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


  “It’s tradition. Everyone does a shot when a team makes a clean sweep on a job.”

  “Every hammer takes a shot,” someone corrected. “She’s not guilded.”

  “She’s part of the group. Pour a shot, Tori.”

  “Shove it, Aaron,” the tall guy snapped. “You’re killing the mood.”

  Aaron’s usual good humor was gone without a trace. He held his shot out to me. “Take mine, then, Tori.”

  “That—that’s okay,” I mumbled. Damn it, Aaron. Stop making them hate me!

  To my shock, Andrew, the team leader, gave me a smile. “Pour another one.”

  “Go on, Tori,” Lyndon added, pushing in beside Aaron.

  The petite blonde with the giant bad-guy-smasher on her back reached across the bar and gave me a friendly slap on the shoulder. “Everyone celebrates a victory. Do it!”

  The silence thundered as I pulled out another shot glass and splashed whiskey into it. Most of the mythics were glaring at me, from the victorious team to the two girls Aaron had been chatting with.

  Once I had my shot in hand, Andrew lifted his glass. “When you’re a hammer,” he shouted.

  “Everything’s a nail!” the mythics shouted in turn, the ebullient atmosphere bursting through the room again as everyone laughed and downed their shots.

  Aaron met my eyes, grinned, and tossed his whiskey back. I tipped my head, dumping the liquid into my mouth. It burned all the way down and I wheezed.

  The petite blonde clapped me on the shoulder again. “Good stuff, right?”

  “Yeah,” I gasped.

  “I’m Zora,” she added. “This is Andrew.” She waved at the team leader. “Cameron.” The tall jerk. “Darren.” The muscly jerk. “And Cearra.” The female jerk.

  “Pleasure to meet you.” I directed the words at Zora only, otherwise I would’ve been lying. “Congratulations on the victory. What was the job?”

  “Exterminating a vampire nest.” She said it the same way I might remark on squishing a spider in the bathroom. “It’ll be a big payday this month.”

  “Wow,” I said faintly. My guess about their outfits had been spot on.

  “Oooh.” Aaron leaned on the bar. “I hadn’t mentioned vampires yet, had I?”

  “No …”

  “What about werewolves? Did I mention those?”

  “Also a no.”

  Zora laughed. “Don’t worry. Vampires and shifters are hardly the scariest things out there.”

  “You don’t say,” I muttered, feeling queasy. How was that supposed to make me worry less? I hoped they were just messing with me, but I doubted it.

  “Looking pale there,” Cearra commented snidely, sweeping her ponytail over her shoulder. “Don’t faint. You might hurt yourself.”

  “I bet she’d do better than you did on your first vamp sighting,” Zora shot back before I could respond. “Didn’t you piss yourself?”

  Cearra went red. “I fell in a puddle!”

  “Sure you did,” Aaron agreed mockingly.

  Cearra slammed her shot glass down on the counter and stalked away. The two younger guys followed her.

  “Those kids,” Zora remarked. With a friendly wave at me and Aaron, she joined another group clustered around a table, where Andrew had launched into a detailed rendition of their adventure.

  The evening flew by and I was busy for all of it. Around eleven, the place started to empty. The vampire hunters left first—probably overheating in their leather gear—and others trickled out until it was just Aaron in conversation with Lyndon the sorcerer, Tom the shy psychic reading in the corner, the two girls who’d chitchatted with Aaron earlier, and a handful of others whose names I didn’t know.

  At eleven thirty, Ramsey stuck his head out to let me know Cooper had left and he was heading out now too. I wished him a good night, then announced last call to the remaining mythics.

  Rising from their table, the two girls came up—both my age, one with her hair dyed a shocking teal-blue and the other with dusky skin, a wild mop of dark curls, and large eyes. Blue-hair carried an armload of what appeared to be perfume bottles filled with brightly colored liquids.

  “Can I get … hmm …” Calculation lurked behind her gaze as she set the perfume bottles on the bar top. “Actually, just a coke.”

  I forced a smile, but it wasn’t as convincing as earlier in the evening. “And you?” I asked the other girl.

  “Water.”

  As I got out two glasses, Blue-hair gathered up her perfume bottles. Her fingers clumsily bumped a bright green one and it toppled over, rolling across the counter. I lunged to catch it as her hand shot out—but instead of grabbing it, she smacked it off the bar.

  It hit the floor and shattered. A poof of green mist exploded outward, dousing everything within six feet—including me.

  “Whoa!” Aaron exclaimed, leaping up from his chair. “What happened? What is that?”

  I backed up a few steps, my short apron coated in shimmering green. The floors, the counter, my station, the shelves of liquor bottles—all stained with the liquid.

  “Oh no,” Blue-hair said with unconvincing dismay. “My dye! Well, that’s a shame.” She picked up the remaining bottles. “You know, I think I’ll head out now.”

  “Head out?” Aaron repeated angrily. “It’s your shit and you knocked it over. You can help her clean it up.”

  “No, Sinclair.” The cold voice drifted from the corner of the room. A woman descended the staircase and paused a few steps from the bottom. Tabitha, the second guild officer. “It’s Miss Dawson’s responsibility.”

  Her dark eyes turned my way and I suddenly had a real good idea who had leaked the truth about my human status to the entire guild. The only ones who’d known beside Aaron, Kai, and Ezra were Clara and the three officers.

  Aaron stepped toward me. “I’ll help you, then.”

  “Set foot behind the bar and I’ll write you up for insubordination, Sinclair. You know the kitchen area is staff only.” Tabitha smiled coolly at Blue-hair and her friend. “Have a good night, ladies.”

  Oozing smugness, the girls strolled out the door. Aaron looked between me and Tabitha, then started around the bar to join me.

  “Sinclair,” Tabitha warned.

  “Go ahead and write me up.”

  “You’ll lose your bonuses for the month.”

  “Fine.”

  I raced to the edge of the bar before Aaron could step onto forbidden ground. “It’s okay,” I said quietly, blocking his path. “I’ll take care of it.”

  His eyes blazed with anger. “I don’t care about the damn bonus. I’ll help you.”

  “It’s just a bit of cleaning. I can handle it.” I wasn’t letting him lose the money he’d gone all week without sleep to earn. I lowered my voice more. “If you help me, she wins.”

  Jaw flexing, he reluctantly stepped back. Tabitha’s expression didn’t change, but I could sense her smugness. She won whether Aaron helped me or not. Ignoring her, I strode into the back to get cleaning supplies.

  Whatever the hell the dye was made of, it was impossible to clean. The oily texture smeared over everything no matter how hard I scrubbed it, and after turning four dish rags completely green, I switched to paper towels.

  Midnight came and went as I wiped and scoured and rinsed and washed everything the oily mist had touched. Tabitha returned every ten minutes to check on my progress and ensure Aaron remained in his chair, seething as he waited. The last few members made their way out, no one speaking.

  Finally, I threw the last of the green paper towel into the overflowing garbage bin and straightened my aching back. All the dye was gone except for what was liberally splattered over me. I hurried into the staff bathroom and groaned when I saw my reflection in the mirror. My apron hadn’t saved my clothes—my red shorts and white top were ruined. Green smeared my skin and coated the ends of my hair on one side.

  Ditching my apron, I washed my hands, arms, face, and legs. The substance came of
f my skin with soap, but no amount of soap, water, or scrubbing would dim the green in my hair.

  I bit hard on my lip, blinking furiously. Be mean, be rude, insult me, wreck my workspace, stain my clothes. Fine, whatever. But I loved my hair and now the bottom six inches on one side were dyed a hideous green. Would I have to cut it off?

  With angry movements, I finished washing up, collected my purse and umbrella, and circled back to the front. When I came through the saloon doors, Aaron was waiting. He took in my stained clothes and wet, green hair.

  “It didn’t wash out?” he asked gruffly. “I’ll call Katherine tomorrow and have her come in to figure it out.”

  “Figure out what?” I asked tiredly as I pulled out my cell phone.

  “That dye is an alchemic potion. Katherine is our master alchemist. She’ll know how to get it out of your hair, I promise.”

  I nodded, trying not to get my hopes up. As I walked to the pub door, Aaron at my side, I dialed the cab company. The phone buzzed a busy signal.

  “Saturday night,” I muttered. It was late—pushing almost two. The cab companies would be swamped with late-night clubbers. I called again and got another busy signal. My back ached and my legs throbbed from crouching for two hours. I just wanted to go home, shower, and curl up with a blanket and a cup of tea. Maybe Justin’s tea fetish wasn’t so strange after all.

  I called one more time and got the busy signal. Screw it. “Guess I’ll go on foot.”

  “I’ll walk you home,” Aaron said.

  “That’s fine,” I assured him. “I’m over in Coal Harbor off West Georgia Street and—”

  “Tori.” His stern growl made me freeze. “I’m walking you home.”

  I measured his uncompromising expression, then surrendered. “Okay. Thank you.”

  He pushed the door open and I walked out. Conveniently, I didn’t need to lock up. There was always at least one officer at the guild headquarters, so they never locked the doors. Tabitha, obviously, was tonight’s on-duty officer.

  My blood boiled at the thought of her, and I wondered again if she was the one who’d leaked that I was human. She didn’t want me at the guild, and since her fellow officers wouldn’t ban me, the easiest way to get rid of me was to make me quit. How much of the antagonism I’d experienced over the past week had she quietly encouraged?

  Side by side, Aaron and I ambled past barred windows and boarded-up doors, and despite the warm night, I shivered. The disreputable street was quiet but not deserted. A handful of men walked quickly through the darkness, while others, tucked into nooks or sitting beside shopping carts covered in ratty tarps, watched us with empty stares.

  I didn’t want to admit it, but walking alone would’ve been stupid. I was glad Aaron was with me.

  “Thanks,” I said again as Victorian-style buildings and respectable shops replaced the graffiti-tagged walls. “I appreciate it.”

  “No problem.” He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. “I’m sorry about earlier.”

  “It wasn’t your fault.”

  “Yeah, but …” He raked a hand through his rust-orange hair. “It always takes time for the gang to warm up to a new member, but I’ve never seen them this … I wasn’t expecting it.”

  “It’s because I’m not a member. I’m just a … liability.” Tabitha’s word.

  “You’re a good bartender. What else do you need to be?”

  I huffed, pleased by the compliment even though I knew it wasn’t true. “Okay, first off, I’m not that good at bartending. If anything, I’m an amateur. Admit it.”

  “You’re doing a great job.”

  Smiling, I patted his arm, surprised again by the warmth of his skin. “You’ll make a good officer someday, Aaron.”

  His hand brushed my arm, slid down, and caught my fingers. “I don’t want to see you go, but if you’ve had enough of those assholes, I get it.”

  I resisted the urge to peek at my hand enveloped in his warm grip, my heart beating faster than our brisk pace warranted. “I can manage for another week before the MPD gives the official no.”

  “Ah, about that.” He casually slid his hand free from mine, and I hid my disappointment. “I asked Clara yesterday where your paperwork was at, and it turns out Darius needs to sign off on it before she can submit it. He won’t be back for another week or more, so the official ‘no’ won’t come for another couple weeks after that.”

  “Oh.” I bit my lip. One more week of cranky jerks I could deal with, but three? Was I that masochistic or was it time to call it quits?

  His gaze darted over my face, reading my reaction. We crossed the redbrick intersection where I’d found the guild job printout and headed down Water Street, passing cute shops, restaurants, and cafés, all closed now. A few people strolled by, on their way home after a night out.

  “How long have you been a member of the guild?” I asked.

  “Six years.” He smiled as though recalling a fond memory. “Me and Kai joined the day I turned eighteen—the minimum age to join a guild.”

  “There are other guilds, right? What made you choose the Crow and Hammer?”

  “Honestly? I picked C&H to tick off my parents. They wanted me to join their guild, but there I would’ve always been the GM’s spoiled son, constantly having to prove my worth while everyone questioned whether my parents had handed me my success on a silver platter.”

  “So you picked a guild where you could earn your place?”

  “I could have done that at almost any guild. I picked C&H because it’s the opposite of my parents’ guild. They can’t stand C&H’s reputation.” He laced his hands behind his head as he walked. “The Crow and Hammer has been collecting misfits for decades—mythics who don’t fit in, people who have skills to offer but can’t get on at another guild, rogues who need a second chance. The only respectable thing about us is that when we take a job, we get it done. Always.”

  “Hmm. That explains a few things.”

  He laughed. “Most guilds are boring—they specialize too much. All mages or all sorcerers, or they only do specific work. Ever heard of Smoke & Mirrors?”

  “Yeah, isn’t that the company that does practical effects for all the big movies—wait. Are you suggesting what I think you are?”

  “They’re a guild. Sorcerers, alchemists, a few mages, and a load of telekinetics. They do all their filming on closed sets, and people think it’s to protect their trade secrets, but it’s more than that.”

  “Holy shit.”

  “Right? They were my second choice for a guild, but I wanted to catch bad guys. Smoke & Mirrors doesn’t do any bounty work.”

  We crossed another brick intersection, passing the famous Gastown steam clock, its face indicating 2:10 a.m. The breeze was warm, with that nighttime freshness I loved. I breathed deeply as we continued down the street.

  “You said Kai joined on the same day as you,” I murmured. “What brought him to the Crow and Hammer?”

  “He followed me. He didn’t care what guild he joined, and his time was almost up.” He noticed my askance look. “Guilding is a requirement once a mythic turns eighteen. Unless you want to be unguilded, but that’s like being on parole—a million restrictions, mandatory check-ins, random inspections.”

  “That sucks.” I scrunched my face. “Why is it so strict? I mean, don’t some mythics want to live normal lives and not battle vampires on weekends?”

  “Most mythics want to live like humans. There are lots of guilds to choose from—over a dozen in the downtown core alone. Some are businesses in their own right, and being a member is like working a regular job. Others, you pay a monthly or yearly membership fee and carry on with your mundane life like any other person.”

  He gestured widely, encompassing the city. “The whole point is regulation and enforcement. Mythics pay their guilds, the guilds pay MagiPol, and MagiPol uses that money to keep the world sane. Guilds collect some of that money back as bonuses and bounties for helping MagiPol enforce their laws.
The restrictions on unguilded mythics are so harsh because it means someone has to monitor those people. Guilds are responsible for their members’ behavior.”

  “I see. It’s like … mutually assured obedience.”

  “Exactly. If I break a minor rule, MagiPol will fine me and my guild. If I really screw up, MagiPol can arrest me and levy large fines and other punishments against my guild. Screw up enough, and they’ll dissolve a guild that fails to manage and control its members.”

  “And if that happened, they would offer bounties to other guilds to ensure you disband?”

  “You got it. The system is built on self-regulation. The guilds enforce their members’ adherence to the rules, and MagiPol enforces the guilds’ adherence. It’s the reason we can keep all this hidden from the public. Otherwise, MagiPol would need to be as large as any government.”

  A system built entirely on the guild structure, hidden in plain sight—part of human society while also separate. I mulled it over as we strolled into the nest of skyscrapers that marked the center of the downtown area.

  “What about you, Tori?” Aaron asked after a few minutes. “Your driver’s license is from Ontario. When did you come out to the west coast?”

  “Eight—almost nine—months ago. I needed a fresh start and my brother lives here.”

  “Find your own place yet?”

  “No,” I grumped. “Still sleeping on his couch.”

  He chuckled knowingly. “It takes around a year for most newcomers to find a place of their own. The rental market is insane.”

  “That’s an understatement.”

  “Why did you need a fresh start?”

  His tone was curious but not insistent, and I considered whether to answer.

  “I was living with relatives, but my father started butting into my life. I didn’t want to deal with that, so I packed my bags and moved away.” I shrugged. “Plus, a new job market was helpful. I was running out of options back home.”

  “You mentioned you were having trouble finding a job here too?”

  I swept my green-tinted hair over my shoulders. “Yeah, well, most places do fire you for throwing drinks on customers or punching creeps in the face.”

 
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