Immortal Fire (The Red Winter Trilogy Book 3) by Annette Marie

Yumei sampled a skewer as well. His expression didn’t change—but he immediately took another one. As he and Susano swiftly devoured all of Aya’s dumplings, Emi felt strangely inadequate. Her kamigakari training hadn’t included any cooking lessons.

  “Etsuko!” one of the girls exclaimed in laughing dismay.

  Emi looked around and almost choked on her mouthful of food. One of the younger miko had grabbed Shiro’s ear and was holding it with a grin on her face. He stood frozen, too surprised to react.

  “So soft,” Etsuko said with a giggle. “Like a kitten’s fur.”

  Her face lighting with curiosity, another girl reached for his other vulpine ear.

  Emi shoved her plate at Aya and slapped the girl’s wrist away from Shiro. When she whirled on Etsuko, the girl released his ear and smiled unrepentantly.

  “My apologies, my lady. I couldn’t help myself.”

  “Do not apologize to me,” Emi retorted. “Yokai merit the same deference you would give any kami. You shame Amaterasu with your disrespect.” She fixed a cold stare on Etsuko until the girl bent in an apologetic bow. “It is time for you all to return to your booths.”

  The girls groused in disappointment. Emi drew herself up. “Now.”

  The miko grudgingly retreated. Etsuko pouted and glared at Emi from under her eyelashes. Aya followed last, mumbling an apology. Emi turned back to the three yokai, who couldn’t quite hide their relief. Shiro’s ears were flattened to his head as though he anticipated another surprise ambush.

  “I’m sorry,” she said, embarrassed of her fellow miko.

  Susano, looking grumpier than Yumei usually did, turned away from the chattering crowds beyond the thin barrier of trees. “I preferred when humans fled at the sight of us.”

  Had those miko understood exactly what sort of yokai they were ogling, would they have run in the opposite direction? As Emi stepped into the yokai’s midst, leading them away from the noisy booths, she realized she was equally relieved that the miko were gone. How strange was it that she far preferred the three lethal otherworldly creatures at her side to the company of her fellow humans?

  Chapter 12

  Emi led Shiro, Yumei, and Susano deeper into the trees. The yokai followed wordlessly as she angled toward the hall of worship. When she could just make out the shrine roof through the foliage, she stopped and folded her arms for warmth. Her feet, socks soaked with melted snow, ached from the cold.

  The tempo of the drums increased and the murmuring crowds quieted until all she could hear was the racing beat. Then it stopped. Silence fell.

  A bright light whistled into the sky, then shattered into a thousand sparkling purple stars that blazed against the velvety night sky.

  Emi gasped in delight. “Fireworks! I forgot there would be fireworks this year.”

  Another glowing spot whizzed high. With a sharp bang, it bloomed into a waterfall of twinkling scarlet.

  “How long will this last?” Yumei demanded.

  “I’m not sure.” She peered through the branches at the sky. “They haven’t done fireworks at this festival in ten years.”

  Yumei grunted in displeasure.

  “You wanted to call your karasu, did you not?” Susano asked. “We can do that while we wait.”

  “Yes,” Yumei agreed. “I would prefer more watching eyes. The aura here …”

  Emi glanced over as he and Susano vanished into the darkness, but the spectacle above drew her attention back. A dozen golden comets with glimmering white tails soared across the sky with loud bangs, and Shiro flattened his ears to his head. Rising onto her tiptoes, she craned her neck as three crackling red spheres expanded in a spray of green light before dying.

  “Oh,” she complained. “I can’t see properly from here.”

  “What’s so special about fireworks?”

  “I love fireworks and these ones …” She trailed off, swallowing hard. “They only do fireworks at the Eight Blessings of Heaven and Earth festival on the solstice Amaterasu chooses a kamigakari … and the solstice she descends.”

  Her enthusiasm waned and she dropped back onto her heels, shoulders slumping. Shiro considered her, his ears twitching back at the next boom of a rocket. His arms slid around her waist.

  “Shiro, what—”

  He pulled her against him and launched onto the lowest branch of a nearby oak tree. She threw her arms around his neck as he vaulted into the sprawling crown of boughs. Landing on an entirely too flimsy branch dozens of feet above the ground, he leaned against the trunk and spun her in his arms so her back was to him.

  A cascade of dazzling sparks burst across the expanse of sky before her. Framed by the branches of the oak tree, fireworks erupted in a nonstop wave: fiery blooms, whirling spirals, and glittering stars that flittered in every direction. Scarlet, emerald, saffron, cerulean, and brilliant fuchsia drew fantastical patterns through the black, extinguishing in soft sparkles only for the next whistling rocket to jet into the sky and splash its colors across the night.

  “Oh,” she breathed. She leaned into him, letting the moment sink into her soul—the blazing colors and shapes, his arms around her, his warmth against her back. She slid her hand down to his and twined their fingers together.

  “The fireworks ten years ago were just like this.” She rested her head on his shoulder as she watched. “Most of that year is kind of a blur, but I remember everything about the festival.”

  His thumb slid over the back of her hand. “What was it like?”

  “All the girls who’d specially prepared for that year came to Shion the day before the solstice. Amaterasu selected a new kamigakari a few years later than expected, so there were over two hundred girls between the ages of eight and ten gathered at the shrine. Some had travelled very far.”

  She waited for a wave of crackling comets to fade into quiet. “The first thing I did when I woke up with the kamigakari mark was run to show my parents. Then it was a big whirlwind—showing the kannushi, meeting the Guji for the first time, rituals and purification ceremonies, all sorts of things. I didn’t understand most of it at the time. A bunch of miko dressed me up in the most beautiful kimono I’d ever seen. I felt like a princess. They scolded me for twirling around and creasing my obi.”

  “Your parents,” he murmured. “You’ve never mentioned them before.”

  Her throat tightened. “My mother died when I was twelve. My father … stopped visiting after that.”

  He hesitated, as though considering whether to ask more about her parents. “What happened after you were all dressed up like a princess?”

  She relaxed against him again. “I got to sit in a covered palanquin carried by sohei. We were at the head of a procession of miko and kannushi and a dozen sohei on horseback. My escorts were the seven other gods.” She tilted her head back and smiled at him. “They were just miko and kannushi in costumes and masks, but to me they were the real Amatsukami and Kunitsukami.”

  His eyes gleamed from the floating lights beyond the tree branches. “If you wear the face of a kami, you can call a touch of their power to you.”

  She huffed a soft laugh. “I doubt real kami would share their power with the people wearing those silly masks. But that year, I was in awe of everything. The fireworks began during the procession. Carried in a palanquin, surrounded by gods and warriors and kannushi, with the sky lit up like magic, I’d never felt more special.”

  In the years since, even when the constant pressure had exhausted her, even when she’d lost her parents and then her best friend, she’d enjoyed feeling special. Being Amaterasu’s chosen, and the promise of a blessed future, was all that had kept her going through the loneliness and isolation, through the endless sacrifices and duties.

  Part of her, though, desperately wanted to be mundane and average and forgettable. Part of her wanted to be just another woman standing in the shrine courtyard, wearing a pretty kimono and delighting over fireworks—oblivious to the kami, to the yokai, to the coming sacrifice of a girl who had j
ust wanted to feel special and valued.

  But she couldn’t escape it, not even to enjoy the festival like everyone else. These fireworks were a celebration of the kamigakari and the fulfillment of her purpose in eight days’ time. They marked the end of one phase of her life and the beginning of the next. As the crowd gasped and exclaimed, they had no idea they were participating in the welcoming ceremony for a kami … and a farewell to that kami’s vessel.

  So little time left. Mere days now. Her life was spiraling away and she could do nothing to slow the final charge to her fate, her end.

  Shiro’s arms constricted around her, and only then did she realize her chest was heaving with the silent effort to contain her sobs. Tears streaked her cheeks, cold against her skin.

  “Emi,” he whispered.

  “I’m sorry,” she gasped, swallowing back her tears. “I just … They—they do another fireworks display after the solstice, b-but I … I won’t …”

  A sob caught in her throat and she hunched her shoulders to hide her tears, struggling to push the grief and dread back down into her core. How could she cry about her fate when he had suffered far more than she had and for many more years? What was a premature death compared to an immortal life tainted forever with pain and loneliness? She would die, but he would live forever with no escape.

  “Shiro, will you …” She drew in a quivering breath. “Will you watch the fireworks after the solstice? Will you watch them in … in my place?”

  Light flashed and the racket continued, but she couldn’t bring herself to look up. His arms loosened, then he pulled her around to face him.

  “Whatever you ask of me.” He drew her closer and captured her hand in his, lifting it. Eyes lowered, he pressed his lips to her knuckles. “Whatever you desire, whatever you need. Command me, little miko.”

  Her heart skipped a beat. Her roiling sorrow stilled and her hand trembled, his lips still touching her skin.

  “Is it okay for a Kunitsukami to say that?” she asked weakly.

  His gaze fixed on hers. “I can say anything I wish.”

  She stared at him, her pulse further quickening. Taken so off guard by his words, she’d almost missed the change in his speech. She’d almost missed the shift in his eyes, that shimmer of ancient power.

  Yet, she wasn’t sure. Who was he right now? Shiro … or Inari?

  “Should you doubt my sincerity, I will say it again.” Those scorching, ancient eyes held her like crimson chains, drinking her in. “Command me, Emi.”

  This time, her heart didn’t stumble. It soared. How casually, how confidently he ordered her to rule him. Without restriction, without hesitation or doubt, he’d demanded she ask him for anything she wanted. Anything she desired.

  A shiver ran through her. Before she could think, before she even realized she was speaking, the words slipped from her traitorous tongue.

  “Kiss me.”

  His flash of surprise faded almost instantly. His fingertips touched her chin and traced her jaw, catching the wet trails of her tears. He slid his hand into her hair and guided her head back.

  His lips brushed across hers, featherlight and teasing. Then his hand tightened in her hair and he pressed his mouth to hers. Curling her arms around his neck, she pulled herself tighter to him as he braced against the tree trunk behind him. He kissed her slowly, gently, and warmth spiraled through her center at each tiny movement. With unhurried precision, he explored every facet of her lips as though committing each touch to memory.

  Hot desire twined leisurely with tender sweetness until she felt like she was floating, anchored to this world only by his touch. When her breath came fast and she trembled, he slipped his tongue between her lips. She opened her mouth to him and he deepened the kiss until her legs quivered with weakness and heat seared through her. She gripped his hair with both hands and held his mouth to hers, needing him, needing this moment to never end.

  His hand still locked in her hair, he lifted his head. Dizzy, she sucked in air. Her lips throbbed, cold and aching in the absence of his mouth.

  His hooded gaze burned through her, fire and need and demand and—and an unspoken question she couldn’t interpret. She still didn’t know who that hungry stare with a hint of feral possessiveness belonged to. Shiro and Inari had blended together until, for the first time, she couldn’t tell his two halves apart.

  Command me. Anything she wanted, anything she desired.

  It didn’t matter how much of Inari had bled into Shiro. Nothing mattered but the desire simmering in his eyes—and the deep aching need hiding behind it. His need for her, for her acceptance, for her desire … for her love.

  She pulled his head down until his lips brushed hers.

  “Touch me,” she commanded in a whisper.

  She wanted his hands on her. She wanted his touch, his kiss, his everything. She wanted to be his. Wanted him to be hers.

  His warm hand cupped the side of her face, gentle and careful, and he kissed her with sudden aggression, with the consuming heat of flames. The contrast of his demanding mouth and gentle hands lit an inferno inside her, and she grabbed his hair again.

  Grasping the trunk before they slipped off the branch, he growled against her lips, the carnal sound shuddering through her.

  His hand on her face slid down, fingers brushing across the soft skin under her jaw then trailing over the sensitive side of her neck. Breaking the kiss, he latched onto the skin his fingers had been teasing. His hot mouth moved along the side of her neck, following the path of his hand.

  His fingers caught the collar of her kimono, his teeth grazing the spot where her neck and shoulder joined. As he pushed the fabric off her shoulder, cold air hit her skin. His hand slid under the back of her kimono and traced a line down her spine. She arched into him, a soft moan slipping from her.

  He stilled at the sound, then his mouth drifted back up her neck until his lips brushed across her ear.

  “Emi,” he breathed.

  With a deafening bang, light blazed through the trees.

  Shiro jerked upright so fast that his foot slipped on the slender bough. They tilted dangerously—then pitched over. Emi shrieked, her cry lost in the whistling fireworks. Shiro twisted in midair and landed gracelessly on a thick branch a dozen feet below their original perch. Emi clutched his shoulders, her heart pounding violently.

  In the dark sky, the finale of vibrant color faded, the sparkling remnants raining down as they dwindled to nothing.

  Emi turned to him, still winded, to ask what he’d been about to say before they fell—what words would have followed that soft, almost aching exhalation of her name—but motion in the courtyard caught her attention.

  “The procession is here,” she murmured.

  He leaned forward, his arms still wrapped around her waist. In the courtyard, an array of sword-bearing sohei preceded three regal figures in layers of flowing robes and simple white masks. The representative of Izanagi wore shades of gold, Izanami in burgundy, and Tsukiyomi in blue. Behind them, six sohei carried a wooden palanquin with a flat roof and open sides. Kneeling on the cushion inside was a woman in a matching mask and amethyst robes. She held herself with regal poise, hands resting neatly in her lap.

  Following the palanquin were four more figures. In front, a man and a woman walked side by side. He wore robes in shades of brown and a stylized bear mask, while she wore layers of green kimono and an owl mask. A few steps behind them were two men, one wearing a dragon mask and garments she knew were dark gray but looked black in the lantern light. And the other, in robes of red, wore a white fox mask.

  She peered at the representative of Inari, then at the yokai beside her, battling a strange sense of surreality. The flesh-and-blood Kunitsukami was right here with his arms around her.

  And she’d commanded him to kiss her. To do more than kiss her. Her cheeks flushed.

  Shiro focused on the procession as it stopped before the immense hall of worship. “Shouldn’t you be the one in the palanquin
?”

  “Yes.” For some reason, she couldn’t pull her gaze from his profile, her eyes tracing the shape of his nose, his jaw, and his lips, which had just been sliding down the side of her neck. “I wonder who they picked to stand in for me?”

  He studied the procession, seemingly oblivious to her attention on him. “What happens next?”

  “Once they go inside the shrine, the festival is over. There isn’t much more to see.” She glanced at the spectators, who were meandering away from the courtyard, no doubt returning to the shrine entrance. “Visitors are already leaving. We’ll be able to grab Katsuo soon.”

  “Do you see him?”

  She peered at the sohei honor guard. “There—in front, on the far side of the courtyard.”

  Katsuo’s dark hair, always disheveled no matter what he did with it, was easy to spot. He waited with his fellow sohei as the palanquin was lowered to the ground. The miko who’d taken Emi’s place rose gracefully and stepped onto the flagstones. The plain mask hid her face and her loose hair fell almost to her knees in a sweeping wave. It had to be a wig—even Emi’s hair wasn’t quite that long.

  Emi combed her fingers through a tangled lock. “I wonder who knows that isn’t me?”

  “It’s obviously not you. She holds herself differently,” Shiro said absently as he scanned the courtyard, a wrinkle forming between his eyebrows. “Even if you weren’t beside me, she wouldn’t fool me for a moment.”

  Was he that familiar with the sight of her, with the subtleties of her body language? He might think it was obvious, but she doubted anyone else suspected that wasn’t her gliding sedately away from the palanquin.

  “Something feels wrong,” Shiro growled.

  “Wrong? What—”

  A deep, inhuman groan tremored through the night.

  The sound came again—the creaking moan of shifting earth. A snap. A loud crack. Emi grabbed Shiro’s arm as the bough beneath them vibrated.

  With the shriek of tearing stone, the courtyard heaved upward—and from beneath the earth, something came alive.

 
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