The evening weather had been so pleasant that Avi and his family slept under the stars. Although everyone else had slumbered soundly, their small fruit orchard provided the backdrop for Avi’s sleepless night. He tossed and turned under the fruit-laden branches, reconsidering his near encounter with Eliah and Yacob.
Before the sun was up, Avi was on his way to town. The deep indigo of the night sky was relinquishing its hold as tendrils of orange light poured through the heavens. His feet carried him thoughtlessly as he wrung his hands. He could not shake the idea that the lyrics of his song had offended the royal travelers. What made me think I could write a song about the Emperor's capital. What if I've committed heresy or even treason with my faulty song? He had to find them. He had to admit he was the composer. He had to beg their forgiveness.
He arrived at Nimit Patel’s home, where Eliah and Yacob had lodged for the night, as the sun crested the horizon. Avi’s knuckle rapped on the door without a thought. As soon as he heard the knocking of his own hand on the wood, he realized that he had made a mistake. He was at her house. Hopefully, it would not be—The door opened to the face of the beautiful girl. Amoli yawned. Avi choked. He tried to clear his throat. He felt like he might burp up a live frog.
“Can I help you?” she said.
“I—uh—or—” he stammered, though no intelligible words emerged from his lips.
“Are you looking for the travelers?” Amoli asked. He couldn’t respond. “You’re like the fiftieth person to come looking for those two guys from wherever. I’m tired of telling all you people the same things. They are not here! They left before the sun was up.” She looked like she would slam the door but then paused.
“Is there something wrong with you?” Amoli asked. “Why are you so red? Are you choking or something?” she disappeared into the house, leaving the door open. “Dad, this guy is out here. I think he needs some help or something.”
Avi took the opportunity and ran for his life. Another second in the presence of his beloved, and he would perish for sure. He ducked into an alleyway, out the back, and sprinted for the nearest patch of trees. Once he hid in the grove of old Oaks, he placed his palm against a trunk and leaned over.
What had he been thinking? He had made a strategic mistake. He should have seen it coming. As he caught his breath, his chest loosened. He waited a long while in the shadowy morning air to make sure no one followed.
His heart had been pounding in his ears so loudly; it was a surprise he had heard anything Amoli Patel had said. However, she had given him what he needed. The two travelers had left before the sun. He knew where they would be. He moved cautiously to the grand building, which stood at the end of the main street.
The Shepherd's estate loomed large before him. The village of Sundar stood around its lofty arches. It was the tallest structure in town, but that was not a very high mark to beat. Its size was not a demand for opulence by the Shepherds but meant to suit the needs of local government.
Avi rarely had reason to enter the Shepherd's estate, but he knew from a handful of school field trips that it housed a couple of dozen offices for locally appointed officials, a town hall for announcements, a rarely used courtroom, and various other spaces for a score of municipal purposes.
Despite having the space to do business, the shepherds were more often outside of the estate. They seemed to spend most of their time among the villagers in public services such as teaching, guiding, and sharing personal wisdom. Rarely a month had gone by in all his years, that he hadn't had some contact with one of the village's shepherds.
Avi gulped hard, now standing in the shadow of the imposing edifice. The archway crowned the main entrance of the premiere building. Decorative granite outlined the figures of gold gilding. As Avi climbed the steps, wilt washed over his skin. What will I say?
The questions bounced around his mind like a rock in a jar. He reached for the rings hanging from the heavy oaken doors. He pulled, allowing the weight of the doors to carry them open as he stepped aside and then in.
The marble and gold interior didn’t match the local architecture, but it was an impressive sight. It was a palpable demonstration of the empire’s power, even in this remote corner of the world-wide autocracy. Avi felt out of place. He wondered what hidden roles these tireless and mysterious workers fulfilled. Avi wasn’t even sure if they ever slept.