Ileana and Sarah made rounds around the casino. It seemed to Ileana that nobody was too attached to whether they won or lost. She saw one man blow through three thousand dollars in ten minutes and never bat an eye. They watched an inferi playing cards in the same vein lose six hands back to back without comment or concern.
“It’s pocket change to them,” Sarah said.
Ileana shrugged. “Not even that. Money means nothing to them.”
“Yeah, easy to feel that way when you have plenty of it,” Sarah muttered. They’d tried a few games themselves, hoping for conversations, and the last one left Sarah three hundred dollars lighter. Though it was Afterlife bankrolling their venture, it still irritated her.
Ileana drew her away from the area. “Currency is nothing but camouflage for them. This place is about gambling because we’re in Las Vegas, that’s all. They might have a comedy club or a private ranch if elsewhere. They don’t mind money, but exclusivity and pleasure drive them.”
Sarah crossed her arms. “Yeah. Sure.”
Ileana knew even though their thoughts were melded, Harper’s limited experience made her less believable. She felt frustrated. They had a job to do, and Sarah’s attitude was derailing them. It was like she wanted the demons to be financially corrupt. “Let it go. You’re getting caught up in your personal bias.”
“What, and you’re not?” Sarah snapped.
“I appreciate your passion, but I don’t share it,” Ileana admitted. She thought back to when she was young. “There was a time when I would have burned a place like this to the ground, regardless of personal risk, to myself or others. But those days are gone.”
“Huh?” Sarah gave her a curious, confused look.
“Never-mind,” Ileana said. “This place is a symptom, Sarah, that’s all. I understand why it makes you angry, but your rage is distracting us. Did we come here to take on the San Francisco or find our friend?”
Sarah opened her mouth, then snapped it closed. She grimaced as she looked around, then said, “Conner is the priority.”
“Yes, he is,” Ileana agreed. “Now, I think we should separate. We can address different tables. When beautiful women sit alone, they invite conversation.”
Before she could argue, Ileana left. She went to a table with comfortable stools and a lone demon dealer. She crossed her ankles and smiled at him. It had been quite some time since she’d come across a smooth-moving love-luck maird.
His blue eyes were appealing, but she knew they weren’t real — a projection of her desires, same as his lean build and curly hair.
“You’re all alone,” she said.
“Most dealers use charm to bring in people,” he told her. His accent was warm and familiar. “The table to the left? The incubus there is quite the hit and not with whom you might expect.”
Ileana’s smile slipped into a smirk. “You have your own draw, though, don’t you?”
He shrugged, and she realized why others must avoid him. Looking at him was like rediscovering the essence of someone she’d lost long ago. That could be dangerous — while he had a smile she trusted, there was a real one beneath it which told other stories.
“Shall I deal?” he asked, lifting a deck of cards. He flourished them between his hands with a casual elegance borne from years of practice. “You need to place chips on the table. Or I can do that for you if you have only cash.”
She pretended to consider. “Well…”
“It’s rather boring, isn’t it?” Ileana lifted a hand, then let it fall. “I give you some meaningless paper, and you give me some meaningless tokens. When I win, who loses? If I should lose, you don’t win.”
His eyes glittered above the grin he’d stolen. “I see.”
“Now something more impactful…” Ileana shrugged. “Now, that might be of interest to me. A wager isn’t worthy if there’s no payoff.”
“You aren’t wrong. What do you have in mind?” he asked.
“What would you want?” she shot back.
He considered. “I have the right face, but it’s not enough for you, is it? I lack… the story.”
She raised her eyebrow. “You want more for your costume.”
“I want to be real,” he said, his voice a hiss. It was demonic, the only moment he’d shown himself that way.
Ileana nodded. “Fair. For every hand the house wins, I’ll give you a piece of who he was. You’ll have everything by the time we finish. I’ll see and hear and feel exactly who you intend. How could I not?”
His smile was quick and excited.
“This one’s for free,” she said. “He was lazy, even when he grinned.”
The maird couldn’t resist. None of his kind could. Their hunger was sated in relation to how much they could make others believe their lies. This time, his smile was slow and languid. Her heart fluttered.
Careful, she thought.
“And for you?” he paused, then swept past her chance to answer. “You sat for conversation. You stayed for secrets. Tell me, was it the comment about the incubus?”
Ileana hadn’t been yet sure what she would ask for, so his suggestion felt like gift-wrapped perfection. “Secrets? No. Gossip is… tastier.”
His smile grew, and Ileana wondered what demon he now assumed her to be. It didn’t matter because he started to shuffle. “We are in agreement?”
He dealt the first hand. She checked her cards, then motioned for another. Once she’d won, she asked, “Who was the best?”
He considered. “A woman, a vampire, two centuries past her turn. She saw her lover in my dimples and the honey of my hair. She told me after. She’d drank from him, but only after turning their children into feasts. I wonder, was his blood hot on her lips as he died? Her desire for him — for his embrace — that was delicious, even two hundred years later.”
Ileana felt cold inside, but only motioned for him to deal. She won again and asked the name of his most frequent visitor. Prielle, he named. A harpy.
When she lost, she knew her answer but held it as though thinking. “When nervous, he’d tilt his chin upward, a ghost of a smile on his lips.”
“Was he nervous much?”
Ileana laughed. “No. He was too foolish by far.”
He dealt another hand. Ileana was careful about the gossip she asked for when she won. She weaved more serious questions into a web of unimportance. It was harder to keep the balance as they played, though — his mannerisms and quirks were improving with each hand she lost.
Time passed around them, but how much she couldn’t say. There were no clocks to glance at, and she dare not take out Harper’s phone. Twice he offered her drinks or other intoxicants, and twice she refused. She said a half-truth about needing her wits to make gameplay fair. He accepted this with no argument.
“What do people on floor four do?” she asked, after a streak of wins. She already knew, but she didn’t know how he’d answer.
“Enjoy their privacy,” he told her, his slow grin made better by the turn of his head and the half-wink she’d told him of. She wondered if they went to the fourth floor themselves, if shared privacy would feel the same.
Careful, she thought again. “That’s a half-answer for a full win.”
He laughed. “So it is. The fourth floor is a suite of rooms, and each one is designed for different pleasures. The people using them are known to have exotic bedroom tastes. Why? Care to find the room where you might take my bottom lip between your teeth?”
“You are so close,” she teased. “Another hand, maybe two. If I lose.”
And so they played, and they didn’t stop at two, nor four.
“At this rate, you’ll never be perfected,” she told him, on her third blackjack and fifth win.
He scooped up the cards and let his hand brush hers. “Not to worry. The house always wins.”
She should have felt something at the touch, but his words burned in her ears. They were too apt, and she didn’t think he even realized that his eyes shifted left when he’d said them. How much else had she missed?
When he dealt the next hand, she lifted them the same way she always did but used the brief second her eyes were shielded to look where he had.
“Stand,” she said when she noticed the two demons watching the table. One was a succubus, in form. The other was a vampire armed with muscles of a weight-lifter.
“On thirteen?” the maird looked at her, curious.
Ileana hardly heard him. The demons here might be outside her realm of empowered Sight, but the card hands were not. “Mhmm. Yes.”
He shrugged and dealt the house hand. When he busted, he said, “Your win.”
Ileana thought of the question she’d been leading up to. But the vampire and succubus were now moving her way, so instead, she asked, “Who are they?”
His chin lifted, and his smile was but a ghost.