Lord Aston paused as he stepped out into the garden. Asbel was crouched amidst the flower bed, staring intensely at a rosebush. Lord Aston's mind immediately jumped to the prospect that his son was up to some new mischief, mainly because he knew Asbel was as interested in gardening as he was in his math homework. He wasn't even sure Asbel knew it was he who tended the garden and not one of the maids.
Out of his two sons, Asbel was definitely not the more attentive of the two.
"Asbel, what are you doing?" he asked, more harshly than he'd intended, as often he seemed to. His shadow fell over the boy. Asbel jumped and turned pink, which further compounded his suspicion. Though, as he moved round to look at him, Lord Aston saw his bush was undamaged. "Asbel?" he asked again. Asbel mumbled something Lord Aston didn't catch. "Speak clearly when you talk."
Asbel flushed further, and said, "I, um, was wondering how hard it would be. To grow one of these, I mean. For a birthday present."
Lord Aston blinked in surprise. "A present? For whom? Cheria?" He was well aware of the infatuation the daughter of his butler had. Possibly everyone in Lhant did, except possibly for Asbel himself.
Who right now was blushing brighter red than forbrannir.
"No. For Richard," said Asbel, staring away, pretending fiercely not to be embarrassed.
For a few moments, Lord Aston considered this development, catching Asbel's uncharacteristically shy and uncertain glance up towards him. Then Lord Aston crouched down next to him. "You'll need to remember to water it twice a week. More, if the hot weather holds out. There's a bag of fertilizer by the shed." To his son's look of confusion, he expanded on this: "This rosebush is your responsibility now. You need to take care of it if you want it to bloom."
Asbel's jaw tightened in determination. Now, that was more like the boy he knew.
"I will," said Asbel.
This would be a good exercise in responsibility, Lord Aston decided. After all, one day the Lhant lordship would be his burden. It was important that Asbel learn early how to care for something.
"You may need to prune a few of the leaves if they get too thick. But be careful with the shears. Here, let me show you..."
Richard's birthday was a month away, and for those weeks Asbel cared for the rosebush with an attentiveness that bordered on obsession. More than once, he got too carried away and had to be told by his father not to water the bush so often. "You're drowning the poor thing, Asbel. Too much water can be just as bad as too little. You must learn moderation." Or: "You don't need to prune all the leaves, Asbel."
More often than not, Asbel just sat by the bush, physically willing the tight buds to blossom. He just hoped they would before Richard's birthday.
He'd thought long and hard about what to get his friend for his birthday. It was more in Asbel's nature to cobble something together at the last minute and it hand it over, still sticky with glue or half-finished. But for Richard, it had to be something really special (why, exactly, he hadn't completely figured out yet).
Then, Richard had told him about how much he loved flowers, especially roses, and about the fabulous palace gardens in Barona. And Asbel knew exactly what his gift should be.
It had to be a secret, though, which meant he could only tend to the roses when Richard was with his tutor.
His other friends, however, definitely noticed Asbel's new-found fascination with the fauna.
"What are you doing, Asbel?" Sophie asked, squatting down next to him, pigtails dragging in the dirt.
"I'm waiting for these dumb flowers to bloom," Asbel said, staring hard and willing the petals to open.
"Oh," said Sophie, and she turned her attention to one of the buds. "Hurry up. Asbel's waiting for you," she chastised it. When this didn't offer a reaction, she looked back at Asbel. "It didn't listen," she said.
Asbel laughed. "Flowers generally don't. I'm just being impatient. You have to make sure flowers have a lot of sunlight and water, and then eventually they'll bloom."
"Why do you want them to bloom?" Sophie asked.
"I'm growing them for Richard's birthday," Asbel explained.
"Oh," was Sophie's contribution to this.
"I taught you what a birthday is, right?" Asbel asked her. Since they'd found her on Lhant hill a few months ago Asbel had taken it upon himself to teach Sophie everything she needed to know about the world. Which was a lot. Because Sophie didn't know how to tie a shoelace.
Though, she did, weirdly, know how to do a triple backward somersault.
"Yes, Asbel," Sophie said with a smile. "You and Hubert told me. It's a day to celebrate the day when you were born." She pondered this for a moment. "Do you think I have a birthday?"
"Sure," said Asbel. "Though, hey! Maybe we should give you a birthday, at least until you remember your real one."
Sophie perked up with interest at this idea. "When?" she asked.
"How about... the 1st of December? What do you think?"
She inclined her head. "Is the 1st of December a good day to have a birthday?"
"Sure!" he laughed. "As good as any other, anyway. Oh boy, I wish I had two birthdays. Imagine all the presents..."
As Asbel lapsed into a daydream, Sophie looked back at the budding roses. "Asbel, they haven't bloomed yet. Should we water them again?"
After that, Lord Aston would often look out of his bedroom window and see two heads crouched in the garden instead of one.
From behind him, Lady Kerri wrapped her arms around his waist, nestling her head on his shoulder. "What are they doing, do you think?" she asked. "I've seen Asbel in the garden a lot this week."
"He wants to grow roses for Prince Richard's birthday," Lord Aston said, fingers combing through his wife's fine hair.
She paused at her nuzzling, drinking this in. They watched together as Asbel carefully tended to the flowers.
"I don't think I've ever seen Asbel treat anything so gently in his life," Lady Kerri said, and she prodded her husband playfully. "Hey. Do you remember when we first met? You ditched me here the manor to look after your stupid flowers. I didn't have a single clue how to look after them. I stood out there for hours with Frederic holding an umbrella over those damn things."
"I remember," Lord Aston said, voice thick with amusement.
"You have no idea just how determined I was that they'd still be alive by the time you got back."
"Oh, I think I have a slight inkling. I suspect a certain son of ours might have inherited that stubborn streak of yours."
"Oops," said Lady Kerri, though she didn't sound terribly contrite. She turned her eyes back to the scene in the garden. "He and Prince Richard spend a lot of time together. You don't suppose...?"
"It'll bear him in good stead once he takes up the lordship to have made a close friendship in the prince. I wasn't sure at first, but I think we made the right decision. This can only help our relations with the capital."
Lord Aston spoke quite clinically, and Lady Kerri raised an eyebrow at him that said, really, Aston?
"Well, it's nice to see them all getting so well together, too," Lord Aston admitted. He paused, and added, "I'm overly harsh on him sometimes, I know."
Lady Kerri slipped round him to plant a kiss on his mouth. "Sometimes," she agreed.
"You're only young once," Lord Aston said, more to himself than anything else, looking back out into the window. It would be interesting to see what bloomed.
Asbel watered the rosebush, pruned it, fertilized it, fed it, shouted rude names at it, but it still wouldn't bloom.
And Richard's birthday was tomorrow.
"You could make him a cryas charm like you did for Hubert," Sophie suggested, as they sat cross-legged in the flower bed.
"I could, but-" but it wouldn't be enough. He couldn't give Richard the same thing he'd given Hubert (and he'd cut the corners on that, filling it with pepper because he hadn't left himself enough time to find any cryas).
Asbel grabbed one of the buds in frustration and said something very rude to it, which turned out to be a mistake when he pricked his fingers badly.
"What's wrong?" Sophie asked, as he yelped and stuck his injured finger in his mouth.
"I hate gardening," he said, and he stalked off sourly.
He was still sucking on his index finger when he bumped into Richard by the stairwell, carrying the books from his session with his tutor. Richard's eyes went astutely to the finger he was sucking on. "You hurt yourself again, didn't you?" he asked.
Asbel pulled his finger out of his mouth with a popping sound and said, "No."
Richard rolled his eyes. "Come with me,"he said, taking him by the wrist and pulling him into the guest room. "Sit," Richard commanded.
"I'm really fine Rich-"
"I said, sit," Richard said again, and Asbel sat. For someone who was so agreeable most of the time, Richard sure had a bossy streak. Especially when Asbel got hurt. Which was a lot.
Richard unbound a long reel of bandages. "You've got blood all down your shirt, by the way," he pointed out.
"Have I?" asked Asbel, who hadn't noticed.
"You really ought to take better care of your health, Asbel."
"Alright, Mum," Asbel joked, but he fell quiet when Richard took his hand and started bandaging his bloody finger
"How did you hurt yourself, anyway?" Richard asked, and it took Asbel's brain several moments to pull away from the sensation of Richard's gentle fingers and process the question.
He sighed. "I guess I might as well tell you, since it's not going to work out anyway. Dad gave me one of his rosebushes last month and I've been taking care of it since then. I wanted to give you roses for your birthday, since you said you missed the roses in the palace gardens. But I can't get the stupid things to bloom. Oh, and then I called it names and it stabbed me."
Richard's eyebrows were raised quite high. "So that's what you've been up to. I knew you were up to something sneaky."
"Yeah, but it was all a waste of time in the end, since it's not going to bloom by tomorrow," said Asbel, who felt depressed about the whole thing and just wanted to forget about it. Maybe he should have just made Richard a cryas charm after all.
"I don't think it was a waste of time," Richard said. He'd finished with the bandage, and slipped his hand into Asbel's. Which now, he squeezed. "No one's ever grown me flowers before. It doesn't matter if they're a bit late."
"I just wanted to get something different. Special," Asbel muttered, distracted by the feeling of Richard's hand.
"I'd love anything you got me, Asbel. Because it'd be from you," Richard said, eyes shining with warmth. "You're my best friend."
That weird warm feeling was back in Asbel's stomach, the one that made him feel all nice and soft and glowy. Swallowing hard, not knowing what to say, he let that warm feeling radiate up and out, and he beamed at Richard.
"Besides," Richard pondered. "Who knows. Maybe they will bloom by tomorrow."
His boots crunched in the dirt as Lord Aston approached Sophie, knelt by the rosebush he'd gifted Asbel.
"Hello, Sophie," he said cautiously, for he was still a little unsure how to address this strange girl Asbel had brought home. Despite the number of authorities he'd contacted, he was still no closer to finding her family. It was almost like she'd popped out of nowhere. "Is Asbel not with you?"
"He was sad," said Sophie, in her unnervingly deadpan delivery, "because the flowers won't bloom."
"Well, flowers are a lot like people in that respect. You can encourage and cajole them, but inevitably, they do what the want."
Sophie nodded, but Lord Aston wasn't sure that she understood. In a lot of ways, she seemed like a very small child. Perhaps, it would be better to treat her that way.
"Is there no way to make them bloom before tomorrow?" she asked.
"I'm afraid not."
Sophie's face fell. "I wish there was. When Asbel feels sad, I feel sad, too. Is that normal?" she asked, with imploring eyes that set Lord Aston off-kilter.
"Well- yes, I suppose so. If you care for someone, it's natural to want them to be happy." Empathy. Something his wife oft chastised him about. Something he knew he sometimes lacked. It was often easier to look at things from the cold, logical perspective. You didn't, after all, maintain a lordship with something as unsubstantial as feelings.
For a second, Lord Aston let his eyes slip closed. When he opened them, he said, "Actually, I think I have an idea to get these roses to bloom. I'll need your help though, Sophie."
Sophie brightened like sun, leaping out from behind the clouds. She squeezed her hands together. "If it means it'll make Asbel happy, I'll do anything."
Maybe, as simple as she seemed, even Sophie had something she could teach him.
The next morning, the morning of Richard's birthday, Asbel woke before dawn. He ran out into the garden, on the off-chance one of the roses had bloomed overnight. And his jaw dropped open.
He ran back inside and dragged Richard, protesting, from his bed. There, in their flannel pyjamas in the strange bright half-light before dawn, Richard blinked away the sleep in his eyes and opened them in amazement. Nearly every single one of the tightly closed buds from yesterday had sprung open, seemingly overnight. Red roses, bright and decked with dew, encasing them in a strong, sweet scent.
"They're lovely, Asbel," Richard murmured, and in that strange half-light he pulled his best friend into a tight hug.
It made the annoyance of month of toil, every single splinter and thorn-prick vanish in an instant.
Upstairs, watching from her room, Sophie smiled. Asbel was happy again. That it wasn't Asbel's flowers, and the bush was one she'd helped Lord Aston transplant from the back garden- trailing after him with a shovel, long after everyone else had gone to bed- didn't seem to matter too much.
What was it Lord Aston had said? He'd been smiling, humming a tune to himself as he dug up the rosebush. Right. Grinning, Sophie repeated to herself: "What he doesn't know won't hurt him."