Night fell like a strange tide across otherworldly shores. Shindara had spent the last few hours wandering the depths of her home with little to no direction. There was no shortage of hallways lined with mother-of-pearl and the more extravagant dome-shaped chambers. At times, it felt as if he was navigating the inside of an empty shell. He had no idea what any of these rooms were used for and maybe he was never meant to find out. He eventually 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 into an open veranda. “A moon-viewing deck,” he murmured under his breath. It offered a decadent view of the ocean bay at night. The shore was lined with a handful of braziers, and each of them was glittering in the distance with flames. Izanami must have set them alight when he was getting hopelessly lost in the palace. Unlike most moon-viewing decks, this one was replete with 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. Shimmering. Pulsing. Unreachable. Speaking of something else unreachable, he happened to see Izanami out of the corner of his eye. She’d stepped out of the shadows a few moments ago, intriguing him with a new change of dress. Instead of her tattered kimono, she dug into the finery left in her home. A fine, silken court dress complemented her figure. 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 light chains. Several rings also glinted on her fingers as 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 husband.” “I’m honored that you would share it with me, too.” She smiled at the obvious attempt at flattery, but she didn’t mind. She was enjoying his company, flattery or not. “I’m starting to feel more like myself since I’ve returned to my home,” she said, approaching the edge of the deck. “It’s still not enough, but it’s better.” “What was it like when you became the Abhorrent?” he ventured to ask. Izanami approached 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 that was 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 was reminiscent of the spear Izanami described her husband wielding. “Do you still hate your husband?” “Ex-husband,” she vehemently 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 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 is a seductive quality about it,” Shindara admitted, moving closer. “Sometimes, the rage was 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. 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.” It was clear that she expected him to hazard a guess in the next few seconds. Shindara only hoped he had the answer on the tip of his tongue. “You want to belong.” “Am I weak for wanting that?” “No. Not at all.” When he didn’t elaborate, Izanami looked closely at him. It was almost as if she could see the raw wounds he was trying to hide. “You understand how it feels, too, don’t you?” “I do, but it’s not for the reasons you think,” he said. 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 not to be wanted.” “Maybe you should have been the first Abhorrent,” she said, and there was something almost predatory about her smile. “Didn’t your parents want you?” Damn it, Shindara wished he could take this entire conversation back. He never should have started down this road of telling her about his past, but it was too late to reverse course now. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “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 really. 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 your wife?” “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. He could have died in the dirt roads of his home village and no one would have batted an eye. 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 affections 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 probably look better on you.” She almost seemed impressed with how quickly he turned it back on her. “That’s the most interesting thing you’ve said all day,” she laughed, the sound itself lingering 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 when 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 feelings that frightened him. When he was finally ready to face her, of course she was gone. Shindara leaned against the balcony without a sound or a sigh. He couldn’t stop thinking about how much he wished he kissed her when she was taunting him. She always left him feeling like he was standing on the edge—but on the edge of what exactly? Yes, he was tempted to join in her occult ritual, but there was one dubious thought holding him back. Was he falling for someone who wasn’t emotionally available? He didn’t believe she was telling him everything he needed to know, but it didn’t outright discourage him. He just wanted to have a reason to be close to her. Frankly, he was surprised that he was contemplating it at all. Most of the time, he wasn’t sure whether he was repulsed by her or aroused. Even the terror has a strange way of twisting itself into an absurd fascination when it came to Izanami. He couldn’t deny there were parallels between them that were nothing short of chilling. As he leaned against the balcony, he suddenly wanted to find out what else they shared in common. The next hour drifted by while he was increasingly lost in thought. He was almost too distracted to notice the melody in the air. A mournful sound was trailing out of the palace. Everything felt different when Shindara pushed his way off the balcony and answered the call. This moment felt surreal as if it shouldn’t be happening. Shindara plunged into the unknown because he wasn’t afraid of whatever he might find waiting for him. He stormed his way from the breezeways to the corridors of the inner sanctum. The voice was certainly hers. Izanami’s melody rose and disappeared, but he suspected he was getting close. He lurched to a halt behind several columns of stone when he saw her. Izanami stood in a chamber that was all but dripping with candles. As for the walls, they seemed to be carved out of coral. It was a deep orange hue like copper freshly pulled out of the forge. These luxuries must have been collected from the reefs beyond the moon-viewing deck. Many of those individual pockets of coral held candles that left the chamber awash in a low, husky glow. 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. He didn’t recognize the song she was weaving, but he loved how her voice rose and fell and wavered. It was ridiculous, he knew, to feel so completely under her sway. He was weak and wanting and he cursed himself for it. As he watched her half-lidded eyes, he wondered if she noticed him hiding behind the pillars. He couldn’t tell if she was trying to seduce him or pretending that he was utterly beneath her. Both options were fraught with dangerously tempered egos. The candlelight paid worship to her skin in 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 ear, his grip slowly tightening. It frightened him to feel this out of control for anyone. It was better not to feel any of this at all. To desire is to be weak. But if that was true, then he was surely the weakest man stranded in the ocean. As he tried to close his mind off to these tempting fantasies, it was pointless. He marveled at the way her voice undulated over some of the words. He wasn’t even sure there were words at this point. 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 lonely and 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 of 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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