Arthur chewed over what Horatio had said for the rest of the evening. So much so that he chopped the pile of onions roughly, so that Chef told him to throw his work in an onion soup and start again -- and do it right this time.
Grumbling to himself, he did. But he couldn't keep down his spinning thoughts.
It was obvious to anyone who had eyes that everyone from headmaster Freyja to the teachers wanted their students to be carded. A carded person was healthier and more productive. He'd heard Freyja say that with his own ears.
A Common card gave just as many health benefits as someone with a higher-ranked card. It didn't mean Commons were bad. Anyone in his last village -- including him -- would have given all the toes on their left foot to have a shot at any card, Commons included.
And now that Horatio mentioned it, he did realize the adults pushed the idea of becoming a dragon rider with subtle encouragement.
Was that a good or bad thing? Arthur didn't know.
He tried not to think about the pink dragon's death. It had been awful and violent, and it made him think that not everything in the hive was as sunny as the teachers liked to believe.
But... he hadn't seen any dragon fights over the last couple of weeks here. There was always activity around the hives -- dragons were constantly coming and going from the hive slopes. He'd seen several almost-collisions as different dragons swerved to avoid mid-air crashes.
But he'd never seen one snap at another while at the hive.
Anyone with brains would know that fighting scourgelings was dangerous work. If vultures like Second and his friends regularly looked for fallen dragon riders, it made sense they'd need new hatchlings to fill out the ranks.
It was grim, but aside from the pink's death, not suspicious.
Horatio might be his normal crabby self. Or he might have a point. That was fine because Arthur wasn't entirely sure he wanted to be a dragon rider... Or if it was even possible.
Doshi's rider had to wait five years for Doshi to hatch and he was a Rare-rank. Arthur had a Legendary card under his belt.
With a shake of his head, he put the problem of dragon riders to the side.
No, what really bothered him was the length of time it took to make a card from shards.
As subtly as possible, he reached down to scratch his side. He'd taken to winding a strip of bandages around his middle, then tucking the Rare trap card under. That way he kept it close and didn't have to worry about it falling out of his shirt.
Over the last few weeks, the bruised spot in his heart had healed over. He didn't even miss the card being there. Much.
He needed another card. Uncommon, if he could get it. That would keep him under the notice of anyone anyone important.
Assembling a card piece by piece would take too long. Freyja had been wildly optimistic when she'd been selling him on the idea of living the orphanage.
He wasn't willing to wait years.
Either he would have to try to sell his Rare card for several Uncommons or he was going to get card shards another way.
He knew which one he wanted.
One good thing about having Horatio as a roommate -- and coincidentally the thing that annoyed him the most now -- was that the other boy didn't snore.
So Arthur couldn't reliably tell when he had fallen asleep.
Arthur stayed as still as he could while in bed, listening to the dark, quiet room around him. Lights out had been over an hour ago and Horatio's breathing was deep and even. Or was he pretending?
Why would he be pretending? Arthur scolded himself. The other boy never paid attention to him and had, in fact, ignored Arthur as usual when they walked home from the restaurant together.
He was overthinking, and the night was passing him by. City noise drifted in from the window. It called to him.
Slowly, Arthur pushed his blankets down and slid out of bed. He'd gone to bed in his clothing and so only had to lace up his boots.
Using his Stealth skill, he crept to the window. It was the type that swung outward, and he had checked the hinges earlier to make sure they didn't squeak.
Leaning out, he reached for the drainage pipe.
Climbing down was a lot harder than he thought it would be. His fingertips were sore by the time he made it to the ground. But after that, he was free.
Grinning to himself, he walked down the darkened streets towards the sounds of people.
The city had different energy after the sun set. Lights blazed from lamps of a hundred different colors. Vendors sold food and drink from temporary booths.
Arthur stopped and watched in amazement as a man stood on a street corner and ate swords burning with flame in front of an admiring crowd. He wasn't sure if it was a weird talent or a card skill, but he was impressed either way. So was the crowd, judging by the amount of tips.
He privately made a note to keep an eye out for a 'swallowing fire' card.
He walked on, keeping a sharp eye out for card dens, saloons, or even dice games. He wasn't sure how he'd talk his way into playing a hand of cards because everyone around him was a grown adult, but maybe if he hung around long enough he'd see an opportunity.
His attention was drawn by a man who set up a simple table by a meat-stick vender. He was introducing a young couple to an odd cup game.
The idea was that he slipped a card shard under one of the cups and mixed them around. If either the man or the woman could guess the cup it was under, they would win the shard. Of course, they had to pay to play.
Arthur didn't need his Card Shuffling skill to know that this couldn't be as obvious as it seemed. Sure enough, the couple paid three times in a row and guessed the wrong cup every single time.
There had to be a card-enhanced skill at play here. Was the game master hiding the card? Making it invisible? Throwing an illusion over the table?
No... Arthur wasn't certain how he knew, but it felt like there was a skill being used. As the game master shuffled the cups around, it was as if his heart throbbed in sympathy.
Somehow the game master convinced the couple to try again. This ended up in yet another wrong guess from the increasingly frustrated couple. Just when the man started to bluster and grow annoyed, the game master offered his money back from the last round.
The man huffed but it was clear his injured pride wouldn't allow him to accept. Thankfully, the woman tugged him away before he made a fuss.
The game master tipped his hat sarcastically at their backs. Then he turned and looked directly at Arthur. "This ain't a free show, kid. You either play, or you get outta here."
Arthur was startled. He hadn't realized the man had noticed him.
"Cups aren't my game." Arthur paused. "Say, you know where they like to play dice around here?"
"Dice? What do you know about dice games? You look about ten years old."
"I'm twelve," Arthur snapped. This was getting old.
The man rolled his eyes. "Sure kid. Look, go through there; between that next alley and around the corner to the left. You'll find what you need. Now leave me alone. You'll drive away the marks."
Marks? Arthur wondered but shrugged and did as he was told.
He figured the man had either sent him through the alleyway on a short cut, or at worst, a wild goose chase.
It wasn't until he was partway down the dark alleyway that it occurred to him that someone who called customers 'marks' might send him into danger.
He stopped and began to turn. That's when he registered the presence behind him.
Arthur caught the man following him out of the corner of his eye. He gave an involuntary yell and jumped back.
His hand fumbled under his shirt for the card. If someone used a card of their own, he'd be home in a snap. Though if they stabbed him or something, he would be screwed.
He didn't manage to get the card free before his brain caught up with his eyes. The figure behind him was tall, but not as big as a full-grown man.
Sure enough, a familiar voice grated out, "If you're going to bother sneaking out of the orphanage, you should at least stay out of the slums."
It was Horatio.