Chapter 1: A Great Deliverance
Dim, ruddy evening light flooded through the window slits into his tiny cell; another day in Azkaban was coming to an end.
Antonin Dolohov couldn't care less. He scowled at the wrinkled newspaper clipping in his left hand. A young witch in purple ministry robes laughed from the picture, her brunette mane wafting around her head like a halo. The faded ruby letters shone in the darkness.
War Heroine to Lead Department of Magical Law Enforcement in Crackdown on Recent Anti-Muggle Poison Abuse .
For the millionth time, Dolohov crumpled the paper and threw it against the wall. Instead of the paper quietly bouncing to the floor, he imagined the witch's head crashing against the stones.
She was the reason everything had gone downhill; why he had landed in Azkaban not once, but twice; why he’d fallen from the Dark Lord’s good graces; why the Dark Lord had fallen at all; why, even now, he had no hopes of returning to a wizarding society that deserved the name.
But he would rectify that. He would finish what he had started. The Mudblood must die… slowly, painfully.
His gaze flickered back to the mangled paper. Crimson capitals spelling Poison illuminated the far corner of his room.
Dolohov grinned. He cracked his neck, relishing the stomach-churning sound as it echoed around his narrow cell.
He would make everything right. He would give that Mudblood a taste of her own medicine. But before that, he would scare her to death. She ought to know that he was coming for her. He needed to taste the fear seep out of her bones, her pores, her eyes…
His body began to tingle with excitement. He ran his tongue across the fronts of his yellowed teeth.
And then, he would drain every ounce of life from her filthy body, oh, so very slowly…
Dolohov adjusted his pants and reclined on his shabby little bed. He listened attentively. Nightfall came early these days. But he didn't mind the darkness, nor the autumn coldness seeping into his skin. Any time now, they should be here for him…
Chapter 2: A Murder Is Announced
With a heavy frown, Hermione scanned the flashy title page of the Daily Prophet on top of her morning post:
DMLE Derailed ! Death Eaters Still On the Loose !
With a shudder, her eyes wandered over the menacing features of Walden Macnair, then hesitated over the gruelling image of Antonin Dolohov baring his teeth and shaking his left fist into the camera. When he cracked his knuckles ominously, Hermione felt the scar on her ribcage itch.
After a second, she continued with her letters. Curiously, she picked up a heavy (and probably decadently expensive) parchment. It bore a large, intricate wax seal; geometric patterns encircling the letter ‘M’.
With a light fluttering of her heart, she broke the seal:
Mr Draco Malfoy & Mrs Lucius Malfoy
are pleased to invite you as their Guest of Honour
to their annual celebration of Hallowe’en at Malfoy Manor.
The evening festivities will commence with drinks at 7 o’clock, followed by dinner at 8.
As every year, guests are invited to partake in the traditional Four Potion High Jinks at midnight —
Excited, Hermione devoured the rest of the letter, which detailed the proceedings, as well as a provisional guest list.
She couldn’t quite believe it. Not only had she been invited to the infamous Malfoy Hallowe’en Dinner, but as the Guest of Honour, too! Year after year had she read about the distinguished witches and wizards that had graced the halls of Malfoy Manor. The event was widely considered a sure path to success; but it was also rumoured to be quite the occasion for fortuitous love matches.
Hermione smiled. Her thoughts were much less occupied by the fact that nearly every recent Minister for Magic had been a Guest of Honour at some point, and more with the handsome, smirking host she continuously ran into at Department of Magical Law Enforcement.
Like that time when she and Draco had accidentally bumped into one another outside Harry’s office; he’d gripped her firmly around the waist, pulling her flush against his body to keep her from falling… they had looked into each other’s eyes…
Absentmindedly, she continued opening her post.
Her letter opener sliced through a particularly shabby envelope, and a note fell into her lap. When she picked it up and turned it over, all thoughts of bliss evaporated. Smeared, blood-red ink stained the dirty scrap of parchment; it emanated a stench of blood and sweat that made her stomach churn:
On Hallowe’en at Midnight, you will breathe your last breath, Mudblood.
‘No! NO! Absolutely out of the question!’
For the last half hour or so Harry had been furiously pacing Hermione’s kitchen.
‘It’s too dangerous. I will not allow it.’
‘ Allow it?’ she scoffed. ‘Excuse me, Harry James Potter , but I don’t think anyone will allow me anything!’
Hands on her hips, one eyebrow arched, chin raised in defiance, she challenged him.
‘Besides, the letter never specified the Malfoy dinner. Whoever sent it might want me to stay home, alone, to murder me in my sleep. Or better yet, attack me while I’m with your family!’ Hermione huffed. ‘No. I certainly shan't make any life decisions based on an idiotic death threat.’
Harry sank into one of the kitchen chairs. ‘But I can’t help you if you go; you know I always spend Halloween with Gin and the kids.’
As he looked pleadingly up at her, Hermione’s resolve almost melted. But this was not the time to be fickle; she wanted, needed to go!
‘Look,’ said Hermione in a more conciliatory tone, ‘I’ve been at the D.M.L.E. for almost a year now. You know I’ve received basic Auror training, as did Draco. Aside from that, you know I can defend myself.’
Harry grumbled something incomprehensible but did not otherwise contradict her. Hermione sat down opposite of him and took his hands.
‘You have the guest list; by all means, make background checks. And I’ll promise to send for you the second something goes awry.’
Harry’s emerald eyes locked with hers. Hermione recognised in them the unquestioning trust only best friends shared; but also flickers of an irrational panic that was inextricably linked to Halloween, and a deeply ingrained fear of losing yet another person near and dear to him, which - even roughly ten years after the fall of Voldemort - he had never been quite able to shake.
‘Fine,’ Harry conceded, and Hermione smiled. ‘Just make me one other promise.’
‘Take your DA galleon with you, just in case…’
Hermione suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. ‘Of course.’
Harry sighed deeply, then (with some effort) grinned at her. ‘Halloween at the Malfoys’, huh? Should I send Ginny over to discuss outfits and the like?’ He gave her a knowing grin.
‘On the contrary,’ said Hermione, eyes alight with mischief. ‘I know exactly what to wear.’
With a wave of her wand, she materialised a silk dress of the deepest emerald. Although elegant, it was also particularly low cut and would show off Hermione’s shoulders as well as her-
‘Bloody hell.’ Harry gulped. ‘Don’t think Malfoy’d be able to take his eyes off of you... or his hands, for that matter.’
Hermione grinned slyly. ‘That was the plan.’ She waved her wand, and the dress disappeared.
‘But I’m surprised,’ said Harry with carefully constructed composure. ‘No scarlet for Miss Gryffindor?’
‘Not where you can see it,’ Hermione retorted with a wicked glint in her eyes, and Harry turned a deep shade of ruby.
Chapter 3: Hallowe'en Party
The emerald dress was, as Harry had predicted, quite the hit with the gentlemen, one in particular.
‘Well, well, Granger, don’t you clean up nicely,’ Draco welcomed her just outside the fireplace in the grand entry hall. Only the blush on his handsome, angular features as he led her into the salon, contradicted his casual demeanour.
A tall, dark-haired man approached them, a strawberry-blonde woman on his arm, clad in a shimmery golden garment embroidered with green and red flowers. With dismay, Hermione realised that a fox scarf was slung elegantly over her shoulder.
‘Theo Nott,’ said the young man, and extended his right hand. ‘We went to Hogwarts together. Couldn’t blame you though, if you didn’t remember. Almost didn’t recognise you myself in that marvellous dress of yours. Is that ’n ode to Slytherin?’
He clicked his tongue in appreciation, and his gaze flickered knowingly between Hermione and Draco, who stood as close to each other without touching. He smirked.
‘How very appropriate. I don’t believe you’ve met my girlfriend, Berenice Bode? One of St Mungo’s top researchers on the long-term effects of Dark curses,’ he said, pride colouring his sombre baritone.
Both women shook hands. Hermione was instantly taken by Berenice’s honest and open demeanour, while her unfaltering gaze spoke of great willpower.
‘Are you sure we haven’t met?’ Hermione eyed the other witch curiously. ‘You seem… familiar…’ It bothered her that she couldn’t quite place the woman.
‘Maybe you remember me from the Hogwarts library? I was in Ravenclaw, two years beneath you and Theo. I certainly saw you there quite often,’ said Berenice with a solemn, almost sepulchral voice.
‘Yes. That has to be it.’ Hermione smiled. Berenice seemed nice enough; if it just wasn’t for that sordid fox coiling around her neck.
Sipping on the (literally) sparkling elven wine from an ancient, (probably goblin-made,) gilded goblet, Hermione watched the guests gradually assembling in the baroque splendor of the Malfoy salon. She was overjoyed to see Andromeda Tonks again, who came to greet her along with her sister. The older women, both clad in pristine white, smiled, and Narcissa made a point of complementing a blushing Hermione on her taste in colours.
The dress was also an instant favourite with Cormac McLaggen, much to the chagrin of both his sour-faced fiancée, Astoria Greengrass, and Draco, who (despite Hermione’s protestations), was shamefully neglecting his duties as host, in favour of saving her whenever Cormac got carried away by Hermione’s… charms. In fact, Draco’s attentions were the only thing that kept Hermione from regretting her choice of outfit; it more than made up for Cormac’s irksome touches, and Astoria’s murderous looks.
She was almost relieved when the ever-arrogant (but desperately incompetent, as she knew from their experience working together), Marcus Flint joined their little round. Flint barely acknowledged Hermione, and only Draco’s reappearance at her side made her overlook the blatant slight.
‘What’s his problem then?’ asked Draco, eyebrows raised, as Flint turned his back on Hermione to talk to Astoria. ‘Weren’t you two colleagues back at the Magical Creatures Department?’
Hermione rolled her eyes. ‘Let’s just say, we don’t exactly see eye to eye where creature rights are concerned.’
‘Ah.’ Draco grinned and took another sip.
The clock announced three-quarters of an hour as a tall and elegant, dark-skinned lady flounced into the room.
‘Fancy that: the black widow herself,’ Theo murmured. ‘Blaise’s mother,’ he added for Hermione’s sake. ‘La grande Signora Zabini.’
She was clad all in black silks, with a hat and a dramatic veil draped over her chiseled features. Hermione snorted at her pompous entrance. ‘Recently widowed, is she?’
‘That she is,’ said Theo. ‘Husband numero otto got his kiss of death only a month or so ago. Fortunately, he left a handsome pile of galleons to console the grieving widow; not that she’d need them, mind you.’
Berenice and Hermione glanced at each other with a mixture of shock and disbelief.
‘You’re not insinuating-’
‘Oh, no. La vedova nera would never,’ he hesitated, ‘get caught,’ he finished, grinning like a fool.
Hermione was still pondering whether it was reason enough to worry that, instead of Blaise, his mother had shown up, when a hefty, but very tall gentleman with a blond mustache approached their group. The surly-looking man introduced himself as Ares Parkinson.
‘Why hasn’t Pansy come?’ demanded Astoria.
‘My daughter had a prior engagement,’ said Mr Parkinson curtly, and walked over to Narcissa and Andromeda.
‘Blaise and Pansy went out together,’ the deep, sombre voice of Signora Zabini informed them, as she refreshed her drink. She acknowledged them collectively with a nod, and then joined the hostess as well.
‘Good riddance,’ Draco muttered into his goblet. He had materialised once again next to Hermione. ‘Don’t think I could’ve survived a Halloween dinner with more than one ex-girlfriend.’
‘We were engaged !’ Astoria hissed. ‘I wasn’t merely a girlfriend .’ She sneered at Hermione, who shuffled uncomfortably.
Cormac grimaced at the engagement ring on Astoria’s finger, its huge emerald sparkling in the candlelight. ‘Glad to see I’m appreciated. Cheers!’ he announced and took a healthy swig from his goblet.
‘Look who’s talking,’ she retorted, and shot Hermione a vicious glance.
Everyone busied themselves with their drinks.
‘Halloween is Blaise and Pansy’s anniversary,’ Theo mumbled to Hermione. ‘Their parents came in their stead.’
Hermione nodded absentmindedly, still mulling over the heated exchange. ‘Why did Draco and Astoria break it off?’ she asked Theo under her breath.
Theo looked surprised. ‘You don’t know?’ he said, quite a bit louder than Hermione thought appropriate.
‘Why would I? It’s certainly not any of my business,’ she whispered, embarrassed someone (Draco) might overhear.
Before Theo could respond, the clock struck eight and Narcissa made to address her guests. Hermione took a look around the elegantly dressed, carefully selected party; from those that had been announced on the guest list, only Cornelius Fudge remained still elusive.
When the hostess introduced Hermione fondly as the Guest of Honour, she was overwhelmed by the appreciative cheers of ‘ Hear! Hear!’ and the scrutinising stares of a few others.
Right then, the door burst open and a slightly dishevelled-looking Fudge materialised.
‘So sorry, so sorry,’ he gushed, not looking sorry at all that everyone was assembled to witness his grand entrance. Narcissa merely smiled, and graciously welcomed the former Minister for Magic.
With a radiant, toothy smile directed at their hostess, he launched himself into a boisterous thank-you speech, which was received by polite, but noticeably less enthusiastic, applause.
‘As you may know,’ Narcissa continued, ‘we have a special tradition at our annual Hallowe’en dinner. For the past seven generations, it has been the Malfoy way to play a game of Four Potion High Jinks-’
The hostess snapped her fingers once, and a house-elf cracked into existence, elegantly clad in a black maid’s dress (with strangely generous cleavage), a white apron, and a dainty mob cap perched between her bat-like ears. In her outstretched hands, the elf held a gilded tray with twelve stunningly crafted, blood-red phials fashioned from sanded glass. It was impossible to tell what they contained; the only distinguishing characteristics were the single letters embossed onto each one, dividing the twelve phials into sets of three: one group was marked ‘V’, another ‘X’, the next ‘W’, and the last ‘M’.
‘Thank you, Yvette,’ said Narcissa. With a flourish of her hand, she continued, ‘As you can see, our house-elves have prepared the potions for our game. The phials contain Polyjuice Potion, Confusion Concoction, Draught of the Living Dead, and Felix Felicis.’
A low murmur and a few excited whispers rippled through the party.
‘Every guest agreeing to enter the game shall choose one phial, without knowing its contents. At the stroke of midnight, the potions are to be consumed, and in the ensuing Magic Hour between midnight and one-’ more whispers erupted, ‘-we will all enjoy the surprise effects.’
‘How do we know that they are indeed filled with the four potions, and not, say, anything lethal?’challenged Berenice.
Hermione covertly peered at the perfectly composed Signora Zabini.
‘You mean other than the fact that my son and I would both risk being thrown into Azkaban for murdering a guest in our home?’ said Narcissa good-naturedly.
‘Exactly,’ agreed Mr Parkinson in a tight voice, and even Fudge nodded thoughtfully.
'As they have faithfully and successfully done for generations , our house-elves are the ones who’ve brewed the potions. None who have sat down as guests at Malfoy Manor have ever come to harm.’
Except for Berenice and Mr Parkinson, this seemed to placate most of the purebloods. Hermione did not know what to think; she implicitly trusted house-elves, but she could also imagine Harry shouting at her for being too naive.
Narcissa turned to the elf. ‘Yvette, please tell me truthfully, without identifying the contents of each, what do the phials contain?’
‘Mistress, the twelve phialses contains Polyjuice Potion, Confusion Concoction, Draught of the Living Deads, and Felix Felicis.’
Narcissa asked Yvette a few other detailed questions which made perfectly clear, that the potions had been, indeed, brewed correctly, tested accordingly, and not changed since the phials had been filled and sealed.
This seemed to placate even Mr Parkinson and Berenice. However, when the hosts requested their guests to volunteer hairs for the Polyjuice Potions, none obliged. In the end, Hermione (ever the Gryffindor), Draco, and Narcissa donated hairs, which Yvette then secretly added to the appropriate vessels.
Selecting a phial proved a lot easier. Hermione immediately picked one marked ‘M’. Catching Draco’s eye, she averted her gaze so as not to blush. She noted that Berenice, just like Theo next to her, had selected a phial with a ‘W’.
‘V like Victory,’ Cormac announced pompously, grinning at Hermione. He bumped shoulders with a scowling Flint, who had a phial marked ‘X’ in hand.
Chapter 4: Thirteen at Dinner
Dinner turned out to be considerately less tense than drinks had been; their party of twelve was a pleasant round. Although Cormac was seated to Hermione’s right (and she had to ignore his inflated ego and untoward advances all through dinner), having Draco to her left more than made up for it. Their flirtatious banter allowed her to forget about Cormac altogether, which in turn caused his attempts to catch her attention to grow more desperate, just as the scowl on his fiancée’s face deepened.
It was only when they’d been served the main course (Hermione was just cutting through her bloody filet mignon), when a shrill cry from off to her right shattered the festive atmosphere.
A shaking Berenice had jumped from her chair, and was pointing, white-faced, at the windows across the room.
‘What’s the matter, love?’ asked Theo with a worried expression, turning to look over his shoulder.
‘I’ve just seen a... a face,’ she whispered.
‘At the windows? Impossible,’ snorted Draco.
Hermione and a couple others stood and moved around the table to take a closer look outside. But she could only make out darkness, and the faint glow of an illuminated fountain somewhere in the gardens.
‘I have though! I really have seen a face!’ insisted Berenice. ‘It was dark and in shadows, but it was definitely a man.’
‘Darling, no one can enter the Manor grounds without an invitation,’ said Narcissa dismissively, ‘Most likely, it was one of the peacocks.’
Unconvinced, Berenice pursed her lips, but with reassurances both from Theo and Draco about the strength of the new Malfoy wards ( which had been reset after the war), she soon calmed, and they all returned to their exquisite main course.
Hermione, however, had barely time to complement her first bite of the buttery meat with a sip of the Bordeaux, when Draco suddenly jumped up and snatched the goblet out of her hands.
‘Excuse me!’ she huffed, but Draco’s steel-grey eyes were blazing with ire at the man next to her.
‘What have you put in her goblet?’ he barked at Cormac. Hermione froze in her seat, heart beating frantically in her chest.
Cormac had spiked her drink?
‘Nothing!’ insisted Cormac.
‘Draco, please,’ pleaded Narcissa from the other end of the table. Everyone was staring at the two men sizing each other up, air sizzling with barely restrained belligerence.
Before Hermione could protest, or propose a sensible reaction like bagging the supposedly laced liquid and sending it to the D.M.L.E. for analysing, Draco whipped out his wand and vanished both drink and goblet. He then produced another, which he refilled.
‘Sorry about that,’ he said softly, although he continued to eye Cormac suspiciously. ‘But better safe than sorry.’
Hermione mumbled her thanks, but by now she couldn’t shake the sense of dread that something wasn’t quite right. As the bloodied juices of the meat pooled on her plate, she tried very hard not to think about the note Harry had pocketed a fortnight ago.
On Hallowe’en at Midnight, you will breathe your last breath, Mudblood .
Everyone tried their best to gloss over the now less-than-ideal atmosphere - almost everyone. While before Cormac and Draco had only been faintly unfavourable of one another, now they were openly hostile. Astoria was no better; she and Flint continued to throw vicious glances Hermione’s way.
So it was almost a relief when during the dessert course, they heard the fireplace in the hallway roar to life, and, to their great astonishment, a dishevelled (and apparently slightly inebriated) Blaise Zabini stumbled into the dining room.
‘Evening all,’ he mumbled as he strode in, and kissed his surprised mother on the cheek. ‘Sorry for the delay… missed you all terribly, so I thought I’d swing by.’ He grabbed his mother’s goblet and emptied it in one swig.
‘Delightful,’ said Narcissa, ever the gracious hostess, and made to accommodate the new guest.
‘Oh, please, don’t bother,’ announced Blaise as he went around to greet those he knew (Mr Parkinson looking distinctly uncomfortable as he, like Theo and Flint, received a firm clap on the back). At the other side of the table Blaise materialised a black chair, and inserted himself between Draco and Hermione.
‘How lovely of you to join us,’ said Draco sourly. ‘Weren’t you supposed to be with Pansy?’
It was difficult to make out what was said between gulps of wine, but Blaise insinuated that there may have been a ‘misunderstanding’, and that ‘Pansy may need to calm down’, which left him ‘in desperate need of good company’.
Draco pursed his lips as Blaise, with a sad glance at his empty goblet, produced a flask out of nowhere and eagerly gulped down the contents.
‘Seeing as we’re now at an uneven number, you should take my phial for the game,’ said Narcissa from the other side of the table, and levitated her phial (marked ‘M’), into the hands of a very reluctant Blaise Zabini.
It was a surprise, really, that dinner finished without further disruptions. Afterwards, the party of now thirteen retired to the drawing room for firewhiskey and sherry.
Sipping her drink, Hermione was thoroughly entertained by Fudge enumerating his many achievements as Minister for Narcissa’s benefit, when she felt a featherlight touch travel along her exposed neck.
‘Would you like to see our library?’ Draco breathed into her ear. ‘We still have a little time before midnight.’
Hermione shivered in anticipation and nodded. They both snuck out of the room unnoticed (thanks to Cormac’s and Flint’s rather heated discussion about Intermagical Relations between Wizards and Muggles), and Draco led her through the dark-paneled halls of Malfoy Manor. After a couple of twists and turns (which had Hermione worried whether she’d ever be able to find her way back), he opened a heavy oak door. What Hermione then saw almost took her breath away: rows and rows of books, tomes, scrolls filled the tall, handsome room; bright moonlight flooded through stained glass windows and gave the scenery an otherworldly glow.
‘Incredible,’ breathed Hermione, and immersed herself in the sea of knowledge.
After a while spent sifting through the impressive collection of rare early modern treatises on elemental magyck and medieval alchemy, she sensed Draco close, and turned to face him. His moonlit eyes were almost molten quicksilver as he drank her in. He raised his hands to trace the lines of her chin, her cheekbones, up to her eyes. Her breath caught in her throat.
‘Alone at last,’ he breathed, and pulled her close. Hermione could feel his heart beating frantically against her chest as his hands explored the bare flesh of her shoulder, her neck, her pulse… and a delightful tingle ran up and down her spine and electrified her senses.
She sighed, and looked up to see his gaze darken. She closed eyes, and pursed her lips, ready for-
‘ There you- Oh …’
Hermione and Draco jumped away from each other as Blaise stumbled into the library. ‘So sorry… I’m s’posed to fetch you… ’s almost midnight…’ he trailed off.
‘Of course,’ said Draco evenly, though he shot Blaise a murderous glance.
‘Just in time,’ Narcissa greeted them as they returned to the drawing room. The others were already assembled in a circle. ‘Everyone have their phial?’
Hermione pulled the glass out of the depths of her cleavage. Draco looked at her, eyebrow cocked. She smirked back.
Some shuffled nervously, while Flint (compared to the hard-faced Parkinson next to him) seemed almost giddy . Blaise cracked his knuckles; his mother shot him a warning glance from across the room. Cormac twisted his phial in his hands, and Astoria to his left was even paler than usual. Only Andromeda, Narcissa, and Draco appeared to be calm as ever.
‘Remember; the magic of the game compels you to go through with it, so there’s no excuses,’ Narcissa explained for the last time. ‘Very well,’ she said with a glance at the tall grandfather clock. ‘… Ten, nine, eight…’
On Hallowe’en at midnight…
Next to Hermione, Blaise was fumbling through his robes. His shaking left hand once again produced his flask, and he greedily gulped down the liquid. From her other side, she saw Draco rolling his eyes, and she suppressed a laugh.
‘… five, four…’
… you will breathe your last breath…
‘… two, one…’
Immediately, the magic of the game spread through Hermione’s body, compelling her to open the blood-red phial.
As soon as she’d drained its contents, the sense of urgency stopped. Instead, she felt exhilaration, light-headedness, and overwhelming confidence that she could achieve anything . But then there also was joy, triumph, elation coursing through her veins like electricity; it was after midnight, and she was still alive .
Hermione felt like kissing something… someone.
She turned to Draco, grabbed him at the lapel, and pressed her lips to his. He immediately leaned into her, and responded to her feeling, sensing, licking…
When they broke apart, he wore a dazed expression. ‘That was nice,’ he mused, ‘Wonder why we’ve never done that before.’
‘What?’ Hermione laughed.
‘I should’ve kissed you like that at the Yule Ball,’ he said, calmly considering the lifeless bodies of Blaise, Cormac, and Berenice that were being levitated by two Narcissas and Signora Zabini onto the chaises.
‘You went with Pansy, remember?’
‘Why would I kiss Pansy? She wasn’t as pretty as you were, Granger.’
Draco dazedly grabbed a strand of her hair and rolled it between his fingers.
‘So soft,’ he murmured.
It was quite obvious that Draco was under the influence of the Confusion Concoction; Hermione soon discovered that the same was true for Fudge and Flint. This was particularly funny because Astoria, who’d turned into Hermione, had to frequently fend off Flint’s overt rudeness now that the potion had lowered his inhibitions to hide his contempt for the Muggle-born witch. Hermione smiled to herself. Yes, she truly was lucky. Fudge, meanwhile, unable to identify the real Narcissa, attempted to impress both.
Hermione spent the Magic Hour blissfully happy, barely minding her surroundings. Only once she noticed Flint being particularly silly over at the chaise where Blaise lay, but Draco quickly reclaimed her attention.
‘Blaise’s not even here,’ he mumbled, and then did something with his tongue that made Hermione forget everything else.
Between kisses, she coaxed out of Draco every little detail of how he’d really felt about her since the infamous slap in third year. She also got him to explain why Astoria was behaving with such bitterness; apparently, he had broken off their engagement after the Daily Prophet had (who else w) broken the story that the so-called Golden Couple had split. While Hermione, of course, had been perfectly ignorant of all of this at the time, the slighted and enraged ex-fiancée had almost immediately suspected a connection. This evening had only proven what she had guessed all along.
As the end of the hour approached, Hermione resolved that once Draco had regained full consciousness, she would return the favour, for sake of fairness. He probably should know that the special investigation of the anti-Muggle potions ring was not the only reason why she had left the Depart for Control and Regulation of Magical Creatures in favour of the D.M.L.E.
The clock had just struck one, and Hermione could feel the liquid luck fading. She disentangled her lips from Draco’s, and looked deeply into his grey eyes. They slowly widened, first in perfect recognition, and then darkened at the memory of their Magic Hour. His lips looked so soft, so inviting, so…
A panic-stricken cry ripped them out of their rapture.
'Blaise? Blaise!' Signora Zabini was bending over her son’s still lifeless body, while Berenice and Cormac were slowly coming to. ‘Oh gods, I don’t hear his heart!’ she cried, her voice cracking. 'Blaise, my Blaise! Amore, parli con me! Svegliati!’
The previously composed woman attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, to no avail. After the first moments of shock, Hermione was about to rush to her assistance, when suddenly Blaise’s lifeless body began to quiver and shake. Shocked, the widow jumped back.
They all watched in absolute horror and disgust at the scene unfolding in front of their very eyes.
Chapter 5: Dead Man's Folly
The group stared at the body that used to be Blaise Zabini . Where just a few moments ago immaculate dark skin had been, now stale, greyish flesh was wrapped tightly around a bony body. Instead of youthful beauty, a haggard corpse lay there; the shell of a middle-aged man whose best days had long since passed.
‘That’s–,’ began Astoria, eyes wide.
‘Antonin Dolohov,’ said Narcissa, voice tight.
Everyone seemed frozen, too shocked and unsure of how to proceed.
‘But how– why did he come here?’ whispered Berenice into the silence, grabbing Theo’s hand for support.
‘Can’t be anything good, that’s for sure,’ said Draco, nose wrinkled in disgust as he took in the dishevelled, filthy appearance and matted black-grey hair that indicated someone who had clearly not considered bodily hygiene one of the priorities of his recent, undeserved freedom.
When Mr Parkinson made to move to the corpse, Hermione broke the tension.
‘Nobody touch the body. We should call the Aurors immediately,’ she said firmly, honed for years by dealing with grumpy Ministry officials. With a flourish, she produced a Patronus and instructed it with news for Harry.
‘Shouldn’t someone go directly to the Ministry to get help?’ offered Flint, nervously glancing at the dead man.
‘Agreed,’ said Fudge.
Mr Parkinson nodded. ‘I’ll floo to the Auror Department right away. Best we don’t lose any time.’ He strode to the door.
‘NO!’ Hermione, Draco, and Theo shouted simultaneously. With a flick of her wand, Narcissa locked the door. Mr Parkinson turned to face her, his expression contorted with barely contained rage.
‘What’s this, Narcissa?!’
‘Nobody will leave this room until the Aurors have arrived,’ said Hermione with force, ‘seeing as one of us is the murderer.’
Gasps of shock and disbelief rippled through the group. After a moment, Berenice spoke over the commotion.
‘So what? He was a fugitive, a bloody Death Eater. If you ask me, somebody did us a service.’ She eyed the man with unveiled disgust. Next to her, Cormac grimaced, and even Fudge seemed to agree.
Theo regarded the body warily. ‘Berenice does have a point. Dolohov certainly was not here to enjoy the Malfoy hospitality. I’d wager that if he wasn’t dead right now, one of us would be lying cold on the floor.’
Hermione shuddered. She didn’t like it, but Theo was probably right.
On Hallowe’en at Midnight, you will breathe your last breath, Mudblood .
A soft voice pulled her out of her thoughts. ‘But that’s not quite right, though, is it?’ It was Andromeda. ‘Didn’t he drink from Narcissa’s phial?’
Draco and Hermione looked at each other. The others shifted uncomfortably.
‘Are we to understand that someone wanted my sister dead?’
Indeed, that was the question: who would’ve wanted Narcissa Malfoy dead?
Right then, a silver stag burst into the room. ‘The wards to Malfoy Manor have been changed,’ it announced in Harry’s voice. ’It will take us a while to gain entry. In the meantime, remain calm, and most importantly: leave the crime scene untouched.’
The Patronus dissolved, and the group scattered, filling the room with agitated chatter.
Suddenly, Hermione felt the DA galleon she’d hidden under her dress heat. Fumbling for it, she read the inscription:
1 h until we’re in. Looking for Zabini & Macnair. Find out as much as possible until then. Work with Malfoy. Be safe!
‘What’s that you have there, Granger?’ said Draco.
Hermione considered him for a second. Work with Malfoy , Harry had said. So she told him all about the death threat and Harry’s instructions, as well as the fact that the aurors were looking for Blaise and Macnair.
They were quietly debating how to proceed, when Theo approached them. ‘How are we doing this then?’ At Hermione’s questioning look, he clarified, ‘Finding the murderer, obviously. Personally, I think Veritaserum is the way to go. Have any here, Malfoy?’
‘We can't just make people drink Veritaserum !’ Hermione huffed, ‘That's illegal!’
‘Why the hell not? It's most certainly preferable to spending an indefinite amount of time in the company of a MURDERER ! I say, the earlier we find the nutter, the better.’
‘Sorry to disappoint, Nott,’ Draco responded, as Hermione pursed her lips in dismay. ‘Haven’t any, in any case.’
‘Pity,’ said Theo, ‘So how do you professionals suggest we do it?’ Hermione and Draco glanced at each other.
‘Well, Draco's technically only a D.M.L.E. consultant in potion matters, whereas I’m more of a–’
Theo waved his hand dismissively. ‘Spare me the self-deprecation, and let's get right to it, shall we?’
Draco chuckled under his breath, and Hermione was torn between being affronted and delighted at Theo's boldness. In the end, however, he was right; they had no time to lose.
‘What about Legilimency?’ asked Theo, ‘Is that 'n option?’
Draco chanced a careful look at Hermione; she nodded. ‘I could , but I sincerely doubt that I’ll get past the walls of someone who’s successfully murdered a Death Eater.’
‘And let’s not forget,’ said Hermione, ‘we can't be certain that Dolohov, and not Narcissa, was the intended victim.’ Theo and Draco nodded, so she continued, ‘Let’s be methodical about this. Who had motive to kill Narcissa?’
Draco smirked at her. ‘Motive? Wouldn’t Potter say that opportunity was more important?’
‘True.’ Hermione smirked back at him. ‘But since we don’t know what the murder weapon was, determining opportunity seems rather difficult.’
‘The phial, obviously,’ said Theo flippantly.
Hermione frowned. ‘I don’t think so. Yvette made it perfectly clear that the potions could not be tampered with.’
‘But the potion was the last thing he consumed!’ objected Theo.
‘Yes,’ said Hermione, excited at the thrill of the mystery. ‘But that isn’t to say that the seal wasn’t opened before.’
Even Theo had to agree with this. So, the three of them reviewed who’d had both motive and opportunity. They established quickly that if Narcissa was meant to be the victim, the phial had to have been tampered with before it had changed ownership. Unfortunately, neither Draco nor Hermione had noticed if the seal had been broken at that point.
‘Who sat next to her again?’ asked Theo.
‘Fudge to her right, Signora Zabini to her left,’ said Draco.
Theo chuckled. ‘Wouldn’t be ironic if the black widow herself had planned to kill Narcissa, and then accidentally offed her son?’
‘That wouldn’t be funny in the slightest, Theodore !’ cried Hermione.
‘Incidentally, I think it is, Hermione .’
She rolled her eyes, but otherwise ignored Theo. ‘What’s the signora’s relationship with your mother?’
‘They’re old friends, as far as I know.’
Theo snorted. ‘That doesn’t say anything. Pure-bloods always appear to be friendly, but they’ll happily stab you in the back if it serves their purpose.’
Draco looked over to where his mother and the black widow were standing, and closed his eyes in concentration. ‘Let’s see. I’m getting from her mostly emotions; she’s very adept at hiding her thoughts. Relief. Anxiousness. Confusion. Worry.’
‘How generic,’ said Theo drily.
‘No, it’s not very helpful, is it?’ Hermione sighed. ‘What about Fudge?’
Draco closed his eyes in concentration. After a moment, he chuckled.
‘What?’ queried Hermione and Theo.
‘Fudge is,’ said Draco, now shaking with quiet laugher, ‘in love with my mother!’
‘Yes,’ sniggered Draco, ‘All he seems to think about is how the night is ruined, now that we have this unfortunate body lying in the drawing room. He is also mortified that he couldn't distinguish my mother from my aunt during the Magic Hour. Apparently he made some rather awkward comments toward Aunt Andromeda.’
Theo snorted. Hermione huffed with indignation. ‘That means,’ she said, and furrowed her brows, ‘we have to rule out those most likely, and consider everyone else.’
‘But everyone else was seated too far away!’ objected Theo.
‘You seem to forget that there were several instances during dinner when everyone was so distracted that anyone could’ve tampered with the phial,’ said Hermione.
Theo shot a weary glance at his girlfriend standing awkwardly next to Andromeda.
‘First, when Berenice allegedly saw someone at the windows–’
‘She did see someone,’ said Theo angrily, ‘ she's not easily scared.’
‘But how could you know that?’ said Hermione, ’You were with your back to the windows.’
‘I know Berenice,’ said Theo stubbornly.
‘Let’s just be methodical,’ offered Hermione. ‘Shall we? She could have had opportunity; but does she have motive?’
‘I get confusion, relief, and apprehension,’ said Draco. ‘But also fear and defiance. She keeps thinking about Devil’s Snare for some reason; and then there is–’ He stared at Theo. ‘ Nott ?’
‘Fine,’ grumbled Theo. ‘Yes, she would technically have motive.’
Draco and Hermione stared at him in disbelief.
‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous. It’s only technically a motive.’ He paused. ‘Do you remember Broderick Bode?’
‘Who?’ Draco looked confused.
‘Wait a second–’ said Hermione, ‘Oh, oh ! I remember !’ She considered Berenice for a second. ‘Is she his daughter?’
‘His niece,’ said Theo through clenched teeth.
‘Um, excuse me?’ said Draco frustrated.
‘Don't you remember Bode, the Unspeakable,’ Hermione explained. ‘It was during fifth year, when Voldemort was after the prophecy.’
Slowly, realisation spread over Draco’s face. ‘ Oh. My father had him under the Imperius Curse… But he resisted, didn’t he? He got out of it.’
‘He did,’ said Hermione quietly, ‘But when he recovered, someone, presumably your father, sent him a Devil’s Snare disguised as a Christmas gift to St Mungo’s. It strangled him.’
Draco shifted uncomfortably.
Theo looked at Hermione. ‘Anyway… that’s why Berenice technically has a motive, but–’
‘She’s kind,’ said Draco simply, ‘I can see it. She’s not looking for revenge.’ Draco put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. ‘We're just being thorough.’
Theo straightened his back. ‘Right. What else?’
‘Um,’ said Hermione, ‘There was another distraction when Draco confronted Cormac…’
‘That tosser,’ seethed Draco. ‘Yes, we should check–’
‘Hold on just a second,’ said Theo. ‘You were focused on McLaggen the entire time, right?’
‘Of course I was! How else could I’ve noticed what he’d done?’
‘That gives him an alibi though,’ said Hermione, and Draco clenched his teeth in dismay.
‘What about Parkinson?,’ queried Theo.
‘Not our greatest fan, to be perfectly honest,’ said Draco.
Hermione frowned. ‘I thought he was an investor in your potioneering business?’
‘He is,’ said Draco. ’Still… it doesn’t sit well with him that… we were in the inner circle of the… erm… of Tom Riddle, but still managed to rebuild our reputation afterward. The Parkinsons made a lot of money from selling dark objects during the war. After, they couldn’t quite make up their losses.’
This was news to Hermione; considering that she was leading the latest Ministry efforts to break up the anti-Muggle potions ring, she wondered why she hadn’t known about this. ‘Are they still in the business of dark objects?’
‘If he was, he certainly wouldn’t tell me,’ said Draco tightly, looking at the grim-faced Mr Parkinson who observed McLaggen and Signora Zabini talking with one another.
Theo clicked his tongue. ‘Also, that’s less reason to kill Narcissa, and more reason to finish you off, Granger.’ He laughed until Draco silenced him with a death glare.
Through Legilimency, Draco gathered that Mr Parkinson was so consumed with thoughts of his daughter that he could hardly discern any other feelings (although he did sense anger, fear, confusion, frustration), let alone his thoughts on Narcissa. It didn’t help them at all, so they went on to discuss the other guests.
Astoria was open as a book, but far too vapid to have formed a convoluted plan like this (and even now, her greatest concern was how to win Draco back). Marcus Flint had a surprisingly good mental wall, so they were only able to conclude that his dominant emotions were anger and frustration. Andromeda, while also adept at Occlumency, seemed preoccupied with worry for the well-being of her sister. Lastly, Theo consented to let down his guard entirely, and could be resolutely scrapped from the list.
If Narcissa was the victim, almost everyone – except Draco, Dolohov, and Hermione – had had opportunity to tamper with her phial. However, Andromeda, Astoria, Fudge, Cormac, and Theo were without motive; Berenice was ruled out as well. Parkinson appeared to be the most promising suspect, while Signora Zabini and Flint remained questionable. Still, it was all less than convincing.
Things got even more difficult if someone had intentionally murdered Dolohov , with the crucial problem being that no one had known it hadn’t been Blaise. Which left a third option: someone had wanted Blaise dead.
The next question was: how did Dolohov stumble across Blaise to begin with? How did he know that he’d been invited to the Hallowe’en Dinner?
Hermione pulled out her DA galleon and spelled a question to Harry. ‘Did you find Blaise? Macnair?’
Draco scowled. ‘Maybe we should be considering the other possibility. Namely, that someone wanted to kill Blaise, and only accidentally murdered Dolohov.’
Theo laughed darkly. ‘That’d be an easy one: Mr Parkinson. Didn’t you see the death glares he shot Blaise over the dinner table?’
‘Actually, if I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought he looked rather scared,’ said Draco.
Theo laughed. ‘Scared because Blaise ditched Pansy?’
Draco shrugged. ‘He is rather worried about her.’
The three of them peered at the group moodily hovering in the background: Mr Parkinson was shifting around whiskey bottles on the sideboard; Berenice and Andromeda were quietly whispering amongst one another; Astoria and Cormac were sulking on the oxblood Chesterfields; Fudge ignored Flint, who was desperately trying to engage him in a conversation; while Narcissa and Signora Zabini were observing the scenery.
‘Let’s assume for a second that Parkinson did look at Blaise as if he was scared,’ said Hermione. ‘Is there any possibility that Parkinson could’ve known it was actually Dolohov, and not Blaise? Did they know each other?’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Draco hesitantly, ‘After all, Dolohov’s been in prison well into the Second War, and then he kept mostly hidden, either here at headquarters, or under-cover wherever the Dar–, ehem, Riddle sent them. As far as I know, the Parkinsons had no direct contact with Dolohov, or any other Death Eaters.’
‘Were they at Hogwarts together?’
Draco shook his head. ‘Dolohov is several years younger than Parkinson. He might’ve gone to school with Macnair, though. Both are about my late father’s age.’ Draco’s gaze unfocused and Hermione looked away.
Theo snapped his fingers. ‘Back to business, people. Who else could have had problems with Blaise?’
They determined that, besides themselves, his mother, Narcissa, Andromeda, Berenice, and his old house mates, Astoria and Flint could be disregarded as suspects, which left Parkinson, McLaggen, and Fudge as tentative, albeit unconvincing, suspects.
‘Cormac and Blaise knew each other casually through the Slug Club. They both worked in the Department of International Magical Cooperation. I don't know about animosities though.’ Hermione pondered McLaggen for a second; he immediately caught her gaze and shot her a toothy grin. Astoria sneered. Draco stared back at Cormac until he looked away.
‘I agree; McLaggen is much more upset with me right now.’ He smirked self-satisfied, and Hermione felt the heat rise in her cheeks.
Theo sighed exasperatedly. ‘We’re getting nowhere. No one seems to have had anything against Blaise. Not really, anyway.’
There was a brief pause.
‘That means we should probably consider option three,’ said Draco. ‘Somebody knew it was Dolohov, and decided to off him. Logically, this reduces the pool of suspects to those who either knew Blaise or Dolohov well.’
‘Which is to say: you, me, his mother, probably Narcissa, possibly Astoria, Flint, and Parkinson,’ said Theo.
‘Not quite.’ Hermione gnawed at her lower lip. ‘The murderer must’ve known both very well; this theory only makes sense if the person knew it was not Blaise, and was confident it was Dolohov instead.’
‘In other words: no-one,’ said Draco sourly.
‘Not necessarily!’ said Hermione in a sudden burst of excitement. ‘Remember what you said to me during the magic hour?’
Draco looked at her questioningly, and shrugged.
‘You insisted that Blaise wasn’t here. At the time I thought that was because of the Confusion Concoction, but thinking back, it makes me think you subconsciously picked up on something that gave Dolohov away.’
Hermione worried her lip again, pondering the body on the other side of the room. In her head she kept playing back the evening. Blaise strolling into the room, kissing his mother, drinking from his flask… She grimaced. In hindsight, it was rather obvious that it’d been Polyjuice potion. Her mind wandered back to the morning when she’d received invitation in her morning post. And all of a sudden…
‘Oh!’ Theo and Draco looked at her expectantly. ‘Dolohov was a leftie!’
‘Yes!’ Draco nodded enthusiastically. ‘I remember now, he lifted the flask with his left hand. Which doesn’t make sense because Blaise is right-handed.’
‘That’s all and well,’ said Theo, ‘but that doesn’t broadcast that it was Dolohov instead, does it?’
This, unfortunately, was true.
‘We’ve disregarded the most important thing,’ said Hermione, after a moment’s thought. ‘Even if we don’t know if it was the phial that killed Blaise, er, Dolohov, we still should’ve checked it right away!’
A summoning charm proved ineffective, so Hermione conjured a pair of rubber gloves, and made her way to the body that still lay on the chaise. After a quick search, dutifully ignoring her perplexed (and in Parkinson’s case, disapproving) audience, she had to concede that the phial was gone.
‘How quaint,’ said Draco dryly.
‘Instead, I found this.’ Turning her back to ward off the now very curious glances the others threw their way, Hermione presented three objects: a necklace with a flower-shaped pendant, a flask, and another vessel filled with a ruby-red liquid . Draco quickly determined that the flask used to contain Polyjuice Potion, while the red potion was a strong sleeping draught.
In pursuit of the missing phial, they then searched all the other guests — against protestations especially by Parkinson, Fudge, and (loudest of all) Flint. Most things turned out to be perfectly ordinary; aside from everyone’s wands, they found lipstick on Signora Zabini and Astoria, and a notebook on Berenice; the exception was Cormac, who had an empty phial in his robe pockets (which Draco determined to have contained Amortentia), and Mr Parkinson who’d been carrying a cursed knife .
‘What a waste of time,’ said Theo.
‘You think?’ snorted Draco and shook his head at the sharp metal blade decorated with intricately worked, severed heads.
‘Not necessarily…,’ said Hermione thoughtfully. ‘We now know that the phial has gone missing. Which means whoever took it is most likely the murderer.’
‘Too bad we don’t actually have the phial,’ snarked Theo, moodily staring at the pile of stuff. ‘Instead we know that Dolohov was a fan of girly necklaces.’
From the other side of the room, the others were growing increasingly impatient. Signora Zabini sat down and stood up again; Flint, Cormac and Astoria were deep in discussion about Intermagical alliances, and Berenice was apparently explaining her groundbreaking research to Cornelius Fudge. An anxiously pacing Mr Parkinson turned to their hostess who was floating around the whiskey decanter: ‘How long do you intend to keep us here, Narcissa? This is getting ridiculous.’
‘ I’m not keeping anyone, Ares. In case you forgot, Dolohov is the one who kept us prisoner.’ Parkinson’s expression immediately soured. ‘As soon as the Aurors have stripped down the additional wards, you’ll be free to leave.’
Parkinson didn’t grace her with a response; instead, he passive-aggressively cracked his knuckles.
‘Except you won’t be leaving until the Aurors are through with you… wanker…’ muttered Draco under his breath.
That’s when a thought struck Hermione; her heart thumped wildly in her chest as she looked over at the pile of evidence. In its midst lay Dolohov’s necklace, the chain coiling around its flowery pendant .
With clammy fingers, she fished for the galleon in her pocket. It still showed no answer, so she sent the message: ‘Check Parkinson Hall! Pansy might be kept hostage. Careful, I think Macnair’s there.’
She turned back to Draco and Theo, who looked at her expectantly. ‘Right,’ she said, gathering her thoughts. ‘If we determine who went near the body between the moment Blaise passed out and he transformed, we should be able to pinpoint the murderer.’
It wasn’t easy, but between the three of them, they were able to establish a chronology. First, Narcissa, Andromeda, and Signora Zabini had levitated the lifeless bodies onto the chaises; after that, five people had neared the body. Marcus Flint had rudely made fun of Blaise’s situation; he was then chased away by a furious Mr Parkinson (this, Hermione only vaguely remembered); then Andromeda-as-Narcissa had escaped Fudge and hid behind the chaises; after that, Theo himself went there to check on Berenice. The last person to go near the body was the black widow, in a fruitless attempt to revive her supposed son.
‘Are we sure we haven’t forgotten anything? Draco and I were… a little preoccupied…’
Theo grinned. ‘No, I was around the whole time. I only stepped out once to wash my hands but you were here when–’ Theo hesitated and looked at his friends with wide eyes. ‘I’ve just remembered something. When I came back from the lavatory, I overheard two men.’
Draco and Hermione regarded him questioningly.
‘They were arguing in the hall somewhere. One was furious and said something along the lines of “You don’t know what that will cost us”, and the other replied, “Don’t be such a cunt, it’s all in good fun. He won’t know anyway”, to which the angry one cursed and the other laughed. Then, the first continued “maybe we should just do it now”, to which his partner replied “You’re don’t know what you’re talking about.” And “I don’t want to risk my everything for naught. We have to wait”.’
Hermione and Draco stared at each other. ‘That's what they said?’
‘Swear by Merlin.’
Hermione nodded and gnawed at her lower lip again, head spinning with the implications of this invaluable piece of information. ‘When was that?’ she asked.
‘Erm… shortly after Flint had been a wanker to Blai- … er… Dolohov.’ Draco scrunched his nose in confusion. ‘Flint poured his drink over Blaise,’ said Theo. ‘In hindsight, that fucker was really lucky Dolohov was already dead, wasn’t he? I mean, just imagine what he would’ve done to him…’ Theo trailed off and shuddered.
Draco glanced over to the men standing at the other side of the room. Flint and McLaggen were still discussing Intermagical trade politics (although the former kept throwing surreptitious glances Fudge’s way), while Parkinson was staring moodily out of the windows and nursing his drink. ‘Did you recognise them?’ asked Draco.
Theo hesitated. ‘Actually, at first I thought it was you. But you were with Granger… Who turned into you again? Parkinson?’
‘Right. So the other would’ve been Flint then… or Fudge.’
Hermione looked over at the group. Fudge, now conspicuously absorbed by a conversation with Signora Zabini, was ever so slightly backing way from where Andromeda was standing. ‘Wouldn’t either have been too confused to hold that sort of exchange?’
Draco considered this. ‘Maybe. But I remember my Magic Hour, and even though I would have believed anything you had told me, I certainly knew what I was doing; even though I might have said and done things I wouldn’t usually.’ Hermione blushed, and Draco grinned.
‘Sooo… must’ve been Parkinson with Flint then, not Fudge,’ remarked Theo, ‘given their similar social circles. They were being rather casual with one another, and I wouldn’t expect Fudge to be overly fond of someone who had close ties to the Death Eaters.’
‘Right,’ said Draco, ‘they probably have close business interests, too; most Sacred 28 families have shared investments.’
Theo nodded. ‘But what could they have been talking about? Their political interests?’
‘Maybe,’ offered Draco. ‘Flint’s at the Ministry, isn’t he?’
Hermione scoffed. ‘Still at the Department for the Control and Regulation of Magical Creatures. We used to work together but…’ She hesitated, and Draco and Theo regarded her with curiosity. ‘Oh, he was just so underwhelming, you know. His whole demeanour is just so very…’ Hermione chanced a careful look at Draco, ‘-conservative. In regards to other species. But then he can’t seem to back up this ridiculous sense of superiority with competence , you know?’
Draco grinned. ‘Cock something up, did he?’
‘He almost got a Hippogriff reservation we fought for, for months, thrown out! He was in charge of compiling case studies detailing Hippogriff behaviour. And what did he do?’ She was in full rage now. ‘He went and interviewed people who don’t care a sickle about Hippogriff welfare. I mean, he went and interviewed Walden Macnair, for Merlin’s sake! Who in their right minds-’ Hermione stopped mid-rant, eyes wide. ‘Oh!’ she breathed, the confused looks of Draco and Theo fixed on her.
On the other side of the room, Parkinson was cracking his knuckles, Flint was scowling at Fudge, and the ladies were gossiping.
As if on cue, her DA galleon heated up.
‘Blaise and Pansy found, unharmed. Macnair in custody, won’t talk. Almost through wards; 15 mins.’
Astoria let out an annoyed sigh. ‘Can I have my lipstick back? Some of us care about our appearances, you know,’ she said snidely and considered Hermione with contempt.
Suddenly, Hermione knew exactly what had happened. For the last time that night, she pulled out her DA galleon.
Chapter 6: The Veiled Lady
The trio huddled in the far corner of the drawing room, discussing the facts with subdued voices. Hermione had excitedly laid out her theory, to which Theo and Draco had reacted with shock.
‘I still can’t believe it,’ said Theo dumbly.
‘It’s the only solution,’ said Hermione matter-of-factly. ‘ And if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth .’
‘But what should we do about it?’ asked Theo, wearily looking over at the group of suspects.
‘If what you said earlier this evening is true, we won’t have to do anything .’
‘It’s incredible what parents would do for their children, isn’t it?’ muttered Draco, looking from his mother, to Mr Parkinson, to Signora Zabini.
Hermione nodded. ‘Good that Pansy and Blaise were unharmed; that might help her father.’
And with that, Harry Potter and his elite Auror squad burst into the drawing room to arrest Marcus Flint and Mr Parkinson as co-conspirators to Dolohov and Macnair, and accessories to abduct and murder beloved war heroine and D.L.M.E. official, Hermione Granger.
In the end, the D.M.L.E. inquiry was unable to prove anything related to the actual death, even though Hermione, Draco, and Theo knew exactly what had happened. Harry had to be content with the fact that one escaped Death Eater had miraculously dropped dead, while the other was apprehended, and two hostages were saved. That evidence, the supposedly poisoned phial and (for some reason) a lipstick, had disappeared, seemed merely like a footnote at this point.
It certainly helped Harry’s mood that the events of Halloween led to the break-up of the international anti-Muggle potion ring. Parkinson, who felt he didn’t have anything left to lose, sang like a phoenix, and Macnair, Flint, and other associates all over Magical Europe were soon apprehended.
Harry might have been considerably less happy, had the Daily Prophet not run a piece titled (Un)Lucky 13 - Doomed Dinner Protected by Providence that popularised a superstitious interpretation of events (namely that Dolohov had dropped dead because he was the first to get up from a table of thirteen).
Hermione, for once, didn’t care one sickle about the Prophet’s inaccuracy. Largely credited with the huge success of the notorious Dolohov Dinner Death (as the papers had dubbed it), and the subsequent breaking-up of the anti-Muggle potion business, she found herself in professional, and personal, bliss.
A knock sounded on her office door.
In strolled Draco Malfoy, a very large smirk gracing his handsome features. He walked over and gave her a searing kiss.
‘Ready for dinner?’ he breathed into her ear, and Hermione a pleasant tingle ran down her spine. ‘Mother wants you to have at least one unspoiled Malfoy dinner experience.’
Hermione grinned, grabbed her bag, and - hands interlaced - they left the D.M.L.E. floor. In the elevator they ran into Harry, who was buried under a mountain of paperwork. He acknowledged Draco with a curt nod.
‘Potter still mad?’ asked Draco, as they stepped into the Ministry atrium.
Hermione chuckled. ‘Not really. It just kills him that he never found out who actually did it, and now he can’t ask, to keep plausible deniability.’
They both laughed. Reaching the fireplaces, they stepped into the green flames that carried them to Malfoy Manor.
As expected, supper was marvellous. The last rays of the autumn sun were streaming through the tall windows into the dining room and made the meticulously polished silver dishes sparkle like tiny orbs.
‘You know, said Narcissa suddenly, half-way through the salad course, 'I had Ornella, Signora Zabini that is, over for tea a couple of days ago.’ Hermione almost choked on her poached oyster. ‘We were both very impressed with your recent... efforts in the D.M.L.E. We were particularly curious how you solved it. The, ahem, Dolohov Dinner Death, that is.’
Hermione smiled, and looked fondly at Draco. ‘It wasn’t that difficult, really. Once I realised the phial couldn’t possibly have been the murder weapon, there were only so many options left. Signora Zabini, Ornella, was the only one who had the opportunity to poison Dolohov - when she was leaning over his body, supposedly trying to reanimate her son.’
‘Wasn't that awfully risky?’
‘Oh, it was.’ Hermione nodded. ‘But she made good use of the last effects of Felix Felicis. I suppose she has had some, er, practise in that regard.’
Draco arched an eyebrow.
‘You know, the Kiss of Death, as Theo put it.’
‘Right. The lipstick.’ Draco nodded and levitated the decanter around the table to refill their goblets.
‘But how did she know it was Dolohov?’ asked Narcissa as she watched the stream of ruby red pour into her cup.
‘It was his knuckle-cracking,’ said Hermione simply. ‘He also did that in the picture the Prophet published a while ago. Draco also recognised him, actually.’ Hermione smiled at her boyfriend, who failed miserably to hide how awfully pleased he was with himself.
Narcissa seemed content at her answer, and redirected her attention to the delicate composition of beetroot, horseradish and shellfish in front of her, and the conversation floated into less perilous waters.
It was only well after dinner, when the three of them had retired into the drawing room, each with a drink in hand, that Narcissa brought up the subject once more.
‘Just one more thing, Miss Granger–’
Startled, Draco and Hermione, who had been vividly discussing the Prisoner's Dilemma, looked up.
‘You see, I've been trying to solve another riddle altogether. Why is it that you never betrayed Ornella?’ Narcissa Malfoy watched Hermione intently.
‘Oh, that,’ said Hermione, and her apprehensive expression softened. ‘I could hardly fault a mother for wanting to save her child, could I?’
Narcissa hid her fond smile behind her goblet, and was saved an answer by Yvette tripping into the room, levitating an outrageous selection of elf-made pralines over her head.
Indeed; thirteen might be a lucky number after all.