Like all Space Marine chapters the Wings of War followed a different day routine than the Deathwatch. To keep in touch with their human population they held the even prayer before the humans went to bed. After this, the day of the warriors was by no means over.
Now, it was time to tend to equipment or minor wounds that had occurred during the day and also for matters of clerical nature. Warriors confessed or sought counsel by their confessors and chaplains at regular intervals in any case but could also ask for it if the need arose. Sometimes, this time was used for night fighting exercises. This was the case for 3rd company today. They made a trip outside into the cold, harsh winter’s night of Thetis, not only to use their chance to show their visitors around. Meriar ordered her troops to leave their helmets off and all their weapons behind except for their combat knives. Titus had to hide his smile. This was exactly what he would have done to suspicious strangers brought to the fortress by the beloved chief librarian.
From the outside, Jericho Keep proved a most impressive sight. It was white like a pearl and seemingly grew from the rock it was planted on. High and forbidding like a dragon on watch it overlooked the seaside but just as smoothly as it blended into the stones, the stones transitioned into the frozen ocean. Especially in the bitter night, it was almost impossible to tell where one began and the other ended.
Under the clear, starry sky the temperatures were well below the freezing point even of salt water. Normally, this would have posed no problem for an Astartes but the high air humidity resulted in ice crystals forming on their skin immediately. The three bearded Space Wolves were best off among the men but they were trying to wipe frozen droplets from their lashes like everybody else.
Together with their guides Gladius and Aegis had too many members to join them. Therefore Meriar decided to let them participate as autonomous squads.
The terrain proved even more difficult than it had seemed at first. The steep, white rocks were permeated by deep cracks, invisible under drifts of snow. The Wings of War proved better versed in this terrain but they knew well that they were on their home turf. Even though they had to pull the men out of the odd crevice, they found a few flattering words to acknowledge their prowess here and there.
When they reentered the fortress after a challenging training, a servant was waiting for Titus. Apparently, the Mistress of Secrets had called for him a while ago. Titus was deeply unsettled. As well for being fetched in this manner as by Meriar’s reaction when she heard it. The captain emphatically shooed her male counterpart off without allowing him to reclaim his weapons. Instead she assured him that she would personally keep an eye on them for him.
Under these circumstances his eagerness to see Vox was dampened considerably. It had not crossed his mind to leave the Mistress of Secrets waiting, of course. Yet…
He steadied himself and followed the servant.
The woman led him to the entrance of a tower and politely informed him that she was not allowed to go further. He on the other hand would find his destination at the top of the stairs.
On his way up, he tried to get the last ice crystals out of his hair and reflected on this day. Captain Meriar had proved pleasant company. Bright and talkative and similar to Vox like a sister. Like promised, she had answered all questions, however hard Titus had pushed. Being allowed to ask for once, he had taken this privilege quite far. Only when they had touched on intimate topics like troop positions and movements, had Titus drawn back. He wanted to prove that he was a visitor, not a spy.
Very pleased with having found the point solid, he had nevertheless longed to talk to Vox all day long. This place was a strange castle of confusion for him. He wanted the dialogue with her to sort through his thoughts. When she had told him that she wanted to speak to him, it had come as a relief and a source of worry alike. His beloved, little Vox had unfolded into a phoenix-like figure like shedding an overcoat. Suddenly she was so different from what he had attributed to her up until now. So aloof, so powerful.
He remembered how she had called him ‘little captain’ when she had been angry with him during their quarrel on the ‘Aiolos’. A small but oh, so noticeable crack in her veil he had paid no attention to until now.
Technically, a captain was only one rank below a chapter master and Vox was approximately on one level with those but, as in a thousand Astartes there were only ten captains, in these same thousand there was only one chapter master. The intervals were by no means the same as between captain and sergeant. A chief librarian was even rarer. This position was only filled if a warrior of unbelievable prowess distinguished themselves from their fellow librarians.
Titus felt mightily stupid.
He had never truly thought about her rank in the Deathwatch. It had probably been for protection. Titus had assumed the rank of a battle brother to get himself off the radar of the Inquisition. Vox had very likely done the same. The ranks of librarians were directly tied to their access to secret knowledge in the library. A black shield with higher privileges would probably have come under very close scrutiny.
However he turned it, he had to admit to himself that he was getting more worried the higher he got. What would await him? Who would await him? His lexicanum, his squad mate, his black shield was gone. His little brother had been gone for a long time now.
How would Vox treat the rules of the Codex separating them? Titus had been worried about them all the time and constantly searched for the most harmless loopholes but he had known the factors that had to be taken into consideration. Emperor knew what she had to keep in mind now!
These troubling thoughts carried him upwards and past several side entrances until a door blocked his way.
It was dark here. Even his improved sight could hardly pick up the grain of the wood.
He finally knocked because he found nothing more sensible to do.
Vox invited him in.
The first thing he noticed was that the room was cold. Only just warm enough that his breath did not condense in the air. Its layout was a section of the circular tower, probably about a sixth of it and he entered it from one of the two straight walls. The wall opposite had a bed standing against it and a table with a single chair. The inner, curved wall was occupied by a simple cupboard, the only feature of which was that it fitted the wall. The outer curved wall was occupied by one big window. There was no light in the room. Only bright moonlight illuminated the scene.
Vox was standing at the window.
Framed by these white rays she was staring outside, seemingly deep in thought. Her breath had left a large patch of condensation on the glass. She was without her armour. Instead a magnificent crimson and golden robe with all her insignia graced her strong frame.
Her hair was slightly wet and a little shorter than before. It also looked better cut than she had managed it herself on Implicit.
“You wanted me?”, he asked as he stepped into the room.
“Yes.” Only now, did she turn around. She waited for him to close the door and looked so tense that he felt himself stiffen as well.
“What do you desire of me?”, Titus asked as warmly as he dared when they had stared at each other for a few seconds.
“Oh, captain!”, Vox exclaimed with a nervous laugh. “If it was only my desire that brought you here, I’d be a happier woman!”
She folded her hands behind her back and started to walk up and down. The smile vanished.
“I left my chapter twelve years ago”, she began. “Because I received an omen of such magnitude that I couldn’t read it all at once. All I could do was to find a thread and start to pull. I encountered a whole lot of knots in the thread but something still eludes me. I’m sure my Primarch calls for me but I can’t hear him. You see, the world is a terribly noisy place and you are a spot of calm…” She hesitated, turning her face to him. A steep furrow of concern stood between her brows.
Titus had understood exactly nothing of what she had said but as she spoke, something became very clear to him: “I’m all yours. Just tell me what to do.”
She looked at him, the concern melting away, transforming into unbelieving amusement. When her natural impish streak gained the upper hand, she sat down at the table. Leaning back in the chair, she crossed her legs and looked provocatively at him.
“Alright. Take your armour off and spend the night with me.”
This caught Titus completely off guard.
His stalled breath only returned to him after seconds of startled stillness. The confused look he took around the room to steady himself did nothing to improve matters.
“Right. Good”, he said with a crumbling voice. “We will probably fit in the bed I see… Anything else?”
“No”, she grinned. “I thought I had to break it to you gently but if you’re willing and ready, I’ll just sit here and watch.”
“You are serious?”, Titus asked in all the flat horror he felt.
“Why suddenly bashful?”, she teased him. “I’ve seen you without clothes before.”
“And it won’t be the first time you’re stripping off in front of me.”
The glow of his face should have reflected off the walls. During their imprisonment before attending the trial of the white fire, he had indeed removed his armour while Vox had been in the cell opposite.
“Why thank you”, he gasped defensively. “I had managed to put that embarrassing detail out of my mind.”
Titus did not dare to look at her while he tried to control his shaking body. When she moved, she hardly made a noise. Only the soft rustle of cloth slithering over the wood of the chair could be heard.
She chuckled gently when she came to a halt directly in front of him.
“It seems to me we really suck at this!”, she said and Titus found himself grinning uneasily.
“Indeed. Have you ever been as bad as this at anything?”, he inquired.
“Oh, yes”, Vox said with conviction.
“Sword fighting”, she replied happily.
He raised his eyebrows in surprise and managed to peer at her.
“Sure”, she said, shrugging one shoulder. “I was four when I arrived here. All the others were at least seven, Celeste even was ten.” She smiled, looking him in the eyes before he could look away again. “That’s a lot of time when you’re just starting out. Time resolved a few matters of course”, she said quietly. “But I like to think that it’s a matter of practice.”
“You mean, we just have to continue to suck and we’ll achieve success eventually?”, Titus asked ironically.
“Tutors might be required”, Vox mused.
“What will success look like in any case?”, Titus asked and found himself stumbling over his own thoughts immediately.
Without her armour, Vox seemed small and slender in comparison to him but he suddenly felt himself shying back when her smile deepened. The beat of his hearts turned up yet another notch. Her hand came up, stroking over his temple and then his cheek.
“What about the Codex?”, he whispered, feeling dizzy.
Her second hand found the way to his head.
“Remember the passage about chapter organisation?”
“Not clearly right now”, Titus was forced to admit.
“The ranks of librarians are fully set apart from the others.”
“Apothecaries, techmarines and chaplains all carry a rank like everyone else”, she explained. “Librarians have their own ranks. The passage commanding rank separation, on the other hand, clearly refers to each rank individually but never mentions librarian ranks. We don’t have a counterpart in our comrades.”
He stared at her.
“You mean to say that our ranks never mattered?”
“With the fact in mind that psykers need the affiliation to their comrades to survive, that is how I would interpret it.”
“And you’re telling me this now?”
“Seemed a good moment, yes”, she said dreamily.
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”, he demanded.
She looked him in the eyes and stroked down to his neck. There was no real pressure behind this but Titus found himself inevitably leaning forward to her.
“I never saw a situation in which we could make use of it”, Vox said, her fingers tangling in his hair. “Only now, are we safe and free for a while before duty claims us again.”
Titus remembered what she had said when they had left Erioch: ‘Duty is our first concern. Everything else will have to come second but seconds can be plentiful if you know where to draw them from.’
Suddenly, he realised how many seconds had already trickled by with the two of them just standing here, free from all barriers, just holding on to each other. It dawned on him that he had unthinkingly closed his arms around her, pressing her gently to his breastplate. He had held her in the apothecarium on Erioch but they had both been badly wounded and he had been uncertain about so many things back then. Now, the longing for contact awoke again. Mighty like a tidal wave and, for the first time in his life, Titus found that he dared to want to feel.