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Aerune hated the Iron City, hated the World Above, hated the Mortal Kind, even as he planned to bend it and them to his will and his vengeance. His flesh crawled in the presence of the ferrous metal that the humans filled their world with, diminishing his powers considerably and making the use of magic an uncertain thing. But there were some prizes worth any amount of suffering, and the ability to own the Gift of a human Bard was one. Urla had told him that somewhere within this city mortals who lacked the Gift were given it. Now Aerune wanted to see for himself.

The cloak of silk and shadow that concealed him from mortal eyes also gave him some protection from the iron that clogged the very air, but he could not long remain here without dwindling away to a wraith. Some elven gifts, however, were not hampered by the world the mortals had fashioned for themselves. A darker shadow among the shadows, Aerune sifted through the minds within the building known as Threshold Labs.

Once he had the power to open his own Nexus, he could spend as much power as he needed to in shaping this city to his ends, conjure serpents and nightmares to feed upon its populace. At the hem of his cloak, even now, a faceless chittering mob of his servitors waited to do his bidding.

At first he found only deception and fear, which pleased him, though the first minds he touched held only small malice. But though they knew little, they knew there were secrets to find, and so, patiently, Aerune sifted through their witless babble.

At last he found what he sought. A mind dark and fragrant with overreaching ambition and sublime cruelty: Robertlintel. Through this mind, Aerune learned of an elixir which could wake the dreaming spark of magic in mortal hearts, raise the Power that Urla had told him of and make mortals into living Nexuses. Aerune learned with approval and delight of Robertlintel’s adventures in discovery—how the elixir had killed or maddened all but two upon whom it was tried, one of whom had died by his own hand, and yet this mortal lordling still persevered. He meant to spread his drug throughout the streets of this city, and harvest for his own any who displayed the Mage-gift.

But that cannot be. Such useful mortals are mine.

Drawing upon his power, Aerune summoned all those creatures of his Dark Court who had the power to walk these streets: the gaunts and boggins, the redcaps and phookas, trolls, goblins, Bane-Sidhe, all the dark fellowship of the Unseleighe Court, those creatures twined closer to mortal man than any lover, for Man was their prey.

“Go,” Aerune said to his followers. “Follow those who go from this place with the Mage-elixir. Find those in whom the Power kindles brightly, and bring them to me, for they are mine. Feast as you will, slay whom you will, so long as you succeed in this one thing.”

There was a swirling in the air as the infernal host Aerune had gathered about himself vanished to their task. The business of following a handful of men through a city of teeming millions was a simple one to creatures with powers such as they possessed. No one of the human lordling’s minions would escape their hunters, nor would any to whom they gave the elixir be overlooked. Aerune turned his attenðtion back to the curdled minds within the building’s walls.

Robertlintel’s alchemist now administered her elixir to the last survivor for the second time, and Aerune relished the victim’s despair, as well as the more subtle bouquet of emotions in the mind of the alchemist. The power the elixir had woken was one of healing, and Aerune watched as, ignorant of the necessities of the gifts that had been woken so powerfully into life within her, Ellieborden let herself be sent down into death by the mortal lord and his minion.

Aerune smiled, reconciled to the discomfort of the Iron City by the sight of the triumph almost within his grasp. The children had broken their toy. That was good. Because like all children, they would soon want a new one. . . .

His day having been thoroughly spoiled for him by his unsettling nightmare and the prospect of explaining things to Toni Hernandez, Eric moped around the house until he realized that was what he was doing, then went for a walk. He tried Toni’s door on the way out, but she was still out, or else not answering it.

When he hit the street, the cold was a shock, and he slitted his eyes against the light. The raw December day at least gave him something else to focus on besides the assignðment still lying undone on his desk. The end of the semester was in two weeks, and the coursework was piling up with all the time he’d been spending on ðrehearsals. He was going to have a lot to keep him busy over the next fortnight.

And after that? His imagination shied away from the thought of the holidays like a skittish colt. For too many years, Christmas had been a cheap apartment and an expenðsive bottle: a holiday that everyone else but him seemed to celebrate with their families, whether biological or otherwise. Eric hadn’t seen his own parents since the day he’d left home, and for years he hadn’t felt any lack there. But the sense of unfinished business that had brought him back to Juilliard was tugging at him there, too, and he knew that sometime soon he was going to have to work up the courage to face the last of his personal demons. One way or another.

He still had the next month to get through first, though. Christmas . . . alone again. For a time, Kory and Beth had changed all that, though neither Christmas in hiding nor Christmas Underhill was anything like a Charles Dickens novel, the Sidhe having no concept of Christmas and very little of seasonal festivals. He could go back to Underhill for the holidays, but managing the temporal transitions back and forth from here to Underhill with any degree of temporal accuracy was often difficult; if he went to visit Beth and Kory in Elfhame Misthold over the holidays, he had no guarantee that he’d be back before Groundhog Day.

And this is something I’ve got to do on my own, or I might as well just chuck it now and go back to Underhill for good. That meant Christmas alone once more, and it was surprising how much it hurt. No wonder the suicide rate went up in December.

None of which solved his even more immediate problems. Seeing Ria at the Winter Concert seemed as if it had happened a million years ago, not last night, and somehow, she—or her doppelganger—didn’t seem like quite so urgent a problem in the face of astral sojourns to the Night Lands, an invading elf-lord, and a bunch of wizards on Yellow Alert.

He rambled down familiar streets, past Korean groceries, Italian delis, boutiques and antique stores. The streets were full of his neighbors—as much as any place in New York could be said to be a neighborhood—and if the faces weren’t familiar, the dogs were. Everybody in New York seemed to have dogs—he saw the woman with the three enormous German Shepherds (all bouncing around and tangling their leashes together), the professional dog-walker managing two Great Danes and half a dozen little fur-balls with ease and efficiency, and the man in the grey suit who walked his Himalayan cat twice a day. Eric stopped to greet her; she sniffed his fingers with ladylike disdain before continuing on her way.

New York is really like a village, I guess. A really big village with about twelve million people in it. A few thousand years ago there weren’t that many people on the entire planet. There hasn’t been a city this big and this complex since the time of Ancient Rome.

But Rome was long gone, and if he were a pessimist, Eric would think that New York was going the same way. In his dream, there’d been nothing left but ashes . . . and the goblin tower.

Don’t think about that. It was a dream, nothing more.

The walk cleared his head, and after an hour or so he turned conscientiously back toward Guardian House. He decided to stop along the way to pick up a peace offering—though why he should feel the need to make peace with Toni was something he didn’t really understand.

Maybe I feel guilty for adding one more thing to her workload? I know this Unseleighe Lord isn’t my fault, but sometimes it seems that wherever I go, trouble follows.

He spotted a familiar sign on the street ahead, and turned toward it. Sanctuary. And a chance to warm up—he’d gotten thoroughly chilled on his ramble.

Bread Alone was one of Eric’s favorite places in his new neighborhood. It had the look and feel of one of those old Lower East Side neighborhood bakeries from the turn of the century, the kind of place where you could stop in for coffee and a bagel and to catch up on neighborhood gossip, with a painted pressed-tin ceiling, black and white marble floor, and a few antique cast-iron tables and chairs nestled into the corners.

He’d just walked inside and taken a deep lungful of the warm heady vanilla-and-baking-bread smell when a familiar voice hailed him.

“Well, if it isn’t the Pied Piper.”

Eric turned toward the voice. Jimmie Youngblood was sitting at one of the tables, a large styrofoam container of coffee in front of her. She was off-duty, dressed casually in jeans and a black leather jacket worn over a plain white T-shirt. She waved him over, smiling.

“Haven’t seen you since the party,” she said when he’d sat down. “How are you settling in?”

“Some days are better than others,” Eric admitted. “I never realized how much time and energy school can take up. It’s different when you’re a kid, I guess.”

She studied him critically. Though her flawless bronze complexion was more forgiving than lighter skin might be, Eric could see that Jimmie was tired—bone tired.

“You’re not much more than a kid yourself,” she said. “Or are you using a little of that Bardic Magic to shave a few years off?”

“I’m older than I look,” Eric admitted cheerfully. “At least inside. And I’m starting to think that’s where it counts. If your body’s twenty-five and your mind . . . isn’t, the mind is what counts, I guess.”

“Ain’t it the truth,” Jimmie admitted with a long sigh. “Double-shifts and all-nighters were a lot easier when I was twenty. Places like this . . . I come here to re-charge. Look around. Have you noticed that everyone’s happy here?”

Eric looked around the tiny bakery. Jimmie was right. The girl behind the counter, the older man (probably her father) transferring pastries from the cooling racks to the case, the patrons waiting patiently for their orders to be filled, even the Gothamites seated at the other tables with morning papers and breakfast, all looked contented.

“Maybe it’s the Christmas spirit?” he suggested.

Jimmie grimaced. “Christmas spirit is overrated. Take it from someone who’s on the streets eight hours a day. No, this place is like this year round. It sounds kind of stupid and New Age, but this is a happy place.”

“You’re right,” Eric said with surprise. He’d found places like this in the human world before, but they’d usually been places touched by at least a hint of Sidhe enchantment. He lowered his shields cautiously and took a peek, but found no trace of elven magic here, only the happy contentment of people honestly enjoying simple pleasures. “I guess that’s one of the reasons I ended up here today.”

“Rough week?” Jimmie said sympathetically. “I know you had that concert thing last night. How did that go?”

Eric thought back to the hot lights and the watchful audience, remembered the soaring feeling of rightness as he wrapped them all up in his music, the joy of playing with an ensemble of talented musicians. There was no way to put those feelings into words. It almost made up for the downer the reception had been.

“It was okay,” he said with a bashful smile. “What really gets me, though, is how people can start out in music because it’s something they love, and then forget why they did it. Something they loved just becomes a grind—a duty. It’s like they twist all the joy out of it.”

“Way of the world, my friend,” Jimmie said. “When I started out on the Force— Look, I’m up for another round—let me get you some coffee and something to go on with. You look like you could use it.” Before he could answer, she got to her feet and headed over to the counter.

I wonder what she was going to say? Eric thought. One thing that Beth—who’d been Wiccan for as long as Eric had known her—and the Elvenmage Dharinel both agreed on was that there were no coincidences, especially for those who were the least bit sensitive to magic. The more you attuned yourself to the invisible currents of Power that underlay everything, the more you moved in harmony with them. And the more you end up in places like this, having coffee with your fellow magicians. Though it was hard to remember that Jimmie—practical, down-to-earth, New York street cop that she was—was a magician as powerful as any in Underhill. A line from one of his favorite Gilbert and Sullivan operettas came back to him suddenly: “Things aren’t always what they seem/Skim milk masquerades as cream . . .”

A few minutes later Jimmie was back, balancing two tall containers of coffee and a couple of Danish wrapped in bakery paper. They were still warm from the oven.

“I got you decaf, because of what you said at the party about not drinking coffee much any more because the Sidhe can’t tolerate it.”

“You’re right there,” Eric said. “Before I met Kory, I couldn’t even get up in the morning without that first cup, now I hardly ever touch the stuff. Caffeine in any form acts like the worst kind of drug for them—like a combination of cocaine and LSD. If you’re ever having problems with a mad elf-lord, just pitch a can of Coke at him.”

“I’ll remember that,” Jimmie said, sounding tiredly amused. “You never know; it might come up. But they roast and grind their own beans here. It’s a special blend—you won’t miss the caffeine. And Papa Lombardi only makes these pastries at Christmas. It’d be a crime to miss them.”

She handed one to Eric. The golden crust was fragrant with almond and cinnamon, and when he bit into it, Eric could taste citrus and currants as well. His stomach awoke with a growl, reminding him he’d missed breakfast by several hours, and he had to restrain himself from wolfing the whole thing in a few bites. He set the pastry down and took a sip of the coffee. As Jimmie had promised, it was rich and fragrant. No sugar, but it didn’t really need any.

“Oh, man,” Eric said, around another mouthful of pastry. “This is heaven!”

“When you’re out on the front lines, it’s important to remember the little pleasures. Without them, sometimes we forget who we are,” Jimmie said gravely.

“Do you have that problem often?” Eric asked. He hadn’t meant to ask such a direct question—it seemed almost ðhostile—but Jimmie didn’t seem to mind. She smiled gently.

“I’ve lost my way a few times,” she said. “Even after I became a Guardian. I’ve seen too many good people go down into the belly of the beast and not come out again. Out here—on the streets—every day good people die, and bad people walk away smiling. And sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“Is that why you became a Guardian?” Eric asked.

“That’s why I became a cop,” Jimmie said, correcting him gently. “Being a Guardian came after—sort of a natural extension of the badge, don’t you know? When I was a kid, I always wanted to grow up to be Batman. Well, sometimes I wanted to be the Green Hornet, but usually it was Batman. Fight crime and evil, always come out on top. It didn’t hurt that my dad and my—my brother were both cops. I just sort of always knew this was where I’d end up. Not the Guardian part, of course.”

“Do your folks still live around here?” Eric asked idly, still thinking about Christmas.

Jimmie sighed and shook her head. “Dad caught a bullet about fifteen years back. El—my brother, well, we kind of lost touch. A long time ago.”

Even through his shields, Eric could feel the flare of raw pain when Jimmie talked about her brother. She’d said he’d been a cop, and she hadn’t said he was dead. But a lot of things could happen, some of them worse than being dead.

“I’m sorry,” Eric said, meaning it.

“Don’t be. He made his choice, and I made mine. You can’t undo the past. But I didn’t mean to bring you down. When you walked in here, you looked like you’d lost your last friend.”

“Not quite,” Eric said. More like I remembered how few of them there were. “I had kind of a rough night, and so I went out for a walk this morning to try to clear my head. And from the look of things, I’m not the only one who had a rough night.”

“Can’t put anything over on you, can we, Banyon?” Jimmie asked with a rueful smile. “Actually I haven’t been to bed yet—Toni and I were chasing around the city all night like Starsky and Hutch because of some stuff, and I’m back on shift in another few hours. I do hate working nights. City gets crazy then. It’s like it turns into a whole ’nother place, you know?”

You don’t know the half of it . . . or do you? Eric thought.

“What kind of stuff?” he asked aloud. “I got—well, I don’t know if you want to talk about it here. But I was going to try to get ahold of Toni. There’s some things I need to tell her. But she was out when I came downstairs.”

“Probably up in East Harlem, seeing if the santeros know anything about what’s going down. You don’t have to worry about talking here, Eric. I told you. This is one of the Good Places. And nobody’s going to overhear our conversation unless I want them to. Sort of one of the fringe benefits of being a Guardian,” Jimmie said.

“Okay.” He liked Jimmie a lot—and more, he trusted her judgment. When you spent a lot of time on the street and the RenFaire circuit, you got to develop an instinct that helped you tell the good cops from the bad. And Jimmie was definitely one of the good ones.

“So shoot. What’s got you walking the streets on a day like this?”

“Well . . . .” He was stalling, and he knew it. But one of the things that Dharinel had drummed into him during his magical training was that words had power, and it almost seemed to Eric that by telling Jimmie the problem he’d be making it more real than it had to be.

“I’ve already told Greystone most of it. And, well, it’s a lot of different things. Some really personal. Some I’ve been told to stay out of at all costs.”

“Too bad that’s the kind of advice that nobody ever takes,” Jimmie said. She sipped her coffee, and for a moment her eyes were cold and far away, focused on some secret pain. He noticed that whenever she was thinking intently, her black eyes lightened almost to yellow. It was a startling effect. “The good people . . . they always try to help. And sometimes they get killed. But that’s what I’m here for. If anybody takes a bullet, it should be me. I chose to put myself on the line, knowing the risks ahead of time.” She took a deep breath, consciously shutting away the pain. “But that’s old news. Anyway, it’s one of the reasons I’m kind of touchy about civilians on the fire-line, if you hadn’t noticed already. Good people, who just want to help. But it’s my job to protect them—even to take a bullet if I have to. They never asked to be in the kinds of situations I run into. All they want to do is live their lives. And it’s my job to make sure they can. I don’t want any more deaths on my conscience.”

Eric met her gaze squarely, thinking of his own dead. Of the people who hadn’t gotten out of the way in time when the magic got loose. Or—worse—had been dragged into situations by people who didn’t care who they hurt.

“Understood,” Eric said. “I don’t like it either.” He shook his head.

“Yeah,” Jimmie said, with a long sigh. “Looks like you know how it is. I lost a partner once, a long time ago. Because my gun was loaded with silver bullets and his wasn’t. Because I knew what we were chasing and I couldn’t find any way to tell him that it wasn’t his fight. Never again! I guess that’s one of the reasons why I never married—though the old joke about being married to my work has some truth in it. What about you, Eric Banyon? Any hostages to fortune?”

“I guess not.” The answer sounded wrong, and he examined it. “I have—I mean, I’m going to have—a daughter. But she isn’t really mine. She’s Beth and Kory’s. They just can’t have one together, so it’s more like—I mean, she’ll be theirs, not mine.”

“No one else?” Jimmie asked.

Ria. “No. At least, not that I know of. I mean, other than everyone. I’m not going to walk away from a problem just because nobody I know is involved.”

“Good answer. Or a bad one. Some things you’ve just got to walk away from, Eric. It hurts, and you feel horrible, but if you got involved all you could do would be to make things worse.”

Eric shook his head stubbornly. On one level, he knew what she said was true, but in reality he didn’t know if he had the detachment to just walk away from people in trouble.

“I’m not sure I could ever do that,” he said slowly.

“Then be glad you’re not a cop, because we have to do it every day,” Jimmie said fiercely. “But I didn’t mean to lecture you. You look just about all in.”

“Bad night,” Eric said. “One of the worst, actually, but not really relevant to the business at hand.” Once more he hesitated about conveying Dharinel’s warning. He’d told Greystone. Surely that was enough?

Thinking like that is what gets people killed, Eric told himself roughly.

“Anyway, here’s the deal. I talked to Greystone when I got home last night. He said you were having kind of a situation, but I didn’t know about that until I got home from the concert. Before that, I got a warning from my friends that they wanted me to pass on to you.”

“A warning?” Jimmie asked, suddenly alert. “For me by name?”

“No. For the Guardians. In general. Dh—my teacher seems to know a lot about you folks. Anyway, he said this was your kind of problem, something that you were equipped to handle. He didn’t tell me much, but I’ll give you all the help I can. Apparently, Manhattan Island is one of those places that Sidhe just don’t go. Only last night I heard that an Unseleighe Lord—that’s one of the Dark Sidhe, and pretty much bad juju all the way around—is planning to move in and take over here. They say he’s going to try to open a Nexus to Underhill here in New York City. If he can do it, he’ll have quite a lot of power to play with, and from everything I’ve heard the Unseleighe Sidhe tend to play pretty rough. My friends said I should warn the Guardians, let them handle it.”

“That’s what we’re here for,” Jimmie said with a sigh. She held her cup near her face, inhaling the steam. “And since you’ve been so open with me, I’ll pass on a little information in return. The reason we were out last night is that a bunch of people are turning up dead—street people. More than usual, even in this weather, and all with something kind of . . . funny about them. Paul thinks it might be a case of serial possession, but it doesn’t quite feel right for that. And then there was this kind of . . . blippy thing. Like somebody was powering up and then just . . . stopping. Kind of hard to figure out—not really like anything any of us has seen before, and if Paul can’t pull a parallel out of his books or the Internet, it’s got to be some kind of really exotic mojo. So we were trying to run down leads half the night, and coming up with nothing. This helps a lot. Now we know one of the things we should be looking for.” She finished her coffee with a flourish and tucked the last bite of pastry into her mouth.

“The important thing from your point of view, I guess, is that my guy’s going to be trying to get his hands on anyone with Power to draw on them to build the Nexus, and my teacher thinks that means he’s going to be going after humans with the Gift, but from what you’re saying, what you folks were following doesn’t sound like Sidhe work. Even if he does have a way to find the Gifted, he’d have to drain—kill—thousands, maybe millions, of ordinary people to get enough power to open a Gate here, and I know it sounds awful to say, but that’s just too much like gruntwork for their tastes. And . . . the other thing is, last night I ran into an old friend. Only I don’t know for sure whether she was there or not—and if she was there, I’m not sure what she wants—or if she’s tied up with him.”

Briefly Eric sketched the details of Ria Llewellyn’s appearance and disappearance from the concert, explaining that while it wasn’t impossible for Ria to have been there—or for her appearance to have been a coincidence—he wasn’t completely sure of what it might mean.

“It’s just that she’s, well—ruthless. And pretty self-involved. She isn’t the type to count casualties if you get in her way.”

“Sounds like a real executive type,” Jimmie commented. “But not like the type who’d want to be a street soldier for someone else from all you’ve said about her. At least from what you say there isn’t already a local Nexus, so she isn’t likely to be out there trying to buy it up to bulldoze it. Not that anybody’d notice if she did. This is New York, after all, the land of Donald Trump and combat-strength urban renewal.”

“Yeah. I’d kinda figured that out for myself.” Eric thought about telling Jimmie about his dream, and hesitated. Just what could he say? He’d had a vision? A premonition? A guided tour of a place that he wasn’t sure existed outside his own mind? He knew it had been a warning, but the Guardians were already on alert, and he’d passed on Dharinel’s warning. They wouldn’t be any more careful just because he told them he’d dreamed of a New York in ruins, presided over by a baleful elvish tower.

And Greystone hadn’t sounded any warning when he’d had the dream. That was the main thing. So whatever had been the source of his dream, it hadn’t come from outside Guardian House.

Or Greystone hadn’t considered it a threat. . . .

“Well, I just thought I’d mention, and to let you know that if there was anything I could do to help out,” Eric said hesitantly.

“No!” Jimmie said, too quickly. “I mean, you’re a nice guy, Eric, and a helluva magician from what Greystone tells me, but you didn’t come to New York to join the Guardians and fight evil. You know what they say about old age and treachery overcoming youth and skill? We’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve that’ll probably come as quite a shock to somebody from the Old Country,” she said, sounding just a bit pleased with herself.

“And most of all, if four Guardians need help, Eric, the people of New York are in more trouble than we thought. But I’ll pass the word to the others,” Jimmie said, smiling at him. “Maybe the two cases’ll end up tying in together. Sometimes they do. But I hope not.” She glanced down at her watch, and got to her feet in a hurry. “Aiee! Two o’clock already and I’m on duty at four—that leaves me just about enough time to get downtown and get suited up.” She held out her hand, and Eric took it, standing as well. “I’ve enjoyed this, Eric. It isn’t that often I can find somebody to talk to. You know how it is.”

“Me, too,” Eric said. “Meanwhile, I’ve got a paper to write, and I guess ought to be writing it. Thanks for the coffee. And the conversation.”

“We’ll do this again,” Jimmie promised.

“It’s a date,” Eric answered warmly.

He walked the few blocks back to his apartment in a far better mood than he’d been in when he left it. Jimmie Youngðblood was definitely a nice lady and a good cop, and Eric hoped he’d be able to see more of her. Not ðromantically—Jimmie’d made it clear she wasn’t looking for anything like that—but as a friend. How many people were there, after all, that he could talk about the magical part of his life with and have them accept it so matter-of-factly? Not many, and you could take that to the bank.

The phone was ringing as he opened the door to his apartment, and Eric dived for it without thought.

“Hello? Hello?” Just my luck this will be someone trying to sell me aluminum siding or The New York Times. . . .

“Eric? This is Ria Llewellyn.”

Pure surprise held him speechless for a moment. He had almost managed to convince himself that the Ria he’d seen last night had been a ghost, some kind of illusion, or at the very least a non-recurring phenomenon. But the rich sultry sound of her contralto was like a blast of concentrated yesterday, whirling him back to his mooncalf idyll—in her home, in her bed—when she had tried to turn him from a knight to a pawn, nothing more than a reservoir of Power to be tapped . . . just as Perenor had meant her to be.

Or maybe into something more?

“Hello, Ria,” Eric said, his voice slightly cool.

In her own way she had cared for him, Eric knew. Fought for him, tried to protect him, turned on her father in the end. For him? Or for her own freedom?

“ ‘Hello, Ria,’ ” she echoed, her voice languidly mocking. “After all this time, that’s all you have to say? I admit, I’d expected more.”

“I saw you at the concert last night,” Eric said flatly, still too rattled to dissemble. He’d managed to pick up a number of the courtly arts with which the Elvenborn wiled away their time Underhill, but the whole business of saying one thing while meaning another—all in the most elliptical fashion—had eluded him completely, to Kory and even Beth’s amusement.

“You were very good,” Ria said. “That solo piece at the end—your own work?—was most impressive. And all done without magic. That somehow makes it even more exceptional.”

“You didn’t call me up just to congratulate me,” Eric said, sinking down into the chair in front of the stereo with the phone cradled on his lap.

“No. Not really. I called to see if you’d be my guest for dinner this evening.”

There was a long silence. When Ria spoke again, her voice in his ear was just a shade less confident.


“I’m still here.” He was thinking fast, trying to figure out what she meant, not just what she was telling him. In all of his experience with Ria, she’d never been absolutely underhanded. She might try to influence him, overshadow his power with her own, but she wouldn’t lure him into a blatant trap. “Yeah, sure. I’d love to.” Almost as much as I’d love to know what you’re really up to, lady. “Just let me know the time and place.”

Candlemas was the new hot restaurant in the Triangle District. What had formerly been the Meat-Packing District was gentrifying rapidly, high-priced boutiques and luxury condos driving out the artists, drug dealers, and fetish clubs that had flourished here in low-rent days. The restaurant and its five-star CIA5-trained chef had recently been anointed by Gotham’s reigning foodies, and as a result, even on this raw Saturday night

there were people lined up halfway down the block waiting for tables.

Eric had dressed carefully for this meeting. Fashion was, after all, just another form of warfare . . . and if this wasn’t precisely a war, it bore more than a passing resemblance to that gentle art. Back before he really knew what either Power or Bardcraft were, Ria’d frightened him into lashing out at her—and that had terrified them both. She’d seen him as an enemy and driven him away. He hadn’t seen her again until Beth had broken a guitar over her head at the final battle, destroying Perenor’s access to her power and gaining the day for the Sun-Descending elves.

And now she was back, pushing her way into his life once more.


Like the man says about the afterlife: sooner or later you will KNOW. So let’s see what the lady has to say for herself.

Ria must have been approaching their “reunion” in much the same spirit—why else pick a place like this to meet? A venue more calculated to put the old Eric nicely off-ðbalance could hardly have been better chosen.

Too bad I’m not the same guy she used to know. Eric grinned wolfishly. Beneath his duster-length topcoat he was wearing one of the suits Beth had helped him choose—wild silk, in a shade just this side of true black, paired with a collarless linen shirt in a deep rich cream. Instead of a tie, he wore a small elvenmade brooch at his throat: silver, set with a large, almost transparent opal. A clasp of the same design held his hair back from his face.

Once, Eric would have completely distrusted such an outfit, seeing it as somehow dishonest. Now he wore it as if it were second nature, knowing fashion for what it was: a tool, nothing more.

Which is great. But how am I going to get past that crowd at the door or find Ria once I do? I could be standing out here for hours.

As he hesitated on the curb—the weather was bad enough that he’d come in a cab instead of bringing Lady Day—a man in a chauffeur’s uniform came up to him.

“Mr. Banyon?”

“That’s me,” Eric said a little warily.

“Ms. Llewellyn’s compliments, sir. She asked me to tell you to go on in. She’s already seated.”

“Thanks,” Eric said. If she wants to overawe me with an ostentatious display of wealth and power . . . well, let’s say I appreciate the show.

The chauffeur retreated to the fender of a glorious vintage maroon and cream Rolls Royce Silver Ghost—a stand-out ride even by New York standards—and Eric made his way to the door of Candlemas. Getting inside was a bit like swimming upstream to spawn, but he finally made it. The next obstacle was the official greeter, a slender black man who advanced upon Eric with an openly disdainful ðexpression.

“Good evening, sir. Welcome to Candlemas. Do you have a reservation?”

“I’m joining someone,” Eric said. “Ria Llewellyn?”

The man’s demeanor changed at once from arrogance to subservience, though the change was so subtle as to qualify as magery in its own right.

“Yes sir. Right this way. May I have someone take your coat?”

Eric handed the garment over, and received a discreet coat-check token in return, before following the maitre’d farther into the restaurant.

The interior of Candlemas made no concessions to currently-voguish Manhattan industrial chic. Whatever this space had been last month, it now gave the impression of being an out-take from a particularly decadent Tuscan chateau. The lighting was fashionably low, and the walls were hung with a pleated amber-colored velvet a few shades lighter than the deep-pile carpet. Gilt medallions anchored the fabric, and light spilled out from behind them in sunburst patterns, drawing a faint shimmer from the deep nap of the fabric. The velvet walls softened the ambient noise to a muted background, like ocean surf. The tables on the service floor were swathed in a creamy brocade and set far enough apart to give the diners at least the illusion of privacy.

Around the edge of the room there were half a dozen recessed alcoves, like the private boxes at the opera. They were even curtained to give the diners more privacy. Somehow Eric wasn’t surprised to be escorted toward one of them. Ria always traveled first class.

She was waiting for him at the table. Her eyes widened slightly as she saw him, and Eric smiled to himself. He might have been Underhill, but time hadn’t stood still for him . . . though it seemed to have for Ria. She was still the woman he’d first spotted in a crowd in L.A.—pale blond hair, cat-green eyes, ruthless mouth. Whatever injuries she’d suffered from her coma weren’t evident tonight, and Eric looked carefully, his shields warily in place against any magic—though the magic Ria was deploying was of a far older and more fascinating sort.

She was wearing a dark-green dress with an old-fashioned portrait neckline, with a necklace of cloudy green stones around her throat—jade?—that only served to accentuate the flawless whiteness of her skin.

Eric felt his throat close in a purely masculine acknowðledgement of her beauty. She was as fair and fey as the unfading moonlillies that bloomed in Underhill.

“Satisfied?” she asked, and Eric only just stopped himself from blushing. The maitre’d seated him, giving him a moment to recover.

“You’ve . . . changed,” Ria said, favoring him with a sphinx-like smile.

“This is my cue to say you haven’t. But I know you’ve got a mirror. And I remember that you hate people being obvious,” Eric said boldly.

“I’m easily bored,” Ria admitted, with a throaty mock-seductive purr in her voice. If you could put what she had in a bottle, Eric decided, there wouldn’t be any reason for anybody to ever be lonely again.

“So—without being obvious—it’s good to see you. You’re obviously well.” He was surprised to find that, when he spoke them, the words were true. Seeing Ria again was like . . . was like having the answer to a question he’d been asking for a very long time. “You gave me quite a start when I saw you in the audience last night. If you’d called ahead, I would’ve gotten you tickets.”

“You concealed it admirably. Your performance was wonderful. Shall we order? Or would you like a drink first?”

There was a glass of white wine in front of her, in one of those huge tulip-shaped glasses that restaurants used for everything from Chardonnay to frozen daiquiris. Eric shook his head.

“Just water for me, thanks. Evian if they have it.”

Ria raised an eyebrow, but made no comment. She must have signalled somehow, because a hovering waitperson instantly appeared to take Eric’s drink order and bestow upon both of them leather-backed menus only slightly smaller than the surface of a coffee table.

“Have you eaten here before?” he asked, scanning the menu. Candlemas seemed to run to Continental Fusion fare—Eric hesitated over the medallions of venison with kiwi and mango, smirking faintly. But what the heck—if people wanted to put stuff like that in their bodies, at least it was better than drugs.

“No. My assistant suggested the place. These days, my idea of dining out is usually takeout at my desk. And I don’t get to New York that often.”

But you’re here now, Ria. Why?

“There are a lot of good restaurants here,” Eric said noncommittally. He decided on the chicken in balsamic vinaigrette as being a safe choice, one that wouldn’t offer too many surprises. Ria would be surprise enough this evening.

“Oh, I don’t deny that New York has its attractions. Some of the best schools in the world are here, for example.”

Eric sipped at his water. If this was Ria’s opening gambit, it was an awfully mild one. They both already knew he was attending Juilliard.

“Yes. I didn’t appreciate it much the last time, but I think formal training has a lot to offer, don’t you?”

Her eyes widened slightly as she took his double meaning. When they’d last clashed, Ria was an accomplished sorceress, and Eric barely knew what magic was. Now he was a Bard . . . and Ria had always been a political animal, raised amid Perenor’s plotting. He didn’t know what contacts with the elves she still had . . . or wanted.

In fact, he decided, they’d both changed a great deal. And suddenly it was very important to Eric to know who Ria had become.

“So. Tell me everything. How are Kayla and Elizabet?”

“Well, when last I saw them,” Ria said, accepting the change of subject smoothly. “Kayla will be going away to school, soon. She won’t have to worry about tuition—I’ll see to that—but neither Elizabet nor I feel that the child needs a free ride through life. And she can’t earn her living as a Healer. The medical establishment doesn’t take kindly to people working miracles without a license. And Healers need a lot of downtime in order to function without burning out, so it isn’t likely she’s going to go for an M.D.”

“Computer programming, maybe? Or web-designer?” Eric suggested, thinking of Paul Kern. If anyone needed a flexible schedule, it was a Guardian. “Those are both professions with a lot of built-in privacy. I’ve got a friend who could suggest some good places to study.”

“We may take you up on that. I know she wants to come to New York. Says the San Fernando Valley’s too quiet for her tastes.”

Eric laughed, thinking of the scrappy little punkette he’d met at the Dunkin Donuts’ the morning of the battle for Elfhame Sun-Descending. A greater contrast with the stately, dignified Elizabet could hardly be imagined, but Elizabet’s apprentice had the true Healer’s gift—as well as more street-smarts than anyone Eric had ever known, and a tongue that could strip paint off a wall at sixty paces.

Now it was Ria’s turn to change the subject, and she did, asking Eric about his work at Juilliard. Eric answered readily enough—he had nothing to hide in that regard, at least from Ria, and the two of them continued sparring verbally all through the meal—appetizer, salad, entree, and dessert. Without being evasive, Ria didn’t talk about anything that really mattered—Eric gathered that she was essentially making a tour of her holdings, reconsolidating her position as head of LlewellCo after a long absence. But that hardly explained her appearance at Juilliard . . . or her dinner inviðtation.

“I was surprised to see you surface after so long,” she finally admitted over coffee. Ria’s half-human heritage saved her from the poisonous effects of caffeine on her system, and Eric had surprised her once again by ordering coffee himself. The hit of the unaccustomed caffeine made his heart race, giving him a feeling as if he were riding Lady Day down a very long straightaway.

“No reason I shouldn’t,” Eric said. That much was true: the Feds had always really been after Bethie, not him or Kory, and besides, the Eric Banyon they were looking for would be older than he was by enough years to fool a casual inspection, even if there were anyone working the case who still remembered him.

Not that he was completely convinced they’d been legitimate Feds in the first place. . . . “And as I said, I had some business here.”

“The music school.”

The next obvious question would have been why Eric, with Bardcraft at his command, would even bother with something so mundane as a Juilliard degree, but Ria didn’t ask it. She hadn’t asked any hard questions at all over the course of dinner, Eric realized. It was as if it were enough, from her point of view, simply to be in view, displaying herself.

And it very nearly was. Eric had almost forgotten how downright desirable Ria was, in a way that had nothing (well, almost nothing) to do with sex. It was almost as if she were somehow realer than everyone else. She drew the eye to her automatically, like the focus of a painting.

But what the hell does she WANT?

If she wanted to kill him, they wouldn’t be sitting here discussing mutual friends. If she wanted information, sooner or later she was going to have to ask some questions. If she wanted to use him in some way, well, those days were long past, and Eric was pretty sure that she knew it by now. But she hadn’t made an excuse and left, so that wasn’t it. She was still here, sitting across the table, regarding him with that steady gaze with a hint of challenge in it.

The waiter came with the check, and Ria pulled out her card to pay. Nothing as paltry as a platinum AmEx for Ria Llewellyn: what she placed on the server tray was an indigo-and-black Centurion AmEx. The user fees alone for the card were over ten thousand dollars a year, with all charges due in full at the end of each month.

Okay. Color me a little impressed. I knew back in L.A. that LlewellCo had money. I just didn’t think it was quite this much. And you know what they say: money will get you through times of no magic better than magic will get you through times of no money. . . .

“So I’m a corporate expense?” Eric asked, glancing at the card.

“You might be,” Ria answered enigmatically. The waiter returned with the charge slip in record time. Ria signed it, tucked her card back out of sight, and rose to her feet.

“I don’t feel we’ve quite said all we have to say to each other, Eric. Why not come back to my hotel and we can continue this conversation? I promise, no harm will come to you.”

That’s what you said the last time, Eric thought, the ghosts of old memory stirring. Just then inspiration struck.

“I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t you come back to my place?” he said, standing in his turn. “I’m sure you want to see it. And good burglars don’t come cheap these days.” Especially once they got a look at the building’s security ðsystem.

If he’d expected to embarrass her, Eric was disappointed. She threw back her head and laughed—a full-throated, joyous laugh—and smiled at him, eyes sparkling.

“Quite right. I’m not sure what market price for housebreaking is these days, but I’m sure there isn’t a line item in my budget to cover it. Lead on,” she added, almost gaily, laying her hand on his arm.

The sensation of the contact sent a thrill of heat up his arm and straight to his groin. He’d better stop kidding himself now: Ria Llewellyn was still an enormously attractive woman, and she used that beauty like a weapon. Once he would have been felled by its effects like a clubbed seal. He still felt its pull, tempting him.

But things, as they’d both said over the course of the evening, had changed.

It was rising eleven when they left the restaurant. Ria’s limousine waited patiently at the corner. When he spotted them, the chauffeur jumped out from behind the wheel to open the passenger door for them.

The luxury of Underhill was exotic, often strange beyond his imagination, and certainly beyond his achievement here in the World Above. Bardic magic and Elven magic fit together like gloved hands, touching, but separate. Eric could reweave the fabric of Reality, open gates between worlds. But much of Elven magic was species-specific, far beyond his ability and his understanding.

This was different.

The door of the car closed behind them with the solidity of a bank vault. Eric could smell the leather of the seats, the better-than-new-car scent of the fine materials, the engineering and craftsmanship that had gone into the car’s construction. And there was nothing magical about it. All of it was a creation of human hands and minds. It was certainly the most decadent thing he’d experienced since he’d come back to human lands. The inside of the Rolls was almost like walking into a small room: there were fresh flowers in matching crystal vases on the cabin walls, a table, and a sleek bulkhead panelled in mahogany burl, from which jumpseats could be folded down. There was enough floor space for two people to lie full-length—though as he settled into the deep bench seat, Eric thought there was plenty of room here, too, for the kind of things Ria’s presence made him think about.

Ria settled into her seat and leaned forward to tap at the black glass partition separating them from the driver as soon as Eric was settled. They’d picked up their coats at the door, though in Ria’s case the coat was a deep-hooded evening cloak, lined in satin the color of the dawn. As she moved, it fell open. The movement did interesting things to that portrait neckline. The car moved off, sleek and powerful. Eric could feel the vibration of the engine in his bones.

“Shall I tell him the address, or would you like to?” Ria asked mischievously. “The intercom button is right there, in the wall.”

Eric pressed the button and gave his address. The powerful car swept uptown through the rain-slicked streets.

The clouds had broken by the time they arrived at Guardian House, and the temperature had dropped several degrees, promising snow before morning, though at this time of year the flurries should melt by noon. Eric shivered as he got out of the car. He watched as Ria looked around, mentally assessing the desirability of the neighborhood with a cold realtor’s gaze. Whatever answer she came up with, it seemed to please her.

“You’ve moved up in the world, Eric.”

“Yeah, well, nothing ever stays the same. What about your car?”

She turned back to the chauffeur, still standing alertly beside the car. “He’ll wait.”

She turned back to Eric. He only hoped Ria wasn’t going to be back on the street again in the next ten seconds. He had no real idea of how Guardian House would respond to one of the half-elven, especially one of Ria’s ambiguous loyalties.

But isn’t that what you brought her here to find out?

It was, of course, but it had just now occurred to him that anything that would rouse Greystone would probably land the Guardians in his lap as well, and with all they had to worry about right now, they probably wouldn’t be grateful for the interruption. He wasn’t looking forward to the explanations he’d have to make if it came to that. Still, it’s always easier to get forgiveness than permission.

He tapped out the entry code on the front door and ushered Ria through the lobby.

She was silent on the ride up, but it didn’t take Bardic magic to see that Ria was thinking furiously. Eric wondered if he’d ever know the real reason she’d wanted to track him down, and thought he wouldn’t. They had one new thing in common, though. Each of them was having to adjust to a world they’d been away from for several years. He wondered if the new millennium was as much of a shock to Ria as it sometimes was to him.

“Very nice,” Ria said, looking around the hushed and carpeted corridor that led to Eric’s apartment. “No wonder Claire thought you must be some kind of Mafia drug lord.”

“I like it,” Eric said, refusing to take the bait she so temptingly dangled. He punched the keycode to unlock his door. “Enter freely and of your own will.”

In the living room, Ria swirled off her cloak with a practiced gesture and laid it over the back of the couch, making Eric glad he’d gone to the trouble of cleaning the place up before he left. He was really going to have to see about that house-brownie, though.

“Here, let me hang that up for you,” Eric said, picking it up. He walked through to the bedroom to hang up her cloak and his coat. The unmade bed, still rumpled from his nightmare, invited his thoughts down pathways he’d rather not take just now, thank you very much. He realized he was tense, waiting for Guardian House to sound an alarm, though surely if it had been going to, it would have done it already. Ria’s presence didn’t seem to even be a blip on its psychic radar.

Figures. If I can’t figure out what she’s up to, what chance does a building have?

He came back out to find Ria inspecting his CD collection.

“You must have bought out the store,” she commented, turning to him.

“Pretty much,” Eric agreed. “I’ve got to say, these things are a lot easier to store than vinyl.”

“Cheaper to produce, too,” Ria agreed. “And when the cost comes down, a lot of music that was marginal before has the chance to get out there and find its audience.”

Trust Ria to find a way to think of everything in economic terms, Eric thought with an inward grin.

“I promised you coffee. Will espresso do? I’ve got one of those fancy machines. It was a housewarming present. It even works most of the time.”

Ria smiled with what seemed like genuine warmth. “Then you’re more technologically advanced than I am. If I didn’t have Jonathan to make the coffee, I’d go into caffeine withdrawal.”

She followed him into the tiny kitchen, where Eric navigated the intricacies of the bright-orange Italian espresso maker Caity had given him without too much difficulty. Ria’s presence—her warmth, her perfume—were even more distracting in this small intimate space.

Is she coming on to me? Unbidden tactile memories rose up strongly in Eric’s mind. He controlled his blush with an effort. Or is she just trying to get me so aroused I’ll stop thinking? To cover his momentary confusion, he grabbed a tray from the shelf and arranged a box of assorted biscotti on a plate. When the espresso had brewed, he drew off two cups and carried the tray back out into the living room.

“So why don’t you tell me what you’re really doing here?” Eric said bluntly, once they were both seated. He didn’t expect her to tell him, but his question should bring the answers to the surface of her mind for Greystone to read.

“You invited me,” Ria pointed out, sipping her espresso. She nibbled delicately at a biscotti with sharp white teeth. “And frankly, isn’t that question the least bit insulting? Next you’ll be offering to leave the money on the dresser.”

Eric grinned in spite of himself at her bold words. The best defense is always a good attack. “I don’t think it’s an unreasonable question, given who we both are,” Eric responded. “We didn’t part on the best of terms.”

“That was my fault, I suppose,” Ria said graciously. “I’m not the most trusting person in the world. And you frightened me. It doesn’t hurt to admit that. My father has—had—many powerful enemies. I thought you might be one of them.”

“But Perenor’s dead.”

Ria inclined her head. “But the elvenkind has long memories. I sought you out because I was certain it was only a matter of time before you did the same to me. I have no interest in taking up my late father’s feuds . . . but I will defend myself.”

Was that a warning or a threat?

“I haven’t got any quarrel with you, Ria.” As he said the words, Eric knew they were true. “I came back to finish at Juilliard. That’s all. So I’m still asking: why are you here?”

She wasn’t convinced—he could see that in her expression. But would he have been convinced if he was the one who’d been raised amid a Sidhelord’s intrigues? Ria’s entire existence, her magical training, had been shaped to one end, to make her into a living battery from which Perenor could draw power at will. That didn’t make for a trusting nature.

“Tell me who trained you in Bardcraft. Tell me he didn’t send you back into the world of Men to kill me,” Ria said in a low intense voice.

“Dharinel?” Eric said in surprise. Dharinel disliked humans and despised the half-blood, it was true, but his contempt was meted out with a fine evenhandedness. It would be completely beneath his dignity as Magus Major and Elven Bard of Elfhame Misthold to acknowledge any particular human enough to want to destroy them.

Ria was about to reply when there was a scrabbling on the fire escape. She set down her cup quickly, and glanced from Eric to the window behind her.

The sash raised, and Greystone climbed down into the room. Ria got slowly to her feet, staring at the gargoyle.

“She’s okay, boyo,” Greystone said to Eric. “I admit I had me doubts about you bringing her here an’ all, but t’is copacetic. She’s levelling with you, laddybuck.”

Ria stared down at the squat, misshapen creature in speechless shock. It had a fanged doglike face and curling horns. Its arms were long and apelike, and its hindquarters like a satyr’s, right down to the cloven hooves. Great bat wings lay against its back like furled umbrellas. And despite the fact that it lived and moved and talked, it seemed to be made of solid stone.

“So,” she heard it say, “how’d your night out go? Or should I say going? Any o’ that high-powered coffee left? It’s a cold night out, and no mistake. I could use a wee bit of a jolt.”

“Sure,” Eric answered easily. “I’ll get you a cup. Ria, this is Greystone. Greystone, meet Ria Llewellyn. I’ve told you about her.”

With a distant part of her mind, Ria registered that Eric seemed to be on very good terms with this creature—and that he had brought her to it as a sort of test. She found it hard to be angry with Eric for showing such caution. She’d been wary herself.

She stood perfectly still as the gargoyle waddled up to her. Though if it could stand completely upright it might be as tall as she was, its crouched position made it several inches shorter.

“You’ve nothin’ to fear from me, Blondie. As for meself, there’s more things in heaven an’ earth, as I’m sure you know,” Greystone said, and winked at her.

“I’m finding that out,” Ria said levelly.

Eric returned from the kitchen with a mug of espresso and handed it to Greystone. The gargoyle slurped it down with evident relish, then reached out a long simian arm to grab a handful of biscotti. The talons on its fingertips would have done credit to an eagle with their sharpness, for all that they seemed to be made of stone. It set the empty cup down on the table, and, still clutching the handful of cookies, headed for the window once more.

“Well, I’ve gotta be going. No rest for the wicked, an’ all that. You kids behave yourselves, now.” He favored both of them with one last toothy grin and made his exit, closing the window carefully behind him.

Eric was looking at her, obviously waiting for her reaction.

“Well,” Ria finally managed. “I see you still have interesting friends.”

Eric laughed. “I seem to have a knack for that.”

Cautiously they both sat down once more.

“So . . .” Ria said finally, returning to the earlier conversation. “Master Dharinel trained you?”

“Even he had to admit that everybody was better off if I knew how to use what I had. But he didn’t send me after you, Ria. I swear it. I don’t think most of the elves really care one way or the other about you now that Perenor’s dead.”

“I hope you’re right. But I do know that your friends blame me for a lot of what happened at Sun-Descending and the Fairegrove . . . Beth Kentraine, for example?”

She knew she was fishing now, but if Claire MacLaren’s PI report hadn’t mentioned talking gargoyles, it was even less likely to have included mention of elves and their friends. Beth Kentraine was not somebody she wanted to have appear unexpectedly in her life. From what Ria rememðbered, Kentraine had a fiery temper and a wicked right cross.

“Oh, you won’t be seeing her. She and Kory mostly live Underhill these days. It’s not like they’d be dropping by unexpectedly. We’re still close, but it’s . . . not like it was.”

When to scratch one of the three of you made the other two bleed, Ria finished silently. The way Eric spoke of them—as a couple—made Ria cheer inwardly. So little Bethie had thrown her lot in with the elven lover, had she? That was the best news Ria’d had in a long time.

“I suppose I ought to offer my condolences,” Ria said politely. “Or . . . not?”

“Not,” Eric said cheerfully. “Things just worked out the way they had to. The only thing is . . . I’d like to be able to think of some way to help them out. Because they want kids, and—with elves and humans—it’s hard to arrange. I don’t know if I ought to be asking you this, but . . . do you know anything that could help? Some kind of spell or magic, I mean. I mean, you’re here.”

Half-Blood children were incredibly rare occurrences between Sidhe and mortalkin. In most cases the unfortunate children were ostracized by their father’s and mother’s people both, so perhaps it was a blessing that such half-Blood children rarely inherited the immortality of their elven parent. Immortality had been the bribe Perenor had held out to his half-breed daughter, but lately Ria had come to wonder if he had meant to give it to her as a blessing . . . or as a curse? She shook her head slowly.

“Not in the way you mean, I think. Believe me, Eric. What Perenor did to create me is nothing your friends would ever want any part of,” Ria said with quiet intensity. “It nearly killed my mother. It did drive her mad. And it cost the lives of several other people—he drained their essences to fuel his magic.”

Eric sat back, a look of surprise and, oddly, pity on his face. “That’s a helluva thing to have to live with. To know you’re here only because a bunch of other people gave their lives—or had them taken away.”

“Survivor’s guilt, they call it,” Ria said with a crooked smile. “It’s not the only way, of course, just the quickest and easiest if you have no conscience and no scruples. If you’d like, though, I’ll see what I can find about the other methods. I am uniquely placed for that kind of research.” And we’ll see whether the high and mighty Beth Kentraine is willing to let bygones be bygones if I can offer her her heart’s desire on a silver tray.

“I’d like that,” Eric said. “I’m sorry I was so hard on you before. . . .”

“But you didn’t trust me. And considering how we parted, you had every right not to. That wasn’t one of my best calls, Eric. If I’d been thinking clearly, I would have realized it at the time. I should have trusted what I knew of you. If you were out to get someone, you wouldn’t pretend to be their friend first.”

She could tell by his expression that he knew she was telling him the truth. Truth-sense was one of the oldest of the Bardic gifts; she supposed she’d just been lucky he hadn’t developed it the last time they’d met.

“Is that all we were? Friends?” Eric asked. “Funny, but I remember the relationship as being somewhat . . . warmer.”

This is moving a little too fast for me. Ria got to her feet. “And it might be again. I won’t lie to you, Eric. As a boy you were pretty. As a man you’re devastating. But I think that right now it’s time for me to go.”

He looked disappointed—her pride was grateful for that—but got to his feet without complaint.

“I’ll get your cape.”

* * *

Eric walked her to the curb and the waiting Rolls. The chauffeur opened the passenger door and stood waiting like a well-oiled automaton.

Eric opened his mouth to speak, and Ria touched him lightly on the lips with her fingers. “I’ll be in New York for several more days. There’s no hurry. I hope we can see each other again. I’d like to get to know you.”

And before Eric could assemble an answer to that, Ria had stepped into the car, and it was moving silently away.

There was someone standing outside his apartment door when Eric got back upstairs.


The Latina woman spun around when she heard him. “Blessed saints! Greystone said you were here, but I called and no one answered, so I came up.”

Must be pretty important. She looks kind of worried.

“I was just walking a friend out. Do you want to come inside?”

“No. I mean, I’d like you to come outside. We’ve . . . found something, and none of us has seen anything like it before. Jimmie said— So I thought . . . you’ve had a certain amount of experience in this sort of thing, and I was hoping I could get you to come take a look. Maybe it’s . . . what you were talking about.”

Christ, I hope not! Eric thought fervently.

“Sure,” Eric said. “Just let me get my coat and I’ll be right with you. Do I have time to change?”

For the first time Toni seemed to notice what he was wearing. A slow smile crossed her face. “Sure. We wouldn’t want to scare the Ungodly with your great beauty. Heavy date tonight, eh?”

“You might say,” Eric said with a smile.

He dressed quickly in sweater, jeans, leather jacket and boots. He hesitated, then picked up his flute case and swung it over his shoulder. Toni hadn’t said what she wanted him to look at, but if it was capable of spooking a Guardian, he wanted to go loaded for bear.

Toni’s Toyota was waiting on the street—a side benefit of Guardianship seemed to be never lacking for a parking space—and in a few moments they were moving. Toni Hernandez drove like a New York cabbie, zipping into spaces almost before they opened, weaving through a deadly dance with the fleet of trucks that took over the New York streets after-hours. The traffic lightened as they headed east, and Eric realized they were going toward Central Park.

“Want to tell me what’s going on?” Eric asked, catching his breath after one particularly spectacular maneuver. She drives the way Bethie does—or did.

“Not really. I think we’d rather see what you come up with on your own. Paul and Jimmie are already there.”

The park was closed to street traffic at this time of night, and the gates were down across the road. Toni swerved into a parking space right outside and bounced out of the car before Eric had finished unbuckling his seat belt.

“I’m afraid it’s a bit of a hike from here,” she said. “Good thing you changed your shoes.”

He felt it long before he reached the spot where Jimmie and Paul were standing. Jimmie Youngblood was in her uniform, looking shuttered and forbidding, hand on her gun, though her expression lightened with something like relief when she saw him. Paul looked like an escaped university professor, Norfolk tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and all. Eric almost expected him to pull out a pipe and light it.

The stench of magic was everywhere, a sort of palpable wrongness that made his hair stand on end. Eric’s steps slowed as he approached the Guardians. Outside of a few burned patches on the grass there wasn’t much to see with normal vision. Eric stopped where he was, closed his eyes, and looked again.

He could see it now. A sketchy shape in the air, as though the night was a different color here. He turned slowly around in a circle, trying to pin it down further. He felt a chill that had nothing to do with winter, and a crawling feeling along his spine.

“You already know this is magic, right?” he said at last, trying for a light tone in the midst of this incredible wrongness.

“Ah, but what kind of magic?” Paul asked, as if this were just some sort of academic exercise.

“I told you before how a lot of people’ve gone missing in the last couple of days, Eric,” Jimmie said. “People you wouldn’t ordinarily miss, except that so damn many of them are just dropping out of sight. Or turning up dead. What we need to know is, is this a part of that?”

Yes, there was death here, and pain, and darkness. Eric thought again of the bonewood and goblin tower of his dream.

“This feels like Unseleighe Sidhe,” he said reluctantly. “Mind, I’ve never had any direct contact with them, but it’s Sidhe magic, but twisted, so I suppose that’s what it feels like. . . .” He hesitated before saying more. “And there’s a lot of death here. Human death. Beyond that . . .” His voice trailed off again.

“So what you told me about really is happening,” Jimmie said unhappily. “But why? And how, especially here? Don’t the Dark Elves have to follow the same rules as the Light?”

“They’ve got the same limitations,” Eric agreed. The taint of inside-out magic was starting to make his head hurt. “But I kind of think the Unseleighe Sidhe would like the City, if they could stand to be here.”

“Can you tell what kind of working this is?” Jimmie asked urgently. “Its purpose?”

“It’s a Gateway,” Eric answered slowly. “It isn’t finished. If nobody messes with it for a few days it’ll probably fade away. But someone was here—an elf-mage or another human Bard—trying to open a Gateway between Underhill and the world.”

He explained what he could about Nexuses—how they gave elvenkind a way to tap the power of Underhill that was life itself to them, how many of the Elven Court, especially the Lesser Sidhe, could not survive away from a Nexus, and that even the High Elves needed frequent access to one in order to replenish their magic. And that someone, apparðently, was building one here.

“Well, that’s something to go on with, anyway,” Jimmie said when he was finished talking. She shook her head. “Now we just have to figure out what to do about it. I wonder what you bait Sidhe-traps with?”

“Power,” Eric said bleakly. “At least in this case. Not your kind, though. That’s at least partly learned, I’m guessing, and pretty well shielded. He isn’t really interested in that. He wants the raw stuff, the innate Gift some people are born with and don’t know they have.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Paul said dourly, then forced himself to smile. “At least we know more than we did before. Thanks for coming out on such short notice, Eric.”

“Why don’t you let me get rid of it for you?” Eric offered, reaching for his flute.

“No!” Paul and Jimmie spoke at once. There was real pain on Jimmie’s face—and more. Fear. He remembered their conversation at the bakery: If anybody takes a bullet, it should be me.

Was that what she was worrying about? Him?

Paul held up a hand. “No, that’s okay. Now that we know what it is, we can keep an eye on it. It’s more important to stop who’s doing it rather than scare them off.”

If you think you can scare off the Unseleighe Sidhe, you haven’t met many of them, Eric thought. “I still think I should—”

“C’mon, Eric. I’ll drive you home,” Toni said briskly, taking charge of the situation before it could degenerate into an argument. “Paul, you want a lift?”

“No,” Paul said. “I think I’ll stay out here a little while. You two go on ahead. Jimmie can drop me when she heads back to the station house.”

“I still think I ought to do something about it,” Eric said. Most people wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary here, but anybody with any amount of Talent would have a natural aversion to the place. Or an attraction to it. . . .

“I’m not bringing any more civilians onto the fire-line. Do what your friends told you, Eric. Stay out of this one, for your own sake,” Jimmie said urgently.

There was a world of pain—and bitter self-recrimination—in Jimmie’s voice, and Toni was hovering over him as if she were about to pick him up and carry him. Reluctantly, Eric allowed himself to be led back to the car. He couldn’t force his help on them if they didn’t want to accept it, and Dharinel had all but ordered him to stay uninvolved. He let himself be led out of the park and deposited back on his own doorstep after another hair-raising ride in the Toyota.

But the sense of unfinished business, layered on top of the unsettling evening with Ria, made sleep particularly hard to find that night.

5Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, New York

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