It turned out the place really wasn't far. They just hopped around a nearby corner and then vanished into an alleyway. Just a couple dozen metres further the man pointed at a run-down shed.
"There," the man said curtly.
"You call this a den? It's barely a hut!"
The man smiled.
"Don't judge it from the outside. The inside is completely different. You'll get everything you can want there, from women to fine wine. It's designed by an honoured guest from the capital. I dare say you won't find a finer den in the three southwestern prefectures."
"Oh, that so? Can't be. I passed through town a year ago. I didn't heard about a den like this."
"Hehe, you came at just the right time. We just opened or business. I'm not surprised you've not heard of us yet. We don't let just anyone inside either. By the way, what is your profession?"
"I'm a shiphand."
Eriksson had said sailors don't really reveal their vocations completely. Only rookie sailors told people they're just met everything about what they did.
"You aren't one of the locals?"
"No, I'm from Simlock. I'm here thanks to my uncle. He went and died and stranded me here. I'm usually on land at most half the year, but I've decided to settle here now." Claude smiled.
The man didn't suspect him and showed him to the shed.
"I see you're well-paid, for you to be considering settling down. What kind of house are you seeking? I might be able to help."
"It's not bad work. We risk our lives to make a living. Nobody knows which day will be our last, so we live all out and enjoy every moment we have. I'm looking for a stand-alone with a yard and well. I don't want to bother with getting water."
Just as he was going deeper into his story, a figure appeared. Claude stopped in his tracks and readied himself.
"Don't be nervous. He's one of us."
The man next to him smiled. He stepped forward and told the newcomer a couple things, then the man faded away.
"Just a lookout. The man explained. He's on watch for the keepers and the constables. We'll make sure you make a clean getaway."
Claude nodded. The two continued to the run-down building and stepped inside. He followed the two men into the run-down looking hut.
The entrance looked just as old and worn as the rest of the place. Five huge men stood outside, stomping on the ground nonstop in the snowy weather. They complained non-stop about the weather and their bad luck for being on guard tonight.
Claude's guide walked up to them and said a few words, before the watchers disappeared. Someone emerged from the tent, walked over to Claude, and checked him out condescendingly. His hand suddenly darted forward and yanked at Claude's shawl covering his face.
Claude darted back two steps and barked.
"What're you trying?"
"Nothing, I was just trying to see if I know you," the man said indifferently, though slight surprise was evident in his eyes.
"I've never seen you before," Claude spat impatiently.
"Alright. Come in. I was just testing."
The burly man put his pipe in his mouth mouth and started puffing.
Claude followed the two inside. Fortunately, the other men standing guard didn't move. They watched as Claude and the other two entered with their hands crossed.
Within the hut was an empty room with two lit torches on the walls that cast the room in a yellowish glow.
Just as Claude was going to say something, the thin gang member went to one of the torches and did something he couldn't see. Then, a door-shaped hole appeared on the wall. There was a secret entrance.
When Claude went through the entrance, he found that there was a stairway heading downstairs. Sounds of chattering could be heard from below.
Claude continued downwards silently. After going down for around ten meters, he saw a wide corridor in front of him that was connected to a metal gate. Outside the gate on each wall was an oil lamp. By then, the sounds coming from beyond the corridor sounded far clearer. Angered ramblings, sensual laughter and other noises blended into a chaotic symphony. It was as if there was a merry market beyond that door.
Four huge men in short-sleeved black clothing could be seen outside the gate. They glared at the three that were approaching.
The thin man went forward and told them something before waving for Claude to come closer. "Sorry, friend. I'm afraid this is as far as I can bring you. I'm not qualified to enter that place."
Claude nodded. "Thank you. This place isn't bad. The security's tight and it seems rather safe. I can't wait to jump in now that I hear the voices coming from inside. How beautiful it all sounds! Thanks, friend. Take this and consider it my token of gratitude."
Claude handed the bottle half-filled with gran wine to the gang member and took out a thale from his pocket before flicking into the air and catching it. He then handed it to the thin man. "Take this and consider it a gift. You weren't lying that this place is a great gambling den. Looks like I'll be coming here often in the future."
Ignoring the two, Claude paced to the gate. The four men saw Claude's generosity and decided he had enough money to spend there, so they let him in without a fuss.
When Claude stepped beyond the entrance, the innermost man reminded, "Dear guest, it can get a little warm inside, so you may remove your outerwear and shawl and place it on the rack here. We have people guarding the place and we'll make sure not to lose your clothes."
Claude nodded, but he didn't undress. "I want to look around first, would that be alright?"
"Yes, do as you please."
Soon, Claude understood what the man meant by warm. At the end of the corridor was a large hall where hundreds of people engaged in heated gambling. The most exciting table was the one at the center of the hall. So many people surrounded that table that it was difficult to get around. They chanted, "Big! Big! Big..."
It didn't take long before the results of the game was revealed. The victors cheered with frenzy and hurried the house to pay out their winnings while the losers cursed their bad luck with their heads lowered.
The heated atmosphere was one thing; Claude also found that the temperature of the hall was considerably warmer than the outside. He had an urge to remove his outer clothing. He looked closer and saw the copper pipes that surrounded the ten or so pillars inside the hall. The heat was probably coming from those.
It was truly an ingenious design. Claude understood with a glance that it was a copper pipe heating system which relied on the hot water flowing through the pipes to warm the hall up. It would be unsafe for them to use braziers for heat because it would cause fires easily and it would complicate the ventilation of an underground room like that. Nobody would come down to gamble with so much smoke around.
The copper pipes on the other hand wouldn't have those shortcomings. Cold water could be piped through them to cool down the hall during summer too. However, Claude wasn't intent on looking too deeply into the pipes. He wanted to look around to see whether he could spot Arbeit.
Before he reached the centre of the hall, Claude seemed to be able to hear his voice. "Eleven points! Haha, you only got ten! I won!"
The game they were playing had similar rules to blackjack, but the largest allowed value was 12 instead of 21. The players drew a minimum of two cards and a maximum of three and made their bets according to the sum of points of their wooden cards.
I hear him. He must be near.
The problem was, Claude couldn't see the fool amidst the crowd. He couldn't quite tell where the sound had come from. He tried to find the source, but he was drawing too much attention.
A young maidservant came to him. She was quite attractive, with a hint of mischief and seduction.
"Is this your first time here?" The maidservant asked, pressing against the boy. Claude stepped back and made some distance between the two of them, before he nodded.
"Sir, you aren't thinking of shaking me off, right?" she asked when he ignored her, "If you don't like me, I can find you a more beautiful girl. She's much prettier than me."
Claude shook his head.
"Apologies. It's not that I'm trying to shake you. I'm just not too used to being in close physical contact."
The girl giggled.
"You're joking, right? Don't you get so close to women when you bed them?"
"That's a whole other story, miss," Claude said, frowning, "I know nothing about you."
"You will once you come more often. Naturally, if you're generous, we sisters will quickly acquaint ourselves with you and then you can approach us closer and more freely..."
Claude didn't say anything else.
The maidservant stopped smiling. "Sir, do you need anything? I saw you standing here for quite a while without joining in."
She pointed at the group of gamblers huddled up at the center of the hall.
He understood that he had caught the attention of those running the den. "It's my first time here, so I don't quite know how things work yet."
"Oh, is that so?" The smile returned to her face. "Well, it's simple. Before you play, you must exchange something for gambling chips. The smallest chips we offer here are valued at one sunar. There are chips for one riyas and one thale too, and the highest ones are worth one crown. These four are the only gambling chips here. After you get some, you can freely join any game, whether it be dice or cards. The den is the house of the games and whether you win depends on your luck.
"If you want to gamble with a friend, we can provide a private room and premium service, but we'll charge a ten percent for service. Food and drink are all free here. If you want better food options, you can pay with the chips as well.
"Also, there's a bath through the corridor ahead. You may take a bath with hot water and rest in a bedroom. If you're willing to spend a thale, you can spend a night with any one of us sisters. Do you want to give it a try? I can make sure that you'll be drowned in pleasure."
"Is that so... Thank you for the introduction," Claude said with a nod, "I want to look around a bit more. Would that be alright?"
"Of course," the maidservant replied in a sensual tone, "But Sir, aren't you feeling a little hot? Let me remove your outerwear for you, alright?"