‘You don’t have to do this.’
Eva buckled up the webbing that would keep everything she’d need in the field secure and close to hand. A wand and pack of rations could take her far, but in unknown territory she preferred the redundancy of mundane equipment. ‘These maps had best be up to date. I don’t fancy getting lost in a jungle for days.’
Judge Roux frowned as he watched her check and double-check her gear. They were stood in the Portkey chamber, foreboding grey walls containing and binding the magical energies for powerful international travel, and the tension of them both filled it enough to make the air rumble. ‘I mean it, Eva –‘
‘Then who does do this?’ She arched an eyebrow at him as she tightened the webbing across her shoulder. ‘DRC? There’s a reason the Manticores are having this meeting there; they’ve probably bribed half the law enforcement. Nigeria or the US or Brazil have the manpower, but how do they explain sending agents into foreign territory? Remember why you use me, sir. I’m deniable.’
‘You were meant to have done your last mission for me.’
‘That was before the Red Manticores turned out to be old friends.’ Her jaw set. ‘I know them. The only good news is that Loganach and Downing are dead, so they’ve lost their smartest and their most vicious.’ And, of course, they’ve lost Prometheus. ‘Besides, the moment I leave your protection, Castillo’s going to be all over me.’
‘I didn’t know she’d be at that meeting. She’s a minor MACUSA Auror –‘
‘I wouldn’t expect you to know her.’ She’d made many enemies over the years, and a young, green American shouldn’t have been one to stick with her. But Castillo had been one of the rising stars of US law enforcement, brilliant and dedicated and had learnt early on to loathe Eva. They’d played cat and mouse for the better part of a year before Prometheus had them leave the US. In the grand scheme of things, Castillo had not been the worst she’d faced. But everyone else had hunted Prometheus, wanted to stop her to get to Prometheus.
With Castillo, it had been personal.
‘If I left now,’ Eva continued, ‘all I could do is go on the run again since she’s caught my scent. This needs seeing through and I’m safer working for you.’
‘You’re not safer,’ said Roux, ‘marching into the Congolese jungle alone.’
‘Then how about some backup?’
Eva’s head snapped around as the door opened and Al walked in, pack slung over his shoulder. ‘What’re you doing here?’
‘Catching up while the good Judge delayed you.’ Al gave Roux a polite nod. ‘Thank you.’
She narrowed her eyes and looked between them. ‘You can’t be serious. Either of you. He’s not –‘
‘As you said, you’re deniable,’ said Roux. ‘If two private citizens want to go for a hike in the jungle, that has nothing to do with me. Do try to take some good pictures while you’re out there.’ He smirked, shrugged, and left.
Eva rounded on Al. ‘You can’t be serious. This isn’t your fight.’
‘Judge Roux said this wasn’t going to be a fight. Just that sources had leaked news of a meeting between the Red Manticores and a buyer for the package they stole in New Mexico in the Congolese jungle, and that the mission is purely a fact-finding one. Do not engage.’ He hefted his pack. ‘I happen to know what I’m doing in a jungle.’
‘I thought I was clear before –‘
‘That it’ll be too hard for you to get close to me, only to risk losing you?’ He stepped forward, voice low and firm. ‘That’ll be a cakewalk for me, too. Except if we’re together, I can do what I can to protect you from MACUSA. And more than that, you came back to me, even before you knew for sure it was safe. You walked back into my life, Eva. That’s on you. You don’t get to pick me up when you fancy it and drop me when it gets too hard. You chose to leave after Niemandhorn, you chose to come back a few days ago, and you’re trying to make the decision again. Tough. It’s my turn. And I’m going with you.’
There was a low rumble as the Portkey ring, sat on its plinth in the small chamber, rattled with the buzz of magical energy, and she scowled. ‘That’s our window.’ There was only a narrow period where they could safely transport into DR Congo without being picked up by any of the magical government’s protections.
‘Then let’s go.’
The world swirled and spun when they grabbed the Portkey, reality twisting in and out and stringing them across the hundreds of miles in the blink of an eye. But it wasn’t the travel itself that was hard on body and mind; it was the transition, going from an underground stone chamber to the jungle. One moment all was gloomy and cold; the next she was hit with a wave of humid warmth enough to stifle her breath and make a sweat break out on the back of her neck in a heartbeat. Echoes were replaced with the chirruping of insects and small creatures, the creak of the swaying of trees and branches; musty scents with the smell of green, green life and plants and everything.
Albus, next to her, took a slow, deep breath and for all they were in a hostile environment that could get them lost and killed without ever seeing an enemy, looked much more at ease. ‘So what’s the plan?’
It was, she realised, too late to argue. She hefted the metal ring of the Portkey and reached for her pack to unsling the extendable shovel. ‘We have to bury this to keep it hidden. We have twenty-four hours until it activates for the return journey, when the security window’s open. If we move it, we lose the connection with Cape Town.’
‘The risks of clandestine operations,’ he drawled, and helped her shift the undergrowth to one side to dig. ‘So why is this mission only surveillance?’
‘Politics,’ grunted Eva, slamming the shovel into the root-ridden dirt. ‘Nobody can send a proper force in to arrest them. So we find out what we can and use it for next time.’ They buried the ring in silence from then on, and she slung the shovel as she straightened. ‘Come on. We’ve a four-hour hike, and that’s assuming I can find a decent animal trail along the way.’
She did not, at least, have to take the full precautions of jungle movement. If they were hunting or being hunted, secrecy won over fast movement, and sometimes on past expeditions she’d made barely five hundred yards’ progress in a day. That took moving every single bit of the wilderness delicately out of the way and then putting it back how she found it. That took navigating by the contours of the land when maps gave only a view of the tree canopy, of rivers whose location shifted over time. That took using smell and sound over sight to know her surroundings, where washing meant the whiff of soap or toothpaste to give her away.
Instead, she could use her blade to cut away the worst of the undergrowth and so long as they stuck to animal trails and her spells could make sure they didn’t veer in their course heading, they were making good progress for where intel said the rendezvous point was.
‘So,’ said Al, breathing heavy after an hour’s rough travel, ‘are you going to explain?’
There were too many possible responses to that. ‘About what?’
‘The Red Manticores. Thane’s old gang. I don’t know them.’
‘You fought some of them. Portugal, Ager Sanguinis the second time.’ She stepped gingerly over a patch of thick undergrowth she knew would entangle her boot rather than let her rip through it. ‘Not that there was time for introductions. But Pro – Thane. He kept more around him than me and Downing.’
‘I wouldn’t want to press you,’ came his voice from behind her, delicate, ‘but it might be pertinent.’
She sighed. ‘It could be worse. His best are dead.’ Or me. ‘Leofric Tackleton is an entitled overgrown schoolboy who followed Thane from Hogwarts, a few years younger than him. He always had delusions of grandeur and was never as smart or important as he thought he was, but he was useful when we wanted to give ourselves an air of respectability.’ It was uncomfortable how comfortable the ‘we’ came. ‘Gisila Faust was our fixer, the one with the contacts, the one who helped us get jobs and helped us shift goods. She’s good, but her skillset is very particular. You might not have seen her in the field. Niko Argyris – I’m not surprised he’s the one who went to New Mexico. He’s a follower more than a leader, he likes being hands-on, and he’s probably the most dangerous of them in a fight, but he’s not particularly imaginative. Or particularly malicious. I’d call him dumb muscle but he’s the least unpleasant. Honestly, they’re all pretty second-string compared to Downing or Loganach.’
‘Griogair Loganach. Now, he really was Prometheus’ right-hand man, the one who’d be trusted with the most important operations Prometheus didn’t handle himself. You won’t have seen him; he was team leader in our operations while everyone else was at Hogwarts and running other missions during the Chalice hunt. But he was killed by Australian Enforcers about eighteen months ago. I can only imagine the Red Manticores are the gang’s last-ditch effort with most of their best and brightest gone.’
‘Last-ditch effort for what?’
‘What international mercenaries always want once they’re sated on life experiences: enough money to retire in comfort forever.’ It was not, she thought, what she’d wanted. But she’d been nineteen when she met Albus, and wanted nothing more than to survive and obey Prometheus, please Prometheus. The likes of Loganach and Argyris, older men who cared about squeezing as much wealth out of as much risk, had been even more alien to her than the brutish Downing. At least she’d understood his splashes of malice.
They were at an awkward descent through the undergrowth by then, grabbing vines to steady themselves on slippery footing down a steep slope, and Albus didn’t speak again until they reached the bottom. ‘You thought they’d already done that?’
‘I thought they’d split up without Prometheus.’ Pretending she wouldn’t call him by his first name was feeling churlish, like it made Albus’ eyes burn through her back and see through her dissembling. It was strange how, even after so long, he could swipe aside her evasions that had become again as natural as breathing. ‘There must be good money in the Red Manticore business. It’s the only way I can see them being brought together again.’
‘You know you don’t need to shoulder them as a burden –‘
Her breath caught in her throat. ‘This isn’t about taking responsibility, Al. I don’t give a damn about them. I’m doing this because this kind of covert activity is exactly what I’ve been paid to do the last five years, the kind of work I’ve been doing that keeps me safe and out of jail. And if I stop doing it now, not only will it look suspicious as hell, it’ll leave me vulnerable at the exact moment I’ve caught the attention of people who don’t want to forgive me.’
‘You mean Castillo.’ He caught up, a shadow at her side to make the warmth of the jungle less stifling. ‘Roux isn’t going to let you be taken down by one American with a grudge. I won’t let you be –‘
‘First, Al, you can’t stop anyone from doing anything,’ Eva snapped before she could stop herself. ‘Second, even if you could, who you’re calling an American with a grudge is a law enforcement officer whose partner I killed during her pursuit of me for other murders. Murders I have yet to see trial for, receive judgement for, be punished for.’
He wilted, but his jaw tightened after a moment. ‘We’ve been over this.’
‘And over it, and over it. The people I’ve helped don’t make the people I’ve killed less dead. I’m not about to turn myself in, but don’t kid yourself, Al. Castillo isn’t a loon with a vendetta.’ She pushed past him, continued on the troop through the sea of green she was mostly sure led to their destination. ‘She’s the reason I left five years ago. She’s what I’ve tried to stay one step ahead of all this time. She’s judgement day.’
Wrought-iron gates creaked like the wails of the dead as Scorpius set foot onto the grounds of Malfoy Manor. And he knew exactly what the wails of the dead sounded like. One step broke the air further, the crunch of gravel left undisturbed for years under his boot, but still he was so tense that the crack from behind him had him spin, wand raised, injuries across his ribs screaming in protest as muscles stretched.
Selena blinked as the first thing she saw upon Apparition was his wand-tip in her face. ‘Well, hello to you, too.’
He lowered his wand and scowled. ‘What’re you doing here?’
The countryside breeze tugged at strands of her gold hair, and she straightened it with customary aplomb. ‘Rose sent me.’
‘I told Rose I was going to the office…’
‘It’s almost as if your wife can tell when you’re lying.’ Selena sighed. ‘For the record, I have no bloody clue what’s going on, but Rose clearly still needed me in the country and she’s worried about you over something she can’t intervene on herself. I get the impression she’d have much rather sent Albus after you, but he’s God-knows-where, so you get me telling you to get over yourself.’
His gut coiled as he slid his wand up his sleeve. ‘I do not need the patented Selena Rourke “you’re being very stupid” blunt lecture.’
‘Please. Lecture would suggest it’s longer than those four words. Also, experience tells me otherwise. Not to mention you’ve come here.’
Scorpius turned back to the looming grey walls of Malfoy Manor. Between them and the locked doors and shuttered windows were the overgrown lawns and hedgerows, the fountain left to go dry for an age. He didn’t know if it was less welcoming like this; after all, when it was in good order it meant his father was there. ‘I don’t expect you to understand.’
She followed him anyway. ‘Complicated feelings about family? About parents who have done all sorts of things and still demonstrated their affection in their own, messed up ways? No, Scorpius, I can’t imagine what that’s like,’ said the daughter of Lillian Rourke. But her voice softened as she said, ‘is he up for parole?’
Despite having come to his family home, he hadn’t let himself think about how Draco himself would fit into all of this. ‘No, it’s not about that. I wanted to take a look.’
‘Scorpius, you hated this place even before your father was complicit in a plot to take over the world which caused the deaths of hundreds, thousands of innocent people. You did not just pop by.’
‘Maybe,’ he snapped, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘I considered that,’ said Selena, ‘and then decided that’s probably you being stubborn and stupid.’
But she didn’t say anything else as they reached the doors, and Scorpius drew his wand to mutter the specific incantations needed to unlock them. ‘Expect dust,’ he warned. ‘Harley gave up the place ages ago and Rigby’s not been maintaining it.’ It had taken some time to get the family House Elf to accept work anywhere else, time that had tested Harley’s patience as much as Scorpius’. Now he worked maintenance in Rose’s offices, which wasn’t exactly the best progress, but earning a fair wage under the half-blood part of the family was better than nothing.
The doors creaked open to reveal an interior shrouded in shadows for mere heartbeats before magic kicked in, the sconces along the walls bursting into flames to cast skittering darkness about the deepest corners of the halls of Malfoy Manor. Selena wrinkled her nose. ‘I bet this place was super cosy when people lived here. Great place to raise children.’
It seemed an innocent comment, so he fought to keep the flinch from his face. Selena Rourke was as good at reading people as anyone he knew, but he’d kept his share of secrets in his time. They were old habits and techniques, from days marching across the world with Prometheus Thane and thinking himself as dead inside as he’d soon be outside, and no part of him liked calling on them. But then, he’d had to do the same in New Mexico; steel himself for fire and blood and raise his wand for war.
It had been easier than he’d liked.
‘This family home isn’t for the family. It’s for everyone looking at the family.’
‘This is the sort of thing which separates the pure-bloods from the pure-bloods,’ said Selena Rourke, who could trace back her ancestry several hundred years. Nobody bearing the Rourke name had married a Muggle-born, but they might have married the grandchild of one.
Scorpius Malfoy, who could trace his name to the Norman Conquest in England and the time of Charlemagne in France and had found no signs of Muggle blood anywhere in that mix, gave a grimace of a smile. ‘The difference being that my sort do nothing by halves.’
His footsteps echoed down the corridors, but despite himself it was a comfort to hear Selena’s in unison. There was nobody he would have wanted with him here, but the thought of bringing Selena didn’t cause the twist in his gut that came with the idea of Albus or Rose in her place. And still he found himself saying, ‘So why are you spending so long in England? I thought they hounded you out?’
It was a clumsy effort to turn the tables and washed over her as much as he should have expected. ‘Yes, they’ll be gathering with the pitchforks before long to see if I finish my metamorphosis into my mother and start to seize power and oppress them. Believe it or not I have a little business with my editor I thought I’d get out of the way, considering we’ve not talked face to face since I was last in the country for your wedding.’
‘And Matt didn’t come for support? Trouble in paradise?’
‘He went back to continue his research on something terribly old and boring in South America while I went to support Rose; they might have signed an armistice at your fund-raiser but let’s not pretend it wouldn’t have been bloody awkward to have him with me,’ said Selena in an arch voice, then looked at all the portraits lining the halls. ‘Oh, my, don’t they all just look like you.’
His mother’s gift to his looks had been to soften them; make his face a little less pointed, his eyes a little more blue. It meant Scorpius looked most like his father, and his father’s father, in dim lighting with the shadows to accentuate the angles of his face. Most like his family in the gloomy corners of the world.
So it was a cheap shot from Selena in response to his own petty blow, and he rounded on her with more anger than he’d anticipated. ‘Blood will do that,’ he snapped. ‘Thicker than water, and all.’
‘Ah,’ said Selena with dawning realisation. ‘Is it time for your regularly scheduled “am I my father” freak-out?’
‘Oh, piss off, Selena, I didn’t come here for you to give me your self-important shit.’
‘No, it looks like you came here to give yourself shit. Are you not allowed to outsource your torment?’ At the flash in his eyes, she lifted her hands. ‘I have no idea what’s going on, and if it were up to me I’d let you stew in this until you got over yourself. But you helping Thane in the war is nothing like what your father did.’ He squinted at her, confused, and for once Selena misread him and took his silence for apprehension. ‘I know running into his mob again, this Argyris, might be bringing back some bad things,’ she pressed on. ‘But you know it’s more complicated than that, and you know it’s no reason to freak Rose out and go throw yourself into the den of Malfoy self-pity.’
Of course she doesn’t know, remembered Scorpius, and found himself with no desire to illuminate her. However much Rose’s news had set him to panic, Selena Rourke was not the first person he would chose to unburden himself to. And while she’d misunderstood the trigger incident, she wasn’t a million miles from the truth.
‘I’ve spent the last five years trying to move past it,’ he said, shoving his hands in his pockets and letting his gaze sweep down the halls of Malfoy family portraits. ‘I might have thought I was fighting the Council, but I still let myself do horrible things on the justification that I was going to die anyway. And I never really answered for it, I was never punished, mostly because of Dad’s deal but…’ He sighed. ‘Did it ever feel like it was one set of rules for us, another for everyone else?’
‘I think our circumstances were different to everyone else’s. Yours bloody were. I don’t think it’s unfair to look at each situation differently. None of us asked to be the kids who were awake during Phlegethon, none of us asked to chase Thane for the Chalice across the world –‘
‘Well, we did, actually…’
‘I mean it’s stupid to pretend we’re not different. Would you feel better if you were locked up, Scorpius, really?’
Unwittingly, in her effort to reassure him she’d jabbed another weak spot, a fresh fear. What if Argyris resurfacing made people pay more attention to their connections, to his old deeds? What if it made them take a new look at Draco’s deal, the one made to keep him out of prison? He couldn’t afford that, not now, not while Rose was expecting; couldn’t afford the risk of the hammer of justice falling down on him afresh –
He cleared his throat awkwardly and glanced to Selena. ‘You’re not wrong. I don’t have any good reason to be here. We should go, but could you… wait outside? Just give me a minute.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Far be it from me to interrupt the Malfoy Self-Flagellation Hour, if you’re that determined.’ But her hand brushed his elbow as she left, and the retreat of her footsteps from the echoing halls of Malfoy Manor was not welcome.
Not because it left him alone, because he wasn’t alone. The walls were lined with the judging eyes of ancestors, from the freshest portraits of Lucius and Abraxas, to others: Septimus, Brutus, even further back to Nicholas, right back to the start, the founder of the British branch of the family, Armand Malfoy. A Norman who had accompanied William the Conqueror, acting as magical adviser at the king’s side throughout the Conquest, whose magic and cruelty was the reason Muggles felt accounts of the atrocities of the Harrying of the North were exaggerated, and had been rewarded the very ground Scorpius stood upon for his deeds. An oppressive shadow of blood and tradition and the stain of a name, a direct line of ancestors leading all the way to his father, and to him.
And to his child.
‘I’m not you,’ he snarled to the impassive portraits and the shadowy corners. ‘We’re not you, we’ll do nothing to follow in your footsteps, nothing to carry on your blasted traditions of cruelty and superiority –‘
‘Poppycock,’ scoffed a voice on the walls, some two hundred years-dead ancestor he didn’t immediately recognise, who didn’t, he thought, have enough atrocities to their name to be a truly significant Malfoy. ‘You’re one of us, boy, and you’ll do your duty and you’ll keep the name ever at the forefront of English affairs. I hear you’ve done a fine job of that already.’
‘If I had my way,’ Scorpius snapped at the portrait, ‘I’d have this place taken apart brick by brick.’
The ancestor shrugged. ‘You wouldn’t be the first. Stones come and go, my boy. We change to survive. It’s about blood. The place isn’t the legacy; you are.’
That was enough to have him turn on his heel, stalk out of the gloomy halls of Malfoy Manor, burst outside under the overcast grey sky, the shadow of the tall grey walls, stumble under the questioning, piercing gaze of Selena Rourke as she waited.
‘Are we done with this little bout of indulgent self-flagellation?’ she said archly.
‘Yeah,’ he said, chest heaving. ‘It’s like a tradition, I have to come back every once in a while to remind myself that I still hate the place. We’re done.’
But he knew it was a lie as they walked to the gates, for he hadn’t been back here since closing the place up after the war, because he knew he wasn’t done with every reason he’d been drawn back, because he knew hate was too simple a word for a house he’d once called home. Because he suspected, with the ancestor’s words, he was leaving nothing of his torments behind by leaving.
The place isn’t the legacy; you are.
The sun hung fat and gold in the sky when they could see it again at last, when they broke out from under the thick jungle canopy to find the air no less stifling, close and humid, like someone had tossed a warm, damp blanket over their faces. The tree-line ended not long before a steep descent of broken ground and jagged rocks over a sheer drop. Eva couldn’t see the bottom from up here, but her briefing and maps had told her to expect this old, abandoned quarry where the Red Manticores’ meeting was supposed to be.
‘Remind me,’ panted Albus as he straightened at last, following long hours where someone of his height stooped through thick jungle, ‘what’s our source on this convenient meeting?’
‘We’re not lucky enough to have someone inside the Manticores,’ said Eva, and wondered when law enforcement had become ‘we’ for her. ‘But feelers were put out after we knew what they’d stolen from New Mexico. Fences have to talk to each other and buyers and we got lucky.’
‘Then I hope we’re sure about the time.’
‘There’ll be a wait. At worst, the Portkey will reactivate every twenty-four hours so we might have to hunker in the jungle a little. Or risk making our own break for the border.’
Al glanced at her as he pulled his water flask. ‘You didn’t tell me that.’
‘If I’d known it would have put you off, I would have.’
His expression creased. ‘That’s not what I mean –‘
‘Let’s get moving,’ she said, cutting him off impassively. ‘Make sure it’s clear up here and find a good vantage point. Hopefully they’ll be relying on secrecy but if either side is coming here in force they might want to patrol the area. We have no idea how much these buyers trust the Red Manticores and vice versa.’
It became quickly apparent they were the first to arrive, and that unless they wanted to do some serious climbing they had a good vantage point but only a limited angle. Broken ground and rocks and sheer drops around the quarry proper forced them to this eastern side before the huge dip, the main access road winding its way out of the depths and towards the forest on the west.
‘They won’t Apparate in direct,’ Eva said as they settled onto a rocky outcropping with a good view and settled down to watch an empty quarry and deserted jungle. ‘That’s a great way to trigger an ambush. There might be brooms, there might be Muggle vehicles. If they’re flying, we make back for the canopy until the skies are clear. But they’re going to want to be hidden from local magical authorities as much as possible; even if you’re bribing someone you don’t want to flaunt it.’
So they waited. They waited as the sun got heavier and fatter, they waited as even with the dusk stars began to shine in the clear, darkening skies above, and they waited in the stifling heat and stifling silence. She had her binoculars out to regularly scan the road and perimeter, but she could feel his eyes on her more often than she’d have liked. She didn’t know if he wanted to say anything – she didn’t know if she wanted to say anything – so all she could do was pretend this wasn’t happening.
She’d worked alone for too long to be used to company in the field. She’d been without him for too long to be used to his presence, that sense of warmth and confidence that came off Albus Potter in waves. Both made for a distraction her professional brain screamed at, and a sense of vulnerable uncertainty that made her heart want to back off and hide.
She should never have listened to Scorpius a week ago. She should have stayed hidden until it was over.
Don’t be a fool, Saida. You knew it would never be over.
‘Look,’ she said at last, tongue feeling too thick for her mouth. ‘I know we can go round in circles until the cows come home, Albus –‘
‘I’m not expecting anything of you,’ he said simply, green eyes for the moment on the view, gaze calm. ‘We’re both flying blind here. But you made the decision at Neimandhorn to leave, you made the decision last week to come back, and I’m not letting you make the decision of what happens next without me. I know if I let you go on this mission alone, there’s a good chance you’d run again.’ He hesitated. ‘Maybe that would be the right choice; I don’t know what comes next any more than I did five years ago. I do know I’m not having this choice made for me again. That’s all.’
Her breath caught. ‘You make it sound like you don’t trust me.’
He glanced over, expression flickering. ‘I don’t trust you to make this choice with me, if I give you so much as half a chance to slip through my fingers again. We’ll decide what comes next when the world isn’t burning. And in the meantime, I’m with you.’
I’m with you. Nobody had ever put it like that to her before. She’d followed others, committed to Thane, committed to Albus, committed to Roux, been the follower and the soldier and the loyalist. But here, once again, was Albus Potter turning the tables on her, and in that moment she remembered just how infuriating and terrifying that was.
‘I don’t mean this in the self-pitying, dark and brooding way,’ Eva said carefully, ‘but a lot changes in five years –‘
‘It does. With us both.’ He smiled, and while it was guarded it was still enough to make the stars seem a shade brighter. ‘But how about we find that out instead of giving up for obstacles we’ve not even attempted? I’m not asking for much, Eva. Only that you don’t push me away. The rest can come a day at a time.’
She was spared having to answer by a distant rumble, a sound that was for certain not of the jungle, and both of them snapped their attention back to the quarry and the road. It took a few minutes for the large jeep to come into sight, closed-top and trundling its way down the dirt track to the bottom. Eva pressed her binoculars to her eyes to see two figures emerge from the back of the jeep, draw wands, and begin to walk the perimeter of the bottom of the quarry.
‘It’s definitely one of the groups. Wizards. They’re checking the area.’
‘Any sign of the bosses?’
She shook her head. ‘I think they’re still in the jeep.’ She watched as the guards seemed satisfied with the area and returned to flank the jeep, and then they all waited.
They did not have to wait for long. The next arrivals were on foot; Eva supposed they’d Apparated in nearby and made a slow, cautious approach. It was a quintet of witches and wizards, and by the garb of the fifth – hard-wearing but high quality robes – she suspected they were the buyers, wealth and not at all familiar to her. She knew their type, the wealth wizard with their hired lackeys for security, people who would buy all manner of goods and relics and magics for reasons which escaped her. It wasn’t always for function or for direct power; the things people bought for prestige alone, even if they could never flaunt their ill-gotten wares without drawing the ire of law enforcement, boggled the mind. There had to be some thrill to secretly spending this much money she’d never understood.
But they were not the Red Manticores, so her binoculars swept back to the jeep. As the buyers descended the road to the quarry, the passenger door opened for a familiar tall, gangly, floppy brown-haired figure to emerge.
‘It’s them,’ Eva confirmed to Al in a low voice. ‘That’s Leofric Tackleton, he’s got to be handling this exchange.’ The buyers were indeed approaching, Tackleton stepping forth with wide, welcoming arms, and while she couldn’t hear them from here the body language, while cautious, gave all the displays of a cordial enough dealing.
‘We can’t take this many.’ Al reached into his pack and pulled out a camera. ‘I’ve got a long lens on this; we’ll record as much as we can.’
‘Confirm IDs on the buyers, and even if we know it’s Tackleton, it’ll be good to get a visual on two of their local muscle – oh, wait, three, there’s another –‘
The driver’s door to the jeep had swung open, and a fourth Manticore emerged. She could only see the back of him, but everyone’s body language changed. The buyers tensed but nobody went for their wands, and she frowned; nobody liked surprises in this kind of deal, but it was strange for a surprise to seem non-threatening. Stranger still, Tackleton stepped back with a gesture that was outright deferential to the fourth figure, who advanced to the gathering group, and when he turned to shake hands she could see his face.
The binoculars dropped from her hands. ‘Oh my God.’
Albus was focused on screwing on the long lens on his camera. ‘What?’
‘That’s not –‘ Her eyes had to be playing tricks on her; with shaking hands she lifted the binoculars again, and tried to stop her heart from thudding its way out of her chest, tried to settle herself so she could look with clear vision and confirm that she was wrong, deranged, imagining things. But Albus was looking through his camera by the time she got another good look, and his uttered oath made it clear they saw the same as she stared at the fourth member of the Red Manticores.
She shouldn’t have been surprised she was right. Because she never in her life would mistake the face of Prometheus Thane.
A/N: Here we go, here we go, here we go...
With more of a buffer on this story, I hope to write it all over the summer.
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