“Doll’s House” by Julia August
The doll kept crying, that was the thing. First Lettie hid it under her bed, then in a moldy cupboard, then in a hairy sack in a box in the bottom of the cupboard, and in the pit of the night she still woke with the doll’s thin sobs threading through her ears. She lay frozen. Was it scratching away in there? At last she got up and shoved her battered old trunk up against the cupboard door and fell back into uneasy sleep.
In the morning Lettie cracked open the cupboard. The birdcage perched on top of the box still had all its jewels, but when she dislodged her heaps carefully she found a porcelain hand peeping out of the sackcloth in a spray of sky-blue satin. She slammed the door shut and swore. “Come on,” she chided herself, after a reluctant moment, and opened the cupboard again. Nothing had changed. She must have left the doll like that. Just because it was crying to go back to Dadda didn’t mean it could get up and go by itself.
She should have put the doll with all the other toys. Her mother, who had gone off with a cartload yesterday, could have priced it precisely. Everyone kept a few things back, though, like the signet ring from the mausoleum Lettie’s father had taken to wearing, or the birdcage, which Lettie had found glittering in a window lined with feathers and tiny irradiated bones. And Lettie had felt bad about the doll. None of the other toys or cups or statues or looted furniture crammed into their borrowed house had a voice.
Lettie hadn’t taken any of it from anyone, either. The look on the boy’s face down in that spellbound vault kept flashing back to her. Everything else had been abandoned. Lettie had stolen the doll.
She rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she said to the doll and crammed it into the birdcage as fast as possible, using both hands in case it bit her. It didn’t even wriggle. It blushed through the bars, brown-eyed and bright-haired, crumpling its lace-and-satin skirts. Dadda, dadda, it bleated. Lettie said to it, “Shut up. I’ll take you back tonight.”
She didn’t know where the boy was and she was pretty sure he wouldn’t want to see her again, but she knew where in the ruins they had left him. That would have to do.
Going out in the dusk had its own challenges. It was easier to hide from the Council’s overhead patrols, but there were nights when a green wind blew the wrong way off the Tower ruins and everyone’s nightmares howled through the fissured streets and hammered the shutters half off their hinges. Mostly, though, the empty avenues and open doors of Sepharvain became a weird moonlit playground rather than the creaking wreckage of a city Lettie used to visit for festivals. Even leaping across the cracks in the streets became a game. Lettie liked going out to prowl after supper, although no one else liked her doing it, which was why she clambered out of a downstairs window with the bleating birdcage bundled up in the sack in one hand and her dark lantern in the other, carefully angled so as not to catch the attention of the glass flyers crisscrossing between the stars.
She would have slipped away earlier if her father hadn’t forbidden everyone from going back to the ruins after the debacle in the vault. Trespassing in the Tower was a different proposition to rifling through dusty dressing tables and cupboards in houses even the rats had hastily abandoned. Inside the Tower light floated lazily in sickly strands that burned if it touched you: mages left behind traps like that. Lettie wasn’t going to spend another night listening to the doll crying, though, even though the night air thickened as she pressed towards the Tower until the magic crawled over her skin like cobwebs on the breeze. Ahead, the massive black walls threw back the sunset glow even in the broken places the Council had bound up with spells that could not be crossed. Across the cracked square Lettie had no intention of crossing, the open gates hummed. From the right angle it was possible to make out the Council’s translucent seal.
She looked up, then peered around cautiously, then darted towards the unlatched back door into the kitchen with the artfully camouflaged trapdoor. “Shut up,” she hissed at the birdcage. She shook it. “I’m taking you back!”
The tunnel under the walls led from one looted cellar to another and Lettie, who had picked up several blisters in the process of digging it out, knew every inch of it. She hadn’t decided yet whether she really was going to go all the way to the lily-lined marble mausoleum where, three vaults down, in front of an enchanted door, they had deserted the doll’s owner. She thought she might just leave the doll on the front step of the house above the tunnel; then, as she hesitated before the rough wooden door at the end of the tunnel, she thought she might only go as far as the cellar. She shook the birdcage out of the sack. The doll had finally fallen silent. “Happy now?” she said to it and pushed the door open. She might be a scavenger, but she wasn’t a thief.
Purple witchlight flared up. “Lettie?” someone said. “Is that you?”
Lettie jerked backwards. She might have bolted, but the mage stood there with his burnt hands spread and his bony face open, showing surprise and hopefulness for all the world to see. He didn’t look as if he meant to hurt her. He didn’t even seem all that angry. In the mingled glow of Lettie’s lantern and Rob’s witchlight, she recognized the same endearing enthusiasm she had seen when she first met Rob: a lanky boy of eighteen or twenty, quite harmless, to all appearances without a care in the world. He didn’t look the way he had in the mausoleum vault at all.
“Oh!” he added, glancing down. “You brought the doll back.”
“Dadda!” said the doll excitedly. “Dadda, here I am!”
Lettie dropped the birdcage. Common sense suggested Rob couldn’t possibly be as happy to see her as he seemed, but the impulse to make a sharp exit conflicted with Lettie’s need to patch up her scraped conscience. No hard feelings? nibbled at her tongue. “It, um. Well, it wanted to come back. Did you… find what you were looking for down there?”
“What? Oh, yes. Yes, I did.” He knelt down and untangled the doll carefully from the cage. The doll giggled like a child. Rob teased out its golden plaits. “I found some other things here. You’d be interested.”
“Would I? What?”
“Oh, things you could sell. You know. What you’re here for.”
“That’s not why we came here,” Lettie said defensively. “Someone had to get everyone’s things back. They left everything behind when the Council came and they ran away.”
“Right,” Rob said. “And now you’re selling all the other things. So aren’t you interested?”
Lettie examined him mistrustfully. She was looking for purple light under his ragged fingernails, but saw none. His voice sounded normal too, or normal for Rob, which was to say he sounded as if he was working out the shape of the words from first principles, possibly using diagrams. “Is she listening?” Lettie said directly. Rob looked blank. “The woman in the vault. Your goddess. You know.”
She never had liked the way Rob talked about his goddess. He seemed to hear her voice murmuring in his ear, which might just mean he was mad, except he seemed quite sane about everything else and anyway he was a mage, so who knew anything about mages and gods? Certainly not Lettie.
She didn’t like what little she knew about Rob’s goddess either, though. Other than her father’s signet ring, there hadn’t been anything valuable in the mausoleum. They wouldn’t have opened it up at all if Rob hadn’t been looking for something there. Everyone had thought it must be treasure. The Seven had buried their own there, after all, but there hadn’t even been much in the urns except water and ash and earth. Down in the vault beneath the mausoleum, when Lettie’s father and uncle had faced down Rob with their crowbars and Lettie had hung back on the steps, clutching the doll, the light had changed and changed again and Rob’s purple mouth had moved and everyone on every level had heard the angry woman say: I don’t like scavengers. This is my Tower now. Get out.
“I just thought you might be interested,” Rob said, after a moment. “And I’m hungry. I thought you might swap for food.”
Lettie hesitated. Visions of gold and silver and enchanted artefacts danced into her head and did not quite dance out again even after she called to mind how cross her father would be. He had sworn up and down he wasn’t having anything to do with any crazy mages or priests, whatever the boy might be and however many sealed doors Rob might open. “Have you broken another seal? Where is it?”
“Up there. It’s where they lived. There’s lots of stuff.”
“I’m not going in there with you. Not at this time of night.”
“No,” Rob said, as if he had expected that. The doll was whispering to him. He tilted his head, then made a face. “But I could meet you here tomorrow. I’ll bring something. Something you can sell. Lettie…”
“Why did you do it, Lettie? Really?”
He didn’t sound angry, just hurt. “It wasn’t my idea!” said Lettie, and fled.
At first Lettie wasn’t going to say anything to her father. She was going to come back in the morning with a loaf of bread and see what Rob had to offer, and if it was something worth having she could bring it home to be parceled up and sent off to be sold. Then she imagined convincing Rob to let her pick out the best of them in exchange for something tasty, maybe half a ham for whatever valuables the mages had left, which must be better than the sort they found every other day in the city, and then she saw herself hauling back sackfuls of magical jewels and talking dolls and beautiful birdcages. It would be Lettie’s reward for returning the doll.
She was almost humming. She bounced from shadow to shadow and was half a street away when a column of white witchlight roared up ahead of her and the first glass flyer dropped like an owl from the midnight sky.
Lettie had never seen a glass flyer on the ground before. It filled the street completely, sleek and straight-edged and dangerous, slicing open the air with every liquid line. Blue fire etched feathers in its outstretched wings and lit up the stylized falcon’s eyes flaming through the dark. Lettie froze, then slammed her lantern shut and dropped behind a heap of rubble just as the second flyer swooped low and dropped out of sight behind their borrowed house. The first flyer was disgorging its passengers. She saw the door explode in a shower of splinters. A hubbub went up. Lettie’s father was shouting. A third flyer circled lazily overhead.
Lettie risked raising her head, then flattened herself against a rotting carpet. The flyer still in the air hovered so low over the rooftops Lettie made out the seven interlocking rings of the Council of Seven emblazoned on its translucent belly. The crows must be on the lookout for anyone escaping the house.
Very carefully, her heart hammering, Lettie pulled up her hood and crawled on her elbows towards what had once been someone’s back door. It hung off its hinges from a mostly wrecked wall. Everything stank of rot and smoke. Lettie squeezed under a fallen beam and crept away.
She couldn’t go back. The crows would snatch her up too. Should she try to slip out of the city while it was still dark? She might make it to the fields before dawn, if she left now. She should tell her mother what had happened. She should get out of Sepharvain while she still could.
How had the crows even spotted them? Lettie struck her forehead with her palm hard enough to bruise. She must have left the window open when she climbed out to take the doll back to Rob. Had a sliver of light slipped out through billowing curtains? Was that what had brought the crows down on them?
She swung her lantern vengefully. Rob, she thought. There was no one else in Sepharvain who could help her. Rob might, though. Rob had his magic and his terrifying goddess. She had to go back to the ruins.
This time Lettie took twice as long to reach the tunnel as before. She saw light glowing through the cracks in the cellar door and was instantly suspicious, but peeping through the keyhole told her Rob had put a candle in her birdcage and left it burning on a stool so his doll would have something to see by. “Dadda, dadda!” the doll said brightly, when Lettie pushed open the door. “Dadda, she came already!”
There was a scuffling upstairs. After a moment, Rob tumbled down the ladder, spilling shadows from his coat, which was long and leather and flapped around his ankles. “That was quick,” he said. “Did you bring me any food?”
Lettie put her lantern down on the dusty cellar floor.
“No,” she said. “The crows are here. You have to help.”
Rob rumpled his black hair and looked confused. “Against birds?”
“No, the lawkeepers! You know, the Council’s patrols. The ones in the glass flyers!”
“Oh,” said Rob, politely interested. “Um. Thanks for telling me. I should seal up this tunnel, I suppose.” He brushed his hands on his coat and glanced around the cellar. “Does that mean you’re not going to come back?”
He might have been discussing unwelcome visitors. Lettie could have wrung his neck. “They’ve got my family!” she said. “I need you to help me rescue them. And then we need a way out of Sepharvain before the crows catch us too. Do you understand? They’ll come after you too. No one’s allowed to be here. The Council forbade it. You definitely shouldn’t be here! They won’t want any mage poking around the Tower. Didn’t you know that already? Haven’t they told all you mages that too?”
“I keep telling you, I’m not a mage,” Rob said. “I’m a priest. So… why should I help you? I’m just asking. I’m sure you have a good reason. I just can’t think what it is. Apart from anything else, you are actually stealing things. That is why the patrols are here, isn’t it? To stop you? Anyway, last time I helped you and your family it didn’t end well.”
Lettie bit her lip. “Oh, come on,” she said, with as much bravado as she could muster. “We helped you. You got what you wanted, didn’t you? We didn’t actually get anything from that place. No one got hurt.”
“Only because the goddess got involved. You were really lucky, you know. She doesn’t normally stop at threats. And you made quite a mess. She wasn’t happy. It took me ages to clear that up. So why should I help you now?”
“Because I need you!” She saw he was not convinced. “Because you need us. How else are you going to get out?”
“I expect I’ll work something out. Anyway, they don’t know I’m here.”
“Well, they will,” Lettie said fiercely. “I’ll tell them. If you won’t help me, I’ll go back and tell them right now!”
“Oh,” Rob said, after a pause. “Threats.”
He seemed disappointed. Lettie had an odd feeling of something slipping through her fingers, but there was no time to work out what or why. “Yes! I swear I will! So are you going to help me or not?”
“I might,” Rob said, after another, longer pause. He had that look he sometimes got, as if someone was murmuring in his ear and he was trying to listen while also working out what to say. He glanced down at the doll, whose eyes glittered yellow. “I think you might have got one thing from the mausoleum, actually. There should have been a ring in one of the urns. Does that sound familiar?”
“I thought you found what you were looking for,” Lettie said suspiciously.
“So now I can look for new things,” Rob suggested. “Did you find it?”
“Yes. If it’s an old gold ring with an opal and a star. My father’s got it.”
“All right. I want that.”
There wasn’t time to ask questions. “Fine! You can have it! But are you going to help me now?”
Her worst fear was that she would get back to her borrowed house and find it as empty as the rest of the city. With relief she saw lamplight leaking from every window of the house and the glass flyer still circling overhead like a beacon. She settled down behind a familiar heap of rubble and arranged the doll on a slab of stone like a lady. “Shush,” she said to it. “Not yet.”
The doll’s discomfiting yellow eyes flickered, then dulled to brown. Lettie shivered.
She thought she heard her father’s voice. One of the windows must be open. She listened harder. The crows must be trying to interrogate him, because he had launched himself on his favorite topic and was getting steadily more irate. “Seriously?” she said, under her breath. She couldn’t imagine the crows would appreciate a lecture on how their masters mismanaged this country and mages knew nothing about the difficulties of everyday life in an ordinary country town where you had to work for an honest living, not one of your fancy Council cities. He hadn’t thought much of mages before and he thought a lot less of them since the destruction of Sepharvain, and said so, too, much more often than Lettie or anyone else cared to hear about it. “Is this the time?”
The doll blinked. “Yes. Now.”
It didn’t sound like a child. It sounded like a woman, specifically a woman whose voice Lettie had hoped never to hear again. She jerked upright. In the distance, towards the outskirts of the city, a blaze of purple light streaked down through the dawn. There was a dull thud. Lettie felt the ground shudder. The flyer already in the air broke out of its lazy pattern and zagged off urgently towards the brightening east. Up the street, the crows spilled out of Lettie’s borrowed house, shaking their glass swords and shouting.
Another impact struck a different part of the city. Lettie stuffed the doll into her biggest pocket and waited for the crows to pile into their flyers. They took off without a sound. She jumped up, then saw the big man in black standing to taut attention in the shadowed doorway, shading his eyes as he peered into the distance.
“Don’t move,” said the doll in Lettie’s pocket. “I’ll handle it.”
Most of the houses at the other end of the street were intact. As Lettie peered over the rubble, she saw a ghostly figure appear on a distant doorstep, first as a pale blur and then, flickering, as a tall unsmiling woman.
The crow had seen the woman too. He leaned back into Lettie’s house, then pulled out his sword and started to run up the street. Behind him, another crow moved out into the doorway. “There’s another one!” Lettie hissed. She looked around for something she could use as a weapon. “I’ll try and–”
The pale woman disappeared. Slowly, with aching drama, the door behind the vanished apparition creaked open. The man slowed uncertainly.
Then the house collapsed.
It happened all at once, like the punchline to some painfully extended joke. The walls crumbled and the roof caved in and a great deal of dust puffed up against the gray dawn. The crow in the street stumbled back coughing. The crow guarding Lettie’s house charged out in alarm. As the dust began to settle, the pale woman flickered into life in the middle of where the house had been. Then she vanished, only to reappear several yards into the next street. Then further back again. Finally both of the crows took the bait and disappeared into the dust cloud after her.
Lettie leapt up and ran towards the house. “Go! Get out!” she said. Her father and one of her uncles stared at her from two heavy chairs. She grabbed an ornamental knife and sawed at her father’s hands until the ropes snapped. He struggled to untie his legs while Lettie moved around to her uncle. She was unpleasantly aware that the crows might come back at any moment. “Hurry, hurry, hurry!”
Everyone else had been locked up in the cellar. Lettie heard the hammering on the trapdoor and flung it open to find her youngest cousin crouched on her oldest cousin’s shoulders, wielding a chair in both hands. “Put that down!” she said crossly. “And get out now!”
Outside, her father was talking about making a break for the fields. “No!” Lettie said. “We can’t go that way! That’s the way we sent the crows. We’ll have cut through the Tower and double back. Come on. This way.”
She started off without waiting for anyone to agree or argue. Her youngest cousin caught up first, then her father, puffing noisily. “Lettie,” he said, plucking at her cloak. What remained of his hair stuck up in angry gray tufts. “Are you on fire?”
Lettie looked down and stifled an exclamation. Her pocket was smoking. She fumbled for the doll, whose head fell back limply. The glow had gone out of its burnt-out eyes. “Dadda,” it said, in its smallest child’s voice. “Dadda…”
It started to cry. Lettie blew on it frantically, then glanced around and shoved the sobbing doll back into her cloak pocket. “It’s fine. It’s nothing to worry about. Come on.”
It was no longer possible to get under the Tower walls through the tunnel. The house on the city side had sunk into its cellar, piling ruin upon ruins. Lettie stared, dumbfounded. Rob had done as he had said: he had sealed off the tunnel.
There was no way back. By now day had well and truly dawned. They had seen the glass flyers crossing the city several times; as soon as they stepped out into the open they would be spotted. Lettie’s uncles conferred in low tones behind her back. Her father nudged her. “What’s the plan?” he asked.
Lettie pulled out the doll. It was still sobbing. She shook it. “Hey!” she said to it. “Talk to me! How are we meant to get in?”
It didn’t answer. Lettie raised her head again. An unexpected sight dragged her gaze inexorably across the square towards the open gates.
Now that it was light again, the sunset glow had faded from the Tower walls, even in the broken places where only magic barred the way. From the right angles, the sickly sheen of the Council’s seal should still have hummed between the gates. What Lettie saw from where she stood, though, was not the familiar interlocking rings but instead a different ghostly imprint: the transparent figure of a woman. It flickered; Lettie rubbed her eyes and saw imperfectly aligned Rob’s long leather coat behind the robes, then the white hair uncurling on Rob’s shoulders, then just Rob waiting there, right out in the open, where anyone could see him.
She gaped. Then she saw him beckon to them, as if he heard the doll crying too. The answer struck her in a flash of unwelcome illumination. And now there was no time to hesitate.
“Rob’s broken the seal,” she said, with more confidence than she really felt. “Run.”
The glass flyers dropped out of the air before Lettie was halfway across the square. She didn’t turn her head to look. She was aware of her family streaming out behind her, panting and heaving, and of the pale woman looking down disapprovingly ahead of her, and of the wind on her face and her full pockets dragging at her cloak like an anchor. The lawkeepers were shouting behind them. “Stop! In the name of the Seven! Come back! It’s too dangerous! Get away!”
She slammed into the seal. “No! No!” she yelled in frustration. She hammered at the invisible barrier, which was as warm and yielding as flesh. “Let us in, you bastard!” Rob was gesturing. Lettie seized on her gasping father. “The ring! Have you got it? The one from the urn? He wants the ring!”
Her father dug into his secret pocket. Lettie seized the ring and waved it at Rob. He held his hand out. “Oh, come on!” Lettie said and ratcheted her arm back to throw the ring at the seal as hard as she could.
The barrier gave way. Lettie staggered, caught herself, and stared at her feet through blurring eyes. Beneath her boots the ground, which had seemed as sere and dry as the rest of Sepharvain from the other side of the seal, had sprouted several fine green threads between the broken flagstones. She looked around in disbelief. She hadn’t seen anything green within the walls of Sepharvain. Between them, the mages on both sides had sucked the whole city dry in the war. It was one of the reasons given by the Council for forbidding anyone from trespassing on what was left.
She raised her head. A little way off, a sapling unfurled tender leaves. There was even a butterfly, if not yet birdsong. Everyone else was picking themselves up, staring and grumbling in equal proportions. The seal must have snapped back into place already, because Lettie couldn’t see the crows or the square or anything else beyond the open gates. Overhead, a fine heat-haze shimmer told her the Tower had been sealed from the sky as well as the ground. Unless the crows could break the Council’s seal, not even the glass flyers could get to them now.
But maybe the crows could. Rob had done it, after all. Surely the Council’s patrols would have some way to inspect the ruins they were here to guard. Lettie’s urgency returned, redoubled. “Rob,” she said. “Rob.” She snapped her fingers at him. “Hel-lo.”
He had caught her father’s ring. She couldn’t imagine how. He was turning it over in his fingers. At last he worked it onto his middle finger, held his hand up to admire it, then glanced down at Lettie. His hands seemed scalded scarlet. “What?”
“Can they get in? How long will it take them?”
“Are you sure? What about us?”
He looked blank. “What about you?”
She remembered how much energy it had taken out of Rob to break the seals on the mausoleum and the vaults beneath it. Now he was white and drawn but his black eyes glittered and he stood very upright, like a gown falling straight from a clothes hanger. Lettie looked at him mistrustfully. “How are we going to get out?”
“Oh,” he said. “That’s your problem.”
Lettie’s father brushed himself down belligerently. “Now see here, Master Priest or mage or whatever you are–”
“Priest,” Rob said, not very warmly. “Hello, Jocelin.”
“I won’t pretend I’m happy to see you,” Lettie’s father said. “I’m not. I never thought we should take up with you in the first place. I don’t hold with you mages and your clever ideas and how you think you can tell the rest of us how to live our lives for us, as if we don’t know the first thing about anything just because we can’t clap our dainty hands and make a thrush that isn’t there turn into a daffodil that isn’t there either. So you get us out of this godforsaken place right now, you hear me? Don’t think I’ve forgotten you cheating me out of a good thing down there.”
“I didn’t cheat you out of anything,” Rob said, even more coldly. “You were going to hit me over the head and steal everything in that vault. And you’re thieves. I don’t care if the Council catches you.”
Lettie, open-mouthed, was dumbfounded for a moment longer, then furious. “Oh, and what else did you come here for? What was it you were looking for down among the Council’s bodies? Screw you, Rob! You’re just like us! Stop pretending you’re so much better! I got you that ring, didn’t I? Now it’s your turn. Get us out!”
He didn’t even look at her. “It wasn’t your ring. You stole it too.”
“Well, it’s certainly not yours!”
He was admiring how it looked on his finger again, or appraising it, or in any case examining it with an unsmiling intensity that struck Lettie, even through the red haze, as unlike him. She dug her nails into her palm and drew a burning breath. “Rob?” she said, assessing the controlled set of his shoulders and his stance and how he held his dark head. “It’s not, is it?”
“It’s the Seventh-Envoy’s ring,” he said. “It was worn by the last Seventh-Envoy, the one who was murdered. They thought the Seventh of Sepharvain took it with him. He hid it with her body instead. The Council will be looking for it.”
“That still doesn’t make it yours,” Lettie said, watching him closely.
“A relative of mine wore it once. A long time ago.”
He did turn his head at that, although now Lettie was looking for it she could see Rob wasn’t really there at all. “Rob liked you,” he said, using the dispassionate woman’s voice that had startled Lettie from the doll and terrified her in the vault, although then Rob’s goddess had not sounded remotely dispassionate. “I don’t. You can go now. Don’t tread on my grass.”
“Go where?” Lettie said. She should have stopped to think about what she was saying: she already knew the woman in Rob’s head was dangerous and without pity. She didn’t care. The crows were dangerous too and they must be hammering at the gates. The crystalline edges of the buildings and greening trees dazzled her until she realized she had crossed the city three times in one very long night and was too far gone to be exhausted. She was ablaze with unwise energy. “I don’t like you either,” she said fiercely. “And I don’t want to talk to you. This is between me and Rob. Let me talk to him.”
She felt the whole world breathe in. For a glittering eternity, she stared the woman down.
Then Rob blinked, and shook himself, and relaxed back into his usual rangy self, rocking back on his heels as if to bounce forwards as soon as some new distraction should present itself. “Ow,” he said and flexed his hands gingerly. He grimaced. “Well, you were going to rob me. She doesn’t forget that sort of thing. It’s all right. She doesn’t actually want you hanging around here. There’s another tunnel. Really, though, don’t tread on the grass. I put a lot of effort into growing that.”
Lettie’s uncles grumbled sotto voce about looting the Tower to make up what they had lost to the crows as if no one else could hear them. Lettie prodded them both sharply in their spines and herded every last straying cousin after Rob in the interests of getting out before the crows could break in or Rob’s goddess could change her mind. She was the last to duck down the new tunnel. “Aren’t you coming?” she said to Rob. “I thought there wasn’t any food.”
Rob clung to the wall as if it was the only thing keeping him upright. “I only said that to make you come back. I’m staying.”
“Oh. Really? But they’ll know you’re here now.”
Rob sighed. “I know. She’ll deal with them. They would have realized eventually anyway. She was going to leave it a bit longer, but your father got caught and she was afraid they might get the ring. She really wanted that. So she agreed to help you get away.”
She’ll deal with them, he had said, as if they weren’t three patrols of mages carrying the Council’s seal. Lettie might have thought he didn’t realize what that meant, and maybe he didn’t, but she thought his goddess did. So it wouldn’t be a good idea to still be here when whatever happened to the crows happened. It was going to be bloody. Probably it would level a few more houses too.
The goddess was going to carve out the Tower as her territory one way or another. Lettie couldn’t help glancing at Rob’s reddened hand. The ring didn’t quite look natural on him, although it fitted well enough. It was heavy, though, and the outline of the seven-pointed star glowed purple against the shifting colors of the black opal as it had not done when Lettie’s father wore it. The Council wouldn’t like that at all, she thought.
“Thanks anyway,” she said. “And… good luck.”
She was about to duck into the tunnel, but Rob caught her cloak. “Lettie…”
He had that puppyish look, open and optimistic and wistful all at once. What he said was, “Can I have my doll back?”
“Oh. Yes, sorry. There you go.”
Rob’s mouth fell open. “Look what you’ve done to her!” he said. He dampened his sleeve and dabbed at the doll’s burnt-out eyes. The doll sniffed. “Was that really necessary? How am I going to fix this?”
“It wasn’t me!” Lettie protested, then realized he wasn’t talking to her anyway.
Down the tunnel Lettie’s father was calling her name. They would have to find a safe house to lie low until nightfall. After dark they could feel their way through the city to the fields, then make their way back to Lettie’s grandfather’s farm, where Lettie’s mother would be waiting. Lettie didn’t think they were likely to come back to Sepharvain for a while, if ever.
She looked at Rob, still fussing over his doll. Her father would be pleased to be rid of him. Lettie felt a prick of guilt. “Are you sure you won’t come?”
He actually looked torn. Then he sighed and said, “She says she has work to do. She says I have work to do too. And she said something I won’t repeat about your father. And you. So I have to stay here, but you can go.” He stepped backwards. “In fact, I think you should.”
Julia August‘s short fiction has appeared several times in Kaleidotrope, but also in The Dark, the anthology Monstrosities, Unlikely Story‘s The Journal of Unlikely Academia, Lightspeed‘s Women Destroy Fantasy!, Lackington’s Magazine, and elsewhere. She is @JAugust7 on Twitter and j-august on Tumblr. Find out more at juliaaugust.com.