Harry escorted Hermione to the dungeon room where Slughorn was having his event. A mix of students from every house wandered the room nibbling at the snacks and punch. Slughorn glided about the room happily introducing everyone and dropping hints on how important they were to each other.
“Ah! Mister Potter, Miss Granger, thank you both for coming.” He said giving the slight bow from one head of House to another which Harry automatically gave the same back making the Professor blink in delight.
“Thank you for inviting us, Lord Slughorn.” Harry said giving the man a polite if stiff smile as he beamed in response, Hermione dropping a shallow curtsey.
“Tosh, call me Horace. We are all equals in this room, tomorrow we can go back to being professor and students but for now, please enjoy yourselves.”
“Of course,” Harry said with a nod, leading Hermione to the snack table.
“What did I miss in that exchange? Did you give something away?” She murmured softly glancing back at Slughorn who was all but bouncing.
“I gave the correct bow from one Head of House to another, he didn’t know I knew my own rank.” Harry replied softly, “Dumbledore probably said I would need tutoring or something to get him here. Now he’s one up on the headmaster.”
“Isn’t that playing your hand too soon?”
“He needs to know I have something to offer,” Harry said with a shrug, “Care to mingle?”
There were only about ten people in all, nearly everyone had someone famous in their family or were known to be an up and coming person of interest in the magical world. Slughorn clearly enjoyed grooming his club members for greatness.
Neville Longbottom stood talking to Marcus Belby to one side so Harry guided Hermione towards Flora and Hestia Carrow, seventh year twins. They watched the room keeping silent unless someone approached.
“Pleasure to see you both,” Harry said giving the correct bow for an older peer, that the girls responded with a curtsey and light hand position showing it was to a lesser acquaintance.
“I wasn’t aware you were part of Slughorn’s club.” Flora said eye flicking over them in a rapid assessment, “Have you teased out the game yet?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Hermione asked raising a brow, “Slughorn raises his own status by being the first to recognize budding talents and helping them rise to positions of power.”
“Belby was a poor choice, his grandfather is a potions master but they are not on good terms at the moment. Marcus himself doesn’t have the same skill level or ambition.”
“And yourselves?” Harry asked giving them his own once over, “What rank do you hope to hold once you graduate? Beyond being a member of the Sacred Twenty Eight? Heir Longbottom shares that pleasure as well.”
“Longbottom is a known Herbology prodigy, he is in line to take over the Professor Sprout’s role when she retires.” Flora said with a sniff, “And why should we fill in any blanks for you? If you are going to play you need to know all your opponents.”
“It may be a competition however I would say we are all trying for different positions.” Hermione said carefully.
“Very true, at least of those in this room.” Hestia agreed sipping at her punch, “What would you see your worth as, Potter?”
“I thought we weren’t sharing our advantages?” Harry asked with a teasing smile, “I would like to think I have much to offer but in the end my advantages are from birth and bad timing. I can only hope if I survive to graduate that I’ll be able to continue my magical education under calmer conditions.”
“You don’t plan to use those advantages?”
“Everyone is forced to use their privileges of birth at times.” Harry said with a grimace, “I can only hope I rise above those advantages on my own abilities.”
“Well said, Potter.” Flora said giving him a toast with her glass, “Longbottom is lacking a conversational partner if you wish to speak with him.”
“Thank you for the invigorating discussion, ladies.” He said giving another bow and offering a bow.
“Lord Potter, Miss Granger.” They said in unison with a curtsey.
“Harry, Hermione.” Neville said with a relieved grin as they approached, “I wasn’t sure if you were invited or not.”
“We haven’t had much time to talk lately.” Harry said frowning, “Have you discussed the communication options with Hermione yet?”
“No, what are you thinking?”
“Matched journals or a bracelet letting us send short messages.” Hermione said, “There are a few magical charms but they are hard to cast and rather obvious that you’re receiving a message.”
“Was Luna not invited?” Harry asked to change the topic as a few others drifted past with stiff polite smiles.
“She declined to attend, her mother was a famous spell crafter but she doesn’t like to remember her as such given her death was caused by a misfired spell.”
“How awful,” Hermione murmured, “I didn’t realize, she’s never said anything.”
“She doesn’t speak of it.” Neville offered with a shrug, “I did offer to escort her but she was adamant.”
“I doubt she would have enjoyed it, she’s not really one for discussions of rank and position.” Harry said, “Have you been to many of these events?”
“This is the first for Slughorn but I’ve been to enough dinner parties that are similar with my grandmother. At least at this one the conversation is mostly polite.”
“Do you have plans for this summer, Neville?” Hermione asked as Slughorn passed by, “Weren’t you thinking of taking an apprenticeship with Sprout once you graduate?”
“I’ve been speaking with a few international gardens as well, some take interns or short term apprentices over the summers. Now that the family greenhouses are turning a profit Gran has agreed to allow a proper staff. I’ll be free to travel a bit this summer.”
“That is wonderful news.” Harry agreed with a grin, “Keep a week or two open if you can, I’d like to get a few of us together for a few days.”
“Are you traveling again this holiday, Hermione? Wasn’t the last trip to France?”
“Yes, the wizarding areas there are fascinating.” Hermione said happily taking up the conversation until Slughorn had moved on to another group, turning to Harry, “Are you hoping to corner Slughorn after the party?”
“I think so, would it be weird to stay to help clean up?”
“Probably but if you offer it as a chance to talk alone he may take you up on it.” She said with a shrug, “We should probably mingle more,”
“Might as well make the best of it, at least the food is good.” Neville muttered with a sigh moving off to refresh his cup of punch.
They wandered the party until started to leave as curfew neared. Neville escorted Hermione off as one of the last few guests leaving him and Slughorn alone. It didn’t take long for the older man to get to the point.
“So, tell me, has our esteemed headmaster given you a task tonight?”
“You are not wrong,” Harry said with a grin, “However, he rarely shares the information he gathers. I’m looking to trade information for information.”
“The headmaster is on his way out,” Slughorn chuckled pouring them both a mug of ale, “Will what I share go back to him? Excellent honey ale a colleague of mine sent over.”
“Only the one item he requested, the rest would stay with me or my allies.” Harry said frowning at the slight tingle from his bracelet, was Slughorn trying to potion him?
“Allies? You have been a busy boy. The headmaster has been quite diligent in offering me chances to expand your education with little to show for it. Would you say it was needed?”
“I may not be the complete naive the headmaster believes me to be but I still have a lot to learn when it comes to politics and magical culture.”
“One never ceases to learn when it comes to politics and human nature.” He says with a cough, “I don’t remember this having quite the after bite to it. Must be a bad batch.”
“Who sent the ale?” Harry asks uncertainly as Slughorn flopped into a nearby chair.
“A former student, much like yourself.” Slughorn said waiving away the question, “What were we discussing?”
“Information, I think someone is trying to poison you.” Harry said pulling out his bozar and shoving it into Slughorn’s hand, “My detection bracelet is tingling when I touch the mug.”
“Nonsense, waste of an ingredient.” The man said loosening his tie as he started to sweat heavily.
“Then it is mine to waste. Please, sir, take it.”
“Why,” Slughorn wavered falling from his chair with a crash, Harry snatched the bozar stuffing it in the professor’s mouth over his slurred protests.
“I refuse to let you die on me, sir, not before our agreement is completed.” Harry muttered sarcastically glancing about the room, “Tips?”
“How can Tips help?” The house elf asked popping in.
“Please tell Poppy to come here now, Slughorn has been poisoned.”
“Tips will do.” The elf said popping away.
“We will need to have a long discussion eventually.” Slughorn says slowly pulling himself back into the chair with a hiss.
“Eventually,” Harry agrees easily, “The headmaster wants to know what you told Tom Riddle that you haven’t shared with anyone else.”
“Riddle?” Slughorn asked with a startled blink, “A fine student and will placed to take a high position in the government, instead he gave it all up and eventually disappeared. No one knows what became of him.”
“He didn’t disappear, he became someone else. What did you tell him? He would have asked about something rare, been insistent about it.”
“One of the last times we spoke he asked about old Egyptian rituals, creating objects to prevent death.”
“What are they called?” Harry asked needing him to name it himself since there was the chance of Dumbledore listening in, rare as it was.
“Horcruxes, evil things, a way to cheat death by dividing the soul.” Slughorn says with a shudder, falling silent as Poppy hurries into the room.
“What has happened?”
“A bad batch of ale, Mister Potter was prompt with his Bozar.”
“It is nearly curfew, will you be alright?” Harry asks edging closer to the door.
“Go, we will speak later.”
“Thank you, sir.” Harry said with a nod.
He headed back to the griffindore common room, not bothering to try and catch the headmaster. He could confirm his suspicions tomorrow, it wasn’t like he didn’t already know about the Horcruxes, he just wanted a reason to drag Harry further into the hunt.