I never got chance to hear his response. There was a loud cough from behind us. Somehow I knew who it belonged to without checking.
I turned round slowly. It was even worse than I thought.
Before I could say anything Tarquin, with wide eyes and a delighted expression, all but bowed. ‘Ipsissimus Collings! How wonderful of you to call on me at my new abode! And you brought along Adeptus Exemptus Winter. It’s a pleasure to see you both.’
I had the feeling that the Ipsissimus was looking at Tarquin as if he were trying to remember who he was, but I wasn’t paying the Order Head much attention. All my focus was on Winter. Unfortunately, his expression was completely unreadable. He was also wearing a red robe, suggesting he was here on official business rather than for a social call, which didn’t exactly fill me with the joy that his presence should have.
‘Villeneuve, is it?’ the Ipsissimus asked. He looked at Tarquin in confusion. ‘Aren’t you the one who was assaulted by Ms Wilde?’
‘That was years ago!’ Tarquin burbled happily. He put his arm round my shoulders as if to prove that we were the best of friends now, before abruptly remembering my threat of just seconds earlier and hastily removing it. ‘Why don’t we go upstairs? I have the most wonderful twenty-year-old malt that I’m sure you’ll love.’
‘Actually, we are here to speak to Ms Wilde.’
Tarquin blinked rapidly. ‘What?’ He coughed. ‘I mean, of course! What have you done now, Ivy? Been getting into mischief again?’ I glared at him. With the looming presence of the Ipsissimus, however, Tarquin barely noticed. ‘I’ll walk up with you. Maybe you can come and partake of some whisky when you’re finished with her.’
Winter’s jaw was set. ‘We are very busy. Run along now.’ There was no mistaking the patronising edge to his tone. I could have hugged him. I should have hugged him.
Tarquin looked at the Ipsissimus as if expecting him to disagree but when the Order Head simply knitted his hands together and stayed quiet, he inclined his head and started walking away. Even I could tell that he was dragging his feet. His curiosity about their visit was greater than his respect for their positions and he obviously wanted to eavesdrop.
I eyed the pair of them. ‘Do you want to go inside?’
For the first time, the Ipsissimus smiled. ‘Thank you, Ms Wilde. That would be prudent. We don’t anyone eavesdropping on our conversation. Why don’t you lead the way?’
I nodded once, feeling surprisingly awkward. I didn’t have the faintest idea what the pair of them were doing here but I doubted it was going to be because Winter wanted to take me to bed and smother me in kisses while the Ipsissimus had tagged along merely to give his blessing to our coupling. The idea did amuse me, though.
I turned and headed for the main doors, veering round to call the lift more out of habit than conscious action. Winter immediately sighed as if irritated. I glanced at him. ‘Would you rather take the stairs?’
It was the Ipsissimus who answered. ‘Oh my goodness, no. My bones have become remarkably creaky of late. That’s what happens when you get to my age. You young folks have all that joy to look forward to. Frankly, it’s a blessing to have some technology to help me get around. In my Order dwelling, of course, there’s nothing like this. One day we’ll find a way to combine twenty-first century advances with ancient magic but I don’t expect it will be in my lifetime.’
He was being remarkably verbose, not to mention friendly. It didn’t appear that I was going to be clapped in chains for abusing magic outside of the Order or anything like that. Intrigued now, I gestured to them both as the lift doors opened and then followed them in.
The lift is rather small and cramped so I was forced to stand very close to Winter. I brushed against him, by accident rather than by design. He flinched and drew away and my heart dropped down to my toes. Well, I guessed that answered one question.
I kept my eyes trained dead ahead, relieved when we reached my floor and I could step out and give him some space. In stiff silence, the three of us walked down the hallway to my flat.
Brutus was lying flat on his back on the sofa, all four paws in the air and his immense belly on show. He opened a lazy, slitted eye as we entered. ‘Man,’ he said. ‘Good.’
I cleared my throat. ‘Ipsissimus Collings, this is my familiar.’
The Order Head stared at Brutus. ‘Yes, Adeptus Winter did tell me about him. I must confess I didn’t quite believe him. A talking cat! How extraordinary.’ He walked over and addressed Brutus. ‘May I sit here?’
Brutus ignored him.
I licked my lips. ‘Please do sit. Can I get you anything to drink? I have, um, water.’ I hadn’t been shopping for a while and I wasn’t sure whether the milk was still drinkable.
‘No, thank you.’ The Ipsissimus carefully lowered himself, making sure not to disturb Brutus in any way.
I glanced at Winter. He’d shoved his hands in his pockets and was looking rather bored. ‘Would you like a drink?’ I asked him.
He shook his head and sat down on the chair opposite. I took up position on the other end of the sofa. Brutus rolled over onto his front and began batting at the edge of the Ipsissimus’s cuff. Then he lashed out, scratching his hand and drawing blood.
Arse. ‘Sorry!’ I leapt up and grabbed Brutus, whose tail was swinging violently from side to side. ‘He’s not always good with strangers.’ He struggled in my arms, wriggling free so he could immediately jump up onto Winter’s lap. We all watched as he turned round twice and then curled up and went straight back to sleep. I scratched my neck. Okay.
The Ipsissimus exchanged a look with Winter then focused back on me. ‘The reason we are here, Ms Wilde, is to ask for your help.’
I started. Of all the things I’d been expecting, this certainly wasn’t one of them. I slowly closed my hanging jaw and told myself to reserve judgment for now. I sat down again cautiously but I didn’t lean back; I’d make a run for it if I had to. Brutus would just have to look after himself. ‘Go on.’
‘Adeptus Winter was most effusive in his praise of you. Despite the circumstance under which you were thrown together last month, he holds you in high regard.’
I couldn’t help my smile from blossoming but, when I looked at Winter, his gaze was fixed on a spot on the far wall. Why the hell wouldn’t he look at me?
‘We worked well together and solved some serious crimes.’ I paused. ‘But I still don’t want to be in the Order.’
The Ipsissimus chuckled. ‘Oh, that’s not why we’re here. Don’t worry.’ He leaned forward slightly, shifting his hands as he did so. He was still bleeding from Brutus’s unwarranted attack. That wasn’t a particularly good sign, despite the warmth currently emanating from him. ‘Tell me, have you heard of Enchantment?’
I stared at him, wondering whether I had heard him correctly. ‘The television programme?’
He nodded in satisfaction. ‘That’s right. I’m told it’s rather popular.’
Popular? It had been the highest-rated show across the country for years. I hadn’t missed a single episode. A sudden thought occurred to me and I sat up straighter.
‘If you’re looking for someone to watch it carefully for signs of potentially powerful witches, I’m your man. Or woman. Or whatever. I should tell you that the majority of their contestants have very little magic. It’s more about their interaction and the situations they’re put in than what spells they manage to cast. But I’m prepared to let you pay me to watch it. It’ll be hard,’ I said, ‘but if it’ll help you out, I’m prepared to make that sacrifice.’
Winter snorted. ‘We’re not going to pay you to sit on your arse and watch television, Ivy.’
Shame. I met his bluer-than-blue eyes. ‘It was worth a try.’
‘Yes, because you wouldn’t put in an effort for anything else, would you?’
The castigating nature of his words hurt. I crossed my arms and looked at him in confusion. Winter was a lot of things but he was never callous or mean. Even the Ipsissimus seemed rather shocked.