Zariah led Avi up a winding set of stairs that must have spanned twenty floors. She kept stealing stray glances at him as they climbed toward the top. After a plethora of steps, they finally came to the stoop of the corner tower of the Palace. They exited the stairwell, which opened onto a balcony above the city.
Avi leaned over the edge and examined the nighttime lights. It glowed orange with street lamps. Music and celebration drifted up muffled and mysterious, where they looked down from their bird's nest.
“Up here,” Zariah said. She pointed toward a narrow spire with an alcove just big enough for them to climb into.
“This is amazing,” Avi said as he followed her up. They nestled into the stone indention, reclining against the cool back of the pillar. The small space forced them close, but neither shied away from the other. The closeness was warmth and wonderment to Avi. They watched the city, parts of it asleep, others alive with evening activity below them. The moon crested softly over the temple, which glowed with the ever-burning fire of sacrifice. Smoke rose into the unending sky above the golden outline of the holy site.
“I used to come up here when I was young,” Zariah said. “This was my favorite place to pray.”
“I can see why.”
“This was where I first decided I would go and persuade the rebels to return,” Zariah said. “From up here, it seemed like it was going to be so easy. I imagined I would show up wherever drought had hit, and just explain.”
“It was harder than you thought it would be?”
“How old were you the first time you went on one of your mission trips?” Avi asked.
“Six,” she said.
“Yeah, I know. I guess my dad didn’t believe me when I told him I was going. The first place was a little town called Timberline in the foothills below the Ester Mountains.”
“I can’t believe you did that at six. I was still afraid to climb the trees in our orchard at six,” Avi said.
“You have an orchard?”
“Yeah, we have a few hybrid fruits that me and dad grafted.”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you, I met your dad and your family. Remember the cruiser that picked me up from Tamesh City? We made a stop in Sundar right after. When I realized who they were, I was busting to tell them everything, but I decided not to.”
“You and your secrets,” Avi said.
“No, I just thought you’d like to be the first to tell them about your adventures. I didn’t want to take that from you,” Zariah said. “To be the first sharer is a gift. Beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.
“Wow, thank you.”
“Oh, and Amoli Patel was on the cruiser as well,” Zariah said. At the name, Avi slapped his hand to his face, hiding his embarrassment.
“She’s pretty,” Zariah said with a smirk. Avi ducked his head.
“Don’t,” Avi said.
“Really!” Zariah seemed to be entertained at his embarrassment.
“Look I—" Avi tried, but Zariah wasn't done having her fun.
“She told me about this famous boy from Sundar, Avery, that she was coming to the capital to see. She wasn’t exactly sure why he was famous, but she liked that he was famous. She thought that maybe she might marry him.”
“Oh, stop it,” Avi said. “I never talked to her before. I didn’t realize—”
“Well, she seemed sweet,” Zariah said. “So when’s the wedding?”
“Listen, she's a nice girl, and I'm sure she'll make one of the Bankshi boys happy. That's who her dad wanted her to marry anyway before I got so—"
“Famous,” Zariah said in a mocking voice. They both laughed aloud. Avi slapped his hand over his face once more.
“Avi, you’re going to break her heart, aren’t you?”
“I tried. I couldn't. She took it really well, actually. I told her we were not a good match right before I heard you and your grandfather singing.” He paused for a minute and then, with overacted surprise, said, “Hey, did you know that your grandpa is King David?”
Avi dropped his arm from his face, letting it fall next to Zariah's. He took a breath and reached for her hand. They interlocked their fingers as she leaned her head over on his shoulder.
“So, what will you do after the festival?” Zariah asked.
“I don’t know, but the idea of going back home feels so strange.”
“The only thing I've ever been while in Sundar has been a kid. I kind of feel like I'm not that anymore. It's home, and it will always be home, but I've been thinking about what you do. That I might like to try—" At Avi's words, Zariah shot up straight. She leaned over and looked him in the face. He could see the moon in her eyes.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well, you try to make it sound so awful, but what’s a little drought? Maybe I could—you know…”
"Are you serious,” Zariah asked. “Would you really come with me? It would make such a difference to have two of us. You would be so good. Together we could—Oh, Avi—it would be so amazing to have you with me. With the two of us, we might actually be able to convince them to return to the King's grace. Plus, it's so lonely out there in the drought lands.” She paused. “So, would you really go?”
“Maybe, I don’t know. I’m still thinking about it.”
Zariah closed her eyes and smiled widely as if she were drifting into a favorite dream. She took a long breath of the cool night air. She laid her head back on Avi's shoulder and hummed softly. They basked in the beautiful moment. Avi was drifting above the city in the romantic embrace. His body had become untethered to the tower, and he drifted beyond the world of trouble and trials. He was at home with her.
“Hey, do you think Amoli Patel would go with us too?” Zariah asked as she giggled against his shoulder.
“Stop,” he said, trying his best not to laugh.