He just couldn’t help himself. He was so desperate to avoid his name being tarnished that he’d keep up his web of lies and deceit even though no one cared. Certainly not me. Frankly, he’d done me a favour all those years ago. If I’d not been blamed for his actions, I’d never have experienced how good it was to be truly free. I’d have been an Order zealot like the rest of them.
‘Hmm,’ Winter said. ‘Don’t you have errands to run for Adeptus Major Price? I’m sure you’re not here just for yourself.’
Relieved to be given the chance to escape, Tarquin nodded vigorously. ‘I do, Adeptus. I’d better get a move on. Thank you so much. I take my duties very seriously, as you know.’ He didn’t look at me as he said this last part but I knew it was a dig. Then he bowed and scurried away, like the weasel he was.
Winter and I watched him go. As soon as he was out of earshot, Winter glanced at me. ‘Do you want to tell me what that was really about?’
‘Hmm,’ he said again.
To stave off any further questions, I smiled brightly. ‘Is that for me?’ I pointed at the box in Winter’s hands.
‘What? Oh, yes.’ He handed it to me; I guessed I’d have to carry it after all. ‘This is everything you’ll need. Take time this evening to go through it carefully. We’ll start tomorrow at dawn in the gym.’
Winter nodded impatiently.
He sighed. ‘Part of my job is to make sure you have the skills to do this job. When we are not undertaking missions, I will be training and mentoring you. Believe me, there are plenty of other things I’d rather be doing with my time.’
I didn’t care a jot about Winter’s time; it was the loss of my time that bothered me. What happened to following him around for a bit and throwing in a comment every so often? I didn’t like the sound of this at all. ‘I’m only here for a hundred days. There’s no point. If I were Eve, things would be different but I’m not, so I really think…’
‘Stop arguing. The Ipsissimus was very clear about his expectations. I’m not about to shirk my responsibilities, regardless of who you are. I have to prove to the Order that bindings like this are unnecessary for me because I’ll perform my duties as expected, despite the circumstances. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ His blue eyes darkened forbiddingly. ‘Don’t be late.’
‘Yes, Adeptus Exemptus Winter. Three bags full.’
He ignored my sarcasm. ‘You will conduct yourself as befits a member of the Order, notwithstanding what happened in the past. This is a serious profession and I will not have it undermined by smart-aleck comments or disorderly behaviour. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am, and my position will not be compromised because you are tagging along everywhere I go. Some people may think the Order is obsolete but they are very much mistaken. What I do – and what the Order does – is vital to the wellbeing of this country. Magic is not to be trifled with. It’s a solemn and grave endeavour. You will be polite and well-mannered at all times.’ He glanced at my clothes. ‘You will dress appropriately and smartly. If you afford me respect, I will give you the same in return and we can survive the next hundred days relatively unscathed.’
Pompous jackass. I clicked my heels together and saluted.
He opened his mouth to say something else apparently thought better of it. Instead he turned and walked off in the same direction as Tarquin without so much as a friendly goodbye. I shrugged.
Rather than get caught eyeing up his arse again, I stared into the box and registered the items with a sinking heart. This was not going to be fun.
By the time I got back to my little flat, after checking on Harold and making sure he was fed, watered and happy, I was footsore and very, very grumpy. I dumped Winter’s little box of tricks on my kitchen table, where I resolved never to look at it again, and flounced into the living room. It didn’t help matters that I couldn’t find a plumber willing to come out – unless it was for an exorbitant emergency callout charge – until Monday. I wrapped myself in my duvet, curled up on the sofa and sniffed.
‘This is all a dream,’ I told myself. ‘A terrible nightmare. I’m about to wake up and I’ll laugh at myself.’ I squeezed my eyes shut and pinched my arm. For good measure, Brutus appeared and offered a secondary nip with his sharp teeth. Neither worked. I opened my eyes and gazed at him. ‘Yeah,’ I sighed. ‘I knew it was too much to ask. You can’t blame me for trying though.’
He blinked at me. ‘Ears.’
I reached over and gave him the desired scratch. A deep purr throbbed from his throat. ‘More.’
I kept going.
‘I am thy servant,’ I told him, without a trace of irony.
His tail whipped suddenly from side to side. ‘Stop, bitch.’
I yanked my fingers away in the nick of time. I’d had enough psychological injury already today; I didn’t need physical scratches as well. Brutus hopped off the sofa and stalked away, clearly annoyed that I’d stroked him for a second longer than his desired time.
I leant back and pondered my situation. There had to be a way out; maybe the Order hadn’t considered every avenue yet. I stared at the ceiling thoughtfully then dug out my phone. It rang for several seconds and I was on the verge of giving up when someone finally answered. ‘What?’
‘You know,’ I said, snuggling deeper into the duvet, ‘you’re not going to win friends and influence people with that kind of attitude.’
‘Good evening. You have reached the esteemed laboratory of I-don’t-give-a-shit. How may we not help you?’
I grinned. Iqbal was a man after my own heart. ‘Hi, honey.’
‘I’m busy, Ivy. We can’t all loll around, some of us have work to do.’
‘Sitting on your arse all day long and occasionally turning a steering wheel is not work.’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘And reading all day is?’
‘You try it,’ he snarked.
Tomes and treatises on the history of the British Isles? No thanks. ‘How is that PhD coming along?’ I asked. Iqbal has been studying for it since I first met him. I keep waiting for someone to tell him that he’ll lose his funding if he doesn’t get a move on and actually write something, but he seems to keep managing to slide by. Although by the last count, his grandmother has died seven times. The university is generous with its compassionate leave.
‘I wrote two hundred words today,’ he said, with a hint of pride.
‘I deleted three hundred and sixty-two.’
‘Well,’ I demurred, ‘editing is important. What’s the actual total?’
‘Eighteen thousand? That’s brilliant.’
There was a pause. ‘No. Just eighteen.’
Ah. ‘It could be worse.’
‘Could it?’ His tone was morose. ‘“The effect of magic on the substantive growth and expansion of the British Empire by Iqbal L. Sharif”. That’s all I’ve got. And I’m including my initial in the word count. I’m also thinking that I should delete “substantive”.’
‘You realise you’re my hero, right?’
He snorted. ‘What do you want, Ivy? You can’t be calling up just to check on my lack of progress.’
I twiddled a loose blonde curl. ‘Why not? That’s what friends do. I’m being supportive.’
‘Get to the point.’
Fair enough. ‘I’ve been subjected to a rather complicated binding spell,’ I said, outlining the details for him.
‘Wow. The Order really hate you, huh?’
‘Actually, the spell on its own is nothing to do with me. As far as I can work out, it’s more binding than usual because they didn’t trust their own guy not to dump me when he got fed up.’
There was a pause. ‘Who’s their guy?’
‘Adeptus Exemptus Winter.’
Iqbal let out a low whistle. ‘Damn, girl.’
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