“You should’ve picked up one of these doughnut-cone ice-creams, Perce,” Dedalus chirped merrily, as he took another big bite out of the remnants of his cone, which had been lavished in both sugar and melted chocolate. “Absolutely marvellous, this is!”
Percy saw that Diggle’s chin was absolutely covered with chocolate. He sincerely hoped the small wizard would clean himself up before long, as by his own calculations of the map he was reading they were not that far from Franz Kafka Square, which was where they were meeting their very first prospective recruit.
He had mercilessly studied Monika Svoboda’s file.
She was in her late twenties.
Her Czechoslovakian muggle parents had left their home country in the late 1960’s, presumably for brighter economic prospects in Britain.
Not much longer than a decade later and their daughter, born with the gift of magic, had set off to harness that gift at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Miss Svoboda’s academic record was nothing short of exemplary.
Her incredible grades dictated that that she was almost certainly a Ravenclaw.
She had been taken on by the Ministry very soon after graduating.
In just eight short years she had very quickly risen to a very respectable post in the Department of International Magical Cooperation, but then she had left quite abruptly, opting to take a senior post in the Czech Ministry instead just a few years before it all kicked off in Britain.
It was Dedalus and Percy’s role and responsibility to convince Monika Svoboda to come back home and help rebuild the British Ministry to its past glory.
Percy was quietly optimistic that they should be able to manage it, after all he felt he was of a similar age to this woman and that they may very well have a few things in common.
She had been Head Girl, he had been Head Boy.
They had both left school and immediately taken up positions in the Ministry.
They were clearly both very intelligent and ambitious.
Yes, he was quite confident that he could talk her around, very confident indeed.
Kingsley Shacklebolt had given him some discretion and flexibility around the sort of contracts he could sign for the prospective recruits, with vague outlines of the sort of job roles that they were recruiting for.
Percy felt sure that he could come to some kind of agreeable arrangement with Monika, then he and Dedalus would be off on their travels again to convince the next one and then the next one after that.
Although they did have quite a daunting travel itinerary sketched out for the next few weeks.
After the Czech Republic they would move on to Denmark, Sweden and Greece, then onto Italy and Malta to conclude their European trip, before heading further afield to Turkey, Pakistan and India. They had business in Thailand too, before they travelled to North America to conclude their trip with a layover in Canada and then finally the one Percy was really looking forward to – The United States of America.
There was quite a few people they had to meet with in America who had left to work for the MACUSA, but Percy was only truly interested in seeing Penelope again.
The thought of rekindling his romance with Penelope Clearwater had been the driving factor in agreeing to this mission in the first place – and it seemed quite fitting that they were saving the best for last.
He could hardly wait to convince her to come back home to Britain and the Ministry.
They could make up for lost time.
Maybe he would ask her to move in with him.
Yes, that would be splendid.
That would be absolutely-
“Is this us, young Perce?” Dedalus asked rather eccentrically, as Percy was rudely dragged out of his daydream. He was at least pleased to see that Diggle had wiped his face clean of the very sickly looking chocolate that had dirtied it just moments ago.
The building was sign-posted in a foreign looking language, possibly French rather than Czech, but it was unmistakably the right place. The two of them crossed over to the other side of the road on the cobblestoned street in Prague’s old-town district.
“Absintherie” read the yellow writing on the turquoise painted sign. The windows facing into the bar had a slightly tinted green look to them and there was an old-fashioned bright green bicycle resting against the wall.
“What is an Absintherie when it’s at home anyway, then?” Diggle enquired with a puzzled look awash his pasty-white face.
“I don’t know, Dedalus,” Percy replied calmly as he pulled open the green wooden door. “But I imagine it is some kind of-
Percy was stopped mid-sentence by the sudden burst of an intense, warm medicinal smell emitting from the place that was almost certainly a very strong type of spirit alcohol.
“Blimmin’ ‘Eck,” Dedalus muttered under his breath.
“She said she would be upstairs,” Percy stated, attempting to take his mind off of the awful smell as he motioned for Diggle to follow him up the wooden staircase.
The upstairs of the bar was deserted, save for a lone table in the far corner, wherein sat a woman with dark-blonde hair and three small glasses of green liquid.
“Miss Svoboda?” Percy enquired politely, as the woman looked towards them and smiled, indicating for them to come and join her.
“Please, call me Monika,” she instructed softly, as she retrieved an ash-tray then lit a cigarette and began to smoke. She motioned to Percy and Dedalus as if to offer them both one too, but they both politely declined.
Dedalus had seemed to momentarily consider taking her up on the offer, but he perhaps changed his mind upon the split-second look of disapproval that Percy had shot in his direction.
However, it had to be said that they were on first name terms already and she’d offered them both a cigarette and got a round of drinks in.
She must be keen.
It was going well.
Percy knew all along that this was going to be a walk in the park.
It had never been in doubt.
“You must be Mister Weasley and Mister Diggle,” she added, as the two wizards took their seats.
“And these must be our drinks,” Dedalus commented in a very concerned fashion, studying his small glass of green alcohol, which had only two small cubes of ice for company.
“I do not usually drink alcohol as strong as Absinthe,” Monika began, as Percy noticed her piercing blue eyes, which were making quite intense eye-contact with his on a seemingly intermittent basis. “But, as it is the Ministry paying I felt I should make the most of it.”
Dedalus laughed very loudly.
“A lady of my own heart,” he added when he had regained his composure.
Svoboda had bought the drinks under the impression that they would pick up the tab for her. They would of course, but still, she had some nerve and confidence.
Percy in a strange sort of way kind of liked that and thought it was another promising sign.
Monika then raised her glass.
Percy and Dedalus followed her lead and raised theirs too.
“I am free and that is why I am lost,” Monika said in a quite dramatic fashion, before taking a large swig from her glass.
Percy wondered who it was that had said that.
It sounded like the sort of ostentatious speech closer that a tipsy Albus Dumbledore would trot out before a Christmas feast.
It was not lost on Percy that she had showed no signs of grimacing after the alcohol had hit the back of her throat, which perhaps led both he and Dedalus into a false sense of security over the strength of the alcohol they were about to drink.
“I am free and that is why I am lost,” Percy repeated, chinking glasses with Dedalus as they shared a bemused look before they both took large gulps from their glasses.
The absinthe hit the back of Percy’s throat and he had to bite his cheeks immediately to avoid projectile vomiting right there and then.
It was the strongest and most repulsive thing he had ever drank.
He was determined not to chuck it up though, as he was there in a professional capacity and if he threw it up he may look weak to Monika, who had not flinched in the slightest when drinking hers.
“Merlin’s cock,” Dedalus swore, as he began coughing violently, perhaps not possessing the same ability or motivation to keep it down.
“If you’ll pardon me for just one momen-
Percy watched on in absolute horror as Diggle made an immediate beeline for the men’s toilet, which thankfully happened to be stationed not too far away from their table.
“I’m awfully sorry for my colleague’s-
“I am not offended, Mister Weasley,” Monika began, as she took another thick drag of what Percy’s Mother had always called muggle death-sticks whenever she had caught his older brother Bill smoking one.
“Please, Monika, call me Percy.”
“Very well,” she smiled, as she delicately tapped her cigarette to rid it off the excess ash.
Perhaps all was not lost after all.
She was still smiling.
There was a slight twinkle in her eyes now, as if she was deep in thought and about to say something very profound.
Percy wondered if the alcohol had gone straight to her head, or maybe it had just gone straight to his, but for a split second he felt there was a slight wave of sexual tension between them.
In an hour’s time they could probably look back and laugh at Dedalus chundering as Monika happily signed her contract to come back and work for the Ministry.
“I am not offended by your colleague’s weak stomach, Percy. But I am offended by the Ministry’s arrogant attempt to rehire me.”
Percy was dumbstruck.
“I hold no ill-will to you and your colleague, Percy. You are just doing as you have been instructed to do, as I would have done once upon a time. But you must understand the arrogance that the Ministry is operating under. The letter I was sent regarding this meeting. It was not sent to my home address. It was sent to my office address. Do you not think the inbound international postal workers talk? It’s not every day they receive a letter from the British Ministry for Magic.”
“I’m- I’m sure that was purely due to logistical reasons. We would not have known your personal address, so the only option was to-
Percy stopped briefly as they overheard Dedalus loudly puking up his goulash lunch and ice-cream dessert through the thin wooden walls.
He felt incredibly awkward as he watched Monika roll her eyes as she breathed out some smoke, which lingered in the air for a while.
The mixture of the smell of absinthe and tobacco fumes really was quite odd and not one that Percy found particularly pleasant.
“The only option was to allow me to have to face the embarrassment of my employers questioning my commitment to them? To let my bosses think that as soon as the war in Britain was over I was looking to pack my bags and go home?”
Monika’s tone had very much changed into one of condescension and indignation.
“Do you know why my parents first left Czechoslovakia?” Svododa asked him calmly.
“Well, I can’t say for sure, but I assume for some kind of economic reasons,” he replied reasonably confidently, as they heard Diggle vomit once more.
Svoboda laughed softly in a patronising manner.
“Of course, you can only think in economic terms, Percy. A wizard like you has never truly known what it feels like to be persecuted,”
Percy felt very offended, but thought it best to remain silent.
“My parents left Czechoslovakia when the Soviet Union invaded in 1968 so it could become a satellite state once more. They left their country with nothing for a better life. For a life without suppression. For a life without conflict. Do you know much of the Soviet Union and their brand of Communism?”
Percy shook his head blankly.
“My father used to repeat a saying that best described what his life was like growing up under communism…he used to say - sometimes there was no toilet paper in the shops, luckily there was not much food in them either.”
Svoboda took another sizeable swig of her absinthe once she had discarded the remains of her cigarette into the ash-tray, leaving perhaps only a mouthful or two remaining in her glass, which had warmed up sufficiently so that one may never have guessed that several ice cubes had once inhabited it.
“He and my Mother found peace and prosperity in England. Lots of food, lots of toilet paper too. They had a daughter, who one day turned out to be a witch. A slight hiccup in their plans, but they had the comfort of their own home and more importantly they were living in a peaceful country free of war, conflict and communism.”
The young witch then took another sip of her drink, before looking down disapprovingly at Percy’s glass that was still half-full.
“They thought they had left war behind them, but little did they know that the magical world that their daughter had thought so wonderful and exciting would be filled with more war than they could ever imagine. I spent my first two years at Hogwarts reading headline after headline of murder after murder. I did not dare tell my parents when they sent me letters asking how everything was going, after all, they were so proud of me. If only they knew what I had unwittingly signed myself up for.”
Percy shifted slightly in his seat, but he had no real argument to mount against her, perhaps she had only agreed to this meeting in the first place to vent her frustrations at someone.
“They told me that The Boy Who Lived had vanquished He Who Could Not Be Named, but he did not. Soon enough, the murders began again. The dark times returned. Tell me, Percy, have you ever read any of Franz Kafka’s work?”
He had no idea who Franz Kafka was, but for the street to have been named after him Percy had assumed he had been a muggle politician or a king.
“No,” he answered honestly. “But if I could just maybe tell you about what fantastic opportunities the Ministry has to offer a woman of your incredible talents and-
“Kafka was born right here in Prague. He didn’t like it much… he didn’t like much of anything, really. The majority of his work was dark and depressing. The stories he wrote were often set in horrific places, filled with fear, corruption and misery. He may as well have been describing what it was like to be a muggle-born in Wizarding Britain during the last few decades.”
Percy could see now that this was well and truly beyond a lost cause, but his professional pride meant that he could not give up on Svoboda without at least one more roll of the die.
“It’s different now!” Percy pleaded. “The dark times are over. You Know Who is gone, for good this time. Harry Potter made sure of that, I saw it myself. I was there. We can forge a new future, one that is free from fear, corruption and misery – but the Ministry needs people, good people, talented people like you, Monika.”
“I do not doubt that you believe that, Percy, but come on, get real! The dark times are over? Do you think that we abroad are not aware that you still have six Death Eaters on the loose? They say that ignorance is bliss, but they are wrong. Those who are ignorant naturally consider that everything is possible.”
Percy could not tell for sure, but he believed from her poetic tone of voice that she was quoting that Kafka fellow again.
She was most definitely a Ravenclaw.
“Wizarding society in Britain is not built for change, Percy. The very foundations of its design is to keep things the same. The-
“It will be different this time,” he relented. “It is different this time. The new Minister for Magic, Kingsley Shacklebolt, he is different he is-
“Another pure-blood Minister, is it then? Quelle fucking surprise. He may well have good intentions, but the same mistakes will be made once again, Percy. You are blind if you cannot see it. Tell me, will there still be the same four houses at Hogwarts in the coming school year?”
“Well, yes, of course!” Percy answered indignantly.
“Your reaction is exactly what I’m talking about, Percy. You cannot possibly even conceive of the idea that say for instance, Slytherin house… the very house from which your new… oh so different Minister for Magic was once a Head Boy for… was to be… terminated.”
“Well- well that’s impossib-
“A school which explicitly groups together the most prejudiced members of its society, based on the hiring preferences of a prejudiced ancient wizard who should be doomed to the history books, not held up on a pedestal for young, impressionable children to chant his name and wear his colours.”
Percy didn’t really have an answer.
He was left speechless once again.
It was perfectly clear how Svoboda had flourished so well in the Ministry. She was an excellent orator, clearly extremely intelligent and didn’t give you a word in edgeways, yet still remained very polite in the process.
It was incredibly frustrating as Percy knew he could not win a debate with this woman. She was running absolute rings around him. He almost wished Dedalus would return from the toilet to help back him up.
“In muggle schools in Prague they do not have a house that honours Josef Stalin. They do not wave red flags with gold hammers and sickles on them. In Berlin they do not have school houses honouring Hitler or the Nazis. They do not hang swastikas on the walls or chant Nazi songs at school football matches. Slytherin house remains at Hogwarts because of what, tradition?”
“No- no. Well, yes. But it’s not that simple, Monika. You must understand. I saw you were Head Girl once. I was Head Boy. You must know that the tradition of Hog-
“I know that when I was chosen to be Head Girl I was the first muggle-born Head Boy or Girl for a quarter of a century,” she fumed.
“Almost every other family name that fell before mine in the record books belonged to the Sacred Twenty-Eight. Well, do you know what I say, Percy? Fuck the Sacred Twenty-Eight!”
Percy desperately tried to think of a rebuffal to her point, but he was taken aback by her sudden swearing. He felt very flustered and straightened his shirt a little as he felt himself begin to sweat nervously.
The men’s toilet door suddenly flung open and a rather refreshed looking Dedalus Diggle emerged from it, momentarily distracting Percy from his train of thought.
“Well then, what have I missed?” Diggle squeaked as he looked from Percy to Monika in slight confusion.
“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” Monika murmured as she finished the last slithers of her drink and stood up. “I was once much like you, Percy. I once held the establishment and tradition on a pedestal… well here’s a piece of advice for you, as well as my answer to your new Minister. Fuck your prejudice… fuck your traditions… and fuck your Ministry!”
Monika Svoboda abruptly fled the table, departed down the stairs and they did not see her again.
“Hmph,” Dedalus muttered. “Not the best of starts for you then, ehh, Perce?”
“I need a drink,” Percy mused. “Something pretty strong…but not that strong,” he added, as both he and Diggle shied away from seeing off their Absinthe.
“You know what you want, Perce? A nice cuppa tea,” Dedalus remarked in his ever boisterous manner.
“Yes, I think that would be perfect,” Percy replied, as he glumly made his way down the stairs.
Dedalus calmly strolled towards the bar to settle their tab with the muggle credit card that Kingsley had supplied them with.
Percy thought he had seen some of Penelope in Monika.
The thought that she may show a similar sense of resolve and reject him too filled his heart with the sort of misery and despair that Monika had described as being present in those Kafka stories.
“We’d… like… to go… somewhere… where… we can… get some… tea…tea…yes, tea! Tea!” he heard Dedalus loudly explaining to the Czech bar-keep in the sort of accent one only makes when speaking to someone whose first language is not English.
“Excellent!” Dedalus remarked.
“He says we can get some tea not far from here, Perce. Follow me. We take the first left and then it’s the forth building down.”
Percy slowly followed his companion across the cobblestoned street as a sense of sombre overcame him.
The meeting with Monika really had been an unmitigated disaster of the highest order.
He really could kill for a nice mug of piping hot tea, just like his Mother would make.
The thought of his Mother made him suddenly feel awfully homesick, which was ridiculous as he’d only been gone for a few days.
He had to pull himself together for Kingsley and for Penelope and perhaps more importantly for himself.
It was all going to be fine.
Monika was just a one off.
The others would all want to come back.
“Here we are, Perce. Looks like a nice quiet café, bet we’ll get a splendid cup of tea in here. That’ll make you feel better.”
Percy agreed with Diggle and followed him through the front door of the fancy looking establishment, upon which they were greeted by a quite large bald headed muggle-man who appeared to be some kind of security guard.
“You pay two hundred and fifty koruna entry each, but you get one free drink inside,” he said in a deep voice with a very thick accent, which Percy assumed must be Czech.
“Seems reasonable,” Dedalus quipped. “Here you are my friend,” he added as he presented the doorman with the money, who happily let them through following this exchange.
As they reached the bottom of the spiral staircase they discovered that the café was very dark and dingy, but it did at least seem to possess some quite comfortable looking sofas.
The ambience itself was not particularly relaxation orientated though, as the speakers within the place were playing some rather flamboyant muggle rock music quite loudly.
POUR SOME SUGAR ON ME
OOH, IN THE NAME OF LOVE
POUR SOME SUGAR ON ME
C’MON, FIRE ME UP
“Might as well get those free drinks,” Dedalus said in a raised voice so as to be heard over the noise. Percy nodded at him and followed the little wizard to the bar.
Percy thought that the woman serving at the bar was rather scantily dressed for this time of day, but at first he put it down to muggle fashion and culture that he perhaps did not understand.
“Two cups of tea, please! What? You don’t sell- I would like two cups of tea, please!” Dedalus squeaked at the woman serving over the loud muggle-music.
POUR YOUR SUGAR ON ME
I CAN’T GET ENOUGH
I’M HOT, STICKY SWEET
FROM MY HEAD TO MY FEET, YEAH
“She reckons they don’t serve any hot drinks!” a very disappointed Dedalus yelled up into Percy’s ear. “The chap at the Absintherie said it was a Tea Bar!”
That was when Percy first noticed the giant neon sign that was lighting up the opposite corner of the room.
It read “TITTY BAR”.
Percy did not quite grasp what this referred to at first, having never before encountered the muggle slang-term of “titty”, but upon further inspection towards the other side of the room it soon became quite apparent what it was that it referred to.
He felt another sudden flurry of home-sickness again as he wished with all of his heart that George was here to see this.
It would certainly bring a huge grin to a face that so seldom did smile these days.
Percy would never live it down once George found out about this.
“MERLIN’S BEARD!” an utterly astounded Dedalus exclaimed, as he suddenly noticed the topless muggle women dancing on the stage.
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