The next day, he and Horatio waited on a bare, rocky outcropping on the north slopes of the hive. Due to a constant, chilly wind from the northern snowy mountains, this side of the hive wasn't well populated. The bits of vegetation that dotted the slopes were stunted and twisted by the wind. But being here gave Horatio and Sams privacy to speak.
Arthur wasn't entirely sure how dragons visited between hives – or why Sams wasn’t allowed to stay. The more he learned about dragons, the more glimpses he got into a society hidden among themselves. One with their own ranks and rules.
Some dragons, like Doshi, were allowed to travel far and wide between hives in search of recruits for future hatchlings. Others -- mostly the combat-oriented dragons -- lived in an almost militaristic lifestyle with inner ranks. They spent their days at drills practicing fighting scourgelings, with the main excitement occurring during new eruptions.
Then there were the dragons who lost their riders. Or the few who never linked to someone as a hatchling.
They seem to be outsiders, for the most part. Some performed fetch and carry chores to keep the hive running. Some assisted directly with scourge eruptions without the magical aid of a rider’s card. Some, Arthur heard, disappeared into the wilds never to be seen again.
He suspected the last was the red dragon who had given him his Master of Skills card.
From what he understood, Sams lived in minor disgrace within his own hive. He was a Rare ranked dragon and was expected to link with another rider as soon as possible. He didn't have the luxury of waiting, like Commons and Uncommons.
But he had chosen to wait for Horatio anyway. His rider’s son.
Horatio was rightly worried that Sams would not wish to wait much longer.
Horatio had been told, approximately, when Sams was due to arrive. But it was a surprise when a small portal opened in midair. Usually, spatial manipulation dragons, which were the ultra-shimmery greens, reserved their mana for hive eruptions. But again, Sams was a Rare, and could pull strings.
A large shape flew out of the portal. Its long tail barely exited before the rip in the air snapped shut again.
Sams looped around once to get his bearings. He was a magnificent dragon, long and delicate looking with a pointed head like the tip of a spear. His color was like a burst of classic sunshine yellow, with a hint of luminescence shining out from within.
While Sams was a Rare, he held no particular shimmer quality to his hide. That was likely why he had been allowed to stay unlinked from a rider all this time.
Sams spotted them before long -- dragon eyesight supposedly rivaled a human’s -- and he glided down on great wings to meet them.
His claws barely touched the stony ground before Horatio bowed to him, which was more curtesy than Arthur had seen him show... ever.
Sams ducked his head, peering narrow-eyed at Horatio as if he were nearsighted. "Little one, is that you? You have grown large."
Horatio choked out a laugh. "And you are as big as ever, Sams."
The dragon ruffled his wings at the praise. But as he did, the wind shifted, and Arthur got a whiff of him. He smelled acrid and rotten, just like the dragon soil fields. It wasn’t a pleasant smell.
"And you have the feel of Rare magic," Sams replied, still gazing at Horatio. His wings drooped slightly before his next pronouncement. "But I sense your card will not fit with mine."
"I-- I tried," Horatio said. "I'm sorry, Sams. I ended up with a good card… But not something that would fit you."
Arthur held his breath, waiting for the dragon’s reaction. He fully expected anger, even insult. After all, Sams had waited all this time for Horatio to get a compatible card.
Instead, the dragon dipped his head and touched the point of his sharp muzzle to the top of Horatio's hair. "You created a Rare card out of mere shards. Your father would be proud."
"No he wouldn't," Horatio said, bitterly.
"He never expected perfection from anybody else," Sams replied. "Only from himself." Then he heaved a giant, dragon-sized sigh. "But I must find a rider soon."
Horatio closed his eyes as if bracing himself. "I understand."
"Why?" Arthur asked.
The dragon’s head swung around to look at him. He didn't answer, so Horatio spoke up. "Sams, this is Arthur. He's my best friend out here, and I wanted to introduce you two."
Sams regarded Arthur silently, and Arthur was reminded that adult dragons didn't always speak to other people. He was used to Marteen and the simpler but gregarious purple dragons.
Finally, Sam spoke. "I must find a rider because to be without one means a loss of privileges. I am lucky that I'm not required to attend to the scourge-eruptions. Instead, I'm relegated to using my powers to dry out the dragon soil fields."
"Damn," Horatio said, softly. "I didn't know that, Sams."
"It's not a bad job," Sams replied, and Arthur noted that he was much less formal when speaking directly to Horatio. "It is not as if I stand in the fields. I can fly above and work my magic. It is… Bearable."
"Can you add another card to your heart deck?" Arthur asked. "Something compatible with Horatio's new card?”
"He's still a little new to hive-life," Horatio said to Sams. Apparently, that had been a stupid question.
"We may add new cards to our heart deck, as well as secondary and tertiary decks," Sams replied patiently. "But there may be only one card in our core of our being. It is the magic that we dragons are built around. The new card we release into the world upon our deaths. I cannot simply exchange it for another."
"I'm sorry," Horatio said again, sounding wretched. "If I knew that they'd put you in the damn dragon soil fields, I would have sold this card. I don't care how good it is--"
"I… Might have an option," Arthur said.
Both Horatio and Sams turned to look at him.
Arthur hesitated. "But it's not, um, exactly legal."
"Your scheme?" Horatio guessed. He glanced back at Sams. "He always has some card shard making venture in mind."
"No. It's more of a heist." Arthur took a breath and threw the metaphorical dice. "My noble uncle is selling cards from his private library. I want to get my hands on them, first."
There was a long, long pause. Sams looked politely interested. Horatio gobsmacked.
"wait," Horatio said. "Since when do you have an uncle? And since when do you have a noble relative? Or any relatives?! We met in an orphanage.”
Arthur winced. "I don’t like to talk about my family."
"Yeah, and I figured that was because they were eaten by scourgelings," Horatio's voice grew sharp. "Why don't you start."
So, Arthur did. On the bare slopes of the hive, where the wind whipped by strong enough to cover his words from outsiders, Arthur told Horatio and Sams his story.
The whole story.
Horatio listened with one hand resting on the side of Sams head as if he needed something to steady himself on. His eyes narrowed in several spots, but he didn't interrupt. Sams listened, quietly, too.
"I didn't know my uncle inherited the duchy," Arthur said. “I didn't think that I had any link to it at all."
"I don't think that you do have a link to him, legally." It was the first thing Horatio had said in nearly fifteen minutes. "People who go to the border villages… They are supposed to be dead men walking."
"That is not technically true," Sams said.
"What you mean?" Horatio asked.
But the dragon kept silent.
After a moment, Horatio turned to Arthur. He stared at him, and Arthur found he couldn't read the expression on Horatio's face. He couldn’t even tell how upset his friend was.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me,” Horatio said. “No wait, I can. No one comes from those border villages.”
“Children are allowed to leave once they turn eighteen,” Arthur replied, but couldn’t keep the heat out of his voice. “They’re sent off without any education or a clue of how the real world works. But they can go if they want to leave their entire family behind.”
Horatio shook his head but didn’t look like he was arguing. More out of disbelief.
“I guess… I get why you didn’t tell me all that,” he said. “I have two questions.”
Mentally, Arthur braced himself. "Go ahead."
"Does the fact that you are a former duke’s son have anything to do with that high-powered card in your chest? Not the Rare. The other one."
Arthur stared. The one thing that he had kept back was the story of the red dragon giving him his Master of Skills card. He implied his father pulled strings to sneak him out with Red’s caravan.”
Horatio's lips quirked up, which was his equivalent of a wide grin. "I've been your friend for how long? You pick up things fast, Arthur. Too fast. And you're not that smart."
Horatio shook his head. "I mean, okay, you’re smart but you're no genius. Yet I've seen you replicate things in the kitchen that takes other cooks years to figure out. And you always have some scheme running, but you're not hungry for cards like it's a matter of survival. You don't want that Rare egg, even though it's your ticket to a good life in the hive. I think it's because you know you will never link up with a Rare one at all. You have something better, don’t you?"
Arthur stared at Horatio, knowing that he was putting his life in Horatio's hands.
His friend let out a breath. "Damn nobles…"
Well, if he was going to believe that Arthur's father somehow wrangled him a Legendary rank card, Arthur would let him believe it.
"What's the second question?" he asked.
"What else?" Horatio said, with a mirthless chuckle. "Does your noble uncle have any Rare rank cards that would fit me and Sams?"
Arthur grinned. Horatio was on-board.
"I don't know. But we could always sell what we find."
Abruptly, Sams spoke up, surprising Arthur. "You could not sell stolen cards locally. The moment the theft is discovered, your noble uncle will hire high leveled Treasure Seekers to sniff out the cards."
"How high level?" Arthur asked.
Sams took his time answering. He reached up with his hind leg and scratched the side of his head. "Why?"
Horatio snapped his fingers. "You want to stick them in the storage space? That's a Rare-ranked card. So if the duke hires an Uncommon Seeker, they might not find them."
Arthur shook his head. "I have something better in mind. Something... I'd rather keep to myself for now."
Horatio frowned at his friend and then rolled his eyes. He didn't seem too upset about Arthur's secrets. Perhaps because at the end of the day there was little difference between being from the back end of a nowhere farm or being from a border town no one had heard of.
More likely, though, Horatio was excited about the idea of getting another Rare card for himself.
"I haven't heard of a Seeker above Rare rank within the hives," Sams said at last. "I have no doubt the king has a card for it in the palace libraries-- if it hasn't degraded from disuse. Would your uncle have access or be able to afford the services of such a person...?" He trailed off and shrugged one massive wing.
Arthur stared up at the dragon, a little surprised at his sound logic. He was also a touch shamed at his surprise. Sams was a Rare-ranked dragon. He just hadn't expected him to reason like a person. Even Marteen wasn't that deep of a thinker.
That red dragon who'd given him his card had also thought like a person. Motivations of spite and revenge and all.
"I'm... a little surprised you two are taking this so well," Arthur admitted. "I thought I would have to talk you into it."
"Stealing cards is a fine dragon rider tradition," Sams said, puffing out his chest. "Though the hive administrators have tamped down on it over the last few generations."
Arthur hesitated. "When I was younger, I was caught near a scourgeling eruption. I saw a pink dragon being attacked by others. I think they were after its cards."
That deflated Sams a tad. "That is not supposed to happen during an eruption, though... if the dragon and rider are far enough out of favor." He shrugged his wings again.
Arthur decided to set that topic aside. He looked to Horatio. "For this to work, I’ll need to test something." Without waiting for Horatio's reply, he reached into his storage space and pulled out the box of peeping chicks.
Then he pulled out the piglet, which took a look up at Sams and started to squeal in panic.
"Are you laying out a lunch?" Sams asked.
"Nothing like that." He looked at the animals who seemed perfectly fine after their extended stay in storage. But he had to be absolutely sure. Arthur lifted his gaze to Horatio. "Do you trust me?"
"That depends on what you're about to ask me."
Arthur stared at him, steady. "I need to see if I can store a person inside my storage."
Horatio jerked back in surprise. "Why?"
"I can't say." Arthur held up a hand before his friend could speak. "The less you know about this, the better. But yes, it's part of my plan to steal the cards. So far I've stored chicks and this piglet in there, and they're all fine. But I need to know what it's like inside. If it's... tolerable for a person. And it's not like I can put myself in. I'll pull you out in ten seconds," he added.
"No," Horatio said, after a moment. "Give me thirty seconds. That'll give me enough time to look around, but it won't be long enough for me to suffocate. Probably."
Arthur knew he was asking a lot of his friend. Hopefully, he would be able to repay his trust. With a nod, he put his hand on Horatio's shoulder and mentally reached for his storage.
Sams lowered his head to look at the two of them. "I've heard of similar powers before. Is there a restriction on sapient creatures in your card's description?"
"No," Arthur said.
"Spatial magic can be finicky," Sams continued. "A lack of acceptance or trust from the other party may be enough to block the card. Because he is self-aware, Horatio may have to give express permission to store him."
Horatio blew out a breath. "Fine. Arthur," he began grandly. "I give you my permission to throw me in your storage--"
Arthur felt the sensation of a tug, and a moment later Horatio disappeared into his storage. His hand dropped.
He was so shocked he forgot to count for a moment. Quickly, he started.
"Twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven..."
"You had better be correct about this," Sams said as he stared at the spot Horatio had been.
Arthur nodded and did not stop counting.
At one, he pulled Horatio out again. Thankfully, he did not need to ask his friend's permission first.
"--over-powered storage space," Horatio continued. Then he looked around, seeing the two staring at him. "What?"
"I just pulled you out of it."
"No, you didn't." He stared around, reading their expressions. Then he looked down at his hands as if searching for a change. "Wait, really?"
"You didn't feel anything?" Arthur pressed.
Horatio shook his head, doubt on his face like he wasn't sure if Arthur was playing a trick on him or not.
"I guess the card description’s accurate about not experiencing time." He nodded. "Thank you, Horatio. That helps. Though a shame I can't toss anyone who gets in my way in there." Specifically, whoever was guarding the cards.
Horatio shuddered dramatically. "That card is scary enough."
"Sometimes," Arthur said, "I wonder about utility cards. People overlook them, but they're often more powerful than they seem."