She’s so small. Four or five, perhaps. She peeks at me from behind the enormous pedestal, amid shards of broken bust. Her dress is black and shiny and lace-trimmed, obviously brand new, obviously something someone put her in, and covered in plaster dust. Her hair has been tied back with a matching ribbon that’s now coming untied. Then there’s the stuffed dog; most of its fur has been loved off, and it’s missing an ear. She clutches it tighter as I brace one hand on the pedestal and crouch to her level.
“Are you okay?”
“That was quite a crash,” I say. “But it’s all right. It was an accident, hmm?” I reach out and she flinches. Right. Bad tactic. I pull back.
She just watches me, as still as one of the statues.
“My name’s Emmy Altava.”
Huge blue eyes blink.
“What’s yours?” I ask.
A door opens. The girl all but vanishes into the shadow of the pedestal. I try to spin around and stand up at the same time—six months ago it would have been easy. Now I almost fall over.
“There you are, Emmy!” The professor makes his way haltingly towards me. His face changes from relief to concern as he takes in the shattered mess at my feet. “My word! Are you all right?”
Prime Minister Hawks looms directly behind him. I can hear the girl trying not to breathe too loudly.
So I do what I’d have done five or six years ago: muster up an (I hope) embarrassed smile. “I’m all right, Professor. But”—breathe—“I’m afraid I owe you an apology, Prime Minister. Well, you can see.” I wave my hand at the shards of statue.
Hawks stares at me for a moment, then guffaws. It’s an utterly fake noise, but at least he’s bought in. “I say! Not so fast on your feet these days, Miss Altava?”
Straight face, Emmeline! Blast it, he runs the bloody government, of course he knows about me. Luckily the situation covers my grimace. “I could help pay to have it repaired—“
“No, no, forget it. Ugly old thing. Where’s that secretary?” He turns away, talking over his shoulder. “New lass, can’t tell her head from, well, you know.” He winks at the professor, who regards him severely. He huffs. “Layton, I’ll have someone show you and your… assistant out. Don’t forget, this is a matter of national security.”
“Of course… Prime Minister,” says the professor. I have never heard his tone so perfectly level.
“Vidalia!” Hawks bellows.
“Here, sir,” comes a voice from the corridor. The secretary, I suppose. Hawks storms out without another word to me or the professor. We wait in silence until their footsteps fade away.
“Emmy,” the professor says quietly. “Would you please explain what that was about?”
Heat rushes into my face. I let go of the pedestal—not that my legs feel quite up to bearing weight, but I’ve managed with that before—and step aside, so he can see.
“Oh,” he breathes.
The little girl looks up at us from the shadows. “It’s all right,” I say softly. “You can come out if you want.”
Her eyes well up.
On a hunch I add, “He’s gone.”
She creeps forward, still clutching the toy dog with both hands.
I look at the professor. “I’m sorry. It puts us on thinner ice, but…”
“No.” His face tells me he’s worked it all out. “It’s all right, Emmy.”
A little hand tugs at my jacket; I look back at the girl. “Katrielle,” she whispers.
What—? Oh. “That’s your name?”
“Katrielle… Hawks, I suppose?” the professor asks.
Another tiny nod.
“That’s a pretty name,” I tell her.
She hesitates, then holds up the dog. “This is Nelly.”
I have the oddest feeling that I’ve just passed some unspoken test. “She’s beautiful. May I?”
This time Katrielle doesn’t pull away as I scratch Nelly behind her lone ear.