He sensed the kick coming through his sleep and curled into a ball. It didn’t hurt as much this time. Emile wasn’t really trying.
“You have a client.”
He rolled up, blinking. He should’ve hidden deeper in the drum that was his nest. The drum lay on its side and it was deep enough so Emile couldn’t land a good kick. But it was so nice and sunny and so he’d fallen asleep on the rags in front of it.
He looked at Emile and the man next to him. The man had dark eyes. He’d learned to watch the eyes. Faces lied, mouths lied, but the eyes always told you if the man would hit and how hard. This man was large. Big hands. Powerful shoulders. Next to him Emile looked skinny and weak, and he knew it too, because he forgot to sneer. All the street people called him Weasel because of the sneer, but only when he couldn’t hear. Emile was mean. He ran the street and when someone tried to stand up to him, he’d fly into a rage and beat them with a rock or a metal stick until they stopped moving.
Emile jabbed his finger in the direction of the man. “Fix him.”
The man held out his left arm. A cut snaked from his wrist all the way to the elbow. Shallow. Easy to fix. He eyed Emile. Usually Emile made him say nonsense words and drag it out, so it would look mysterious, but the man was watching him and it was making him uneasy.
He reached out and touched the man’s arm, letting the magic flow. The cut sealed itself.
The man squeezed his forearm, checking the spot where the wound used to be.
“See? I told you.” Emile bared his teeth.
“How much?” the man asked. His voice had an accent.
“How much what?”
“How much for the boy?”
His heart sank. He scooted deeper into the drum, where he’d kept a knife hidden under his rags. He knew what happened to boys who were sold. He knew what men did to them. Rene was sold a month ago. A man took him away. Two weeks ago after the dark, he saw the same man leading Rene on a chain like a dog as they walked into a house. Rene was wearing a pink dress and he had a black eye.
Emile promised not to sell him. That was the deal. He healed clients and Emile gave him food and protected him.
“Not for sale.” Emile said.
The man reached into his leather jacket. An envelope came out. A stack of money hit the dirt in front of Emile. A thick stack. More money than he had ever seen. Emile’s eyes got big.
He trapped in the drum. There was nowhere to run.
Emile licked his lips.
“You promised!” he yelled.
“Shut up.” Emile squinted at the man. “He’s a magic boy.”
“Take him,” Emile said.
The man reached for him. He shrank back, his hand clutching the knife hidden under his filthy blanket. He wouldn’t be walking on a chain.
The man stepped toward him, his back to Emile.
“Drop the knife,” the man said.
Behind him Emile’s face turned ugly. He lunged, a knife pointed at the man’s back. The man turned fast. His hand fastened on Emile’s wrist. Emile screamed and dropped the knife. The man pulled him over.
“Take him!” Emile squealed. “Take him!”
“Too late.” The man locked his left hand on Emile’s throat and squeezed. Emile clawed at the man’s arm with his free hand, flailing, trying to get away. The man squeezed. Something crunched. Emile’s eyes rolled back in his skull. The man let go and Emile fell down, limp.
He scooted deeper into the drum.
The man crouched by it. “I won’t hurt you.”
He slashed with his knife. The man caught his hand and then he was yanked out into the sunlight and set on his feet. The man looked at his knife. “A sharp blade.” He held it out to him. “Here. It will make you feel better.”
He snatched the knife from the man’s hand, but he already knew the truth. The knife wouldn’t help. The man could kill him any time. He’d learned this truth a long time ago: he was small and everyone else was big. The big kicked the small and the small hurt. He couldn’t fight the man. He would have to bide his time and run.
The man took his hand and together they walked out of the alley into the market. The man stopped at the pirogi stall, bought a hot pirogi, and handed it to him. “Eat.”
Free food. He grabbed it and bit into it, the sweet apple filling hot enough to burn his mouth. He swallowed his half-chewed bite and took another. He could always try to get away later. Eventually the man would look away and then he would run. Until then, if the man bought him food, he would take it. Only an idiot gave up free food. You ate it and you ate it quick before someone punched you and took it out of your hands.
They walked through the marketplace all the way to the park to a man sitting on a bench reading a book.
“I found him,” the man with dark eyes said.
The man on the bench raised his head and looked at him.
He forgot about the food. The half-eaten pirogi fell from his fingers.
The man was golden and burning with magic, so much magic, he almost glowed. The magic touched him, so warm and welcoming, so kind. It wrapped around him and he froze, afraid to move because it might disappear.
“Where are you parents?” the golden man asked.
Somehow he answered. “Dead.”
The man leaned toward him. “You don’t have any family?”
He shook his head.
“How old are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Hard to tell because of starvation,” the man with dark eyes said. “Maybe six or seven.”
“You’re very special,” the golden man said. “Look at all those people out there.”
He didn’t want to look away from the man, but he didn’t want to disappoint him even more, so he turned his head and looked at the people in the market.
“Of all the people out there, you shine the brightest. They are firebugs, but you are a star. You have a gift.”
He tried to see the light the man was talking about, but he saw nothing.
“If you come with me, I promise you that I will help your light grow. You will live in a nice house. You will eat plenty of good food. You will train hard and you will grow up to be strong and powerful. Nobody will be able to stand in your way. Would you like that?”
He didn’t even think. “Yes.”
“What’s your name?” the golden man asked.
“I don’t have any.”
“Well, that’s not good,” the man said. “You need a name. A strong name, the kind that people would know and respect. Do you know where we are?”
He shook his head again.
“We’re in France. Do you know who that man is?” He pointed a statue of the man on a horse. The man had a sword and a crown.
“That’s Hugh Capet. He was the founder of the Capet dynasty. The kingdom of France began with his reign. The descendants of his bloodline sat on the throne of France for almost nine hundred years. He was a great man and you too will be a great man, Hugh. Would you like to be a great man?”
The man smiled. “Good. Today is a special day because we met. Is there anything I can do for you on this special day? Anything at all? Ask me any favor.”
Hugh swallowed. “My friend. His name is Rene. He has dark hair and brown eyes. He was sold to a man.”
“Would you like him found?”
The man glanced over his head at the man with dark eyes. “Find this Rene and bring him to me.”
The man with dark eyes bowed his head. “Yes, Sharrum.”
He walked away.
The golden man smiled at Hugh. “Come sit by me.”
Hugh sat by the man’s feet. The magic wrapped around him and he knew that from this moment on everything would go right. Nothing would ever hurt him again.