I let myself relax, emptying my mind as I’d once been taught, and focused on the mouse. For a long moment it remained frozen but, when I crooked my little finger, it skittered towards me. I let out a silent breath. I still had it.
I reached underneath the sofa and turned over my palm. The mouse wasted no time; it tentatively advanced, its small paws tickling my skin. I gave it a moment to get comfortable and then slowly drew it out. Standing up, I held it aloft and looked into its shiny eyes. ‘So, Mister,’ I began. The mouse twitched. ‘Sorry. I mean Miss.’ It relaxed again.
‘What do you have to tell me?’ I enquired, pushing out a tendril of magic towards it. ‘I could do with some good fortune coming my way.’
The mouse quivered, its long tail falling over my thumb. As if startled by its own actions, it spun round, lunged for my thumb and sank in its teeth. I yelped and dropped it. From the kitchen, I could hear Harold hissing and scratching at the closed door. The little rodent darted back for the safety of the sofa whilst I stared at the beads of blood rising up from my skin. This was not good, not good at all.
Before I could seek out the mouse once more, there was a sharp knock on the door. I cursed. Eve was never around at this hour – who on earth could be calling on her? I shuffled over and opened it, gazing at the two figures waiting there.
Given that the nearest one was wearing a red, hooded cloak, it didn’t take a genius to work out who they were. Order geeks – and Order geeks here on official business. Honestly; didn’t they check their own work schedules before they came out all this way?
My gaze swung to the other figure and I registered close-cropped dark hair and a clean, square jaw. There was a long scar running from his ear almost to his nose but it didn’t detract from his appearance; if anything, it gave him a deliciously dangerous air. Two piercing blue eyes watched me expressionlessly. Less of a geek and more of a walking advertisement for virile masculinity. Hello.
‘Eve Harrington,’ Red Cloak intoned. ‘We are pleased to inform you that you have received provisional Second Order status.’
My mouth dropped open; Eve had told me yesterday that she’d not even taken the exams yet. She really was a rising star in the Order. Before I could tell him that she wasn’t in, Red Cloak grabbed my arm and began to mutter.
‘Hey!’ I protested. Unfortunately, it was too late. Far, far too late.
‘You are now bound to Raphael Winter for the next 588 days as you complete your transition to the Second Order of The Hallowed Order of Magical Enlightenment. He will act as your mentor and guide while you both work for our glorious and esteemed institution.’ For a brief moment, his eyes twinkled and his voice softened. ‘Congratulations. You’re very lucky to have him as your partner. I’m sure you’ll do great things together.’
My arm tingled painfully as the binding pierced my flesh and tied itself to my soul. I stared at the Order official in horror. What the bejesus had he done? ‘You … you…’ My jaw worked but the words wouldn’t come out.
The other man stepped forward and I realised that what I’d thought was a lack of emotion was actually an air of sneering disappointment. ‘Perhaps, Miss Harrington, you should put on some more appropriate attire for such a decorous occasion.’
Decorous occasion? He might look like a sex symbol but he was clearly a pompous idiot. A pompous, foolish idiot. A pompous, foolish, moronic idiot who couldn’t see the truth when it was staring him in the damn face. Yeah, I’d been right the first time. Another Order geek.
‘You plonkers.’ Both men frowned slightly. ‘You absolute plonkers.’ I shook my head. ‘Do you have any idea what you’ve done? I’m not Eve Harrington! Do I look like a six-foot brunette?’ I waved at my plump blonde form. ‘I’m Eve’s neighbour. I just popped in to check on her cat. She’s not here – she’s gone up north on sodding Order business!’ I scratched furiously at my arm. ‘Get this damn thing off me!’
The red-cloaked man paled, his eyes rounding as he stared at me. ‘You’re joking, right?’
I put my hands on my hips and glared. ‘Do I look like I’m joking?’
‘But you have to be a witch,’ he blustered. ‘The binding spell wouldn’t have taken if you weren’t.’
‘Of course I’m a damned witch,’ I snapped. ‘But I’m not First Level. I’m not even a Neophyte. I’m not in your stupid Order!’
Both of them looked shocked. Bully for them. ‘You’re a witch but you’re not in the Order?’
‘Are you guys for real? It’s not compulsory, you know.’
Red Cloak blinked rapidly. ‘Yeah, but anyone with any kind of power…’
‘Oh, piss off.’ He wasn’t even being accurate: there is a whole group of witches who have plenty of power who avoid the Order like the plague. They’ve created their own special snowflake coven and plot nonsensically to bring the Order down. I’m not one of them – but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Not to mention that half the non-witch population also possesses some magic skills, even if most of those skills are weak and barely noticeable. ‘Just because the majority of witches sign up doesn’t mean we all do.’ I took a deep breath and tried to stay calm. ‘Now get this bloody binding off of me.’
They exchanged glances. ‘Perhaps we should go inside.’
If it meant getting these idiots out of my life, I’d strip naked and do the can-can. I gestured them in. ‘Then get a move on.’
Red Cloak shuffled towards the living room; Sexy-But-Annoying Geek strode in like he owned the place. He gazed round at the strewn bee pollen and raised a dark eyebrow. ‘In the middle of something, were you?’
‘As it happens,’ I answered through gritted teeth, ‘yes, I was.’ I crossed my arms. ‘How could you be so stupid? Don’t you check before you go around willy-nilly placing magical soul-bindings on people?’
His gaze turned icy. ‘This is Eve Harrington’s residence. She lives alone. You answered the door wearing…’ he looked me up and down and I could swear his lip curled ‘…that. Common sense would dictate—’
I stepped up to him. ‘Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare bring up common sense when it’s patently clear that neither of you have any. Didn’t you check whether she was away?’
A muscle jerked in his cheek. ‘We were unaware of that.’
‘Unaware?’ I mocked. ‘Some great Order you are! You don’t even know where your own people are when you’re the ones who sent them away!’
‘I’m sure this can all be sorted out.’ He glanced at Red Cloak. ‘Biggins? Remove her binding and we can let this … person leave.’
I rolled my eyes. He couldn’t have sounded more disdainful if he went for a bath in the Sea of Disparagement and washed his hair in Sneer. ‘Yeah, Biggins,’ I added, matching his tone. ‘Remove the binding.’
Biggins coughed. His cheeks flushed red and I started to get a very bad feeling deep in the pit of my stomach. ‘Well, Adeptus Winter,’ he demurred, ‘the thing is…’
Biggins scratched his neck. ‘Everyone knew you weren’t very keen to take on a trainee.’
‘So?’ Winter glowered in a perfect personification of his name.
‘Ipsissimus Smythe didn’t want you to change your mind when you got, uh…’ Biggins was growing redder and redder. Despite the ridiculousness of this situation, I was fascinated.
‘When I got what?’
‘Bored or, er, irritated.’
‘What exactly does that mean?’ Winter snapped.
I sighed. ‘It’s obvious, isn’t it? Because you’re some kind of bully who doesn’t play well with others, he’s made the binding unbreakable.’
Winter’s blue eyes narrowed. ‘I am not a bully, I just have high standards.’ He drew himself up. ‘And no binding is unbreakable.’
He wasn’t as smart as he thought he was. I hate herblore but that doesn’t mean I don’t know a fair bit about it. ‘Actually,’ I told him, ‘if you use essence of lavender and combine it with a sprinkling of red clover in your pre-ritual preparations, and then you use the right combination of runes, you can create an unbreakable binding.’ I glanced at Biggins. ‘Right?’
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