Everything good came in threes; Mama always said that, but Hark seriously doubted her reasoning.
Three sons were born before Papa disappeared, not at the same time, but over a course of five years. He took off when the youngest was six and Hark was eleven. He was born first, but Mama said it didn’t matter. They were all the same to her. She didn’t love any of them more or less because of their age. Mama was a decent woman.
Papa, on the other hand, was not decent; no matter what Mama had to say about it. He left behind three cows, three sheep and three heads of cabbage in the garden. Upon further digging, it was discovered he left them three potatoes, but whether or not he did that on purpose, or he simply overlooked them was a matter of debate. In the top drawer of Papa’s dresser, where he used to keep his trousers, Hark found three pennies underneath a bit of parchment that looked like it had been folded so many times it was bound to fall to pieces if he tried to unfold it again.
Papa couldn’t even read. As Hark fingered the thin edges and thought about risking the sturdiness of the parchment to see what it said, he let his mind wander. Maybe it was a treasure map, or patents of nobility. Maybe it was a debtor’s receipt. Papa did have a fondness for gambling. Hark wondered if Papa even know what was written on it; again judging from the fondness with which it had been obviously fondled, he had a feeling Papa knew. Had someone else read it to him?
It probably didn’t matter. Whatever it said, it must not have been very valuable because he left it behind, along with his three boys, three cows so dried up they would never milk again, three old sheep with thin and patchy wool that wasn’t even worth shearing anymore, three rotten cabbages and three potatoes that tasted worse than the dirt they’d been grown in.
Two of the coppers in the drawer were bent—almost in half. No decent merchant would take them unless someone pounded them out again, which Hark couldn’t do because Papa took the hammer, which brought him back to the paper.
Hark could read. It was all he ever did, according to Mama, and reading would probably be the death of him because he often read while walking, and one day he was going to read himself straight off a cliff. Maybe he would, but he’d rather read himself to death, than just up and leave his family with nothing.
For three days the paper called to him, begging to be read, but Hark ignored it, busying himself by doing all the chores Papa used to do, since no one else was going to do them and his little brothers were bound to get hungry sooner or later. He kept it in his pocket, his hand slipping in from time to time to make sure it was still there. He imagined he could feel the words with the tips of his fingers, absorbing them the way his father must have done. By the end of that third day, he couldn’t stand not knowing anymore, and even though he convinced himself it was probably nothing, he dug it out and carefully opened it.
Completely unfolded, he discovered it was only half a slip of parchment, not a full cut, and there were bits of red wax staining the top of the page in a half-circle. The first thing his eye caught was a series of numbers in bold black ink across the center of the page: 333.
Above the numbers, written in text only slightly smaller than the threes were the words Village Lottery. A faded picture of a dragon’s tail swished around the outer edges, giving Hark a chill. Below the numbers the writing was so small he had to squint in order to read it.
We regret to inform you that your family’s number was randomly chosen during this year’s lottery proceedings. You are expected to appear at dawn on 17 March with your offering. It is a well-known fact the dragon prefers children, most especially girls between the ages of eleven and nineteen. If no such daughter exists within your household, a son is acceptable, most especially if the boy is between ages seven and eleven. We leave this matter to your discretion, but bear in mind choosing wisely is of the utmost importance, as your decision will affect everyone in the village.
If you were not blessed with children, you are personally expected to arrive with whatever valuables you have to offer to appease the wyrm for another year.
Our most sincere apologies, as well as our thanks.
The Office of King Wilhelm Robert Clayton Barreston VI
For the first time since he’d learned to string words together into sentences, Hark wished he didn’t know how to read, but more than that, he wished his mother would stop saying blessings came in threes because that was certainly not the case.