Taking up our allotted places, I glanced down the line. The others’ expressions ran from grimly determined to absolute glee. I sighed. Then a camera was thrust in my face and Barry, staying well out of shot, addressed me. ‘How are you feeling about this, Ivy?’ he enquired.
I knew the protocol. I had to answer in full sentences to make it appear as if I’d not been prompted to speak. I considered the fact that I was never going to win or save myself from the upcoming vote and spoke carefully.
‘I’m feeling terrified,’ I confessed, widening my eyes for emphasis and speaking loudly so that the other contestants could hear. I looked down at myself. ‘I’m not really built for athletics and some of those obstacles look almost insurmountable.’
It clearly wasn’t the answer Barry was looking for. He frowned slightly and nudged me some more. ‘There must be some spells you have up your sleeve that will help you to compete with some of the more sporty contestants.’
I spotted Mike giving me a sidelong glance, apparently waiting to hear my answer. No prizes for guessing what he was thinking. From his body language he was raring to go – and he seemed absolutely convinced that he was going to win.
I let out a tinkle of laughter. I couldn’t have sounded more fake if I’d set off in a spaceship named The Majestic Untruth on course for the Fraudulent Galaxy. ‘I’m not an accomplished Order witch. The only spells I can perform are mere tricks and sleights of hand.’ I pasted on a rueful expression. ‘Maybe if I could sprout myself a pair of wings, I could soar over the obstacles. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s likely to happen.’
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Mazza run over to Belinda. She was standing to one side, talking into a mobile phone while her hair was being teased out and fluffed up by an attendant.
Mazza handed Belinda a piece of paper that she perused with pursed lips before dismissing him. Even when he walked away his expression remained like that of an eager puppy. He looked even brighter when Amy crossed his path as she dashed off in the other direction on someone else’s bidding. Just watching her made me feel tired. Yeah, I might have an obstacle course to get over but things could always be worse.
I flicked my attention back to Belinda. Unsurprisingly, there was no sign of the vial but I had no doubt that it was still round her neck. I wondered how badly it would go if I rugby-tackled her to the ground in order to snatch it from her. It’d probably be carnage. In a magic-less fight, I reckoned the primped and preened presenter would beat me hands down. It was just as well I had oodles of magic at my disposal. All I had to do was to come up with the right plan.
‘Ivy!’ Barry barked.
I glanced at him, belatedly realising that he must have been asking me questions in a bid to get me to say something interesting – or incriminating – for the ever-rolling cameras. ‘Sorry. Could you repeat that?’
He scrunched up his face in irritation before carefully smoothing his features. He was going to have to work on his acting skills if he wanted to get me to believe anything that came out of his mouth.
Dropping his voice to a whisper so the others couldn’t hear him, he leaned towards me conspiratorially, although he still managed to keep away from the camera lens. ‘Don’t tell anyone you heard it from me,’ he said, ‘but one of the other teams has decided that you’re their strongest competition. To stop you from winning, they’re going to try to bring you down, probably during the obstacle course. They want to make sure you’re voted out first.’
Yeah, yeah. I pushed back my hair. ‘Barry, I know you want to see me do more spells but you saw what happened yesterday. I have to be careful not to overdo it.’ It sounded like the perfect excuse for not trying very hard. I’d hallucinate every day of the week if it meant I didn’t have to put in too much effort.
‘The medics have cleared you. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t good to go,’ he sniffed. ‘And it would be so shameful if you were booted out first. Just think what all those Order witches who are watching would say.’
I rolled my eyes. ‘Barry, honey. I know what you’re doing and it’s not going to work. This would be a whole lot easier if you’d just tell the truth when you spoke to me. I can sniff out a lie at a hundred paces. ‘
Instantly he seemed interested. ‘Because of magic?’
‘No. Because most people aren’t very good liars.’ I sighed. ‘I know you want to make good television because it makes you look better. But you have to know I’m not going to beat the others. You can fabricate as many stories as you like about what you’ve overheard but it’s not going to make a difference. If this relationship is ever going to work, we need to reach a mutual understanding.’
Barry’s eyes shifted as he weighed up my words. ‘Fine,’ he said eventually. ‘You want the truth, you’ll get it. You were brought in to replace the contestant who we had lined to be the bitch.’
‘So I heard.’
‘We don’t have anyone else who’s nasty enough to draw the viewers’ anger. We need someone to be an object of hatred.’
Finally he was being honest. I gave him an approving nod, followed by a frown. ‘If I’m horrible, or if I do something during this challenge to piss off the others, then I’ll definitely be voted out first.’ While in theory that wouldn’t be a bad thing, I wouldn’t get anywhere with my investigations if I were forced to leave the set.
‘We need someone nasty. If you’re not going to use magic, then be evil. I’ll make sure you stay in for at least the next few rounds.’
‘You can do that?’
He looked down the line. ‘The rest of this lot are much easier to manipulate than you.’
I didn’t think that was true. The contestants often seemed superfluous to what the producers wanted and the shenanigans they were aiming for, but that didn’t mean they were stupid. In fact, I reckoned they were smart enough to see which way the wind was blowing and act accordingly. After all, keep the crew on your side and you would probably be allowed to stick around for longer.
Moonbeam sidled up. ‘What’s up, partners?’
Barry scowled but, given Moonbeam’s ancestry, he stopped short of telling him to piss off – at least in so many words. ‘We’re having a quiet chat,’ he said. ‘Me and Ivy. You should go and make sure that Morris has everything he needs.’
Moonbeam pretended not to hear him. ‘It looked like you were discussing strategy.’ He glanced at me. ‘I thought I was going to be your tactical expert.’
‘You are,’ I soothed. Ignoring Barry’s glare, I told him what Barry and I had been talking about.
Moonbeam scratched his chin thoughtfully. ‘You won’t win if you’re the bitch.’
‘Maybe I’m not looking to win. Maybe I just want to get to the later stages.’ If Winter and I hadn’t found our necromancer before filming was over, we’d never find him. I flicked another look at Belinda. Or her.
‘Then it’s a good plan.’
I raised an eyebrow. ‘That was decisive. You were telling me before not to start arguments.’
‘That was when I thought you were in this to win. Now I know it’s the grand prize you’re after.’
Moonbeam grinned. ‘Longer lasting fame.’
Good grief. That was most definitely not what I wanted. It sounded like hard work to me; I preferred a quiet life. All the same, I smiled back at him and bobbed my head towards Barry. ‘Then I shall do as you request.’ I paused. ‘Ask me those questions again.’
Barry’s face filled with delight and he wasted no time. ‘How are you feeling about this, Ivy?’
I bared my teeth. ‘I feel great. This obstacle course looks hard and I’m not very sporty, but have you seen what the rest of this lot look like? Besides, if any of them seem to be getting ahead of me, I might cast a spell and trip them up. They’ll fall flat on their faces and I’ll stroll through the finish line as the winner. Piece. Of. Cake.’
Moonbeam smiled in approval. Barry was almost giddy. ‘That was brilliant.’ He glanced at Armstrong, who was tapping his foot and looking irritated. ‘I should leave you now.’ He winked at me. ‘Good luck.’