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Across The Border

The Everforest Gate was nestled on state lands in the Ramapo Mountains, near where the Sterling Forest RenFaire was held each year. Eric wasn't absolutely sure, but he suspected that a lot of Gates were near Faires—or maybe that was the other way around. Come to think of it, a Faire made a good place to "work" if you were one of the rare sorts of elves that preferred to live in the World Above, or even to visit regularly, so maybe that was why. At any rate, this was one of the few Gates on the East Coast, aside from the Thundersmouth Gate almost a thousand miles north of here, or Fairgrove in Savannah, and though Everforest no longer had an Elfhame connected with it—if it ever had—it was a busy place, for most of the traffic going in and out of the East Coast moved through here. Technically, the Everforest Gate was part of Thundersmouth, since that was the closest Elfhame—if "close" had any meaning on the Underhill side.

Tonight, however, there might as well have been no Sidhe and no Elfhames, for all the activity in the area. It was dark and silent—to mundane and magickal senses both—as Eric turned off the main road and headed for the Gate. Just as well, really. He wasn't in the mood for any delays.

A quick twist of discontinuity, and he was through. Except for the fact that now he could see—for the land on the other side was lit with the eternal, unchanging, elven twilight—nothing much had changed. The area directly around a Gate tended to mirror its World Above counterpart, and so the area looked very much like the place he'd just left . . . only better.

The moment she passed through the Gate, Lady Day stopped. She shivered all over, and suddenly, in place of a motorcycle, Eric was seated in the saddle of a black mare with golden eyes. She snorted and pawed the ground, turning her head to look at him meaningfully.

"No need to nag, nag," Eric muttered. With a wave of his hand and a mental run of five notes of a John Dowland song—Magick was so easy here!—he transformed his riding leathers to the armor, silk, and velvet that Prince Arvin would expect to see him arrive in. He might not be able to ken a fancy outfit in the World Above, but here he wasn't dependent on someone else to change his clothing for him. There were a lot of places Underhill where the best defense was to look like exactly what you were, and a Bard had both a lot of power and a lot of protection here. Besides, it wouldn't do to show up at Prince Arvin's Court looking like he'd just come off a race track.

Lady Day whickered her approval.

* * *

The way was a familiar one, and a Bard had free passage wherever he wanted to go. Since this wasn't an emergency, Eric took the easy way out and went by the established Gates—an elvensteed didn't exactly need them to get where it wanted to go, but such a trip could be a little rough on its human passenger, no matter how much fun it might be for the 'steed.

When he arrived at the outer gates of Elfhame Misthold, he was surprised to see that Kory was one of the knights waiting for him at the gate.

Some people thought that Peter Jackson had overdone the pretty-elves business in his movies. They didn't know the half of it. Sure, elves were tall and drop-dead gorgeous—far too pretty sometimes—but they were to movie elves what racing greyhounds were to mutts. The plainest of them could beat out runway fashion models, unless they used magick to render their appearance even more exotic, in which case they looked like escapees from Cirque du Soleil. It was easy to forget they were highly efficient knights and warriors. But Korendil looked every inch the warrior in his gleaming elven armor as he stood before Misthold's golden gates.

"Eric!" he said happily, stepping forward. "Prince Arvin will be pleased that you have come so quickly."

"Well, when you asked so nicely, how could I do anything else?" Eric said, grinning as he swung down from Lady Day's back.

Kory pulled him into a hearty hug of greeting, made only slightly uncomfortable by the fact that he was wearing full plate and Eric—wasn't.

"I am glad to see you, my friend," he said quietly. "Does all go well in the World Above?"

Eric shrugged. "Well, Magnus isn't all that happy with his new school, but he isn't kicking too much. It's still winter, I hate winter, and I miss La-La Land if only for the decent weather. Toni found us a two-bedroom—I wrote you about that—so the space crunch has eased up. I wish it had a second bathroom, but you can't have everything. How's Maeve?"

"She blossoms," Kory said with quiet joy, as the two of them headed for the throne room. "You must bring Magnus to meet her."

"Maybe this summer. Unless you and Beth are planning on hitting up any of the Faires?"

"Perhaps." Kory sounded doubtful. "She grows so fast. Beth thinks it might be . . . awkward to attend the Faires, for Lady Montraille could not accompany us, and she is loathe to be parted from Maeve, even to give her into her parents' care."

Lady Montraille was Maeve's Protector, the one sworn to put Maeve's safety before everything else in both worlds. But Lady Montraille was also human, and had come Underhill centuries ago—and a human who had been Underhill long enough could never return to the World Above at all. All the years that they had spent agelessly Underhill would catch up with them in a matter of hours if they went back into Mortal Time. For now, Beth Kentraine could come and go between the Realms as she chose, but someday—very soon in elven terms—she must choose one place or the other forever. Eric knew she had already chosen Underhill . . . but Maeve was human. If Maeve chose the World Above when she was grown, would Beth regret her own choice?

"Well, we'll work something out," Eric said. "I'm just not sure Magnus is ready for the whole Lord of the Rings experience. He's having some trouble suspending his disbelief."

Kory regarded him quizzically. "He does not take after you, then?"

Eric shrugged. "Hard to say. Right now he's really busy not being his . . . our . . . parents."

They'd been walking through what looked like, to all intents and purposes, a park. Gorgeously dressed High Court elves strolled among the trees in the distance, while their lesser kindred of the Low Courts, from Low Court elves who looked more like punk versions of their High Court cousins, to every sort of Sidhe-creature ever described in myth, scampered among the low plantings or flew through the canopy on rainbow wings. As they reached a fork in the path, Lady Day flung up her head as though she'd heard someone call her name and trotted briskly away. Eric and Kory continued on the main path, and when they passed between a pair of towering oaks, they were suddenly . . . elsewhere.

* * *

If there were such a thing as Medieval Deco, Prince Arvin's throne room was a perfect example of it. The elves had no creativity—any more than the average human had innate magick—but they had an endless ability to observe and adapt human creativity, and the ability to ken anything they wanted and reproduce it as long as the magickal energy was there.

Misthold was one of the more "progressive" Elfhames, and Prince Arvin's throne-room bore a distinct resemblance to a cross between an old movie palace and one of those Busby Berkeley nightclubs that had probably only existed in the imagination of Hollywood. The floor was a perfect sweep of polished green Bakelite, and the walls were covered with polychrome bas-reliefs of stylized flowers and animals. A long carpet of heavy purple velvet, with a wide gold fringe, led from the doors all the way to the dais at the far end of the room. The effect was cheerful and formal (not to say a bit lurid) at the same time. Most elves were positively awash with Good Taste, but some—and Arvin was one—had never met a color they didn't like. This might have been a carryover from the old Pictish days when they still hung out regularly with humans—who also had never met a color they didn't like, preferably piled on top of every other color they liked.

Prince Arvin was seated on his throne at the far end of the throne room, with Dharniel—his war-chief, as well as Eric's teacher—standing beside him. Somewhat to Eric's surprise, so was Lady Rionne, Jachiel's Protector. Kory fell back as they passed through the doors, allowing Eric to go first.

Eric reached the foot of the dais and went down on one knee. As peculiar as it might seem in World Above terms, Arvin was his liege-lord, and he owed him the proper forms of respect in this world. Certainly Dharniel had done everything but beat that lesson into him during his training: a Bard was more than a musician and a Magus. A Bard was a diplomat and an ambassador as well. First rule of Bardcraft: know who to kiss, what part of him or her, and when. . . . 

"Rise, Bard Eric," Arvin said. "It is good to see you again."

"It is always a pleasure to visit Elfhame Misthold," Eric said. "I am only sorry this visit is business, not pleasure."

"The matter of Elfhame Bete Noir, and the child Jachiel." Prince Arvin sighed. "You render our days . . . interesting, Eric. Still, how could we turn away any child in need, much less a child of the Sidhe? You did no less than what you must in sending him to us. But the circumstances are . . . odd." He turned to Rionne, indicating she should speak.

Rionne looked a lot different from the Rionne that Eric had first seen in the World Above. She'd shown up as this bleeding-eyed specter out of a horror movie to take apart anyone hurting a kid, if the kid had the power to call out for help magically or psychically. Not that she was any less scary now, actually. It was more a matter of if you really understood what was just beneath the surface. . . . If Kory was the archetypal Warrior of the Light, looking altogether too much like the Archangel Michael without wings for most peoples' comfort, then Rionne was his polar opposite, lacking only enormous, tattered bat-wings to stand in for a darkly handsome, utterly menacing fallen angel.

"Jachiel ap Gabrevys is a child of the Dark Court. The Prince his father is lord of Elfhame Bete Noir, and the treaties laid down between Emperor Oberon and the Empress Morrigan are clear: any may change his allegiance from Dark to Bright, or contrariwise, should he find a liege who will have him, but a child cannot choose his allegiance until he comes of age. Though Jachiel may wish to forswear the Unseleighe Court, he may not do so."

She didn't really need to state all of this, but Eric knew that this was just How Elves Did Things; they were kind of like lawyers. You had to state the obvious for the record any time you went into any undertaking. So he nodded, and kept his expression pleasantly interested.

"Yet it is also the Law that he may bide anywhere I choose, until the day when he is of an age to swear his fealty-oaths, and no one, neither Prince nor Emperor, nor even his own father, may constrain my choice," she added grimly. "Should Gabrevys assay to take him from my care, I should raise up my own meine to prevent it, and then there would be such a taking of heads as has not been seen in some time. It was attempted. Once."

And it was the one time the Bright and Dark Court had fought on the same side—if the song Eric had learned about the occasion was in the least correct. No, Prince Gabrevys wouldn't be crazy enough to argue with an Elven Protector who'd made up his or her mind.

"So . . . everything's fine?" he suggested hopefully.

"It is not 'fine,'" she corrected him firmly. "You have kin whom you cherish. If your brother vanished from your ken, would you not seek him?"

"Well, I . . . yes. Of course." Where was this going?

"Yet Prince Gabrevys does not," Rionne said, and frowned, fiercely. "I have lands of the Prince, and my steward there sends word to me. No whisper of his heir's absence has gone abroad, nor does any seek for him."

"Ah—um," Eric said, cleverly. This didn't sound right. Unless for some reason Gabrevys didn't want anyone to know that his son was gone.

Then again, if it became known why Jachiel fled . . . major loss of face, there.

"It is too much to expect that he doesn't know the boy is missing," Prince Arvin said. "And he may well know where he is. Therefore, I charge you, as Misthold's Bard, to ride to Elfhame Bete Noir and . . . explain matters to the Prince. Let him know that we would . . . welcome him, should he choose to visit his son and heir."

From the expression on Arvin's face, "welcome" was the last thing he wanted to do, but among the Sidhe, ties of blood trumped just about every other relationship. If Gabrevys wanted to visit his son, there was no way Arvin could deny him.

"Of course," Eric said, bowing. "I go at once."

* * *

Beth and Kory rode with him as far as the edge of the Misthold Domain. It was nice to have the company, and nicer still to see that Beth was looking settled. It was strange how, of all people, Beth had been the one to find a real home in the cloud-cuckoo-land of Underhill, while he, Eric, just couldn't find any way to be contented here.

Beth had gone back to having black hair again, which was kind of a pity, since she'd made such a good redhead. Still, it was her hair . . . and red did kind of make her look like something out of a comic book when she wore her favorite color of deep garnet.

"This is just bizarre," Beth said, when Eric had filled her in. "If Maeve was missing, you'd better believe I'd have an all-points bulletin out. And it's not like even the Unseleighe would hurt a Sidhe kid—no matter what they'd do to humans."

"But one Unseleighe Elfhame would happily hold the child of another hostage, while treating him well," Kory pointed out. "And Protectors have been slain before. Such a loss would make Prince Gabrevys appear weak . . . and any weakness is fatal among the Dark Court. Should he have one, he dare not reveal it."

"Well, it's nice to know I'm doing him a favor," Eric said.

"Just make sure he takes it in that spirit," Beth said dangerously.

"Oh, don't worry," Eric said lightly. "'The person of a Bard is inviolate.'"

Beth's expression turned meditative. Eric replayed his last sentence in his head and winced. Beth didn't disappoint him.

"Gosh, Eric," she said, making her eyes very wide, "And here I thought you were in green, not violet. Better get my eyes checked."

Eric groaned, and pantomimed a rim-shot—and because he could, here, he used a wisp of magic to produce the sound out of the air.

Beth bowed. "Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, I'll be here all week. Don't forget to tip your server. But seriously—"

"Seriously," Eric agreed. "Nobody messes with a Bard. Unless this Prince Gabrevys wants everybody from Oberon on down—and probably the Unseleighe Empress Morrigan too—coming to yell at him, I'll be just fine. Lady Day will take me over to Bete Noir, I'll perform my Official Bardic Duty, check in back here, then Gate home in time to make sure Magnus doesn't stay up all night surfing the Internet. Simple."

"I just hope it is," Beth said darkly. "I do not like Unseleighe Sidhe. I do not like them, nosiree. I do not like them in a box, I do not like them with a fox —"

"You worry too much," Eric said, leaning over to kiss her on the cheek. "And you've been reading too many children's books. Try to pick up something that doesn't have pictures for a change."

She made a face at him.

"Hurry back to us safely," Kory said.

* * *

Once Eric left the bounds of Misthold's Domain, Lady Day picked up the pace. It wasn't quite a straight shot, or an instantaneous jump between Realms—nothing Underhill was exactly straightforward—but it wasn't very long at all before Eric realized that he must be inside Prince Gabrevys'S Domain.

The natural state of Underhill was Chaos—specifically, the Chaos Lands, where everything was an unformed white mist—pure, raw magick—and the unwary traveler could find his thoughts literally taking form, usually with disastrous results. The Sidhe—and everything else that lived Underhill—imposed form on that chaos, creating Domains with their own forms, rules, and physical laws. The Elfhames Eric knew of—Misthold, Sun-Descending, Neversleeps, Thundersmouth, and Fairgrove—were all held in existence by the power of the ruling Prince and the Elven Magi that made up their Courts, and anchored to the World Above by a Node Grove as well. But he knew that there were many other ways to create and hold a Domain Underhill, and he'd never heard of an Unseleighe Node Grove.

Whatever method Gabrevys was using—and it was almost certain to be unpleasant, because that was just how the Unseleighe were—it certainly worked. The area Eric was riding through now was as extensive and—for lack of a better phrase—well-realized—as Elfhame Misthold.

But while Elfhame Misthold was all silver and gold and green—the kind of place San Franciscans thought of Northern California as being (though the weather so rarely cooperated!)—Bete Noir was the sort of place that would make a really depressed Goth feel right at home. In fact—Eric looked down to make sure, and nodded—even the grass was black. And he bet it was always night here, and the moon (a rather unsettling blood red one) was always full. A heaviness fell over his spirit, something that, had he not known from the moment it touched him that it came from outside him, would have forced him into a serious state of depression. Of course. It was much easier to impose your will on others when they were in despair. Depression sapped the will, made you too lethargic to even think of rebelling, and surroundings like this would keep you depressed, even if the spirit-killing magickal aura wasn't operating.

And probably it's always autumn, too. I know the Sidhe can't create, only copy, but you'd think they'd, I don't know . . . copy more interesting things? If this place looks this way all the time, no wonder Jachiel left. If I spent any time here at all, I'd start playing nothing but Morissey. 

As if something had heard him, the landscape abruptly changed. Suddenly Eric found himself riding through what he thought of as a "default Sidhe" landscape: rolling green hills with tall stands of trees on either side of a wide path of silver sand. Above him was the twilight sky of Underhill.

He signaled to Lady Day to stop, wondering if something was wrong. He glanced back over his shoulder. There, behind him, was the Halloween forest. The darkness stopped as if it had been cut with a knife.

It was an eerie effect.

"Some people just put up 'No Trespassing' signs," Eric muttered. "Or hang out a name-plate." He patted Lady Day on the shoulder. "Let's get this over with, girl."

Lady Day snorted and tossed her head vigorously, obviously in full agreement.

* * *

He'd thought he might have to do a bit of hunting for Prince Gabrevys's palace unless someone came to ask him his business here, since Sidhe buildings, like the Sidhe themselves, had a habit of being difficult to find when they didn't want to be. But as he rounded a curve in the road, he spotted the palace up ahead. Evidently it wanted him to find it.

It was more of a castle than a palace—make that medieval keep, heavy on the drawbridges and bronze gates. For something built by the Sidhe, it actually looked pretty normal.

Which either meant that Gabrevys didn't spend a lot of time in his Domain—or that he was a lot smarter than most of the Unseleighe that Eric had run afoul of. Subtlety really wasn't their strong point.

He thought about it for a moment. Subtlety wasn't a Seleighe strong point either, actually, especially when you considered what Beth had told him about Glitterhame Neversleeps. It was just easier to overlook when it was something you liked.

And all this philosophizing wasn't getting him any closer to going through that castle door. He was close enough now to see the guards standing on the wall, and more just inside the portcullis, ready to lower it at the first sign of trouble.

He rode Lady Day to the foot of the drawbridge, sighed, and swung down from the saddle.

"I'd better hoof it from here," he told his elvensteed. "I'll yell if I need help—but really, this should be simple. Honest."

Lady Day didn't make a sound, but he could sense her doubting disapproval.

* * *

The water in the moat was murky, but as he crossed the drawbridge, something broke the surface before diving deep again. Eric caught only a glimpse of a long green-gray body, like the mother and father of all eels—if an eel were as big around as a horse.

He was very glad he'd taken care to stay to the center of the drawbridge.

"Halt!" the sentry on the wall called down, when Eric had reached the middle of the drawbridge. "Who goes there?"

"Sieur Eric Banyon, Knight and Bard of Elfhame Misthold, on business from Prince Arvin to Prince Gabrevys," Eric called back.

The sentry withdrew, and Eric sensed a whispered consultation before the sentry reappeared.

"Misthold owes allegiance to the Seleighe Court. Tell us why we should not cut you down where you stand," the sentry demanded.

Because I'm a Bard, moron. "Does Bete Noir now offer violence to the sacrosanct person of a Bard? Is this the word of your Prince? I will go away and make a song about it," Eric said, with his best sneer.

It was no idle threat. Even in the World Above, the songs of Bards had once been feared for their power to blight or heal—and in Underhill, that power was greater still. Words had power here; words with the creative force of a human Bard behind them could melt stone at need. A song of mockery would send Gabrevys's prestige crashing down in no time.

"—Wait! I will send an escort to the gate, Misthold's Bard. You may approach."

Eric took a step forward. Just as he did, there was a violent thwack from below to the wooden planks on which he stood. He glanced aside, to see the eel-thing gliding by once more.

Just like a shark, seeing if something tasty can be knocked into the water. 

If he'd been in the least tempted to forget he was in an Unseleighe Domain, that temptation had vanished. He moved forward, doing his best to get off the drawbridge gracefully before the whatever-it-was came around for another pass.

A pair of knights in black-and-silver armor met him at the gate. Their visors were down, and Eric wasn't entirely certain there was anyone inside the armor.

"What is your business with Prince Gabrevys?" the one on the left said.

"That is a matter for his ears alone," Eric said firmly. "Take me to him at once."

There was a pause—rather as if the two suits of armor were waiting for orders from the Mother Ship—and then they turned (silently, in perfect unison) and walked away.

Eric followed them.

He'd told Beth this would be simple. He'd almost convinced himself. But now that he was here, there was no getting around the fact that when all was said and done he was walking right into an Unseleighe stronghold with nothing but the fact that he was a Bard to protect him, and he trusted the Unseleighe Sidhe about as far as he could juggle elvensteeds. Every nerve was on alert, and he walked lightly, ready to dodge aside at the first attempt to grab him.

The interior of the keep looked nothing at all like the outside—in fact, Eric doubted it could have fit into the castle he'd seen, but he'd spent enough time Underhill that it didn't bother him much. The rooms he passed through (hallways, Eric had read somewhere, were a later invention, and apparently this place didn't have them) were a mix of styles and eras—none very modern, all luxurious, and all fairly close copies of things from the World Above. The effect was, oddly enough, like one of those ultra-plush Japanese hotels he'd seen in TV programs, with lots of Theme Suites. Except, of course, that the overall theme was Darkety-dark-dark, so everything was done in somber shades and there was a heavy preponderance of red and black. The few people he saw all stared at him with expressions of unblinking shock—either because he was human, or because he was from the Bright Court, or both.

At last the two faceless knights stopped before a massive set of double doors.

"Here lies the audience chamber of Prince Gabrevys ap Ganeliel of Bete Noir. Enter, Bright Court Bard, at your peril."

They turned and settled against the walls, becoming—as far as Eric could tell—suits of empty armor.

While it wasn't exactly hospitality, it wasn't—quite—open hostility. Eric stared at the closed doors for a moment. He doubted just walking forward and giving them a shove would work.

He summoned up a thread of magick and touched them gently.

The doors flung themselves away from his touch as if mortally offended, revealing a chamber beyond that was nearly as big as all the rooms he'd already passed through put together.

Here the lurid tastes of the Unseleighe were blatantly in evidence. The football-field-sized expanse of floor looked as if it had churning flames beneath it—or within it—dark-red flames that coiled and writhed like the fires of Hell, which was probably the idea Gabrevys meant to convey.

The walls were gleaming and silvery black, as if somebody had made the better sort of Gothic cathedral out of anodized aluminum. Eric kept himself from looking up with an effort; it wouldn't do to be seen gawking. It was too dark to see clearly, but he bet there was a really overdone throne somewhere at the other end of the room. He resigned himself to another long walk.

When he arrived at the far end of the chamber—as far as he could tell, he was completely alone—he wasn't disappointed. There was a huge silver throne set on a stepped dais, and the throne seemed to be made entirely of skulls. Eric wondered who Gabrevys had swiped the idea from.

The throne, unfortunately, was empty, but there was a man sitting at its foot, leaning against it.

He was dressed entirely in black velvet, holding a silver harp in his arms. His waist-length hair was the color of fresh blood—the Sidhe liked to play with their appearance—and his eyes were cat gold. He ran his fingers along the strings, and Eric sensed, as he was meant to, a faint uprush of Power.

"If you seek the Prince my master, Sieur Eric of Elfhame Misthold, he is not here. I am Jormin ap Galever, Bard to the Court of Elfhame Bete Noir. I bid you welcome in my master's name." He rose gracefully to his feet and set the harp on the arm of the skull-throne, bowing deeply to Eric.

I don't trust him. 

Bards could sense truth, and nothing Jormin had said had been a lie, but Eric still didn't trust him. He returned the bow, anyway. No point in making an enemy. You could distrust someone, and still be polite to him. Even if his skin was crawling, and he wanted nothing more than to beat feet out of here.

"I bring a message for Prince Gabrevys from Prince Arvin of Elfhame Misthold. Can you tell me when Prince Gabrevys will return?" Eric said.

Jormin shrugged delicately. "My master has many duties to concern him. You are, naturally, welcome to wait. All the hospitality of Bete Noir shall be yours. Perhaps you will find it refreshing."

And perhaps I'd rather jump off a cliff. Bad enough that the place gave him the creeps, but he had the feeling that the more time he spent here, the more chances there would be for some of Gabrevys's people to mess with him. Like changing the Gates so that he returned to the World Above a hundred years from now—or in the past.

"Unfortunately, I am expected back at Misthold almost at once, and Prince Arvin will be concerned by any delay," Eric said smoothly. "I know that I can trust you to deliver my message to your Prince just as I would deliver it myself—and when next you see him."

This much was certainly true: Jormin's honor would be on the line, and Sidhe were very touchy about that. Bards were inviolate in part because you could give them a message, and they had to repeat it, word-for-word, inflection-for-inflection.

Jormin bowed again. "I will give my Prince your message, Bard Eric, just as you give it to me—and when next I see him."

Eric hesitated, choosing his next words with care, for if Jormin wanted to make trouble, he could easily deliver Eric's exact words—and nothing more.

"Hear then, Prince Arvin's words to Prince Gabrevys: Hail and greetings, cousin." He chose his inflection carefully too; not subservient, but absolutely, correctly polite. "Know that your son, Jachiel ap Gabrevys, resides under the watchful care of his Protector, Rionne ferch Rianten, at the Court of Elfhame Misthold until such time as it pleases her to remove him elsewhere. Should you wish to attend him in Elfhame Misthold, you may send your Bard to arrange the terms of safe passage between our Domains."

"He . . . the young Prince is at Misthold?" Jormin said slowly, sounding almost stunned.

So they didn't know, Eric thought with an odd satisfaction. At least Gabrevys's Bard hadn't known, and Bards generally knew practically everything about the Courts they served.

"Yes," Eric said. "I haven't seen him myself, but I've seen and spoken to the Lady Rionne." That was technically true. He hadn't seen Jachiel at Misthold itself, even though he'd been responsible for sending Jachiel and Rionne there.

"How came he there?" Jormin asked, sounding a great deal less haughty than he had a few moments before. "The Prince will ask me this, Bard Eric," he added, almost pleadingly.

"He was in the World Above," Eric said slowly, debating how much of Jachiel's story to tell. An Unseleighe Prince who was so terrified of magick that he ran to the World Above rather than learn it . . . he doubted that would go over too well with someone who had a throne room like this. "I cannot be sure of how he came there, but he stayed too long, and when he was found, he was—unwell. The World Above had poisoned him, and he was in immediate need of a Healer. Rionne and I found him at about the same time; the World Above had harmed her too, and she was changed and weakened thereby. He . . . did not wish to return here, and she would not compel him. I offered them the Sanctuary of Elfhame Misthold, in Prince Arvin's name, and she and he went there together for Healing."

Jormin laughed bitterly. "Ah, Bard Eric, the Shadows will feast from your tale! You have done me a service, and now I do you one: leave this Domain as fast as you can, before the walls carry your tale to unworthy ears."

Jormin reached for his harp, and struck a few notes. Suddenly Lady Day was standing in the middle of the audience chamber, looking upset and baffled. She trotted quickly over to Eric. He could sense her tension, her eagerness to be gone.

He didn't waste time on long goodbyes, but vaulted into the saddle. Lady Day was moving before he had quite settled himself. He felt her gather herself to leap—

And then they were outside the keep, and she was running flat-out, with the penumbral edge of the Halloween Forest coming up fast—

She Gated again, and they were beyond Prince Gabrevys's Domain, but she still didn't slow down.

In fact, she didn't slow down until they were back to Misthold.

* * *

Jormin left the keep quickly, heading for the Gate that would take him back to the World Above. By now the news that the soft Bright Bard had brought might very well be making its way throughout Bete Noir—for others had spies nearly the equal of his own—and the first to bring the news to Gabrevys would be the one who was rewarded.

Would that he could have brought his master the head of the meddler who had sent the Young Prince to live among the Bright Court as well—but to interfere with a Bard would bring the wrath of the Empress down upon them all. It had been as much as he could do to remove the human Bardling from the 'hame before some of the Court fools forgot that fact in their eagerness to please their Prince.

There would be other ways for Prince Gabrevys to make his displeasure known—subtler, surer ways. And Jormin was certain his master would find them.

Meanwhile, he had his own part to play in his Prince's current affairs. . . .

* * *

When Eric reached Misthold again—finally having convinced Lady Day to proceed at something less than a headlong gallop—he found Prince Arvin out riding with a number of members of the Court. Beth and Kory were with him—no surprise there; Arvin liked Beth—but Jachiel was with him as well, riding beside Lady Rionne, and that was a surprise. Eric had gotten the vague impression that Sidhe kids were kept tucked off in some well-guarded pocket Domain until they reached adulthood—whatever the Sidhe considered that to be.

He looked a thousand times better than the half-dead street rat, thoroughly poisoned on Baker's chocolate and Coca-Cola, that Eric had rescued last fall. His hair was still black, but now he glowed with health. His face brightened when he saw Eric riding toward the party, and he glanced toward Arvin.

The Prince waved permission, and he spurred his elvensteed toward Lady Day. Rionne followed closely.

"Bard Eric," Jachiel said, reining in. "It is . . . good to see you return in health from Elfhame Bete Noir."

"It's good to be back," Eric said. "It was an interesting place."

Rionne made a sound that might have been a snort, and might have been a cough. "And did you find Prince Gabrevys in health?" she asked neutrally.

"Unfortunately, he wasn't home. I spoke to his Bard."

"Jormin!" Jachiel said in disgust. He hesitated, on the verge of saying something more, then changed his mind. "Magnus . . . Ace . . . are they well?" he asked eagerly instead.

"Very well," Eric said. "They miss you, of course. Magnus is living with me, and Ace is living with Ria Llewellyn—I don't think you met her."

"But I know of her," Jachiel said seriously. "She is Perenor's child, but she renounced all ties to the Dark Court—and to the Bright as well." He sounded impressed. "Some day I hope to meet her." The hero worship in his voice was plain.

Ria has a fan in Underhill? Wait till I tell her that. Mind, he could understand. Jachiel couldn't be entirely comfortable here in Misthold. It must be tempting for him to think that he might be able to tell both sides that they had no holds over him, and go his own way.

"And I have . . . a letter for Magnus. And one for Ace. I cannot use the Internet. The treaty will not permit it. Not yet. But Prince Arvin says I may write—if someone will take the letters," Jachiel added hopefully.

"I can take them with me," Eric said. "And Lady Day can bring back replies." He had no doubt they'd want to answer Jachiel's letters. "I'm sure we can work something out. Maybe we can use Lady Day as a courier."

"I hope so," Jachiel said. "I miss them very much."

Eric couldn't help it; though Lady Rionne tensed, he reached out and patted the boy's hand. "They miss you, too. That was the last thing Magnus said before I left, that he was waiting to hear from you, and I know Ace feels the same way. I promise, we'll work out something."

By now the rest of the party had joined them. Eric rode aside with Dharniel and Prince Arvin and made his report, repeating exactly his conversation with Prince Gabrevys's Bard.

"And so our message is delivered, and Bard Jormin undoubtedly makes all haste to his Prince's side to lay it before him," Arvin said.

Dharniel emitted a sharp bark of mirthless laughter. "Wherever he is—stirring up trouble, I have no doubt!"

"Perhaps this will distract him," Arvin said, smiling wolfishly. "Indeed, I know it would distract me. But that is a tale best left for the future to tell. Much as I could wish that you would stay longer, Eric, I know that you will not."

"I would if I could," Eric said. "But I'd better get back while there's a hope my apartment is still in one piece. I'll come again as soon as I can."

"A longer visit next time," Prince Arvin said firmly.

Once again, Eric collected hugs from Beth and Kory—and the letters for Ace and Magnus from Jachiel—and rode out through the gates of Elfhame Misthold.

It had been his home for longer than any other place since he'd first left Juilliard, but fond as he was of it—and the friends it sheltered—Misthold wasn't home any more. The World Above was where he belonged.

When he passed through the Everforest Gate, Eric felt the weird wrenching sensation that came with going from Underhill to the World Above, and suddenly, for the first time since he'd gone Underhill, he could tell what time it was.

Pretty close to four in the morning. If we hurry, we can make it to the city before the commute traffic gets really heavy. 

"Well, go on," Eric said. Lady Day snorted derisively, and a moment later Eric dropped several inches, landing with a thump on the leather saddle of his touring bike as his elvensteed became his elvenbike. He looked pretty silly sitting there in velvet and armor, he imagined, so while he was still in the ambient magickal field of the Gate, a touch of magick and a chorus of "Fine Knacks for Ladies" turned steel and velvet into the modern leather armor of a knight of the road.

Headlights flared to life, and he turned Lady Day in the direction of the main road.

* * *

When Magnus got over to Ria's apartment, he found that Ace really was upset. She'd overcooked the roast, and she'd already thrown out the side dishes.

But even an overcooked roast was fine with Magnus, and he said so. They shredded the beef in its own juice, then made sandwiches, and sat in Ria's enormous kitchen, while Magnus waited for Ace to tell him what was wrong.

"You'd said you'd had a bad day, too," she finally said. She hadn't eaten much, just picked at her sandwich and drunk a cup of coffee. Magnus didn't care much for coffee, but he was such a frequent visitor that the icebox was kept stocked with Cokes, which neither Ace nor Ria cared for. He rescued the other half of her sandwich and added it to his own plate. A few months on the street had given him an aversion to wasting food.

"Not one of my best," he said cheerfully, setting aside his anger in the face of her obvious distress. "The parents showed up at Ria's with their stupid lawyer and I had to see them. And then—you'll love this—when Eric told them—again—that I was his kid, they said, 'Fine. We'll just sue for custody of our grandson instead of our son and so there.'"

Ace stared at him, jaw dropping. "But . . . they could do that. And you'd still have to go back to them. Aren't you worried?"

"Not worried," Magnus said honestly. "Suing isn't winning. Eric and Ria are both pretty sure about that. Mad, yeah. If I had these Bard-powers that Eric talks about sometimes . . . well, I guess I wouldn't bother with lawyers. I'd just fry them."

Ace laughed. "I guess after today, I might join you. You see . . . I'm going to have to go to New Jersey."

"Where your dad is?"

Last winter, Ria had helped Ace file a Petition of Emancipated Minor Status. Ace had turned seventeen last month—her birthday was Valentine's Day—but that still meant a solid year before she could claim the privileges of adulthood that would keep her out of her exploitative televangelist father's grasp. If she could manage to get herself declared an Emancipated Minor, she wouldn't have to worry about hiding from Billy Fairchild until she turned eighteen.

She'd thought Billy was still in Tulsa, but when Ria's lawyers had gotten ready to serve the papers, she'd found to her horror that the Billy Fairchild Ministries had relocated . . . to Atlantic City, New Jersey.

"That's right," Ace said bitterly. "Daddy's bought himself a pet judge—and that means instead of the case being heard in New York, where it ought to be, I'm going to have to go down to Ocean County and appear in a courtroom, and tell some judge—who won't listen—why this upright, God-fearing, pillar of the community shouldn't get his daughter back! And he'll be there, sure as taxes, him and Mama and Daddy too."

"Him? Who?" Magnus asked, puzzled. She obviously wasn't talking about her father.

"Gabriel Horn," Ace said, and her face crumpled. She looked as if, given just a little push, she'd cry. And Ace never cried. "Oh, Magnus—he's about the worst man I've ever known—even including all the ones I met after I ran away! I can't let him get his hands on me again!" That was real desperation in her voice. Magnus knew it when he heard it.

"Well, he won't," Magnus said decisively. "For one thing, Billy Fairchild has a lot of money, but trust me—Ria Llewellyn and LlewellCo have more. In the first place, she likes you. In the second place, she doesn't like Billy or people like him. And Eric and Hosea and Toni and those guys talk a lot about ethics and morals and doing the right thing, but I think that all that matters to Ria is taking care of the people she cares about, and keeping them from getting hurt." Then he shrugged. "Besides, there's one place where they can't find you, and if you have to, you can go there. We both can go there." He didn't want to, but if the choice was some weird fairyland or Stalag Banyon, he'd take the weird fairyland—and he was pretty sure Ace felt the same.

Ace inspected him critically. "You're a lot like Ria, you know?"

Magnus was too smart to assume it was a compliment. "If you mean I think it's more important to protect my friends than my enemies, you're right. So when do you have to be there?"

Ace drooped. "Ten days. I got the papers today."

"Plenty of time for us to figure out how to make them really sorry they ever messed with you, then," Magnus said with malicious relish. "So . . . what's for dessert?"


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