The phone rang and, even though I was closer, Winter sprang up to answer it. Nice. While he spoke to whoever was on the other end, I glanced round. There was a cardboard box sitting beside the coffee table, which didn’t look familiar. I crouched down and flipped open the lid, sucking in a breath when I saw what was inside. I reached in and carefully pulled out the delicate apparatus, peering at it from all angles. It was an old herb-purifying system. And when I say old, I mean antique – and probably very, very valuable. No doubt it was a Winter family heirloom. I paused and frowned. Except Winter’s family weren’t witches.
It was heavier than it looked so, rather than drop it and smash it into smithereens, I placed it on the table. These items were now obsolete. Not long after the Second World War, some Order boffins had put their heads together and worked out that a pinch of salt was more than enough to cleanse magical herbs so they were safe to use in spells. Most witches who use herblore regularly simply add a few salt grains without even thinking about it. It wasn’t that big a deal; in fact, even if the salt was forgotten and the herbs were technically impure, it wasn’t that big a deal. The worst that could happen was that the herbs would be less effective.
Herblorists enjoyed long-winded arguments about which type of salt was most effective. I had heard that the Order even employed a selmelier, like a sommelier but for salt instead of wine so the end result was far less enjoyable but there was less need for several ibuprofen afterwards. I had a sneaking suspicion that whether you used pink Himalayan rock salt mined by virgins in the foothills of Nepal or table salt from the supermarket shelf, the end results were the same.
‘I’m not going to ask her that,’ Winter said into the phone in a slightly raised voice. ‘You decide. I’m sure it will be fine either way.’
Pulling my attention away from the purifier, I raised an eyebrow. My momentary distraction was long enough for Brutus to take a flying leap towards me. I flung up my hands in front of my face, narrowly avoiding knocking the precious heirloom to the floor. Then I realised that Brutus wasn’t aiming for me. He landed on all fours inside the cardboard box with the satisfied expression that I only received from him when I had the weekend off and no plans.
Winter sighed. ‘No, Mother. I won’t.’
Even more intrigued, I slowly lowered my arms. ‘Go on,’ I said. ‘Ask me.’
Winter’s face was expressing abject misery. He cupped his hand over the receiver. ‘My mother wants to know if you would mind if the dinner is black tie.’ He licked his lips. ‘Sorry. She can be a bit of a stickler for propriety.’
I make a point of avoiding dress codes, especially when they are for dinner. What on earth is the point of getting dressed up to eat? I can eat on my sofa in my ancient stained tracksuit with the frayed cuffs and hole in the knee and the food will still taste the same. But this was Winter’s family. Having already agreed to attend, I couldn’t back out now. If it would make Winter happy, I could make an exception. Once. Especially given that Cobweb Lady was doubled over in hysterics, apparently at the thought of me getting dressed up.
‘Fine,’ I said.
Winter blinked. ‘Are you sure?’
I bit back the sarcastic comment that popped into my head and smiled. ‘No problem.’
Confused, but obviously relieved, Winter removed his hand and spoke to his mother again. I glanced down at Brutus who was still inside the box. His whiskers were quivering as if he were trying hard not to laugh. I flipped the lid so he was no longer visible. ‘Now we don’t know whether you’re dead or alive,’ I said in a hushed voice. Brutus responded by re-opening the lid in a blur of motion, then a paw with outstretched claws snapped out and scraped down my skin.
‘Ouch!’ I pulled back and glared. ‘Okay, okay, you’re alive.’
Winter hung up and glanced at me. ‘Sorry.’
I shrugged. There was no point getting upset about it. ‘It’ll be fun,’ I said. ‘And now we know that you’re not a throwback. Your magic comes from your mum’s side.’ He stared at me so I explained. ‘She knew I’d just agreed to come, that’s why she called now. She’s probably not even aware of it herself. I know, though, because I’m Ivy Wilde, super-sleuth extraordinaire.’
Winter’s eyes flashed in amusement. ‘If you say so.’
I gestured to the herb purifier. ‘This is pretty darn fancy. I’ll scrub the shower grout every day for the next month if it’s not been passed down on your mum’s side of the family.’
He pressed his lips together. ‘Ivy, look at the box again.’
I could hear the faint rumble of a growl from Brutus. ‘Er…’
Winter pointed to the side of the box. There was an address label. I craned my head round and read it, taking care this time not to touch the box. I liked all my fingers; I didn’t want to lose any to my pissed-off cat.
The address label was neatly printed, using Winter’s full name but not his Order title. Judging from the logo in the corner, the box had been sent to him from a company called Multi Multa.
‘The purifier’s not a family heirloom, Ivy,’ Winter told me. ‘It’s a bribe.’
I sat up. Okay. Now I was interested.
‘Word’s got round that I’m not in the Order any longer. Multi Multa want me to work for them. They’ve sent me the purifier as an indicator of their genuine interest. No strings attached.’ He snorted. ‘As if.’
‘But isn’t that a good thing? You want to work. They want you to work. They’re going to woo you with desirable objects to make it happen.’ I shrugged. ‘Sounds win-win to me.’
‘The only object of my desire around here is you,’ Winter said.
My stomach flipped then Brutus growled again from inside the box. I hastily pointed towards it. ‘I’m not as desirable as Brutus.’
The growling stopped but I had the feeling that Brutus knew I wasn’t being entirely sincere because a paw began to edge out once more. Taking no chances, I backed away.
Winter smiled faintly. ‘They’re just looking for a highly placed Order witch whose name they can bandy about to make themselves look good. They don’t actually want me to do anything. It’s a PR exercise, nothing more.’
‘You don’t know that for sure.’
‘The job on offer is Dynamic Magic Configuration Consultant.’
I stared at him. ‘Huh?’
‘Exactly. The more complicated the job title, the less job there is to do. I’d be wasting my time. I’m going to send the purifier back. The last thing I want to do is have a full-time job that involves nothing more than an hour or two a week of actual work.’
Sometimes it still baffled me how Winter and I had ever got together. My hand shot up in the air and I waved it around. ‘Me! I’ll take that job! Tell them about me! I’m just as good at magic as you.’
Winter smiled. ‘You’re better,’ he said gently. ‘But you weren’t Adeptus Exemptus. They only want the title, not the expertise.’ He flicked a fingernail against the purifier’s base and a high-pitched note rang out. ‘This is beautiful but it is going to be returned.’
There was a loud scratching sound from inside the box as Brutus sharpened his claws on the cardboard. A second later a hole appeared in the side, followed by his small, pink, questing nose. Winter looked at me. ‘The box might have to stay though.’
I could almost hear the smile in Brutus’s slightly muffled voice. ‘Foooooooood.’
I let out a massive yawn as we pulled up outside the Order headquarters several hours later. Winter immediately turned his gaze to me and frowned. ‘Are you alright? We don’t have to do this. We can easily go back home.’
As tempting as that suggestion was, there was a light in Winter’s eyes that I didn’t want to extinguish. He was genuinely excited at having a mission – even if that mission involved sneaking into the Order to watch me talking to thin air. The Multi Multa job offer might not be realistic but he really needed to do something more to occupy himself.
I shook my head and gave a small smile. ‘I’m fine.’
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