‘We are not amused, Ms Wilde,’ the Ipsissimus said.
‘If I work with him,’ I said, jabbing a finger in Winter’s direction and making him stiffen dramatically, ‘I’ll end up causing more problems than I solve. A hundred days isn’t that long. Give the poor man a holiday. He certainly looks like he needs it.’
‘He’s a very important member of the Arcane Branch and has a high success rate. We have no desire to lose him for three months because of a mix-up in the paperwork.’
‘If I go to prison, you’ll still lose him.’
‘Perhaps. But we’ll also gain considerable satisfaction in return.’
Well, at least the Ipsissimus was honest. I thought about it; maybe prison wouldn’t be so bad. I wouldn’t have to cook. I could spend my days lounging around in a cell. It could be restful. Somehow I doubted it, though.
‘What about Eve?’
‘What about her?’
I rolled my eyes. ‘This is her dream. It’s not her fault she’s not here and I’ve been flung into her place. She’ll be gutted if I’ve taken her spot.’
‘We will find her a commensurate position, I assure you.’
They’d better. There had to be some way to get myself out of all this that didn’t involve prison scrubs.
‘Oh for goodness’ sake,’ Winter hissed. ‘You don’t have to do anything. Just follow me around and occasionally comment or file some paperwork.’
The Ipsissimus looked stern. ‘We invoked the binding because you don’t work well with others, Adeptus Winter. This will be good practice for you for the future.’
‘We all know she doesn’t have the skills to do anything anyway,’ one of the seated Order bigwigs said. He didn’t make the slightest attempt to lower his voice. I glared nastily at him. He didn’t flinch. That’s when I knew I’d fall into line. There was a part of me that was incandescent with rage that they thought I was weak and useless and had no magic of my own. It was only a glowing ember of anger rather than a burning inferno – but it was enough.
‘Fine,’ I snapped. ‘I’ll do it.’
The Ipsissimus nodded as if that was what he’d expected all along. ‘Excellent. Then we are done here. For obvious reasons, we shall do what we can to keep this … mistake quiet.’ He stood up. A heartbeat later, Winter propelled me out of the room as if my presence were contaminating the air and had to be removed.
It took fewer than three steps after the door closed behind us before I began to regret my words. ‘Well, that was stupid,’ I muttered. Right now, a hundred days felt like a life sentence.
‘I’m glad you’ve realised that,’ Winter said. ‘You’re lucky to be given a second chance with the Order. If you do well, you might even be welcomed back as a Neophyte.’
I resisted the temptation to kick him sharply on the shins. ‘That’s not what I meant, Adeptus Exemptus Winter. I meant it was stupid that I caved in.’
‘You’d rather go to jail?’ he enquired.
It didn’t matter what I said; he wouldn’t understand. He obviously believed that the Order was the best thing since non-stick cauldrons. I elected not to answer. Instead I huffed along, my hands in my pockets and my shoulders slouched. ‘I want to go home now,’ I said distinctly.
Winter regarded me for a moment. ‘Fine. I’ll stop off and pick up the basics for you to get started and I’ll take you back. I’m sure your sofa is missing you.’
Sarcasm? ‘The next three months are going to be so much fun, Adeptus Exemptus Winter,’ I responded.
His mouth tightened. ‘You don’t have to keep calling me that.’
I held up my palms. ‘Oh no, you said that’s how I have to address you so that’s what I’ll do. I’d hate to go against Order protocol. Maybe I should add in a curtsey at the end of each sentence. What do you think?’
‘That’s enough,’ he growled.
Good. I was getting under his skin. I was going to make him regret this for every minute of the next hundred days. Him and the rest of the damned Order.
I waited outside the Supply Office while Winter went in to get what I supposedly needed to trail after him like a forlorn puppy. A collar and lead, perhaps. Or I’d get lucky and he’d pick up some treats to make sure I sat like a good girl and gave him a paw when he needed it. Whatever. He could carry all that stuff around if he wanted to. I wasn’t going to help. Unfortunately, electing to stay in the corridor wasn’t a good move. I wasn’t left alone to enjoy the temporary peace for long.
The trouble with the Order headquarters – and indeed most bureaucratic building – is that they’ve been designed with total lack of imagination. They might look impressively ancient from the outside and might well be thoughtfully constructed and a testament to the age in which they are built, but inside they’re a box. Criss-crossing offices in grid formation; boxes upon boxes upon beige wall-covered boxes. Google this ain’t.
It also means there are long corridors so, from my position at the end of one hallway, I could see perfectly to the other end. My view wasn’t blocked by the tired-looking photocopier dumped outside, nor was it hampered by the stack of fire-risk cardboard boxes. So when Tarquin Willingham of Posh Street, London, appeared two hundred metres away, I could do nothing but watch his approach. In theory it gave me time to prepare the right words; in practice, it ramped up my dismay. I guess I knew now who Anthea had sought out after I bumped into her in the quad. I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Tarquin was dressed more casually than Winter; he wore a suit but it was minus both a jacket and tie. I wondered whether he’d taken them off – the Order’s equivalent of rolling up your sleeves. Then I decided I didn’t care.
‘I’m surprised you’re here alone,’ I called, as soon as he got close. ‘Aren’t you afraid I might hurt you again?’
Tarquin tsked. ‘I’ve spent the last eight years living and breathing the Order, Ivy. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve probably got skills now that you can only dream about.’
Somehow I doubted that. ‘What do you want, Tarq?’
He ran a hand through his blond hair. The style was artless, giving the impression that he’d merely run a comb through it. I had a feeling that it took him a lot longer to get it the way he wanted it. With Tarquin, appearances were everything.
‘It’s good to see you again,’ he said.
‘I’d say the same,’ I told him, ‘but then I’d be a big, fat liar.’
Something sparked in his eyes and he dropped all pretence of politeness. ‘How did you do it?’
I inspected my fingernails. ‘Do what?’
‘Wheedle your way back in here. What lies did you tell them?’
‘You’re the liar, not me. Or have you rewritten history in your own head as well as everyone else’s?’
‘If you’re here to cause trouble—’
I cocked my head, amused. ‘Then what? What will you do, Tarq? Because I think you’ve pretty much done everything already.’
‘Look,’ he hissed. ‘I told you I was sorry. I didn’t mean to get caught cheating and I didn’t mean for you to take the blame.’
‘You didn’t own up though, did you?’
‘Ivy, you know what my father is like. If he found out—’
‘Aw, diddums. Life must be so tough for you, Tarquin. Painted as the victim of nasty, plagiarising Ivy Wilde.’ My eyes gleamed. ‘Tell me, did you ever master that protective spell or do you still steal from others to cover up your own failings?’
‘I don’t need to steal. I’m highly respected here these days, Ivy. I’ve come a long way since then. Adeptus Exemptus Winter knows it. He knows that…’
‘Adeptus Exemptus Winter knows what?’
We both turned. Winter was standing there, holding a box and gazing at Tarquin with a hard question in his eyes.
Tarquin swallowed. ‘You know that Ivy will be able to start afresh. That she’s not the same person she was eight years ago and she can wipe the slate clean. It’s very good of you to give her a second chance.’
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