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For a startled moment, Arthur wasn't in his bedroll on top of a thick mat of straw. He was back at his home village, hiding under scraggly bushes as the red dragon roared and killed the soldiers underneath him.

A second dragon's roar shocked him out of sleep.

It was real. It wasn't a dream.

He's found me, was Arthur's first, panicked thought. The red dragon had told him to give the card to his father. It didn't matter that his father refused to take it. The dragon would only see him as a greedy, disobedient child...

Heart pounding, Arthur untangled himself from his blanket and stood. He was torn between running to the door, to explain to the red what had happened... and fleeing.

The animals in the stables shifted around nervously. They didn't like the sound of the predator outside, but the walls gave them the illusion of safety. It was early, too. Pre-dawn just started filtering through the cracks between the planks.

Why weren't people screaming? Surely, others must have been woken by the roar?

That curiosity was enough to cut through his fear. Arthur edged to the open entrance and looked out.

There was a dragon in the sky. Not the red, but a silver beast with a blue underbelly. It was making wide circles around the town, roaring at intervals as if to announce its presence. A silhouette of a rider sat on its back, swinging their arm back and forth in an exaggerated wave.

Arthur's fear melted away. He looked up in awe. A dragon and its rider were visiting the town.

All around, doors opened from houses and apartments as the townsfolk were alerted to their new visitor. Most looked tired but interested. Some seemed downright relieved.

The baron's man, the overseer, strode to a wide spot in front of the inn. As the largest building in town, it was the most distinctive. In contrast to the sleepy townsfolk, most of whom were still in the clothes they'd slept in, he was dressed in finely pressed pants and a fancy jacket. The buttons of his station gleamed in the early morning sun.

Turning, the man gestured for two boy assistants to come out from the crowd. They did, both carrying green flags. The boys went to either end of the courtyard and waved the flags.

Up high, the dragon gave a short bark of acknowledgment and completed a sharp turn.

As it came closer, Arthur saw it was smaller than the red had been. It was thinner overall, with delicate proportions including longer wings that looked almost translucent in the sun. The muzzle was sharp and pointed downward at the end like an old man who had a crooked nose.

It landed with easy grace. Its eyes were as blue as the sky. It looked around with alert interest and started sniffing deeply, swinging its head toward a nearby group of townsfolk. They drew back quickly.

The baron's overseer came trotting up to the dragon, desperate to be the first to greet and bow at the rider. He called up something to him but it was too far away for Arthur to hear.

Whatever he said, the rider ignored it. Instead, he straightened in the dragon saddle and stood up tall to balance effortlessly on the beast.

He was every inch a large, carded man. His dark skin was smooth and free of all marks. His eyes glowed the same color as his dragon's — an eerie blue that stood out from his face.

"Good people!" the rider called in a booming, practiced voice that easily reached down the street, "I am Sir Rider Chancy and this is Dashi. Our hive has received a request to settle the matter of a crime. What has happened here?"

Immediately, several townsfolk cried out with strident voices.

"My home's been broken into!"

"My jewelry stolen—"

"The schoolhouse has been ransacked!"

Chancy turned to indicate a squat, white, one-story building at the other end of the square. "Is that the schoolhouse?"

He waited for several affirmative answers before he leaped from the dragon's back and landed easily on the ground.

The growing crowd of townsfolk parted for the rider as he strode towards the school.

Arthur was enthralled. Forgetting all fear, he jogged to see what would happen next. Though more people were filtering into the square as word spread, they gave wide room for the dragon. Arthur squeezed in through the gaps. The dragon wasn't doing anything scary anyway. Just sniffing hopefully at people over like an overly-friendly dog.

He got close enough to see the rider point to one of the broken-out windows of the school. "When did this happen?"

"Three nights ago," the overseer told him, and added something else but the dragon was sniffing so loud, so close, that Arthur missed the rest.

He turned to see the dragon examining a nearby girl up and down. The girl stood stock still, pale in fright. She sagged when the dragon moved on.

What was it looking for? Food? Arthur wondered.

His father had told him that dragons were like beasts. The red dragon had spoken and mostly acted like a person, but this one was more like a friendly dog.

"Doshi!" Chancy called.

Immediately, the silver dragon's head popped up and it trotted over to its rider — as fast as a beast half the size of a house could trot. People quickly made way.

"Oh, this will be fun," said a familiar voice to Arthur's side.

He looked up to see that Red had joined him. The man had his arms crossed and was chewing a bit of wheat in his mouth.

"What do you mean?" Arthur asked.

"I've seen these two work before. The Harvest Moon Hive usually sends this pair out to resolve small-town complaints. Watch."

Both the dragon and rider faced each other. The man's face was blank in concentration, the dragon's eyes half-closed.

Suddenly, the entire town square was transformed.

It was still early morning, yet the pinprick of a hundred thousand stars now dotted the sky. Everything but the people had a strange, ghostly double outline. Like they were there... and yet not.

Some of the townsfolk murmured and were shushed by their neighbors. Arthur looked up at Red to see the man's attention fixed on the schoolhouse. Arthur did the same.

The windows looked... strange. Both broken and unbroken at the same time. An outline of the fake overlaid on top of the real. It hurt his eyes to focus too closely.

"Go later into the night," Chancy told his dragon.

The stars above wheeled a quarter turn like Arthur was seeing the night pass by in seconds.

Then the dragon spoke for the first time. "I see them."

The stars stopped. Around the corner of the schoolhouse in the not-quite night came the translucent image of four boys. They were laughing and joking, though no sound came from their open mouths.

With a jolt, Arthur recognized them all as boys from the dice game. Though out of the group, only the referee had been the one to ruff him up.

And it was the ref who, laughing silently, picked up a stone to fling it through the schoolhouse. The others quickly joined in.

Arthur flinched as the glass broke, even though there was no noise. Glass was expensive and precious back in his old village. To just ruin it for a laugh was... unthinkable. To do it when they were lucky enough to have a schoolhouse at all for teaching? Criminal.

When the windows were shattered, one of the boys got the bright idea to kick the door in.

Arthur wasn't the only one annoyed judging by the angry buzz of the crowd.

Chancy turned away from his dragon and the strange scene faded away. "Are these children known to you all?"

"Yes, Sir Rider."

"Then fetch them."

Arthur turned to Red. "What kind of card can do that?" And how did he get ahold of it? he added silently.

Red shrugged. "Dragons and riders link cards, you know."

Arthur shook his head. He had no idea.

Red snorted. "I've seen this pair's song and dance before — rumor has it, they've got no cards good for scourgling eruptions, so the hive sends 'em out to put on a nice face for the common folk."

Arthur did not care a bit about politics. He wanted to know how the cards worked. "Linked powers? Does that mean the dragons have a Special card? Like part of a set?"

Red shrugged again. Right. He was the wrong person to ask.

At that point, several of the boys were brought forward. One was the ref who looked sullen and defiant.

The baron's overseer pounced at once, demanding their ages and family names. He seemed disappointed when they were all under eighteen.

"If you were of age, I'd send your worthless hides to the border!" he snapped. The blood drained from the boys' face. "As it is, maybe a public caning and repayment for the damage to the schoolhouse will have to do. Until then, you will sit in the cells and think about what you did—"

Abruptly, the silver dragon thrust its long muzzle forward, sniffing so hard that several nearby ladies' skirts flapped in the wind. It seemed fixated on the ref. In fact, it nearly knocked the boy over in his enthusiasm.

"Chancy, we must not let this one go!"

"Easy now, Doshi."

The rider gently pushed the beast's head away and looked down at the ref. "What's your name, son?"

"B-Bertum. Everyone calls me Bert." He stared from the dragon to the rider to a frightened-looking couple who had to be his parents.

"Well, Bert. How about instead a caning and you working off the damage here, you come work for the hive instead?"

Bert's eyes grew wide. "Really?"

"Really. In fact, I'm certain the hive can replace those windows you broke right away if you agree to stay the summer. Is that a fair deal?" The last question was directed toward the overseer.

The man nodded. "Yes, yes. If you can handle him—and I'd better not get any word of you discrediting our town," the overseer said sternly to him.

Bert frantically shook his head that he wouldn't. The boys beside him looked shocked and stared at the rider pleadingly, but he ignored them. It seemed only Bert was to be given this chance.

Arthur meanwhile watched with a growing burning in his chest. It was envy so deep he could not put it into words.

Not that he wanted to see Bert get caned. Okay, not a lot. But he'd done a crime that would have had him sent to the border had he been a couple of years older. Instead, he was getting his sins paid for and, from the sounds of it, going with a dragon rider.

It wasn't fair. Arthur and his mother hadn't had the chance to go to a hive when his father got in trouble with the King. Not that they'd leave his father, especially since his mother had been pregnant at the time, but still! It wasn't fair.

One of the townsfolk gathered the courage to step forward. "Begging your pardon, Sir dragon rider, but there's the matter of our burglarized home."

"And my jewelry!" a woman added. "It was stolen right out of my shop."

Chancy leveled a stern gaze down at Bert. "Did you have anything to do with these crimes? We'll see the truth soon."

"No, sir!" Again, Bert shook his head. "I didn't and neither did my boys. It had to be someone else."

Chancy stared at him for a long moment as if weighing his words.

"Well, then let’s find out who was responsible. Shall we?" With that, he nodded to the man who'd had his house broken into. The man started leading him down the street. With a cheer, the townsfolk followed. The unlucky boys who had not been noticed by the dragon were pulled away, presumably to the cells.

Arthur started to follow the crowd. He was stopped when Red put a hand on his shoulder.

"Why do you stink of tobacco? And what's this?" He plucked something out of Arthur's hair. To his horror, it was a bit of crumbled leaf.

Arthur froze, his mouth working, trying to verbalize an excuse that his brain had yet to provide.

Being a short man, Red wasn't that much taller than Arthur. Yet at that moment he seemed to loom over him. "This is from Second's cart, isn't it? If I go through your pack right now, what will I find?"

"Nothing!" he said. "I just looked, I swear. And I put it all back. I swear!" he repeated. "I didn't take any of the—"

"Stop." He held up a hand. Then he sighed and looked around to see if anyone was nearby to listen. "I don’t want to know what Second's carrying under there. It's safer for me. Safer for you, too."

Bert had said he had a Lie Detector card. Arthur had been mostly sure he had been lying at the time but what if one of the local officials had something like that? Or stronger?

Red waited for a beat for Arthur to process that thought. Then in a lower voice he said, "I'm the caravan leader, but Second's a carded man. If he finds out what you did, I can't stop him from dealing with you in a way he sees fit. You understand me?"

Arthur felt the blood drain from his face. He felt faint. "Yes. I only looked, though."

"I don't think he'll care. Do you?"

Arthur shook his head.

Red sighed. "There's a stream just this side of town. Go wash. While you do, I'll be searching your packs. You swear you don't have anything you shouldn't have?"

"I swear."

"Go on then. Wash like your life depends on it."

Released, Arthur sprinted away.

 


 

The stream was more like a river, and it was ice cold. Arthur plunged in anyway, clothes and all. He came up sputtering.

This was a sheltered bend with a rocky bank and large green trees providing shade. The whole place was pretty and lush in a way he wasn't used to seeing yet.

The water was calmer in this bend of the river, too. In the gentle current he saw a dirty film come up from around him.

He swore he felt a twinge from his Tidying skill. There was no need to wash much in the border village, but he wondered if one reason why the adults disliked him was because he was a dirtball kid.

Arthur ducked under again, rinsing out his hair. Then he shucked off his shirt, pants, and shoes.

He set the boots on a nearby rock to dry and started working to get the worst of the stains out of the rest. The worst came away in blooms of dirty water, but he kept scrubbing to loosen the ingrained stuff.

He would have rather seen the dragon and rider using more magic than doing his laundry... but he was well aware he'd gotten off lucky. He'd gotten so used to the pungent tobacco scent that he hadn't realized it was on him. And if Second had noticed the bit of leaf in his hair... well, he might have killed Arthur just to make sure he carried none of his cards in his heart deck.

Again, he was lucky that Red didn't know enough about cards to check there.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! he berated himself.

How many times was he going to avoid disaster by luck until it caught up with him?

He scrubbed his shirt harder, annoyed with himself.

There was no warning. There was no noise or any sign he wasn't alone in the river at all.

Arthur turned, shirt in hand to lay it on the rock to dry.

Doshi the dragon stood on the river's bank.

"Hello, boy. Why did you run from me?"

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