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He had been born a Lord of the Bright Court when mortalðkind was still painting itself blue on a small island off the coast of Europe, and for uncounted years of Man’s time what the mortals did had not mattered to him. Among his own kind, Aerune mac Audelaine was a high prince, a Lord of the Sidhe, and his rank and birth had insulated him from the petty squabbles that others of his race liked to fall into, spending eons on a vendetta in retaliation for some petty slight. Strong emotion was the bane of the near-immortal Sidhe, tied as they were so closely to place and kindred. Instead of great wars that could tear Underhill apart and doom them all, their energy was spent on small battles and long-running spitefulness.

Aerune, even as a youth, rejected this code of cool serenity. Passion drew him as the flame drew the moth. Grand hatreds, nurtured in secret, had sustained him from his earliest memories, leading him inevitably to declare his allegiance to the Great Queen Morrigan, ruler of the Unseleighe Sidhe. He was her courtier and most trusted lieutenant—but in secret. For centuries Aerune was as trusted a guest at the Bright Court as the Dark, until that shadow-game began to pall, and he withdrew from them both to follow his own inclinations. Still he ignored the race of Men, whose antics so amused the other Sidhe.

And I would have left them to their sordid lives forever, were it not for Aerete. Aerete the Beautiful, my love . . .

She had been barely a woman when Aerune had known her: golden as the day, a child of the Bright Court, filled only with love. She had spent that love upon the mortalkind, healing their wounds, listening to their woes, ruling over them as their Queen.

It was she who had opposed him, standing alone before him when Aerune would have taken his Wild Hunt among the tribes under her protection. She had stood unafraid in the path of the Unseleighe rade, her child’s face stern, telling him that he and his folk must ride another way.

He might have cut her down, bespelled her, done a thousand things to remove this obstacle from his path, for Aerune cared for nothing living. But something in her stern innocence had stopped him, and he had turned the Hunt aside.

Afterward, he had sought her out. She knew him by reputation, but had accepted him into her hall as a guest. She had spoken to him of the humans, the lastborn of Danu, and had tried to show him the good in them, the spark of magic that they shared with Danu’s firstborn, the Sidhe. Aerune felt his dark heart open to her like a flower to the sun. He begged her to come away with him to the World Beyond.

“But how can I abandon my human children, Lord Aerune? They are so innocent, so helpless. Their lives are but a brief span compared to ours. Stay with me, and offer them your guidance as well.”

He had not stayed, but he had come to her often, always hoping to persuade her to come away with him. And perhaps, Aerune told himself, he would have succeeded in time.

But time was not granted to them.

War came out of the East. At first Aerune paid no attenðtion to it. Mortalkind’s battles were the echo of the Sidhe wars, eternal and unchanging. They could not matter to him.

Or so he thought.

Aerete tried to make peace between the two tribes. It was hard, for the newcomers had the secret of a strange metal far stronger than the flint and bronze weapons of her people, and their losses had been heavy. Aerune had urged her to fight, counselling that only their victory would end the threat. He had not meant for Aerete to take the field beside her war-ðcaptain, using her magic against their iron blades.

Iron. It was iron that had killed his love, a spear thrown to strike her in her chariot, piercing the elvensilver armor that she wore. She had cried out for his aid. . . .

And Aerune had come, with all the hosts of Darkness at his side. But he had come too late.

He cradled her dying burning body in his arms, there on that bloodsoaked human battlefield. And as she died, all there was of kindness and mercy died with him. When he left the battlefield that day, all that lived upon it were the ravens of Morrigan. There were no survivors, and no victors. Only his pain, his loss, remained. He would have vengeance upon everything that had conspired to take his Aerete from him.

He began by seeking to crush the Bright Lords who were his kind’s natural enemies—those who had let his golden darling go among Men to find her death. His campaign against them had blossomed secretly, silently, over the course of centuries.

It had failed at last, beyond any hope of success, and finally Aerune turned his attention to the world of Men. Men who, in what seemed only a moment of his inattention, had gone from weapons of bronze and stone to weapons of smith-forged iron—deathmetal, fatal to all who drew their life force from magic. These he could kill, if he was careful, but no matter how many he killed there were ðalways more to take their place. They called him Arawn, Lord of Death—but even as they cowered in terror from his Hunt, they fought back in a thousand other ways, breeding like the vermin they were, challenging the Sidhe in their Groves and high places.

His kindred fought back, of course, trying to retain their pride of place. But Men had magic of their own, and the love of powers far greater than Seleighe and Unseleighe alike. With love and iron, mortal Man bound and banished its elder brothers, the Sidhe, until at last the Courts fled the Old World entirely, searching for a place where they could take up the Old Ways unmolested. And Aerune fled with them, wrapped in his hatred and pride.

But Man—arrogant, presumptuous Man—followed the Sidhe even across the Great Water, destroying the ties the Bright Court forged with the mortalfolk of this new land. Destroying the mortalfolk as well, in a slaughter that would have gladdened Aerune’s heart if it had only been his own work. At last elvenkind was banished into the shadows of this world, its foothold a tenuous one, its vast empire shrunken to a handful of hames.

From his stronghold Aerune had watched all this, too bitter in his wrath even to ride forth as he had once done. The natives of this new land sensed his presence, and avoided his place, but when Mortals followed the Sidhe across the sea, many of them disregarded the warnings of their brown-skinned cousins, and flocked to settle in the place that Aerune had made his own. Aerune tolerated them. There was much to learn before he could work their doom. Cautiously, Aerune sought allies, but even in this extremity, the Sidhe had battled one another, as if seeking to do the humans’ work for them.

He had watched from his tower as the Seleighe Sidhe of Elfhame Sun-Descending had destroyed Lord Perenor and saved themselves from the Dreaming. He had watched as the Sun-Descending elves had summoned great sorceries and forged a new Nexus that would allow them to flourish safely forever in the lands of the Uttermost West, forging a strong alliance with Elfhame Misthold. They thought themselves safe. They would not swear fealty to him now.

And so, like any good general, he had turned his efforts elsewhere—to the iron-haunted city that had grown up in the World Above. To the world of Men, Men who were kin to those who had slain Bright Aerete.

Underhill was a place composed of all places and none, Chaos Lands given form and substance by magic alone, in which the hames glowed like abhorrent stars, welding all Underhill together into one vast tapestry. The Seleighe Sidhe were the bright threads in this weaving, the Unseleighe were its shadows, and once—long ago—that balance had satisfied him. But within Aerune’s memory, Elfhame Everforest, with its Nexus so near the heart of the Lands of Men, had grown stronger as well, and the Dark Sidhe could foresee a time when the Bright Lords’ weaving would bind the shadows in an unbreakable net, and the Bright Lords would bow their necks and their pride to a yoke forged by mortal Man.

Aerune planned accordingly.

If he could not defeat his Bright Kindred directly in Underhill, nor bring them beneath his banner, then a flanking attack was needed. Aerune turned his attention once more to the Lands of Men.

Aerete, Aerete . . . if you could see what they have become, surely you would renounce them as well!

Cold Iron was their weapon, and in their hands, it could slay Seleighe and Unseleighe alike. But if the Sidhe of Elfhame Fairgrove could learn to tolerate Cold Iron, why shouldn’t he and his be able to do likewise? On his dark throne, Aerune dreamed of a mortal army under his command, bearing the Cold Iron that could allow him to wrest the Nexuses from the control of the Bright Lords and plunge all of Underhill into endless night; a first step before he turned his human armies on their mortal brethren, sweeping aside everything that stood in the way of vengeance, his Dark Queen’s rule of all the lands, mortal and Sidhe.

But to summon such an army, he needed a foothold in the World of Iron. He needed a Nexus under his control, one that would allow his followers—boggles and boghans, his bane-sidhes, water-horses, nixies, and the like—to move freely in the world of Men. Without that power source, even opening a Portal between the worlds would drain him, and so he moved cautiously, searching for the perfect time, the perfect spot. And in the concrete canyons of Manhattan, he had found it.

Take this city, and with it such souls as these mortals possess. I shall humble them in the strength of their fortresses, until not one stone remains set upon another.

And at last he was through with waiting. It was time to act. And so, in the sanctity of his greatest stronghold, Aerune began the weaving of his webs.

The place in which Aerune held his Court would have been beautiful to mortal eyes, if any had lived to see it . . . a forest of dark silver, with leaves of shadow. He sat upon a throne forged of darker shadow yet, his hellhounds lolling at his feet, his Court surrounding him, a host of insubstantial wraiths and bound servitors, all of whom owed him fealty, just as he owed it to the Morrigan. From the base of his throne stretched a pool of black mirror, in which Aerune often watched the antics of his future subjects, into which he sent dreams to guide them. Even the happiest mortal carried within himself a spark of darkness, the phantom of Death whose dark wings would one day enfold him, and it was from that phantom and that fear that Aerune forged the chains that bound mortals unknowingly to his service.

Just as the joy of the Bright Lords had created a human land of magic and imagination around their grove, so did Aerune’s dreams create a darkness in the World Above his palace—a vast dark iron city that the mortalkind had crafted out of blood and betrayal and the dreams he had sent them, filled with pain and sorrow and suffering enough to glut even a rapacious Unseleighe lord. There was even a place in its heart filled with great trees such as his followers needed to anchor themselves—Central Park, the mortalkind called it.

And so, at last, Aerune made his first move upon the chessboard of war.

He sent for the least of his servants, the redcap, Urla.

“My lord?”

Urla seemed to coalesce out of the mist of the grove itself. The redcap was one of the Lesser Sidhe, shaped by the nightmares of generations of men. It was small, barely the size of a child, but with a distorted, misshapen form . . . and very long arms. It wore a laborer’s smock and ragged pants, but upon its head there was a soft cap of bright scarlet, as bright as the blood of men.

It approached the Shadow Throne nervously, bowing low and grovelling as it judged its lord’s mood. One of the hellhounds raised its massive shaggy head and growled, red eyes glowing. Aerune silenced the beast with a gesture. Today he had need of Urla, for of all his servants, Urla was one of the few who could move with relative freedom in the World Above, for the redcap preyed upon men, stealing their strength to replenish its own. So long as the blood in which Urla soaked its cap remained fresh, it had the strength of those it had slain.

“Do you love me, Urla?” Aerune asked gently.

The redcap winced, and grovelled more deeply, inching its way toward Aerune’s feet. “More than death. More than darkness, Great Lord. All my strength, all my power, are yours.”

This was nothing more than the truth, and Aerune accepted it as such.

“Then you are mine, to do with as I choose. And so I choose to send you back to the world of Men. Hunt this city for me. Slay whom you will, hunt whom you will, saving only that you choose those souls who will not be missed in the World of Men. But find me the power to open the door between the worlds once more.

“Find for me . . . a Bard.”

Why did I ever decide to do this? Eric asked himself again. He ran his hand down the side of his slacks to dry it, and then transferred his flute to that hand and repeated the gesture. He was wearing the standard “school uniform” for recitals—white shirt, black pants, dress shoes, and tie. His long chestnut hair was pulled back in a length of black velvet ribbon. His feet hurt, and his collar felt as if it were strangling him. Look at me. I’m sweating like a novice.

He’d already been out there once before tonight, but that had been with the chamber orchestra, and there’d been safety in numbers. But now it was time for his chamber group, and there were only seven of them. The other six members of his group—Jeremy, Lydia, two French horns, a violin, and a cello—were standing nearby, waiting to go on when the previous group finished playing. He took what consolation he could from the fact that they all looked as if facing a firing squad would be preferable—even Jeremy, who normally carried ironic detachment to new heights. And Lydia looked as if she were about to faint.

“Hey,” Eric said gently, reaching out to gain her attention. “Relax. It’s just another performance.”

She turned toward him, her scared violet eyes huge. The three of them had become friends in the last several weeks, though Eric’s need to keep his other life under wraps, and the crushing weight of rehearsal and course work, had kept them from becoming as close as they might otherwise have done. While a part of Eric regretted that, mostly he was grateful. He wasn’t ready right now for any more of what Toni Hernandez had called “hostages to fortune.”

But right now, it looked as if Lydia could use a friendly hand. Her red hair was pulled back into a tightly scraped bun and her pale-gold freckles stood out against her skin like a dusting of golden pollen on the surface of skimmed milk. Lydia had real talent, but even in the short time he’d known her, Eric was afraid that the Juilliard pressure cooker would destroy any love she had for the music . . . assuming Marco Ashborn hadn’t done that already. Lydia was a technically flawless musician, but with her it was all technique, no heart.

“It’s a performance,” she said in a low trembling voice. “People will be watching. Important people. Father’s friends.”

“So what?” Eric said cheerfully. “Our friends will be there too.”

Lydia blinked as his words penetrated. Each student got a limited number of tickets to hand out to recital performances, and empty seats could be filled by Juilliard students on a stand-by basis 15 minutes before the performance. Eric had given his passes to Toni, José, and his other friends from Guardian House, including Caity, a children’s book writer (with no magical gift outside her stories, so far as Eric could tell) whom he’d met while doing laundry in the basement of the House. He wasn’t sure if they’d be able to attend—Jimmie had the usual last-minute crises that came with an LEO’s job, and Toni might run into something that kept her at the House.

He’d only wished there was some way for Greystone to attend as well. At least the performance was being taped, and he could play it for his gargoyle friend later.

Lydia hesitated, about to say something, but just then there was a wash of applause from the other side of the curtain. The previous group was finishing, and it was time for them to go on.

“It will be fine,” Eric said coaxingly. “No matter what happens.”

He could see that the girl didn’t believe him. If there had been time, he might have used magic to calm her and give her some of the confidence he felt, but the other musicians were moving past them, making way for them on the stage, and he knew better than to meddle with another musician’s concentration just before they played. Lydia would be fine once she got on stage—Eric knew that from experience—but he also knew that no matter how well she played, it wouldn’t be good enough . . . for her, or her father.

Then he had no more time to consider anyone else’s problems, because the septet was moving out onto the stage.

He always forgot how hot the house lights were, dazzling his sight even as they pressed down on him like a heavy hand. The small Lincoln Center auditorium was full—he could tell from the sound, even though he couldn’t see the audience—and in the first row sat their instructors, clipboards in hand, preparing to grade the performances of their students.

Oh, sure. No pressure, right? Just a big chunk of your ðfinal grade and no way to gloss over any missed notes.

And, of course, the fact that, since he was sitting First Chair, the others were looking to him to set the tempo and carry them along.

Their first piece was a sprightly Mozart contradance—fast, but not too fast, with a French horn solo in the middle that Lisa choked on half the time, even in yesterday’s dress rehearsal. Eric waited for the others to take their places, gathered them in with his eyes, and smiled encouragingly.

It’s just like leading troops into battle. Act confident, and they’ll be confident.

Then he raised the silver flute to his lips, nodding to set the tempo, and blew the first note.

The little trio he’d formed with Kory and Beth, Beth’s group Spiral Dance, and the pickup jams at RenFaires were no kind of preparation for working with a real ensemble. It called for discipline as well as spirit, cooperation as well as feeling—all characteristics that Eric had grown used to thinking of himself as lacking. But if the difficulties were greater, the rewards were greater as well—the complex surge of melody filled him like a storm of light, the passion and discipline of the others creating an ocean that bore him up like a windjammer upon its surface, its master and victim all in one.

There is nothing better than this, Eric thought, in the last moment in which words were possible, before he surrendered to the music and simply was.

Their first piece ended—there was applause—and he led them through the second, a sprightly rondo that called for fast fingering on everybody’s part, five separate threads of melody weaving into a glorious braid of sound. Moments later—too soon—it was over, and he and the others were coming to the edge of the stage to take their bows. Lisa had hit every note perfectly, the horn’s golden mellowness soaring over the brightness of the flutes and the deep echos from cello and bassoon. Jeremy had regained his usual bland expression, and even Lydia looked radiant.

“It was good, wasn’t it? It was good,” she said, as soon as they were off.

“It was okay,” Eric said, smiling back at her. And best of all, it was a part of himself that he could share with those who could not share any other part of his life—this music was a matter of skill and craft, not magic, though the discipline he’d learned in those long lessons with Dharinel certainly helped here.

In fact, I don’t think I could have gotten this far without it. You’ve got to want it, and work for it, to be able to do it. The first time I was here it wasn’t my idea at all—it was Mom and Dad, wanting to add “prodigy” to their list of my Trophy Child accomplishments. But this time it’s my idea. My success.

“Are you coming to the dorm party?” Jeremy asked.

“Sure.” Eric paused to consult the program tucked into his pocket. “I’ve got a solo after this, then the reception, then I’m there.”

“I’ll see you, then,” Jeremy said, turning away to go look for his bassoon case. “Good luck.”

The others had already wandered off, still giddy with the high that came with performance. Eric smiled. No matter how often you performed, it was always a rush to find yourself off the stage alive and in one piece, and these kids didn’t have a lot of experience with performing yet.

“These kids.” Boy, does that make me feel old!

There were times when the gulf of years—only a handful by the calendar, but far more in terms of experience—made Eric feel like he came from an entirely different planet than his classmates. Sometimes he just felt like grabbing them and shaking them, telling them to value what they already had, to see how precious it was. The mood, fortunately, always passed. If there was one thing he’d learned from his time Underhill and his experience with the elves, it was that you couldn’t pass on wisdom just by talking about it. Wisdom came only from experience.

He hung around backstage while two more groups went on, doing his best to stay out of their way. There was a woodwind trio—the clarinetist faltered badly at the beginning and they had to start over—and a baroque group whose members were already getting outside gigs, they were that good. The wail of the shaum and dronepipe sent shivery hackles up his spine—not Bardcraft, but close, close. . . .

But it was time to focus inward, because his next performance was only minutes away. The evening had started with the full chamber orchestra, moving slowly toward smaller and smaller groups as the stagehands cleared away the stands and chairs during breaks. The soloists traditionally closed out the evening. In the high-stakes world of classical music, they were the heavy horses that everyone was waiting to see, the next Galway or Weisberg.

Tonight there were three of them, including Eric. And the whimsical gods of misfortune had placed him last.

Professor Rector was out there laying for him, Eric knew. Tonight wasn’t only a solo for him. It was his first Juilliard performance of his own composition, “Variations on ‘Planxty Brown.’” He’d picked the tune not only for its lively melody, but because it had no associations with Bardic Magic or elves or anything else uncanny.

The other two soloists—one piano, one violin—acquitted themselves honorably (as Dharinel might have phrased it), and then—too soon!—it was Eric’s turn to step out on the stage again.

He was sure he’d sweated all the way through his shirt, sure the audience could see his nervousness and uncertainty. Some of them, probably, still remembered his last memorable solo appearance on this stage, when he’d unwittingly summoned Nightflyers with his nascent Bardic Gift.

Oh, THERE’S a cheery thought!

For a heartbeat he was filled with panic, and for just that moment he was tempted to call up the magic again—under control this time—to exert just a tiny bit of influence on the professors grading and critiquing his performance. It would be so easy. . . .

No. I came back to do this on my own terms. No magic, no Gift but the music I was born with. I know I’m a good Bard. I’m here to see if I’m a good musician, too.

He lifted the flute to his lips and began to play.

It wasn’t as powerful an energy surge as playing with an ensemble. That was like driving a team of wild horses, a swelling power that came from many hearts and minds all working as one. This was more like flying, soaring over the earth on the wings the music lent him. As always, his anxiety vanished with the first note, and he carried his audience with him through all the intricate variations of the old dance tune. And perhaps because it was music made for dancing, he felt his audience caught up in his rhythm, toes tapping and heads nodding to the music.

He brought the piece to an end with a flourish, and there was that one moment of silence as he lowered the flute that was the true tribute every musician looks for.

Then the applause began, and Eric stepped forward to take his bow. The house lights came up, and for the first time he could see the people he’d been playing for all night.

He looked down at the front rows—still bowing—looking for Rector and the other professors. He could just imagine the sour look on Rector’s face—he’d been good, and he knew it, and so did they. He was smart enough not to catch Rector’s eye—the man looked to be in a towering snit, and his mood wouldn’t be improved by knowing Eric had seen it—and glanced around the rest of the house as he straightened.

And froze.

Ria Llewellyn was there. Second row aisle, the critics’ seats.

She was wearing something in pale blue, looked just the way she always had, the ice princess who had turned his world inside-out. Only years of professional experience kept him moving, and smiling, and got him off the stage.

Ria! How did she get here?

Backstage was full—friends and relatives coming back to congratulate the musicians, stagehands, other performers. Several of them tried to stop him, to congratulate him, but Eric tore through them, looking for the stairs that led down into the house, his flute still clutched in his hand. By the time he reached them, the audience was getting to its feet, preparing to leave.

He didn’t see Ria.

He shoved through the concertgoers, fighting his way up the center aisle like a spawning salmon. He reached the street ahead of most of the audience, but he didn’t see Ria anywhere.

The biting chill of late autumn cut through the damp cotton shirt he was wearing, bringing him back to himself. Even if she had been here, he’d never find her now.

And face it, Banyon. You could have been imagining things. And the only question that leaves, is—why would you imagine Ria Llewellyn coming to Juilliard?

The Sherry-Netherland was the grande dame of New York hotels . . . expensive, tasteful, and with better security than the White House. It kept secrets better than the White House did, too, even with the Joint Chiefs thrown in. If you wanted to vanish in style in Manhattan, you booked rooms at the Sherry-Netherland.

LlewellCo kept a permanent suite here to pamper its out-of-town execs and to provide a perk for visiting guests. It had probably been occupied when Jonathan booked her flight. It wasn’t now.

Ria didn’t care. She’d had a long day with a killer ðending.

Damn the boy! she thought furiously, and then, with grudging honesty: No. That isn’t right. He’s no boy. He’s a man, now—and how does that make you feel, Ria-girl?

She didn’t know. That was the worst. Not the loss of command of her emotions, but the turbulent swirl that didn’t even let her know clearly what they were.

She walked into the bathroom, shedding pieces of her ice-blue satin dinner suit as she went. She kicked off her Ferragamo pumps and tossed her jewelled Judith Leiber handbag onto a chair, standing before the bathroom mirror wearing only a silk slip and enough pale-gold South Sea Island pearls to finance a startup company on the Internet. The bathtub beckoned invitingly—water hot enough to scald away her sins, and bath salts from a little shop down on Chambers Street that blended them to her personal specifications. She turned the taps on full, then, too keyed up to simply stand there, walked back out to her bedroom to pace.

The papers from this morning’s meeting were still strewn across the bed, as if she’d have the discipline to look at them any time soon. She felt a faint pang of guilt, knowing that she’d dealt with the New York people a bit high-handedly. She’d pay for that later—if there was one thing years of corporate infighting had taught her, it was that while friends came and went, enemies accumulated. She was sure she’d made more than a few enemies today.

But she hadn’t been able to give the meeting her full attention, because more than half her concentration had been on the contents of that folder Jonathan had given her, and on the lunch appointment she’d made to interview the private investigator that she’d hired as soon as she’d started reading the report. She’d taken the woman to Le Cirque to overawe her, but the woman hadn’t been overawed, and Ria had liked that about her at once.

Claire MacLaren was an uncompromising woman in her fifties, prosaic as bread. She made no effort to hide either her age or the fact that her figure had long since lost, if it had ever possessed it, the whippet slenderness of youth. She resembled the Miss Marple sort of detective, grey-haired and kindly, her strong Scots bones and pale blue eyes showing her heritage, even without the faint flavor of the Hebrides still in her voice, and was, very simply, the very best at what she did.

“I’m pleased to have the opportunity to speak with you personally on this matter, Ms. Llewellyn,” she’d said, after they were both seated and the waiter had taken their drink orders. Ria had ordered white wine. Claire had unabashedly ordered Scotch.

All around them the hubbub of Le Cirque’s lunchtime clientele eddied and flowed, providing perfect privacy for their conversation. Mechanical eavesdroppers would be foiled by the background noise, and magical ones would be baffled by the sheer numbers of minds all thinking at once. Even Ria, whose gift was very small, had some trouble shutting them all out. But even with her shields in place, Ria could easily sense the unease radiating from the woman seated opposite her at the table.

“I find it’s always best to do this sort of thing personally,” Ria said. “There are always some things that don’t make it into a report. Things too . . . tenuous? to commit to paper.”

“Oh, I wrote it all down,” Claire assured her strongly. “Everything I could find. And that wasn’t enough—ðconsidering. There’s the matter of the money, for one thing.”

“Money?” Ria said, momentarily at a loss. She knew Jonathan had already paid Claire MacLaren’s exorbitant fee in full.

“Money doesn’t just appear out of nowhere,” Claire said. “And that young man has quite a lot of it. Where’d it come from, is what I’d dearly love to know.”

“Oh, that,” Ria answered.

She kept a show of interest on her face, but in fact, the source of Eric’s money didn’t concern her very much at all. A full elven mage could ken and replicate anything—rubies, diamonds, Krugerrands, bearer bonds. She couldn’t work that magic, and neither could Eric, but all that meant was that someone Underhill had set Eric Banyon up with a serious stake and the means to finish his studies Here Above.


That was the question that had occupied her throughout the meal, as she’d fenced with Claire and finally thrown a small glamour over her to quiet Claire’s worries that Eric Banyon was being financed by drug lords, industrial espionage, or worse. It had nagged at her through the round of afternoon meetings with various LlewellCo East department heads. She’d been supposed to have dinner with one of them, but had cancelled at the last minute. That was good luck of a sort. If she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have given in to the impulse to drive past Juilliard and seen the notices of a student concert to be held that evening. She wouldn’t have looked at the list of the soloists and seen Eric’s name. She wouldn’t have gone inside—gaining a seat by a minor enchantment—and seen Eric soloing up on the stage, performing with a surety, a grace, and an art that he had never had before.

The bathtub was full, and she walked back into the bathroom, shedding the last of her clothes, and turning off the taps. She picked up the bottle of bath salts and shook in a generous helping, watching the crystals dissolve and stain the water a rich living green.

She sank into the water, wincing at the temperature. But the heat did its work, leaching away the nervous energy that filled her, calming her.

Eric is back, and he has Underhill backing. And why is he back? Because he’s finished with everything he needed to learn Underhill—that much was clear from tonight. You saw that performance. The old Eric couldn’t manage to play “Baa Baa Black Sheep” without some magic leaking. This Eric has as much control and discipline as any Elven Bard I’ve ever seen.

She closed her eyes, trying to surrender to the spell of the water. In a lot of ways, an Eric in control of his magic was the scariest thing she’d encountered since she’d reentered the world after her coma.

First of all, who taught him? And most of all, who sent him back?

She knew that most of the Seleighe Sidhe didn’t blame her for Perenor’s attempt to grab the Nexus back in Los Angeles. She’d changed sides at the last minute, at great cost to herself, and that counted for a lot with their kind.

But what if Eric’s teacher were one of the few who did bear a grudge against her—either because of her past actions or because of her halfblood ancestry? What if Eric had come into the world as a kind of secret agent, intending to lure her out?

What if, for that matter, Eric held a grudge of his own? She’d tried to kill his friends, after all. Most people tended to take that personally.

She sighed, sinking deeper into the water and inhaling the fragrant steam. She had no idea what Eric was feeling right now, and that disturbed her more than she could express. She hadn’t been able to read anything in his face but shock when he spotted her, and after that . . .

She’d panicked, plain and simple. Proof (as if she’d wanted any) that her feelings for the man were too strong to lightly dismiss. There was unfinished business there, and like it or not, one way or another, it was going to be finished. Before the turn of the year, she thought, with an undependable flash of Foresight, and shivered.

The bathwater had grown cold while she’d sat musing, and now Ria got to her feet, swirling her long ash-blond hair up into a towel and wrapping herself in another of the voluminous Turkish towels the hotel provided.

It was just too bad the problem wasn’t on Eric’s side, she thought, rubbing herself dry until her fair skin was pink and tingled. If Eric hated her, it wouldn’t matter. Ria had been hated by experts. It made little difference in her life.

The trouble was the fact that she wanted him. Still. Again. Not as a pet, as she had before, a graceful subservient boy who could amuse her while she used his magic for her own ends. No, if it were that, if her own desires were that simple, it would be an inconvenience, but not a problem.

The problem—the real problem, the insurmountable one—was that seeing him tonight on that stage, assured and totally in control, Ria had realized that Eric Banyon would never again be anybody’s pet. Not a boy, not a toy. He was a man now, with a man’s will and determination. Her equal, and more.

And everything in Ria’s half-Blood Perenor-nurtured soul rebelled against the thought of accepting anyone on equal terms. Conciliation was weakness. Cooperation was only a trap. Only the strongest had any right to survive, and Ria knew that if she matched her power and her tricks against the Eric she had seen tonight, she might very well lose the battle.

And the worst was, she had no heart for such a fight. Unless he truly was here hunting her, he was no threat to her, and unlike Perenor, Ria had never had any taste for empty cruelty. She was ruthless. That was her nature. But viciousness had never been a part of her spirit, and if it had, that part of her was purged long since. So she had no quarrel with Eric Banyon, True Bard of Underhill, and if he were in truth sent here as her foe, mercy would be impossible. For either of them.

I can’t be his pet. He won’t be mine. Where does that leave us?

Where does that leave ME?

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