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Ach Tannenbaum! [Just Before Noon, 24th]- Xmas 1677

Guest John Bramston

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It was a bit of a pity the gardeners didn’t meet. Some plants bloomed in winter and, in fact, there were dozens of plants that bloomed in late December and early January. John was planning to take advantage of that fact, actually.


In truth John wasn’t a botanist in the strictest sense but he certainly grew plants. He didn’t believe in black thumbs, the superstitious belief some people were just cursed with plants. He had every confidence that, with instruction, Sophia would do well. At least if she took it seriously, and by her indications she did.


“G-g-good.” John said. Gardening was one of the few activities were a proper lady could wear pants and get down in the dirt without social reproof. Even the previous Queen had done it. Sophia seemed like the sort who would appreciate that. While her revelation hadn’t made John think less of her, it had made him think she needed an opportunity to express a more physical, performance based, and energetic side. He had no designs on his friend but he thought she might enjoy riding through nature and working the land. That she might benefit from exhausting her energy on such affairs.


John hadn't taken offense, he'd just been surprised. He was used to being alone abroad, where if he scraped himself he had, at best, a whining cuddling dog for comfort. He appreciated Sophia's care for him, even if it surprised him.


John nodded as she said he didn’t need to return her handkerchief. He’d offer out of politeness but such things passed easily between friends.


Anna returned, “Thuh-thank you.” He said as he took them from her. John gestured the second pair was to be given to Sophia, “We nuh-need to gently dig them up to look at the… roots.” John said, “If the ruh-roots are healthy then the p-p-plants have pruh-probably just suffered ill care. With a b-b-bit if nursing they’ll return to health. If they’re ruh-rotting or infected…” Then their chances were grim.


He took one of the less prickly plants, “Wuh-watch, and be c-c-careful not to damage the roots.” He quickly dug around the plant. He lifted it up gingerly and, shaking some of the dirt off, revealed perfectly healthy roots. He said, “This w-w-will live if we g-g-give it careful attention.” He would need to find out just what sort of temperature and soil it liked. A question for the library.


“If the ruh-roots were rotting or showed suh-signs of disease it’d be d-d-different.” But they didn’t. John placed the plant back in the pot and patted the soil into a similar tightness to what it’d had before. He gestured that Sophia should do the same, watching her rather than moving onto the next.

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Sophia took the other pair of gloves and slipped them on. They were much too large for her and the rough fabric chafed against her soft skin. Wearing them was better than getting dirt underneath her fingernails, though. She would have to buy a pair that was made for ladies. Back when she had tried to grow plants, she'd had her own gloves but she had given gardening up as a lost cause after watching one too many plants waste away, and had let one of her friends have them.


“Dig them up?” she asked in surprise. Wouldn't that kill them? She listened as John explained that they needed to see if the roots were healthy, and there wasn't any other way to examine them, buried as they were in soil. He obviously knew what he was doing and she nodded when he told her to watch, taking note of how he dug around the plant.


Strangely enough, she found herself holding her breath when he lifted the plant from its pot and shook the dirt from it. Exhaling, Sophia studied the roots of the plant. So this was what healthy roots looked like. She had never seen the roots of a plant before. All she had done when she had tried gardening in Venice was to plant seeds in the soil and water them. Now she was discovering that good gardening required much more care than she had given those poor plants in Venice.


She took a step closer so she could observe how he put the roots back in the pot so that she wouldn't do it wrong when she tried it herself. When he gestured to her, she smiled uncertainly and picked up the other spade, hesitantly digging around the other plant of the same type. Before she was able to pick it up, a torbie cat with silky multicolored fur hopped upon the table, startling her. If the pot had not still been on the table, she would have dropped it.


“Lyra!” she exclaimed. “Get down before you knock over the plants.” The feline leapt to the floor, meowed once, and started rubbing her head against her mistress' skirts. Sophia ignored her and glanced over at John as she lifted the plant up and shook the dirt off. “I am sorry. Anna must have let her in when she brought the tools. You are not allergic to cats, are you?”


The roots looked much like the ones on the other plant. “These are healthy too, ja? This plant will live?”

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“R-r-removing them from their… ruh-roots kills them.” John said, “And m-m-most people can’t duh-dig a plant without duh-damaging it.” If they left them exposed there would be other issues but this was just a quick examination and reburying. In a real garden it was more normal to examine the roots by digging into the ground but potted plants were easier.


Normally someone new had to be instructed to be careful not to harm the plant. It had to be done gingerly and great care had to be taken that the weight of the dirt didn’t cause roots to snap or the stalk to bend. But Sophia was hesitant and careful and so didn’t need much in instruction. “W-w-would you like…”


Then there was a feline interloper. John was startled too but didn’t quite jump. He smiled as Sophia shooed her down. “Oh g-g-goodness no.” John said, “I huh-have two.” John hobbled around the table and picked up Lyra, half holding and half cradling her like a babe. He scratched along her jaw.


It’s been a cat sort of day. He thought.


Sophia held up the roots. They looked fine. Of course, the plant might die, but it was the difference between a malnourished patient and one that had come down with plague. Still, he smiled, “With this v-v-vicious tiger loose,” He hefted slightly to indicate Lyra, “I’m nuh-not even sure we’ll live!”

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Sophia took John's words to heart when she dug up the plant. She used the spade to feel around for the roots so that she didn't damage them or accidentally cut a few off. The petite blonde was extra cautious as she didn't want to be responsible for killing yet another plant. If Lyra had jumped on the table a few moments earlier, the plant might have suffered for it. But she had already put down the spade and was about to lift up the leaves when the feline made her presence known.


She was glad that he wasn't allergic to cats and she smiled when he picked Lyra up and cradled her in his arms. The multicolored cat purred when he scratched her jaw, lifting her head so he could rub beneath her chin. For the moment, she seemed content, but Sophia knew that it wouldn't be long before she wriggled herself free. Like most cats, she wasn't fond of being held overlong.


“I have four,” the Baroness said as she gently shook the dirt off the roots. “I brought two of them from Venice with me, and my youngest one was born last spring. Shortly after I arrived at court last year … it was held at Windsor then … I helped rescue Lyra from a tree. I tried to find her owner, but no one claimed her and I decided to keep her.”


She laughed when he called Lyra a tiger. “The plants have more to fear from her than we do. I keep the cats out of the orangery because they like to nibble on the foliage. Occasionally one slips in when the door is opened.”


She carefully lowered the plant back into the pot and begin to cover it with soil, a bit too loosely because she was afraid of hurting it. “Shall we check the rest of these as well?”

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“The elder I g-g-got from my fuh-father.” John said. There was a hint of sadness there. “And the yuh-younger I got up in… Derbyshire.” Like John they’d never been so far away as places like Venice. He marveled at how casually Sophia spoke of such strange, exotic places.


John had encountered some cats earlier as well. They’d been wandering around the palace. He’d thought they were probably cared for by the maids or something or caught mice. Now he wondered if he shouldn’t have taken them with him.


“You ought to g-g-grow catnip.” John suggested. That was his compromise with his own cats. They had to leave the others alone but they got as much catnip as they could chew. It, with some frustrating exceptions that forced him to ban them from some places, usually worked out. “I huh-have some if you w-w-want it.” Catnip was out of season but John’s orangery was filled with out of season English plants rather than exotic ones.


John obliged and smoothly moved to under the chin. Some animals disliked his shaking but most didn’t treat him differently. They were like plants and books in that way. John walked her over to the door and set her down back inside. “I t-t-told you I could… slay tiny dragons.” John said. Or at least beguile tiny tigers. He waved through the door’s window at the cat, smiling.


“Yes. W-w-would you luh-like to do it?” She could use the practice and John didn’t have the full use of his hands.

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She heard the sadness in his voice when he spoke of his father. Although he had never mentioned him before, Sophia assumed he was dead or John would not be an Earl. How long ago had he passed away? He obviously missed him just as she missed her own father She was curious but she didn't want to upset him. Perhaps he would volunteer the information if he wished her to know. It wasn't her way to pry.


To her, Derbyshire sounded more exotic than Venice. She had been in England for a little over a year, but it was still a bit strange to her and she didn't believe she had ever heard that name before. It could be a city, a small village, or the name of an estate. All she knew about it now was that it had cats. Then again, cats were everywhere.


“Catnip,” she mused, listening to Lyra purr contentedly in his arms. “Will that stop them from eating the other plants? If so I should like to have some. My gardener will probably thank you as well.” While he had never actually complained, she knew by the way he glared at her cats that he didn't appreciate them gnawing on the leaves of the plants he tended.


When John set Lyra outside the door, she meowed plaintively. It was warmer in the orangery, and cats loved warmth as much as Sophia did. “I haven't seen any dragons around here,” she laughed, “although you may have to save me from more huge spiders when the weather gets warmer.” She still remembered the way he had held that frightening creature in his hand. It had not terrified him as it had her.


She looked down at the plants. “There are two of each kind, so we can both do it. It will go faster and you can tell me if I am doing anything wrong.”

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John’s feelings about his father were… complex and not entirely positive. Both his parents had tried to dispose of him. They had only differed in their methods. Sometimes John liked to think his father had reconciled himself to the succession as he died. But there was more hope than truth in that.


He did want to share them, and one day perhaps he would. But a bit of sadness did not arrest his mind on the topic.


“That d-d-depends on how… naughty they are.” John said. “B-b-but most cats luh-love the stuff.” And so would eat it preferentially. John shrugged apologetically at Lyra’s plaintive meow. Perhaps she could play once he was gone. John himself often warmed things by the fire for his cats to lounge on.


John was as oblivious as ever to Sophia’s dislike of spiders. So he took saving her as part of the joke, “P-p-poor dears, spending all winter hiding indoors in nooks and crannies. Scuh-cared and hungry and c-c-cold and desperate.” John felt rather sympathetic for the poor creatures. That they were ugly or scary looking held no sway.


John nodded and taking out the small spade, despite his shakes this was one of the things he could do reasonably well, began to work on the next one. Still, he was slow, especially for someone with experience.

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Sophia's father had loved her unconditionally, and she counted herself lucky. She had friends who couldn't do anything right in their parents' eyes and others whose parents saw them as nothing but tools to aid in their rise at court by marrying them off. Because John seemed sad when he mentioned his father, she assumed that he had grown up as happily as she.


“My cats have never had catnip before. I have heard that it makes them act funny, much like people who have drunk too much wine. If you can get me some, I would appreciate it. If you teach me how to take care of it, maybe it will not die and they can enjoy it.” She almost asked if it was harmful to monkeys, but she doubted if he would know the answer. Aurora never nibbled on plants anyway. She did spend quite a bit of time in the orangery climbing the trees. Sophia often found her nestled upon a branch, her bright fur a stark contrast against the green of the leaves.


Did he actually care about spiders? The way he described their lives during the winter did make her feel a bit sorry for them. It was amusing to think of them as scared, considering how frightened she was of them. “Well, they can find somebody else's garden to live in when the weather warms up. I do not want them in mine.”


She didn't mind how slow he was, for she needed to watch what he did before she tried it herself. The petite blonde was not very fast either, for she was still a bit afraid that she might accidentally harm one. “How did you learn so much about plants?” she asked as she gently lifted another plant up to inspect its roots, which also looked healthy. “Did somebody teach you or did you figure it out by yourself?”

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“Sir b-b-becomes astounded by and obsessed… with odd thuh-things. Yesterday it was muh-my umbrella stand. Luh-lady becomes a manic ball of p-p-playful energy.” John shared the reaction of his cats. Their names were actually Lady Pouncington and Sir Hidely, but he didn’t share those names as often. They felt childish and John was trying to act like an adult. Failing, but trying.


John let out a small puff of air as she hoped it didn’t die. “My luh-lady, if you manage to kill it I’ll be f-f-frankly impressed.” Catnip, especially fully grown, was very hardy. It could survive being stepped on, overwatered, underwatered, all but extreme temperatures, and being gnawed on by cats. “I am g-g-giving you p-p-plants that are hard to kill, you know. The fragile things w-w-will come with time.”


He was also theming things a bit. Sophia could dry out the plants and make treats for her cats the same way she could use the mint he’d just given her.


John laughed at Sophia’s declaration she would keep out the spiders. Some people find beauty only in pleasing things… John remembered some words from De Caus’s essays on aesthetics.


“Oh, I d-d-don’t know that much… really.” John said. He examined the roots on the plant he was currently holding a bit more carefully. So far they didn't seem too bad. “A g-g-great many people taught me… and I read m-m-many books. And I t-t-tried a lot.” But there was no one overarching teacher. “I d-d-did get to g-g-go along with Master London and Master Wise while… they w-w-were working on Chatsworth.”


John resented that the pair were not given what he felt was proper recognition. The King preferred French gardens and tended to import his gardeners. Of course, the pair were popular outside of court and becoming fabulously wealthy outside the royal service, so perhaps they didn’t mind.


“Have you thuh-thought about redoing the... embassy?” John asked. He was curious if she’d imported a Spanish gardener, or even an architect, designer, or draughtsman. He’d love to talk with one.

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'Sir' and 'Lady.' Sophia thought those were cute names for cats. “I wonder how my four will react to it." She should probably put it in one of the other rooms so the gardener wouldn't be bothered by their antics, but that would defeat the purpose. Without catnip in the orangery, her felines would continued nibbling on the other plants.


“I do not think anything is impossible for me to kill,” she sighed sadly. She should have brought the plants he had given her to the orangery, but she could do that after he left.


“You know a lot more than I do.” Gardening was a new hobby of hers, though. Sophia had been drawing and painting for nearly a year and nobody would want to hang any of her works on their walls. Everything took practice and perseverance. Thanks to her voice training, she had those traits in abundance. What she lacked was patience.


She had no idea who Master London or Master Wise were, nor did she know what or where Chatsworth was. They were probably garden designers. “I have a few books on plants, but they have not helped me much. Did you kill plants too before you learned to grow them so well?”


“Yes!” she exclaimed, her face lighting up. “I want to redecorate the Embassy and this house. Everything is too dark for my tastes. I want to have the furniture reupholstered, and get new rugs for the floors, as well as have the walls repainted and wallpapered. We plan to be here for many years so it will be a good investment.” Sophia was thinking more of interior decorating than having the outside refurbished.

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John moved onto the cactus. He was having some trouble figuring out how to handle it. “My, my.” John said with light bemusement, “I’m f-f-friends with an angel of death.”


John did know more than her, but, “I’m n-n-not a botanist or apothecary though.” John did have a fair bit of botanical knowledge but the ability to grow plants was only a province in the kingdom of gardening. He also didn’t have experience with plants from different climates, so he was reluctant to set himself up as an authority.


“What d-d-do you have?” John asked, curious what she’d been reading. “I w-w-would’ve if I hadn’t… had someone l-l-looking over my shoulder.” John replied. No one was born talented.


"You ought to d-d-do the outside as well. It's a bit... dull. And m-m-more people see it than the... inside." After all, an embassy was a monument to its country as much as a place to conduct business.


John smiled as Sophia seemed to light up. He found her excitement very endearing. “Who are you using?” John asked.

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“If plants could talk, it is what they would have called me before I met you,” she laughed.


Sophia noticed the trouble he was having with the cactus. “May I help? Look.” She folded over the excess fabric on the fingers of her gloves so that she would have extra protection. “I do not think I will be pricked with so much fabric between the cactus and my skin.” Perhaps it was fortunate that the gloves were too large for her tiny hands.


“You can learn, though. There must be books on both. The gardening books I have are written in Italian and are about growing plants in Italy. The climate is much different here. The next time I go to the bookstore, I will look for some books about plants in English.” Her head tilted to the side. “I wonder if there would be a few in the royal library.”


She smiled, glancing up at him as she dug around the roots of the other cactus. “And now I have you to look over my shoulder. Soon I will be known as the angel of life.”


Sophia wasn't certain if her husband would allow her to redecorate the inside, let alone the outside of the Embassy. To her, the interior was more important because it reflected the personal style of the Ambassador … or in Esteban's case … his wife. Right now, it reeked of Ronquillo. “The outside is a bit boring,” she admitted, “and rather English. It is nothing like the buildings I saw in Madrid.”


She blinked when he asked who she was using to redecorate. “I do not know. I have not even asked my lord husband if he will let me do it. Since we returned to London, I have been rehearsing so much I barely have time to breathe. Tomorrow, I will be able to start planning. Do you know somebody with experience in redecorating?”

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John laughed as well. He really didn’t believe in black thumbs. She’d be growing at least simple plants soon enough.


John looked at Sophia’s innovation and nodded, trying it. He was used to brambles and thorns but the cactus looked particularly dangerous. He folded the gloves over his hands and was able to proceed. The little green fortress was not as intimidating as it seemed. He smiled gratefully to his friend.


As John repotted the cactus, John laughed at the angel of life moniker. He picked up the cactus, and said falsetto, “Hurrah! I’m saved!”


John nodded. He would be taking a trip to the Chelsea Physic Garden and its library before he returned tomorrow. That seemed the better bet than the Royal Library. “There are. To your left on entering, go all the w-w-way to the back.” He said, “You c-c-could also look at some of the gardens around the p-p-palace, or St. James. There’re paintings of gardens in the galleries too.”


“Oh, no.” John said, “Italian g-g-gardening used to be very popular in England. They’ll buh-be outdated, I imagine, but otherwise the same principles are good.” There was simply not as much of a division based on climate as Sophia imagined. Though unlike so many other arts, Italians had already lost leadership of the gardening world.


John nodded as she agreed the outside was dull. He wasn’t going to push further on the subject, though. He was a bit disappointed when she revealed she hadn’t brought anyone back from Spain. John nodded again when she said she hadn’t even asked permission. And when she said she’d been busy, he felt he was being gently told to stop prying and said, “Ah, yes. Excuse me.”


Sophia asked him if he knew anyone, John replied candidly, “N-n-no. I w-w-was hoping you’d brought someone… from Spain.” Specifically a gardener, but architecture was related enough that an interior designer or architect would still have made for an interesting talk. He’d also thought to maybe steer her towards a new garden but she seemed to have a plan to do the interior. He tended to get ahead of himself on such things.


He smiled slightly and his attention turned to the next plant, the last one on his side. As he started to dig his brow knitted in concern but he continued diligently.

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Sophia had intended to help him with his cactus, but he used her idea himself and she folded the excess fabric over her fingers again and carefully lifted hers up to be examined. The roots of all the plants looked basically the same to her. Since he hadn't said anything about them, they must be healthy. She hoped that all of the plants she had brought from Spain would live. Perhaps their start in the palace gardens had made them strong enough to survive the long journey. The gardener there would not have given sickly plants to the wife of the new Ambassador, lest it later reflect badly upon him.


When he made the plant talk, a peal of lyrical laughter filled the air. “You are lucky, little cactus. I have an excellent teacher.” It was rather silly and immature to speak to a plant, but the young Baroness didn't care. Nor did she know that in a few short hours she would be apologizing to a horse for hitting it with a snowball.


Sophia had no sense of direction, and so wouldn't be able to follow his instructions on how to find the gardening books at the royal library. However, she could always ask the librarian to show her where they were. She had never asked for his assistance before, but she presumed helping people find books was part of his job. “How will looking at paintings of gardens help me learn to grow plants?” she asked curiously.


So her gardening books would be useful. In truth, she had not studied them too diligently when she was in Venice, but had only skimmed through them occasionally. She had been busy with her vocal training and practicing for the operas she had performed in. Perhaps if she'd had more time to read, she would have picked up some useful tips. She would find them and peruse them more seriously now that she knew she could use the knowledge they held in English gardens.


Sophia didn't understand why he excused himself when she said she had not begun to plan the redecoration of this house and the Embassy. She was not putting him off; she was just stating the simple truth. The opera had taken nearly every moment of every day since her return to London. “My lord husband can send for a decorator if he allows me to redecorate. I do not wish it to be too Spanish though, except perhaps on the outside. Visitors should feel welcome there no matter where they are from. And do you not think that it will reflect well on Spain to have an Embassy that is pleasing to everyone?”


She began to dig around the last plant on her side, completely missing John's look of concern.

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Power invested at a young age and outright neglect had left John rather immature. Packed away and ignored it had been startling easy to maintain himself as a child, at least in some ways.


“Yaaaay!” John-as-Cactus proclaimed, moving the cactus in what he took to be an excited little dance. Then he peeled into badly stifled laughter. John was embarrassing as a relation in more ways than one. Though such things lent themselves to the rumors of his mental incapability.


John’s brow knitted when she asked him how looking at paintings would help, “D-d-do you not know… what a gardener is, my Lady?” John said, confused at her question. It seemed perfectly absurd. Like asking an architect what she could possibly learn from looking at paintings of buildings.


Gardening did involve growing plants. But it was a great deal more than that. It involved leveling mountains and digging artificial lakes, making fountains and mechanical wonders. It involved building outbuildings like gazebos and cottages and laying large foundations for gardens to sit on and parterres. And most of all it involved bringing all these elements into an aesthetically pleasing whole.


That was why John was interested in talking to a Spanish interior decorator. While John was not an interior decorator, that sense of aesthetics and control of physical space put them in at least the same general area.


“Do t-t-tell me who you use.” John said. He was still interested but he was still quietly pulling back.


“Spanish d-d-decorations make you feel… uncomfortable?” John said, perplexed. He found them curious and exotic. Besides, no matter how English looking the embassy was, it would still be full of Spaniards. But if she thought there was something unwelcoming in them then another style would be better.


“My suggestion is t-t-to think of who you want to please and… d-d-decorate to their tuh-taste.” And she could redecorate later if she wanted to please someone else. “B-b-because you cannot please… everyone. And if you t-t-try, you’ll please no one.”

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Sophia didn't think John's antics were disturbing. She thought they were cute. Then again, she was still a child in many ways and highly imaginative. It was fun to think that plants could talk and had feelings … unless they died. Although she wouldn't admit it to anyone, she had often cried when the plants she tried to grow didn't make it. And she had buried them instead of throwing them away. It just seemed right.


She laughed when he made the cactus dance and waved hers very gently. “Dance with me!” she exclaimed in a silly voice. Afraid to keep the cactus out of its pot too long, she carefully replanted it, hoping that she had not harmed it by making it dance. If anyone had seen them, they would probably have both been committed to Bedlam.


Sophia frowned when he asked her if she knew what a gardener was. “Of course I do. I do not see how looking at a painting can teach you how to grow plants. Some of the flowers in the paintings probably come from the artist's imagination and do not even exist in the world. Paintings in books can help you identify plants, if that is what you mean.” She paused in thought. “Or do you mean it can help you in designing gardens? Do you think I will ever be capable of that?”


“I will,” she assured him. That was something to discuss with Esteban, and it was possible that she could plan most of it herself. She had helped her stepmother modernize Katzenburg Castle, and it had turned out quite beautifully. Someone else would have to the menial work, though, like painting the walls and reupholstering the furniture.


“Nein, I love Spanish decorations. I just think international touches will make the Embassy more welcoming.” She sighed when he advised that if she tried to please everyone, she would wind up pleasing nobody. “I guess if I try to combine too many styles, it will be so gaudy that nobody will feel comfortable there. My lord husband is the one I need to please. I want him to be proud of me. I will ask him what he thinks of my ideas.”


She placed the last plant back in its pot. “They will all live, ja? You will check on them again when you come back tomorrow?”

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John laughed freely at Sophia’s dancing cactus. His had already been repotted and he’d been moving the pot but the effect was funny nevertheless. He did briefly move his forward but he didn’t manage to do much before his laughter got the better of him.


John winced slightly at Sophia’s frown. They seemed to have two different definitions of the thing. John naturally thought his definition was correct but he wasn’t about to get into a spat over it. In his mind, Sophia had mixed up botany with gardening. “Ah, yes, of c-c-course, sorry.” He felt like he was tripping over himself now. He hadn’t meant to be insulting but he’d been shocked and English was her second language.


He sought to explain what he meant otherwise, “A p-p-plant is a note in a song. But the garden is the entire opera. Luh-learning how to grow a p-p-plant is like learning how to hit a note. But there’s m-m-more to singing than hitting notes and there’s… m-m-more to an opera than singing.” John said gingerly. He hoped he didn’t offend her and that he wasn’t saying something incredibly stupid. He was trying to make analogies but he didn't really know much about music.


“Of course you c-c-can,” John said, confused when she expressed the idea of incapability. He thought it was on account of her sex. “P-p-plenty of women do this sort of thing. The old Queen used… to luh-love it. I’ll g-g-give you a book, you’ll see.” There were many books extolling gardening as a virtuous pursuit entirely befitting a woman, especially a mistress of a household. They also had some good practical advice.


John nodded at her promise. Making, laying out, and executing a design was a skill, whether that was a garden or an interior. Even managing a team of workers and getting them to do what you wanted was something that required experience. John presumed she would seek to use someone because he thought she had no experience in such things. She’d told him earlier she was not heavily involved in managing her estate, after all.


If she did have a knack for it, though, it would serve her well in what John would teach.


John was still pulling back. He just nodded, preferring not to speak. It might have normally stopped there but, whatever the awkwardness of the moment, Sophia was a good friend of his so he managed to overcome, “If I m-m-might offer advice, you should… find out who huh-he wants… t-t-to pluh-please in England and d-d-decorate to their tastes. And your husband w-w-will be pleased that they are p-p-pleased.” Because that’s what a diplomat wanted, to curry favor with others for his country.


John was taking a bit longer on the last one. The roots had begun to rot a bit at the end. “This one is sick.” John said. He shifted the roots so she could see the discoloration and the growths. “I’ll d-d-do what I can and look again… tuh-tomorrow.” He reached for the clippers. The roots needed to be cut to the healthy part.

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She couldn't comprehend why he felt the need to apologize for something that she didn't understand. The fault was hers, not his, and possibly had a bit to do with her budding knowledge of the English language. Sophia knew that there was a difference between botany and gardening, but she didn't know what it was.


At the moment, she was only concerned with growing pretty plants. More advanced knowledge would come later, if she didn't lose interest. And she was quite certain that her interest would not wane. She had been wanting to learn more about gardening for years and now she had an excellent instructor … one who could explain things in terms she could easily grasp.


The blonde singer nodded as he compared gardening to music. “That makes perfect sense,” she said with a bright smile. “To sing, you must learn the basics first, and then you progress to singing arias and finally to performing in the opera. So after I learn how to grow plants, I will wish to design entire gardens.” She wondered what her gardener would think if she told him what she wanted planted and where. Not that it mattered. Servants could be easily replaced.


She had not known that the former Queen had enjoyed gardening. Sophia knew little about her other than that she had died. The Gardening Club was comprised mostly of women, she believed, but she only thought that they grew plants in pots to show off to each other. Lord Maldon took gardening far more seriously, even if he did pretend that plants could talk and dance.


“Then I look forward to learning about that kind of gardening as well. I could redesign my entire garden to my own tastes.” She didn't feel Ronquillo's presence lurking in the garden like she did in the house, but when the weather was warmer, she might find some things she would like to change.


His advice on redecorating the Embassy was also excellent. “I shall ask him,” she decided. “Maybe he does want to please a specific group of people. The Embassy is his domain whereas this house is mine. I am going to decorate the house to please myself.” And to expel all traces of its former resident.


She leaned closer when he said that his last plant was sick. After studying the rotting parts, she dug hers back up and looked at it again. Its roots were also rotting. How had she missed it ? She picked up her pair of clippers, but just stared at them. What if she cut off too much? “Do you want to do this one as well?” she asked. “Or will you tell me what to do? I do not want to hurt it.”

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“And in the muh-meantime, you c-c-can learn something from… observing the whole. Or even how the whole is imagined.” Some people never did get as far as designing gardens, preferring to specialize in something. Floristry was particular popular among women. And others progressed from other places, such as being draughtsmen or architects. But that had been John’s progression. “J-j-just like you can use the opera when you’re t-t-teaching me a bit of… singing.” John smiled and nodded when she said she looked forward to it.


John guessed it was Spanish allies and, especially, English lords who could bring England onto the Spanish side in the war. But he would let Toledo tell her what his priorities were. “Sensible.” John said genuinely when she spoke of how she’d divide things. He’d have done the same.


John's brow furrowed deeper as she said they were both sick. That was bad. It meant that it wasn't happenstance, or at least it was more likely it wasn't.


“No, you should d-d-do it. C-c-cut just above the g-g-growth and look to see if there’s any rot inside. If there is, take off smuh-small slices until there isn’t.” John began to clip at his, doing just that. Fortunately it hadn’t managed to get too far. And, though the rot was unfamiliar, it looked like one that was survivable. Though with a weakened foreign plant John couldn’t be sure.


As soon as he was done he looked over at Sophia to see how she was fairing. He also took the parts he'd clipped away and wrapped them in a handkerchief. He could try and find out what the specific type was from that.

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“I wish I could have a garden as beautiful as some I have seen in paintings. But without the ponds. Why do so many gardens have ponds? If you want water, get a fountain. They are much prettier.” There was already a fountain in her garden, and Sophia thought it quite lovely. It didn't need to be replaced. “I wouldn't mind a little fish pond.” She'd seen one of those in Spain. It was shallow and there was no danger of drowning if one fell in. “Maybe I shall add one in the spring.”


She grinned when he mentioned his upcoming singing lessons. “It is much the same, yes. Once you learn to sing, you will advance to singing arias. After I learn how to grow plants, I may progress to designing gardens.” The idea definitely appealed to her.


The two sick plants were the same type, but Sophia couldn't remember if they were peppers, herbs, or flowers. She bit her lip nervously when he suggested that she trim the roots herself, watching what he did closely before starting on it. Tentatively, she began cutting off the rotting bits, checking the roots carefully to make certain she had gotten it all. She felt as if she was hurting the plant by cutting into it, but she told herself that she was helping it instead.


When she looked over at him, he was wrapping the decaying roots in a handkerchief. “Why are you keeping those?” she asked. “Should we not throw them away? Or do you want mine as well?”


Her plant was finished now, and she held it out to him. “Did I get it all?” She thought she had done a fairly good job, but she might have missed something. This was all so new to her.

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“B-b-bring me a painting you like.” John said, “And I c-c-can tailor things a… bit.” It would be good to know what she liked. As for her question, “It d-d-depends on the style. Naturalistic ones want to luh-look like nature. Formalist ones often d-d-don’t have ponds.” They did have pools though Some formalist ones didn’t even have plants, being entirely composed of things like gilt and marble and tile.


John nodded. He imagined he would never perform, not only for reasons for propriety but because he was not exactly a presence to be admired. At best he might do a Richard III, someone meant to be ugly and hunchbacked. But he didn't like the idea of using his twisted body as a metaphor for his twisted soul. Still, he would love to sing if he could, just for his own pleasure.


“I’m g-g-going to see if I can find how… they’re… sick.” John said, “I need some to d-d-diagnose it. The rest should be t-t-taken somewhere without plants and burned so the… humors don’t get into the air.”


John looked over at hers. “Yes,” He said, “It looks g-g-good. Take special care with these. They’ll be… weaker. But the p-p-plant will regrow roots. Hopefully healthily.” But the rot too was a living thing and would attack the plant if left alone. He tucked them away for later.


But the day grew late. John smiled, “M-m-might I excuse myself? I fear I’ve stayed a bit overlong for the pleasure of your c-c-company.”

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“I bought some paintings of Spanish gardens when I was in Madrid. I will show them to you tomorrow.” Sophia wasn't completely certain where the servants had put them, but Anna would be able to locate them for her. She had not yet decided whether to hang them in the Embassy or the house.


“My garden here is too small for a pond but it has a large fountain with a pool of water at its base. And I think there are flowers planted around it. It will be lovely in the summer.” Most of the bushes and trees had been bare by the time they had moved in, but a few of the hedges and topiaries were still green and leafy. Maybe tomorrow they could go for a stroll and he could suggest what could be changed.


So that was why he wanted to keep the decayed roots. “I shall have my gardener burn the others.” She pushed them to the end of the table as far away from the other plants as possible. “If you find out what is wrong with them, will you be able to heal them? And should I keep them apart? Can their sickness affect the others?”


After he had checked her plant, she gently placed it back in its pot and covered the roots again with soil. Sophia hadn't known that the roots could grow back. She was learning many new things today. No wonder she had failed at gardening in Venice.


She grinned when he excused himself with charming words. “Of course. I am sorry that I have kept you so long. Come. Let us go back to the drawing room so you can take the books I borrowed home with you, as well as the Christmas Pyramid I plan to give the Queen tonight.”


The petite Baroness led him from the orangery and back to the drawing room. The books still sat on the table where the servant had left them, and she fetched the box that held the pyramid and lay it beside them. “Do you need help getting all this back to your carriage?”

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John’s eyes flashed with excitement for a moment at the prospect of seeing the paintings. He smiled a bit eagerly. He’d seen paintings and pictures already but more, especially directly from an ambassador, was an exciting prospect.


Joh nodded as she described her garden. He’d taken notice of the fronts of both. His eyes naturally strayed to such things. But he still thought she wanted that sort of change to be far into the future.


“If I d-d-don’t I can’t. If I find out what it is, there’s at luh-least a chance.” John said. “I d-d-don’t know yet. It’s suh-safer to keep them… away until I do. Still a warm, comfortable, place though.” It was even possible that it could affect them but John didn’t think that was likely. If it had been a native plant with a native disease John would’ve been more help. He needed to research on this.


John followed along, “P-p-perhaps it’s best if I don’t carry them. I’ll send a servant to p-p-pick them up once I’m home.” John said. He lived on Piccadilly which was ten to twenty minutes from Westminster. And he didn’t have a carriage, he’d just walked.


“Thank you again for your hospitality. And your help.” John bowed. His voice became thick for just a moment, “I appreciate it a g-g-great deal.” He felt himself awkward and clumsy in more than just a physical sense. He was grateful that Sophia seemed to actually like him and felt blessed he had a friend who would help him do so many things he felt himself incapable of.


He rose again, “Until t-t-tonight.” He smiled. “I’m sure you’ll be wonderful.”


OOC: And I believe that’s fin?

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The paintings Sophia had bought in Madrid were mostly of gardens, architecture, or scenes where theatre or music was featured. She wasn't fond of portraits because the eyes always seemed to eerily follow her movements, but she had bought one of a Spanish guitarist, his gaze lowered to his instrument.


The paintings had been relatively cheap as they were painted by artists who at present only dreamed of fame. In time, perhaps a few of them would be renowned, which would drive up the value of the paintings she had bought from them. Of course, the petite singer didn't think of this. She never gave a thought to money. As far as she was concerned, it really did grow on trees.


So Lord Maldon might be able to heal the plants if he could figure out what the rot was. Would she ever be that knowledgeable? Sophia hoped so. She liked the idea of being able to cure plants of their illnesses. Maybe her gardener would be able to give her a few tips as well if she kept her cats away from the orangery and charmed him into it. He wouldn't think his job was in danger if he was valuable to his mistress.


"If the plants need warmth, this is the best place for them. I will move them to the other side of the orangery.” It wasn't that far away, but it was the best she could do.


Now that she thought about it, she hadn't seen a carriage when she had noticed him walking toward the Embassy. She nodded when he said he would send a servant for the books and pyramid. She would inform her servants and they could take care of it when John's servant arrived.


“It is always a pleasure to see you.” Her smile was as warm as her voice. “And thank you for the help with the plants.” Sophia treasured his friendship. With him, she could just be herself and didn't have to worry about appearing childish or immature. They understood each other quite well and they could help each other in many ways.


“Yes, until tonight.” She led him to the door instead of letting a servant do it for her. “Your belief in me means a lot. I will remember it when I step onstage to sing. And I hope you enjoy the opera. I will see you after the curtain falls, if all goes well.”

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