April 25, 1185
Shindara looked down at the gray tide washing ashore. He almost couldn’t believe that he was standing here, at what felt like the furthest edge of the world. The Inland Sea beckoned him from beyond gently shifting clouds of mist. Every so often, the fog would part and reveal hundreds of Taira ships floating on the sea.
Shindara gawked at the image just before it was snuffed out. Part of him wondered if he was only imagining this moment. He knew he didn’t imagine the last dozen days he spent trekking through the fields. He couldn’t have imagined the thousands of soldiers that Yoritomo gathered for the ensuing battle.
Shindara was still in surprise of their lord’s most recent maneuver. He revealed he’d been funneling money to groups of Taira soldiers to sway their allegiance. In theory, they would turn on their clan brothers during the height of battle. It would ensure a swift defeat and the reign of Yoritomo as their next Emperor, or some were secretly saying, the first Shogun.
Shindara wasn’t sure what that title entailed, but he wasn’t overly concerned. He regarded their eccentric lord, who was boarding an elegant vessel. Many of the samurai were fighting on the equivalent of wooden rafts. They would orbit the larger warships during the battle, or so Yoritomo said.
The fool had no idea that Shindara coveted the Obsidian Blade for himself. He wondered if it would make him an enemy of the new empire when he stole it away. Actually, it wouldn’t be stealing at all. The weapon belonged to him ever since he found it in the stomach of that spider yōkai. For the gods’ sake, his mind had practically been fused with it after it physically became a part of him. There was no way he would let it fall into Yoritomo’s oblivious clutches.
The narrow sea passage of Dan-no-Ura was filled with just as many Minamoto ships as the enemy, probably more. He wondered which of them was concealing Sadato. Wherever that brutal killer was roaming, he couldn’t be far from the Obsidian Blade.
“Do you see them?” Mikoto asked, her boots crunching in the sand as she joined Shindara.
“Yes, the Taira have finally revealed themselves. Will you help Yoritomo slay the Imperial Family and claim their regalia?”
“Several years ago, I would have said yes without hesitation. I’m not here to kill child Emperors or corrupt nobles—not anymore. If the war can end today, they won’t come to harm.”
“What she’s saying is we intend to take them prisoner,” Hrioshango muttered, shuffling toward them. He was joined by Tomoe, who was focused on the specter of warships on the horizon.
“We outnumber the Taira, but the enemy understands the tides and the water. Let’s not forget they have an impossibly powerful mage among them. Hrioshango tells me he has a plan for dealing with Goro.”
“I just said that to buy myself some time. Honestly, I have no idea what I’m talking about.”
“Very reassuring, Hrioshango,” Mikoto sighed, turning to face the Inland Sea. “I have to admit, this newly reincarnated version of you is blunt and honest. It still doesn’t change the fact that I want to throw you into the sea, but…”
“Our forces beat them back at Yashima and we’ll do the same today,” Shindara said, turning the subject back to the war. “They have nowhere left to run.”
Mikoto couldn’t help but nod in agreement. “Does this mean your opinion has changed about our fate? You seemed hopeless after we rescued you from Goro.”
“He claimed to have seen how this war ends. He was so sure of himself that we would lose.”
The four companions stood quietly on the shore, wary of breaking the tension. Before Mikoto could reply, Shindara’s voice rose over the whispering tide. “I don’t believe him anymore. He told me the capital would be destroyed in flames, but that didn’t come to pass. I make my own fate. It certainly isn’t dictated by a mage who keeps soiling his robes.”
“I couldn’t have said it better,” Mikoto said. Shindara was drawn to the sound of her laughter, and he looked past Hrioshango and Tomoe. He was focused on Mikoto as if she was the only one standing on the shore with him.
“Thank you,” he said softly. “I’ve been wanting to say that to you for a long time. You’ve guided me from the moment you found me on the road outside Nara. You adopted me into your family, much the same way I took in Kenji. I will always be grateful to you.”
“Where is this coming from, Shindara? You don’t sound like yourself.”
The scribe smiled nervously. “I suppose I don’t. I feel different knowing that the war will be ending soon. What’s going to happen to us when this is over? What are we going to do after this?”
Mikoto seemed stumped by the idea of a life after the war. Perhaps a part of her would also be lost without it. “I’m not sure… but I’m not going anywhere and neither are you. Have you asked yourself what you want to do? Maybe you could start living again.”
“Living,” he chuckled. “Except I’m neither dead nor alive… I’ve been thinking more about the afterlife, too. You once told me that you believe each person’s paradise will look different from the other. It is what we make of it. What do you imagine yours will be like?”
“Tell me yours first.”
Shindara closed his eyes and fell silent. A sigh escaped his lips.
“I can see stone steps built into the mountains around me. There is a winding path that takes me into a forest as deep and mysterious as time itself. It calls out to me, reassuring me that this is where I belong. As I look away, I see a city that rises out of the earth. The sun is setting overhead, ebbing and flowing like embers beneath cold ash. At the end of the path, I see Aya… or perhaps a fragment of her. A piece of her soul will be waiting for me.”
“And what about the fragments of your own soul? You don’t think you’re whole, do you? Each of us is broken from something larger than ourselves. Pieces of a soul that keep getting smaller and smaller with every new life we come back into. Do you think all of your different selves will be there with you at the end?”
“I hadn’t thought of that before…. but, yes, I would like that.” He paused and waited for Mikoto to reciprocate, but she merely eyed him with a knowing smile. “You still aren’t going to tell me yours, are you?”
She laughed mischievously. “My vision is too complicated to be put into words—even if you are a master scribe. It doesn’t sound complicated to me, but then it extrapolates upon itself into something your mind hasn’t grown into yet. As for paradise, there are as many possibilities as there are stars. Infinite. If you can dream it, it exists. Whether or not you’re worthy of it is another question. Whether or not you can even imagine it beyond this realm is a wonder and should be honored.”
Shindara smiled in appreciation of that sentiment.
“I don’t know much, but I do have faith now. I believe Aya will be waiting for me when I…”
There was a moment of silence. Mikoto looked away from the sea to regard her companion. “Shindara?”