© 2014 Jane Kindred

Belphagor returned to the tables, amused to see Armen still at it. “Don’t you have mouths to feed at home?” he asked when they’d been paired together by Belphagor’s quick advancement through the ranks of players on his way to the master table.

“And how else do you think I feed them?” Armen laughed as Belphagor dealt the cards. He continued to chat as the round commenced, a tactical error Belphagor swiftly took advantage of, relieving Armen of nearly half his cards in the first three casts as he failed to correctly call the die, while Belphagor called all but one of his.

“A pristine Ebony Wing.” Belphagor laid down a consecutive set of First Choir cards along with the first order of the remaining three choirs in the suit of spindles. “It’s going to be a short game if you keep playing like this.”

Armen shook his head in chagrin as Belphagor collected the pot of facets and gave him the cards to deal the next round. “Actually, I was hoping to run into you again. There was something specific I wanted to discuss with you.” He spoke casually as he shuffled and dealt, but this was obviously anything but casual if he was willing to forfeit so much crystal to make it seem so.

Belphagor perused his cards. “Oh?”

“A proposal. I suppose you’ve heard of the Fletchery.”

Belphagor scowled at the demon, no longer interested in whatever game Armen was playing. The Fletchery was an underground club that professed to provide its male clientele with underage sex. The pun on the name that rhymed with lechery was that the client would be teaching a fledgling how to fly. “Fletching” was a euphemism for being the first to have a young virgin of either sex, though more often applied to the homosexual variety, as if preferring the same sex somehow equated with pederasty.

“I’ve heard of it,” he said through gritted teeth. “And it has nothing to do with me.”

“Of course not,” Armen assured him. “I wouldn’t dream of suggesting it did. But of course, my opinion isn’t necessarily of consequence.”

“And just whose is?”

“Others,” said Armen vaguely, casting the die. Belphagor let it strike the edge of the wingcasting table without calling it. “There are some who find your association with a certain young demon suspect.”

Belphagor threw down his cards and shoved back his chair as he stood. “Vasily is over the age of consent in any sphere. I don’t have to justify our ‘association’ to you or any ‘others’.”

Armen held up his hand. “You misunderstand me, Belphagor. Please. Sit down and hear me out.” Belphagor remained standing, arms folded as he glowered at the other demon. “It’s not that it isn’t clear he’s of age now. It’s the fact that he’s been with you for some time and your tendency to call him your ‘boy’ that gives the impression to some that perhaps your patronage of him could be considered slightly…unsavory. I only mention this because you have a reputation at the tables, and it would be a shame if your privileges at the Brimstone were revoked for impropriety.”

“You son of a bitch.”

“Oh, come now, Belphagor. I’m not saying it. It’s just that some might. I would of course stand by you if anyone were to cast such aspersions. And I might be in a position to ensure that no one else does, in fact. If you were amenable to my proposal.” He smiled, shuffling cards as Belphagor continued to stare daggers at him. “Please sit.”

A number of patrons were looking their way, prurient curiosity in their unabashed stares as if they were hoping for a scandal. Other players were always hoping to catch him cheating. He sat on the edge of his chair, his entire being seething.

“I really think you’ll find this quite interesting.” Armen dealt once more as if they’d agreed to play another round. “My plan is to gather information on some of the Fletchery’s more prestigious clientele—angelic, to be precise—and turn that information into profit. But I need someone on the inside.”

“The inside?” Belphagor gripped the edge of his seat to keep from leaping up in outrage. “If you expect me to patronize the establishment so you can collect your blackmail, you can forget it.”

“Only to give the appearance of doing so. And they’re very discreet. Which is why I haven’t been able to gather enough information to be lucrative yet. But I’ve enlisted someone who will pose as the object of your attentions, so there’ll be no need for you to compromise your…principles.”

Belphagor snorted with disgust. “Some boy you’ve dragged into this? Now who’s the pedophile?”

“Not a boy.” Armen gave him a look of disdain. “Any more than your own is a boy.” He crooked his finger toward the bar, and a young demon stepped forward out of the shadows. “Meet my young friend, Khai.”

Belphagor sucked in an angry breath and clenched his teeth around the name. “Mikhail.”

The half-angel gave him an exaggerated bow. “At your service, m’lord.” He grinned as he straightened. “Literally.” He licked his lips as if still savoring what he’d swallowed earlier.

“I hardly think anyone will take your ‘friend’ here for a fledgling,” Belphagor sneered. “He’s undoubtedly had his share of patrons who’d know better.”

“Why, sir.” Khai put a hand to his chest in mock dismay. “Are you impugning my virtue?”

“No more than they’d take your boy for one,” Armen interrupted. “Which is why we will use a simple glamour that some of your generation use as a youth tonic.” There was an obvious dig in that, as if Belphagor were past his prime. “It just takes off a couple of years. And that’s all either of them need, isn’t it?”

Belphagor clenched his fists at his sides. “Either of them?”

“Khai. And your boy.” He waved a dismissive hand when Belphagor sprang to his feet. “Don’t bore me with a protracted argument about his virtue, for the love of Heaven, Belphagor. The story of you dragging him away from a party of rambunctious youths having a good time with him in the Devil’s Doorstep after you first took him in is legendary. Even if they’d fletched him that very night, the number who had him at that gathering alone would exceed the experience most decent demons have in a lifetime.” The memory of that night made Belphagor’s skin go cold. A group of rough demons Vasily had run with had gotten him so drunk he was barely conscious when his so-called friends assaulted him.

Sublimating his fury into a deadly calm, Belphagor leaned over the wingcasting table, hands against the rim. “If you so much as hint at disparaging my boy again, Armen, I will slice you open, disembowel you and feed you your own entrails.” He let his mouth curve into a smile that promised he was crazy enough to do it. “Try me.”

Armen had the good sense to look nervous. “No need for threats of violence. I was merely making a point. Both Khai and your Vasily will be perfectly capable of holding their own among the clientele of the Fletchery, and you’ll be there to see that nothing gets out of hand. But I warn you, Belphagor, if you spurn this opportunity, Khai here is prepared to implicate you in the very thing I’m trying to spare you from.”

Khai smiled innocently. “I can describe certain identifying marks on your skin that only someone intimate with those body parts would know. And if I happen to say my acquaintance with them was made some years ago instead of this afternoon, who’s going to question me? I might have had a respectable career in gambling had it not been for the demon who fletched me and put me on the street with no option but to sell myself.”

No one would truly believe Khai’s story, but there were plenty in Raqia who’d be happy to say they did, if only to witness the downfall of the player they blamed for their own poor skills at the game.

“I can just as easily give Khai the glamour I mentioned before he makes his accusation,” said Armen. “I’m offering you a lucrative opportunity. You’ll take forty percent of the payoff for you and your boy.”

Belphagor dug his black-lacquered nails into the rim of the table, resisting the urge to wipe the floor with the smarmy bastard. Armen was a better player than he’d let on. But perhaps something good could come of the enterprise if it managed to cripple the Fletchery. “I’ll take sixty if I’m the one doing all the work.”

“Fifty-fifty split,” Armen countered. Khai turned to glare at him with a hand on his hip. “And each of us to divide our share as we see fit with our apprentices.”