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"Lucky," Arthur heard from Cressida's direction. He shot a look at her and shrugged. He couldn't deny it.

Some nobles had been working for weeks in duels and basic showmanship to earn the coveted honor to meet the hatchling when it emerged. Now, thanks to the whims of the hive leadership, he was in their place.

Too bad there was zero chance of him linking with the dragon.

Dragons could not link cards with people who held a higher-tiered card in their heart. From what he understood, the magic was too strong and was incompatible with a dragon's magical core.

Unlike people, dragons were hatched with a card at the core of their being. This was the new card they brought into the world and the one that continued on after their deaths. While they could collect more cards like any other magical being, their core card was the one they could never trade out.

It would be like Arthur trying to trade out his skin. Not only would it never work, it would get gruesome for him real quick.

One question which remained a mystery was if the dragon developed its new card while it matured in the egg -- if it was influenced by the cards around it. Or if it laid preordained with a certain card in its core. There were arguments for the first theory as baby dragons regularly hatched early -- inexplicably fully formed -- when they sensed the perfect partner card nearby. But even more took their time to hatch, like today. The hatchling would still find its rider and link cards together to form a stronger power.

Arthur wasn't sure what he believed but he knew with two Legendary cards in his heart, the Rare dragon wouldn't give him a sniff.

As he ascended the stairs, his mind was filled not by the egg in front of him, but by the tiny Legendary egg waiting for him. What kind of a card would fit that dragon?

Did he dare try? Would it even want him if it did? And what if the Legendary dragon picked someone else? Then Arthur would be known as a Legendary card wielder -- something that the "son" of Baron Kane or Arthur the nobody bartender should not be.

"Line up, you three. Tallest to shortest," Whitaker said with a wink toward them.

That grouping left Arthur in the middle between Ruban and Terra.

The groups of nobles had clustered together at the front of the stage. Even though he knew logically every eye was on the egg, he still felt the weight of their gazes.

He never thought himself shy of crowds before.

Whitaker waited until Valentina ascended the stage. She didn't walk up the short stairs like a normal person. Instead, she conjured a cloud to float her up the three and a half feet.

Arthur thought he saw the man roll his eyes. His derision was gone a moment later as he held out his hand to the egg. Once again, it floated into the air.

"Normally, we allow dragons to hatch out on their own, but this one started cracking its shell two days ago. It's too valuable to the hive to allow it to go into distress. If it is weak, linking usually helps bolster its health. Now, you three are to greet the dragon first. It may be woozy and confused. If it shows no interest, then you are to step away and allow the next three to come up."

At that, he swept his gaze down to the well-dressed mob crowding up against the stage.

"Well? What are you waiting for? Line up in an orderly line. First come, first serve. Hurry up!"

Whitaker just told them to be organized, but Arthur caught quite a bit of shoving and elbows. The first ten or so were boys with what he suspected were Body Enhancement cards. Cressida had managed to secure herself a place behind them, however. The boy who stood behind her was rubbing at a char mark on his arm.

Whitaker waited until the line was formed and then turned his attention back to the egg. His outstretched fingers twitched, and a jagged crack ran down the length of the shell.

After that, the outside of the egg peeled away as if it were made of fabric. Whitaker's dragon had a Legendary level material altering card. That, paired with Whitaker's Telekinesis card made for an effective combination.

Without even touching it, he managed to peel away the shell like someone would take off a jacket. Only a slick membrane was left, the dragonet's limbs visibly pushing against it. Arthur wasn't sure if Whitaker split open the membrane sack with his card's power, or if the dragon managed to do the last bit.

Either way, the sack opened, and the dragon tumbled several inches to the floor in an ungainly wet mass.

It was... very, very pink.

Vividly pink. Shockingly see-it-coming-from-a-mile-away pink. Wet and newly born, it seemed to glow with that same inner light Arthur had seen with Sams.

The dragonet's head and body were delicately thin. Feminine was probably the right term as it extended two long wings which blushed to a pale rose color on the underside. She opened large, blue eyes.

The tough boys who had muscled their way to the front of the line all drew back as if horrified.

Arthur was a little surprised, too. Though he hadn't daydreamed about linking with this dragon, he had wondered how it would turn out to be. His best guess was an Earth or Naturistic Earth. Pinks were generally knowledge-based or meta-wild cards.

The little dragon lay on the ground, neck stretched out as it gasped for air. Arthur could see the frantic pulse of its heart in the veins under its thin skin.

He wondered if maybe they shouldn't have let it hatch out on its own anyway.

Without thinking, Arthur bent to help it, even if he only could help it lift its head to breathe. He had never raised any of the Nursing skills past the most basic levels, but common sense told him someone should clear the egg goo from its nostril.

He should have known better. The baby dragon recoiled weakly from his outstretched hand.

"No," she said in a feather-soft voice. "Your card... isn't right..."

Arthur stopped, torn between helping the creature and backing away.

"Move aside, Ernest," Valentina said. "This one isn't for you."

"I wasn't trying to--" Arthur stopped before he dug a hole for himself. Bowing his head, he moved to the side.

Whitaker looked to the other two. "Well? What are you waiting for?"

Terra and Ruban jumped but under Whitaker's scowl did what they were told... though they both seemed reluctant.

The baby dragon let out a pained mewl of distress, flexing too big wings as if it wanted to fly away from those two. They quickly backed off.

"Hurry now," Whitaker snapped, looking down into the audience. "Who's up next?"

Some of the nobles -- the brawny boys especially -- were easing their way toward the exit. Pink dragons weren't a favorite among those who wanted strength and power.

Whitaker's face darkened at the visible hesitation.

Valentina was a bit more direct. With a crack of air, a rime of frost froze the back door shut an instant before the first noble reached to open it.

"Anyone who touches that door earns themselves an automatic week in the lowest level of the dragon soil pits. I don't care who your fathers are."

"Let me through!" Cressida pushed past two boys each thicker than two of her put together in an effort to push to the stage. One moved aside and she ran up the stairs, hand outstretched with palm open to the dragon.

"No," the pink rasped, big blue eyes seeming to look past her.

Cressida froze. "What do I do? What card do you need?"

"That's not how it works, child. Stand aside for the next," Valentina snapped.

The pink dragon didn't answer Cressida. It only lay there limply, looking pained.

Arthur reached to press against Cressida's shoulder and was surprised when Cressida allowed herself to be moved away.

People started to ascend the stage one by one, most looking intimidated and unenthusiastic. But they were complying. The pink had little to no reaction to any of them.

Cressida stared after the dragon helplessly, fists clenched. With a shock, Arthur realized she wanted this dragon.

"I'm sorry," he started to say, but she cut him off.

"What did she mean?" Cressida hissed. "You find the right card, you link with a dragon. Pink isn't that too far off from red, and reds are fire-based."

"And transformation," Arthur added.

"That's mostly the oranges," she countered.

"There are gradients. Aren't pinks supposed to be smart?"

She whirled on him, nostrils flared. "Are you calling me stupid?"

Oops.

Arthur held up his hands in a peaceable gesture. "You know what I'm trying to say. Don't they usually link with a scholarly card?"

Her lips pressed and she nodded once in sharp apology before turning back. "We can't let this stand. Surely someone in this tiny hive has a card it'll like. Or... do you think the shops will have one for sale?"

Arthur didn't answer. The line was halfway through, and it was obvious the pink dragon wasn't reacting to anyone. Those who had walked past were allowed to leave.

Whitaker stood to the side in deep conversation with someone with a Sickness seeker uniform.

The man approached to scan the hatchling. The dragon whined and tried to get up -- to move away from his magic.

As it did, Arthur caught a hint of black veining on its pink belly.

The Sickness seeker caught it too. He backed up with a gasp.

"By my first card, that dragon is scourge-touched!"

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A note from HonourRae

Good news, everyone! Want to go back and read book 1, only edited for typos? Would you rather hear it narrated by the talented Luke Daniels? (Iron Prince, Completionist Chronicles, Red Mage)

Well starting December 20th, you can do just that!

https://www.royalroad.com/amazon/B0BM51RQR8


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