Dream | Ying Kong Shi | Flower Mirror
When Ying Kong Shi is eight decades old, he slips out of the palace without telling anyone and runs away into the Snow Fog Forest. He thinks that Father and Mother will give him up for lost, and then he will not need to be the Ice Kingdom's unwanted child any longer.
For many hours, he walks and walks down the white-dusted roads. He passes beneath the snow-laden canopies of the great trees, hides in the hedges from the frost leopards, and walks in the shadow of the sleet birds that glide beneath the grey and heavy sky. The Snow Fog Forest is terribly cold, and without magic, Ying Kong Shi cannot create light screens to keep away the snow, which gathers and melts on his clothes and in his hair. He walks until he no longer remembers where he is or where he is going.
When the shadows of the forest begin to grow long with the sunset, Ying Kong Shi finds a hollow amidst a tangle of tree roots and curls up inside, hugging himself for warmth he cannot quite find. Outside, the eternally gray sky clouds over, and it begins to snow again. Already, he cannot keep his eyes open, and he feels his limbs grow warm and heavy even though the snow all around him is cold.
“Shi? Ying Kong Shi, are you here?”
The sound of someone calling his name is muted through a veil of fog and snow, as if a terrible distance separates them. With effort, Shi drags his eyes open. He sees that a silhouette stands in the hollow’s opening, dark and sharp against the drifting snow outside.
Instantly alert, Ying Kong Shi blinks his vision back into focus.
His older brother, sixth prince Ka Suo, has the sharp face and elegant features of the queen, and Father’s regal bearing. Ka Suo-gege is a kind man, and always looks out for others at his own expense. He always seems to be worrying about something, but when Ying Kong Shi asks what is troubling him, he only says, "It's nothing, Shi." Then he always smiles at Ying Kong Shi, gentle and beautiful, and says, "Let's go out to see the snow."
Now the outline of Ka Suo's foxfur cloak cuts a sharp silhouette against the blizzard raging outside. Ka Suo's elegant expression is furrowed with concern, his attention focused on Ying Kong Shi as if he is the only thing that exists in the world, and as the wind outside curls through his cloak and lifts his hair, Ying Kong Shi thinks he is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.
Ka Suo quickly pulls the cloak from his shoulders and wraps it around Ying Kong Shi, folding it like a blanket across his body, and picks him up as if he weighs nothing. Ying Kong Shi lies in Ka Suo's arms and burrows closer to his chest, which is warm like the spring.
“You’re so cold," Ka Suo says, and lifts a hand to brush Ying Kong Shi's hair out of his eyes. "What were you thinking, Shi, coming out here like this…? Come on. Let’s go home.”
Ying Kong Shi looks up. Ka Suo’s eyes are ice-blue, like the depths of the Boundless Sea, yet also impossibly warm. “How did you find me?” Ying Kong Shi asks.
Ka Suo places his thumb to his ring finger and conjures a light screen to keep the blizzard out; the swirls of snow landing against the invisible wall are like the white flower petals that fall from the eternal cherry blossom tree on Luo Ying Slope. He says, "Shi, of course I will always know where you are. You are the most important thing in the world to me."
Ka Suo suffers from insomnia, and Ying Kong Shi has often snuck out of his rooms in the deep of night to find his most beloved brother standing by the ledge of the palace's highest balcony, overlooking all of Ren Xue City.
Above the towering ice walls of the snowbound kingdom, the night is silent and scattered with starlight. The passage of the stars marks the path of fate, Po-po used to say, and as Ka Suo looks up at the sky and the light of those stars falls into his eyes, Ying Kong Shi wonders what the future holds in store for them.
Ying Kong Shi asks, "Ge, if you could wish for anything in the world, what would you want?"
When Ying Kong Shi grows up, he will do anything to make Ka Suo-gege's wish a reality.
In the distance, a solitary sleet bird flies into the horizon, and the night resounds with its distant cry. Ka Suo turns to the snowbound kingdom then, and the night wind fills his cloak and lifts his hair. "My first wish... is to live freely, like a flying sleet bird," he says. Then he looks down at Ying Kong Shi and smiles, gentle and beautiful as always. "And my second, most important wish is for you to be happy."
Dream | Yun Fei | Rain Shadow
Years later, Ying Kong Shi sits on the roof of the house where Yan Da's retinue has stopped for the day. The evening wind curls through his hair as he turns his face to the sky, where the stars that chart the world's fate are silent pinpricks of light. He holds the bamboo leaf to his lips and blows lightly, and the sound of a flute echoes through the deep night.
In a cage on the back of a cart in the mortal world, Ying Kong Shi grows up. Fire-hot pain tears through his flesh and sinks into his bones, and precisely because there is no one around to see, he lets his tears fall on the wooden cage floor like rain.
When the pain abates, Ying Kong Shi lifts his hands to his face and finds that his features are unrecognizable even to himself. Snowdrifts dance like white petals around his fingers, proof of his newfound power, and he lays illusion after illusion over himself, until he is sure he is indistinguishable from a reflection in a mirror.
In the Healer Kingdom's inner sanctum, Ka Suo's eyes meet Yun Fei's, and then slide away. It brings a smile to Yun Fei's lips, innocent and beautiful, yet faintly edged with bitterness. He had not wanted to be recognized, yet, Ge, I thought you said you would always find me.
Ying Kong Shi knows that he is no longer the only person in Ka Suo's heart. But Ying Kong Shi has grown up now, and will not be selfish like a child. Border Guardian Li Luo protects Ka Suo, keeps him company on sleepless nights, and brings laughter to his eyes. Ka Suo is happiest when he is with her, and so Ying Kong Shi will do anything to let them be together.
It is fine for Ying Kong Shi to be alone, if it means he can protect that which is most important to him. It is fine for him and Ka Suo to be apart, for now, if only so that they may one day reunite.
Xing Jiu told Ying Kong Shi once that he and Ka Suo have opposite fates, and are destined to always be apart. But one cold day in Ren Xue City, Ka Suo had given Ying Kong Shi a bamboo flute, and showed him the frost leaf that was its twin. No matter the distance between them, Ying Kong Shi need only blow on the frost leaf, and Ka Suo who holds the bamboo flute will hear him. If they look up into the night sky at the same time, they will still see the same stars.
On the long nights when Yan Da and her retinue are all asleep, Ying Kong Shi slips out into the back garden and up to the roof, brings the frost leaf to his lips, and blows. As the flute rings out in the silent night, Ying Kong Shi looks up into the star-filled sky. The light of the waning moon is reflected in his eyes, and he hopes that somewhere in this world, Ka Suo is listening.
Dream | Ying Kong Shi | Phantom
Many years later, Ying Kong Shi stands alone on Ren Xue City's highest balcony with his face turned to the storming sky where neither the sun nor the stars can be seen, icy wind whipping through his hair and his foxfur cloak, and remembers Ka Suo saying to him, "Those years in the mortal world with you and Li Luo were the happiest days of my life."
Father says that the time is drawing near when the Ice Kingdom must crown a new king, and with Xing Jiu’s blessing, he names Ka Suo his successor.
The war with the Fire Kingdom has ended, and the alliances with the six tribes have been forged, but there is still uncertainty within the court. There are still whispers, sharp as crystal shards, that a king without magic cannot restore the Ice Wall, or defend Ren Xue City against their next enemy.
Xing Jiu tells Ka Suo that Li Luo has gone very far away to undertake an important mission for the King, and all of them know that she will not return to Ren Xue City again.
To all of this, Ka Suo only nods in acknowledgement and says nothing, his expression as blank as an ice mask. He attends court and carries out his duties as always, and only Ying Kong Shi sees how it hurts him.
One night when the ice storms have subsided, Ying Kong Shi goes out to the palace's highest balcony and sees his beloved brother standing there, his silhouette as sharp and desolate as always. In the mortal world, Li Luo had stayed by his side through his many sleepless nights, and talked with him until daybreak. But now she has gone somewhere far away, and Ka Suo is alone again.
Ying Kong Shi turns his face to the stars that glimmer brightly in the cold night sky, and remembers Ka Suo saying, "My wish is to live freely."
That freedom will never come to pass, Ying Kong Shi knows, when Ka Suo takes the crown. But there are some things the stars have not yet decreed. Xing Jiu has been wrong before, and there is more than one prince in Ren Xue City who can be king.
For what I love, I am willing to give up anything.
Anything, no matter what it takes. His reputation, his illusory magic, his position in Ren Xue City, his life, should it be needed—
—Ka Suo's love for him.
Once Ying Kong Shi makes his choice, Ka Suo will never again look upon him with those kind eyes. He will never call out to him, Shi, Shi, or smile at him so gently again.
Even though Ka Suo is close enough to call out to, the distance between them might as well be infinite. Grief tears through Ying Kong Shi's chest, bright and hot like a miniature sun, or the terrible burning of the Heart-Scorching Fruit. Losing Ka Suo might be the one thing in the world Ying Kong Shi cannot bear. And yet...
Ge, I want you to be free.
Tears fall like rain, but he does not brush them away. He turns his face to the silent sky where the light of the stars falls into his eyes, and the smile that blossoms over his face then is as beautiful and terrible as the dawn.
Mirage | Li Tian Jin | Cherry Blossom Offering
Many years later, Li Tian Jin stands at the edge of the Boundless Sea's highest cliff and looks out at the distant horizon, the gray sky, and the towering glacial walls of the Ice Kingdom across the sea, and imagines it all aflame. A solitary sleet bird glides across the horizon, its mournful call rising into the storming sky.
Li Tian Jin smiles then, innocent and mysterious. He wants nothing more than to break down that wall with his own hands, shard by shard, and wash the Ice Kingdom away in a deluge of red rain. Even though he no longer has his memories, he thinks he has waited for this all his life—for the fires to arrive from across the sea, and smother the Ice Kingdom in eternal flame.
His fingernails bite into his palms where his hands are clenched into fists at his side, and the blood that trickles from the wounds blossoms on the ground like a smile.
For what I want, I am willing to give up everything.
Later, the two of them stand on Luo Ying Slope beneath the eternally blooming cherry blossom tree, by Ying Kong Shi's mother's grave and the Deicide Sword's final resting place. The north wind blows, and snowflakes fill the air between their crossed swords. The sorrow in the Ice King's eyes is as deep as the Boundless Sea, and as he lifts one hand, the touch of his fingers to Li Tian Jin's face blazes hotter than any fire.
"You saved me once," the Ice King says. "So, now, it is my turn to save you."
When the flow of memories finally stops, the last snowflakes have ridden the wind and landed on the ground. The air is empty and clear once again, revealing Ka Suo's tears that fall like rain, and his gentle and beautiful smile.
"Ge, I am sorry," Ying Kong Shi whispers. "To have made you wait so long."
Ka Suo moves his fingers to brush a lock of hair—now again silver-white as snow—out of Ying Kong Shi's eyes, and his smile is gentle and beautiful as always. “Shi, I would always wait for you. Even if it took another thousand years, or another ten thousand," Ka Suo whispers, so softly only Ying Kong Shi can hear.
In his peripheral vision, Ying Kong Shi sees Li Luo and Lan Shang running this way, the red flash of Yan Da's fire cloak close behind them.
If one gains, one must also lose. These are the terms of the Hidden Lotus and Yuan Ji’s final curse. But they have already lost enough. Ka Suo, Li Luo, Lan Shang and himself — each of them has already traded many lifetimes of separation for this eventual reunion.
"It's okay," Ying Kong Shi says. "None of that matters any more. All those things are over now."
“Shi, you're really back,” Ka Suo says, and he is looking at Ying Kong Shi as though he is the only thing in the world, and within the garden of white snow beneath the eternal cherry blossom tree, it seems as though no time has passed at all. Ka Suo pulls Ying Kong Shi into his arms then, and his kiss on Ying Kong Shi's brow is as warm as springtime.