My eyes rose to the gem, my breath catching in my throat. The ring itself was clunky and masculine, with wide swaths of gold swirling in and around each other, but that wasn’t what caught my attention. The ruby gracing the center of the ring was positioned just right to catch the light.
A rainbow of light glinted off the deep red facets of the ruby, drawing me closer. It reminded me of Tavor’s imperial topaz—the brilliant colors it threw off in the light, the way it looked so smooth. With Tavor’s gem, I’d had a desperate urge to see it in the light. This one, I wanted to see if it was as smooth as it looked . . .
Feeling cool crystal under my finger, I gasped and jerked back, snatching my hand to my chest. I threw panicked glances around the room, searching for the security camera. I hadn’t meant to do that. I didn’t even remember reaching for the ruby, just wanting to know how it felt.
Suddenly, a cold fog erupted, flooding the area, and I remembered my dad telling me about fog security systems used to protect valuable goods. They were supposed to obscure burglars’ vision to the point where they couldn’t grab anything valuable.
As I stumbled back, my gaze jumped to the already-obscured sign declaring that touching the ruby was worthy of prosecution. Was it legal to prosecute someone for touching something? Didn’t you have to prove intent to steal? I hadn’t even tried to grab the ring. The security cameras would show that, right?
I shivered in the cold mist, searching for the way out. My body wanted to bolt, but I couldn’t make out which direction the door lay in. I couldn’t even see the ruby anymore, and that had to be two feet away.
“This isn’t my fault,” I whispered. Was this why I’d been reluctant to come in here? Because I’d known something bad would happen? Except, I caused the bad thing. What was wrong with me?
Sliding my feet along the floor, I held my arms out to search for a wall to guide me out, though I imagined security would arrive any minute. Could I explain myself without getting in trouble? If anything happened, my parents would yank me back to Chicago. I could hear my mom now, mourning over Nebraska turning her only child into a criminal.
The desire to run filled me, but I still didn’t know where to run. And I hadn’t done anything illegal. Something wrong, but not illegal.
A figure formed in the fog, and my throat tried to close off. It took two tries to get anything out.
“S-sorry. I’m not sure what happened. I think I tripped, or—”
The words died on my tongue as the figure became visible.
“No,” I whispered, taking a step back.
This couldn’t be possible.
Somehow, a young man with dusky skin and brilliant red hair stood before me, his hair shooting upward in improbable spikes, as though trying to mimic a flame. But his eyes were red too. And he was shirtless, with silver bands decorating both wrists, wearing only white puffy pants with a wide red belt of cloth tied around his waist and red curly shoes. Clothes like Tavor’s. Impossible eyes and ridiculous hair like Tavor. He was toned like Tavor, too, though his bare chest and arms held even more definition.
“Please tell me I’m hallucinating from the fog.” I squeezed my eyes shut. Or maybe the sudden cold air was affecting my brain, though I also hoped I wasn’t developing a bizarre habit of imagining shirtless men.
“Hey!” the figure shouted, and my eyes popped back open.
The genie—because I didn’t think he could be anything else—stood with hands on his hips as he gazed down at me. He was about the same height as Tavor, meaning nearly half a foot taller than my five-two.
“If you’ve come to steal me, have the courtesy to look me in the eye, genie hunter.”
“You heard me.” He crossed his arms over his chest, his red eyes flashing.
So, the flashing eyes thing wasn’t a trick of the light.
“If you’re going to steal a genie, have the courtesy to look him in the eye,” the genie repeated.
“No,” I said, drawing out the word as I held my hands in front of me in a stop gesture. I flashed back to the first time I’d seen Tavor, when I’d tried to pass off his appearance as a study-induced hallucination. I really, really wanted to use that excuse again. Maybe it would work the second time? “That’s not what’s going on here.”
The fog was clearing, but not enough for me to see the exit. Shouldn’t security have arrived by now? What would they think upon seeing a genie? On the heel of that thought came another that brought a wash of horror. Tavor said by default genies were only visible to their masters. This could not be happening.
“Who’s your master?” I demanded. It had to be the patron who donated the ring, right? Unless it was a family heirloom that they never touched and they didn’t know it held a genie. No one would lend a genie gem to a museum.
“I thought genie hunters were supposed to be smart. You came after me without even knowing who my master is?”
“I did not come after you,” I said through gritted teeth. My chest fluttered with a tight feeling, and I couldn’t tell if the world around me was spinning or if it was an effect from the fog. “I came to visit the museum. Genies don’t belong in museums.” If they did, Tavor would have come with me, and this wouldn’t be happening. He could have warned me, steered me clear of the stupid, enticing ruby. Did all genie gems mesmerize people?
“But you have a master, right?” He was talking like he did, and if he already had one, then I couldn’t be his master. The thought eased my panic. Maybe he felt my touch on his ruby and came out to confront me. Maybe rubbing a genie gem was like knocking on their door, or throwing rocks at their window.
He narrowed his eyes, tightening his crossed arms. “I did, and I do.”
I didn’t like that phrasing. “What does that mean?”
He arched his neck, as though a different angle might give him more glaring power. I expected him to lift into the air any moment, like Tavor often did.
“Shouldn’t you already know, Master?”
“But that’s not supposed to be possible,” I argued. If it was, the genie wizard wouldn’t have bothered trying to kill me. At least, not until after he got Tavor’s gem.
He clucked his tongue at me. “What are you whining for? You did this.”
“How?” I demanded. “I touched your gem. That’s all.” The room was definitely spinning. Or maybe it was collapsing inward. I hoped it crushed me and that I woke up in bed after.
He scowled at me. “I don’t know. You tell me. You’re the one working some sort of ancient magic.”
“Magic?” Could my life get more absurd? I’d thought nothing could top Tavor’s appearance in my life. I wished nothing had topped it. “I don’t have magic. I’m not a genie wizard.” Tavor had said genie wizards were humanity’s only subrace.
“Of course you’re not.” The genie rolled his eyes. “Genie wizards can’t be genie masters. You must be working with one.”
If genie wizards could switch a genie’s master, Brandon would have done so. Either he’d been a poor genie wizard, or this genie had no idea what he was talking about. Or maybe I was too out of my depth to understand anything going on around me. All I wanted was to support myself as I went to school and got a mechanical engineering degree. Was this punishment from the universe for disobeying my parents? Or maybe a sign that I wasn’t competent enough to survive on my own? None of this would have happened if I’d stayed in Chicago, locked in the path my parents had crafted for my life. My stomach revolted at the thought. Were my only options to have my life controlled or have it filled with chaos?
“I see what’s going on.” He leaned back with a satisfied smirk. “A genie wizard helped you, but you didn’t really believe it would work, did you? You tested it out for fun, and now you’re trying to get out of this like some innocent victim. I see your game, hunter. You do know who my master is—was—don’t you?”
I didn’t even know what a genie hunter was, or if any of what he was saying was possible. I thought I could have Tavor in my life without getting any more involved in this world. If I’d thought otherwise, I would have asked more questions. Or not agreed to him becoming my roommate. But I couldn’t blame this on Tavor. He wasn’t the one who’d touched the stupid ruby.
The genie clucked his tongue, shaking his head in pity. The gesture was ruined by the smirk curling the corners of his mouth. “It doesn’t matter how innocent you play, Master. You began living on borrowed time the moment you crossed the McMichaels. Even with a contract, you won’t be protected long. They’ll kill you the moment the contract is complete.”
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