Dalia pulled the door shut behind her, heard it click, and immediately let out a heavy breath. She’d locked herself out again. Turning around, she tried the latch twice and shoved hard on the door before she resigned herself to it. Then she dropped her forehead against the heavy wood and held her breath to keep from groaning.
That was the third time in a month. She needed to cultivate better talents.
“You okay?” a girl asked from behind her.
Dalia shut her eyes. The last thing she needed was a witness to this repeated catastrophe.
Slowly, Dalia looked over her shoulder. At least it wasn’t one of her neighbors, just a twelve-year-old girl with her arms crossed over the side of the top step by Dalia’s front door. Her arms were thin, and dark in that way that could have been a shallow tan, or just the leftover dirt from a rough wash. There was a boy behind her in the street, about the same age and just as lean. He watched his friend out of the corner of his eye, as if he’d like the rest of the world to believe that she was an alien who had just fallen from the sky, whom he had definitely never met.
“I’m fine,” Dalia said. She tried the latch one more time.
“Lose your key?” the girl asked.
Dalia turned back to her, prepared to give her a sharp dismissal. But the girl was looking at the door with concern and Dalia stopped.
“No,” she said. “I know where it is.” She jabbed her finger against the door. “It’s about five feet that way on my little round table. Exactly where I left it.” She gave the girl an exasperated smile.
The girl grinned back. “Oh.” She looked up, to Dalia’s second floor, then Dalia’s third floor, then her neighbors’ to either side. “I can help you out. If you’d let me.”
“Tien,” the boy behind her warned.
Tien ignored him, waiting on Dalia.
Dalia glanced at him. Then back at Tien. “All right,” she said, finally. She hesitated again, weighing how large a reward was necessary to keep the girl’s hands out of her things. “And I’ll give you two ceps if you can open this door without breaking anything.”
Tien paused, halfway through turning away. She looked at Dalia with more concern than she’d given the door. “You have a silly definition for helping.”
Surprised, Dalia watched her dash toward the alley beside her house.
The boy caught Tien by the arm as she passed him.
“No way,” he hissed.
“Don’t be such a squirrel,” Tien told him sunnily. She twisted out of his grip, quick, and he lunged forward to grab her again. Dalia suspected that he only succeeded because she let him.
“We are busy,” he said, pulling her back toward him.
She responded nimbly, as before, but they both dropped their voices. All Dalia could understand was a series of sharp consonants marking out the corners of their argument. Looking at her door, Dalia considered whether she could get the smith in before they finished.
“Fine!” the boy said. Dalia jumped. “Then let me. It’ll be faster.”
Tien raised her eyebrows and leaned back. Then she thought about it. Then she nodded. “You’re on,” she said. She almost hit the ground, rolling out of his hold. Dalia blinked ad Tien had disappeared around the corner. Running two steps, Dalia leaned out from the steps and caught her run one pace up the neighbor’s wall and catch both hands on the windowsill. Dalia stared.
“That’s not what I meant!” the boy shouted after her. Then he was running too, straight for Dalia, jumping up the side of the stairs, head down, puling something out of his pocket. Dalia leapt out of his way and he dropped to his knees in front of her door. He stuck a long flat piece of metal into the keyhole. Then he listened hard, first at the keyhole as he moved the metal stick up and down, then to the house, and neither of them seemed to please him. He swore quietly.
Dalia cuffed him on the side of the head.
Surprised, he blinked up at her. Then he went right back to the keyhole.
The house was eerily quiet for how hard he was listening. The longer the silence stretched the faster he moved. Dalia glanced over at the alley. It was empty. She looked up at her windows. No movement. The boy looked up at the windows and gritted his teeth.
The metal stick clicked twice in the lock. The boy pushed on the door. The first time, nothing happened. The second time, he tumbled forward and caught himself at Tien’s feet. She held the door open and grinned.
Dalia hadn’t thought her eyes could go any wider, but they found an extra inch to stretch.
Tien smiled at both of them, gave a strange little curtsey and darted down the stairs. Without stopping, she continued up the street.
Dalia and the boy stared after her, and then seemed to realize where they were. The boy picked himself up. Dalia smoothed her dress front, then pulled two ceps out of her pocket. She offered them to the boy.
He blinked at her. “What are you payin’ me for?”
“I’m sorry,” Dalia said, uncertain. “I thought you might give it to her.”
The boy looked at her for a long minute from under his eyebrows. He shook his head. “She doesn’t think you get paid for helping. And if you’d wanted to hire her to break into a house, you’d have to dig up a lot more than that.” He looked darkly at the two small coins.
Then it occured to him what he had just said, and he dashed off too.
Dumbfounded, Dalia stood on her doorstep for a broad moment. Then she went to get her key.