Three Mages and a Margarita (The Guild Codex: Spellbound Book 1) by Annette Marie

  That didn’t surprise me. Clara’s voice echoed from the kitchen, interspersed with the rumble of unfamiliar men. Since she seemed busy, I sidled closer to Aaron. “What’s a guild?”

  He spread his arms grandly, taking in the whole building. “This.”

  I pulled my face into a twist of annoyance at the unhelpful answer.

  Laughing, he slouched against the bar. “It’s kind of like a union for mythics. MPD requires all mythics be guilded, and the guilds ensure their members follow proper regulations.”

  “And the foremost regulation,” Kai told me, “is keeping mythics out of the public eye. As far as the general populace is concerned, we don’t exist.”

  But some people suspected they existed. Like my brother, a decent minority believed in the wild conspiracy theory that magic hid in plain sight among us and was overseen by a mysterious, government-like organization. I’d never given the tales any more credence than UFO landings or lizard men controlling the White House.

  “Technically,” Kai added, “we violated regulations by letting you in here, but you walked in on your own, so …”

  “How did you find out about this place?” Ezra asked curiously.

  I dug into my purse and handed him the page with three job postings. He, Aaron, and Kai clustered together to read it.

  “I found it in the street,” I admitted. “I was having trouble getting work downtown, so I figured I’d give the bartending job a try.”

  “Good thing.” Kai tapped the page. “Things wouldn’t have gone well for you at that law office. Those guys are trouble.”

  The saloon doors flew outward. Spotting me, Clara stomped over. “What did you tell her?” she barked at Aaron. “I told you—”

  “It’s fiiiine,” he drawled, waving a dismissive hand. “You should give Tori a chance, Clara. She can handle it.”

  Um. Could I? My head was spinning and I really wanted to sit down. Assuming this wasn’t an elaborate prank or an unusually convincing hallucination, I’d stumbled into a magical guild populated by a fire mage, an electricity mage, an aeromage, and forty-something other “mythics.” All those strange people from last night—young and old, normal and weird—were magic users.

  Clara took my arm and guided me into motion. “I’m sorry, but—”

  “Hold up.” Aaron caught my other arm and spun me out of Clara’s grip. His hand felt five degrees warmer than it should have. “Before you kick her out, let’s ask Darius.”

  “I don’t think—” Clara began fretfully.

  Aaron didn’t wait for her protest. He steered me toward the staircase in the corner, Kai and Ezra following. Clara rushed after us as we headed up the steps to the mysterious second level.

  The landing revealed a huge room, as large as the pub and filled with worktables and mismatched chairs. A bank of computer desks ran along one wall, and whiteboards, cork boards, and a floor-to-ceiling map of the city covered the other walls. A flat-screen TV mounted in the corner had a scrolling list of text.

  Half a dozen people, some I vaguely recognized, were working at the tables or hunched over the desks, but I barely caught a glimpse before Aaron directed me to the second flight of stairs across the landing. We zipped up to the third floor and into a hallway, where Aaron led me through an open door. The large room inside held three messy desks piled with papers, binders, and several monitors each.

  “Hey guys,” Aaron said breezily to the three people manning the desks. “Is Darius in?”

  A woman, tall and thin with alabaster skin, jaw-length wispy brown hair, and sharp cheekbones, gave Aaron a stern stare. “You are not permitted on this level, Sinclair.”

  “But since Darius is on this level, here I am.”

  “Actually,” the older of the two men said, “Darius isn’t here. He left for the MPD conference this morning, which you’d know if you’d listened during the meeting last night.”

  Aaron grimaced over his shoulder. “Clara, why didn’t you say he was gone?”

  “I forgot,” she muttered.

  The third occupant of the room, a blond guy with a wiry frame and large glasses that I recognized from last night—I’d identified him as a tech refugee—walked around his desk. “What do you want to see Darius about?”

  “Darius is the GM—the guild master,” Aaron told me. “Clara is the assistant guild master. Her role is mainly administrative. These guys are the guild officers—kind of like shift supervisors. They’re next in charge.”

  Not general manager. Guild master. Oops.

  “Sinclair—” the woman began with a note of irritation.

  “Clara, you’re up,” Aaron proclaimed.

  She marched past him and turned. “Tori, please stay. Aaron, Kai, Ezra—out. Now.”


  “Out!” the other woman barked.

  Aaron and his friends retreated. Clara shut the door behind them and heaved an exasperated breath.

  “So …” the blond guy murmured. “What’s going on, Clara?”

  She pulled out an extra chair for me and I perched on the edge, evaluating the three officers. The older man, with shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair, a thick beard, and a glorious mustache, would’ve looked dignified if not for the amused arch to his expressive eyebrows. The woman, maybe forty, was beautiful in a marble statue sort of way—flawless but without a hint of warmth. The blond guy was the youngest, probably in his thirties, and really seemed like he should be programming a robot or something.

  “Tori, this is Girard, the first officer. Tabitha, the second officer. And Felix, the third officer. Since Darius isn’t here …” Clara pursed her lips unhappily. “I made a mistake last night. I didn’t check Tori’s ID, and it turns out she isn’t registered.”

  “Is she a mythic?” Tabitha asked sharply.

  “One hundred percent human.”

  “Then send her home.”

  Standing beside my chair, Clara shifted her weight. “She did very well yesterday, and I’m desperate to fill the bartender position so I can focus on my work again. We’ve never employed a human before, but—”

  “Absolutely not,” Tabitha interrupted.

  Huh. Given Clara’s protests downstairs, I hadn’t expected her to vouch for me.

  “The allowances for hiring non-mythics exist for guilds with public-facing businesses,” Tabitha continued, “which does not apply to us. Humans have no place in or around the Crow and Hammer.”

  “If Tori can fulfill the role,” Felix mused, “perhaps we should consider it. Clara has been stretched thin for too long.”

  “The girl did a fine job last night,” Girard added, smiling through his beard. “She tamed our fiery beast with admirable efficiency.”

  Tabitha’s face went even colder. “Regardless, the MPD will never approve her employment, and if we apply, we’ll suffer significant fines for the regulations we’ve already broken.”

  “It may not be a long-term solution,” Felix said, “but the paperwork will take a couple weeks to process. It would give Clara a break.”

  “What about the fines?”

  Felix thought for a second. “Deduct them from Aaron’s bonuses.”

  “Hey!” came a muffled protest from the other side of the door.

  Growling, Clara turned on her heel and stalked into the hall, slamming the door behind her and leaving me alone with the guild officers.

  “To be frank,” Girard told me, “the chances of the MPD approving your employment are slim to none, but we can hire you until they give an official refusal. Are you interested in working here for a couple weeks?”

  I honestly had no idea, but I’ve never been good at admitting uncertainty to strangers. “It seems like it’ll be an interesting experience. I’m game.”

  “Your tenacity is admirable, but misplaced.” Tabitha’s dark eyes swept across the other two officers. “I won’t support her working here, even temporarily. The Crow and Hammer is an exclusive collection of carefully vetted mythics committed to our manda
te and loyal to our success. She’s a human with no concept of guild loyalty.”

  Girard stroked his beard. “I always figured we were a ragtag band of misfits and rogues who don’t fit anywhere else.”

  Tabitha glared at him. “Our members count on the skills and competence of their fellow mythics. She’s a liability.”

  “She’ll be tending the bar, Tabitha, not taking jobs.”

  “What of her safety, then? She was deliberately antagonistic yesterday. Not all our members have perfected their self-restraint, and if she continues that behavior, she could get hurt.”

  Girard and Felix regarded each other with furrowed brows, offering no counterargument. I shifted in my seat, wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. They didn’t care about Tabitha’s other arguments, but the question of my safety had stopped them cold. That did not bode well.

  Girard straightened. “I know just the solution. Aaron!”

  The door opened and Aaron stepped inside, Clara on his heels, red-faced and glowering.

  “Yes, sir?” Aaron asked with a casual salute.

  Girard steepled his fingers. “I’m assigning you as Tori’s chaperone while she’s on the premises. You’ll be responsible for her safety whenever she’s here.”

  “You’re … wait, what?”

  “Girard—” Tabitha began in a catlike growl.

  “It’s perfect,” Girard said. “Aaron is well equipped to keep any antagonism from other members in check, and—”

  “Sinclair inspires more antagonism than—”

  “And it’s an excellent opportunity to evaluate Aaron’s commitment to taking on more responsibility.” Girard turned his amused brown eyes on the speechless fire mage. “An officer can’t pick and choose his duties, Aaron. If you want to be considered for a future promotion, you need to prove you can approach dull jobs with the same dedication as exciting ones.”

  “But—but—why me?”

  “You brought her up here,” Felix pointed out. “If you didn’t want to be involved, you should have kept your nose out of it.”

  Aaron spluttered. “But how will I get anything done? We’re in the middle of the bounty for that rogue sorcerer, and—”

  “If you need to delegate, you can ask Kai and Ezra to help you,” Girard suggested. “Though if you plan to pass the job off to anyone else, be sure they’re as capable and committed as you.”

  “But …”

  Girard turned to his fellow officers. “Any objections?”

  Felix shrugged. “Sounds good to me.”

  “I object to everything,” Tabitha snapped.

  Girard sat back in his chair. “We don’t have the authority to override Clara’s hiring decisions unless there’s a threat to the guild. Tori isn’t a threat, and Aaron’s supervision will forestall any serious drama. I’m satisfied we’ve addressed the relevant concerns.” A note of finality entered his voice. “The decision is up to Clara and Tori.”

  Tabitha’s dark eyes, flashing with anger, slid to me. “Then I hope you’ll make an intelligent decision, Tori.”

  I like to think I’m not susceptible to intimidation, but I’ll admit my heartbeat stuttered just a little. Still, Tabitha had made a critical oversight. She didn’t realize that contrariness was my favorite hobby. At her words, my doubts extinguished faster than Aaron’s magical flames, replaced by stubborn determination.

  “Like I said,” I announced, casually folding my arms. “I’m game.”

  Girard and Felix smiled. Tabitha glared. Clara frowned.

  Aaron groaned loudly. “Damn it, new girl. You’ve singlehandedly ruined my month.”

  I grinned. Even better.

  Chapter Six

  My doubts returned once I was back on the main level. Clara had me finish the new-hire paperwork, then vanished into the kitchen to supervise the freezer repairs, leaving me to man the bar—along with my new chaperone.

  Aaron slumped at a table, his head in his arms, while Kai and Ezra watched him sulk with the caring sympathy of close friends. Nah, just kidding. They looked entertained as hell, zero sympathy in their smirks.

  “You realize this will completely screw our schedule, right?” Aaron complained, his voice muffled. “We have to be here, instead of working, for five days a week.”

  “We don’t have to be anywhere,” Kai said. “Just you.”

  Aaron groaned again. “Ezra, I’ll trade you. You do the babysitting, and I’ll go with Kai on jobs.”

  “No way.”

  “I’ll give you half my bonuses for however long Tori is here.”

  I raised my eyebrows, busy wiping down my station while I listened in. Aaron must really want out of this assignment, but I didn’t feel bad for him. I felt bad for me having to put up with him all shift, every shift.

  “Eighty percent,” Ezra countered.

  “That’s robbery!”

  “Forget it then.”

  “Sixty percent.”




  “Goddamn it!”

  Hmm, too bad. I would’ve rather spent my shifts with Ezra than Aaron. I’d even take Kai as a second choice. I finished wiping the counters, eyed the empty pub, then headed for the guys’ table. They watched me pull out a chair and sit.

  “Are you sure you want this job?” Aaron asked plaintively. “You’ll be out the door in a couple weeks once the paperwork goes through.”

  “I can earn a paycheck while I apply for a new position. It’s great.” I propped my chin on my hand. “Weren’t you the one who said, ‘Let’s keep her!’ less than an hour ago?”

  “That was before I had to babysit you.”

  I shrugged one shoulder. “Not my problem.”

  He glared, a dangerous gleam in his eyes, and the air around him heated. “You’ve got a bad attitude, new g—”

  “Don’t be an asshole, Aaron,” Ezra interrupted quietly. “Intimidating her is low.”

  I almost told them that I wasn’t intimidated—a lie, but whatever—except I was too fascinated by the way Aaron’s temper subsided at his friend’s calm words. He slouched in his chair, saying nothing.

  Yep, I’d definitely prefer Ezra as my chaperone over Aaron. Too bad Ezra was a tough negotiator.

  It bothered me that I needed a chaperone at all, but I wasn’t an idiot. I had no idea how far in over my head I was. With that in mind, I needed to find out what I’d signed up for—and if I didn’t like what I heard, I just wouldn’t return for my next shift. Problem solved.

  Getting up, I poured four rum and cokes, then carried them back to the table and set them out for the guys. As I sat, Kai picked up Ezra’s glass and put it on his other side.

  “Thanks,” Ezra murmured, picking it up with oddly careful movements.

  I glanced questioningly between him and Kai.

  “He would have spilled it all over our stuff.” Kai gestured at the map spread over the table, then added, “He’s blind in that eye.”

  “He … oh.”

  As I tried not to stare at the scar cutting down his face over his strangely pale eye, Ezra smiled ruefully. “My depth perception sucks. I have to be careful about knocking things over.”

  I hesitated, unsure if questions might offend him. I might be ruder than a pirate with a broken peg leg, but I wasn’t a total jerk. “What happened?”

  His expression sobered. “An accident. There was this ice cream truck—”

  “Not that story again,” Kai interrupted. “You need a better one.”

  “You don’t like the shark attack one either.”

  “That scar looks nothing like a shark bite.”

  “Maybe it was a one-toothed shark,” Ezra suggested seriously.

  Aaron leaned toward me. “The actual story is that he was running with a pair of scissors and—”

  “I hate that one,” Ezra complained. “I sound like an idiot.”

  “And you don’t sound stupid talking about an ice cream tr—”
  “Okay, okay, forget I asked,” I said, waving my hands. “What I really want to know is …” I trailed off, unsure where to start.

  “You want to know about mythics and guilds and how much of the conspiracy theory bullshit is real,” Kai guessed.

  “Yeah, pretty much.”

  “How do you even explain it from scratch?” Aaron took a gulp of his drink. “There’s so much.”

  Kai rubbed his jaw. “Should we explain it? If this job is temporary, the less she knows, the better.”

  “Even with Aaron watching out for her, she needs to understand the basics,” Ezra said. “Ignorance is dangerous. She should know about magic classes and their most common orders.”

  Oh, so that’s why they’d kept asking me what my “class” was?

  “The coolest and most powerful class is Elementaria,” Aaron told me smugly. “It only has one order: mages.”

  “And you three are all mages,” I observed. “Fire, air, and … lightning?”

  “Electramage.” Kai cradled his drink in one hand. “Aaron is a pyromage. Ezra is an aeromage.”

  “Arcana is the commonest of the classes.” Aaron pulled a face. “Boring as shit. Spellcasting is the most tedious magic you can imagine. All sorts of rules, you need to learn ancient languages and memorize runes, and their incantations sound ridiculous.”

  “Arcana requires a lot of study,” Ezra told me. “But it can be very powerful.”

  “The other common one is Psychica.” Aaron wrinkled his nose derisively. “You know, psychic powers and stuff. They can be useful, but most psychics are little more than charlatans with a minor gift.”

  Kai stirred his drink with his straw. “The last two classes are Spiritalis and Demonica, but we only have five witches and no—”

  “Wait,” I interrupted. “Demonica? As in demons?”

  Kai and Aaron nodded.

  “Demons are real? Like, ‘sell me your soul,’ devil-with-pointy-horns demons?”

  “Not quite like that, but …” Kai pressed his lips together. “Whatever you’re picturing, a real demon is far more terrifying.”

  I may have paled.

  “We don’t have any demon summoners or contractors in the Crow and Hammer,” Aaron assured me. “No Demonica mythics at all.”

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