Marcus wove through the rusted insides of the unfinished factory. Gripping a large beam, he spun around corners faster than the short boy behind him managed. He screeched like a hawk. The sound echoed through the dead piles of ash and darkness. The other boy responded with the trill of a lark, knowing Marcus hated it when he did that. It was a beautiful sound, soft and delicate, something Marcus failed to capture or understand. With a growl, Marcus sped up.
“No fair.” The other boy’s voice wavered with the beat of his quick stride. Like a miniature drum.
The mental image made Marcus laugh and slow down. Sweat created a slick, cool layer over his tan skin and he wiped his face on his already-tattered shirt.
The boy caught up to him. “No fair.”
Marcus shoved him. “So what?”
But Marcus’s muscles relaxed as he wrapped an arm over the boy’s shoulder. Their bare feet stirred the dust, proof that no one set foot in there, other than them, since the Fire. Marcus found the place on the hill behind the orphanage. The others were too scared and stopped short of the tall, three-story carcass. They said the dead walked inside it, even in the daytime, but Marcus saw it more like an abandoned church, with a past as strange as the gods within the city walls.
As they left the sanctuary of the structure and entered the burning heat of the day, the boy shoved Marcus hard enough to knock him into the soggy grass. “Race you!”
With that, the boy charged down the hill, towards the small building with even smaller windows. Children played in a fenced area with only one slide. Above the fence was a picture of a woman with six wings and a dragon’s tail. Silara, goddess of protection, Marcus’s favorite. He’d secretly asked the caretaker to put it up and had slipped two thin, needle-like copper barbs into the older man’s shaky hands that day.
How long ago was that? Marcus watched the boy charge straight into a group of his friends as he rose and shook the mud from his knee-high jeans. Something tightened inside his throat when he noticed the owner of the orphanage, a fat woman, waving at him. A tall, well dressed woman stood next to her. No one that pretty ever stopped by to adopt, and no one that pretty could have anything to do with him. Stiffening, he walked as slowly as possible towards them.
The fat woman snapped her fingers when he got close enough and grabbed him by the shirt. “Grab Matthew.”
“Hew.” The fat woman smiled at the other woman. “Grab your brother.”
“Oh, how cute.” A pink shawl covered her perfectly pale face even as she bent down to Marcus. “Matthew thinks of you as a brother?”
“He is my brother.”
Her red lips never wavered. “I’m sure. Orphanages create strong bonds between the children, or so I hear. I know a doctor who’d be interested in hearing about your bond.”
Marcus wasn’t sure if she said this to spook him off or in sincerity. Whichever it was, Marcus bounded behind the orphanage. A second playground of sorts welcomed the in-between kids, the ones too old for the slide buy too young to be useful. Hew played goddess cards with five other boys and one girl. He grabbed Hew by the hand, and the boy had sense enough to follow quietly, like always. Hew would let Marcus take him anywhere, at any time. Brothers trusted one another in a place like this — true blood brothers, not some mental ideal.
When they turned the corner, the pink shawl woman crouched down. A strange glint flickered in her smile this time. Marcus let go of Hew’s hand and backed away a few steps. His role ended, and the two women never looked at him.
“Matthew? Or do you just go by Hew?” Hew shrugged, and the woman chuckled in a kind way. “I’ll call you Matthew then, is that all right with you?” He nodded, hands behind his back. “Matthew, do you know who your father was?”
“Baron Haus,” Marcus said.
A fiery scowl flashed across the pink shawl woman’s face before she wiped it away with a docile smile at Hew. “Yes. Baron Haus was a very,” she coughed, “passionate man. He loved your mother so much that he brought you into this world with her.”
“I know how it’s done.” Hew’s words were barely a mumble.
“Well.” Her prepared speech ruined, the woman rose and patted some imaginary dirt from her pants. “The Haus family has many branches, most of which are old and without heirs. We heard a, how to put it,” she turned to the fat woman, “rumor of sorts, that one of Baron Haus’s children –”
“Bastards, you mean?” Marcus ignored her frown. “He knows what he is, same as I.”
“His only bastard, Matthew. You. We learned that you lived here and the family decided to see what you were made of.”
“What about Marc?” Hew turned to him, but Marcus shook his head.
“He’s not related by blood, darling.”
“He is!” Now Hew’s tone grew tense and shrill. “Tell them, Marc.”
But Marcus understood what was going on. Marcus’s mother was a prostitute the Baron graciously laid with for a while, and in return he demanded she leave her baby boy at a church of the gods. Hew’s mother was a noblewoman, or so the whispers claimed. Married to another man, and ordered to drop her boy off at the same church. That’s how Marcus knew, he once explained to Hew, that they were blood brothers. This pink shawl woman wouldn’t understand that.
When Hew saw Marcus’s tightened jaw, he began to cry. “You’re my brother. Tell them. Tell them!”
At this point, Hew was picked up by the shawl woman, despite his screaming protests. He called for Marc all the way to the woman’s carriage, wailing that the woman left behind his brother. His brother, his brother, his brother.