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“Are you we take the right-hand tunnel?” Penn asked with a tone in his voice that implied he wasn’t asking at all. “I’m fairly certain the dueling grounds are to the left.”

Arthur knew for a fact they needed to go the right. The left was a shortcut to the hatchling nests.

But it didn’t take a genius to know that acting too knowledgeable about the layout of the hive would lead to suspicion. As much as he wanted to tell Penn off on principal alone, Arthur knew he had to be smart.

He was trying to ingratiate himself with the other noble and gain his trust. The best way to do that with the upper class was to give them their way.

He hesitated for a moment. “I think you may be correct.”

“I’ve always been blessed with an excellent sense of direction,” Penn said as he confidently led Arthur in the wrong direction.

Soon enough, they stumbled right onto the nesting grounds.

It had been a while since Arthur had last seen this place. He didn’t often like to visit as hatchlings looked at each new arrival with hope in their eyes. That hope dimmed when they felt the incompatible card in Arthur’s chest. Not to mention he was always in danger of running into a sensitive baby Silver who might start asking uncomfortable questions about the high-powered magic it sensed in him.

So Arthur was shocked at the changes he’d seen. There were three pens more than before, and every one of them was full of Commons and Uncommon hatchlings. Some were almost as big as a donkey. They’d been there awhile.

He flashed to Kenzie telling him the hive admin was pressuring her and Marteen to have active recruits.

What was going on with all of the Commons and Uncommons?

Penn stopped short upon seeing the cavern. “What—Oh. These were the young beasts are kept?” He paused awkwardly. “They are… rather cute.”

Arthur nodded, watching a few purples tumbling over each other in a wrestling match.

One red dragon spotted them and dropped a torn blanket it had been playing tug-of-war with a green. “Over here! Over here!” it called in a high, childish voice.

Almost all play stopped as dozens of heads shot up to look around at them.

A dirt brown dragon standing nearby sagged so dramatically its wings spread on the floor. “Don’t bother. They don’t smell right.”

A chorus of “aw’s” followed its pronouncement.

Penn shifted uncomfortably. “What do you think they mean by that?”

“Because of our Rare cards,” Arthur said.

A harried-looking nest attendant came up to them, bowing awkwardly. Luckily, it wasn’t someone Arthur recognized.

Arthur nodded to her. “Do you know the way to the dueling grounds?”

“Ah yes, milord. You want to go down that tunnel. Three right turns at the junctions should do it.” She dipped in a little curtsey before rushing off.

Huh. She’d seen him as a noble. That had never happened before. Then again, Penn looked every inch a noble, so it must be the company he kept.

“You are a strange sort of noble,” Penn commented as they made their way back.

“Why?” Arthur couldn’t help a small jab. “Because my sense of direction is better than yours?”

“You asked the help for directions, not demanded.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “She wasn’t the help, seeing as she didn’t work for me.”

“Still.” Penn went quiet, and Arthur had to work not to show any nervousness and act like he didn’t care about Penn’s opinion one way or another. “Still,” Penn continued, “It’s not a bad thing. Some of our peers are insufferable, don’t you think?”

Arthur chuckled nervously, not wanting to fall into a trap of agreeing or not.

Thankfully, Penn let it drop.

Arthur hadn’t visited the hive’s private dueling grounds often, either. He and Horatio went to the main city arena as often as they could during festivals and occasional competitions. The only ones to use the much smaller hive dueling grounds were riders who had conflicts that couldn’t be resolved, or more commonly, bored noble brats.

Most of tonight was to be blustering and shadowboxing. Arthur preferred the official matches.

When he and Penn walked in, he saw to his relief no one was currently dueling. All the young nobles stood around in plain dueling clothing However, the cut and fabric were still of exquisite quality. Much better than his own.

He felt eyes pass over him and land on Penn who was much more richly dressed.

Quickly, Arthur deactivated the Nullify on his Gentleman Charm and activated it on his Trap card.

Some of those gazes returned to touch on him briefly before moving away.

I am a noble, he reminded himself. It was meant to be a lie. I need to ingratiate myself with Penn today. Earn his trust.

“Come on. Let’s see what trouble we can stir up,” Penn said and led Arthur to a knot of other boys who were talking with glasses of wine in hand.

One of the boys raised a glass to their arrival. “Just who I wanted to see.” He turned to a side table behind him and poured out glasses for Penn and Arthur though he was careful to shield the wine bottle with his body. Turning back, he gave them their drinks, eyes on Penn. “Go on. Give it a go.”

Penn raised the glass to his nose and gave the wine a performative sniff. Then he sipped and made a face. “Well, I can tell you that this is definitely not to my taste.”

“He’s stalling,” another boy said with a grin.

“I know I would be shamed if this swill came from my vineyards,” Penn said, and the three other boys chuffed a laugh.

Curious, Arthur took a taste. His Sommelier skill kicked in. Penn was right. This wasn’t very good at all.

More than that, he had tasted this vintage before.

“This is that crap they sell from around here, isn’t it?”

Instantly, all attention was on him. Arthur pretended not to notice, swirling the deep red wine in his glass, and taking another sip.

“Yeah? Which vineyard,” the boy who had poured asked.

Arthur smiled. “I’d hate to jump ahead. I believe Penn still had to make his guess?”

Penn had a glint of amusement in his eye. It was obvious to Arthur he hadn’t known where the wine had come from, but Arthur had provided him a hint.

Due to the Wolf Moon’s northern climate, local vineyards only grew the hardiest of varieties. The taste reflected that. These wines were better for cooking than drinking.

But those who knew that much already had a good guess. There were a few major vineyards near the hive.

“This is a Half-Moon vintage. Those quaint fields on the slopes of the northern mountains,” Penn said. Then he lobbed the metaphorical ball back to Arthur. “What do you think?”

Arthur took another sip. “Yes, I do believe I catch notes of pine needle.”

That earned another derisive laugh from the nobles. They were too easy.

The boy who had thrown down the challenge sighed dramatically and brought out the bottle. Sure enough, it was a Half-Moon local vintage.

“Who’s your friend?” he asked Penn.

Penn grinned back. “May I introduce Young Earnest Kane, son of Baron Kane.”

“Kane?” one of the other boys asked.

“It’s a small barony on the outer edges,” Arthur said. “We don’t have much to do there other than to sit around and drink.”

“I hear that,” said a friendly-looking boy. “I’m Mattew, Baron Rockhound’s fourth son.”

Arthur shook hands and got names from the rest. None meant a thing to him.

Abruptly, Penn placed his glass aside. “Well, are we going to duel or are we going to sit around here and talk?”

“I can sit around here and look,” Mattew pointed to his chin to a flock of noble girls who were clustered together.

Penn rolled his eyes. “I’ve got enough girls in my dutchy to keep me entertained. Who wants to fight?” He pitched his words loud enough to be heard throughout the room.

Instantly, conversations went quiet, and all attention turned their way.

With a slanted grin, Penn moved to the middle of the room. There was a sunken ring, clear of furniture with deep edges meant to mark boundaries.

“Well?” He extended his arms out and turned, issuing a challenge to them all. “Who will go first?”

A boy stepped up.

“I will!”

As the challenger jumped into the ring, one of the noble girls peeled off from the rest. She put her hands on her hips and looked around. “All right, let’s keep this clean gentleman. All fights end at first blood—“

“What if you got a blood card?” someone called out, to general laughter.

She glared at the interrupter. “Then it’s to yield. Anyone may bow out at any time without strike against their honor. We all know why we’re here.”

Those rules seemed toothless to Arthur, but then again these were the children of noble houses. Whether they got the Rare hatchling or not, all had lives of privilege and leisure in front of them. No one wanted to risk that.

Murmurs of agreement echoed around the room.

Penn and his challenger bowed to one another, and Arthur settled in for a good show.

He expected the duelists to immediately reach for their card anchors — arm tattoos or bags they held.

Instead, the challenger ran straight at Penn as if he planned to tackle him to the ground.

Two steps in and he disappeared only to reappear a moment later five steps away and to the right, still running at Penn.

Penn turned to meet him, but the boy flashed away yet again, this time appearing on Penn’s other side, a stride further away but still running at him.

Just as Penn turned, the boy once more vanished.

He had a teleport power.

Teleport powers were… contentious throughout the card-wielding community. Common and Uncommon teleport cards were restricted by huge mana costs, long cooldowns, and restrictions on distance.

Though Arthur’s own trap card, Return to Start, was at Rare rank it also had cooldown restrictions as well as an inconvenient trigger to get it to work. The benefit was it didn’t require mana and there were no boundaries on location. Arthur could teleport across the kingdom if he could key in a point there.

This noble’s teleport card was likely a Rare as well as he was aiming for the egg. However, Arthur would bet cold money the teleportation was restricted to within a few feet of its starting location.

Though the boy blinked around Penn, sometimes closer, sometimes further away, he never teleported more than twenty feet or so from where he started. He was trying to throw Penn off his game with the ability to instantly pop in everywhere.

Judging by the way Penn was a moment too late to turn to face the boy, it was working.

Finally, after a full turn to try to face him, the challenger blinked right behind Penn with a knife in hand.

Before Arthur had time to do more than suck in a breath and think ‘I hope that blade’s dull’ Penn reached behind himself and caught the challenger’s wrist.

Then with a twist of the body, Penn brought the other boy up over his shoulder and threw him down on the ground.

The boy’s wheeze was loud enough to be heard through the silent room.

Still holding his wrist, Penn plucked the knife from the boy’s limp hand.

“Do you yield?”

“I yield,” the boy croaked.

Penn looked up to the watching crowd. “Who’s next?”

The second challenger was a noblewoman who wielded a sword covered in magical purple fire. Echoes of that same purple fire danced to the right and left in dagger-like shapes, making it look like she was surrounded by a storm of fire.

Penn must have been somewhat familiar with her ability already. Seeing her enter the ring, he excused himself for a moment and pried a wooden leg off of an upturned table.

The leg still had wooden dowels sticking out of the end, giving it a savage appearance. Arthur expected him to use it like a club.

Instead, when the challenge began, Penn moved like the bulky table leg was a short, perfectly balanced bow staff. He turned aside every slash from the fiery sword, earning only char marks on one end of the leg. With the other, he drove the girl back, so she was the one giving ground. She struck out with the fiery daggers, but he ducked and weaved around them as if they were standing still.

He backed her against the edge of the ring. Her heel caught the upraised lip that marked the barrier and she fell on her back.

Victory to Penn.

“Anyone else?” Penn called to the cheering crowd.

“That was amazing,” Arthur muttered.

“Oh, he’s always like that,” Mattew said, sipping his wine. Unlike most of the boys, he looked distinctly annoyed like he was waiting for this to be over so the real fun could begin.

“What do you mean?”

Mattew gave him a look. “No offense meant, but your barony’s a little out of favor, yes?”

Arthur stiffened. Not because he was insulted but because he worried he’d made a mistake. “Yes. There was… an incident with a card some years back.”

Mattew smirked. Then he took pity on Arthur. “As I thought. Well, whenever we young nobles get together, inevitably the challenges begin. And I'll tell you one thing." He raised his hand to point at Penn. "He wipes the floor with us every time. It gets downright exhausting."

Arthur stared at Penn who was preparing for his next duel, walking around the arena and shaking out his arms. "Every time?”

He suddenly felt more grateful that he had not been caught snooping in Penn’s rooms.

Mattew nodded. "With weapons, without weapons, it doesn't matter." He took another sip and mumbled his next words behind his glass. "I would give it a hell of a lot to know exactly what kind of card he has."

Arthur took a chance asking his next question, as Mattew had already given him the excuse of being an outsider. "Every duel I've seen, the participants pull from card anchors. No one has done that yet."

Mattew snorted his wine so bad that he choked for a few moments. Then he looked at Arthur in unconcealed amazement. "You really are from the backend, aren't you? No, don't take the insult," he said, with a wave of his hand. "I get it. I am, too. The only reason I'm here at all is that my father recently became rich off a mine on his land. No, only commoners and exhibitionists use card anchors. Officially, noblemen fight only with the cards in their hearts. We fight heart-to-heart, you see?" He tapped his chest meaningfully. "And you know there's a limit to what any sane person will put in their heart. Technically, it's a poor showing to use more than one card in a duel, but of course, nobody would ever be able to prove it."

Arthur nodded and turned his attention back to the ring. The next duel was set to begin.

This, he thought, might be Penn’s match. His opponent had manifested a glittering silver bow out of thin air, a matching quiver of ghostly arrows on his back.

Seeing this, Penn barked out a laugh and held up a finger in the universal ‘wait a moment’ gesture.

Then, before the opponent could argue, he leaped out of the ring to one of the tables with appetizers set out. Delicate pastries went flying as Penn stole one of the plates and came rushing back into the ring.

"Okay," he said. "Now I will begin."

"That's not legal," called out one of the onlookers, echoing Arthur's thoughts.

Penn held up the plate. It had a pretty floral design on it and looked as fragile as spun sugar. "It's only a piece of porcelain. Not even reinforced. You have my word."

The girl who had been playing referee up until now looked to the challenger. "Do you have any objections?”

This put the young noble in an awkward spot. He had the right to object, of course, but Penn had just staked his honor on it being a regular plate. And who would be frightened of that?

After a moment's hesitation, he shook his head.

"Very well then," the noble lady said. "Make it clean, gentlemen."

That last phrase seemed aimed directly at Penn who just grinned impishly back at her.

The fight began, predictably, with the challenger firing one of his ghostly arrows at Penn. Not only did he seem to have an unlimited supply in his manifested quiver, but the arrows also could curve in the air and come at Penn from different sides. He fired one after another, and within seconds five gleaming arrows rushed across the ring.

Penn used his plate like a shield, intercepting them so fast it was as if he had foreknowledge of where they were going to arrive. In one smooth liquid motion, he had stopped every single arrow. As they hit, each dissipated into steam. Chips flew off the porcelain plate, proving that it wasn't reinforced.

Then, before the challenger could fire more, Penn threw his plate with a deceptively easy flick.

The plate spun through the air like a decapitating blade.

The challenger yelped and tried to hunch away in an instinctive reaction. As he did, he lost control of his manifested weapon. The ghostly bows and arrows evaporated as the plate struck him on the side of the shoulder.

It cracked into dozens of pieces, leaving the challenger unhurt, but a little stunned.

Penn grinned at him with teeth. "Do you want to continue? There are plenty more plates in this room."

"I… I yield," the noble squeaked.

"I bet he is using multiple Rare cards," Mattew muttered.

It seemed since he had found a sympathetic ear from Arthur, he was more than happy to continue. Compared to most nobles, he was downright friendly.

Arthur nodded to keep him happy, but inside he doubted it.

A suspicion had risen within him.

The sheer variety of Penn’s abilities, from defense to offense, plus the easy competency in many different forms told Arthur that he was using skills.

As the son of a Duke, Penn should have access to Legendary rank cards. They had enough to actually sell one.

Arthur suspected Penn had a skills-based utility card. One that was uniquely suited to fighting. Perhaps a legendary rank card, too.

That would explain why the Duke was willing to put his son up for a Rare ranked egg. Arthur had proven it was easy to fool a Silver dragon who didn't know any better into believing he had a Rare card. Or the admin simply trusted a nobleman not to lie.

But with a Legendary in his heart, Penn was not at risk of accidentally linking with a Rare hatchling. He was here for personal connections. To sell cards.

He had a legendary skills card. Very much like Arthur's.

Maybe almost exactly like Arthur's own.

Could be seeing someone using a card from the same set as his Master of Skills?

 


 

It took five duels to see Penn defeated. It wasn't through any particular effort, but because it seemed his stamina had finally worn out.

The girl who had been acting as a referee finally stepped in, conjured a bear made of pure fire, and ran Penn around the arena until he was exhausted.

Penn did not give up without a fight. He tried to go after the caster who seem to be completely unprotected. But the flame beast simply puffed into smoke and reappeared right in front of her before Penn could strike with a fist.

Penn might have combat skills, but he could still burn.

Panting heavily from exertion — and likely a little smoke inhalation — Penn aimed a wide grin at the girl.

"I yield."

This received a round of applause that was tinged with relief.

When Penn jumped up to the main level, everybody around him immediately offered drinks and praise.

Following his nudges from his Acting skill, Arthur made to do the same.

He was stopped by a tap on his shoulder.

He turned to see Mattew smiling at him, crookedly.

"What do you say? One son of a minor barony fighting another?"

"I hadn't planned to duel," Arthur admitted, truthfully.

"Just here to see the show?" Mattew asked.

Arthur nodded, glad that the other boy understood.

Mattew clapped Arthur on the shoulder. "Take it from me, the best way to keep the sharks away is to dive right in."

With that, he jumped into the middle of the pit.

"I, Mattew Rockhound, fourth son of Baron Rockhound, challenge Ernest Kane to a duel. What say you, Earnest?”

Turns out he was wrong about Mattew being friendly.

They were all sharks here.

 

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HonourRae

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