1.8

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.

1.7

“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.

1.6

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.

1.5

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!”

1.4

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?”

1.3

“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.

1.2

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.

1.1

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.