Arthur felt the eyes of the nobles around turn his way.
Those who didn't know "Ernest Kane" — and most of them shouldn’t considering he didn't exist – figured out who he was through context clues.
Declining now would mark him as a coward. Not that he cared what nobles thought of him, but he assumed Penn would not want to associate with the cowardly.
Not only did Arthur have to accept the duel, but he also had to put on a good show.
Unfortunately, all of his skills were utility based.
He learned a couple of defense moves over the years from Kenzie, mostly. From what hints she dropped, her life before linking with Marteen had been difficult. She was a born scrapper.
So Arthur knew a few holds and throws — nothing spectacular, or anything that his card took notice of.
Luckily, he had figured out a couple of tricks to work around his card's foibles.
"I hadn't planned on dueling," he repeated, louder for the watching audience. "Do you mind if I grab something?”
He nodded to the table of appetizers.
"I recommend the dishware," Penn called, lifting a fresh wine glass in salute.
People laughed around him, and Mattew graciously nodded.
Arthur went over and plucked a bread knife and a serving knife. One had a serrated edge to cut through crusty bread, and the other was broad and flat with an edge that was of questionable sharpness.
They would have to do.
As Arthur jumped into the ring, he double-checked his classes to see what he had equipped.
He needed the dexterity and perception of his Thief class card, the luck of his Gambler class, and every skill of showmanship in his Performer class.
But what he needed the most right now was his Cooking class.
Arthur and Mattew faced each other. Though Mattew had put him here, his smile didn't have any malice to it. He looked like a man who knew the rules of the game and wanted to get this over with as soon as possible.
The noblewoman who’d acted as a referee laid before stood to lay out the rules one more time everybody's benefit.
Then she yelled, "Fight!"
A knife in each hand, Arthur braced himself.
He knew that this was likely a hopeless battle. He could lose in too many ways to count.
The best he could hope for was to put up a good fight and not embarrass himself too badly.
The two boys stared at each other for a moment, as if daring the other to make the first move.
Suddenly, Mattew brought his hand down in a short chopping gesture. At the end of his chop, a bobcat sprung into being. It sat obediently at his feet.
Another chop and a gray wolf did the same to Mattew's other side. This got a few appreciative claps and whistles. Not a surprise, seeing as this was the Wolf Moon hive.
The animals were indistinct and washed out, almost as if Arthur were looking at paintings of the creatures instead of the real thing.
Mattew had a summoning card, Arthur realized.
He had just gotten very, very lucky.
Focusing on his Butchering skill, Arthur’s gaze landed on the bobcat. His mouth stretched into a grin.
“Here kitty, kitty…”
But the duel was close — closer than it had any right to be. His Butchering skill gave him the wisdom of how to use the knife to cut, and exactly where. He even had some knowledge of how to skin the creatures, should they have stayed still.
The problem was there were two of them and they did not stay still.
Arthur got a few cuts into the bobcat as it leaped for his throat. Cuts that would have fileted muscle from bone quite nicely, had the creature been flesh and blood.
Instead, once his knife hit, the bobcat poofed away into mist and returned to Mattew’s side, whole again. Within moments it was running back to leap at Arthur.
It seemed Rare-ranked summoned beasts could return to the world several times in a row. That was… inconvenient.
The bobcat didn’t get the chance to reach him a second time. The wolf had already circled to get at Arthur while he had been distracted.
Arthur turned to see the animal — which was much, much larger than a dog — in mid-charge.
For a lost moment in time, he was no longer in the dueling ring. He was twelve years old and lost in the wilderness, facing down Scourge-wolves with mouths full of teeth.
His tenuous hold on his Butchering skill broke. He stabbed down with the bread knife out of panic and without any finesse.
A bread knife was rounded at the end, with the most “dangerous” part being the serrated bottom.
It did nothing to the summoned wolf.
Jaws clamped down on his forearm — tight, but not crushing. Mattew seemed to be holding his beasts back.
“I yield!” Arthur yelled.
Just like that, the wolf and the bobcat poofed away.
“Winner! Mattew Rockhound!” the referee called, to cheers.
Losing wasn’t as humiliating as he feared it would be. The audience clapped for a job well done, and when Arthur stepped up to the main level, Penn offered another glass of wine.
“That was a tough match-up,” Penn said in commiseration.
Arthur shrugged. “Not really. Mine’s a utility card, and that was about as good as it’ll get.”
“A lover not a fighter, eh?” a nearby girl asked. She batted her eyes, and Arthur suddenly felt his cheeks go burning hot.
“… More of a worker than a lover,” he squeaked out, and then abruptly wanted to crawl under the nearest rock.
The girl took pity on him, tittering a laugh and then reaching out to pinch his cheek before turning away.
Penn gave him a sympathetic look. “It’s not hard to talk to pretty girls, but it does take practice.”
Arthur gulped his wine.
Behind them, the crowd started to clap as another pair of duelists took the ring. Penn used the cover of noise to lean in.
“But if you’re ever interested in a card good for fighting, I might have a line on something.”
Shoving a flash of exhilaration down, Arthur put on a polite but curious expression. “I already looked at the card shop prices around here. They’re good, but…” He trailed off.
Penn grimaced. “Yes, I know what you mean. Even the hive card shops only have cards fit for peasants. No, this is a more specialized collection. Something…” He looked around, “from a personal library.”
“Now that is interesting,” Arthur said. “Tell me more.”
“Not here.” Penn glanced around. “If you’re still interested, meet me at the Promenade tomorrow.”
Arthur returned to the apartment so late that it might as well be called early, riding on the high of his success.
True, he hadn’t gotten his hands on the cards yet, but he had pried some very valuable information out of the noble brat.
He stopped short when he opened the door and realized that all the candles were lit. And… since when did they have so many candles?
He blinked and looked around again, realizing his head was maybe foggier from the wine than he wanted to admit. The small apartment he shared with Horatio was fairly cluttered. Extra plates, cups, and blankets littered the floor. All arranged in pairs.
“Finally decide you still live here?” Horatio grumped on seeing him.
Arthur stepped in and shut the door. He had to walk carefully to avoid stepping on anything. “Why are you still awake? Don’t you got work at your bakery early in the morning? And what’s all this?”
He stopped as his mind finally caught up to what he saw.
There were doubles of objects everywhere.
He snapped his gaze to Horatio. “You’re keeping the card?”
“Yeah,” Horatio said with the air of someone who had just announced his own execution. “Put it in my heart this morning.”
This was big news.
“Then why are you acting so moody about it?” Arthur asked. “That’s a valuable card, even for a Rare.”
“I know!” Horatio snapped. “And it works perfectly!” He angrily gestured to the double pair of candle sticks in front of them like they had insulted his mother.
Arthur rubbed at his forehead. He wasn’t sure he had the patience for this tonight.
Seeing this, Horatio sagged.
“I know it has incredible potential. It’s just… I found out Sams is coming.”
“Your dragon?” Arthur asked, shocked.
“He’s not my dragon. That’s the problem. But yeah, word must have got to him that I got a Rare—probably Marteen running her mouth. Dragons like to talk-- and Sams sent word through a purple messenger. So now I have to tell him…” Horatio took in a sharp breath as if he were bracing himself. “That I picked a great card over him.”
Arthur looked at his friend. His best friend, who had been with him through thick and thin. Yes, Horatio could be a pain in the ass. But though he grumbled, and had a constant pessimistic attitude at life that made Arthur want to scream sometimes… He had never betrayed Arthur's trust.
And how had Arthur rewarded him for this? By being absent for the last few days while Horatio had made a wrenching decision.
"Why don't you show me what you can do with the card," Arthur offered.
Horatio brightened a touch. "I'm just getting started. It's one of those cards where the more you practice it, the more it levels the magic. It's a little like those class cards you read about, sometimes.”
Arthur nodded his understanding. Horatio continued. "Right now, I can only double simple, small things. And nothing alive." He shook his head. "I tried doubling a cooking apple while making pies this morning, and damn near fainted. But I think if I keep practicing, I'll get there.
"It uses mana?" Arthur asked.
"Yeah, which is another limitation. But then mana costs reduce with the more experience I gain with the card. I can double one of these candlesticks about every other hour, or so."
He grabbed up an unlit candlestick and tossed it in a light underhand throw. Arthur easily caught it.
He weighed it in his hand and examined it closely. There was no indication that the thing had been created by magic. There was even a small dollop of extra wax near the wick, a tiny imperfection that the original likely had.
"And… It will last?" he asked. Sometimes objects made by low-level cards would exist for a short time before evaporating completely back into a magical state. Sometimes they were no better than illusions.
"So far," Horatio said with a nod. Then he let out a long-suffering sigh -- one that he was practically infamous for -- and looked at Arthur sideways. "I was thinking if I could get good enough at this, you could let me in on the scheme you're planning."
Arthur jerked as if he had stuck his hand into an Uncommon lightning charm. "What scheme?" His voice was a touch too high.
Horatio rolled his eyes. "Whatever scheme has kept you away for the past few days. Plus, you're always up to something, Arthur. You’re either angling for a new side job or working some weird, convoluted deal between merchants where you get a cut. Or that time you crashed a busker performance by out-juggling them, and still damn near won even though I hadn't seen you juggle anything in your life--"
"I'm not that bad--"
Horatio continued. "Now you've gotten your hands on a Rare storage card. Tell me that you're not planning to do something profitable with it. Go on. I'll wait."
His friend looked smug, and for good reason.
Arthur looked away. "I have… A couple of ideas."
"Yeah?" Horatio perked up. At least as much as he normally did.
Arthur hesitated. There was so much he should tell his friend, but keeping secrets had long become a habit.
Plus, his still half-baked plan carried far more risk than any of his schemes had before.
He shook his head. "I'm still working out the details, but as soon as I have something solid, you’ll know. Tell me about Sams," he said, quickly changing the subject.
Horatio looked surprised. "What you mean?”
“You said he's coming? When?"
The corners of his friend’s mouth pulled down into a frown. "Tomorrow. Why? Do you want to meet him?"
"Yes," Arthur said, simply.
Having a dragon on his side would prove invaluable for his scheme.
No. Not a scheme. A heist.