Avi stood and dusted himself off, not sure what to say. The song he had just sung was still echoing in his ears. In an instant, Hans was at his side.
“That was the most beautiful song I've ever heard from the lips of a mortal,” Hans said. He placed his arm around Avi's shoulder and spoke so gently. “It is incredible how such pain can birth such immense and breathtaking grandeur.” Avi had no response but looked down at his deceased companion. His crying had stopped for the moment, but it felt as if it would soon begin again. Hans knelt next to Bhoora and looked up at Avi as he spoke.
“You've shown such faithfulness to the Emperor even in these vulnerable moments,” Hans said as he stroked the bear's matted fur. “I can't make any promise, but His Majesty might just give you what you ask him for.” Avi knelt next to Hans, looking at the bear.
“Do you mean you can bring him back?”
“No, I don’t mean that I can heal him,” Hans said. At his words, Avi’s brittle hopes dashed. Hans continued. “I mean that if you ask the King, and if it fits His will to give it, He may just give you what you ask for.”
Avi looked to Hans's glowing face with hope glistening in his eyes. He then shot a glance toward his sister and Zariah. They were beaming. Avi turned his attention toward Bhoora's broken body lying lifeless in front of him. He stretched out one hand, placing it on the Grizzly's matted fur. With the other hand, he reached for the girls'. “Will you pray with me?” he asked. Carina put her arm around her brother, and Zariah took his hand. They kneeled together. In a thin voice, he called out to the Emperor.
“My Lord, I was negligent. I left my companion, Bhoora, in a place he didn’t know without anyone he recognized. I pray first that you forgive me for my negligence. Second, I pray—” Avi paused and looked up at King Hans's eagerly luminous face. Hans nodded.
“Lord, I pray that if it is within your pleasures to do so, you would—" Before Avi could even get the words out of his mouth, a tremor shook the colossal body of fur that lay before him. A deep guttural woof came from the place where the bear lay. As if made of stone, Bhoora's eyes opened slowly. Remaining still at first, he cast them toward Avi. Recognition mixed with the subtle expression of joy. To Avi's vast astonishment, Bhoora's eyes were open, and he was breathing once more.
As if it had only been a simple nap, the giant grizzly stood up on his four powerful legs, stretched a bit, looked at all the glorified faces who watched him, and then turned toward Avi. Avi, Zariah, and Carina couldn't help but throw their arms around their friend. He licked them generously before turning his bearish attention toward the edible plant life in the gardened courtyard. They laughed at his singular focus.
Avi stood, feeling numb from the entire experience. Hans addressed them. “You have given my guests and I quite a story to tell,” he said. “Now, let's celebrate the King's generous miracle.” With that, he headed back to the banquet hall.
“I guess I’ll go back to my quarters,” Carina said.
“My dear, your faithfulness has shown itself. Please join the banquet; you are welcome.” He then leaned toward her. “Plus, I'd like to talk some more about airplanes. Have you ever heard of the spruce goose?”
Carina followed Hans and the others back into the banquet chamber. Slowly the crowd dispersed until only Avi and Zariah stayed with Bhoora in the courtyard. The bear aimlessly sniffed his way around.
“That was an amazing song!” Zariah said. She looked as if she were considering something deeply. Realization dawned. “It was you, wasn’t it?”
“In the canyon. The song I heard while I was in the glen. It was you.” She was sure now. It took Avi a moment to respond. The evening shades of sunset painted the courtyard with a warm hue. He watched Bhoora as he did.
“Yes,” Avi said. “When I get anxious, I find a lonely place and sing. I didn’t know you were there.”
“Why didn’t you tell me it was you?”
“I suppose we both have our secrets, don’t we.” She flinched, but then set her jaw.
“Your songs, Avi,” she stepped in front of him, “they are a gift. You realize that, right? They shouldn’t be a secret.” She was talking fast now. “You could—You could go to where the droughts are. With a voice like that, you could use your songs to soften the hearts of the rebels. You could bring them back from their rebellion. If I had a gift like that, I’d be using it—”
“It sounds more like your path,” he said. That put a pause to her excitement. “It sounds lonely.”
“It is,” she said. She broke off her thought, but not her advance. She took another step toward him.
“I guess you missed your skyline?”
“There will be another.”
"There will be,” she said, stepping closer and looking him in the eyes.
“I’m not taking a skyline,” Zariah said. “Not this time.”
“I’ve been spotted, for sure,” she took another step. “I’m sure my Dad already knows I’m here.”
“I’m sorry,” Avi said. “I didn’t mean for you to—”
“No, it’s good. It’s easier this way.”
“Well, what happens next?” Avi asked.
“He’ll come, or he’ll send someone if he can’t come himself.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“It’s good, really. I’m glad. It’s just—I’ve been resisting something so obvious. I’ve felt like I was a victim of my calling. Sort of like I was being punished. But now—” She took another step forward, closing the distance between them. “I see something—different.”
“How—uh—how long do we have?”
“Forever,” she said with a smile.
“I mean until your dad gets here.”
“Probably less time than I want.”
“I—Uh—?” Avi said. He felt slightly dizzy. He studied her face. The orange sky reflected in her mysterious eyes. Her ample lips curled into amusement as she raised one eyebrow ever so slightly. Avi bit his lip and rubbed his hand against his forehead. His palm was sweaty, and his heart was racing.
“But,” she said playfully as she reached up and twirled a lock of her own hair. “I wouldn’t want to distract you from Amoli Patel.” The words felt like hitting a pothole while running at full speed. The girl’s name was foreign to him.
His words wanted to fly free, though his mouth was a brick wall. He could not break through, but he must. She would be gone soon, and he would not let her leave without saying—something—anything.
“Zariah—” He said. His mouth was suddenly as dry as Endale. “At the sky port, you said if I could figure out why I didn’t want you to leave, it would change my life.”
“My life has already changed—”
“I’m still afraid of—everything. Though with you, my anxiety is smaller. It’s manageable. You remind me to rely on the King’s grace.”
“So, I'm some kind of anxiety medication,” Zariah said. She grinned provocatively.
“No, it’s more than that. I’m not good with words.”
“You’re good with lyrics.”
“Just tell me what you want,” she said as she placed a hand on his arm and let it slide down into his palm. They interlocked their fingers as he tried to speak in more than monosyllabic jibber.
“I want us to be—to be something. Whatever it is, I want us to be that something together.” He paused. “What do you want?” She leaned in close and laid her head against his chest. He could feel what he was certain she could hear, his heart thumping against his rib cage. The warmth of her body radiated a soft light into his lonely soul.
“This is what I want,” she said. He laid his cheek against her hair and wrapped his other arm around her. “I missed you.”
A thunderous roar of hover engines split the quiet twilight. Bhoora moaned and ran for the cover of the colonnade. Avi looked at the sky. Zariah did nothing more than squeeze Avi tighter but gave no hint that the massive cruiser that was descending out of the sky alarmed her.
“That’s my ride,” she said.
The landing gear emerged, and the cruiser sat down on a stony path in the middle of the courtyard. The engines didn't stop but throttled down to a bearable volume. The hatch hissed and released, opening to reveal a shadowy interior.
“Maybe your dad could—”
“It’s not my dad. He’s sent Adelaide,” she said. Letting go of Avi. He suddenly felt cold, wondering if this was truly goodbye.
“I don’t want—”
“Avi, don’t worry. We’re not done. We’re just done for today,” she smiled, let go of him, and walked toward the crimson cruiser. She climbed the ramp slowly. He watched her board without a word. She made one quick glance over her shoulder as the hatch closed with a whine.
As the hovercraft lifted off and screamed away across the sky, Avi had a slurry of ambivalence. He was still buzzing from the intimate moment, the warm embrace, the affectionate touch, but he felt lost once again without Zariah's presence. No, he thought. They had found each other—three times, now what was a fourth? Plus, this time, it was different.
In the shadowy moments that trailed in the wake of her departure, he recognized something. He wanted to be with her, but he would see the pilgrimage through, none the less. He wished to follow her, but he sensed a kind of strength rising in her absence. He would complete his duty not to win the hand of Amoli Patel, or because he had been asked by his dad, or Amos, or even Low King Hans. He would finish because it was what he wanted to do. Then, after he had completed his mission, he would find Zariah. He would find a way for them to be together. It was all just another adventure, waiting to unfold.
Bhoora returned to his side after the cruiser was out of earshot. Avi rubbed his bear, looking at the sky, which was becoming dotted with white flecks of distant mystery.
“Thank you, Lord!” he said. He turned, beaming, and walked back toward the banquet. As he passed back through the side entrance into the massive banquet chamber, there was music, dancing, and plenty of laughter. Avi spotted Hasani, waved to him, and said, “I'm ready for that drink.”