Fanfic: A Cypress in Winter – Chapter 17 (Ice Fantasy - 幻城)

Chapter 17

Written By Drama Panda and Unicorn Slippers

Xun Ru and Tao Min walked stiffly through the silk stalls of Sanctuary, each affecting the menacing attitude of a Fire Tribe soldier on patrol. They took turns flinging hostile glances at the cowering merchants, who quickly looked away in the hopes of avoiding a confrontation. The crowd milling through the streets all had the same hollow, powerless expression, and it made the Earth Tribe Captain’s blood boil to see his people so dispirited. Though he tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword until his knuckles grew white, he managed to keep his anger in check. He was just thankful that they had not passed through the street that housed his own family’s leather shop. He could not face his parents disguised as a Fire Tribe soldier, no matter the cost of revealing his true identity to them.

When they had emerged from the tunnel into Sanctuary beneath the Apothecary, they had agreed that Zhanshi and one of the Ice Tribe soldiers would stay behind, guarding their only escape route back to the gate between realms. Despite Xun Ru’s vehement disagreement, Zhanshi had insisted that Tao Min be the one to accompany Xun Ru through the city and into the Earth Tribe Palace.

Tao Min had tried to converse with him as they made their way through the city and towards the silk stalls, but he had replied with only grunts or more frequently, silence. Eventually the boy had left him alone and had quietly marched beside him, but he could tell he had hurt his feelings. Xun Ru didn’t care. He had no time to play nursemaid. They had a hard and long day ahead of them, marching nearly half the length of the city to avoid the main roads leading to the Palace. While their disguises were impressive, any lengthy contact with real Fire Tribe Soldiers would likely give them away.

Xun Ru kept his ears open, hoping to hear gossip about the fate of his King or if the rumour mills knew what had happened to Princess Song Bai and her sisters. Information was the currency of every true spy and he wanted to be as equipped as possible before carrying out the mission to the Palace. All he could glean was that the people believed their rulers had been killed, and so their hopes of freedom from the Fire Tribe King were dead as well.

While Xun Ru felt more and more dispirited the further they walked through the silk stalls, beside him Tao Min couldn’t quite hide his boyish excitement. He had already had to elbow Tao Min twice when he caught him smiling at some of the merchants. He wondered if the boy’s excitement stemmed from the fact that it was his first time being in the Earth Realm or if it was from the thrill of being in disguise in enemy territory. Whatever the true reason, the boy was still too untested and green to be a proper soldier. Both helplessness at the plight of his people and the rising resentment that he had been saddled with a child filled him with rage and his mood grew more grim as the day went on.

Their boots brown and caked with dust and dried mud, they finally reached the end of the silk stalls and stood in front of The Limping Stag tavern. When he saw the nondescript brown building with fiery red roof, Xun Ru felt his spirits lift. They had only stopped once during their march to take care of bodily functions and eat some dried, tasteless beef jerky. Despite the heat and ceaseless walking, Tao Min had never complained and had remained cheerful the entire day. Against his will, he formed a grudging respect for the boy.

He stopped and nodded in direction of the tavern, signalling to Tao Min that they had arrived. He saw relief flare in the boy’s eyes, but the young man did not speak and simply nodded to confirm that he understood. Xun Ru knew that Tao Min’s wariness stemmed from how shoddy he had behaved to him on the trip and suddenly he felt a bit of guilt for his churlishness.

“This is where the tunnel leading to the Palace is located, in the wine cellar. I know the owner well, and we can trust him. We will go in, eat, and I will look for him afterwards. Remember, we are in enemy territory. Do not do anything that will draw attention to yourself. You can get some dinner but remember not to drink more than one cup of alcohol. We need a clear head for navigating the Palace.” He stopped talking and glared at the boy. “You got that?”

Tao Min nodded and simply replied, “Yes.”

The tavern was dimly lit and full of the usual quiet chatter of the clientele and the smoky haze from the fire burning in the hearth. Xun Ru was hit with a wave of nostalgia so powerful that he almost gasped. Memories of evenings spent at the tavern with his father, or drinking with his fellow Earth Tribe soldiers filled his thoughts, and if he closed his eyes he could almost imagine nothing had changed in Earth Realm. He was jarred out of his daydream by the flash of the gold and crimson uniforms of Fire Tribe Soldiers as they gathered around the bar. His heart filled with hatred as he watched the enemy tribe pollute his beloved tavern with their presence, but he tempered his anger and mimicked their attitude. He was in disguise, and there was work here to be done.

But first, some food and a drink.

After picking up their food, he steered Tao Min to the dingiest corner in the tavern and settled down to eat.

Soon, Tao Min’s cheerfulness had returned as well as his need to chatter incessantly.

“Ah, that was just what I needed! Who would have thought food in a dirty tavern could taste so good?” Tao Min exclaimed with satisfaction as he used his bread to wipe off the last of the stew on his plate.

“Hmm,” Xun Ru murmured, his mouth still of food and not in the mood to talk.

Not so easily dissuaded, Tao Min continued. “So what’s so special about this tavern?” He looked around and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Why was this place chosen for a secret tunnel for people to move in and out of the Palace?”

Xun Ru sighed and drained the last drop of his beer, longing for another as he watched Tao Min eagerly waiting for him to speak.

“Thirteen generations ago, there was a coup within the royal family of Earth Tribe. The third Prince surrounded the Palace and almost succeeded in murdering his entire household so that he could seize power for himself. His attempt failed, but soon afterwards the Earth Tribe King tasked his General Commander with a secret project: to build three escape tunnels from the Palace so that they royal family could never be trapped in the Palace again. Over the years, these passageways have only been known to high ranking Earth Tribe royal guards and the King. Two of the tunnels have collapsed, but the one in the belly of this tavern is still manageable. This place was chosen because it was owned by the original General Commander’s distant but trusted cousin, and has since been in possession of that same family over these many generations.”

Xun Ru stood up abruptly.

“Now I am going to go look for the owner. If our luck holds, it’s still Xie Yu. And if he has been replaced, we will have to change our plans accordingly.”

He scrutinized Tao Min’s curious expression for a moment and then sighed. “On second thought, you better come with me. Who knows what trouble you will cause if I leave you alone?”

The two men left their table and quietly mixed in with the crowd. They quickly surveyed the room and after noting the relaxed postures of the Fire Tribe soldiers, Xun Ru determined that there was no immediate threat. He was about to stride towards the bar when Tao Min stiffened next to him and let out an audible gasp.

“What is it?” asked Xun Ru out of the corner of his mouth.

Tao Min grabbed Xun Ru by the arm and drew him aside, back into a shadowed, quiet corner of the tavern. He did a hurried visual sweep of the area and once convinced they were not being observed, he began to speak.

“That is the Fire Tribe Princess, Yan Da,” he whispered, his eye wide with shock. “She was the daughter of the former Fire Tribe King, Flame.”

“So?” asked Xun Ru. “Why is that so surprising?”

“She’s dead,” Tao Min replied flatly. “She died during the last war between Ice Tribe and Fire Tribe.”

Xun Ru snorted. “Clearly, she is not dead. Someone has been telling you lies, Iceling.”

Tao Min shook his head. “No, it is true. She died during a battle between Ying Kong Shi and King Flame. It was said that she died protecting her father from Shi, but there were always rumors…”

“What rumors, Tao Min?” Xun Ru interrupted, impatient with Tao Min’s habit of turning a simple explanation into a chronicle.

“Yan Da and Ying Kong Shi had some sort of connection prior to the war. They were very friendly with each other, and the gossip was that they were a couple. She even helped his brother, Kasuo, find the Veiled Lotus to save him in the last war. There were rumors that she died protecting Shi from her father, not the other way around.”

Xun Ru’s eyebrows shot up at this last bit of information.

“Point her out to me,” he demanded.

Tao Min turned his head and indicated which direction to look with his chin. His eyes following Tao Min’s gesture, Xun Ru finally found his target. He had seen the woman earlier when he had entered the tavern and had not noticed anything extraordinary about her.

She was dressed in the same color scheme as the rest of the Fire Tribe soldiers, but her clothing was more gilded and fanciful. Her silk dress was a deep scarlet and the bodice was decorated with multitude of golden gems shaped like teardrops. The sleeves of her dress were capped in triplicate, a severe style, causing the fabric to take on the appearance of metallic and red-swirled liquid armor. She had round, amber colored eyes lined with black kohl, which gave her a mysterious, exotic look. She had long, onyx colored hair shot through with violet-red streaks, a hallmark of her people. He had assumed that she belonged to one of the high ranking Fire Tribe commanders, or even to one of the brothels that Fire Tribe had set up in Sanctuary, but upon closer inspection he saw that she carried a thick, dark whip coiled at her waist.

Their eyes suddenly met and he jerked his face away. He wasn’t sure that he trusted Tao Min’s fanciful tale of seeing a dead woman here. Why would the Princess of Fire Tribe and rumored lover of Ying Kong Shi be skulking around The Limping Stag and drinking with common Fire Tribe soldiers? Perhaps even the one beer the boy had with dinner was enough to intoxicate him and make him think he saw ghosts, Xun Ru mused.

Shrugging, he was about to resume his mission to locate the tavern owner when suddenly the woman stood up from her table and sauntered towards them.


Song Bai carefully descended into the valley, her boots slipping in the wet snow and mud as she wound her way down the goat path she was using to negotiate the precipitous slope. She heard the stallion sniff noisily behind her, apparently bored with their laborious trek and signaling that he was ready for his dinner.

“Hush…” she grumbled. “We’ll be there soon enough.”

She tugged on the reins lightly and tried to keep her balance on the slick track. She was normally deft on her feet, even in such unforgiving conditions, but her immobile, injured arm was making the climb awkward and difficult. She huffed and continued her slow progress downward, occasionally tossing a dark look over her shoulder at her mount. If he hadn’t startled and thrown her earlier in the forest, she would be warming herself by a cozy fire right now near the gate between realms. She knew it was silly to blame the beast for their current predicament, but she was feeling peevish and her arm pulsed with a persistent, nagging ache.

The music from the village swelled to a sweet crescendo as they reached the base of the ridge, and she felt near giddy with relief. The settlement was bustling with activity, the colorful forms of the villagers illuminated by the soft ruby glow of flickering gauze lanterns looped between buildings. Song Bai smiled wistfully, the cheerful atmosphere of the village reminding her of Sanctuary and she suddenly felt a deep longing for her home. As she trudged through the last thick drifts of snow leading to the edge of the village, she shrugged off the wave of homesickness, and turned her thoughts briefly to the Ice Tribe King.

By now, Shi would have discovered that she had left Snow Blade City and was likely furious with her deception. She felt inexplicably miserable at the thought of his unhappiness and felt deep regret for taking advantage of his trust. He was such an unusual young man, she thought. Like the cold, glittering snowflakes that blanketed his world, he was unique, complicated, and the embodiment of cold perfection. As if on cue, snow began to drift around her in white, fluffy clusters. She put out her hand, catching several snowflakes and watching them melt into a wet puddle on her palm. Bleakly, she wondered if she would also undo Shi with the warmth of her touch.

She sighed and set aside her contemplations, turning her attention to locating a stable for her horse and a room at an inn where she could bathe and tend to her wounds. She made her way into the village, leading her stallion onto the earth-packed lane that wound through the center of the small town. The hurried movements of the villagers came to an abrupt halt as they caught sight of her, and a crowd slowly began to form.

Song Bai noted that the villagers did not look like the fair-headed residents of Snow Blade City. These people had dark hair, much like Earth Tribe, but the tips of their ears were rounded instead of tapered to a fine point. Their eyes were the shade of acorns, a rich golden brown with dark chocolate rims around the iris. The men here reminded her a bit of Wu Zan or Xing Jiu, but they were shorter and built more sturdy. The gathering around her grew tighter, their penetrating stares and hushed whispers adding to her mounting sense of alarm. As the air began to thrum with a dangerous energy, and Song Bai realized that she had miscalculated in coming here. She might have been better off freezing in Snow Fog Forest.

A grubby, stubble-faced man emerged from the encroaching throng.

“Who are you? Are you one of the Fire Tribe?” he asked cautiously. She saw her own fear reflected in the faces of the assembled crowd and shook her head forcefully.

“No, I am not,” she responded. “I am …” she began, but immediately fell silent, deciding it would be more prudent to fully understand her situation before she shared too much information. The circumstances she found herself in were so foreign and unexpected that she was caught completely off guard. She struggled desperately to appear confident, but she knew her fear was evident to those closest in the tightening noose of people surrounding her. This made her feel vulnerable, which compounded her distress.

“Are you one of the fair folk from Snow Blade City? Or a Mermaid?” he asked, but she could tell from his bored tone and the way his eyes looked past her that he already knew the answer, or didn’t care.

“No,” she replied, her voice edged with the tension she felt snaking up her spine. “I am just a traveler that requires shelter for the night. Can you point me in the direction of your stables?”

The man’s attention suddenly shifted and he studied her for a long moment. The way his eyes slid over her made her feel unclean and she shifted nervously. He stepped close and encircled her wrist with his greasy, plump fingers, his wide mouth splitting open in a lopsided grin. She smelled the sour scent of cheap fermented cider on his breath and pulled back in apprehension.

“You look injured,” the grubby man said, eyeing her swollen lip and the makeshift sling cradling her stationary arm. She knew this look. It was the look of a predator assessing the wounds of its injured prey before it went in for the kill. “Why don’t you come with me, ah? I can fix you right up. Make you feel real good. I’ll even pay for the room...”

He began to tug at her and reached out to slide his other hand around her waist. She reacted instantly, twisting her wrist out of his grasp and bringing her elbow up to meet his nose with a sickening crunch. The man screamed and scrambled back, his hands clutching at his face as blood fountained between his fingers and ran in rivulets down his arms. The crowd gasped in unified horror and chaos broke out. She heard the high pitched jeering of a woman to her left and a large, indistinguishable object went soaring past her ear. Several men rushed at her, their faces twisted with rage and something more primal. She could sense an aura of raw lust seeping from their spittle-flecked mouths and cruel, vacant eyes.

Her horse reared back and squealed in fury, a high pitched, ear piercing scream that stopped the men momentarily in their tracks. She shook the reins free of her good arm in case the the stallion bolted and knocked her down, and then quickly drew her sword. She leveled her blade at the closest opponent and narrowed her intense jade green eyes dangerously.

“Don’t…” she hissed in warning.

She heard shouting and the swarm of villagers suddenly stilled and turned in the direction of the voice. A stunning, fierce looking woman strode through the crowd, trailed by several male warriors armed with swords and crossbows. The woman barked a series of orders and the warriors quickly dispersed the crowd, jostling and threatening the hostile villagers as they hurtled oaths at Song Bai while retreating. What had she done to these people to make them turn on her so quickly and with such ferocity?

The female issuing commands paced rapidly towards her and Song Bai adjusted her stance to a more defensive position. Adrenaline was still pumping through her body, lending her much-needed courage as she warily watched the warrior-woman approach.

“Put your sword away and come with me,” the woman said, her smooth, rich voice in contrast with her rugged looking exterior.

Song Bai shook her head and kept her blade steady, her tone angry and accusatory. “I will not. Who are you and why did your people attack me? I came here in need of shelter and food. Is this how you welcome all visitors to your village?”

The woman exchanged a glance with one of the male warriors. “My name is Li Luo. I will explain later, but we need to get you out of here. Put away your sword and come with me, now.”

Song Bai startled, recognizing the name instantly. Hadn’t Xing Jiu told her that Kasuo’s wife was named Li Luo? Could this be Shi’s sister-in-law?

“Are you the Li Luo from Snow Blade City? The leader of the Immortal Guardians?” Song Bai asked carefully. “Are you Kasuo’s wife?”

She saw surprise register in Li Luo’s dark eyes, but it melted into something blank and unreadable.

“Yes,” Li Luo replied stiffly. “I am Kasuo’s wife.”

“So, you know the Ice Tribe King, Ying Kong Shi?” asked Song Bai, her anxiety starting to ease. Perhaps this was a person she could trust, someone who could help her find her way back to the gate between realms.

“Yes, he is my little brother,” Li Luo replied, and Song Bai detected a hint of affection in the woman’s voice. “Please, we need to go now. Put your hood up and cover your face.”

Song Bai finally relaxed and sheathed her sword, drawing the hood of her cloak down and inclining her head to indicate that she was ready to follow.