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New York City Serenade

This is not spring, Eric Banyon thought grumpily, looking around at the grey sky and the patches of dirty ice that still lingered in sheltered areas around the edges of buildings here on the Upper East Side. I have seen spring, and this is not it. Even though spring's official beginning was a week and more away, it was March, and in Southern California it was already T-shirt weather.

And Underhill, snow was purely for decoration.

But he was neither in California nor Underhill. He was in Manhattan, and it had been a long, bitter, wet winter, one that seemed to intend to hang on long past the time when any polite season would have known it was no longer wanted.

He'd graduated Juilliard at the semester break in February—either ahead of or behind his class, depending on how you looked at it—but he'd been considering a number of possibilities for what to do with his shiny new degree since late last year, and he'd decided on this one.

He wasn't sure whether you'd call it "paying back," "paying forward," or just staying out of trouble. It wasn't as if he needed to work in any financial sense—kenned gold from Elfhame Misthold took care of that, and even if it hadn't, all he had to do was hint to Ria that he wanted paying gigs and he'd be doing society weddings and political banquets every night and day of the week, and for big fat fees. But Eric knew he sure didn't want to waste that degree on becoming a live and expensive version of Muzak—and he also doubted he'd be comfortable just sitting around in front of the TV all day—or even for more than the length of the average movie. He hadn't come back into the World Above from a very comfortable life Underhill just to turn into a slacker. Yes, his initial reason for coming back into the World Above had been to finish what he'd started—primarily his degree—and he'd done that. And it wasn't enough, not anymore, not when he knew what a mess the world was in. He needed to be doing something. Doing good, in fact.

He was pretty sure this counted, in a small way. And it left him free for the big things that came up from time to time.

Although on days like this—raw, cold, windy, and almost-but-not-quite raining—he really wished he didn't have to make house calls.

He trudged along with his head down against the weather until he sensed an indefinable change in his surroundings, looked up, found he'd reached the address he was heading for, and went in, nodding to the doorman. Since he'd started his new gig before he'd graduated, Esai passed him with a smile and a nod: Eric was a familiar face here.

He stopped at the front desk to give his name and destination, and waited while they called and checked—both his ID, and whether he was expected. A dearth of uninvited and unexpected guests was only one of the many things people like the Tienhovens paid for the stunning service charges of a building like this.

* * *

Vicki, the incredibly discreet au pair, greeted him at the door and led him into the music room. Vicki was of the sort described as "a treasure"—so polite, so polished, so flawlessly invisible that Eric would have suspected an import from Stepford if he hadn't caught Vicki and her charge—and sometimes Vicki and her employer—miming the occasional wordless comment in "womanspeak" behind his back. Sometimes at his expense. He didn't mind; it made him feel better to know that she wasn't some cowed little thing, trapped in the walls of this gilded cage, subdued into the "appropriate" image.

Belinda Tienhoven, Eric's real reason for being here, was waiting for him eagerly, her flute already assembled, blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail with a plaid bow that matched her school-uniform skirt. It was bizarre to think that here in Manhattan, where rent for an efficiency the size of an Underhill closet was so high that most people had roommates, there were people who had the money to spend to have rooms devoted only to music.

Then again, where on earth would you put that monster hi-fi set out of the fifties that was Ian Tienhoven's pride and joy, except a room devoted only to music? For crying out loud, the thing was the size of a van! It had tubes, tubes the size of mustard-jars, for chrissake! Eric was half afraid to go near it. He kept expecting Ian to rise up out of the middle of it, hair on end, shouting, "It's alive! It's alive!"

He gave it the usual uneasy glance as he pulled up his own chair. Vicki and Belinda exchanged the usual amused glance. Then Vicki settled into a chair in the corner with her needlepoint—Eric had discovered it seemed to be an unwritten rule that nannies, governesses, and au pairs all did needlepoint—and the music lesson began.

When Eric had made up his mind to set up as a private music tutor, he'd known that at least some of his pupils would be the same kind of over-scheduled, over-achieving, way-above-middle-class kids he had been. Kids whose parents could well afford a Juilliard graduate as a private music teacher. It would look rather odd, after all, if none of his pupils could afford to pay for their lessons, and he had plenty of sliding-scale and pro-bono students on his books.

When he'd made his decision to teach, he'd remembered his own experiences with private teachers—most of them had only cared about pleasing their clients, and those had been the parents, not the pupils. And his parents had only been interested in how well he performed, not whether he'd enjoyed learning.

That had been almost enough to make him abandon the idea of teaching then and there. It had been Hosea who pointed out that it was certainly up to Eric to decide what sort of teacher he was going to be—and that if he did run into any parents like that in the course of his work, he'd be in the best position possible to make things better.

"The music," Hosea—Eric's Bardic student and friend—had said, "can be a great comfort, even when everything else in yore life is a mite dark." 

That had made sense to Eric. In fact, if he had gotten the kind of teacher that he himself intended to be, there might not have been that incident with the Nightflyers. . . . And he just might have stuck with Juilliard the first time. But whether it was sheer luck, or whether because parents raising trophy kids went after trophy teachers, Eric had been fortunate so far. His high-end students might not see a lot of their parents. They might have schedules of activities that would drive a CEO to exhaustion. But they weren't being treated as objects—and he had it in his power to make their music lessons into times of relaxation instead of stress.

Belinda Tienhoven, for example, was studying the flute because she liked the flute. She was pretty good, too. He'd been better at her age—but then, he'd been practicing six hours a day. He was lucky to get a half-hour of practice out of her a day, since she was also taking soccer, ballet, riding, and French—and those were just her after-school activities.

For the first half hour of the lesson they worked on drills—fingering, breath-control—and then on a short solo piece. After that came Belinda's favorite part of the lesson: the duet. Small wonder; that was when Eric used a bit of Bardic magic to heal some of the damage that her killer schedule was doing to her. Eric had adapted a Mozart "Rondo in A" for the purpose, making sure it would be challenging but not too difficult. They alternated parts; this week Belinda had the lead.

They managed a complete play-through once without disaster, though Eric had a bit of work to keep everything on an even keel. But when he'd taken up teaching, he'd made a firm vow that if lessons weren't going to be all fun all the time—since nothing involving drill and repetition could be—they definitely weren't going to be the exercises in humiliation he remembered from his own student days. And he'd vowed that even if his pupils were so unprepared that their duet consisted of "Variations on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," every lesson was going to end on a good, pleasurable note, and his pupils would finish up feeling happier and more relaxed than they'd been when they started the hour.

Every time you use your Gift to make something better, no matter how small the change, you add Light to the World Above. That had been Dharniel's admonition the last time he'd seen the crusty old Elven warrior. So here he was, lighting his tiny little candles in what seemed these days to be a very dark city indeed. Did it make a difference?

He had to believe it did, or what was the point?

When they brought the piece to an end, Eric was startled to hear enthusiastic clapping.

Karen Tienhoven—Belinda's mother—was standing in the doorway, still in her coat—a garment whose tailoring was so impeccable that Eric had no doubt of how expensive it was. Still, she worked hard for that money, and so did her husband.

"Wonderful!" she said, beaming, as Belinda hastily set down her flute and ran over for a hug. They looked like sisters; clear enough where Belinda got her fair coloring from. "I'm sorry to say I only heard the end of it—but you're playing very well, darling. I'm only here for a few minutes, I'm afraid. It's going to be another late night at work, but I thought we could have a snack together and then I could run you and Vicki up to your dance practice in the car. What do you think of that?"

Belinda squeaked, sounding like any typical eleven-year-old promised a special treat, and nodded enthusiastically. She managed to remember her manners far enough to thank Eric for her lesson, then ran off to get her dance bag. Vicki had already tactfully vanished.

Mrs. Tienhoven sighed. "Sometimes I think I'm missing her childhood, and I'm going to regret all this when she's a teenager. But this brief won't wait. And some people—naming no names of course—seem to think it's their right to pave the entire city over. But you aren't interested in a high-priced lawyer's problems, Mr. Banyon. How is Belinda doing?"

The question every teacher dreaded, Eric thought with an inward grimace. Still, even if Belinda wasn't a child prodigy, she was a good, proficient student, at or above her expected level.

"She's making real progress. And she seems to enjoy it. If you're asking me if she has the talent to be a professional musician . . ."

"Oh, good heavens, no." Karen Tienhoven waved the idea away. "It's much too soon to tell, don't you think? No . . . you see, we're planning to go away this summer. To Italy. For a month—or six weeks, if Ian and I can both get away. So if she's doing well and wants to keep on with it, I'd hate for her to stop her lessons for that long. So I wondered if you'd like to come with us? We'd pay all your expenses, of course."

Eric shook his head, smiling gently. "I really don't think I could get away for that long. But there are a lot of senior Juilliard students who are free over the summer who might be available. I know several studious young ladies who would really enjoy teaching someone like Belinda. . . . I could make some inquiries, if you'd like."

Mrs. Tienhoven thought about that for a moment—probably reflecting that, all things considered, a studious young lady might make a better traveling companion for Belinda—and Vicki—than a studly young man, like one Eric Banyon. Danger, danger, Will Robinson! Romantic Italy—the tutor and the au pair cooped up in the hotel together—

Belinda's mother smiled, and if there was a touch of gratitude in that smile for having narrowly escaped a—situation—well, Eric pretended not to see it.

"I'll talk to Belinda and see what she thinks. But that might be the perfect solution. Thank you, Mr. Banyon."

* * *

A few minutes later, Eric was headed cross-town, his check—in its discreet envelope—tucked into his pocket, having made a mental note to check with his former classmates to see who might be interested in an all-expense-paid trip to Italy this summer.

Assuming, of course, that Belinda was interested. She might not be. And certainly there was plenty else to do in Italy. Six weeks wouldn't make that big a difference in the playing of a child who had the normal dose of talent, as long as she kept up her practicing. And even if she didn't—well, who cared? There were plenty of other ways Belinda Tienhoven could make a living when she grew up, including following in her mother's footsteps.

Eric grinned to himself. The scene he'd just left had all the elements of his childhood but one: Belinda Tienhoven obviously wasn't a trophy, but a prize. Treasured. Loved.

* * *

The Coenties & Arundel Private Academy for Boys—known to its inmates as Cooties and Runt—was located in the East 50s. The prospectus said that it prepared its students for life. The parents of most of the students simply hoped it would prepare them for college.

Neither Eric nor Magnus had been thrilled with the idea of Magnus's enrollment there—Magnus, because he hadn't wanted to go to school at all; Eric, because he'd never had a good experience with private schools, and knew perfectly well that his younger brother hadn't either.

It was Ria who had pointed out—patiently, firmly, and, as usual, inarguably—that Magnus's academic background was spotty at best, and moreover, the false history they were constructing for him in order for Eric to gain custody of him meant that they couldn't use his real background anyway. He'd need a solid grounding at a good prep school to bring him up to speed if he wanted to get into any college at all—and according to Ria, the New York City public schools were a horror. The C&A had small classes and good security, and an excellent record of college placement for its graduates. And unlike the previous schools Magnus had attended, the security was to keep trouble out, not students in. 

It was also, as Eric had quickly discovered, dauntingly expensive and impossible to get into. The first was no problem for him, and the second, as he'd discovered, was no problem for Ria. A place had been found for Magnus, who'd started at the beginning of the winter erm.

Eric had fought Nightflyers, Unseleighe Sidhe, and rogue government agents long before discovering that he had a teenaged brother he needed to take responsibility for.

There were days when he thought that the Unseleighe Sidhe were less of a challenge.

Much less.

The C&A required a blazer and tie. Not only did Magnus never get tired of complaining about that, he also never exhausted the possibilities of skating near the edges of the dress code, since the C&A left the choice of tie for third- and fourth-year students—and Magnus was a third-year student—up to them.

But the major almost-fights—no actual full-scale fights; Eric had been spared that much—were always about Magnus having to go to school at all. Magnus's stated intention was to become a drummer in a rock band. Drummers in rock bands were not known for flouting their CVs. Most of the drummers in rock bands that I've known were barely able to speak three articulate words in a row. 

Maybe it was like his theory about sopranos—in the case of sopranos, the cranial cavity was naturally empty in order to help them reach the high notes with resonance. The vibrato, much like the pea in a whistle, was the small piece of brain rattling around in the skull. In the case of rock-band drummers, the cranial cavity was naturally empty due to being so close to the amps. Any brain material left alive after the amps got done with it was compacted into the size of a thumb.

Oh that wasn't fair. There was Neil Piert and the early Phil Collins. . . .

Then again, there's Sigu Sigu Sputnik. Wonder if Magnus has ever heard of them. 

There were times when Eric really felt his actual age. Dropping a reference to something he remembered as being a household word, only to have Magnus stare at him blankly, tended to invoke those times.

He reached the block of the school just as the doors opened and the students came swarming out. Some of them headed directly for the waiting vehicles—Lincoln Town Cars were the limousine of choice—others clustered on the sidewalk to talk to friends. Magnus stood at the top of the steps, looking around.

He knows I'm here, Eric thought with a pang of realization.

He wasn't sure how to feel about that. Magnus hadn't known he was coming today, but he obviously sensed Eric's presence on some level. Eric knew Magnus had the same Bardic Gift he did, though so far it hadn't made its presence known in any obvious way. And Magnus knew that Eric was a Bard, though they hadn't talked about it much. They were going to have to talk about it sometime, though—just as Magnus's Gift would have to be evaluated and trained.

But not yet. And you should just be thankful that it's Bardcraft you're going to have to talk to him about, and not the birds and the bees! 

Magnus spotted him at last, and ambled over. Eric noted with faint resignation that today's tie had some sort of anime characters on it that he didn't recognize—and lit up besides, with a little flashing balloon that said "Blah blah blah." Magnus pulled it off and stuffed it in his pocket as soon as he was clear of the building.

"Checking up on me?" he asked with a cocky grin.

That, at least, was something Eric never had to do, or even think about. Magnus kept his word. He hated school, and thought it was a waste of time, but if he said he'd be there, that was where he'd be.

"Sure, I figured I'd catch you pulling a Ferris Bueller," Eric said insincerely, with the shrug that turned it into a joke. Fortunately Magnus had seen Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Unfortunately, it had been when the movie was on heavy rotation on one of the cable channels. Eric forbore to mention that he had seen it in the theatrical release. No point in hammering home the certainty in Magnus's mind that his older brother predated dirt. "I figured we could grab a taxi back Uptown, check out the homework situation, then decide what to do about dinner."

"We should go over to Ria's," Magnus said instantly. "I bet Ace would cook something. And Ria wouldn't mind. She wouldn't even be there, probably, and Ace hates wasting food."

True on both counts, Eric thought, as they headed away from the press of waiting cars. Ria Llewellyn was the original workaholic, spending far too many hours in her penthouse office at LlewellCo. And Ace—who had taken in Magnus when they were both runaways on the street and helped him survive, and been rescued along with him—was not only a much better cook than Eric was, she liked to cook. She cooked for Ria, on the rare occasions Ria was ever home to eat.

"Maybe," Eric said cautiously, as they stopped for a light.

His cellphone rang.

He pulled it out and saw that it was Ria's private office number.

"Hi," he said cheerfully.

"Try to remember you'd been having a good day up until now," Ria said, her voice at its most neutral. "Where's Magnus?"

"Right here," Eric said. "I, ah, take it you have a problem?"

"No." If she'd sounded neutral before, now Ria sounded irritated—or disgusted. Eric wasn't quite sure which. "You have a problem, and it's sitting here in one of my less-desirable conference rooms with its lawyer demanding the return of an object that you and I have gone to a great deal of trouble to assure them doesn't exist, if you follow me. And I think you'd better see them."

"Oh. Oh." Ria was right. It had been a good day up until now. Because it wasn't that difficult to decode her cryptic comments.

When Magnus had surfaced last winter, Eric had promised him that, no matter what, he would never have to go back to their parents. He'd decided the easiest way to arrange that—and keep Magnus in the World Above, because it was always possible to stash him Underhill, though no one really wanted to do that, Magnus included—was to simply adopt Magnus himself. But to do that, he needed a legal claim on Magnus, and after some discussion with Ria, he'd decided the simplest thing would be to simply say that Magnus was his son—he was eighteen years older than his brother, after all, and it wasn't impossible that he'd fathered a child Magnus's age.

But filing the adoption papers meant surfacing as Eric Banyon, son of Michael and Fiona Banyon of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Fortunately, Eric didn't have to worry about the government arrest warrants that had driven him and Beth Kentraine Underhill themselves all those years ago. He'd discovered that those were a dead issue in Washington, buried by a change of administration and the death of the Eighties. The statute of limitations had run out years ago, and the projects that had caused the warrants to be filed in the first place had gotten a bad rep on Capitol Hill and a lot of ridicule in the press. The fact that he looked so much younger than he ought to could be ignored most of the time, mostly chalked up to good genetics, or really good plastic surgery, and covered up by a little Bardic glamourie when absolutely necessary.

What Eric hadn't taken fully into account was his parents' sheer idiotic tenacity.

When he'd popped up as what he still thought of as the "real" Eric Banyon, he'd discovered that they were still looking for him—although not as hard as they were searching for their other missing child. Magnus, the trophy-child replacement for Eric. Still not of legal age, still young enough to be controlled. Or so they thought. They wanted their investment back, and they weren't going to let a little thing like Eric stop them from getting it.

And even more unfortunately, adoption proceedings were a matter of public record. They'd decided (they happened to be right, though none of the paperwork supported them) that Eric was trying to adopt his brother, not his son, and had been doing their best to block it for the last two months. Ria's lawyers had been doing a good job of keeping them away from him and Magnus so far, but unfortunately, even if he and Ria convinced everybody that Magnus wasn't their son, he'd still be Michael and Fiona's grandson, and the State of New York held that grandparents had certain rights.

Which was probably why Ria hadn't just thrown them and their lawyer out on their collective ears when the three of them had shown up at LlewellCo Tower. Eric had hoped to avoid the whole horror of a custody fight with his parents by saying Magnus was his son, not theirs, but it looked like he was getting one anyway.

"Hello?" Ria said into the silence.

"I'll be there as soon as I can," Eric said grimly, tucking the phone away.

Magnus regarded him quizzically. His brother was already as tall as he was, and there was some indication Magnus wasn't done growing yet. "You don't look happy."

"Mom and Dad showed up at LlewellCo with a lawyer. I need to go over there and get things straightened out."

"I'm going with you," Magnus said firmly.

Eric hesitated. He'd been going to send Magnus home.

"I have to face them sooner or later," the boy said stubbornly, though he looked just as unhappy as Eric felt. "I can do just what you told me. I'd have to do it in court—again—anyway. I did all right the first time, didn't I?"

Well, that was certainly true. Magnus had been deposed when they'd filed the original papers, and interviewed by a court-appointed psychologist as well. He'd stuck to their cover story perfectly. Of course, the parents hadn't been there at the time, but still . . .

"You did. Okay. Feel free to back out any time, though."

Magnus made a rude noise.

* * *

LlewellCo Tower occupied a prime piece of commercial real estate on Upper Sixth. When Ria Llewellyn had decided to move the main focus of LlewellCo's operations east, she'd bought a suitable building, gutted and renovated the top five floors, and reserved them entirely for LlewellCo's use, renting out the rest of the building. Every year, though, LlewellCo offices took up more space.

Eric had been here enough times to know the drill. He went directly to the security desk, showed his ID and Magnus's, and was directed to the bank of elevators that went directly to the penthouse floor.

When they opened, Ria's PA, Anita Sheldrake, was there to meet them. She was wearing a black and white hound's-tooth-check suit right out of Hedy Lamar's closet; Anita liked to project a persona straight out of vintage film noir. Anita had come from the Midwest, where she'd been in security, and those job skills transferred very well to her new profession.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Banyon, Magnus. Ms. Llewellyn asked if you would join her in her office."

* * *

Ria was on the phone when they came in, speaking rapidly in flawless Japanese. She waved them over to the bank of long leather couches that lined two corners of the room, and continued without missing a beat.

It must be a conference call, Eric decided after a moment, hearing her switch, first to Russian, then to French. She didn't seem to be doing a lot of listening.

A few moments more, and she hung up.

"Sorry," she said unapologetically. She pressed a button on her desk. "Derek? We're ready for you now. Sorry about the wait. Gus? Are you sure about this?"

Magnus assumed an expression of pained boredom. "My mom's name was Melissa Freewoman. Or at least, that was what she said her name was, but she was such a rampant feminist that she never would give me the name she was born with. She was an artist, a weaver. We never really settled down anywhere. I never went to school or anything. We traveled all over Europe with friends and things. I was born on a commune in Mexico—at least that's what she always told me. She never told me who my father was for most of my life. About two years ago she got sick. We came back to Canada and stayed with some friends of hers. She wouldn't see a doctor or anything but these crazy homeopathy guys and herbalists and crystal people, but when she got really sick and she got thrown into a hospice and knew she wasn't gonna make it, she finally told me my dad's name was Eric Banyon, and that I should try to find him. She said he'd told her once that he'd gone to Juilliard, so . . . I started there."

Eric assumed an identical expression. "When I was, well, about Magnus's age, after I left Juilliard, I went down to Mexico for a while, and stayed on a commune there. There was a girl there named Melissa." He shrugged. "I didn't have any idea she was pregnant when I left. When Magnus found me, I was restarting my life with my lottery winnings. If I'd known he even existed, I'd have adopted him years ago."

Ria applauded slowly. "Very good, both of you. Come on. Derek will be waiting for us."

* * *

Derek Tilford was one of LlewellCo's numerous lawyers. The year before, he had helped Kayla and Hosea cut through a lot of red tape when Eric had been lying in a spell-induced coma in a New York hospital. When Eric had needed a general counsel who wasn't fazed by the unusual, Ria had been more than happy to offer his services once more, pointing out that all her legal staff was expected to devote a certain amount of hours to "pro-bono" work, and she certainly felt that this qualified.

Eric felt that this was stretching a point, but he wasn't going to quibble with Magnus's future at stake. And as it had turned out, it was just as well he hadn't.

The four of them walked into the conference room together.

The Banyons were seated at the far end of the table, their lawyer between them. Eric had met Charles Fulton Vandewater before and hadn't liked him. He looked like a slick lawyer. In ten years, if Vandewater wasn't a judge, he'd probably go into politics.

Both Eric and Magnus strongly resembled Fiona Banyon; they had her coloring and her fine-boned auburn beauty. She was not ageless by any stretch of the imagination, but carefully tended to mask the footprints of age as far as possible. Michael Banyon was a dark Celt; age had given him distinguished silver wings at the temples—and deepened the lines of temper at forehead and mouth. If Fiona's rages ran cold and quiet, Michael's roaring Irish furies could rattle windows.

"That's my son," Fiona said briefly, looking at Magnus and then looking away again.

Hi Mom, hi Dad, gee, it's good to see you again after all these years, Eric thought, holding down his anger with an effort.

"I'm sorry," he said evenly. "Much as I hate to admit it, I am your son, but Magnus is my son."

"This is ridiculous," Michael Banyon said irritably. "You're not even denying his name is Magnus. That's lame, Eric, even for you."

And here we go again, Eric thought with weary anger. It had been over twenty years by the world's time since he'd "officially" last seen his parents—though he'd paid them a clandestine visit last year, which they didn't remember, thanks to Bardic Magic. But they were behaving as if he was still eighteen.

"Melissa named him after my great-grandfather, obviously, just as you named this supposed brother you say I have. I talked a lot about him. I liked my great-grandfather," Eric said, allowing his irritation to show. Great-Grandfather Magnus had died when Eric had been very young. He wondered if anything would have gone differently in his life if the old man had lived longer.

"Why don't we all sit down?" Derek said pacifically.

They sat. Eric reached out under the table to take Magnus's hand. His brother's hand was cold in his, but the boy's face was blank and hostile, giving nothing away.

"Now," Derek said, when they were all settled. "You've seen Mr. Banyon's petition to adopt his son. You're aware of the circumstances surrounding his birth. I understand your own son is missing, and has been for some time. You have our deepest condolences. But surely that has nothing to do with your grandson?"

There was a whispered consultation at the far end of the table.

Eric knew he ought to feel worse about this, but in fact the only thing he felt bad about was having to see his parents again. The way his mother had said "that's my son,"—as if she were identifying an item at the Lost and Found. Hardly the way grieving parents ought to react upon being reunited with a child who'd been missing for the last eight months!

Mr. Vandewater cleared his throat. "Mr. and Mrs. Banyon are not prepared, at this time, to accept that this is not their son Magnus. But they also wish me to inform Mr. Banyon that they intend to file a countersuit to his adoption petition to sue for custody of their, ah, 'grandson' as well."

Eric felt Magnus twitch violently, but the boy managed to stay in his seat. Fortunately, he'd been looking down, and no one could see his face.

"I see," Derek Tilford said blandly. "May we ask on what grounds?"

"The full particulars will be in the deposition, but certainly we expect the State of New York will find that Mr. Banyon cannot provide a fit home environment for a teenaged boy."

"Then there's nothing more to be said at this time," Derek said, managing to sound almost cheerful. "Good day, Mr. Vandewater, Mr. and Mrs. Banyon."

He got to his feet, escorting them out. Magnus stayed seated until the door closed behind them.

"They can't do that!" he exploded, lunging to his feet. "You told me they couldn't do that!" He spun around in place, as if he were looking for a direction to run.

"The court is going to find in our favor." No matter what he had to do to make that happen, Eric vowed silently. "You aren't going back to them. That's what I promised you, and that's what I'm going to deliver."

Magnus stared at him, wild-eyed.

"Magnus," Eric said, taking his brother by the shoulders. "If we lose the court case—which we won't—I'll send you Underhill, to friends of mine. But you aren't going back to Boston."

"They can't make me go back there," Magnus echoed, sounding desperate.

"They can't," Eric agreed. "I'm an upstanding citizen, with a trust fund, a job, and good references. I've already demonstrated that I can take care of you properly—you have your own room in a very expensive piece of New York real estate, and I've enrolled you in a good private school in which you are making good grades. I guess I could even get a desk job here if I had to, right Ria?"

"I'm sure we could find something useful for you to do," Ria said, smiling faintly. "Gus, don't worry. This is Manhattan, not some backwater holdover from the Dark Ages. Single men adopt here all the time, and our cover story of a recently dead mother and a father eager to make things right is only going to make our case stronger. If the Banyons of Boston actually go the route of petitioning to get their grandson turned over to them, half our work is done for us: they'll be admitting you're Eric's son, which is the keystone of our legal position. And Eric is right. You're in a good school, getting good grades, and on your way to college: all of that counts with a court toward showing good intent.

"And if they keep trying to prove that you're their son, and not Eric's, well . . . let's just say that the harder they try to do that, the less they're going to look like fit guardians for anything more evolved than a houseplant." Ria smiled one of her best shark-smiles. "Not even a DNA test is going to prove that you are anything except what we claim you are. I almost hope they demand one. It should be amusing."

"You're going to do something weird, aren't you?" Magnus said hopefully.

"If I told you, I'd have to kill you," Ria said offhandedly. "Just believe Eric: a Bard's sworn word is gold."

Magnus wrinkled his nose in disapproval; he still wasn't entirely comfortable at the mention of Bardcraft.

"Now why don't you go see if Anita has any pastry left over from the afternoon meeting, while I plot secretly with Eric. I'm sure Derek has the Vandewater party out of the building by now."

"Yeah," Magnus muttered. "Bribe the kid to get out of the way." But he went.

* * *

"Why can't I ever get away with talking to him like that?" Eric asked. "You herd him like a champion cowboy."

"Do you offer him doughnuts?" Ria asked whimsically, then sobered. "The first thing they'll probably demand is a DNA test; I wasn't joking about that. We'll need to make sure it only shows what you want it to. There are a lot of ways you could deal with that; I suspect the easiest would be magic—but if you find out differently, I have a few cards up my sleeve. I've already taken care of his birth certificate and other records, and they are gone past all dredging up."

Eric blinked. "You made him disappear?"

"I made a Magnus Banyon disappear, or at least, to appear as if he was never actually Magnus Banyon: certainly there are plenty of eyewitnesses to the fact that there was a child that the Banyons raised and called Magnus, but without those records, that child could have come from anywhere. Adopted—purchased—kidnapped." Ria shrugged. "If anyone were to ask me, I would say he found out where he was really from, and that probably he's back with his natural parents at this very moment."

"Do you think anybody's going to believe that?" Eric asked.

"It depends on how thoroughly Derek can get your parents to unhinge in open court." Ria smiled a tight, thin smile. Eric had seen that smile before. It generally meant that there were bullets with names on them. "Oh, it isn't nice. I'm not a hypocrite, and I won't pretend that the things I have planned for them are even remotely on the straight-and-narrow. But I'd be willing to do far worse to keep Magnus out of their hands. Wouldn't you?"

"I'd rather I didn't have to," Eric said honestly. "But—I grew up with them as my parents too. Yeah. I'd do it. I'd do it twice."

* * *

He collected Magnus—who'd managed to eat most of a dozen doughnuts in the short time he'd been absent—and headed for home. Magnus seemed outwardly calm, but Eric didn't trust that. In many ways he was Eric's exact opposite—he tended to keep his feelings bottled up inside until he exploded.

Ria sent them home in one of LlewellCo's cars—by now it was getting close enough to rush hour that a cab would be hard to find. It took them the rest of the way Uptown and over to the West Side, to Guardian House.

When Eric had wandered by the old building on one of his rambles when he'd first come back to New York, he'd never realized that his nearly random choice of a place to live would have such far-reaching ramifications. He'd simply seen the "For Rent" sign in the window and gone in.

It hadn't occurred to him at the time that he was only one of a handful of people who could see it at all—and of that handful, one of a far fewer number who could make it up the front steps. For Guardian House was a place as unique as Eric himself: a building that had been home since the day it had been built—or grown as much as built, for it was as much a living thing as a work of steel and stone—late in the nineteenth century, to shelter those who gave it its name: the Guardians.

Though he'd known about them from nearly the first day he'd lived here, though his apprentice Hosea was both a Bard and a Guardian, Eric didn't know much more about them now than he had then. They were human Mages of great power. Their entire purpose was to guard and protect humanity from supernatural threat. When one died, another was summoned into his or her power.

But how many there were, where all of them were—beyond the four who lived in the building—where they had come from, and even the full extent of their abilities, Eric suspected that even the Guardians themselves did not know. That they worked in secret as much as possible, and in general could not offer help unless they were asked for it, was as much as Hosea had told him, though Eric knew his friend and pupil didn't mean to be secretive. It was just that there didn't seem to be much to tell, when you got right down to it. Magick was often like that.

As for the rest of the building's tenants, none of them suspected the Guardians' existence. They were simply people the House had chosen for its own reasons—writers, artists, dancers, creative people of all kinds. Kind people. Happy people, most of the time. The House, Eric had been told, needed that creativity and happiness to "live"—and certainly the city was a better place for their presence.

When he and Magnus reached the building's vintage Art Nouveau foyer, the first thing they heard was loud barking echoing off the golden marble. There didn't seem to be a dog attached to the barking, but Eric noticed the gilded cage of the very ornate—and very slow—elevator rising up from the basement. As it got closer, he heard a voice to go along with the barking.

"Come on, Molly. Come on, Molly. Come on, Molly. Sheesh, you'd think you'd never been in an elevator before."

Kayla sounded more resigned than irritated. Eric grinned to himself. From the sound of the barking, Molly wasn't the least upset, but enjoying the echo of her voice against the marble.

Kayla Smith was Elizabet Winters's protégé, currently studying computer science at Columbia. She'd been a teenaged Healer for, well, a very long time now, courtesy of a mishap with the Gates when she'd gone Underhill to improve her Healer's skills and hadn't come out where—or more precisely, when—she'd expected to. At least that meant she was more-or-less the age Eric "expected" her to be, from the time he'd known her Before: in fact, it had taken him quite a while to figure out that she shouldn't be. Kayla had laughed like a loon when he'd admitted his mistake.

"Elves!" she'd crowed. "They'll get you comin' an' goin', Banyon."

At least in Kayla's case, the discontinuity didn't matter that much. Her real parents had abandoned her when her Talent had begun to manifest, and there wasn't much likelihood they'd ever want her back. Elizabet hadn't minded, since she'd known where Kayla was the entire time. And Kayla didn't have that much of a paper-trail to worry about—not before Columbia, anyway.

Kayla and Molly arrived in the lobby. From the noise, Eric had expected a larger dog, but Kayla was holding the source of all that noise in her arms: a fawn and black pug. Seeing strangers, Molly stopped barking and began to wiggle enthusiastically.

"If its head pops open and a little alien comes out, I'm so outta here," Magnus muttered.

Kayla's current look, as far as Eric could tell, was a combination of Terminator chic and Japanese schoolgirl: short plaid skirts, Engineer boots, and the inevitable leather jacket tied around her waist. She was wearing her hair longer now, and had dyed it blonde. On one side. The other side was black, and she had a bright red filigree bindi stuck in the middle of her forehead. There was a matching temporary tattoo on her bicep. At least, Eric hoped it was a temp. If it was real, Ria would skin her.

"Meet Molly," Kayla said, setting the pug down and shrugging into her jacket. The little dog came bustling over to Eric and Magnus importantly, trailing a red leather leash.

"You got a dog?" Magnus said, sounding somewhere between scandalized and intrigued.

Kayla snorted. "A friend of mine, Brenda, she's gonna need a dog-sitter in a week or so and I volunteered. So I thought I'd test-drive the mutt today and see how things worked out."

"Hey, pretty cool," Magnus said. He'd knelt down in front of the dog and was scratching it gently behind the ears. The pug received his attentions with a wide grin, pink tongue lolling as it panted happily.

"Bad day?" Kayla asked. People had very few secrets from a Healer and Empath, whether they wanted to or not.

"Could have been better," Eric admitted. "Another round with Charles Fulton Vandewater, Esquire."

"Sounds like too much fun for one Bard to handle," Kayla said, her gaze intent on a point a few inches above his head. She studied his aura intently for a few seconds, her gaze unfocused. "I'd better get the mutt out for her evening walk. Then it's time to hit the books. You need anything, you give a shout. C'mon, Mol. Duty calls."

As if she'd understood—and Eric had seen far more unlikely things—Molly bounded away from Magnus and trotted after Kayla. Kayla stooped down to pick up the leash just as they reached the doors, and the two of them headed off down the street.

Magnus gazed after them for a moment, getting to his feet.

"C'mon," he said, heading for the stairs. "I'm hungry."

After all those doughnuts? 

* * *

When Eric had first moved in to Guardian House, the one-bedroom top-floor apartment had been perfect for his needs. But acquiring a teenaged brother meant a sudden need for more space, and he didn't really want to move out of Guardian House.

Toni Hernandez—the building's superintendent—had done her best, but it hadn't been until February that she'd been able to free up a two-bedroom apartment. How she'd done it, Eric still wasn't sure; he knew it had involved bribery, persuasion, and a number of people moving within the building, but no one would give him any details. In the end, he'd only had to move across the hall.

He'd had to admit it was a relief to have his own bedroom again—Magnus had taken over the bedroom of the old apartment, filling it with the growing collection of his new possessions, including an electronic drum-kit that he practiced on for hours, and a second computer and music system, while Eric had moved out into what had been the living room. The arrangement had been less than comfortable. Eric had made sure that the magical soundproofing on the bedroom was exceptionally good, for his own sake and that of the other tenants, but it still had been difficult on both of them.

The new apartment looked pretty much like the old one: the same white marble fireplace (it didn't work, but a touch of magic could make it seem as if it did), same furniture: leather couch and chairs in oxblood red, same flotakis covering the parquet floors. His electronics were still in their accustomed places —a few years out of date, now, but they'd been top of the line when he bought them and he didn't see any need to upgrade just to stay with the fashion. The windows were the same size, so all he'd had to do was re-hang the curtains, buy Magnus some bedroom furniture, and they'd been good to go. He hadn't been all that sure about the William Morris chintz when Bethie had picked it out, but he'd gotten fond of it.

And the moonlilies in their blue glass vase still bloomed on the mantelpiece—elven flowers from Underhill, Kory's gift when he'd moved in; a daily touch of magic would keep them alive forever, and no matter what else was going on in his life, he, or his friends, had never forgotten to do that.

Magnus moved past him, with unerring certainty, toward the kitchen, pausing only to toss his coat and backpack onto the couch as he passed. Eric went over and tapped the computer awake. He'd been out all day, and he thought he might as well check his email first thing, then check his phone messages. A lot of his students' parents used email to keep in touch, rather than phone, and he'd hate to show up for a lesson that had been cancelled.

He scrolled down through his message queue, finding nothing urgent, and most of it spam (did anyone really believe that the diet pills and organ enlargers actually work?), until he came to one from Kory.

He opened it quickly—was everything all right at Misthold?—with Beth?—with baby Maeve?—and skimmed it quickly before sighing ruefully.

To the Bard Eric Banyon, Laureate of Misthold, Greetings. 

Uh-oh. That was Kory in High Elven-speak. This was going to be Formal and probably involve Politics.

The Matter of Jachiel has been put off for far too long. Your liege-lord and Prince has concluded that, while Jachiel and his Protector must and will remain so long as they claim Sanctuary, any further delay in informing his lord father of the child's whereabouts may endanger Misthold itself. Therefore, he requests and requires that you return Underhill to place that information in the hands of the Lord of Bete Noir before this mortal day is out. By my hand of write, Korendil, Magus Minor, Knight of Misthold.  

Oh, crap. Eric sat back. Kory was right. He'd put this off for far too long. He sighed and went into the kitchen.

Magnus was hanging over the open refrigerator, staring down into it as if it might contain something different than it had this morning. Aside from last night's Chinese take-out—which had apparently already been rejected—Eric didn't think there was much in there in the way of potential dinner.

"I, uh . . . something's come up. I'm going to have to go away this evening."

Magnus straightened up and stared at him, face blank, green eyes expressionless.

"It's Underhill business," Eric added. It was odd to feel the need to explain, odder still to realize that yes, he did owe Magnus an explanation if he was going to simply up and take off. "Something I should have taken care of a few months ago. I should be back by morning."

He watched Magnus think this over. He knew that Magnus believed in elves, but—as he was coming to realize more and more, Magnus didn't like believing in elves. Even though his closest friend—whom he might never see, or even hear from, again—was Sidhe. It didn't exactly make sense, at least to Eric.

Then again, Magnus hadn't known that Jaycie was an elf until—well, practically until just before Jaycie went Underhill again. Maybe the whole Magick thing had him spooked. After all, elves and Magick—well, that just added another layer of complication to a world that was already more complicated than Magnus liked.

"Are you going to see Jaycie while you're gone?" Magnus finally asked.

Jaycie—Jachiel ap Gabrevys—was Magnus's friend, someone he should never, by rights, have met, for the Sidhe did not allow their children into the World Above until they were much, much older than Jachiel had been when he and Magnus had run into each other. But Jaycie had been running away just as Magnus had been: from his Dark Court father and a fate he feared far more than the unknown: learning Magick. Maybe it wasn't all that surprising that they both got washed up with the other young flotsam of the streets. There weren't that many safe places to go around.

Now he and his Elven Protector had sought Sanctuary at Elfhame Misthold, and it was Eric's duty as Prince Arvin's Bard to go to Jaycie's father and explain matters—or try to.

"I don't know if I'll get to see him. I won't be at Misthold for very long. But I'll give him a message from you, if I can."

"Sure," Magnus said. "Tell him I'm still waiting for him to email me." He turned back to his contemplation of the refrigerator.

Eric stifled a sigh and went into the bedroom to change into riding leathers. Misthold had Internet access, or at least, Kory and Beth had an Internet-capable setup, but whether Jaycie would be allowed to use it was a question Eric couldn't answer. He'd never even seen a Sidhe child in all the time he'd spent Underhill—they were that closely kept.

And Jaycie's status was still . . . uncertain.

The son of an Unseleighe Prince, at the Bright Court of his own free will. It was an awkward political muddle. Certainly the Sidhe changed Courts—but only as adults. And children were sacrosanct. If there was any thought, any suspicion that Jaycie had been kidnapped, or was being held under duress, there would be hell to pay. Kidnapping a Sidhe child was cause for war—between Elfhame Misthold and Elfhame Bete Noir at least; between as many of the hames as each side could draw in at worst.

If it came to war.

The joker in the deck was that Jaycie had his Protector with him. Protectors were sworn to the welfare of their charges above all things. Rionne ferch Rianten would not, could not, let Jaycie come to harm, or remain in a place where he could come to harm. That was something both Courts agreed upon absolutely. So . . . so long as Rionne was with Jaycie, it shouldn't matter where Jaycie was, Bright Court or Dark, so long as his father knew where he was, and could (at least in theory) get to him, all bases should be covered.

And of course, the only person who could safely go to Elfhame Bete Noir to tell him was Elfhame Misthold's Bard. Bards were also sacrosanct, at least so long as they didn't draw a weapon. That was something else both Courts agreed upon.

When he came out, dressed head to foot in leather, the door to Magnus's room was closed. A thin line of light showed under the door, but the Bardic soundproofing kept him from hearing anything that might be going on inside. Magnus had done what Magnus always did when he was profoundly unhappy; he had retreated into his own space, possibly into his drums. Eric shook his head. And the afternoon had started out so promisingly. . . .

* * *

Lady Day was waiting for him in the parking lot. The lights of the red-and-cream touring bike flashed to life as Eric approached, and her engine began to purr—quietly, as she and Eric had had a number of talks about the stentorian engine noises that the elvensteed preferred to produce.

Sometimes Eric wondered if she got bored, sitting in the parking lot all day. He didn't get much chance to take her places these days, not even on runs around the city. Well, today would make up for a certain amount of that.

"The Everforest Node," he said, swinging a leg over her saddle. He did not add "as fast as lightning." Elvensteeds had a puckish sense of humor, in addition to being oddly literal-minded. Lady Day was perfectly capable of taking him at his word, or trying to. "Let's bend the speed limit, but not the speed of sound."

* * *

Magnus looked out the window and saw the flash of the elvensteed's headlight as Eric turned onto the street. He felt a pang of guilty relief. He was just as glad that this mysterious Van Helsing (Bard, yeah Bard) stuff had come up when it had, otherwise he and Eric would have been bouncing off of other all night over Mommy and Daddy's latest bright idea.

Not like all of them shouldn't have seen that one coming.

Magnus shook his head. It wasn't that Eric wasn't a good guy—a great guy, really. But there were times when he seemed really naive. And what he never got was that Magnus wasn't a kid. He kept trying to shield him from the harsh realities of life. Magnus grinned to himself. He'd figured out all the harsh realities of life a long time ago, and they boiled down to two things: nobody loved you and nobody cared.

Except . . . he frowned. Eric loved him and Eric cared. God only knew why. He had no reason to—he'd known Magnus for less than six months. But Magnus knew in his gut, where it counted, that Eric cared about him in a way he had never been cared about in his entire life.

Another great theory shot to hell. But it still doesn't change the fact that he treats me like I'm a ten-year-old. And I'm not. 

He supposed it was what Dr. Dunaway called "displacement"—Eric treated him like a child to make up for the fact that neither one of them had gotten much in the way of a childhood. That was what Dunaway had said, last session.

Magnus hadn't wanted to go to yet another shrink, even if it was the same one Eric was going to, but he liked Dr. Dunaway, and he had to admit that she made sense sometimes. Helped him understand Eric, anyway. She was cool with the magick stuff, too, cooler than Magnus was for sure, and Magnus couldn't for the life of him figure out where Ria had found a shrink like that. It wasn't as if you could put that in your yellow pages advert—Specializing in Trauma, Stress, and Magickal Overload.

And it looked good on the court records. After all, his supposed mom was now pushing up make-believe daisies in the Canadian wilderness, and he'd spent most of his putative life as baggage on her neo-hippie peregrinations. Anybody with that background would be badly in need of headshrinking. And Dr. Dunaway was happy to keep two sets of records—one on the real Magnus, and one on the imaginary one.

But it was still annoying to be treated like a kid.

His stomach rumbled, reminding him that it was dinnertime, and there wasn't much in the kitchen unless he wanted scrambled eggs or sandwiches. He picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number.

"Ria Llewellyn's apartment. Can I help you?" a well-known voice answered.

"Yo, Ace. How come you're picking up on the main phone?"

"Oh, the cleaning service was in today and knocked the phone in Ria's office off the desk—and after I told them not to go in there! Now all the lines are set to forward to the main phone, and I can't find the fool manual to reset them. I wish she'd just let me do the cleaning myself." Ace sounded irritated.

"Hey. She didn't take you in to have you slave for her," Magnus said.

"After what Ria's done for me, I'd do more than a little cleaning, you'd best believe," Ace said tartly. "But she won't let me lift a finger. She said I could do the cooking—hah! She's never home to eat what I cook. And now a perfectly good pot roast is shot to—" She stopped abruptly, as if realizing her voice was getting shriller by the moment.

It occurred to Magnus that Ace was a little more upset than an overdone pot roast would account for. She'd been living with Ria Llewellyn for long enough to know that Ria was never home on time.

"Hey," he said awkwardly.

"Oh, don't mind me," Ace said, sounding muffled. "I've just had . . . a bad day."

"Well, so have I," Magnus said cheerfully. "I could come over. You can tell me about yours. I'll tell you about mine. And we'll get rid of the pot roast before it can cause any more trouble. Bet you can save it, or enough of it to feed both of us."

"Well . . . sure," Ace said, sounding pleased and a little shy. "If you don't mind. I think I'm in a mood. Won't Eric object? It's a school night."

"Eric isn't here to object. Eric is off to go chase orcs or something," Magnus replied. "Kory sent him an email, he looked like he'd swallowed a sour pickle, and said he had to leave until morning. And anyway, we were coming over there in the first place before we got shanghaied by Bad News. We were still coming over when he found that email from Rivendell and said he had to split. I guess Lord Elrond can't find the ignition key for the White Ships or something."

Ace giggled. "All righty then. You come on up. And you can tell me what that email really said."


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