A Tale from The Lotus Chronicles
The inn was cheery and warm. Carpet covered the wood floors of the lobby. The walls sparkled with a fresh coat of whitewash. Someone had even gone to the trouble of painting the vine and rose carvings crowning each wall. A few people milled about, some making arraignments at the front desk, others sitting on the plush couches scattered about the room.
The most notable person was a blond, broad-shouldered man who sat discussing the drought in the plains with an old man. Even from behind the man, Shiro could recognize his brother.
Leah kissed his cheek and squeezed his hand. “Doc and I will get us checked in. We’ll be right back.”
Shiro nodded but didn’t let go of her hand. She looked to Doc, and he gave her an empathetic half smile. They’d both tried everything they knew to bring him out of his apathetic state and failed every time.
After leaving Red in the Screws, Shiro returned to Fort Bainbridge empty and broken. He didn’t know if Red was dead or if Lawrence had rescued her. He’d left his friend to die. She deserved it. But it left a scar, one he couldn’t heal from. He cursed her for inserting herself so deep in his life that her death did this to him. He cursed himself for allowing it.
Leah slipped her hand out of his and crossed to the front desk. Shiro remained where they’d left him, a broken piece of pottery never to be whole again.
“If I was twenty years younger.” The old man Theo spoke with said, his eyes tracking Leah. “too bad she’s Inamor.”
“Yes,” Theo’s voice was louder than anyone else in the room. “She reminds me of someone I used to know.”
The old man’s smile was sly. “An old lover?”
Theo’s laugh filled the room, causing many to turn. “No, she reminds me of the woman who raised me.”
Shiro winced. He’d married his mother, he knew that, but hearing Theo confirm it unsettled him. He reminded himself that Leah possessed a gentleness his mother never possessed.
A large clock, not five feet to Shiro’s left, chimed the hour. The old man growled and stood with much difficulty. Theo stood and helped him.
“My apologies, young man.” He said. “My wife was expecting me over an hour ago. I must get home before she fears for me. It’s been a rare pleasure to talk with another man of the earth.”
Theo took the man’s arm and helped him to the door. Shiro’s heart shriveled when his brother passed him and didn’t notice of him. Had he changed so much?
“The pleasure was mine,” Theo assured the man. “Perhaps we will have another opportunity while I’m here.”
If the old man said anything more Shiro didn’t hear it. He closed his eyes against the pain in his heart. He’d become a monster. Not even his brother recognized him.
Pain snapped his head back, and he fell against the wall. Fists of iron gripped his arms, keeping him from falling to the floor. On instinct, Shiro curled inward. The strong hands dragged him from the room and through a dark hall. Blinding light pierced his eyes as he was dragged through the door and out the back side of the inn. He was thrown into a grassy space surrounded by ancient oak trees and rhododendrons. He spun toward his assailant, his hands reaching for Shi. His eyes grew wide when he saw Theo.
Theo scowled and pulled his Odachi. Shiro backed away, his hands gripping Shi, but not pulling her. He’d tied the sword in its sheath for fear of what he might do if she was loose.
“Straighten up little runt,” Theo growled, advancing. “Before I run you through.”
Shiro’s left hand moved to the binding on the sheath, working the knot. For the first time in weeks, he spoke. “I don’t want to hurt you, brother.”
Theo laughed. “It will be a chilly day in the Pit when you do. Now straighten up and fight me!”
Shi’s binding came loose, and the blade leaped from her sheath. Odachi and Katana collided, each blade blurring through the air, screaming at one another.
A few intense moments passed before Shiro felt a sharp sting run across his jaw. He stepped away and touched his chin, his fingers coming away bloody. He looked from his blood to Theo in shock.
Theo smiled, holding his guard. “Did you really think you’d improved so much? Fighting among the untrained has given you a big head, little brother. Now come on, I’m not done with you.”
“Fine,” Shiro growled. “If I kill you, it’s on your head.”
A wicked smile spread across Theo’s face and the two men spared off again. Shiro cursed and threw everything he had at his older brother. Theo laughed and sat Shiro back on his heels. No matter what Shiro did, he couldn’t get within his brother’s long reach. He knew his worth. He knew what he was capable of. A deeper truth about his family settled in him as he fought his brother. They were the best at their craft. The best that ever lived. And his skill, such as it was, was a shame next to theirs.
Shiro froze when he heard Leah’s voice. Theo’s eyes grew large, he only just turned the flat of his blade before it struck Shiro’s ear. Shiro stumbled to his knees, clutching the side of his head.
Theo cursed and knelt next to him. “I’m sorry, Shiro. Are you alright?”
Shiro cursed and looked at his hand. Bright blood covered it. He pressed it back to his ear and glared at his brother. When he saw Theo’s genuine concern, his expression melted, and he nodded. “I’ll be fine. Thank you, brother.”
Theo smiled, slapping him on the back. “anytime, little brother.”
“Let me look at that,” Doc knelt next to him.
“Kuri.” Leah touched his arm.
He took Leah’s hand and winced as Doc touched the area around his ear.
“Well,” Doc said. “Your ear will need stitches and you’ll be bruised, but I think you’ll live.”
Shiro snorted. “You think?”
Doc grinned and pulled a wad of cloth out of his pack to press to Shiro’s ear. “Are you going to introduce us to this man? I don’t think I’ve seen you bleed since Ismet.”
Shiro pressed the cloth to his ear and stood. Leah helped him, her eyes traveling from his ear to his bloody chin and ending with his eyes. He squeezed her hand to reassure her.
“Theo,” Shiro said, turning to his brother. “This is the doctor I told you about. Doc, this is my brother, Theobold Muller.”
“It’s an honor.” Theo laughed, taking Doc’s hand. “I can’t believe my brother convinced you to join our Guild.”
“Kuri’s a rare man,” Doc winced at the larger man’s grip. “I was determined never to join a Guild, then one day I found myself agreeing to join his.”
Theo laughed again. “It is strange to hear someone refer to him by that name.”
The two men talked a bit more, but Shiro turned his attention to his wife. “I’m sorry, Leah.”
She shook her head. “Don’t be. I’m glad you’ve found your way back to us.”
He allowed her to see his pain. He wasn’t healed from the wounds the borderlands had inflicted. He never would be. But Theo had drawn him from his shell and back to the living. It would have to be enough.
She kissed him and placed her head on his cheek, wrapping one arm around him. “I love you, Kuri.”
He returned her embrace and kissed the top of her head. “I know.”
Theo issued a stream of curses, but Shiro could hear the smile in the man’s voice. “Perhaps the Pit has grown cold.”
Shiro gave Leah a squeeze before introducing her to his brother. “Theo, I’d like you to meet my wife. Leah.”
Theo’s face shifted from amusement to confusion, to anger, and back. “Very nice to meet you, Ms. Leah, just how long have you been married to my brother?”
“About three years,” Leah said, looking to Shiro before turning a smile to Theo. “Kuri has told me a great deal about you, I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
Theo crossed thick arms over a broad chest, his blue eyes piercing into. “Three years and you never thought to mention her in one of your letters?”
“Well,” Theo said, holding out his hand and smiling for Leah. “You must be some woman. I’m very interested to get to know you better. Welcome to our unique family.”