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‘Wheat?’

‘Yes. Magic is being used to strengthen their roots and their ability to grow in difficult terrains. There’s already been considerable success and farmers across the world are reaping the benefits. Literally.’

Okay, I was impressed. I opened my mouth to ask Winter another question but my attention was caught by a gaggle of uniformed children heading our way. I raised an eyebrow. ‘Getting the magically inclined in while they’re young?’

He shook his head. ‘Wrong again.’ He gestured to the red-robed witch leading the way and she ambled over.

‘Adeptus Exemptus Winter! What a pleasure.’ She presented her cheek for him to kiss then kissed him back. I banked down the trickle of anger I felt at someone else’s lips touching the cheek of my partner. What a ridiculous thing to be annoyed about.

‘This is Ivy Wilde,’ he said. ‘Ivy, meet Adeptus Major Goldstein.’

There was a flicker of curiosity in her gaze as she smiled at me and inclined her head. ‘Pleased to meet you.’

‘Why don’t you tell Ivy what you’re doing?’

Goldstein lit up. ‘My pleasure. I’m with this group who’ve come from London.’

She was interrupted by a boy of about ten who tugged impatiently at her sleeve. ‘I need to go to the toilet.’ He spoke in an oddly stilted manner and wouldn’t look her directly in the eye.

‘Of course.’ She beckoned another witch from the back of the pack who led the boy away.

‘He’s autistic,’ I said.

She smiled. ‘Yes, in this group they all are. We use magic to boost their development and help them make sense of the world. It’s a slow process but we’re seeing some real results. Yesterday, we had a great bunch of kids in who were all suffering from cancer. We haven’t found a way to beat their disease but we were able to show them the progress we’ve been making in the labs.’

I licked my lips. ‘Wow. That’s … that’s really good.’ The words sounded stupid. Talk about an understatement.

One of the younger children reached out and touched a rose stem, drawing back and howling when a thorn pierced his skin. Goldstein hurried over to him while I turned to Winter. ‘So that’s today’s lesson, is it? That the Order does a lot of good?’ I’d been dimly aware that there were projects like these but I’d never given them much thought.

‘You were only here as a Neophyte for a couple of months, Ivy. Your focus would have been on initiation and basic studies.’ A trace of a smile crossed his mouth. ‘Although I’m pretty certain you skipped the fitness components.’

‘Hey!’ I protested. ‘They were voluntary.’

‘Everything we’ve experienced so far – and everyone we’ve met – has suggested that the Order is big and bad and thoroughly inward-looking.’ His gaze grew more intense. ‘Yes, witches here are ambitious but they have good reason to be. It’s not all murder investigations and stolen objects. The people here aren’t all evil power seekers or downtrodden receptionists. You’ve seen the sordid side because that’s what the Arcane Branch is involved with.’ He shrugged. ‘That’s part of our job description. But you need to understand what we are fighting for. I know things turned sour for you all those years ago, and I know we’re probably not making much of a positive impression on you now, but I promise that most of what the Order achieves is for the betterment of everyone, regardless of whether they are witches or not.’

I met his eyes. ‘Why isn’t this kind of thing advertised more often? If more people knew what the Order was doing, they’d be more inclined to think well of you.’

‘Nothing is secret. Anyone can petition to find out what we’re up to. But good news doesn’t make headlines and, regardless of what you might think, we don’t like to boast.’

My gaze swept across the impressive space. ‘Why are you showing me this?’ I asked. ‘I think I’ve proved that I’ve invested. I’m taking the investigation seriously and not simply hanging onto your coat-tails.’

‘I know,’ he answered quietly. ‘I suppose I wanted you to see it because I want you to love the Order as much as I do.’ His hand brushed feather-light against mine and I shivered. Winter licked his lips and gazed at me with an intensity which sank all the way down into my very soul. My mouth went dry. Then he cleared his throat. ‘We should go and find Oscar Marsh now so we can save the world.’

‘Yeah.’ As disappointed as I was that the moment between us had been so fleeting, the thought that an Order witch might be doing something to jeopardise the kind of operation which happened here was making me feel sick.

Chapter Eighteen

The atmosphere inside the HR office was considerably different to last time. Clearly everyone was on their best behaviour; they had their heads down and grim expressions on their faces.

We were allowed in immediately, which didn’t make the receptionist happy. She glowered at us both for daring to interrupt her peace and quiet. She was hardly a good advertisement for HR but she wasn’t my problem and she didn’t really interest me.

When Winter and I strolled into the main office, several people straightened their spines and I clocked more than one nervous glance in our direction. Whether that was from guilt or something else, I had no idea.

I spotted Tarquin in the far corner, seated at a choice desk next to the window. Given the rain outside, at least he wasn’t getting much of a view. For the first time in a long while, I felt very angry towards him. Winter’s little side tour had opened my eyes to what the Order did for society; he wouldn’t have had to show me if Tarquin hadn’t ripped my future away from me.

Tarquin looked up as we walked through, flashing us a broad smile. It might have been directed at Winter rather than me but it still got my hackles up.

‘Don’t let him get to you,’ Winter told me in an undertone.

‘Am I being that obvious?’

‘When you’re pissed off, the tips of your ears turn red.’ I stared at him. He shrugged. ‘It’s rather adorable.’

Unable to help myself, I grinned. ‘I bet you never thought you’d call me that when we first met.’

‘Oh,’ he murmured, ‘there are many things I’ve changed my mind about where you’re concerned, Ivy.’

Something about the way he said my name made me feel very warm and very happy. At this rate, I’d be licking the soles of his feet and begging to be taken to the gym to lift weights and half kill myself. What a horrific thought.

We were almost at the corner of the room marked ‘Records’ when the door to Adeptus Price’s office opened and the man himself appeared. He seemed even scrawnier than last time. He shambled over to us as if he had all the time in the world. ‘Adeptus Exemptus Winter,’ he said, waving his arms expansively. ‘And … companion. Ms…’ He paused. Considering that he was the head of HR and I was the subject of a meeting he had attended three days ago where he was blamed for my recruitment, I expected him to remember my name.

‘Ivy Wilde,’ I offered helpfully. I stuck out my hand. For a moment Price eyed it as if it contained germs then he shook it with a limp-wristed grip. He’d be reaching for the hand sanitizer or wiping his palm on his robe any second now.

Price released me and focused on Winter. ‘What can we do for you?’

‘We’re looking for a personnel file,’ Winter said. ‘Oscar Marsh. He works in Geomancy.’

If Price was intrigued by the request, he didn’t show it. ‘Of course, of course.’ He clapped his hands and pointed to Tarquin on the other side of the room, who was pretending to look busy. ‘Villeneuve!’ he barked. ‘Get the file on a…’ He looked back at Winter.

‘Oscar Marsh.’

‘Marsh,’ Price repeated. ‘From Geomancy.’

Tarquin got to his feet. ‘Certainly, Adeptus,’ he murmured. ‘I’m happy to help.’ He walked purposefully to the filing cabinets, as if he were delighted by this mundane task. I was delighted to see him acting like a general dogsbody but I’m kind of petty that way.

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