Winter didn’t say anything. With luck, I’d done enough to avoid any further questioning on the matter. One could only hope.
The remainder of our journey passed unimpeded. If I’d thought I’d feel nostalgic coming back here, I was surprised to find that it didn’t bother me at all. I liked my new life; I didn’t need the Order around me to feel fulfilled.
We dropped off all our tech items at the front door so they didn’t interfere with the magic inside. For Winter that involved a phone, a watch, an earpiece, a confusing cube-like object, a Taser, a charger and various other accoutrements. All I had to leave behind were my battery-operated car keys.
As a highly placed Second Level official, Winter had access to a good portion of the ancient headquarters. The higher up you are allowed to go, the more important a witch you are. He might not have been able to enter the topmost floors, which are reserved for the few Third Level members, but we could roam around most of the building. When we ascended to the seventh floor, far beyond where I’d been permitted to go during my time here, I knew things were getting serious.
‘Wait here,’ Winter said curtly as we reached a solid-looking oak door. ‘I’ll announce our arrival.’
I imagined him striding into the room with a bugle and tooting a high-pitched tune. I stifled a grin and received a frown in response. He entered, leaving me to cool my heels in the corridor. At least up here the chances of anyone I knew hovering around were slim. Bumping into Anthea was bad enough.
I took the opportunity of some alone time to slide down onto the floor and sit cross-legged, leaning my head against the wall. I reckoned I’d already had my allotted fresh air for today. It was time for a rest. I was just getting comfortable when the door opened again and yet another red cloak beckoned me inside.
Sighing at the imposition, I got to my feet and went in. The room was remarkably grand, not that I should have been surprised knowing this lot. There was a long table, polished to within an inch of its life, and several figures seated round it. To my surprise, Ipsissimus Collings, the Order’s leader was at the head. Things must be serious if he was involved; the only other time I’d met him in person was the day he’d expelled me. His expression was as grim today as it had been then.
He stood up and gestured me forward. I stood next to the ramrod-straight Winter who was facing the group. Biggins joined us from the side. It was starting to feel like the Spanish Inquisition.
‘Ms Wilde, thank you for joining us today.’ There wasn’t the faintest hint of censure or accusation in the Ipsissimus’s tone. That was a good start.
The Ipsissimus knitted his fingers together under his chin and leant forward. ‘First of all, I must ask how you know Philosophus Harrington.’
‘Eve? She’s my neighbour. We share the same building and I look after her familiar from time to time when she’s away.’
‘Did you seek her out knowing she was part of the Order?’
That stung; it suggested I had designs on tracking the ins and outs of what these plonkers got up to. I wasn’t that nefarious. Even if I had the will, I didn’t have the energy.
‘No.’ This time my tone was short.
The Ipsissimus nodded. ‘And have you been practising since you left the Order?’
‘I didn’t leave the Order,’ I said pointedly. ‘I was booted out.’ He didn’t speak. I sighed. ‘Yes. I have on occasion used magic.’
One of the other seated men spoke up. ‘Have your skills progressed at all?’
I clenched my fists then, realising what I was doing, slowly relaxed. ‘They have. Would you like a demonstration?’ I’d turn him into a frog if that was what it was going to take.
‘That won’t be necessary,’ the Ipsissimus broke in.
Winter coughed. ‘She does have clear, well-honed abilities.’
I looked at him, surprised. He was supposed to be doing all he could to get me out of here, not encouraging this lot to keep me around.
‘You’ve seen evidence of this?’ a severe-looking woman enquired. ‘Actually watched her cast runes? Or use herblore?’
‘No,’ he admitted.
The people round the table exchanged looks. ‘You arrived after Ms Wilde’s expulsion,’ she said.
‘She alluded to what had happened.’
‘Did she now? Well, I think we all know what her skills and abilities are really like.’
There was a titter from several others. I bristled. ‘I am here, you know.’
The Ipsissimus offered me a benign smile. ‘Our apologies. And our apologies that you were dragged into this … situation. There was a mix-up with the paperwork and we didn’t realise that Philosophus Harrington was absent on Order business. The error is understandable, if not forgivable.’
On one side of the table I spotted a red-robed man whose heavy-bagged eyes and unkempt hair suggested that he was under considerable stress. He seemed to shrink into himself. No prizes for guessing whose error it had been.
The Ipsissimus continued. ‘We have looked into the specifications of the binding which Adeptus Minor Biggins created and there is some opportunity to remove the spell.’
Praise the heavens. I exhaled. ‘Good. Get it off.’
‘In one hundred days’ time, there will be a slight loosening as the magic begins to wear off. At that time, it is possible we can remove it.’
I looked at him. Had I heard that properly? ‘One hundred days?’ I asked. ‘One hundred days’ time?’
The Ipsissimus continued to smile. It was tinged with sympathy but all the same it was becoming mightily irritating. ‘Yes. I’m afraid there’s nothing else we can do.’
‘You’d better not be planning any holidays abroad,’ I muttered to Winter. I tilted up my chin. ‘So it’s settled then. Adeptus Exemptus Winter and I stay within five miles of each other and neither of us leaves Oxford. You compensate me for my future lack of earnings and in one hundred days’ time, the spell is removed.’
‘And you work with him.’ The Ipsissimus addressed Winter. ‘It’s not ideal but as long as she tags along during all investigations and occasionally helps you with your Arcane work, the terms of the binding will be met. Your forbearance is greatly appreciated but we know you will rise to the challenge. You can learn a great deal from training someone so … complex.’
Complex? My eyebrows shot up. ‘Er, excuse me. I’m not working with him. I don’t want anything to do with you lot.’
The Ipsissimus took on an expression of great sufferance. ‘You will.’
I crossed my arms. ‘No. I won’t.’
‘When you left the Order—’
‘When I was expelled.’
A tiny vein bulged in his forehead. ‘When you left the Order, we decided that it would be prudent not to take further action against you, Ms Wilde. You assaulted a fellow Neophyte.’
Now it was my time to twitch. ‘What’s your point?’
‘We can still bring charges against you.’
I met his eyes; the good ol’ Ipsissimus wasn’t bluffing. I shrugged. ‘Go ahead. What’s the worst that could happen?’
‘You end up in prison for up to five years.’
Oh. ‘I doubt the Order would want the negative publicity,’ I said calmly. ‘It wouldn’t look good having a young Order member behind bars.’
‘That was certainly the case eight years ago. But you’re no longer a fresh-faced teenager.’ He consulted a sheet of paper in front of him. ‘You’ve been driving taxis.’
‘It’s an honest profession.’
‘Indeed.’ The Ipsissimus rubbed his chin. ‘You’ve had several complaints brought against you for refusing to drive customers long distances. You only put in the minimum hours required. In the time since you left the Order, you’ve essentially achieved nothing. You’re hardly a paragon of virtue. I don’t think many people would have sympathy for you.’
My bottom lip jutted out. ‘I don’t think that’s fair! I’ve achieved a great deal since I was expelled.’ I leant forward slightly. ‘I once won five hundred pounds on a This Morning phone-in competition. And not many other people can say they’ve never missed an episode of Enchantment.’ I felt Winter shift beside me. He was probably jealous.
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