Fanfic: A Cypress in Winter – Chapter 20 (Ice Fantasy - 幻城)

Chapter 20

Written By Unicorn Slippers 
edited by DramaPanda

Shi watched Song Bai, conflicting emotions tumbling through him as his chestnut eyes roamed over the swell of her hips beneath the thin shift that she wore as she slept. Her legs were tangled in a frayed, coarse blanket draped over the bed, and he could hear the steady rhythm of her breathing. He had a powerful urge to reach out and push the dark cascade of her hair away from her beautiful face, but stayed his hand to prevent waking her.

He was perched on a chair across from the narrow bed, a forgotten scroll on his lap originally intended to occupy himself with as she rested, but he had made a study of her slumbering form instead.

They had argued long and hard the night before about sharing a room at the tavern, but Shi had eventually prevailed. He had insisted that he had to stay close to protect Song Bai in case his dampening spell slipped, but he knew that this was not a real possibility. His magic was strong and his spell would remain in place as long as he willed it so.

Song Bai had finally acquiesced with Shi’s promise to sleep in the chair and keep his hands to himself. His intention had been to propose to her at the tavern and then after she had accepted, seduce her so that he could use the power of the Blood Red Lotus. No matter that he didn’t have any experience seducing a woman to draw upon. He had seen enough at the Ice Tribe Court, and of his own concubine mother’s struggle for power to have at least some idea of what was required. To Shi’s surprise, Song Bai seemed to sense his duplicity and had adopted an aloof and prickly attitude towards him as soon as they had retired to their room. It had rattled him enough to silence his tongue and convince him to wait until the timing was more favorable.

The Earth Tribe princess seemed to be an easy target, Shi thought with a wisp of shame curling around his inner monologue. Her family was displaced and vulnerable, and she was apparently driven by her own biological need to mate. He felt a pang of guilt as he watched her sleep, the usual confidence he felt when carrying out one of his self-serving plans beginning to slip bit by bit. She didn’t deserve to be used like this, he thought. She was only trying to save her people and her family, and he planned to exploit that loyalty to his own advantage. He quailed at the thought of causing her pain or doing something that would later make her hate him, but then immediately chided himself for his own weakness. He had a powerful attraction to her, but he couldn’t let trivial sentiment collapse his plans. Kasuo was all that mattered.

Song Bai stirred in the bed and stretched with an expansive yawn. She sat up, looking around the room with confusion until she saw Shi regarding her curiously from his chair.

“What time is it?” she asked, gathering the burlap-colored blanket around her body protectively.

Shi smirked at her gesture. “It’s mid-day.”

“Mid-day?!” she exclaimed with wide eyes. “Why did you let me sleep so late?”

“You were exhausted and needed to heal. I didn’t want to disturb you,” Shi said with a shrug.

“Turn around!” Song Bai ordered, and he obeyed, rotating in his chair so that his back was facing her as she hastily dressed.

“You should have woken me sooner,” she said, breathless as she struggled to tug on her clothing. “Have you heard from Xing Jiu? Can we go back to the palace now?”

“Slow down,” Shi laughed. “Can I turn around now?”

“Go ahead,” said Song Bai, sounding a bit peevish.

Shi turned around and stood from his chair, walking over to Song Bai and attempting to take her hand. She snatched it away and stood glaring at him suspiciously.

He sighed. “I am not sure what has put you in such a bad temper, but I am only trying to help. Let’s get something to eat and we can talk about returning to the palace. And before you ask again, no, I have not heard from Xing Jiu.”

Song Bai pouted but followed him without further protest.

As they stepped out of the tavern, they were both momentarily blinded. The sun shone down on them in shimmering curved arcs, the bright rays filtered through the canopy of rooftops sheltering the bustling street below. Song Bai put her hand up to shield her eyes and gaped in astonishment. The street was ablaze with color and sound. Merchant stalls had been set up on either side of the main road, the makeshift structures decorated with vivid material in every hue imaginable that flapped cheerfully in the gentle afternoon breeze. The simple wooden tables that stood in front of each stall stretched for an eternity, each offering up some treasure that anyone could possess for enough coin. The savory odor of roast duck and rice dumplings wafted past them, and she clutched at her stomach groaning in pleasure.

Shi grinned at her. “Are you hungry?”

She nodded enthusiastically, already stepping away from the tavern entrance to join the press of villagers moving through the marketplace. Shi quickly followed, trying once more to take her hand and hoping it wouldn’t earn him a hard slap. She didn’t pull away from him this time, but clasped his hand and pulled him forward roughly as she sought out the source of the aromatic scent filling the air.

Not long after, Song Bai had stuffed her belly with a bowl of duck soup and her mood had improved significantly. She began to inspect the merchant’s wares scattered across the tables with interest, and Shi saw an opportunity. He beckoned her over to a table heaped with glittering stones and held one up for her to inspect. It was a large, oblong chunk of seaglass, the edges perfectly rounded by years of rolling and tumbling through the waves of Infinity Ocean. The slick stone had taken on a frosted appearance, and was the deep blue-green of a hidden forest pool. Seaglass from Infinity Ocean was very rare, and the merchant’s exorbitant price reflected as much.

“Would you like me to buy this for you?” Shi asked timidly.

Song Bai looked startled and then blushed.

“I could make it into a necklace,” he pressed, drawing some courage from her bewildered expression. “It reminds me of the color of your eyes.”

Song Bai suddenly growled in exasperation and grabbed the stone of out his hand, placing it back on the table with a loud thump. She grasped Shi by the front of his shirt and hissed, “Come with me!”

She hauled him over to a less crowded area of the street and pushed him up against a building, crossing her arms as she regarded him dubiously.

“What are you up to, Shi?” she asked, one eyebrow arching dangerously “What do you want from me? You’ve been acting strange since you showed up yesterday and I want to know why.”

He was taken aback by her unexpected reaction, but recovered quickly.

“I have no ulterior motives,” he lied. “It’s just that I feel more at ease in this form, less burdened by my responsibilities in Snow Blade City. Some of the best years of my life were as Yun Fei, living with my brother in the mortal realm and away from the politics of Ice Tribe.”

Song Bai said nothing but at the mention of Kasuo, her expression softened.

“I think you’ve noticed that I’m not always good with people,” Shi said, looking down at his feet. “I... like you, Song Bai, and I’m not sure how to show you. I have little experience with women. Am I doing something wrong? ” Shi felt his cheeks flush hot with disgrace at his manipulative words, but to his relief, Song Bai seemed to misinterpret his distress as shyness.

“Oh,” she said quietly, sounding a little stunned. “No, you aren’t doing anything wrong, Shi. Your moods are just hard to follow sometimes.”

Shi looked up and smiled at her. “I know. Sometimes they are hard for me to follow, too.” At least this wasn’t a lie, he thought ruefully.

They stood facing each other as the milling crowd flowed around them like a raucous tributary, the only respite from the noise was the uneasy silence hanging between them. After a few moments, Song Bai spoke.

“Where is this forest you mentioned last night?” she said a little too brightly, her eyes shifting to take in the activity around them but never making direct eye contact with Shi.

“It’s not far at all! I can transport us there,” he said with barely contained relief, happy that he wouldn’t have to continue to try to convince her.

“You said there were living trees? With green leaves? And a river?” she asked, her eyes still darting around the crowd. Shi noticed that she was fidgeting nervously with the edge of her dress sleeve.

“Yes,” he responded hopefully. “It’s beautiful there, Song Bai. I think it’s very similar to your own realm. And I promise, if Xing Jiu contacts us we can leave immediately.”

Song Bai nodded. “All right. If the trees are as full of life as you say, I can replenish my magic so that I can heal my father or Xun Ru if they need me.”

Shi clenched his jaw, frustrated at her incessant focus on her father and that idiot Earth Tribe Captain, but he didn’t let the annoyance show on his face. He led her away from the crowded street and they ducked behind a small teahouse with red walls and green roof tiles. He grew serious as he gave her instructions.

“Grasp my arm and don’t let go,” he said. “This will be jarring, and will likely disorient you. Don’t be alarmed if you get nauseated. It will pass soon, and I’ll take care of you if it is excessive.”

Song Bai paled a little at his warning, but grabbed onto his arm tightly and closed her eyes. They disappeared in a cloud of whirling snow and ice, and reappeared immediately in a lush, vibrant forest. She shoved him away from her with a yelp and stood transfixed at the scene before her.

They were in a verdant grove surrounded by an overarching dome of leaf and limb. The trees were riotous with a rainbow of color, the foliage dappled in shades of deep green, golden yellow and scarlet red. The grey, lichen encrusted trunks rose out of a dark forest floor speckled with suede-soft flowers. A loom of light filtered down through the trees in a seam of gold, and a butterfly danced past them, its fragile wings rippling like silk.

“Are you okay?” Shi asked in apprehension, reaching out to steady her. She pushed his hands away from her absently, her face shining with delight as she gazed at her surroundings.

Shi’s mouth fell open in astonishment as he saw his illusion spell fall away from Song Bai like dust, her mahogany streaked curls and jade eyes emerging luminous in the sunlight that was streaming through the crown of leaves above them. As the strong scent of pine and earth filled his nostrils, he realized with a start that she was gathering magic from the forest. He could feel the tendrils of her energy winding around gnarled, knobby roots and plunging into the earth at his feet, sipping gently at the life-force of the trees to fill her own magical reservoir. Her power felt strange to him, so unlike the cold, unyielding bite of his own, and he marveled at the sensation. She tasted like sweet morning dew on his tongue and smelled of rich, fertile soil. He could feel her power wash over him like a carpet of velvet moss and a fusillade of trilling and warbling songbirds filled his ears. As he gawked at her, mesmerized by the radiant glow of her magic, he thought she was the most remarkable creature he had ever laid eyes upon.

Song Bai, released her spell and turned to Shi with a broad smile.

“I feel much better!” she exclaimed, shaking out her curls and smoothing her skirt.

Shi was tongue-tied, still staring at her in fascination.

Song Bai cocked her head to one side, hearing the faint metallic tinkle of running water.

“Did you say there was a river nearby?” she asked, her question jolting him out of his slack-jawed daze. “Can we go there?”

“Uhhh… yes,” he replied, blinking rapidly. “This way.”

He led her out of the grove and soon the landscape opened up into an expansive meadow flecked with wildflowers and tall grasses that rustled in the breeze. A shallow brook ran through the center, the clear water flowing sluggishly around lilac colored water-mint growing at the edges. As the meadow began to angle downhill, Song Bai could see the brook widen into a gurgling stream and then at the base of the hill, it spilled into a wide swath of silver that wound haphazardly into the valley below.

“Ooohhh…” Song Bai breathed, dazzled by the beauty of the flower-studded meadow and the snaking pattern of the river curving off into the distance. Shi watched her lazily stroll through the field, her fingertips trailing across the papery, golden seed pods that thrust up from the thick spread of green grass that brushed against her skirt.. She looked magnificent, the sunlight teasing burnished copper and honey out of her dark hair, her face relaxed and full of wonder. She leaned down to look at a cluster of meadow rue, and her hair slipped forward, revealing a small triangle of porcelain skin on her shoulder marked by the tiny, ruby-colored lotus.

Shi was startled out of his trance by this sudden reminder of his mission, and he silently cursed himself. He felt a wave of misery as he watched Song Bai straighten and turn to him to smile. If she agreed to marry him, she would want to mate with him immediately per the custom of her people. He would make the Blood Red Lotus bloom, and time would turn back to before Kasuo’s death. He could hold himself outside of the spell, so that he retained the knowledge of all that had come to pass. Armed with that knowledge, he could save his brother this time, before King Flame could murder him.

Song Bai should be caught up in the spell and returned to Earth realm, ten years younger and none the wiser. She would never remember that she knew him. No harm done.

But, if the magic didn’t work as he predicted… Shi recoiled at the thought and tried to push it from his mind. No matter what the cost, he had to save Kasuo.

“Would you like to see the river?” he called out to Song Bai, trying to adopt a tone far more confident than he currently felt.

She had turned back to her contemplation of the flora and showed no signs of hearing him. He called out again and she finally glanced his way and nodded. He made his way over to her and extended his arm, guiding her through the meadow and down to the river’s edge. She immediately began to meander along the sandy banks, occasionally bending over to retrieve a shell or river rock that caught her eye.
Shi stood quietly nearby, watching her unhappily and mulling over his next move.

“Song Bai,” he finally ventured, gesturing to a weeping cherry tree standing on a hill that overlooked the river. The slim, drooping branches were crowded with tiny pink blossoms, creating a canopy over a soft pad of fuzzy moss.

She turned and looked at him inquisitively. “I can’t draw magic from that tree. It’s too small and I might harm it if I took too much.”

He smiled nervously. “I didn’t mean … I meant to ask...will you come sit with me?”
She paused for a moment and then smiled, indicating her agreement. They climbed the rise side by side.

“Please, sit down. I’ll be back in a moment,” he said and he raced off as she slowly lowered herself to the ground, peering after him in confusion.

A few minutes later, Shi reappeared with a handful of fat, purple berries. He was clutching a small bouquet of white lilies in his other hand. He sat down and offered the berries to her, grinning proudly.

She inclined her head and took the berries from him, gesturing to the elegant, white flowers he held.
“That’s very sweet, Shi. Thank you for the flowers,” she said softly.

“I… uh… these …aren’t for you. They are my dinner,” he said, flushing with embarrassment.

Her eyes grew round and she sat speechless for a moment. Finally she managed, “You EAT flowers??”

“Well, no. We subsist off the scent of flowers. I can eat other things, but flowers are usually the best source of nutrition for Ice Tribe.”

Song Bai continued to stare at him, incredulous. He flushed again and thrust the flowers out towards her. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude. You can have them.”

She shook her head and laughed. “No, you keep them. I wouldn’t want you to go hungry.”

Shi groaned inwardly at his foolishness and set the flowers aside, his appetite dissipated. A few of the cherry blossoms had fallen from the dome of branches above them and had nestled into the coils of her hair. The bright, star shaped petals stood out in sharp contrast against her dark tresses and Shi reached out to pluck one away, his cool fingers brushing her cheek.

They stared at each other for a long moment, a sweet tension growing between them as time stretched out. Song Bai finally looked down, laughing softly, and popped a few of the berries into her mouth.

“Song Bai, I have a question for you,” Shi said, her laughter breaking the tension. He put his trembling hands in his lap, trying to hide his anxiety.

“Mmm?” she murmured around a mouthful of berries.

“Well, I was wondering... if you would like to marry me?” Shi asked, his voice quavered only a little as he readied himself for the inevitable slap across the face.

Song Bai stopped chewing, a look of complete shock spreading across her features. She swallowed hard and asked, “Did you say marry you?”

Shi nodded and tried to flash her his most charming smile, but he faltered as he saw her narrow her eyes at him.

“Why?” she asked, her voice suddenly full of mistrust.

“I told you. I like you, and I think we would make a good match,” he said, his mind trying to desperately block any imagining of what might happen next if she agreed to his proposal.

“Shi, you barely know me,” Song Bai said as she set aside the rest of her berries and wiped her violet-stained hands on the moss. “We are from completely different realms. What would make you think that we would be a good match?”

“Despite being from different Tribes, we have a lot in common. Both of our mothers were royal concubines, and both were obsessed with power and rank, to our detriment. Neither of us have ever fit the traditional notion of royalty, and I would never force you to be anyone other than yourself. I think you are perfect, exactly how you are.”

Song Bai’s doubtful expression shifted to one of surprise and then to shy interest. Shi took this as encouragement to continue.

“If you marry me, I will help you win back your realm,” he said, going in for the kill. He felt a sharp stab of guilt lance through his chest as he used Song Bai’s greatest desire to manipulate her. “I will order the Ice Tribe Army to Sanctuary to attack Mao Jiang. Once the city is liberated and we have driven Fire Tribe back through the gate, I will restore Earth realm to your father and our Tribes will become allies.”

Song Bai’s gasped at Shi’s words, clutching at his hands and gripping them tightly. “You would lead Ice Tribe into war against Fire Tribe, for me?”

Shi nodded, squeezing her hand. “I would.”

She was silent for a long moment, her brow furrowed as she studied his face. “If I refuse your offer, will you still help me defeat Mao Jiang and win back my realm?”

Shi hadn’t expected this, and he shifted uncomfortably as he considered his response.

“Yes, I will,” he said finally, unable to bring himself to demand marriage in exchange for the freedom of her people. If she refused him this time, he would just have to find another way to convince her later.

“And, what do you want from me?” she asked quietly.

Shi was startled by her question and looked at her, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“You are willing to put your own people at risk to save mine, something you said you wouldn’t do when we first met. I am also well-aware that while I am royalty, I am héshuò gōngzhǔ, a princess of second rank and daughter to a concubine. I would have never achieved a match that would have elevated me beyond my current status. You are offering to make me a Queen. I would be a fool to refuse. But, what do you want from me in return?”

So, she wasn’t just some starry-eyed girl interested only in flowers and romance. She knew the value of rank and power, Shi thought with both satisfaction and trepidation.

He closed his eyes, gathering his courage as he drew her towards him, brushing his full, soft lips against her ear.

“You are smart and brave, and you are loyal to your people. These are all qualities that will make you a perfect Queen for Ice Tribe. You are also the most beautiful woman I have ever seen and I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life. The only thing I ask in return is your love, forever,” he whispered, and he was startled as he realized his confession didn’t feel like the lie that he thought it was.

He turned her face towards him and put one finger under her chin, tipping her head upward so that he could press his trembling lips against hers. It was the first time he had kissed anyone, and he had no notion of what to do once their lips met. After a few awkward moments, he drew back, shaking and self-conscious about his obvious lack of experience. Song Bai had a strange look in her eyes, almost a lusty haze, and with rising horror he realized that he had won. He began to panic.

“Yes, I will marry you,” she breathed and caught Shi’s face between her hands, kissing him deeply. He immediately recognized her superior skill and allowed her to guide him, her tongue teasing his mouth open to accept her. She slowly explored him and soon, his own tongue tentatively reciprocated the gesture as their mouths fixed together and they tasted each other with licks and soft nibbles. Shi was a fast learner and caught on quickly to the rhythm of the kiss, soon returning Song Bai’s attention with equal enthusiasm. He slipped one hand around her back and pulled her against him as their kiss became more passionate, his other hand sliding up to caress the swell of her breast over the fabric of her gown. All thoughts of Kasuo, the Blood Red Lotus, and Snow Blade City fled his mind as his body took over and he grasped at her in carnal desperation.

Song Bai gasped as Shi’s roaming hands became more insistent and she toppled him over. She clutched at his shoulders and his thigh slipped between her legs, pressing against the warm dampness of her arousal. He groaned helplessly, his voice growing husky and deep, and he slid his hands into the chaotic tumble of her curls. She pulled herself into his lap and tore his shirt, sliding her hands onto his bare chest while sitting astride his hips, and he felt himself grow hard and feverish. His hands slid down her back, and then around her hips to grip her thighs through her dress. He pressed up against her and felt the low rumble of a moan as the friction of their bodies teased a wave of pleasure out of her.

She leaned down and kissed him again, and his hands, seemingly of their own volition, quickly unbuttoned the front of her gown and he cupped her breasts as they spilled out into his palms. As his fingers grazed over her rigid, dusky-rose nipples, she made a mewling sound of pleasure. He rubbed his hands over them in amazement, and the sounds she made as he flicked over the taut skin drove him crazy in response. He wanted more. His hand glided along her leg and up beneath her skirt. He clumsily fumbled with the heavy material, trying to push it aside, and his thumb stroked once between her legs. Song Bai made a small, startled noise in her throat and a glitter of magic raced through her hands and across Shi’s body, like sunlight sparkling off of water.

He felt a shuddering jolt as her magic came spilling out and slammed into him, hooking onto his own. The elements of their power, earth and ice-flame, became snarled in tangled, messy knots. Shi froze, completely stunned by sensation of their magic entwined together. He could feel Song Bai’s emotions through the link, an uncomplicated yearning and deep affection for him, and he had nothing to compare this level of intimacy to. He felt his own emotions answer her in response. He had never felt so much desire or love, not even for his brother...

Shi cried out and shoved Song Bai off of him with a grunt. She fell in a startled heap to his side and stared at him in shock. He flung her magic away from him in alarm, but not before he sensed her hurt and baffled astonishment at his behavior. He looked back at her wild-eyed, his body and mind a whirling mess of sensation and confusion. He couldn’t do this to her. He couldn’t steal the honor of the woman he loved.

And there it was. He was in love with Song Bai.

He took a few deep breaths to calm himself and reached shaking hands out to her, pleading.

“Song Bai, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry… we should wait.”

She hastily buttoned the top of her dress, two bright spots flaring on her cheeks. “Wait for what?!” she rasped, and he couldn’t tell if she was about to punch him or cry.

“For the wedding. In my realm, we don’t mate until the wedding night. I don’t want to dishonor you,” he said, and he pulled her close again, kissing her softly on the cheek. Song Bai gave him a look of confounded outrage and pushed him away.

“That’s silly,” she complained. “We have agreed to marry so there is no dishonor in it. There is no reason to wait. Unless… you were never planning to marry me in the first place? Did you suddenly have an attack of conscience?”

Her green eyes were fixed angrily on him, watching his reaction like a starving hawk waiting to pounce on a rabbit leaving its burrow.

Shi felt a cloak of dread settle across his shoulders at her words, but shook his head in vehement denial. She was certainly perceptive, and he wondered if she had felt something of his conflicted emotions through their brief magical link. His brain scrambled desperately to find some response that would rescue the situation.

“Of course I plan to marry you!” Shi exclaimed, and he meant it. He was going to marry her, honorably, and then bed her. As soon as possible, he thought, as he felt a deep, longing ache throb painfully in his groin.

“I know this all seems strange to you, and I shouldn’t have let it go so far. You are just so irresistible…”
“Stop it...” Song Bai warned.

Shi flinched, and then shifted tactics. “Waiting until the wedding night is a tradition of Ice Tribe. We shouldn’t do anything that might risk their loyalty to me and acceptance of you as their new Queen. It will make it more difficult to convince them to go to war with Fire Tribe and rescue your people.”

Song Bai frowned unhappily. “How would they know?”

“Uhh.. your essence! If we mated, would you stop releasing essence?” Shi asked hopefully.

“Yes,” responded Song Bai hesitantly.

“Your people would notice. I’m told your sister is a terrible gossip. If she told Wu Zan it would be all over the palace within an hour. We can’t take that risk.”

Song Bai sat quietly, staring down the hill, her expression unreadable as her eyes followed the swiftly flowing current of the water.

“Fine,” she said finally, and stood to hastily to brush bits of moss and cherry blossom petals from her dress. She turned without a word and walked down towards the river, leaving him to wrestle with relief, frustration and anxiety on his own.