As Asbel dragged his heels towards his father's study upon his summons, he was certain it was for another scolding.
For the last few days, he'd had plenty of them. Asbel had been grounded in his room since Bryce's attack, with only Hubert for company. Company, which, he thought, was pretty poor, considering his brother's propensities towards the most terrible phrase ever uttered: I told you so. His tutor informed him with pleasure the time would be useful to catch up on his math work, since he was apparently lacking in what the old codger called "your brother's work ethos." Thus, most of this work ended up folded up into paper air planes, covered in doodles and flung at his brother's head. None of this paid off in the end, since Hubert eventually burst into tears and stormed off, and Asbel was left both feeling guilty and lonely.
He read three adventure books, played a game of chess against himself and even, at last, resorted to studying, but even then Asbel couldn't tear his mind away from one thing: Richard.
He couldn't stop worrying about his friend. Was he okay? Was he safe? Was he lonely? He couldn't help but fear Richard would be spirited away by his guards back to the safety of the palace in Barona, and he would never see him again.
And Asbel wanted very much to see Richard again.
The feeling congealed as a tight, hard feeling in the bottom of his stomach, and as Asbel slouched towards his father's study he pushed his shoulders back, mouth tightening into a stubborn line. This time, his father would answer his questions, whether he liked it or not.
"In you go, young master," Frederic said, shepherding him inside. "They're waiting for you."
The thing that hit Asbel first was surprise at the amount of people in the study. There was his father, Lord Aston, sat at his desk, but he was twisted round to converse with an older woman wearing the uniform of the royal guard. There were several other men clustered nearby that Asbel recognised from Richard's contingency- relief bubbled up in his chest seeing that, for, he reasoned, if Richard had left then they would have as well.
"Good. You're here, Asbel." His father settled back in his chair, arms crossed against his chest.
A mop of blond hair appeared round the side of the chair opposite Lord Aston, and Asbel realised it was Richard who sat before his father's desk. The Prince stared at him with mouth hanging open very slightly, as though suddenly struck by shyness.
"Richard!" Asbel erased the distance between them and found himself snatching up Richard's hand without thinking about it. "Are you alright?" he asked in concern.
Richard's eyes flickered from the other's boy hand up to his face. "I'm fine," he managed out at last, and he smiled. "Thanks to you, Asbel. I owe you my life. If you and Sophie weren't there, I don't know what would have happened."
"With all due respect, your Highness, your life wouldn't have been in danger if my son hadn't disobeyed my rules and dragged you into his recklessness," Lord Aston said pointedly. He was always such a buzzkill. Asbel aimed a fierce glare at his father that to the adults in the room looked more like a sour pout. "Enough of this," his father continued. "There's something more important we need to discuss. Captain Mirelle?"
The grey-haired woman stood by Lord Aston's side, wearing the colours of the royal guard. She cleared her throat. "Your Highness, this attack confirmed something we've long suspected: that your life is in imminent danger."
Richard nodded tightly, the smile that had lit up his face light a bright light upon seeing Asbel now extinguished. He wore the same expression that Asbel had seen when he, Cheria, Hubert and Sophie had broke into the guest room. The crown prince looked tired and sad.
No doubt, this escapade would lead to his continued confinement in Castle Barona. Back to the empty rooms and politicking, locked doors and loneliness.
Richard let his eyes glaze. It was always the same. Whenever he thought he might actually make a friend, he'd be dragged away, supposedly for his own safet-
He snapped violently out of his daze as balled hands slammed against the table. "Please," exclaimed Asbel, "don't make Richard go home!"
Out of the corner of his eye Richard saw his guards glance at one another. Lord Aston's mouth twisted in displeasure at this outburst, but before he could scold his son, Captain Mirelle chuckled.
"Why do you ask that, young man?" she asked.
"Because-" for a second, Asbel faltered, shooting Richard a quick glance, "because we made a friendship pact. Richard just got here, and there's so much we haven't done yet. We were going to pick apples, and help Sophie remember who she is, and go on a treasure hunt, and-"
"Done," said Captain Mirelle, smiling.
Richard said, "W-what?"
"You will remain here in Lhant, Prince Richard," said Captain Mirelle. "That's why I asked you and young Asbel here. I've discussed it at length with His Majesty the King and Lord Aston, and it's been decided the capital is too dangerous at the moment for you to return. It would be safer for you here in the country where we can conceal your identity. For the time being, you will remain here in the care of the Lhant family."
Asbel's mouth was gaping open like a trout's. Richard was sure his expression looked much the same. "For how long?" he managed out.
"At least until the harvest festival," said Captain Mirelle, smiling at the two boys. "We'll consider the circumstances then and discuss whether or not the situation has settled down enough for your return."
Until the harvest festival! That was four months away! Asbel swung round towards Richard, looking like he'd been struck by lightning. Slowly then, his face brightened into a massive grin.
"There will be rules," Lord Aston said, arms folded tightly. "You're not to leave the town without a guard. The Prince's identity must be kept a secret. I've already spoken to Hubert and your friends about this, and you must promise me-"
"Yes, yes. I promise," Asbel said quickly, only half listening. He'd caught Richard's hands again, and Richard's heart was in his throat.
"Asbel," Lord Aston said, in warning, but then Captain Mirelle put a hand on his shoulder, shaking her head with a smile.
"Come on, Richard, we have to go find everyone and tell them the good news," Asbel babbled quickly, pulling him out of the seat.
"Yes!" said Richard, letting himself be led. He turned a brief look back at the aged captain and flashed her a bright smile. Smiling back, Mirelle nodded at him. Then they were running together, Richard's hand warm in Asbel's.