Fanfic: A Cypress in Winter – Chapter 18 (Ice Fantasy - 幻城)

Chapter 18

Written By Unicorn Slippers
edited by DramaPanda

Song Bai kept up her guard as the small band of warriors fanned out in front of her, the men loping ahead while Li Luo maintained a slower pace alongside her. She tried to study the woman without being too obvious, sneaking in glances when Li Luo was distracted by one of her men or a particularly outspoken villager. She was shorter than Song Bai and had the same raven hair and chestnut eyes as the residents of this settlement, but there was something more fierce and regal about her that was indefinable. Her black leather tunic and pants hugged her form, the dusky color-scheme broken up only by her knee-high, fawn colored boots. Her shoulder armor and wrist guards were thick and heavy, and were decorated with interlocking symbols. She carried a sword in her right hand and a long, curved dirk was sheathed at her waist. She was beautiful and intimidating, and Song Bai could see why Shi’s older brother had desired her.

They led Song Bai to the opposite side of town where they had set up a permanent camp, the bright yellow pennants fluttering atop the tight cluster of tents like flock of agitated finches. Li Luo took her gently by the arm.

“Come with me,” she said, and with a subtle gesture, dismissed the rest of her party.

The men nodded in unison and turned, melting into the camp without a sound. Song Bai noted that while the male guardians had been respectful to her, they would not meet her eyes and and had kept their distance. Why did the people here act so strangely, especially the men?

Li Luo led her to the largest pavilion, a round tent with a gently sloping roof and two vermillion banners displaying the royal symbol of a phoenix and paulownia tree sketched in black ink. The interior was dimly lit with several softly shining lanterns, and the floor was littered with dense woven rugs and overstuffed silk pillows. The guardian divested herself of her weapons and lowered herself gracefully into a high backed chair, motioning for Song Bai to do the same.

“You know my name,” said Li Luo as she watched Song Bai warily sit in the chair opposite her.   “I think it’s only fair that you tell me yours, and why you are here.”

“My name is Song Bai. As I said before, I did not intend to come here. I got lost in Snow Fog Forest and was looking for shelter.”

“Why were you in Snow Fog Forest? How do you know Ying Kong Shi?” asked Li Luo, regarding Song Bai intently.  Song Bai stared back and remained mute, shifting uncomfortably under the penetrating gaze of the older woman.

Li Luo sighed. “I will not hurt you. I am the leader of the immortal guardians, and you are clearly an immortal, though not like any I’ve ever seen before. Why didn’t you disguise yourself as a mortal before coming into the village?”

Song Bai furrowed her brown in confusion. “What is a … mortal?”

Li Luo sat back in surprise. “You don’t know what a mortal is?”

Song Bai shook her head.

“We better start from the beginning,” said Li Luo, her expression a mix of exasperation and wonder.  “Where did you come from, before you got lost in Snow Fog Forest?”

“I came from the Palace at Snow Blade City. I was a guest of your brother-in-law, Ying Kong Shi.” Song Bai’s response came out a little more defensive than she intended, and she smiled in sheepish apology.

“Shi? A female guest??” Li Luo looked utterly stunned. “Has my irritable xiǎo dìdì decided to finally settle down and take a wife?”

Song Bai’s mouth fell open at the suggestion and she quickly waved her hands in denial. “No.. no.. it’s not like that at all. He offered to help my family and we are just staying at the Palace.”

Li Luo smiled as she considered Song Bai’s flustered response. “That seems out of character for him. He must want something from you.”

Song Bai shook her head emphatically. “No, he doesn’t. He hasn’t asked for anything in return and has been very generous to me and my family. He is a kind-hearted King.”

Laughter burst from Li Luo like water spilling over a ledge and she pushed herself upwards from the chair. “No, he isn’t. But, enough about Shi.”

She walked over to a small table and poured clear liquid from a plain container into two wooden mugs, reaching over to hand one to the younger woman. Song Bai cautiously took a sip and felt the spicy liquid slide down her throat and warm her midsection like the glowing embers of a waning campfire.

Li Luo sat back down, her own cup cradled in her hands. “Where are you from? You aren’t Ice Tribe, and you aren’t Fire Tribe. What type of immortal are you?”

Song Bai was still unsure if she could trust Li Luo, but she didn’t see any other choice if she was going to ask for help getting back to the gate between realms. She slowly began to tell her story, starting with Mao Jiang’s attack on Sanctuary and recounting her escape to Ice realm and her encounter with Granny, Ying Kong Shi and Xing Jiu in Snow Fog Forest. Li Luo listened quietly, her only reaction a widening of her eyes in surprise at Shi’s generosity or slight smile at Song Bai’s description of Granny. Song Bai suddenly paused, her head fuzzy and face flushed from the potent drink.

“Could we go outside for a moment? I feel very hot and need some fresh air.”

Li Luo nodded and stood, offering Song Bai a hand to stand. As they turned to exit the tent, the younger woman leaning on the guardian for support, a loud commotion arose outside. Li Luo released Song Bai and dove for her sword, but not before the tent flap blew open with an icy gale and a young man stepped inside.

Song Bai gaped, certain that the man standing before her could not be who she thought he was. She decided that she must be blind drunk from the alcohol that Li Luo had given her and that she was hallucinating.

Li Luo dropped her sword on the ground with a clatter and angrily put her hands on her hips.

“Shi, what the hell are you doing here? You know better than to sneak up on the guardians! It’s dangerous!”

Shi smirked. “Dangerous for whom?”

Song Bai looked back and forth between Li Luo and Shi, blinking dazedly as she tried to make sense of the scene playing out before her. There were a few more barbed exchanges between the two, and then Shi finally turned to assess Song Bai’s disheveled appearance. 
“What happened to you?” he demanded, eyeing her swollen lip and injured arm critically.

Song Bai blinked in confusion. The man standing before her had Shi’s angelic face, but that was where the similarities ended. His skin was a honeyed golden shade, and his hair, as lustrous as onyx stone, was pulled back on the sides and fell in a sleek curtain over his shoulders. His eyes were topaz brown, clear and luminous as he regarded her curiously. He was dressed in a simple tunic that accentuated his broad chest and narrow waist. This was not the willowy, pale Ice King from Snow Blade City, Song Bai thought. She struggled to draw her attention away from his plush lips, which were currently quirked at her in amusement.

“Did you hit your head, too?” Shi asked, snorting as he stepped closer. He took the mug out of her hand and sniffed it, making a disgusted face and thrusting the empty cup towards Li Luo.

“Why did you give her this rot?” Shi asked, sounding annoyed. “No wonder she looks like all of her sense has leaked out of her ears.” He took Song Bai’s hand and led her over to one of the chairs, gently pushing her down so that he could examine her wounds more closely.

Song Bai was still speechless, her eyes roaming over the young man’s altered appearance in lusty incredulity.

He leaned in, nearly touching noses with the stunned Earth Tribe Princess, and reached out one hand. His cool thumb touched her lower lip, rubbing the flesh tenderly as he took her eyes prisoner with his own, and she felt his sweet breath brush past the bridge of her nose. An electric tension swelled between them, the motion of his thumb pressing against her lip more insistently, nearly driving her wild as a hot passion flared in her core. As he leaned in closer, she was certain he was going to kiss her. She closed her eyes and reached forward to wrap her arms around his neck, parting her lips in eager anticipation.

Shi leaped back, startled.

“What are you doing?” he exclaimed, his eyes wide with astonishment.

The soft chuffing noise of Li Luo laughing behind them brought Song Bai back to her senses and she opened her eyes.

“Some things never change, eh xiǎo dìdì ?” said Li Luo, still laughing as she sat down cross-legged on the floor near Song Bai, arranging herself comfortably against a pile of soft pillows. There was no way she was going to miss this show.

Catching Li Luo’s double meaning, Shi shot her a venom-filled look and then turned his attention back towards Song Bai.

“I thought… I mean… You... ” she stammered, flushing a deep scarlet.

“I was healing your lip,” he said, feeling rather flustered himself but determined to hide in it front of his obnoxious sister-in-law. Song Bai had been gaping at him since he had entered the tent, and despite being disguised as a mortal, it restored some of his confidence around her.

“I’m going to heal your arm now,” he warned, with the intention of avoiding another embarrassing scene in front of Li Luo.

Song Bai nodded and Shi touched the shoulder of her injured arm, working his cold magic into the torn joints and tendons with a steady, kneading pressure from his fingertips. He unwrapped her sling and took her elbow, extending the limb fully while watching her expression.

“Better?” he asked.

Song Bai nodded dumbly, still staring slack jawed at Shi’s appearance. He sighed loudly and reached out, touching a fingertip to her forehead and releasing a small bit of magic which he hoped would sober her up. He wondered a little glumly if she would find him so mesmerizing once the effects of the drink had worn off.

She jumped at the jolt to her brain and then shook herself, blinking rapidly as the fog slowly lifted.

“Shi?  Why do you look like that?” she asked, finally finding her voice. Shi noticed with some satisfaction that her fascinated expression had not altered in the slightest.

“This is my mortal disguise. In this village, I am known as Yun Fei, a travelling artisan. Now, explain what happened in Snow Fog Forest and how you got injured.”

The words tumbled out in a rush. “Shi, I’m so sorry for running off without speaking to you first, but I had to help…”

Shi interrupted her with a shake of his head. “I know why you left and I’m not angry. Just tell me what happened in Snow Fog Forest. How did you end up here?”

Song Bai briefly described the White Stag and her tumble from the horse, her trek through the frozen forest and ended with her harrowing experience with the villagers. Shi’s expression transformed from serious to amazed.

“You mean, you didn’t disguise yourself before entering the village?” he asked, stupefied.

The Earth Tribe Princess was getting irritated with Li Luo and Shi’s vague questions and exclamations, and the frustration finally burst out of her in a hot tirade.

“No, I did not disguise myself. Why would I need to do that? I thought this was a village filled with Ice Tribe, not with… with.. violent, cruel people who wanted to tear me apart. And what is a mortal? And why do you look like… like... THAT?”

Shi looked over at Li Luo, who was leaning back on her pillows and grinning happily at him. She was really enjoying this, Shi thought sourly.

“Calm yourself, Song Bai. I’ll explain,” Shi said as he sat down in the chair opposite her and took both of her hands in his own.

“Mortals are another type of people that live in our world,” he started.

“Are they are another Tribe?” Song Bai asked impatiently.

Shi thought for a moment. “Yes, in a way, but they have no magic. They are much weaker beings than immortals, and they look to us for guidance. We are like Gods to them, and it is our responsibility to protect them.”

Li Luo snorted behind them. Shi ignored her.

“Protect them?” Song Bai cried, her temper flaring once more. “One of them tried to have his way with me, and when I protested, the entire village wanted to attack me like a pack of rabid dogs!”

Shi squeezed her hands gently and went on. “That’s because you came here undisguised. Immortals have an aura, or a magical “shine” so to speak, that affects mortals in a very unpredictable and often dangerous way. That’s why I disguise myself as Yun Fei when I visit here. I dull my magical shine so that I don’t disturb the mortals. As an injured immortal female, it likely exacerbated the situation, though the reaction you describe still seems extreme to me.”

Understanding slowly dawned on Song Bai’s face and she whispered, “Essence…”

“What is it, Song Bai? What is essence?” Shi asked.

“Essence,” responded Song Bai, looking between Shi and Li Luo. “When an Earth Tribe female goes unmated long enough, she will start to release an essence in waves, to attract males. It doesn’t cause Earth Tribe males to become violent, but it can make them more aggressive and a little… irrational if exposed to a well-matched female in heat long enough. Maybe it affected the mortals more strongly?”

Shi gazed at her in mute horror, wishing desperately that he hadn’t asked the last question.

“Did you say… heat?” asked Li Luo, her eyes wide.

Song Bai nodded and smiled hesitantly, puzzled at their shocked expressions.

Shi groaned and put a hand to his forehead, waiting for the inevitable.

“Well, that’s very...interesting, isn’t it xiǎo dìdì ?” asked Li Luo cheerfully.  “Maybe you should take care of Song Bai’s essence problem?”

“Enough, Ayi,” growled Shi, and Li Luo gasped at the insult, throwing her mug across the room which bounced enthusiastically off of his shin.  He ignored Li Luo’s continued protests and kept his attention on Song Bai.

“Can you use your magic to disguise yourself?”

Song Bai shrugged. “It’s usually no problem to work a simple transformation spell, but the trees here are so dormant that it is hard to pull magic from them without causing harm. Any spell I can weave from their magic won’t hold for long anyway.”

“It’s fine,” responded Shi. “I’ll do it.” He stood and lifted one hand, making a gesture with his fingers that resulted in a shower of blue flame and crackling white hot sparks. He pushed his palm forward and the flames expanded, enveloping Song Bai as she yelped in surprise and fright. The flames disappeared almost instantly, and Shi leaned down to inspect his handiwork.

“I am not going to kiss you,” he said, eyeing Song Bai suspiciously before putting his fingers on her chin and lifting her head.  Song Bai made a face at him and he laughed.

Her brunette hair had darkened, the amber and mahogany streaks having deepened to a rich chocolate hue. Her wild curls, so frequently escaping their ribbons to frame her delicate face were now tamed into a glossy dark waterfall, the top and sides drawn up in a coiled braid that was studded with tiny silk cherry blossoms. Shi felt his heart begin its familiar, frantic pace when he looked into her eyes, the startling sea-glass green now replaced by a warm, tawny brown with yellow-gold flecks. She had maintained her petite stature, but her already generous curves had rounded into a silhouette that was even more inviting. Shi swallowed hard.

“You are still going to attract attention,” he croaked hoarsely.

“By the God’s seven filthy, illegitimate children,” Li Luo exclaimed loudly. “Get a room.”

His golden skin flushing dark with embarrassment, Shi released Song Bai’s chin and whirled to face his sister-in-law.

“I’ve had enough of your insolence today. Li Luo. Kasuo’s wife or not, I am your King. You will treat me with respect!”

Li Luo stood from her position on the floor and regarded him quietly for a long moment, her former teasing mood replaced instantly with something more tense and brooding. This was the Shi that Li Luo knew: proud, arrogant, and vaguely threatening. She knew that her brother-in-law was up to something. The only use he had for women was when he needed them for something, and even then he barely tolerated them.

“Song Bai can stay with me tonight,” said Li Luo finally. “She’s obviously in need of some rest. You can collect her in the morning and take her back to the palace in Snow Blade City.”

Shi grasped Song Bai’s wrist and pulled her upwards, his arm wrapping protectively around one shoulder. She let out a small squeak of surprise at the unexpected contact between their bodies.

“We won’t be leaving the village for a few days and she will stay with me. Have your guardians watch the villagers closely.  If it looks like Song Bai’s presence is beginning to agitate them, we will leave.”

Li Luo began to protest. “She shouldn’t be with you at night unchaperoned, Shi. It isn’t appropriate…”

“I am the King,” said Shi smugly, “I’ll decide what is appropriate.” 

Song Bai opened her mouth to speak but Shi immediately turned and pulled her gently towards the exit to the tent. She hesitated for a moment, dragging her feet, until he looked over his shoulder and gave her a questioning smile, his anger now abated.

Her eyes drank in those clear, beautiful almond shaped eyes, the high cheekbones and full, pouty lips. Song Bai looked back at Li Luo and shrugged helplessly, letting Shi lead her out of the tent and into the night.

Li Luo stared after them, dumbfounded. Maybe they were going to get a room, she thought, shaking her head at the thought of her awkward brother-in-law trying to romance a woman.

She left her tent and joined her fellow guardians at the campfire, relaying Shi’s order to watch the villagers and their interactions with the two disguised immortals. As she sat with her men and shared a drink, she felt a lump of unease lay heavy in the pit of her stomach. As she drained the last of her cup, she resolved to find out more about this Earth Tribe Princess and what exactly Shi might want with her.