"Take ten, Eddi. I'll be here when you're ready." Dwayne leaned back in his chair, took off his headphones, and pulled out a battered paperback copy of On the Road. Eddi racked her guitar in its stand and slammed out of the claustrophobic recording booth.
The phouka waited outside, dressed in one of his more subdued jackets -- black velvet with silver brocade lapels. He produced a paper cup smoking with heat from behind his back. "For you, the elixir of life."
Eddi grabbed the coffee and kissed him on the cheek. Even when she was in a foul mood, her heart still hiccupped at the sight of his smile. "I need some fresh air."
The muggy July atmosphere filling the alley outside wasn't exactly fresh, but it was air. Eddi wondered if summer would ever seem innocent and lovely again. A year later, she found herself remembering all the casualties of the war: the nameless fey creatures she'd seen slaughtered, Willy... She focused on the limp cornflowers and dandelions that sprang from the cracks in the cement instead. In the middle of downtown Minneapolis, nature still insisted on asserting itself.
Eddi swallowed half her coffee in one scalding gulp as the phouka sat down beside her on the concrete steps, keeping his distance from the iron railing. "I thought recording was going to be the best thing ever. Make us rich and famous, you know?" She sighed. "But it sucks. We're good, I know we are, but how are we ever gonna capture that in digital audio? Maybe we can only do it live." She warmed to her theory and waved the coffee cup around, its contents sloshing perilously. "When you think of it, recorded music is an anomaly. Humans have been making music since before we climbed down from the trees. It's meant to be experienced in real time! Once you put it on tape there's no spontaneity, no communication between you and the audience--"
The phouka tilted his head skeptically.
"Don't tell me you don't agree. I haven't noticed your people being especially big on technology."
"It's true we don't appreciate some of its cruder manifestations." He sniffed. "But don't be so quick to dismiss communication because it seems one-way. If you honestly believe that none of your favourite artists have said anything to you on vinyl, why own all those records?"
Eddi shrugged. "Nostalgia?"
"Would you prefer it if, say, London Calling had never been made because the Clash thought recording was beneath them?"
"Of course not!"
"The perfect is the enemy of the good," he quoted at her.
Eddi rolled her eyes. "I know things are bad when you start lecturing me on the philosophy of art." She put down her empty cup and stared at the smooth rubber toecaps of her pink Chucks. "We need a new lead guitarist, don't we."
The phouka didn't speak, but over the last year Eddi'd grown able to read his silences. This one was tense. She joggled his elbow gently. "C'mon, go ahead and tell me I'm an idiot for not admitting it sooner."
He didn't take the elephant-sized opening, only sighed and put one arm around her. Eddi leaned into his shoulder and rubbed her face on the nap of his jacket. "I haven't wanted to push you." His voice rumbled against her cheek. "After what happened with Willy--"
"You mean sleeping with him, finding he'd lied about what he was, and then seeing him killed in front of me by my ex? Yeah, sounds like one of Dan's weirder anime."
The phouka snorted soft laughter into her hair. Eddi reached over and took his hand. "After last summer, I figured we could use a break from drama. And it was a good idea. I know we've gotten tighter as a band. But for laying down tracks... I need to be able to concentrate on singing more." She burrowed her head closer into his jacket, muffling her voice. "And that means a lead guitar."
"I agree." The phouka tightened his arm around her. "An advertisement in City Pages last time, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, but that audition was rigged." She dug her elbow into his ribs. "Which better not happen again."
"It won't, but we should still make it known among my folk. If you have no objection." The phouka's voice was carefully neutral.
The wind picked up, blowing the smell of motor oil and exhaust past them and setting the ragged dandelion seedheads bobbing. The phouka reached out and snapped one off, turning it in his fingers. "A matter of courtesy. The Queen might be offended if her former champion did not keep her apprised of such things."
"So how do we let them all know?"
The phouka lifted the dandelion stem to his lips, whispered a lilting phrase into it, and blew. The downy threads drifted down the alley, a shower of fiery sparks in the sun. "Done and done, my sweet. You are right; I doubt any will come. But better to extend the invitation and be ignored than to seem disrespectful."
"This is starting to sound like Sleeping Beauty," Eddi muttered. "Please tell me we didn't just issue an open invitation to her and her creatures."
"No." The phouka's voice tightened with distaste. He'd been much closer to the Queen of Air and Darkness than Eddi ever wanted him to be again. "Outside the city we must all be cautious, but in Minneapolis she cannot touch you. It would mean another war with the Seelie Court, and she is too weak to risk that at the moment."
Eddi asked a question almost at random, wanting to distract him from the memories she'd called up. "Why do you doubt any of them will come?"
"Most of them are..." He rolled the headless dandelion stem between his hands. "Less adaptable than Willy, let us say. The modern world is rarely to their taste."
After turning the third Steve Vai wannabe down politely, Eddi remembered why she hated open auditions. She should just have put out feelers among the local session players: that Canadian friend of Carla's, or she'd heard Jen wasn't happy with the latest incarnation of the Pyramids... but someone who left their old band on hard terms was likely to end up doing the same with Eddi and the Fey one day.
Well, there were three more auditions set up for tomorrow. Eddi blew out a sigh and went to look out the warehouse window at the sheets of rain. Where was the phouka, anyway? He ought to be back bearing sustenance by now.
A faint scent of ozone and copper whispered through the air like a missed lightning strike, and Eddi turned to see if one of the breakers had blown. A woman stood in the middle of the bare practice space.
Point for this one: she hadn't tried to hide the fact she wasn't human.
She was tiny for a Sidhe woman -- in other words, normal mortal height rather than Amazonian tallness. The nut-brown color of her hair was probably glamour; Eddi's sense for such things was improving even when she wasn't wearing the phouka's ointment of true sight.
"You here to audition or what?" Eddi raised one eyebrow, trying for the jaded look.
The woman chuckled, delightfully throaty. "Or what," she agreed, and pulled a shining guitar out of the air at her right side. Eddi stiffened her spine against the instant impulse to like her. Fey charm was too often like their gold: false coin.
"I don't know that we're in the market for another Sidhe guitar player," Eddi said. "The last one, as you may have heard, didn't work out so well."
The woman shrugged and slung the electric blue axe over her shoulder in the same smooth movement. "I'm not a little boy like Willy, to be scared of the Queen of Airy Nothingness."
Anger pushed Eddi one step closer before she caught herself. "If you came to insult my friend, get out. I don't need to hear you."
"One song. You owe me that -- it's what you gave everybody else."
"I don't owe you a damn thing," Eddi muttered. But she knew how much the fey folk loved to insist on the formalities of courtesy and fair play. If she didn't let this arrogant piece of work audition, it would be cause for offense. And she didn't need the phouka here to remind her that offending one of the high Sidhe was not a good idea.
All right. If she wanted a tryout, she'd get one. Without a count, before the woman had finished tuning, Eddi launched into a hard-hammering show-offy riff from a new song the band had only been practicing for a week. Let's see you keep up with that.
Twenty minutes later, Eddi was wringing with sweat and deliriously happy as only good music could make her. The song showered to an end in shimmering guitar riffs that bounced off each other like a glittering spray of water. Too showy for Eddi's usual taste, but if you could pull it off why not? The two women wiped sweat from their foreheads and panted, grinning mirror images.
But this stranger wasn't a sure thing yet; she'd have to try out with the rest of the band, see if she could fit in with them all. And the thought of telling the phouka that they'd hooked up with another Sidhe musician... oh well. At least the band name would still be appropriate.
"What's your -- what do I call you?" Eddi asked.
The woman laughed ferally and swept brown curls back over her shoulder. "Call me Niav."
The door slammed open and the phouka ducked inside, shaking his head and shedding rain like a wet dog. "I hope to be forgiven, dear heart, for not bringing food as well as coffee. The lineup at the diner--"
The words dropped into a growl. He sprang between the two women. "You're not welcome here." His voice rasped in his throat and Eddi could see muscles bunch as he struggled to keep human form.
"Oh, but I am." Pinched between finger and thumb, Niav held up a wisp of dandelion fluff. "You shouldn't issue an open invitation if you don't mean it."
Eddi's gaze bounced between Niav and the phouka and she took two measured steps back. "What the hell is going on? You told me the Unseelie Court couldn't touch us here." Her voice turned hard. "Or is she another traitor?"
Niav whirled on Eddi, curls flying -- they were shading to raven black, as the glamour she cast began to slip. "I'd sooner gut that Unseelie ghoul than work for her."
Eddi took another step backward and racked her guitar. It wouldn't save her, but she felt a little better having her hands free. "Then what's your problem, phouka?" He looked more unhappy than scared now; that didn't make her feel any better. "Is this just your way of saying you really don't want another fey guitarist?"
"Did she give you her name?"
"She told me to call her Niav."
He barked a short, unamused laugh. "Her true name is Arianrhod of the Silver Wheel. She's Willy's sister."
All the words jostling their way to the tip of Eddi's tongue choked her, and she said nothing.
The fey woman laughed, cold and hard this time. The glamour had drained away entirely and in her grass-green eyes and black hair, Eddi saw the reflection of her brother's unearthly beauty. "Call it a foolish impulse. I wanted to see the woman who cost my brother his life."
Eddi's mouth dropped open. "I didn't kill Willy!"
"No, of course not. It was your discarded lover who shot him," Arianrhod said in icy-sweet tones. She chopped the air with one hand and her guitar disappeared. "You only made it possible."
The phouka stepped forward, breaking the charged wire of Arianrhod's stare. "You have no grievance with Eddi. If she hadn't served as the Seelie Court's mortal champion another would have, and Willy would still be dead."
"I think not. It was her music that beguiled him into the war. He was restless, seeking something -- I don't know what and I doubt he did either. It irritated me. I told him to go away until he was ready to accept what he was." Her voice shivered like crystal on the thin edge of breaking but didn't crack. "So he went looking for something 'different' and found you. His death."
"Eddi was my choice." The phouka sounded calm, but the taut lines of his back pulled at the damp linen of his shirt. "Her brilliance drew me in before Willy ever saw her. If you must have revenge on anyone, blame me for being the first moth."
Eddi had had enough. Shoving in between two powerful, inhuman beings confronting each other wasn't a wise move, but she was pissed. "Can you please not talk about me as if I weren't here? You at least," she glared at the phouka, "should know better by now." He had the grace to look abashed.
Ariahrhod didn't; she turned her gem-hard eyes on Eddi as if she were a particularly nasty kind of beetle. But Eddi had had that treatment from better fey than her. "You can't kill me. Well, you can, but your Queen wouldn't be pleased. So what were you planning?"
Arianrhod said nothing. Eddi's refusal to cower seemed to have disconcerted her.
"To frighten you away, I think," the phouka put in. "If she could get you to leave the city unprotected, there's a good chance the Unseelie Court would find you quickly."
"So all this," Eddi waved her hand around the practice space, "was just to get close enough to scare me? You were about to turn into a banshee and scare the crap out of me, then the phouka showed up and foiled your cunning plan?"
"Yes." Arianrhod bit the word off sharply.
"Bullshit." Eddi smiled, confident of her ground. "You played like you meant it. Whatever else you are, you're a musician."
Arianrhod looked down her nose at Eddi, suddenly seeming much taller. "My people never give less than our best in magic or music. Nor do we lie to ourselves about matters of the heart, as you mortals do."
Eddi winced. "I never lied to Willy. I didn't--" she faltered, "didn't love him. But he was my friend, and his death was what drove me to challenge the Unseelie Queen. So if you wanted vengeance for your brother, I got it."
Ariahrhod looked almost uncertain. Defiantly, Eddi pressed her advantage. "And he was a really, really good guitar player. When he died, I lost a member of my band as well as a friend. You're the first person I've met since who was as good. So if you'd like to join us..."
"No!" The phouka's shout echoed off the bare ceiling beams. Eddi ignored him and watched Willy's sister.
After a long moment, Arianrhod swallowed and said dryly, "I begin to see why Willy found mortals so fascinating. You are unaccountable."
"Eddi isn't serious." The phouka sounded as though he was choking.
"Oh, I am. On two conditions: you have to meet the rest of the band and see if it works with them, and we agree to a try-out period, say three months." Eddi stuck out her hand, hoping she hadn't made her last big mistake. "Deal?"
Arianrhod regarded Eddi gravely out of those cat-green eyes and then took her hand in a firm, light clasp. "It is a bargain. Send word when you wish me to meet the others." And she vanished as softly as a flame blown out.
Eddi let out a long, slow breath.
"You're mad!" the phouka protested. "Oak and Ash, to trust that, that--" he gestured helplessly, the gold hoop in his ear winking in the light.
"Not trust her. I didn't say that." Eddi shoved her sopping hair back from her forehead. "Just play with her. After that, we'll see."
The phouka threw up his hands and turned away. "Why ask my advice in these matters if you're not going to take it? You'll be the death of me."
Eddi couldn't help smiling at his histrionics. "I hope so."
Dan pushed his glasses back up his nose and looked around. "This has got to be the most random release party I've ever seen."
He had a point. The Uptown Bar was packed with the usual suspects -- local media, musicians, and hipsters -- but normally the lights wouldn't shimmer so strangely or leave such glowing afterimages. Nor would a Sidhe Queen be holding court in one corner, while confused mortals tried to decide whether she was an actress or a supermodel. And strangest of all, the air felt charged with possibility rather than smoke.
Eddi's fingers twitched with the urge to get onstage and start playing. She bounced on the balls of her feet. "Did you see the crowd by the bar? God, I'm nervous."
"Don't be." The phouka beamed. "When the record company executives come running, I shall be ready with my card."
"You don't have a card."
The phouka bowed. With a flourish, he produced from a pocket Eddi knew full well had been empty a moment before a tasteful cream rectangle with Robin Goode engraved on it -- and a telephone number. She looked at him and raised one eyebrow. "You don't have a phone either."
"Say that again."
"You don't--" But she wasn't really surprised to hear a faint tinny chime from his breast pocket. He pulled out a sleek silver phone and displayed it proudly.
Eddi covered her eyes. "Greensleeves is your ringtone? Please, don't ever let the Queen hear that."
"Don't be so tense, Eddi." Carla struck a sultry pose. "Soon we'll all be living the glamorous life: sex, drugs, and rock n' roll."
"Like the song says, two out of three ain't bad," Eddi said, just to see the phouka blush.
Arianrhod appeared at Dan's elbow, making him jump. In the golden light her green eyes looked huge and wild under the dark tangle of her curls. "Are you ready?"
"Yeah." Eddi drew a deep breath. "C'mon, guys, let's go hit it big."