She sighed. ‘It’s a real mess up here. First of all, the coven here didn’t know I was coming. Secondly, they’ve got themselves into terrific trouble involving some frogspawn. Honestly, you really don’t want to know the details. It’s quite horrific.’
She was right; I really didn’t want to know. ‘Have you heard from the Order headquarters?’ I asked, in an overly casual tone.
‘Nothing.’ She sounded put out. ‘Given that I’m up here trying to sort out this mess alone, they should have been in touch. It’s not normal for First Levels like me to complete this kind of assignment on their own.’ She dropped her voice. ‘I think it’s a test. If I do well, they’ll let me take the exam and proceed to Second Level. Or maybe it’s to gain entry into Arcane Branch.’
I winced. ‘Mmm.’
‘Anyway, I can’t stay on the line for long. I just wanted to check how Harold is doing.’
‘He’s fine. In fact, I’m just about to go and check on him now.’
‘Brilliant.’ She sounded relieved. ‘I know he’s not as smart as Brutus but I love him to bits. I hope he’s not too lonely without me.’
I could tell her that he had company so he probably wasn’t feeling lonely at all but somehow the phone didn’t seem the right way to break the news to her. That, and the fact that I was a total coward. ‘I should probably go,’ I said awkwardly.
‘Right, yeah, yeah. Thank you so much for all this, Ivy. I don’t know what I’d do without you.’
I grimaced as she hung up. I doubted she’d still be singing my praises in a few days’ time when she returned. This is exactly why I hate keeping secrets: they are always trouble in the long run. Skulking around just doesn’t suit my temperament.
Brutus gazed at me narrow-eyed. ‘Bored.’
I reached for a piece of paper, screwed it into a ball then tossed it in his direction. He immediately brightened and attacked it with immense vigour. Then he tapped it underneath the sofa and swung balefully round in my direction, as if blaming me.
I shrugged. ‘Sorry. I’d retrieve it for you but I need to check on Harold and his new housemates.’ I was almost convinced that Brutus rolled his eyes. I gave him a look to suggest there was nothing I could do and vamoosed into the bathroom, snagging up my pyjamas, a towel and some shampoo. With my boiler still out of action, the only shower I was likely to get in my own flat would be ice cold. At least this way I could kill two birds with one stone.
Harold had moved from one end of the sofa to the other. When I entered, he didn’t even twitch. I was pleased to note, however, that he had one slitted eye on the pair trussed up in the middle of Eve’s floor.
‘Hey y’all,’ I said cheerfully. ‘How’s it going?’
Nobody answered. Dumping my things on a chair, I dealt with Harold first, giving him a big fuss before making sure he had enough food and water. If he was annoyed at being cooped up all day long on babysitting duty, he didn’t show it. I received several head butts and a deep-throated purr. ‘Why can’t Brutus be as sweet as you?’ I asked, tickling him under the chin. Harold’s purr increased. He knew where his food was coming from – at least for the next few days.
When I was satisfied that Eve’s familiar was content, I moved over to Bell End. I peeled off his gag and offered him some water. He glared at me with the ferocity of a captive bear but he still took it, gulping down several mouthfuls. Once he was done, I waved one of the burgers I’d picked up on the way home. I’d made Winter stop before he dropped me off. Fortunately, he hadn’t commented on the fact that I bought three separate meals but his expression told me exactly what he thought of me. Whatever.
‘Want this too?’
Bell End nodded reluctantly. Feeding him like a baby was too much trouble so I undid his restraints and let him eat it himself while I kept a close eye on him for any sudden movements. His partner twitched the entire time. I even heard her stomach grumble. Tough. She could wait.
Once Bell End was finished, I re-tied his bonds and patted him on the cheek. ‘There now. Isn’t that better?’
He scowled. ‘You can’t keep us here forever.’
‘Tell me what you were doing here and I’ll let you go.’
He looked away. I replaced his gag and moved to the woman. ‘What’s your name?’ I asked. She didn’t answer. ‘Tell me your name and I’ll give you food and water.’ I wafted my hand in front of her face. ‘Mmm. Smells good, doesn’t it?’ Her eyes followed the burger in my hand. Yep, she was pretty hungry. I unwrapped it and started to eat. ‘Yum.’
Resignation flickered in her face. I grinned, grabbed the final burger and raised an eyebrow. ‘It’s Alice,’ she said. ‘My name is Alice.’
Bell End sagged against her. I didn’t know why he was upset; he was the one who’d been stupid enough to come out with identification on him.
‘You’re in the Order.’
She nodded reluctantly.
I took an educated guess based on the magic she’d used against me during our fight. ‘Adeptus Minor?’ I asked. ‘You seem Second Level to me.’
I pointed over to the pile of herbs. Harold helpfully leapt up beside them, his tail whipping from side to side. He apparently thought I should get on with it. ‘What are they for?’
‘Just give me the damn food,’ Alice snapped. ‘I told you my name.’
True. Never let it be said that Ivy Wilde went back on her word. I undid her bonds and she lunged for the burger, cramming into her mouth with gusto. I watched, fascinated. She didn’t even seem to chew.
Alice was still on her final mouthful when she made a move. She shifted to the right slightly, dropping her hand behind her knee where it was just out of sight. Before she could finish the rune, however, I grabbed her hand and held it up. She squirmed.
‘That’s just rude,’ I told her, tying her up again. ‘But at least you’re more interesting than your partner.’ I sat down cross-legged in front of her. ‘Did you break in to foretell Eve’s future?’
She stared at me as if I were nuts.
‘No,’ I murmured, ‘I didn’t think so. Twelve minutes of her future self wouldn’t get you very far.’ I wiped away some ketchup from the corner of my mouth. ‘Perhaps you wanted to see what she’s been up to in the past.’ I doubted it would be very interesting. Eve was a workhorse. If anyone wanted to spy on her, they’d see someone studying, keeping fit, practising magic and maybe, just maybe, sleeping occasionally. I smirked at the idea of someone trying it on me. The report would involve me wandering to the fridge, turning on the kettle and shifting around on the sofa.
Alice Fairclough’s expression remained studiously bland. ‘So,’ I said, ‘you must have wanted to track her.’ It would have been fairly easy to manage. Neither Alice nor Bell End had expected Eve to be home, so they must have been planning to sprinkle the herbs in the right places so they’d brush off on Eve’s skin. As a First Level witch, Eve wouldn’t have had guards in place to combat such a spell. I leant my head to the side curiously. ‘The question is why.’
Alice pressed her mouth shut. She obviously wasn’t going to say anything more. Her choice. I felt like I was inching closer to the truth. It was just as well because between these two and Winter, I had my hands full. Another day or two and I reckoned I’d get what I needed. I replaced her gag and smiled. If I was feeling kind I might let them have a pee break soon. I was all heart.
‘Not to worry. You two stay here. I’m off for a shower and I’d hate to think you were peeking at me.’
Alice glared at me. I nodded slowly. ‘Oh yeah. You can’t move, can you?’ I grinned. It was a hard-knock life.
The next morning, every single alarm I possessed went off at the same time. It was the only way I could be sure that I wouldn’t fall asleep again. My early start had nothing to do with the upcoming thrill of watching Winter question the Ipsissimus and everything to do with lulling my sapphire-eyed partner into a false sense of security. If I could make him believe that I wasn’t quite as lazy as he thought, I reckoned I’d be able to get away with more – by which I actually meant less – in future.
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