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Arthur opened the door a crack, saw darkness beyond. No candles were lit. He swiftly stepped in and shut the door behind him, heart beating fast as he listened for any sign he had been noticed from outside, or within.

All was quiet.

The only light came in through the windows, and the curtains were currently drawn. He stepped across, barking his shin once on a low piece of furniture.

Pushing the curtains back to let in the light, he looked around and was shocked at the state of the room. Dirty clothes were strewn about everywhere, as well as dishes left over from earlier meals — most still containing crusts of bread and glasses stained with the dregs of wine.

His tidying skill which had gotten quite advanced over the last few years working in the kitchens and cleaning up after himself, itched at his mind.

Ignoring it, he looked around. This apartment was meant for important guests and had two individual bedrooms as well as a private privy.

Arthur stepped to the first bedroom. Unsurprisingly, the bed was unmade. Half of the pillows were still scattered on the floor.

Didn't these people clean up after themselves? Why hadn’t any hive attendants checked on this apartment or done any cleaning for them?

Arthur didn't have much experience tending to the needs of visiting nobles, but he knew most brought an entourage of footman, maids, and other couriers. Arthur had concocted a story in his head of needing someone to sign off for a bill left over from the bar, in case he ran into any of them.

But not only was the apartment deserted, it seemed no one was attending his uncle or cousin.

The first bedroom belonged to his cousin, judging by the style of clothing strewn everywhere. Arthur hunted around but didn't find anything of note. Not even a coin to take.

He moved on to the second, larger bedroom. This also had an undone bed, but most importantly the writing table was strewn with paperwork.

With eagerness, Arthur stepped started reading.

Most of it was correspondence to other nobles. Talking about the state of the fields they shared along a mutual border. It seemed the harvest wasn't as good as his uncle had hoped.

His uncle’s signature was Duke Rowantree, with a wax seal impressed with what he suspected was the top of a signet ring.

It wasn't a surprise, but it still hits like a punch to the gut. Arthur leaned over, breathing in deep.

"The king had given the duchy to one of his friends," his father had told him.

Did Arthur's father not know? Did he just not want to go into the whole, sad story? Or had something happened in the last few years?

Had his uncle betrayed his father?

Gritting his teeth, he shuffled through the remaining paperwork, scanning over it as fast as his reading skill would allow.

More incomprehensible correspondence, but a few choice letters were the same simple letterhead, with the first few sentences inquiring about the state of the family before moving on directly to the heart of the matter: The duke planned to sell a part of the family's card library.

Arthur's lip lifted from his teeth in an involuntary sneer.

"That's my library!" he hissed and continued to dig through the letters. It seemed that the duke was writing to all the noble families, minor and major, who had come to the hive.

Setting the parchment down, Arthur went through the desk for more. There were only supplies.

Finally, he searched through the duke’s bags, letting his thieving skills guide him. He found no card shards or coins -- not a surprise as the duke likely had a card anchor bag and would carry any wealth on himself.

However, he did find a list written out in different handwriting from the duke's. Written neat as a line of printed text from a book, at first none of it made sense. He almost put it back, thinking it to be about crop yields until an acronym at the top caught his attention.

MoB (L)
LR (R)
TS (R)
EB (R)
EG (U)

 

And so on with ten more U's followed by twenty C's.

Legendary, Rare, Uncommon, Common.

This was a list of cards. He had no idea what the acronyms meant, but he assumed they were the names of the cards. There had to be a key somewhere. Arthur searched through the luggage but found nothing.

Perhaps the Duke kept the key with himself. The cards, too, would be kept in an anchor bag.

These were the cards he was trying to sell off. One of them was a Legendary.

The last pieces came together in his mind.

The lack of hired help. The fact the duke’s son was vying for a dragon when that was a position for lesser sons. Parceling out powerful cards like they were common goods.

They were in financial difficulties.

Good, Arthur thought viciously. Better that the King take back the land than to see a family traitor on it.

Of course, he had no idea of the depth of his uncle’s betrayal... but he was certain it was there.

In any case, he had lingered long enough. Every minute he spent in this apartment was a risk, but he was certain he would be back.

Arthur spent the next few minutes replacing the luggage and papers back where they found him. The general disarray helped cover his own tracks.

Arthur cracked open the front door and looked out to the corridor beyond. No one was within sight.

He stepped out, straightened his shoulders as if he belonged there and had nothing to hide... and quickly made his way out.

He was about to round the corner before he almost, quite literally, ran into his cousin.

Both boys brought up short, eye to eye.

Quickly ducking his head, Arthur mumbled an apology and made a move to step around him.

A hand landed on his shoulder. "Hold on a second. I know you, don't I?"

Almost involuntarily, Arthur looked back up to his cousin's face. It was... not a bad face, he admitted grudgingly. Compared to any boy in the border village, Penn would have been downright handsome. Clear skin, a broadly muscled frame, wide mouth and light blue eyes. His tousled, curly hair was dark, and he wore clothing of a fine cut.

The look in his eyes wasn't of anger, just puzzlement. He clearly knew Arthur's face but couldn't say from where. The alcohol the other night hadn't helped.

He had to act quickly before he connected him to the juggling bartender the other day. "I was at the Prominade for the Rare egg," Arthur said with a quick dip of his head. "Trying my luck, you know."

Penn's face cleared. "Oh, that's right." Then to Arthur's shock he stuck out a hand. "Pennrow Rowantree."

Arthur's Acting skill gave him enough improvisational ability that he didn't hesitate. He simply blurted out the first name that came to mind. "Ernest Kane."

"Kane?" Penn asked.

Two entire seconds into this lie and Arthur already deeply regretted it. "I'm not surprised you haven't heard of the name. We're a small Barony out near the borderlands. We're nothing like your family's lands, I'm sure. You're the Duke's son, if I'm not mistaken?"

As he spoke, he let his works become more clipped and precise in the fashion of some of the noble's he had heard.

"That's right, my father is the duke," Penn said, happy to talk about himself like most nobles. "Well, Ernest, based on your outfit I bet you're going to try your hand at the duels today."

Arthur's mind briefly stalled out. Duels? Then he remembered that nobles challenged each other for the first to see the egg. "Ah, yes," he invented, happy to take up the excuse for why he was dressed simply. "I was hoping to get a lay of the land before the duels began." He gestured down the corridor.

"Well, speaking of lay of the land..." Penn cast a chagrined look over his shoulder. "I seem to have left my hive guide behind. Would you mind waiting here a moment while I change? It won't take but a moment. Then you and I can go to the dueling grounds together. You know the way?"

"I do," Arthur confirmed, just to encourage his cousin to go away.

"Good man." Penn clapped him on the shoulder. Then he made his way back down the tunnel to the apartments. "I won't be gone long!" he called again.

The moment the man's door closed, Arthur turned and sprinted down the tunnel.

He only got a few steps before he pulled himself up short.

This was a prime opportunity. He had questions about the dutchy, about his cousin and uncle... and about their cards.

Plus, Penn had made a point of recognizing him. If he ran now, he would have to stay out of his cousin's way for the foreseeable future.

If he walked away, he would waste a prime opportunity and put himself under suspicion.

Arthur turned and walked back.

When Penn walked out of his apartment a few minutes later, he found "Earnest Kane" still waiting for him.

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A note from HonourRae

Probably should have mentioned this at the beginning of the month but we're like five chapters into book 2 on Patreon. So if you want more of this story right away, that's the place to get it.

Edit: But it will still continue to be posted here. Obviously. :)


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HonourRae

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