23. Gambler’s Den (1)
People were swarming about within the confined establishment as cries of joy, sighs of distress mixed with laughter, and screams of delight and frustration resounded in the vicinity. This fog of emotions acted as a spice, exciting those present. Cards, chips, dice, and other such things were placed on top of the tables, across which countless amounts of gold and copper coins changed hands.
The spectators watching this happen felt a thrilling impulse as they gazed at the victors and losers. The victors won tremendous sums of money, while the losers were deprived of their coin. The latter would fall into despair and would proceed to leave the casino or stake their lives to begin gambling again, restarting the vicious cycle.
In this place called Golden Casino, hundreds and thousands of gold coins changed hands in a single day. It was an illegal underground gambling den where dozens lost their lives or became slaves and so on, all of which was forbidden in the Holy Kingdom. Despite this, foreign nobles and wealthy merchants came in secret to amuse themselves. In other cases, naive common folk would be deceived into coming here to lose everything they had.
“Oi! Come over here! This lass is a gem!”
“Incredible, I say!”
“Indeed… she does look like a fierce one.”
As much as this was a place where huge amounts of money were traded, it was just as easy for onlookers to have their attention stolen by outstanding gamblers. They were incapable of turning their heads away from money in such excess; an amount they would not be able to gather in their entire lifetime. Especially considering the massive pile that the young girl had on her table, it was only natural that they could not tear their eyes away.
“Come on! Let’s flip our cards already!!”
She was a considerably beautiful girl with dark eyes, coarse black hair that reached her shoulders, and startlingly white skin that could be described as snow-white. She looked to be at least in her late teens, or at most in her early or mid-twenties. With dark-red leather garments covering her slender body and a white hood over her head, the girl was sitting confidently with her chair tilted back, cards in one hand, and her boots placed on the table; a truly arrogant attitude, to say the least.
On the other hand, her opponent was dripping with cold sweat. The gambler, Halsem, gulped as he stared at the sum of gold on top of the table. Throughout his 20 years of gambling, this was his first time seeing such high stakes, an amount he would struggle to gather even if lady luck showered her blessings on him for half a year.
Halsem turned to take a slight glance at the girl. To this day, he had competed against all kinds of gamblers and tasted sweet victory many a time. Still, the young girl before his eyes wholly differed in quality: that assured manner of hers and those nerves of steel in betting hard coin in one go! A gambler with such character was bound to be a natural-born prodigy.
Halsem gritted his teeth as he spoke to the girl.
“Hey, missy! How about we stop here? It’s plenty enough, isn’t it?”
“Huh? What? It can’t be that you’re scared? Haha! Why? Don’t want to lose to a girl, I see? Well, I guess it is time for you to chicken out at this point? What, gonna throw?”
The gambler Halsem fell all too easily at the girl’s taunting.
‘Haah?! What nonsense is this girl spouting? Being so shameless despite knowing the situation?! Damn, and my cards are the worst too… But I still can’t turn away!’ Cold sweat from his forehead slid down to his cheek and dripped off the end of his chin. ‘…There’s no running for a gambler!’
Halsem touched his forehead with a hand and sneaked a look at the girl as he replied.
“Alright! Let’s do it!”
Halsem unfolded his cards; one of them depicted a Holy Knight, while the other four were slaves.
The corner of the girl’s mouth twitched at the sight, at which point she tossed her own cards onto the table, revealing three slave cards and two goblins. The surrounding spectators held their breaths at the result. Amidst the ensued quiet stillness, the girl reached out a hand with a smile and grabbed the bag of money that was her prize. At the sight of this, Halsem spoke with his head lowered.
Halsem stretched out a hand and took hold of the coins-filled bag.
“Let go,” he demanded.
“You lost missy! Let go already! This money is all mine!!”
“No! It’s my entire fortune! Are you mad?! No! I said no…! Why did I lose again? Huh? Spare me just once! Please…!”
The onlookers burst out in laughter at her fit of grumbles.
“What a lassie! How could she have such bad luck…!”
“Hahahaha! Indeed! Did you see Halsem’s cards? It’s hard to get the worst kind of hand he had, but to do even worse than that?! Hahaha!”
“I say, why were you so confident even after seeing those cards, little girl? You couldn’t have expected Halsem to throw in, did you? Haha! Oh, I’m getting a good laugh, thanks to this lass!”
Halsem hastily took away the bag of gold. Eye muscles twitching, he gazed at the chick covering her head and burying her face on the table. Throughout his 20 years of gambling, this was his first time coming across a girl with such hopeless skills.
‘How could you lose so overwhelmingly over 20 rounds?! On top of that, how can you be so ballsy even after losing! Might be a different story for a real gambler, but having that sort of confidence is poison for a chickling!’
Halsem had previously suggested they stop, feeling sorry, but the girl had continued to keep betting without giving up. And that was why things turned out like this, of course.
“Urrrgh! One, one more game! Somebody lend me some money! Yeah?!”
The girl entreated the spectators, but they avoided her eyes. No one was dumb enough to give money to someone who did nothing but come a cropper like her.
She held out both hands towards Halsem with her head hung down, on the verge of tears.
“Please give me some money. Let me have just one more game!”
“Oi! Missy! Do you not have any pride?! You seem to be a runaway noble lady judging from how much money you have, but let’s end it now! I feel so sorry, I can’t continue!”
“If you feel apologetic, then lose just once!”
“My gambler’s pride won’t allow that! Now get lost already! This is no place for a girl!”
Halsem heaved a sigh. To this day, he had seen numerous fellows gone crazy over gambling and lose their hands, eyes, or their entire body or life, but this was his first time feeling sympathy. He was about to take out one gold coin, but put it back after glancing at the girl and proceeded to take out three copper coins from his pocket.
“Hey, missy. Take this and get lost.”
“…Why did you put the gold coin back? Give me that instead! This isn’t even enough to buy a kid’s snack!”
“Because a gold coin would be a waste. Why!? You’re going to gamble again anyway if I do give it to you! Well then, I’m off. Missy, don’t you punt no more!”
Seeing Halsem go, the girl touched the copper coins, teary-eyed.
“…What do I do? The money Ms. Lily gave me, I used it all.”
‘What now? She’ll be disappointed big time if she finds out that I lost it doing something like this, won’t she?’
It was wrong to have begun out of fun. She had merely come to investigate this casino. Yet, she fell for the taunts from gamblers, got drunk on the atmosphere, and ended up gambling. And lo and behold, she lost everything thanks to that.
As the girl was resenting her past self, her belly issued a rumble, demanding food.
She crouched down to one side of the casino’s entrance and leaned against the wall. The girl took out a sandwich from her leather handbag.
‘It’s the last one. And Ms. Lily made it early in the morning.’
The girl bit into the sandwich with a sigh, lamenting her lapse in judgment.
“Hey there, lady. How about a night date with me? I’ll give you a thoroughly good time!”
A bunch of menacing-looking men from nearby approached her, among which there was a knight who seemed to have quite a high status. Despite that, she responded by shooing them away, like chasing off flies.
“Go away, insects.”
“Ha! Got quite a temper, I see! But this place here’s off-limits to those with no money. An hour’s about the time allowed to spectate as well. After that, you’ll have to be kicked out if you can’t participate in the games.”
The girl frowned at the words of the menacing-looking men in charge of the casino.
“Then I’ll stay for an hour only! How much money you think I gave up here?!”
“Haha! You have a point there!”
“Come find me if you need cash! I’ll lend you some after enjoying a night!”
The girl scowled as the men burst into laughter.
‘What a horrible bunch. Why did I come here again?’
Not long ago, she had gotten hold of a piece of information regarding this place: a sworn enemy of her benefactor from long ago was here, in Fief ‘Golden’, and he was none other than the pharmacist called Kelvin.
The girl had then come here to take revenge against Kelvin.
‘But forget revenge, it looks like I’ll be chased out before I even start my investigation. Should I just make a huge scene?’
She bit into the sandwich. At that moment, the door of the casino opened, and in came a young man. Being right next to the door, the girl stared sideways at him, but then their gaze met as he was passing by. She grew wide-eyed in surprise as a pair of mysterious and beautiful golden eyes entered her vision, with the youngster mirroring her reaction as well.
The young man closed his mouth and tried to go past her, but the girl reflexively rose from her spot and grabbed hold of his sleeve.
“…What’s the matter?”
At the young man’s question, the girl let go of his sleeves.
“Hnn? N-no. No. Nothing. It’s nothing!”
The girl was surprised herself and laughed awkwardly; she had moved involuntarily. She examined the young man in detail as she pulled her hands back. He was a youth in his twenties with golden blond hair and golden eyes, with a small scar underneath his right eye. He wore the uniform of a Holy Knight, which was deep navy blue in color over a white basewhite base. On top of it, he wore a breastplate, leather gloves, and shoes. It was the simple attire of an apprentice Holy Knight.
‘…A Holy Knight?!’
The girl retreated slightly, wary of the youngster. Noticing her apprehension, he tilted his head and smiled lightly.
“Did I do something wrong?”
She showed an expression of blatant disgust at his question.
“…It’s nothing, just that you irk me.”
“…That’s too much when we just met a few moments ago.” The young man smiled awkwardly, rubbing his face and tilting his head. “Do I make you feel uncomfortable?”
“…No, it’s your job I don’t like.”
“You mean the occupation of a Holy Knight?”
“…You’re too honest. You’d get in big trouble if another Holy Knight or priest heard you.”
“Still, I don’t like what I don’t like.”
“Is that so? Well…”
As he attempted to walk past her, the girl grabbed the hem of his clothes, causing the young man to sigh in an annoyed way.
Ellin tilted her head with a curious expression.
“What’s a Holy Knight doing in a casino? A naive person like you will only end up getting thrashed and kicked out or wrung dry of everything and then kicked out.”
“The reason I am here is to gamble, of course, and what does it matter how I end up?”
“Mm, that’s true.”
Seemingly agreeing with his words, the girl let go of his clothes. However, as the young man tried to go his way again, he was urged by a strange feeling to look back; the girl had been about to grab his clothes again, but upon meeting his gaze, she hastily turned away and feigned indifference.
“Mm? I didn’t do anything, though?”
Hearing such a blatant lie, Tom couldn’t help but wear a tired expression.
“Why! What’s with that look? It’s like it’s saying ‘How bothersome!’ to me!”
“Yes, I am indeed bothered.”
The girl cried out painfully in response.
“You’re too direct!”
“I could say the same about you, can’t I?”
“But have we met somewhere, by the way?”
The young man shook his head, ignoring the fact that she’d ignored his remark.
“Apologies, but it is my first time meeting you, I believe?”
The girl tilted her head again, her eyes scanning him from top to bottom, taking in every little detail.
“…You truly are a human I’m seeing for the first time.”
Ignoring Tom’s blank stare, Ellin continued questioning him.
“What’s your name?”
The young man scratched his cheek in a troubled manner. He was obviously bummed out by the conversation after stepping foot in the casino.
“Why must I tell you my name…? Before that, who are you to pry?”
‘No, I am asking who you are to be so nosy, not your name…!’
But before he could voice his thoughts, the girl opened her mouth first.
“Well, a self-introduction should be simple enough. My name’s Ellin.”
The youngster became tongue-tied, and his eyes shook as he looked straight at the girl.
“Done, yes? Now, your name is…?”
He replied with his gaze still fixed on her.
“…Tom. I’m Tom.”
The Doppelganger Ellin, the lowest ranking of the twelve apostles of the Demon Kingdom ruled by the Demon Lord. Sitting in the corner of the gambling house, she pouted her cheeks in discontent, staring at the apprentice Holy Knight Tom as he scurried away.
‘What’s with him?! Acting like he’s heading for the hills? Am I that annoying? Or… could it be?’
She stood up to look into a mirror that was nearby. She tilted her head after checking out her attire and the shape of her hair.
‘…I look fine! Could it be that he noticed I’m a demi-human, even though he’s just an apprentice?’
Demi-humans referred to a different race of humanoids. They were also considered ‘demons’, as generally referred to by the humans.
Even as Ellin held suspicions in her mind, she mused why she had called out to him.
‘What did I do that for? Why did I talk to a human?’
She felt curious despite being puzzled.
‘…Maybe because he resembles that human?’
The human male with mysterious eyes she saw in the past. The apprentice Holy Knight had eyes similar to his.
‘Mmm… no. The human from back then was cooler!’
Ellin recalled those memories from long ago, of a cozy house within a small, peaceful forest. She remembered a little, cute girl with silver hair and a monk who gave off a warm impression. She had spent over a year together with them. They were humans, but to Ellin, they were her guardians, a family who let her remain in this world, and benefactors who saved her life.
She closed her eyes, focusing her ears, and the events in the good old days flashed past her mind as the noisy casino grew quiet.
The small silver-haired girl, Ellie, embracing her.
The golden-eyed monk giving his best to build a small house.
She reminisced those precious times in her mindscape, in the meadows where warm sunlight shone, and the refreshing wind blew.
But those happy moments disappeared in but an instant.
“What nonsense is that?!”
The monk cried out, almost screaming, while Ellin was on the verge of tears, same as the other children that had been there. The Holy Knights had beaten the monk to the ground and dragged him and Ellie away with them.
‘Those cursed holy knights had dared to take away my family!!’
That was what happened 30 years ago. She had investigated the knights in the form of a human in order to find out more regarding the past. To be exact, she followed up through the priests who had survived after what happened long ago in the Holy Kingdom’s capital, Lania.
“I don’t know much about matters back then. Only, around then the Holy Palace was noisy for a brief time with the festival and what not taking place. It was during then that children who owed tax and donations were arrested, along with Monk Thoma. I must say, I did have a certain degree of acquaintance with him. A delightful person he was, but apparently, there was some sort of misunderstanding. And yes, I did submit a petition for him, yet… I was mistaken for a heretic and interrogated instead. As time passed, I heard Monk Thoma was released, and on that night, the ‘Demon of Lania’ invaded the capital. On that occasion, I was dragged off by the Demon of Lania and was questioned, but he let me go. The surprising thing is that he completely cured my body that was broken by the torturing I had received from the Court of Heresy! How could he have emanated such holy power…? Perhaps, he is a being that is the exact opposite of demons, unlike the rumors suggest. Yeah, just like an angel or a God…! Ah, apologies, the excitement got to me. About Monk Thoma, huh? Mmm… It’s already been dozens of years. His heart and body were broken, so it is most likely he is no longer…”
This was hard-obtained information. According to what she heard, the children from back then had joined the Hero’s Allied Forces to become shields, and all died. Furthermore, the monk was released but did not live for long due to his body and mind already being ruined. Seeing as how 30 years had already ticked by, this meant he too had died.
Ellin had been wrought with guilt during her investigation, wondering if it was her fault that they were taken away, wondering if they were caught for secretly hiding a demon and thus dragged off to be punished.
“Are the two… both dead?”
‘Because of me?’
Ellin gave an answer to her question in her heart while recalling the little girl, the monk, and their happy time together. She then buried her face in her knees, overwhelmed by grief.
And right then, with piercing shouts, the casino suddenly grew noisy.
— Ω —