“Morning Guide, was just about to come see you. You’ve a package.”
“Thanks, Thomas, I didn’t mind the walk. It’s kind of a secret.” August’s boots made a sucking sound as he stepped from the mud to the wood platform that surrounded the transport depot. He moved closer to the older man. “I ordered a new wedding canopy.”
Thomas’ face lit up. “That’s right kind of you, Guide! Going to make a lot of the young folks pleased to hear it.”
“Hopefully, but it’s a secret so you don’t tell anyone until I get a chance to take it over to the Morgan place. Okay?”
“Will do, Guide. I won’t spoil the surprise.” He handed the package over with a wide smile.
August couldn’t manage quiet as broad of a smile but he grinned back as he tucked the container under an arm. The day was going to be a good one. He had some reports to file which could be done from his small garden where he could soak up the fall sunshine. He had only a few appointments and they were all coming to his home so he didn’t even have to go out today.
He spun his head around because his name wasn’t that common and the voice was one he knew. When he spotted the dark robes he had to do a double take to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. “Edward?”
Edward’s face lit up with a smile. “Auggie! You made it easy to find you, thought I’d have to traipse about the wilderness first.”
He hurried over and let his friend fold him into a hug and laughed for the first time in too long. “What are you doing here?”
“You look amazing.” He held his friend out at arms length and studied him. “Not sure of the hat but you look good.”
“You look good too, what are you doing here?”
“I came to see you, of course.” He glanced to the box under August’s arm and raised his eyebrows. “A wedding canopy? Something you forgot to tell me in your letters?”
“Huh? Oh no, no, it’s not like that. Things are a different here. The community shares one, each couple embroiders a section of the canopy and keeps it for the first month of their marriage. They’re supposed to spend an hour under it talking every night but there was an accident with a lantern last month and the Morgan’s can’t afford to replace it so…”
“You’re such a good guy.”
“Half of what I do seems to be weddings. The average age here is twenty two.”
“Seriously, you look good.” The last time he’d seen his friend in person August had been pale, quiet and still mourning. Letters and calls had shown he had recovered but seeing him in person confirmed it.
“I’m doing well. Lots of walking, sunshine, fresh air…it’s nice here, peaceful.” He glanced behind Edward to where Thomas was trying to appear like he was busy but was really listening to every word. “My home is just up the road. Do you have luggage? How long are your staying?”
“Not long, just until this evening when the transport’s done with it’s rounds. It’s going to swing back around and pick me up.”
“Why so short a stay?”
“Well, I have something I want to talk to you about and I didn’t want to linger in case you punched me in the nose.”
August’s heart skipped a beat but he chastised himself. “We’ve been friends since we’ve been ten years old, I doubt anything you can say to me would cause me to hit you.”
“You haven’t heard what I’ve had to say yet.”
“True. We should get you boots.”
“I’m good.” Edward hiked up his robes and kicked off his sandals. “So long as I can rinse off my feet before going into your house.”
“Of course.” They would get quite a few odd looks but he didn’t mind. “You know, it’s been, what? Three years? But when you say you have news that you have to deliver in person my first thought is that Anthony is coming home. That maybe there was a mistake and he was taken prisoner and he’s been found. How sad is that?”
“I wish I could bring him home to you. No, it’s not sad, I’ve heard that feeling might not ever go away. Have you been seeing anyone?”
“Oh, no…no, work keeps me pretty busy here.”
“I’m just not ready.”
“That’s more like it. It’s okay.” He swung his sandals as they dangled from his hand at the small town. “This place is nice, a bit rural but nice.”
“It’s growing every year. Even since I’ve been here. It was almost entirely families mining their own land with no one here in town but now we’ve families and some stores. It’ll be an actual town in a few more years.”
The pride he heard in his friend’s voice made him smile. “It sure will.”
“They built me a house and a chapel when they heard they were getting a Guide. I’m the only one on the entire colony so for matters of law I’m consulting to the other territories. Plus services weekly and once every six weeks I make the rounds of the outlying families. That takes me four days to do the circuit if there’s nothing wrong.”
“I can see why you’re too busy to start a new relationship.” It was easier to fall back on the excuse of work than the raw truth that August still wasn’t over Anthony’s death.
“I should be more honest with the people here. They all know I’m a widower but I don’t speak of it which means there’s a few dozen families hoping I’ll marry their child.”
Edward laughed. “Poor you.”
“I even have one family with a set of twins. They want to marry one man and they figure since I prefer men I will have the son for my husband and the daughter for my wife and we can have a happy family filled with children. Children are very important here, even knowing I’ve no interest in women they push their daughters at me.”
“And they all wouldn’t mind sharing you with a husband as well, I’m sure.”
“Exactly, and be willing to provide a whole mess of children and their care.”
“I think if you’d been more honest and told them you’re still mourning that would have made it worse because every daughter would want to help heal your grief.”
“Maybe.” He grinned. “Not sure I could handle them being more determined. That’s me up there.”
Edward glanced up the street and further up the hill to the cute wood framed bungalow and the squat, plain square chapel just down from it. “Is that an actual white picket fence?”
“Yeah and I have a garden too.”
“Very nice. People always stare like this?” The locals were watching but obviously keeping their distance.
“I doubt anyone has seen a brother of mercy before and, well, we don’t get many visitors. Here it’s rude to introduce yourself to a stranger. They’ll just watch until they know it’s okay.”
“You really do look good, Auggie, this place suits you.”
“Thanks.” He forced a grin. “It’s just the sort of place Anthony and I always talked about finding.”
“Yes, it is. He would have loved it here.”
The smile didn’t falter. “I miss him so much, Edward. It’s like I’m missing a limb.”
He glanced over and saw the practiced, gentle, placid expression all Guide’s had to learn but he also saw the still raw pain in his friend’s brown eyes. “I know.”
“But…being here?” He sighed. “It’s like he’s with me because this is just what he would have wanted. I feel close to him here.”
“I can see why.” He was puffing a little out of breath when they finally reached the cute garden fence. “No wonder you look so good, walking everywhere like this.”
“Soft city folk like you. Here, I’ve a spigot, water will be cold but it’ll get the mud off. I’m going to put on something hot to drink, come on in when you’re cleaned up.”
“Okay.” August hadn’t been lying when he warned the water was cold. It made him shiver but he took his time to wash off the sticky mud. He was stalling but the cold didn’t let him stall too long.
Finally there was no more mud and he couldn’t feel his toes. He shook off the extra water and dropped his sandals onto the ground to shove his feet back into them. His order was supposed to not worry about fashion and style but they were allowed to put on simple socks for cold weather, sadly he hadn’t thought he would need them and he was resigned to cold feet until the transport came back to pick him up as he pulled open the plain door and stepped into a small, simple but thankfully warm and welcoming kitchen.
“I put a pair of socks on the table for you.” August said over his shoulder as he poured something that was steaming hot into two obviously hand thrown stoneware mugs.
The small gesture made him smile and he was more certain he was doing the right thing, even if August would be angry at him. “Thanks.” He plopped himself down into what was a very well crafted but obviously homemade chair and pulled the socks on.
“Kafvin, sorry, teas and coffees are kind of hard to come by around here.”
“Not my favorite.”
“I know but try it.” August sat down. “Go on, it won’t bite.”
With an inward cringe he raised the mug up to his lips and sipped at it. Instead of the harsh, bitter brew he was expecting flavors exploded on his tongue. It had the hint of bitterness kafvin was known for but there was something green and fruity with it as well. “Oh that’s good! Is this kafvin?”
“What did you do to it?”
“Not a thing. Pretty much everything here has to be made domestically. The original colonists brought kafvin because it would grow here but I don’t know if it’s the soil or the temperatures or what but it’s amazing.”
“This is really good.”
“They take it for granted here. I’ve been suggesting that some of the families start growing it for export. None of them can grow enough to meet an export order but if they went together as a co-op they could. I worry that the price of melvidium will eventually go down and it’ll devastate the economy so I’d like for everyone to have a back up source of income. They all think I’m crazy for thinking their kafvin is any good.”
“Is there some place I can buy some to take with me? Maybe if some crazy outsider buys a few pounds it’ll convince them.”
“Maybe. Now, what’s her name?”
“Huh?” He put down his mug.
“Well, I figure the only thing that would have you coming all the way out here is if you met some sweet young woman and were planning on settling with her. So, what’s her name?”
“There’s no girl. Was a good guess, though, were you going to tell me to chase her or switch orders?”
“That would depend on you. You’ve never wanted to be anything but a Brother of Mercy but their vows are strict when it comes to marriage. There’s at least four orders on the same tier that allow marriage. I guess I would suggest you switch orders and marry her. I could see you with a dozen fat babies under foot.”
“I can’t believe you said that with a straight face.”
August lost it and broke our laughing. “Me either. The girl, yes but not the babies. So, no woman, no crisis of conscious, what brings you here?”
“You remember in my letter when I said I was going to be heading up a new project?”
“Yes. You were vague about it so I assumed it was something you weren’t allowed to speak of.”
“It’s not so much that I’m not allowed to, I just wanted to be sure of things before I spoke to you about it.”
August raised his eyebrows. “Well, that’s got my attention.”
“I’ve been asked to head up the paroling of the fourteen hundred Plethorians being held in work camps as enemy combatants. It’s not quite common knowledge yet but there is a treaty and a surrender in the works. One of the conditions of it will be any of their people held as enemy combatants be returned. However, its official policy that any of these fighters returned may not lay down arms. Their status has to be changed before that happens. The original suggestion was to simply move these fourteen hundred souls into our prison system but it’s the opinion of the Brothers of Mercy that more good will come if these men are placed in homes. Most have been mostly civilized but if we can place them into real, God-fearing homes they’ll fully come into proper culture. That way when they do return to their people they can be missionaries.” Edward hurried the words out but the more he spoke the wider August’s eyes got.