Prince of Tricks (Demons of Elysium, #1)
When desire rises, angels will fall.
Over the past century, Belphagor has made a name for himself in Heaven’s Demon District as a card sharp, thief, and charming rogue. Though he’s content with his own company, he enjoys applying the sweet sting of discipline to a willing backside—angel, demon, and even the occasional human. He’s not particular. But when a hotheaded young firespirit steals his purse—and his heart—all bets are off.
Vasily, a former rentboy and cutpurse from the streets of Raqia, has never felt safer than in the arms—and at the feet—of the Prince of Tricks. He’s just not sure if Belphagor returns his feelings. The attentions of a rich, angelic duke provide the perfect opportunity to find out whether Belphagor is willing to fight for him, but the foolish game backfires—spectacularly.
When the duke frames Vasily in an assassination plot, Belphagor will do whatever it takes to clear his lover’s name and expose the real traitor. Because for the first time in his life, the Prince of Tricks has something to lose.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Drug Use (alcohol and nicotine)
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abandonment, abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), age gap, angst, antihero / bad boy, bisexuality, child abuse / neglect, coming of age, commitment, feminism, financial gap / class disparity, first love, first time, gender roles, history, homelessness, homophobia / transphobia, lovable rogue, military, misogyny, politics / power struggle, prostitution, protection, racism, religion, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, trust issues
Kinks: barebacking, bondage, clothed sex, cross-dressing, dirty talk, exhibitionism, face-fucking, humiliation, insertables, leather, masturbation, orgasm denial, piercings, power exchange, rimming / anilingus, rough sex, sadomasochism, spanking
Settings: alternate dimension, Apartment, bar / club, church, city, Gambling Den, Heaven, Lake Baikal, mansion, market, Moscow, museum, palace, Palace, Russia, Russia, sex club / strip club / brothel, Siberia, St. Petersburg, theater, train, Vladimir
The demon in his bed had a spectacular ass. Belphagor let the sheet slide down as he shifted position beside Vasily on the narrow cot, baring the part in question. Light played against the marked flesh in stripes through the threadbare curtain—watermarks against fire.
It was this lovely bit of firespirit ass that had been Belphagor’s undoing—though its form at the time had barely hinted at its present magnificence. For the reigning master of wingcasting—the preferred game of chance in this demonic little enclave of Heaven—reputation was everything. Having his purse cut by a scrawny, untrained street demon had warranted a swift and public response.
At a full hand above six feet, Vasily would have stood out in a crowd even without the flame-red hair that distinguished him. And yet of all the marks he might have chosen, he’d targeted Belphagor that evening at The Brimstone a year ago.
Ghosting his finger over the pleasing lines of his handiwork on Vasily’s skin, Belphagor shook his head in amusement, the corner of his mouth turning up at the memory of that ill-advised attempt.
The firespirit scoundrel had been watching him all night. As usual, Belphagor had cleaned out nearly every player in the Raqia den of iniquity. He gathered his winnings and stretched as he stood, giving the obviously inexperienced cutpurse the chance to make his move. At the lightening of the weight at his hip, he turned and grabbed the thief by the collar as he tried to slip away. Without missing a beat, the next player slid into Belphagor’s vacated seat, the kibitzers flowing around the pair like parts in a well-oiled machine. An altercation over facets or even a brawl was a minor inconvenience at The Brimstone.
The thief twisted in Belphagor’s grip, hissing like a cornered alley cat, but Belphagor held fast. He took stock as he retrieved the purse. Lean and hungry looking, with hard eyes of a startling hazel hue that danced with the glittering flames of reflected lamplight, the young demon couldn’t have seen more than eighteen summers. He wouldn’t make it to nineteen if he continued such inept thieving.
Belphagor tucked his winnings away. “You’ll have to be much faster than that if you expect to make a living.”
“Fast enough for you, old-timer.” His vocal chords grated like sandpaper, as if from years of smoke and drink.
“We’ll see how fast your fingers are after the Ophanim have broken your knuckles.” Belphagor turned him about and hauled him toward the stairs that led up to the street. The young finger-smith struggled to free himself, spitting in Belphagor’s face when his efforts failed, a glint of feral terror in his eyes.
Belphagor wiped the warm spittle from his cheek. “Relax, little spitfire. I’m sure they’ll leave you one good hand.”
“I’m hardly little.” That much was true; the closer Belphagor held him, the more obvious it became. “And I’m not afraid of the Ophanim Guard.” That much was not true. “Or of you, you ponce.”
Belphagor’s mouth twitched as he tried to keep a straight face. “On second thought, a night in the supernal cellar probably wouldn’t teach you a thing. What you need is to learn some manners. I’ve half a mind to give you a good strapping.”
The threat elicited a derisive laugh. “I’d like to see you try!”
Belphagor let his eyebrow drift upward. “Is that a challenge?” He held up the purse. “I have a pound of crystal that says you won’t last three strokes without begging for mercy.”
The thief fixed his gaze on the offered prize like a starved dog with a cutlet dangling before him. “You’re lying. You’d never give that up for such a sucker bet.”
“I never go back on my word. And I never make a sucker bet.” Belphagor let go of him, tossing the winnings lightly in his hand as he turned back into the club. “My room is in the rear.” He made his way to the rented rooms without looking back. When he reached his door, he turned to find the would-be thief behind him, eyes glowing and changing in the light like fire opals. There was a pureblood in his line somewhere—and not far back.
Belphagor ushered him inside and locked the door, pocketing the key. “In case you have any ideas about snatching and running.”
Defiant heat flashed in those opalescent eyes. “You want me to roll for you, you’ll have to pay. Five facets. Ten if you want me to act like I like it.”
Belphagor regarded him evenly. “The deal is you take three strokes without crying mercy, you get the money. You don’t, you get nothing. It’s a wager. I’m not renting you.”
He reached for the hooks above the dressing table, fingers pausing to stroke the straight-edged razor before closing around the strop. Let the insolent pickpocket wonder just what he had coming.
With the strop folded into a loop, Belphagor turned and appraised his subject. The bones needed a little meat on them, but they were good ones.
He snapped the loop between his hands. “What’s your name?” Judging by the startled blink, Belphagor had successfully unnerved him.
The growled answer came after a slight pause. “Vasily.”
Belphagor stroked the leather against his palm. “Well, if five facets is all you’re asking, young Vasily, you’re selling yourself short. But I’m going to call you mal’chik.” He grabbed the long tangles of Vasily’s hair and twisted. “Because you’re behaving like a spoiled little boy.”
Vasily stumbled as Belphagor swung him around, grabbing at his own hair instead of aiming a blow that might have ended things then and there.
Belphagor pulled up the stool by the table and sat, tossing Vasily over his lap in one smooth motion and pinning him with a one-armed wrestler’s hold.
“Let go of me, you bastard!” The panic in Vasily’s voice said he was already too disarmed to fight.
Belphagor responded with unaffected calm. “You have a decision to make, Vasily. We made a bargain. The question now is whether you intend to honor it. Three strokes without crying out, and you win the purse. Are we agreed?”
Vasily’s breathing was rapid as he seemed to consider, before finally growling, “Agreed.”
“What was that? I didn’t quite hear you.” In the quiet, the pounding of firespirit blood was audible. “Understand that once we begin, there is no changing your mind.”
Without giving him time to reconsider, Belphagor brought the strop down against Vasily’s thighs, satisfaction curling the corners of his mouth at the strangled gasp this elicited. Vasily had obviously never had a proper beating. Of course, the beatings Belphagor gave went well beyond what could be considered proper.
Before Vasily could recover, Belphagor drew back and struck again, this time at the top of his buttocks—just a touch too high, designed to deliver a blinding sting. The threadbare pants tore as Vasily shuddered from head to toe.
Belphagor let him wait for the next stroke so the sting would build. “Had enough?”
“Was that supposed to hurt?” Vasily’s voice was tight. “I barely felt it.”
On the last word, Belphagor hauled back and struck, the tip of his strop curling around the exposed flesh on Vasily’s hip as it landed.
Vasily cried out as though the sound had been wrung from him by surprise and jerked against his hold.
“Just as I thought,” said Belphagor. “You forfeit.”
The defeated thief struggled to catch his breath, clearly on the verge of tears, and Belphagor struck him again to see them spill. The teardrops almost sizzled as they hit the floor.
Vasily countered them with rage, his fury building until he radiated heat. “You said three strokes.” The rough growl bordered on a sob.
“Three if you could take them without crying out. You forgot to ask what happened if you lost.”
Belphagor struck him again, and Vasily snarled and swore, wasting his energy and magnifying the pain by thrashing and howling. Anger transformed into desperation as the strokes continued, until he broke down at last into incoherent begging and went limp, all resistance drained from him.
Belphagor let him cry. Instinct told him it was what Vasily needed, to be able to let go and express the emotion erupting as if it had been bottled inside him without leaving room for air.
When Belphagor released him, Vasily slipped onto his knees, still sobbing, his head hanging in defeat.
“There now, mal’chik.” Belphagor brushed the damp hair away from Vasily’s eyes. “I reckon you’ve learned your lesson.” After a moment’s hesitation, he kissed the fire-warm brow.
Vasily’s breath drew in with a hitch, and he gazed up at Belphagor in confusion, as if kindness were foreign to him. “Do you want me to get you off now?”
Belphagor pushed away the hand reaching for his belt, annoyed at having considered the offer for an instant. “Really, mal’chik, I’m much too old for you.”
Vasily continued to stare up at him with the unfocused gaze of one who had just experienced for the first time the ecstatic transport possible through extreme physical discipline. It would be a shame to put him out on the street in such a state.
Belphagor sighed. “I suppose you need somewhere to sleep.”
The young demon nodded uncertainly, and Belphagor drew him to his feet and led him to the bed, where Vasily curled up in his arms as if he’d always belonged there.
Belphagor had only meant to hold him until Vasily drifted off, but sunlight was streaming through the leaded panes when he opened his eyes, making fire of the red hair sprawled across his chest.
He kissed the top of Vasily’s head, and the demon stirred and stretched. “Come, mal’chik. Time to go.”
Vasily paused midyawn. “Go?” He repeated the word as if it had no meaning.
“I have business to attend to.” Belphagor rose and picked up the purse from the bureau. “You didn’t win the wager. But you were a very good boy.” He shook a pile of facets into his hand and held them out—enough to keep the firespirit belly full for a month.
Vasily’s eyes flashed, the urge to knock the facets to the floor plain on his face. But living on the streets of Raqia had no doubt made him too wise for that, and he took his reward. Something in the volatile anger emanating from him as Vasily made for the door kindled a fire of Belphagor’s own—deep inside, in a place he’d forgotten. It took everything he had not to call him back. Before he could do anything so foolhardy, Vasily was gone.
But the firespirit was impossible to get out of his head. Vasily returned to The Brimstone for the next several nights, ignoring Belphagor, playing errand boy to a pair of demons with questionable reputations. Belphagor considered taking him aside and cautioning him, but it would probably do more harm than good.
When the three of them arrived one evening with a large entourage in tow, already well in their cups, Belphagor kept a surreptitious eye on Vasily. The attention of one demon in particular raised Belphagor’s hackles. Valac was a famously sore loser who’d met Belphagor on the street once after a game and attacked him with a knife. Belphagor had given him a serious thrashing, but he still bore a scar on his forearm as a memento.
Valac plied Vasily with drinks, laughing at his increasing state of inebriation as the younger demon quickly became too drunk to notice he was being made sport of.
Belphagor fumed, trying to keep his mind on his game, losing a round that ought to have been child’s play. When the group departed, loudly proclaiming they were bent on more ribald adventure, and took Vasily with them, Belphagor folded, leaving his stunned opponent a sizable pot.
It didn’t take a genius to guess where the group was bound—the less reputable venues in the quarter known as the Devil’s Doorstep, where Belphagor spotted them in a drinking hall famous for rough trade. Several demons were gathered around Vasily as they challenged him to guzzle whole pints of ale. He swayed on his stool but gamely took their challenges—so far managing to stay upright.
Belphagor pulled up the hood of his cloak and sat nursing a cordial of wormwood in the corner, determined to step in if things got out of hand. Their disrespect for the naïve demon had raised his ire, but the sight of Valac groping him was almost insufferable.
When Valac tilted Vasily’s head back for a kiss and emptied a mouthful of whiskey into him, Belphagor found himself on his feet, fists clenched against the table. But after a sputter of surprise, Vasily swallowed and grinned, and the party cheered him.
“Swallowed it all!” Valac slapped him on the back. “Our boy’s a pro.” He took the bottle in one hand and Vasily in the other. “Let’s see what else he can swallow.” The others rose with him, leading Vasily weaving between them out to the alley.
Belphagor choked the glass in his hand. It was none of his business. Vasily was old enough to consent and had gone willingly. Belphagor’s interference wouldn’t be welcome. He forced himself to finish his drink and set out for The Brimstone, but cheering from the alley as he passed gave him pause. After pushing his way through the gathered crowd, he found Vasily on his hands and knees in front of Valac, engaged in an act of which he seemed barely conscious. Tossing demons out of his way, Belphagor dragged Valac off and threw him against the wall.
Someone else grabbed Vasily by the hair to keep him upright.
Belphagor uttered a low growl. “Get your filthy hands off my boy.”
Red-faced, Valac pulled himself together as he scrambled to his feet. “And who the fuck are you?”
He fixed Valac with a cold stare. “The name’s Belphagor.”
Recognition seemed to sober Valac up. He cleared his throat, looking sullen. “Nobody told me he was your boy.”
“You knew well enough he was somebody’s. But I doubt you gave a damn.” The others backed away, and Belphagor caught Vasily as he slumped to the ground. “Spread the word,” he warned darkly. “Anyone who touches Vasily will answer to me.”
There were no objections as Belphagor led him away.
Vasily’s demeanor was far from grateful when he woke with a hangover in Belphagor’s bed. He squinted in the late-morning light, his expression surly and his glower deepening when he focused on Belphagor. “Who said you could bring me here? I suppose you want your facets’ worth.”
“You’re not here to talk,” Belphagor snapped. “You’re here to listen.”
Vasily managed to wince and widen his eyes in the same gesture.
“You’re to stay away from that filth you’ve been carousing with.”
“Who’s going to stop me?” Vasily threw off the covers but stumbled when he tried to stand. Belphagor caught him around the waist and pulled him onto his lap. He could feel the ribs beneath the warm skin.
“I am.” Belphagor wrapped an arm around him, murmuring against his ear. “Even if you decide to spit in my face and go back to the street when I let go of you. I’ll be watching out for you. You want to sell yourself, that’s your business. But you’ll get what you’re worth, from respectable sources.”
Vasily stiffened against his hold. “What makes you think I want a pimp?”
Belphagor smoothed the hair away from his cheek. “I don’t want to be your pimp, you stupid boy. I don’t need the bother. But I will beat the living hell out of anyone who misuses you, whether you think you deserve it or not.”
“Why?” He choked out the word, clearly fighting tears.
“I don’t know. I just know that I will.” Perhaps it was because Vasily reminded him of himself when he was young and naïve with no one to look out for him. Perhaps it was more than that. “From now on, you are my boy. My mal’chik.”
Firespirit tears, it turned out, were extremely hot.
“Sweet boy,” he murmured now against Vasily’s shoulder, sculpting a hand around the firm slope at the thigh. In a year’s time, he had filled out impressively. Vasily stirred, not yet awake but his muscles tensing beneath the flesh. “Moi mal’chik.” Belphagor breathed the word, an exhalation of essential rightness and desire. This was his boy, his mal’chik.
Vasily’s pulse quickened, waking mind surging to the surface. Belphagor rested his cheek against a flexing biceps and watched Vasily’s magnificent cock swell with blood.
“Good morning.” He pressed his own hardness against the small of Vasily’s back. “Any regrets?”
Vasily turned his head toward him, the rough nap of bearded cheek rubbing a pleasant irritation against Belphagor’s skin. “Regrets?” The gravel in his voice was even more pronounced first thing in the morning. “Nyet, ser.”
The Russian response sent a rush of possessive fire through Belphagor’s veins. It was the language he demanded during discipline, part of the ritual of obedience as well as a device to focus the subject’s conscious mind on something other than physical sensation. Vasily had used it without prompting, a sign of his total surrender. It made Belphagor want to possess him fully. Immediately.
But he was also a bit of a masochist in his own right. He could wait. He’d waited a year just to have him the first time. And it had been mere hours since.
He tightened his hand against the bruised, beautiful ass, and Vasily made a slight noise of discomfort. “You’ll have quite a reminder of my hand when you try to sit for the next few days.”
“Not just your hand,” said Vasily gruffly.
To keep from giving in to the desire for instant gratification, Belphagor had to bite Vasily’s shoulder, drawing a lovely hiss of steamy breath from him. “Show me how that memory makes you feel.” He sucked lightly at the place he’d bitten. “Put your cock in your fist.”
Vasily didn’t hesitate, his sizeable hand closing around the equally sizeable shaft. He stroked himself rapidly, enthusiastically, while Belphagor snaked an arm around his waist beneath the pumping forearm and played with Vasily’s nipples.
“Good boy. That’s it, my sweet boy.”
“I’m not a boy,” Vasily growled, his last word grunted in an almost surprised ejaculation of sound to match the efforts of his body. Hot firespirit fluid shot from the swollen head of his cock in a perfect trail up his abs and into the hollow below his throat.
Belphagor pushed him onto his back and straddled him, his own unfulfilled erection poised between them like an exclamation point. “I told you, you’re my boy. Mine.” He dipped his head and scooped his tongue into the warm stuff at Vasily’s throat like a cat’s into cream. “And don’t you forget it.”
A red glimmer threatened in the depths of Vasily’s pupils, giving the irises an amber cast. This evidence of his defiance, despite the fact that Belphagor had finally given him what he wanted—or broken down and caved to his charms, more like—was a Pavlovian bell to Belphagor’s hunger for him.
It had nearly driven him mad to keep Vasily at arm’s length this long, telling himself he didn’t deserve him, that Vasily couldn’t possibly want him. He’d felt a duty to mentor him and see to his neglected education, putting aside the possibility of anything more. The past year had been a kind of delicious torture as he’d taken to the floor at night with a pile of blankets to give Vasily the bed—only to wake most nights to discover Vasily climbing under the covers to curl up in his arms. Sleep had been impossible, tangled in those long, sinewy limbs, enveloped in the uncanny warmth Vasily exuded without breaking a sweat—all the while resisting his growing desire.
Even now, after the consummation of it, his heart fluttered like a panicked bird caged in his chest, waiting for something terrible to happen. Waiting for Vasily to realize Belphagor wasn’t as young as he appeared and to ridicule the helpless state to which he’d reduced him: hopelessly enamored of another demon, after the equivalent of a human lifetime of solitude.
For Belphagor, that solitude had been his strength. He hadn’t needed anyone since the earliest betrayals of youthful love. But Vasily had brought him to his knees. Never mind that it was Vasily on his knees that had done it to him.
“What’s got your fire up, mal’chik?” He kissed the spot he’d cleaned with his tongue beneath Vasily’s Adam’s apple. “I thought you wanted to be mine.”
“I hate it when you treat me like a child.”
Belphagor raised an eyebrow. “I’m fairly certain I treated you as rather the opposite last night. Was it not satisfactory?”
The natural pink of Vasily’s cheeks reddened more obviously. “Of course it was. I mean, it was more than satisfactory. Way more. Damn it, Beli.” He crooked his arm across his face as if looking up into Belphagor’s eyes during such talk embarrassed him. He was utterly charming. As was the little endearment that had slipped out, though Belphagor might have decked another demon for it.
He kissed Vasily’s sullen mouth. “It was also far more for me.” It was almost a whisper. “You’ve absolutely spoiled me for anyone else.”
“Good.” The word was delivered with a sudden sharpness. So that was what was bothering him. It sparked a bit of defiance of his own. He wasn’t used to having anyone put restraints on him. That was Belphagor’s specialty.
“Don’t seek to possess me, mal’chik. I’m an airspirit.”
Vasily moved his arm away from his eyes, and they were glowing with furious heat. “So that’s how it is. You own me, you tell me what I can and can’t do, but you can do as you like.” The roiling anger in that gaze warmed Belphagor like combustion from the inside out. The thought of putting Vasily over his knee once more made him almost painfully hard. Without equivocation, he was a slave to this brutally beautiful young demon. Which was all the more reason to play it cool.
“Yes, Vasya. That’s how it is.”
The violent rebuff wasn’t unexpected, but Belphagor had nonetheless failed to brace for it. He found himself forcefully ejected from the cot and sprawled on the cold wooden floor with Vasily standing over him, magnificent in his literal naked anger.
“Then maybe you should skip the foreplay and go fuck yourself!” Vasily delivered the Germanic hardness of the lovely verb fuck as if he were demonstrating it. As Vasily jerked his jeans onto his legs like he was punishing the fabric, Belphagor watched with unabashed admiration of the musculature being hidden away. Hooray at least for his lazy laundering habits that had resulted in this morning’s “commando” mode.
Belphagor picked himself up, along with the black T-shirt on the floor beside him, which he held out to Vasily as if he couldn’t care less whether the demon walked out on him. He’d learned better than to show his hand in matters of the heart.
Vasily snatched the shirt from his grip and yanked it on over the tangled red locks he’d been cultivating. The shirt had once been Belphagor’s. It had stretched to its limits and was now much too small on the firespirit’s frame. Belphagor wished there were cameras in Heaven. He could just about die from gazing at the image Vasily struck.
Vasily was waiting for him to apologize or take back what he’d said, to placate him into staying. Belphagor had no intention of doing so. He had simply stated a fact. Vasily was his. It was indisputable. When he finished pouting over being consigned to the role he’d chosen himself, he’d be back.
The younger demon yanked open the rickety door—now in danger of coming right off the hinges in his grip—cast one last furious, fiery glare in Belphagor’s direction, and left with a fierce slam. The bottom hinge bent.
Belphagor glanced down at his relentless state of arousal with a sigh of resignation. His masochistic streak might be at an all-time high.
Belphagor had expected Vasily to be gone no longer than a day. Tooting his own horn though it might be—and the exquisite whipping he’d delivered aside—he’d fucked Vasily to the point of blissed-out insensibility. It was difficult to imagine anyone not coming back for more, let alone his mal’chik, who’d been begging for the physical consummation of their intense attraction for nigh on a year.
But Belphagor had underestimated Vasily’s own masochism. Blessed with the most stubborn, bull-headed personality Belphagor had ever encountered, Vasily might deny himself what he wanted most, even after having had a taste of it, just to get back at Belphagor for his apparent indifference.
It was an essential part of the game they were engaged in. As that first whipping a year ago had demonstrated, the power dynamic the younger demon craved required the added element of emotional betrayal. He needed to feel wronged, to reach a fever pitch of indignation, in order to let go and fully surrender himself to Belphagor’s control. Unless he was driven to a hopeless resignation, no amount of physical dominance or eroticized pain would satisfy him.
Bringing Vasily to the brink of despondency and then enveloping him in the comfort and tenderness he despaired of—knowing nothing else in the world could make him feel loved—was in turn the most emotionally fulfilling experience Belphagor had ever had. To be loved himself by the one who felt utterly abandoned by him pierced Belphagor in a deep, internal place—went to the very marrow of his bones.
He knew what it was to love desperately and to be abandoned. The one he’d loved would never come to redeem him, but he could be for Vasily what he himself had once longed for so hopelessly.
In the gaming room of The Brimstone for the next several evenings, Belphagor kept an eye out for Vasily’s entrance without appearing to do so. He hadn’t become the best wingcasting player in Raqia by telegraphing his moves. He played exceptionally well, in fact, by maintaining an external awareness beyond the boundaries of the marble-rimmed table while projecting an air of inattentiveness to anything but his own cards. The false inward focus was contagious and tended to make his opponent forget to take note of the broader actions of the game.
When he cast the die or called his opponent’s cast, he let his attention encompass the entire establishment. This part of the game was only chance. Willing the die to land on the elemental creature one had called as the twelve-sided game piece struck the table’s rim had no effect on the outcome. Shifting the air around the table might—with a flick of the wrist in casting or the breath of a bored sigh—but most demons were woefully ignorant of their own elemental power. That Belphagor’s cardinal element responded more readily to his influence was no coincidence.
He’d devoted years of his life—and the number was considerable for a demon who, in truth, had fallen to the world of Man more times than he liked to admit—to understanding how to master the dominant element in his blood. The number of Fallen who literally fell was small in comparison to the demonic population, and the average demon had never experienced terrestrial magic.
In Heaven, a demon—or even an angel, though they were generally too uptight to try—might manipulate his element for simple tricks and folk magic, but in the world of Man, every celestial possessed a power that manifested as elemental wings.
Belphagor had first fallen when he was only fifteen. He hadn’t known about earthly radiance, and the Fallen he’d encountered there, in the city of Petrograd, hadn’t told him. It was only in fleeing the law some months after his arrival that he’d inadvertently found his wings.
Leaping from a bridge to escape, he’d expected to swim for the riverbank and found himself instead soaring far above it. Elemental magic had burst from his shoulder blades as wings of solid air, perceivable only as an absence of light, as if they absorbed its visible range.
“Ptarmigan,” he said absently as the die tumbled from his opponent’s fingers and struck the rim. The other demon scowled as the die landed with the aforementioned fowl faceup. Sometimes Belphagor’s luck was better when he put no effort into the game at all.
“It’s a loaded die,” the player accused. The demon had clearly had too much to drink.
Belphagor narrowed his gaze on the pallid waterspirit. “I beg your pardon?”
“Loaded die!” He stood and delivered the accusation loudly enough for the house to hear. Any such accusation had to be taken seriously. The game was immediately halted and the pot forfeited to the house while the deck and die were confiscated for examination.
It took every ounce of Belphagor’s restraint to keep from leaping on the little worm and delivering a very unerotic beating. He’d turned up the cuffs of his shirt in preparation for it without being aware he’d done so, showing his ink like an animal might show its teeth in warning.
The bluish-black tattoos that decorated his fingers and the backs of his hands were the badges of his incarceration in the Russian prison system. They marked him as vor, a thief, and announced in no uncertain terms that he was not to be trifled with.
Among the right people, the association commanded a certain level of respect in the world of Man that he might never have been afforded due to his less-than-impressive physical stature. But in Raqia, it had the added intimidation factor of making it clear that he had not only dealt with the harsh prison system of the Zona but with the Seraph bounty hunters who exploited it with their own terrestrial magic.
Just as the game inspector pocketed Belphagor’s favorite wingcasting set, the street door opened, ushering in a blast of wet winter wind and a party of young angelic toughs.
One of them had his arm over the shoulder of a demon smartly dressed in a black velvet frock coat and tailored slacks. Despite his impressive size, had it not been for the sh