It was long since Azzie had visited Rome. This city was an especial favorite of demons, and they had long been accustomed to travel there for sight-seeing, sometimes individually, often in groups of hundreds, complete with women and children demons, and accompanied by guide demons who lectured on what had gone on in this place or that. There was no lack of good things to see. Above all, the cemeteries were high on the list of attractions. Reading the tombstone inscriptions afforded much amusement and cemeteries were good melancholy places for reflection, what with their tall dark cypresses and ancient moss-covered monuments. And, too, Rome was an exciting place to be in those days, what with the continual electing of this Pope and excommunicating of that Pope, as well as the opportunity to help things go a little worse.
And it was especially exciting because this was the Millennium, the year A.D. 1000. Otto III was Holy Roman Emperor, and there was much contesting between his German followers and the Italians who supported the local candidates. The Roman nobles were regularly up in arms against Otto, and there was continual attack and rout. It wasn’t safe for a human to walk the streets after dark, and there were perils even by day. Bands of lawless mercenaries roamed the streets, and woe to man or maid who fell into their hands.
Azzie flew in just at dusk, when the sun was setting over the Adriatic, illuminating the domes and towers of Rome with brightness while the terra-cotta rooftops were already darkened with evening gloom. He flew low over the twisted streets, dipping down to take an appreciative look at the Forum and the Colosseum. Then he gained altitude again and soared to the Palatine. Here there was a very special cemetery, the Narbozzi, and this was the place where the demons, since time out of mind, had been holding their annual poker games. With luck, the game would be held here again this year.
The Narbozzi cemetery, stretching for many hectares along the undulating northern limit of the Palatine, was covered with marble sarcophagi, stone crosses, and family tombs. Azzie wandered among the Narbozzi’s overgrown grassy ways, which became clearer to him as the sun went down, for demons see better at night, it being their natural medium. The cemetery was large and he feared he might miss the location of the game altogether. He hoped not. He had his good-luck amulet, Rognir’s felixite, securely wrapped in parchment with a sign of King Solomon on it. Also in his pouch were the gemstones of Rognir’s heap, his stake for the coming game.
He hurried along, and soon the twilight had given way to full night. A horned moon appeared overhead, and Sirius the Dog Star glowed red in the heavens, a fine omen for evil. There was a sound of locusts and a throbbing of frogs from the nearby swamps. Azzie began to wonder if he had come to the wrong cemetery – Rome at this time held the world record for cemeteries of high antiquarian interest. It would take him too long to check them all out, and he didn’t even have a complete list.
He was just starting to curse himself for his lack of preparedness- he should have gotten in touch with the Supernatural Convention Committee to find the exact location of the game-when he heard a sound, reassuringly unhuman. He moved toward it, and it distinguished itself as laughter. It was coming from the east side of the Narbozzi, the side known in antiquity as “the Accursed.” As he came closer he heard oaths being sworn, and then he made out the tremendous kettledrum laughter of Newzejoth, one of the great lords among demons, the sound of whose voice was unforgettable. Swiftly he flew to the source of the sound.
The demons were camped in a little hollow between the great marble sarcophagus of Romulus and the more recent tomb of Pompey. They were in a small grove surrounded by a circle of ilex trees. Although they had been there no more than a few hours, the area already showed the signs of chaos and squalor which characterize demon gatherings. Huge vats of ichor had been brought in for refreshment. There were fires here and there, and kitchen familiars roasted people-parts of many different nations over hot charcoal.
Azzie was soon made welcome by the other demons. “Light meat or dark?” a succubus asked him. But
“Where’s the game?” he asked.
“Right over there,” the succubus told him. She was an Indian demon, as Azzie could tell by the ring in her nose and the fact that her feet were turned backward. She smiled at him seductively. She was indeed beautiful, but Azzie had no time for dalliance right now, nor the appetite, because gambling fever was raging in his veins, and he hastened toward the circle.
The card-playing demons were gathered in a circle lit by balefires and tallow candles made of unsavory waxy substances. There was also an outer circle of demons, gathered to watch and comment on the action. As Azzie came to the circle a big hand was in progress. In the pot were a scattering of gold coins, some silver denarii, and a human torso, worth plenty since blood was still dripping from the stumps of its arms and legs. The final bet was made, and a small, potbellied demon with skinny arms and legs and a great long nose (a Laplander, to judge from his reindeer sweater) won it and raked it all in.
“New player!” someone called out, and they slid over and made room for Azzie.
Azzie sat down, laid out his jewels in front of him, and was given cards. He was cautious at first. It had been quite a while since he had sat in on a game. This time, even with the lucky amulet of felixite, he was determined to be cautious, bet only good hands, fold when he was in doubt, and do all the other things that poker players, human or demonic, are forever telling themselves to do. He converted some of his gems into body parts and began to play. There in the darkness, lit by the uncanny green-tinged flames of the balefires, the game went on, with demons laughing and swearing as fortune shifted from one to the other.
Demons playing poker are jolly companions as long as things are going well for them. They start out a game in fine high fettle, betting entire human heads and raising limbs with gay abandon. All this is accompanied by the sorts of jokes demons consider hilarious but other beings consider in poor taste. “Anyone for a hero sandwich?” one of the serving demons asked as a tray of human parts was passed around.
Azzie’s caution soon left him. He began to plunge, betting more and more wildly. He was thinking of the Millennial Evil Deeds banquet and how much he would like to participate. If only he could be a winner! He really wanted to represent evil in the great Millennial contest between Light and Dark.
But unfortunately, his pile of parts kept dwindling. He knew he was betting wildly, stupidly, demoniacally, but there was nothing he could do about it. Caught up in the pace of the game, he scarcely noticed how the bigger demons seemed to be getting all the big pots. What was going wrong with his felixite? Why wasn’t he winning any big hands?
Then it occurred to him that all demons carry good-luck charms, and the more important the demon, the better the charm he could afford. It stood to reason that the charms of the others were nullifying his own charm. He was being wiped out again! It was unthinkable, and very unfair.
The night passed rapidly, and it wasn’t long before Azzie noticed a faint lightening in the eastern sky. Soon it would be dawn, when the game would have to break up, unless someone had the keys to a private tomb. At this point Azzie had lost most of what he had started with.
Feelings of rage and chagrin flooded his foxy head. The hand he was holding was another bust, a pair of deuces and three middle cards. He was about to fold it and give up when a feeling came over him. No, not exactly a feeling, more a sensation. It was a warm glow that came from the vicinity of his pouch. Was his good-luck amulet trying to tell him something? Yes, it had to be! And it occurred to him that if the felixite really wanted to help him, it would wait for a single hand, then put all its capacity into winning that one for him.
So certain was he that this was the true state of affairs that he wagered recklessly on his bad hand, raising again and again.
He was given his final cards. He didn’t look at them, but continued betting.
There came the showdown. Spreading his cards, Azzie saw his deuces, and saw that he had picked up another pair of deuces. He was about to declare two pairs, when it dawned on him that he had four of a kind. No one else was even close. The others grumbled and threw in their cards. The pot, biggest of the night, was raked over to Azzie.
In it, aside from the pile of golden coins and gems and miscellaneous body parts, was the hilt of a sword, its blade broken off, and tied around it, a red silk lady’s favor. There was also a pair of human legs, in very good condition, scarcely gnawed at all. And a fair amount of lesser stuff, knucklebones, septums, a set of kneecaps, which he turned in for gold.
Azzie, being a true demon, would have gone on gambling as long as he had a penny or a body part to his name. But the sun had just peeped cautiously above the eastern horizon and it was time for everyone to leave the graveyard. Azzie stuffed his winnings into a stout canvas bag which he had been carrying around for just such a purpose. The beginnings of an idea were starting to form in his mind. It was still vague, but there was something there.