Voelkher held the head in place himself, though stitches would not scar. He sat at the edge of the bed, within the circle of weapons, hand threaded through golden curls. The scene was almost one of everyday tenderness but for the circle of solemn onlookers and the raw crevasse where Roman’s neck should meet his shoulders. It felt no less private; Voelkher felt his lieutenants all, always, as a part of himself. He did not mind for them to see his heart; they were his heart. Though each was his own man, to be sure, and usually Gaspar sneered and Jakob looked long-suffering whenever he and Roman were together. Now Gaspar was but a ghost, complete with rattling chains, and his flickering face wore smug curiosity. He assumed Roman would be angry. So did Voelkher. What bothered him more was the relief and approval plain in Jakob’s stance, hovering near and protective, eager as the smallest of the Vyacheslavs for his brother’s sake. Jakob’s chafing to kill Konstantine was characteristic, but this eagerness for Roman to return to his side was unsettling. No doubt he hoped that Roman would stand between him and the boy, perhaps turning on Konstantine to take him for himself, perhaps killing him in a rage. Both likely. But it had not been loneliness for Roman that had driven him to folly, to kisses warm as sunlight and chai flavored, to talks of heart’s desire over what should be a parlay table, to yearning heady as the first steps they had taken out of the mists, a desire for more than conquest. All his lieutenant’s could feel his wild hope, just as he could feel their anxiety at it. He had failed them once. Though they had followed him through the mist gates, impossibly parted, they were no better off here than they had been. Worse, perhaps, for now they knew they were cursed, and now they blighted a land sweet as home had once been. Perhaps this yearning would at last thaw their frozen hearts, and then they would be utterly damned, able to feel in full all they could not have and could not be. All that they had done. They were right to be anxious. Would Roman, who most wanted to be alive, to be human again, understand what Gaspar and Jakob and all the others didn’t? Once the anger had passed, he might.
Barnabus began the chant. The empty space where Bertok’s bone knife should have lain was a chilling hole, but still connected, a flyaway thread that had unraveled a hole in the tapestry, but still ran to it. If only it were so simple to follow that thread to its end and find the thing. But he could not worry of it, pain like the Hammer’s blow bending him low over Roman, forehead to cold forehead. Life, or whatever it was that moved them, broke free the cage of his chest, flew the distance – inches, uncountable spans of ether – to Roman’s body and his soul, binding them as water binds the things dissolved in it. Warm and sweet as chai, fierce as vodka. Roman’s eyes fluttered, and the jagged meat and bone over his collar knit and smoothed. He kissed as though it had been the last thought in his mind, and his expression was soft, confused at the beard and cold hardness. “Voelkher?” Clarity came with memory, and he did not speak the obvious. He had died. He reached first for his blade, and sagged with relief to find it to hand, laid beside him. “Then I have not failed you utterly.”
“I am here.” He sat back so Roman could see them gathered, could see the familiar inside of his tent. “And you have not failed me.” There was no warmth to lift the incense of it, but the scent of roses seemed stronger as he stirred. At the tent’s mouth, there was a groan and the shatter of ice as Walkure rolled upright and her frozen armor shifted, an answering whicker. Eizenhertz nuzzled her wolftorn haunch, only now mending.
Roman lifted his other hand to Voelkher’s face, letting it slide down to his chest. And there he paused. A gold rose on a graygreen field, vines clear in their snaking pattern out from it, the serpent heads at their ends a little shallow and vague, but freed from a crust of green. “Your armor…” Disbelief made him boyish, wide eyed.
Rather than answer, Voelkher drew him into his arms and buried his face in still-wet curls, washed before the ceremony. “I have much to tell you.”