Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Heckle tugged at the fancy new vest. Again. It fit perfectly, but the heavy brocade was stiff, silver on dove gray velvet, and he couldn't help the feeling that he should take it off before he had a chance to ruin it.
"Captain, this party…"
"Hmm?" Captain Shax inclined his head toward Heckle, though he kept his eyes on the arriving guests. He looked like he belonged, elegant and regal in his royal blue topcoat and shining black boots. He strode confidently toward the front door of the estate while Heckle trotted hesitantly in his shadow.
"Why me, Captain?"
Now Shax stopped, regarding him with a raised eyebrow. "Why my dear Heckle, because you're absolutely adorable and without a doubt the most appropriate companion for this evening."
"Is gloriously beautiful." Shax tapped his gold-handled walking stick on the pavers and resumed walking. "Humans often find him intimidating."
"Also lovely, but does not necessarily enjoy a more rarified environment."
Heckle took the captain's offered hand and trotted beside him, bottom lip caught between his teeth. Finally, he asked softly, "So, I'm a distraction, Captain?"
Shax pulled him closer as they passed a group of young men in excessively wide kilts, apparently all the rage that season. "I do like your company, you know."
The evasion was answer enough. Heckle bounced a step or two before he caught himself. "I'm helping on a job?"
Shax sniffed, his expression exceptionally haughty. "I don't know what you're on about. We're here to enjoy the food, the wine, and the company. And don't you dare tell Mac."
"Of course not, high— Captain." Heckle tried to imitate the serious, snooty expression and thought his face might break. "What should I do?"
"Stay with me for the first promenade around the room. We'll let ourselves be seen, chat a bit, gauge the temperature of the soiree. After that, I'll set you loose and you just go and enjoy yourself."
"That's it?" Heckle couldn't help the disappointment in his tone.
"Believe me, my dear, it will be an enormous help to me if I read this crowd correctly."
Heckle nodded, though he didn't quite understand. He had thought there would be a more elaborate scheme, somehow. The stories Verin and Captain Shax told…well, there were always schemes. Weren't there?
Though he had to admit that the captain was more than right to keep Heckle with him when they first arrived. Heckle found himself overwhelmed, befuddled by the dazzling displays of decadence everywhere he looked. Captain Shax was in his element, chatting here, nodding regally there, sampling this, tasting that. He made sure Heckle got some food in him, pointing out the best bits and letting him know in soft murmurs what bits weren't worth the effort.
"There." Shax pointed out a tiered silver tray piled high with sweets. "Those are Turin Dots. I think you'll like them."
The tray was too high for Heckle so Shax retrieved two for him on a fussy bit of paper lace. Heckle bit into one and closed his eyes on a little moan. Chocolate, caramel and an amazing sweet cream he couldn't quite identify nearly shoved him into food orgasm.
"Those are my favorites, too," a smooth alto said just behind him. "Though I could watch you eat them all day."
Heckle turned, the second sweet held in his claws and found himself face to face with a blindingly white shirt. He tipped his head up and managed a little smile for the person peering down at him. Color appeared unable to touch this being, from the white cutaway and trousers to the short white hair and perfect, pale skin. Red eyes were the only hint of hue.
Gaze fixed on Heckle, the person said, "Hello, Shax."
"Hello, Arian." Captain Shax's smile might have been a little strained. "I wasn't expecting you."
"Likewise, though we can keep this civil, I'm certain."
"Who is this enchanting person you've brought with you?" Arian put a white gloved finger under Heckle's chin.
"This is Heckle, my ship's quartermaster. Heckle, this is Arian Brun. Make sure to count your fingers after shaking hands."
Arian laughed, a low, purring sound. "Hazards of the profession. May I steal him, Captain Shax? For one dance, I promise."
"I know you don't mean literally, but yes. You may borrow him for one dance. I need Heckle circulating."
Arian extended a leg in a courtly bow, which Shax returned graciously. "As much as I would like to keep him, my word on it. One dance."
Heckle felt as if he'd been bartered for, but he was more curious than nervous. Captain Shax wouldn't abandon him. He knew that by now. If this intriguing colleague of his wanted a dance, he could oblige. The orchestra had just struck up a minuet, so he really could. Ness had started to teach him partnered dances and they'd just reached Earth eighteenth century ones.
"Lady Arian?" he began, his scarlet fingers stark against the white-gloved ones gripping his hand.
"Oh, little one, none of that. Just Arian. You may call me Mx. Arian, if you must have an honorific."
Heckle nodded. "Sorry. Mx. Arian, how do you know Captain Shax?"
Zhe's pale lips tipped up in a thin smile. "Let's just say we're in the same line of work. Though I bow to Shax's additional years of experience. I love your hooves, by the way. The way they shine."
Heckle's face heated at the compliment, but he managed a smile and a polite thank you. He draped his tail over his arm so it wouldn't twitch around and smack into people, and took his place beside Arian.
The couple across from them in dance pattern smiled politely, but didn't seem entirely comfortable with them. That was fine. It was a Bath Minuet, so everyone would be changing places soon, anyway.
"Smile. Be charming. You are an absolute delight," Arian purred as the dancers began to move.
He did as she asked, a little stiffly at first, but with greater ease as he skipped forward and back, turned and spun as the pattern required, taking one hand and then another and another. It truly was fun and all the humans smiled at him, watching his hooves, sometimes giving him little pets as he went by. A little disconcerting to be the center of attention, but it was all so polite and controlled. With specific expectations, he could deal with strangers.
At the end of the dance, Arian returned Heckle to his captain as promised, placing his hand in the crook of Shax's elbow with a bow.
"Thank you for indulging me," Arian said. "Both of you."
Shax chuckled and patted Heckle's hand. "You're welcome, I think. Did you leave me the emeralds, at least?"
Zhe made a dismissive gesture. "You know I've no use for colored stones. It was a productive turn about the floor, though."
"Oh, yes." Shax nodded, a definite gleam in his eyes. "It most certainly was. Heckle, my dear, you were perfect."
They didn't stay too late, which was fine with Heckle. He wanted to get home to Mac at a decent hour. But he did dance with several people and Captain Shax, as well, who was an excellent dancer. Not that Heckle was surprised.
At the end of the evening, Captain Shax hummed and sang all the way back to the Brimstone. He wasn't much of a judge of these things, but Heckle deduced that it must have been a top-notch sort of party.