“Does the gentleman know how to play big and small?” the man next to Jun Huang taunted. “It doesn’t require you to think like dominoes or other games. This is simple. The banker will shake three dices with this cup. The players will bet on whether the total of the numbers is bigger than eleven. And that’s it. Does the gentleman understand? This is a casino. You can’t withdraw your bet, and you aren’t allowed to bargain, which must be different from what the gentleman is used to. If you don’t feel comfortable with that, you should get out of here and use that money to buy a book.”
The man broke into laughter. His friends followed suit.
Jun Huang threw him a cool glance. “Of course I understand something this simple. Still, thank you for explaining the rules.”
Her generous attitude was a stark contrast with the man’s behavior. He shut his mouth. That marked the end of the farce.
To every player’s surprise, Jun Huang had become the biggest winner at the table after only a few rounds.
She truly was lucky. Nan Xun, on the other hand, had a keen hearing that allowed him to determine the total of the face numbers after the banker shook the dice. They got into a winning streak, which pushed them into the spotlight.
Jun Huang was getting bored with playing dice. She turned her attention to the dominoes. Nan Xun kept an eye on Jun Huang while gathering information discreetly. He could tell that Jun Huang’s heart was elsewhere. With a chuckle, he led Jun Huang to another table. A smart-looking man stood up to let them take the seat and joined the group of betters.
The dominoes played differently from the dices. There were four players at the square table. The audience would put their bets in before the game started. If the player they bet on won, the betters won as well.
In the beginning no one knew how lucky Jun Huang was. Only the one who yielded his seat to her put his bet on her. He won big.
Afterwards, many flocked to betting on Jun Huang. From an elevated platform, the manager of the casino noticed the situation. He hesitated before joining the game. He cheated.
That didn’t escape Nan Xun’s eyes. He caught the man’s hand and said, “It’s dishonorable to do that at the gambling table.”
The manager stilled, trying to pull his hand back with his jaw tightened. Nan Xun was too strong for him to break out of the grip. The domino in his hand fell to the table. He glared at Nan Xun with veins popping out his neck. “What – what do you think I’ve done?”
“Cheating,” Nan Xun said. Everyone turned to the manager and Nan Xun in shock. Jun Huang took the opportunity to look over the table. She had found something.
“You need evidence to accuse me of cheating.” The manager refused to tell the truth. He struggled against Nan Xun’s hold, but Nan Xun tightened his grip, causing the manager to gasp in pain.
Nan Xun didn’t waste his time arguing with the owner. He picked up the domino the manager put on the table and handed it to Jun Huang. He made quick work locating the domino he was looking for. There was another identical one on the table.
The onlookers booed. The manager was too mortified from being exposed in public to say anything.
The tension was thick in the air. Suddenly, the onlookers made way for a middle-aged man dressed in fine clothes. The manager’s eyes lit up when he saw the man. Jun Huang could tell that the man was not of the common sorts.
The middle-aged man stopped before Jun Huang and Nan Xun with an earnest smile. “I’m the owner of the casino. Let us talk upstairs. I happened to have something to talk to the two gentlemen.”
Neither of them knew what the owner wanted, but they weren’t going to lose the opportunity to find out more information. They shared a look before giving the owner a nod. They followed him upstairs.
The architecture was old. Every step they took caused the floor to squeak. It sounded as if there was a bottomless pit right below. If they took one wrong step, they would fall to their death.
Nan Xun took the lead and kept an eye on Jun Huang. She followed him with her breath held. On both sides were wavering candlelight. It was difficult to see where they were going. They had to be careful to not slip.
The noises coming from below faded as they ascended. Once they entered the room, it became completely silent.
The owner took a seat and turned to Nan Xun. With deliberate slowness, he said, “I know you’re Prince Nan Xun of Northern Qi.”
Nan Xun froze. Jun Huang too widened her eyes. They were here to investigate, and yet this man had recognized Nan Xun. Nan Xun could not allow him to live.
With his eyes cold, Nan Xun wrapped his hand around the hilt of his sword. He drew it out for a few inches. The owner, however, continued to calmly drink his tea.
Nan Xun scoffed. His mind was made up. The owner’s calm attitude stemmed from his belief that Nan Xun had something to ask of him. Nan Xun, though, was a prince. He would not let other people influence his decisions. He drew his sword and held it against the owner’s neck.
Even though the owner had some leverage, he didn’t dare to risk his life just to test Nan Xun. His hand shook, spilling tea out of the cup. Color drained from his face. “Please calm down, Your Highness. I’d like to make a deal with you. Let us talk like civil men.”
“What do you have to say?” Nan Xun scoffed. He had never considered letting the man live. “Why don’t I just kill you and be done with it?”
“I’m the owner of Water Cloud,” the man rushed out. He didn’t dare to beat around the bush. Nan Xun could kill him if he did. He might be the owner of Water Cloud, but there was no one around to help him now. “I only sent out the assassins to test if Your Highness is going to be a worthy ally.”
He took a deep breath. “Would Your Highness mind putting your sword away? Let me explain myself. Besides, there’s no one else around. Your Highness is welcomed to kill me if you don’t like my explanation. I’m sure you can take my life easily enough.”
After some contemplation, Nan Xun sheathed his sword. It wasn’t that he would like to listen to the owner’s offer. He had simply recognized that the owner would not be able to expose Nan Xun at the moment.
Jun Huang scoffed, angry with the owner’s words. “You sure make it sound simple, but how do we know if you’re telling the truth? You can make whatever claims that are beneficial to you.”
“The gentleman has asked something I cannot answer.” The owner didn’t expect Jun Huang to be this aggressive. He could tell that Jun Huang was important to Nan Xun. If he wanted to do business with Nan Xun, he must not get on Jun Huang’s bad side.
Jun Huang didn’t care how diplomatic the owner was trying to be. She leveled the owner with a cold stare. “It’s not that you don’t know how to answer me. You just don’t dare to be honest with us. If everyone tried to find an ally the way you do, all of them would be working in silos.” She scoffed. “You know who Nan Xun is. Who gives you the right to decide if he’s worthy? Are you to be the final judge? He’ll work with you just because you think he’s the right candidate? Don’t forget who this man before you is. He’s not someone a lowly man such as you can match up to.”
Jun Huang thought back to the assassination attempts. If Nan Xun had not been as strong as he was, he would have died. She knew the assassins had not pulled their punches. And yet this man dared to say it was only a test – she would not let that slide.
The owner scowled. He wasn’t going to let an unknown scholar insult him like this. He growled, “What does this have to do with you? If you hadn’t come with the prince, I wouldn’t have let you in here.”
Jun Huang’s eyes turned cold, her smile sharp. “Oh yeah, everyone in the world wears different masks. You, the owner of Water Cloud, are no different. Ha, of course you’ll change your tune according to who you’re talking to. You think I’m beneath you, don’t you?”
“You, though, is willing to sacrifice others for your own gain. In my opinion, people like you make poor allies. Since your offer to be his ally is not genuine, why went through the troubles to get us here? How ridiculous.”
“Don’t think of me as aggressive. You have given us an infuriating explanation. You have your way of finding allies. We have our standards for a partner. I’m afraid you are no friend to us. Even though we’re not going to become enemies, you should think before you act, lest you sabotage your own chance of success.”
Nan Xun had been listening without a word. It was the first time he witnessed Jun Huang engage in such intense argument with someone else. It was also the first time he saw Jun Huang be this angry. In the past, Jun Huang would at least keep up the pretense of diplomacy. She must have been furious to lose her composure like that.
Nan Xun couldn’t help being pleased that Jun Huang was angry on his behalf, It warmed his heart.
He was glad that the woman he loved was acting this way for him. Everyone would have been moved by such a gesture. Jun Huang being the one he loved only made him more affected.
She and the owner were close to being at each other’s throat, though. Nan Xun knew this wasn’t the time for such argument. He got between Jun Huang and the owner. “Alright, since you’ll like to bargain, let’s talk.”
The owner fell silent. Jun Huang too realized that she had been overreacting. She turned away without a word.
“You have an offer to make,” said Nan Xun. He didn’t want to waste any more time. “Now talk.”