“…And then he helped me with my homework.” Nilien’s voice was a little muffled, because she’d tied a cloth over her face to avoid breathing in the worst of the dust in the secret room, but from the snort on the other side of the shelving, Lorque had understood her just fine.
“So he might talk to Heldira, but he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with her, except that she might be a little prickly. So he’s not a good judge of character. He thinks that you’re overreacting, like pretty much everyone here except us, but he thinks that it’s horrid that you might be in trouble. And, oh, Thesri gossips a lot. We knew that part already.”
“I don’t mind the gossip. At least Thesri is checking it out to make sure the facts are correct, even if nobody believes those facts. I’m just, well.” She focused on a spiderweb just out of reach for a moment, finally wrapping a rag around a stick to get at the corner. “I’m worried about what happens once he talks to Heldira.”
“Because she might convince him you’re crazy, or because then she might know that you know about the tracking spells?”
“Mostly the latter. I don’t think that he’s going to think I’m crazy.” She knocked down several spider webs and brushed the dust out of her hair. “I’m pretty sure he’s not going to think I’m crazy,” she clarified. “But Heldira’s his friend, and he’s not going to believe me over her when it comes to an actual threat assessment.”
“So you’re worried about both. That he’s going to think you lied or maybe just exaggerated, and Heldira’s going to know that you’re on to her.” Lorque clucked. “He’s just bad news.”
“At least he doesn’t think I’m a Weed,” Nilien muttered. “Or, if he does, he’s polite enough not to say it.”
“Nillien! Nobody’s calling you a weed.”
“That’s not true and you know it! I mean, you don’t, Riva doesn’t, although she’s read about people like me in a book. But people do. Chason doesn’t.” She wiped a smear through the dust on the wall. “At least, not to my face. What am I going to do to, Lorque?”
“Hope he doesn’t tell her? Hope that it really is a massive misunderstanding and she just has a bad sense of humor?”
And a very bad familiar, Ember added, from its perch on the stairs.
“I don’t know, Nilien. I’m sorry, but maybe he’s just not a good person to be friends with, when his friend might be trying to kill you.”
“I like him, though.” Nilien sighed. “I don’t know. Why’s he friends with her, anyway? Even he says she’s as prickly as her badger.” She had put off the wet-mopping as long as she could; she dipped her rag in the warm soapy water and started washing.
“Well, maybe he just has really bad taste in people. I mean, I think he’s a lousy judge of character, but what are his other friends like?”
“I only met one other one. Tarin. He was a boy in a skirt, and he didn’t talk much at all. He didn’t make much of an impression. And then Heldira. Maybe she’s nice when she’s not being a possible-murderer.” She considered. “Maybe Heldira really isn’t a possible-murderer and she just has bad taste in strange magic spells. Maybe,” she added, less happily, “she just hates Wild Runes. That wouldn’t even be all that unusual around here.” She scrubbed at the wall more intently, as if she could wash off the nasty feeling. Maybe she could, with enough soap and water.
“Well, it’s not like you want to be friends with someone who hates Wild Runes, Lorque pointed out. “You don’t even really talk to Istore, and he’s really trying to be better.” The sloshing sounds indicated Lorque was doing some washing, too.
“You’re right. But I don’t think Chason hates Wild Runes. I hope he doesn’t.”
“So he’s a decent person who just has lousy taste in friends, then? That’s not a lot better.”
Perhaps he is just a very good liar. Someone is clearly lying to someone. Ember pulled something from the corner of the room and dropped it in a pile of detritus. Aside from you, who are lying to many people. I am glad you are not lying to Lorque. Are you?
“I’m not lying to Lorque! I’m not lying to… well, I’m not lying much to anyone.”
You are lying enough. Perhaps Chason is not the one with bad taste in friends. Ember looked far too pleased with itself.
Nilien sighed. “My familiar is calling me a liar. But… really. Maybe he has his reasons. Maybe she’s secretly a very nice person?” She stared at the wall. Even clean, it was not all that attractive.
“-who might be trying to kill you?” The splish-splashing seemed to be getting louder.
“Maybe she’s a secretly horribly bad person who just pretends to be a very nice person?” she tried again. This was more housework than she had ever done in her life. She found it rather cathartic. “I don’t know. Maybe she’s a very good liar, too.”
“Well, maybe you should find out. Find out why he’s her friend, I mean. If you want to stay friends with him – and I don’t think it’s a brilliant idea – you ought to at least know if you can sort of trust him in a pinch.”
“I think…” Nilien focused on the wall for a minute. When you actually got through all the dirt, there was surprisingly nice wood panelling behind it. “Well, I think this place is going to be pretty if we get a few lamps and a couple chairs down here. A very nice hide-out, though sneaking chairs down might be tricky.”
“We just need a secret club to have secret meetings in our secret hide-out,” Lorque giggled. “Did you know there’s marble down here on the floor? Some sort of mosaic. I’m not sure what yet, but it’s going to need more water than we brought down. We should get Benoir down here to help us clean.”
“Only if there’s snacks. This is his snack-hiding-place.”
“I can tell from the crumbs. He’s lucky there aren’t mice down here.”
There is no place for mice to get in, opined Ember. It is too tightly built.
Nilien eyed Ember. “You know, if it didn’t involve horrid familiars…”
No more badger. Ember sat down firmly on a clean spot and looked as if it would not move without considerable force being applied.
“How about bunnies? If you were just looking to see what Chason was doing…”
You do not want to ask?
“Asking really hasn’t done all that well for me so far…”
“Do we sound like that?” Lorque asked – presumably asking River. A moment later, she chuckled. “All right, but I’ve had you longer, too.”
Nilien chuckled, embarrassed. “Sorry. Ember is hassling me about not asking directly.”
“Well, if you’re determined that he’s not in on it, ‘so, do you just have bad taste in friends?” is probably not the most friendly thing to ask,” Lorque admitted. “Are you thinking of having Ember spy on him?”
“I think so. It’s risky – he might notice, which might make him cranky – but I think I’ll get more information that way.” She reached over and petted Ember behind the ears with a mostly dry hand. “And his familiar is a rabbit, so there’s far less actual risk. No nasty badgers to attack Ember.”
Unless he is spending time with Heldira, who might be spending time with her familiar, Ember muttered darkly. I will go watch this boy of yours. But if I am bit, I am not talking to you for weeks. Weeks!
“Thank you, Ember.”
Nilien was drawing in the margins of her notes.
It wasn’t a boring class, and she really ought to be focusing, but she kept thinking about Ember, and Ember Spying on Chason.
Chason. She bit her lip and stared at her notes for a moment until she got her feelings and thoughts under control. He was nice. She didn’t want him to be involved in any of this mess! She didn’t want him to think she was a horrid spying untrusting sneak, either.
She managed to haul her mind back to mathematics for a few minutes. Now that she was caught up, it was a great deal of fun, and she was learning things they had never covered in her old school. Even if the magic was still hard and frustrating, the rest of the academics at Reinmonte were wonderful.
She found herself writing Secret Hang-Out Club? in her margins. Lorque and she had gone back and forth for a while before deciding on their list of potential Hang-Out friends. They had both done a little foot-stomping, until River and Ember had gotten involved (Ember said its ears hurt; River just looked exasperated).
They’d ended up agreeing on Chason only after both of them had been headbutted by both familiars, with the obvious caveat that if Ember discovered that Chason was evil, or in cahoots with evil knowingly, then they weren’t going to invite him to their secret club. On the other hand, they’d managed to agree to exclude Istore until he stopped calling Nilien a Weed or asking her if she had decided to go wild yet – mostly, Nilien was fairly certain – because Lorque was both embarrassed about and angry at her friend for acting like that.
Class ended with a final problem she’d totally missed. Flushing, Nilien stood up and found Lorque. “Did you-”
“I caught a glance at you and wrote down everything. Worried?”
“I’m always worried,” Nilien sighed. “What if Ember really gets hurt this time?”
“Ember will be fine. You know most of it last time was whining.” Lorque took her arm and steered her towards the cafeteria. “Come on. If we hurry, we can ask Auqustin about the – the secret – before Istore is done bothering the professor about that last math problem. Oh, don’t look like that! You’re going to be fine. It wasn’t even a hard problem. Here, look, there’s Augustin and Riva.”
Nilien smiled at Augustin and Riva as they came towards her. She had a secret! A secret that had nothing to do with her being a Wild Rune, or with someone trying to kill her! She found her smile growing wider and wider. They were almost here. She rose up on the balls of her feet and dropped down before she drew too much attention to herself. The last thing she wanted was Thesri getting wind of this.
“What is it?” Riva asked, the moment she was close. “Did they catch the – the culprit?”
“What culprit?” Augustin asked. Riva flushed and stammered.
Lorque filled in quickly. “Oh, someone stole a necklace from Nilien’s dresser. We didn’t really want anyone to know, because if they don’t know we know it’s missing, then they might get sloppy and wear it or something.”
“Oh! I hope it wasn’t an heirloom.”
He looked so sincere, Nilien felt bad lying to him. “No, it was something from my old school. Just a trinket one of my friends gave me.” And there, if anyone was listening in, then they might think she was foolish and hadn’t noticed that it had markings on it like her Rune.
She was beginning to feel like she was in some sort of spy novel, but she wasn’t particularly good at it. More like she’d slipped into the pages by accident while the real heroine was off changing hats or something.
“So you didn’t find… your necklace?” Riva sounded disappointed.
“No, not yet,” Nilien admitted. “Nobody really thinks it’s a priority.” And that was true of both the necklace and the thing they weren’t talking about. Maybe she didn’t need to go find the heroine and drag her back, hat or not, after all. “But I did find – or was shown, I suppose – something interesting. And Lorque and I,” she confided as they sat down, “we’re thinking of forming a very small, exclusive club.”
“How exclusive?” Augustin leaned forward, excited. He definitely did not belong in a spy novel, except perhaps as the clumsy sidekick.
It might be nice to have a sidekick, Nilien considered.
“I have this secret room that Lorque and I have been looking into sprucing up, and we thought that perhaps we could have a little club, the two of us, the two of you, and Chason.”
“Chason,” Riva sighed. “Of course. But not Istore?”
“No.” Lorque beat Nilien to it. “Not until he learns to be nice.”
“Hey! I’m nice” The voice came from behind Lorque and Nilien and, as one, they tensed and turned around. Not Istore, not Istore… Chason was looking indignantly at them.
“We were saying Istore wasn’t – coming up right behind you,” Lorque ended unhappily. “Hi, Istore, did you get that math problem figured out?”
“I did. What’s wrong with you? You look like you just ate a lemon.”
“He’s friendly, isn’t he?” Chason commented dryly. “No fox today?”
“No? Oh! No, Ember said something about exploring. It doesn’t have to go to classes.” Nilien smiled nervously. “Come on, we don’t want to keep Istore from lunch; the three-”
“Four? Five of us can go talk in the hallway.” At least then she could put her back to the wall and not have someone sneak up on her.
“What are you up to?” Istore glared at her.
“Oh, Chason’s been really helpful lately and I want to ask him some questions about the map he drew me. It’s helping me a lot, with being new, being a Wild Rune and all.” Nilien felt like she was laying it on a little thick, but all it did was make Istore turn a strange color.
Maybe he really had been listening to Lorque.
“We’ll be right back,” she assured Istore. “I just don’t want to block the walkway here.”
Out they went, Chason giving her a strange but amused look the whole time. “I know I heard you say my name,” he insisted, once they were in a relatively quiet spot.
“We did,” Nilien agreed, “but we weren’t talking about you not being nice. We were talking about Istore. He’s definitely not nice – well,” she added, in fairness and to make Istore’s friends happy, “he actually seems to be getting better. But that’s, well, nobody said you weren’t nice! You made me a map.”
“I did. I’m glad you don’t think I need to learn to be nice; I work very hard at it.” He grinned at her widely. “These are your friends?”
“This is Lorque, she’s my roommate and my friend, and these are Riva and Augustin. We were just talking about… about people that we like in the school?” she offered, knowing it sounded a little weak.
“Oh yeah? Sounds like a fun list.”
Maybe she should just go ahead and tell Chason now? She looked at Lorque, who shrugged a little, and at Riva, who looked doubtful. Augustin just looked confused by the whole matter.
None of them were going to be any help at all. And where was Ember?
Nilien took in her friends’ reactions one more time. “It’s a pretty fun list,” she agrees, “even if it’s still pretty short. But – if I tell you something, swear not to tell anyone else?”
She hadn’t made Riva or Augustin do that, but then again, she knew Riva and Augustin better, and their only questionable friend was Istore. She was pretty sure Istore wasn’t trying to kill her.
Chason looked amused. He looked very much, she thought, like her older brother when he thought she was being silly. But that was okay; he was older than her, and in some sense, she was definitely being a little bit silly. “I promise,” he said solemnly, “not to relay to anyone else what you’re about to tell me.”
She chuckled nervously. “It’s not that… well, no, it is. It’s ours and I don’t want to share it more than I have to.” She lifted her chin defiantly. “We’re thinking,” she said, the words she’d used earlier coming simply enough, “of forming a very small, exclusive club. We have a secret hide-out and we’d like some secret friends to come share it.”
“Maybe to solve mysteries!” Riva offered. “Mysteries seem to follow Nilien around. I thought it was because she was a Wild Rune, but now I think she just – or maybe her familiar – has a nose for the strange. Like Parsho, remember him? Always finding the weirdest things and the strangest uses for magic?”
“Oh, yeah.” Chason chuckled. “He was something. I remember this one time, he found a way up onto the roof but then the trap-door shut behind him, and the teachers had to get him down, because he didn’t want to explain how he’d gotten up there.”
Nilien was a little put out. “I’m not going to get trapped on a roof. I know better to let doors I don’t know the provenance of shut behind me!” Although letting trees fall on her in the forest…
“Or at least Ember does,” Lorque teased.
“Or at least Ember does,” Niliena agreed dourly.
“Well, anyway,” Lorque pulled the topic back. “Chason, do you want to join our secret club? It’s just us, Augustin, Riva, Nilien, me, and you, if you’re interested.”
“And this club is for… finding out secrets?”
“What sort of better secret club is there?” Riva asked cheerfully. “We have a secret hide-out. We can have secret finding. And we can share secrets. It’s all going to be a lot of secret fun.”
“Which means-” Augustin was nearly bouncing “-we’re going to need a secret name. We can’t very well say ‘let’s have the secret club meet on Tuesdays,’ or someone’s just going to follow us or put a tracking spell on us or-”
He had a very good point, but Nilien felt like this whole thing was getting away from her. “We need a name,” she agreed, with as good of grace as she could muster.
“I think we should just call it the study group,” Lorque opined. “Nobody gets nosy or interested in a study group.”
Nilien looked around. They’d been talking about Ember, but where was her familiar?
“It should have some sort of dramatic name,” Augustin countered. “Like ‘Augustin’s Army.’”
“I don’t think we’re much of an army,” Chason countered. “Nor are we yours, are we?”
Ember had been gone a long time. Nilien hoped something hadn’t happened to the fox – another badger attack or something worse. Wasn’t it supposed to be watching Chason?
Riva laughed. “We’re not Augustin’s anything. We’re the Riva Weavers!”
“Hey.” Nilien glared at them. “Let’s not be ridiculous. I mean, we could be the… The Book Club? That’s almost as boring as a study club.”
“But we don’t…” Augustin looked defeated. “I mean-”
I like the “Book Club.” Tell him you’ll have a secret book that keeps your minutes.
Nilien jumped. There was Ember, right at her feet. “Hello! Where’d you come from?”
That is a ridiculous question. Tell him. It’s time for lunch and my feet are tired.
Nilien picked Ember up. “Ember suggests a secret book, that way the Book Club has a double meaning.”
Chason chuckled. “You have one interesting familiar. Some day, we’re going to find out that Ember really doesn’t say anything at all to you and you’re just making it up.”
Nilien blushed and ducked her head. Ember fixed Chason with a steely glare for a moment, before turning its attention to its tail, which apparently needed to be tucked in a specific and exact manner into Nilien’s arms.
“So…” If she changed the subject, she wouldn’t think about blaming getting lost on Ember when she’d been spying on Heldira. “When do we want to spy – that is – when do we want to all see the secret hideout? I can show you after classes?”
“After dinner would be better.” Chason patted Ember’s head as if the fox hadn’t just been glaring at him. “I study with my other friends right after classes.”
“I can’t do right after dinner,” Augustin complained. “I’ve got to write a paper.”
“Well, what about tomorrow?” Riva offered. “After dinner? Or before breakfast?”
“I can’t do before breakfast.” Lorque frowned. “I can’t get dressed that early.”
Round and round they went, until they finally settled on the next day after dinner. Then they had to sort out a meeting place.
“What about up in the leftmost tower? The one that isn’t used for classes right now?” Augustin offered.
“I’m not even going to be able to find it,” Nilien countered. “How about-” There weren’t that many places she didn’t know that weren’t very obvious. “Our room, Lorque’s and mine. I can find everything I need to from there.” She petted Ember between the ears.
Is this a good idea? Ember asked. His badger-loving friend is in the cafeteria, by the way. I am taking a break from stalking.
She kept petting Ember, unable to answer that question in front of everyone. Besides, what could she say when the answer was I hope so?
“Do you think they’ll all come?”
Nilien didn’t mean to be nervous, but people had been so strange here. She was pacing back and forth in the small space between her bed and Lorque’s. “Do you think they’ll like it?”
“We wouldn’t have asked if we didn’t think they’d like it,” Lorque pointed out, “and if they don’t come, it’s their loss.”
Unless Chason was telling Heldira all about it. For the fourth time that evening, Nilien looked herself over for tracking spells. Nothing.
“You know, you can wear yourself out doing too much of that,” Lorque pointed out. “Besides, you look like you’re trying to see if your skirt is tucked up into your waistband. Which it’s not.”
“Oh, hush, you, I’m just worried. There’s no point having a secret hide-out-”
“-If the person trying to kill you follows you in. But- Oh!” A knock at the door interrupted Lorque. “Someone…” She swung open the door to reveal their guests, all three of them. “Well, that’s convenient.”
“We ran into each other coming here.” Riva was nearly bouncing with excitement. Next to her, Augustin looked even less contained. They were never going to be able to keep this a secret.
“I was trying something with a draft of my map,” Chason admitted. “Nilien got me excited about playing with making it usable for any new students, and I wanted to see the best route from dorm-area to dorm-area. I skipped the birds for now, but that found me Augustin and Riva.”
“This map is turning into quite the project.” Lorque shot him a contemplative look.
Chason didn’t seem to notice. “I like projects. Maybe I’ll make it magical for my final thesis.”
“And you can put the-” Augustin lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper “secret rooms on it. Hey!” He looked down at Ember very deliberately bit his trouser leg. “Your fox…!”
Bit his trousers, Ember pointed out primly. To remind him not to give away secrets.
“Ember says ‘shh’,” Nilien translated. “Besides, your pants are fine. Shall we go look at the Book Room?”
Despite rolling her eyes at Augistin’s excitement, Nilien found herself very excited as they neared the room. This really was just like a spy novel!
She snuck them into the supply room and, from there, waited until they were all quiet to open the door. Down they went, Lorque’s pocket torches lighting the way.
“Wow,” Riva murmured. “This place really needs a bookshelf and some lanterns and some chairs and maybe a carpet. I think I have a lantern and a carpet to spare.”
“It’s a real secret room!” Augustin wandered around touching things. “It’s a real secret room.”
“This is wonderful,” Chason whispered, still on the stairs. “Now I’ll have something to be cryptic about, when Heldira starts talking about her secret meetings.”
Nilien turned around to stare at Chason.
Somewhere behind her and off to her left, she could see Lorque, already taking the role of hostess for Riva, doing the same thing.
“Who?” Augustin was still a little behind on things.
Perhaps you should fill him in. Perhaps… he should fill you in.
That was not one of Ember’s more helpful comments.
“Secret meetings?” Lorque managed before Nilien had really quite sorted out the pronouns in Ember’s suggestion.
“What sort of secret meetings?” Riva put in, before correcting herself. “No, of course, if they were secret, you wouldn’t know much about them, and if you knew much about them, they wouldn’t be secret.”
Riva had clearly been taking lessons from Ember in direct and non-cryptic speech.
“Shhh,” Augustin hissed. “Forget about them, we’re supposed to be secret. Come on, we need to get the door closed.” He pushed passed Chason and pulled the door closed with a click. “Now. There’s more secret meetings around here?”
“Well, you can’t be the only one who found hidden rooms,” Chason pointed out. “This place looks clean – does anyone else use it?”
“Benoir found it for me,” Nilien admitted, “but it was filthy. We’re the only ones who’ve been in here since.” She wasn’t certain nobody else had, but nothing had been moved. “But it’s not the only secret room or secret passage or anything like that. Is that where Heldira’s secret group meets?”
“I don’t know,” Chason admitted. “I don’t know much about it, but I do know she wanders off, cryptic and strange, every so often. She’s going to meet some ‘friends’, as if we didn’t know all her friends in the school.”
“That sounds a little suspicious.” Lorque sounded more than a little suspicious. Was she going to upset Chason, after all this?
“Oh, it’s a little strange. I think she does it just to get to me, sometimes. Nobody else we know has any idea what she’s doing, either, and it isn’t any sort of Academy-associated club or anything.” He sat down on the stairs. “This clubhouse needs some chairs. I know a place I can grab a few; I’ll bring some next time.”
“We haven’t had much chance to furnish it surreptitiously yet,” Nilien admitted. She didn’t want to talk about chairs; she wanted to know about Heldira. “She doesn’t just say ‘off to the secret club now,’ does she?”
“Oh,” Chason chuckled, “no, not at all. She’s never said it’s a club. I’m not even sure it is, and certainly I don’t know if it’s organized, like this. It’s more like, ‘oh, it’s time for me to go meet with those friends of mine. I’ll see you later, off with me’.” He shifted his voice into what she imagined was a parody of Heldira, minced and nasal, with a waving hand like a duchess. “And then she smiles like she knows something I don’t – which I suppose she must – and off she goes. I’ve never managed to follow her, so she might have her own secret room. But that’s less exciting that this.” He looked around the small space. “Because this is all ours!”
“It’s all ours,” Nilien agreed.
Heldira had her own secret club? And Chason didn’t know about it? She met Lorque’s eyes; her roommate smiled a little as if to say see, I told you so.
Since Nilien had been the one saying that Chason was trustworthy and Lorque had been arguing the opposite, she didn’t think that one deserved a response. Instead, she spun around slowly, looking at the room with new eyes now that they’d cleaned it up and showed it to other people.
“It’s all ours.” What did Heldira’s secret space look like? “I mean, Benoir knows about it, but it’s our secret space.”
Benoir may want to snack here still. Ember hopped up onto a tall shelf to observe them all. Maybe you should invite him, too. He has a pleasant disregard for rules.
She would worry about that later. “So, what should we do with our Book Club?”
“Well, obviously we need a secret book. And secret minutes.” Riva pulled out a leather-bound tome. “I had this for taking notes, but I never could bring myself to actually write in it. This seems like a good opportunity.”
“So what do we put in the secret book?” Augustin leaned forward. “Secret spells?”
“Do you know any secret spells?” Nilien hadn’t heard of such a thing, but she imagined they must exist.
He looked deflated. “No. I was hoping you did, being a Wild Rune.”
“Unfortunately, no.” She couldn’t even take offense. Augustin was too enthusiastic about everything! “It doesn’t come with any sort of explanative guide – except Ember, who explains things, but only when asked exactly the right question, and rarely things such as spells.”
I’m sorry, I thought things like ‘there’s a tree falling on you!’ might be more useful than spells that don’t exist. Ember sniffed in disdain.
“… I know, I’m sorry. Ember saves me from important things, like threats on my life. The falling tree,” she added, so it didn’t sound like she was saying people were actually threatening her life.
Even though they were. She was going to need a book just to keep this all straight!
If Heldira had a secret club, were they trying to kill Nilien? Maybe Ember might be willing to follow her and find out.
“We should put coded minutes in the book,” she decided. “Riva, do you have a book on codes?”
Riva looked suddenly excited. “I do! I have three, actually. So we could put everything we know into the book, and nobody but us will be able to read it! Oh, that would be fun! Think about it! She was nearly bouncing. “So, we could put in the story of Nilien, and being a Wild Rune, and then we could talk about what Ember told her, and compare it to what our familiars first said to us, and then-”
“We could talk about gossip,” Lorque cut in. “You know, who we know who’s doing what that they shouldn’t. I’m sure if we all put our heads together, we could come up with quite a bit of dirty laundry. I mean, Nilien, how does Benoir find all these secret passages?”
“Mostly by being hungry, I think?” Nilien offered. “But maybe some of them the upperclassmen showed him. And you four must have a lot more interesting gossip than I do. I mean, you’ve been here so much longer. You have to know all the stories about who’s gotten into what trouble.”
“There was that mess with Brien last year,” Riva offered slowly, “but if we wanted gossip, we should have invited Thesri, and I was pretty sure that was off the list. I mean, unless we want someone second-guessing Nilien at every turn and telling her nobody really tried to kill her.”
“Someone tried to kill you!” Chason jumped. “I mean – oh, you mean the way you became a Wild Rune?”
“The police are pretty sure it was an assassin,” Nilien agreed, because she was sick of people not believing her.
“That was in the letter, right? You got the letter after the thing with the tree? And your necklace-” Riva put a hand over her mouth.
“Necklace?” Chason raised his eyebrows. “There’s a necklace missing?”
“What sort of necklace?” Augustin leaned forward. “Is it some sort of secret Wild Rune necklace?”
“If it is, it’s a very big secret. Since almost all I know about Wild Runes is what I know by being one – so, mostly what Ember has told me – nobody has initiated me into any big secrets of the wild, or anything.” Nilien tried to soften it with a smile, but Augustin did seem to think that she knew some deep mysteries that she just didn’t.
And now everyone was comparing notes! And she couldn’t remember what she had told whom and what she hadn’t.
“There was a necklace. It had runes on it, and it appeared in my room back at my old school, and vanished from my room here. But the adults here don’t seem to think it matters.”
“People are trying to kill you,” Riva pointed out indignantly. “To kill you! It ought to be very important!”
“Wait.” Chason frowned. “People, plural?”
Nilien swallowed. “Person, a person tried to kill me. I mean – I wasn’t really…” She didn’t like talking about that but otherwise she was going to get into deep water. She looked at Ember for help.
Ember, of course, was absolutely no help at all.
People are trying to kill you. Doesn’t everyone know that?
Familiars were no help at all. She leaned against a wall and looked down at the floor. She wasn’t sure she wanted to look at Chason. “Sometimes when I say this, people think I made the whole thing up. But since I have Ember, it’s pretty hard for me to have made up being a Wild Rune, and, as unpleasant as some people can get about the whole thing, I don’t think it would even be smart to make it up.”
“You’re a Wild Rune,” Chason answered gently. “Obviously you didn’t make that up. We can all see Ember, and you’re here, taking classes.”
“Someone – or someones, that’s the thing – tried to kill me, but I don’t remember any of it. Well, that’s not true. I remember being asked if I wanted to live. All Ember will tell me is You wanted to live, and here I am. Which, while true, lacks something in details.”
Those are all the details that matter, Ember protested from its perch on the shelves. You did not wash this top shelf enough.
“Wash it yourself then. I mean…” She looked back at her friends. “So that’s what Riva means. People – or person – tried to kill me, and nobody knows who they are. As far as my friends from my old school can tell, they’re still out there, the police haven’t caught them, and nobody knows why someone was trying to kill me. I’m not that important! I’m really not. And now I’m a Rune, and I’m here, and -”
“And someone might still be trying to kill her,” Lorque filled in. “So we keep an eye out for her, and we try to notice if things change – like jewelry going missing or things moved when we enter a room – and anyone acting suspicious around her.”’
“Like someone giving her a map of the school?” Chason sounded wry, but something in his face looked like he really thought that’s what they’d been doing.
“Oh!” Lorque sounded as mortified as Nilien felt. “No! No, no. No, nothing like that. You were nice to Nilien, so she wanted to invite you along. I mean more like, following her around, taking things out of her room, actual creep stuff.”
“Oh.” He looked at least a little mollified. “Okay. I thought maybe you wanted to, I don’t know, check me out. Since Nilien is new to the school.”
“Well, if you’d been giving her maps full of things that weren’t there or trying to get her lost, yeah. But generally, you seem nice.” Lorque was still talking quickly, like she was hiding something. “We just don’t want someone trying to kill her more, you know? We like her.”
“I like her, too,” Chason agreed easily, and with none of the undertone some of the boys back home might have managed. “You seem like nice kids – I mean, nice… Uh.” Augustin was glaring at Chason, oh, no. “Come on, I am older than you. I mean…” He shook his head. “I like you guys. This club, the way you take care of each other. It’s all very nice. I can imagine you guys – and me, really – sneaking around, looking into interesting – oh.” His nervous smile suddenly turned into a frown. “Oh, no, Nilien.”
What? She looked at Ember; Ember looked away. She looked around. Nobody else seemed to know what he was saying. She didn’t have anything on the front of her blouse her skirt wasn’t tucked into the waistband inappropriately. “What?”
“The tracking spells.” His frown deepened. “That thing with Heldira and the tracking spells!”
“You told him about that?” Riva hissed.
“Of course she did!” Lorque whispered back.
“I know you think that Heldira put the tracking spell on you, but you can’t think that has anything to do with someone trying to kill you! Heldira’s sometimes a little prickly, sure, but she’s not the sort of person to actually want to kill someone, especially not a fellow student!”
“I… believe you?” Nilien tried, although she was pretty sure she didn’t sound much like she believed anyone.
“You ought to! She’s been my friend for years! And you wanted me to, what, to find out if she was really trying to kill you? Of course she isn’t! Nobody here is going to try to kill you!”
“A couple months ago, the idea of anyone at all trying to kill me was ridiculous,” Nilien countered. “And then someone tried! And here I am, in a new school with a whole bunch of strangers, and a lot of people hate the idea of Wild Runes. Weeds,” she added, with a sneer. She was feeling embarrassed and that made her feel a little put-upon. Chason was never meant to know any of this!
“Still! There’s one thing to think someone’s trying to kill you, and another for it to be Heldira! I mean, she’s my friend! She’s not even the sort to go around saying ‘Weed’, much less trying to kill someone for being a Wild Rune. You’re -” Chason shook his head. “I understand that you’re worried. I understand that it’s probably really scary, and probably really strange, being here and not knowing many people, and you had that problem with the tree – I know I’d be looking for danger around every corner if that happened to me. But not Heldira.”
“Wait.” Augustin frowned. “Tracking spells? People trying to kill you? What is all of this? I didn’t know any of this!”
“Well,” Riva countered practically, “she wasn’t very well going to tell you in front of Istore, was she? Not when he was all like ‘oooh, Wild Runes are dangerous’ when she first came in! Obviously, you need to spend more time in Lorque and Nilien’s room with me.”
“Or down here,” Augistin countered. “Where we can talk about these things.”
“You know, Chason,” Lorque cut in, before Riva and Augustin could really get going, “you’re the one that told us Heldira has her own secret meetings. Things she won’t even tell you. Maybe she’s not trying to kill Nilien, but she did put those tracking spells on – what else is she up to?”