"Not like that! Green Man help me - you're tearing the leaves off completely, boy!" Rosethorn let out a breath like a steaming teakettle. "Put that down right now."
Briar dropped the jar and lopper like they burned him. He cringed away too - not entirely out of reach, but she'd have to stretch to hit him right hard.
The jar rolled in the dirt; a few of the orange-and-black-striped bugs began to crawl out of it, and Rosethorn made another angry noise and set it back upright before they could escape. She kept her palm over the top to make sure.
"I said put it down, not dump it like a hot brick," she muttered. "I thought we agreed you were allowed in this garden as long as you listen. Do I need to go back on that agreement? I'm sure Lark's got other chores for you."
"No!" Briar shot a look to the house, as though Lark would come marching out the back door to drag him to the dreaded chore list. He couldn't even read it yet. "I was listening! But -"
"Then why is half this tomato plant on the ground? I might've asked a hungry sheep to help me, for all the good you're doing."
He hunched farther out of her reach.
Half wasn't fair. He'd only poked a few holes and torn off a few bits of leaves here and there - and he didn't mean to, but the bugs stuck to the leaves a lot more stubbornly than Rosethorn had said! Tapping them off didn't work unless he put real force into it.
"The lopper's too sharp."
"That's why you use the handle end."
Briar grimaced. She had told him that, but he hadn't remembered until just now. "I was using the handle end," he muttered with half a mouth. Then he cringed away again when Rosethorn's eyes glinted dangerously.
"What was that?"
Briar looked down. He wasn't stupid enough to poke that bear.
He'd been so excited, too, when Rosethorn had asked him to help with something as important as de-bugging her precious tomato plants. He meant to pay attention to her instructions, but the garden was making too much noise. It was like the plants were celebrating that he'd finally been allowed to get near them.
And now Rosethorn likely wasn't gonna let him anywhere near her domain again.
"Pay attention, boy!" Her voice snapped, "If I have to explain this a third time, I'll toss you in this jar with the bugs."
He didn't think he'd fit. But somehow, he believed her anyway.
"Hold each leaf like this - gently," she growled, "you're not trying to strangle it. And tap it with the handle until the bug lets go. Shake it a little if you have to. And keep the jar upright! No use getting the pests off of one leaf only to have them move onto the next plant over..." She pursed her lips and made another teakettle noise. "I told Crane not to use the overwintering soil...Potato bugs, in my garden! Didn't even have the decency to keep them contained to his blighted greenhouse..."
She huffed, and shoved the jar back at him; Briar hurried to put his hand over it to show her he was listening. Not that it mattered - Rosethorn wasn't paying attention to him anymore, and the black-and-orange bugs inside didn't look that interested in crawling out.
He waited a second - was that it? He'd torn up her tomatoes, she was within her rights to strike him once, at least. She was just saying the other day how she wanted the tomatoes to come in. And no one else could grow them - had he cost everyone west of the Endless Sea their tomatoes? Surely that'd get him more than a cuff over the head, even. Would they stick him in jail?
"If you're just going to stand there staring, you can go help Lark with the chores," came Rosethorn's menacing voice.
She wasn't even looking at him!
There was something about this stout earthy dedicate, that made her scarier even than the Hajran Street Guard.
Slowly, he reached for the tomato plant again. Half the serrated leaves had bugs on them; he picked one, and tweaked it between two fingers like it was the wing of a butterfly. On the puckered underbelly sat a plump orange worm of sorts...a juvenile, Rosethorn had called it. Meant it wasn't a full grown bug yet. He tapped the leaf with his finger, but it didn't let go.
The lopper she'd handed him earlier was still in the dirt where he'd dropped it. He picked it up and flipped it, careful to keep the blade away from the plant. The handle was easier to tap against the back of the leaf - but the potato bug worm still clung on.
Come on, Briar coaxed, let go. Let go or she'll have both our skins.
The tomato plant didn't like his handling, either. I'm learning, he bristled. And better me than the bugs.
The leaves brushed his skin in a prickle of disagreement.
Well, they'd change their mind once he got all the pests off. He tapped the leaf again, gently, but the stubborn juvenile bug held on, like it wasn't even afraid of Rosethorn. Clearly it hadn't seen her that morning, when she'd first discovered the intrusion in her garden.
The garden was singing to him again. Plants sounded different here, than in his home port in Sotat. Happier. Or maybe it was just Rosethorn's garden that was so happy; the prickly dedicate might've hated children, but she liked her plants. She took care of them.
She'd probably hurt him if he broke them.
He caught the plump bug between his dirty fingers, trying to pry it off without damaging the leaf. It came off, eventually, and he dumped it in the jar next to the others. Briar crouched and tilted his head to inspect the back of the leaf - no marks there! It looked intact and a healthy green, and there weren't even any of the yellow insect eggs that Rosethorn had told him to watch out for. (See, he was listening.)
"Mila save us - boy, get on with it!" A couple of rows ahead, Rosethorn was giving him an impatient look, "What's the problem now?"
He jumped back. "You said to be careful!"
"Careful, not comatose." She rolled her eyes. "The point is to shake the bugs off faster than they can eat the plants."
"If I do it faster, the leaves'll tear up and then you'll - do things to me. I don't want to get banned from the garden!"
Rosethorn put a hand on her hips. The other held the jar of bugs; about ten times fuller than his, Briar noticed. And the tomatoes she'd gone through didn't have a leaf out of place.
She was standing against the sun; he had to squint to see her eyes under the wide-rimmed hat, but he thought she wasn't scowling too much. Still, he stepped out of reach again just in case. He might've earned a strike or two for tearing up her plants, but that didn't mean he was gonna make it easy for her.
"I imagine it would be no chickenfeed to keep you out of a garden," Rosethorn muttered. "Just get on with it. Lark doesn't like it when we're late for dinner. No one's going to ban you for rumpling a leaf or two," she added after a second, as she turned back to her work. "Just don't use the lopper on them."
Had she said she wouldn't kick him out? He frowned, suspicious: "What if the tomatoes don't grow anymore?"
Rosethorn shot him an affronted look over her shoulder. "This is my garden, boy, not a roadside weed patch. It'll take more than Crane's bugs and your clay thumbs to damage it." She turned back to her plant, then sighed and looked at him again. "You didn't do a much worse job than I was expecting," she said. "For a child."
"I'm not a kid," muttered Briar.
But he did pick up the jar again, tentatively.
Rosethorn tossed another tool over her shoulder. It was slightly smaller than the lopper, and instead of blades it had a blunt wooden tip at the end. "Use that, instead. It won't cut up the leaves. And if you don't get at least one row of plants done by dinner, I'll feed you these bugs for dessert."
Briar's ears pricked. "There's dessert?"
Rosethorn held up her jar and shook it at him wickedly, and he heard her snorting to herself as she went back to de-bugging her own row of tomatoes.