He walked her home after the meeting with the new council, though neither would call it that. She walked to her family home, intending to spend a night there for a change before her servants thought she'd forgotten she had a place to stay aside from the castle, and he needed to go in the same direction on his way out of Vinay del Zexay, so it only made sense for them to walk together for a time.
"You should get your walls raised, Chris," he said when they reached her gate. "Like this, anyone who wishes to attack you in your home could leap over your gate in an instant."
"That true," she admitted, not sounding in the least concerned, "but they'd have trouble finding a time to do so, I stay here so rarely these days. And anyone who believes they'll have an easy time of it if they can just sneak up on me will find themselves sorely mistaken." The rune on her hand flickers and flares then dies down again, all within the space of an instant. No one around them other than Salome even notices.
"That doesn't mean you should allow it to be easy for them to try."
"I won't raise the walls, Salome," she stepped through the gate and touched a bud on a rosebush growing next to it gently. "The city itself blocks enough of the sunlight as it is. With high walls my garden would only get full sunlight when the sun's directly overhead."
Salome was rather surprised to hear that as her reasoning. It was a known fact that the Lightfellow manor had the most beautiful gardens in Vinay del Zexay, during the summer is wasn't unusual to find groups of people loitering outside of her house just to breath in the sweet smell of the air there and admire the flowers through the gate, but Salome had never known Chris to have any interest in tending to it herself. He'd always assumed that she or her butler just hired a gardener to keep it looking nice, and that she never thought about it much herself. "You would put flowers above your own safety?"
"These aren't simply flowers, they are..." she trailed off, looking uncertain. Salome waited silently, able to read on her face that she needed to decide on her own, with no pressure from him, whether to finish the statement. "When I was young, after my father left, my mother told me how he planted this garden for her just after they moved in, and gave her a book on the language of flowers when he was done. When she went through it with the book, she discovered that the entire garden was a love letter to her; lavender for devotion, forget-me-nots for true love, salvia to show he was thinking of her, and so on. So long as she worked on it she felt as if she was still connected to him, and when she knew she was going to die she forced herself to leave her bed and add one last patch to it--nasturtium, for both maternal love and victory in battle--and passed it on to me."
Perhaps it was wrong that knowing the gardens were planted by the man Salome had idolized in his youth rather than some random landscape designer made him look at them in another light, but more than that it made him realize just how much the garden must mean to her. She had yearned for her family for so long that any little piece of them must be precious to her. "All right, Chris. I understand."
Were it not so important for a high-ranking knight such as himself to appear alert and aware at all time, Salome would be drooping with tiredness as he began the long walk to Brass Castle after being up all night working in the council's library. Usually he would find an inn with an open room to get a few hours rest before returning home, but it was his day to cook breakfast for his fellow knights and Louis and he wouldn't want to deal with Leo grumbling about being hungry all day or Borus' getting upset on Chris' behalf about her not finding food prepared when she woke.
But, he discovered while walking past the Lightfellow house, her waking hungry no longer needed to be a concern after all. "Chris?" he called out to the figure kneeling next to the front door, though it was hardly a real question. Even in the half-light of dawn her silver hair stood out.
"Salome?" she replied, standing. "What are you doing out this early?"
"A strategist's work is never done, my lady," he said, raising his hand so she could see the sheaf of papers he was holding. "I could ask you the same question, but I can see the answer for myself."
She glanced at the shrubs sitting in barrels beside her and the hole she'd been in the process of digging and smiled. "I thought that I should make my own contribution to the garden while things are peaceful enough for me to take the time to do so."
"Would you like help?" he asked, pushing his weariness aside for her sake.
She looked at him for long enough that he wondered if she was thinking his hole-digging skills would be found wanting and was trying to think of the polite way to say so, then she nodded once. "All right. I think it would be... appropriate, if you would."
He moved to open the gate, only to find it locked. "Chris?"
"You've said yourself that anyone could easily leap over the gate, Salome. You should hardly have trouble doing so."
"Chris," he said, his voice firm. "I can't jump over your wall; if anyone is watching from their windows it may put the idea of doing the same into their minds. Or... it could make them leap to other conclusions."
"If people are going to draw assumptions, Salome, they'll do so just the same if they see you opening the gate to you this early in the morning," she said, put unlocked it nonetheless.
"Still, it's not so improper. You must remember, Chris, that there are still those who would like the rumors that surrounded you when you first became a knight to flare back up again." But he left his cautioning off at that, selfishly not really wishing for her to think twice in the future before inviting him in. Instead he turned his attention to the shrub. "And these are?"
"Acacia. I'm not sure if it will flourish here, but if they don't I'll try replacing them with gardenias." She began pulling one of the plants out of its barrel, nodding toward her shovel. "This hole is deep enough, so will you begin digging the next on the other side of the door while I plant this? You can leave your papers on the table just inside the door to keep them neat."
"Certainly." He did as she said and set to work. Thankfully the ground in her garden was soft, so it didn't take as much of what was left of his energy to dig as he would have feared.
As she settled her plant into the soil she quietly said, "I'm always so frightened about doing this."
"Why?" he asked, not knowing how something this simple could be worrying to a woman who had faced down armies on the battlefield.
She held up her hand so they could both see the rune glimmering on it. "I feel it burning," she said, "all the time. Like someone dipped my hand in oil and thrust it into a torch."
Salome was startled by how strong his urge was to grab her hand and examine it, though he didn't know what he expected he might find. He could see from where he was standing that there were no burn marks on her hand, or at least not on the side he could see. He held onto the handle of the shovel tightly to fight down the desire. "It hurts you, Chris?"
She shook her head. "It's not a pain, really. It's a part of me now, the fire. But these plants are all so delicate, I fear they'll turn to ash under my hand. And if they did, anything else I touch couldn't be far behind." She reached up to rub a leaf. "I know it's foolish, it would have happened before now if it were ever going to, but I can't help but think that whenever I touch something."
He had never seen her look so detached from the world.
He'd never told anyone, but Salome had been glad when Chris had received the rune for reasons beyond the power it gave their side. She would remain young and strong when the rest of them eventually withered and fell before opponents who had grown too strong for them. In his imagination he saw her walk the battlefields with flame lashing out like a living thing to protect her when an enemy might otherwise score a lucky blow. He would never need to watch her bleed out her life as a battle raged around them too thickly for him to get her to a healer. So he had believed, though he never allowed himself to stop watching out for her safety.
It was unthinkable that she should have been cut down at twenty-four by one of her own former companions during a skirmish with Tinto. To Samus' credit, he'd dropped his sword, his face blank with shock, when he saw who it was he'd whirled around to stab. It had not stopped Salome from smashing his head open with his mace the moment he got close enough.
He leapt over the gate to her garden in full daylight without a second thought; what cared he now for propriety or others deciding to sneak in as well? There was nothing left in that house that mattered.
But the garden... Lady Lightfellow had tended the garden for the message left to her in it from Lord Wyatt, and Chris followed because of the messages from both. Now there was one last love letter written in its petals, and he suspected it would be the last.
He had never told her that after helping her plant the bushes by her door he'd found a book on flower code to find out why she'd believed it was right for him to help her with them. Acacia. Secret love.
He'd thought he'd had all the time in the world to find the right moment to respond to her message.
His hand felt as if someone had dipped it in oil and set it aflame, but he didn't it stop him from kneeling down to pull up the weeds growing up around the flourishing shrubs. He would not allow her feelings to be lost.