Three Keys in the Desert (part 25 of 26)

Vrei held her face under a stream of cold water in the sink, letting the shock of it wake her. She splashed some on her neck, her collarbone. There was no time for a shower; she’d woken up late. There was barely time for food before she had to be at the Head’s office.

All her friends were busy sleeping off last night. Outside, the streets looked deserted. She missed having one day a year when she could sleep past lunch.

The mess hall was the same. Just bowls of pre-prepared dry food, like every year, and no one to eat it. The only perk was that, for once, Vrei could steal some of it and eat in her office. Olin walked behind her, still bleary. Vrei asked her to grab enough for both of them and went to find Ebie.

Ebie’s office was unlocked. The doors slid open automatically as soon as Vrei approached. Inside, Ebie sat alone, surrounded by paperwork, no food anywhere. She’d probably gotten up before Vrei. Or maybe she hadn’t slept at all.

She looked up as soon as Vrei came in.

“Morning,” Vrei said.

Ebie looked confused. “We’re not late yet. There’s still a few minutes.”

“I know,” Vrei said. She sat down in the empty chair, not bothering to pull her feet up. This wouldn’t take long, she just needed to know. “I saw Len, after dinner yesterday.”

Ebie went back to rearranging her paperwork. “I know. He told me. He really overdid it last night.”

For a moment Vrei wondered whether she should let it go, but she’d spent all night putting these pieces together. If she didn’t ask Ebie now she’d forget in a few days. “Was it being in the Palace again?”

Ebie blinked. Her face hardened.

“Do you always clean up after him?” Vrei said. “Is that how it works?”

She could see the anger rise in Ebie’s face. It traveled like a wave of darkness from her neck to her ears. “He had an accident. It happens. And I didn’t clean up after him, he’s sleeping it off. I don’t need him for deliberations.”

“Look, whatever happened with him at the Palace,” Vrei said. “I don’t care. What I want to know is how some junkie from my district knew you were covering up for him. How could she possibly know that, Ebie?”

Ebie stared at her desk. Some of the anger bled out of her features, replaced with… something. Vrei had never seen that expression on her before. It was clear she knew who Vrei meant.

Ebie knew about Kir.

Which meant… did she know about the fence? Had she kept it from Vrei all this time? “Ebie, I swear, if you lie to me now…”

“A girl showed up in my district, a while ago,” Ebie said. She closed her eyes for a long moment. “I don’t know how she got there. She and some friends got into a fight with a secondyear who was… who should have been sleeping. I was doing rounds when I found them. Him. The boy, he was unconscious. I was going to tell you. Definitely, absolutely, I was going to tell you, but then… then this girl…”

Vrei waited for a few seconds but more words didn’t come. “This girl knew things Cecilia had told her,” she continued, where Ebie had left off. “That definitely weren’t secrets. Are you telling me no one who was in the Palace that year knows about Len’s… whatever?”

Ebie looked up at her sharply, as if suddenly realizing Vrei didn’t know as much as Ebie had assumed.

Great, there was even more to this.

Ebie shook her head. “Nothing ever happened in public. There was an incident that got him on Cecilia’s radar, right after we got to the Palace. She knew he was hiding something but he wouldn’t give her the full story, so she punished him. And then kept punishing him. For a year. Sometimes I didn’t see him for a week because she made him sleep in her room, and the official version was that he was helping her with maintenance or whatever. He’d wake up vomiting from nightmares and they’d send him to medical for a stomach bug. A guy tried waking him up, once, shook him by the shoulder and Len jumped on him and wouldn’t stop hitting until we pulled him off. They gave him bathroom chores for two weeks.”

Vrei shook her head. Everyone hated the Palace, everyone wanted to go home, everyone cried themselves to sleep the first week, between the headaches and the prospect of a year of nothing but chores. It was on her tongue to say Cecilia would never do what Ebie described. She wasn’t bored enough, she barely even noticed if you were alive, as long as you got your work done. But then Vrei thought about the annoying junkie girl she used to live with. At the Palace, the girl used to disappear sometimes, and people laughed, said she was probably tricking Cecilia into letting her off work.

Once they all transferred, she mostly smoked sau, hung out with younger kids, barely bothered to show up at the Compound. She’d never really made friends.

Like Kir.

“I wouldn’t have noticed it,” Ebie said. “If it was anyone but Len. No one cares about Cecilia’s special projects.”

Vrei rubbed at her cheeks. She wished she could splash more cold water on her face.

“So,” she said, trying to make sense of everything. “Kir threatened to tell everyone about Len and you folded? Why? Cecilia’s gone. What does it matter?” But Vrei knew the answer as soon as the words left her mouth. She’d seen it the night before.

“If everyone knew,” Ebie said. “If he had to remember, every time someone looked at him… I don’t know how that would go.”

Vrei didn’t ask what Ebie meant. A week ago she would have laughed, but now, after Sol… Ebie must have thought about this for a long time. She looked certain, like she’d run the odds in her head and knew she wouldn’t be able to save him. That was probably the scariest part. Vrei had never seen Ebie admit something in her own district was beyond her control.

“So… you just let Kir go?” Vrei said, thinking out loud. “And no one found out. You managed to keep everything quiet.”

Ebie stayed silent, avoiding Vrei’s eyes.

“Except your little secret cost me,” Vrei said. She didn’t want to think about how the last week would have gone if Ebie had done what she was supposed to, reported Kir and saved Vrei all that panic.

There was so much Vrei wanted to ask, wanted to demand Ebie tell her, but one question felt more urgent than the rest. “Is this the first time?”

Ebie’s spine was like a spring, suddenly pulled taut. She straightened, eyes determined, looking almost indignant. “Of course.”

“I saw him last night,” Vrei reminded her. “How many times have you covered for him?”

“Never,” Ebie said, emphatically. “He’s never gone back to the Palace.” She began to say something but then closed her mouth and shook her head. After a moment she went on. “I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you. What can I do now? You want extra bedding? Medical vouchers?”

Typical Ebie. One second she was queen of the rules, giving Vrei lectures about keeping a better eye on her residents, and the next she was trying to bribe her way out of trouble. Vrei was so tired of her bullshit. For once, she was going to make Ebie explain herself, admit she had flaws like everyone else.

“I wish,” Ebie said, filling the silence between them, “I could have brought this to you. You don’t know how many times I wanted to.”

“So why didn’t you?” Vrei said. “That night, you had to know the girl was a junkie. You had to assume she’d done more damage than you saw. And who would I even tell about Len? We barely see each other!”

“I know,” Ebie said, looking uncomfortable.

“I’ve never lied to you, not like this,” Vrei said. She felt empty, like some important part of her disappeared, leaving her lighter. “After everything you said about Sol. How could you?”

“Because I thought…” Ebie said. “Doesn’t matter. I should have told you.”

Vrei wanted to hear the rest of that sentence. She needed to know. She stayed quiet until Ebie rolled her eyes and kept talking.

“You like… people who are strong. I wasn’t sure you’d get it. And I couldn’t take it back, once you knew.”

“What does that mean?” Vrei said, frowning. She wished she could feel anger, instead of this creeping sadness. Ebie was the toughest person Vrei knew. She kept herself at a distance from anyone who might discover she was human. Fighting her for vouchers was the hardest thing Vrei had ever done.

She was supposed to be the one who’d never do something like this. Somewhere in the back of her mind she’d thought of Ebie as the most dependable person on this planet.

It made her think about Olin, trying to hide her nerves, going behind Vrei’s back for no reason. She didn’t understand it, still, but Ebie’s guilt-ridden face was making her rethink things. The idea that the people closest to her couldn’t trust her completely was like a cold knife aimed at her chest. But she could untangle that later.

It was Transfer Day, and she had to decide what would happen once they walked out of this room.

“Would you really give me fluffs or vouchers or whatever?” Vrei said.

Ebie was silent for the space of several long breaths. “I owe you.”

Sol would probably have screamed at Ebie until the Compound walls crumbled, then she’d have gone on a bender, then come back and told Ebie to never do it again. Let Ebie stew and suffer, feel like shit for a while. Vrei could definitely see the appeal.

She reached over the table, slowly. Her hand touched Ebie’s fingers, clenched into fists. “I’m not going to tell anyone.”

Sol had always said, Keys had to stick up for each other. Maybe that was the best use of this moment. Maybe building trust had to start somewhere unexpected.

“It’s done. You don’t have to give me anything,” Vrei said.

Ebie looked away but didn’t pull away from Vrei’s hand. “We have to go,” she said, finally. “The Head’s probably waiting by now.”

They stayed sitting for a few more seconds before getting up.


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