2.8

Nilien smiled at Benoir, relieved that he was being friendly. “I wouldn’t say no to a tour. Although…” She shifted a little. “These books seemed a lot lighter when I was downstairs,” she admitted. “Maybe I should get them back to my room.”

“Oh, leave them here.” The girl in purple trousers waved at her from an armchair next to a low table. “I’m Heline. I’ll keep an eye on them, if you want, although nobody’s likely to run off with them.”

“Oh, could you? They weren’t heavy until Ember decided to ride them for a while.” Nilien set the books down on the table Heline had pointed to. “And then they were ridiculously heavy.”

That was not me, Ember informed her, it was merely that you decided to climb all the stairs.

“That’s why I like having a familiar like Caprice.” Benoir patted his familiar. “Barely weighs anything at all and flies almost everywhere. Not like Administrator Sirin’s snake.” Benoir made a good-natured grimace. “Who wants a cold-blooded scarf that weighs as much as a small person, anyway?”

I am a very nice scarf. Ember glared indignantly up at Benoir.

“He’s not talking about you.” Nilien scooped Ember up. “So, is this the bird-dorm area then, or is it just the two of you?”

“It’s the bird-familiar dormitory section,” he agreed. “Since the aviary is right upstairs. Here, I can show you.” He headed for the stairway. “And I bet you room with someone with another smallish carnivore, right? Don’t bite me,” he added in Ember’s direction.

Ember showed teeth, startlingly white against its red fur, but only for a brief second, before looking away in mock-shyness.

“Ember hasn’t ever bitten anyone, although there have been some threats,” Nilien admitted.

“That happens. Especially with the bigger predators. Even birds. Here we are.”

At the top of the stairs, an entire level of the tower had been turned into an aviary. Large branches and beams crisscrossed the space, giving the brightly-colored birds there places to land. Nilien spotted a kite in purple that might have been Heline’s familiar, an olive-green swallow, and a few species of birds she had never seen before. Several of the windows were open to let in air, creating a light breeze swirling through the room.

It wasn’t as loud as an aviary full of normal birds would be, but there was chirping and cawing coming from various places overhead. A pastel blue crow flew down from the ceiling to examine them up close, while most of the familiars watched from their positions or flew back and forth between perches.

“Wow.” Nilien looked around, turning in a slow circle to take in everything. “This is amazing. All these familiars, all together… Wow.”

“I believe you said that once,” Benoir teased.

She smiled at him. “Wow,” she repeated, just to be contrary.

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