Red Winter:The Red Winter Trilogy book 1

By: Annette Marie

THE RED WINTER TRILOGY: BOOK 1





Dear Reader,

The Red Winter trilogy was inspired by the rich and varied mythology of Japan. Though based on a unique, captivating, and very real country and culture, the world within these pages is a fantasy of my own creation.



I hope you enjoy the tale to come!



Annette Marie





A NOTE ABOUT NAMES

A full glossary of names and terms, including pronunciations and definitions, is provided at the back of the book.

A spoiler-free pronunciation guide for character names and key terms, listed in order of appearance in the book, can also be found just before the glossary.



Use the Table of Contents to visit the guide and glossary.





CHAPTER 1


Emi stood at the head of the path. Somewhere among the trees was the shrine where she would spend her last two months as a mere mortal.

Behind her, the car she’d exited rumbled quietly, the humming of the engine the only sound in the still air. The dirt road wound up the gentle slope of the mountain, but the heavy blanket of colorful leaves suggested it was seldom travelled beyond this point. Thick tree trunks lined the road like a towering fence, the barrier broken only by the path just beyond her toes.

A car door slammed and she started, tearing her eyes from the dark corridor through the trees. Her escort opened the trunk and pulled out two simple suitcases. He walked around the car and dropped them in the dirt beside her with a thud. She frowned at her luggage, then at her escort.

“Thank you, Akio,” she said politely anyway.

The path drew her gaze back. A chill breeze rushed across her, tugging at her long hair, and her breath puffed out in a white haze. It was only mid-autumn but the wind had the cold taste of winter. Gray clouds stretched between the rolling mountain peaks, dimming the late afternoon light.

Leaves rustled and crunched beneath approaching footsteps. Emi smoothed her hair and shook out the long, billowing sleeves of her kimono so they hung more gracefully. As she folded her hands neatly in front of her, three figures materialized out of the shadows and hurried down the path.

The group was led by an elderly man with weathered skin and a wide smile. His dark purple robes—the traditional garb of a kannushi, a priest of the shrine—fluttered about him with minimal dignity. He rushed toward her, arms outstretched, but before she could panic that he might try to embrace her, he shuffled to a stop and dipped into a deep, respectful bow.

“My lady!” His crackling voice warbled with excitement. “It is an honor, such an honor. Welcome to Shirayuri Shrine. Our home is small and humble—nothing like you’re accustomed to, I’m sure—but everything we have is yours to—”

The car door slammed again, cutting the kannushi off. Emi turned, bewildered to see Akio back in the driver’s seat. The engine revved as he pulled a sharp U-turn and accelerated back down the road. Heat rushed into her face as she gaped after the vehicle. She spun back to face the kannushi.

“My apologies for the rudeness of my escort,” she stammered. “I—I’m not sure …”

She trailed off, at a loss to explain away Akio’s humiliatingly abrupt departure. She didn’t want to tell them he’d been dying to get rid of her for six months. Babysitting, as she’d heard him call it, didn’t suit him.

The kannushi waved his hands. “Not a worry, my lady. I’m well acquainted with the eccentricities of the sohei. They aren’t chosen for their perfect manners, are they, Minoru?”

He cast a good-natured smile over his shoulder at the other man who’d accompanied him. Minoru’s pleasant, open expression lessened the subtle air of threat he carried—not helped by his wooden staff, topped with a foot-long blade. But Emi was used to the armed and deadly sohei. She had nothing to fear from the shrine guardians.

The kannushi gestured widely. “But let me perform the introductions so we can quit standing here in the chilly wind! My lady, I am Fujimoto Hideyoshi, kannushi of the Shirayuri Shrine. Minoru here was trained by the best and his sole duty is to ensure your safety, as you know.”

She offered Minoru a small smile in greeting, which he returned. She relaxed a little. Maybe he wouldn’t resent her the way Akio had. Maybe this shrine would be better than the last one.

“And this,” Fujimoto continued, indicating the woman beside Minoru, “is the lovely Nanako, our esteemed miko of nearly twenty years.”

Almost all shrines had at least one miko—a shrine maiden who assisted the kannushi. Nanako stood primly beside Minoru, her hands folded into the wide sleeves of her white kimono. Her red hakama—pleated, wide-legged pants—were as much a part of her uniform as the kimono. Emi wore the exact same uniform—with one minor difference. Nanako’s garments were worn and threadbare, the colors duller than they should have been and interrupted by thin, carefully stitched repairs. Emi’s, on the other hand, were of the finest material, the white as pure as fresh snow and the crimson hakama as vibrant as the red spider lily that grew wild in the forests and meadows of the mountains.

Emi attempted another smile, but Nanako merely nodded, the motion jerky and her brown eyes unfriendly. Emi swallowed a sigh. Maybe this shrine wouldn’t be any better after all. But it didn’t really matter; this was the last time. In two months, she would be gone, and the enmity of a miko, or any human for that matter, would no longer concern her.