I shoved my hands in my jacket pockets and glared at Zak’s hidden face. “Stop being so bossy.”
We’d climbed up the wide steps to the second-level terrace to get a better view of the gallery entrance, Kai’s bike parked a dozen yards away. Wide, paved sidewalks surrounded the building, and a big sunken square in the center was filled with structures I couldn’t identify in the dark. Everything was abandoned—too late on a Monday night for random passersby, and the auction attendees were mingling inside.
After consolidating our dastardly plans, Kai and I had returned to the Yamada group while Zak skulked around the auction room, frightening people. Once the auction concluded, he left, and I slipped out a few minutes later, leaving Kai with his relatives. How he intended to lure this Mancini person outside was beyond me, but if he thought he could do it …
“I hope he’s okay,” I muttered.
Zak snorted dismissively. “Why are you worried?”
“Why wouldn’t I be worried?”
“He’s a Yamada.” The druid leaned against the wall. “And here I thought I was the only black smear on your record.”
I bit the inside of my cheek, then sighed. “Zak, you have to explain this one to me. I have no clue who the Yamadas are.”
He pushed his hood back enough for me to glimpse his bright green eyes. “The Yamada family runs the largest international crime syndicate in the mythic community.”
I tried to say something but my voice had disappeared.
“They’re a legitimate guild and keep their illicit activities well hidden, but the MPD is all over them like bees on a hive. They can only crack down so hard, though, or else they risk driving the entire operation underground.” He crossed his arms. “They’re a thorn in my side. Impossible to intimidate and extremely well connected.”
Seven years, Kai had said. He must have broken ties with his family before joining the Crow and Hammer. According to Aaron, Kai hadn’t cared which guild he joined—probably because his only concern had been escaping his family’s business. Now, thanks to me, he was involved again.
“I’m a terrible friend,” I muttered.
“You don’t say.”
“You’re a shitty friend too.”
“Last time you said I was a good friend.”
“That was before you ignored me all day while I was dying.”
“Fickle,” he remarked dryly, tugging his hood low again.
I tiredly chewed my fingernails. I should’ve been vibrating with tension, but I’d used up all my energy over the last few hours. Yawns pulled at my jaw every couple of minutes. Too weary to stay on my feet, I sank down on the top step, the cold of the concrete seeping through my jeans.
After a moment, Zak crouched so he wasn’t towering over me. “What happened with Red Rum? You said the fae lord had to defend you.”
I mumbled my way through an explanation.
He made a thoughtful sound. “Gifted Spiritalis mythics can sense the fae lord’s presence. I didn’t see any Red Rum mythics in there, at least. It would be a hassle if they spotted you.”
“Mm,” I agreed wearily.
“What’s the point in targeting you, though? Killing you would free the fae lord, but it doesn’t sound like they were using lethal force.”
“I don’t get it either,” I muttered, scarcely keeping my eyes open.
We sat quietly for another minute, and my sluggish thoughts wandered from Kai’s family situation to my uncertain future.
“Hey Zak,” I mumbled. “What makes a sorcerer a sorcerer?”
“Well, anyone can use artifacts, right?”
He braced his arms on his knees. “Yes, but only Arcana mythics can create artifacts.”
“But … why?”
“Why can Arcaners imbue power into their spells and no one else can?”
He gazed at the dark sky. “The world is full of power—energies of the earth, of nature, the stars and cosmos, the sun and moon, and who knows what else. It’s an electric ocean that flows through everything, immense and maybe even sentient. Each magical race and class uses that power differently.”
“But humans can’t use it,” I whispered.
“Humans can’t even detect it. Sorcerers can, and they channel that power into their spells when they build them. Alchemists do the same with their transmutations.”
Months ago, Ramsey had told me my Queen of Spades artifact threw off major arcane vibes—magic I couldn’t sense because I had no Arcana ability. Why was I even asking Zak about it? I already knew I wasn’t a sorcerer.
Gloom settled over me. “What about psychics? They don’t use the same kind of magic, do they?”
“It all comes from the same reservoir of natural energies, they just use it in a different way—most without even realizing where their power comes from.”
“How does a psychic learn they’re psychic?”
“Abilities typically manifest around puberty.”
I was well past the joys of puberty. My head drooped forward, too heavy to hold up. I’d known all along I had no magic, but a question still lingered in the back of my mind: If I wasn’t a mythic, how had I ended up this deep in their world? Was it all dumb luck? Was this feeling that I belonged among mythics all in my head?
Zak’s attention weighed on me, and I didn’t want him to read any more into my questions than he already had. Time to change the topic. “What will you do without your farm?”
“I don’t know yet.”
He went silent, and I thought that was all he planned to say. When he spoke again, his rumbly rasp surprised me.
“Everything I’ve built relies on my anonymity, but that’s rapidly falling apart. Varvara is spreading rumors about me. Enemies are sniffing around my property for the first time. Your guild tricked me into bringing you to my home, and I can’t risk taking in anyone else.”
Guilt deadened my heartbeat. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. If I hadn’t picked you up, I might have fallen into another guild’s trap.” His head turned, the light gleaming faintly against one cheek. “I’m not as clever as I like to think, and my arrogance has caught up with me.”
A faint inkling of what he’d meant about owing me a debt sparked, but I was too exhausted to make sense of the feeling. “Will you be okay, Zak?”
“I don’t know. I’m a bit lost right now.”
I fumbled down his sleeve until I found his gloved hand. Entwining our fingers, I squeezed in wordless comfort.
His hood shifted as he looked down at our hands. “Why am I telling you any of this?”
Sympathy welled in my chest, and I whispered, “Because you don’t have anyone else to tell.”
He went very still, then sighed. “Yeah.”
Light flared as the gallery doors swung open. A short, sturdy man around fifty strode out, his suit jacket unbuttoned and tie loosened. Kai walked beside him, murmuring something. Two beefy bodyguards followed them across the stone square.
“Is that him?” I asked almost soundlessly.
Zak gave a short nod.
A small light sparked as Mancini lit a cigarette. He held the lighter out and Kai leaned forward, igniting the cig pinched between his lips. With the ease of a chain smoker, he blew a gray cloud into the cool air. The bodyguard guys waited a few long paces away.
“I have to say, Kaisuke,” Mancini said, mispronouncing Kai’s full name as kigh-soo-kee instead of the kigh-s’kay his relatives had used. The man’s gravelly voice, amplified in the quiet, echoed off the building walls. “I always thought it a shame you left the family. You had so much potential, even as a teenager.”
“They weren’t interested in my potential,” Kai replied smoothly, inhaling through his cigarette. “I was always an outcast within the family. I think you can understand that feeling, Carmelo.”
An agreeable grunt. “What brought you back?”
“I’m not back, not the way you’re thinking. I’m here to … explore my options.”
Mancini straightened. “How so?”
“I have no interest in rejoining either the family or the guild as a second-class member. I’m considering a different venture: an independent one. Another concept you’re familiar with.”
Mancini puffed on his cigarette, the glow illuminating his sharp grin. “I think I see where you’re going with this, Kaisuke.”
“You’ve gone independent and made yourself into a force to be reckoned with. I know several others who work well alone, but I also know it’s a vulnerable position without the right connections.”
“You can be independent of a guild and still have powerful allies,” Mancini agreed conspiratorially.
“So, obviously, you’re the first person I thought to approach.”
A gruff, blustering sound. “Flattered, most flattered. I’d be interested in exploring how we can profit from each other’s endeavors.”
Zak made a quiet, impressed sound. “Damn. Your friend is good.”
“I’m delighted to hear it,” Kai replied easily. “I’m working on something, and I think you have expertise in the area—if you’re willing to share it.”