Fanfic: A Cypress in Winter – Chapter 4 (Ice Fantasy - 幻城)

Chapter 4

Written by UnicornSlippers
Consultation by Charistia
Editing by SakiVI

Shi and Xing Jiu emerged from a burst of churning magical energy into the frozen landscape of Snow Fog forest. Xing Jiu immediately fell forward into the snow, the contents of his stomach ejecting forcefully as he emitted a weak groan. Shi laughed impishly as he patted his advisor on the shoulder. Xing Jiu always got nauseated from his teleportation spells, but Shi was annoyed with his constant meddling. Xing Jiu had wanted to come home, so Shi had granted him his wish. Maybe he would think twice before trying to bribe Shi with Ka Suo’s name in the future.
Still smiling, Shi spoke quietly to Xing Jiu. “You deserved that…”

Shi heard the soft whinny of a horse and turned, Xing Jiu forgotten as his face arranged itself into a mask of cool displeasure as he saw a group of strangers surrounding Granny. These people were not from any Tribe he had seen before. They were clothed in dark earth toned leather, heavily armed with swords and bows, and they had a wild, savage look about them. Although Granny didn’t appear to be in any distress, Shi readied a defensive spell and started walking towards them.

As he approached, he noticed a young woman standing nearest to Granny. Her hair was a deep, burnished color, long chocolate curls shot through with amber. It lay in billowing waves around her pale, solemn face. Her wide eyes were a deep, clear green and held his gaze boldly, though he could see the fear in them as well. He surveyed her fawn colored boots, heavy riding gown and velvet lined cloak. This unflinching young woman was no commoner, Shi thought, her noble bearing and confidence mirrored in his own attitude as he approached.

A substantial, coarse looking man moved forward suddenly, stepping in front of the young woman and putting his hand on the pommel of his sword in a threatening gesture. Shi did not break his stride, an amused, derisive gleam in his eye as he bore down upon them. This brash fool was clearly her personal guard, and he could guess that the men now taking an aggressive stance behind her were also guards. Shi stopped in front of him, his body humming with magic and the air crackling with the promise of violence. They stared hard at each other. The young woman finally stepped forward and put her hand on the guard’s arm.

“Xun Ru, stand down.” she said, her voice quiet but thick with authority.

Xun Ru ignored her and continued stroking the handle of his sword, his flinty gaze daring Shi to make the first move.

“Xun Ru!” the young woman said more loudly. “I said stand down. Now.”

Xun Ru blinked and turned towards the woman, his mouth set in a hard line as something silent passed between them. Shi heard him growl softly in frustration as he stepped back, taking his hand off of his sword but still eyeing Shi with open hostility. Shi smirked and turned his attention towards the young woman.

“Who are you?” he asked bluntly.

The girl regarded him, her bright eyes sweeping him from head to toe, and she lifted her chin. “We are from Earth Tribe. I am Princess Song Bai, third daughter of the Earth Tribe King, and we have come here seeking help from Ice Tribe. I would like an audience with your King.”

Shi glanced over at Granny and she chortled, waving her staff around and nodding at him as if they shared some secret. Shi shook his head at her, perplexed, and turned back to Song Bai.

“I am the Ice Tribe King, Ying Kong Shi", he stated calmly, making a point to issue the declaration while staring directly at her ill-mannered guard, Xun Ru.

A collective gasp arose from the assembled party, and all but Granny, the three Earth Tribe Princesses and Xun Ru fell to their knees, heads bowed in deep respect. Song Bai’s sisters immediately dismounted and though they did not kneel, they bowed deeply, exchanging worried looks with one another. Song Bai, appearing conflicted and apprehensive, formally greeted Ying Kong Shi as well, although her gesture was more subdued. As she inclined her head towards the Ice King, one supple boot shot out to kick Xun Ru hard in the shin. Xun Ru growled again and bowed stiffly.

Although he usually didn’t insist on formalities, Shi was extremely annoyed by this man they called Xun Ru. He thought briefly about freezing his irritating, oversized head in a block of ice and leaving it that way for a century or two.

“Rise.” said Shi, waving his hand dismissively at them. “What exactly do you ask of Ice Tribe?”

At just that moment, Xing Jiu stumbled up, kicking snow all over Shi’s boots. Xing Jiu’s face was a sickly grey pallor, but his clothing and hair remained curiously undisturbed despite his ordeal. Shi gave him a dirty look and stomped his feet, knocking off the wet mess.

“Your Highness,” said Song Bai, her eyes now cast down respectfully, choosing to ignore the well-groomed man who had just appeared. “Fire Tribe has invaded our lands and subjugated our people. My sisters and I have fled our palace and are seeking shelter from Mao Jiang and his Fire Tribe soldiers.”

Shi turned and saw two timid looking women standing near their horses just in front of a magical gate composed of light and energy. This must be the opening between realms that Granny had told Xing Jiu about, he thought. He could see a moon dappled forest beyond the threshold shrouded in shadows and a misty haze. The two women watching him were nothing like the self-assured, striking young woman standing in front of him. These two looked more like a pair of frightened rabbits than noble daughters of a King. Shi snorted at their alarmed expressions and turned back towards Song Bai.

He paused for a long moment, as if considering her request, and then shook his head. “No.” His tone was mild but definite. Xing Jiu turned towards Shi and started to say something, but Shi put up his hand in warning. Xing Jiu closed his mouth and sighed.

Song Bai bowed again, dark hair falling around her face like a curtain. Her voice was more urgent this time, almost on the edge of panic. “Highness, if you just let me explain...”

“No.” Shi said again, his tone unchanged. “Ice Tribe has fought two wars with Fire Tribe in the last 100 years. If we shelter your people, Fire Tribe will see this as a declaration against them and will attack. I will not put my people in that position just to help a handful of impolite strangers.” Shi gave Xun Ru a contemptuous look at this last statement. Xun Ru returned the sentiment with a look of his own.

Xing Jiu opened his mouth again and started to protest, but Shi was prepared this time and flicked his hand, literally freezing the words in Xing Jiu’s throat.

“Silence!” Shi said in warning to Xing Jiu. Xing Jiu coughed forcefully, pawing at his throat as the spell temporarily froze his larynx. He had heard the threat in Shi’s voice, however, and nodded mutely in acquiescence.

Song Bai watched the exchange, growing more distressed with each moment. She stepped forward to implore the young Ice Tribe King again to help her people, and her foot hit a glittering patch of slick ice. She pitched forward unceremoniously and yelped as her knees struck the hard, frozen ground.

Several men immediately lunged towards her to assist, and she found herself with the Ice Tribe King on one side and Xun Ru on the other. The two men glared at each other across her prone body and her cheeks flamed with embarrassment. Song Bai shrugged Xun Ru’s hand off of her arm and allowed King Ying Kong Shi to help her stand.

“I beg your pardon, Highness,” she mumbled, her cheeks growing even more pink as she brushed the snow from her gown.

Shi still had his hand on her arm, and now that he was so close he found himself transfixed by the color of her eyes. He had never seen eyes so clear and green, not unlike the color of rare Infinity Ocean sea glass. Her fair complexion was suffused with a soft, rose petal blush and he was momentarily speechless, all words and sense leaving him as he studied her enchanting face.

An awkward silence followed, until Song Bai finally withdrew her arm gently from Shi’s grasp. Unsettled by the King’s intense regard, she nervously brushed the dark, spiraling tendrils of hair back from her face and her riding gown slipped a little from one shoulder, revealing a red mark on her pale skin in the shape of a tiny flower. The sight of the scarlet blossom standing out against her translucent skin further mesmerized Shi, and he reached towards her to brush his finger against it.

He started as if suddenly slapped, pulled from his trance by the sound of ringing metal as Xun Ru forcefully pulled his sword from its scabbard and leveled it at Shi’s face.

“Step back, Highness.” Xun Ru said through gritted teeth.

Xing Jiu stepped forward quickly, finding his voice as he put up his hands and tried to diffuse the precarious situation. “Everyone please stay calm.” he said, glancing worriedly at Shi. “There is no need for violence.”

Shi pulled his hand back slowly, shaking his head to clear his muddled thoughts. What had this woman done to make him behave so strangely? Had she cast some Earth magic spell that he was unable to detect? He quickly regained his composure, hiding his discomfort with a neutral expression as he stepped back and glanced again at Song Bai. She was attractive, of that there was no doubt, but these things were of no concern to him. What did concern him, however, was the mark on her shoulder shaped exactly like a blood red lotus.

Although Xun Ru had deeply insulted him, Shi was chagrined at his own behavior and he decided to let it pass. He raised an eyebrow at the jumpy guard, affecting an unconcerned attitude as the tip of the sharp blade still wavered in the air in front of him. Song Bai hurriedly pulled up the shoulder of her gown and hissed at Xun Ru to put his sword away. Xun Ru obeyed, albeit reluctantly.

“All right,” said Shi. “We will help you. Snow Blade City is half a day’s ride from here. If we leave now we can get there before nightfall.”

Song Bai’s mouth fell open in shock. The young King’s constantly shifting moods completely disoriented her. She could hardly believe that he was suddenly willing to help them, especially after Xun Ru had threatened the King’s life. She steadied herself and nodded at Ying Kong Shi wordlessly, accepting his offer. Her people had no choice but to follow this unpredictable young ruler in the hope that he would protect them from Mao Jiang and his horde of bloodthirsty warriors.

As the Ice King walked away to quietly confer with his companion and Granny, Song Bai ordered her guards to ready the horses. It was time to ride to Snow Blade City.