“Is this Avi of Sundar?” A voice said from behind his chair.
“It is,” Hasani offered. “Would you like to meet him?”
“Absolutely,” the voice said. Now Avi was on his feet, standing before an unfamiliar man whom he had never met. The characteristic glow, brighter than many shepherds Avi had seen, and the rings upon his head marked high royalty.
“Avi, may I introduce you to the governor of Philidine, Chung,” Hasani said in a formal tone.
“Pleased—to—to meet you, Sir,” Avi said as he reached out to shake the glowing hand.
“The pleasure is all mine,” Chung returned. “We’ve been hearing about you all over the seven provinces. Your song, I long to see the King in his Hallowed land, is the favorite of not a few of the sing-poets in our region.”
“I—uh—" Avi tried to speak. He could hardly believe what he had just heard. Philidine was on the other side of the Craggy Mountains. How could they know a song that he had written for little Sundar? Not to mention the fact that even in Sundar, no one knew that Avi had written it. Apparently, his secret was no secret at all. Avi tried to form a thought and give it words, but another shepherd spoke before he could express his astonishment.
“Is this the guest of honor?” another of the distinguished Royals said with urgency. “You’re not trying to have him all to yourself, are you, Chung?”
Chung turned to the woman who had approached and greeted her warmly as if they were old friends. “Deena!” He said, clearly happy to see her.
“Well, introduce me already,” she said playfully.
“This is Avi of Sundar,” Chung said as he gestured toward Avi. Deena was beaming with excitement to make his acquaintance. Avi reached out his hand. Deena didn't take it but wrapped her arms around him in a warm embrace. After the hug, she held onto his shoulders and spoke vibrantly only inches from his face.
“Thank you, Avi!” she said with a wide smile. “Your faithfulness to the Emperor has inspired those in Dubree where I serve.”
“Dubree?” Avi said. This was too much. Dubree was at the furthest tip of the continent. Avi wondered if maybe they had misunderstood who he was. He had never known shepherds to make that kind of mistake, but how in the King’s green world could this be true.
“We want to meet him too,” another unfamiliar voice said. A half dozen glowing figures surrounded Avi, all crowned with gold. They all seemed to speak at once. It was a flurry of handshaking and introductions. They were all especially kind, but Avi felt like someone owed him an explanation.
“Avi!” a familiar but unexpected voice said. He turned toward the words.
“Amos,” Avi said. Amos was the chief shepherd of Avi's hometown, Sundar, and a welcome sight. Both junior shepherds were at his side, Malika and Elof. Avi hugged them all, remembering the day they had been there to commission his journey. It was both surprising and comforting to see them in their glowing visage crowned with gold, among the others. “I'm so glad to see you guys,” Avi's audience gave a collective 'aww' at their warm reunion.
“Might I borrow the guest of honor for a few moments?” Amos said to those who had gathered around Avi.
“As long as you promise to bring him back, Amos,” Chung said. Amos gently ushered him away from his eager admirers.
“How are you?” Amos asked once they were in a more private corner of the banquet hall. “You look a little anxious.”
“I—uh—I’m ok,” Avi said.
“And your companions?” Amos questioned.
“Well,” Avi hesitated. “My sister is doing well.” At the words, he realized that he was fighting to hold back a tearful wash.
“What is it?” Amos asked.
“The trip hasn't gone as I expected. We met a rebel in Endale, oh, and Endale is under a drought also Rachit has been acting really strange and my bear, Bhoora, is missing, and we met a girl, Zariah, but she abandoned—I mean she went a different way, and now I'm confused because everyone here seems to know me, but I don't know them, and I don't—" He ran out of words.
“You have quite a lot weighing on you,” Amos said.
“I’m just not sure what’s going on. They all seem to know me. I don’t understand why.”
Amos patted him on the shoulder as he explained. “Your story has been spreading. Your songs are being sung throughout the continent. For that matter, they are being heard in most of the seventy-two nations.”
“But how? I mean, Shepherd Chung said they knew one of my songs that was only sung in Sundar a few times. How did they know I wrote it? How do they know it in the Philidine and Dubree? I've never been there.” Avi said. Even still, the idea seemed strange and out of place.
“Look around, Avi,” Amos said. “What do you see?”
Avi took a long look at the gallery. Glorified people filled the chamber. Their luminous figures made the room absolutely glow with light. As he scanned across the faces, he saw joy and excitement. They talked enthusiastically. It wasn't the awkward conversation of first-time acquaintances. There was hugging and enjoyment. It was like a family reunion, a banquet of the beloved. Avi finally ventured an answer.
“I see friends,” Avi said.
“Family!” Avi said, discovering the word as if it was always there but just now coming into focus.
“That’s right,” Amos said. “These royal shepherds, and all those resurrected by the Emperor, are my immediate family. They are my brothers and sisters.”
“Wow,” Avi said with honest astonishment as he looked across the grand hall. It was like he could see strands of powerful interconnectedness, interwoven among these amazing creatures. These, the Emperor’s royal shepherds, were all connected.
He had been vaguely aware that the shepherds probably knew each other on some level. Now he realized that knew was not nearly a strong enough word. They were one. They were like a body, moving as a single person throughout the kingdom. They were like an ever-connected safety net that the Emperor had stretched across the one-world empire. The royal shepherds were intertwined in a way hard for Avi to grasp.
“You're my family too, Avi,” Amos explained. “Mortals don't yet share the connection that the resurrected redeemed possess, but the connection exists between all of those loyal to the King.”
“That’s amazing,” Avi said. “But that still doesn’t answer my question. Why do they know about me and my songs?”
“But doesn’t it answer your question, after all?” Amos said. Avi squinted. “What do families do? Especially close families?” Avi did not immediately see his point. “What are they doing now?” Amos added.
“Talking,” Avi said.
“That’s right. Shepherds talk. We share. We discuss our sheep.”
“But you’re so spread out,” Avi said.
“Physical distance is no barrier for the Lord's redeemed.” At that, Amos smiled, knowing he had revealed something that Avi was altogether unaware of.
“Do you mean you can—” He didn’t even have a word for what he was thinking. Amos tapped his finger to his head.
“We talk, but not always with words and sounds,” Amos said. Avi was wholly overwhelmed.
“You can talk without talking?” Avi said.
“When we’re together like tonight,” Amos said, motioning to the room. “We prefer to speak aloud. When we’re apart, we communicate in other ways.”
“A little while ago, I was with Low King Hans, and he prayed. It was like the Emperor was there in the room.”
“Ah, you saw a manifestation. That’s rare for your kind to see. My kind always has the Lord with us, and we are always with His Majesty in spirit, even when we are not with him physically. Even at this moment, I feel his presence.”
Avi considered this for a long moment before he returned to the question at hand.
“But why?” he said as he looked at the room of glowing world leaders. “Why are you all talking about me?”
“The Emperor's royals celebrate faithfulness in all it's forms. We share stories of those who are demonstrating loyalty to His Majesty. When those stories are worthy of repeating, we even share them with the mortal inhabitant whom we serve. In fact, you've heard more than a few stories from the shepherds which have come to Sundar in this way.”
“I never knew that’s where the shepherd’s stories came from,” Avi said.
“I have much more to tell you. I have news from Sundar, but as for now, we are about to begin the banquet.” Amos said as the room grew hushed. Avi could not see any obvious indicator why the crowd had quieted, but the room fell deadly silent.
As if on cue, when the last whisper died, a voice cried out from the main entrance.
“Now presenting, Low King Of Tamesh, Hans Jürgen Schneider.” At the words of the crier, the room erupted in applause. Avi looked back to Amos and whispered.
"How did you know we were about to start?” Once again, Amos tapped his head with his finger. They both laughed as Low King Hans made his way to the front of the room.