December 7, 1865 – San Francisco, California
Thanksgiving had been an official holiday in the United States since President Lincoln had declared it so in 1863. In California, however, it had been celebrated during the turbulence of the Gold Rush in 1849, so Elliott Parrish had enjoyed many such festive meals prior to this one.
But this one was special… and likely to be especially unpleasant.
Firstly, he was going to be spending it alone.
He and Ilyas had each turned down invitations to join friends or clients’ celebrations in order to have a quiet night together.
But Elliott had received Ilyas’s telegram that morning, saying he was delayed in returning home from his trip to purchase a young colt, and would not be back in San Francisco until early the following day.
Elliott despaired of another night alone. Ilyas had left two weeks prior after a colt born with excellent bloodlines but iffy prospects. The colt was cheap because he’d sustained an injury as a young foal, and many thought his racing successes would be diminished. But he still cost nearly all of Ilyas’s and Elliott’s joint savings. It was a gamble, but one Ilyas thought could pay off in the long run; if he could rehabilitate and train this horse to championship, they could retire early.
Elliott was far less sure about the prospect than Ilyas, but he loathed to turn down any request from his partner. Ilyas so rarely asked for anything for himself, so infrequently dreamed up wild schemes as compared to Elliott, that Elliott couldn’t help but agree.
But now, on the day the majority of the city’s inhabitants would be indulging in feasts with friends and loved ones, Elliott would be tending the stable horses, then retiring to a lonesome meal of leftover chicken pie.
And then there was the fact that this date in particular held no fond associations for him. On this day, eleven years prior, Elliott had been forced to move the disheveled remnants of his remaining unit within Her Majesty’s 17th Lancers down from their camp at Kadikoi in the Crimea to just a few miles outside Balaklava.
Only a tenth of the horses had remained. His men were starved and sick. His summer tent was patched and feeble, and he was one of the lucky ones who had a tent. The horses still had no shelter and were tied up day and night out in the snow and rain, with no food.
He distinctly remembered this day because his horse Hermes, who had been a magnificent charger when he’d first acquired him, had stumbled and fallen down from the heights. He could barely walk, loaded with Elliott’s gear. The grief and anger that Elliott had felt at that moment had been so deep and wounding, even now, eleven years later, he shivered at the memory of it.
Some wounds, even emotional ones, never healed.
The day didn’t improve after Ilyas’s dispiriting telegram. Elliott’s Gordon Jobber printing press had a damaged flywheel that made the saddles holding the ink rollers misalign. He would have to purchase a replacement part soon, but all his money was in Ilyas’s purse.
So he cursed and fretted as he realigned the ink disc for the umpteenth time that week. Delayed, he hadn’t finished the run of cards before the customer for them arrived. The man had to wait an additional half hour, so Elliott was obliged to offer him a discount.
Elliott intended to pop next door for some soup and bread at luncheon, and to pick up extra items for his dinner, but a new customer came calling. Elliott worked through his break hour, stomach rolling in hunger.
And by the time he locked his shop door and headed across the street to the shops, they were already closed, having packed it in early for the holiday.
Elliott made his way to the stables in the dark. Their stall boy had cleaned, but Elliott still had the responsibility of feeding and watering all twenty-seven horses under Ilyas’s care.
At home, Elliott changed clothes, opened a bottle of wine, and ate the remnants of yesterday’s chicken pie cold. He thought of the wonderful Thanksgiving meal he’d enjoyed the year prior at a clients house – oyster soup, roast turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, mince pie, cold slaw and pickles, and boiled onions. There had been apple tart and pumpkin pie for dessert, and a course of fruits and nuts to finish it off.
Cold chicken pie didn’t compare.
As Elliott drank, he sank into an aching loneliness, the kind which rarely affected him these days.
For even if he had to play the part of an unrepentant bachelor for their San Francisco friends, he always had Ilyas to return home to. Ilyas – a strange man, eccentric, affectionate, taciturn. Brooding, generous, prone to occasional bouts of almost silly laughter. He was so unique, so fascinating, but also not easy to live with. Not for the first time, Elliott wondered at what it was that bound the two men together.
They had spent over ten years as lovers and friends. They’d fought a war together, immigrated, cut ties from family and friends. They’d lost money and gotten in fights and built businesses and discovered new pleasures in this strange, constantly evolving city, returning to the comfort of a home and a life they built for each other.
But on nights like this, when the world teemed around him and he remained apart, Elliott felt disconnected. Without Ilyas, he was anchorless, adrift in a terrible isolation, denounced by family as a traitor, cut off from everything he’d grown up expecting of his future.
There was a clattering of noise at the front door, and the sound of a key turning in the lock. A moment later Ilyas entered, cheeks flushed bright red from the wind and walk up from the train station, dark brown eyes alight with mischief. He carried a box that looked heavy, and placed this on their round kitchen table.
Ilyas’s black hair was half silver now, but it was still thick and full, and hung over his face as he shuffled out of his scarf. He glanced over the table, made eye contact with Elliott, then smiled.
Elliott grinned at Ilyas, unable to remove the affection from his look. “You telegrammed you would be delayed!”
“I managed to catch the earlier train after all,” Ilyas said, hanging up his overcoat and jacket.
“Well?” Elliott inquired, leg bouncing in anticipation.
Ilyas gave him a sweet, heartfelt smile, then moved to Elliott and kissed him. He smelled of coal smoke from the train, and the cold December air.
“We don’t own another horse,” said Ilyas.
“What? Why not?”
Ilyas shook his head. “The poor little boy is too frail. It wasn’t a good investment.”
“It’s not simply my savings, it’s yours as well,” Ilyas said. He pulled his dining chair close to Elliott’s and sat beside him at the table. “I won’t waste it on such a gamble. I’m grateful you trusted me to pursue this. And you have to trust me that I knew a losing prospect when I saw one.”
“Well!” Elliott sat back in his chair, and blew out his breath. He was shocked, and – as much as he wished he wasn’t – relieved.
“Besides,” Ilyas added, reaching into the box. “I happen to know someone who is in desperate need of a new flywheel.”
Elliott blinked. “I didn’t mention that to you.”
“No.” The corner of Ilyas’s mouth curled up. “But I’ve been in your shop and heard you cursing at the damn press enough times to put two and two together.”
Ilyas kept his little smile as he unloaded the contents of the box. He withdrew a ceramic container that steamed in the room’s chilly air. When Ilyas lifted the lid he revealed sliced turkey breast, mashed potatoes, and a side of boiled onions.
“Bloody marvelous!” Elliott laughed, jumping up to fetch them both plates. “Where did this come from?”
“A bloke I met on the train invited me to his house for Thanksgiving. I told him how I had family at home awaiting me, and he insisted that I bring a meal along to share.”
“And here I was, lamenting my sad remnants of chicken pie.” Elliott poured Ilyas a glass of wine and put out plates. “You certainly know how to liven up a fellow’s depressing evening.”
Ilyas glanced at him. “Depressing? How so?”
Elliott shrugged. “I was awash in self-pity, to be honest. I missed you. And of course there’s the date.”
Ilyas frowned. “December 1. We were…”
“We moved off the heights today.”
“Ah.” Ilyas served them both heaping portions, saying nothing for a long moment. Then he said, “You became ill, remember? You were fevered and coughing for two weeks after that move.”
Elliott nodded. “Oh, yes. I’d forgotten that.”
“I’ll never forget it,” Ilyas said softly. He shook his head. “That was the worst winter I’d ever experienced in the Crimea, you know.”
Elliott snorted. “I don’t think I’ve ever been as cold in my life, before or since.”
“So any plan I have to lure you to the racing scene in New York would fail, I take it.”
Elliott laughed. “Darling, if you wanted me to move to the Arctic, I’d join you. Mind you I would be bloody uncomfortable. But where you lead I follow.” He reached out cupped the back of Ilyas’s neck.
They kissed again, slow and sweet. It was astonishing, really, how quickly Ilyas could turn Elliott’s mood from one of somber reflection to that of joyous relief. He always had the power to banish Elliott’s darker reveries.
And that, Elliott realized, was what kept them together all these years – not the traumatic events of their first meeting, or the struggles over the past decade. It was the way Ilyas made Elliott a better man.
Ilyas’s eyes were shiny in the low gaslight. “It’s good to be home.”
Elliott held up his wine glass for a toast, and Ilyas joined him.
“Schastlivych prazdnikov,” Elliott offered.
“Happy Holidays to you too.”
Astrid Amara lives in Bellingham, Washington with her husband, three dogs, three goats, and a horse. By day she is a civil servant. By night her time is devoted to her writing, working for animal rescue organizations, and sleeping.
She is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and a graduate of Western Washington University.
Her novel The Archer’s Heart was a finalist for the 2008 Lambda Literary Award for Best Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror, and The Devil Lancer won the 2015 Rainbow Award for Best Gay Fantasy. Her novel Song of the Navigator was a runner up for the 2015 Rainbow Award for Best Science Fiction.
Elliott and Ilyas’ story, The Devil Lancer, is available for purchase here. Read it! Really!