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When Demons Die

For a demon of supreme power, a change is as good as eternal rest.

When Demons Die

Author Name:

Release Date : October 11, 2022

ISBN Number : 978-1-63632-072-4

$2.99

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Description

For a demon of supreme power, a change is as good as eternal rest.

Sorcha Ahriman, pop goddess, can’t wait to die. Big badda boom! The blaze of glory, the fireworks, the whole Mardi Gras. It’s what demons do once they’ve performed their masterwork.

But the curtains have closed, the popcorn’s eaten, the audience has gone and she’s still here. The only two fates left are shameful. Slide into gibbering insanity, or turn to stone for eternity. Unacceptably pathetic.

What’s a diva to do?

Maybe she should challenge the most feared demon in all of existence? For a duel is sure to guarantee an exit with honour, and it looks like she’s bound to lose…

____

Justina Robson was born in Leeds on 11 June 1968, and studied philosophy and linguistics at the University of York. She worked in a variety of jobs – including secretary, technical writer, and fitness instructor – until becoming a full-time writer.

Robson attended the Clarion West Writing Workshop and was first published in 1994 in the British small press magazine The Third Alternative, but is best known as a novelist. Her debut novel Silver Screen was shortlisted for both the Arthur C Clarke Award and the BSFA Award in 2000. Her second novel, Mappa Mundi, was also shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2001. It won the 2000 Amazon.co.uk Writer’s Bursary. In 2004, Natural History, Robson’s third novel, was shortlisted for the BSFA Award, and came second in the John W Campbell Award.

Robson’s novels have been noted for sharply-drawn characters, and an intelligent and deeply thought-out approach to the tropes of the genre. She has been described as “one of the very best of the new British hard SF writers”.

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One: Voulez-Vous?

Sun on the water.

Across the canal a solitary writer sits on a balcony, scratching a pen along a line. A poet, if my guess about the line length is right, if the pauses between lines are a reflection of the effort it takes to form them.

From here the view over the lagoon is spectacular. The mansions spread their largesse and their flags to the wind coming off the deserts to the south. Dirigibles of every colour and size parlay their way across the air currents, off-pushers negotiating by shouts and flung imps with one another as to who has right of way. The flotillas of the great and the badass romp in stately masses high over all. A steady confetti of party detritus floats or plummets towards the thick, green waters far below as the celebration and tumult rocks on, endlessly, through the afternoon, longing as we all long for the cool of night.

What a boring lot of dolts. I’d incinerate the lot if I could be arsed.

My rooftop gardens are hot, the grass is drying out.

Matches hiss, flare, pop into life as I flick them with my thumb-claw.

Szzt. Pff. Flaah.

They burn slowly along their length and turn to embers in my fingers. I am twenty-eight today. Late twenties, when most demons hit the Crise Majeur and ask themselves the eternal questions—

When am I going to die?

Have I left it too late?

What if I end up like those wretched creatures crawling the teahouses like flies, sucking the dregs? Those wretches putter around all noddle-noggined as they yatter on about a family feud that’s lasted a thousand years, or they plot for the umpteenth time to poison their brother and then go cheat their friend at cards in the hopes that someone will lose enough temper to raise a ruckus. But they never do.

There are only two fates for the old in Daemonia. Shameful senility like that is the first, leading towards ultimate petrification, your form shrivelling to a size on a par with your remaining mojo. Or there’s the desert. In the desert, rent from civilization and all the petty shit that drove you, madness awaits to consume you with its gibbering maw, nothing but teeth and hunger. You become big as a house as you lose your grasp on everything, decaying, eating everything that comes your way and doesn’t eat you first. Ultimately, if you survive, you’re an aetheric trashcan. Sure, power. Power enough to make a world light on fire, but not one thought left to shape it with. Bloating up with the corpses of the pathetic year on year until—who even knows what happens then? None of them have ever come back from the outer sands to tell us, and nobody’s bored enough to go looking.

Fuck that shit.

So, demons have three options. One, a blaze of glory. Kapow. Or—

Two, wait it out doing nothing until you turn to stone. Or—

Three, head into the desert: fight, eat, repeat until end.

Glory has meaning. Glory was my thing. I was glorious.

But.

Here I am, burning matches, on a roof.

Szzt. Pff. Flaah.

Dormancy. Spark. Ignition. Plasma. Everything super-excited.

And then.

Fuel out. Gone. Black cinders. Ash.

Kind of a bummer, to be honest. I expected to feel more definite. If you’ve done well, then you’d know. Right? The moment to sing the final aria, clutching your chest as it heaves, the impending loss of your perfect bosom ever-regretted by the audience, your last notes claiming the lives of the unwary as they hit the dissonant Death C… You can’t miss that kind of thing because it’s obvious.

I think that I’ve reached the end.

I’ve burned, like a sun, but for some reason I haven’t gone ka-boom.

Or maybe…

Was my fire the most beautiful fire? Or was it, I don’t know—ordinary, like the millions that have gone before me? Did they all wonder these things? Was I a demon worthy of the name and the rebirth of the spirit that blazes, returned, in me, after so many exquisite deaths, to once more light the eternal darkness?

I am the summit of a long line of stupendously extravagant evolutionary spending.

But have I added something unique to this legacy? Did I improve it? Or did I just embellish it like a dotty aunt forever brewing the same beer—and that’s why I’m stuck?

It’s true I’ve brought magic and majesty to other, less gifted, races. I’ve shown them the glory, the beauty, the edge of life as it burns, in order to inspire them to raise their own hell.

Pretty sure I have.

But maybe they didn’t get the message.

Maybe I was always performing for an audience of one. And now I can either go full tilt at some idiotic bid for greatness, or I can putter out like these crappy free motel matches. Found them in an old catsuit. From my first tour. When I was sentimental and collected mementoes from Otopia, the world of the humans, as if they had something special. Matches amused the hell out of me. A tiny stick. To strike a teeny-weeny fire that goes out in a second. It’s so them all over.

But on the other hand, rather a match than those demons who went to stone—who were killed without honour, who have to wait for death to crystallize out. They’re cruet sets on suburban human patio dining-tables now. Novelty match dispensers. Dribbling out a bit of chaos onto unwary barbecue guests in some pathetic final effort to whip the mustard.

And that’s too good for them, those dead statues. Even the big ones that stand in the shrubberies. Do they care? Are they alive in any sense at all? The ones the dogs piss on as they pass?

And if I’m bored and thinking these things, it means I burned it all up, this life. I used it all, but I’m still here. Not dead. Not doing. Not moved. I didn’t move up. I didn’t even move on.

I feel sick. Dread and nausea fight for the top spot. This must be anxiety.

I didn’t make it.

I didn’t make it.

I can’t believe it.

How can I have botched it after so much effort?

Soon others will notice. When the next song doesn’t pop. When the performance is too short. When the fire does what it always does and the melody has that reprise you used before and someone else’s riff in the background.

Shit. SHIT.

Szzt. Pff.

Come on, flame, can’t you try another colour? Can’t you blaze up into a symbol? Don’t you have divine guidance to show me?

Or is this the message?

—Sorcha, you were Extra Ordinary.

I only did fifteen sell-out tours.

People killed themselves for unrequited love of me. More than five. Not as many as some, but a respectable number. In fifteen years. Who’s counting? How’s that not extraordinary? I’ve got fans. I’ve got followers, sponsors. I’m monetised to infinity.

How long have I got before everybody knows?

Weeks?

Days?

Szzt. Pff. Flaah.

Little match, do you not know that you’re one of millions?

I feel there should be more. In the wake of this near-nothing that I have done there must be more, another step, the next step upwards to…to…but what is it towards? Every bloody song sounds the same.

Somewhere out there a glorious death awaits. The promised change. Somewhere I can create the most magnificent conclusion, and earn my passage to the next life in the bloody fire. Yes, I can nearly taste it! Because I’ve been good. I’ve followed all the laws of excess and excession.

Szzt. Pff. Fl—

Just smoke, baby. Just smoke.

Seriously? My own metaphors are ganging up on me?

I look up. The winged source of the draught that has extinguished my fizzle stick is standing down-sun of me; so he doesn’t cast shade.

I guess at least there’s that.

Teazle Sikarza, most feared demon of all, most—everything nasty—of all.

He’s got a nice human skin on. Practice has made it almost perfect. His wings are already fading into the aether, but slow, with ghosting and sparkles that smell like ozone. Sweet. Learned that off the movies. Whatever he chooses to look like, he always makes everyone around him feel like he could go up in a massive nuclear explosion at any moment. He vibrates at the frequency of assured destruction. If I could have one power I don’t have, that would be the one. It’s such a high.

I give him the little hands-raised triple clap of appreciation. The one that says Yeah, I noticed the SFX. Now, what d’you want, you tall glass of toxic limewash? Because he’s so white he could make your eyes bleed.

White is a terrifying colour in a demon. Opposite of mine. I am all the colour. I am full of it and I love all of it. Darkness—not black, but the dark that absorbs all things—is the colour of the most superb of demons. A dark demon is filled with uncounted treasure; a hoard-being that eventually takes on its own gravity, and from which nothing escapes. Totality.

Teazle reflects every colour. What the hell is inside him, nobody knows. Even his flare—that constant flicker of magical fire that softly flutters across all our skins, declaring our emotions—is the white of ultimate disguise. With blue edges today, in a grace note to politeness. Blue means harmony. He comes in peace, dressed to kill. He’s wearing some loose robe like a towel around his waist as if he just stepped out of the shower and threw it on. Muscle and face, all the usual charms. Swings the ice-white hair in a big dynamic arc. Beauty King. Gives it all the queer staging he’s got. And that’s a lot, even I have to admit it.

Just for little ol’ me?

I’m flattered.

But let’s be honest, if he didn’t, I’d have to fight him for the dishonour of being treated without fitting respect. A diva in her own home is always The Queen, regardless of who calls.

Problem solved right there, because he’d win, and I’d be over. But instead of a lucky way out, grace and favour. That’s a problem. For me.

Shit.

He wants something.

What do I have that he could possibly want?

Is he here to kill me as a mercy gesture, because he’s already figured out I’m the weakest link, and he has to sever my shame from the rest of the family?

We are family. He’s married to my brother. A typical demon marriage of allegiance, and one so horribly compounded by a host of ties, rivalries and emotions that it’s a work of art in its own right.

Teazle Sikarza is hitched to the only demon who started life as an elf (most despised and reviled race of all): Zal Ahriman.

Zal still claims to be an elf, and probably does pass for one in the tangly jungles of that steaming green dumpster fire of natural horrors, Alfheim. But that on its own wasn’t enough for our Teazle. No. He’s also married in a three-way pact to a half-human half-machine monstrosity of such depravity her name can’t be mentioned hereabouts except in hushed tones. Lila Black. The spy. The good-girl agent, pawn of hidden powers, a living arsenal of carnage-causing weapons. Of course. There’s no topping that infernal trifecta. It has contradictions, hatreds, heresies, taboo racial pairings, gay fashion. He has to win at everything. So, he’d win at weddings too.

And I? I am merely the unwed sister-in-law. In such company, despite my world-class talent, an also-ran. Even though I was matchmaking hard to get Lila on the Ahriman side and surely that counts for something?

On the other hand, you could say I’m the only one at this level of family who’s not married to the great white shark. But if Whitey’s come a-calling, then I have to do the falling. He’s the head of our joined Houses.

Fact: family business is the most serious business in Daemonia, and the deadliest. So, there’s a lot going on here.

I gesture at the spare couch beside me and Teazle takes a seat, leans forwards, elbows on his knees. He adopts a patient, kind, thoughtful posture as he takes a breath.

My heart sinks.

He wants something complicated.

I can’t help but be interested, although part of me is keenly aware this is a bad moment for me. I am not at the top of my tide. Quite the opposite. My skin prickles with fear and anticipation.

‘When you’ve fought with other demons…’ he begins, composing his hands into a guard between us—fingers interlaced, thumbs supporting each other. No social niceties in this, only absolute and instant intimacy. As if we are the best of friends.

Every gesture from a demon is a performance, rich in meaning, exactly like the voice used. Everything is art, and interpreting the art can only be fully done by the finest of critical sensibilities; which I like to think I have, since it’s part of my calling as a succubus, whose speciality is the skill of the siren. He’s coming at me on my home turf. So juicy!

I lean forwards, tilt my head in the picture of seductive confessor. Yes, yes, tell me all that is on your mind—says my every angle, promising confidence, assistance, admiration.

He smiles, just a touch ‘…did you use traditional fighting, or did you use your voice for victory? To be exact, is there a particular skill to the voice that you could teach me?’

Of course, there is, and we both know there’s no way any demon not hatched for it is ever going to master it. But this is all about humouring each other, so sure.

‘I use whatever’s the quickest,’ I say, truthfully, though it’s a long time since I was in a fight to the death of any note. Many throw themselves on my fire, but they’re hardly a challenge. A worthy adversary hasn’t appeared in years. Maybe that’s why I lost my edge. ‘There are specific techniques used by the sirens that involve voice. We can slay with a single pitch. Do you sing in tune?’

Now Zal, my elf brother, has a fantastic voice, and a better ear. The elves are masters of vocal magic, in music and in word. Their entire oeuvre is based on it. Demons can do finesse. They can make music. Some of them. But Teazle is built for brutality.

‘I don’t sing.’

You can tell, but I don’t say so.

He frowns, but not in anger, more frustration that there is something he can’t beat into submission. But he doesn’t press me, seeing that door is closed. He says, firmly, ‘Can you tell me then, if you and I were to duel, and you were to use your best weapons against me. What would you do?’

‘Teazle, I…’

‘We aren’t going to fight.’ He quickly holds up both hands, fingers spread, gently, claws retracted. Still not looking me in the face, which is smart, really. Any prolonged eye contact is likely to go my way no matter who my opponent is. This little chat is already a fully fledged wrestling match.

For my part I’m listening to him so carefully that I can feel every fractional vibration of his vocal cords, and how the sound passes through his body, the air in his chest, the blood in his heart, the way his mind carelessly makes noise out of habit, the way he reacts to all the sounds that exist with each passing moment.

I calibrate my voice accordingly: not to damage, but to invite. ‘What could be so difficult that you need a siren to give you a song?’ Gently leading, my tone is sweet water, honey, the touch of ice on the top of a pool as it breaks against the skin.

All the things he likes wake up at its suggestion, and their arousal draws him to me in a spirit of agreement, engagement, so that without realising it his intents and mine begin to align.

Not all combats are biff, bash, smash. To me they’re dances.

I wonder if he can dance?

He leans closer again, hands open now, palms up: supplication, appreciation. ‘I intend to transform.’

Surprise! He didn’t know he was going to say that!

He blinks and looks at me. Surprise two.

He looks away, but too late, it’s done.

I can’t stop myself. There’s a smile on my face. He didn’t mean to say that! Score one for me. He was going to tell me something much less than the whole nine yards of what’s happening in the white matter behind his eyes. But he couldn’t stop himself. The water was running over the falls he hadn’t noticed were there, and over he went! My magic had fooled him.

Delight. Victory! A ripple of crimson fire runs over me, unstoppable. It scatters across the floor and breaks up into small petals of curling happiness as it dissolves into the air.

A trace of green flickers across his hands as he suppresses his response.

But also—transformation? I’m intrigued. Wasn’t this exactly the subject on my mind? Is he here because of that? Does he know? Could he know?

‘Do it again,’ he commands. Meaning fool him again.

He’s pleased, because he’s rarely outwitted, never outgunned. Aw, I’m a sucker for a happy guy…I have to resist. Think, Sorcha. Think!

He’s waiting for me to try the same trick, but stronger this time, figuring out how he’s going to resist it now. He’s a good boy in class, and I am teacher. He is absolutely still with attentiveness.

I never obey.

As a subordinate demon, faced by someone who outranks me in every meaningful way, I definitely should obey, if I want to live. Give in with grace after scoring a point off the champ. But damned if I will. Playing with him feels like it might be fun, and I can never resist a bit of fun.

I stretch out like a cat in the sun, as if I really can’t be bothered with all this, and sigh.

Let us play.

My persuasion skills versus his suspicious mind.

‘I thought that transformation was only a story,’ I say, casually, as if transforming had once been my heart’s desire when I was young and foolish and believed in such things. But now I’ve grown and learned. I’m bitter, but wiser. I know transformation is just a tale told by the imps to silly hatchlings.

I stare into the distance, as though at a better world, then turn the gaze on him. I love the idea, but we both know it’s for idiots. Neither of our houses can afford idiocy. We have reputations to uphold. Any further chatter of this sort will result in me cutting you out of the entire social world, and that would be your worst nightmare, make no mistake.

It’s all in the body. And the voice. I am demanding and difficult, petulant. I’m not serious. But I am. I really do socially outrank him, even if he mostly outranks me. I could make his life a living hell with a few well-placed words.

And for a moment the threat of his demotion and my rise to power actually hangs in the air between us, the workings of the demon hierarchy always ready to manifest out of the air into raw magic. One wrong move…

His frown is cute. I can almost see the cogs working in his head as he tries to figure out what I’m doing, where the trap is. He can feel it, but he doesn’t get it. I actually can demerit him so much that he might become vulnerable to assassination. We’re all about the confidence, demons. Even an outright lie can win if delivered with sufficient chutzpah.

I can feel him wobble just the tiniest bit.

I give him a little smile that says we are in on the joke together: I am sneaky and he knows it! What a clever boy! I’d never dump him in the gutter! Me? Naww…

I have undone the danger. The moment passes. My threat seems to have evaporated. How very gracious am I?

Teazle watches me like a hawk from the side of his eyes. ‘It. Is. Not a story. I spent my life researching it, and then…’ Another hesitation, as if he can feel his way and has detected the fine silk strand of a tripwire.

‘And then?’ Big eyes. Tell me. Confess.

I don’t do anything, and it drives him crazy trying to figure it out.

But he longs to tell me and there’s no doubt he will. It’s why he’s here, isn’t it? It’s just that he can’t be seen to do it on command.

The anticipation is so intense I almost reach out to shake him to hurry up.

One word at a time, creeping forwards, ‘And. Then. Zal. Came.’

Ah, this is the story he wants off his back. This is where I have trumped him in the past. I can use it to lever him open like a can of cheap tuna.

Zal came and gave him the transforming idea. Zal the elf: interloper, invader, nemesis. He was twice the demon any of us were, and proved it when he changed forms: not bodies, not outside, but inside. He went from one kind of being to another in a way that was completely heretical to every learned organisation 0in any realm. He rewrote the book of reality—the most demonic thing you can do—and now he’s not only one of us, the demons, but one of us, the Ahriman family. The ruling class.

Teazle took so many notes, even married him, to make sure he wasn’t missing a trick or losing a prize, so that he’d always know Zal was on his side, not against him. Teazle got himself insurance which is only sensible as joining them always beats beating them when they’re that badass. Whereas I took Zal as brother because he was fabulous, and not because I wanted something. My magnanimity is therefore overwhelming. Definitely beats the alliance of opportunity. Complete win for me.

‘Zal proved it was possible.’ Teazle says guardedly, determined, grim, because he’s going to beat me at my own game if it kills him. He’s going to tell me only what he wants and not one bit more. ‘And you were the only one to recognize it before he changed.’ Jealousy pours out of his words like corrosive acid.

Holy shit. Did he lose a marble? Showing vulnerability?

He looks at me with his clear eyes. The jealousy is a naked gift. I can exploit it, if I want to. It’s a test.

But it’s also the truth.

So now I know the size of the stake, which is the entirety of Teazle’s ego.

Well. That does change things. Not merely a few bits of pride. The whole ego. The kahuna itself.

My options are clear. I can get on Team Teazle now, earn some points, or I can pull the brakes and wind up in a shallow grave before sundown.

It would be honourable to die against a foe like Teazle, even in a family spat. It’s very tempting, but curiosity has started to itch where it can’t be scratched. I want to see where this is all going. There’s a point to it, for him, which isn’t just getting one over on me, or even slyly coming to wipe me out because he can smell failure. Something else.

My silence creates a void. A vast, empty gateway, through which he has to drive his plans.

‘But he only switched. He didn’t move up and on,’ Teazle says quickly, as though this was merely an aside of no importance. As if I must know that the real game is the moving on. That’s what the best demons will do. Only the best ones. That’s the money shot. Not stupid old switching types. Which is for beginners. Amateurs. Part-timers.

I saw that he was seriously trying to convince me of this crappy thesis. My claws uncurled, extended, my wings opened, my tail filled up with poison, my fire crackled scarlet across my back. I just couldn’t help it.

His fire answered with a zing of blue and white, crackling over him. He looked grim, because he couldn’t help it either. We’re creatures that operate in particular ways and subtlety is rarely sustainable for long. I put my hand out onto his bare arm and the two fires ran and twined together like vines. Minty. Fresh. Strawberry crush.

Yes! We were in my zone, the zone where desires of the most hidden and secret kind push themselves towards the light.

I don’t care what matters to someone, but I do like knowing what it is. Sensual demons taste and feel the value that every soul puts on its private hoard. This blue and white fire was silky, was delightful, like running butter, and I slid along it directly and slid my needles into his veins painlessly, injecting my sweetness, my sincerity to help and support him, head of my house, mightier warrior than I, of course my allegiance is total, my lord. And running back along the line comes the metal truth of his commitment in a taste of raw blood, nothing hidden. My loyalty is accepted, we are, for good or ill, now in a pact. I taste the full range of his troubles.

Pride is his major folly, as with nearly every demon. Why else marry Lila? Purely to show Zal that he could best or match him at anything. Rivalry is the jewel in the crown. And here we have the strange three-way mirror of Teazle’s aspirations and his vanity.

He has acquired allegiance from these love rivals. It comes with a touch of bitterness, the wormwood in the heart of this victory. It has been more than he supposed.

I see Lila in his imagination, wrapped in steel. She is a fortress he has flung himself at, thinking it would open its doors, but instead the doors remain shut and he’s lying on the ground outside, a rag staring at the sky. Fascinating. What began as merely war has become the key to an unexpected change in him. He feels it, and can’t leave even though he’s locked out, not in, and pride urges him to conquer or destroy. He should certainly not stay there like a lost dog. But he does. For now.

Then there is another taste—his adulation for Zal, who has passed some test he has not. Mmn… this also has a bitter, metallic hint. Teazle is actually some kind of fan of the old elf, and doesn’t like it. The weakness is a burning, toxic spark. Teazle can’t tolerate weakness. Caring is a weakness, in a mind like his, because caring means you are hostage to that person, forever.

Again, his mind creates Zal as a fortress he can’t be the master of.

Teazle is outside the castle, free to go, but unable to go, imprisoned by his need to win.

Teazle is lost, because he can’t tell what he’s pining for any more—to win, or to stay losing, because losing has opened this new door into uncertainty and that’s a land he has never visited before. It may hold riches or disaster, and he can’t tell which.

Ah, delicious! Teazle wants to be loved.

But then it occurred to me with a horrible rush—

He’s failed to acquire what he wants. I’ve failed to kill myself on the dancefloor. We’re the same!

We have the same damn problem. Too unfulfilled to live. Too fabulous to die. But the life coins are all spent. He’s slaughtered everyone and everything in his way and that’s no use in his ultimate mission. I’ve sung and danced and seduced worlds’-worth of people, and that’s no use to me because it’s not what I want. It’s not enough to reach fatal ignition.

So, instead of some pathetic overdraft pulling out more and more of the same bankrupt currency, can I change lane? Is this transformation thing for real?

He’s still looking at me with that diamond gaze. He knows I’ve seen him.

He knows, and I know, that I have fallen into his trap. Yes, that’s why he’s here. Yes, there’s a greater plan. At least for him. Maybe for me. Our blood runs true. Together.

He waits.

He can dance.

And now I have to decide what I’m going to do. Will I dance?

That Abba song goes through my head.

Voulez-Vous?

That line from the film goes through my head.

Dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?

He put them there for me to find. He knows that I know every song backwards. That The Joker isn’t really joking. He’s going to pull the trigger.

And we are, each, the masters of the scene.

I mouth the words to him, ‘..we know the start, we know the end…’

But we don’t know the end.

Nobody has ever danced like this with me. So tightly. So skilfully…

Screech the brakes there, love. Needles out. Get your head straight.

I’m not sure.

This could be a masterful play.

Or the fight of a lifetime.

I made a face that said I was hardly convinced.

He wanted to race, so I put on the brakes. Nothing whets desire like a good thwarting.

‘I suppose it might be possible,’ I sound generous, as if I am indulging a fool, but clearly to the demon ear I mean that it’s completely impossible. Worse, it’s ridiculous. The “move on” he refers to is Ascendance or Transcendence, feats for demigods. If I’m guilty of setting my ambitions too low, then his are certainly too high.

He looks hurt, and then immediately his smug confidence returns as he begins to explain both types of transformations to me in detail and at great length, so that no step or opportunity of the process will ever again miss my wondering brain.

It doesn’t once occur to him I might already know all this. He talks and talks, and I see he reconvinces himself of his rightness, his mission, the faultless progress of one achievement piled on another into a stairway to heaven.

I wait until he’s into it and then slowly, idly, I run my hand up his arm, claws digging lightly, and rest my head on his shoulder. I offer my sympathy, as though he has already failed and is now an embarrassment.

In place of the adulation he wanted it’ll taste about as good as a mug of bleach.

Or, he’ll let me glom onto his insecurity, and then I really will be in the money.

‘What the..?’ He jerks backwards, startled.

Yes. Bleach it is. Insecurity was never something he was going to try. Not even for fun.

But my trap is sprung. I have offered and he has refused. Never mind he didn’t want it. The truth remains. He has slighted me and in the rules of family, society and home, he owes me now.

I rear back dramatically, heartbroken and horrified at this grotesque, monumental, world-defining insult! He has declared war on my heartfelt offer of support to a friend in need. Support he actually canvassed for. I mean sure, I offered it in a way so repellent but…deal’s a deal.

Instantly to my feet, I point the finger of accusation at him and use my most magnificent voice, ‘How dare you!’

I’m small usually. Five foot nothing. But now, amplified by the pleasure of outrage, I tower over him, a crimson-clad dark colossus, one heartbeat away from bringing down her lash.

Turning down the offer of a diva always causes great offense.

In two seconds, we have gone from him dwelling lovingly on his pet subject, certain of an interested audience, to him blinking with the speed of a sudden terrible social train-crash: he’s in my debt, in the wrong, one careless move away from a lifetime vendetta.

And he can’t afford that. Look at who our families are. The undying wrath of the Ahrimani, including his spouses, will be turned full blood on the vicious might of the Sikarzans, and that is an apocalypse, and the end of all his dreams.

Back foot, baby. I made you go there. Hah. We dance to my tune now, bitch.

That feels good. My fire becomes scarlet with pure enjoyment. Around my raised hand the coil of my aether whip sparks.

He draws himself upright, getting his spine in order, but he doesn’t stand—he’s not going to fight.

Relief for me, honestly, because I can’t possibly win, and I’m gambling he won’t dare start, but I use it as fuel.

Not standing? How VERY dare you, sir! Insult to injury. I am not worth standing up for, am I?!

I give him the full down-nose glare of triumph and contempt. It would wither a human to literal dust.

Teazle smiles at me. Shyly.

He blinks an extra time. His face is tilted and chin downcast. Supplication. Submission.

His hair swings like a heavy curtain, framing the chiselled edge of his face which is too hard by far to ever manage cute, but it’s trying. His eyes, usually narrowed angular slits, become almost round. I wonder when he got such long eyelashes.

Oh, oh no. This is terrible news for me.

Is he—flirting?

He is. He is doing the Abashed Demoiselle right there on the couch.

The little tart. He has upped his game a hundred percent in one second and now I’m the one on the back foot with nowhere to go. Because who can crush someone who is giving in and look good? And who can respond affirmatively without creating a scandalous affair, which in ordinary times would be fine, but not him and not now… I can’t win either way.

He smirks and I feel a change in the air.

My whip falls limp.

He’s played me.

I don’t believe it.

Then I hear it and oh no, I don’t want to but I can’t stop it. The music.

I’ve always been vulnerable to music. My Achilles’ heel. He’s had it ready to go on the phone in his pocket the entire time, and now my Muse is ascendant. In love with her own mastery, she grooves her own groove and I have to go whether I want to or not, whether it’s for good or for evil, I have to go—the music rises from my flare, unstoppable, a tide of surging possibilities, a tsunami of art and magic.

Abba. He’s playing the actual song itself.

Because bloody Zal and his disco revival last year.

Voulez-vous?

Unbelievable. Teazle is using disco to call me out. Here and now.

A duel it is, then.

We stand, face to face, nose to nose, poised for the tango, his hand out, requesting mine, each one of us a whipcord of cobra intent.

The scent of lemon, of lime, a fizz in the nose like a powerhouse of command signals the sudden onrush of A Game! This will be a duel made sacrosanct by the intervention and invigilation of wild magic, which neither of us can command. One of us must win, one must fall, or it will never end and we will come back and back again to the dancefloor until our feet wear out or the sun fizzles to a spark and the universe closes its curtains.

Nothing promised. No regrets.

This, whatever it is, is a magical compact for all time, whose ramifications nobody can predict.

One thing I won’t have until the condition is satisfied is a good death, and that condition is him being dead. Which will never happen according to him.

Fuck. There’s no backing down from this bitch. When you’re trapped, when you’re had, when you’ve got no way out you just have to dance.

I’ve never been more turned on.

I take his hand and my lash coils around our wrists. We step up, nose to nose, suddenly our heights even, everything matched, glowing eye to glowing eye, pounding heart to pounding heart, flare entwined with flare.

‘You absolute shit,’ I say to him, lips a millimetre from his.

He just smiles the vague, satisfied smile of someone who has pulled off a masterstroke, and we spin away to arm’s length.

It’s all too fucking delicious. How could I resist, even if I wanted to?

We whirl back together with a slam.

Take it now or leave it.

The music takes us. We have both taken it. And to my astonishment he can really dance. Did he learn it—for me? Oh, my darling. How magnificent! Genuinely a bit touched. Surprise.

Ah-hah!

Face to face, magnetic, eyes locked on eyes, our hips keep the master beat, words and song running through us like blood.

Voulez-vous?

Oui. I voulez all the vous. I will gladly go out on a number like this one. I can smell and taste pure glory in this dance with The White Death. Just like that, I’ve thrown it all to the wind.

When you have no shame, then you have beaten death.

Our fires twine like torches, a beacon, and the city stops around us, holding its breath, waiting, hoping to catch light.

The music ends.

We step apart and the day sinks back to its ordinary self, the conversation just a talk, the dancing vanished into a different world.

It’s a draw. Nobody has won.

Or lost.

The pact of the game remains in place, a piece of eldritch magic that binds us still, waiting for its demands to be met. I wonder if he did all this performing just to make that connection, but I’m still too high to figure it out. I feel fantastic, lighter than air, and push him away as if he’s so much late-night trash.

‘Sorry, I can’t help you,’ I say briskly, as though nothing has happened and we’re back at step one where I don’t help him with his homework.

‘You’ve been very helpful,’ he says. Sardonic smile: take him as you will, he doesn’t care. ‘Until later.’

When he teleports there’s no flash, bang and puff of blue and white smoke. He could use some work on his exits.

I find myself standing there like an idiot, listening, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

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