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Bethany folded her arms. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘You set up Price. You stole the Manuscript and planted it in his office.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Weathers burst out. The panic in his expression belied his words.

I ignored his weak denial and leant back, trying to look relaxed. ‘How on earth did you know the ward around the sceptre had degraded? It was a stroke of genius stealing that.’

‘We didn’t steal it!’

I shrugged. ‘Borrowed it then. Hid it in the library sewer.’ I gave the three of them a hard look. ‘You know I almost died down there. That was what pissed me off and made me start looking for the real culprit. I realised the truth earlier tonight: it wasn’t me you were trying to kill, it wasn’t even Winter. You wanted to get Diall. It all makes sense.’

Rebecca stayed calm. ‘We haven’t done anything. You’re crazy. And where the hell is your partner?’

I waved my hand dismissively. ‘He got hold of some culver root and blocked me out.’ I sniffed. ‘Like I wanted to work with him. The man’s a fool.’

Bethany looked at Rebecca. She nodded slowly. ‘Culver root would do the job.’ Then her eyes hardened again. ‘Who else knows you’re here?’

‘No one. This was a spur of the moment thing.’ I smiled. ‘So what’s the plan? Who are you bringing down next? Price is in chains. He’s not getting out any time soon. Winter will see to that. And now that I’m in Arcane Branch, I think I’ve got a lot to offer you.’ I clapped my hands. ‘We can bring the entire Order down. That’ll teach them.’

They exchanged glances. ‘What led you to us?’ Bethany asked, choosing her words carefully to avoid any suggestion of culpability.

I stuck to the truth as closely as I could. The more I lied, the more chance there was that I’d be found out. If I could get these three to believe I was with them in heart and spirit then I’d win.

‘She was smiling,’ I said, jerking my head towards Rebecca. ‘When I saw you three earlier tonight. It seemed out of character.’ Rebecca glowered harder. ‘And,’ I continued, ‘you were the one who put me onto Price in the first place, weren’t you, Bethany?’ I shook my head as if in amazement. ‘I didn’t know for sure about anything but with the three of you here…’ My expression dropped. ‘Please don’t tell me I’m wrong. I really want to work with you guys.’

Bethany sank back onto the sofa. ‘We didn’t plan on taking the sceptre. It was going to be a few old books.’ She shrugged. ‘Anything that would have involved the wards being reset would have been enough. But then Weathers realised the sceptre ward was weak and that we could break it.’ She threw him an irritated glance. ‘We almost didn’t get the concealing spell up in time.’

‘You guys have some awesome skills.’

‘Yeah,’ Rebecca said shortly. ‘We do. All three of us should be Second Level. We have the magic, we’ve proved that. But because we don’t suck up to the right people, we’re stuck with menial jobs.’ She glared at me. ‘Let’s get one thing clear, though. We’re not trying to bring down the Order.’

I blinked. ‘Oh.’

‘Yeah,’ Weathers said. ‘Oh.’

‘We love the Order,’ Rebecca told me. ‘That’s why we did what we did. We want it to be as strong as possible. We want people to be treated with merit, to gain their Levels not because of politics but because they deserve them. So, yeah, we came up with a plan to destabilize Price and get rid of Diall.’

‘You weren’t supposed to get hurt in the sewer,’ Weathers said. ‘That was for Diall. We got lucky when Price killed him for us.’ Lucky? Well, that was one way of discussing murder although it wouldn’t be my choice.

‘It would have been easier if you’d drowned though,’ Bethany mused, ‘Because then we wouldn’t have to do this.’

Uh oh. ‘Do what?’

Rebecca lifted up her hand, which still contained the herbal mixture. ‘This.’ She flung it at me.

I scrambled to put up a rune to protect myself but it was too late. All I could do was minimise the herbs’ effects. I choked. My chest felt tight and it was difficult to breathe. ‘What?’ I gasped. ‘Why?’

‘You’re not one of us,’ Rebecca sneered, her face looming towards mine. ‘Winter is a good guy. We need more witches like him and fewer witches like you, Diall and Price. You’re the lazy ones. We’re the ones who get things done.’

My hands clawed at my throat; it felt like my windpipe was closing up. What the hell was wrong with me? And why hadn’t Winter burst in yet?

‘The Order needs to be strong,’ Weathers intoned with the zeal of a true convert. ‘You’re weak.’

My knees buckled underneath me and my vision swam. This was not good, it was not good at all.

‘I’d watch your words,’ I heard Winter say suddenly from the door. I closed my eyes in relief. Thank goodness – though I still couldn’t breathe. ‘Ivy’s not weak. She is, however, remarkably reckless.’

And then all hell broke loose. Weathers leapt towards Winter and prepared to throw out a rune while Rebecca scrabbled for more herbs. I spluttered, able to make out little more than blurry shapes. My head was pounding and I was feeling distinctly nauseous. Something flew across the room but it was only when it smashed into the wall on the other side and fell down with a grunt that I realised it was Weathers. Winter sidestepped Rebecca’s batch of flying herbs and muttered his own incantation under his breath. At the same time he took out his own herbs and threw them at her.

Bethany let out a battle cry and launched herself at him. There was a pained shriek as he drew a rune and she dropped to the floor in mid-flight. I collapsed sideways. Good for Winter, a little voice said in my head.

‘You’re an idiot.’

I forced my eyes open. I could just make out Winter’s features. He hissed in irritation and reached into his pocket, taking out a small bag of herbs. He put the tiniest pinch under my nose and I gasped.

‘I can breathe.’ I started to cough. ‘Oh, thank goodness.’ I blinked rapidly and looked round the room. Weathers was still in the far corner, groaning loudly. Bethany and Rebecca were completely prone. I stared. ‘Did you bring down three witches?’ I asked, my voice thready and weak.

Winter sighed. ‘Yes.’

‘In about three seconds?’

‘There might be three of them, Ivy, but they’re only First Level. Knowing one or two Second Level spells doesn’t make you Second Level. They’re not as good as they think they are.’

Apparently, neither was I. I grabbed Winter’s hand and struggled to my feet. ‘You really are that good, though.’

‘Yeah,’ he said simply and without a trace of ego. ‘I really am.’

I considered this. There was something to be said for Order training after all. I pursed my lips. ‘Thanks,’ I muttered.

‘No problem.’ Winter hesitated. ‘Thanks for getting these three to confess.’

I felt suddenly abashed. ‘I guess we make a pretty good team.’ I flicked a look at Weathers. ‘You could have been part of that!’ I called. ‘There will be no Wilde Wintry Weathers now!’

Winter rolled his eyes. ‘Next time, don’t burst in through the door like that. At least not without discussing it with me first. You repeatedly prove that you have no regard for your own safety. You could have been seriously hurt.’

‘I was seriously hurt! I’m going to require several weeks of convalescence. I almost died! Again! What took you so long anyway?’

‘I was hiding in a cupboard and the vacuum cleaner got in my way.’ He inclined his head towards mine. ‘Don’t tell anyone.’

I smirked. ‘My lips are sealed. Honest. I wouldn’t tell anyone that the big bad Adeptus Exemptus Raphael Winter almost got his partner killed and missed a fight because a household appliance got in his way.’

‘Ivy…’

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