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


  Walking out of the bathroom as she ran a brush through her damp hair, Emi pursed her lips at the opulence of her new quarters.

  Ishida had sent their yokai visitors to a room in the hall of purification. She understood his decision—the hall, where his own rooms and office were located, was inhabited only by elder kannushi, and Ishida wanted to minimize the risk of human and yokai interaction. And, likely wanting Emi nearby to control the yokai, he’d offered her a suite in the hall as well: Amaterasu’s rooms.

  Rice paper walls were painted with beautiful mountain scenery, and polished wood accented the bold colors. Everything in the room was as sophisticated and elegant as Yumei’s long-ago palace. She walked across the fine tatami mats, grateful for the clean, soft tabi socks on her feet. She was finally warm again. And clean. And dressed in a simple, comfortable miko uniform.

  Her bath had been the only truly restful moment so far this night. She’d filled in Ishida and Katsuo on everything that had happened and introduced Susano as a Kunitsukami. She’d also, rather reluctantly, reintroduced Shiro as Inari. The revelation had visibly shaken Ishida, and Katsuo had gone white as snow.

  Their preparations for tomorrow were under way, though Ishida had initially insisted that Emi needed to prepare for the solstice instead. He hadn’t been able to argue with Susano, though.

  She tied her damp hair back and smoothed the long tail. Her gaze slid around the beautiful but unfamiliar room and she wrapped her arms around her middle, suppressing a shiver. It was too quiet.

  She glanced at the thick, double-sized futon laid out for her, covered in down blankets and plush pillows, then crossed to the door and slipped outside. She walked up the corridor, trailing her fingers along the wall. Rounding a corner, she stopped in surprise.

  Six sohei were clustered around a door at the end of the hallway, peering through the crack into the room. The yokai inside were probably aware of their audience and didn’t appreciate the intrusion.

  She hovered at the corner, debating with herself, then turned away. Explaining why, alone and late at night, she wanted to enter a room with three yokai inside was too much trouble. Knowing Ishida, he had probably ordered the sohei to keep her away.

  It was fine. She didn’t need to see them. She could endure the lonely, anxious ache beneath her ribs on her own. Morning light would see her reunited with Shiro and the others again. One night wasn’t long at all.

  She wandered through the empty corridors. The inhabitants of the hall were in their rooms, probably asleep after the hard work of the festival and the unexpected excitement that had followed. Sohei no doubt guarded the entrances, but she stayed far from those passages. She had no desire to go out in the cold again.

  Her thoughts wandered along with her feet, lingering mostly on Shiro—or more specifically, on his voice, his mouth, and his hands on her skin. She nibbled on a fingernail, yearning competing with guilt. If Tsukiyomi had been truthful, inner conflict had already compromised her ki. Kissing Shiro—more than kissing him—was not helping her regain her makoto no kokoro, her inner harmony, but she couldn’t seem to remember that whenever he was near.

  She meandered into a corridor that bordered the large courtyard garden in the center of the building. The walkway had been closed in with paneled walls for the winter, but in the summer, the garden view was spectacular.

  Another pang rolled through her. She would never see the garden in summer bloom again. Brushing her hair from her eyes, she hurried her steps. If all she planned to do was mope and moan, she should go to bed and sleep. Tomorrow she would infiltrate an Izanagi shrine. She should be well rested.

  Reaching an intersection, she hesitated at the touch of a cold breeze. Down the corridor to her right, two wall panels had been pulled apart, leaving an opening into the garden.

  Tensing, she sidled along the hallway toward the gap. As she neared it, a quiet sound reached her—quiet, erratic scuffs like irregular footsteps. Ready to call on the wind, she leaned around the panel and peeked outside.

  On the intricately laid stonework in the middle of the garden, Shiro stood with a plain wooden staff in his hands. He’d shed his shirt and wore only his black hakama and the wraps that ran from his hands up above his elbows. Twirling flakes drifted from the sky, the light snowfall lit by the warm light leaking from the surrounding panels.

  He turned the staff so it was parallel to his body, then he began to move.

  The staff spun in his hands so fast it was a blur, and he flowed with it. The only sounds were the whoosh of the staff through the air and the soft scrape of his feet grazing the stones. The staff whipped out as though striking an invisible enemy, then snapped back and rotated across his chest as he released it with one hand and caught it with the other.

  He pivoted, dove forward, and landed on one hand in a twisting flip. Staff still whirling, he brought both legs down in a double kick that would have shattered an opponent’s neck. He whipped around, the staff spinning above his head then spiraling down behind his back before snapping out in another strike. He pulled it back in, his hands shifting across the wood so smoothly he seemed to simultaneously move impossibly fast and languorously slow.

  Clutching the edge of the paneled wall, she watched him. As he continued the workout, cutting down invisible adversaries, she focused less on his masterful technique and more on the flex of muscles in his arms, his back, his chest. More on the bend and twist of lithe, flexible limbs. The grace, the power. The steam of exertion rising from his bare skin.

  Barely breathing, she leaned out a little farther and her hand slipped on the wall. The panel clattered loudly as she lurched for balance.

  Shiro reeled around, wooden staff dropping into a defensive stance. When he saw her, surprise flickered across his features and he relaxed, resting the butt of the weapon on the ground.

  “It’s late, little miko.” His quiet voice hummed through the shadows, a part of the night. “You should be sleeping.”

  “So should you,” she mumbled, tugging her sleeves straight as a blush stained her cheeks.

  “I don’t need as much sleep as a human.”

  She couldn’t argue with that. Stepping out onto the wooden boardwalk that crossed the flowerbeds, she held a hand out to catch a few snowflakes on her palm. Shiro drifted closer, the snow melting on his bare skin. She fixed her stare on her feet as warmth tingled through her center.

  She’d seen him shirtless before, so why did the sight of him still affect her so strongly? Her discomfort stemmed not from his partial nakedness, but from the irresistible desire to touch him. To run her fingers over his shoulders and torso. To trace lines in the slick of melted snow on his skin. He would feel delightfully warm under her hands.

  The staff appeared in front of her nose and she started in surprise. Shiro held out the weapon expectantly. When she hesitantly took it, he picked his kosode off the stone lantern post and shrugged it on, leaving it hanging loose instead of folding it closed and tucking it in. The bare strip of his chest and abdomen was quite possibly even more enticing than before, and her fingers twitched with the urge to slip under the shirt and trace his muscles.

  She blinked, realizing he was watching her watching him. Blushing, she pushed the staff toward him.

  “Oh,” she huffed in surprise. “It’s heavy.”

  “Weapons usually are.”

  She hefted it in her hands. “It’s a lot heavier than I expected. You made it look weightless.”

  “Well, I suspect I might be a shade or two stronger than you.”

  She gave him an arch look and held out the staff again, but he didn’t take it. He tilted his head as he studied her. She shrank under his scrutiny, subconsciously pulling the staff closer, unable to decipher his expression.

  A pained look twisted his features. “Don’t hold it like that.”

  Her brow furrowed. “What?”

  “The staff. You can’t defend yourself if you hold it against your body like that.”

  She looked at th
e weapon, then thrust it out for him to reclaim, annoyed. “I couldn’t defend myself with it either way. Take it back.”

  “Of course you can defend yourself with it.”

  “Hardly.”

  A sharp smile revealed his pointed canines. “Slide your left hand down about six inches.”

  “What?” She shook her head. “Just take it.”

  He folded his arms. “Slide your left hand down.”

  “I’ll drop the staff if you don’t take it.”

  When he gave her a long look, she grudgingly moved her hand as instructed.

  “Now bring that hand down toward your hip.”

  She obeyed, knowing he was stubborn enough to make her stand out here all night until she humored him.

  “There,” he said with satisfaction. “Middle guard position. You’re now ready to defend against most attacks.”

  She looked at herself. She was holding the staff at an angle in front of her body, with the top half slanted defensively toward Shiro.

  “I can’t actually defend against an attack,” she said without thinking.

  His lips curved in another smile, and she winced.

  “No,” she said before he could respond.

  “It’s easy.”

  “No.”

  “Just one block.”

  “No.”

  He stepped toward her. She pointed the staff at him to ward him off. He sidestepped it and then he was behind her.

  “Not like that.”

  She might have continued protesting his insistence on teaching her, except his purring voice so close evaporated all her thoughts. He placed his left hand on top of hers—his palm as wondrously warm as she’d imagined—and leaned down, putting his mouth right by her ear.

  “You don’t have the strength to stop a direct attack, so use your opponent’s weight and momentum against them. When they strike from the front, block them like this.”

  Fingers tightening over hers, he guided her left hand up, rotating the staff until it was vertical, then pushed it across the front of her body as though shoving an assailant’s weapon off center.

  “With this small motion, you push the attack to one side and their momentum will throw them off balance. Do you see?”

  She nodded mutely, unfairly distracted by the heat emanating from him. He pulled her hand back to the guard position and released it.

  “Again.”

  She swung the bottom of the staff up and thrust it sideways.

  “Good.” His hands curled over her hips and her breath hitched. “Just remember to turn your hips with the motion for more power.”

  He guided her hips into a turn as she again pushed the staff sideways to deflect an imaginary attack.

  “Perfect,” he purred in her ear and tingles skimmed along the full length of her spine. Did he have any idea what he was doing to her? “Now that you’ve blocked your opponent’s attack and thrown him off balance, you can retaliate.”

  He reached around her, his chest brushing her back, and closed his hands over hers. In a smooth motion, he flipped the staff forward, bringing one end up and over, as though slamming it down on her pretend enemy.

  “Just like this.”

  “Right,” she said breathlessly.

  “Did you absorb any of that?”

  “Probably not.”

  “Shame. You look good with a weapon.”

  “Shiro!” she exclaimed, squirming to escape him as her cheeks flushed.

  He drew the staff toward him—and her with it. Trapped by the pole angled in front of her, she could do nothing as he pulled her back into him. Then his teeth grazed her skin just above the collar of her kimono, and her desire to move away from him was extinguished.

  “Shiro,” she whispered hoarsely. She clutched the staff, his hands still tight over hers.

  His lips slowly slid up the side of her neck. Answering heat swooped through her center.

  “Why are you wandering around this late at night, little miko?” he crooned in her ear.

  “I …” She closed her eyes as he tasted the soft skin under her jaw. “I couldn’t sleep.”

  “Why not?”

  “Just … I couldn’t stop thinking.”

  “About what?”

  She angled her head as he worked his way down her throat, then used his nose to nudge aside the collar of her kimono. He kissed the curve of her neck, and she melted against him.

  “Stupid things,” she answered belatedly. “Nothing important.”

  He shifted his head to the other side of her neck, mouth trailing across her skin. “Tell me.”

  “Stupid things,” she mumbled again, too distracted by what he was doing to give any real thought to her answer. “I didn’t realize the solstice … I didn’t know it was this close until we got here. I’ve tried not to dwell on it, but I can’t stop thinking about how … how …”

  He stilled. Her eyes popped open as she realized what she’d said.

  “I’m just being melodramatic,” she muttered hastily, thoughtlessly shaking her head and forcing him back to avoid a collision. “I know this is my duty. It’s fine. I’m prepared. I just can’t help these little thoughts that pop into my head, like …” She peered at the barren branches and empty flowerbeds around them. “Like never getting to see this garden in bloom again, or never getting to feel the summer sun …”

  She trailed off, wishing she hadn’t said anything, hadn’t complained like a whiny child who didn’t want to accept any responsibility. So much depended on Amaterasu’s descension on the solstice. Emi couldn’t fail her Amatsukami, couldn’t fail the Kunitsukami, couldn’t fail mankind.

  “Emi …” His soft tone surprised her. “What do you want, Emi? Duty and fate and Izanami’s schemes aside—ignoring all of that, what future would you choose for yourself?”

  “I …” Still trapped by his arms and the staff, she stared ahead, no longer seeing the garden. “I … I don’t know. I’ve been the kamigakari for almost as long as I can remember. I’ve never …”

  “There must be something you want.” His hands tightened over hers on the staff. “Some selfish future you won’t let yourself consider.”

  “I don’t know what I want.”

  He leaned in closer, his lips brushing her ear. “Lie, little miko.”

  She shivered. “My only future is becoming Amaterasu’s vessel on the solstice.”

  “But what do you wish your future was instead?”

  Tears welled but she blinked them away. “It doesn’t matter.”

  “Tell me.”

  “Why?” Her voice rose against her will. “Even talking about the things I can never have—why are you making this harder on me?”

  “Tell me,” he commanded.

  “You,” she cried, angry tears spilling down her cheeks. “I wish I could have a future with you. You’re the only thing I’ve ever wanted badly enough to risk my purity for. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

  He went quiet. She hunched her shoulders as a painful, hollow ache flared inside her. It grew worse with each second that passed in silence. Unable to bear his lack of response, she pushed on the staff. To her surprise, he pulled it from her hands and swung it out of the way. She stumbled forward and turned jerkily to face him.

  Shadows ghosted through his eyes, but his face was expressionless.

  “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that’s how you felt.” The shadows gathered, dimming the normally bright ruby. “I won’t touch you again.”

  The hollow ache turned to a squeezing agony. “Shiro …”

  He looked away. “Your makoto no kokoro is more important. Good night, Emi.”

  Her mouth hung open, confusion stealing her voice. He glided toward the open panels and slipped through without looking back.

  She stared after him, pain ricocheting through her. She had finally confessed the depth of her feelings for him, and he … he had walked away. He had promised not to touch her again and walked away. His words echoed in her head, scoring h
er wounded heart anew. Pressing a hand to her chest, she forced herself to take a deep breath.

  Your makoto no kokoro is more important. He’d known all along that physical intimacy was forbidden to her, so he must have known she was risking her purity by being with him. Why then was he walking away now?

  Tears leaked down her cheeks, impervious to her attempts to contain them. It hurt too much—the memory of his flat, emotionless voice, of those concealing shadows in his eyes that had hidden his feelings from her. Whatever his reaction to her confession had been, he hadn’t wanted her to know.

  She had told him how she felt, and he had chosen to walk away. Her heart was fracturing, and she couldn’t think. With tears streaking her face, she fled the garden, frantic to reach her room before she lost control.

  Chapter 15

  As she watched the mountains slide by outside the car window, Emi massaged her temples. It was strangely unfamiliar to do something as human as ride in a car. She’d grown accustomed to travelling through otherworldly portals and being carried by a dragon.

  Katsuo sat on the seat beside her. Turning away from the window, she found him watching her instead of the passing scenery.

  “Are you all right?” he asked quietly.

  “Of course,” she answered quickly, dropping her hands into her lap. “I just didn’t get a lot of sleep.”

  She’d hardly slept at all. Her eyes still ached from too many tears shed and her heart throbbed with each beat, Shiro’s rejection like a dart lodged in her chest. Over and over, her confession that she wanted to spend her future with him replayed in her head, and over and over she heard his promise to never touch her again.

  Their frenzied preparations for this afternoon had been a welcome distraction. Katsuo was dressed in the yellow colors of an Izanagi sohei, the uniform acquired by Ishida. She had no idea where he’d gotten it and hadn’t had the time or the energy to ask. Three miko had kept her occupied as they’d worked some kind of braiding magic on her hair to make it look significantly shorter. Her hair was still long, but not conspicuously so.

 
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