‘No, I don’t.’
‘That’s a shame,’ Winter commented. He didn’t look at me.
‘Yeah,’ I agreed. ‘It really is. We could be free of each other if only we could find some.’
‘Hmmm.’ Winter put his foot down on the accelerator, narrowly beating the next red light. Neither of us said another word until we reached the library.
Winter cracked his fingers as we entered the library’s front doors. I guess he wanted to show that he really did mean business. He strode up to the front desk and barked at the man behind it. ‘This entire area needs to be closed off immediately. Make sure everyone leaves.’ He checked his watch. ‘You’ve got two minutes.’
Just when I thought he’d been softening up. The man stared at him. ‘Adeptus Exemptus Winter,’ he began, his left eyebrow twitching furiously.
‘I’m sure we don’t need everyone to leave,’ I said helpfully. Winter glared at me. Somewhat belatedly, I realised I’d called his authority into question in public. Oops. I hastily backtracked. ‘What I mean is it would be fabulous if you could stay on this desk,’ I said, addressing the man. ‘You seem like an excellent gatekeeper and someone who can keep everyone away from the library for the time being.’
The man’s chest puffed up slightly. ‘I could do that,’ he sniffed. ‘But what I can’t do is kick everyone out. There are a lot of people carrying out important research here. Unless there is a health and safety issue, I can’t simply order them off the premises.’
Thinking about it, I suppose that it was vital to the Order – and by extension, Winter – that no one discovered the Cypher Manuscripts might have been compromised. There was the potential for mass panic if the news got out; even I felt shaken by the possibility and I didn’t care whether the Order lasted one more day or one more millennium.
‘Sorry,’ I muttered to Winter. ‘Don’t forget I’m new to all this.’
If my words appeased him, he didn’t show it. He crossed his arms. ‘Ninety seconds.’
Flustered, the man picked up a phone. His fingers were trembling and he had trouble finding the right numbers. He appeared to be wilting under the pressure of Winter’s impatient glare and he was starting to make me feel uncomfortable.
‘Don’t worry. I’ve got a better idea.’ And it would mean a lot less hassle. I held out my right palm and, using my left, sketched the rune for fire. I knew how much fire was feared in the library; this would have them running for the hills before I could toast a marshmallow. I was becoming a dab hand at this rune. By the end of the week, the Scouts would be looking to hire me as their personal mascot – or better still, the fire brigade. I pictured myself on their annual calendar, surrounded by broad-chested firemen. Now there was an idea.
A second after my tiny flame flared into life, a god-awful screeching filled the library. From all corners, red-robed witches came rushing forward looking like they were ready to do battle.
I extinguished the flame. The siren, however, kept up its alert. ‘Evacuate the building!’ I shouted. ‘Fire!’
‘Ivy,’ Winter said over the racket, while rubbing his forehead as if he were in pain. ‘This isn’t an office block. In the event of fire, every witch in the vicinity is trained to come here to try and prevent the flames from spreading. You’ve just achieved the opposite of what we wanted.’
Oh. Now that I thought about it, that made sense. I would run from fire; these idiots would run towards it.
A witch standing nearby raised his palms. His eyes were closed and he seemed to be concentrating hard. ‘There’s the source of the fire,’ I heard him mutter. Before I could react, he drew the rune and drenched me from head to foot in ice-cold water. Oh bloody hell.
Winter flicked his fingers, performing a rune so nimble and fleeting that I barely caught it. The front doors to the library sprang open, then his voice boomed out as if from a loudspeaker. Cool. ‘There is no fire but everyone must leave the building for safety purposes until we discover who set off the alarm.’
The witch who’d just doused me in magical water frowned. ‘She started the fire. She set off the alarm.’ To emphasise his point, he sent out another ice-laden gush of water in my direction.
She was soaking wet yet again and starting to get mightily pissed off. I shook off the worst of the water and hissed, ‘Plonker.’
‘Ivy,’ Winter warned. He took the watery witch by the elbow, drew him into a corner and murmured something in his ear. The witch paled, nodded, then immediately left the library like a good little boy.
Through the window I saw a crowd of red-robed witches running towards the library from all directions. Winter’s reckless spell-casting witch began to yell at them, gesturing at them to go back. ‘It’s not fire!’ he shouted. ‘It’s a black cat!’ He paused a beat for dramatic effect. ‘And she has a litter of kittens!’
I looked quizzically at Winter. He shrugged. ‘All those Order superstitions have got to be good for something. Until the Ipsissimus says otherwise, and until we know for sure that the Cypher Manuscripts have been taken, we need to keep this on a need-to-know basis.’
I was impressed by Winter’s quick thinking. All around us the witches who had remained in the library decided they weren’t taking any chances. They streamed outside, willing to do anything to avoid a black cat – or indeed several of them – crossing their path. The Order normally went to great lengths to keep black cats away from their grounds. Despite my own superstitions, I felt a bit sorry for the cats; they couldn’t help their colour.
‘Adeptus Exemptus Winter is such a hero,’ I heard one of the departing witches murmur to a friend. ‘He’ll make sure the cat is kept away from us even if he has to risk his own safety.’
‘You know,’ I said to Winter, ‘people will avoid you for weeks after this in case they’re tainted by your potential bad luck.’
‘Then at least I’ll be able to do my job unimpeded,’ he growled. He glanced at me. ‘Doesn’t it bother you that you’ll be treated the same way?’
I snorted. ‘Hardly.’ I shook myself, sending a spray of water in Winter’s direction. He stiffened fractionally but didn’t comment.
‘Do you think,’ I asked hopefully, ‘that I could go home and change first?’
‘Your wet condition is your own fault, Ivy. Besides, those witches out there shouldn’t be kept away from the library any longer than is necessary. The Cypher Manuscripts might be untouched.’
‘Yeah,’ I said, knowing I sounded unconvinced. Perhaps these repeated soakings would give me a cold then I’d have an excuse to stay at home for a few days. Every cloud, etc.
The last witch was Maidmont. He approached us, his brow furrowed. ‘There’s no cat, is there?’
He looked momentarily relieved. That wouldn’t last. ‘So what is it?’
Winter gave him a hard look. ‘If I tell you,’ he said, ‘you are under oath to keep it quiet until further notice.’
Maidmont nodded vigorously. ‘Is it asbestos?’
‘We think the Cypher Manuscripts might have been stolen,’ Winter said, without any preamble.
The words didn’t seem to register immediately. Maidmont gazed at us both blankly. ‘Wh – what?’
‘The only reason that we can think of for the sceptre’s theft, other than trying to assassinate my good friend Winter here, was to cover up another more serious crime,’ I offered helpfully.
Maidmont blinked rapidly. ‘But the Cyphers?’ He wrung his hands. ‘That’s impossible.’
‘When you reset the wards yesterday,’ Winter asked, ‘did that include the ones around the Cyphers?’
The poor librarian scratched his head. ‘Um, yes. We did all of them.’ Panic appeared on his face. ‘Did we do wrong? Oh God, this is all my fault. The Cyphers…’
‘We don’t know they’ve been taken yet. Let’s confirm that first of all.’
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