Bhoora, the giant grizzly bear, was snoozing lazily in the orchard. Margreth was sleeping in the afternoon sun, leaning against his tawny fur. The light danced through the orchard branches and dappled the ground below. Bhoora rolled over, and Margreth lost her bear pillow.
“What ya doing?” she said. Avi froze.
“Oh, sorry, Sis, I was trying not to wake you.”
“I was just getting some citric apples,” Avi said, reaching up into the lower branches. He pulled one and tossed it to Margreth. She bit it and scrunched up her face.
“The best ones are at the top,” she said. She laid it down next to Bhoora. He wasn’t picky and would certainly devour it when he woke.
“Come on,” Margreth said as she leaped to the bottom branch. She hung there, waiting for Avi to join her.
“Oh, I don’t want to get my shirt dirty,” Avi said. Or my shoes, or my pants, or my hands, he didn’t say.
“Do like Bhoora. Lick clean.”
“Yeah,” Avi laughed. She was persistent, hanging there waiting for him to climb.
“Are you coming?”
He shoved her up onto the branch and then climbed into the tree himself. His kid sister was more motivated to get to the top. She sprinted upward like a lemur. Avi was cautious, trying to protect himself from stains and sap. Though he didn’t want to tell his kid sister, he also wasn’t fond of heights.
Margreth topped out first, finding a perch in the wispy branches of the upper tree. The wind rocked her leeward in the sway. Avi was afraid that such tiny twigs wouldn’t hold his weight, so he found a resting spot a few branches below. Margreth went to work on the fruits.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “This is much better.” She plucked a citric apple and tossed one to him. He caught it and bit.
“Oh, wow. You’re right,” he said. “How’d you know to come up here for the good stuff?”
“Low fruit fills the belly. The high fruit fills the heart.”
“Oh yeah,” he said, recognizing the familiar phrase as a local cliché. She had taken it literally. The young were always such staunch literalists.
“What does it mean?” Margreth asked.
“Well—" he said, trying to think of a way to explain in an age-appropriate way.
“I been coming up here to fill my heart for weeks, but it don’t seem to be any more full,” she said. Avi laughed.
“It’s a metaphor. It means, like, if you just go for what’s easy, then you’ll miss out on what’s better. The fruit up high is worth the climb, just like things hard to do are worth doing because the reward is better.”
She took a dripping bite as she looked down at him, listening. He glanced away. They were high enough to see the sun-bathed treetops of the orchard. Beyond stood the only lake in Sundar, fed by the creek that wound down from the hill country. It ended in a little waterfall, splashing into the blue body of water. Beyond, upon a rise in the landscape sat Sundar's center, a meager stretch of buildings rimming several streets. Somewhere among those houses was Amoli Patel's house. What was she doing right now? He could envision her possibly reading in the sun, or—
“Why do you look sad?” Margreth asked.
“I'm—" he was about to claim he wasn't, but then paused, realizing he ought not lie. He picked at a place on the bark.
“I didn’t get something I wanted,” he said.
“Here.” She tossed down another citric apple. He didn’t look up in time, and the fruit went plummeting down the tree, hitting most of the branches as it tumbled. It thumped as it hit Bhoora’s napping body. A confused moan grundled from the sleeping bear. Avi and Margreth tried to suppress their laugher, hoping not to give away their location. Bears could climb too.
“When I don’t get what I want, I try not to cry cause momma says grownups only cry sometimes, and I want to be a good grownup,” Margreth said.
“What did you want?” Margreth asked. Avi looked toward Sundar once more.
“I wanted the fruit to be easy to reach.”
“Could have stayed on the ground,” she said. He closed his eyes, thinking about what his father had asked him to do. It was frightening but less so than the alternative.
“Dad wants me to make pilgrimage.”
"Oh, oh, oh, Can I come?” Margreth begged. “I won't get in the way. I'll be a good girl, and I can climb the trees for the best fruit for the trip cause you need good fruit for a trip.”
“I’m not going,” he said. Margreth’s eyes widened, and she stopped chewing. In the silence, Avi turned his head skyward.
“You going to disobey Daddy?” she whispered in awe. “The Emperor says that Children are supposed to—”
“No, of course not!” he said. She went back to chewing. “He didn’t command me to go, he—”
“Yeah, something like that.”
Avi was about to explain, but the moan of a hover vehicle pulled his attention away from the conversation. Coming down the narrow dust billowing drive was Carina’s truck. The patchy branches and the distance hid the rusted spots, but Avi would know it by sound alone. It ground to a stop and landed in the yard at the base near the trunks of the trees. Bhoora rose with a groan at the unwanted intrusions into his nap.
“Avi,” Carina, his twin, called as she exited her truck. The vehicle was a model from the pre-kingdom era, though Carina had customized it with modern technology and now kept it running by sheer force of will and ingenuity. “Avi, where are you?”
“He’s up here,” Margreth shouted.
“Margreth,” Carina said, shielding her eyes with her hands against the radiant sky. “Where is everyone?”
“Avi is here, and everyone else is in the forest.”
“Come on, you won’t believe what a tremendous fortune has befallen us,” Carina said. Avi rolled his eyes at his twin’s ridiculous vocabulary. Before she finished her sentence, Margreth was swinging from branch and limb toward the ground. She spun on the last branch and nailed the landing. She looked up.
“What is it? What is it?” Margreth asked Carina. Avi, more slowly, maneuvered down the tree. He did his best to keep the sap from soiling his tennis shoes. By the time he reached the ground, Carina had run toward the forest line with Margreth in tow. Avi leaned his back against the trunk as he waited.
Bhoora circled and sniffed. Avi had the smell of a sweeter kind of fruit than the bear had access to on the ground. In a few minutes, Carina returned with the family parading behind. She was walking fast.
"Are you going to sit, sulk, and sour?” she asked as she passed by Avi on her way to the truck.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Someone from the capital,” Margreth boasted as she trailed behind her big sister. Tanis, Jamesh, Dabeet, and Lyla all raced for their place in line. Avi’s mother, with little Galiun in her arms, followed in the wake of the thronging family. Their father was last, gesturing for Avi to join.
"Someone from the—?” Avi asked as he rose quickly. “Who?” Now he was following the crowd. Carina started lifting the little ones into the truck. She began counting to make sure they all were there. At the end of the line, Bhoora lazily followed, apparently assuming he would be included.
“No,” Carina said, putting up a finger in Bhoora’s face. The bear hung his head low. Avi gave him a quick scratch as he climbed into the back with the kids. As their father and mother moved toward the cab of the truck, Avi asked once more.
“Who is it?”
“One of the Emperor’s chosen,” his dad said.
“Really?” Avi replied. The kids were awash with shouts and laughter as Carina revved up the lev-charger and pulled up. I guess this means Amoli Patel will be there, he thought. The feverish excitement and abject terror rose with every measure of altitude the truck gained.