The upcoming event was called the “Rare promenade” which told Arthur a stuffy noble had been the one to think it up.
It was an event that was equal parts about the egg and equal parts political shadow boxing.
Arthur dressed his best for the night, which was a step above his normal evening work uniform: Black pressed pants, a deep green shirt with copper buttons, and a dark vest. As usual, he tied his drawstring card anchor bag to a spot inside the vest which allowed the bag to rest over his heart. He had purchased the vest mostly for that feature.
In his bag, he kept a small handful of Rare card shards — all middle card pieces — as well as a few Uncommon shards.
The shards represented more wealth than well-off families in outer kingdom towns had access to. But in the hive, he was nothing special.
Arthur found he liked it that way. It was so much easier to be overlooked. That way he could practice his skills in peace.
A creak of a hinge from behind turned his attention to the door.
Horatio came in with a default look of discontentment carved on his face. He was dressed in his work clothing, the apron tied around his waist still spotted with flour.
Like Arthur, he had eventually moved on from Barlow’s tavern. Now he worked at an exclusive shop that made celebration cakes for the upper class. Though Horatio had a face sulky enough to spoil good milk, his cake decorations were delicate, floral, and in high demand.
Arthur thought it was mildly hilarious.
Horatio took Arthur’s wardrobe in at a glance. Then he let out a long, put-upon sigh. “Rare promenade tonight?”
“Kenzie broke into our apartment just to tell me about it,” Arthur confirmed with a nod to the window. “We’ve got to remember to lock that.”
“And she has to learn when she isn’t wanted,” Horatio muttered.
Arthur shrugged. He got the impression Kenzie was lonely. He’d never seen her in the company of other dragon riders and suspected Marteen’s unusual level of talent for an Uncommon made them jealous. That, or if Kenzie carelessly broke into other people’s living quarters, he could see how they’d get tired of it.
Horatio moved to his “room” which, like Arthur, was some sheets tacked up in a corner around the bed.
“This egg’s going to be a pain in the ass,” Horatio called. “Purples and blues have been flying in noble kids all day.”
“It’s supposed to be a high Shimmer,” Arthur confirmed. Rare’s drew enough ambitious nobles on their own, but a shimmer quality added additional power and mystique.
Arthur paused. “Are you going to try for it?”
What he was not quite asking was: Are you going to keep your Second Helping card?
Horatio didn’t answer for a moment. He pushed back the sheets and strode out, looking fairly presentable in clean pants and a new, cream-colored shirt. Moving to the table, he grabbed a tie and pulled his dark, lank hair back. “Don’t know yet,” he grumped. “I want to take a look at that egg, first.”
That surprised Arthur. Horatio had only spoken about linking up with Sams. Then again, Second Helping would be a powerful card in the right hands. Maybe Horatio was holding out secret hopes.
Once the mother dragon left her clutch in the care of the hive personnel, the Rare egg was moved into a separate chamber. Then the circus truly began.
After entering the hive entrance, Arthur and Horatio were forced to show Kenzie’s recruitment chip at no less than three checkpoints along the way.
They were treated to the sight of a blustering noble family getting thrown out on their ear. The nobles had managed to either intimidate or bribe their way past the first checkpoint, but the second set of guards would allow them to go no further.
Only people who were qualified and had been vetted by hive Silvers were allowed to see the Rare egg.
The chamber itself was festooned with banners in Wolf hive colors of silver, tan, and white. It was lit with so many torches and candles that it was nearly bright as day. However, those hive workers with wind-based or air-purifying utility cards were placed here and there to obliquely funnel the smoke out of the way.
The egg was located in the back of the room, placed up on a molded rock stage so all could gaze upon it. It was bracketed by two guards in hive colors, always alert.
A line of people was allowed to slowly walk past it, and more guards ensured no one stopped or lingered for long. The line would circle the outer parameter of the room and come again for another pass.
On entering, Arthur dutifully took his place in line. He’d been through this twice so far. Though other Rare eggs had brought in nobles, this one was on a whole other level. The promenade had barely begun, and the line already stretched around the room.
Though Arthur’s clothing was a fine standard for a non-noble, he looked drab next to the fine silks and tailored suits the other boys wore. Those in turn were outshone by the dresses the noble girls pulled out, complete with exquisite hairdos that must have taken hours.
They looked like they were going to a fine gala at the king’s palace. Not just walking past an egg.
Arthur exchanged glances with Horatio who rolled his eyes.
Well, it was nice his friend wasn’t intimidated.
I have noble blood, too, Arthur reminded himself — though quietly.
It was enough for him to straighten his shoulders and keep his eyes focused ahead as if he were truly interested in the prize.
Despite the guards’ efforts, the line moved slower the closer they were to the egg. Soon, Arthur had a good view. He saw why it had gained so much attention.
Unusually large, the top of the shell would have come up to his waist. Every inch of it glittered with the reflective light cast from the torches and candles. It was as if it had been encrusted with glittering diamonds, though here and there were spots of other gemstones, blue-eyed sapphires, red rubies, and pink opals.
All of this was an illusion. The dragon’s shell was much like a chicken egg’s. But Arthur couldn’t help thinking that it glittered with the hatchling’s reflective power.
What kind of a card would that hatchling hold, he wondered. Something to do with earth? Was it a Rare quality treasure seeker?
How could its power help fight the scourgelings?
Looking around, Arthur doubted any of these fancy nobles had ambitions to link with a dragon to fight. No, this Rare egg represented power and prestige.
All chatter within the line stopped as they stepped close to the eggs. Now people had looks of intense concentration on their faces. Some looked outright constipated with the effort.
Dragon eggs were different from birds in that they hatched when they hatched, without a strict timeline. More than once hatchling had surprised everyone by breaking its shell and springing at someone with a perfectly matched card.
Most figured it couldn’t hurt to concentrate on their own card to nudge the hatchling inside one way or another. Maybe the baby dragon’s card was still forming. Maybe the decision could be influenced.
Arthur knew he didn’t have a chance with the baby dragon. Instead, he took the opportunity to glance around; memorizing faces and categorizing reactions.
Some nobles looked bored as if they didn’t care one way or another. One of the girls behind him looked about ready to cry for the longing for the hatchling. Horatio looked like he was trying to glare a hole through the shell.
Was that Horatio being Horatio, or was he trying to reach out to the egg?
The motion of the line took them past the stage and most lost their intense expressions.
The promenade would continue nightly. Thankfully, Arthur wouldn’t be expected to show up every evening. He had to work.
This was only the first stage. If the egg didn’t hatch within thirty days, prospective dragon riders would be allowed to ascend the stage and touch and spend time with the egg to encourage the hatchling inside to come out.
If the egg hatched out naturally on its own, the nobles would be allowed to greet the newborn one by one.
Position to be the first to touch the egg or greet the new Rare hatchling was fierce. The hive would announce an official rank list at the end of this week, with the prospectives listed by noble rank, then would work its way down.
These ranks would move up and down as card duels were offered and bribes to drop out were accepted.
The fact was it would be a minor miracle for a nobody like Arthur to get in. Even Horatio was usually listed well above him due to his father’s former rank.
The only way Arthur would ever get in to see the hatchling was if the egg failed to hatch, the hatchling failed to link up to any of the nobles, and any of the well-off merchant and craft guild scions who bought their way in, the children of the hive elite, not to mention any ambitious card duelists.
It made him glad to have his Legendary card. With it in his heart, he knew he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in a firestorm of linking with the Rare.
But all the drama was a lot of fun to watch.
More importantly, all the new noble visitors to the hive was profitable.
Do you wish to equip Performer Class?
With practiced ease, Arthur switched out his Scholar class with his Performer class.
The world felt a little dimmer as if he couldn’t peer into the shadows as well or make connections that he had before. That was his three points of intelligence draining away.
Conversely, he felt the casual gazes of others sharpen on him. Even nobles automatically made way when Arthur brushed past, and smiles were easily given.
That were his three points of Charisma, thanks to the Performer class. The two additional points to his dexterity didn’t hurt either.
Achieving his Performer’s class last year made him realize that the same skill could be used in different classes. His Acting skill had been long since added to his thief class. But it was also the foundation of his Performer’s Class.
He supposed that made sense. A carpenter could build a house, a business, a wooden stage, or many other things. Why shouldn’t a skill be multi-disciplinary?
He needed his extra charisma and dexterity to thread his way through the hive tunnels while avoiding stepping on noble toes. It was packed. When he got to Bob’s Tavern, it was even more so with a line waiting out the door for tables.
Arthur ducked into a shadowy side entrance that led back into the kitchen. There, he was met with the boxes of produce he’d purchased from the market. Whoops. He’d forgotten about that.
Bob, who was walking past, noticed his arrival. He nodded to the boxes. “Those yours?”
“Get them out of the way. We’re going to be busy tonight and we don’t want anyone tripping and breaking their neck. Then I’ll need you upfront for the rest of the night. You’re to provide the full experience to these rich idiots.”
Arthur nodded, glad he’d already switched the cards.
He picked up the boxes one by one and walked them to the back storage. When he was certain no one was looking he shoved the box into his storage instead. From the outside, it looked like the full box popped out of his hands into nothingness.
That done, he took a moment to retrieve his rooster chick to check its health.
The baby chick peeped and struggled to jump out of his hand but looked healthy and well for being in storage for hours.
Satisfied, Arthur put it back and walked to the bar. Time for a show.
He’d achieved his Performer class while copying the antics of some of the more flamboyant bartenders. Technically, Arthur was too young to serve alcohol, but Bob paid the guards to look the other way. It helped that Arthur’s vest and clothing gave him a mature air.
The bar was packed with nobles demanding outlandish drinks, the finest wines, and the best-brewed beer. Bob’s two other bartenders were hard-pressed to keep up.
Arthur stepped in and started his show.
He didn’t just grab a wine bottle. He flipped it over his back, caught it as it came down in the front, and poured. Multiple glasses were poured with him holding the bottle high above the glass and somehow filling them equally without spilling a drop. For larger orders, he stacked the delicate glasses in a pyramid and did the same.
Soon, half-drunk customers noticed and started calling out requests. Arthur grabbed three wine bottles — dummies he’d placed ahead of time, filled with colored water — and started juggling three in the air.
Hoots and laughter accompanied his show.
Normally, Arthur would catch the dummy bottles by the neck and bow to the customers while subtly switching the fake bottle for a real one, which he’d use to pour.
This time a male voice drawled over the laughter, “Look father, we’ve got a jester for our entertainment! Let’s see if he can handle this!”
Movement flashed in the corner of Arthur’s eye. He caught an empty wine bottle on pure instinct and flung it up with the three dummies to the oohs of the crowd.
But the weight of the empty bottle threw his rhythm off. The empty bottle went too high and took too long to come down. Arthur’s juggling rhythm bobbled before he caught it again and threw it to join the others.
“Another!” the same man called.
Arthur felt like accidentally tossing one of the bottles at the man’s head. He might not have a choice. Keeping five items in the air was possible with his Juggling 9, skill, but not for very long.
This time he was ready and caught the new bottle as it came in. The new bottle was smaller and slimmer than the others which added even more difficulty.
Arthur was managing — barely — and had decided to catch the rest of the bottles and bow out after the next couple of throws.
Then a voice boomed out. “That’s low entertainment, Penn. I wonder if he can juggle a broken bottle?”
It wasn’t what the man said. It was the voice. His father’s voice.
Arthur fumbled his next grab and the dummy wine bottle slipped past his fingers and hit the floor. It didn’t break, but the next one did, sloshing colored water behind the bar. Arthur barely heard the mingled laughs, cheers, and boos. He managed to catch the last dummy and the two empties and turned to stare.
The heckler had his father’s voice, and a version of his father’s face. Tall and broad with a neatly trimmed beard his father never had, streaked with gray.
He stared at Arthur with laughing, arrogant blue eyes.
A foggy, half-forgotten memory in his distant childhood swam up in Arthur’s mind.
This wasn’t his father.
It was his brother, Arthur’s uncle.