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‘After the swearing-in ceremony for last year’s Third Level witches.’

I calculated: that would have been during the Winter Solstice, which was almost five months ago. The Order liked using auspicious dates to add to the pomp and circumstance of their ceremonies. ‘And no one’s opened it since then?’

‘No, of course not.’

‘Thank you, Ms Wilde,’ Winter interrupted tautly. He focused on Maidmont. ‘When was the last time you saw the sceptre?’

Maidmont swallowed again, his eyes shifting nervously as if Winter were accusing him of stealing the damn thing. This time, at least, he held it together to answer. ‘Last night. I did the final rounds around ten o’clock.’

‘Bloody hell!’

Both Winter and Maidmont turned to me. ‘What is it?’

‘The library closes at ten?’

Maidmont nodded.

‘You have a thought, Ms Wilde?’ Winter asked.

‘I’m having several thoughts, Adeptus Exemptus Winter,’ I returned. ‘Who in their right mind is studying at ten o’clock at night? Clearly, they’re several sandwiches short of a picnic.’

Winter’s blue eyes filled with exasperation. ‘You have the logbooks?’ he asked Maidmont.

‘Yes, yes, I’ll get them for you. But everyone left.’ He shot me a look. ‘I made sure of it.’

‘Just get us the books,’ Winter demanded.

Maidmont half bowed and half curtsied, as if he couldn’t make up his mind how to treat either of us, then skedaddled downstairs.

‘You are not exactly helping,’ Winter informed me.

I crossed my arms. ‘I think I’m helping a lot. That poor man would still be trying to answer your first question if I hadn’t stepped in. Softly, softly catchee monkey.’ I shook my head. ‘Getting things done quickly takes a gentle approach sometimes.’

A muscle throbbed in his cheek. ‘I’m not interested in getting things done quickly, Ms Wilde. I’m interested in getting them done right. Now stay quiet and let me do my job.’

I rolled my eyes. Fine. I leant back against the nearest wall and let Winter go to it. Idiot man.

He withdrew a stick from the inside pocket of his jacket. It was similar to a chopstick in length, maybe a few inches longer. I stared at it then snickered. Was that supposed to be a magic wand? Winter ignored me. Using the wandy chopstick, he probed the display case. The moment the tip touched the glass there was a faint hissing sound and the stick turned green around the edges. It didn’t take a Second Level genius to realise that vestiges of the original ward were still in place. All the same, as far as I could tell the sceptre had been lifted right out of the case with incredible ease. Some ward.

Winter poked around a little longer and then made for the stairs. I was perfectly willing to watch him go but, when he was almost out of sight, he called in an irritating voice, ‘Come on then, Ms Wilde. Get a move on!’

No. I understood he had a job to do and that he treated the loss of the sceptre as a particularly grave matter but that didn’t give him the right to talk to me like that. Keeping quiet was one thing; acting like Winter’s obedient shadow was something entirely different. I dug in my heels and didn’t move.

That was a good plan as far as I was concerned except that almost immediately the skin on my arms began to tingle, and not in a good way. I pulled up my sleeve. I was covered in goosebumps, each hair standing on end. And I appeared to be turning a dangerous shade of purple. The tingling wasn’t just painful; it was also bloody itchy. I stared after Winter. Was this because of him? Had he cast a damn spell on me?

I pushed myself off the wall and jogged after him. When I reached his shoulder, however, he merely grunted, ‘’Bout time. I thought you were in a rush to get this over and done with.’

I narrowed my eyes. He didn’t seem to be carrying any herbs although he could well have cast a few runes. All the same, he wasn’t acting any differently and my skin already seemed to be returning to normal.

‘What’s wrong?’ he snapped. ‘Is walking down a few stairs too much trouble for you now? Would you prefer to take the lift?’

It wasn’t his doing then. No doubt it was a result of the binding. We might not have been far apart but the spell must have registered my intention to have nothing more to do with the investigation and reacted accordingly. That was … interesting. Rather than admit to Winter what had happened, I deflected him. ‘There’s a lift?’ I asked hopefully.

‘Don’t be ridiculous. This is a technology-free zone.’ He continued downward.

I rubbed my arms and followed. Well, this was just shit. Apparently the binding was even tighter than I’d been led to believe. I suppose I should have been amused that the higher Level witches didn’t trust Winter to work with someone else without enforced magic. If anyone else bore the brunt of this spell, it would have been funny. I was most definitely not laughing.

Winter strode down to the foot of the stairs and stopped. He took out his little stick and poked the air; this time it turned red.

‘Abracadabra,’ I muttered.

He didn’t turn around. ‘Go up and take a book from a shelf then come back down here.’ I didn’t move a muscle. He glanced over his shoulder. ‘Didn’t you hear me?’

I blinked. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. Were you talking to me?’ I clasped my chest. ‘I thought I was just along for the ride and superfluous to your investigations. I’m just an amateur, after all.’

Winter’s mouth tightened fractionally. I’d have hung around and waited for a ‘please’ except my skin began to tingle once more. ‘Fine,’ I snapped. ‘Anything in particular?’

‘Just get a book.’

I stomped back upstairs, swiped the nearest tome and stomped back down again, pausing only to read the spine. Approaching Magic With Empathy. Volume Two. Ha. Ha. Ha.

I thrust the book at Winter but he shook his head and pointed to the front doors leading to the outside world about twenty metres away. ‘Take it outside.’

‘Do you want to explain what this is about?’

He pinched off a headache. ‘Ms Wilde, please just do it.’

I regarded him silently for a moment or two. ‘You’re wishing I’d been sent to jail now, right?’

He didn’t answer. I shrugged and stepped forward, taking the book with me. Hot pain flashed through my body. ‘Ow!’ I yelped. ‘What the hell?’

‘Books have to be checked out at the desk before they can be moved beyond this point.’

‘Well, why the hell didn’t you say so? Are you trying to kill me now?’

The long look he gave me suggested great sufferance. ‘The ward around the display cabinet had degraded so it would have been simple to break it. This ward is a different matter.’

The pain coursing through my veins confirmed that it was very much still in operation. ‘So how did the thieves get past it?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘How did they know that the first ward had degraded?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Do you know anything?’

Winter gritted his teeth. ‘Investigations of this nature take time, Ms Wilde. There’s no sudden eureka moment where all is revealed.’ He paused. ‘Return the book.’

I glanced back at the stairs. ‘Sure,’ I said casually. I lifted up one hand and sketched out a rune in the air then let go of the book. It floated upwards, making its way back to its original position.

‘That was a waste of magic. The Order dislikes unnecessary and lazy spells.’

I clapped my hand over my mouth dramatically. ‘Gee. If only I’d known.’

He sighed in irritation. ‘Come on. There are more wards to test.’

Oh goody.

This time at least, Winter stepped up to the plate. He grabbed an old mixing bowl on display by the wall situated past the first pain-inducing ward. The card next to the bowl informed us that it was sixteenth century. A perverse part of me hoped Winter would inadvertently break it while trying to get it past the second invisible ward. All that happened, however, was a faint hiss emanating from under his breath as he tried to pass with the bowl in his hand. I peered more closely. It looked like his lips had turned a faint shade of blue.


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