Arthur picked his way from building to building, slinking along to the dark and out-of-the-way places. Luck was with him in that the sun was sinking and elongating shadows.
He didn’t spot the other kids from the gambling ring but used his wariness as an excuse to try to make his way to the inn, unseen. It was like a game.
He was nearly there when he was rewarded with a message from his card.
New skill level: Basic Stealth (Rogue/Thief Class)
With that came the wisdom of how to step with a rolling motion so that he might better obscure his footsteps.
He was grinning as he finally stepped out of the shadows to the road, walking right up to the inn. There was no sign he’d been followed. He had gotten away cleanly.
At three full stories, it was the tallest building in town. Possibly the widest, too, because an equally long stable house was attached to the property.
He assumed that most visitors to the town were traders going from one part of the kingdom to the other. So, it made sense that the inn got a lot of business.
The lobby was more like a saloon where visitors and locals alike sat around tables to drink.
Red sat at one of these with a fan of playing cards in his hand. Unfortunately, he was playing against Second and several of his friends.
Arthur quietly walked up and stood just to the side where he could view Red’s playing cards. They were the normal kind, of course. Not the magical. He didn’t know much about card games but watched as the men made bets against one another, exchanged cards, and added coins to a growing pile in the middle.
Two hands in and Second snarled, throwing down his hand of cards. “Your Piss-Ant apprentice is bad luck, Red.”
Arthur flinched but Red didn’t blink.
“Poker is less about luck than it is skill.”
Skill? Arthur’s ears pricked at that.
Second glared at him, but Red hadn’t told Arthur to go away. So, Arthur stayed where he was, carefully watching the next couple of rounds. Slowly, he got a sense of how the game was played, though he didn’t gain an official skill for it.
He guessed he needed to play to grasp a full understanding.
His chance came when Second lost the pot again. He rose from the table with a snarl. “I’m getting a drink.”
“Can I play?” Arthur asked the moment the man had stepped from the table.
Several unfriendly gazes slid his way. No one said anything.
Arthur reached into his pocket and pulled out his hard-earned pennies. “I have coins.”
Red frowned at him. “You were supposed to spend those in town.”
“There wasn’t anything I wanted to buy,” Arthur lied.
“Eh, deal the Piss-Ant in,” one of the men said. “At least until Second comes back.”
“Fine,” another agreed. “But I’m not going to go easy on him.”
Red nodded and Arthur quickly took his place at Second’s seat.
The buy-in was one penny, so he flicked one into the pot along with everyone else.
He had very little clue of what he was doing. His first hand was a pair of eights. Not great, but it was something.
Arthur decided to bluff, only exchanging one card when the dealer asked.
His next card was a two of clubs. Useless to him.
He ended up losing that hand, and two of his pennies, to one of Second’s friends.
But to his delight, he got the skill he was looking for.
New skill gained: Game proficiency: Poker (Five-card draw) (Gambler Class)
Due to your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 3.
It had taken him a few rounds earlier with the dice game to gain a skill. It seemed that careful observation at first quickened the process.
He had no time to try out his new skill. Second had come back from the bar with a fresh mug of beer. He scowled at finding Arthur in his place.
“You keeping the seat warm for me, Piss-Ant?” He grabbed the back of the chair with his free hand. Arthur hastily rose before he could be dumped out.
“He was just filling up the table,” Red said calmly. He looked to Arthur. “Ernest, the staff will be serving supper soon. Why don’t you make yourself useful in the kitchens? They may discount us for the extra pair of hands.”
Reluctantly, Arthur put down his cards. He wasn’t too upset because Red plucked the penny he’d just used as a new buy-in and flicked it back to him.
No one objected. Arthur got the impression they just wanted him gone. No one wanted to play cards with a little kid.
He made his way through the back door and to the kitchens. There, he introduced himself to the head cook.
She looked harried and also not interested in help. “Go get us a couple of fresh buckets from the well out back, then get out of our way.”
That task was done easily enough. Arthur marveled a little about how little people expected from him. Since traveling with the caravan, he hadn’t worked nearly as hard as he did when it was time to till in dragon soil.
Since no one wanted him underfoot, he figured he would check out the stables now and see what kind of a bed he was in for.
To his surprise, all the carts had been wheeled into a large, clear area of the stables. That way they were guaranteed to be out of the weather if it began to rain.
The donkeys, oxen, and the caravan’s few horses had been bedded down in their own boxes for the night. There were large piles of fresh straw that would easily serve as a bed.
Satisfied, Arthur turned to head toward the entrance. Then he stopped.
Three large boys stood behind him about twenty feet back, blocking the exit to the stables. It was the referee from the dice game and two of his friends.
The referee sneered. “We were wondering where you went off to, you little sneak.”
Arthur stiffened. “What are you talking about?”
“You’re a cheater and we want our money back!” one of the other boys growled.
The ref nodded. All three boys advanced menacingly. “That’s right. You came in, pretending like you didn’t know anything about the game. Then you walked away richer for it. Did you and Sanda have a deal?”
This was bad. Arthur curled his hands into a fist. “I don’t know who Sanda is—wait, the girl? I never met her before. It was just luck!”
And his skills.
“Luck, nothing,” the ref said. “We want our money back.”
Arthur backed up, but he didn’t have far to go. They’d boxed him in good and he cursed himself as an idiot for not taking their threat seriously. “I don’t have your money,” he lied. In actuality, he had several pennies left.
“Then I guess we’ll have to beat it out of you,” one of the boys sneered. He looked like he was going to do it even if Arthur had given him the coins.
Arthur backed another step. His shoulder hit something soft and crackly that smelled of a rich, spicy smoke scent. Great. Second’s cart.
“He’s lying about the money,” the ref said. “My card says so.”
“No, you’re lying!” Arthur snapped. Not the best comeback, but he doubted any of these boys were carded. They were larger than him, but only because they were a few years older.
As one, the boys lunged for him. Arthur tried to duck away and rush through a gap between the ref and the leftmost boy. He wished he had some skill for escape or swordplay or something. But he had nothing. Only his wits, which had failed him tonight. And his speed, which wasn’t much.
To his surprise, he nearly managed to plow through the gap between them… until one of the boys grabbed him by the collar and hauled him back.
Arthur swung. His fist glanced off the boy’s shoulder and felt like hitting a brick wall.
In the next second, one of the boys grabbed his flailing arm. The other snagged the second.
While he was pinned, the ref swung his fist and Arthur hard in the stomach.
Arthur’s breath blew out. He doubled over and for a horrible moment, he thought he was going to throw up right there.
“Get his money!” Ref yelled.
Grabby hands started searching his shirt and pants pocket.
“What’s going on here?”
The three attackers stopped dead at the booming voice. They turned.
Second stood at the open doorway, looming large and dangerous.
Arthur opened his mouth to yell for help. He didn’t much like the man, but he was Red’s apprentice. That had to mean something. Right?
But in the next moment, Second's entire form blurred forward. In one eye-blink he was at the stable’s entrance. The next he stood right in front of them all.
He grabbed the boy on Arthur’s right and hauled him away with a surge of strength that sent the boy tumbling.
The other two yelped and dropped their grip on Arthur to run. Not fast enough.
Second aimed a kick at the ref’s backside as he passed. The boy actually flew forward a few feet at the blow, hit the ground on all fours, and then scrambled to run away with one hand over his butt and limping.
Arthur sagged back, realizing at the last moment he was leaning against Second’s tobacco.
He managed to straighten just as Second turned to him. “You causing trouble, Piss-Ant?”
“No.” With one hand wrapped around his aching stomach, he reached the other into his pocket. He still had the coins. “I just played dice with them. They thought I was cheating. I wasn’t,” he snapped.
“So that’s what you were doing today? You good at dice?”
Arthur was taken aback by the question. “Yeah. Kind of. I walked off with more than I came with.”
Second’s eyes narrowed. Thoughts were churning behind his eyes, but Arthur couldn’t guess what they were.
Well, he supposed he should say something to the man for saving him from a robbery and possibly a beating. “Thank you,” he bit out.
Second snorted. “You owe me one, Piss-Ant. Remember that, when I come calling.” With that, he walked back to the stable’s entrance, then paused and looked over his shoulder. “Supper will be up in a couple of minutes. Clean yourself off and get in.”
Arthur nodded, a little thrown. He hastened to a clean bucket of water to do as he was told.
As he did, he wondered what had brought Second into the stable in the first place. Surely it wasn’t to come to tell Arthur that supper was almost ready.
No. He’d come to check on his cart, Arthur realized. The man was protective of his tobacco.
And the other day one of the men who worked for Second had activated his trap card just to keep a mound of leaves from falling out.
Arthur turned from the bucket to take a long look at the cart.
Why was the tobacco piled up that high? Shouldn’t it be in bags or crates to protect the leaves? The tarp kept them from drying out to the point where they might go moldy. It seemed like an awfully stupid way to transport tobacco.
Unless… that wasn’t the point.
The tobacco smelled potent. People smoked it all the time to feel good. Maybe it had other qualities, too. Maybe qualities that would block a Treasure Seeker.
Of course. Second wasn’t hauling a mound of tobacco at all. He was hauling something under it.
A surge of excitement washed away the lingering pain from the gut punch.
There were only a few things he could think of worth that kind of treatment.
Tonight, Arthur intended to discover what Second was hiding.