Chapter 9

Chason was shaking his head, and he had gotten half to his feet. “You guys don’t know her at all. I don’t know how you can think that she’d be in any way involved with something like hurting another student! I mean, really.”

“Chason-” Nilien began.

Lorque talked right over her. “Just listen for a minute, okay? When Nilien went out to the woods, she had a tracking spell on her that she knew was there. She thought maybe she could – find out more about who was tracking her. But then Ember saw someone, and the tree fell almost on top of her!”

“Wait, what?” Augustin frowned. “She what?”

“She what?” Chason repeated. “Even if it was just someone setting you up for some sort of silly prank – okay, those sorts of things happen. They’re ridiculous and sometimes people get a little hurt, but they do happen – but if something like that was going on, it was really, really silly to go out into the woods on your own with a known tracking spell on you!”

Nilien wasn’t sure which she preferred, people not believing she’d been in danger, or people scolding her for getting herself into a dangerous spot. She thought, if she were being honest, she preferred to hear neither of them.

She cleared her throat. “I know it was a bit extreme,” she allowed, “but I didn’t want to be the sort of pushover that just waits for things to happen to me.”

“Well, I suppose you didn’t wait for a tree to almost fall on you, then! And you think Heldira was behind this somehow?”

“The tracking spells were hers. I don’t know where she was at that time – I can’t do spells well enough to do a tracking spell, even if I wanted to-” She was going to be depressed about that for a while, she though. It would be nice to be at a magic school and able to actually do magic.

That wasn’t the point right now. She mentally shook herself. “I don’t know where Heldira was,” she repeated herself, “but I do know that she set the tracking spells. They all smell like the same person’s magic to Ember, and they do keep coming back.”

“I don’t know,” Chason frowned. “This is all really excessive. We’re students.”

“And I’m a student because someone tried to kill me!”

“And,” Lorque added, “you said yourself, Heldira is part of some secret thing outside of school.”

“This is all so…” Chason frowned. “I don’t know, cloak-and-dagger? I mean, assassination attempts, people sneaking around tracking down other people, suspecting other students… what next? Are we going to have some sort of conspiracy? Teachers whispering in the hallways? Secret cabals?”

“Technically,” Augustin pointed out helpfully, “aren’t we a secret cabal?”

“Well, we’re a book club,” Riva offered, “but… we’re a secret book club. And it sounds like we’re not the only secret club in the school. I wonder if everyone has their own secret club? Maybe Thesri does too, a secret club full of gossip.”

“I wouldn’t mind getting in on that club,” Lorque admitted. “Maybe then I’d have a bit better idea what was going on around here.”

“No,” Riva countered, “you’d just know who was wandering off into the trees with whom and who, perhaps, had come wandering out of the trees all banged up. And that last bit is only because Thesri’s already taken an interest in Nilien, so you’d already know all of it anyway.”

Chason was watching all of this like a tennis match. At the last, he snorted a bit. “Thesri imagines more information than Thesri actually knows. You wouldn’t get all that much new information from quizzing Thesri, at least not accurate information.”

Ember studied Chason from its perch. Funny he thinks about secret cabals but doesn’t think about the other one he’s admitted to, the fox pointed out.

Nilien gave the fox a thoughtful look. “Thesri’s imaginary secret cabal aside — and ours — there is Heldira’s secret meetings. She might not be any danger herself, but what about her friends? I hate to harp on this, I really do, but—”

“Someone tried to kill you.” Chason frowned. “It’s so much easier to think of this as some sort of ridiculous joke than to consider it actually happening, here, in Reinmont. I mean — we’re safe here. We’re supposed to be safe here. All of these magic-using teachers, and all of us, the students, our familiars — it should be safe.”

“It should be safe,” Lorque agreed. “So, maybe your friend isn’t actually doing anything, I can believe that. She might be completely on the up-and-up. But if she has secret friends, don’t you think that maybe, possibly, people like that could be doing something a little questionable?”

“Or they could just be meeting to have a secret society and talk about books,” Augustin interjected plaintively. “Like us.”

“We’ll talk about books soon,” Riva soothed. “Here, come over here and tell me about that book you were reading.” She gestured to the rest of them to continue as she led her friend to a corner of their hide-away.

“They could be,” Lorque agreed unwillingly. She shifted her frown suddenly to a smile. “If they are, maybe they know about where to find other secret groups, and maybe one of those are the people we’re looking for. You could find that out, couldn’t you, Chason? Just if they’re, ah. If they’re dangerous or if they know dangerous people?”

“I could do that,” Chason agreed slowly. “They might know someone helpful.”

I knew he was going to be good, Ember declared smugly.

Chapter 8

“…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.

Phew.

“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-”

“Ahem.”

“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?”

Oh, no.

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?”

Chapter 7

“Then we went down into these stairs hidden behind a storage shelf, and there was a hidden room back there.” Nilien took out her map and marked the location, then pulled out another piece of paper and began making more notes. “So there’s the hidden garden up in the Aviary-”

“What?” Lorque leaned forward. “Hidden room?”

“Oh! Benoir almost got me in a lot of trouble; there’s a passage, here,” she noted, “a ladder down that leads to a secret magical garden. It’s really nice, but I guess it’s forbidden. Doctor Alaroq was there.”

“You saw the doctor? You got seen by the doctor?” Lorque’s eyes were huge.

“No, no, it’s just that we heard people talking, and when the doctor was taking care of my ankle,” she stuck out her ankle and rotated it, “I recognized the voice.”

“Oh! Oh, well, that’s okay, then. So there’s that passage, and then there’s this one Benoir showed you today. Anything good there?”

“Just this,” she showed Lorque the journal. “It doesn’t look all that exciting, but it’s old, which is kind of neat. Like reading your great-grandmother’s letters. But it could be a great hiding place with a little bit of work.”

“You’ve only been here a few weeks and you’re having all the fun.” Lorque smiled sidelong at Nilien. “Maybe I ought to start following you around, so that I can… protect you, that’s it, protect you.”

“Well, I do seem to get into a number of scrapes. Oh! Heldira’s familiar is a badger. Ember went looking for it, just as Benoir showed up.”

“Again, you have all the interesting things, although ‘a number of scrapes’ isn’t quite how I’d describe someone trying to drop a tree on you. Did you make it out of your secret-passage exploration without another tracking spell?”

Nilien stilled and pulled on her magic, before she remembered that Ember was quite a ways away. “I’ll have to wait until Ember gets back. I hope so, though. I’d hate to have given away Benoir’s best hiding spot just because I happen to be being tracked by a creep.”

“Maybe you ought to ask her why she’s tracking you.”

Nilien frowned. “For one, I’d have to admit that I knew she was tracking me, so we’d lose any aspect of surprise.”

“The last time we tried to surprise them, someone dropped a tree on you.”

“I know. But, well. If she’s not doing it and Ember was wrong-” she whispered the last part as if Ember could hear her “-or if she is but for some benign reason, well.” She looked away. “Chason’s nice. And I don’t want to alienate him if turns out that Heldira isn’t part of anything malicious.”

“Someone dropped a tree on you! I’d say there’s some malice involved!”

“Well, it wan’t Heldira. We know that much. And I suppose there’s still a chance it was an accident…”

Lorque shook her head. “I have no idea why you’re willing to pretend that something isn’t up. I mean, you’re the one that came back from the woods all bashed up-”

“But we know that wasn’t Heldira. Or, at least, we know it wasn’t her magic,” Nilien protested.

“Still! That just means she’s working with someone else. So she put a tracking spell on you – at least twice now – someone’s trying to kill you, someone has nearly succeeded in killing you at least twice, and you’re still acting like Heldira might not be bad? Is Chason that good-looking? Because his maps are nice, but they’re not all that impressive, not enough to risk dying for.”

“Chason…” Nilien shook her head. “He’s nice. He reminds me of home a little bit.”

“I’m nice. Benoir seems nice, and you probably don’t end up with tracking spells after spending time with him. Plus, he comes with secret passages.”

Nilien giggled. “You make it sound like the passages go through him.”

“Well, now that would be a little creepy, but it might be entertaining, too. But what I’m saying is, Chason might be nice, but you’re risking your life, and I don’t think he’s that nice. If you confront Heldira, maybe you can get this all worked out – and if he’s really nice, maybe he’ll intervene for you, get in the way and tell her she has to come clean.”

“What happens if someone tries to kill another student here?”

“You know, I don’t know. I don’t think anything like that, anything more than a little bullying, has ever come up. It’s not like we’re thugs here.” Lorque frowned. “But you’ve got to do something, and you’ve got to talk to Heldira. You’re being way too nice, pretending that it might not be her, and that’s going to come back and bite you, you know that it is. Some people aren’t really all that sure about Wild Runes here-”

“Weeds, you mean.” The word tasted unpleasant in her mouth.

“Well,some people are really not sure about Wild Runes, I suppose. And those people, if they see that trouble keeps following you around…”

“But it’s not like it’s my fault!”

“But Nilien. If you don’t put the blame anywhere else, it’s going to fall the same place the trouble does. Stop being nice about Heldira. Best-case scenario, she put tracking spells on you without asking your consent. Worst-case, she’s trying to get you killed. Either way, don’t let her get you in trouble just because you think Chason’s nice.”

Nilien sighed. “It’s going to be a lot of fuss, no matter what I say.”

“Then let it be a fuss! There are certainly worse options. Dying, for instance.”

“I still don’t know,” Nilien admitted. “I agree, there’s worse things than making a fuss, but I still don’t think that walking up to someone who may or may not be trying to kill me and confronting them with that fact is a good idea.”

“Well, talk to someone. Maybe another teacher? Before they end up trying again. Especially if you’re going to be sending off Ember places – it can’t watch your back if you’re not there and you can’t be looking for tracking symbols when your familiar’s on the other side of the school.”

Nilien sighed. “They don’t believe me, the teachers, but all right. Professor Vaudelle at least knows about the tracking spell. Maybe she can help somehow.”

“See? At least this way you’re not ignoring the problem because Chason is nice.”

“It’s not like… all right.” She wasn’t going to win that argument, she could already tell. “All right, all right. I’ll talk to Professor Vaudelle.”

She might as well take care of that now; she was fairly sure Lorque wasn’t going to give her any peace until she did something. She got to her feet, still happy that her ankle didn’t feel horrible anymore, and opened the door.

Ember was on the other side, looking disgruntled and a little disheveled. The familiar matches the owner, it complained, and limped into the room, favoring its front left paw. The thing chased me off and tried to bite me. A nasty, awful piece of work. It hopped onto the bed and walked back and forth – favoring, Nilien couldn’t help but notice, its front right paw. I learned nothing of interest – because it is a nasty horrible thing and has nothing interesting to say – except that it is a cranky and unfriendly badger who should be ignored at all costs. I imagine its person is much the same. Ember plopped down and began checking itself over for injuries.

“Ember went looking for Heldira’s familiar,” Nilien relayed. She checked herself over for tracking spells again, since Ember was there, but found none. “It says that the badger is unpleasant and ought to be ignored as much as possible but, being unpleasant and definitely ignore-able, it was able to tell Ember nothing at all interesting.” She hid her smile from her familiar. who was now studying its left rear paw.

I think it bit me. That thing bit me. People ought not to be allowed to keep familiars that bite. Well, it allowed, looking away, that bite other familiars.

“So, I suppose talking to Heldira might end in me getting bitten,” Nilien offered, mostly managing not to laugh. “So once Ember is feeling up to it, we’ll go talk to Professor Vaudelle.”

Ember walked around the bed in a circle a few times. We are talking to Professor Vaudelle because…?

“Because Lorque wants me to talk to someone, and I don’t want to talk to Heldira, especially considering your report on her familiar.” Nilien made a face. She didn’t think it followed that a familiar was all that like their person – she wasn’t that much like Ember! – but it did seem like a bad sign all around if Heldira’s badger had chased off Ember.

Including the fact that Heldira most likely now knew that Nilien was looking into her, assuming she remembered that Nilien’s familiar was a red fox. The color-coded outfits didn’t exactly make that a secret, after all.

Nilien sighed. “And because someone is trying to kill me. With that in mind, maybe I ought to talk to someone on the staff until they listen to me.”

What of the letter from your friend…? Ember prompted.

“That’s a good idea. Larisse’s letter ought to provide a little back-up to my claims, if they can get past her style of writing. Are you up to it?”

Ember stretched. I am feeling well enough.

They took the most direct route they knew to Professor Vaudelle’s office, and found the professor in. Nilien hemmed and hawed for a moment, trying to figure out how to begin, until Ember bit at the hem of her skirt. Say: “I’m worried Heldira is helping someone try to kill me.”

“I’m worried Heldira is in on a plot to kill me,” Nilien temporized. “And someone has been in my room, taking a pendant that – well, that appeared in my old dorm room just after the first attempt on my life. I believe that the police were looking for it in my old dorm.”

“Oh, dear, I’m sure other students are not trying to kill you,” Vaudelle tutted. She took the letter when Nilien offered it, however, her eyebrows slowly rising. “This is from a friend of yours at your old school? And she says the police were involved?”

“Well,” Nilien offered, as politely as possible, “someone already has tried to kill me once, when I became a Wild Rune. And I’m sure they’re interested in catching that person. But I am worried, especially with the pendant going missing from my room, and the way that the tracking spells have re-appeared, that someone here is involved – or that someone is hiding here in one of the-” she was going to say secret passages and changed her mind at the last moment “-labyrinthine twists of this school.”

“There are definitely places someone could hide,” Vaudelle agreed, as if she was considering the option. “Could I take this letter to show Headmistress Draufer, Nilien?”

Nilien hesitated, looking at the letter. “Could I come with you? It’s just, it’s my first letter from my old school…”

“Well, I certainly would return it to you, but yes, if it will make you feel better, come along.” Vaudelle held the door for Nilien and Ember, and they strolled down the hallway, down another hallway Nilien had never been down, to Headmistress Draufer’s office.

The Headmistress read the letter and listened to Professor Vaudelle explain Nilien’s concerns, and then let Nilien add her own details.

“I don’t know exactly what was going on with the tree, but I know that someone was there, and then the tree fell down almost on top of me.” It was as close as Nilien wanted to get to admitting there was any chance that she might not have actually been attacked. “If Ember hadn’t warned me, the tree would have hit me.” She rubbed her arms, because it still frightened her more than a little bit.

“Indeed. And that is why the woods is not that safe a place for younger students. There are natural occurrences which can cause quite a bit of damage if you are not careful, not the least of which is trees falling in the woods. Now, I understand that you had quite a traumatic experience before coming here, and indeed, the person who attempted to kill you should be caught and dealt with. Those sorts of people should not be allowed out in the streets, and I do wish the police every luck in catching them. It was a horrible thing, Nilien, and even if you gained a familiar from it, it is not the way we wish these things to happen. But now you are here at Reinmonte, and this is one of the safest places in the empire.” She patted Nilien on the shoulder. “As long as you avoid any adventures in the forest, I’m sure you’ll be perfectly fine.”

“Yes, Headmistress.” Nilien looked down at her toes in disappointment. Was nobody going to believe her? Did everyone here think she was overreacting?

Everyone but Lorque and Ember, at least, she corrected. They were sticking with her.

Ember nuzzled her ankles. I will keep you safe. I will not let their stubbornness cause you harm.

She scooped Ember up and cuddled the fox close.

“In the meantime, why don’t you go back to your friends?” The headmistress handed Nilien the letter back. “Professor Vaudelle and I have some things to discuss, and I’m sure you still have plenty of homework.”

“I don’t know what I was expecting,” Nilien muttered at Ember. “Nobody believes me. None of the adults,” she clarified. “You have been wonderful.” Ember seemed to be easier to handle the more praise Nilien heaped on, so she figured she’d keep piling it on until it got her bitten.

They​ will believe you when they need to believe you. Ember brushed against her legs. You have done what you needed to. Now, they need to make their decisions and you need to focus on yourself. Do boring homework. Brush me. Important matters.

Nilien giggled and opened the door to her room. “I can do that.”

“Do what? How did it go?”. Lorque looked up from her textbook, eagerly pushing it aside. “Did Professor Vaudelle have any good advice?”

“’Don’t worry,’” Nilien recited. “’Go back to your room and work on homework.’” She made a face. “And I really do have a lot to of homework to do. So I guess that’s​ what I’m doing.” She flopped down on her bed and pulled out her mathematics textbook and notes. “They looked at the letter. They’ve seen the tracking spells. As Ember says, there’s nothing more I can do.”

“So you’re going to do homework? Oh, come on, Nilien, you still haven’t shown me the secret room. And you’re just going to sit here and work on your homework?”

“I really do have a lot of it to do,” Nilien protested. “I’m finally caught up; I don’t want to fall behind in anything again.”

“You can take your homework with you, can’t you? I mean, there’s no rule that you have to do your homework in the most boring manner possible.”

I have not yet seen this secret room, Ember put in.

“Fine,” Nilien sighed. “I am out-voted, unless River has a vote for staying here and being boring and safe?”

River looked up and gave Nilien a disgruntled look.

“I take it that’s a no?”

“River says that there is absolutely no reason to disagree with me, especially when you are being boring.” Lorque nodded as if that settled everything. “So will you?”

“I suppose I will. Let me pack up some books. Do you have a pocket torch?”

“Of course I do! Three of them.” Lorque pulled one out of her dresser. “My younger brother gives them to me as gifts. One every year. And since I don’t use them all that much…”

“Handy.” Nilien shouldered her book-bag. “If you bring your copy of the map, we can make notes on the way.”

Lorque brought her copy of Chason’s map, which was quickly growing full of notes and annotations. Nilien felt like she was in some sort of mystery story, sneaking through the halls trying to look ordinary.

Because of that, and because of the notes they were making on the map, they took longer than they might have, stopping to chat about trivial things whenever someone passed them and making hurried notes on anything Chason’s map didn’t already have on it.

They got to the passageway in due time. “Benoir says,” Nilien whispered, “the trick is to not look like you’re sneaking snacks.” They slipped into the room, which still smelled very much like a food storage room.

“I can’t imagine why he’d be suspected of that here,” Lorque muttered sarcastically. “There’s so many other reasons for a student to be in a supply room.”

“Well, I suppose they could be making murderous plans or coming up with some sort of prank,” Nilien pointed out cheerfully.

Are there things to eat here? Ember nuzzled her leg. Or a passage? Or shall we stand and talk until we’re found and haven’t even snuck a snack for our trouble?

“Ember says we should get on with it.” Nilien slipped over to the door and reached for the switch. “It’s right under… here. Pocket torch?”

“Here we go.” Lorque shone the light down the stairs. “Oh, this is creepy.” She sounded delighted. “What’s down there?”

“Well, go on down. I’m right behind you.” Nilien pulled the door shut behind them and made her way slowly down the stairs, Ember bumping against her ankles and knees at inappropriate moments.

“This could be so neat!” Lorque started poking around immediately. “I mean, it needs some proper light, of course, and a very thorough cleaning, but it could be a great place to hide out.”

Nilien sat down on the stairs with her homework and Lorque’s second pocket torch. There was something delightful, she had to admit, about even just doing one’s homework in a secret room. They could be caught! They could get in trouble!

Getting in trouble seemed far more thrilling than worrisome when there were people trying to kill her. She wrote her notes, pretending she was hiding out from some angry creature that was right at the door, while Lorque poked around in the corners of the room.

“Oh, these jars are pretty vile,” Lorque called out, and, a few minutes later, “does anyone still use pens like this? I think my grandfather had one.” Several minutes after that, she said, with some surprise, “marbles! I can’t imagine some child down here playing marbles, can you? It’s so dark…”

Marbles, Nilien almost wrote in her homework, and laughed. “Maybe they had a lamp?”

“Maybe they used a lamp, although playing marbles by gas-lamp seems like it would be stranger than this room is to start with.” Lorque delved back into the corners, but she could only explore the dusty room for so long before she circled back to Nilien once again. “So what are we going to do?”

“I’m doing my homework and wondering what this room was used for. I mean, who makes a supply closet secret?”

“Well, you said the magic garden was a secret passage, right? Maybe this is where they stored everything from the magic garden, once upon a time. Besides, that’s not what I meant, and you know it. What are we going to do about Heldira?”

Bite her, Ember suggested. And get someone who is big and tough-skinned to bite that awful familiar.

“Ember suggests violence. I don’t think it likes her familiar much, and I don’t say I blame it. But, well…” Nilien frowned. “Literal biting probably won’t solve anything; it’ll probably just start a rumor that Wild Runes have rabies. And then on top of Heldira trying to kill me – or whoever it is, if it isn’t her – then someone would be trying to put me down before I gave the school rabies. All in all, not a good idea.” She gave Ember a stern look.

Ember looked unrepentant. I do not have rabies. Nobody would say that I have rabies. I am far too well-behaved for that, even if I do bite someone.

“No biting anyone,” Lorque interjected, guessing or correctly interpreting Ember’s expression. “Especially not without proof. So, well, what about Chason? If he’s not in on it, then we ought to ask him to see if he can help us with Heldira. And if he is and he gets offended when you ask about it, well, you’re probably better off without someone who’s trying to kill you hanging around. His map hasn’t mysteriously led you somewhere deadly yet, has it? Or skipped a passage that could be useful?”

“No.” Nilien wasn’t sure if she was amused or irritated, but she smiled anyway. “No, the map’s been great. I think he’s probably in the clear.”

“Then if he is, maybe he can help us handle Heldira. I think you should go ask him. And I think I should see about learning some sort of dust-removal spell, or just bring a very big bucket of water down here. This will make a much-better hideout if we’re not smeared with dirt every time we leave.”

“I’ll ask him,” Nilien agreed. She hadn’t been aware it was their hideout until Lorque mentioned it, but she found that she liked the idea.

“The question is – how do I ask him?”

“Well,” Lorque sat down on the bottom stair. “You could be direct. ‘Hey, I think your friend is trying to kill me; could you ask her to stop, please?’ That might get a response.”

“It would definitely get a response,” Nilien muttered. “I think I might get slapped. And I don’t really want him to slap me. Hrrm. I could be sneaky, like I was asking about Heldira’s familiar. Just slip it into conversation… somehow.”

“That sounds tricky.” Lorque looked at Niliens book upside-down. “Oh, you’re on the next assignment!”

“The more I get caught up or ahead, the more time I have to practice magic. Magic is hard,” Nilien sighed. “Like tracking down the friend of a friend who might be trying to kill you hard.” She looked down at Ember, whow as pretending to nap on the stair next to her. “What do you think I should do?”

Ember opened one eye. Well, you could point to where on the map you were damaged. “And this is where I got another tracking spell,” and so on. Or you could ask him about the forest and how dangerous it normally is.

“Didn’t I already tell him something about being hurt…?” She was beginning to lose track of where she had said what and to whom. “I think I did. It was rather hard to disguise for a few days there.”

Well. Ember’s mental tone was beginning to sound exasperated. You could simply go up to him and confess that you have a problem. Lorque’s method, I suppose: “Is your friend trying to kill me, or do you all merely have ridiculous senses of humor?”

Nilien snorted. “Nothing seems right. I don’t really want to confront him as if I’m angry with him.”

“Nilien,” Lorque turned so far around on the stair that she nearly fell off. “If it turns out he’s involved, are you going to be able to handle it? You’re very concerned about him thinking well of you, and I’m concerned you might walk into another trap if you’re too hung up on the wrong details.”

“I’m not that concerned with him!” She just liked having friends.

I might bite him, Ember offered thoughtfully. But if I don’t, you should just walk up to him – alone, but with me – and share your concerns. All of them. Be honest. If he is a buffoon, you would rather find out now than later. If he is not, he will understand.

“Ember,” Nilien says slowly, “is suggesting either the direct route or biting. I don’t think I really want to bite Chason – or to have Ember bite him! – so I suppose the direct route is the way to go.”

I wonder if his familiar bites? Ember mused.

When Nilien left her magic tutoring the next day, she couldn’t immediately find Lorque or even Lorque’s friends – she had yet to manage to think of them as her friends, although Riva and Augustin were coming close.

“Well,” she murmured in Ember’s direction, “I guess we could try to find Chason.” She pulled the map out and looked. “Maybe in the dorm area? Seems like a good bet, if we missed the end of classes.”

He’d marked out his dormitory area – the small herbivore wing – with a smiley face, separate from any of the other dorms areas, so it was easy enough to find him. Nilien felt a bit like she had a target on her back, trying to look like she wasn’t sneaking through the halls.

When they were about halfway to Chason’s dorm, Ember nipped her lightly on the ankle. Calm down. You are going to visit a friend. There is nothing wrong with visiting a friend. That is all you are doing.

Nilien smiled sheepishly down at her familiar. “Thank you.”

Keeping you from being foolish is part of my purpose. Ember, unsurprisingly, looked smug. Nilien decided she could forgive that this time.

“Thank you anyway,” she answered, a little more primly than she might have if she hadn’t still be nervous. She managed to walk normally the rest of the distance to Chason’s dorm area.

His room was easy to find; he had the door open and was talking to his rabbit familiar. “Nilien! You found me!” He sounded delighted, and was grinning widely. “I guess my map really is helping!”

“It is,” she agreed. “Can I come in?”

“Sure, sure. Come on in. Have a seat,” Chason gestured. “My roomate’s out getting some help with homework, I think. The history lessons are a little bit rough this year. How about you? How are you adjusting?”

“The academics are going all right,” Nilien answered as she sat down, “but the magic classes are still giving me a little trouble. Sometimes I feel like I’ll never catch up.”

“You’ll get there. Just keep practicing. You’re being tutored, right?”

“Yes, Prof. Hestinger and Professor Vaudelle have been helping me.” That was a better opening than she could have hoped for. She jumped on it before Ember nipped her again. “Speaking of Professor Vaudelle… she’s been helping me with tracking spells that keep appearing on me. We tracked the spells back to the originator -” That was true, and it avoided giving away Ember’s ability for the moment “-and it turns out it was Heldira. You wouldn’t know if she was planning some sort of prank would you? It’s just, I have enough to worry about, with classes…”

“Oh!” Chason looked genuinely startled, as far as Nilien could tell. “That’s not all that nice. No, I haven’t heard anything about that. But I’ll ask her what she’s up to.”

I’ll talk to her. All of the ways that could go horribly, horribly wrong went through Nilien’s mind all at once. She swallowed. “I appreciate it, I do, but, ah, please, be careful? I’m not sure just talking to her is the best idea, or I would have done it myself.”

“Oh, but Heldira’s my friend. I’m sure whatever’s going on is just a misunderstanding, or something about her particularly prickly – well, everything, but sense of humor, in this case.”

“It’s not – I don’t think she’d going to hurt you, I’m just worried.” Nilien fiddled with her skirt and tried to come up with a way to phrase her concerns that didn’t involve the words someone is trying to kill me.

She looked down at Ember, hoping for some guidance or advice. The fox looked up at her. She’ll come up with something else if she knows about the tracking spells?

It was actually a really good point. “The thing is,” she offered carefully, “I know how to find the tracking spells. The ones she’s been using, at least. I – I’m not very good at magic, remember?” She hated admitting that, hated even thinking it, even though everyone else seemed to think it was perfectly normal. “I can do about three things, and one of them is locating those spells. If she knows I can find them, if she’s doing something – anything – for a reason, she’s going to come up with something I can’t find. And I already spend far too much time bothering Professor Vaudelle.”

“It’s not bothering if they’re helping you. That’s what they’re here for. And you’re the only Wild Rune we have, so it make sense that they’d spend the most time with you.”

“I suppose that’s fair, but sometimes it seems like other students must need help, too. I can’t be the only slow one…”

“You’re not slow. You’re just a few years behind in classes. You wouldn’t expect to walk into calculus when you’d never cracked a math book, would you?”

“No,” Nilien admitted slowly, “but I’ve always learned quickly.”

“You can already spot a tracking spell. That’s pretty quick.” He frowned, having clearly been reminded of the thread of the conversation. “I really can’t imagine Heldira doing anything to hurt you. She might be prickly and hard to get to know, but she’s not a bad person.” He looked at Nilien’s face — at the face she was trying to keep all her doubt off of — and sighed. “I’ll try to be subtle. But I bet it’s just her idea of a prank, or a welcome-to-Reinmonte.” He smiled sidelong at her. “So, ah. Welcome to Reinmonte.”

Most welcomes, Ember offered snidely, do not involve murder attempts.

Nilien looked down at Ember, then looked back at Chason, and then back at Ember, and sighed. This was going to be tricky. She took a breath, thought about what she was going to say, and discarded several ideas.

I think your friend is trying to kill me seemed like a very bad idea.

“So,” she cleared her throat, “have there been any rumors about why I’m a Wild Rune?”

Ember looked up at her. Because I heard you. It said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

She leaned down and patted it between the ears.

“Well, lots of speculation, but the only one actually saying anything is Thesri, and nobody is really quite sure about those rumors.”

“Thesri’s… well, I can’t speak for what Thesri is saying now, but we did have a conversation about it. Someone tried to kill me – poison me – and, well, I turned into a Wild Rune. Ember heard me, it says, and here I am.” She petted the fox a little more. “I don’t know why, I don’t know if they’re going to try again, but the police were all over my old dorm, looking for – well, something, I suppose – and I don’t think they’ve found it – or the killer – yet. So I may seem like I’m overreacting to everything, and, I don’t know, maybe I am.” She sighed and leaned back in the chair. The number of people who didn’t believe there was a threat was starting to get to her. “But I think I have reason to be, at the very least, concerned.”

“Someone was really trying to kill you?” His eyes were wide. “Wow, I didn’t think – well, I didn’t think that, at least. That’s awful!”

“Someone tried to poison me. Everyone keeps telling me it’s safe here, but it was supposed to be safe back home, too.” She looked up at him. He didn’t seem like he doubted her about that, at least.

“That’s really awful.” If anything, he looked horrified. “I’m sorry.

“Do you think — I mean, I don’t think anyone trying to kill me will wandering around talking about it, but if you see anything, could you tell me or Ember, please? And… is there anything you think I should do?” She sighed. “I’m all out of ideas.”

Chason looked startled. “I mean… if you need help finding your way around the school, or, uh, making things shiny, I’m your guy. If you need to know the shortest route to classes from your dorm or where to catch a nap without anyone noticing – that’s me. This sounds like it’s something to ask the teachers about.”

“I’ve tried.” Nilien made an effort not to sound too frustrated. “They don’t believe there’s any real danger, even when they know that someone tried to kill me back home. Or they act like it’s none of my business. It’s my life!” Some of her irritation came bubbling out and her voice rose. “It’s hard for something to be more my business than my own life is!”

“They don’t have anything useful to say?” He frowned. “That’s unusual. But if they don’t, I really don’t know what to tell you. Like I said, I can help you with the map. But I can’t really help with, well, assassins.”

She flopped back against her chair. “I don’t really expect you to be able to,” she admitted. “but I’m out of people to ask, except, well, I suppose I could write to the police.” She wrinkled her nose. “They’d probably say I was better off out of it, too.”

Ember nuzzled against her legs. There are still other adults, it suggested. Or maybe, Chason can help with other things?

She looked down at her familiar and giggled a little, helplessly. “Ember thinks I should ask you for help with my homework, I think.”

“As long as it’s not mathematics. Or chemistry. Those aren’t really my favorite subjects. But magic, I could help with your magic homework. Or literature. I’m pretty good at those.” He gave her a crooked smile. “Or just following you around to make sure you don’t get into trouble by accident.”

“Mostly that’s what Ember does,” Nilien admitted. “Follows me around and gets me out of trouble. But I wouldn’t say no to some homework help.”

“Cool. What are you working on now in Literature?”

“The Ballad of Sir Malloric.” Nilien pulled her notes out of her bag. “I was fine with most of it, but Professor Barnifor’s interpretation of the symbolism has me a little lost.”

“Oh, well, Professor Barnifor is like that. You have to remember that he’s ninety years old, and sometimes his ideas are twice that age or more.”

Chapter 6

“Pendant?” Lorque came over, staring at the drawer as if it held an answer. “What pendant?”

“Before I left my old school, I found this pendant with my things. It was something like a brass coin, but it was covered with runes, like the mark on my hand. Actually, the mark on my hand was one of the runes on it. I was going to ask someone to read it for me, but then I got a little bit distracted by everything here and forgot all about it. Except now – now it’s not here anymore.” She began pulling everything out of her drawer and stacking it on top of the dresser, shaking each piece in turn.

“Maybe it fell down under something?” Riva offered. “Winter-blue, can you look under the dresser?”

The otter, who was still looking rather abashed, scampered over to the dresser and managed to wedge itself underneath. It came out with one stocking and then, a moment later, a mouthful of change, but no pendant.

“I wondered where that stocking went!” Lorque took it from Winter-blue happily. “But, ah, no pendant?”

“Winter-blue says that maybe a good dusting is in order,” Riva translated, “but no pendant.”

Ember, in turn, had ducked under the bed. There are more socks under here. Does Lorque do target practice with them? If so, she needs to improve her aim a bit.

“No pendant. Some more stockings,” Nilien added, as Ember came out from under the bed with a mouthful of stockings. River, in turn, had a tie and nothing else.

Nilien checked the rest of her drawers, just in case, but there was nothing to be found. “I’m starting to doubt it was ever actually here,” she muttered.

I saw it. I told you it was probably dangerous. It was there. Ember nuzzled her hand. If I saw it, it must be real.

“Ember saw it,” she repeated quietly. “Ember has faith in its own eyes, which – I guess I do, too. Ember has good eyes.”

“So.” Riva frowned as if she was piecing it together one brick at a time. “Someone left a pendant with Rune marks on it in your old room. And then, a while later – probably while you were out getting a tree dropped on you? – someone took that pendant out of your room. And you hadn’t told anyone about it? Did you look at it for tracking spells?”

“No.” Nilien looked down at her feet. “I really should have.”

“You’ve had a lot on your mind,” Lorque soothed. “New school, new classes, magic – it’s understandable that it slipped your mind. We’ll figure it out.”

“But I-”

A knock at the door interrupted her. Riva, being closest, opened the door; Administrator Siren, with Bother wrapped around her neck, stood there holding an envelope. “Nilien? You have a letter.”

“A letter?” Nilien bounced up, only to be reminded suddenly that her ankle was not healed yet, just improved. She moved more carefully over to the door. “I wonder who might have sent me a letter? I asked my brothers to write, but they never do…” She took the letter. “Thank you, Administrator Sirin.”

“Of course, dear.” The administrator nodded politely; on her shoulder, Bother mirrored the gestured. She turned, and they both left.

“I wonder who it’s from?” The handwriting on the front was not that of either of her brothers; it was too tidy, the letters too wide and cheerful. “Oh! I think this is from – yes, it is.” She slid her finger under the seal – lavender in color and in design – and opened the letter. “It’s Larisse; I went to school with her before I came here.” She sat back down on the bed.

“Didn’t you say Ember could track things?” Riva asked. “Not the letter,” she clarified. “But you said that it tracked the tracking spell. And I read in a book about tracking and magical items – they ought to have some sort of magical residue, shouldn’t they?”

Dear Nilien, the letter read, Things have been very exciting here! You would not believe the adventures we have been having, and all because of you!

Nilien looked up. “Ember did track the tracking spell,” she agreed. She wasn’t really sure how she felt about Riva’s books, all things considered. “That was looking for the person who made the spell, though.”

There have been detectives on the campus, looking everywhere for clues! They are investigating the attack on you, like a real crime! They say that they will find the person who poisoned you and “they will pay to fullest.” It is all very serious, and they do not like to answer questions, but Danette says that they spent two hours searching your room for anything that the attacker might have left behind. They looked disappointed when they left, she says….

“Well, do you think it could look for a pendant, then? Someone has to have made the magic on the pendant. And if someone’s still trying to hurt you, they have to be around here somewhere.”

Nilien looked up from the letter again. “I don’t know. Ember? Do you think you could?”

Ember looked at her, ears raking back against its head. That’s not the sort of thing a familiar normally does, you know, it informed her haughtily. I am better served keeping an eye on you and keeping you from being lost, or from having trees fall on you, or from being alone with strange boys who want to take you into forbidden places.

Nilien’s cheeks heated up. “That’s not what…! So,” she cleared her throat, “can you do it?”

Ember looked away. I don’t know. Its mental tone and expression were still very haughty. And furthermore, I don’t care to find out.

“Oh, come on, Ember,” Nilien coaxed. “I’m sure you could try. Listen, Larisse – you remember Larisse, right?”

She was the enthusiastic one, Ember agreed. Rather loud. But friendly.

“Loud and friendly.” Nilien smirked. “She was, ah, one of my good friends back at my old school,” she told Lorque and Riva. “And here she says that they’re investigating the attack on me, ah, ‘like a real crime.’”

“As far as I know,” Lorque pointed out dryly, “attempted assassination is a real crime.”

“If there was an attempted assassination,” Riva pointed out.

“Wild Runes don’t just come from tripping over their shoelaces,” Lorque countered.

“Thank you.” Nilien frowned at the letter. “I know someone tried to kill me, and I know that someone is still trying to kill me. That part’s pretty clear. Just the specifics…” She read through the letter again. “They searched my room, Ember. They might have been looking for that pendant, you know. It could tell us something about the person who tried to kill me.”

You are not dead, and I am here, and the pendant is gone. Ember looked away from her, ears twitching. Nothing is wrong anymore.

“Did you forget someone trying to kill me today?” Nilien’s voice was rising up, louder and louder. “I wouldn’t call that ‘nothing wrong!’”

“Oh, come on, Ember,” Lorque put in. “You’re not being difficult with Nilien today, are you? After she got hurt wandering around with your plan?”

It was a good point. Nilien gave Lorque a grateful, if thin, smile.

If she hadn’t run- Ember started, and then put its head down on the bed, its paws over its nose. What does the letter say about the pendant?

“Well, it doesn’t say anything about the pendant in general, but they…” She scanned downwards. Larisse had spent three paragraphs on the way the investigators were dressed and one on questions about Nilien’s new uniform. But after that “-they were searching everywhere for clues, it’s just that they spent the most time on my room. Apparently, I left a nice hair-clip there. Larisse will send it when the investigators give it back.”

Then they know there is something to find. Ember looked up at her. I do not know if this is a thing I can do. May I sniff your drawer, where it was?

A fox in her underwear drawer was the least strange thing today. “Yes, of course.”

Ember jumped up into the drawer. A few minutes later, it looked up, its ears flat to its head. It is… somewhere.

“Somewhere.” Nilien stared at Ember. “Really?”

I think… I think it is somewhere in the castle. Ember put both paws over its nose. Or maybe near the castle. My head hurts. I did not know my head could hurt like this.

She patted the familiar between the shoulder blades. “Ember says…” She looked down at her poor fox. “Well, that it’s probably in or near the castle.” The longer she sat, the more her ankle was reminding her what she’d done to it. “I think the best option is a to search methodically. I have a map…” She produced the map Chason had drawn for her. “We can start in one corner and work our way around. Not now, though.” She looked down at her ankle. “I don’t think I can do anything now except lie down.”

“And elevate your ankle. I read it in a book.” Riva wrinkled her nose. “You do get in a lot of trouble. I read that about Wild Runes, too.”

Nilien rolled her eyes at Riva. “I’m a Wild Rune because I was getting in trouble, remember? I’m a Wild Rune because someone tried to kill me — and I guess they haven’t stopped yet. I never got into trouble before that.”

“Well, see then?” Riva smiled. It was friendly, for all of her unhelpful theories. “It’s not that that Wild Runes aren’t getting in trouble, it’s that the book had cause and effect backwards. Anyway, do you think you’re safe looking for pendants all over the castle?”

“So far, when I’ve gotten lost in the castle, I’m mostly run into friendly people who are willing to show me back home. It’s just out on the grounds that things were dangerous. And I can check myself for tracking spells, too.”

“I think we should go with you, too. At least one of us. Maybe we can get Augustin involved and do groups of two.” Riva nodded, as if agreeing with herself. “Once you can get up and moving, that is.”

“We’ll bring you some dinner today,” Lorque decided. “You get some rest, maybe put that ankle up, and maybe Ember will be feeling better, too.” She reached over and patted Ember, who was still hiding its face under its paws. “Then we can come up with a plan. And if we can ask Augustin without getting Istore involved, we will.”

The last thing she needed was Istore involved. “Thank you.” Nilien lay down on her bed, moving around Ember. “Maybe a little nap will help everything feel better.”

“Maybe you’ll have a useful dream,” Riva offered. “Sometimes you’ve forgotten things, I read, but they show up in dreams.”

Nilien woke slowly to the feeling of a tail in her face, the last bits of a dream lingering in her mind.

She couldn’t remember most of her dreams, although she did know, much to her disappointment, that it hadn’t had anything to do with the pendant. (So much for Riva’s reading, she thought, a little unkindly.) There had been something about a mechanical goat of some sort, which had seemed very interesting, but she could not quite put her finger on any details, and there had been a woman covered in flames. Covered, but not looking like she was all that upset by the whole situation, which suggested not burning – or just that Nilien’s dreams had no desire to get messy.

“Is there some sort of spell that lets you wander around covered in flames?” she asked a sleepy Ember.

Ember blinked up at her. There is a torch, or dipping one’s tail – or skirt – in the fireplace – but it’s not recommended.

“You’re so helpful, thank you.”

Ember looked indignant. Perhaps next time I will not yell “tree” when one is falling on you!

“I take it back. You are generally very helpful, and I really appreciate all your help yesterday-”

-and the headache.

“I really do appreciate the headache. I’m sorry you got one trying to find my pendant.”

It wasn’t a good pendant. You are probably better off that it is gone.

“I’d agree, except that it shouldn’t have just vanished from my drawer. Nor should it have just appeared in my drawer back in my old school. I’m worried it has something to do with – with everything.”

Then it is better far from you.

The door opening saved her from having to retort again. Lorque came in, balancing a tray of food.

“You didn’t miss anything exciting at dinner. Istore is going off about something in history class and Augustin spent the whole time arguing with him. It might have been thrilling, if they’d been making any sense at all.”

Nilien pulled herself up as Lorque brought her the tray. “Thanks so much for this.”

“My pleasure. I got out of the argument early, just as they were asking Riva to referee. So.” She picked up one of her school notebooks. “Let’s make a copy of this map that Chason made you, and then we can divide it up into a plan of some sort. Is Ember’s head still hurting?”

“I think Ember is just cranky about the whole thing.” She petted Ember between the ears for a moment before she produced the map, then held the map with one hand while she continued to pet Ember. “All right. I think we ought to start in a corner, maybe here,” she gestured with a thumb at what was probably the top of the school. “And work our way downwards.”

“You know,” Lorque frowned. “It might be easier if we have something more to go on. Like why someone would take it. Or even the markings on it. Do you remember any except your own marking?”

Nilien wracked her brain. “No, I can’t think of anything, except-”

A knock at the door seemed to shake all the thoughts out of her mind. Nilien sighed, and swung her legs off the bed, but Lorque was already on her feet and getting the door.

“Oh, um. Hi.” Lorque stepped out of the way to show Heldira standing in the doorway, wearing a green skirt and tie, of course, and an immensely uncomfortable expression. “Come on in… ah…?”

“Heldira. I came to see your roommate. Nill…?”

“Nilien,” Lorque corrected, just on the edge of politely.

“Nilien. Hi.” Heldira looked at Nilien’s ankle. “Chason said you’d gotten hurt? Something about being off in the woods?”

That… Ember stood up and walked onto Nilien’s lap, nose pointed directly at Heldira. …that is not suspicious at all.

Nilien petted it between the ears, because she couldn’t exactly say that she agreed without being rude. “I fell in the woods. I got a bit turned around,” she sighed, “and then spooked by a falling tree, and I got pretty banged up. But I made it back all right. Ember was a lot of help.” She was pretty sure that’s what she’d told Chason. After a while, what everyone believed and what she told everyone was getting a little complicated.

“Well, I suppose that makes up for it getting you lost the other day.” Heldira shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “But you’re okay? Nothing really banged you up too badly?”

“I’m all right…”

What, does she want to see how you got away so she knows what to do better next time? Ember refused to settle down, no matter how much Nilien petted it. It’s ridiculous. Unless Chason was scolding her, and why would he care what she thinks?

She kept petting Ember. “…I’m all right,” she repeated, “but it wasn’t any fun.”

“Oh, well. Ah. I’m glad that you’re not hurt. And Chason wanted to find out if the map he made you was helping, and if you needed any help with classes or anything?”

She needed help in all her classes, but she wasn’t going to admit that to Heldira. “It’s a really nice map. I haven’t gone anywhere since he helped me get back here, though. But I’m already finding it educational.”

“Well, ah. Good! I remember when he drew the first one. This place really is a bit of a maze. So, well. Glad to hear you’re not too hurt. I’ll go let Chason know.”

Lorque saw her out and shut the door firmly behind her. “That,” she murmured, “was a little bit strange.”

From the sound of Ember’s growl, and a matching noise from under Lorque’s bed, everyone in the room agreed.

“So, she was clearly up to something.” Lorque sat down on Nilien’s bed with Chason’s map and her notebook. “But the question is, what?”

“Hoping to find me alone?” Nilien hazarded. “Or looking to do something to the room if we were at dinner? I should really check for another tracking spell.”

She petted Ember some more, both to calm it down and to focus herself, and studied her whole body with her magic sight. “Nothing. I suppose it would have been pretty obvious if she’d shown up and then poof, I had another tracking spell.”

“She doesn’t know that Ember can track magic, I assume.”

“I don’t know how she would, unless there’s listening spells, and she doesn’t have one of those on me. And I don’t think she has a way to listen to Ember’s communication, either. I don’t know if anyone does…?” She lifted her eyebrows at Lorque.

“Nobody does. There’s no way to do it, it’s just you and your familiar. I mean, they can mime, sure, but that went so well when Ember came to tell us where you were, and, besides, it’s not like Ember would intentionally tell anyone what was going on…”

“But familiars.” Nilien bit her lip. “Familiars are really important – of course you’re important, Ember – but I mean, to every Rune, right? So maybe we should find Heldira’s familiar. Neph… Nephrite. Little Nephrite, Chason said, so we’re looking for something small and green.”

“Well, that narrows it down.” Lorque made a note at the top of her page anyway, and then began sketching a copy of the map. “In the meantime, if you can coax Ember to do it, maybe you should try on the other end of the school and see if the ‘somewhere’ is more or less anywhere than it is there – don’t look at me like that.”

I will try, Ember allowed, but only two more times.

“Ember will give it another try.” Nilien petted Ember a little more. “So we’ve got to get through some classes, and we can start looking a little at a time once I can put weight on my feet again.” She sighed down at her ankles. “You were right, Ember,” she said, not for the first time, “I shouldn’t have just run like a madwoman.”

You were scared. Ember butted its head against her leg. It was understandable. Someone trying to drop trees on you is frightening

Nilien pulled Ember up in her arms and buried her face in her fur. “You made everything okay,” she told her fox. “Thank you.”

Everything wasn’t okay, not really. They still had to find the pendant. They still had to determine who was trying to kill her – and if Chason was involved, too. But she was willing to pretend for a minute.

The next few days of classes went by quickly. Nilien’s ankle and her scraped knees healed faster than she would have thought possible, but she took advantage of the few days of limping and discomfort to spend most of her free time sitting down, studying and catching up.

In her regular classes, she was nearly completely caught up. In her magic lessons, she was only beginning to scrape the surface of the process. She spent a lot of time grumbling in frustration, but made herself keep trying.

Not everything can come easily, Ember advised her on one particularly frustrating day. She showed considerable restraint in only dropping her pillow and blankets on top of the fox’s head.

As her ankle healed, she had more time to plan both the search for the pendant and the search for Heldira’s familiar. Ember’s attempts to locate the pendant only garnered the fox two more headaches and the general impression that the pendant was somewhere in a several-mile radius.

“So where’s your familiar?” she asked Chason, the next time he stopped in to see her. She had been showing him her additions – normal ones, not their plans to search for her pendant – on his map, and Ember had been helping by getting in the way and nosing at parts of the map.

“Oh, Maple-leaf’s a bit shy, prefers to stay hidden a lot of the time. See?” He reached down under the chair and pulled out a mustard-yellow rabbit, which immediately buried its nose in Chason’s shoulder. “It gets along okay with Heldira’s Nephrite and sometimes with Tarin’s familiar, but that’s about it. Doesn’t like people too much.”

A wise decision. Ember nosed curiously at the rabbit, which got it a nervous return sniff.

“Tarin’s familiar lives in the stable?” She remembered that from their conversation when she’d been “lost”. “There’s a really wide range of familiars, isn’t there? I found the aviary-”

“You really do like getting lost, don’t you?”

“Well, it happens a lot, at least. But I haven’t gotten lost in the stables yet.”

“They’re pretty nice, considering that the familiars housed there can voice their opinions of the situation. Tarin’s familiar Percivale – a deer – lives there, yeah, or at least sleeps there. Heldira’s got a badger that mostly stays in her room. Sharp, too. Not the friendliest of things, but then,” Chason smiled a little, “you’ve met Heldira. Sometimes it works out that way.”

So Heldira had a badger. That was good to know. She felt a little guilty – more than a little, if she was being honest – getting information out of Chason, but she still didn’t know if he was in on the tracking marks and everything else, either. “Ember’s pretty friendly with some people. Other times, I think it thinks it’s better than everyone.”

Well, Ember told her haughtily, I am.

Nilien wrapped up her conversation with Chason with a few more comments on the map and a couple additions from him, one “oh, have you found-” which led to her mentioning the garden – the outdoor one, not the secret one – Benoir had shown her, and both Chason’s addition, a small rare-books library addition, and Benoir’s courtyard made it onto the map.

She almost gave Chason a hug, but she didn’t know him all that well yet, and when she and Ember left him behind, she did check herself for tracking spells.

None. If Professor Vaudelle hadn’t confirmed both of the ones she’d found, Nilien might have begun to think she’d made them up.

Well, maybe it just meant that Chason wasn’t part of whatever Heldira was. She looked down at Ember. “So, I’m going to go tell Lorque what’s going on. Could you-”

-go get myself “lost” and see if I can find this green badger? If I get my nose clawed, I am going to be very annoyed with you.

“If you get your nose clawed, I will do my best to make it up to you. Would someone else’s familiar do that?”

They might. Would some other familiar’s human drop a tree on you?

“You have a point. A rather unpleasant point, but still a point.” Nilien hugged herself, suddenly chilly. “Thank you, Ember.”

I am your familiar. Ember looked haughty again. It is my job to make sure you don’t do anything too particularly stupid. In this case, that means exposing myself to the chance of a clawed snout.

“And I really appreciate it, Ember, I do.” She bent down to give Ember a warm hug. “Thank you.”

“Appreciate what?” She hadn’t heard Benoir coming up on them, but there he was, looking very curious to find her hugging her familiar in the middle of the hallway.

“Oh!” Nilien straightened up. “Saving my life. Twice, not, at the very least; Ember’s been amazing. Go on,” she told Ember, hoping she sounded casual enough. “I’ll catch up.”

“Twice? Oh, you’re not lost again, are you?” Benoir smiled crookedly, clearly teasing her. “Because if you are…”

“Oh, not this time.” Nilien started wandering towards the dorms while Ember trotted off ahead of them. “No, I was out in the woods this past weekend, that’s all, and I almost missed a tree falling on me. Ember warned me just in time.”

“That’s once.” His forehead furrowed. “That sounds horrible, though. A tree dropping on you?”

“It was pretty terrifying.” She kept up her casual stroll towards her dorm. By now, she could manage this much without the map – or a guide. “And Ember appearing, well, Ember always says it showed up because I wanted to live.”

“Oh! Right.” He slapped his hand to his forehead. “A Wild Rune! Right! Well, looks like you’ve got a very handy familiar there.”

“Yeah.” She kind of wished Ember could hear him, but Ember was out of sight, presumably going to find Heldira’s familiar. “I got really lucky, getting Ember.”

Nilien kept ambling towards her dorm room, and Benoir kept walking along with her. The company was nice, and she did feel a little strange about being out alone after having Ember at her side almost constantly.

But she couldn’t help fishing for more information, too. There was too much she didn’t know, and in this case, what she didn’t know might actually kill her. “Do you know anything about people — students — using tracking spells for pranks?” She glanced over at him, wondering if she’d be able to read anything in his expression.

All she got was confusion. “Tracking spells? Like ‘this is where Professor Chevlin is’ sort of spells? I haven’t heard of anyone using them for pranks — although that’s not a bad idea. Maybe the next time Heline is being far too full of herself, I can do something with that. Thanks!”

“You’re — well, you’re welcome, I suppose. So that’s not something people do normally?” Maybe they’d done so when Professor Vaudelle was a student here?

Benoir shook his head. “No, or, at least, I’ve never heard of it. The aviary people don’t tend to be so big on that sort of thing — pranks and everything — that’s more your people. No offense.”

“None taken. I haven’t pulled any pranks yet, at least not here.” Not for lack of trying, though.

“Yes.” He smirked at her. “I’ll keep that in mind, if I get a tracking spell on me mysteriously.”

“Oh, I can’t do anything like that yet.” She sighed. “I’m still at the learning-my-letters stage of study when it comes to magic. It’s going so slowly, too.”

“It goes slowly for everyone at first. Don’t worry, it’ll click eventually. And then there you are, seeing through walls accidentally and putting tracking spells on everyone.”

She did not want to know about seeing through walls accidentally — wait. Did she? Yes. “Oh! I should ask you — do you know any more,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “secret passages? There have to be other ways to get around this place, don’t there? Some of the public hallways are entirely counter-intuitive.”

“Do I?” He grinned at her. “Of course I do. Is that a map?” He looked at Chason’s map clutched in her hand. “I bet — here, yes. I can show you three passages just on this map, and there’s a lot missing here. Do you want to see them now?”

“There are more passages? Oh, that’s so neat!” Nilien bounced a little. “I’d like to see-” she really did have to get back to Lorque and tell her about Heldira’s familiar “-at least one, now? Maybe the rest when I have some more free time? I spend so much time just trying to get caught up,” she explained apologetically. “And that’s before the whole mess with magic!”

“You seem like you’re pretty bright. I’m sure you’ll pick it up quickly enough,” he assured her. “All right, let’s see. From here… we want to make a right at the next intersection.”

That would take her away from her dorm room, but there was a secret passage. Lorque could wait a little bit, right? “Here?” She turned right down a smaller hallway, one with plainer-looking doors spaced further apart than the hall they’d just been in.

“I don’t know what it used to be, but they use this one mostly for storage. The trick to this passageway is mostly not getting caught looking like you’re trying to sneak snacks.” He swung open a door, looked both ways, and gestured Nilien inside. They were in a dimly-lit room full of shelves, the shelves smelling faintly of cheese and herbs.

“I don’t know if they even know about it, but if we go down this row here and then, see this shelf? Run your hand along the middle of it until you feel a catch.”

The shelf seemed thicker than the others, and when Nilien ran her hand along the bottom of it, she found a small lever. “How did you even find this place?”

“Trying to sneak snacks and someone came in. I put my hand on the shelf when I was trying to duck down,” he admitted.

“Are all the passages you know in food-related places?” she teased. She pushed the little lever, and a panel behind Benoir clicked and swung a finger’s-width outward.

“Only most of them. Sometimes it’s like the aviary, a rather open secret. This one I haven’t even shown to anyone else.”

“I hope it doesn’t lead to another forbidden garden,” she teased.

“Not this one. You’re safe this time.” He pushed the door the rest of the way open to reveal a narrow staircases downward. “This one even has stairs.” He stepped in and down to demonstrate.

Nilien followed Benoir into the staircase and shut the door behind her – on this side, she noticed, it had a handle.

The stairwell didn’t have any lighting of its own, but Benoir pulled out a pocket torchh and switched it on with a flourish. It made for a spooky climb downwards, full of shifting shadows in the dim lighting.

Eventually, they reached the bottom of the stairs, and the passage they had been walking in opened up into a wider room. There were a couple shelves to one side, but the jars on them had a thick layer of dust, and spiderwebs joined the shelves to each other and to the wall.

​​Benoir shifted from foot to foot. “Well, when all you really want is a place to hide, it’s not bad.” He shone his torch around the area, lighting up the shelves. “It was a lot more useful my first couple years, before I found some of the other passages.”

Nilien gave the space another look. “Maybe there’s something interesting in a corner,” she offered. “Have you ever searched around down here?”

“Not more than enough to look for more doors,” he admitted. “I couldn’t find any, or any switches.”

“Well, let’s see.” She picked a corner and started looking around, only to be faced with even more spiderwebs. “It looks like they might have used this for more food storage? Or something. But who needs a secret room for food storage?”

“Well, maybe it was really expensive food? Or secret food? Magical food.” Benoir licked his lips. “I could stand a magical crumpet.”

“What, one that made you belch magic?”

“Or get really big or really small. You know, something out of the storybooks that doesn’t happen in real life.”

“That might be nice when trees are dropping on me,” Nilien admitted. She found a rag on one of the shelves and began pushing away the dust, more corralling it than removing it. After a moment, she pulled her hankie from her pocket and tied it over her nose and mouth. “There ought to be a spell for this.”

“Oh, I think there is, but- darn it, no. We learned it last year but I didn’t pay enough attention.”

“That’s all right. I can do a little dusting.” She moved things around as she encountered them: the dusty jar full of what looked like moving flowers, the old marbles, the textbooks from a bygone era. She arranged everything neatly on one shelf and vowed to herself to come back with some proper cleaning equipment – or someone who knew that cleaning spell – sometime when she had fewer pressing matters on her mind.

“Hey, look at this.” Benoir had been moving from shelf to shelf on the lower shelves, running his hands over them, presumably looking for another latch or lever. He held up a thin leather-bound book, tied up with a faded ribbon that might, at one point, have been red. “Wonder what it is?”

“Careful, it looks old.” Nilien untied the ribbon, only to have it break into three pieces in her hands.

“Careful,” Benoir teased, “it looks old.”

“Hush.” She was blushing, but the dim light of Benoir’s torch probably hid that fact. She opened the book much more carefully. “Oh, it’s a diary.” She peered at a date entry. “Well, I doubt they’re coming back for it. This was started over fifty years ago.“

“Well, maybe someone else came down here in search of snacks,” Benoir joked. “Do they say anything about any other passages?”

She closed the book carefully. “I’m going to have to look at it in proper light. But this place is definitely worth coming back to.”

Chapter 5

“All right. You’re ready to do this?” Lorque looked Nilien over, as if somehow the state of her school uniform could indicate her emotional state.

“I do think I have to do it,” Nilien answered. She wasn’t sure she was ready, but she was sure she was doing it.

The rest of her first week week of classes had gone by without any incident of note. The tracking spell had stayed firmly attached to her back and she’d done her best to ignore it, although she did try not to wander off anywhere alone.

Classes remained difficult but, for the most part, enjoyable. She was getting better every day with her tiny magical tasks, and she was getting closer and closer to caught up in her non-magical classes, but it had been steady and exhausting work and she had spent hours each night reading up on homework and practicing her magic.

Setting herself out as bait was looking to be almost a reprieve from all of the school-work, something Nilien was not used to looking forward to. They’d decided that it was best to set up their prank on the weekend: both because Nilien’s workload made doing it on a weekday almost impossible, and because on the weekends, it would be more believable that Nilien was wandering around and less likely that there’d be people around Heldira’s room.

“All right, so you have an idea where you’re going to get ‘lost?’” Riva was nearly bouncing. “And you know how to get back from there if you have to?”

“I’ve got a pretty good idea,” Nilien allowed. “And if I do actually get lost, well, I have all day to find my way back.”

Let’s remember that this is not my fault this time, Ember added snidely. Or any other time that you get lost, real or make-believe, in this place.

“Yes, yes. It’s not your fault.” She patted Ember’s head. “It’s not going to be your fault, of course, and I’m not going to blame it on you. You have my word.”

Lorque and Riva, who had been hearing her side of this conversation all week, snickered in amusement. Ember glared between the two of them before butting its head into Nilien’s hand for petting.

I will go with you, to make certain that you are safe. As long as there will be none of that ridiculous blame.

“Thank you.” She didn’t think it was necessary to say, yet again, that she wasn’t going to blame the fox, but the look she got suggested otherwise. “As I said, you definitely have my word. If I am found, ‘lost’ or actually lost, I’ll say that I wasn’t paying attention, despite your advice, and got turned around, all right? Now can we go get faux-lost?”

Now we can go get faux-lost, yes. Thank you. Ember hopped down from the bed and scampered to the door. Well? Come on. We haven’t got all day.

Nilien waved good-bye to Lorque and Riva and headed down the hall. She’d considered going back upstairs by the teachers’ offices, but she’d been there enough times that she wasn’t sure anyone would believe she was lost. And since she had the stupid tracking spell, at the very least Heldira knew where she’d been.

Ember was still grumbling in her mind, but it had settled down to a few complaints now and then. Nilien did her best to ignore it – how did people with truly difficult familiars manage, she wondered. Did they end up feeling like they were constantly distracted?

Once outside, she started ambling in the opposite direction from the route Benoir had shown her. There was a stone path nearly lost under grass, one that clearly didn’t get much traffic at all, heading off at a sharp angle from the castle towards an open rotunda. She headed that way. The further she was from Heldira’s room, the better chance Lorque and Riva had of getting away with the prank without being caught.

Ember walked in front of her, paused to sniff a flower, wandered off at a right angle to the path for a few minutes, and came back towards her, angling so that somehow it was still in front of her. It repeated this a couple more times as they approached the rotunda, but its commentary on the grass, the state of the path, and the interesting flowers was far more pleasant than its complaining, so Nilien said nothing. They were supposed to be out on a weekend stroll, after all; it made sense that Ember was strolling.

The rotunda looked far less impressive up close than it had from a distance. Nilien noticed that it was still in decent shape, but it was barely big enough to hold two people, or a person and a medium-sized familiar, and vines had started creeping up over the foundation. Three more paths radiated from it, one towards the gate of the school, one off away from the gate, and one more heading even further away from the dormitory wing.

“Opinions?” she asked Ember.

This pavilion smells of… well, it smells interesting. But nobody’s been here in a while. Ember sat on the bench and looked haughty, as if imitating the small stone lions at front and back. I think we should wander further forward. You cannot be “lost” if you’re at the gate to the school, after all, and I do not like the way the other route smells.

Nilien wasn’t sure what Ember was smelling, but so far — grumpy or not — her familiar hadn’t led her astray. She walked forward, following the path, until it seemed to vanish under a thin layer of moss bracketed by broad, ancient trees.

“Are we even still on the school grounds?” She turned in a slow circle. That could be the path off to the left — or it could be over here, where a clearing was brushed in dappled sunlight.

Nilien turned around one more time. The path behind her was clear. It wouldn’t be all that hard to find her way back, not from this point.

“I haven’t seen a wall,” she murmured, mostly to Ember. “And we came in through a gate, right? So we’re probably still on the school property.”

There hasn’t been a wall, Ember agreed. So…?

“So onward, at least for a little while longer. The path was here at some point, right? And it’s been all straight lines up until now…”

Except this giant tree. I do not see a tree being part of a path.

“There’s a whole garden of magical plants. I can’t imagine a tree couldn’t grow up faster than we’d normally think possible – can you?”

Well, when you put it that way… Ember huffed a little and began walking around the tree. Well? Are you coming?

Nilien sighed at her familiar’s back and followed Ember around the tree.

There wasn’t so much a path there as there was the place where perhaps a path might have been at one point, but now Ember was in the lead, and Nilien let it pick a route. The trees were growing up thicker and taller to either side of their thin patch of smooth forest floor and as they moved further into the woods, the canopy blocked out more and more light.

This is a lovely place, Ember commented. Watch your step, there’s some roots in the way ahead.

The roots, which Ember picked its way over, were thick and gnarled and seemed to give lie to the thought that there had ever been a path here. Nilien stepped over them carefully and looked around.

She could still see their route behind them, although it looked darker than she remembered it being. To either side, the woods opened up a little bit; on the left, because a tree had fallen down some time ago, clearing a path in its wake; on the right, because there was a low round foundation of stones that had not yet entirely been swallowed by the forest. It looked like it might have been another rotunda, a very long time ago.

“Somebody had a fondness for decorative architecture,” she murmured. “Little garden buildings… this must’ve been quite a castle.”

And now this is a very nice forest. Ember hopped up onto the stonework and sniffed. This one only smells of the woods and of animals.

“There are definitely worse things to smell of.” She walked slowly around the clearing, looking for another path. “If the path led here…”

Hsst. Ember hushed her at exactly the moment Nilien heard the noise. A stick breaking, some leaves rustling. She looked at her familiar.

Ember was looking just past Nilien, sniffing. It’s not the one you were hoping to trap.

Nilien looked back at Ember. Who? she mouthed, uncertain if Ember would be able to understand her.

What do I look like? It smells like… well, nothing helpful. Like a human. Ember flicked its tail at Nilien in irritation. It is not the one who put the tracking spell on you. But it might have been following you.

Nilien bit her lip. She could try the “lost” line on someone else, but she was already likely to be getting a reputation as someone who had no sense of direction, in addition to being that oddity, a Wild Rune.

Whatever you do, do not blame it on me this time. Ember glared indignantly at her.

There was that problem, too. Ember could ruin a good act if it decided she was blaming it again.

Nilien scooped up Ember and hurried as quietly as she could away from the direction of the sound. If she hid, she wouldn’t have to explain anything at all, and she might learn something.

She found the biggest tree in the area and ducked behind it, holding Ember tight in her arms. The fox glared at her, but kept itself tucked in so its tail wouldn’t show from the other side of the tree.

Nilien held as still as she could and held her breath. She didn’t want to have hidden just to give herself away. Was the mystery person coming closer? Were they sneaking up on her; had they seen her despite her attempts to be sneaky? She couldn’t hear anything at all, no more sticks breaking, not even leaves rustling. Somewhere a long way away a bird was singing.

Was it Riva, who knew where she was going, just pulling a prank on her instead of on Heldira? She had to breathe. Nilien let her breath out as quietly as she could and took it back in just as quietly. Where was her unknown guest? Had she imagined the whole thing?

If Heldira wasn’t here, were Lorque and Riva getting in trouble?

A loud creak interrupted her worried. She looked around; nothing. Nobody was coming up on her. A crack like a gunshot followed the creak, making Nilien’s ears ring as she looked around in panic. What was going on?

Move! Ember barked. Nilien turned around. There was a tree falling right towards them and their hiding spot.

Nilien took off running. She clutched Ember to her chest and sprinted away, as fast as she could go through the woods.

She bounced off a bush and kept going, feeling the thorns tear into her shirt. Someone had – no, it had to be an accident, right?

She didn’t care, she kept running. She couldn’t see the clearing when she looked behind her; couldn’t see anyone coming after her. She had to keep running.

The tree landed with a loud thud and she kept running. Low-hanging branches were whipping against her face and the footing was uncertain, making her feet slip out from under her, but someone had just tried to drop a tree on her.

“I thought you said it wasn’t Heldira,” she gasped. There were three giant trees in front of her; she turned left and kept going.

I did. It wasn’t. That doesn’t mean that Heldira didn’t send someone. Slow down.

“Are you-” her lungs were burning. She gasped for air and kept going. “-crazy? Someone just dropped a tree on me! Or tried to!”

And now you’re shouting, crashing, telling them where we are. Slow down.

“They-” she whispered it this time “-there’s a tracking mark.” She stumbled, nearly dropped Ember, scooped it back up, and kept going.

You don’t know that they followed that. They could simply have followed you out from the school. Or been told where to go. So stay quiet.

“Okay, okay,” she hissed. She fell silent again, needing her breath for running. She was moving through the trees and bushes as quickly as she could, weighed down by a fox. There was someone after her! And they might know where she was, but if she was far enough away, they couldn’t drop another tree on her.

The crack of the tree falling and the thud of it landing were still echoing in her ears, louder than her heartbeat, which was pounding heavily. She was an active girl, but not in the habit of running from assassins, and Ember seemed to be trying to slip out of her arms, making every step harder.

She caught her toes on a root and went sprawling, Ember flying out of her arms. She landed hard, cracking her chin on another root and biting her tongue, her air all knocked out of her, and for a moment, she was seeing spots in front of her eyes and gasping for air.

Ember picked itself up from a berry bush and gave itself a shake. Get up, it suggested, and move quickly but walking away from here. That made quite a noise. Get up. Get up, are you all right? Its cold red nose nuzzled against her cheek. Get up?

Nilien caught her breath and pulled herself slowly to her feet. Her knees were scraped, and her left ankle felt as if there were knives poking into it.

She checked herself over quickly; other than the blood on her knees and the general disheveled state of her clothes, she seemed okay. There were a couple rips in her bloud and one in her skirt, her palms were chafed, and her ankle looked swollen already. But she was still alive.

“All right.” She whispered it, even though she couldn’t hear anyone around her. “I think… that we need to get back to school and find someone to tell about this.” She smoothed her hair, although she knew that was probably futile, and began walking. “Do you, ah, have any idea where we are?”

We are in the woods, Ember offered helpfully. We have still not found a wall. I did not see much of what we ran through, but at this point, away from where we were running seems still the best option.

Nilien appreciated that Ember said “we were running”, and that it wasn’t rubbing her nose in the fact that it had told her to slow down. “Are you okay?”

Nothing injured but my dignity. You, on the other hand, appear to need to learn healing spells and something to do with clothing repair.

Well, she hadn’t expected it to be entirely without sass.

“I noticed that, thank you.” She moved slowly, trying to put as little weight as possible on her injured ankle, picking her way through a forest that seemed much thicker than it had when she’d been running. “But I think I need to learn how to remove spells first, all things considered.”

That may be the first sensible thing you’ve said all day.

“Hey, the trap was your idea!” She was pretty sure she could see a break in the trees ahead of her.

Yes, and thus was not a sensible thing that you said, now was it?

“…No.” She glared down at the fox. Ember smirked back up at her.

You are not badly injured. I am glad. This could have gone much worse. The smug expression was gone, and Ember’s ears raked backwards. You could have been severely hurt. I think you should not be alone anymore.

Nilien scooped Ember up and hugged it close to her chest. “I wasn’t alone. I had you.” She took two more cautious steps and found herself out of the woods. The wall was to her right, and she could see the castle to her left. “Let’s go explain the situation to a teacher before someone comes up with a story about Wild Runes dancing in the thorn bushes in the forest.”

Even now that she knew where she was going and was on relatively smooth ground, Nilien found the walk very slow. Ember had wriggled down to the ground once they were in the sunlight, and now paced back and forth around Nilien in wide loops.

There is no scent of that person anywhere around here. Ember made “person” sound like the worst epithet it could hurl. There are many scents around here, of course, but they have not been here recently. It circled her again. Your ankle is swelling very unpleasantly.

“I noticed, thank you.” She gritted her teeth and kept walking. “It’s quite painful, too.”

It is far better than having been hit on the head with a tree. I wonder if there is a spell for stopping such things?

“I think I still need to get rid of tracking spells first.” She felt as if she were walking in thick treacle full of knives. At least Ember was still there, as obnoxious as the fox could be. “Although nobody needs a tracking spell to find me here.”

“Oh! It’s the Wild Rune!” The shout came from across the lawn; Nilien’s head whipped up and towards the noise, even as she scooped up Ember and got ready to run. “Hey!”

The peach-clad Thesri was heading towards her. “Oh hey, I would recognize you and that red fox anywhere. You really do stick out… what happened to you?” Thesri skidded to a halt an arm’s-length away. “You look an awful mess! You’re all scraped up, and your blouse is ripped – what happened?”

“I ran into a bit of trouble in the woods.” Nilien kept limping slowly towards the school; Thesri could keep up easily enough. “Ember and I were wandering, and someone dropped a tree on me.” She probably shouldn’t have said that, but it was out now. “Well, tried to. The tree dropped, but Ember and I got away.”

“Dropped a tree on you? What do you mean?” Thesri had no trouble at all pacing Nilien, and was wearing that faint frown again. “And what were you doing in the woods?”

“Well, I’d heard a lot about the gardens, and I saw a little rotunda out that way, so I went out there. And then there was a path…” Nilien shrugged. “There’s a lot of this place I haven’t seen before. But we heard someone in the woods, and then the tree was falling towards me.” She twitched a little. “So we ran.”

“But you didn’t see someone pushing the tree towards you? So it could have just fallen while you were there.” Thesri looked over Nilien again. “ If someone was actually trying to kill you, don’t you think they’d be more successful?”

“I’m glad they weren’t,” Nilien pointed out. “But it was only because Ember noticed the tree falling.”

“I’m glad they weren’t, too! Look, no matter what actually happened, you should see the teachers and get that ankle looked at. Do you need help getting into the school?”

Nilien tested her weight on her ankle and barely managed to stifle a gasp. “…Yes, please. If it’s not out of your way?”

“Oh, come on, I can help you. See, this is where the bigger familiars really come in handy.” Thesri whistled, a high-pitched series of notes that seemed to carry over the field. A moment later, a peach-hued mountain goat came trotting towards them. “It’s not big enough to carry you, but if you lean on Liltivere here and then I’ll support you on the other side.”

Liltivere sounded familiar, but it took Nilien a moment to place where: Mt. Liltivere, the tallest peak in the Empire. “You named your goat after a mountain?” Nilien smiled. “That’s beautiful.”

“Thank you. Yours is…?”

“Ember. It looks a bit like a coal, and I didn’t quite like ‘coal’ as a name.”

“I like it. Hello, Ember.”

Hello. Ember lowered its front half in a good approximation of a bow.

“Hello, Liltivere.” Nilien wasn’t sure she could manage a bow, but she nodded her head politely at the goat. It moved up next to her until she could lean her weight on its back.

Thesri moved around to the other side of her and wrapped an arm around her waist. “You got really messed up. All that from a tree?”

“Well, I ran away,” Nilien defended herself. “And I don’t know the woods very well.”

“Aah. Yeah, I blundered into a thorny berry bush that way once, ended up bleeding in stripes all over what was left of my uniform top. Well, you made it out, whatever happened.” Thesri smiled sympathetically. “Maybe bring friends next time you go wandering. Then, if you hurt yourself, they could help you. Not that I mind! But you made it all the way from the woods without anyone to help you – oh, come now.” The last was to Ember, who was glaring pointedly. “I’m sure you’re great for moral support, but that’s not really what she needs right now, now is it?”

And excuses, Ember muttered. Don’t forget excuses.

“Ember forgives you,” Nilien translated broadly. “And I really do appreciate the help.” Leaning on Liltivere made the moving easier, if no faster; she could put next to no weight on her sore ankle, which made everything feel less horrible.

“I’m glad. It’s no fun to have someone’s familiar mad at you. My roommate’s familiar kept trying to take chunks out of my clothes for my first year here. That was a mess until I got it worked out – and Ember probably has far sharper teeth than my roommate’s familiar.”

This one is clever, Ember agreed.

“Ember’s appeased.” This was a weird little dance, but Nilien was enjoying it. If only it wasn’t for the ankle, and the bruises, and the tree almost falling on her…

“So, who are you going to go see? Prospin is the head of the predator wing; if you really think someone is trying to hurt you, he’s probably a good place to start. Or one of the teachers you know from class?”

“I think…” Nilien considered for a minute. “Professor Vaudelle, please? She’s been very helpful.”

“Professor Vaudelle it is. It’s a longer walk,” Thesri warned. “Are you up to it? If I had to, I could go get her, but that leaves you sitting in a public place looking like you had an argument with a garden rake and lost.”

“Thank you,” Nilien responded as dryly as she could. “No, I think we should go all the way to her office. Like you said – anyplace else is just ripe for gossip.”

“Whereas I, at least, will wait until you are at the professor’s office before I begin to gossip. And, what’s more, I’m going to ask you what I should tell people – as long as you don’t go all stuffy on me again and say nothing.”

You might as well decide what’s going to be said, Ember advised. It may even aid in catching your attacker. Although I would suggest you stick to things that are at least mostly true.

Nilien sighed. “Ember says tell you,” she admitted. “So I suppose tell people I was out looking at the rotundas in the woods – did you know there’s a foundation of an old one out there? – and my familiar saved me from a falling tree. Then I got a little turned around and twisted my ankle, and you and Liltivere helped me back into the building.” She smiled crookedly. “And – when I find out anything else, I’ll tell you first, how’s that? After Lorque and Ember, of course.”

“Room-mates have to come first,” Thesri agreed solemnly. “So I get all the gossip?”

“You and Liltivere are really helping me out here,” Nilien pointed out. “This would take forever without you.” It was still taking a long time, but it wasn’t as tedious and horrible as she’d feared it might be. They were almost to Professor Vaudelle’s office.

“I’ll leave you here, then.” Thesri bowed politely. “And I look forward to hearing all about it.”

“As soon as I know something.”

* * * * *

“Nilien!” The professor hurried out of her office and held out her hand. “What happened?”

Nilien took the hand the professor offered and limped carefully into her office. “I had a bit of a run-in with a tree, professor. Ember and I were out in the forest; we wanted to coax out the person who put the tracking spells on me so Lorque and Riva could pull a counter-prank on her. I hope they’re fine, because it wasn’t her out in the forest.” She bit her lip. “Well, we were out there, and someone tried to knock a tree on top of me. I don’t know who it was, but it wasn’t Heldira. She’s the one we found,” she explained, “who put the tracking spells on me.”

“Spells?” The professor looked sharply at her. “Ah, I see. We really should get you healed and your clothing fixed, but I can get you started at least and get that tracking spell off of you. Now, you say someone knocked a tree on you?” She clucked as she walked around Nilien. “It didn’t actually fall on you, did it?”

“No.” Nilien shook her head. She didn’t think she could have survived, considering the size of the tree. “I would have had trouble getting out, from the looks of it and the sound it made when it fell. Ember saw it in time and warned me.” She petted Ember between the ears. Her familiar really had saved her life. Again. “We’d heard someone coming, but never saw them. Then I started running – because of the tree falling on me – and…” She swallowed, surprised to find she was nearly crying. “I was running too fast. Ember told me to slow down, but I was so scared.“ She took a couple ragged breaths. “I didn’t know who I should go to, but you know about the tracking spells…”

“Well, I am good at those,” Vaudelle admitted. “At getting rid of them and finding them, at least. I did warn you to be careful, though.” She shook her head, though she was still smiling. “Ah, well, I’ve gotten into worse messes than yours.”

“It was just another student,” Nilien pointed out. “So I thought that they probably were just trying to get me distressed, maybe get me lost again. And I thought that if we pulled a prank back on Heldira, then she might be more likely to leave me alone in the future.”

“Aah. But she sent someone else, instead.” Professor Vaudelle shook her head. “You probably shouldn’t be wandering off of the castle grounds. Out there, it’s not as well-maintained, as you noticed. Now, let me see.” She stared at Nilien’s ankle for a moment. “That’s not a lot – I’m not all that good at healing spells – but it will help you walk enough to get to someone who can help you a little bit more. Be careful with yourself,” she tutted. “Especially if you’re going to be pulling your own pranks!”

“Thank you, Professor.” Nilien bowed her head. “I’ll try to be more careful in the future.”

“Let me take you down to the school doctor. You shouldn’t be walking too much on that ankle, even with a little repair work, and your familiar isn’t big enough to be much help, any more than mine is.” She flapped her hand at Ember. “Don’t glare at me like that, you. You’re a perfectly good familiar, I’m sure, and if you got her away from that tree, well, good for you. That’s being a very good familiar. Still doesn’t mean you can carry her.”

Ember looked away, muttering incoherently in Nilien’s mind. Nilien, in turn, stifled a giggle.

“I appreciate it, Professor. Thesri helped me get over here, but it was slow going.”

“I can imagine. Your ankle looks pretty banged up.” The professor offered Nilien an arm, and Nilien took it, trying not to lean too heavily on her. “We don’t have too far to go, though. Just down the hall and around the corner.” The professor smiled playfully down at Nilien. “We like our students to be able to find the doctor, and to be able to find their way back from the doctor when they’re done.”

Nilien smiled cautiously back at the professor. “That seems like a good thing, especially considering how easy it is to get lost around – oh, dear. Lorque and Riva.” She put her free hand over her face. “Ember? Could you go stop them, please?”

Now I’m your errand fox?

“Please? I don’t want them to get into any trouble because of me, although it’s been a long time…”

All right, all right. Ember shook its head. There’s no need for the sad face and the whimpering voice. I’ll go. It nodded at the professor and darted off through the halls.

“They’re good friends, to help you with this, even it if might not have been the best plan.” Professor Vaudelle watched Ember dart off. “I hope your familiar can warn them.”

“Me, too.” Nilien limped slowly along. Her ankle was feeling less horrible, but it still hurt to put weight on it. “We really thought Heldira would come after me. I mean, why put on a tracking spell…”

“Perhaps she had some reason to believe she should send someone else, instead. Or perhaps she simply had other things to do today. That does happen, you know.” Professor Vaudelle chuckled. “Once, when I was in school, I set up this very elaborate trap for another classmate – and then when the time came to pull it, I found I had forgotten all about it, engrossed in,” she cleared her throat, “a quite interesting book. The trap went off but it didn’t go quite right, and it was quite a mess, but nobody ever tied it back to me.”

“You got away with it?”

“That and quite a few other things, back in my day. But that was a long time ago, and very few of the teachers are still here, thankfully. And here’s Dr. Alaroq‘s office.” Professor Vaudelle patted her arm. “You’ll be quite good at the sight, you know, once you have time to have some practice. I’d hate to see you get into too much trouble.”

Dr. Alaroq took one look at Nilian and responded with a head-shake and a long-suffering sigh. “Don’t tell me. The woods?”

“Yes?” Nilien ducked her head, suddenly feeling guilty.

“I would say we should put up a wall, but then nobody would ever learn anything from falling over. Thank you, Vaudelle.” The doctor nodded politely at Professor Vaudelle. “I won’t let her go running over any more wild terrain for the next few minutes, at least.”

“Good of you, Alaroq.” Vaudelle bowed to the doctor, somehow making it seem a little sarcastic, and then nodded at Nilien. “Come on back if you need any more help. Don’t forget that.”

“I won’t. Thank you. Thank you for all of it, professor.”

“Think nothing of it. I enjoy my job, dear.” She patted Nilien on the shoulder and breezed off, leaving her with the doctor.

“Hop up here on this table and let me see. Well, hrmm. I see Vaudelle did a little on that ankle. That’s a good start, and we’ll want to clean all those scrapes. If you are going to go running through the woods, you should do so in something a little more appropriate for it, and, oh, look at your hands. Gloves.” Dr. Alaroq winked at Nilien. “Everyone gets a little beat up in that woods at least once, you know, at least the adventurous ones, and you strike me as adventurous.”

“Because I’m a Wild Rune?” She didn’t mean to sound sour about it, but Nilien knew she didn’t exactly sound cheerful, either. Something about the doctor’s voice sounded familiar. Where had she heard it before?

“Getting a lot of that, are you? I’m not surprised. No, not because of your Wild status, and not because you’re already in here with a twisted ankle and scraped-up knees. Hold on, I’ve got something for you.” The doctor turned to a row of jars and pulled out two purple leaves the size of her palm and three long greenish leaves. “Magic can’t fix everything, but what it can’t, magic plants can sometimes supplement – what?”

Nilien coughed. “Magic plants, Doctor?” That was where she’d heard the doctor’s voice before! In the garden, with Benoir!

“Oh, there’s quite a few. Here.” The two purple leaves went on to Nilien’s knees, where they slowly seemed to sink into the skin, leaving behind a tingly feeling. “Those will heal over the course of about a day. If you have anything left that’s worrisome – trouble moving the knees, bleeding, anything like that – come on back. Do try not to scrape yourself up again before they’re healed, though. And these-” The doctor wrapped the long leaves around Nilien’s ankle. Immediately, the throbbing pain subsided. “Be careful – no running any sprints or anything like that for the next week. Ah, here’s your familiar.”

Ember was licking its lips. Crickets, it informed her, are crunchy. Not bad, for a snack.

“You found them?”

I found many crickets. They escaped before they could be placed anywhere. For the best, all things considered. Except that there were crickets to be gathered.

Nilien slipped carefully off the table, testing her weight on her feet. The pain had settled in to a very dull ache that could be ignored with impunity.

“Be careful on that ankle,” Dr. Alaroq reiterated, “and come back if you feel any new symptoms. In the meantime, do try to stick to a walk when wandering places you’re not supposed to be.”

“Yes, Doctor.” Nilien smiled at the doctor and then looked down at Ember. “Where’s Lorque?”

Back in the room, being irritated about crickets. She does not like crickets. Ember licked its lips again.

“Well, I suppose we should’ve come up with something else then. Thank you, Doctor.” She scooped Ember up and began walking carefully back towards her room.

“They didn’t get caught?” she whispered to Ember, when they were out of earshot of the doctor’s office.

No. They did not get to a situation where they would get caught. They are irked and want to know what happened.

“I don’t blame them! Thank you for warning them.” She shifted her hands enough to pet the top of Ember’s head.

There were crickets. Ember seemed to think that was thanks enough.

“So you’ve said.” The halls back were getting easier and easier to navigate, and her ankle seemed to be doing decently at holding her weight. It still throbbed occasionally, but the pain seemed to be subsiding.

There should be crickets more often? Ember twisted to look up at her with the most ridiculously adorable look.

“I’ll see what I can – oh!” She stopped as she turned a corner and nearly ran into Chason. “Oh, hello!”

“Hello.” He smiled brightly at her, but the smile faded quickly as he got a good look at her. “What happened?”

“I was out in the woods,” she admitted, “and I got spooked by a falling tree.” It was the truth… wasn’t it? “And then I fell down and, well, I’m a mess.”

“I see you’ve been to see the doctor, though. Your roommate said you were probably on your way back from something like that. The leaves are really good – just let them stay on until they vanish or fall off, and they help a lot.”

“Magical plant medicine.” Nilien shook her head. “It’s pretty amazing.” She looked down at her ankle. “It’s actually stopped most of the pain, too.”

“Dr. Alaroq is really good with that sort of thing. Oh, this is why I was looking for you. It’s rough, but it ought to get you started, at least.” He thrust out a folded piece of paper.

“What-?” Nilien put down Ember so she could take it from him. Unfolded, it proved to be a rough map of the school. “Oh! Oh, this is wonderful, thank you!” She glanced around and then looked at the map. “And here, I can find myself…. here, right?”

“That’s right! Do you want me to walk you back to your dorm, just in case?”

Nilien wanted to think that the walk to the dorm would be safe, but even though nobody else seemed to believe her, her life seemed increasingly dangerous. “I – yes. I’d like that, please, if it’s not any trouble.”

“Not any trouble at all!” He grinned brightly at her. “And besides, you can navigate by my map, and I can see if it make any sense.”

“Oh.” Nilien found herself smiling. “I see. It’s a test. Well, Professor Chason, let’s see how I do on this quiz, shall we?”

She looked down at the map again, her smile growing into a grin. “Let’s see. So… here, we turn left.”

“Very good, Nilien.” Chason put on a very fake-deep voice. “And then?”

“Well, Professor Chason, we have to get there first. Which will take a bit, as, you see, I’ve got a note from my doctor…”

“Ha. Well then, let’s get to the next intersection.”

They managed to get back to her room that way, moving far more quickly and with less pain than she’d gotten to Professor Vaudelle’s office, making classroom jokes the entire time. “Very good,” Chason said, as they reached her hallway. “Show your work, Nilien?”

“Well, here’s the hallway with those carvings, and here’s my door.” She grinned up at him. “Thank you. I really appreciate it.”

“Not a problem. Come find me any time you need help getting somewhere – that’s my dorm there, marked on the map.” He pointed it out. “You’ll be fine, though. And I’m glad my scribbles can be helpful.”

“Me, too. Well, I should go tell my roommate what happened – Ember said she was worried…”

“Of course.” He bowed playfully. “I’ll see you later, then.”

Lorque and Riva were waiting for her in the room, both of them looking worried. “Nilien! Nilien, what happened? Ember – well, mimed that you’d fallen over.”

“Well, a tree almost fell on me, and someone was in the woods. Not Heldira, though. Someone Ember didn’t recognize the smell of.” Everything she was wearing was ripped or bloody or both. Since she didn’t think she’d want to stand up again if she sat down, she made her way to the dresser while she talked. “We were in the woods, wandering around waiting to see if Heldira found me, and someone broke a tree so that it nearly landed on me. Ember noticed in time for me to get out—” She would keep telling people that until the fox forgave her for saying that it had gotten her lost “—and then I went running. I fell and got all scraped up, though. Then Thesri and Liltivere helped me back to Professor Vaudelle’s office. What about you guys?”

“Well, we had everything ready to go, and then something happened.” Riva glared at her otter. “And the box opened. There were a couple crickets out, and while we were trying to catch them, well, the whole thing fell over and there were crickets everywhere, all the way down the hall and up the stairs…” Her familiar at least had the grace to look abashed. “So we were still picking up crickets when Ember came to us… What is it?”

Nilien was staring at her drawer of underclothes. She’d put the mysterious pendant there when she unpacked, figuring it was the place where it was least likely to cause questions. But now…

“It’s gone,” she muttered. “The pendant. It’s gone.”

END CHAPTER FIVE

Chapter 4

“Professor Vaudelle’s office is just down this hall. Now, when you come back, it helps if you use landmarks. See, here’s this door with the stripes of stone and metal in it.” Professor Hestinger pointed out a doorway. “That used to be Professor Marein’s office, and nobody wants to change it, so it stays that way. It helps tell you which way you’re going, though. And then here’s the old archway with the tiny gargoyles carved into it. It’s a little out of place back here, so it’s easy to recognize. And here’s Professor Vaudelle’s office.” He knocked on what looked like a plain, ordinary door.

“Hestinger! Come on in. And who’s the student?” A clear, high, cheerful-sounding voice came through the door as if it wasn’t there.

“Ah, Vaudelle.” Professor Hestinger smiled at the door. Nilien looked at him and wondered if he’d gone batty, or if this was normal here, talking to doors. “This is Nilien. She has some matters of magic sight to discuss with you.” He swung the door open to reveal an office crowded with bookshelves and covered with papers and books, centered on a short woman with broad curves, a broader smile and a pair of wire-framed spectacles perched on her upturned nose. “Nilien.” He patted her shoulder. “This is Professor Vaudelle. I leave you in her capable hands, and I look forward to working with you again tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Professor.” Nilien smiled up at him. She had finally found the black stone just before their session ended, which had left her with a small feeling of triumph and a sense that maybe this wasn’t going to be awful after all. It wasn’t the sort of thing her classmates could do — but if she could get started, she could get there. “I look forward to it.”

“Good. Rune magic should be fun, after all. Good luck with the rest of your classes.” He left, closing the door behind him and leaving Nilien with Professor Vaudelle.

The professor ran a sharp, assessing gaze over Nilien. “So, dear, you’re our new student? Here, have a seat.” She cleared off a chair by sweeping the papers stacked on it into a basket and shoving that basket under another chair.

“I am.” Nilien sat down and Ember leaped into her lap. “And this is Ember, my familiar.”

“A Wild Rune, very interesting. And you’re working with Hestinger on basic magic?”

“I— yes, I am.” Nilien’s cheeks flushed and she looked away. Was everyone going to know?

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, dear. This is a difficult situation you’re in, but we’re all here to help you. That’s our job.”

Nilien smiled uncertainly at Professor Vaudelle. “Actually, Professor, speaking of that…”

“Yes, dear? I imagine Hestinger didn’t bring you all the way down here to pick out a treatise to read, at least not this early in your studies, did he? And it’s unlikely he’s testing your ability to not get lost in this place; he’s not the sort to do that.”

“He pointed out landmarks…” Professor Vaudelle’s logic was leaving Nilien a little lost. “So I don’t think he was trying to get me lost. No, he said you might be able to help with something about magic sight.”

“Well, I am quite good at it.” She smiled as if that was nothing surprising. “So Hestinger has you working on magic sight already? You must be moving along quite well. It’s quite a useful magic, you know.”

“Ah, well.” Nilien ducked her head. “It was an accident. I was trying to find the black pebble in a bowl full of white ones…”

“Oh, yes. That’s a good exercise. And you accidentally saw magic signatures instead? Very nice. Magic sight will get you very far in life and while having it show up so early doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be talented, we can hope, now, can’t we? So you could see your runic Mark, and Hestiger’s, then…?” she prompted.

“And Ember and Professor Hestinger’s familiars were glowing, too.” She petted Ember between the ears. The fox, in turn, seemed bored, looking off at the corner of the room and not commenting. “And, ah. There was a faint mark on my back.” She gestured uncertainly around the chair, trying to point at the right place on her spine.

“On your back, hrrm? Interesting. Candle-hopper?”

From a basket Nilien had thought contained more papers, a forest-green rooster head emerged. It blinked sleepily at the room and then hopped down, fluffing its wings.

“Very good, very good. Now, let’s see.” She pushed her glasses up her nose while the rooster walked a circle around Nilien’s chair. “Ah, there we go. Interesting.” She got up from her chair and followed Candle-hopper in a circle around the chair.

“I thought that signatures didn’t mind obstruction?” Nilien put forth the question cautiously.

“They don’t, they don’t. I can see it from over in my chair, but I cannot squint at it very well from over there. Ah.” She chuckled and straightened up, standing directly behind Nilien. “That’s interesting.”

“What is it?” Nilien squirmed and twisted to try to look the professor in the face, nearly dropping Ember out of her lap.

Careful! Ember complained before putting its head back down.

“It’s likely nothing to worry about. It’s a tracking mark, that’s all, so that the person who placed it can find you. Useful if you get lost a lot.”

Nilien bit her lip. She looked down at Ember, who turned to look at her. “A tracking mark? So whoever put it on me, no matter where I am, they can find me?”

“That’s the idea. Sometimes students do things like that as a prank, dear. It’s probably nothing to worry about.”

“Nothing,” Nilien repeated numbly.

You do not think it is nothing, do you? Ember’s ears raked back.

“No, I —” she turned to look at Professor Vaudelle. “Could it be, I mean, might it have been done by the assassin, professor?”

“I’m sorry? The what?” The professor stared at her. “I assure you, dear, whatever stories your fellow students have been filling your head with, Reinmonte does not have assassins.”

Nobody’s trying to assassinate the school, Ember pointed out.

Didn’t she know? Nilien twisted further around in the chair, one hand on Ember, until she could look straight up at the professor. This left her half-kneeling on the plush chair. “Professor Vaudelle…” How was she supposed to tell her?

“Yes, dear? Oh, here, sit down properly and I’ll come back around. Is there someone you think may be pulling an unkind prank on you? I know it must be hard, being a Wild Rune and coming into school late as you did.”

Nilien turned back around as Professor Vaudelle took her seat again; on her lap, Ember rearranged itself until it was looking straight at the professor. “It’s not that, it’s more that — well, I was told someone tried to kill me. I don’t remember, but that’s how I ended up with Ember, as far as I know. I thought — well, I thought someone would have told people,” she admitted in a small voice.

“Oh. Oh my. Someone tried to — to kill you? And you don’t know who, of course not. Not if you don’t remember it. Oh.” The professor furrowed her brow and stared at Nilien’s midriff. “Now that does add another aspect to this, indeed. Well, yes. The mark would allow whoever placed it on you to know where you were. It’s not horribly strong, which means they might have planned on being in the school, which,” she grimaced, “makes me quite unhappy. Now, let me see. I can remove that mark, but I would suggest you get in the habit of checking for such, especially if you plan on wandering the hallways too much.”

“But how could it have gotten there in the first place?”

“Oh, well, that’s not all that hard. As I said, students do it for pranks sometimes. Sometimes they do so with Professor Chevlin; he’s so bad at being on time to class, they say, that they just want to know how long they have until he shows up.” She spread out her fingers, steepling the tips against each other. “Now. Let’s get that pesky tracker off of you, and then we’ll walk through checking for such things a couple times before I send you on your way.”

“Can I learn how to remove it myself, Professor?” Nilien concentrated on her sight and managed to see the mark again. “I mean, if I find more, I don’t want to have to come back here and bother you every time…”

“We can certainly try to teach you, at least. All right. If you don’t already have magic sight up, pull it up.” The professor waited until Nilien nodded. “Very good. Now, like everything in runic magic, it’s a matter of focusing your power, but what I find helps here is if you think about erasing the lines. So you’re going to take the trace apart one line at a time. You see how the lines work here? So we’ll start with this curve, and imagine it gone, and so on down the whole thing. Understand?”

“Yes, professor.” Nilien buried her hands in Ember’s fur and concentrated. Nothing happened. She tried again, and again, but the tracking spell remained stubbornly on her back. “It won’t go away,” she sighed. Was everything in magic going to be this hard? She’d never catch up at this rate.

“It’s all right, it’s all right. You shouldn’t be too hard on yourself here; removing the tracking spells is a bit more tricky that placing them, and, after all, it’s your first day. Here.” The professor was quiet for a moment, and the tracking mark vanished. “There. Now, if you get another tracking spell, you know how to look for it — don’t forget your feet and your head! — and you can come back and we’ll practice removing it again, all right?”

She really didn’t want to get another tracking spell. Even if it was another student, there were people who clearly didn’t want her here. “I’ll do that. You don’t mind me stopping in?”

“Not at all, dear. If I’m not here, there are a couple other professors who could help you. Professor Chevlin, for one. And I understand this must be very distressing for you, but have no fear. Reinmonte is a very safe place, and we will take very good care of you here.”

“Isn’t —” the tracking spell was already gone; she should have thought of this before. “Isn’t there any way to track the spell back to the person who placed it? Maybe if there’s another one, we could look for something? It’s just…”

“Of course, yes. We don’t want someone like that wandering around the school, and we certainly don’t want you to be in any danger.” Professor Vaudelle frowned. “Now, let me see…”

Ember looked up at her. I can find them.

“What?” Nilien stared at Ember. “Did you just say…?”

I can find the person that marked you. Ember yawned. All you had to do was ask.

Nilien stared down at Ember. “I’m sorry, you can what?

I can find the person that marked you, Ember repeated patiently. I got the spell’s spoor before the teacher removed it. It’s not difficult.

Nilien blinked at her familiar. “You can — I didn’t know you could do that!”

You didn’t ask. Ember yawned again and put its head down, tail over its nose.

Nilien looked up at Professor Vaudelle. “Ember says that it can find the person who put the tracking mark on me. I didn’t know familiars could do magic.”

You thought it was all for you? Ember opened one eye at Nilien. How selfish.

“All familiars can do magic, yes,” the Professor explained, “although it is very limited. Each familiar can do one specific thing. In Ember’s case, it appears that that is magic tracking, which could be very handy here indeed.”

“So — it has magic?” She glared at Ember. “Really, ‘I didn’t ask?’”

You didn’t ask, Ember repeated. And you have much to learn today. You didn’t need extra information.

“Oh… you!” She huffed out a frustrated breath. “So this is a common familiar ability?” She looked up at Professor Vaudelle.

“The ability? Not necessarily. But familiars having powers is.”

“I guess I probably missed that in a class I didn’t take,” she sighed. “How am I ever going to catch up?”

“With diligence and effort.” Professor Vaudelle’s smile was small and sad. “And with the help of any and all professors, as needed. Don’t feel too bad about Ember not telling you, dear. Candle-hopper didn’t tell me anything at all for months and months. And I’m not sure anyone could have anticipated that this skill of your familiar’s would have come in handy quite so soon. Besides.” She aimed a sharp look at Ember. “Maybe it’s worried its powers aren’t good enough.”

Ember lifted its head and stared at the professor, its ears back, its mouth open. Did she say I thought I wasn’t good enough?

Nilien managed to stifle her giggle enough to pat Ember’s head and reassure it. “I’m sure you misheard.”

I do not “mishear.” I have very good hearing.

“Of course you didn’t mishear.” Professor Vaudelle smirked at the fox. “And of course I can’t hear you. But your expression says it all, doesn’t it? So if you’re not worried about your power, maybe you should be a little more forthcoming, mmm?”

This woman is unbearable. Ember huffed audibly and hopped down onto the floor. Worried. Me! Of course I’m not worried. What would I be worried about? Worried! It turned to look at Nilien. Well? Are you coming or not? We’re going to go track down this magical-tracking-spell person of yours.

Nilien glanced at the professor just in time to catch a wide, amused smile on her face. “I’m coming.”

“Now Nilien,” Professor Vaudelle frowned, “if there really is someone here who wants to harm you, you should let the adults handle it. We don’t want you to be hurt; Reinmonte is meant to be a safe place to learn, not a place to get into more danger.”

“I’ll be all right, professor.” Feeling a little guilty, Nilien added on a fib, “besides, it’s probably just another student pulling a prank, right? If I bring in a teacher for something like that, it will only make it worse.”

“You can go look,” the professor relented, “but if it turns out that it’s not another student, do come find me or one of the other teachers. Don’t try to take on another adult by yourself. Understand?”

“Yes, professor. I’ll be careful.”

Are you coming or not? Ember was standing by the door, looking impatiently between the door and Nilien.

“I’m coming. Thank you for all your help, Professor. I really appreciate it.” She followed Ember before it could run off without her — and before the professor could tell her not to go.

You’d think you didn’t want to find this person, the way you were dawdling, Ember complained, as it trotted down the hallway. They were going further away from the classrooms, deeper into places she hadn’t been before.

“I don’t want to get in trouble, either,” she countered. “I mean, I just got here. I don’t want the professors annoyed at me because I went running off on my own.”

You’re not on your own. You’re with me. Now shush. We want to sneak up on them so they don’t know we’re tracking them.

“All…” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “All right.”

Ember’s route took them around the corner and down a short set of steps. Nilien could hear people talking nearby, but so far, she saw nobody. They passed what looked like a small study room with nobody in it and a supply closet left open. “Are you sure…”

Shush!

Nilien fell quiet. Lorque was going to be looking for her and she was nowhere near the classrooms. And Ember was leading her further into the school. It was going to be hard not to get in trouble this time — and what if it really was the assassin?

There. The fox stopped just before another doorway. In there.

Nilien peeked in. There were a few students in the room, talking in a group. She looked down at Ember.

Them, in the green skirt. That’s where the magic came from.

Nilien looked down at Ember, then back at the room. The green-skirted one was obvious, right in the middle of the group.

Well, Professor Vaudelle had only said to come back if it was an adult. These were clearly all students. Nilien stepped into the room, Ember on her heels.

“Excuse me?” It took no acting ability to sound lost and nervous. “I’m sorry, but I’m lost.”

“Lost?” The one in a chocolate-brown skirt and tie turned around to stare at Nilien. She — no, he, Nilien thought — raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “Really?”

“Really. I’m sorry,” she repeated. “My familiar decided it wanted to wander off, and by the time I found it—” She scooped up Ember and ignored the imprecations it was muttering in her mind. “Well, I don’t know how I got here and I don’t know how to get back. I’m Nilien,” she offered. “And this is Ember.”

The one in green turned around and looked them over, along with a boy in mustard-yellow. “Hi, Nilien.” He, at least, gave her a smile. “So you got turned around?”

“I don’t see how,” the brown-skirted boy scoffed. “I mean, everything’s nice straight hallways. And it’s not like she’s new.

“Well, yeah. Come on, Tarin, she’s the Wild Rune.” The one in mustard rolled his eyes. “Red skirt, red fox — right?”

Nilien cleared her throat. “That’s right, yes. I’m, ah. I’m new. And I’m a Wild Rune.”

“No wonder you got lost.” He didn’t quite sound sympathetic, but at least he wasn’t blaming her. “I’m Chason, by the way, and these are Tarin and Heldira. Is this your first day?”

“Yes.” Nilien looked down at Ember uncertainly. The fox, in turn, was still giving her a dirty look. “Well, you didn’t have to get us lost,” she muttered, loud enough to be heard. It did not improve Ember’s expression, but it did get Heldira to laugh at her.

“Oh, come on, you’ve at least got to learn to control your familiar. That’s just one of the basics of being a Rune.”

“Well,” Nilien retorted, “when I’ve been a Rune for more than three days, maybe I can pick that up.” She glared at Ember, even though it really wasn’t the fox’s fault.

Chason snorted. “She’s got you there, Heldira. Besides, I remember what your little Nephrite was like when you first got her. It’s not like you can talk about bratty familiars or anything.”

“Like yours was any better! Maple-leaf there nearly took my hand off once! And Tarin’s familiar just glared at everyone every time we went out to the stable.”

“See, though? That’s what I mean. Give her a little slack.” Chason stood up. “Come on, I’ll get you back to your rooms.”

“Thank you.” Nilien waited by the doorway — she might not have really gotten lost, but she didn’t really know which way she was supposed to go, either. “It’s nice of you to take the time.”

“Oh, I know what this place can be like.” Chason gestured down the hall — not the way she’d come. She was never going to figure out her way around. “You spend your first month just trying to be sure you make it to classes on time. But you have people to help you with it, most of the time, right?”

“My roommate.” Nilien nodded. “She’d been a lot of help — Lorque. But then Ember wandered off. And…” Nilien sighed. “I’m not in magic classes with her.” It stung to admit it, but it’s not like it wasn’t the truth.

“Oh? Oh, yeah, that makes sense. What with being a Wild Rune and all. Hey, it could be worse.”

You could be dead, Ember offered. From the set of its tail, Ember was still annoyed with her.

“I survived, right?” Nilien offered tiredly.

“What? Oh, well, there is that. There’s a reason there aren’t that many Wild Runes, and it’s not just because people are kind of stupid about it— I see you’ve encountered that.”

Nilien’s face had twisted up , thinking about Istore’s nasty comments and Riva’s I read a book about it… “I have,” she agreed. “Some people think I’m going to eat them for dinner or something.”

“Well, some people are just silly, and some people are stupid. It’s your call, I guess, whether you want to take the time to figure out if they’re being cruel or just ignorant.” Chason shrugged. “Anyway, so you’re coming in later than everyone, that can’t be fun. And I guess that means you wouldn’t be where the other students are in magic, yeah. But, hey, you can study in the evenings and get caught up, if you work hard, right? And if your familiar doesn’t distract you by getting you lost too often.”

“I seem to be spending a lot of time getting lost.”

That is not my fault, Ember complained.

“Yesterday wasn’t your fault at all,” she answered. She had to keep up her lie, after all, since she couldn’t very well admit that they’d gone there looking for — well, Heldira. Maybe Professor Vaudelle was right and it really had just been a prank.

Except she’d never seen Heldira before — or Chason or their friend Tarin. It didn’t make sense.

Well, even if it had been a strange prank, and even if Chason was the friend of someone who had been going to pull a prank on her, he looked nice enough, and here they were, already almost as her dorm. “I think I recognize this area.”

“Landmarks are good.” Chason smiled. “My first year, I even drew up something like a map.”

“You have a map?” Nilien stopped dead and turned to look at Chason. “You have a map, really?”

“Well, I had something like a map,” he demurred. “It wasn’t to scale and it was missing some things, but it had all the landmarks I used to find my way around. Like these little gremlins here in the carvings. All the archways between areas are a little different. See?” He pointed at the carvings in the archways.

“Do you think I could have a copy? I don’t want to keep asking for help all year…” Of course, this time, she hadn’t actually been lost, but the sentiment was the same — she didn’t want to end up getting in trouble because all of Benoir’s routes involved places she wasn’t supposed to be, for example.

“I don’t have it anymore.” Chason looked genuinely sad about that. “But you know what,” he perked up just as quickly, “I bet I could draw you a new one and have it be even better. I mean, I know more than I did when I drew it, so that’s a good start, right? And then I just have to figure out the landmarks closest to your dorms, so you can always find your way back here.”

Nilien smiled widely. “You’d really do that for me?”

“Well, yes, of course. I mean, it’ll be fun, for one,” he admitted, “and for another, somebody ought to help you out.”

“Lorque’s been a lot of help. My roommate.” She glared at Chason. “And her friend Augustin.” She wasn’t about to say Istore or Riva had been helpful.

He put his hands up. “I didn’t mean nobody had! I just meant that, since I know you’re having trouble, it falls on me to help. So I’ll get that map together for you. Just give me a day or two, all right?”

Mollified, Nilien managed to smile at him. “I can do that. I’ll just try not to wander off too far in the meantime.”

“Good idea. And keep ahold of your familiar. Well, if you’re set, then, I’ll take my leave. Good luck!”

“Thank you — thank you very much.” She carried Ember off into her room, glad to finally be back home.

Ran off? Ember glared at her.

“I’m sorry, okay?” Lorque was nowhere to be seen, and neither was River. Nilien made sure the door was firmly shut. “I had to come up with something, and ‘I just wandered aimlessly’ was less believable.”

It’s how you got lost last time.

“Only because you were distracting me, which is a little harder to explain. Look, I’m sorry. I just wanted to know who it was.”

And now you know. How do you feel about that?

“She’s — she’s just a student. And Chason seemed nice.”

Lorque is nice. Istore is not.

“I know. I know. I guess I don’t know how I feel about this whole situation yet. Maybe it was just a prank.”

It might have been a prank, Ember agreed slowly, but the attempt on your life was definitely not. And it is possible someone will make another attempt.

Nilien sat down on her bed with a thump and stared down at Ember. “I am not feeling very reassured,” she complained.

I am not here to reassure you. I am here because you wished to live. Has that changed?

“What? No. No, of course not, I still want to live!” It was her turn now to glare at her familiar, who panted at her in amusement, tail swishing. “Why would you even say such a thing?”

Because the biggest concern is not if Istore thinks that you are a Weed. That is a stupid term, made up by foolish people who do not understand what they are really speaking about. You are a Rune. The biggest concern is that someone attempted to kill you. And my tracking is not wrong. The person in the green is the one who put the tracking spell on you. Ember looked pleased with itself. Of course, Ember almost always looked pleased with itself.

“I never said that your tracking was wrong!” She was arguing with a fox. Nilien sighed. She had a feeling she was going to spend far too much of her life arguing with a fox. “Heldira. That’s her name. And her friend Chason seemed nice enough, and Tarin… wasn’t too bad. So maybe it’s just. Maybe it was a prank?” She didn’t know if she was trying to convince herself or Ember. Her familiar did not look convinced, that was sure, and she didn’t really feel any better, so her end goal might have been a moot point.

And if it was? Do you want them to succeed in pulling a prank on you? You want to be able to hold your head high here, do you not? It hopped onto the bed and flopped down, head on her lap, looking up at her.

“Of course I do! It’s— well, it’s not going to be easy. I was known for my good grades in my old school, and here—”

Here, you will be known for catching up very quickly. Ember made it sound very easy. And for not being caught by foolish traps.

“I suppose that’s a goal. Which means i really should practice that magic-sight.” She petted Ember between the ears, as her familiar very clearly was angling for, and focused her magic on her sight.

There was another tracking spell on her back. Nilien huffed out in frustration.

“Let’s see if I can get this thing off,” she complained. It hadn’t worked all that well the first time, but it might do better with practice. “First… Ember, can you get the scent?”

It is the same as before. Ember gave her an unreadable look.

“…Of course it is.” Nilien bit her lip and tried to make the tracking spell go away.

* * * * *

The tracking spell was not going away.

Nilien had tried everything Professor Vaudelle had shown her — six times — and nothing was working. She could see it. She could see exactly where it was, but nothing she could come up with made it vanish

Perhaps we should go visit the professor with the rooster again, Ember suggested. Its ears were back and it looked as worried as Nilien felt.

“We should,” she admitted. “I just don’t want to go back out there and get lost again.”

You did not get lost last time, remember? And this was very near the classrooms. You should be fine, Ember coaxed.

“I wish I could just get it off. If this keeps up, I’m going to have to bother Professor Vaudelle every day, and that’s just ridiculous. Besides, I have homework I need to do.”

Homework is not more important than being safe. Ember bit her hand lightly, more just touching its teeth to her skin. We should visit Professor-with-the-Rooster again.

Nilien was saved having to come with Ember or argue more by the door swinging open. “Nilien! You are in here, good!” Lorque was followed into the room by River, Riva, and Riva’s otter familiar. “When you didn’t show up after class, I was worried that you’d gotten lost again. How were your lessons?”

“They were… interesting.” She looked between Lorque and Riva. “There’s a lot to learn, and so much of seems to be ‘just keep trying until you get it.’”

“There’s a lot of that in the beginning.” Lorque flopped down on her bed and gestured lazily at a chair for Riva. “That’s not why you left, is it? Nobody’s going to think less of you for needing a little more help when you just got here, Nilien!”

“It can’t be easy.” Riva took the chair offered and scooted it closer to the two of them. “Starting in a new school, and then all of this magic to catch up on, too. Everyone knows you’re new, you know. They’re not going to think you can’t keep up with the work.”

Nilien was torn between saying everyone knowing I’m new is half the problem and explaining where she’d been. Ember, who had released her hand when Lorque walked in, took her fingers in its mouth again.

“There’s a tracking spell on me,” she admitted. “There was one on me before, and now there’s another one, after Professor Vaudelle took the first one off of me. And I can’t get it off.”

“How did you get another one? And how did you end up with Professor Vaudelle?”

“Well, I found the tracking spell when Professor Hestinger was teaching me…” Nilien explained the situation to them, up to Ember tracking down the person who had put the spell on her in the first place. “I was hoping Chason was as nice as he seemed,” she concluded, “but his friend did this…”

“Well,” Riva pointed out, “you can’t always judge someone by their friends.”

Nilien wanted to be reassured. She had found Chason quite friendly, and that seemed to be in a bit of short supply here. Still, though…

“It still seems a little strange to me.” She didn’t want to say anything else about people, their friends, and choices, because she didn’t want to sound like she was criticizing Lorque’s choice of companionship, so instead she said, “Professor Vaudelle thought it was just some sort of prank, but she didn’t know about the assassin until I told her. So I’m not sure what it was, although it being another student means it was probably just a bad joke.”

“Well, if it is a prank, eventually, they’re going to have to finish the prank, right?” Riva leaned forward; her otter tumbled out of her lap and landed next to River, who appeared to ignore the other familiar, even as it started using River as a jungle-gym. “It’s not much of a prank to just know where you are. I mean, I suppose if you are having trouble finding your way around, they could position themselves to help you and then — well, be less than helpful and lead you somewhere bad.”

Bad like a forbidden garden? No, Benoir just had no sense when it came to rules, she was pretty sure.

“That doesn’t seem like much of a prank,” she admitted slowly.

I think it would be a very good prank. Ember turned around a few times before settling on the bed, looking down at the other two familiars from a safe perch. Nobody would believe you, because you already get lost. Or you blame your familiar for getting you lost when your familiar found you what you needed.

She petted Ember behind the ears apologetically. “It’s still mad at me because I blamed it for me being lost. I think it’s going to be mad at me for weeks,” she explained. “But — I think you’re right, Riva.” At least Riva hadn’t read this in a book. “If it’s going to be a prank, they probably have more to it. Otherwise, Chason probably would have been in on it and walked me someplace bad today.” That made her glad for more than one reason, but she tried not to let it color her thinking yet. She didn’t know, not yet.

“So whoever set this up — Heldira, you said? – and maybe her friends — they probably have some else up their sleeve.” Lorque leaned in, a smile growing on her face. “We should trap them. We should set a trap. Leave the tracking spell on — they already know where we live, right? — and we’ll set up, hrrm.” She glanced over at Riva. “Do you have any ideas?”

“I’m not quite sure how to trap them,” Riva admitted. “It seems like it would be tricky to fool an older student like that.” She pursed her lips in thought.

“I don’t know,” Lorque mused slowly. “We might have to think about this one for a while.”

I have an idea. Ember tilted its head.

“Ember’s got something,” Nilien translated for the rest of the room.

“Well, let’s hear it. We’re not coming up with anything on our own.” Lorque made an exaggerated shrug as if to point out all the ideas they weren’t having.

We can assume that they have interest in getting you lost. It’s well-established by now that you get lost, even if you do blame your familiar. Ember glared at her.

Nilien ducked her head apologetically. “I said I was sorry!”

Mmph. I’ll forgive you eventually, I suppose. So, we can assume they’d like to find you and get you even more lost, yes?

“It’s a reasonable assumption.” She turned to Lorque and Riva. “Ember suggests we work off the assumption that they want to get me lost. It makes sense, given everything that’s happened.”

So you should “get lost” one more time – finding, of course, something to blame other than your loyal, helpful, faithful familiar this time-

“I said I was sorry!”

And I said Mmmph. The fox gave her a sharp look before getting back to the topic. So, get yourself “lost” in a situation where your friends can be lying in wait. Blame yourself, of course, or some other familiar, or even the castle itself, but wander around looking turned around and confused. If they’re trying to find you out, this would be a perfect time. And then the prank can be enacted.

“That would probably work. Put myself as bait, and wait for them to try to help me ‘find my way home.’” Nilien considered it. It wouldn’t be all that hard to get to a place where she’d seem lost. She might even be lost, considering how turned around this place made her.

Of course it will work. It was my idea, wasn’t it?

“So, go out and ‘get lost?’” Lorque asked. ”And then wait for them to find you?”

“With the tracking spell, it shouldn’t take them long. And then we can turn the prank back on them.”

“But how? That’s the question, isn’t it? What’s the prank?”

That is up to the three of you. I have come up with the plan.

Nilien looked at Lorque and shrugged.

Lorque glanced over at Riva. “Do you have something in mind?”

“I don’t have any ideas yet,” Riva admitted, “but I think I read about this sort of thing in a book, turning pranks on the prankers. It was something about use of small spells to cause, ah, ‘tolerable chaos,’ but…”

“So nothing right now,” Lorque translated, “but you might be able to come up with something later. I-” She appeared to consider it for a moment before shaking her head. “No. I don’t have any ideas either.”

Nilien looked between her friends, then down at Ember, who stretched in what she thought was probably the fox equivalent of a shrug. Certainly the familiar didn’t “say” anything useful.

“I… I’ve heard of a couple different things,” she offered cautiously. “I read about one of them in a book…” She sounded like Riva, didn’t she? Well it wasn’t like other people didn’t read! “It would be hard to do, but it’s a bucket of paint or water balanced over a door, so that when they go through the door, they get drenched.”

“The hard part would be why you were in the room, and finding a room nobody else was going to go into,” Riva mused. “We don’t want to accidentally drench a teacher, for example, or someone’s familiar.”

I do not want to be drenched, Ember agreed. And paint seems a little extreme if all they were doing was tracking you.

“Maybe I really should just get Professor Vaudelle to remove the spell,” Nilien sighed. “It would be easier in the long run.”

“Until the next one,” Lorque pointed out. “This is two in one day. You don’t want to have to keep running back down to the offices every day, do you?”

“We should get her attention with a return prank,” Riva agreed. “That’ll let her know we’re on to her, and then maybe she’ll leave you alone and go on to easier targets.”

“But if we can’t think of anything, then we’re just leading her out into some random place in the school for no reason. That’s not a prank, that’s just asking to cause trouble.” Nilien frowned. “I don’t mind being bait if we’re actually going to do something… hrrm.” She looked down at Ember.

What? Its ears raked back.

“Not you,” she reassured it. “I’m just thinking. There was one time, back in school. Someone was giving one of my old friends trouble, and so we — well, they, I acted as lookout — put crickets in her bed.”

Lorque giggled. “We could do that. I know where we can find some, and then if you lure her out, we can sneak into her room and do that while she’s chasing you down.”

“I’d have to get really ‘lost,’ then,” Nilien mused, “because we wouldn’t want her coming back too soon. I think it could work… as long as it’s really her, and as long as she takes the bait.”

It’s her. Ember gave her a pointed look. I am not wrong about these things.

“Then I guess it’s a plan.”

Chapter 3

She had only had Ember for a couple days, and yet when Nilien went to class, she found she missed her familiar almost immediately. Within a few minutes of starting her first class, however, she was far too engaged in the subject matter to think about Ember or much of anything except the class.

Reinmonte was covering very different material from her former school, so Nilien spent her morning catching up, taking notes until her hands cramped and trying to follow along. She asked questions as often as she felt appropriate, although not quite as frequently as she had questions, and was grateful every time someone else raised their hand.

She’d expected to be nervous about lunch, after the way dinner had gone, but her mind was running in circles about the new mathematics problems she’d just learned and she was hardly paying attention to where she was going.

She barely noticed when Ember joined her — indeed, didn’t notice at all until her familiar lightly nipped the back of her calf. Hello.

“There’s a lot to learn.” It was somewhat of an apology and something of a pleased complaint.

“I think you’ll catch up soon.” Lorque had stopped a few feet back to pet River between the ears. “You were asking good questions. And there will be people who will help you with anything you get really stuck on. Augustin is really good with math, for instance.”

“I am.” As if summoned, Augustin walked up to them. Nilien found herself wondering what sort of familiar he had, and what they looked like in the indigo that matched his trousers and tie. “I’m also pretty good in science, if you end up needing help with that. But only after I’ve eaten something.” He gestured towards the dining hall.

“Thank you.” Nilien ducked her head and followed his gesture. “I’m normally fairly good at classes, but everything is so different here.”

“You’ll settle in soon enough.” Lorque seemed brightly confident about the matter. “Just keep up like you were this morning and everything will be fine, you’ll see.” The crowd was thinner today, but there were more people behind them. They must have gotten in closer to the beginning of meal time. Nilien followed along with Lorque towards the table they’d sat at yesterday.

“I’ll manage one way or the other with classes.” She was determined to do that much. “As long as I don’t get lost too many times.” She set down her books in the same place she’d sat the night before, across from Riva, who had clearly beaten them there.

“Lost?” Riva looked up, surprisingly sympathetic. “Oh, no. You didn’t end up anyplace horrid, did you? I got lost my first week here and it took me hours to find my way back to the dorms.”

“Oh, no, I ended up in the bird dormitory. Not horrid at all,” Nilien assured her. “But even with a detailed tour back to my room, I’m not sure I’d be able to find it again.”

“Eventually, you get used to it all.” Riva shot her a sympathetic smile before turning back to her book.

Nilien took a bite of her food. Things seemed less tense than they had been yesterday, and now that she was wearing a uniform like everyone else, she did a better job of blending in. Maybe people would forget she was a Wild Rune soon.

She stopped with her fork halfway to her mouth for a second bite. Someone had poisoned her — or, at least, that’s what she’d been told. She’d gotten poisoned. They’d tried to kill her and failed. What was to stop them from trying again?

She leaned down to pet Ember between the ears. “Do you know how to check for poison?” she whispered into one of those big red ears.

Ember leaned into the petting and closed its eyes. Mmm. Nice petting. Are you worried someone will try to kill you?

“Well, of course.” She wrinkled her nose at the familiar.

Ember pried open one eye to look at her. You are here now. You have me.

“Yes. That’s why I’m asking you,” she hissed.

“Is he being cranky?” Lorque leaned over to peer at Ember. “Don’t like the stone floors?”

“Yes,” Nilien lied. Istore had just sat down and she didn’t want a lecture on how Weeds weren’t susceptible to poison or something equally dubious.

Blaming me, are we? Ember jumped up into her lap and glared at her.

“I’m sorry.” Nilien looked away, hoping her face wasn’t showing her embarrassment too clearly. “No,” she whispered to Lorque. “I just…”

Everyone was looking at her, or at least all three of Lorque’s friends, Lorque, River, and Ember — and, she noted with chagrin, Riva’s otter. She put her face in her hands. “I was poisoned,” she muttered quietly. “That’s how they tried to kill me.”

“That’s right!” Lorque shook her head. “That’s not silly, why are you hiding it? It’s clever. Once you’ve had a few magic classes, you might be able to do it yourself, but I can do it now. And tell your familiar it doesn’t have to be so prissy about everything. It’s okay.”

Ember turned its glare on Lorque, but Lorque seemed not to notice at all. “Thanks,” Nilien muttered. Augustin looked like he wanted to ask questions but couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t sound ghoulish.

“Of course,” Riva murmured, possibly having less qualms about such matters. “The book I read — that makes sense. It’s awful, of course, but it does make some sense.” Her smile almost looked apologetic.

“I’m glad it makes sense to someone,” Nilien muttered.

It makes perfect sense to me. Ember butted its head against her shoulder. You have me now.

Lorque stared at Nilien’s food for a moment. “No poison,” she announced quietly. “It’s perfectly safe. Well, except the beans, but that’s just because they always taste awful.”

Nilien looked at her food, then back to Lorque. “You can— well, I believe you, but just by looking?” She tasted her food — not the beans, taking Lorque’s warning to heart. It tasted the same as it had a moment ago. She took another bite and gave it some consideration. “So you can look at any food and tell if it’s poisoned?”

“Yep.” Lorque grinned at her. “Neat, isn’t it? And it’s a handy skill to have, living with you.”

“You make it sound like she’s going to poison your food,” Riva complained. Slyly, and in a tone Nilien thought was teasing, she asked, “are you?”

“Of course not.” Nilien tried to sound like she was taking it as a joke. Riva didn’t seem all that bad, and she didn’t want to discourage her if she was trying to be friendly. “She’s a good roommate. Besides, I’m not the sort of person who goes around poisoning people.”

“Just the sort that goes around being poisoned,” Lorque pointed out, far too cheerfully.

“That was only once! And,” Nilien trailed off, not wanting to admit she still had no memory of the event. “Anyway, it does seem like a nice skill to have, especially if someone might try again. I mean…” She looked down at her plate. “I don’t know why anyone would try to kill me. I’m not anyone important.”

“So it’s a total mystery?” Augustin leaned forward over the table. “That’s fascinating. Someone tried to kill you, you nearly died, and you have no idea why? I can’t even imagine! And you get to be a Wild Rune!”

Nilien smoothed her hands over her skirt. Augustin sounded so excited about the whole thing. He was staring at her and grinning, like she’d just had a meeting with the Emperor. But the more he talked about it, the more it made her stomach sink. “I don’t know why they tried to kill me,” she repeated. “I don’t have any idea. And I don’t know if they’ll try again.” Suddenly, she felt very obvious and easy to find in her bright red skirt and tie. “How did you do it?” she asked Lorque. “How did you test for poison?”

“Not everyone can do everything equally well,” Lorque warned her. “You won’t know if you can do it well until you try a few times. But mostly, well. You look at it and you concentrate your magic, so you’re focusing on seeing a thing. Poison, in this case.”

“It all sounds so… simple.” Nilien looked at her food. Would she be able to sense poison? Could she risk her life on her abilities with this new magic?

“It sounds simple until you’re doing it,” Lorque assured her. “And then there’s still just a few steps, but it feels a lot different. You’ll get there! It’s almost time for magic classes.”

Magic class. Nilien swallowed. “You already know how to do something like…” she gestured at her food, “and I don’t know anything, anything at all, about magic.”

“It’s because you’re a We—” Istore coughed at a pointed glare from Lorque. “A Wild Rune. We’ve all been here for years and you’re just starting. That’s why some people are against Wild Runes.”

“Some people?” Augustin shot Istore a glare.

“I’m just explaining. She knows that she’s behind, and she’s going to have to work very hard to catch up. That’s not fair to her, is it?”

“I think not dying is a fair trade-off for having to do some extra classwork!” Augustin shook his head. “Not fair…”

Nilien, however, was forced to admit, if only to herself, that Istore had a point. She looked down at Ember. “You could’ve given me some sort of primer class instead of complaining about my color choices,” she hissed. “I’m going to end up at the bottom of my class.”

But, as the boy said, alive at the bottom of your class. Ember looked entirely unrepentant. You’ll learn. And I have no problem using my own magic. I’m certain that any human I chose will be equally as skilled with theirs. It dropped its jaw in a parody of a grin.

Nilien huffed in exasperation. “You’re no help at all.”

I am exactly as much help as you need. You needed to be alive. Wanted to, I might add. You did not need a “primer course.”

“And how did you know that?” She tried to ignore the amused looks Lorque and her friends were giving her.

That is my job to know.

“Aaargh!” She leaned back, refusing to look at Ember.

“You’ll be fine.” Lorque patted her arm. “You’re doing so well at catching up in everything else. It’ll come easily to you, you’ll see.”

“I’ve already taken history classes and science classes! I’ve never taken a class in magic before. I’ve hardly even had it mentioned in other classes!” She put her face in her hands and sighed again.

“That’s why Reinmonte is a better school,” Augustin offered. He leaned over the table and patted her arm gently. “You’ll learn everything, and it will be fine.”

“I read a book,” Riva started, “that said that sometimes Wild Runes learned magic faster. Because it’s more instinctual for you, and less learned.” She smiled so brightly, Nilien wasn’t entirely sure if she was trying to be helpful or being very insincerely mean.

She came to the decision to pretend that Riva was being serious, whether or not she was. It seemed an easier direction and one more likely to end up in a positive manner. “Thank you, that’s really quite reassuring. Maybe I’ll be able to check for my own poison quite soon.”

“Oh, come on.” The voice came from behind Riva, someone from the next table over. They turned to face Nilien, a pale peach mark standing out on their cheek. “Nobody’s really trying to kill you, that’s ridiculous.”

Nilien did her best to ignore the question. She looked at Augustin. “So if everyone has specialties—”

“Well, we’re all trying to find our specialties now,” he temporized, “but I’m not that good at looking for poisons, no. I’m trying to focus on changing colors and shapes. Like… well, I don’t have my familiar with me at the moment…” He frowned.

“Like this?” Riva concentrated on Augustin’s hair until one chestnut-brown curl turned the same blue-green as Riva’s otter familiar. “There. You look perfect.”

“No, really.” The voice from the next table cut in again. “Come on, someone trying to kill you? Isn’t that a little far-fetched?”

“I don’t know.” Nilien mock-frowned at the streak in Augustin’s hair. “I think it clashes with his tie.” She gestured at the pinkish-purple tie in question.

“Oh, come on.” The interloper turned around completely so they were staring at Nilien. “You can’t just ignore me and pretend I didn’t ask you anything.”

“She looked like she was doing that quite well,” Riva countered. “Besides, the wintergreen really does clash with Augustin’s tie.”

“But why should she?” The peach-clad older student frowned at both Riva and Nilien. “I mean it. Why ignore me, unless you have something to hide? It’s not like the question is going to go away. You were talking about being poisoned. In the middle of the dining hall. People other than me must have noticed.”

Ember put its paws up on the table and glared, ears raked back. Would you like me to bite this irritating person?

“No biting,” Nilien whispered into Ember’s ear. “Not now.” She looked back at their intruder and sighed. This was just getting louder and louder. “Someone tried to kill me.” She tried to pitch her voice just loud enough that her peach-marked inquisitor could hear her and not the rest of the dining hall. “That’s why I’m a Wild Rune.” That, at least, she was pretty sure everyone knew already.

Ember turned its glare on her. You are a Rune because you chose to live.

“Really tried to kill you? You mean ran their horse too close to you and pushed you off the road into a ditch or something, don’t you?” The person leaned closer to them, voice softer now. “Not assassination.”

“Attempted assassination,” Riva corrected. Augustin was still trying to see the curl of blue-green hair.

“And it’s not like she’d lie about something like that.” Lorque leaned forward over the table, her own voice a hissing whisper. “Come on, really? Who lies about being the target of an assassination attempt?”

The word was starting to give Nilien hives. “It’s okay,” she protested. “It’s kind of far-fetched, I know.” She stroked Ember idly, taking comfort in the warmth of its fur. “I would’ve thought so too, until it happened.”

“So.” The peach-clad intruder moved even closer, nudging Riva and Augustin aside. “What was it like? I mean, if someone really tried to kill you, was it scary? What did it feel like? You said poison? Did it make you sick?”

I will bite this nuisance, Ember offered again, although Nilien thought the fox was starting to look amused by the whole thing.

“I don’t really like talking about it,” Nilien demurred.

“Yeah!” Lorque glared at their intruder. “Come on, would you like talking about it, if someone had tried to kill you?”

“But she was talking about it.” The interruption would not go away. Nilien began to wonder if maybe she really ought to have Ember start biting people.

No. For one, she didn’t really want to find out that Ember had been teasing her and had no intention of biting anyone, ever, and for another, she didn’t want to risk expulsion (again) for her familiar’s misbehaviour.

“I was talking about it with my roommate,” Nilien countered weakly. “And her friends. I don’t really want to broadcast it—”

“Well, it’s not like everyone doesn’t already know you’re a Wild Rune. What’s being assassinated on top of that?” The peach-clad menace offered this up so reasonably, it almost seemed as if it made sense.

“One of those was quite more unpleasant than the other,” Nilien retorted. She shook her head in indignation.

“Oh, come on, tell me something? I mean,” the intruder added slyly, “if someone really did try to kill you. There has to be some juicy detail.”

Nilien huffed. There was no getting around it. “I don’t remember much of it,” she admitted, as quietly as possible.

“What?” The peach person stared at her. “How can you…?”

“I woke up, and I was missing a quantity of time in my memories. I was sore all over my body, and with Ember here with me, and they — my school — told me someone had poisoned me. I’m sorry it isn’t as interesting as you hoped,” she added acerbically.

“So… you don’t remember at all? How do you know—?”

“My parents aren’t in the habit of lying to me. The head of my former school isn’t in the habit of lying to me.” Nilien found her words getting more and more clipped, and if Headmaster Narite hadn’t actually told her anything about the poisoning, well, there was no way this person knew that. “But no. I don’t remember, and all Ember will tell me is that I wanted to live.”

That’s all that matters, Ember informed her yet again. It turned around on her lap and got comfortable with its chin on the table, eyeing the intruder.

“You know,” Lorque pointed out, “if I’d been told someone had tried to poison me, I don’t think I’d spend too much time fussing about the details. I’d be more worried with making sure it didn’t happen again.”

Nilien cleared her throat. “I’m Nilien, by the way.” She looked pointedly at the intruder. “And I hear I have magic classes this afternoon, so I’d like to finish my lunch. I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name…?”

“Oh, I’m Thesri.” The peach-clad person shrugged, as if that didn’t matter one bit. “You ought to find out more about what happened to you.”

“Why?” Augustin turned to glare at Thesri. “Because you’re nosy?”

“Aren’t you?” Thesri smiled as if that made the point.

“Well, I admit I’m a little curious, but not enough to badger poor Nilien.”

“Badger? No, that’s Marlot, over there, with the vivid lime-green familiar. You know, the one with the stripe down its head.” Thesri pointed vaguely. “Me, on the other hand, I’m just curious. And I think she ought to be curious, too. I mean, if someone’s trying to kill you, checking for poison is great and all but it would help to know who she ought to be looking out for.”

Nilien took the out Thesri had offered, even if it hadn’t been meant as an escape route. “I’ll write my parents. Maybe they’ll have something more to tell me than they already have. But first, I’m going to eat lunch.”

She picked up her fork and began eating again. Her lunch had already started to go cold, but she was determined to eat some of it anyway, if only to make a point.

“Oh, come on, tell me something else, anything else. You don’t remember your first experience with your familiar at all? Or anything else? Your familiar doesn’t know anything else?”

The nerve of some people. Ember glared at Thesri, who seemed not to notice.

“There’s got to be something you can tell me. How does someone kill you and you end up forgetting the whole thing?”

It was, Nilien had to admit, a very good question. Why had she forgotten the whole thing?

If she answered, however, she’d never get anywhere with her food. She looked faux-apologetically at Thesri and covered her mouth with her hand, indicating to all good people and, she hoped, to Thesri, that she had her mouth full and couldn’t answer.

“Well, fine, if you’re going to be that way. But when you hear from your parents, let me know. I want all the details.” Thesri turned back around in a huff, leaving Nilien to eat in peace.

“Some people just don’t know when to stop,” Lorque muttered, but Nilien really had her mouth full this time and didn’t answer. Conveniently, she couldn’t answer when Augustin asked her a question, either, or when Riva told her something else she’d read in a book — this time about fox familiars.

In that manner, Nilien managed to get through the rest of lunch without having to answer any more awkward questions, although she did have to pantomime a few variations on “I don’t know.” The whole thing was somehow more distracting than just answering the questions, however, and she found she had no idea what she had eaten when she was done — except that she was fairly certain that it wasn’t poisoned.

It was a relief to be out of the lunch room, and the closer Nilien got to the classrooms, the more excited she became.

“How long do you think it will take for me to learn how to detect poison?” she asked Lorque.

“Oh, not much time at all.” Lorque waved off the question with a breezy gesture. “You’re clever. You’re going to be caught up to us right away, just you see.”

“Do they teach much theory? How it all works? I want to know how the pieces all go together. I want to be able to protect myself,” she added in a much quieter voice. She didn’t want another incident like with Thesri. “Nobody else might believe it, but I really am worried.”

“Hey, I believe you! And Augustin… and I’m sure lots of other people. You shouldn’t let jerks like Thesri get you down.”

“I don’t… Well, I suppose I do, a little, but I know that it does sound a little far-fetched. Everyone’s said it; I’m just not really assassination material. Is this the way to the magic classroom? I’m really going to get to learn magic!”

“Well, of course you are.” Lorque smiled at her. “You’re a Rune. You have a familiar. You’ve got the rune mark.”

“You’ve had some time to get used to the idea,” Nilien complained. And, she thought, to practice all this magic. “I’m only now having my first day of classes here at Reinmont. At the Academy for Runes.”

“You’ll get used to it fast.” Lorque patted her shoulder. “I’m sure you will. Here’s our magic classroom, and here’s Professor Valents. We’ve all been working with her to find out specialties all year. It’s been a lot of fun.” She waved down the teacher, who was wearing stunning violet trousers with a rose-and-teal jacket. “We’ve got a new student here; I’m sure you heard about Nilien.”

Everyone already knew about Nilien, but still, a few people fell quiet and looked over. The teacher strolled over, followed by a lavender creature the size of a small dog. It looked something like someone had combined a rabbit and a pig, with the fur and the nose of the rabbit, the shape of the pig, and doglike claws.

Clearly she had to pay more attention in zoologic studies. After she paid attention in magic classes, of course.

Professor Valents frowned down at her. “Ah, yes, the new student, Nilien. It’s very nice to meet you.” She sounded sad. “I’m sorry, dear, I am certain you would love to be in this class with your friends, and from all accounts, I would love to have you.”

Nilien’s heart sank. “I — I don’t get to learn magic?” She kept her chin up and didn’t give into the urge to scoop up Ember, despite the way the fox was butting against her legs.

“Oh, you do, of course you do, dear.” The teacher patted Nilien’s shoulder. “But you’re going to need to start off with Professor Hestinger. Right this way, please. I’m afraid it’s going to take you quite some time to go over the basics, and these students are quite a way past that.”

Nilien swallowed. “Oh. Oh, I see, of course.” She gave Lorque a quick hug. “I’ll see you after class, then.”

“Chin up.” Lorque looked a bit stunned, but, well, Nilien supposed what Professor Valents was saying made sense. It was one thing to be a bit behind — a week or two, maybe — in history or sciences, but in magic? “You’ll catch up in no time.”

“I’ll do my best.” Nilien no longer felt very certain, though. “I’m sorry, Professor Valents, I don’t mean to dawdle. Where…?”

“It’s all right, dear. It’s good you’re making friends so quickly. This way.” The teacher guided Nilien out of the large classroom back into the hall and past two more rooms, all while Nilien struggled with her feelings and Ember stayed uncommonly quiet.

It made sense. She kept telling herself that, but it didn’t stop her from feeling awful. She was a good student! She shouldn’t need her own class…

But, she countered, she’d never been in a magic class before.

But she ought to be able to pick it up!

Professor Valents interrupted her swirling thoughts. “Here we go, dear. Professor Hestinger will help you get started with magic.”

The teacher ushered her into a small room, much like Professor Lowit’s office. Professor Hestinger turned out to be a short, rather dapper man with a broad, generous smile.

“Ah, our Wild Rune. Come on in, Nilien, and — Ember, is it? Come on in, Ember.” A purplish-pink puma sat curled around the feet of Professor Hestinger’s chair. It looked up as Nilien entered and yawned at her and Ember before closing its eyes again.

“Take a seat, that’s good. Now, dear, there’s no need to be sad about this. You have to figure out how to stand up before you learn if you’re more of a sprinter or a distance runner, now don’t you?”

“I — I suppose so, yes.” Nilien sat down in the wooden chair he’d indicated. Ember jumped into her lap and made itself comfortable, turning around a few times before settling down, staring at Professor Hestinger.

Pay attention. This is important.

Nilien bit back a retort. Now wasn’t the time to be talking to her fox. “I’m ready, sir.”

“And your familiar is, too, I see. All right then. Let’s get right to it, then, shall we? Now, rune magic is rather simple to explain and rather difficult to get right, so please don’t expect that you’re going to get it right away.”

“Yes, sir.” She was going to get it as soon as she could, so she could take classes with her friends. She settled her hands in Ember’s fur and got ready to learn.

“Very good. We’ll work at it together until you have mastered the basic skills. It may take quite some time, but we’ll get there.”

“Yes, sir.” He seemed so nice, but was he ever going to teach her?

“Good! We’re going to start with a very basic levitation. Here.” He set a pen on the desk to his left. “Now concentrate on lifting this pen.”

Nilien stared at the pen. It was a nice pen, with marbling throughout in green and purple and mauve and a gold nib. She’d had a pen like that before she went away to school, a gift from her aunt…

Ember’s teeth touched her finger. Concentrate, it suggested. Nilien nodded mutely. If she couldn’t focus, she’d never go anywhere in class.

She focused on the pen lifting. Should her hands be in some special position? Should she be feeling something? Nothing happened. The pen, if anything, seemed more resolutely on the table.

Relax, Ember chided, and focus.

“I am focusing,” she muttered, and tried again.

The pen went nowhere. Nilien sighed. She was going to be in this room forever.

“If it helps, perhaps, get your body comfortable first. Your hands just so on your familiar’s fur. Your back straight against the chair. There you go.” Professor Hestinger beamed at her as she followed his instructions. “Now… you won’t need it forever, but for the moment, think of that posture as your ‘magic posture’. Now that you’re in it, the only thing you need to focus on is magic. And you.” He tapped the top of Ember’s head lightly. “Don’t distract her, and don’t scold her. It’s harder for Wild Runes. They’re so much more formed already by the time they get their magic.”

Ember ducked its head and said nothing. Nilien took that as a positive sign. Back straight, hands sitting lightly in Ember’s fur, she looked at the pen again and concentrated on lifting it.

This time, it rose. It lifted a hand’s-width in the air and stayed there for a moment before dropping.

“Very good. Now, again.”

Nilien checked her posture, took a breath, and concentrated on the pen. Again, it lifted, and this time it stayed more steady in the air.

“Very good. Down and, again.”

Down and up, down and up. The pen lifted over and over again until Nilien could do so without fail and she felt as if she were going cross-eyed from the staring.

“That’s enough pen work for today, I believe. You can try that in your room, if you feel up to it, but I’d say you’ve done very well for the day. Now, one more exercise before we break.” He produced a wooden bowl full of white pebbles. “Somewhere in here is a black stone. I want you to close your eyes and find the black stone.”

He set the bowl down on the desk in front of her. Nilien looked it over for a minute. The stones all looked very uniform in size, and there was nothing but white stones showing on the top.

She straightened her back and closed her eyes, reached out with her magic, and found nothing. She took a breath, reached out again, and nothing.

She tried one more time… nothing. “There’s no bowl,” she whispered.

“Keep trying.” Professor Hestinger coaxed. “You can’t expect all tasks will be equally easy, but you should try as many as you can. One more time?”

“Yes, sir.” Nilien took another breath and tried again.

One more try. She could do it. She closed her eyes and reached out for the bowl, for the black pebble somewhere inside it.

Nothing. “Maybe…” She furrowed her brow and considered the bowl. If she could see the stone, she could find it without a problem.

So first, she needed to see it. She stared at the bowl. Focusing on seeing a thing, that’s what Lorque had said. So she just needed to focus on seeing a black stone.

She petted Ember a little bit and focused her power on vision. She had to be able to see it. It was there; it had to be a simple matter to find it, or Professor Hestinger wouldn’t have assigned it to her, would he have?

The bowl still looked like a bowl. She sat up a little straighter, took a few measured breaths, and steeled herself to to it.

Ember nuzzled against her hand. You will do it, it assured her. Like the teacher says, it’s like standing and then running. You will be able to do it.

Nilien petted Ember behind the ear. “Thanks,” she whispered. Sometimes her familiar wasn’t a complete pain. She focused on the bowl and concentrating on seeing.

For a moment, she thought it had worked. It felt a little different, like when she’d managed to get the pen to float. But when she looked at the bowl, it was still a bowl, and she still couldn’t see inside it.

She tried a little harder, furrowing her brow and focusing as hard as she could on the bowl. Somewhere just out of her vision, down on her lap, something began to glow red.

She looked down; Ember was glowing red, and so was the rune mark on her hand. She glanced up at Professor Hestinger; a mark glowed on his upper arm. At his feet, his familiar was glowing, too, in the same purplish-pink light.

She looked back down at Ember and her own hand. This was — well, it wasn’t what she’d been trying to do, but she was fascinated nonetheless. “I — oh.” There seemed to be something glowing on her back. It was fainter than the mark on her hand, but looking down at Ember — and at her navel — she could clearly see it, which was in itself rather strange. She looked back over at Professor Hestinger; he had no such mark, nothing but the runic mark on his arm.

With a surge of hope, she looked back at the bowl. She still couldn’t see the black stone.

Nilien sighed. “It’s not working.”

“No?” Professor Hestinger leaned forward. “You said ‘oh.’ What was that?”

“Oh, that?” She wrinkled her nose. “I was trying to see the black stone, but I ended up seeing Ember and your familiar glowing, instead. And our runic marks.” She gestured with her marked hand. “They all glow.”

“Oh, very good. That’s magic sight.” Professor Hestinger smiled broadly at her. “That’s an excellent skill to learn; it can be very useful. So you saw the familiars and the marks, of course. They must have glowed rather brightly?”

“Yes, sir.” He was far too excited about her not managing to get the lesson down right! “But I didn’t manage to find the black stone.” She frowned down at Ember in her lap, who was oblivious to this all, apparently napping.

“That will come with time.” Professor Hestinger brushed her concern away with a cheerful wave of his hand. “If you’re discovering magic sight now, well, then we’ll worry about magic sight for the moment. Did you see anything else? Not the stone, of course; that wouldn’t have a magic signature the way our familiars do.”

Nilien wanted to get back to the lesson. She wasn’t ever going to catch up if they kept getting distracted. She swallowed a sigh. “There was something,” she admitted. “When I was looking at Ember…” She hesitated. “I don’t know how I did it, but I saw a mark on my back.”

“Well, magic sight doesn’t care about obstructions to normal sight. After all, you saw my runic mark, didn’t you?”

“Yes, sir.” And that had been, she supposed, through his shirt-sleeve and jacket sleeve.

“But a mark on your back? That’s quite interesting.” Professor Hestinger frowned in thought. “When we’re done here, I do believe you should go talk to Professor Vaudelle. She’s quite good with magic sight, and she may be able to tell you more about this mark.”

“Yes, sir. Ah…”

“I’ll take you to her office, have no fear. It can be quite easy to get lost in these halls, can’t it? But first, let’s work a little more on the lesson at hand. I know you’re eager to catch up to your friends. Let’s try to discern the black pebble in the bowl one more time. This time, I want you to focus on the differences between a white pebble and a black pebble.”

Chapter 2

If the classroom hallway had driven home that Reinmonte was housed in a castle, the dining hall shouted it. Nilien stopped in the doorway, despite Lorque’s tugging, to look up at the huge vaulted stone ceiling and then to look down the hall at the columns and the long tables.

“You can eat with my friends and me.” Lorque gave another tug, and this time Nilien relented and followed along without dragging. Once she had stopped staring at the scenery, it became very quickly clear that she, in turn, was being stared at.

Some of the looks were simply curious. Nilien had already encountered that with Lorque — even with her friends back at her old school — and so she smiled at those people as she passed them. See, she wanted to say, I’m not all that strange. I’m just another student.

Her smile faded quickly, however, at the other expressions: people who clearly didn’t like her on sight, who disapproved of her or didn’t think she ought to be here.

“Should I have changed?” she asked Lorque. All of the students seemed to be wearing something similar to Lorque, but in different colors. Those students she could see that had familiars seemed, like River and Lorque, to be color-matched — which would please the fox, she considered, if it was true.

She didn’t think new clothes would help the current situation, but the outfit she had been so pleased with this morning suddenly seemed to make her stick out even more, and the dirty looks were beginning to wear on her already.

“Oh, no, we don’t have your uniform yet. It’s fine,” Lorque assured her breezily. “They’ll get over it eventually. Here, this is my table.”

The looks Nilien was getting didn’t quite seem like get over it eventually sort of looks. Nilien followed Lorque’s directions and tried not to worry too much. She could deal with some people glaring at her, couldn’t she? It wasn’t like it was her fault she’d ended up a Wild Rune!

“Hello, everybody, this is Nilien, and she’s new. Nilien, these are my friends, Augustin, Riva, and Istore.”

Nilien’s smile grew brittle and tight-feeling as she looked around at Lorque’s friends. Augustin looked friendly enough, but Riva and Istore were both wearing unfriendly expressions.

“A wild Rune?” Augustin leaned forward over the table. “And that’s your familiar? Does it bring you good luck?”

“Well—” Nilien started, only to be cut off by Istore.

“A Weed,” he sneered. “I bet your familiar bites.”

“Oh!” Augustin jumped up. “Can it—”

“Guys,” Lorque interrupted. “That’s enough. Let Nilien eat, okay?”

Nilien looked around the dining hall. She could see a few empty seats off in one corner, where maybe she could eat in peace.

“It’s not like she really feels pain,” Istore protested. “She’s a Weed. They don’t have feelings the same way you and I do.”

Or there was that little group of people, the one with the girl with the teal-green rabbit and the boy with the yellow weasel. They’d seemed friendly enough – curious, she supposed, but not angry. And less likely to call her a Weed.

“Because you’re an expert on Wild Runes now?” Augustin scoffed. “I’m sure you know all about her.”

“Face it,” Riva interrupted, “none of us know anything about Weeds. You know exactly as much as us, Istore, which is rumor and conjecture.”

“But she knows more,” Augustin pointed out. “Come on, Nilien, is it? Tell us about being a Wild Rune.”

“Give the girl a little breathing room.” Lorque waved her hands over the table, as if clearing the air. “She probably wants to eat something, too.”

“Come on, just one question?” Augustin wheedled.

“I can answer something,” Nilien offered. Lorque was trying and Augustin seemed nice. They weren’t Corinne and Larisse, but nobody would be. She’d known those two for years, ever since they first went to boarding school.

Besides, she’d gotten enough glares from other people. If she found another table, there was no assurance it wouldn’t just be another Istore, without another Lorque to act as a buffering presence.

“Does your familiar bite?” Istore sneered.

I’ll bite him, Ember offered.

“Ember hasn’t bitten anyone yet. He doesn’t like being handled by people other than me, though.”

“Neither does Winter-blue.” Riva reached down, and the head of a blue-green otter popped up above the table. “But you’ll have to be sure yours doesn’t go around biting people or stealing their powers. The teachers would look down on that, I’m sure.”

I am not going to— where does she even— that’s ridiculous. Ember hopped into Nilien’s lap to glare at Riva.

“Ember won’t steal anyone’s powers,” Nilen translated.

“Well, does it give you luck?” Augustin repeated.

Nilien looked down at Ember. The fox, in turn, was settling down into her lap. There was food in front of her, and it looked like it might be tasty, but she was suddenly without appetite. “Well, it saved my life. I’d say that’s lucky.”

“Someone tried to kill her,” Lorque hissed in a stage whisper. “That’s what happened. They tried to assassinate her.”

“Clearly they weren’t very good at it.” Istore turned a brow-furrowed expression on Lorque. “But they might try again. Aren’t you worried you’ll end up getting hurt when they do?”

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?”

“I’m a new student,” Nilien agreed cautiously. The last thing she wanted right now was another lecture on being a “Weed”. “Am I needed for something?”

“Well, yes.” The teacher looked down her long nose at Nilien. “I am Administrator Sirin. I handle several crucial but often overlooked matters in Reinmonte, which as far as you are concerned at the moment involves uniforms. That is, you are in need of one. This way.”

Well, it couldn’t be that bad. At least in a uniform, she might blend in. “I’ll catch up with you?” she asked Lorque.

“I’ll meet you back in our room. I still haven’t shown you the library! Or the gardens, or the towers, or—”

“Later, Lorque.” M. Sirin took Nilien lightly by the upper arm. “This way. And do hold on to your familiar, or at least admonish it not to wander off.” Her shoes clicked against the stone floor as she led Nilien further into the castle.

I am not going to “wander off”, Ember huffed. Besides, if anyone decided to bother me, I would just—

“Shhh,” Nilien admonished. “Ember won’t run off,” she informed M. Sirin. “It’s just being lazy.”

M. Sirin smiled as she looked off into the distance — a distance in her mind, as the halls were short here, with many turns. “It’s good to be able to argue with your familiar. And it seems like yours will give you plenty of practice. Bother here likes to argue, too.” The snake around her neck lifted its head and stuck its tongue out at Nilien.

Nilien looked away. “Your familiar likes to be carried, too?”

“Oh, Bother is faster than me if it really puts its mind to it, but yes, of course. It likes to take its time or stay near me.” She patted the snake’s side affectionately.

Foxes make much better companions. Ember wriggled in Nilien’s arms, getting comfortable. Silently, she agreed with the fox.

“And here we are.” M. Sirin stopped in a room laden with racks of sludge-brown clothing. She picked up a cloth tape measure and took down Nilien’s numbers with brisk efficiency. “Mmm, mm-hrrm, all right. Bother, did you get that?”

The snake hissed, looking amused. Nilien managed not to back up, mostly by holding Ember tighter.

“I’m afraid you need to put your familiar down for this part, dear. There we go. And… yes. All right.” M. Sirin pulled white blouses and sludge-brown skirts and jackets from the racks and passed them to Nilien. “Try that on, then. Right in that little room. The tape measure never lies, but sometimes it fibs, or the shirts are misfiled.”

It was going to clash horribly with Ember, Nilien thought, but that didn’t seem like sufficient reason to complain. She took the uniform into the little room and tried it on. finding that, while the color was hideous, the uniform fit quite nicely indeed.

“Very good,” M. Sirin approved. “Now. Let’s see about getting those red.”

“Red?” Nilien repeated, staring at M. Sirin in confusion.

Well, Ember nosed at the hem of the skirt, you don’t want it this color. And you certainly don’t want to go with orange or— the fox shook itself —pink. And red is the best color, after all.

“Yes, but…” She was a Rune. Everyone else here was a Rune, at least, everyone she’d seen so far. She glanced hesitantly at Bother, M. Sirin’s green snake. “Magically?”

“Exactly. Not by my hand, however. We’re going to take you to meet Professor Lowit. He’s quite good at this sort of transformation. This way.”

M. Sirin led Nilien and Ember down another hallway — two lefts and a right, and Nilien could see why Lorque thought she might get lost — to knock on a wooden door. The door had a pattern that looked dyed into the wood in the style of stained glass: a tree high on a hill, with orange birds in the branches and on the ground.

She was unsurprised, then, when the man who opened the door had a bright orange magpie sitting on his shoulder. He was tall, taller even than the impressive M. Sirin, and his vest, like his door, seemed picked out of a thousand small tiles of color. “Aah, Administrator Sirin.” He nodded politely at both of them. “And this must be our new student.”

“And I leave her in your capable hands while I get her course materials. Professor Lowit, this is Nilien. Nilien, Professor Lowit teaches History here.”

“History?” Nilien smiled broadly. “Oh, I love History! I’m looking forward to finding out how it’s taught here. There’s the Battle of Theristole. I’ve always wanted to know more about that. And the Treaty of Three Swords that followed it. We covered that only very briefly back at my old school.” She hardly noticed M. Sirin leaving.

“A fellow enthusiast! Well, we’ll be covering that later in the year, but if you’d like — and if you find you have time — I can suggest some reading to tide you over. Now, I assume you’re here for your colors?”

“Yes, please.” Nilien plucked at her sludgy-colored skirt. “It clashes horribly with Ember,” she joked, “and it seems to hate that.”

“Sometimes familiars do have opinions on that,” M. Lowit agreed. “All right, hop up here, Ember, so I can see your color properly.”

Nilien was a little surprised to find that Ember complied, jumping up onto the stool M. Lowit indicated. The professor peered at Ember and then brushed his hand over the stack of clothing she was holding.

Everything that had been sludge-colored turned red. Nilien gasped and clutched her clothing — her Ember-red clothing — a little closer.

“I didn’t feel anything,” she murmured. She had known magic was real, but it was one thing to know it, and another to see it in use right in front of her. “I just… This is amazing.”

“It is,” M. Lowit agreed. “And it will only get more amazing when you learn to do it yourself.”

Nilien was twirling slowly, admiring the way the red of her skirt now exactly matched the red of Ember’s fur, when M. Sirin returned with a stack of books.

“This is everything you’ll need for your classes.” She handed the pile to Nilien. “I’m sure Lorque will help you get caught up in anything you find yourself behind in.”

Nilien glanced at the titles. The ones on the top of the pile, at least, were subjects she recognized. “I’ll do my best to catch up quickly.”

“The teachers will be happy to help you, too,” M. Lowit assured her. “Although if you’re already interested in the Battle of Theristole, I doubt you’ll be at much of a disadvantage in my class.”

“Thank you for all your help.” Nilien was pretty sure she was going to love her History class, at least. “I should get these back to my room. Unless there’s anything else, Administrator Sirin…?”

“You are outfitted. That is the extent of my need for you at the moment.” M. Sirin made a gentle shooing gesture in Nilien’s direction. “Do try not to damage the books or your uniform.”

“Yes, Administrator Sirin.” Nilien made sure Ember was following her and headed back out into the hallways.

“The books aren’t too heavy,” she commented to Ember when they were away from the office. “Maybe we should explore a little bit on the way back.”

Can you carry both your books and me? Ember lolled its mouth at Nilien in what she thought was meant to be a grin. This castle is large and I may get tired.

“If I have to, yes, although you might have to do some balancing.” She took a left where she was pretty sure she had come from the right before. “It really is quite large. And quite old-seeming.”

The woman with the snake carries her familiar everywhere, Ember pointed out. It was walking back and forth in front of Nilien, threatening to trip her. She took another turn without paying much attention to the way she was going. And the brightly-colored man’s bird rode on his shoulder.

“The snake is wrap-able and the bird can perch. You don’t see Lorque carrying River wrapped around her shoulders like a shawl, do you?” The doors in this hallway were all closed, and at least one of them looked locked. Nilien took another turn, back towards where she thought the Dining Hall should be.

I could perch. I am smaller and more svelte than River. I would make a much better shawl.

“You’d look ridiculous.” The hallway ended in a narrow stairway upwards. Nilien took it, trying not to drop her books or trip on a very-underfoot Ember. “Oh fine.” She sat down on the top step. “Here. You can try it.”

Thank you. There is far too much walking in this place. Ember jumped up on to the pile of books and rested its paws on her shoulder, looking over her shoulder.

“I have noticed that, yes.” Nilien managed to stand up with some effort. “Oof. You’re not light, you know.”

That is the books. Now… where are we going?

Nilien looked around. “I…” She glanced back down the stairs and then back and forth down the three-way hallway. “I have absolutely no idea.”

So we’re lost. Ember twisted around to look at Nilien. We are lost and do not know where we are.

“Those two things are functionally the same,” Nilien pointed out. “Well…” She glanced down the stairs thoughtfully. “Let’s keep going. I don’t think back that way is the way to our room, at least.”

It has to go somewhere, one hopes. Ember settled back down into what was presumably a comfortable position, and Nilien, who was starting to regret picking the fox up in the first place, headed right down the hallway.

The doors here were further apart, but they were all closed as well. Maybe they were more dormitories? But Nilien didn’t hear any noise coming from them. Teacher’s offices? One door was carved intricately and so deeply that the door itself had to be as thick as Nilien’s hand was wide. Another one, quite a bit further down, was done all in a marquetry copy of a famous painting, each bit picked out in another color and grain of wood.

She was paying more attention to the hall now, but there didn’t seem to be any turns worth taking: two short offshoots of the hallway, both of which ended in a narrow window very quickly; one stairway downwards that looked narrow, treacherous, and unused, and was close off with a single rope; closed door after closed door.

Finally she found a stairway wending upwards that looked promising, safe, and interesting. Up didn’t seem like the best idea, not with Ember leaning on her shoulder and the books getting heavier and heavier, but it was better than walking along the same hallway for eternity.

“You’re going to walk for a bit,” she told Ember.

If I must, I suppose, it agreed, and hopped down with better grace than it was playing at. Up all those stairs?

“Up all these stairs.” She started walking, pretending she wasn’t listening for Ember’s footsteps behind her.

She didn’t have to listen for long; the fox bounded up in front of her and led the way, turning once to grin at her.

The stairs wound upwards; after a flight, Nilien could hear voices from further upwards. She hesitated; did she really want to deal with more people today?

Ember answered the question for her, bounding up the stairs. Nilien hurried, not wanting anyone to think her familiar was running away from her.

She came up short a couple steps behind Ember, right inside the entry to a common-room area. There were three students there, one with a pigeon the same fuchsia as his trousers and necktie, one with a maroon falcon, and one wearing purple trousers with no familiar in sight.

“Ah, hello.” Nilien smiled cautiously at them. “I’m Nilien; I’m the new student, and this is Ember. And we seem to be lost.”

“Hi, Nilien. Hello, Ember.” The boy with the fuchsia pigeon stepped forward. “I’m Benoir, and this is Caprice.” He gestured at the bird on his shoulder. “Do you want someone to walk you back to your room? Or we could show you around here first, if you’d like?”

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 Benoir 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.

“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.

Climbing down a ladder balancing a fox was obviously not something Nilien had done before, and she found it was a tricky proposition. Doing so without going so slow as to risk Benoir catching up with her was even trickier.

She made it to the bottom of the ladder without falling — her biggest fear — or running her head into Benoir’s shoe — her second worry — and stepped aside so he could finish the climb, while Caprice fluttered down as if demonstrating the advantages of avian familiars. She took the opportunity to put Ember back on the floor, ignoring its complaints and the show-off bird.

The bottom of the ladder-tube held another door. Nilien waited, pretending at patience, until Benoir coaxed Caprice back onto his shoulder and opened the door. “And here’s our secret. Go ahead, it’s safe.”

The air hit Nilien before she stepped through: warm, moist, fragrant; it was like stepping into her family’s conservatory.

Once through the door, it was obvious why: she was standing in a garden of some sort. Despite being somewhere deep in the castle, there was light streaming in from above, and all over the place, plants were blooming, overflowing their pots, draping from hanging baskets. In some cases, they swayed as if in a breeze.

Headmaster Narite had said that Reinmonte was known for its gardens. Looking around, Nilien wondered if he’d heard of this place.
“This is the garden. Well, obviously, it’s only one of many gardens, but it’s the one we have the passage to. There are a few plants here that bird familiars really love to snack on, for one.” Benoir grinned. “See? Isn’t this worth the climb?”

“It’s amazing.” Nilien leaned in carefully to smell a flower the size of her splayed hand and the color of a cloudless sky. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“Some of these plants only grow with help from Runic magic. Other ones are a little bit magic themselves. This one,” he gestured with a short, careful movement, “is just very painful, covered in prickers, so stay away from it.”

The plant in question was nearly as tall as she was, with several branchlike protrusions, but it was in its own pot, quite a distance from the path. Nilien gave it wide berth. “I know I keep saying this, but wow. And the sky…?”

“It’s magic. It lets the sun in, but keeps the room a consistent temperature. Just like a conservatory, except that it’s surrounded by stone on all six sides. Here.” Benoir plucked a tiny, dainty white blossom from a plant. It turned fuschia in his hand and then, when he passed it to her, turned red, the same shade as Ember. “Isn’t that neat? It settles into one color eventually, but if a whole bunch of Runes walk by the bush, sometimes it looks like a rainbow.”

“It’s wonderful.” She tucked the flower behind her ear. “This place is marvelous. This whole school is amazing. Thank you so much for showing it to me.”

“Oh, let’s be honest.” Benoir smiled mischievously at her. “I love showing off everything we have here around the aviary. You’re an appreciative audience; I like that. So.” He clapped his hands, making Caprice flutter on his shoulder. “What would you most like to see? We have some amazing flowers, some startling herbs, some scandalous vegetables…” He gestured broadly and melodramatically all around the garden.

“What about…” Nilien hesitated. “Well, what about insects? If there are any?”

“Oh, you’re clever.” He clearly approved of clever, smiling even more broadly at her. “We do indeed. Magic insects, as a matter of fact. This way. There’s an apiary, but magical honeybees still sting, so I imagine you’ll want to avoid that for now. That’s in that corner.” He pointed to the far left, although she couldn’t see more than a few feet for the density of the foliage. “The beetles are very shy. I would have to leave Caprice somewhere else to have a chance of seeing them. And sometimes they can be a little aggressive when they feel cornered. Ah, this way.” He turned down a path almost entirely covered over with greenery. Leaves and vines brushed at Nilien’s hair as they walked.

You should be efficiently sized, like I am, Ember informed her. This is the proper size for walking through gardens and forests.

“But not for climbing down ladders,” she reminded the fox.

Nonsense. I just didn’t feel like it, that’s all.

Nilien politely stifled a chuckle. “Of course.”

“Shh,” Benoir whispered. “We don’t want to spook them. Here, move very slowly.”

Nilien did as she was told. She stepped up next to Benoir at his gesture and found herself standing in a small, dimly-lit circular clearing in the plants. Here, the light from the “sky” was more like a clear moonlit night, casting everything in grayish shadows.

The air in the clearing was alive with activity. At first, Nilien thought it was full of petals and leaves being pushed by the wind. It was only when one of the petals landed on her outstretched hand that she realized it was a moth — a large moth, with elaborate patterns on its wings in green, blue, and pink. When it spread its wings, they covered her palm.

“Easy,” Benoir whispered, and the moth fluttered off again. “Sorry,” he added, hanging his head. “They get startled easily.”

“I see.” Nilien smiled at him. “They’re huge. And beautiful.” She glanced down to find that a reddish-orange moth had landed on Ember’s nose. The fox was holding very still, trying to see the moth. “Are they magical, then?”

Benoir pointed slowly up into the air to their left. There, several moths were glowing brightly, and as more of the brown-tan moths gathered to the light, they began to glow as well. He gestured to the other side of the clearing, where several of the green moths were dancing in a swirling pattern. The nearby leaves and flowers were moving as if in a strong breeze.

“This place is amazing.” Nilien stepped forward to take a closer look, moving as slowly as she could. “I could spend forever in here.”

“-Right through here.” The voice seemed to be coming from a long ways away. “See?”

“We’ve got to go,” Benoir hissed. “Now.”

Oh, lovely, Ember complained. And now we’ve got to go. This is a lovely place, isn’t it?

Nilien glanced at Benoir. Was this some sort of trick — bring her down here, then convince her to flee? Maybe they just weren’t supposed to be here at all. The voices were coming closer, and they seemed to be coming from near the doorway they’d entered by. Maybe if she just hid for a while, they’d pass, and she could worry about getting her books back after that.

There was a dense flowering bush right off the edge of the moth clearing. If she moved just right, she could be hidden from sight between that and another thick, prickly plant. Better yet, they had red foliage, so Ember’s fur might not stick out like a sore thumb, and it looked as if that area was still within the “moonlight” rather than the “sunlight.”

She started to sidle that way, grabbing up Ember as she did so. Benoir looked at her, looked at the path, and looked back at her, biting his lip, forehead furrowed.

“Come on,” he hissed again, and grabbed her arm, tugging her towards him. Nilien looked at her nice hiding place ruefully and let him tug her with him.

It sounded like they were headed straight for the voices, but Benoir kept pulling her back the way they had come and any argument would mean they were heard. Ember was grumbling in her mind, but it was all to do with the way it was being held and the indignity of the whole situation.

“It’s right around here,” came the voice, sounding as if it were right around the corner. Nilien skidded to a halt.

Benoir tugged on her arm. “Come on,” he mouthed. “Hurry!” His gestures made his meaning clear where the mouthed words might not have.

Nilien stared at him. Had he gone mad?

“If you harvest them at this time of year,” the voice continued, “you’ll find their efficacy limited, but for this situation, I believe that’s what you need.”

Benoir mouthed something else, but she couldn’t quite understand it. Something about his?

“Mine”? “Mine-mine”?

He had definitely gone mad. But she had no idea how to get out of here except forward, and he was holding quite firmly onto her arm. Nilien moved forward again, letting him pull her around the corner.

They stopped by a plant she’d hardly noticed the first time by, something with large, wide leaves and a cone-shaped flower. Benoir pointed at it mutely.

“Do you think it’s safe?” the flower asked. The voice was clearly coming from the cone of the flower, with no person in sight.

“Mimic,” Benoir whispered. “It’s a mimic plant.”

“Did you hear something?” asked the flower. Benoir jumped and moved again, pulling Nilien towards the entrance they’d come in.

“I think I heard something coming from over here,” the flower murmured. Benoir gave Nilien a light push, sending her through the door first, and followed soon after, Ember scooting in just as he closed the door.

Benoir started up the ladder so quickly that he was already halfway up by the time Nilien managed to get Ember onto her shoulders and get started. When she reached the top, though, he was still waiting for her.

He closed the door with a click. “Phew! That was close.” He ducked his head and smiled apologetically at her. “It’s a fun place — but we’re not really supposed to be in there. I’m sorry about that. I just couldn’t resist showing you the magic moths. And the flowers.” He touched the flower behind her ear.

“So — we would’ve gotten in trouble?” Nilien frowned. “I don’t want to get in trouble on my first day here!”

“I know, and I’m sorry. But can you honestly tell me that the moths weren’t worth it?”

“The moths were… they were pretty amazing,” she allowed. “But I still don’t want to get in trouble.”

“Well, we didn’t, so all’s well that ends well?” he offered. “Are you up to seeing anything else?”

“I think…” She looked ruefully down at Ember. “I think I ought to go back to my room. My roommate will be waiting for me.”

“Another day, then. I have plenty of other places to show you, and some of them aren’t even against the rules. Let’s get your books, then, and I’ll walk you back there.”

“Thank you.” Nilien didn’t know how to feel about Benoir. He was being so nice — but he’d nearly gotten her in trouble! And he didn’t seem to think anything of their close call. And he wanted to show her around more — but maybe she’d get in more trouble if he did.

Hopefully, there weren’t any forbidden routes on the way back to her room.

“So, your roommate has a familiar similar to yours, right?” Benoir picked up half of Nilien’s books before she could stop him.

That thing is nothing like me, Ember protested.

“Lorque has a — it’s a coyote, I think?” She patted Ember apologetically. “Who is, I’m told, nothing at all like a fox.”

“Oh, Lorque! All right, you’re in the right dormitory area. Not the best area, of course, that’s here, with the birds, but it’s the right area for you. I wasn’t sure,” he explained, “coming in so late, if they’d have a place for you. They might’ve stuck you with the small herbivores or something.”

Ember licked its lips in clear demonstration of what it thought about that.

“All right.” Benoir shifted the books in his arms and grinned. On his shoulder, Caprice fluttered and settled. “So. Your dorm. Do you want the route that’s probably the way you came, or do you want the shortcut, or the entertaining and scenic route?”

“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.”

The door Benoir opened led them into a long stone-paved hallway lined with arched wooden doors. Nilien recognized the carvings on the door frames; they were almost the same tree-patterns as on the door to her new room.

“This is my hall, I think. Thank you. And with no more trouble, too.” Nilien held out her hands for her books.

Benoir handed back the books. “Having come all this way, I feel as if I might as well get you the last few feet.” He gestured down the hallway. “Besides, I never make it down here.”

“I thought I heard— oh, good.” Lorque’s head appeared from a doorway near the end of the hall. “You found your way back here.” She headed towards them, River ambling along behind her. “Well done.”

“I did get lost along the way,” Nilien admitted. “I place the blame on Ember’s shoulders.”

Of course. Blame the familiar. How thoughtful of you. Ember sat down and stared at Nilien in indignation.

“You distracted me,” she reminded the fox. “I’m sure that’s why we got lost. You were complaining about something, much to everyone’s surprise.”

We got lost because this place is a maze set inside a puzzle box of some sort. Or because you weren’t paying attention. I’m certain it wasn’t my fault. Ember nosed at its own tail, studiously not looking at anyone.

“You didn’t get all that lost,” Benoir assured her. “After all, you ended up in our common room.” He stuck a hand out to Lorque. “I’m Benoir. I think I’ve seen you around before?”

“I’m Lorque.” Lorque shook his hand energetically. “A bird guy, hrrm? How did you end up over with the birds, Nilien? That’s a long way from Sirin’s office.” She gestured vaguely in a few directions, which might have been the aviary and Administrator Sirin’s office. Nilien noted the gestures, but wasn’t sure they’d help.

“I was looking for a way back here. But once I’d taken a few wrong turns, it just seemed more reasonable to keep going,” she admitted. “And then there I was.”

“You’re welcome to get lost in our tower any time.” Benoir bowed, Caprice fluttering on his shoulder to stay balanced. “I’ll try not to get you in too much trouble.”

“Trouble? Already? Now this is a story I want to hear.”

“It’s not a short tale. Maybe I could tell you back in our room?”

“Good idea. And then you can put down that mountain of books.”

Chapter 1

Nilien was aware of the pain before she was aware of being awake. Two years ago she’d been laid up for weeks with a fever; this felt like the worst days of that: her stomach miserable, her whole body sore, her mouth as dry as if it had been stuffed with cotton. Her head was pounding, too.

It had been dark. Not just the dark of nighttime; there had been nothing to see, nothing but void. She hadn’t hurt, then. She hadn’t felt anything at all.

She forced her eyes open, glad of the dimness. Sunlight felt like it would be unbearable. The ceiling above her was white plaster, well-scrubbed. She was definitely not in her room at school; she was no longer in the dark void, either.

She was lying on her back in a narrow bed on a thin mattress, covered by a thin blanket. She lifted her hands above the blanket, discovering along the way that, while movement made her stomach queasy, it didn’t hurt in and of itself. Small gifts, she thought. But the fever had come with aches so bad she couldn’t move a finger without pain. If she wasn’t aching, if this wasn’t the fever, how had she ended up here?

Was she even feverish? She lifted her hand to her forehead to check for warmth. Wait. On the back of her right hand was a vivid red mark, something she’d never seen before.

Do you want to live? In the darkness – why had there been such darkness? – a voice had called out to her.

Do you want to live? A light had appeared, and the question had been repeated. It seemed like a silly question now: of course she wanted to live!

She could remember no silliness at the time, just an urgency. Yes, she’d answered. Yes!

Nilien closed her eyes to let the memory wash over her. The darkness, the single light, the question, her answer… Yes. She’d been dying. No wonder she felt awful. And then the light had grown brilliant, brighter than the sun, and then…

That was all she could remember. But now she had a red mark on her hand, something like an elaborate V, and Nilien was absolutely certain that hadn’t been there the day before.

Opening her eyes again, she wiggled her fingers and watched the mark on the back of her hand. She’d wanted to live and she was alive. That much, she was pretty certain of. The mark, the pain, the reason she’d wanted so strongly to live – none of that was coming to her.

“What is going on?” she whispered.

What is going on? The voice answered her out of nowhere. That is a very good question.

Nilien jerked backwards, the movement reminding her how much her body hurt.  “What… who?”  She pulled herself into a sitting position, wincing at every movement, and looked around.

I know the answer, of course.  But you have to ask me, not just the air.

At the foot of her bed was a fox, a fox the same vibrant red as the mark on her hand.  Nilien rubbed her eyes, but the fox didn’t go away.  If anything, it looked more real – and quite disdainful.

I’m here, you know.  Wishing won’t make me go away.  Not much at all will make me go away. It stood up, circled twice, and sat back down, staring intently at her.

“You’re… you’re real.”  She rubbed her eyes again.  “How are you talking?”

In your mind, of course.  How else would I talk?  As much as a voice in her head had a tone, it sounded as if it was the most obvious answer in the world.

“Well… like… oh.”  Nilien’s head still felt foggy.  “Where did you come from?”  That seemed like a reasonable question.

The fox opened its mouth at her in a lazy grin, tongue lolling.  Where did I come from?  Don’t you remember?

“As far as I know, this is the first time I’ve ever seen you.  I’m…”  She looked around.  “Oh, this is the infirmary.  I’m in the infirmary.  I was…” She trailed off, uncertain.  The mark on her hand caught her eye again, and she held it up towards the fox.

The mark looked nothing at all like a fox, except that both of them were red.  “I wanted to live,” she continued uncertainly.

You did.  This is a very good start. The fox nodded.

“And…”

And now I am here. It looked very pleased with itself.

“And now there’s a red fox on my bed.  Talking — talking in my mind.”  What had it said?  Something about knowing the answers?  “Oh!  What is going on?”

I thought you’d never get around to asking.  The fox stood up lazily and stalked towards Nilien until it could rest its chin on her marked hand. You wanted to live.  And now I am here.  Your spirit companion.

“My… my familiar?”  Nilien stared at the creature.  This close, it was clear how unnaturally red it was.  “You’re my familiar?” She flattened her hands against her lap and focused on the tip of the fox’s tail.  “I’m a Rune?”

The fox’s tail flicked up over its eyes, but the tone in her head still sounded amused. Now she understands.

“I’m a Rune?” Maybe if she repeated it to herself enough times, Nilien might believe it. “But… there’s a process. There’s a test, there’s…” She wasn’t entirely certain what there was, but she knew you didn’t just wake up one morning a Rune.

The process is: do you want to live? Here I am. The fox chewed on the fur between its toes. All the rest is ribbons and bows and ruffles: pretty but un-needed.

“But…” Nilien pulled herself together. “The book I read on Runes, Edmond de Martin’s Musings on The Power and the Mark, it said that that process is out-dated and no longer used. It’s too dangerous.”

Dying is dangerous, too. The fox nipped delicately at Nilien’s hand. But you were quite clear. You wanted to live, yes?

“Yes. Yes, I want to live.” Wanted? She peered at the creature. No, familiar; that explained the unnaturally red hue, too. “Wanted? What…”

She still could not remember what had happened. She could remember the morning — getting up, getting dressed — but there was a foggy patch missing in the middle, with nothing but the bright light and the voice in her head.

Wanted. Want. Life is important to you. So here I am.

“Ah, there you are, Nilien.” The headmaster’s shoes clicked loudly on the floor as he hurried over to her, fussing as if he had somehow misplaced her. “And your familiar. Very good.” Headmaster Narite nodded to the fox, then turned his attention to Nilien. “You’re awake, that’s very good. We were concerned.” He frowned at her. “You’ve been through quite an experience already, haven’t you? But here you are, safe and sound. We have contacted your parents, of course.”

“Thank you,” Nilien offered politely. She supposed getting a familiar and becoming a Rune really was an “experience,” but it didn’t seem like she’d experienced much at all yet.

“However,” the Headmaster continued as if she hadn’t spoken, “it seems mostly likely that you will be transferred to the Imperial Academy at Reinmonte to continue your education.”

“Transferred? The Academy is where they train people to become Runes, isn’t it?” Nilien glanced at her fox, who seemed to have nothing to say at the moment.

“Yes. Your situation may be quite unusual, but you are, nevertheless, now a Rune.” The Headmaster smiled broadly at her.

Nilien​ turned her full attention to the headmaster. The Imperial Academy at Reinmonte. “You’re really serious. I’m—” She looked at the fox again, then back at Headmaster Narite. “That’s the best school. The best. I mean, it’s only for people training to be Runes-”

“Which you will now be doing. Perhaps you are going about it in a slightly topsy-turvy manner, but you’re allowed to be a bit out of order, considering everything. So, you’ve heard of the Academy, then?”

“Of course I have!” The fox was looking very pleased with itself. She imagined she was going to hear no end of this, later. “Everyone’s heard of the Academy. This is a good school, yes—” her parents wouldn’t have sent her to a bad school, after all, or even a sub-par one, “—but Reinmonte, it’s the best..”

“I hear they have quite lovely grounds. Their gardens are some of the best in the Empire, and the walk shaded with dwarf elms has been the subject of many lovely paintings.” The Headmaster sighed. “You’re a very lucky girl, Nilien, in more ways than one, especially today.” He patted her hand, and then, rather absently, patted the fox.

“Their academic program is very intensive, isn’t it?”

“As you said, it’s a very good school, and their classes are, thus, quite demanding, of course. But I have faith in you, Nilien. Stay safe, dear, and do your absolute best on your schoolwork, and you should be fine.”

“I will, Headmaster, of course.” Nilien cleared her throat. “Thank you. I’ll be sure to write and tell you all about the gardens.”

“Very good, very good.” He nodded crisply at her. “We’ll get everything arranged, then, and I’ll send your parents in when they arrive.” He left much more calmly than he’d arrived, the door swinging shut behind him.

“Reinmonte,” Nilien mused. “Did you hear that? The Imperial Academy at Reinmonte! Some of the best teachers in the world are there.”

Of course they are. It trains Runes, after all. The fox nuzzled her hand. Scratch me behind the ear, yes, right there. You will do well, there. You’re strong-willed. It nipped her hand very lightly. Not there, over there. You’re very intelligent, and you have me, of course.

Nilien chuckled. She had found the exact spot where the fox wanted scratching and was rewarded by closed-eyes and a happy-looking expression from the creature – from her familiar, she corrected herself. “And I have you. Of course.”

“Nilien?” A few feet away, Nurse Abercom cleared her throat. Nilien hadn’t even heard her come in. “Your friends are here to see you. It’s been quite a day for you, I know,” the woman’s eyes settled on the fox and stayed there, “but they’d like to reassure themselves that you’re alive and fine. Should I allow them to come in, or would you rather I send them away?”

Nilien patted at her hair uselessly. “Please, let them in. I don’t know when I’ll get to see them again.” The last was almost as much to the fox as it was to Nurse Abercom.

You do not have to explain to me. The fox turned around a couple times before settling back down, looking over its tail at the doorway. I would like to meet your friends. Friends can tell one quite a bit about someone, you know.

“They’re…” Nilien wasn’t sure what the fox could learn about her from her school friends, but they were already hurrying down the length of the infirmary towards her, so she put on a smile and said nothing.

“Nilien! Nilien, are you okay?” Corinne was at the front, of course, and she was gesturing in distress before she was even at Nilien’s bed. “Oh, we were so worried about you!”

“I’m… I’m all right.” Nilien made herself sit up straighter. “It’s nice of you to come.”

“Is that a fox?” Larisse leaned forward over the bed, reaching for the fox. The fox, in turn, covered more of its face with its tail.

Their friends, indeed, it muttered in Nilien’s mind.

“Hush,” she told the fox.

“What?” Larisse lowered her voice. “I mean, it’s a fox, right?” she whispered. “A fox-familiar?”

“A familiar?” Corinne frowned. “How did you get a familiar?”

They can’t hear me. You’re the only one that can hear me. But she can feel me fine if I bite her fingers.

“It’s a familiar,” Nilien told Larisse. “And it talks in my mind. I guess nobody else can hear it.”

“Where did it come from?” Corinne leaned forward over the bed, peering at the fox. The fox burrowed its face further under its tail.

“It bites,” Nilien warned them. Both of her friends leaned backwards, although the warning didn’t stop Larisse from sneaking a hand over to touch the fox’s tail.

“It’s probably because…” Larisse trailed off with a guilty look at Nilien.

“Ooh, probably,” Corinne agreed. “That’s not how it’s supposed to happen, though.” She glared at the fox as if it was its fault. The fox didn’t move.

“Because what?” Nilien demanded. Everyone was walking on eggshells around her, except the fox, who talked in circles, and she was beginning to get annoyed.

Both her friends turned to look at her in surprise. “Well,” Larisse sputtered, “because you got hurt—”

“Because someone tried to kill you,” Corinne interrupted. “We heard they poisoned you.”

“They?” Someone had poisoned her? That explained why her stomach felt like it had been wrung out.

“Nobody knows. But I suppose the fox can keep you safe.” Corinne shot a dubious look at the ball of red fur.

Nilien frowned. “Someone tried to kill me?”

Yes. The fox moved its tail enough to look at her with one eye. But you wanted to live. So here you are.

“And you got a familiar out of it.” Corinne looked at the fox critically. “And you survived. I’d say you came out on top of things.”

“I’m—” Nilien’s news sounded small now, in the face of finding out she’d almost been killed. “They’re sending me to the Imperial Academy at Reinmonte. I’m going to learn how to be a Rune.”

Corinne’s eyes landed on Nilien’s hand. “That really explains the fox, then. Reinmonte.”

“So lucky,” Larisse murmured. “I mean, that is, I mean…” She took a breath and smiled uncertainly. “You’re not lucky to have been poisoned. I’m sorry someone tried to kill you. But Reinmonte! We’ll miss you, but lucky you!” She wrapped her arms around Nilien in an engulfing hug. “Write and tell us all about it!”

* * * * *

And what do you think you’ll need that for? The fox sat down primly on top of a formal gown Nilien was attempting to pack and groomed one of its paws.

She had been packing for nearly an hour, “aided” by the fox at every turn.

“If I didn’t know better,” she told the fox, “I’d think you didn’t want me to go.”

Reinmonte or not, it does not matter to me. The fox flipped its tail over its eyes. You are already a Rune. You are already my Rune.

“Then you won’t mind if I happen to be a decently-dressed Rune, now will you?”

The color clashes with me.

“Well, I apologize. I did not buy my wardrobe based on your coloration, since I didn’t know you existed at the time.”

Nilien was feeling a bit out-of-sorts. She’d locked the door and even locked the windows last night, enduring quite a bit of teasing from her roommate, Danette, for her nerves, and then slept safely and solidly through the entire night, without so much as a scratch at the window.

She didn’t think it was undue nervousness on her part – after all, if Corinne and Larisse were correct, someone had tried to poison her – but that didn’t help with the faint feeling that she was being silly and overreacting, and that, in turn, made her off-balance and unhappy. The fox, with its insistence on getting into everything, was just making matters worse.

You will have to find things that go better with red, the fox retorted, just as Nilien was about to pack up the small things she kept in her top dresser drawer.

“What? No, now that’s ridiculous. You’re being quite strange today, you know.”

I am being myself. How would you know if I am strange or not yet? You hardly know me.

“I know what strange looks like,” Nilien retorted. “And you appear quite strange at the — oh.” She had nearly missed the pendant nestled between her handkerchiefs. “This isn’t mine.”

She pulled it out of the drawer. It was brass, the size of a coin, covered in both sides with figures that were not letters. One of them looked quite a bit like the mark on Nilien’s hand. “Where did this come from? Did you put this here?”

The fox buried its nose in its belly, looking for something there, biting at its own fur. I’ve never seen that before.

“Do you think it’s dangerous?” She frowned at herself, but, after all, someone had probably tried to kill her.

The fox peeked one eye out. It is writing. Writing can often be dangerous. Pack it up for someone who can read it, perhaps.

“I suppose someone at Reinmonte will probably be able to decipher it.” She wrapped it in a handkerchief and slid it into a small pocket in her trunk. “Now get off that gown. I am not getting rid of my favorite dress simply because it clashes with you. We’ll just have to put ribbons on you or something.”

Ribbons and bows and ruffles, the fox complained, its ears back.

“Pretty and useful,” Nilien countered. She shoved the fox off of her gown and got back to packing.

* * * * *

“Make sure you tell us all about the grounds at Reinmonte. And the instructors!” Corinne, Larisse, and Danette were helping Nilien move her luggage to her parents’ carriage, a process which mostly consisted of Nilien and Larisse carrying things while Corinne and Danette piled on instructions to write, to tell them about everything, to remember to visit. The fox, meanwhile, was riding atop the trunk and seeming very satisfied to do so. “Is that what you’re wearing for the trip?”

“This? Yes?” Nilien was particularly proud of this outfit, which paired a brilliant pink jacket and draped over-skirt with a sky-blue bodice and royal blue under-skirt.

“It’s pretty,” Danette opined, plucking at the sleeve of Nilien’s travelling jacket. “I think you look quite fetching. Oh! By the way, tell the teachers here that you might come back, please? I want to keep the room as a single.”

“I doubt they’ll believe that.” Nilien gave the fox a pointed look, which Danette chose to ignore.

“Oh, they’ll believe anything you tell them. Now, have a safe trip, and don’t forget to write! Every week!”

“I’ll write as much as I can,” Nilien countered, a little less certain that she’d have the free time for so many letters. “Do remember not to annoy M. Gerbernne so much; it makes her assign more homework. And watch out for Hector; he likes to cheat off your papers, if you’re not careful.”

With a few more shared admonitions, Nilien managed to get into her parents’ carriage, luggage and fox safely stowed.

The fox, although it had an occasional comment about the scenery or the accommodations, seemed content to avoid conversation in the carriage to the train, and continued in that manner on the train, where Nilien rode with Devier, a loyal family servant, to the mountains surrounding Reinmonte.

Nilien didn’t mind the fox’s silence. It was hard to stay quiet when the familiar was keeping up a running commentary in her ear, and it garnered her strange looks to speak to someone nobody else could hear talking. She petted the fox between the ears and talked with Devier about the latest fashions, the cut of her travelling skirt, and news about the family that Nilien had missed, being away at school.

She was so involved in a story Devier was telling about her eldest brother that she nearly missed the view of the mountains from the train window. Her old school was set on a plain by the lake; they were moving higher and higher up the closer they got to Reinmonte.

The mountains, the fox reminded her, as it stood up on her lap to look out the window. We’re nearly there.

Nilien picked her response carefully, so she sounded reasonable both to the fox and to Devier. “Almost there,” she agreed.

The station wasn’t yet in sight, but it was nearing; the train was slowing and the grade as it climbed up into the mountains was flattening out. Nilien held the fox a little closer to her as she watched the terrain.

Devier looked at her sympathetically. “We’ll be to the train station in just a few minutes. What a grand opportunity this is for you, and born out of such trouble.”

“It is quite an opportunity,” Nilien agreed slowly. “I, oh — that is — I hear they have lovely gardens? And,” she dug for something else to say, “their classes are supposed to be quite intensive. I wonder,” she stroked the fox slowly, concentrating on the way its fur felt beneath her fingers. She’d never petted a live, real fox before, but her fox felt like she’d always imagined one would feel. “I’ve never heard anything about how one learns to be a Rune. Those will have to be quite different from our classes, I’d think.”

The fox’s fur soothed her, and Devier’s kind smile did worlds to steady her. “Well, you’ll be finding out soon, it looks like. Here’s our stop.”

The carriage was waiting for them at the train station. The carriage ride took them over a winding mountain route, across a bridge covering a gorge so deep it took Nilien’s breath away, and through a wooded area so dense it felt as if the carriage was squeezing its way through, although the trees did not brush against them at any point.

They came out of the forest and it was in front of them, a tall stone building with towers and turrets jutting out from its high peaked roof and tall, straight walls. Nilien held her fox close to her until it nipped her fingers and stared as the wrought-iron gates as they opened for the carriage.

A tall and intimidating woman was waiting just inside the gate, dressed in a lovely but rather staid dress in green, olive, and purple plaid. Next to her was a student of about Nilien’s age, with copper hair in long twin braids and dressed in a simple white blouse and a skirt that matched the turquoise of the dog-like creature sitting by her feet.

“Welcome to the Imperial Academy of Runic Sciences at Reinmonte, Nilien.” The woman smiled at Nilien as she exited the carriage. “I am Headmistress Draufer and this is your roommate, Lorque. Lorque can show you to your new dormitory and help you get settled in. We normally do not accept students in the middle of the school year, but, obviously, your situation is exceptional. I strongly suggest you rely on Lorque to aid you in orienting yourself.”

“Welcome to Reinmonte.” Lorque sketched a casual bow.

“I shall let the two of you get acquainted.” M. Draufer nodded to both of them. “Nilien, it was a pleasure to meet you.” She strode off towards the school, leaving Nilien, Lorque, the turquoise dog-like creature, and the fox studying each other.

“So your luggage is in the carriage? Let’s get that into our room first.” Lorque gestured first towards the carriage and then towards the school. “And you can tell me all about being exceptional.”

“I’m not—”

Of course you’re exceptional. You have me for a familiar, do you not? The fox turned its back disdainfully on the canine and hopped onto Nilien’s trunk.

“I know that look.” Lorque chuckled. “You get used to it eventually, the way they talk to you. This is River, by the way. It’s a coyote,” she added helpfully.

“Pleased to meet you, River.” Nilien offered a hand to the coyote to sniff. “This is… well, this is the fox, so far.”

I am a fox. Nothing wrong with that.

“Oh, naming! I love that part. We can figure that out later. It’ll be wonderful.” Lorque picked one handle of the trunk and one carry bag. “So you didn’t go through any of the tests or the ritual? You’re really a Wild Rune?”

Nilien took the other handle and the other bag. “I suppose I am.”

“If you’re all settled, I’ll be taking my leave.” Devier patted Nilien’s shoulder. “Do stay safe. And remember to study.”

“I will, I promise, Devier. Travel safely, remind my brother to write once in a while.” The trunk was not that light, so Nilien didn’t linger on her good-byes, but let Lorque lead the way into the building.

“Wild Rune, wow.” Lorque grinned at Nilien over the trunk. “I’ve never met one before, you know. It’s incredibly rare.”

I told you that you were exceptional. The fox was riding the trunk regally, looking immensely pleased with itself.

Nilien didn’t know what to say to either of them. She smiled uncertainly at Lorque and ignored the fox for the moment.

Lorque took that as encouragement to continue. “So what was it like? Without the ritual, I mean, getting your familiar, becoming a Rune? Was it painful? What did it feel like?”

“I don’t remember all of it,” Nilien admitted. Lorque was watching her and not the path in front of them, but it didn’t seem to be endangering her at all. “I woke up in the infirmary, and the fox was there with me.”

You wanted to live, the fox reminded her.

Nilien smiled wanly at her familiar. “I wanted to live, the fox says, and then it was there. I remember a voice in the darkness, and then there was some bright light.”

And you…

“The fox thinks the ‘I wanted to live’ was the important part. It says it over and over again,” Nilien interrupted.

“We have really got to get you a name for it.” Lorque made a face at the fox. “Something nice and easy to say, preferably, since you obviously got a talkative familiar.”

“River isn’t?” They were nearly to an arched door off to one side of the building, and Nilien hoped they didn’t have to far to go once they got inside. The trunk was getting heavy.

“River talks, of course, but not nearly as much as your fox seems to. Then again, if you get a reputation for listening to your fox a lot, you can get away with making strange faces and just blame it on your familiar.”

River pushed the heavy wooden door open with its nose and leaned against it, holding it for them. Lorque shifted so she was backing into the building. “So tell me more. What happened? All the details.”

“I, well.” Nilien frowned. “I think someone tried to kill me, but the memories are coming back very slowly.” Truth be told, she wasn’t sure the memories were ever going to come back. “I woke up feeling sore all over. With the fox.”

“Someone tried to kill you? You didn’t just slip and hit your head on a brick or something? Someone honest-to-goodness was trying to assassinate you?” Lorque had stopped in the doorway and was staring at Nilien.

“Are we almost there?” Nilien hunched her shoulders as much as she could while carrying her luggage. “This is heavier than it was when I packed it.”

“Oh, just a few rooms down.” It was enough to get Lorque moving again. “But… seriously?”

“That’s what they told me. Someone tried to poison me, I heard.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know,” Nilien confessed. “I can’t think of a single reason anyone would want me dead.”

“Well, if nobody wants you dead, maybe someone wanted you to be a Rune?” Lorque offered, and then immediately shook her head. “No, that’s insane. Nobody would do that, would they? So if nobody you know of wants you dead, it must be someone you don’t know of. Someone from your family, maybe? I don’t mean your family wants you dead!” Lorque shook her head quickly. “I just mean, what if someone wants someone from—”

“Where can we put this down?” It wasn’t polite to interrupt, and yet Lorque had shown no signs at all of stopping.

“Oh, yes, right here. This one’s your bed.”

The room had two beds, one made a little more tidily than the other, two desks, and one wardrobe. Lorque steered the trunk over to floor next to the tidier bed, and they set it down with a thump that left the fox looking a little disgruntled.

“What do you think I should name it?” Nilien asked, before Lorque could ask more about Nilien’s theoretical would-be assassin. “Do you care?” She aimed the last part at the fox.

You can come up with whatever makes you happy. The fox nuzzled its fur back into place as if it had been dropped with far more force than it had. As long as it is not ridiculous. I do not wish to answer to something like “fluffy wuffy.”

“Nothing childish,” Nilien translated for Lorque. “How did you come up with River?”

“Well, they suggest something simple, when you get your familiar. And it’s kind of the color of the sun on the river? The river near where I grew up,” Lorque clarified. “Something about it seemed, well, river-like, too. Fluid. Playful. I was thinking of naming it Brook, but I decided River sounded more mature.” She glanced over at River with an expression Nilien thought must be “listening to one’s familiar” and smirked. “I suppose being mature meant a lot to me back then. So.” She sat down on her bed with a thump. “Let’s see. Red, fox, what else?”

“Full of itself.” Nilien smiled at her fox, who didn’t deign to look at her or respond. “Ah, very opinionated.”

“And you’re lucky it showed up, if someone was trying to kill you. Maybe Felix? For luck?”

“Mmm, I’m not sure.” It sounded too dignified, although she wouldn’t admit that out loud.

“Ginger? Gingersnap? Maple-leaf?”

“It’s not a cookie,” Nilien protested.

I am not for biting, no. The fox looked up at her. I bite back.

“It’s a bit fiery when you annoy it,” Nilien admitted. “I’ve been informed — not for the first time — that it bites.”

“Fiery? Like embers? It sort of looks like the coals at the bottom of a fire.” Lorque peered at the fox, who peered back.

“Ember.” Nilien nodded. “I like it.”

“Good!” Lorque jumped back up. “River and Ember. I bet fire-and-water here will get along just fine. So! Shall we go on a tour, show you around our distinguished academy, now that we’ve named your fox?”

“A tour?” That had been on the agenda, hadn’t it been? “Could we rest for a minute, first? I know sitting on a train isn’t that exhausting, but I would like to sit on something not moving for a moment.” Nilien sat down on the edge of her bed. “What is it like here?”

“Well, if I gave you a tour…” Lorque trailed off, grinning. “When I give you the tour, you’ll see. It’s easy to get lost, but I can help you find your classrooms, and once you’ve gotten yourself settled, it all makes sense. The people are mostly nice. Sometimes someone gets a little too wrapped up with their familiar and forgets to talk to other people for a little while, but more or less everyone’s friendly.”

“What about the classes?” The fox — Ember — slunk up on the bed next to her, so Nilien petted it between the ears. “I’ve heard they’re really hard.”

“Oh, well, of course, they can be sometimes.” Lorque’s shrug turned into a laugh as River tried to sit in her lap. “And some of the teachers can be a little impatient. But you were at a boarding school before, right? It’s probably quite a lot like that — only with Runes.”

“I’ve never met a Rune before,” Nilien admitted.

“Well, now you’ve met two, Headmistress Draufer and me. And yourself, if that counts. But you’ll meet plenty more once we start wandering around.” Lorque’s grin was shameless. “So, as I said: a pretty normal school. The classes are only hard if you don’t pay attention. The food is good; River likes the food they have for familiars, too. And, of course, you’ll get to learn all about being a Rune, which is not only the best part but the whole point.” Lorque looked suddenly thoughtful. “You’re going to get attention, you know. Being a Wild Rune. You’ll probably have to answer the same questions a few times.”

“Oh, good.” Nilien wondered if she could just have a couple cards printed up. No, that wouldn’t be polite nor friendly. “Maybe I should rehearse my answers.”

Lorque bounced back to her feet, shifting River to the side of the bed as she did so. “No time like the present! Let’s go out and look around, and you can practice on the people we encounter, one at a time. What do you want to see first?”

“I think the classrooms are probably the best idea,” Nilien admitted. “If it’s easy to get lost, I should know where they are first.”

“That’s responsible.” Lorque smiled in a way that made it seem like she was teasing Nilien. “All right, classrooms it is. Come on.”

They trouped out of the door, both girls and both familiars, and up a narrow stone staircase to the second floor. They didn’t pass anyone else on the stairs, despite Lorque’s suggestion that they’d run into other Runes.

It was when they stepped out of the arched doorway onto the second floor that it really struck home for Nilien – this was a castle. The ceilings were curved upwards overhead; the walls were carved stone. The whole place looked and felt ancient.

The classrooms had tall, narrow windows that let the evening light in in long slits. They weren’t large rooms and if Nilien squinted, she could imagine an old bedstead where the chalkboard and the teacher’s desk were now.

“This one is where we take History,” Lorque informed her. “Professor Qualique is strict, but you really learn a lot. Just don’t be late.” She shared a look with River. “We were late once. River says it was my fault, but it had to do more with the way River had stopped to sniff another familiar — no, don’t lie! You know you were doing it!”

River looked innocent, although the lolling grin ruined the effect a little bit.

Sniffing, Ember scoffed. You can be assured I will not make you late sniffing. Or pulling pranks. Ember peeked up slyly at Nilien with one eye. Only for important reasons.

“Is there any consideration given for that? If your familiar delays you?” Nilien could see herself being late because of an argument with Ember, given the fox’s personality so far.

“No.” Lorque made a face. “We’re supposed to be able to direct our familiars well enough that such things don’t happen. I don’t know, they might give you a pass because you’re a Wild Rune, but, then again, maybe they’ll be even more firm with you. After all, nobody quite knows how to handle something like you.”

Nilien had opened her mouth before she had a retort fully formed, and was saved — or not — by the sudden tolling of a bell.

“Oh, that’s the dinner bell. Come on, you can sit with me!” She grabbed Nilien’s hand and tugged her out of the classroom.