Emma’s bus rides from school to her house or July’s had gotten pretty routine. She would seek out an available seat, preferably in a corner, put in her earbuds, and watch a couple of July’s or Marie’s old videos; she’d been working on catching up with both of their channels for weeks and was about halfway through Marie’s archive. Unfortunately, July’s channel, Lit Talk Over Tea, had way more to watch. After watching one or two, she was usually near her first stop—but on this day, she never actually got to the point of opening up YouTube on her phone.
When she got on the bus, she noticed almost immediately that one of the other passengers had an aura. Her immediate association with it was the gold crayon in her backpack. It was rich and glittery and shone brighter than any other she’d seen. Almost gaudy. It was like the exact opposite of Valen’s—as was he, slender and dark and actually smiling, for whatever reason. In jeans and an olive-green cable knit sweater, he presented a significantly less somber figure than her too. Emma had seen one or two people with auras on the bus before, but none as intense as his. She tried to look for any of the other clues July had taught her, as she usually did, but the more she tried, the harder it was to focus on him. She started to get confused and frustrated before she stopped to wonder whether that was his doing. Couldn’t some immortals do that? Had he noticed her staring? She shook her head as if she could shake him out of her mind and held her backpack straps tighter.
When she got off the bus, he did the same, and her fear that he had seen her only worsened. Just get home as fast as possible. Maybe it was a coincidence that they’d had the same stop. Maybe he wasn’t a threat and hadn’t noticed her at all.
“Excuse me, miss?” a man’s voice called from behind her, and Emma froze. She hadn’t been exposed to another immortal unsupervised yet. What if this one was hostile and angry like Mr. Taylor? When he caught up to her, however, he smiled and held out his open hand. “I think you dropped this.” It was one of the jeweled barrettes Marie had sent her for her birthday. Sure enough, when she reached up to check her hair, one of the two was missing. It couldn’t have come out by accident. He must have stolen it somehow. After a split-second of hesitation, she took it back.
“Thank you,” she muttered, avoiding his gold-colored eyes. How did he get away with that? It didn’t look remotely human. She kept her eyes on his hands instead and counted a total of six gold rings, four on one hand, two on the other. The bus started to pull away, and Emma took a careful step backward.
“Wait, wait,” he said as she started to leave. Despite her nerves, she reflexively stopped when asked. “Can I ask where you got them? My daughter loves old-fashioned jewelry like that.”
“They were a gift,” she said carefully. She wondered if the daughter was completely fictitious, and she remembered July’s lesson about immortals lying.
“When they’re trying to gain your trust,” her tutor had said, “they’ll come up with one offhanded lie after another. The more lies they tell, the more they have to keep track of. If you suspect they’re lying, ask questions.”
“About what?” Emma asked. “Why?”
“About whatever they’re telling you. Ask for more detail. Ninety percent of the time, you’ll catch them off-guard, and you’ll be able to tell. That way you’ll know for sure that it’s a lie. And it usually rattles them a bit, too.”
“What about the other ten percent?”
“That is the reason you should keep your guard up,” July had told her, “even if their story seems to check out.”
Momentarily emboldened by her knowledge, Emma crossed her arms and asked, “How old is she?” She added with a copy of July’s polite smile, “If you don’t mind my asking.”
“Oh, she’ll be thirteen in August.” He didn’t seem thrown by the question at all. “You look about her age?”
“Does she go to school here? Maybe I know her.” It almost felt like a game, seeing who would slip up first and give something away.
“No. She lives in Alexandria with her mother.” The sudden drop in his tone came as a surprise. He seemed upset. Was he serious? Before she could respond, he cleared his throat and covered up with a smile. “Well, I’m sorry to bother you. Try to keep a closer eye on those barrettes. I’m sure whoever gave them to you would hate to see you lose them.” She was still holding the clip in her hand as he turned to leave, and she still didn’t know what type of immortal he was. His lack of interest in her suggested he was one of the ones Valen was allowing to stay in Albany, that he simply lived there. That means he’s probably safe to talk to, right?
“Um! I could tell you who made them,” she suggested.
“It’s nice of you to offer,” he said, glancing back at her. “But don’t worry about it. I’m sure I can find something similar elsewhere.”
“I doubt it. They’re magic.”
“Is that so?” Something in the tone of his voice had changed. It was less formal, more genuinely interested.
“Yep. I have a friend who’s a witch, and she, um, charmed them for me.”
“Not a charm to avoid getting lost, apparently,” he said with a teasing smile. It took a second, but she understood what he meant. The fact that he so readily accepted the idea of magic was a surprise, as she’d imagined he would do all he could to take suspicion away from himself.
“No, they’re for helping me focus. That’s the first time one of them has just fallen out, though,” she said, looking up at him suspiciously. “So that’s kind of weird.”
His smile only widened, and his teeth looked especially sharp. “Lucky I was there to return it to you, then.” It seemed like the more frustrated she got with the conversation, the more insistent she was on figuring him out, the more amused he was by her attempts. He didn’t try to leave this time, standing on one hip with his hands in his pockets. “How is it you became friends with a witch? If you don’t mind my asking.”
In the moment it took to replace the barrette in her hair, she tried to think up a good answer. “Witches are just people. How does anybody become friends with anybody?”
He laughed. “You’ve got me there. So you’re not afraid of magic?”
“No. I think it’s cool,” she said honestly. “Should I be?”
“I hear some parts of it can be dangerous. It might be smart to show a little caution.”
“That’s exactly how much caution I have.”
“Does that apply to other magical beings as well?” he asked.
She stared at him blankly before responding with a weak smile. She couldn’t decide if she was afraid of what he might be planning or just excited to be talking to another immortal. She felt like she was handling herself pretty well! “Others? Like what?”
“Anything else. Genies. Faeries. Vampires. Gods?” He raised an eyebrow at her, and she swallowed hard.
Gods? His aura was brighter than any other she’d seen, as bright as Valen’s was dark. But hadn’t July told her that gods usually didn’t have any interest in them or their souls? All the more reason he wasn’t a danger.
“No,” she said finally. “I’m not scared of them, either.”
“Interesting. You’re braver than most, then. May I ask you a personal question?” He leaned in to look at her a little closer, but she was no longer intimidated. She nodded. “Are you, by any chance, a Seer?”
Could he sense her magic blood or something? “Why do you ask?”
“To know if I can be honest about what I am,” he said with a pleasant smile. Though she’d been having fun with their game of talking circles around each other, honesty was definitely easier to navigate.
“Yeah. I am,” she confessed, fidgeting with both hands, starting to rock back and forth on the balls of her feet. If he knew already, what point was there in lying? “How could you tell?”
“Most people wouldn’t so readily accept the idea of genies and faeries being real.”
“I hear they prefer to be called jinn,” she pointed out.
“So do I, but I didn’t expect you to know that.” The knowledge that she was a Seer didn’t seem to have affected him much. He wasn’t acting creepy or overly interested, just regarding her thoughtfully. “Does that mean you can tell what I am?”
She scrunched up her mouth in thought. “Something big,” she said finally, and he laughed.
“That’s vague—and arguable. It could just be that you’re small.”
“No, I mean like, figuratively,” she insisted. “Like, you’re obviously not anything weak like a siren or a ghost.” He had already suggested the god thing, but she didn’t have any way of knowing for sure. That was a pretty narrow category as she understood it (though apparently not as narrow as she had thought).
“How do you know?”
“Your aura is really bright,” Emma explained, having long forgotten that this was a conversation she wasn’t supposed to be having, that she was standing on the sidewalk casually chatting with a stranger. “Most of the others don’t actually glow like you do. And I haven’t seen gold before.”
“But you don’t know exactly?” he reasoned.
She pouted slightly. She wasn’t an expert on this subject like July was, so the few clues she had didn’t lead to a conclusion. “No. You could tell me.”
“Oh, I certainly could.” Still wearing that friendly smile, he added, “But I won’t.”
Her pouting only intensified. Was he teasing her on purpose? “Why not? I answered when you asked.”
“But this isn’t a simple yes or no. It would take some explaining, and I have places to be. Maybe if you’re lucky and we run into each other again, I’ll explain then.”
“But—!” He ignored her protest and walked away with an offhanded wave, leaving her frustrated again. She had finally spoken to an immortal on her own, and it actually went okay, but she still felt like she hadn’t learned anything. After a few seconds of rocking back and forth on her toes, she huffed and headed to her next bus stop. Maybe she should ask July about him. If he was one of the ones Valen was okay with, maybe she knew him, too.
But then, July would probably be angry that she had talked to him in the first place, even if nothing happened. “It could have been dangerous,” she could imagine her tutor scolding. “You shouldn’t have taken that chance. It doesn’t matter how harmless he seemed; he’s the same as all the others. I’ve told you before, you aren’t ready to deal with them on your own. How many times do I have to explain this?”
Her shoulders slumped guiltily as she stared down at the sidewalk. Maybe it was better not to say anything. Especially since she was sort of hoping she would run into him again so she could get a proper answer.