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ONE:
THE PARTING OF FRIENDS

"By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wide world's end
Methinks it is no journey." 

—Tom O' Bedlam (traditional)

 

"Are you sure you really want to do this?" Beth asked Eric for roughly the five hundredth time in the past month.

As a long-time stranger to big cities, it was hard for Eric to believe that there was anywhere in New York City where she could have been heard without shouting, but this strange little tree-shaded court was somehow as quiet as a desert canyon miles outside of Los Angeles—and just about as hot. It was September, but there was no hint of fall in the air, and the leaves on the slender maples growing in their squares of earth allocated in the sidewalk were still green. Today was one of the shimmering-hot days that persisted well into October here, and the stone of the buildings surrounding them seemed to hold and reflect back every degree of heat. The buildings also shut most of the traffic noise out, making a private oasis in the heart of the city. Beth and Kory—and their motorcycles-cum-elvensteeds—were the only creatures on the street besides Eric.

Eric looked up at the old apartment building that was going to be his home for the next year or so, and nodded.

"I'm sure," he replied firmly. "Things couldn't go on the way they have been—and none of us wanted them to." Then he grinned. "Besides, you aren't going to be that far away by Underhill standards. And I'm a fully functional Bard now, remember? I can come visit you any time I want to—or any time you guys are getting stir-crazy."

Beth looked as if she might want to argue that point for a moment; then, instead of saying anything, she just sighed.

"You certainly aren't the same Eric Banyon anymore," she admitted. "You not only have feck, but you know what machine to buy your clues from," she said, grinning proudly.

"And I brought my own roll of quarters to put in the machine," Eric shot back, grinning.

Earlier this morning, the three of them had packed up the last of their stuff from the friend's place they'd been crashing at between Faire weekends. The Sterling Forest RenFaire ran every year from July to September at a site about an hour north of New York City. There was even a Nexus there, Elfhame Everforest, the only one on the East Coast, tucked away in the State Park that surrounded the Fairesite.

The three of them had been working the Faire together, just like old times. Only this time it was a farewell performance, and they'd all known it. It had added a certain sweetness to the music. But all good things must come to an end.

He put down his two bags to hug her. "No worries, pretty lady. I'll be fine. The kids at Juilliard are already calling me 'old man,' and taking bets on who's going to win the confrontations between me and the administration. Odds are in my favor, by the way." Classes started on Monday, but he'd already been up to the school several times, for Registration and Orientation. It hadn't changed much in all the years he'd been away—schools had a lot in common with Underhill in that respect.

Beth traded places with Kory, who was not at all ashamed to bestow as hearty a hug on Eric as Beth had. "You do know the way Underhill, if you need to come," Korendil appealed. There was an unspoken plea in the elf's emerald-green eyes. "Do not allow pride to keep you from seeking your friends if you need help."

Eric shook his shaggy head; haircuts had not been a priority either Underhill or at the Faire, and he didn't want to do anything about the length of his mane just yet. "Believe me, Elfhame Everforest is the first place I'll head for if I get into trouble," he promised. "Now, you two—go! If you don't make some tracks, you won't reach Sterling Forest before sunset, elvensteeds or no elvensteeds, and this is going to be your last Renfaire gig before the baby comes. I think I can manage to move my last two bags into an apartment without help—and take care of myself once I've settled in."

They'd been staying with Bonnie and Kit up in Inwood—a comic book writer and a Witch that Beth knew from years ago—while Eric and Beth made the many purchases necessary to turn a rented apartment into a home—and waited the several weeks for delivery of the furniture! Eric wasn't displeased to have the transition time: living Underhill for an extended period made returning to the World Above a distinct shock. And no place else, in Underhill or the World Above, was quite like New York City. It made even the Chaos Lands seem quiet.

Beth paused to hug him once more. "You know, I think you can," she admitted, looking just a little tearful. "And maybe that's the scariest part of all. You don't need us anymore."

There wasn't any reply he could make to that statement—there was enough truth in it to sting—so Eric didn't bother to try. Instead, he picked up his bags and moved away from the curb, walking backwards, as Kory and Beth mounted their sleek, exotic motorcycles.

A third bike already resided in the tiny parking lot behind the building, and Eric had no fear that anyone was going to steal it. For one thing, they wouldn't be able to find a starter or a place to hotwire it. For another, she wouldn't let them. Lady Day was an elvensteed, and could take any form she chose. Eric didn't really ride her, she carried him; he could go to sleep while riding her and she would get him safely to his destination no matter what the conditions were. She could take any shape he wanted her to—he'd heard that there were even elves in other Elfhames that had elvensteeds the shape of racing cars, though frankly Eric would believe that when he saw it.

His mind was already running ahead, into his future here. He preferred her as a motorcycle, and Lady Day preferred to take that form, but as soon as the weather turned, she was going to have to take on the form of a little econobox car, unless he intended to take the subway across town to Juilliard. She wasn't looking forward to that, and frankly, neither was he, but that was the price he paid for returning to Juilliard—East Coast winters.

Maybe I can have her clone a Kia, a Neon or a sporty little Isuzu 4x4 instead. That wouldn't be too out-of-keeping with my cover story, Eric thought hopefully. It had been so long since he'd had to worry about money at all that he wasn't too sure he remembered the gory details. I can always say I put the bike in storage for the winter. Nobody at Juilliard is likely to know enough about cars to wonder how I can keep a maintenance hog fuelled and running! 

Eric paused at the front door of the building for a last look back. Beth and Kory had donned their helmets, and "started" the bikes, thus making further conversation a moot point. The elvensteeds not only knew enough to counterfeit the roar of powerful motorcycle engines, they seemed to enjoy doing so. The two riders, anonymous now in their matching helmets and leathers, pulled neat little reversal moves that got them going in the right direction on the street with an appropriate amount of tire spin and smoke. They waved, and Eric tucked one bag under his arm and freed up a hand to wave back. He kept waving as they roared out of sight.

That didn't take long in the city; they were out of sight as soon as they turned the corner. He evened his load again, and walked soberly up to the door of the building.

Home. Sweet home? Well, home is what you make it, I guess. This is as good as any. And a lot better than some. Good thing I'm not on a starving student's budget.  

He could have had any apartment in any building in the city, of course: as an adult student, Eric didn't have the same residence restrictions that the minors and first-year students did at Juilliard, and a fellow with a safety-deposit box full of gold Krugerrands could pretty much afford whatever he wanted. But he'd gone out walking one day when he and Beth and Kory first arrived here, and found the old building as if he'd been drawn to it. It'd had a name once—most old New York apartment buildings were named—but time had eroded the carving above the door, until all that remained was a florid "G" and a barely legible "ouse." Something-house. Maybe Gargoyle House, for when Eric had looked up—he was enough of an out-of-towner to do that frequently—he had been surprised to see the hunched winged forms of classic medieval gargoyles perched on the building's four corners. New York was rich in such hidden sculpture, he knew. Art for birds, someone had once called it.

There'd been a discreet sign in the building manager's window—the only "For Rent" sign he could remember seeing anywhere, actually—and the building itself had attracted him. There were three apartments available. One was a corner apartment on the top floor, and when he saw that there was a gargoyle perched right outside the living-room window, he'd been sold.

That had been the good part. The bad part was the age of the building. Old buildings had old building problems. Still, it had a lot more heart to it than some of those high-rise condos that were going up everywhere. And a place like this would be a lot easier to explain if anyone ever asked.

For a wonder, the building manager—her name was Toni Hernandez, a middle-aged Latina woman—had been ready to show him around right then. The building was of about the same vintage as the Gunfight at the OK Corral, which meant that the ceilings were high and the bathrooms were ancient—which meant very cool lion-footed bathtubs, but teeny sinks and plumbing he wasn't altogether sure about. The kitchen cabinets and counters looked like originals from when the building was new, and forget central air—if he wanted to be cool during the summer and early fall, he'd have to buy a window AC, and hope the wiring could stand it. He was going to have to swelter for the rest of this year, though—by the time he could get a window unit delivered and installed at this time of year, snow would already be falling.

As for the heating, it was all by ancient steam pipes, and those didn't function until the super decided it was cold enough—and Eric knew all about the way steam pipes sang and banged at night. He'd probably need to supplement the radiators with space heaters, given how far away his apartment was from the basement boilers, anyway.

He'd been assured that the wiring was modern, though—and looking the apartment over, seeing all new cover plates and plenty of grounded outlets, Eric had felt fairly sure he wasn't being lied to. If the wiring was modern enough to accept the load of a computer, a microwave, and an air conditioner, he felt he could put up with steam heat and ancient plumbing. He'd accepted the top-floor apartment on the spot, and the rest had been mere formality.

The building might be old, but it had some nifty modern amenities where it really counted, and considering its West Side location, Eric was surprised that the building hadn't gone condo a long time ago. A security system mounted discreetly in an etched brass plate beside the door had a code for every tenant—and with ten digits, it would take a long time for someone to hit a correct one at random.

He punched it in now—a little slow, but he'd taken care to pick a string of numbers fairly easy to remember—and walked in through the front door. The coolness of the lobby was welcome after the heat outside, and as he usually did, he paused to admire the foyer—very Art Nouveau, and all of it original. Even the opulent brass faces of the mailboxes were vintage. Of course, that meant that the elevator was pretty vintage too—hydraulic, and in mint condition, but very slow. Ms. Hernandez told him that when the building had been built, people had been afraid of fast elevators. So it rose gently and serenely at a less-than-walking pace, but hey, if he was in a hurry, he could always use the stairs.

The elevator took its time in arriving on the top floor, but that wasn't bad either. He wasn't as frisky as he'd been when he first came to school at Juilliard, himself. He liked the folding bronze safety-gate; it reminded him of an old hotel he'd once stayed in that actually had an elevator attendant, little red uniform and all. Fortunately the building didn't come with a doorman, like some of the posh places along Park Avenue did. He didn't think he could quite handle that.

The long elevator ride up to the 10th floor gave Eric time to think and to probe his feelings as if they were a newly filled tooth. Did it hurt, Beth and Kory going off like that and leaving him behind? Should he reconsider?

Nope. It doesn't really hurt, it just feels different. It stopped hurting a long time ago. And the decision isn't really new. It's old.  

He remembered the day Beth had first told him she was pregnant. She and Kory had looked so happy—Beth wanted a large family, and elves were crazy about children anyway—but all Eric had felt was fear, as though he'd made a disastrous mistake in fathering this child. It had been Beth who'd gently broken it to him that she already knew what Eric had only that moment discovered: that while he'd been growing into his magic, she and Kory had been growing into a couple. Without him.

Only not really. After what we've been through together, we'll be friends forever. Only it's a different kind of friendship now. In some ways it's better.  

Better, because it lacked the element of sexual anxiety that had flavored the earliest days of his relationship with Beth . . . and Kory. This was something strong and deep that didn't need sex to fuel it, something that would last as long as the pillars of Underhill.

The elevator creaked to a halt on the top floor, jarring him out of his reverie, and Eric opened the safety gate and the door. His apartment was a corner apartment, which had been another selling point. Its location meant that there would be less noise from fellow tenants, and no noise from the elevator itself, as well as a cooling cross-breeze on most days. He still wasn't used to how noisy this city was—even in the middle of Central Park you could hear the sirens and the traffic noises.

New York, New York, it's a wonderful town. The Bronx is up and the Battery's down. And the city never sleeps.  

Like the lobby, the hallway decor had somehow survived being "modernized"; it was original, and for a wonder, no one had ripped off the vintage paté verine1 light-fixtures. Then again, maybe that was why the owners had put in the security system in the first place. Architecture thieves were only one of the problems of life in the Big City.

The only concession to the modern world was in the carpet running the length of the hall; it was standard grey-beige industrial stuff, but it didn't clash with the Art Nouveau wallpaper and frosted-glass fixtures, not all of which were lights. There were cameras in some of those wall fixtures, and smoke and heat detectors too, and sprinklers in the ceiling—everything the heart could desire from a safety and security standpoint. Another selling point, not that a fully trained Bard had much to fear from human thugs. Magical attacks were another matter, but frankly, Eric wasn't expecting many of those.

At the end of the hall was his door. No hollow-core flimsy barricade or scary metal portal this, but a solid slab of oakwood, polished deep brown with the passing of years, with brass lockplates and doorknob that gleamed brightly against the old wood. Here was the building's second concession to the modern age—there were two key-operated deadbolts plus the door key, and a final key pad on which once more to enter his ten-digit code. If he didn't enter it, or keyed it wrong and didn't correct himself when it beeped at him, the system would alert Ms. Hernandez—she'd check the cameras and maybe call the cops.

I wonder why this place has got so much security? Or maybe this is normal for New York? After all, I have been away for a while. . . .  

Like about 20—no, closer to 30—years. Though he'd spent a lot of that time Underhill, where time flowed more slowly than it did in the World Above. That was one of the reasons he'd been willing to risk coming back so openly. Anybody who was still looking after this long would be looking for a guy in his forties—not a sassy young dude still in his twenties.

He negotiated the three key-locks—here was a moment of fumbling with the ring of unfamiliar keys (Eric hadn't carried keys in years, and had kept losing them for the first few weeks)—punched in his code, and watched while the light went from red to green. Then he was inside and locking the door of his new home behind him. Beth's friends said it would soon become second nature, but for now it was an effort to remember the actions involved.

At last he turned away from the door and looked around with a sudden feeling of hesitancy. Even with as much work as Beth and Kory had already done while he'd been getting squared away with Juilliard, there was a lot still to unpack and arrange, and most of it was brand-new untouched-by-human-hands stuff. This was the first time in his life he'd had this many things. 

Immediately before him was the living room, a huge space (so Bonnie had said) by New York standards. A new leather couch and matching recliner in the sort of oxblood brown that reminded him of Old English clubs sat cozily in front of the fireplace—this place was retro enough to have fireplaces, (with terrific white-marble mantels, though he didn't think the fireplace still worked). To the right of the sofa and behind it were the tall sash windows, and if he looked up, Eric could just see the back of the gargoyle on the corner of the roof. Against the blank wall was his new rack system and a television and laser-disk player. In the corner farthest from the windows was his desk—light cherry, from Levinger's—which mostly held a brand-new computer with a music keyboard and speakers as well as the usual techie stuff.

Sheepskins covered the worn wooden parquet floor, and the glazed-chintz curtains in an archival William Morris pattern—mostly deep greens, with a hint of orange—that Beth had picked out were pulled open to display the view. There were flowers in a blue glass vase on the mantlepiece—moonlilies, so that was Kory's touch; they didn't grow anywhere but Underhill, and a daily little touch of magic would keep them alive forever. The heat made the apartment seem stuffy, and Eric moved around opening windows. Though there was a six week wait for delivery of an air conditioner, he'd been able to pick up a couple of wall fans. He lifted them into the kitchen and bedroom windows now and switched them on. A cooling breeze began to waft through the apartment, and Eric sighed with relief. He could manage to be pretty comfortable, so long as he didn't get into any heavy lifting.

Eric still had a faint feeling of trespassing when he moved around the place. It looked like an apartment belonging to a moderately (okay, let's admit it: more than moderately) prosperous classical flautist—at least, until you got to the CD collection, which was currently still in boxes waiting to be unpacked. He'd had one heck of a time putting that together, and the look on the clerk's face at Plastic Meltdown over in the East Village when he kept coming up to the counter with another stack of disks had been worth every penny. Thanks to a little help, both magical and non, Eric Banyon had an A-1 credit rating and an AmEx Platinum card to prove it. Thanks to the Krugerrands in his safe deposit box, he even had a way to pay the humongous bill that was going to arrive!

Beside the empty bookshelves—more light cherry from Levinger's—were boxes of books, also waiting to be shelved. He'd had almost as much fun in the Strand as he had in the record store. More, in a way, because he kept straying over to the children's sections, picking up volumes he'd read as a kid and wanted to get reacquainted with. This place was as unlike his L.A. apartment as possible—and just as unlike the house he'd shared with Beth and Kory in San Francisco. That had been due to calculated effort on all their parts. He was starting over, in a sense, and he should start fresh.

Beth had stocked the kitchen, so he wasn't going to starve, and she hadn't loaded it down with equipment he didn't know how to use and food he didn't know how to cook. Mostly microwave stuff, he suspected, to go with the mother-of-all-microwaves sitting in silent splendor on the white-marble kitchen counter.

It was too quiet, suddenly, and he walked over to the rack and turned on WQXR, the local classical station. Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite filled the room; not his first choice, but not bad, and more to the point, not reeking of Omens and Portents. He'd had about enough of those for a while.

He took his bags into the bedroom and once again was confronted by newness. The bedroom was small, only 14x14, with just enough room for a double bed with a bookcase headboard. The bed, covered with a thick, red, silk-covered goosedown comforter—another of Kory's touches, Eric suspected, because elves liked color and weren't shy about using it—was a classier version of one of those adjustable beds you saw on late-night TV commercials. He hadn't wanted a waterbed; that would have come with too many memories of Beth and Kory attached. The headboard had built-in lamps and his new alarm clock (retro-Deco to match the building) nestled cozily in a nook that would be difficult to reach if he wasn't awake. On top of the matching bureau was a smaller television, and one of those nifty-keen Bose Wave radio/CD players. The curtains were the same glowing red silk as the comforter. There was another sheepskin rug—dark brown this time—on the floor in front of the bed; it reminded Eric slightly of a large flat dog.

He carried his bags over to the walk-in closet and opened it. It was the old-fashioned kind with drawers in the back and several tiers of shelves reaching all the way up to the ceiling, and it was full of bags of brand new clothing that he hadn't yet opened. Eric slowly unpacked his bags and hung the only things he owned that had any wear on them on polished cedar hangers at the back. The clothing was nothing if not flamboyant; Faire garb, all of it, and all of it made by magic. That was Kory's forté: he could produce clothing at the drop of a pointed ear. It wasn't likely that Eric would need any of this at any time soon, but he wanted to have it around. A link to his past—to the Faires and Underhill—to the only part of his life that Eric thought of as real.

Everything else in the apartment had come by way of the efforts of Eric's mentor, who was as skillful at producing gold as Kory was at producing clothing—and as Beth was at knowing where to shop. Thanks to Master Mage Dharinel's work, Eric was not going to have to worry about where his money was coming from for a very long time, if ever. The rest of his tenure at Juilliard was already paid for in advance. His rent was paid up for the next year in advance. Utilities, phone, cable, ditto—all handled out of an escrow account administered by a "friend of the family" down in Wall Street somewhere, just so Eric wouldn't have to worry about them. And in addition to everything else, Eric had a bank account again, besides that excellent credit rating and the emergency stash of Krugerrands.

As for the inevitable IRS agents (if nothing worse)—well, he'd found a way to handle them. They'd stopped in DC before coming up here; Eric had set up shop outside the agency, put out his hat, and played his flute until he found one agent that was susceptible. A little Bardic magic, a sob story about being out of work in Mexico for the last couple of years, a tale of winning an unspecified lottery outside the States, and an expressed eagerness to pay his rightful share of taxes (and a check for the amount the nice agent deemed appropriate), and his record with the IRS was as clean and shiny as Lady Day. He could use his own social security number without being afraid it would red-flag every Federal computer from here to Ultima Thule . . . in fact, his entire record was so clean and shiny that anyone checking on him might suspect he was in the Federal Witness Protection Program. Eric's name, his real name, was on the mailbox, the apartment lease, the utilities, in the phone book, and on the driver's license and bank and credit cards in his wallet. He wasn't hiding, he wasn't Underhill, and he didn't have to start thinking of ways to escape whenever he saw a cop or someone in a too-perfect suit. I'm a person again, he thought with wonder. I'm real. Whatever I do will go with me; I can't shed my past like a snake with an old skin. 

He went back into the living room and sat in his new chair, the glossy leather chilly through the back of his damp shirt. He listened to the Moonlight Sonata wafting in courtesy of the radio station. It all felt—odd. Very odd. Not luxurious, no—strangely enough, although this was luxury by all common standards, it did not match the level of sumptuousness Underhill, or even the standards of comfort Kory had established in their old San Francisco townhouse. But it was all Eric's, chosen to please only his taste and no one else's, and it was real and solid, not something conjured up out of energy and thin air like goods of elvish making.

It might have felt restrictive after the bootless freedom of the past few years, but somehow it didn't. It felt solid and comfortable and good. And when the Krugerrands ran out, and the account that covered his rent and utilities expired, he'd have to have a job to pay for all of this.

Not that he had any doubt that he'd be able to do that when the time came. He was probably one of the few people, if not the only person, who ever quit Juilliard and then returned to finish what he'd started.

Returned to finish . . . that had been a recurring theme lately. It wasn't the first time the thought had crossed his mind over time—but the first time, it hadn't been his thought at all.

"You have unfinished business."  

When he closed his eyes he could hear that stern voice saying those words even over the strains of Beethoven in the here-and-now. He didn't have to think about it; the scene played out behind his eyes without effort, as clearly as if it had happened yesterday.

* * *

Underhill. He'd been Underhill, at Elfhame Misthold, and he hadn't known what day, week, or even month it was. Time moved strangely Underhill; light came and went, but there was no telling if it was the end of a day or if the Queen of the Hill had decided she was tired of light and wanted some darkness for a change. Beth—Beth needed not to be Above, in the mortal world, where there were law-enforcement people who thought she was responsible for some very unfortunate occurrences. And she was—but not in the way that they thought.

Besides, as the elves with the ability to See into the future had said at the time, at some point Real Soon Bethie was going to show up preggers, even more reason not to go back into the World Above. So he and Kory were living Underhill with her, and in that strange timeless land Eric had thrown himself into his music—which meant his magic—fully and completely for the first time in his life.

After the Loma Prieta almost-disaster, the Nightflyers, and the absolute proof to everybody involved of the madness of allowing a half-trained Bard to run around leaking magic and going off unexpectedly, he'd had little choice. It hadn't been ambition that had driven him, it had been desperation. Beth was slipping away from him more every day, and he knew it. Things were changing in his life, even in the timeless world of Underhill, and he didn't like it. Maybe he'd thought that being a real Bard, one with full control of his powers like the old Druidic Bards,—Merlin, Taliesen, Gwion—would lure Beth back and put him on an even footing with Korendil, Elven Knight of Elfhame Sun-Descending. Heck, Kory didn't have all that much magic by elven standards, surely Eric could catch up!

But before long, the music and magic stopped being a crutch, or a means to an end, and became the end itself.

* * *

One day—a day much like any other, here—he had finished playing and put his flute down, waiting for Dharinel to give him the usual critique. Dharinel was a Magus Major and one of the most powerful of Elven Bards in any Elfhame, anywhere, and there was always a critique. Either Eric's control over the magic energy was not firm enough, or it was too grasping, and he didn't let it flow. He went too slowly, or too fast. There was always something wrong, and Dharinel was always correct when he pointed those things out.

It had all felt right when he played, completely and utterly right, but it had felt right in the past, too. But this time when he stopped, Dharinel said nothing for a very long time. The perfumed mists of Underhill drifted past them both, and the birds that had stilled out of politeness while Eric played resumed their song. There was no sunshine, of course: there was no sun Underhill, only a perpetual twilight, except when the Prince or the Queen deemed it appropriate to deepen the twilight to something like true night, so that the fireflies, Fae Lights, and Faerie Illuminations could enliven the darkness. Eric held his breath and wondered what he had done wrong this time. Was it that horrible?

Finally Dharinel had let out his breath and opened his jewel-toned eyes. "I have nothing more to teach you," he said in his controlled, utterly perfect voice.

Eric had shaken his head. "What?" he blurted. "Was I that bad?"

"You were that good," Dharinel corrected. "I have nothing more to teach you. The rest will come with maturity and practice, and it is a pity that you are not of the Blood, for you would be a force to reckon with in a hundred years or so." He had actually smiled then; a thin smile, but the expression so seldom crossed Dharinel's sardonic lips that Eric had nearly fallen off his bench. "As it is, in a mere handful of mortal years, you will be a force to reckon with in the mortal world. And that is where you must go now. You have unfinished business there."

The moment Dharinel said those words, all of the vague discontent that had been in Eric's heart attained an object. Once music had become his All again, he had been able to come to terms with the fact that Beth and Kory were an Item and he had been slowly eased out of that side of their relationship. They would always be friends, the three of them, but—Kory and Beth were a pair, and he wasn't part of that structure anymore. He'd allowed it to happen without trying to fight. And once those last pieces of the puzzle had fallen into place, like the tumblers in a lock, he'd known what he should do.

Besides, Beth had a lot of Things she needed to deal with. She and Kory wanted kids, and while Eric liked kids in the abstract, he wasn't ready to play daddy right now, even though he'd fathered the child she was carrying. It had seemed like a good solution at the time—call it a kind of parting gift. Kory and his cousins were very pleased with the idea of raising a baby-Bard from scratch in Underhill where she could be properly taught. Though Eric knew that Beth wanted more children—and with Kory—an elf couldn't father a child on a mortal woman without a lot of high-powered—and very dangerous—magical intervention. Halfling births could be arranged in a number of ways, but most of them involved stealing life-energy from another source to allow the woman to conceive—and that meant wholesale slaughter of the innocents who donated that energy. There were rumors that there were gentler ways, but no one in Misthold was really certain what was involved, actually, though Kory had the elven librarians searching the most ancient records and sending to the other hames for hints of the ancient Seleighe quickening magics.

But unlike Eric, Beth really didn't have much choice about staying in Underhill. Those very unpleasant people from the "alphabet agencies" were still looking for Beth. This was bad. It meant that Beth Kentraine could never live in the real world again, unless she concocted a whole new identity or moved to another country where no one would ask her about her past. She could visit—with care and constant vigilance—but she couldn't live in the States anymore. And babies and the Faire circuit didn't coexist well, at the best of times. . . .

And if the two of them didn't have enough problems, there's the fact that if Beth spends long enough in Underhill, she CAN'T come out, ever. She'll die. And before that happens, even if she does find some way to live Outside, she gets older. And Kory . . . doesn't. Or not fast enough, anyway. He's young by Sidhe standards. He has centuries ahead of him. Bethie has less than a century. There are spells that can slow her aging, but they'd tie her and Kory together for the rest of their lives—and shorten his. And even if she were willing to take that kind of responsibility, she won't even let Dharinel try anything like that while she feels responsible for me!  

It all had come together in that moment. Eric wanted his life back—his life in the World Above. There were things he needed to finish, like his degree, if only to prove to himself that he could. And he just didn't like Underhill all that much, to tell the truth. He had at first. He'd enjoyed the timelessness, the tranquility. But after a while, what was sweet had become cloying, what was tranquil seemed stale, and a growing restlessness brought it home to him that nothing ever changed here.

"You're right," he'd told his mentor. "I have unfinished business. And I don't belong here." He'd looked around, for a moment. "Maybe no mortal belongs here—"

"Unless they're sorely wounded in heart or soul, lad," Dharinel said softly, so softly Eric had to strain to hear him. "Only then, when mortal sunlight brings pain, not gladness, can they bide happily with us. Or if they're so heart-bound to one of the Blood that losing the sun of the mortal lands seems no kind of sacrifice to make."

* * *

Eric opened his eyes in the here-and-now and sighed. Well, if anyone qualified as "wounded in the heart or soul," it was Beth. Hell, she still couldn't even sleep at night unless someone had her sandwiched between him and the wall—except when she was Underhill. Living at Kit and Bonnie's during the week, doing the Sterling Forest RenFaire on weekends, was one of the rare situations when she relaxed outside of Underhill—it would be next to impossible for a government goon to insert himself into the organization of Rennies. Rennies all knew each other, or knew people who knew each other, and the habits and mannerisms of a Rennie were something it would take a long time for a government agent to master. Not to mention the esoteric skill-sets it took to get hired on at the Faires in the first place! Beth could feel safe there, and at night, surrounded by other campers (and guarded by her and Kory's elvensteeds) it would be pretty hard for anyone to get at them. Impossible to do it quietly.

Unless you're a ninja, and I don't think they take government contracts. At least I hope they don't.  

The three of them had already planned the trip to the Sterling Forest Faire before Eric had made his decision—he'd just expanded the trip to include his reentry into the human race. It hadn't been easy, but the biggest hurdle had actually been getting an audition to reapply at Juilliard in the first place. Convincing Beth that this was something he had to do had been child's play. Kory hadn't objected at all, largely because Dharinel, who was his superior as well as his Elder, had made it quite clear in his quiet but implacable way that this was something he felt Eric had to do.

After that it was just a matter of lining up the ducks, and shooting them down. And here he was.

He shook his head, levering himself up out of the chair with a sigh. He had a lot to unpack, so he might as well get to it. He could always brood later. There'd be a lot of time for it. And it wouldn't get much cooler even if he waited: the stone and concrete of the city held heat for hours after the sun set, unlike both L.A. and San Francisco, where temperatures tended to drop sharply once the sun went down. Since his apartment was near the Hudson River he could expect a drop of at least a few degrees tonight, but not really enough to count on. Still, there were only three or four more weeks of this hot weather at the very most, and he could always conjure up some cool if he really needed it.

Say . . . there's an idea. He rubbed his sweaty forehead, and then went into the bedroom for his flute.

Music was a handy tool for focusing his Bardic magic, but in most situations it wasn't absolutely necessary. Still, Eric enjoyed the game of fitting the music to the spell. And here in the World Above, where magic didn't fill the ambient air as it did in Underhill, it was nice to have a bit of a framework to work within.

He fitted the pieces of the flute together and blew an exploratory trill before segueing into "Troika," one of the five pieces that made up Moussorsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. A troika was a three-horse Russian sleigh, and you could almost hear the sleigh-bells and the cadence of the horses' pacing feet in the bounce of the main theme. Eric closed his eyes, imagining the crunch of hooves on snow, the clear cold bite of the wintery air—

But not too much. We just want to make it a little cooler in here, not turn the place into an icebox. . . .  

As a pleasant chill rolled through the apartment, Eric opened his eyes. He could see a faint shimmer of magic over the windows, where the parameters of the spell he had set turned the air from hot to cold as it passed through the window. In a few moments, the muggy cloyingness of the air was gone. The spell would fade away naturally after a few hours in order to avoid being too disruptive; after all, he could set it again any time he needed to. Eric walked back out into the living room, flute in hand.

Now for a little urban renewal.  

He started with the CD collection, although the first things he unpacked didn't go into the storage cabinets, they went on the machine, and when he was done, he had a stack of thirty empty jewel boxes piled beside it.

He set the changer on "shuffle," and let it rip, sinking back down in his chair and thinking amusedly that this was one mix no radio station on the planet would ever match. Hey, it's K-Banyon radio, all Celtic, all the time! 

Then again, maybe there was one station that could match his CD-shuffle. WYRD, a little station somewhere in the middle of nowhere in North Carolina or Georgia or someplace like that, was allegedly programmed by elves. All he knew was the one or two times he'd accidentally picked it up, it had played things he was only thinking about, as if the DJ were reading his mind. And supposedly, you could count on it to give you omens of what was going to happen to you.

No thank you. And I certainly hope and pray my CD player doesn't start doing so.  

Well, he had some pretty esoteric platters in his Celtica-mix today; stuff he hadn't known was back in production, stuff he hadn't known was in production in the first place. Strange little labels he'd never heard of, and some that were clearly self-produced.

* * *

"We don't get a lot of call for this—" The clerk had said that over and over, in a bewildered voice, as Eric brought out disk after disk that wasn't in his computer. Finally one of the assistant managers had taken pity on the poor kid and sent him off to help a Gen-Xer find the latest Smashing Pumpkins CD.

"Our owner has a hobby," the assistant manager explained, as he patiently entered the prices and stock numbers manually. "He's independently wealthy; as long as the store breaks even, he doesn't care. His hobby is to make sure that no matter what someone's musical taste is, he'll always find fabulous surprises here. You should see the mail he gets—catalogues from individual artists, even. So—a lot of stuff may sit around for a year or more before anyone buys it. He doesn't care; he knows that someday someone is going to want it, be amazed and thrilled that it's here, and keep coming back to see what else shows up. That's why the store's called 'Plastic Meltdown.' He expects credit cards to go into overload when the right people walk through the door."

Eric just grinned. "Well, I know I'm going to put my plastic through a workout here on a regular basis. Does this happen often?"

"Often enough," the middle-aged fellow said, with a wink. "Yesterday it was someone who collects movie scores—she was funny, kept saying, 'My God! My God!' until I thought the Big Guy was going to show up to find out why she was calling on Him. Today it's you. Tomorrow, probably no one unusual, but next week, maybe an opera buff. The heavy hitters are usually from out of town; the rest of us know we don't have to blow all our savings at once."

If that was a subtle inquiry, Eric didn't answer it quite as the fellow expected. "I just took the plunge on a CD player—I resisted for a long, long time; now that I'm a convert, I put the vinyl in storage and gave away the tapes, and I'm replacing everything with CDs. And picking up stuff I didn't know was around."

The clerk coughed, but didn't comment; it was a Centurion AmEx card on the register.

He probably sees a lot of heavy rollers in here.  

"Win the lottery?" the clerk asked instead, as the total on the register continued to mount.

Eric grinned, since that was his original cover story. "Actually," he said, "yes, I did. Low enough it paid out all at once, high enough to let me do what I've wanted to for a long time."

The clerk stared at him for a moment as if to see if he was joking, then said, almost reverently, "Does any of that luck rub off?"

Eric chuckled. "Not that I've ever heard of. You know luck—you always get it when you don't need it. I was pretty happy where I was—playing for tourists down in Mexico. Climate was good, cheap to live down there, and the tourists were pretty pleased to discover people who spoke English, so they always tipped well. But—when I didn't need luck, there it was. And if things don't work out here like I hope, I'll probably go back."

"Why would anyone leave Mexico for New York?" the clerk shook his head wonderingly as he passed the AmEx through the reader and waited for the approval to come through.

"Because the coast of Mexico doesn't have Juilliard, and I want to find out if I'm a musician or only a busker," Eric told him as the approval came across the wire and the receipt scrolled out. The clerk nodded, and might have said something more, except at that moment four more customers appeared behind Eric, and all of them looked in a hurry to check out and leave. So Eric took his bulging bags and got out of their way before they started giving the clerk a hard time.

* * *

He opened his eyes and sank a little deeper into the chair, acutely aware of the silence beneath the music coming from the speakers. For the first time in a long time—a very long time, going back to even before his last girl dumped him, just before he met Kory and got really involved with Beth—there were no other sounds of occupation around him. The walls and floors of the building were very thick—which would be a blessing on the whole, but right now it prevented him from hearing the sounds other tenants made, noises that might have let him feel less alone and isolated. The only sounds within this apartment came from him. There would be no quiet clatter of Beth puttering about, or of Kory experimenting with modern human foods in the kitchen—

On the other hand, that isn't altogether bad. The kitchen won't have to be hosed down at least once a week. I'll never forget the day he discovered microwave popcorn. . . .  

But the place felt like a museum—a stage set, with no life in it. He sighed. Maybe I ought to get a cat. Or a couple of finches. Anything to sound as if there's something home besides me. He couldn't remember what the lease said about pets; he'd have to look it up.

But a cat would mean more responsibilities, and having to remember to feed it and change the litter and be here to play with it. How much time would he have to give a pet, anyway? Even if the lease said he could have one (he hadn't read it that closely), he'd better be careful about what kind of companion he chose. He'd be in classes and rehearsals all the time, and studying when he wasn't at the school. It would be cruel to have a pet that needed a lot of attention.

A dog would be out of the question. So would a parrot or any other bird bigger than a pair of budgies. With enough toys and each other, a couple of budgies would be all right left alone all day, and so would the right temperament of cat. If I got an adult cat from the pound, or even rescued one off the street. . . . 

Maybe a tabletop waterfall and some environmental disks might be the better answer. Or canaries? Eric sighed, remembering the birds of Underhill. Now that was one thing he would miss about the place.

I wonder if Dharinel would let me sneak a couple of those Underhill larks out here? I could leave the cage open so if they got bored or hungry they could go back home. . . .  

He watched the clouds pass outside the window, and let his thoughts drift with the music. And at some point he must have actually fallen asleep, because he suddenly woke with a start, to find that the sky outside his window had gone from silvery to indigo, there was a crick in his neck, the environmental spell had faded, and his mouth was dry. Sunset! I didn't think I was that tired; I must have been working harder than I thought. By now the Faire was over for the day, and Beth and Kory were—what? Probably gathering with old friends and new around someone's fire, passing around bowls of stew, trading gossip. The Faire circuit really was a world unto itself, upon which the real world seldom intruded until Monday rolled around again.

He got up, stiffly, and wandered into the kitchen to get something to drink.

Beth had loved the apartment's kitchen, which meant, he supposed, that it was laid out well. There were too many cupboards for his few pots and dishes, though Beth had seen to it that the pantry was filled with things that were easy to cook, even for someone of his limited skills. The cabinets were newer than the building, but not by much: cream-colored metal with black Bakelite Deco motifs, and the floor was those tidy octagonal tiles that no building outside of New York seemed to have. But the stove was modern enough, and so was the refrigerator, and at some time in the past one of the cabinets next to the sink had been sacrificed to permit the installation of a dishwasher, which was a good thing, since Eric never liked to wash dishes. The countertop and splashboards were of white marble that matched the cabinets, and it all looked very unused and perfect, like an illustration in House Beautiful from 1920.

Yeah, well, I'll try making an omelet tomorrow, and fix that in a hurry. If I don't slash my hand open chopping onions, I'll drop at least two eggs on the floor and leave bits of potato all over the top of the stove.  

He opened the fridge and was confronted with a vast array of crystalline water bottles of various shapes and labels, with a few lone bottles of juices, root beer, cherry, and cream soda providing a little color among the colorless army. There'd be no one to drink it all but him, and suddenly Eric was struck with a sense of loss that brought a lump to his throat.

Kory had obviously, personally—lovingly—stocked the fridge.

Elves couldn't handle caffeine. It was as destructively addictive for them as cocaine was for humans, and worse: it acted on them like horse tranquilizers, sending them into a euphoric, oblivious state they called "Dreaming." Kory would no more have put cola or tea into a fridge than Eric would have stocked one with heroin and crank.

Bless Kory! Nothing wrong with yuppie-water. And until I get a filter on it, I'm not sure I want to trust what comes out of the kitchen tap. Kory's "allergy" had done Eric a favor. The pipes in old buildings frequently added a liberal helping of rust—if not lead from the pipe solder—to the drinking water. I've killed enough brain cells on my own, I don't need to lose any more! Eric snagged the first bottle that came to hand, twisted off the top, and took a long swig of water as he wandered back to the living room.

As he settled back into his chair, Eric suddenly had enough of the CD player. He shut it off with the remote control, and silence rushed in so abruptly it felt as if his ears had popped.

He waited, straining to hear what, if anything, the building contained. By now people should be coming home from work or school; they should be taking baths, fixing dinner, turning on TVs for the evening news. And there were some sounds, faint and far-off, as if from another building, but they certainly weren't intrusive. In fact, he had to really concentrate to hear them at all.

He shivered, stood up and started to pace, then stopped himself and sat down quickly on the sofa, putting the water down on the floor and reaching for the flute case that lay on a small table in front of the sofa. Suddenly he wanted the silence filled again—but not by someone else's music.

For a while he simply played whatever was most familiar, a mix of the tunes he'd used to play when he busked alone. One thing he knew he didn't want to do, and that was to play the things he and Beth and Kory performed together.

But as his fingers warmed up and the notes came as easily as breathing, an idea came to him.

He didn't necessarily have to stay alone. He was a magician, and although he had to be very careful not to meddle, there were things he could do for himself without casting a geas. Why not use Bardic magic to hunt out a friend here in this building?

There was no good reason why he shouldn't do just that—now. He had the control; he knew what not to do as well as what to do. Instead of the old sledge-hammer process of using brute force to get something done, his touch these days was the equivalent of a neurosurgeon with a hair-thin laser beam. All he had to do was to send out a call for someone who also needed a friend like him—simply speeding up the inevitable, because sooner or later he'd run into people in the building who had similar interests anyway.

If he did this right, whoever came would hear his music despite the excellent sound-deadening qualities of the building. He—or she—would recognize it for live music, become curious, and follow it to the source. He shouldn't get too specific, though. And he should keep the need on the lighter side of friendship. Otherwise I could end up with a case of Fatal Attraction. Oh, no; no thank you! We'll keep this casual and innocent. Just the same kind of good times and good fun I had with some of my Faire buddies. He knew what that felt like; friends you could count on, but who gave you the space you needed. He'd taken it for granted: first, on the Faire circuit, and then Underhill, but now that he'd shut himself out of both worlds, he realized how much he'd unconsciously depended on them.

He set his thoughts in the right pattern, breathed softly into the flute, and set the magic free on the wings of the song.

Three times to repeat the song; that was what Dharinel had taught him. Once to make the pattern, twice to set the pattern, three times to bind the pattern. For really heavy work, he'd repeat his melody nine times—or, more rarely, five—but this wasn't heavy work. There was nothing riding on whether or not anyone "heard" his call, there would be no grave consequences if no one answered. He had been careful in being so completely species-nonspecific that it was even remotely possible that something from Underhill might answer the call. He didn't think any of the Sidhe lived in New York City—they lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but so much more of New York was man-made than either of the other cities, layers and layers of infrastructure descending as far below the surface as the skyscrapers stretched above, that he doubted they could stand it. He hadn't even specified "in the building," only "nearby"—and for Sidhe or other Underhill creatures, "nearby" could be quite some distance away.

Not that he wasn't being cautious; the other half of his "call" was very specific. Nothing would "hear" him that didn't have what Dharinel called "good intentions." These were not the kind of "good intentions" that the road to Hell was allegedly paved with—more like a healthy set of ethics and morals. Nothing would hear or respond to Eric's music that would harm him, willingly or accidentally.

It was no longer a difficult proposition to hold all those components of his magic in his mind—but it was rather like being a skillful juggler. It required intense concentration, and he kept his eyes closed to maintain that concentration right up to and through the final note.

And as the last breath of that note faded, Eric heard a quiet tapping, just loud enough to catch his attention.

But not from the door. From the window.

Surprised, he opened his eyes, wondering if the wind had blown some bit of debris up against the frame of the open window that was making the tapping sound. But he knew there were no trees that close to his windows. Maybe a pigeon? That was possible. If the last tenant had been feeding them. . . .

What they hey, there's bread in the kitchen.  

He walked over to the window to see, still thinking of pigeons, so it was with a profound shock that his eyes met another pair of eyes on the other side of the frame—dark, wide, and set in a fanged grey face beneath a pair of waving, batlike wings. And just to confirm that it was no accident, beside the face was a claw-like hand with a single talon extended, tapping once again on the frame.

 

 

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