Elida knew every creak in the expansive apartments. She had watched Ness invent them eight months before when they moved in.
It had been pure entertainment, watching him on his hands and knees, teasing floorboards and stair railings and cupboard hinges into making their little noises. He tested them and he memorized the distinctions at the same time. Each was a little warning bell when anyone moved inside his apartment. When Elida stepped forward to help him, he gave her a look the equivalent of slapping her hands away, and laughed at himself after. He trusted her. But he trusted himself more.
So, she just watched him engineer squeaks and groans and creaks out of polished elegance. She hadn’t purposefully memorized them, too, but she liked the look on his face when she arrived in all her usual silence even while he rattled in the spaces he created.
Creeping down the stairs now, Elida had no need to see his surprise. She wished it very far away. Keeping her hands off the railing, she skipped the last step, and slid immediately to the right. A brush of air instead of a body, she imagined. A ghost. A thing already moved on.
Moonlight painted the empty rooms in silver, gray, and white, defining her way perfectly. She slipped through the kitchen, into the pantry, and through it, past the false wall into Ness’s sprawling study. There was a door to the room, but neither she nor Ness had ever used it. She supposed there was some trap on it and didn’t care.
Elida went long ways around the room, looping around all three creaking floorboards, then opened the top drawer of his desk. She pulled it all the way out. The little catches at the back came free with a little force, and she set the drawer on the floor. Then she paused, looking toward Ness’ upstairs room as if she could see him. She set her hand inside the empty space, made a fist, watched the wall, listening. And brought her hand down.
The thin sheet of wood beneath the drawer cracked beautifully with one dull snap.
Prying the pieces gingerly aside, she reached into the deep, locked drawer beneath. She only paused again when she turned to watch where her fingers were going.
The map was just where she expected it to be, folded evenly with the top layer canted up as if it wanted to be picked up. It had looked like that when she found it for him, in a house he hadn’t known how to break into. It would perhaps always look like that, ready for the next hand, yellowed and by sunlight. But there was something else in the drawer. An owl looked up at her, blank-eyed and unblinking.
Another instant, and Elida knew it wasn’t real. It was only a mask, almost too pretty to be alive. Each feather was edged in black, and gentle gray in the middle, a cascade of points falling back from large eyes. Sharp ears twisted up on either side, dramatic edges of a triangle that pointed down to a smooth, black beak. Still, for a moment, she had wondered at his choice of guards. She laughed at herself. Quietly. Taking a deep breath, she laughed a little more, and came to a slow stop.
He had said he was going to buy her a mask. Close to her birthday, he dreamed up a dozen presents, throwing out ideas like flashing confetti, but that one had snagged him. No matter how many times she reminded him that she didn’t need one – no one saw her as she was – he insisted he was going to get her one. So she could call herself a real thief. She didn’t bother telling him that she wasn’t. Before him, it had only been a clever game, teasing her way into places that had been built to keep her out, and she had taken only what amused her. He was the one who did it for proper profit.
Elida reached for the map, but picked up the owl mask instead. There were no strings, she saw, as she turned it over in her hands. Perhaps it was incomplete, but it was also heavier than she had expected. The base was made of packed paper. The shape of it was more complex than it needed to be, the complete reverse of cheeks and nose and forehead, and she examined it for a longer minute than she had intended. It was too exact to be anything but purposeful, she realized. And then lifted it carefully to her face.
It skated nearly perfectly into place, just tight at her cheekbones. When she let go, it stayed. She looked down. She turned from one side to the other. She shook her head, feeling ridiculous and childish, and it stayed. A beautiful, specific, sharp mask just for her.
The beak was cold against her nose, and the feathers fringed her eyes, delicate as her lashes. She liked it, the way she liked any pretty thing she didn’t need. So she left it on.
The map, she picked up because Ness wanted it. And then she held it, turned it over, traced its edges. There was no need to unfold it in the dark.
For the last time – and she knew it would be the last time – she considered what it might be like to stay. It was an amusing thought, as always, but not enticing. It had been interesting to look over Ness’ shoulder, peek into his world, but she was only learning his tricks for curiosity’s sake, with no intention to use them. And he had begun, in an almost pathetic way, to believe he had built her.
But she was what she had always been.
So, she tucked his precious map into the pocket of her coat. Leaving through the secret door, she shut it behind her in silence. The kitchen window opened without a catch. Elida stepped up on the counter and folded herself through the frame. She set her toes carefully on the ledge outside. Closing the window, she smiled beneath her mask.