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

  “That’s good,” I said faintly. Maybe I should take notes. I already felt overwhelmed.

  Ezra noticed my dazed look. “There’s an easy acronym for the classes. SPADE—Spiritalis, Psychica, Arcana, Demonica, Elementaria.”

  I arched an eyebrow at Aaron. “If Elementaria is the best class, why is it last?”

  “Because ESPAD sounds dumb.”

  “How do you keep all this hidden?” I asked. “Guys who can light themselves on fire—”

  “That’s not the only thing I can do.”

  “—or make gusts of wind or cast spells or whatever. Why is magic just a rumor people scoff at?”

  “You can thank the MPD.” Kai drummed his fingers on the table. “MPD stands for Magicae Politiae Denuntiatores and they—”

  “Magi-what?” I interrupted, boggled by the dozen or more syllables of whoa-shit-was-that-Latin?

  “Exactly,” Aaron agreed with obvious amusement. “That’s why we usually call them MagiPol. You know, like Interpol, except for magic shit instead of criminals. They’re hella strict. Everything is regulated.” He downed the last of his rum and coke in one gulp. “I need another drink before I even start on that.”

  With a brief smile, I returned to the bar, but before I could start another round of rum and cokes, a few people from the second floor came down searching for food and drinks. By the time I took their orders, made their drinks, rang them up, and called the order back to Ramsey, another group had wandered in through the main entrance.

  As I made their drinks, I wondered what sort of mythics they were. Mages? Psychics? Arcana spellcasters? Hadn’t Aaron mentioned witches too?

  At least there were no demons among them. Everything else, sure, but I was not okay with literal hellions.

  Then again, I wasn’t sure I was okay with any of this. Guilds. Mythics. MagiPol. Strict rules and regulations. Nervousness fluttered through me but I squashed the feeling down. I could handle it. A couple weeks of work, then I’d be on my merry way to a nice, normal job where standing up for myself meant getting fired—not barbequed by a pyromage.

  I glanced at Aaron, flanked by Kai and Ezra as they pored over their map. The pyromage was my guardian, but the fact I needed a protector was a big flashing danger sign I really shouldn’t ignore.

  I would have loved to lounge around on Monday, enjoying my day off work, but I had classes. I was up by 9:30 and out the door by 9:45. And, since it took twenty minutes at a fast walk to reach the community college, that meant I was late for my ten-o’clock class.

  Considering what I was paying per course, I should have been focused on every word coming out of the instructor’s mouth, but my attention kept wandering. Tax law for small businesses wasn’t quite as riveting as it had been on Friday—not compared to the hidden world of magic I’d discovered over the weekend.

  I hadn’t seen Justin yet and I had no idea what to tell him. He was already a magic conspiracy theorist, which I did not understand since policemen were supposed to be down to earth and all that, but sharing what I’d learned didn’t seem smart. He’d either think I was crazy, or he’d think the job was way too dangerous. Or he’d think I was on drugs.

  As the instructor flipped to the next slide in his presentation, I absently blew my bangs out of my face and squinted at the text. I needed to pay attention if I ever wanted to own a business.

  Contrary to popular belief, I wasn’t stupid. Impulsive and temperamental, but not stupid. I knew I had issues with regular employment. No matter how hard I tried, I always ran afoul of either customers or management, then poof! My job was gone. I hated the uncertainty of imminent termination hanging over my head.

  I wanted a job where no one could fire me. I wanted a paycheck that couldn’t be docked. I wanted to buy my own place where no one could kick me out. I wanted to work hard and earn a living and support myself, and I didn’t want anyone to have the power to take that away from me.

  In other words, stability. Seriously, was that so much to ask for?

  That goal was the reason I was sitting in this classroom. Courses on small businesses—planning one, starting one, running one. Everything I needed to know to start up a business where I could be my own boss. As for what sort of business I wanted to run, I hadn’t figured that out yet. The important part was me running it. Alone.

  I tapped my pen against my lower lip. Maybe an online business. Then I’d have time to think about my response before telling customers I’d rather swallow a puffer fish whole than give them a refund.

  My thoughts drifted back to the Crow and Hammer. Keeping half an eye on the instructor’s presentation, I opened a private browser tab and squinted at the search bar. Hmm.

  Five minutes of Googling illustrated this shit wasn’t searchable. Any combination of the words mythic, guild, mage, arcana, and magic produced millions of hits—all books, games, movies, TV shows, and comic books. I’d have to sift through fan Wiki pages for hours to find a single real result, and even then, how would I separate fact from fiction?

  I popped onto the Wikipedia page about magic conspiracy theories and read through all the sections. Most of it sounded as cuckoo as it had before I’d learned magic was real, but I noted a few tidbits about government surveillance and a powerful international organization suppressing all information about magic. The MPD—Magicae Politiae … something—was the easiest concept to grasp out of everything Aaron had explained. Discussing magic made my head spin, but red-tape bureaucracy was familiar to anyone who’d ever filed taxes.

  Back to Google. My search of “MPD” produced a whole lot of boring businesses, but after scrolling through six pages of results, I found an ugly white website for a financial investment company—with a logo that matched the one on Clara’s forms and Aaron’s ID. The homepage was a login portal, waiting for a username and password. Well, that was a dead end.

  I closed the tab and tried to focus on my lesson, but it was hard. Magic existed. Mages were real, and I’d met three. I’d trespassed in their forbidden world, and for a short time, I could be part of it.

  The distraction was a small price to pay for the chance to explore a hidden society of magic and those who wielded it.

  Chapter Seven

  Tuesday. Shift number three. I arrived ten minutes early—the community college was only fifteen minutes away—and started setting up. The place was empty. Ramsey wasn’t in yet, and Aaron, Kai, and Ezra weren’t around either.

  On Sunday night, the guys had assured me I didn’t have to tell anyone I was human—that it was better if I didn’t. Let the guild members assume I was a mythic. The longer they went not knowing how “powerful” I might be, the less likely they’d be to throw a fit about my human-ness contaminating their precious headquarters.

  But no sooner did I set up the bar than two guys came trotting down the stairs and made a beeline for me.

  “Is it true?” the younger one asked eagerly. “Are you human?”

  Why did they all say “human” like it was a contagious disease? I scanned him up and down, unimpressed. Short, wiry, with bleach-blond hair in a messy mop and odd round sunglasses perched on his nose despite the dim interior. A couple years younger than me by my best guess.

  His pal was a bit older and average looking—nothing obviously weird about him. He wasn’t anywhere near as fit as Aaron, Kai, and Ezra, but he wasn’t flabby either. Brown hair and deep-set eyes with dark circles under them.

  “Well?” the bottle-blond demanded. “Are you?”

  Clearly, someone had spilled the beans. “Yeah. Who told you?”

  “Everyone is talking about it.” He stuck out his hand. “Name’s Liam. Telekinetic.”

  “Tori.” I shook his hand. “Telekinetic means … moving things with your mind?”

  He flashed a smile. My spray bottle of cleaning solution lifted weightlessly into the air, and I couldn’t hold back my shocked gasp. Whoa. It was just like film special effects, except for real. Concentration tightened his face, and a liquor bottl
e from my station floated upward too. The whiskey drifted over and settled gently on the counter in front of me.

  I picked up the bottle, half convinced it was a prop. “That’s gotta be handy.”

  “Pretty useful,” he admitted, barely containing his glee at my reaction. “So how did you land this job?”

  “Kind of by accident,” I replied evasively. No need to get into the details, right? Liam’s friend was watching me hopefully so I offered him my hand. “I’m Tori.”

  “Tom.” He shook my hand, his grip limp.

  “What’s your … class?” I asked.

  “Psychica. Clairaudience.”

  “What’s that?”

  “Super hearing,” Liam answered before Tom could. “He can hear people talking within a certain vicinity.”

  “Neat,” I said politely, even though that wasn’t nearly as cool as telekinesis. “Can I get you guys drinks?”

  They both placed their orders and I whipped up their drinks while Liam chatted about telekinesis—waxing technical about how his ability required intensive training to develop control, enhance strength, and stretch limitations. It got boring in about ten seconds.

  “A telekinetic can only move objects with his mind that he can physically move with his body,” he explained with the enthusiasm of a toddler talking about his toy firetruck. “So no throwing cars around like in the movies. Some telekinetics will—”

  “Here you go!” I said brightly, cutting off the lecture. “Enjoy!”

  To my irritation, Liam and Tom slid onto stools and nursed their drinks like old ladies with hot tea. I grabbed my cloth and started wiping, working my way toward the opposite end of the bar.

  “So what do you do for fun, Tori?” Liam asked. “Are you a party girl? Got a boyfriend?”

  I privately rolled my eyes as I scrubbed away a sticky spot. Great. Awkward flirting had commenced.

  “Not really a party girl,” I answered. Last time I’d gone clubbing, I’d clobbered a guy for feeling up my ass on the dance floor.

  “What do you like to do? Seen any good movies lately?”

  I moved farther down the bar, dutifully scrubbing the polished wood. “Not recently. Excuse me, guys. I’ve got work to do.”

  “Aw, take it easy, Tori,” Liam said in a chipper tone. “You don’t need to …”

  I lost track of his voice as I walked into the kitchen and stopped in surprise. Ramsey the goth cook was absent from his stool, and in his place was a guy my age with stringy hair and the strong smell of cigarette smoke clinging to him.

  “Oh, hey,” he said. “You must be Tori. Clara told me she’d hired you as a temp.”

  “You must be Cooper.” The other cook—the one who’d called in sick over the weekend.

  He smiled wanly. “Clara didn’t mention you were so pretty.”

  This time I rolled my eyes without hiding it. “Smooth. Very smooth.”

  “My friends tell me I’m slick as oil.”

  I snorted and swept past him. Grabbing a bottle of rum to restock my station, I returned to the bar to find the liquor well empty—and over twenty bottles lined up in front of Liam.

  “What are you doing?” I snapped.

  The rum was pulled from my grip as if by an invisible string. It zoomed down the bar and settled beside the other bottles. Liam smirked at me.

  “Come work over here,” he said. “It’s hard to talk while you’re rushing all over the place.”

  Gritting my teeth, I stalked over and snatched up an armful of bottles. “I have a job to do.”

  “We’re your only customers.”

  My glare snapped from Liam to Tom, who winced guiltily, then back to Liam. Pivoting on my heel, I marched to my station and started replacing bottles—only for them to float away as soon as I set them down.

  “Stop that!” I grabbed a bottle out of the air and put it back, but it rocketed upward again.

  Liam laughed. “You can’t win, Tori. Just come chat for a few minutes.”

  I clutched my remaining bottles to my chest, heart pounding. Anger wasn’t quite winning the battle against the sinking cold in my stomach. Aaron had scoffed at Psychica mythics for being weak and useless, but with my arrival at the guild, Liam and his ilk were no longer at the bottom of the power totem pole. I was.

  And the way he was smirking at me—he knew it. He felt powerful. He was in control.

  Just as I was considering whether my soda gun line was long enough to spray down the asshole, Aaron strode through the front door, carrying a black zippered case over three feet long in one hand.

  “Ah shit,” he said breathlessly as he hurried up to the bar. “I knew those dicks would make me late. I told them—” He broke off, his blue eyes sweeping over my face then down to the bottles I was clutching like priceless collectibles. His attention snapped to Liam, the rest of my liquor lined up in front of him. “What the hell are you doing, Liam?”

  Liam’s eyes widened and he shifted nervously. “Nothing! Just—uh—harmless teasing and—”

  “It’s fine.” The words came out more terse than I’d intended, but I was annoyed at how relieved I felt to see Aaron. I needed to handle this kind of shit myself. “Everything is fine.”

  Aaron gave me a sideways look as I dumped my bottles back where they belonged and marched over to the rest. The guys watched me replace each bottle, the silence painful. Tom had shrunk to half his normal size.

  Setting his strange burden on the counter with a thud, Aaron muttered, “I’ll be right back.”

  He strode the length of the pub. As the door banged shut behind him, the final bottle in my hand shot from my fingers and flew along the bar. It plopped down in front of Liam, and he chortled as he waited for me to come get it.

  Apparently, because I’d snapped at Aaron, Liam was under the impression that I thought his little game was fun. I stomped over to him and wrapped my hand around the bottle’s neck. Gripping it tightly, I got in his face.

  “I am not your plaything,” I hissed icily. “And if you ever want another drink from me, you’ll start acting like a goddamn adult. My job isn’t entertaining you.”

  Liam’s eyebrows rose over the top of his stupid round sunglasses—then his gaze dropped below my eye level.

  An invisible tug pulled at the front of my blouse. I jerked back and looked down. The top button of my shirt was undone, and Liam was grinning again.

  “I don’t know, Tori. I think you’re lots of fun.”

  For a moment, I just stared. Then I slugged him in the face.

  The impact jarred up my arm, pain flaring through my knuckles. His head snapped back and his sunglasses flew off, clattering across the floor. He pressed a hand to his cheek, his amusement gone and jaw clenched in fury. He lurched up, knocking his stool over backward. The bottle in front of me twitched.

  A wave of heat rolled over my back, and Liam froze where he stood.

  Aaron slung an arm around my shoulders, his skin almost hot enough to burn. “As much as I would love to see Tori beat your pathetic ass, Liam, the blood would upset Clara. So, how about you get the hell out?”

  “I … have work to do, and—”

  “Get lost.”

  “You—you can’t tell me what—”

  Aaron smiled, his side pressing against mine. “I can, and I am.”

  Liam opened his mouth, then closed it. Pressing his lips together until they turned white, he spun around and stormed for the exit. His sunglasses flew off the floor and zoomed to his hand as he disappeared outside. Instead of following, Tom slunk to the farthest table and sat, clutching his drink.

  Aaron slid his arm off my shoulders and stepped back. “Next time, go for his eyes. He needs to see to use his telekinesis.”

  I redid my top button. “Am I fired for punching him?”

  He laughed, back to his usual relaxed self like he hadn’t just terrified a telekinetic into fleeing the building. “Liam is a weasel. He deserved a good punch in the face.”

  That wasn’t qu
ite a “No, you’re not fired.”

  Maybe sensing my doubt, he asked, “Do you know the first rule of the guild?”

  I shook my head.

  “It’s ‘Don’t hit first, but always hit back.’”

  “Oh. That.” I frowned. “Didn’t I hit first?”

  “Liam didn’t hit you, but you were defending yourself. With enthusiasm,” he added amusedly.

  “Where’d you learn to punch like a pro?”

  “I took a few years of taekwondo in high school.” Justin had dragged me with him while he was training for the police academy, but I hadn’t kept up with it. “If that’s the guild’s first rule, what’s the second?”

  “Rule number two is, ‘Don’t get caught.’”

  “Don’t get caught at what?”

  “Anything.” He smirked. “You can’t get in trouble if you don’t get caught.”

  My eyes narrowed. “Clara told me this guild is on the up-and-up.”

  “We are.” He grabbed the laptop he must have gone outside to get before sneaking in through the kitchen. “Following the letter of the law and following the spirit of the law are two different things.”

  “And which one does the Crow and Hammer follow?”

  “Whichever is most convenient at any given moment.” He jumped over the bar and landed neatly on the other side. Setting his laptop down, he slid onto a stool. “I need something stronger than rum tonight.”

  “What would you like?”

  “Surprise me.”

  While I poured him a double whiskey sour, he flipped open the laptop. I slid the drink over to him, then eyed the long, thin object he’d carried in, encased in heavy-duty black fabric.

  “What’s that?” I asked.

  “Hmm? Oh, just my switch.”

  “Your … what?”

  He dragged his attention off his screen. “Oh right, sorry. Guess you wouldn’t know.” He pushed his laptop aside and drew the case closer. “A switch is a magical conduit. The real term is caduceus, but who wants to say that all the time?”

  Unzipping it, he pulled the narrow bag open to show me what lay within. I looked from the glossy black sheath to the gleaming hilt, then back at him.

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