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Shindara glanced around as he was joined by several more armed escorts. They were in no mood to indulge his questions. Instead, they ferried him across one end of the city to the other. Each of them carried a sword and had several tanto daggers secured at their belts. Gauntlets, shrouds, and body wrap-style armor made up their leathery disguises, removing any trace of their identities. Only Nakatomi seemed confident enough to show his face on the streets. 

Shindara continued to study his new companions and wonder about their carefully concealed identities. They were determined, emotionless, and they moved as if they shared one mind. That was the only thing he could conclude about this extraordinary unit. They would remain a mystery to him until they arrived at their destination, which appeared to be the docks. 

“I assume no one is telling me where we’re going?”

No one replied. He turned his attention to the ports in search of a temporary distraction. The sun was rising in gilded tones against the storm clouds. It struck a brilliant contrast over the City of Knives and sparkled against the docks. They continued to walk along a street that breasted the edge of the sea.

The tides were locked in a vivacious dance, sometimes heaving against the docks and sloshing over their boots. Shindara couldn’t pause to admire its golden vistas because a shroud was promptly yanked over his head. 

He knew better than to protest. Besides, he had one consolation that these men surrounding him didn’t pose a threat. He squeezed the handle of the Obsidian Blade, searching for a sign of their intentions. To his relief, the sentient weapon didn’t try to warn him. These men couldn’t be entirely evil.

Suddenly, the ground dropped away, and his boots were beginning to soak and fill with water. He panicked for a moment and wondered if they were leading him into the sea, but why the blindfold then? His concerns were eased as the water stayed below ankle level.

The ambience of the city was fading away, and the air grew noticeably danker. The thud of their footsteps carried an echo to them, almost reminiscent of an underground tunnel… or perhaps a cave. 

The sack was yanked from his head, but the return of his sight made little difference. He may as well be blind and wandering through an ancient cellar. One of the soldiers, presumably Nakatomi, reassured him with a gentle push and ushered him forward. The walls were made of stone and the corridor stretched on for what felt like an eternity. Shindara’s boot scuffed against a stone, but it also sounded like two silver coins clinking together. At the same time, he thought he caught the faintest smell of incense.  

Shindara could see a glow around the bend of the tunnel, furthering his sense of intrigue.

 “What is this place?”

He emerged from the darkness and into a bath of torchlight. His next breath came out in a half-formed gasp when he saw the treasures awaiting him. Jaw-dropping decadence was practically leaping off the walls. Torches glistened overhead, highlighting a collection of silk paintings. 

There were lacquered ebony wood furnishings. Suits of armor were displayed in naturally formed alcoves, bedizened with weapons that belonged in the hands of feudal lords. These luxuries would be more at home in the Imperial Court, not a subterranean maze. He stole a quick glance inside a room that appeared to be stocked with shelves of parchment and calligraphy brushes. If this was their attempt at a library, it was almost more impressive than most of the temples he’d seen. 

Hand-painted scrolls, lavish books of poetry, and historical texts sat waiting and ready to be explored. Shindara almost stumbled inside. In fact, he did. 

“How did you acquire all of this?” He picked up a dusty tome and rifled through its pages. He skipped ahead to a passage about imperial bloodlines. He could hardly believe what he was seeing, even though he felt the faded pages rasping between his fingers. Was this one of the original copies of the Tale of Genji, the first written novel? Shindara was so visibly excited that he was practically shaking.

“We call this place Ukiyo Court.” Snapping out of his reverie, he turned around to find Nakatomi smiling at him. “If you choose to stay with us, you’ll have access to all of these books and more.”

“But how…?” 

Nakatomi smiled at his sputtering questions and bid him to follow. When Shindara finally emerged from the library, he realized his armed escorts had vanished. He crossed paths with a few soldiers wandering the tunnels, but these ones weren’t covering their faces. Instead of acknowledging Shindara, they busily walked past him as if he didn’t exist. 

He watched one of those men disappear down a dimly lit corridor. 

“How far do these tunnels go? All the way to the other end of the city?” 

“We have many hidden routes beneath Sakai. The Silk District, the Candle-Making District, the East Market… Once we accidentally found ourselves under the governor’s mansion.” 

As he described all of this, Shindara took careful note of the cavern’s layout. It was impossible to count the number of rooms and meandering hallways. This so-called Ukiyo Court made excellent use of the cave’s natural design. He was quickly able to determine which rooms were living quarters and which corridor led to the soldiers’ “barracks.” 

“It seems as if you’ve been down here for quite some time.”

Shindara had no doubt their network was extensive beneath the city. He tried not to wonder about the yōkai they might be disturbing down here with their clamor.

“I’ve spent more days than nights living under the city,” Nakatomi replied. “Usually, we come out at dark to conduct our business. Stay close now, you don’t want to wander off into the feast hall. Not yet, anyway.”

Curious, Shindara peeked inside the chamber set aside for meals and spending time with good company. He was greeted by an assortment of aromas, including grilled salmon and simmering soups. The mouth-watering smells made him realize how much he hungered for a hot meal. With the number of decorations, one might have forgotten this banquet hall was below the city. It looked like any other feast room, except for the overturned tables and the wine splashed across the floor. A biwa used for serenading one’s evening meal had also been smashed and left among the debris.

“Someone did a little too much celebrating last night,” Nakatomi heartily chuckled.  

Leaving the rest of that story untold, he beckoned Shindara down a sparse corridor. They seemed to be approaching the heart of the cavern. Shindara was losing track of the distance they covered with the various twists and turns.

Frankly, he wondered if he was hallucinating half of what he saw. Surely, he wasn’t imagining the ornate pair of doors set off to the side. 

“The throne room awaits.” Past those double doors, Shindara found a level of elegance that he didn’t think could exist underground. It shouldn’t have been possible to convert a subterranean chamber into a palace, but the magnificent throne was proving him wrong. It looked as if it had been chiseled out an immeasurable chunk of crystal. That included an elevated dais with hand-carved steps. The fires of a dozen torches glittered across the blackened gems. 

This throne room was the epitome of self-importance. Towers of limestone had been smoothed over and fashioned down into decorative columns. The entire chamber was practically dripping in red and gold furnishings. It consisted of regal-looking paintings, mirrors, and pillows perfumed with incense. In the blush of the candlelight, it would have made a tempting spot for romancing a lover.

The ambience landed somewhere between decadence and outright attention-seeking. It seemed to work because Shindara turned his attention to the throne again and the silhouette sitting on top of it. Whoever occupied that chair must have felt like an emperor among men down here. 

But instead of a man stepping down from the dais, a tall, graceful woman was coming forward to greet him. The breath stuck in Shindara’s chest as he watched her theatrical entrance. Her eyes were a smoky black and her vermillion lips were pursed in a smile, almost voracious in the way she was eyeing her guest.

Her hair was swept up and held together by gemstones, letting the rest of it spill lavishly down her back. She was lithe and dripping in excess from head to toe. Quite literally, her feet were encased in a pair of ceremonial slippers. 

The robes she wore were among the smoothest he’d ever seen. Images were woven onto its shiny, black surface, and underneath she was wearing at least ten or twelve more layers of silk. 

Shindara marveled at the spectacle she made. Until he didn’t. He took an involuntary step backward when he finally saw past the gold, the opulence, and the rings glinting on her fingers. There was no mistaking the supreme confidence in her eyes or the way she carried herself like a seasoned warrior.

“Shindara…” Even though she was savoring his shock, she was just as happy to see him after nearly four years of absence. A woman who looked a lot like Mikoto was smiling back at him—and there was danger and intrigue hiding behind her painted lips.

“Welcome to my city.”

Shindara sat on a rocky outcropping above the beach. The sky was growing dim amid a palette of cerulean, coral orange, and the sweetest plumes of lavender. It was fascinating how life kept leading him back to the enigma of the waves. There was comfort in its thundering ripplets, and sometimes, he could almost hear words foaming in the tide.

Other words were lingering in his head right now, mostly when he bid good-bye to Aya. He never should have embarked on his damned pilgrimage. He never should have left her alone for twelve months while he prayed, feasted, and wandered across the Ryukyu Islands. The truth was he could still hear her voice in the ocean breeze. She would always be the one who got away.

A few hours from now, Aya would be wed to another man who loved her the same way someone might love his favorite cattle. She was a prize to him, not a romantic pursuit. Shindara had passion, but what was that worth at the end of the day? For all of passion’s naïve charm and whimsy, he was going home to an empty room tonight. Romance is a dead language that no one speaks anymore except masochistic fools like him. And this particular fool should have been waiting for her at the wedding shrine instead of a spoiled nobleman.

He couldn’t help but state the obvious as the tide murmured into the distance.

“I guess she’s gone.”

He was speaking to no one in particular, but perhaps he was talking into the wind because it answered him with a yearning gale. When he tried to search his feelings regarding his own future, his mind spiraled into an empty dot. He wasn’t sure where to go from here, but he knew what he would say to her now.

“I keep shutting and opening my eyes, wishing for each time that you’ll appear in front of me,” he mourned. “I made mistakes when our paths first crossed. I’m so sorry that I failed you and hurt you when all I wanted to do was give you love. I’ve cried myself to sleep so many times now, blaming myself and wondering if I disgust you. Or if you hate me.”

As he perched on that mound of rock, he rose to his feet without thinking. Abandoning his sandals, he found himself walking over the cool sand, lulled by the rumbles.

“Even if you did, you’ll always be the girl from the forge whom I fell in love with. Yes, I’m a hopeless fool, but I never forgot how you made me feel seen and understood. Somehow, I’m still thinking about you, wishing you all the happiness in the world, even if I can’t be a part of it.”

He was intrigued by the tide and how it looked like a means to eternity right now. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do when he reached it, but it kept calling out for him. And what a melancholious song it wove in all of its glory, hammering like the pulse in his neck. Haunting him to the edge of the shore.

“I didn’t do it.”

Shindara’s heart felt like it plummeted off a cliff. He remembered that ethereal voice. It sounded as if she was standing directly behind him, but it had to be a lie. The wind was wicked indeed for imitating her.

As much as he longed for her touch and her smile, he was afraid to turn around. He didn’t want the beach to be empty when he searched for the face he’d been dreaming of and taking solace in. There was only so much coveting a simple heart could take.

“I didn’t marry him.”

Her voice sounded so real that it was cruel, and a twitch of Shindara’s lips became a helpless smile. Even if it was just the wind, he humored it with a stupid response.


Instead of enduring the silence, footsteps crunched through the sand behind him.

“It’s me.”

When Shindara turned around, he couldn’t believe he was seeing her again, and it felt as if he was actually seeing her for the first time. It felt more naked and earnest than the moment when their eyes met across the markets in Nara, and it felt like he was seeing less of the fantasy and more of the woman instead. Unlike the first time, however, Aya was dressed in a wedding kimono. Shindara almost laughed in disbelief because she must have escaped the ceremony to see him instead. It billowed in the wind like a cloud of white silk, embroidered with a pattern of hand-painted butterflies. They flashed in a variety of colors that captured her inner glimmer, and with every gust of the wind, it looked as if those winged nymphs were taking flight.

Aya’s hair was still tangled up in jeweled pins and cherry blossoms, but most of it had came undone while she was running away. How did she know to find him on this beach? Did she really know him that well? He knew it had to be true when he saw the warmth mirrored in her eyes.

How lucky he felt to see her in a wedding kimono, even if this day didn’t belong to him. The days ahead would surely be theirs, and that was all that mattered now. When he wrapped his arms around her, it finally dawned on him that he had a second chance. He wasn’t sure he deserved it, but he desired her so badly that it was killing him on the inside.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about what you told me,” Aya revealed.

“But there were so many things I said.”

“You said you would rather worship me instead of your gods.”

Shindara remembered. He felt ashamed for voicing his truth, but he wouldn’t take it back if he could. He wanted her more than anything, even if it meant turning his back on the temple.

“I don’t want you to do that,” Aya said, catching the doubt in his eyes. “I think there’s a place for both of us in your life. That was the moment I realized I wanted another chance with you.”

“If I could kiss every inch of you right now, I would,” Shindara said. This moment felt so finely plucked from his yearning fantasies that it felt like a dream. Perhaps that was why he couldn’t stop looking at her and trying to convince himself she was quite real.

This needed to be real. Out of all the things going wrong in his life right now, this needed to be real.

“I might not be a lord, but I’ll find a way to make you happy. When all of this is over, we can build a house outside Nara, maybe on the lakeside.” Aya beamed up at him, but her smile was interrupted by a sob as tears collected in the corners of her eyes.

“…that sounds perfect to me.”

“And we can have the daughter you’ve always wanted.”


“Yes. Ryoko. Now is our time and we can do whatever we want… but please, forgive me. I’m sorry for lashing out at you and threatening Iketani. Nothing I say will take it back, but I can promise to be better. I can be the man you hoped I would be, if you’re still willing to give me a second chance.”

Aya must have believed him on a fleeting level because she sank closer into him.

“What if we lose each other again?” she voiced, however. “Have you ever wondered if we shouldn’t be together? Be honest with me. Should we stop now before we hurt each other?”

Shindara was alarmed by the shift in her tone, but he knew her well enough to recognize what this was. She was already afraid and pulling away, just as she’d done countless times before. This time, he wasn’t going to let her slip away.

“If I could look into our future and see how this ends, I would choose you again and again. I’m not going to let what might happen tomorrow dictate what happens to me today. Fear will never have any say over who I do and do not love. We are temporary creatures passing through light and into shadow, and these are the twilight hours that we live for.”

“But just as you’ve said, one day there will be an ending. Would you still take me as I am, even if it breaks you?”

Shindara lowered his head and pondered her misgivings. There were no guarantees in love. He would have to take it as it was, including all of the riches, tears, aches, and joys attached to it. Even the stupidest fool knew this. Living without passion was like stumbling into an early grave, and trying to avoid it was just as pointless. Only a coward would repress it out of fear or regret.

The truth was Shindara felt like weeping for joy for the mere fact that he could feel her touch on his face now. This relief was worth any amount of heartache, even if it was years away from today.

“Yes,” he whispered, impulsively kneeling before Aya, feeling slightly stupid as he did so; but when he looked up into her eyes, gentle and reassuring, he decided to continue. “I take you and accept you for all of the future pain we might cause each other… because the truth is I would die to be your anything and I don’t want to go on living as your nothing. No matter how this ends, my heart will be soulbound to yours. Even in the moments when you hate me. I would rather share in your hope, your sorrow, jealousy, and your love than in nothing at all. Even if it breaks me.”

It took him a moment to realize the beautifully twisted poetry of this moment. She was already dressed in a wedding kimono, and he was making a marriage proposal out of their flaws and all the ways they didn’t match—and how he wanted her so much more anyway.

He might have laughed at himself if Aya wasn’t caressing the side of his face. Her touch lingered by his temple, lulling him to close his eyes.

“That might be the darkest wedding proposal I’ve ever received,” she replied. “But I think I finally understand you. You are the one who I can’t imagine my life without. I just need you to know I do choose you. And I do love you. Now… take me home, Shindara.”

Her voice wrapped around him, and he wanted to drift away on her words. And he finally let go.

Night fell like a strange tide across otherworldly shores. Shindara had aimlessly roamed the palace for hours, navigating hallways adorned with mother-of-pearl and extravagant dome-shaped chambers. At times, it felt as if he was navigating the inside of an empty shell. He couldn’t fathom what these rooms were intended for, and maybe he was never meant to find out.

Eventually, he found his way to fresh air and the sight of the night sky. Instead of craning his head out a window, he found himself walking onto an open veranda.

“A moon-viewing deck,” he murmured.

The sight offered a decadent view of the ocean bay, replete with braziers that flickered and flamed by the shore. Izanami must have set them alight while he was trying to find his way through the labyrinth of luxury.

Unlike most moon-viewing decks, this one was encased by an ornamental railing and intricately carved designs. It was one of the coziest verandas Shindara ever had the pleasure of lounging in. It was more akin to an oyster than it was a sheltered porch, and what a lovely comparison that was because the moon reflected like a pearl on the ocean waves, captivating and unattainable.

Speaking of something else unreachable, he noticed Izanami out of the corner of his eye. She emerged from the shadows, intriguing him with a new change of dress. Instead of her tattered, dirty kimono, she wore a silken court dress of remarkable quality. It would have been as black as the shadows if not for the golden embroidery woven throughout the collar.

Her hair was secured in an elaborate display of kanzashi hairpins and petal thin chains. Several rings also glinted on her fingers as she stepped within reach of the moonlight. Shindara noticed one of those rings was more unique-looking than the rest because it bore a remarkable sigil.

“This represents me,” Izanami said, brandishing it when she noticed his gaze. “It’s the symbol of my power and inner strength. It’s funny, isn’t it? The little things that bring us comfort. I’ve only ever shown this to my ex-husband.”

“I’m honored that you would share it with me, too,” he replied, attempting flattery, which she welcomed with a knowing smile.

“I’m starting to feel more like myself since I’ve come home,” she said without any prompting. “It’s still not enough, but it’s better.”

“How is it not enough?”

“I’ve felt weak ever since I crawled out of the Yomi. I only feel like half of myself.”

He watched, mesmerized, as she approached the edge of the veranda. There were so many things he wanted to ask her and so many things that he knew he shouldn’t.

“What was it like when you became the Abhorrent?”

Hence, one of the things he shouldn’t.

Izanami leaned against the railing and held a silent vigil over the shore. “I was the first one. At least you had friends to keep you from changing into the worst version of yourself. I only had the demons to keep me company.”

Shindara followed her stare to the edge of the bay. She seemed fixated on a column of stone rising out of the water. There was something otherworldly about it as if this rock was announcing the arrival of gods. In some ways, it reminded him of the spear Izanami described her husband wielding.

“Do you still think about your husband?”

“Ex-husband,” she corrected. “And sometimes I do. It’s hard to describe because I still love the person he used to be. But as we all know, he showed his true character when he left me behind.”

“Then he didn’t deserve you. What he did to you was cruel and disturbing.”

“And he killed my child, too,” Izanami replied. “That’s why I can never forgive him. Do you remember what it felt like? When the residual pain and anger was all you had left? Mine festered until the rage practically became an entity unto itself. The Abhorrent, as we know it. Sometimes, it was a balm for me. As long as I was angry, nothing could ever hurt me again. It became my armor.”

“There was a seductive quality about it,” Shindara admitted. “The power could be intoxicating. Other times, it felt like I wasn’t in control of myself.”

“You only tell yourself that,” she chimed. “The truth is you knew what you were doing the entire time. Even if it was bad for you, you wanted it anyway.”

“And what do you think I want most of all?”

Something devious tugged at the corner of her lips. She didn’t take her eyes off him as she listened to the low, sleepy growl of the tide.

“The same thing I want.”

Searching his mind, Shindara only hoped he had the answer on the tip of his tongue.

“You want to belong.”

“Am I wrong for wanting that?”

“No. Not at all.”

When he didn’t elaborate, Izanami sensed a deeper meaning to his silence.

“You understand how it feels, too, don’t you?”

“I do, but it’s not for the reasons you think,” he replied. How could she know what he went through? No one seemed to understand what it felt like. “I was born and raised as an untouchable. I was viewed as less than a person because, supposedly, there was something intrinsically wrong with me. The child of an untouchable is just as guilty as their parents. So I understand what it feels like to live outside of society.”

“Maybe you should have been the first Abhorrent,” she said, making an insult sound like a well-intended compliment. “Didn’t your parents want you?”

Regretting the direction the conversation had taken, Shindara wished he could retract his words.

“I’m not sure. I was simply there. It was my duty to help them survive, but did we ever act like a family?” He shook his head. “Not exactly. Love was something I didn’t understand on a basic level. It’s probably why I was so nervous when I met my wife for the first time.”

“You were never loved before her?”

“No.” He decided to leave it at that, as if the truth wasn’t worth expounding on. He didn’t want to admit that being an untouchable meant he didn’t exist.

Shindara looked away when he noticed the expression on her face, something akin to sympathy. He didn’t want her pity and he certainly didn’t want her affection because of it. In fact, part of him was embarrassed for sharing those revealing shreds of his past.

The more he was drawn into her eyes, however, he realized it wasn’t sympathy at all. There was something else she badly wanted to say to him.

“What if you don’t deserve the love you think you do?” she asked. “What if it takes someone truly damaged to see the beauty and depth in you? Maybe you don’t actually need someone to love you. Maybe you just need someone to break your chains.”

“You’re right. Besides, those chains would look prettier on you.”

She seemed impressed with how quickly he turned it back on her. “That’s the most interesting thing you’ve said all day,” she laughed, a sumptuous melody that lingered over the bay. Together, they briefly lost themselves in the moon as it danced on the ceiling of the sea.

Izanami was practically hypnotized by the view. She wasn’t even looking at Shindara anymore. He almost thought he lost her attention entirely until she spoke up.

“Thank you for telling me a little more about your story. You remind me of myself, which brings me to a question I don’t think you’re going to like. What if you’re not the hero in your own story? What if we’re just as bad as the villains? And more importantly… so what?”

With those parting words, she sidled past Shindara, just barely grazing his arm with her own. He couldn’t have watched her leave even if he wanted to. He felt paralyzed where he stood, wrapped up in a hurricane of thoughts and emotions that frightened him. When he was finally ready to face her, of course she was gone.

She always left him feeling like he was standing on the edge—but on the edge of what exactly?

Yes, he was tempted to let these feelings play themselves out, but there was one dubious thought holding him back. Was he falling for someone who wasn’t emotionally available?

Surprisingly, he found himself contemplating her. Most of the time, he wasn’t sure whether he was repulsed or aroused by her. Even the terror twisted itself into an absurd fascination when it came to Izanami. He couldn’t deny the chilling parallels between them. Leaning against the balcony, he was overcome by a desire to find out what else they shared in common.

The next hour passed by in a haze of thoughts and contemplative silence. In fact, he was almost oblivious to the mournful song in the air. A voice was calling out from the depths of the decrepit palace. It sent his pulse racing and made the hairs stand up on the back of his neck, but was it fear or was it excitement? Shindara finally pushed off the balcony and answered the unknown call.

This moment felt as if it shouldn’t be happening. Shindara plunged into the shadows because he wasn’t afraid of what he might find next. He stormed his way from stone courtyards to breezeways to the inner sanctum.

The voice was undoubtedly hers. Izanami’s haunting melody guided him with every echo around every corner.

He lurched to a halt behind several stone columns when he spotted her. Izanami was standing in a chamber that was practically dripping with candles. As for the walls, they were expertly carved out of coral. It glowed with a lush orange hue like copper freshly pulled out of the forge. These luxuries must have been collected from the reefs beyond the moon-viewing deck. Within those mottled walls, candles left the chamber awash in a beautiful ambience, like a hedonistic embrace.

Shindara couldn’t take his eyes off her. Izanami was dancing and singing to herself as if there was no greater pleasure. He didn’t know her hips could move like that, and he never noticed how weighty her breasts were before.

The only thing more maddening than the sight of her was the way she sounded. Her song, unfamiliar yet captivating, resonated with rises, falls, and wavers that kept him spellbound. Feeling pitiful and wanting, Shindara cursed himself for being under her sway.

As he watched her half-lidded eyes, he wondered if she noticed him from the shadows. He was unsure if she aimed to seduce him or assert his insignificance, but both options were fraught with dangerously tempered egos.

The candlelight paid worship to her skin in so many various ways. For every drop of sweat that was rolling down her throat, he wished he could be there to grasp her neck and kiss his way up to her lips. It frightened him to feel this out of control for anyone. It was better not to feel any of this at all because to desire is to be weak.

But if that was true, then he was surely the weakest man stranded in the middle of the ocean. As he tried to close his mind off to these fantasies, he knew it was pointless. He marveled at the undulating cadence of her voice, unsure if she was weaving words anymore.

Izanami weaved past several columns, always remaining slightly concealed and out of reach. Yet, no matter how she tried to hide it, he could see the inner sadness buried under the sensuality. He saw it in the way she bit her lip or closed her eyes—not because she was lost in ecstasy but because she didn’t want to see how empty her world had become.

He didn’t know how to describe it, but he could sense when she was crying out for something more. He could feel her craving, her wanting, and all the pieces she was missing.

How immaculate that her loneliness matched his. He didn’t have to fight the darkness when he was with her. With all her scars and all of his flaws, he had to believe they were more than enough for each other. And suddenly, he wanted that kind of loneliness with her more than anything.

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