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?
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.”