Chapter 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But it’s not like it’s my fault!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ember stretched. I am feeling well enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She scooped Ember up and cuddled the fox close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

River looked up and gave Nilien a disgruntled look.

“I take it that’s a no?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The question is – how do I ask him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder if his familiar bites? Ember mused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is,” she agreed. “Can I come in?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She leaned down and patted it between the ears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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