i. to unite in ambition is to be steadfast and immovable for all time.
In the first year, Zhongli meets Guizhong.
“My name is Zhongli,” he says to her with a bow, where she stands among the glaze lilies. “I have taken on the mantle of Rex Lapis, and am here to pay my respects.”
The Guizhong from his memories of that day has a patch of soot staining her cheek. Behind her is a workshop packed to the brim with things he does not recognize; the air smells of a forge, of fire. As he speaks, she flicks a cinder absent-mindedly off her sleeve.
“No need to be so formal,” she smiles, and reaches out a hand to shake his. “Welcome to Teyvat, Zhongli. I am Guizhong.”
Zhongli was told many things about Guizhong before he descended: that she is the Goddess of Dust, a researcher and alchemist beyond measure, and something of an eccentric.
What they did not tell him, though, are the other things—that she smiles and laughs more than anyone Zhongli has ever met; that she prefers her workshop messy and piled-up with papers; that she hums all the time, to the children, to the flowers, even to the artifacts that she fiddles with as she tosses them into pots and kilns. That among all the faces Zhongli knows, it is perhaps Guizhong who loves life the most.
Perhaps these things fall under eccentric. But even so—Zhongli finds that he does not have the heart to deny her, no matter what kind of mess she gets them into.
“These are our people,” she says, after bringing him to a small outcropping overlooking the plains. She looks down at the city—no, just a village really, in those days—with a proud smile. “I know my limits, and I am weak. But with your help, we can protect them.”
Our people, she says, as if Zhongli had already agreed; as if he weren’t someone she’d dragged half-willingly into her plans with the practiced ease of someone who does it to everyone.
But looking out upon the people she views with such pride, who have meant so much to her, Zhongli finds that his answer would be yes anyway. He does not have much else to do; why not lend her his aid, and learn what he can?
“It’s decided then,” Guizhong beams. “They shall be named the Guili Assembly, and we shall make them into a great people.”
The days pass, uneventful. Guizhong alternates her time between tinkering in her workshop and spending time with the humans, singing in the plaza, devising new recipes, even the occasional babysitting job. Zhongli wanders the nearby plains, softening the fields for agriculture, helping the miners collect ore, gathering artifacts here and there when the earth offers them up to him. He’s not sure what the adepti do, besides rotating shifts to guard the Realm of Clouds in case Guizhong blows something up again.
“Why do you do so much for them?” Zhongli asks her, when she is installing the Guizhong Ballista. It is the biggest project that Guizhong has overtaken: the product of several years’ work in her workshop with the help of Cloud Retainer, and the frame and materials had taken the help of all the adepti to gather and carry over. He watches her hands carefully; though he does not know its most minute workings, he should know the basics, so that he can use it and repair it if need be.
Guizhong finishes fiddling, and steps back. She swivels the ballista a few times, gives the whole thing a once-over, and tightens a part on the cross piece
“Humans are weak creatures,” she says as she works. “I know that, and I know you think that, Zhongli.”
Zhongli doesn’t disagree. They are loud and annoying and one day they will die, and isn’t that a pitiful thing?
“They are stronger than you think.” She looks at him over the arm of the ballista with a gentle smile. “Their strength comes from knowing that one day life will come to an end, because then they can fight ceaselessly to live.”
“But once it is over, it is over,” Zhongli points out, a bit petulantly; he does not want to admit that Guizhong read his mind. She gestures, once, and he hands her a plank from the pile next to him.
“It is,” Guizhong nods. She affixes the piece, reinforcing the middle bar with a casual twist of her hands. “But you forget that death is not the end.”
“What do you mean?” Zhongli asks. Life is life, death is death. They are separate, mutually-exclusive. If death is not the end of life, then what is?
Guizhong straightens up, dusting off splinters from her gloves.
“As long as someone still remembers you,” she says, “you can yet live in their memory.”
“That’s not—living,” Zhongli frowns. “It means nothing, to be remembered.”
“Spoken like a true immortal,” Guizhong laughs. “For humans, being remembered means defying death. For those of us who already do so, it means nothing.”
Zhongli grumbles. Guizhong somehow always knows what is right, what is true, while he is simply ignorant. He wishes he knew more—would he understand, then?
Guizhong ruffles his hair fondly. “It will simply take time,” she says, answering his unasked question. “I am still learning, too, and I will always be. There is no need to be in such a hurry.”
That, in the end, is the mistake they both make: believing that immortal is the same as forever.
The peace that Guizhong envisioned for Guili does not last even a century before the Archon War begins. It is a War, indeed: it rages across all of Teyvat; gods pitted against gods, and humans caught up in battles for once not of their own making.
The first to go is the Goddess of Salt. She is too peaceful, too gentle. In the end she is slaughtered by the ruler of her own kingdom, and laid to rest in Sal Terrae.
ii. fortify the bones, that movement be supple when the time comes.
Guizhong summons Zhongli to the Realm of Clouds, centuries into the age of war.
“You are the God of Contracts,” she says. “Make one with me.”
“We have no contract,” Zhongli says, tilting his head. “We do not need one.”
Today Guizhong is dressed in armor, and it looks strange on her. She has always been a gentle god; prone to tinkering, quick-witted and delicate-fingered. She was not meant for war, and Zhongli knows that they—he and the adepti—are all trying to keep her away from it. But it was inevitable, perhaps, when it has ravaged this close to Guili, coating her beloved people with ashes and dust.
“Zhongli,” she says. “Please. Indulge me, this once.”
Zhongli looks away. Making a contract with Guizhong is something he has never thought of; if she asked for his aid, he would always give it, gladly. But something is different about today. She is smiling, as she always is, but her eyes are solemn. She is serious. The least he can do is respect that. “A good contract is a fair one,” he says. “What do you wish for? What will you give me in return?”
“The safety of the Guili assembly,” Guizhong replies instantly, as if pre-rehearsed. “You must protect the lives of our people, above all else.”
Zhongli nods. “And in return?”
Guizhong holds open her palm. Her stone dumbbell materializes. “All my wisdom is stored here,” she says. “I will give it to you, as a challenge, and as a mark of our contract.”
Zhongli stares at it. Blinks once.
“Do you not need this for battle?” he asks, and Guizhong breaks into laughter. He doesn’t understand what is so funny, but he does remember—this is the first time Guizhong has laughed in a long, long time.
“Right, right,” she says, genuine mirth coloring her voice. “After the battle. The battles. After the terms of the contract are fulfilled. I’ll give it to you then.”
Zhongli thinks about it for a moment. He has no use for the dumbbell; he does not know how to use it, but the fact that she is willing to give it up is proof of her sincerity. He does not have to collect it immediately. He can simply leave it in her care, and besides, he too wishes to protect her people, even if he has not yet learned to love them the way she does. “I accept,” he says. “We need—”
“A witness, I know,” Guizhong says. She flicks a switch, and the doors of the Realm of Clouds rumble open to reveal Xiao standing just beyond the entrance. He’s scowling, arms crossed in front of his chest.
“Guizhong,” Xiao says as he walks into the crowded workshop. “I still think this is in poor taste.”
“Oh, don’t be so sour,” she says, playfully mussing up his hair with a gloved fist. Xiao yelps. “Zhongli, if you would.”
“The contract is forged,” he says, reciting the words as he has a thousand times before. “That which thou seeketh shall be bestowed unto thee, for my promise is solid as stone.”
There is a solemn silence, as befitting of such a ritual, and then suddenly Guizhong’s laughter rings irreverent through the room.
“Do you have to say it like that?” she manages between laughs. “That which thou seeketh—archons, how pretentious.” Her laugh has always been contagious; next to her, even Xiao’s perpetually stoic face is on the verge of breaking into a smile. Zhongli feels a rush of—embarrassment? Is that what this is?
“It is what I was told to say,” he replies, almost petulantly, but some part of him is pleased. Guizhong, laughing twice in one day. A miracle. “I cannot simply change it.”
Before Guizhong can respond, a cryo-streaked arrow soars through the entrance of the domain and lands in their midst, a communication talisman attached.
“Osial,” Ganyu’s voice issues forth from it, harried and desperate. “He and the others have re-awakened.”
“One moment,” Guizhong says, already making rounds through the workshop before Zhongli can move. She picks up a golden feather, tucks it behind Zhongli’s ear. For Xiao, she has a flower carved out of cor lapis, which she pins to his collar. “Now you can go.”
“I will be there shortly,” she says, visibly distracted, eyes darting over the tables and benches of half-finished research. Searching for something. She and Xiao make eye contact; something unsaid passes between them. It frustrates Zhongli, this dance of understanding that he’s never quite been able to master. Xiao turns to him, loops an arm around his, and carries the both of them out of the domain in a burst of wind.
“I only wished to tell her that she should remain,” Zhongli grumbles as they speed over the water to the Sea of Clouds.
Xiao shakes his head. “She has watched us fight for centuries alone,” he says. “It is agony for her to watch us suffer while she does nothing.”
But she doesn’t do nothing, is what Zhongli wants to say. She mends them, after, healing not only their wounds but the other ravages of war as well. Guizhong is the reason that any of them can still laugh, can still smile. She is the hearth that keeps them warm, the heart that guides them onward. The home they fight to return to. If even he knows this, as precarious as his understanding of emotions is, Xiao must too.
Xiao only shakes his head again. The person who needs to hear those words is not here, and so they have no choice but to keep going.
The pillars strike as he intended, pinioning the flailing arms of the Osial to the ocean floor with a sickening crunch of shattered shell and bone. The air smells of brine and blood; the silence is filled with a roar from Osial, unholy and earth-shattering. Zhongli barely manages to hold his position on the cliff. Xiao is on a peak far to the left, polearm driven into the earth to brace against the wind. The others are off fighting their own battles; Osial is the foremost threat, but others have risen too, and they must all be subdued.
It is too early to claim victory. Osial roars, again, and a pillar topples, crumbling to dust and sinking below the ocean. Zhongli wipes off the sweat beading on his brow. His power is waning; there is only so much Celestia has granted him—the power to strike, the power to subdue, yes—but the power to seal, to end this, may be beyond him.
At this moment, Guizhong lands softly on his right. With a swift motion, a shimmering shield forms in front of them.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says, grimacing. Before Zhongli can reply, she has stepped forward beyond the barrier, rising into the air.
She holds out her hand. An unfamiliar object rises from her palm. Zhongli has no experience with artifacts, but even he can sense the unfettered malice contained within. To his side, he sees Xiao’s eyes widen in horror and recognition—Xiao stretches his hand forward, but she is far beyond them; Xiao’s mouth opens to cry out, but Zhongli hears no sound.
The world is lost in a blinding flash of darkness. When Zhongli’s vision returns, the water is calm and at peace; a blood-red seal lies across the ocean surface, punctuated by fragmented pillars. To his left, Xiao is collapsed, out cold, and on the edge of the cliff, Guizhong lies broken on the ground. Zhongli rushes over to her, but stops short when a darkness begins to rise from her hand, condensing into a whip-like shape and snapping at him.
A dark artifact, he realizes. The dark artifact, the one wielded by Xiao’s previous master before Zhongli had struck him down. He had not known she brought it. He had not known that she was planning to use it. No—she would not have had to use it, if he had just been stronger.
Guizhong coughs and drags herself up onto her knees. The miasma continues to rise; it swirls, condensing around her like a ribbon. Xiao cannot help him and the other adepti are too far away, still occupied with their own battles. Zhongli cannot purify her on his own, not at this stage. She will be consumed, corrupted, and then the lives she saved by defeating Osial will be destroyed in an instant.
“Just who I was hoping to see,” she says, bringing him back to reality. She says it with a broken smile, voice light and lilting, as if she were meeting him and Cloud Retainer for tea atop Mount Aozang and not balanced on the precipice of life and death, cursed by the darkness of a thousand departed souls. Zhongli does not know how she can still smile, knowing how this must end. “Zhongli. You must do it.”
He knows. He knows. But he does not lift his weapon. He stands, frozen and immobile and—for the first time in his life— lost. Unsure.
“Zhongli,” she chokes out. Blood stains the corner of her mouth. There is still the light of lucidity in her eyes, but it is fading by the second. “Our people—”
You must protect the lives of our people, above all else.
How long had she been prepared to give up everything? How long had he not noticed?
Zhongli tightens his grip. He lifts his polearm. Before he can change his mind, he charges it with all the power he can muster, the power to kill a god, and when he drives its point home, the darkness dissipates with a sigh, dispersing in a golden shockwave.
Guizhong does not cry out. She does not even wince. She simply collapses into his outstretched arms, and when she looks up at him, he finds in her eyes only gratitude.
“Thank you,” she whispers as she begins to crumble into dust. Zhongli grips her tighter, one last desperate gesture, and closes his arms around nothing but empty air. The last thing to go is her smile, and her voice.
“Farewell, old friend,” she says, and then she is gone.
Xiao finds him still there, in the aftermath: on his knees, soaked in blood, the stone dumbbell lying inert and useless in the dust.
With Osial gone, the tide of war begins to turn. Zhongli strikes new contracts, with the adepti, with six other archons; their requests differ, but his is always the same: no harm shall come to the people of Guili.
The legends told of those days are true: Morax, unmoved, unsmiling, unyielding. The earth shakes with his fury and his sorrow. The rivers run overflowing with the blood of those he has slain. The ground opens up and swallows those he deems sinners whole.
When it is all over, the Seven are triumphant. The contracts are fulfilled.
Guili lies in ruins, and the glaze lilies are gone, but her people are safe.
No—there is one lone glaze lily left, shining brilliant blue in the depths of Dihua Marsh. Zhongli kneels over it as Xiao looks on.
“The contract is fulfilled,” he whispers. He takes his mask off with trembling fingers and sets it aside. The blood that stains it seeps into the ground, turning it rust-red. “That which thou seeketh is now bestowed unto thee, for my promise is solid as stone.”
Zhongli takes the Guili assembly to the cliffs of the Sea of Clouds. He softens the earth, breaks the jagged edges of the rock for them. The people keep their distance; he is an archon, but beyond that, he does not have the heart or the humanity that Guizhong did, and the legends of who he was in the war will never die.
But the people thrive, anyway. He watches as they struggle, and overcome, and grow, and Liyue Harbor blooms into a flourishing city.
Zhongli feels no pride, no sense of accomplishment. There is only a vague sense of loss, of emptiness—that Guizhong should have been the one to be here. Is this what Guizhong would have wanted for them? Is this what she would have wanted for him?
He does not know the answer to these questions, and there is no one left who can answer them.
iii. wisdom is like water, it nourishes all those who receive it and in it is a reflection of the truth.
One year, he is sitting in the gardens of Yujing Terrace in the evening dusk when Ganyu emerges from the darkness.
“Rex Lapis,” Ganyu says, and bows her head.
“Ganyu,” Zhongli straightens up, dusting invisible dirt off of his gloves. “How are you?”
“I am... as well as I can be,” Ganyu replies. She shifts the scrolls bundled in her arms. “The Qixing are kind to me. Liyue is thriving. They are trying their best to follow your precepts, and it is being rewarded.”
Zhongli shakes his head. “I am glad to hear that,” he says, “but you know as well as I that those are not mine.”
Ganyu hums. “They are as much yours as hers,” she says. “Without you, they would have been forgotten.”
Forgotten. Will there come a day when Guizhong is forgotten? Will there come a day when he is, too?
He finds that the idea brings him more peace than he expected. Maybe then—
Ganyu tilts her head, watching him. “Have you grieved, Rex Lapis?” she asks.
“Have you wept since the day she passed?”
Zhongli blinks. It is an easy question. It should be an easy question. When was the last time he wept? Has he wept, before? He cannot remember.
“How can I be allowed to—” he breaks off. The words lodge in his throat. The blood, still, stains his hands. It has been centuries, it has been millenia, but the nights when he closes his eyes, he knows exactly what he will see: an ocean cliff, a blood-red sun, Guizhong, fading to dust.
If Zhongli has learned one thing since her passing, it is that time does not heal all wounds.
“She died by your hands,” Ganyu says, solemnly. “This is a fact. But even if she had lived, I think she would have been in agony. In the end you saved her and her people.”
“I saved her people,” Zhongli replies. “But—her—”
“Rex Lapis,” Ganyu says, her tone firm. She takes a seat next to him on the bench, and after laying the scrolls aside, grasps his hands in hers. They are warm. They are alive. “Let me tell you something.”
“I was the one who summoned the three of you to Osial. I sent that talisman. Sometimes I wonder—if I had sent it to just you, or Alatus, or if those of us already in Guyun had simply been stronger—would she have been safe? Would she have stayed in the Realm of Clouds, and lived?” She sighs and closes her eyes. “But these are empty thoughts, they are empty words. We all have our regrets, but they will not bring her back. I think Guizhong would be glad to know that she is not forgotten—but would she wish for us to suffer like this, for her, for nothing?”
The question is rhetorical, but Zhongli answers anyway. “She would not,” he murmurs.
“Even you have the right to grief, Rex Lapis,” Ganyu smiles, but in her eyes he sees the same sadness that he now knows weighs on all of them. “Even the gods are not immune to feeling. If you do not allow yourself this… the wear and tear on your heart may go well past mending.”
The next time Zhongli descends, it is for Qingming. The day of the dead.
The tombs of Liyue Harbor lay far into the mountains, halfway between the Harbor Entrance and the Golden House. Zhongli arrives at dusk, and walks among the silhouettes bowed in prayer.
At the edge of the tombs, a girl stands alone, head bowed, hands clasped together. Zhongli stands, watching her, and does not notice a young boy, barely a toddler, approach him, pulling on the edges of his coat.
“Gege,” the little boy says. He points at the girl. “Jiejie.”
“That’s your sister, hm?” Zhongli asks. The little boy nods, and begins toddling off, still clutching a fistful of Zhongli’s coat, and so Zhongli has no choice but to follow.
The girl looks up, sensing their presence as they near her.
“Wangwang,” she says. “Who is this?”
“Gege,” the little boy says, and giggles.
“I’m very sorry,” the girl says. She looks tired and worn, in the way of someone who has been forced to grow up too quickly. “He’s—we lost our brother, recently. I don’t think he understands what that means, yet.”
“It is quite all right,” Zhongli replies. He gestures in front of them. “Is this your brother’s grave?”
The girl looks down at the raised dirt. It is plain, unadorned; it does not even have a headstone. “Yes. Of a sort. My family’s.” She forces a smile. “We’re fine, don’t worry. Chef Guo said I have a knack for cooking. I help out in the kitchen, and he gives us food, and a place to sleep at night.”
“That is good to hear,” Zhongli says, and he means it. He makes a mental note to visit Chef Guo’s before he returns; leave a few Mora behind. “But you—have you… been able to grieve?”
The girl regards him with careful eyes. “I have,” she says, quietly. “I have grieved, and will always grieve. That’s just—it’s just how it works. I don’t think about them all the time anymore, but sometimes I look at a new dish I cooked, and think that my mother would have loved it.”
“Mama,” the little boy says. He lets go of Zhongli’s coat to hold onto his sister’s hand.
“The grief will always be there, so long as I remember them,” she says, lacing her fingers with her brother’s. “But that just means that they brought meaning into my life. That there were people in my life who I loved, and who loved me too. That’s—kind of beautiful, don’t you think?”
“It is,” Zhongli agrees, and feels the dam inside him break. “It is.”
In another year, Cloud Retainer invites him back to Mount Aozang for tea.
He accepts the invitation, because it would be rude to refuse, but even as he steps foot near the familiar table, he can feel the weight of her gaze boring into his very soul. Cloud Retainer had always been the closest to Guizhong; he does not know how to face her, even after centuries.
She pours him the tea in silence. He drinks it in silence.
“I’m sorry,” he finally says, when it has stretched to the point of rudeness.
Cloud Retainer scoffs.
“Did you think I called you here to apologize?” she asks, voice harsh. “I simply wished to know how you were doing.”
Zhongli tries to take another sip of tea to avoid answering, but the cup is empty.
“I am… fine,” he says. “And you?”
She does not reply. She simply eyes him, and then she says—
“Excuse me?” Zhongli asks. Cloud Retainer has always been a bit frigid and remote; only Guizhong could ever coax anything besides a few haughty words out of her. But she has never once defied him.
“You are not fine, are you, Rex Lapis?” she says. Her voice softens, just a bit. “Alatus told us. He told us of the contract, and what transpired. We knew you must have had your reasons, but for such a thing to happen...”
Zhongli does not say anything, and Cloud Retainer sighs.
“I am told you spend much of your time watching the people of Liyue,” she says. “Is there a reason for that?”
“They are her people,” Zhongli says. “They are what she gave up everything for. I want to understand why.”
“Is that true?” Cloud Retainer asks, voice suddenly twisting. “Or is it something else?”
Zhongli looks up.
“You are trying to atone,” Cloud Retainer says. “You are trying to fulfill the role that she would have had, because you feel that is your just dues for what you did.”
“And yet, you do not speak to them. You do not live among them, like she would have. You watch from your high perch and pretend as if you are understanding them.” Cloud Retainer’s voice drops to a whisper. “Who is this atonement for, really? Is it for her? Or is it for your own self-satisfaction?”
“What would you have me do?” Zhongli replies. His hands are shaking. This feeling is a new one; he tries to give it a name. Is it shame? Indignance? “Would you have me give up my godhood? Live as a mortal? They still need an archon. They still need something to believe in. I have no choice—”
“You always have a choice,” Cloud Retainer cuts in harshly. She clears her throat. “I apologize, I did not mean to be insolent. You may be right; the people of Liyue need your godhood. But if you truly wish to understand Guizhong, and what she wanted… you must learn to be human.”
“But I am not human.”
“All adepti were once human,” Cloud Retainer replies. For a brief moment he can see a flash of sadness in her eyes. “You were too. We forget. But that does not mean we can not learn it again.”
The next time he descends, he wanders Liyue Harbor in human form after delivering his predictions.
The hawkers call out their wares; a perfume lady tries to wave him over, telling him that this scent or that scent would be perfect for his lover. Zhongli tries to ignore them, but he finds that humans are persistent—and surprisingly strong. He gets dragged by a nearby noctilucous jade seller into his stall, and is only freed after he insults the quality of his products and lectures him on the minute nuances of jade mineralization.
A tea seller takes pity on him, and invites him to sit together on the edge of the pier, sipping tea.
“Do you find it… enjoyable?” Zhongli asks, as he looks over the scene. Everywhere people are haggling and bartering and, in a few rare cases, arguing loud enough to be heard over the din of everything else. “Doing this, day in and day out.”
The seller hums as she takes a sip of her tea. “Not every moment has to be one of joy,” she says with a smile. “The smallest things in my day bring me happiness—a new book at the bookstore, or a customer who once praised my tea as the best in Liyue Harbor.”
“Your tea is quite good, indeed,” Zhongli says. “Light, and fresh, and just the barest hint of earthiness.
“See, just like that,” she beams. “It’s enough, you know? To remember those moments. To remind myself that it is a gift to be alive.”
Zhongli sorts through the drawers of his memory; everything is in there somewhere, but some are dusty, cobwebbed. He pulls a few of them out: sitting around Cloud Retainer’s table playing mahjong; the taste of Adeptus’ Temptation; Guizhong seated among the wild glaze lilies, singing.
(The last one, he realizes with a start, is one near-forgotten.)
“Thank you,” he says, and lays a bag of Mora on the table. The tea seller’s eyes widen comically.
“I—no, this is way too much for a cup of tea,” she says. She pushes the bag back toward him. “And anyway, I invited you for a quick chat, not to make Mora off of you.”
Zhongli shakes his head, already moving to leave. “Take it as thanks,” he says. “For reminding me of a precious memory.”
In yet another year, he meets Xiao at the balcony of Wangshu Inn.
Zhongli has more free time, these days. Liyue Harbor has cemented itself as the center of trade and prosperity across all of Teyvat, and so he no longer has to worry, the way he did at the beginning: wondering if humans could really eke out a life among the rocky cliffs of the Sea of Clouds, desperate to make sure they could, they would, because if they didn’t—then what had it all been for?
Even so, Xiao has never asked Zhongli to help him with duties, or to accompany him to Guyun Stone Forest. It has been many years since Zhongli has set foot there. It has been many years since Zhongli has wielded his polearm for anything more than small favors for the people of Liyue; meat for steamed buns, a speared fish for stew.
Today, Xiao stumbles back to the Wangshu Inn to find Zhongli seated before two plates of almond tofu, conversing with Dusky Ming.
“What the fuck,” Xiao says.
“Language,” Zhongli replies mildly. Dusky Ming continues speaking animatedly to him, seemingly ignorant of Xiao’s presence. Zhongli leans over and says, gently, “Ming-er, how about you tell me about the Ruin Guard next time?”
“You promise you’ll be back?” Dusky Ming pauses her antics, and looks at him dubiously.
“Yes, I’ll be here again. I promise,” Zhongli replies with a reassuring smile.
When the child has left, Xiao sits heavily down on the empty seat and stares at his almond tofu.
“Did you make this?” he asks.
“No,” Zhongli says truthfully, because he knows that Xiao would not eat it if he had. “The chef did.”
“Good,” Xiao replies, and takes a bite. He chews thoughtfully for a moment, and makes a pleased hum. “So. Why are you here?”
“Am I not allowed to see how you are doing?” Zhongli asks.
Xiao scoffs. “Right. Because you have done that so many times before.” Zhongli frowns. Xiao sees the look on his face, and sighs. “No matter. I understand. What did you want to talk about?”
“I have begun wondering if it is time to give up my godhood,” Zhongli says without warning.
Xiao makes a vaguely choked sound.
“Archons, you almost made me spit out my food,” he says, coughing. “So? What brought this on?”
“Do you remember the other six archons?” Zhongli asks. “The six I contracted, during the War.”
“Do you know how many of them are left?”
Xiao pauses. Zhongli watches as he thinks. He does not expect him to know; Xiao spends all of his time in Liyue, because that is where his duties are, and has never been particularly interested in the affairs of others.
“One,” Zhongli finally says. “Barbatos.”
“Barbatos?” Xiao says, looking genuinely confused. “Out of all of them—Barbatos? The last one left?”
“He is more similar to me than you would think,” Zhongli replies. “His reasons for staying.”
“Guizhong,” Xiao says. It is not a question.
Zhongli bows his head. Xiao sighs.
“It has been over three thousand years,” he says. “I know you were dealing with your self-sacrificial atonement nonsense, but—even still? Even now?”
“I cannot simply leave her city behind,” Zhongli replies. “She loved them enough to give up her life for them. What kind of archon would I be, if I left them to fend for themselves? If I failed to protect them?”
Xiao rubs at his temples. “Okay. Sure. First—tell me, Rex Lapis. Are you doing this because you want to? Or because you feel you have no choice?”
“She would want you to choose,” Xiao says. “She would want to watch over her people because you loved them too, not because…” he trails off, frustratedly running his hands through his hair.
“And if I say that I am still here because I love them? What then?”
Xiao eyes him. “If you truly loved them, we would not be having this conversation.” He sighs. “Look, Rex Lapis—if Guizhong were here, she would say this better than I would. But I’ll try. What she would want for you—she would want you to live the way you want to, not beholden to her memory and what you think she wants of you. I have forgiven you, many times over. She would, too.”
“I know,” Zhongli says, and the words are true, even as he chokes them out through gritted teeth. Xiao has told him as much, and the other adepti have too, in their own ways. Guizhong—gentle, compassionate, wise as she was—would not have wished such suffering on any of them, even for what he did. “But—“
“But you must forgive yourself,” Xiao says. “I know. That is why you’re still here. Because you have not forgiven yourself for what you’ve done, and you believe that this is the only way to atone—to protect her people the way you could not protect her. I’m not asking you to forget what you have done; I just…” he trails off again.
Zhongli stays silent.
“Do you know what my life is like, these days?” Xiao finally continues. “I can hear everything.” He turns his head to look out over the water towards Liyue Harbor. “Every wish. Every cry of their hearts. But even though I am an adeptus, I cannot answer every one. I cannot fulfill them all. Our enemies still rise and I cannot be in two places at once.”
Zhongli is sorry. He is sorry that Xiao has to go through this, that he was the one who shackled Xiao with such a fate. The contract can be renegotiated, he wants to say. I can free you. But—because he is a coward, because he does not wish to be left behind yet again, instead he asks:
“How do you forgive yourself? For all the people you did not save?”
Xiao laughs bitterly. It is the first time Zhongli has heard him laugh in millenia. “That’s what I mean, Rex Lapis. Maybe you can never forgive yourself for it,” he says. His smile is wretched. “Maybe you just have to learn to live, despite it.”
Zhongli visits the harbor, during the next lantern festival. He watches the children run amok, mouths stuffed with tangyuan, their faces aglow with lantern light. Listens to the voices of the city, the things they wish for. Some requests are common—more mora, better sales. But there are others: a father full of regrets, praying for a wayward son; a daughter, asking to see her mother again. Honesty, raw and vulnerable, and unreturned, because Zhongli does not have the power to grant these kinds of wishes.
“Here you go!” a little boy pipes up, jerking Zhongli out of his thoughts. The boy has with him several paper lanterns, small ones with little tea lights inside them. He hands one out to Zhongli with a proud look on his face.
“Ah,” Zhongli says, unsure if he should take it. But the little boy is insistent. He grabs Zhongli’s hand, and opens up his palm, and places a lantern there.
“It’s the lantern festival, mister!” the boy says matter-of-factly. “You can’t not have a lantern!”
“Of course,” Zhongli replies. “Thank you.”
He hangs his lantern on the edge of the pier before the night ends.
Please, he thinks. Can someone tell me—have I done enough?
In the final year, he meets Childe. Tartaglia. Ajax. A man with many names and many faces.
(Not that he has any room to judge.)
Childe, he thinks, suits him. A youth of noble birth. He certainly lives like a prince among the people of Liyue Harbor, a place where Mora can buy nearly everything. He sticks to Zhongli like a wolfhook, but he doesn’t mind; it comes in handy, and besides, he finds himself enjoying the man’s company—the way he lives so freely and so fully. Childe finds delight in the smallest things: making water puppets for the children by the pier, crashing the Qixing’s diplomatic banquets, even ingratiating himself and cooking with local celebrity chef Xiangling to make a seafood dish Zhongli could stand eating after he’d flatly rejected Childe’s specialty soup.
Tonight is a rare night, when he awakens and finds Childe sitting at his desk in the candlelight, reading over a letter.
“Did I wake you?” Childe asks. Zhongli shakes his head, and pads over, shaking off his restless sleep. The letter is much longer than the usual missives Childe receives, and written in an unfamiliar hand—rounded and uneven, almost childlike.
“My sister,” Childe answers his unspoken question. “She wants to know how I’m doing. She asked about you, too.”
“She asked about me?”
“I write about you often,” Childe says, and it rolls off his tongue so easily that something in Zhongli feels unmoored. “I spend most of my time with you, after all.”
“Do you miss her?” Zhongli asks.
“Of course I do,” Childe says. He looks down at the letter with a fond smile. “But she is still well, and that’s what matters. That’s why I’m here—so that my family can write me happy letters, like this.”
“Are you here because you want to be?” Zhongli asks.
Childe raises an eyebrow at the question. “Here? As in Liyue?” He pauses, looking thoughtful. “Well, I mean—I did have orders to come here specifically. I probably could have argued, if I really didn’t want to do it. But I didn’t mind. I get to eat good food, and drink good wine, and know that everything I am doing is toward a dream that I believe in.”
“A dream,” Zhongli muses.
Childe grins. “Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it is,” he says, not knowing that Zhongli is well-aware of exactly what he is working toward. He stands up from the desk and yawns, stretching languidly. “I’ll reply to her in the morning. We should go back to sleep.”
In the bed, Childe tucks his face into the curve of Zhongli’s neck and draws him close.
“What is your dream, Zhongli?” he murmurs. His breath is warm, and it tickles. “What do you want?”
It’s a question Zhongli has not been asked, for a very long time. It is a question he has not asked himself, for fear that the answer will make him waver.
But perhaps it is time. He is tired, and he wishes—he wants—
“If it is within my power, I will grant it to you,” Childe mumbles, half-asleep. Zhongli smiles, and he feels warm, because he knows that Childe means every word he says.
But Childe is only human, and he does not understand what it means to carry the weight of thousands of years and millions of lives. That what Zhongli wishes for cannot simply be put into words, bought with Mora, gift-wrapped into a tin.
(If he had to put it into words, though, this is what Zhongli would say: he wishes to be free.)
Childe grants it, anyway.
(Not intentionally, and not alone, but that’s a trifling matter.)
The irony of Osial re-emerging at Childe’s hands is not lost on Zhongli, and neither is the fact that this time, Osial’s end comes at the hands of humans: Xiao, and Ganyu, and Cloud Retainer play a part in the end as well, but in the end it is Ningguang’s palace, dropped atop the god, that seals it back into the ocean floor.
Zhongli watches from the ocean cliff; sees the flash of light that happens at the moment of the sealing. When his vision returns, the sea is calm again. The seal that spans across it is the cool green of jade, and he is alone.
iv. virtue grows tall like a tree, though there be shade it will flourish forever.
He returns to Yujing Terrace for the Rite of Parting. Everything is ready; the noctilucous jade, the silk flower perfume made of Fate’s Yearning, the wild glaze lilies.
He looks down upon the bustling pier as the Qixing begin to speak. He—Rex Lapis—is dead, but even so, the people of Liyue Harbor continue to laugh, and struggle, and cry, and live their precarious, vivid lives. An age without archons is coming—has already come, for Liyue. Would Guizhong be pleased to know this? That her beloved people have carried on her wisdom for 3700 years, and have grown strong enough to stand on their own feet?
As Ningguang lights the brazier for the final part of the rite, Zhongli looks up toward the sky. To Liyue, this rite is for Rex Lapis; to Zhongli, this rite is millennia overdue. If his dealings with humans have taught him anything—perhaps he was the one who was learning to be strong, all along.
“Farewell, old friend,” he whispers, and there is no one to hear him but the dust.
“So,” Venti says, popping the cork off a wine bottle with a practiced burst of wind. “You’re human now.”
Zhongli takes the glass of wine he has been offered—a centuries’-old vintage, if Venti is to be believed—and rests his back against the bark of Venessa’s tree, feeling the gentle breeze against his face.
“So it seems,” he says. He smiles. “So it seems.”