Fanfic: A Cypress in Winter – Chapter 9 (Ice Fantasy - 幻城)

Chapter 9

Written By UnicornSlippers
Editing By Drama Panda, Charistia, SakiVI

Song Bai pressed her back against the closed door of her room, the rattling boom from the forceful slam still reverberating in her ears. She squeezed her eyes shut and struggled to slow her breathing. There was too much happening all at once and her head was swimming, filled with images of raging fires consuming Sanctuary, Xun Ru’s hurt expression, and the Ice King’s chameleon eyes. She was shattered with worry and fatigue and yearned for her father’s warm embrace. Although it was already mid-morning, she decided to lay down and try to get some rest.

As she fought back the panic threatening to sweep over her, Song Bai removed the immoderate gown she was wearing and tossed it in a corner. She rummaged through the clothing she had been given, choosing a plain, comfortable sleeping gown instead of the diaphanous garment she had worn the night before. She crawled into the nest of white pillows and blankets piled high upon her bed and snuggled deep into the soft cushions. She would remain here all day if it meant not speaking to another person, especially Xun Ru or Ying Kong Shi. She needed time to think.

Where was Xun Ru’s head, declaring love in one breath and then lashing out with a grisly fiction about her father being killed in the next? How had he expected her to react to such lies? He claimed that he loved her, but she didn’t believe that for a moment. He didn’t even know her. Xun Ru loved himself, swordcraft, and drink, in that order.

But... that kiss…

Song Bai rolled over, pulling the myriad of pins and crystals out of her hair as she stared at the ornately carved slate ceiling panels and sighed deeply. She had fantasized about Xun Ru ever since she was old enough to notice him, the striking and rebellious captain of the palace guard. He was older than her and devastatingly handsome, commanding every woman’s attention when he entered a room. She had often dreamed about him whisking her away to the King’s Star Pear orchard at night and touching her in forbidden places under the shadowy moonlight. She had ached for his skillful hands on her body, taken with the idea that he was an experienced, mature man. Xun Ru could surely teach her things that the spoiled noble palace boys could not.

But, as Song Song Bai matured, so did her aspirations for a lover. While the thought of Xun Ru in her bed was deliciously exciting, she wasn’t the type of woman who would throw away her virtue recklessly. Xun Ru was destructive and impulsive. He also had a selfish streak that often resulted in him putting his own desires above everyone else and he wasn’t above bullying people to get his way. Song Bai had a very low tolerance for bullies. And, there was no question that her father would never allow her to marry a man of her choosing, especially one of low birth. As a concubine’s daughter, and being younger than her two sisters, she was destined to be married off to the highest bidder; A boring, rich noble who could offer some power or advantage to her family.

Perhaps little of this mattered after the war with Fire Tribe, but Song Bai still had lingering concerns about Xun Ru. After getting to know him better the past few days, she thought that the most troubling aspect of his personality was his simmering resentment for all nobility. It was difficult for her to rationalize why he had chosen to protect the same people that he held a lifelong grudge against, and it made her wonder if he had ulterior motives. How could he love her if he hated what she represented and who she was?

Xun Ru appeared to be a man who refused to grow beyond his circumstances, allowing his past to keep him shackled to a life of mediocrity. Right now he had the opportunity to become a hero in spite of himself, for Earth Tribe, and instead he wanted to run away. Song Bai could not deny that she had a powerful lust for him and she had wanted more when they had been in the barracks together, but she did not love him. She would not give herself to someone who would resent her later because of her family, and she wouldn’t help Xun Ru continue to sabotage himself either. He would have to find his own way in this new world without her.

Her thoughts finally turned to the inscrutable Ying Kong Shi and their interaction in the corridor of Mirage Hall. It was obvious that the Ice Tribe King and Xun Ru had no love for one another, but Xun Ru was her charge and responsibility. Although they were guests in his palace, she thought it was highly inappropriate for Shi to aggressively question her about her discussions with one of her own men. She had been deeply embarrassed that he had seen her gown unlaced, a fact which could not have gone unnoticed. If he had possessed any tact at all, he would have accepted her explanation and not made such a fuss over his own imagined scenario.

Despite being riled by his oddly protective outburst, Song Bai was intrigued by the young King and his mysterious magical abilities. Xing Jiu had told her that Shi was the most powerful of all of the immortals in this realm, wielding a rare ice-flame magic that no other living being possessed. That would explain some of his arrogance, thought Song Bai sourly as she ran one hand through her tangled curls and then cocooned herself in a soft, fuzzy blanket.

The abrupt change in his eye-color had been both frightening and exciting to her. Normally an intense azure blue, she had seen them shift to a metallic rust color at the same time that she had felt the magical discharge of glacial air hit her in the face. His magic had felt strange, a sharp, compressed power that was cold and unyielding, but it had also felt protective and safe. She wondered if all Ice Tribe immortals shifted eye color when they were angry, and resolved to ask Xing Jiu about it the next time she saw him. Song Bai yawned sleepily. She began to drift off, cozy in her blankets as her mind kept replaying the scene in the hallway with Ying Kong Shi. Right before she fell asleep, she wondered why she kept getting stuck on the part where he had smiled at her and teased her about her dress. She thought that he looked very sweet when he smiled...

Shi stood outside on his balcony, gazing out over the bright, snowflake-dusted landscape. As he waited for Wu Zan to arrive with Xing Jiu and ZhanShi, he fret silently to himself.

Did Song Bai truly have feelings for Xun Ru? He was entirely unsuitable, Shi huffed to himself. Song Bai was young and vulnerable, and Xun Ru had surely taken advantage of her in a weak moment. He had also tried to manipulate her by using her love for her father against her, and this made Shi very angry. He knew what it was like to lose a parent at a young age. His mother may have been selfish and calculating, but she had loved him and he missed her every day.

The entire affair was infuriating and it made Shi want to pick his sword back up and go challenge the imbecile to a duel.

But, this outrage at Xun Ru also troubled Shi. Why should he care about what Song Bai did or who she had romantic inclinations towards? He barely knew her, but she seemed quite capable of handling her own people. He did not understand his protective, and occasionally amorous feelings towards her. Shi had never had time for starry-eyed sentiment towards women. He could appreciate their beauty, and he intended to marry one someday, but for purely practical purposes. He would find a wife of satisfactory family background and father an heir, as was his duty to Ice Tribe. His only hope had been to find a woman to marry that didn’t annoy him to distraction.

The closest he had ever come to romance had been with Yan Da, the feisty Fire Tribe Princess who had given her life to save him ten years prior. Yan Da had professed her love to him several times, but he could not bring himself to reciprocate when she had pressed him on his feelings. His relationship with Yan Da had been complicated. He had first been her prisoner, then her enemy, and finally her best friend. He had cared for her, and felt protective of her, but he had not felt the same intensity of feeling and desire for her that he felt for Song Bai. He had deep regrets about what had happened with Yan Da before her death, but declining to become entangled in a romantic relationship with her wasn’t one of them.

Shi’s energy had always been reserved for Kasuo, before and after his death. His brother had unfailingly protected him and always treated him as an equal, not like a son of a concubine as the others had. He owed it to his brother to set aside his puzzling behavior towards this Earth Tribe Princess and focus on finding the Blood Red Lotus. His only interest in Song Bai needed to be the mark on her shoulder and how it could help him find the artifact. Nothing more. He resolved to not let anything distract him from his purpose, including the beautiful, green-eyed princess staying in a room just down the hallway from him.

Shi grumbled as he tried to push thoughts of Song Bai from his head and stalked back into his bedroom. He let his breath out in relief as, at just that moment, Wu Zan arrived with the Ice Tribe captain of the guard, Zhanshi, in tow.

“Where is Xing Jiu?” Shi asked impatiently.

“My apologies, your Highness,” Wu Zan replied. “I could not find him. I had several servants search the entire palace, but he has not been located.”

Shi’s mood darkened further as he began to suspect where Xing Jiu may have gone. He would have his ears for this…

“Your Highness,” said Zhanshi, stepping forward to kneel and bow, showing his deep respect for the King. “I know we have not met before, but I have heard stories of your great deeds in the last war with Fire Tribe. I am honored to serve you.”

Shi smiled wryly. He was certain that whichever of his deeds Zhanshi had apprised of by Ice Tribe, they had not been described as great.

“I have also heard of your bravery and military skill, Zhanshi. I am pleased to have you as the captain of my guard. You may rise.”

Zhanshi stood, a full head taller than Shi and twice as broad. He was a formidable figure clad in formal combat armor, a silver metal helmet topped with an enormous blue-grey plume under his right arm. The decorative scabbard strapped to his sword belt cradled a long ceremonial sword, the ivory handle carved with intricate Ice Tribe power symbols.

Shi thought he was overdressed for the occasion, but said nothing.

“I have a very important mission for you, Zhanshi,” Shi began. “I am sure you have been informed about Mao Jiang and his attack on another realm where immortals called Earth Tribe live. He has overrun the palace in a city they call Sanctuary, and I want to find out what he is planning next. Take two of your best men and go through the gate into Earth Tribe territory. Disguise yourselves as Fire Tribe. Do not engage in any warfare, and do not get caught. I don’t want to give Mao Jiang a reason to attack Ice Tribe. This is an information gathering exercise only.”

Zhanshi put one hand to his chest and bowed, “Yes, your Highness!”

“Zhanshi,” Shi continued. “I also want to know the status of the Earth Tribe royal family, in particular the Earth Tribe King. Find out if he is still alive and then report back to me immediately.”

“Yes, your Highness!” Zhanshi repeated.

“You are dismissed,” Shi stated flatly, and Zhanshi turned, stiffly exiting the room.

“He’s a dull sort of fellow, isn’t he?” Wu Zan asked from his position in the corner of the room behind Shi. Shi whirled, startled that Wu Zan was still present.

“Why are you still here, Wu Zan?” Shi asked, his tone irritated. “Shouldn’t you be looking for Xing Jiu?”

“I think we both know where Xing Jiu has gone,” replied Wu Zan cheerfully, causing Shi to grit his teeth in annoyance.

“I think you are speaking to your King too informally, Wu Zan.” Shi narrowed his eyes dangerously.

Wu Zan bowed deeply, training his eyes to the floor. “My apologies, your Majesty. I forgot my manners.”

“You seem to be forgetting your manners often,” Shi said. “Don’t let it happen again.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” Wu Zan said quietly. “I am truly sorry.”

Shi walked over to his sword, perched in its stand and looking deadly as the sunlight streaming through the windows winked off of its sharp edges. He stroked the handle as he thought about Xun Ru again, itching to test his skills against the Earth Tribe fool.

“Will you still challenge Xun Ru?” asked Wu Zan, curiosity getting the better of him.

Shi grimaced and paused for a long moment. “I don’t know. I want to.”

“Why, your Majesty?” Wu Zan asked. “Song Bai seemed receptive to his attentions, for the most part.”

Shi glowered. “It is unseemly! He is a soldier of low birth and she is the daughter of a King! He should have never presumed…” Shi trailed off, confused again at the force of his emotion and tried to gain control of his rising anger.

“But your Highness,” Wu Zan asked innocently. “Didn’t your brother Kasuo marry a mortal woman who was an orphan of unknown parentage? Didn’t you argue with the former Ice Tribe King in favor of their union?”

Shi’s cheeks flushed and he growled, eyes flashing. “Wu Zan…”

“Apologies, your Highness!” Wu Zan cried, falling to the floor and prostrating himself in front of Shi. “Please don’t be angry. It was just a question.”

“Stop asking questions and keep your opinions to yourself,” Shi shot back.

A long, awkward silence ensued, Wu Zan remaining on the floor, face pressed to the cold tiles and Shi stood staring down at him austerely.

Finally Shi spoke. “Get up, Wu Zan. Go to Song Bai’s room and tell her that she is invited to have dinner with me on the West Terrace tonight. She can wear the gown I had delivered to her room this morning.”

“Yes, your Highness,” intoned Wu Zan. “Again, my apologies for my disobedience.” Wu Zan got up and quickly left the room, bowing several time as he backed out the door.

Shi watched him go, not believing for a moment that Wu Zan was sorry or that every word he said didn’t have some hidden purpose behind it. He finally snorted in amusement, thinking that Wu Zan might actually make a decent advisor.

It was a good thing, because he might just kill Xing Jiu the next time he laid eyes on him.