Inquisitor Laraise greeted Titus in a richly decorated suite. Everything in here was heavy on gold and ruffles. She herself was lying on a luxuriantly upholstered couch on the far side of a table set for two. Clad merely in a few square centimetres of a light blue material she displayed rather too much skin for comfort. A transparent cloak of the same tint did nothing to improve matters.
Upon his entrance, she sat up. Her face was so heavy on make-up that Titus almost inquired if she had been hit.
“Greetings, captain”, she purred and looked at him in a funny way.
“I greet you, inquisitor”, he replied cautiously. From here on the conversation turned incredibly strange. Titus ate reluctantly, his stomach rebelling against the long missed food and refused the drink as politely as he could. He was uncertain if it was really the potent concoction known as fenrisian ale that could make even a toxin resistant Space Marine drunk, but collapsing at the table like Dankwart had predicted was nothing he was inclined to risk.
Other than Vox had presumed, Laraise avoided talking about his imprisonment. She asked after Ultramar instead.
This struck Titus as odd and he found it tremendously hard to hold a conversation with her.
Half an hour later, he was struggling to come up with polite ways to circumvent her questions about his heritage and upbringing when they were interrupted by a stricken looking servant scuttling into the room. The man was closely followed by Vox, which seemed to unsettle him further.
“My Lord, please wait outside…”, the servant tried but Vox just limped on. He came to a halt in the middle of the room, his face once more concealed behind the helmet. In addition to this, he was armed to the teeth. Since Titus had met him, the librarian had carried nothing more than his force sword and a bolt pistol. Now, he was equipped for heavy resistance. He had a grenade belt slung around his shoulders, all slots of which were occupied. A bolter sat on the appropriate joist. He had even equipped himself with an ammo belt. That the concealed sheath for his combat knife in the calf was closed, was about all that could be said. He was the most glorious and comforting sight in this strange room full of frippery that Titus could imagine. With relief in his hearts and just a bit of delighted amusement in his grey eyes, he prompted him to speak.
“Captain, we are ready to begin the prayer”, Vox reported with a smart salute.
“Very well”, Titus said in severe gravity to gain a little time to think. “Inquisitor, please excuse me”, he continued and turned to the half-naked woman. “I long to participate in the prayers again and I ordered my brothers to fetch me when it is time.”
“Of course”, Laraise replied with an acidic smile. “You are an example to us all, captain. May the Emperor smile upon you! And on you, Brother Draconis.”
“Thank you, inquisitor”, Vox responded smoothly. “I will escort the captain to his quarters afterwards if you don’t mind.”
“This will suit me well, my lords”, she said and stood up to accompany them to the door. Completely failing to hide her body, the light fabric wafted around her as she moved.
“I wish you a good night!”
They nodded to her and left as quickly as possible without being impolite.
“Please forgive me, captain”, Vox begged when they were out of earshot. As he removed his helmet he revealed wide, concerned eyes. For the first time, Titus noticed how blue they were. In the warm, bright light in the hallway, they gleamed like worried sapphires.
“I knew she was listening in and I never meant to expose you like that. I just chose a topic to keep you safely busy. I certainly didn’t expect her to try and seduce you after that!”
Titus blushed at the thought that somebody else had heard the conversation in Thrax’s room. At least, he finally could make sense of the woman’s strange behaviour.
“I am… I’m eternally sorry…”, Vox babbled but fell silent when Titus lifted a hand. It took several seconds and uncertain gestures before the captain managed to straighten up. He let his face settle into the stern gravity of the true Ultramarine and grim humour swung in his tones as he replied: “Think nothing of it. My resolve didn’t waver in the face of her… Onslaught, I’m tempted to call it.”
“I just wanted to make sure she got nothing she could pin on you. Falling in love with a human isn’t forbidden…”
Titus felt himself soften. Sometimes keeping someone safe was hard. He knew it himself.
“I never considered exposing the heart a good evasive manoeuvre”, he said ironically.
“That’s law for you”, Vox agreed. “It’s weird.”
“In the future, limit yourself to once a day when it comes to saving me from inquisitors and we should be fine.”
There was the glimmer of an impish grin in Vox’s eyes as he shot Titus a sidelong glance.
“Any preferences, in which situation I should give you a hand?”, he asked cautiously.
“When it comes to being derobed and dragged through a ship, I’ll definitely call on you”, Titus assured him.
“You liked that part then?”
“My absolute favourite”, he lied dryly. “I’ll tell that story for decades to come.” It surely was the exhaustion, he told himself. Suddenly, everything was just hilarious.
“In that case, do you want me to have a robe ready for emergencies, captain?”
“No!”, Titus burst out and continued more calmly. “No, thank you. I’ll see to my own robes.”
“Very well, captain. I’ll honour your autonomy in robes from here forth.”
“Well done. A man has to be master in his own robes, you know?”
“I understand and shall commit it to memory.”
The librarian shot him a questioning glance to ascertain whether he was allowed to grin about this and got an encouraging smirk in return.
“Now that that’s settled”, Titus remarked then. “Do I get to see my quarters tonight?”
“Good guess, captain! No. Tiberius will stay there and check for bugs. You are with me in Dankwart’s room.”
Under the strain of the day Titus overshot: “I’m not sure we’d fit in the same bed.” To his amazement Vox literally tripped over this comment.
“Yes”, the brother agreed in a strangled tone as he caught himself with the injured leg. “No robes. Two armours will be impractical. What about I hang around guarding you? That worked quite well last time.”
“If that’s what you desire…”
“Alright, stop it, captain!”, Vox demanded. “I can see she had a bad influence on you. No need to bring it back with us.”
“Now, now”, Titus said peaceably. “Since when is a lexicanum allowed to tell a captain off?”
“I’m not telling you off”, Vox defended himself in passably calm amusement. “I’m just warning you that I’m the one writing the reports here and I tend to be cruel about details.”
Titus laughed and left it at that.
“You’re a diviner?”, he changed the subject.
“Among other things, yes… How did you know?”, he inquired with acute caution in his tones.
“Just a feeling”, Titus said and shot him a reassuring glance. “You act like someone who is used to more foresight than usual.”
“I’ll have to be careful about your feelings, captain. Well done!”
“And you said you can’t read my thoughts.”
“Are you playing ‘what’s my psyker’?”, Vox laughed. It seemed genuine even though the sideways look to a nondescript point on the wall betrayed that he was nervous about this.
“A round or two won’t hurt, I hope.”
“That’s a dangerous game, captain”, the librarian said with a hard to read twinkle in his eyes. “Let’s continue after the prayer, and by ‘let’s continue’ I mean: I want your permission to read the Emperor’s Tarot. We’ll engage our warp jump soon and I won’t be able to do it then.”
“Granted, but isn’t it rather late for prayer?”
Vox looked at him in puzzlement before he worked out why Titus had assumed this.
“Oh, sorry. You’re still used to a different routine. The Deathwatch dictates a morning prayer, two major training phases with a second prayer and a short meal in between. Time to tend to equipment, followed by an even meal, the even prayer, about fifteen minutes of free time, plus time we need to get from place to place and four hours of sleep. That’s the framework we have to meet, unless there are other things demanding our attention. So: No. It’s not late. On the contrary. We pulled meal and prayer forward for you to get to bed early.”
“I’m ambivalent about deeming this kindness or impertinence.”
“Come on, captain”, Vox pleaded. “We all saw your healing rituals wear off long before the servant came to fetch you. Rest assured that you’ve impressed us but for Emperor’s sake rest!”
“Alright, alright”, Titus laughed.
“You don’t have to torture yourself just because you don’t have Thrax to do it for you anymore.”
Now, it was Titus’ turn to freeze. He felt it just hitting home and Vox shrank away from him before he even said anything.
“Oh, Terra”, the librarian mumbled, rubbing his face. “Sorry.”
Gritting his teeth, Titus thought for a while. Then, he had to laugh bitterly. Mostly at himself.
“Do you always apologise for being right?”, he wanted to know.
“Only if I deliver truth as sloppily as that”, Vox answered. He squinted sidelong at him from narrowed, uncertain eyes.
In the absence of spectators in the hallway, Titus found his good humour returning.
“At ease, brother. With any luck, Laraise hasn’t managed to bug the corridor and I’m sure Tiberius will have checked my armour. He looks the type. Among us, I’m willing to let this pass.”
Vox looked surprised but smiled gratefully.
“Thank you, captain!”
Titus nodded and walked on in silence. He was disconcerted about how accurately Vox had hit that nerve but he had always valued an insightful thinker at his side.
Idly he thought about the future. It was strange to have one again. Maybe a quick-witted, cheeky librarian would be a good addition to it.
When he thought about how this could be achieved, a question beckoned: “Which company does Aegis belong to?”, he inquired.
“The Deathwatch isn’t organised like other chapters, captain”, Vox explained patiently. “Its most important tactical unit is the kill team, not the company. Also, it has to deal with a lot of fluctuation. When we left, Erioch had five captains, each of them coordinating around half a dozen kill teams with up to ten members each. We’ll find out what has changed when we get there. The other Watch Stations in the Reach face even more difficulties regarding staff. Well, and Aegis is a bit of a wildcard. Our kill team was called into existence about thousand-five-hundred years ago by the commander at the time. We’re entirely made up of specialists and don’t operate under a captain. The commander handles our deployments personally. We are often sent out with inquisitors who ask for assistance. Sometimes, we are attached to others on special missions who need a bit of an edge. Sometimes, we are just sent out for a surgical strike. Aegis is there to hold the fiddly breaches.”
“It must be a great honour to belong to it then.”
“It is”, Vox confirmed but without noteworthy pride in his demeanour. It was just a statement.
“You can’t apply for Aegis, you’re chosen by the commander. That usually means you have distinguished yourself in some way, or you have a special skill set that is crucial for a certain assignment.”
Titus felt a little crestfallen for this information. It certainly sounded like there was no way to get Aegis under his command. Before he could dwell on this further, they reached their destination.
The chapel was right opposite the bridge. They had passed it earlier. Its ornate front pulled the eye of the observer ever upwards to the wonderful rose window adorning this piece of beautiful architecture.
They entered the nave and their steps echoed in the reverent hush of the vast, pillared space. Passing by row after row of benches, they walked down the aisle towards the altar. The wall behind it was made up of coloured windows looking out into the void.
On the central window the Emperor was displayed in all His glory. It was a depiction from before He had been bound to the golden throne. Around Him several saints and other warriors were slaying xenos of all kinds. On the altar a golden figure of the Imperial Aquila stretched its wings. Its two heads were looking towards the material and the immaterial world at the same time.
Tiberius and Dankwart were already waiting for them.
“No preacher?”, Titus asked sceptically.
“Not while we’re with the inquisitor, captain”, Tiberius answered. “We had problems with the last one.”
Titus considered inquiring what problems a preacher could make but refrained from it. It was time for prayer and he longed to start.
They knelt in a half circle and when Tiberius intoned the first litany Titus had ever learned, he thought he had to weep for the relief to finally have passed through his hardship. He scolded himself but not even Vox seemed to have spotted his emotions welling up again and he steadied his voice as he spoke the words, so familiar and so long missed.
“Love the Emperor,
for He is the salvation of mankind.
Obey His words,
for He will lead you into the light of the future.
Heed His wisdom,
for He will protect you from evil.
Whisper His prayers with devotion,
for they will save your soul.
Honour His servants,
for they speak in His voice.
Tremble before His majesty,
for we all walk in His immortal shadow.”
When they had finished, Dankwart spoke a prayer unfamiliar to Titus but the others followed his words.
“My heart is the Emperor’s.
My strength is the Emperor’s.
My blood is the Emperor’s.
May He take me.
May He hold me.
May He guide me.
I aim for glory.
I fight for honour.
I strike for death.
Father. I’m yours!”
Then, Vox raised his voice in a litany Titus had dispensed with even longer than the first one. It was traditionally spoken by one voice, thus everyone else kept quiet.
“In the shadow of the xenos,
Let me stand fast!
In the face of the witch,
Let me stand tall!
In the heart of the storm,
Let me strike true!
In the silence of space,
Let me bear your light!
“Hail!”, they echoed.
Suspecting that it was his turn, Titus chose an unusual prayer. He had learned it in his early neophyte days when a chaplain of the Imperial Fists had come to visit Macragge. It had been of particular solace to him in the past years. To his surprise the others joined in.
“Among the stars, there is but one
He shineth bright,
He brings us light.
He forges righteousness from wrong
He bears the fight,
Beyond the light.
In His footsteps, we will come
As long we sight,
His light so bright.”
After this, the other three spoke together in High Gothic and Titus tried to translate in his head:
‘Tenebra pugnatur.’ – “Darkness is fought.”
‘Umbram illuminatur.’ – “Shadow is lighted.”
‘Periculum deletur.’ – “Danger is quelled.”
‘Imperatorem pro vivo et morio.’ – “For the Emperor I live and die.”
‘Sto!’ – “I stand!”
And with the last word they stood up, clanging their fists to their breast-plates in unanimous salute.