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A note from HonourRae

Look for another chapter this weekend to make up for Wednesday's missed chapter.

Arthur slept in hours past dawn which was unusual for him. Red had started his days early, even if the rest of the caravan would prefer to sleep off the wine and ale from the night before. That had meant Arthur did too.

But when he opened his eyes, it was to find people shuffling around the tent, and half of the bed left empty with rumpled bedding.

Maybe it had been — what had Magda called it? Spatial sickness? — because his mind felt much clearer than before.

He was in a dragon hive. A hive that was probably full of silver dragons who could smell his cards, like Doshi had.

Which made Arthur wonder why they weren’t all over him as soon as Tess landed like flies on a cow pie.

Were they busy with the scourge-eruption? Maybe. Doshi wasn’t a fighter, though. They weren’t one of the Lobos either, so they couldn’t be too busy.

He thought about it and figured either Doshi was either really good at smelling out cards, or Arthur was hiding somehow. Maybe there were so many people with cards around the hive that his Legendary-rank didn’t stand out as much?

Better not to risk it. If he saw a silver dragon today, he was going to give it space.

The other thing he had to worry about — and something he wanted to kick himself for — was his newest card. Return To Start was a Trap card that would activate as soon as someone with a card power used something on him.

Easy enough to avoid if he had been back at the caravan where no one used magic powers willy-nilly. Even the small towns they’d visited didn’t have people randomly throwing magic around.

Here… Well, that sickness-seeker had just looked at him and determined he wasn’t going to fall over dead. Something deep and instinctual from his heart deck told him that counted as a card power on him.

Magda seemed like the mothering type. She might want him checked out again to make sure he didn’t have the sniffles or anything. His Trap card hadn’t activated because the power reset at sundown.

If someone used it on him today, he’d be thrown back in this cot. That would be hard to explain.

Maybe dragon riders had cards, but Arthur was just a kid small enough to make people think he was only ten years old. If they knew he had cards, they’d want to take them. If they knew he had a Rare and a Legendary…

Arthur shifted to his side under the thick blankets, rolling over so he faced the wall. Then he pulled down his collar and reached to his chest.

He stopped.

He didn’t want to remove the card from his heart. It felt like… like removing a nursing kitten from her mother. It felt like abandonment and betrayal. As if he had made a promise to keep the card safe, and now…

Arthur squeezed his eyes shut, pulled up every scrap of courage and grit he had, and pulled the card out.

It didn’t hurt, physically. But it felt like he should have. Though the Rare card had only been in his heart for less than a day, it felt like it carried a piece of him.

He felt like apologizing to it.

He knew it was stupid. But it also answered a question he’d thought about on and off: Why had Second gone to all the trouble of keeping his set of cards in his cart when he could have just hidden them in his heart? Unless a high-ranked Treasure-Seeker looked, no one would ever know.

The answer? Because when you stuck something in your heart, it became part of you.

Remembering the other man, Axel, had lost some of his cards on a bad hand of poker made Arthur shudder.

“What am I going to do with you?” he whispered, fingers tracing over the slick, metallic surface of the card. It was as warm, still carrying his body heat.

He didn’t have a pocket large enough, nor a pack. And he didn’t want it too far away from him, either.

He’d carry it on himself for now.

Arthur tucked his shirt into his pants and then slid the card between the shirt buttons so it rested over his stomach. He was lucky the shirt was a little big for him and wrinkled from sleeping in it. Also, he felt a little better with the card close at hand. If someone were to come at him with a dangerous spell, it would only take a few moments to reach in and shove it in his heart.

It wasn’t perfect but it would do.

The final question was… did he want to stay here?

Arthur thought about it as he got out of bed and tried to put his hair back into order before he made his bed.

If he asked Jo or one of the other dragon riders, would they bring him back to the caravan?

Did he want to go back?

There was every chance Second died while searching for card shards and Red never had to know Arthur had two cards. If Second was gone, no one would call him Piss-Ant anymore, either.

But… a sense of adventure and curiosity tugged at him. He wanted to see what a hive was like.

Maybe it had more to offer him than being Red’s apprentice.

He walked out of the large tent and found a bustle of activity in the courtyard. Several small families were being loaded onto waiting purple and blue dragons.

Magda came bustling up to him. She looked harried and concerned. “Did you sleep well, Arthur?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, deciding to be polite.

She hesitated for a moment then let out a sigh. “The scourge has been contained to lines within the valley and the last of the Lobos have been recalled. I’m sorry, Arthur. We’ve had no word of your father.”

Oh. Right.

Arthur looked down at his shoes because he didn’t think he could fake a convincing sniffle. He thought quickly. If his lie had been true, would he just take her word for it?

“Are you sure?” he asked in what he hoped was a quavering voice. “Did they look really hard?” Magda thought he was two years younger than he was. That felt like a childish thing to ask.

His card must have agreed.

New skill level: Acting (Thief/Performer Class)

Level 6


“Yes, dear,” she said, adding gently. “There’s nothing left living in that valley. I’m very sorry.”

He nodded, still looking down. The best thing to do was to remain silent.

Magda continued. “I know it’s unfair to ask this of you right now, but you have some decisions to make. Sometimes, we adults step in when it comes to children, but I think you’re mature enough to make them on your own.”

He cautiously looked up. “What do you mean?”

Magda gestured to the dragons. They had nets to either side which were being filled with sacks of provisions. “Your Baron is required to rehome all willing families on land that hasn’t been touched by the scourge. Arthur,” she paused as if considering how to phrase it. “This isn’t free. The baron must rehome them by law, but they must pay for supplies to restart their farms on new land. To some, it’s worth it. They know the land, and most of the time their friends and neighbors come with them to their new communities. It may take years to work off the debt, but they’ll be together.”

Arthur did not like that option. These weren’t his people, and sooner or later someone would twig onto the fact that no one had ever heard of his father.

Magda continued. “However, your baron requires that all children under the age of twelve have a family to take them in. Do you think anyone would do that for you?”

Arthur quickly shook his head.

She smiled as if she had been half expecting this answer. Likely, she’d made some delicate inquiries from the other evacuees.

“Well, in that case, the Wolf Hive has provisions for cases like yours. We would love to have a smart, brave boy.”

That felt off to Arthur.

Magda barely knew him from any other kid. How was she to know he was brave and smart?

Still, he nodded. “Does that mean I get to live in the hive?”

“No, you’ll only live there if you become a rider someday. Is that something you would like to do?”

People kept asking him that. He decided honesty might be best. “I don’t know.”

Magda nodded. “It’s a great duty… and a burden. You have plenty of time to decide. And of course, it all depends on the cards you earn.”

“You can earn cards?”

By the slight smile on Magda’s face, she had left that hanging on purpose. “Most of us are carded, Arthur. I’ll tell you more about that later. For now, would you mind helping out around here? We must get the rest of the evacuees packed up and on their way.”

Magda framed her request in the same way Yuma did back at his village: A polite order.

She directed him to return to the tent he’d woken up in and start organizing. By then, most of the evacuees had woken and been formed into groups: Those who were to leave to rebuild new lives in their barony, and those who were to stay.

Arthur folded blankets and placed pillows near them. The cots had hinges on the legs which allowed them to be folded up and stacked up. Then he grabbed a broom which sat leaning against the canvas and started sweeping.

When Magda came to check on his progress, she seemed surprised to see everything stowed in its place.

Well, it ought to be. He had a level 8 in Tidying.

She took him outside where a plate of breakfast foods had been made up for him. By now, the dragons had flown away, and the courtyard seemed huge and empty.

“I want you to eat it all,” she said, sitting across the table from him. “And mind you drink all your juice. Meanwhile, I’ll tell you how things work around here.”

No need to tell him twice. He started in on the heaped food, which was… odd. They ate sweet flat cakes, which he would have thought to be a desert. There was a small mound of fluffy yellow eggs as well as sliced potatoes that smelled like they’d been fried in bacon fat. Those were his favorite.

Magda chuckled at his enthusiasm. Then to his complete shock, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a glittering white card shard. It was triangle shaped—probably one of the inner pieces. And, judging by the card-stock looking quality, only a common. He was still stunned a random woman carried them in her pocket. He’d seen men ready to kill for shards.

“By the look on your face, I don’t need to ask you if you know what this is.” Her lips quirked upward in good humor. “The first thing you should know is that in the hives, these beauties are easy to come by. Keep eating,” she added. He had been so busy staring he’d completely forgotten about the food.

Arthur shoved more eggs in his mouth. Magda watched him for a moment, nodded, then continued.

“In the hives, you’re given two options for pay: Coins, or shards. Boys and girls are taken care of. You won’t ever starve, and you’ll have a place to lay your head every night. But it’s expected by the time you’re twelve to start in on a trade. It’s also expected that you should have at least a Common card by the time you’re fifteen.”

“Fifteen?” His dismayed voice was muffled by potatoes. She expected him to wait years for a card?

“That’s the official calculation for those who do the bare minimum,” Magda said, still with that quirked smile. “But a smart, hardworking boy like yourself… Well. I wouldn’t be surprised if you had several cards by then.”

She held the triangle shard up for a moment, tantalizingly. Then she returned it to her pocket.

Arthur hurriedly swallowed the last of his food. There was nothing she could have said that would have sparked more enthusiasm. He suspected she knew it, too, by that smile.

That was fine. The possibility of adding more cards to his deck meant everything. He wouldn’t settle for Common cards, either.

Arthur set his fork next to his empty plate. “What do I need to do?”

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HonourRae

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