Time: a few weeks after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
Shax pulled his mount to a walk, waiting for Corny and Rosa to catch up. It was one of those rare perfect days for a ride on the Velkash plains. The inhabited continent had two seasons, dry and wet. The wet season was soggy and miserable and the dry season was hot and miserable, but there were often a double handful of days in between when a demon could understand the planet’s appeal.
His rented Velkash stallion was more reminiscent of the Nightmares he’d owned as a prince of Hell. Broader chested, thicker legged and shaggier than human mounts, Velkash steeds were specially bred for the greater-than-Earth-normal gravity. Poor Rosa wasn’t. She was a tough little bronco, but the heat and the extra weight slowed her down.
“Should we turn back?” he called out as Corny rode into shouting range. “Has Rosa had enough?”
“Probably best to walk the horses for a spell, Cap.” Corny eased Rosa up beside the coal black Velkash. “We might could head to that ridge and circle back from there.”
Long blue stalks with cylindrical ends waved around them, silken soft when Shax reached out a hand to brush over their heads. “I have a shirt of velvegrass. Strange stuff. I suppose I’ve never thought about where it comes from. That I’m wearing alien grass.”
Corny answered with a grunt that could have been assent or could’ve been a diplomatic I don’t know what to say to that. After they reached the shade of the ridge, Corny finally spoke again. “Everything’s powerful strange out here, Cap. Doesn’t it ever get to you? Don’t you never miss home?”
“Sometimes.” Shax shifted in his saddle and pushed his hat back to meet Corny’s earnest gaze. “Oh, of course I miss some things. I was a prince in a realm where the court regarded my talents as desirable qualities. It was worse in the beginning when I felt horrendously out of place and depressed. I don’t dwell on it too much these days.”
“But you can’t never see your ma and your family.”
Shax chuckled and started his stallion back toward town. “My mother is positively frightening and my family is…problematic. I both loved and hated the intrigue of court. Loved and hated interacting and simultaneously hiding my nature from humans. It’s different since space travel. Different out here. There are legions of things I don’t understand as well as I should, but I feel as if I’m given more time to breathe and process. Most times.”
“My dear Mr. DeGroot, what makes you ask that?”
Corny shrugged, clearly uncomfortable as he stared out at the horizon. “Begging your pardon, Cap, but he hasn’t been himself since that awful house.”
The shadow around his heart, the reason he’d wanted a ride in the first place, grew to an ache. “He’s working through some things. I’m…I find myself uncertain…”
“Which is why you’re out here and he’s back there.” Corny held up a hand when Shax began to protest. “Someone’s gotta say it. You avoid him more, he talks less, and you’re just driving the Julian-shaped wedge further betwixt and between you.”
“I can’t be held responsible for his jealousy.”
“Didn’t say that, Cap. Don’t toss words in my mouth. He ain’t been independent as long as you or me. Hell, he learns fast, but he’s still learnin’.”
Prince Shax wanted to be offended, to be haughty and angry and put the uppity human in his place. Captain Shax knew better and could only grumble that Corny had a point. What was worse was he knew this and had said as much to Julian, lovely Julian who was so good at manipulating humans and not so good with angels. He knew Ness was struggling, but he hadn’t addressed the issue in any way besides groveling and avoidance.
I let him have a pet spacer rat. Though “let” probably wasn’t the best description since Shax had given in while being stared down by angry angel eyes. They’d had sex… Yes, desperate, almost panicked sex after the Poe house incident and Ness had curled up and cried afterward.
“Maybe we need a vacation,” he blurted out.
“Sure, Cap. The last one turned out so well. And you’ve got varmints comin’ after you, from what I understand.”
“True. Presents! Showers of gifts always help!”
Corny nodded slowly. “Might. Though he might be askin’ where things came from.”
“I’m not sure your advice is helping terribly much.”
“You’re the smartest demon I know, Cap. You’ll figure it out.”
They separated at the stables outside town, Corny to get Rosa back to the Brimstone and Shax to return his borrowed mount. He puzzled and turned things in his head, working through scheme after elaborate scheme until his brain spun. By the time he got back to the ship, he was walking slowly, head down, tapping his riding gloves against his thigh. Material things, grand gestures, Ness could appreciate them, but Corny was right. They weren’t what he needed right now. At least, Shax didn’t think so. Respect, inclusion, time together…not easy things on a ship full of wildly diverse personalities soon headed right back into trouble.
For now, the corridors were quiet. He slipped into the kitchen and plunked onto one of the benches attached to the floor. “Ms. Ivana?”
“What’s wrong, hot stuff?” Even though she teased, the AI’s voice was soft and concerned.
“Could you make some things for me, please?”
“Always so polite. Of course I can. You want cinnamon rolls, sweetie?”
“No. Thank you. I’d like…all of the things Ness likes. I’d like him to meet me outside when it’s done, if you could arrange it. Outside in the velvegrass.” He stopped, drumming his fingers on the table as Ivana started up the food processing equipment. “Also, do we have anything resembling a picnic basket to put it in? That would be a nice touch. And a bottle of whiskey.”
“You’re angel cutie’s drinking whiskey now?”
“No, dear. The whiskey’s for me. I think I’m going to need it.”