Fanfic: A Cypress in Winter – Chapter 7 (Ice Fantasy - 幻城)

Chapter 7

Written By UnicornSlippers and SakiVI
Editing By SakiVI and Charistia

Xun Ru woke with a start, stretching his aching limbs and blinking in the too-bright late morning sun. He sneezed harshly twice and struggled to remember just where the hell he was. After a few attempts, he clambered very slowly to his feet and tried to rub the ache out of his head. Out of habit, he patted at his coin purse and was relieved to find it still attached to his belt. He staggered towards the faint clamour of the soldier’s drill yard, bracing himself for the derisive glares from the Ice Tribe warriors.

He had been angry last night… very angry, and very desperate. He had emptied his water jug the moment the Earth Tribe guards had been settled in the barracks. Of course, the jug didn’t contain water. It held potent Black Willow Cider he had pilfered from the royal buttery in the palace at Sanctuary. The resulting alcohol-fueled display of self-pity and indignation had concluded with him passing out on the cold, hard stone floor in a dusty corner.

If the glares from Ice Tribe soldiers were aimed in his direction, he chose not to notice. He kept his eyes averted from the men running sword drills in the practice yard and searched out something to eat while he waited for Song Bai. She had promised to visit him this morning to discuss his apparent demotion by Ying Kong Shi, a snot nosed man-child whom he did not trust nor did he serve. Xun Ru took his orders from only one King, Song Xiang, ruler of Earth Tribe and Song Bai’s father. It was very likely that Song Xiang was now dead, executed by the Fire Tribe devil Mao Jiang, but he would still protect Song Bai and her sisters with his last breath.

Xun Ru had been born to immortal parents that had no ties to nobility and possessed little skill in Earth Magic. As a result, they were of low status in the social hierarchy that defined life at Sanctuary and ran a small leather currier shop on the outskirts of the city. Xun Ru had shown no more talent for magic than his parents, but at an early age he had demonstrated exceptional promise with a sword and his fists.

When Xun Ru reached adulthood, he joined the Earth Tribe army and seemed content to live his life as a foot soldier, his days spent fighting and his nights spent drinking and chasing women. Despite his aptitude as a swordsman, Xun Ru was frequently disciplined for his arrogance and blatant disregard for his superiors. He was always on the edge of being turned out of the army to fend for himself, but he knew that his military abilities were too much of an asset for Earth Tribe to squander, so they put up with him and his lousy attitude.

Several years after he had joined the Earth Tribe army, Xun Ru was given a temporary assignment at the palace, and everything changed. It was there that he saw Princess Song Bai for the first time, not yet fully mature but already the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He watched her for days, and noted that unlike the other noble women at the palace, she was fearless, a constant troublemaker that was the common subject of court gossip. She was constantly at odds with her mother, a high ranking Imperial concubine, due to her wild nature and interest in swordcraft and archery. He had even heard swear like one of the grizzled old fisherman at the docks. He thought she was magnificent.

Xun Ru had found a purpose to his life, and he worked ceaselessly to improve his combat and leadership skills. He still challenged his superiors, but did so with more tact than his previous attempts. He proved that he could outwit and outmatch them in any category. He worked himself to the bone until he was finally promoted to guard captain, but he was still not satisfied. He continued to train and climb the ranks, taking any opportunity to volunteer for tasks that he knew would be highly visible to the King and would demonstrate his loyalty to the royal family. He needed to be near Song Bai, which meant he had to secure an appointment in the royal guard. As a low born immortal, he knew that he had no chance of any relationship with her, but if he could just be near her, protect her… this would be enough for him. The day finally came when he was given the opportunity to serve as a personal guard for the royal family, and he had stayed by Song Bai’s side from then until now, without her knowing about his motives or infatuation.

When they fled from Sanctuary, Song Xiang had made Xun Ru swear an oath to protect Song Bai and her sisters with his life, and he intended to keep that promise. The destruction of Earth Tribe had filled him with rage and an unquenchable thirst for revenge, but with a pang of guilt he admitted to himself that it had also given him a tiny spark of hope. The palace and the noble house of Earth Tribe had fallen. The rigid social hierarchy in Sanctuary was meaningless now, and there was nobody left to protest a union between himself and Song Bai.

Though they had sorely tested each other’s patience during their escape, Xun Ru knew that Song Bai desired him from the way that her eyes raked over his body when she thought he wasn’t watching. She might not like him now, but she was attracted to him, and he knew he could win her heart if she got to know him better. He was nearly frantic to be with her, but he felt his chance slipping away the moment that he met Ying Kong Shi.

Xun Ru was no fool. Song Bai was a stunning woman, and he had seen how the King had looked at her and touched her arm in Snow Fog Forest. He probably thought he owned her because of his status in Ice Tribe. This was just another spoiled noble born to privilege and wealth that knew nothing of the real world. Surely Ying Kong Shi wanted to make sure that Xun Ru knew his place, reminding him that he was just a lowly soldier by placing him in the barracks. He wanted Xun Ru to know that he did not belong in Song Bai’s world.

Xun Ru gritted his teeth in fear and frustration as he thought about how he had seen Song Bai studying the young Ice Tribe King, much like she had often looked at him before they arrived in this frozen hell. It had made him jealous and angry and he had treated her unkindly when they had talked just before their ride to Snow Blade City. He regretted it now. He had to tell her how he felt before it was too late.

Caught up in the memories of the past, Xun Ru had forgotten his search for breakfast. He finally turned to leave the practice yard when he saw Song Bai heading towards him across the field. He gaped, mouth going slack as he saw what she was wearing. Her eyes were hard and mouth set in a grim line as she approached.

Song Bai swept up to Xun Ru, her voluminous skirts brushing his boots as they swished around her petite form. Her dark hair had been caught up at the nape of her neck and pulled into an intricate topknot, her loose curls tamed into submission with a multitude of braids and crystal-tipped hair pins. She wore a circlet on her head of metal-fashioned leaves studded with jewels in tones of lavender and blue. The morning sun sparked off of thousands of tiny translucent gems worked into the tight bodice of her periwinkle gown. Xun Ru was speechless. He had never seen Song Bai wear anything so extravagant and … gaudy.

“What exactly… are you wearing?” he asked, his face still set in an expression of shock.

Song Bai rolled her eyes. “Good morning to you too, Xun Ru.”

“This...dress does not suit you, Song Bai.” Xun Ru replied dimly, distracted by the myriad of color and lights emanating from her dress.

“I didn’t come here for fashion advice,” she replied dryly. “If you must know, King Ying Kong Shi had this gown delivered to my room this morning, and I felt obligated to wear it as his guest. It’s not like we fled here with a trunk full of my court gowns. I have little else to wear that is suitable.”

Song Bai looked down at her dress with a frown, smoothing the cloud of crystal encrusted purplish-blue satin fabric and then started to giggle. “It is garish, isn’t it?”

Xun Ru nodded emphatically. “It’s horrible. Can’t you use your magic to diminish the effect?” he asked, still eyeing the dress with suspicion.

Song Bai suddenly grew serious. “It’s not important, Xun Ru. Let’s stop talking about my dress. We need to discuss your behavior over the past two days and what we’re going to do about it.”

“Song Bai, “ Xun Ru said, gently taking her arm and pulling her inside the deserted barracks so that they could speak privately. “We cannot trust this Ice Tribe King. There is something about him that is off.”

Song Bai laughed. “You just don’t like him because he’s a noble that can order you around. He seems perfectly fine to me. True, he is unpredictable and quiet, but he seems kind enough and has been very generous to us thus far.”

“He isn’t unpredictable and quiet, Song Bai,” Xun Ru stated earnestly. “He is strange and secretive. He deliberately separated us to prevent me from protecting you. Does this not concern you at all? Did you see the way he was looking at you like a white fox who had missed his dinner in Snow Fog Forest?”

Song Bai sighed in exasperation. “You’ve been antagonizing him since he first appeared in Snow Fog Forest, Xun Ru. We are beggars from another world, asking this ruler to shelter, feed and protect us from Mao Jiang, and at risk to his own people. In return, you have offered nothing but rudeness and threats. You are lucky that an uncomfortable bed in the soldier’s barracks is the worst punishment he has given you. If you persist with this….”

Xun Ru had been barely listening, her intoxicating scent of lemongrass and sage making his head swim as they stood together, their foreheads nearly touching as they talked. He impulsively leaned in and cut her words off with a fiery, demanding kiss, his hands drifting to her hips to clutch at her and pull her close against his body. She yelped against the press of his lips, surprised at his sudden boldness. He felt her relax against him, her mouth opening to respond to his heated attentions and her hands slipping under his shirt to trace the muscular curves of his stomach and chest.

They finally pulled apart, taking shaky, shallow breaths and staring at each other, time suspended between them for a moment. Xun Run gently pushed Song Bai up against a wall and began kissing her neck, covering her skin with licks and soft bites as he worked his way up her throat. He heard her whimper softly as he captured the delicate lobe of her ear in his mouth, sucking and nibbling as his hot breath tickled her flushed cheek. His hands roamed over her curves, grasping at her bodice as he tried to work the complicated lacings loose. She gasped as his mouth captured her trembling lips again and he felt her hands splayed against his chest, her nails digging into his flesh as their kiss intensified.

He finally got the fastenings on her gown loose enough to slip his hand down the front of her dress. Their kiss was suddenly broken as Song Bai shoved him back hard, breathless and swatting at his hand.

“Xun Ru.. “ she gasped. “We cannot do this!”

Unsteady and shaken by what had just happened, Xun Ru tried to gather his senses. “You want me! I know you do, Song Bai!”

Song Bai’s eyes were wild and frightened. “I… you… this was a mistake Xun Ru. We cannot let this happen again.”

“I love you, Song Bai,” Xun Ru declared, moving towards her in a desperate rush. “I have loved you from the day I laid eyes on you. Please, leave this place with me. We can bring your sisters. Together we will find a place far away from the politics of nobility and the wars of immortals. We’ll make a life for ourselves. We can follow our own rules.”

Song Bai pressed her back against the wall, shaking her head emphatically. “No, Xun Ru! You don’t mean that. You’re just … overcome right now. We cannot do this. My father would not approve!”

“Your father is dead, Song Bai!” Xun Ru shouted in exasperation. “Mao Jiang has killed every last living member of your family in Sanctuary. Your father’s head is likely perched on a pike outside the palace gates! There is no one left who cares who you love. The only approval we need is our own!”

Song Bai looked like she had been slapped in the face at the mention of her father and the fate of the family that had been left behind in Sanctuary. Her emerald eyes filled with tears and she clenched her fists in fury.

“How dare you, Xun Ru! You don’t know my father’s fate,” she sputtered. “Why would you even say such a thing to me? Forget today ever happened. We are done here. You can rot in these barracks for all I care!”

Before Xun Ru could respond, Song Bai slipped around him and ran out of the barracks towards the palace, not looking back even once as she crossed the portcullis and disappeared out of his sight. Xun Ru stood crestfallen for a long moment, unsure how to fix the mess he had just created. As he heard the ringing clash of metal against metal in the drill yard, he felt a voracious desire to use his sword and drive out his obsessive thoughts of Song Bai. With one last despondent glance at the palace, Xun Ru exited the barracks and stalked outside.

A shadow detached itself from the wall in a dark corner, and Wu Zan stepped into the light, following Xun Ru as he walked towards the practice yard. Xun Ru felt a sharp poke at his shoulder and he whirled, confusion on his face as he saw a servant facing him with his sword drawn in challenge.

“What is it?” scowled Xun Ru testily. “Aren’t you the Servant Master that escorted Song Bai and her sisters yesterday into the palace?”

“I am,” replied Wu Zan smoothly. “And this area is for sword practice. So, let’s practice.”

Xun Ru snorted, incredulous that a servant was challenging him, but he drew his sword and took his fighting stance. They circled each other, a wolf and a jackal ready to fight. In an instant, swords flashed and bodies whirled. Wu Zan and Xun Ru’s swords pushed together for several seconds, neither gaining an advantage, until both men stepped back. The circled each other again, and by silent mutual assent, sheathed their blades.

“Not much better at swordplay than you are at magic, I see,” sneered Wu Zan.

Xun Ru was taken aback, shocked that this stranger knew about his lack of ability in Earth magic. “If that had been a real battle, your head would be cut off,” he raged.

Wu Zan smirked and walked away.