Three Keys in the Desert (part 13 of 26)

4 Days Until Transfer Day

Vrei couldn’t remember the last time she’d had lunch with her friends. It felt like she’d been eating alone, in a hurry, between meetings, for weeks.

“You remember when we were secondyears?” Zher said, grinning in between bites of spicy meat. Vrei still remembered how the spices used to make him vomit, their first week at the Palace. Everyone knew about the kid who couldn’t keep his food down. Susanna had him put on some kind of flavorless diet for a while. He used to look so sad, whenever they’d sit down to eat, like every day was a funeral for his taste buds. The memory made Vrei smile.

“Remember the girl who lived with us for like a month?” Zher went on. “Who was afraid of the showers?”

Half the table groaned. Everyone remembered that girl. Vrei took another sip of her cold soup.

“Remember when she got back from wherever, in the middle of the night,” Zher went on, “and left all her clothes in a pile by the door?”

Vrei’s smile turned into a laugh, which turned into a cough thanks to the soup in her mouth.

“And you tripped over her stuff when you got up to piss and screamed so loud the whole floor woke up?”

Everyone was laughing now. Vrei remembered finding herself face-first in someone’s dirty underwear, in the dark. She tried to take another gulp of the soup but ended up spilling it and laughing even harder.

“What happened to her?” Zher said, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. “I haven’t seen her in like a year.”

Vrei snorted. “I haven’t seen her sober in a year. She costs me more than all the kids combined.”

That triggered a fresh wave of laughter. Olin joined them just as it was dying down. She looked like she’d been awake since the day before. Vrei couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen her calm and focused. She’d never been the steadiest person, but lately it had gotten worse.

Zher moved to make space for her on the bench. Olin’s hair looked like someone had used it to wipe the floor. Vrei probably didn’t look much better.

Zher wrapped his arm around Olin and squeezed gently as she took the first bite of her meat

“It’s almost over, right?” he said, looking at Vrei.

Olin gave Vrei a look that said next week might as well be two years from now.

“Almost,” Vrei agreed.

Olin ate quickly, and Vrei found herself gulping down her food too. The brief moment when she’d managed to forget about Transfer Day was over.

Zher kept telling stories, his arm subtly touching Olin’s. Vrei couldn’t remember ever wanting to be that close to any of the people she slept with. The last one had been… nearly three months ago. One of the fourthyears. She hadn’t even let him spend the night in her room. The memory made her frown. She was starting to turn into Ebie, with her weird fetish for her First and her general lack of interest in human company.

Vrei’s fingers tightened around the plastic grip of the spoon. She took a long, loud sip, tasting nothing but sourness. The soup was supposed to be a little sweet but the kitchen was running low on supplies.

Ebie and her shitty opinions and her endless judgment and her stupid moral code. Never late for a meeting, never stuck without vouchers, never desperate for a favor. Always alone. Vrei couldn’t live like that. No one could. Ebie thought it made her better, to act like a robot. Sol had never… she’d never been like that. Ebie had no right to pretend—

“Oh, wait!” Zher said, nudging Vrei with his foot under the table. “The thing you asked about! I found someone.”

Vrei froze, disoriented, with a spoon halfway to her mouth.

“Someone who saw something,” Zher clarified.

It took a moment before Vrei remembered—she’d told her friends to ask around, see if anyone had seen something weird in the neighborhoods closet to the fence lately.

She forced herself to swallow the soup before saying, “who?”

“Elad, the sixthyear?” Zher said.

Elad had spent the last two years living a few buildings away from Vrei, though they’d never been close. “What did she see?”

Zher shrugged. “She’ll only to talk to you.”

That sounded like Elad. It was probably just an excuse to try and get something out of Vrei before the year ran out.

Still. “Fine,” Vrei said. She looked at Olin. “Go talk to her tomorrow?” No one needed to know how serious this was.

Olin nodded without making eye contact. She’d always been a terrible liar.


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