The impressive-looking man needed no introduction. They had known who he was at once. Anyone from Tamesh would know his face. He was tall and lean looking. His skin beamed brighter than any shepherd Avi had ever seen. His crown, made of five thick rings of gold, beset with a fine glowing stone of incredible brightness, rested atop his head.
“Pleased to meet you,” Avi said as he inclined his head slightly. “This is my sister—" he was saying, but King Hans cut him off.
“Carina,” he said enthusiastically. “And Rachit. Shepherd Oksana, the governess of Jazira Island, sent word.” They looked on in dumbfounded amazement. The thought of a governess messaging the Low King of Tamesh on their behalf was too much.
“Are we in trouble?” Avi asked.
“No, on the contrary, you’ve had a pig!” King Hans laughed. The three looked at each other at his strange idiom. “It’s something we used to say. It means, you’ve been fortunate.” He gestured for them to follow him. He turned and walked. “I have another appointment shortly, but I didn't want to miss my chance to meet you, Avi.”
They passed through the giant doors into a pearlescent room the likes of which Avi had never seen. The light that poured from Hans and his entourage's bodies bounced around the room, making a kaleidoscope effect.
“You’re from Sundar?” Hans asked. Though, he was sure Hans already knew the answer.
“Yes,” he responded.
“Wonderful place, Sundar. It used to be where fox and hare say goodnight, but it’s amazing how it’s all grown up so fast,” Hans said as they turned the corner and left the pearl room behind. “That’s why it’s such a shame what’s happening in Sundar.”
“What—um—what’s happening in Sundar?” Avi asked, not sure what he meant.
“You passed through Endale, did you not?” Hans asked.
“Yes—It was strange to see Endale come to an end. I didn’t know that could happen.”
“Everything has an end, only Bratwürst has two,” Hans said. Avi tilted his head and furrowed his brow. He tried again.
“It was terrible. It has been under a drought for some time as far as we could tell.”
“Exactly,” Hans explained. Avi still didn’t get it. He begged further.
“Has— Has drought come to Sundar while we've been away?” Avi asked. His stomach was in a knot now. He thought of his parents and his dozen siblings who lived at home.
“No, not yet,” said shepherd Hans. “Though it is not far off if the current trend continues. That's why your mission is so important.”
“Our mission?” Avi asked, wanting to be sure he understood.
“Yes. In the days since you began your journey, a terrible thing has happened. Sundar’s delegation to Jerusalem has disbanded. They’ve openly refused to go to the capital.”
“But—I thought Shepherd Amos could convince them—” Avi said.
“Unfortunately, the shepherd of Sundar could not turn them around,” Hans said.
“Why is that such a big deal?” Carina asked. The entourage stopped walking, and the hallway fell silent. It was quiet enough to hear a dragonfly's breath. King Hans spoke gravely as if he were quoting from some ancient tome.
“If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, they will have no rain,” Hans said. He looked at each of them. “That is why it is a ‘big deal.’ If a delegation from Sundar does not arrive at this year’s festival, Sundar will face drought. Everyone you know will have to migrate to a new home. Those who don’t will eventually starve or die of thirst. The King has declared it.”
As if in one voice, Hans’s entourage echoed his last words, “The King has declared it!” Their voices echoed against the walls. They paused in the hall before a large door. One of Hans’s attendants pulled on the lever. They continued into another giant room. A banquet table sat in the center, surrounded by at least a hundred chairs. There were workers bustling around in preparation.
“So, what can we do about the missing delegation?” Avi asked.
“Tag, you're it,” Hans said as he gave Avi a gentle tap on the arm. He smiled, but Avi and the others clearly didn't get it. They laughed mildly but stayed focused on the point. “It's kind of like, 'got your goat.'"
“Do you mean—are you saying—that you want us to be Sundar’s delegation to Jerusalem?” Avi said.
“Yes,” Hans said as he inspected the place settings along the massive wooden table. “We really have no choice. Generally, Sundar would send a delegation of twenty-four, but sending two is better than none.”
“Don’t you mean three?” Avi asked. “There are three of us.”
“Not according to your skyliner flight manifest.” An attendant handed King Hans a flat translucent device. “Only two of you are booked for flights to Jerusalem. Avi and Carina Mallick. Also, there is a stowage kennel booked for Bhoora. There is no record of a flight scheduled for Rachit.”
“That must be a mistake,” Avi said as he looked to his uncle. Rachit wiped sweat from his forehead. Avi was about to try and explain the misunderstanding away, but Rachit interrupted.
“It is no mistake, my King,” Rachit said. “I did not tell them about my plan.” Carina and Avi gave their full attention to Rachit.
“Your plan?” Carina screeched.
“You’re not planning to make the rest of the trip with us?” Avi asked.
“We should talk about this later,” Rachit said in a whisper, not taking his eyes off of Low King Hans. “We don’t want to waste King Hans's time.”
“Three would be better than two,” Hans said to Rachit. “I won't force you to go, but if you find it in your heart to accompany Carina and Avi, there is room on my shuttle for you.”
"On your shuttle?” Avi asked. He was no longer concerned with Rachit's intended absence. If he had heard correctly, he was being invited to fly with the King's entourage.
“Yes,” Hans said. “I’m glad we caught you before you boarded the skyliner. As you know, they are slow. They lumber through the sky like a team of obstinate oxen. My shuttle is much more…” he paused for a moment to reach for the right word. “Well, it's blazing fast. You'll love it.” He laughed. “I was a pilot on Old Earth, but we had nothing like what we have today. It will make the trip a cat’s jump. It's incredible!” It made Carina and Avi giggle to see King Hans bubbling on like a child about his spaceplane.
“Is your shuttle a vacloft assist vehicle?” Carina asked Hans.
“Oh, yes,” Hans said. “You know your aerospace tech.”
“She knows all kinds of things, we hardly have a clue what she's talking about half the time,” Avi said. He smiled and glanced at Rachit, expecting him to corroborate. Avi was surprised; Rachit was entirely disengaged from the conversation and staring at the floor.
“I can’t wait to show you guys what my shuttle can do,” Hans said. “We’ll leave for Jerusalem later this week.”
Avi and Carina looked at one another, hardly able to contain their excitement. They would get to ride in a royal orbital-shuttle. Once again, Avi glanced at Rachit, hoping to see some excitement. He was sweating and shifted uncomfortably. Rachit's aloof brooding perplexed him.
"Now, there is one more thing,” Hans said. “Shepherd Oksana tells me you are quite the sing poet. She says that you wrote a song for Jazira on the spot. Apparently, it strengthened the faith of many of her island's inhabitants.”
“That is—She is very kind to say that,” Avi said. “But, I'm not really a sing poet.”
"So, did you not write a song for Jazira?” Hans asked.
“Well, yes, but—”
“And did you sing it for the village of Jazira?” Hans said.
“I—yeah but—I’m just a farmer’s kid from—”
"Sounds to me like you're a sing poet, Avi,” Hans said. Avi got quiet, not willing to disagree further with a member of the ruling class. Carina picked up the baton.
“My brother has a God-given talent. His songs are amazing,” Carina said. Avi shoved against Carina’s arm, embarrassed. “Even the family can hardly ever get him to sing, but we listen to him when he thinks he’s alone, humming his tunes in the garden, or the orchard, or—”
“Fraulein, your admiration of your brother is adorable,” Hans said. “Avi, I would like you to sing for our banquet tonight. Many governors will be in attendance. I would be honored to have you share your God-given talent with my guests. The bear dances there.”
“You will have a dancing bear?” Carina asked.
“No, not literally—” Hans said but Carina caught the intention.
“Oh, it’s an idiom?”
“Yes,” Hans said, and then turned to Avi. “So what do you say, Avi? Will you sing for my banquet?”
“I—uh—I don’t think I—,” Avi croaked, hardly able to breathe. He stammered as he spoke. “That’s very nice but—”
“I don’t want to ask for extra bratwürst, but could you sing an original composition? I would like you to compose an Anthem for Tamesh. I want it to be a song that can go out among the regions of our province. Parts of Tamesh are turning their backs on the Emperor. I would like you to write a song-poem to draw them back.”
"This is all very—" Avi tried but couldn't speak. There were little dancing stars around the edges of his vision. Singing in the garden alone, or even for an island of thirty-eight, was one thing. Singing for a banquet hall filled with the heads of state was another matter altogether.
“How long shall you require to prepare?” King Hans asked.
“A hundred and twelve years,” Avi choked, trying at an awkward smile.
“Well,” Hans laughed. “We have about three hours.”
“Sir—” Avi begged. “You honor me with such a request, but I’m not ready for that kind of responsibility.”
“I tell you what,” Low King Hans said. He turned to one of his attendants among his entourage and instructed, “Hasani, block out a few minutes this afternoon. I'll meet with Avi in the library, and we will discuss his new composition.” He then turned back in their direction. “Does that work for you, Avi?”
“Yes, but I just don't know if—" he said.
“Don't decide now. I’ll add my mustard to it when we meet. If you still wish to decline the offer, I will not obligate you,” Hans said.
“Wonderful.” Hans said. He turned to Rachit and remarked. “Herr Mallick, you look like a fish on the dry. I suspect before the week is through you won’t have tomatoes on your eyes. Don’t worry. We’ll get to where the dog is buried yet. It will be as clear as dumpling broth.” He paused to allow Rachit to respond, though he simply looked confused. When Rachit didn’t respond Hans turned back to Avi.
“My scheduler will give you details. As for your sister and uncle-Jamie, please show them to a spare room where they can rest.”
“May they attend the banquet as well?” Avi requested.
“Unfortunately, that won’t be possible at this time, but there will be plenty of space at a secondary banquet hall for Carina and Rachit,” Hans said.
With that, the group split, Avi followed one attendant named Hasani toward the library as Rachit and Carina followed another toward the palace's guest residence spaces.