Jenil continued the sweeping melody with closed eyes. Avi's ear caught a few new embellishments of Jenil's, which were not part of the original composition and were not altogether an improvement. Jenil's pitch was slightly flat; his voice wavered in places it ought not and slid to notes he should have left untouched. He performed it well enough, but Avi felt it was underwhelming.
As he listened to his own song being sung by another, his secret tugged at the stitches of his mind like cloth patched to a garment hastily. He glanced at Amoli Patel. She seemed to enjoy the song. He thought he could see her mouthing the words. To think that she knew his lyrics gave him a surreal sensation.
A dark feeling of missed opportunity sat pitifully at the pit of his being. That could have been me, singing for everyone up there, singing for Amoli Patel. Now that his nerves were behind him, he realized what he truly wanted. As his eyes bounced between Jenil, Amoli, and the two travelers, Avi saw his own desire like an object outside his body. Jenil sang with closed eyes in rapturous enjoyment of the dewy melody; he wanted to sing. He wanted to gift such tender moments of song and poetry to his people. He wished beyond reason that he could serenade without his previous meal threatening to make an unwelcome reemergence.
Avi pressed the unwelcome thoughts from his mind as Jenil continued his rendition. Avi tried to let the singing ease his tension. He thought of the rising drama of the tune as Jenil missed another of Avi's favorite note intervals. He did his best to experience the song, hearing past the imperfections.
Listening to the words, Avi imagined standing on the mount opposite the grand temple, watching the people come up to worship. He envisioned himself climbing and entering. The song carried him over the hills of the majestic place, although he had only ever seen it in books. He felt a deep longing to see the land of the High and Hallowed Emperor.
Through no fault of his own, Jenil’s voice broke off abruptly on the last line of the song. When it concluded, the crowd clapped with a round of generous applause. Amoli Patel’s was as vigorous as anyone’s. Avi looked toward Eliah and Yacob. They did not clap but stared at one another, whispering something. Avi wished he could hear what they said, although he guessed it was that his song did not measure up to songs in the empire capital. As Avi watched, the ground seemed to fall beneath him. What if the song’s lyrics were wrong, or worse, what if the song offended them? Avi could hardly breathe as he imagined what was going through the heads of these two stolid travelers.
“I’ve never heard that song before. Where did it come from?” Eliah asked Jenil.
"It is an original composition, Your Honors,” Jenil said. Though it was a piece of truth, it left out the largest part. Once again, Avi felt the rising anxiety. This was inching uncomfortably close to Avi, threatening to reveal his identity. It was something he both wanted and loathed. He wanted the opportunity to write and sing for the people, but he could not overcome the fear that ripped through him each time he considered the possibilities.
“Yes, I gathered that it was original,” Eliah said. “Who wrote it?”
“It was written here in Sundar,” Jenil said. “Would you like to hear another?” He pressed.
“I mean to find out the person from whom this song came,” Eliah said. His words were like stone and ash. His voice was as hard as charred oak. Avi felt like the weight of the sky was falling in on him. Avi had delivered songs, anonymously written to Jenil many times before. He didn't know whether Jenil knew who they came from since they had never once spoken of it.
“Your Honors, the song’s anonymous composer, wishes to remain—”
“Do you know who wrote it?” Eliah interrupted.
“I do not, Sir,” Jenil admitted. “Songs are sometimes delivered to my door, written and tied to a rock.” Eliah looked to the crowd.
“I'm sure the composer has his or her reasons, but I should very much like to speak with this songwriter.”
Avi's fists bound so tight that his knuckles showed white. His chest felt tight, and breathing was impossible. He wanted to shout that it was he, but he could not move. In the momentary stillness, Uncle Rachit looked at Avi. With a glance, he was daring him to speak. Avi opened his eyes wide, begging his uncle to keep his secret.
Avi’s spot on the front row made him vulnerable. He glanced toward the two visitors. A gush of fiery blood nearly boiled the skin of his face. Eliah and Yacob were looking right at Avi. Avi looked back for a brief moment before casting his eyes to the ground. He dared no more glances.
“Thank you for the song, Jenil,” Eliah said. His brother said something in their native tongue, and they moved from the center of the square. “Good night.”
“Good night,” Avi said, along with many other voices. He knew the song must have offended them. He watched as they disappeared into the house of Nimit Patel. At the moment, he was too nervous to care that Amoli Patel followed them in.
“Man, I can’t believe—” Rachit began to say, but Avi hushed him abruptly.
“Why did you do that?” Avi asked.
“I hoped that you’d show off a little. I didn’t know you would have a total meltdown,” Rachit said. He laughed. “You looked like your head was going to explode.”
“Not funny,” Avi said.
“What’s not funny?” a little singsong voice said. He felt the tug of a hand in his. Margreth was by his side now. She looked up at her big brother, waiting for him to explain.