With the New Year around the corner, I thought I’d share a scene from my current work-in-progress between my two heroes that takes place on New Year’s Day. To give you a bit of background, my heroes are demons—angels of mixed blood, and the peasant class of my imaginary realm called Heaven, where the capital city of Elysium bears a striking resemblance to St. Petersburg in Imperial Russia. They’ve fallen to the world of Man just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and for Vasily, it’s his first visit. (There is no heroine; none needed. Instead, they have each other.)
Belphagor was excited to show Vasily Moscow. It wasn’t his usual stomping grounds when he came to the world of Man; he’d spent far more time in Leningrad, and it was where he’d intended to go before Vasily’s illness had necessitated more immediate lodging. But where Leningrad was uncannily familiar in its resemblance to Elysium, Moscow was completely otherworldly.
He had to warn Vasily against physical affection—or even closeness—on the streets. Elysium’s Demon District of Raqia wasn’t exactly accepting of relations between two men, but such behavior wasn’t considered shocking or immoral, merely looked down upon as somewhat seedy and indulgent, like frequenting prostitutes. In this corner of the world of Man, at least, it was not only illegal, it could get you killed.
Vasily was baffled. “You can’t even do it for pay?”
“Oh, the trade exists here,” Belphagor assured him. “But outside the law. All prostitution is illegal.”
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Vasily exclaimed. “How do you make compensating someone for their skills and services illegal? Everybody just has to give it up for free to any jackass who wants it?”
Belphagor smiled indulgently as he helped Vasily on with his new coat. “The law doesn’t say you have to give it up. You just can’t get paid.”
“Well, I hate that law. And the other one, too.”
He took Vasily to see Red Square, telling him about how the country had changed since the beginning of the century—careful not to let on that he’d actually been around at the time—and how much it had been changing just recently with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“The old government had a very tight control over everything and everyone. It’s almost as though all of Russia were treated like Raqia.” The names even sounded alike: Raqia and Rossiya—only a single sibilant differentiating the pronunciation of the two.
They walked around the walls of the Kremlin with its towers and spires that had always reminded Belphagor of New Year’s yolka trees, their peaks topped with stars of gold-framed ruby glass. He told Vasily how the stars on the towers had replaced the two-headed eagle that was the symbol of the imperial rulers.
“Two-headed eagle?” Vasily glanced at him. “Sounds like the two-headed Seraph of the House of Arkhangel’sk.”
“Exactly so,” said Belphagor. “One of many similarities you’ll find in the world of Man. When we have a chance, I want to take you to Leningrad and show you the Winter Palace. It’s as if the city’s designers and architects must have been Fallen. You won’t believe it.”
“Leningrad.” Vasily’s brows drew together. “How long are you thinking we’ll be in the world of Man?”
Belphagor shrugged. “You’re rather conspicuous in Raqia. I’m not sure whether it will ever be safe to go back.”
“Ever?” Vasily stared at him. “I don’t want to stay here forever, Bel. It isn’t home. How would I earn a living? You just told me practically everything about me is illegal.”
“It’s not that black and white—”
“Black and white?” Vasily’s eyes kindled as if colloidal gold had seeped into them like the glass in the ruby stars. “I think being the lowest of the low is pretty damned black and white.”
Belphagor grabbed his elbow to turn away from the view of a passing guard. “Watch the brimstone.”
“Brimstone?” Vasily looked at him as if he’d lost his mind.
“It’s what the Fallen here call demonic radiance. Your eyes are glowing. We don’t want to draw attention—from Men or from Malakim.”
Vasily’s eyes cooled. “Malakim—you mean they’re real?”
“As real as you or me.” Archangelic messengers who made the world of Man their domain, the Malakim claimed their duty was to tell Men of the wonders of Heaven. “They take advantage of the religious beliefs of the locals, giving the short-lived humans the hope that when they die, they’ll go to the celestial realm to live forever.”
Vasily’s mouth dropped open. “That’s absurd! Who would believe that?”
“Millions,” said Belphagor. “And if they knew there were demons among them—well, you think we have it bad in Heaven, you should see what they think of us here.”
“You’re not making me want to stay.”
“Sorry.” Belphagor almost reached to put an arm around him and pull him close, jerking back his hand before doing exactly what he’d warned Vasily not to. “Come on. Let me show you some more sights. Maybe the place will grow on you. There’s one in particular I want you to see.”
Hands in his pockets so he wouldn’t be tempted to touch him, Belphagor led Vasily to the far side of the kremlin where the fantastic sculpted onion domes of a cathedral rose beyond the walls like dollops of confection. Instead of stars, each of these was topped with a golden cross, the symbol of the religion the Malakim had fostered, sparkling under the winter sun.
Vasily gazed in awe. “What is it?”
“A place of reverence for the faith co-opted by the Malakim. It’s called a cathedral.” He paused. “The Cathedral of St. Vasily.”
Vasily looked at him with an expression that said he thought Belphagor was teasing him, but when Belphagor didn’t wink or say anything further, he looked back at the church. “A cathedral in the world of Man has my name?
“A fair number of them do, I would guess. He’s a popular saint.” He smiled at Vasily’s wrinkled brow. “A lot of Fallen names come from the names of earthly saints. Which is pretty funny if you think about it. Saints are the holiest of humans in the cult of Heaven, and demons are considered the greatest enemies of the faith.”
Vasily was studying the cathedral with an odd look. “I don’t even know who gave me my name. Do you think my mother chose it before she abandoned me?” His voice was gravelly with emotion.
“I don’t know, malchik.” He slipped his hand out of his pocket and gave Vasily’s fingers a quick squeeze, their warmth making him wish they could hold hands and weave their fingers together as they walked. “Let’s go home,” he said. “Or as home as we’re going to get for the time being. It’s freezing out here.”
As they crossed the snow-covered bricks of the square, a young couple walking arm in arm glanced over at them, and the man tipped his hat in their direction. A sort of blue-green aura seemed to travel from his hand to his hat and linger there a moment as he passed by. Belphagor nodded to him.
“S Novym Godom!” the demon called, and Belphagor returned the greeting. He hadn’t been paying attention to the time of year. They must have arrived in Moscow just before New Year’s Day. A massive yolka sparkling with ornaments and lights around the next corner confirmed it.
Belphagor took the chance and held Vasily’s hand anyway as they stared up at it. “S Novym Godom, malchik,” he whispered. “Happy New Year.”