I stumbled around, bleary-eyed. The sun rose for a reason. It wasn’t natural to crawl out of bed when it was still dark outside. I muttered irritably to myself as I tried to get ready. My limbs were stiff and unyielding and the more I moved around the more they seemed to hurt.
Winter had told me that I should dress appropriately for our appointment with the Order head. The only clean clothes I could find, however, were so wrinkled that I wasn’t sure even an industrial strength iron would make them look presentable. I shook out yesterday’s T-shirt and frowned at it. It didn’t smell too bad. Then my gaze fell on the box that Winter had procured for me. Hang on a minute. This could work.
I rummaged around, pulling out the red robe that was folded neatly on the bottom. As much as I hated dressing like all the Order geeks, this would satisfy Winter and it would mean I didn’t have to bother getting dressed. I could just shrug it on over my pyjamas and no one would be any the wiser. I grinned. I bet other witches did this all the time.
Smoothing down my hair as best as I could, I gave Brutus a sloppy kiss on the head, spat out the fur that inevitably ended up in my mouth, and headed for Eve’s flat. I double-checked that its occupants, both feline and human, were alright and gave them enough refreshments to last the day. I’d be relieved to get them out of my hair. Hopefully, Bell End and Fairclough would cough up the answers I wanted before too long. They were becoming a drain on my time that I could do without.
Once I was satisfied they’d been dealt with, I went downstairs. Winter had insisted on picking me up again. It suited me; it meant I’d be able to nap on the drive in and catch up on some of my precious lost sleep.
I made it to the corner about twenty seconds before he pulled up. He stuck his head out of the window and blinked at me. ‘You’re here.’
I made a show of checking my watch-less wrist. ‘I’ve been waiting for at least fifteen minutes.’
He frowned. ‘I’m bang on time. We said six am. It is six am.’
‘I didn’t want to miss you,’ I told him, clambering into the passenger seat. ‘You were grumpy enough yesterday to last a lifetime.’
‘I was not grumpy,’ he growled.
‘Yes, you were. Throwing water over an innocently sleeping woman is not the action of someone with a sunny attitude.’
Winter’s mouth twitched. ‘The last thing I would ever call you is innocent.’ He put the car into gear and began to drive.
‘If the opposite of innocent is experienced and worldly-wise,’ I commented, ‘then I’ll take it.’
‘You certainly seem experienced at sleeping.’
‘Oh,’ I purred, ‘when it comes to the bedroom, I have lots of experience. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’m very skilled.’
Unfortunately, Winter wasn’t easy to embarrass. ‘Is that so?’ he murmured. The faintest hint of mocking disbelief coloured his words.
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him I’d give him a demonstration if he so wished but somehow it didn’t seem like a good idea. If he were anyone else, I’d have continued with the banter but with Winter it made me feel slightly uncomfortable. Goodness knows why.
‘Now buckle up,’ he instructed.
I smiled slightly, grateful for the change of subject. ‘Are you concerned for my safety?’
‘If you end up splattered against the windshield, the paperwork would be a pain in the arse. Not to mention the cleaning.’
‘See?’ I said smugly. ‘You don’t enjoy extra work any more than I do.’
He rolled his eyes. I clicked in the seatbelt and grinned. Sometimes Winter was almost human.
‘We should be grateful that the Ipsissimus has agreed to come in early to answer our questions,’ Winter informed me.
Should we? I opened my mouth to say as much but Winter held up a hand to forestall me. ‘It’s good that you dressed appropriately. He will be pleased that you’re showing that you’re willing to be a real part of the Order for the next hundred days.’ I pressed my lips together tightly. ‘But, as I said yesterday, it’s important that you let me do the talking. This is a delicate situation which requires careful diplomacy.’
Considering I hadn’t seen much yet in the way of careful diplomacy from Winter, I was amused by his words. All the same, I could let him worry about the stupid sceptre and the Ipsissimus and spend my time thinking about what to do with Bell End and Alice. Or better still, daydreaming.
‘Adeptus Exemptus Winter,’ I began.
‘You really don’t have to keep calling me that.’
‘Adeptus Exemptus Raphael Winter,’ I said instead, ‘do you know everyone in the Order?’
‘There are thousands. Of course not.’
I arched an eyebrow. ‘You strike me as the kind of person with his finger on the pulse.’ Truthfully, I’d imagined him being conscientious enough to pore over the names, photos and identities of each and every Order witch. He seemed that kind of person.
Winter sighed. ‘Who is it you’re looking for?’ His eyes narrowed slightly. ‘Do you want to know more about Philosophus Villeneuve?’
He was referring to Tarquin. I shook my head. ‘No. Do you know Alice Fairclough?’
‘Second Level Adeptus Minor,’ he answered instantly.
Ha! I knew he’d be aware of her. ‘And what kind of person is she?’
‘I know her name, Ms Wilde. I don’t know her shoe size or whether she’s an adept witch or not. She is Second Level, however, so I assume her abilities are reasonable.’
It appeared that Winter lived and died by the Order’s hierarchy. He wasn’t denying knowledge of her; if he had anything to do with her shenanigans at Eve’s, I’d have expected him to deny having heard of her. ‘Does she have a partner?’ I enquired. ‘Or a mentor?’
‘Adeptus Exemptus Diall.’
Hmm. Something about Winter’s tone suggested that he didn’t think much of Diall. That was interesting.
‘How about Matthew Bellham? Have you heard of him?’
Winter turned to me. ‘What exactly is all this about?’
‘I’m just curious.’
‘No,’ he answered. ‘I have not heard of him.’
Probably because Bell End was First Level and beneath Winter’s consideration. I nodded amiably. ‘Thanks.’ Winter looked shocked. ‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘You thanked me. You have manners after all.’ He shook his head melodramatically. ‘I never would have believed such a thing were possible.’
I suppressed a grin. ‘Hey, if you want manners, then you’ve got manners.’ I dipped into a low curtsey, just as the door opened and a tired-looking witch peered out. ‘The Ipsissimus will see you now.’
Winter pushed off the wall. ‘Excellent.’ He walked in through the open door. ‘Come on, Ms Wilde.’
I coughed. ‘I need a bit of help.’ I was still in the curtsey. Unfortunately I’d over-estimated how low I could go without toppling over or requiring a hand up. I blamed the gym session yesterday; my muscles were still in agony.
Winter looked as if he were trying very hard not to laugh.
The other witch offered his hand. I grabbed it gratefully. ‘Note to self,’ I muttered. ‘Perform fewer acts of obeisance.’
‘This is why you need to get fit.’ Winter smirked and headed in. I glared at his back. Yeah, maybe he had a point. But that didn’t mean I had to like it.
This time around, we weren’t in the grand meeting room but in the Ipsissimus’s study. I could only imagine that Winter had suggested this meeting should be conducted in private so that we didn’t accuse him of stealing from his own Order in front of all his minions. He was seated behind a grand desk, with a delicate china teacup in front of him. There was also a toweringly large pile of paper. Somehow, I didn’t think it would be fun to have his job.
Winter and I took our places in front of the desk. I opened my mouth to speak but received a hard jab in my ribs and an irritated glare. Miming a zip, I closed my mouth once more. Yeah, yeah. Winter could do all the talking if he was that desperate.
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