Ever After


Ginny rather wondered if there was a spell that caused a hole to open in the earth and swallow someone up. If there was, she’d quite like to use it now. Or, better yet, use it on Potter and his annoying Aunt.

I bet Lily would know,’ Ginny thought suddenly and scowled. Countess Lily had been nowhere to be seen yesterday, although she knew Ron had wandered around the riverbank hopefully for a good few hours. Now, stuck with chaperoning her and stupid Potter it looked as though he wouldn’t see her today, either and was in almost a bad temper as she was.

Fortunately – or unfortunately – their ‘charming hosts’ had failed to realise that their royal guests were extremely reluctant guests. Part of this may have been due to Neville who, despite not wanting to be there any more than the rest of them, was at least managing to add in a small comment here and there.

The other reason their reticence went unnoticed was due to Lady Dursley. Whilst Potter – who, thank Merlin, had decided to leave behind his feathered hat today – seemed perfectly content to walk beside her, grinning like an idiot and trying to grab her hand when she wasn’t looking, Dursley never seemed to shut up.

“Of course, we’re so honoured that your Highnesses would accompany us,” she kept repeating until Ginny wanted to hit her over the head every time.

And of course she just kept going on and on about how virtuous she was. “It was such a deep blow to me when my poor sister died,” she said at one point. “So young and so talented, it was such a waste. And then, of course, my own Dudley following not soon after.” She smiled lovingly at Potter. “We’d both been orphaned in some way, you see, Your Highness. It was so hard to carry on, but I knew it was what Lily wanted me to do.”

Ron perked up at that. “Where?” he asked wildly whilst Dursley stared at him, utterly confused.

Ginny had to laugh, if only because Ron had succeeded in throwing Dursley off balance. “Different Lily, Ron.”

“Oh,” Ron said and then sank disappointedly back into his stupor.

Dursley continued to stare at Ron, ghost of some strange emotion on her face. Sighing, Neville prepared to take up the reigns of the conversation once more and she felt a rush of affection for him. He was the only one in the whole party who didn’t have a part to play, but he was the only one who seemed to be trying. She felt rather guilty.

“So, Lady…” Ginny hurriedly racked her brains for the Lady’s first name, “Petunia – tell me about your estate. Is it far from Town?”

Dursley smiled at her, thinking that she was finally getting through to the strangely uncommunicative Princess. “Not at all, Your Highness,” she simpered. “It is but two and a bit miles from the south gate over the river.”

“Oh,” said Ginny, something sparking sudden recognition. “Is it set off the road, hidden by some enormous pine trees?”

Dursley shot her a quick, surprised look. “It is, Your Highness,” she confirmed, although her voice held more suspicion than surprise. “How do you know of it?”

“Oh,” Ginny repeated and wishing she’d never brought it up, “I had to, er, borrow one of your broomsticks the other day. Frightened one of your servant girls to death at the same time, I think. You should be proud, she rather fiercely protected your belongings from what she thought were thieves.”

It was amazing how many different expressions someone’s face could go through in a split second. Dursleys went from disbelief, recognition, anger and amazingly enough fear. That last one flashed by so fast, however, that Ginny couldn’t be at all sure that she hadn’t imagined it. The expression Dursley settled on was one of polite surprise.

“She didn’t say anything,” was all she commented.

Ginny was feeling very uncomfortable now and cursed herself for being an idiot. First she had frightened some poor girl by stealing from her and now she had probably put into some horrible kind of trouble with Dursley all because she had ordered her not to say a word. Ginny had no illusions that Dursley was nice to her servants, not with those hard edges to her face.

“Well, I did give her a Royal Command not to tell anyone, Lady Petunia,” Ginny settled on saying, hoping it would prevent further trouble for the maid. “I wouldn’t be too hard on her, I did give her s – an awful fright,” Ginny corrected, mentally kicking herself. There she had been, ready to give the girl away again. Maybe the maid had bought a new broomstick with the money after all, but Ginny wouldn’t blame her if she’d kept it for herself. She doubted Dursley paid a generous wage. “Please allow me to repair you the loss – I can have the finest broom makers send over their best broom within a few days.”

Dursley gave a short, stiff laugh. “Oh no, Your Highness, that won’t be necessary,” she said shortly. “Those brooms actually belonged to Harry’s father. We, of course, don’t use them much. You needn’t bother with replacing it.”

“If you wish, my Lady,” Ginny acknowledged and refused to say any more about it, even though Dursley tried to bring the subject round a few more times. Ginny just resolutely kept her mouth shut. She had tried, she really had, to join in with the conversation and look where that had gotten her!

One thing however did puzzle her as Petunia, giving up on Ginny, continued to prattle on about the estate as they walked to the market. Petunia said no one ever used the brooms, which made sense; neither she nor her mysterious husband was magical and Potter was a squib. Yet the broom she’d stolen was very well cared for. The servant girl had even pleaded with her to take another.

“We have other brooms, Your Highness, if you want.”

So she wasn’t trying to stop her stealing any broom, just that particular one. Ginny felt even guiltier about that. Clearly the broom was special – to whom? To her? Did the Dursleys have some magical servants? It did, after all, used to be home to a magical family so maybe they had trained up some of their able servants and it had passed down to their children?

Idiot, Ginevra,’ she scolded herself suddenly. ‘She used a spell against you, didn’t she? Clearly she has magic and she knows how to use it.

All the same she found her interest very piqued by the Potter-Dursley household. So, when Dursley commented, “We hold a stall for our excess produce at the farm on market days” Ginny leapt on the imagined invitation.

“Well, we’d love to see that, wouldn’t we Neville?”

Both Neville and Dursley looked taken aback at this. Neville recovered first saying, “Oh, yes, that sounds, um, great” at Ginny’s forceful glare.

“Oh, but I don’t want to bore you,” Dursley said hurriedly. ‘Too late,’ Ginny thought. “And our servants are… well, they’re not the refined sort you have in the Palace, Your Highnesses.”

“They will soon be my servants too, will they not Lady Petunia?” Ginny quizzed sweetly, ignoring the fact that she was not going to marry this oaf, who had not said two words together this whole time. “And I’m sure their manners will be most perfect if they have been trained by you.”

She didn’t want to, Ginny could tell, but Ginny had backed Dursley into a corner. She couldn’t refuse now without either looking suspicious or admitting she had inadequately trained her servants. “Of course, if that is what Her Highness wishes,” she said eventually. She hid her anger well, but Ginny caught a sight of it in her eyes all the same, along with that flash of fear once more.

What is she so afraid of?’ Ginny wondered, but she had a feeling she knew. There were some noble families, she knew, who were completely intolerant of magic in their servants. The Malfoy family was one of them – their son, who had the unfortunate name of Draco, often boasted about it. Ginny herself thought nothing of it, but she was beginning to suspect that Dursley did.

Neville caught her eye and sent her a puzzled look as Dursley moved ahead. ‘I’ll tell you later’ Ginny mouthed although she wasn’t completely sure herself. All she knew was that she wanted to talk to that maid she had frightened the other day. Thinking about the desperation in her voice, her mind suddenly flashed back to the sight of Gryffindor swooping in front to grab the snitch out from under her, his strangely green eyes twinkling joyfully. ‘What a difference your master makes,’ Ginny thought, suddenly appreciating Countess Lily’s strange views on the politics of servants.

I’m going to find that girl,’ she decided, ‘and she and I are going to have a nice, long chat.

Market day was one of the hardest days of the week. They had to get up even earlier than usual so that they had time to fulfil most of their morning chores, before loading up the cart and joining the rest of traffic heading into town.

With the aid of their wands, loading the cart was always fairly easy, and with the help of lightweight and undetectable expansion charms the cart was able to carry a lot more produce than it should. It was the unloading that was the issue. Whilst magic was fairly common place, most people still looked upon it suspiciously, even more so since the emergence of the death eaters. They couldn’t even risk the featherweight charms so unloading the cart became physically exhausting.

“That’s the last one,” Sirius said eventually, dropping down onto an empty crate with relief. “Merlin, I’m exhausted.”

“You’re getting old, Sirius,” Hermione teased, although she too felt drained. Usually there were three of them to work the stall but Tonks was out ferrying the Dursleys back to Court and Harry, obviously, was back hiding in the Shack. He had been looking rather mutinous when Hermione had dropped off his breakfast and Hermione couldn’t blame him. Whilst he had managed to get out a surprising number of times, he was still mostly confined to the rundown hovel.

Remus had come with them but, with the past few days and the exhaustion of the full moon catching up to him he had struggled to lift even the lightest box off the cart. The others had bade him rest a while and he gratefully took a nap underneath the cart. Sirius had placed a notice-me-not charm down so that he wouldn’t be run off by people thinking he was a vagrant.

“Never!” Sirius protested, eyes twinkling. “Those boxes are just heavy – in fact, I reckon Remus must have magically increased the weight of mine. Asleep my arse, you two are ganging up on me!”

Hermione laughed and began to organise the produce so that would be customers could see them more clearly. They had been a bit late arriving to the market place due as Petunia had requisitioned their fastest horses for herself and Dudley. Luckily it was still quite early for shoppers, but the market would pick up very quickly.

“It’s a shame Tonks could find nothing out,” Hermione said, repeating their disappointments from last night. The Dursleys had made Tonks stay with the horse whilst they entered the palace proper. Tonks said they hadn’t said anything to her when they came back, just ordered her to take them back to the manor as fast as possible.

It had been a bit of a shock to hear the carriage rolling in so soon and poor Harry had had to hide under some straw in the kitchen garden, several very strong notice-me-not charms adding further protection. There was a moment when they all thought he would have to stay there till nightfall in case any of the Dursleys espied him. Luckily for him, though, Petunia had not been pleased to come in and find Vernon roaring drunk on port. The ensuing row had been so fearsome that Harry felt perfectly safe dashing across the grounds into the shelter once more of the Shrieking Shack.

“I don’t know,” Sirius joked, “I think she seemed to have a great time watching the aurors work out. I think Remus has got some competition.”

“Shut up, Sirius,” came Remus’ weary voice from under the cart.

Sirius just grinned and carried on arranging the boxes. Hermione, trying not to laugh, finished off her row and bent down to pick up a stray carrot. Rising to her feet she jumped as a shape loomed in front of her and then tried not to scowl when she realised who it was.

“Hermione Granger,” the figure said in a voice that made her skin crawl. “You get prettier every week.”

“And you, Master Greyback, are wasting your flattery,” Hermione retorted but couldn’t help a shudder. Fenrir Greyback was not a noble but had a fair amount of land to the south-east of the town, bringing him a fair income from the small farms he held there. Despite his own holdings, Greyback came to their stall without fail every week, bought a bushel of vegetables and tried to persuade Hermione to join him in his castle.

Speaking of which…

“I may be twice your age, little witch, but I’m well endowed,” he cajoled, grabbing her hand in his large paw-like ones. “Just think of my large estate,” he purred and Hermione shivered a little, yanking her hands free. He noticed her tremble, though, and leant in even closer. “I’ve always had a soft-spot for poor, little witches… especially young ones with spirit.”

“Prunes?” Hermione snapped suddenly, interrupting his speech.

He looked at her in a mix between amusement and annoyance. “No,” he said. “I’ll be nothing this week. And you’d do well to remember,” he added, leaning in close to Hermione again, “that without my generous nature your pathetic, little farm would cease to exist. And then, little witch, you’d have nowhere to run to but to me and I won’t nearly be so generous then. So I’d be careful if I were you,” he added with a chilling laugh as he walked away from them.

Hermione shuddered all over, but mainly with anger. “I hate that man – foul, loathsome thing!” she snapped.

“If he didn’t buy so much from us every week I’d curse him into oblivion,” Sirius agreed, watching Fenrir’s back with a hatred usually reserved just for the Dursleys. “Don’t quite know how I’ve restrained myself so far.”

“Probably by remembering that you’d be arrested and then the vile man would have a free run at me,” Hermione said, scowling. “You, Remus and Harry are probably the only reasons he’s never tried to grab me before.”

“I doubt that,” Sirius said, looking sickened. “He’s the type of psychopath who gets a kick out of his victims coming along to him willingly.”

“Well, don’t worry, Sirius,” Hermione said feelingly, “this is one victim who won’t come to him willingly.”

As she served the next few customers that came along in dribs and drabs, Hermione couldn’t help but think of Greyback, most especially of the rumours that flung about the market place. Apparently his interest in ‘poor little girls’ wasn’t unique to just Hermione. Everyone said that he was always hiring young girls to go work at his castle and that they were never heard of again. Those townsfolk with a slightly more vivid imagination whispered that he locked the girls up and tortured them in all kinds of horrible ways. More realistic townsfolk assumed that he simply sent the girls on to work at one of his farmsteads elsewhere in the country and that was why they were never seen about town.

Hermione didn’t honestly believe that even Greyback would be so audacious as to torture girls right under the noses of the Crown, but she did agree that there was something creepy about him. She always felt horribly dirty after each encounter and wished he would just leave her alone.

Luckily their stream of customers soon picked up and Hermione was too busy to think on her encounter with Greyback. They even had to kick Remus awake to help when it got closer to noon. Eventually the rush died down slightly and Hermione sighed with relief. Whilst Remus and Sirius served their current customer she bent down at the back of the stall to grab their last chicken to bring to the front.

“Good morning, gentlemen.”

Another customer, Hermione thought, standing up to put the chicken down… and finding herself staring right into the startled eyes of Prince Ronald!

Ronald couldn’t believe the complete waste of a morning he’d been having. This was his second day since seeing Countess Lily and, at the rate this stupid tour was going, he doubted he’d have a chance to see her at all today.

Not, of course, that he could find her even if he wasn’t wrapped up in Princely duties but still. At least he could look.

Still, he had to feel for poor Ginny. He had been pretty dumbfounded when he’d met his future brother-in-law yesterday but now he was just getting more and more incredulous with every step he took. What on earth were his parents thinking, even considering making this utter prat part of their family? They’d sprouted some nonsense about his parents, yadda yaddah yadda, but even Ron could see Potter was a complete moron.

In a way he thought it a shame that his extremely dull and clingy aunt hadn’t sent him to Durmstrang. Ron was sure he wouldn’t have liked him much better there, but at least he’d be able to fight him a few times and not worry about the consequences. Who knows, maybe even going to Durmstrang would have sorted him out a bit, made him less of a prat.

Er, no,’ Ron amended, watching with disgust as Potter tried to grab poor Ginny’s hand again, missing, and tripping on a stone as he went off-balance. ‘Some people just aren’t fixable.’

Still, it made him feel better about his French Princess. Although still an unknown, there was no possible way she could be worse than Potter. Not, of course, that he would be marrying her if he could help it.

As had been happening frequently as of late, Ron found his thoughts drifting towards Countess Lily Ravenclaw. For the umpteenth time he wondered who this mysterious cousin of hers was. He couldn’t believe he’d forgotten to wheedle out where she was staying and he hadn’t the faintest clue how he could find out.

Actually, that wasn’t completely true. Whilst his usual sources of courtly information – namely Neville, Ginny and his mother – had all come up blank, there were two he hadn’t tried. It wasn’t because he was scared, per se, more that talking to them opened up a large can of worms.

And that he was scared.

He had laughed off Neville’s suggestion that Ron ask his grandmother for information. ‘Not even for true love’ had been his exact words. Well, that was two days ago now and he wasn’t nearly as desperate as he was now. ‘I’ve only got two days left now,’ he thought desperately. Today was clearly a write-off. He just hoped that Neville wouldn’t laugh at him too much.

His other source… Ron cringed. Lady Lavender Brown and he had never been exactly what you’d call courting but she’d certainly developed the hugest crush on him and had followed him round hopefully for a few weeks last summer, hoping for his favour. Although flattered at first, Ron quickly became rather bored of her mindless prattling and alarmed by her excessive shows of affection.

Ron was rather ashamed to admit that he dealt with the problem mainly by hiding from and avoiding the Lady until, hurt, she had eventually gotten the picture. He’d heard from a lot of the noblemen that he wasn’t the only one to suffer from the ‘Lavender treatment’ but he was annoyed when Neville’s grandmother had contrived for the two of them to meet that Neville had managed to escape scot free.

Ron couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Lady Lavender, let alone talked to her, but when he’d known her she’d always be telling him gossip about this and that lady. If she didn’t already know who Countess Lily’s cousin was then he doubted it would take her very long to find out.

Despite being nervous, Ron was happy he’d come to some sort of decision. He glanced over at Ginny again, feeling sorry for her, before realising that Ginny was looking rather interested – eager even!

“Why does Ginny look so excited all of a sudden?” Ron hissed to Neville, who looked surprised to see Ron paying attention to anything at all.

“No clue,” Neville said with a shrug. “But she suddenly got all interested in seeing Potter’s servants. Don’t ask me why,” he added as Ron opened his mouth to ask exactly that. “Some of them are working the market, we’re headed there now.”

Ron frowned as he followed the others. ‘Why on earth was Ginny suddenly interested in servants?’ he thought, completely baffled. ‘It’s not as if we’ve plenty of servants back at the Palace. I don’t see why these should be any different.

Then Ron suddenly remembered the scathing remark Countess Lily had flung at him by the riverside:

“First and foremost, a servant is a person, your Highness, not a thing.”

He felt guilty. There he’d been, thinking of servants as things again. One servant was the same as any other. That’s certainly what he’d thought until he’d met Lily and then she’d started to challenging everything he thought left, right and centre. It was astonishing to think that he’d actually only met with her twice!

I promised myself I would be the kind of man she wanted,’ Ron reminded himself, speeding up a little to keep up with his party. ‘So far I’ve done a pretty lousy job.’ Besides, he remembered with a faint grin, hadn’t he promised her to start talking to peasants? ‘Here’s my chance!’ he thought.

“How many servants do you keep, Lady Petunia?” Ron asked politely.

Lady Petunia looked at Ron with utter shock. “Oh, a few, Your Highness,” she murmured, slightly disbelievingly. “But only three work the market place.”

Over Petunia’s shoulder, Ginny shot him an inquisitive look, much like he had thrown her a few minutes earlier. He ignored her. “And what do you sell?”

Petunia pursed her lips slightly as though appraising Ron suspiciously. He felt a bit uncomfortable under her gaze and suddenly wandered if his initial assessment of her as an enthusiastic, but dim-witted fawning mother – aunt – may have been a little wrong.

“You can see for yourself, Your Highnesses, my stall is just over there,” she said eventually, smiling once more although it was a cold smile. Ron followed her gaze and saw a fairly large stand covered with all sorts of fruits and vegetables. Two slightly older gentlemen were exchanging money for a big basket of carrots with a young maid although he could not see a third.

“Excellent,” he said, striding forward purposefully. He wasn’t quite sure what to say – he had no idea what a servant did, especially one on a farm – but he was going to try his best. If he couldn’t see Lily today, then at least he could do something she’d be proud of.

Startled at Ron’s eagerness, the remaining nobles struggled after him, especially Potter. As it was, he was quite a bit ahead of the others when he reached the stall and greeted them quite cheerfully, “Good morning, gentlemen.”

Suddenly, everything erupted into chaos.

He had a brief glance of horror-filled recognition on the faces of the two gentlemen before a third figure moved suddenly and then there was a chicken in his face!

“Oi! Get it off!” Ron yelled as the bird clawed at his face. Stumbling backwards he hit someone – a couple of someone’s possibly – and then he was falling backwards, stupid chicken still squawking about on his head.

“Here, cluck, get!” A loud voice said and, to Ron’s immense relief, the abominable chicken fluttered off of his face and began clucking contentedly somewhere next to him. A large hand presented itself in front of Ron’s dazed face and he grabbed it gratefully. As he was hauled back on his feet, Ron found him face to face with one of the two servants.

“Sorry about that, Your Highness,” he said, quite cheerfully. “Chickens can be a bit flighty when they’re startled.”

Ron stared at him in astonishment. Apparently Countess Lily wasn’t the only one who kept strange, out spoken servants. Or maybe, Ron thought suddenly, was the Palace the exception and not the rule?

The servant darted around him and Ron turned to survey with growing embarrassment the scene he’d just caused.

Apparently the ‘someone’s he had knocked into had been Lady Petunia and Potter, knocking them completely off their feet. The other servant, who looked older with his grey hair, had already helped an enraged Petunia up and was listening to her snapping at her with a blank expression.

“You idiots!” she was hissing. “What were you trying to do, scare the Prince to death – and you could have killed me.”

“I’m sorry, my Lady,” the man said apologetically. “We were a little bit startled and lost control of the bird.” He bowed deeply. “It will not happen again.”

Hang on, Ron thought suddenly, that wasn’t quite right. Someone had been startled and thrown a chicken… but he didn’t think it was either of those two. There had been a third person, he was sure… but when he looked around, he couldn’t see anyone else at the stall, just a group of staring on-lookers and a near hysterical Ginny and Neville.

He looked back at the two servants confused. “Were there just the two of you?”

“Well and the chicken, Sire,” groaned the first servant as he tried to heave Potter up from the ground. It didn’t look like an easy job and Petunia, seeing the troubles her nephew was in, made a little shrieking noise.

“Here, let me help,” Ron offered, moving forward to take Potter’s other hand, but Petunia at once called out, “No, Prince Ronald, please don’t trouble yourself. You,” she snapped to the other servant, “go help him.”

Ron, quite happy to not have to try and heave the whale of an Earl off the ground, stepped back. He was surprised to see that the servant who replaced him was probably only a few years older than the first, despite the grey hair. He also looked so frail and tired that Ron almost stepped back to help. He wasn’t needed, however, and soon the two men had Earl Potter back on two tree-trunk-like legs, none the worst for his ideal.

Petunia eventually managed to say, “If Your Highnesses don’t mind, I think we would like to be escorted back to the palace now.”

She looked so furious that Ron didn’t dare refuse, although he had wanted to talk more with the two servants. Ginny was too busy laughing still, tears streaming down her face, to say no and Neville was clearly relieved to end this nightmare of a morning.

As their awkward party turned around from the alley Petunia’s servants had set up their stall, Ron turned back to look at them. It was stupid, he knew, but for a split second, before all the feathers and screaming, Ron could have sworn he had seen Countess Lily’s startled face…

It became known as the Great Chicken Escapade.

“I just panicked,” a flustered Hermione said that night as everyone gathered to hear her tale. The Dursleys had retired surprisingly early that night, Dudley and Petunia complaining rather of aches and pains whilst Vernon was still suffering under an almighty hangover. As such, Harry had decided to risk a visit to the kitchen of Godric’s Hollow and now gathered around Hermione with Remus and Tonks, feeling elated to be free of the draughty Shack.

“So naturally you threw a chicken at him,” he said, trying not to laugh. Tonks had given up that battle long ago and was currently shaking with mirth in a corner. Once she started a laughing fit it was very hard for her to stop, even if she wanted to.

Hermione went red. “It was the only thing I could think of to do!”

“Well, as far as distractions go, he played along beautifully,” Remus commented, eyes twinkling, “bowling over both Dudley and Petunia in the process.”

Harry lost control then and burst out laughing. Tonks managed to gasp out, “Sounds even clumsier than me!” before she lost herself to giggles. Hermione even managed a small smile.

“Wish I’d been able to see that,” she said mournfully. “I bet it was a beautiful sight, Dudley all squished underneath Petunia and Prince Ronald.”

“Well, we’re lucky it was that way round otherwise Petunia and Ronald might not have survived,” Harry pointed out, causing another fresh burst of laughter.

“Do you think the Princess or Lord Longbottom saw me?” Hermione asked Remus, who shook his head.

“They were a bit too far behind and then too busy, er, laughing themselves,” Remus said.

“Thank Merlin for that,” Hermione said in relief. “I was sure someone would see me run off to the side. I didn’t think the chicken would cause such a diversion – a good thing it did!”

“No, I think it’s fair to say that the chicken panicked just as much as you,” Remus said wryly. Tonks, who had just managed to get herself under control, burst out into another fresh round of snorting laughs.

The kitchen door suddenly opened, making them all jump. Harry had gotten all the way under the table before he realised it was just Sirius. “Sorry,” he said with a grin. “Did I make you all jump?”

Remus rolled his eyes. “Dog-brain. What did she want?”

Sirius smirked. “Headache cure. Apparently her head’s been hurting ever since her little trip at the market place.” They all laughed again. “Speaking of Petunia, Hermione,” Sirius said suddenly, “you need to be a bit careful around her.”

“Well, don’t we all?” Hermione asked, a little confused. “Why just me?” Her eyes widened. “She didn’t see me, did she?”

Sirius and Remus exchanged looks. “We don’t think so,” Remus said eventually, “but after you’d left the Prince asked us were there just two of us. I don’t think he saw you,” he added, as Hermione went white, “but I think he thought he saw a third person. He let it drop, but I saw Petunia stiffen. After all, there are usually always – ”

“Three of us at the market,” Hermione finished, looking worried. “And with Tonks at the palace I’m the only one that could have been there. I guess that explains why she interrogated the hell out of me when she came back.” At the others’ inquisitive looks she explained, “I didn’t think going back was a good idea, just in case he had seen me, so I went back to the Hollow. Almost ran, actually, I was so…”

“Panicky?” Harry suggested cheekily and Hermione swatted at him.

“When Petunia came back… Merlin, I don’t think she’s ever said so much to me! Asked me where I’d been all day, why I hadn’t gone to market…”

“What did you tell her?” Sirius asked.

“That with staff so low we thought it best someone remain behind to wait on them or Lord Vernon, should he return early,” Hermione said with a shrug. Vernon, still avoiding Court, had gone off to visit one of the small holdings further west. They all knew it was punishment from Petunia for the day before as it was a good two hours ride and Vernon had looked quite green before he had set off.

“Good thing the Prince is courting you, Hermione,” Tonks said, shaking her head in wonder, “I’d never be able to think up so good a lie that quickly. Although, knowing me, I would have accidentally thrown myself at the Prince, along with the chicken.”

The others laughed, but Hermione went red. “Prince Ronald is not courting me,” she snapped, but no one paid her any attention.

“The real question, though,” Harry said suddenly, “is what in Merlin’s name are Petunia and Dudley doing with the Prince and Princess? I mean, I don’t know much about Court, but I doubt touring the market with two royals on your second day is standard practice.”

“We wondered that, too,” Sirius agreed, nodding towards Remus. “We can’t figure it out either. Nothing Petunia’s doing recently makes sense; first presenting Dudley to Court where you will be conspicuously absent and now, instead of trying to create as little fuss as possible, there she is flouncing about with two royals!”

“Even stranger is that both Ronald and Ginevra seemed to rather dislike them,” Remus added.

Harry and Hermione exchanged glances. “Well, we could have told you that,” Harry said, thinking of the fierce Princess. “Although I am sad Ginevra didn’t tell Dudley where to stuff it – that would have been worth getting a pensieve for, if you’d seen that!”

“Well, whatever the reason, we don’t know enough about what they’re up to and I don’t like it,” Sirius said, scowling.

“We’ll just have to make sure we get our own plans well in motion then,” Remus said. “Have you written that letter, Hermione?”

“Yes,” Hermione said nervously, bringing out a small folded envelope. “I’ll run it down to the post office tomorrow morning.”

But Sirius was shaking his head. “Too late – we’re completely in the dark here. We need to talk to the Prince as soon as we can – tomorrow.”

Hermione gaped at him, suddenly feeling sick with nerves. “T-tomorrow?” she squeaked. “But – but – won’t the post office be shut?”

“Don’t worry, my dear Countess, it stays open quite late for express mail,” Sirius said with a grin, blocking Hermione’s attempt to delay.

“Bloody hell, Sirius, it’ll take you ages to walk there now – it’s pitch black!”

Sirius only grinned at Harry. “Why, my dear pronglet, who said anything about walking?”

And then he disappeared with a loud crack.

“Show off,” Harry muttered, slightly jealous. Apparation was one of the few skills he had Hermione had not managed to learn, simply because if something went wrong then they wouldn’t have access to magical aid to fix it.

Hermione didn’t say anything, just stared at where Sirius had just been, feeling nervous, in more ways than one. Tomorrow was going to be a big, big day.

~Ever After~ Ever After~ Ever After~ Ever After~ Ever After~ Ever After~ Ever After~ Ever After~ Ever After~

Lady Lavender Brown tucked herself into one of the stone archways and sighed. She was not having a good day. First she had accidentally tripped up Lord Peters at breakfast and he had spilled eggs all down both himself and her new slippers. And then, joining some of her friends for tea in the gardens, Lady Parkinson had been most cruel about her new hairstyle. Lavender patted the twists in her hair self-consciously. She rather liked them. According to Lavender’s new maid, who came all the way from Paris, it was what all the ladies were wearing there. ‘Well, just she wait,’ Lavender thought, sulkily. ‘It’ll be all the rage in no time and then who’ll be the jealous one!

She had been so upset by Parkinson’s nasty comments that she couldn’t even pay her usual attention to the Court gossip, something she regretted now that she was bored.

To top it all off, Lord Longbottom ignored her at dinnertime. Again. She and he had had a rather wonderful tea just two weeks ago with his grandmother, the venerable Countess Augusta. Yet ever since, he seemed to have forgotten all about her and was always running off with the Princess.

Lavender curled up her nose at the thought of Ginevra. She had tried to make friends with the girl at Beauxbatons for there was only a year between them. But the Princess had rebuffed Lavender’s every attempt at friendship, instead going off exploring the woods on her own and flying about on her dreadful broomstick.

What a strange angry little Princess she is,’ Lavender thought, not for the first time. ‘And it is simply not fair; why should such an improper, wild girl manage to get a sweet, noble man like Lord Longbottom, even if she is a Princess?’

Lavender watched the flowers with a grumpy expression. Other Ladies were always conspiring against her. Last summer she had been growing very close to Prince Ronald himself and was waiting for a marriage proposal any day when it had all fallen apart. She didn’t quite know what had happened. One day she suddenly stopped seeing him around the Court; wherever Lavender was, it seemed that Ron was not. Lavender suspected that someone had grown jealous of their growing love and had contrived, somehow, to separate them. Now she only ever caught a glimpse of her beloved from a distance and he always looked so lonely that her heart fair panged for him.

Oh, dear Ronald,’ she thought unhappily. ‘If only you could find your way back to me… then you would be happy again!

And then, suddenly, there he was.

He appeared so suddenly and just as she had pictured him that Lavender, for one moment, thought that she imagined him! And then her vision bowed awkwardly to her, just as she remembered, and said quite clearly, “Lady Lavender, may I ask of you a favour.”

Oh sweet apples,’ Lavender squealed mentally as the knut dropped, ‘It really is him!

She surged to her feet, suddenly realising that she was still lounging about on her seat. “Prince Ronald,” she sighed breathily, “I would do anything for you. Command me, my Prince!”

Ronald looked extremely taken aback at that and slightly uncomfortable. “Er, right. Great. Um, what I wanted to know was…”

Will you take my hand in marriage?’ Lavender crossed her fingers behind her back as Ron paused.

“… have you ever heard of Countess Lily Ravenclaw?” he finished, looking at her hopefully.

Lavender found all her dreams dashed. “No,” she said, adding before she could stop herself “Who is she?”

Ron looked disappointed and even more uncomfortable than before. “She’s just a Lady that Ginny and I, er, met the other day. We forgot to ask her who she was staying with. I thought you might know – you know everything that goes on here, after all,” he finished, with an awkward but hopeful smile.

Lavender felt her heart begin to melt when she saw it and cursed herself for a fool. ‘Why, oh why, didn’t I listen to the others at Tea?’ she wailed mentally. What if they had said something about Countess Ravenclaw and she’d missed it in her temper? ‘Damn that horrid Parkinson!’ Now she had nothing to tell her poor Prince!

“I’m so sorry, Your Highness,” Lavender said, genuinely sorrowful. “But please, Sire, let me ask around for you and see what I can find out!”

Prince Ronald gave her such a genuine smile then that Lavender found herself weak at the knees and had to hold onto the archway so she didn’t fall. “Thanks, Lady Lavender – that’s brilliant! I’ll come by and see you tomorrow?”

Lavender clutched harder at the wall. “Oh, Your Highness, that would be so utterly wonderful of you,” she gasped happily.

Ronald, bless him, looked alarmed once more. “I’ll, er, see you tomorrow then?” he muttered awkwardly before heading off in the other direction as quickly as he could.

Lavender watched him go with mixed feelings. Near a year of silence and then a whole conversation – with promise of another tomorrow! She was so giddy that she had to sit down for fear she’d fall.

I will talk to Lady Alicia,’ she thought, planning her gossip gathering like a military battle plan. ‘And then Baroness Carroll…’ She supposed she would have to speak to Lady Parkinson, as well. ‘She mayn’t be the nicest person at Court, but she has got sharp ears for gossip.’

Busily planning, Lavender got to her feet, all thoughts of self-pity banished as she considered how to fulfil the task her Prince had set her. And if the thought occurred to her that he was asking her to find out information about a noble he wanted to court she pushed it firmly out of the way.

Lavender, after all, liked to live in her own fantasies.

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