The boys are taking a break this week because the holidays are tough on all of us. They hope you're staying safe and not wearing yourselves out.
Captain Shax wishes you all the best and hopes that next year will bring bright and beautiful things.
Time: 1758, Christmas Eve
Location: Yorkshire countryside, England
"I always said they weren't stars, you know." Shax stared at the sharp winter sky from the balcony, watching Earth's seventy-five year visitor.
"Knew what weren't, bonehead?" Verin grunted from the room behind him where he was manhandling an oak chest from under the four-poster.
Ridiculous bed, that. It was bigger even than Shax's bed in his palace and so high off the floor that the absurd dowager it belonged to required a set of stairs to reach it. While Shax could have crawled under the bed quite easily to pick the lock, there were dust bunnies under there the size of ponies. Probably feral dust bunnies on top of that.
"The comets, Ver." Shax pointed to the bright, long-tailed visitor among the normal stars. "This is the one Mr. Halley said would come back. And here it is. Finally, the human scientists are saying it's not a star."
"Yeah? Why the fuck do I care, Shaxy? Are you opening the damn chest or not?"
Shax ambled back inside. No need to rush this job. The dowager had taken nearly her entire household to visit with her son at the family estate for Christmas, a holiday Shax resented so much that he always planned a major bit of thievery for the occasion. People with horns were no longer welcome at human midwinter celebrations in Europe and most of the Americas. Really, it was almost too much to bear.
The only person left at the dowager's house was an old housekeeper who was far too deaf to hear them. Shax had the padlock off in under twenty seconds, a matter of pride these days since Verin had acquired a pocket watch with a second hand and took far too much pleasure in timing him.
"Handkerchief, scarves, oooh, scarlet bloomers, how naughty," Shax muttered as he dug through the chest.
"Why we even here?" Verin prowled the room, pocketing a trinket here and there that caught his fancy. "All the fucking quality ladies take their jewelry boxes with them on visits, yeah?"
"Well, yes, that's often the case. But I have it from a lovely young footman that her ladyship keeps the jewelry up here that she no longer finds appropriate for her age. Which, incidentally, she hasn't given to her daughter-in-law because they hate each other. Servants' gossip is so invaluable."
"Was he good?"
"Hmm?" Shax was so deep in the chest now he feared he might have to climb in. "Was who good?"
"The footman. Good screw?"
"Oh, not bad. You know how it is with young humans. All enthusiasm. No patience. Still satisfying. Well, well, what have we here…"
Shax emerged from the pool of silk and satin to take his find—a carved rosewood box—to the window where the light was better. The little box was no better a guardian than the massive oak chest and gave up its secrets with a soft sigh.
"Delicious, delicious, so many pretties. Do you think Mum would like some new pearls?" Shax held up the long string of pink pearls for Verin to see.
Verin shrugged. "Don't know what her scariness likes. Why don't you just take the whole fucking box?"
"How crass." Shax wrinkled his nose. "I don't steal just any old thing."
He did take the pearls in their velvet pouch, certain that Mummy would like them. A blue diamond tiara and a lovely necklace of braided gold joined the pearls in his bag.
Amethysts weren't generally his favorite, but these were an unusually deep purple and in a gorgeous gold-knot setting, so he took the choker as well. The dragonfly brooch had to come, simply for the artistry of the piece. The emerald encrusted cross he left where it lay.
When he'd finished, he closed up the box, placed it back in its spot, carefully replaced the layers upon layers of scarves and unmentionables, and relocked the chest. "There we are. Please put it back, Ver."
"Put the fucking thing back yourself, your annoying highness."
When they were small, Shax would have stamped his foot and been very cross. It was a near thing. There were times when Verin made him want to stamp his foot and have a tantrum. "Are you or are you not my retainer? We leave things as they were and no one will discover the theft for months. Possibly years."
Steam curled from Verin's nostrils. "What do we care what the old bat figures out? We'll be home by then."
"It's the artistry of the thing." Shax spread his hands in a most unregal entreaty. "Please, Ver. I'm just not strong enough. That's why we're a team. I do the fiddly, fussy things and you do the big, exciting things."
"You mean the fucking drudge work."
"Didn't I let you flatten those guards in London? Wasn't that fun?"
Verin snorted but a hint of a smile tugged at his lips. "Yeah. Fine. That was fun."
Certainly, Shax could have shoved the chest under the bed himself, but that's what minions were for. Not that he ever used the word with Ver. It was one of those touchy points that could get Shax hurt. But Verin took the flattery this time, thank the pits, and put the chest back. Minion really wasn't the right word for Verin, in any case. Not anymore. Though they weren't lovers, no matter what his cousins whispered, and partners didn't seem proper either with the social divide between them.
Shax nodded to the bright ball and tail of the comet. "What do you think it's like?"
"What what's like?"
"What it's like up there. Past the firmament. Out in the stars. What would it be like to see the comet out there? Do you think it's a glorious blazing eternal fire? Where does it go when it leaves our sky and goes on its three-quarter century voyage?"
Verin stared at him for a long moment. "Your cousins are right, Shaxy. You're just a mica sliver this side of cracked. How would you get up there? Have someone shoot you out of a giant cannon? I mean, even people with wings can't do it."
"Someday. The humans are building new things all the time now. Someday they'll manage."
"They're not gonna take you with them, your lunatic highness." Verin climbed over the balcony railing for the drop down into the gardens. "C'mon, Shaxy. Stop with the crazy shit and let's go home." (Author's Note: Edmund Halley was the first person to figure out that the comet he spotted in 1682 was a returning comet, one that appeared every 75-76 years. He predicted that the comet would reappear in 1758. Though he didn't live to see it a second time, the comet, the one we now call Halley's Comet did reappear on Christmas Eve in 1758, just as he said it would.)
Time: Edwardian Era
Location: London, Earth
Steam curling from his nostrils, Verin stared at the crystal vial in his hand as if it might bite him. "Don't like it."
"This is why we're starting here. In private." Shax hurried around the parlor closing curtains as he went. He'd dismissed the staff for the night and they both stood stark naked in their empty London house. Just me, Verin, and his anxieties. Hooray. "Chtork swears the stuff is something new and wonderful. And I know, I know. It's Chtork and as liable to turn us into kittens for the night as anything else. But if it's something ridiculous, we just stay home. Nothing bad will happen."
"Chtork is a fucking moron who has it in for me, Shaxy." Verin heaved himself into one of the wing chairs by the fire. "Most of your mom's goblins don't like me. That one hates me."
"Now, now. Mother's rather fond of her and she's done well for me in the past."
"Sometimes. What about that wand that turned you into a fucking ottoman?"
Shax waved a hand in dismissal. "Temporary bit of nonsense. Didn't last more than six hours. Come on, Ver, don't be a big spawn." Shax opened his crystal vial and raised it in salute. "Down the hatch!"
Though Verin grumbled, he tossed back his potion only half a heartbeat behind Shax. Then they both lowered their vials and watched each other, waiting for the potential disaster to manifest. For a good two minutes, nothing happened until finally an uncomfortable warmth spread over Shax's skin. Dizzy, nauseous, he wanted to sit down, but he kept smiling, gaze glued to what was happening with Verin.
"Holy pits, Shaxy…" Verin shuddered and buried his face in his hands. His huge curled ram's horns shrank and the scales on his clawed feet melted into skin.
"Ver? Going to die on me?" The effect Shax experienced was unpleasant but not unbearable. Clearly, Verin's change was worse.
"Dunno yet." Verin bent double over his knees. "Am I furniture yet?"
"It's not immediately apparent, no." Shax titled his head to the side as he sank into the opposite wing chair. "You seem to have developed a very handsome pair of human feet and your horns are gone. Ver, look at me."
Verin raised his head slowly and Shax's watchful gaze became a shocked stare. That wasn't Verin's familiar face any longer, with its black eyes and several-times-broken nose. A stranger stared back at him, one with clear blue eyes and even, aristocratic features.
"Well, well," Shax said on a soft whistle. "You do clean up nicely some days."
"You look weird," Verin said with a frown.
"You're a human red. Ginger, I guess or some shit. Your eyes are green. Just looks wrong."
Shax grinned and leaped up to rush over to the mirror. Oh, yes. Yes! His human-auburn hair was glorious. They both looked properly human and clothes would only assist the illusion. With a good deal of coaxing and prodding, Shax chivvied Verin upstairs and got them dressed. A valet would've been preferable, but the servants were used to much less drastic charms that only hid the most obvious demonic attributes. Verin was dashing in a black waistcoat and deep blue coat, while Shax went for a bit of flash with a gold-embroidered on cream waistcoat and a forest green coat. A proper pair of young Edwardian rakes they made indeed. The hired coach was waiting on the street and they made their way to Lady Estelle's for her opening of the season party.
They were, of course, fashionably late but not boorishly so. The partygoers were well into the alcohol when they arrived and Shax had no trouble at all with introductions and witty, amusing conversation. Verin stayed near his shoulder, mostly silent but that didn't seem to deter the young men and women at all. They did their best to drag him into conversation, obviously taken by the tall, dark and brooding stranger.
Food, a bit. Drink, sparingly. This was the part where Shax sized up his prey. Who wore what and what was truly worth the risk, how much he could get away with quickly and where the best exits were. Perfection, every moment of the evening, until the young lord chatting up Shax raised an eyebrow at his hand.
"I say, Shackleton. What the devil's happened there?"
Disturbed, Shax glanced down to find a patch of green on the back of his hand. Scales. Bright green scales and they were spreading over his skin in a lazy fashion.
"Goodness. I must have brushed up against something. Please forgive me." Shax gave the human a polite bow. "I fear I should quit your company momentarily to see to this."
He grabbed Verin by the elbow, ostensibly on the way to the washroom and pulled him into a side corridor.
"What? You making trouble already, bonehead?"
"No, Ver. Worse. Show me your hands."
The urgency in his voice must have gotten through since Verin held out his hands without protest. The scales had started on Verin's palms, but were obviously spreading like his.
"Fucking fuckery," Verin muttered. "What's happening?"
"It appears that we've received a two-step potion. I think it's best if we leave before the second step takes hold."
Verin glanced up from their hands and his human face lost color. "A little late for that, genius. You've got face scales and your nose is shrinking."
"Lovely." Shax took a quick survey of the immediate area. "All right. We can't go out the back. Servants coming and going everywhere. Everyone should be down here at the party, though. It's upstairs and out a window."
"So move. I think I'm growing a fucking tail."
Shax took him by the sleeve and hustled through the house to the front hall. There were guests here and there but all too involved in intrigues, gossip and seductions of the moment to notice two transforming guests hurrying past. They reached the hall without mishap and hurried up the grand staircase. A huge gilt mirror sat at the top of the landing and nearly made Shax fall back down the stairs in shock. The figures hurrying toward the glass were no longer a handsome ginger lord and his equally handsome dark companion, but a pair of lizard men complete with bright green bony crests instead of hair.
"Pit's sakes. That's not a good look for either of us."
"Less looking, more going," Verin growled and pushed him past the mirror.
Tearing fabric twisted Shax's head around and, yes, he was growing a flame-forsaken tail too. Not a good look at all. They ran now, searching for an open bedroom but when they found one, it was most unfortunately occupied. A lady's maid fussed with some lacy thing at the wardrobe. When she heard the door open, she turned and screamed. Quite loudly. Possibly the loudest scream Shax had heard outside of Hell.
"Demons!" she shrieked. "Demons in her ladyship's bedroom!"
Because of course she couldn't just faint. Shax tried to leave the bedroom only to find two more maids behind them in the hallway who dropped their linen burdens and joined the screaming. Boots were pounding up the stairs. There might be weapons involved and Shax so hated getting shot or stabbed. It was time for a quick decision.
He caught Verin's now slit-pupiled golden gaze. "A little property damage?"
"Oh, fuck yes. You let me go first, your short puny highness."
There were days when it distressed Shax that Verin had grown up so much bigger than he had. In every way. This was not one of those days. Verin barreled through the room, claws bursting through the toes of his fancy boots, and smashed right through one of the bedroom windows with a satisfying crash. Shax rushed in his wake, his newly scaled feet hardly bothered by the shards of glass littering the carpet.
Shouts of Demons! After them! This way! chased them for several blocks, but they were better adapted to climbing and hiding than humans. They took the safest way home along the rooftops.
As they let themselves in through the back door of the townhouse, Shax began to laugh, which was a disturbing gurgling sound coming from his lizard throat.
"What? What's so fucking funny?" Verin growled as he stomped inside through the kitchen.
"Oh. I was just thinking." Shax thumped his tail against the floor. Tails were interesting. "That's the first time in two centuries that we've been thrown out of a party for being demons. And we didn't even look like us."
"Ha. Hilarious. If we don't look like us by morning, I'm gonna rearrange your lizard face so it doesn't even look like you now." Verin grabbed him by the lapels and lifted him off his lizard feet. "No more fucking potions from that goblin."
Someday, they had to find a better way to blend in. For now, it was back to hats and hoods, and Verin not going to parties, which Shax couldn't feel bad about. He really hated them anyway.
Time: Five months after Beside a Black Tarn
Location: Aboard the Brimstone
"Hot stuff? You know the docking recert's come up?"
Shax didn't look up from his delicate soldering job. Sometimes even the best electronics needed repair and he could save Mac from having to deal with the tiny, trivial things. "I know, dear."
"We have a teensy sticky problem, you know."
"No, we don't. The coils are recalibrated. They'll get top inspection grades. All the mechanics are in excellent shape since Mac got here."
He managed to get through three small, meticulous connections before Ivana's voice came through the speaker by his head again, her voice icy and far too formal. "Captain. I need your attention for just a moment."
"Yes, yes. I'm nearly done here."
Shocked at the volume and tone, Shax smashed his head on the shelf above his desk and managed to burn his index finger with the soldering iron. If he sounded a little testier than was strictly diplomatic, he felt it was justified. "Yes?"
"Captain, it's been several years since we've had recert. You've added crew."
He sucked on his burned finger, not even in the mood to try to play for sympathy. "I'm quite aware of that, Ms. Ivana. It's not as if I'm hiding them. Well, except Julian. But he's not crew."
"So you've added them all to the registry, have you?"
"Of course I have…" Oh. Yes. "Fine. Not Heckle."
"Uh-huh." How an AI managed to sound like she stood hipshot with her arms crossed was absolutely beyond Shax, but Ivana managed.
"Honestly, what do you expect me to do, sweetheart? Heckle came to us as property. Unregistered, without ID, without a surname. I can't very well enter him officially. He can go off with Julian for a day or two while we do recert on Triton."
The silence from the comm speaker was deafening. Finally, Ivana got out in a hissing whisper, "Captain, I can't believe you just said that. I really thought better of you."
He leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling. "And what in all hell's pits am I supposed to have done wrong now?"
"Treating our Heckle like a…a thing. Like he doesn't matter."
The subtle hum of the speaker shut off and Shax realized that, perhaps for the first time in their acquaintance, Ms. Ivana had effectively stomped off and slammed the door behind her. "Lovely."
Heckle was most certainly not a thing and how could Ivana say that he treated the imp that way? Who had given him a job and the tools he needed to do it? Who had given him responsibility and a weapon of his own? Who had made him crew in the first place? And another thing--
"Oh. Troll shit." Shax let out an irritated growling sigh. Crew. Heckle was crew and as the captain, Shax should have thought to secure him at least a more or less legal identity by now. He just…it hadn't occurred to him. Because it had never been a problem. Because Heckle seemed content.
Because, he hated to admit it to himself, Heckle was just an imp.
Just an imp.
Prince Shax of several centuries ago might have said that. Most of his relatives still would. But Heckle, who had come to them nearly dead, whose quick intelligence had allowed him to learn so much and had earned him a certain kind of independence, who had saved their lives not once but twice during the house disaster—Heckle was so much more than just an imp.
Making him a legal entity wasn't a problem. It would cost, but a good forged identity was worth it. I could just pick a name. Heck won't mind if I do it.
Shax closed up the housing on his surge meter, put the soldering iron away and chewed on his lower lip. That was the problem, wasn't it? Heckle still accepted anything his captain did because of centuries of conditioning. Taking advantage of that wasn't cricket at all.
He hit the all-ship channel on his comm. "Heck? Can I see you in my quarters if you're not in the middle of something?"
There was a three-second delay before Heckle's breathless voice came over the speaker. "Be right there, Captain!"
A spare minute or so more passed before the muffled clomp-clomp-clomp of friction-socked hooves came down the corridor. The hooves stopped followed by the predictable knock.
"Come in!" Shax called and looked down at his soot-flecked sweater. He probably should have changed to look more official.
Heckle poked his cute little horned head in the cabin. "You wanted to see me, sir?"
"Yes. Come in, my dear. Please. Have a seat."
Hesitantly, Heckle trotted into the cabin and Shax realized he'd never been in the captain's quarters before. Damn it. Should've done this in the galley or some other non-threatening place. Heckle looked around for seating options and plunked down on the storage chest at the end of the bunk.
"Relax, please. You haven't done anything wrong. I have something I need to discuss with you."
Heckle nodded, twisting his tail in both hands.
"You know that you have no legal identity, yes? You understand what that means?"
"Yes, sir. I can't sign for shipments and if I'm out somewhere and security asks me for ID, I say I'm property 'cause I don't have any."
"That's just the thing, my dear." Shax leaned forward, hands clasped between his knees. "You're not property. You're crew. You're my crew. And we can't have you in legal limbo any longer."
"Oh." The tail twisting grew worse and Heckle's voice trembled as he asked, "Are you…do I have to go, sir?"
"What? No!" Shax drew in a deep breath and lowered his voice. "No, Heck. I mean to make you legal. To get you identification. But we have something we need to resolve before I can do that. You have no name."
"I…but I've always had the same name, Captain."
"No surname. No last name. I can't ask for an identity to be built around just Heckle. Cute as that would be."
Heckle nodded and placed his tail in his lap. "What should my last name be, sir?"
"I could give you one, certainly. I will if you truly want me to. But wouldn't you rather pick one for yourself?"
Shax anticipated a nervous response, perhaps even an overwhelmed one. He was certain Heckle would need to go off and think about it. In perhaps the most shocking moment of the century, Heckle sat straighter and cleared his throat.
"Well, I guess since you and Verin and Ness named yourselves for things that are you or part of you or something like that, maybe I should do that too." His brows drew together as he thought hard. "I think…maybe Heckle Numerus. Because I count things."
Shax gave him his brightest smile and held out his hands. When Heckle took them with a more tentative smile, Shax pulled him up and gave him a quick hug. "Excellent, Mr. Numerus. I'll go and have that done."
It was always hard to tell with scarlet imps, but Heckle might have been blushing as he whispered a quick thank you and scurried away.
"There. Now I just need to get Ms. Ivana to speak to me again and all will be right with the world."
About The Brimstone Journals
Extra treats for our Brimstone readers, Brimstone Journals will post every Tuesday. Short scenes from characters' lives before, after or during the stories.
About the Author