Arthur stopped in shock in front of the building. His feet planted to the ground in horror.
After they got the last of the evacuees sorted out, Magda had led him through the city, where finally, they had come to this stop.
He hadn't actively practiced his reading skills, but he had gained a level though necessity by reading unfamiliar signage while in new towns.
This was a word he had seen several times before, emblazoned on a wooden archway that led into a small courtyard.
Technically, it said ‘Wolf Cub Orphanage’, but truly it was the one word that counted.
Magda, who had been leading the way, stopped and turned back. Her eyebrow raised. "Is there a problem?"
"You're dumping me in an orphanage?"
She saw his shock and let out a sigh. "I'm sorry, dear. Your father is not coming back. I know it will take time to adjust--"
She thought he was holding out hope. Quickly, Arthur shook his head and backed a step. "I don't wanna live in an orphanage. I can take care of myself."
"Not by hive law, you can't." She walked over and bent to his level. "This is the very best place for you right now. You'll have a roof over your head, food twice a day, education, and access to earn your own card shards."
He hesitated, looking up again at the sign doubtfully. "Education? Like classes and stuff?"
"Yes, by law all children between six and twelve are taught the basics. After that, most are apprenticed to a trade though the scholarly types are offered additional classes. We've had several smart boys and girls attend high classes in the main circle cities."
That meant nothing to Arthur. He dithered for a moment, glancing around wearily. "Where are all the kids now?"
She pointed to another, squat building that sat adjacent to the orphanage. "In class, of course. They'll be let out for lunch at noon and then expected to go to their work duties. The older children are off to their apprenticeships. Everyone will be back for dinner time. Arthur," she said, "I know we haven't known each other for very long, but I haven't led you wrong yet, have I?"
"No," he admitted, grudgingly.
She held out her hand.
It took him a moment to figure out what she wanted. Magda wanted to lead him by the hand like a little kid. Then again, she thought he was a little kid.
Still, he hesitated. "When I work, I can earn card shards?"
She chuckled. "You have a one-track mind, but yes. That is the main point. When you help out the hive, the hive helps you back by giving you the means to gain magic and skills to become an even more productive citizen. Maybe even a dragon rider. How does that sound?"
He wasn't sure, but for the opportunity for cards… he was willing to give this a try.
Arthur put her hand in his and Magda led him in.
The inside of the orphanage was about the size of the largest inn he'd seen in the outer towns. Everything was neat, but the rugs and spare furniture in the front hallway had a worn look about them like they had been put through hard use.
"Freyja?" Magda called.
The stairs creaked as a slim woman in a long skirt came down the stairs. Her dark hair was pulled back in a tight bun that gave her face a severe look. Her smile of greeting was warm but small.
"Magda. Are you bringing me a new arrival so soon?"
Magda released her grip on Arthur's hand to squeeze his shoulder instead. "This is Arthur. He's come to us from yesterday's scourge-eruption. I was thinking he might be a good roommate for Horatio."
Freyja's look sharpened. "You don't think he'll pick up his bad habits?"
"The opposite. Arthur's already proved to be self-reliant and a hard worker."
Who in the world was Horatio? And why was Magda springing this on him now?
Before Arthur could ask, Magda went on, "Arthur is very interested in earning card shards."
"Hmm." Freyja looked him up and down. "Well, it's too late in the day for you to join classes. If it's shards you're interested in, we best get you a work assignment first thing. I'll show you to your room and we can begin."
With one glance at Magda, Arthur followed Freyja's gesture to come up the stairs.
"I'm the head director of the orphanage," Freyja told him. "If you have any problems in the future, you come to me.” At his nod, she turned and started walking up the stairs. “Now, the first floor is for boys, the second floor is for girls. You aren't to go up to the second floor for any reason, you understand?"
"Why would I?" Arthur grumbled. There hadn't been any girls his age left alive in his old village, but the older teens had ignored him as much as the boys had. The young girls had been whiny and a lot of trouble.
A slight smile crossed Freyja's face, though she didn't answer. "I won't allow any bullying, stealing, or destruction of orphanage property. Punishment means work duties out in the dragon soil fields. You know what those are?"
Arthur caught himself right before saying yes: He'd worked with dragon soil all his life. “No.”
"It's hard, dirty work, ankle deep in fresh dragon shit," the woman continued, the curse snapping Arthur's attention sharp. "Usually, only criminals are put to work in the fields as long-term exposure can warp your flesh. The most obstreperous boys and girls usually need only one or two days in the field before they figure out it's not for them. Do you understand me?"
She... used a lot of big words, but Arthur caught the gist. "I understand. I'm not no thief."
"You are not a thief," she corrected. "Here we are." They had been walking down a long hallway at the top of the first landing. She opened a wooden door to show a small room with two cots on either side and a window in the middle. The room was just longer than a grown man was tall.
One cot was laid out with blankets so pristine it looked like no one had ever touched them before. The other was messy as if his roommate had kicked his blankets down before rolling out of bed and never bothered to remake it after himself again.
With a sigh, Freyja flicked her wrist. Rumpled clothing which had been scattered all through the room was plucked off the ground as if they were attached by invisible strings. They then flew over to the foot of the rumpled bed and dropped down in a pile.
Arthur tried not to gape, and then failed. "What kind of a card spell is that?"
"It's rude to ask people specifics about their cards around here, Arthur. Some may challenge you to a duel over it," Freyja corrected. "But as it happens, I'm proud of this card. It’s Uncommon Organization, and it was my first, earned when I was a girl in this very orphanage." She smiled her small, serious smile at him. "If I pushed enough mana into it, I could organize this entire room from top to bottom in a blink... but I would rather young men take care of their own tidying, don't you agree?"
Again, she didn't wait for his answer before she walked in and checked the deep chest which sat at the foot of the cot. Arthur caught a glimpse of folded fabric inside.
With a nod, Freyja rose. "You have three sets of clothes in here. Change, scrub yourself down in the bathroom at the end of the hall. Then meet me in the front lobby and we’ll start planning your future.”
The 'bathroom' was an interesting experience. Arthur had heard of indoor privies from the caravan’s men. He never expected to live in a place where he had access to one, himself.
There were three privies for the boys on this floor to share, as well as a row of gleaming sinks. When he twisted a tap, water came gushing out, clean and plentiful. No spell card required.
Arthur cupped some in his hands and washed as best he could. It was almost as refreshing as jumping into a stream.
The clothing was by far the nicest he'd ever worn. Plain, but thick fabric. His shirt was a cream color, his pants a dull brown. They had creases in them as if they had never been worn before.
The chest didn't have any shoes, but his boots would suffice.
Freshly washed and dressed, Arthur came down the stairs. Freyja gave him a look over. “Let me take a look.” Stepping forward, she straightened Arthur’s collar and gave him a closer glance over, nodding once. “Acceptable.”
Arthur, however, looked around with dismay on his face. “Where did Magda go?”
He assumed that the woman would stick around, though now that he thought about it, he wasn’t sure why. But her sudden disappearance felt like abandonment. And he felt a pang of something deeper. A very pale echo of grief, like when he had set eyes on his mother’s grave.
Magda hadn’t even said goodbye.
Freyja gave him a sympathetic look. “She is a busy woman and if she is not careful she becomes attached to the children she helps. Trust me, it is easier like this. No doubt you will see her around. Now,” she added in a brisk tone. “Let’s you and I talk about your work assignment. Do you have a preference?”
“I want to earn cards,” Arthur said at once.
Freyja’s lips pursed as if she were trying not to smile. “That’s admirable, Arthur. You should know that the quality of cards matters just as much — if not more — than the quantity. One good Uncommon-rank is worth three of an average Common.”
He decided to play a little dumb. “But the sooner I get a card, the sooner I can get healthy and stuff?”
“Once your body can accept a card, yes. It’s not a matter of age, but maturity. Twelve is only the average.” Again, her smile is sympathetic. “Girls are usually able to gain cards a little faster than boys. It’s why, at this age, they’re often the same height. Though don’t worry, you’ll outgrow them soon.”
Arthur didn’t give a fig about girls, and he already knew that he was mature enough to accept cards, but he nodded along anyway.
Freyja told him to wait and went into her office which was just down the hall. She returned moments later with a softly glowing white stone in her hand.
She held it up for his examination. An image was burned into the stone of a card, a simple human body dominating with lines radiating around it. It was bordered by a rectangular box, like a card.
“What’s this?” Arthur asked, pointing to it.
“A card-mark, of course. I’m sure you’ve seen enchanted farm equipment with it — it draws the power of a linked card.” She held it up. “This will tell me how long you have to wait for a card.”
Right. Because they thought he was younger than he was. Arthur hesitated. Would the stone show her that he already had two cards? He wanted to keep that information private. If someone found out, his whole story might fall apart. Worse, they might try to take his cards from him.
“I don’t have to know right now,” he hedged.
“I promise it won’t hurt. Hold still.” Before Arthur could form more of an objection, she pressed the flat of the stone against his forehead.
He expected it to be cool, but it was slightly warm.
Arthur couldn’t tell what it did but grimaced as Freyja’s eyebrows rose. He practically had to bite his tongue to keep from asking if something was wrong.
New skill level: Acting (Thief/Performer Class)
Apparently, his card thought was the smart move.
Freyja recovered quickly and smiled down at him. When she removed the stone, it was glowing as if an invisible candle flame had been lit inside. “Well, it seems you are ready for a card right now.”
Arthur didn’t have to pretend his relief.
“But you still must earn your shards, first.” Freyja slipped the card-marked stone into her pocket. “There are two ways to earn a card: Purchasing one with coins and putting one together with shards. Both are valid, but for your first card I recommend you build one using shards.”
“Because the card it creates comes from your soul. Generally, the first card you add to your heart deck is the one you end up building your entire deck from. As you grow and advance you can build multiple decks, but the one you add to your heart—“ She tapped her own chest, “is the most meaningful. Some say that it represents who you are, and who you grow up to be. The card becomes part of you, and as you grow it begins to shape your outlooks and experience.”
Arthur frowned, wondering what a Master of Skills card said about him. That he liked to try new things? He didn’t build it himself, but it felt like it was part of him.
And as he looked inward, he found a slightly bruised place in his heart where the Trap card used to sit.
Quickly, he pushed his awareness from that, not wanting to linger. It hurt too much.
“That being said,” Freyja continued, “I personally recommend you aim as high as you can for your shards. Uncommon-rank will put you head and shoulders above many people. It will open up new jobs and opportunities, which will allow you to earn still more cards.”
“What about Rare-ranked?” he asked.
Her slight smile told him she had guessed the direction of his thoughts. “Uncommon shards will already be a reach. Rare shards are given to highly advanced journeyman work or masterwork. Once you grow in your trade, you are paid in coins or sometimes full cards. Rare ranked are usually sold as whole cards.”
Easy to guess that Legendary-shards would be reserved for the rich and powerful.
“I guess I’ll go for Uncommon,” he said, trying not to sound disappointed. He knew he’d been spoiled by the ranks of his current cards, but working hard for something less powerful felt like a step backward.
Still, he had to get his hands on some card as a cover. It was the caravan situation all over again. Especially if a silver dragon came sniffing around.
“The most popular way to gain Uncommon shards is by collecting Common shards and trading them in — they usually go to a three-to-one ratio. That means three Common shards to every one Uncommon.”
“So in the time it takes to build an Uncommon Card, I could have made three commons?” Arthur asked.
“Exactly right. That’s why impatient people — or those who don’t care much as long as they want a card now — usually carry Commons.” Freyja had a note of distaste in her voice.
Arthur, though, couldn’t blame people for that choice. He had been that desperate for a card. He still might be, if push came to shove.
Any card meant uncountable riches to those stuck at the border. It was easy to be a snob when you were surrounded by them.
“The other way is by purchasing the shards with coin,” Freyja continued.
“Which is better?”
“That depends on what kind of a job we can get you.” She folded her hands. “Now, you have some farming experience, and the farms always are looking for good, experienced hands.”
Arthur had zero farming experience and no interest in gaining some.
“I worked with the donkeys, mostly,” he said quickly, wracking his brain to find something that would keep him out of the field. His list of skills swam up, but he didn’t think Freyja would like to hear of his card shuffling or blackjack skills.
His mental gaze landed on the Apprentice Meal Preparation, and his acting skill filled in a story. “After my mom died, I sorta took care of the cooking for the house and the farmhands since Dad could burn water. I got pretty good, too. At least, no one got sick.”
She blinked and cocked her head, thinking. “That… might work. And it would be convenient.”
Though she didn’t explain what would be convenient about it. Instead, she glanced out the window as if judging the time. “Come with me.”
Turning, she strode out the door.
“Where are we going?” He obediently matched pace with her.
“To see if I can get you work in a kitchen.”