Straightening, Arthur lowered his hand from the bandage under his shirt. Hopefully, Horatio would think he had been going for a belt knife instead.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, though he already knew. “You were following me?”
Far from looking guilty, Horatio rolled his eyes. “I wanted to see if perfect Arthur knew his way around the town like everything else.”
Perfect Arthur? His eyebrows knit together, and he opened his mouth to reply.
Horatio got there first. “Instead I find you walking through one of the most dangerous parts of the city. You outta thank me for stopping you before you went too far.”
“This place doesn’t seem too bad.”
It was dark inside the alleyway, but he still caught the sneer on Horatio’s face. “You really are a bumpkin, aren’t you?”
“What’s your problem?” Arthur demanded. He was sick and tired of Horatio’s attitude. The other boy clearly didn’t like him and acted like he didn’t want to be around him. But instead of snitching when Arthur snuck out, he’d followed him and risked punishment, too. It made no sense. “Why do you act like you’re better than everyone else?”
“Not better. I just know my ass from a hole in the ground.” Horatio looked around. “Why did you sneak out, anyway?”
Arthur was not going to tell him that he was after gambling huts. “I don’t know. I was just looking around.”
Horatio rolled his eyes.
Arthur sort of felt like hitting the other boy, but he was about a foot taller than himself. It might raise questions if Horatio went down to the breakfast table tomorrow with a black eye. Especially since, for some reason, Horatio was the teacher’s favorite.
“Why did you follow me?” Arthur asked again.
“To see if you had taste. You don’t… but I suppose it’s not your fault.” Horatio turned. “Come on, let’s get out of here before we’re mugged.”
He went back the way they’d come in. After a moment’s hesitation, Arthur followed.
Once they hit the street, Horatio kept walking in a direction opposite from the orphanage.
Arthur hurried to catch up—though he had to step twice to keep up with every one of Horatio’s strides. “Where are we going?”
“Looking for some real fun,” Horatio said. “Or whatever this dumb little hive town can provide.”
For the first time, Arthur wondered if Horatio came from a noble family. He sure acted snooty enough.
They walked down one street after another, all filled with nightlife. Arthur looked around with greedy eyes. They passed by bars so full that adults were spilling out, laughing drunkenly. Through the wide open windows, he saw some playing poker.
All of those playing cards had a hard-edged look about them, though. There were no kids in there, either. Not even as waitstaff. Arthur would have a tough time talking his way into one of those.
More booths lined the streets selling everything from clothing to food. One vendor yelled out that he had card shards for sale. Arthur would have stopped but Horatio seemed determined to keep walking.
“Is it always like this at night?” Arthur asked half in awe.
Horatio gave him a weird look. “They don’t do harvest festivals where you’re from?”
Whoops. Though it explained the air of celebration in the streets. He hadn't walked far enough to see signs, though.
Arthur shrugged. “Most seasons, we didn’t have a lot of reason to celebrate.” That was the truth. “What about you?”
“I didn’t have much to do with farmers,” Horatio said.
Mentally, Arthur ticked another box next to ‘noble’.
Maybe Horatio had been the last son of a minor noble, like a Baronet. Someone who was in charge of a couple of small towns and thought he was king of the world. He’d heard Red talking about them once or twice.
Only then did he realize the crowd was growing thicker as they went on. Horatio didn’t slow down and instead wound around clumps of people. Arthur had to half-jog to keep up with him.
Looking over his shoulder, Horatio scowled. “Come on. I don’t want to miss more than I have already.”
“Miss more of what?”
“What do you think?” Horatio asked, annoyed. Then his expression blanked. “Wait, you weren’t playing before? You really don’t know?”
Arthur scowled. “What are you talking about?”
“What?” Arthur gasped.
At that moment, a burst of multicolored sparks lit an area down the street. The crowd oohed at once.
Others were hurrying down the street, too. All were heading to the same place.
Horatio was a man on a mission and seemed to navigate the increasingly thick crowd. This many people was intimidating to Arthur, but the other boy didn’t seem intimidated at all.
Swallowing his ego, Arthur grabbed the tail of Horatio’s shirt like a little brother who hoped the elder wouldn’t leave him behind.
Horatio glanced over his shoulder again, smirked, but didn’t say anything.
Another corner and then the street ended at a massive building at least four stories tall. A glittering, spelled sign above announced it was the Wolf Arena with pictures of wolves tipped back and howling at either end.
“This isn’t a proper fighting arena like you find at one of the big hives,” Horatio said, raising his voice to be heard over the crowd. “But you should see what a real card artist can do. Not the trash the orphanage tries to get us to accept.”
He hurried forward again before Arthur could reply.
There were several oval entrances at the base of the arena, and people were streaming in. From inside, an echoingly loud voice called out. The walls muffled the words, but it sounded excited.
An attendant held out his hand as they tried to pass by. “That will be one copper each.”
Horatio looked to Arthur. “Go on. You make twice as much as I do.”
“I’ve only gotten paid for a week,” Arthur said.
Horatio shrugged and looked at the attendant. “Price is the same for kids and adults?”
“Who cares if you’re kids,” the attendant said. “You want me to flag down the authorities because you’re breaking curfew?”
Grumbling, Arthur reached into his pocket where he kept his precious copper coins. He paid and the attendant ushered them forward.
Instantly, Horatio was speed-walking again.
They climbed staircase after staircase, and despite the number of people around them hurrying to get seats, they were able to find two easily.
Arthur looked down on a vast, oval space. Bench seats went all the way from the soft earthen floor of the arena all the way to the top.
“This is all for cards?” Arthur asked.
Horatio scoffed. “No, this is a minor hive so it’s not like they have their own arena.” He must have seen that Arthur didn’t understand so he went on. “It gets used for ceremonies, dragon groundwork training, and stuff. Ooh, here they come.”
Three people walked out from an underground tunnel into the arena proper.
One man and woman went to stand on either end of the oval. The woman, who was closest to where they sat, wore a sparkly black gown that was cut so low that Arthur couldn’t help but stare a little. The man on the other end wore fancy clothing too — a vest and a top hat like he was a grand performer.
The third person was a portly man who stood in the middle. He waved to the crowd and put a hand over his throat. When he spoke, his voice boomed out under a card’s power.
“Ladies and gentlemen: Betting for this next Uncommon Rank Duel will close in two minutes. Shawna Shadow Sorceress versus The Magnificent Multiplier. Please get your final bets in quickly for this illusionist versus illusionist showdown!”
“What? You don't like illusionists?”
“If they’re both camouflage illusionists, we’ll be staring at an empty arena until one finds and stabs the other.”
“They stab people?” Arthur asked, horrified and a little intrigued.
“Sure, to first blood.”
Arthur looked down at the woman. “Why isn’t she wearing armor or something?” Then he caught the sly look on Horatio’s face. “You’re messing with me.”
“They get markers,” Horatio rolled his eyes. “Blue on her side, red on his. See the colors?” He pointed to the square of fabric hanging over each competitor's side. “First to mark the other wins. Why do I have to explain this? They really don’t have duels in your city?”
“Where I’m from, people were lucky to have one card,” Arthur said.
“Well in proper cities, most people get starting cards from their parents or their master, if they’re apprenticed. They don’t string kids along with shards in some kind of work scheme.”
Did he have to complain about everything? Didn’t he realize what kind of an opportunity they’d been given? “Olivia made a card,” Arthur snapped. “You saw it.”
“Maybe you want to be Common fodder, but I don’t,” Horatio sneered. “Anyway, most people who are worth a damn — even people in minor hives like this — have decks. There are some nobles and important dragon riders who have entire libraries of cards.”
Arthur’s father had said something similar, but he had been so new to being carded he hadn’t realized the implications. “But… doesn’t it hurt to take them in and out of your heart? Why would you stuff them in a library?”
Horatio looked at him like he was insane. “Do you just swallow anything you want to carry around? No? Then you don’t stick things in your heart unless you want them to become a part of you.” He shook his head. “This is why I hate this place. No one knows anything.”
“But how—“ Arthur started.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the announcer boomed out. “Final betting has closed. Please take your seats. This duel is about to begin.”
“Watch,” Horatio said. “You might learn something.”