They walked about fifty paces and found a place among the orchard to talk. Amos began. His words came heavily laden with sorrow.
“Avi, you've done your village a great service, but I'm sure you don't know,” Amos said, rubbing his brow. He looked almost troubled, which was a look that rarely came from the Shepherds.
“What service is there that—I mean—what have I done for Sundar?” Avi asked.
“Well, I will explain, and then I'll ask you to do a greater service still.” Amos gestured to the ground, indicating he wished to sit with Avi a while. He continued as they sat near the trunk of the citric-apple tree. “Do you know why the two royal messengers, Eliah and Yacob Bendavid, came to Sundar?” Avi placed a tentative hand over his breast pocket, where he had stored his invitation to the capital, written by the same.
“I think—or I guess I think—they may have said that there was a message to be delivered by them to Sundar, and the other villages of Tamesh, and—or no, that's it, I think,” Avi said, recounting the night that they had come.
“Yes, that is true, but it is not the full story,” Amos explained. “They are royal auditors of the royal house. They came to audit the loyalties of the villages of Tamesh.” Amos let those words sink in for a long moment.
“But what does that mean?” Avi questioned.
“It means they came to find out if Tamesh is still loyal to His Majesty,” Amos said, twisting his mouth into a mournful frown. His heart was racing now.
“We are loyal, and there's no reason to—" Avi said but realized that there were reasons. He had heard whispered rumors but had paid them no mind. “But certainly not Sundar—there was only one or two, but certainly no more—"
“There is reason to think Sundar’s loyalties are waning. They sent Eliah and Yacob as a response to what Sundarians have done.”
“What has Sundar done?” Avi asked sheepishly, truly wishing he didn’t have to hear the answer.
“Several years ago, Sundar’s delegation to the capital arrived late for the festival. The capital auditors found out that their tardiness was not an accident,” Amos said.
“A few years later, they were not only late, but several of them behaved poorly and once again brought shame on all of Tamesh,” Amos said. Tears formed at the corners of Avi's eyes. It was as if the ground beneath his feet was rotten and collapsing.
“Each year, the reports have gotten worse. Last year some individuals who were part of the delegation refused to go up entirely. The deviants took the bus and left the rest of our delegation stranded for two weeks after the festival had ended.”
“As you know, this year’s delegation left over two weeks ago,” Amos said. Avi nodded, knowing what he was about to hear would hurt. “They have not arrived at the sky port in Tamesh City.” Amos paused.
“Why not?” Avi said.
“Yesterday, their skyliner reservation was canceled by one of the ticket holders,” Amos said. A long, heavy silence sat between Avi and the shepherd. His sorrow converted to righteous anger. He felt his heart thumping, but a hope rose amid his rage.
“Maybe they could find another way. Couldn’t they catch a sub-train?”
“Maybe,” Amos said. “But Eliah and Yacob Bendavid think they missed the ferry on purpose. The auditors believe that our delegation plans to miss the festival deliberately, and auditors are rarely wrong.”
Avi slapped his hands to the top of his head and ran his palms down his face. “How could they bring such shame to our province, and to the Emperor?”
“This brings us to your service to this village,” Amos said.
“What could I possibly do?” Avi said. The words felt like chalk in his mouth.
“The night that Eliah and Yacob came to town, they said they had already made up their minds. They sensed a rebellious spirit here in Sundar. They had determined that if our delegation didn’t reach the capital on time, we would suffer immediate consequences,” Amos paused.
“That was what they had planned,” Amos said. “But something changed their minds.”
“What?” Avi begged, beginning to feel like there was some hope.
“An anonymous song, the one Jenil sang, shifted their opinion. Eliah told me that, ‘although there is a spirit of rebellion, there is also a spirit of loyalty mixed within.’”
“You have bought Sundar some time, Avi. We cannot force our delegation to go to the capital. They must decide that for themselves. However, you may have purchased some temporary mercy with your quiet loyalty to His Majesty.”
“What can I do now?” Avi asked.
“I’m going to Tamesh city to find our missing delegation. If I do, I will encourage them to go on to the festival. In the meantime, make your trip, allow it to inspire you. You have a gift, and that gift may make a difference. If you can turn the hearts of our people back toward the King, the people of Sundar will continue their way of life. If Sundar goes rogue, then everything will change. Sundar needs loyalists. Sundar needs you.”
Avi took a deep breath. He had thought his mission was personal, but it was suddenly feeling too big, too heavy, too dangerous. He wasn’t ready.
“This makes me—I mean, I’m very much—” The words were jamming up in his mouth.
“It’s ok, Avi. You make a trip one step at a time. Focus on today. Tomorrow will worry about itself,” Amos said.
“Sir, will you pray with me—and—or now, just pray that my—" Avi looked around, confirming they were alone. “Pray, my fear doesn't get in the way.”
“I’ve prayed that prayer every day since we talked last spring,” Amos said. “I will continue to do so. Please pray for me that I might help turn the hearts of our delegation back toward the King.” At Amos’ words, Avi choked. He had never prayed for a shepherd before. He had not even known they ever needed prayer. Avi sat in stunned silence for a long moment when he realized the shepherd was gesturing him upward. They stood as Amos concluded.
“One final word of warning,” Amos said. “Sundar is not the only place where the seeds of rebellion are taking root. Villages throughout Tamesh and many other lands are reporting similar things. Be cautious out there. Rebellion is a sickness, and none of your kind is above its contagion.”
“Is your kind?”
“That's right; we no longer have to worry about corruption of the heart.”
“That must be nice,” Avi said.
“For the sake of the King and his people, I know you will do your best.”
“For the sake of the King,” Avi repeated, without a single stutter.
They walked back toward the gathering of children and neighbors. Avi had walked into the orchard as light as a bird, and now he walked out with stones tied about his neck. How could he carry such a load? How could he accomplish his task?
He pondered these things as he stepped into the celebrating audience of family and friends. The departure had turned to a clouded ordeal, but no one else seemed dismayed. The celebration of the gathered was a dark contrast against Avi’s heavy heart.
“What was that clandestine rendezvous about?” Carina asked once Avi was back at the truck. Rachit leaned in to hear.
“I will tell you later,” Avi said. At that precise moment, he was trying to think of a way to cancel the trip. It had become too big, too overwhelming. Then he glanced toward Amoli Patel. She was leaning against a tree, smiling at him. The tingle in his belly it elicited gave him what he needed. I’m doing this for you, he thought. He took a chance and ventured a smile but then quickly looked away.
Both Carina and Rachit spoke at the same time.
“Well, let’s go,” said Rachit.
“It’s time to commence with the expedition,” Carina said, cutting in harshly against Rachit’s words. Her interruption was an accident, but she let it stand with no apologies. They looked at each other.
They made their last goodbyes to the jubilant crowd and climbed in the truck. There were thousands of lengths of sky to cover, but Avi had a powerful impulse to stay behind. Rather than make such a decision, he let the momentum of the moment carry him along.
“Here we go,” Carina called.
The engine rumbled as she shifted it into gear. The inertia sent a napping Bhoora sprawling belly up in the truck's bed. He stuck his head up from the rear compartment and gave a hardy growl for the lump he’d just received.
“I can’t believe we’re bringing that grizzled lunk,” Rachit said.
“Ursus Arctos, which is Bhoora’s official binomial nomenclature, are really smart,” Carina said. Rachit exhaled with more volume than a breath ought to have and looked out the window. Avi bit his lip and darted his eyes back and forth.