"We do not get very many visitors to Jazira. As you can see, your arrival is an exciting occasion,” shepherd Oksana said. As she spoke, a young boy appeared with plates of food heaped with a tasty looking supper.
“Wild rice, fire-baked water chestnut, taro, steamed caltrop, and aquatic spinach,” the boy said before disappearing. A young girl followed behind with two goblets of wine, curtsied awkwardly, and handed them to Avi and Carina.
“Wow, thank you!” Avi said first, as Carina echoed. Avi determined that he needed to put away his feelings about Zariah’s departure. He shoved his sadness down hard as he did his best to focus on the conversation. “Do you grow all of this on the island?”
"My people are brilliant water gardeners. Your dolphins brought you right through our blue lotus patch. They have a delectable lotus cake, which we will have for dessert if my nose is telling the truth,” Oksana said joyfully.
“It looks delicious!” Carina blurted. Avi agreed enthusiastically.
“Is this meal just for us?” Avi asked.
“Yes and no. We eat together as a village each night,” Oksana said as others passed out plates. The smell of the food was like coming home. It reminded him of so many nights in the city center of Sundar. It made him long to see his family, his mother, and father, even his siblings. “You are our unexpected honored guests. The Joplin family prepared tonight's meal. We pass the honor around on a rotating schedule.” Turning to the crowd, she raised her voice gently so that all could hear.
“Let us thank the Lord for his generosity,” Oksana said as the crowd grew quiet. A man rose, unprompted as far as Avi could tell. His voice was steady and vibrant.
“Lord Emperor, thank you for all that you’ve provided. Many glad returns we shall offer back as well, for our friends who have come from across the lake. Amen.”
They ate as soon as the prayer concluded. The Joplins had seasoned everything to perfection. They welcomed into their hungry mouths a range of flavors they had never tasted before. The flavors were like a beloved and familiar tale told with a delightfully foreign accent. They devoured with adamant gratitude as the warmhearted conversation unfolded. The shepherd was the last to receive her plate.
“Tell friends, where are you headed?” Oksana asked.
“Jerusalem,” Carina blurted out. At her admission, the audience of city folk cooed with delight. Their eyes widened in the amber hue the fire cast on their faces.
“It is like no other place in the solar system,” Oksana said. “Have either of you ever been to Jerusalem before?”
“Rachit has,” Avi said before he remembered that Rachit had not yet arrived on the island. “Though he won't tell me about his trip for some reason.”
“Rachit of Sundar,” Oksana said. “He has his reasons.”
“You know Rachit?” Avi asked.
“I know of him, though he has never met me,” Shepherd Oksana said. “He is tight-lipped for a good reason. Give him space. I believe he will eventually tell you about his time in Jerusalem. It was an unpleasant experience for him.” Avi could not believe what he was hearing. He had assumed that the shepherd's knowledge of unknowable things applied only to their own local flock. However, this shepherd exhibited the same clairvoyance as any he'd ever met. How do they do that?
“Tell us about the capital,” a voice from the crowd called.
“Oh, this will be our first time,” Avi explained, saddened not to give the crowd what they wanted. “Zariah, another one of our companions, has been to the capital. She has told me a few things, but not enough.”
“And where is Zariah from?” Shepherd Oksana asked. Avi wrinkled his nose.
“I don’t know.”
“Are you making this long trip on foot?” Oksana asked.
“We began with a hover truck. When it was out of fuel, we walked,” Avi said.
“Our other companions are riding a giant turtle,” Carina said, still excited from the experience. The crowd laughed at her enthusiasm.
“Ahh, yes. We have a close partnership with our aquatic friends. I’m glad that they brought you to us,” Oksana said. A friendly lull in the conversation followed. Avi gulped the wine and took a healthy mouth full of each of the helpings his plate offered. He looked at the city around as he chewed. The buildings were so small, mostly made from the wood found on the island.
“May I ask a question,” Avi requested abruptly once he had swallowed.
“Yes,” Oksana responded.
“I grew up in a small town, but not nearly as—I mean to say that the size of this town is—”
“Tiny?” Oksana said.
“Well, yes,” Avi admitted. “The shepherds of Sundar, where I'm from, govern a much larger region. Earlier today, I met a resurrected man who governs nothing at all. I mean no disrespect, is this little island the entire size of your flock or is there more somewhere else?” Avi said, hoping it would not be rude to ask such a probing question.
“That is not a disrespectful question. In fact, it is very important,” Oksana said. “This tiny island of thirty-eight people is my entire charge. Though it is about to be thirty-nine.” She nodded at a pregnant woman sitting in the crowd.
“Why, then, is your flock so small?” Avi said, ignoring the comment about the pregnant woman.
“It’s quite simple, really. During my mortal life on Old Earth, I was not as committed to the King as I could have been,” Oksana said.
“Why?” Carina blundered awkwardly, spinach protruding from her crunching mouth.
“It was a very different time,” Oksana said. “Rebellion was rampant, even easy. The world was under the sway of an evil warlord, a dark spirit. The old world celebrated evil. It was a dark time of chaos and confusion. This didn't excuse my unfaithfulness, but it made it easier to ignore the path of righteousness.”
“I’m confused,” Avi said. “Isn’t it a free gift? Your eternal life in the Kingdom, I mean?”
“It is. None, including me, deserve to be here. It is a gift to be a citizen of this magnificent land,” Oksana responded.
“Then why does it matter how you lived in your previous life if eternal life in the Kingdom is a gift?” Avi said.
“Eternal citizenship in this amazing kingdom was given free to those from Old Earth who believed in Him. It’s a gift to those who believed, but our capacity for joy here derives from how we behaved in our mortal lives on Old Earth,” Oksana said.