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‘The Ipsissimus has just died, Ivy. Blackbeard is still on the loose. I hardly think my employment status is a high priority.’

‘Right now,’ I said fiercely, ‘it’s the highest possible priority.’

It was Maidmont who understood first. Dawning comprehension lit his face and he began to nod vigorously. Maybe Ipsissimus Collings had already given the quiet librarian some indication of what he’d been planning. ‘Yes,’ he breathed. ‘Yes. You have to sign it now. I’ll witness it.’ He reached into the pocket of his robes and drew out a fountain pen. ‘This is my lucky pen. Use this one.’

Only a librarian would have a lucky pen. I smiled sadly at him. ‘Thank you.’

Winter still didn’t get it. ‘We have to find the Ipsissimus. His body, at least. We have to find Blackbeard.’

I grimaced. ‘The fact that I could talk to the Ipsissimus means that Blackbeard probably isn’t anywhere near here. Not now. Maybe killing the Ipsissimus was his grand plan all along and now he’s achieved it, he’ll go to ground.’ That was about as likely as me taking learning to play the harp. There was no way Blackbeard was done yet but I needed Winter to focus on the scroll. I pressed it into his hands. ‘Listen to me,’ I said softly. ‘This is what the Ipsissimus wanted. He hung on especially for this when the other side was already dragging him away. He’s signed your contract. He’s promoted you to Third Level. And, Rafe,’ I licked my lips, ‘he’s named you as his successor.’

For a long moment Winter didn’t react. It was only because of the faint narrowing of his eyes that I knew he’d even heard me. ‘No,’ he said eventually.

‘This is it, Raphael Winter,’ I said sternly. ‘This is where you make your mark. You step up and take the responsibility that is being handed to you. You’re the best person for the job. You’re the only person for the job. You have to do this.’

‘No.’ He met my eyes. ‘If this were you, you’d run away screaming.’

‘But it’s not me. We’re different people.’

From the doorway there was a tiny miaow then Brutus sauntered in. He slunk round Winter’s legs before plonking himself directly in front of him. I frowned. How on earth had he managed to pass through the wards on his own?

‘It is only natural,’ Brutus said, while my heart skipped several beats and my jaw dropped, ‘to feel intimidated by complex situations where the course of one’s life is about to be decided. I had to undergo similar soul-searching when I met Ivy for the first time. I possessed deep-seated doubts. She has questionable hygiene. Her hair makes her look as if she’s a close relation to Albert Einstein but without any of the brain cells to match. She likes to pretend that her work ethic is weak and her morals are non-existent. The truth is, of course, that the Ivy she presents to the world is very different to the real Ivy. Only very special beings recognise her for who she is inside. I am one of those beings. You are another. You see the truth of her. And you see the truth of the Order.’

In the background, Philip Maidmont started to raise a hand as if to indicate that he too believed I wasn’t a complete waste of space. Brutus narrowed his eyes at him and he changed his mind abruptly and brought his hand down again.

I couldn’t move. Or speak. What exactly was going on with my damned cat? Had he been possessed by one of those blasted ghosts?

Brutus wasn’t finished. ‘You, Raphael Winter, have the ability to be Ipsissimus. You can be the leader these witches deserve. Under your guidance, they will enjoy heady heights. Magic will never be the same again and the whole country will benefit from what you can provide. I shall be by your side, offering the support you require to be successful. Ivy will also be there. I imagine that fluffy floof you call a familiar will want to stick around as well.’ He sniffed. ‘But I wouldn’t listen to her too often. She enjoys that tuna-flavoured gloop out of the blue packets. No cat in their right mind enjoys that filth.’

Brutus licked his paw and began to wash his face before pausing to speak once again. ‘Of course, if you’d rather abandon the Hallowed Order of Magical Enlightenment to chaotic bureaucracy, and you would enjoy seeing them descend into obscurity for the rest of eternity, by all means don’t become Ipsissimus. I am sure you can develop a nice new career of your own by creating new grout cleaners.’

Nobody moved. Then, very slowly, Winter unfurled the scroll. He held out his palm towards Maidmont who dropped his lucky pen into it. Winter walked over to the Ipsissimus’s desk and sat down, poised to sign.

‘I can’t do this without you.’ His voice was so quiet that I had to strain to hear him. Both Maidmont and Brutus studiously looked away.

I met his eyes. ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ I told him. ‘I’ll be that dead weight holding you down. The ball and chain tied to your ankle. The bad smell that follows you everywhere you go.’

Winter suddenly flashed me a smile. It was so fleeting I almost missed it. ‘Thank goodness.’

‘But don’t expect me to make you packed lunches or fold your socks just because you’ll be a magical bigwig and I’ll be a lowly taxi driver,’ I grumbled.

‘The,’ Winter said. ‘I’ll be the magical bigwig.’ He paused. ‘Do you even know how to fold socks?’

Ha bloody ha. I gave him my very best glare and turned to Brutus. ‘You shit,’ I said.

‘Food.’

‘Have you been hiding that vocabulary all this time?’

Brutus blinked. ‘Food.’

‘You know I could give you up and find myself another familiar if I wanted to?’

‘Food.’

I sighed; I was clearly never going to win this conversation. ‘Stay here,’ I said eventually. ‘I’ll bring you food later. Keep an eye out in case Blackbeard shows up and come and tell me if he does. Do not do anything stupid like approach him.’

Winter nodded in agreement. ‘The Ipsissimus wasn’t the only powerful witch with a room up here. It’s possible that others might be targeted.’

‘I’m sure Blackbeard is lying low,’ I said. ‘But I’ll talk to Grenville and see what he’s noticed. You need to go and sort out your paperwork. Ipsissimus Collings might be discovered at any moment.’

‘Brutus is not the only one who shouldn’t do anything stupid like approach Blackbeard.’

‘Please,’ I scoffed. ‘I’ve already had one stint as a martyr. I have no desire for another.’ Then, before Winter could say anything else, I continued. ‘Let’s get a move on while we still can.’

***

On our way back down the stairs, Grenville’s face poked out of his portrait. He looked slightly nervous.

‘You should have told me,’ I said, gesturing to Winter and Maidmont to go on ahead. ‘It would have been nice to have some warning about what had happened.’

‘I will not apologise for that,’ Grenville said stiffly. ‘It was not my place to inform you. Besides, old Collings is a lucky man. He was able to pass to the next plane. There are not many people who have enjoyed his position who have also escaped eternal curses.’ It was impossible to miss the envy in his voice.

‘I will help you,’ I said. ‘I promise I will. I’ll do everything I said I would. But I have to deal with the living right now.’

I watched as Maidmont and Winter crossed the lobby, heading for HR. The pair of them would ensure that Winter’s return was notarised and time-stamped. In a couple of hours, assuming the Ipsissimus’s death remained concealed, Maidmont would walk into the small shed where the great man had breathed his last and ‘discover’ his body. That’s when all hell would break loose. At least with Winter formally named as successor, the hell would be containable.

Grenville cleared his throat, ensuring my attention returned to him and him alone. ‘You need something from me.’

I smiled humourlessly. Grenville had been Ipsissimus for a reason. He might be as irritable as he was irritating but he certainly wasn’t stupid. ‘The man who killed Ipsissimus Collings…’ I bunched up my fists. I’d managed to keep my emotions under wraps until now but it was becoming impossible and I could hear my own voice shaking with rage. ‘The bastard who did this … he’s a null. If you go near him, you’ll vanish. You won’t exist here and you won’t exist on another plane. You’ll just be … nothing. It’s not long term. As soon as he’s moved away, you’ll return.’

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