Under the dome of the large hangar, ships and other vehicles waited for their deployment. Against the dusk falling beyond the hangar doors, the bright lights in here painted everything in harsh shadows. Celeste was just leaving the line of thunderhawks their own ship was located in when Titus called out to her: “Mistress!”
She spun around, murder in her eyes.
“You men!”, she spat the word into his face. “I’d strike you down right now if you weren’t so dear to her! What have you done to her?!”
“Please, Mistress”, Titus asked softly and bowed his head to her. “Have patience with her. It was the cave. She got lost in there for a long time. What was a few hours for us were centuries for her.”
Celeste cooled down visibly.
“How long?”, she wanted to know.
“She couldn’t say it exactly”, Titus informed her. “But she estimated her own lifespan again. Please be kind. She has trouble remembering how it is to have company. Everything else too to tell you the truth.”
“Why would she want to hurry off alone again?”, Celeste demanded and Titus understood all too well what was going on inside her. He had seen her and Vox together. They had been bound so intimately that twelve years had been nothing for their friendship. To see this bond shattered two days later broke his hearts. Everything considered, Celeste was probably coping well.
He allowed himself a helpless shrug.
“Haven’t you seen the pain in her?”, he asked softly and saw that he had hit a nerve. “She needs to leave. Maybe she wants to make it quick”, he tried to interpret on the fly what he had not quite understood himself.
“And you are here to help her make it quick?”, Celeste asked coolly and Titus shook his head meekly.
“No”, he said. “I am here to ask you to listen to all the considerations she has to weigh now. I have seen her without you, Mistress. If Vox is convinced she has to leave you behind, there will be reasons behind this, you and I haven’t fathomed yet.”
Titus had already been impressed with her reaction earlier. He now became grateful that he had Celeste before him instead of someone else. Passionate and quick to decide, the Chapter Mistress nevertheless demonstrated that she had grown wise over the years. Her friend had gotten through to her with her cold demeanour but her self control outweighed all her hurt pride with ease.
“These are kind words, you find for me, captain”, she said stiffly. “I thank you for them.” Then, she straightened up to her full, impressive height. “I regret that they are necessary.”
Titus laid his hands to his breastplate to salute her.
“You couldn’t have known. She hasn’t seen you for hundreds of years, while you met her only two days ago. If you allow me to talk to her on your behalf, I would like to try and change her mind about taking the chapter along. I don’t want to see her without you again.”
“Now, that’s something to hear from her lover”, Celeste said quietly and her expression actually softened a little. “I’d have thought you deem yourself enough.”
Titus stared up at her and the heat in his cheeks told him that he was blushing.
At least this made her smile.
“Captain”, she said with an amused smirk. “I’m neither blind nor ignorant. Also, she told us that you would spend the night together before you did and she told me what happened before you left.”
He managed an indistinct sound of surprise.
“You men really are not used to talking, are you?”
“We are… a little tongue-tied at… most… times”, he had to admit.
Celeste’s deepening smile rippled the scars on her cheek.
“I noticed. It was quite hard to persuade Corven that negotiations weren’t necessary after Vox had settled everything with Commander Ferone already.” She took a deep breath and then lowered her head in a conciliatory gesture. “Forgive my dark thoughts towards you, captain. You are an honourable man.”
“Think nothing of it, Mistress”, Titus said in baffled tones.
Celeste sighed and held out a hand.
“With all the fuss I forgot to give her this.” She had been holding a roll of paper and a small, oblong chest of a rich, red wood. A golden inlay formed three swords, crossed in front of six wings.
“It’s her quill and ink”, the Chapter Mistress explained. “She asked for writing material. Please, take it to her and please, speak to her on our behalf.”
“I will. Thank you.”
“I thank you too, captain. I hope to see you two during the even prayer.” Celeste turned and walked away just as half a dozen women walked them by. They were carrying all sorts of things, including rolls of red and black cloth, baskets and a few ladders. In the lead walked the head chamberlain. All the women wore warm clothes against the cold in the hangar and when Titus followed them, he heard the chamberlain briefing her seamstresses: “You will see something unbelievable inside this ship”, she explained to her subordinates with firm tones. “I don’t want anybody staring! We step in. We curtsy. We pretend that everything is normal. We work as fast and well as we can and have hysterics later! Does everybody understand?”
The chamberlain spotted Titus following them, while the women confirmed their understanding. She dropped a deep curtsy to him and the others followed her example. He nodded at them and, because he had the strong suspicion that they had gotten lost between all the thunderhawks, led them to the ship they were searching for.
Despite the briefing all the women, including the head chamberlain herself, stood and stared for a few heartbeats when they entered.
Vox was standing in the middle of the cargo area again, her wings casually spread behind her.
“Come”, the angel said, forcing them to remember themselves. They curtsied and scuttled up to her. An almost happy dance unfolded around Vox now. The women scurried through the room at cross purposes, climbed up and down the ladders and sometimes talked quietly to each other or reverentially to Vox.
No part in the proceedings and not very comfortable with watching while Vox’s skin was unveiled here and there, Titus opted for taking up a guarding position at the door. Only once, one of the women interrupted him. She brought him back his loincloth with great reverence.
When the task was finished and Vox wrapped up in warm blankets while the women spread out in the ship to sew, Titus rejoined her to hand her the writing materials. She looked at the crest on the small box in surprise.
“I forgot”, she breathed, taking it.
“Try to remember”, he said. ‘Celeste asks for you to honour the even prayer with your presence’, he added in High Gothic to conceal what they were talking about from the servants.
‘It is my intention’, she said distractedly while she spread a sheet of paper on one of the cargo boxes.
‘Why do you intend to leave the chapter behind?’, he inquired.
‘We are lacking time to gather them.’
Titus hesitated for a moment. There was a strange accent to her words, she had never displayed before.
‘In the least, take the third’, he urged. ‘They are present and will be ready within a few hours on a simple word of yours.’
‘They will not suffice’, Vox said coolly and fished quill and ink out of the box. ‘If force is not what we can have, what we need is stealth. A single ship is our means and we will need the ingenious navigator. Remind me about his name.’
“Nostromo?” Had she really forgotten?
‘This is the one I was referring to’, she confirmed.
Somehow, this was another blow. Titus reckoned that he might consider himself lucky that she still knew who he was. Just when he thought this, it dawned on him that remembering a name was not the same as remembering the person. He swallowed hard.
‘Now, turn to the mechanicum’, Vox bade him. ‘Will you find your way?’
‘I was shown by Captain Meriar yesterday’, he informed her, struggling to keep his rising concern at bay.
‘They will amend your colours’, Vox said and unscrewed the ink bottle she had taken from the small chest. ‘It is unlikely that anyone will disobey your orders. Should they after all, refer them to me and join me here afterwards.’
“Vox”, Titus said and grasped her arm to pull her around to him. When she followed his tug, it seemed that she had to travel a long way to arrive at his side. It took a moment but then the wall of ice around her seemed to waver. Hesitantly, she extended a hand to brush her fingers over his service studs.
‘At least take Celeste and a few friends’, Titus urged her with quiet insistence.
Vox shrank back from him.
‘I’ll try’, she promised after a moment. ‘But I can not let our world crumble for the pleasure of their company.’
‘They would not demand this’, Titus replied warmly. ‘But if you lose your connection to the world entirely, you might not reach the end of your endeavour and before you object: I am neither enough, nor immortal and this is knowledge of yourself.’
She nodded and it took all his resilience to hold still while she slung her arms around his neck. He wanted to drag her closer, pull her back to reality but there was something so brittle about her now. It made him fear she could crumble under his touch.
“Tiberius will die of shock if I announce that I want to change my colours and that it has to happen in less than half a day, I hope you know that”, Titus said in a desperate attempt to distract himself while he returned the embrace carefully.
“They have cables for heavy currents over there and can zip him back to life”, she reassured him and despite her heavy tones, he had never been as happy about one of her remarks before.
“Take Soon when you go”, she continued and drew back from him again. “I want you to carry it. Ask them to find a handy way for both of us to get at it.”
Titus looked at her in surprise and pleasantly noticed that her hand stayed in his as she slipped his grasp. It took him a moment to shuffle through the layers of meaning. A living saint had just chosen him to carry her weapon. His chest swelled with pride and joy that she offered to bind him to her intimately.
“My lady”, he said softly. “You honour me.”
A shy smile danced over her features and then, she leaned forward to place a delicate kiss on his lips.
“With this too”, he whispered and noticed that her gaze fleeted over the humans around them for a moment. He took the sword and left her to her writing. His head was light with honour and his hearts heavy with concern.