Chapter 1 - Goodbye to Berlin by A.J. Hall
“Always remember, wherever you dance, that too is the forest.”
The Queen’s words, heard on a midsummer’s night long ago. Fifteen, she had been then; newly called to the dance, the leaf-mould of the glade’s floor soft and fathomless beneath bare, whirling feet. Blue-white moonbeams lit fragments of ancient bone, fell on splintered sword-hilts which had last felt the grasp of blood-warmed flesh nineteen numbered centuries ago. Even the proudest Empire on earth must fail when pitted against the unsleeping power of the forest.
“Two minutes to curtain-up, darlings. Susie, your headdress is skew-whiff again. Here, let me -“
She felt the caress of the stage-manager’s spell; the over-elaborate confection of gilt and peacock-feathers rearranged itself on her newly styled hair without, miraculously, managing to put a single blonde hair out of place.
“Thanks, Al,” she murmured, but he had already moved on to flick an imaginary speck of lint from the shoulder of Maria Azucena’s smoking jacket and adjust the seams of her stockings so they ran knife-straight from garter to boots.
She turned to face her partner, placing her hand on Maria Azucena’s waist just as the other woman’s hand rose to grasp her shoulder. Their eyes met in unspoken communion. The orchestra struck up the overture; the curtains parted; their heads snapped frontwards in perfect synchronicity. The show began.
A rose landed at her feet. She let her eyes slide in the direction from which it had come. Of course. Oskar Krum, seated at the closest table, leaning almost across the footlights, hair sleeked back and eyes glowing. Today was the last night of his holiday. His Durmstrang triumphs lay behind him; a life of estate management and modest Magical public service yawned ahead. The omens pointed only one way. Assuredly he would propose tonight. Her expression set in perfect, professional repose, yet, behind the mask, her heart ached at the thought of the coming interview.
In her career so far, three men had died because she had explained to them – simply, without rancour, allotting them as much pity as her nature allowed – that marriage to any of them was quite out of the question; the dance must come first. Some of her colleagues would count those triumphs. One, she knew, had a row of red paper hearts pinned down the side of her dressing room mirror, each representing a suitor’s terminal despair. That sort of thing was vulgar and quite, quite unnecessary. If only Oskar would be one of the sensible ones…
The music changed; the beat possessed her, carrying her spirit down, below the grime and damp of the stage, below the Metro tunnel which ran beneath the cabaret, making its peeling, cracked walls shake with the pounding of each passing train. Down further still she went, down to the earth that bided its time beneath the vast machine of blood and stone, waiting for tyrants and towers to topple so green shoots could come curling out to meet the sunrise once again.
To the harsh, urban rhythm of the tango, before a crowd of hard-eyed, lecherous wizards, Muggle thrill-seekers and cold, shadowy spies for the omnipresent Authorities, Maritza Zsa-Zsa danced for her Queen and for her Veela sisters, barefoot on the fathomless leaf-mould of the eternal forest.
“No, no, no, NO!” She lifted off her headdress and laid it aside on the dressing table. “Oskar, how can I make you understand accepting your proposal is quite, quite impossible?”
“But darling, I adore you. All I want is to make you happy. I want to pour rose-petals on your path, so your feet need never touch bare ground again. Is it leaving Germany which worries you? We Bulgars are hardly the savages the Berliners claim. You won’t be shut up on our country estate; the Krums have a town house in Sofia, too, you know. And a little place on the Black Sea, for the hottest days of summer. Or is it my family? Don’t worry; when he actually meets you, I know my father will love you as much as I do.”
“As I recall, Viscount Kingsbridge gave much the same promise concerning his father, the Duke.” She made a little moue. “While true, I am afraid the result was nonetheless a dreadful domestic mess. Above all things, I detest mess.”
Krum raised an eloquent eyebrow, glancing round the miniscule dressing room. Every flat surface was buried in clutter; costumes, bon-bons, jewellery boxes, vases, souvenirs from admirers, love letters, bouquets, ornaments, make-up sticks, perfume atomisers and hairbrushes. A little gleam of hope lit within her at his expression. For a man to retain even a vestigial sense of irony at such a moment augured well for his ultimate survival.
Regrettably, he returned to the attack. “You need never worry about mess again. I can put two house elves at your sole disposal. I can take you away from all of this - ” His sweeping gesture, unfortunately, caught the candelabra perched on a ledge above her dressing table, bringing it down in an explosion of sparks. Her make-up case, packed with rare oils and powders, caught fire and went up with a great ‘whoosh!’. She sprang back, entangled her gown hopelessly round her dressing-stool and came crashing to the floor.
“So, Oskar. Ever the gallant.” A mocking voice sounded from a few feet above her. “But I understand the best manuals of seduction recommend you light a fire in the lady’s heart, not her boudoir.”
She raised her head. A strange man leaned against the door-jamb, watching Krum’s flustered efforts to put out the blaze with amused detachment. The ink on Krum’s wizarding baccalaureat might be scarcely dry; the stranger’s merry face and mop of golden curls made him seem the bigger schoolboy of the two. Until one reached his eyes… .
Her mouth went dry. For as long as she could remember, at all times and all seasons she had walked the forests alone, fearing neither bear, nor wolf, nor outlaw. But this one carried the forest darkness within himself. The gnawing hunger of the dark, lonely places was his hunger, and it would never be satisfied.
With an effort, she rose to her feet, holding her terror rigidly in check, projecting arrogant dignity with every muscle.
“Might I request the courtesy of your name? I do not recall inviting you here and, as you can see, Herr Krum and I are occupied on matters of private business.”
The stranger ignored her. “Oskar, you promised to give me your answer tonight. Well? Surely a man of your abilities must see how the world is going. It lies with you – it lies with all pureblood wizards – to stand up and be counted. A line must be drawn, Oskar. For the greater good. After all -” He flicked her a cold, contemptuous glance. “If wizards do not stand firm, the wandless races will overrun us all. They claim the status of beings, but they breed like beasts. Centaurs – goblins – Merfolk – Giants – Veela - ” He almost spat the last word, his eyes fixed on Krum, his body turned away from her.
“Gelert, you go too far.” Krum’s voice rang with anger.
She could feel her eyes shifting from their normal violet to the yellow of absolute rage, feel talons sprouting from her finger ends.
The crystal vase on the mantelshelf shattered beneath the power of her scream. The stranger swung towards her, contempt naked in his face. Her fingers already clutched a bronze figurine; she hurled it with all her strength. It hit his forehead dead centre; he staggered under the impact. She was already reaching for the next missile when, with two ‘pops’ so close together that they sounded like one, Benny and Louis, the stage-door elves, materialised beside her.
“Gentlemen are causing trouble for Mistress? How may we be of service?’
She pointed towards the stranger, who had slumped against the wall, blood running down his face, eyes closed. “Him. Throw him out – now! No, better, drop him in the Spree. Head first, with a bag of rocks tied round his neck. Large rocks.”
“Mistress’s wish is our command.” Benny eyed the semi-conscious stranger for a moment, levitated one of the Indian clubs she’d been using to work up that comic ‘Strength, health and beauty’ skit, and struck it resoundingly against the stranger’s skull. He collapsed into a heap. Benny looked up at her. “That is, Mistress’s wish is usually our command.”
Louis’s big eyes were rendered even larger by guilt. His lip trembled. “Al is warning us the Ministry is becoming very awkward to people like us, Mistress. He had had very serious words with us about what we need to do to avoid trouble for the cabaret. We cannot be dropping wizards in the Spree, Mistress. But we is taking him far away from Mistress. Now.”
They caught an elbow each, bowed formally, and DisApparated. She drew a deep, shaky breath, and turned to Krum.
“Now, my sweet, where were we?”
Before he could speak, running footsteps sounded from the corridor. The door burst open. Al stood framed in the opening, his red hair dishevelled.
“Susie, who came in here a couple of minutes ago? “
She drew herself up. “I haven’t the slightest idea. An uncouth oaf, an ignorant pig, a scrofulous imbecile, the worm-ridden excrement of a diseased goat -” Her German deserted her, and she reverted to her native Hungarian, dropping back into German to conclude, “Anyway, Benny and Louis have disposed of him. Tell the box office he is not to be admitted in future.”
“Susie! I must know who it was. Lives depend on it. Yours, to begin with.”
“His name is Gelert Grindelwald,” Krum said, enunciating each word with deadly precision.
Al exhaled. “And how do you know him?”
“I do not know him. We have met. We have acquaintances in common.” Krum gestured; a chopped, arrogant movement of his hand. ““He was once a pupil of my old school.”
“Until they expelled him.” She had never heard such bitterness in Al’s voice before. Also, his German was slipping, his English accent more pronounced than she had ever heard it. He twined his long white fingers in his red beard so violently she feared he would pluck it from his chin.
Krum jerked his head up. “I never heard that. Indeed, one of the junior masters at Durmstrang gave me letters of introduction to Herr Grindelwald, when he learned we would be in Berlin at the same time.”
“Dolohov, I take it?” Al hardly seemed to notice Krum’s shocked expression; he was already moving on to the next point. “And did this teacher of yours explain why he thought it would be such a splendid idea for the two of you to get to know each other?”
Krum gulped, but then said, as if reciting a lesson, “Professor Dolohov told me the greatest evil facing the world was modern decadence, but that only a few people truly appreciated it. And Herr Grindelwald wanted to recruit the best – ‘the flower of European wizardry’ was how he put it - to form a new order of wizarding chivalry.”
“The Walpurgis Knights? Grindelwald asked you to join them?”
Krum nodded. “I was to have given him my answer tonight.”
“Was to? You mean you haven’t?”
“No. I was in two minds – he had not made himself so clear, earlier, about how he defined ‘decadence’. When he revealed himself, I knew I had to say no. But before I could do so - ” He shrugged. “Of course, at the first opportunity, I shall tender my absolute rejection of his proposals. And, at the same time, I shall send my friends to wait on him. Nothing but a duel can stamp out the insult he offered in my presence to the woman I love.”
“You’ll do no such thing, you idiot!” Her fury boiled up so hard that she had trouble getting the words out. “Don’t you realise he’ll swat you like a fly?”
Krum looked hurt. “I assure you, I was Victor Ludorum of the Durmstrang Duelling Club.”
“Exactly! Games!” She sniffed, by way of emphasis.
Al smiled. “Young man, if you are sincere in your rejection of the Walpurgis Knights and all they stand for, will you allow me to make a better suggestion?”
“And that is?”
Krum’s jaw dropped. “Have you not understood a single word? Grindelwald believes non-human magical beings to be less than beasts. His ‘Order of Chivalry’ will be dedicated to making their lives insupportable.”
“Quite so.” Al’s face showed the same satisfaction as when the chorus finally ‘got’ a new routine, or the goblin sparkies manipulated the antique lighting plots to transform the dingy cabaret into a brief illusion of paradise. “Can you imagine a better way to frustrate his loathsome aims than from within the organisation itself?” He raised his hand. “Have no illusions. I’m not offering a safer option. If you duelled tonight, at least your death would be quick. But if you want to make a real difference - give those working to overthrow him a chance. We need an ear in his inner councils. Make yourself that ear, Krum.”
“Impossible!” She smacked her Indian club down on the dressing table; it splintered under the blow. “This Grindelwald must have heard Oskar propose to me, earlier. He will not be deceived for an instant about any supposed change of heart. You are asking Oskar to volunteer for a slow, agonising and very certain death.” She bit her lip in sheer frustration. “Oh, if only I’d insisted on having the house-elves drop the man in the Spree, like I intended.”
Al swung towards her. “Susie, we mustn’t allow ourselves to become what we oppose.”
She sniffed. “By that, you mean that we cannot allow ourselves to act sensibly because of your English notions of ‘sportsmanship’. I can assure you, if the opportunity arises again, I shall certainly take it. I, happily, am no sportsman.”
His voice was firm. “The opportunity won’t arise again. He will never forgive what you did to him earlier this evening. Nor leave himself open that way again. You must vanish, tonight.”
She gaped. “Tonight? What about my shows?”
Al’s expression was redolent with cat-like malice. “Your understudy is more than ready to step into your shoes. In fact, she’s been measuring them up for months.”
“That – kid?” She snapped her fingers. “The cabaret will close within a week.”
“Better than having it closed for harbouring undesirables tomorrow. As soon as Gelert regains consciousness, he’ll be off to the Ministry. And they’ll listen to him. His Walpurgis Knights have been fomenting hatred against non-human beings for months. And, on that score, I’ll remind you we have twelve Veela, five house-elves, two goblins and a cross-dressing were-jaguar on the payroll. If you leave Berlin tonight, I may save them. If you stay, they’ll all be dragged into Nurmengard, for questioning. And bang goes your thirty percent stake in the cabaret.”
“A low punch, Al. So much for sportsmanship.” She was already shrugging into her wolf-skin coat, her eyes taking a quick inventory of the dressing room, Jewels; they were light, and packed small. Silk underwear, also. Her dressing case. Outfits; two for day and a couple for evening. That would be enough to carry. She would have to trust Al to send the rest on. She turned to Krum, who had sunk onto her dressing stool, He twirled his wand ceaselessly between his hands, looking heartbreakingly young. She brushed her fingers lightly over his cheek.
“So, Oskar – this is goodbye. Don’t listen to Al. Keep safe – have a good life. Go home to your estate and your town house in Sofia and your place on the Black Sea, for the hottest days of summer. Marry a good witch. Have lots of children; my sisters will dance at their christenings. Don’t worry about us. We have our roots in the forest, and the forest endures forever.”
Krum’s head jerked up. “Not if that bastard has his way. Because you caught him off-guard, you under-estimate him. But I have heard him talk. I know the poison his voice can spread.” He glanced at Al. “I believe I can convince Gelert I was under a glamour, earlier this evening. Disillusioned men can become very vindictive.” He shrugged. “At least, so my aunts tell me.”
Al extended his hand to rest on the younger man’s shoulder. “You’re right. Gelert has – I believe – never loved anyone. As a result, it is fatally easy for him to dismiss love as a matter of deception. But you realise that if this is to succeed you must never see Susie again?”
He nodded. “If it only keeps her safe –“ He broke off.
She bent forward and kissed his lips, throwing her whole soul into it. “Trust me, Oskar, I shall never forget you. If you can’t be safe, be magnificent.“ She looked up at Al. “Where next?”
“The train to Paris leaves in forty minutes; we should just do it. He’ll not look for you on Muggle transport. Just don’t use any magic, if you can possibly help it.”
The station was pandemonium; a jungle full of great, steaming iron monsters, Muggles thronged all about; the air was rank with coal-dust, human sweat, fried onions from the wurst-sellers and fear. She hung back at the barrier, clinging hard to Al’s arm, desperate not to lose the last vestige of the familiar in this alien place.
“Tell me, Al, do you have a plan or are you just making things up on the hoof, as usual? What happens when I get to Paris?”
“Go on to London. I have more chance to help you in England. Also – Grindelwald’s power is spreading across the Continent like Fiendfyre. Better to have the Channel between you and him.”
“And in London? What do I do there?”
He shrugged, the ghost of a smile lingering on his lips. “What you do best. Dance. Break hearts. Who knows, maybe even marry.”
She raised a gloved hand to wipe a tear from the corner of her eye. Nothing but this pestilential Muggle soot, of course. Her voice, thank the stars, held its usual calm assurance.
“Marry? Me? Not until a man asks me what I want, rather than telling me what he proposes to give me. And such men are rarer than phoenix tears.” She glanced slyly up at him. “Unless, of course, you are offering –“
Even in the gloom of the station, she could see him flush dark red. His voice sounded uncharacteristically hesitant. “I don’t think – anyone would consider me the marrying brand.”
She let laughter ripple through her voice, like the breeze in the young beech leaves. “And we Veela only have sisters, not brothers. What a waste.”
He pushed her in the small of her back, propelling her through the barrier. “Go on. The train leaves in two minutes. Your ticket and reservations are here. Don’t lose them.”
She turned, to see him already a shadowy figure, fading into the smoke of the station. “I will see you again? It is auf wiedershen, not goodbye?”
“Of course.” He almost had to shout to make himself heard over the noise of the train. “My sabbatical ends in two months, anyway. I’ve done all the spying here I can hope to get away with. Dippet expects to see me back at my post in September. Anyway, Susie, it’s past time. Catch the bloody train.”
She leaned out of the window as the train pulled away from the station, but either he had Disapparated or used a Concealment Charm. Fretfully, she gripped her case and went in search of her appointed seat.
“Well! This is quite an honour.”
The comfortably-built, well dressed businessman rose from his seat as she blundered into her carriage, disconcerted by the choppy motion of the train.
“Miss Maritza Zsa-Zsa, isn’t it? I saw you dance t’other evening. You and that other lass, the one with top hat and monocle. Out of this world. Chap I was with, you got him so dazed I put another two noughts on the contract and I don’t think he even noticed. What a night that was. But then, we know star quality in Lancashire when we see it – aye, and we do see it there, too. By the way, the steward said he were just having the sleeper carriages made up, and they’d be ready in half an hour. But it’s a long journey and, if you’re like me, I don’t suppose you sleep that well on trains. Might I have the pleasure of ordering you a nightcap? Just tell me what you fancy, and I’ll see what I can do.”
She collapsed into the corner of the carriage, overwhelmed by the multiple stresses of the day. One thing, though, was sure and certain in a hostile world.
“Might I – ah – perhaps, champagne?”
The businessmen beamed. “Just what I was thinking of myself.” He stood up, stuck his head out into the corridor, and bawled, “Kurt! Magnum of t’Dom Perignon, please, and make it snappy. Can’t keep a lady waiting.” He turned back to her. “Eh, if you’ve got plans to take your show touring, that tango ‘ud go over a treat in the Winter Gardens. But for Lancashire, you’d need to put a comic on the bill, early. One of them Muggle clowns they call conjurors, perhaps. They always go down well. See why you didn’t bother with a comic in Berlin, mind you. Doubt you could find a banana skin or a false nose from one end of this town to t’other.”
She leaned forward. “You are – a wizard?”
“I most certainly am. Purebred as far as anyone can shake a stick at – for what that’s worth. Me, I say it doesn’t matter where someone comes from, it’s what they do with it that counts. Take this.” He stared up, enraptured, at the polished wood of the carriage ceiling. “No magic at all, and they come up with something like this. Beautiful. Just beautiful. I get most of my best ideas on Muggle trains. I’m an engineer by profession.”
“And – might I know your name?”
“Eh, my mother told me, I’d forget my own head if it weren’t screwed on.” He extended his hand. “Device. Charles Device.”
The steward tapped on the carriage door, bearing an ice bucket and two glasses. She waited until he had withdrawn before raising her own glass to her lips.
“Well, Herr Device-Charles-Device. Here’s to England. Goodbye to Berlin!”
“Goodbye to Berlin!”
The train rushed onwards through the night.