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‘We need to speak to him as soon as possible,’ Winter said, frowning.

‘We’ll do our best to find him quickly.’ The guard led us up the first flight of stairs and pointed towards a narrow bench before twisting round to hopefully do as he’d promised. The bench was situated directly in front of Grenville’s portrait. Well, well, well; Ipsissimus Collings was either having a joke or being incredibly respectful. I was hard placed to say which.

Rather than sit down, I tapped my foot. ‘We should just barge our way up to his office and find him.’

‘Yes,’ Winter agreed. ‘Except you’re not in the Order and my privileges have been revoked. We can’t ascend any further than this floor. The wards will stop us.’

I tilted my head and a tiny smile crossed my face. He should have learnt my ways by now. ‘I’ve got a few spells up my sleeve. I reckon I can break the wards long enough for us to get inside.’

For a moment Winter didn’t speak then he ran a hand through his hair and exhaled loudly. ‘You’re not even exaggerating, are you?’

I shrugged. ‘Given the lifestyle I lead now that you’re always around, it seemed prudent to brush up on my skills.’

‘Your skills of breaking into the most highly secured magical rooms in the country?’

‘Yep.’

Winter shook his head. ‘Sometimes I’m really glad we’re on the same side, Ivy. Let’s keep that as a last resort, shall we? The Ipsissimus might be round the corner and the last thing we want is for you to knock yourself out by performing a few difficult spells.’

Grenville’s face poked out from his portrait. The effect was decidedly weird, like a strange 3D picture where the creepy eyes followed you wherever you went. ‘He’s not round the corner,’ he chirped. ‘Collings, I mean. He’s really upstairs in his study.’ His eyes lost focus for a moment. ‘It used to be my study, you know.’

I frowned. ‘Eh?’

‘Pardon.’

‘You’re excused.’

Grenville tutted. ‘No. You should say pardon. Not eh. Eh is not even a word.’

Yeah, yeah. I brushed away Grenville’s censure and focused on what he was saying. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘The Ipsissimus is really in his study? The one upstairs? You mean he’s hiding from us?’

Winter’s head turned sharply towards me and he glowered.

Grenville pretended to look innocent but it didn’t work. ‘All I’m telling you is the truth. I wouldn’t lie and damage my chance of crossing over to the other side, would I? I need you on my side.’

‘You would happily lie if you were still annoyed at me for breaking protocol,’ I said. ‘Are the other ghosties talking to you again?’

His lip curled. ‘They’re coming around. Anyway, don’t concern yourself with me. Go and see Collings.’

My shoulder blades twitched. Since when had Grenville cared about the living? ‘What’s going on?’ I asked suspiciously.

He threw his hands up in exasperation. ‘I want you to stop faffing around with this killer fellow and start doing what you promised. Honestly, I never would have started you down this track if I thought you’d spend this much time over it. He’s only one man.’

‘Who’s only killed seven witches and is trying to kill several more.’

Grenville looked away. ‘Just sort it out,’ he mumbled. ‘If you want to pass through the wards on the upper floors, the skeleton password is primogenitus ducis. Just don’t tell anyone that I told you.’

My eyebrows flew up. ‘Skeleton password?’

‘It’s not a corpse,’ he said. ‘There’s no empty eye-socketed skull. It’s like a skeleton key that—’

I held up my hand. ‘I know what a skeleton key is. Are you saying that this password will let me pass through any ward I choose?’

‘Yes.’

‘Cool,’ I breathed out. ‘Thanks, Grenville.’ I grabbed Winter’s arm and tugged at his sleeve. ‘Come on.’

‘A skeleton password?’ Winter asked.

‘Apparently so.’ I paused. Maybe I’d keep old Grenville around for a while; he clearly had his uses. ‘And apparently the Ipsissimus is actually in his study, despite what that guard said. It doesn’t make any sense for him to hide from us.’

‘Unless,’ Winter pointed out, ‘he thinks we’re here to petition him to be allowed to go to Uffington.’

I wrinkled my nose. ‘Yeah, but he wouldn’t be afraid of saying no. He’s not the easily intimidated type.’ We reached the next set of stairs and the first ward pushed against my skin. I muttered the skeleton password, the pressure lifted and we passed unimpeded.

‘Let’s not jump to conclusions,’ Winter advised. ‘Although maybe the Ipsissimus has changed his mind about inviting me back in now that I’m responsible for beating up an innocent man.’

‘You’re beating yourself up more than you beat him up,’ I said. ‘Come on, let’s get a move on. Whatever Collings’s reasons are for skulking in the shadows, what Blackbeard is up to is more important.’

Winter and I exchanged looks. ‘Indeed,’ he said. ‘Indeed.’

***

We made it all the way to the Ipsissimus’s study without having to slow down. No one stopped us – in fact, no one even saw us. Not for the first time, it occurred to me that the Hallowed Order of Magical Enlightenment relied far too heavily on magic to keep itself safe. All witches did. No wonder a null like Blackbeard could cause so much chaos.

I had to admit that, vexing as all these ghosts were, they were proving useful. They ought to be careful; they were in danger of talking me out of helping them to leave their current state of limbo for whatever lay beyond.

The Ipsissimus’s door was firmly closed. Winter strode up to it and knocked smartly on the wood. We waited for a few beats but heard nothing. Maybe Grenville had been lying. There was only one way to find out.

Ignoring Winter’s sharp intake of breath, I reached for the doorknob and twisted it. ‘It’s not locked.’ I pushed the door open all the way and peered inside.

The study was dim. Considering the cold sunshine outside, the closed curtains and the lack of a single light, there wasn’t much to suggest that the Ipsissimus was inside. Unless he were a vampire, of course.

‘Knock knock,’ I called.

There was no answer. Winter’s expression was studiously blank but I reckoned he was feeling the same trepidation that I was. Something wasn’t right. That darned gut instinct was kicking in again.

Quashing down the butterflies that were flapping around in my stomach, I stepped over the threshold. Nothing happened. I still couldn’t see the Ipsissimus. As befitted his station, his study was large but he definitely wasn’t in here. Not unless he was hiding underneath his desk. I bent down and checked, just to be sure. Nope, no one there.

‘Bloody Grenville,’ I muttered under my breath. The plonker was probably trying to get his revenge on me for not sticking to his rules. ‘Where is the Ipsissimus likely to be if he’s not here?’

‘I don’t know,’ Winter said. ‘He’s not in Uffington and he’s not here.’ He checked his watch. ‘It’s too late for him to be doing his daily rounds of each Order department. He could be anywhere.’

‘It’s a Sunday,’ I pointed out. ‘Wouldn’t he be at home?’

‘With his feet up and a mug of hot cocoa?’ Winter snorted.

‘That’s what ordinary people do, Rafe. They relax in their own homes. It’s not weird.’

Winter picked up a jar of herbs and unscrewed the lid, giving it a quick sniff. ‘It is if you’re Ipsissimus.’

‘Delegation is a beautiful thing.’

I almost fell over when Winter agreed with me. ‘You’re right. It’s important to accede responsibility to others. They will have different points of view and different perspectives – and everyone needs a break.’ At my expression he gave a short laugh. ‘Not your kind of monthly sabbatical, Ivy. I mean a day off from time to time.’

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