Chapter 5: Friday Evening

His host came out to greet him in the hall, almost before the starchy, tight-lipped housekeeper had finished taking his coat. He extended a long, elegant, white hand.

"Hello. Draco Malfoy. How nice of you to join us."

Behind him, framed in the door to one of the rooms leading off the hall was a pretty, strong-featured brunette, wearing a startlingly blue satin frock. Draco gestured towards her. "Hermione, can I introduce Peter Blakeney to you? Hermione Granger. Peter's our vicar, Hermione."

Before he could say anything more there was a loud crash and the sound of shattering glass from within the room, some frantic barking, and the sounds of someone - almost certainly Neville - swearing. Peter's host bit back an exclamation, and turned rapidly. "I'm sorry - I'll be right back. Unless I'm stuck holding someone's severed artery together, of course. Hermione, look after Peter for me, will you?"

He was gone. Hermione looked up at Peter. "I'll get Mrs P. to get you a drink, shall I? What'll you have? It's usually champagne round here, but don't think you have to if you don't want. And are you really the vicar, or is that just a Draconian wind-up?"

Her eyes went questioningly to the neckline of his charcoal-grey roll-necked sweater. He laughed.

"The collar isn't exactly compulsory for social occasions, you know. And well, the Rector, technically. Why would you think it might be a wind-up, Hermione? Is it the sort of thing - um - Draco might be likely to do?"

Her eyes widened suddenly, and a most peculiar expression crossed her face.

"You mean you've never encountered his sense of humour before, then?"

He shook his head.

"Actually, that was the first time I'd ever met him." He paused, realising that this probably sounded rather odd. His lips quirked up in a grin. "Still: puts me at least two jumps ahead of Nick Carraway, I guess."

"Nick -? Oh, I see. Gatsby." Hermione's eyes crinkled up attractively when she smiled, he noticed. "Oh, yes, I can see why he might strike you that way. But there'll be no point in making the joke to him. I'd be gob-smacked if he'd read it."

"You'd be amazed at what I've read," a light aggrieved voice from behind them observed. They turned. Their host was holding two full champagne flutes, one of which he extended to Peter, who accepted it. Draco continued smoothly on. "Only a minor catastrophe, all sorted now. Apparently, this week Riddle decided to appoint himself Official Protector To The Family Against The Telephone Demon. Goodness only knows why - we've had the gadget over a year now. But then, whoever tried to mix logic and springer spaniels? Anyway, it rang; Neville went to answer it, Riddle loyally tried to interpose his body between Neville and the enemy, and the result was Venetian glass, in shards, all over the carpet."

Hermione put her hand to her lips.

"Oh, dear, Draco. I do feel so responsible for landing you with those beasts -"

His eyes danced mischievously. "Come off it, Hermione. Even for Gryffindors there must be some sort of statute of limitations for rash mistakes. And anyway, you can rest assured: if their charm hadn't outweighed their anti-social tendencies I'd have sold them for laboratory experiments long ago."

She giggled. "I bet that's what your family used to say about you, too -"

A frozen silence descended instantly. Peter was aware of his host's carven, utterly non-responsive features, even before Hermione let out a shocked gasp and extended her hand to Draco's arm.

"Oh, my god, Draco, I am so sorry. I didn't mean -"

He shook her hand lightly off. "Why don't you go back into there and get Neville to pour you another glass? As a veteran of the verbal gaffe I can assure you that while alcohol doesn't stop one making them, it makes one a lot more relaxed about coping with the consequences. And anyway, that was Caitlin on the phone. Apparently she and Richard have been delayed by about half an hour - some practical joker causing problems at the guest house, I gather - so I was planning to kill time by showing Peter the family portraits in the meantime, and I'm sure the last people you want to encounter again are that Chamber of Horrors."

She nodded, wordlessly. She was very pale, and evidently too conscious of her mysterious howler - whatever it was - to feel up to conversation. It was with a palpable air of relief that she ducked back into the room.

'Well," Draco said, raising an eyebrow, "Should I start with the nineteenth century bullies, the eighteenth century fraudsters, or the seventeenth century bandits?"

Without waiting for a response, he turned and led the way up the stairs, favouring Peter with a light and scurrilous running commentary on the various pictures they passed, to which - fortunately - it appeared he required little by way of answer. Peter took advantage of the situation covertly to survey his host, giving the paintings - fine though they appeared to be - the most cursory of attention consistent with politeness.

When he had been no more than ten or so, and still assumed that he would follow his family's proud scientific tradition into academia at one of the older universities - his father claimed a Nobel laureate as a distant cousin, and on his mother's side there were both Haldanes and Rutherfords in the family tree - he had been taken to an exhibition at the Science Museum. There he had been entranced by the delicate models of molecules: not the crude drinking-straw-and-plastic-ball travesties he was used to at school, but entrancingly complex structures crafted of fishing-line, gilt wire and glass beads, each part wholly dependent on the rest. He had, however, known even then that if one were to remove just one glass bead - cut a single wire - then the whole would collapse into irrevocable chaos.

He had never before met a human being who had struck him as having the same sense of dynamic, yet fragile, poise.

They were in the first floor gallery - a room with twice the breadth of an ordinary corridor, and with a bank of windows all the way down one side - and Draco had gestured to a fine, expansive 17th century group when Peter was suddenly struck by the sheer oddity of the composition into giving it a much more careful glance.

The demure little miss, stiffly be-petticoated in miniature silver and blue skirts and mob cap, looking shyly out at the viewer was conventional enough, but her lace-collared, breeched and booted father, and her ringletted, buxom, definitely décolleted mother over by the painted fireplace in the far corner of the painting - a representation of the very fireplace he was standing next to, he realised with an uneasy start - were far from conventional. Their whole body language shrieked out that, seventeenth century decorum notwithstanding, this married couple were in the middle of a major domestic, and had little care who knew it. And that they were not planning on giving anyone else any fraction of their attention any time soon.

Then - Peter gasped, audibly, and his stomach turned over within him - the little miss in the picture suddenly flashed them both an intensely winning smile, and swung her heavy skirts aside to reveal a black and white gun-dog with floppy ears sitting on her satin-slippered feet.

He turned, instinctively, to his host, only to see that the tension seemed suddenly to have evaporated from Draco's body, and his finely drawn features had relaxed into a calm, conspiratorial, elder-brotherly grin. His host lifted one elegant hand, raised his fore-finger to his lips and then - much to the pictured girl's evident (though suppressed) amusement - converted the gesture on the fly into a blown kiss, segueing elegantly into a bow in the direction of the couple by the painted fireplace, who seemed suddenly to have resolved their differences, and turned at the most inopportune moment to look reprovingly in the direction of their daughter. Stiffly, the father of the family bowed, and his lady and daughter sank into deep curtsies; in the daughter's case contriving nonchalantly at the same time to flick her blue satin robes back so as to completely conceal the dog, which was last seen subsiding silently around its paws, and curling its tail out of sight under her skirts. Draco nodded, acknowledging, and signed to Peter to follow him smoothly on down the gallery.

When they were a few metres away - absurd to think of being "out of earshot" of a portrait - Peter turned to Draco. His limbs were trembling, but he had no intention of letting his agitation show in his voice. And had, actually, been formally instructed in preventing it.

"Well trained dog," he commented.

Draco raised an eyebrow. "Indeed. Obviously a skill the family has lost over the centuries, on this evening's showing at least. Among other less regretted skills, of course." He grinned. "I do hope her parents don't spot that hound. Not an era when dogs were supposed to be allowed indoors, of course. I suppose Cousin Sarah must have persuaded it to come wandering over from Two Bulgy-Eyed Unfeasibly Short-Tailed Horses With Obnoxious Git: Newmarket 1669, on the second floor."

Peter raised an eyebrow. "Obnoxious Git?"

Draco shrugged. "Her brother. The one who left her to die all alone in the Manor, poor kid, for fear of catching the infection, and then on the day he got the news in Oxford that she was actually dead, wrote to one of his drinking cronies: This day is the estate relieved of the heavy burden of my sister's dowry. Would that I were a believer in the Lord, for surely he is to be praised for the wonder of his doings and the splendour of his handiwork. "

Peter winced. Draco glanced at him, and for the first time smiled with apparently genuine liking. "Horrid family I have, you know." He paused. "Not that that means I'm all that calm about having their graves messed around with, notwithstanding."

He paused. For one heart-stopping moment Peter recalled in all its scientific clarity a paragraph from a coolly objective report:

"Age 10-11. Well-nourished for the presumed era (late 17th /early 18th C?). No apparent signs of deficiency-related diseases. Pre-pubescent: sex accordingly uncertain: most probably F. Radius missing: damage to skeleton done significantly post mortem, presumably (from state of remaining bone fragments) within recent weeks."

He thought of the shyly confiding smile of the portrait girl, and gulped.

Ceremonial lettering swayed in front of his mind's eye.

Sarah Melusine Richenda Rookwood Malfoy. Aetat XI, Anno Domini MDCLXV . Moft regretted fifter and fountain of all excellence, whofe tender years alone prevented her manifold virtuefs from fhining outfide her domeftic circle. Deeply regretted.

His host, mercifully, was not proposing to press him. "I - understand from Neville that you were - remarkably civilized - about dealing with a horrible mess while I was away," Draco said abruptly.

Peter was aware that he must be looking rather awkward. "I - think it's easier for someone who isn't personally involved, you know."

Draco gave him a chopped nod. "Perhaps. Thanks, anyway. I - I gather Neville thought I oughtn't to be bothered with the details. I imagine, knowing him, that that means they were a lot nastier than anyone ought reasonably be expected to put up with. And I'm afraid I'm too much of a coward to pester him, to see if it turns out I was right or not about that. Or you. But thanks. For everything you must have done. And I - we - are so sorry that it looks as though it got you on the wrong end of the village gossip machine -"

Peter was glad to have something reassuringly personal to tackle.

"Don't worry about that. I - um - Canon Bowles told me if the parish wasn't gossiping about the parson, it meant that one wasn't making an impact. And - I appreciate that you're doing everything you can to counteract it - I admire your grasp of bush-telegraph -"

"Bush -?" Draco suddenly paused, and laughed. "Oh, I see. You mean the shop. Well, if we could only patent Mrs Waley it'd put owls and fire-talking charms completely out of business."

He put his head suddenly on one side, listening intently at the noises drifting up the staircase.

"Ah! Caitlin and Richard seem to have arrived. Should we ditch the rest of the ancestral portraits, and go down?"

Caitlin Naismith, sparkling with the cold of the night outside, was handing off a coat to Mrs P. (who was looking almost animated as she greeted her), accepting a glass of champagne from Neville, and gesturing to illustrate an evidently convoluted narrative which she was pouring breathlessly out at the same time.

"Caitlin, could you possibly start this one from the beginning? Once we're all sitting down?" Draco enquired. "I'm sorry to sound a bit precious - and to hurry your drink - but we have been hanging on a bit for you two and I rather gather - yes, indeed - that starting to eat now might be good. As in: seriously. Like: urgent."

Caitlin looked at her host, and grinned. "Not the mushroom soufflés?"

Draco nodded. " What else - for you?"

"In that case - "

She headed determinedly into the oak-panelled dining room, where the light of multiple candles was softly reflected off serried ranks of crystal glasses and chased silver cutlery. Everyone else scrambled in her wake. The table somehow assembled itself into an order of sorts, and Mrs P. filled wineglasses and brought the first course in.

"Well, Caitlin, what was that about?"

Caitlin shrugged, splendidly. Her pale freckled shoulders caught the candlelight. " Well - I was out this afternoon. And planning to come on here, this evening. So - I suppose - if the concept of day off ever applied to anyone who's self-employed, today would have been. Anyway, I came in to change - and one of the girls grabbed me, out of her wits with panic - heavens, I do so miss Melanie, I wish we could find out what's become of her, and it's clear that bloody mother of hers has told the college to block all my enquiries - anyway, leaving that all on one side, I was told that one of the guests was seriously upset, so I went to see her. It was Áine: apparently she'd gone up to her room half an hour before I got back, to get a sweater. And she'd found out someone had got in - the keys hang behind the desk, and the desk isn't usually staffed, so it would have been easy enough - and written a message in blood on her wall."

Neville - at the far end of the table - creased his forehead in a worried way.

"Golly, it's so upsetting when that happens."

Peter turned his reflexive bark of laughter into a cough when he realised that everyone else around the table appeared to regard Neville's comment as a plain statement of fact. Caitlin set her jaw grimly.

"Upsetting is the word. To say nothing of the fact that half the ghouls on the course were hanging around on the relevant corridor, trying to get a piece of the action - one of them was actually doing rather an impressive speech about how she'd had a premonition of doom - at least, it would have been impressive if I hadn't known she'd nicked most of it from Cassandra's part in the Aeschylus which had been on Radio 4 last week - that dickhead Alan looked as though he couldn't make up his mind whether dealing with bloody inscriptions was in his job description or not -"

Hermione creased her brow. "Writing in blood must be really difficult. I mean, wouldn't it clot before you'd got more than a letter or so done?"

Draco spread his hands. "I wouldn't know. Not, contrary to popular belief, ever having gone in for that kind of thing personally." He looked pointedly at Hermione: Peter got the impression it was some form of obscure revenge for her earlier gaffe. She coloured up. He decided to intervene before she was the victim of any more verbal ambushes.

"What sort of blood was it?"

Richard drew down his brows impressively. "That's where I come into it. I arrived about ten minutes into the pandemonium, to collect Caitlin for this evening -"

"Just as well, really," Caitlin interjected. "By that time I'd got three cases of nicely acted hysteria on my hands, and I did think Jacqueline - who, bless her, was keeping well out of the way down in the residents' sitting room - was actually going to go into another panic attack. Anyway, Richard did his keep back I'm a doctor stuff -"

Richard grinned. "Normally one I save for the January sales."

"And he got into the room, took one look at the writing and told everyone to stop panicking, it was just plain old-fashioned Kensington Gore -"

"Kensington Gore?" Draco sounded deeply baffled. Caitlin waved an explanatory hand.

"Artificial blood. You know."

"No I don't. Where would anyone get artificial blood from?"

"Not Mrs Waley, anyway." Neville dropped into deepest Mummerset. "No, m'ducks, we don't get much call for artificial blood round here -"

Caitlin grinned appreciatively. "I think you can get it fairly easily from somewhere like Bristol or Bournemouth. I'll ask my Sealed Knot wound specialists where they go. Oh, and amateur dramatic clubs use it by the bucket-load."

"I'll say," Richard muttered. "Have you been in the village long enough to encounter our local bunch of thesps, Peter?"

Peter's lips quirked up. "The West Wiltshire Players? Yes. I arrived just in time for their last big production. I hope it was just serendipity, but I can't say Murder At The Vicarage was exactly what I'd have chosen for my first Saturday night in the parish -"

"No, and it's very unfair. There hasn't been one for well over a century -"

Peter gulped. "Actually, their secretary intercepted me a few weeks ago, and asked me whether I'd be free to take part in their next show - fortunately, I was able to say with perfect truth that the church service schedule was quite incompatible with their planned rehearsals -"

Caitlin snorted. "Quite right, too. You need to steer well clear of that bunch. I mean, we know all am-dram's basically rampant adultery covered by a thin veneer of greasepaint, but the WWP are -"

She waved a hand impatiently in the air, searching for the mot juste. Richard grinned across the table at her and murmured,

"Just a hot-bed of hot beds, perhaps? The unofficial motto of that society is "Half the Commandments Broken By First Dress Rehearsal". I don't think it'd do Peter any favours with the Bishop if he were known to be in with that crowd."

Peter was not planning to discuss his relations with the Bishop even in this unexpectedly congenial company. He smiled, non-committally, and changed the subject.

"And did - Áine - have any idea who might be behind that - unpleasant prank?"

Caitlin snorted again. "She said she reckoned it was the British Secret Service."

This time, it was not only Draco who looked completely baffled. There was a pause while Mrs P. removed the mushroom soufflé dishes, and refilled their glasses of Montrachet in preparation - it transpired - for the Dover sole. After she had served it and gone, Richard drew his bushy brows together and murmured:

"Ah, Caitlin? Could you - ah - elucidate?"

Caitlin smiled grimly. "Oh, Áine's one of those irritating shadow of a gun moll types."

Draco raised an eyebrow. "A what?"

Caitlin made an expressive gesture.

"You know the sort. Extreme Republican groupie who thinks she's an activist. Once snogged someone whose older brother's first cousin went to school with Martin McGuiness, and she's been thinking of herself as a persecuted Enemy of the State ever since. Now - I'm not denying that in my younger days the boys in Millbank probably did have a file marked with my address. May well still have it, come to think of it. I doubt they purge their files that often. But painting things on walls in fake blood hasn't exactly been characteristic of their modus operandi over the years, and also, I wasn't sure Áine's explanation of their motivation quite stacked up."

Round the table, three pairs of eyebrows and two singletons were raised in an invitation to her to continue. She traced a pattern with the knife in the air above the delicate egg concoction Mrs P. had - in her case - substituted for the fish.

"Well, according to Áine, they're trying to stop her novel being published."

Go on was being clearly signalled by the expressions of all her auditors, Peter noted. Certainly he found the piling of non-sequitur on non-sequitur deeply intriguing.

"What's it about?" Hermione enquired cautiously.

"Well - don't quote me on the fine points, since honestly, if you say hello to one of these guests they treat you to a synopsis of their latest work in progress, and by this time I can't swear to whose universe I'm in at any one time, but so far as I recall Áine's work is set in an AU - alternate universe," she explained parenthetically, having spotted Draco and Richard's baffled expressions. "You know AU - what would have happened if Kennedy hadn't been shot, that sort of thing - how history would have gone if at a crucial turning point something else had happened, you know - ?"

Richard snapped his fingers. "Oh, yes. I get it. Like all that speculation about what would have happened to Labour in the next election if Gordon Banks had played in 1970 -"

Draco - who was evidently trying desperately to fit Kennedy into some cultural frame of reference, and failing miserably - achieved enlightenment at approximately the same time.

"Ah, you mean one of those," he said, "We've just had a rash of those in the wake of Recent Events. Not, obviously, that anyone's yet had the bad taste to write one actually about Recent Events so far: they tend - ah - to concentrate on at least twenty years ago -"

"And to be written by people who weren't seriously involved, either then or later," Hermione observed tartly. Her face was looking white and tense again, Peter noticed, and he felt an obscure impulse to reach out and hug her.

Neville, who had evidently also noticed her distress, smiled up at her from the far end of the table.

"Well, whatever anyone says about why or how, we all were there," he said. "And jolly miserable it all was, too. I'd quite approve of an AU novel about Recent Events, provided the author gave us better food, and a lot fewer moments of sheer blind terror, and a bit more sleep - "

Draco grinned at him from the table's end. "And re-wrote the sex to make it hotter?" he drawled. Peter was conscious of the other dinner guests self-consciously not looking at him, and momentarily cursed his position for putting such artificial shackles on everyone he interacted with.

Neville shook his head and smiled. "No - no changes needed there, thanks - anyway, what's this blasted novel about, Caitlin?"

"Well," Caitlin said, digging her fork into her egg with grim enjoyment, "Áine's view of the elves is that they're all amoral, manipulative and working to various hidden agendas."

"Well," Draco began, "I told you - "

"Yes - well, I'm sure that you didn't move from there to the conclusion that Eamonn de Valera must have had an Elvish mother - "

"Eamonn de who -?"

"To say nothing of David Lloyd George," she continued rapidly. "Anyway, in her half-finished novel the leaders of the 1916 Easter Uprising are contacted by a flame-haired, green-eyed sorceress who channels on their behalf the deepest wells of earth magic, allowing them to call upon the powers of the Morrigan, Lady of Battles and the spirit of Maebh of Connacht in Eire's hour of need, to drive out the British invader-"

"Good lord," Richard observed, "You don't happen to have MI5's hotline number handy, do you? With that build up, I'd quite like to call up the Secret Service and say that if keeping that helping of utter tosh permanently out of the public domain is what they have in mind, then I would like personally to volunteer to assist them -"

"So if she's trying to drag the same sort of ideas into this collective novel they're supposed to be perpetrating, I can quite imagine someone being irritated enough to put bloody inscriptions in her room to warn her off -"

"What did the inscription say?" Hermione enquired. The owner of Gaia's Place shrugged.

"Oh, that bit was completely pointless. It just said: Beware!"

"Beware?" Draco enquired with a rather disgusted inflection in his voice. "That's a bit - inadequate - isn't it? Beware of what? I mean, going to all the trouble to break into someone's room, and buy this - Kensington Gore stuff - you'd want to paint something with a bit more oomph on the wall, wouldn't you?"

Hermione's eyes sparkled: she seemed at last to be recovering her initial animation.

"So - what would you say?"

"I've already said, I wouldn't - oh, I see. This is one of your psychometric-doobries, isn't it? Get us all to say what we each would have written, and then you can leap energetically to conclusions and use them to produce a deeply annoying thumb-nail sketch of our hidden hang-ups and neuroses?"

Despite the somewhat petulant wording, his fingers were curled in a relaxed way around the stem of his wine-glass, and his eyes danced. Peter concluded that he was quite recovered from whatever the earlier problem had been. Hermione, too, sounded infinitely happier as she said:

"Well? And if it is? Tell me: what would you have written?"

He put his head on one side, considering. "Well, Beware of the arrrr….

gggg….

hhhhhhh

with a final trailing dribble of blood would get the message over a bit more effectively, don't you think?"

"I think it would depend on whether you painted in the exclamation points or not," Hermione said demurely. "Caitlin?"

Caitlin looked deeply disgusted. "Personally, whatever the provocation, I wouldn't go round writing on someone else's wall. Well, not unless the wall was the property of a tyrannical Government, or the engines of State oppression, or a multinational corporation engaged in the wanton destruction of the environment, of course. But I heartily wish whoever did it had written Please charge the redecoration to MasterCard number -, instead of faffing around with "Beware"."

"Actually," Richard said, "Help, can anyone please lend me a biro? would have been brief and to the point. Peter?"

"Um - Back in five minutes: Godot ?" he proffered hopefully.

Hermione giggled. "It's a nice idea, but why blood? Unless this is Beckett as directed by Tarantino, of course. Neville - you've been very quiet. What would you write?"

Neville considered thoughtfully. "Don't Panic", he said after much cogitation. Everyone round the table looked at him.

"My god," Draco said, "And to think our world persists in thinking that I'm the deeply twisted one in this relationship. Can you imagine what someone would feel like if they came into their bedroom and found "Don't Panic" written in blood on the wall?"

Neville shrugged. "Um - scared, but not too much?"

"I - don't entirely think so. In fact, I can safely say that your advice to them would be guaranteed to be ignored."

At this moment, however, Mrs P. came in with the main course. Conversation moved, naturally, into other channels.


Richard stretched out in his chair, the better to admire the elaborately carved over-mantel.

"It really is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship," he observed. "You do live in an amazing house."

Peter, who had been trying for some minutes to find a polite way to express a similar sense of wonderment, nodded his head in agreement.

"It's a pity you didn't get to see the Manor in daylight," Neville said politely. "With the snow on the lawns and the fountain frozen over it's looking even more spectacular than usual at the moment."

Draco laughed, abruptly. "It doesn't seem to be only us who think so. I got the most peculiar letter this morning from some Mu- maniac who wanted to come and talk to me about using the Manor in their television thingy. Can you imagine? What would Great-Uncle Roger say?"

Neville clapped his hand over his mouth. "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought I'd managed to choke him off and then I forgot to mention he'd buttonholed me about it. He must be the one I met in the shop the other day. He's moved into the Mill House, apparently, Draco. What was his name again, Peter? Something like Jasper."

"Jasp-? No. Hugo. Hugo Somerville."

"Oh, yes, I knew it was something like Jasper."

Hermione goggled at him across the table. "You actually met Hugo Somerville? And he lives in this village? What's he like?"

Neville shrugged. " Lockhart type. Ego the size of Manhattan." He looked across at Peter. "Now tell me I'm being uncharitable."

Peter smiled. "Not having met this Lockhart person, how would I know? But I always thought Manhattan was the smallest of the five boroughs."

"No, that's Staten Island." Hermione must have caught Draco and Neville's amused looks at her, because she flushed. "Cousins in Boston," she mumbled in Peter's direction.

"Lucky. I hardly know the East Coast at all. All my North American travel has been on the West."

She looked at him questioningly. "Oh, that's interesting. Where?"

He became acutely conscious that he was probably talking too much about himself. "Oh, they don't let you go to theological college until they're sure you've had what they think of as enough worldly experience. So after I left college when I'd done my B.A. I spent a couple of years teaching school in deeply rural Canada. Stunning scenery."

He found himself unexpectedly picturing Hermione paddling a canoe across slate-green glacier-fed lakes of the remote Rockies. She looked, he decided, like someone who would be happiest in casual, out-of-doors things. Whatever she had done to her hair to control it for the start of the evening it was clearly rebelling against now, and had fallen back into an attractive mass of kinks and curls. She smiled engagingly across at him.

"Sounds lovely. And where were you at college?"

Oh, damn. Back to the autobiography. They must all be getting bored stupid. Still, gives me a chance to ask about hers if I get in quickly -

"Oxford. Teddy Hall. And where -"

"Really?" she interrupted him. "When? Would you have overlapped with my cousin Dan there, do you think? He came over on a Rhodes Scholarship towards the end of the eighties."

"He'd have been the deeply obsessed one who camped full-time in the library, I expect," Draco observed helpfully. Peter grinned at him.

"In that case, if we were there at the same time I'd have definitely known him. In those days I was the deeply obsessed one who camped out in the library."

Draco snorted.

"Oh, good grief. What have I let myself in for? Two of you at the same table. Well, if you can't restrain the temptation for the evening, it's the first door on the right at the top of the first flight of stairs. And I'm sure Hermione would be delighted to volunteer to protect you from some of my more aggressive grimoires."

"Draco!"

Hermione tossed back her hair, and added, "And anyway, Dan didn't spend all his time in the library. So there. He got a half-Blue for ice-hockey and rowed for the College - I remember when I was ten he was rowing in Eights and my parents took me up to Oxford to watch him from the college barge - and then he took us all round the city and then back to his rooms in college - Oh, I was completely bowled over. I came home and worked out absolutely the earliest possible time I'd be eligible to go up - had it all sketched out on a chart on my bedroom wall -"

Peter smiled at her. "And?" he prompted gently. Her face closed up suddenly.

"Oh, a few months later I got a letter. And that altered things completely, of course."

An uneasy silence fell on the table. Draco looked as though he wanted to say something but was being forcibly restrained by Neville's deeply repressive expression. Caitlin said briskly, "Draco, why don't you suggest to Mrs P. that she brings the coffee through to somewhere where we can stretch out a little more? Adam chairs are fearfully elegant, but this one's starting to catch me in some awkward places."

Draco nodded, and they decamped into the sitting room down the hall.

<space>

"Remind me, Caitlin, who were the Bogomils?"

To Neville's experienced ears, Draco's tone sounded as though it was pushing the envelope of resigned, and trying tentative border incursions into the territory of martyred.

Caitlin paused, plainly thought of saying something, but instead shrugged. "Don't ask me. I got lost about three heresies back."

Richard and Neville, shanghaied into the discussion by the desperate facial signalling of the other two, each shook their heads apologetically.

Peter and Hermione looked up, rather guiltily, from their absorbed huddle on the end of the chaise-longue. Something about their self-conscious parting as the sounds got through to their ears, coupled with the angle at which their heads had been inclined in talk previously, woke a fugitive memory, and Neville's lips quirked into an unstoppable grin.

Amazing how close, and still such an impenetrable barrier, half a centimetre of empty air can feel like at times. Given the appropriate circumstances.

He looked up and met his lover's eyes, an answering flicker of amused recognition shining deep within them.

Peter coughed apologetically.

"I'm sorry I've been monopolising Hermione, but it's just so unusual to meet someone who actually takes an informed interest -"

"I got the chance to go round some really interesting Church sites when I was last in Bulgaria, and naturally I did a bit of background reading before I went -" Hermione chimed in at the same moment. Peter turned towards her again.

"You've been to Bulgaria? It's somewhere I've always wanted to see. What about the rest of Eastern Europe? I had a wonderful walking tour in the High Tatras a few years ago. Now, there's a place for really interesting monastic survivals -"

"Oh, god," Draco murmured sotto voce, but now without conviction. "They're off again."

Caitlin shot him a reproving look. "Leave them alone. If you invite people to a dinner party, it's because you hope they find interests in common with their fellow guests. On the one occasion in ten when the theory actually works, don't knock it. Admittedly, I've never selected guests before because of their ability to chat casually about Manichaeism, but if I have to in the future, at least I now know where to come. "

Richard grinned. "In Peter's case, it's probably just the shock of finding intelligent conversation in this village, full stop. I can remember when I first got here, I ran up the most horrific long-distance phone bills because I'd just arrived from St Thomas's, and after London it felt as though, in terms of active culture, there was just no contest between rural Wiltshire and a live yogurt."

"Now, it's comments like that that give incomers a bad name in these parts," Neville observed. "And after all, I should know."

Caitlin pursed her lips. "I think even this village would regard you as a rather special class of incomer, you know."

"They'd better," Draco growled.

Neville smiled at him. "Don't worry. They do."

"Good. I'm glad to hear it."

He paused, and then looked deliberately up and across at Draco. "After all," he said slowly, "It is the first time the Rose and Crown's pool team's been out of the second division in five years. And if it hadn't been for foot-and-mouth, you know, I really think we'd have got into the placings this year. At least in the plate."

Draco wrinkled his nose at him in a disgusted - and deeply expressive - way.

I'll deal with that sort of cheek from you later.

Neville flicked him a glance.

You will? Is that a promise?

Draco coughed, and suddenly became very intent on handing round the chocolate truffles that Caitlin had brought.

At that moment the eighteenth century clock on the mantelpiece struck eleven in a cascade of tinkling bells. Peter looked up at the sound; his expression was hesitant. "I suppose, actually I ought to be getting back - it's been great fun, thanks tremendously - Hermione, presumably you've got to get off early to this wedding tomorrow? Because, if not, I really would have liked to dig out those manuscripts about the survival of Cathar ritual practices in the Dordogne for you -"

"You could have breakfast together," Draco suggested brightly, and then his eyes widened abruptly, as though at a sudden stab of pain. His voice sounded through clenched teeth as he continued, "I mean, I'll probably just grab a cup of coffee on my way out to this ghastly function, and I expect Neville will eat at his usual ungodly hour, but if you wanted to drop by to chat these - Cathar - things through with Hermione, I could ask Mrs P. to set an extra place and make sure there were some extra sausages and such left out -"

He broke off, abruptly, and shot Hermione a look from narrowed eyes. She coughed, repressively.

"Actually, I've had much too much coffee to want to go to bed too soon. I'll not sleep. Look, Peter -"

She paused, and then suddenly started speaking much more quickly than before.

"If you don't think it's too late, why don't I come back to the village with you and pick up the manuscripts now?"

Richard stretched lazily. "I could run you both down there. I ought to be going, too. I'm in the middle of a tense journal correspondence with some eejits who think natural equals wholesome, and I have to have my reasoned and detailed broadside back to the Editor all polished up with all the footnotes and citations, so as to hit the lunchtime collection from the post box tomorrow, or I'll miss the publication date."

Peter's face was momentarily open with surprised pleasure, before his expression changed, and he said, "But, Hermione, how would you get back to the Manor? Look, it's a nice idea, but I couldn't let you -"

Hermione paled suddenly. "I wouldn't - ah - I - oh -"

Neville coughed. "Peter, we've known Hermione a long time. We were at school together, as I said before." He deliberately caught Peter's eye.

And if you have a problem with that, it's for you to say now, rather than later.

Peter looked straight back at him.

"That's not really the point. The problem isn't whether she should come down to the village with me: I'm just worried about how she's planning to get back."

Neville paused, nodded to acknowledge the point, and continued, "If that's what you're really worried about, I can flatly guarantee that, given our knowledge of her, we could only name four people who would even be capable of stopping her walking wherever she wants, whenever she wants. And the first one's dead, the second's her best friend, my Grandma wouldn't be interested -"

"And my mother's in Australia," Draco, picking up his cue at last, completed. They both looked innocently towards the chaise-longue.

There was another pause. Peter gulped. Then he got up, looking down at Hermione.

"Well, if you're quite sure, it would seem like the most - ah - convenient option," he said.

She smiled at him. "Oh yes, I'm sure," she said.


Having seen the others off at the door, Caitlin expected that they would return to the sitting room, but instead Draco led the way into the smoking room adjacent to the room where they had had dinner, and produced glasses and decanters containing whisky, brandy and more claret from an oak bureau. This was not a part of the Manor Caitlin had seen before; the comfortably battered leather of the sofas, the falling-apart paperbacks crammed onto the shelves which lined the room, the scented logs which breathed from the hearth that blazed instantly to flame and, especially, the way the dogs pattered in after them and collapsed in a sleepy, occasionally snorting heap on the rug, made it infinitely more homelike than any of the rooms she had previously seen, for all their elegance.

The heart of the realm, she thought, and suddenly felt the full weight of all the trust that somehow - unwittingly - she must have generated between her and these two elusive beings to be allowed into this private place.

Having poured drinks for them all, Draco bent, removing his shoes and socks, and tossed them away into a corner with the sloppy unconsciousness of someone for whom tidy your room had never been an operative command. Neville, she noticed with covert amusement, was also now barefoot, but had left his own shoes elsewhere.

Doubtless put neatly together with a note: don't worry, I'll clean them in the morning, she thought, and felt her lips quirking up.

Neville sat down on the end of the nearer of the two sofas. Draco threw himself extravagantly down next to him, and swung his feet up onto the sofa cushions. Neville considered the situation, and then shifted closer to allow Draco to lean his head back to rest in his lap. Draco exhaled with a deep air of satisfaction.

"Result, or what? I hope her parents appreciate the efforts I've gone to, so as to ensure their grandchildren don't have webbed feet."

"Racing on just a trifle here, aren't you - Emma," Neville murmured. Draco ignored him.

"Cathar manuscripts! I mean, please! Why not just make it etchings and have done with it?"

"Perhaps because he doesn't have any?" Neville suggested. "I mean, he must have worked out by now that Hermione's just the sort who'd check."

Caitlin's voice was sardonic.

"You two aren't at your brightest, are you? The advantage of manuscripts over etchings is that if she takes them away, they'll have to arrange to meet up again so she can return them, won't they?"

They thought about that. "Good thinking. I mean, "may I lend you my etchings?" really doesn't quite cut it, does it?"

Draco suddenly sat up. "Good grief, does this mean she's going to park herself on us for the foreseeable future to further her romantic agenda?"

Neville paled.

"Oh god! Draco, you know I warned you not to meddle - !" His voice held an edge of panic. "And even if Peter's a fast worker it could take months, if it even gets anywhere at all. There's all the Muggle/witch thing to handle, after all. And god alone knows how the Bishop's going to take it if it gets serious. Oh, no - you know, we could have Hermione parked here practically ever. Bugger Apparation! If it wasn't for that, at least she'd have to be worried about the commute to the office - Oh, I'm sorry to sound bitchy, Caitlin, and I really am extremely fond of Hermione, but - look - there's only so much silent disapproval I can take over the breakfast table. And it's got to the outside of enough."

Caitlin raised her eyebrows. "Disapproval? What on earth of?"

Neville looked faintly pink. Draco grinned. "I gather Hermione has decided to take up Neville's relationship with saturated fats as her current crusade."

"Now I know why the Hogwarts house-elves always looked so hunted," he muttered.

Draco paused, and then said thoughtfully:

"Of course, we could always try love potions."

"Polyunsaturated ones?" Caitlin's voice was sceptical. Draco grinned.

"No idea. Never checked. I meant, though, to gee Peter up a bit. Slip one into his coffee, and before you know it, he'll have swept her into his arms and whisked her off to Gretna or wherever. Problem solved."

"Draco! That would be completely immoral."

"OK, the choice is yours. Ethics or bacon, which?"

There was a pause. "Perhaps just a weak one, that he could shake off if he really wanted to?"

Caitlin assumed a firm expression. "You aren't doing anything of the sort. Leave them to sort out their own affairs. And if Hermione has the sense I think she has, she'll keep you as far out of her private life as she can."

Neville snorted. "You'd think so, but she's still invited Draco to this wedding. Total nuts. What can she possibly have been thinking? There'll be upwards of two hundred Muggles there, including her totally frightful ex and his no-doubt equally frightful fiancée. If it were anyone but Hermione I'd suspect her of planning to sabotage the whole thing."

Draco stretched and yawned. "I've told you. Don't worry. I've had much more practice since the last time -"

"At behaving around Muggles or at casting Obliviate to deal with the consequences when you don't? Oh, and are you planning to go round telling any of the guests that you own this village? That should make you nice and conspicuous, even if you don't forget and start using magic."

"As a matter of fact, it did occur to me it'd be cleverer if I didn't actually use my own handle. Hermione tells me it's the sort of event that gets written up in the Muggle glossy mags - the bride's fairly well off, I gather - "

Caitlin eyed him. "Interesting use of language, that. I can't imagine you'd have costed it, but fairly well off people don't, in my experience, throw fully-catered wedding bashes for 200 people at Claridges."

"Well, not if they want to stay that way, I should think," Neville said. "From what Hermione was saying, it's the bride's family in New York who are footing the bill, and there's no doubt they can stand it. And they will be doing their damnedest to get it into whatever they think are the in magazines, certainly."

"Anyway," Draco said, "I didn't fancy the idea of some bright spark from the Constellation trawling through the Muggle magazines, spotting I'd been escorting Granger to a Muggle bash, and then adding two and two and coming up with seventeen. So I'm going as David Molloy, actually."

Caitlin smiled. "Still using that? Told you it made sense, didn't I? Anyway, Neville, have you actually met the groom, or are you just assuming the frightful bit?"

"Oh, I met him. Just as we were more or less through the mopping up after Recent Events Hermione invited me to a 30th birthday party she was throwing for him, and I met him and most of his friends then."

Her host's face bore an expression of deep surprise.

"Was that actually his thirtieth? My god, how much older than Hermione is this bloke? I'd been assuming he was our age, more or less."

Neville shook his head. "Oh, god, no: work out the arithmetic for yourself. She took up with him in the aftermath of the Ron fiasco, and I think, personally (though I'd never tell her this) that she went out with a shopping list to find someone who was everything Ron wasn't, and Giles certainly fitted the bill as far as that was concerned -"

"Giles the Anti-Weasel," Draco murmured. Neville continued without acknowledging the comment.

"You know - older, sophisticated, loaded, a Muggle, a complete and utter shit -"

Draco frowned.

"Well, I suppose if you're looking at it as a shopping list, four out of five's not bad -"

The expression on Neville's face was one of resignation. "Come off it, Draco: admit it is possible for you not to get on with someone, and them still to be a perfectly OK human being -"

"I'd be prepared to believe that if anyone else showed signs of cutting me the same slack -"

Neville's hand found Draco's fingers, and squeezed them quickly.

"Point taken. But that's past praying for. But Giles really is a shit deluxe, trust me. The pompous prat heard two words of my accent and decided to treat me as though he'd never come across anything more comical in his life. And what's more, he kept coming out with these little jabs at Hermione, too. When they were going out together. Not blatant things, but the sort of thing that you'd think: "Did I really hear that, or am I being completely paranoid?" Once or twice. But all evening? If she'd given me half a hint, I'd have punched his lights out. But no; she just took it. Not one of the more enjoyable nights of my life, that one. There was hardly anyone at that party I had anything to say to. And certainly no-one who had anything they were especially interested in saying to me."

Caitlin was surprised at the bitterness in his voice.

"But surely -"

Her hand indicated Draco. Neville snorted.

"He refused to go."

Draco had resumed his former position on the sofa. There was an exasperated noise from the head resting against Neville's legs.

"On the perfectly reasonable grounds that I wasn't invited, we weren't supposed to be an item at the time, and every other guest who was likely to be there hated me, perhaps?"

Neville moved his hand to wind a lock of Draco's hair round his forefinger, making his voice sound very reasonable at the same time.

"Half of them wouldn't have had a clue who you are. They were Muggles."

"Wonderful! I'd have felt like an redundant harpooner turning up to a party where half the guests were Greenpeace activists and the other half were whales."

Neville turned his gaze full onto Caitlin, giving her the full benefit of what Aunt Miranda would indubitably have called an old-fashioned look.

"If that last deeply-unusual-and-out-of-character analogy had anything to do with you, I think I ought to warn you that you're playing with fire. In an oil refinery."

She shrugged.

"I don't think I'll be turning him into an eco-warrior any century soon."

"Talk about me as though I'm not here, why don't you?"

Neville grinned, and leaned back further into the sofa cushions, snuggling Draco closer against him as he did so. "I don't think you would have felt that way about Giles' friends, anyway. I mean, if they could leave me thinking that your father's politics had more in their favour than I might have originally thought - ugh! Nasty subject. All I can say is, sooner you than me at this bash tomorrow, for sure. And watch it, love. Don't get provoked into doing anything - ah - unspeakable -"

Once more, Caitlin had the impression that there were undercurrents flowing beneath the surface which she would never, however much trust she might have amassed, be allowed to understand. There was a pause, broken by Neville saying brightly, in a self-evident effort to change the subject,

"Anyway, Caitlin, we've now met your guests - or most of them, at any rate. Who do you reckon as your candidate for the mystery wall-painter?"

Draco yawned. "Doesn't seem such a big problem. My betting would be on that Ken character you pointed out in Cerne. And I think most of them will assume the same, too."

"Yes, that's what I would have thought."

The edge of grim irony in her voice was not lost on the two of them.

"Would have thought?"

"Yes. You know there was another snowfall late yesterday afternoon?"

They nodded.

"Well, it must have stopped before Ken went out - and he ducked the session and went out before I did, he seems to have found himself some friends locally -"

Caitlin noticed that Neville and Draco exchanged a silent glance, but the only thing Draco permitted himself to say was, "That must make this village pretty well unique on the face of the planet."

She made her face deliberately bland in the hope that she might prevent their seeing that she had noticed anything, and continued, "Anyway, he didn't get back until after Richard had arrived, and I'd been coping with the crisis for about fifteen minutes by then. I'm sorry, but for once the obvious suspect has an alibi."

"That's nothing of an alibi," Draco commented critically. "He could have come back early and then gone out again."

She shook her head. "Richard confirmed what he'd seen when I asked him. He's very precise about that sort of thing. Observation's one of his strengths, and he had an old-fashioned training that hammered it in, too. Only one set of footsteps leaving on the steps up to the front door, and none returning. And he shouldn't have a key to the back door - that's strictly staff only. And anyway, there weren't any footsteps there, either, except mine - I checked. So though it's a nice idea having Ken as the culprit, it just won't fly."

She paused, reflectively. "I suppose, really, I shouldn't have come out tonight. But getting away was so attractive, and there didn't seem a lot I could do, once I'd told them to switch Áine 's room for another one. And the atmosphere was absolutely poisonous, of course -"

"We have no difficulty imagining that," Draco said, "Trust us on that one."

There was a tense, tight silence for a few seconds. In an effort to break it, Caitlin said, "The worst thing is the more you think about this sort of trick, the worse it gets. It doesn't have even any pretence at being funny. It's intended to terrify. What sort of person does a thing like that? I'm tempted to say, they'd have to be totally insane."

"I very much doubt it."

Neville's voice was emphatic. Draco reached across and took his hand, but he seemed almost unconscious of it, so focused were his eyes on Caitlin's face, as though he could burn his sincerity straight into her brain. The low, urgent tones caught and held her.

"Never think that. I believe - I'm sure there's an underlying strategy to this. And the mind planning it isn't insane - not that kind of insane, anyway. Mad for power, maybe. Mad for revenge, perhaps. But whatever there is, there's some motive behind it all. This isn't random. And don't forget that, whatever happens. Or they'll be halfway to winning before they even strike."

There was only so much intensity she could take.

She got hesitantly to her feet. "Well, and on that note, perhaps I'd better go back and check nothing worse has happened. Thanks, you two. Enjoy the wedding, Draco -"

"That," Neville murmured, "Is just what I'm afraid of -"

She smiled, hoping that it would not look as though she was backing out of here, but suddenly aware that she had had long enough in the other realm than it was prudent, perhaps, for a mortal to take. If that was in any sense the right way to think about it. She was not running away, but she felt that she was organizing a retreat in good order.

Mrs P. was instantly at the door of the smoking room with Caitlin's outdoor things. She had not perceived the signal, but plainly there had been one. Draco and Neville got to their feet to say goodnight.

"Oh, just one thing." Draco's eyes had the expression of over-elaborate innocence she had come profoundly to mistrust. She allowed all that mistrust to creep into her voice.

"Yes?"

"I - ah - inadvertently borrowed this from your sitting room last time we had tea. I'd been meaning to give it back, and this seems like a good time."

"Wha-?"

Something shining flashed through the air as he tossed it to her. She caught it reflexively, and had just time to identify it as a teaspoon before a whirling mist swept her round, and she felt a strong pulling sensation behind her ribcage.

When the whirling stopped she found herself standing on the rug, looking straight at the green baize on her sitting room door. From the far side of the door a hum of angry conversation was rising. She sighed. It seemed that the guest house was not proposing to put itself to bed any time soon. She squared her shoulders, and began thinking tactically.