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


  Sitting beside Katsuo after telling him about her day at the beach in what might have been exhausting detail—though he hadn’t betrayed a moment of boredom—Emi found her gaze wandering around the room. Nearby, Shiro sat cross-legged in front of the stoic, red-haired Suzaku. Both had created tiny spots of fire and were controlling the flames in some sort of dexterity contest. Two daitengu, three vassals, and the blue-haired Shijin were playing a drinking game that involved a lot of snarling at one another. It seemed the female Shijin was winning.

  Near the opposite end of the room, Sarutahiko, Susano, and Byakko were deep in conversation. Yumei sat with one of his daitengu and Genbu, the dark, unsettling Shijin of Cold. The humans had grouped together as well—Fujimoto telling the older miko an animated story, while Minoru and a young woman who had been serving food were seated in a corner together. Ishida, as the host, was moving from group to group, ensuring everyone’s comfort.

  As she watched them, she couldn’t help her smile. What had once been the kamigakari’s secret sacrifice was no longer hidden behind careful lies. Everyone here knew, and appreciated, what she was doing for them, for this world. With so many people surrounding her, she couldn’t feel alone.

  Wandering over from her previous spot beside her husband, Uzume knelt gracefully beside Emi. With a gawking look at the stunning Kunitsukami, Katsuo excused himself.

  “How are you, child?” Uzume asked, tucking a loose strand of her floor-length hair back into its elaborate braid. “Was your afternoon pleasant?”

  “It was wonderful,” Emi answered. “The best day I’ve ever had.”

  “And are you enjoying the banquet?”

  “It’s lovely. So many came …”

  “We would not have missed it.” Uzume glanced at the increasingly rowdy groups. “I am afraid that yokai are not the politest dinner guests. It is something of a tradition to feast the night before a battle, so this gathering holds a dual purpose.”

  “Is everyone ready for tomorrow night?”

  “As ready as we can be.” Uzume patted Emi’s hand. “Do not fret, child. Leave it to us and focus on your strengths.”

  The sound of breaking glass interrupted the various conversations, then a daitengu grumbled an apology and started picking up the pieces of the sake flask he’d shattered.

  Shaking her head, Emi grinned. “This night will definitely go down in shrine history as a first.”

  “Firsts are rare experiences for the oldest yokai, but this is one for us as well. We have never feasted at an Amatsukami shrine before.” She smiled ruefully. “And I must say, it is a pleasant change after two years in Tsuchi.”

  “Two years,” Emi mumbled, imagining Uzume sitting alone, day after empty day, beside the fallen tree and its precious healing blossom. “How did you not go mad?”

  “Time passes differently for immortals, child. It was not as long for me as it would have seemed to you.” Her golden eyes drifted to Sarutahiko. “But I do admit it was difficult being separated from my beloved, knowing he was in the hands of the enemy. I have never before known fear quite of that flavor.”

  “Your love for each other is inspiring,” Emi said. “Even after so long, you’ve never gotten tired of each other?”

  “He is my other half,” Uzume replied simply. “He completes me. To tire of him would be to tire of life itself.”

  Though he couldn’t have heard Uzume’s soft words over the other conversations, Sarutahiko glanced at his wife and smiled faintly before returning his attention to Susano and Byakko.

  Emi bit her lip. “Uzume, can I ask a favor?”

  “Of course, child.”

  “When I’m … After the solstice, will you watch over Shi—Inari? Will you make sure he’s okay? And … and not alone?”

  “I will do all I can for him, child.”

  Emi surreptitiously wiped at her eyes. “I’m sorry. I should be focused on more important things.”

  “What could be more important?” Uzume touched Emi’s cheek, the gesture gentle and motherly. “Hold your love tight to your heart, child, and let it be your strength tomorrow night.”

  Emi blinked, unable to speak as Uzume rose and glided back to her husband.

  Shiro appeared, interrupting her confused thoughts, and pulled her to her feet. He whisked her into the midst of the yokai and introduced those she didn’t know. She spoke to everyone while Shiro bantered and teased them. Somehow, she and Katsuo ended up playing a round of the drinking game with the daitengu. The blue-haired Shijin, Seiryu, helped Emi win and she laughed as the cranky daitengu and Katsuo threw back their drinks as a reward.

  The evening sped by in a whirlwind of conversation and more laughter than she ever would have imagined from so many hardened yokai warriors. No one mentioned the solstice. No one mentioned the coming battle that would no doubt claim some or even all their lives. No one mentioned her demise looming so close.

  Nanako had been right. It wasn’t a farewell dinner. It was a celebration, an homage and a reminder of all that they would fight for, and die for, on the solstice night.

  Sliding her bedroom door shut, Emi leaned back against it. The silence was pleasant but somehow empty after so long in the noisy banquet room. The yokai would probably drink and banter for hours yet, but she needed some peace, quiet, and sleep. Her futon was already set up and waiting, the double-sized mattress heaped with blankets and pillows.

  As she pulled the pins out of her hair and let it tumble loose down her back, she turned toward the attached private bath, but paused at the sight of an object sitting on the foot of her futon.

  Crossing the room, she knelt in front of the small wooden box and lightly touched the top. Her memento box. She’d thought Nanako had thrown it out after finding its contents scattered across her bedroom in Shirayuri.

  Opening the latch, she lifted the lid. Inside, all her treasures were neatly arranged—stones, feathers, pinecones, and dried leaves and flowers. Each one bore a memory of a favorite experience from her years as a kamigakari. As she leaned over the box, biting her inner cheek against the tide of emotions, a hint of leather peeked out from the collection.

  Reaching into the box, she gently slid her journal from the bottom and squeezed the leather cover in her hands. She’d forgotten it at Shirayuri weeks ago.

  Opening the journal, she flipped through endless pages of her neat handwriting. When she reached the last passage in the book, a glossy black feather fell from the spot, fluttering into her lap. She had taken it from the forest after her first encounter with Shiro as a fox. So much had changed for her that night.

  Placing the feather in the box with the rest of her collection, she touched her journal, open to the most recent entry. Her writing filled hundreds of pages, yet the most exciting, most transformative experiences of her life were missing.

  She retrieved her pen from the box, turned to a new page, and wrote “December 19” at the top. Her pen moved across the first line, transcribing the opening words for her final entry.

  Tomorrow is my last day in this world. I am not afraid.

  She reread the last four words and realized they were true. She wasn’t afraid. She felt many things, but fear was no longer among them.

  She pressed her pen to the paper again and began writing in earnest. The words came faster and faster, a feverish need driving her to fill the page, then the next, then the next. She scrawled down everything that had happened since she’d met Shiro, every moment she could remember, every word, every thought and feeling she’d experienced. She held nothing back.

  Minutes turned into an hour and she didn’t stop, even when her hand cramped and her arm ached. She didn’t stop until she’d finished describing the banquet she had just attended.

  Setting down the pen, she slid her finger beneath Uzume’s words. Let it be your strength. Those words had shocked her. Wasn’t her love for Shiro her greatest weakness, the conflict that had been undermining her strength and purity for weeks?

  Pursing her lips, s
he flipped back page after page, searching until she found her description of her time as Tsukiyomi’s captive. She skimmed the page.

  “Purity is born of pure intent, of faith and confidence in one’s choices. When one acts with conviction, his ki will be pure and powerful, and that, kamigakari, is the source of all strength.”

  She stared at her handwriting, at the words she’d hurriedly scrawled, and in her mind, she saw Shiro standing in the snowy garden, the wooden staff in his hand.

  I’m sorry, he had murmured, pain dimming his eyes. I didn’t realize that’s how you felt.

  Conviction was the source of strength and purity, not arbitrary rules about what food she ate or whether men touched her. Those were the walls the shrines had sealed her within so the real world would never test her.

  Yet, all this time, she had been holding on to the definition of purity instilled in her by the shrines. And though she’d chosen to love Shiro—had made that choice when she kissed him the night after their battle with Orochi—she had been holding back. She’d been torn between her feelings for him, her uncertainty about what the future held for them, and, most of all, her fear that she would fail in her duty to Amaterasu and her fate as the kamigakari.

  Loving Shiro wasn’t what was weakening her ki. It was her conflict over loving him, her doubts and fears. If she loved him without reservation, then their intimacy would pose no risk at all to her makoto no kokoro.

  And that was why he had walked away from her that night in the garden. Because he’d known that, had she truly shared the same absolute commitment to him that he felt for her, she wouldn’t have been concerned about her purity.

  So he had withdrawn, leaving her with the one thing she didn’t doubt: her commitment to her duty.

  But she didn’t begin and end with being a kamigakari. He had helped her discover she was more.

  Determination burned through her. Flipping back to the end of her final passage, she added one more thing at the bottom of the page.

  To find true makoto no kokoro, you don’t need to be in harmony with a kami. You need to be in harmony with yourself.

  Then she snapped the book shut, tossed it on top of her memento box, and jumped to her feet. Grabbing a pair of sandals from the closet, she spun toward her door, then shook her head. The banquet was probably over and the risk of someone seeing her was too great. Instead, she dashed to the window and slid the panels open. Cold air rushed in, chilling her skin.

  Her breath puffed like fog as she shoved her feet into her sandals and climbed onto the sill. Balancing on the edge, she peered at the ground, surprisingly far below, and prepared to jump.

  “What are you doing, little miko?”

  She yelped in surprise and almost fell out of the window. Clutching the frame, she looked up.

  Shiro leaned over the eave, his eyebrows high in question.

  “Wh-what are you doing up there?” she stammered, her heart still racing from fright.

  Crouched casually on the rooftop, he leaned out a little farther. “Guarding your room.”

  “What?”

  “You didn’t think we would leave you unprotected, did you?”

  “You—why—who’s we?”

  “Well, it was a group decision, but I’ve been the one doing guard duty.” He grimaced. “As Susano kindly pointed out, I don’t have any vassals or warriors to gather.”

  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

  “You were busy.” He shrugged, then looked her up and down from his perch. “So … what exactly are you doing?”

  She huffed. “I was about to go looking for you.”

  “Me? Why?”

  She climbed back inside and kicked off her sandals. “Get in here.”

  He swung down from the eave and landed in a crouch on the sill, inspecting the opulent suite.

  “Inviting me into your room so late at night, little miko.” His wicked smile bloomed. “You might give someone the wrong impression.”

  Her cheeks flushed but she pretended his suggestion didn’t affect her as she pulled on his sleeve until he stepped into the room. He still wore his extravagant clothes from the banquet, the long sleeves flowing around him, accentuating his smooth grace. She hastily shut the window to block out the cold.

  “Fancy,” he commented, stopping to study a painted scroll in the wall nook. “So these are Amaterasu’s rooms?”

  She nodded, twisting her hands together as anxiety fluttered through her. Not realizing he was right outside her room, she’d expected to have some time to plan what she wanted to say. She wasn’t ready.

  He wandered across the suite, curiously examining it. When he stopped at the foot of her bed, where her worn leather journal sat atop the plain wooden box, she hurried to join him, just in case he attempted to peek inside the book.

  He canted his head toward her. “What’s bothering you, little miko?”

  “Nothing,” she answered automatically.

  “Hmm. I’ve told you before I know when you’re lying.”

  She winced. “I need to tell you something, and I don’t think I’ll have a chance tomorrow.”

  His jaw tightened but his voice was soft. “No, probably not.”

  She sat on the edge of her futon beside her memento box. He watched her for a second, then sat as well, the box between them.

  She fidgeted with the edge of her obi. “I don’t … I don’t know how to explain this …”

  “Just say it,” he said, amused by her discomfort.

  Words piled up in her head, but none reached her mouth. And with the questions in his gaze, with the way he looked right into her soul, she couldn’t find her voice at all.

  “Close your eyes,” she said abruptly.

  “What?”

  “Close your eyes.”

  “I thought you wanted to tell me something.”

  “I do, but I can’t when you’re looking at me like that.”

  “Like what?”

  She gave him a hard stare. “Just do it.”

  He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling, then closed them obediently. Setting her memento box on the floor, she shifted closer, collecting her thoughts. His ear swiveled toward her, tracking her movements.

  “The shrines,” she began haltingly. “The shrines taught me that kami are always righteous and pure, and that yokai are corrupting and dangerous. But I don’t believe that anymore.”

  His brow wrinkled, his only reaction.

  “The shrines taught me that love would compromise my purity and that men couldn’t touch me without corrupting my makoto no kokoro. I don’t believe that anymore either.”

  His eyes flicked open. She hastily put her hands over his face before his gaze could scatter her fragile composure.

  “Just—just let me finish.” She took a deep breath, keeping her hands over his face. “The shrines taught me that my duty is to obey without question and to sacrifice whatever is asked of me. They taught me that I am the kamigakari and nothing more. I thought a kamigakari was all I could do … all I could be.”

  She grappled for the right words. How did she tell him she now understood? Without intent—without conviction or commitment—she was nothing. Not just conviction in being the kamigakari, but in herself—in her beliefs.

  And in her love.

  She leaned forward and gently brushed her lips across his. His silent inhalation sent a spark spiraling through her. Easing back, she lowered her hands.

  Bright ruby captured her, drawing her in, drowning her. Shadows and light swirled within his gaze. His fingers slid across her cheek, brushing a lock of hair away.

  “I’m sorry.” She gripped his wrist, holding his hand to her face. “I’m sorry it took me so long to realize it.”

  “Realize what?” The question was quiet, tense.

  “That I’ve never been as absolutely certain about anything as I am about loving you.”

  His eyes widened, emotion tightening his features. Then his hand relaxed, his thumb caressing her cheek, and his fai
nt smile blended tenderness with anguish.

  “Now that I’ve finally found you, why must I lose you?” His torment cut through her, rending her heart. “Every instinct I possess demands that I protect you, that I save you. But I can’t. I can’t stop this.”

  She swallowed hard. “You don’t need to save me, Shiro. I chose this fate. I am walking my own path now. You told me not to give up my life unless it would make a difference, and that time has come.”

  He closed his eyes, pain still lining his features. “I am indisputably the selfish half of this pair we make, little miko.”

  “I wish I could live forever so I would never have to leave you. I wish we could spend a thousand years on that beach without a single worry about anything.” She touched his face, turning his gaze back to hers. “If I am your fire, then you are my light.”

  His eyes burned through her, devouring her. Then his hand curled around the back of her neck, and he pulled her mouth to his.

  His lips crushed hers, fierce and demanding. He wasn’t gentle. He wasn’t careful. Instead, he kissed her as if his life depended on it. Her arms went around his neck before she even knew what was happening, and she kissed him back with the same frantic urgency.

  Hands fisted in his hair, she parted her lips for his tongue. As he deepened the kiss, warmth swept through her middle. His fingers slid down the sides of her neck and over her shoulders, his mouth still locked on hers. Pulling her hard against him, he turned and pushed her onto the futon. She gasped as he came down on top of her, his weight pressing her into the blankets.

  As the room started to spin, she tore her mouth from his and panted for air. He instantly claimed her jaw, lips trailing up to her ear then along the side of her neck. His pointed canines grazed her skin and she shivered from head to toe.

  “Shiro,” she breathed.

  He pulled away and pushed upright. Straddling her thighs while she lay beneath him, he stared down at her with glazed, scorching eyes.

  “Emi.” Her name was half moan, half growl. He leaned down again, bracing himself on his elbows on either side of her head. His mouth caught hers again, hungry and edged with desperation. “Will you … Emi, will you give yourself to me?”

 
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