He had followed the tunnel through so many twists and turns, that he was completely turned around. No windows or balconies led to the outside to tell him what direction he was heading. Only large wooden doors he assumed were dragon rider apartments. The tunnel just kept going on and on.
The only thing that kept Arthur from retracing his steps back was that it was in Kenzie’s best interest to keep him in good standing with the hive. She wouldn’t mislead him.
Then again, it might be in her best interest to keep him contained within the hive. Getting lost for days within the bowels of the complex would do that.
Arthur shook his head. He carried her chip, now. He was her recruit. That had to mean something.
And, if luck was with him, he might gain some kind of Directional skill.
After what felt like an age, the tunnel split off into a Y junction. The marbled walls turned predominantly white on one side and red on the other.
White marble had led to the commissary.
With intense relief, Arthur stepped forward. He hesitated at the sound of booted footsteps coming up from the white tunnel.
Hesitation would only make him look guiltier, so Arthur continued onward.
Shortly, he came upon two large men with frustrated looks on their faces. They each had a decorative pin of a dragon on their pressed shirts. Arthur guessed it meant they worked directly for the hive.
Upon seeing him, the men stopped.
“What are you doing here, kid? Why are you outside the family levels?”
In answer, Arthur held out the jade chip. “I was just seeing my recruiter.”
The man glanced at it briefly and then nodded. “Marteen finally got one to come to the hive, eh?”
Not knowing what to say, Arthur shrugged.
The first man seemed relaxed, but the other was not so easily swayed. “Scan him, just to be sure.”
Oh no. “For what?” Arthur demanded.
“None of your business. Arms out.”
No time to switch his trap card off. Arthur had to hope that whatever this scan was, it wouldn’t count as an attack.
He held out his arms and tried again. “What’s this about?”
“You have a Common card, right?”
They were looking for the card.
“No,” Arthur said.
The uptight man snorted as if he didn’t believe him and pulled out a red card-marked stone. He swept it in a slash from Arthur’s forehead to his stomach.
It was as if a cool breeze lifted through Arthur, but his Trap card didn’t activate.
Neither did the red stone.
The uptight man’s eyebrows lifted. Apparently, Arthur had struck him as Common as mud.
“Come on,” the first man said to his friend. “Our section’s going to take all night at this pace.”
The uptight one leveled a stern gaze at Arthur. “This isn’t the night to be getting into trouble, you hear?”
“I understand, sir.”
Arthur must have looked contrite enough because both moved on.
That had been close.
For a moment, he considered abandoning the retrieval of the card. It was only a Common. Was it worth all this?
Ha. Only a Common. He grinned to himself. When had he become such a card snob? Of course, getting his hands on a card was worth it.
He continued down the tunnel, but now he paused to check behind every sconce. He’d counted them after he hid the card, but he had become so turned around that he could no longer trust his count was accurate.
He found it behind the ninth sconce down on the left side of the wall.
The card had slipped neatly into a crack between the high plinth and the curved tunnel wall with only the bare edge sticking out. For a sick few moments, Arthur wasn’t sure if he’d be able to retrieve it without tools.
For once, small hands were a benefit. His longest middle finger was just able to poke the top corner of the card, rocking it back to the other side. After a couple of flicks, the card fell free.
Arthur pounced on it at once and slipped it into his bag, ignoring the description that popped into his mind. He would have time for that later.
Now he had to find a way out of here without being scanned again.
He kept going. The tunnel curved into an S bend with the doors to the level 4 commissary on the outside of the curve. A sign over the tight shut doors stated it would reopen at sun-up.
He guessed that the missing card had been discovered after they shut the doors, or just before closing. Sloppy of them. Why wasn’t the card better locked up? Why wasn’t there more of a search? Yes, he had seen two men prowling around for anyone suspicious, but it was nothing compared to what the Baron had done when he’d recovered his Master of Skills card.
With a shake of his head, Arthur continued past the next bend down the tunnel.
He came up to a pink dragon sitting alone at the next bend. Smaller both in size and stature than Marteen and Tess, it had positioned itself near a lit sconce and seemed to be reading a book.
Arthur stopped in surprise. Yes, that was definitely a book it clutched in long twig-like claws. Though the cover was so flaked with age he couldn’t tell what it was supposed to be about.
The pink lowered the book slightly and gave him a look over a long, thin nose.
“Oh, um. Do you know the way out?” Arthur asked.
Doshi had told him that dragons spoke to children, but the pink didn’t seem to get the message. It pointed one very long finger over its shoulder then crooked it to the right.
“Thank you.” Arthur broke into a jog. Sure enough, at the next bend, the tunnel split yet again. He took the right-hand passage.
He smelled fresh night air. That had to mean he was close. Once he got to the terrace, he could make his way back to the city. Freyja might be upset with him coming so late, but hopefully she would understand after receiving the purple courier’s message—
“You there!” a voice yelled behind him. “Freeze!”
That last word swept through him with power. Arthur involuntarily stopped mid-step, arms and legs locked.
Trap Card conditions met.
Return to Start (Trap) Activated.
There was a cut-off shout as the world flashed white around him.
And in the next second, he found himself not standing upright but laying on his back on a semi-uncomfortable card.
Arthur let out a gust of air. With it, his muscles loosened and fell back under his control. Either the caster’s spell had a time or distance limit.
The room was dark. Sitting up, Arthur fumbled for the lamp light before it finally flared to life.
He was alone in his room. Horatio’s bed was empty. Judging by the muffled noise downstairs, the kids were still at dinner time.
Arthur would miss the meal, but it wouldn’t be the first time. It would be worth it not to face Freyja and make up some excuse for why he had come back early.
Finally, he had time to see if all the trouble had been worth it.
He reached into the bag and pulled out the Common card.
The answer was both yes, and no.
Bubbles Bubbles Everywhere!
Use mana to create small clouds of rainbow sheen bubbles. Depending on the amount of mana added, bubbles may provide a stinging sensation when popped against the eyes and skin.
Arthur stared at the card. “I found something worse than the Tidying skill.”
There was a small, handwritten label stuck on the back.
Though items were cheaper in the hive, they couldn’t be that cheap. It seemed even the commissary thought this card was useless.
On the other hand, Arthur could see some slight utility in creating stinging bubbles. It wouldn’t win him a duel, but a cloud of rainbow bubbles might surprise an attacker at a critical moment.
Or cause them to die of laughter.
This would be the perfect gift for a girl child who loved pretty ribbons and ponies. He could think of a few in the orphanage who fit that bill.
… And a few back in his old village. Even a Common was fabulous wealth and they would never worry about being sick from scourge-dust again.
Arthur’s lips twisted into a grimace. No, the card wasn’t for him, but that didn’t mean it was useless to everyone.
Now he had to figure out how to sell it. Kenzie was out. She had offered to get him a good deal on shards, but the hive officials would know to look out for this card.
He would have to pursue… other means.
"Chef, can I speak to you?" Arthur asked, the next day.
Chef Barlow glanced down at him, and a stormy expression briefly crossed his face. Arthur was halfway expected to be told off for interrupting. The man was busy, and right now he and the rest of the workers were prepping for the usual dinner rush. He didn't have time to glad hand his apprentices.
Instead, Chef jerked his chin to a shadowy nook set in the corner of the kitchen. "Come to my office, then." He turned and stomped over there before Arthur could react.
The office was cramped, the single desk so covered with paperwork that there didn't seem to be free space available. There was no chair or stool to sit on. Instead, Chef leaned his weight on the desk and crossed his arms over his barrel chest.
"Well, let me have it," he said just as Arthur closed the door to give them privacy. "How much are they paying you?"
"Excuse me?" He was lucky that polite question had slipped out, mostly thanks to Freya's training. Instead of the less intelligent, "Huh?"
"The hive," Chef snarled. "Word is, you were scooped up on the wings of the dragon yesterday. Frankly, I'm surprised that they let you out. Usually, they find a way to link up anyone with a halfway decent card before they can think better of it. All talent goes to the hive," his voice was filled with exasperation. "But they let you out, I see. So, how much did they say they'll pay you to work?"
Now he seemed resigned.
Arthur realized that the man expected him to quit on the spot.
He hesitated for a moment, reordering his plan in his mind. "I don't mean to quit here," he said, carefully. "But I may stay part-time. There's good work in the hive like you said, but I'm still… Figuring out what I want to do."
Chef narrowed his eyes. "I can't pay hive rates."
"No. It just… You pay in shards, so I thought you might have someone you trust, or… know someone who does."
Chef just looked at him.
Arthur took a deep breath and then pulled out his bubble card.
"I need to sell this. And I want a better rate than I'd get in the shops."
And he needed it not to be linked back to him. He had watched enough transactions between the men in the caravan to know how to leave enough dangling so both parties could read between the lines. He hoped that that Chef Barlow was one of those perceptive people.
The man's eyes narrowed again, and he took a quick look at Arthur's card anchor bag, then nodded to himself. He didn't look too surprised that Arthur had other resources. He had, after all, been scooped up by a dragon.
"Card shops will stiff you," he said. "They'll call it a trash Common — but we know there's really no such thing as trash."
Arthur nodded. He understood that much.
"On the other hand," Chef continued, "my card connection can take some time. You get good coin for the exchange, but it's a wait."
Arthur bit his lower lip. "I would rather get this over with as soon as possible."
"That's what I thought." Barlow sighed and reached into the shirt of his apron. There, tucked against his heart was his own card anchor bag. It was made of purple velvet and was larger and much more ornate than Arthur's own. It also bulged like a full sack of grain, though there had been no visible bump in his shirt.
"I can take that card off your hands," Barlow said, "and while my price isn't top, you'll find it more than fair."
He dug around in the bag for a moment and then pulled out two card shards. From the sheen, Arthur identified them as Uncommon rank.
They were also rounded on one end. Corner pieces.
His Haggling skill poked at him. Arthur pretended a look of confusion. "Two shards for one card?
"Two Uncommon corner shards for a Common card you don't want to be caught with," Barlow said slyly. "And the promise that if someone tries to get you to work in their kitchen, you talk to me first."
Was he worth that much as an apprentice? Arthur thought that he could use that as an advantage, but how?
"Those two corner pieces, three regular common pieces— I know it's a 3 to 1 ratio, and this is a whole card — and you'll let me look at the recipe book during any down time."
Chef guarded the recipe book which had been passed down through his family. When he wanted to teach Arthur something new, he copied it from the book and handed him it instead.
Arthur wanted that Cooking class, and he had a feeling that memorizing more recipes was the way to get it.
Chef made a show of thinking about it. "If you're doing your job right, you won't have downtime," he said. "But you are free to look at the recipe book on your own time — if you come in early or stay late. And only here, in this office. I don't want any risk of burning or food splatters."
"Deal," Arthur said and stuck out his hand.
As he and Chef shook, he realized that this was the first time he'd made a deal man-to-man.
He could get used to it.