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The Ipsissimus took off his half-moon spectacles and looked at us. ‘So,’ he said, ‘what can I do for you?’

‘First of all,’ Winter began, ‘thank you very much for coming in at this early hour to talk to us.’

The Ipsissimus gestured at the paper in front of him. ‘It’s no trouble. I might as well come in early and make a start on this lot.’ He smiled pleasantly, although there was a hard questioning expression in his eyes. ‘Have you made any headway with the theft of the sceptre?’

‘We have made some progress,’ Winter answered. ‘There’s nothing concrete to report yet but I’ll write up our findings this evening to keep you abreast.’

The Ipsissimus inclined his head. ‘Excellent. And how are things working out between the two of you? Ms Wilde?’

I didn’t say a word. Winter jabbed me in the ribs again. ‘Oh? I’m allowed to talk now?’ I asked. I beamed. ‘Things are just peachy. Adeptus Exemptus Winter is an absolute joy to work with. He’s a little ray of sunshine in my otherwise grey and dull life.’

I could feel the man in question getting ready to throw me out of the room. The Ipsissimus merely smiled again, as if oblivious to my sarcasm. ‘I’m thrilled to hear it. We are very proud to have him in our ranks.’

‘Thank you,’ Winter murmured before I could leap in and say anything else to embarrass him. He paused. ‘I am here to ask about the warding spell you had in place over the sceptre. It had degraded quite badly.’

The Ipsissimus grimaced. ‘So I’ve heard. I can only imagine that I didn’t reset it properly after last year’s ceremonies. It was my error.’

I thought Winter would leave it at that but now that I’d called the Ipsissimus’s integrity into question, he was going to prove that he’d examined every possibility. ‘Is that typical?’ he asked.

The Ipsissimus let out a short laugh. ‘I certainly hope not. I admit, however, that I pay less attention to such spells than I should. Generally speaking, the belief that strong wards are in place is enough to deter sticky fingers.’

Winter nodded. ‘And there were still strong wards in place on the ground floor. It must have been an incredibly powerful witch who breached them to get the sceptre.’

‘Yes. I’m told also that there are no apparent weaknesses. It’s very unusual to pass through a ward in that manner and leave it untouched. Among other things, the second ward requires crushed cypress leaves picked at midnight on midsummer’s day. Those are not easy to obtain.’

‘Or to use,’ Winter pointed out.

‘Indeed.’ The Ipsissimus appeared amused. ‘So I imagine your list of potential suspects are high Level witches.’

‘We are looking at Third Level only,’ Winter agreed.

The Order Head took a sip of his tea. ‘On the night in question, I was attending a soireé at number ten. The Prime Minister wanted advice on introducing magic to border controls.’

Winter threw me a look of triumph. He had a point; I reckoned that was a pretty rock-solid alibi. I’d never really believed the Ipsissimus nicked his own sceptre but this had been kind of fun. And it had given me a good reason to avoid another sweat-inducing session with the weights and treadmills.

‘I will ensure that every Third Level witch clears their schedule in order to meet with you and discuss their movements,’ the Ipsissimus said. ‘The sceptre might only be ceremonial but it does have value and it is certainly worrying that it’s gone missing. I’ve instructed every ward to be reset this afternoon. It will take time, effort and energy but it will be worth it. We cannot have more items walking out of high-security buildings.’

‘That is wise,’ Winter said. ‘I admit that I’m very concerned that someone could achieve this, even if the display cabinet’s ward was no longer effective.’

The Ipsissimus knitted his fingers together. ‘Do you think that the sceptre is recoverable? It will be a blow to the Order if we cannot find it intact.’

Winter heaved a sigh. ‘Frankly, I have no idea. It’s not even clear why someone would take it because it has no real power beyond the ceremonial. The trouble and effort they have gone to is extraordinary. Whoever is responsible, they must have had good reason to go to such lengths.’

I understood that the sceptre was intrinsically valuable, considering it was made of gold and encrusted with jewels, but this all seemed ridiculous to me. I thought about saying something but I had my orders.

At my side, Winter frowned and began to scratch at his arm. The Ipsissimus didn’t notice. He had embarked on a long speech about the merits or otherwise of the other library warding spells. ‘The fact that there was no blood spilt or that these thieves managed to circumnavigate…’ He paused mid-sentence and glanced at Winter, who had now yanked up his sleeve to stare at his mottled skin. ‘Is something the matter?’

Winter cursed. ‘An allergic reaction perhaps.’

The Ipsissimus tutted. ‘That’s no allergy.’ He swung his gaze to me. I smiled meekly in return. ‘What is it, Ms Wilde? The binding is making its presence known and I can only assume that it is as a result of you.’

Winter turned at glared at me. I held up my hands. ‘Hey!’ I protested. ‘I’ve not done anything. In fact, I’m doing as I’ve been told and staying quiet.’

‘The nature of the binding requires that you work in tandem with Adeptus Winter. It will not permit you to stay silent when you have a salient point to make.’

Well, well, well. So the binding worked both ways.

‘Out with it,’ Winter growled.

I raised my shoulders. ‘Make your mind up, buddy.’ I tilted up my chin. ‘It’s obvious, isn’t it? The amount of effort needed to remove the sceptre negates any actual value it could possible have.’

‘What’s your point?’

I glanced at Winter. ‘Easy. The sceptre hasn’t yet left the building. It’s still there.’

‘Don’t be idiotic. It was removed from the case. Maidmont and the other librarians would have noticed if it was simply shoved behind a shelf somewhere.’ His voice hardened. ‘Not everyone is as lazy as you are.’

‘It’s not about laziness.’ Well, actually it was. ‘It’s about what makes sense. Even a Third Level witch would need to sleep for several days after performing the kind of spells you’re talking about. Hence, the sceptre must still be in building.’

Winter gritted his teeth. ‘It cannot still be in the building. That’s impossible.’

‘It’s a big place,’ I argued. ‘It could have been hidden away anywhere.’

‘To what end?’

I was getting irritated. I didn’t have all the answers. ‘How the hell should I know?’

The Ipsissimus cleared his throat. ‘Enough.’ Winter and I fell silent. ‘I can see that your partnership is going to prove … interesting.’ Winter let out a snort of derision. ‘Ms Wilde does make a good point. I suggest that you return to the library and scour it for any sign of the sceptre. It’s possible that what we are looking at is nothing more than a First Level prank.’

Arse. ‘The librarians know the area best,’ I suggested. ‘They should look for it.’

‘This was your idea, Ms Wilde. Take ownership.’

I sniffed. ‘I’m not sure that’s entirely necessary…’

‘Deal with it.’

So much for Mr Nice Ipsissimus. Winter had stopped scratching and his skin had returned to its natural tanned colour. Next time I should really keep my bright ideas to myself.

Chapter Ten

‘This is stupid,’ I grumbled to Winter as I came out of the last study carrel on the third floor. ‘I don’t know where all the library hidey-holes are.’

‘Quit complaining.’

‘I’ve got sore feet.’ I pulled up a chair and sank into it while he examined a bookshelf, apparently on the off-chance that the metre-long sceptre was hiding behind a volume of ancient witch poetry.

‘You need to check the bathrooms,’ he told me.

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