Faults and Affections by Astrid Amara
This vignette features characters from The Devil Lancer.
December 24, 1859 – San Francisco, California
The horses were screaming.
Still half-asleep, Ilyas Kovakin thought he was having a nightmare from the past. The memory of horses crying out in the Valley of Death still haunted him, six years after the battle at Balaklava.
But these horses screamed from a distance, sounding alarmed but not in pain. Something or someone disturbed them in the stable. And since the stable belonged to him and Elliott, Ilyas knew it was too much to hope that anyone else would tend to the animals.
Ilyas stirred, dislodging the pale tangle of limbs trapping him under the heavy comforter. He sat up. Elliott mumbled some sort of complaint but remained asleep. He’d been sick all week, and overworked from his printing press and from the endless committee meetings on which he volunteered.
Ilyas ran his hand over his bearded face, attempting to drum up the strength of will to part from the cocoon of warmth their bedroom was at this hour.
Ilyas fumbled to light the gas lamp beside their bed. His hands shook in the cold. Not for the first time, he regretted the loss of the fiery heat he’d emitted as a side effect of his possession five years ago.
But of course, the negatives of being possessed by a deranged daemon of destruction far outweighed the benefits, so he accepted the chill for what it was. The lit lantern illuminated the clock beside their bed. It was 12:45 am. No wonder he was tired and cold.
Moving quietly so as not to wake Elliott, Ilyas dressed in the low lamplight. He pulled on woolen trousers and hooked the suspenders over his undershirt.
He fumbled for his overcoat, then made his way into the main room of their apartment. He nearly tripped over their small Christmas tree in the dark. Cursing, he found his muddy muck boots by the back door, then pulled their Minié rifle from the closet where they kept it.
Carrying the rifle and a lantern, Ilyas plunged into the cold night air.
It was Christmas Eve, and the docks of San Francisco were quiet as everyone slept through the rain of the night. Ilyas hurried across the narrow cobbled alley to the stable.
Inside, all sixteen of the horses he boarded were pacing and whinnying in alarm. His newest boarder, a massive stallion Clydesdale, owned by a banker who had just moved to the city, was the one shrieking hysterically, his breath coming out in twin plumes of cold smoke.
“Easy, boy,” Ilyas said, quieting him. There had been a time when he would have been able to enter the stallion’s mind and calm him from within. Now he had to make do with soothing the giant with words and touch alone.
He lit the remaining lanterns, his rifle at the ready. Two years ago a drunken intruder had fought Ilyas after being caught sleeping in the stable, and six months ago one of Ilyas’s clients attempted to abscond with his horse in the middle of the night without paying. Ilyas was prepared for any situation.
Except for this. All at once the earth seemed to tilt, and he nearly toppled, as the mud-packed stable floor rumbled beneath him. The horses’ screeches rose in pitch as the world shook.
Ilyas grabbed the wall in panic. Buckets, bags of grain, and tack fell from the storage wall. His own horse, Valentin, kicked at the wooden panel dividing him from Ilyas, as if coming to his owner’s rescue. Ilyas made his way to his horse, falling into the stall divider as everything tipped. He held onto Valentin as the earthquake shuddered through the ground.
He remembered something Elliott had advised, back when they’d experienced their first earthquake in this tremulous, unpredictable part of the world. He told Ilyas to stay protected under something heavy that would shelter him from a collapsing roof.
Belatedly he realized something heavy likely did not include a horse. This was probably the most dangerous place to sit out an earthquake.
Well, other than lying in a bed, exposed to the cheap roofing, like Elliott was at this moment. Fear filled Ilyas. Elliott’s exhaustion meant he’d likely sleep through having his head bashed in by falling wreckage.
The tremor stopped as abruptly as it began. Ilyas quickly checked on all the horses to make sure they were free of injury and no dangerous debris had fallen into their stalls. Elliott’s horse Hermes, who had always been a brave fellow, was leering suspiciously at something on the ground beside him. Ilyas shone his lamp down to reveal a water bucket, knocked over and spilling its contents into Hermes’s bedding.
Ilyas righted the bucket but didn’t pause to clean up. He had to make sure Elliott was all right. He turned down the stable lamps and rushed back to the house.
Inside, he noticed immediately all the plates that weren’t safely stored in cupboards were now broken on the wooden floor. He stepped over their fallen Christmas tree and made his way to the bedroom.
“Elliott!” Ilyas cried, rushing to his side.
“What, what!” Elliott mumbled, sitting up. He blinked then raised his hands. “Bloody hell, why are you pointing a rifle at me?”
“What?” Ilyas remembered the gun in his hands. He put the lamp and the gun on the beside table and sat on the bed, running his hands over Elliott’s head and shoulders, checking for damage. “You all right?”
“I was before you woke me up with a rifle in my face,” Elliott complained. He coughed. It sounded a lot healthier than a week prior, but still shook his frame. “Damn, it’s cold. What time is it?”
Ilyas stared at him. “You didn’t even notice?”
“Notice what?” Elliott asked. He pushed at Ilyas to try and gather more of the bedsheet to cover his bare chest.
“We had an earthquake!” Ilyas cried. “The horses knew it was coming.”
“Did we?” Elliott blinked, eyes adjusting. “Must not have been that strong. My books are still on the bedside table.”
“The Christmas tree fell over,” Ilyas told him.
“Blast.” Elliott rubbed his eyes. Ruffled from slumber, blond hair askew, blue eyes sleepy, Elliott looked ravishing. At once Ilyas wanted to do nothing more than kiss those red, pouty lips, and curl under the covers with him again.
“Are you certain you didn’t wake me up for your Christmas present?” Elliott asked, smiling crookedly.
Ilyas smiled back. He kicked off his muddy boots. “Shift over.”
Elliott did so. As he turned, the lamplight caught the thick silver streaks of scars covering Elliott’s back. Ilyas used to feel enraged and powerless every time he saw them. He wished he could go back in time and kill Lieutenant-Colonel West, the man who was responsible for Ilyas’s mother drowning, and for Elliott’s flogging.
But it had been almost five years since Elliott and Ilyas had fled the battlefields of Crimea, and the anger that seethed before was now just a simmering regret.
Elliott always soothed Ilyas’s unspoken rage when he sensed it. Even now, he knew Ilyas well enough to tell, at a glance, what he was thinking.
“Come here, darling,” he said sleepily, holding up the comforter. Ilyas crawled inside, clothes and all. Elliott turned to face him and pulled his naked body flush with Ilyas’s.
Ilyas touched his forehead to Elliott’s.
“You sure you’re all right?” He meant the earthquake, but Elliott clearly thought he was referring to something else.
“I couldn’t be better.” He lifted his head to kiss the spot on Ilyas’s shoulder where the scar of a Sadurey letter lay. The symbol meant Makhai Kydoimos, although that was something only he and Elliott knew.
The puckered scar was one of dozens that covered Ilyas’s torso from his experience in the Crimea, but it was the one Elliott seemed the most focused on. Like the scars across Elliott’s back, this one seemed to have more meaning, and maybe regret, although Elliott didn’t look to be pondering the past right now.
He had a glint of mischief in his eyes.
“I suppose since it is officially Christmas Eve you may have your gift now.”
Ilyas smiled. “If I have to get out of bed for it, I’ll pass.”
Elliott snorted. “Good thing I stashed it behind my books then, eh?”
He fumbled behind his mammoth stack of books, and frowned. “Where is it?”
Ilyas turned and looked. Something lay on the floorboards beside his mud boots. He twisted and retrieved the item, handing it to Elliott.
Elliott took the small packet wrapped in newspaper and shook it. Ilyas heard shards of glass clanking together.
“Damn! The bloody earthquake broke it.” Elliott looked devastated. Ilyas took the wrapped package from him.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Open it and be disappointed,” Elliott said glumly. “Watch yourself – there’s broken glass.”
Ilyas carefully unwrapped the small parcel. A large sliver of glass spilled out from the paper. It was a photograph in a lovely brass filigree frame.
The glass covering the photograph had shattered, but the portrait behind it lay unscathed. Ilyas held the photograph closer to the lamplight and saw it was of the two of them.
Ilyas blinked at it, stunned. He couldn’t recall sitting for a photograph.
Then he noticed he was wearing his stable attire, and was holding a lead rope. He recalled a photographer coming to the stable last summer, and how the man had taken a photograph of the stable, Elliott, and Ilyas holding a spry new colt.
The colt was not in this picture. It was a close up of the two of them. Ilyas wore his typical, blank face in the photograph, but Elliott had the hint of a smile on his features, and was looking at Ilyas. He was dressed finely, having just come from a meeting with a client.
“I thought it would look nice in here,” Elliott commented, coughing again.
Elliott stared at Ilyas in the photograph, and the look of admiration in his eyes made Ilyas’s throat feel tight as he traced Elliot’s face in the picture.
“I adore it,” Ilyas said, voice rough with emotion.
“We’ll have to fix the bloody glass,” Elliott complained.
“I adore it,” Ilyas said again, and he meant it. It seemed dangerous and precious – evidence of the deep emotion the two shared like a dark secret, something sacred and hidden, that would wither if it ever saw the light of day.
But here it was, proudly on display, for anyone to see. And Ilyas realized it was always like that between them. If anyone ever suspected the nature of the two mens’ relationship, they would need no further proof than the way Elliott looked upon Ilyas, with a mixture of pride, affection, and fierce loyalty.
“Thank you.” He placed the photograph next to the lamp and turned back to Elliott. He enfolded Elliott in his arms, and the two nestled quietly under the sheets.
He knew Elliott was still awake by the pace of his breathing.
“When do I get my present?” Elliott asked finally.
Ilyas smiled. “On Christmas Day, like you’re supposed to.”
Elliott sighed. “All right. I suppose I can wait for you.”
“It’s worth waiting for,” Ilyas assured him, kissing the top of his head.
“You always are.”