Explosions of light bombarded Shindara. Gouts of fire were ripping through the Main Hall and furiously consuming the ornately carved pillars. His vision was swimming back and forth as if he was being pulled between two places at once. He briefly saw Hachi pleading for his help while embers rained down from the ceiling above. Shindara tried to reply, but his tongue was clinging to the roof of his mouth.
Meanwhile, Sae was in the midst of lighting another dragon engine. He let out a frightened shout at precisely the same time the weapon burst into flames. Shindara winced and recoiled from the explosion. When he opened his eyes, however, he saw the inside of a different temple and a different time.
Instead of a sword in his hand, he was wielding a brush against paper. He was attempting to copy a scroll about the mudras, Buddhist hand gestures that would reveal the ultimate truths of reality. It was the only thing keeping him sane at this moment, to stop himself from thinking about… her.
He sighed and tried yet again to focus on the symbols. He was nearly finished copying them when he heard faint voices in the reading chamber. High Priest Kobo had returned from his prayer and was talking excitedly about the means of salvation. Shindara already had this conversation with Kobo many times before. He would never convince him that Enlightenment was achieved through simple faith and not through kindness to others. It seemed Kobo found himself a worthy opponent because he was vigorously debating a new theory.
Shindara chuckled to himself and returned to his private studies. He barely pressed his brush against the scroll when he heard a woman’s voice above him. It seemed strangely soothing and familiar, but he didn’t know why or where he heard it before.
“Could that scribe help me?”
Shindara glanced up from his scroll and almost dropped the brush in his hand. Aya was looking down at him—the source of this terrible, gaping wound in his heart. He stared into her eyes as if he expected her to say something, anything to explain why he felt this way about her.
“Yes, of course,” High Priest Kobo said, ushering her forward. “Shindara, would you help this kind patron? She needs help translating a passage.”
Shindara didn’t remember agreeing, but he must have. He felt frozen to his seat as he listened to the receding footsteps of his mentor, leaving him alone with his heart’s muse. He tried not to show how anxious he was. He forced a smile on his face when Aya handed him a dusty pile of scrolls. He tried to avoid touching her fingers, afraid of what might happen if he felt the tiniest spark of her skin. She’d been avoiding him ever since the animalistic sex. Clearly, she must have changed her mind and decided he wasn’t worthy of her time.
Shindara couldn’t make any sense of it, especially now that she was sitting in front of him.
“Did you know this comes from the oldest Buddhist scripture?” Shindara asked, clearing his throat. “This chapter explores the themes of clinging, beginning with the perils of…” His fingers paused across the rough, faded pages. “…sensual pleasures. An interesting choice.”
“I thought we could both learn something new about this.”
Shindara’s lips curled in a smile, but he refused to fall for her bait. He would play along with her for a little while longer… but this couldn’t go on forever. He still had absolutely no idea what she was doing with him.
“If one, longing for sensual pleasures, achieves it, he is enraptured at heart. He is afflicted as if shot with an arrow. Whoever avoids sensual desires—as he would, with his foot, the head of a snake—goes beyond, mindful, this attachment in the world.”
He could feel Aya watching him closely, and for every second that passed him by, this conflict inside him grew. He was amused and frustrated by her game, and he realized this was entirely by her design. Making him preach about the dangers of the flesh was so cruel that it was turning him on.
“A man who is greedy for fields, land, gold, cattle, horses, servants, employees, women, relatives, many sensual pleasures, is powered with weakness and trampled by trouble. Pain invades him as water, a cracked boat—” Her petal soft fingers touched his thigh, making him squirm. “So one, always mindful, should avoid sensual desires. Letting them go, he would cross over the flood like one who, having bailed out his boat, has reached the far shore—”
She leaned into him and Shindara quickly rushed forward. When his lips met hers, he remembered how much he missed this feeling. The taste of her mouth was more than just tempting. There was unrestrained hunger behind each of her kisses. She was making him feel like he was the only person who mattered to her. He answered her siren call with a hunger of his own, longing to explore what lay beyond the tender intrigue of her lips.
He didn’t know where his breath ended and where hers began, but it felt as if they were sharing one. When his tongue briefly touched hers, she opened her mouth slightly to invite him deeper inside. Shindara wanted her so fiercely that he was losing himself in her.
Suddenly terrified, Shindara pulled away. Everything about their kiss left him feeling aroused, confused, and angry.
“I haven’t seen you in the market for almost two weeks, not since we… I thought I must have done something terrible to you. You obviously didn’t want to see me anymore.” Suddenly, the words were coming out faster than he could think them through. “I was ready to move on from you. Now that you’re here in front of me, I feel like I’m right back where I started. The more I try to pull away, the more I feel like I’m drowning in you. The truth is you changed me. I feel like a stranger in my own skin when I’m with you. I don’t know who I am anymore.”
Aya lowered her head, trying to hide the guilt in her eyes.
“It was difficult to see you again. After that night, I could feel myself falling for you. You see my worth in a way that makes me feel seen and understood. I wasn’t sure if I could ever see you again.”
“But you came here anyway. What made you change your mind?”
Aya looked down at his hand trembling next to hers, hinting at his pained desire.
“I wanted to see if I still felt this way when I saw you… or if I was imagining all of this in my head.”
Shindara was almost too afraid to pose his next question.
“And how do you feel?”
Her amber-colored eyes somberly gazed into his. She looked at Shindara as if she secretly didn’t know what to do with him—but her body suggested that she already made up her mind. She leaned into him again and her lips caressed his. One ravenous kiss turned into a second and finally a third. If she kissed him again, he feared he might shatter into pieces, and nothing would ever be able to put him back together. He didn’t remember her mouth pulling away from his, but all of a sudden, her voice was growling pleasantly into his ear.
“You’re everything I want in every way.” Shindara could have succumbed to this desire. This felt like dying and being born again, a throbbing of passions that left him unable to think, breathe, or speak. This was everything that High Priest Kobo warned him about.
“We have to stop—someone might find us at any moment—” Despite his hollow pleas, he continued to kiss the slope of her neck, gently squeezing her skin between his teeth.
“Don’t ever stop,” Aya said breathlessly. Reaching down, she excitedly took his hand. She guided him under her kimono until his fingers were buried between her legs.
Shindara froze when he felt her wet skin. He only wished he was plunging inside her now. He wanted to feel her body achingly entwined with his. Her skin felt sensuous to the touch and burning up with lust—like everything was catching on fire around her. As her kimono slipped from her shoulders, Shindara noticed the flames behind her. And they were the most beautiful flames he had ever seen.
Suddenly, a scorching light filled Shindara’s vision. Burning tiles were falling from the ceiling above him. Instead of Aya, he saw only the destruction of Kiyomizu. Taira soldiers were running back and forth to escape the storm of chaos.
He thought he heard Hachi’s voice somewhere among the flames and battle cries.
“Shindara, are you hurt?!”
“Where’s Aya?!” He froze when he heard how insane his question sounded. Of course she wasn’t here. She was never here. He felt embarrassed for even voicing it out loud. Breathing hoarsely, he staggered to his feet and tried not to look directly at Hachi.
“Find him,” Shindara said, trembling where he stood. He flinched as Hachi took a step toward him. “No. Just find Buranchi now.”
His mind was surprisingly still as he gazed into the flames. He had to keep it still if he wanted to stop himself from breaking. He felt cheated. That was the happiest he felt in years, and it was cruelly ripped away. Dangled only to be denied. A few more seconds of it would have made everything better.
That had been a memory of Aya, not a fantasy. It was one of the sweetest he could remember because everything changed in that moment. At last, he found someone who saw the darkness inside him and wasn’t scared away. She loved him for it and in spite of it.
Standing quite still, Shindara felt someone over his shoulder. He heard the whistle of steel and sensed the blade lunging toward his head. He almost didn’t move. And yet, before the wicked steel could reach him, he spun around and scraped it aside.
With every strike and parry, he couldn’t stop himself from thinking about her. Everywhere he turned, he kept expecting to see Aya’s smile. He reacted to the clash of swords around him, but he wasn’t consciously aware of what he was doing.
He wanted to hear her voice one last time. Just one more. In that moment, he could do nothing but scream in an effort to bleed out the pain. If he couldn’t hear her voice, he would listen to his own instead. With every flick and thrust of his blade, he let loose a desperate sound that might have been confused as a battle cry. No one would have known that he was mentally coming undone.
To the hells with it all, it didn’t matter how many times he swung his sword. There was no stemming the tide of samurai surging out of the caverns below. The enemy was endless while their side numbered little more than six.
“Shindara, we have to get out of here!” Hachi’s voice cried over the crackling flames. Shindara almost wanted to stay. His story once began in a burning temple. Maybe it was time to end it in one, too.
With black tears still running from his eyes, he furiously growled for breath. He almost let his sword fall to the floor when he looked down and froze. Buranchi was gazing up at him, cradled in Hachi’s arms. The feeble man seemed dazed and completely unaware of his surroundings.
“You found him…?”
“We have to leave now!”