LeadVonE

Dodging Prison & Stealing Witches

Chapter forty-six: Hermione’s Quest — Part Three

The dining room of Malfoy Manor was alive with the buzz of conversation and the soft clinking of glasses and cutlery. Every seat of the long hardwood table was filled, and every plate was almost clean. Every so often, a house elf wearing a clean pillowcase would pop in, gather up the finished dinner and pop back out.

Lord Malfoy sat at the head of the table, in the seat in which he had once sat, and surveyed the lords of the Dark. There were around twenty of them — not all thirty-eight the Dark could call on in the Wizengamot, but plenty for their purposes here tonight. Nott and Parkinson were on his right, and Yaxley and Burke on his left. Further down, Wiggs and Travers were talking animatedly with Charmer and Ballyrun. Lord Genesis—a rather on-the-nose name for Magical Britain's only Vampire Lord—drank from his glass of pure red liquid, whilst listening politely to Lord Zazo, whose family had been cursed several centuries back to always speak with a lisp.

Then there were Lords Flagley and Selwyn who both lived in Upper Flagley and were as inseparable as brothers. Upper Flagley wasn't a large wizarding community, at only just over one hundred wands, but it did produce the indisputably best wizarding cheese in the whole country.

And on the other side of the table sat Lord Struttsworth and Lord Knock — the first owning several brothels around the country, including the one in Knockturn Alley, and the latter owning and running the auction house, among various other enterprises.

Lords Womp and Vablatsky were a herbologist and a seer, respectively.

The Noble House of Threesickle traditionally always married Selkies from a colony off the coast of Holyhead and had a slight blue tint to their skin — even Lord Threesickle himself, who also wore a long cloak of seal fur, and everyone knew whose fur it was.

Finally, there were Lords Puddlemere and Rosier. Lord Puddlemere owned quite a few of the commercial and residential buildings in the Puddlemere enclave, while Lord Rosier… At that moment, Malfoy caught Rosier's faintly glowing yellow eyes and had to suppress a shudder, instead turning it quickly into a nod.

Rosier seemed to take that as an indication that business was about to start, because he broke off his discussion with Puddlemere and turned to watch him. One by one, the other lords of the Dark also fell into silence and turned towards him, each face looking expectant — convenient, since he did, in-fact, want to get things underway.

Lucius let the silence drag on for a moment before he began. "As you know, I have called us all here tonight because of the Muggle Protection Act."

"Outrageous, it is!" Selwyn burst out.

"Yes, Selwyn, thank you — if I could be allowed to get through this without interruption? Now as I was saying, the Muggle Protection Act was due to be voted on last week. You may have noticed this didn't happen. That is because I met with Lord Slytherin and persuaded him that we—that is to say, the Dark—might be able to add something of value to the proceedings."

This caused surprised mutterings down the table.

"You met Slytherin?" Vablatsky asked. "What's he like?"

"You mean, you don't know?" Puddlemere said, incredulous.

"My sight cannot see him."

"Gentlemen." Lucius put his hands up. "Focus, please. Yes, I met him. It was not easy setting up a private meeting, but I succeeded. We talked and we acknowledged that there were many points that the Gray and the Dark could agree on, and that if we came up with an alternative Muggle Protection Act that they might well support it instead of the Light's version."

Silence. Many of the eyes around the table regarded him with incredulity.

Then the Vampire Lord, Genesis, started to chuckle. "You mean to say that you, the protectors of blood purity and wizarding culture, are going to sell out to this newcomer's power plays and push a muggle progressive act in the name of lessening the damage the Light would cause by themselves?"

Lucius gritted his teeth. "Yes, that is exactly what I am saying."

"But why should we have to put up with this?!" Selwyn interrupted again. "We didn't put up with this when he was around."

"He was a Dark Lord, Selwyn."

"Well, you are sitting in his chair."

"This is my house. This chair is my chair — a chair my grandfather graciously gave up to our lord whenever he wished to make use of this room. I am a lord of the Dark, like you. I am not a Dark Lord. Do any of you wish to claim the mantle of Dark Lord?" He glared around the table. There were roughly equal concentrations of amused, neutral, and angry faces. No one, however, spoke, not even Rosier or Genesis. "Well then," he continued, "until our lord has returned to us, we will continue to fight within the system as lords of the Wizengamot ought."

"What about his phylactery?" Selwyn asked, apparently unwilling to let this go. "Has any progress been made finding it?"

"None yet," Lucius said, smoothly. "Now, I have written up a list of all the points in the current act along with notes of what are obviously the biggest problems with it." Parchments appeared in front of all the lords around the table.

"What is this?!" snapped Struttsworth, pointing at one of the lines with a long, bony finger. "You want to allow muggleborns to keep muggle artefacts they owned as children?!"

"I want nothing of the sort," Malfoy snapped back. "But we have to make concessions on something."

"The Dark Lord would not approve."

"I'm sure he wouldn't. But I'm sure he'd approve far less of, for example, giving muggles the right to stand as witnesses in trials against wizards. Or making it law that whenever wizards wish to permanently relocate to the wizarding world, pensieve copies of all their muggle relatives' memories be kept on file in case they 'change their mind' later, Struttsworth."

Struttsworth glared sharply at him.

"Have I made my point?" Lucius asked.

"Crystal," Struttsworth bit back.

"Good."

It took hours upon hours of bickering, arguing, and back and forth before they had anything even remotely like a consensus. Even then, it would need much more work before they were ready to show it to the leaders of the Gray. After the lords of the Dark all filed out of the Malfoy dining room, heading towards the floo, and home, a side door opened, and Lady Narcissa stepped through. Her normally immaculate robes were slightly dusty.

"Well?" Lucius asked.

"I get the feeling the only reason Rosier didn't jump to take your chair when you asked is because the Dark Lord is not fully gone."

"Genesis?"

"He won't step up. He's had three hundred years to take a leadership position beyond his own kind, and he never has."

"Yaxley? Charmer?"

"Yaxley would not take such a risk by himself. He is a follower, not a leader. Charmer does not lack in skill, but he has too many ties to the Gray and the Light. All the best candidates to take on the mantle of Dark Lord are in Azkaban, and they'd never take a title that they believe he-who-must-not-be-named still holds the right to."

"So, barring his actual return, we really are relying on Virgo."

"Or possibly our niece."

Lucius nodded. "Or possibly our niece."

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

— Captain's log 01 AD 1042 —

With the blessings of the wind of magic, my crew and I are leaving the Court of the Feathered Serpent as the sun rises on the ocean, with much celebration and merrymaking, to travel back to our homeland, laden with as many golden objects from the lands beyond the isle as a king of old might have children.

This venture has been more successful than I could have ever believed and I will see it through. Grandfather was right to put his faith in me. The people we met were most accommodating and I will long miss the warmth and generosity they, and especially the women, showed me and my crew. The city was truly a magical place, full of the most intricate of enchantments — like the great hall of Hogwarts, but in every house, and every public place. Even the majesty of Constantinople does not compete.

I am not entirely bereft of company, however. As well as gold, the feathered lord granted us Akna to accompany us and to act as a navigator to guide us through the dangerous magics that almost sunk us on our way here. She is quite delightful and her youth and energy brightens the spirit of everyone on board. I count myself lucky we travel not on a longship poor of magic where there would be no space available to enjoy her charms.

— Captain's log 05 AD 1042 —

Land sighted. Our journey through the magic of the sea that protects the feathered lord is complete, thank magic, for our food is not infinite and our skins need refilling.

Akna is quite happy to see land again. She tells me that while she oft travelled the sea as a little girl, this is the first time she has ever been away from home for more than a night. I find myself immensely pleased that it is only I she can confide these little secrets to.

As soon as we land we will try to find the tribe we traded with on our way here.

— Captain's log 06 AD 1042 —

Our landing did not go well. While we did at first succeed in re-filling our skins with water from a river, we could not find the people we had previously traded with. Instead we were met with men armed with spears and arrows and when we tried to communicate our desire to trade, they laughed. I guess they felt they had the advantage because they outnumbered us four to one, but they only had one magic user, and he did not possess a wand.

Indeed, as I have oft noted on this journey, while men and women back home regard a wizard's wand as a symbol of power to be feared and respected, here it might as well just be a stick of wood. This is unfortunate since if they truly knew the power we wield they surely wouldn't be so foolish as to attack us.

Attack us they did, however, and we were forced to react in kind.

By the end, all but a few of their people lay dead at our feet and the few who escaped would surely either never return, or else bring numbers so vast that not even our powers could save us.

We were not entirely without casualties though. Muir was impaled with a spear and Owen could not weave his healing magics quickly enough to stop him passing over to the other side. We burned his body on the beach before setting off again. Akna cried. Although they could not speak with each other, Muir was a gentle man and his death hits her hard.

— Captain's log 07 AD 1042 —

The mood onboard is grim. Muir was particularly gifted with weather magics and his loss leaves us open to the whim of every ragged rain cloud and gust of wind. Akna still hasn't found herself again and her mood spreads throughout the men like dragon-pox. We see many people along the coast — they stare at us out of bushes and watch us before disappearing again, but we dare not land while the memory of our recent battle is fresh.

I find myself hoping Akna feels better soon. Things are better when she is happy, but I also know I cannot allow myself the luxury of such weak and feminine feelings. My crew is relying on me to see us home and it will be by the skill of seamanship and the power of our magics that will deliver us safely. Not hopeful feelings or happy thoughts.

— Captain's log 09 AD 1042 —

Finally. As the morning sun rose, we saw a welcome sight on the shore. The tribe we previously traded with stood on beach waving and shouting at us with great fanfare and cheer.

I was cautious, and we all approached fully ready to pull back if it looked like they would turn aggressive, but we had no reason to fear. Luckily, one of their number had some limited knowledge of a language that Akna also knew, and so we were able to learn that the men that had attacked us, and whom we had then slaughtered, were long enemies of these people — that these people had been forced off those lands, and that we were now 'forever friends' of them.

I don't know about 'forever friends' but we much appreciated the good cheer that followed. The chief even offered to marry off his daughter to me. Akna advised that I refuse and I couldn't help but laugh. The fierce look in her eyes after many days of sadness warmed my heart more than any warming charm could.

— Captain's log 12 AD 1042 —

After several days with the people here we are ready to move on. Our food supplies are refilled again and with more than just fish. We have a long way to go, but I'm happy to be moving on again. One person who does not seem unhappy to see us leave is these people's wizard. I rather think he didn't appreciate the competition.

— Captain's log 89 AD 1042 —

The seas have become much colder now, much more like the waters around home. The shoreline is thick with trees as large around the base as three grown men standing with arms stretched. This is good. It won't be long until we strike out into open ocean, and from there it's on to Greenland, then Iceland, and then to the shores of home.

— Captain's log 94 AD 1042 —

Oh magic, I pride myself on my bravery and unwillingness to back down in the face of fear, but I don't think I've ever been more scared in my life. Akna, bless her. Thank the feathered lord for gifting us with her. We were rowing through the small ice islands that speckle this sea like little gems when we all felt it — a creeping feeling of fear and dread. Now, I've heard the tales and learned the sagas — I am not some ignorant peasant who knows not the difference between a demon and a ghost. But when a faceless figure in tattered black robes started to descend on our boat, causing the very water around our craft to freeze and our oars to stick fast, I felt a primal terror grip my soul like I've never felt, and I was not the only one.

That was, until Akna screamed something I did not understand in a language I did not know, and a magnificent glowing white serpent coiled out from around her outstretched hand and launched itself at the monster, which screamed in rage or fear, I could not tell which, and retreated from our boat, leaving us free to break the ice around us and keep on rowing.

I don't think I will look at that girl quite the same way again. Although her heart is too fair to kill a man in combat, she is still truly a warrior.

— Captain's log 95 AD 1042 —

We have arrived in Greenland to much everyone's relief. We did not see any more of the robed monster that approached us in the frigid seas around us, and I for one hope to never see such a foul being again. I have commanded the men to keep the gold we carry hidden from the eyes of the locals and their rare wizard that make this land their home, for I do not believe the wands we proudly display would stay the hand of these folk in the face of such vast wealth and treasure.

Akna stands fascinated by the ways of the settlement we are staying within, having seen little of these traditions and customs while on the boat.

I find myself looking forward to life back at Hogwarts, to the great hall, and to the cooking of Lady Hufflepuff's servants.

— Captain's log 96 AD 1042 —

This sunrise we left the shores of Greenland after ensuring our food and water supplies sufficiently full. It is another hard row to Iceland, but I have friends there. The water is calm. And I don't foresee any problems from here out.

— Captain's log 97 AD 1042 —

Oh, praise Merlin and Woden. Such joy. Akna has confided in me this morning that she is with child. I could not be more happy. The sun is bright and the seas are tranquil. It is as though the skies sing their praises to me.

— Captain's log 98 AD 1042 —

I have begun proper instruction for Akna in Danish, Latin, and Welsh, as well as the proper role of a lady within the Albion. Her time on board has prepared her well, and her quick mind and focused spirit serves her too. I am not sure what will be Grandfather's reaction to Akna's condition, but I am determined to see that she takes the honourable path rather than be cast out as a low woman. That would not do at all. We expect to reach Iceland before sundown, Fate willing.

— Captain's log 101 AD 1042 —

We leave Iceland in high spirits. The men were well pleased to be back on dry land again, and to taste the meat of reindeer again, rather than the flesh of fish. We have only four more days to the Sheep Islands and then another three to the shores of Caledonia.

— Captain's log 102 AD 1042 —

Thor's mighty hammer has stuck the seas and plunged us into battle with the waves. I cannot write long. I am needed.

— Captain's log 106 AD 1042 —

Finally, the storm has cleared. We are far off course, but with luck we would be several days to the south, and not far out into the great ocean.

[MANY MISSING ENTRIES]

— Captain's log ? AD 1042 —

I write these words perched atop a rock on the coast of what I pray to be Caledonia. My ship is lost. All my crew is lost. It was a dragon. As long and again as the boat, black as midnight and evil as Morgana. How was I to know we had strayed into the Hebrides? Into the cursed islands.

Everything we brought back with us from the world beyond the great ocean, everything save this one cup that I foolishly snatched before the beast descended, and which almost resulted in my joining my men through the veil, everything lost. The only other treasure I was able to save was Akna. She sits by my side, crying. If Muir's death hit her hard, it was nothing to this. I suspect the only reason we were spared was because the dragon, being of the nature of snake, heard something of itself in myself and Akna when we called out to it.

The others were all eaten.

I can still hear the crunch of bone when I close my eyes.

I do not know how long we held our own in the water, but there is no doubt that without both our magics we would surely have been lost too.

— Captain's log 121 AD 1042 —

This will be my last entry. Grandfather has ordered that all records of this sorry expedition be sealed away behind wards that only those of the Noble House of Slytherin may access. My only consolation is that he has accepted Akna to be my bride. Her magics fascinate him. But I fear that had she not been a speaker, he would not have done so, even with his great-grandchild growing in her womb. When the time comes, I'm sure she will make a formidable Lady Slytherin.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

Deep inside Hermione's magical trunk, the young witch in question replaced the captain's log back where it belonged, next to a dozen or so other books taken from the Slytherin hidey-hole by the sea.

Cracking the code had been relatively easy once she'd applied psychology to the problem. The only way the Allies had managed to crack the German enigma code during World War Two had been because of human error, like choosing very easy-to-guess passcodes. The magical password to the captain's diary had turned out to be the 22nd of April 1011 — no doubt some date of significance to the long-dead Heir of Slytherin.

After that, it had just been a matter of analysing the three languages in the diary for patterns and teasing out grammar and syntax from the language of the Court of the Feathered Serpent, a language that Hermione had found few parallels to in known native Mesoamerican languages, and which she had decided to call Featherlish — at least, until someone thought of something better.

She'd been helped in no small part by a biography of Jean-François Champollion, the man who'd translated the original Rosetta Stone, as well as her own basic arithmancy occlumency.

The week following her successful translation had been spent delving deep into the Featherlish books left behind, most of which turned out to be written by Akna Slytherin over the course of her life. They contained everything she could remember about the magic she'd learned back in her homeland. Fascinated, Hermione could see the basic versions of some of the spells that Hogwarts now taught their students — not many by any stretch, but certainly a few. But spells weren't the only things about her homeland that Akna wrote.

Hermione read the story of the founding of the Court of the Feathered Serpent — about the wizards of Central and South America, who'd decided to close themselves off from the non-magical world, a whole 1,500 years before the ISS was enacted. She read of the raising of a whole island far out to sea off the coast of Cuba, the magical protections their god-king rulers had gifted the island, and the great city they built there — a monument to the wonders of magic, where farms floated in the sky and honey flowed in streams next to water as clear as crystal.

She read of their culture — their religion, sports, food, and politics, occasionally picking up just a hint of melancholy from the gradually maturing woman — melancholy for a world she'd left behind years before and to which she'd never return.

Hermione had read all this and more for a week solid, hardly ever coming out of her trunk, even taking her meals in there, only making appearances for classes, turning up with slightly fuzzy hair, and leaving again the moment the bell rang.

She'd also read of the methods this society used to maintain their total isolation, methods she'd never considered when she'd so assuredly told Harry that his idea for an independent magical nation was unquestionably a good idea. The Feathered Court didn't have memory charms, so they had no way to fix problems among the non-magical population, if needed. This resulted in a policy of taking muggleborn children from their homes by force the moment magic was detected by their seers. Sometimes the parents would even be murdered, and in those circumstances where the child was too old to be integrated into magical society without extreme resentment on the part of the child, the child too, was killed. Better that, the logic went, than accept disruptive elements into their carefully balanced order.

Hermione sat down in her reading chair and put her hands under her chin.

Obviously, they, that is to say, modern wizard-kind, had memory charms, so if they were going to totally isolate themselves, they wouldn't need to resort to murder, but was it right to just steal muggleborn babies from their parents? It didn't feel right.

But Harry would have obviously already thought of that, because he was Harry, so he must believe it was okay. And if Harry thought it was okay, then it must be okay. After all, it's not like the biological parents would know about it, and the child could be memory-charmed until adulthood, or even longer, if they wished.

But how would she, Hermione, have felt if she'd never grown up knowing her mum and dad? She didn't like that idea. Not at all.

But on the other hand, Harry had told her to find problems with his idea. Maybe this was what he meant?

Whatever the case, it definitely needed more thought.

At that moment, the trunk lid opened, Hermione looked up, and Harry's legs appeared, followed shortly by the rest of him. "Long time no see," he commented with a smile.

"Hi, Harry." Hermione pushed aside her thoughts for the moment and focused on the here and now. She had something to show him. What was it?

"Oh, yes!" she jumped out of her chair, just as Harry reached the bottom of the stairs. "I cracked it!"

"I thought you cracked it ages ago?"

"Yes — no — yes, but no. Look, I maybe figured out where the boat filled with gold is! And I figured out how much gold it contains!"

Harry perked up. "Oh?"

"Yes! Using the navigational readings and ocean current maps, I think it might have settled around the Anton Dohrn Seamount. That's around two hundred kilometres off where you have your cave vault — five hundred from Gairsay Island. If it didn't, it'll have slammed against the Rockall Plateau. As for the gold, there's a passage in the diary where captain Slytherin says they have as many gold objects as a king of old might have children! A bit of a strange unit of measurement, but I guess people weren't as exact back then. Well, I went to the history section and did a survey of old kings, but the only two I could find who had unusually large numbers of children were Ramessees II with 162, and Qin Shi Huang who had fifty — so I took an average of the two, and by that calculation, the captain means they have around 106 gold objects, which might have a market value of around 600,000 galleons — around £30,000,000."

Harry whistled. "Very well done, Hermione."

"Thank you, Harry." Hermione was beaming.

"Six hundred thousand galleons," Harry muttered. "Five hundred kilometres, you say?"

"About that."

Harry was silent in thought for a moment. "Then I think I should talk to your mum and dad," he eventually said. "Maybe the prototype they've been working on for MaCUSA is ready for a real-world test run…"

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

"The tripping hex," whispered Professor Severus Snape, "is a basic tool in the wizard's arsenal. Used correctly, it can cause an opponent to lose situational awareness for the precious second required to land a decisive blow. Used incorrectly, it is a frivolous waste of time, giving your opponent a free strike at your body, during which you will most certainly die."

At the front of the classroom sat Virgo Malfoy, watching the man whom Lord Malfoy had assured him was a triple agent for his other self, confident in his ability to look attentive, while actually being bored out of his skull.

"This hex is best used in conjunction with—"

A shield breaker, thought Julia in a sing-song voice.

"—a shield breaker… for maximum results. Unless your opponent has no need for shield charms, in which case—"

You will most certainly diiiieeeeee.

"—You will most certainly die."

You are also bored, Virgo thought.

Soooo bored, Julia thought back. Can't we do something more interesting?

Like?

I don't know. Something new!

Something new, hmm? Virgo cast his gaze around the classroom falling briefly on Alexandra Black of the Dark, bookended on either side by twin daughters of the House of Carrow, before finally landing on the enigmatic Ginevra Weasley, sat next to Luna Lovegood, the whore. If learning magic is not enough, he thought, how about drama? You witches are supposed to love that.

Okay?

Virgo smirked. Prepare yourself, little girl.

Hey! You're also a little—

And the world went dark.

They talk about a foggy mind, but this was quite literally so.

And then the fog cleared, leaving Virgo standing in the middle of the Slytherin common room, his body a ghostly outline in a much more opaque memory — his original body. Julia appeared by his side a moment later, almost two heads shorter than him.

Virgo smirked down at her. "You were saying?"

"This isn't real." Julia pouted up at him. "You lost that body sixty years ago. You can be an almost teenage girl or an old man, but not both. Choose."

"I have already chosen, little girl. I chose to be an immortal Dark Lord."

Julia huffed. "Where are we anyway? Why are there snakes everywhere?"

"This is the Slytherin common room, as seen just over sixty years ago."

"Really?" Julia's eyes widened.

"Yes. Now, watch, and learn."

Julia looked around the room. Everywhere, Slytherin students sat in armchairs, or stood around in small groups, whispering. Everything was tense, like before a race on sports day.

This is no race, Virgo thought.

"Well, what is it?" Julia asked out loud.

"A coup."

A large door opened and an older student stepped through. The room hushed as he entered. He took a few steps into the room, looked around, and called out, "Where is he?!"

Silence.

"WHERE IS HE?! If that little shit doesn't show himself, I am going to—"

The older student didn't get through another few words before many gasps from around the room stilled him. In the middle of the room, where before there had been only empty space, now stood the cloaked figure of Tom — the Tom Riddle of the memory, several years younger than the Tom Julia was used to seeing in Virgo's memories. Maybe a fourth year?

"Third year, actually," Virgo said, out-loud.

"You learned to turn yourself invisible in third year? I thought the syllabus didn't teach that spell until the end of seventh year?"

Virgo's lip curled upwards. "Well remembered, but if you wish to achieve true power you must always be a step ahead of those who keep a step ahead. Remember that."

Meanwhile, in the middle of the common room, Memory Tom Riddle had finished casually taking off his cloak and hanging it on a coatrack that had just appeared out of thin air, wooden snakes coiling up the central shaft just as the stone snakes of the room coiled around the pillars.

"See how angry he's getting?" Virgo said to Julia, who could indeed see that the student by the door was watching the whole display while getting redder and redder in the face. "That's a good thing. Angry people make mistakes."

"Isn't it dangerous making people angry?"

"It can be, when you are significantly less powerful than them, but when you are closer to equals in power, it helps cloud their judgement."

"ARE YOU FUCKING DONE?!" The older student shouted.

"Mmm?" Memory Tom looked around, "Oh, yes." He smiled. "What can I help you with?"

"The end spot at the Slytherin table in the great hall is mine! How dare you disrespect me, the Heir of the Noble House of Lestrange, by sitting there."

"Then you know how you can satisfy your honour," Memory Tom said.

"What's going on?" Julia whispered, even though she knew whispering was needless.

"Goading him into a duel," Virgo said. "He knows he'd be at a disadvantage, and so…"

"Fine!" The Lestrange Heir spat. "But I'm calling in a proxy!"

"Agreed," Memory Tom said.

Julia could see victory in Memory Tom's eyes.

"My proxy will be Malfoy!" Lestrange said.

Off to one side, another older boy with shoulder-length blond hair shuffled awkwardly. "Sorry, Rulfarion, I can't stand in as proxy here. Nothing personal, but I have my reasons."

Lestrange was caught flat footed for only a moment before he whirled around again, "Knock! Then you—"

"Sorry, mate. I got a letter the other day from my older brother. My hands are tied."

Lestrange's face paled. He whirled around again. "Hawking!"

Hawking shook his head.

"Womp! Lupin! Walker! Tempest!" One by one the three wizards and one witch shook their heads. Lestrange turned finally, desperately, to a pretty witch sitting in the middle of the room by the fireplace. "Catherine?"

The girl looked down at her shoes. "I'm sorry Rulf. It's for the best."

Lestrange looked broken. Then moments later, that depression turned into a raging fury. He barely held himself together while duelling wards were put up, and lasted only a few rounds into the fight before Memory Tom had him pinned up against a wall, brought down by a well-timed tripping hex.

"Serpensortia!"

All the room, including Julia, let of a shriek as a huge black snake slammed down mere inches from where Lestrange was desperately struggling.

And then, Memory Tom spoke to it. "Coil around him, but do not bite until I say," he said.

Julia's eyes widened again. "It's a magic snake?"

"No," Virgo replied. "This is a memory, so you are hearing what I remember. It is a magical language called parseltongue, passed down through the Slytherin line for centuries — passed down through the Noble House of Gaunt, until it passed to me."

The snake had wrapped itself around Lestrange, who was now staring at Tom as though seeing a grim, totally drained of anger, leaving only fear.

"The heir," he gasped out, while the coils tightened, "of Slytherin."

"Yes," Memory Tom drawled. "That's right."

"But that's impossible. The line's been dead for centuries."

"I am no mere mudblood, like you all thought," Tom said, pride peeking through his carefully constructed mask of disdain. "My mother is a Gaunt."

"That still — makes no — sense," Lestrange choked.

"Magic works in strange ways. Clearly I have been singled out by Fate for greatness."

Memory Tom dropped Lestrange from his magic grasp, allowing him to collapse to the floor, while still bound by a hundred kilos of fanged, coiled muscle.

Slowly the room faded back into the cloudy blackness of the mind.

Now, what have you learned? Virgo thought.

That parseltongue is creepy as hell. Do you think I could do it?

An interesting question. We shall have to try it sometime. What else?

That the tripping hex is actually quite useful when your opponent is really angry.

Indeed.

Oh, yes, and that I still hate you.

Virgo mentally smirked. Of course you do, little girl. Of course you do.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

On the other side of the classroom, Ginny sat, watching Virgo Malfoy staring off into space. She really wished Harry would hurry up figuring out how to get the girl out of the diary's body so they could kill it. Or was that the other way around? So that they could get the diary out of the girl's body so they could kill it? That would actually make it even easier.

Not that she was going to let up on her training. She had to learn how to kill and she had to do it fast.

Some time later, as they were making their way out of the defence lesson, the two caught each other's eyes and Ginny was sure for a moment that she saw a flash of something in the diary's eyes. Recognition? Knowing? Suspicion? Fear?

Whatever it was, it was just more reason to buckle down and become what she needed to be.

That night found Ginny Weasley alone and invisible in Hagrid's chicken coup, flashing knife in hand, bloody up to the arms, dead chickens everywhere, and the next morning when the half-giant wandered into the hall, it was to find him complaining that something had been at his chickens again, and that he needed a budget for a better coup.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

"600,000 galleons?" asked Alexandra Black, looking between Harry Slytherin and Daphne Greengrass. Greengrass had surreptitiously pulled her aside between classes for a quick chat inside Harry's trunk. "600,000 galleons is a lot, right?"

"Alex, can I assume your father hasn't gone over the Black finances with you?" Harry asked, sitting in the armchair opposite hers.

"Him? Not likely. Magic forbid any daughter of his might want to do something worthwhile with her life. I can't believe I have the same animagus form as him! I'm nothing like him!"

Daphne rolled her eyes. "You should be happy with your form. A grim can be immensely useful — especially for a necromancer."

"I know that, but still — I'm nothing like him!"

Harry had a whole bunch of parchments in front of him on the low desk between them. He put one of the parchments down and regarded her thoughtfully. "You know, Alex. Lord Black is still your lord — not to mention your father. Having a cordial relationship with him might be a good thing."

"But he's unbearable! He treats me like a child — like a muggle child. Do you know what he said to me before I came to Hogwarts? When I asked why I wasn't going to the same lessons as John, and Susan, and all the others? He said, 'you don't need to worry about politics, you should enjoy your childhood.' As though being left out was helping in any way."

"Lord Black did have his family's politics forced on him in a way he didn't appreciate."

"But now he's doing the same to me! Just in the opposite way!"

"Yes, ironic, certainly. And your reaction is just as ironic, since you're basically doing to him what he did to his own father."

Alex felt a short, sharp punch in the gut. She stared at the floor before shaking her thoughts away. "That doesn't change anything. Even if what we're doing is kinda similar, I'm not going to try and reach out to him. That's his job! He's the grown-up. And anyway,"—Alex's voice took on a bitter tone—"he's always too busy with work."

There was silence for a moment before Alex crossed her arms. "I don't need him. I'm fine by myself. And if I need help… well, I can ask you, can't I?"

Harry nodded slightly. "I still think you'd do well to explore ways to become closer to Lord Black, but yes, of course. We are friends."

Alex nodded. "Then what's this about sunken gold?"

"Hermione thinks she knows where we can find about 600,000 galleons worth of muggle treasure," Daphne said.

"And you asked if that's a lot," Harry continued, "to which, I would say, yes — yes it is a lot. We could buy six Slytherin Manors with that much gold — easily. The GDP of the whole of Magical Britain, by contrast, is about 4.4 million galleons."

"What's GDP?" Alex asked.

"Oh, dear Merlin." Daphne made vaguely frustrated hand gestures. "Actually, I think Alex is right, Harry. Lord Black does have a lot to answer for. GDP is a measure of value created by an economy."

"So us having liquid assets worth thirteen percent of the value created by the entire country?" Harry said. "Yeah, it's a big deal."

Alex's eyes widened, almost comically large. "You're saying you could buy thirteen percent of the whole country?"

"No, that's not what he's… Argh!" Daphne rubbed her temples. "I can't believe your father."

"I know!" Alex said hotly. "I get it! I don't have all the education an heiress is supposed to have!"

"What it means, loosely," Harry calmly said, "is that we could buy thirteen percent of all the products and services Magical Britain creates in a year — that includes food, broomsticks, rents, haircuts, and quidditch matches, along with any value the government creates and a few other things added or subtracted for various reasons. That's not the same thing as the value of all the stuff in the country. That would be a lot more than 4.4 million galleons."

"But it's still a lot of money," Alex said.

"Yes, it is still a lot of money," Daphne replied. "But look at all these!" She waved a stack of parchments. "Do you know how many people come to us asking for investment? Dozens! And not just heads of houses or individuals, either — even whole cities — asking for ridiculous amounts! Have you seen this one, Harry?" She passed over a parchment. "Cork wants us to help them build an entire new expansion for their enclave."

"Oh, yes, I remember this," Harry said. "The ministry was willing to go fifty/fifty with them, but only if they came up with their own funding. One thousand new houses? Plus streets, shops, and magical warding? Do they think I have a philosopher's stone or something?"

"I wouldn't be surprised if some people did think that," Daphne muttered. "And you have to admit, if circumstances had turned out a bit differently, they might have been right."

"Gringotts has a philosopher's stone, doesn't it?" Alex asked. "Why can't the ministry just order them to make more gold? Then everyone could have as much as they needed."

"Leaving aside the basic wrongness of that statement, no, they couldn't," Harry said, picking up another parchment and quickly scanning it. "The ministry doesn't control Gringotts. Gringotts is under treaty with the ICW after the fall of the last Magical British Empire. They are, effectively a country within a country, propped up only by the threat of violence from the entire magical world. New money doesn't come from Gringotts." Harry paused. "Well, the actual gold does," he corrected himself. "But the money supply only increases when muggleborns and half-bloods exchange muggle money into galleons. That's why our currency controls are so tight."

Harry exchanged a meaningful look with Greengrass, which Alex had to assume meant something, but she wasn't sure what.

She pouted. "How long is it going to take me to learn all this?"

"To be fair, a lot of this isn't exactly in the standard noble house curriculum," Harry said, glancing towards Greengrass. "Something you should probably keep more in mind, Daph."

Daphne looked slightly abashed.

"Maybe two or three years?" Harry continued, turning back towards Alex. "Daphne, Hermione, and Luna learned a lot quicker, but they also had a lot more free time, whereas you have stuff to do."

"What about Ginny?"

"Ginny has decided to invest every moment of her free time into combat and infiltration training. She is determined to never be caught out again." Harry picked up another parchment and raised an eyebrow. "Why are Witch-co looking for investment for a new warehouse?"

"Because they've never had one before."

Harry looked surprised. "Really?"

"Yes. But it's not the kind of thing we'd be interested in. I know we might soon have more gold then we know what to do with, but we should still be careful about what we invest in."

Harry rubbed his chin while reading the parchment. Then he smirked, rolled it up, and slipped it into the pockets of his robes.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

The prospect of finally solving their financial problems had Daphne, Hermione, and Ginny bubbling with a kind of excited energy none of them had felt in quite a while. Alexandra, being newer to the team, didn't have that same tension built up inside her from years of vague financial uncertainty, and so was content in burrowing her way deeper into the Dark, while Luna was still Luna — calm, collected, and prone to pointing out truths that many people would suggest be left unsaid, such as when all five of them had been relaxing in Hermione's trunk one evening, and she'd pointed out that Harry would soon be getting erections.

"He's probably never had one before," she said, in her dreamy voice. "Azkaban can't be good for penises."

"Do you think looking at us will make him like that?" Ginny asked, slightly wide-eyed.

"Probably not you and me."

"What? Why not!? Are you saying I'm not sexy?"

"Ginny," Daphne said in a business-like tone. "Any boy our age would find you sexy, even if they wouldn't have a clue what to do about it, but Harry is not like any boy our age. Don't forget he's much more mature than they are."

The conversation abruptly ended when Alexandra butted in and insisted that since Lord Slytherin didn't yet care for any of them as witches, they should stop with the useless chatter and get back to working on what he did care about them for.

"I still can't quite believe how powerful he is," Alex muttered later on that week after their group took an especially severe beating from Harry in group combat training.

"You're all getting better," Harry said, throwing Daphne back her wand. "But you're still not using Luna's power reserves to the fullest. And Ginny, your swapping is getting better, but you're still not good enough to use it reliably in air to air combat."

Ginny pouted. "You still haven't told us what your animagus form is. It's not a Phoenix or anything ridiculously good at flying is it?"

Harry smirked. "No, and no more clues. Taking me down during the ritual will be an excellent exercise for you all." He glanced at Luna who was smiling. "Well, me or Luna, I guess. Whichever turns out to be the bigger surprise."

Of course, many people around the school knew something big was going on with the young Slytherin clique, even if they had no clue what. There were just too many clues.

"It's so not fair that you get to leave on the weekends," Kevin Entwhistle said to Hermione during a Founders Club meeting. "Why do you get to leave? It's not like you have family business, like Greengrass."

"I do have family business," Hermione defended herself. "I may not be from a noble house, but I am vassaled to one, remember?"

"But what is it?"

"I told you, I can't say. It's private."

Eventually though, after a week of curious looks and sideways glances, Saturday came, and a familiar figure in a green and black mask arrived at the Hogwarts front gates to take Daphne, Hermione, and Luna away for the weekend. Not widely known, of course, was the fact that this figure arrived at the front gates via the front door.

"Lord Slytherin," professor McGonagall said in a professional, yet disapproving tone of voice. "We will need our girls back before classes start on Monday, but I hope that won't mean they arrive on the castle grounds with only five minutes to spare — like last time."

Harry then produced brooms for all four of them and they flew the short distance to Hogsmeade, Daphne soaring above them all, while the other three playfully zipped around each other in the crisp morning air like robed and cloaked black dragonflies.

"Are we not using your house here?" Hermione asked as they landed in the village centre.

"It's not mine any more," Harry replied. "Handed it back over to Lord Woodcroft. Not worth it now we have Slytherin Manor."

They all stepped into the floo at the Three Broomsticks, and arrived in the entranceway of Slytherin Manor not long after. From there it was a short walk down the hill to the Granger cottage.

The door was opened by Clare who didn't look surprised to see them. She led them into the small kitchen and poured pumpkin juice for the girls and orange juice for Lord Slytherin.

"How's schoolwork?" Harry asked, while Daphne, Luna, and Hermione busied themselves with going over the plan for the next forty-eight hours.

"Frustratingly slow, my lord," Clare said. "Even with the optional Sunday school classes. But better than being a prostitute, and much better than being in Azkaban. We got a visit from a dementor this week, so that everyone knows what happens to bad little boys and girls." She shuddered. "We all went to another quidditch match the week before. They really do like their carrots and sticks, don't they?"

Harry nodded. "Oh, yes."

"Being near that dementor was the worst thing I've ever experienced," Clare continued, "It was like my first time from back then all over again, except focused and amplified and oh so much worse. Is there a way to fight them?"

"Dementors?" Harry asked. "Yes, there is. It is not easy at all. But yes, it can be done."

"What is it? I don't ever want to be near one of those things again."

Lord Slytherin put down his glass. "It is called the patronus charm. A spell that can only be conjured by an intense positive emotion — hope, happiness, love — dementors feed off all these, but the charm turns them into something so powerful, they burn — like a rabbit turning around and head-butting the fox."

"Can you cast it?"

"Yes, I can," he replied, although there was obvious reluctance in his voice.

"Could you show me?"

On the other side of the kitchen, Luna was shushing the other two into silence.

Harry shrugged and pointed his wand into the middle of the room. "Expecto Patronum."

Pure white mist poured out of his wand. It swirled about where he pointed and quickly took on a form.

Daphne and Hermione gasped.

Luna looked on with mild sadness in her eyes.

Bathed in brilliant white light, a bony figure in a tattered, glowing robe floated several inches off the floor, tall enough to brush the ceiling with its cowled head.

"My lord?" Clare whispered.

Slytherin made a slashing motion with his wand and the dementor patronus vanished. "It is nothing," he said firmly. Then his voice took on a far more cheerful tone. "Come now. We have a lot to get done today, but I'll be sure you get the books you need to practice the charm on your own time. You deserve that at least."

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

The garden was a sea of tranquillity, bathed in weak sunlight and frost. And yet, in the middle of the lawn, the grass of which crunched underfoot, sat a man wearing thin, light robes, sipping on a thin, china cup of tea. Another cup sat opposite him, endlessly steaming away, a small jam biscuit sitting patiently in the saucer. The chair by the cup was empty. He didn't shiver. He sat as though enjoying a cool summer morning.

Mister Bentley took another sip of tea, enjoying the peace of his sanctuary — the stillness, the order, even the memory of Mrs Bun leaning over the wall, cheerfully gossiping over whatever small thing the dear had found to find important. On a small stool by his side sat a small pile of nondescript parchments, and a small thin box.

"Mister Bentley."

He smiled, but did not turn around. "Ah, Dolores. Do please take a seat."

Dolores Umbridge walked around the small table, sat down, and carefully took her own cup of tea. For a moment, neither spoke.

"Tell me," Bentley eventually said, breaking the silence, "what is it that makes the difference between a Dark or Light Lord and a lord of the Wizengamot?"

Dolores looked taken aback by the question, before answering, "Power?"

"Yes, but many lords of the Wizengamot are very powerful. No, power alone is not what makes a Lord of Lords."

"Then what?"

"Some would say is the willingness to act outside the system to achieve their ends, and what makes them different from a common criminal is that they are supported by a large chunk of the legislature. That's what he-who-must-not-be-named was. It's what Light Lord Dimwiddy was, and, even though he would never admit it, it's what Dumbledore is too."

Dolores' eyes narrowed. "You think Dumbledore is breaking the law?"

"I don't think so, I know so. But that is irrelevant to this discussion. Now tell me what you think about Lord Slytherin."

"Didn't I already do that?"

"Not in the context of this conversation."

Dolores looked off into the distance before tentatively answering. "People do think he's a Gray Lord. Does that mean he also breaks the law?"

"Probably," Bentley said, although he didn't give off the impression of being all that concerned about it.

If the November trees had any birds left, this would be the moment they'd tweet into the silence.

"Mister Bentley, I don't mean to seem disrespectful, but why are we talking about this? Has something gone wrong? Do I need to handle something? You only ever call me to you when there's some dirty work to be done."

Bentley frowned. "A blunt way of putting it. You still need to work on your discretion."

"Sorry, Mister Bentley."

"And in regards to your question. No, everything is going splendidly. The current Wizengamot session is almost over and they won't open again until Spring. The Solstice is a mere formality. It is unlikely the Dark and Gray will come to any agreement before then, but I will be seeing to things this morning just to make sure."

"Then what?"

Mister Bentley looked wistfully around the frosty garden. "Next summer, I have decided to take my retirement early."

Dolores gasped. "But, you can't! Without you, the ministry won't be able to survive! We'll be overrun by mudbloods and blood-traitors!"

"You exaggerate, my dear."

"No. Who's going to be the Wardrobe's next Humble Hag?"

"That will be up to the judiciary, but I will recommend the current Humble Hag of the Department of Magical Games and Sports, Bertha Jorkins."

"Her?!" Dolores looked horrified. "She can't handle it! She's soft!"

"She is the best choice available."

"Are you honestly saying she's better than Crouch? Or Wilkes?"

"None of the current Humble Hags are a good choice, which is the real reason we are having this discussion. Now I'm going to ask you again, what is the difference between a Lord of Lords, and a lord of the Wizengamot, and why do I believe Lord Slytherin not to be a real Gray Lord — charming though he may be?"

Dolores bit her lip. Her brow furrowed in concentration. "The Dark Lord wasn't a lord of the Wizengamot?" she hesitated. "Neither is Dumbledore, nor was Dimwiddy. But Lord Slytherin is a Wizengamot lord. Is that it?"

Mister Bentley reached to his side and picked up the thin box. He placed it on the table in front of them.

Dolores eyed it cautiously.

He opened it to reveal an elegant black quill.

Dolores' eyes widened. "Is that what I think it is?"

"If you think it's a blood quill, then you're right."

"Why do you have a blood quill?" she asked in a whisper.

"Because sometimes agreements have to be made that are stronger than a strictly legal contract of ink can bind. I have used this quill for nearly six decades." He pushed the box towards Dolores. "You may not be a Humble Hag, but I suspect I can rely on you to do what is in the country's best interests."

Dolores was speechless as she took the quill and rolled it in her fingers. She then smiled a sickly smile. "I understand, Mister Bentley. I fully understand."

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

Hermione stared with wide eyes as she made her way through the doorway and into the cavernous space under her parent's new home. She hadn't been here in nearly three months, and wow, had Mum and Dad been busy. It sat on small metal rails, pointing into the black waters of the cave, long, wooden, and polished, it looked like many of the broomsticks she'd seen for sale in the windows of shops in Diagon Alley or the Puddlemere Enclave, except large enough to crawl inside. The nose cone was open with a tiny set of stairs leading up to it, while the bristles all looked like each one could have been a family sized broomstick with room to spare in its own right.

That her Mum and Dad had made it… amazing.

"Wow," Daphne whispered.

"I know," Hermione whispered back.

"Girls!" Dan Granger hopped down from where he'd been engaged in some activity near the bristles and strode over. "My lord." He nodded to Slytherin. "No problems getting here I hope?"

"None, Dad," Hermione said.

"And this must be Xenophilius's daughter," Dan said. "Luna, wasn't it?"

"Yes, I am Luna," said Luna. She pointed at the broomstick. "And that is a big broomstick."

"Yes," Dan beamed. "We've been working on it straight for nigh on three weeks now. Just took it out for its first paddle last night."

"Does she have a name?" Luna asked.

"Not yet," Dan patted the shaft, "But we're sure it's going to start with SBS — as in, Slytherin Broom Stick. Maybe a place name, like Hogwarts? That's traditional with ships."

"You could call it the SBS Big Broomstick," Luna suggested.

Dan blinked. "But what about when we build a second one?"

"Then you could call that one the SBS Bigger Broomstick."

"Slytherin Broomstick Big Broomstick," is really dumb, Hermione cut in. "What about SBS Harry?"

"Boats are supposed to have feminine names," Luna pouted.

"How is 'Big Broomstick,'" a feminine name?

"It isn't," Daphne said. "But many boats don't have feminine names, like the Bismarck, or the Victory."

"So, Big Broomstick!"

"No!"

Emma chose that moment to cut across the argument. "What do you think, my lord?"

Hermione watched Harry turn and regard the broomstick, before turning back. "It was lovingly created by two geniuses, and will now explore the world for buried treasure and hidden knowledge. While today we search only for the sunken ship of Slytherin, who knows what the future will bring. Maybe Atlantis? Maybe the Court of the Feathered Serpent? While we may sell many other broomsticks, this one will always be with us. I propose we call her the SBS Hermione."

Hermione gasped, feeling suddenly incredibly small. She glanced around and saw everyone was looking at her with warm smiles.

"A wonderful idea," Emma said. "From what our lord has told us, none of this would have been possible without your work, dear."

"Yes," Dan added, "We're both very proud of you."

"Mum, Dad…"

What followed quickly devolved into a round of family hugs and sobs all around. It took several minutes to get everyone straight again and back on task.

"Everyone in!" Luna sang, crawling into the newly christened broomstick. "Oooofffff, it's cramped in here."

"Is there going to be room for all of us?" Daphne asked with her face inches from Luna's bum.

"There will be!" Dan called out from somewhere behind them. Just crawl into your positions!"

"Dad? You're not coming too?" Hermione asked.

"Only one engineer needed, pumpkin. Your mother is smaller."

"Wow, Hermione!" Daphne called. "You'll like these! They've added cushioning runes on the steering broomsticks!"

"Oh, Thank Merlin!"

"Wait, is our lord at the front or the back?"

"He's at the back!" Emma called down the stick, "Luna is in front!"

"I hope the ones for MaCUSA aren't going to be this cramped?"

"No!"

"Good!"

Eventually, after a whole lot of shuffling about, everyone got to where they needed to be.

"Everyone got their emergency portkeys?" Slytherin called out.

There was a chorus of yeses.

"Then let's shove off!"

Everyone cheered as the nose cone was lowered and the transparency runes activated, letting them all see out of the front of the stick.

A jolt of nerves shot through Hermione from where she sat in her wooden bucket seat. This was an adventure. An adventure with Harry. Another one. And she was along for the ride.

From somewhere outside came the noise of a chain being released from a catch, the whole stick lurched, and then, with a loud, girly squeal, which she realised came exclusively from her, rapidly slid into the inky blackness of the North Sea.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

The records office of the ministry of magic had been modelled on the hall of prophecies, but while the hall of prophecies merely had to contend with reasonably inert balls of glass, the records office dealt on a daily basis with parchment and shelves that had had so many illicit divination charms layered on them over the years by well-meaning clerks trying to speed things up, that finding anything was actually more difficult than having no index system at all — unless, of course, you really knew what you were doing.

Mister Bentley walked into the hall and made his way immediately to one of the weekend clerks who had a green stripe above their nameplate, a sure sign that they were one of these rarefied individuals. When he approached her, she was happily chatting with a couple of her colleagues, (a brunette and a red-head) but that quickly changed when he approached.

"Mister Bentley?" The woman asked nervously.

Bentley glanced at her nameplate. "Mrs Cox." He smiled. "I need the records from the judiciary's office related to breaches of the International Statute of Secrecy in the last year."

Mrs Cox started writing down notes. "Any record in particular you're looking for?"

"I believe there have been two prisoner relocation hearings regarding the same witch during that time? I'm not sure of her name."

Mrs Cox finished writing and gave Mister Bentley another nervous smile. "I'll probably have them ready for you in a few hours."

Mister Bentley nodded in understanding and walked away.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

"Whew," Chelsea Cox said, wiping her brow. "Not every day you get a request straight from the Humble Hag of the Wardrobe."

Her friend, Isabelle, smiled. "You going to get on with that then?"

"Yeah, I suppose I should."

"I can help you, if you want. I think I saw some of these ones the other week. They can't have moved that much since."

"Really?! Thanks, Isa, you're a life saver."

"Don't mention it."

They eventually found the file skulking around with a collection of budget requests from the sixteenth century. Chelsea Cox slipped the papers out of their file and read them. "Clare Cooper." Her eyes widened. "Currently serving a ten-year sentence on the grounds of Slytherin Manor for breaking the ISS. I wonder what Mister Bentley wants with her? Hey, look, she has your hair."

She looked around.

"Isabelle?"

And then a red light hit her and she knew no more.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

Isabelle lowered her wand and smirked. She picked up the file and flipped through the contents. "Sorry, girl, but Mister Bentley being interested in a person like this is exactly the kind of thing that Lord Malfoy wants me to keep my eyes out for."

And then a red light hit her and she knew no more.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

"Yeah," said the third colleague stepping out from between two filing cabinets and snatching up the file. "Me too." Five minutes later found her throwing a pinch of floo powder into a private Wizengamot floo on the other side of the ministry. "The Rookery!" And then… "Lord Lovegood!"

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

The moment the SBS Hermione slid into the water time seemed to stand still. From a moment of shrieking adrenaline and exhilaration quickly came the deathly quiet of the deeps. Unlike the practically duck-taped submarine van, there were no engine noises, no rush of water, and no creaking of aluminium panels bending and popping as the water pressure tried (but failed) to turn their craft into a crushed can.

Instead, the magical wood around them felt as safe as a mother's womb, and the transparent nose cone gave them a perfect view as they navigated their way through the short underwater cave, leading out into the open waters of the North Sea.

Hermione's brain didn't stay in wonderment alone for long though. Soon it was back to fretting about the journey ahead, how long it would take, whether they would even find Captain Slytherin's sunken long boat at all, and whether she was really worthy of all this praise that was being heaped on her. After all, Harry himself had said she had a long way to go before becoming the greatest witch the world had ever seen.

There was a nagging feeling in the back of her mind that her rigorously trained brain had a serious flaw and that she was trying to debug a program from inside the program.

"I suggest everyone get themselves comfy," Harry as Lord Slytherin said from where he sat with Luna, riding the SBS Hermione's twin broomstick steering system. "It's going to be a long trip."

"Can we play I spy?" Luna asked.

"Sure, so long as Daphne isn't allowed to play."

"Hey!"

"What? You've got an eye that can see through walls."

"So? I won't use it!"

At the front of the broomstick, Emma giggled.

"Mum?"

"Sorry, dear" Emma waved it away. "It's just nice to see you all having fun, even when things are serious. I don't think I've ever heard you crack that kind of joke, my lord."

"I guess being around young people makes me feel younger too."

That caused Hermione, Daphne, and even Luna to snort.

The rest of the evening continued without incident. The maps Hermione had plotted out ahead of time proved more than sufficient to lead them where they needed to go, and the SBS Hermione's many new magical navigation charms and runes did the rest, including a magically charmed muggle style periscope to see above water. After all, it wasn't as though they could use Daphne's divination magic to help guide the broomsticks they'd eventually sell to MaCUSA.

It took eight hours to travel the five hundred kilometres to the seamount, and by the time Daphne had been scanning the ocean for another eight hours they were well and truly knackered.

"We've made good progress," Daphne yawned. "Even if we haven't found anything yet. How are we going to sleep?"

"The normal way, I imagine," Harry said. "Let's anchor ourselves to something. Then everyone get your heads down as best you can. I'll take the first watch."

They rotated shifts throughout the night — first Emma, then Hermione, then Luna, and then back to Harry again. Daphne was the only one exempt since she'd be expected to spend hours on end using rather draining divination magic to scan the other half of the seamount come morning.

Eventually it was morning, and Emma got to experience first-hand the wonders of teeth-brushing, hair styling, and make-up charms.

"Raise the periscope," Harry ordered.

The periscope was raised and Hermione peered through to check nothing weird was going on. She blinked. "Um… my lord?"

"Yes, Hermione?"

"Macavity and Hedwig are staring down our periscope. They seem to be rather agitated."

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

"Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!"

Mister Bentley woke up in bed to the sound of his magical alarm clock. It was Sunday. This made no difference to him. Just the start of another day, and of yet another opportunity to guide Magical Britain with wisdom and foresight.

He swung his feet off the king-sized oak bed, glanced back at the empty space on the other side of the bed, and made his way to the en-suite bathroom. He relieved himself, then brushed his teeth, combed his hair, and washed his face. Still in his dressing gown and slippers, he shuffled to the front door, opened it, walked down the garden path, breathing in the fresh-air of his little haven, and picked up the morning milk and ever-warm toast by the front gate.

The delivery of the morning milk was a muggle idea — not something he usually approved of, but so convenient he couldn't bring himself to care. And it wasn't as though he had the power to stop a legal partnership between two noble houses, in any case.

He walked back up the garden path, cheerfully waved to Mrs Bun over the garden wall, who was hanging up laundry for drying charms, sat down at his kitchen table, and had the milk pour itself into a glass, while his knife magically spread jam on the toast.

After indulging in a naughty third slice, he stood in front of a full-length mirror, while charming on his charcoal-grey work robes. He carefully inspected himself and couldn't help approving of what he saw. The consummate gentleman. Professional, sophisticated, and perfectly adept at manoeuvring the pieces on the chess board to where they needed to be.

He picked up a copy of file he'd requested from the hall of records the previous day.

Clare Cooper — twenty-two — muggle-born — currently serving a ten-year sentence for a medium-level breach of the International Statute of Secrecy — although because of the Wizengamot's debtors laws, was currently serving that sentence, not in Azkaban, but on the grounds of Slytherin Manor.

He tucked the file under his arm, walked to the fireplace, threw a pinch into the flames, called out, "Ministry," and was instantly swept away.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

Deep under the water of the Atlantic Sea, the nose cone of the SBS Hermione had been opened, creating a bobbing and ebbing vertical wall of water that Harry had crawled through before vanishing upwards.

Hermione waited anxiously for news from inside the broom-sub, along-side Daphne, Luna, and Emma Granger.

"I'm sure it'll be fine," her Mum said. "Lord Slytherin is a very busy man."

"It does raise a good point though," Daphne said from just behind them. "Can you add post-wards to the sub? Is there enough space?"

"I'm not sure, I'll have to talk with Dan when we get back. There are some spaces left, it just depends on how large the rune matrix for a post-ward is."

It was very cramped inside the prototype sub, but Emma still managed to give Hermione a warm hug. "How's your magic? You were working so hard yesterday."

"It's fine, Mum. I practice a lot."

Emma Granger smiled at her daughter. "You do that. Lord Slytherin told us a bit about the occlumency you've been learning. I hear my little genius is turning her brain into something like a computer."

"It's a little bit like that, yes."

"And your healing studies?"

"I'll start on them again very soon. I think Healer Pomfrey thought I'd be away for far longer than I actually will be."

"I'm so proud of you."

Hermione felt her cheeks go red. "Thanks, Mum," she whispered.

In the back of the sub, Daphne and Luna gave her warm little smiles of their own.

Then the wall of water rippled, and Lord Slytherin's head stuck itself through. "Both Hedwig and Macavity have letters for me from Luna's father. I've got to go. Something rather important has turned up. Emma, you're in charge until I get back, but please defer to the girls' judgements in matters of magic that aren't runes."

"As you wish, my lord. Do you know how long you'll be gone?"

"Perhaps all day. But don't worry. Everything will be fine. You all have portkeys if everything goes to hell. Plato!"

After a few moments, Plato, the rather disorientated house-elf, popped into the sub in-front of Harry's masked head. "Master?"

"I have to leave. Please stay here with Emma and the girls, and if there is any mortal danger that their portkeys can't get them out of, see to it that they all get to safety as quickly as possible."

Plato bowed deeply. "Understood, Master."

Still being hugged by Emma, Hermione nodded to herself. That had been a well-formed and quickly put-together contingency plan. Just like Harry. Although there was still the matter of the homework he'd given her to tear apart his idea for Antarctic colonisation. She still hadn't done it.

"See you all soon," Harry said, before disappearing back through the wall of water.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

The ministry was quiet. Relatively quiet, anyway. It was a Sunday, after all. Most wizards and witches would be at home with their families, or else screaming their heads off at a quidditch match at Bodmin Stadium, or out shopping in Diagon Alley, or enjoying one of the many other leisure activities the wizarding world provided their citizens.

Bread and circuses.

Mister Bentley walked through security with nothing but a congenial nod to the guards, and made his way to the minister's office. Here at least, there was noticeable activity. "Florence, my dear, is the minister in?"

"Yes, Mister Bentley. He's just listening to the duelling league updates on the wireless."

"Excellent, could you let him know that I need a word?"

"Certainly, Mister Bentley. About anything in particular?"

"Just a few updates on matters of situational importance."

Bread and circuses, Mister Bentley thought, watching the receptionist vanish through the door to the minister's personal office. Magical Britain was not in anyway large, and given how tempting it might be for a wizard to risk the statute by using their powers in the muggle world, there needed to be plenty to satisfy them in the real world. The Department of Magical Games and Sports covered a lot more than just games and sport, and might as well be re-named the Second Department of Magical Law Enforcement.

He was soon ushered into the minster's personal office to find Fudge avidly concentrating, sitting on one of the chairs by the wireless.

"Goldstein falls back on the defensive," the commentator almost whispered, while in the background, grunts and whooshes painted over a background of silence. "Stun, stun, trip, shield, Delacour moves in."

Dolores Umbridge, standing dutifully behind the minister, caught Bentley's eye and offered him an apologetic look.

"Goldstein tries for an elemental," the commentator's voice started to rise. "Doesn't get it off — Trips! — Goes for a swat! Misses! And that's it for Goldstein!" The sounds of a small crowd politely clapping filled the room. "An amazing finish to an outstanding series. If that spell swat had connected at the end it just might have been able to turn things around for the American, but in the heat of the moment, he just didn't have what it took." An older sounding voice came on. "That was yesterday's stage five finals of the All Wizard's Duelling Tournament. Join us next—"

Minister Fudge clicked the wireless off and looked up, annoyed. "In fifteen years of duelling, Goldstein has never tried spell swatting in a tournament before. It's not his style."

"Maybe he just wanted to try something new?" Bentley politely suggested.

"No, it's not because of that." Fudge got up and paced over to his desk. "Anyway, what did we need to talk about? Please not that stupid Cork business again." He sat down in his plush leather chair. "Or the new ICW obliviator regulations? "

"No, it's neither of them." Bentley slid over to the other side of the desk while Dolores took out a hardback book and started taking notes. "It's a new matter that has recently come to my attention — an ongoing abuse of our penal system, one that cannot realistically be allowed to continue."

"Why come to me about this, Bentley? This is a matter for the DMLE, isn't it?"

"Not really. Fixing the abuse in question would normally require legislation through the Wizengamot, but given the current state of things, that's unlikely to happen for quite some time. But an executive order from the minister would allow us to put a plug on current cases."

"What are these abuses?"

"Are you familiar with our debtor laws?"

Fudge scratched the back of his head. "Ah, somewhat. Creditors have certain privileges over debtors who can't repay their debts, correct?"

"Broadly, Minister, yes. One of those privileges is to request that debtors sentenced to prison serve their prison term in the employment of the creditor. But recently, some citizens have been using these laws simply as a means to protect friends and family from being sent to Azkaban."

Fudge's expression became concerned. "What families?"

"None of the convicts in question are either noble or pureblood," Bentley said, as smoothly as silk on a maiden's cheek.

The corner of Madam Umbridge's lip curled upwards.

"Oh," said Minister Fudge. "Good, then." His expression became firm. "Can't have that then. Flagrant abuses of the laws created by our own noble Wizengamot, right under our noses."

"No, Minister."

Fudge signed the parchment Bentley had placed in front of him. "See to it that it's stamped out."

Bentley took the parchment and turned to go. "Yes, Minister."

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

"And they built a magical city hidden from the rest of the world over a thousand years before the ICW enacted the International Statute of Secrecy. They were so far ahead of their times, unlike the rest of the American civilisations who, in terms of administrative sophistication, were about on par with the Assyrians. Is it any wonder they decided to isolate themselves?"

The SBS Hermione had been trawling through the waters surrounding the Anton Dohrn Seamount for the past few hours, a tiny moving bubble of silence and calm. And inside, while Daphne peered into a divination mirror, jumping her sight from spot to spot, looking for any sign of a wreck matching the description of what they were looking for, the actual Hermione was in full-on lecture mode to her remaining captive audience of two.

"It is a little surprising," Emma said. "You'd think someone with power would want to rule others without. I understand why the ISS was created, but this Court of the Feathered Serpent clearly had nothing to fear from their non-magical people."

"I don't know," Hermione said. "Akna didn't write anything about that in her journals — at least, nothing that I've found yet."

"How far through them are you?" Luna asked.

"About three-quarters."

"Maybe we'll find something else in the boat too," Emma suggested. "Maybe magic preserved the parchment all that time. I wouldn't mind reading some of these books myself. Hermione, could you teach me the language?"

Hermione frowned. "I've got a lot to do, Mum."

Emma smiled. "Of course, of course."

"And anyway," Hermione's voice became barely louder than a whisper. "I doubt you'd want to read some of it. You might find it upsetting."

"Why?"

"Just the way they treated muggles back then. It wasn't always very nice."

"Dear, your Mum and Dad have read what feels like half the history books in Flourish and Blotts. We know all about how wizards have treated muggles."

"It's just…" Hermione hesitated. "It's just that the Court of the Feathered Serpent did many really horrible things. Like killing muggle parents of muggleborns, or just stealing them away. They didn't have memory charms, so they just killed them." Hermione's voice was becoming strained.

"Oh, sweetie." Emma hugged her.

"But suppose the magical world had to isolate itself further now," Hermione ploughed on. "I'm not saying it will or anything," she quickly added. "But suppose it had to. What then?"

"Well, the wizarding world does have memory charms now, so, no need for killing anyone."

"But, but, the idea of someone arriving in the night and doing that to you and Dad—"

"—Isn't going to happen. Ever."

Hermione fell silent. The only sound to be heard was the faint underwater sounds of the broom-sub. Luna was politely busying herself with a book. Daphne had her eyes closed and was obviously elsewhere.

"Hermione," Emma eventually said. "When Lord Slytherin approached your father and I, we had a choice — either join you one hundred percent on this adventure, or pretend nothing had changed, and try to live with the fact that our daughter had basically moved to another country, and that we'd rarely ever see her again. Obviously we chose to join you. How could we choose anything else? If the wizarding world had to isolate itself further, I think that's what they should do. Let the parents choose. Then they could have the option to fully immigrate, if they wished."

"And if they chose not too?"

"That's when the memory charms would come in."

Hermione hugged her mother tighter. "How could anyone choose to do that?"

Emma sighed. "Being a mother or father does not automatically make one a saint, dear. There are many people out there who would give up their children to avoid a radical life change. Especially if they were given the option of just forgetting. No one is perfect."

"Harry is."

Hermione hadn't actually meant to say those words. They just sort of, slipped out. But they were out now.

Emma smiled. "I know it may seem that way, but no, not even Harry is perfect, dear."

Hermione frowned. "He is. He always knows what's best. He knows everything. Tell me one time he was wrong."

Emma frowned in turn. "Dear…"

"No. You don't know all the facts! Harry always knows what's best."

"Hermione."

Mother and daughter turned. Luna was looking at them with her dreamy expression. "Did Harry ever tell you about when he first tried to befriend Alex?"

"No?"

"He made a complete pig's ear of it. That was a time he was wrong."

"But…"

"And there was the thing with the you-know-what at the end of last year."

"That wasn't his fault!"

A clearing of the throat from behind them caused Hermione and Emma to turn again. "People can be amazing and still not be perfect," said Daphne, who'd now opened her eyes. "If we were to take our lord as an example. He's done many questionable things over the years."

"But it was all needed," Hermione said, desperately.

"Was it? What about Clare?"

"He saved Clare! She was being used as a prostitute!"

"And how much did it cost to save her? A thousand galleons? What about the three other girls? Where are they now?"

"But… but buying all their debt would just fuel the market and cause more muggleborns to be snatched! And anyway, we don't have unlimited funds, you know that."

"Why don't we have the money to free those other three girls?"

Hermione hesitated, letting Daphne get in her answer before she could formulate one of her own. "We don't have the money, because our lord decided it would be a better idea to spend it on a mansion — a seventy thousand galleon mansion."

"But we need Slytherin Manor," Hermione argued. It's our base of operations to ensure our survival."

"But did we absolutely have to spend so much on it?"

"I…"

"We didn't, Hermione. Slytherin Manor is now the largest magical manor in the whole country. We could probably have done very well with just the third or even fourth largest."

"But, we still couldn't have bought the other girls' debts. The black market for muggleborns—"

"And who leads the Gray? The political faction capable of green-lighting any legislation if at least one of the other factions is in full agreement on it? Wouldn't the Light be rather on-board with the idea of stamping out that particular market?"

"Daphne, why are you saying all this!? What would our lord say if he heard you!?"

"He'd say, Hermione, 'Excellent analysis, Daphne. I'm glad you're not letting your loyalty to me cloud your judgement!'"

Hermione flinched. It was like a kick to the gut. Nothing more or less. And Daphne looked genuinely annoyed. Again, no one said anything for several long seconds, and Hermione eventually realised that her Mum was gently stroking her hair, and that she was still holding her tightly.

Another sound slowly started to fill the broom-sub — the sound of Luna humming.

Daphne let out a long breath. "Anyway, to get back on task, I think I might have found something."

The atmosphere in the enclosed space noticeably changed, and suddenly, Hermione's mum was all business. "How far?" she asked.

"I'm not sure — maybe a few hours — I can lead the way."

"Right, let's do that. Luna, how are you feeling?"

"Right as rain, Mrs Granger."

"Okay." She leaned back to look Hermione in the eyes. "And you, sweetie?"

Hermione took a deep breath to centre herself. "I'm fine, Mum." And it was true. She could feel her magic swirling around inside her, agitated, restless. They'd been steering the SBS Hermione for a long time now, in multiple shifts, and theoretically, most adult wizards should be puffed out by now. But not her. She'd been wielding her magic constantly, in some way or other, for years now. As she clambered over Emma Granger to the regular-sized broomsticks towards the back of the broom-sub that steered the craft, her thoughts drifted back to Daphne's words, and then, as they so often did, to Harry.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

The elevator around Dolores Umbridge rattled and shook as it made its way down to the DMLE. The doors slid open and she marched out, a woman on a mission, a mission that only she could execute. She marched straight up to the first assistant secretary she saw, and smiled. "Excuse me, I need to see the chief Auror."

The man gave her a bored look. "And you are?"

Dolores' smile vanished. "I am Dolores Umbridge — the Minister's undersecretary — here on official business."

The man's look turned from bored to attentive. "One moment, Madam Umbridge."

And just like that, Dolores' smile returned.

It didn't last long though. Dolores was forced to wait three minutes and thirty-two seconds in the waiting room before she was finally showed in to the Chief Auror's office. The nerve! What if she'd needed to inform him that there'd been a break-out from Azkaban? Or that someone was trying to assassinate the minister?"

"What is it?" Lord Sirius Black asked, the moment she'd stepped in.

"My lord," Dolores began.

"—I'm not your lord here, Madam Umbridge. I am Chief Auror."

Dolores bit back a scowl, hiding it instead under the sweet smile she'd endlessly practised in the mirror. "Of course, Chief Auror. I am here to deliver this." She threw the parchment the minister had signed across the table.

Lord Black picked it up and read. He frowned. "How many people does this affect?"

"Three. Their names and addresses are on the other side."

Lord Black turned over the parchment and read. He put the parchment aside. "Fine. We'll take care of this from here. Good day, Madam Umbridge."

"Chief Auror," Dolores said, not moving an inch back towards the door. "if I may, there are certain details about the execution of this order that need very careful handling."

Lord Black glared at her. "Such as?"

"The prisoner, Clare Cooper, in addition to the usual security wizards, will also need a fully armed auror pair to pick her up. That is why I brought this to you. You must have noticed her address? Granger cottage is on the grounds of Slytherin Manor. You might find it… difficult to extract her from there, so she will need to be intercepted as she floos from school. And due to Slytherin's influence, the minister insists on an immediate transfer to Azkaban while we investigate the abuses."

"Yes, thank you, Madam Umbridge," Lord Black indicated the door.

"We want to make sure Lord Slytherin doesn't try anything unwise during the transfer."

"Yes, Thank you."

"And can I also remind you that the prisoner is to be strip searched and any artefacts she holds are to be confiscated for investigation?"

"Madam Umbridge, I am fully aware of all the regulations that pertain to my job, and many of them require my immediate attention, so please leave."

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

"There!" Daphne's excited voice cried out in the magical wooden craft.

"We can't see what you do!" Hermione said in exasperation.

"A bit to the left. More left. Forward. We're just coming up to it."

"Would we be able to see it if we opened the nose?" Emma asked.

"Definitely."

"Luna?" Emma said. "Will you do the honours?"

"Yes, Mrs Granger." There was a faint hum, and the SBS Hermione's nose cone opened up, letting the waters of the Atlantic splash against the magical barrier preventing the insides from flooding. In a few moments, the barrier became as transparent as a window.

"Wow," Hermione said.

"That is a sunken longship," Luna added.

"Not all of us have a 'see in the dark' spell," Emma said, pointedly. "Can you aim the light out there, please?"

They did so, and Emma was finally able to see what the others could. "Looks promising," she said.

Hermione nodded. It really did look promising. It wasn't massive, maybe twenty meters long, but she knew there would be many ancient spells interwoven into the woodwork, making the insides larger than the outsides. It was filled with earth and silt, and buried at an angle, causing the back to stick up more than the front. Every surface that wasn't buried was covered in coral.

"Bring us in closer," Emma called out.

Hermione leaned forward on her broomstick.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

Mister Bentley glanced up from the parchment work he'd been busy with, and up at the clock, quietly ticking over his desk.

Sunday classes at the lesser schools would be out soon. Once this Clare Cooper was under the ministry's care again, he would learn if that gave him any leverage over Lord Slytherin. The man might very well not even care, but it was at least worth a shot.

This whole business with the Muggle Protection Act was a gentlemanly battle of wits, and Slytherin was a wonderful opponent. Much of the country saw him as a mysterious and dangerous figure. He was, in fact, restrained, polite, and sophisticated, just like him.

Dolores may be frightened that Slytherin would oppose the transfer with force, but Bentley knew better. If he cared at all, Slytherin would come to him, and offer him something in exchange, which is exactly what he wanted.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

Hermione edged the broom-sub ever forward in the water, towards the sunken wreckage.

"How close should we get?" Daphne asked.

"We should be careful getting too close," Luna said. "There might still be—"

A shudder went through the SBS Hermione causing everyone to still and look around.

Then Hermione felt it, an all-mighty pull on her magic, as though she'd just opened the world's largest chocolate frog. She cried out and almost lost her balance on the broomstick, but just about held on.

"Hermione!" Her Mum was at her side in a rather scrabbly instant. "Are you okay?"

"I'm — Fine." She gasped out.

Behind her, Luna had her teeth gritted, and was visibly straining.

And from the front of the sub, looking out of the open nose cone, she could just about hear Daphne mutter, "Magical Merlin."

"What?!" Hermione put all her willpower into turning the sub to let her see too. And then she saw it.

Triggered by the approach of such a powerfully magical artefact as the SBS Hermione, the downed longship was coming back to life.

"Slower!" Emma shouted. "Don't force it!"

"It's fine! We've got it!"

All along the old longship, dirt and muck was being forcibly expelled from the insides by ancient cleaning charms, flying out into the water, and creating a murky, watery fog.

And then it was over.

Hermione panted.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

Bentley glanced at the clock again. Any moment now the aurors would be redirecting Clare Cooper as she flooed back to Slytherin Manor from the Shoe.

He stood up, made his way out of his office, and spotted one of the serving ladies making the afternoon rounds. What was her name? Florence? No, Fiona! He walked over. "Excuse me, Fiona, I don't suppose you have any of those wonderful egg and cress sandwiches, do you?"

"Yes, Minster Bentley."

"Break time, Humble Hag?" asked a voice like a bassist in a cave.

Bentley didn't need Fiona's squeak or the wide eyes of the other wizards and witches in the room to know who was standing behind him.

He turned.

"Lord Slytherin, what a surprise."

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

"You have one hour," Emma said, portioning out gillyweed to Hermione, Luna, and Daphne, who were all wearing bathing suits and warming charms.

"But what if things go wrong here?" Hermione asked. "You don't have magic."

"Plato will be making sure nothing goes wrong, young miss," said a disembodied voice, causing her to jump slightly.

Luna giggled.

"Forgot he was there," Hermione muttered.

"Ready, girls?" Daphne said.

They all nodded, started chewing, and when it started becoming difficult to breathe, dived out of the SBS Hermione, straight through the shimmering wall of water, and out into the North Atlantic.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

"I hope I am not intruding?" Slytherin said.

"No, not at all," Bentley replied. He had to admit, he hadn't anticipated the meeting with Lord Slytherin to start out like this, but needs must. The man was obviously in a hurry.

"Good, because I have a problem that I need your help with."

Mister Bentley smiled. "Of course you do. Why don't we go to my office and discuss this in—"

"—My office, Humble Hag."

"I was not aware you had an office in the ministry."

"I have borrowed one of the ones for Lords of the Wizengamot."

Mister Bentley shrugged. "Very well, then. Lead the way."

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

If she hadn't been a unicorn animagus, she'd for sure have been something aquatic, Hermione thought as she effortlessly swam towards the shipwreck, now clean of all the silt and muck, although, strangely, the magic had done nothing for all the coral covering every surface.

Daphne and Luna swam beside her, and only needed the tail to be mistaken for a pair of mermaids. They glided to the deck and then pulled themselves to the door leading to the tiny room at the back, which in normal circumstances would barely be called a shed.

'After you,' Daphne mimed to Luna, who gave a happy thumbs up and slipped inside. Hermione followed after the other two girls, looking around with bubbling excitement at being this close to something so obviously old, and which they were now exploring because of the work she'd done.

The passageways of the ship were as detailed as the records she'd read in Captain Slytherin's notes and the expansion charms at work here were definitely on an order of magnitude more impressive than the ones used in their trunks, or even the more special ones provided by the noble house of Hawking.

What could Harry do if he had access to that kind of magic? Great things, surely.

She glided through the next corridor, pulled herself through the next door, and swam straight into Daphne, who was selfishly blocking the entrance. 'Hey!' Hermione angrily tapped on her future lady's shoulder, only to slowly stop when she finally caught a glimpse of what was filling the room.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

"So, what do we have to discuss?" Bentley asked once they were in Slytherin's temporary office. He couldn't help admiring the man's taste. They were both sitting in plush leather armchairs, upholstered in emerald green, and crafted from whomping willow, while the walls had been altered from the usual ministry plastered decor to a warm panelling of alternating teak and poplar. "Is this by any chance about Clare Cooper?"

Lord Slytherin was tapping his fingers on his knee. "I don't understand how you can justify this," he said. "This is clearly not an abuse of the system. If anything, it is the system that is in the wrong. It is the system that allowed Clare to be taken from her family, to be forced to have sex with strangers against her will, and then to be made a criminal for something she did not understand."

"Lord Slytherin, if the ministry uncovers evidence of abuse of the system, we have to investigate it, I'm sure you see that. What happened in Miss Coopers past is irrelevant. And I'm sure it's unfortunate, but if someone doesn't understand that what they're doing wrong, that is even more reason for them to be held under the ministry's watch."

Slytherin continued to tap his knee with his fingers. Tap, tap, tap, tap — tap, tap, tap, tap.

"Besides," Bentley continued, "the order has already gone out now. They should be picking her up around about now."

"Truly?" Slytherin seemed to think for a few moments before leaning forward in his chair. "What is it you want, Mister Bentley?"

Mister Bentley smiled. He looked away and scratched the back of his head. "The Light's muggle protection act… I don't think you really care all that much about it, do you? Not really."

Tap, tap, tap, tap — tap, tap, tap, tap.

"So, that's it, is it?" Slytherin asked and Bentley was surprised to hear a note of bitterness in his voice. "Nothing but a cynical power play. Throwing an innocent person with a prison guarded by happiness sucking demons because it's convenient."

Mister Bentley sighed. "Honestly, I thought you'd be different from this. Look, it brings me no pleasure in saying this, but, in our world, it is very much the case that the strong take what they will, and the weak suffer what they must."

Tap, tap, tap, tap — tap, tap… tap. "Is that so? You're going to love this, then."

Bentley hesitated. The bitterness in Slytherin's voice had gone. Totally erased as if it had never been there, replaced instead by a cheerfully casual lilt.

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, it's nothing." Lord Slytherin put his hands on his knees and easily pushed himself up. "Just a little project I'm working on. That's the other reason I wanted to talk to you. I need some advice."

"Advice?"

Lord Slytherin walked over to one of the redecorated walls and tapped on it with his wand. Just like the wall in Diagon Alley, the wood panels started sliding up and over each other, quickly forming an arch into a second room, hidden from him at first, and now that the arch was there, obviously also a part of this one.

"Come! Come!" Slytherin pulled him up from his chair and hurried him towards a table in the middle of the second room, covered by a white sheet. "Tell me what you think." And with that, he pulled back the sheet.

Bentley stared in horror.

"I think the model makers did quite a good job on your house, didn't they?" Slytherin said.

"But, but.." Mister Bentley tried to find words to fully express what he was seeing. "Mrs Bun… She wouldn't. She couldn't!"

"Couldn't decide that she's getting a bit on in life and that she'd prefer to move to a smaller place nearer her children? She is a dear, isn't she? Has she made you any of her blueberry pie recently? I suspect not, given how busy you always are with work — out at the crack of dawn every day, apparently."

The whole of Mrs Bun's formally beautiful garden had been totally cobblestoned over. The model house in the middle was much the same, but the garden!

"Witch-co have been looking for a place to put a warehouse for ages," Slytherin cheerfully continued. "It just so happens that your neighbourhood is in the perfect central position — and a few expansion charms will make it ideal, and all totally legal. Of course, having a magical warehouse next door does come with some downsides, people in and out all day, noise, mess, not to mention it becomes a beacon for magical pests of all kinds, but on the plus side, you'll always be the first to get your milk in the morning."

Bentley continued to stare in horror.

Slytherin's voice then lost all hint of amusement. "I am perfectly happy to play political games with you until the world ends, Humble Hag, but if you fuck with mine, I will fuck with yours."

Bentley looked into the green and black mask and saw no mercy. He really had misjudged, hadn't he? His voice became desperate. "But arresting Clare Cooper is an executive order from the minister! I can't rescind it."

"Then I suggest you get working on changing the minister's mind, Humble Hag. And quickly. I have this option until you retire. I'm sure I don't need to explain myself further."

Mister Bentley fled the room with just one goal in mind. Save his haven.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

One, two, three, four…

The counting had begun almost as soon as Hermione had floated into the room, and hadn't stopped since.

Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven…

Solid gold objects of every form and function littered the underwater space like the living-room of a hydrophilic hoarder.

151, 152, 153…

Despite Daphne's attempts to stop her, Luna had already adorned herself with all manner of golden objects, including necklaces, bangles, rings, and even an actual crown, and was now sitting in a massive golden chair playing the part of aloof queen surveying her kingdom, her long, blonde hair floating in the water, the rest of her, weighed down with enough treasure to buy a house… or three.

289, 290, 291…

It just went on and on. Hermione could scarcely believe how much they had here. And it was they, wasn't it? After all, this really was Slytherin's treasure, which meant it rightfully belonged to Harry. And what Harry could do with all this…

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

It took another whole ten hours to get back to Slytherin Manor.

Emma firmly told them to leave everything where it was, and just bring back their notes and memories. After all, these artefacts had value in the muggle world as much for their historical value as their gold content.

Hermione, Daphne, and Luna catalogued as much of the treasure as they could before leaving with a few basic rune stones in place to conceal the longship from passing magicals and muggles alike and Harry would come by later to put a fidelius in.

When they finally all burst into the kitchen from the basement, it was to find Harry, disguised as Lord Slytherin, personally tutoring a recovering Clare.

Shooting out of the floo ten minutes early to find two intimidating men with huge shields and wands pointed at her had not been a happy experience. The Aurors had not stripped her, which had been a small blessing, but their boat had still been halfway to Azkaban when the order had arrived by owl that the aurors were to turn back and deliver Miss Cooper, unharmed, and with the ministry's apologies, to Gairsay Island.

"We even got Bentley to disband that custom's point on the mainland," Lord Slytherin said, while Clare took another sip of fire-whisky. "Now, what did you find?"

Stunned by what had been going on while they'd been underwater, it took Hermione a moment to process what he'd asked, but as soon as she remembered about the gold, it all came back.

"There's just so much of it!" Daphne said.

"I can't imagine what 'king of old' the captain was talking about," Hermione huffed. "Genghis Khan wasn't for another three-hundred years!"

"And we now have the money for a menagerie too," Luna said.

Daphne looked surprised. "You didn't say you wanted a menagerie before."

"Well, we didn't have the gold for it before."

"We don't have the gold for it now."

"No, but we will soon."

The conversation went on long into the night, and long past everyone's bedtime, especially the girls', and, technically, Harry's too — not that that was ever an issue.

At one point though, Hermione stepped outside for a breath of bracing Orkney air, and found herself alone with her lord. "My lord?"

"Yes?"

"Are we alone?"

"Yes."

"Is your ageing potion going to wear off soon?"

"In about five minutes."

"Can we talk then?"

"We can."

They waited five minutes. Then, Lord Slytherin's clothes started to shrink, along with the rest of him. Harry reached up and took off his mask. "What's up, Hermione?"

"Harry. I… I spoke with my Mum about the whole colonisation thing, and she suggested that muggle parents should be allowed to choose if they emigrate to the wizarding world or not."

"You appreciate the problems that would cause, don't you? Having a class of people unable to use magic in a world of magic users."

"Yes, but it would be a problem created by doing the right thing. There are always going to be problems. So choosing to have that kind of problem is better."

Harry smiled. "What if I told you I thought you were wrong?"

Hermione bit her lip. "Then I'd argue with you."

"Why?"

"Because you may soon be one of the richest wizards in the magical world, not immediately, but soon. I trust you to always protect me, Harry, but I want you to protect others too. I want you to be the hero to others that you are to me."

Harry sighed. "You know that won't always be possible, right?"

"I know. We're struggling against people who would see you, me, and all our friends dead or in servitude, and against a world that doesn't care, but that doesn't mean we can't take opportunities to do good when they pop up."

Silence descended on the pair for a moment. The only sound was the chatter from the cottage behind them and the whistling of the wind through the trees.

Eventually Harry said, "Hermione?"

"Yes, Harry?"

"Don't ever let yourself doubt that I need you more than you could possibly imagine."

Hermione beamed.

— End of Chapter Forty-six —