Joe leaned forward on the sofa, letting the leather squeak. He laced his fingers, setting his elbows on his knees. Then he let out his breath, closing his eyes.
Nothing to it. Daven was a good man. This would be an easy dance…
Footsteps. More leather squeaking. Joe’s eyes flew open.
Daven sat across from him in a leather chair. Leaning forward, palms on his knees. Studying Joe.
Joe raised his chin slightly, setting it on his fingers. The clock mushroom ticked on the wall, marking seconds as they assessed each other.
Joe wouldn’t be intimidated. Not now. This runner had come too far to turn back. He licked his lips—then opened as best he could. “Thank you for seeing me.”
Daven studied him, jaw set. The lines of his face were sagged, cast in shadow by the shroomlamp’s glow on the coffee table. The farmer was older than Joe remembered. Much older.
Daven took a deep, whistling breath through his nose. Then his lips parted. “Evening.”
Spores—what was Joe doing. This would go sour faster than spicemold in the sun. What was he hoping for? “Listen, I—”
“Come with me.” Daven put his hands on the armrests—then hoisted himself up, grunting. “Outside.”
Joe swallowed, unlacing his fingers. His heart was practically beating at his chest. Like a prisoner on his last day. Couldn’t stop pounding the cage. “Sure.”
They made their way out the back door, footsteps silent on the porous floor. Daven opened the door with a creak—and crickets greeted them with the cool night air. Joe adjusted his collar, clearing his throat. Daven glanced at him—but said nothing.
They made their way into the woods, pine needles crunching beneath their feet. The crickets grew louder, and Joe began rolling down his sleeves. He could practically see his breath.
Then he noticed the mist.
Sparkling, glittering pink under the night sky—and flowing silently toward them. It floated along his ankles, chilling them. Still they hiked.
Glowing blue mushrooms grew like circular windows on the trees framing their way. Pale blue light glinting off the pine needles on their path. Joe tucked in his elbows, trying to avoid branches. Where was Daven taking him?
Now the mist was at his knees. Goosebumps rose along his legs, and he shook his head. Should’ve worn thicker pants. Too late for that now.
He rubbed his hands together, blowing into them. Too late to reconsider this crazy plot.
Then the mist was at their waist. They stepped into a clearing, glowing pink mist roiling around them—glittering as wisps curled into the night sky. Like clouds on the ground. Lavender speckled mushrooms with purple caps rose to his waist, dotting the clearing like purple islands in a sea.
No doubt about it. This was part of Daven’s misty plantation.
“Pick me a spinner.”
Joe turned to Daven. The man pulled a piece of straw from his pocket—then tucked it between his lips, eyes on the plantation. Jaw set, he hooked his thumbs in his pockets. “Now.”
“Yes sir.” Joe stepped farther into the clearing, mist parting before him. Cool droplets floated past his arms, raising the hairs on them. His eyes darted across the mist. There was a spinner somewhere. Daven had seen it—and this was a test.
He ran a hand through his hair, exhaling slowly. Spores—he’d never practiced for this. “Sir, I—”
“You know how it’s done. Do it.”
Joe sucked in his upper lip—then bit down. “Yes sir.”
Somewhere in the clearing—there. Mist swirled in a cyclone, sending ripples across the clearing. Smaller ripples bounced off misty mushroom caps, colliding with each other. Little waves leapt at the sky with each collision—like a pond in rain.
Joe crept toward the cyclone, raising a hand. Fingers outstretched, steady. Moonlight glinted off his nails as stilled his breathing. He had to catch this spinner. It was that simple. No other rhythm for this beat.
A deep, whistling breath. He glanced back to see Daven studying him, eyes narrowed. The farmer’s arms were crossed, his chin dipped.
When had Daven become so serious? Joe was wound tighter than a tonal cord—and the man had no leniency. Stern as a drum.
Joe blinked, shaking his head. Focus. The spinner was just ahead.
He plunged into the mist, fingers thrust toward the cyclone’s center. They found something—a porous stem, spinning furiously—and he closed his hand like a vice. Gotcha.
He raised the spinning mushroom, letting its cap whiz. Its stem vibrated under his fingers, and he nodded to himself. Perfect. Joe let out his breath, lips barely parted. “Spinner acquired.”
“Good. Bring it here.”
Joe tightened his grip, turning to Daven. His muscles felt a little numb. He was doing fine though. Just fine. “Yes sir.”
Daven waited, one finger tapping his leg as Joe approached. Joe licked his upper lip, handing him the spinner. Daven accepted it—then turned and pulled a sack up from the mist. He must’ve stowed it there before the meeting. “This is a strong one.”
Joe watched him stuff his spinner into the sack. The farmer tightened the string with a jerk. Sack closed.
No reason to be nervous. Joe put his hands behind his back, raising his chin. He’d stand his ground. “Is that all?”
Daven adjusted the straw in his mouth, setting the sack down. Straightening, he focused on Joe. Moonlight gleamed on his forehead as he crossed his arms.
Joe locked eyes with him, unblinking. The crickets seemed louder than ever. Spores, they were deafening. Were crickets usually this loud?
“So you want to marry my daughter.”
Joe blinked. There it was. Question of the year. “I do.”
Daven kept his arms crossed, chin raised. The straw wavered as he opened his lips—then he lowered his voice. “I assume you’ll provide for her.”
“Best as I can. I’d sell the plantation.”
“Of course you would. But which plantation would you sell?”
Joe knew this beat. He’d prepared. “I’m tending a solar-lunar plantation now. Come spring and I’ll have my farming PhD—”
“Not interested. Can. You. Provide.”
Joe’s brow furrowed. “I believe I’ve answered that question.”
“Not fully. Provision is more than financial income.”
Joe gave a sharp nod. “I understand that. There’s protection, time spent with any children we have—”
“And her.” Daven’s arms flexed. Still crossed. “There’s the emotional component.”
Joe ran a hand through his hair. Of course. “I appreciate that aspect as well, sir.”
“Naturally. What will you do?”
Wasn’t it clear as sunshine? “I’ll spend time with her. I’ll till the plantation, wash the dishes, pull hops and bounds, whatever she needs—I aim to make her happy.”
Daven nodded. “That much I can see.”
“And I’ll be sure she isn’t lonely. She’ll be more active than a dancing mushroom. Just you wait.”
“Wait?” Daven arched an eyebrow. “Are you going to marry her if I say no?”
“Well, sir…” Joe ruffled his hair again, averting his eyes. He hadn’t mixed a solution to this question. “I’d prefer your blessing, truth be told.”
Daven might’ve coughed—it was hard to tell. Then he did it again—and Joe recognized a chuckle. A grin tugged at the farmer’s lips, his voice low. “Fair enough.”
“Had to be honest.”
Daven’s neck muscles tightened. He tilted his head, straw drooping. “But you’re sure about marrying her.”
“I’ve made up my mind. And I hope to receive your blessing.”
“Blessing.” Daven uncrossed his arms, a soft sigh escaping his lips. “Well. She’s madly in love with you—that’s for sure.”
That much was obvious. “The feeling’s mutual, sir.”
“I don’t doubt that.” Daven hooked his thumbs in his pockets again, turning his eyes toward the plantation. An owl hooted, and the straw wavered between his lips.
What would he say? Joe stared at him, palms open.
“I know you’re a hard worker.”
“Yes sir. People depend on me—I won’t let them down.”
“And I know your Pa. Hartle’s a good man.”
What was taking him so long? Joe cleared his throat. “I’ll be the best husband your daughter can have. I’ll love her more than a scent spore.”
“You’d better.” Daven took the straw from his mouth. “Or you’ll answer to me.”
A threat. But a sensible one, considering. “I don’t want your axe at my obosa, sir. And even if you were under the strawberries, I assure you your daughter would be taken care of.”
“If your plantation failed?”
“I’d find a workaround. Start from scratch.”
“You would.” Daven tossed the straw away—then recrossed his arms. He tightened his jaw—then gave a sharp nod. “Alright then. This spinner represents my blessing.”
Joe waited as Daven reached down into the mist, shoulders tense. The farmer pulled out his sack again—and handed it to Joe. “Take it before I change my mind.”
Joe grinned. He snatched the sack with one hand—and dipped his head. The trial was over. “Thank you, sir. Much appreciated.”
“Seeing as you’ll marry Marna either way.” Daven’s chest rose as he took a deep breath. “And as far as I can tell, you make her happy. That matters.”
“That it does, sir.” Joe hefted his sack, letting the spinner struggle inside. His grin faded—and he met Daven’s eyes. “I won’t let you down.”
Daven beckoned—and they began making their way through the forest, mist trailing their steps. “I don’t doubt it one inch.”