The demons stirred within their bottles as the hour approached. The dusky-skinned, bare-breasted barwoman left the fetching of drinks for thirsty sailors to her daughters, and went about setting up for the game. The long teak table at the back had seen long use in some captain’s suite on the rolling seas, heavy and square-cut at the ends, with faded bits of map glued to the surface—the whole constellation of the West Indies, drowned in years of rum, and marked here and there by a scratched rune or glyph.
The heat of the day was slow to dissipate as the night came on, and the air was thick and damp in her lungs like soup as she set up the chairs facing each other, and the three cut-crystal cups on either side. She laid no charms as she wiped down the table, nor whisper any prayers as she swabbed out the devil’s seat. It would be a fair match or none at all while she owned this place, and she did not play favorites.
The favorite came in first, the scent of molasses sweating from his dark skin, somewhere between burnt amber and dirty gold, with coppery curly hair to match. The barwoman watched him whisper three names in the ear of one of her daughters, and the girl ran away to fetch the bottles. Then he turned and made his salaam to the barwoman, that little smile still on his face, growing wider as the young girl pushed between them in a rush to set the three glass bottles on the table. Giving the maiden a kiss on the cheek, he took the devil’s seat, and waited for the challengers of the evening.
The bottles were placed out for all to see, the favorite’s right and requirement. The first bottle was a light white rum, clear and smooth, that had been filtered through charcoal and sand; aged three years, and perhaps half full. The second bottle was darker, tinged with allspice and citrus, hot and harsh and aged six months if a day, the cork barely pulled. Last was a smaller bottle, almost lost in the paper wrapper, barely a half a cup left—but that was liquid amber, which had sweated in wine barrels for ten years in private reserve before it had been bottled.
This was his arsenal, for the challengers to judge themselves against.
The barwoman took the challengers, examined their bottles, nodded or shook her head as would be. In an hour the crowd had grown to standing room only and loud, with only the space about the table clear of people. The barwoman put up the slate, the names and odds written up in chalk, and the girls at the bar took bets between drink orders.
An older woman with a painted face slid into the siege perilous, gold dust or glitter setting off the freckles across her breasts. She might have been a noblewoman or a whore, but there was grace in her poise and her spine was ramrod-straight, head held high and grey eyes steady as she set a blue-glass square bottle on her side, the label facing out, and next to it a smaller bottle of bitters.
The bets were placed, the crowd hushed.
The woman challenger dribbled the bitters in the glass, swirled it around until well coated, then splashed in a healthy dollop from the bottle. The favorite selected the first bottle, the light rum, and poured a few fingers in.
They toasted in salute, the hush so profound the whole bar could hear the clink, and as one they drank it down.
All was still for a moment, each lost in their drink, eyes going slightly glassy. Then the favorite opened his mouth, and a pale white vapor struggled forth, tiny claws picking at his lips and clambering onto the table. Its substance was a fog, but it was the shadows that gave it definition, picking out the tiny wicked claws and the dark gash of a fang-filled mouth, the grey hollows of its eyes. Across the table the challenger’s own conjure had come forth, a rougher beast, nearly transparent but tinged with pink and red, all spikes and horns.
They met in the middle of the table, the gamers’ eyes lost on the sight before them, the pulses quickening at wrist and temple. The white demon slashed and faded, dancing in and out of the wild swings of its opponent, leaving red splashes on the table as it whittled down the near-transparent form, the bitter-tainted devil landing blows only on mist. The pink demon was driven back, back, almost to the woman’s lips…then collapsed in a small splash. The crowd cheered, and money clinked as the white devil dissolved into the air.
The second challenger was an old salt with something of the native peoples in the slant of his eyes and the curl of his brow. There were rings in those ears of raw gold, and the tattoos on his arms were an education in themselves. One gnarled hand set down a stoneware bottle sealed with tar, the old way, and none there save perhaps the favorite might have recognized the label. He laid beside it an old knife.
This time, the betting was even money.
With the knife, the gnarled hands worked to uncork the bottle—and when he had done so, the whole crowd drew back as far as the press of bodies would allow. It was a foul, harsh odor that came out of the bottleneck, the strong, nasty stuff from the early days of blood, salt, and sugar, when rum was the strength and demon of every slave and the ruin of every man. The old challenger spilt a double shot into the glass.
The favorite reached for the third bottle, and emptied it into his second glass. Those who had known it before remembered the scent of dates and oak, but if it came forth now it was buried under the choking odor of the ancient rum. Still the light played on the clear, dark golden liquor, while the cloudy black rum of the old man seemed to drink it in.
The glasses clinked, then down the hatch.
A cough sputtered from the old man, a soundless hacking, and black smoke flecked with blood pulled itself forth from his lungs. The demon on the table stood huge, nearly a foot high, and defined like a giant of old caught in black ice. There were the scars of stripes on its smoky back and cheeks, the lick of blue flames from within its broad skeletal chest, wiry limbs that bulged with veins of pale fire. The old rummy seemed hollowed out by his creation, and the crowd might have taken him for a century or more at that moment.
The favorite breathed deep and evenly, eyes half-lidded, and the pale brown wisps from his mouth and nose wove together to define a lithe form like a broken angel, feral and sweet, the stamp of the mixed breed on the slant of her eyes, the flattened nose, and the curling grin of her mouth. It was an angel that might have been born in Jamaica or New Orleans, with sins Moses had lost the tablet to define or damn, and a thin curved-sword seemed to stretch from one hand, a cruel whip from the other.
The demons met at the center of the table. Long minutes passed, blue sparks flying in a haze, the amber angel sometimes lost from sight in a haze of musky smoke, only to beat it back with a clap of her wings. The betters shifted their feet as it went on, some murmuring or asking to change their bets this way or that. The favorite had used the last of his third bottle already, and if it came to a draw would be defenseless against a second glass…if the old man could survive that.
At ten minutes, the strain showed. The black rum smoked from a dozen deep wounds, the brown angel tattered and frayed, one wing torn off and cast aside. It loomed for the final blow, but with a soundless scream she launched herself blade-first and skewered the demon’s heart; there was a brief flash of blue flame and the old man shuddered, then brought his hand up in amazement at the bloody slash on his lip. Still shaking, he rose and bowed, then turned away, leaving his bottle behind.
The favorite took a few moments to collect himself as the third challenger sat down. A woman again, but healthy of hip and sloe of eye, cheeks spotted with six little eyes. One breast hung out, a silver aureole peeking from around the nipple, while the other lay covered in a silk gown decorated with scenes of bamboo. She smiled and showed sharp teeth against healthy pink gums. The bottle she placed was the same as his remaining, and he smiled at that and bowed from the neck.
Bets placed. Glasses clanked.
Orange peel and allspice filled the room as the demons came forth, near-identical as befit their origin—catlike manticores with skinny rat-tails driven through with rusty nails, amazingly sharp and clear; the favorite’s was marked by a dark oily spot on the flank. The demons circled then launched and scrabbled, nipped and feinted back, ranging all over the table. Her demon was perhaps a tad quicker, his last two drinks taking their toll, but he played it careful and kept up the dance. Then his demon’s guard dropped for a moment—those near the front felt sure they saw the challenger’s bare foot snuggle into his crotch—and her spicy demon lunged at the opening, claws bared. Yet at the last moment his manticore danced up on his hind legs. The she-demon missed its mark, and the he-demon fell upon her back, spiked tail curling behind him. The end was swift and bloody, like a tom and a dame who’d stopped fucking and started fighting.
The barwoman called the game for the evening, and set about collecting the money. The favorite kept the devil’s seat, and offered a toast to his final challenger for her health, and she drank to his.
In their bottles the demons still stirred, waiting for the next game.