Astoria shared tea with Cortewalle and her brother at the Babbling Fox the next morning, and the gathering had predictably fallen to a discussion of the state of affairs in Britain.
Cortewalle picked up his tea cup, draining the lavender tea with an appreciative ahhhh. "It was inevitable. One only needs to look to the more progressive colonies to see where we’re heading."
"You think Britain will lose its aristocracy entirely?" Astoria asked.
"Exactly. People like Hadrian Corvus can try to hold it back, but if you put the question to the general public, I think you'll find it's what the people want. They might've had another 20 or 50 year grace period, had Voldemort not taken it away from them. But I'm afraid he did, and they must all adapt."
How unfortunate for Voldemort that he had acted as the catalyst for social change, where it certainly hadn't been the change he had intended.
"As a pureblood, what does Lyndon think of it?" Astoria asked. She had noticed that her brother and Cortewalle both no longer identified with the purebloods they referenced. Us and them. She could see their point, of course, but it was still saddening to think that Voldemort had created such discord that the great haughty purebloods and the glittering balls of her youth were considered a threat to Britain. They were a dying breed, those purebloods, and although she agreed with Cortewalle that their time had come and gone, she mourned the loss of it.
"My dear," Cortewalle said, "What I've said was borrowed from one of Lyndon’s speeches. He is a realist as much as a politician. A strange creature your brother and I have found."
"I'll believe that when I see it. Realist. Politician." She held her hands out as if weighing the two concepts. "That should be like trying to push the south poles of two magnets together."
"Americans are so irreverent," Cortewalle said to her brother. He turned back to her. "I shall have great pleasure in introducing you to Lyndon. We shall see if he can change your mind."
"Careful you boys don't send me back to Salem with the notion that pols are actually good people. It'll be so disappointing when I come back down to reality."
Her brother laughed. "I think you'll come to see Lyndon as the exception rather than the rule."
"We'll see," Astoria said. This paragon of politics would have to impress her doubly after Cortewalle's glowing recommendation. In her experience, there were always skeletons in the closet, dirty little secrets to be exposed - not to mention that politicians were stored so full of lies they practically had to piss them away.
As it turned out, Lyndon arrived mere minutes later for what Tristan would later tell her was their usual morning meeting. It seemed her chance to form an opinion on the man would come a lot earlier than expected.
Astoria shot Cortewalle a look that said ‘well done’, and his eyes twinkled that little bit more.
The Ministerial candidate was a sober looking wizard - dark suit and tie in contrast to a frosting of silver in the hair around the temples. He had an earnest way about him that was immediately endearing; Astoria did not doubt that he knew precisely how to wield it.
Lyndon reached over and shook her hand firmly. "Very good," he said, seating himself next to Cortewalle after the introductions. After asking what brought her to Britain, Lyndon ordered tea and regarded her for a moment. "How well did you do in muggle studies?" he asked abruptly.
"Passably," she said, thrown by the sudden question and at a loss as to the relevance.
"How much do you recall of the muggle system of government?"
She remembered enough to know that muggle government was vastly different from their own. "I remember that it was bloody confusing," she replied. "I rather liked the idea of a monarchy. I don't know why muggles would have tied themselves up in more layers of government when the old system worked just fine."
Lyndon tutted. "There are benefits, I think, that outweigh the extra bureaucracy. Might you see a benefit to a Wizengamot that is not handpicked by our Minister? A judicial system entirely separate from the Ministry itself?"
Astoria didn't answer immediately. The Wizengamot had operated precisely as had been intended by their forebears for centuries. Although it was the Minister's right to choose his Wizengamot, that perk had not been abused by a Minister in the last fifty years until Fudge had chosen to revive it - and again when Shacklebolt had installed people of his own choosing in the Wizengamot seats left empty by the dead. Lyndon would find it hard to argue that the witches and wizards Shacklebolt had appointed had not acted in balancing counterpoint to the pro-pureblood agenda of the remaining Wizengamot members. On the other hand, the Ministry's detractors always argued that the Wizengamot held too much power - the power to make the law and the power to judge.
Could Astoria see a benefit to splitting the Wizengamot's powers down the middle? Perhaps. The more interesting question was, did Britain?
"I’m not sure whether that’s lunacy or a stroke of genius,” Astoria said. “Is this something you're actually considering?"
"I've considered it," Lyndon said, with amusement. “There are some in the Ministry who are... open to the idea.”
"Well." She was afraid her mouth would fall open at his candid response. To change the Wizengamot from what it was currently to something resembling a muggle parliamentary system, with an entire new judiciary to boot - it was as radical an idea as Voldemort's blood supremacy, and very, very ambitious. The time alone it would take for all of this to be hacked out and put into some semblance of working order... it would extend far beyond the seven year term of the next Minister for Magic. "I’m afraid you may be stopped before you even begin,” Astoria said. “If some are open to the idea I’ll bet there’s a great many more opposed. Do you think the Wizengamot will stand aside and doff their hats as you march away half their power? Just what does the Ministry make of this?"
"The Ministry isn't ready to hear what I have to say," Lyndon said. "That's something I plan on changing, once I get there. We've had two wars in the space of twenty years, and a lot has changed. But no one's thought - through all of that - that maybe we need to go right to the top and change what we're doing there. Put a stop to all of this blood purity nonsense once and for all. If we're still at the point where a Minister for Magic can choose each and every Ministry Head and member of the Wizengamot, we aren't changing anything. It's all well and good with someone like Shacklebolt as Minister, but what if at the end of this election we end up with someone like Fudge? Who's to say we won't have a third war?"
Of course if you put an asshole in power they were going to try and find a way to abuse the system. Maybe Britain's problem was that the Ministry tended to attract assholes in general.
Astoria shook her head. "Let me get this right - You want to win the election, only to limit the power you've just given yourself, by changing everything?"
"I told you he was a strange creature," Cortewalle said.
"The Ministry needs checks and balances." Lyndon leant back in his wicker chair. "One thing Voldemort did when he took over the Ministry, was prove how open to abuse our system really is. We’re seeing it again with the way Corvus is rallying the Wizengamot and Ministry to him. They’re not stupid, they can see clearly that he’s a traditionalist - but giving the Ministership to someone like Rhodes or someone like me, means they continue to lose ground. And Shacklebolt has already been chipping away at it for seven years. No - I’d like to see opposition, transparency... and I’d like to stop putting all our eggs in one basket. Muggles call it the separation of powers. I don't think anyone can argue that taking a leaf from the muggle's book wouldn't keep the Ministry more honest."
"Or pull them up on it when they haven't been," Cortewalle pointed out.
Tristan had been watching their interaction with fascination. He stood now, helping his sister up. "Well, Astoria must leave to meet Daphne," he said.
Astoria shook her head - she had made no plans of the sort - but this was obviously Tristan’s queue for her to leave. She bent to kiss Cortewalle’s cheek and then clasped Lyndon’s hand.
"It was a pleasure," Lyndon said. "Thank you for your company and discussion both."
"I'll walk you out," Tristan said, already guiding her from the room. When out of earshot of the two men, Tristan dropped his arm from her elbow. "Cort just wanted to introduce you to Lyndon, really. They can get into things now. Impressive isn't he?"
For a politician, he was pretty stock-standard. Engaging, a good speaker - but then that was expected in his profession. As for his ideas, it would be impressive if he could get himself elected and put them into practice. Until then, it was nothing more than a dream.
"We’ll see," she said. "I’m not sure I can take the whole 'Ministry-overhaul' thing seriously if Lyndon cooks up all his ideas in a tea house."
Astoria didn't know it at the time, but that morning was the last she would see of Edward Cortewalle.
After leaving the meeting with Lyndon and her brother, Cortewalle was seen briefly at Gringott's Bank, where he collected the daily statements detailing the financial contributions to Lyndon's campaign. He left shortly before 7 AM, returning to the Babbling Fox which was to become, despite Hitwizards investigating the disappearance, the point where Cortewalle dropped off the face of the earth. He'd be found weeks later, frail and memory-affected.
In retrospect, Astoria would come to regard Cortewalle's disappearance as the beginning of her foray into British politics, and the catalyst that led to her introduction to the man that would later make her his wife.
The Bird In The Hand, known colloquially as The Bird, was a restaurant favoured by the well-to-do of wizarding Britain. For Lyndon's fundraiser, a raised platform had been erected at the far end of the restaurant, and large, circular tables were set around the stage. Metal stanchions strung with velvet rope barred entry at the front of the restaurant, with a small sign reading 'Private Event'.
Poor Cortewalle had been missing for four days. In his absence, a wizard called Samuel Marsh was named as Lyndon's campaign manager. Astoria hadn't met the man, although her brother thought highly of him. However, he was, in her brother's own words, no Cortewalle.
The keynote address was a shameful promotion of Lyndon's war record, and the heartbreaking story of the demise of his wife at the hands of the Death Eaters during the height of the Second Wizarding War. Lyndon's following speech had whipped the crowd into a frenzy of applause and self-satisfied back-slapping that any American politico would be proud of.
The tables were then dismantled and the crowd broke up to mingle.
Astoria circulated the crowd on her brother’s arm, rubbing shoulders and shaking hands with wizards she'd never met. Tristan had been playing muggle santa, making outrageous promises and talking Lyndon up to the point that she was sure Lyndon would blush if he'd heard it. In Tristan's hands, Lyndon's plans to loosen international trading restrictions made soft putty of wealthy entrepreneurs. Members of St. Mungo's Board of Directors were encouraged by a generous donation to the Ward, and the wealthy British Head Of Airborne Sporting Teams was promised a lift of the ban on the airfield above the Forest of Dean. For her part, Astoria mostly kept quiet, sipping her wine and content to let Tristan do his work.
As the crowd began to thin, Tristan steered her toward where Lyndon stood, flanked by his entourage. The notable absence of Edward Cortewalle had her frowning.
"Greengrass," Lyndon said. He gestured out with one hand, beckoning them closer. "You're just in time to reassure Brabant here of our tough stance toward inter-species marriage."
Mark Lyndon had been working overtime tonight. The amount of favours he'd offered in exchange for financial support would likely outnumber the number of guests. He was very much playing the part of a serious politician, and had his arm around the shoulders of a man who Astoria assumed was Brabant.
"It would be my pleasure," Tristan said with a bow. He looked askance at Astoria for a moment before leading Brabant away, leaving her well and truly ensconced in Lydon's circle.
"My apologies for tearing you from your brother's side," Lyndon said.
Was that what had just happened? She looked around the circle of witches and wizards, all looking back at her, and she frowned again. At the very least her brother could have given her warning.
Lyndon nodded to the man at her left - Samuel Marsh - who said, on cue, “A moment of your time, if you wouldn’t mind.”
"Do I have a choice?" she asked. They'd quite deftly maneuvered her into a corner, but she took her hand and placed it on his arm regardless.
They exited The Bird in silence and stopped in the courtyard at the front of the building. Marsh took a seat on the steps and Astoria followed, taking care to settle the hem of her robes. Just beyond the courtyard was candle-lit Diagon Alley. The bustling crowds of the Alley during the day had been replaced by couples wandering at a sedate pace and the odd drunken reveller.
Marsh cleared his throat. "First of all, I apologise for putting you on the spot. Secondly, I confess to ulterior motives."
"Oh?" Astoria doubted Marsh would pull her away from Lyndon's fundraiser to ask whether he should get Tristan a tie or a pair of socks for his birthday. What a man like Marsh would want with an American rubberneck with her skill set was obvious. What she was less sure about was whether she could say no.
Encouraged by Astoria’s mild response to his ambush, Marsh went on. "Let me get to the point. I'm the first to admit that I'm a PR man at heart. I've been able to fill Cortewalle's shoes as campaign manager in all respects but one. And that's because I've never been one to - forgive the turn of phrase - wash my hands in muddy water. Now we have Cortewalle missing just weeks after the Malfoys have turned it into a dirty run-" he paused, and readjusted the collar of his shirt. "We find ourselves at a disadvantage."
"And you think I can even up the odds?" Astoria finished for him.
It was true, Cortewalle's disappearance left a hole in Lyndon's campaign that she was able to fill. What Marsh proposed was sliding a familiar and well-read tale across the table - the British adaption of the first seven years of her career. But it wasn’t to be the overreaching job of campaign manager... Marsh’s discomfort showed in his reluctance to state his offer in explicit terms - that he wanted the hole-and-corner dirty tricks that she had learnt at her grandfather’s knee. Wash her hands in muddy water. She almost laughed.
“I hadn’t pinned Lyndon for a gamesman,” she said. “How much convincing did it take for The Moral Politician to set aside the morals?”
Marsh’s lips twisted into something that was not quite a frown, as if he disapproved of Astoria’s judgment of his candidate, but not quite the judgment itself. “Did you know the use of the unforgiveables was sanctioned during the War?” he asked. “Our guys had been fighting against masks and Dark Magic with Disarming Charms. How many Aurors died because we wanted to go softly, softly?” He gave a wry smile. “Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. Lyndon is a good man, and the right man for the job. But how does a good man make a difference when he must compete with opponents who will stop at nothing to further their means? What’s best for Britain? Corvus is a traditionalist dressed up as a moderate, Miremont’s nothing more than a pretty headshot for the first page of the newspaper and bloody Rhodes has the public so beside themselves at the sight of a pureblood it’s like reliving the Second War in fucking reverse. Lyndon wants unity. I truly believe Lyndon is the right man for the job, and I hope that in time you’ll see that we’re doing the right thing. Putting aside the hypocrisy of this statement - perhaps we need to dirty our hands, if, in the end, we can do some good.”
All this talk of dirtying hands was doing little to convince Astoria of the wisdom in joining Lyndon’s campaign. From what Astoria had heard and seen of Lyndon, he was one of those pols who started out with good intentions, then found the path to Office a little more difficult than anticipated when they had to start climbing over people to get there. Astoria suspected that in Marsh’s earnest speech she was witnessing the first shift in Lyndon’s thinking, and it wasn’t too hard to see what had caused this change of heart: Cortewalle had gone missing, and they were running scared.
“We have a saying at Gallows,” she said. “All good men die at Salem. You fall on your morals or you fuck off. Lyndon can’t compete with anyone if he’s not being competitive. Sitting on his thumbs and rocking his morals to sleep at night won’t do him any good if he doesn’t make it to Office in the first place. Don’t misunderstand me - I’m glad you’re not giving me a pretty speech about morality when it should be about winning, but you can barely look me in the eyes and speak plainly... whatever it takes should be your concern, not euphemisms about dirty hands and appeals to my conscience. Is he serious about this run or not?”
Marsh didn’t look too happy at this criticism from an American forty years his junior. “Mark Lyndon didn’t come out of retirement to, as you say, sit on his thumbs. His vision for the Ministry is, in my opinion, the most radical we’ve seen - ever - and the best chance Britain has for finally finding some normalcy following the War. Just what exactly is your point of issue, because it sounds as if your only criticism is that Lyndon didn’t throw the morals out the window sooner.”
Astoria felt frustration rising. "I can’t - Look, it’s true I didn’t get into this line of work because my conscience told me to. But that in no way blinds me to recognising a bad idea when I see one; and this looks like it could go either way. I can't see how an American throwing shit at three Ministerial hopefuls will do Britain any good."
"We're not asking you to run the show,” Marsh said, on the verge of frustration himself. “Just show up every now and again, give a candidate a sucker-punch, and we’ll consider that a job well done. Take a look at the bigger picture - thousands of people have had to die to get here, your father included, but now that we're here we need Lyndon to bring it home."
Astoria, who had sat still during Marsh's speech, felt herself bristle. "Bringing up my father is either a naive or absolutely asshole move." She swallowed the tight feeling in her throat. "It's all very noble of Lyndon to think he can change the world for the better, and I'm not one to downplay what you and Tristan say he's trying to do. What I want to know is, how you can propose to give me, who has no fucking clue about the lay of the land here, the power and the money to play around in what is the most important election since the formation of the British Ministry. And crossed fingers that I don't fuck it up. You boys better have some Felix Felicis handy 'cause you're gonna bloody need it. Truly, you and my brother both have batshit for brains."
Marsh looked visibly taken aback, before he gave a sudden bark of laughter. "Far worse things have been said of me, Greengrass, although your dismissal of my decision to bring you on does smart a little. It's politics. Same shit, different country."
Astoria shook her head. "My grandfather would call you idealistic and an idiot. And he'd be right. I'm not the person you want on your team if you want to do the right thing."
"It's my job to worry about the right and wrong of it. What do you say, hmm?"
Astoria couldn’t deny that the idea appealed to her inner machiavelli, but her grandfather would tell her to stay well away from this particular candidate. In their line of work, doing the smart thing over the right thing would get your candidate elected. She should, in all decency, say no. Her job had nothing to do with the good of the country and was entirely focused on what was good for the candidate; and Voldemort had inflicted wounds upon Britain that were vulnerable to all sorts of tricks that she could pull. However, if Lyndon was the right man for the job... couldn't the smart thing be the right thing?
It amused her to think that she’d had to cross the Atlantic to find herself in a different kind of moral quandary.
"I'll mull it over," Astoria allowed. "But I don't know... this has the potential to go all wrong." She shook her head again. "Give me some time to think it through, have a look at what's happening around here. Maybe I can help you, maybe I can't."
Marsh slapped his palms on his thighs and rose from the steps, extending his hands to pull Astoria from the steps too. "Of course we'll compensate you for your efforts, but I won't wait for your answer forever. I'll ask you again, Thursday week, and I'd ask that you have an answer for me then.” He turned to rejoin Lyndon's side. "I hope I'm not being preemptive in welcoming you to British politics," he said over his shoulder.
And he hadn't been. When Astoria arrived home she found an invitation to Hadrian Corvus' gala slipped under her door.
Ben Spontin didn't like purebloods. He didn't like the way they dressed in their archaic robes. He didn't like the way ordinary witches and wizards would stop and stare as they went past, as if they were kings and queens of old. He didn't like that Voldemort and his pureblood Death Eaters had killed his parents because they had dirty blood. In fact, it was safe to say that Ben Spontin fairly hated purebloods.
He liked the way that Thersander Rhodes had put every effort into bringing purebloods down. He liked, even more, that Thersander Rhodes had appointed him as his campaign manager.
Great minds think alike, eh?
And they were doing so well. Of all the candidates, Rhodes and Corvus had the largest slices of support. Two polar opposites - the wealthy pureblood Ministry Official, and the muggle-born blood equality advocate. What a joke. But Spontin had a feeling they were going to win. People just didn't like purebloods, simple as that. Perhaps not to the level that Spontin himself hated them, but there was a lot of bad blood.
Blood. That was what was going to win or lose this election.
Miremont and Lyndon would have to fight between themselves for the scraps.
A sudden knock on his door signalled his man's arrival, and he bid him come in.
"What was it you wanted to see me about?" Spontin asked.
"Well, you'd been having me follow that Cortewalle fellow, innit?" The man leaned in. "I seen him meeting with Lucius Malfoy."
Spontin sat a bit higher in his seat. The rumor mill was working overtime now that Cortewalle was missing, but none made mention of the Malfoys. "You're absolutely sure?"
"Sure as I'm sitting here with you," the man assured.
At once the wheels in Spontin's mind began to turn. What was it Cortewalle would want to discuss with Lucius Malfoy? "And? Where did they go, what did they do?" Spontin asked quickly.
"Well, that's the thing, innit? Old Cortewalle picks up some papers at the bank. He goes to the Babbling Fox and orders lavender tea, gets to reading his papers. Old man finds it necessary to send out a patronus, then he receives one back. He apparates to the Hogs Head where he meets with none other than Lucius Malfoy. They both go into the kitchen there, but here's the thing, innit? I ain't ever seen Cortewalle or Malfoy leave there, and I ain't seen Cortewalle since Tuesday."
"Any idea what those papers were about?"
"Not one fig," the man said. "Though they was definitely numbers, sir."
Numbers, not words... The simple fact that Cortewalle had met with Malfoy immediately after - it wasn't a difficult stretch of the mind to see that it was campaign-related. Merlin on a bike, he'd give his wand arm to find out what had been on those papers. "I want you on Samuel Marsh for now," Spontin said. “And you find me Cortewalle. People don't just vanish."