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TWO: A CALLING-ON SONG

If this had happened a couple of years ago, before Eric had the unique experience of having an Elven Knight appear in his apartment and scare the crap out of him, been worshipped by Nightflyers, chased by Unseleighe Elves and become a Bard, he probably would have put an Eric-shaped hole in the door on his way out. By now though, he had seen so many arcane and outré critters that having a monster staring at him from his fire escape, wanting to come into his apartment, was not going to frighten him. It was a surprise, even something of a shock, but it didn't frighten him.


If it had happened the last time he was in the World Above he might still have come at it with either a baseball bat or a sword. He hadn't known how to protect himself, not really, and his grasp of magic had been rudimentary at best. He had tended to assume that anything he didn't already recognize—or which hadn't been properly introduced by someone or something he already knew—was dangerous. And that wasn't an unreasonable way to operate, given all he'd been through. Paranoia was not a bad thing, in the appropriate degree.


But that was then. Now he had the responsibility that magical ability brought. He didn't act without thinking. He observed and thought before he did something. He had enough power and the control over it to protect himself for a limited time against almost anything. And he had the ability to call reinforcements quickly, which was even more important. All these factors gave him a level of calm he wouldn't have had before, but his time Underhill had made some deep-laid changes in Eric's psyche, had made him realize that his mind could work faster than his body, and that there generally was time to take in and process information before doing something, because acting without thought usually led to doing something that might prove to be very stupid.


So he had taken in a lot of information with his first glance at the visitor outside his window. It wasn't as large as shock had first made it appear; only half the size of a human, though that didn't mean it couldn't be dangerous. Still, there were other considerations as well.


First of all, he had noted the eyes; there was no anger or aggression in them. Granted, a professional killer would probably look just as calm before he killed you, but at the moment, Eric couldn't think of any enemy he'd made Underhill that would have the motivation to send an assassin after him.


Second, the creature was just sitting there tapping on the window frame. And even if the window had been closed, from the look of it, if it wanted to get in to attack him, a sheet of glass wasn't going to stop it.


Third, it appeared to want to be invited in, rather than just walking in through the open window. Now, all vampire mythology to the contrary, most nasty critters could cross a mortal's threshold without any problem; he hadn't had time to set up the heavy-duty wards that would stop it. So there was a very high probability that this thing—whatever it was—was friendly. That it had, in fact, answered his call. So what if it wasn't necessarily the kind of drinking-buddy he'd assumed he would get? After all, he hadn't specified species—just someone he'd like to know, and who'd like to know him.


So, after the first jolt of atavistic fear, Eric carefully put down his flute and walked slowly over to the window. The thing grinned at him as it saw that he was going to let it in, and he noticed a few more things about it.


One, except for its big dark eyes, the creature was a uniform, textured grey, all over, just like granite. Right down to the soot smudges and patches of lichen.


Two, the gargoyle that perched on his corner of the building just outside his window was gone. Or to be perfectly accurate, it wasn't where it had been. It was on the fire escape outside his window, bat-wings, fangs, ape-like arms, and all.


"Hi," he said, extending his hand cautiously (the creature did have some formidable talons, after all). "My name's Eric Banyon—"


"Sieur Eric, Knight and Bard to the court of the Queen of Elfhame Misthold, don't you mean?" the creature asked, in a thick accent that was part Bronx, part Irish, and all cheerful, raising what would have been an eyebrow if it had any hair on its uniformly granite-colored exterior. It took his hand in its for a firm but not overly aggressive handshake, and stepped through the window. Its hand was surprisingly warm and dry, though rough and hard as granite.


"Or is it that you aren't much of a one for titles and all?" It didn't wait for an answer. "I ain't, so that'd be all right with me. Greystone, at your service. Glad you whistled, Eric me fine laddybuck. I was trying to figure out how I could do my job without you noticing that I was moving. Or gone; sometimes, y'see, I got to leave, and I figured you'd catch on that I wasn't there pretty quick."


The gargoyle released his hand, and Eric blinked. "Job?" he said carefully, then woke to his duties as a host. "Please, would you like to sit down? Can I get you anything? A drink? It's pretty hot out there." So what do I offer a gargoyle to drink? I'd think they'd get kind of tired of water.  


"Yes and yes, and me thanks t'you." Greystone plopped himself down on the floor and stretched his wings luxuriously. "Water—more of yon yuppie-water, if you please. Take the acid taste of the smog-wash out of me mouth."


Just goes to show I shouldn't jump to conclusions. Eric fetched two more bottles of a different (and more expensive) variety of water. The best he could offer would be nothing compared to the waters of Underhill, after all, and any gargoyle he met would be more than familiar with Underhill, after all. At least it ought to be.


Greystone accepted his offering with a grin and an appreciative smack of the lips as he drank about a third of the bottle in a single gulp.


"Ah!" he said with enthusiasm, while Eric took a seat on the couch. "Now that's more like it! Clean, clear—you wouldn't believe what city rainwater tastes like these days."


He drank again and put his bottle down on the floor beside him. "Well, Eric Banyon, and did you think you'd come to live in this grand building all by accident? Not hardly. Yon cold-spell was an amusing little conceit, but I'll admit I didn't think you'd have the balls to make a calling-on song; that took some brains and some moxie, I'm here to tell you."


Eric took a careful sip from his own bottle before replying. He had the feeling that he needed to phrase his questions carefully. "You say I didn't get this apartment by accident?"


The gargoyle nodded.


"So why did I end up here?"


"The building chose you, lad, what do you think?" Greystone nodded wisely. "That's the long and the short of it. No one comes here that Guardian House doesn't want; that's the way it was built. It felt you enter the city, and it made its own calling-on song to bring you here. That's why you went for a walk, and that's why you found the building and saw the sign. The building manager just serves the building's needs. When it has a vacancy, Ms. Hernandez waits until someone shows up who can see the For Rent sign—not everyone can, but you've probably guessed that by now. That's why it's called Guardian House. One of the reasons."


A building that picks its own tenants? Boy, that's a new one! "Why choose me?" Eric persisted. He wasn't alarmed; he was quite certain that if there had been anything ill-omened about this place, Kory would have sensed it. And the name—Guardian House—sounded as if it were a force for Good, at least. "Is it because of the magic?"


Dharinel had warned him it would make him visible to all kinds of creatures that didn't have the time of day for an ordinary mortal, but Eric had already had a taste of what that was like.


"A bit." Now Greystone seemed to be picking his words carefully. "Most people who live here aren't witches, sorcerers, or even mages—not the way you are, me lad—they're just people with a very singular talent for living, and certain gifts to be nurtured. Most of 'em are artists, but not necessarily the way most people think of artists. Oh, there is a fair crop of painters, writers, musicians and dancers, but there are others who do things like—like putting exactly the right people together. Or who can make computers do things that'd bug your eyes out. Or who've got the gift of healing the mind and body together. The city needs people like that, and this building—this House—needs them too. They make things and people around them happy, and the House lives on that happiness. It's a living thing, not just a bunch of plaster and stone, and happiness is food and drink to it. So it shelters the special people it finds and protects them in exchange for their happiness—it's like that arrangement with the little fish and the seaflower."


"The clownfish and the anemone?" Eric hazarded, out of his memories of some half-forgotten National Geographic special, and Greystone nodded.


"What about the people who live here who are mages. Do they know about the House? About you?"


"Only four of them do. Ms. Hernandez's one, of course. And, no disrespect intended, boyo, but each one of the four of 'em could blow you into powder and not have to think about it."


Greystone waited to see what Eric's reaction was, but Eric just shrugged. It was hardly news to him that there were other magicians out there who were much more powerful than he was. What surprised him was that four of them lived in the same building, as mages tended to be as touchy and egotistical as . . . well, as professional musicians.


The gargoyle seemed satisfied with Eric's response, for he continued. "As for the other four, they know about me, of course, since I—well, we, me an' the lads—are their security system." The gargoyle smiled smugly. "And sometimes guard dogs. Stuff they need to worry about won't even show up on a camera, like as not, but we'll sniff it out before it ever gets within a block of here."


"Why?" Eric asked. "I mean—why do they need you?"


He realized as soon as he asked the question that he really didn't have any right to know the answer, but Greystone didn't act upset. He laid one finger along his nose and leveled his gaze at Eric.


"I'm telling you all this for your protection, lad. Maybe those four can blow you into powder, but you're streets ahead of the rest in the House. The four—well, they take care of things Out There, in the city. One's a real cop, the rest, well, you wouldn't know they were special. But when bad things happen out there, bad magical things, sometimes they need to get taken care of, and the four of them do that. That's the real reason the House was built, grown, whatever you like—to shelter the Guardians. There've been as few as one and as many as nine here at once. And that's why we're here, me and the lads, to watch while they're sleeping. But the four of us can't stop everything, and sometimes when bad things come looking for a fight, they don't much care who's in the way, or take the time to sort out the Guardians from the bystanders."


Ain't that the living truth. Eric thought over the possible implications. "So something coming after one of them might mistake me for the right target?" he hazarded. There had to be a reason Greystone was telling him all this.


"Might. Not likely, but might. So you get to know about the House, and about me." Greystone grinned. "You did a calling-on for a friend, you know. I hadn't figured on letting you know about all this so soon, but I couldn't pass up such an open invitation."


Eric grinned back; he liked the feisty little fellow! In fact, he couldn't think of a better answer to his call. "Do the four mages you mentioned know about me yet?"


"Ms. Hernandez, of course. The other three will figure it out in the next couple of days if she doesn't tell them first," Greystone said complacently. "Now don't you go get cocky now that you know about them, mind! They're not here to babysit you—you're expected to defend yourself against anything you get yourself into. That's only fair—they've got a deal more to worry about than you, any day of the week."


"Oh, believe me, I've learned my lesson!" Eric assured the gargoyle hastily, with a shudder as he thought of some of the things he'd done out of ignorance in the not-so-distant past. And if I never see another Nightflyer again, it will be just fine with me! "At least, I hope I have."


"You did all right with your calling-on song," Greystone assured him kindly. "Just keep thinking cautious and conservative, and you'll be all right." He grinned again. "Anything else you want to know?"


He wanted to know who the other three mages were, but he had the feeling that Greystone wouldn't tell him. "You're a sort of magical security system—how do I know if there's trouble around?" Eric finally asked.


"I'll tell you," the gargoyle informed him. "You'll hear me in your head. I'll tell you what the danger is, and give you my best guess on what to do to avoid it. After that, you're on your own. If you don't do what I tell you to, that's your problem, and you handle it."


"Fair enough," Eric acknowledged. They both finished their drinks in friendly silence, then Eric slam-dunked the empties into the trash basket near the kitchen door. "Can you be a security system and hang out with me at the same time?"


"Sure," Greystone replied firmly. "I have to be able to do that—multi-tasking, you mortals call it. Sometimes I sit out there and read a book, if it isn't raining. Ms. Hernandez lets me borrow hers. And P— One of the others gave me one of those little FM ear radios. I used to use a set of headphones until some smart-ass photographer took a picture of me wearing them and it got into the paper, but that little one hardly shows."


Just what I was hoping to hear! "In that case," Eric said, as the gargoyle watched him with a look of expectant anticipation. "How about popcorn and a movie?"


* * *

Greystone had good—and sophisticated—taste for someone who sat on the edge of a roof all day every day. After a quick scan of the movies Eric had bought to go with the new DVD player, he chose Bullets Over Broadway. "I have to tell you, laddybuck, sometimes it's downright frustrating sitting out there, listening to a line or two from this or that, and not able to even catch all the dialogue." Greystone shook his head sadly as Eric unwrapped the DVD and loaded it. "I can't tell you the number of times I've sat up there and thought about flying down to a window and taking my chances on being spotted."


"Well, if you get bored at night, even if I'm asleep, just come in the window and channel-surf or load a tape or something; I'll leave the window unlocked," Eric promised him. "I guess you'll take care of any burglars that happen by."


Greystone sighed happily. "Somehow we're never bothered with that sort of thing," he said innocently. "Blessed if I know why. But you're sure it won't wake you?" he asked, anxiously. "I've got good hearing, I won't play it above a whisper, I promise."


"It won't wake me," Eric assured him. "Honest. My last roommate never slept to speak of, and he used to run the tube or the stereo all night long. He was pretty considerate about volume, but some of his friends weren't, and they'd drop by any time they felt like it. I learned to sleep through entire parties."


"Ah, the Sidhe are not always thoughtful guests, now, are they," Greystone observed shrewdly, then turned his attention to the screen.


When the movie was over, Eric's sides hurt from laughing. Since it was his choice next, he put in a copy of Riverdance, which had Greystone tapping his talons in time to the music almost immediately.


"You could do that," Greystone said when it was over. "You could play with that group, right this moment. You're good enough. Why don't you? Why are you wasting another couple of years going to school when you don't need to?"


Eric was no longer surprised that Greystone knew so much about him. A telepathic gargoyle would be an entire intelligence network all by himself.


"Because I have a couple of things to prove to myself," Eric told him, as he sat on the floor beside the DVD player and ejected the disk. He cocked his head to one side as he watched to see Greystone's reaction.


"One of them is the laying of old ghosts. Another is that I have to prove to myself that I have the discipline to make it through to a degree; that I have the patience to put up with teachers who are going to put me through the wringer just because they can. I have to know that I can do something alone, without help from anyone else. And there are things I can learn in classes that I'll never learn on my own. The piece of paper I'll get doesn't mean a damn insofar as my passing auditions; it's what it will mean to me that matters."


He hadn't explained any of this to Beth or Kory; Kory wouldn't have understood, and probably Beth wouldn't have, either. Kory would point out that he could study with the finest of Underhill Bards if what he wanted was to learn about music and discipline—hadn't he survived Dharinel's teaching? Beth, who never had graduated from college, had the contempt for the sheepskin that many who drop out or never make it through often have. In Beth's case, Eric was fairly certain it was because she had seen so many overeducated idiots pass through the television studios she worked at. She had a point, but every time Eric had tried to argue the counter-point, he'd had to give it up before he lost his temper with her. Or she with him—Beth had a temper that could strip wallpaper at 600 yards, and the temper that went with it. And her not even a redhead. . . . 


"In a way, you need to prove you're a man, eh?" the gargoyle observed shrewdly, and Eric had to laugh. Going back to Juilliard was a far cry from John Wayne heroics.


"Yeah, you could say that. This is kind of my manhood ordeal." He made a face. "And part of it is going to be an ordeal, all right. I'm going to have to keep slapping myself down to keep from using magic to deal with some of those bastards in there that call themselves teachers. Why is it that the teaching profession attracts so many insecure sadists? But I won't do it. That would be cheating—and hundreds of people who don't have magic manage, after all. I just have to remember that my way won't count in there, figure out what they want, and give it to them."


"I don't know. Sounds like knuckling under to me." Greystone examined his talons carefully, not looking at Eric.


"Sometimes you have to knuckle under," Eric replied without heat, though such an implied slur would have had him in a rage as recently as a couple of years ago. "That's life in the mortal world; it's a food chain, and you can't always be top predator." And, a part of him acknowledged, he wouldn't want to be top predator. You gave up as much as you got if you became King of the Hill—Above or Below—and there were some things Eric wouldn't give up, no matter what price he was offered for them.


"I suppose." The gargoyle sighed. "Makes me glad I have a simple job, one with no compromises involved."


"And there are plenty who'd envy you," Eric told him honestly, and yawned. "Well, I'm for bed. Knock yourself out: watch or listen to whatever you like, just shut the window behind you when you leave, okay?" He got up, and offered his hand to Greystone, saying in his best Humphrey Bogart voice, "Louis, I have the feeling this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."


Greystone shook his hand and, to Eric's delight, then saluted with his bottle of water and responded (in a better imitation), "Here's lookin' at you, kid."


Eric went off to his bed and fell easily and quickly asleep, with the reassuring sounds of British comedy and the gargoyle's low chuckle murmuring through the apartment to keep him company.


* * *

In the morning, it all could have been a dream. The disks Greystone had used had been put neatly away, and the gargoyle was back in place, looking like an ordinary stone gargoyle. But as Eric entered the living room, the gargoyle moved just enough to look over his shoulder and wink.


Eric laughed, and waved back. Greystone returned his gaze to the street below.


With that reassurance, Eric sauntered into his warm, pleasant kitchen, and sat down at his own tiny kitchen table. Memories of other kitchens, other wakings, filled his thoughts. I never used to get up this early, he thought, noting that the time was only nine A.M. But then again, I used to drink or smoke myself into oblivion most every night, too. That tends to make for late risings.


He poured and devoured a bowl of cereal absentmindedly, and considered what he was going to do for the day. It was Sunday, his last day of complete freedom. Tomorrow he'd begin classes and all the rest. While he didn't expect to have a great deal of trouble with actual playing, there would be things like music theory and composition, orchestration, and other technical subjects where his natural gifts wouldn't carry him. Homework! My god, I'm going to have to deal with homework again!


At least this time around the drudgery of homework would be lessened by the computer set up on the desk in the living room. Pointing and clicking, and even typing, were all things he could manage on his own, and there were classes at Juilliard in using the same composition software and MIDI interfaces he'd had installed on his box. Then again, the tech he'd hired to install his rig had sworn to him that the MIDI software wasn't all that hard to learn, so maybe he could play around with it himself. That would take up a bit of his time.


And then there was the not-unattractive possibility that he might find some female company somewhere along the way, which would also take up some more of his time. . . .


I guess I've gotten over Beth pretty painlessly, he realized with a pang of surprise.


Then again, he'd have to be careful about letting new people into his life. There were holes in his carefully-patched-together cover story that would be pretty hard to maintain against someone who was getting close to him.


Complications, complications. Oh, well. I guess the first thing I'd better do is go down and 'fess up to the building manager that I've penetrated her little disguise.


Though if he was going to do that, he'd better fix himself up to look more like a responsible, respectably cautious mage and less like a Gen-X slacker who couldn't be bothered to shave.


An hour later, shaved, chestnut hair thoroughly brushed and pulled back with an elastic tie ornamented with a silver plaque inscribed with Celtic knotwork, and wearing a perfectly proper outfit of jeans, a good collarless shirt, and a moleskin vest, Eric Banyon presented himself at Apartment 1-A on the first floor. There was a small hand-lettered label that said "Hernandez-Manager" over the bell. After a brief interval, she answered his ring.


Ms. Hernandez didn't look like a mage. She was a Latina woman with skin the color of buckwheat honey; an older woman who wore a harried lifestyle and a score of responsibilities like an invisible cloak. She was dressed in jeans and a pink Henley, and her blue-black hair was pulled back in a tail.


Her eyes showed a flash of annoyance—quickly hidden—when she saw who was at her door, and Eric knew what was going through her mind. She probably figured that he was going to complain about one of the many features of the apartment that she couldn't do anything about, because you simply had to accept a few problems when you lived in a building that was this old.


He held up his hand in the universal gesture of peace. "I'm not here to hassle you about anything, Ms. Hernandez," he said quickly. "I just wanted you to know that I've met my neighbor, Mr. Greystone. He was kind enough to spend some time watching movies with me last night, and he told me that you sometimes loan him books. He told me to say hello to you."


For a moment she stared at him without comprehension, as if his words had taken her by such complete surprise that her mind had gone blank. Then her eyes widened, and she opened the door further. "Please, Mr. Banyon, come in," she said formally, gesturing to him to move past her. "I'd like to talk to you about that, and see how you're settling in here."


He took the invitation, and she shut the door behind him. Her hallway was the mirror image of his, and so was the living room, though the apartment looked as if it had a dining room as well, and probably three bedrooms instead of one. By New York City standards, it was palatial, and any place else it would cost a fortune to get this much space. Most of the people Eric had known from student days here lived in about two hundred square feet of room, and considered themselves lucky if they didn't have to share it with a roommate. Her living room was pleasantly furnished in the usual mishmash of furniture that most people who didn't buy "suites" out of department stores owned. Her color scheme was a mix of golden yellows and browns, and she had a couple of bright rugs on the polished wooden floors. He wondered soberly just what Ms. Hernandez did to earn this place. If the House rewards these Guardians commensurately with risk—yikes! Guarding a city the size of New York? He wasn't certain he'd have what it took. I wouldn't want to get her mad at me! 


"The kids're out at a movie, so we'll have some privacy. I'll put on the kettle and make us up a nice pot of peppermint tea. I don't do coffee in the morning any more. Makes me jittery. I hope you don't mind."


"Not a bit," Eric said, following her into the apartment with a smile. He'd met Toni's two boys—Raoul and Paquito—briefly when he'd signed the lease. They were eight and ten, and seemed—from Eric's limited experience with that age group—to be perfectly normal kids, if a bit more polite than the average run.


She gestured, and Eric seated himself at the table tucked into one corner of the kitchen. Evidence of Toni's boys was everywhere, from the action-figures tucked onto the shelves along with the dishes, to the promotional glasses for the latest Star Wars movie in the drainer.


"Please, sit down, Mr. Banyon," Toni Hernandez told him, moving over to the sink to fill the teakettle.


"Call me Eric; I'd rather," he replied. "Mr. Banyon is still my father to me, and I don't think I've turned into him yet."


"Fair enough. And I'm Toni. Well then, Eric," Toni Hernandez said, looking into his eyes intently. "Either you have managed to get hold of a name and a fact and put them together with extraordinary skill, or you must have been a bit startled last night. Which is it?"


"Startled," Eric smiled. "It isn't every day that a gargoyle comes to call—but it was my fault, if fault there be. I did invite anyone who might be a friend to come over and say hello."


"Interesting—so that was you, playing?" She smiled. "I don't think we need to play word games, then, or beat around the bush. You're obviously a mage, and a better one than most of the people in the House who dabble in the Art. You got Greystone to reveal his nature to you by cooperation rather than coercion, so he may know more about you than he's told me. I heard you playing, recognized what you were doing, and admired the careful crafting—and if I hadn't been busy at the time, I would probably have followed the invitation. I knew that it couldn't be a trap or a trick, but it didn't occur to me that it might be the new tenant who was setting the spell."


Eric spread his hands, grinning despite himself at her praise of his magic. "Consider the invitation still open—on weekends, anyway. During the week I have to be a conscientious student."


She made a face. "I wish you could talk my kids into that attitude. All right then—I knew the House wanted you the moment you came in, but it wants a lot of people that aren't the kind to get visits from Greystone. So what are you, besides a music student at Juilliard? You aren't Wiccan, I know that much."


Eric considered his words carefully. "Are you aware of the powers once attributed to Bards?"


"Like that Welsh guy, Taliesen?" she asked. "Magic through music? That what you do? How the heck did you find someone to teach you that? Not at Juilliard, I'll bet."


He smiled crookedly, answering her questions with others—a habit he'd picked up from the elves. "Wouldn't True Bards confine themselves to a single student at a time? And wouldn't any of the old True Bards tell you that no bard can ever afford to stop learning?"


"Touché. Perhaps I ought to be asking, then, why a True Bard is incarcerating himself in Gotham." She raised an eyebrow. "Except that the answer is obvious; Juilliard is here. So I'll try a different angle—is that the only reason you're here? Is there something going on I should know about?"


Eric recalled what Greystone had told him about the four Guardians "fixing" things that needed to be fixed around the city. She was probably thinking that Bard Eric represented someone with a problem that could easily get out of hand, given what some of the ancient legends said about bardic mischievousness.


"Juilliard is the only reason I'm here," he promised. "Or at least, it's the only reason I know about. I am not aware that there's about to be a War of the Trees played out in Central Park, or that the Fair Folk are about to start Wild Hunts through the East Village, if that will set your mind at rest."


She heaved a sigh of relief. "In that case, the interrogation is over, Eric. Here in the House we respect peoples' pasts, so whatever you choose to tell me you can do so socially. And in return for your forthrightness, I'll tell you that the fallout shelter in the basement is proof against magical fallout as well; if Greystone sounds a warning, you aren't certain of your own protections, and you haven't time to get out of the free-fire zone, head for the basement. Punch three, six, and nine all at the same time on the elevator and it becomes an express to the basement."


She held up a warning finger, and he noticed that there was no polish on the well-kept nail. "Be careful not to try it outside of an emergency, though, and keep your knees flexed. It's a jury-rigged override on a very old system, and although it does work, the stop is abrupt enough to drop you to the floor. Fred rigged it—he's the fellow who had the building manager's job before me, and he's the one who installed the regular security system. I know the override works, I've used it and the shelter."


Which means that she lived here before she was a Guardian. Interesting. I wonder if her kids know what she is? I'd think she'd have to tell them, but maybe somehow she's managing to keep it secret from them.


Then again—these were kids. Even if she thought she was running a double life, she probably wasn't.


The kettle was boiling now, and Toni poured the tea into the pot, bringing it over to the table to steep. She took down two hand-thrown stoneware mugs from the cabinet above the sink and brought them over as well.


"Adam made me these. He's one of the artists who lives in the building—a potter. He's got a lot of stuff at Mad Monk, down on Sixth and Nineteenth. If you need any dishes or anything like that, he's got a special rate for tenants."


"Thanks," Eric said. From the look of the mugs, he already had a few of Adam's creations in his own cupboards. Beth had insisted on the hand-thrown pottery, saying that fine china was too soulless—and too easy to break.


When the tea had steeped, Toni poured both mugs full and added a liberal dollop of wild honey to her own. Eric picked up his cup and inhaled the fragrance. Fresh mint, no matter what the box said. I wonder if it grows wild anywhere around here? There's a lot of wild herbs and plants growing in empty lots here, if you know what you're looking for. 


"Do you ever worry about your kids, I mean, living here in the city?" Eric found himself asking. Gods, where did THAT come from? 


Toni checked in the middle of raising her own cup. "All the time, mi hermano. I worry about them following in my footsteps—and I worry about them not. Drugs, gangs, stray meteors—life is just one big anxiety-filled minefield when you're a parent," she said, with a rueful note of amusement in her voice. "But I wouldn't have it any other way. I only wish their father had lived to see them grow up. I think he'd be proud of them."


Eric nodded, his thoughts turning to the other things he'd come to ask her about. "I'm wondering—Greystone said there were three more of you in the building? Would it be a good idea if I threw a little private housewarming for the four of you? And anyone you want to bring along, of course. That might be the best way for all of us to get a look at each other." And for everybody to get the chance to interrogate me at once. 


She pondered that for a moment. "It wouldn't be a bad idea," she said slowly. "Maybe it should be just the five of us and Greystone. Believe me, I know these apartments like the back of my hand, and six people will more than fill up your living room. How's next Saturday night for you?"


It sounded good to Eric—he'd need a break after the brutal first week of classes.


"Sure. I'll get the usual party stuff—ah, except for one thing." He flushed, a little embarrassed, but not too embarrassed to insist on it. "No alcohol. I don't do it anymore, and I don't like having it around me."


"No problem. As it happens, none of us drink, other than the old honey-and-whiskey thing for a sore throat." Toni looked oddly relieved, and explained why in the next sentence. "The House doesn't like druggies and drunks, and it seriously doesn't like addicts of any kind. The House doesn't make mistakes, but people change, especially here. I've had the unpleasant duty of finding reasons to evict some of the tenants in the past who thought that artists had to debauch themselves in order to be artists."


Eric winced, since he had come rather too close to that line himself a time or two. Looking back on it now, he'd been on a collision course with oblivion before he'd stumbled into Kory. All the freedom in the world, and no place to go but down. "Right then, I'll see you all Saturday night?" He swigged down the last of his now-cool tea and stood.


Toni Hernandez smiled, and held out her hand and shook his. Her grip was warm and quite firm. "Once you meet them, I think you're going to find that you fit in here quite well, Eric. Even if you actually turn out to be an elf or something."


Eric managed not to wince. "See you Saturday, then."


* * *

Over the course of the week he found that he had cause, more than once, to look forward to that party on Saturday. Fitting back into the student life was much harder than he'd expected.


His alarm clock jarred him awake at seven A.M. Monday morning. It was set to an all news, all the time station, and a woman who sounded far too perky for this hour of the morning was chattering on about tie-ups at various bridges and tunnels. Eric staggered out of bed, groping for the "Off" switch.


A cold shower jolted him awake, but his brain didn't seem to want to take the hint and join the rest of his body. He dragged a comb through his hair and tied it back with a strip of rawhide, then grabbed the first things out of his closet—chambray shirt, featherweight suede vest in a deep rich burgundy, and well-broken-in jeans.


Not bad, if I do say so myself, he decided, glancing into the mirror.


His stomach was too jumpy for breakfast to seem like much of a good idea, so he grabbed a handful of granola bars and stuffed them into his messenger bag for later. Fortunately he'd made most of his preparations the night before, so his course schedule and the paperwork he'd need for today was already stowed away, along with his flute in its case. With one last look around the apartment—amazing how much it had started looking like home in just a few short days—he headed for the street.


The hot weather had broken overnight—though according to his friends uptown, it would be back a time or two before autumn really came to stay—and the morning was bright and cool, a perfect early fall day. He hesitated about taking Lady Day over to the school, but then decided against it: the only easy-to-find parking around Lincoln Center was paid parking in garages, since most of the students couldn't afford to keep cars in the city, and public transportation made it really unnecessary. He'd been in the subway a few times since his arrival, and there was a stop only a few blocks away. That would do for now.


The subway station was hot—the trains were air conditioned to the point of pneumonia, but the platforms weren't—but as he passed through the turnstile, Eric was surprised to hear the sound of music echoing off the walls: a busker setting up his pitch to take advantage of the early-morning commuter traffic.


Can't beat the acoustics, Eric thought, looking around for the source of the music. He saw a tall, regal young woman, her hair dyed a surreal cherry-black, playing an electric violin. Its silvery surface gleamed with rainbow iridescence in the florescent lighting of the platform. Her case was open at her feet, and there was already a tidy accumulation of coins and bills—even a few subway tokens. He caught her eye and grinned, giving her a thumbs up. She smiled back and nodded without missing a beat: he recognized Copeland's Variations on a Theme from Appalachian Spring. 


For a moment Eric thought about joining her for a little impromptu jam session, but decided against it: he'd heard that street musicians had to have a license to perform in New York, and that was something he hadn't gotten around to finding out about just yet. He dug in his pocket and tossed a handful of change into her fiddle-case. With the practice of long experience, the violinist brought her music to an end just as the train pulled into the station and her appreciative audience began moving toward the open doors. Eric joined them.


In a few short stops he reached his destination: Lincoln Center. The Center was essentially the Juilliard campus: the school itself was a tall building tucked off in a corner behind Lincoln Center. Though when evening came this would be one of the busiest parts of the city, there were few people in the plaza at this hour of the morning. Familiar with the layout from previous visits, Eric found his way to his classroom without difficulty.


* * *

The halls were filled with students, some new, some returning. Juilliard wasn't "just" a music school. It offered programs in Drama and Dance as well. The dancers were easy to spot, most of them already in leotards and soft shoes from early-morning practice, with their dance-bags slung over one shoulder. A number of the other students were carrying—or towing—instrument cases.


He found the auditorium without difficulty. There were several of his fellow students waiting around outside. One of them—a short blond kid who looked like he should still be in grade-school, waved.


"Hi. You must be `Pappy' Banyon." He grinned, relishing the joke. "I'm Jeremy Mitchell. Oboe. You know what they say about double-reed players."


"Hi," Eric said, holding out his free hand. "Pleased to meet you. Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, they always used to say the pressure on the brain'd drive you crazy. Glad to hear it's still true."


"Some things never change," Jeremy agreed happily. "I'm a musical prodigy—but then, hey, aren't we all? This is Lydia," he added, pulling a redheaded girl forward. "Lydia Ashborn, meet the legendary Eric Banyon."


"Hi," Lydia said, blushing heavily. If he hadn't met her here, Eric would have been sure she was one of the drama students. She had the looks for it—flaming red hair, ivory skin, and the most amazing eyes Eric had seen outside of Underhill, a deep violet color.


"With Banyon here, Rector won't have any time to pick on you," Jeremy promised her. "He's supposed to be a real monster—likes to keep his students from getting too stuck on themselves, from what I hear."


"I know the type," Eric said. "Ashborn. Isn't—"


"Yeah," Lydia said too quickly, looking even more uncomfortable than before. Marco Ashborn was a world-class violinist, and Lydia was obviously his daughter. And equally obviously would rather be anywhere but here.


"But it isn't your fault," Jeremy said. "Nobody's going to hold it against you. We won't, anyway. Right, Banyon?"


"Right," Eric said, because it seemed to be expected of him. For all his upstart sassiness, Jeremy seemed to be fond of Lydia and doing his best to put her at ease. It couldn't be easy coming here as the child of a star of the music world. Talk about performance pressure. . . .


At least that was one thing I never had to face: parents who were expecting me to follow in their golden footsteps. 


Just then the bell rang. "Time to face the lions," Jeremy said cryptically. "C'mon. Let's sit together."


* * *

Before long, Eric knew exactly what Jeremy had meant, and was grateful for the warning.


Professor Rector taught History of Music. He was new since Eric had last studied here, and seemed to be one of those professors who believed in teaching through intimidation. That meant that somebody in the class had to be the scapegoat, and after meeting the sixteen-year-old Lydia, Eric was just as glad it was him. Before the hour was over, he'd already had his fill of sardonic comments about unusual aspects of the work of this or that obscure composer aimed directly at him and ending with, "but I don't imagine that you encountered any requests for his work in the subway, Mr. Banyon."


It was obvious that his history had preceded him, and if there'd been anyone at the school who didn't know that he'd left Juilliard years before and gone out to make his living as a street-busker, they all certainly knew by the end of the first class.


Eric kept his temper, although the constant gibes really began to grate after the fourth time. When Mr. Rector actually phrased his comment as a question, Eric answered it when he could, and when he could not, he admitted it. Otherwise, he ignored the constant stream of barbs—at least that was something at which he had plenty of practice, thanks in no small part to having studied under Dharinel. Dharinel didn't like anybody, least of all half-trained ragamuffin scapegrace dragged-up-anyhow human Bards foisted on him by his liege-lord. When it came to hitting nerves, Dharinel had all the accuracy of a surgical laser, and had taken just as much malicious enjoyment in getting a reaction out of Eric as Professor Rector did.


Probably Rector thought Eric was a pushover, and some of the students might, too—but the ones who weren't getting off on seeing Eric constantly slapped down were beginning to see just what a sadistic bastard the man was without having to become a target themselves. So in a way, Eric was giving them a useful lesson in maintaining dignity in the face of adversity. And that was certainly a vital survival skill in the world of music.


I've faced off with bastards who could kill the populations of entire cities, and who got a kick out of the kind of torture that leaves lifelong scars. I can handle a little harassment. And besides, it's still the first week. Maybe he'll get tired of it. It's possible. 


Fortunately, none of his other professors were as confrontational as Rector, nor did they seem to want to waste class time busting his chops, and by the end of the day, Eric had figured out a way to take the wind out of Rector's sails if he ever needed to. He'd bought a very nice microcassette recorder with a good microphone in order to tape all of his lectures in addition to taking his own spoken notes. When he got home that evening, he sat down to transcribe his notes—including every word of Professor Rector's lecture, inappropriate gibes and all.


When he was done, he labelled the tape and put it aside—from now on he was going to save every golden word of Rector's lectures, and if the man tried to drive Eric out of Juilliard by any monkey business with Eric's grades, he'd find out in a hurry that Eric Banyon wasn't the pushover he'd thought. Those tapes would be in the hands of the president of Juilliard—along with a neatly typed transcript with the important parts highlighted—within hours, and the good professor would have a hard time explaining away what would look like a really unhealthy negative fixation on a student.


Microcassettes were wonderful things.


But Eric didn't think he'd ever have to use that weapon. He'd eaten lunch with Jeremy and Lydia, and Jeremy seemed to be a clearing-house for every scrap of gossip on the Juilliard campus. He'd told Eric that Professor Rector didn't have tenure—and as a result, Rector didn't have any real power in the Juilliard hierarchy.


So Eric didn't waste any energy fretting over one more bully. Energy and time were two things he didn't have enough of to waste; there was an awful lot to learn, and the structured classes—with their structured expectations—were more of a drain on his energy than he'd thought they'd be. Students were expected to do three things in the course of their studies: learn, perform—and compose original works.


When it came to composition, he'd always worked on pure inspiration and impulse; now he had to learn music theory and be able to explain why certain things worked or didn't. It was a lot like mathematics, and left his head aching with the amount he was trying to comprehend. And this was only the first week, the overviews of what students would be expected to master in the weeks ahead.


It was only when it came to performance that Eric was completely at ease. The years of playing at RenFaires and on the street had taught him how to improvise endlessly on common themes, and playing before the Sidhe—the toughest audience on either side of the Hill—had polished his performances. All of that showed, even when he was playing classical or contemporary music, and so Eric was quickly recruited, not only for the main orchestra, but for the chamber group and a trio.


He wouldn't take any more ensemble groups after that, in spite of the fact that he was repeatedly asked to, and the fact that many of the Advanced Certificate students were carrying a lot more. He was older than they were. He needed a life away from music; he was too old to be able to dedicate himself obsessively the way some of the younger kids could, playing in half a dozen chamber groups besides their regular work. Granted, some of it paid—and that was another reason not to take potential work away from people who needed the money more than he did.


He reflected with some irony that, as with mainstream religion, it was easy enough to dedicate your life to music before you discovered sex—but afterwards, it was a different proposition. The way the kids threw themselves into everything—they had an intensity he'd lost somewhere along the path to growing up. He didn't regret his loss—change was normal everywhere but Underhill—but sometimes he envied the passion the younger students seemed always to carry at their fingertips.


By Friday, Eric had less idea than before if he was going to come out of this experience as a really brilliant musician (as opposed to a Bard) or merely a competent one, like the normal run of Juilliard graduates. If he didn't add magic to the music he played, just how good a flute player was he going to be, anyway? He was way too old to be a prodigy now, but had the years of actual playing been enough to make up for lack of formal schooling?


It was not a question that caused him to lose any sleep—as Greystone had pointed out, he could get a decent-paying professional gig just as he stood, and he could even go back to the Faire circuit with time in between spent Underhill—but it was a question that he pondered in the few moments not devoted to his coursework. Did he really want to be another James Galway? Eric didn't think so—being a True Bard and having the high profile of a celebrity musician could be a dangerous combination.


But being very good didn't necessarily mean you had to be very famous. There was always studio work, for instance, if he wanted to stay in one place. And there were a lot more recording studios in New York than most people thought.


The weekend arrived, and he spent Saturday afternoon happily shopping for his party, taking Lady Day rather far afield to obtain some of the things he wanted. After all of the celebrations Underhill and in the house in San Francisco, he had the feeling he would never again be content with potato chips and dip, a platter of cheddar and jack, and boxed crackers, and he was rather proud of the spread he assembled.


I know I don't really have to try to overawe these guys, even if I could, but heck, It sure would be nice if they liked me. Greystone's cool, and I like Toni—and I guess I can judge the rest of them by the company they keep, at least more or less—but it never hurts to make a good impression. And besides, after a week like that one, I'm entitled to a little celebration. 


By the time his guests began to arrive, he'd finished arranging the food in the living room and kitchen—not at all bad for a lone bachelor, he congratulated himself. There was something here for every taste—he figured that between him and Greystone, there wouldn't be any leftovers, either. There were two plates of the sushi rolls he'd grown to love on the West Coast; a cheese platter containing brie and neufchatel and other strange or strong cheeses; lox and cream cheese and bagels from the corner deli; a cold hors d'oeuvres tray from Balducci's, with shrimp and miniature quiches and spinach rolls and stuffed mushrooms; fresh-baked, thinly sliced, miniature loaves of bread for the cheese and the handmade Amish jams and jellies he'd found down at the 14th Street Farmers' Market.


Remembering what Toni Hernandez had said, for drinks he had gourmet teas and coffee, his vast assortment of designer waters, Classic Coke, plain seltzer, and a couple of oddball soft drinks. He could hardly wait for his guests to arrive.


Eric found himself going to the mirror nervously, over and over. He'd dressed carefully, in a mix of the clothing Kory had kenned for him and more mundane garb. Tucked into a pair of black suede trousers from a leather store was a deep burgundy silk shirt straight from Underhill, and the pants were tucked into his Faire boots with the burgundy leather pattern laid into the side. Under a side-laced, black suede vest he wore his sword belt without the sword, and wondered if any of the four would notice that omission.


Greystone slipped in the window as he was going to the mirror for the fourth time. "You look simply fah-bulous, kiddo," the gargoyle said, with a wink. "Settle down, you'll like these people, and they'll like you. You've already made points with them, just by being low-key."


"I wish you'd told me more about them," Eric fretted. "At least what they look like! I mean, I'm never comfortable meeting people cold, and you're hitting me with three total strangers! I don't even know how many are men and how many are women—"


"Well, they won't be strangers for long, now, will they?" Greystone countered, scarfing up a plateful of food and a bottle of water. "Toni an' me, we didn't want you forming any opinions in advance. Have some sushi and relax."


"As if I could," Eric grumbled sotto voce, and just then the door buzzer sounded. He opened it to let in the four "senior mages" of the House.


And as Greystone had said, maybe it was a good thing that he hadn't been told anything about these people, because he couldn't have picked out four more normal folks if he'd tried.


"Everyone, this is Eric Banyon," Toni said, as they all moved inside and Eric shut the door. "Eric, this is Jimmie Youngblood—that's short for `Jemima,' and she'll kill you if you use it. Jimmie is with NYPD Detective Division."


Even in her street clothes, Jimmie looked like a female cop; Eric had come to be able to recognize the commonalities with other LEOs2 he'd met. She didn't have to look tough, it was simply a part of her. In point of fact, if you only looked at the surface and not at the way she moved and the carefully wary way in which she was always checking her surroundings, you'd have said she looked frail—but she wasn't thin, she was whipcord and muscle. It was difficult to identify a nationality for her; she had thick, lustrous straight black hair, very dark eyes, a bronzy complexion under a good, even tan, and cheekbones a model would kill for, though the rest of her face was too strong to be called "pretty." Maybe some Cherokee in there? Eric thought.


"Good to meet you, Eric," Jimmie said formally, shaking his hand firmly. She raised an eyebrow, glancing at his waist. "Nice belt, but isn't there something missing?" she asked with a glint of a smile in her amber eyes.


"Now it's my turn to make an introduction. This is Paul Kern: computer nerd by day, gaming addict by night."


"Eric," Paul said, shaking his hand with a grin. Paul was a tall elegant black man who carried himself with the grace of a dancer. Most of the computer nerds Eric had known had moved as if they weren't sure where to put their hands and feet, but Paul moved like a cat turned into a human. Eric noted that his eyes had already flicked to the computer in the corner and back to Eric's face in the brief instant of their introduction. "You get in trouble with that system of yours, give a shout," he said with a grin. His voice held a faint trace of a British/Islands accent.


"I will, if you won't mind," Eric replied fervidly. "What I know about computers would fit in a greeting card."


Paul laughed. "Now I make the last introduction—this is José Ramirez, who leads a triple life to my double one. He's the super—which is less work than you'd think, since the House's systems tend to cooperate rather than break down at the drop of a power surge—he's our fourth Guardian, and when he's not fixing faucets, he's raising African Grey parrots who are probably more intelligent than most of our tenants." There was general laughter at the last remark, which had the flavor of a family joke.


"Pleased to meet you, Eric." Like the others, José had a firm, warm handshake. His bronze skin and strong square features made him attractive—if not as model-handsome as Paul—and he reminded Eric slightly of a darker Charles Bronson. "If you are ever considering a parrot as a companion, please let me know. I can help you decide whether or not you will have the time, and if so, which breed would suit you best." He grinned. "I'm afraid, like most bird people, my conversation tends to begin and end with my little ones."


"So?" Toni put in, gesturing with a piece of sushi. "That's not much different from any other person with an all-consuming avocation. Or a parent, for that matter, but I promise I'll leave Raoul and Paquito out of the conversation tonight. José is night-shift supervisor for any extraordinary problems here at the House; I'm day-shift. We cover for each other if a problem takes one of us outside."


All of them found places in the living room; Eric took the kitchen chair, Toni and José shared the sofa, Paul got the chair and Jimmie stood leaning against the wall where she could watch all of them. As usual, Greystone sat on the floor, since his wings tended to get in the way of using furniture.


Eric had a million questions he wanted to ask, but he didn't get a chance to, for Jimmie, who'd gone and gotten her own plate of food, got her question to him in first.


"So, Banyon—just where did you learn your stuff?" she asked, direct and to the point. "And how come your clothes have magic all over them?"


He'd intended to tell them anything they wanted to know, but he hadn't planned on telling them about Kory and Company quite yet; he'd hoped to warm up to the subject.


"Ah—" he hesitated, then tried to look apologetic. "I'm not sure just how much you people are going to believe."


Granted, Greystone already knew about Underhill, but from his conversations with the gargoyle, Eric had been led to believe that these people had yet to encounter anything like the Sidhe. He'd gotten the impression that their problems had all dealt with the consequences of powerful, untrained amateurs dabbling in magic, or powerful, trained magicians doing very nasty things.


"Hey, they believe in living gargoyles," Greystone said (now around a mouthful of bagel). "How much harder to believe in can your pointy-eared friends be?"


"Pointy-eared friends?" Paul raised both eyebrows. "Somehow I don't think Greystone's referring to Vulcans."


"He's not," Eric said faintly, then gave up and blurted it all out. "Elves. Seleighe Sidhe. The Fair Folk. I learned my magic from them."


At first, the four Guardians looked at him as if they thought he was joking. Then they looked at each other, questioningly. Finally, they looked at Greystone, who nodded emphatically.


"Cross my heart, folks," the gargoyle said, making the appropriate motion. "He's not putting you on. I'd never seen a Sidhe before his buddy Korendil showed up to help move him in, but I'd heard about them. No kidding; under the glamourie that made him look human, there wasn't a doubt. I knew what Korendil was the first moment I saw him."


So much for disguises, Eric thought. He'd have to remember to mention to Kory that his Seeming spell wasn't as seamless as it might be.


"Elves." Jimmie pondered that for a moment. "Well, that's not the sort of thing you expect to hear about in the Big Apple, and I've never met anyone before who could say he'd seen elves, but—well, we've seen weirder things than elves, I guess. So, okay. Elves." She sounded as if she were pronouncing a judicial verdict. Luckily, it seemed to be in Eric's favor.


"My impression is that there's too much Cold Iron around this town for elves to be anything but uncomfortable here," Eric put in, hesitantly. At least, without a Nexus closer than the one at Elfhame Everforest. "Kory can stand it only because he wore silk from neck to toes while he was here with me, and because he's been conditioning himself to handle it. I've heard that Sidhe can manage to build up a resistance to what they call Death Metal—kind of like you or I developing a tolerance for snake venom. Most of them, though—at best, they'd be uncomfortable all the time, and at worst, in terrible pain, depending on how sensitive to Cold Iron they were, and how much experience they'd had being around it."


There were more questions about Eric's friends, as his four guests batted the idea around until they got comfortable with it. He was rather surprised that it took them as little time as it did, but then, they were trained professionals.


"If elves taught you magic and took you Underhill, how did you get away from them?" Paul asked pointedly. "All the legends I've heard indicate they tend to grab musicians and keep them prisoner for extended periods of time. Thomas the Rhymer, Tam Lin, Taliesen—" He shrugged, breaking off what promised to be a lengthy catalogue of examples.


"It's a long story," Eric admitted. "Basically, you can't believe everything you read. I wasn't their prisoner. I was an honored guest. And—well, the whole story involves elves in Los Angeles, and elves in San Francisco, some of them Seleighe and some of them Unseleighe, and—it's a long story."


"We have food, drink, and it's Saturday night," José said, settling down on the couch as if he was prepared to stay for as long as it took. "So, stranger among us—tell us the story. As you are a Bard, it should at least be entertaining."


Since Eric couldn't think of any reason why he shouldn't tell these people the truth, he did, starting all the way back at the Grove of Elfhame Sun-Descending at the L.A. Fairesite.


"Once upon a time—a very long time ago (more or less)—there was this traveling musician named Eric Banyon. . . ." he began.


And the story did take a very long time to tell, but not as long as he had thought it would, since other than the Sidhe themselves and the existence of Underhill, the four Guardians were quite familiar with magic, nodes, Groves, and other arcanities, including power-mad Black Magicians. And while they were hardly a group of conspiracy nuts, they were also more than familiar with some of the military, governmental and quasi-governmental projects involving psychics that were floating around the espionage underworld—including many that were supposed to be secret.


To Eric's surprise, they even knew about Nightflyers, those terrifying, life-devouring creatures from the Chaos Lands Underhill, and were about as fond of them as Eric was.


"Not my chosen dancing partners," Jimmie said with a shudder. "Not that you really get a choice once they show up. Well, Eric, you just verified your story for us. We knew something about the business in San Francisco—not everything, of course, but nothing you told us conflicts with what we already knew, and most of it dovetails very nicely. You couldn't have done that if you'd been making it all up."


Eric felt himself relax inside. Jimmie Youngblood seemed to be the one in charge of vetting newcomers for the group, and even on such short acquaintance, Eric found himself valuing her good opinion.


"That thing with Project Cassandra's something I don't ever want to have to go through again," Eric told them soberly. He thought of Warden Blair, the madman responsible for hurting Bethie and hundreds of others so horribly. "It would have been so easy for everything to go terribly wrong—as it was, well, people got hurt, and people got killed, and I can't help thinking it was my fault that they did. If I'd realized what was happening sooner—if I'd figured out a better way to handle the situation—"


Jimmie patted his hand and the others murmured sympathetically, but none of them said the kinds of things others had said—about how it wasn't his fault, and that he'd done the best he could. He was grateful for that. Platitudes didn't help, not when he remembered how many people had been hurt or even killed.


"Every time you have a situation, you always think it could have gone better," Jimmie sighed. "And you know what? It probably could have. My partner always says you can only try to keep it from eating at you so bad that you can't learn from it. He might even be right." She grinned faintly.


"So, what about this guy that taught you about being a True Bard?" Paul said, quickly changing the subject to something less painful. "How'd that happen? I thought you said that most of the older elves didn't much like humans."


Explaining Dharinel—which meant trying to explain a little about Underhill—was harder than explaining the last several years of his life, and by the time they were done with their questions, Eric felt like a wrung-out—but content—dishrag. It was nearly four in the morning, all the food was gone, and most of the drink, but he didn't have that dissatisfied feeling that usually came when he'd been raked over the coals. It felt more as if these were four people who really wanted to be friends, but needed to find out everything they could about him and didn't have a lot of time to do so.


That impression was reinforced when Toni called a halt to the "party."


"That's enough. You're tired, we're tired, and we all know for certain that you're all right. Next time, I promise it will be your turn, Eric," she said, for they had all quickly gone to a first-name basis, even Jimmie. "None of us will ask any questions, and you can put us through the wringer."


"I'll help," Greystone offered, grinning wickedly, and Jimmie groaned. "Oh, no. Not the Jell-O shooters story! If you turn it into another `Truth or Dare' game, I swear I'll wring your neck," she threatened.


"Who? Me?" Greystone spread his wings and managed to look as innocent as it was possible for a gargoyle to look—which wasn't very.


"Meanwhile, we all need sleep—well, except José," Toni continued, ignoring both of them, and setting a good example by getting out of her seat. "Thank you, Eric; we know what we needed to know. You've got a lot of power, but you're also responsible and mature. We don't have to worry about you getting all of us into trouble by doing something stupid, and we don't have to worry about you messing up something we have going by blundering into it. I think you're going to be a welcome addition to the House."


"Absolutely," Paul seconded, as they all got up, stretched, and took their leave. It was all accomplished smoothly and efficiently; so much so that they were out the door almost before Eric was ready to say good night.


He shut the door behind them and turned to face the suddenly empty apartment. Well, almost empty.


"You made a good impression, kiddo, like I said you would," Greystone told him. "And they're a tough house to play for, y'know what I mean?"


"They aren't planning on recruiting me, are they?" Eric asked, a little anxiously. "I mean, all that about being a welcome addition to the House—I'm not up to taking on other peoples' problems, you know. I have my hands full with my own!" He knew it sounded a little selfish, but it was the plain truth. He hadn't done so well on his last outing as a would-be Worldsaver that he wanted to repeat the experience.


"Naw. If you were going to be a Guardian . . . believe me, you'd'a known a long time ago, laddybuck. Or your elf buddies would've, and pointed you our way a lot sooner. No, they folks're just glad you're smart enough not to attract trouble, and skilled enough to duck anything that comes here. Wish I could say the same about some people that've moved in. I could tell you stories. . . . And—I will, but not tonight. Get some shut-eye, kid," Greystone said severely. "You're about to go up with the blinds."


"Yeah, thanks. I will." Eric felt exhaustion drop over his shoulders like a too-heavy cloak, and stumbled into the bedroom, barely noticing that Greystone was courteously picking up the party detritus. He managed to get undressed and make it as far as his bed, and all he remembered of the rest of the night was a deep and dreamless sleep.


 


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