If I don’t find her, I’ll never see my brother again.
Moments before the clock strikes noon, I arrive at the front steps of the most luxurious bar and restaurant in Folkway: Celeste. This is not my crowd, not in the least. But I straighten my black tie—a heavily discounted thing I found at a flea market—and flash my card at the bouncer. Beads of sweat form at my temples, but he doesn't notice the fake identification. Instead, a wave of his hand sends me striding through the front doors with all the confidence of a swindler.
I’m instantly met with a rush of activity. Strained conversation and polite laughter hover in the air. Waiters in black suits and immaculate crimson bow ties blend into the crowds with ease. Men in golden suits lean against bright white-and-silver pillars, expensive cigars dangling loosely from their fingers. Beautiful chandeliers and cream tablecloths elevate the lavishness of the place as if they were made to grace the presence of more than us mere mortals. I pick up chatter about everything from sickness in the West to who’s wearing the latest fashions. Whispers of looming war and those getting rich off it.
This is a place for the wealthiest pocketbooks, the dirtiest cheaters, and the cruelest hearts to congregate. You can never be sure who’s genuine in this place.
I motion to the bartender, a stocky man in a sharp black suit, for a drink. Non-alcoholic, of course, because I have a job tonight. I raise my voice over the sounds of overlapping conversation and false laughter to place my order. The bartender works fast, sliding a sparkling sunset-colored liquid in front of me almost immediately, and I hand him a couple of coins in return.
I nod. “Thanks. Keep the change.”
He smiles. “My pleasure.”
The words are tinged with caution. His eyes wander my outfit, the way I clutch my coins, and he relaxes a bit. I can almost see the words flashing in his brain: not a threat. Part of me cringes at his assessment. In my shirt and loose dark slacks, I feel underdressed. Who the hell comes to a bar, even a bar like this one, decked out in a whole damn suit or a dress worthy of royal courts? At the Rusty Pail, everyone wore their everyday clothes. Or none, depending on how drunk they were. I stand out far too much.
I have to get out of here quickly before someone gets suspicious and checks my card.
I suck in a deep breath, scan the room once more, and finally spot my target. She’s decked out in elaborate fakery, all glitter and glamor, sitting on a lonesome stool before the bar. Fake dress, fake jewelry, fake smile. Danger lurks beneath the surface. Despite what seems to be an amicable conversation she’s now holding with the bartender, she looks powerful enough to destroy him in an instant. She looks like she belongs here. And he can feel it. As he cleans a glass with a gleaming white napkin, his gaze never quite meets hers. He simply nods and hums in agreement, polishing the crystal until it’s spotless, hands shaking ever-so-slightly.
She turns to gaze across the room but doesn’t take a single sip of her drink. It sits on the bar, fizzling dark amber. More than a few curious eyes take in her dazzling gold-green gown and the bounce of her dark shoulder-length curls as she turns. But none approach her. Not when her gaze is just intimidating enough, her posture just tense enough, for them to fear her.
Shaking my head, I lean against the counter and take a sip of my own drink, relishing the sweet, tangy taste. The cold liquid clears my head as I run through what I know.
What did they say earlier today? Girl, teenaged, former guild member. May be an advanced magus. Goes by the name Andi. Causing trouble with her abilities. Severe misuse of spells and potions.
I’m sure she’s the mark. It took forever to track her down on such little information, but she has to be Andi. She fits the criteria of a troublesome magus to a T—no job, money, connections, or past. A ghost, flitting from one town to the next.
Since I started tracking her yesterday morning, she’s changed her hair color twice, her outfit ten times. And I’m certain she has more disguises hidden in that small black purse of hers. She’s a talented criminal, that’s for sure. It takes a rare skill to erase one’s identity entirely and mingle among others without being seen. She makes it look like a piece of cake.
Suddenly, the girl sits up straighter on her bar stool. She shifts in her seat, getting ready to stand up, and that’s when I see it.
A guild tattoo. Just peeking out of her three-quarter-sleeved dress. The curve of ink on her inner forearm is as familiar to me as the sight of tipsy strangers during a work shift. If there was any doubt about her identity before, it’s long gone now.
I gulp down the rest of my drink and slip out of my chair, moving down the length of the bar to where she sits. The girl stands up, and it looks like she’s about to head for the exit.
I quicken my pace, skirting past drunken couples and green-faced businessmen. Just as she’s about to take a step forward, I reach her stool.
“Fancy a drink?” I say, trying not to let the tremor show in my voice. I can’t tell if it’s because I’m panicked she might leave and I’ll lose my chance to nab her or because I’m finally seeing her up close.
Narrow green eyes. Smooth bronze skin. Slender nose. Full red lips. A soft glow dusting her cheeks. Dark eyebrows, one arched slightly more than the other.
You have a job. If you don’t get her, you don’t get your money. If you don’t get your money, you’re screwed.
Right. I take a deep breath and flash her a winning smile. Or at least, I hope it’s winning. I’ve never really been good at this.
I’m not handsome. I can hold my own in a scrap, but no amount of training from my brother or the bounty hunters can erase my scrawny stature. And I’m certainly not rich, considering my day job is at a tavern called the Rusty Pail, of all things. Knife-throwing and dishwashing never taught me how to flirt with a girl, much less convince her to walk with me outside so I could stun her and turn her in for a bounty hunter's reward.
I run a hand through my hair, a feeble attempt to tame my messy dark locks. Even my hair won't cooperate today, on a day where everything rests on appearances.
“No,” the girl says. Her voice is light, airy.
I raise an eyebrow. “You sure? I—”
“No,” she repeats, her words now frosted in ice. “I have somewhere to be.”
Something harsh flares in her eyes, something I can’t quite identify. Something scary.
“Oh. Well. Okay.” I swallow. Goddamn, she’s intimidating. “See ya?” The last syllable comes out like a squeak.
Caden, you’re an absolute bloody idiot.
Her jaw tightens, and she spins around, heading toward a nearby table occupied by two men. But just before her eyes leave my face, I finally realize what it is I saw in her eyes moments before they narrowed. Recognition.
Crap. She knows who I am. And if she doesn’t, she at least heavily suspects it.
Still, I trail her to the table. From this angle, I can’t see their features well, but they look just as wealthy as the rest of them. She leans over and starts chatting amicably with them.
Maybe she’s scamming them, I think derisively.
One of the men says something, and she laughs. He shifts to the side. Slightly turns his head. As I glimpse beady eyes and a piggish nose, my breath catches in my throat.
What the hell?
Why is he here?
My feet are moving before I can stop myself. Fear rockets down my spine. I need to get her away from him. Whatever con she's trying to run, it's not going to work this time. I can't let her get hurt too badly, not when my own life rests on bringing her in to my Ikari. I’ve failed too many jobs to lose this one, too.
But then I reach her side, and the world explodes in bright pink smoke.
END OF CHAPTER 1
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