Will you play a game with me?”

He doesn’t look up: not even scantily-clad nymphs can distract the King of Hell from his quarterly reports. “You’re confusing me with Death. I only gamble.”

Not chess, you silly. Poker, I was thinking, or blackjack. We could make the stakes interesting.” She walks her fingers up his shoulder.

I prefer to gamble for souls. Why would I be interested in playing a game with you?”

She spins away from him, lifting her hair and flicking it back to draw the eye to the smooth line of her spine, exposed but for ivy and scraps of silk. Her head turns so that it is perfectly framed in the arch of her raised arm, and she lifts long lashes to meet his gaze. “I’ll let you name your own stakes.”

The Devil sets down his paperwork, precisely in the middle of the blotter. He sets his paperweight on the upper left corner, and its empty sockets leer at her exactly the way he is too controlled to. “What do you want?”

I want the chance to win your powers for a night.”

Which powers?”

She flits back to his desk and leans over the front of it, giving him a clear view down the front of a dress that never hid much. “All of them, silly. Why play for anything less?”

If I win, Orphne, I want you for a month.” He says it low, trying for nonchalance. He is rarely denied, rarer still for very long, but nymphs cannot be coerced and are not easy prey for his brand of temptation.

Her grin is sharp, because she knows the power she holds. “Okay.” She produces a deck of cards from – somewhere, he doesn’t want to think where, and shuffles. “One hand, then, and aces are wild. Since it’s your realm, I’ll deal. That work for you?”

Your terms are acceptable.” He smoothes one already-smooth lapel and gestures at the immaculate liquor cabinet behind him. “Can I pour you a drink?”

Oh, this won’t last long.” She deals a card to him facedown, then one to herself, then him, then deals herself a face-up Queen of Hearts. She sets the deck aside and checks her facedown card, the looks up at him expectantly.

He looks at his cards, then says, “Hit me.”

She obliges with a five. The Devil smiles, and turns over his cards: the Ace of Spades, of course, and another five. “Twenty-one,” he says.

She flips her other card, and it is the Ace of Hearts. “Too bad.”

Of course. Fetch the gold goblet, will you?”

This? Really?” She holds up a battered cup with old dull carvings on it.

I’m fond of wordplay. What better than real blood from the Sangreal?” He takes the cup and slices his left forefinger with his thumbnail. Blood rushes out, and then it stops when the cup is half full.

Orphne takes the cup and drains it in one go, her throat working around it. He watches her intently, particularly when she licks her lips after. Her dress fades from green to blood-dark and she smiles. “Well, things to do, places to be. Thanks for the game.”

She’s gone in a flare of smoke and a whiff of brimstone. Lucifer puts his head down on his desk and wishes that light wouldn’t chase away the shadows of self-deceit.

**
The shortest night of the year holds a greater number of secrets than any but the longest. Festival frivolity lifts the veil between worlds and the veil between proper and improper, and all may pass freely back and forth with no thought to consequences come the dawn.

They all wear masks, but it’s easy to recognize many from familiar postures and voices. An unfamiliar woman in a black dress wends her way through the crowd to the officer in conspicuous uniform and unmasked face. “When do you go off-duty?”

Midnight is shift change, ma’am.”

I’ll meet you here at five after.”

Okay.” He doesn’t say that he should find his wife at the end of his shift, but watches her as she walks away.

A cask of mead is unearthed in the beer tent, and, in a gesture of unanticipated magnanimity the local brewer gives glasses of it away. Beer sales drop, but that’s okay, as the cask of mead never seems to run dry.

The perfumed summer air grows thick with temptation.

A thin woman in well-tailored clothes goes back for a second hot dog, and a fifth. After the seventh, she vomits neatly and wipes her mouth with a well-practiced hand and goes back for an eighth.

Two brothers joyfully get into a fist-fight before they are carted off by police officers who tighten the cuffs just barely overtight.

The brewer is distracted from serving by counting the money-box.

In full knowledge of the fact that her husband is not here, a woman approaches her best friend’s handsome husband, the one she wishes she’d married because he is so very wonderful.

The Mayor watches from his chair in the beer tent and can’t bring himself to do more than drink more mead.

Orphne pulls a little harder on her new powers, puzzled that there are not more couples sanctifying the forest. She can see the cusp of wanting in them all, and tugs harder to pull them over.

Another fist fight breaks out, and there is a flash of subdued light beside her. “We’re all tempted by different things, my darling little cheater.”

She sets her jaw. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Lucifer slides one finger under the strap of her dress and glides it up her shoulder. “You are accustomed to a particular kind of wanting. But there are seven cardinal sins, not one, my pet. For example, it is the very definition of pride to think you can deceive the King of Hell with a simple glamour on a card to disguise a ten as an ace.”

She whirls to glare at him. “Why’d you even let me go through with it, then?”

He shrugs. “Why not? It does me no harm to let you try to preserve your forest. I thought we might even participate, given our deal and the fact that I’m here already.”

She takes his hand and leads him into the woods, anger radiating from every pore.

No matter how you rig the game, the Devil always gets his due.
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