one good turn deserved another.
“Do you know the Relocation Charm?” he called over his shoulder.
“Relocation?” Hermione shook her head. “No, but it sounds useful. Do tell.”
“Oh, it is.” Bill handed her the basket and watched it sprout a gold velveteen cushion as she tapped it
with her wand. “Especially for moves, or for spring cleaning. It hasn’t been around for very long;
somebody got the idea from that old Muggle movie about the singing governess.”
Hermione frowned, stroking the sleeping caracal one last time before transferring her carefully to the
basket. “The Sound of Music?”
“No, the other one.” Bill thought for a moment. “It’s a name. Marty - Marcy -“
“Mary Poppins?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Piece of cake - here, I’ll show you.” He pointed to a series of boxes marked ‘Books’.
“You want those on the shelf?”
Hermione nodded.
“Okay. So it’s like Summoning, except that instead of calling the thing, you’re sending it.” He pointed
his wand at the boxes.
“Emigro bookshelf!”
“That,” Hermione said fervently, blinking in astonishment at the suddenly-empty boxes, at the books
flickering obediently into position on the shelves, one by one, “is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my
Bill grinned. “Well, we can’t all save the world,” he said, with a hint of an admiring glance in her
direction. “But that is a pretty useful little trick. Gringotts uses it all the time to transport money - I can
just send the treasure off to the vault, without having to carry it all over the place and risk getting
He closed his fist, to indicate the locked vault. “Emigro,” he said, “and it’s there. Voilà.”
Then his triumphant magician-pulling-out-the-rabbit smile faded, and he opened his hand slowly.
Hermione groaned inwardly.
He’d inadvertently Transported Gram’s lion-goddess from her velvet bag in Hermione’s underwear
drawer, to the centre of his palm. Not only that, but he was staring at it as if it was about to leap for his
“This is yours?” he asked quietly, all trace of his earlier bonhomie vanished. Hermione nodded, her
throat dry.
Two in the morning. And the night wasn’t over yet.

Chapter Four
“Let me get this straight,” Bill said. “Your grandmother - your Muggle grandmother - gave this to you?
She’s had it tucked away in a book vault in England for fifty years?” He shook his head.
He had gone quite pale under that very attractive suntan.
Fabulous, Granger, Hermione thought sourly. The one man in the world who’s seemingly angst-free -
no checkered past, no homicidal relatives, no death wish - and you can’t even have him over for dinner
- erm, that is, breakfast - without flipping him out. If you walked into the movies halfway through “The
Little Mermaid”, the projector would probably revolt and start showing “Apocalypse Now”.
Rather than give voice to that extremely depressing thought, she opted for a nod.
“I was planning to do some research on her,” she said, taking the statue back from Bill, who didn’t
seem to want to touch it any longer, “to find out who she is. Gram didn’t bother herself with the details
- if you knew how much jewelry she collected over the years, you wouldn’t be surprised - but the
admirer who gave her this piece said it was from an Egyptian tomb, that one of his ancestors had either
stolen it or bought it from the thief who had, and that it was some sort of goddess.”
She looked at him expectantly. “Do you have more information than that?”
Bill repressed a shudder. “Some sort of goddess,” he repeated, grimacing. “Well, that’s true enough.
This is a representation of the goddess Sekhmet; she was also known as the Eye of Re.”
“Sekhmet.” Hermione tried the name out speculatively. “Is she evil?” At Bill’s questioning look, she
shrugged. “Well, something’s obviously wrong with her, or you wouldn’t seem so … um, squicked.”
“I have nothing against Sekhmet herself,” Bill said, a bit hastily. “It’s her cult following I take issue
Hermione perked up. This was interesting. “Cult following?”
Bill sighed. “Mind if we sit down again?” he asked. “It’s been a long day.” At Hermione’s nod, he sank
onto the sofa and closed his eyes.
“Where to start,” he said. “Well, okay. I was seeing this girl.”
Hermione snorted. Bill’s eyes flew open, all injured innocence.
“Hey, it was my first year out of Hogwarts,” he said defensively. “I was as green as they come - and I
had a lot of money; Gringotts pays damn well. They have to, to find idiots like me who are willing to
grub around in the dirt and dodge curses for a paycheck.” He looked speculative for a moment.
“Anyway, I fell in with the American University crowd; not to be great friends with them, necessarily,
but enough to get invited to their parties. And I met a girl there, a halfblood witch. American. Taking a
year off from Stanford, on her daddy’s AmEx card, to see the world and pick up a couple of credits in
He passed his hand wearily over his eyes. “Well, things moved really fast. And I … um, got to know
her .. without, er, getting to know her. If you know what I mean.” He held up a long slim index finger.
“Thing One I didn’t know was that she was a member of the Sekhmet temple in Luxor. Thing Two I
didn’t know was that she was sort of - well -“ he hesitated, “unstable.”
Hermione’s eyebrows rose. “Unstable? How?”
Bill pondered this question for a minute. “Well, Sekhmet is the patron deity of medicine and healing, in
Egyptian mythology,” he said. “And she’s also sometimes known as the Mother Lioness. The protector
of the defenseless. So she tends to attract as followers those who have been victimised - or, as in my
ex’s case, think they’ve been victimised - and since it’s a goddess cult, her acolytes are primarily
women. Walk into a roomful of them, and you can cut the bitterness with a knife.”
“Okaaay,” Hermione said slowly. “But that’s just human nature, right? It isn’t really anything to do
with Sekhmet herself - she sounds pretty benevolent.”
Bill laughed.
“Not half,” he said. “I’m getting to that. What I just told you about her - that’s her good side. In her
other major incarnation, the one for which she’s actually better-known, she’s a vengeance goddess - the
Sun God’s personal enforcer. And she’s got a nasty taste for human blood.”
He rolled his eyes. “Anyway, back to the story about Lila - that was her name, Lila - well, by
coincidence, her temple had taken out a loan with Gringotts, in order to procure some ancient religious
texts that they regarded as holy relics. And I don’t know if attendance went down, or if the trust-fund
kids who made up half of that group got yanked back home, or what … but they reneged on the loan,
and Gringotts sent me to repossess the scrolls.”
Hermione winced. “Ouch.”
“’Ouch’ is right,” Bill said. “As you can imagine, they took it personally - Lila most of all. I spent a
solid fortnight dodging hexes from every corner of the city. I found scorpions in my shoes and snakes
in my bed; I’d open a new carton of milk and it’d turn to poison in my glass, eat right through to the
tabletop. I started to grow this green fuzzy stuff on my balls -“
He broke off, shuddering. “Well, we won’t get into all of that. I applied for a Hex Deflector to the
African Ministry of Magic and got turned down; they called it a domestic dispute and told me to send
her bloody roses, if you can believe it. And then my boss at Gringotts - goblin named Linchpin;
fabulous person to work for - found out what was happening and told me not to worry about it, that
she’d put a stop to it.”
Hermione was wide-eyed. “Wow,” she said. “Did she?”
Bill nodded. “I never found out how,” he said. “But that temple closed down for good, and Lila was
back with the Yanks within a week.”
“Huh,” Hermione said. “Well, good. What an awful thing to have happen to you.” She thought for a
minute. “But -“
“But what?”
She frowned. “Well, I understand completely why you’ve got a grudge against the Sekhmet-
worshippers. But you went dead white when you saw that statue … almost like it scared you. Surely,
those people aren’t a threat to you any longer, are they?”
To her surprise, Bill went brick-red.
“Um,” he said, and bit his lip. “I know it’s a big cop-out to say this, Hermione, but it’s a long story -
and I’m sort of tired. It might …” He broke off, flushing a shade deeper. “Er, well, it might actually be
the sort of thing you’d want to take up with Areli, when the two of you get a moment.”
And he wouldn’t say anymore.
Hermione named the caracal kitten Cleopatra.
She knew it wasn’t original, or for that matter particularly auspicious, but on the other hand, it seemed
to suit - and those enormous, tufted ears did definitely perk up at her soft call of “Cleo?” - especially
when there was a can of tuna involved.
Even without the added bribery of food, however, Cleo trailed her through the apartment like a small,
regal shadow, winding round Hermione’s ankles and - if not acknowledged soon enough or
enthusiastically enough - simply scrambling up to sit on Hermione’s shoulders, heedless of resulting
damage to fabric or skin. She communicated in an expressive mix of aboriginal-sounding hisses, clicks
and chirps, plus that amazing, basso profundo purr; Hermione had yet to hear her meow.
That is, until she kissed the kitten good-bye on Monday morning, put a waist-high Barrier Charm on
the kitchen doorway, and set off for the living-room hearth. She was halted by twin thumps - one as
Cleo hit the barrier, a second as she hit the floor - a plaintive squeak, and - with no further ado - a heart-
rending cry, thin and piercing as a terrified baby.
Or, Hermione thought, torn between amusement and pity, an air-raid siren.
The caterwauling continued until she dropped her bag and retraced her steps to the kitchen. Caracal and
witch regarded each other, unblinking. Then, Cleo made a little sound that sounded almost like a
hiccup, and made another run at the barrier.
“Oh, hell,” Hermione said, and Banished it with a wave of her wand so she could scoop up the kitten.
“What am I supposed to do now? It’s not like I can take you with me, you know.”
At that, Cleo began to purr.
She was still purring ten minutes later - cozily esconced in Hermione’s bag, hidden completely except
for those extraordinarily feathery ears - when Hermione emerged from the hearth into the Consortium’s
common room. Areli raised her eyebrows, and Hermione gave her a comic look of despair.
“Sorry,” she said. “I just got her - Bill found her, you see, and my cat was left in England - and she was
supposed to stay in the kitchen, but she cried …”
Areli laughed.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “We’re familiar-friendly around here - though, may I say - that’s one
hell of a familiar. She’s going to need a lot of running room; it’s a good thing we gave you the
penthouse suite.”
Actually, Hermione discovered, she’d gotten the top floor because no one else had wanted to climb the
stairs. Fine with her; the rooms were amazing; high-ceilinged, charmingly slope-walled, with white-
draped windows and grape-eating cherubim cavorting in the plaster moldings. The front room - the
smaller of the two - housed a state-of-the-art laboratory; the second, a roomy window seat flanked by
bookshelves, a fireplace she could have stood up in without bumping her head, and an inviting-looking
couple of armchairs. Through a partially closed door she could see a lavatory; behind a Chinese screen
gleamed a desk laden with enough technology to lift the Starship Enterprise.
“Wow,” she said, her throat dry. “Wow. Just … wow. If you had any idea how I longed for Internet
access at Hogwarts …” She gestured helplessly at the room. “This is amazing, Areli. I mean -
“I consider it an investment,” Areli said lightly. “In your future, and in mine as well.” She waved her
wand at the empty expanse of wall next to one of the bookshelves and said something Hermione didn’t
catch; what appeared there could only be described as a cat-castle, all carpeted battlements and snug
niches. Another wave, and a swarm of white butterflies began to flutter in lazy circles in the center of
the room, two feet off the ground. “Watch,” she said softly - and indeed, it wasn’t long before the
telescopic ears in Hermione’s bag twitched and the entire kitten propelled herself out onto the floor.
“Ever hear the saying, ‘to set a cat amongst the pigeons’?” she asked. “That’s a caracal saying - the
ancient Persians used to imprison a flock of birds, loose a caracal into the pen, and take bets on how
long it would take the cat to kill them all.”
Hermione shivered. “That’s pleasant,” she said dryly. Areli laughed.
“Barbaric, of course. But it’s what the cat’s built for - even now, look at your baby; she’s a slave to her
Sure enough, Cleo was leaping into the swarm of white, her fuzzy pink-padded paws surprisingly agile
and quick to pin the hapless butterflies to the ground. Hermione was relieved to see that each captured
flutterby dissolved from beneath the kitten’s claws like a curl of fog and rose into the air again to
continue its flight.
“See?” Areli said quietly, not looking at her. “We are what we are, and as much as we try to change
ourselves, we still keep circling round; the display may change, but not the window.”
Hermione sent her a sharp glance.
“What do you mean by that?” she demanded, a bit unsettled, and Areli looked her straight in the eyes.
“That you don’t have to make yourself worthy of this place,” she said. “Because you already are.”
Hermione spent a pleasant hour or so immersed in the delights of the computer, then retired to the
windowseat with a book on twentieth-century potions - Areli had stocked the bookshelves with
supplementary topic-related reading and suggested Hermione spend her first few weeks acquainting
herself with the contents, as much of the recent work done in the field hadn’t yet been Ministry-
approved for inclusion in the Hogwarts curriculum.
It was interesting reading - and immensely satisfying, to skim along through the book; her every mutter
recorded by the Dictoquill at her side, her left shoulder growing slightly numb under the purring weight
of a sleepy kitten. Research was its own sort of trance, after all - and so when Areli poked her head in
with a covered tray aromatic with the smell of roasted chicken and spices, Hermione jumped; she’d lost
track of time.
They were halfway through lunch when she remembered to ask about the jade statue of Sekhmet. At its
mention, Areli looked puzzled.
“Sekhmet?” She tore off another piece of flat, round bread - a’aish in Arabic, the same word they used
for life - and chewed it thoughtfully. “One of the goddess cults - it’s a legitimate religion, though
certain of its adherents occasionally turn militant. Why?”
Hermione explained about Gram and about the pendant, finishing up with Bill’s odd reaction to it. “He
said I should ask you,” she said. “He seemed very uncomfortable with the whole thing.”
Areli, unpredictably, laughed. “It’s because your pendant’s made of jade,” she said. “And because
Molly Weasley raised him to be a good boy, and he still is one, despite all his attempts to be a badass.”
She sipped her juice. “There’s a legend,” she said - “a very ancient legend, that’s odd by Egyptian
standards because it’s not found anywhere in writing; it’s been passed down for centuries upon
centuries by oral tradition, generally from mother to daughter. You know of the female pharoah
“Vaguely,” Hermione said. Areli nodded.
“Well, she had a daughter, the princess Neferure, who according to legend was much beloved, and who
Hatshepsut intended to succeed her. From what we know now, both Hatshepsut and Neferure died
under mysterious circumstances - the legend has it that they were murdered by the next-in-line to the
throne, Tuthmosis III - Neferure first, and then the queen herself.”
She tucked a strand of thick black hair behind her ear. “As the story goes, Hatshepsut had been a healer,
and therefore a follower of Sekhmet. The night her daughter was killed, she called on the goddess in a
frenzy born out of her grief, and plunged her hands into the Nile - and from the water, grasped a
likeness of the goddess herself, fashioned in jade.” Her voice was deep and hypnotic, lost in the story
she was telling. “Through the statue, Sekhmet the Avenger spoke to the queen, and promised her justice
for her daughter, and, by extension, for all the daughters of Egypt.”
“Interesting,” Hermione said. “What happened then?”
Areli shrugged.
“The statue was given a collar, and placed in Neferure’s tomb as an amulet of protection - however, it
was whispered, and is still whispered, that whenever Egyptian women are in mortal peril, the jade
pendant will find its chosen handmaiden, like Sekhmet a healer and a warrior both, known as the Jade
Priestess - and that she will exact Sekhmet’s vengeance on earth.”
She looked pensive for a moment. “Of course, Neferure’s tomb was looted long ago, so we’ll never
know if she actually wore a jade amulet or not. In the centuries since, there have been more than a few
women proclaiming themselves to be the Jade Priestess, and more than a few jade Sekhmets - but
there’s not yet been an amulet discovered that’s widely accepted as the genuine original. Jade wasn’t
common in ancient Egypt, after all.”
Hermione felt a chill run down her spine, but shook it off impatiently.
“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” she said, absently petting Cleo behind the ears. “What about
that story makes Bill so uncomfortable?”
“Oh. Well.” Areli bit back a smile. “He didn’t want to say anything that could be later construed as
being offensive, that’s all.”
“What do you mean?”
Areli spent a moment carefully choosing a grape. “Well, the cult of Sekhmet, and the tale of the Jade
Priestess - apart from the sector of the expatriate community that has embraced it in the name of
feminism - has always flourished more or less in secret, among those women who have the most to
gain from it. The poor, the oppressed, the abused.” She hesitated. “Those women,” she said finally,
“believe utterly in its existence, because it gives them hope - even the many of them who are forbidden
by religion to participate in goddess worship do so, alone or among themselves, keeping utter secrecy
from their fathers and husbands. The Jade Priestess is very real to them, and it’s real to those men who
forbid it, as well; more than one woman has died by her husband’s hands, for daring to worship
Sekhmet, or Bast, or Ma’at.”
She rolled the grape around in her fingers. “But the literati,” she said - “the middle class, the educated,
the cynical - though they’re aware of the legend, it has no meaning for them. So among moneyed and
literate Egyptians, a Jade Priestess is nothing more than derogatory slang for a strong-willed woman …
a woman who might, in another culture, be referred to as a ‘ballbreaker’.”
“That,” she said, “is why Bill Weasley didn’t want to mention it to you - because news of your power,
and your accomplishments, are already spreading throughout the wizarding world, and because there
are those who - should you keep going at your current rate - might someday refer to you in those
terms.” She shrugged. “He wanted to make sure he wasn’t one of them, even accidentally. Quite sweet,
“It is, isn’t it?” Hermione said, her brain whirling.
But long after Areli had gone, she sat pensively with Cleo in her lap, feeling cold despite the warm sun
through the window. And it was nearly three o’ clock before she could refocus on her book.
Chapter Five
In her dream, she was a caracal in a cage, jumping at pigeons just out of reach. Over and over she
launched herself skyward into the fluttering flock, only to fall back bruised to the ground. Their cooing
and flapping taunted her; she felt a primeval killing rage come over her, buzzing through her from
muzzle to pinned-back ears to powerful hindquarters, down to the very tips of her extended claws.
With the anger came power. She coiled herself against the cage’s floor, following the flicker of their
grey wings, and waited for the moment, her muscles taut and almost too tightly wound to contain.
She jumped again. And caught one.
She could feel its terror, the momentary limpness as she stunned it and slapped it down to the ground -
and then, as it came to itself, the ineffectual beating of wings against her paw.
But something was wrong.
It wasn’t a bird.
Not a bird at all, but rather one of Professor Flitwick’s winged keys, from her first year at Hogwarts.
She prodded it cautiously, all her rage turned to dismay and curling dread, but it wouldn’t move.
It was broken. She’d killed it. The wings were sadly mangled, the key itself bent at an unnatural angle,
so that it looked like a broken bone.
It would never fit the lock now.
She was trapped.
And then: “Come this way,” said a voice, and she looked up, startled, to see a woman with a lion’s
head, holding out her hand by another door she hadn’t noticed before. “It’s the only way out now,” the
woman said, smiling.
The smile looked odd and strained on the lion’s face; like a grimace, like the bloated death-mask of a
drowned man. Hermione hung back, unsure.
In the distance, she heard the screaming of women. And woke up, sweating.
What was that Trelawney had said, once? Ah, yes: I perceive very little of the Aura about you, my dear.
Ha, Hermione thought wildly, clutching her pillow. Eat dirt, Trelawney, you batty old fraud.
And then, with a sinking cold feeling in her gut: I think I might be the Jade Priestess.
Scary, that, on a variety of levels. And Hermione wasn’t sure what unsettled her the most - the idea of
being shanghaied into adopting some sort of vigilante superhero persona because of a centuries-old,
Pharoanic curse, or the fact that she was once again holding the jade statue in one sweaty hand … when
she distinctly remembered putting it back in its velvet bag and burying it under her flowered cotton
nightie, right after Bill had left early on Saturday morning.
She dropped it abruptly, wiped her damp hand on the comforter.
She glanced warily at the drawer. It was decorously closed. Further inspection found the velvet bag, its
drawstring thrice-knotted just the way she’d left it, still tucked into the undisturbed folds of the
Well, that left out sleepwalking. If she’d gotten it out in her sleep, she had certainly done a careful job
of it, Hermione thought.
The alternative, on the other hand, didn’t bear thinking about.
Somehow, she got through the rest of the week without more dreams - or maybe it was just that she was
too tired to remember them. Reading wasn’t the only catch-up work Hermione had to do; Areli had also
arranged for her to take beginning Arabic classes at the American University, and pre-med biology and
chemistry across the street from the Consortium, at Cairo University itself.
Cleo, was Hermione’s first thought upon learning this - but the caracal didn’t seem to mind being left
behind; staying by herself in the sunny, roomy cat paradise of the Consortium was very different,
apparently, from being barricaded into Hermione’s efficiency kitchen. It wasn’t uncommon for
Hermione to leave her sleeping in the window seat and return from class to find that she hadn’t moved.
The homework wasn’t so bad, but the classes themselves were exhausting - each for different reasons.
The students in her Arabic class were mostly expatriates, like the ones Bill had mentioned - rich kids,
accustomed to privilege, many of them British or American. This had its advantages - no language
barrier, for one thing; they were all beginners like herself. Still, though she firmly suppressed all
magical tendencies from the moment she Apparated into the far stall in the women’s lavatory in the
Arabic Studies building, though she dutifully dressed up for class in the fashionable, body-conscious
Western clothes she’d gotten last summer from Giulia, Hermione didn’t feel she had much in common
with them. Nor, for that matter, did she particularly want to rectify that; this was certainly a different
world from the rest of Cairo, but it wasn’t necessarily a better one.
Plus, Bill’s horror story about Lila-the-Ex had sunk into her subconscious to stay. She didn’t need green
fuzz growing on any parts of her, to top off everything else.
The pre-med classes at Cairo University were as different from the trust-fund playground across the
river as chalk and cheese. It was a good thing that the African Ministry of Magic was so lax about
Muggle security, Hermione reflected - back in the British Isles, she’d never have been able to use the
Comprehension Charm, a nifty little translating spell which was the only thing presently getting her
through the sea of Arabic in which the class was conducted.
She did wish she could use a dictoquill, but of course that was out of the question. Apart from the
magic factor, however, these classes were everything she could have hoped for in college courses - the
students were mostly local, of moderate means (public education in Egypt, even at the university level,
was free, after all) and ruthlessly upwardly mobile, meaning that the class was quiet, orderly, and all-
business. She wore her black Hogwarts robes, with the crests charmed off, and found that they
provoked not the slightest interest - four out of the other six girls in her class were similarly draped
from neck to ankle, and two of them also wore a higab, the traditional headscarf.
One of the higab-wearers sought Hermione out in the university cafeteria after class one day, seeking a
chance to practice her conversational English - which didn’t, Hermione thought, need much practice at
all; it was excellent.
Her name was Itmana, which she said meant hope in Arabic, and she proved, to Hermione’s delight, to
be surprisingly outspoken over lunch.
“I’m not religious,” she confided halfway through dessert, pointing to the elaborately knotted scarf.
“My father is, though. Very traditional. My mother, too, but for herself, not for me. That’s how I came
to live in Cairo, with my aunt and uncle - my parents are still in the country.” She sent Hermione a
narrow glance. “Do you know about circumcision?”
“Um.” Hermione frowned, puzzled at the abrupt turn of the conversation. “I think so … ceremonial
removal of the foreskin, right?”
Itmana laughed.
“For boys, yes,” she said, with a flick of her eyebrows toward the table of male students nearest them.
“Relatively minor, no? For girls?” She brought the side of her hand down hard on the table as if it was
a guillotine blade. “They take a razor,” she said, leaning toward Hermione and lowering her voice, “and
they cut out your clitoris. The whole thing.”
Hermione gasped.
“Surely, though … that’s not … um.” She foundered to a halt, feeling her cheeks burning. “It’s not … I
don’t want to be rude, forgive me … but it’s not a religious thing, is it?”
“No,” Itmana said. “Not religious. Muslims do it, and the Coptic Christians do it too. It’s tradition.”
She shrugged. “When you’re six or eight or ten - it varies. All the country girls have it done. You can’t
get a good husband if you don’t, or so they tell you. But my mother and my aunt, they had theirs done
on the same day - and” - here she leaned forward again - “the midwife had a dull blade. She had to cut
three times on my mother. Took four women to hold her down.”
Hermione shuddered and pushed away her plate. Itmana tossed her head, looking secretly pleased at
Hermione’s queasiness.
“Well, anyway,” she said, warming to her subject, “she put it off for me as long as she could, and then
when I turned ten and my father said it had to be done, she sent me to my aunt in Cairo, who
remembered, and was sympathetic.” She peeled her orange and popped the first slice into her mouth
with relish. “And I still might not have escaped - I know one girl who had it done the week before her
wedding, if you can believe it, because her fiancé’s parents found out she wasn’t cut and objected - if
my grades hadn’t been so high. Once I passed the entrance exams and was accepted into the pre-med
program, they stopped worrying so much about finding me a husband.”
“Oh? Why is that?” Hermione asked, intrigued.
“Well,” said Itmana, “marriage is all about your class, and in Egypt, class is all about money. If I get
through medical school and become a doctor, I’ll no longer be a suitable wife for anyone that my
family knows. Because of the money I make and my level of education, I’ll have to marry into the
professional class - in which case it won’t really matter so much that I haven’t gone under the knife.
That’s a very old custom, a country custom; it predates Christianity, Islam - anything, really. Old as
“Huh,” Hermione said. “But then - if you’re not religious - why do you cover up your hair?”
Itmana looked momentarily startled. “Oh - that,” she said, returning to her original topic. “Well, that’s
just for practical reasons. A woman wearing the higab is left alone in public; covering my head gives
me freedom in this city that I wouldn’t otherwise have. Girls in Western dress, and girls who aren’t
Egyptian, get hassled all the time - surely you’ve noticed?”
Hermione nodded feelingly. It was true; she’d ventured into the Khan al-Khalili bazaar last weekend to
pick up some postcards, and despite her conservative dress - a long linen skirt and matching duster -
had been compelled to cut her visit short due to a barrage of unwanted male attention. “I got three
marriage proposals on Saturday,” she said ruefully, and wasn’t surprised when Itmana laughed.
“You have to know how to be invisible,” she said, her fingers straying to the knot of her headscarf.
“You keep your head down, you don’t smile, you don’t look straight in their eyes. You keep your hand
at your side - out stiff, like this -“ she demonstrated - “and wave them off if they so much as look cross-
eyed at you. And then if they approach you, you call them every insulting name you can think of, as
loudly as you possibly can.”
Hermione snorted. “Sounds like fun.”
“Of course, in your case,” Itmana said thoughtfully, scanning Hermione from curly head to loafered
toes, “it might not hurt to go … undercover. Even more than you already are, that is.” She cocked her
head to one side. “Want to give it a try, Saturday morning?”
Hermione looked up, startled, into a pair of dark kohl-lined eyes that were, for all their gorgeous
odalisque intensity, surprisingly mischievous. She thought fleetingly of Ginny, of the occasional night
spent down in Parvati and Lavender’s room, succumbing with reluctant curiosity to boy-magazines and
gossip, and felt an unexpected pang of homesickness.
In all her wild imaginings about Egypt, she’d never thought to give herself a girlfriend.
It could be nice.
“Okay,” she said. “Sure - I’m game.”
“Going undercover” turned out to mean just that; Itmana showed up on Saturday morning at their
rendezvous point next to the university medical centre, bearing two bundles of black cloth - one for
Hermione, one for herself. It was a burqa, Hermione realised as she shook out her bundle in the
women’s lavatory and pulled it over her head; the all-encompassing robe worn only by ultra-
conservative Muslims, which covered even her head and left only her eyes visible, behind a screen of
fine grey mesh.
Inside the thing, she felt sort of like Darth Vader. It was hot, too.
But once they were out on the streets, she realised Itmana was right - she might as well have been
invisible. The two of them wandered all over the bazaar arm-in-arm, Egyptian-style, carrying on a low-
voiced conversation practically into each others’ ears, through the cotton cloth, and inspecting the
merchandise without so much as a forward finger lifted by the same men who’d practically stalked
Hermione just days before. By the time she’d haggled over and purchased her postcards and souvenirs -
the Comprehension Charm firmly in place, the mesh veil surreptitiously treated with a Transparency
Spell - she felt almost euphoric.
Or maybe that was heatstroke.
She said good-bye to Itmana shortly before lunchtime - if she didn’t get back, Cleo would have the
place torn apart - ducked into a public toilet, and Apparated back to her apartment. As she dropped her
bags on the sofa, she noticed that the answering-machine was blinking.
She had a message! Cool.
It was from Bill:
Hope you’re not working too hard. Have procured a nice Pouilly-Fuissé which is feeling stoppered up
and is yearning to breathe free. Dinner tonight?
A pause. Unless you call to beg off, I’m coming over. I’ll eat anything.
Apparently, she hadn’t scared him off permanently.
Cool, Hermione thought, and went off to the dining-room table to write her postcards.
She had a lot to report.

Chapter Six
She knew perfectly well that it didn’t matter what she wore.
Bill, after all, was bound to turn up in his invariable uniform of khaki trousers worn white at the knees
and a light-coloured, casual button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to show off his forearm
muscles and his yummy tan. If he were any better at the Sexy Adventurer thing, Hermione reflected,
he’d be making millions posing for cigarette advertisements.
Still, it never hurt to make an effort, did it?
She finished her postcards and set the ones to her parents and to Gram aside to mail. A wave of her
wand later, and the crumpled bag she’d carried them home in was now a dignified-looking brown owl.
Thank goodness for Replicate, Hermione thought, waving her wand again while counting off in her
head how many deliveries she needed to be made - Harry, Ron, Draco, Snape, Ginny, Sal, oh dear,
that’s six right there. She hoped that newly Transfigured and Replicated owls were all right for
delivering mail; she’d remembered to include the letter-harness on their legs, at least, and they did
seem full of purpose as they soared, one by one, out of her open window.
Well, we’ll hope for the best.
It was two o’ clock, and she was already yawning; it’d been a long week, and her morning traipsing
around in the broiling early-September sun didn’t help either. Trailing into her bedroom, she found
Cleo asleep in the middle of the bed, surrounded by the remains of a mutilated bedroom slipper. Its
mate lay disconsolate on the floor by the bed - no doubt awaiting its turn for execution later.
Hermione, surveying the carnage with philosophical resignation, decided that the kitten had the right
idea - considering that she had a date tonight, a short nap was in order. Besides, Bill Weasley kept late
She kicked off her shoes and snuggled down onto the pillows.
Four o’ clock. She showered leisurely, slathered on gardenia-scented body lotion, and went to sort
through her closet for something appropriately casual yet suitably romantic.
You’re an idiot for even thinking about romance right now, said the Voice of Caution in her head.
Remember what happened last time? Face-to-face with the Big Ugly himself, and then after that you
couldn’t even get the happy ending right.
Oh, shut up.
That was the Voice of Caution’s go-for-broke alter-ego, the Daredevil. Hermione seemed to remember
that the last time she’d listened to the Daredevil, she’d ended up over the Potions Master’s knee. And
though the memory was, by and large, a mostly-tantalising one at this point - worth it, in her opinion,
just for the glimpse of the raging inferno lurking beneath Severus Snape’s icy exterior - the Voice of
Caution was quick to remind her that it had actually been sort of traumatising at the time.
Do you really need to start this up again? said the Voice, a bit petulantly. If you’d listened to me, none
of that nonsense would ever have happened.
Exactly, shot back the Daredevil. Draco would be dead, the Muggle-borns in Scotland would be a
sticky green puddle on the grass, and Voldemort would still be out there, plotting murder and mayhem,
instead of holding down the faculty-meeting minutes on Dumbledore’s desk. Fat lot of good THAT
would do us.
Hmmph, said the Voice, frostily. I still think you ought to concentrate on your studies. But obviously
what I have to say doesn’t matter.
Damn straight.
Okay, Hermione thought - cut it out, ladies; it’s just dinner, after all.
And immediately felt stupid for talking to herself.
The dress she eventually chose owed little to the virtue of caution - one of Giulia’s bequests from the
previous summer, it was a cornflower-blue sheath held up by spaghetti straps, gently fitted but perfectly
demure. Until she turned around, that is - the back of the bodice was nothing but more of those tiny
crisscrossing straps, from neckline to dimples.
Dressed to impress, she eschewed the addition of shoes to the outfit - the flat had only two kinds of
flooring; deep pile carpeting and pleasantly cool granite tile, both foot-friendly in the extreme - and
padded into the kitchen to check out the contents of the refrigerator.
It was a good thing she’d done her marketing, the afternoon previous - and that, failing to find the
deboned chicken breasts on her list (the government-owned butcher shop she’d been in was so far a cry
from the British supermarkets of her acquaintance and their neat shrink-wrapped packages of meat, that
it might as well have been on the moon), she had settled instead for the entire bird, freshly gutted and
plucked and still in possession of its scaly yellow feet.
She dealt summarily with that issue and, shuddering, dropped the feet into the dustbin. Eeeeurgh.
Similarly eeurgh, if to a lesser extent, were the pinfeathers still remaining in the bird; plucking them
out, Hermione could all too easily imagine the chicken running free in all its pre-decapitated, feathered
glory, clucking and flapping and eating corn, or bugs, or … well, whatever chickens ate here … which
led her to yet another mental image she could have done without, thank you very much.
At least they hadn’t left the head on. She didn’t think she could have dealt with that.
She rubbed down the bird with salt and olive oil, stuffed it with quartered lemons and minced garlic,
and had just put it in the oven to roast when Bill knocked on the door.
He had a bottle tucked under one arm, a bunch of daisies in the other, and a string-wrapped brown
paper parcel dangling from one finger that turned out, when opened, to be chopped raw filet of
something-or-other; whatever it was, Cleo attacked it as if she hadn’t eaten in a week, then returned to
rub amiably against Bill’s ankles. He reached down to scritch her behind her ears and grinned at
“See, I’ve charmed your cat,” he said with a persuasive twinkle. “Now - if I thought you were half as
easy to please, I’d go to my grave a happy man.”
Now what did you say to that? Hermione, aware that she was blushing, rolled her eyes to compensate.
“You’re certainly quite the ladies’ man, Bill Weasley,” she said, as sternly as she could manage. “I
suppose you charmed some passing French girl out of this wine; I didn’t think you could get Pouilly-
Fuissé in Cairo.”
He followed her into the kitchen, sniffed appreciatively at the hints of lemon and garlic beginning to
waft from the oven, and went rummaging through her flatware drawer for a corkscrew without asking
first. “Well, it’s easy enough to buy alcohol here if you aren’t choosy about what you get,” he said,
peeling back the wrapper and prying up the dab of wax on top of the cork. “Those of us with more …
discerning … tastes -“ here, he winked - “have to take our opportunities where we find them.”
“Let me guess,” Hermione said tartly, biting back a smile. “You know a guy who knows a guy.” Bill
looked hurt.
“Are you accusing me of acquiring this wine in a disreputable manner?” he asked, hand splayed across
his heart in an attitude of mock outrage so comical that Hermione couldn’t quite stifle a giggle.
“Because I’ll have you know that the truck it fell off of was of the highest possible reputation.”
That brought her up short. “You stole it?”
Bill laughed. “No, of course not,” he said, and winked again, so she didn’t know whether or not to
believe him. “Got it at the airport. Duty-free shop.”
Somewhat deflated, Hermione watched him turn her salt and pepper shakers into two tall slim wine
goblets, taking the glass he handed her and sipping gingerly at the contents - her parents drank wine
occasionally, as did Gram, but she wasn’t in the habit of partaking herself. This wasn’t bad - quite the
contrary, in fact; it started off with an appealing sparkle of fruit, then mellowed and warmed as it slid
down her throat. Like butter on her tongue, that’s what it was, and the first swallow went to her head so
thoroughly that she didn’t resist when he pried the glass gently out of her hand.
“Ah-ah-ah,” he said reprovingly, somehow managing to set the glass safely aside while snaking his free
arm around her waist at the same time. “You’re not supposed to drink until we toast. It’s bad luck.”
“Oh,” Hermione said faintly. “Sorry.”
He smelled like soap and hot desert sunshine, a heady, foreign mix that seemed positively exotic to her,
used as she was to Scotland’s rain and damp grass. She swayed a little, and he steadied her with that
iron band of an arm behind her back, warm against her bare skin. “Sorry doesn’t cut it,” he said, a bit
thickly - “not in this case. You’re going to have to make it up to me. That bad luck is a killer, you
“How -“ How had she gotten so close to him, that was the question - but she couldn’t seem to ask it.
“How am I supposed to do that?”
He edged a little closer. “I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
Bill knew he wasn’t being particularly smooth, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself.
Oh, good job, Indiana. Run screaming from her apartment in the dead of night, then immediately back
her into a corner the next time you see her. That’s EXACTLY what James Bond would do.
Of course, the business with the Sekhmet statue had been freaky. No doubt about it. Not only because
of his unpleasant experience in Luxor, but also because of that particular pendant itself. He’d seen jade
Sekhmet amulets before, but this one had buzzed in his hand in a way that was most disconcerting, and
not exactly what he’d call pleasant.
And probably a good indication that he should give little Hermione Granger a wide berth, just in case -
after all, you didn’t get to be Gringotts’ top cursebreaker in the North Africa-Middle East region,
without developing a healthy respect for the local superstitions along the way.
The problem was, he didn’t think he was going to be able to do that. The lady was far too intriguing.
He’d even broken one of his cardinal rules, earlier that week - never mix family and romance - and
owled Ginny for information: exactly how hung up on Draco Malfoy was Hermione, anyway? As it
turned out, he needn’t have bothered; his owl came back with this terse note scribbled beneath his own
- Ask her yourself, if you want to know so badly. And if you break her heart, I’m telling Mum.
It figured.
Well, if she was really still mooning over Malfoy, they wouldn’t be on separate continents - now, would
they? And he most certainly wouldn’t be standing in her kitchen right now, inhaling the intoxicating
aroma of roasting chicken and wondering exactly what she was wearing underneath that cobweb of a
Whatever it was, it couldn’t be much.
Now, she was so close that he could hear her quick shallow breathing, feel the silky brush of curls on
the underside of his jaw. Had he moved in too fast? was she scared of him? But no, even as he started
to back off again, she tipped her head up to look him in the eyes, and laughed - the lowest, huskiest
thread of pure sex he’d ever heard.
“I’ll think of something, huh?” she said. “Sounds like a challenge to me.”
And then she kissed him.
It had been so goddamn long.
September - it was September! - and she hadn’t done this since that fateful trip into Hogsmeade last
winter, when she’d followed Lucius Malfoy unwittingly into the snow and emerged again a different
person than she’d left. Afterwards, there’d been Draco - who she couldn’t bear to touch. And Snape,
who withdrew from her embrace like a child from forbidden sweets: reluctant, but steadfast.
The more she pursued him, the more he drew back. Perhaps that was the nature of things, Hermione
thought, to stalk like prey the Reluctant Beloved - it would certainly explain why she’d kept running
after him, despite all admonishments to the contrary, and away from Draco, who’d been all too eager to
Weird. But hardly worth thinking about right now, in this ecstatic moment when for once the magnets
were turned round the right way and their lips seemed destined to collide, as if they’d been on this set
course since birth.
Heat pooled inside her, a slow sweet drip like sunwarmed honey. She reached up and took what she
wanted - and oh God, the taste, the feel, the skittering sensation of half-forgotten nerve endings flaring
once again into Red Alert as their mouths met and melded and ooooohhh, there was that hookup of
electric current that raced from lips to cunt to nipples and resounded even in her toes, in the pads of her
fingers: Hermione Granger, Switchboard Girl.
Ready for liftoff. All systems go. No problem, Houston.
He made some small indeterminate sound into her mouth - changed the angle of the kiss to something
deeper and more demanding, one hand threading into her hair, the fingers of the other weaving
themselves into the straps of her dress to splay across her bare back. Ohhhh, Hermione thought, and felt
her whole body shudder under the force of that swamping sensation, the need inside her a crouching,
growling cat all claws and teeth and sheer awakened urge. She pressed herself more firmly against him
and felt the cat inside ready itself to spring.
Merlin in knickers, he felt good.
She hiked herself up against him, using her hands on his shoulders to shimmy up his body and hold on
- ah, that was better, that was good; that was everything most sensitive about her pressed against
everything most complementary about him, and he was no stranger to the game, oh no, he’d
immediately lifted her and turned with her so she was supported against the cabinets, so she could lean
back and he could nuzzle his way into that sensitive crease below her jaw and ….
Christ, were the Martians invading?
Befuddled, annoyed, she lifted her head woozily and peered around her through glazed eyes.
No Martians. Just the oven timer.
Oh. Dinner. Right.
Suddenly a bit embarrassed, she gave Bill a tentative shove and felt relieved and bereft in equal parts,
as he obligingly stepped back to let her down. “Excuse me,” she muttered, not looking at him. “Have to
check on the chicken.”
“Right,” he said. To his benefit, he sounded as shocked as Hermione felt. “Um - I’ll just … well, I’ll
just go wash up then, shall I?”
The minute he’d disappeared around the corner, Hermione slapped irritably at the still-beeping timer, to
shut it off, and slumped into the nearest chair, shaking her head.
The Voice of Caution had fled.
And the Daredevil was taking over.
No telling what was going to happen next.

Chapter Seven
He was just preparing to leave the Great Hall, after a half-hour of shoving his dinner around his plate
untouched and using his trademark scowl to its customary conversation-discouraging advantage, when
a brown owl came plummeting toward him from one of the open windows and dropped a small
package in his lap. Pushing his plate toward the owl in invitation it looked a bit blurry around the edges
- he weighed the package in one hand and surveyed the mailing label assessingly.
Ah, yes. He’d know that penmanship anywhere.
To the casual observer, Severus Snape’s expression didn’t alter … nor was his demeanor noticeably
more hurried as he stowed the little parcel inside his robes, stood, and swept determinedly toward the
door. As he passed the Gryffindor table, however, he paused.
The Weasley-Potter contingent - two red heads, one black - was huddled over what appeared to be a
slim stack of postcards, murmuring amongst themselves.
" … new familiar …"
" … fabulous office …"
" … pre-med classes? Good grief." That last came from Ron. Snape, darkly amused, rolled his eyes and
was about to move on when …
" … having dinner with Bill tonight," Ginny said meaningfully, with a sideways glance at Ron, who
glowered. For once, Severus was in complete sympathy with him. Having your flashy, brilliant older
brother move in on your Seven-Year Crush couldn’t be easy.
It was bad enough to hear about it secondhand, knowing that he’d had the power of first refusal.
Fixing his scowl more firmly across his face, he swept toward the dungeons.
He waited to open the package until he was in his rooms - the fire built, the door locked and warded,
water on the boil for tea. Inside the brown paper wrappings were two smaller boxes, rubber-banded
together with a folded piece of stationery sandwiched between them. Severus withdrew the note first.
Professor -
As I recall, you mentioned once that this particular grind of coarse Egyptian saffron, which we used in
class last year to make our Chameleon Compounds, was rather difficult to come by in the British Isles.
I’m enclosing a few grams of it in this package, to replace the bit that Neville spilled; perhaps you’ll
find it in your heart to forgive him that particular transgression now?
His lips quirked up at the corners before he could stop them. Typical, that she’d still be worrying about
her hapless lab partner, despite the fact that she’d dreaded sharing a workbench with him. If no one else
missed her presence at Hogwarts, Longbottom more than made up for that lack, all on his own.
He continued to read.
The other box contains hibiscus tea, which I seem to remember you favouring. I hope it finds you in
good health.
I miss you. No one here quite comes up to your standards of artistic bad humour - I’m afraid the
Egyptians don’t deal much in sarcasm. I’m getting quite nostalgic for it.
Severus laughed out loud.
Brat, he thought, still chuckling, and continued past her signature to a hastily scrawled postscript.
P.S. Thank you for the jade scarab; it’s beautiful - and has in its own way laid the groundwork for a
most intriguing mystery. You don’t happen to know anything about the legend of the Jade Priestess, do
The Jade Priestess. Severus frowned.
Where had he heard of that before?
Well, it bore looking into. He’d learned from direct experience that nothing happened to Hermione
Granger merely by accident.
Putting the mystery aside for later perusal, he opened the two tiny boxes of spice and inhaled - ahh,
there was Egypt, right there; yin and yang, musk and flowers - as complicated and potentially
dangerous as Hermione herself.
The kettle whistled - Sal would be along at any moment. With a last lingering glance at the note, he got
up to make the tea.
"So, how did it end, then?" Bill was asking. "Were you the dumper, or the dumpee?"
Hermione took another sip of wine.
She was halfway through her third glass, and her previous embarrassment hadn’t so much fled, as
"Dumpee," she said. "According to him, he broke up with me because I - get this - ‘wasn’t in love with
him’. How’s that for irony?"
Bill considered this. "Not too shabby," he admitted, then quirked a curious eyebrow at her. "Were you in
love with him?"
Hermione inspected the contents of her goblet, as if expecting to find answers in its canary-diamond
depths. "No," she said finally, and took another fortifying sip. "Truth be told, I was sort of hung up on
someone else." She studied him from beneath her lashes. "I suppose that makes me an awful person."
To her surprise, Bill seemed utterly unfazed by this confession. "Not really," he said. "People have a
thousand reasons for intimacy - I’m sure yours were valid in both cases. It’s not as if you act without
honour, you know."
Hermione eyed him curiously. "That’s remarkably cosmopolitan of you."
"What can I say? I’m a millenium man." Bill topped off her glass with the remainder of the wine still in
the bottle, then took a ruminative sip from his own goblet.
"So," he said. "Do I know this other guy, or not?"
Draco was in the Beauxbatons library, working on his History of Magic paper about sorcery in the
French Revolution. He had to say this about his new school: their History of Magic professor,
Mademoiselle LeBlanc, had old Binns beat hands down.
Of course, since she was a hundred or so years younger, still breathing, and stacked, that wasn’t hard.
Come to think of it, he didn’t have much to complain about - his reception had been cordial, his
transition smoother than he could have hoped for. Beauxbatons’ student body could have fit into
Hogwarts four times over with room to spare - either the French had a smaller wizarding population
than England, or they were more stringent about admission requirements. The campus itself had once
been housed in one of the old Norman castles in northern France - "’orrible," Madame Maxime had
averred; "’orrible, drafty old place; ve vair rattling about like skeletons" - but had been moved, in
recent years, to a magically-constructed and -concealed manor house farther south, in the Tuscan hills.
It was beautiful, certainly, and in its own gilded, rococo, throwback-to-Versailles way, every bit as
grand as the big Scottish castle. Still, the smaller size meant that getting the lie of the land was
relatively easy.
There’d been less competition when it came to Quidditch, too - French schools didn’t have houses, for
one thing, which took the competitive edge off - and though his fellow students were undoubtedly
elegant fliers, his months of practice head-to-head with Golden-Boy Potter and his fanatic sidekick
Weasley stood him in good stead; he had no trouble securing a Seeker position on an intramural team.
He half-expected animosity over this, but the Beauxbatons students - to his face at least - were perfectly
civil, perfectly gentil. Many of them came up to him privately, at the start of term, and expressed polite
welcome, along with - surreally enough - seemingly genuine regret at the death of Cedric Diggory.
Polite, that was the right word all around. But friendly? He didn’t know if he’d go quite that far.
He was pretty sure they knew about his father - his French was a whole lot better than they thought it
was. And pretty sure they knew about Hermione, too; not that the whole bloody world didn’t, by now.
What they thought of his role in the whole thing, he wasn’t so certain - but from the looks of it, they’d
cast him as some sort of tragic, unlucky-in-love lone wolf … admirable, maybe, and maybe even
slightly, vaguely heroic - but not exactly approachable.
Well, whatever.
As soon as he had his diploma, as soon as he could Apparate legally, he’d be in line at Gringotts like
that. And after that - after he had the money his grandmother had left for him, Draco thought, his lip
curling - he was going to find some place on earth that had never even heard of the name Malfoy; some
backward, pissant, one-horse little Godforsaken hole-in-the-wall that thought a ‘wizard’ was another
name for a privy, and that ‘Voldemort’ was some sort of runny French cheese.
Lost in grim, satisfied speculation, he heard rustling wings and looked up just in time to avoid being
mown down by a rather wobbly brown owl, which slid to a halt next to his notes on the table and
immediately began to eye his package of mints hungrily.
Hm, Draco thought. That’s strange - I never get mail.
Well, almost never.
Dumbledore wrote sometimes, probably out of guilt; he’d persuaded Narcissa Malfoy into voluntary
detox at St. Mungo’s halfway through the summer holidays - high time, in Draco’s opinion, but still, it
put a damper on care packages. Harry and Ron, to Draco’s surprise and their credit, had sent him a box
full of the twins’ new fall merchandise, at the very start of term - including their brand-new product
Wind To The Wise, a whoopee cushion that not only made a farting noise when sat upon, but stank like
old socks and rotting mackerel heads and then continued to offer personalised running commentary on
the situation in limerick form, until hexed into silence.
That had been good for a laugh or two, and had even earned him a little momentary popularity in the
Quidditch locker rooms.
And then there was Snape - damn him - who had written twice.
Draco had to admit that he actually enjoyed the letters - Snape was as blunt and sarcastic in writing as
he was in person - and the missives themselves were long, detailed, and so darkly funny that they
couldn’t be read in public. Folded carefully into the sheets of regular parchment, both times, had been a
piece of tissue-thin silvery mist; Draco figured Sal could have done the Reverse Perluceo himself, after
writing it, but he was sort of glad he hadn’t - seeing it that way made him think nostalgically about the
cozy subdungeons, about interminable, hopeless chess matches and comfortable conversation that
didn’t sound like the good advice it was until long afterwards.
But this wasn’t from Dumbledore, or Harry, or Snape.
It was from Hermione.
At the realisation, Draco felt elation and anger surge through him in equal parts.
She wrote to me - she remembered, was his first thought, followed closely by That bitch - and just
when I was starting to get over her.
Reluctant, yet avid, he turned the card over. The note was brief:
Draco - sorry I’ve not written sooner; I’ve just settled in. Egypt is certainly an adventure! I’m learning
Arabic - slowly - and am quite envious that you’ve been let off with French. Hope you’re having a good
time at Beauxbatons! Write back.
Yours, Hermione.
Well, that was just lovely, Draco thought. If you were her maiden aunt in Bristol, that is. There wasn’t a
single word in it that couldn’t have come out of Postcards for Dummies.
Egypt is certainly an adventure.
I’ll just bet it is, he thought savagely, and before he’d thought about it, had ripped the postcard into two
halves in a single vicious motion. The bisected Sphinx - noseless, beardless, time-weathered - stared up
at him blind-eyed, its paws forever separated from its chipped-but-noble chin.
Shit, he thought, instantly remorseful, and at the same time heard a small clear voice behind him say in
accented but unmistakable English, "Well, that was stupid, wasn’t it?"
Startled - as much by the English as anything else - he spun around. And saw a tiny blonde girl staring
disdainfully back at him.
Dinner was over, the bottle of wine was empty, and they’d given up on conversation - at least for the
They were kissing instead.
For a moment, Hermione had been half-tempted to spill the whole story about Snape and the
Illuminata. Now, she was rather glad she hadn’t - instead, she’d said, "Sometimes I think even I don’t
know him," he’d said, "Fair enough," and they’d moved on.
Moved on, that is, to Kissing as a Marathon Event.
"I don’t know if having sex is such a good idea right now," she’d said, forcing herself to look him in the
eyes, and he’d shrugged good-naturedly.
"Just kissing, then," he’d said, and paused with his mouth slanted over hers. "No hands. I promise."
He was as good as his word.
They were sandwiched on the couch - had been, for what seemed like hours, like a small eternity - and
though she could feel his cock like iron against her thigh, though she herself was tight and itching and
irritable with desire, so far they were both playing by the rules: No Touching, Below The Neck.
Hermione thought she might pass out.
When it came to this, she thought foggily, Bill was definitely a classic Type B - more concerned with
the journey than the destination. Kissing for him didn’t seem to be a prelude, or a warm-up act - it was
the arrival point, a pleasurable end in itself, and there was nothing hurried or perfunctory about it.
Rough, tender; teasing, soulful; tongue, teeth - Hermione didn’t know what to expect, be it butterfly or
dragon; could only sigh, and close her eyes, and respond.
But as it went on, and on, and on - deep, light, hard, soft, until she was dizzy with it - she found herself
beginning to buzz under his lean hard body: let’s have some more of this, chanted her nerve endings in
unison; let’s see some hands, feel some skin - let’s trot out the equipment and see if it works, shall we?
She managed to trap one of his thighs between both of hers, managed with a great deal of concerted
effort to manouevre herself so that a deep rocking hip-roll would abrade the damp cotton of her
underwear against the rougher fabric of his trousers. Technically her gyrations were breaking the rules,
but he didn’t discourage them, just chuckled in the middle of his kiss and then turned his head so that
his mouth was relocated near to her right ear - a process which grazed her swollen, sensitive lips
against the needle-sharp beginnings of his beard, and made her whimper and twist against him in
helpless, electrified delight.
He drew his breath in sharply.
"You’re amazing," he said into her ear. "You’re on fire. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen."
Oh, God.
"I want -" She bucked against him, gulped air to clear her fuzzy brain. "I want your hands on me," she
said, and felt him breathe another maddening puff of laughter into the quaking centre of her ear.
"Touch you? Pretty girl, I’d burn my hands." He nipped at her earlobe, shifted his thigh into firmer
contact with her cotton-covered clit, so that her yelp was lost in a heartfelt groan.
"Oh, yeah," he breathed, and the sheer aching heat-shimmer of that exhalation made her shudder.
"You’re nothing but lava - you’ve got bonfires under your skin, can’t you feel them? You’re wet to your
knees, you’re going to blow sky-high, and I’m going to lie right here and watch you do it; it’s not every
day a man gets to make a goddess beg."
Jesus, why hadn’t anyone told her how hot it was to talk?
She was thrashing, she was twisting. She couldn’t get away from him, either the hard delicious press of
his knee into that soft melting scorch that she wanted to touch but couldn’t, or the insidious torment of
his words, a whisper so intimate, so close to her ear, that they seemed to have originated inside her own
head, a siren call from her own most primeval desires. She scratched at him, and he captured her wrists
over her head - oh, yesssss - and then it was even better, struggling that wasn’t a struggle, fighting him
because the fight felt as good, or better than, anything else.
He liked it, too - was revelling in it - "do it, go ahead," he urged; "if you want it, then take it -" And she
did want it, she did, because at the end of the press and push, at the end of the strain upwards against
that firm gentle maddening pressure, against the soft inflammation of his words, there was clear sky
and fireworks and dancing on jet streams, the long silver swan-dive off the face of the earth.
The ravenous, pacing beast within her flattened its ears, bobbed on its haunches. Get ready. Get set.
She took the jump with her eyes wide open.
It was much, much later; they were still entwined on the sofa. Bill hadn’t said anything for a while, and
his … um, tumescence … seemed to have abated somewhat; Hermione guessed that he was probably
He was a bit heavy. Cautiously, so as not to wake him, she shifted the side of her body in which she’d
lost feeling - and then froze, distracted completely from that tingly needly sensation by the heavy,
smooth something brushing the side of her breast, underneath her dress.
Even before her hand flew to her neck - even before she felt the silver chain that hadn’t been there an
hour ago - even before her questing fingers touched jade, she knew exactly what it was.
Sekhmet had decided to join the party.

Chapter Eight
"Reparo," said the small girl reprovingly, shouldering past him, and tapped the two halves of the
postcard with her wand. Draco scowled at the newly reunited halves of the Sphinx, then back at her.
When in doubt, he thought, pull a Snape.
"Did it ever occur to you that I might have done that because I wanted it that way?" he demanded. She
arched one silvery eyebrow at him.
Somehow, Snape generally pulled it off better than that. Draco tried again.
"What makes you think I want company, anyway?"
The girl just wrinkled her nose at this, as if it wasn’t worth a reply, and hopped up to perch on the edge
of the library table. It was impossible to guess her age; she could have been anywhere from a tall-for-
her-age nine to a diminutive fifteen – or, if you went by the knowing, adult expression on her face, a
midget twenty-five. With her waist-length curls, half a shade lighter than his own hair, and her
startlingly direct gaze – half boardroom president, half kiddie-porn – she looked vaguely, oddly
familiar. Draco peered more closely at her.
"Have we met?"
She arranged her robes into more graceful folds around her knees and tossed her head matter-of-factly.
"You’re thinking of my older sister Fleur. I’m Gabrielle."
Ah. Right. I see it now.
"Delacour," Draco murmured, and was rewarded with a cool little nod.
"She’s the pretty one. I’m the smart one."
Gabrielle’s tone conveyed her utter belief that she’d gotten the better end of the bargain. Draco’s lips
"And the talkative one, too, I see," he offered. She rolled her eyes.
"Well, someone has to keep this conversation going, don’t they? You’re handsome, but you’re not very
Draco hastily turned an incredulous laugh into a cough.
Score one for Junior Barbie, he thought, impressed and just a bit unsettled by what were the
undoubtedly clanking brass balls underneath that pristine silk robe. "Princess, if you don’t like it," he
drawled, "you can run along back to your teddy bear. No one invited you over here, after all."
He’d expected her to be offended – maybe even hurt – but instead she laughed, a surprisingly rich
sound, for coming from such a small body, and nothing at all like what he remembered of Fleur’s
silvery high titter.
"That was beastly," she said, sounding as if she approved, and narrowed her gentian-blue veela’s eyes
at him. "But you can’t get rid of me that easily. I want to know all about Hogwarts. And about England.
I’m going to live there someday, you know."
Draco frowned. Somehow, despite her excellent English, he couldn’t imagine this aristocratic, gilded
little creature in any other setting but this one.
"I own property there," Gabrielle said with more than a touch of satisfaction. "A seaside cottage. My
grandfather left it to me when he died."
"Oh." Draco wasn’t quite sure what to say to this. "Ever been there?"
She looked momentarily regretful. "No. But he told me all about it. There’s no beach – just a cliff, and
a lot of rocks. He said that ships used to crash there –" this last with a touch of gleeful malevolence.
"I’m moving there to live when I graduate from Beauxbatons."
"No college?" Draco inquired, and she tossed her head.
"Oxford. I’ll commute." Her patrician chin lifted a notch. "I already have all the catalogs, you know."
Oxford. Better and better. Draco digested this with a feeling of growing awe; he wished he had his
after-school plans this Set In Stone.
Of course, at her age he had – though it hadn’t been college; it had been Joining the Ranks Of The
Dark And Glorious Army. And you could see where that had gotten him.
"What will you study?" he asked, just to keep the conversation going – it was the longest social
exchange he’d had since his arrival, after all – and Gabrielle looked suddenly defiant.
"Finance," she said firmly. "I want to be an investment banker." She glowered at him for a moment, as
if expecting censure; when none seemed forthcoming, she relaxed again.
"I’m quite good at it," she offered. "I already have a portfolio. Bank stock, mostly – Muggle banks, not
Gringotts; they don’t trade on the open market. And I can beat my whole dormitory at Monopoly. Fleur
won’t even play me anymore; she says I’m ruthless."
She looked delighted with this assessment of herself. Draco, more and more intrigued by the moment,
decided to take the bait.
"Monopoly?" he asked, and missed entirely the sharp, predatory gleam in her wide blue eyes.
"A game," she said, suddenly casual. "A Muggle board game. My cousins in America sent it to me for
my birthday last year." She blinked down at him from her tabletop perch, looking as benign and velvet-
pawed as a fluffy Persian kitten. "Want to play?"
Draco hesitated, then shrugged.
He could use a break from studying – and she was an awfully cute kid. Why not play a few rounds,
maybe let her win one?
"Sure," he said, starting to roll up his History of Magic essay. "Why not?"
In addition to the big desktop computer in her office, Hermione had been issued a sleek little silver
laptop for home and school use by the Consortium. So far, she’d been using it mainly for taking notes
in class and typing her homework assignments – although figuring out and using the correct keystrokes
for the Arabic font was difficult, it was also helping her with the written component of her language
course, which made the extra effort worth it.
Now, however – even in the bright light of a Cairo Sunday morning, even with the deliciously hung-
over feeling she always got after she’d had an especially good orgasm the night before – the Sekhmet
amulet had her sufficiently wigged that a bit of Net research was definitely in order.
Curling up in her double-wide, overstuffed armchair, iced-tea on the table next to her in a sweating
glass treated with a Bottomless Charm, she plugged in and logged on. An hour later, she shut down the
laptop and leaned back, rubbing her eyes.
As long as she lived, she would never understand the human race.
All the sites she’d found through her search engine had included some version of the Sekhmet creation-
myth: Sekhmet, the Eye of Re, the Avenger, had been created and called forth to punish mankind for
insubordination against the Sun-God. Somewhere along the way, she’d gotten a little too happy in her
work and had begun to slaughter indiscriminately, pausing only to sleep and to lap up the blood she’d
left in the morning before beginning anew … and apparently, in the middle of all this, grew so powerful
that she couldn’t be stopped, even by the other gods.
So eventually she’d been brought down by trickery: some disputed number of beer barrels (some sites
said 500, others 5,000) had been mixed with some sort of red colouring agent (some said desert earth,
others said pomegranate juice, others said red ochre), and spread across the earth. Mistaking the stuff
for blood, Sekhmet had dutifully lapped it up, gotten herself plastered, and passed out.
Not exactly salubrious, Hermione thought, staring at the cool, deceptively inanimate little statue in her
hand. Bill had been right – Sekhmet was one creepy little goddess. And yet, she was being worshipped
all over the Internet as a symbol of justice, healing and female empowerment … and not, from the
looks of things, by real witches, as much as by the sort of people her father referred to routinely as
"those damn New-Agers".
Though you could never tell, of course. The Divination groupies back at Hogwarts had studied
goddess-cults extensively in their higher-level Runes classes – and, as biased as Hermione was about
that subject and its fruit bat of a professor, she had to admit that not all the Divination students were
airheads like Parvati and Lavender. Some of the cleverest Ravenclaw witches in her year had been into
goddess-worship – and so, Hermione reminded herself, had Lila-the-Ex, the American halfblood who
had cursed Bill’s balls with fungus.
Talk about defacing a monument.
Not that she’d seen them, of course.
But she’d like to.
For the love of Quidditch, Granger. Focus.
Okay. Well, whatever. Sekhmet, justice, spirit of healing, mother-goddess, blah blah blah-dy blah – it
had gone on for pages and pages. And in the end, just about the only piece of really useful knowledge
she’d gleaned from her lengthy road-trip down the Information Superhighway was the location of
Sekhmet’s original temple.
Not rock-star, peanut-butter-and-banana-sandwiches, American-South Memphis (just the name of
which conjured up lyrics in Hermione’s head: the Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar
…), but the original Memphis, twenty-four kilometres south of Cairo.
Not that there was much left of it.
In fact: It’s extremely difficult to imagine that a city once stood where there is now only a small
museum and some statues in a garden, warned her guidebook.
Still, Hermione thought, it might be worthwhile to check it out, just to see for herself.
( … I’m goin’ to Graceland, Graceland …)
Still humming, she hoisted herself out of the chair, stepped carefully over a snoozing Cleo, and went to
hustle up lunch for the two of them in the kitchen.
She’d wait until after dark.

Chapter Nine
“The Jade Priestess?”
Sal put down his teacup and shook his head.
“I don’t know,” he said doubtfully. “Cairo wasn’t exactly the place to go when I was a young man - the
Pyramids were fun, sure, but the whole country was a war zone; that nutbag, El Hakim, saw to that,
when he knocked down half of Jerusalem and got the Crusaders’ knickers in a bunch. The whole region
was impassable, all through the 1100s … especially El Qahira.” He leaned back in his chair. “Now, if
you wanted a real vacation back then, you went to Quetzlcoatl and took in some rays.”
He frowned thoughtfully. “Or Maui. Though their facilities weren’t as modern.”
“Well, I don’t like it,” Severus said flatly, and sent the latest in his long string of useless books
careening back to the shelf. Sal looked sympathetic.
“Not a word.”
“Well, then.” Sal squeezed a translucent slice of Perluceod lemon into his tea. “Maybe there’s nothing
to it?”
“Hm. We should be so lucky.” Severus ran a hand through his hair, snarling irritably when he hit an
unexpected tangle and had to yank through it. “No, she was just a bit too casual about it in the note -
something’s up,” he said, rubbing his sore scalp. “And it can’t be good, because nothing she stumbles
into ever is.”
He picked up another book and flipped impatiently through it. “No sense,” he mumbled under his
breath. “None at all. Give the girl her pick of the litter, and she’ll choose the dog that bites her hand.”
Sal’s eyes gleamed.
“Well, that certainly explains a lot,” he said, with an arch sidelong look. Severus rolled his eyes.
“And we’re off the topic, yet again. That’s not what I’m talking about, and you know it.” He drummed
his fingers on the arm of his chair, caught between frustration with the situation, and impatience with
himself - since when did getting worked up about something change it in any way?
“It was bad enough when she was being reckless at an observable distance,” he said finally, “without
getting herself mixed up in something she can’t handle, a thousand miles away.”
“Which -” Sal sipped his tea, grimaced, added sugar, sipped again - “after she single-handedly brought
down Voldemort - would be what, exactly?”
“I don’t know. Can’t you see that’s the problem?”
Damn it, I could do without the bloody Socratic questioning. “Would it be too much to expect that you
could contribute some useful knowledge to this conversation?” he snapped. “Or are you intending to
just sit there and needle me until I go mad?”
Sal just laughed - they knew each other well enough by now that Snape’s occasional fit of pique went
“It’s no use getting huffy with me,” he said calmly, “just because you’ve already figured out who you
have to talk to, and you don’t like the idea.”
As usual, Severus thought resignedly, Sal was right. He glared at his teacup, then picked it up and
drained it in a single, determined swallow, wincing at the bitterness of the dregs.
If he had to go talk to Sybil Trelawney, he was damn well going to be caffeinated first.
“Ha! I’ll buy it.”
Gabrielle had just landed on Park Place, thus completing her monopoly of the most coveted property
block on the board. Watching her gleefully shell out hundred-dollar bills in exchange for boxy little
green houses, Draco began to wonder if he wasn’t in over his head.
Had he thought her a kitten, a ball of fluff to be patronised? The more fool he - “ruthless”, if that was
indeed Fleur’s word for her, didn’t begin to describe it.
Gabrielle’s family might not be keen on the idea of her going into Muggle finance - he’d heard the
whole story, in bits and pieces, in between acquisitions (mostly hers) and payoffs (mostly his) - but he
had no doubt whatsoever as to her talent for it. Underneath that white-and-gold china-shepherdess
exterior lurked the black heart of a securities in-trader.
“Roll,” she demanded imperiously now - Little Bo-Peep with a Scottie-dog token and a stack of phony
real-estate - and he obediently picked up the dice, eyeing his jaunty little roadster in its sunny yellow
parking space at Marvin Gardens with a sense of real foreboding.
“Can I pass?”
She smirked. “Not a chance.”
The dice clattered on the board, rolled to a stop atop the stack of fifties in Free Parking that neither of
them had yet managed to claim. “Ten,” Gabrielle crowed, and Draco groaned.
Six and four - yeah, that made ten all right. And that meant …
Sighing, he started shuffling through his stack of properties for something suitable to mortgage.
Severus had pegged Sybil Trelawney for a phony and a drama queen, the moment she darkened the
door of the Entrance Hall. He hadn’t gone out of his way to avoid her, however, until the events of the
faculty holiday party seven years ago, her second Christmas on the staff.
He could remember that night as if he’d just plucked the memory out of a Pensieve: up in the staff
room - decorated garishly, as usual, Albus-style, for the occasion - sipping with dour appreciation at his
eggnog while the chatter flowed around him and Poppy swung Filius around the dance floor by his
stubby little arms, child-size feet dangling a meter above the floor. He’d been thirty-one or thirty-two
that year, he remembered, still a young man; even so, the other teachers had long since given up trying
to coax him out of his chair, or flatter him into conversation.
He sat, and watched, as if encased within a Barrier Charm. That was his role, and he rather liked it that
way - it was familiar, it was safe, it expected nothing of him.
And then she’d come over, the other junior faculty member - all flowing misty robes and watery bug
eyes, scotch and peppermint heavy and cloying on her breath - and pulled up a chair.
Go away, he’d wanted to say, I don’t want you here - but she wasn’t a student, after all, to be ordered
about, and protesting would only cause a scene and put that look on Albus’s face again, that pitying,
detested poor dear Severus look. So he’d gritted his teeth and half-listened to her ramble on about
omens and tarot decks, watching the others rhumba merrily by over her shoulder, his head full of some
smooth-voiced Muggle singer crooning about a white Christmas.
It had hardly registered when her conversation took that subtle turn into suggestion, into intimacy -
even now, he could only recall certain bits of it: dark stars, and fates intertwined, and don’t you think -
don’t you agree, Severus?
And then - had it been the scotch talking? her own desire to escape from the crowded, happy room and
Minerva’s studied disapproval? - she’d suddenly leaned toward him and whispered an improbably
risqué suggestion; her hand on his knee, sliding inexorably toward his thigh. He still remembered her
words - it’ll be good, I promise; she’d murmured, I’ve already Seen it happen, after all - and his
reaction; a flash of horrified, embarrassed understanding that made him nearly overturn his chair, in his
hurry to excuse himself.
He’d been jumpy around her ever since.
Now, he eschewed the long climb up to her tower in favour of Flooing - the quicker he got there, the
quicker he’d be done. As always, the room was hot and stifling and smelt strongly of incense. Severus
picked up a crystal ball someone had forgotten to put away and tossed it idly from hand to hand.
“Sybil?” he called. “Are you here?”
That brought her out of hiding; she pulled her trademark quasi-Apparation out of the shadows, that
parlour trick that had Miss Patil and Miss Brown and a few of the more gullible Ravenclaws so
impressed. Severus, who happened to know that she’d treated several of the room’s darker corners with
Concealment Charms, had to fight not to roll his eyes.
“Severus.” She glided toward her favoured chair, spread her layers of chiffon around her as she sat. “I
Saw you coming.”
Right. Mm-hmm. “Yes, well.”
Certain niceties had to be observed, he knew, or she’d cloak herself ever more firmly in that vague
mumbo-jumbo she called an academic discipline, and he wouldn’t get a single helpful word out of her.
He crossed to the window, where a breath of breeze was still struggling to live, and perched on the
windowsill. “How have you been, Sybil?”
A tremulous sigh, a misty smile. “Well enough, Severus - well enough. One who Sees -“ here, a gusty,
fatalistic exhalation - “knows in advance one’s fate, and can only accept what comes. You understand.”
“Er. Of course.” His eyebrows, given half the chance, would have shot off his forehead; he kept them
resolutely schooled into a semblance of concern. “I hope my intrusion’s not an inconvenience. I was
rather hoping to pick your brain a bit.”
Her eyes gleamed wetly through their bejeweled spectacles. “But of course,” she said, sounding so
surprised and pleased that he groaned inwardly. “What method do you prefer? Cards? Tea leaves? The
Crystal Orb?”
“It’s not a reading I need,” Severus said hastily, and stared into the ball of glass he was holding so that
he wouldn’t see her face fall. “I’ve come across the mention of an Egyptian myth in my readings and
can’t seem to find any more information about it. I thought perhaps you’d know more than I, since
you’re the castle expert on goddess worship.”
Sybil was still looking a bit disappointed - Divination was her first love; she only taught Beginning and
Advanced Mythology because it was part of the gig … and, Severus suspected, because the subjects
tended to attract the same friendly core group of students. “Egyptian myths?” she said slowly. Her
voice, much to his relief, had lost much of its manufactured ‘faraway’ quality. “As a general rule,
they’re quite well-documented; since the translation of the Rosetta Stone, even the Muggles have fairly
good editions. Though I can lend you one of the sixth-form texts if you -“
“I’ve read that book, and a hundred others,” Severus interrupted, “and it’s not there. It may not even be
one of the canonical myths at all - it has to do with an amulet called the Jade Priestess.”
That got her attention; she jerked violently in her chair, then subsided back into its upholstery with a
“Where did you hear about that?” she demanded, all trace of mistiness fled. Her normal speaking voice
was harsh and a little flat.
Well, there’s a reaction for you. Severus turned the crystal ball over and over in his hands. “I told you,”
he said; “it was mentioned in a book I -“
“Rubbish,” Sybil said firmly, and pushed her spectacles up to her forehead with a shaking hand. “That
particular myth’s not written down anywhere, and for good reason. Where did you hear about it?”
If he didn’t know better, Severus speculated, he’d say that Sybil Trelawney was … well … excited.
“Former student,” he admitted evenly, shrugging. “Mentioned it in a letter. Seemed a bit agitated -
asked if I would look into it for her.” He studied Sybil closely, curiously. “What do you know?”
“There’s a prophecy,” she said, “and like the myth, it’s only passed down orally.” She sent Severus an
uncharacteristically incisive look. “Usually to witches,” she said. “Sekhmet’s not the friendliest of
goddesses toward the male of the species. But - since you asked -“
She shrugged. “It’s a long story. Perhaps you’d better sit down.”
By the time she’d finished, he’d forgotten his customary unease - forgotten about the ill-fated
Christmas party - forgotten that the air in the room was even closer and more choking than when he’d
come in.
When she dropped her clairvoyant act, Sybil Trelawney could tell a hell of a story.
“So the rightful wearer of the Jade Priestess,” he said slowly, “is supposed to emerge as a sort of
champion? A superhero?”
Sybil nodded.
“The amulet is supposed to grant to its wearer certain powers,” she said. “It isn’t entirely clear what
they are … nor is it clear what form her vengeance will take. What we do know -“ she grimaced - “is
that there’s a choice involved; whether it’s the choice to accept the mantle of responsibility that the
Jade Priestess embodies, or the choice to use the resulting power for good or ill, isn’t so clear.” She
swept a tendril of hair behind her ear. “There’s an implied warning in the prophecy, not only for the
victims of the Jade Priestess, but also for the Priestess herself. It talks about ‘blood and glory’, but it
doesn’t say whose.”
Severus felt a cold stone slide into his gut. “Do you know the prophecy word for word?” he asked, and
Sybil nodded.
“You mustn’t write it down, though,” she said. “I shan’t tell you unless you promise you’ll keep it in
your head, never put it on parchment.”
She eyed him suspiciously, but nodded. “All right - here it is.”
Her voice in the ancient rhythms was low and harsh and surprisingly lovely:
Wrought by queen’s entreaty, dark of night,
Rose the goddess, river-streaming, cold.
Fashioned of grief, she spoke: ‘O Hatshepsut,
Fear not: for thee the lion opes its mouth,
And roars. Dost thou not hear the rush of winds?
For thee they pour, for thee the tempest rages,
For thee I rise, the muddy Nile forsaking,
And live, a human princess to avenge.
Take me in hand, O Queen, and for my throat,
Fashion a collar, harness me in silver,
Lay me upon thy daughter’s breast, a token.
I’ll sleep, yet slumb’ring hear, and waking, rise,
Cast off my silver shackles. Stretching, roaring -
Shall find a maiden worthy of my glory,
With heart of lion, pure and fair and fearless,
To vengeance bring on murd’ring sons of Egypt.
The blood they shed shall shrieking turn upon them,
The hearts they still shall haunt their waking moments,
And stalk their dreams. And thus, O noble Monarch,
Shall I avenge thy daughter Neferure.
Tell the tale, and watch - grow you not weary,
My time’s my own. I neither sleep nor dream.
Should she choose true, my priestess shall repay thee,
In blood and glory. I, Sekhmet, have spoken.
The last words fell into the silence of the North Tower, and seemed to remain - borne up, perhaps, by
the heavily perfumed air. Severus suppressed a shudder.
“Well,” he said heavily. “That’s what I needed to know, I suppose. I’m in your debt, Sybil.”
She blinked, startled; possibly, he thought, that was the nicest thing he’d ever said to her. “Any time.”
As he turned to leave, she caught at the sleeve of his robe. “Severus?”
He turned back. “Yes?”
“The former student - the one who mentioned the Priestess to you -“ Her gaze was troubled. “It’s not
Hermione Granger, is it?”
Surprised, he nodded. “As a matter of fact, it is. Why?”
Sybil grimaced. “I was just thinking,” she said, “that of all the students I’ve ever seen in a class, she’s
the most likely to get saddled with something like this … and the least likely to know what to do with
That, Severus thought grimly, was the most insightful thing he’d ever heard her say.

Chapter Ten
Hermione quickly came to the conclusion that the guidebook had been right: there really wasn’t much
in Memphis worth looking at.
She wasn’t sure if it was due more to the city’s position low on the flood plain, or to Nasser’s ill-
conceived damming of the Nile - probably a bit of both - but nary a trace of the Sekhmet temple
remained, and only a few broken stone walls where the mighty monument to Ptah had stood.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust - it was a sentiment never more fitting than in this case. Below her feet
lay the apex of an ancient civilisation, a veritable Atlantis - mighty but fallen, sunken not in seawater,
but in layer upon dense gritty layer of sunbaked Egyptian mud.
She wandered nonchalantly in the direction of the museum, deliberately casual, though she needn’t
have bothered being circumspect - the streets were all but deserted, and no one was looking at her
anyway. Score two for the burqa, Hermione thought, and slipped into the shadows of the museum’s
garden entrance. She hardly needed Alohomora to deal with the rusty, ancient padlock on the wrought-
iron gate.
The garden itself was little more than a dusty courtyard, dotted here and there with statuary, and
overgrown with straggling jacaranda bushes and wild morning glories. Hermione dutifully made the
rounds of the statues, even laying her palm flat against each one in the hopes of getting a rise out of the
amulet around her neck.
Not so much as a twitch. Goddamn it.
Well, that left the museum itself - an unprepossessing square stone-block building that could just as
easily been a pottery shed or an American Express office. Apparently, Memphis didn’t even rate
interesting architecture.
Nevertheless, the doors were locked.
There didn’t appear to be a guard set, but Hermione caught the red glow of an alarm panel through the
glass doors, even as she reached for her wand. Abruptly, she stopped in her tracks.
Possibly, Alohomora wasn’t such a good idea in this particular case.
Possibly, Memphis hadn’t been worth the trip to begin with.
Possibly, suggested the Voice of Caution, a bit more caustically than was really necessary, you should
just go home and come back when it opens in the morning, like a normal person.
Then again, countered the Daredevil, sneering, you’re already here. And if it’s not worth one trip, it’s
certainly not worth two.
Good point, Hermione thought - and, ignoring the Voice of Caution’s impotent sputtering, Apparated
neatly to the other side of the locked door.
There. Easy as apple pie.
Pushing back the heavy hood of the burqa, she began to look around.
The room was lined with glass cases showcasing beautiful but minor treasures, rescued over the years
from the shifting, sandy mud. Hermione did a quick scan of these, heart athump despite her near-
absolute conviction that she wouldn’t be disturbed; this looked like the sort of place that got minimal
traffic, even during business hours. The museum’s one truly spectacular artifact, a seventy-metre-tall
statue of Rameses II that had once guarded the entrance to the pharaoh’s temple in Memphis, now lay
on its back, its head almost touching one wall, its stone toes within a metre of the opposite. Alone in
flattened majesty, Rameses stared at the ceiling, his deep-set eyes and beaky Etruscan nose giving him
a look of perpetual resignation.
I hear you, pal, Hermione thought sympathetically, running one hand lightly over the immense carved
forehead. I’m not exactly thrilled to be hanging around this place, either.
Though in a way, she was.
Sneaking around in the middle of the night and Apparating into locked rooms? Fun stuff. And it gave
her a very tingly, Lara-Croft feeling that wasn’t wholly unpleasant.
Yes, she could see why Bill liked his job. What she couldn’t see was any evidence of magical activity in
this place - either the museum, the garden, or for that matter the whole town. Not even the couple of
display cases devoted to recovered artifacts from the goddesses’ temples - Bast, Sekhmet, Hathor,
Ma’at - produced the slightest buzz of recognition from the jade amulet.
In other words, strikeout.
Well, Hermione thought, there was one more thing she could try, before heading home. If anything in
the museum had been enchanted, a standard Revelatory Incantation ought to bring it out of hiding -
down deep in her Hollywood soul, she still harbored hopes of a secret door, some ancient magical runes
… maybe a big sign with rainbow letters: Priestesses of Sekhmet Annual Potluck, Next Tuesday At
Seven; Sign-Up Here For Salads or Desserts.
Unlikely, sure, but still - worth a shot. She waved her wand in a loose circle, careful to indicate all four
corners of the room, took one step forward, and whispered, “Oculus Incantatem!”
Slowly, she scanned the room, wall by wall.
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Noth -
A sudden movement from the shadows behind her made her spin round, wand at the ready. Yes … there
… black, detaching from black …
“It’s about time, too,” said a smooth voice from the darkest corner. “Next time, I’d recommend that you
try that charm first, Miss Granger. I could have hexed you senseless twelve times over by now, if I’d
been so inclined.”
Hermione, who had jumped at the first words, now rolled her eyes to conceal her relief.
“I should have known better than to add that postscript to my letter,” she said acidly. “Really, Professor
- as replies go, a postcard would have sufficed, don’t you think?”
“I’ll be the judge of that, if you don’t mind,” said Snape, stepping out of the shadows. He glanced
around at the dusty display cases and curled his lip. “Charming,” he said, managing in those two short
syllables to convey the exact opposite sentiment, “but hardly the place for an extended conversation.”
“And why,” Hermione inquired, “would we need to have one of those?”
She wasn’t quite over the scare he’d given her.
“Because,” Snape said, sucking his teeth testily, “I’ve managed to garner some potentially useful
information about your legend.”
Hermione pondered this, then shrugged.
She’d seen his apartment, after all. Wasn’t turnabout fair play?
“So - how did you find me, exactly?” Hermione poured tea, added a dollop of cream, and handed him
the cup. With her tousled curls, her baggy, all-concealing robes, and a smudge of dust from the museum
still adorning the bridge of her nose, she made, Severus thought, a competent but most unlikely geisha.
“That must have been some souped-up Location Charm.”
Severus sipped his tea, preferring to scald his tongue rather than risk loosening it. As a matter of fact,
he hadn’t used a Location Charm at all; he hadn’t needed one.
That jade scarab beetle he’d attached to her charm bracelet, back in June, was more than a pretty,
creamy-green bauble, after all. Unbeknownst to her, he’d sent the independent Miss Granger off to
Cairo wearing a subtle-yet-effective magical tracking device.
Sure, he believed in the inherent protective qualities of gemstones and totems, and the scarab was no
exception to that belief. But he was also a practical man, and a self-reliant one. Why send her to Egypt
protected only by a symbol, when in a pinch - in half a heartbeat - he could offer her himself?
Not that she needed to know that.
For one thing, the minute she found out about the scarab’s undercover function would be the minute it
ceased to be useful; he could well-imagine her dropping it casually into her jewellery box before
sashaying off to raid a tomb or duel a couple of mummies. Not to mention that she already had too
clear a view into his brain, as it was.
He wasn’t sure what would be worse - her misunderstanding his protective instincts and denouncing
him as a voyeur, or her understanding exactly how much he worried about her. After all, even a high-
flying little acrobat like Hermione could do with a safety net, from time to time. Could he help it that
he felt compelled to be hers?
Well, enough self-scrutiny; he was here for business, after all, not on a social call. He leaned back in
her far-too-comfortable reclining armchair, set down his teacup, and had just opened his mouth to tell
her what he’d learned from Sybil when -
The voice, like the knock which accompanied it, was young, casual and confident. Even as Hermione’s
cup rattled back into its saucer, Severus was on his feet.
Whatever the legion of admirable traits common to Clan Weasley, he thought, an appropriate sense of
timing certainly wasn’t among them.
“Hermione, are you there?” Bill called again, and Hermione spread her hands helplessly in the air as if
to say: what now? Severus glowered; discovery wasn’t on his agenda tonight, either.
“Go ahead - answer it,” he said tersely, already ripping the cap off his spare flask of Chameleon
As the name suggested, it wasn’t so much an invisibility potion as an agent of limited camouflage -
strong enough to evade Muggle detection altogether, and also to escape the casual wizarding glance,
provided you remained absolutely still and stayed out of harsh or direct light. Avoiding suspicion
altogether was the key element, basically - as Hermione had proved earlier that evening, back at the
museum, a well-placed Oculus Incantatem would blow the potion’s fragile cover to shreds.
He gulped the contents of the flask, snapped off the lamp, and sank back into the corner chair just as
Hermione opened the door. Severus narrowed his eyes as Bill appeared, the picture of sun-gilded,
cheerful Abercrombie-and-Fitch good health, his arms laden with unlikely-looking packages: an
earthenware pot overgrown with catnip; a scrap of fake fur attached to the end of a fishing line; an
armful of hothouse daffodils. Ah, yes, Severus thought; that big sleepy ginger tom of hers … and then
blinked in surprise as a half-grown kitten with improbably large, tufted isosceles-triangle ears came
skidding into the room on paws two sizes too big, emitted a series of alien-like beeps, hisses and trills,
and clambered adroitly up the front of Hermione’s robes to sit on her shoulders, as proprietary and
swaggering as a Matterhorn veteran staking out a bunny slope.
That’s one strange-looking cat, he noted, watching the kitten rub cheeks with Hermione, chirp
agreeably in Bill’s direction, then vault a startling two metres from Hermione’s shoulder to the
countertop where Bill had set down the catnip pot. But even the ensuing herb-mayhem, entertaining as
it was, couldn’t distract him from the brief-but-stirring embrace taking place on Center Stage. Packages
discarded, Bill had reeled Hermione in for a Hello Kiss, and though she pulled away quickly, the
telltale flush across her cheekbones betrayed her: her body language wasn’t communicating No, as
much as it was Not now.
Oh, fuck.
Severus shut his eyes and swallowed hard.
What was it he’d said to her back in the Hogwarts subdungeons, just shy of the tapestry door? Ah, yes:
Break another half-dozen hearts - get your own broken a couple of times, too, if you can.
Severus, you idiot. What were you thinking?
Well, whatever it had been, he’d have sold his soul to take it back. Too late now, though - Hermione,
ever the conscientious student, had apparently taken that noble bit of bullshit to heart and followed his
advice … or was at least halfway there. Bill didn’t seem stung by her hasty disengagement, Severus
noticed, so presumably they weren’t yet in the throes of a grand passion. But even now, he’d captured
her hand, was nibbling on her knuckles, had moved in close to whisper something that made his hazel
eyes gleam with amusement and brought hot colour rushing into Hermione’s fair English cheeks.
Severus felt his teeth begin to grind.
Goddamnit, when he’d told her to go off to college and get herself laid, he hadn’t supposed that he’d
have to watch! The fact that he knew Bill Weasley to be of fine mind and good heart didn’t make him
feel any better about the situation; it was no comfort in the slightest to find your rival such a good-
natured, casually virile paragon of … well, suitability. Wizard or no wizard, Severus was sure the
Grangers Mater and Pater would take one look at this dashing young … archaeologist … and throw
open the parental arms of welcome.
Especially if their daughter’s alternative choice of mate was a sallow, hook-nosed, socially inept former
murderer twice her age.
Don’t think about that right now, he counselled himself. This whole thing is depressing enough as it is.
Chancing another glance in the direction of the foyer, he saw that Hermione had been steadily edging
Bill toward the door. Now, she submitted to a final, rather thorough farewell kiss, shut the door firmly
in his face, and turned back warily toward the living room, pausing to scoop up the kitten and bury her
hot face in its fluffy dust-coloured fur.
The gesture must have given her courage; she was remarkably collected as her gaze flicked to the chair
where he was sitting.
“Sorry,” she said, genuinely rueful; even as she spoke, another wave of hot colour washed over her.
“Bill’s been very … um … neighbourly.”
Incredibly, Severus felt his lips twitch.
If she entered that sentence in an Understatement Contest, he thought, she’d walk away with the blue
ribbon and the washing machine.
“So I see,” he said neutrally, shifting in his chair and shaking off the remaining effects of the
Chameleon Compound. Hermione, still looking troubled, tried again.
“We’re not …. Um, that is …” She hugged her cat a little closer, mindless of its squirming and squeaks
of protest. “I don’t want you to think that I …”
Severus decided to take pity on her.
“Miss Granger,” he said crisply, “I didn’t Apparate to Cairo on a school night to discuss your boudoir
antics - I assure you that I can happily go to my grave with no intimate knowledge whatsoever of
William Weasley’s bedroom technique.” He summoned up a suitably quelling look of hauteur. “Now -
if you’ll kindly sit down and stop stammering, perhaps we can return our attention to the matter of the
Jade Priestess?”
Hermione, looking profoundly relieved at this - if not, as he’d intended, intimidated - sank obediently
onto the sofa and set the wriggling kitten down on the carpet.
“Of course,” she murmured, and deftly drew the amulet from beneath her robes. Ducking her head to
slip off the chain, she reached out to drop the little statue into his hand.
Grasping the flesh-warmed heft of it - surprisingly heavy, surprisingly smooth - Severus felt a sizzle of
awareness snake through his body, followed by a hotter tingle of something that felt like - well, like
Don’t interfere, wizard. She’s mine.
The hell she is, Severus thought; even so, the quick flash of malevolence that followed his unspoken
defiance had him gritting his teeth as he studied the finely carved features, then handed it unwillingly
back to her.
There was Dark magic in that thing; he’d bet his last Knut on it. But if Sybil’s information was correct,
for once - if this was indeed the Jade Priestess, and Hermione its chosen conduit, then to warn her away
from it now might prove to be a dangerous, perhaps even fatal, mistake.
Frowning, he rubbed his suddenly-cold hands together to warm them, and missed completely the
momentary look of relief that crossed Hermione’s face as the amulet slid over her head and back into
its resting place.
“All right,” she said. “Tell me what you know.”

Chapter Eleven
Well, for sheer awkwardness, Hermione thought, that little vignette had ranked right up there with the
infamous dream about being stuck at school in your underwear. The only way it could possibly have
been worse would have involved Bill not only kissing her, but also discovering Snape in the corner
recliner … perhaps she should just be glad that she’d been spared that particular plot twist, if not the
situation itself.
It was hard to be glad about anything, though, when the first emotions on the Freud-O-Meter were
popping up with labels like confusion, embarrassment, and massive, killer, double-whammy, take-
home-the-grand-prize-today Grade-A guilt. Somewhere on the spectrum between the wild leap of
elation she’d felt back at the museum, as Snape materialised seemingly from thin air, and the dry-
mouthed self-accusation that was even now gnawing away at her guts with its taunting, ceaseless
whisper (you’re-a-slut-you’re-a-slut-you’re-a-slut), lurked a more pedestrian, if no less worrisome,
sense of déja vù. This wasn’t the first time, after all, that she’d found herself caught between
diametrically opposed suitors: the slightly shady Light and the strangely comforting Dark.
Damn it, she’d thought her juggling days were behind her. Hermione flopped down on her bed belly-
first, rubbing her temples as a Great Life Truth pounded its way into her head on the wings of a tension
headache: Leaving town doesn’t make you automatically heart-whole, you know.
Well, no shit.
She and Snape, it seemed, still had unfinished business.
She undressed, hanging up the robes and tossing everything else into the laundry hamper by the
bathroom door. For a moment, her hand strayed to the amulet still hanging around her neck; then she let
it drop.
After what Snape had told her tonight, she was convinced of two truths: firstly, that Gran’s Jordanian
prince had given her not a pale imitation of the Priestess, but the genuine article - and secondly, that it
was nothing but trouble.
She’d heard Arthur Weasley’s advice to his daughter a million times now, in some variation or another,
if she’d heard it once: Never trust anything that can think for itself, if you can’t see where it keeps its
Well, duh. The problem with that, true and excellent an aphorism though it undoubtedly was, was that
like all advice, it was easier given than taken.
Did she trust the Sekhmet statue? Not on her life.
Knowing what she did about it, would she like to heave it into the Nile right this instant? You betcha.
Was she about to wear it to bed?
Not the most sensible of options, maybe, but that didn’t change this fact: when she went to sleep
without the amulet, she woke up screaming.
And not only had the nightmares gotten more frequent, they were more intense as well. It had been
going on for over a week now - she’d drift off in satin and wake up in blood, sweating and shaking and
half-expecting to see Death, sweet and fetid, in the same room with her.
And always, always - no matter where she’d left it, no matter how securely she’d locked it away - the
Sekhmet pendant would be around her neck. Hermione wasn’t sure if the amulet was causing the
dreams, or trying to protect her from them, but she did know this: when she wore it to bed, she slept
through the night. Peacefully.
It did occur to her, as she lay in her pretty white-eyelet-draped double bed, that she was being
conditioned - that by wearing the necklace, she was in some strange way giving it what it wanted.
And that was disturbing, to put it mildly.
Be careful, Hermione, Snape had said just before Disapparating, his dark eyes alive with carefully-
banked worry and something else that she couldn’t read. I’m going to research this further; until then,
watch your step. That thing is loaded with something powerful, and it’s not entirely good. If I thought it
safe to do so, I would take it back to Hogwarts with me and destroy it myself.
Not exactly what you wanted to hear from Mr. Inflappable, was it?
Hermione shivered. Lying in this bed, wearing a sinister talisman she couldn’t bring herself to remove,
she was suddenly flooded with nostalgia for Hogwarts - its friendly faces, its cozy rooms, its protective,
encircling layers of enchantments. Merely seeing Snape tonight had brought that feeling back to her,
that warm, secure sensation of being … well, looked after. And now that he was gone again, she felt a
little cold, and very much alone.
A questioning chirrup from the bedroom doorway heralded Cleo’s arrival; a moment later, the caracal
landed heavily next to Hermione’s pillow, curled herself into a gangly ball of exponentially-growing
hind legs and baby fluff, and began to purr. Hermione reached up to stroke the kitten’s fur, and heard
the purr escalate to a contented rumble.
It sounded almost like a distant automobile motor.
Yawning, Hermione thought of long car trips, of falling asleep in the back seat of the Granger family
car, as the BBC’s velvet-voiced announcers murmured into her ears and her father spirited them
through the black-and-gold night; when she woke up, Hermione-the-child had known, she’d be home.
Oddly comforted by the memory, she closed her eyes and let herself go under.
She Flooed into the Consortium common room on Monday morning to find Areli at the sunny little
work table, poring over a stack of diagrammes and blueprints with a distinctly pinched look about her
generous mouth. Hermione took in the pallor, the blue smudges under her mentor’s eyes, and frowned.
“Hard night?”
“Migraine,” Areli said tersely, and closed her eyes for a moment. “Since yesterday. Can’t shake it.”
Hermione tutted sympathetically. “Do you get them a lot?”
Areli nodded.
“I have a potion that takes the edge off,” she said, “but it puts me to sleep - what’s more, I’m out of it,
and my mediwizard is in the Caymans this week.” She attempted a wry smile that ended up reading as
a grimace. “I almost stayed home today, but the artificial heart project has a trial run coming up in
conjunction with Cairo Medical, and you know what a major coup that will be, if it’s successful. I can’t
afford to take time off.”
She looked so physically miserable that Hermione winced in sympathy.
“Migraines run in my family,” she offered; “my mom gets them all the time.”
“Well, I came up with a remedy of sorts,” Hermione said tentatively. “I’m no mediwitch, of course, but
I talked Mum into trying it this summer and it seemed to work pretty well for her. I was just going to
owl her some more; would you like to try it? It’s just upstairs.”
It was odd, she thought as she Flooed upstairs to her office, how some things were so different between
wizards and Muggles, and other things so much alike … especially when it came to the field of
medicine. Pain relief was one of these parallel universes; like the Muggles, magical medicine had
topical remedies to numb and relieve superficial pain - lotions, rubs, that sort of thing. In a pinch, you
could even use your wand to cast an anaesthetic spell on a particular ache or abrasion - but that was a
clumsy, primitive method, for battleground surgery and emergency first-aid, and it had the unpleasant
side effect of not only anesthesising the area in question, but temporarily paralysing it as well.
So - for heavy-duty pain relief, the magical community turned to potions. Hermione knew about that
migraine remedy of Areli’s - effective, yes, but like its Muggle-medicine counterpart, it did tend to put
you under for a while. For her part, Hermione had decided to approach the problem from a combination
of magical and herbal standpoints, and had come up with a fragrant little concoction that Kate Granger
swore by: peppermint oil and powdered feverfew, added to a base of undiluted Illuminata. She’d left
her mom with several months’ supply at summer’s-end, but suspected that the soft-hearted Dr. Granger
had taken to dispensing it to her colleagues at the office; dentists seemed to have more tension
headaches, per capita, than the population at large.
All that drilling, probably.
She took a beakerful down to Areli, but didn’t hang around to get her boss’s reaction. Class started in
twenty minutes, after all - she wanted a good seat.
Sighing, she pulled her black robes on over her head and started out into another one of Cairo’s bright-
blue mornings - by noon, she’d wager, the temperature would be off the charts again.
And a Cooling Charm could only do so much.
The lecture ran long.
Hermione had long since discovered that the Egyptians’ concept of time was essentially fluid by
Western standards, and had adjusted accordingly. Even so, she was yawning and headachy as she
emerged from the dim lecture hall into the hammer-blow of Cairo’s midday sun.
Lunch first, she thought - something quick and cool, from one of the street vendors - then she’d beat it
back to the Consortium. The thought of air-conditioning alone was enough to make her swoon; in the
four hours she’d been there, the medical building had gone from warm-but-bearable, to brutally hot.
She could think of nothing better than a tall lemonade and a handful of ice to the back of her neck - but
then Itmana had her by the arm, was pulling her into a small cluster of female students.
“We’re going to the baths,” she explained. “After a morning like that, it’s the only thing to do. Will you
Startled, Hermione glanced around at the expectant circle of faces - dark-eyed beauties all - girls she
knew only by name: Neila, Samiya, Ivonne.
Wasn’t it just the other day that she’d been wishing for some friendly overture from them?
But it’s so hot …
“The baths?” she repeated politely. Itmana, clearly the chosen liaison, nodded.
“It’s a great Muslim tradition,” she said mischievously, tightening her grip on Hermione’s arm. “You
mustn’t miss it.”
“Well …” Hermione wavered. “Are you sure it’s not an intrusion?”
All four girls shook their heads.
“We’re going to the hammam in my neighbourhood,” Samiya offered. “I would be honoured if you
would be my guest.”
Well. In that case … Hermione, unable to resist that shy-but-heartfelt olive branch, shrugged and
“All right,” she said, and linked her arm with Itmana’s. “Lead the way.”
“We didn’t think you’d last,” Neila confided haltingly as they crossed the Abdel Salam-Arif highway,
narrowly avoiding a homicidal taxi and a couple of donkey carts, and turned northwest into the suburb
of Giza. “The Westerners hardly ever do. Their Arabic isn’t good enough.”
“Yes, well …” Hermione, thinking guiltily of the Comprehension Charm, blushed. “I’m just studying,
still. I’m not yet fluent.”
“But your accent is so good!” That was Ivonne, taller and paler than the others; Hermione already
knew, from Itmana’s cafeteria gossip, that Ivonne’s mother was French.
“Well, it doesn’t matter - we should have invited you long before now,” Samiya said, and squeezed
Hermione’s hand. “I can’t imagine being so far away from my family and friends; I’d die of
loneliness.” She smiled. “We go to the hammam after nearly every lecture, the four of us. To relax.”
“And to bitch,” added Itmana slyly, sending the others into slightly horrified giggles. Clearly, Hermione
thought, Itmana was the token liberal in this crowd; the other three seemed to be exactly as they
presented themselves: nice Muslim girls, upwardly mobile virgins of respectable families, for whom
inviting a fille anglaise to bathe with them was unspeakably exciting, and perhaps just a bit outré.
Still. After last night’s testosterone overload, pedicures with the girls was shaping up to be a nice
contrast. “Is there a swimming pool there?” she asked - it really was unbearably hot; a swim would be
just the thing - and was met with another round of muffled titters.
“You’ll see,” Ivonne said mysteriously, and brought them up short at a kiosk just outside an
unassuming square building that proclaimed itself to be the Wadi el Maleka’at Hammam.
Wadi el Malaka’at - the Valley of the Queens.
“Five,” Ivonne said curtly to the kiosk’s owner, and handed over a few piasters in exchange for a
handful of small paper packets, containing a fine yellowish-gold powder. Hermione leaned over to
study them curiously.
“What are those?”
“Wait and see,” Neila said - and propelled her toward the door of the hammam.
They were in a cool, dim stone vestibule with a bubbling fountain in the centre, intricately laid mosaics
in bright colours on the floor and walls, and a gracefully arched ceiling that Hermione would never
have guessed existed, from the building’s plain exterior. A white-robed attendant rose, then sat down
again when she saw who her customers were, and waved them through.
“Don’t we have to pay?” Hermione whispered to Itmana. Itmana shook her head.
“Samiya’s mother is half-owner,” Itmana whispered back. “Don’t worry about it.”
Down a short hallway they went, through a heavy wooden door painted bright kelly green, and into a
warm, humid dressing room lined with low benches. Hermione, who didn’t have a bathing suit with
her, hesitated; Ivonne - already shed of her bulky chador and stepping out of the dress underneath it -
nudged her playfully.
“You aren’t shy, are you?” she teased, drawing giggles from the others. “It’s all right, ma petite - we
won’t fall over blinded if you show off that pale skin of yours.”
Casually, she unhooked her brassiere - a surprisingly scant creation of peacock-blue lace - and kicked
the matching panties languidly down her long slim legs. Gulping, Hermione looked around.
Yup, all the others were stripping down to the nuddy-pants, too.
When in Rome, Granger. Don’t be a hick.
Gamely, she began to remove her own clothes, fighting back a telltale blush and pretending not to
notice the Egyptian girls’ delighted amusement at her expense. We’ll leave this bit out of the next letter
home, shall we?
On the other hand, Harry and Ron might appreciate it. Especially if I managed to score pictures.
Striving for nonchalance, she tucked her clothes into the dark folds of her robe to form one neat parcel,
as she’d seen the others do, and stood up.
“Okay. What now?”
As Samiya explained, there were five stages to the traditional hammam. By the time they finally
reached the fifth - the period of relaxation - Hermione was too limp to hold on to her embarrassment,
and feeling rather like a used bath towel: damp, shapeless, and wrung out.
Also deeply contented, however. And clean - deep, squeaky clean - all the way to her bones.
She supposed that it was a fair trade.
She had stretched her naked body on a heated marble slab that turned her bones to rubber. Lain
complaisant while a ruthless team of attendants pummeled and kneaded and twisted her to pretzels in a
frighteningly vigorous massage - at one point, she could have sworn that her toes touched the back of
her neck. Wobbly and loose-jointed, she’d followed the others into the next room, hotter and steamier
yet, and allowed them to spread a powdery golden paste over her legs and arms and … well, just about
everywhere; if their hands strayed into rather intimate places in the process, their touch was too matter-
of-fact to be taken personally.
The paste smelt of honey and spices, and dried in moments; as it pulled and tightened her skin to a
vaguely pleasurable itch, Hermione recognised the scent as one and the same with the mysterious
yellow powder from the kiosk outside. “What is this for, anyway?” she asked sleepily, just as Neila
smoothed a strip of unbleached linen over her calf, patting it expertly down to adhere it to the tacky
“Depilatory,” Neila said calmly. “Relax.”
And in the next breath, yanked.
“Ow!” Hermione exclaimed, and felt a jolt of real annoyance at the fresh tide of laughter. Itmana patted
her soothingly on the shoulder.
“Local custom - Muslim girls have been doing this for centuries. Just lie back - Neila’s very good, very
Gentle, Hermione thought mutinously, is obviously a relative term. Still, she submitted with as good a
grace as possible to the depilation process - legs, arms, armpits, oh, ouch! - that is, until Neila gestured
toward her honey-crusted pubic hair and snapped another strip of linen from the pile with an air of
surgical determination.
Oh, but no. Uh-uh. Local custom only takes you so far, and then you have to put your unadventurous,
sensibly shod British foot down and say, “Enough’s enough.”
“Baby,” Ivonne sniffed. Hermione set her jaw.
“I’m not,” she protested. “I just like it the way it is, that’s all.”
“It’s so you won’t smell down there, you know. Men don’t like that.”
“No one’s complained yet,” Hermione retorted, and immediately realised her mistake, just as four pairs
of wide brown eyes swiveled toward her in a classic double take.
“You’ve had lovers?” breathed Samiya. Hermione bit her lip.
Oh, crap. Can I get thrown out of here for talking about sex?
“Um,” she said uncertainly, and jumped as Neila seized her arm.
“What is it like?” she asked in a whisper, and that broke the ice: Hermione found herself suddenly
besieged with avid questions from all sides - Was it big? Does it hurt? Was he handsome? Did he touch
you? Where? - as well as Did your father find out? Did he beat you? Is that why he sent you away?
“Promise you’ll tell us everything,” Itmana said, “and we’ll let you escape with that curly little bush
intact. Otherwise -“
She brandished the strip of linen threateningly. Hermione surrendered, laughing.
“Okay, you win,” she said. “But should we be talking about this - here, out in public like this?”
“We’re not in public,” Neila said, “we’re at the hammam. There aren’t any men here; no one’s going to
bother us. Besides -“ this a trifle wistfully - “you’re not Egyptian; you’re allowed.”
Put that way, Hermione thought, how could she refuse?
The tale of Granger’s Thousand and One Nights commenced during Stage Four, which was the steam
bath itself; a hot spring, whether natural or man-made Hermione didn’t know, burbled up from the
centre of the floor, mixing with the incense burners in the corners of the room to create hot, opaque
clouds of steam so thick and fragrant that Hermione could practically have cut it into wedges and taken
it home with her. They sank down on more heated marble ledges, donning abrasive loofah-like mitts
made of camel’s hair, and began to scrub at each other’s skin; Hermione winced as Itmana scraped the
mitt down her back from neck to hip, then winced again as she saw the long curls of dead gray skin that
the camel’s hair had stripped away.
Wow. Talk about your exfoliation.
“So, tell us,” Samiya prompted, and Hermione began at the beginning, a peeled-pink Scheherezade
taking the story all the way back to that first week in Rome, and spiraling it steadily out from that first
encounter with Snape in San Pietro. It wasn’t easy to leave out all references to magic, to make
Hogwarts over into just an ordinary boarding school, to somehow compensate for an inability to tell
them about Sal, about Voldemort, about the Protection Potion and the Trapping Spell and the Jade
Priestess… but her enthralled audience didn’t seem to mind; after all, they were after the story not for
the plot, but for the romance.
“You say he was blond like that all over?”
“Your professor … Hermione, you’re terrible. And he wasn’t sacked? No one ever found out?”
“Oooh - daffodils; how romantic.”
“Which one are you going to marry?”
“Lucky girl, to have so many choices - to try out the merchandise ahead of time.” That was Itmana, as
always more plainly spoken than the other three. Hermione frowned.
“So you don’t … date? Ever?”
Snorts of laughter.
“Date?” Ivonne, fully-scrubbed, leaned back to recline, Roman-style, on her marble ledge and began to
leisurely soap down her breasts with a handful of fragrant soft-soap from a stone jar. “You don’t
understand - we can’t even smile at a man, without it being taken as a gesture of intent! To look directly
into a single man’s eyes from across a crowded room is to invite a marriage proposal.”
Hermione swallowed hard. “You’re joking.”
Neila shook her head. “Once you’re engaged to a man, you can go to the cinema with him, or to a
restaurant. Chaperoned, of course.”
“What if you don’t like him?”
One by one, they gave her rueful little smiles and dropped their eyes. “Oh,” Hermione said, and felt
suddenly cold despite the hot water Samiya was pouring over her head.
Into the sudden silence, Itmana spoke, and her voice, though a bare whisper, was threaded with
“There’s a reason, you see,” she said, “why Islamic law makes it impossible for women to leave the
country without the consent of their closest male relative.” Her eyes, through the steam, were hard and
stony. “Given the choice, any girl with a brain in her head and money for a ticket would be on a plane.
Hermione, for once, had nothing to say to that.

Chapter Twelve
It was Thursday afternoon before Hermione began to fully consider the ramifications of her brief
encounter with Bill, the Sunday previous.
He’d come over to ask her out on a date - that much she’d gotten, in between ducking his kisses and
shoving him out the door - and not just for dinner, either; no, if she remembered correctly, he’d had
something special in mind, and he’d been quite specific about what she was to wear, what she was to
But damned if she could remember what it was. In between her embarrassment, her intense desire to
have him gone, and that startling furl of slow-curling heat that suckerpunched her whenever they
kissed, she’d lost the particulars of what he’d said.
She went across the hall to ask him when she got home from work, but he didn’t answer the door.
“He went for a swim,” Maxie volunteered. “Up on the roof.” She raised an appraising, heavily-penciled
eyebrow. “Now there’s a man who knows how to fill a Speedo. If I were ten years younger … and
three-dimensional …”
“A swim?” Hermione blinked. “There’s a swimming pool in this building?”
Maxie, looking pleased to be the source of new information, nodded smugly.
“Never seen it myself, of course,” she said. “But the staircase -“ she jerked a thumb over her shoulder -
“is right over there. Straight up to the roof. You can’t miss it.”
Oh, Christ, that sounded like a good idea. She’d been jonesing for a swim ever since her visit to the
hammam on Monday afternoon.
“Thanks,” Hermione said, and in return for the tip, conjured up a Bottomless pitcher of iced tea and
some glasses on the piano bench next to a slumped-over Dave. (Lester, in particular, looked
dangerously wilted. And the Guy Without a Name didn’t look much better.)
You knew it was hot, she reflected as she started toward the stairway, when even the walls started to
feel it.
The stairway led all the way straight up to the roof, as promised - Hermione pushed open the trapdoor
at the top, emerged blinking into the bright afternoon sunshine, and surveyed the pair of striped-canvas
cabanas, one to either side of her, with surprise.
Dressing rooms, no less. Well, that was the wizarding world for you - never do the simple thing, when
it could be ornate. She ducked into the cabana marked Witches and pulled back the flowered curtain to
the nearest changing cubicle, intent on Transfiguring her hot, heavy robes into an appropriate bathing
What she found hanging in the cubicle changed her mind completely.
The suit, it seemed, was already provided for her - and what a suit it was! Someone, apparently, had
been entertaining Ariel fantasies when they designed it; the coral-coloured bikini bottoms were
matched by a conch-shell brassiere and complimented by a sarong-style wrap with a fishtail hem, in a
shining fluid fabric that seemed fashioned of tiny varicoloured metal links.
Voilà - instant mermaid.
Hermione, who had entertained latent mermaid fantasies since the age of eight, and who still knew all
the words to Part Of Your World, felt her fingertips tingle.
She had to try it on, she simply had to.
It fit like skin - whether this was a miracle of magic or simply of Spandex, she didn’t know. There was
even a starfish clip for her hair; smirking, she tucked it behind her ear and adjusted the sarong’s narrow
drape over her hips.
Oh, perfect.
But what was happening to the floor?
It seemed softer, not as solid. Looking down, Hermione could have sworn that she’d seen it shift, seen
it sparkle.
It’s almost like - well, it’s almost like water … she thought, beguiled by that deep, changeable sheen,
that mutable hint of mystery.
And then she was sliding, feet-first, into what felt like home.
Holy shit, was her first thought. I’m underwater - I shouldn’t be breathing! But there was something …
something new, at her neck … Wonderingly, she brought up both hands to touch the tiny pulsating frills
of skin directly under her ears.
She had gills.
She looked down at her feet, and gave a little yelp of excitement. Look, Ma, no legs! - sure enough, she
had a tail, a long graceful silver sweep flaring out into a double-wide fin. The tiniest of flickers - a
movement of muscles rather like pointing her toes - and she was gliding lazily through the heaven-cool
water, almost too caught up in sensation to look around her.
Merlin in handcuffs - there were fish. And coral. And sea-horses. This wasn’t a swimming pool, it was
a bona fide lagoon.
How cool was this?
She twiddled her toes again and shot through the water like a baby seal, like a delighted torpedo. Oh,
look - look at the light on the surface, all greeny-gold and dappled, so warm and inviting … she should
shoot up through that sunlight-warmed silk, leap and dive again in a flashing flicker of mysterious
silver tail … Or - looking below her now - should she dive instead, deeper into that cool mysterious
beckoning blue, shimmering and reflective as the heart of her sapphire?
Oh, she couldn’t decide, she really couldn’t.
“Hey, Madison.”
Oh, right. Bill. She’d almost forgotten why she’d come up here in the first place.
There, he’d made up her mind for her - she couldn’t hear that sexy amused voice and not turn around
and look. The question was, was he …?
Oh, yes.
Yes, he was.
Sleek and bare-chested and leanly, strongly perfect, a naked Adonis with a gleaming, muscular column
of scales that sheathed him from the hips down and flared into a fin just like hers, but somehow more
… um, masculine. Hermione just stared at him, hoping in some dim recess of what remained of her
lust-crazed brain that her tongue wasn’t hanging out.
Jesus, Granger, did you acquire an extra sex drive, to go along with the tail? “Hullo,” she managed
weakly, and then wondered why his gaze kept flicking south.
And then she remembered: real mermaids didn’t wear that silly seashell bra. And she was most
definitely a real mermaid, at least for the moment.
Part of her wanted to cover her breasts with her hands. The other part wanted to hold them out to him in
offering. Instead, she blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
“If we start kissing, will we drown?”
He’d been looking just about as shell-shocked as she felt, but that got a smile out of him.
“Don’t know,” he said. “Never tried.”
Hermione, suddenly way beyond false modesty, flipped her tail and felt the lazy current rock her
another couple of inches toward him. Half-closing her eyes, she raised a hand to straighten her starfish,
and summoned her best Bombshell Pout.
“Want to?”
Did he want to?
He couldn’t think of anything else.
And at the same time, it frightened him just to look at her - she was so beautiful, so natural and primal
and perfect, that he could see for the first time how the old sailors’ myths about mermaids had gotten
Lure me overboard, Hermione. Let me drown in you. I promise you, I’ll die smiling.
It was getting very hard to stay objective about this girl. He wrapped an arm around her waist to tow
her in, closed his eyes, and took what he wanted.
She was sleek and wet in his arms, all cool smooth skin with a banked fire burning underneath. Kissing
her, Bill thought, was like being locked in silence, like swallowing a desperate sacrament in a watery
green cathedral; like a journey, at once both homage and desecration.
A Baudelaire poem. An opium dream.
And, ultimately, an exercise in frustration.
Though his human body ached unbearably for her, though beneath the layers of enchantments fusing
his legs into a tail he was acutely aware of his penis - presently in a state of three-alarm emergency -
the fact was that until he left the water, he was trapped in the body of a merman. And merfolk were
half-fish, after all, and reproduced not by live birth, but by the laying and fertilisation of eggs.
In other words, he couldn’t have it both ways.
He could kiss her for hours - he could nuzzle her naked torso underwater and never need a breath. He
could fondle and torment those perfect little breasts with their shy pale-pink crowns until she bit her
own lips and begged him for mercy, and not suffer so much as pruney fingers because of it.
But as long as they both had gills and fins, Sex Itself was out of the equation altogether.
A man could only take so much.
“Come on, Madison,” he said into her ear, and felt her lips curve against his cheek. They watched the
same movies, apparently; yet another good sign. “Let’s give those flippers a workout, shall we?”
She blinked langorously. “And do what?”
Minx. He unwound his arm from around her waist and took her hand with his. “Explore - what else?
There’s a Spanish galleon just around the corner.”
She looked so dazzled that he couldn’t help kissing her again.
“Really,” he said. “And that’s not all. I want to show you the dolphins before the light goes.”
They swam off into the sunset, hand in hand.

Chapter Thirteen
“What I want to know,” Hermione said dreamily, “is this: where is everybody else?”
“Hm?” Bill blinked at her. “Say that again?”
“You heard me,” she said. “Why are we the only ones here?”
He cocked one eyebrow. “You want company?”
“Well, no. But you have to admit it’s a bit odd. A paradise like this? On a day like today?” Hermione
scanned the placid surface of the lagoon. “I should have thought they’d be lining up to get in.”
They were sunning themselves on the pleasantly airy deck of the Spanish galleon. Hermione had
thought it’d be underwater, but it was still merrily afloat; closer inspection proved it to be equipped
with canvas deck chairs shaded by brightly striped beach umbrellas, a self-stocking minibar, and a
shuffleboard game.
Not as romantic as a shipwreck, perhaps. But undeniably convenient nonetheless.
Hermione looked out at the Cairene sunset, sipped her mai tai, and sighed happily. If there was
anything in the world more perfect than this, she sure couldn’t think of it.
Which begged the question: where was the rest of the building?
“Well,” Bill said slowly, “if you compare it to the other pool, it is a bit dull.”
Hermione gave him a sharp look. “The other pool?”
“Well, what kind of luxury apartments would these be if they only had one?”
His tone was deliberately disingenuous; Hermione felt her Bullshit Radar flare into Instant Overdrive.
“Tell me about the other pool,” she requested sweetly. Bill shrugged.
“Take the other staircase,” he said, “on the opposite side of the building, and you end up in the other
pool. You still get the merman action” - here, he indicated his own lazily twitching tail - “but it’s
designed to be family-friendly, more so than this one - water slides, one of those roller-coaster things
… a log ride, is it? … paddleboats, water pinball - that sort of thing. Very appealing to the kiddies - you
must have noticed by now how many primary-school-age kids live in this building - and there’s a little
cabana over there, poolside, where all the mums hang out and drink daiquiris.”
He flipped his tail nonchalantly. “And, of course, no sharks.”
At that, Hermione nearly spilled her drink.
“Sharks?” she demanded. “There are sharks in this pool?”
Bill gave her an uneasy sidelong look. “Well, there’s one.”
Nervously, Hermione scanned the horizon for the telltale shadow of a sinister triangular fin. Nothing;
just cool blue ripples and the warm pinky-red pool of dying sunshine, melting down onto the water like
an abandoned grapefruit sorbet.
“Where is it?”
“Where’s what?”
Hermione sighed gustily. “The shark, you nimrod.”
“Fidel? Oh, he’s around.”
At her suspicious look, Bill shrugged again, a trifle sheepishly this time.
“Well, I didn’t go to all the trouble of conjuring him up, just so he’d hang around and harass me all
day,” he said. “What good would that do me?”
Hermione’s mouth dropped open.
“Bill Weasley,” she said, “do you mean to tell me that you stocked this lagoon with a shark?”
“Erm, well, actually …”
“Just so you’d have the place to yourself, I suppose,” she interrupted.
He gulped. “Well, you see, the thing was …”
She tried to look disapproving, but was undercut by his look of guilty self-satisfaction. Frightening,
Hermione thought, how that expression gave him such a resemblance to Ron. And funny, too, that
she’d never seen it quite that strongly before.
“You did, you wretch,” she said severely, and he had the grace to flush.
“Well, he won’t actually bite anyone,” he said, seemingly in his own defense. “Truth be told, I
patterned him a bit after a magical guard dog - they have spells to conjure those up custom-made, you
know; I’m sure you’ve seen them around. He’ll only attack someone in whom he perceives a threat to
the safety of the building or its occupants. The rest is just for show - he’ll circle around, snarl and lunge
a bit maybe, but there’s no actual danger.” He slanted her a mischievous look. “Can I help it that no one
ever sticks around long enough to figure that out?”
Under that naughty bad-boy regard, she was softening like ice-cream in August; it took real resolve to
keep up her censorious tone. “And building security? Surely someone’s spoken to Mickey about it -
you’ve probably caused him hours of trouble, poor man.”
Mickey was the building super, an American expatriate with the physique of a defense lineman, an
advanced degree from Columbia in primitive sub-Saharan cultures, and a spectacular lack of ambition
or desire to do anything useful with either. He had come adventuring in Africa after one too many Paul
Theroux novels on one too many beers - or so he’d told Hermione, in the longest conversation she’d
had with him to date - and had run out of either money or energy (or, as the evidence would suggest,
both), in Tangier.
How he’d subsequently ended up in Cairo was, as yet, an unsolved mystery. He was an indifferent
caretaker but almost universally beloved throughout the building nonetheless; Hermione had thought
more than once that he would have done very well as a kindergarten teacher, as he was trailed
adoringly by the small children of the apartment complex wherever he went. At the mention of his
name, Bill laughed.
“Mickey? Two things,” he said. “First off, you don’t break into tombs as often as I have, for as long as I
have, without coming up with some pretty spectacular wards of your own. Fidel -“ and here he slapped
the water affectionately with the flat side of his fin - “is harder to find than an invisible Snitch, if you
actually come looking for him. And wands don’t work very well underwater, anyway.”
Hermione raised one eyebrow. “And the second thing?”
“Well.” Bill crunched some ice. “This is the thing - Mickey and I have a deal.”
“A deal, huh?” Hermione found her gaze wandering to that sleek bare expanse of chest and gave herself
a mental head-slap.
How were you supposed to stay annoyed with Sex On Fins?
“What kind of deal?” she asked warily. He looked amused.
“American wizards have simple tastes by their own standards,” he said, “but it’s pretty damn expensive
to indulge them overseas. I keep Mickey in Marlboros and Michelob, and in return he doesn’t look too
hard for Fidel, whenever he gets a complaint.”
“Which is how often, exactly?”
He folded his arms behind his head and smirked. “Not since I figured out how to get the bumper cars to
work underwater, over on the other side.”
“Bribery,” Hermione sniffed - darkly, but not without a certain amount of grudging admiration. Ron, it
seemed, had come by his scheming honestly. “That’s positively … Slytherin of you.”
Bill, if possible, looked even more pleased with himself. “Yes - it is, rather, isn’t it?”
He was, Hermione decided, a most exasperating man.
He walked her down the stairs - took her all the way to her door - kissed her goodnight, even … but
would he tell her where they were going tomorrow?
Not a chance.
And damn it, it wasn’t exactly as if she needed another mystery to solve.
Still, it was a nice mystery. For a change. And that reminded her: for the last two hours that she’d just
spent playing Go Fish, she hadn’t thought about the Sekhmet amulet, or the Jade Priestess, even once.
She had an escape. A retreat.
What a lovely, lovely word.
Humming, she kicked off her shoes, snatched up a sleepy, half-heartedly protesting Cleo for a quick
cuddle, and was about to waltz off to the bathroom for a long, hot soak, when out of the darkness came
Startled, she yelped and swung round, digging in her skirt pocket for her wand with her free hand, even
as she realised it was still in her robes, and that she’d draped them over the back of the sofa, half the
room’s length away.
“Who is it?” she said sharply, then sighed in audible relief as Minerva McGonagall stood up from the
shadows of the corner armchair and glided regally forward into the light of the lamps.
Phew, was her first thought. And then, catching sight of the look on McGonagall’s face, relief gave way
to the sudden cold grip of fear.
“What is it?” she asked. “What’s happened?”
“Hermione,” Professor McGonagall said again. “I’m sorry to burst in on you like this, but I’m afraid
it’s unavoidable.” She hesitated. “There’s - news.”
“What is it? What’s happened?”
McGonagall gestured helplessly to the closest chair. “Sit down first.”
“No.” Hermione, clutching Cleo more closely, shook her head. “No, just tell me. Please.”
“Ah. Well, then.” McGonagall rubbed one hand wearily over her forehead. “How to say it,” she mused,
only half-aloud, then drew herself up to her full height, clasped her hands behind her, and faced
Hermione full-on.
“There’s no easy way to tell you,” she said, “so I’ll just come out and say that we’ve had news from
Hermione felt the cold hand in her guts clench a little tighter. “And?”
“Well. Rita Skeeter is …” Professor McGonagall hesitated. “Well, she’s dead, Hermione.”
Fear immediately gave way to guilt. Hermione swayed on her feet.
I sent her there. Dead because of me.
“Oh, God,” she said, and sat down hard on the nearest dining-room chair, letting Cleo slip through her
loosened arms like a small brown river overflowing its banks. “How - how did it … how did she die?
Was it the dementors?”
McGonagall shook her head.
“Stabbed,” she said. “She was found this morning, on the floor of her cell, with a knife in her heart.”
Hermione bit her lip hard.
“But - but then - but how -“
“That’s not all.”
“Not all?”
“Not even half.” McGonagall reached over and covered Hermione’s cold hand with one of her own.
“The rest of it’s this: it was Lucius Malfoy’s knife, down to the moonstone in the handle and the initials
on the blade. And when they checked Malfoy’s cell, he wasn’t there.”
“Not there?” Hermione half-sprang up from her chair, then slumped back into it with a premonition of
dread so strong that it felt like a shudder. “But - but that’s not possible. Fudge said four years - he can’t
be -“
“Tell me it’s not true,” Hermione said faintly, and closed her eyes as her former Head of House pulled
her into a surprisingly firm embrace.
“I wish I could. I’m sorry.”
No bad dream this time, Hermione thought bitterly, and for the first time wished for the sweaty
awakening, the nightmare tremors, that would return her to a happier reality.
No such luck. She was still in her dining room, shaking in McGonagall’s motherly arms, with still-
damp hair and the remnants of her happy, carefree afternoon withering on the doorstep.
And somewhere, Lucius Malfoy was walking free.
This changed everything.

Chapter Fourteen
"Hermione, it’s not your fault," Harry said. "Stop saying that, or you’ll start to believe it yourself."
They – Harry, Ron, and Hermione – were sprawled side-by-side on the expand-o-chaise in Elysium,
staring at the ceiling; they’d been there for an hour or more, ever since Hermione walked into the
Gryffindor common room, accompanied by Professor McGonagall. Discussion of their current
situation had been attempted, but had pretty much run down by now into self-recriminations and
random bitching (mostly Hermione’s) and halfhearted reassurance (mostly Harry’s and Ron’s).
Hermione squeezed his hand affectionately. Trust these two, she thought, to take the most impossible of
situations in stride.
The soothing, though, she couldn’t accept.
"Harry, it is my fault," she said. "Draco and I were the only ones who knew Malfoy was an Animagus,
and Draco only knew because I told him; I saw him Transform myself, down by the lake. If I’d had the
presence of mind to tell Dumbledore, instead of being all secretive about it because of Inlaqueo –
stupid, stupid, stupid; he knew about that anyway, I should just have come clean – then they would
have known all about it, and he wouldn’t have been able to pull a Sirius. He’d still be behind bars – or
in a cage – instead of out roaming the countryside plotting God knows what. And I’d still be in Cairo."
She scowled. "This blows. And just when I was starting to make friends, too."
At this, Ron snorted. "Yeah, I’ll bet. I can just imagine how friendly my brother wants to get with you."
"For your information," Hermione said frostily, "I was referring to my girl friends. And how do you
know what Bill wants or doesn’t want, anyway?"
"Oh, I have a pretty fair idea, I think," Ron muttered darkly, but was quelled into changing the subject
by a warning look from Harry. "And speaking of Draco, where is he, anyway? Stands to reason that if
they pull you back to Hogwarts, someone’s gone after him, too. Don’t you think?"
"Well, Beauxbatons is probably pretty safe," Harry said thoughtfully – "safer than Cairo, anyway.
Maybe they’ll just let him stay where he is."
Hermione sniffed. "You really think so?"
"Don’t you?"
"From what I know about that place, and the woman who runs it," Hermione said acerbically, "the
minute she finds out Lucius is on the loose, she’ll be packing his bags herself."
"Ah, now there’s the voice of sweet reason."
They looked up, startled, to see Draco materialising in the far corner, his pale face fixed and wooden.
He looked about as happy as Hermione felt – which was to say, not very. "Unfortunately," he said,
dropping his valise on the rug and beginning to unfasten his cloak, "you’re as drearily accurate as ever,
my darling; Professor Snape arrived to collect me not half an hour ago. From the sound of things, I’m
assuming we stay until he’s back behind bars." He jerked one shoulder in a parody of a shrug. "Or
"But –" Hermione pulled herself off the chaise and stalked over to perch on the arm of the nearest chair.
"That can’t be right; you must be mistaken. Professor McGonagall said that I could go back, as soon as
they tighten up security in my building a bit."
She nodded to emphasize her point. "As soon as it’s safe."
Draco curled his lip.
"Safe," he said mockingly. "You think it’s safe anywhere but here, as long as he’s still breathing? Join
us in the real world, why don’t you, sweetheart?"
Hermione opened her mouth, then shut it again. Behind her, Ron bristled; Harry laid a restraining hand
on his arm. It’s an Ex Thing, his sideways glance said. Don’t interfere.
"I heard Snape speak to Madame Maxime," Draco said, "and he told her that neither one of us – not
you, and not me – is leaving this castle, until Lucius Malfoy is popping up daisies." He looked
maliciously pleased to be the bearer of bad news. "Guess you shouldn’t have booked that Nile cruise,
after all, huh?"
Baffled and stung by his casual hostility, Hermione glared at him. "You needn’t be so flippant," she said
hotly. "It’s well enough for you – you can just keep on with your studies here. But if I don’t go back to
Cairo on Monday, I’ll miss my chemistry midterm. And I can’t pass the course without it; I’ll have to
retake it in January. It’ll put me behind a whole semester!"
Draco rolled his eyes.
"Oh, boo-fucking-hoo," he said flatly. "So sorry the Forces of Evil aren’t taking your class schedule
into advisement. At this rate, your next patent won’t be ready until past Christmas."
Hermione gasped in indignation. "Oh, I hardly think that’s fair –"
Draco ignored her. "You think I’m happy to be here?" He flung down his cloak, scowling. "That I
wanted to leave Beauxbatons?"
"As I recall," Hermione said sharply, "I wrote to you and you never wrote me back. How should I know
what’s going on with you – whether you’re happy or not?"
At this, he looked momentarily nonplussed. "Well, I am. And this is shitty timing for me, too; my
Quidditch team has a match tomorrow. Which we would have won. Which I’m going to miss." His eyes
narrowed spitefully. "And a date."
Hermione, at this point mindless of Ron’s presence on the chaise behind her, opened her mouth to say
something she knew, even then, that she’d regret later. She was saved from Foot-In-Mouth Disease,
however, from yet another voice from the shadows.
"Well, that, at least, you can keep."
Merlin’s gonads, Hermione thought in exasperation. What is this, anyway? Passions? Masterpiece
Theatre? If this Disney-movie melodrama of an evening kept up, she was going to start expecting the
furniture itself to burst into song and start a tap-dance.
The owner of the voice, however, was neither chair nor candlestick, but a small blonde girl with
becomingly disheveled hair and a stubborn chin, who was even now emerging from the folds of what
looked suspiciously like Draco’s Invisibility Cloak. She couldn’t have been a day over twelve; this was
Draco’s victory-party date? Hermione thought, and couldn’t quite bite back a smirk.
As Rebound Dates went, she couldn’t help but think that she’d come out with the better end of the
Draco, for his part, was looking horrified and resigned in equal parts – and perhaps just a bit secretly
"Gabrielle," he said reprovingly, "what do you think you’re doing here?"
The blonde girl tossed her head and began to smooth down her blue silk robes. "Well, I was on my way
to return your Cloak," she said, "when I saw your professeur come in … and I couldn’t help but
overhear his conversation with Madame Maxime." She shrugged expressively, as if further explanation
were superfluous; Draco sighed.
"So you followed us into the fireplace?"
"But of course." She lifted one pale eyebrow. "Why would I stay and rot in that boring old manor
house, when I could see Hogwarts and help you solve la mystère, instead?"
Ron, who had been watching the proceedings broodingly from the chaise, now brightened, pointed at
her, then slapped his forehead. "I know you," he said; "you’re Fleur’s little sister, aren’t you?"
"I am Gabrielle Delacour," the small girl corrected him firmly, with a flash of something that might
have been annoyance in her wide blue eyes. Clearly, Hermione thought, Draco’s little stowaway
wanted to be judged on her own merits, and not those of her beautiful older sister. "And I know the two
of you, too. You –" she pointed at Ron – "you were under the lake with me. I remember. You look a bit
like your older brother, the one with the ponytail and the earring. Fleur has a picture of him; he’s very
flirty." She turned to Harry. "And you – you pulled me out of the lake. Merci."
Ignoring Hermione completely, she turned back to Draco. "Are the kitchens open?"
He looked helpless, but amused. "They never close."
"Magnifique." She lifted her chin. "Then I should eat; my father will be here soon to take me back to
Beauxbatons, and it will take all my strength to convince him to let me stay."
This last was accompanied by a look so haughty and determined that she looked at least five years
older. Yup, she’s quarter-veela, all right, Hermione thought, as Gabrielle took Draco’s proffered arm
and swept off regally toward the kitchens – and found herself suddenly revisited by the list of reasons
she hadn’t particularly cared for Fleur Delacour.
"Cute kid," she said dryly, and rolled her eyes when Harry and Ron only nodded blankly, their
collective gaze still fixed on the exit. "Oh, come on – you two aren’t going to go all starry-eyed over
that baby, are you?"
"Hm?" Ron frowned. "What did you say?"
Veela. The bane of my existence.
"Oh, never mind," Hermione said tightly, and grabbed her cloak. "You can stay here and howl at the
moon all night if you like. I’m going out for a walk."
She wasn’t sure what had her more upset: Malfoy’s sudden interference in what had been shaping up to
be a quite satisfactory life; her own failure to foresee the problem or stop it; the news that she might be
stuck at Hogwarts for more than this grudgingly-agreed-to weekend visit; or the fact that Draco had
transferred his solicitousness to la petite française, while seeming to possess only hostility and sarcasm
for Hermione herself.
… hostility and sarcasm that she didn’t deserve, thank you very much.
Add in Harry’s and Ron’s customary thickheadedness – and over that bossy blonde infant, no less – and
she was beginning to think the Fates were set against her.
Damn it, she didn’t want to be here! She had a Mystery Date scheduled for tomorrow night. A major
test to study for. An invitation to the hammam for a post-midterm soak-and-scrub with her new friends.
She’d found out on Friday afternoon that the Consortium’s contact at Eli Lilly wanted to put her
migraine remedy into blind test studies, pending a multimillion-dollar order.
Neila had promised to teach her to belly-dance.
And not six hours ago, she’d been naked in a tropical lagoon, floating closed-eyed in silken sun-
dappled water, while a merman trailed his expert, eager mouth over her bare breasts – igniting a
persistent throb of an itch that she had yet to satisfactorily scratch.
All of which coalesced, as she walked, into a red-eyed, fog-brained morass of sheer seething pent-up
frustration … she was spoiling for a fight; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so purely,
deeply angry. And she wasn’t in the mood to be selective about her sparring partner.
Just let that snotty French brat cross her path again, she thought furiously; she’d be sorry that she did.
That went for Draco too – the ingrate, would it kill him to at least be polite?
And those two slavering Gryffindor idiots who called themselves her friends.
And Dumbledore, that irritating old meddler. Why was he still running her life, anyway? Hadn’t she
handled Malfoy and his goons well enough, once before?
And why the hell was she letting him do it? Why was she even here? Why had she allowed
McGonagall to push her into the Floostream this afternoon, for all the world like a Border collie with a
wayward lamb?
Do the right thing, Hermione. Don’t argue, Hermione. Be a good girl, Hermione.
Well, fuck that.
Still fuming, she didn’t see the door until she’d nearly bumped into it. Hah – she’d made it all the way
to the dungeons without even realising it.
And that plain walnut door with its subtly serpentine cornices – why, it belonged to …
Not that he’d particularly done anything to provoke her – today, at least.
But on the other hand, she couldn’t think of a single person on the planet Earth that she’d rather fight
with, just now.
Anticipation curled into her gut, a nest of thorns encircling the red bird of her rage. Throat half-blocked
with anger – nipples diamond-hard, thighs swampy and slick with it – she lifted one taut, trembling
hand, folded it into a fist.
And pounded.

Chapter Fifteen
They were sitting in the kitchen, at one of the high round diner-style tables that the house-elves
reserved for eaters-between-meals. Gabrielle, the inveterate Anglophile, had requested "rosbif – rare,
s’il-vous-plâit –", and was now daintily devouring a sandwich nearly the size of her head. Draco, who
wasn’t, he found, very hungry after all, sipped his pumpkin juice and morosely stole a pickle spear
from her plate, more to annoy her than out of any real desire for it.
Gabrielle smacked his hand with her fork.
"Get your own."
"I don’t want my own," he retorted. "I want some of yours."
She made an irritated sound in her throat. "If you were always this rude to Hermione, it’s small wonder
she left you."
Draco scowled. "I was never rude to her," he said. "At least not while we were together. And she didn’t
leave me; I left her."
He set down his pumpkin juice halfway to his mouth. "I beg your pardon?"
Gabrielle licked mustard off her thumb, a gesture made all the more sensual by its complete lack of
calculation. "You heard me. You’re an idiot to have ended it, when you’re so obviously still in love
with her."
Draco sputtered. "Still in –"
Gabrielle continued, as if he hadn’t spoken.
"And saying you had a date with me – you can thank me any time for playing along with that little
farce, by the way – only makes us both look foolish." She took another bite of her sandwich. "I have no
intention of dating anyone," she said with a moué of disdain. "The Delacours are known for their
daring and their good business sense; my great-grandfather was a French sea-captain-turned-brigand,
and my grandmother the most famous Parisian courtesan of her time. Before I even look at a man, I’m
going to be famous too."
"Famous for what?" Draco inquired. Gabrielle tossed her curls back over her shoulder.
"For my financial wizardry, of course," she said. "I fully intend to be rich beyond reason; I’ll snap my
fingers and empires will topple." Her voice went dreamy. "I’ll have blue-chip status on the New York
Stock Exchange. My picture on the cover of Forbes. I’ll be on Gringotts’ board of directors; they’ll
send me cases of Clicquot at Christmastime, and fly me to Florence in a charter jet for risotto aux
truffes, to beg me for my vote."
"Apparating’s quicker," Draco suggested. Gabrielle wrinkled her nose.
"But then I wouldn’t get the hot towel. Or the complimentary cocktail."
Draco snorted appreciatively. As usual, ten minutes spent in Gabrielle’s charmingly mercenary,
refreshingly forthright company was enough to restore his good spirits – even if she had just called him
an idiot.
"And what," he inquired, "are you going to do then, Mademoiselle Reine-de-la-Monde? Won’t you get
lonely, sitting all by yourself in First Class?"
She picked up her remaining pickle spear and wagged it at him. "No. And if I do, then I’ll find myself a
"Oh, you will, will you?" This ought to be good; Draco propped his cheek on his hand and prepared
himself to be amused. "Well, then, tell me about this paragon of yours; what are your criteria?"
"Hm." She cocked her head consideringly. "Well, he has to be smart. But not as smart as I am."
Draco muffled a chuckle. "Tall?" he prompted. "Handsome?"
"Maybe." She thought for a minute. "Funny, definitely. Nice, but not too nice – I like to argue. And …"
She trailed off.
"Perceptive," she said, after a moment of hesitation. Draco frowned; that wasn’t what he’d expected her
to say.
"You know. Someone who doesn’t just look, but who really sees."
"Give me an example."
Gabrielle studied him across the table. She had a look on her sitcom-starlet face that he couldn’t quite
"Watch," she said finally – and before his eyes, changed … her lips fuller, her skin more luminous, her
cheekbones higher, her eyes so dark and electric a blue that they took his breath. She wasn’t twelve
years old anymore, this girl, and she wasn’t twenty either; ageless, rather, and timeless.
Beseeching. Beckoning. Seductive.
"Kiss me," she whispered, and Draco felt his whole body jerk in reaction to that brief, breathy siren-
call. It was all he could do to cling to his stool, not to dash the plates aside and climb over the table
toward her.
Beautiful, that’s what she was – the most purely, wantonly beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Had he ever
felt like this before? He couldn’t remember.
And then the glamour – if it was indeed a glamour – faded, and she was just Gabrielle again, a pretty,
precocious baby with big dreams clutched hard in both hands and a look in her eyes that was far too
"See?" she said, picking at the remains of her sandwich with uncharacteristic diffidence. "That’s what I
mean by perceptive. That’s my grandmother’s ghost you just saw – Fleur loves her, but I hate her, and
she’s part of me anyway; I’ve got no say in it." She looked up at him, small jaw clenched in Defiance
of the Inevitable. "When someone can look through her, and see me," she said, "then he gets a second
chance. Until then, I’m not interested."
Oh, you poor kid, Draco thought, and got a sudden glimpse of himself at that age – preening, strutting,
putting on Evil Aspirations like his father’s discarded overcoat.
It seemed that he wasn’t the only one to get kicked in the teeth by Manifest Destiny. Overcome with
empathy, he put his hand over hers.
"Listen, Gabrielle," he said. "You know you’re pretty without the veela stuff, right?"
She squinted at him suspiciously. "You don’t have to say that. I know quite well that I’ll never be my
"I’m not being nice," Draco said; "I’m telling you the truth. And it’s this: you don’t need your
grandmother to get you what you want. You’re going to do just fine on your own."
For a second, the blue eyes shimmered. Oh, God, don’t cry, Draco thought, panicked – whatever you
do, don’t cry.
And then she laughed, and leaned back in her chair, and snapped the pickle she’d been holding in half
with her small, even teeth.
"Alors," she said, saluting him with the other half of it. "See? You can be charming on occasion, after
all. That was positively gentil."
Clearly, that moment of vulnerability wasn’t to be repeated in this conversation. Fine, Draco thought,
and grinned at her. I’ve been there; I’ll play along with that.
For now.
"Well, don’t let it get around," he said, and drained the rest of his juice with a flourish. "I’ve a
reputation to maintain, you know."
Severus was roused from his paper-grading by the pounding of fists against his door. Odd – the only
people likely to disturb him at this hour would either Floo him, or – in Sal’s case – simply float through
the wall.
One of the Slytherin prefects, maybe – or perhaps Filch … but why the desperate battering, then? Half-
concerned despite himself, Severus laid his quill aside and went to answer the door, braced for bad
What he got instead was Hermione Granger, hot-eyed and trembling and giving off such strong
emanations of mingled lust and rage that he could have captured them in a bottle and sold them under
the label Fountain of Youth … if only to prove, once and for all, that adolescence was more burden than
He could have staggered and genuflected under the weight of those magnificent hormones. Instead, he
waved her toward a chair, and only raised one mildly ironic eyebrow when she chose to pace instead.
"Can I help you, Miss Granger?"
"Maybe," she said, and pinned him with a long stare. "I came looking for a fight. Are you up for it?"
Well, at least she’s honest. Oddly enough, though, her admission defused any desire Severus might
have momentarily entertained for a duel of words.
If he was going to fight with Hermione Granger, he was damn well going to get good and sweaty doing
"I’m not interested in your self-indulgent teenage whinging," he said coldly. "If you want to speak to
me, Miss Granger, you’ll keep a civil tongue in your head, and remember that I’m a Hogwarts
professor." There – ah, yes, that was the right button to push; his icy tone had her bristling anew with
fresh indignation.
Way to pour gasoline on an open flame, Severus, he thought, and watched her begin to stalk him with
an anticipatory bristle in his groin that felt almost … well, inevitable.
"I’m tired of being civil," she gritted out, and edged him back another step. "Tired of being nice. Tired
of doing what I’m told."
That made him laugh. "Doing what you’re told? What alternate reality are you living? You subversive
little vixen, you’ve done nothing you haven’t wanted to do for the last seven years – and probably the
eleven before that." He snorted. "Go ahead and dish out that martyrdom tripe to everybody else you
know, but don’t expect me to swallow any of it."
It was as if he hadn’t spoken.
"Go here, Hermione," she mimicked in a vicious falsetto. "Do this, Hermione. Run home, pack a bag,
hide behind the Headmaster, stay out of harm’s way." She took an angry, shallow breath, huffed it out
again. "Disrupt your whole life, and follow along like some dumb little sheep, and then be grateful –
grateful that no one thinks you’re grown-up enough, or powerful enough, or smart enough, to fight
your own battles."
He wouldn’t be eighteen again, Severus thought fervently, for all the tea in China. Even so, he couldn’t
help rolling his eyes. "Oh, really …"
"And you!" she went on, turning on him with a fresh glint of danger in her eyes. "You’re worse than
anyone else – don’t you roll your eyes at me! What have you been doing for the last year and a half, but
denying both of us what we so desperately want?"
Oh, boy. We were bound to get around to this sooner or later, weren’t we?
"And what does it come down to?" she demanded. "What’s the sticking point for you, my reluctant
lover, my oh-so-noble, oh-so-honourable gentleman of a professor?" She stabbed an accusing finger in
his chest. "That I’m too young, and too stupid, to know what it is that I want."
He had to say it, he just had to; seeing her in this glittering, febrile state of High Tantrum was far too
rare and intriguing a diversion not to prolong. "Aren’t you, then?"
Heh. That ought to get a rise out of her.
"No, I bloody well am not!" She shoved with both hands, cobra-quick, and sent him staggering back a
full step. "I am eighteen years old, damn it! Nineteen, if you count that bugger-all Time-Turner. Last I
checked, that made me old enough to fuck whomever I damn well please."
Another shove; she’d backed him all the way through his sitting room now, into the bedroom. Two
more good shoves and they’d both be on the bed.
Tasty thought, that.
"And in case you hadn’t noticed – Severus Snape –" Hermione was breathing hard – "I am not your
student any longer!!!"
She was vibrating with outrage, damp and sticky with it. Her cloak had come unfastened and fallen
unnoticed to the floor in the doorway, leaving her clad only in faded, snug-fitting dungarees and an
oversized white linen button-down shirt. Severus could see the dewy skin covering her collar bones
through the fine fabric, could ascertain the slope and heft of her high girlish breasts.
Her nipples were rock-hard. She smelled angry and aroused, like rain-drenched gardenias and sex. He
could feel her trembling across the bare inch of space that separated their two bodies.
Even before he opened his mouth to speak, he knew he was lost. If touching her was a mistake, it was
one he had to make.

What he would have said, he’d never know – she never gave him the chance to get started.
"Are you listening to me?" She muscled in closer, intending to push him again – oh, no, you don’t,
Severus thought, and sidestepped her neatly, so that her forward impetus sent her tumbling face-first
onto the bed.
That’s more like it.
Before she could regroup, before she could react – before she could even regain the breath that had
been knocked out of her – he pounced. And pinned her to the duvet.

Chapter Sixteen
Oh God.
Oh God oh God oh God.
You’ve done it this time, Granger – you’ve pissed him off so mightily that there’s no going back now.
Holy unicorn horns, but he’s strong.
He was, too. Stronger than her. And taller. And heavier. And obviously – obviously quite adept at the art
of rendering another human being prone and helpless; he had his knee in the small of her back, and one
of her arms twisted up behind her, just to the edge of discomfort.
Best not to ponder where he’d picked up that particular skill, Hermione thought wildly, and tried to
focus on not squirming.
Christ in a girdle, but she was wet. What kind of kinky psycho are you, anyway, Granger?
And exactly when in the past minute and a half had she stopped being angry, and started just … well,
She twisted against him – couldn’t seem to help it – and in response, he nudged her arm a little higher
into the small of her back: oh, ouch!
Beast. She cried out, but his grip didn’t loosen.
"Hermione –" His voice, half a metre above her ear, was the smoothest, the softest of whispers, both
lover’s promise and silky-sweet menace. Just the sound of her name on his lips sent a tingle of
electricity straight to her cunt.
You’re sick, Granger, truly you are.
"—Hermione, you little jungle cat," he continued, still in that parody of a lover’s whisper, "I am going
to remove my knee from your spine. And you are going to remain perfectly still until told otherwise.
Am I understood?"
She gulped and nodded. Don’t negotiate with terrorists, and don’t argue with madmen. No matter how
sexy. Immediately, the pressure eased, and he released her arm.
"Good," he said, sounding satisfied. "That’s something, at least. Now, turn around and face me."
Her obedience did not go unrewarded. To her surprise, he didn’t look angry, didn’t recriminate, just
pulled her in and kissed her instead – oh, sweet, oh, unexpected return of tenderness for anger, a gift
she hadn’t earned. And underneath the tenderness, a hot heavy thrum – wantneedwantneed – as his
clever fingers found the heavy rolled crotch seam of her dungarees, and began to rub it against her.
Being in his arms was like succumbing to zero-gravity: slow-spreading delight between her legs, the
strong knead of fingers at the nape of her neck, and kisses like opium, sweet and smoky, draining away
her tension, the pitiful leftovers of her anger, leaving her shaky and helpless and … wanting. She took
as much as she could bear, then curled herself around him and pressed herself against him and started
to give back – oh, quickly, quickly, before she burst, before the pleasure became too much and she died
of it.
When he broke the kiss, she nearly whimpered, nearly begged. Shades of the Illuminata – Lord, but
passion made him handsome: colour in his cheeks, his lips; sleepy, heavy-lidded eyes. Can’t see that
mouth and not kiss it – he wasn’t thin-lipped and dour now, oh no, wasn’t remote or snarky or cruel.
She reached for him again, reached for the soft-eyed lover inside the man, but he shook his head and
drew back from her.
"First things first," he said in a slightly ragged voice that didn’t quite sound like his own. "Before this
goes any further, Hermione, tell me: do you really and truly want it?"
She choked out a strangled-sounding laugh. Was he kidding? "How can you even ask me that? Don’t
you know? Can’t you tell?"
He might have smiled, but she wasn’t sure. In any case, that incredulous question wasn’t the response
he’d been after.
"If you want this," he said, still flushed from her embrace but gravely, coldly still nonetheless, "if you
want me, you have to say so. Before the clothes come off. Before I touch you again."
She cocked her head, genuinely curious. Since when had the words become so important to him?
He looked surprised that she’d ask. "Because this isn’t a quick tumble on the classroom floor," he said.
"Because there’s no convenient potion brewing in the corner, to absolve us of responsibility in the
Unspoken: Because it’s just you and me tonight.
Ah, thought Hermione. I understand.
That slumbrous face, that rigidly ready body – and yet he held himself away from her, waiting for her
to voice a decision she’d made months ago. Be sure, his eyes said to hers; you don’t have to be careful,
if caution’s beyond you now, but you do have to be certain.
And she was certain – oh, she was. And that was the joyful, gleeful part of this, that such a small step
could get her exactly what she’d been yearning for, at last.
"I want you," she said, looking him right in the face – and then, because those three small words
seemed so bald and defenseless, all on their own – "oh, I do, you’ve no idea …"
At that, he laughed, and the last trace of his remoteness lifted. "Oh, I think I do," he said, and –
impulsively, by way of explanation – pressed her fingers to the thick, pulsing bulge at his groin.
"Denying myself and you too is a double battle, and we’re both worthy adversaries; I’ve been aflame
with this for months on end now. Oh, Merlin –" here he arched up into her exploring fingers – "that
feels like heaven … wait a minute, Hermione …"
Wait? Not on her life.
"I want to touch you," she said stubbornly. "I want to touch you everywhere."
But he was already capturing her hands, pressing kisses into the palms. "Later," he promised, and
Hermione subsided – after all, as long as she got her turn, she didn’t care when it came.
And oh, that did feel good.
He took each of her hands in turn, guided them over her head, curled the fingers gently-but-firmly
around the decorative vertical wooden posts in the centre of the headboard, then brushed a kiss over
each set of knuckles, murmuring all the while in loverlike tones, soft words she couldn’t quite catch but
that sent tremors racing over her skin regardless. His undressing of her was intent and unhurried; he
didn’t use magic, as she would have expected, but removed each item as if in order to caress the skin
directly beneath it – shoes, socks, dungarees, right up to the loose white shirt, which he merely
unbuttoned, trailing teasing fingers inside the hem as he went, and folded back to either side so that it
hung from her upraised arms.
She felt his breath, a warm little puff on her stomach, and quivered. Oh, to be naked under that mouth
… to be the bare, smooth little mollusc safe in his arms, even if she was no longer in her shell.
"Here," she offered, indicating the opened shirt with a jerk of her chin, "I’ll just slip it off, shall I?"
"Will you?"
His tone of amusement made her suspicious – a moment later, she realised why. At least some of that
low murmuring had been an enchantment; her hands were locked to those wooden slats, as surely as if
he’d clapped cuffs on her.
She struggled briefly against the spell – more for the pleasure of being defeated than for any other
reason – then, relishing that little frisson of uncertainty that kept rattling at her nerve endings, looked
up at him and rolled her eyes. "I wasn’t going anywhere, you know," she said, as matter-of-factly as she
could manage, and had the rare, pleasurable experience of seeing his face soften into unaccustomed
lines of sensual mischief.
"Forgive me," he said against her mouth, not sounding particularly repentant. "I thought it’d be easier
this way."
At that, vague alarm. "Easier to … what?"
But he’d already begun.
The next time Severus Snape stalked into a first-year Potions class and said anything, anything at all,
about ‘mindless incantations’, Hermione thought, a lightning bolt was going to strike him dead on the
He was whispering against her skin, and things were happening to her.
Lips first – she felt his move against hers, felt the indistinguishable shape of the words leave his flesh
and absorb into hers, and then … oh God, how to describe it?
A tingle, an itch, a sensation that they’d grown somehow, that they were tight inside her skin. Oh,
Christ. And then he kissed them, gently – a lave, a playful nibble, that was all – and she couldn’t help
it, she had to yank against the cuffs, because the electric shudders were already racing through her
body. "Patience," he murmured – oh, very easy for him to say! – and kept kissing her.
Slow, soft, maddening.
She was going to be crazy in two minutes flat.
But that was nothing.
It was her nipples next – oh, she’d give anything to know what he was saying; just the feel of his
moving lips and she tensed in anticipation. And then, that sweet tight feeling of expansion, brought up
short by skin that wouldn’t budge, and the ministrations that followed – fingers, tongue, teeth – until
she thought she’d die, until she ground her thighs together and rubbed against the restraints and
moaned unashamed under his mouth, please oh please oh please …
He braced himself on his elbows and looked up at her, his eyes alive with wicked pleasure, his mouth
red and swollen with kissing.
"What’s the matter, Miss Granger?" he said lazily. "Mr. Weasley setting fires and not bothering to put
them out?"
His hand slid down her belly to cup the fleecy little cap of hair there, saved at the last minute, and at
great personal cost, from the Mad Waxers. While she stared at him – rabbit to snake – he probed
delicately with one long finger, found what he was looking for, and pressed down gently, just enough to
make her gasp.
"You know what’s next," he said softly. "Open your legs for me, Hermione."
Just the words were enough to send her over the edge. Unbelievable that this is happening to me – she
gritted her teeth against the orgasm for one teetering second, then capitulated with a whimpering full-
body convulsion. In its aftermath, the enchantments on her mouth and her nipples seemed almost to
He laid a kiss on her inner thigh, ran comforting hands up and down her sides. "Just the beginning," he
And then spread her open and began to whisper secrets to the mouth between her legs.
Mother of God.
Hermione figured she knew her clitoris about as well as the next Cosmo Girl. It was hers, right? Her
magic button, her release valve at the end of a hard day. Some soft music, a couple of dozen semi-
circles with the index finger just so … and the pressure was off for another couple of hours. Simple as
Pity Cosmo had never gotten hold of the Hogwarts Potions master for an interview. They would have
gone into double issues.
It had to be as big as a Concord grape by now, and he’d given up on dancing about the issue; his hands
were lifting her and spreading her for easier access, and his mouth was on her in soft, slow, rhythmic
suckles that she’d stopped even fighting against – to battle them was painful, and to give in … oh, who
was she kidding? There weren’t any words for it, just a long, drawn-out, guttural keen every time he put
the pressure on, and a sobbing half-choked breath every time it eased.
She was beyond pride, beyond pleading, beyond prayer.
And then her hips were back on the bed, and as she lay limp and buzzing, twitching with the aftermath
of that all-out assault on her senses, he slid up her body and into her body, and in the same breath freed
her arms.
"You’re so beautiful," he murmured into her ear. "So bloody beautiful, and strong, and tight … oh,
Hermione …"
Rocking, rocking.
Was she his cradle? Was he hers?
Hermione didn’t know, but it felt good – oh, so, good – and deep, and right, and when he brought his
mouth back to hers then it was perfect, because all of the bits of her that he’d enchanted and engorged
were rubbing and touching and engaged, and … oh … oh quiver and thrill, oh flying without
broomsticks, oh slide, oh slap, oh deepdeepdeep, oh ….
Yes, oh yes, oh …
She went straight into sleep, and never heard him end the enchantment.

Chapter Seventeen
Severus had seldom been able to sleep through the night. Even as a child, he’d been frequently
wakeful, had recurring nightmares. During his student years at Hogwarts, he’d sometimes never gone
to sleep at all.
Life as a Death-Eater, and, subsequently, as an ex-Death-Eater, had done little to remedy this. At this
point, he’d pretty much given up any idea of getting over it.
Insomnia – friend to academics, gritty-eyed night companion. He’d learned, over time, to endure, if not
quite to embrace it; now, however, it didn’t seem like such a big deal, after all.
Here, in this room, in this soft familiar late-September darkness, he could look at the sleeping figure in
the bed, and almost believe that his good fortune was for real.
Almost believe that she was his.
Moonlight dreams, Severus. Give into them, and you might as well put your head on the block and wait
for the knife to fall.
But anyone – even a dyed-in-the-wool cynic like himself – had to agree on this, at least: Hermione
Granger was lovely by moonlight, particularly while sleeping. And then there was that other
maliciously pleasant thought … the ever-so-faintly-smug assurance that after tonight, Bill Weasley had
a very hard act to follow.
You don’t have to send her back to him, you know, suggested that small sly voice, his cautiously
emerging Inner Optimist. You could always ask her to stay with you.
Ask her to stay. Ask her to stay here, when she’d jumped at the first chance out, and give up the candy-
store attractions of her new life: big city, foreign culture, research, employment, friends.
Well, that last bit, at least, might not be such a bad idea.
You needn’t think about it in such drastic terms, protested the Optimist. There’s the Floo network – you
both can Apparate – it wouldn’t be the first time, after all, that a wizarding couple courted at a
distance and made it work.
Carry on a long-term, long-distance love affair, with a former student, under the noses of Dumbledore
and the Ministry – a girl young enough to be his daughter, with the finest mind Hogwarts had turned
out in more than a generation. Make a selfish wish on that bright young rising star. Corral that gleefully
independent, frighteningly resourceful woman-in-waiting into clandestine dalliance, into a love she
wouldn’t find welcome, or supported, in the light of day.
It was bad enough that he’d dipped into the Pronouncements of Eros tonight – that particular charm
he’d borrowed for the occasion was powerful, arcane magic … and, in its own way, as seductive and
undeniable as the Imperius Curse. He shouldn’t have used it, and yet he couldn’t resist – if he couldn’t
keep his Cinderella at the ball outright, he could at least spin her these silken tethers, wrap her in
pleasure one guilty, greedy thread at a time, and hope it was enough to keep drawing her back to him.
"Are you going to sit there staring at me for the rest of the night, or are you coming back to bed?"
Startled, but too self-disciplined to show it, he steeled himself against the creamy curves, the tumbled
hair, the sultry sleep-heavy voice, and quirked one eyebrow at her.
"Saucy as ever," he said, without rancor. "I mustn’t have tired you out as thoroughly as I’d thought,
after all."
Hermione purred in her throat.
"Want to try again?" she inquired, and all the blood in his body went straight to his crotch.
Well, actually, yes. "Hm … well, as my alternative is insomnia …" he said, feigning indifference, and
heard her chuckle come floating appreciatively toward him out of the darkness.
"There you go again – you always know how to make a girl feel special, don’t you?" She flipped back
the covers and swung her legs out from underneath them. "Well, no matter. You said I could have my
turn, later, and it’s later now – wouldn’t you say?"
Oh, he would, he would. He watched her stand – the only purely-white thing in his rooms, she drew
moonlight to her like a small, shapely tidal wave – and cross to his chair, and flow to her knees in front
of him, as sure and matter-of-fact of manner as if he’d conjured her out of fantasies and night air.
Who knows … maybe he had. It wouldn’t be the first time, after all, that he’d woken up with her name
on his lips.
But no, this Hermione was real.
"I don’t have that wicked little charm that you used on me tonight in my arsenal," she said, deftly
dealing with the front tie of his dressing gown. Her breath was warm and soft on the inside of his thigh.
"Until I get to the library, I guess I’m just going to have to … improvise."
Fine by him, Severus thought – and sat back to enjoy the ride.
It was much, much later.
In the aftermath of Round Two, they’d somehow managed to stumble from the armchair to the bed,
though Severus doubted that his last bit of contortionism, while highly satisfactory at the time, had
been entirely suitable for a wizard of nearly thirty-nine, who had recently become uncomfortably aware
of his similarly nearly-thirty-nine-year-old joints.
His whole body would be complaining about this tomorrow. Too bad he’d run out of that muscle rub of
Poppy’s – especially when he had at his disposal a most-alluring potential masseuse, presently draped
over him like a sleepy, purring kitten.
On the other hand, she hadn’t escaped unscathed herself … that buttercream teenage skin was
surprisingly receptive to loverlike nibbling, but showed a distressing tendency to bruise. Severus trailed
his fingertips along a particularly livid-looking patch of skin below her right ear, and murmured a few
quiet words of Restoration.
There. Good as new.
Hermione stirred sleepily. "What are you doing?"
"Damage control." He turned his attention to banishing the matching set of fingerprints on her upper
arms. Hermione, watching the marks fade into nothingness, scowled.
"Leave them be. I like them."
Severus ignored her. "Yes," he said absently. "But Mr. Weasley certainly won’t, now, will he?"
From her sudden stillness, he realised his misstep and swore inwardly. Goddamnit, you’re a bastard
even when you don’t mean to be, aren’t you?
The line of her jaw – determinedly clenched, but beginning to wobble – was pure hurt. He fisted his
hands in his lap. "Hermione –" he began, but she waved him abruptly into silence.
"No – don’t."
"Hermione, listen." He seized her shoulders, less gently than he’d meant to, and turned her to face him.
"What did you think was going to happen next?" he asked, tasting ashes in his mouth with every urgent
word. "Happily-ever-after? Tea for Two? Can’t you see that that’s not possible for us right now?"
She kept her eyes downcast. Her voice was sulky and thick with the beginning of tears. "I don’t see
how you can be so sure of that."
He sighed heavily. "Do you think I’d put the both of us through this, if I wasn’t?"
"What I think," Hermione said, bringing her gaze up to face him head-on, "is that you’ve lived with the
Blue Meanies so long that you don’t know a Yellow Submarine when you see one."
Severus blinked. "Pardon?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Muggle reference. Never mind."
Whatever it was, it seemed to have steadied her; she’d successfully banished the threatening tears and
now looked merely determined. "Don’t you think for one second," she said grimly, "that I don’t know
exactly why you said that – exactly why you’re doing this. You want me to get my maidenly knickers
in a bunch and run back to Bill, because then you don’t have to deal with me. Well, I’ve got you
figured, Severus Snape – you’re not nearly as impenetrable as you fancy yourself."
"Of course I’m not," Severus said sharply, then softened his tone – his touch – in a moment of
unconscious longing. "Haven’t you battered down my doors already, just to prove it to me?"
The look she gave him was wary and assessing. "Some of them. Perhaps."
More than you know, he thought, and tightened his grip on her arm when she would have moved to
rise. "Stay," he said gently – then, at her look of impatience, slipped into his more customary tones of
sardonic irony with a distinct feeling of relief. "If I know you, you’re going to run straight to
Dumbledore after breakfast, to lobby your way back to Cairo – and he’s a wily negotiator; the least you
can do is get another few hours’ sleep."
"Stop trying to change the subject," she snapped. "This argument isn’t over yet. I’m not tired anymore.
And I wasn’t leaving – I want a drink of water."
Eyebrows elevated, he plucked his wand off the nightstand and waved it impatiently in her direction.
Nonplussed, she sipped, then grimaced.
"This is fizzy water. I wanted plain."
Oh, Merlin’s grandmother. "Brat."
"Like begets like," she retorted. "You want to shag me senseless, then send me back to Cairo with a
slap on my ass? Under those circumstances, I think I’m entitled to a little caprice."
"It’s Perrier, Hermione."
"Your point?"
The corners of his mouth curved in a sad little smile. "Whatever I want for you, you impossible little
troublemaker, it’s the best."
She digested this in silence, then sent him a look so direct and wistful that it broke his heart. "But what
if that’s you?"
What if the best is you?
He looked away, unable to answer.
Breakfast. The Great Hall.
"Where were you last night?" Harry hissed into Hermione’s ear. Hermione looked as innocent as
"Uh – in Ginny’s room, of course; you heard McGonagall tell me I could sleep there."
He snorted. "Liar."
"How do you know?"
He reddened, but couldn’t hold back a triumphant little smirk. "Because I was in Ginny’s room last
night, that’s how I know. And you never showed. So – spill it, already."
Hermione, stuck, decided to try Socratic questioning as a last resort. "Where do you think I was?"
Harry folded a triangular piece of buttered toast in half, stuck the entire thing in his mouth, and chewed
pontifically. "Well, you’ve got a massive hickey on your neck, just at the collar line," he observed
finally, and Hermione’s fingers flew instinctively to the spot she’d thought Snape had erased. Did he
miss one?
"Ha! Got you."
Oh, damn. Of course there wasn’t anything there. Not that that mattered now … Harry had found out
what he wanted to know.
"So. With a lover, then."
Hermione sipped her pumpkin juice. "Maybe."
"Common knowledge would suggest Malfoy," Harry said thoughtfully. "But I don’t think so, somehow
… if you two had gotten back together, you’d be sitting with him. And he wouldn’t be over at the
Ravenclaw table, sharing his sausages with Gabrielle."
Hermione lifted one eyebrow. "Maybe we quarreled afterwards."
"Maybe." Harry gave her a long, searching look. "Hermione, do you know what you’re doing? That’s
all I want to know."
She bit her lip. "What do you mean?"
"You know very well what I mean. And don’t play dumb – you can’t get away with it."
Hermione sighed and tucked her hand into his. "Harry, you don’t need to worry," she said. "Beyond
that, I have no idea what to say about it. It’s complicated."
Harry shot a quick sideways glance at the Head Table, where Snape was morosely sipping black coffee.
"It," he said wonderingly, "certainly is."
They finished their breakfast in silence.
Going into Dumbledore’s office to argue a point without having a plan was, as Hermione well knew,
Absolute Folly. On the other hand, she didn’t want to look too premeditated.
Spontaneity, that was the key. Albus Dumbledore, of all people, ought to be able to appreciate
At the moment, things seemed to be going well. She returned his twinkle with a slightly cautious smile,
twisted her hands together in her lap, and waited.
"A chaperone," Dumbledore repeated. Hermione nodded.
"The apartment building already has extra wards on it," she pointed out. "Professor McGonagall told
me that the landlord had that done yesterday. So I thought – if there was one more pair of eyes in the
apartment with me, to sort of keep a lookout – maybe I could go back to class on Monday? It’s really,
really important that I take this examination," she added, and fixed him with her most impressive,
imploring Bambi Look.
Dumbledore’s face didn’t alter from its expression of general cheer. "Indeed," he said. "A laudable
notion, Hermione … one assumes, since you’ve thought it out this far, that you might possibly have
someone in mind?"
Uh-oh, trick question. Proceed with caution.
Of course she had someone in mind – not that he knew he was in mind, mind you. "It would have to be
someone rather powerful," she said carefully. "Someone who knew how Malfoy’s mind worked … who
could predict what he’d do, or at least think the same way. You know, get inside the criminal mind and
all that."
"Yes, yes." Dumbledore looked secretly amused at something, a fact which had Hermione rather
worried. "Well," he suggested, "how about our resident Slytherin? If he’s amenable, of course."
Oh, it worked, it worked. Hermione schooled the jubilation out of her features. "I think that’s an
excellent idea," she said. "But will Professor Snape consent to missing so many classes, do you think?"
The amusement deepened. "Professor Snape? I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood me, Hermione – I was
thinking of Salazar. Ghosts make excellent roommates, for the most part – there are exceptions, of
course – and after all, he’s quite a powerful wizard, even now. Most fortuitous, that he managed to
retain the use of his wand after his death. Wouldn’t you say?"
Sal? Well, cool – but still, damn. "Hm? Oh – ah – yes, of course," Hermione agreed, thinking fast. "But
don’t you think it might be better if the person was a bit more … um, tangible? Meaning no offense to
Sal, of course," she added hastily (in case he was in the room). "I’m just thinking that .. well …"
"Of course," Dumbledore agreed smoothly. He was now beaming outright. "I see exactly what you’re
getting at, Hermione, and I think it’s a wonderful suggestion. Good for both of you, really. Superb.
We’ll just call her now, see if she’s available, shall we?"
She? Hermione thought, baffled. Surely not McGonagall – I mean, she’s so nice, and smart, and
everything, but as a roommate? …
Dumbledore withdrew a pinch of Floo powder from the tin on his desk and tossed it into the hearth.
"Now, let’s just see," he said, with a wink at Hermione, and peered intently into the flames. "Sybil?
Might I have a word, please?"
Sybil? Hermione thought with an icy jolt of panic, and jackknifed up in her chair.
Oh, God. What have I done?

Chapter Eighteen
The first time Sybil Trelawney realised she had the Gift, she was seven years old.
Seven years old, and -- like half the other girls in her class at school -- crazy for horses. There was no
money for riding lessons, of course -- with six children in the family, on a machinist's salary, individual
luxuries like that were an impossibility, and even at seven Sybil knew it was useless to ask. But she did
at least want to see some, up close -- National Velvet was not only her favourite book, but also her
favourite movie (never mind that it was more than twenty years old even before she was born), and she
pranced and whinnied and galloped the broom round the house with her head crouched low over the
end like pretty Elizabeth Taylor until finally her mum threw up her hands one Saturday morning and
said -- for the love of God, Jack, she'll drive me mad in another minute, if she's so wild to see horses,
take her to the track and show her some, why don't you?
That was a wonderful day.
First of all, it meant being with Daddy, just the two of them, which almost never happened; Jack
Trelawney worked long hours at a grueling job and came home almost too tired to eat, let alone get
one-on-one quality time with his children. Sybil, as the next-to-youngest, couldn't remember the last
time she'd been out with him alone, especially for a Just-For-Fun outing that was going to take all of
Saturday morning.
And then there were the horses – big, proud, skittish Thoroughbreds with long legs and tossing heads –
too bad-tempered and grand, her father said, for her to pat. Which was a great disappointment to her.
But then one of the grooms, a wizened little ex-jockey with one dragging leg, saw her trembling lip, her
filling eyes, and took time out from his stall-mucking to limp over to a big corner box and bring out
one of the lead ponies, a small dun Shetland only a bit taller than himself.
"Here, now, lassie," he said, "Chester here is more your size, and not so snappish as the big ‘uns." He
winked at her. "Come give him a pat, there’s a good girl."
Instinctively, she looked to her father for permission; he was smiling. Gingerly she moved closer, laid
her hand on the pony’s shiny flank, which twitched lazily under her small fingers.
And oh again for the velvety nose, the deep intelligence in the warm brown eyes, the curious way the
hair grew out in all different directions from that white star on his forehead.
Oh, I love you, she thought. And then the groom had picked her right up, after a nod from her father,
and set her down on the pony’s back – and for a few brief, golden moments, Sybil imagined that she
knew just how National Velvet must have felt.
The rest of the day couldn’t compete with the pony ride, but Sybil didn’t mind. Daddy had some papers
and a little stub of a pencil – "here, Sybbie, come look at this," he said; "here are all their names – why
don’t you pick one out for me?"
She’d looked down the list, scanning names as exotic and beautiful as the horses themselves: Cherry
Bomb, Sunset Boulevard, Night Train, Cannonball. "Why?" she’d asked, and a few of the men sitting
near to them in the stands had rolled their eyes and laughed.
Daddy hadn’t laughed, though. "They’re going to race," he explained. "It’s a guessing game – we try to
guess which one will win the race, but before they run. And the people who guess right win prizes."
Sybil’s eyes lit up. "Trophies?"
"Money," her father corrected. Sybil considered this.
"A lot of money?"
"Oh." She looked out toward the track. "Which ones are the ones on the list?"
"The ones waiting to run – there, that group over on the right." Sybil shaded her eyes, followed his
pointing finger.
And suddenly knowledge settled into her brain, as sure and certain as Daddy’s hand in hers. "There,"
she’d said. "That black one, with the orange blanket. That one’s the winner."
The men who had been eavesdropping laughed again.
"She sounds pretty sure," one of them said, not unkindly. "Long shot, though. That horse’s name is Odd
Man Out, and he sure lives up to it. Hasn’t won a match yet."
Daddy looked at her. "You sure, Sybbie?" She only nodded – of course I’m sure; I just saw him win! –
and he shrugged. "It’s only a tenner," he said to the others, and ruffled her hair affectionately. "Won’t be
the first one I’ve lost, either."
But Odd Man Out won his race – and paid 75 to 1.
Sybil had never seen Daddy so happy. "Steak tonight," he’d said, grinning – and he didn’t mean from
the market, either. They all went out to the pub to dinner, all eight of them, which meant no dishes to do
afterwards. Margaret got the braces she’d been needing – and Sybil herself got her own first-
Communion dress after all, instead of having Sheila’s cut down for her.
And the next time Daddy went to the track, he took Sybil along with him again.
She was never wrong – not that day, and not in the Saturdays to come. And her father had been playing
the ponies long enough to choose his bets wisely … he might only lay money on one, but it would
inevitably be the long shot, the big payoff.
"My little lucky charm," he called her, "Lucky" for short, and the men at the track must have agreed,
because they didn’t laugh at her anymore, just watched her silently from the corners of their eyes as she
passed, trotting at his heels. Sybil didn’t know how much money Daddy was betting, only that he was
always happy on the way home.
Which made her happy, too.
And then one night the bad men came to their house, with their soft scary voices and their leather
sticks, and after they were gone Mum was crying and Daddy white and silent and holding his stomach
like it hurt him, and after that they didn’t go to the track on Saturdays anymore.
Guessing the horses, Sybil decided, was a more dangerous game than anyone had told her. And didn’t
look into her head for the future for the next four years.
But then there was Hogwarts – on one hand, her parents hadn’t exactly approved of her course of study,
but on the other hand, it was boarding school, an unheard-of-luxury by their neighbourhood’s
standards, and it was free. And after all, as Mum said wearily under her breath when she thought Sybil
wasn’t listening, it wasn’t as if they didn’t have bigger Troubles … what with Patrick and Declan off
God-knows-where with the militia, and Michael not yet nine, and yearning to be away after them.
"At least she’ll be safe," Sybil heard her say to Dad, in a low voice that seemed to grow more bitter,
more accusing every day; "away in the middle of nowhere, the place not even on a map – not like
Margaret and Sheila, and me praying all day they’ll come home safe from school. And our boys in the
middle of it, and you – you talking politics around Mike, and him barely off the tit. When’s this going
to end?"
Questions, questions, for which there were no answers, just a clenched jaw and prayers to a God who
didn’t seem to be listening. And so she went to Hogwarts, and studied, and graduated.
And as it turned out, being a witch was no proof against violence.
The year she graduated, the Great War with Voldemort was raging on with no hint of slowing – perhaps
it was even at its height. There was no ceremony, no pomp to mark the end of school – just the end-of-
year exams, then a hug and a keep-in-touch from bleak-eyed professors who’d already buried too many
of their best and brightest. Sybil, who upon her arrival had been sorted into Slytherin, and who had
gone to great lengths to make herself seem unremarkable ever since, had not been actively recruited
either by Light or by Dark, and was frankly glad of it … this was yet another battle she wanted no part
of. Who was Voldemort, after all, but another petty bigot? Who were the Forces of Light, but another
ragtag resistance group?
And Sybil knew all about those – didn’t she have two brothers in the IRA, and one of them starving
himself in Maze Prison while the news cameras raped his emaciated body in the name of Publicity for
the Cause?
Hadn’t she once had three?
Surely one headstone was enough price to pay to the Gods of War. And besides, there were other
worries. Margaret, who had two small children and one on the way, and her husband away running
guns. Sheila, who’d gotten enough compliments on her pretty voice and her pretty legs that she wanted
to try for Broadway, in New York … but would be waiting tables for ten years before she could get
Mum, who had just last month found a mysterious lump in her right breast. And Dad, laid off at the
plant and so sick with it all that he seemed determined to drink himself into the grave.
So, Sybil had put off the thought of university, Reduced everything she owned into a walnut-sized
package in her pocket, and caught the Knight Bus to Monte Carlo.
This whole island was soaked in blood. She needed a change of pace.
She rented a storage locker at the bus station with the last of her money, dropped off her tiny parcel,
and walked into the biggest casino in Monte Carlo with her wand tucked into her brassiere at ten o’
clock on a Wednesday night, the week after she graduated, wearing a thirty-dollar knockoff of a
designer dress and carrying nothing but a slot-machine token that she’d Transfigured out of a bottle
By ten-thirty, she’d made three thousand dollars US.
By midnight, the figure had jumped to thirty.
At two a.m. she had a cashier’s check in her hand for two hundred thousand dollars, made out to her
mother, and another three grand in a tight wad of hundreds inside the Lycra band of her pantyhose.
By Thursday noon, the check was mailed, and she was on her way to Atlantic City.
Things were looking up.
She didn’t intend to make the same mistake with her Gift that her father had made – and she’d done
well enough at Transfiguration that she didn’t have to. A new name for every plane trip, a new passport
for every emigration, a series of new faces – old, young, plain, beautiful, in such a variety of shapes
and colours and degrees of attraction that she even dazzled herself. Clever, Sybil, clever. She could have
worked the same casino every night of the week for a solid year, and never been tagged as the same
But she kept moving on – city after city, country after country, while the bankbooks kept piling up in
one name after another. Where do we send the statements? the mystified bankers would inevitably ask,
and Sybil would shrug – it didn’t matter, after all, whether the account made money or not; chances
were she’d never touch it again.
But it was there.
At first she’d been ecstatic to be alone. And then, when – inevitably – the loneliness set in, there was
always someone there who was willing to stifle it for awhile.
After all, why not?
And then, she caught herself shunning the easy conquests, preferring again to sit alone … but instead of
watching the world go by as she’d done at first, she’d stare at whatever visage she’d assigned to herself
for that night – in mirrors, in plate glass, in the polished brass fittings of whatever posh bar she was
sitting at – and wonder: am I in there?
No pictures from her student days. No pictures from home.
Nothing to reflect her own face back at her.
Sybil, you’re losing it. But she didn’t care, she didn’t – not about the luxury, the hotels, the in-room
masseurs, the car service … and not about the money, either the boatloads she sent back to that same
humble little address in Belfast (were they still there? Did it matter if they were?), or the boatloads she
kept for herself. Even the thrill of the Gift was gone … and in the long empty hours between midnight
and dawn, her brain kept reeling her back to the same bloody pictures she’d tried so hard over the years
to suppress: sprawled bodies, cold laughter, screaming children, graves.
And then had come that night in Moscow, the night of her twenty-fifth birthday (but who’s counting,
tell me that?) in a black-market casino high above the city. Blonde, tonight … a platinum bombshell’s
bob, swinging free and easy past a delicately pointed jaw, over high Slavic cheekbones. Her dress was
tight and high and the same sunset orange as her lipstick; instead of jewelry, she’d given herself the
magical equivalent of tattoos, heavy links of gunmetal chain around her wrists, her ankles, her throat.
Her heels were high and her eyes were sharp and the men were looking and licking their lips but not
coming too close – I’m owned, those tattoos said, and by someone who can kick your ass hog-tied and
It wasn’t true, of course. But the deception amused her.
These days, deception was about the only thing that did. Guess you’re a Slytherin after all, aren’t you,
She’d been playing poker, and she had about a hundred thousand in winnings, U.S. – the Russkies liked
to play for Yank money. They’d all seen it disappear into her chic little silver-mesh Prada bag: in about
fifteen minutes, one of them was going to get greedy and come sniffing.
Sybil rather hoped he would.
And then someone said her name – her real name, not the false one she’d given out – Malya, or Katya,
or whatever it was.
She turned, surprised, and nearly spilled her Scotch.
Albus Dumbledore was standing a foot away from her. And he looked old.
"Sybil, we need you," he’d said that night, back at her hotel room. "We need a Seer. Voldemort’s
crawled off to God knows where, but he’s not dead yet – I doubt he can die. The trials are over; we’re
rebuilding. But I don’t want to go into whatever’s next blindfolded."
"What makes you think I can help you?" She’d tried for insouciance. "My grades in Divination were
middle-of-the-road, Albus. And I’ll tell you now that I made all the astrological stuff up."
"Don’t." He passed his hand wearily over his eyes. "I know, Sybil. And it’s time you did your part for
the Cause that protected you."
"The Cause." She stood up abruptly, hurled her little bag full of money so hard at the opposite wall that
it split in half, showering greenbacks in all directions. She ignored it. "Do you think I give a damn
about your Cause, Albus? That I give a damn about your martyrs? I’ve got ghosts of my own to worry
about – I can’t take on yours too."
"They’re not just mine." He looked around him at the opulent suite, the glass-and-steel furniture, the
blood-red carpet. "And you’re made for more than this – you weren’t given the Gift to spend your life
running away from it."
"I’m not running away. I’m using it."
"Bollocks." He looked suddenly angry, suddenly bigger. "You’re wasting it. Wasting yourself."
She turned away. "What’s your point?"
"I’m offering you a job," he said, and she froze, startled.
"A job?"
He nodded. "What follows the fall of a dictatorship, Sybil?"
She thought for a moment. "Anarchy?"
"Mm." He sighed. "The political climate is … restless. The Ministry’s fragmented. Voldemort’s
followers are clever – those who survived – they’ve either gone to ground completely, or managed to
clear their names." He frowned. "For now."
Okay, she’d bite. "What does that have to do with me?"
"I need a Divination teacher. And an actress."
"What about Fortescue?"
"Retiring," Albus said. "And his sons don’t share his gift, regrettably –" here he looked slightly more
cheerful – "though one of them is quite a skilled confectioner … " Seeming to remember himself, he
shot her a self-deprecating smile and cocked his head to the side. "Sorry. I’m a man of simple
Don’t lose the point, Albus, Sybil thought. "An actress?" she queried. He nodded.
"A charlatan," he said. "I have plenty of smart people on the staff who advertise their smarts. What I
could use, right now, is a brilliant mind … who can disguise herself as a fool."
Sybil caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror – all angles and haute couture and sulky, plasticine
beauty. Not her own face. Not her own body. Not her own style.
But then, after all these years, what was?
"We can’t save those who are already gone," Albus said gently. "But there are plenty of others who we
can. Will you help me?"
Half-unwillingly, she bowed that bright-blonde head in assent. And thought that maybe, just maybe,
she’d seen a flash of something familiar in the mirror … for the first time in years.
That was the beginning.
And now, now that she’d mastered her act so thoroughly that she half-believed it herself sometimes,
Albus was giving her a new assignment.
Hermione Granger’s babysitter.
Well, she could deal with one snotty brat, couldn’t she? And from what she remembered of Cairo, it
was a spectacular city.
She rather hoped Lucius Malfoy didn’t show his pointy face … for a long, long time.

Chapter Nineteen
The next time I get a good idea like this one, Hermione vowed to herself furiously, I’m going to take a
rock and hit myself in the head with it. Hard. Maybe I’ll end up dead, but at least I won’t be sharing a
bathroom with the Giant Fruit Bat herself.

Only Monday morning, and already contemplating suicide – it was going to be a long, loooong week.
It was bad enough that Trelawney had taken over the guest bedroom … just the thought of chiffon
ruffles and chintz all over her painstakingly Transfigured Shaker furniture made Hermione shudder.
And they could probably smell that goddamn plumeria incense in China.
Not to mention the fiasco that had been last night’s dinner – they’d eaten at Hogwarts on Saturday
evening and Apparated from the gates afterwards, and Sunday breakfast had been largely a forage-for-
yourself affair … bagels and cereal and juice. But dinner she’d cooked, as a sort of pacific gesture
toward her grudgingly tolerated houseguest – grilled sea bass and roasted root vegetables over Israeli
couscous. And even though it was just a sap to her conscience, Hermione felt that she’d quite outdone
The Fruit Bat, however, had turned up her bespectacled nose at it, and pushed away her plate with a
"Oh, I couldn’t possibly, dear," she’d explained. "Food with a soul, you know … very disruptive to the
Inner Eye. Especially when it’s not absolutely the freshest." She poked fretfully at the vegetables. "And
if you don’t mind my asking – what did you cook these in? Butter?"
Why, of all the –
"Olive oil," Hermione said with grim satisfaction, and narrowed her eyes murderously when Trelawney
gave a delicate shudder at her words.
"Allergic," she murmured. "Oh, don’t blame yourself, dear –" this, with a faintly sorrowful, highly
patronising expression that made the fingers of Hermione’s right hand clench convulsively around her
table knife – "I’m sure you’ll remember next time."
Next time? Hermione thought furiously. You’ll be lucky if I peel you a carrot next time, you pretentious
old flake.
But, she’d managed to control her temper – long enough, anyway, to wrap the remains of the spurned
meal in aluminum foil and slip on her sneakers.
"Going out, dear?" Trelawney had inquired. "At this hour, do you really think that’s wise?"
Hermione gritted her teeth. "I’m going down the hall," she forced out with a distinctively pained smile,
over her shoulder. "I’ll be back before you’ve missed me."
Trelawney, who had conjured herself a bowlful of plain brown rice and a raw rutabaga, was now
placidly peeling the vegetable with mincing little sweeps of her wand. "Well, don’t be out too late,
dear," she said distractedly. "Things … creep about … in the night, you know. And it’s no use having
Mr. Slytherin and myself here to protect you, if you’re determined to be reckless – now, is it?"
Sal, reading in the corner chair, quirked one eyebrow but wisely stayed out of it – Hermione’s face was
a study in frozen, absolute outrage. The Divination professor, however, didn’t seem to realise the
maelstrom she was on the verge of unleashing – having finished peeling the rutabaga, she now
quartered it with a twitch of her wand and began, calmly, to eat.
Watching Trelawney tranquilly fork in rice, her bun of wispy hair askew, her metres of necklaces
glinting in the overhead kitchen light, Hermione was suddenly sympathetic to the notion of teenage
violence in a way she’d never previously thought possible. "I said," she gritted out, "that I’ll be back –"
and, grabbing the foil-covered plate, flounced out and slammed the door behind her.
Maxie, who had apparently heard her coming, took one look at her face and whistled through her teeth.
"Oooo-weee," she said admiringly. "If it isn’t Little Miss Storm Clouds herself. What’s eating your
biscuits tonight, sugar?"
"I don’t want to talk about it," Hermione said. Maxie’s eyebrows shot up.
"That bad, huh? Well, it can’t be that nice transparent friend of yours," she said. "He came over just this
afternoon for a Sunday game of checkers – I haven’t seen Lester so happy since Rolling Rock came out
with a forty-ounce." She jerked her head in the direction of Hermione’s corridor. "I saw the other one
last night, but she didn’t introduce herself. She’s quite the cool customer, isn’t she?"
"Trelawney? Hardly." Hermione wrinkled her nose. "Wispy, middle-aged, hair in a mess, glasses? Lots
of scarves and gaudy amber jewelry?"
"No, she’s younger than that," Maxie said. "Thirtyish, maybe. Blonde. Walks like she’s got somewhere
to go and wouldn’t mind company." She glanced appraisingly at her wristwatch. "She left around one
a.m., came back at four-thirty or so. Had a red silk suit on, cut up to her cootchie, and a pair of shoes
that were never meant to be walked in. If you catch my drift."
At Hermione’s look of bewilderment, she frowned. "What? What’s the matter?"
"That’s not Trelawney," Hermione said. "Trelawney looks like someone’s crazy aunt from Edinburgh.
You must have seen someone from another apartment."
Maxie shrugged. "Could be. But I know everyone in the building. And I could have sworn it was your
door she opened – you’ve got that squeaky hinge, sounds like a flat ninth on top of a major seventh
chord. I hear that, I can always tell you’re on your way over."
Hermione hesitated, then shook her head. "Well, anyway." She indicated the covered plate. "She’s
driving me mad – I can’t go into it right now; I’ll tell you the whole story later. I brought this over for
Bill. Is he in?"
"No, honey, he sure isn’t." Maxie looked momentarily distracted. "He was real sorry you had to cancel
on him yesterday – from the sound of things, he was hoping to reschedule for tonight … and then right
on top of your owl he got a letter from Gringotts, asking him to be at their branch in Chichen Itza first
thing in the morning. They want him to head up a training seminar for some of their new hires – he’s
going to be out of town at least until Friday, maybe over the weekend too."
She sniffed the air. "Whatever you got under that foil sure smells good, though – you got no other home
for it, the boys and me’ll take it off your hands." She jerked a thumb toward the bass. "Ol’ No-Name
back there – he might not talk, but he can eat all right. Beginning to think the man’s got a hollow leg."
"Sure," Hermione said, and passed over the plate. "Nice talking to you, Maxie. I’ll see you later."
"You know it, sugar."
Well, she thought on her way back to her own apartment, she wouldn’t call that good news, entirely –
she’d been counting on Bill’s easy charm towards All Beings Feminine to defuse Trelawney to a certain
degree – but on the other hand, it made matters momentarily less complicated in the sexual sense.
When she and Bill had last parted ways, they’d been on the verge of hitherto-unaccomplished intimacy
… had it not been for the barrier of their respective fins, up in the pool, and the knowledge that they’d
be seeing each other the next night to finish what they’d started, Professor McGonagall might have
gotten more of an eyeful than she cared to, that evening.
And as it stood now, she wasn’t altogether sure she wanted to take that step anymore.
Oh, he was still good-looking. Still sexy. Still warm and friendly and … well, um, Warm And Friendly.
Problem was, she was beginning to think she’d been permanently hardwired to react to Scathing And
And that pretty much left Bill out in the cold.
Which was a great pity – especially because the object of her affections (oh, who was she kidding? she
was bloody obsessed with the man) seemed to want nothing to do with her … in broad daylight, at
Damn it, what was a girl supposed to do, when faced with a moral quandary like this one? Was it unfair
to keep Indiana Jones on your second-string, just because Heathcliff didn’t want you?
Or rather, wanted you … but then wanted you to go away?
Somehow it seemed a betrayal of the feminine gender as a whole to give Bill Weasley the "let’s-just-be-
friends" talk. And yet –
Things to ponder.
And it was a good thing that she had a week to do it; even after a night of uneasy sleep, interspersed
with long periods of wakefulness (that, for once, had nothing to do whatsoever with that bloody
Sekhmet statue), she hadn’t come any closer to reaching a conclusion.
She just had a headache. And a job to do, before she went to class.
"Sal," she said over her shoulder, "could you float that beaker over here, please? Thanks."
They were in her lab at the Consortium, and she was rummaging in the cupboard underneath the
counter. One of the Bunsen burners was lit, and the beaker suspended over it was emitting the most-
appetising aroma of melting milk chocolate.
The beaker glided to a halt by her elbow just as she straightened up, clutching in one hand what looked
like a clear plastic muffin tin. "Easy," Sal remonstrated, righting the beaker just in time and glancing
curiously at the tin. "What are you doing, anyway?"
Hermione took the beaker from him, swirled it slowly a few times from side to side, and began to
drizzle its clear, slightly pink-tinged contents into the beaker of chocolate.
"Hedging my bets," she said. "You know what this stuff is, right?"
"It’s your Protection Potion," Sal said – "that much I know; I’ve seen you and Severus make enough of
it, Merlin knows." He drifted over to inspect the bubbling mixture from the opposite side of the
countertop. "But why add the chocolate, that’s my question?"
"Camouflage," Hermione said. Using a pot holder, she grasped the beakerful of Armoured chocolate
and began to painstakingly pour its contents into the indentations in the plastic mold. "Medi-chocolate
for the carrier. Illuminata for taste. And the Armouring Fluid for function."
She shot a narrow look at the clock – half an hour to class. Damn it – I wanted to get a bit more
studying in.. "Conglacio!" she murmured, and tapped the mold with her wand; a moment later, two
dozen perfectly innocuous-looking chocolates were sitting on the countertop.
"No innocent bystanders are taking a curse that’s meant for me, if I can help it.," she said shortly,
encasing a short stack of the chocolates in foil and a bright commercial wrapper with a wave of her
wand. Hah – I wondered if that would work. Cool. "And until Malfoy’s contained, Sal, I’m thinking
that it’s probably sort of risky to be my friend. Especially if you’re a Muggle."
"Ah," Sal said, and looked suddenly, unaccountably amused. "I take it, then, that your intention to
honourably drug your friends means that you’re not calling off your afternoon outing to the baths
"Hole in one," Hermione said drily. "And since you’re so determined to pepper me with questions this
morning, here’s one for you: why haven’t you talked some sense into Trelawney by now? You’ve had
all weekend to do it, and here we are on Monday morning, with her still convinced she’s coming with
me this afternoon."
"Well, one of us has to," Sal said. "And I did offer."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "We’ve discussed this, Sal."
"I could be invisible, you know," he added hopefully. "You wouldn’t even know I was there –"
"No." She gave him a pointed look. "Believe me, I’d know."
Sal drifted petulantly toward the window, inadvertently passing through the napping Cleo and causing
the caracal’s hair to stand abruptly on end. "Sorry," he told her, then turned back toward Hermione.
"Well, then," he said, "it’s Sybil. Because it’s got to be one or the other of us – Albus’s orders."
"Since when do you take orders from him?" Hermione demanded. "Damn it, Sal, you’re supposed to be
underhanded and slippery. You’ve a reputation to maintain!"
"Sorry, girlie." He looked genuinely regretful. "Most things I can afford to be lax about. You’re not one
of them."
Oh, Sal. "Fine," she said – rather less than graciously. "Fine. Only … can you try to get her to put on a
plain black robe? No chiffon." She thought for a moment. "And make her lose the jewelry. She looks
like a refugee from the Home Shopping Network."
Sal stifled a laugh. "I’ll see what I can do."

Chapter Twenty
But as it turned out, Trelawney wasn’t wearing wizard’s robes at all when Hermione walked out of the
examination classroom that afternoon, but rather what appeared to be her version of Muggle mufti: a
man’s-style white Oxford button-down shirt, tucked into a long narrow wraparound skirt made of navy
gabardine which tied at the waist and was secured further on one side by a large decorative silver
safety-pin. Her graying, flyaway hair had been wound up into a wide-brimmed straw hat with a navy
band that matched her sandals, and there were modish silver hoops at her ears.
An eccentric look, perhaps, but still – not a flutter of chiffon or gleam of Mystic Beadery to be seen.
Go, Sal, go! Hermione thought, and tried not to goggle too hard at the transformation.
Neila nudged her from one side.
"That’s your aunt?" she whispered into Hermione’s ear. "But she’s so young."
It was true – without the fussy robes or the old-lady hairstyle, Trelawney looked fifteen years younger.
For a moment, Hermione heard a flash of her conversation with Maxie the night before pass through
her head – Thirtyish, blonde, red silk suit cut up to her cootchie – but then dismissed it.
Nah. Couldn’t be.
Plastering on a smile, she stepped forward. "Auntie," she said, "I’d like you to meet my school friends."
Having ‘Auntie Sybil’ along for the afternoon had changed their plans somewhat, but the Egyptian girls
had proven to be surprisingly flexible.
"Let’s go to my house instead, then," Ivonne had suggested that morning before class; "it’s the closest,
and my mother is always happy to talk to an anglaise – especially if she speaks French." She’d looked
enquiringly at Hermione. "Does she?"
Good question.
"Tr – um, that is, Auntie?" Hermione had said doubtfully, catching her slip just in time. "Not sure.
Maybe a little."
"Well, then." Ivonne had nudged her gleefully. "They’ll muddle along, I daresay. And while they do,
Neila can give you that belly-dance lesson that you’ve been putting off for the last two weeks." She
aimed a laughing look over her shoulder. "Sah, Itmana?"
"Da sah," Itmana had agreed dutifully, but her tone made the other girls look at her in surprise – she
seemed listless, and rather more subdued than usual. Examination stress, Hermione had thought, and let
it go at that.
But even now that the test was over, her friend’s mood hadn’t lifted.
They were walking along en masse across the Al-Gamaa Bridge toward Ivonne’s house in Manial. The
Al-Gamaa was a major road; because of the crush of foot traffic, they couldn’t all walk abreast, and
Hermione and Itmana were lagging behind the others. Normally, Hermione thought, Itmana would be
in the thick of the playful interrogation taking place in front of them: How long are you staying? How
do you find the weather? Your Arabic is so good – have you visited before? Have you bought your
souvenirs yet? – but today she was silent, her lips pressed tightly together, her eyes darting back over
her shoulder, to the other side of the street.
"Is something wrong?" Hermione asked her in a low voice, and Itmana jumped – then jerked her head
in the direction she’d been looking.
"Do you see a man?" she asked quietly. "Tall, turbaned, in a white galabeyya? About two metres
behind, on the other side?"
Hermione nodded. "What about him?"
"He’s following us."
Hermione swallowed hard. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that he’s following us," Itmana hissed back at her. "He’s been waiting outside the front doors of
the medical building since eight o’ clock this morning – I saw him there myself, on one of the benches,
reading a newspaper. He made it a point to catch my eyes." She shot Hermione a quick scared glance.
"And now he’s tailing us. He’s been getting closer and closer, the longer we walk."
Hermione felt a spiral of alarm begin to writhe in her stomach. Ruthlessly, she forced it down.
"You saw his face?"
Itmana nodded. "Just a bit – he had the end of his turban drawn over his mouth. But I saw his eyes."
"What does he look like?"
Itmana thought for a moment. "Pale," she said finally. "Either he stays out of the sun, or he’s a
European, an orrobi. I couldn’t tell." She shuddered. "I couldn’t see what colour his eyes were, either –
he was in shadow. But the way he looked at me …" She trailed off, glanced over her shoulder again.
It’s got to be Malfoy, Hermione thought, and dug her fingernails into her palms to blunt the edge of her
rising panic. Stay calm, Granger. You can’t afford to be afraid right now.
"What do you think we should do?" Itmana whispered, and Hermione took a deep breath.
Here we go.
"Well, I’d say we’re pretty safe," she said lightly. "Six of us together – and we’re all in hijab, except for
Auntie, that’s the other thing. It’s one thing to hassle tourists, but we’re in headscarves – you four are
Muslim, and I might as well be. If he tries anything, the crowd will rip his throat out, and he’s bound to
know that."
She elbowed Itmana playfully in the ribs, forced a note of teasing into her voice. "He’s just overcome
by your beauty and your impending medical degree, that’s all – probably he’s trolling the campus
looking for a wife who can support him. Don’t worry about him."
"Mm." Itmana didn’t look convinced, but she managed a wan smile. "You’re probably right."
"Here," Hermione said brightly – Merlin, could I sound any closer to the edge of hysteria? – and dug in
the pocket of her robes. "This’ll cheer you up – I got a care package from Mum. You’ve got to try
these; they’re Belgian."
"Belgian? Is that chocolate you’ve got, Hermione?" Samiya, whose sweet tooth was legendary, had
twisted around to look. "Oooh, don’t those look good. Can I try one?"
They were off the noisy, crowded bridge by now, and had turned onto a quieter residential side street.
Their stalker wasn’t anywhere to be seen, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t there – if anything, they were
in more danger now, Hermione realised, and almost fumbled the packet of chocolates while passing
them around.
Thumbing off one of the lozenges for herself, she held out the last piece to Trelawney, who hesitated.
Oh, no, you don’t.
So help me, Hermione thought, if you develop a sudden allergy to cocoa beans now, I’m going to
throttle you where you stand and save Malfoy the trouble.
"Go on, Auntie," she urged, trying to sound more-sweet, less-anxious, and nearly stamped her foot
when Trelawney bit her lip doubtfully.
"I don’t know, dear …"
"Auntie has a weak stomach," Hermione informed the others, then turned back, doggedly beaming, to
Trelawney. "But I’ve just been reading that chocolate has tremendous curative properties –" here she
sent Trelawney a meaningful, exasperated look – "and I must say, I highly recommend it."
Their eyes met with a click and held for a long moment, challenging brown against cool pale blue.
If you were really a Seer, Hermione thought frantically, you’d know why this is important, and not keep
standing here with a bloody target painted on your back … and, at that, thought that Trelawney’s gaze
might have narrowed fractionally, perhaps even flashed in annoyance.
Huh. The old fraud couldn’t possibly have read her mind, could she?
It’s the clothes – they make her seem more like a person with a brain. Remember the tea leaves? That
fucking useless glass ball? You’re still dealing with a Fruit Bat here, Granger.
Take the sodding chocolate, for Christ’s sake, and let’s get on with it.
"Go on, Auntie," she urged again, and Trelawney shot her an outwardly fond smile, undercut with steel.
"Well – just this once, then," she said.
And might have looked just the tiniest bit amused, as Hermione sagged in relief.
The tall turbaned man in the white galabeyya watched from his hiding place as the little group of
females he’d been tailing turned into the sheltering courtyard of one of the street’s old stone houses,
and disappeared from view.
No use following them further, he knew – this was a neighbourhood of traditional old harem houses
from the twenties and thirties, thick-walled and windowless and impregnable, the only way in or out
through the single gate. Paradoxes, these houses – outside, the plain mud walls; inside, fountained and
landscaped and tiled in mosaics bright enough to rival a Byzantine chapel. Behind those high wooden
lattices that shielded the balconies from the curious eye, the girl he sought and her four friends would
flit like caged finches, in rooms as glowing and lush as the heart of fire.
For now.
No matter – he knew where to find her now, and he’d know the moment of action when it arrived. It
wasn’t here at her friend’s house – not here, on this quiet middle-class avenue, oh no.
No, he’d take her in the middle of the din, snatch her right out of the crowded souk and spirit her away
kicking and flailing (no matter how many friends she surrounded herself with; they were of no
account), a Bedouin prince bearing the tender, toothsome spoils of war.
The metaphor made him smile to himself, and the smile was thin and cold and hidden completely
behind the fold of his turban. Oh yes, this was a war; one she’d started rashly and continued unwisely,
far beyond the pale of reason.
But no matter. He would be the one to finish it.
Enjoy your freedom, he thought with a last glance backwards toward the blank stone walls of the house
that held her. Because I’m going to enjoy stealing it from you.
And then, you’re going to wish you had never been born.

Chapter Twenty-One
Midnight – the witching hour, presumably, though no one ever called it that except for Muggles. Even
so, Sybil liked the term – it was poetic.
God – how long had it been since she did this? Ten years, twelve? And yet it had come back to her the
other night so easily, her dancing partner of half a decade … as if she’d never left it.
Shed the lined skin, the greying hair. Peel off that sweetly vague persona you’re so tired of, like
yesterday’s underwear.
Goodbye, Norma Jean.
And a big fat hello to Marilyn Monroe.
Sybil shook back her pale blonde crop and studied herself in the mirror with a critical eye. Good
colour, she decided – hell, it might even be natural, who knows? – but it wasn’t exactly the thing, for
what she had to do tonight.
Flamboyant was okay, but she needed a new look.
Something exotic, something different – something to catch his eye. Picking up her wand, she
narrowed her eyes in silent visualisation for a moment, then began to tweak that almost-Nordic image
in the mirror: more width to the cheekbones, more flare to the slim nose, more pigment in the skin –
and more, and more, it wasn’t just a suntan she was after, after all. And then, the small changes – blue
eyes to tilting Nefertiti brown, wheat-pale hair to ink-black.
A bit more length in the neck – yes, just like that … and perhaps a trim? Almost a buzz cut, Sybil
thought, but not quite – oh, that was nice, indeed, a sleek jet seal’s-head that curved to her skull like
another layer of skin.
Killer, it’s a killer face – set off by the simple asceticism of the haircut, as elegant and exotic as a young
Phylicia Rashad. And now for the body to match, which was easier – cantilever the hips, lengthen the
legs, widen the shoulders, shrink the breasts to sweet little tennis-ball handfuls.
Ah, so.
And swathe the whole racehorse package in luxury and danger – black cigarette pants, black cashmere
jumper, English leather half-boots. Chunks of silver gleaming at her ears, bangling her wrists.
Kohl at her eyes. A slick of shine on her lips, Corvette-red and just as fast. A couple of grand in
American Express traveler’s cheques, folded neatly into the tiny black-crocodile Judith Leiber
Perfect, she thought with a last satisfied glance in the mirror; you haven’t lost your touch, Sybbie, even
after all this time.
And then rolled her eyes heavenward, as Salazar Slytherin materialised at the foot of her bed with a
low wolf whistle.
"Do you mind?"
"Not if you don’t," Sal said, and smirked as she sent her bottle of Shalimar whizzing straight through
him to bounce harmlessly off her pillows. "Temper, temper," he chided.
Sybil glared at him. "Aren’t you missing Mr. Bean?"
Sal, who had discovered Muggle television within an hour of arriving at Hermione’s flat, had juvenile
tastes in entertainment and wasn’t in the least embarrassed about them – her snipe only made him
"It’s far more interesting finding out what you’re up to, ma femme dangereuse," he noted, unrepentant,
and got another perfume-bottle through the forehead for his trouble.
"Voyeurism is creepy, Sal. Cut it out."
He didn’t bother to acknowledge this. "And where are you taking the act tonight, pray tell?"
Sybil studied him speculatively. "I’m going to look for Mikhail." As you very well know. "In
Sal whistled. "That’s where he is?"
"According to my Location Charm of ten minutes ago." She rubbed irritably at a fleck of tarnish on one
of her bangles. "You’ll stay here? Hold down the fort?" At Sal’s nod, her eyes flicked right, toward the
wall her bedroom shared with Hermione’s. "The brat’s asleep?"
Sal’s ghostly eyebrows rose. "Just because the two of you don’t get along doesn’t make her a brat," he
pointed out mildly. "She has a good heart – she’s just impatient with your act, that’s all." He paused
meaningfully. "She’d like the real you a lot better, you know."
Sybil conceded the point with a world-weary shrug and a slight inclination of her head toward the
beauty in the mirror.
"Wouldn’t we all?"
When it came to travelling in Morocco, Sybil could hold her own.
She’d spent a considerable amount of time in Casablanca – both at the tables and between the sheets
(with a nameless member of that elite society to which she had come to refer – in her own head, at least
– as the Local Talent). She’d had a few good weekends of roulette in Tangiers. And, though there was
no gambling scene to speak of there, she had even once rented a villa in Fés, for a few nights of solitary
stargazing from the rooftop terrace.
She had not, however, been to Marrakesh – not, she imagined, that twelve-thirty on a Tuesday morning
was the best time for sightseeing.
No, better to find Mikhail, close the deal, and have it over with. On the other hand, that could take
longer than she’d imagined – instead of Apparating into the quiet little Place de la Liberté, as she’d
planned, she’d somehow miscalculated and touched down instead into the very centre of the Djemaa el-
Fna, Morocco’s nightly-held equivalent of Venetian Carnaval, of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. And
from the looks of things, the party wasn’t going to end anytime soon.
Fortunately, the square was sufficiently crowded – and busy – and poorly lit – that one dark-clad
woman’s abrupt materialisation from thin air went seemingly unnoticed. Sybil palmed her handbag
more securely and stared around her, at the spectacles occurring in all directions: jugglers, storytellers,
acrobats, herbalists, groups of swarthy Bedouins and convivial felt-capped locals and khaki-clad
tourists, blinking with exhaustion but determined not to miss anything.
Food stalls. Juice bars. Shopkeepers. An old man in a loincloth, singlehandedly peeling the skin from a
living cobra with his teeth as the crowd cheered him on.
Sybil turned away from that particular tableau with a grimace – master that trick, she thought, and you
could write your own ticket as a performance artist in SoHo – and bumped squarely into an old Berber
woman in a brightly-fringed headdress that seemed rather at odds with her lined old face. Her eyes,
however, were a brilliant, startling blue.
"Can I help you?" she asked, and Sybil – thankful for the Comprehension Charm she’d muttered before
Apparating, shook her head.
"Do I look like I need help?"
The old woman – seemingly unsurprised by Sybil’s easy mastery of her language – considered this
"Two men wait for you," she said. "One you once knew, and would buy now with gold not your own.
But he has sworn his allegiance to another, and he awaits you with murder in his heart."
Mikhail. Sybil wet her lips nervously. "And the other?"
"Runs from what he loves," the old woman said. "Holds answers to questions he doesn’t know. And
seeks what he cannot find."
Well, that could be anybody. Sybil, too unsettled to be dismissive, didn’t reply – but the old woman
didn’t seem to expect an answer; she was fumbling in a pocket of her voluminous cotton robe, and now
held out to Sybil a bit of powder in a twist of paper.
"Love is too dear, and cannot be bought or sold," she said. "What I offer is time – for the slaking of a
thirst, and then forgetfulness."
She stepped closer, motioned for Sybil to bend down to her. "Mixed with wine, pleasure," she
murmured into Sybil’s ear. "And afterward, questions – whatever you would ask, quickly, before he
sleeps – and in the morning, he’ll not remember."
Hm. Potentially useful, that. "Thank you," Sybil said, taking the pinch of powder, and felt a frisson of
cold run through her as she tucked it into her bag and strolled on.
Another Seer – and speaking in the kind of riddles she’d mastered but never learned to love, just as her
own Eye had seemingly begun to hold out on her. Well, it couldn’t be that hard.
Two men, eh? One you would buy – that had to be Mikhail … Mikhail with the angel face, Mikhail
with the talented con-artist’s hands, Mikhail the clever, amoral Durmstrang alumnus, who’d been doing
the same thing as Sybil herself fifteen years ago, and a bit more to boot.
Mikhail the halfblood, Mikhail the assassin, Mikhail her on-again-off-again lover, who had taken on
wizarding and Muggle contracts alike and fulfilled them with a careless kind of cheerfulness that froze
Sybil’s blood. Mikhail, who’d scared her and excited her and had quite possibly been as much in love
with her as she with him, though even then Sybil had been smart enough to know that being loved by
someone like Mikhail was probably worse than being hated by him.
Mikhail – the other, unspoken, reason that she’d taken Dumbledore’s offer, back in Moscow. And the
best ace she had to play against Lucius Malfoy.
But he has sworn his allegiance to another, and awaits you with murder in his heart.
Sybil sat down on the stone edge of one of the marketplace’s chittering fountains and swallowed hard.
If Mikhail had thrown in with Malfoy, Hermione Granger’s life wasn’t worth a Confederate dollar in
But that still left the other half of the riddle: the other man, seeking what he couldn’t find, throwing
away love with both hands.
Waiting for her.
Who could it be? she wondered – and then, as the crowd before her cheered a final time for the snake-
skinner and began to drift away, she saw a familiar black-clad figure standing alone in the middle of the
marketplace, and felt her throat go dry.
She didn’t know why Severus Snape was in Marrakesh in the middle of the night. But she had the
feeling she was about to find out.

Chapter Twenty-Two
Okay, Sybil thought. Time to explore all the possible options.
Option One: Forget about Snape, and find Mikhail, banking on the probability that he’d want to fuck
her at least once before he killed her … thus giving her the time and – hopefully – the opportunity to
slip the mickey into his drink and pump him for information on All Things Malfoy.
It had distinct merit, that one.
Option Two: Forget about Mikhail, and fall in with Snape, who – come to think of it – was probably
here following Malfoy’s trail, on Dumbledore’s orders … and who, depending on what and/or how
much Dumbledore had told him, might possibly be looking for Mikhail as well.
Or, for that matter, for Sybil herself.
Nice poetic feel to that one as well. Of course, now that Mikhail’s loyalties had been called into
question – granted, she was taking the old herbalist’s word for a lot here, but on the other hand, after
nearly a decade in that stuffy tower room listening to late-homework excuses, Sybil figured she could
tell the truth from a lie as well as the next clairvoyant – it was all too possible that Snape was presently
as much Hunted as the Hunter. She’d caught a brief glimpse of Malfoy last spring, in between the
Ministry’s verdict and his departure for Azkaban, and that had been One Seriously Troubled Aura; she
wouldn’t put it past him at all to lump Snape into the contract with Hermione, along with Dumbledore,
his trial jurors, and quite possibly even his own son.
But that begged the question – Mikhail’s services not being exactly cheap, after all – how was he
bankrolling all this, with no wand, no access to his own money, and the Ministry (however
halfheartedly) on his tail?
Things to ponder. Even so, if that was indeed the scenario, she should probably just grab Snape and
hustle him out of town. Standing there in that black cloak, looking like an extra from a Dungeons and
Dragons munch, he might as well have been wearing a "Curse Me" sign Spellotaped to his back.
Yes. And don’t you find that the least bit odd, Sybil?
There. Finally – there was her Seer-sense kicking in at last. Nice of you to show up, Sybil thought
irritably. And what’s odd about it?
Watch him. He’s not quite right.
Not quite right, eh?
Sybil swung her gaze back to Snape – well, he was still Snape, all black poplin and pallor. Except –
Watch his eyes, the Seer whispered in her brain, and obediently Sybil traced his line of vision to the end
of the square, where a troupe of cane dancers were leaping to the beat of the doumbek and the rhythmic
chanting of the surrounding crowd.
Was he swaying slightly to the music?
Or was there a stone in his shoe?
He was swaying, Sybil decided after a moment of reflection. And it was most un-Snapely.
And then there was the way he was leaning against the corrugated aluminum wall of that kabob stall,
the heel of one booted foot propped against the toe of the other. Almost indolent, that posture.
And when had she ever known Severus Snape to be casual?
Small things, niggling things. Heart in her mouth, Sybil watched a ragged little girl sidle up to him,
palm extended; watched him dig in the pockets of his robe for a coin and smile at her as he dropped it
into her hand. The smile made him look almost … well, charming.
Okay, that’s just plain out of character. And would Snape be carrying Muggle money?
Of course not, muttered the Seer in her ear. Took you long enough, but you’re catching on now.
Whoever that is, it’s not Snape.
Well, Mikhail, then – who else could it be?
But then, how was he doing it? Polyjuice? Sybil watched the figure in black intently, the tip of her
tongue clenched firmly between her teeth to distract her from her rising panic. I don’t dare do a
Revelatory Spell, she thought; if it’s Polyjuice it won’t work anyway, and if it’s Transfiguration, he’ll
know immediately that I’m on to him.
It was probably the latter anyway, she decided – Mikhail had always been good at Transfiguration and
less so at Potions, which required time, patience, and any number of messy arcane ingredients, none of
which were readily available to a wizard so much on the move as he. Far easier to carry a wand and be
done with it … that much she knew from experience.
The next question, though, was this: if Mikhail was impersonating Snape, never mind how, then where
was the real Snape? Safe at Hogwarts? Vacationing in Cornwall? Still wandering some other part of
Marrakesh in search of Mikhail?
Or had Mikhail already found him?
Well, she’d cleared at least one thing up, Sybil thought, shuddering a little at the thought of that last
possibility. She was pretty sure she’d figured out how – and on whom – she was going to use that
handy little pinch of powder.
Patting her bag to make sure it was still there, she stood up – pasted on a brilliant smile – and headed,
eyes open, into the riskiest con she’d attempted in nearly fifteen years, never mind ever.
Unsettling and dangerous as this was – mad, some might even say – it still beat teaching Divination.
There wasn’t even really a contest.
Gabrielle wasn’t stupid.
She knew a lost cause when she saw one … and it didn’t look like Draco Malfoy. Even if he was still in
love with Hermione Granger, he’d still be salvageable … once he got over her.
And eventually he would, or her name wasn’t Gabrielle Evangeline Delacour.
Heh. That was a mouthful, wasn’t it?
Evangeline for her much-celebrated, much-fêted grandmère. And Gabrielle because that had been
Maman’s name – Maman, who Gabrielle couldn’t remember at all; everything she knew about her
mother had come first from Fleur.
Fleur. Gabrielle knew quite well that it was she who had talked Papa into letting her stay at Hogwarts –
Fleur had been banking, no doubt, on the fact that her little sister was the sensible one, the practical
cerebral hardheaded one, whose idea of an adventure was figuring Papa’s taxes for him or researching
hot stock tips. If Fleur had thought for even one second that Gabrielle was more interested in Draco
Malfoy than in her inherited seaside cottage and her holdings on the London Stock Exchange, she
would have yanked Gabrielle back to Beauxbatons before the smoke from the Floo had cleared.
Well, that was adolescence for you, Gabrielle thought, if you believed what was written about it – first
you discovered your hormones, then you became immediately moody, irritable and secretive.
Nice to know she was right on track, developmentally speaking – even if it didn’t feel quite right
keeping secrets from Fleur, more maman to her than sister, Fleur who’d never resented, never
complained, Fleur who’d never missed a birthday, a Christmas, a weekend home, up until the year
she’d gone abroad.
Maybe she’d liked that year, secretly, Gabrielle thought now – maybe it had been nice to stay on
campus for the weekend, to see Saturday morning Quidditch games and go out strolling on Sunday
afternoon … to be free. Maybe that was why Fleur had been so frightened, so guilty almost, when she
hadn’t made it all the way to the bottom of the lake on the second task.
On the other hand, this was one thing that she wasn’t sure Fleur would understand.
Fleur, after all, was the very image of Grandmère Evangeline – and, Gabrielle had often thought, was
like her in other ways as well … when it came to men, at least. Her conquests were so easy, so
effortless, that one was much like another to her.
And why not, with a face like hers? Not a month out of Beauxbatons, she’d had her arms full of
packages, on a shopping visit to Paris, and had accidentally bumped into a fashion photographer
coming out of a tobacconist’s on the Rue des Italiennes. A week later, she’d had a spokesmodel’s
contract with Guerlain Paris. Gabrielle had seen some of the photographs: Fleur in chiffon, Fleur in
diamonds, Fleur rising from a moonlit pool clad in nothing but a sleek fall of wet pale hair and her
luminous veela skin, her face turned demurely toward the camera over one flawless shoulder.
Travel. Money. Fame. And, of course, boyfriends – actors, directors, musicians, tycoons, one after
another – though when asked about any of them, Fleur would only shrug.
"When they’re kissing your feet, they all look the same" – that was Grandmère’s motto, and now, it
seemed to be Fleur’s as well. So how was Gabrielle supposed to find words to describe the connection
she’d felt instantly with Draco Malfoy?
So tall, so pale, so sad – looking into those grey eyes for the first time had been like drowning in
rainwater. And though her roommates at Beauxbatons – Bettina, Madeleine, Patrice – had been
giggling for days over his fashionable clothes, his mystery-man good looks, his painstakingly accurate
but oh-so-British-sounding French, what Gabrielle had felt that first night in the library hadn’t had
anything to do with any of that.
He’s so sad. He’s so alone.
He needs me.
Irresistible, that. So much so, in fact, that she could wait for the rest of it – wait until they’d both grown
up enough that six years’ difference wouldn’t be the eternity that it seemed now, but just a number.
And until he’d finished pining over Hermione.
Problem was, as long as Lucius Malfoy was on the loose, Hermione was never going to drop off the
front page of Draco’s head, into the happy oblivion of "yesterday’s news". And while Gabrielle was
prepared to be patient, she wasn’t a masochist, after all.
No, the sooner Malfoy was captured, the sooner things could get back to normal. Anyone’s guess how
long that could take, of course – the Ministry, in Gabrielle’s opinion at least, wasn’t trying half as hard
to find him as they might.
She could probably do better herself.
Well … actually, she probably could.
Gabrielle ran an idle forefinger over the folds of her Replicated Invisibility Cloak.
Think, Gabrielle, think – fire up that statistician’s brain of yours and put it to good use, for once.
Where’s Malfoy more likely to hide from the Ministry?
He doesn’t seem the fugitive sort, really, does he?
Cower in a cave like Sirius Black?
Or live like an exiled king in his own – empty – house?
She looked around her room. Empty – her roommates were in the common room, playing chess. Just
four beds, some scarred writing-desks … and a hearth, laid for fire but not yet kindled.
And on her night-table, a little lacquered box with the lid ajar. From where she sat, Gabrielle could just
see the muted gleam of green.
She wasn’t supposed to have it, of course. Draco had given it to her, so she could visit him in Elysium
… no one else knew.
Her heart was beating fast, but her hands were steady. Gathering up a pinch of the green dust, she
secured the top on the box and slid it gently beneath her pillow.
Invisibility Cloak? Check.
Sensible shoes? Check.
Sanity? Better wait a minute on that one.
She tossed the dust into the hearth and watched flames blossom from the ashes like some quick-
growing plant.
Now or never.
"Malfoy Manor," she said clearly. And stepped into the fire.

Chapter Twenty-Three
She was dreaming.
And it was a nice dream for once - sunlight and flowers, hand at her neck where the Lady lay, smooth
warm solid in the enclosure of her fist. The smell of crushed grass, sweet and green, and of
honeysuckle. The insides of her eyes were black and orange, like monarch butterflies, and when she
opened them lazily, free hand shielding against the sun, there really was a butterfly there, big and bright
and seemingly fearless, sitting right on her nose just like in Bambi and dipping those brilliant
shimmering wings to brush her cheeks.
Tickles. But don't brush it away - don't crush it, oh, don't.
She tossed her head, trying to dislodge her pretty visitor, but it clung on persistently, its glittering black
insect-eyes taking on a glint of what looked distinctly like annoyance. Nor did it stop its fluttering … if
anything, the gentle wing-caresses were becoming increasingly violent, as if she'd offended the
butterfly into retaliatory pugilism.
OK, that does it, Hermione thought, and raised her hand to brush irritably at her face. A moment later,
she yelped as her fingers unexpectedly met fur … startling herself into full wakefulness.
The caracal miaowed and patted her cheek again with a not-quite-gentle paw. About time you're up,
said her faintly-reproachful blue-grey gaze. Don't you know that I'm bored?
Hermione groped for the alarm clock and groaned as the red LCD numbers swam into focus.
"Two a.m., Cleo?" She yawned. "Some of us have to work tomorrow, you know."
But Cleo only butted insistently against Hermione's hand, making her lean dun-coloured body - sleeker
and longer every day, it seemed - flow neatly beneath Hermione's palm in a practiced do-it-yourself
caress. A moment later, she was off the bed and scratching at the closed door to the hallway … and it
wasn't ladylike tapping, either, or even Crookshanks' irritable head-butt, but full-out, claws-bared
I want out.
Okay, fine, Hermione thought, and swung her feet out of bed. Sleepily groping for her dressing gown,
she stumbled unsteadily to the door and scooped up the armful of squirming teenage-cat with a
philosophical sigh.
It was no use letting her out into the apartment - no, when Cleo got like this it was a good and proper
romp she wanted, and there was nothing for it but to turn her loose in the hallway and let her run until
she dropped.
She slipped past the sleeping Sal in the armchair - what an old fraud; he'd complain to anyone who
would listen that his mysterious-and-untimely-demise (still unexplained, by the by, despite frequent
prompting and full access to her CD cabinets) had robbed him of the ability to sleep through the night,
but Hermione knew for a fact that his sheep went largely unaccounted for - and slid out the door,
setting the exultant, impatient Cleo down on the hallway carpet and easing the door closed behind her
with a wince.
Maxie was right. It did squeak.
Speaking of Maxie, she could hear music drifting over from Bill's corridor. Well, that was fortuitous -
she'd just go and have a chat with the combo while Cleo shook her sillies out. Hermione padded in the
direction of the music - bluesy, sobbing piano and a melancholy melody that seemed to spin itself out
of the very air.
The words were pure blues, too:
Love, look away - love, look away from me,
Fly when you pass my door - fly and get lost at sea.
Call it a day - love, let us say we're through.
No good are you for me; no good am I for you.
Maxie was sitting on the piano bench next to Dave, leaning back, eyes closed, throat pulsing a throb of
vibrato that caught at Hermione's very soul. Hermione felt her lower lip quiver.
Wanting you so, I try too much.
After you go, I cry too much …
Oh, sad - sadsadsad - and true, so true, the way it poured out of Maxie's solid-gold throat, half-howl-
half-croon, loneliness distilled.
Dismal, to go back to a cold bed alone.
Tragic, not to be wrapped up safe, not to be loved.
Love, look away! lonely though I may be,
Leave me and set me free … look away, look away,
Look away from me.
Severus, Hermione thought, and for one wild moment was tempted to Apparate then and there - oh, to
run through the night, past the gates, up the hill, down the stairs …
… ohhh …
Sniffling, she clapped. And was rewarded with a rich deep laugh from Maxie, as out of place with the
sweet old song as Charles Bukowski at a fancy-dress party.
"Sentimental, sugar?"
Hermione shrugged, wiping at an errant tear, and shot Maxie a self-deprecating smile. "Just a little
lonely tonight, I think."
"Small wonder," Maxie said, and laughed again. Hermione frowned.
"What do you mean?"
"Honey, your houseguests stay put after dark about as well as a puppy on the papers," Maxie said. "I
haven't seen the blonde since she came back in the other night. And who's the sister in the happening
silver earrings?"
Maxie looked amused. "The black girl," she translated. "Tall, skinny, little tits, short hair?" At
Hermione's blank look, she shrugged. "You ought to know, sugar - she came out of your apartment not
two hours ago." She cocked one eyebrow. "And this time, I checked my story with Diane. You've met
Chuck and Diane, right?"
Chuck and Diane were the waltzing couple who lived in the portrait directly across the hall from
Hermione. Hermione didn't know them particularly well, apart from the occasional hello, but the wall-
community in this building was intensely social - perhaps more so than its three-dimensional
counterpart - and she'd long since figured out that Diane was a bit of a gossip.
"Diane said she came from my apartment?" she repeated slowly. Maxie nodded.
"She left around twelve-fifteen. Don't think she stole anything - you couldn't get a paper clip and a
spare set of earrings into that little bag she was carrying." Her eyes narrowed. "Honey, what's the
Hermione had stopped stock-still and was staring into space, tongue thoughtfully circling her teeth.
"Wait a minute," she said, her fists balling at her sides. "Wait just one minute."
"Baby, I've got all the time in the world," Maxie said. "I'm not going anywhere."
But Hermione was already dashing back down the hall in the direction from which she'd come.
If Sybil Trelawney wasn't in her bed, there was going to be Hell To Pay.
To con the best, you had to be better.
Sybil figured she had about a fifty-fifty shot.
This was the thing - to get Mikhail to sleep with her while he was in Snape's body, she was going to
have to convince him that he'd done it before. She knew Mikhail, and he was a Method Actor with a
single objective; unflappable, unswayable. He might enjoy the fuck, but he lived for the kill … and
therein lay her problem, her Unknown: how much had Malfoy told him?
For that matter, how much did Malfoy know?
Well, Snape didn't get out much - that was in her favour, as was this: as far as she knew, he wasn't
screwing anyone else at the moment. Publicly, at least.
After all, who would want him?
You used to, Sybil. Don't you remember?
Don't remind me. If I'd had any sense I would have Obliviated myself and him too, after that night.
You don't fool me, missy. If he showed up at your door in the middle of the night, you'd still take him in.
Well - hello? Haven't been laid in almost ten years? Where's the jury that'd convict me for that?
I'm just saying.
Well, shut up - I've got to concentrate.
And there you had it - the probability, the believability … after all, they were the only two professors at
the school under the age of forty-five. Perfectly understandable, if they were carrying on a discreet
And if they were … and if Snape, the real Snape, was indeed in Marrakesh - then, wouldn't she know
about it already?
Sounds like a premise to me. Let's roll.
You know, of course, that if you say one thing wrong, you're dead where you stand.
Of course.
She brightened her smile and stalked purposefully toward him.
"Darling," she said, and his eyes widened marginally. Apart from that, he didn't look surprised in the
He didn't know her - she could tell that much, and that was a super-value-sized boost to her long-
submerged ego; as good as his Transfiguration was, hers had always been better. It was a point of pride
with her, and - possibly - also the reason Minerva disliked her so; after all, Sybil had skated through her
class with low-to-average marks, and even then McGonagall had known her to be capable of better.
Lazy, that set jaw had proclaimed every time she set eyes on Sybil in class - being in the Slytherin
camp hadn't helped matters much, either - and then, when Sybil had returned to join the faculty, the
older woman's silent verdict had been even more damning: Coward. You ran and hid while the rest of
us risked our lives to fight.
True enough - Sybil couldn't argue with her there. Her only defense - I'd already lived through one
war; what did I want with another? - wouldn't alter Minerva's opinion of her … nor did it change this
squirm-worthy fact: she'd been at the high-stakes tables in a private casino in Vegas, wearing Bob
Mackie and winning at blackjack, the night Lord Voldemort had broken down James and Lily Potter's
front door.
Severus, I feel your pain - sins of omission don't wash off so easily, either. We're both stained, you and
But enough. She had a job to do.
She lowered her eyelashes in a slow, sultry salute, let one corner of her mouth curl into a lazy
arabesque. "Hello there, stranger. Long time no see," she purred … and leaned in to plant a familiar
smooch square on his lips. His hands came up automatically to her shoulders, and she felt them tighten
- he was going for a reading.
Happy thoughts, Sybbie, she reminded herself, and deepened the kiss a fraction for inspiration.
God, I've missed you. Let's forget business for a couple of hours and find a room.
His reaction: an indrawn breath, a calculated caress down her upper arms.
Had he bought it?
Well, if he hadn't, she'd be dead in thirty seconds. And while he'd been trying to brain-suck her, she'd
been doing some elementary research of her own, with the following conclusion drawn: whoever this
was, it was definitely NOT Severus Snape.
The smell was all wrong.
Snape would have smelled of herbs and that industrial-power soap he tortured his hands with … this
man smelled of nothing at all, an anonymity far too complete to be unstudied.
Either Mikhail hadn't been playing with pros for awhile, or he was in a hurry on this job and not taking
time to bother with the details.
The devil's in the details. How many times had she heard her mother say that, growing up?
"Sev, I've missed you," she murmured, and shifted her mouth so it was directly over his left ear -
Mikhail had, she recalled, uncommonly sensitive ears. "But we're going to get burned at the stake if we
keep kissing in public. Let's get a drink; I'll treat. Albus has me on an expense account."
He hesitated; Sybil could see his internal monologue whirring - would the real Severus Snape go along
with this, or not?
Decidedly not, my darling. But aren't we both glad that we're not him?
"And the Russian?"
Always the egotist, Mikhail - you've missed me, haven't you?
Sybil kept her voice light. "He can come, too. But he has to buy his own drinks."
At that, he laughed uneasily. "And afterwards?"
She gave his earlobe a meaningful nip. "Well, if he wants to, he can watch. Come on."
Blood astir with cautious relief, she took him by the arm and pulled him off toward the nearest café.
Give her twenty minutes and one scotch, and he'd be hers for the taking … assuming, of course, that
nothing went wrong.
Hermione Granger, whatever you do … stay the hell asleep, will you?

Chapter Twenty-Four
Gabrielle never knew how close she'd come to dying.
It wasn't uncommon for magical households to guard their fireplaces against intrusion with the use of
passwords. Some of the more well-to-do families even employed hearth-guardians: goblins,
hinkypunks, occasionally one of the smaller varieties of troll. Lucius Malfoy, however, had more
reason to be wary of uninvited visitors than most of his contemporaries, and his security system
reflected his paranoia.
He had a dragon.
It was a Chinese Fireball - bred in captivity, purchased on the black market, and smuggled into the
country under cover of darkness by way of sixteen handsomely-bribed professional handlers and seven
gallons of Dreamless-Sleep Potion. Lucius kept it in a small, magically-enclosed paddock and had it
fed on mutton and purified, vitamin-enriched water - enough to keep it healthy, not quite enough to sate
it. A simple Diversion Spell sent all unauthorized visitors to the Manor spinning off the main Floo
network and into the cul-de-sac his security advisor had constructed, at the end of which lurked the
Fireball; whether fatalities had resulted, he wasn't quite sure.
Then again, Lucius had figured that that wasn't his problem.
This, then, would have been Gabrielle's fate - if it had not been for the advanced replication charm
Hermione and Draco had discovered last year during the course of their research.
"Here," Draco had said just the other night, and handed Gabrielle what was, essentially speaking, the
exact same Invisibility Cloak that he himself owned. Not only was the object itself identical, but its
magical properties had remained intact throughout the Replication process - and so had the Malfoy
family crest, a tiny dot the size of a pinhead which had been stamped into the weave of the original
Cloak by the house-elf responsible for the Malfoys' laundry.
Every piece of clothing in the Malfoy household - from dress robes to Y-fronts - carried this same
magical mark. And so it was under the auspices of this textile-password that Gabrielle sailed, blissfully
unaware of her close call, into the Manor's grand foyer, and emerged from the green flare of the Floo
with only slightly-smoke-reddened eyes to show for her perilous journey.
Nice house, she thought, largely unimpressed - after all, she'd grown up with enough money herself that
the ostentatious display of other people's failed to move her. Far more pressing a thought was this: if I
was a fugitive in this house, where would I be hiding?
There was certainly no shortage of possibilities. Gabrielle glanced around the big gilt-and-mirrors
receiving room and took stock of her options.
Behind her, the fireplace.
In front of her, a grand staircase of MGM proportions, leading straight up to the landing, then
branching off into two sinuous limbs - left or right, take your pick - which fed into the second-floor
gallery and its gargoyle-encrusted rococo balconies.
To the left and the right, high arched doorways. Craning her neck, Gabrielle could see the glint of
mullioned windows through one; that must be the front entrance. Which meant that she'd probably find
the house's ‘guts' in the other direction: the kitchen, the laundry, the house-elves' quarters.
Something to avoid, that. House-elves might sound like Mickey Mouse and look like a cross between a
goblin and a Cabbage Patch Kid, but they noticed things that human beings didn't - possibly could even
see through enchantments like the Cloak; Gabrielle wasn't sure - and were fiercely territorial. She
would sooner not get into a pissing contest with them, that was for damn sure.
And then, there was this: no matter where Malfoy chose to hide, no matter how many servants he had
to bring him food and water, he had to sleep and he had to defecate … that meant bed, and it meant
bath, and both of those items would most likely be found on the second floor.
Easy enough.
Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle gathered the folds of the Cloak more closely around herself, and began
to climb.
Trelawney's bed was empty.
What's more, it was still made.
She hadn't gone to sleep at all, the duplicitous bitch. Hermione, too outraged to think rationally - there
are no shoes in her closet! No clothes in her bureau! - backed silently out of the guest bedroom and
shut the door behind her with a muted-but-decisive click. Outside the apartment, the worried Cleo
scratched at the door for readmittance; Sal's rice-paper snores rose from the corner recliner, punctuated
by the occasional soft snuffle.
In the very act of opening the door, Hermione froze.
She'd lay every Knut in her bank account that he was up to his eyeballs in this.
Damn Slytherins. Stalking over to the corner, ignoring Cleo's ecstatic winding round her feet, she
leaned over the recliner until the tip of her nose almost bisected his, planted one hand purposefully on
either arm of the chair … and cleared her throat, as loudly as she could.
He didn't even have the decency to flinch - just opened one eye and gazed at her blearily.
"Is it morning yet?"
"Salazar Slytherin," Hermione hissed through gritted teeth, "I don't know what you're playing at, but
you'd better come clean … right - this - instant."
He opened the other eye. "I'm sure I don't know what you -"
"Trelawney isn't in her bed," Hermione interrupted grimly, and watched Sal's eyes dart immediately to
the clock on the opposite wall.
What was that in his eyes? It wasn't worry, was it?
Nah. Couldn't be.
"Oh … well, um." He hoisted himself up to a full sitting position. "Always one for a midnight stroll,
our Sybil. Probably right out on the steps, getting some air …"
"Really," Hermione said, her voice heavy with irony. "So if I did a Location Spell right now -" here, she
fumbled in her dressing-gown pocket for her wand and held it up in triumph, like a torch - "that's what
it would tell me?" She wagged the wand at him. "That she's out on the front steps, lighting up a
Sal didn't answer her for a moment - his eyes were on the clock again. It was nearly two-forty-five now,
a fact which seemed to trouble him.
"Sal," Hermione prompted, and reluctantly he turned to face her.
"No," he said heavily. "No, of course not."
Hah. I knew it.
"Well, where is she, then? Did she go back to Hogwarts?"
He looked disgusted with himself. "She's in Marrakesh."
"Marrakesh? Morocco?" Hermione frowned. "What's she doing there?"
Sal pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and ghostly forefinger and sighed heavily. Finally -
apparently realizing she wasn't to be put off - he shrugged in acquiescence. "She's on a mission," he
said resignedly, and grimaced. "Trying to find someone."
Hermione sank onto the sofa and leaned forward, curious. "Who?"
"A Ukrainian serial killer named Mikhail," Sal said, his tone neutral. "She's planning to hire him to take
out a contract on Malfoy."
Hermione laughed. "A serial killer? That's ridiculous." She shook her head wonderingly. "Trelawney
couldn't find tea in a bag. What would possess her to try to do something like that?"
Sal's eyebrows shot up.
"You know her so well, do you?" he inquired. "Tell me, then - how old would you say Sybil is?"
Hermione shrugged. "Forty-five?" she ventured. "Fifty?"
"Thirty-three," Sal corrected her, and only smiled when she gaped at him in disbelief. "Come on,
Hermione," he said gently. "Do you honestly think Albus Dumbledore would hire a professor who was
truly a fool?"
Hermione shook her head again, unconvinced. "But Dumbledore said …" she protested. "He told Harry
she'd only made two correct predictions, her whole time at Hogwarts!"
Sal laughed.
"Albus Dumbledore is the most devious soul to come out of Gryffindor house in six centuries," he said,
his reedy spirit's-voice backlit with what could only be admiration. "He's a credit to his house. And he's
not above spreading misinformation when it suits him - even if it's to the gifted, miraculous Mr. Potter."
Hermione digested this in silence.
"So," she said finally. "Trelawney's really a Seer, then?"
"And a genius at Transfiguration," Sal said firmly. "And a self-made multimillionaire." He glanced yet
again at the clock. "And … an hour late and counting. I confess that I'm becoming a bit concerned."
"Call it a gut feeling." Sal pushed himself to his feet and began to float in small circles in the centre of
the living room. "What she was going to do tonight should only have taken a quarter of an hour, once
she found him - she told me to expect her back around one-thirty."
Hermione swallowed hard. "What do you think happened?"
"It's possible that the Location Spell failed her," Sal said thoughtfully. "That she was unable to locate
him. But if that were the case, I imagine she'd have returned already." He sucked his teeth moodily. "It's
far more likely, given the circumstances and the individual involved, that she has found him … and that
she's run into complications. There's a certain element of delicate negotiation to this deal that involves
subterfuge on her part, and this man's a Seer as well. If he suspects, even for a moment, that she's not
being completely honest with him …" He trailed off darkly.
Hermione felt suddenly cold. "He'll kill her? He'd do that?"
"Well -" She pushed herself off the sofa, began to pace. "What are we going to do?"
Sal gave her a narrow glance. "We do nothing," he said flatly. "Sybil's a professional; she's been using
her Sight this way for years, and she knows what she's getting into. You're the commodity she's
protecting - her risk means nothing, if you go running into the middle of it and put yourself deliberately
in danger."
"But …"
"No." He shook his head. "Go back to bed, Hermione. This battle's not yours to fight."
Hermione stared at him, disbelieving. "You expect me to accept that? I'm not a schoolgirl anymore, Sal
- I'm a full-grown witch." She fingered her wand again. "How am I supposed to trundle off to my room
and dream about sugarplums, when I know that someone else is out there in danger because of me?"
"It's the best thing to do, under the circumstances."
"It's stupid." Hermione pushed Cleo off her lap, stalked over to stand nose-to-nose with him. "And I
can't believe you think me capable of it."
She glared at him. "I may not like Sybil Trelawney, Sal, but I'm not just going to go back to sleep and
hope she sorts the mess out herself by breakfast. I just can't. Not now that I know."
"What are you going to do?" he asked, his voice edgier than she'd ever heard it before. "Apparate to
Marrakesh? Charge into the room, wand blazing? Give him a crack not only at her, but at you?"
"It's better than doing nothing," Hermione said defiantly, and raised her wand. "Are you with me, Sal?
Or not?"
A moment of tense silence, broken only by the sound of Cleo's purring. Sal, looking half-worried, half-
angry, opened his mouth to say something, then shut it again and only nodded.
"Gryffindors," he muttered under his breath. "Let's hope we all live to regret this."
"Just let me get my shoes on," Hermione said, "and I'll be ready."
Danger Granger was back in the saddle.

Chapter Twenty-Five
Hermione had barely closed her bedroom door behind her, however, when Sal came barreling
determinedly through it, a scowl on his usually-good-natured face. Caught in the decidedly ungraceful
act of putting a shoe on one foot while standing precariously on the other, she hopped over to the
nearest chair, steadied herself on it with her free hand, and glared at him.
"I know you're physically incapable of knocking," she snapped glacially. "But could you at least
announce yourself?"
Sal waved away her rebuke, as if it were a fly too distant to bother swatting, and glided over to perch
on top of her dressing table.
"I've changed my mind," he said. "I don't think we should go. And I'm sticking to that."
"Oh?" Hermione navigated the other shoe onto her remaining foot and planted her hands on her hips.
"If you've a better idea, I'd be delighted to hear it."
Sal shrugged. "We've got options," he said mildly. "You just aren't willing to listen to what they are."
"I don't see any I like, that's why."
"You don't like being told what to do," he corrected. "That's why. And before we go swanning off to
Marrakesh, we need to make damn sure that it's the best thing to do, under the circumstances." He
stared at her pointedly until she dropped her eyes. "Now," he said. "It's a matter of balance, that's all -
we want the most practical solution, and the least unpalatable one. Agreed?"
Hermione nodded sulkily. "I'm listening," she said, her tone grudging. Sal snorted.
"And so graciously, too." He cleared his throat. "All right, then. Option One: we sit and wait."
"Definitely the most practical," he pointed out. She grimaced.
"But completely unpalatable. Next?"
Sal explored the inside of one cheek with his tongue. "Polar opposite, then," he said. "We perform a
Location Charm, which will drop us within a city block or two of where she actually is. We Apparate -
blindly, more or less - bully, bribe or cajole our way into more specific information, possibly raising
interest among the general populace that we don't necessarily want or need, and burst in on Sybil
unannounced. In the meantime, we almost certainly queer any deal she's managed to work with
Mikhail, and simultaneously run the risk of getting you hurt, killed, or investigated by the Ministry of
He paused. "I have to say it - this one may be more poetic, granted. But it's scoring negative points in
the Practicality column."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Sal, you've missed your calling," she said. "If you hadn't been underground
during the Sixties, you could have been one hell of a propagandist."
Still - when he put it that way - she had to admit it; he had a point.
Well, fine.
"Okay," she said, dropping reluctantly into the chair. "So maybe that one won't work, either. I assume
you've got an alternative plan of action?"
Sal studied her closely for a moment.
"Well, it's a long shot," he said at last. "But I'm thinking that we might try to establish a telepathic link."
Hermione froze.
Of the million and four things that he could have come out with as a possible solution - yak herding,
Sufi dancing, the introduction of whole coffee beans into her nostrils - this was the one she'd least
"You're joking, right?" she asked weakly. Sal shook his head.
"But …" She stared at him disbelievingly. "But that's impossible, Sal."
"Well, because I've read about it; it's really rare. And both of the people involved have to be …" She
trailed off helplessly. "I mean, okay, I guess Sybil's really a Seer, if you say so -" I still find that very
hard to believe, but okay, whatever - "but in order to establish contact with her, I'd have to have some
talent for it myself, and I just don't. All my Divination skills combined don't add up to one aluminum
Sal just smiled at her. "Sure about that?"
"Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes." Hermione slammed one hand down on the dressing table near to
where he was sitting, making the expensive Chanel toiletries Gram had bought for her in London last
summer dance in their elegant bottles. "Don't you think I've tried? I can't read tea leaves, and I can't
interpret the phases of the moon, and I can't see anything in anyone's hand but ink stains and whatever
they were chopping up for Potions the period before. I gave away my crystal ball to Mum three years
ago, to put in the back garden; it's in a little marble holder in the middle of her nasturtiums now, with
starling droppings all over it."
She took a deep breath. "My trying to make contact with Trelawney telepathically makes about as
much sense as Harry using his Firebolt to sweep out the Owlery. It's just silly."
Sal didn't look convinced.
"No odd dreams lately, then?" His eyes drifted south. "You seem awfully fond of that little green
pussycat, come sundown."
Oh, damn it.
Swallowing hard, Hermione uncurled her fingers from the comforting lump under her dressing gown
that was the Sekhmet amulet, and let her hand drop to her side. "You're an awful snoop, Sal," she
accused shakily. "How would you know, unless you've been in my room while I'm sleeping?"
He shrugged, not seeming particularly apologetic. "Bad dreams, then?" he inquired. "Maybe Catwoman
keeps them away?" His gaze sharpened. "Or causes them?"
"Sal, this isn't the time or place to talk about this."
"Maybe not. But maybe so." He met her gaze squarely with a glitter in his pale-grey eyes. "Maybe
there's more Divination in you than you think … otherwise, one would think you'd have dropped your
little goddess in the Nile long ago, instead of snuggling up to her under the covers."
"Butt out," Hermione said sharply, surprising herself. Sal chuckled.
"Not a chance." His expression was challenging. "How about it? Will you try?"
She lifted one shoulder sulkily. "It hasn't a prayer of working. But I'll try."
He grinned. "Attagirl."
Three-fifteen a.m.
The La Moumania Hotel.
They were dining en suite in the Winston Churchill rooms, so named for their famous habitué who'd
liked them for their palatial joined terraces and their sunlight - superior, he'd said, for the watercolour
painting that had been his frequent leisure pastime.
Or so the story went.
Sybil, for her part, thought the old statesman would be rolling in his grave, were he somehow to gain
entrance to his old holiday rooms. Mikhail, seemingly, didn't need to bolster his sex drive with the old
herbalist's powdered jumper-cables; he was doing just fine on his own.
He was eating filet au poivre, so rare that it swam in its own blood, that it cut with the side of his fork.
And Sybil was crouched in front of his chair, eating him.
She wasn't complaining.
Eight years was a long time to make do with Maman LaMain and the Fingers Sisters, after all. And
she'd long wanted to get Severus Snape out of his long-johns. The fact that someone else's brain was
inside his body at the moment didn't dim her pleasure in the slightest; in fact, it probably made things a
bit less complicated.
In that sense, anyway.
No, presently the only fly in her ointment was this: she'd just gone to great lengths to distract him long
enough to drug his single-malt - possibly causing, in the process, irreparable long-term damage to a
couple of vertebrae that didn't want to perform, at 33, the way they had at 25.
And now that she'd pulled it off, the stupid prat wasn't drinking it.
It figured.
"Syb, that's good," he murmured, eyes closed, one long-fingered hand clutching convulsively at the
back of her smooth-shorn head. "Oh … oh, yeah - oh, you know how to do it right, don't you? - ohhhhh
Pure Mikhail-speak, that - he wasn't even trying to be Snape anymore. He had to be close to losing it.
Oh, no, you don't, boy-o, Sybil thought, and slid her mouth abruptly off his cock with a pop like a
champagne cork. Jesus, but it was a beauty - not so awfully long, not out of the ordinary, anyway - but
broad and muscle-y and thick, sticking straight up to his belly as if he was a horny teenager and not a
man on the brink of middle age.
She could practically feel him inside her already.
Damn you, drink the fucking Scotch before I go mad, will you?
On the other hand …
We could fuck first and toast later. I could go for a second round, definitely - and he looks like he
could, too. What's the hurry?
She flicked off the black sweater, the Brussels-lace brassiere. Shoved the snug black slacks hurriedly
down to her ankles.
"Christ, Syb." His mouth was half-open, his eyes almost rolled back in his head. "You're going to kill
me, you know that? I'm too old for this shit."
Oh, yeah, he was close. She clambered onto his lap, fished around between their bodies with one
trembling hand until Tab A nudged satisfactorily - oh, Holy Mother - at the expectant entrance to Slot
B, and sank down on him with the long-denied, satiated-at-last self-satisfaction of an Eskimo
discovering a hot spring.
Oh, yes.
Oh, perfect.
Oh, heaven.
"Make it last," she muttered dreamily.
And immediately went tense, as somewhere in the middle of her head, a tiny portal chinked open and
Hermione Granger's voice came floating through: Professor Trelawney? Are you all right?
Oh, bloody hell.

Chapter Twenty-Six
Gabrielle glanced at her wristwatch - four a.m. and counting - and sighed.
Danger she could have handled. But fatigue was proving to be a worthy adversary.
No sign of Malfoy le vieux, either, naturally. And it was her own fault; she had allowed the stillness of
the old house - half-eerie, half-tranquil - to seduce her into a brand of investigation that was rather
more leisurely than goal-oriented.
She'd managed to explore the long corridor of guest suites more-or-less summarily. Not only were they
not particularly interesting - fussy and over-decorated, everything matching and bandbox-pristine,
decorative throw pillows arranged just so, sheets in elf-folded hospital corners you could bounce a
Sickle on - but they were pretty much all the same. There might as well have been a sign on each door:
Make yourself at home. But don't sit down.
Not to mention that the furniture - while undoubtedly expensive - was, after all, mostly reproduction.
Picturing Fleur's sniff of distaste, Gabrielle snickered to herself under the Invisibility Cloak, and moved
She knew Draco's room immediately when she saw it - charcoal-grey walls and matte-black
furnishings, the comforter on the bed a silvery, muted water-colour that might have been grey, might
have been green. It was free of decoration, except for an overloaded bookshelf on one side of the room
and an austere first-edition print of the Great Wronski on the other in Brassaï black-and-white, staring
moodily out of his starkly elegant Art Deco frame with his broomstick slung casually over one shoulder
and a look of irritated ennui on his swarthy, aquiline face.
Yup. Definitely Draco's. Surrounded as it was by the evidence of Narcissa Malfoy's dubious decorating
acumen - an abattoir of chintz and gold leaf - this room stood out like Marilyn Manson at the Last
Well, this was as good a place as any to take a breather.
"Hullo," Gabrielle said, closing the door behind her and shrugging the Cloak off her shoulders.
Wronski swiveled his head sharply toward the sound of her voice - she'd apparently caught him
daydreaming - frowned, cracked his neck in either direction, then shifted his broomstick to the other
shoulder and regarded her with only slightly-suspicious interest.
"Hullo," he said. "Who are you? Friend of the family?"
Good question. "Parts of it," Gabrielle said cautiously, and hitched herself up onto the foot of the bed.
Wronski shook his head. "Spoils of war," he said. "I belonged to an amateur Quidditch-player-turned-
Auror. Frank Longbottom. Good guy, Frank. Knew his stuff, he did."
Gabrielle frowned. "What happened to him?"
And then - "Oh."
She drew up her knees, hugged them reflexively. "Oh. How awful for him. For you."
"Mm. I'll say." Wronski looked petulant. "When it comes to Quidditch, Lucius Malfoy doesn't know his
ass from his elbow. Downright galling, being owned for your resale value." He brightened marginally.
"But the kid - now there's a fan. I've been hanging in his room since he was six - keeps me a bit out of
the loop, not being down in the gallery with all the others, but on the other hand, I'll take his company
over his father's any day."
"Really," Gabrielle said, studying him with renewed interest. "You must know Draco rather well, then."
"Better than some," Wronski agreed. "Why? Looking for an inside angle? You're a bit young for him,
Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
"I wish," she said tartly, "that people would stop going on about my age. It's just a number, after all.
And besides, Draco's only a friend. Which is fine with me."
"Funny," Wronski said reflectively, "that he's never mentioned you. Unless …" Improbably, he drew a
pair of wire-rimmed spectacles from an inside pocket of his Quidditch robes, and peered at her through
them. "You wouldn't happen to be the famous Miss Granger, would you?"
Gabrielle glared at him.
"Just asking," Wronski said, shrugging. "I thought he'd never shut up about her, last summer.
‘Hermione this', ‘Hermione that', ‘this is what Hermione says' … she must be some dame, that's for
sure; I've never seen a guy so hung up on the girl who dumped him."
"Dumped him? You're mistaken about that," Gabrielle said sharply. "She didn't leave him. He left her."
"Whatever you say." Wronski, who didn't look convinced of this assertion in the slightest, jerked his
head toward the writing-desk by the window. "Whole story's down in black and white, if you're really
interested. Every minute that he wasn't baying at the moon over his Lost Love, he was scribbling away
in his notebooks. Might clear things up for you to take a look."
Gabrielle allowed herself one speculative look in the direction of the desk, then squared her shoulders
resolutely and shook her head.
"Don't have time," she said (not without regret). "Besides, it's not Draco I'm looking for now. It's his
"Lucius?" Wronski grimaced expressively. "Not to give out gratuitous advice, but you might want to
rethink that one, sweetheart. That's one Big Bad Wolf whose tastes run to the decidedly peculiar; mess
with him and there won't be enough left of you to frost a Toll House Cookie."
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose at him.
"Ew," she said, shuddering. "Get your mind out of the gutter, will you? I want him in jail - that's why
I'm looking for him."
Wronski laughed. She glared at him.
"What's so funny?"
"You are," he said. "The whole Ministry's looking for Malfoy - there've been more Aurors fine-tooth-
combing this house in the last week and a half than you can shake a Snitch at. What makes you think
you'll succeed where they've failed?"
Gabrielle tossed her head and slid off the bed.
"Let's just say," she said, "that I have a vested interest." She swirled the Cloak, let it settle around her
shoulders. "Good night."
"Bon voyage, cupcake."
Gabrielle let herself huffily out into the hallway, closed the door behind her - not as gently as she might
have - and scowled at it.
She'd cupcake him, all right.
For sheer pretension, you just couldn't get any snootier than a black-and-white wizard photo.
It occurred to her, half an hour later, that Draco's room would have been a good place to go down for a
power nap. By then, however, she had passed into the Malfoy master suite - and she was rather less
inclined to linger in these rooms. One of the bedrooms, she assumed Narcissa's, was smothered in
pleated rose-damask swags and aggressively-pastoral toile wallpaper; in the light from her wand,
Gabrielle watched, darkly amused, as a pair of rosy-cheeked pageboys bookended a shepherdess.
Well, that was the English for you. Her father was right - they were obsessed with sex, the lot of them.
She wandered through a marble bath the colour of Pepto-Bismol and a similarly-outfitted sitting room,
crowded with little claw-foot tables and antique silver services and velvet-upholstered Louis Quatorze
chairs. The scent of artificial jasmine and sandalwood hung in the air, thick enough to drop Coco
Chanel in her tracks; waving one hand distastefully in front of her face, Gabrielle headed for the
opposite door. For a wizarding manor, this house was bizarrely symmetrical - unless she was gravely
mistaken, she'd find Lucius Malfoy's private quarters on the other side.
Before she could prove her hunch, however - before she could even turn the handle of the door - she
heard voices.
And froze in her tracks.
Professor? Are you all right?
Sybil's whole body clenched in sudden apprehension, causing Mikhail to gasp appreciatively
underneath her. She hardly noticed.
Fine, she telegraphed back sharply. For the moment. Now for the love of all that's holy, get out of my
head. If you don't, we'll both be in danger.
Um. Okay.
Sybil felt the edges of the portal waver - once, twice - then heard Hermione's hiss of frustration.
I'm trying. I can't seem to get it to work.
Mikhail was clutching at her arms, trying to pull her down into a kiss. Sybil felt icy sweat begin to pool
in the small of her back.
Well, try harder, she snapped at Hermione, and felt the younger witch's wave of apologetic annoyance
sweep over her.
I can't. I'm stuck. Another shockwave in her brain as Hermione tugged at the portal. This was Sal's
idea, not mine. You know I've always been hopeless at this stuff.
It wasn't that. But Sybil didn't feel like going into it at the moment.
Of course Hermione was stuck; a brain in the throes of arousal screwed up just as tight as anything else,
didn't it? Nothing in her head right now but a big psychedelic vacuum, sucking itself in-in-in and
gathering itself for the coming explosion. Without the momentum of her physical body to help her,
Hermione had as much chance of breaking out of that spiral as Sri Lanka had at the Quidditch World
None of which would be a problem, Sybil thought wildly, if she didn't happen to be fucking a telepath
at the moment.
"Kiss me," he muttered now against her jawbone, his hands insistent on her shoulders. "Mother of God,
but you're a great fuck, Syb - come on, kiss me; I wanna taste you when you come …"
And then there was no holding him back anymore - his lips were locked to hers and his hands
everywhere at once, and much against her will Sybil felt her blood heat again, not gradually this time
but all at once, in a great black flood, and even as she shuddered and cried out against his mouth, she
could feel the fragile psychic barrier between them evaporating - could feel herself pouring into his
brain like water, and feel him pouring into hers.
Sex between Seers. In the end, that moment of vision, that flash of perfect, touch-the-stars clarity, had
been the biggest draw of all.
And the biggest danger.
She was slumped against him, breathing hard. Trying to draw away.
And he wasn't letting her.
"Multiple personality, Syb?" he murmured into the sweaty crease between her neck and her ear. "That's
a new one."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," she said dully, knowing even as she said it that it was no use.
Sure enough, he was already ignoring her, and turning all his considerable charm on Hermione.
Well, hello there. And who might you be?
Don't tell him, Sybil ordered wildly, and heard Mikhail laugh delightedly in two places - inside her
head and out. There had been a time when that stereo-effect had amused her; now, it chilled her to the
Doesn't matter, he murmured now. Of course you don't have to tell me. Easy enough to take a look-see
for myself, now, isn't it?
With one fluid move, he'd reclaimed his wand from the table. "Always full of surprises, aren't you?" he
murmured to Sybil, as he tightened his arm around her waist and slid the wand deftly between their
bodies, so that the business end rested just below her hammering pulse.
"Leave her out of this," Sybil gasped. "Nothing to do with her."
"That's what you think," Mikhail said, and kissed her once more with Snape's mouth. "Too bad, Syb -
no hard feelings, right? But a man's gotta put bread on the table."
Get out, Sybil shot in Hermione's direction. You can go now - get out now, before it's too late!
But it was already too late.
"Consecutus!" he whispered - the Following Spell - and there they went, naked bodies still entwined -
Apparation with a purpose, no Location Charm needed in this case, oh no, Hermione's telepathic link
like a silver thread reaching across all of upper Africa to draw them down to Cairo into her graduate-
student living room.
Sybil closed her eyes and waited for the crash.

Chapter Twenty-Seven
Definitely voices, no doubt about it – deep and hushed and indistinct through the closed door,
undershot with a note of tension that translated effortlessly regardless of language; they were arguing,
they were in a hurry, and they were at least a little bit afraid.
Gabrielle could relate.
Who were they? she wondered. Aurors? Didn’t seem likely – from what Wronski had implied, the
Ministry’s forces had already been and gone.
Death Eaters, then. Or thieves. Neither option held much appeal. Gabrielle wrapped her cloak more
tightly around herself and considered her options.
She could retrace her steps, Floo back to Hogwarts – assuming such a thing was possible; she hadn’t,
up until now, stopped to think about the alternative – and alert Draco to the intrusion … by which time
it’d be far too late to do anything about it. She could stay where she was, under the Invisibility Cloak,
and try not to give herself away by sneezing.
Merely at the thought, her nose started to itch.
Or … she could take cover, and try to find out what she could in the process.
All in all, that seemed the most sensible option. She’d have to be quick, though – even as she’d stood at
the door deliberating, the voices had paused, then started up again much louder and clearer than before,
accompanied by the muffled-but-unmistakable sound of footsteps.
They were coming her way.
Scanning the room for possible hiding places, Gabrielle decided on an ornately carved wardrobe just
opposite the doorway – and had just enough time to slip inside, yank the hem of the Cloak in after her,
and pull it closed. The next moment, the connecting door between Narcissa’s sitting room and what
was probably Lucius’ study opened, and the owners of the mysterious voices were in the room with her.
It took Gabrielle a minute to realise that she wasn’t in the dark – the minute she’d closed the wardrobe
door behind her, the space had filled with dim flickering light from enchanted candles – and a minute
more to take in her startlingly spacious surroundings.
Well, she thought, looking around her, this was a fine comment-ça-va.
It wasn’t a wardrobe at all – it was some sort of kinky English pleasure-dungeon. Gabrielle pushed
aside a neatly-hung series of jewel-toned feather boas and stared, open-mouthed, at the row of matte-
black leather martinets lining the wall to her left. To her right, winking coyly through racks of belly-
dancer costumes and fishnet tights, hung a matching assortment of riding crops. A black leather swing
hung suspended from the ceiling by chains; a yellow schoolroom cane glinted evilly from the far
And there – on the shelf just in front of her – were those ….?
Yes. Yes, they certainly were.
Oh, my.
Taking an involuntary step backwards, Gabrielle accidentally trod on something soft and squashy, and
righted herself just in time to avoid crashing into a shelf full of suspicious-looking potions. Phew, she
thought, and peered curiously down at her stumbling-block – a large, fluffy French poodle made of
fuzzy purple plush.
"Bonsoir, Fifi," she murmured under her breath, scooping up the toy dog and clutching it hard against
her chest. "What’s a nice little chien like you doing in a place like this, anyway?"
There was no reply, of course, but Gabrielle felt a little better, regardless. Still holding on to Fifi for
dear life, she sank gingerly into the darkest corner of the little room, pulled her knees up to her chin,
and pressed her cheek resolutely against the mirrored door.
As long as she was stuck in here, she’d might as well try to learn something.
" … don’t see why it’s such a big deal," the first voice complained – a man’s voice: deep, brash, just a
bit too loud. "One book gone missing? What’s the worry? It’s probably on his nightstand."
"Except that it’s not – we’ve already checked." This was the second man … softer of voice, milder of
tone, but somehow, Gabrielle thought, more authoritative nonetheless. "And don’t you think it a bit
odd? Shelves and shelves, impeccably arranged – if I didn’t know better, I’d think Malfoy was on the
Dewey Decimal System – and the one book Albus sends us to find isn’t in its place?"
Albus, Gabrielle thought, suddenly cheered. That had to be Dumbledore, right? Maybe these two were
White Hats, after all.
Patience, chérie. Don’t send up a flare just yet.
The sound of footsteps, of drawers opening – they were searching for the book. "Even so," groused
Voice One. "Who gave him that title to begin with? I thought Trelawney said that legend was only
passed down orally. Not exactly reliable of her to change her mind all of a sudden, is it?"
The second man seemed to consider this for a moment. "There’s reliable, and there’s reliable," he said
finally. "And really, I think Albus feels we need to pursue every lead possible, even if it’s a long shot. If
there’s something helpful in this book about the amulet –"
"Ah yes, the almighty amulet," Voice One cut in. "Would that be the one that has the Greasy Git
shaking in his shorts?"
"You can’t blame Severus for being worried," Voice Two said mildly. "I know he’s a bit of a hard sell
"—oh, is that what you call it?"
"—but he really has her best interests at heart, just like the rest of us. And he doesn’t scare easily, you
have to give him that. He told Albus that the thing buzzed in his hand. That it warned him off."
"Hmph." Voice One sounded sulky. "Well, I don’t see what Malfoy’s got to do with it, anyway."
"Don’t you?" Voice Two pulled out another drawer, ominously close to the wall of the wardrobe where
Gabrielle crouched. "Albus seems to think Hermione’s at the head of his list, when it comes to revenge.
He’s got Sybil off Merlin-knows-where at this very moment, looking for some hired thug she used to
know. I think he’s determined to put Malfoy out of commission, with or without Fudge’s help this
"Mm. But the amulet …"
"Well, isn’t it odd that she gets this potentially dangerous piece of jewelry, complete with ancient curse
attached, and not six weeks later Malfoy’s out of Azkaban and passing counterfeit Galleons to a rare-
book dealer for the very volume that’s the only written source of information about the Jade Priestess?
According to Irma Pince’s contact at the Ministry’s archives, there are only two copies of that book in
print – and the other one’s in a private collection in Jordan. It can’t be a coincidence, Padfoot."
"Hm. Maybe not."
Padfoot? Gabrielle frowned. Odd name – but she couldn’t help thinking she’d heard it before. The
question was – where?
The man called Padfoot made a noise in his throat that sounded oddly like a growl. "It’s past five," he
said impatiently. "Come on – we should get going. The sun’s going to be up in half an hour."
"One more minute."
"Moony –"
"Oh, all right," Voice Two acceded wearily, yawning. "I don’t know why you’re in such a hurry – we’re
just going to have to come back again tonight to finish looking."
"Well, thing is … it’s the first Quidditch game of the season," admitted Padfoot, "right after breakfast.
"Really." At this, Moony seemed to perk up himself. "Harry’s playing?"
"Who else?"
Allors, Gabrielle thought. Padfoot – that was Harry’s godfather. What’s-His-Name. The one who’d
been cleared by Hermione’s testimony at Malfoy’s trial. Draco had pointed him out one afternoon down
by the lake in his Animagus shape, playing Frisbee with Harry and Ron.
The Floo question – could she or couldn’t she? – was really starting to bother her. If they were going
back to Hogwarts, she ought to hitch a ride … better to get in a bit of trouble, than to spend the rest of
the day trapped here in this creepy, tasteless pile of bricks and worry everyone to the point of getting
her father – or worse, Fleur – summoned to fetch her.
Padfoot, sensing an advantage, pressed it. "I figure, we leave now – we can see Dumbledore, catch an
hour of shut-eye, have some breakfast, stay for the game. What do you say?"
Moony hesitated. "Well …"
Gabrielle took a deep breath. Now or never. Keeping a tight grip on Fifi, she flung open the door of the
wardrobe and looked up, almost defiantly, into two surprised faces – one dark and saturnine, the other
pale and lined, with startled-but-kind grey eyes.
"I’m sorry for listening in," she said, "but I couldn’t help overhearing you. If you’re going back to
Hogwarts, would you mind taking me with you?"
One minute, she and Sal had been alone in her living room, and she’d been revelling in the discovery of
a cool new skill. Establishing the link had almost been too easy. And then, it had gone wrong almost
from the beginning – Hermione had expected Trelawney’s annoyance, but not that feeling of sick panic,
of tight worried electricity, squeezing her so that she couldn’t back out again. Nor had she expected
him to be there, a silky-smooth masculine presence at once strange and familiar with a question that
smacked of condescension: and who might you be?
Don’t tell him.
Easy enough to take a look-see for myself. Always full of surprises, aren’t you, Syb? And Hermione had
been so busy trying to place that voice that she’d missed Sybil’s shrill warning – you can go now; get
out now, before it’s too late!
And then – a flash, a roar, a hard bright tug in the middle of her head, like a stab of migraine. And when
she’d opened her eyes, there were naked people on her living-room floor.
She saw the woman first – Trelawney, she presumed, from Maxie’s description earlier that evening –
long-limbed, mocha-skinned, grappling for something with the man underneath her. A wand, that was it
– they were fighting for a wand. Hermione watched, frozen to the sofa, as the man fought his way to
his feet, wrested the wand away from Trelawney, and sent her sprawling to the carpet with a casual
backhanded blow that snapped her head to the side with a crack like lightning through dry tinder.
So this was Mikhail – tall, slim, loads of disheveled black hair. From the back, she’d have taken him
for Sirius Black … or better yet …
Wait a minute.
Trelawney moaned from where she’d fallen, but didn’t move. The man shook his hair out of his face,
conjured himself a robe with a flick of his wand, and turned to face Hermione with a self-satisfied
Hermione felt bile rise in her throat. Without knowing quite how, she was on her feet.
"No," Trelawney gasped from the floor. "It’s not –" but the man was nodding calmly.
"I’ll answer to that," he said. "Miss Granger, I presume?"
Hermione’s hand slid into the pocket of her dressing-gown, curled around the slim warm comfort of her
wand. The man didn’t flinch. "What is it?" she demanded hoarsely. "Polyjuice?"
"Nothing so simple as that, I’m afraid." He looked down at her with amusement. "Ready?"
"For what?"
He didn’t get the chance to answer. Sal, old face grim and lined, had raised his wand.
The Not-Snape staggered a little under the force of the curse, but didn’t fall; Hermione watched, dry-
mouthed, as Snape’s dark features flickered for a moment to reveal a younger, paler man with
Lockhart-blue eyes and high spots of colour in his cheeks. Purposefully, Sal raised his wand a second
time, but Mikhail was faster.
"Dissaepio," he said calmly, waving his wand, and Hermione gulped as a foglike veil of mist began to
spiral out of its tip, wrapping the two of them inside its reach like a bandage. She heard Sal throw his
curse again, but it was absorbed in the mist before it reached them. And then the veil vanished –
vanished, yet remained, crackling and solidified and transparent as air, transparent as glass.
The Barrier Charm.
Hermione bit her lip and prayed for courage.
"You’re not Severus Snape," she said, somehow managing to keep her voice from trembling. "Why are
you wearing his face?"
"Matter of expedition." He raised one hand, brushed one thumb over her cheekbone. "We’re both
Transfiguration junkies, Sybbie and I. Could have gone for days in that marketplace and never known
each other, if I hadn’t decided to put on a familiar skin. Besides, the word on the street says she’s hot
for him. Thought I’d give her a thrill."
"That’s … vile," Hermione said through clenched teeth. Mikhail laughed.
"What’s the matter?" His grip tightened, his gaze sharpened, and suddenly Hermione felt that little
portal in her brain slide open again – oh, shit. "Oh, I see," he said silkily, and moved a little closer to
her. "Sybbie’s not the only one with a slick in her panties for the good Professor, eh? Still waters must
run deep."
"Get your hands off me."
"You could always curse me," Mikhail suggested. He sounded so cheerful about the prospect that
Hermione stiffened, suspicious.
"I could," she agreed guardedly. He grinned at her.
"But then, you never know," he said softly, "who those curses are really affecting. Do you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Maybe it’s Transfiguration," he suggested, still in that silky Snape-whisper that made the hairs on the
back of her neck stand up. "And maybe it’s not." Deliberately, he let the glamour flicker again, so she
could see his delighted angel’s-face, smiling through the dark veneer. "Lots of ways to steal a body. If
you aren’t too particular about what shape it’s in afterwards."
At this, Hermione’s lip trembled. "Why are you here?" she demanded, determinedly changing the
subject, and he smiled again. Flat mad eyes in her lover’s face.
"To kill you, Miss Granger. Why else?"
She swallowed hard. "Malfoy."
"I never divulge my client’s identity, Miss Granger. Matter of professional courtesy."
Hermione forced her spine to stiffen. "He doesn’t have any money, you know. If he’s given you any, it’s
counterfeit. I was at his sentencing – he’s lost control of his estate."
Mikhail laughed. "I didn’t take his gold," he said. "Why should I? I’m going to take my fee right off
your dead body." When Hermione gaped at him, he gestured toward the gleam of green between the
lapels of her dressing-gown. "The Priestess," he said. "More valuable than a thousand Galleons. And a
million times more interesting."
Hermione met his eyes levelly. "I’ll give it to you," she said quietly, her hands going to the chain
around her neck. "You want it? I’ll take it off right now and hand it over."
"Ah. But that would take the fun out of it – now, wouldn’t it?"
He edged her up against the Barrier, cupped the nape of her neck in one capable, calloused hand –
Snape’s hand. She felt him slide into her brain again.
Remarkable, he murmured into the space in her head. Your wand’s right there in your pocket. And you
won’t do it, will you? You won’t hurt him to save yourself.
Ah. His tone was casual, almost clinical in its curiosity. And why is that, I wonder?
Hermione took a deep, shuddering breath. I love him.
Ah. Her eyes were closed, but she could feel him smile against her cheek. You know, I almost believe
you do.
Smile, he whispered now. And close your eyes. This won’t hurt a bit.
Cool tip of the wand, just below her ear. Enjoy paradise, little girl.
She swallowed hard. Goodbye, Severus.
"Avada Kedavra," he breathed – the words sing-song, like a lullaby.
The world went green behind her eyes.

Chapter Twenty-Eight
It wasn’t true, Hermione thought dimly, what they said about your life flashing before your eyes. After
all she’d come to expect from a Grand Exit – movie reel in fast-forward, regrets and satisfactions flying
higgledy-piggledy like so much emotional confetti – death, in reality, seemed disappointingly
anticlimactic … just a twig-thin tendril of green light behind her closed eyelids and a feeling of bone-
deep resignation: well, I guess this is it, then.
She knew she was dying – after all, hadn’t he said the words? hadn’t she felt the little stab of his wand
under her ear?
But it wasn’t quite how she’d imagined it. Not at all painful, for one thing.
And then, she’d never expected it to take this long, either.
Curious, yet oddly detached, she opened her eyes. And blinked in astonishment.
The streamer of green light was still in the air – hanging, as if suspended. Maybe he’d missed,
Hermione thought, though he’d been standing so near her that she didn’t see how that was possible. Or
maybe his wand had malfunctioned.
Maybe it had just bounced – could a curse do that? In any case, it had yet to strike her, but instead
began to wriggle sinuously through the air … curving, as she watched, round the back of her neck to
drape her opposite shoulder. In another moment, before she’d had the chance to adjust to the thought of
wearing the Killing Curse like one of Gram’s silk shawls, the leading end of that thin green vine began
to burgeon, to blossom … to hiss.
A snake.
She was wearing a snake.
Hermione, who’d once stroked a tame black snake at a petting zoo, at the tender age of six, and had
regretted that brash move ever since, fought back a shudder – she’d never been a reptile person, and her
brush with the Basilisk, back in her second year at Hogwarts, hadn’t helped that relationship along any.
But the serpent on her shoulder – jade-brilliant, cool as Ming lacquer – wasn’t paying any attention to
her. Its unblinking eyes were fixed on the wizard opposite her, the imposter with another man’s face
who cowered now against the interior wall of his own Barrier with a slack-jawed, uncomprehending
stare that said, plain as Plato, that he was out of his depth.
"Wait," Hermione said – if indeed Mikhail had somehow managed a body-snatch, she wanted him back
in his own skin before the Apocalypse hit – and, to her surprise, the snake paused, winding its poison-
green tail round her left wrist in a caress that was almost reassuring. Hermione fumbled in her pocket,
drew out her wand.
"Finite Incantatem," she said clearly – why she hadn’t had the wherewithal to do that before, she had
no idea – and watched with relief as Severus Snape’s austere features faded into unfamiliar blond
ambiguity. The snake hissed, an evil sound like a deflating tire that made Mikhail blanch.
"Who are you?" he whispered, clawing at the invisible Barrier behind him with tense white hands.
"What are you?"
"I’m not sure," Hermione said truthfully, her fingers flying unconsciously to the amulet at her neck. It
was warm from her skin, and seemed to vibrate against her hand with suppressed intensity. She shifted
her attention back to Mikhail; he didn’t seem to have heard her.
The snake hissed again, and showed its fangs, the sky-blue lining of its mouth. "Wait," Hermione said
again, but this time without much hope of being obeyed.
You could slow Death down, but you couldn’t stop it outright.
The flat diamond-head puffed; the slim body thickened like a time-release photo, sapling-turned-to-oak
in a fast-food nanosecond. The hissing grew louder, and louder still, filling the interior of the Barrier
with an ocean of sinister sibilance. Hermione felt her palms go sweaty as the snake slid free of her
shoulders and reared to its full height, its colour flashing brighter and brighter as it burst skin on skin in
repeated morphing, savage and blink-quick, until it was as big around as her upper arm, her thigh, her
Mikhail, white to the lips, had begun to mutter under his breath. Hermione couldn’t understand the
language, but she knew a prayer when she heard one. If she’d remembered anything from her
childhood Sunday mornings at All Saints, she would have been tempted to join him.
Next to this, Voldemort was nothing. This thing wasn’t just an Evil Death Lord, wasn’t just a wizard
turned to the Dark. It was an out-and-out monster.
Standing on end, it was taller than either of them, its scales the size of Hermione’s palm, the unblinking
feline eyes like Fiestaware salad plates under its heavy half-lids. Its head on its slow-swaying torso was
still turned toward Mikhail, for which Hermione was grateful – even so, there was no missing its final
transformation, as with a sound of ripping silk the snakeskin gave way and fell, and out stepped –
Tall. Still. Glowing green as an oasis, green as the heart of summer, her lion-head a badge of honour on
her Amazon’s body. For a moment, those penetrating cat’s-eyes swept back to Hermione’s, swept and
halted and held, and then moved on to the whimpering Mikhail, who made a piteous sound in his throat
and pressed himself flatter against the Barrier.
The lion’s mouth didn’t move, but Hermione heard her words anyway, clear as sugar in hot tea.
The blood they spill shall shrieking turn upon them.
Beyond the Barrier, Sybil Trelawney gasped and pulled herself unsteadily up to her knees. Hermione
watched the breastbone of the Goddess rise and fall, watched it inflate.
Sekhmet roared.
And Malfoy’s hired killer was engulfed, screaming, in a column of cold green flame.
Much, much later.
"Here," Sybil said, holding out a steaming mug of tea; "take this." Hermione, curled in the corner chair
with an afghan over her knees, wrapped her hands obediently around the mug and felt her fingers
"You should probably eat something."
"I’m okay. Thanks anyway."
Sekhmet was gone – that burst of green fire had only lasted a second or two, and by the time the smoke
cleared, the goddess had vanished, leaving behind her only a small heap of murky grey ash that had
once been a wizard. The ashes were still on the carpet; Hermione hadn’t disturbed them when she
brought down the Barrier, and even Cleo – who was normally all about dust bunnies and the
dispersation thereof – gave them a wide berth on her wary post-Sekhmet scuttle toward the back of the
Smart cat, Hermione thought now, and sipped at the tea – hot enough to scald, and far sweeter than she
normally took it. No matter; the mug was one of the big latte cups she’d stolen from home – creamy
almond, with blue snowflakes on it – and just holding it made her feel better, as if she was indeed back
in her mother’s quiet English kitchen, drinking spiced cider and watching it snow through the wide low
windows, while Crookshanks played tag with the toes of her stockings and the sound of her father
watching football on the television drifted in from the den.
She was suddenly, unbearably homesick, and took another sip of tea to hide the tremble of her chin.
"Well," she said. "What do we do now?"
"What do we do now?" Hermione asked, and Sybil felt her eyebrows rise.
Quite a cool customer, Miss Granger was; there she sat, sipping tea with steady hands as if she hadn’t
just been on the receiving end of the Killing Curse, as if there hadn’t been a twenty-foot snake-turned-
goddess breathing fire in her living room barely half an hour ago. To look at her, you’d never know
she’d had such a nasty shock.
Then again, she thought, we usually have the strength to do what we have to. Aloud, she said, "What do
you mean?"
Hermione sipped at her tea again. "Just that," she said. "What do we do now? Do you think Malfoy will
try again?"
Sal cleared his throat from his seat at the end of the sofa, making Sybil start – she’d forgotten he was
there, he’d been so quiet. "Possibly," he said. "Whether he’ll be any more successful or not is harder to
say. That’s quite a bodyguard you summoned."
"Yeah." Hermione stared moodily at the pendant, now lying in a swirl of silver chain on the coffee
table. "It is, isn’t it?"
Sybil opened her mouth to speak, bit her lip, then decided – what the hell, she’d might as well say it.
"I think you should take a couple of days off, Hermione," she said, easing herself down on the sofa next
to Sal, "and come back to Hogwarts with us. You’ve had a hell of a scare." At Hermione’s doubtful
look, she pressed a little harder. "And Albus will want to hear what’s happened firsthand."
Hermione shook her head.
Sybil’s eyebrows went up again. "No?"
"No." Hermione set down her tea, fisted her hands in her lap. "I’m not going back there right now. It’s
not possible."
"Why not?"
Hesitation, then a look so haunted that Sybil’s breath caught in her throat.
"Because," Hermione said, casting down her eyes. "If I go back to Hogwarts, I’ll see him." She
shuddered, just once. "And I can’t, not right now … I just can’t."
"Him?" Sybil asked, puzzled. "You mean Dumbledore?"
Hermione picked up her mug, presumably to hide behind it. Sal cleared his throat again.
"Severus," he murmured.
Sybil frowned, uncomprehending – Severus? What does he have to do with this? – then,
as his meaning sank in, her mouth fell open in shock.
"Severus?" she mouthed at him. "You mean, Severus and …" – here, she jerked her head toward
Hermione – "were … are …?"
Oh, this was worse than she’d thought.
"Why don’t you want to see Severus, Hermione?" Sal asked quietly, and Hermione jerked under the
words as if he’d struck her.
"You don’t understand, either of you," she said, the words coming out so loudly that they both turned to
stare at her, surprised. She seemed at once annoyed with herself for speaking, and relieved that the
secret was finally out. "The last time I saw him – the last time I spoke to him … well, it’s complicated;
suffice it to say that we parted on uneasy terms."
She gestured helplessly toward Sal. "You know how it was. How it is. It’s all a dance, he and I – we
waltz all round the issue, and we never talk about it. But even if we never said the words, I still knew.
Or thought I did."
A deep, trembling breath. "And then – to stand there and hear the Avada Kedavra in that voice … well,
it was like last winter, all over again, when Malfoy did … well, what he did, and all the while I knew he
wasn’t Draco and yet it didn’t matter what I knew or what I didn’t, do you understand?"
Her jaw was set, her eyes glittering but relentlessly clear. "You get to know a face. A voice. You don’t
forget the things you hear, or the things you see; they’re all still there, no matter how you poke them
down, how you try to forget. And after that happened – with Malfoy, I mean – I couldn’t ever look at
Draco again … and not see Lucius."
Sybil was beginning to understand. "So you’re afraid …" she began, and Hermione cut her off.
"Hell, yes. Yes. He thinks it’s easy for me, but it’s not – I can’t just walk away and tell myself not to
feel, and have it work. But what if …"
That stubborn little chin was beginning to waver in earnest now. "What if it’s ruined, now? What’ll I
She stared into the half-empty mug of tea. "I want to go home," she said, her lips trembling, the words
so quiet Sybil thought at first she’d imagined them. "I want to go home. And even now, I know it won’t
do any good. Damn it."
That’s adulthood, all right, Sybil thought heavily, chest aching hard with sympathy she knew she
couldn’t offer outright. When it’s gone so far wrong that Mum can’t fix it, you’re really grown up. You
poor kid. She watched, admiring, as Hermione fought off the tears, as she bit her white lips and drained
the dregs of the tepid tea and tossed back that mop of curls in a gesture so bleakly defiant it made Sybil
want to applaud.
More to you than I gave you credit for, Miss Granger. Just goes to show – we’re none of us right all the
time, are we?
"I think the two of you should go back," Hermione said finally, in a voice that hardly shook at all.
"You’re right – Professor Dumbledore needs to know what happened. And between the two of you,
you’ve seen everything that happened tonight."
"And you?" Sal asked. Hermione shook her head.
"I’m staying here."
Sybil hesitated. "Are you sure?"
"I’ve got things to do," Hermione said, a bit more steadily. "Work to do. I’ll be fine."
"Albus might –" Sal began, but Hermione held up her hand to stop him.
"Tell him I’ll owl him this week."
"But –"
"But what if –"
"It won’t," Hermione said flatly. "Besides –" she nodded toward the jade amulet – "what can you think
of, that can get past that?"
Good point, Sybil thought. Still …
"Be careful with that thing, Hermione," she said, eyeing the pendant warily. "Be careful, period."
At that, Hermione laughed. It wasn’t a happy sound.
"I always have been," she said. "Can’t you tell?"
Chapter Twenty-Nine
Well, it hadn’t been the last night of the world, but it had certainly seemed like one of the longest.
Eyes heavy, head aching, Hermione dragged herself out of the Floostream and into the Consortium’s
main common-room, all-too-aware of her disheveled hair, of the dark circles under her eyes that she
hadn’t had the energy to charm away. Not that it mattered, of course. Considering that it was eight in
the morning and that she’d been up since two – reading minds, battling madmen, channeling ancient
vengeance deities – she figured she was doing pretty well to make it to work at all.
On the other hand, seeing as her alternative was staying home and staring at that spot on the rug …
… well …
"Hermione, dear." That was Areli, bandbox-perfect in mint-green linen and cabochon earrings the size
of Hermione’s thumbnail. "You don’t know how relieved I am to see you. I’ve just had an owl from
Great. Just great. Hermione managed a wan smile.
"Yes, well," she said lamely. "It was quite a night."
"So it seems." Areli’s sharp eyes took in Hermione’s pasty skin, her wrinkled robes. "Are you sure
you’re up for this, dear?"
Hermione blinked. "Up for what?"
"The Eli Lilly meeting," Areli prompted gently. "Your migraine remedy, remember?"
Oh, shit, Hermione thought – dammit, I knew I was forgetting something! – and swayed on her feet.
Areli grabbed her arm.
"There’s a Mr. Parker and a Mr. Conlin in the conference room – no, you aren’t late," she hastened to
add as Hermione cursed under her breath; "they’re early. I conjured up some coffee and buns and set
their wrist-watches back half an hour – given the circumstances, I thought you might be running
behind. I was just going to pop over and check on you, actually."
"Oh. Thank you."
Hermione’s panic must have been written all over her face; Areli clucked at her kindly and steered her
into a chair. A moment later, she’d produced tea and scones and was deftly adding cream and sugar to
Hermione’s cup.
"Eat," she said firmly. "And relax. I’m going to take care of those circles under your eyes; you look like
you’re in heroin withdrawal, and that’s no way to go into negotiations, especially with American
businessmen. Now close your eyes."
Hermione chuckled weakly, as she’d been meant to, and sipped halfheartedly at the tea – again, far too
sweet for her taste, but maybe the sugar would give her a little push – frowning a little as warmth
spread to her toes. "You put Illuminata in this," she murmured, surprised, and opened her eyes just in
time to catch Areli’s slightly guilty nod.
"No use having it about if you don’t use it, is there?" Areli pointed her wand at Hermione’s hair and
muttered something Hermione couldn’t catch. "And if anyone deserves a little chemical courage today,
it’s you. Now, drink the rest of that and then stand up – that robe is all right for research, maybe, but not
to close a deal like this one."
"Areli …"
"Don’t argue, dear – if there’s one thing I know about, it’s making an impression on investors." A wave
of her wand, and Hermione’s black robe was a chic little caramel-tweed suit with brown leather buttons
and a fashionably brief skirt. A moment later, her comfortable, battered ballet flats had morphed into
smart brown square-toed pumps – Hermione staggered, thrown off balance by the three-inch heels that
hadn’t been there a second ago, and would have fallen if Areli hadn’t steadied her.
"I don’t know what to say to them," she said numbly. "I meant to get here early this morning – I’m so
sorry, Areli, but I just forgot – and they’re M-Muggles, right? I can’t talk about magic … and what if
they ask me how I make it? I can’t –"
"Don’t worry about that." Areli’s tone was dismissive. "If they get too inquisitive, I’ll head them off;
that’s why I’m sitting in on the meeting." She swept sharply assessing eyes over Hermione from head
to toe, then nodded, apparently satisfied. "You look better," she said. "There’s colour in your face again.
Are you ready?"
Ready? Are you kidding? Hermione thought, and had already opened her mouth to say so – I can’t do
this today, please don’t ask me to – when the look on Areli’s face – shining, expectant, excited – made
her bite her tongue.
"Listen to me, all right?" Areli tucked one stray curl behind Hermione’s ear, a gesture of maternal
affection that made Hermione’s throat ache. "You’ve earned this; you’ve got nothing to worry about.
Don’t be scared – this is a good cause that you’ve taken up. You’re taking away a little bit of the pain in
the world today, and you’re going to make yourself a rich woman in the process. Just relax and enjoy
Hermione frowned, unconvinced. "I suppose."
"Look." Areli put both hands on her shoulders. "Whatever remains to deal with from last night, it’ll still
be here when you get out of this meeting. But don’t let it ruin this accomplishment for you." One dark
eyebrow lifted. "There’s more to life than being in love, you know."
Hermione felt the pressure behind her eyes begin to resolve itself into tears, and resolutely blinked
them back.
Don’t cry, damn it. Not yet.
"You’re right," she said finally, tight-throated but steadier, and focussed resolutely on the warm
reassurance of the Illuminata, simmering in her bloodstream. "Just give me a minute to get my notes,
and I’ll be ready."
Parker and Conlin of Eli Lilly Pharmaceuticals, Inc., were as stereotypical a pair of American
executives as ever came out of Central Casting – sober grey suits, neat short-trimmed hair, discreetly
striped neckties, eyes sneaking a furtive peek perhaps at Hermione’s hemline, at the way her primly
sexy shoes set off the turn of her calves, but otherwise fixed firmly on the Bottom Line. This, Areli
muttered into Hermione’s ear, was a good sign; if their preliminary tests on the formula had gone badly,
the company would have sent scientists armed with hard questions, not suits with calculators and
Their interest in the ingredients of Hermione’s migraine remedy went only as far as the proposed cost
of the raw materials, which was at once a relief and a brand-new anxiety. Lemon balm was easy to
come by, after all, and so were peppermint and feverfew and the ingredients used as fixatives in the
final stages of the Illuminata preparation.
But how, Hermione wondered wildly, were they to explain away the need for phoenix ashes, when as
far as the non-magical community was concerned, that particular bird didn’t even exist?
Once again, Areli came to the rescue.
"These ingredients," she said, tapping the short list Hermione had copied, at Conlin’s request, onto his
legal pad, "can be added in your laboratories, or outsourced locally to your distribution centers." Her
eyes flicked briefly to Hermione’s; Hermione was amused, but unsurprised, to see her wink. Clearly,
negotiations were right up Areli’s alley. "The initial stages of the formula, however, are classified. We’d
feel more comfortable overseeing it on this end."
"International shipping costs big bucks," objected Parker. "We’ve got a profit margin to consider, you
"You’ll make up your money with the difference in labour," Areli pointed out. "And more, probably.
Every other window-washer in this city has a pre-med degree; skilled labour never came so cheaply."
Parker raised his eyebrows doubtfully, but conceded the point. Conlin, who had been studying
Hermione’s handwritten list, frowned.
"Are the ingredients for this initial formula of yours listed here?" he wanted to know. Hermione shook
her head.
"Not entirely."
"Well, what’s in it?" Conlin tapped the end of his Montblanc meaningfully against the conference-room
table. "Everything you have written here falls under the category of ‘herbal remedy’ … which means
we could market it directly through one of our homeopathic subsidiaries, without bothering to channel
it through the FDA – we could have it on-shelf in a matter of months."
He shot her a speculative look. "But if there’s something in the formula that would require it to be
dispensed by prescription, then we’re talking seven to ten years before it’s approved for sale in the
States. Not saying we wouldn’t still be interested, but it makes it into a whole different proposition."
"Um." Hermione, who’d been afraid of just this question, stepped hard on Areli’s foot under the table –
the nonverbal equivalent of Do something!
"No prescription," she said cautiously. "I don’t think, anyway. It’s just a distillation of lemon balm,
that’s the main ingredient. And, uh …"
"Charcoal," Areli cut in. Hermione shot her a covertly grateful look; Parker looked puzzled.
"Charcoal? Don’t see what’s so proprietary about that. Cheap labour or no, it’d still be more convenient
just to make it locally. Good for public relations, too."
Merlin’s gonads. We’re trading one problem for another, here.
Still, Hermione was beginning – albeit warily – to enjoy herself; this negotiation stuff wasn’t all bad.
"It’s not the ingredients themselves," she said, raising guileless eyes to Parker’s. "It’s the process – it’s
a bit tricky. I’d want to oversee it myself … at least at first."
"Ah. Well, if that’s all." Parker looked triumphant. "We’d be more than happy to fly you into
Indianapolis. You could meet with our scientists – best minds in the world, if you’ll pardon my saying
so – give a training seminar or two, maybe catch a Colts game while you were in town …"
"Um," Hermione said. "I’d really rather not –"
"—Out of the question." That was Areli, at her most acidic. "Miss Granger has her responsibilities to
the University to think of, after all."
Parker looked momentarily abashed.
"I see," he said. "My apologies; you look a bit young for a lecturer, that’s all. I hadn’t considered –" He
broke off long enough to slant a hopeful look at Areli. "No possibility of a sabbatical, I suppose."
Parker, disgruntled, ran one hand through his businessman’s haircut and scowled. "There’ll have to be a
guaranteed-supply clause in the contract, then," he said darkly. "Based on what we’ve seen, we’ll want
to market this aggressively nationwide – we can’t spend the money on advertising and then fall short of
product. What kind of quantity can your plants produce?"
"Oh, well. That is …" Hermione, thinking of the Illuminata’s three-week brewing period, bit her lip.
Areli didn’t look worried, though.
"Whatever you want, we can get it for you, don’t you worry about that," she said dismissively, and
leaned back in her chair with an air of anticipated triumph. "Well, gentlemen? We’ve got little things to
wrangle through, but I don’t really see a deal-breaker here, do you? You’ve done your preliminary
testing – what do you say? Do we have a deal?"
Conlin and Parker exchanged glances.
"We need to run full-scale field tests," Conlin said slowly. "Since it’s all-herbal, that cuts down on the
time, but we’re still talking four to six months, minimum. And we’ll need some additional samples of
the product." He shuffled through his notes. "Funny thing about your formula, Miss Granger. Some of
our top people ran it through a chemical breakdown – couldn’t get a thing out of it. Lots of speculation
at the lab over it, actually; they thought you had something completely new here. They’re going to be
pretty embarrassed when they find out what’s in it."
Hermione cleared her throat nervously. "Um. Well, as I said, the process is pretty complicated."
"Right." Conlin nodded. "Well, in any case. Dependent on the results of the field testing, I’m authorized
by Eli Lilly to make you an offer for sole distributorship in the United States." He paused, looking
diffident. "They’re interested in maker’s rights, too."
"No," Hermione said firmly, surprising herself. "It’s my formula. I keep it." Areli looked approving.
"Good girl," she murmured, and squeezed Hermione’s hand under the table. "I think we can do the
other, though, Mr. Conlin," she said. "What kind of figures did Eli Lilly have in mind, for Hermione’s
little miracle potion?"
Conlin flipped a few more pages, cleared his throat. And named a number that made Hermione’s eyes
"Holy shit," she said, forgetting decorum in her shock. The Americans laughed.
"Royalties, too?" That was Areli, her eyes gone narrow and predatory. Hermione let the conversation
go on without her; her head was spinning.
Wait till I tell Mum and Dad. Wait till I tell Gram.
Wait till I tell Snape.
At the name, the mental picture of the face in her head, Hermione shivered, as if she’d fallen into icy
Whatever remains to deal with from last night, it’ll still be here when you get out of this meeting.
There’s more to life than being in love, you know.
Yeah, she thought, morose with unwelcome truth, and held on fiercely to the last steady bit of calm that
was the Illuminata in her bloodstream. Yeah, I know.
She forced herself to smile at Parker, forced her cold fingers to return Areli’s comforting squeeze. But
the joy had gone out of it for her.

Chapter Thirty
"I have never," Hermione said dazedly, "seen that many zeroes on a cheque in my life."
The Americans had been seen to a cab, and were on their way back to their hotel, no doubt for an
evening of imported pleasures billed as authentic Egyptian fare: steak, liquor and a belly-dancing show,
everything a fraud but the immutable blue Nile outside their windows.
And she and Areli, bent on celebration, had gotten only as far as the common room before collapsing
into chairs.
"I feel like I should frame it," she said now. "Or something."
Areli laughed.
"It's a windfall, all right," she said, snapping off a handful of deep gray-blue grapes from the bunch in
the coffee-table fruit bowl and popping them into her mouth with a palpable air of self-satisfaction.
"And the money might be nice, but it's almost a secondary issue, considering all the other bennies -
though, in case the information interests you, you've just passed up the archeaology team as our main
She took another handful of grapes. "The favourable publicity is going to go through the roof - just
wait. And the contacts." She tilted her head back against the back of the chair with a pleasurable little
sigh. "Lilly's one of the biggest pharmaceuticals in the U.S., if not the biggest, and they work on heavy-
duty projects. Mental illness, diabetes, cancer, AIDS. You've got a built-in entrée, now, for whatever it
is that you want to work on next. Your foot is in the door, kiddo."
"Yeah." Hermione rolled her head around on her neck and whimpered as the tight tendons gave way
with a protesting crackle. "But - Areli … there's just one thing I was wondering about …"
"How exactly are you going to manage all the Illuminata you promised them?" Hermione contemplated
the fruit bowl, decided it was too much trouble to bestir herself to reach for anything, and cracked her
neck again instead. "I mean, the only phoenix I know of in existence is Fawkes - and he can only have
so many Burning Days, right?"
"Easy." Areli kicked off her shoes. "We make one batch, and then we Replicate exponentially. Doesn't
hurt that Illuminata has a longer shelf-life than Twinkies, but to be on the safe side we can replenish
with new stock every couple of months, if we start to get paranoid about quality."
"Won't that take up a lot of time?"
"It would, if we had to do it." Areli wiggled her stockinged toes ecstatically. "But I have some contacts
at a wizarding warehouse in Rabat. They do flying carpets, mostly, and some of the more arcane spices.
Exotic creatures, sometimes - you know, for potions ingredients. They've been at it for at least four
centuries; they're the best in the business. If we send them one case of Illuminata every four months or
so, they'll take care of the Replicating and everything else."
She raised an eyebrow at Hermione and laughed. "What? You thought we were going to open a
Hermione, cross with herself, slumped in her chair. "Replication," she repeated. "I should have thought
of that."
"You're tired," Areli pointed out. "And you've been under a hell of a lot of stress." She shot Hermione a
sidelong look. "Do you want to talk about it? About what happened last night?"
"Um." Hermione shook her head. "I wouldn't know where to begin," she said finally, shrugging.
"Thanks for the offer. But I think I just need to go home and deal with it myself."
"Go home and sleep, you mean," Areli corrected. "And don't bother coming in tomorrow, do you hear
me? Go to your class, if you must, then take the rest of the day off. They can wait a few weeks for the
rest of those samples they want."
"Okay. Thanks."
She decided to walk home, instead of Flooing - it had rained the day before, unexpectedly, and the
sticky heat had lifted, swept away by a strong breeze off the river. Normally, wind meant added
discomfort for the denizens of Cairo, due to the fine layer of desert sand that covered the streets and
sidewalks and everything else that stood still long enough (yet another practical reason to wear the
hijab, according to Itmana; less chance that way of getting a mouthful of the Sahara on your way to
market). But today, the recent rainfall had dampened that layer of grit just enough to stick it to the
ground, not quite enough to turn it into mud.
In other words, perfect walking weather.
Hermione stopped at a corner juice stand and pointed to the basket of blood-oranges that hung
suspended from its corrugated-iron roof. The concoction she was handed a few moments later in a
plastic bottle was tart, pulpy, Crimson-Tide red and, for once, not too warm. Sipping it gratefully, she
considered a brief detour into the bazaar for groceries, then thought better of it. Bill wasn't due back
from Mexico for another two days, after all, and she didn't have the energy tonight to cook just for
Still - all that money - she could do some shopping, maybe …
You're just putting off going home, remarked the Daredevil. Don't be such a baby - what's left there to
be afraid of?
Well, excuse me for being a little bit jumpy, the Voice of Caution retorted, stung. Easy for you to say -
you probably got some sick kind of thrill from that snake thing last night, didn't you?
Up yours.
"Enough!" Hermione said out loud, sharply, then blushed and made a production of throwing away her
empty juice bottle.
You're cracking up, Granger.
Avoiding the eyes of the juice-stand proprietor, who was now openly staring at her, she pushed her way
through the crowd at the intersection and headed north toward Doqqi, queasy-stomached but
She needn't have worried - as it turned out, she was actually glad to be home, once she got there. The
apartment was quiet, sunlit, and empty of distractions: no footsteps, no voices, no laugh track from
Sal's beloved television sitcoms, no running water that meant someone else was using her bathroom.
Just Cleo, her spaniel-sized body curled into a tight sleepy ball on the suede ottoman by the sofa; as
Hermione came in, one gray-blue eye opened, blinked slowly twice, and shut again.
So much for the welcoming committee.
The little pile of ashes was gone from the carpet. There was a note on the butcher-block in the kitchen,
written in Sybil's strongly slanting hand: We cleaned up and gave the place a purge before we went.
Did some extra wards around the windows, too. Now go to bed, dammit.
Hermione pictured her wispy, fluttering Divination professor saying dammit and choked back a slightly
hysterical laugh - who'd have thought it?
More disturbing was the second visual that popped into her brain, of an exotic dark-skinned beauty
with her legs wrapped around a familiar set of lean naked hips, her face hidden by his fall of shoulder-
length dark hair.
His hand, pale and blue-veined, splayed possessively across the silky skin of her back.
His voice, soft as mink and as beautiful as she'd ever heard it, tickling her ear: Avada Kedav …
Stop it. Don't think about that right now.
She forced her thoughts back to Trelawney, biting hard on her tongue. I wonder what she really looks
like. I wonder if even she knows?
She crumpled the note, dropped it into the kitchen dustbin, then headed for her bedroom, disrobing as
she went and leaving her discarded clothing like a trail of bread crumbs behind her. Never one for
casual nudity during her dormitory days at Hogwarts, she'd gotten rather used to the kind of skyclad
wandering that solitary living engenders in all but the most modest of souls. It was nice to reclaim it.
She stripped off her wristwatch, unhooked her earrings, rolled down the nylon tights Areli had
Transfigured her into that morning, and yawned as she slid under the down comforter.
Oh, she could sleep for a year.
"Assuming you did the assigned reading for today," Severus said to his second-year Ravenclaws and
Hufflepuffs, "you should be in an excellent position to brew your Swelling Solutions without any
further assistance from me. You will be graded at the end of class. Page forty-five; begin whenever you
are ready."
He was unable to summon much of his customary vitriol today; even when Marianne Subotnick
dropped an entire phial's-worth of live fire-ants right next to Emily Manton's sandalled toes, excess
sarcasm on his part seemed hardly worth the effort. Almost absently, he dealt with the spill, sent the
tearful Emily limping off to the infirmary, and measured out a fresh phial of ants for Marianne with no
more than a sharp "Mind your fingers, Miss Subotnick".
No doubt this would have the class muttering about him later, over their luncheon. But that was the
least of his concerns.
The Headmaster had gotten an international owl, well before breakfast this morning - Severus had seen
the owl winging its way over the grounds, presumably with its return message, he'd caught Dumbledore
murmuring into a shocked-looking Minerva's ear at the Head Table, before the students started to
trickle in, and he'd been the recipient of a cryptic, in-passing, "My office, later, Severus?"
It appeared that a meeting was imminent, and furthermore that circumspection was called for. Which
was fine and good, but all the same Severus would have liked some foreknowledge of what it all was
about, and he hadn't had time before class to question Albus further. So here he was, baby-sitting his
second class of the morning, with absolutely no idea about what had happened last night - except that
he had a feeling that it involved Hermione, and therefore that it probably wasn't good.
It took every bit of self-control he possessed, not to simply get up and walk out. The three little words
dancing on the tip of his tongue - Class is cancelled - refused to be swallowed, try as he might. He
stared at his hands and tried not to twitch.
"Professor Snape?"
That was Marianne again, sounding timid. He didn't look up from his steepled fingers.
"Miss Subotnick, I suggest that you refer any questions you might have to your textbook."
Silence. Then:
"It's not that, Professor. Th-there's someone here to see you, that's all."
Startled, he looked up to find Sal hovering at the back of the room, next to a tall thin Black woman he
didn't know. "You're supposed to be in Cairo," Severus said blankly - heedless of the second-years'
curious stares - and then, as a premonition washed over him in an oily wave of nausea, he went white to
the lips.
"Where is she? What's happened?"
Sal looked grim. "We need to talk," he said. "I'm sorry to burst in on you like this, but …"
Severus wasn't listening to him. "Class dismissed," he barked. "Leave your ingredients right where they
are, take your books and get out. Rowland."
A chubby, blond-haired Ravenclaw boy started violently. "Y-yes, Professor."
"Go upstairs to Professor McGonagall's classroom and tell the fourth-years that their class with me is
cancelled for today."
Rowland, clearly relieved, swallowed. "Yes, sir."
"We will resume this potion during the next class," Severus said, standing up and gripping his desk
hard for support. "Whoever leaves the room last, shut the door behind you. Good day."
The corridor between the Potions classroom and his private rooms had never seemed so long. Half out
of breath, he unwarded the door, gestured his guests inside, and locked it behind him.
"Now," he said. "Why aren't you still in Egypt, Sal? What's happened to Hermione? And -" this last
directed toward the woman standing apprehensively by the door, as if poised for flight - "who the hell
are you?"
It was dark outside when Hermione woke up, and for a sleepy luxurious moment she considered rolling
right back over and not getting up until morning. But then Cleo yowled - her bowl was probably empty;
she ate like a rhinoceros - and another call issued from Hermione's bladder, quieter perhaps but no less
"Okay, okay," she said, and threw back the comforter with a pang of regret. The air was cool enough on
her sleep-heated skin to make her shiver; pulling on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt and shuffling her
feet into the bunny slippers Ginny had given her last Christmas, she headed for the bathroom.
Despite his Kneazle status, Crookshanks had always been content with standard cat fare - a can of wet
food twice a day, and dry Cat Chow in between, to keep up his strength. Cleo, on the other hand,
though she'd crunch at the dry stuff if she had to between meals, turned up her nose at canned food.
She liked her food bleeding. And if possible, still warm.
On the plus side, she wasn't terribly choosy about what sort of raw something-or-other landed in her
bowl, as long as there was plenty of it, and Hermione had discovered early on that camel meat came
cheap at the government butcher shop - especially if she shopped right after the drovers came through
on Thursdays. Now, she dug a securely-wrapped loin roast out of the bottom of the refrigerator, sawed
off a half-pound chunk, and began to dice it into Cleo's bowl.
It wasn't until she'd set the bowl on the floor and was turning away from the ensuing carnage that she
heard the scuffling at her door - furtive, feathery little sounds that might have been papers rustling,
might have been the scrape of shoes on the mat. Ignoring the sudden icy jolt of adrenaline that shot
through her system, she forced herself to rewrap the camel loin and stow it safely back in her crisper
It's probably nothing. It's probably just …
The sound wasn't going away, though. If anything, it was louder.
Hermione's fingers curled around the cleaver she'd used to chop Cleo's dinner.
I'm not scared, I'm just being cautious. Cleaver in hand, she tiptoed toward the door, paused for a
second with her ear to the crack - her eyes narrow, that whispery little sound ringing in her ears like a
battle cry.
Whatever it is, it's about to get surprised.
Her fingers found the knob. Twisted. Pulled.
Bill Weasley jumped, took an involuntary step back, and dropped his pencil.
"Hi," he said. He looked quizzical, slightly alarmed, and cuter than ever. "Your lights were off; I didn't
think you were home. I was just leaving you a note." His eyes flicked to the upraised cleaver, which
was now dripping camel blood onto Hermione's sweatshirt. "Am I interrupting something? A ritual
sacrifice, perhaps?"
Feeling more foolish than was supposed to be possible, Hermione lowered the cleaver. "Oh," she said,
nonplussed. "It's you. Sorry."
"Hey, don't apologise on my account. I get all hot and bothered for girls with big knives." His gaze slid
to her bunny-slippered toes. "Especially when they've got animals on their feet. Have you had dinner
"No," she said, then frowned at him. "Why aren't you still in Mexico?"
"Got done early." He shouldered past her into the apartment, bent to pat Cleo. "Thought I'd swing by
and see if you wanted to go out to dinner."
"Go out?" Hermione parroted numbly. Bill grinned at her.
"Yeah. You know, sit in a restaurant, sip exotic drinks, pay people to cook your food and bring it to you.
Go dancing afterwards, maybe." He shot her a warm, mischievous look over his shoulder. "I've missed
you, Madison."
Oh. Well.
"I'm not dressed for it," she said finally, not knowing what else to say - it was embarrassing to be
flummoxed by this little slice of normal boy-girl flirtation, but on the other hand, the last thing she'd
expected to find behind that door was a Romantic Evening for Two.
Bill shrugged. "That's okay. Everything's open late in this town - I can wait."
Hermione searched her subconscious for a plausible reason to beg off, then stopped herself abruptly.
Why beg off? Why not go?
Why, indeed?
For a minute, she thought - Severus. And bit her lip with the tumult of contradictory emotions that
surged through her blood, merely at the name. Across the room, Bill beamed persuasively - a
Gryffindor's Gryffindor, the Potions Master's virtual antithesis, Just-Out-For-A-Good-Time made flesh.
Tempting, so tempting just to walk away from the Dark, to link arms with the Light.
And after all, it was only dinner.
"Okay," she said slowly, and let the cleaver drop into the kitchen sink with a rattle that made Cleo look
up from her gorging. "Okay. Just give me a minute to change."

Chapter Thirty-One
"So," Bill said. "What are you in the mood for?"
Not four minutes into their walk, he'd captured her hand casually in his. His thumb was playing lightly
over her knuckles. Hermione felt dizzy.
"What are my options?"
He considered this. "Well, do you want to be a tourist tonight? Or do you want to go native?"
They were stopped at an intersection, waiting for a momentary break in the relentless traffic. Her hand
was still caught possessively in his; he was looking at her full-on, speculatively and with admiration, as
if she were the most intriguing book on the shelf. Bizarre, Hermione thought, and shivered a little -
surreal, even, that not twenty-four hours ago, she'd been in the process of barely sidestepping death.
And now she was out for a stroll with Sex-On-Fins Weasley, with nothing more pressing to do or
decide than tonight's menu. Downright unnatural, that - not least of all because she was liking it: the
pleasant night air, her hand in his, the warm way his eyes met hers with a spark of unfettered approval
as she said, "Oh, native, I think - after all, I'm hardly a tourist anymore, am I?"
Almost, she thought as they crossed the street and turned west toward downtown and Garden City, as if
she'd left angsty, weepy Hermione behind, back in the apartment - where the giant serpent had curved
hissing down from the ceiling; where Trelawney had cupped her bruised cheek and fought her way up
to her knees; where Sal's repeated curses had chipped away at the Barrier Charm, leaving sulfur in the
air; where a frightened wizard had flaked away into ashes. As if she'd peeled away all those layers of
guilt and fatigue and fear and hopeless unspoken love, to reveal a younger, happier girl still untouched
within them.
Madison, Bill called her, and that's how she felt, walking down this street with him. However
improbable it was, she felt lighter somehow, and pretty - as pretty and sunlit as Darryl Hannah herself,
carefree and laughing and flying on wheels, a clear-eyed fantasy nymph just ahead of the young god
who pursued her.
The middle of the photograph. A whisker away from Camelot. The only girl in the world.
Knowing it wasn't real didn't subtract from its allure. Even a fantasy you'll never have is beautiful,
while you're dreaming it; the shiniest word of all, in any language, is ‘maybe'.
For just tonight, Hermione prayed, let me not be sad.
"What are you going to do, Severus?" Sybil asked, and got a black look for her trouble.
"If I knew," he said darkly, "I'd be doing it, and not sitting here with my thumb up my arse, considering
my options. Obviously." He curled his lip at her. "And can't you change back into your … normal self?"
She lifted one shapely mocha-latte shoulder in a consummately offhand shrug. "That one's no more real
than this. Beats me what I'm really supposed to look like."
"You could check a yearbook," he suggested waspishly. "In fact, why don't you go do that, instead of
hanging around here staring at me?"
Sybil decided to try candor. "I'm under orders," she said. "Dumbledore's orders, to be exact. I'm
supposed to make sure you don't go off and do anything stupid."
At that, he snarled into his teacup. "Not like you could stop me, if I had a mind to."
"You go on thinking that, if it makes you feel better," she said pleasantly, and felt a second's triumph
when he growled again.
The triumph didn't last, though; it was no fun scoring points off an emotional cripple. "Listen,
Severus," she said, and despite his warning grumble, put one hand on his shoulder in a gesture of
comfort. "Nothing you could have done about it - this isn't even remotely your fault. We still don't
know exactly why he picked your body to hide out in, out of all the others he could have snatched.
Stupid bad luck, that's all."
"Bad luck?" His eyes came up to meet hers, so wounded that they seemed to bleed. "Bad luck? I don't
believe in bad luck. Someone knew."
"Knew, or guessed," he said, and shook off her hand from his shoulder with a fatalistic shrug. "That we
were involved, she and I. That if it came to a face-to-face, she wouldn't protect herself, bloody noble
Gryffindor that she is. Goddamn it."
He set down his teacup and brought his hands up to his face, digging his fingers into the soft spots at
his temples. "Tell me - just try and tell me that's not my fault - for keeping it going, when I should have
ended it once and for all once she left for Cairo."
"Seems to me that sort of thing takes two," Sybil commented. Severus grunted.
"Barely eighteen years old and she's supposed to know her own mind? Even you're sensible enough to
know it doesn't work that way."
"Whether she knows her own mind or not," Sybil said tartly, "that's hardly kept her from making it up,
now, has it?"
"Hmph." He rolled his eyes darkly, apparently to acknowledge her point. "That doesn't matter. I should
have been strong enough to send her away. I could have gotten her killed."
"So why didn't you?" This candor thing had gotten her this far - and Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Surly was
uncharacteristically predisposed toward True Confessions at the moment; Sybil decided to keep it
going. "Are you in love with her?"
"Love." His head came up at that, to stare at a point beyond her left shoulder. "What's that, besides a
word you can't say out loud?"
"She told Mikhail she loved you. I heard her say it."
His jaw trembled; his eyes glassed over for just a second. Then he looked angry.
"Well, of course she did," he said, and to Sybil's utter shock, picked up his half-full bone-china teacup
and shattered it against the opposite wall. "Of course she did - it's just like her; whatever she thinks
comes out through her eyes, and usually through her mouth, and she thinks it's supposed to change
things. Like love can stop a bullet. Stop a curse."
He shook his head numbly, his lank dark hair whipping his neck and the sides of his face. "Like truth
and honour stand for anything. Like the world's not dark enough to kill innocence. Like she's bloody
invincible, like she can argue with the Fates and come out on top, and who am I to talk because she did,
she did the same thing with bloody sodding Death that she did with me, that's twice now, and didn't I
try, didn't I try to send her away to save her, to save her soul?"
He took a long shuddering breath. "And what's going to happen when it doesn't work, next time?
What's going to be left for -"
Me, he was going to say - Sybil saw it forming on his mouth, saw the terrible desolation in his eyes and
the tears that glassed them over, that looked like they'd freeze her fingers if she touched them. What's
going to be left for me?
She didn't think she could bear it if he managed to finish that sentence.
And so she kissed him.
He froze under her mouth for just a second, stiffened and strained away from her, like a wild animal
wary of kindness. She could feel the nerves in him, could feel the long taut tendons of his body, tight as
bridge suspension, poised to snap with the next frost. He said something under her lips that she didn't
quite catch, something garbled - half-protest, half-plea.
"Shhh," she said, and brought up her hand to stroke his face. "Shhh - it's all right."
"It's not all right. It's not." He was beyond weeping, beyond grief, in some terrible frozen world of
recrimination that stretched his skin over his bones like a death mask. Sybil wound her hands into his
hair, aching and helpless with the need to comfort.
She'd helped to cause this terrible predicament, in a way. Shouldn't she do her part to heal it?
And then, she'd wanted him for so long.
"Don't talk," she whispered against his mouth. "Don't think. I've got you."
"Oh, God." For one long instant, he tore himself away, fixed that terrible glittering gaze on hers. "I'll
regret this, and so will you," he predicted - cold as January, so bleak that Sybil shivered despite her
excitement, despite her heating blood and the traitorous pulse between her legs … pounding with the
knowledge that he wasn't a fraud, that this was the long-anticipated Real Thing.
And then he kissed her back, and she forgot to be afraid.
"Is it good?" Bill demanded from across the table. He had a chunk of lamb from his kabob speared and
held aloft on his fork; in the dim light from the restaurant's oil lamps, he looked like a Celtic prince,
gorging himself by firelight on the spoils of the day's hunt. Hermione nodded.
"It's excellent."
"Let me try it. No, not the couscous - I've had that a million times. That eggplant thing."
Hermione scooped up a forkful of the dish in question - smoked baby eggplants, puréed with roasted
garlic and cardamom to a silky consistency that made her mouth purr - and offered him the fork. Bill
shook his head.
"My hands are full. Feed me."
She snickered. "You're such a flirt."
"And you love it." He sampled the eggplant, made a face of mock-ecstasy that had Hermione giggling.
"Oh, yeah."
She felt drunk, but she wasn't - that deep-red liquid in her glass was pomegranate juice, flavored with
honey and orange flowers and Merlin knew what else, but it wasn't hooch in any case - nearly every
other woman in the restaurant (all Egyptian; when Bill said native, he meant native) was drinking the
same concoction. And Muslims were teetotalers.
She took another swallow, glorying in the marriage of fruit and spice on her tongue, and had barely set
her glass down when Bill was holding out a piece of grilled lamb on his fingers. "Here, Madison.
Turnabout's fair play."
Delicately she took it from him with her teeth, then - possessed by some evil djinni, no doubt - let her
tongue lap suggestively at his fingertips. His eyes flared darker, and he didn't move his hand away, not
even when she finished nibbling the morsel of lamb and moved on to his fingers.
"Jesus, Madison. You keep doing that, we're going to get arrested."
"You said something about dancing," she murmured. "Earlier. Do you remember?"
"Remember? Hell, I don't even remember my name." Shakily, he withdrew his hand, but kept those hot
golden eyes fixed straight on hers. "You want to dance?"
Hermione shifted her thighs together under the table, felt her nipples tug erect with a sudden jolt of
electricity. He wasn't talking about the cha-cha, not by a long shot - and they both knew it.
You want to dance?
"Yeah," she heard herself say, nearly swooning with anticipation, with long-held tension released.
"Yeah. I think I do."
Chapter Thirty-Two
"So," Draco asked. "Why did you do it?"
They were alone in Elysium, and Gabrielle figured that all things considered, she'd gotten off fairly
lightly in the aftermath of her Grand Misadventure. Most of her smooth re-entry into Everyday
Hogwarts Existence, she owed to Mssrs. Lupin and Black, who were, thankfully, themselves familiar
with and sympathetic to the desire for illicit nocturnal wanderings. They'd been amazingly decent about
the whole thing - hadn't turned her in, hadn't even really scolded her much . . . beyond a sort of
perfunctory lecture that Gabrielle figured they thought they had to give her, Lupin being a former
professor and all.
Getting back into the castle had been easier than she'd dared imagine. She'd trailed them right through
the front doors, draped in Invisibility, then - as Professor McGonagall stood up sleepily to greet Black
and Lupin from where she'd apparently been waiting for them in the Entrance Hall - Gabrielle had
promptly slipped off to her room to catch a much-needed hour or so of sleep before breakfast. Her
roommates, once they were up, had been curious - you were out late last night, weren't you? - but,
though they were patently incredulous of her excuse (that she'd fallen asleep while studying in the
library), neither did they seem to suspect that she'd left the castle altogether. Apart from one raised
eyebrow from the Headmaster at breakfast, which had given her a moment's pause, no one else
appeared to have missed her at all.
So - safe, then. Except that her curiosity over the missing book, paired with the thought of what
Wronski might say about their conversation on Draco's next visit home, had compelled her to spill the
whole thing to him, beginning to end. It seemed to go well; he appeared more disbelieving than upset.
"Christ, Gabrielle," he'd said. "Do you know how many booby-traps there are in that house? You're
lucky you aren't dead." He frowned. "And how did you get past the Chinese Fireball, anyway?"
Chinese Fireball? Gabrielle shrugged.
"Don't know," she said. "Never saw it." She bit her lip thoughtfully. "Wronski said that there've been
troops of Aurors through, during the past few weeks. Maybe everything was deactivated by the time I
got there."
"Maybe." Draco didn't look convinced. "How was he?"
"Who, Wronski?" Gabrielle made a face. "Rude and condescending, mostly. He tried to get me to read
your journal."
Draco snorted. "I bet he did."
Gabrielle peered at him sideways - he didn't look too concerned, which was odd. From what she knew
of people with journals - mainly Fleur - they tended to get quite possessive about the contents.
Gabrielle herself, of course, kept hers in code. But other people . . . well . . .
"I didn't, you know," she said. "Read it, I mean."
"I know," he said calmly, then grinned at her. "If you had, you'd be about four inches tall and covered in
blue spots. I laid some serious wards on that journal, and Wronski knows it - it was rude of him even to
suggest it. He gets bored up there all by himself." He sucked his teeth, apparently consumed by a new
thought. "And while we're talking about wards, tell me this: how did you manage to avoid all of Fath -
um, Lucius's watch-elves?"
"Watch-elves?" Gabrielle shook her head. "I didn't see any house-elves at all. Watch or otherwise."
"Huh." Draco leaned back on his pillow. "Well, that settles that, then. If you didn't see them, it's
because they aren't there. And if they aren't there, then it's a sure bet that he isn't, either. Left to his own
devices, I doubt he can boil water. He's probably taken them with him, wherever he's gone." His eyes
narrowed. "Probably he's taken the book, too. If it's as valuable as Lupin seems to think it is."
"Do you have any idea where he might have gone?"
"Maybe." Draco stared into the fire for a long minute. "So - why did you do it, anyway?"
Good question. "I'm not quite sure," Gabrielle said finally, after a moment's reflection. "It seemed like a
good idea at the time, I suppose."
At his disbelieving snort, she spread her hands helplessly. "Well, it did. And I wanted to do something
to help."
That got a smile out of him, one of the thin wry one-sided lip-curls that she found so charming.
"Something to help, eh? That's very sweet of you."
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose at him - she didn't care for the way he'd said the word sweet. "It is, isn't it?"
He laughed, then subsided into silence. They sat side-by-side on the chaise, staring into the leaping
flames. Then: "Gabrielle?"
She shot him a wary sideways glance. "Oui?"
He tipped up her chin with one elegant forefinger. Gray eyes met china-blue. "Pull a stunt like that
again," he said, "and I'll shave your pretty little head while you sleep. Got it?"
"Loud and clear." She grinned at him, relieved. "You don't happen to have any popcorn left in here, do
Grumbling, head carefully averted to hide his smile, he got up to look.
It was strange.
Up until they'd Apparated to her door, the air between them had been as tense and charged as the eye of
a hurricane. But the minute the door had closed behind them, the moment she'd gone into his arms, all
that tension had melted away from her on a warm red tide of relief.
And now Hermione was finding out something she hadn't known, something that had never occurred to
her before now: sex could be funny.
She wasn't quite sure how it had started, who had inadvertently found the first ticklish spot and
decided, at the resulting muffled giggle, to pursue the matter to its logical conclusion. But it was all-out
war now - rolling, kicking, shrieking with laughter and grappling for the upper hand - and how they'd
managed to get naked in the process was anybody's guess, but there you go. She'd found a pillow under
her hands, purely by chance, and had smacked him with it without really thinking; "ha," he'd panted -
"two can play at that game - " and now, even Cleo had gotten into the act, leaping like a small exultant
gazelle among the flying feathers that drifted over the sides of the bed and down to the floor.
Hermione was laughing so hard her stomach hurt, so hard that she couldn't breathe. "Stop - stop - I
surrender," she wheezed, and collapsed back onto the bed. Bill followed suit.
"You surrender, huh?"
He had slid over her, braced on his elbows, long red-gold hair out of its leather thong and falling down
on either side of his narrow pirate's face like shiny disheveled curtains. He was out of breath, and a
little bit sweaty, and - Hermione realised, as he shifted his weight - definitely, improbably aroused.
More surprisingly yet, she thought foggily, she was, too.
"Yeah," she said softly, and squirmed her hips slightly to one side to give him more direct access. Bill
sucked in his breath.
"Babies," he said raggedly, his eyes squinched closed. He was exhaling through his teeth, rather as if he
had a leg cramp. "Not to spoil the mood, Madison, but are you - "
"No worries," Hermione assured him. He looked relieved.
He brushed his mouth against hers. Hermione felt his hand slide deftly between their sweaty, slippery
bodies - down, down and then oohhhhhhhhh in a fiddly twiddling motion at Strategic Point A that made
her yelp and arch against him as her heels slid obligingly apart on the damp cotton sheets. Bill clucked
"That's it," he murmured, his hazel eyes intent; "nice and easy, nice and slow . . . Christ, you're wet.
Easy, now - easy, gorgeous, no hurries . . . "
No hurries? Was he insane?
"There you go. There you are. God, you're stunning." This, against her mouth, as his thumb continued
its skillful fiddle against her clit and his cock eased its way into her another couple of millimetres, as
slowly and carefully as if she were Austrian crystal and not steaming, impatient flesh and blood. "Just a
little more. A little more. Oh, that's amazing."
Hermione felt her teeth grind together. She twisted underneath him, hands in slippery claws against his
shoulders, pelvis poised in mid-wiggle, unsure of whether to aim first for his cock or for those
maddening slow-twirling fingers. "Hurry," she panted, and heard him laugh.
"Are you kidding?" He eased himself back, then drove into her again with a practiced wriggle of the
hips - to-the-hilt-all-the-way-oh-God-yes-oh-yesyesyes - that made her see stars. "When I've waited this
long to get to where I am? Not a chance."
His thumb didn't stop its hypnotic, gentle north-south guitar-pick journeyings, not even when she
squealed and made a halfhearted grab for his wrist. "Nice try," he murmured, and captured her fingers
with his free hand so he could bring them to his lips. "You go ahead and grab this one, Madison. I'll still
be here when you get back."
Bill was holding on by a thread. But he intended to keep right on holding.
Forget objectivity. Forget flirtation. Forget caution and reason and sanity - put on the blue suede shoes
and hop the midnight train to Georgia, because it had finally, finally happened.
Hermione Granger was horizontal with him, after forty acres and a hundred sweaty nights of lonely
fantasies on the subject. And he was damn well going to make it last.
Something was wrong, of course. Something had happened, while he'd been in Mexico. Why else
would she have met him at the door with a bloody meat cleaver, strung out on adrenaline and jazzed for
battle? Why else would she have gone so suddenly dazed and . . . well, for lack of a better word, lost, at
the thought of a friendly dinner out?
Apprehension in the clear brown eyes. Another layer of secrets behind that cool mountain-lake exterior,
something weary and sad and Billie-Holiday hopeless that made him want to take her apart from the
outside in like a broken watch, made him want to peel off her oh-so-careful defenses and scour away
the sadness and put her back together again.
Well, he couldn't do that, and he was smart enough to know it. Neurosis was a TV dinner for one - try
to share it, and neither of you ended up happy. But he could distract her, couldn't he?
Pin her between his cock and his fingers and send her into slack-jawed free-fall. Flood her with
pleasure. Trap her into momentary happiness.
Make her believe.
She shuddered underneath him, her eyes rolled up into her head, mewing in her throat like a baby bat.
Bill tightened his hold on her small capable hand and started to move again.
"Hold on, baby," he muttered. "You haven't seen anything yet."
He was a patient man. He could wait for what he wanted.

Chapter Thirty-Three
Well, they’d finally done it, Sybil thought, and turned her head in the semi-darkness of Snape’s
dungeon apartments so she could see him more clearly.
He wasn’t weeping, which was a distinct relief - from his state of mind earlier, she wouldn’t have been
surprised if he had, but all the same she was glad that the Fates were sparing both of them that
particular potential embarrassment. And he didn’t seem to be angry, either at her or at himself - which
would have been the easy way out, had he chosen to take it.
No, if anything the sex had steadied him, acted as a lance for his poison - and now that the athletics
were over, he’d taken refuge in an oddly formal sort of courtesy, rather as if she were an unexpected
visitor or a long-absent distant relative, come to call on him from out of town.
In a way, it was sexy. It made her want to tilt at his equilibrium, to knock that careful decorum all to
pieces … and yet it was admirable too; it gave her a little shiver down her spine, that the steel of his
control could still shine so brightly through its velvet gloves.
"Tea?" he asked now, from across the room. His lithe, slim body was securely belted into a green
damask dressing-gown.
Sybil, still naked and pleasantly limp with the after-effects of orgasm, grinned and stretched luxuriously
under his corduroy duvet. "Please. If it isn’t too much trouble, that is."
He looked faintly surprised. "Trouble? No, no trouble at all. Mint or chamomile?"
"Surprise me," Sybil suggested, and stacked some pillows behind her back so that she could pull herself
up into a reclining position. As she reached for the stoneware mug he handed her, the duvet slid south
to pool in her lap; his eyes flicked to her bare breasts, then resolutely away.
"Here," he said shortly, not looking at her. "There are biscuits too, if you’d like, so long as you don’t
scatter crumbs. I’ve had trouble with mice."
"Biscuits?" Sybil steadied her mug and took a sip of the tea - Moroccan mint and syrup-sweet, just the
way she would have gotten it in the Djemaa el-Fna marketplace. Yum. "What kind?"
They turned out to be Italian pirouline - crunchy, delicately flaking tubes of fragile pastry rolled up
with chocolate hazelnut filling. Sybil demolished one, then licked her fingers and selected another.
"Ha," she said, almost to herself, and he frowned, his polite mask slipping a little to reveal a hint of
annoyance underneath.
She grinned at him. "You’re a closet hedonist, aren’t you, Severus?"
He slanted her a repressive glare. "I’m sure I don’t know what you mean."
"Uh-huh." She bit into her second biscuit. "Sure you don’t. You swoop around twenty-six hours a day
like Hieronymous Bosch in too-tight underwear, you elevate the Perpetual Bad Mood to a bloody art
form, you look like your face will break if you crack a smile."
She gestured grandly with the remainder of her pirouline. "Quidditch heroes quail at your approach.
The mere curl of your lip sends the faint-hearted into torrents of weeping."
He made an unpleasant sound deep in his sinuses. "Get to the point."
Sybil took another bite. "And here it turns out that you’re just a master of disguise - you’re into down
pillows and chocolate cookies, just like the rest of us. What’s the world coming to?"
Severus scowled.
"Like you’re one to talk." He took a grim sip of his tea. "With your amber jewelry and your
Concealment Charms and your goddamn fucking Inner Eye that gets you out of every faculty meeting
you don’t want to attend. Don’t think I haven’t noticed." He looked murderous. "Not to mention that
bloody annoying way you have of talking for hours and never saying anything."
"It is rather off-putting, isn’t it?" Sybil agreed cheerfully. Snape glared at her.
"Rather off-putting?" he echoed. "That’s like calling Dumbledore ‘slightly eccentric’. Or saying that
Hagrid’s a ‘bit fond of animals’. Honestly." He neatly guillotined the first half of his biscuit and
chewed irritably.
"Grey hair," he said at length, sounding disgusted. "Granny glasses. You’re six years younger than me,
for Merlin’s sake."
"One does wonder how it managed to take you so long to figure that out," Sybil commented mildly,
setting her mug aside for the moment and stretching in a way designed to draw his eyes back to her
breasts again. It worked, though he didn’t look too happy about it.
"Well, it’s not like I knew you that well," he said, sounding a bit cross. "Name me one seventh-year
who knows all the younger students in his House by name—it’s just not something you think about,
even under normal conditions." He cut his eyes away. "And then, so many people aged prematurely
during the war—look at Hopkirk; look at the Wattles—well. You wouldn’t have been the only one to go
a bit old and mad, by the time it was all over."
At some point, he’d gotten back into bed with his mug of tea, setting the tin of biscuits down on the
duvet between them. It was all very cozy, Sybil thought; all they needed to complete the illusion of
Domestic Tranquillity now was a purring, sleepy familiar and a copy of the Daily Prophet Sunday
edition, strewn about on top of the bedclothes.
Scary, that.
"I wasn’t in the war," she said softly, her face turned away from him. Severus shot her a quick hooded
glance over his tea.
"I was," he said shortly. "On one side, and then on the other, though for all the good it did anyone once
I switched, I sometimes wish I’d never gotten involved—that I’d just walked away, like you did."
"You couldn’t have," Sybil said without thinking. He frowned.
She shrugged. "I worked hard at being ordinary," she said. "The last thing I wanted was to be noticed.
That’s how I got out." She studied him intently. "You couldn’t have done it. You were too smart. Too
powerful. He wanted you too much."
Snape rolled his eyes. "Oh, I hardly think—"
"—Well, that much is obvious," Sybil cut in. "Be honest, Severus - if you’d turned him down, do you
really think you’d have even made it to the door?"
"Maybe." He thought for a moment. "Maybe not. Not that it matters anymore."
They both glanced instinctively at the inside of his left forearm, skim-milk pale and exposed where the
sleeve of his dressing-gown had fallen down to his elbow. Sybil let her eyes trail back up to his face.
"Is it strange, to be rid of it?"
"In a way." His mouth twitched sardonically. "Feels about the same way you’d feel in your own skin, I
Sybil shuddered. "Naked, you mean."
"Something like that." He traced an absent figure-eight on the place where the Mark had been with one
long slim forefinger. "Don’t misunderstand me - I’m glad it’s gone. But I’m a bit at sea without it. It’s
been a long time since I had any options at all, and now …"
He shrugged. "Well, now there’s everything."
"I know how that feels," Sybil said, and picked up her mug again to warm her suddenly-cold fingers.
"Don’t ask me how I’m going to shoehorn myself back into that tower room, after this little adventure.
It was bad enough the first time, when I didn’t know what I was getting myself in for."
"Mm." Severus set his empty mug aside on his bedside table and repositioned the pillow under his
back. There was an odd look on his face.
"Sybil?" he ventured finally, and she turned on her side to face him.
"Do you like to teach?"
Of all the questions he could have asked, that was the one she’d least expected.
"Do I like to teach?" she repeated dumbly. He nodded.
"I guess so," she said. "I mean, I’m not sure. I mean—"
"You don’t, do you?"
She bit her lip. "Um. I’ve had some good moments, I guess …"
"You hate it. Admit it."
For another second, she hesitated - this was a precipice she’d never allowed herself to even ponder. "I
Stymied, she glared at him. "Well, do you like it?"
Snape laughed again, without mirth.
"Sybil," he said. "Every so often, when the Fates are kind, and Neville Longbottom is on the opposite
side of the castle, I catch a momentary glimpse of what it must be like to enjoy the act of teaching." He
had lowered his voice to a bare whisper, as if confiding some great secret. "Every so often, there’s a
glimmer of understanding. A peg of knowledge shoved into the corresponding hole in some ordinarily
impenetrable head. This encourages me."
He paused thoughtfully. "And of course I will be eternally grateful to Albus for the offer of
employment, given the circumstances under which he offered it."
Sybil raised her eyebrows. "But …?"
"But. As Sal is my witness"—Sybil smirked at this; their House had long sworn their most serious
oaths by Slytherin himself, but it seemed a bit comic once you actually knew him—"I tell you this: the
last nine years have been the longest and most bloody miserable of my life. I’d rather walk Fluffy for a
living than walk back into that classroom."
They stared at each other, in a moment of perfect understanding. "Oh, God," Sybil said fervently. "Me,
His lips twitched.
She stifled a giggle.
And then they were roaring.
Given all of that, it wasn’t so surprising at all that she should find herself underneath him again. Sybil
let out a last hiccuping chuckle, and fitted her mouth to his.
When the universe chose to be serendipitous, sometimes it was a mistake to examine your good fortune
too closely. She was just going to run with this, as long as it lasted.

Chapter Thirty-Four
"Where’s your aunt, Hermione?" Samiya asked as they emerged, blinking, from the pre-med building
and into the bright October sunshine. "Did she go back to England already? I thought she was going to
stay longer than that."
"Mm. Last week," Hermione said, nodding cautiously. "She had planned to stay longer, but as it ended
up she couldn’t take the time."
"Oh, that’s a shame."
"Mm." Hermione glanced around at the four Egyptian girls, unaccountably guilty over her half-lie –
they were so quick to believe! – and anxious to change the subject. "So," she said. "Where are we
going? Valley of the Queens?"
Three nods – they hadn’t all been to the hammam together in weeks, since before Trelawney’s visit –
and one shake of the head. "I’m hungry," Neila objected, and Itmana rolled her eyes.
"You’re always hungry. And if you go to the hammam on a full stomach, you’ll be sick."
"If I go on an empty stomach, I’ll faint," Neila said, her pretty kewpie-doll mouth settling into the
beginnings of a pout. Itmana rolled her eyes. Ivonne, ever-impatient, tossed her head in its bright
paisley scarf.
"Well, let’s not stand around debating it," she said. "I’m broiling. And I want a massage. We’ll eat
That settled, they began to walk. Hermione deliberately lagged behind with Itmana, who had been
giving her meaningful looks ever since the end of class.
"What is it?" she murmured into Itmana’s ear. "Your admirer isn’t still following us, is he?"
"Hmnph." Itmana jerked her head backwards on an angle to the street. "He was outside waiting before
the class – he must be crazy, to sit out there all afternoon in the sun. He’s a couple of yards behind us
now. I don’t know if he knows we’ve seen him or not – there, just look, now, while he has his head
turned. Do you see him?"
Hermione nodded. "I think so. He’s wearing white again, right?"
"Right." Just like before, their stalker had the end of his striped turban drawn over the lower half of his
face. Hermione squinted hard against the afternoon sun, trying to see his eyes. Shadowed as they were
in the folds of his headpiece, she couldn’t tell if they were light or dark.
"Has he been following you since last week?"
Itmana shook her head. "If he has, I haven’t seen him. I only notice him when we’re all together."
"Huh. That’s odd."
This was most unexpected – Hermione had rather hoped that Malfoy, if indeed it was he, would have
taken a hint from Mikhail’s untimely demise and gotten himself hence. Unconsciously, her hand
strayed to the lump of jade under her robes, then slid down to her pocket to touch the cool smooth
wood of her wand.
Well, if what had happened to Mikhail was any indication, she didn’t need to worry too much about her
own well-being. Her friends, though, were another matter entirely … and clad as all five of them were
in black robes and bright silk headscarves, picking her out among them at a distance would be close to
impossible. Much as she’d like to think that Malfoy wouldn’t kill innocents, Hermione was afraid she
already knew otherwise.
And she’d left her packages of protective chocolates back at the Consortium this morning, in the
bottom of her other bag. Damn. She glanced sideways now at Itmana, to find her friend watching her
"What do you think we should do?" Itmana murmured. For a moment, her eyes flicked to the heavily
armed policeman on the corner – then, she averted her gaze. Good, thought Hermione, relieved—the
last thing they needed right now was to get one of Cairo’s finest Avada Kedavra-ed in the middle of
Friday afternoon lunch hour.
"Sorry, I was thinking. Let’s just get there fast," she said, keeping her voice low so the others wouldn’t
overhear. Itmana looked hopeful.
"You think that’s best?"
"Yeah." Hermione frowned over her shoulder at the distant figure in white. "If he’s waited this long,
he’ll wait a little longer."
More unsettled than either of them cared to admit, they drew their scarves more tightly closed against
the blowing grit of Cairo on a Friday, and hurried toward the safety of the hammam.
They had barely finished their massages and stepped into the depilatory room when Hermione was
ambushed from all sides.
"All right," Neila said. "Tell us all about him."
"Him?" Hermione, still worrying over the Malfoy Issue, stared at her blankly. Ivonne snorted and
elbowed her.
"Don’t roll those virgin’s-eyes at us," she said. "You know very well what we’re talking about, you
"I do?"
"The man," Neila said with a gusty sigh, shoving Hermione unceremoniously down on a slab of heated
marble and purposefully slathering a strigil with a dollop of honey-scented yellow goo. "The handsome
one. The redhead. He met you after class on Wednesday, remember?"
"Oh!" Relieved, Hermione relaxed and allowed some of the honey paste to be transferred to her left
calf. "You mean Bill," she said as Neila patted the first strip of linen into place, then yanked. "Ow!"
"Quit whining," Ivonne said. "You ought to be used to it by now." Hermione ignored her.
"Oh, that was Bill?" Samiya leaned in, dark eyes shining. "He’s so tall. So—so—"
"Delicious," Neila cut in with a little sigh. The others nodded vigorously.
"Those shoulders—"
"That hair—"
"The way he looks at you—"
"—so romantic." That was Samiya again, looking wistful; if Itmana was the group’s token political
dissident, it was Samiya who took home the award for Culture Envy, enamoured as she was with
Belgian chocolate, French lace, and Hollywood movies. "And the flowers—oh, Hermione, he brought
you flowers."
"Forget the flowers. Did you get a good look at his ass?"
Shocked, delighted titters.
"Tell us everything," Neila prompted again, and Hermione gave in with a shrug and a little laugh.
"Okay," she said, wincing in expectation as Neila tacked down another strip of linen. "This is … ow! …
how it happened …"
It had been a week and a half since that first night – a crazy-eight clutch of days filled with lunch dates
and dinners-in; of club-crawling and extravagant cocktails and imported tulips out of season and
blindfolded Apparition into forbidden corners: museum vaults and gilded tombs and jewel-bright
mosques, all prefaced by his warm amber glances and the same words each time: Madison, you’ve got
to see this. Cairo through Bill’s eyes was a treasure trove of concealed delights—the grimy, crowded
streets only a convenient façade serving to hide the secret gardens he’d discovered and cherished one
by one, like precious stones left glinting, magically, in a sieve.
"Everything you show me is beautiful," Hermione had murmured to him just the other afternoon. They
were standing in a shadowy corner of a Byzantine-era chapel in Coptic Cairo, watching the African sun
blaze through a huge stained-glass rose window dominating the space over the plain stone altar.
Everything in the little room glowed with a wash of prismatic colour; even the ubiquitous Sahara dust
seemed to sparkle in the air, made momentarily glorious by a simple trick of light.
Bill had shrugged, a one-shoulder gesture that reminded her suddenly of Ron. "No real trick to it," he
said. "There’s a lot here that’s beautiful. Nothing to do with me."
"But you go out of your way to find it," Hermione persisted, "and remember it. That’s so rare."
"Not really." He gave her a quick glance – not his normal admiring gaze but a fleeting flicker of eye
contact that looked almost … well, defensive. "I mean," he said, "you’ve seen Mum and Dad’s house,
"The Burrow? Sure."
"Right. Well, it hangs together, and it holds us all on holidays if we don’t breathe too vigorously, but
it’s still a heap. Like everything they have – it works well enough, but it’s all very function-over-form.
Mum hasn’t had new furniture since before the twins were born. No money for it."
"Ron’s really sensitive about that," Hermione said, almost without thinking. Bill rolled his eyes.
"We’re all really sensitive about that," he said. "I mean, I admire Dad more than just about anyone else
in the world. And my mum’s miraculous—you’ve met her; you know. But if you grow up like that, it’s
not something you want for yourself."
"Hm." Hermione studied him curiously. "Is that why you took the job in Cairo?"
"Partly." He gazed moodily up at the window, his upturned face washed in blue and gold by the tinted
light. "Look at that," he said. "I think that’s why Dad loves the Muggle culture so much – I mean,
they’re so limited in their capabilities, compared to us, and look what they do with it. No wizard
thought up stained-glass, that’s for sure – but on the other hand, why not? Why not have coloured light
if you can manage it, instead of plain?"
This was the most self-analytical she’d ever seen him, and it was odd – like running into an old friend
from primary school at an out-of-town supermarket. "I never saw it like that," Hermione said, and he
grinned at her.
"You wouldn’t, would you? But it’s the Weasley Curse, all the same … we’re endlessly drawn to
beautiful things for their own sake." He looked suddenly rueful. "Can’t tell you how many smart girls I
passed over for bimbos at Hogwarts, just because of that. Stupid."
Hermione thought, unexpectedly, of Ron’s erstwhile crush on Fleur, and nodded slowly. "Well, you’ve
obviously seen the error of your ways there," she said, flushing at her own self-deprecation. Bill rolled
his eyes.
"Madison, this conversation doesn’t apply to you, and you know it," he said. "You can’t even judge
yourself by ordinary standards – you’re your own category; you’re the It Girl. When I look at you …"
For a second, their eyes held, and she saw a flash of intensity there, simmering behind his easy-going
mask like a second face eager to see daylight. When I look at you … and Hermione held her breath,
simultaneously hoping he’d finish and wishing he wouldn’t.
And, because she couldn’t help it, because it was inevitable, she’d thought of Snape, and bitten her lip
to keep it from trembling like a toddler’s. And that had broken the spell; he’d stepped back, said
something light and funny and even though she’d known she shouldn’t, she’d laughed and let him.
Christ, what a mess – and for someone so supposedly together, so on top of it, she felt all weak and
trembly inside, as if cold hands were twisting in her guts. It was a relief to leave the Priestess in the
folds of her robes and step into a steamy haven with laughing, playfully sniping friends. To spin them
the tale, to leave out the magic and leave out the angst and give them the fairy-tale version they wanted
to hear … girl plus boy equals love and happiness, no worries, no impediments.
A relief to forget. For a moment, Hermione thought longingly of Obliviate – how easy would it be?
how satisfying? Like falling through the floor of the cabana dressing room and finding yourself
floating, that’s how.
Careful, Granger. That way lies madness.
Madness? Madness is what you’re in the middle of right now.
She lay back, let the heat seep into her bones, and tried not to think.
As it turned out, Neila didn’t stay to eat with them afterwards, after all – like Samiya and Ivonne, her
college-girl freedom was only skin-deep; there was a family at home, a house to keep and dinner to get,
and so they said their goodbyes at the door of the hammam, leaving Hermione and Itmana alone
together. This wasn’t unusual – as a matter of fact, it was the norm; Neila always wanted to eat first,
Ivonne always talked her out of it with the promise of a snack later, and then by the time they emerged,
scrubbed and polished and gardenia-fragrant, it was time to go. By this time, the exchange had passed
into the realm of comforting ritual.
When Hermione paused to think about it, it was rather odd that Itmana didn’t seem to have the same
kind of familial obligations. "My mother pays my aunt for my keep," she’d said, the only time
Hermione had asked about it; "even though we’re related, I’m considered a lodger, not a member of the
family. It’s nice – means that my time’s my own, as long as I’m home before dark and don’t bring
disgrace on my uncle’s house by talking to strange men in the street."
Apparently, Itmana’s paying-guest status also made her reluctant or unable to entertain at home –
Hermione had by now been for tea at Neila’s and Ivonne’s, and met Samiya’s mother a handful of times
at the hammam, but she had yet to figure out exactly where it was that Itmana lived. Not that she had
room to talk, since she’d never had them over to her place either … but that was different, wasn’t it?
After all, anti-Muggle security only went so far.
Or maybe she was just reluctant to mix the Muggle part of her existence with the magical. In any case,
she and Itmana had fallen into the custom of getting a quick post-hammam bite, just the two of them,
mint tea and crisp-yet-gooey squares of baqlava at one of the little corner cafés that seemed to
dominate Cairo’s downtown district. Today was no different, but they both kept glancing over their
shoulders, even after they’d lingered over their second cups of tea and re-emerged into the red-streaked
late afternoon.
"Is he there?"
"Don’t see him." Hermione lifted the front of her hijab away from her sticky body and thought
longingly of her scheduled pool-date with Bill, an hour from now. "Let me walk you home, just in
Itmana hesitated, then – casting another fearful look behind her – reluctantly acquiesced. "Okay."
They set off in the direction of the University, walking fast and sticking with the crowd. A couple of
times Hermione thought she saw a familiar flash of white, but dismissed it as the work of an overactive
imagination. She kept a tight grip on her wand and tried to look nonchalant.
"Weekend plans?" she asked, and Itmana shrugged.
"Nothing special." She gave Hermione a sly look. "Bet you do, though."
"Yeah." Her Saturday was promised to Bill, and he’d been most mysterious about their destination.
Thinking about it cheered her. "He won’t tell me where we’re going."
"Lucky girl, to be going anywhere at all."
Hermione made a sympathetic moué. "Yeah. I know."
It was nearly dusk by the time Itmana stopped at the entrance to a small side street. "I can go from
here," she said. "Thanks for walking me home."
"Are you sure?" Hermione peered suspiciously down the winding, narrow street. "I can walk you all the
way to your door; it’s no trouble."
"No – that’s okay. Thanks."
"All right." Hermione turned back toward the main thoroughfare and the bridge to Downtown. "See
you Monday," she called over her shoulder, and saw Itmana wave back at her.
"See you."
She hadn’t gotten fifty feet when she heard Itmana scream.

Chapter Thirty-Five
It was a real, bloodcurdling shriek, quickly cut off and followed in short succession by masculine
cursing, a sharp slap, and Itmana’s choked cry … from the sound of things, she’d bitten his hand and
gotten backhanded for her trouble. Skidding to a halt, Hermione wheeled and raced back in the
direction from which she’d come, wand in hand, praying that she’d reach them before Malfoy took it
into his head to Apparate.
Two things stopped her in her tracks, fifty feet away.
First of all, the man holding the kicking, cursing Itmana wasn’t Lucius Malfoy, the man in the white
galabeyya, or anyone even remotely resembling either of them. Whoever this guy was, he was swarthy
and muscle-bound, with an aroma of day-old camel about him that Hermione could smell even from
half a block away. And she’d never seen him before in her life.
Secondly, and more importantly, he was obviously a Muggle.
Hermione had just a second to ponder the ethics thereof, and the African Ministry’s hypothetical
position upon, the casting of Stupefy on non-wizards. And then the issue became moot, as a second
Muggle – even sturdier than the first, looking like Bluto in a dirty bedsheet – came up behind her and
took her wand out of her hand.
Oh, fuck. She hadn’t even seen him.
"Husan," called Bluto in working-class Arabic, "look at this, would you?" He captured the stunned
Hermione’s wrist in one massive paw and and grinned down at her with blackened teeth. "What were
you going to do, layla, poke him to death? I’ve picked my teeth with bigger sticks than this."
"I think," panted Hermione, whose arms had somehow ended up pinioned behind her back, and whose
efforts to make violent contact with Bluto’s genitalia weren’t finding the degree of success she had
hoped, "that says less about my, um, stick, than it does about your teeth."
She could also have commented upon his breath (fetid), his manicure (suspect), and his general level of
hygiene (as far as she could tell, nonexistent – he, too, appeared to have been recently friendly with a
camel) … but Muggles or no Muggles, she was starting not to like this situation. Damn it, he had her
wand – how stupid could she be, to have let that happen?
And then matters went from bad to catastrophic, as at Husan’s terse order – "Let her go, Abu; she’s the
wrong one" – the ever-compliant Bluto turned her loose, stared for a moment at the shiny polished twig
he was holding, shrugged, then snapped it in one beefy mitt and casually dropped the pieces in the
Oh, that asswipe, thought Hermione furiously, having to check herself not to make a grab for the
splinters at her feet. And then, in the same breath: okay, this is bad. But more so yet for Itmana, who
was still pinned and helpless and white to the lips with fright, one cheekbone beginning to purple where
Husan had struck her.
Broken wand or no, Hermione decided, she couldn’t just stand there and do nothing. She didn’t know
how Lucius Malfoy had managed to get this pair of oafs to do his dirty work for him, but damned if she
was going to let someone else take the fall for her.
"You have the wrong girl," she said, stepping forward into what remained of the light. "It’s me you
want, not her."
Husan looked surprised.
"But you’re not the one in the picture," he said, a bit blankly. Hermione blinked, taken aback at this,
then persisted.
"Are you sure?"
Looking her suspiciously up and down, he tightened his grip on Itmana and nodded to Abu—who dug
in the pockets of his robes for a moment and finally produced a small black-and-white snapshot and
held it out to her. It was inexpertly taken, and blurred with a combination of bad exposure and a layer
of grime, but it was Itmana, half in profile, crossing the street in front of the university.
Okay, Hermione thought, momentarily flummoxed. Maybe they did have the right girl – or maybe
Malfoy had just snapped the wrong picture by accident. Still, even a witch without a wand was better
off than a Muggle, right? And she had the Priestess – Itmana had nothing. She squared her shoulders.
"That’s a picture of me," she said in her best Minerva-McGonagall aren’t-you-foolish tones—from the
photo’s quality, it might have been almost any girl in Cairo, and except for their hair, which was
covered by their scarves anyway, and half a shade’s difference in the colour of their skin, they did look
a bit alike.
And in any case, these two weren’t headed for a Mensa banquet anytime soon. If she was ballsy enough
about it, it just might work.
Itmana’s eyes went wide and round. Husan scowled.
"It is?"
Hermione sniffed. "I ought to know, oughtn’t I?"
"Kazab," gasped Itmana, looking scared but determined. "She’s lying – it’s not true." The two thugs
exchanged exasperated glances.
"Look here," snapped Husan. "Which one of you irritating little binti is Princess Fatima of Jordan?
Princess? Hermione’s eyes shot, startled, to Itmana’s, and saw in their dark depths only tired
resignation. Well, what do you know.
"I am," she said firmly.
"No, I am," insisted Itmana.
Silence. By now, the narrow alley they were standing in was almost completely dark. A man hurrying
past on the next street paused and looked at them enquiringly – then, at Abu’s cheery wave, grinned and
hurried on. Apparently, the good citizens of Cairo didn’t look askance at a little friendly manhandling
in the streets, Hermione thought, and felt her already-low spirits sink a little farther into her feet.
"Fine," Husan said wearily. The look on his face made it clear that nothing in his Evil Henchman
training manual had covered this sort of situation; nevertheless, he was going to make the best of it.
"We’ll just take both of you, then."
Resourceful of him, Hermione thought—just before something heavy collided with her temple. From
the all-pervasive smell of camel, she deduced that it was probably Abu’s fist.
Oh, shit, wailed the Voice of Caution. We’re in for it now … and for once, the Daredevil kept her mouth
And then Hermione couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer.
Bill, chin-deep in the expense vouchers he’d been doing his best to ignore for going on two months
now, glanced up at the wall clock in his office and groaned.
Pleasure before business, sure – that was his credo, nine days out of ten. And he’d been thinking about
his upcoming lagoon-date with Hermione ever since he’d woken up that morning.
But on the other hand, if he didn’t finish these bloody expense reports before he left for the day,
Linchpin was going to have him on toast points for a snack. And what’s more, he might not get paid.
There was no help for it; he was going to have to work late.
"Here, Satchmo," he muttered, and drew a lopsided little rose next to his signature before tying the note
he’d scribbled to the owl’s leg. "See if you can catch her before she heads up to the roof, okay?"
Bloody hell, he hated paperwork. He was going to be here all night.
She was conscious first of splitting pain in her head, and then of gratitude for the dark in which she was
lying. Slowly she stirred, feeling aches spring to life in other places – a bruise high on her hip; an
uncomfortable pull at her shoulders, tipping her off to the fact that her hands were tied behind her.
Ankles, too. And that darkness wasn’t night, it was a blindfold. Well, they were thorough, at least.
It was cold, but there was no wind … she must be inside. No sound from the Keystone Kops, nor did
their distinctive aroma linger in the air – they were either elsewhere or sleeping, then. There was a
noise nearby like great beating wings, an engine noise. Hermione frowned under her blindfold and
listened. It sounded like an airplane’s idle, but it couldn’t be a commercial jet … even if she was inside,
she was lying on sand – she could feel it sifting grittily into her clothes. And chilly sand, at that.
They weren’t in Cairo anymore.
A desert landing field, then, and a private jet … how Kristin Scott Thomas was that? But to transport a
runaway princess, it sort of made sense.
And speaking of princesses ….
"Hermione?" Itmana, awake now for God-knows-how-long and whispering through dry lips.
"You shouldn’t have lied," Itmana murmured. "You shouldn’t be here."
Hermione shifted closer to the sound of her voice and felt the Priestess brush the side of her breast,
underneath her robes. Thank goodness for small favours.
"I figured I had less to lose." She snorted softly. "Not that you’re exactly qualified to give lectures on
"I’m sorry." Itmana sounded tired. "It was too big a secret to give away. I didn’t like having to lie …
not to you."
"’S okay." When it came right down to it, Hermione figured she’d been slightly less than forthcoming,
herself. "Does it make it worse for you that I’m here?"
Itmana hesitated. "No. I’m glad."
"Well, then." Hermione tried vainly to find a more comfortable position on the ground, and stopped
when it became obvious that all she was doing was getting more sand in her clothes. She flexed her
fingers behind her, vaguely alarmed when she couldn’t feel them for a moment, and tried not to think
about snakes. "Don’t worry about it."
"I’m afraid that’s impossible," Itmana said grimly. "If you knew Khaled like I do, you’d be worried too.
It won’t matter to him that you have nothing to do with this; it’s enough that you’re a Westerner, and
that you’re my friend."
"Khaled," Hermione repeated. "Is he the man in the white robes who’s been following us around for the
last two weeks?"
"I think so." Itmana made a soft sound of self-derision in her throat. "I never got a good look at his
face, so I can’t be certain. But from his height and complexion, it seems about right – and this"—here,
she thumped the sandy ground awkwardly with her bound feet—"checks out, too. He has a private
plane and a landing strip just west of the Kharga Oasis. That’s probably where we are right now. He’s
going to be in here any minute; I can hear the plane. I don’t know what’s keeping him, but it can’t be
"Who is he?" Hermione wanted to know. "Your fiancé?Your, um … "—she paused as a new thought hit
her—"Itmana, you aren’t married, are you?"
That got a laugh out of her. "Married? Praise Heaven, no. And never to him, insh’Allah."
"Well—who, then?"
A long pause. A soft sigh.
"He’s my half-brother," Itmana said finally, so softly that Hermione could barely hear her. "And I think
he’s gone a bit mad."
Hermione had a million questions hovering on the tip of her tongue, but now didn’t seem the time to
ask them. Biting back her curiosity, she rolled over again and settled down to wait.
Whoever this Khaled was, she had the feeling she was going to find out soon enough.

Chapter Thirty-Six
But Khaled kept them waiting - and waiting - and still he didn't come; the plane's engines hummed for
another hour or so, then expired with a metallic shudder, and still they were left alone in the frigid
darkness. Hermione suspected that this was intentional - it was one thing to confront your wayward
little sister when she was full of angry adrenaline, fresh from the capture, and quite another to wait until
she'd spent a hungry night tied up without water or bathroom privileges on the freezing desert ground.
The bastard.
"Keep moving your fingers," she advised Itmana through chattering teeth. They had managed to hoist
themselves into sitting positions and prop themselves up against the brick wall of their unused-airplane-
hangar prison, which retained more heat than the ground but was still bitterly cold. Hermione, too, by
way of much calculated rubbing of her head against the aforementioned wall, had gotten her blindfold
eventually rucked up and off - it hadn't been tied as tightly as Itmana's.
Apart from those small gains, they were stuck - no wand, and therefore no Apparation capabilities, the
loss of which privilege still had Hermione gasping in freshly renewed outrage. No magical chocolate
drops with protective powers. No handy charm bracelet with its arsenal of tiny silver escape options -
she hadn't worn it on a lab day since her first week of class, when the grey kitten charm had sustained a
slight acid burn in a reactive experiment and had cried plaintively for the rest of the afternoon, until
whatever restorative spell it was under finally took effect and repaired it.
No, they were well and truly trapped here ... and whereas the Priestess had proven most helpful against
the Avada Kedavra, she hadn't been much protection at all against a simple hand-delivered KO. At this
point, Hermione would have traded in all her witch credentials - and most of the royalties from the Eli
Lilly deal - in exchange for one cellular phone, a connection that worked, and the number for the
British Consulate.
Still, even though it probably wouldn't get them anywhere - except possibly a bit warmer - she was
working on getting their hands free. She'd been picking at the knots in Itmana's ropes for what seemed
like hours, a thankless task made even more difficult by the darkness of the hangar and the numbness
in her own tied hands, and they were just now starting to show a little give.
"I think I'm getting there," she whispered. "Don't move now, okay?"
There was definitely a loop in the rope that hadn't been there before. Trying not to hurry and lose her
advantage through carelessness, Hermione hooked her index finger through the loop and cautiously
"There," she said. "Is it any looser?"
Itmana shifted her hands and gasped. "A bit. Oh, that hurts. They're all pins and needles."
"Good - it means you've still got circulation. Keep still now and I'll try for the next bit - looks like
Husan double-knotted you."
She started on the next knot, squinting in the dark and cursing as the coarse rope hooked one of her
fingernails and tore it to the quick. "Oh, fuck me. Fuck."
"Nothing." Hermione gritted her teeth and grimly set to her task again. "Sorry."
"Are you all right?"
And then there was a soft whoosh and a whisper of feathers, as a dark shape glided into their prison
through a high-up open window. Itmana stifled a scream.
"What's that sound?"
"Just an owl, I think," Hermione reassured her, then took another narrow-eyed look in the dark and
Not just an owl.
Bill's owl.
"Hey, Satchmo," she murmured, unaccountably relieved by this glimpse of something friendly and
familiar. The big black owl dropped silently from the rafters, in response to her greeting, and shuffled
over to hop onto her knees. He was soft and sleek and blessedly, blessedly warm. "You here to get us
out of this mess?"
The owl gave her a soft hoot, presumably in the affirmative, and reached up to nibble her ear. A
moment later he'd fluttered around behind her. Itmana gave a start.
"He's trying to bite me!"
"No, he's trying to untie you," Hermione corrected, and let Satchmo nudge her fingers toward the
correct rope. Itmana snorted.
"Owls aren't that smart."
"This one is." Hermione felt another loop and joyously yanked, heedless of her bleeding fingertip.
"He's very well-trained. Belongs to Bill."
Another loop, another pull, and the ropes slackened. "There, see? Give them a good yank."
Five minutes later, her hands were free, too. They grappled silently with the ropes on their ankles; as
soon as hers fell loose, Hermione struggled to her feet and limped over to a stream of pale light from
one of the high glassless windows.
"Okay, Satchmo. Let's see the note." She read silently, then cursed under her breath. "Oh, crap. He
hasn't even missed me yet, I'll bet. He worked late tonight."
Itmana studied her curiously. "I didn't know owls carried messages."
Hermione traced the little penciled-in rose absently with her injured forefinger. "Well, yeah. Like I said,
he's trained."
"What do you think that Bill will be able to do?" Itmana wanted to know. "How will he find you, and
what's he supposed to do about it, even if he does?"
"You'd be surprised." Hermione dug in her pocket - she'd had a mechanical pencil there earlier, from
class; was it still there? Please?
It was.
"Do you know where your brother's going to take us?" she asked Itmana in a low voice. Itmana nodded.
"Back to the palace, I imagine. In Jordan. Otherwise he wouldn't have brought the plane."
"Give me the address."
"Hermione - "
Itmana heaved a sigh. "He's not going to be able to stop this. Khaled's a prince - he has diplomatic
immunity, do you understand me? He could kill us both tonight and no one could touch him for it."
"Just give me the address," Hermione repeated. Itmana shrugged.
"It's your decision, of course. But I'm telling you, it's useless."
We're in danger, Hermione wrote on the blank side of the paper. They've broken my wand. Owl
Dumbledore before attempting rescue.
And then, the address.
"Okay, Satchmo," she whispered, and kissed the top of the owl's feathery head as she tied on the note.
"I don't have any food for you, I'm sorry. Get this back to Bill as fast as you can, and I'll catch you a
mouse myself next week-I promise."
A soft hoot, and he was gone in a silent slide of feathers. Hermione heaved a sigh.
"Well," she said, "that's something, at least. Now - let's take a look around. Do you think they might
have a Jeep here or something?"
The hangar door wasn't even locked - clearly, their captors had expected their knots to hold. Khaled's
personal jet glinted sleek silver-blue in the moonlight, casting a shadow on the ground like a giant
malevolent bird. A few hundred yards from the hangar, lights were on in a smaller building. Itmana
jerked her head toward it.
"I was right," she whispered. "This is Khaled's landing strip. Well, it's the family's, really. But he's the
only one who uses it - whenever the others travel to Egypt, they usually just fly into Cairo."
"The others?"
"Big family," Itmana said simply. "Muslim families have a lot of children, even when they're as
modern and forward-thinking as the Jordanian Royals." There was a bitter edge to her voice.
"Oh." Hermione took another step toward the brightly-lit cabin, shivering as the wind ripped through
her robes. "So, if you're a princess - is your father a king?"
"No, just another HRH." Itmana dragged her back into the shadow of the hangar, smirking a little at
Hermione's questioning look. "His Royal Highness," she clarified. "There are lots of us. I'm a very
minor princess, and Khaled's a very minor prince - something I should have taken into account a year
ago, before I let myself get into this mess."
"Oh. Okay." Time to shut up, Hermione decided - Itmana seemed caught in some interior battle of her
own, and not inclined to explain. "I think I get it."
"The British titles work a little differently from ours, I think," Itmana said, as matter-of-factly as if they
were discussing the market price of mutton. "Basically all it means for our family is diplomatic
immunity. And a lot of money, of course."
"Ah." Hermione cast a sideways look at her. "Doesn't sound like such a bad life."
"You're wondering why I ran away."
"You don't have to tell me."
"I know."
They edged around the side of the cabin, keeping to the shadows. As they rounded the corner,
Hermione saw a low outcrop of building that the rest of the cabin had blocked from her view before,
heading off in a perpendicular direction to the rest of the structure. Itmana pointed to it.
"There," she said. "That's where the cars will be. But I'll bet anything it's locked - just about everything
else is safe in the desert, but people come up out of the sand itself to steal petrol. And they'll have the
ignition keys inside with them, of course." She regarded Hermione curiously. "I don't suppose you can
pick a lock."
Hermione thought, longingly, of Alohomora. "Sorry, no."
"Just checking. You're very resourceful, you know. It's surprising." She tossed her head-no longer the
wisecracking, wryly political student, but altered somehow into someone with higher carriage, sharper
eyes, a twist to the corner of her mouth that was half-determined, half-resigned. "None of the others
would have made it this far, that's for sure. We aren't like them, you and I."
"No." And let's leave it at that, Hermione thought - while one True Confession deserved another, the
last thing she needed was sanctions from the Ministry of Magic to top this night off. "Do you suppose,"
she asked, hoping to distract Itmana, "that it's warmer in that building?"
"Than out here?"
"Or in the hangar."
Itmana scanned the low lines of the garage. "Probably. No windows, for one thing. And it's connected
to the lodge - you'd better believe they're nice and toasty in there."
For the first time in hours, Hermione grinned. "Reason enough right there to break in, don't you think?"
As it turned out, Alohomora wasn't necessary - rather than locking the doors, they'd posted a guard
outside one of them, not Abu or Husan but a skinny, snoring kid of about fourteen with a thermos of tea
and a mountain of robes swathed around his bony frame until even his eyes barely showed. He never
stirred as they slipped around him and through the door into the garage.
It was almost worth trying to hotwire one of the Jeeps, this stroke of good fortune - except, as Itmana
pointed out, that apart from the fact that they didn't know how, without a compass their chances of
reaching even a rudimentary civilisation before running out of petrol were next to nil. If it came down
to a choice between being stuck in the desert without fuel or water, or taking their chances with Khaled
and whatever fate awaited them at the palace in Jordan, she told Hermione, they ought to stay.
Hermione was inclined to agree - after all, it was in Jordan that Bill was primed to look for her,
whenever he got her message. And then, now that they'd esconced themselves cozily in the back seat
and wrapped themselves up in the blankets they'd scavenged from one of the other vehicles - not to
mention demolishing the stash of Hershey bars someone had left in the glove compartment - she was
starting to doze off.
"So ... why did you run away?" she asked sleepily, and Itmana laughed.
"I thought I didn't have to tell you."
"You don't. Doesn't mean I'm not going to ask."
Another laugh. "Fair enough. It's a long story, okay? But basically I think I was played."
"By who? Khaled?"
"Basically." Itmana shrugged. "You've got to understand - modern Islam, and modern Muslims, aren't
all alike. Some, like the majority of my family, are pretty progressive - they're still good Muslims, but
they wear Western clothes and go to American universities and give lip-service to women's lib. Queen
Noor's probably the best example there is of that - the Jordanian government is eager to look forward-
thinking to the rest of the world, see?"
"And then there's the ultra-traditional school of thought," Itmana continued, "which pushes a return to
the veil and the seclusion of women and says that people shouldn't cut their hair or listen to music." She
shrugged. ...They're a minority. They're the wackos who bomb the Israelis and hijack planes. Like that
American guy in Utah a couple of years ago and his Davidian Branch. Get it?"
"And everybody else, meaning eighty percent of the country ..." Itmana paused. "Well, they're
somewhere in between. Not ultra-modern, but not fundamentalists either. Just trying to make it through
the day."
Hermione nodded, thinking of her parents and their uneasy Christmas-and-Easter pact with the Church
of England. "Makes sense."
"Okay." Itmana took a deep breath. "So I wanted to be a doctor, right? And I told my father I didn't
want to think about marriage until after I got my degree, that men were the last thing on my mind.
Which was true. And I got a scholarship to Wellesley - not Ivy League, exactly, but close - and he
agreed." She paused. "Which upset Khaled. He's the token wacko in our family."
Hermione bristled, sympathetic. "Why should he care?"
"He's an idiot. Thought it reflected badly on him with his business associates and friends that his sister
was walking around in a lab coat instead of a burqa ... you've heard the others talk in the hammam, you
know how big a deal family honour is here."She let her head fall back against the window of the Jeep.
"He wanted to marry me off to one of his business partners. And was working on my parents about it
day and night."
"But they said no, right?"
"Right. Except ..." Itmana sucked in more air. "Except that I did something stupid."
Hermione's eyebrows shot up. "Which was what, exactly?"
Itmana looked disgusted with herself. "I don't regret doing it - it was the right thing to do," she said.
"There was a student group at a nearby university, the summer before I was to leave for school ... a
protest group, ultra-liberal. Under Jordan's laws, they were permitted to exist, but they weren't looked
kindly upon. They had a lot of concerns about women's rights on the grass-roots level - they spent a lot
of time passing out condoms and sex-ed brochures, if you can believe it. And there was also an
ecological wing that existed mostly to protest the dumping of industrial wastes into the Gulf of Aqaba;
that was the issue I was most involved in. They were after one company in particular, and though I
didn't know it at the time ... " She trailed off.
"Let me guess," Hermione said grimly. "Khaled's?"
Itmana nodded. "His, partially," she said. "And partially his partner's. And some other people, to a
lesser extent." She rubbed the heels of her hands over her eyes. "Well, you can guess how it played
out," she said. "There was a protest - I was there, and though I managed to get through the whole thing
without being recognised by the press, my brother has sharp eyes."
Oh, this was getting interesting. Hermione leaned forward. "So what did he do?"
"Showed up in my rooms that night. Had pictures that he'd had someone take, big glossy full-colour
prints of me waving a sign and yelling with my mouth open. Stupid of me." She shook her head. "Said
he was going to Abb' - Daddy - with the pictures, and that there was no way they'd let me go away to
school now, knowing what kind of trash I'd be likely to get mixed up with. Said he was going to talk
them into marrying me off, after all."
"And you believed him?"
Itmana blew out a long breath. "He was pretty persuasive. And it wasn't like this man he wanted me to
marry, this Sayif, was an ogre, by my parents' standards ... and then, well, who said it? With freedom
comes responsibility. And my father would have been furious to learn that I'd gotten involved with a
protest group, knowing the potential bad publicity it would mean for the Royals." She shrugged.
"Certainly he would have been angry enough to keep me out of college in the States. Whether or not he
would have countenanced the marriage ... well, that's harder to call. But at the time, I was scared."
"I can certainly understand why," Hermione said. Itmana laughed.
"And that wasn't all," she said. "Remember - Khaled's an ultra-conservative, right? Well, his partner
was, too. Marrying him would have meant submitting to a virginity test, and possibly a clitoridectomy.
And then once it happened, there would be no college, ever. Just lots of housecleaning and babies. Not
what I wanted from my life."
"Yikes," Hermione said quietly. "So you ran."
Itmana wrapped herself more tightly in her blankets. "So I ran," she agreed. "I shouldn't have - I should
have waited until the morning, to talk to Father myself. But I panicked."
"Mm." Her eyes met Hermione's. "You know what I'm scared of now, Hermione? It's not what's going
to happen when we get to Jordan. It's what he's going to do ... before."
Hermione digested this. "When you said he was a bit mad ... " she began. "What exactly did you mean
by that?"
But Itmana just shook her head, and wouldn't answer.

Chapter Thirty-Seven
Three a.m. in the Hogwarts dungeons, and for once, all was well.
For two people who'd slept alone for most of their adult lives, Severus figured that they were
swimming along nicely together. Of course, it didn't hurt that he'd Transfigured the bed from a double
into a king - but all things taken into account, that seemed a pretty minor adjustment to make.
Looking up from his volume of Symbolist poetry, he took a sip of tea and glanced over toward the bed,
where Sybil lay sleeping.
She was blonde tonight, milk-pale and flaxen and frankly, unapologetically plump, with Flemish-
Renaissance good looks that were at once cherubic and serene. Her extravagant curves made her hands
and feet seem impossibly small by comparison, dainty even ... and when he'd kissed her, he had felt
swallowed in softness, drowned in her skeins of cornsilk hair.
Yesterday, she'd been dreamy and Gothic and raven-haired, with hollows in her cheeks and widely-set
Opheliac eyes that stayed languidly closed up until the very moment he'd made her scream.
The day before that, he'd come back from his two-hour Exercise in Purgatory with the
Gryffindor/Slytherin fourth-years, to find her in his rooms, doll-like and demure, fluttering geisha-girl
lashes at him and pouring him tea.
Mind-blowing, really.
She coaxed his fantasies out of him, one by one in the dead of night while they lay wrapped together in
the dark, and then fit herself into them so effortlessly that sometimes Severus could swear that he felt
her changing beneath his very fingertips. Golden, russet, sable, mink - she came to him wrapped in
disguises, each more alluring than the last, and took away with her in return only the ghosts of his
fingerprints, the print of his skin, the echoes of the words ... endearments, obscenities ... that he
murmured into her ears, as she plunged and crashed and rose again, reborn.
If he'd ever seen her true face, she'd never pointed it out to him.
It came as a great surprise to him that he, a man who prized ritual and process and, above all, calm, was
just fine with that.
But then, Sybil wasn't Hermione - and with her, he didn't feel the same overwhelming need-coupled-
with-guilt, that shaking, boundless desire to worship and genuflect and consume. He didn't know
whether this relieved him or worried him more, to know that it wasn't him but them; somehow, it was
preferable to think of that obsession as his standard MO, rather than as a conflagration, specific to their
chemistry, that he couldn't control.
He'd stepped back from the roaring furnace of his love for that very reason - that, and because
Hermione herself had found the flames so tempting, like a little girl in her mother's kitchen who
perceives in a ring of blue fire the glittering, leaping invitation to a dance. It was easier just to shut the
door, than to keep hauling them both away from the edge.
But this, with Sybil - this wasn't like that.
If Severus didn't know better, he'd be tempted to say that he was having fun.
He closed his book, extinguished his candle, and sat in the dark, watching her twist and murmur in her
sleep and push the sheets into an untidy tangle around her hips. He knew that she'd smell like freesias
and sex, that all that pale clear skin was as satiny and fine-textured as French soap.
That if he touched her, she'd wake and welcome him, that she'd shudder and mewl underneath his
hands and curl those dainty pink-tipped toes into ecstatic baby seashells.
So why not do it? Why sit here all night, mooning over Verlaine and his absinthe dreams, when more
tangible delights were a whisper and a nudge away?
Ils n'ont pas l'air de croire à leur bonheur, came the silent murmur from the book on his lap, the words
printing themselves on his brain almost like an accusation. Severus sighed, and laid it aside.
Enjoy this while you can, he thought, and held himself back for just another moment before crossing to
the bed. Even if she's just one more gift that you can't keep, there's time enough to think about that ...
Determinedly, he set himself aside. And slid into softness.
Dumbledore wasn't getting it.
"Look," Bill said, and shoved the crumpled note under the Headmaster's nose with shaking hands. "She
says she's in danger. They've broken her wand."
"So it appears." But Dumbledore was looking past Hermione's SOS to the scribbled street address
beneath it. "Curious," he murmured. Bill flung up his hands, exasperated.
"Curious? Curious?" He wheeled, paced, spun back around to glare. "There's blood on that note," he
gritted out. "Malfoy's got her, and she doesn't have her wand, and she's bleeding, and you call that
His voice was rising - his mum would knock him into next week, if she knew he was talking to the
Headmaster like this, but he didn't care, couldn't ... not when he felt so sick and scared and squeezed-
out on the inside. "I should be there by now," he muttered resentfully, eying the hearth through which
he'd emerged into Dumbledore's office. "Not just standing around wasting time. Doing something."
"Malfoy, did you say?" Dumbledore was still studying the address. "I don't think so, somehow."
Bill started, surprised. "No? But who else could it be?"
Unwillingly, he thought of Hermione as he'd last seen her - running late for school, zipping herself into
a robe and a silk scarf and dashing back into the bedroom with her backpack dangling awkwardly from
one hand to kiss him goodbye, almost as an afterthought. She'd tasted of toothpaste and orange juice.
Smelt like soap.
See you tonight, he'd called from the bed, and she'd turned back in the doorway, smiling. She'd made a
little fish-tail with her hands pressed together and wiggled it at him. Blown him another kiss.
See you.
"Who else would do something like this?" he said now, almost to himself. Dumbledore looked up at
him, something sharp in the blue eyes.
"I wouldn't think that evil would surprise you by now," he murmured. "Having seen all you've seen."
Bill grimaced. "When it comes to Hermione, it does," he said. "How could anyone want to hurt her?
She's nothing but ... light."
Dumbledore raised one shaggy eyebrow, as if to say - are you so sure about that? - then turned back to
the scrap of paper on his desk.
"This address," he said again. "I don't know why it's been chosen as Miss Granger's unwilling
destination, but I can assure you that no harm will come to her there."
Bill looked skeptical. "How do you know?"
But Dumbledore was already pinching up a bit of Floo Powder and crossing to the hearth. Bill heard
him mutter something in Arabic that was too low to hear, as he stared intently into the emerald flames.
Then: "Farouk!" Dumbledore cried happily, and bent further into the fire. "It's been nearly half a
century - dear me, how the time does fly. So sorry to interrupt you, this late at night - but might I beg a
A few moments, during which Bill continued to fidget irritably. The flames leaped higher. And then an
aged figure in a plain grey robe appeared in the hearth.
"Albus," he said, stepping out of the fire to wring Dumbledore's hand and shaking bits of ash from his
robes. "What a pleasant surprise. It's been far too long."
"Indeed," Dumbledore said. "Won't you sit down? Can I offer you some tea?"
"That's very kind." The old man's beard was beginning to smolder a bit; absently, he snuffed the flames
and lowered himself into an armchair. "Good old Hogwarts," he said, the light of reminiscence in his
eyes making Bill grit his teeth in impatience. "Never regretted that year I spent here. How's the
education business, Albus?"
"Never better," Dumbledore said cheerfully, then - catching Bill's murderous glare and pointed glance
at the clock on the wall next to Fawkes' perch - motioned him over. "Farouk, I'd like you to meet one of
our recent graduates; this is Bill Weasley. Bill, may I present His Royal Highness, Prince Farouk bin al-
Hussein of Jordan."
He was still talking - curse-breaker at Gringotts, former Head Boy, one of our finest families ... bit of a
misunderstanding that I was hoping you could iron out for us - but Bill's head was spinning too fast for
him to process much of it.
He wasn't completely up on all his Middle Eastern royalty, but he knew about Farouk bin al-Hussein,
the current King of Jordan's uncle and - by all accounts - the most influential political moderate in the
country. That Prince Farouk was also a wizard wasn't such common knowledge, on the other hand ...
but knowing now that he was, the thought that he and Dumbledore should be acquainted wasn't such a
stretch - nor did he seem to be a likely ally of Lucius Malfoy's.
Okay. Then the only real question left was this: who had kidnapped Hermione, and why was she
headed for the Jordanian palace?
Patience, Indiana. When has Dumbledore ever let you down before?
With a last worried glance at the clock, he dragged himself back into the conversation.
Prince Khaled was tall and dark and handsome. He was also pissed as hell.
Hermione found this a bit satisfying.
They'd been discovered just before dawn, snuggled down in their nest of blankets in the back seat of
the Jeep, and hauled out into the chilly desert morning to receive their comeuppance. In the light of
sunrise, they both looked like hell - hair rumpled, clothes dirty, teeth fuzzy, the right side of Itmana's
face a violent shade of purple. From the throbbing in her own head and the tenderness across one
cheekbone, Hermione figured they could still be bookends.
But then Khaled saw Itmana, and all that changed.
"You little bitch," he said softly - and without another word of warning, backhanded her across her
undamaged cheek, so hard that she fell. Hermione, twisting free of Abu, bent to help her up.
"Y'know," she said, thinking of Mikhail, "I'm getting really tired of watching men hit women." Khaled
"You're in the wrong part of the world, then." His English was flawless but faintly accented. "Go back
where you belong, if you don't like it."
Hermione didn't reply to this. Apparently Khaled wore a ring; a slight trickle of blood was winding its
way down from Itmana's temple. "Are you okay?" she whispered in Arabic, and Itmana nodded.
"Fine. Just ... shut up. Don't make it worse than it is."
"Wise words, little sister." Khaled twisted a handful of Itmana's long dark hair into his hand and yanked
her to her feet. "You could have saved yourself a lot of trouble long ago, if you'd only been half so
He looked ready to hit her again. Hermione decided to distract him.
"I've read some of the Koran, you know," she said conversationally. "I'd be interested to know how you
reconcile your ... um, methods ... with its nonviolent message."
It worked; Khaled dropped his hold on Itmana's hair and turned to face her, the corner of his mouth
curled in a sneer.
"You," he said contemptuously. "I know all about you."
Hermione played for time. "You think so?"
"I've been watching you," he said, his eyes narrow. "With your hijab and your headscarf and your bag
full of books, playing at being a native. Making a mockery of decent women's dress to suit your own
purposes. Spreading your legs for that redheaded Englishman all the while. You don't fool me ... you
may look respectable, but you're still a whore."
"Whereas I'm sure you're saving yourself for marriage," Hermione said pleasantly. He took a step
toward her.
"I live by the Book. Don't you impugn my morals, you little English gutter rat."
"Wouldn't dream of it." Hermione took a deep breath. This just may turn that shiner into a matching
set. "After all, every deeply moral man I know is into illicit toxic dumping and blackmail. Truly."
He advanced toward her, jaw set in outrage. "You think you're safe from me?" he demanded. "You
think your precious British passport's going to protect you? I could snap your neck right now, and
they'd never lay a finger on me."
"Oh, is that an example of living by the Book?" Hermione was scared, but determined not to show it. "I
must borrow your copy; they've taken that part out of mine."
His hand flashed out, knocked her down. She stared up at him defiantly, tasting blood in her mouth.
Her ears were ringing.
Wait a minute, Granger. Why would a split lip make your ears ring?
And then Khaled was digging in the holster on his belt, and Hermione realised the sound she'd heard
was his cellular phone.
Huh. Guess you can get a signal out here, after all. Who'd-a thunk?
"Yes?" Khaled said curtly. Hermione heard the tinny overtones of speech, like gibberish, from the
telephone's earpiece, saw Khaled's face tighten in an expression she couldn't read.
"Yes," he said again, in a very different tone of voice. "Yes, I did. Yes, of course."
Another rapid paragraph from the telephone, like Alvin and the Chipmunks quoting Winston Churchill.
Khaled's free hand tightened into a fist, but his face stayed blank.
"Of course," he said. "Yes, sir. Right away, sir."
He cut the connection. Turned away. For a long moment, Hermione stared at his back, then caught
Itmana's worried gaze: what now? Then Khaled turned back around, and she had to force herself not to
recoil from the tamped-down rage and frustration in his flat black eyes.
"Husan!" he snapped. "Put them in the plane. We're going."
Huh, Hermione thought, and caught Itmana's eyes again, who lifted her shoulders in a tiny-but-classic
shrug. Wonder what all that's about?
But she couldn't help but feel like they'd just been reprieved.

Chapter Thirty-Eight
The plane ride was ominously uneventful – Khaled had boarded the plane, directed one fulminating
look in their direction, and promptly disappeared into the cockpit, where Hermione could hear him
haranguing the pilot in tense, clipped Arabic.
"My, he’s cranky," she remarked, sotto voce. Itmana laughed, then winced.
"I’d give anything to know who was on the phone just now," she said, her gaze flickering to the guards
sitting in front of them. "My best guess is that it’s my father. From the sound of things, the family
knows he’s found us – otherwise, he’d have come alone, and left us back in the desert with his goons."
She frowned. "But how would they have found out? That’s so odd."
"Lucky break for us," Hermione averred, though secretly she was thinking – hallelujah-Satchmo, Bill
came through. "What would have happened, if he hadn’t been called back?"
Itmana grimaced. "Nothing good, that’s for sure. My parents are going to go into fits when they see us
like this – Khaled would never have hit me in the face, if he’d been planning to take me straight back
"No." Itmana’s fingers drifted up to the crusted-over gash at her temple. "I mean, I’m going to be in
unbelievable trouble for running away, don’t get me wrong. But when they see this …" She trailed off.
"My mother gives lip service to Islam, but I think she’s a secret agnostic – she already thinks the
religion thing is turning Khaled into a savage and a fanatic. This’ll just confirm it for her. Mixed
blessing, really – means I’ll get more sympathy than I deserve." She raised one eyebrow at Hermione.
"From what he’s done to you, I can only imagine. Does it look really bad?"
"Like you’ve been backed over with a donkey cart," Hermione assured her. "But, Itmana—"
"If he wasn’t going to take us back to the palace," Hermione began, "then what …?"
At Itmana’s dark look, she paused.
"He likes to torture things," Itmana said. "I’ve seen him kick dogs. Step on goldfish." She shuddered.
"Believe me," she said after a long pause. She was looking out the window, wouldn’t meet Hermione’s
eyes. "There were times last night when I thought we should have taken our chances in the desert, after
all. You have no idea how lucky we are."
They rode the rest of the way in silence.
The plane had barely been in the air an hour, however, when it began to circle and dip. Hermione, who
had been dozing, thought nothing of it, but Itmana looked perplexed.
"This can’t be Amman," she said, peering out the window. "We haven’t been in the air nearly long
"Where, then?" Hermione rubbed sleep from her eyes and leaned over to have a go at the window
herself. They were still too high up to be able to see much. "Doesn’t look much like Cairo, does it?"
"It’s not Cairo," Itmana said, frowning intently as the clouds shifted and the plane dipped lower toward
the city. "It’s … it’s Alexandria. And that means …" She turned to face Hermione, dark eyes glowing
out of her battered face. "Oh, Hermione. It wasn’t my father on the phone, after all."
"No?" Hermione lifted one eyebrow. "Who, then?"
"Uncle Farouk," Itmana whispered, as if the name itself were some cherished relic … and sank back
into her seat in what looked like low-level shock. "I can’t believe it," she said. "We’re really, truly
In the twenty-five minutes it took the pilot to land the plane, Hermione heard a great deal more about
Itmana’s great-uncle Farouk than she’d realised there was to know. On one level, he was apparently
rather retiring – he lived in the palace, but stayed to himself, seemingly content to read his philosophy
books and tinker in his private laboratory. On the other hand, Itmana confided, he loved children, and
always had pocketsful of sweets and small clever toys on hand, should a young visitor choose to seek
him out.
"He’s a genuine mystic," she told Hermione. "A Sufi. I mean, I don’t really buy all the religious
propaganda, but my uncle’s the Real Thing, there’s no mistaking it. He can levitate. Stop bleeding. I
once brought him a stuffed animal with one arm ripped clear off, and he mended it with his bare hands,
made it look like new just by touching it."
She frowned. "He’s powerful, too. Politically speaking, I mean. The King never does anything
important without consulting him first; he’s our family’s holy man, but not like Khaled and his friends.
My uncle’s good."
"Think that’s why Khaled looked so panicked?" Hermione murmured, and Itmana rolled her eyes.
"You don’t know the half of it. He’s probably up there in the cockpit, soiling himself."
Hermione laughed, but her brain was peeling out into Instant Overdrive.
Levitation? Healing powers?
Could be a coincidence, she supposed; on the other hand – if it looks like a duck and it walks like a
duck …
Hold on a minute. Don’t get excited, Granger.
"How are you so sure it’s him?" she asked Itmana. "If he lives in the palace in Amman, that is. What
does he have to do with Alexandria?"
"The family owns a vacation house here," Itmana explained. "It’s really old. From the 1800s sometime,
I think. Alexandria used to be a popular resort town for expatriates, up until Sadat came to power in the
‘50s." Her fingers had crept back up to her discoloured cheek, gently pressing around the edges of the
bruise; Hermione doubted that she knew she was doing it. "Now, lots of people come here from Cairo
on holiday, but hardly anyone else. Uncle Farouk is the only one who uses the house at all. Told Father
that he likes the quiet."
Made sense. "Oh."
They landed ten minutes later on another private airstrip, after a swoop out over glittering deep-blue
water that Hermione assumed was the Mediterrenean coast – apparently, Alexandria was too close to
Cairo to rate its own airport – and were met by a long grey sedan with tinted windows, slightly old-
fashioned in design but impeccably polished; Hermione had no doubt that her father, a longtime
aficionado of vintage cars, would have fallen to his knees in front of it. A uniformed driver stood by the
rear passenger’s door, his handsome face impassive as he opened the door for her, then shut it gently
again once Itmana had slid in beside her. Hermione watched, darkly amused, as Khaled reached for the
door handle a moment later, only to be politely-but-firmly thwarted in his purpose by the stone-faced
"Looks like he’s going to have to find his own ride to town," she murmured to Itmana. "Pity I left my
guidebook at home. I could have given him the number for a cab company."
Itmana snickered.
They drove through rural countryside, past half a mile of ramshackle housing that denoted Alexandria’s
itinerant working class, and into a downtown that, while considerably smaller, looked a lot like Cairo’s
– dusty, crowded, thick with the moldering architectural remains of more prosperous times. The traffic
wasn’t quite as horrific, however – or maybe it was just that she was so groggy, Hermione thought;
behind the ghost-grey windows, shielded from sun and noise and carried smoothly along on what was
clearly a superior suspension system, she was perilously close to nodding off. By the time they finally
turned into a neighborhood of slightly-faded, once-grand European-styled villas, she was yawning
The house which was their destination was better-kept than its neighbours, with a wide circular drive,
riotous flowerbeds framed by gently waving pampas grass, and a shady, tree-lined veranda. Hermione
could see a lone figure on the back terrace as they pulled in, a slight plainly-dressed man with a long
grey beard. At the sound of the car, he slipped into the house – this, surely, was Itmana’s reclusive
uncle, thought Hermione, and wondered if she would see him at all, during their visit.
They were met at the front doors by kind-faced women in robes and headscarves – maids?
housekeepers? Hermione didn’t know, and didn’t care – who clucked over their injuries and swept
them gently along through spare, elegant rooms and into the bath, a miniaturised version of the
hammam that adjoined the house. Hermione, too tired to do much more than just stand still, didn’t
protest when they stripped off her filthy robes and the grimy blue jeans and Oxford button-down she’d
worn underneath, and began to soap down her naked body. Just one more thing to make Harry’s and
Ron’s tongues hit the floor, if they ever found out about it – but to her eternal relief, it was quick and
impersonal and utterly, utterly relaxing, so that when she’d been wrapped in thick white towels and
shepherded through more bare quiet rooms into a warm sunlit place where there was a bed, she was
barely horizontal before she felt herself falling.
Just once, she clutched at her chest, and felt the warm damp weight of jade. The Priestess was still
Everything else could bloody well wait.
When she woke up, the sun had moved, throwing the room into deep shadow. Clean robes had been
laid out … luxurious Egyptian cotton, in a restful cool shade of green that made Hermione think of
mint leaves, and her own underwear, freshly laundered. Curious, better-rested than she’d thought
possible under the circumstances, and suddenly, brutally hungry, she shrugged into the clothes and
headed for the door.
When she heard voices, she went toward them … and before she reached the door, saw Itmana, coming
from the opposite direction. "Hi," she said, and Itmana grinned at her.
"How long have you been awake?"
"Not long. I was just looking for you." She jerked her head toward the sound of the voices in the next
room. "They’re in there together – my uncle and Khaled. Uncle Farouk’s called my parents; they’re
already on a plane by now, I’d guess." She shrugged nervously. "Hope it’s okay. Looks like he’s going
to be in more trouble than I am."
"I bet they’ll just be really glad to see you," Hermione said, not having any idea whether it was true or
not but feeling that comfort was in order. "And glad that you’re all right. Are you going to come back
to Cairo, do you think, to finish school?"
Another shrug. "Depends," Itmana said. Another nervous shrug. "On how it goes. I may sort of be
under house arrest for awhile."
"Would you mind?"
"In a way. In a way, it’d be nice to be at home." She gestured to the quiet, spare elegance around her.
"Not much of this in a rented room in Giza – now, is there?"
She had a point there.
They slipped a little closer to the door. Peering around the doorframe, Hermione could see that the
room was a library, softly lit and thickly carpeted and floor-to-ceiling absolutely-jam-packed with
heavy, leather-bound volumes.
Be still my beating heart. God, do I ever hope that he really is a wizard.
Farouk was seated in a Moroccan-leather chair on the far side of the room, and though all through
Itmana’s rapturous descriptions of him Hermione had been thinking of Albus Dumbledore, there really
wasn’t that much of a resemblance. This man was shorter, for one thing, and slighter of build. Sterner,
not as merry – though perhaps that was just the circumstances; Khaled – half-chastened, half-defiant –
was pacing back and forth in front of him, handsome face turned away but snarling, hand raised in a
vehement explanatory gesture. When Farouk checked his outburst with a few murmured words, he
subsided, but angrily, like an attack dog yanked back by an unforgiving training collar.
But those were just the superficial differences. This man seemed less … well, less definite than
Dumbledore, less solid and immediate. Even in his obvious anger, his eyes seemed faraway – maybe he
wasn’t a wizard at all, Hermione thought, but just a religious mystic, gifted with some latent magical
talent that had gone untrained by traditional methods.
But then he spoke, a sharp word in Arabic that had Khaled biting his lip in suppressed pique and
dropping reluctantly to his knees in front of the chair. Hermione leaned forward in the doorway, eyes
fixed on the older man’s face. His hand lay across Khaled’s wavy dark hair in what was almost a
caress. "Can you see anything?" Itmana hissed, and Hermione absently shook her head no. Nothing to
see, yet.
But then …
"Paeniteo," Farouk said softly – so softly, in fact, that Hermione didn’t hear it so much as catch the
shape of the word in the air as it passed. A streak of gold, almost invisible to the naked eye; a crackle of
energy in the air … and the tall young man kneeling on the floor began, audibly, to weep.
Paeniteo. Hermione had read that word, somewhere … where had it been?
Ah, yes. History of Magic; they’d been studying not the Great War, but the one before. Grindelwald’s
War. The Forces of Light had used Paeniteo in their war-crime tribunals, Hermione remembered, and
shuddered … whether at the thought of the spell’s effects, or at the sound of the sobbing man in the
next room, she didn’t know.
The Curse of Contrition, Binns had called it – and dull as he’d been, Hermione still remembered what
he’d said about it.
It’s a conscience-charm, he’d said, wheezing a bit as he drifted through the clouds of chalk-dust at the
front of the classroom. Instant empathy. It visits upon the transgressor the suffering of the victim,
without ameliorating any of his guilt.
Definitely, definitely a wizard, Hermione thought – dreamy eyes or no – and frowned as the old man in
the chair extended his hand once more to caress the bowed black head in front of him.
Uncle Farouk, she decided, would certainly bear some watching.

Chapter Thirty-Nine
They ate, finally – Hermione, not wanting to be discovered eavesdropping by Farouk before they’d
even been formally introduced, had let Itmana tow her away from the library and in the direction of the
kitchens, where the kind grey-robed women who’d bathed them and put them to bed earlier now herded
them onto woven-rush stools and heaped food in front of them. It was a simple but immensely
satisfying meal: flat loaves of a’aish, still hot and floury from the stone oven; grilled fish, fragrant with
saffron and cumin and wrapped in plantain leaves; steaming tureens of molikhayya, a thick, weedy-
looking soup made by boiling spinach leaves to the point of disintegration in heavily-spiced chicken
Frankly, Hermione wasn’t certain about the molikhayya – though it was something of a Egyptian
national delicacy, its presence ubiquitous on every menu in every street-corner café in Cairo, she had
avoided it thus far. There was enough adventure in her life already, she’d told Bill just days ago (was it
just days? Jesus, it seemed like a year), without her feeling the need to eat something that looked as if it
had been raked from the bottom of a pond.
Now, however, she dug in under the expectant eyes of her culinary benefactresses – cautiously
sampling one slimy mouthful – and blinked in astonishment. Texture aside, it tasted wonderful.
Or maybe it was just that she was so damn hungry.
In any case, she and Itmana had stuffed themselves until it hurt to breathe, then regretfully waved aside
the offer of pastries and staggered to their feet. "What now?" Hermione asked, seeing no sign of their
elusive host … and Itmana – eyes worried in her determinedly cheerful face – had thought for a
moment, then snapped her fingers in sudden decision.
"The music room," she’d said. "You’ve got to see it – Uncle Farouk collects a lot of different things,
but his collection of exotic instruments is one of his best. You won’t believe this room; it was my
favourite place in the house, when I was small."
Hermione, who’d had the two years of childhood piano lessons that had been more-or-less-customary
for every child in her neighbourhood, but who still didn’t consider herself to be particularly musical –
except, thanks to Peter Granger’s tutelage-by-example, as an Informed Listener – shrugged, and
followed her friend halfheartedly. Music-shmusic; it was the library that she was itching to explore, at
the moment, provided that it wasn’t still occupied, and she could have kicked herself for not just
suggesting it.
She had to admit, however, that the room into which Itmana ushered her a few minutes later was
incredible. Tapestries, Moroccan carpets, pillows in every corner as long as she was tall, stacked one
against the other in a charming sort of disarray that all but invited one to … well, wallow. Built-in folio
cabinets against one wall, teakwood with intricate lacquer inlay; Hermione, opening one and scanning
its contents at random, thought that Gram would probably trade the Proposal Scrapbook and all its
attendant jewels for a couple of these operatic scores, some of which looked like first editions.
And then there were the instruments themselves, shelves upon shelves of them, from primitive conch-
shell horns to ancient Celtic bard’s-harps to a gleaming rosewood case, lined in velvet and swaddling,
in a silk wrap, a dark fragile butterfly of a violin – delicate as eggshell – inside which Itmana reverently
pointed out the fading scrawl of the maker’s name: Guerneri. There were gongs of beaten brass, and a
Javanese gamelan-closet, and zebra-hide drums, and a genuine Renaissance-era sackbut … not to
mention an ocarina carved from a sapphire the size of Hermione’s closed fist, and a glass case that
turned out to be full of ordinary plastic toy kazoos.
A satiny matte-black Bösendorfer concert grand piano held pride of place in the center of the room.
Hermione skimmed one hand over that wide ivory grin, played a tentative chord, and could have sworn
that she saw the sound shimmer in the air before it dissipated.
"Do you play any of this stuff?" she asked. Itmana shrugged.
"Not really. We all played around with these things as children, my cousins and I, but none of us took
formal lessons. We weren’t here often enough, or long enough, to really get hooked on it." She cocked
an eyebrow toward the piano. "How about you?"
Hermione let the fingers of her right hand noodle out the first bar of a Hanon exercise, and blinked
again. That same silver shimmer, this time with a distinct edge of kelly green – damn it, was even the
piano enchanted?
"No," she said – better safe than sorry – and respectfully lowered the lid over the gleaming keys. "No, I
don’t play."
Itmana looked skeptical, but didn’t press the issue. "Well, then, here," she said, and stooped to lift a
small drum, shaped like an egg cup and fashioned in shining embossed copper. "Try this; let’s see how
much rhythm you’ve got."
Hermione stared at the doumbek as if were a striking rattlesnake. "I don’t know," she demurred, and
Itmana tilted her head persuasively.
"Come on," she wheedled. "My parents are going to be here this afternoon – I’ve probably got less than
an hour of freedom before they lock the door on me and throw away the key. I could use a little stress
release, and so could you – you can pretend it’s Khaled’s face, if you want." She sniffed. "Or his balls."
"Oh, I don’t know," Hermione murmured, thinking of that muttered word – Paeniteo! – and the
bubbling, harsh sound of Khaled’s sobs. "There are worse things."
But Itmana had already installed the little drum in her lap, and almost without conscious thought,
Hermione’s fingers moved to stroke the cool smooth skin of the head. The feel of it under her hands
brought back happy thoughts of the Consortium, another elegant womblike place not unlike this bright
rich room – sunlight through the windows, Areli beaming from the background, thin intense little
Camilla, looking wise and saying Power—power most of all.
And then that made her think of her wand, unexpectedly – Ollivander, that old madman, and his dingy
rathole of a shop that had made her mother’s lips thin disapprovingly and her father take a protective
step closer to her, and then another, until the triumphant flick of her wrist when she’d finally picked up
the one that felt right had nearly singed off his eyebrows. She still remembered the uneasy silence over
ice-cream at Florian Fortescue’s after that – her father trying, unsuccessfully, for humour (Wow! Guess
we won’t have to buy lighter fluid for our next barbecue, then!) and her mother openly shaken (Do you
have everything you need? Can we just go now?).
That first giddy lesson in Charms – Wingardium leviosa!, and the feather ascending just like the book
said it would, while Ron goggled at her and Flitwick beamed. The rush of relief afterwards, stronger
than her hurt feelings and almost defiant, even as she curled into a soggy little ball in the girls’ toilet
and sobbed: I belong here – I do, and damn them and what they think about me, anyway, the bastards.
I’ll show them.
Two splintered twigs in a Cairo gutter.
Not even twenty-four hours without magic, and the lack of it was like heartburn, like a toothache. She
let her fingers skim the drumhead, felt that familiar little tightening tug deep in her abdomen.
Flickita. Flickita thunkita.
A curl of energy prickled the palms of her hands. She fought back an exultant shiver.
Stop it. Stop it now.
But oh, it felt good – and she wanted to know …
"What’s that?" she asked, jerking her head toward the door. Itmana’s head jerked up.
"What’s what?"
"Did you hear voices, just now?"
"Voices? No. You heard voices?"
"Sounded like a man and a woman," Hermione lied. "Don’t worry about it – it’s probably just me
hearing things."
But Itmana was already unfolding herself from her cushion. "I’ll go check," she said, her lips tight.
"You’ll be all right, won’t you?"
"Fine," Hermione said to Itmana’s hastily retreating back, then immediately felt guilty. What a
Slytherin thing to do, Granger – you should be ashamed. You’ve got her really worried now.
Her hands, however, were picking up the rhythm again – flickitathunk, flickitathunk,
flickitaflickitaflickitaflickita – and that prickly feeling of power was moving through her, stronger now
that she could devote herself to it and scarily euphoric. Focus, Hermione told herself, and scanned the
room for something likely to experiment on.
One of those pillows, perhaps. She got her eye on a blue one edged in gold bugle beads and let her
hands quicken on the doumbek. Magic surged up in a billow of silver.
"Wingardium Leviosa," she murmured. And could have wept as the pillow obediently rose to hover at
waist-height in the middle of the room—edging itself steadily higher as she quickened her strokes,
dipping as she slowed.
Cool, Hermione thought, letting it settle back next to its fellows on the floor, and looked around again.
There – on the shelf – that sapphire ocarina; it’d do to try a Summoning Charm, wouldn’t it?
"Accio ocarina!" she ordered, and saw the sapphire shift on its shelf. Hah, she thought as it sped toward
And then the fact that both her hands were presently engaged became a slight matter of concern … she
hadn’t stopped to think about how she was going to catch the thing, once it got to her, and it was
zooming merrily on an unalterable collision course with her forehead.
Great. You think you’re so smart, getting her out of the room – it’ll be just dandy to try and explain
how you knocked yourself out with an ocarina, won’t it?
And then, just as she was wondering whether to duck for cover or try, impossibly, to catch the thing, it
stopped, and hung, twisting gently, in mid-air. Blinking, Hermione took her hands off the drum and
turned toward the doorway.
Uncle Farouk.
"Miss Granger," he said, sounding amused. "I was told to expect a bookworm, not a stuntwoman. But
then, I suppose the Gryffindor blood will out, won’t it?"
Huh? Hermione stared at him, puzzled. "Dumbledore?" she asked finally, and Farouk nodded, smiling.
"I met your young friend Bill early this morning," he said, crossing from the doorway toward her and
casually plucking the hovering sapphire out of the air. "Most concerned for your well-being, he was.
Albus had quite a time of it, convincing him not to come racing to your rescue himself. But both of us
felt that this would raise fewer eyebrows at the Ministry."
He gestured toward the bruise on Hermione’s temple. "My apologies for injuries sustained in the
interim. My great-nephew oversteps himself."
He balanced his fingertips on the discoloured skin over her cheekbone, murmured something quiet.
Hermione felt the ache ease. "Thank you," she said, then decided she’d better come clean, if only to
satisfy her own curiosity. "I saw you," she admitted, "earlier. In the library. I heard you cast the
Contrition Curse."
"Ah." Those cool, steady fingers moved to the other side of her face. "Sounds like poetic justice in the
textbooks, doesn’t it? But it’s a messy business, contrition. Never looks quite the same in practice." His
lips curled. "Of course, most things don’t."
"How long does it last?" Hermione asked, and Farouk, settling back on his heels, gave her a long
steady look.
"Until he atones." He swiped his thumb gently over her swollen lip, then picked up her right hand in
both of his and studied her injured forefinger intently. Hermione was a bit startled to feel her torn nail
begin to regrow itself. "He’s young, yet – all that hate is mostly hormones. Given the chance, he’ll
make the right choice. Redeem himself."
Hermione frowned. "What if he doesn’t? Won’t it drive him mad?"
"I look out for my family," Farouk said gently, and squeezed her hand before he dropped it. "And for
their friends. Though we’ve a greater bond even than that, you and I."
Hermione, puzzled at his soft tone, the wry twist of his mouth, blinked. "We have?"
Farouk nodded. His eyes were kind but rueful. "You’ve no idea, Miss Granger," he said, "how much
you resemble Martina. Nor how potentially damaging your presence in Egypt is, for everyone
concerned – yourself most of all. I must admit that I was hoping I’d never lay eyes on the Jade Priestess
Hermione’s mouth dropped open.
"You," she said. "You gave Gram the Priestess? You were her Jordanian admirer?"
Even before he nodded, it was all clicking into place. Hermione set her jaw and let her fingers tighten a
bit more securely around the smooth metal edges of the doumbek in her arms.
Well, that did it.
Under the current circumstances, there was no way she was leaving this place until she’d gotten a good,
long look at the library.

Chapter Forty
If Hermione had had her druthers, she would have dragged the whole story out of Farouk, right then
and there. As it turned out, however, her curiosity had to take a back seat for the majority of the
afternoon, as Itmana’s parents arrived in short order from Jordan and – amid piles of sodden tissues,
fortified by an apparently Bottomless pot of strong mint tea – the whole story came out … the left-wing
collegiate protest group, Itmana’s role in the demonstration, Khaled’s confrontation of her, her
subsequent Flight Into Egypt.
About the more recent events of the past two weeks, not much was said – the bruises on Itmana’s face
spoke for themselves, apparently – and Khaled, for his part, wasn’t talking. White-lipped and trembling
with self-castigation, he seemed barely able to sit in the same room with his little sister. Just once,
Hermione caught his eyes – and had to look away from the awful, pleading bleakness in them. Messy
business, contrition, Farouk had said, just a few minutes previous; for that sentence alone, he could
have taken home the Academy Award for Understatement, Hermione thought now, and shuddered.
For his own part, Farouk had removed himself from center stage in this family melodrama, after giving
Khaled’s shoulder a comforting squeeze in passing, and had installed himself unobtrusively in a corner,
where he was surveying the goings-on with a faint, enigmatic smile. Hermione, who had herself slipped
away to a comfortable wingbacked chair just outside the door in the next room, studied him curiously –
slight stature, mild eyes, beard neatly-groomed and streaked with salt-and-pepper – and tried, not
wholly successfully, to picture him as a young man.
Somehow she’d conjured up, from the strong penmanship and practiced sentiment of the brief note
which had accompanied the gift of the Priestess, a very different image indeed: a tall dark flashing-eyed
paragon of Rudolph-Valentino fantasy, someone who looked very much (come to think of it) like
Khaled. Imagining her sensually elegant grandmother – film-goddess looks, stacks of newspaper
clippings, the press-pampered darling of the High Art crowd – swapping spit with the understated,
dreamy-eyed young mystic that Farouk must have been, back then … well, that was a bit more of a
But then, Gram had married Grandad, who had looked less like Rudolph Valentino – or any other
movie star, for that matter – than he did that cheery-faced little claymation elf on the Christmas
specials, the one that wanted to be a dentist and hung round with disconsolate reindeer. And to be
honest, Hermione supposed that to look at a man, you could never tell.
Insert sweaty-palmed, shaky-kneed thought of Snape here.
Oh, boy. Been a while since we’ve tried that, hasn’t it?
But to her surprise, Hermione noticed – as if from a great distance – that the scowling, sneering
snapshot which popped into her head didn’t carry its customary-as-of-late baggage with it.
No memory of the Killing Curse. No sick pea-soup-green edge of physical nausea.
Frowning, she poised her mental spade and dug a little deeper, until she flipped up a memory of Snape
– the real Snape – as she’d last seen him … belted into that dark green damask dressing-gown he
seemed to favour so much, eyeing her balefully and drinking himself the glass of fizzy water that he’d
conjured up for her, and that she’d rejected.
Whatever I want for you, you impossible little troublemaker, it’s the best.
Funny how when she thought about it, just now, that single exasperated sentence started to sound a
whole lot less like Aren’t you young and foolish, and a whole lot more like I care about you. Typical
Snape, couching even his declarations in such vague terms that it took a month and a half and two
sharp blows to the head to figure them out. And compared to Bill’s easy compliments, of course –
you’re your own category, you’re the It Girl – they still weren’t much.
Or then again, maybe they were a lot more. Hard to say.
Okay. This is an odd moment for an epiphany, Granger. Focus on the task at hand, will you?
She turned her attention back to the faintly smiling enigma in the corner that was Farouk, and tried
once again to see him through her grandmother’s eyes. She wasn’t sure that it worked. But it did make
her miss Gram terribly – not for the first time – and long for simpler days … when nothing had been on
the agenda except for tea parties with the good china, the sparkle of jewels, and the profound,
matchless comfort of hearing a beloved story retold for the hundredth time.
Hermione sighed, suddenly a bit sniffly herself, and closed her eyes against the happy sight of the
family reunion in the next room.
Apparation License or no, sometimes England seemed very far away indeed.
"So," Gabrielle asked. "Are you going?"
Draco, who knew all too well what event she was referencing in that oh-so-casual question, schooled
his features into an appropriate look of blank surprise, and peered at her over the top of his Runes
homework. "Going where?" he asked.
Gabrielle threw an eraser at him.
"As if you don’t know," she sniffed. "The Halloween ball, you nitwit. Who’s the lucky girl?"
"I haven’t asked anyone," Draco said, picking up the fallen eraser and idly Transfiguring it into a zebra
finch. When he let it go, it flew straight onto the end of Gabrielle’s quill and perched there, ruffling its
feathers and cheeping at him in an irritated fashion.
"Are you going to?"
He actually hadn’t planned on it. But she didn’t need to know that. "I hadn’t decided," he said. "Why?
Do you want to go? We can, if you want."
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose at him.
"First of all, thank you oh-so-very-much, but I can find my own date, if I want one," she said pointedly.
"It’s not as if I haven’t already had offers, you know."
At this, Draco grinned. "Really," he said. "From whom?"
"None of your business." She stroked the finch’s head with one dainty fingertip. "I turned them down,
anyway. There’s no need to make their humiliation public."
"Big of you."
"Oh, shut up." She tossed her head. "Can we get back to the main point, please?"
"I’d be delighted to," Draco said amiably. "Except that you never got to it in the first place."
Gabrielle fixed him with her most imperious glare. If she’d been six inches taller, it might have been
quite unsettling – as it was, she looked like a slightly deranged version of Smurfette.
Except that she wasn’t blue, of course.
"I happen to know," she said in tones of exaggerated patience, "that the Headmaster has engaged a live
band for the occasion." Ever the literalist, she hesitated. "Well, not live exactly. But close enough.
They’re a glam-rock vampire group – call themselves ‘Bite Me’. Heard of them?"
"Can’t say I have." Draco raised one eyebrow. "You?"
Gabrielle permitted herself a delicate shudder. "Bits. Here and there. My roommates always have the
wireless blaring."
"Is this the main point?"
"Not quite yet." She rolled her eyes and heaved a long-suffering sigh. "The point, if you’re going to be
rude and badger me about it, is this: they happen to be a popular band, though how that came about is
honestly beyond my comprehension, and the whole castle’s going to be at the dance, regardless of
whether or not they have a date."
Draco shrugged. "So?"
"So I think it’ll be a perfect opportunity to slip away and go looking for your father. And don’t you try
to tell me, Draco Malfoy, that you don’t know where he is, because you’ve already as much as admitted
that you do."
"I don’t recall saying anything of the sort."
"Then your memory’s even worse than I’d supposed," she retorted. "I remember."
"Figures." Draco scowled down at his textbook.
"Why are you so obsessed with finding him, anyway?" he wanted to know. "You don’t even know the
man. I, on the other hand, do know him, and believe me – if I never saw him again, it’d be too soon."
"That’s precisely why we should find him," Gabrielle pointed out. "So you never do have to see him
again. Better we find him on our terms, instead of his."
When in doubt, distract. Draco thought fast.
"Are you sure you don’t want to go to the dance, instead?" He sent her a sly look through his lashes.
"You could be my date. I could have flowers delivered to you that day in History of Magic class, along
with some romantic little notion in French that no one else could read. Your roommates would be
jealous for years."
"My roommates," Gabrielle said with asperity, "would say the same thing I’m about to: that the whole
idea is ridiculous. How on earth would we manage to dance, when you’re two feet taller than I am? It’s
absurd." She slanted him a severe look. "And if I wanted to go to the dance, I would have already
accepted when Dennis Creevey asked me; he, at least, had the good courtesy to bring me some
moonflowers and get down on one knee."
Draco snorted. "Dennis Creevey? You’re lucky those flowers didn’t squirt water in your face." He
frowned. "And since when did grovelling become standard-issue for dance invitations? One would
think he’d have had a bit more pride."
"Where I’m concerned," Gabrielle said loftily, "grovelling is standard-issue for everybody. And don’t
change the subject. Are we going to do this, or not?"
Um. Not. "Why should we?"
"So you can put it behind you," she said softly, all her arrogance melted into a rare moment of sudden,
clear-eyed sincerity. "Aren’t you tired of waking up worried?"
He was, actually.
But she didn’t need to know that.
Maybe – just maybe – going after Lucius wasn’t such a bad idea.
"Who says I’m worried?" Draco demanded, and summoned his best bad-boy sneer. "If I were you,
princess, I’d be worried about keeping up with me."
She looked skeptical. "So you’ll do it?"
Draco hesitated, then nodded.
"Yeah," he said. "I’ll see your expedition – and raise you a rare book and a convicted felon."
Her face lit up. "Excellent."
That settled, they turned back to their homework.

Chapter Forty-One
When it came to illicit adventures, Harry had slowed down a lot, in the last year.
Part of it was due to Hermione being gone, quite a big part – it wasn’t the same, going prowling
without her, and besides, without her around to nudge them along with their homework, he and Ron
had had to be more proactive about it themselves. Part of it was due to Ginny, who wasn’t much taller
than she’d been when he’d first met her – not much bigger, either; it was as if all of her available
molecules had just up and shifted one night, into subtle-but-unmistakably-adult topography – but who
possessed a startling candour when it came to beds, and the sharing thereof.
Harry, not for the first time, said a silent prayer to the Gods of Invisibility Cloaks, and offered up a
minor incantation or two as well to the benevolence of whatever deity had seen fit to give him a
girlfriend who was a prefect, and who therefore had a room of her own. Roaming around the school at
all hours of the night just didn’t seem as appealing as it once had, when he could be spending the same
time cuddled up to curvy little Ginny in her big four-poster bed … he didn’t know whether it was
despite being Molly Weasley’s only daughter, or because of it, but somewhere along the line Ginny had
developed a very dirty mind indeed.
He wasn’t complaining.
On the other hand, sometimes it was nice to fall back into the old patterns. Comforting, somehow. And
so when he’d gotten the note from Malfoy in Charms – Can I have a word with the three of you
tonight? Restricted Section, eleven o’ clock – he’d caught Draco’s eye, just for a moment, and nodded,
feeling a flare of the old excitement tingle in his fingertips.
They’d wedged themselves under the Invisibility Cloak with a bit of difficulty – it was a good thing
Ginny was so small, otherwise they’d never have been able to pull it off, and as it was he and Ron had
to hunch down to hobbit-level to keep their feet from showing – and had trundled off to the library. As
it turned out, they needn’t have bothered with the Cloak … the castle was peacefully, serenely quiet.
Harry, remembering the vigilant days after Sirius’ escape, and then, following Voldemort’s return, when
you couldn’t have gotten from Gryffindor Tower even to the Great Hall without dodging Filch, two
ghosts, and at least one professor, smiled to himself.
Looked like he wasn’t the only one who had slowed down.
But as Draco pointed out to them a few minutes later, there was still Malfoy. Lucius, that was.
"No hope for this term, of course," he said. They were lounging around Elysium’s hearth in conjured
chairs, crunching idly at some chocolate biscuits Gabrielle had procured earlier from the kitchens. "But
I imagine my scholarship’s still standing, even if it’s been overridden at the moment. It’d be nice to get
back to Beauxbatons after the Christmas holidays."
"One would think Madame Maxime would let you back now," Ginny said sympathetically. "I mean, it’s
not as if he’s attacked the school, is it? Has anyone even heard where he’s gone to, in the last few
Harry shook his head.
"The last I heard of Malfoy," he said, nodding at Draco, "was back in September when he first escaped
and Dumbledore sent Snape and McGonagall to fetch you and Hermione home. Then the two of
you"—here, he indicated Gabrielle with a sideways jerk of his head—"stayed, and she was back in
Cairo before her bags were unpacked."
"Anybody heard from her since?" Draco asked casually. Ron frowned.
"Yeah," he said. "She’s good about writing, better than I am anyway. I’ve got a stack of postcards up in
my room. Not that they say much."
"I got one of those, too. Two platitudes and a signature, right?"
Harry’s eyebrows lifted. Looked as if Draco was still a bit bitter. He cut his eyes over to Gabrielle, who
was nibbling a biscuit with elaborate nonchalance. Wonder which way the wind’s blowing there?
Aloud, he said: "She took a couple of bodyguards back with her, right? It was the only way
Dumbledore would let her go."
"Right," Ginny said, and snickered. "Trelawney, remember? Dumbledore taught Divination himself for
two whole weeks. And Sal."
"Yeah," Ron said slowly. "But Trelawney’s been back for weeks."
"Good thing Sal’s still there, then, isn’t it?"
"He’s not," said Gabrielle, and they all turned, open-mouthed, to look at her. She gave them a one-
shouldered shrug. "I saw him the other day," she said. "Playing horseshoes with the Bloody Baron,
down in that dead-end corridor by the Potions classroom. He was winning – the Baron didn’t look too
Harry and Ron exchanged glances. "Are you sure it was Sal?" Harry asked, and Gabrielle nodded.
"Fairly sure," she said. "I don’t know him personally, of course, but I heard the Baron call him by
name. He’s not too tall, he wears plain robes, he’s got a short beard, he’s sort of – oh, I don’t know,
"That’s him," Draco said. "I wonder how long he’s been back?"
"Awhile." That was Gabrielle again; when they all looked at her, she rolled her eyes. "Well, I didn’t
know he was supposed to be in Cairo, or I would have mentioned it earlier. He showed up in the middle
of Potions a few weeks ago, with a witch I’d never seen before. Not a ghost. We were in the middle of
making Swelling Solutions, and Professor Snape cancelled class – told us to leave our cauldrons where
they were and get out. He practically ran out of the classroom with them, and headed off down that
same dead-end corridor. Looked even paler than usual."
Harry and Draco exchanged dark looks. Ron looked puzzled.
"What does Snape have to do with anything?" he asked, and Ginny raised one eyebrow.
"Oh, didn’t you know? He and Hermione were lovers, before she left for Egypt." She looked
momentarily thoughtful. "Probably they got it on again when she came back for the weekend in
September, because she certainly never showed up in my room."
"Not that there would have been room for her," Harry murmured sotto voce. Ron had gone quite pale.
"Wait a minute," he said. "You mean to tell me that Hermione slept with Snape?"
Draco, who had been looking rather pained, managed a malicious smile. "Apparently I wasn’t the last
to know, after all," he said, half-to-himself, then scowled again. "But why, then, would both of them be
back at Hogwarts without Hermione?"
"Maybe they’ve caught him and they haven’t told you yet," Ginny suggested, and frowned at Ron, who
was still blankly mouthing, Snape???, as if to say, Oh, get over it.
Gabrielle shook her head.
"No, I heard Lupin and Black say that he’s still on the loose, and that he’s got some rare book with him
that Dumbledore wants. Not only that, but he’s managed to hire some kind of wizard assassin, and he’s
sent him at the very least after Hermione, and possibly after Draco as well."
Silence. Harry’s head was spinning.
"Something’s happened," he offered finally. "And whatever it is, they’ve hushed it up, Dumbledore and
whoever else is in on it."
"Well, who’s that, then?" Ginny held up one finger. "Dumbledore’s in on everything, so of course he
knows. Trelawney, probably. Sal, definitely. Whoever that strange woman is who was with him, back in
Gabrielle’s Potions class. And –"
"Snape," Harry and Draco said at the same time, in the same malevolently triumphant tone. Ginny
"Yeah," she said. Ron scowled.
"Him most of all," he said bitterly. "He’s probably up to his greasy hairline in this."
They considered this for a moment. The room was utterly quiet, except for the hiss of coals in the
hearth and the small, steady, methodical tick of Gabrielle tapping the end of a quill against the arm of
her chair. Draco was the first to speak.
"I know where his rooms are," he said, and fixed Harry with a measuring look. "Best if there’s just two
of us. You with me, Potter?"
Harry nodded.
Late evening. Alexandria.
Itmana and Khaled were gone, packed back off to Amman with the Parental Highnesses. "Will I see
you back in Cairo?" Hermione had murmured into Itmana’s ear, as they hugged goodbye, and Itmana
had shrugged.
"Don’t know. Hope for the best."
Why they hadn’t stayed the night, Hermione didn’t know – there was certainly enough room in the
villa. On the other hand, she couldn’t say she was sorry to finally, finally have Farouk to herself … her
curiosity was about to reach flash point.
"So," she said. They were in the library – Farouk in that same Moroccan-leather chair she’d first seen
him in, Hermione on a velvet chaise with her slippered feet tucked under her. "What do you know
about the Priestess?"
Farouk closed his eyes briefly, as if wondering where to begin. "Quite a bit," he said finally. "It’s just a
matter of finding the proper sequence, that’s all. It’s quite a complicated story."
"The beginning?" Hermione suggested. That got a rueful smile out of him.
"Ah, but if we knew where that was." He was silent for a long moment, his eyes fixed on the fire. "I
suppose it’s worth saying, to begin with, that this family has had more than its share of wizards, though
they’ve rarely been the actual heirs to the throne. There’s been at least one in every generation, up to
mine, and historically we’ve kept our secrets; the Sufi branch of Islam has been most helpful in
providing a plausible cover in that respect, in recent years." He shifted in his chair. "My father’s brother
was my magical mentor – I came to know him quite well – and before him, his mother, though she died
young and I never met her. The wizarding Husseins have impeccable records; I own archives of diaries,
dating back to well before the birth of Christ. The oldest of them is written on papyrus; its author was,
by her own account, a lady-in-waiting to Cleopatra herself."
"Wow," Hermione said, secretly vowing to at some point coax her way into that archive. "And you’ve
owned the Priestess all that time?"
Farouk nodded.
"What do you know about the legend?" he asked, and obligingly Hermione dug up from her memory
the first stanza of the poem Snape had quoted her. She hadn’t gotten even as far as Rose the goddess,
river-streaming, cold, when Farouk held up his hand to stop her.
"Ah, yes," he said, sounding amused. "The old epic. We wizards stole that from the Muggles, you know
– it’s colorful, of course, but it barely scratches the surface." He ran one hand thoughtfully through his
hair. "The biggest misconception," he said, "is that the goddess chose only one Priestess. In reality,
there’s documentation for at least seventy-five, all of them Husseins."
Hermione gaped at him.
"Really," she said. "Is it true, then? The blood, the glory, the vengeance-wreaking?"
"It’s true." Farouk studied her narrowly. "I’ll let you look at the diaries," he said. "No doubt you’ll find
them familiar. The pattern’s unmistakable: bad dreams that only the Priestess can still, bloody visions,
strange near-misses with certain death. Tales of the pendant travelling through walls, through locked
doors." At Hermione’s start, he smiled faintly. "At one point, back in the 1500s, the lucky girl in
question travelled fifty miles out to sea and tossed the Priestess into the Mediterrenean. When she
arrived home, it was underneath her pillow."
Hermione shivered. "What happened to them?" she asked. "If that’s how it starts, how does it end?"
"Always the same way," Farouk said, and paused a moment, as if he didn’t want to go on. "Murder. Or
madness. Usually both."
"I don’t understand."
"For such an ancient artifact, the Priestess tends to keep up on her current politics," Farouk said, as if
Hermione hadn’t spoken. "She seems to emerge at times of political unrest, to target social
conservatives and religious extremists in positions of power." He ran his tongue over his upper lip. "My
great-aunt, in her journals, relates her year-long struggle with the Priestess – nightmares, dizzy spells,
the usual. Finally she spent a night vomiting blood after she tried to break the statue apart with a garden
trowel; she wrote only one more journal entry after that, and it was only one sentence long: I give up."
Hermione caught her breath. "What happened?" she asked, and Farouk studied her for a long moment
before answering.
"Three weeks later, she invited a group of prominent conservative Egyptian clerics to dine at the
palace, and served them—and everyone else at the table, including herself and her husband—poisoned
fruit juice. They were dead before the soup course."
Hermione tasted bile in her throat and determinedly swallowed. The warm lump of jade around her
neck seemed suddenly heavier.
"That’s not in any of the history books," she said, fighting to keep her lips from trembling, to keep her
voice steady. Farouk only smiled and shook his head ruefully.
"If everything was," he said, "we’d be dead before we finished reading."
Hermione wrapped her arms around her knees and took a steadying breath. "Okay," she said. "So
you’re saying that the Priestess makes people go crazy and start killing other people. Right?"
"In a nutshell, yes."
"Why, then …" Her voice was shaking now, she couldn’t help it; she was too angry to stop – "Why did
you give it to my grandmother?"
Farouk closed his eyes. His grimace made him look very tired and very, very old.
"A thousand reasons," he said wearily. "But here are the main ones. First, she wasn’t a witch. Not only
that, but she wasn’t even Egyptian, but Italian, and about to marry a Brit who was obviously as Muggle
as Muggle could be." He took a deep breath. "Secondly, she was accustomed enough to getting gifts of
jewelry that she wouldn’t think too much of it, and though the Priestess was a beautiful piece, I knew
that the minute she got it back to England, it’d go into a vault somewhere, probably never to be worn
again. It’s not like pearl earrings, after all."
He gestured toward the bookshelves. "We’d had it in our vaults, of course, for millenia – but what good
did that do us, when the Hussein women were right there with it? My sister had just had twins, a boy
and a girl – neither of them magical, as it turned out, but I didn’t know that at the time, and its very
existence seemed too big a risk to take, when I could take advantage of the fact that it was deactivated
at the moment to get rid of it. I rather fancied the thought of it moldering away in a British safe-deposit
He shook his head. "And then, I was in love with Martina and I knew I couldn’t keep her, and I wanted
to make some grand gesture or other. Stupid of me – but then, I was quite a young man."
Hermione opened her mouth, then shut it again. "But …" she began.
"But if it only chooses Hussein women," she said slowly, "why did it pick me?"
"Well," Farouk said, "that does seem to be the question of the moment, doesn’t it?"
Hermione stared at him. "You and Gram … you didn’t …?"
"We did," he said, not looking at her. "Just once. Though to be fair, we don’t know for sure that the
Priestess wouldn’t have chosen you anyway. It’s possible that any likely young witch would do,
regardless of bloodlines – up until I gave it to Martina, it had never left the family, after all." He sighed.
"That was my other blunder. Who was to know that her granddaughter would end up in Egypt?"
"You might be my grandfather," Hermione said, trying the words on for size, and tried not to think –
well, it would certainly explain the witch thing, wouldn’t it? Farouk grimaced.
"I might." He paused, pointedly. "And I might not."
She stared down at the back of her hand, at the pale British skin of her forearm that showed every flush,
every fingerprint. Granger skin, Gram had said once, cheerfully. Just like your father – you’ll burn to a
crisp before you’ll tan a bit. Let’s get another layer of sunblock on you, shall we, sweetheart?
Gram herself was dark-haired, with those same gorgeous olive undertones in her skin that Giulia had.
Hermione looked sharply at Farouk – aged, grey-haired, his weatherbeaten skin the same shade as
Itmana’s – and sighed.
The truth was never simple, was it?
"Well," she said, and worried her lower lip between her teeth. "In any case …"
"Perhaps I’d better take a look at those journals."
When in doubt, research. The Granger Credo.
She swallowed the sick feeling in her chest and followed Farouk toward the bookshelves.

Chapter Forty-Two
"So," Sybil said, and took advantage of Snape’s shift in her direction to slyly snag a few more
centimetres of the duvet. "Are you going to the Halloween ball?"
As conversation starters went, this one was a bold choice. Snape rolled his eyes darkly and yanked
back his share of the comforter.
"Not if I can help it," he said. His shrug was fatalistic. "Albus, of course, takes fiendish delight in
forcing my hand, where these things are concerned; I can’t imagine that he’ll give me too much choice
in the matter."
"You just have to know how to handle him," Sybil said lazily.
She’d uttered these very words on many previous occasions and invariably gotten entertaining results
from them; in her experience, they were the verbal equivalent of sticking a hatpin into a caged tiger.
Dangerous, but fun to watch. Snape, by this point accustomed to her conversational jabs, made a rude
sound in his sinuses but reined in his annoyance.
"My mistake," he said sardonically. "Obviously, my approach to existence in general has been hitherto
utterly misguided. In my next life, I’ll be sure to invest heavily in chiffon draperies and nosy
incompetence instead."
Unfazed by his sharp tone, Sybil shrugged.
"It works, doesn’t it? Don’t knock it."
The rest of the conversation usually deteriorated into: Where’s your pride, anyway?, followed up by a
snappy Hiding under my sense of self-preservation (or, if she was feeling particularly pugilistic, this
alternative: It crawled up your arse. To keep your stick company.) But tonight, Snape let the fledgling
argument drop with a mere shake of his head. Either he was more tired than usual, Sybil thought, or he
was starting to get mellow on her.
"Did a bit of research today," she offered presently. He quirked a passably amiable eyebrow at her.
"Malfoy’s missing book," she said. "Remember the only other one in existence? In the private
collection in Jordan?"
This ungracious little monosyllable, Sybil knew, was Snapian for Go on; I’m fascinated. Tongue
exploring the side of her cheek, she plowed ahead.
"Dumbledore knows the owner," she said. "Farouk something—Al-Hussein, I think it was. He studied
at the Alexandrian Academy back in the thirties, before it closed and all the Middle Eastern students
had to transfer over to Bombay. Apparently he spent a year at Hogwarts after that, doing advanced
study in magical languages and covering a sabbatical opening in Runes; that’s how he knows
Snape’s other eyebrow strolled leisurely north toward his hairline.
"Someone," he remarked maliciously, "got caught in the Headmaster’s office for all of teatime.
Research, my arse."
"Oh, shut up." Sybil glowered at him—as it happened, he was dead on the money; she’d been unwise
enough to slip into the staffroom just as Albus was coming out of it, that afternoon, and had found
herself summarily hauled off to his office for far longer than should have been necessary, considering
that all she’d gotten out of the deal was this information, a cup of tepid Earl Grey, and two slightly stale
lemon biscuits. "Do you want to hear this or not?"
A long-suffering sigh. "Do I have a choice?"
She shot him a dark look. "The books are Paired, all right?" she snapped, and had the satisfaction of
seeing him blink in genuine surprise. "One calls the other. Al-Hussein’s half has been under a
Containment Charm for more than three centuries, to keep it from disappearing … no one’s ever been
able to read either one. Without both halves, they’re nothing but gibberish."
"Fascinating," Snape murmured, with an unfeigned flicker of interest. To Pair a document, though one
of the most effective means of encryption in existence, was difficult and dangerous enough that even
the simplest of Paired books could reach hundreds of thousands of Galleons at auction. Add an arcane,
whispered-about legend like the Jade Priestess to the mix, and the value of both books together would
be astronomical … small wonder, then, that Malfoy was interested; to be a rich man cut off from your
own funds was probably galling in the extreme. "I suppose," he mused, "that the catalogue listing them
as identical is a deliberate bit of subterfuge, then?"
"I should say." Sybil shook her head. "Can you imagine? The poor man would have been smothered in
owls by now."
"Or just plain smothered."
"That too." She frowned. "But that’s not the point."
"It isn’t?"
"No." She bit her lip thoughtfully. "What was … oh! The Halloween ball – that’s the point."
"What does that have to do with Malfoy and the books?"
"You don’t have to go this year," Sybil said. "I’ve sprung you."
"Oh." Severus shrugged, then blinked as the meaning of her words registered. "You’ve done what?"
"I’ve sprung you," she repeated smugly. "No dress blacks or drum-machine backbeats for you this year.
You’re free as a bird."
She looked so pleased with herself that he was automatically suspicious. "What do I have to do
"Haven’t you been listening?" Sybil tugged at the comforter again, pouting a bit when he refused to let
it budge. "You’re going to Alexandria, of course. Dumbledore’s given you a leave of absence, effective
"Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?" Sybil’s voice had taken on that look-how-reasonable-I’m-being tone that
generally set his teeth on edge; on the other hand, after grading the seventh-years’ pitiable attempts at
essays on the Seven Warning Signs of Dreamless-Sleep Addiction, Snape couldn’t say that a week’s
holiday would sit badly with him at the moment. "Al-Hussein has agreed to use his half of the Pair to
locate and Call the half Malfoy has," she explained now. "At the very least, we’ll be able to find out
exactly what we’re up against with the Jade Priestess. And with any luck at all, it’ll deliver us Malfoy,
"I still don’t see—" Severus, racking his brain for the little he remembered about Paired books from
Advanced Charms, pushed himself up on his pillows and frowned. "The adhesion formula? But that’s
not so difficult."
"It’s not that, I don’t think. Albus said something about encrypted ink, and needing a counter-formula."
Sybil prodded his shoulder with a meaningful forefinger. "Not to mention that you’re the closest thing
to a Malfoy expert that we have."
"Yes, well." He shifted uneasily. "I’m not so sure that’s an endorsement."
Sybil ignored this. "Admit it," she said triumphantly, grinning. "You’re happy that you’re going."
He summoned all the sarcasm at his disposal. "Overjoyed."
"’Thank you, Sybil,’" she prompted mischievously. "’I owe you one, Sybil.’ ‘You’re my hero, Sybil.’"
He studied her narrowly. Cheeky, elfin little face tonight, framed by a mink-brown toothbrush-stubble
of messy stick-straight hair. The body under his duvet was slim and small, with jutting hipbones and
hardly any breasts to speak of—an acrobat’s body. Give her a green hat, a torchy ballad, and a wooden
sword, and she’d be off to Never-Never Land.
That shouldn’t be sexy, but it was.
"If I make it up to you," he inquired acerbically, "does that mean I can skip the fawning gratitude?"
"Maybe," she demurred, and flicked him a sly look over one skinny shoulder. "I don’t know, though.
This was a pretty big favour. It might take some … doing."
Now, that sounded like a challenge. Severus slid his hands around to cup those teacup breasts, and – as
she squirmed onto his lap – applied pressure to her nipples, slow and even and deliberately ungentle,
until she whined in her throat and began to grind against him.
"Let me see what I can do," he said into her ear, and sent his fingers sliding south across that gaunt
little belly with a frisson of unalloyed anticipation.
There was something to be said for dating Slytherin women.
"Can you hear anything?" Harry hissed, and Draco shook his head.
"The Amplifying Charm’s a wash," he whispered back. "He must have some serious wards on that
"Probably a good move," Harry murmured sourly, "considering the grades on some of those essays. I
saw Parvati and Lavender in the library yesterday, taking notes on voodoo dolls." He elbowed Draco
under the cloak. "Well? That means Phase Two, right?"
Draco hesitated. Phase One – that is to say, hanging out under the Invisibility Cloak and eyeballing
Snape’s door from the relative safety of the corridor – was sufficiently behind-the-scenes and subtle to
keep him in his comfort zone. Phase Two was more of a Gryffindor thing … the problem was, it’d be
mostly his arse on the line, if things went awry."
"Yeah," he said reluctantly. "Yeah, I guess it does."
This, muttered his subconscious, is why you spent your first four years here hanging out with Crabbe
and Goyle. They’d no more be able to come up with a scheme like this than fly without broomsticks.
On the other hand, life with them hadn’t been nearly as interesting. Draco sighed and slipped out from
underneath the Invisibility Cloak.
"Practice first," Harry said calmly – Phase Two was right up his alley; he’d probably been pulling these
kinds of stunts since first-year, Draco thought with a touch of what felt suspiciously like envy. "What
are you going to say?"
"I’m going to apologise about a million times for bothering him in his rooms at this hour of the night,"
Draco recited dutifully, "and then beat round the bush until he gets irritated enough to ask me in."
"And then?"
"Then I’ll blather on for awhile about Lucius being loose and my wasted scholarship and how
Hermione doesn’t owl me anymore." He rolled his eyes. "And while I’m making a complete prat of
myself in front of my Head of House, what will you be doing?"
"Snooping, of course," Harry said cheerfully. "Ready?"
You numbskull, thought Draco irritably, you’re enjoying this. "Ready," he said – and knocked.
"The book’s part of a Pair?" Hermione repeated blankly. "I don’t know what that means."
"It means that they’re magically linked, so that one comes when the other Calls," Farouk said. "And
that you can’t read one without the other."
"Oh. So one of them’s a key to the other one."
"No, it’s more complicated than that." Farouk opened the little cloth-bound volume gingerly to show
her the pages; at first glance, they seemed to be blank. Leaning closer, however, Hermione could see
that they were filled with runelike characters, half a shade darker than the page’s surface and shifting
constantly in and out of focus, so that the parchment seemed to pulse with inner energy.
"Once it’s written," he said, smiling faintly at her astonished gasp, "it’s rewritten using an
encryptoquill. There’s no key as such to this kind of cipher; in order to break it, it’s necessary to know
the formulation of the ink that was loaded into the quill. Thousands of those on record; it takes a real
master of Potions to discern one from the other, and it’s only once the original formula has been
identified that a counter-formula can be developed to break the code. But that’s only the first step."
"Seems like that would be enough," Hermione murmured, studying the shimmering page. Farouk
laughed shortly.
"This was written in the 1700s," he said, "by Duathor bint-Hussein, who had – arguably – the greatest
mind for experimental potions of her century. She’s the only Priestess out of the entire Hussein lineage
to successfully resist the customary madness and mayhem that go along with being chosen as a carrier
of the amulet. Died in bed at 184 – a bit paranoid, perhaps, but sane to the last minute."
"How did she do it?"
Farouk shrugged ruefully. "Nobody knows. This book—" here, he indicated the flickering pages in
front of them—"was one of her journals. In it, she claimed to chronicle the means she’d discovered of
controlling the pendant, of keeping it in line. Unfortunately, she chose not to share that information
with her successor."
Hermione frowned. "Why not?"
"Family feud," Farouk said, shrugging again. "Duathor was … difficult; from the remainder of her
unencrypted journals and the writings of her contemporaries within the family, it’s clear that she
quarrelled with nearly everyone around her, and that her temper worsened as she aged. In the end, she
was almost completely secluded, except for one of the family’s house-elves, who had known her as a
child and was devoted to her despite her bad humour."
"Hm," Hermione said thoughtfully. "Is that how the second half of the Pair came to be lost?"
Farouk studied her approvingly. "You’re quick, aren’t you?" he asked admiringly. "Yes, as a matter of
fact. On the morning before she died, Duathor performed the spell – Merlin knows how; it takes
tremendous skill and strength, and she was at that point a very old woman – to Divide the journal into
two separate but unreadable books. Then, she gave the house-elf, whose name was Adi, a package
containing one of them, along with instructions to cast the package into the Mediterrenean." He took a
deep breath. "Adi, of course, had no thought of disobedience, and presumably did as she was told; the
surviving half of the Pair was placed under a Containment Charm in the family archives, for safety’s
sake, but any thought of actually being able to read it …." He trailed off. "Well, it didn’t seem very
likely, in any event. Until now, of course."
At this, Hermione perked up. "Now?" she queried. "What’s different about now?"
"Ah." Farouk shook his head. "What’s not different," he mused to himself, then seemed to gather his
thoughts and turned back to her, smiling. "I had quite a chat with Albus, last night," he said
ruminatively. "It seems that your misadventures with the Priestess have not gone unremarked at
Hogwarts – your former professors have been working steadily on your behalf to solve the problem,
while you’ve been abroad. One of them – the estimable Ms. Pince, I believe – turned up some
information about Duathor’s journals in the Ministry of Magic’s Archive of International Artifacts." He
shook his head. "Incorrect information, as it turns out – the journal was listed as two copies of the same
book, rather than as one complete Pair – but that’s of little import now. The astonishing thing is that the
second half of the Pair has recently been spotted; not only that, but in obtaining it, we may catch a
dangerous criminal in the process."
Hermione swallowed hard, but the premonition lodged in her throat didn’t budge.
Mikhail, after all, knew about the Priestess. And how would he have, unless somehow …
But the book can’t be read – how could he know?
Still …
"Dangerous criminal?" she managed at last. "That wouldn’t happen to be Lucius Malfoy, would it?"
At his nod, her heart sank.
No offense, Walt, she thought dully. But bugger you and your Small World, too. This sucks.
"Great," she said aloud, and summoned a wan smile. "When do we start?"

Chapter Forty-Three
Draco hadn’t been quite certain of what to expect when he knocked on Snape’s door, though he’d
schooled himself for low-level irritation and a modicum of irony, at the very least. He was less-
prepared for what he got instead: a harried-but-determined-looking Snape, fully dressed up to and
including a heavy travelling cloak. In one hand he held his wand; in the other, a trunk no larger than a
packet of mints. Behind him, Draco saw another monstrous piece of luggage, half-open to reveal neatly
stacked books and several small boxes full of phials, tenderly swathed in velvet.
Clearly, the opening salvo Draco had planned – So sorry to wake you, Professor – wasn’t going to fly.
He gulped, bit his lip, and said the first thing that came to mind.
"Are you going somewhere?"
Snape looked as if he’d like to say something cutting, but was reining himself back from the brink.
"Yes." He studied Draco appraisingly. "And you, Mr. Malfoy? What is it that can’t wait until morning?"
"I …" Draco trailed off, suddenly, mute, and had to bite back a yelp as Harry stepped hard on his foot.
"I … er … I know it’s late, but I was—um, hoping to talk to you about something."
"Ah. Something. How forthcoming of you." But Snape was stepping back from the doorway, and
making no move to close it. "Well, I’m leaving in a few moments, as soon as I Reduce this trunk and
speak to the Headmaster. If you must talk, it’ll have to be on the way upstairs."
An unseen brush of shimmery fabric across his knuckles as Harry slid neatly through the open door.
Draco bit his lip and stepped mechanically across the threshold. "I’m sorry to interrupt you. I don’t
know who else to talk to."
"Reducio!" Snape muttered, and bent to pick up the now-tiny suitcase, shooting Draco a sharp glance
over his shoulder. "What is it? Trouble with the other Slytherins?"
"Er … no." Draco stuck his hands in his pockets. "No offense, but I don’t really care if they speak to
me or not. I’ve got other friends."
"Mm." Snape pocketed his luggage and his wand, pinched some Floo Powder out of a small mosaic-
tiled box on his mantle, and tossed it into the fire. "Albus?" he called into the flames. "I’m on my way
To Draco, he said only: "All right, let’s go then," and held the door open for him, pausing to mutter
something Draco couldn’t catch at it before he closed it again. "Other friends," he repeated, stepping
into the corridor and turning toward the staircase. "Then you and the almighty Potter have made up
your differences?"
Draco frowned. "He’s not so bad. But that’s not what I want to talk about."
"No." Draco circled through his planned repertoire of complaints – France and his father being the two
that popped to mind first – and realised that there was only one thing he really wanted to talk about.
"It’s Hermione," he said simply, and had the satisfaction of seeing Snape’s hand pause halfway to the
rail of the staircase.
"What about her?"
"Well, we never talk anymore," Draco began. This wasn’t the rehearsed part of his speech – regardless
of his flip little exposition in the corridor a couple of minutes ago, he would rather have had his
fingernails extracted with tweezers than say anything about this in front of Potter. That he was saying it
in the presence of his onetime rival was surreal enough; speaking candidly on this subject was a bit like
having his dinner revisit him … unpleasant, and entirely unplanned for. "Which is bad enough. The last
time we spoke was when she came back for the weekend, and I … um …" He grimaced. "Suffice it to
say that I was pretty horrid to her. She probably never wants to see me again."
Snape had begun to climb again, but he’d turned his face away so that it lay in shadow. "Miss Granger,"
he said drily, "cuts a wide swathe through the field of hearts. I wouldn’t take it personally."
Okay. What did that mean?
"You, too?" Draco asked, half-amazed at his own audacity. Snape cleared his throat loudly.
"I haven’t seen her since that weekend, either," he admitted finally. His expression was pensive. "And I
was rather … horrid … myself. Not that it makes so much of a change for me. She might not have
Draco sniggered appreciatively at this – Snape didn’t make jokes often, but when he did they were dry
as dust, and his delivery was impeccably stonefaced – then sobered. "I know something’s wrong with
her," he said, a bit more loudly than he’d intended. "Something’s happened to her, or is about to
happen. What is it?"
They were in the Great Hall, about to reach the staircase to the Headmaster’s office. Snape halted
again, started to speak but thought better of it, and to Draco’s surprise, sat down heavily on one of the
lower steps and gestured for Draco to join him.
"I don’t have the time to tell you the whole story," he said. "But I’ll tell you what I can."
For an impossible git, Snape had good taste in furniture.
Harry, by now a pro at covert reconnaissance, stood in the middle of the Potions Master’s comfortable
sitting room and turned slowly in place, dropping the hood of the Cloak for unobstructed viewing.
Shelves and shelves of books. An oversized leather chair, flanked by end tables; one of them bore a
reading lamp, the other, a heavy bookmarked volume bound in what looked like dragonhide. Harry
bent closer to read the title, then raised one eyebrow at the Cyrillic script. No dictionary in sight, either.
Obviously, Snape had hidden talents.
He toured briefly through the tiny-but-impeccable kitchen—the house-elves, of course, did the heavy
lifting in that department, but from the looks of it, Snape liked to make his own tea—then glanced over
at an arched doorway. The light slicing into it from the sitting room showed a fussy eighteenth-century
desk and matching chair, a muted-but-lush Oriental carpet, and the tall silhouette of the bed. At the far
end of the room, through another door, he caught a white gleam of enamel. Bed and bath, Harry
thought, and studied the desk thoughtfully.
Might be something there, mightn’t there?
Hardly believing his luck – he’d never in a million years thought that he’d get to explore Snape’s
apartment sans Snape – he started toward the desk. And nearly jumped out of his skin, at the lazy,
sleep-sultry voice that spoke to him from the darkness.
"Mr. Potter," purred the voice, and Harry, wheeling, could just make out a sleek bare silhouette on the
far side of the bed, where he’d thought there was only a jumble of bedclothes.
"Who is it?" he asked, fumbling in the folds of the Cloak for his wand. "Who’s there?"
"Never mind that," the voice said, sounding amused. "And don’t bother going for your wand; I’ve
already got mine out." She wriggled out from under the bedclothes, a small sleek Ginny-sized woman
with short messy hair and huge dark waif-eyes and a mouth, surprisingly lush in her elfin face, so
heavy and kiss-swollen that it looked as if she’d rubbed it with sandpaper. As she rounded the near
corner of the bed and sauntered toward him, Harry couldn’t keep his eyes from dropping to her breasts
– small and high and crowned with rock-hard nipples the size of pencil erasers. She smelled like sleep
and sex and that clean winter-air scent that meant the house-elves had recently changed the sheets.
Harry didn’t protest as she flicked the clasp of the Invisibility Cloak open and tossed it aside.
"Ligare," she murmured, and his eyes widened as silk cords began to slither from the tip of her wand.
"Who are you?" he asked again, this time more faintly, but she just shook her head and didn’t answer.
He felt the cords wrap his wrists behind his back and tie themselves off in a knot.
"I’ll ask the questions, if you don’t mind, Mr. Potter," she breathed, an inch from his ear. The next thing
he knew, despite his greater size and stature, he was flat on his face on the bed, and her wand was
pressed – not-quite-gently – to a section of his anatomy that could only be described as cringing-but-
"Severus won’t be back for at least a week," promised those honey-tones in his ear. "And whereas I’m
sure you’d be missed before then, I think it’s safe to say that no one would look here. I think you’d
better tell me what I want to know."
Harry swallowed hard.
Sybil was enjoying herself.
She didn’t bear Harry Potter any particular grudge – far from it; she actually got a little pang of guilt,
brief and quickly reburied, whenever she looked at him. He did look so uncannily like James … though
sometimes, in unguarded moments, those luminous green eyes of Lily’s seemed to take on a life of
their own, making you unable to look past them to see the rest of his face. Not that Sybil had known
either of them particularly well … but her guilt reflex didn’t seem to care about that, only that they had
been honourable and brave, and that she’d done nothing to halt their deaths.
She sometimes got the same feeling when she looked at Neville Longbottom.
But Neville was pitiable, and Harry transcended pity …a very large distinction indeed. Sybil rather
suspected that his near escape at Voldemort’s hands had left him with a fair bit of psychic ability; it was
a shame that her Fruit Bat Persona had turned him off Divination so thoroughly, and that she would
never be able to speak candidly to him about it as his professor.
On one hand, this was a rare opportunity to do just that.
On the other, it seemed more appropriate at this point to have a few words with him about his habit of
illicit snooping – something that six years of close calls had apparently done nothing to halt. How best
to scare the hell out of him? Sybil wondered idly, and dug the tip of her wand a little more intently into
the tender skin underneath his balls.
"Divestio," she said calmly, and heard him gasp as cool air hit his naked skin. She moved her wand a
fraction of an inch, from side to side, grinning to herself as his hips bucked cautiously up to meet it.
"What do you want?" he gasped, his defiant tone belied by his growing erection, by the goosebumps
springing up on the backs of his arms. Sybil twirled one finger at the nape of his neck in response, and
waited until his frantic squirming died down before she answered him.
"Not very polite, breaking into a professor’s private apartments, is it? I think you need a lesson in
manners, Mr. Potter."
He began to struggle. When he spoke, his voice was sulky. "Why should I take lessons from you? I
don’t even know you."
"Hardly anybody does," Sybil agreed placidly, and let just the tiniest spark of static electricity escape
from the tip of her wand. Harry went rigid. "But then, that hardly matters at the moment, does it? Let’s
have some answers, Mr. Potter, and let’s make them polite."
Oh, this was going to be fun.
Chapter Forty-Four
"So what should I do?" Hermione had asked earlier.
They’d been up late, glancing through Farouk’s collection of Priestess documentation, and with every
page she’d read, the jade pendant around her neck seemed to grow heavier. Farouk had looked up from
the twelfth-century journal he was perusing and blinked at her.
"About what?"
She pulled it out of her neckline and let it dangle, twisting gently, by its fine silver chain. "This."
"Do I keep wearing it to bed?" she demanded. "Or do I fight it?" Unpleasant little buzz of the chain in
her hand at those last words, making her shiver. Farouk looked grave.
"Save your strength," he said finally, after a reflective pause. "To struggle at this point would be
painful, and would gain you nothing. Tomorrow …"
"Tomorrow?" Hermione frowned. "What happens tomorrow?"
"The Potions expert arrives to begin analysis of the crypto-ink." Farouk shrugged. "And we go into the
Alexandria bazaar, and buy you a new wand."
"Oh! I mean, good." Hermione dropped the chain, distracted by this new, happier thought, and let the
Priestess settle back between her breasts. "I’d thought I’d have to wait until I could get back to Diagon
Alley and visit Ollivander’s."
"Ollivander?" Farouk looked thoughtful. "I’ve heard that name before."
"He’s ever so knowledgeable," offered Hermione. "Though just the slightest bit … um, disconcerting.
And the shop’s been established since 382 B.C.—"
"—He’s respectable enough, as British wandmakers go. A mere upstart, of course—"
"—oh, really?—"
"—compared to the shop in Alexandria," Farouk continued placidly. "This is a much older civilisation,
after all, my dear. Inaru, our local family of wandmakers, were already the finest name in the field
when the Witch of Endor came in for her first wand. I don’t know the exact dates, but I’d wager that
they predate the Ollivanders by at least twenty-five generations."
"Impressive," Hermione said, and made a mental note to find out exactly who the Witch of Endor was,
when she next had a free moment. "Is there a branch of Gringotts there, too? I’d like to buy a change of
robes. And I need to owl Areli, if there’s a post office – she’s probably really worried that I didn’t come
to work yesterday."
"We’re not savages, Miss Granger," Farouk said wryly. "I think you’ll be able to find whatever it is that
you’re looking for."
He’d looked amused, enough so to draw Hermione’s suspicions, But it was late, and she was tired. And
so she’d bid him goodnight and gone up to bed in that spare white-draped room, swathed in moonlight
and mosquito netting and feeling every kink and strain of last night’s sojourn in the back seat of
Khaled’s Jeep. Even so, her sleep was deep and undisturbed, and it was with great reluctance that she
began the long swim up from deep subconscious into morning and wakefulness.
And then, twenty-five pounds of furry, exuberant something landed atop her midsection and began,
with four-inch claws that Hermione could feel even through the thick duvet, to knead.
"Ouch!" Hermione jackknifed upright and rubbed blearily at her eyes. "Cleo? But how did you …
where did you …?"
She glanced at the doorway, then at the empty expanse of bed next to her, half-expecting to see a spill
of red-gold hair, a wicked adventurer’s grin.
No one.
Cleo was rubbing her face ecstatically against Hermione’s shoulder, pausing for gut-deep purring and
the occasional tongue-swipe in the direction of her face. Hermione stroked the soft dust-coloured fur
absently with one hand and caught a flash of white on the near nightstand.
A note. She snagged it with her free hand, turned her face resolutely away from Cleo’s eager nuzzling,
and read:
Thought I’d be able to look after your wildebeest until you got back, but she seemed to know that
something was up. I couldn’t get her to eat anything, so I thought I’d bring her by. Sorry I couldn’t stay
until you woke up; I’m due down in Soweto in twenty-five minutes to assess a couple of gold mines
someone wants to insure through Gringotts. I’ll be back next week sometime.
I stopped by the Consortium yesterday afternoon to let Areli know where you are. She says you’ve got
vacation time coming anyway, and that if they need anything for the Lilly project, she’ll owl you for it.
You’re under direct orders to get some R and R, and to get this Priestess business straightened out once
and for all.
I’ll miss you. Take care of yourself.
Love, Bill
"Sweet," Hermione said out loud, and found the sensitive spot under Cleo’s chin with her thumb. "And
as for you, you bad thing … when have you ever turned down a meal?"
The caracal flattened her ears in ecstasy. She was making a sound like a leaky inner tube – Hermione
knew from experience that this denoted extreme self-satisfaction.
"I suppose you’re hungry now. It’s nobody’s fault but your own, you know."
Sighing, Hermione nudged Cleo off her midsection and slid out of bed. "Well, as long as I’m up."
They headed for the kitchens.
Breakfast. The Great Hall.
Sybil was making a rare morning appearance, mostly for the pleasure of seeing young Master Potter
sidle in, moving rather more carefully than usual, and bend a still-blushing face over his oatmeal. He’ll
think twice before he sticks that straight little nose of his in where it doesn’t belong again, she thought,
and smiled to herself behind her teacup. Good-natured little Filius noticed – those sharp eyes didn’t
miss much – and nudged her playfully with his tiny elbow.
"Good news today, Sybil?"
"Hmm?" She let her gaze go vague and dreamy, pitched her voice half an octave higher. "Oh—oh, yes.
Such lovely weather we’re having."
"Though we’ve a storm blowing in on the night of the Ball, I fear," Sybil lied. Flitwick frowned
"Isn’t that a shame."
Two seats down, Minerva McGonagall harrumphed from behind her Daily Prophet.
"Says right here that it’s supposed to be clear all week."
"Ah, Minerva." Sybil kicked the mistiness up another couple of notches; annoying McGonagall
whenever possible had become, over the years, a sort of personal vision-quest for her. "Such a pity
about next week’s match with Ravenclaw."
Flitwick emerged hopefully from his plate of eggs. "Oh, is Ravenclaw going to win? How marvellous."
Minerva rolled her eyes, but wasn’t quite able to stop her teeth from grinding at the same time.
"I wasn’t aware that you followed Quidditch, Sybil."
"Such a shame about poor Mr. Potter," Sybil continued dreamily. "That ankle’s never been the same
since the Tri-Wizard Tournament, has it? Ah, well – Seeing isn’t preventing, after all … the Fates will
what they will. Wouldn’t you agree, Minerva?"
Flitwick hid a smile with his napkin.
Vague vapid expression firmly in place, Sybil sipped her tea and glanced over to where Potter was
shifting uncomfortably in his seat. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Minerva fuming from
behind her newspaper.
I ought to get up early more often, she thought … and reached for the platter of bacon with a self-
satisfied little sigh.
Breakfast, after all, was the most important meal of the day.
Gringotts Alexandria was a slightly run-down British-Colonial style building that looked as if the
movie set for Casablanca ought to be across the street. Judging from the size of its foyer, it was about
half the size of the London branch, with palm-frond fans swaying lazily in the corners, and dusty
Venetian blinds in place of the stuffy velvet drapes. Even its goblin employees seemed more casual in
their khaki uniforms, not as brisk as their British counterparts.
Hermione, whose paycheques from the Consortium went straight to her Cairo account without her
having to lift a finger – if she needed cash, she got it straight from the automated Portvault in the inside
lobby of her apartment building – had been wondering how they’d handle her withdrawal request …
after all, the gold itself was all in Cairo, and the goblins didn’t have electronic transfer options – did
they? But the teller at the window took down her vault number without comment, flipped through a
thick file of paperwork for a moment, then nodded jerkily.
"I’m making a note of the withdrawal to send to the Cairo branch," she told Hermione. "You can go
with Lugnut here; you’ve been authorised to remove the requested amount from our common vault."
Ah. Well, that made sense.
Lugnut looked young – if that word could be used to describe any goblin, really – and was dressed even
more casually than the tellers, in khaki short-pants, a plain cotton tee shirt, and a curious tight-fitting
cap over his pointy ears that looked as if it was made of rubber. "Here, take this," he said, handing
Hermione a similar-looking headpiece. "And this."
Gillyweed. Hermione, grimacing faintly, glanced at Farouk for collaboration. He was grinning.
"Go ahead. It’s fun."
Tentatively, she pulled the cap over her ears, poked the slimy thimbleful of weeds into her mouth, and
swallowed as quickly as possible. "Now what?"
"Now," said Lugnut, grinning toothily, "you get in."
It looked more like a roller-coaster car than the mine-carts at the London branch. Hermione slid into the
passenger seat, wrinkling her nose at the dampness of the cushion. "It’s a bit wet …" she began – but
never had time to finish.
The cart was moving, and not gently, either – the downward incline was so steep that it felt almost like
free-fall. Hermione shrieked and clung to the armrests, the cold air of underground whistling painfully
through her rapidly developing gills. She took a deep searing breath – there had to be water, but where,
and when? – and then they were leveling out, and before she could open her mouth to protest, they
were underwater.
Salt on her lips. This had to be the Mediterrenean, or some hidden inlet of it – and it was every bit as
scary and forbidding as the mine-shafts of underground London, dark and cold and utterly unnavigable.
Hermione shut her eyes as the water-car dipped again, as it swerved and twisted and the soft wet fins of
quick-passing fish brushed at her cheeks.
"Nearly there," she heard Lugnut shout, and then the car was slowing, stopping in front of a heap of
ocean-floor basalt, the leftover spew of some long-ago, centuries-submerged volcano. She saw the dim
glint of a key in his hand, enchanted, no doubt, to glow, heard the soft snick of an invisible lock.
"All right," said the goblin. "Take what’s yours." And ushered her into a thieves’ paradise of underwater
The ride back was swift and silent. Hermione kept her eyes open and almost immediately wished she
hadn’t; more acclimated to the darkness now, she could pick out menacing shapes at regular intervals –
guard-sharks, no doubt, she imagined, and thought wistfully of Fidel and the rooftop lagoon back in
Cairo. The sackful of Galleons clinked heavily between her clamped-together knees; her head swam
with dizziness and, underneath that, the gnawing beginnings of a need for oxygen.
When they burst up into air and rolled to a halt beside the smirking Farouk, she shook her fist weakly at
"You might have warned me."
He shrugged and laughed, already drawing out his wand for a Drying Charm. "How?"
He had a point there.
They visited Inaru Wands, coming away shortly with mint tea on their breaths and a brand-new ten-
inch wand of golden curly-maple, with what genteel old Mr. Inaru had described as "the latest
development in wand cores": not one, but three unicorn tail-hairs hand-braided together into a slim
tight rope. Pricey, Hermione supposed – she’d paid eighteen Galleons for it, as opposed to Ollivander’s
standard charge of seven – but it was limber, and beautiful, and fairly buzzed in her hand. Out on the
street, she drew it out of its velvet case and held it on her palm, drinking in the fine balance, the high-
gloss polish, the shivering tightrope of power vibrating down her love-line.
"It’s beautiful," she said. "I rather want to go home and try it out now."
"No new robes?" Farouk reminded her gently, and she shook her head, laughing.
"I’ll Summon them. I’ll Transfigure them." She swish-flicked idly in the direction of the empty air,
bouncing on the balls of her feet as golden sparks showered around them. "I can’t wait, I don’t think."
And so it was that they arrived back at the villa just past dinnertime, mouths still tingling from the
ground spiced lamb patties they’d bought from a street vendor – Farouk tired but smiling, Hermione
alight with expectation. They were met at the door by one of the grey-robed housekeepers.
"Your guest is here," she murmured to Farouk. "We offered him food, but he refused it. I had him
shown to the library."
"Ah, the good Professor. No doubt he’s anxious to get started."
Hermione frowned.
"Professor?" she queried. "The Potions expert is a professor? Where does he teach?"
"Hogwarts, of course." Farouk smiled at her. "Your Headmaster’s no fool; his staff is one of the most
professionally capable in the wizarding world. Your Potions Master, in particular, is unsurpassed …"
But Hermione wasn’t listening. Still clutching her wand box, she pushed past him and sprinted, rather
ungracefully, for the library door.
It was him – oh, yes, it was, lank black hair and intent, studied frown as he bent over his book. He
hadn’t even bothered to take off his travelling cloak. Hermione steadied herself on the doorjamb and
waited for the nausea to hit her; at her flicker of movement, he looked up startled from his page.
"You," he said, looking surprised and not particularly pleased. "What are you doing here?"
"That," Hermione said, feeling not at all sick but unsteady as hell, "is what I want to know."
Albus Dumbledore, wherever he was, had some serious explaining to do.

Chapter Forty-Five
"Mr. Potter! Miss Weasley!"
Harry and Ginny exchanged exasperated glances and stopped in their tracks.
It was the day before Halloween, a Hogsmeade Saturday, and though Gabrielle wasn’t allowed into
Hogsmeade and the rest of them—Harry, Ginny, Draco, Ron—had intended to stay at the castle to keep
her company, Minerva McGonagall clearly had other ideas.
"Potter!" she barked again, catching sight of Harry and Ginny headed out of the Great Hall and toward
the stairs to the library, the opposite direction from the front doors. "Miss Weasley! A word, if you
What followed this was a crisp soundtrack of gentle fuming—‘lovely day’, and ‘cooping yourselves
up’, and ‘enjoy the weather while it lasts’—accompanied by a surprisingly firm grip on their arms,
propelling them out the door. Ron was already outside, looking dejected and vaguely defiant; at the
sight of them, he brightened.
"You too?" He rolled his eyes at McGonagall’s back. "What’s she on about, anyway?"
"Probably," Ginny said, "she figured we were on our way up to Gryffindor Tower to … um, take
advantage of the quiet." She shrugged. "She’s been very anti-snog lately; I’ve no idea why. Susan and
Terry lost twenty House points apiece when she caught them necking in Greenhouse Three last week."
Ron glanced darkly at her. "When it comes to you," he said, "I can’t say I disapprove of that policy."
Ginny cast her eyes heavenward. "I’m hardly in nappies anymore, Ron."
"But I remember when you were."
"Hmph." She exchanged a wicked glance with Harry. "Well, I remember when you …"
Ron clapped his hand over her mouth.
"Okay, okay," he said hastily. "Never mind all that. Let’s just go, all right? Sooner we get there, the
sooner we can get back."
It was ironic, Harry thought, that after years of using the Honeydukes tunnel to sneak out of Hogwarts,
they should finally be called upon to use it to sneak back in. But even that thought, bizarre and circular
as it was, wasn’t enough to distract him from mentally reliving the events of a few nights previous.
Come to think of it, he’d been able to think of little else since it happened.
I know your secrets, she’d whispered. I know what you want. And he’d been too far gone to refute her
But now, in the light of day, something about those words made him wonder – some trick of inflection,
some familiar shadow-vowel or other, tugging at the locked trunks of his memory and prompting: don’t
I know you? Over and over he relived the encounter, puzzling over what he remembered of the Mystery
Woman’s features: elfin pointed face, messy bedhead spike of hair, sulky mouth with a touch of cruelty
curving it up at one corner.
No, he’d never seen her before. But damn it, there was something – and if he could only take a closer
look …
"Long as I’m here," Ron said, breaking unwittingly into Harry’s rêverie, "I might as well stop in and
see the twins. You two coming?"
"Sure," Ginny said, but Harry was already unthreading his arm from hers.
"In a minute," he said, and jerked his head toward the sign for WizardWares on the other side of the
street. "I need to pick up a couple of things."
Ron and Ginny regarded him skeptically.
"Housewares?" Ron said, incredulous. "What, are you taking up S.P.E.W. again? No one goes into that
store but old people and house-elves. What do you want in there?"
"I just need to pick up a couple of things," Harry repeated stubbornly—and, when Ginny made a move
to follow him, shook his head. "No, don’t come with me, I’ll only be a minute. I’ll meet you back at the
twins’ shop."
Inside the dusty storefront of WizardWares, he was less sure of himself. Bucketsful of Madam
Scower’s Powerful Powder … an army of enchanted sweeping-brooms … laundry detergent, floor wax,
boot-polish … useful on a certain level, sure, but on the other hand, not exactly what he was looking
Would it even be here?
"Can I help you?" creaked an old voice. Harry spun around to see an ancient wizard in a blue
stockboy’s apron, leaning on a push-broom and beaming beneficently at him.
"Uh … I’m not sure." Harry, less sure of himself by the moment, shrugged. "I’m probably in the wrong
place," he offered. "It doesn’t look like you have the sort of thing I need …"
"You’ll never know until you ask, will you?"
True, that. Harry shrugged again.
"Okay, then," he said, and took a deep breath. "You wouldn’t happen to have a Pensieve lying about,
would you?"
Hermione was furious.
The trouble was, it didn’t do any good – though she knew exactly who she was angry with, and why,
neither could she lay all the blame at his door, as she would have liked to do. Logic, she reflected – not
for the first time – was a curse; it wasn’t helping the situation any, and it was getting in the way of her
sulk. And though she’d tossed from side to side for most of the night, pounding her pillow and
swearing silently at the ceiling and even, for a few very bad moments, weeping, none of that was
making her feel any better. Even the tears, therapeutic as they were claimed to be, only made her eyes
burn and her throat close, until even they were dried up and all that was left was a hard, hopeless ache
that wouldn’t go away, no matter how many glasses of water she conjured out of thin air.
Christ, what a mess.
It wasn’t the danger, considerable as that seemed to be. It wasn’t the added sexual element of Snape,
either – in the few days they’d been cohabiting Farouk’s Alexandrian villa, he’d done as much to ignore
her as humanly possible. Apparently he’d really meant those last scathing words of his, the last thing
she remembered before she stormed out of his Hogwarts chambers: We don’t belong together,
Hermione, and chances are we never will. Before this can happen again, I need to get a life. And you
need to grow up.
Oh, how that stung, even now. Especially now, trembling as she was on the far edge of what was, after
all, nothing but a temper tantrum.
But damn it, she had the right. Didn’t she?
Hermione flopped over on her back and stared up at the whitewashed plaster of the ceiling. In the
moonlight coming through the windows, filtered through the fine mesh of her mosquito netting, it
seemed as luminous and faroff as starshine.
I thought I was lucky.
Oh, yes. That was it – that was the Essential Kernel of Truth, the heartbreaking crux of the matter: ever
since her acceptance letter from Hogwarts seven years ago, ever since before, she’d believed
wholeheartedly that her life was charmed. To be clever, to be brilliant, to be a witch – to discover,
finally, that on top of all her other blessings that she was pretty, too, and powerful … well. Wasn’t that
luck, the most astounding good fortune in the world?
It had to be, because there was no other explanation for it. How many times had she heard her mother
sigh into the telephone, "I just don’t know where she gets it?"
It wasn’t luck at all, Hermione thought, and had to grit her teeth against another wave of self-pity. I was
… set up.
Set up. By that calm, placidly smiling graybeard three doors down who’d at the very least palmed off
his murderous family curio on the unsuspecting Gram, and who’d at the very most palmed off on her
much more than that. Hermione thought of smiling, urbane Peter Granger – probably, at this very
moment, settling down with his pretty wife and his down pillows and his CD of Mozart string quartets
– and then of sweet old Grandad, sneaking her biscuits from the tin in the kitchen and nodding off over
the Sunday paper in his leather club chair. Once she’d sung him a song, something she’d learned in
nursery school about ducklings and mud puddles, and that’s what he’d called her from then on:
duckling. And her father: ah, Papa Duck! Grandad would say, and wink at Hermione. And how are
things on your side of the pond?
Papa Duck? Hermione ground her teeth bitterly. Papa Cuckoo, more like. And no way to prove or
disprove it, either – that was the most maddening thing of all.
Except for her. Circumstantial evidence, to be certain … but having a wizard for a father certainly
improved Peter Granger’s chances of fathering a witch; that was just simple genetics. And if so – if
Farouk al-Hussein was indeed her grandfather – then that meant she’d been fucked from the beginning,
that it was only a matter of time before the Jade Priestess wormed its way out of Gram’s library safe
and into her hands.
A curse. Not a blessing.
And then – if that was the case – then wasn’t the Jade Priestess enough to deal with? Shouldn’t she,
merely in the name of cosmic balance, have been spared the assassination attempts, the kidnappings,
the thugs lying in wait in alleyways? The lovers-who-weren’t-lovers? The cold-eyed enemies with
familiar faces who touched her with hate in their hands and death in their hearts?
Quit whining. You could be Harry, after all.
True. But Harry doesn’t have to be the Boy-Who-Lived anymore; Voldemort’s holding down staff-
meeting memos and keeping the Hula Dancer company.
Yeah. But that doesn’t bring Harry’s parents back to life.
See, there it was again – that unassailable logic that refused to let her wallow, even momentarily, in
unadulterated self-pity. Hermione sighed, pushed back the mosquito netting, and swung her feet over
the side of the bed.
If she wasn’t going to get any sleeping done, she’d might as well read.

Chapter Forty-Six
Sybil had been right. He’d needed a vacation.
Merely the fact that he wasn’t on hall duty back at Hogwarts, dodging pre-Halloween Dungbombs and
warily waiting to discover what fresh hell on earth had been unleashed and offered on sale at Weasley’s
Wizard Wheezes – honestly, those twins were bigger troublemakers as alumni than they’d ever been as
students, and that was saying something – that was gift enough. To be here instead, in this quiet
comfortable book-lined place, far away from the grasping neediness of academe and wearing the
scholar’s hat he’d always felt himself destined for … well, that was sweet indeed.
He lifted the mug at his elbow, tipped a swallow of cardamom-fragrant coffee into his mouth, and let it
linger on his tongue, a rarely-indulged luxury both acrid and caressing – velvety with cream but smoky
and bitter in his mouth afterwards, like a vengeful ghost of its corporeal self. A perfect 10, declared his
taste buds, and reminded his brain of something it already knew: whatever else their virtues, British
house-elves just couldn’t get the hang of brewing decent java.
Setting the mug back on its rosewood coaster, he reached for his wand. It had been Transfigured into a
knife edge, chisel-pointed and thin as onionskin parchment; now, he took a deep breath, steadied his
hand, and poised the narrow end at the edge of the paper in front of him, a page he’d Replicated from
Duathor bint-Hussein’s encrypted journal.
"Levare," he murmured, and grasped his wand wrist with his other hand to keep its motion perfectly
even as slowly, painstakingly he began to peel the shifting runes from the page. It was a process not
unlike peeling an apple with a paring knife; the written characters clung together in a long, lazily
twisting light-brown stream of dried ink, then dropped into a tangle in the petri dish he proffered and
began to crawl around its perimeter like sluggish ants.
Two paragraphs’ worth – enough to get a sample, Severus decided, and besides, the psychic effort
involved in the charm already had his breath coming fast and shallow. "Finite Incantatem," he
muttered, and flicked his wand, now returned to its original cylindrical shape, to send a trickle of
purified, deionised water dribbling out of its tip and into the petri dish. Not much – just enough to
cover the coil of words – all right, fine … and thankfully, the ink seemed happy to cooperate; as he
watched, the letters began to disintegrate and lose their definition. In less than a minute, the dish was
half-full of a thin brown tobacco-coloured liquid, gently roiling against the glass and giving off a faint
odour of peppercorns.
It wasn’t until Severus had dropped his wand and sat back, flexing his stiffened, aching fingers, that he
realised Hermione Granger had been watching him. "Hallo," he said over his shoulder, too out of breath
from his recent exertions to summon anything snarkier, and watched her cross from the library door to
the chair opposite him in a sweep of bare feet and white cotton nightie, out of the corner of his eye.
"Hallo," she returned. Her eyes were bloodshot, their lids slightly puffy – Severus couldn’t tell if this
was from tears, or merely from sleeplessness, but he had his suspicions. Certainly she looked composed
enough now, however, as she raised an enquiring eyebrow, then drew the petri dish across the table
toward her with a careful forefinger and peered curiously down at the contents.
"What charm did you use?" she queried, not looking at him, and Severus felt a shameful rush of relief
flood through him. Talking shop, at this particular moment, was an exchange much more to his taste
and comfort level than finding out why she’d been crying.
See? You really are a selfish bastard, Severus.
"It’s a variant on a Severing Charm," he said aloud, and began to siphon a small amount of the ink into
a pipette. "Particularly good for lifting stubborn stains and reading other people’s mail. If you’ve steady
enough hands, that is." He held the pipette to the light and twirled it slowly. "Darker flecks in this," he
noted. "Uniform in size. I’d say about half a millimeter across. And at the right angle, there’s just the
faintest bit of shimmer."
He looked around for his notebook and quill, but she’d already commandeered them and was writing
down his observations in her neat copperplate. She looked up when she was finished, reloaded the
quill, and raised her eyebrows expectantly.
"What else?"
Severus studied her determinedly cheerful expression, belied by the fever-bright gleam in her eyes and
a giveaway tic at the corner of her mouth, and inwardly applauded. Suffering – but stoic. And not a hint
of intentional martyrdom.
He had to hand it to her – she was one tough cookie. He hadn’t given her enough credit back in
September, it seemed … and now, he wasn’t sure whether he should congratulate her or run for the
hills. Instead, he met that steady wet-eyed gaze, and let one corner of his mouth curve up in unspoken
"There’s a standard series of reaction tests," he said. "Those phials in the trunk over there – if you’d be
good enough to hand them to me one by one? Mind your fingers … some of them are corrosive."
She was already out of her chair and on her way over to the trunk. "I’m always careful."
That, Severus thought, was a bald-faced lie. But if she believed it, he wasn’t going to enlighten her …
at least not tonight.
Turning away, he started to clear the table.
It had taken them nearly all afternoon to get back to the castle.
Visiting the Wheezes hadn’t helped … they’d spent almost three hours in the joke shop, catching up on
Weasley family news and gamely testing Fred and George’s latest brain children – singing soap-
bubbles, a new-and-improved version of the by-now-famous Trick Wand, some innocuous-looking
chewing gum that caused the chewer to sprout a braided goatee and speak in haiku for the better part of
twenty minutes. By the time they’d gotten back, it had been dinnertime. Now it was late, and they’d
finally all found their way to Elysium, where Draco was filling them in on what Hermione had been up
to in Egypt.
Kidnappings. Multimillion-dollar patent deals. Assassination attempts. It was all very impressive – and
sort of unsettling; Harry didn’t like to think that he’d slept peacefully through the night, blissfully
unaware of any trouble in the universe, while one of his best chums had been up against the Avada
Kedavra. After all, she’d played a major role in ridding him of his nemesis – what kind of payback was
it to sleep through hers?
And then there was this Jade Priestess thing, which he didn’t like one bit. If anything, however, Ginny
was more troubled by it than any of the rest of them.
"It’s just like Riddle’s diary," she said, and they all looked at her in surprise – she never talked about
that, or indeed about anything that had happened in her first year. She was grim and white-faced. "The
longer it goes on, the worse it gets. It’s probably feeding on her."
Ron covered her hand with his. "If it was doing that," he said, "they wouldn’t be letting her wear it still.
You know Mione – she’s always been our Voice of Caution. She’ll be okay."
It was bullshit, of course, but it had a comforting ring to it. Ginny managed a halfhearted nod.
"What I’d like to know," Draco said thoughtfully, "is where my father fits into all of this."
Harry frowned at him. "Beg pardon?"
"Well, it’s already established that he’s the one behind the assassination attempt, right?" Draco pointed
out. "And then there’s that business with the book – Gabrielle heard Black and Lupin talking about it
the night she went exploring in the Manor."
"Right," Gabrielle said. "They said he’d passed counterfeit Galleons to a rare-book dealer for the book
about the jade amulet – that’s the book they were looking for, the one they couldn’t find. Seems it was
the first thing he did when he got out of Azkaban."
"Huh." Ron frowned over this. "That’s odd, isn’t it?" he said. "I mean, you’re an escaped convict on the
loose, the whole wizarding world’s looking for you – wouldn’t you just find yourself a foxhole and lie
low for a while? Why on earth would you go passing bad money in a bookshop?"
An idea was forming, shifting and nebulous, in Harry’s head. "Well," he said slowly, "it’s Hermione’s
testimony that put him in prison, right? And we all heard him swear revenge on her last spring, on his
way out of Dumbledore’s office. If he knew that she was connected somehow to that amulet … if he
knew it could harm her … that might have been important enough to him to take the risk."
Ginny frowned. "But how would he know where to look for the book? And how would he find out
about this Priestess thingy in the first place? Even Hermione didn’t know she had it until just before she
left for Egypt."
Gabrielle raised one shoulder in an offhand Gallic shrug. "That’s easy," she said. "He was in prison,
wasn’t he? He must have gotten the information while he was there."
Four pairs of eyes met and held in the firelight, wide with sudden realisation.
"Of course," Ron groaned. "Why didn’t we think of her before?"
Even from beyond the grave, it appeared, Rita Skeeter was still making trouble.
He really was brilliant.
Hermione had forgotten how easily he moved in the laboratory – exquisite economy of motion,
consummate grace, his long aquiline face wiped clean of malice and discontent and almost waxwork-
like in its serenity, only the slight furrow of his brow giving away the depth of his concentration. And
this was a process which required the utmost delicacy – that much was clear. Hermione thought back to
last Christmas, to her crude bucket-chemistry experiments on the Armoring Fluid, and found it hard to
believe that she and Draco had gotten any results at all. This – this was qualitative analysis at its most
mystical, its most precise, and it was clear she still had a lot to learn on the topic.
They’d put the ink through all the common tests of simple observation, and now Snape had begun the
laborious process of separating out its disparate ingredients. "It’s an elimination game," he explained,
beginning to unwind from the velvet the phials she’d transferred from his trunk to the table. "There are
thousands of possible combinations for encryptoink – the trick is to use more than one approach when
narrowing down your options, and to document everything."
"Right." His tone was just a bit didactic and professorial; still, Hermione rather liked him this way …
too single-minded for irritation, too intent for the hot flush of sexual awareness that always seemed to
drag tension in along with it, like a shy friend reluctant to be at the party. She tapped her page of notes.
"So the colour was the first thing, right? I’d say we could rule out indigo and verdigris. Oh, and saffron.
And it can’t be any of the berries, either, can it?"
"Mm. I’d think not." He transferred a miniscule amount of the reconstituted ink into a smaller glass
dish and swirled it carefully to coat the bottom of the surface. "I’m leaning toward one of the aromatic
spices, myself; it smelt quite strongly of pepper when I first hydrated it. I’m going to explore that
possibility first."
"How many variants are there that use a peppercorn base?" Hermione asked. He jerked his head toward
the trunk.
"You’re about to find out. There’s a notebook in there with a green cover – it has all the possible
combinations listed. The peppercorn family starts somewhere in the middle; page forty-five or so. We
could use a Replica of those pages – be careful of the original, though. I took those notes in college."
Gingerly, Hermione paged through the notebook. "You had better handwriting back then."
He slanted a sardonic look over his shoulder. "All professors develop abominable handwriting sooner
or later. It’s in the faculty handbook."
"Professor McGonagall has beautiful penmanship."
"Yes, well. Minerva’s a law unto herself." He took the Replicated pages she handed him. "Right. How
many are there …? Ah. A hundred and twelve. We have our work cut out for us."
"Sounds like fun." She smothered a yawn with the back of her hand, absently noting as she did so that
it was past three in the morning, and looked up at him expectantly. "What do we do first?"
He looked at her hard, checked his own wristwatch, and rolled his eyes self-deprecatingly. "Wait until
tomorrow, that’s what. You’re dead on your feet."
"I’m not that tired," Hermione protested, and immediately yawned again. He snorted.
"This can wait. Chemical experiments shouldn’t be undertaken in the small hours of the morning." He
levelled another searching glance at her. "Having trouble sleeping?"
"Having trouble everything," Hermione admitted, after a moment’s pause, and to her horror felt that
prickling sensation at the backs of her eyes again. She turned away. "Sorry – long day, that’s all. It’s
nothing important."
I need to get a life, and you need to grow up.
Don’t be a baby, Granger.
If he touched her – if he said something nice to her – she was going to cry again. "I think I’m tired,
after all," she gritted out, and was halfway to the door when he said her name.
She was past even the pretense of graciousness. "What?"
"If you want answers," he said, "it’s best to go directly to the source. You shouldn’t accept secondhand
information at face value."
Riddles. She was sick of riddles.
"What are you talking about?" she snapped, and turned halfway round again until she could see his face
in profile. He had one of his enigmatic half-smiles firmly in place.
"For a wizard, Farouk’s amazingly technological," he said. "There’s even a telephone in his study."
"A telephone?" Hermione frowned. "What does that have to do with anything?"
He strode toward her, lifted her chin with one finger, and bent down until they were half an inch apart.
"Small words, Miss Granger, since fatigue seems to be addling that prodigious brain of yours. Call
your grandmother."
"Call my—" she repeated blankly, then blinked.
He was already gone.

Chapter Forty-Seven
Hermione slept late into the morning, awakening to a sun-filled bedroom, a freshly laid breakfast tray –
figs, almonds, honey, bread – and a note: Snape had already gone into Alexandria for some items he
hadn’t had on hand and hadn’t been able to purchase in Diagon Alley before he came. Hermione rather
suspected that the true purpose of his errand was to give her time for that suggested phone call.
Well, she could do him one better than that.
She breakfasted leisurely, showered, and went looking for Farouk. He was nowhere to be found, which
– as it turned out – suited her purposes very well. She scribbled a note, intentionally vague, which
proclaimed her to be out for a stroll, and left it in the care of the housekeeper. It wasn’t a lie – not
exactly; she did indeed leave the house, and she did indeed stroll … as far as the first bend in the
driveway, that is.
After that long, tense airplane ride, Apparating felt very good indeed.
Please, please let Mum and Dad not be here, she thought, blinking abruptly into existence next to the
hedge of quince in Gram’s back garden and immediately ducking her head, so as not to alarm the
Winslows, Gram’s elderly next-door neighbours. A quick peek round the corner confirmed an absence
of extra automobiles; relieved, she walked around to the front door and lifted the knocker.
"Darling," Gram said warmly, betraying not the least bit of surprise to see Hermione here unannounced
when she’d been supposed to be in Cairo. Apparently she’d decided to forego Sunday services today;
she was still in her velour dressing gown and slippers, and her famous mane of dark curls – winged
with grey now, but still glorious – lay loose around her face. She held a teacup in one hand. "How
delightful to see you. Come in and have some tea. You’ve not had breakfast yet, have you?"
"Um …" Hermione, about to say Well, actually, yes, caught sight of a familiar beige cardboard box on
the kitchen table, its top ajar to hint at the treasures nestled within. "You went to Carbury’s?"
"Scones," Gram said succinctly, and Hermione let out a reverent sigh.
Figs and honey were all very well, but blueberry scones from Carbury’s, a long-standing Sunday
morning tradition in Gram’s house, were the stuff her childhood dreams had been made of.
"I think I could manage just one," she said. Gram grinned over her shoulder, and went to get her a plate.
The house hadn’t changed noticeably since Hermione’s summer visit – in fact, it was exactly as it had
been since she could remember … lovingly furnished with the antiques that had been Grandad’s
passionate avocation, and a tasteful shrine of photographs and playbills to Gram’s career. There was a
record on the hi-fi now; women’s voices singing in fluid German, one line rising as the other fell, then
mingling as seamlessly as tight-woven cloth. Gram caught Hermione listening, and lifted the needle
from the record with a wry shake of her head.
"Vanity," she said, amused with herself, and took the tea cozy off the teapot to pour Hermione a cup.
"One of the acceptable vices of aging; you’re allowed to wax occasionally nostalgic. That was the
Rosenkavalier I did in Vienna, at the Staatsoper, and you should have seen the dresses." Her mouth
curled into a dreamy half-smile. "No one costumed Strauss like the Austrians, that was for sure. And I
was stuck in pants the whole time." She cast a wicked look at Hermione. "The Mezzo Curse –
remember it?"
"Witches, bitches, and britches," Hermione said automatically, and laughed; the Mezzo Curse, an old
opera-house typecasting lament, had been an inside joke with the two of them when she was small, all
the more amusing and memorable for its vulgarity. "I haven’t thought of that in years."
"Well." Gram topped off her teacup. "You’ve had your own life to worry about. How do you like
"Cairo?" Hermione repeated absently. "It’s fine." Off Gram’s quizzical look, she flushed. "I mean, it’s
wonderful. Amazing. My work is really interesting, and I like my classes, and I’ve got friends, and it’s
just … fine."
"There’s a but in there somewhere," Gram prompted. Hermione closed her eyes.
"I have to ask you something," she said, cradling her teacup despite its near-scalding heat. "I’ve just
met an old friend of yours, you see."
"Really." Gram took a sip of tea. "How marvellous, dear. And who might that be?"
"Farouk bin al-Hussein," Hermione said, rolling the words carefully around in her mouth before letting
go of them, and studying her grandmother’s face for reaction. None was forthcoming; Martina
Pietrantonio Granger hadn’t spent fifteen years on the stage for nothing, after all.
"Farouk," she repeated with a little smile. "What a charming man – and so very bright, of course."
Absently, she broke off a corner of her scone and took her time chewing and swallowing. "Do you
know," she continued at length, "I believe he’s the very one who gave me that little jade lioness. What a
wonderful coincidence."
"Gram." Hermione set her cup down with a nervous rattle. "He has a great-niece who’s about my age.
We have our pre-med classes together; that’s how I met him." Plus a little facilitative kidnapping and a
pesky cursed statue to top things up. But we needn’t go into that at the moment.
"Really? How nice."
"We look rather awfully alike," Hermione finished miserably, and saw her grandmother’s eyes flicker
for the first time.
"Gram, you’ve got to tell me." Hermione’s lips were trembling. "It’s really important – I can’t go into it
all now, but trust me, it’s life and death, or I wouldn’t ask at all –" She gulped. "Could Farouk possibly
be my grandfather?"
Gram took another sip of tea, set down her cup, and methodically dabbed at the corners of her still-lush
mouth with a snowy linen napkin. Her eyes, steady on Hermione’s, gave nothing away.
"No," she said finally. Her lips were tight, but her gaze didn’t waver. "No, of course not. Whatever
could have given you that idea?"
Hermione, unconvinced, opened her mouth to press the issue … then, at the hint of real distress that
flashed across her grandmother’s face, closed it again and dropped her eyes to look at her plate.
"I don’t know," she said, and managed a smile of apology. "Stupid of me, really. It’s just that Itmana
and I look a bit alike, that’s all. Coincidence." She ground the last corner of her scone into powder
between her fingertips, her chest leaden. "I’m sorry I even brought it up."
Gram hesitated, then – recovering her equanimity – flashed her famous smile and reached across the
little table to pat Hermione on the shoulder.
"No harm done, dear," she said lightly, and spooned sugar into her teacup with a steady hand. "I’ve no-
one to blame but myself; I brought you up on all those old clippings, after all, and it’s only natural that
you’d expect … adventures … from me. Don’t think a thing of it."
Easier said than done, Hermione thought, and wiped her sticky fingers dolorously on her napkin.
If she wanted answers, it appeared that she was going to have to get them somewhere else.
Sunday afternoon at Hogwarts was usually fairly quiet, it was true – but today, the corridors were
positively funereal. The Halloween feast and subsequent dance was set to begin in four hours, and the
whole of the student body was closeted in their respective dormitories, awash in expectant rituals of
The whole of the student body, that is, minus one.
Harry Potter moved like a wraith through the third-floor corridor, securely draped in Invisibility, his
new Pensieve tucked under his arm. No place in Gryffindor Tower was safe for his intended purposes,
not today – and he’d lain awake far into the night before he’d finally thought of this spot. Once off-
limits and guarded by the snarling, slavering Fluffy, it was now merely deserted.
Or so Harry hoped, anyway.
It also locked from the inside, which was another point in its favour. He slipped inside, relieved to find
it empty and dark, secured the door, muttered the strongest ward he knew into the keyhole, and ducked
out from beneath the Cloak, squinting in the gloom.
Bare stone floor, clean-swept but scarred. No hint of the trapdoor – whether it was gone for good or
merely hidden, Harry didn’t know, but he avoided the place where it had been anyway, merely on
principle. The only furniture remaining in the room was a battered wooden bench next to one wall. It
was here that he placed the Pensieve.
His was smaller than Dumbledore’s, and darker in colour, made of some heavily-flecked stone that
looked like granite and weighed at least twice as much, if carrying the thing was any indication. Harry
squinted over the directions, then slowly read out the Filling Incantation that was printed on the slip of
parchment. The Pensieve trembled slightly, then emitted a gurgle as it began to fill with a smoky-grey
Now for the memory itself. He knew how to do this part – he’d read the instructions over and over last
night … but it was still a bit of a shock to see that wisp of white drift out of the side of his head, to
watch it bobbing on the surface of the Pensieve like a small, sly ship. OK – it worked. Now what?
Carefully he folded the Cloak as small as it would go and laid it to one side. Palms itching, whole body
tight with excitement, he bent slowly over the gleaming bowl …
… and fell.
And there he was, as if he’d never left, in that warm shadowy room so unlike what he’d expected,
watching his memory-self page idly through the papers on Snape’s desk, and then spring to startled
attention at the sound of the voice accosting him out of the darkness.
Boy, he thought, wincing as the Mystery Woman’s wand nudged at Pensieve-Harry’s balls. She sure
knew how to handle you, didn’t she?
Let’s have some answers, Mr. Potter, she was saying now, and as his unfortunate alter ego squirmed
under the bite of that electric spark from the tip of her wand and mumbled an abject Yes, ma’am, Harry
moved in to examine her more closely.
She really was tiny – a head shorter than he was, and slighter even than Ginny – but the look on her
face was pure power, pure concentration, and she was stronger even than he remembered, using only
her voice and that incredible, ballsy, swaggering presence to back him up and tip him over onto the
Not, mind you, that he’d been resisting too intently.
What is it with you, Potter? she purred now. A power trip? Is that it? You think you’re above the rules?
Harry didn’t have to watch to remember where her hands had gone at that last bit, sending his cock into
instant orbit and catapulting him abruptly into the scary wonderland of Dangerous Sex Games. No,
he’d squeaked. No, ma’am. Not at all, I swear.
Another spark from the wand, strong enough to make him yelp, to make his toes curl. Are you sure?
I’m sure! panted Pensieve-Harry, and Harry flushed at the way his voice had cracked on the last word,
at the smug look on the Mystery Woman’s face.
Hmm. I wonder what it is, then. Smile in her voice. Maybe it’s that you like to … watch.
Horror at this insinuation. Breathless denials from his shadow-self on the bed. More cruelty in her
No? You don’t like to watch? A finger trailed down his spine, making him shudder. Well, I do.
A prod from the wand, sending him scrambling away from her to the far side of the bed. Put your
hands on your cock, Mr. Potter; let’s see you get a nice easy rhythm going. Until I tell you to stop, if
you please. She paused meaningfully. And it’s the Cruciatus if you come without permission.
Harry’s mouth went dry.
He’d seen Ginny naked dozens of times, but he’d never thought about how he looked without his
clothes, and the sight was riveting – a slim pale wand of a boy with light, tight Quidditch muscles,
squatting back on his heels on the bed with his knees spread and yanking feverishly at his erection with
both hands. The hectic flush in his cheeks could have been from embarrassment or from desire, and
probably owed a bit to both; as the Mystery Woman leaned forward to twist his nipples or fondle his
dangling scrotum, he hissed through his teeth.
It sounded like Parseltongue. Listening now, dry-mouthed and unspeakably aroused, Harry half-
expected the decorative serpents on the cornices of Snape’s bedroom door to come alive and wriggle
over for a closer look. And then Pensieve-Harry regained temporary use of the Queen’s English, long
enough to gasp—
…I’m going to—I’m going to—
I can’t help it— this, so high-pitched and tight of throat that it sounded almost like a whine. Her answer,
icy as Greenland in February.
You’d better. If you know what’s good for you. Her mouth was sneering, but Harry could see her eyes
now as he hadn’t been able to then, and they were hot as coals. Take your hands away. Now.
Panting. Streaming sweat. His hands, feverishly pistoning one moment and the next, wrenched away
from his pulsing, weeping member like forcibly separated magnets. A moment of connection, as their
eyes met … his in entreaty, hers implacable.
Good, she said softly … then one hand flashed out without warning, connecting with his penis in a
vicious slap that made him howl. Another sharp order—hold still!—and another smack. Harry watched
as his alter-ego’s erection faltered, then righted itself more aggressively. The Mystery Woman laughed.
Ah. So that’s what it is. She moved in close and began to stroke him – delicate little featherings of her
fingertips across his most intimate flesh, eye-to-eye, hypnotic as snowfall. Under her touch, he
shuddered and sighed. You really are a Gryffindor, aren’t you?
I don’t … I don’t know what you … aaaahhhhhhhh …
More laughter. Power – that’s a Slytherin motivation. And voyeurism’s for Ravenclaws, really. But you
… She circled the head of his penis with thumb and forefinger, began to ease him up and down with a
barely-perceptible tugging motion. Pensieve-Harry’s head lolled back against Snape’s bedpost. Harry
could see the telltale silver track of moisture trailing from the corner of one eye back to his hairline.
You’re a danger addict, Mr. Potter. I should have guessed straight off.
I don’t … I’m not …
No? Deny it if you can, then.
And with that, one more casually vicious smack, perfectly placed and exquisitely timed … pain like a
body blow, but along with it an explosion he couldn’t stop and wouldn’t have wanted to, decorum and
shyness and shame blasted to bits with the power of it as he shuddered and mewled and cursed in
languages he didn’t even know … all the while shooting harder than he ever had in his life, harder than
he knew he could.
And afterwards, shame crawling back up to the surface like the scummy floating stuff it was, his face
red and downcast as she leaned in and kissed him playfully on the cheek.
See? she breathed into his ear. I told you so.
There wasn’t much more. Red in the face, cock hard and throbbing against the fly buttons of his
dungarees despite himself, Harry turned away.
Glad this is in the Pensieve. Now I’ll be able to stop thinking about it. He was about to start toward the
surface when something caught his eye.
Over there – yes, there, on the chair, at the far side of the bed – was that …?
Yes. It was.
Trembling as if he’d just run for miles, icy sweat pooling in the small of his back, Harry walked over to
the chair and knelt down for a better look.
He couldn’t fold back the plain black robe on the top of the pile, but there was nothing stopping him
from drawing his own conclusions about what was peeping out from underneath it: a drift of floaty
floral-patterned fabric he knew all too well, and a shining loop of amber beads.
Oh, this was worse than he’d thought.
Chapter Forty-Eight
"Weasley! Are you coming?"
Bill, in the process of filing away the day’s notes in his shoulder satchel, shook his head without
looking up. "Not tonight. You go on without me."
"Weasley." Nigel "Nibs" Bowling-Thompson, Gringotts’ point-person in Johannesburg and an old chum
of Bill’s from the nine-month new-hire training they’d all gone through together in London prior to
being assigned, clapped Bill on the back and jerked his head meaningfully toward the heavily guarded
gate leading out of the mine. "You haven’t been into Jo’burg with us even one night so far. You’re
going to shrivel up and die if you don’t have some fun soon."
"It’s not really my scene," Bill said, buckling the straps of the satchel closed with what he hoped was
an air of finality. Nigel rolled his eyes.
"Oh, and this is?"
He gestured down the hill toward the southernmost edge of Soweto, a close-packed huddle of
makeshift shacks perched precariously on raw-scraped dirt foundations. As it wasn’t yet November, the
earth was still hard-packed and dry, with children playing in the narrow lanes and scrawny chickens
pecking hopefully in the tiny barren yards; by next month at this time, Bill knew, the miserable little
huts would be knee-deep in rainy-season muck, and the lone Red Cross clinic which served the health-
care needs of all of Soweto’s mining families would be overwhelmed with its yearly inundation of
dysentery victims. It was hard to believe that the erudite, cosmopolitan Johannesburg was less than 20
kilometers away – it seemed like another world altogether.
"This," he rejoined, suddenly weary of good-natured double-speak, "is precisely why Johannesburg
isn’t my scene. How you lot can go out and club-crawl after looking at this all day is completely
beyond me. I feel guilty just Apparating into my hotel room."
Nibs looked astonished – and just the slightest bit reproachful.
"I say, Weasley. That’s very heavy of you." He nudged Bill determinedly toward the gate again. "’S not
as if we caused it, after all – it’s a Muggle problem, now, isn’t it?" At Bill’s dark look, he shrugged
apologetically. "Well, we needn’t go sousing with the others, if you’d rather not. But at least come into
town and let me spot you dinner, just this once. We haven’t had the chance to catch up on this trip."
Bill started to refuse, then took a harder look at Nigel’s bewildered expression and relented. "Well," he
said, nodding reluctantly. "Dinner, then. But just dinner."
They dined on steak and the trimmings, smack in the middle of Newtown, Johannesburg’s old
downtown district … and hadn’t even gotten through the soup course before Nigel steered the talk to
"So," he said, sipping his single-malt scotch and settling back into his chair. "Who’s the lucky girl these
days? And is she suitably grateful for her induction into Harem Weasley?"
Bill flushed.
"I’ve slowed down a bit, Nibsy," he demurred, toying with his Parker House roll. "Not that the rumours
were ever indicative of reality – I’m afraid I never quite deserved my reputation." He raised one
eyebrow. "How about you? Has Gloria made your mind up for you yet?"
"Gloria," Nigel said sourly, "is ‘discovering her mystic roots’ in a wizarding ashram in Tibet. I saw the
catalogue – it’s like a day spa with chanting, run by some daft old codger in a fringed robe who calls
himself Lama Po." He shrugged. "Presumably the engagement’s still on … neither of us have broken it
off officially, anyway. But I haven’t seen her since March. For all I know, she’s been eaten by a yak."
He glugged at his Scotch again and brightened. "Lots of pretty things out and about in these parts,
though; it’s not as if Gloria’s my only option."
This was familiar territory. Bill sipped at his glass of Evian and offered Nigel a nod that, were its
recipient intoxicated enough, might have been taken for encouragement. "Of course not."
"Got a piece on the side tucked away for nearly two months," Nibs continued dreamily. "Gorgeous
creature named Kim. Muggle, of course. All legs and eyes. Little tennis ball of a bum. Mother doesn’t
know, naturally."
Bill spooned up some consommé and wisely refrained from comment … Nigel’s tastes for young black
Muggle mistresses were by now as much a given as his on-again, off-again betrothal to the flighty,
tempestuous Gloria, and the continued behind-the-scenes machinations of his snobbish pureblood
mother only made the situation worse. Not for the first time, Bill raised silent-but-heartfelt thanks to
Whoever Might Be Listening Up There, that Arthur and Molly Weasley were exactly who they were.
"So – how about it?" Nibs demanded again. "Is there a girl, or isn’t there?"
"There is," Bill admitted, and thought longingly of the sleeping face on its Alexandrian pillow that he’d
had to leave without kissing awake. Just to look at her, soft and safe and warm and Sleeping-Beauty
gorgeous through her misty shroud of mosquito netting, had made his breath catch in his throat.
"I knew it. And?" Nibs, by now teetering on the edge between gentle inebriation and out-right
drunkenness, leaned forward expectantly. "Details, man. Details! Is she just a piece of fluff? Or are you
Hermione, fluffy? Bill had to smile at that.
"Smitten," he said, after a moment’s pause. Nibs cackled.
"Smitten, eh?"
"Very smitten. Very very."
After all, it was the truth.
Hermione raised the phial of clear greenish liquid to the light, and peered through the glass into its
contents with interest.
"Ichor," she said, turning the phial round in her fingers. "The blood of the gods – no wonder you
couldn’t find it in Hogsmeade." She glanced mischievously in Snape’s direction. "Or is this the other
kind of ichor?"
He rolled his eyes. "You’ve been taking The Age of Fable far too seriously, haven’t you, Miss Granger?
Regardless of what Mr. Bulfinch had to say about it, there is only one useful magical kind of ichor, and
this is it." A challenging pause. "Which you’d know, if you’d done the extra reading I assigned last
"Dragon pus, then?" Hermione ventured. Snape looked pained, then nodded.
"Dragon pus, yes. Though that particular way of putting it lacks a certain … poetry."
"Drawn from the wounds of a dragon in flight," Hermione recited sing-song, "into a magically-treated
mortar, made of basalt and brought from the bottom of the sea. Distilled with rainwater and rose petals
by moonlight. Transported by …"
"Yes, well." Snape glared at her. "No need to sound so flippant; it’s an incredibly dangerous process,
which is why it’s so rare. Speaking of which, do stop twirling it about like that – not only would it eat
right through those inquisitive little fingers of yours if you gave it the opportunity, but that phial alone
is worth more than this villa."
"To replace, that is," he added as her eyes went wide – the extra reading she’d done hadn’t said
anything about what it cost. "This bit came free of charge. Albus made a call to Charlie Weasley."
Hermione nodded in sudden realisation. "Oh. So you weren’t really in Alexandria today, were you?"
"Romania." Snape looked sardonic. "Mr. Weasley asked me to tell you to ‘keep his big brother in
Hermione flushed. "Oh – really?"
"Really. And before you start sputtering denials," he said, looking more satisfied with himself than he
had any right to, "you’d might as well know that it’s common knowledge. Bill made the nature of your
relationship clear to Albus the night of your kidnapping – he was apparently too distraught to do
otherwise. And—" here, he grimaced—"Albus is utterly incapable of keeping … ahem, happy news, to
"Oh." Hermione averted her eyes. "I see."
"Hermione." His voice was gentler now. "You weren’t meant to look so embarrassed. I’m teasing you."
She turned baffled eyes up at him. "But don’t you …? I mean, aren’t you …?"
"Angry? No." Snape shrugged, his face carefully averted. "How could I be, when I’m seeing someone
else at the moment, as well?"
Hermione’s skin went hot, then cold.
"You are?" she blurted out. "Who?"
"It appears," he said thoughtfully, "that there’s more to Professor Trelawney than meets the eye.
Something you found out before I did, I fear."
"Trelawney?" Hermione repeated, disbelieving.
Unspoken: But she … but she …
But she knew I was in love with you.
That bitch.
"Oh," she said in a small voice. "Oh, I see."
"Hermione," he said again, looking uncharacteristically unsure of himself. Anxious, even – I must look
like I’m going to cry, Hermione thought, and concentrated on the phial of ichor with a determination
that made her head ache. "You made the right decision. He’s a better match for you than I’ll ever be."
"Right," Hermione said, and dug her teeth viciously into her lower lip. "Right. Of course."
She forced herself to smile up at him. "We should get started," she said, and tipped her head
meaningfully toward the stack of books at the end of the table. "Didn’t you say there was a table of
reactions somewhere?"
"What? Oh. Yes." Snape looked uncertain, then relieved. "Not the green notebook, the black. Toward
the middle, I think."
Hermione reached for the notebook and began to flip pages with an unsteady hand. Beneath her gaze,
Snape’s strongly slanted handwriting blurred into a film of grey; it took all her concentration to stop the
first tear from falling.
When it rains, it pours. Problem is, I’ve left my umbrella back in Cairo.
"Did you find it?" he asked, and she nodded.
"Yes. I found it."
Gritting her teeth, she blinked back the traitorous tears and began to read.

Chapter Forty-Nine
"Drinking water."
"Plant mister."
"Um. Check." Gabrielle glanced curiously at the little spray bottle, started to sniff at the contents, then
thought better of her impulse. "What’s in this, anyway?"
"Dreamless Sleep," Draco informed her. "One good blast full-on is enough to knock out a hippogriff."
Gabrielle frowned. "And you know this because …?"
He ignored her. "Invisibility Cloaks?"
Sigh. "Check."
They were going after Malfoy alone, after a prolonged group discussion on the topic. Safety in
numbers, sure – as the adventure-happy Ron had pointed out – but on the other hand, the reclusive
Draco and equally aloof Gabrielle had a relatively good chance of slipping away from the castle
unnoticed for the duration of the Feast, whereas the others – traditionally more sociable, and certainly
more high-profile, in terms of Hogwarts’ social strata – would most definitely be missed.
Their agreed-upon compromise: a Remembrall, set to ‘mortal peril’ instead of ‘things forgotten’, much
in the manner of the Weasleys’ kitchen clock, and enchanted to look like a quartz crystal. Ginny had
conjured up a silver setting for it and strung it on a lacy silver chain, and it was presently adorning the
portion of milk-white cleavage that her tangerine ball gown showcased so efficiently. Any serious
trouble, and it would flash from diamond-clear to blood-red … the Gryffindors’ cue to alert
Personally, Gabrielle figured it wasn’t a bad idea to have a safety net; on the other hand, she didn’t
think they’d need it. This excursion had been much more carefully planned than her impromptu visit to
Malfoy Manor, after all. And it wasn’t as if they were assured of finding Malfoy, anyway – Draco had
as much as admitted that he didn’t know exactly where the Malfoys’ secret bunker actually was.
"It moves around a bit," he’d said evasively, a couple of weeks back when she’d first asked him about
it, and had been wearing that remote don’t-ask expression specifically designed to shut off the
possibility of further questioning … so Gabrielle, figuring she’d find out what she needed to know
eventually, had let it slide. Now, however, as they tucked their Books and Keys into the pockets of their
robes and prepared to sling their Invisibility Cloaks over their shoulders, she felt her curiosity
And this time, he didn’t rebuff her.
"On one hand, I know exactly where he is," he said, taking a deep breath. "We must be the only
wizarding family on the planet with a bomb shelter; my grandfather was convinced, back in the Sixties,
that the Muggles were going to nuke each other and bring about the end of the world."
"Oh, I’ve heard about those," Gabrielle said, and snickered – the thought of the elegant Lucius Malfoy
sleeping on an army cot and eating tinned fish was distinctly ludicrous. When she explained her
amusement to Draco, however, he shook his head.
"That’s the thing," he said. "I was down inside the thing once, and it’s not much like the Muggle model;
it’s all enchantments. Looks more or less like a facsimile of the Manor itself. Minus the grounds, of
course. That’s why you didn’t run into any of the house-elves – he’s probably taken all of them down
there with him."
Gabrielle frowned. "Well, if you’ve been inside, don’t you know where it is?"
"I told you. It moves around." Draco plucked at a ravelling thread on the sleeve of his robe. "I think it’s
under an Obfuscus Charm. I know the password, but in addition to the incantation, you have to be
holding an object that has close ties to the real Manor. Otherwise you end up in an oubliette – and he’s
probably stocked that with one of his standard creepy-crawlies." He scanned Elysium’s living-room
appraisingly. "That’s the problem, see? Some of this stuff came from the Manor, but by now it’s been at
Hogwarts so long that it’s linked more closely with school, or at the very least just with me. I think we
may have to stop at home for something."
"What’s the problem with that?"
"Well, for one thing, the Ministry’s changed the locks," Draco said gloomily. "The Floo network won’t
work any longer; it means illegal Apparation onto the grounds, and then Merlin knows how long trying
to break through the wards. At the very least, it’s bound to attract attention, and at the very most we
could land ourselves in a ton of trouble."
Gabrielle thought hard for a minute. "Wait a minute," she said. "This object – can it be anything from
the house?"
Draco nodded, puzzled. "Yeah. But you don’t have anything from Malfoy Manor, do you?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "Well, there’s Fifi," she admitted, flushing a little at Draco’s enquiring look. "The
stuffed poodle from your mother’s … um, closet."
"Oh." Draco looked interested – and perhaps just the slightest bit amused. "You stole Mum’s stuffed
Oh, this was embarrassing. Gabrielle swallowed hard. "Well, the thing is … I mean, she’s been … er
… sleeping with me. Sometimes," she added hastily. "But only for a month. And she was in your house
much longer than that, right?"
"Probably, yeah." He thought for a moment, then shrugged. "It’s worth a try," he said. "Why don’t you
go get it – uh, I mean, her – and then meet me by the stone witch? I’ll bring these other things."
Gabrielle was bright pink. "I’ll be quick," she promised, and – throwing on the Cloak – hurried out of
the library toward the Ravenclaw wing.
He really could be very sweet.
The experiments were well under way, and Hermione – though still bruised and more than a bit shaken
by Snape’s bombshell announcement – couldn’t help but be interested in their outcome.
That must be your own personal curse, Granger, she told herself hotly, that you always need to know
what happens next, no matter what. Couldn’t you pitch a bitch and swan off for a good snivel, like any
other normal girl would have?
I don’t have the right to cry, retaliated her common sense. I’m sleeping with someone else, aren’t I?
Your point being …? This viewpoint didn’t belong either to the Daredevil or the Voice of Caution;
Hermione, after last night’s prolonged pity-party, had decided to dub this new, wholly unattractive
aspect of her by-now-seriously-fractured personality "Angst Girl". Since when did a random rebound
shag preclude you from pining away for someone else? Angst Girl demanded. Get with the program,
But it’s not just a rebound shag. I like Bill … and I’m pretty sure he likes me, too.
It ought to be a winning combination – two thumbs up, like begets like. So why did the thought of
Sybil Trelawney in Snape’s bed make her stomach want to escape through her nose?
Good question.
"All right," Snape said, breaking into her personal fog of self-recrimination by way of thrusting a petri
dish in front of her face. "This is ready to test. Write down what I tell you to."
"Jawohl, mein Kommandant," Hermione murmured resentfully under her breath, but obediently found
a fresh page in the notebook and poised her quill over the first line.
"Beg your pardon?"
"Nothing. Go on."
One drop of pearly-green ichor, neatly deposited via pipette over the honey-thick, slightly pulsing
smudge of ink. Hermione watched the ichor fizz madly as it steadily consumed the thicker substance,
then bubble and foam in reaction until it had exhausted itself, finally coming to a quiescent halt in the
bottom of the dish.
"Carmine," Snape dictated, his eyes fixed on the dish. "Streaks of brown throughout. Already
crystallising at the edges." He put his face near the dish, inhaled deeply, and held the breath for a long
second. "Sulfurous odour. Probably highly flammable. Appears to have lost its corrosive properties in
"Got it," Hermione said, writing madly, and got a terse nod of acknowledgement for her trouble.
"Good. Now, we cross-compare—" here, he indicated the black notebook. "Reaction to the ichor should
at the very least prove the identity of the base, and narrow down the thickening agent." Hermione,
already scanning the first page of neatly penned entries, hummed absently in agreement.
"You were right," she said; "it’s definitely peppercorn. That’s the only base that produces that smell of
sulfur in reaction." She spared him a sardonic look. "Care to speculate as to the identity of the
Either Snape didn’t notice her sarcastic tone, or he was choosing to ignore it. "Not specifically, no." He
was prodding at the now-hardened morass in the petri dish with the tip of his wand. "Though I’d guess
that it’s one of the edibles – or organic, at the very least. There are a series of conjurations that can have
the same effect as, say, an arrowroot or a tapioca … but if memory serves, the ichor burns right through
the enchantment and renders it useless. You wouldn’t get this—" here, he indicated the taffy-like lump
of red goo—"you’d get something much slushier."
Hermione scanned quickly down the list and gave a low whistle, impressed despite herself. "You’ve a
good memory," she said grudgingly. "It is an organic." A closer examination of the chart had her biting
her lip. "Don’t think I can narrow it down too much beyond that, though … not with the current
He shrugged. "Fair enough. We’re still further along than we were half an hour ago." He tapped the
edge of the dish with his wand, murmured a Sterilising Charm that wiped away all traces of the
experiment, and began to transfer another smudge of ink to the now-pristine glass surface. "How many
possible options are there now?"
Hermione did a quick count. "Seventy-eight."
Snape grimaced philosophically. "Better than one-twelve. Here." He passed her an empty notebook.
"Forget the coagulant for now – the next test we’re going to run focuses on the scrambler. Almost
without exception, it’s going to be an herbal ingredient – tansy, mugwort, thuja, rue, something like
that. Wormwood, sometimes."
Hermione frowned. "Those are all neurotoxins," she said slowly. Snape nodded.
"High in ketones," he said. "Ingest a certain amount of any of them, and you heighten your chances of
becoming epileptic. More than that, and you can become delusional. Nothing particularly magical
about any of them, but when you mix them with the binding ingredient and the enchantment, they’re
the bits of the potion that are going to encrypt the message." He nodded at the notebook. "Our seventy-
eight suspects? Divide them into categories for easier elimination. This next process should narrow
things down to fifteen or less."
Wincing at the pages in front of her, Hermione picked up her quill again.
Research was a lot of things, but easy wasn’t one of them.
Harry had his own reason for wanting to stay for the dance, and her name was Sybil Trelawney.
"Don’t you think we should have argued a little harder?" Ron hissed into his ear on their way down to
the Gryffindor common room. "I mean, Malfoy can probably take care of himself – I guess – but
Gabrielle’s really little."
Harry raised an eyebrow. "When we were Gabrielle’s age," he said, "we were brewing illegal Polyjuice
in the girls’ loo and chasing into the Forbidden Forest after giant spiders. Lucius Malfoy’s a lot of
things, but he wouldn’t stand much of a chance against Aragog, I don’t think."
Ron shuddered. "Point taken."
Their dates were waiting for them in the Entrance Hall – Ginny, looking like a small, radiant sun in her
peachy-orange gown with its voluminous chiffon skirts and its corset bodice, and a sweet-faced, dark-
haired fifth-year Hufflepuff named Madeline who Harry didn’t know very well, but who he’d seen
shyly hanging around the Gryffindor entrance to the Quidditch locker rooms for much of fall term. She
was standing with Ginny, nervously fiddling with the sleeve of her blue velvet dress robes; when she
saw Ron, she blushed to her hairline.
"Go get ‘em, tiger," Harry murmured under his breath to Ron, then grinned at Ginny. "Hi."
"You look great." His eyes flicked briefly to the diamond-bright crystal between her breasts. "No
"No problems."
He offered her his arm, and they went in to dinner. Harry made it a point not to look at the Head Table,
where Trelawney was installed between Flitwick and Hooch – placidly forking in pork roast and
pumpkin pie, amber beadery glinting wickedly in the light from the enchanted jack-o’-lanterns.
There’d be time enough to deal with her … later.

Chapter Fifty
They emerged unseen into Honeydukes’ cellar, slipped cautiously up the rickety stairs to the main shop
level, and ducked out into the night, Gabrielle taking two quick steps to each of Draco’s longer strides
and keeping a pinch of his Cloak between the fingers of her free hand, so as not to lose contact with
him. The streets were deserted, the citizens of Hogsmeade sitting down to their Halloween dinners, the
lights in their convivial windows shining like a warm golden checkerboard against the chilly black
night … and still they walked on, away from the glittering castle up on the hill, until the houses grew
sparser and finally disappeared altogether, and they were standing alone together in the half-frozen
earth of a bare-plowed field.
He threw off the hood of his Cloak and regarded her with cool grey eyes as she followed suit. "You can
still go back, you know," he said – voice noncommittal, eyes measuring. "This isn’t your battle tofight."
At that, she tossed her head. "If it’s yours, it’s mine." Bold, Gabrielle, bold – that’s as good as a
declaration right there. Cheeks burning, she stared him down, and finally he inclined his head slightly
and smiled.
"Chivalry, Gabrielle? So be it, then."
He sobered, then abruptly, unexpectedly, closed the short distance between them and laid his lips
briefly on her forehead. Gabrielle’s breath caught and held in her throat.
"Stay close," he murmured. "And no heroics, okay?" Smile curving against her skin. "D’accord?"
"D’accord." She would have agreed to anything – that had been a kiss between comrades, between
equals, and she could have, at that instant, gone to her grave a happy woman. "I promise."
Fifi was a warm fluffy comfort against her chest. She pulled her out of the Cloak, a purple plush love-
sacrifice, and handed her over to Draco, trying not to feel bereft at the loss. "Get under your Cloak," he
directed now, taking the poodle from her, "and then hang on to me. Don’t let go."
And then he took a deep breath, and waved his wand over Fifi’s fuzzy topknot, and began to chant –
Welsh, it sounded like, or Gaelic maybe – and over his words came a poodle-shaped flash of blue-white
light that sucked at Gabrielle like a vacuum, tried to pull her grip away from his arm.
Her knuckles creaked with exertion, the wind screamed in her ears. But she didn’t let go, not even
when it began to tug at him too, when the cold ground beneath their feet started to shift and dissolve. A
knife of cold air against her face, and then a rushing sound all around them, louder and louder, as the
light widened and brightened and they fell …
… only to find themselves sprawled on the marble floor of what looked very much indeed like the
Malfoys’ grand salon.
It had worked.
Fifi was lying an arm’s-length away, wind-tousled but unharmed. Gabrielle, feeling foolish but
unaccountably relieved, scrabbled her fingers along the marble until they reached purple plush, and
yanked the toy back under her Cloak. Draco didn’t appear to notice.
"Stay close," he hissed again into her ear, and then they were scrambling to their feet, his hand gripping
hers through a double layer of slippery fabric. "Before we go looking for him, I want to make sure the
house-elves are out of the way. Get out your wand."
They moved forward cautiously into the darkness.
"Pennyroyal," Hermione announced, looking up from her notes, and Severus nodded approvingly. He’d
suspected as much, though it could just as easily have been wormwood instead – the more expensive,
more poetic option. Apparently, however, Duathor bint-Hussein had been a practical woman, and not
the sort of person given to foolish fancies, however elitist or literary their origins.
He could relate. Though it was hard not to indulge those latent fantasies when Hermione was across the
table from him, only inches away – sad but stalwart, a wounded queen determined to battle till she
He hadn’t expected the news about Sybil to hurt her so much … and the fact that it had done just that
made the struggling, too-often-shouted-down bit of him that was still a gentleman want to take it all
back, to tell her that he hadn’t meant it. If he could have rewritten history, sent her back to that flippant,
lighthearted version of herself who had so annoyed him an hour ago, he’d have done it in a heartbeat.
But of course he couldn’t do that.
All the magic in the world couldn’t wipe those words off the cosmic chalkboard – not even Obliviate,
that old chestnut of Lockhart’s … unless he was prepared to perform a Memory Charm on all of
Hogwarts, most of London, a good deal of Eastern Europe, and the delighted, formidable Molly
Weasley – who he’d seen in Flourish and Blotts just half an hour before he’d left Diagon Alley for
Alexandria, luminous with cautious happiness and furtively examining a heavily-gilded book of
handfasting rituals with the half-wistful, half-dreamy expression of a woman whose first grandchild is a
dream already overdue. The whole wizarding world, it seemed, was poised to congratulate the happy
couple … and he, a Born Party-Crasher if he’d ever met one, wasn’t about to be the one standing in the
And damn it all …what was Hermione doing blinking back tears over him, anyway, when she had
Weasley – Weasley the good, the bright, the honourable, the hero-archetype turned flesh? And why was
his mouth coppery with regret over her, when he was going back to the ever-luscious, ever-
understanding Sybil?
Surely in all of this domestic bliss, there ought to be at least one happy ending.
He studied her drawn lips, her set face, and had to fight down an unwelcome tide of guilt. It’s just hurt
pride, that’s all, he told himself … and unwillingly heard Sybil’s matter-of-fact words of a month ago
echoing in his head: She told Mikhail that she loved you. I heard her say it.
She loved him, or at least thought she did. Enough to die for it, or at any rate to think she was going to.
And what had been his response to this ultimate evidence of loyalty? Severus thought bitterly.
What’s love, but a word you can’t say out loud?
Once again, she’d proven herself a far braver soul than he’d ever be. Stricken, ashamed, he set his jaw
and turned away.
Sybil Trelawney’s seat at the Head Table was empty.
"Um." Harry tapped Ginny on the shoulder. "I’m going to get a bit of fresh air. Want to come along?"
She considered the offer – then, just as Harry had hoped, shook her head.
"Susan’s teaching us the Electric Slide," she explained, wiping slightly-damp copper curls out of her
eyes. "You go ahead – I’ll catch up with you later, okay?"
She reached up on her toes to brush a kiss over his mouth, and Harry felt a pang of guilt, starting with
that light touch of girl-lips and reverberating all the way to his traitorous toes. It wasn’t exactly
sporting, taking advantage of such implicit trust. On the other hand, this was the one thing he figured
he couldn’t explain to Ginny and expect her to understand.
Well, it’s not as if you’re after a second helping, after all, he rationalised to himself, breaking the kiss
and giving her a quick spin before he set her on her feet again, laughing and tousled. Just answers. Is
that such a betrayal?
His conscience was alarmingly silent on that count.
One more quick look at the crystal between Ginny’s breasts, appealingly dewed with a sheen of
perspiration and shining crystal-clear. He glanced around the dance floor for a glimpse of Ron, and
grinned as Madeline-the-Hufflepuff spun into view, clinging like ivy to Ron’s broad shoulders. Ron
didn’t seem to mind much.
Nice to know that someone, at least, wasn’t finding the world of romance unnecessarily complicated.
He slid off the dance floor toward the punch table; at the other end of the room, Ginny had already
kicked off her dancing sandals and was throwing her whole diminutive body, princess-gown and all,
into a complicated line-dance. She was surrounded by her similarly gyrating girlfriends, and an
appreciative crowd was gathering around them.
Trelawney had been gone for a full fifteen minutes now … more than enough time, Harry thought, for
her to reach the North Tower. His pulse began to speed.
Without a backward glance, he edged his way through the doors to the Entrance Hall, and began to jog
toward the Divination Classroom.
Chapter Fifty-One
For a technically wealthy man cut off from his own money, Lucius Malfoy was living very well indeed.
As he was accustomed to living well, however – regrettable stints in incarceration notwithstanding – he
didn’t give his current good fortune much thought.
He was too busy being annoyed with the book on his desk.
One of only two in the world, the bookseller had sworn, and had pointed out proof of his averral in the
dusty, thick Ministry catalogue from under his counter. And if you’re looking for information on the
Jade Priestess, this is the only place you’re going to find it written down. The author was a Priestess
Of course, there was that pesky little matter of the encryption – the fact that no one knew for sure what
Duathor bint al-Hussein had had to say about her experiences with the Jade Priestess was an
inconvenience that had gone farther than expected in driving down the price. Not that the Galleons had
been any good, anyway, but that was beside the point. Lucius hadn’t, in truth, been overly worried
about the code at the time he’d obtained Duathor’s journal; he’d cracked codes before. It was just a
matter of knowing the right spell.
Wasn’t it?
Except that he’d tried everything he could think of, during these months of waiting in his luxurious
foxhole of a hideaway, and none of it had so much as ruffled a single page; the book continued to stare
blankly up at him, its runes winking whisper-quick across the pages like tiny scornful eyes, tiny
tittering mouths. Bloody obstinate thing, Lucius thought, and scowled. It was almost as if the book was
laughing at him.
Irritating, to say the least.
But he was a patient man, when he absolutely had to be, and the payoff for all this effort was just too
good to abandon. Even allowing for Rita Skeeter’s customary penchant for exaggeration – could the
woman utter one sentence, just one measly teensy-tiny sentence, without overloading it with
adjectives? – the tale was an incredible one, and a testimonial to what had been, underneath her
annoying mannerisms and tabloid sensibilities, a genuine talent for journalism. It must have taken her
the better part of a year to track down all the details of it, until she had enough data to draw a
reasonable conclusion; Lucius didn’t imagine that the oh-so-noble Miss Granger had any way of
knowing how the sabbatical she’d forced on Skeeter would come back to haunt her.
The thought brought a thin, cold smile to his lips.
Simple enough to put all the pieces together, once you had them – and he really had to hand it to her,
Rita had been most accommodating with the legwork. Who would have thought that the bookish little
brat would have a celebrity in her family tree (albeit a Muggle one), or that the singer would have
chanced to cross amorous paths with one of the enigmatic al-Husseins? Once you knew about that, the
rest was easy to deduce: no further witches among the royal family, now, were there? And from the
pedestrian Muggle dentists, one bright, incongruous little phoenix.
Coincidence? He rather thought not.
It followed, then, that Miss Granger would have at some point ended up with the amulet. No one knew
much about the al-Husseins that they’d rather keep private – their Muggle spin-doctors saw to that –
but there had always been whispers about the Priestess, for those who cared to listen. The al-Hussein
witches were powerful and formidable (mixed-blood or no), but also plagued with delusions and
madness … enough to raise eyebrows and drop voices, and to keep prurient curiosity about their little
family bauble at a safe distance.
Lucius, however, was beginning to wonder if the Priestess was really responsible for the havoc
attributed to it. More likely that the bloodline itself was tainted, he mused – which would certainly
explain Hermione Granger’s deplorable lack of current bad luck. If anything, the little twit was leading
a charmed existence, according to his sources on the outside: blessed with friends and allies, lucky in
love, steadily gaining in wealth and prestige.
Cornelius Fudge’s attempt to block sales of her migraine remedy in the wizarding world had been
thwarted by his own cabinet – most notably that shopworn old pedant, Hubbard.
The murmurs about her possible induction into the Order of Merlin still abounded, despite wholesale
apathy on the part of high-ranking Ministry officials … ever since word of Voldemort’s capture at her
hands had leaked out to the general public, the nominations had come trickling in, steady and persistent
and refusing to abate – even now, months after the fact. (Lucius imagined that he had Arthur Weasley to
thank for that, and amused himself with an idle vengeance fantasy before pulling himself back to the
matter at hand.)
And the assassin he’d sent after her – paid with the promise of the Priestess, though Lucius hadn’t
actually intended to let the Russian walk off with it – had simply … disappeared, beyond the reach of
any Location Charm he could muster. It seemed likely that his hired wand was dead. The only question
that remained: how?
The Priestess amulet had something to do with her continued blessed existence – Lucius was sure of it.
That thought might have dissuaded a lesser wizard from his chosen pursuit, but it only made him more
First, he was going to figure out the code in the book. And then, when the secrets of the Priestess lay
bare before him, he was going to find that bushy-haired little mongrel, and turn her protection against
her once and for all.
He bent over Duathor’s journal once more, smiling.
Malfoy Manor, Red Scare Version, was dim and quiet as they turned out of the grand salon toward the
kitchen wing. Gabrielle was a silent little shadow next to him; Draco would have scarcely known she
was walking beside him if she hadn’t been gripping his hand so tightly.
He himself was counting house-elves in his head. All through his childhood there had been six,
counting Dobby. Subtract him, and that left five. He could probably take Looma off the list, too –
Looma, his favourite, a quiet little she-elf who made the best cocoa he’d ever tasted, and who had been
devoted to his mother. Most likely, she’d gone with Narcissa to St. Mungo’s.
Four, then. Two of them were kitchen- and laundry-elves, like Dobby had been, and unless things had
changed since he’d last lived at home, Lucius had them too cowed and fearful to concentrate on
anything other than their work. It wouldn’t be too difficult to take them by surprise.
He was more concerned about the other two, the watch-elves … they were a different story. Taller and
stronger than the others, they were also less domesticated: lean and hungry-looking, unfriendly nearly
to the point of hostility, and just the teensiest bit trigger-happy when it came to elf-magic. Lucius had a
rather Hagrid-like hobby of inter-species breeding – illegal, of course, but who was going to call him
on it? – and Draco had long suspected that these two were some nasty sort of hybrid. Part troll, maybe;
they had a very Goyle-like way of sniggering behind their hands, and an unpleasant leering expression
that wasn’t anything like the regular house-elves’ soulful Bambi eyes.
Draco hugged the plant mister full of Dreamless Sleep protectively against his side and sent up a small,
fervent prayer to the God of Good Luck – well, two prayers, actually: firstly, that he’d find the watch-
elves before they found him, and secondly, that he wouldn’t miss his first shot with the mister.
It was a lot to ask for.
On the other hand, he’d been saving up for the occasion.
As they got closer to the servants’ wing, the corridor narrowed and the ceiling began to drop. It wasn’t
a building flaw, Draco knew, but an architectural conceit, common among old pureblood families; an
elf-sized kitchen was absolute proof that the owners never had to cook for themselves, just as an elf-
sized laundry meant the lady of the house never laid her manicured hands on an iron. Draco had, as a
child, found the house-elves’ foreshortened quarters comforting, somewhere he could go where his
father couldn’t follow.
That was then. Now, he just felt cramped.
They were in single-file now, edging cautiously along the side of the corridor, Draco slumping his
shoulders and bending his knees as the ceiling sloped ever downward. Finally, when it became clear
that he was going to have to shuffle along on his hands and knees if they went much farther, Gabrielle
tugged on the back of his Cloak to stop him.
"Give it to me," she whispered. "I’ll do it. I can still fit."
He leaned down to where he thought her ear probably was. "No. Too dangerous."
She made a small impatient sound next to his face. "Don’t be ridiculous," she hissed. "You said
yourself that these are the nice ones. You can deal with the watch-elves, when we find them. Let me do
"Oh, mon Dieu. Give it here."
"No," he repeated yet again, then nearly cursed out loud as she made an excellently-informed grab for
the spray bottle and slid it neatly out from under his arm. "Damn it, Gabrielle, wait!"
All of this in a tense whisper that went sadly unheeded; he didn’t know where she was, but he had the
feeling she’d already taken off for the kitchens. "Bloody hell," he breathed – unwittingly borrowing a
phrase he’d heard from Ron a hundred times if he’d heard it once – and reluctantly sank to his heels on
the imported Byzantine tiles.
Nothing to do now … except to wait.
Flushed with giddy triumph, Gabrielle tiptoed further down the shrinking corridor, then paused just
outside the door to the kitchens and took a deep, calming breath. The Invisibility Cloak, she knew,
wouldn’t wholly protect her from the eyes of the house-elves, though it was good for maybe a casual
glance or two. No, the only sure way to do this was to sneak up on them from behind. She poked her
head cautiously around the doorjamb, saw a pair of elves in earnest simultaneous activity – one
grinding coffee beans with a hand crank, the other heating water over a spirit lamp – and took the split-
second opportunity afforded her to whisk into the room and barricade herself between the open door
and the wall.
The elves, their faces tense with concern, didn’t notice. One was dipping its spindly forefinger
repeatedly into the scalding water at regular intervals, presumably to test its temperature, then
withdrawing it again with whimpering alacrity. The other, intent on its bean-grinding task, kept
repeating: Cream – no sugar, cream – no sugar, under its breath in a mumbled monotone. They both
looked pitiable in their frayed, too-large tea-towel uniforms, and Gabrielle – whose only prior
knowledge of house-elves ran to the happy, efficient Hogwarts crew and the two roly-poly, gently
sarcastic French kitchen-elves who had presided over her grandmother’s flat in Paris and now hovered
reproachfully around Fleur, clucking their tongues, if she tried to make her own chocolat chaud – felt a
bright stab of mingled outrage and sympathy.
Poor things. I hope they don’t catch it for this.
She was just wondering how best to proceed when the faint sounds of a brief scuffle echoed in from the
corridor – apparently, Draco had found one of the watch-elves, or else it had found him; from the sound
of it, Gabrielle couldn’t tell. A few moments later, a doubled-over, invisible body came sliding around
the door to pin her against the wall. The house-elves didn’t look up.
"Ow!" she hissed, and stepped hard on his foot. Draco dropped the hood of his Cloak and nodded
reassuringly at her.
One down, he mouthed. Gabrielle thrust a considering tongue into one cheek.
"I have an idea," she whispered presently into his ear. "Want to hear it?"
The plan required a certain amount of chutzpah to carry off, and would have been unthinkable if Draco
hadn’t gotten such high marks on his Transfiguration N.E.W.T.s. Neither one of them knew how to
make decent coffee, so they waited – not quite patiently – behind the door, as the elves, visibly nervous,
combined water and grounds in a coffee press and set the mixture to steep.
The moment the coffee was separated out and transferred into its serving carafe, they moved – Draco
stepping into the light, straightening as far as possible into a half-crouch and yelling, "Hey!"; Gabrielle
taking advantage of the elves’ disorientation, shock, and subsequent defensive action to scuttle in under
the line of fire and deliver the coup de grâce with the plant mister.
Not the most elaborate of schemes. Ridiculously simple, as a matter of fact – like a magic trick
explained ahead of time … squirt once, turn, squirt again, and down they went for the count, one
trailing a leftover Stunning Spell from its fingertips that misfired as it fell and dislodged a sizable
chunk of the kitchen ceiling. Draco had sustained minor damage from a glancing enchantment and was
lying on the floor, breathing heavily. Gabrielle hurried over to him.
"You’re all right?"
He flexed his wand arm gingerly, then winced. "Fine. A little numb on this side is all. Go ahead – do
‘It’ referred to the coffee.
Carefully, Gabrielle unscrewed the lid of the carafe and tipped in a generous slug of Dreamless Sleep.
"Done," she said, satisfied. "Now – quick, before it cools! I need some bad hair and a big nose."
Draco raised his wand, then unexpectedly lowered it again and snickered. The effort made him wheeze.
Gabrielle frowned.
"What’s so funny?"
"Nothing," he said, still grinning.
"Sorry," he said, and pulled himself up to a sitting position using his good arm. "It’s just that I must be
the only wizard in history who’s ever tried to turn a veela into a house-elf. Struck me funny, that’s all."
Put that way, Gabrielle supposed it did seem a bit … odd. "Just so it’s not permanent," she said, and
shook back her cloud of ringlets. "Being blonde may be a mixed blessing, but I don’t hate it that
"Ha. Well, hold still, then."
He really was handsome when he smiled.

Chapter Fifty-Two
By the time he reached the North Tower, Harry was beginning to wonder whether he hadn’t been
mistaken about Trelawney. For one thing, he’d caught up with her far too quickly … and for another,
there just wasn’t much of a resemblance. Apart from the disparity in their physical appearance, the
Mystery Woman in the Pensieve had been as quick and lithe as a snow tiger. And this Sybil, even with
no one around to see her, was moving with a labouring old-lady gait that didn’t even begin to be a
Maybe he was wrong.
But he followed her anyway, quick and silent under his old friend the Invisibility Cloak - up the stairs
to the tower, up the ladder which descended conveniently from the ceiling, and across the fussy
crowded classroom - still close with the stale odour of leftover incense - to its darkest corner, which
turned out to conceal a door.
A muttered password (‘Heineken’ - now that’s a new one, thought Harry), and the door slid open to
admit her … or perhaps, more accurately, just melted away into nothing. She stepped into the darkened
room beyond and paused just beyond the threshold; Harry saw the swirl of her cloak as it left her
shoulders, heard muted twin thumps which meant she’d taken off her shoes. It was just enough noise,
just enough time to give him the opportunity; he slipped through the passageway unnoticed, barely
yanking the tail of the Cloak free as the door hardened inexorably into solid wall behind him.
Nonplussed by this - there didn’t seem to be another way out, and he didn’t fancy being trapped in
Sybil Trelawney’s apartment until morning - Harry flattened himself into the corner she’d just vacated,
and took stock of his surroundings.
It was the emptiest room he’d ever seen.
It wasn’t especially large, but its lack of furnishing, particularly as contrasted with the classroom he’d
just come through, made it seem vast - all bare, scarred stone floor and interesting shadows thrown
against the hexagonal walls. Lumos, she’d said a moment ago, upon entering, and yellow light had
immediately sprung up in soft arcs from no discernable source, allowing Harry to see the black
wrought-iron screen that divided off one corner - presumably there was a bed behind that thin shield of
rice-paper, maybe even a small wardrobe - and the black leather davenport that faced the opposite wall,
flanked by sleek, spare glass-and-steel end tables. In front of the davenport lay a small area rug in
black-and-white zebra stripes with a blood-red border; apart from that, the room was empty.
No homey little tchotchkes. No pictures on the walls. No windows.
All of the walls were mirrored from floor to ceiling.
Harry began to think he’d been right about her, after all. This wasn’t a Fruit Bat room … and standing
there in the pitiless gaze of all those reflections, Trelawney looked like a Charles-Dickens bag lady
who’d taken a wrong turn on her way to the Ladies and ended up lost in an Escher print. He couldn’t
believe that she’d been teaching here, living here, for longer than he’d been a student - starkness of the
décor aside, this room put him in mind of what his bedroom at the Dursleys’ would have looked like, if
he’d been able to shovel out all of Dudley’s junk: in a word, uninhabited.
But she’d dropped her tired-old-woman walk, along with her fussy handbag … and now, Harry noted,
had conjured a bottle of Ogden’s Red Label and a whiskey tumbler from thin air and was pouring
herself a generous three fingers’ worth. He watched as she tipped it back, swallowed without wincing,
and - after a brief pause during which she seemed to be contemplating a refill - snapped her fingers to
Banish the empty glass. The bottle she set on one of the end tables; a moment later, it was joined by the
chittering beads around her neck, the eyeglasses on their amber necklace, the gaudy flashing rings.
She straightened up, and Harry almost recoiled against the look of hatred that the wall in front of her
reflected back to him. It took him a panicked moment to realise that she hadn’t discovered him - that
she was looking at herself.
“You miserable old hag,” she said softly to the mirror. “Christ Almighty, how I’m sick of looking at
The mirror didn’t answer back; if this was how she talked to it every day, Harry could see why she
wouldn’t want an enchanted one. Too, he could understand her sentiments - if he looked like the
Mystery Woman, he’d be a bit disenchanted with Trelawney, too. Her wand twitched, and he braced
himself … he was going to see her in a minute, she of his thousand sweaty-handed fantasies, his
twilight world behind the draperies, and in his anticipation it was getting harder and harder to hold onto
the righteous indignation that had spurred him up to the Tower.
Or maybe it’s that nobody acts under just one motivation?
Maybe. But as the enchantment settled over her, he saw not the Mystery Woman but a platinum
bombshell, emerging in a shimmer from behind Trelawney’s image, all bee-stung pout and curves.
Wow, he thought, forgetting to be disappointed. That’s some trick, all right - but barely had time to
register approval before she shrugged, and sighed, and changed again, into a serious-eyed Lois Lane
brunette with horn-rimmed glasses and sleek shining hair drawn back into a tortoiseshell clip at the
back of her neck.
And then kept going.
More red to the hair. More length to the face. Eyes shifting from gentian-blue to sable-brown, skin
deepening from alabaster to clover honey and then back again, each incarnation more lovely and
ephemeral than the last … and still she sighed and raised her wand again, in a gesture that had nothing
at all to do with narcissism, Harry thought, and everything to do with bone-deep discontent.
Harry knew he ought to just keep his mouth shut - this wasn’t a beauty pageant, despite physical
evidence to the contrary, and she wouldn’t appreciate company right now. Beyond that, he of all people
knew what she was capable of in terms of vengeance - wasn’t that the reason he was here, after all?
But he felt himself taken over with an odd wild mix of emotions - curiosity, and sympathy, and
something else that wasn’t nearly so simple - and couldn’t quite stop himself.
“Which one is really you?” he blurted out, shrugging off the Cloak and pushing himself away from the
wall. The face that she turned toward him - sweet and heart-shaped, with eyes as bottle-green as his
own and just a hint of stubbornness to the chin - looked first startled, then angry, then, finally, resigned.
“You’re too fearless for your own good, Mr. Potter,” she said - a veiled threat that just didn’t seem
right, coming from those Kewpie-doll lips. (Disturbingly enough, this was sort of exciting.) “Luckily,
you have fast reflexes as well. Nine times out of ten, that’ll save you, even if you’re stupid.”
Oh. Maybe not a threat, after all.
In fact, there was probably a compliment in there somewhere, Harry decided, and began to walk toward
her, pressing again on what he instinctively sensed was a sore spot. “Is this it?” he asked, stopping a
decorous eight inches away from her but then - incredibly, as if disembodied - watching one of his
hands in the mirror come up to fondle a silky black curl. “Is this your real face?”
Oh, she’s going to take you apart, Potter. But she didn’t; just swallowed and flinched slightly as that
brave-but-foolhardy hand slipped higher to cradle the back of her head.
It sounded like an admission. She looked uncertain of herself and sulky because of it. When he stepped
a little closer, she stiffened, but didn’t pull away.
“Is your name really Sybil?”
Lowered eyes. “Yes.”
Harry’s heart was pounding. “The woman in Snape’s room the other night,” he said tentatively. “Is that
- is she, I mean …?”
She shook her head. “No.”
Stabbing disappointment - his fantasy-made-flesh was as fictional as Lois Lane, then - and then, a
sudden, spine-chilling thought. “Trelawney,” he said, unable to keep his voice from cracking over the
word. “I mean, the Professor. That’s not what you really…“
“No! Christ, no.” She looked horrified at the very idea.
Without thinking, Harry ran his thumb over her cheekbone, a gesture that did as much to calm himself
as it did to calm her. Over her shoulder, he caught a glimpse of them in the mirror and had to force
down a pleasurable shudder; standing that close to each other, black heads bent together, they could
have been brother and sister.
“Who is she, then?”
She was silent so long that he thought at first she hadn’t heard him. Just when he was about to ask the
question again, however, she took a deep breath and blew it out angrily.
“She’s a joke,” she said dully. “A bad joke that I played on myself, a long time ago.”
Her eyes came up to meet his. “You’re lucky, you know,” she said, “that no one’s ever let you forget
who you are. It’s easier to lose yourself than you might think.”
Harry had almost forgotten to breathe.
“Is that what you’ve done?” he asked, his voice a whisper. “Lost yourself?”
“Something like that.”
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be, Harry thought, more surprised when she was when his knuckles
somehow found the soft point of her jaw and began to skim their way up to one ear. He was here to be
indignant. Accusatory. To let her know that he knew.
But she looked so melancholy, so hopeless, those false green eyes wrenchingly sad but resolutely dry.
He really wanted to kiss her, but his traitorous brain kept feeding his mouth questions. “Why did the
Ball make you so sad?” he wondered aloud - oh, for Merlin’s sake, who do you think you are, Potter?
Sigmund Freud? Sybil let out a little huff of disillusioned laughter.
“Why do you care, Harry Potter?” she wanted to know. “That’s not why you’re here, after all.”
“I don’t know why I’m here,” he said, surprised at how easily the truth fell off his tongue. She
“Fair enough.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s silly.”
“Try me.”
She smirked, unamused. “You infuriating puppy … you never give up, do you?” Her expression was
deliberately closed-off, unreadable. “I hate Dumbledore’s Balls. Always have.”
Harry thought fast. “I’ve never seen you dance,” he said cautiously. “Is that it? You don’t like to
dance?” His eyes narrowed. “Or is it that you do like to?”
Silence, in this case, was an affirmative.
“I’m not a very good dancer, myself,” Harry said, but once again his body was giving him the lie; he’d
already pulled her just that much closer, torso-to-torso. For a brief moment, he thought she might pull
away … then, with a little sigh, she relaxed into him, her head falling naturally onto his shoulder, her
curls tickling his chin. He caught a faint whiff of her plumeria shampoo, but for once didn’t associate
the scent with Divination at all.
They rocked together in the center of the bare stone floor, moving to inaudible music. This gets
stranger and stranger, Harry thought, but decided not to question the moment, not now.
He could wait a little longer for his answers.

Chapter Fifty-Three
"Well, that’s that," Snape said, and straightened up, wincing, from the row of petri dishes he’d been
bent over. Hermione, looking up from her notes, leaned over and craned her neck to peer curiously at
their contents.
"What’s the reagent this time?" she wanted to know. Snape shook his head.
"Not one reagent," he corrected. "Three different ones. This is the final series of tests."
"Oh? We can do three at a time, now?"
"Mm." He studied the contents of one of the dishes for a moment, frowning thoughtfully, then turned
back toward her. "I saved these three until last because the reaction isn’t instantaneous – we’ll have to
wait a while to accurately determine the results. They’re all slow-reacting proteins."
He pointed to the first dish. "This one, for example – Glumbumble treacle. Purified and distilled, of
course. And this one is Streeler venom – oh, I know it’s toxic," he added as Hermione opened her
mouth, "but the toxin’s what produces that kaleidoscopic effect on their shells. Very useful in the
encryption process, I’ll warrant; I’m betting that it’s the ingredient which is causing that shifting effect
in the runes. You don’t always see that in encryptoink, you know."
"Huh." Hermione filed away that snippet of information in her mental ‘Potentially Useful; Further
Research Warranted’ folder and nodded toward the third dish. "What about this one?"
"The third one? Albumen from a Runespoor egg. As ingredients go, that one’s not a bad bet, either."
One of the dishes was emitting strangled gurgling sounds and another was hissing, but Snape didn’t
spare them a second glance – merely crossed to the nearest armchair on the other side of Farouk’s
library and sank into it with a barely-audible sigh. Hermione, after brief consideration of her
wristwatch, didn’t blame him – it was past eleven-o’-clock, after all, and they’d been at it since mid-
afternoon without so much as a dinner break. She folded herself cross-legged into the chair adjoining
his and rotated her head in a luxurious, vertebrae-creaking half-moon.
"So, now what?" she asked, once she was facing the right way up again. The neck-cracking had caused
her vision to blur momentarily; she shook her head to clear it and shifted to a more comfortable
position in the big leather club chair. "What’s the plan? We wait?"
"We wait," he agreed, but didn’t volunteer further information. Hermione drummed her fingers on the
"And then?" she prompted. Snape sucked his teeth, a mannerism he often affected when deep in
"Then," he said presently, "we’ll know which of the three is the formula used in the journal. Just to
make sure, we’ll test it first on a Replicated page—"
"—Wait," Hermione interrupted, frowning. "Once we know which formula it is, don’t we have to brew
its antidote in order to decode it?"
Snape shrugged.
"The antidote is just the original formula plus one additional ingredient," he said. "You don’t even have
to brew it freshly – it can be mixed right into the ink we reconstituted." For a moment, he looked
amused. "That’s the infuriating bit about this – or the interesting bit, depending on your point of view:
the hours of testing for identification, when the key to the puzzle is invariably such a simple one. But
then, each separate combination uses a different substance as its Decryptor; there are literally
thousands." He looked thoughtful. "Some quite arcane, too—"
"—And then what?" Hermione broke in, rather more urgently than she’d intended. Snape blinked
"Then," he said slowly, "we Call the other half of the book. If memory serves, there’s a short ritual that
must be followed in order to reconnect the two halves, but that’s probably more al-Hussein’s area of
expertise than mine. That’s all there is, really."
Hermione swallowed hard. "And then you go back to Hogwarts."
It wasn’t a question. Snape nodded.
Something was building inside her, dark and hateful and inexorable, the sort of feeling that made her
want to scream into a pillow, or maybe punch something. A wall, perhaps.
Or a man, for that matter – one black-eyed Potions expert, in particular, would fill the bill quite nicely.
Didn’t he get it?
"Do you love her?" she blurted out – then immediately recoiled in horror from her own effrontery.
Whatever she’d thought she was about to say, it hadn’t been that – and it was pretty safe to say that she
couldn’t have come up with anything more mortifying, if she’d tried.
"Don’t answer that," she said, hot-faced, looking away and squinching her eyes shut so she wouldn’t
have to look at him, even by accident. Her cheeks felt like flame. "It’s none of my business. I don’t
even think I want to know."
"Part of you must, at least," Snape pointed out, in a tone more brisk than sympathetic. "Else you
wouldn’t have asked."
Hermione squirmed under the logic of that, as irrefutable as it was unkind. "Um. Yes. Well …"
"And for the record," he continued, "my feelings on that particular subject are mostly a mystery, even
to me." He raised a sardonic eyebrow in her direction. "What about you and your Mr. Weasley? Can
you put a one-word label on that relationship – one that isn’t either inadequate as an explanation, or
else an outright lie?" When she shook her head mutely, he sniffed, triumphant. "I thought not. We aren’t
simple people, you and I."
"I want to be," Hermione said, and the fierceness in her own voice shocked her. "I want to be simple – I
She met his eyes with a defiant, glittering stare of her own that wavered under his steady regard, but
didn’t fall.
"Do you think I wanted any of this?" she demanded. "To always be running after what I can’t have,
what you won’t give me? To be offered, then, what part of me longs for and the other part tells me
would be unfair to take?" Her lips tightened. "Fuck that. And fuck being complicated, too – why can’t I
love someone who loves me back? Why are you always standing in my path?"
"Why am I –?" he started, eyes narrowing.
But Hermione wasn’t finished.
She was beyond embarrassment now, beyond anything but the terrible words spilling soft and scraping
out of her guts into the quiet warm air, as if wrenched by unfriendly hands. The threat of tears was an
ache in her throat.
"Every time I round a corner, I’m hoping it’s you," she whispered, hating herself for the admission.
"Whenever I look up. Whenever someone calls my name. It’s you I’m looking for."
She swallowed hard. "And you don’t bloody care, do you?"
"Hermione –"
She dashed at her eyes with the back of her hand. "You said ‘go away’, and you said ‘grow up’, and
damn it, I’m trying to. I’m trying. But it’s so … bloody hard—" she was openly weeping now—"it’s so
bloody impossible, when I keep seeing you everywhere, and I can’t get away from you, and I know you
don’t c-care for me, not that way, and …"
"Hermione." Whatever else she was going to say was mercifully cut off against his black work robes,
as he scooped her huddled, miserable form into his arms and settled them both into the big leather
chair. "For Merlin’s sake, don’t cry. You’ve got it all wrong."
She knew she ought to break free – wasn’t this just adding to the humiliation of the situation, weeping
all down his robes like a petulant toddler? But he was so warm, underneath his clothes, so solid and
reassuring … and he smelt of laundry soap and disinfectant, something so commonplace and yet so
characteristic of him that it made her want to start crying all over again. "I’m not wrong," she said into
his chest, then pulled back to look up at him. "I know I’m not. If you loved me, it wouldn’t matter how
old I am. How old I’m not."
"That’s where you’re wrong." He sounded angry, Hermione thought … but when he seized her
shoulders and shook her, the rebuke was a gentle one. "It’s because I …"
On the verge of the declaration, he broke off. "It’s not just age, you little idiot. It’s everything."
"Look at yourself," he said, giving her another gentle shake. "You’re on the edge of your life. You’ve
stuck in a toe, you’ve waded out into the shallows, but you haven’t taken the dive yet. It’s all still in
front of you."
"Oh?" Hermione glared up at him. "Being tied up naked to a ceiling with Lucius Malfoy’s hands all
over me is ‘sticking in a toe’? Dodging the Avada Kedavra from an assassin’s wand is ‘wading in the
shallows’? I don’t know about you, but I’d personally classify all of that as the Deep End Of The Pool,
myself." She thought for a moment. "Though I didn’t as much dive in as get dragged."
"The point is," he shot back, "you’re still swimming. Me, I’ve been through the water and clawed my
way out again – leaving bits of myself behind in the process, mind you, that I’m never going to regrow.
And now …"
He sighed unexpectedly, making her look up. "Can’t you see? I’m afraid to go back in."
"You dived in after Trelawney quickly enough," Hermione pointed out. Snape shook his head.
"She’s not in the water, either," he said tiredly. "We’re landlocked, both of us – screwing on the floor of
the cabana, if you want to take the analogy to its most visceral of possible conclusions. That’s the
reason why it’s so easy with her – neither one of us is risking anything."
"Am I that big a risk?"
"Oh." The simplicity of his averral took all the indignant wind out of her sails. "Well, that’s something,
at least."
He snorted. "Glad to hear it. And while we’re on the topic …"
"Don’t wait for me," he said softly. "Don’t wait, Hermione. Once we’re done with this, once you’re
safe, I’m going to walk away, and not come back."
"Oh." She closed her eyes against a fresh tide of tears. "Why?"
"Because you’ll almost definitely be ready someday," he said, not looking at her. "But I might never
Snape had been right in his assumption; Duathor had used Streeler venom in her encryptoink.
Furthermore, the antidote was an easy one to brew – powdered shrivelfig seeds, part of every first-year
Potions student’s standard kit. When applied to a Replicated page of the journal, the runes stopped
shifting on the parchment … a sure sign, Snape said, of successful diagnosis.
The journal still wasn’t readable, of course – they’d need the other half for that. Hermione studied the
muddy brown beakerful of antidote, then raised her eyebrows in Snape’s direction.
"Should we wake up Farouk? Or can we Call it ourselves?"
He glanced pointedly at the wall clock, whose hands were quivering near midnight. "We could always
wait until morning, you know."
"No." Hermione rejected this suggestion out-of-hand. She’d already said her farewell twenty minutes
earlier – in her head, while cuddled against his chest. She didn’t want to have to say another one in the
morning. "We’ve come this far. Let’s finish it."
A long searching look – could he read her mind? He always looked as if he could – then a slow nod.
"All right, then. We’ll need a clear surface."
Silent and tight-lipped, avoiding each other’s eyes, they began to clear the table.

Chapter Fifty-Four
Apparation was all fine and good, Bill thought, touching down lightly in the shadows of the deserted
Alexandrian medina and looking carefully in all directions before venturing out of the shadows into the
moonlight. But there was nothing like a late-night stroll after a job well done, to make you appreciate
your own bed.

Not that he was headed for his own bed. But he figured that for a plus, in this case.
For one thing, the sheets would already be warm. For another, he’d get to find out just exactly how
many kisses he could steal before she caught on to his game and woke up.
He’d been thinking all week about where he was going to put them.
The back of her neck, first off, and then that soft little hollow behind her ear, where the curls liked to
gather when she tucked them back. The spot where her collarbone joined her shoulder. After that, it
pretty much depended on whether she was wearing one of those demure white-cotton nighties … or
whether she wasn’t.
Either way, coaxing her out of her warm purring-kitten dreamland and up toward the surface promised
to be the highlight of Bill’s week. He was actually just a bit disappointed to find the lights still on in the
library, when he arrived at the villa … and more than a little startled at the identity of one of its
Automatically masking his surprise – in a profession like cursebreaking, you got to be good at that,
fast, or you didn’t live long enough to get good at anything – he moved forward from the doorway to
greet them, easy smile fixed firmly in place.
"Hi," he said to Hermione, leaning down to plant a casual hello-smack on her cheek … then, over the
top of her head, "Hullo, Professor. Nice to see you again."
"Mr. Weasley."
Bill had no particular personal beef with his former Potions Master – if you added together his personal
experience with Potions and the stories he’d heard from his disgruntled younger siblings, it seemed to
him that Snape’s bone-deep grudge against the Weasleys hadn’t really reached full flower until he’d
met the twins. Unfortunate for Ron and Ginny, maybe, but on the other hand, wholly understandable.
Bill’s own aptitude for the subject matter – school had presented him with few academic difficulties,
with the possible exception of History of Magic – had gotten him through Snape’s class with only a
minor skirmish or two to show for it. Honestly, he’d thought that Snape liked him, as much as was
possible (Bill was, after all, a Gryffindor), and since his school days, their paths hadn’t crossed at all.
So why was Snape glaring at him?
Something odd about that.
Characteristically, however, he chose not to dwell on it. Instead, he dropped his eyes from Snape’s
resentful stare, his glance falling first to the book on the empty table, then to the beaker of sludgy
brown fluid in Hermione’s hands.
"Oh," he said, understanding now. "I’ve interrupted something. Sorry."
"No, it’s fine," Hermione said quickly. Her voice sounded a bit froggy, as though she had a sore throat.
"Truly. We hadn’t started yet."
She twisted around in her chair to smile up at him, and in the sudden slant of light from the lamps, Bill
saw something he hadn’t noticed before, when her face had been in shadow: her eyes were puffy, and
rimmed with pink.
He might have chalked it up to an afternoon’s close work in the laboratory – some of those fumes could
get rather irritating, after all – were it not for the smudge on her cheek. It was a grayish-green colour
and about as big around as a Sickle – a stray smear from some earlier experiment, presumably – and it
was bisected neatly into two halves by one clean, thin vertical track of salt.
She’d been crying, and not so very long ago at that. Bill met Snape’s eyes again, this time returning
anger with accusation: all right, what did you say to her?
No response but a blank, flat stare; whatever Snape knew, he wasn’t telling. Bill thought hard – what
could careful, conscientious Hermione possibly have done to provoke him into a verbal assault? I’d
have thought they’d get along – and then, nearly staggered under a suddenly-recalled memory: the two
of them on her brand-new couch, back in September, trading post-dinner confidences and getting tipsy
on his airport Chardonnay.
Were you in love with him?
No. Truth be told, I was sort of hung up on someone else.
So, do I know this other guy?
Sometimes I think even I don’t know him.
At the time, Bill had recognised that neat little sidestep for what it was – an evasion – and not pressed.
Even then, though, the words had borne the unmistakable ring of truth, something that had made him
wonder, every so often, exactly who Hermione’s Mystery Man was.
Now, a burst of near-Divinatory clarity had his eyes narrowing in speculation.
Oh, he thought. So it’s you, then.
Deep below the surface of his carefully neutral expression, his Inner Molly was gathering herself for
self-righteous action, vacillating between protective outrage – honestly, the man’s old enough to be her
father! – and good old-fashioned jealousy. Left to her own devices, Mum would have taken no
prisoners; on the whole, Bill figured it was for the best that he’d turned out more like Dad.
Hermione and Snape.
It made a lot of sense, now that he thought about it. And it explained a few things that he’d been
wondering about – namely, how the sleek, abandoned, sexually confident siren who fit so willingly into
his arms could turn so cautious and flustered – baffled, even – when it came to romance. Flirting she
was good at … hell, she could have taught a graduate course in it … but frank compliments tended to
leave her blushing and tongue-tied.
Small wonder.
Don’t imagine he’s much of a one for romantic repartée, he thought. Malfoy, either, come to think of it.
No wonder she’s a bit shy.
But illuminating as all of this was, it still didn’t explain what had just happened between the two of
them, before he walked in. He let his gaze wander the room: spare, uncluttered, lined with books,
expensively furnished. Laboratory equipment glinting from an open trunk. A forlorn little heap of
crumpled tissues peeking from the seat of one of the two armchairs. The two of them – fully clothed,
thankfully, and largely unrumpled – at opposite sides of the wide table, presumably working together
but avoiding one another’s eyes.
Whatever happened, Bill thought, it went badly and ended worse. Possibly it was mean-spirited of him
to feel glad about this, but try as he might, objectivity was hard to come by in this case. And now she’s
smiling at me. Puffy eyes and all. He squeezed her shoulder, half for comfort, half in speculation, and
felt her hand come up to cover his.
Yeah, that was nonverbal for glad to see you, all right.
And at sight of the gesture, Snape’s eyes went flatter – then fell, clearly conceding the field. Interesting.
So it hadn’t been sex, then, nor anything like it. Bill searched for other options.
A goodbye, maybe?
One can always hope.
Sort it out later, he counselled himself; there’s plenty of time … and pulled up the chair next to
"So tell me, Madison," he said, and had the petty-but-satisfying pleasure of seeing a puzzled,
disapproving Snape frown covertly over the nickname. "Is this the book? The famous journal? Did you
crack the code? And why are we all still awake, looking at it?"
Phase One had gone well, in Gabrielle’s estimation. Phase Two, on the other hand – well, nothing had
gone wrong, yet, but she wasn’t about to break out the marching band, either. Too many variables to
Back at Hogwarts, she and Draco had had a long discussion about the parameters of their mission.
Neither of them enjoyed Care of Magical Creatures enough to make assistant-gamekeeping a palatable
career option, and that meant no Unforgivables; sure, Hermione had gotten away with her emergency
Imperio, but they weren’t going to push their luck.
Short of killing him, then, their options were limited.
On one hand – as Gabrielle pointed out – more than a few people would sleep easier knowing that he
wasn’t at large, and bringing him in alive would nip everybody’s problem in the bud. Conversely – this
from Draco – Malfoy had already been effectively neutered; merely by removing his access to money,
he’d been driven underground. If it weren’t for the lurking threat of the Priestess, he’d merely be a
refugee from justice, skulking in what might differ greatly from Azkaban in terms of material
convenience, but not in function. It’s not the man, he’d said thoughtfully, that’s the threat, any longer.
It’s the book.
Gabrielle wasn’t sure she agreed with this – personally, she thought Malfoy was a threat – but from the
bits and pieces she’d picked up about Draco’s childhood, she could certainly understand why he’d want
to avoid open conflict with his father. You didn’t have to be a mediwitch to know that some wounds
took a long time to heal – or that they were easily re-opened, even once they’d scarred over.
Fair enough, she’d said, and they’d compromised, deciding that the book was their first priority – if an
opportunity for capture didn’t present itself, they could at least strip him of his prize, a worthy mission
in and of itself.
Now, however, Gabrielle was beginning to think they had a shot at the man, too. Here she was, after all,
a dead ringer for Tumtum the house-elf, trundling up those endless steps toward the master-suite study
with a carafe of coffee containing enough Dreamless Sleep Potion to turn a dozen Malfoys into Rip van
Winkle. Even one healthy swallow, and he wouldn’t wake up until they got to Hogwarts, no matter how
many times he bumped his head on the way down the stairs.
A satisfying thought, that.
Draco was somewhere behind her – where, she wasn’t sure. He’d layered one Invisibility Cloak over
the other, to make himself that much less visible to elf-eyes, and was armed with the last few inches of
Dreamless Sleep in the bottom of the plant-mister. There was one watch-elf still unaccounted for – a
nasty trollish specimen, Draco said, named Trog – but they hadn’t encountered it yet.
The door loomed in front of her. Schooling her features into an appropriate semblance of meekness, she
ventured a timid knock and heard – with a little frisson of trepidation – Malfoy’s curt voice, telling her
to come in.
Courage, mon chou, she thought grimly, and took the time to recite a few quick steadying lines of an
algorithm in her head before she opened the door. Malfoy was bent over something on his desk. He
didn’t look up as she entered.
"High time, too," he said, waving one hand irritably toward the corner of the desk. "Pour. And if you
spill anything, I’ll have your hide for slippers."
Yessir, Massa, Gabrielle thought, resentful – merely his tone, drawling and dismissive, put her hackles
up – but managed to murmur something obsequious enough to pass in a low tone that wouldn’t carry
sarcasm, and poured a precise three-quarters cup that would have made a New Jersey diner waitress
hand in her apron in envy.
Cream, no sugar, she remembered the real Tumtum repeating, and lifted the delicate porcelain cream
pitcher to administer the honours. A hairsbreadth away from pouring, she was stopped by a cold tone
and a steely grip on her arm.
"Well-aware of your mental deficiencies as I am," Lucius Malfoy said softly, "I fail to see how you can
have overlooked this simple rule of thumb: coffee is to be served to me black, with all condiments on
the side. Tumtum, is it?"
Oh, merde.
"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."
"Sorry." The iron grip tightened, enough to make her cry out. "Somehow I don’t think so. But you will
be, believe me. Put that down."
By ‘that’, he meant the cream pitcher, which she returned unsteadily to the silver serving tray. A
moment later, her arm was twisted behind her back at an unnatural angle, and he was pressing it further,
as if he intended to wrench it off completely. Gabrielle set her jaw and looked him straight in the eyes;
a moment later, she realised her mistake.
Defiance, after all, wasn’t really a house-elf thing.
"Has it been too long, Tumtum?" he purred, forcing her elbow to the midpoint of her spine and pressing
down. "Have you forgotten the broken wrist so soon? Those nasty burns on your ears? Very festive they
were, too, like little red holiday caps." Another inch of excruciating pressure. "Why don’t you wriggle,
my grimy little freak-show? Why don’t you squeak? Surely you’re not refusing me the only
entertainment presently available to me … or perhaps you’d like me to prolong it?"
The pain was unbearable – but that wasn’t the worst of it. Gabrielle could feel her control slipping, and
with it her protective Transfiguration. In times of physical or emotional stress, veela always
transformed; Gabrielle, being only quarter-blood, couldn’t achieve what Fleur had always referred to as
Full Harpy-Face, but the bit of her that was her bequest from Grandmère Evangeline was now
simmering just below the surface, ready to take over.
Outside the door, she heard a growl of protest, followed by the barely-audible sound of spritzing and a
heavy thud. Draco and Trog had found each other, it seemed.
Help was coming, then.
Hold on, Gabrielle, she told herself. Don’t give in. But even as she said it, she could feel Tumtum’s
squashy potato-nose receding, could feel that tingle at her eyelids that meant her lashes were growing.
And as – with a final vicious wrench – Lucius Malfoy dislocated her shoulder, Grandmère broke free.
Her whole head was a red blur of agony; her arm was limp and dangling, her shoulder and neck a mass
of screaming nerves. You’re not a house-elf, you’re a veela, she heard him saying – not as angrily as
one would expect, but then, men had rarely had the presence of mind to be angry with Grandmère. Why
are you here? What do you want?
It was then that Draco hit him over the head with the serving tray.
He’d just moved – instinct, maybe, or just plain good luck – so it was a glancing blow, not enough to
knock him out. Lucius staggered, but then turned low, cannily, like a street brawler, and lunged. A
muffled thump, as Draco hit the ground; a slither of fabric, as the folds of the Invisibility Cloaks fell
clear of his legs. Growling, Lucius ripped the rest of the concealing fabric aside, his eyes widening in
shock and speculation as he recognised his attacker.
"Well, well," he said slowly, a cold smile spreading over his austere, elegant features. It should have
been attractive, but it wasn’t. "If it isn’t the Prodigal Son." He seemed to have forgotten all about
Gabrielle, who was presently leaning against his desk, trying not to retch. "And just when I thought you
could sink no lower."
"You swine," Draco spat, his thin face alive with hate. "Always hitting things that are smaller than you.
You bloody coward."
Lucius ignored this; if anything, his smile grew broader. "I should have known you wouldn’t stay with
the Mudblood. Too classy for you, was she?" he asked conversationally. "So much easier to score with
something that isn’t even human, after all. Watch out, though – veela get nasty if they’re crossed."
He was holding Draco’s arms immobile with both hands and the bulk of his weight, but that didn’t stop
Draco from rocking up with his torso. Gabrielle heard the crunch of bone as the top of Draco’s head
connected with his father’s nose. There was muffled cursing after that, and the strangely wet-sounding
thwacks of fists hitting flesh.
She didn’t pay any attention to that.
The book on the desk was glowing.
"Look," she said – slowly, but clearly. "Look. It’s disappearing."
"What?" Lucius whirled around. His nose was bloodied, his robes ripped from the struggle, but in that
wild, feral instant he looked every inch the Silver Fox. "It’s disappearing? But it can’t!"
Gabrielle was an inch away from unconsciousness, so woozy with shock that she couldn’t seem to
control her arms. "It’s okay," she said distantly. "I’ll get it for you."
The book was still solid enough for her to get her hands around it. She seized it, blinking in a sort of
dazed wonder as her fingers started to glow transparent. "Oh, look," she said. "Now I’m disappearing,
Malfoy grabbed her by the shoulders, but she was too far gone to feel the pain, except as a sharper edge
on the steady blur of red. "You come too, Draco," she said. Her voice sounded tinny to her, and very
faraway. "We’ll come back for Fifi later. It’s okay."
And then the book took her, and she didn’t feel anything at all.

Chapter Fifty-Five
Their dance didn’t last long.

One prolonged, elastic moment of perfect symbiosis may be all the universe can stand at a time. That,
Sybil reasoned, would certainly explain why she’d never been allowed two in a row.
Or maybe it was her own brittle heart, too cold for too long, that would snap under so sudden and
fervent a thaw. Whichever it was, it didn’t really matter; the moment had been sweet, for as long as it
had lasted -- and then there had been that last thing he’d whispered, just before he left to return to the
I’d like to see the real you, someday. I bet you’re pretty.
Sybil could have wept, at that.
Only an eighteen-year-old boy could be so simple, so direct. So innocently perceptive.
I bet you’re pretty.
Oh, Harry.
It made her want ... oh, she didn’t know what. Made her wonder, enough to reach for her wand instead
of the Ogden’s, and ponder the possibilities of those ubiquitous two words she’d, as a witch, directed at
a thousand other things over the years, but never at herself: Finite Incantatem.
Would they work? She had no idea, and the encircling mirrors on the walls reflected back to her only
her own uncertainty.
My own face.
Slowly, she rotated the wand in her fingers until the business end was poised over her heart.
My own face. My own ...
The tremulous sound of the initial consonant on her lips was drowned out by frantic pounding on the
other side of the wall adjoining her classroom. Frowning, Sybil switched gears mid-charm, muttered
something else entirely instead, and strode impatiently to the door, dressed once again in full Fruit-Bat
It was Harry again -- no surprises there. What Sybil hadn’t expected was that he’d be accompanied, and
yet he was -- Ginny Weasley was half a pace behind him, brown eyes wide with trepidation, clutching
what looked like a paste ruby on a long silver chain.
"Just now," she gasped, holding it up at arm’s-length like a semaphore flag. "I was dancing ... and then
Camilla looked at me and said - oh, how pretty, I didn’t know it changed colours! - and I looked down
and said - well, it isn’t supposed to. And then I remembered ..." She trailed off miserably.
Sybil shot an inquiring look at Harry. He looked worried.
"Mortal peril," he said simply. Sybil frowned.
"Mortal peril? Who’s in mortal peril?"
"Draco," Harry said. "And Gabrielle."
Well, that’s news to me, Sybil thought, resigned, and asked the Obligatory Question even though she
had the feeling she already knew the answer. "Aren’t they downstairs at the dance?"
Harry shook his head. "They went after Malfoy," he said. "I’ll explain later -- there isn’t time now. Can
you Locate them?"
Later, Sybil would wonder why he’d chosen to come to her. Right now, however, it didn’t seem to
matter so much.
"Come in, then," she said, and stood aside to let them pass. "If we’re going to be in time, we’d better
"I don’t think it’s any use," Ginny said faintly. "That bomb-shelter whatsit thingy – Draco said it’s
Unplottable, remember?"
"Unplottable?" Sybil peered into her crystal ball – you could perform a Location Charm without one, of
course, but she felt that using it focussed her results – then sat back with a shake of her head. "Well,
then, they aren’t there anymore. Matter of fact, they aren’t even in Britain anymore."
"They’re not?" Harry leaned over her shoulder. "Where are they, then?"
"Alexandria," Sybil said absently, then jackknifed up with a start. "Wait a minute – that can’t be right.
Severus is in Alexandria."
"Must be a popular spot," Harry said slowly. "Hermione’s there, too."
Again, this was news to Sybil – and not particularly welcome news, at that. "She is?"
Harry nodded. "Sent us all postcards just the other day," he said, "though I’m not sure how she finds the
time. She’s working round the clock on some Jade Priestess thing or other. Something about two books
that are really only one book. They’re written in …"
" … code," Sybil finished heavily. Her inward Emote-O-Meter was set squarely on fume. "No wonder
Dumbledore suggested …"
Breaking off, she forced herself to focus on the matter at hand. "Well, that’s good news, then." In a
depressing sort of way.
"It is?" Ginny looked skeptical. "How?"
"The two of them – Severus and Hermione – are working on the same project," Sybil supplied. "Malfoy
had the second half of the Book, the half they were intending to Call as soon as they had the counter-
potion figured. If all five of them are Locating in Alexandria right now – and they are – that means that
Severus and Hermione have cracked the code and Called the book, somehow dragging Gabrielle and
Draco along for the ride. Malfoy too, looks like. And four against one is pretty good odds."
Particularly, she thought, when one of the four is a permanently-pissed-off ex-villain with blood on his
conscience, a jones for redemption, and half a death-wish that won’t stop following him.
"But …" Ginny shook the crystal pendant on its chain. "Mortal peril," she insisted. "Still. Can’t we do
Harry was already nodding his agreement. Sybil sighed.
"Right, then," she said wearily. "The more the merrier. Just give me a second to focus."
This was just the sort of situation, she thought, when a telepathic link could come in distinctly handy.
Pity everyone didn’t have one.
Miss Granger? she telegraphed cautiously. Hermione? What’s happening? Where’s Malfoy?
No answer.
Hermione? Hermione, are you there?
Malfoy’s dead, said an unfamiliar voice – low, fruity, self-satisfied. He was old and tough, too. But I’ve
had worse. I’ll have worse yet.
What?!? Sybil’s eyes widened. Who are you? Where’s Hermione?
The little witch? Oh, she’s here, purred the Voice. She’s a clever girl, she is. She’s keeping quiet.
What have you done with her?
Done with her? Nothing – yet.
The Voice lowered conspiratorially. I’ve grown rather fond of her, you know. I’m letting her stay as
long as she can. But she can’t last forever, or I’ll never get Out. You understand.
No, Sybil thought frantically. No, I bloody well don’t understand. Explain yourself.
A struggle – not heard so much as felt – then Hermione’s voice, strained and cracking with tension:
Trelawney. You’ve got to help me. You’ve got to come quick.
Are you all right? Are you hurt?
Hesitation. Gabrielle’s hurt, not me. Malfoy’s … Malfoy’s …
Malfoy, said the Voice, has served his purpose. He was surprisingly toothsome … or perhaps it’s just
that it’s been so long. A chuckle. There are some young ones here – no question about how tasty they’ll
be. Such pretty hair. Red and gold and white …
No! Hermione, sounding panicked. No! They haven’t done anything wrong! You can’t … I won’t let you

Little witch, said the Voice fondly, you overstep yourself. Don’t forget your place.
A scream, reverberating across the Link like a sonic boom. Weeping.
Help, Hermione whispered brokenly, and Sybil heard the Voice laugh.
She won’t be here much longer, my dear, it said. Better come quick, if you want to say good-bye.
Oh. Oh, Christ.
"Hang on," Sybil said aloud, her face set in grim lines, and grabbed hold of two hands – one with
peach-manicured nails, the other with a palm hard and calloused from hours spent gripping a
broomstick. Both were clammy with sweat.
"What?" Harry demanded. "What is it? What’s gone wrong?"
"Shut up," Sybil said. "Shut your eyes, too, while you’re at it. Don’t let go. And don’t look down.
She was going to get to the bottom of this … and fast.

Chapter Fifty-Six
Oh, she’d fucked this up, big-time.
And not just her, either. They all had -- Farouk, Dumbledore, Snape. How could they have been so
naive, so quick to believe the myth, above all so childishly, mind-numbingly certain that Joining the
two halves of that damn journal was a good idea?
So quick to dismiss Duathor’s motives as spiteful. So eager to label her a petty, misguided old woman
that they’d missed this Home Truth entirely: when people went to this much trouble to lock a door,
there was usually a damn good reason.
More fools they.
And now Hermione, a horrified Pandora if there’d ever been one, couldn’t think of a better way to sum
up her current predicament than the words Duathor had already used to form the first paragraph of the
Journal’s preface:
Kiyara, you inquisitive little dung beetle of a meddlesome fool ... if you’ve figured out how to read this
despite the precautions I’ve taken to protect you, it’s already too late. I hope, if only for your children’s
sake, that you’ve put your house in order.
It had taken Hermione a moment to realise what was happening – after all, she hadn’t exactly expected
Malfoy’s half of the Book to arrive with three stowaways attached – and then there was the little matter
of Gabrielle’s damaged arm to contend with. Not to mention the added complication of Malfoy the
Elder himself, who’d arrived in a slight state of shock but was recovering fast.
Luckily, this party had already gotten started.
Snape had moved in with an almost-immediate Expelliarmus to take care of Malfoy and was standing
over him now, looking grim and vengeful; his stint in Voldemort’s Dark Army had left him with fast
reflexes to show for his trouble, and Hermione suspected he owed Malfoy a grudge or two, left over
from the Old Days. Bill, for his part, had dropped to his knees on the floor, next to the unconscious
heap of petite-sized school robes that was Gabrielle, and was putting his medical field training from
Gringotts to good use. Draco, looking shaken but unhurt, spared a quick, all-encompassing glance of
speculation for his surroundings – and a curt nod of rather surprised greeting for Hermione – then
hurried unsteadily over to peer over Bill’s shoulder.
That left Hermione to deal with the Book itself. And she’d barely gotten to the end of that first warning
paragraph before Duathor’s acerbic prophecy began to self-fulfill.
There was something -- someone -- in her head.
And it wasn’t friendly.
It felt odd, as if someone had pitched a pup tent in her brain and was wondering whether or not to light
a campfire. Hermione could still hear her own thoughts, but expressing them was another matter. Even
as she struggled to wrap her lips around a warning, her vocal cords were already engaging in a
sentiment that wasn’t hers: At last.
Free. At last I’m free.
It was a low, mellifluous voice that didn’t sound like hers in the slightest, and it made Snape look up at
her sharply. That gave Lucius Malfoy all the opening he needed; with a snarl and a lunge, he was on his
"Free?" he echoed, incredulous. "You have a hell of a nerve, talking about freedom, when you stole six
months of mine."
On his way up from the library floor, he’d palmed the wand Hermione had left lying on the table next
to her notes. Now, he brandished it like a torch before sighting down its length and aiming it directly at
her heart.
"Do you know what they say about freedom, in Azkaban?" he asked, his voice gritty and shaking over
the hated name. "They say you’re never really free ... until you’re dead. If you walk down the corridors
between cells, that’s all you’ll hear, over and over again: a hundred voices crying out for death. Rita
Skeeter kissed my hands before I killed her."
He looked her straight in the eye and smiled, a mad, feral bared-teeth leer that made him look rabid.
"You want freedom, you meddlesome little mongrel bitch? Well, I’m here to bring it to you."
He never got the chance to draw his next breath.
Before Hermione could duck, before Snape could launch a counter-attack, before Bill could drop
Gabrielle’s small limp wrist in a bid for his wand ... the Voice in Hermione’s head was already taking
command of the situation.
This is twice now, it murmured to Hermione. You owe me, little witch.
No serpent this time. No glowing-green twenty-foot-tall statue. Just a laser-thin jet of emerald flame,
scorching a neat round bullet hole in the bodice of Hermione’s robes as it burst from the mouth of the
amulet around her neck and cannonballed across the room.
Hermione saw Bill’s mouth fall open, saw Snape’s eyes widen, saw Draco press Gabrielle farther back
against the wall, his thin face fearful but determined. Saw the jet of flame pause just before striking, as
if to prolong the drama of the moment.
Saw Lucius Malfoy turn, and look Death in the face, and scream out his hopeless, angry defiance – in
those last terrible few seconds before it hit him, and turned his bones to ashes.
And then there was silence, stunned and pregnant, into which Sekhmet -- for surely, Hermione thought,
it must be she -- dropped these words:
Ah. I needed that.
Any platitudes about frying pans and fires were at this point completely superfluous – just now, mere
seconds after Malfoy’s demise, the Voice was louder, stronger, as if it had taken sustenance from his
death. Your face, Hermione! Draco whispered, the sound loud and horrified in the still air, and she
brought up her heavy, unfamiliar-feeling hands to touch it; was it just her, or did the angles feel
unfamiliar, the nose longer and more Etruscan, the mouth wider, thinner?
"She’s taking me over," she said, and immediately wished she hadn’t – merely the effort of forming the
words and pushing them through an unwilling vocal apparatus had exhausted her – and it seemed that
as she tired, Sekhmet grew stronger. Hermione stumbled to a chair, slumped into it … and could have
cheered, albeit weakly, as the telepathic window in her head chinked open and she heard Trelawney’s
worried voice: Hermione? What’s happening? Where’s Malfoy?
Telepathy was easier than talking – no traitorous body to muscle back under control. Still, Sekhmet
beat her to the punch: Malfoy’s dead. And then, moments later, Hermione felt her neck swivel and
realised the Goddess was scanning the room through her eyes, pausing speculatively at the two heads,
bright and pale, bent over Gabrielle’s tousled golden curls.
No question about how tasty they’ll be. Such pretty hair …
Anger and panic made Hermione strong, for a moment – No! – and then there had been pain, a streak of
anguish behind her eyes that made her scream and left her limp and whimpering. Little witch, you
forget yourself.
She had just enough strength to keep open the Link as Sybil hissed her Consecutus … and then wished
heartily that she hadn’t, as Harry and Ginny slid to a stop by the library table a moment after Sybil’s
Had she thought this would improve her odds? Hardly.
She’d just brought Sekhmet three more potential victims.
Bill hardly noticed the new arrivals. His attention had swung past Gabrielle – still unconscious, but the
shoulder was back in; if she didn’t go into shock she’d be fine, and it looked like young Malfoy was
keeping her warm enough at the moment – the minute Hermione had screamed … and hadn’t wavered
She didn’t look like Hermione anymore. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t.
"Who are you?" he asked, as calmly as he could, and the girl in the chair swiveled her head toward him
– the motion graceless and lumbering, as if whatever was driving her neck muscles wasn’t quite in
control of them.
"Funny you should ask," that low throaty voice purred. "I’m about to show you. Little witch—" this,
apparently, to Hermione—"pick up the book. Now."
"Hermione, don’t!" Snape ordered. The note of warning in his voice drew a laugh from the interloper.
"I warned you once, wizard," it murmured. "Do you remember? I do. I told you not to interfere – and
you went sick and weak, merely at my touch." A grim, terrible smile flickered on what had five minutes
ago been Hermione’s lips. "I’m stronger now than I was then. Do you want to feed my strength? Do
you want her to?"
And again, in that hungry-sounding murmur: "Pick up the book."
Hermione obeyed.
"Ahhh." Sekhmet closed her eyes, beatific. "Three parts to the Binding," she said. "And now, just two.
Throw it into the fire."
This from Trelawney – a quick motion up from the floor, batting the waterstained little volume out of
Hermione’s hands. The goddess hissed angrily.
"You," she accused. "The witch in my head. A hundred pairs of eyes, you have – looking, looking. But
your knowledge can’t stop me. Only this." Hermione’s hand snapped out, caught Sybil full across the
face – and dashed her to the ground with more strength than even a strong young witch in the pink of
health should have been able to muster. "Pick it up," Sekhmet directed yet again, and Bill watched, bile
rising in his throat, as Hermione’s hands plucked the journal from Sybil’s limp grasp.
"So many friends," Sekhmet mused. "Little witch, did you know you were so well-loved? And none of
them can help you. None best try." She scanned the room with burning eyes. "Throw down your
wands," she said. "My little priestess gives up her spirit tonight for a good cause, regardless of what
you do. It’s up to you whether she goes easily, or whether …" here, a terrible sharp crack as she gave
Hermione’s wrist a bone-crunching wrench with the opposite hand … "she doesn’t."
A high, soft keen from the throat – the real Hermione staggered in pain, and let go the journal. Sekhmet
caught it with the other, uninjured hand and skimmed it toward the hearth; it hit the merrily crackling
flames, and began immediately to burn.
And then came a ripping sound, no louder than a whisper, and a choked cry from Hermione, in
Hermione’s own voice … as whatever it was that had taken up residence there stretched, and yawned,
and began to peel itself away. Bill watched the unfamiliar features pull away from Hermione’s face;
watched a smoky figure rise from the slumped body in the chair, to stand triumphant on blurred but
independent feet.
"You …" This from Ginny, fighting her way out from behind Harry’s protective arm. "You look like
Riddle," she said. "You’re all … blurry round the edges. You aren’t real."
That might be true, Bill thought – and it made sense, that Voldemort would have stolen that diary
technique from somewhere. But he was more occupied with his own realisation … and, like his sister,
he couldn’t quite keep it to himself."
"I’ve seen you before," he said, and the ghostly figure turned, inquiringly, to look at him. "I know you –
from your temple. You’re not Sekhmet – you’re not a goddess at all."
Queen Hatshepsut shook back her loose black hair, straightened her robes, and smiled at him.
"Not yet," she said. "But I’m almost there. Just give me time."

Chapter Fifty-Seven
If they were going to do something, they were going to have to do it fast.
Three parts to the Binding. And now, just two. Sybil, not daring to look over at the rag-doll figure in the
chair that was Hermione, pondered this cryptic statement with a racing heart.
Joining the Book had released the captive spirit – released the possibility of her. Burning it had enabled
her to progress from the limited realm of ‘possessing-spirit’, to the still-limited, but more independent,
category of ‘shade’. Not a ghost, mind – because, as Bill was saying now (thank Merlin for Bill, Sybil
thought, and those easy charming tones of his):
"So the history’s false, then. You never really died at all."
Rule One when it came to life-or-death situations: Keep the Killer Talking. It was fortunate, Sybil
reflected, that Hatshepsut had been in Jordan – and then in a British library safe – for most of the
history of television. Had she happened to see even one Bond movie, she would have known that Bill
was trying to stall her, not flatter her. As it was, she appeared to welcome his line of questioning.
Sybil supposed that after the first dozen or millenia or so, living in a three-inch hunk of jade would get
confining. Not to mention lonely.
And – purely from a clinical standpoint, mind you – William Weasley was a very handsome man.
"And why should I have?" the Queen said now, tossing her head. "What purpose would that have
served? My daughter, dead – my lover murdered, his tomb desecrated – should I have settled meekly
for the knife, then?"
Her tone was harsh, defiant. "I, the first female pharoah in history? I, who wore the false beard, the
ceremonial garb of kings – the shendyt, the nemes, the khat? I, who brought back ivory and spices from
Punt, who showered my people with fifteen years of honey and gold and cedar trees, who built for
myself the grandest tomb an Egyptian woman has seen, even to this day? Should I have fainted under
the sword when they came for me? I think not."
She lifted her proud chin. "Vengeance is a king’s prerogative. And I was – I am – a king."
Ginny, standing opposite from Sybil and at a ninety-degree angle from Bill and Draco, was trying to
get her brother’s attention from behind Harry’s back. Sybil caught her eyes and read their expression
instantly: distract her. She shifted her position, enough to draw Hatshepsut’s eyes away, and saw Ginny
fumble for something in her peach-satin bodice.
"This is a long time to wait for justice," she remarked mildly. "Clever of you to perpetuate that epic
among the Muggles, of course – you’ve no idea how many copycat Priestesses you’ve inspired, over
the millenia – but I’m afraid that your wayward stepson was dust long ago. Why not arise to smite him,
back when it still would have mattered?" She schooled her features into bland curiosity. "Hard to get
out of that lump of rock once you were in, was it?"
Ginny had palmed whatever it was she’d been after, but was still too far away from Bill to pass it to
him. Bill, who’d exchanged a quick glance with her behind Hatshepsut’s back, cast his eyes
heavenward in quick thought, then gave the unconscious Gabrielle a gentle push, ignoring Draco’s
fulminating glare in his direction. Gabrielle moaned, and Hatshepsut spun back around.
"She’s waking up," Ginny exclaimed, and pushed out from behind Harry. "Here – let me – Madam
Pomfrey says I’m a natural healer."
Ballsy, Sybil thought, admiring, as Ginny – channeling the no-nonsense Molly for all she was worth –
picked up the train of her dress, bustled so closely past Hatshepsut that her taffeta skirts brushed against
the Queen’s ankles, and dropped to her knees in front of Gabrielle in a rustle of crinolines.
"Well?" Sybil prompted, and with a last suspicious look toward the little huddle of students, Hatshepsut
swung round to look at her again.
Behind her back, Ginny pressed something into Bill’s palm.
"Well, no one had ever done it before," Hatshepsut said, her haughty face hardening defensively.
"Merely that the spell worked was a triumph – why should it matter to me how long it took to arise?
Revenge knows no time limits."
"Uh-huh." Sybil did her best to look sympathetic, but wasn’t making a very good job of it; it was a
relief when Snape stepped smoothly out of the shadows and picked up where she’d left off.
"Most unfortunate," he agreed, and Sybil’s eyebrows shot up – he was practically oozing empathy, that
practiced greasy pureblood charm that Malfoy had turned on whenever Cornelius Fudge was anywhere
in the vicinity. Must have been a Death-Eater thing, she decided, and gave him a surreptitious thumbs-
up. He ignored her.
"And it must have been particularly galling," he went on, "to have come so close, after so many years –
to have gathered so much strength – imagine, the life-force of a hundred generations of witches! And
then to have been thwarted. I must confess I’m curious as to how Duathor managed it."
"That miserable old crone," Hatshepsut said dismissively. "One would have thought she’d have been
flattered, to serve as the handmaiden of a Deity. And it’s not as if I was stealing the bloom of her youth,
either." A flickering shudder ran through her frame at the memory. "She was always writing in that
journal," she murmured. "I’d stopped reading over her shoulder long ago. Short-sighted of me. She
slipped that Binding Charm in right under my nose."
Clever, Sybil thought; the next time she found herself in a pub, provided of course that she got out of
this room alive, she’d raise a glass to Duathor’s memory. "But there’s more to it than that, isn’t there?"
she mused, mostly to herself. "There must have been some added magical element in the book’s
Division, since Joining it brought you back into Hermione’s head."
"Ah." Hatshepsut shot her a cool look. "Indeed. One spell to Bind me corporeally to the book, and
another to Divide me in two. Under the circumstances, it’s fortunate the little house-elf never made it
onto her boat – wouldn’t you say? That would have been the end of me, then and there." She looked
pleased with herself. "One of my more fortuitous insights, that."
Sybil decided against further inquiry in that vein, in favour of more practical and pressing questions.
"But the Book’s destroyed," she said. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Bill rise from his knees into
a half-crouch. "And – you’ll pardon me saying this, but if you thought doing that would make you a
goddess, you’ve still got a long way to go. I don’t even think you can manage that green fire thing
anymore, now that you don’t have Hermione’s body to steady you and the amulet to give you power.
You were better off inside the rock, if you ask me."
The shadowy figure gave another shudder, this one angry.
"I’ll remember that you said that, witch," she promised, "once I’m restored to my rightful form. And it
won’t be long now."
Behind and to the left, Draco produced a shimmering swatch of fabric – the Invisibility Cloak, Sybil
realised, that he’d arrived half-tangled-up in – and passed it to Bill. One bright Weasley head blinked
out of sight; Ginny and Draco gathered into a tighter huddle over Gabrielle, as though to mask his
"The Book was my main hurdle," Hatshepsut continued. "And it’s in ashes. As for my power—" here,
she smiled coldly—"all I have to do is take the amulet. See? I’m nearly solid enough to grasp it now."
She closed her eyes beatifically. "And for the immortality? Simple. I just kill the girl. She’s halfway
there, anyway."
At which point Harry Potter, who’d been, up to this point, watchful and utterly silent, finally spoke up.
"You’ll find that difficult, I’m afraid," he said in his clear hero’s tenor, and smiled at her when she
whirled to face him. Opposite him, the Invisibility Cloak fluttered to the floor, and Bill scooped an
unresisting Hermione out of her chair and into his arms. "Seeing as she’s on her way out."
Hatshepsut did an abrupt about-face. "You idiot," she hissed to Bill. "You think you can outrun me? I’d
like to see you try."
"Be careful what you ask for," Bill said, and held up between his thumb and his forefinger a tiny piece
of wood no longer than a matchstick. "You just may get it."
A moment later, he’d Apparated … and taken Hermione with him.
Fortunate the little house-elf never made it onto her boat. That would have been the end of me, then
and there.
Bill wasn’t sure what she’d meant by that, but it had given him an idea.
They only had a couple of seconds’ lead, at most – not enough to get comfortable in, but, given the
proper handling, maybe it would suffice. They blinked into solidity on the roof of their Cairo apartment
building, just in front of the cabana marked ‘Witches’, Bill staggering a little under Hermione’s dead
"Come on, honey," he panted, and shook her a little. "You’re still in there, I know you are. I need you to
wake up, just for a second."
"Hm?" She blinked and clutched at his arms as he lowered her to her feet. "Headache. Don’t make me
think. God, it hurts."
Groggy, Bill thought – too groggy, for what she needs to do – and, steeling himself against his
Chivalrous Upbringing, hauled back and slapped her sharply across the face. Her neck muscles
engaged automatically, keeping her upright. Under the circumstances, he figured that was a pretty good
"Wake up," he said again, more harshly. "This is life and death. You don’t have to think, but you do
have to take orders. Come on."
Ginny’s wand didn’t want to work for him – it was bucking in his hand, probably angry that he’d made
it do an Apparation Charm for a stranger. Relentless, he muscled Hermione into the nearest changing
room and stripped her down with a quick "Divestio!"
Getting the mermaid gear onto her was harder. He pinned her up against the wall, trying not to jostle
her injured wrist, and fumbled with the knot on the metallic sarong. Don’t bother with the bra, don’t
bother with the hairclip – it’s just the skirt that holds the magic – but even now, there was a chill at his
back, and a self-satisfied female voice: You’re too late, wizard.
"Ha," he panted – "that’s what you think."
"You think you can save her? You think you can stop me?"
The floor was beginning to waver. Bill stepped back, letting Hermione slump to the floor of the cabana,
and grabbed Hatshepsut by the arm. His fingers sank in slightly – she wasn’t quite solid yet, not all the
way, anyway – but held.
"I don’t know," he said, forcing himself not to look down at where Hermione was disappearing into the
water. The gills will keep her alive. All you have to do is get her to the ship. "But I’m sure as hell going
to try."
He jumped through the floor, and dragged the Goddess down with him.
A second of shock, as the cool water hit her heated skin. Hermione opened her eyes.
The pool. How’d I get here?
I never swim at night.
And then, Oh. I’m not here at all – I’m in Alexandria. I’m with her.
This must be a dream. Nice of her, to let me go out on a good dream.
But behind her, the water churned. She flipped around, half-spooked, to face her follower head-on.
A human man, his movements clumsy but determined, his red hair gleaming almost black in the dark
water. Bill. And why isn’t he wearing his tail? As she watched, he opened his mouth to call out to her,
and immediately faltered.
Silly man. She propelled herself toward him. Humans can’t talk in water.
And apparently, this particular human had never learned to swim, without his merman apparatus.
Typical wizard, Hermione thought fondly with a flick of her tail. Helpless without his magic.
The ship. Need to get him to the ship.
A twinge of the old headache, sharp and metallic-tasting, that had gone away for a moment when she
hit the water. She turned round again, and felt the cool wet slide of jade between her breasts. A black-
haired woman struggled toward her.
Her. Icy jolt of fear, seemingly out of place in the calm water. It’s her.
She’s not supposed to be here.
The woman, at least, had the sense not to talk. She was weak in the water, her robes hampering her
movement. As she paddled awkwardly toward Hermione, it was easy to see why she wasn’t getting
anywhere fast; the water was heavier than she was, and her attempts to pull herself through it were
doing more to tire her out than they were to move her forward.
Why ghosts can’t swim. Bill, you’re a genius.
On the other hand – this, with another look back toward his floundering figure – they don’t need to
breathe, either. And he does.
The farther away she got from the black-haired woman, the better her head felt. One cheek was still
smarting – Hermione wasn’t sure why – but that didn’t seem to matter. "Come on," she said to the
rapidly weakening Bill. "Let’s get you to the ship."
She took his hand and began to tow him up to the surface. "Nearly there," she called back
encouragingly, then froze. The black-haired woman had managed to get hold of one of his feet, and was
taking advantage of the free ride.
Oh, no, you don’t.
She’d been thinking almost clearly for a minute or two there; now, that awful debilitating weakness
was back, as she yanked Bill’s unprotesting form up through the last few inches of water to the surface.
With the last of her strength, Hermione managed to wrap his hands around the rope ladder leading up to
the ship’s deck; then she plunged back into the inky lagoon, at once relieved and terrified to find that
the black-haired woman let go of his ankle immediately to follow her.
She was close, too; it seemed that as time passed, she grew more solid, better able to navigate the
water. Hermione felt the woman’s fingers brush her tail, felt an icy shiver of lassitude worm its way up
her spine to the back of her neck.
It’s useless, little witch. You’re valiant beyond question, but you can’t fight a Goddess.
I don’t want to die.
You don’t have a choice.
Fingers on her hips, sliding up into the concave dip of her waist. Fingers on the amulet, tugging hard
enough to make the silver chain cut into Hermione’s neck. She yelped in protest.
Give in. Just let me take it. I promise you, I’ll make it quick.
Hermione felt her muscles going weak at the Lady’s touch, felt her gills flutter and slow. You will? she
breathed, half-resigned. You promise?
Of course. Another hard yank – almost, but not quite hard enough to break the chain. Don’t you believe
And then, a rush of water like scissors through silk, and a scream. Hermione felt the fingers on the
amulet slide away, felt her gills open and pulse with renewed energy. She looked down, and could have
wept with relief.

Chapter Fifty-Eight
Hermione knew next to nothing about sharks.
Oh, the teeth were sometimes used, powdered, for one potion or another – that was true – but they’d
always arrived in her kit of ingredients, or on the shelves in the Diagon Alley shop, pre-ground and
packed into airtight six-ounce tubs, with a complimentary scoop inside and a drawing of a smiling
cartoon shark on the lid – sipping a cocktail on a striped beach-chair, tipping down his cute cartoon
sunglasses with one floppy blue fin, and proclaiming in a puffy thought balloon above his head that
This Product Was Shipped From Sunny Florida. Try Our Alligator Scales And Crawdad Shells Too!
In other words, as innocuous and commercial as cherry Jell-O, and with just about as much
resemblance to the original source material.
Not much relation to the Genuine Article. And it was definitely the Genuine Article that she was
dealing with, right now.
Bill, now … he knew a bit about sharks, more than she did, anyway; either he’d run into them at some
point during the course of his work, or he’d done some research before sitting down to conjure up his
pool-guardian. Fidel, he’d informed her once, was patterned on the Alpha Shark, the number-one
predator, the Great White … and his bite – this, a bit proudly – packed an astonishing eighteen tons per
cubic inch. Hermione hadn’t, of course, experienced this firsthand, but she had seen the teeth Up Close
And Personal, the first half-dozen times or so that she’d come up to the pool alone, and they were
nothing to sneeze at. If she hadn’t known Fidel to be no threat to her, the sight of that hinged drawerful
of triangular razor-blades wouldn’t just be creepy, it’d be downright terrifying.
Which – she supposed – was really the point, wasn’t it?
And the one other piece of shark-trivia she’d picked up from somewhere: sharks took one massive bite,
then settled back and let the victim bleed to death. Which was both a good thing and a bad, in this case
– it meant that there wasn’t much remaining of Hatshepsut, below the waist. On the other hand, the
Queen hadn’t exactly been human enough to bleed. What remained of her lolled limply in the water,
looking flatter now and less three-dimensional: a life-sized paper doll, ripped in half by a vengeful
giant child.
There was energy escaping from her, though – Hermione could see it, inky but faintly phospherescent,
trailing from the torn ruin of the abdomen. Hatshepsut’s fingers were pressed to the wound, as if to hold
it in, but even from her safe distance Hermione could recognise that futile gesture for what it was – too
little, too late.
Help, whispered the Queen, and Hermione hesitated.
You would have killed me, she said flatly. And you would have laughed while you did it. Why do you
deserve mercy?
The silvery whisper in her head grew weaker. Below them both, a dark shape circled.
It isn’t fair. My kingdom – my life – were taken from me. I did what I had to do, to survive.
Her black hair floated around her face like a weedy halo. She didn’t look much older than Itmana.
Hermione fingered the jade amulet around her neck wonderingly. It felt strangely inert.
That’s what everybody does, every day, she said finally. What they have to do, to survive. Being a
Queen doesn’t make you any different, in that regard.
Help me.
I’m sorry.
Another torn-silk rush of water. Fidel had grown impatient.
Hatshepsut was gone.
The ship wasn’t far away, and Bill was waiting on deck to pull her up, his pale skin a faint gleam under
the new moon. "Hi," she said, and his eyes flicked questioningly to the wet gleam of jade between her
breasts, a shadow hidden in shadows.
Unspoken: is she gone? Hermione wriggled over to a chaise and flopped heavily onto it.
"Fidel got her," she said. "Two bites. I don’t think she’s coming back." A pause, while she caught her
breath. "That was very clever of you, you know."
He shrugged. Whether he was blushing or not, Hermione couldn’t tell. "It was a hunch," he said finally.
"Glad it worked out."
"Why didn’t you put your tail on?"
"There wasn’t time."
Silence, while her fingers strayed to the pendant and the sliver of moon slid coyly behind a cloud.
Hermione shivered. "What should I do with this?" she wondered aloud. "Throw it overboard?"
"I wouldn’t," Bill said. "It’s what she needed, right? To make her a Real Girl?" He leaned his forearms
on the ship’s railing. "Maybe she’s in pieces, but she’s still down there somewhere. And if you ask me,
you deserve a souvenir out of all this."
Heh. "Very funny."
"Well, I try."
He grinned at her over his shoulder, and Hermione felt something tight loosening in her chest. "You
idiot," she said, frowning at him because she wanted to smile. "Why’d you jump in, if you can’t
He looked surprised at this. "I had to do what I could," he said. "And besides – I don’t know what I’d
do, if something happened to you."
Oh. She pushed herself off the chaise and flipped over toward the railing, pulling herself up with her
arms. "Really?"
"Don’t fish for compliments, Madison." He wrapped one arm around her waist. "You know I’m crazy
about you."
A sliver of moonlight, arching down from between the thick clouds and illuminating his face, narrow
and handsome and – for once – utterly, utterly serious. Not a single secret behind those eyes, Hermione
thought, faintly incredulous. Nothing he’d hold back. Nothing he wouldn’t give.
For a split second, she was back in Farouk’s study, queasy with heartbreak, listening as her world fell
apart: Don’t wait for me. When all this is over, I’m going to walk away and not come back.
You’ll almost definitely be ready someday. But I might never be.
And now, that moment’s antithesis: moonlight and clear eyes and enough sincerity to warm her until
the day she died. You know I’m crazy about you.
There was only one decision to make, really.
"Well, that’s good," she said, and watched one pale auburn eyebrow arch skyward as she smiled at him,
looped her arms around his neck. "See, I’m sort of fond of you, myself."
Happy endings, she thought as he laughed and bent to kiss her, aren’t overrated at all, not really.

It’s only the people who never get them that complain.
They arrived back at the cabana to find a small anxious crowd waiting for them; apparently, while the
two of them had been out playing Jaws, the occupants of Farouk’s study had Located them and
transferred themselves en masse to the rooftop. Hermione clamped both arms protectively over her
bosom and firmly shut the cabana door – you go ahead; I’ll be down as soon as I’m not NAKED – and
heard the excited babble of questions and congratulations gradually recede, as Bill led the way down to
his apartment.
Looked like there’d be a victory party tonight, whether she liked it or not. And she supposed that it did
beat the events of last spring – bad dreams, a night in the hospital ward, and two months of hard
feelings and avoidance.
It was nice to have friends.
She pulled her robes back on, ran a hasty towel over her head to get out most of the excess water, and
padded barefoot down the stairs. Maxie and the boys were deep into an energetic, scat-heavy version of
Sing, Sing, Sing that could probably be heard in Guatemala; from Bill’s open door, Hermione caught
the sounds of conversation and laughter and saw the bulky, good-natured form of Mickey the Super
propped indolently in the doorway, bottle raised to his lips.
The neighbours could complain, she thought, amused, for all the good it did them. They’d be better off
joining in.
She paused just out of sight around the corner, content for the moment to watch and listen – such happy
sounds! – and then bit her lip, as one dark-robed figure detached itself from the laughing others and
slipped out past Mickey into the hallway.
"Hullo," she said as he rounded the corner, and he stopped in his tracks, clearly discomfited to see her.
"Not staying for the party?" she asked, jerking her head toward Bill’s apartment. Snape shook his head.
"I need to get back to Alexandria," he said, "and pack. Now that all … this—" he raised an eloquent
eyebrow—"has been resolved, I need to return to Hogwarts and reclaim my classes from Albus. Hard
telling what shape my laboratory’s in by now."
Hermione laughed.
"Thank you," she said, sobering, and touched him on the sleeve as he would have brushed by her. "For
all your help. For everything."
He snorted – self-deprecating, Hermione thought, to the bitter end. "I’m not sure how much help I
"Thanks anyway."
A wry twist of humour at one corner of his mouth. "You’re very welcome, Miss Granger."
"I’ll miss you."
This, as he’d already turned to go, bursting out of her clogged throat despite her best intentions to hold
it back. He hesitated, then turned round again.
"And I you," he said. "Goodbye, Hermione."
"Goodbye," she whispered – throat aching, eyes burning.
But he was already gone.
Chapter Fifty-Nine
Time passed.
Severus, upon his return to Hogwarts, was relieved to find his classroom and laboratory in relatively
good working order. Apparently Albus had adhered to the syllabi and lesson plans he’d left - despite
their usual hemming, hawing, and general levels of Gross Incompetence, the students nevertheless
didn’t seem to be noticeably behind schedule.
He was plagued for a few weeks by half-finished packages of lemon sherbets, popping up in
unexpected places when he opened drawers ... and, in possible corroboration with the aforementioned,
all of his correcting quills felt distinctly, distressingly sticky to the touch, despite repeated Cleansing
Annoying, this, though hardly surprising. Under the circumstances, he figured he could live with it.
And otherwise, life was back to normal - almost too quickly to suit him.
About Hermione, he tried to think as little as possible - and was assisted in this resolution by the
alluring, multifaceted Sybil, as fascinating and kaleidoscopic a presence as ever. Still, she too seemed
affected by her brief sojourn in Africa - or by something, at any rate. More than once, Severus had
caught her toying with her wand, turning it over and over in her hands with a speculative, faraway look
on her face, and lips that seemed to tremble on the brink of a forbidden declaration.
“Stress,” she’d explained once, catching the tail-end of his enquiring look, and then had taken his mind
off the subject with a whispered suggestion so blatant and outré that he’d blushed the next day in class,
just remembering it.
He hadn't questioned her since.
And then November was gone - just like that, so quickly that it seemed never to have existed - and in
another heartbeat, Christmas trees were appearing in the Great Hall, the first glowing harbingers of the
season. Eggnog replaced pumpkin juice at the Head Table, and the students' names began to fill the
blanks on the Hogwarts Express signup sheet in scrawled columns of festive expectancy.
Hagrid strode into the Forbidden Forest one Saturday afternoon, axe in hand, and re-emerged just
before dinnertime with holly wreaths the size of lorry tyres, one for each member of the faculty.
Severus - inwardly rolling his eyes - accepted his with as good a grace as possible, and wrestled it
down to the dungeons with gritted teeth.
A year ago, he'd have chopped it up for firewood - or worse. Now, he Reduced it slightly to fit on his
classroom door, hung it with only a minimum of grimacing, and headed for his chambers to wash his
Sybil was already in his sitting room - no wand in sight, for once - reading the Daily Prophet. She
looked up as he came in, and he automatically took stock of Tonight's Look: red-gold hair in a swingy
chin-length bob, pretty angular face with a faint golden sprinkle of freckles over the bridge of the nose,
pale blue eyes, average build.
Nice, but nothing spectacular. He kept walking.
“Sap,” he said, and held up his sticky hands by way of explanation as he brushed past her into the
kitchen. “Or dog drool. If it’s anything other than that, I don’t want to know.”
She laughed. “One of Hagrid’s wreaths?”
“Right in one.”
Soap wasn’t doing the job; impatient, Severus Charmed away the mess on his hands, then scrubbed
irritably at a sticky spot that had transferred itself to his wand. “How’d you get out of taking one,
anyway?” he called, and had to bite back a smile at her answer.
“The usual. Told him I was allergic.” Sybil laid aside the paper. “Severus?”
“Mm.” He poked his head around the corner into the sitting room. “What is it?”
“My - my face,” she said carefully, not looking at him. “Do you … ah, notice anything different about
it tonight?”
That’s funny. With all the dozens upon dozens of Transfigurations she’s visited upon me in the last
couple of months, she’s never once asked me that before.
Severus frowned, and studied her for a moment.
“No,” he said finally - then, at the crestfallen look on her face, dug around for a quick compliment;
obviously, that had been the Wrong Answer. “The hair’s a pretty colour, though,” he said, tentatively.
“Unusual. And the freckles are a nice touch, too - I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you do freckles
“That’s it?”
He nodded warily. “Why do you ask?”
“No reason.”
She was studying her hands - pretty hands, Severus noticed, with long elegant Elizabeth I fingers. “I
have to tell you something,” she said, her voice so low as to be nearly inaudible. Severus frowned
“What is it?”
She flicked a look up at him through pale eyelashes that she hadn’t bothered to mascara. Odd, that;
usually her Transfigurations came complete with cosmetic enhancements - something Severus
appreciated, since he didn’t care for the taste of lipstick. “I gave Albus my notice today.”
“What?” That was news. Severus sank down beside her on the sofa. “You did what?”
“You heard me. I quit.” She waved one hand, airily, and would have managed to pull off the dismissive
look if she hadn’t been biting her lip. “As of the January term, someone else is taking over my classes.
May Merlin have pity on them.”
“Why should he have pity on them? Because my classes are no fun to teach, that’s why.”
“No,” Severus said, rolling his eyes ceilingward in exasperation. “And don't play at ignorance - you
know very well what I’m asking. Why did you quit?”
Sybil closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the sofa cushions. “A million reasons, but here
are the main ones.” She held up one long pale finger. “One. I’m not cut out for this. Two. I can’t take
the Fruit Bat anymore; if I have to look at her in the mirror until the end of spring term, I’ll kill myself.
Three. I’m not a teacher -- well, not a good one, anyway -- and I never was. Time I stopped
There was something different about her tonight, come to think of it, Severus mused. And unless he'd
completely missed his guess, it was this: she looked scared.
Understandable, that; after all, she'd been a professor here for the better part of the last decade, and as
adventurous as Hogwarts faculty meetings could be at times, they still weren't much preparation for the
Real World. Particularly as she no longer wanted anything to do with teaching. What was harder to
explain was the look in her eyes: raw, scraped-down, defenseless.
Sybil had more protective colouring at her disposal than any other person he'd ever known. So why the
“Ah," he said, at a loss for words. “Well, then. Ahem."
Blue eyes shot open and zeroed in on his dark ones. “Oh, and that’s not all," she said. "There’s more.”
“Really.” Severus shrugged, unsure of the appropriate response. Upon deliberation, a simple prompt
seemed to be the safest option. “What’s the rest of it, then?”
“I’m not just quitting my job,” she said, that pale cerulean gaze uncertain, but determinedly locked onto
his. “I’m quitting us, too.”
Well, she'd done it.
And if breaking up truly was hard to do, you certainly couldn't tell it by Severus Snape. That austere
aristocrat's face hadn't given anything away as he'd kissed her cheek and murmured something
understanding but cool.
In retrospect, Sybil supposed that she'd been hoping he'd make a bit more of a fuss ... but such was life.
Too, she'd half-expected him to make more over her Real Face -- or at least to acknowledge it for what
it was.
But that was silly - and, moreover, all her own fault. Spend fifteen years hiding your true colours, and
you could hardly expect a ticker-tape parade when you finally dropped the camouflage.
Still, she couldn't help but think that -- under the circumstances -- she'd made the right decision. That
should have made her feel victorious; instead, she just felt ... empty, as if the long-dreaded
conversations she'd just had with Dumbledore and Snape had drained her remaining resolve.
Sighing, she wound her way through her crowded, incense-heavy classroom and muttered the password
at the Concealed door in the corner. Never mind the melancholy, Sybil. You've got packing to do.
But it seemed that her packing was going to have to wait, just a little longer.
Harry Potter was sitting on her sofa.
"Hi," he said, and Sybil just stared at him for a moment, before capitulating and kicking off her shoes
with a sigh.
"You've got a real problem, haven't you, Potter?" she said, more resigned than genuinely annoyed.
"Ever look into a self-help group? Personally I think you might find Breakers and Enterers Anonymous
to be just the ticket."
"I never break anything, though," he pointed out, seemingly unruffled by her fit of pique. "And my
Thursday nights are already taken up with Quidditch practice, anyway. Guess I'm destined to go
through life with my clandestine Cloak habit intact."
Sybil snorted.
"I shouldn't laugh," she said, and padded over to curl onto the opposite end of the sofa. "It just
encourages you. Why are you here, anyway?"
"I heard you were leaving," Harry said, making her look up in surprise. "And I wanted to say good-
"Who told you that?"
Harry shrugged. "You know that painting in Dumbledore's office? The one with the monk and the
canary? Well, Fra Pietro was visiting the Fat Lady this afternoon when I went up to Gryffindor Tower
to drop off my broomstick before dinner. Spilled the whole thing." He looked thoughtful. "Violet was
there, too. And Sir Cadogan was only one painting over. I'd say your secret isn't much of a secret,
"Ah. Figures." Sybil rubbed one hand across her eyes. "Well, it's sweet of you to come say good-bye,
then. I suppose."
In response, Harry shot her a shrewd look. "I haven't seen that face before,” he said slowly. “Is it new?"
"No," Sybil said shortly. He leaned closer.
"You aren't wearing any make-up."
She gave him the Evil Eye. "Oh, well spotted, Potter. Who do you think you are, anyway -- Yves Saint-
He ignored this. "Out walking around like this - no lipstick, even ... this is your own face, isn't it?" he
said softly, his eyes sharpening as she flushed. "I'm right, aren't I? It's really you."
Sybil turned away. There was a hot blush riding the crest of her cheekbones, and she didn't like it, not
one little bit. Embarrassment, in her experience, was something that happened to other women.
"And? What if it is?” she demanded, suddenly feeling vaguely weepy and more naked than she had in
more than ten years. " What of it?"
He didn't reply. He was scooting toward her.
"Let me see," he said, and brought up one hand - calloused of palm and still slightly grimy under the
nails - when she would have turned her head away. "You're crying," he said, sounding genuinely
surprised. "Why are you crying, Sybil? It's a good face ... truly, it is."
She felt like a raw nerve, like the only tree left standing on a hill after a storm, beleaguered and
lightning-scarred and very much alone. The mere touch of his hand, gentle and chaste as it was, made
her tremble. She didn't want to look at him, but she couldn't seem to look away, either.
"Don't cry," he urged again, and slid a little closer to cup her face in both his hands. "Your eyes,
Sybil ... I've never seen such sad eyes; they're like rainwater. I could drown in them."
"Don't ..." she whispered.
But she didn't really mean it.
His lips were warm and slightly wind-chapped, and they travelled the tracks of her tears almost
reverently, as if taking a sacrament. Sybil shuddered, and closed her eyes, and surrendered; she might
have summoned defenses against anything else, but not this unstudied, unselfish tenderness.
She'd been kissed a thousand times, but not like this, not like something precious that might shatter
under rough handling. His lips fluttered over her closed eyelids, nuzzled their way down one
tearstained cheek, and Sybil felt herself breaking apart on the inside, a fragile glacier in the glow of a
persistent heat lamp.
For the first time in her life, the man in her arms wasn't kissing a disguise.
If it had lasted a hundred years, it would still have been over too soon. Even so, Sybil was the first one
to pull away.
"Enough," she said shakily, and gave him a gentle push. "That's enough now, Harry."
He frowned, ready to argue. "But ..."
"No. No 'buts'." Her eyes were still damp, but she managed a smile. "You need to go back to Gryffindor
Tower. I can't keep you any longer."
He hesitated for another moment, then gave her a slow nod - Harry Potter was a lot of things, Sybil
thought, but dumb wasn’t one of them. “Write,” he said finally. “When you get to where you’re going.”
“I will.”
She walked him to the door, and didn’t protest when he hugged her. “Good luck,” he said, and then, on
his way out, over his shoulder - “Keep your own face. It’s the best one yet.”
“Thanks,” she said, and stood watching after him, long after the wall had closed in front of her.
The packing could wait just one more minute.

Chapter Sixty
"So," Gabrielle said, and Draco looked up to regard her warily over the top of his cocoa mug.

"What?" he said, suspicious. "What is it now? You're plotting again; I can tell."

She blinked at him. "Oh?"

"Yeah," Draco said. "And don't pull that innocent act with me; I haven't seen that look on your face
since the night you suggested sneaking into Malfoy Manor to play Neighborhood Watch." He ran his
tongue sardonically around his teeth. "And, Gabrielle? The fluffy-kitten schtick works a little better on
people who haven't played Yahtzee with you yet. Just for future reference."

"Well, aren't we touchy tonight." Unrepentant, Gabrielle selected a biscuit from the tin between them
and bit daintily into it. "All I wanted to know," she said, licking jam from her thumb, "is where you're
going, once you get off the train tomorrow."

Draco studied the inside of his mug for a moment before answering.

"St. Mungo's," he said finally. "My mother has another two months to go in detox; she can'tleave yet,
not even for Christmas, but she can have visitors. The mediwizard in charge of her case sent
Dumbledore an owl just this week, saying I could come. And I haven't seen her since July."
"Ah," Gabrielle said, her blue eyes taking on a sharper focus over her biscuit. "And after that?"

Draco shrugged. "Not sure," he said. "Thought I'd change some Galleons to pounds at Gringotts, do
some sight-seeing in Muggle London. Rent a room at the Leaky Cauldron for a couple of weeks."

Gabrielle shook her head.

"I have a better idea," she said. "Papa is meeting me at the station. Why not let him take you to see your
mother, then come along home with us?"

Draco shook his head, frowning. "That's really nice of you," he said. "But I don't ..."

"Oh, come on." Gabrielle tilted her head persuasively to one side. "Fleur's doing a shoot for a magazine
cover in Venice, so she won't be there at all," she said. "A day or two, if she's lucky. At the very most.
And Papa's probably been adding to his Must-Read Holiday List since August. If you aren't there to
entertain me, I might well die of boredom before next term even starts."

He ought to refuse, Draco knew. Problem was, he didn't really want to.

"I don't want to impose," he said cautiously. Gabrielle laughed.

"Impose? Are you joking?" She tossed her head. "You'd be doing Papa a favour; I drive him insane
during school breaks. And the house-elves will be ecstatic; no-one in my family ever eats enough to
please them." At his dubious look, she threw up her hands. "Look," she said. "I'll Floo him tonight, just
to make sure. When he says it's all right, will you come?"

Draco hesitated just one more second - long enough to read the banked concern in her round blue eyes,
and to hypothesize, albeit briefly, about the probable condition of the Leaky Cauldron's private rooms.


"Yeah," he said at length, and - out of long habit - broke the last biscuit in half so they could split it.
"Yeah, I'll come."


"Penny for them," Hermione said sleepily, and turned over in bed. Bill, who had been staring at the
ceiling, jerked guiltily, then grinned at her.

"Nothing big," he said. "Just wondering if your dad owns a handgun, that's all. I'm a little nervous."

"They're going to love you. Trust me."

He shifted to his side, so that their eyes met. "Do I get to meet your grandmother, too? The one who
started the whole Jade Priestess thing?"

"Her too," Hermione promised. "And why are you so nervous, anyway? You break curses for a living;
my parents aren't really that scary by comparison."
One bare shoulder lifted in a shrug. "I just want to make a good impression, that's all."

"Yeah?" Hermione's hand captured his hand under the comforter, guided it south. "Well, you can worry
about that all morning tomorrow, if you must. In the meantime …”

Against his will, he smiled. “In the meantime … what?”

She grinned back at him. “Why don't you take a stab at impressing this?"

"That, at least," Bill said fervently, "I think I can do."

The Cairo moon smiled in through the window. From her basket in the corner, Cleo purred in her sleep.

The Jade Priestess stayed in the sock drawer where she belonged, and didn't so much as blink.


In his dungeon retreat, Severus Snape brewed himself a cup of hibiscus tea from his carefully-hoarded
stash, and settled down with the latest issue of Ars Alchemica.


And Sybil Trelawney, gritting her teeth against the winter air, tucked her hands more deeply into her
jacket pockets and checked the house number again, to make sure she’d gotten it right.

As if she could have forgotten.

Same little house. Same narrow Belfast streets, made temporarily picturesque by a blanket of fresh

The lights were on. They were home … if they were still there at all.

She should have called first. She hadn’t had the guts.

You’re a coward if you don’t, she chided herself. What’s the worst that can happen?

Don’t answer that question – don’t.

Weak with trepidation, she crossed the street and rang the bell.

A moment’s pause. A shuffle of movement, from behind the little house’s brightly-lit living-room
windows. A figure at the door, stooped and lined and greying but – amazingly – still the same, still
familiar enough to bring a lump to Sybil’s throat.

“Who is it?” the woman asked. Her voice was half-fearful, half-curious. “Who’s there?”

Sybil closed her eyes, and felt her lips tremble.

“It’s me, Mum,” she said. “Just me.”

A gasp. “Sybil?”

Caution was replaced by a disbelieving kind of joy. Her mother crossed herself, took a step forward.

Sybil nodded. “Yeah,” she said, and felt happiness boiling up inside of her, fierce and sudden and as
bright as a possibility. “Yeah, that’s me.”

Smiling, she stepped forward into the light.




Author’s Note:
Thanks to all of you who have stayed with me through the second installment of this little
travelogue! Stay tuned for the third and final book in the series, Last Tango in Paris … coming to
you soon from Witchfics.
A thousand thanks to all who have offered feedback and encouragement, and particularly to the
Femmes and the Homme, who have redefined for me the parameters of virtual reality. Thanks
for being my sounding board and my community.

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