Arthur was unusually quiet as Kenzie led him away from the dragon nests. He glanced behind himself once before they rounded the first bend in the tunnel.
The farmer boy was still crouched next to his new dragon, petting the tan's neck and speaking softly to him. His parents stood nearby, arms around each other's waists. The nesting attendants, too, looked pleased with the new dragon pair.
A couple of the unlinked dragons glanced Arthur's way, but their gazes slid over him, disinterested.
He didn't have the type of card that they craved.
For the first time, he felt truly bad for misleading Kenzie. He had to bite the tip of his tongue to keep from blurting out about the Legendary card in his heart.
Doshi had said his rider had waited five years for a Rare dragon that would link up with him. Legendary's were hatched so much less often than that. This entire giant hive had two.
For a brief moment, his heart had ached at the sight of the boy and dragon linking their powers -- and lives -- to one another.
In Arthur's rare moments of free time, he had let himself wonder what kind of dragon would accept him. What card would it have and what kind of powerful card could they create together?
Seeing the hatchling link with the boy right in front of him had never made his ambitions feel so far away.
The wisest thing to do, he knew, would be to focus on his skills. Those were what had carried him this far. Those were what would make him powerful and rich in the future.
Yes, being a high-powered dragon rider was one way to get enough power to help his dad and the others back home at the border. But that wasn't the only way.
Straightening, he nodded to himself and did his best to match stride with the longer-legged Kenzie. It wasn't as hard as it had been in the past. Maybe he was finally growing a little.
"Where are we going now?" he asked, belatedly realizing he'd just let her lead the way.
She smiled down at him as if she knew what he was going through. Considering she could see auras and feel emotions, she probably did.
"You wanted another kitchen to work in, right?"
"Right!" He perked up immediately, the sting of disappointment fading. How could he have forgotten? Maybe he needed to work on a memory skill.
Nah. That probably went with a body enhancement card.
Kenzie chose a tunnel that took him sharply downward, back to the ground level. It was not a lively place with half of the shops shuttered, though Arthur caught several signs stating business hours would begin in the early evening.
This was a place with nightlife.
Kenzie led Arthur to a hole-in-the-wall entrance. Literally, it was a perfectly round door cut to match a shaped hole in the stone wall. There were no windows.
She paused for a moment to look back at him, hand on the door handle. "As I said, they don't usually allow little kids in here, so you mind your P's and Q's. It shouldn't be dangerous, but men and women can get stupid when they're drunk."
"It's not even noon," he said, surprised. Even the roughest men in the caravan didn't start drinking until they'd stopped for the evening.
Kenzie snorted like he'd made a joke then pushed the door open.
The smell of stale beer hit him like a slap in the face. Arthur almost backed out then, but since Kenzie didn't flinch, pride kept him going forward.
The inside was exactly as he imagined a tavern to be: A bar set up in front with bench seating for people who wanted to drink together in larger groups. What got his attention was the card tables set up in the middle, dominating the room. This was a place for people to gamble.
There might have been more, but it was currently so dark that Arthur couldn't see to the corners. He relied on Kenzie to lead the way forward.
She walked confidently up to the bar and stood next to a heavy-set bearded man who sat with a half-drunken beer next to him.
The man looked at her and said, "We're not open."
Then he pulled from the drink.
"Bob," Kenzie said, "I got you a serving wench."
Arthur jerked in surprise.
Bob did too, looking over to Arthur before he snorted a laugh. "He ain't got the tits to be a wench."
"You need someone who won't get slapped on the ass every time they serve a drink," Kenzie said. "He's only a little guy now--"
"Hey..." Arthur said weakly, unsure if he liked where this was going.
"But I've been watching him. He's tough and smart. He'll grow. And he's available to work." She leaned forward slightly. "For the right price."
The man looked more interested. "You can pour beer, boy?"
"Yeah," Arthur said, and on impulse offered, "I know card and dice games, too."
Bob didn't answer directly to that, but Arthur thought he caught a glimmer of interest in his eyes. His Acting skill whispered that he likely wasn't as down and drunk as he was acting, either.
Kenzie didn't seem to think so as haggled as if the man was entirely lucid. "He's a recruit, so you'll pay him hive rates."
At this, Bob frowned. "I ain't having a little boy serve the night crew. Not until he's old enough to knock a man in the jaw hard enough to make 'em think twice."
"I can do meal prep," Arthur said, thinking quickly. He rattled off the hours he was available to work as well as the basic duties he took care of under Barlow's watch. Then he finished with, "But I gotta get off work before second afternoon bell. I have a shift at Barlow's."
Bob's bushy eyebrows rose. "You work for Barlow?"
"I do, sir. He wants me full-time, but I want a different kitchen experience."
"Ha. I bet that chaps his ass. That man's always been a snob." Bob slapped his own knee and gestured to the back of the bar. Now that Arthur was close enough to see details, he noted the sheer wall of barrels all stacked from the floor to the very edge of the ceiling. And it was a high ceiling. Each barrel had a different label and was tapped with a spigot. Two ladders on either end allowed the pourers to reach the higher kegs.
"We have the finest collections of beer in this forsaken hive, and you haven't seen our wine room yet. This place don't look it, but nobles come from all around the kingdom to sample our wines." Bob grinned proudly at Arthur.
For the first time, Arthur understood why Kenzie had brought him here. It was a rough place, but perhaps not a bad place for a boy who wanted to learn.
"Which is why you can afford to pay hive rates," Kenzie pressed.
"Yes, yes, fine." Bob drank deeply again, pausing to wipe away foam from his upper lip before he said, "Four hours a day at hive rates. That's one Uncommon and two silver coins a week."
Arthur had to struggle not to let his eyes bug out from his head. From Bob's smirk, he didn't succeed.
"One thing," Arthur said. "You aren't calling me a serving wench."
"'Course not." Bob slapped one ham-hock hand against Arthur's shoulder. "You're a barman."