My stomach flip-flopped then I sternly told myself to get a hold of things and tripped up the small flight of steps.
‘Our twelfth contestant is quite unlike anyone we’ve had on Enchantment before. She’s told us that the allure of competing in our special Highlander survival edition was simply too great to pass up,’ Belinda beamed.
What? I’d said nothing of the sort. Even so, I did exactly the same as everyone else and put on my best smile. Except smiling so broadly hurt, so I decided that maintaining it would be too much effort and relaxed. I’d go for more of a mysterious Mona Lisa expression instead. It required less energy.
‘She used to be a member of the Hallowed Order of Magical Enlightenment, so we are expecting great things from her magic skills! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Ivy Wilde!’
Reminding myself not to twitch, I nodded at Barry and took my cue, walking onto the stage and greeting Belinda. Even though it was still daytime, the artificial stage lights were bright so it was difficult to see much of anything beyond the stage. Was Winter watching me, along with everyone else?
The others sat bolt upright on the contestants’ special chairs, which faced Belinda’s, as if having good posture suggested an upright and moral personality. I slouched, leaning back gratefully because the chair was quite comfortable.
‘Make yourself at home, Ivy,’ Belinda told me.
I hooked both legs over one of the armrests and grinned. ‘Okay.’
Belinda laughed, playing the part of congenial host to perfection. ‘Is this why you were expelled from the Order, Ivy?’
‘Because I got too comfortable?’ I shook my head. ‘Oh no, Belinda. I was expelled for cheating and assault.’
Her mouth dropped open and she sent a quick sidelong glance towards Armstrong who was watching from the wings on the other side. ‘Seriously?’
‘Oh yes.’ I briefly considered telling her that it was on trumped-up charges but I didn’t think that would endear me to the Ipsissimus. Or Winter. Sometimes the truth hurts. I shrugged. ‘I was a different person back then. I’m much more mellow now.’ I smiled. ‘I promise not to deck you.’
She tittered. She was obviously taken aback by my honesty. Either that or Armstrong’s digging hadn’t uncovered the real reason why I’d been booted out from the Order and I’d genuinely shocked her. It didn’t matter; I was fishing for something different to meaningless plaudits from strangers.
I eyed Belinda’s neckline and thought I could see a faint bulge where the vial was hidden. I had to take this advantage and get a closer look at it but I wasn’t sure how to do it while being filmed from every angle.
‘So you must have magical skills which you think you can put to good use in our challenges,’ she said. ‘Do you think you have an edge on the competition? We have some talented contestants this year, you know.’
I was fully aware of the protocol. I was supposed to say something along the lines of how much I respected my fellow Enchantment competitors and how they were going to be difficult to beat. I couldn’t be bothered with all that palaver. It was already proving hard to keep track of the web of lies I’d found myself embroiled in; I didn’t need to create more by affecting false modesty.
‘I can assure you,’ I told her, ‘that they’re no match for me. You see, Belinda, I’m a real witch and I can do real magic. Not the silly tricks that you usually see from Enchantment contestants but serious show-winning stuff. If anyone messes with me, they’ll be sorry.’
‘Those are fighting words.’
My inner fan danced at the glee in her voice. ‘It’s just the truth.’ I leaned in slightly. ‘I can give you a demonstration if you like.’
Belinda turned to the camera, giving it a full wattage smile. ‘We’d like to see that,’ she said with a purr.
Bingo. I pulled myself upright and dropped my hand. I didn’t want the cameras to catch my rune – I couldn’t give away all my secrets. ‘I need you to stand up,’ I said. ‘If you don’t mind.’
‘No problem.’ She rose gracefully to her feet.
I cast a critical eye up and down her outfit. ‘The one thing that has always impressed me about you, Belinda, is how well dressed you are. Didn’t you win an award for that last year?’
‘I did indeed.’
I tightened my muscles and concentrated. It was vital to get this right because I’d probably only have one chance. I should really be thanking Wardrobe Lady for giving me the idea. ‘That tartan really suits you,’ I murmured, beginning to move my fingers. ‘I bet it would look simply fantastic as a ballgown.’
Belinda cocked her head. ‘Do you mean…?’ Then she gasped. The tartan skirt she was wearing began to change, dropping down to her feet and billowing out in a meringue-style concoction. I flicked my attention to her top half, transforming her blouse into a low-cut bodice of the same material and removing her scarf. Her décolletage was perhaps a little too risqué but at least now we matched. Even better, the vial around her neck was now visible.
I considered removing it completely but if it did have any magic surrounding it – and that magic was linked to Belinda herself – then its removal could cause chaos. This way was safer. And I’d get a good look at the thing.
‘This is amazing!’ Belinda gave a twirl. ‘I feel like a Scottish princess! You really are a talented witch, Ivy!’
I was indeed. I’d be more talented if I could tell what liquid was inside that little glass bottle. I moved closer to her. ‘I just need to make a few adjustments,’ I said, with a furrowed brow as if I were trying to work out what was missing.
The vial was hanging on a delicate silver chain and was stoppered with a tiny amount of purple wax. The etching on the outside of the glass appeared to be Chinese characters, so I had no way of knowing what it said. There couldn’t be more than three ounces of liquid inside it and, now I was close, I could see that it didn’t resemble mercury at all. It was silver and relatively viscous but there were strands of other colours within it.
Distracting my audience, I flicked out another rune and altered Belinda’s hairstyle from loose chic to an elaborate chignon. For good measure, I added a tiara on top. ‘Now you’re Queen Belinda!’
She reached up and touched her hair. ‘Wonderful! I need a mirror!’
I winced. She’d already done enough damage with the make-up artist’s mirror. The last thing any of us needed was more bad luck to contend with. Even though I knew I’d regret it later because of the energy it required to conjure one up, I created a full-length mirror out of the chair I’d been sitting upon.
While Belinda gasped some more, I angled my head closer to the vial. I could see swirls of black and orange in the silver liquid. They seemed to moving all the time, expanding and contracting within the confines of the glass.
‘Beautiful,’ Belinda said. She curtsied to her reflection.
I smiled. ‘A workman is only as good as her tools.’ I glanced at her reflection and focused on the vial, memorising every millimetre of it. This was probably the best chance I would get.
I released the spell and reversed the runes, returning Belinda to her original form before doing the same to the mirror so I could sit down again. They might have been simple spells but they were enough to sap me of what little of my energy remained. All I wanted to do now was curl up and sleep. Okay, that was about all I ever wanted to do. This time, however, I was genuinely liable to doze off while on television. Between bringing down the zombie and all of this malarkey, my body was about ready to throw in the towel and resign for good.
Fortunately, Armstrong was clearly concerned about the changing light as the day wore on and motioned to Belinda to wrap things up. She smiled, pointing down at her clothes with an expression of marvel, and thanked me.
I tripped off the stage like the good little contestant I was supposed to be. However, the tight knot of worry I felt at what was in that damn vial was quickly becoming a full-blown panic attack.
So much time was spent on the initial interviews and Belinda’s set pieces that there wasn’t chance to sneak off and find Winter. Instead, with the cameras rolling, I was unceremoniously dumped into a team of four: me, Mike the Muscle Man, Harriet the Hater and Lovely Lou. I supposed it could have been worse – but not much.