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


  Trailing her fingers through the water, she puffed out a breath. She had drawn many conclusions from only a brief glimpse of Inari, but she was still certain he wouldn’t share Shiro’s feelings for her. It was her only slight comfort: even if Shiro grieved her loss, Inari would not. How could an ancient immortal ever love a human girl?

  Her shoulders drooped and she tipped her head back on the rock ledge. Three weeks left. Before her thoughts could spiral to darker places, she cleared her mind. For the first time in too long, she slipped into the familiar meditative state she had practiced since she was a child, and as her thoughts went silent and her heartbeat slowed, she relaxed.

  The water splashed loudly and she jolted upright with a surge of adrenaline. Her eyes flew open.

  A naked woman stood on the pool steps. She blinked large golden eyes at Emi and the ash-brown cat ears poking out of her shoulder-length hair perked forward. A long, furred tail swished behind her.

  Emi cringed back, clamping her hands over her kamigakari mark. She remembered the woman. In this very pool, the yokai had debated with her companions whether to turn Emi in for a bounty.

  “Well!” the woman exclaimed as she descended into the water. “If it isn’t the cute little okini. I thought you’d left days ago.”

  Emi bit her lip, unsure what to do. Fleeing seemed like the best plan.

  The woman grinned, displaying pointed teeth. “Don’t panic. I heard what happened to the yamachichi who tried to turn you in. I don’t want the bounty that badly.”

  After Emi’s first visit to the baths, two yokai intending to trade her in for the bounty had lured her away, and Shiro had dealt with the ringleader by burning him alive. She hadn’t realized the other yokai at the inn had heard about that. Had Shiro spread the news to scare other yokai off?

  The woman sashayed through the water and, to Emi’s chagrin, dropped down beside her. “I’m Kaori, a bakeneko if you didn’t already recognize me.”

  Emi leaned away, her gaze flicking toward the bathhouse door.

  “And your name?” Kaori prompted, ignoring Emi’s discomfort.

  “Emi,” she mumbled. “I should go.”

  “Why? Didn’t I say I wouldn’t hurt you?” She leaned back. “Ah, this is wonderful. It’s my last night here so I wanted a nice quiet soak. Noriko and Akemi never shut up so I waited until they were asleep.”

  Emi sank a little lower to keep her kamigakari mark hidden. Beside her, Kaori was sprawled in the water, head resting on the rock ledge and ears slanted back.

  “So,” the woman drawled. “Where is the daitengu and that delectable kitsune of yours?”

  Emi’s cheeks heated to hear Shiro described as delectable—especially since she agreed. By “daitengu,” Kaori meant Yumei, not realizing he was the yokai who had once commanded the daitengu generals.

  “Having a midnight dinner,” Emi answered carefully.

  “Hmph, men. Always eating.” Kaori flashed her a lazy smile. “How did you get tangled up with those two?”

  “It’s a long story,” Emi muttered, then decided to ask her own questions to keep the bakeneko from prying too much. “What brings you to the inn?”

  “Romance,” she sighed dramatically. “Well, not quite. Akemi has her eye on the Tiger Shijin and when she heard he was here, we planned an impromptu trip.”

  “The Tiger Shijin?” Emi repeated blankly. “Wait … do you mean Byakko?”

  Byakko, the white tiger yokai with an affinity for the wind, had helped them battle Orochi. He’d departed a few days ago to attend to his own affairs.

  “The very one. He lost his mate a few years ago and Akemi wants to try to catch his attention.” Kaori shrugged. “He was only here for a short time, though. Akemi hopes he will return but either way, I’m leaving tomorrow.”

  A pang of sorrow for Byakko’s loss struck Emi. “Do yokai … is it common for yokai to—to mate?”

  Kaori slanted a look at Emi. “It would depend on what you mean by ‘mate.’ Some yokai choose lifelong partners. Others are perfectly content with a casual romp whenever the urge strikes. I, personally, prefer romps to all that eternal bond nonsense.”

  “Oh.”

  “And, of course, many of us favor solitary lives. Some yokai, though, they’re just built for permanent bonds, particularly powerful ones like the Tiger Shijin.”

  “They are?” Emi asked weakly, her thoughts turning to Shiro.

  “Well, it makes sense, you know. Power is isolating. When they find someone compatible, they don’t want to let go.” She rolled her eyes. “But try telling Akemi that the Shijin will wait for his mate to revive—even if he ends up waiting forever. But nope, she’s convinced she can win him over. Ridiculous.”

  Emi nodded automatically, even as her thoughts dwelled on Shiro. Would he be able to let her go once she was gone? Perhaps she was giving herself too much credit.

  “What …” She hesitated. “What exactly is an okini?”

  Kaori and the other bakeneko had referred to Emi as an okini before. The word meant “favorite” or “pet” but she didn’t understand its context.

  The woman’s eyebrows shot up. “Ah, now, now. Don’t get any ideas, girl. You’re just a human.”

  “What do you mean?” Emi asked, baffled.

  “An okini is a pet. Sometimes a human, sometimes a weaker yokai, but it’s not the same as a mate. Not even close.” Kaori wagged a finger. “If you think one of those two is swooning over you, he’s not. Yokai can grow fond of their okini, but in the end, it’s all superficial.”

  “I just meant …” Emi trailed off, her face flushing.

  Kaori stretched her arms over her head, raining hot droplets of water on Emi. “Such lofty ideas for a human girl! You really don’t understand, do you? Yokai keep okini for three reasons.” She held up a finger. “As entertainment.” A second finger went up. “As a servant.” A third finger. “As an emergency source of ki. So, I don’t know what idea you have in your head, but if you get too haughty about your status, he’ll just kill you and find a more docile girl.”

  The yokai leaned back again, unbothered by the discussion of Emi’s supposed enslavement. “I hope you didn’t volunteer for this, because if you did, you were clearly misinformed.”

  “Not all yokai are like that,” Emi muttered.

  Kaori snorted. “Oh yes, they are. And whichever one of those fine male specimens is using you to meet his other needs and has you thinking all those sweet, lovey thoughts—well, you’re in for a rude awakening. But don’t take my word for it.”

  Emi surged to her feet, one hand hiding her kamigakari mark and omamori—the talisman that disguised her kami-infused ki from yokai. With a stiff farewell bow, she turned toward the pool steps.

  “Aw, come on now.” Kaori grabbed her arm, yanking her back down, and leaned in close. “Don’t leave yet, pretty okini. I’ll do you a favor and save you some extra suffering.”

  “Let me go!”

  “Look at the doorway. What do you see?”

  Emi glanced at the changing room door. At first, she saw nothing, then an odd shimmer disturbed the air. She squinted. Slowly, almost reluctantly, a faint shadow grew visible.

  Crouched beside the doorway was a small child, a girl wearing a cute blue kimono with a pattern of koi fish. But her long hair hung in ragged strings, black against her sickly pale skin, and she stared blankly at nothing, mouth slack. No matter how long Emi watched, the child remained only semi-opaque, the wooden wall visible through her ghostly form.

  “A kanashibari,” Kaori whispered in her ear. “She’s been sitting there a while now, probably waiting until you’re alone. A human is an easy meal.”

  Kaori leaned back as Emi forced her horrified gaze away from the spectral child. “What is she?”

  “A type of spirit yokai. Kanashibari are dream weavers, but even though they’re weak, everyone avoids them. A kanashibari will sneak up on you while you’re sleeping and trap you in terrible dreams or ugly memories as they slowl
y feed on your ki. They would have a hard time killing even a minor yokai, but a human like you?” Kaori patted Emi’s head in a patronizing way. “Who knows if your handsome kitsune would find you in time?”

  Emi swallowed hard and resisted staring at the ghostly child.

  “He’s the one, isn’t he?” Kaori whispered, leaning close again. “The one you’re in love with.”

  Emi jerked away, glaring at the bakeneko.

  Kaori snickered. “Poor girl. Men are foul, even the charming ones, you know. If you can get away and return to your world, you should do it. I’ll walk you out so the kanashibari doesn’t latch onto you. My favor to a fellow female.”

  With a laugh, Kaori stood, water sloughing off her, and breezed up the steps right past the crouched, unmoving child yokai. Keeping her kamigakari mark covered, Emi hurried after the woman into the warm change room. The kanashibari didn’t follow them.

  Emi threw on her kimono and tossed her towels in the laundry basket. Not pausing to tie back her long hair, she rushed out into the hall. Kaori exited after her, already dressed in a simple cotton sleeping robe that she would probably wear straight to bed.

  “Good luck, Emi the okini,” Kaori cooed. “And sweet dreams.”

  Not bothering with a farewell, Emi hastened down the corridor, glancing back repeatedly for any sign of pursuit. Seeing no one, she rolled her tense shoulders. So much for a relaxing bath.

  The snow continued to fall as she followed the walkway back to the small, private building the innkeeper had provided for them. She stopped outside the door, gathering her courage, then slid it open. Inside, Yumei and Shiro sat at the low table. They had devoured their meal, leaving only scraps of food in a few dishes. Both yokai looked up at her reappearance, Yumei’s expression inscrutable and Shiro’s ears pricking forward.

  “That was a short bath … for you,” he commented.

  With a slow exhalation, she strode to the table and knelt in front of Yumei, who paused with his chopsticks poised over a bowl of noodles.

  She had intended to speak with care and tact but, frazzled by Kaori and the kanashibari, the words spilled out in a forceful rush.

  “Yumei, I am not your okini.”

  He recoiled as if she’d slapped him and the chopsticks fell out of his hand, clattering loudly on the table. For a heartbeat, silence pulsed through the room as he stared at her in complete disbelief.

  Then Shiro burst into cackling laughter. She jumped at the sound, looking from him to Yumei as a blush heated her cheeks.

  “I am not your okini,” she repeated to Yumei while Shiro snickered, “but if you … if you need more ki to heal faster, I could—”

  Shiro’s laughter cut off.

  “—I could help,” she finished in a whisper.

  Yumei continued to stare at her, utterly nonplussed.

  His humor dampened, Shiro straightened. “Where did this come from, little miko?”

  “I just—Some yokai have okini for emergencies, like if they’re injured and need extra ki, right? Since Yumei was badly hurt while he’s so far from his mountains, I thought maybe my ki might help him heal faster …”

  “Where did you learn about okini?”

  “A yokai in the baths told me …”

  “Let me guess,” Shiro said. “This yokai said you were the Tengu’s okini.”

  “Well, yes, but I …”

  Ire blazed in Yumei’s eyes, replacing his incredulity. “You are not my thrall and I have never treated you as such.”

  “I know.” She hunched her shoulders, face burning hotter, not wanting to admit she’d been afraid that offering her ki would give him the wrong idea.

  Shiro snickered again, then took a steadying breath. “Emi, while you have the right idea, you’re missing the finer points. Mainly, a yokai like Yumei has vassals, not okini, to support him.”

  “But Yumei’s karasu aren’t here.” Twisting her hands together, she forced herself to look at Yumei. “Susano will need your help against Tsukiyomi. Shiro won’t be able to help much against water magic, and I won’t be very useful either. But if I can help you recover faster and be ready to fight in a few days …”

  Yumei’s mouth thinned with displeasure. “I do not need a human’s ki.”

  Shiro scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Actually, Yumei, she has a point. Susano is counting on your support to battle Tsukiyomi, and your ki is regenerating too slowly this far from your mountains. Even if you can fight in two days, will you be at full strength?”

  “I will not recover my full strength without returning home,” he replied flatly. “Izanami likely anticipates I will do exactly that.”

  “So your options for a full recovery are my ki, Emi’s ki, or ambushing some poor sap in the inn.”

  Yumei picked up his chopsticks and set them on his plate. “I will be capable of battle by Susano’s return.”

  “‘Capable’ and ‘as strong as you can be’ are two different things,” Emi said, her tone unintentionally stern. “What if capable isn’t enough? Can you take that risk?”

  “And your recovery, kamigakari?” Yumei demanded. “Are you prepared to be severely weakened?”

  “Actually,” Shiro cut in for a second time, propping one elbow on the table and gesturing with his chopsticks. “Emi would be sacrificing her human ki, not Amaterasu’s. With a couple days to sleep it off, she’ll be fine.”

  “Is it even possible to separate their ki?” Yumei snapped. “Amatsukami ki will cause more damage than my injuries.”

  Emi frowned. “But Orochi ate kami”—she cringed at the memory of bones crunching in the dragon’s massive jaws—“to make himself stronger, didn’t he?”

  “A yokai can only absorb kami ki less potent than his own,” Yumei answered impatiently.

  “A large dose of Amaterasu’s ki would kill him. It would kill me too.” Shiro grinned wickedly. “But I can say with authority that Emi’s ki tastes entirely different from Amaterasu’s, so you should be safe.”

  “What?” she spluttered in embarrassment.

  “So, Yumei,” Shiro continued, his expression sobering, “I think you’re out of excuses.”

  Yumei rubbed one hand over his face and into his hair, a strangely human gesture of frustration. “You are both incomparably maddening.”

  “Excellent,” Shiro said as though Yumei had uttered an agreement instead of an insult. He rose and circled the table. “Are you ready, Emi?”

  “R-ready?” She hadn’t thought beyond the hurdle of convincing Yumei. “I’m not … I mean …”

  “It was your idea,” Shiro pointed out, pulling her to her feet. “Did you change your mind?”

  “N-no …”

  Stepping behind her, he gently gripped her upper arms and turned her to face Yumei, who had also stood, looking as enthusiastic as someone who’d lost a bet and had to pay up.

  “Um,” she whispered. “How …?”

  “The usual way,” Shiro said, amused. “Unless you’d prefer to open a vein?”

  As Yumei stepped closer, she wondered if she would rather bleed. He took her chin in his hand and she reflexively flinched away from his touch. Shiro’s hands on her upper arms tightened to steady her.

  Clenching her fingers around handfuls of her kimono and leaning back into Shiro, she squeezed her eyes shut. Yumei tilted her face up and his mouth touched hers, the act as impersonal as such intimate contact could be. She tried not to cringe and held perfectly still as he hesitated.

  Then he pressed his mouth harder into hers and inhaled. Her breath was pulled from her lungs, and with it, her ki tore out of her. She arched onto her toes as fiery pain screeched across every nerve in her body. Her soul seemed to peel away from her flesh, her life swept away along with her strength. She couldn’t move as agony crashed through her.

  And then his touch was gone and it all stopped.

  She sagged. Yumei caught her, pushing her back into Shiro, who wrapped his arms around her middle.

  “Breathe, Emi.” S
hiro squeezed her gently. “You’re okay.”

  She was gasping wildly for air. Struggling for control as the room spun sickeningly, she lifted her head. “Did it work?”

  Yumei, his eyes oddly bright and pupils dilated, rubbed a hand over his chest like it hurt. “Your ki is laced with kami power.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “It means,” Shiro said, his voice rumbling through her back, “your ki burns like hot coals. He’ll be fine, though.”

  “Oh,” she muttered dazedly, feeling as though Shiro had answered her question without really answering it.

  He scooped her off her feet and into his arms, setting the whole room to whirling again. “Let’s put you to bed, little miko.”

  “Emi.”

  Surprised to hear her name in Yumei’s deep tones, she looked up. The Tengu met her gaze, then bent forward in a bow of gratitude.

  Shiro carried her to the partitioned bedroom they’d set up for her. Kneeling beside the futon, he laid her down and pulled the blankets up. Waves of exhaustion rolled over her and she wondered how much ki Yumei had taken.

  “Shiro?” His name came out in a drowsy murmur.

  “Yes?”

  Her brow wrinkled. “That didn’t count as kissing Yumei, did it?”

  “No, it didn’t count. A kiss is very different.” He brought his face closer to hers. “Should I refresh your memory?”

  A new blush suffused her cheeks as her gaze darted toward the partition wall where Yumei, unseen on the other side, was waiting and no doubt listening. Seeing the direction of her glance, Shiro smirked and sat back. Fatigue pulled at her eyelids and they slid closed against her will.

  “Will Yumei be okay?” she whispered.

  “He will.” Warm fingers gently swept her hair from her face. “You gave him a precious gift, one no yokai gives or receives lightly. You willingly put your life in his hands, and he will not forget that trust.”

  She had made herself wholly vulnerable to Yumei, hadn’t she? He could have easily killed her, but it hadn’t even crossed her mind that he would.

 
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