‘Great.’ I was really looking forward to getting back home. I didn’t even care if my sheets were still wet; right now I’d sleep almost anywhere.
‘Take a quick shower,’ Winter said. ‘After that, we can hit the library.’
I went very still. ‘Excuse me?’
‘Why? What have you done?’
I glared at him. ‘You know what I mean. Why do we need to go to the library?’
Honest-to-goodness surprise flickered in his eyes. ‘So we can study.’ Belatedly he seemed to understand what I was getting at and slowed his speech as if he were speaking to someone of very low intellect. ‘The library is where books are kept. Books contain knowledge. If you read books, you can learn things.’ Winter raised an eyebrow. ‘You can read, right?’
I shook my head. ‘Nope. Not a word. So there’s no point going near any books.’
Winter remained deadpan. ‘Hmm. In that case, we’ll need to spend even more time in the library than I thought. We can begin with basic phonics.’ Damn it. The corners of his mouth twitched. ‘I’ll teach you the alphabet song.’
‘I hate singing.’
‘It seems, Ms Wilde, that you hate everything and everyone unless it involves lounging around at home and doing nothing at all.’
I grinned. ‘So now you understand why all this training is a waste of your time.’
He gazed at me with sapphire-hued promise. ‘I don’t fail, Ms Wilde. Ever. The Ipsissimus wants me to prove myself so that is what I will do.’
‘I’ve told you before, my name is Ivy.’ I put my hands on my hips. ‘And failure is good. People who don’t fail have no understanding of their own limits.’
Winter leant closer to me. ‘People who don’t succeed aren’t trying.’
It was like talking to a brick wall. I suppose I should have been grateful that sometimes he showed glimpses of a sense of humour. I sighed. ‘I’m going for that shower.’
‘Fifteen minutes,’ he called after me. ‘Or I’ll come in after you.’
That was too good to pass up. I turned round. ‘You can come now if you want. I’ll soap your back. You can wash my hair. And then we can—’
‘Shower, Ms Wilde,’ Winter interrupted flatly. ‘Now.’
Scratch that about his sense of humour. The man was no fun at all.
As before, Winter took off at tremendous speed. When it became clear that I wasn’t going to sprint alongside him, he tutted loudly and slowed down to match my pace. I could tell it annoyed him from the way he kept clenching and unclenching his fists. This was fun.
‘There are two main methods of performing magic,’ he informed me.
‘Casting runes and herblore.’ I rolled my eyes. ‘I’m not a complete idiot.’
‘I never said you were. If you let me finish…’
I swept out a grandiose gesture. ‘By all means.’
‘Casting runes is effective for spells that need to be completed in a hurry. However, as I’m sure you know, First Level witches can only use basic runes to perform basic spells. Even Second and Third Level witches struggle to remember enough runes to act quickly and effectively under pressure.’
‘So you’re a herb lover, huh?’
‘I use both types of magic equally,’ he responded stiffly. ‘The point I was making, Ms Wilde, is that preparation is the key to magical success.’ He glanced at me. ‘How did you bespell speech upon your familiar?’
‘You do realise that sometimes you speak like a Victorian, right?’ Winter glared at me. I sighed and pushed back my damp hair. ‘Runes.’
‘So you did it when you were a Neophyte? You must have gained access to that knowledge through the library.’
‘No,’ I said distantly, focusing on a group of witches on the path ahead. ‘I did that when I was around fifteen or sixteen.’
Winter stopped. ‘You what?’
Too late, I realised what I’d said. ‘Er … familiars live longer than common house cats,’ I demurred, hoping to deflect his attention.
‘If you were talented enough to achieve that at sixteen, then why would you feel the need to cheat a few years later?’
I shrugged awkwardly. ‘Maybe I was too lazy to study.’
Winter’s eyes narrowed. ‘Indeed.’
I could tell him the truth; it was usually the easiest option and in any other circumstance that’s what I’d have done. But I’d been down this road many times before and I knew he’d never believe me. Tarquin was too slick: I’d given up trying to tell the truth about my supposed cheating years ago. I’d railed and shouted and pleaded; it hadn’t done me any good whatsoever and at some point I’d given up. It was too much effort to continually plead my innocence when the world thought otherwise. People believed what they wanted to. Whatever. It was their problem; not mine.
‘It wasn’t that big a deal,’ I said. ‘Really.’
‘I consider myself a talented witch, Ms Wilde, but I’m not sure I could manage such a feat even now.’
‘I got lucky,’ I mumbled.
‘There’s no such thing as luck.’
It was my turn to stare in astonishment. Every witch I’ve met is superstitious. Hell, even I’m superstitious. Of course I’m superstitious – it comes with the territory. The last thing I’d pegged Winter for was a fortune sceptic. ‘Four-leaf clovers?’ I said.
He shrugged. ‘Pretty plants.’
‘They’re just birds.’
‘Itchy left palm?’
I gaped. ‘Half of what the Order believes in is rooted in superstition.’
Winter looked at me. ‘So?’
‘I had you pegged as a full convert, worshipping at the knees of the Ipsissimus.’
‘Oh, but I am,’ he murmured, mockingly. ‘But I don’t blindly believe in nonsense.’
He could have fooled me. We started walking again. Winter was more of an enigma than I’d realised. We drew level with the group of witches, whose chatter immediately subsided in case I was in any doubt about what – or rather who – they were talking about. In their midst, Tarquin gazed at me and quirked an eyebrow. I blew him a kiss and kept on walking. As soon as we were past, the whispering started again.
‘You know the way to stop all that?’ Winter asked. His fingers brushed against the skin on the back of my hand and I felt a strange electric shock shiver through me.
I moved my hand. The whole lot of them could gossip and tattle all they liked. I didn’t care. Much. ‘How?’
He grinned. ‘Succeed.’
The library was much the same as I remembered. The old rule about technology was still very much in place, with a total ban on anything that might hint at twenty-first-century know-how. Every so often some bright spark came up with a method to scan the old books onto a computer and, without fail, every time they tried the ink on the original pages vanished forever.
It is one of the reasons witch haters give for their ardent anti-magic protests: that the Order are antiquated and have no place in today’s society. Sometimes I wonder if they have a point.
Nothing in the library building ever seemed to change. Even the smell was the same – that memorable aroma of ink and vellum and leather. Sure, some of the more dangerous books were bound in human skin and the like and rumour had it that some of the Cypher pages were written in blood. Most of what was here, however, was paper. The only thing the librarians seemed to fear more than mobile phones was fire.
Winter directed me to a study carrel that reeked of stale marijuana. I was happy to wait while he ventured out to get me the books I was apparently required to read in order to be deemed good enough to work alongside him. I kicked off my shoes and leant back in the chair. Catnaps are good for the soul. Unfortunately, as seemed to be my lot these days, my opportunity for twenty winks was interrupted by yelling. A lot of yelling.
A few minutes later, Winter burst back in. ‘Training is over,’ he said.
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