Chapter One

 

AS THE streets blurred past and his heels pounded across the pavement, Martus was afraid he would drop to the ground if he didn’t find somewhere to hide soon. His lungs ached and burned, his mouth was dry, and when he glanced over his shoulder, there was still a man almost twice his size hurtling after him. He swore to himself, eyes searching across the town’s buildings in front of him. He wasn’t familiar enough with his new city to just let his feet carry him.

There were crowds of people, pressing and pushing and locking him in place, slowing him down, but that gave him an opportunity. It took him only a few seconds to spot the barrels and, just a little above them, an open window. Martus ducked his head, squeezing his way through the hurried shoppers and scampering up the barrels and through the window in one smooth movement.

Once he had settled on his knees, Martus pressed his mouth into his arm to keep his breathing quiet and looked out the window to see if it would be safe for him to leave the building. There were too many people for Martus to pick out the man who’d been chasing him, at least not immediately, but after looking around for a moment, he spotted his pursuer running off in the opposite direction, perhaps having spotted someone who looked enough like Martus that he’d been thrown off.

Throwing his arm away from his face and beginning to catch his breath, Martus fell onto his back with a sigh of relief—until he heard voices and remembered he had just jumped into the window of a house or store that he was completely unfamiliar with, and there was a chance he’d put himself in even more trouble.

Carefully, he crept back over to the window and peeked out. It was great, trying to make money in an honest way and all that, but now he was on the opposite side of the criminals, and he really didn’t need men like that running after him. At least back home there had been an unspoken but strictly adhered to rule not to steal from another thief; here he was very nearly on the side of the law. It gave him a not-very-pleasant feeling in his stomach to think about it.

Luckily, there was no sign of the man who had been chasing him, and after casting a glance over his shoulder to be sure no one was coming upstairs to investigate the noises he’d made, Martus slipped back out the window. He grunted as he landed on some boxes to the left of the barrels he’d used to climb up and rubbed his back as he got to his feet. It would stop hurting soon, and he’d had far worse injuries. Besides, he had work to do.

After catching his breath from the fall, Martus took a second to check his pocket and make sure he still had the medallion he had retrieved from the thief. The old woman he was working for, Lady Geraldine, was attached to it, more than Martus could understand. It didn’t look like anything special to him. It had been stolen from her, though, and the important thing was that she was willing to pay good money for someone to get it back. Luckily Martus had very deft hands and very fast legs. Besides, old ladies liked him for some reason.

The trip to Lady Geraldine’s house was fairly short, but Martus took a few turns and doubled back. He wanted to be sure the man wasn’t still following him. Disappearing into crowds and not going where he was expected to be, at least not directly, could help out with that. Just because Martus hadn’t been able to spot anyone following him didn’t mean no one was. The big, clumsy man who had been behind him wasn’t exactly a master spy, but still, it was always wise to be careful.

Even once he got to his employer’s house, Martus waited outside the door for a few moments to make sure no one was going to spring out and attack him. It would be unfortunate if that did happen, but he could probably escape again. The old woman could be in some danger.

After a few moments where there was no sign of anyone suspicious, Martus let out a sigh of relief and knocked on Lady Geraldine’s door, leaning against the wall while he waited for her. It wasn’t actually her who answered, but rather her butler, Lyann.

“Lyann, my good friend!” Martus grinned, while Lyann scowled down at him. “I have something for the lady of the house, if you’d please let me past.”

“I believe I should check with my lady before I let any… strangers in off the street. Perhaps you can simply give the medallion to me and I will take care of it.”

“Lyann! Don’t be such an old grump. You know Martus is welcome here anytime.” Lady Geraldine easily bustled straight past Lyann and pulled Martus into a hug, pinching both his cheeks when she pulled away. Her huge gold bracelets, which matched exactly the net pulling white hair away from dark skin, jingled in his ears with her every movement. “You look winded, my boy! Come in, come in. Lyann, bring us some tea, won’t you?”

“Gerdy! So good to see you, my dear! And in better spirits than when I visited last.” Martus stood up a little straighter and adjusted his tone just a bit. He’d been out of an upper-class home for a few years, but that didn’t mean he’d forgotten his roots. Geraldine was a lovely woman, just uncomfortably rich. It was evidenced in everything from the stacks of priceless artifacts in her home to the fact that nearly every dress Martus had seen her in was not only made of the most expensive cloths in the world, but also usually had even more expensive jewels stitched into them.

“Well, I do hope that your visit is to bring me good news?” Geraldine ushered Martus into the tearoom and over to the couch before she sat down in her armchair. The feet of the chair were carved into the faces of cats. Whenever Martus visited, their eyes followed him. “Although you know that your adorable little face is always good news to me!”

With the steadily growing beard Martus had been developing, he truly didn’t know how Geraldine thought he was adorable, but if it got him business, then he was happy not to ask any questions. Instead he smiled sweetly and produced the medallion from his jacket pocket.

“Double the good news, today, then, my fine lady! I have recovered your precious medallion, and, funnily enough, my face happens to be with me today too.”

Geraldine laughed at that, but she was already reaching out to eagerly take the medallion back from Martus and spin it in the air. She squinted at it, but Martus had checked; there was no damage, and after a few seconds, she beamed.

“Martus, my boy, you truly are a hero. I swear, it seems like this city is getting more and more dangerous every day. A woman can barely even leave her house!” Geraldine clipped the medallion’s chain just as Lyann walked in with their tea. He grimaced as soon as he saw that Martus had done his job and brought the medallion back. The best part of his day seemed to be when he could point out that Martus was horrible and untrustworthy. It hadn’t been enough to convince Geraldine—yet—but he was just waiting for the day when Martus failed, the boy could tell.

“My lady, I’ve brought you and… your friend the tea you requested. Two sugars, no milk, or do you care for milk and no sugar today?” Lyann never asked Martus how he liked his tea, but the little sandwiches and cookies that came out with it were more than enough for Martus not to care if the tea tasted like dirty water.

“Two sugars and milk, Lyann. I think today calls for a little indulgence.” Geraldine winked at Martus while Lyann rolled his eyes. A smile was fixed quickly back on his face when he handed Geraldine her tea.

“Perhaps, my lady, if I may be so bold as to suggest, you would like to tell Martus here about the other job you were hoping he would do for you.” Lyann made eye contact with Martus then, and his smile took on a more sinister look.

Still, Martus sat up and, after taking a small sip of his tea, turned fully toward Geraldine, laying a comforting hand over hers.

“What do you need of me, Gerdy? You know any job I can do for you….” He smiled, taking his hand away. “Well, I just want to help.”

“Oh, Martus, such a sweet, sweet boy. You were so good at finding my medallion for me. Something even more precious to me has gone missing, and I was only hoping that you might use your wonderful skills again. The pay would be triple the usual.” Geraldine didn’t have very good security around her house, and she often left it completely unattended. Martus was there at least once a week to find something that had been taken from her. He’d told her a few times that she might want to get a dog, or at least better locks. It wasn’t exactly good business, but her things were disappearing at a ridiculous pace.

“You just tell me what it is, Gerdy, and I will do everything I can to get it back to you.” Everything he could do would be more than usual too, if he was to be paid triple the money he usually got for these jobs. That would pay for meals and books for himself and Elsaben for at least a month.

“It’s my son!” All of a sudden, Geraldine burst into tears. Lyann was at her side immediately with a handkerchief, glaring at Martus as if the sudden change to her mood was completely his fault. “My own dear, sweet boy. You’ve heard of him, you must have. My dear Fitzy. Well, he goes by Jameson outside the house, after his dear late father. But Fitzy is a hero. Everyone knows who he is. Whenever he went around town, people would buy him things and… and they all loved him so much. Well, I think he got kidnapped or… or some awful thing. I can’t tell you exactly what happened to him. But my Fitzy wouldn’t run away from me. He has the perfect life. He was only supposed to be gone for a few weeks to get some things from a city in Orbeautons but the shopkeeper says he never even made it! And it’s been months now. Oh, please, Martus, you must help me.”

Geraldine had never really mentioned her son to Martus before, and he’d never heard of any local hero, although he wasn’t exactly part of the town’s gossip circles. She sounded genuinely distressed, though, and the pay was too good to turn the job down. Hopefully Fitzy was the sort of hero who had written a few books and not the sort who had fought off a bunch of bears. Anyone who could kidnap someone like that wasn’t going to be someone Martus could handle.

“Of course! Of course I’ll help you, Gerdy. I can’t imagine how horrible this has been for you, but I want you to know that I am going to get your son back for you. I need a few things from you first.” Martus set his tea down and dug in his pockets for some scraps of paper and a short pencil.

“Anything that you need, my boy, anything! I could not possibly tell you how much it means to me to know I have your help. There’s no one else I would trust with finding my Fitzy.” Geraldine dabbed away the last of her tears and, after a few sniffs, sat up straight. “What do you need to know?”

“I’m going to need you to tell me the way Fitzy usually goes to Orbeautons, and I’ll need to know if he has any particularly close friends who he might have told where he was going.” Martus got prepared to write, before he thought of one more thing he needed and perked up, throwing Lyann a charming smile. “Oh, do be a dear and get us some lunch, Lyann. This may take a while.”

 

 

MARTUS SPENT the next hour getting all the information he could from Geraldine. She had a daughter as well, actually, although she had been disowned before their father died. She was the only person Geraldine could think of who might know where Fitzy had ended up.

As soon as Martus let one person know he was looking for “Jameson”—as he had to call him for anyone to know who he was talking about—he was swarmed with people who wanted him to pass on a message or people who were concerned, mostly just people who wanted to gossip about it, though. The more they gossiped, the more people Martus had to deal with.

He quickly decided it would be best if he just went home for the day and asked around a little more tomorrow. He’d gone to the blacksmith’s shop where Geraldine said her daughter worked, but it was closed down, so there wasn’t much that was going to do for him. Taking one more day to find Fitzy wouldn’t make much of a difference. As long as he found him at some point, he’d still be getting paid.

His little sister was home with Hal, anyway, and Martus always felt bad when he left Elsaben with him all day. Hal was still working on the tips his parents’ friend had given him to control when he changed into a full dragon. It took a lot of concentration and so did looking after Elsaben. Doing both at the same time was, Martus was certain, no easy feat.

When Martus made his way out of Chetsville and to the house through the woods, he discovered no one was in the house. After dropping off the money from Geraldine and a few things he’d picked up in town, he headed out to the garden. Elsaben was sitting on the newly painted bench with her head buried in one of her magick books, little legs swinging back and forth. She was always so restless.

Martus didn’t spot Hal straight away, but once he sat down next to Elsaben he could see Hal sitting in amongst the flowers, eyes closed and his face scrunched up. For a moment, Martus found himself transfixed by the other boy. The light made his orange hair shine, lightening it toward a dark blond, and he seemed, to an incredible degree, like he belonged there in the flowers. With other beautiful things.

After he snapped himself back to reality and hauled Elsaben up into his arms, Martus said softly, “Come on, let’s go inside and I’ll help you study, all right?” Hal hadn’t opened his eyes or broken his concentration yet, and there was no reason to bother him.

“Mar! Did you go and see that wrinkly woman today?”

One time. One time Martus had agreed to take Elsaben into the city with him while he did a job for Geraldine. He was lucky she hadn’t said something like that to the woman’s face.

“I did, and I actually have a new job from her!” Martus pushed the door open and stepped inside. It was nice to finally be home.

After a good long while and a lot of work, the house was pretty spruced up now, and more comfortable than Martus and Elsaben’s old home in the barn had been. It was nice to live in a real house with a floor instead of hay and with actual bedrooms built right into it. Martus was glad he could give his sister a place to live that was a little more normal. They were still pretty far from Chetsville, admittedly, and no one could know where they lived in case someone figured out that Hal was a dragon, but it was a house, at least.

“Yay! Can I get some new books soon? I almost got done with everything in this one.”

Martus settled into a chair with Elsaben on his lap and put her book on the table in front of them. She was close to the end of it, and he sighed. She was only getting better and better at learning spells. It was wonderful, really; she would be able to defend herself, and she loved to learn. Martus just felt like he was buying her new books every other week. She learned even faster than he did. Still, he smiled and kissed the top of her head.

“You know I’ll get you a new one when you need it. For now, let’s just focus on this, hm?” Martus quickly scanned the page that she’d been studying from. “You’re learning about heat spells so, huh, maybe it was a good idea to work on these ones outside.”

A few days ago, Elsaben had been working on one of her heat spells. It was meant for her to keep herself warm if she ever got into a situation where she wasn’t near a fire and was stuck somewhere cold. She’d ended up setting Martus’s bedspread on fire. Sometimes she was almost too good at her magick.

“I was looking at some healing ones too, Mar! Maybe I can practice those ones in the house?” Elsaben flipped eagerly through the pages of her book. Finally, she came to the page with healing spells and pointed out the one she’d been working on.

It was for larger injuries than Martus would have been walking around with, but he had a few small cuts and scrapes on his hands and knees that she could practice on. He doubted she had fully mastered it, anyway.

“All right, here, try on my hands.” Martus held them out flat for her, and Elsaben wiggled her fingers over his palms before taking a deep breath.

She glared at his hands, her nose crinkling with the level of concentration she had to keep. Martus could barely feel the warmth of the spell tickling at his hands and he grinned. It was his instinct to encourage her, but he managed to keep his mouth shut. It wouldn’t help her at all if his talking interrupted what she was trying to do.

Finally, Martus’s hand heated up until it almost felt like it was on fire. Elsaben let out a great breath of air, pulling her own hand away from his to reveal perfectly smooth skin. She gasped quietly and swung herself up to hug Martus around his neck.

“Mar! I did it! I did it, I did it!” She squealed, very loudly, right in his ear. Martus winced a little, wrapping an arm around her back.

“You did it! Good job, little one. Should we practice again with my other hand?”

Elsaben’s eyes lit up, and she let go of Martus’s neck to grab his other hand. Except, at that very moment, the door swung open again, and Hal stepped inside.

“I figured you were home. You didn’t have to come inside, you know. I’ve been practicing out there with El all day.” Hal slipped out of his coat and hung it on the hooks they’d put up by the door. Then he headed over to the table and pulled out a chair next to Martus.

“Is it going well? You seemed like you were really making some progress the last time you were practicing.” Martus had known it would take a while for Hal to really master when he turned into a dragon and when he didn’t. He just hoped it would be sooner rather than later. It wouldn’t be very pleasant to have to relocate Elsaben again.

“It’s going all right. When I sit out there and have no distractions, I’m fine. If I could have that kind of control over my mind all the time, I’m sure that I’d be doing just fine. For now it’s only for a few minutes every day.” Hal rubbed the bridge of his nose. He flopped forward, his elbow landing on the table and his face buried in his hand.

“You just have to be patient. That’s what your friend told you, right? It took him years, and there’s a few more things to help you now, but it’s not going to be easy.” Martus smiled, shifting Elsaben so she could sit on her own. He stood behind Hal, laying a hand on his shoulder. “We’re here for you, no matter how long it ends up taking. You’re trying, and, let’s be honest, if I was in your situation I’d be learning even slower than you are.”

Hal cracked a smile at that, and Elsaben looked up from her book, absolutely beaming. She reached out a small hand to pat the top of Hal’s head.

“Maybe I could help next time. Mar says I’m a natural. Right?”

Martus laughed, nodding. “That’s right, Elsaben. A natural.” He went over to his bag and pulled out some bread and dried meats that he’d picked up when he was in town. “Now, do you want to get over here and be a natural at helping me make some sandwiches?”

Elsaben stuck her tongue out, but after a minute she did close her book and hurry over to where Martus was. Any sort of meat they got was a very rare commodity; it was usually out of their price range. Sandwiches were often just cheese that was on the verge of going bad. Sometimes just bread and butter squished together so they could at least feel like they were eating some type of sandwich.

“How did it go with Lady Geraldine?” Hal was still sitting at the table. Making sandwiches was barely a two-man job, let alone three. Besides, practicing on controlling his transformations always took a lot out of him.

“Really well! She has this son, the Hero Jameson or something, and apparently he went missing on his way to Orbeautons. She just wants me to track him down and see to it that he gets back home. Shouldn’t be too much of a task, really. As far as I’ve gathered, he hasn’t actually done anything notable in a few years. Silly sod probably just got himself lost.” Martus rolled his eyes, cutting up the bread and then handing the pieces off to Elsaben.

She wasn’t putting the meat and cheese on them, though. Instead she was staring up at him with wide eyes. Martus raised an eyebrow, glancing over at Hal, who just shrugged.

“The Hero Jameson? I can’t believe it, Mar! Are you really gonna get to meet him? He’s so strong, he killed a horrible pirate, you know.” Elsaben was actually bouncing up and down, her voice quickening.

“How do you know that?” Martus swore sometimes his sister was about twice as smart as him for being less than half his age.

“My friends told me. Last time we went to town, while you were in the store, I met some other little girls. They were drawing pictures of him to see if he would sign them, see. They told me all about him.” For a second, Elsaben’s smile faltered and her brows knitted together. “He isn’t hurt, is he?”

“Um, no, El, I don’t think so. He just got lost, and his mum is very worried about him. I’m going to try and get him to come back home, and you’re going to stay with Hal for a few days.”

Hal looked over at Martus with surprise at that, and Elsaben just hummed, starting to put the sandwiches together.

“She’s going to do what?” Hal frowned, crossing his arms over his chest.

“She’s going to stay here, with you, just like I said. I don’t think I’m going to be in any danger. Probably just a quick trip, drag the boy home to his mummy, and that’s that. But if something does happen, Elsaben has to be somewhere safe. It’ll bring home a very, very good bit of gold for us.” Since they’d moved, Martus hadn’t really had to leave Chetsville for a job, but he didn’t plan on being away for more than a few days. He didn’t see it as being too big an issue.

“If you get yourself into trouble, you want me to be at home with Elsaben instead of there with you? No offense, Martus, but the last time we got into trouble you almost ran face-first into a sword, and I was the one who had to drag you somewhere to hide.” Hal’s tone was lighthearted, but his arms were still crossed and he was frowning. “There is no way I’m letting you go halfway, or maybe all the way, to Orbeautons by yourself.”

“It’s really not your decision, and—”

Elsaben had looked up from the sandwiches now, and Martus frowned, pulling Hal out the door with him. It wasn’t really going to be an argument, but Martus still didn’t want Elsaben to hear it.

“Listen.” Martus spoke softly even after they got outside. “I understand if you don’t want to stay with Elsaben, but just tell me. I’m going to be fine on my own, but I’ll see if someone from back home can help you with her if that’s what you need.”

“Oh!” Hal’s voice dropped any pretense of being lighthearted, and he stood up a little taller. “You think I have an issue with watching El? Absolutely not. I love spending time with her. My issue here is that you’re going to go wandering around by yourself trying to find this ‘hero’ person, and you’re going to get yourself killed! Even if nothing bad happened to him, I’m afraid you’ll fall and hit your head on a rock and no one will be there to look out for you. I can take care of you if something does happen.”

“Oh, well that’s… actually pretty nice! Fine, you can come along!” Martus huffed, crossing his own arms.

“Fine!” Hal squinted at Martus to make sure he wasn’t trying to trick him or anything.

“Fine!” Martus opened the door again and started inside before he glanced over his shoulder. “Come eat your sandwich!”

Then he let the door swing closed behind him, realizing only a second after it slammed that he actually wasn’t frustrated with Hal anymore. He was just trying to help. Martus wasn’t used to anyone telling him to do anything, though, even for his own safety.

“I’m sorry about that. I think I need to eat and maybe get some sleep.” Martus smiled sheepishly at him when Hal reopened the door and stepped back inside.

“Good idea. Pass me a sandwich.”

Martus grinned brighter, settling down at the table and handing Hal one of the sandwiches Elsaben had made. Within a minute, they were all eating and laughing, and Martus almost forgot he was going to have to find someone else to watch El while they were gone.