2.14

“The scenic route, I think.” Nilien shifted the books and clothes in her arms. “I’ve come this far, after all.”

“Lovely. All right, we’ve got to go down some stairs, but the good news is, we’ll only have to go up one flight of stairs after that. And it’s a really nice route. Down we go!”

Benoir led her and Ember down the stairs, past the floor they’d entered on, and out a small door. The door was so tidily tucked in — in a small alcove, just past a thick bookshelf — that Nilien might never have found it on her own.

Outside the door were more plants, arranged around a courtyard. This time, Nilian was fairly certain the light was real daylight. She hesitated in the doorway anyway.

“This is safe, I promise! We’re allowed here, and I cut through here all the time. Look,” Benoir added, when it was clear Nilien wasn’t moving quickly, “see, there’s two students there.”

She could just make out the yellow and orange uniforms through the trees. “All right,” Nilien acceded. “I trust you.”

“Well, if that’s the case, I know a nice route through some forbidden passageways… joking! Just joking a little.” Benoir grinned at her. “This is nicer, anyway. You can get a little sun, Caprice can get a little air—”

Caprice took flight from his shoulder and started flying in playful loops through the trees and bushes.

The plants here looked more normal: cypress trees, hyacinths, a few flowers that Nilien didn’t recognize. None of them were moving on their own, and none of them changed colors or spoke, but they’d been arranged in a very nice manner, with the flower hues making a rainbow from one corner to the opposite corner.

They were walking around the edge of the courtyard along a shaded path; glances into the center of the courtyard showed not just the yellow- and orange-clad students but several others, gathered in little groups and talking.

“I study out here sometimes,” Benoir admitted. “Or do my homework. Caprice likes it.”

It is very pleasant, Ember agreed.

“Ember seems to be fond of it, too.” Nilien felt on display next to all of the other students, but only one of them seemed to notice her at all. She thought she’d seen that one in the dining hall — a girl with a teal-green rabbit who seemed very curious about Nilien.

Curiosity wasn’t bad, she supposed. “It looks like there are some private areas?”

“Well, secluded, at least,” Benoir agreed. “Nice for studying when you don’t everyone interrupting you.”

Or she didn’t want to be stared at, Nilien thought.

“I think I agree with Ember. It’s very nice. But how do I find it?”

“Oh, see here?” He opened a door just past the edge of the courtyard. “This is right next to your dormitory area. We go through here, and voila, you’re practically at your room.”

Nilien still felt lost, but things were starting to look slightly more familiar. “Thank you.”

“Oh, let me get you to your door, at least. That way you don’t have to carry your books.”

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