Instantly, Arthur was suspicious.
“Why do you want me to visit the hatchlings? Is there a Rare available or something?”
Not that it would do him a lick of good. From what he had gleaned from casual conversations with Horatio, a dragon would not link to someone who had a higher tier card in their heart. Even if a Common hatchling found someone with a card in the same set, the presence of an Uncommon or Rare card would disrupt the bonding.
This had a dark side, Horatio had revealed. Ambitious riders could break a card link with a dragon they felt they had outgrown. He remembered two instances in his old hive of Common riders doing just that to move up to an Uncommon quality dragon, instead.
This was something that was looked down upon and was relegated to nobles who cared more about family honor than the feelings of their dragons.
Those unlinked dragons still could relink onto someone else, but the whole experience was traumatic to them.
Arthur remembered the red dragon that had given him his Master of Skills card. He had been riderless. Had something like that happened to him? Someone who had been associated with Baron Kane?
In any case, all this meant that unless there was a Legendary hatchling within the hive nest, he had little to worry about.
Kenzie snorted at his question. “What, do you think I’m hiding a Rare up my sleeve?”
This was clearly supposed to be a joke — one that Arthur didn’t get. He stayed silent.
Her eyes narrowed. “How long have you lived here?”
“A little under six months.”
“Oh, that explains it.” She nodded once. “Well, having a Rare egg laid is a big deal. The hive throws a whole festival for it. Then another one when the dragon links up to a new rider.” She grinned down at him. “It’s a big hullabaloo. You’ll see all sorts of snooty noble's kids — not the heirs, all the spares — suddenly find a reason to transfer into the hive. Some of them practically make a career of hopping from hive to hive, chasing the next Rare egg.”
“What about Legendary eggs?” Arthur asked with what he hoped was the right amount of casualness. “Or Mythic?”
She snorted. “Half of those noble kids are willing to tear out each other’s throat with a smile for a Rare. Could you imagine it if a Legendary was laid? I don’t even think this hive has ever produced a Mythic.”
Arthur knew he shouldn’t push, but he couldn’t help it. “When was the last time a Legendary was laid here?”
“Oh, that’s Whitaker.” She waved a hand vaguely upward, indicating the high levels. “Thirty or forty years ago? He’s one of the hive Admins with Valentina, the other Legendary. She’s ancient.”
Arthur had other questions, but Kenzie grabbed his wrist and pulled him to the door, calling over her shoulder to Marteen. “I’ll be back soon!”
Marteen sleepily lifted a wing in reply, more interested in dozing in the sunlight spilling in from her new window than visiting the hatchlings.
* * *
Kenzie led Arthur down a new tunnel with marble walls colored like golden sand. This one led deep into the hive with few junctions leading off in other directions.
Unlike other tunnels, it was narrow enough for two people to pass through, but not large dragons.
When Arthur asked about this, Kenzie nodded. “It’s best to keep the little unlinked dragons from the adults.”
For once, she didn’t explain further which left the ‘why’ up to the imagination.
“But how do the female dragons go in to lay their eggs?” Arthur asked.
“There’s a whole different area where they do that. It’s kind of an open-air arena. Once they’re laid, and the dragon knows the eggs are in good hands, she leaves. The egg security teams take over the rest. Egg security is a good job if you can get it,” she added as an aside. “It’s mostly just waiting around since the eggs take care of themselves. But the hive pays well for the trouble. Those dragons are the future kingdom’s protection, after all.”
Arthur filed that away in the back of his mind. If he was hard up for card shards, he might consider it. But standing around being a guard for unhatched eggs didn’t sound like a way to get more skills.
Along the way, adding skills had become just as important as gaining more cards. His skills had taken him from his borderland village all the way to the inside of a hive. He couldn’t let himself forget that.
Before long, he heard the echo of distant voices down the tunnel: Laughter and high-pitched calls to one another. It sounded like a daycare for small children.
The end of the tunnel opened to reveal a cavernous hollow. It held three areas fenced off from one another with basic wood planks.
Inside the fenced areas were baby dragons.
There were perhaps two dozen in total in a variety of colors. At first glance, they seemed to be separated mostly by size.
The smallest hatchlings were positioned closest to the mouth of the tunnel. Purples, blues, and one lime green dragon tumbled, squealed, and played with one another. They were surrounded by a variety of toys from a sturdy leather ball to plush soft animal-shaped toys. Just like a child of two or three would like to play with.
Currently, the tiniest dragons were clustered around an upturned bucket. The goal of the game was to knock down whoever managed to scramble to the top first.
A tiny dark purple dragon the size of a dinner plate glanced over at Arthur and Kenzie as they walked in. It quickly looked away, attention grabbed just as quickly by a new king of the top of the bucket.
Arthur and Kenzie moved onto the second fenced-in area. These had larger dragons — some as large as a big dog — in other colors of fiery reds, oranges, pinks, and yellows.
One of the yellows trotted over to sniff curiously before returning to the group. They were less boisterous and there was a certain air of intelligence that the first group lacked. This was reflected in their toys. They had balls and stuffed animals — some of which were burned at the edges — but also basic board games and one lone child’s book with a broken spine.
“This second group is the Uncommons,” Kenzie said. She watched the dragons closely, as if waiting for something. A reaction from the baby dragons, perhaps. To see if any of them were interested in Arthur.
She was slyly checking to see if he carried another card in his heart. None of the babies could link with him, but they might give him a curious sniff if they sensed he had another card.
Well, he was. But it certainly wasn’t one of the lower-ranked cards.
Arthur pretended like he didn’t notice what she was doing. “Who are they?” he asked, nodding to a few young men and women in soft white uniforms. They mingled with the baby dragons, occasionally tossing a ball for one of them and breaking up scuffles that got too intense.
They also didn’t seem to be carded. It wasn’t something he could put his finger on because everyone looked well-fed, but they didn’t have that indefinable aura of health and vitality that clung to carded people.
With a start, he realized he had grown so used to seeing only carded adults that it now looked odd to find someone normal.
“Those are the nest attendants,” Kenzie said.
“They aren’t carded?”
She shook her head. “There’s no rule that says you have to be to work here, but carded attendants tend to link up with a dragon eventually. Some people want to be paid well, but don’t want to be dragon riders.” She shrugged.
Arthur was about to ask something else when there was motion from the tunnel entrance.
As one, all the Common hatchlings had perked up and started squeaking like baby birds who sensed the return of a parent with a juicey worm in its beak. They crowded against the sides of the fence, looking toward the tunnel.
A moment later a boy of fifteen years old or so walked in, flanked by two adults who must have been his parents. Judging by their sturdy but worn clothing, Arthur guessed they were from a farming community.
One of the nest attendants strode up to welcome them in. Then he led the boy to the squeaking hatchlings.
Some of the squeakers stared hard at the boy before they turned away, uninterested again.
Two blues remained, bouncing up and down and flapping stubby wings which were too small to fly.
They weren’t the only ones.
A tan dragon in the third group looked on anxiously.
Arthur and Kenzie hadn’t yet gone past the third group, but he could see they were the shimmer-quality dragons. The one that stared at the boy was tan with an overly blocky head and feet. It would have looked completely ordinary if not for the fact its scales caught the torchlight and glimmered as if flaked by chips of diamonds.
The boy hesitantly approached the squeaking blues.
The tan gave an outraged bellow. With a flap of uncoordinated wings, it leaped over the wood-plank fence… only to land flat on its face.
It righted itself at once and charged straight at the group to sand in front of the blues. With a gesture of its paw, an image of its card popped up in front of it.
The two blues squeaked in outrage and did the same.
From where he stood, Arthur couldn’t see the faces of the cards. Blues usually had powers dealing with water and browns the element of earth. A shimmering tan would be an off-version of that.
He made to move to get a closer look. Kenzie caught his arm.
“Don’t. This is supposed to be private.”
In fact, more of the nest attendants were circling as if trying to block the view from outsiders.
“What happens now?” Arthur asked.
“That’s up to the boy.”
The farmer’s boy studied the three offered cards in front of him. His father opened his mouth as if to offer his opinion, but one of the nest attendants shushed him.
It was clear that this was to be the boy’s choice alone.
Arthur wondered if anyone had ever rejected the dragon’s cards completely.
That wasn’t to be the farmer’s boy’s fate today. He said something to the tan and then, with a grimace, pulled down the collar of his shirt and pulled out his card from his heart.
The tan did the same and they pressed the cards together.
There was a flash of light. A new card was born, made from the joining from the boy and dragon. For a moment all three cards flashed between them, visible as day but as hard to look at. Like staring at the sun. They twisted and turned in the air, the fronts briefly facing Arthur.
Only Arthur’s advanced reading skills let him skim over the cards at a glance.
The boy had a Common Well-Seeker card, used to find fresh underground water sources.
The tan had a Common Earth element manipulation card, with a few caveats Arthur didn’t have time to read. Doubtless they were advantages brought by the tan’s shimmering qualities.
The new card was a spell with the ability to use groundwater to create cutting water jets under an enemy.
The bright light was too much. Arthur blinked and impressions of the cards had already faded from the air.
The boy tucked his card back into his heart along with his half of the new card. Then he bent and hugged his new dragon — a friend for life and partner who had helped turn his Common card into a potentially powerful tool against the scourge.
Now Arthur understood why Kenzie had brought him here.
He wanted that, too.