Emele blinked innocently. I do not know. Why do you ask? Her handwriting was not quite as elegant as usual as she struggled to write with her gloved fingers.
“Because as invigorating as this weather is, I would like to find him so you can carry out your tete-a-tete before we freeze,” Elle said, pausing to fix the position of the crutch under her right arm.
I suspect he is in the rose garden, Emele wrote.
“Excellent, then let us go to the rose garden,” Elle said, leaves crackled under her feet as she followed Emele down a walkway.
They reached the garden in record time. Most of the beautiful flowers were gone, with the exception of a few hardier varieties of wild roses. Many of the bushes were wrapped in rough burlap, and the fountain in the center of the garden was drained and dry.
The wind howled, making Elle yelp when it gusted up her cloak and pulled on her skirts. A bear popped out from behind a hedge—although on closer inspection Elle could see it was Marc dressed in a fur coat.
The burly gardener bowed to Elle and Emele. “Good morning,” Elle said, looking around the garden. “Emele and I were coming to bid the roses farewell this year, although it looks like we are too late.”
Emele drew closer to Marc, writing on her slate. The preparations necessary to carry the garden through the winter are positively astounding. You know your trade well.
The well bundled man bowed.
“I agree with Emele,” Elle said, wriggling her nose to try and return some feeling to it. “I can’t imagine how must work it takes to prepare the rose garden.”
Emele wrote again. How many more days do you think it will take?
Marc was finally forced to dig out his slate and write out a reply. His handwriting was straight and boxy, but meticulous. As many days as we can fit before the first snow.
Is there any work to be done in the kitchen gardens? Emele asked.
I do not know, Marc simply wrote.
The kitchen staff is responsible for those gardens?
Elle watched the pair with an amused smile before she rubbed her red nose and started walking the perimeter of the garden to keep warm.
Even if the flowers were gone the garden was surprisingly green. The walk was pleasant, despite the cold. Elle glanced over her shoulder—Emele and Marc were still exchanging slates—before she hobbled around a corner and almost slammed into Prince Severin.
As freezing as it was, the prince wore only a waistcoat, and he was shoeless. He did not seem to notice the frosty temperature, although an eye twitch gave away his awareness of Elle’s arrival.
“Good morning, Your Highness,” Elle said in a sing song voice.
Severin set his trowel aside long enough to give Elle a flat look before he went back to scraping compost on top of flowerbeds. “Is the chateau so boring that you are forced to seek out entertainment in the grounds on such a miserable day, Intruder?” he dryly asked.
“I wouldn’t call it a miserable day. It may be cold, but one could call it refreshing,” Elle said.
“Besides, can you really say it is miserable when you only wear a waistcoat?” Elle asked.
“I have no need for further coverage. My fur keeps me well insulated,” Severin said.
“Really?” Elle asked, a delighted smile, flashing across her face.
“No, it is not at all like a cat,” Severin said, accurately able to guess her thoughts.
Rather than deny the accusation in his voice, Elle leaned back to peer at Emele and Marc. The two servants had moved so they were huddled behind a hedge to block the wind. “They are adorable,” she said.
Severin grunted. “Who?”
“Emele and your head gardener,” Elle said.
Severin briefly looked up. “What?”
“Emele is quite smitten with him.”
Severin stood and joined Elle in standing in the pathway. He exhaled a puff of silvery mist. “Oh,” he said before crouching down again and returning to his gardening.
“That’s all you can say? ‘oh?’” Elle asked.
“Yes,” Severin said, looking up briefly
Elle shook her head in mock disappointment before she swung past Severin to investigate a bush.
Severin arranged more compost. “Don’t.”
Elle froze, her hand hovering inches from a bush branch. “Pardon?” she said, batting her eyes in the way of helpless wood animals.
Severin eyed her over his shoulder. “You were about to accost the leaves of that bush.”
“Always,” Severin emphatically said for her.
Elle considered the statement. “True.”
Severin finished his work and stood. “Do we need to send a courier to your family?”
Elle sneezed and rubbed her red nose. “I’m sorry…what?”
Severin inclined his head and shoulders in a slight bow of apology. “It has previously occurred to me that your family may fear you have died, or some other calamity has befallen you as you have not returned home for many weeks.”
“Oh,” Elle said. “No, that will not be a problem.”