“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.”
“That’s shitty.” His grin returned. “No one at the Crow and Hammer would reprimand you for defending yourself.”
“I wasn’t defending myself when I threw a drink on you.”
I expected him to laugh, but his expression sobered. “I was being an ass, and I deserved it. I’m no better than the others. Razzing new people is a habit that’s hard to shake.”
“You were annoying but not cruel.” I plucked at my stained shirt. “This is crossing a line, though. Honestly, I’m not sure how much longer I can stay.”
“If I could make them understand how awesome you are, I would,” he murmured. “They don’t know what they’re missing out on.”
To my dismay, my cheeks flushed hot. I was not a blusher. I could count past occasions without using all my fingers.
“I’m not that great,” I muttered, ducking my head. “You barely know me.”
“I can tell,” he said confidently. “And even if I wasn’t sure about you, Ezra likes you.”
“He seems like the sort of nice guy who likes everyone.”
“He’s nice to everyone—too nice, if you ask me—but he doesn’t go out of his way for strangers.” He tilted his face skyward as though remembering something. “By the way, don’t ask Ezra why he joined the guild.”
“Uh … okay.”
“And best not to ask about his family either.”
I nodded. I could understand someone not wanting past ghosts stirred awake by nosy questions, though I was dying of curiosity now, of course. “Anything else I shouldn’t ask him?”
“Hmm … maybe don’t ask him out either.”
I blinked. “Did it seem like I was planning to?”
“No, but Ezra doesn’t date so he’d turn you down and things would get all awkward.” He slanted a glance at me. “Plus, I’m planning to ask you out, so I don’t want that messed up.”
My heart gave a small flutter and I sternly told it to quit that bullshit. Still, I had to fight back a grin. “You are, are you?”
“And when were you intending to carry out that plan?”
“If you’re going to say yes, then …” He squinted around. “How much farther to your place?”
“In four blocks, then.”
I laughed. “What if I’m going to say no?”
“Then I’ll wait until I can butter you up first.” He canted his head. “Do I get a hint about your answer?”
“Hmm.” I sauntered along, hands folded behind my back and purse bumping my side, my oversized umbrella hanging from the strap. “Do you need a hint?”
“I mean this in the best way possible, but you’re a difficult woman to predict, Tori.”
I gave him my best mysterious smile. “Three blocks now.”
He grumbled. We walked in companionable silence for another two blocks, and my nerves jumped in anticipation. Was he planning to merely ask me on a date, or did he have something more in mind?
High-rise apartment buildings closed in on all sides, a few windows still alight. As we reached the next intersection, he looped an arm around my waist and pulled me around the corner.
“Uh, Aaron, this is the wrong way.”
“I know,” he said in a low voice, his grim tone surprising me. “It’s just that I’m pretty sure the two guys back there are following us. We might be in trouble.”
My heart jumped, and not in a good way. “Following us?”
“I noticed them after we left Water Street,” Aaron muttered. “It could be a coincidence, but I doubt it. Keep your eyes forward. I’ll check if they keep tailing us.”
Adrenaline surged through my veins. I hooked my arm through his and we power-walked to the next intersection and turned right again. Resisting the urge to look back, I kept my focus on the sidewalk ahead, well lit by streetlamps, traffic lights, and the occasional flare of headlights as a car passed.
We made another right turn and came out on our original street. We’d made a pointless one-block circle that no one in their right mind would walk unless they were lost.
“Shit,” Aaron hissed. “They’re still on our tail, and they know we’ve spotted them.”
He extended his stride until I had to jog every third step. I risked a glance back and spotted a pair of men in dark clothes a block away. They appeared normal enough but that didn’t mean anything.
“How far is your apartment?” Aaron asked tersely.
“Turn right at the next corner. It’s the third building.”
“Good. Okay.” He pulled me along with him, head tilted to keep our pursuers in view. “When we get close, run to your door and get inside. I’ll wait until you’re in, then draw them away.”
“What?” I yelped. “No way. Come inside with me.”
“Too risky.” His eyes kept moving, scanning every shadow before returning to our stalkers. “They’re after me, not you. I’m not leading them to your apartment.”
“I won’t leave you to—”
“They’re mythics, Tori. You can’t help.” His arm heated under my hand. “I can take care of myself.”
He said that now, but at the pub when he’d talked about his odds against powerful mythics, he’d included Kai and Ezra as his teammates. His mage friends weren’t here to back him up. Could he take on two mythics alone?
“This isn’t a good plan,” I whispered as we rounded the corner and Justin’s building came into view. “Let’s figure out something else.”
“It’ll be fine,” he said. “Tori, I fight with fire. I need you safe first so I can defend myself without hurting you.”
“But you don’t have Sharpie,” I protested desperately.