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By all rights, Arthur should have woken up at the morning bell dead with exhaustion.

Instead, it was as if his limbs were charged with bits of lightning. What he had seen last night — real demonstrations of what cards were capable of — had set his mind ablaze with possibilities.

He wanted a card that worked like that, but even more… He wanted to find out what his own card could be capable of. The wonders he’d seen came from Uncommon cards. He had a Legendary.

Would he be able to out-skill someone in the arena?

He would never find out if he didn’t push the limits.

So, even though Arthur disliked his Tidying skill, the moment he got up he started making his bed. He had advanced Tidying more or less accidentally up to the threshold between basic and apprentice. As a result, when he was finished, the blankets were tight on the frame, the pillow neatly placed without so much as a wrinkle. It was as if he hadn’t slept there at all.

Horatio still lay in his bed, looking like a wrung-out rag.

Arthur reached out to poke the other boy. "Come on, Theo. It's breakfast time."

Horatio cracked open one eye and scowled at him. "Don't call me Theo." With effort, he sat up. His dark hair was a mess and there were shadows under his eyes. Squinting, he looked at Arthur accusingly. "How are you so bright and cheery?”

Arthur flashed him a smile. "Because there are still two more days of the Harvest Festival."

He had gotten that factoid out of the other boy during their walk back to the orphanage last night. Harvest Festivals around the hives usually lasted three days in total. It was something to do with the full phase of the moon. "You're watching the duels with me tonight, right?"

"You're paying?"

"Yeah.” That was an easy promise to make. He had plans to make that money back.

Horatio instantly brightened.

 


 

That night, Arthur let Horatio claim seating in the arena’s stands. Arthur himself went by the betting booths to see what his gambling class could do for him.

A list of each of the upcoming duels on a painted board behind the booths. It listed the name of each of the competitors, a win/loss ratio, and the current odds.

The first duel was to be between two men with body enhancement cards:

Hammerhead Harry versus The Destroyer.

The Destroyer had won five of his last duels. Hammerhead Harry hadn't ever dueled before. So the officials had given The Destroyer a 3-to-1 odds to win.

Arthur bit his lip, considering.

The smart thing to do would be to place his hard-earned coppers on Destroyer. But he didn't like the minuscule payout.

Besides, Hammerhead was brand-new. That meant he was a complete wildcard. Plus, he had an intimidating name.

He hoped this was his gambler class whispering wisdom in his mind and not a moment of foolishness.

"Two coppers on Hammerhead," Arthur said, giving it to an official at the booth.

The man pocketed the coins and wrote the receipt on a slip of paper before stamping it and handing it back to Arthur. "Good luck, son."

Grinning, Arthur went to find Horatio who had gone off to find them seats.

"They actually let you bet?" Horatio asked. "Didn't give you any trouble over you being a kid?”

"I told you," Arthur said. "Coins talk."

Horatio rolled his eyes. "A decent city wouldn't allow it, but whatever. Are you going to buy us popcorn, or what?"

"Sorry," Arthur said, cheerily. "Those were my last two coppers. You'd better hope I win."

Moments later, the competitors were announced.

To Arthur's intense disappointment, Hammerhead Harry had a completely normal-looking head. He also came out looking like a farmer, overalls and all.

Horatio noticed, too. He whooped in laughter and elbowed Arthur on the side. "That's who you bet on, right? Is he your kin?”

"No. Shut up."

The Destroyer, in complete contrast, wore almost no clothing at all save for brilliant red shorts that seemed much too small. He was a mountain of a man with bulging muscles. Arthur had to admit to himself, that unfortunately, he looked exactly like a destroyer should.

Because this was a duel between two body enhancers, each competitor was given a bag of colored chalk dust, wrapped in a cheesecloth. Letting the bag drop from his hand would create a small cloud of chalk dust. That would mark the loser.

The moment the sign to begin was announced, the Destroyer charged at Hammerhead full speed.

Hammerhead put up an arm as if in surprise but did not attempt to dodge.

He was hit and was sent, literally rolling, across half the arena.

But Hammerhead kept his hold on the chalk dust bag. And, when he climbed to his feet, he only brushed himself off with his free hand. There wasn't a scratch on him.

With a roar, The Destroyer charged again.

That set the tone for the rest of the duel. The Destroyer batted Hammerhead twice around the arena, resorting to punches and kicks when full-body tackles proved to have no effect.

Hammerhead took every hit easily. Not once did it seem he was about to drop his bag.

Soon, the Destroyer was sweaty, red-faced, and looking winded.

"Do you think they're using mana?" Arthur asked.

"Dunno," Horatio said. "Usually body enhancement works on stamina – your own strength. Though Hammerhead might be." He squinted. "Maybe at the point when he gets hit?”

With a frustrated yell, The Destroyer ran at Hammerhead again.

For the first time, Hammerhead moved. He grabbed the tired man, stopping him in his tracks which was a surprise considering how big he was.

Then Hammerhead leaned back and head-butted the other man.

There was a crack of light as their foreheads connected.

The Destroyer fell like the strings had been cut from him. His chalk dust bag rolled free in a cloud of red.

Hammerhead had won.

"Now that was mana," Horatio yelled, over the cheers of the crowd.

Arthur was cheering, too. He had just turned his last two coppers into six.

"I'm going to place another bet," he told Horatio before the crowd had even settled.

 


 

They left the arena after the last match of the night.

Horatio gave Arthur a disgusted look. "I can't believe you turned two coppers into a whole silver. You must have the luck of a rare dragon."

"I didn't win all the bets," Arthur said, modestly.

Though he had won enough to come out substantially ahead. It had also given him the experience he needed to add a new skill.

New skill gained: Game proficiency: Duel Betting

Due to your card’s bonus traits, and your Gambler class bonus to skills with an arithmetic foundation, you automatically start this skill at level 8.

The card had also given him an option to add it to his gambler class, but Arthur had declined. His gambler class was made up of an average of all of those class skills, so he wanted to fatten Duel Betting up before he added it.

Still, he was riding high on his own success… Even though he was exhausted from two nights of lost sleep that it felt like bees were buzzing around in his brain.

He and Horatio were walking out with the bulk of the crowd when a strident, annoyed voice caught Arthur's attention.

"Marteen! Stop!”

Arthur turned on his heel, his stomach dropping down to his shoes.

Sure enough, Marteen the silver and her hapless rider were again searching the square.

Seeing them, Horatio chuckled. "Come on, if we don't get back soon, you’ll have to carry me the rest of the way."

But that direction, and the flow of the crowd, would take him past the silver.

Arthur stayed rooted in place. "Isn't there another way home?"

"What? Are you kidding? I'm dead on my feet. I'm not going the long way. Come on." He hooked Arthur under the arm and tugged him forward.

Arthur tried to bully his brain into making an excuse, but nothing came. Just the sound of bees. All that came out was, "I can't."

"Why not?" But Horatio was grumpy, not an idiot. He followed Arthur's gaze to the silver dragon who was sniffing hopefully at every passing person.

His eyes narrowed, and to Arthur's shock, he hauled Arthur across the crowd – away from Marteen, but to a dead end. They stopped in the shadow of some hastily erected stalls, now empty thanks to the late night.

Horatio looked him up and down. "You don't have a gambling card," he said flatly. "One of the official’s trap cards would have caught you cheating."

Arthur started to open his mouth to deny everything, but then he blinked. “They have those?”

Seemed like enhanced skills didn’t count as cheating. Though, it had been mostly luck that had helped him guess the winners. It wasn't like he had used mana to tilt the odds or see the future.

Horatio glared down at him. "You haven't said you don't have a card."

Well… Damn.

"Don't tell," Arthur said. "It's not like I don't want to be a dragon rider. I just…” He trailed off, unsure how to say it.

"Yeah," Horatio ran a hand back through his hair, glancing over his shoulder in disgust at the silver. "There's a difference between wanting that future, and being dragged into it."

Arthur looked at him in surprise. "Yeah. That's it. Exactly."

Horatio turned his scowl back on him. "Judging by the way that silver came back, you’ve got a high card."

Arthur didn't say anything, but the look on his face must have confirmed everything.

Horatio let out a long breath. “Of course the stupid kid has a high card,” he muttered under his breath.

Arthur flared up. "I’m not a kid. I'm older than you, I bet! I'm going to grow soon, just you watch. But I have to… I have to get a low card in me, because if someone finds out what I have… I have no parents to protect me.” His voice broke. He hadn't meant to say any of this, but it was as if telling Horatio just a little bit of the truth had cracked open a dam to all of his fears. "During the scourge-eruption, I saw a dragon rider die. I don't know if I want to be one of them."

"They die all the time,” Horatio said, his voice flat and dead. “Why do you think they’re always pushing kids at new hatchings?” He sighed. “Give me your silver coin.”

Arthur looked up at him, stunned. "Why?”

Horatio was going to rob him? Blackmail him for the knowledge?

Horatio rolled his eyes. "Hurry up. We need to get some scent on you before the crowd thins too much. I can walk past it — I never got my card," he added, sourly.

Arthur hesitated, but he didn't have much of a choice.

Taking the hard-won silver out of his pocket, he pressed it into Horatio's hand.

Horatio spun and without another word, marched down the block confidently past the silver. The young dragon didn't give him so much as a sniff.

Arthur stayed in place, pressing up against the side of the stall to stay in the shadows. What if Horatio didn't return?

But less than ten minutes later, he did, carrying a tin of something in his hands. He opened it and Arthur found paper-rolled cigarettes.

"Tobacco?”

"Yeah, and some matches. Here's your change." Horatio passed both items to him, as well as two coppers.

Sticking one of the rolled cigarettes in between his lips, Horatio showed him how smoking was done. Arthur coughed like his lungs were trying to jump out of his mouth. The smoke tasted disgusting, but the spicy, complicated scent of tobacco was soon thick in the air.

With Arthur still coughing, the two boys walked on the other side of the street from the silver. He didn't dare look at Marteen, but no one called after him.

After rounding the corner, Arthur threw his cigarette down. He felt nauseated but also exhilarated.

Horatio took a practiced drag of his cigarette and then tapped the ashes. "It's a bad habit, but there's something about tobacco that confuses magic."

“Thank you,” Arthur said.

"Don't thank me," Horatio said. "You owe me."

A cold feeling warmed its way into Arthur's gut. Owing Second had almost got him killed.

“What do you want?"

“You don't want anyone to know about your high card? Fine. On one condition."

Horatio gave a final drag to his cigarette and then threw it down and crushed it under his shoe. "I need a rare card of my own."

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A note from HonourRae

I got some strong reactions around the smoking scene on Patreon. So much so that I started questioning if I should retcon the tobacco thing all together. Before I switch out tobacco for, say, mint leaves (or something made up as it's a fantasy world.) I wanted to see what you fine folk thought. Did the smoking scene bug you?


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HonourRae

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