My entry into the /r/fantasywriters monthly writing competition for February. This is behind a cut, because there are some rather explicit aspects to this story.
‘In honor of Valentine’s Day, this month’s challenge is about romance. Competitors are invited to write a fantasy story of 1,500 words or less that centers around a romance. Depending on your views on the holiday (lame cliche or adorable love-fest), your interpretation here may be different. Happy couples, doomed/star-crossed lovers, love spells, and unrequited love are all welcome. All that matters is that your fantasy story centers on a romance of some type.
Our lips meet, his moustache soft against my nose. I squeeze his belly against mine; I can feel his heart beating. He ruffles my hair with his hand.
It’s the first time I’ve been with a gentleman. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the way it feels to be in a relationship with an equal. It’s not easy to submit to one of your own kind when you’re used to being in command.
I bend down and open the buttons of his trousers.
“Keeping you up are we, Lieutenant?” the magician rasped.
Guffaws came from the gaggle of tanked-up men in the front row of the Paszynsko barracks auditorium, and Jerzy Zakowski felt his cheeks burst with shame at his private fantasy. The heaviness of his head reminded him that he’d also nearly fallen asleep, giving evidently giving grave offence to the performer engaged to entertain the troops. This wiry little man wore a suit stained with flash-powder and a malevolent smile that revealed crooked teeth. His tricks had been sleight of hand, of which it was easy to divine the methods.
“Lisak’s tail, these nobs, eh? In a world of their own and no mistake. Now this, lads, is a trick that doesn’t use sleight of hand.”
Jerzy raised an eyebrow. Sceptical mutterings came from other members of the audience.
The entertainer pulled a silver watch from his pocket. “I promise you, this is genuine magic. I don’t do this for everyone, but, seeing as it’s your lieutenant’s birthday” – he winked at Jerzy – “an’ he’s prob’ly spending it pretty far away from his Mamma, let me conjure up summat for him…”
Jerzy slunk down inside his uniform, desperately wanting to get back to his private quarters and go to bed. He’d come here to lift his spirits and forget himself.
Gerald and I are together, naked, on my bed. He lies on his front and I give him a rub-down. The door is locked, but everyone knows that, be it a man or a woman with me, an officer is allowed his privacy. We can explore each other’s bodies to our hearts’ content. He calls me “George” – I’ve tried to coach him on how to pronounce “Jerzy”, to no avail.
He turns me over to massage my back. “You must get so bored with only the peasants and their disapproval for company.”
“Well, I was at the lyceum in Krovt only two years ago,” I say. “We had plenty of opportunities for satisfaction there, but not much for love.”
Jerzy had expected the conjurer to be about to produce a bouquet of roses or a rabbit from his hat as an inappropriate gift for him. The watch began to flick backwards and forwards, glinting in the gaslight. The room quietened all of a sudden, the men at the front having done most of the heckling each falling quiet in turn.
He took a deep breath as he too felt first giddy, and then calm detachment from the mortal world. This was certainly no conjuring trick; this wasn’t even a conventional séance, where a shaman might call spirits forward to speak with a conscious audience. Instead, he felt his spirit pulled from his body into what must be the Beyond: the realm of the spirits themselves.
“I’ve been sent up the Kila,” Gerald says, taking a drag on his cigarillo. “Von Hipplersdorf ordered us to find a safe route through the hills towards Mogilyovka. They’ve put a POW camp right on top of the peasants’ charnel house there and it’s my job to sweep the place for beetles.”
He means the Lenks – the enemy. “When will you be back?”
“Not until we can see the perimeter fence there and report back,” Gerald snorts. “Like me and a few clodhoppers are going to overpower a whole division of maniacs who crucify children.”
He laughs so hard I can see his tonsils.
He found himself standing in a mountain village, downstream along the Kila. Around him were the ruins of houses, their brick stoves standing up through collapsed, charred walls, pointing accusingly at the sky. Remains of soldiers’ tents, also burned, littered the road. From the trees hung several figures – a female priest, the wise-man and probably the starosta or village elder and his wife. They were not long dead, but as they twisted in the breeze, Jerzy knew there was no way to save them.
He’d seen this before in villages left by the retreating enemy. They herded captives back towards the cities after executing any local dignitaries and remaining soldiery.
He reached for his pistol and moved cautiously up the street.
The coward can’t even look at me when he’s talking.
When I demand to know how Gerald died, Corporal Solinski just shrugs. “I didn’t see it. We were ambushed and we couldn’t have defended Vassilinsk properly – there weren’t enough of us left to fall back there.”
I tell myself to take hold of myself and not pursue the matter. A relationship such as mine is not forbidden unless it would be fraternisation between the ranks, though I know a number of men take lovers from the ranks and make them their batmen in order to disguise what they’re doing. But even so, I don’t want salacious rumours going round my company that their commander lost his boyfriend. I have to remain firm. Death is around every corner – it was Gerald the other day; it could be me tomorrow.
Solinski lost his brother-in-law out there too. There are rumours that the Lenks distracted them with a terrible apparition – sorcery? – and so no-one has been punished for deserting their commanding officer. Solinski would have been shot in the early days of this war.
If I let myself go to pieces, I’ll let everyone else down too.
Jerzy wandered around the ruined township, trying to suppress the anger and pity he felt for the dead and focus on why the magician had sent him here. When he put his hand out to anything within the area, he realised he was closing his hand around thin air. He could only look, not touch.
He came to a cottage that had a stronger structure than the peasant huts and was not so easily destroyed by fire. Although he could not open the door by normal means, he found he could simply float through the walls. It appeared to be a small stavka; from the décor, it had been located in the starosta’s dwelling, the officer in charge bunking with the elder and his family.
Groans came from beneath an overturned bookcase. Jerzy quickly sped round to the far side and found Gerald lying on the floor, his face contorted in pain and his throat choking and spluttering. Blood seeped out from beneath the solid oak dresser.
He couldn’t even mop his lover’s brow or hold his hand during his last moments. Determined to feel like he was doing something, he folded his incorporeal hand around Gerald’s outstretched palm, its fingers twitching as the muscles went into spasm.
“You came to me,” he said, groaning. “Are you dead too? Have they taken Paszynsko? How did they kill you?” He choked and his head rolled to one side, but Jerzy could see that he was still conscious.
“I’m alive. I was granted this vision by one of those mesmerist chaps. Vassilinsk fell a week ago, but Paszynsko hasn’t fallen – it doesn’t look like they’ve got the men to attack us.”
Gerald tried to speak, but nothing more came out. He jerked his head back in the last throes of death. Jerzy stood up to leave his body in peace, but as he turned to leave the cottage, he saw a spectral figure get up from the floor and come towards him.
“It’s a bit more than a vision, George.”
Jerzy embraced him, hugging and kissing. As they began to get more intimate with each other, Gerald’s form dissipated slowly but surely, until he was consumed by light.
This was goodbye.
As his lover left him, Vassilinsk itself faded. Jerzy found himself back into the room where he had begun his journey, biting his lip and wondering whether he had overstepped the boundaries spirit had set for him; whether Gerald would have lasted longer in his embrace if he hadn’t started to fool around. The other men were less vocal now, each looking furtive and restless, as if they had seen similar visions.
“I thought that’d get your attention,” the mesmerist said. “You ain’t alone when you’re with your brothers-in-arms. Everyone has someone they need to say goodbye to. Whatever you would have done with him, his time was up.”
Jerzy rubbed his eyes and stood up to leave. “Thank you. If you’d excuse me – it’s been a long day and I’ve got to get an early start tomorrow. Thank you.”