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‘“Our” referring to…?’

‘Me. Us. The Order.’ Tarquin’s expression was blank. ‘Who else?’

‘Who else indeed?’ Winter murmured.

‘Tarq,’ I said slowly, ‘this operation is taking place over a hundred miles away.’

He bobbed his head. ‘Yes.’

‘But instead of being there, you’re here.’

‘Everyone else is afraid of you. Once I’ve released you and completed the paperwork, I will be joining the others in Uffington.’

I scratched my head. ‘Hmmm. And how much paperwork is there?’

Winter leaned his head down towards me. ‘Oh, there will be a lot,’ he said. ‘And you have to take great care completing it. It has to be done by hand, you see.’

I smirked. ‘The Order does like everything shipshape and ticked off, don’t they? You’ll be sorting out that paperwork and crossing the Ts all night.’

‘It won’t take me that long!’ Tarquin said. ‘I’ll still have plenty of time to make it to Uffington to help with the final arrest. You two won’t. You’re forbidden from going anywhere near there.’

Whether Tarquin was being kept out of the way or not, that was unwelcome news. Winter stiffened and shoved his hands into pockets, probably so we couldn’t see his fists clenching. ‘What do you mean,’ he growled, ‘we’re forbidden?’

A slow grin spread across Tarquin’s face. It wasn’t exactly malicious; Tarquin was self-serving and wholly selfish but he didn’t take pleasure in others’ unhappiness per se, although he did seem to be getting a certain amount of perverse enjoyment out of this situation. I suspected that was because of my involvement rather than Winter’s.

‘Your reaction is not unexpected,’ he declared. He reached into his pocket and, with a dramatic flourish, produced a mobile phone. He hit dial then turned the phone onto speaker, holding it up so that we could both see the screen. Apparently, we were waiting for ‘Ippy’ to answer.

‘This is Ipsissimus Collings.’

‘Ipsissimus! This is Tarquin. I’m here with Raphael Winter and Ivy Wilde. They seem somewhat perturbed by the order to stay away from Uffington.’

‘Indeed,’ the Ipsissimus said, sounding entirely unsurprised. ‘Pass them the phone then piss off.’

Tarquin blinked. ‘But…’

‘Young man, you have a lot of paperwork to complete. You should probably make a start on it so you can finish it by morning.’

I didn’t try to stop myself from smiling. With a flash of sulky annoyance, Tarquin passed the phone through the bars to Winter and stomped off.

Clearly not in the mood for niceties, Winter snapped, ‘Is Villeneuve correct?’ he demanded. ‘Have we been banned from going to Uffington and confronting Blackbeard?’

‘I believe,’ the Ipsissimus returned calmly, ‘that right now you’re in a jail cell and banned from going anywhere.’

‘You know what I mean.’

‘The operation to bring in Hal Prescott is a joint one between the police and the Order. As you and Ms Wilde are neither, I can no longer involve you. You’ve caused me considerable problems by getting yourselves locked up.’

‘We found Blackbeard,’ I said, jumping in before Winter could say something he’d really regret.

‘You did. And, believe me, Ms Wilde, your actions have not gone unnoted. But you both assaulted a group of police officers. You broke into a flat and destroyed property that may be key to this investigation. If it were down to me, I would maintain your involvement but my hands are tied.’ He paused. ‘And there’s really no need to worry. Hal Prescott will be safely in custody before long. The hotel he’s in is surrounded and we’re being very cautious because we know he uses booby-trapped explosives. He will not be hurting anyone else.’

I looked at Winter. It was galling to be left out of the loop when we’d invested so much, but we were hurting. He could barely open his right eye. My head hurt and I hadn’t gone this long without a decent night’s sleep since I had colic at the tender age of one. Maybe this was a good thing.

‘Are you doing this to make a point?’ Winter ground out. ‘That I should return to the Order then I won’t be kept out of investigations?’

‘You should return to the Order,’ the Ipsissimus said frankly. ‘But I am not so scheming, Raphael. You know me better than that.’

Winter’s eyes flashed to mine. ‘I thought I did,’ he said, with more than a hint of darkness. I reached out and squeezed his arm. He still seemed determined to take my almost-death more personally than I did. ‘I’m no longer so sure.’

‘I’m not omnipotent. The lengths you have gone to in order to get what we needed went beyond what I can manage. I’ve had to pull in just about every favour I could to get the pair of you released. There’s nothing more I can do. For what it’s worth, the Hallowed Order of Magical Enlightenment will forever be indebted to you. And, from the bottom of my own heart, I thank you.’

‘Let it go, Rafe,’ I said quietly. ‘They have it in hand. They’ll bring Blackbeard in. By the time we get home and get cleaned up, it’ll be morning.’ I sighed. ‘We’re meeting your parents for Sunday dinner.’ I was only reminding him of that for his sake, not mine.

Winter ran a hand over his face. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Okay.’ He hesitated. ‘Tell them to be careful though. Blackbeard – Hal Prescott – is smart. Don’t underestimate what he’s capable of.’

‘I’m still in Oxford but I’ll be sure to pass that along,” the Ipsissimus said. ‘Go and get some rest. You both deserve it.’

Amen to that.

Chapter Eighteen

I’m not the most lithe person in the universe but I don’t usually walk like a robot from an old seventies sci-fi television show either. Now, every part of me ached. I wasn’t sure my legs would ever bend at the knee properly again. I had bruises in places I’d never known existed. There was a particularly colourful one tracing its way across my collarbone and up my neck, wrapping around my skin like some kind of designer scarf.

Standing next to Winter, however, I looked the picture of health. He was doing his best not to show his pain but, given the black eye and the bandages covering the worst of his cuts, that was a pointless effort. I’d taken painkillers to get rid of the worse of the throbbing pain in my skull after Winter had used his magic to assure me that my slight concussion was nothing to worry about, but they made me woozy and thick-tongued. About the only positive was that I’d had a long, hot shower so at least I no longer smelled of vomit. I was now wearing my only smart dress – a green frilly concoction that I suspected made me look like the Incredible Hulk even when I wasn’t covered in bruises – while Winter had on an immaculate black suit. The pair of us looked ridiculous.

‘We don’t have do this,’ Winter said. ‘My family aren’t monsters. They’ll understand if we cancel.’

I grabbed Winter’s hand to stop myself from running back home with a scream of delight. This was going to happen sooner or later; if I did it now, looking like I’d been in a fight with Godzilla and sounding as if I’d downed a bottle of vodka, perhaps I wouldn’t be invited back. One could always hope. And I had my secret weapon. I raised a pointed eyebrow at Brutus, for once trotting by my side as if he were the most perfectly behaved cat in the world.

‘It’ll be fine,’ I said, sounding far more confident that I was. ‘I can’t wait to meet your parents.’

‘Liar.’

Yeah, okay. I offered him a lopsided smile and shrugged one shoulder – it hurt too much to raise both.

Winter bent his head and, ever so gently, kissed my cheek. I still felt a thrill of delight zip through me at the touch of his lips. ‘Thank you, Ivy. I do appreciate this.’ He smiled. ‘Wait here and I’ll check they’re ready for us. My mother hates being surprised.’

She was going to love his bruised face then. I glanced at Brutus. ‘Now remember,’ I whispered. ‘You don’t do anything until I give you the signal. I might even not give you the signal at all. This might all be lovely and wonderful and flowery and sweet. But just in case, you stay on your claws.’

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