Fanfic: A Cypress in Winter – Chapter 15 (Ice Fantasy - 幻城)

Chapter 15

written by UnicornSlippers
edited by DramaPanda

Xing Jiu sat at a plain wooden desk in his room, bent over a book he had retrieved from the Imperial Library earlier in the day.  The manuscript was bound in bronzed leather, cracked and dry with age, and smelled faintly of mold and dust.  The original stitching was barely holding it together, but the words written on the spine were still clearly visible: Descendents and Guardians: A History of the Ancient Clans.   He sat back in his chair and stretched, bleary-eyed from scanning pages for several hours for any mention of the Blood Red Lotus or Earth Tribe.  Predictably, he had found nothing, and he rubbed his temples in frustration as he considered returning to the Library for more research.

The world abruptly turned upside down as he was suddenly launched into the air and sent tumbling like a leaf in a blizzard to the far side of the room.  He crashed into stone, a frosty magical noose around his neck, the cord pulled so tight that he gasped for air like a fish out of water.  As he came to his senses, he saw that the other end of his binding was tethered to a very angry looking Shi, his eyes glittering with a metallic malevolence.  Good. He knows, thought Xing Jiu defiantly as he fought against the magic that had him pinned immobile against the wall.

The magic loosened its hold on him slightly and Shi walked forward, his eyes boring a hole into Xing Jiu’s soul.

“Why?” Shi asked, his voice deadly calm and soft, belying the rage that Xing Jiu could see imprinted on the Ice King’s face.

Xing Jiu coughed and stood, boldly facing Shi down as he approached.

“Why, what?  I did what you asked,” said Xing Jiu, lifting his chin and struggling to hide his fear.

“I did not ask for this!  Why, Xing Jiu?  Why Song Bai and Xun Ru?” Shi spat, coming nose to nose with the Dream Master, his words accompanied by a glacial breath that froze the Dream Master’s eyelashes as it  whispered past his face.

Xing Jiu felt his knees go weak and he fought the urge to fall to the ground and beg for forgiveness. He had never seen Shi so incensed and full of wrath.  He clung to the image of Lan Shang in his mind like a drowning man gripping a bit of floating debris.  With a mighty effort, he mustered his courage and looked Shi directly in the eye.

“You asked me for help, your Highness.  With Song Bai’s attention focused elsewhere, you can attend to our mission to save your brother.  She is a distraction,” said Xing Jiu, echoing Shi’s previous excuse for separating him from Lan Shang.

Shi’s eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. “Ah, so there it is.  You are punishing me for separating you from your lover?  Who gave you the authority to teach me a lesson just because you didn’t get your way?  You are neither my kin nor my superior.  You are to obey my will, without question, because I am your King.”

“You are no King,” Xing Jiu spat, his voice shaking with a mix of fear and fury.  “You are a brat on a power trip, so obsessed with your own machinations that you will ruin the lives of anyone that gets in your way.  You don’t deserve Song Bai, and I think Kasuo would be ashamed of you.”

Xing Jiu felt his heart skip several beats, shocked that he had allowed the angry thoughts buzzing around in his head to tumble from his lips.  He braced himself for the inevitable blast of power that would reduce him to a smouldering pile of ash.

Shi stepped back, his expression quickly shifting to something blank and unreadable.   He withdrew the magic from around Xing Jiu’s throat and turned away.

“You have conspired against your King and Ice Tribe and you are no longer worthy of my trust.  I remove you from your duty as my advisor. I hope Lan Shang was worth your life.”

Shi stalked out of the room without another word.

Xing Jiu let out a colossal whoosh of air as he slumped to the floor, his head spinning.  He sat for several minutes, trying to steady himself and understand what had just transpired.  He knew that Shi would be upset with him for working his dream magic on Song Bai and Xun Ru, but he hadn’t expected him to be so enraged.  He must truly be in love with the Earth Tribe Princess.

He was still stunned that he had spoken with such daring frankness, but it was nothing more than the truth.  Shi would destroy everyone around him with his scheming, and Xing Jiu no longer wanted any part of it.  After so many years of searching without a single clue, he was convinced that Blood Red Lotus didn’t exist.  Song Bai’s birthmark was just a birthmark.  It was time to move on.

It was no matter, thought Xing Jiu, as he stood and brushed off his dark violet colored robe.  Now that he was relinquished of his duties as the King’s advisor, he would be free to join Lan Shang at Seven Bay Island.   They could marry and live peacefully, tucked away together in the middle of Infinity Ocean and far removed from Shi and the politics of Snow Blade City.

He strode towards the door, hope blossoming as he imagined the possibilities awaiting him in the Mermaid Kingdom with Lan Shang.  As he stepped through the opening, a pair of wicked looking silver pikes crossed in front of him, blocking his path.

“What is the meaning of this?” he growled at the two Ice Tribe guards that were stationed on either side of his door.

“The King has ordered us to prevent you from leaving your room,” one of them responded in a stern tone. “Step back.”

“He … what??” Xing Jiu intoned, his face a mask of shock and consternation.   The guard waved the pike at him with a menacing gesture.

“I said, step back. Now.”

Xing Jiu shuffled back into the chamber and sat down heavily at his desk, his mind pouring over each word that Shi had said during their altercation.  He examined every expression and livid comment, like water washing over pebbles in a stream, trying to understand why Shi had made him a prisoner in his own room.  A lump of unease finally uncoiled itself in the pit of his stomach as he recalled Shi’s last words before he had departed:

I hope Lan Shang was worth your life.
 Song Bai stood shivering in the chill air of the practice yard, her bow abandoned on a slick patch of ice and her arrows scattered around her like dry kindling on the frozen ground.  Now that Shi had confirmed what Xing Jiu had told her, she had a decision to make.  Should she wait here for Xun Ru to return with her father, or should she leave Snow Blade City and try to join the rescue party in Earth realm?

She carefully considered her options as she began to gather up her archery kit.  Xun Ru and the Ice Tribe guards had a day and a half head start,and it was unlikely that she would be able to catch up with them before they entered Sanctuary.  Although she was a skilled fighter, traveling alone in the Fire Tribe besieged city would be exceptionally dangerous.  If she was caught, she would not be able to win a contest against a significant number of soldiers on her own.

No, it was best that she wait.  She would have to trust that Xun Ru would bring her father back safely to her.

She shouldered her bow and began to walk back to the palace, the problem twisting and turning in her mind like a willow in a gale.  She was unsatisfied, and the thought of sitting idly with her hands folded in her lap began to gnaw at her conscious.  She was suddenly startled out of her contemplation by the faint trilling of birdsong, the melodic sound making her heart ache with homesickness.

Ice realm was stunning, the land around her glistening as if the entire world had been painted with with magical, iridescent dust.  But it also felt severe and unforgiving, the cold beauty hinting at a cruelty that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. She missed the way the leaves glowed in the forest of her homeland, the sunlight muted to a dim luminescence as it passed through the canopy arching high overhead.  She longed for the dark lushness of the ancient trees, winding like a backbone through the woods, and the feel of her boots crunching through the brittle brown brushwood underfoot.

Her face lit up like polished amber as an idea suddenly took root in her mind. While she knew crossing over into Earth realm alone was foolhardy, she could wait for Xun Ru and her father in Snow Fog forest just on the other side of the portal.   While she wouldn’t be able to experience the sweet, surrendering scent of morning dew or feel the warm earth beneath her fingers, she would be able to see her beloved forest through the gate.  That would have to be enough for now.

She could set up camp and be ready when the rescue party reached the safety of Snow Fog forest. Food, water and healing supplies could be prepared and made available in the event of necessity.  She grew excited as the plan began to materialize in her mind, and she quickened her step, breezing past the guards at the entryway to the palace and rushing through Mirage Hall.   She headed straight to her eldest sister’s room, but stopped just short of pushing her way through the door as a burst of guilt and worry overtook her.

She was still angry with Shi, but she thought he had been sincere when he had expressed his desire to help her.  He had gone out of his way to make her feel welcome at the palace, and though she hadn’t known him long, she considered him a friend.

She recalled their dinner the previous evening and his expression when he had first seen her ascend the staircase in her emerald peacock gown.  He had gazed at her as if she was the moon and he was the ocean, like his entire existence depended on her.  The look on his face had taken her breath away, and she had thought about the handsome, lonely young Ice King for hours after she had gone back to her room.  Only her dream of Xun Ru and their lovemaking in the forest had driven the image of Shi’s angelic face from her thoughts.  The dream had confused her about her feelings towards Xun Ru and she felt like she was being pulled in two different directions.

Shi would be so angry and disappointed when he learned that she had snuck away from the palace, and the thought of hurting him wound knots in her stomach.

She tried desperately to push all thoughts of Shi away as she focused on the woody grain of the entrance to her sister’s room.  This had to be done.  She would try to explain it to him later, when they returned to Snow Blade City with her father.  She sighed and entered the chamber, finding her sister lounging lazily on the bed and reading a small book of poetry.

“Jingfei, I need your help,” said Song Bai, an intense scrutiny fixed upon her sister’s pretty face.  “Can you distract Wu Zan for about an hour?”

 Jingfei looked up, surprised at Song Bai’s sudden appearance.

 “Where have you been?” she complained.  “We haven’t seen you for days!”

Song Bai approached her sister’s bed, eyes pleading.  “Please, Jingfei, this is important.  Father may be alive, and I need to go with Xun Ru to help rescue him. Can you distract Wu Zan?”

At the mention of their father, Jingfei grew immediately solemn.  “Truly, Song Bai? He is alive?”

“Yes, I think so” Song Bai responded, her voice sounding far more confident than she felt.  “Wu Zan has been watching us, and I need to get away from the palace without him knowing.  Will you help?”

Jingfei nodded enthusiastically.  “Of course I will.  I know how to distract him.”

“I know you do,” said Song Bai, smiling wryly.  “The time you spend with Wu Zan is something we should discuss later, when I return.  For now, keep him in this room for as long as possible.”

Song Bai hugged her sister tightly and rushed out, intent upon setting her plans in motion and trying to ignore the door to Shi’s room as she dashed past.  Despite her sharp attention to her task, an image of his wounded, vivid azure eyes haunted her throughout the corridors of the palace.

Thirty minutes later, Song Bai rode out of Snow Blade City disguised as an Ice Tribe guard.  She had stolen a sky-blue uniform and silver boots from the storeroom and had used a small bit of Earth Tribe magic to transform her hair into a silky mane of shimmering white.  Her green eyes had also been dulled to pale grey color.  She draped herself in an ivory cloak, the large hood falling low over her head and obscuring her face as she rode swiftly out of Snow Blade City. She left behind several stable boys bound by twisting vines, their panicked voices muffled by large, oval leaves with serrated edges. Her magic would wear off in a few hours, leaving the young men unharmed, but it would give her enough time to escape into Snow Fog forest undetected.

As Song Bai descended into the deep, snowy slope that cradled the palace grounds, she resisted the urge to look back, and hoped that Shi would forgive her when she returned.