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Arthur recoiled in horror, hand halfway up to his heart even though he didn’t keep his Rare card there anymore. It was pure reflex and the bruised spot where he’d taken it from his heart throbbed.

“I don’t want your card, what do you take me for?” Horatio snapped.

Arthur glared up at him. “People have tried before.”

Horatio’s lips tightened. “Look,” he said and took a breath as if to steady himself. “Look, I need a good high card. I don’t want yours, but I figure…” Again he seemed to collect himself as if his next words hurt to say. Maybe they did. Horatio was a proud boy. “I figure you got a line on one since you’re already Chef’s favorite and will have at least an Uncommon this time next year on top of what you already got.”

Slowly, Arthur relaxed.

Having Second turn on him had twisted him up inside more than he thought at first. Hadn’t Horatio already helped Arthur out once just by getting him the tobacco? He could have taken the silver coin and left. And yesterday he could have easily gone to Freyja or one of her assistants instead of following Arthur and taking him to the arena.

With his constant dark cynicism, Horatio wasn’t the easiest person to like… but he wasn’t a bad guy, either.

“Why do you need a high card?” Arthur asked. Most people wanted a high card, of course. It led to a better life and more power and opportunities. That was a no-brainer. But if Horatio was willing to humble himself enough to ask, then it was more than a simple want. It was a need.

Horatio’s lips pinched and he screwed up his nose as if he tasted something bad. He glanced around as if to make sure there weren’t any listeners nearby.

Finally, he blurted, “I come from a long line of high-card dragon riders.”

“Not nobles?” Arthur was surprised.

“In the hives, it’s practically the same thing. My great-grandmother had a Legendary White dragon, grade A shiny and everything. You know what that means?”

Arthur shook his head.

“She could put thoughts into people’s heads, twist their dreams around. She could probably read minds, too.” Horatio sighed so hard his whole body seemed to sag. “I was supposed to be someone. My dad was a rider, too. He was saving a Rare up for my birthday. Then he died fighting a scourge eruption — some vultures found his body before his flight-mates did. They stole his cards.”

An awful suspicion swept through Arthur. “What color was his dragon?”

Horatio gave him an odd look. “Sams is yellow — light aspect. Why?”

Yellow. Not the dragon he’d seen die.

“I told you, I saw dragons… fall,” Arthur said, awkwardly.

“No, this was months back.” Horatio seemed remarkably casual about his father’s death. Either he hid it well, or the loss of the cards bothered him more. “Anyway, Sams got cut up, but he lived. The Admin—they’re the hive leaders—wanted him to link his card with another. He refused. He said—“ Horatio’s voice went thick, and he hurriedly cleared his throat. “He wanted to wait for me. But Dad’s cards were gone. So as punishment the hive admin separated us — sent me across the continent to this podunk hive where people think Uncommons are a big deal. They think if enough time passes, or someone waltzes up with a perfect Rare that Sams will link up with them instead.”

From the pinched look on Horatio’s face, he worried about the same thing.

“I… I’m sorry.” Arthur wasn’t sure what to say.

“I didn’t tell you my life story to make you sorry for me. I wanted you to understand.”

“I do,” he said and then had to admit, “Well… no. I don’t know anything about the hives.”

“They’re great,” Horatio said automatically. “If you want to make a difference, that’s where you want to be. You’re the front line in the fight against the scourge and that’s no small thing. Not many people can say they’ve saved lives apart from those with healer cards. But if you become a dragon rider, you save lives almost every time there’s an eruption.”

Arthur stared at his friend. He hadn’t seen Horatio this enthused about anything, even the duels.

“And you’re treated well, to boot,” Horatio went on. “You work hard, but you play hard too, you know? You don’t have to worry about enough to eat, or impressing a master or teacher, or even doing your own laundry. All you worry about is your dragon and killing enough scourge to earn shards and hive points.”

“Hive points?”

“They’re like coins, but better,” Horatio said impatiently. “You bank enough points, you get privileges like bringing your family into the hive so they can get pampered while you fight.” He poked his thumb into his own chest, but Arthur’s imagination was caught.

He had promised his father, and himself, that he would come back to the village. Now, for the first time, he had an idea of how to get them out.

If he could link up with a powerful dragon and earn enough hive points, he might be able to set up his family for life. They didn’t even have to live in the hive — if he had a high card dragon, which Horatio said were treated like nobles… who could stop him?

Well. Quite a few people, possibly. And this wouldn’t be an easy task. For one thing, Arthur would need to wait until a Legendary dragon egg was laid. And he doubted the hive would let just anyone try for one of their most valued dragons. He would have to prove himself first.

The more he thought about it, the more difficult his idea seemed. But now, he had at least a glimmer of hope.

Horatio was looking at him expectantly, so Arthur shoved those thoughts to the side and focused on his friend’s issues.

“So, not only do you need a Rare card… you need one that can link up with Sams?”

“Basically. He has a mirror light card. It enhances any light-based spell or illusion. He can conjure up mirrors in mid-air. Dad had a Rare light-spike card that used to shoot beams of sunlight and heat with practically no mana cost at all. They used to be able to sweep a whole field of scourgelings together.”

Horatio’s shoulders were so slumped that it looked like he was carrying a thousand pounds of weight on his shoulders. “So even if I collect enough Rare-shards, if the card ends up something like creating earthquakes, it’ll still be useless.”

“You could always trade for a light card,” Arthur suggested. “Farmers would want something to move a lot of earth at once. Cheer up.” He knocked his shoulder against Horatio’s, though he had to stand on a nearby curb and on his tiptoes to do it. “There might be a way.”

Because he felt safe with Horatio now he knew his card would be useless, he shared, “Mine’s a trap card and it’s sort of useless.”

Horatio looked startled then confused. “How can a trap be useless?”

“When it transports you somewhere else the moment someone uses a card’s power on you.”

“Oh… ouch.” He looked sympathetic. “That might work if you got the right dragon. Though you’d probably just be put on the dangerous front lines and expect to be transported away if you got hurt.”

“No thanks. I’m working toward another rare.” He didn’t mind opening up to Horatio, but he wasn’t going to be stupid about it. His Legendary card would remain a secret.

“How?” Horatio asked.

They had been walking all this time and had finally come up to the orphanage. Climbing the drainpipe up was a difficult task, and they had to be quiet. That gave Arthur the time he needed to think about his answer.

They made it back up to their open window with no one the wiser. Turning to Horatio, Arthur lowered his voice.

“If you want a Rare so much, why don’t you put in the work in the kitchens?”

It was hard to tell in the dark, but he thought he saw Horatio blush. “I don’t like it there. I never had to do anything like that before.”

“You mean, work?”

“Dad got enough hive points to take care of things like that. Now I’m on my own and I hate it.”

Spoiled, Arthur thought.

He shrugged. “I came across my card by luck. Scourgeling the size of a horse-cart fell out of the sky in front of me when I was running for my life. I think a dragon must have killed it but didn’t follow it to the ground. It had a card on it. So it was just luck. But my next card… my next I want to earn through my own work. And I think if you want Sams to respect you, you’ve got to earn it too.”

Horatio made a face, but he didn’t argue. “Even if I become Chef’s pet like you, he only pays in Uncommon shards.”

“I turned a couple of coppers into a Silver today,” Arthur said. “You think you can turn some Uncommons into a Rare?”

Horatio started to reply and then stopped, looking at him with narrowed eyes. “How?”

“Dunno,” Arthur admitted. “First step is making you a cook, not a dishwasher. But you gotta work for it.”

With that, he turned and started changing for bed. Dawn was only a few hours away and his body felt heavy with wariness.

Horatio was silent too. It wasn’t until they slipped under the covers of their separate cots that he spoke again. “All right.”

Arthur smiled to himself. The moment he lay down, he started to drift off.

The last thing he noticed before he fell asleep was a slight shift in his mind as if something were being tallied up and reordered. He’d felt it before: It felt a little like when he was on the track to gain a new skill.

 


 

The evening of the next day, Arthur was set to the task of baking bread. Kneading was exhausting work, especially when he was going on a few days of little sleep. He only meant to sit down for a moment’s rest when the bread was rising. He woke what felt like a second later with Chef snapping at him that the dough was now over-proofed.

Sure enough, the sides of the dough were spilling out of a giant bowl.

He had to start the process all over again and wasn’t too surprised when he didn’t receive a skill for it.

Horatio, who’d come to help toss the mess in the trash, caught his eye and smirked. A few days ago, Arthur would have taken offense or thought the other boy was mocking him. Now he was certain Horatio was mocking him… but he didn’t take offense.

Horatio hadn’t exactly found a new enthusiasm for his job that way, but at least he acted with a bit of competence. Neither Chef nor any of the other cooks had to tell him to do his work. Horatio even picked up a mop and started cleaning without someone ordering him to do it, first.

Arthur waited until he had gone over most of the floor. Then, as casually as he could, he said, "After you clean up, do you want to give me a hand with the kneading?"

Horatio gave him a look. "Won’t Chef mind?"

Arthur shrugged. The chef was currently berating one of the other cooks who had oversalted the stew.

"I already fell asleep once. Can't see how it would hurt. It’s just punching some dough into place."

Horatio nodded, and after quickly washing his hands, he came over. Arthur showed him the technique, and they got started.

He caught Chef glancing over once or twice, an unreadable expression on his face. But as neither boy was making trouble, and Horatio's work had already been done, he didn't say anything.

After kneading the bread, Arthur set the dough to proof and several big bowls. He started cleaning up the extra flour on the counter, and Horatio did, as well.

This time, Arthur did not fall asleep while waiting. Then he and Horatio kneaded it one more time before shaping the dough into individual loaves.

It would still have to wait overnight, but the bulk of the work was done.

"Make sure that you crack an egg and wash it over the top of the loaf loaves," Chef said as he came up to them.

"Yes, Chef," Arthur said.

Chef looked at Horatio. "I saw you helping out. You have thoughts about being a baker?"

Arthur caught a flash of Horatio's old self — the one who did not like the idea of working. But it was gone again in the next moment. He straightened his shoulders and nodded, "Whatever gets me out of garbage duty… And pays better," he said, boldly.

Arthur inwardly winced, but Chef just chuckled. " That's why we reward more responsibility with higher pay, my boy. We want to encourage ambition here. Keep up the good work, and I’ll see if a baker's position opens soon."

Arthur knew for a fact that they were down one baker. If Horatio were halfway confident he’d probably get the job.

But the moment Chef turned walked away, Horatio turned to him, his eyes bright. "You think the baker position pays in uncommon shards?"

"I think so," Arthur said. “That's a step closer to a rare card, right?

"You're damn right. Now, what is an egg wash?"

 

New skill gained: Basic Career Counseling (Empathy Class)

Due to your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 3.

 

The message surprised him, but also made him feel gratified. As corny as it was, it felt good to receive a skill for helping out a friend instead of just doing something for himself.

It also made him wonder what it would take to level the skill up. What was an Empathy Class?

 

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