As they all approached, the sound of their trills became more clamored and intense. These freshwater dolphins seemed excited to see the visitors. Bhoora splashed back with his enormous paw, but slapping at the water had no effect on the aquatic creatures. They smacked their tails on the water and whistled a joyful sounding melody.
“We can't get distracted. We need to keep praying until we're shown a way across the lake,” Avi said. Zariah didn't join him this time, which took the fun out of it. For the sake of ego, Avi knelt anyway. “Dear Lord. We need—"
Splash! A tight jet of water burst Avi’s concentration. Carina and Zariah were laughing now.
“That one did it,” Carina said, pointing to one dolphin. “Look, I think he’s smiling.” Bhoora was in on the fun now, chasing the pink dolphins through the water. The lumbering bear had no chance of catching any of them as they darted through the water like lightning.
“Come here, Pinky,” Carina said as she reached out her hand, trying to pet one of the large ones. As she went in deeper to try to make acquaintance with her new friend, Pinky, another dolphin zoomed up behind in a blur. At high speed, he turned and fanned his tail sideways. The force sent a towering column of water that knocked Carina over. It sent her tumbling over onto Pinky's back. Bhoora roared like thunder but was too slow to do anything about it. He swiped at the water aggressively.
“Carina!” Zariah said. Avi was on his feet now. With Carina’s body laid over the dolphin, the large mammal took off and swam quickly through the water with Carina on his back.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Carina shouted. The others watched helplessly. Carina’s head barely stayed above the water as the pink dolphin carried her in a wide circle. Carina tried to climb off, but other dolphins who swam next to Pinky prevented her. Bhoora was on his hind legs now, growling and clanging wildly from the shallows, adding to the confusion.
Carina's water mount made another few loops with her on his back. She gained balance. The action looked less accidental. After a few turns, she was sitting, albeit wobbly. Another go, and she was riding famously. Bhoora flopped down from his hind legs when he realized that there was no danger. “Look, I'm riding a dolphin!” Carina said over the sound of the water.
After a few tries, Carina lifted one arm high in the air, confirming her prowess. She held onto the dorsal fin with the other hand as they increased to twice the speed. Carina made a few circles in the water before directing Pinky back to the shore.
“Good job,” Zariah said in Avi’s ear.
“What do you mean?” asked Avi. “She’s the one riding the dolphin.”
“I mean, good job. Your prayer was answered. Even if you were a little slow to recognize it,” Zariah said, smiling. Avi looked at the pink aquatic friends, wondering if his prayer had really done this.
“Would you take us to the island?” Carina asked Pinky. The pink dolphin slapped his tail, sending a plume of water into the air. Bhoora took the brunt of the splash.
“I don't think Bhoora will fit on a dolphin,” Avi said to his sister. She glanced at the grizzly and then at Pinky, doing the math.
“Pinky, do you have any friends that can carry Bhoora?” she said as she patted the soaked bear. She was about to explain again when Pinky jetted from the shallow water, clicking and chirping into the deep. They watched in silence for a long few moments, expecting something to happen.
“What do you suppose—” Avi said, but even before he could get the words out of his mouth, an enormous hump breached the surface of the water far from the shore.
“What is that?” Zariah asked. Carina began laughing as soon as she saw it.
“Oh, wow!” She said as the massive round shape rose out of the waves. It looked like a small island of stone. Bhoora groaned as the shape glided smoothly through the water. When it was only a short distance away, the pink dolphin returned, clicking and chirping excitedly.
“Is that a turtle?” Avi said, but the answer came as he asked it. A head the size of Avi’s entire body bubbled up in front of the colossal turtle shell. Carina waded out to the giant. She slapped the shell and then attempted to climb onto the back. It took a few tries, but she eventually made it to the top.
“This turtle has got to be seven centuries old,” Carina said, as she ran her hand across the surface of the turtle shell island.
“How can you tell,” Avi asked, not at all familiar with aquatic life.
“You can count the rings in one scute, and divide by two if you want to be accurate. But it's quicker to just look at the size,” Carina said, now standing on the middle of the shell. “For a freshwater turtle to get this big, it had to be here since the beginning of the kingdom.”
“Good job, Pinky,” Carina said to the dolphin in the water below. Carina slid down the shell like a giant water slide and splashed into the water.
“Come on, Bhoora,” Avi said to the fearful looking grizzly. “This is your ride.” The brown bear moaned at the notion, eyeing the massive floating shell. Bhoora didn't budge.
“Fine,” Avi said. “You can stay here.” Obviously, Avi would never leave his bear behind, but Bhoora didn't know that. With plodding reluctance, Bhoora crept into the water slowly. He sniffed at the immovable shell floating in the wake before placing a cautious paw on the domed surface. Carina, Zariah, and Avi stood behind the bear and shoved on his rump as he did his best to clamber up the smooth surface. Within a few minutes, Bhoora perched precariously atop the giant turtle. The turtle didn't even seem to notice the weight.
“I’ll go get Rachit,” Avi said.
“No need,” Rachit said. How long he had been watching, none of them knew. “I have to hand it to you, Avi. The King listens to your prayers like no other I’ve seen.”
“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Carina said. “I’ll ride Pinky.” She pointed to a particular dolphin, though Avi couldn’t tell them apart. “The dolphins will be faster, but Rumble will be a smoother ride.”
“Rumble?” Avi asked.
“That’s her name for the turtle,” Zariah said with a grin.
“Yeah, Rumble is the turtle,” she said briefly before returning to her thoughts. “You guys can take a leisurely cruise on Rumble if you like, but I’m going for speed.” She reached for Pinky’s dorsal as the dolphin swam up in a hurry. Carina and Rachit began arguing about the plan. After a few minutes of deliberation, Rachit crawled atop Rumble. Zariah gently touched Avi’s arm.
“Can I talk to you for a second?” Zariah asked. Avi stepped up on the beach with her. He looked down into her deep umber eyes.
“I can’t go to Jazira,” she said.
“What?” he asked. “Why?”
“I think it would be best if I didn’t explain,” Zariah said. She looked down at Avi’s chest. He ducked his head to catch her eye contact once more.
“Well, that’s ok. We’ll find another way. We’ll walk around the lake. It doesn’t matter if it takes some extra time,” he was rambling now. “You might need help again. We’re not sure if you’re really recovered from—”
"Avi, you're good,” Zariah said. Avi could feel himself losing grip. His eyes narrowed, and his heart thumped. “Thank you for all you've done for me.”
“Seriously, Zariah,” Avi said. “We don’t have to go through Jazira. We don’t have to ride the dolphins.”
“But you do,” Zariah said. “You prayed for this. It’s your path.”
“No one takes the path I take,” Zariah said. Her words were a whisper. “You’re going to make Amoli Patel so happy.” She reached out a hand and placed her soft palm against his arm. The touch was as tender as a butterfly’s landing. She turned and began walking down the beach. He watched her for a long time with his feet caught in the drying concrete of indecision.
Avi looked out over the water. Carina was almost out of sight, splashing through the waves. Bhoora and Rachit were both astride the giant turtle. Each was too far gone for him to shout after them. He looked back to the shrinking figure of Zariah moving away at heartbreak speed.