Fanfic: A Cypress in Winter – Chapter 12 (Ice Fantasy - 幻城)

Chapter 12

Written by UnicornSlippers

Shi and Song Bai sat across from one another, both picking at the food on their plates and not making eye contact. When they first sat down, Shi had poured them two more glasses of wine, but he hadn’t touched his own. His head was still fuzzy from the last glass and he didn’t want to blurt out anything else he would regret later. Song Bai had finished her glass several minutes ago, seemingly unaffected by the potent alcohol. She was eyeing the nearly empty bottle wistfully, so Shi finally spoke up.

“Song Bai, would you like another glass of wine?”

She started at the sound of his voice and then glanced at him, smiling sheepishly. “No, your Highness. The wine is very good, but I’ve probably had enough.”

Shi sighed and picked up the bottle, pouring the last bit of amber colored liquid into her empty glass.

“You might as well finish it,” he said, laughter creeping into his voice.

Song Bai’s smile broadened and her sea-green eyes twinkled with mischief.

By the Gods, this woman is strikingly beautiful, Shi thought as he studied her face. She also was a woman who, like himself, would fight for her people and her loved ones. He admired that. And, he thought with amusement, she was a woman who could drink him under the table.

As he was watching Song Bai sip her wine, a question formed in his mind and the words came out, unbidden. “Are you promised to anyone, Song Bai?”

Horrified at what had just tumbled from his mouth, Shi coughed and stared down at his plate, awkwardly pushing a fat grape around with the end of his utensil.

Song Bai didn’t seem to be surprised by the question nor did she take offense.

“No, I am not promised to anyone.”

Shi took some courage from her unconcerned response and risked another question. “So, there is no one that you like?”

Song Bai tilted her head and smirked at Shi. “Are you asking me if I am interested in you, your Highness?”

Shi’s jaw dropped open at her extremely direct question. “No.. no .. I didn’t mean that at all. I meant.. Xun Ru. I thought perhaps…”

Song Bai interrupted him with an exasperated sound. “I would rather not discuss Xun Ru this evening, your Highness, if that is all right?”

“Certainly,” Shi responded, feeling foolish for being so clumsy with his words. He was never like this with anyone else. He was always in control of every conversation, except with Song Bai. It was enormously frustrating.

As Shi grappled with how to change the subject, Song Bai set down her wine glass and spoke again.

“If the war hadn’t come to my realm, I would be preparing for marriage right now. My people are mated within a year of their coming of age ceremony. As a royal Princess, my father would have chosen my mate from among the willing and eligible nobility. Because I became an adult nearly a year ago, the ritual would have already been planned.”

Shi leaned in, unsure that he had heard Song Bai correctly. “Did you say … mated?”

Song Bai nodded. “Yes, of course. Do your people not have the same ritual? Royalty are joined during a great celebration, and then are married soon after.”

Shi’s cobalt eyes went as wide as saucers. “Erm… no.” He tried desperately not to imagine Song Bai, looking as magnificent as the forest during a summer thunderstorm, eagerly awaiting her lover to join her for a mating ritual.

She looked thoughtful. “Really? I wondered why you did not yet have a Queen. Of course, we also can choose not to mate so soon after coming of age, but it can become… problematic.”

Shi was quite sure he should stop asking questions, but he couldn’t help himself. “Problematic?”

Song Bai looked slightly discomfited. “Yes. We have… powerful urges. They grow stronger the older we get if we do not mate, and they can become quite distracting.”

Shi blinked, thinking the situation sounded vaguely familiar as another wave of inappropriate thoughts washed over him.

“Anyway, I never got the chance to discuss potential suitors with my father. I am not sure if anyone had even made an offer for me.”

“Oh, I’m sure there were many offers! “ Shi said, a little too enthusiastically. He ground his teeth in annoyance and vowed to never drink Ice Wine again.

Song Bai’s cheeks colored. “Thank you, Shi. That is very kind of you. May I ask if you have someone in mind as your future Ice Queen?”

Shi shook his head vehemently. “No.”

Song Bai waited for further elaboration, but Shi remained silent. A long, uncomfortable stillness stretched between them. Feeling self-conscious about Song Bai’s prolonged scrutiny, Shi finally offered a brief explanation.

“I have been traveling for the past ten years. I haven’t had time to think about finding myself a wife.”

“Oh!” said Song Bai, taking interest in the new topic. “I love to travel! Were you traveling around the realm to meet your subjects?”

Shi decided to use her question as an opportunity. “No, I was actually looking for a magical artifact, one that would be useful to Ice Tribe. Does your realm have magical artifacts also?”

Song Bai nodded, her face suddenly growing serious. “Yes, and several of our more powerful artifacts are stored in the royal vault at the palace in Sanctuary. The vault is sealed with strong protection spells, but I’ve been worried that Mao Jiang will figure out a way to break them.”

Shi felt his heart start to gallop in his chest, but for an entirely different reason than it had done previously in the evening. This could be the key he needed to find the Blood Red Lotus.

“What type of artifacts? Would it be dangerous if Mao Jiang got access to any of them?”

Song Bai was quiet for a long moment and then sighed. “It doesn’t matter. There isn’t anything I can do about it right now. Let’s not talk about Mao Jiang tonight, your Highness. It will just spoil the rest of our meal.”

Shi grumbled to himself, vexed that he had been so close to getting more information that could possibly help him save Kasuo. He knew better than to push her too hard, however, which might make her suspicious. He he smiled and nodded pleasantly in agreement.

They finished the rest of their meal in companionable conversation, and then Shi walked her back to her room at Mirage Hall. He paused outside her door and inclined his head.

“Thank you for joining me, Princess Song Bai. You are excellent company.”

She beamed at him, clearly pleased at his compliment.

“You are welcome, your Highness,” Song Bai said softly. “Thank you again for inviting me. Though the circumstances are unfortunate, I am glad that we have had the chance to meet.”

Shi felt immediately tongue tied at her words, but managed to smile shyly and say, “As am I, Song Bai. And… please call me Shi.”

Song Bai responded with a light laugh and then disappeared into her room, the door closing quietly behind her.

Shi stood there for a long time, fighting the urge to knock and ask her if she wanted to join him for a late night walk. He eventually reminded himself to stop being imprudent, and turned to go to his room. He knew he was in trouble; Song Bai’s sweet smile sent his head whirling, and it was getting harder for him to remain impassive. He needed to find Xing Jiu, and fast. Perhaps his advisor would know what to do about his troubling behavior and help him put an end to it.

An hour later, Shi had nearly paced a hole in the thick, white sheepskin rug in his room. He was unable to stop thinking about the events of the past 24 hours, and was worrying over his conduct at dinner with Song Bai. His intention had been to get a lot more information about the Blood Red Lotus, but he had gotten sidetracked by his attraction to her. It had to stop. Xing Jiu would know what to do.

Shi knew that his advisor had likely left with Lan Shang, though he couldn’t fathom why he had done it. Xing Jiu was unfailingly loyal to Ice Tribe and had always followed Kasuo’s and Shi’s commands without question. He knew that Xing Jiu cared for Lan Shang, but this level of disobedience was intolerable. He would have worry about how to punish Xing Jiu later, however. Right now, Shi needed to figure out how to get him back to the Ice palace to discuss Song Bai and the Blood Red Lotus.

A quiet knock drifted from the door, interrupting Shi’s musings. Wu Zan entered and bowed, looking unusually serious.

“Your Highness, I apologize for disturbing you so late in the evening.”

Shi could tell from Wu Zan’s tone that whatever he was about to say wasn’t going to be pleasant.

“What is it, Wu Zan?” Shi asked.

“Xun Ru is insisting on joining Zhanshi and the other two Ice Tribe guards on the mission to Sanctuary,” he replied, carefully watching Shi for any unexpected shift in his current disposition.

Shi sighed wearily, too exhausted to work up a temper over the Earth Tribe half-wit tonight.

“Xun Ru is too volatile to join Zhanshi. He’ll get them killed the minute they step into Earth Tribe realm.”

Wu Zan sidled closer, significantly dropping the volume of his voice. “Of course, you are right about his temperament your Majesty, but he also knows all of the secret passages in and out of Sanctuary. He could save Zhanshi and his men valuable time and keep them hidden from Fire Tribe when they enter the palace.”

Shi wondered what Wu Zan was playing at. Clearly he was trying to convince Shi to let Xun Ru go on the mission, but why?

“I am still not comfortable sending him with my men. I don’t trust him.”

Wu Zan nodded sagely. “Again, you are right as always your Highness. He is not trustworthy. But, he does seem to have a deep respect for the Earth Tribe King. I don’t think he would put the King’s life in jeopardy by acting rash. Also, it would give Song Bai some time to reflect on her feelings for him after her ... discussion with him this morning.”

At the mention of Song Bai and Xun Ru’s earlier encounter, Shi bristled. “So, first you try to play my matchmaker at dinner with rose petals and wine, and now you presume to tell me how to handle my own mission?”

“Of course not, your Highness. My apologies!” Wu Zan started to kneel in submission, but Shi halted him.

“Stop it, Wu Zan,” Shi snapped. “You and I both know you aren’t sorry. I don’t know what you are up to, but you do make some valid points. I don’t like Xun Ru. I have enough problems without him causing more distractions for me. If he truly is familiar with these passages in Sanctuary and can get Zhanshi and his men in and out undetected, then I am willing to take the risk. Have Zhanshi confirm with the other Earth Tribe royal guards that Xun Ru is telling the truth. If he is, then he can go with them to Sanctuary.”

Wu Zan smiled. “Excellent, your Highness. Should we consult Song Bai first? He is her man, after all.”

Shi glared at Wu Zan, knowing full well the Servant Master used the double entendre on purpose.

“No, we will not consult Song Bai. She may be angry with me later, but I’ll handle it when the time comes. Now, leave. I’m tired and you are annoying me.”

Wu Zan scurried out of the room, knowing that he had reached Shi’s limit.

Shi walked over to his bed and sat down heavily. He closed his eyes and rubbed at his forehead, wondering what else could possibly go wrong.