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Arthur’s trick had worked, though with unexpected consequences. As soon as Second’s cart had started moving, a small mound of the loose leaf slipped free, fell out of the cart, and landed on the dirt road.

Before it could be run over by another cart, one of Second’s men had hustled over. He waved over the mound and muttered, “Let what was broken be remade whole.

Instantly, the leaves lifted upward and replaced themselves in the cart, the tarp recovering it once more.

The man, now red-faced and panting, wiped at his forehead where he’d broken out in a sweat. That little effort seemed to have cost him a lot. He looked over his shoulder towards Second’s direction as if to make sure the man hadn’t seen.

“Dumbass,” Red had muttered. His second-in-command hadn’t been watching, but he had.

“He has… uh…” Arthur searched a moment for the word. Most of what he knew about cards came from stories. “A Telekinesis card?”

What was a man with the power to move stuff with his mind doing in a trading caravan?

“Hardly.” Red rolled his eyes. “From what I’ve heard, it’s some sort of minor trap card.”

“How is that a trap?” Arthur asked. “He just fixed something.”

“Trap powers activate only when some precondition has been met. Don’t ask me the details, you know I’m not carded. But when something breaks or goes wrong in a minor way, he can undo it… If he gets there fast enough. Damn fool nearly exhausts himself when a little elbow grease will serve just fine.” Red waved a hand in disgust, not bothering to keep his voice down. “He could have just reached down and picked up what had fallen much easier, but nooo.”

“Hey Red,” Second called from his cart. “Stop telling the Piss-ant all our trade secrets.”

“It’s no secret your teamster's an idiot,” Red called back. “And his gimmick is on cooldown till sunset. Better hope you don’t break a wheel today.”

Second shot a glare toward his boss, but then aimed an even darker one at the man with the trap card. Apparently, he had noticed after all.

Turning, Red winked at Arthur. “Between you and me, there’s nothing I like better than winding up the carded. They’re all jealous over each other’s piddly little powers, and all think that they would be able to do it better, if they had the card instead.”

Arthur looked down. He had been thinking at that moment what he would have done with a trap card.

“Hmm,” Red said, seeing. “I keep telling ya, cards aren’t what the hero's stories make them out to be. Most of the time, they just make things easier, not better. Mark my words, if he keeps using his trap on minor, stupid shit he’s going to wake up with a knife in his heart and someone else will steal the card from him.”

Arthur’s eyes widened. “You think?”

“It’s happened before. Stay away from cards,” Red warned.

Then the cart in front of them moved and it was their turn to urge the donkeys to pull their cart into motion.

The first time Arthur encountered other cards came just two days later.

The trader’s caravan rolled into what most of the men sneeringly called, “A podunk stick-shot town” but was easily five times the size of Arthur’s old village.

He boggled, eyes wide as he took in the main street which was bordered by buildings each two stories high. The street underfoot was inlaid with flat stones to make it easier on wagon wheels. Everywhere he looked were people. All of them strangers, most well-clothed, and hardly a sunken cheek to be seen.

Best of all, some of them were carded. One man casually walked down the lane with a log the size of half a tree on one shoulder. A nearby woman, who, when she shouted at her kids to behave, made the nearby hanging sheets wave. A girl a few years older than Arthur carrying a recently hunted line of pheasants spoke back and forth to her hunting dog as if she were having a one-sided conversation. A young man stood at the edge of a puddle when it hadn’t rained for days, raising and lowering the level of his water with his hand.

Yes, Arthur spotted a couple of underfed beggars tucked in the shadows between buildings. But none of them had scourge pot-marks or missing fingers and limbs from infections gone wrong.

The trader’s arrival caused a general hubbub in the town. People called out greetings, asking what was being sold.

A few of the carters called back with their general wares.

“We will be eating dinner at the inn on the other end of town,” Red said, from his driver’s seat on the cart. As usual, Arthur had walked alongside it. “You won’t be expected to help cook. Most of the men will be buying rooms tonight, too. You are to sleep in the stables and guard the donkeys.”

Arthur wrinkled his nose, but he knew better than to complain. He wasn’t sure he wanted to share a room with Red, anyway. The man snored louder than anyone in the caravan.

As soon as they pulled up to the inn, they were greeted by one of the local baron’s officials. Thankfully, they were no longer in Baron Kane’s lands, though Arthur watched the man cautiously.

All that happened was an exchange of coins for the right to set up stalls and trade goods in the town. The baron’s man did a cursory inspection of the carts for illegal items — though Arthur saw money exchanged a couple of times for the official to look the other way — and that was that.

He wasn’t used to interactions with the higher-ups being so… friendly.

As Red was in charge of supplying the other carts, he had nothing to sell. So Arthur was given a free afternoon. And, to his surprise, five copper pennies to spend.

He had never been allowed his own money before, but instantly had about a hundred ideas of what he wanted to spend them on. Most of them were exotic types of treats.

The caravan had passed a bakery halfway through the town. Arthur quickly walked in that direction, swiveling his head this way and that to take in as many of the sights as he could.

A gleam of pure white against a darkened window backdrop caught his eye. He stopped and stared.

The General Store he was passing had a display set up against the window. Sitting pride in place, safely locked in a clear case and tethered by a thick chain was a spell card.

Arthur practically plastered himself against the glass to read it.

 

Minor Materials Strengthening

Utility/Boon

Common

 

The wielder of this card is granted the ability to strengthen material objects. The user must be in physical contact with the object. This temporary boon ends within three heartbeats of loss of contact.

This ability will not work with water-based, incorporeal, or enchanted objects.

 

The card was simple in design. It looked like a fancy sheet of paper with golden filigree bordering the sides. The words were in stark, bold print and nothing about it moved. It seemed barely alive.

To the side, the shopkeeper had placed a handwritten note.

Excellent for soldiers who wish to strengthen the durability of their weapons or farmers who wish to extend the life of their tools.

10 gold pieces.

Arthur wasn’t sure how many pennies made up a gold piece, but he suspected it was much more than the five he had.

With a sigh, he stepped away from the window and walked on.

There was a second window display on the other side of the door, and another white-paper looking card.

Basic Object Duplication

Illusion

Common

 

Create a temporary replica copy of a single, non-living object. Initial levels create light-based illusions only. Additional levels add sound and substance to the illusion. The detail and length of time are based on manna costs.

 

Again, there was a handwritten note from the shopkeeper placed to the side of the card. It simply said:

Inquire within for the price.

Arthur hesitated. He needed a card. Any card. Even if it was something common and possibly useless.

He had been wolfing down at least three, sometimes four, bowls of soup. Soon that food would translate into growth, if it wasn't already. He didn’t feel like he was getting taller, but he couldn’t exactly look at himself from the outside.

Red had said the carded men were jealous of each other’s powers. But they wouldn’t care if the ‘Piss-ant’ had the power to make the illusion of a rock next to another rock. They wouldn’t ever guess that he had two cards.

“I guess it won’t hurt to ask…” he said to himself, turned, and walked in the door.

The General Store had all manner of items for sale. Most of it was clothing, though the shelves were stuffed with boxes and sacks of basic foodstuff.

A balding man stood on the other side of a long counter. He frowned upon seeing Arthur.

“Yes? Can I help you?”

He gestured to the window. “The note said to ask for the card’s price?”

The shopkeeper snorted. “More than you can afford, sonny boy.”

“I have five pennies,” he tried.

“Are you joking?”

The illusion card was probably worth a lot more than ten gold, then. Well, he hadn’t been very excited about it anyway.

“Do you have any other cards I can look at?” Arthur asked.

“This isn’t a fancy city card shop, it’s a General Store. If you want my advice, earn some more pennies and buy yourself a decent shirt.”

Arthur looked down at himself. His clothes looked fine to his eye, but when he glanced at the finely hung, new clothing… well, yes. His shirt did look ragged. And there were a lot of stains.

They didn’t often do the washing back home and he hadn’t had the opportunity since leaving.

The shopkeeper was glaring at him, so Arthur took his pennies and hurriedly walked out.

He did find the bakery and discovered that one penny would buy him a sweet roll covered with delicate white icing.

Arthur bought three and munched on them as he walked down the street.

He had hours before Red told him he’d need to back to the inn for dinner, and nothing to do. If he had been back home, he would have set out to find Ernie… but that wasn’t an option anymore.

Another wave of grief and homesickness hit him, though it wasn’t as intense as it had been before. He didn’t even feel like crying.

Finishing up his last sweet roll, he wiped his sticky fingers clean on his pants. Then he noticed a group of kids a little older than himself standing around in a circle just down a side street.

Arthur wandered up to see a circle marked out in chalk and a boy and a girl knelt on either side with marbles in their hands. Three dice sat on one end.

One boy who stood as referee threw the dice. The total came up to twelve. The boy groaned, the girl laughed and flicked a blue marble to the circle. It knocked a blue one from the inner-most circle and to an outer one.

Several people grumbled and coins changed hands.

“Hey.” The referee noticed Arthur watching. “Who’re you?”

Instantly, Arthur felt all eyes on him. But he was used to that. People in the village were always looking at him, on account of his father being an important man. Arthur shrugged. “I’m Ernest. I came with the caravan.” He hooked a thumb back toward the direction of the inn.

“You ain’t a spy for the Baron’s man?” the ref challenged. Standing, he balled a fist. “You’d better tell the truth. I got a card that smells lies.”

Well, that was a lie considering Arthur had just told him a fake name and the ref hadn’t blinked. He shrugged again. “No, I ain’t a snitch for the Baron.”

He must have put enough venom in his words for the nobles because several kids relaxed. The ref, though, squinted at him.

“Well, you can’t just watch. If you’re here, you’re betting.”

Arthur hesitated. “I don’t know how the game’s played.”

Several of the kids started explaining the rules at once. It was a little disjointed, but Arthur got the impression he was betting on the players: whether one would roll higher than the other, and then be able to knock the opponent’s marbles from the circle. The payout, if any, depended on the outcome.

“I got a penny,” Arthur said. “I’ll bet on the girl.”

“Her name’s Sanda,” the ref said but took Arthur’s penny anyway.

The first round came as a push — Sanda won the dice roll but didn’t manage to knock any of the boy’s marbles out.

Arthur got his penny back and bet it on the boy, whose name was Mic.

Mic lost the dice roll and Arthur lost his penny.

But he did gain something more valuable.

New skill gained: Game proficiency: Circles and Squares (Gambler Class)

Due to your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 3.

He supposed that Circles and Squares was the name of this game. And with his level 3 proficiency, he understood that the girl was easily beating the boy.

Her expression was confident while his was strained. The other gamblers kept placing their bets on the boy, sure that his luck would turn. Yes, the roll of the dice was a toss-up, but every time Mic got a chance to shoot his marble, he either missed or picked badly.

Arthur used his last penny to bet on the girl. She scowled at him, and he got the impression her earlier misstep that caused the push had been on purpose because she didn’t like a stranger betting. But this time when she won the dice roll, she shot her marble true.

Arthur got his penny and another one. With a grin, he placed his bet again. This time with both pennies.

Arthur did well for himself. While he didn’t bet correctly every round, most of his “losses” ended up in a push.

By the time he was up to five pennies and had gained two more skills in the game, he was aware of resentful looks from the others.

He was a stranger and taking their money. Maybe he shouldn’t hang around.

“My master’s expecting me to help for supper,” he explained as he stood from the circle. Most of the other gamblers had been crouched around at various points, carefully watching the marbles for any sign of cheating.

“You should stay,” the ref said. He had become too friendly over the last couple of rounds. “I’m sure your master can do without for a few more minutes.”

Arthur shrugged. “That’s a good way to earn me a slap.” Then he turned and walked off, hands in his pockets.

A couple of the boys called after him. Arthur ignored them, ducking into the shadows of the next building.

Instead of heading in the direction of the inn, he turned right and quickly stepped into the next gap between buildings he saw. Then he concentrated on blending in with the shadows, on being stealthy.

Maybe it was his imagination, but he thought he felt as if he merged into the shadows. Just a little.

He counted twenty breaths before he saw two of the largest-looking boys from the gambling group walking down the street. They were headed towards the inn.

Arthur let out a breath. Red wouldn’t miss him for more than an hour yet. He planned to spend it working on his stealth skill.

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