By the time we reached the village, the sky was dark. Everyone was asleep, so there was no way for me to find Hollis now. I said goodbye to Prima as she fluttered back to Gesu’s house to spend the night in her own bed.
I’d ended up picking up Kari half of the way, and he had fallen asleep, his body heavy in my arms.
“What’s going on?” Kari yawned. “Are we there yet, Dahlia?”
The young boy was growing restless.
“Yes. Here we are. Don’t worry.” I knocked on the little hut I lived in with eight other young women.
Rhia opened the door, exhaustion lacing her gentle complexion. “Hey, Dahlia, I was so…” Sudden alarm shone on her face. “Who’s the kid?”
I set down the young boy, who clung tightly to my arm as he leaned sleepily against me. “Kari.” I stared into Rhia’s stormy eyes. “Please, Rhia, let us in. Don’t ask questions.”
She let us in, but as she did so she muttered, “You were hanging out in Spring all this time when you could have been helping out here?”
I narrowed my brows, puzzled at her sour mood. It had only been two days. And there were so many humans that the fairies wouldn’t notice one of us gone, as far as I could tell.
Before I could point this out to Rhia, a reeking odor wafted into my face, disgusting me. Holding onto Kari, I stepped back and looked around the room. Five of my roommates were lying in beds, sleeping, as would be expected at this time of night. But—I looked at Andrea’s bed.
She was gone.
“Where’s Andrea?” I demanded. “And what’s that awful smell?”
Rhia put her hands on her hips. “While you were off gallivanting in Spring flowers, Gesu became middle-aged and was taken away to Autumn. Then, like a dam was broken, the plague flooded onto this village. It’s insane, really. Andrea got knocked out so badly she couldn’t even pretend to work anymore, so they took her to Winter. Don’t know why it hasn’t affected me yet, but here I am, the only one in this hut fit enough to care for my friends. Not to mention the extra work on the fields the fairies are forcing on me. Look what you’ve done to me!”
Rhia collapsed onto her bed, groaning loudly.
So Andrea was in Winter. What was I supposed to do now? Choose between finding my friend and finding my sister?
Kari yawned again.
“I’m sorry, Rhia. Can we talk about this tomorrow? This kid needs sleep.”
Rhia rolled her eyes. “If you insist.”
In the morning, I helped Rhia care for my roommates as I explained to her all I had found out in Spring. Kari stayed in the basement away from the sickness, playing with the dog Lucy.
Rhia was shocked. “So, it’s everywhere, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know about Autumn and Winter, but it’s certainly here and in Spring.”
“What a twisted coincidence!” she exclaimed miserably.
A coincidence indeed. It made no sense that two lands completely separated from each other could catch the same sickness. Did the fairies have something to do with this?
Rhia’s face was so pale, and I did feel badly for leaving her with so much responsibility.
“Have you been drinking water?”
“Not much. Never liked the taste of it.”
“Neither have I,” I laughed. I handed her a bucket. “Here, go fetch some water. Take as long as you like—a dip in the river if you want. I’ll take care of things here. You need some rest.”
She nodded. “Thanks, Dahlia.”
After she left the hut, I heard a knock at the door. Opening it slightly, I saw Prima’s fluttering green wings. “He’s gone!”
“I know,” I said gravely, letting her inside to the one-room hut filled with beds. “Yes, it’s awful, Prima. I need to make sure these girls are cared for. But I need to find Hollis too, if she’s somewhere in Summer. Can you care for them while I look for her?”
Solemnly, Prima agreed to watch over them.
That day, I searched house after house for Hollis and Kari’s brothers, including the fairies’ houses. We avoided the older boys’ and older girls’ houses though, since Kari’s brothers and Hollis were younger.
I pretended to be visiting the sick, and Kari and I offered fresh buns to them that I had baked that morning. Some were too sick to eat. The tumors on their skin burdened my heart for them… and reminded me of Hollis. My sister who was still alive. My sister who was here, somewhere, in Summer, hiding just out of my sight.
She had to be here.
I stopped at the last hut for young women. I knocked, slowly, chills running up my arms even in the heat.
The name and face of the man who opened it connected in my mind instantly, though I had only met him once. Tarquin.
Heat flushed into my cheeks. “Oh, never mind. I thought this was where the younger boys or girls—”
“—it is. My sister is here.” He raked his hand through his short brown hair. “I was caring for her and the rest of them since they have no one else to help them.”
Was my sister here, too?
“We came here to…” I cleared my throat, but before I could finish, Kari held out my basket of fresh buns.
“Want some, sir?”
I smiled a little. “We were giving them out to the sick.”
“All right, come on in.”
I searched the room for my sister, but she was nowhere in sight. Kari and I then proceeded to hand fresh buns to the young women. I whispered sympathy to them, but my throat was thick with grief, so my comforting words came out stiff and feeble.
I noticed Tarquin dabbing a wet cloth on a young woman’s forehead. “You’ll be all right, sis,” he murmured.
Silent tears coursed down my cheeks as the truth pounded inside me like a jeering taunt. Hollis would not be all right. She was dead! Why had I been so foolish to hope for her existence? My hope was destroying me, shackling me in lies I had no reason to believe.
“Attention, everyone!” a green fairy roared. Apparently she had slipped into the room when I hadn’t noticed. “Queen Hazina has made a new decree for the lands of Spring, Summer, and Autumn: ‘All the sick must proceed to Winter.’ The ‘sick’ are defined by the queen as ‘those unable to work for her majesty.’ Therefore, if you do not stand up within five seconds, you will be taken immediately to Winter.” Four other green fairies stood by, with chains ready.
I relaxed when I saw Kari hide behind a bed. They couldn’t know a Spring boy was here.
Tarquin and I stood up straight, but the sick young women made feeble attempts to sit up. I stared at Tarquin from across the room, and he stared back, as the fairies took the sick girls away. The door slammed shut.
It was only us now.
“Can I eat a bun?” Kari asked quietly, eyes wide with hunger. I cursed myself for not thinking of getting the little boy breakfast. I usually didn’t eat anything in the mornings.
After telling Kari he could eat the rest of the fresh buns, Tarquin spoke to me. “Dahlia.” His voice was hoarse. “I want you to see something.”
“I’ll be right back, Kari.”
Hesitantly, I followed Tarquin down to the basement.
“The boys wouldn’t let me use theirs, so I come here sometimes and…”
Tarquin lit a lantern, revealing an enormous wooden box, curved into a semi-circle at the bottom.
“It’s called a boat,” he said quietly.
“A boat?” My mind blanked as I stared into his penetrating dark eyes.
“I built it, so I could one day travel across the seas, to the mountains. There are rumors about these people called Treelanders, who live in the forests. I want to meet them, to escape this Summer, and to be free.” He gazed off into the dark basement, but I sensed his mind wandered farther than the boxes and tools shelved there.
Across the seas. I’d only thought about such things as a young child, questioning everything. The unknown didn’t bother me so much anymore. I’d long ago squelched my curiosity, knowing it would never be satisfied.
But here I was, standing before a giant thing called a boat, with a man who built it in the wee hours of the night. A boat built on the foundations of dreams to journey far away from the cruelty of Istagun.
He laughed a little. “Well, I hope so. My father used to tell me stories, so that’s all I had to go off of.”
Suddenly, I frowned. Tarquin was a stranger to me, but he acted as if he’d known me all my life. “Why are you showing me this?”
There wasn’t much of a point in journeying far away when Istagun needed healing. We had to do something about this plague.
Tarquin shrugged. “You and I… we’re some of the only few left here, and—”
“—and we have responsibilities!” I folded my arms across my chest. “You can’t just leave everyone here to die, while you go on a silly adventure to a land far away!”
Tarquin lowered his lantern, so shadows covered his expression. That terrified me. Was this strange man hurt by my words?
“I showed this to you so you’d know, when the time came.” His voice was steady. “But you’re right. Now is not the time for adventures… Now is the time to find Gesu.”
“Yes, Dahlia. He’s the only one who can save us.” He searched my face, as if willing me to believe him. Of course I believed. I had seen him do miracles. Yet his earnestness mirrored Prima’s. Perhaps there was more to believing in what he could do. Perhaps you had to believe in who he was.
I wiped away a stray tear on my cheek, thankful it was too dark for Tarquin to notice. Hollis had to be alive, but if she wasn’t…
“Tarquin,” I whispered, so softly I almost couldn’t hear myself, “can he bring the dead back to life?”
A frown flickered across his face. “I don’t know. Why do you ask?”
“I need to find my sister, Hollis. She’s been sick for years. I don’t know where she is, or even if she’s still…” My voice cracked unexpectedly, and I turned to leave, as tears threatened to spring from my eyes. I couldn’t tell this young man anything.
“Wait, Dahlia,” Tarquin said abruptly. “Is that why you came to this hut? To find your sister?”
“Yeah.” I took a step up the stairs.
I could feel his eyes on my back.
“Let’s go to Autumn to get Gesu,” he said. “He can heal everyone choked by the plague—and your sister, once we find her. She’s probably in Winter. We’ll figure something out and…”
I couldn’t hear the rest of his words as I fled up the stairs, sobbing into my hands. Hollis was dead. If I had any hope left, it was that Gesu could bring her back to life.