It takes one chaotic encounter to turn Xie Lian's entire morning—week—year—life around.
He doesn’t consider himself to be the dramatic type, really, but his best friends seem to think so, because one of them keeps rolling his eyes like he’s trying hard to see what’s on the insides of his eyelids, and the other is attempting to give Xie Lian his undivided attention while also doing his job as a royal guard, but he just manages to look absolutely miserable instead.
“—marriage. Marriage! This is too much! I can’t get married! Why does it have to be now? What in the world did I do to deserve this now?”
“I’ve truly never heard someone speak so ill about the idea of getting married for,” Feng Xin has the audacity to check the sun outside, “Three hours straight.”
“You would be too if you had to marry the infamous Prince of Mischief, dumbass,” Mu Qing replies, speaking his words of common wisdom every once in a while, like it’s supposed to mean something, or help. But it doesn’t, because that's reason one of several why Xie Lian doesn’t want to be here right now and getting reminded just starts the ranting anew.
“Yeah!” Xie Lian agrees, again. “What are mother and father thinking?” he says, again. “How did they even find us out there in the middle of nowhere? I thought I broke the talismans while we were away…?”
This question is new, and as Xie Lian considers it, he looks from Feng Xin to Mu Qing and back again and notices that they won’t meet his eyes.
“...Did you guys…?”
“You’re insufferable and Ican’tlistentoanymoreofyourcomplaintsBYE.” Then there’s the audible slam of the carriage door.
Xie Lian startles and dips his face outside the open window. “Mu Qing?! The carriage is moving!”
“I’ll!” Feng Xin stammers behind him, and Xie Lian turns back towards him. “I’ll be make sure he’s okay.” And he hops out of the moving carriage, too.
They sit in front with the horses, and leave Xie Lian alone in the back to stew and mope and whine and sigh as he thinks about what he suddenly had to leave behind when he got word from his parents that his betrothed is here to meet him.
Truth be told, Xie Lian wasn’t opposed to the idea of marriage. He adored the stories he heard as a child, bright-eyed and gummy-mouthed and tiny hands reaching for his mother’s kisses as she sat him down and told him tales of nobles and their true loves. He thought there couldn’t possibly be anything better than true love in the world. But he was so, so young. So naiive and innocent, not a clue about words and their meanings and how heavy things like crown prince and XianLe’s future were supposed to lay like boulders on his tiny shoulders.
And the older he became, the more he wanted to know the meaning of things. His curiosity was bigger than him, his parents, and the palace he resided in. It was bigger than political relations and strategic marriages and the person whom he was set to marry. (It was bigger than that god awful portrait he'd gotten of his betrothed, the only thing Xie Lian had to go by. He figures that he should've inquired about why this so called Prince from QianDeng was literal dust mites in a trench coat, and why this single portrait looked like something so badly drawn his little cousin could've done it.)
He wanted more than the thick stone walls and gold accented halls of the palace could give him. And when there arose a need for someone of the XianLe royal family to travel across the wide, wide country on relief missions, and his father was too busy with home relations to do it, how could Xie Lian not take this opportunity to be the one to travel the lands he'd only heard about in his studies. His parents thought it was a good idea, too. A great opportunity to really familiarize yourself with the citizens and the neighboring towns! A traveled king is a well rounded king!
Of course, his parents didn't have to know about everything else that Xie Lian got up to during his wild escapades. None of the fighting and slaying of creatures, or getting into near perilous situations, or feeling what it's like to be stabbed straight through the arm like meat on a skewer.
But then—but then he was suddenly called back home, because the person he's supposed to marry, the person he's meant to spend the rest of his life with, the person who looked so—not to be vain—horribly unsightly it was kind of sad—
He's come to XianLe. To see him.
"Why do you say that as if it were something strange?" his mother had asked over the constellation communication a few nights early. "Of course he'd want to meet his future spouse, dear."
"Can we put it on hold? For just a little while?" Xie Lian whines, which is a little undignified, but none of the guards apart from Feng Xin and Mu Qing are here to witness it.
"We already accepted his request. You're to come back to the palace by the end of the week. That should be enough time, yes?"
"But the relief missions! We haven't finished—"
"We'll send in your cousin to replace you for the time being."
"Qi Rong?!" (His two friends silently made a face. Xie Lian understood.) "Are you. Are you sure...? I think I should be here to supervise him."
"Already taken care of. Please just meet with him, Xie Lian. He only requested your audience for a day or two. And, surprisingly, did not want to force your hand should you find him unsuitable. So giving him the time of day for at least a few hours shouldn't be a problem."
"If he's so willing to let me choose, surely he wouldn't mind waiting a few years to meet me?"
The sigh he heard through the array was so audiabbly exasperated Xie Lian fully expected to feel it against his own ear. "Would you please consider the offer seriously?"
"I am! I'm considering staying where I am and asking him to delay the meeting!"
"You're just as stubborn as your father, I swear to—"
And so, they packed things up and made their way to XianLe, where Xie Lian dreads meeting the very person who has rumors following him like mosquitoes to skin. Incessant, dangerous, and just a touch worrying.
He's just—scared, really. About the implications. About being stuck, feet glued in tar and quicksand, and his royal duties the same heavy boulder rapidly pulling him under. He wants to experience things before he can't anymore, and he wants to do it without the obligations of the Prince of Mischief, dreaded by all, sinking him down, too.
Xie Lian is so deep in thought that he almost misses the shouting coming from outside. It takes the rough jostling of the carriage, jerking his body forward so roughly that he crashes his nose against the carriage wall in front of him, to tear him forcefully out of his musings.
He looks out of the doorless window to the right, spots that they're in capital city now, and gets immediate whiplash at the sight of an angry mob running after who knows what.
Belatedly, he realizes that Feng Xin and Mu Qing are arguing while simultaneously trying to get the mob to calm down, somehow. They're nothing if not talented, feral multi-taskers.
Xie Lian leans out of the window precariously and holds one placating hand out to the crowd.. "Everyone calm down now, calm down!" Like a switch, they stop instantly, their incensed expressions melting into something like awe.
"Your Highness! You've returned!"
"Your Highness, sit down what are you doing spilling out of the opening like that!" Mu Qing's chastising voice cuts through the now-excited crowd.
"Didn't you recklessly jump out of the moving carriage a little while ago..." Xie Lian mumbles, but that gripe falls on deaf ears.
With a little sigh, Xie Lian falls back to the seat. Settles into the upholstery. Closes his eyes.
He feels something solid against his left and absentmindedly thinks this carriage is smaller than it should be. Interesting.
Xie Lian blinks a single eye open and looks to his left. And freezes when his eye meets the eye patch of another person.
"It's me? You know me?" Xie Lian blinks a few times in quick succession like it'll make this weird, hyper-realistic image disappear. But they're still here. He reaches a cautious hand over, ready to touch—
The single eye twinkles in the nonexistent light of this carriage. It's as though they're glowing from the inside, and Xie Lian can't decide if this person is really real and really here yet. "And should I not? Your face is quite literally plastered all over this city's square, so it would be foolish of me to not know who you are, I think."
"Ah..." Xie Lian says belatedly. Sits up and shifts away so he can get a full appraisal of whoever the hell this is. They’re incredibly pale, even in the shade of the carriage. Long black hair spills over their shoulders as fluidly as water and onto his crimson red clothing. The single eye Xie Lian can see is sharp, eyelid languishly dripping across their inky black irises.
As though they know exactly what Xie Lian is thinking, the hitchhiking stranger introduces himself. Kind of. "Pardon my brash rudeness, Your Highness. My close friends call me San Lang."
"San Lang." Xie Lian speaks it slow like syrup and nods his head. "How the hell did you get in here?"
"Well," San Lang seems to make himself at home as he rests his chin in a palm, his elbow propped on his folded knee, giving Xie Lian attention in a way he doesn't feel used to. Which is ridiculous coming from the beloved crown prince of a prosperous kingdom. "I figured it would be harder to get in, I'll be honest. Shouldn't you have guards?"
"I do! They're outside because..." Xie Lian clears his throat because he doesn't want to admit that he complained so much his friends decided the horses would be better company. "Anyway, you shouldn't be here. Please leave."
"Or what?" San Lang challenges, eyebrows raised in genuine question, like he's actually curious.
"I'll get my guard to throw you out, of course."
"Oh, I wouldn't do that. They were too distracted to notice me come in with all their arguing in the first place, I think it would be rude to interrupt their riveting conversation."
Xie Lian continues to look this person over, feeling more and more bewildered as time goes on, because he makes no sense. He's never come across a character as peculiar as this before.
"You're not from XianLe, are you?"
“What makes you think that?” San Lang asks innocently.
“I have my suspicious,” Xie Lian answers vaguely.
In lieu of annoyance like Xie Lian is expecting, San Lang smiles in amusement. Xie Lian thinks, there is no way he’s from here. This strange person holds up his ring and pinky finger as he speaks. “Half correct, half wrong.” He puts his ring finger down, and Xie Lian is left staring dumbly at his pinky in confusion. “I was born in XianLe, but at the age of seven I was taken in by two lovely women who thought I was worth a damn.”
Xie Lian can see now that there’s an interesting ring looping his pale pinky finger, and although he’s curious, he doesn’t ask. (He has the sneaking suspicion, though, that San Lang would freely give up the answer, no holds barred.)
“Seven years old, you say?” He guesses that they’re around the same age; San Lang seems taller, but it’s hard to tell by how much when he’s hunched over a little to be eye level with Xie Lian. “I used to play on the streets of XianLe, much to my parents’ dismay. Perhaps we crossed paths back then, who knows?”
“Yeah,” San Lang smiles, tooth and laughter. “Who knows.” He sits back finally, back against the other side of the carriage, giving Xie Lian some spare room. “So then, You Highness, tell me about you.”
“Me?” Xie Lian points at himself.
“Everyone seemed surprised to see you were here. You were away, travelling?”
Xie Lian attempts to not act as guarded as he feels as he responds. “...Yes. I was sent on relief missions to provide aid to the neighboring kingdoms per the king and queen’s request.”
“As expected of the Crown Prince of XianLe. Gracious and noble.” The way his eye captures the light makes Xie Lian think he’s being malicious, silently mocking, but he sounds so sincere, and Xie Lian is so lost. “Are you done, then?”
“I would like to be, but I was unfortunately dragged back here on official business. Why do you have that look on your face?”
“What look on my face?” The flash of guilt Xie Lian sensed is gone so fast he feels like he imagined it. It’s replaced by a smile, though this one seems a little forced. “Are you trying to ask about my eyepatch?”
“No! No, that’s okay. I didn’t ask, and you don’t have to tell me.”
“I would tell you; you only need to ask.”
Xie Lian dismissively waves his hands. “There’s no need! You are very strange, San Lang.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“Are you going to sit here until I get to the palace? Because you will be caught and you will be forcefully thrown out, in case you were wondering.”
“Oh, no need. I’ll see myself out when the time comes.” How cryptic.
The carriage jostles roughly again, causing Xie Lian to hit his hand against his face and shout when he feels how sore it is.
“Sorry!” comes the muffled voice of Feng Xin up front. “Mu Qing, steer these horses better.”
“Me?! You fuc—”
“Hey, are you okay?” San Lang’s voice drowns out the others. His eyebrows scrunch up with worry, and he has a hand raised awkwardly in midair.
“I’m fine, don’t worry.” Xie Lian rubs his hand against his nose and—ow—that’s a mistake. The sore pain comes back again, full force and throbbing. “Oh, god, did the last impact break my nose?”
“Right before you came in, when we were avoiding the angry crowd, the carriage was jostled very roughly and I might’ve slammed my nose against the wall,” he explains.
The guilty look is back on San Lang’s face, only this time it doesn’t go away. It seems like San Lang doesn’t even realize he’s making a face. Xie Lian thinks, ah.
“I can help.”
“Help?” Xie Lian repeats.
“Will you let me touch you?” San Lang asks like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
“No, nothing bad. I swear it’s benign just—trust me. Do you trust me?”
“No??” In what world does the prince of a kingdom trust a complete stranger? Is San Lang okay? Does he not know how weird this is?
San Lang touches an earnest hand to his chest, dons a look of pure helplessness that makes Xie Lian feel the way a puppy does when it yawns, and tells him, “Your Highness, believe me. The last thing I ever want to do is hurt you. I just want to help.”
He should contemplate this more, should weigh the pros and cons out in his head, shouldn’t nod his head in slow motion like he’s in a dream he isn’t in control of, shouldn’t feel his heart twist as San Lang cradles his face with one hand as gentle as though he were holding a blossoming flower.
His touches one finger of his other hand to Xie Lian’s nose. And his finger starts glowing.
Xie Lian has to look ridiculous, he knows he does, as he tries to look at San Lang’s glowing fingertip so close to his eyes. His mouth hangs open in wonder he can’t contain.
When San Lang is done, he pulls both hands away, satisfied.
Pressing his own hand to his nose, Xie Lian finds that it isn’t sore anymore. “You know healing magic?! San Lang! That’s amazing! It’s so rare!”
“My mothers taught it to me,” he grins. “I must say, this is the only time I’ve ever felt especially glad I sat through their long, boring lessons.”
“Nonsense! A simple broken nose is hardly something important? Surely you’ve had more important things to heal?”
“A flesh wound here, a slowing heart there. But I promise you, none of those compare to this very moment.”
“Really.” Xie Lian has to laugh. And he does, a sudden thing he has no control over, covering his mouth to keep it caged. “You are so insincere.”
“I swear, Your Highness, I’m the most sincere person you’ll ever meet.”
Xie Lian abruptly stops laughing. The implications. The implications—
He clears his throat. “Your healing magic would’ve been useful a week ago when I fought a fierce ghost who dual wielded two pairs of swords.”
San Lang whistles, thoroughly impressed. “You didn’t. It had four arms? And you got out alive?”
“I was only stabbed lightly.”
“You were stabbed??”
San Lang starts laughing now, and Xie Lian can’t help thinking that he looks brilliant when he glows.
“And you call me strange.” He pauses once the laughter drifts, then blushes madly. The change is so sudden Xie Lian doesn’t know how to respond. “Ah—excuse my rude comment. That was out of line.”
“No, please, San Lang. I don’t care,” Xie Lian smiles. “Really.”
San Lang smiles back, small and shy and cute—
The loud, creaking sound of the gates of the royal palace opening is like metal spoons to porcelain plates, and it makes Xie Lian sit up straight very, very suddenly. He hears the sound of Feng Xin and Mu Qing’s boots hitting the ground as they jump down, and Xie Lian starts to panic. He hears them shuffle close, making their way to the back, and Xie Lian’s eyes wildly scan the inside of the carriage like there’s answers hidden in the shadows.
Spacious as this carriage is, fit for royalty, he doesn’t know how well it’ll hide a full body.
And while Xie Lian attempts to figure out what to do, San Lang looks at him with so much nonchalance one would think he’s being sung a lullaby.
“San Lang! I apologize for this!” is all the warning Xie Lian allows before he abruptly shoves San Lang behind him, tears the red and gold curtain hanging on the right window, covers a comically shocked San Lang with it, and immediately sits down in his lap.
The door opens and reveals Mu Qing and Feng Xin’s faces.
“Your Highness, we’re here,” they announce.
“Uh huh!” his voice cracks. He clears his throat empathically. “Can you… do you guys mind leaving me here for a bit? I want a little time to mentally prepare for. You know. Haha.”
“Of course,” Feng Xin says, no questions asked.
Mu Qing, however, looks like he has a lot of questions, but he also looks like he can’t be bothered to ask. So he just excuses himself and leaves.
Once Feng Xin closes the door and follows after, Xie Lian breathes a heavy sigh of relief and sheepishly slinks off of San Lang’s lap.
San Lang pulls the curtain excruciatingly slow. Xie Lian dreads what kind of expression he’ll be greeted with.
Disgust? Affront? Horror? Unmitigated rage?
“What?” Xie Lian says aloud for good measure. “You’re not mad?”
“Why would I be mad?”
“I just sat on you! And I’m sorry! That was extremely uncalled for.”
“Your Highness, I don’t care,” San Lang laughs, tossing Xie Lian’s own words back at him.
He must’ve tossed his mirth at him too, because it’s contagious, because Xie Lian starts giggling, and laughing, and cackling, and he can’t stop.
“We—we need to sneak you out of here before someone notices!”
“And miss all of this? Could I not stay here instead? Pretty please?” San Lang pouts in a way that reminds Xie Lian like puppies, again, and he finds that he can’t resist, again.
But he has to. “Absolutely not.”
San Lang doesn’t look all too upset; he drops the pout quickly and shrugs his shoulders.
“Seriously, though, we must get you out before anyone sees.” Xie Lian opens the door of the carriage and pokes his head out, making sure no one is in the area before stepping down.
He turns and holds out a hand for San Lang to take and help him down, and he seems too happy to do so.
“Oh, grab the curtain. We’ll use that to cover you up.”
San Lang pauses and asks, “Will that not make me more noticable?”
“Not as much as your actual face. Better to pretend this way then to explain why I smuggled a stranger into the palace.”
“Alright,” San Lang voluntarily throws the curtain atop his head again. “Then, please guide me, Your Highness.”
“Of course,” Xie Lian places a hand on San Lang’s shoulder—notes that he is, in fact, taller than him—and pushes him through a set of doors that he knows will lead into a quiet hallway that won’t house many passersby. “I won’t let anything happen to you while you’re in my care.”
(Xie Lian thinks he’s imagining it, he has to be, because the curtain’s cloth is thick, but when he glances at San Lang, he almost swears he can see a smile breaking through the silk material.)
They walk down the empty halls, quickly but quietly, and manage to avoid being seen. Just as Xie Lian thought, this hall is free from palace guards and servants and nobles. A few turns more and they’ll be lead to an exit, and escape the palace, and San Lang can be on his way—
“Xie Lian! There you are. Why in the world are you here of all places. You haven’t forgotten where your rooms where, surely?”
Xie Lian closes his eyes, grips San Lang’s shoulder tight, and braces himself for the earful he’s going to hear—
“Oh? Who might this be?”
He breathes out very calmly, ready to whisper don’t move to San Lang—
But San Lang is moving on his own, to Xie Lian’s absolute fear.
He whisper-shouts, “San Lang! San Lang, no, ohmygod, what are you doing—”
With horror written clear on his face, Xie Lian watches San Lang pull the curtain from his face so it’s sitting on top his head and framing his face. He watches this stranger smiles bright at the Queen of Xian Le, and his mother stares back at this stranger in shock. He watches, and internally cries, when San Lang bows so deep he looks like he wants to kiss the marbled floors.
“Your Majesty,” he says, none of the wittiness and mocking tone and joking inflection there, sapped in the face of the Queen, Xie Lian’s mother, standing before them.
The Queen looks from Xie Lian, to San Lang, and back again. Xie Lian looks down in shame.
“Mother, I can explain.”
“Explain nothing!” She says sharply. Xie Lian looks up at her and sees—a smile?
“To think you were being so difficult a few days ago. And here you are ready to take your betrothed’s hand in marriage right here, right now!”
“Surprise?” San Lang smiles again, shrugging, that cool attitude back in full force and—and sudden everything makes sense but nothing makes sense and—
“You’re my WHAT??!”
With a different kind of overwhelming horror, Xie Lian makes the stark realization that the red and gold curtain hangs over San Lang’s head like a veil. He’s wearing an eyepatch. Like the Prince of QianDeng is said to have. And he had no reservations about being in XianLe’s palace, like he’s meant to be here. And he had the air of a noble, in the way he spoke and dress. And… and...
“And we weren’t expecting you to arrive so soon, Prince Hua Cheng! And in this fashion? Where are your guards and carriage?” The Queen waves her hand once. “Nevermind, let’s have you situated, yes? Follow me!”
They walk in silence that ends quickly when San Lang—Prince Hua Cheng—breaks it with, “I’m sorry.”
“You knew the whole time and you didn’t tell me?!”
“I didn’t plan to meet you like this, but I saw your carriage go by, and I couldn’t help myself,” Prince Hua Cheng mumbles like a child who’s been caught, curling a finger around the sole braid in his hair.
“Well! Of all the ways to meet my betrothed I didn’t expect it to be like this either! You really are a strange one, Prince Hua Cheng.”
Prince Hua Cheng pauses, then smiles. “I still prefer San Lang.”
“San Lang,” Xie Lian says it like he’s hearing it for the first time. And in this context, staring into Hua Cheng’s eye, red veil fluttering around his face like blushing red butterfly wings, he is. “You look nothing like the portrait I received of you years ago.”
“Portrait?” Prince Hua Cheng raises his eyebrows. “What portrait?”
“Hold on,” Xie Lian says. While the Prince and Queen wait, he runs ahead, past guards and servants who greet him, past Feng Xin and Mu Qing who looked confused as all hell, and into his rooms. He makes a beeline for his bedroom and goes directly to the drawer he knows the folded letter is in, saved and hidden away. The scawled portrait of Hua Cheng lies within. He shakes it out and holds it close to his chest as he runs back towards them in the hall.
“This!” Xie Lian holds it up for the Queen and Prince Hua Cheng to see.
The Queen looks offended on Hua Cheng’s behalf as she rips the portrait from Xie Lian’s hand, and Hua Cheng looks like he wants to shrivel up on the spot and ascend into a higher place of existence.
“I deeply apologize for this gross show of insolence, Prince Hua Cheng. I can’t believe someone would do this.” To Xie Lian, she whispers, “Did Qi Rong do this?! When did he switch the portrait out—”
“No, that was definitely me.”
Xie Lian and the Queen look up at him.
Hua Cheng pinches his nose, eyebrows scrunched up. He looks like he’s in pain.
“I… drew that. When I was younger. I heard that I was getting betrothed to the prince of another kingdom, and I was so opposed to the idea that I decided to pull a prank by replacing the real portrait with this fake one in the hopes that my future fiance would be so put off he would want to call the entire thing off. I’m sorry.”
Xie Lian laughs so hard he has to clutch his (shocked) mother’s shoulder for support.
“I—I’m sorry. I just—god, I was so terrified to meet you, and now I realize I had absolutely nothing to worry about.” Xie Lian sniffs and wipes a laugh-filled tear from his eye.
Hua Cheng’s face is burning. His glowing on the outside now, as much as he seems to on the inside.
“Tell me, Prince Hua Cheng. San Lang. Why did you draw yourself like this?”
“I.” He pauses, caught off guard by the question. When he continues, he says it in a low voice, “Didn’t think the artist captured my true essence in the actual portrait, so I thought I’d take matters into my own hands, so as not to get my betrothed’s hopes up.”
“Ah,” Xie Lian takes the portrait back, folds it small, in the shape of a heart, and pauses. He inhales. Exhales. Then presses the heart-shaped fold against his smiling lips.
“San Lang, you genuinely did not do yourself enough justice.”
Hua Cheng bites his lips around his smile, and Xie Lian thinks, I want this in a frame.