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Arthur coughed his throat clear and then stared at his father in disbelief. “What do you mean?” His voice grew higher pitched. “You’re sending me away?”

Red guffawed again. “You can’t seriously tell me you want to stay here.”

“Red, it’s all he knows.” Calvan turned to Arthur. “In other villages, it’s normal to apprentice children your age to masters.”

“But we’re not in another village. We can’t leave. It’s against the law. If the baron finds out…” Arthur didn’t know much, but he knew that. His father was in charge of the record-keeping and would be held accountable if someone went missing. There were no funerals, but bodies were strictly accounted for — His dad said the Baron got compensation from the crown, whatever that meant.

Calvan glanced at Red. “Do you mind giving me a minute?”

“Take your time.” Red got up heavily from the chair. “But I need to be back on the road an hour before sunset. I’m not staying in this scourge-haunted place.”

Calvan nodded sharply, and with another long look toward Arthur, Red escorted himself out.

Arthur didn’t see the point. The cottage walls were so thin that Red would be able to easily hear their conversation unless they kept it to whispers.

“Arthur, listen to me.” His father rose from his chair and placed heavy hands on Arthur’s shoulders. Arthur tried to wiggle away, but his father held him firm and made the boy look at him. “You don’t know what it is to live outside this village. I don’t think you realize that it’s a death trap.”

“My best friend just died!” Arthur snapped back. “I know! But Dad…” He lowered his voice. “You don’t need to worry about me getting sick.”

With a glance at the broken-out windows, his father lowered his voice too. “No, now I need to worry about them finding you with a card. Eventually, the baron will return. Maybe he’ll have his Treasure Seeker, or a Lie Detector look at the children… or maybe in a few weeks, or a few months, people will realize you’re shooting up in height. That you’re growing taller and stronger and never seem to get sick.”

“I can stay here in the cottage and only come out when the dragon soil’s delivered. Please, don’t send me away…”

“Why do you want to stay?” His father’s expression hardened. “For me? Arthur, I don’t want you here.”

Arthur leaned back. It felt like had been slapped.

Dropping his hands, Calvan rubbed at his face. “That came out wrong, but it is the truth. You deserve far more than can be offered here. You deserve a life. And to expand your skills.”

“I…” An offer to give up the card was on the tip of his tongue. Maybe they could tell it to Red for extra supplies. That would take care of many of their problems — at least until the baron’s men came to destroy it again, or outright rob them.

His hand clutched convulsively at his chest. The words didn’t come.

He didn’t know quite when it happened, but somewhere over the last few days, the card had settled into his heart.

Learning new skills had been the first bright spot, the first purely good thing in… he couldn’t remember.

Yes, he couldn’t save Ernie but there was the promise in the future of saving someone else.

Not if he gave up his card, though.

His father seemed to sense the direction of his thoughts. His expression softened.

“I would have kicked you out on your rear when you turned eighteen, anyway. And, as I said, it’s not unusual for a twelve-year-old boy to off and learn a trade.”

“But…” This conversation was getting away from him. Now that the shock was wearing off, he found he didn’t despise the idea of leaving the village. He just wished that his father could come, too. It felt too childish to say, “I don’t want to leave home.” Instead, he latched onto one of the few objections he had left. “We aren’t allowed to leave until we’re grown up—until we’re adults, I mean. The baron’s men will know that I’m gone. They’ll want to account for a body— “

He stopped as a horrific thought occurred to him. His eyes snapped to his father, a question in there.

Calvan’s answer was a grimace.

“You’re gonna say that Ernie’s body is… mine?” It was spoken in a hushed whisper.

Arthur was horrified, though he had to admit that had Ernie been alive, he would have said it was a good trick. He and Arthur used to love talking about how they would like to pull pranks on the baron’s men.

New grief flashed over him. He scrubbed at his face with the side of his arm to keep the tears back.

“I will report Amanda and Ernie’s defection from the village in a few weeks. It will take that long for the baron’s men to go through the rolls for dragon soil duty,” Calvan said so calmly it was clear he had been planning this. “It’s not too unusual for a pretty woman Amanda’s age to run off with a bandit husband.”

That felt wrong to the memory of Amanda. She had been a little stupid, but never unfaithful to the memory of Ernie’s father.

Arthur had to admit that Ernie would have liked the thought of living with dangerous bandits, though.

“And everyone else will just say the same?” Arthur demanded.

“I have some pull in the village. You wouldn’t be the first child that we hustled out.”

“Who else?” Arthur asked.

His father gave him a stern look. “For the safety of their families, we don’t speak of it. In any case, I still have some connections back to my old life. Though they can be dubious.” He glanced outside almost as if he expected Red to be listening right below the window hole.

“What does Red do?” Arthur asked. It occurred to him that he should have asked this before but had been taken too much by surprise.

“He runs a caravan moving trade goods from one part of the kingdom to another. I suspect not everything he moves is legal, though he doesn’t trade anything particularly despicable.”

Arthur had no idea what that was meant to mean, or why his father acted like it was supposed to be reassuring.

“It will be hard work,” his father continued. “And Arthur…” Again, he glanced toward the window and lowered his voice to a bare whisper. “You must not tell anyone of your card. A legendary card is more valuable than you can imagine. As soon as you can, add a second card to your deck.”

Arthur stared at his father as if he had grown a second head. He had needed almost unfathomable luck to get one card. He couldn’t imagine two. “A second card?” he repeated, dumbly.

“You will be growing up soon and fast. Some of that can be put to your age, but those who know the signs of a carded child will wonder. Get your hands on a low-ranked card — any card. Save up your money or steal one if you have to.”

“Steal?!”

Stealing wasn’t something he was unfamiliar with. All the villagers stole from the baron’s harvests any time they could. It was a matter of survival.

But to steal from someone else… well, that was a matter of survival, too, wasn’t it? Arthur wanted to live. That wasn’t what shocked him.

What did shock him was the only surefire way to steal a card from someone else was when they died. He had seen the red dragon harvest the cards from those guards. Their decks had been for the taking.

He looked at his father beseechingly, silently pleading for him to take it back, to suggest something else… to confirm he wasn’t saying what Arthur thought he had said.

Calvan’s hard gaze didn’t look away from him for a moment. “It’s hard in a different way than it is in this village. I think you’ll do well. You have the tools.” His gaze flicked to Arthur’s heart and then back again.

Because of the card, Arthur realized.

His father wanted him to leave when he was a full-grown man. But now that he had the card, he could leave earlier.

“Dad, what did you do?” he blurted. “Why did we get sent here?”

He had asked that question before when he was little and didn’t know any better. His father had never answered. But now, at the end, he deserved to know.

His father heaved a sigh.

“Politics, mostly. It wasn’t one thing. I got on the wrong side of the king. My dutchy was taken from me and given to one of the king’s loyal men, instead. Twenty generations of rule, from one first-born child to the next in an unbroken line… gone.” He gave a mirthless chuckle. “My cards were taken from me, and I was given the choice of a swift execution of me and my family there, or a lingering death while serving the kingdom out in the borderlands. You’re the reason why I’m glad I didn’t choose the swift option.”

Arthur swallowed. “But… you’ll be okay, right? When I’m gone?” It was the first time he admitted he was going. Because he was.

His father could be a hard man when he wanted to be, and Arthur did not doubt that he would truss up his son and throw him on the back of the donkey if he had to.

More than that, though… Arthur wanted to go. He didn’t want to leave his father, but he was the only reason to stay. There was nothing for him in the village. His mother and sister were long dead, his best friend was gone. He’d almost blabbed about not getting sick in front of Sam and soon he would get too good at these skills. He would finally hit that growth spurt.

People would start questioning, especially if another sickness came around and he was the only one not ill.

The villagers were all united in hate against the baron… but starvation was hard to endure, and the baron rewarded those who snitched on others.

Everyone hated the snitches, afterward, but Arthur would still be dead, and the card would be in the baron’s hands.

Arthur could take the card away from the baron. Keep him searching forever.

That… that was satisfying.

“Arthur,” Calvan said heavily. “I will be happy knowing you were as far away from here as possible.”

“I’ll come back,” Arthur said. “I’ll be a great man. You’ll see.”

He fell into his father’s warm embrace. Calvan wasn’t a man who hugged very often, but he was strong and warm and smelled like the cookfire of home.

I will come back, Arthur promised. I’m a Duke's son and I'll find a way to get you so far away that the baron will never find you again. Then he’ll have to till the dragon soil himself.

 


 

When it was time to go, Red showed Arthur how to blanket and saddle Bella the donkey. That earned him another skill level in equine animal husbandry.

However, there was only room for one on the donkey’s back. Arthur was to walk beside his new master, as befitted an apprentice.

He looked back once to see if his dad was watching from the cottage. The door was closed but he thought he caught movement behind the hole where windows used to be.

The small cottage, with the thin tracing of smoke coming out of the chimney, was his last sight of the place he called home.

 

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A note from HonourRae

*cracks knuckles* Alright, the prologue arc is over. Time to learn about (and acquire?) more cards. And of course, more skills.


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HonourRae

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