Lorque jutted out her chin. “Reinmonte is a safe Academy. I’m not worried. Try the squash dish, Nilien.” She turned her whole body towards Nilien, as if physically cutting off the previous conversation. “It’s really good. Better than it looks, I’m afraid, but quite tasty.”

Ember bumped Nilien’s arm with its head. Eat. You need to eat to keep moving so you can brush my fur. And there is nothing at all wrong with you — or with me. Even if I might bite.

“All right, all right.” Nilien smiled at both of them and finally picked up her fork. Eating around Ember was easier said than done, but it gave her something to focus on for a few minutes.

“I read a book about Wild Runes last semester,” Riva mused, in a far-too-casual tone. “Did you know, there’s a story that they used to walk naked to the top of the mountain peaks on the summer solstice to commune with their familiars?”

That is too far to walk to commune. Ember nestled its nose under its tail, looking like a red fur muff on Nilien’s lap. We commune with no problems right here, with no walking up mountains required.

Nilien was trying to focus on the food, which was, as promised, quite tasty. She was hungrier than she’d thought she was, so it was easy to stare at her plate and eat, ignoring Istore’s answer to Riva’s “story” and the byplay between the four friends — presumably, from the snatches of conversation she was catching, on the same topic.

“Nilien. Nillien.” Lorque caught her attention by tapping her hand. “Augustin asked you a question.”

“Oh.” Nilien set down her fork, feeling warmth already coming to her cheeks. “I’m sorry. It’s quite good food.”

Augustin’s smile was sympathetic. “There’s a lot to take in.”

Most of it was his friends’ and the way everyone seemed to hate Wild Runes. Nilien smiled thinly at him. “It’s all new,” she agreed.

“I was just asking — does your familiar talk to you? Some people said Wild Runes’ familiars couldn’t.”

Of course I… Harumph. Ember put its head back on the table to glare at Augustin.

Nilien patted its head. “Ember talks just fine. Frequently, and with very strong opinions.” She smiled down at the fox. When she looked up again, Augustin was smiling at her.

“Well, that was good.” Lorque stood up. “Come on, Nilien. We have a lot more school to tour still.”

Nilien was more than happy to get up, although Ember didn’t really want to move. She ended up carrying the fox with her, just to get out of the Dining Hall.

They made it almost to the exit before an adult stopped them. “Excuse me.” The stork-like woman was wearing a green and yellow dress, with a high neck and a flared skirt, that coordinated nicely with the green snake wrapped around her neck and shoulders. “You are the new student, correct?”

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