24. Gambler’s Den (2)
Ellin raised her head with a start at the sound; the people gathered in the casino were letting out exclamations, watching the apprentice Holy Knight Tom who had just entered and Halsem having a match.
“Whoo. Earning quite a bit today, aren’t you now, Halsem?”
“I got a fright thinking a Holy Knight’s come to crack down on the casino, but that wasn’t it, eh? An unlucky Holy Knight turning up to gamble?”
“Haha! Amusing, isn’t it? Let’s enjoy the spectacle of a proud Holy Knight getting stomped on.”
“He won’t be taking revenge later, will he? Or make a report to the Holy Kingdom…”
Ellin stood up dubiously after hearing the conversations and drew near Tom and Halsem’s gambling table. As things stood, Halsem was holding a merchant card while the rest were slaves, which was by no means a good hand. However, Tom had the utterly worst deal of 5 slave cards. He seemed to be just like her, down on his luck.
“Yeesh! Absolutely awful.”
“…Will you stop that, please? It feels like I’m being insulted.”
Tom seemed to have caught Ellin’s mutter. He scratched his cheek and put on a troubled smile as he gazed at his opponent, Halsem.
“Lady Luck just isn’t on my side today. Still, I’ve wrapped my head around the game now.”
Halsem cleared the cards and smiled in satisfaction as he retrieved the money placed on the table.
“Goodness, mister Holy Knight. First time playing this game? Haha! So did you figure out the rules to some extent?”
“Yes. Well, roughly, at least.”
“Frankly, it’s a game of status, to put it in simple words. The points are decided based on the ranks: slaves give 1, commoners 2, merchants 3, Holy Knights 4, nobles 5, a Hero 6, His Holiness the Pope 7, and the God Artarrk gives 8. On the other hand, drawing demon cards will result in negative points, and it’s minus 1 starting from goblins. Ah! Additionally, you get a bonus of 5 points if every card you draw is the same. Unless they are all slaves. Well, the chances are fairly low with a deck of 200 cards.”
“Mmm… I see.”
“How ’bout it? One more round, eh? I say it’s purely about luck. You never know; you might even win the next game, Holy Knight sir.”
Ellin frowned at Halsem’s words; she too had fallen for the exact same line in the beginning and lost all the money she had. Midway through, she had kept going on, trying to recover what she had lost. Still, in the end, the several coppers she had earned through sympathy had become her entire fortune. Ellin basically had lost it all.
Ellin shoved her face right next to Tom’s with a playful look and whispered to him.
“How is it, sir Holy Knight?! I did say that you’d end up stripped down to your undies, didn’t I? Now, give up!”
Tom shrunk back in surprise at Ellin’s words and put distance between their faces, appearing uncomfortable. He opened his mouth to speak with an awkward smile.
“Still, it feels a shame to stop with the money I lost. I may still have a chance.”
“Aah, I was the same at first! But I bet you’ll be in big trouble if you continue, you know? You’ll lose every single penny you have! You’ll be regretting it, I tell you. You, sir naive Holy Knight, will never be able to win against that gambler! Ah, you might win, of course, but…”
Ellin cackled next to him, taunting in a discreet manner. She was provoking him on purpose, feeling animosity towards Tom’s occupation of a Holy Knight — she hoped for him to feel some misery, no matter how small.
Needless to say, it was a simple prank on her part.
“I see. Then…”
Tom put his hand into his leather pouch and took it out, placing it on the table.
“I’ll stake this much. Let’s go again.”
All the gamblers gathered in the casino froze, speechless for a moment. Even Tom’s opponent, Halsem, had grown round-eyed from being surprised, while Ellin, who had spoken out of mischief, looked at him with a jump.
What he had staked were gems comprised of beautiful rubies and sapphires, precious stones of enormous worth with each one going for over hundreds of taels of gold coins.
Halsem let slip a curse despite himself, whereas the surrounding spectators yelled out cheers.
Snapping out of her shock, Ellin hastily grabbed Tom by the shoulder from the side and shook him.
“What are you doing, moron?! Gems? Why would you bet s-such precious jewels…? No, I should be asking: are you even an apprentice Holy Knight? How did you manage to get these sorts of…?”
Ellin’s questions prompted Tom to recall the Holy Palace he had spent 30 years in. It was in the capital city, the origin of every kind of misdeed committed when the Holy Kingdom ruled the continent; it was where the ‘Golden Treasury’ lay… containing all sorts of bribes, tax income, donations, gifts from foreign emissaries, as well as the outstanding swords and magical tools used by successive generations of Heroes.
The basement of the Holy Palace was overflowing with these sorts of gems, and it was with this in mind that Tom spoke with a smile.
“Ah, I just took some of the gems I have at home…”
Ellin stood still, dazed, at the sight of which Halsem slammed down on the table, laughing loudly.
“Oi! Sir Holy Knight! You can’t take back what’s put on the table anymore. You can’t back out since you’ve even declared the game’s on again!”
“… Ah? Is that so? Then let’s do it.”
‘No, you… I-I’m sorry.’
Ellin apologized subconsciously from the side, for it seemed like her simple prank was going to cause the naive apprentice Holy Knight before her to lose a massive load of money.
“Well then, shall we start dealing? Good. I should match the ante, shouldn’t I? But what to do? I’m afraid my poor self doesn’t have much on me, so I’ll stake about half of what I got from that missy at the side.”
Halsem put a bag of gold on the table, making Ellin cry out in a dumbfounded tone, jabbing her finger at him.
“Wait! That’s strange! This weird Holy Knight…”
“… Don’t call me weird.”
Ellin continued to speak, ignoring Tom’s interjection.
“… has put up these kinds of gems! You should, at the very least, throw down something of equal value, you cheapskate!”
“Haah? Missy! Don’t you know the rules of this game? The moment you put money on the table and declare the will to play, that money immediately becomes the stakes. It doesn’t matter even if your opponent bets several coppers. You’re supposed to measure the amount to wager with each other and then begin with an agreement, but my opponent here said start first.”
“He didn’t know the game rules!”
“Not knowing is a sin itself!”
Ellin grit her teeth in response to Halsem’s shouting, while Tom chuckled in apparent amusement.
“What’s so funny?! You’re getting cheated like a sucker!”
“… Sucker? Isn’t that going too far?”
Tom felt dubious regarding Ellin and Halsem’s behavior. Holy Knights were the highest order of knights in the Holy Kingdom. Apprentice though he may be, the grandeur and dignity that came with the position were in a whole different league compared to ordinary knights. Yet, the two were behaving in an unconcerned manner towards him despite this fact.
Seeming to have read Tom’s thoughts, Halsem spoke up with a snicker.
“Hey now, sir Holy Knight, you aren’t going to be acting wild, believing in the authorities, are you?” Noticing Tom’s confused expression, Halsem continued, “This place — The Golden Casino — no, this fief that goes by the crummy name of Golden is run by Lord Kelvin, you see.”
Ellin and Tom instantly reacted to the name ‘Kelvin’. Ellin flinched, while the mirth vanished from Tom’s face, and his eyes grew cold.
Halsem lifted his feet onto the table and shuffled the deck while continuing to speak.
“Do you know the amount of funds the lord invests in the casino here? Hundreds, thousands of gold come and go in a day. Besides, he has connections with numerous nobles, Holy Knights, and priests. Thus, there are no fellows that behave wildly, believing in their occupations, thanks to the lord. Even nobles can’t carelessly step out of line, so what of a mere Holy Knight? If you throw your weight around while counting on your status, you’ll only be making a fool of yourself. And note that rumors spread fast in this neighborhood. It doesn’t matter if an esteemed Holy Knight’s pride is injured due to losing, but taking revenge will result in a loss of honor, and word will spread to the Holy Kingdom in the blink of an eye. That’s the reason why Holy Knights who cherish honor like their lives can’t be cheeky here. You seem like a Holy Knight from an influential household; wouldn’t want to sully the family name now, would we? So let’s cut to the chase and play fair and square.”
“… I’ll bear that in mind.”
“Alright then, let’s start dealing.”
After the long-winded speech, Ellin looked at Tom.
“Hey, are you okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be? It’s just a simple game of luck.”
“I mean, you don’t seem to be a favored one judging from your last game.”
“Mmm, indeed. I am rather unlucky… then let’s do it like this.”
Halsem tossed the deck to Tom, who organized 5 cards face down on the table.
“I have no luck, but I’m good at praying to God. I’ll beseech Him for some fortune this time around.”
“… What nonsense is that?!”
Ellin yelled, almost screaming in response.
“Haha! Pray, because you’re a Holy Knight? Must be the gag in trend these days, huh? Sure is funny!”
Halsem bursting into laughter prompted the spectators to snicker in ridicule as well. Ellin found this rather unpleasant, her face reddening.
“The heck?! You’re being made a laughing stock because you spouted strange things!”
“… Why are you angry when I’m the one being jeered?”
“What does it matter! Argh! So annoying! Fine! Do as you like!”
Ellin shook her head harshly as she spoke, irked by his lackadaisical approach.
‘I shouldn’t have talked to a weird Holy Knight! Giving these kinds of fellows the time of day is bad for mental health in of itself!’
… Was what she thought, but she snuck a peek at Tom’s hand out of worry.
Halsem also furtively flipped his cards and took a look.
He cried out for joy inwardly, even as his face clouded over.
‘Nice! 1 of His Holiness the Pope?! And 2 Holy Knights, plus 1 merchant! An excellent hand!’
“Oi, sir Holy Knight. There’s a thing called ‘throwing’ in this game: it’s what you do when you see your cards aren’t good. That’ll result in a defeat, but you can take back half of the pool.”
Tom replied with an affable smile without even looking at his hand.
“Will you throw?”
Halsem frowned at Tom’s provocation.
“As if! Then I take it you’re on?”
“Fine. Don’t you regret it later!”
Halsem unfolded his cards: 1 Pope, 2 Holy Knights, and 2 merchants.
“Ohh! Halsem’s got a good hand!”
The spectators hurrayed and whistled. Halsem gazed at Tom with a mocking expression, drunk on the atmosphere.
“Now, show us what you got. It’s no use throwing after seeing your cards at this point since I’ve shown you mine already.”
“Yes, well then…”
Tom flipped one card, still maintaining that affable smile.
Halsem stared at the card with a jump.
“A hero card? Ha, so you got a card with some points! But not as much as His Holiness!”
Tom flipped the next card. It was also a hero.
Seeing this, Halsem went tense with silence.
He inverted the next one. Another a hero card.
He flipped them all — the whole lot of them depicted the visage of a hero.
Halsem stared at Tom, frozen, while the latter uttered one line with a smile on his face.
“It seems the Lord above has accepted my prayer.”
Ellin gazed at the cards in surprise before fixing her eyes on Tom.
“What rubbish are you saying!” was what she wanted to yell, but his hand had truly come out well, to an absurd extent, at that.
Halsem stared blankly at his opponent’s cards, feeling as if he was falling into an abyss.
“H-hey! Again, let’s go again!”
“Yes, I see. Then, why don’t you make a wager first.”
Believing that he would make a comeback, Halsem put up the gold to bet while gritting his teeth in response. Tom reciprocated by placing an equal amount on the table.
Halsem shuffled the deck and dealt the cards.
And then they flipped.
Halsem: 2 merchants, 1 Holy Knight, 2 goblins.
Tom: 5 priests.
Halsem clenched his teeth, his heart shedding tears of blood. Bad luck was what he chalked it off to, however.
Tom replied with an awkward smile.
“Hey, if you will…”
“What is it?”
“Let’s take it up a notch, shall we?” Tom put his gems as well as everything he earned from Halsem on the table. “I’m a bit busy, you see.”
He came off as rather arrogant, the way he spoke with a grin on his face. It was very clearly an indication of him looking down on Halsem.
A vein popped on the verteran gambler’s forehead. The provocation seemed to have worked as he appeared angry, the sound of his gnashing teeth audible.
“Ahh, so you want to get it on, is that right? Huh?”
‘Damn, I didn’t want to use this today since my luck was good facing that missy, but…’
Tom licked his lips, as if he had successfully hooked a fish.
‘I may look like this, but I’m an experienced gambler. I’ll show you what deft fingers are!’
Halsem chose to go all-in.
“Good! I’m gambling day-to-day! I’ll risk everything!”
Thus the game began, and Halsem shuffled the deck.
Many onlookers were in the surrounding, with bated breaths. Their eyes were looking at Halsem’s cards, but he didn’t lose his nerve at that. He liked this aspect of spectators. Everyone would be assured of him being unable to cheat under all this attention.
‘Then… let’s have at it.’
As Halsem was shuffling the deck, his hand slipped, and he dropped the cards onto the table and floor.
“Ah, sorry, sorry. I got nervous, you know, with the stakes being so high. Hey, pick them up for me, will you?”
A few spectators did as he asked. Some of them were definitely watching Halsem, but the attention on him was instantly split up.
Halsem aimed for that moment, and in the midst of gathering the dropped cards, a card that was inside of his sleeve smoothly fell out, which he mixed among the deck. It looked the same as a regular one; only, the back of it was coarser and rougher.
“Now, time to deal out the car—”
Just as Halsem was about to finish speaking with a smile, his eyes met Tom’s, and his hands paused for a moment.
“… Ah… Uh…”
Halsem trembled as he broke out into a cold sweat. His opponent’s golden eyes were glaring at him with a cold gaze. A chill ran down his spine, and his body stopped responding as if he were paralyzed. All he could manage was a groan after strenuously moving his lips, wishing to escape from this nightmarish situation.
‘What? What is this? This is… s-scary!’
Halsem felt overwhelming powerlessness. Countless onlookers were in the surrounding, shouting in a furor, yet he could not see them, nor hear their voices. He could not even make out the face of his opponent.
All that entered his vision were the two golden glints of light shining amidst pitch-black darkness.
The golden eyes before him.
And they spoke to him.
[I do not permit lies.]
A moment later, the pitch-black darkness vanished, and his vision grew bright, restoring everything back to normal.
The spectators stared at Halsem dubiously, feeling perplexed.
“What’s up? Halsem, what are you doing?”
“Is the fellow feeling nervous?”
“… Oi, that guy.”
The spectators blocked their noses and hurriedly retreated.
“He pissed himself.”
Halsem sat there laughing, oblivious to the urine dripping from his pants.
“Haha… What was that just now? That… was u-utterly terrifying.”
Halsem shook in fear but was strangely in a good mood. He dropped the card he had hidden in his sleeve to the floor as if in a trance. He was going to attempt bottom dealing, but he simply could not muster the courage to do so anymore.
He instinctively realized that his trick, which was unnoticed by any other until now, would not work against the Holy Knight before him. He had to compete with luck only.
“… Haha. Hahahahahahaha!”
Halsem’s heart raced with excitement. A clean and fair contest with no tricks involved whatsoever: a showdown of pure luck.
And that was what the fate of his fortune hung upon.
‘Haha! I’m losing my mind. I’m getting cold feet. Freezing cold feet! But it’s exciting!’
Halsem began to reshuffle the deck with shaking hands and began to deal the cards. A strange sense of pleasure washed over him as tension numbed his rationality. This thrill, it was the feeling experienced by those unable to stop rolling the dice.
A longing that held greater pull than the desire to eat or to copulate!
An inextinguishable craving toward gambling!
Win, and he would be greeted with utmost delight. Lose, however, and he would suffer despair akin to death.
This was gambling.
“Well then… no throwing! Come, let’s flip!”
Halsem immediately unfolded after dealing Tom his cards.
5 merchants. He got bonus points due to having 5 identical cards.
“Oooh! Halsem, that’s quite good!”
“I say, it’s hard to get a hand like that too.”
While the spectators were making admiring remarks, Tom quietly flipped his cards one by one. The people who were watching let out joyful cheers following his action, but with every other card revealed, the sounds they made gradually died down instead.
Caught by astonishment, Ellin muttered under her breath while looking at the cards.
“5 of the God Artarrk?”
“This is unprecedented!”
“… It’s my first time seeing a hand like that.”
While the spectators were feeling shocked, Halsem stared at those cards in awe before shifting his gaze to the Holy Knight.
This was truly a game of chance. The opponent had competed with him in luck, and that went the same for him as well.
Yet for a hand like this to appear?!
He got 5 merchants, while the opponent got 5 Artarrks…
This was an unbelievable disparity in level!
‘Ha, hahahaha! What is this? Even if I didn’t use a trick, this… was a lost cause anyway, wasn’t it?’
Halsem stared at Tom with a hollow look in his eyes, feeling as if his world had been turned upside down.
His opponent merely sat there, smiling.
— Ω —