Fanfic: A Cypress in Winter – Chapter 11 (Ice Fantasy - 幻城)

Chapter 11

Written By UnicornSlippers and Drama Panda
Consultation by WS and Charistia

As Shi and Song Bai approached the table, he let go of her hand and reached for the bottle of Ice Wine, quickly filling both glasses with the lucent, apricot colored liquid. He offered her a glass and she murmured her appreciation, taking it from him and tipping it to examine the color in the vanishing sunlight. Shi downed his glass in one gulp and Song Bai’s eyes widened in surprise, but then she shrugged and followed suit, drinking her own wine in a single swallow.

“Song Bai!” Shi sputtered. “You need to be careful with Ice Wine. It is very strong!”

Song Bai didn’t think the wine was strong all, but chose not to say so. “I’m sorry, your Highness. I saw you drink yours that way and thought it was an Ice Tribe custom.”

Shi stared back at her, his brain struggling to register what she had just said. Finally, he chuckled, the situation so absurd that it shook him out of his temporary stupor. He really did not understand the lack of control he had around this woman. He recognized the emotions he was feeling for Song Bai, but they were emotions that other people experienced. He was above all of this. Shi resolved to stop acting ridiculous and focus on learning more about the Blood Red Lotus.

His composure at least partially restored, Shi smiled and took Song Bai’s empty glass. “As I mentioned this morning, you may call me Shi. Titles between us are unnecessary.”

Song Bai inclined her head gracefully. “Of course. But.. May I ask a question?”

“Certainly,” replied Shi.

“Your name, Ying Kong Shi… What does it mean exactly?”

Shi cringed inwardly. This was not starting out well. He looked away, uncomfortable and unable to meet her eyes.

“It means to bloom beautifully, like a cherry blossom, but then to fade quickly as if you were never there, forgotten. As if you had only been an illusion,” he replied softly.

Song Bai frowned. “That seems rather gloomy, your Highness.”

“Please, just call me Shi.” After a few seconds of awkward silence, he reached to pour himself another glass of Ice Wine.

“May I have another as well, Shi?” Song Bai asked hesitantly.

Shi raised an eyebrow, but poured a second glass and passed it to her. She sipped at it slowly this time, quietly inspecting the gleaming bubbles etched into the expensive crystal. Shi took the lull in the conversation as an opening to shift the topic off of himself.

“And what does your name mean, Song Bai? Your given name, Bǎi, is pronounced differently than I’m accustomed to hearing.”

Song Bai brightened, happy to have the chance to talk about Earth Tribe. “My name means Cypress. It is not that unusual for my people to name their children after trees or plants. Our magic is life magic and the magical energy is drawn from the forest. My father named me after the Fern-Leaf Cypress.”

Shi’s attention to her words sharpened at the mention of life magic. This was exactly the sort of information that he had hoped for. He decided to press for more and offered her his arm.

His heart sped up again when he felt the pressure of her hand through his sleeve, but managed to remain calm. They walked over to the palace wall and could see all of Snow Blade City from their high vantage point, the sky above streaked with gold, vermilion and violet as the sun made its final descent below the horizon.

“I am not familiar with a Fern-Leaf Cypress,” said Shi. “Can you describe it for me?”

“It grows on the shores of Lost Lake just outside of Sanctuary. The Fern-Leaf Cypress is a delicate tree with feathery foliage that looks like it might fall over in a strong wind, but is actually very adaptable. It can grow and flourish in any temperature and any soil type. It is a fighter.”

Interesting, thought Shi. Her father seems to have named her appropriately.

Song Bai suddenly gasped in astonishment. She removed her hand from Shi’s arm and pointed. “What is that tree?!”

Shi squinted his eyes at what she was pointing at and then sighed. Song Bai had a talent for stumbling upon uncomfortable subjects.

“That is the Sacred Everblooming Cherry Tree,” he replied simply.

Song Bai was fascinated. “It’s enormous! It must have tens of thousands of blossoms on it, and it blooms in the snow! But.. that’s very strange. I didn’t feel this tree’s energy at all when I used magic earlier today.”

Shi turned his head abruptly towards her, looking very stern. “What magic?”

Song Bai looked startled, his tone alerting her to his rapid shift in mood. “It was just a small amount of Earth Magic. I drew energy from trees in Snow Fog forest to alter the dress you had given me this morning. A simple spell, nothing more.” She gestured to the gown she was wearing.

Shi eyed her critically for a moment and then finally let the tension ease of him. “Don’t try to draw on the energy of the Sacred Everblooming Cherry Tree, Song Bai. It has magical powers that even I don’t understand, and you could be injured. This tree is also revered by Ice Tribe and an outsider tapping into its energy would not be viewed kindly.”

“All right, Shi. I apologize if I did something improper by using my magic in the palace,” Song Bai said quietly, her eyes downcast.

Shi felt a stab of panic at the thought of making her unhappy, and blurted out, “It’s fine, Song Bai. You didn’t do anything wrong. If you want to see the tree, I will take you with me the next time I go there to mother’s grave.” His voice trailed off as he realized what he had just said and he silently cursed himself. The wine must have gone to his head.

Song Bai lifted her eyes, her face lighting up at his words. “I would love to see the tree up close, Shi, thank you!”

Her smile dropped as she placed her hand back on his arm, her voice sympathetic. “So, your mother is buried at the Sacred Everblooming Cherry Tree? When did the former Ice Tribe Queen pass?”

Another uncomfortable subject. Fantastic. And this time it was his own damned fault.

Shi gazed out at the sky, now a dark purple hue and dusted with a few twinkling, early evening stars. “She died ten years ago,” he replied. “She was never the Queen, though. My mother was an imperial concubine. The only imperial concubine, in fact, of the former Ice Tribe King.”

Song Bai blinked in surprise. “Really? My mother was… is… an imperial concubine as well.”

Shi looked at her. “Is that so? I’m sure you miss her very much.”

Song Bai shrugged. “To be honest, my mother and I are not close. Because my father had not produced a male heir with the Queen, my mother saw her pregnancy as chance to give the King a son and elevate her own position. She was devastated when she gave birth to me instead, and blames me for not being the male heir she so desperately wanted.”

"But your father, he didn’t mind having another daughter?” asked Shi.

Song Bai’s eyes sparkled at the mention of her father. “I have never lived up to the expectations of my family. I don’t sew, or dance or play music with any proficiency. My passions have always been archery, learning new fighting techniques, or tracking animals in the forest. These are not suitable activities for an Earth Tribe Princess, as my family has made me very aware. My father was the only one who was never critical of my choices. He supported me and accepted me for who I am. He has always protected me from the others.”

Shi watched Song Bai carefully as she talked about her father, and he could tell that she carried a deep love and devotion for the Earth Tribe King. He was also surprised that they had a so much in common. They both had mothers that had been ambitious imperial concubines, obsessed with putting their own children on the throne to the detriment of everyone around them. He and Song Bai had also both been outcasts in their own families because they were different. Kasuo had protected him, and her father had protected her.

Song Bai squeezed his arm and gave him a gentle smile, her pretty face glowing in the light of the flickering lanterns scattered around the terrace. “These last few days have been very hard, Shi. Thank you for your protection and generosity. And, thank you for arranging dinner tonight. It is good to have a friend my age to talk to.”

Shi flushed, stunned by her words. Friend? he thought with wonder. He didn't have any friends. Xing Jiu was the closest he had come to trusting anyone since his brother had died, and he was certain that the advisor did not consider him a friend, especially after the incident with Lan Shang.

Unsure of how to respond, Shi patted her hand and looked away. He felt his heart start to race again…

A polite cough sounded behind them and they both turned to find Wu Zan standing next to the dinner table, an apologetic expression on his face.

“I am sorry for the interruption, your Highness and Princess Song Bai.”

With a quick gesture from the Servant Master, a virtual army of servants descended on the table with plates filled with a myriad of cheeses, sweet fruits, exotic nuts, and warm bread dripping with honey.

After a cursory inspection of the table, groaning under the weight of the luxurious meal spread out across its surface, Wu Zan dismissed the servants and bowed.

“Dinner is served.”

Wu Zan chuckled as he left the banquet scene. Indeed things were progressing at an excellent pace. Although he hadn’t consciously timed his interruption, it seemed he had done so at an opportune time. The expression on Shi’s face had been unmistakable for someone with little experience with women, as Wu Zan had suspected. The situation had to be handled delicately. If Shi had gotten too agitated or nervous, he might have said or done something utterly regrettable or even worse, fled from the scene. The timing had to be perfect, he thought to himself as he rounded the corner of the stables looking for his next prey: Xun Ru.

Wu Zan was wary of Xun Ru. The man was cunning and dangerous. Although lacking in refinement, Wu Zan knew that Xun Ru was no pushover, and in fact the Earth Tribe captain possessed an uncanny innate intelligence. That was precisely the reason why he had to get him out of the Ice palace right now. Things were progressing nicely between Shi and the Earth Tribe Princess, and he could not allow Xun Ru to jeopardize his plans.

Wu Zan got to the stables and went to inspect the Ice Tribe’s two most valuable horses. He checked over them slowly, making sure they were well fed and in optimal condition. He entered the tack room and looked over the riding gear with a critical eye. Finally satisfied, he ordered the stable boys to groom the horses in the morning with extra care and to make sure that they were well rested, pitching his voice loudly enough to ensure that his orders were heard by all of the servants in the vicinity. Satisfied that his instructions would be fulfilled, he turned around to leave and gave a small gasp of surprise at seeing Xun Ru step out from a corner of the stables.

“Pardon me, I was not aware you were here. I apologize for my lack of my manners,” Wu Zan said, and gave Xun Ru a mocking bow.

Xun Ru waved off the obviously insincere apology. “Wu Zan, is there something going on?” he asked.

“No, nothing you need to concern yourself with. Someone is going on a trip. I will take my leave now,” Wu Zan said and strode towards the exit.

Slowing his steps at the doorway, he suddenly paused and spoke.

“Everyone, leave,” he commanded. “I want to have a private word with the Captain.”

When the stables cleared, Wu Zan turned back to Xun Ru, whose eyes were ablaze with curiosity.

“It just occured to me that you could be of some help. The Ice King is sending the Ice Tribe Commander, Bing Zhanshi, to the Earth Kingdom to investigate what happened to the Earth King. If you have any tips on evading Fire Tribe in Sanctuary, it would be welcome, Captain Xun Ru, ” He stated.

“Your King is sending someone to the Earth Realm…” Xun Ru muttered, clearly shocked.

“Yes. As you know, he promised to help Princess Song Bai. He has grown quite fond of her in the short time they have known each other, and he never breaks his promises. That's why he's sending the best man for the job.”

“Your Ice King definitely loves making a show for the Princess, doesn't he?” Xun Ru said, half shouting now, his face contorted with jealous fury. “What does he think he’ll find at Sanctuary? The Earth Tribe King is dead!” He spat out and started pacing angrily across the stable floor.

Wu Zan smirked to himself. This was going exactly as he had planned.

“Actually, we have received information that leads us to believe that the Earth King is alive and is being kept as a hostage,” he said quietly.

Xun Ru stopped pacing, his face suddenly going ashen. “What did you just say? Surely you are lying.”

Wu Zan sighed and repeated patiently, “We have spies in Earth Realm, Xun Ru. They were deployed when Mao Jiang opened the gate and attacked your people. The Earth Tribe King is alive.”

Wu Zan keenly observed how his words affected Xun Ru. When he was convinced that he had the Earth Tribe captain’s full attention, he continued to spin his web of half-truths.

“The Ice King is sending a rescue mission tomorrow. He hasn't informed the Earth Tribe royal family yet. He didn't want to raise their hopes in case something happens to the King before we can reach him.”

“I have to go too,” Xun Ru said quietly.

“No, you can't. Your duty is to guard the royal family here. Unlike Earth Tribe, we know how to handle Fire Tribe. Ying Kong Shi will take care of it.” Wu Zan said this last bit with every intention of insult.

“No!” Xun Ru growled. “I have to go. This is not a request!”

“You forget that you are in the Ice Realm. It's not your place to give commands, Xun Ru. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must take my leave,” Wu Zan said and started for the door.

“Wait.” Xun Ru rushed forward and stood in front of Wu Zan.

“I know more than one secret passage into the palace at Sanctuary. The information I have would be invaluable to your mission. I have to go. The Earth Tribe King is a great leader and I cannot sit here idly and not try to help rescue him. Please, I need your help.”

Wu Zan waited for a while before he finally responded. “Very well, I'll talk to the King. There is one condition: you have to leave without informing anyone, including Princess Song Bai. If you tell anyone else about this mission it could risk the Earth Tribe King’s life. Go and get ready. They leave tomorrow morning.”

He watched as Xun Ru stalked off, shaking his head in amazement that the boorish fool didn't even thank him. Wu Zan shrugged and smiled broadly as he left the stables. That went much better than he had expected. He just had to pull one more thread to make the pattern come together, he thought as he headed for Mirage Hall and Shi’s room.