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.

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