2.9

“If you think that’s ‘wow’, wait ’til you see what I’ve got to show you next.” Benoir walked to the center of the aviary, turning back to grin at Nilien twice on the way. She followed him, curious.

“Come on,” she coaxed Ember, who was in the middle of a stare-down with the blue crow. “You want to see it too, don’t you?”

I do not like this… bird. Ember stalked over to Nilien. Carry me.

“You’re a very demanding fox.” She picked Ember up anyway. “Ember and the crow…” she tried explaining to Benoir, but she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to say after that.

“Oh, that happens sometimes.” He brushed that away with a hand gesture. “The crow belongs to Theanne. As long as you don’t say anything about her familiar, you should be fine. She knows Attannathene is a bit of a brat.”

Nilien bit her tongue on a question about the name. Hadn’t Lorque said the teachers suggested something simple for the name? Well, perhaps Attannathene was the simplest name Theanne could come up with.

“All right. Get ready to ‘wow’ again.” Benoir made an elaborate gesture at… the floor?

“It’s a nice floor?” Nilien offered.

“No, no — well, it is a nice floor, especially considering it’s in an aviary, but no, this is what I meant.” He pushed on one section of the floor with his toes. There was a very faint click, and a section of the floor lifted up a scant finger-width. “See?” He bent over and pulled the door open, revealing a narrow passageway, a ladder beckoning downwards. “After you.”

A very nice floor, Ember teased. Where, though—

“Where does it go?” Nilien had been having the same thought.

Benoir’s grin didn’t falter at all. “That’s a surprise. It’s a nice surprise, I assure you, but it’s still a surprise.”

“I must admit I’m a little curious.” Nilien looked down at Ember. “You’d better get comfortable on my shoulders.

Aren’t you glad you don’t have some big awkward familiar, like a ridiculous dog or some sort of snake? Ember scrambled up onto Nilien’s shoulders, its claws digging into her shirt and her skin. I’m set.

This could, of course be a prank. But it was an honest-to-goodness secret passage! Nilien stepped down onto the ladder, moving carefully as she adjusted to Ember’s weight, and started climbing downwards.

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