Grin widening, he flexed his fingers. The fire burst outward, engulfing his hand, then raced up his arm and over his shoulder. I jerked back, the heat blasting my exposed skin. He relaxed his arm and the flames extinguished, leaving his skin and shirt unmarked.
“Whoa,” I breathed. “That was cool.”
“No, it was hot,” Ezra corrected.
Clara growled. “Aaron, you are breaking—the—law. Stop showing off. She needs to leave.”
“Oh, come on, Clara. She won’t blab. Right, Tori?”
“Nope,” I said with a pop on the P. Besides, who would I blab to? I looked at Kai and Ezra. “Can you two light yourselves on fire too?”
The corner of Kai’s mouth lifted in an amused smirk. He clenched his hand into a fist and white electricity crackled up his arm.
“Fire is overrated,” he said.
I turned eagerly to Ezra, but he sighed glumly. “My element isn’t flashy. I’m just a boring aeromage.”
He waved his hand vaguely and a puff of wind spun around me, whipping my ponytail into my face. I shoved my hair back, goggle-eyed.
“If you three don’t cut it out,” Clara growled, “I’ll report you to Tabitha.”
Aaron flinched. “Don’t do that. She’s just itching to write me up.”
“Tori, you need to leave now. Please.”
“Hold on,” Kai said. “It isn’t illegal for humans to work for guilds.”
“No, but there are a million regulations we can’t meet.” Clara shook her head. “That aside, it would never work. She’d get eaten alive.”
“She seems tough enough,” Ezra disagreed.
“She was tough yesterday because she didn’t know she should be afraid!” Clara pointed at Aaron. “She doesn’t know the Sinclair name. She threw a drink on you because she had no idea you could light her on fire in retaliation.”
“She’s hilarious.” Aaron beamed like he treasured the memory of my margarita-throwing meltdown. “We should keep her.”
“You need a bartender,” Kai pointed out. “Desperately. Give her a chance, see how she does.”
“But …” Clara shook her head again. “No. It’ll never work. She won’t want to bartend for a guild anyway.”
“A guild?” I echoed.
“See? She doesn’t know anything. She—”
“Clara,” Ramsey the cook hollered from the kitchen. “The repairmen are here!”
Clara looked wildly from me to the saloon doors. Ramsey stuck his head out, his dark hair swept over one side of his face.
“Repairmen,” he repeated. “For the freezer? They’re waiting for you at the back door.”
As he vanished into the kitchen, Clara glowered at Aaron, Kai, and Ezra. “You three, keep your blabbermouths shut. Tori, I’m really sorry, but you need to go.”
With a final warning glare at the four of us, she rushed into the kitchen. The saloon doors were still swinging when she popped out again, a finger pointed accusingly at the guys as though she’d expected to catch them in the act. “I mean it! I’ll be back in a minute.”
She disappeared. I waited to see if she was really gone this time, then glanced at the three guys. Three … mages.
With a sly smile, Aaron pulled his wallet out of his back pocket, slid his driver’s license out, and handed it to me. I blinked down at it. Beneath his photo, the same logo from Clara’s paperwork stood out boldly, a ten-digit number beside it.
“Oooh,” I murmured. “So that’s an MID number.”
“Mythic identification number,” Aaron said. “A mythic is anyone who can use magic, and we’re all registered with the MPD, an international regulatory body.”
“Will you get in trouble for telling me that?”
He shrugged and slipped the card back into his wallet. “I’m always in trouble.”
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.