Kenzie waited until the exact second after Leader Valentina ascended to the upper ledge to rejoin the egg. Then she whirled on Arthur.
The only response Arthur could give was a sickly smile. He was stunned, too. First by finding the dead dragon, second by the leader’s reactions and the confirmation that the tiny dark egg was a Legendary. And now against all luck and logic, Valentina had recognized him.
He couldn’t keep his gaze from flicking up to the ledge. The leaders were having an animated discussion around the egg. Possibly on how to safely move it.
If Legendary eggs were so dangerous, how did anyone ever manage to link with one?
Arthur’s non-answer wasn’t good enough for Kenzie. She gripped his upper arm tight.
“How deep in the dragon soil pit are we?”
“You’re not a noble!” she hissed.
She was wrong there. Well, in a way. That reminder was enough to sober him. He finally ripped his attention from the egg to Kenzie.
“You know I had to get close to some of the nobility,” he said carefully, aware people were milling around. “Baron Kane is a minor noble from the other side of the kingdom. The chances of anyone looking up the records of his children are slim.”
“And if they do?”
Arthur found he didn’t have an answer.
Kenzie let out a breath. “Okay,” she said, “You know the best thing to do when you’re caught in a lie?”
“Uh…” He dearly hoped she wasn’t about to say, ‘Tell the truth’.
But he should have expected better from Kenzie.
“You double down. Come on.” Still gripping his arm, she pulled him away.
“The bells aren’t ringing,” Arthur said.
Kenzie gave him an odd look. They had left the hive slopes behind them and were currently walking through the city. Marteen had elected to stay behind and mark a vigil over Cori’s body.
Arthur thought it was odd. Dragons died not infrequently during scourge eruptions and while there was some sadness, it was nothing like this. When he’d asked Kenzie about it, she remained tight-lipped.
“The dragons see dying to scourge as different.” She hadn’t elaborated past that.
The further Arthur got from the hive slopes, the better he could think. And he realized it was too quiet.
“Shouldn’t there be celebrating?” he asked. “The whole city throws a festival whenever a new Rare is laid and a second one when it’s linked up.”
Kenzie bit her bottom lip. “I don’t think the hive will waste resources on celebrating until they know they can keep it.”
She shrugged. “Wolf Moon Hive is small, and we’ve got two Legendries. Yeah, Valentina is as old as dirt and Whitaker’s not much better, but I’ve heard of bigger hives swooping in to take Legendries before.”
Arthur had to battle down a flash of anger at the thought of strangers — of anyone — taking what ought to be his.
What ought to be the Wolf Hive’s, he meant.
Kenzie continued. “So I bet they’ll be keeping it quiet — well, as quiet as any dragons get. They’ll probably be gossiping come the next scourge-eruption.”
“Then where are we going?” he asked.
“I told you. We’re doubling down on Ernest Kane, which means you need to move full time into the hive—“
“And shed some of your assets.” She stared so openly at his chest that he had to resist the urge to cross his arms. Of course, she wasn’t staring at his muscles — or lack of them — she was looking pointedly at his heart.
“You want me to bring the kids out,” he said slowly.
“You heard Valentina. We need recruits.” She held up a hand as he started to object, “Look, I haven’t pried much into your dealings because I want to be able to tell a Truth Seeker that I didn’t know what you’re up to. But you’re already known to Valentina. There’s no use hiding, and if you’re found out someone might care enough to hire a Treasure Seeker strong enough to defeat your storage card. The decent thing to do is to make sure those kids aren’t in there.”
“The fact you might get some recruits has nothing to do with it, right?” he asked sardonically.
Kenzie laid a hand over her own chest as if shocked.
But she also had a point. The borderland village kids didn’t experience time while in his storage, so there wasn’t a reason to bring them out while the theft of Duke Rowantree’s cards was on everyone’s mind.
But Lional and Penn had finally packed up and returned to their duchy — presumedly to find another way to fix their shattered finances.
The Hive Leadership might be trying to keep the Legendary quiet, but it wouldn’t take long for the news to spread. Meanwhile, that Rare egg was on the verge of hatching, and dozens of noble kids would be vying for its attention.
No one would pay attention to a few extra Common and Uncommon recruits. Or Orphan brats showing up outside a scourge-eruption.
“All right.” He sighed. “I already talked to Freyja. She can’t house them all in her orphanage but can place the rest in others. I trust her.”
“The hive has plenty of room,” Kenzie said leadingly.
“That will be up to the kids,” Arthur told her, firmly.
It had been some months since Arthur had seen Freyja’s orphanage. While the grounds and the inside were as neat and tidy as always, the entire place felt… smaller than it had when he was younger. Even the hallways were narrow. He had to resist the urge to shift his shoulders, feeling like his own clothing was a touch too small.
When he’d left, Arthur had given the management of the kitchen to the care of another orphan. He resisted the urge to pop in and check how things were doing.
Freyja received them with a smile and led them back to her office where she closed the door.
She turned to Arthur. “Now, before we begin should we expect any effects from the storage?”
“Effects?” he repeated.
“Depending on your storage power — you’re not the only one with such a card,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Several on the Lobo evacuation teams transport their civilians that way. Though I’m told it can be jarring for those who have been stored…”
Kenzie stared at Arthur, looking a little sick. Apparently, this hadn’t occurred to her.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. He had only given Freyja the bare bones of the story, though she hadn’t asked many questions about how he had rescued the children, which he found interesting. “Time doesn’t pass for people in my storage. One eye blink they were in the village, and the next here. But they may be… overwhelmed by city life.”
That was an understatement. He at least had his travels with Red’s caravan to get him used to life outside the borderland village. Freyja visibly relaxed. “We can deal with confusion.”
“And… they may be underfed,” he added.
“We can deal with that, too. I trust you remember the kitchens?”
That earned a reluctant smile. “I do. Okay, I’ll start with the twins first.”
Mentally, he reached for the list.
Retrieving the children went both better and worse than he feared. Better because they were all healthy and, as he said, unaware of their time spent in storage. So there was a bit of disorientation from all of them. From their perspective, they had just said goodbye to their parents in a cabin at night and in the next moment found themselves in an office in daylight surrounded by strangers.
The twins were sensible girls and had each other to draw on for strength. They were also willing to take a preliminary recruitment chip from Kenzie. Freyja insisted on keeping them at the orphanage for at least a few days to “find their feet” before she would release the twins to the hive.
It was very much the same for the next couple of children who were younger, but still old enough to have received a card.
The babies and toddlers were easy enough as well. Freyja immediately called for her staff to warm bottles, and most were happy to be fed unwatered-down milk for once.
The problem came with the younger children, five to nine, who all were alarmed to find themselves somewhere new, and who wanted their parents.
Freyja swooped to handle these too, but their crying still cut Arthur to the core. He knew he had done the right thing — given these children a new home and a real chance at a good life. But the brokenhearted weeping of one girl who kept calling for her mother was hard to take.
He left the moment Freyja gave him the nod to leave. Kenzie, who must have been made of harder stuff, stayed to talk up the hive to the older kids.
Arthur practically fled.
“I did the right thing,” he told himself. But he didn’t feel like it.
As soon as he hit the streets outside the orphanage, he broke into a jog… then a run.
At first, it was only to get away. Then, for a whole other reason.
New skill gained: Running (General)
Due to your previous experience and your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 5.
Something new to level. Who would have guessed that running could be a skill?
He grinned to himself and pushed faster. Not that it was easy in these packed, busy streets. He got a few yells aimed his way, and he suspected he would get a dodging skill soon.
One of the canals lay ahead. He had walked along the stone borders hundreds of times before, and he’d always been tempted to see if he could jump it.
Now, that might earn him a skill.
Arthur lengthened his stride and hit the edge, leaping into the air…
And fell short.
Wolf Moon Hive’s short summer was ending and the water had already taken on an icy chill.
Spluttering, Arthur reached the edge just in time to earn.
New skill gained: Basic Swimming (Sailor/Fisherman Class)
Due to your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 3.
“Level 3?” he grumbled. “That’s not fair. I have had some experience.”
He was about to heave himself up when someone stuck a slim hand in his face.
“Come on, your Grace,” said a sarcastic voice. “I’ll help you up.”
He looked up to see a pretty young woman grinning down at him. Her hair was like fire in the setting sun, and she looked distinctly amused.
She also seemed familiar, but he couldn’t place her face.
Arthur wasn’t too proud to turn down the lift. He grabbed her hand, and she hauled him, dripping, out of the canal.
“Thanks,” he said.
“That was dumb, but entertaining.” She grinned again. “Ernest Kane, right?”
He felt his smile freeze. “That’s right, but how…?”
“Cressida Icehouse,” she said. “I watched your duel against Mattew Rockhound.”
Then it hit him. She had done more than watch. This girl had been the referee and the one to finally beat Penn, Arthur’s cousin.
This girl was one of the young nobles.