Chapter Two: Reception, Perception, and Recollection
Harry stood in one of the receiving rooms of the Zabini estate, a massive chamber of viridian marble floors and columns, heavy silk furniture, dramatic tapestries, and the scent of rot that subtly snaked its way into the nose through the floral notes emanating from dried petals laid in ancient pots that were set on several gleaming, rosewood tables. She felt out of place in such grand and eerie surroundings, but remained still and alert.
She knew she was appropriately dressed for this meeting in a black fur cape over a long crimson dress with a fitted bodice and flared skirt. The formality of her clothing belied the fact that she was wearing neat dragon-hide boots to mid-thigh, had an enchanted short sword in a back harness under her cloak, and knives in fore-arm and thigh holsters. On either side of her dress, she had hidden pockets without bottoms to provide access to her blades. Her wand was concealed in her braid, spelled not to slip out of it. If an attempt was made by one of Blaise's relatives to attack her, she would be prepared to defend herself.
"Miss Potter?" a sepulchral voice enquired from the doorway to the room.
It belonged to an aged-looking man in the Zabini livery who was a good foot taller than most men.
Well, you're not human. "Yes?"
"My mistress bids me tell you that she is unable to accommodate your request for an audience; however, she can provide you with the whereabouts of her son if you would like them.
That is why I came, Harry thought.
"Of course," said the servant.
Harry tried, and was almost successful, to not display the surprise she felt. I've got to be more careful.
"Indeed. Assumption is a vice for the weak," the servant replied, smiling and displaying sharp, yellowish teeth.
Harry almost shudder to note the bits of flesh that clung to them.
"I have taken the liberty of writing down Mr. Blaise Zabini's direction," he said, holding out a crisp white card to the young Auror-in-training.
"Thank you for the lesson," Harry said, bowing in polite acknowledgment of having received wisdom from a vampire. "I will not insult your efforts by touching that card."
"Ah, an excellent and diplomatic reply. You must have studied with an Old One."
"I had the privilege of a brief apprenticeship to un padrone dell'anima."
"But you do not speak il nome del padrone."
"No. I do not."
"That is wise."
"Would you be good enough to provide me with the information your mistress was so gracious as to bestow?"
"Of course. You may find my young master at the home of his friend, Draco Malfoy."
"Please be good enough to express my gratitude to Mrs. Zabini for her indulgence of my curiosity."
"I shall. Would you care for some refreshment before your departure?"
"No, I thank you."
"You are most welcome. Come, I shall escort you to the entrance hall."
Harry floo'd from the massive foyer of the Zabini household to the Three Broomsticks, rather than attempting to travel to Draco's home directly. One did not drop in on the Malfoys uninvited if one was interested in a state of continued existence, particularly not since the war had begun in earnest.
Rosmerta was not behind the bar, but the server who was indicated the back of the establishment with a nod of her head in Harry's direction. The young woman walked quickly through the teeming hostelry, ignoring the stares of some of the patrons. No one she knew was present, and, with her hood up, she looked forbiddingly anonymous as she passed through the thick wooden door that led to the owner's rooms. It was an attitude she had perfected in the two and a half years since graduating from Hogwarts and beginning her Auror training.
"Join us in the parlor, my dear."
The publican, Percy Weasley, Neville Longbottom, and Severus Snape were seated around a medium-sized, circular table, poring over a map. Harry thought it might be plans to the Malfoy estate, but she could not be certain.
"Well?" demanded Percy.
"I was told by the vampiric butler that Blaise was with Draco," she responded, glaring at Snape.
He ignored the reproof in her eyes. You are the one who wanted to have dealings with a vampire, Potter. "What specific words were said?"
"'You may find my young master at the home of his friend, Draco Malfoy'."
Snape considered this. "That is a remarkably clear answer for Tagliaferro to have given you. He was most likely telling you the truth."
"How old is he?" Harry asked Severus.
"Your master never taught you to gauge the age of a vampire?" her old professor asked with a bitter edge to his voice.
"My training was in other areas."
Rosmerta laughed and patted one of the Potion master's hands lightly as she gazed tranquilly at Harry. "Tagliaferro was a smith about three hundred, seventeen years ago. He is a very loyal retainer of the Zabini household."
"An old one, I'd say."
"Oh, not their oldest, I would imagine," Rosmerta said enigmatically.
Harry reflected that she did not particularly care for the other witch.
Percy, who looked, as always, as though he needed to be someplace else, said, "Right. Do we think we can get Blaise out of there?"
"We know your opinion, Longbottom," Percy sniffed.
Harry figured that Neville would have been half-way to bed with his girlfriend by now but for this recent development, and wished she had not mentioned Blaise to Percy at all. But it was odd of Blaise to have left the novitiate without a word to anyone--even Ron--even on their break from training--and Percy, whose job it was to oversee the admistrative aspects of the program for the rapid development of new Aurors and medi-wizards, had been disturbed to find that Apprentice Zabini was unexpectedly absent when he had arrived earlier in the day bearing packages from the Burrow.
"Blaise is always sneaking off to see Malfoy. I think this is no different from any other of those times."
"I agree," Severus and Harry said together, startling themselves.
They looked at each other in surprise, but quickly turned their attention to the others present.
"Perhaps we should send an owl saying that our Harry is longing for a visit," Rosmerta proposed.
"I'm not certain that Draco would see me at his home."
Severus responded, "He will see me."
"Yes, he will. And while you're there, so will Narcissa. Do you think that's wise?"
"She has no reason to suspect me, Harry."
"No. You're not going to put yourself forward into danger when I can easily arrange to see Blaise and Draco in London. Blaise has been trying to arrange a meeting for the three of us for some time, and--"
"And you think you can trust Zabini, do you?" Severus demanded, standing up abruptly.
Harry raised an eyebrow in challenge. "Do you really believe that you can trust the Widow Malfoy?"
Rosmerta leaned back into her chair as if watching a play, Percy looked surprised, and Neville looked back and forth between his old nemesis and his old hero. It was he who spoke first.
"Right. It's the hols, so we're not expecting to see Zabini for a few more days. I'm not sure what will happen to him for violating Moody's rules about consorting with the enemy, but I don't think Blaise is in danger--however," Neville said, holding up an authoritative hand to prevent interruption, "we do need to know for sure what he's up to, which means that Harry will have to find out for us." He turned to Snape, who was seething. "Professor, I think you know that your presence at Malfoy Manor would not be to the Order's advantage."
"I concur, Longbottom," Percy said. "Father has enough to do without having to put down resurfacing rumors about you, Sir."
That was true. Since Dumbledore had seized control of the Ministry and revealed those working for Voldemort--thanks in large part to Percy's rather effective spying mission--the new Minister of Magic, Arthur Weasley, had been having a difficult time repairing the damage done by his predecessor, Cornelius Fudge. Magical Britain was in an uproar of fear and distrust, and it had not yet seen fit to rethink its opinion of Severus Snape. Unfortunately, some of his former associates among the Death Eaters had, which put the Potions master into the tedious position of having to remain in the same one. Severus did not take well to inactivity.
"I don't like it. If we are incorrect--"
"Then I may have some danger to wade through, but I am trained to do it--"
"You are in training to do it, you mean," Snape said.
The doubt in Snape's tone infuriated Harry. "Does anyone else in this room doubt my ability to protect myself?" she asked, rather more calmly than she felt.
"No," replied Percy and Neville.
The witch smiled widely. "You're very . . . capable, Ree, but no one is ever truly prepared to traverse all perils. It wouldn't do to become overconfident."
Harry snorted. "Right. I've been hearing that sentiment expressed for the last nine years," she said to Snape. "Haven't I?" She spoke again quickly before he could interrupt her. "Percy, tell your father that I'll report at the next meeting of the Order. Neville, please let Alastor know I will not be returning to the novitiate for a few days."
Neville nodded his assent. None of the newest Aurors under the guidance and training of Alastor Moody did anything without telling him. He had come out of retirement when Harry and her friends had graduated to help with the emergency development of new squads in the face of the growing threat from Voldemort, and he liked to know exactly what his trainees were doing at all times. In the past two years, the Aurors had learned that it was much healthier to simply tell Moody what their plans were, rather than to "compel" the old wizard to investigate their lives for himself.
The only time period for which Harry had failed to account for her whereabouts to Alastor was the summer following graduation when she had apprenticed herself to the Old One for assistance with controlling the surges of power that she had been plagued with since the Change. The vampire with whom she had studied made it a requisite condition that his name and whereabouts remain a secret before he had accepted the young woman as his novice. This vexed Moody to no end, but Harry would never speak of her old master to her new one.
"Good night then," Percy said.
Neville simply inclined his head. He rarely spoke now unless he had to do it, but his eyes never stopped examining his surroundings. Harry had begun to wonder if the wizard's sight had been magically enhanced, but had not asked him for fear of insulting her friend.
"Good night," she said, turning to leave the room.
"Sleep well," the other woman called cheerfully. "Severus, would you care to remain?"
Harry stiffened, but did not stop walking.
"And you, gentleman, must you rush off back to your duties?" the publican asked smoothly.
Harry stormed out of the pub, her blood boiling so hot that she did not hear Snape follow her out of it. She had to admit it: she hated Rosmerta and her "hospitable" ways. When Severus finally managed to put a hand on Harry's shoulder to stop her moving forward, she whirled on him with her short sword drawn before she realized it was the Potions master.
"I see you have not forgotten the importance of physical defense," Snape said dryly, though his eyes glittered darkly as he held his wand in a fighting stance and looked quite prepared to hex his former student into a gelatinous mass of pain.
Neither he nor Harry lowered their weapons.
Unbidden, the memory of facing Snape in what had become a real fight came to the young woman's mind. It had happened in the second spring meeting of Dumbledore's Dueling Club, a combination of Dumbledore's Army and the official Dueling Club that had been resurrected under the tenure of Gilderoy Lockhart. She and Professor Snape had "co-taught" the the club beginning in her sixth year at Hogwarts.
I hope this isn't going to be as harrowing as that was, the witch thought, regarding the wizard warily.
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