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Memories of Shadows

He noticed something among the ruins that captured his attention. His focus remained purely on the shards of broken pottery on the ground. He knelt down and gingerly traced his fingers along the edges, wondering if his eyes were deceiving him.

“Shindara, are you coming?” Mikoto shouted, briefly interrupting his thoughts.

“Just a moment.”

The pottery had been broken once before, as evidenced by the gold used to mend the cracks. It was likely a jug used for hauling water from the nearby stream.

As Shindara puzzled over the pieces, a memory stirred in the back of his mind, one that he’d almost thought had been taken from him. He was vividly reminded of a time when he found a similar water jug. He could still feel its weight in his arms. He remembered tracing his fingers along the etchings in the clay, marveling at the artistry behind them. He remembered how his heart was pounding against the jug as held it to his chest.

Shindara held his breath and became still in the shadows of the hut. He remembered all of it.

Almost seven years had passed since that day.

* * *

Shindara paused to sniff the air as he walked through the West Markets of Nara. The smell of grilled fish and vegetables wafted on the breeze, hinting at the temptations that surely awaited him. He hadn’t eaten since the beginning of the New Year’s festival, continuing his fast for the ninth day. If he finished tonight, he would prove his self-control over the most basic of human desires.

He couldn’t allow himself even the smallest of pleasures during his ritual. He avoided lying down or sitting, and sleep was strictly forbidden during his fast. When the stars were out, he would walk undisturbed through the mountains until he found a suitable rock to meditate on.

Midday was spent studying calligraphy and various religious scripts. Many of the past evenings were spent reciting prayer chants and preparing for his journey into the mountains. Fortunately, he could sleep in his bed tonight and fill his belly with steamed rice.

He would reach the steps of Tōdai-ji Temple while the sun was burning low, signifying the end of his fast. Hoping to avoid further temptation, he turned down one of the streets that wasn’t lined with delicacies or the enticing smell of meat. He was relieved to find himself in the company of artists and craftsmen selling their wares. He had no use for material possessions, but he still found himself in awe of the many creations being sold.

His attention briefly wandered across the market. A girl raced past him with a decorative arrow in her hand, a charm normally found at shrines during the New Year. He was so struck by the joy on the child’s face that he almost didn’t notice the young woman selling pottery to the left of him.

Shindara froze. His eyes met hers at exactly the same time, and he felt like he couldn’t form a single coherent thought. He couldn’t decide which was more intoxicating—the way her eyes smoldered like embers or the way they way they captured so much mystery and intrigue in a single glance. Her hair fell in dark, molten waves over her shoulders, spilling down against the soft hue of her skin. Yet, nothing was more pleasing to him than the shape of her lips and whatever secrets they might hold.

Suddenly, he couldn’t remember what he was doing on this street or where he was heading. All thoughts of hunger left him when he looked at her. Instead, a different kind of hunger stirred inside him, feelings that instantly left him feeling terrified and embarrassed. He must have been opening his mouth and trying to form words because she was laughing at him.

“I-I’m Shindara,” he said, swooping toward her as he hoped to save what was left of his dignity.

“Do you see something you like?” she asked with laughter. Shindara almost joined in her laughter. Of course he saw something he liked, but he couldn’t admit it out loud—least of all to himself. Trying to pretend that he hadn’t been staring at her this entire time, he turned his attention to the pottery. He could feel his face burning as he tried to think of something intelligent to say.

“I’ve never seen designs like these before.”

“My father made most of what you see. I help with the painting and glazing. I’ve always enjoyed working with the earth, shaping and molding it to my imagination.”

“And a stunning imagination it is,” he said without thinking. His cheeks grew hotter still when he heard the gentle squeak of her laughter.

“Which one do you like the best?”

Shindara paused. It felt like a test that he couldn’t afford to lose, and yet, there was no obvious answer. His eyes darted between the bowl with the green glaze and the urn with the distinctive, ash-sprinkled pattern.

“I like this bowl.”

“I thought you would. Would you like to see which ones are my favorite?”

Shindara could feel his pulse throbbing in his neck as he nodded. The enchanting woman brought out a selection of smaller bottles and jars, but they were hardly what Shindara was expecting. Each of them was unique in their respective hue and shape, but they were bonded by one common trait. Every object looked as though it had been damaged in the past and lovingly restored.

“These ones are the most beautiful to me,” she said, tracing her fingers over the cracks, many of which were mended with gold. Shindara watched her hands move languidly from one pot to another, and he found himself hypnotized by her movements and the sound of her voice.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because they’re like us. Precious and fragile and easily broken. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be mended.” Her eyes were drawn to a water jug veined with hints of gold that sparkled in the dimming sunlight. “They’re all the more beautiful for their flaws and imperfections… and so much more interesting.” Her warm, welcoming eyes flickered to him and held his rapt gaze. Shindara feared that she could suddenly see all of his flaws and shortcomings. Even if she did, it didn’t dissuade her because she was looking at him with more intrigue than ever before.

“I’d like to buy this one,” he said—again, without thinking.

“You want to buy a broken jug?” she asked incredulously.

“But you just said—” Her eyes were sparkling with laughter, and he knew at once she was teasing him. Shindara’s mind was racing so quickly that he almost couldn’t count the coins in his hand.

Her fingers brushed against his, and her silken touch felt both pleasing and forbidden against his skin..

“There is something else I wanted to ask you before I leave,” Shindara confessed. Suddenly, he was feeling even more anxious about the next question he might pose. “Can you tell me your name?”

The silence between them could have filled a chasm, and Shindara feared that he might have scared her away.

“You can call me Aya.”

His heart lifted at the sound of her voice. “I hope we meet again, Aya… One day soon.”

“I hope so, too.”

With a final, longing glance, Shindara forced himself to walk away. He knew he must be crazy as he continued on his way to Tōdai-ji Temple. In fact, he couldn’t help but shake his head and laugh at himself. He’d just met the most fascinating woman, and somehow, she convinced him to buy a damaged water jug.

And he would have gladly bought a dozen more.

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