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the chairwoman

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The year is 1931, and this is the first time that Seraphina Picquery has been to Canton in anything but an official capacity.

She is here by informal invitation of Madame Ya Zhou, still the Chairwoman of the National Magician’s Party of China. Seraphina will never wrap her mind around how the Chinese do things with regard to the election of their officials. Ya Zhou will hold the position until she resigns, and since the Party continues to support her wholeheartedly, she will not be resigning any time soon.

Seraphina is greeted on the docks by a pair of Chinese Aurors. They are solemn and professional, as all Aurors should be, though perhaps the effect is exacerbated by the international crisis faced by the magical community. A call for international action against Grindelwald is growing, because his popular appeal is reaching untold heights. The German Minister of Magic was ousted from power by a vote of no confidence from his own Parliament, there was a riot in Canada, and Seraphina—well, Seraphina had lost the election in 1928 to that damned war hawk Rovius Grimsditch. In the three years since, MACUSA has grown ever more militarized, and the situation has grown ever worse.

A part of her is terribly glad that the events of 1927 happened, even though they played a significant role in her loss of office, if only because there’s no way that the Russians will ever let MACUSA get its hands on the deadly force that is Credence Barebone. After visiting him, and taking his measure beside her former Director of Magical Security, Seraphina is entirely confident that MACUSA would do the world no good at all with Credence in their hands.

These are the thoughts that follow her as she follows the Aurors to the Party headquarters. They have, so far, been untouched by the recent No-Maj political chaos. She’s sure that Ya Zhou will have commentary about the chaos. Ya always does.

The Aurors leave Seraphina to wait in some small, elegant room with wide windows that look out on a view of beautiful gardens. The complex where the Party makes its headquarters (magically veiled, of course, from No-Maj eyes) is a lavish and ornate palace, historic, built in the 1300s and still largely appointed according to tradition. It’s a sight better than the Ministry of Magic headquarters in London or MACUSA headquarters at the Woolworth building.

Seraphina stands by the window and looks out at the garden. There are witches and wizards walking together. Given where they are, those are not conversations about banal things, but about matters of policy and state. China is in a period of social tumult, worse than the United States with its economic crisis, and Seraphina does not envy any of them having to keep the magical community intact and secret. Still, there is color here that the ever-utilitarian Americans lack: the Chinese prefer to wear styles of traditional dress, instead of modern suits and staid dresses. Seraphina, who adores color and adornment, has always been envious of Ya Zhou’s ability to wear such great amounts of color and pattern and richness even in her political arena. Seraphina never had that luxury.

The door behind her opens and Seraphina turns. “Madame Chairwoman,” she says with a smile.

“Miss Picquery,” Ya says, answering with a smile of her own. She closes the door behind her and gestures to a chair. She’s not wearing formal dress or a heavy headdress, meaning that she has no immediate business. It’s an unfamiliar look, though still regal, and Seraphina appreciates the gesture. It means that Ya has cleared a significant amount of time for Seraphina. “You should sit. I hear you’ve come a long way.”

Seraphina does as she’s told. “How are things with you?”

Ya sits with all her customary grace. Even among friends, Seraphina has never known Ya to be anything less than absolutely poised. They took two very different career paths to rise to similar positions of power. Seraphina was an Auror first, and then the youngest Director of Magical Security in history, before campaigning her way to the Presidency; Ya rose through the ranks of meritorious bureaucracy and graciously accepted her appointment as Chairwoman of the National Magicians’ Party at a young, young age. “I cannot tell you state secrets, of course,” Ya says, and a smile glitters in her eyes. “But I can say that I dearly miss working with you.”

“Rovius has been making a complete ass of himself, hasn’t he.”

“Well.” Ya breaks into a full-fledged grin. “Let me just say that I believe the international community has come to miss you as much as I have.”

Seraphina can’t hold back a laugh, and Ya laughs with her. They’ve shared far too much, in the eight years they stood on the ICW together, for them not to be personal friends. Still, such a friendship—and whatever else might have been there—was always constrained by matters of state security. “Honestly, you’re the only politician I’ve missed, being a civilian,” Seraphina says, sobering.

“And I truly have missed you, Seraphina,” Ya says. She rests one elbow on the table, leaning slightly closer. “Not just professionally.”

It is ridiculous that she is forty-seven years old and something about this interaction makes Seraphina feel like she’s a teenager at Ilvermorny all over again. Ya had been only twenty-six when they’d first met after Seraphina’s election in 1920. At the time, Seraphina had regarded her only as a professional colleague on the ICW, a political rival in the international community, and someone who would never actually be an ally because the mistakes of Seraphina’s predecessors.

But eight years of frequent meetings, of watching Ya grow from a poised and quiet young woman into an assertive and confident leader, of seeing the change from a mature but too-young-for-power girl into a beautiful woman who carried power like it was her due—something had changed, for Seraphina. She gave it approximately the same amount of thought that she gave her appreciation for her ridiculously handsome Director of Magical Security, because she was the President, for Tituba’s sake. And Ya was the leader of a rival state. What could Seraphina do to change anything? But now…

“Is that the reason for this out-of-the-blue invitation?” Seraphina asks, in lieu of any of the thoughts drifting through her head.

“Yes,” Ya says. She pauses for a long moment, looking out the window. Finally, she breaks the silence again. “There is a conspiracy to defy the Confederation’s decrees and move against Grindelwald with unilateral action on the part of the conspirators.”

Seraphina’s world tilts.

What?

Ya keeps talking. “At the moment, it is very small. Dahomey, Brazil, and China are the leaders, and several other nations have quietly joined. We are functionally a voting bloc, attempting to shift attitudes in the Assembly and sway votes in our favor.”

“Anti-appeasement?”

Violently.”

Now that Ya is talking…it’s somewhat less alarming. Seraphina had expected this for a long time—she had known she would never lead it, but in the post-New York world, she had been prepared to make the change. That Ya has apparently stepped up to oppose the dominant moods of appeasement and isolationism in the Confederation is…deeply heartening.

“So you’re swaying countries to action.”

Ya inclines her head slightly. “One at a time, and many in very small ways. But many are unhappy with trends in the opinions of the Assembly. Powerful countries are unsettled by the violent threat that Grindelwald presents, small countries are unsettled by the way his rhetoric divides their people…no one is happy, and we will attempt to present a viable alternative to the American bloc.”

Seraphina leans back. “Why bring me in?” she asks. “Former MACUSA President, working to pursue Chinese ends?”

The eyes that meet hers are steely. “Because I trust you,” Ya says. The word ‘trust’ strikes like a Stunning Spell, and Seraphina forgets what she was going to try to say. “I know that this will not be my most popular decision, but I enjoy the luxury of an appointment until I resign, and I will not be forced into resignation now. Nor will the Party force me out, not when that would risk causing a crisis worse than the one our No-Maj counterparts face.”

“And my reputation is dead in America anyway,” Seraphina says, mustering up a wry smile. “What do you want from me? I can’t do much.”

“Your reputation is dead in America, but you have friends left on the Assembly and a network of friends across the globe,” Ya says. She shifts in place, the silk of her dress rustling. “You are still well-regarded. And your successor has done very little to endear himself to the countries you befriended.”

For a moment, Seraphina considers that. And she studies Ya, apparently utterly composed. But one of her fingers taps lightly on the table, the red lacquer just faintly chipped at the edge from hours of doing this exact thing. She’s nervous.

“You don’t want to do this alone,” Seraphina says.

In reply she gets a wan smile. “I agreed to lead this conspiracy because I have the might of a stable and proud state behind me,” Ya says. “But I am still only one woman.”

At the sound of her suddenly-vulnerable voice, Seraphina’s heart aches. Anyone would be in over their head with something like this, and Seraphina would have sympathy, but Ya…Ya is her friend. Someone she admires, trusts. Someone…well, someone for whom Seraphina feels more than mere sympathy.

“Why me?”

It’s an implicit agreement, and Seraphina doesn’t need more. Ya sighs and visibly relaxes with relief. “I thought of you often, these last three years since you lost the Presidency. I know that I contributed to your loss, though I will not apologize for that because—”

“The state’s interests always come first,” Seraphina says dryly. “I’m entirely aware. Sorry—go on.”

Ya shakes her head. “It was not the will of the Party. But you must know that, if the decision were mine alone, I would have let you into the country to chase your fugitives.”

“You hold me in far greater esteem than I deserve,” Seraphina says softly.

At that, Ya reaches across the table and takes Seraphina’s hand. “I have always held you in the highest esteem,” she says. “I admired you from the beginning. You were never afraid. You never lost face, no matter what you confronted. And when we became friends, I learned that there was a woman beneath the mask that all leaders must wear.”

Seraphina cracks a smile. “I like being that woman, now that I don’t have to wear the mask.”

“I see that,” Ya says. She doesn’t withdraw her hand from Seraphina’s. “It agrees with you.”

“Would it agree with you, to step down from your position?”

Ya considers that question. “No,” she says at last. “I enjoy my work. I know you were an Auror, that you served your country with curses and jinxes, but I can only serve with my voice…”

There’s a faint echo of the shy young woman who Seraphina met for the first time eleven years ago, and she finds herself tightening her hold on Ya’s hand. “Most people would say that you’ve done more for China than I ever did for America.”

“Do you say that?”

“Yes,” Seraphina says without hesitation.

Ya inclines her head slightly, acknowledging the compliment, but does not reply aloud.

There’s a long moment of peaceful silence. Ya looks out the window. Seraphina observes her host’s face. Ya is thirty-seven, and though Seraphina knows men who would think she was more beautiful eleven years ago Seraphina quite likes her now.

And it’s absolutely clear that this isn’t just about the conspiracy. Ya is gauging Seraphina’s interest in her. She’s trying to find out whether or not the events of the last four years took away any chance she had of making her feelings known.

Seraphina is absolutely aware that she has more of a chance than ever to say something.

“I have found myself meeting more with the wife of the Muggle leader than I have with the leader himself,” Ya says. It’s a non-sequitur, but Seraphina follows.

“The Chinese interpretation of the Statute of Secrecy will never cease to amaze me,” Seraphina says. “Isn’t your meeting with her a violation?”

Ya shrugs. “She is a joint head of state, or will be soon,” she says. “Soong Mei-Ling is also an admirable woman, one who I trust far more than her husband. He is busy with his own affairs, and prone to demanding the cooperation of the Party in helping him win his battles. If the Statute of Secrecy is to be upheld in this country, it is she who I must work with.”

Seraphina sighs. It’s an old argument, but one that’s comforting in its familiarity. They’ve gone round about this before, but it’s a reassuring return to normal to do it again. “The idea that you could have so much contact with the No-Maj world is beyond me, honestly. I don’t understand how you haven’t been caught.”

“The Muggles in my country have not entirely lost touch with the idea of magic,” Ya says. “They are more aware of their history than your Americans and Europeans, who have done everything in their power to forget what they once were. As I think we’ve discussed before.”

“We have,” Seraphina acquiesces. “Though I always find it entertaining to revisit old debates.”

“It’s only pleasant when the sides have changed.” Ya raises her eyebrows, a small, challenging smile gracing her lips. “Has your side changed?”

Seraphina thinks about that. Has her side changed? Does she see things any differently now, after being out of government? She knows where many of her peers stand on the subject of secrecy, of separateness. These days, it’s dangerous to say out loud anything about the problems of the Statute of Secrecy. Even if it’s meant in good faith as an academic argument, accusations of being one of Grindelwald’s people fly far too quickly.

Even so, there is the example of China, where relations with the No-Majs are so loosely overseen that it’s very nearly lip service. Or England, where they allow marriage and free association. Neither country seems to have quite the number of problems that America does, when it comes to enforcement. Indeed, Ya’s government spends more time looking after education, research, and the expansion of the arts than Seraphina’s ever did. There are novelists in China, poets, musicians, painters, charmers, transfigurationists—whose work is sponsored by the government. The Americans don’t have that. They think it a luxury, and previously Seraphina had been inclined to agree.

But Seraphina has given this a great deal of thought since her exit from office. Her conclusions have been rather bleak, at least from a policy standpoint. They hadn’t found the Barebone boy because their methods of finding magical children didn’t account for situations where the child might be actively hidden from their heritage. (Since then, of course, efforts to find children like him have grown much stronger. They don’t need another New York.) She would not have lost Tina Goldstein (who had been a competent woman, a magnificent partner during her brief period as Director), and she might not have lost the Presidency. Hell, they might not even have to worry about Grindelwald—or they’d have an easier time convincing the world that his way of joining the two worlds was a way that could only end in total war.

“I think,” she says slowly, “that we are perhaps a little too strict in our interpretation of the Statute of Secrecy, in America. If we hadn’t been so…rigid, the things that happened four years ago might never have occurred.”

Ya sighs and closes her eyes briefly, as if in relief. “Good,” she says.

“What do you mean?” Seraphina asks with a prickle of discomfort.

“I mean that I was worried you had remained the same all this time,” Ya says. She rises to her feet and Seraphina follows, unwilling to let go of Ya’s hand. “That you would be unchanged by everything.”

“I couldn’t avoid changing,” Seraphina says. She follows Ya to the window, watching Ya’s green silk gown scintillate with the colors of the rainbow in the sunlight falling through the windowpane. The layers shift gracefully and reveal new colors with every motion. It makes Seraphina feel severe, in her dark, plain, practical traveling robes. “Why did you worry about that?”

Just shy of the glass, Ya stops. She’s taller than Seraphina, a difference that’s not too noticeable when they’re sitting down but is enormous when they’re face to face like this. “I do not think I could have kept my regard for you if you had not changed when you left your office,” she says plainly. “The mind of a private citizen must be different than the mind of a public one.”

Oh, this is familiar ground. A challenge. No, a game: Ya wants to play, and Seraphina’s more than willing to go along. “Enlighten me,” Seraphina says.

“The ruler educates and transforms the people,” Ya says. “She is a moral example, educating the people in the virtuous ways of thinking. And you were an exemplar of that model.”

Seraphina raises an eyebrow at Ya. “I don’t buy that for a second.”

Ya tilts her head, the clear light of challenge in her eyes. “Oh?”

“The President is not a moral example,” Seraphina asserts. The words come easily, being ones that she’s lived by for more than twenty-seven years. “It is her task to create just law and administer force to uphold that law. That’s all. Otherwise, she’s no more and no less than any other citizen.”

“You think so little of yourself.”

“I think the world of myself,” Seraphina says, tossing her head slightly, a mockery of vanity. “I just don’t ask my country to think the world of me.”

At that, Ya laughs. “You Americans so like to pretend that you have no hierarchy. Did you never see yourself, Seraphina, standing before the ICW? Reified as the embodiment of power because you are the first among American wizards, their best and brightest? In glory like the Phoenix, born and reborn?”

“You should be like that, when you’re standing where I stood,” Seraphina says, changing tack because she knows she’ll lose this argument. It’s always been her skill, misdirection and circumlocution, and Ya knows exactly what she’s doing but follows along anyway. This is a dance of words, a pattern of steps they’ve circled a hundred times or more. It’s so familiar, so right, and Seraphina feels like rejoicing aloud. “When you host conferences, you should not stand on the floor, but above them all, because this is your country.”

“They know that,” Ya says. “My personal power is not necessary. My ambition, my actions—they are nothing compared to the order that my office exemplifies and the moral example I set.”

Seraphina looks Ya in the eye. “I don’t need Legilimency to know that you have ambitions.”

“Who does not?” Ya asks, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “But I cannot be anything but well conducted, and I will not be anything but honest and virtuous.”

At that, Seraphina holds out her free hand, a gesture to signal her yielding to Ya’s argument. The dance is over, the music concluded. She’ll concede the floor, because Ya is exactly right. She must be correct in conduct and her will won’t allow her anything less than virtue. The gesture was only meant to be one of concession, but Ya takes it another way. Seraphina startles as Ya drops her hand into Seraphina’s open palm, lacing their fingers together.

“You’ve grown humble,” Ya says. “I can’t remember a time when you wouldn’t have argued with me further, tried to convince me of your righteousness.”

“I have very little to fight for, these days,” Seraphina says. It’s not something she minds. Eight years of Presidential power have taken their toll. The fact that she’s just signed on as a fellow conspirator, and therefore has something for which to fight, doesn’t signify. “And I’ve made far too many mistakes to pretend that I’m anywhere near righteous.”

Ya studies their linked hands, and Seraphina follows her gaze. Her pale fingers against Seraphina’s darker ones; Seraphina’s short, unadorned nails beside Ya’s long, red-painted ones. “Still, your humility is refreshing,” Ya says quietly.

“Ya, what is this about?” Seraphina asks abruptly, suddenly exhausted of these games and philosophies. Politics aside, there’s something else happening. Something that makes her feel as if she’s standing on the edge of a precipice. “Beyond this conspiracy—why am I here? Why me?”

“Is this not clear enough?” Ya holds up their hands, looking Seraphina full in the face. “I wanted to see if you were the woman I remembered. And it seems you are better.”

That simple sentence sets Seraphina’s heart racing. Still, there are cautions she has to make. “You have to be careful,” Seraphina stresses, terribly aware that she’s a former American president standing in Canton holding the hands of Madame Chairwoman. Moreover, they are now co-conspirators, challenging the direct and explicit decrees of the International Confederation of Wizards, and will face more than censure if they are found out. There are layers on layers of complexity here, mistakes neither of them can afford to make. And Seraphina won’t put Ya at risk.

Ya raises her eyebrows. “I am careful,” she says, and there’s a glint of steel in her eyes. “But I hear that American wizards are reckless.”

That’s permission enough. Seraphina has to stretch a bit, not quite onto her toes, and she doesn’t push back or let go of Ya’s hands. The kiss is chaste, no tongues or teeth, though the contact—the first intimate touch Seraphina has had in five years or more—ignites a slow burn in Seraphina’s stomach. And Ya is not frozen: she tips her head for a slightly better angle, leaning in so the height difference isn’t a struggle. Seraphina can smell the faintest fragrance of agarwood, the perfume that Ya favors most.

When Seraphina leans back, dropping back onto her feet again, Ya is smiling. “Recklessness suits you very well,” she says.

“I can be more reckless than that,” Seraphina says. A challenge like that—it’s familiar ground, and it’s flirtation anyway.

“Would you wish to change your lodgings?” Ya asks, smiling. For all its newness, this is still so familiar, because they know each other better than any two politicians ever have any right to. “I would like to see you a while longer. In a…more intimate setting, perhaps.”

Seraphina squeezes Ya’s hands. “Of course,” she says. “We can…conspire.”

Ya’s eyes sparkle, and she bites her lip as if she’s a teenage girl again. “I am glad,” she says. “My secretary will have your things moved to the house, and I’ll meet you there tonight.”

“I look forward to it,” Seraphina says. She lets go of Ya’s hands then, and reaches up to take her face in both hands and draw her down into a second kiss. This one is deeper, stronger, and by the time the kiss breaks Seraphina has decided that recklessness is worth it.

“Tonight cannot come quickly enough,” Ya murmurs, stepping back from Seraphina and folding her hands before her.

Just in time—the doors open and a few Chinese wizards enter. There’s a brief conversation in Chinese, during which Seraphina maintains utter impassivity. Ya makes her exit without a second glance at Seraphina. She has business to attend to and, besides, Seraphina doesn’t doubt that tonight she will have Ya’s undivided attention.

An Auror escorts Seraphina to Ya’s residence, a beautiful house, and sees her safely in. The luggage arrives shortly thereafter, and Seraphina takes her time to unpack and search for something more fitting to wear this evening. Her stomach is doing somersaults every time she thinks about Ya. This infatuation is…ridiculous. But she likes it.

As she works, she thinks about the events of the day. That meeting was private, but many people saw her enter the building and knew that they were closeted for some time. Few might suspect what really happened, but many will suspect that matters of state were discussed. Seraphina’s presence will have significance. It sends a message.

Well. It’s a message Seraphina is glad was sent. This is a game, a game with very high stakes, and she is more than willing to play. She’s been on the sidelines long enough. It’s time to step back in.

This time, though, unlike any game she’s played before, Seraphina won’t be playing alone.