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“That’s harder,” a man says, watching me write in cursive. “But the regular way—it’s not bad.”
“No,” I say.
“So why haven’t we been doing it all along?” he asks.
“I think some people have,” I say, and he nods.
We have to be careful. There are still pockets of Society sympathizers who want to fight and destroy, and they can be dangerous. The Rising itself hasn’t forbidden us to gather like this, but the Pilot has asked that everyone focus attention on completing our work and ending the Plague. He tells us that saving people is what matters most, and I believe that to be true, but I think we are also saving ourselves here in the Gallery. So many people have waited a long time to create, or had to hide what they’d done.
We bring whatever we’ve made to the Gallery. There are many pictures and poems tacked to the wall with tree sap.They look like tattered flags—paper from ports, napkins, even torn pieces of cloth.
There is a woman who carves patterns on pieces of wood and then darkens them with charred ash and presses the woodcuts against paper, imprinting her world on ours.
There is a man who must have been an Official once, who has taken all his white uniforms and found a way to turn them different colors. He cuts the fabric into pieces and makes clothing in a style different from any I’ve seen, with angles and flourishes and lines that are unexpected and right. He hangs his creations from the top of the Gallery, and they look like the promises of who we might be in the future.
There is Dalton, who always brings artwork that is beautiful and interesting, fashioned from pieces of other things. Today she’s brought a person created out of bits of cloth and paper torn small and then remade into something large, with stones for eyes and seeds for teeth, and it’s beautiful and terrible. “Oh, Dalton,” I say.
She smiles and I lean in for a closer look. I smell the tangy scent of the tree sap she uses to hold all the pieces of her creations together.
“There’s a rumor,” Dalton says softly, “that at dark, someone’s going to sing.”
“Are we sure this time?” I ask. We’ve heard the rumor before. But it never seems to happen. Poems and artwork are easier to leave; we don’t have to stand before the others and see their faces as we offer up what it is we have to give.
Before Dalton can answer, someone is at my elbow. I turn, and there is an Archivist I know. Panic sets in for a moment—how did he find the Gallery? Then I remember that the Archivists are not the Society, and also that we are not competing with the Archivists for trades. This is a place of sharing.
He pulls something white from the inside of his coat and hands it to me. A piece of paper. Could it be a message from Ky? Or Xander?
What did Xander think of my message? Those were the hardest words I’ve ever had to write. I begin to open the paper.
“Don’t read it,” the Archivist says, sounding embarrassed. “Not when I’m here. I wondered—could you put it up sometime? After I leave? It’s a story I wrote.”
“Of course,” I promise him. “I’ll do it tonight.” I shouldn’t have assumed that he was only an Archivist. Of course he might have something to add to the Gallery, too.
“People come to us asking if there’s any value in what they’ve made,” he says. “I have to tell them that there isn’t. Not to us. I send them on to you. But I don’t know what you call this place.”
For a moment, I hesitate, and then I remind myself that the Gallery isn’t a secret, it can’t be kept. “We call it the Gallery,” I say.
The Archivist nods. “You should be careful about gathering in groups,” he tells me. “There are rumors that the Plague has mutated.”
“We’ve heard those rumors for weeks,” I say.
“I know,” he says, “but someday they could be true. That’s why I came tonight. I had to write this down in case we ran out of time.”
I understand. I have learned that, even without a Plague or a mutation, time is always short. That’s why I had to write those things to Xander, even though it was almost impossible to do. I had to tell him the truth because, since time is short, it should not be spent waiting:
I know you love me. I love you, and I always will, but things can’t hold like this. They have to break. You say you don’t mind, that you’ll wait for me, but I think that you do mind, and you should. Because we’ve done too much waiting in our lives, Xander. Don’t wait for me anymore.
I hope for love for you.
I hope for this more than anything else, maybe even more than my own happiness.
And in a way, perhaps that means I love Xander best of all.
Where are we going?” Indie asks, climbing into the air ship.
It’s my turn to fly, so I sit in the pilot’s seat. “No idea,” I say. “As usual.” Once the Rising began in earnest, we stopped getting our assignments in advance. I start my equipment check. Indie helps me.
“An older ship today,” she says. “Good.”
I nod in agreement. Indie and I both prefer the older ships, which can be more temperamental than the new ones but which also have a different feel to them. When you’re piloting the new ships, sometimes you feel like they’re flying you instead of it being the other way around.
Everything is in order so we wait for our instructions. It’s raining again and Indie hums, sounding happy. It makes me smile. “It’s a good thing they have us flying together,” I say. “I never see you in the barracks or the meal hall anymore.”
“I’ve been busy,” Indie says. She leans closer to me. “After the Plague is gone,” she asks, “are you going to request to train as a fighter?”
Is that why I don’t see Indie as much? Is she planning on changing jobs someday? The fighters, the ones who cover our errand ships as we fly, have to train for years. And, of course, they learn to fight and kill. “No,” I say. “What about you?”
Before she can answer, our flight plans start coming through. Indie reaches for them but I snatch them away first and she sticks out her tongue at me like we’re kids. I look down at the plans and my heart misses a beat.
“What is it?” Indie asks, craning her neck so she can see.
“We’re going to Oria,” I say, stunned.
“That’s strange,” Indie says.
It is. The Rising doesn’t like us to pilot into Provinces where we once lived. They think we’ll want to try to get the cargo to people we know instead of letting the Rising distribute according to need. “The temptation is too high,” the commanders tell us.
“Well, it could be interesting,” Indie says. “They say Oria and Central are the places with the most Society sympathizers.”
I wonder who still lives there that I would know. Cassia’s family was sent to Keya, and my parents were taken away. Does Em’s family still live there? What about the Carrows?
I haven’t seen Xander since the time I gave him the note from Cassia. A few days after I talked with Indie about getting inside the Camas City barricade, the Rising sent us in to deliver some of the cures. I think Indie had something to do with the assignment, but whenever I ask her about it she shrugs it off. “They probably just wanted to see if we could make the landing,” she says, “since it’s one of the most difficult ones in a City.” But she’s got that glint in her eye that means she’s not telling the whole story. It worries me, but if Indie doesn’t want to tell you something, it’s pointless to keep asking.
But we made it inside the walls and helped Caleb with the cargo and I delivered Cassia’s message. It was good to see Xander again. He was glad to see me too. I wonder how long that lasted after he saw that part of the letter was ruined.
The main part of the flight is, as usual, all sky.
Then we drop lower. I aim the ship in the direction of the barricade. Though it was the Society who put up the white barriers, the Rising has left them in place for now to keep a line between the sick and the healthy.
“Oria looks like everywhere else,” Indie says, sounding disappointed.
I’ve never thought of it that way. But she’s right. That was always Oria’s most important characteristic—it was so perfectly Society that it was practically anonymous. Not like Camas, which has the mountains to set it apart, or Acadia, which has a rocky shore to the East Sea, or Central with all its lakes. The middle Provinces—Oria and Grandia, Bria and Keya—look pretty much the same.
Except for one thing.
“We do have the Hill,” I tell Indie. “You’ll see when we get closer.”
I feel hungry for the sight of that forested rise with its green trees. I feel like if I can’t see Cassia, the Hill is the next best thing. We stood there together. We hid in the trees and for the first time our lips touched. I can almost feel the wind on my skin and her hand in mine. I swallow.
But when we soar a circle over Oria to prepare for landing, I can’t seem to find the Hill in the dusky light of evening.
Indie is the one who sees it. “That brown thing?” she asks.
That bare, brown place is the Hill.
I start to bring the ship down. We get closer and closer to the ground. Trees along the streets turn large. The ground rushes at us. The buildings become familiar instead of generic.
At the last second, I pull the ship back up.
I feel Indie looking at me. I’ve never done this before in the months we’ve been running in supplies.
“Landing wasn’t right,” I say into the speakers. It happens. It will go down on my record as an error. But I have to see the Hill again, closer.
We come up in the opposite direction and head for the Hill, dropping lower than I should so I can get a good look.
“Is something wrong?” one of the fighters asks over the speaker.
“No,” I say. “I’m bringing it in.”
I’ve seen what I needed to see. The ground is bare. It’s been completely bulldozed. Burned. Butchered. It’s like the Hill never knew trees. Parts of the Hill have sloughed downward, no longer anchored by the roots of living things.
The little piece of green silk from Cassia’s dress is no longer tied to a tree on the top of the Hill, wearing out into white with wind and rain and sun. Our buried scraps of poems have been exhumed and reburied and pushed farther under.
They’ve killed the Hill.
I land the ship. Behind me, I hear Caleb open the hold and start dragging out the cases. I sit and stare straight ahead.
I want to be back there, on the Hill, with Cassia. I want it so much I think it might destroy me. All these months have passed and we’re still apart. I put my head in my hands.
“Ky?” Indie asks. “Are you all right?” She puts her hand on my shoulder for a second. Then she lets go and, without looking at me, goes down to help Caleb.
I’m grateful to her for both the touch and the solitude, but neither lasts long.
“Ky?” Indie calls out. “Come see this.”