The sun had set before they chose a place for the esteemed visitors to dine and lodge. A knot twisted in Avi’s stomach when one of Sundar’s most distinguished men, Nimit Patel, took the honor. Avi let his eyes follow Nimit as he returned to his seat from making the arrangements. He sat down next to his daughter, Amoli Patel. She wore a yellow dress. Now that Avi had spotted her location, he did his best to keep his eyes from wandering toward her, though, they often did throughout the night.
After Yacob and Eliah had eaten a generous meal, the Patels uncorked the wine. All of Sundar, it seemed, had come for the occasion, and not only because of the wine. The travelers had everyone sit down in the village square.
“What’d I miss,” said Uncle Rachit as he found a seat next to Avi. He had come late, but wouldn’t miss the historic event.
“Not much. They’re just getting started,” Avi said. A fire had been lit, and its orange glow painted the onlookers' faces as they listened to the stories of Eliah and his brother Yacob. Eliah did most of the talking since Yacob could not speak Tameshi well.
The stories transfixed the crowd as they listened by firelight. Eliah was among “the old ones” and had been one of the first children of the Kingdom. He had firsthand stories stretching back to the coronation of the Emperor and the inauguration of His empire. He spoke in a lofty vocabulary that hinted at an ancient sophistication.
Eliah could command laughter, intrigue, and surprise as if he were a marionette of emotion. His words were powerful in every way. The stories of Eliah and Yacob made Avi long to travel the Kingdom. He wanted stories like that. He imagined the songs that he would sing of his own adventures. He could feel the melodies trickling from each word that Eliah spoke. At various moments, a pause would break the spell, and Avi would remember how much he was afraid to travel. Still, the words were working their strange magic on him.
It must have been hours, judging by the amount of wood consumed by the fire. Eliah told of the world before the war and what the King had done to mediate peace. He talked of the distant nations to which he and his brother had carried royal messages. Much of these stories Avi had heard before from books, but it was magical to hear them from the mouth of ones who had seen the events firsthand.
“There was a time when the beasts were not tame,” Eliah was saying. “Before the Emperor's return, dread-filled the animals when they came in contact with mankind. It wasn't until the King returned and taught man to—" Eliah paused mid-sentence as if someone had interrupted him. Avi had heard nothing, yet Eliah glanced at his brother, who sat behind him. They shared a knowing stare for a second. Something between them remained unspoken. Avi watched their quiet communication, wondering what they knew. The audience waited as Eliah stepped back from the front of the crowd. Yacob rose from his seat. Eliah gestured toward his brother. Yacob was shorter than Eliah, but his shoulders were broader, and his beard a full hand longer. Yacob was serious, even grave in his appearance.
“My brother wishes to speak,” Eliah said. From the gravity of the man, it seemed that while Eliah was the spokesperson, Yacob was the leader. Yacob talked in a throaty vocabulary. Eliah translated.
“We have many more villages to visit before our journey's end. Sundar has been very hospitable. We must, however, retire for the night; we have not yet adjusted to Tameshi time,” Eliah translated. The gathered crowd laughed politely. He turned but paused. He glanced at his brother, and once again, they held eye contact as if something remained unsaid. Eliah spun back to the crowd. Yacob's face carried with it the look of solemnity. His features were sharp, possibly even sad. His voice sounded anguished as he continued. Eliah translated.
"I pray that you remain faithful to the Emperor, my dear friends.” There was a long pause, heavy with undecipherable meaning. For hours Eliah had been sharing stories of the Kingdom, but now there was some unspoken deepness. Eliah finished with a simple, “Thank you.”
Some people had already returned home for the night, but those who remained stood and dusted themselves off. Avi watched Amoli Patel as she allowed her Father, Nimit, to help her up. The evening’s festivities had ended. He thought of the dark note on which the gathering had concluded. As the crowd was dispersing, a shout rang out.
“Would you like to have a goodnight song before you go to bed?” The baritone bellow reverberated throughout the crowd. It was Rachit. Avi hoped it was not loud enough to resound over the milling audience. He was afraid of what Rachit might put him up to. “We have one of Tamesh's finest composers right here in Sundar,” Rachit added.
Avi squirmed. He ducked his head, trying to figure out how he might escape before Rachit undid his closely guarded secret. Avi glanced dangerously at Amoli Patel, who was smiling in Rachit’s direction.
Avi's throat felt like he had swallowed a citric-apple whole. He could not. He would not. He feared his pounding heart would give him away. Avi turned to glare at Rachit. His Uncle just grinned with delight and mouthed the words, “Here's your chance.”
Rachit’s offer got the two capital men’s attention. Eliah first glanced at Rachit and quickly turned to his brother. They both smiled, which was a welcome reprieve from the heaviness on which the gathering had ended. Maybe they are too tired for a song, Avi hoped.
“We would love that,” Eliah said. With the words, Avi could feel the lump in his throat grow to a pumpkin. Heat was pouring from the top of his head. His mind was spinning now. Rachit nodded to Avi as if to say, stand and sing. Avi froze with terror. The moment was a torturous eon, as Avi stared back at his betrayer.
“What song should I sing for You, Honorable Sirs?” came a voice from the back of the crowd. Both Avi and Rachit looked toward the words. It was Jenil, the village's beloved old sing-poet. He was standing, proudly moving through the thick throng toward the front. At once, Avi felt a wave of relief. Jenil would do the singing, and Avi could keep his invaluable anonymity. The turning in Avi's stomach slowed, and his heart decreased its incessant tempo. Avi could see that Uncle Rachit was disappointed.
“Sing, I long to see the King in his Hallowed land,” Rachit called out over the crowd. He persisted. It was one of Avi’s compositions, and Jenil had led the town choir in its performance only the night before. The villagers agreed vigorously. Their enthusiasm warmed Avi’s beating heart, but the request was still too close for comfort.
He watched as the seasoned sing-poet took up his place at the front of the audience and turned toward the two honored visitors. He cleared his throat, inclined his head slightly in respect, and sang.