His first impression had only been partially correct. What stood on the rocky bank was a ghostly illusion of Doshi the dragon, transparent to the point where he could see trees behind it. It was the same type of semi-transparent outline he had seen in the village square — all colors washed and dim.
“Wh-what?” he stammered and then his mind caught up with what the dragon had asked. “I wasn’t running from you. My master ordered me to wash.” He gestured to himself and then remembered he was standing naked, hip-deep in water.
Thankfully, the dragon didn’t seem offended by his unclothed state. It stood patiently, looking down its long, crooked muzzle with a calm, but curious gaze.
“Yes, the magic plant confounded me. Once I realized the power I sensed in the town came from you, I thought you had rubbed it on yourself to obscure your scent. But why would that be?”
The dragon seemed to be speaking more to itself than to Arthur. So Arthur didn't answer. Carefully watching to make sure the dragon didn’t react badly, Arthur took the opportunity to place the sopping clothing on the rock. It was still early in the day, but the morning light would hopefully warm and dry it soon.
“How are you doing this?” he asked, gesturing to the ghostly image.
Doshi lowered his head as if to get a closer look at him. “My card is of time-illusion, of course. It’s useful when I wish to be in two places at once. Still, my card doesn’t have nearly the power of yours.”
Reflexively, Arthur opened his mouth to deny he had a card. Before he could, the dragon continued. “It is rare to catch a scent of a legendary rank card. Even rarer to find it in the heart of one so young.”
“Please don’t tell,” Arthur said. “My master doesn’t know.”
The easy acceptance surprised him. Arthur blinked, then was instantly on guard again. He fully expected the next question to be how he had gotten such a card… but to his surprise the dragon only settled down on the bank, feet tucked under itself like a cat. He seemed much less bouncy and energetic than before. Maybe it took concentration to cast an illusion? Or maybe Doshi was just pleased he'd found what he was looking for?
Doshi seemed to be a very different creature from the red dragon which had been so menacing. He carried an air of contentedness around himself as if he was willing to wait at the bank all day. Nothing felt dangerous about him.
Arthur chewed the inside of his check then mentally shrugged. The dragon didn’t seem offended by his bathing and he needed to rid himself of all tobacco scent before Second caught him. He bent for a bit of coarse sand and used it to scrub his hands and arms.
Doshi watched without comment.
“You can smell cards?” Arthur ventured. “Is that why you asked for Bert? He really did have a card?”
“A low-ranked common. I’m certain some hatchling will be happy with him.”
Arthur gaped. “You want him to be a dragon rider?” The thought of that boy riding a beast like Doshi made his envy flare up anew.
“If he wants to be, and if a hatchling will have him,” Doshi said equanimity. “Would you like to be a dragon rider?”
Arthur had never considered that. He had been out of the village for such a short amount of time, and the idea of riding a dragon had been so out of the realm of possibility that Doshi may have asked if he wanted to walk on the moon. “I don’t know. Could I?”
Doshi rumbled a laugh. “Anyone carrying a card may be a dragon rider if a hatchling with a compatible card is born.”
“I don’t understand,” Arthur said and elaborated when Doshi cocked his head. “This isn’t my town. I didn’t have a schoolhouse. I don’t know much about dragons, but I heard you link your cards with your riders?”
“Compatible cards, yes.”
“But how do dragons get cards in the first place?” Arthur asked. “Does the hive hand them out?”
Doshi laughed again. It was gentle and patient. “We are magical creatures, and so born with cards. How do you think new cards come into the world?”
Arthur never considered it, but he supposed it made sense. Dragon soil — their fertilizer — was life force itself. So potent that it had to be aged over a year before it could be safely tilled into scourge-dead land.
Doshi continued. “Chancy has a Rare-ranked card of Far-Seeing. When I sensed it as a hatchling in the creche, I knew my Rare-ranked card of Time-Illusion would match perfectly. I was right: We make a wonderful team and accomplish great feats.”
Far-Seeing plus Time-Illusion… “You use him to look back through time and then you make an illusion of it to show up now,,” he realized. What he had seen in the town hadn’t been one card, but two working as if they had one power. “But how does that work? Are the cards part of the same set?”
“No, they do not need to be. Not when you have a dragon.”
Arthur’s mind spun with the possibilities. What would go with a Master of Skills card? “Then I could—?”
“Not right away,” Doshi said with regret. “It took Chancy five years of waiting for a dragon with a rare, compatible card to hatch. There are dozens of common ranked hatchlings in the Harvest Moon Hive waiting for boys and girls right now. There are a handful of uncommon eggs with a line of boys and girls waiting for them. As for rares like me… a few are hatched annually from every hive — we have one close to breaking shell now. When it does, the entire hive will celebrate with a festival. It’s great fun.” He paused. “Legendary hatchlings are rarer still. It’s been three years since a legendary egg was laid in our hive. And then, the hatchling's card must be compatible with yours.”
“Oh.” Visions of himself, so powerful that he was untouchable, on the back of a dragon, faded from his mind.
It was a disappointment but also had been a short-lived dream. Besides, he didn’t know much about dragon riders other than they fought scourglings. He wasn’t sure that was something he wanted to do.
His skin was starting to smart from all the rough scrubbing. Arthur held his nose and ducked underwater again. When he came up, he had more questions.
“Can all dragons tell I have a card?”
“Oh no. It is a private magic — one that does not use a card. Silvers, like myself, see a particular way to the truth of the world. It’s why we’re mostly illusionists.” He stretched his neck forward, so close that if he had been solid and real Arthur would have been able to reach out and touch him. “To me, the strength of your magic is like a pleasant beam of sunlight. If you wish to keep your secrets, stay away from the silvers… and some of the whites.”
So cards were like catnip to the silvers. That was why Doshi had projected himself to the bank. Well, that was fine with him. This was only the second dragon he had seen, anyway.
Arthur swam back over to the rock and tested the clothes. Still wet, but warmer.
He spent the next little while thinking about what Doshi said and looking under rocks for crawdads. The dragon was content to keep him silent company at the bank.
Finally, however, Doshi rose to his feet. Though he was an illusion of a dragon, he stretched out his wings as if he were flesh and blood. “I must go. Chancy says we are to carry the wicked men who steal from their neighbors to a transport dragon. From there, they will go to the border.”
With a mingled pang of homesickness and regret, Arthur wondered if they would end up in his border village. He wanted to ask, but he knew the value of keeping secrets.
“There are transport dragons?”
“The purples mostly, the poor simple creatures.”
“Wow.” He shook his head. “I didn’t know there was so much to dragons. My father said you didn’t even talk.” He didn’t realize what he had said might be rude until it was out.
Doshi, however, took it with calm grace. “We do talk. But we find that children, especially carded children, are the only ones who talk back.”
“Thank you,” Arthur said, “for talking to me.”
Somehow, though the dragon’s lips didn’t move, he got the impression of a smile.
Then Doshi’s form started to drift away into the breeze. Within moments it was gone completely.
Arthur stared at the spot the dragon had been then shook his head.
Did that just happen? It felt like a dream.
Dream or not, the water was beginning to grow cold. He dunked himself fully one last time to make sure he was as clean as one good swim could make him. Then he headed for his clothing.
His shirt and pants were close enough to dry so that they didn’t stick too badly to his skin.
By the time Arthur made his way back to the town, Doshi and Chancy were gone, as were Bert and two of the men arrested for breaking into houses.
Red and the rest of the men were packing up the caravan and readying to go.
Arthur stole a few quick looks at Second. The man was talking with some of his men, not looking unusually upset. Most importantly, he paid no attention to Arthur.
He might have gotten away with his snooping.
Red caught him a few moments later and told him to yoke up the donkeys. After that was done, they were on the road.
Arthur glanced back once toward the town. Then he glanced toward the sky. Far, far up was a lone flying figure. It might have been a bird, but privately he thought it could be a dragon in flight.