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Double check her mental list... some extra clothes, boots and umbrella in case it rained, the purse that guarded against pickpockets… it was all there. Rena closed up her travel bag and headed downstairs, hoping that she hadn't taken too long. “Mom, has Noel come by yet?”

“No, he hasn't,” Westa said, working on her fishing gear. “You should go check on him, in case he forgot.”

“I hoped he wouldn't,” Rena said, although she frowned at the thought. “He sounded interested in coming along.”

Her mother shrugged. “Maybe, but he's been the flaky sort who would.” Then she caught what she said. “Well, I mean, he does have a good gentle heart and is really smart. But he might be too gentle; a good man ought to be strong and dependable, like that Claude fellow that was around.”

“I don't want to think about him,” Rena said, rolling her eyes. Sure, he'd apologized last time they'd met up and seemed more mature, but Claude had been insensitive one too many times for Rena to want to be more than friends with him.

“But he wouldn't be off in the forest right when you need him,” Westa pointed out, starting to tie a new lure. “Although I could see why you might like Noel more for that reason. I just hope he's responsible enough to marry you before long.”

That was something Rena might have worried about herself, if she hadn't met up with women from other planets who had other ideas about marriage. Now she wasn't so sure about getting married as soon as possible. She hadn't talked with Noel about that, since surely he had to share their ideas on waiting too. But any time she spoke with people around town, even the priest, they were curious and worried that they hadn't married even after taking an extended trip around Expel.

Last time she'd tried to explain those ideas, Westa had been very against them. It was irresponsible and immoral to not commit yourself in marriage. Besides, all the other women in town had been married by twenty. Rena being eighteen and not married was getting peculiar. She'd tried to say that it didn't have to be, but that just got her lectured on how the best life for a woman was as a good mother and wife. Knowing what could be and realizing where people were stuck in their ways, it was frustrating.

“You should try talking with him on this trip,” Westa said. “Oh, and they already picked up my goods, so you might want to track him down quickly.”

“All right,” Rena said, then went over and hugged her. No matter how much things changed, Westa was still her mother and she loved her. Even when they frustrated each other. “Bye Mom, we'll see you in a few days.”

“Stay safe, Rena,” Westa said, patting her back.

Outside, it was almost a day like any other. The river flowed along sleepily, turning waterwheels and housing many frogs and fish. A few buildings had changed or were newly built, but most were exactly the same as they always had been. Overhead, the blue sky promised a good day for traveling. The whisper of the forest came through the wind just as it always had. Near the town gate, a pair of wagons heading out to the castle fair were preparing to leave, just as they always did each summer, to sell goods made here and buy others that people needed. She had been wondering if this place, peaceful as it was, was holding her back.

Noel had a house here in Arlia now, albeit one that was small as he was a young man without a wife. If he were to get married, Rena found herself thinking, he'd want to be expanding it so it could fit a family instead. That was just the practical thing. She knocked on the door, but he didn't respond. While she made a quick glance over the farms (as he often helped them with their animals), she didn't see Noel. He'd probably gone into the forest.

They might not make it back before the wagons were ready to go. And if they didn't catch them for a ride, it'd be too long of a walk to make it to Cross before nightfall. Rena hurried into the forest. Hopefully, Noel would be in an easier spot to reach.

Even in the forest, Rena found herself falling onto a familiar path. Maybe she'd just end up staying on this path in life. It would have been fine, was respectable even although the others in Arlia thought them both a little peculiar for going so deep into the forest on a regular basis. But was it just settling for the acceptable when her life could be so much more interesting? There were things she could do, like learn more about healing to become a nurse, or even a doctor.

Last she'd heard from Claude, he and Chisato were off planet-hopping trying to solve some mystery. And their main goal in that was just getting a story to tell people. Precis and Leon had left Expel behind too, in order to pursue better educations and technologies. But those two, they were much smarter than average to begin with. They could handle learning things that people here couldn't even dream of. What could Rena really do out there? She'd be behind everyone else out there among the stars.

Noel was out here; he was sitting in the grass with his long ears turned towards some birds and chipmunks that were searching out things to eat. If anyone else was out here, the animals would have kept far away. But Noel had a way of making any animal feel comfortable around him. Not wanting to spook them in coming too close, Rena called over, “Here you are, Noel.”

He looked over at her and smiled, then got to his feet. “Ah, good morning, Rena. It's a beautiful day, isn't it?”

Feeling frustrated, Rena tried to bite her tongue and hold back on what she really wanted to say. “Yes, but we were going to do something today.”

“Were we?” He rubbed his chin, thinking about it; his tan tail twitched.

How could he be so clueless? They'd talked about it for a couple of weeks now. “Yes, we were going to Cross for the fair in order to do some shopping, remember? The wagons have to leave soon.”

Noel's ears flicked. “Oh, that was today? I came to check on a wolf I'd helped the other day.”

“Of course it was today. Geez, do you have to think of your animals all the time? Can't you think of me a little more?” There were times when she had to wonder about that. He said he loved her, but then this wasn't the first time he'd done this.

“I'm sorry, Rena,” he said, some shame showing in his usually calm voice. He came over, only pausing to pick up a bag by a bush. “I'll make it up to you sometime. Can't we make it to them still?”

“Maybe if we run,” she said. “I'm all ready to go, what about you?”

“I packed last night, I'm fine,” Noel said. So he hadn't entirely forgotten the trip, just when they had to leave.

“That's good,” she said, turning and hurrying along. Noel ran after her and thankfully they managed to catch the wagon right when they were ready to head out.

Before they left entirely, though, one of the wagon drivers came to talk to him. “Hey, Mr. Chandler, I just wanted to say that the horseshoe designs you gave the blacksmith in Salva are working wonders for our teams. The horses are a lot more obedient and energetic, just like you said.”

Noel nodded. “That's good, they're happier with the more comfortable shoes.”

“We can tell that, and a lot of other traders are picking up on the design. Be sure to talk to the blacksmith when we stop in Salva, if he hasn't made contact with you already.”

“I’ll see about that,” he said.

“That's nice, that your idea is spreading,” Rena said. It was one of the first things he'd done when he started living in Arlia, telling the blacksmiths and farmers that they could do better with how they treated their horses. While they'd been reluctant to take his advice at first, once they did, they noticed improvements quickly. Now even the better fitting horseshoes were coming into acceptance. Though she was still a little mad at him.

“Mmhmm,” Noel said, although he didn't sound that enthusiastic about it.

“Is something the matter?” She nearly added on another question of if it was something about one of the forest animals. But he'd already be talking about them if it was that.

“The horseshoes,” he answered, oddly enough. Then he shook his head. “Don't worry about it, I can handle it.”

“Well it's bothering you, so how am I not supposed to worry about it when I don't know what it is about the horseshoes?” she asked.

But he just sighed and didn't respond until she brought up the topic of where their other friends had gone off to. No matter how she asked him what was going on about the horseshoes, he didn't explain during that whole trip to Cross. Why did he have to be frustrating some days?

The towns on Expel were different than those on Nede. Of course, there was the massive technology gap to explain that. But that wasn't it. There was a spirit to the Expellians that had been missing from the Nedians. From Noel's perspective, it was easy to see that it was a spirit imposed by the challenges of life itself. There were all kinds of ills on Expel that Nede had gotten rid of long ago: illnesses, storms, crop failures, and much more. Every life was a gift and any day could bring a new ordeal. In the face of adversity, the soul really did shine.

Noel had accepted those adversities in choosing to live here. It kept him close to Rena, someone whose spirit and hope shone above all else for him. Although, he was still figuring out how to keep her happy. Animals were easy enough to keep happy in most cases; make sure their needs were kept and they'd be contented. A bit extra attention would earn their love. But for more intelligent beings, especially females, he wasn't sure where a good balance was.

On top of trying to find a balance, there were other things on Noel's mind that were worrying him a great deal. The horseshoe matter, for one; it was looking like there wasn't a lot he could do about that. Then there was the matter of marriage. People in Arlia kept asking him if he was going to marry Rena, as if there was some deadline by which a girl had to be married. Which could be, by their culture. But it might be impossible now… would she want to stay with him? He flubbed so often that maybe it was better if she found someone more normal. He'd feel horrible about leaving; she might feel the same way too if he just disappeared one evening and never came back. While he could tell her, Rena worried a lot and Noel would feel bad for making her worry. But if it was going to happen anyways…

The wagon came to a stop, bringing his thoughts to a stop as well. There were a lot of other wagons waiting there, from all over the Cross continent. For the next few days, this city would be holding a fair where produce and livestock would be shown off, in order to find the best in the kingdom. As a result, every community sent some representatives. To compete, to sell, to buy, to trade: it was vital to this country's economy. Noel was interested partly because the only event like it that he'd seen was the Lacour Tournament of Arms when he and Rena had been traveling around. Energy Nede had held some showcase fairs, but those didn't cause the excitement that had been building up here. Although, it would be terribly busy and crowded with people, things he didn't like.

The others in their group sent him and Rena off to one of the inns in order to make sure their rooms were still in their names. She waved at the innkeeper. “Hello Aunt Rachel.”

The woman at the desk smiled at them. “Oh, hello Rena! You really should stop by more often; it seems like forever since I last saw you. Are you eloping this time?”

“No, we're here for the fair,” Rena said, sounding tired of the question. “We need to check on our group's reservations.”

“Aw, you should have more fun while you're young,” Rachel said, grinning at them. But although she teased them some more, she did let them check on the rooms and get the keys to pass out.

Once they got those tasks done, Rena tugged at his sleeve. “Hey, I'm sorry if Rachel bothered you. Or bothers you more, she's like that.”

“It's nothing,” Noel said. But it was making him think again; the caring apology made him decide that he had to tell her. “Are you tired? If not, I'd like to go somewhere and talk.”

“I'm fine, could we go to the chapel? It's just over there.”

He nodded, a good choice as it was near the inn too. It was a grand building even in this city, large stones making up a beautiful place of worship for the gods of this world. Lanterns were lit by the doors and along the interior columns, but there were only a few others inside when they walked in. In an alcove that held a statue to an earth goddess, they were able to find a place to talk quietly and not be overheard by who else was there.

“I was thinking that your aunt's teasing didn't bother me because others have been worse about asking when we'd get married,” he decided to start with.

“Have they been bothering you too?” Rena asked, shaking her head. “I keep thinking that one of these times, I'm just going to tell them that we're not going to get married as long as they keep pestering us about it.” Noel had to chuckle about that. “Or asking about getting married just to make them stop.”

“That's not really a good reason for it,” he said, closing his eyes. “Besides, then they'd be pestering us about having children.”

“I suppose you're right about that,” she said. “Um, it's not that I don't love you or anything, I'm just not sure… yeah, it's not a good reason to get married just because everyone else expects it. But I don't know...”

“I would like to marry you someday,” he admitted. That at least made her smile. “I was hoping that I could make something better of myself before we did.” His ears twitched and he ended up rubbing one of them. “People have always treated me like I'm an odd one. I tried to be nice and studious, although some people complained that I was boring to be with. Or that I paid too much attention to animals. But, I know how to get along with animals, always have been good with them since I was young. People are still a mystery to me.”

Rena took his hand. “I don't think it's a bad oddness. You can do things other people can't.”

“Not really, I just have an easier time than others in those things,” Noel said. “What do you think, about marrying someday?”

“That would be nice,” she said. “You know, I always thought it would be nice to get married in a church like this. It's such a beautiful place, fitting something so important. But our other friends made me think that maybe you don't have get married and have a family right away. Even Celine went traveling the world and training her magic before thinking of marrying. Nobody around here seems to think that way, though.”

“It makes sense that they don't,” he said.

“Huh, why's that?” Rena asked. “Because improving yourself before you have a family dependent on you would be a good thing.”

Shifting his ears around, Noel didn't hear anyone nearby. Which was good, as he was sure anyone else would be shocked to hear some of this. “This planet still has a low life expectancy rate. It's not as bad as it might be, but it is still to the benefit of the community for people to marry young and have many children. In worlds like Nede and others where people live much longer, it is more beneficial for people to wait and have few children.”

“I guess so,” she said, disappointed in that.

Now for the thing that he wasn't sure if she'd agree with. But maybe she would. “What would you say to finding another world to live on where we have the time to wait without others trying to push us ahead?”

“That could be nice,” she said. “We might be able to find somewhere to study magic too, learn how they heal people and animals in better ways. Some of the others have already left; even Dias was thinking about it. But my mother wouldn't come and I'd have to leave her behind. She gets on my nerves sometimes, especially about marrying you, but still...” she sighed, hanging her head.

“I know it's a tough decision on you,” Noel said, letting go of her hand to put his arm around her. “But, there's something more going on. I've been really worried about telling you and for a little bit, I thought about not saying anything. But, it's wrong, I can't leave it at that.”

“Why, what's the matter?” Rena asked, looking to him.

“I have to leave Expel in a few nights, permanently.”

She stiffened at that, her eyes going wide. “What? But why?”

His ears twitched, since the matter still annoyed him. “It's about the horseshoes.”

“Them? What about horseshoes would make you leave Expel?”

“I thought it'd be okay, to help others live a little better,” he said, tapping a foot on the floor. “When I spoke with the Salva blacksmith, he had all the skills and knowledge to make a better form of horseshoe. The right materials are common enough. All I had to do was explain how the old form of shoes were bad for the horses in the long run, then show him how to make a better version. It's a simple thing, really. But the Earth Federation believes that it is a leaked technology that should have been left for natives to discover. They want me off the planet so I don't go leaking more.”

“But if we could already do it, how is that bad?” Rena asked, still confused over the infraction. “It makes things better for the horses, and all the people who use them.”

Noel nodded. “That's the problem. See, a horse's hooves are made to travel across dirt. They're fine living in their native habitats, even in some other habitats. But the paths and roads that people construct are too hard on the hooves. People also lead the horses into doing harder work than they would do on their own. To keep their hooves from wear and tear, horseshoes were invented. It's a common thing on many worlds: there are horses or animals like horses, and people learn to shoe them to make them more useful.

“The horseshoe design I've passed on guards the horse's hooves and bones much better. Those horses can then travel for longer distances and times, opening up improvements in travel for those who ride them or hook them up to wagons. Those improvements to travel will lead to improvements in trade, both in goods and ideas. So by giving Expel better horseshoes, I've given your world a boost in development that it might not have had at this time. Maybe they'd figure it out in a few years, maybe decades, maybe it would take as long as a century. Or maybe something else would spark that boost.”

“Oh, I didn't think something that simple could lead to something so big,” she said.

“I hadn't thought of it myself,” Noel said. “I was just thinking about the horses, I admit. Although, it's still not quite right. Expel already has a huge boost to development just waiting to catch on. The people in Linga have had samples of space-age technology for quite some time now, from when some ship went down and never got recovered. While it hasn't gotten accepted outside Linga, Precis learned enough that she readily got into the university Opera works at. Except, she can never come home unless the bureaucrats decide to help Expel instead.”

“But they were saying that could take years to get enough people to agree on,” Rena said, her eyes showing that she was thinking over this.

“And those horseshoe designs could help those copied technologies spread faster,” he admitted. “Or at least be noticed by more people. I thought I was doing a good thing, but it turns out that good thing could lead to greater things. Even dangerous things, if Expel advances faster than its people can handle.”

She leaned into his arm. “Has that been bothering you today?”

He nodded. “Right. I got the infraction notice just last night; couldn't even sleep while I was trying to figure out how to handle it. I went to check on the wolf and other forest animals because it was an easier matter to deal with.”

“Oh, I'm sorry,” she said, putting her arm around him. “I thought you were being oddly quiet today, but I was still mad about nearly missing our ride here. I wasn't thinking that maybe you had something on your mind, I'm really sorry.”

Noel kissed her forehead lightly. “It's okay, I really did forget all about how we had to leave today for the fair. And I nearly didn't tell you any of this, nearly let them take me without anyone here knowing why. But that's too wrong. I have to at least let you know. And, let you decide what you want to do. If you come with me, you won't see your mother or the others you know here, for a few years or maybe even never again. But if you stay, then it would be me you'd not see.”

“That's a horrible choice,” Rena said.

“We'll be fine during the fair, it's after that I'll have to go,” he said. “Although, you know, it'd be easier to convince them to let you come if we were married. I know we just talked about waiting, but, we could always wait on anything more so we can figure out what to do and get our lives going. And, it'd probably make your mother happier too if we did that much before leaving.”

“That's true,” she said. “I'll think about it.”

 As the fair brought together many people from across Cross, it wasn't uncommon that the church there held weddings during the event. Even a few like them who had decided then and there to get married. With some clothes borrowed from a local tailor, some flowers that Rachel offered, and some rings they'd found at a jeweler's booth, Noel and Rena got married on the last day of the Cross fair.

It was a simple ceremony, but then someone they'd talked with about horses the previous day offered to let them ride through town in their wedding clothes on one of his best show horses. Happy to take the unexpected gift, they had to use a small stepladder to get Rena on the tall horse's back in her white dress. It was a rightfully proud stallion, with a night black coat and showy regalia. But it followed its owner obediently through the streets, leading others to cheer for them and wish them well even if they didn't know them. Perhaps it would have been better if their friends were there too, but the trip turned out better than they could have ever planned.

That evening, they surprised Westa by showing up to pick up Rena's things. “I'm sorry we have to take off so suddenly, but there's nothing we can do about it,” Rena said, hugging her. “I'll write you a letter later on explaining things.”

“You two are full of surprises tonight, it seems,” Westa said, patting Rena's back. “But you certainly look happy. Take care of each other, always.”

“Of course,” Noel said. “She'll be fine, I'm going to help her find her place among the stars.”

Westa chuckled, then decided to hug him too. “You're a big talker now. I hope you both do.”

As Noel had already prepared for this move, they were leaving Expel behind within a few hours.

Attending a university was a tough time for Rena. She was ahead in terms of her healing magic, due to the rapid advancement she was forced to take to help in fighting the Ten Wise Men. But with her education from a low-technology planet, there was a lot that she had to catch up on in nearly every other field. She was determined to get through it, though. Now that she had vastly improved options on what she could do in life, she didn't want to waste the chance.

Finals week was especially rough, having to take so many tests that would vital to passing or failing her classes. But it was done with, she thought with some relief. Had she gotten the questions right? What about the essay questions, were those good enough? She wasn't sure, even though she'd spent so much time preparing and studying.

“Rena,” Noel said, coming through the crowd to take her arm. “Over here.”

“Oh, there you are,” she said, stopping and smiling at him. “I'm so glad that's over with, thanks for picking me up.”

“No problem," he said, returning the smile. “You know, I was going to take you out to a restaurant tonight to celebrate getting all your tests done, but I've got a better idea now. We'll go have a picnic in the nature reserve.”

She laughed a little. “We do that a lot, but that's great.”

His eyes twinkled a bit. “But it'll be special this time around. You know that fox you really like watching when it get brave enough to come near the cabin? I've found that she has some cubs that are getting old enough to go a little ways away from their den. It'll be the right time of day, and I've got a place where we should be able to watch them playing around without disturbing them.”

The fox had cubs? She had no idea. “Really? That's wonderful, I'd love that!” She hugged him, not caring that they were out on the sidewalk where others were walking. “And I love you, Noel.”

“I love you too, Rena.”