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we'll make a great escape

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Ever since his father passed away, Tartaglia’s day has always started the same.

 

He would wake up at six A.M. sharp, take a quick bath and brush his teeth, then head straight for the kitchen to start making breakfast for his stepmother. After that, he brings the tray of toast and coffee to his stepmother’s room, leaving it at her bedside table for when she awakens. He leaves the room to go outside and tend to their vegetable garden, making sure the produce is growing well as he sets to work in pulling out newly growing weeds.

 

Thirty minutes later, when he’s done with the garden, he checks on the clothes he had hung up to dry the previous night, collecting the dry ones and putting them inside a basket, which he carries back to the house’s small living room to neatly iron and fold, and then sort. Five minutes before 10 o’clock, he pauses in sorting the folded clothes to begin making lunch. It’s eleven thirty when he finishes cooking.

 

As he sets up the dining table, he hears the door to his stepmother’s room open. His stepmother doesn’t acknowledge his presence when she sits at the head of the table, immediately diving into the food on her plate. He stays silent as he goes to wake up his step-siblings. Scaramouche grumbles a few spiteful curse words at him when he jostles the other awake, but they fall on deaf ears. He has long since gotten used to his step-brother’s biting remarks and distaste for him to get even a teensy bit affected. Signora, on the other hand, is quiet - the only sign of acknowledgement from her being a flick of her wrist in dismissal.



-



His stepmother, Tsaritsa, is the leader of the Fatui - a group of resistance fighters seeking to overthrow the monarchy.

 

She would always bring her people over, and they were all different. Tartaglia would often catch glimpses of men and women with glasses - Scholars, he supposed, with perfectly concealed interests. Some were farm workers, a few he recognized from trading some vegetables for meats and fruits. He would never invite them inside when they were unkempt though, as what his stepmother ordered him in the rare times she did speak to him.

 

In order to not get caught, my child, she’d said, seeing as how illegal it was, what she- no, what they did.

 

The protests, the violence. The killings. All of those spilled blood, and the deaths.

 

Tartaglia couldn’t remember when it all started - the rebellion, the hate against the monarchy and the nobility. (“The blue bloods so ‘blessed’ by God.” Tsaritsa growled, venom dripping from every word). But he assumed it was sometime after his father got badly sick. When the King and Queen refused the audience to his stepmother. And then his father died.

 

He supposed he should hate them too, but he doesn’t. Because his father was a pacifist. He would never promote violence, not when the problem could be resolved with talks. And Tartaglia didn’t want to let him down, even in the afterlife.

 

So he stays at the house, away from the bloodshed.



-



“Excuse us, but is your mother home?” A young man says by way of greeting as Tartaglia opens the door. He’s flanked by two other men, both looking around his age. Three more stand behind them.

 

Tartaglia nods in reply, keeping his head low when he leads them to a room at the end of the hall, knowing full well what business the group had with his stepmother. She smiles when the door opens and she sees them, immediately ushering them inside. Then she turns to Tartaglia, giving him a look that said; you never saw any of this. Stay quiet and you won’t get hurt . He nods again as she closes the door.

 

He goes back to what he was doing before the men arrived - washing his step-family’s bloodied clothes. To get rid of the evidence.

 

(“Why is the water red?”

 

“I keep scrubbing the clothes too hard. My hands have cuts and bruises because of it.” )

 

Tartaglia lets his thoughts consume him as he gathers the freshly cleaned clothes to dry outside.

 

He had only ever wanted one thing.

 

To live in a place far away, a place with no violence, no deeply seated hatred. No rebellions. No plans for more deaths.

 

Somewhere peaceful. Somewhere untainted. Where, when he looks up at the sky, he sees blue with fluffy white clouds. Where, when he looks down at the ground, he sees green grass and colorful flowers instead of red blood and dead bodies. Where he can hear little birds tweeting to their hearts’ content.

 

He wants to be free, like the birds.

 

So he keeps his gaze upwards, at the slowly darkening sky, because it gives him hope that he, too, could be free.



-



There’s a crash down the hall, followed by yelling. Tartaglia ignored both, already used to the happenings when there is a meeting going on. He stays kneeling on the floor, scrubbing away the dirty footprints. He had better things to do than listen in on whatever they were talking about.

 

But the walls were thin, so he heard bits and pieces anyway.

 

“They’re indulging themselves with our money while they’re leaving us for dead!”

 

In a way, they were right. The blue bloods were corrupt.

 

Parties at every hour, every day. Tax money spent on expensive clothes and jewelry, all that luxury, instead of helping the people that need it the most. There is no middle class - only the poor common folk, and them.

 

It’s easy to see why his stepmother and her army want to overthrow them.

 

Tartaglia hears more yelling from the room, then something hard hitting the table. The legs screech as it moves from the force, his stepmother’s voice loud and imposing amidst her slowly quieting audience.

 

“A week from now, there will be a three day party for the prince…” He hears her say. “... a potential consort…”

 

“... have… one… own…”

 

“... murder him…”

 

Tartaglia freezes, breath stolen from his lungs as the implication of what he heard hit him.

 

They want to murder the prince? Oh no, that would be bad. The kingdom will be in chaos. There’s no way in hell that the royal family would just sit back and do nothing. The prince was their only son, their only child. They’re going to retaliate, and then watch in horror as the hunter becomes the hunted, because the Fatui would be waiting for them - armed and ready to fight. To kill.

 

Liyue would be destroyed.

 

He shivers at the thought, slowly getting sick.

 

That’s when he hears the cheering from the room, along with excited whispers and chatter. Tartaglia shakes his head, taking a deep breath to push down his nausea, then he wrings out the washcloth into the pail of murky water and stands. He nods at the clean floor before walking over to the small kitchen window, dumping the dirty water into the vegetable garden down below.

 

He places the pail on the counter beside him as he leans out of the window, breathing in the semi-polluted air. He grimaces. That’s another reason why he wants to leave. Why he wants to be free. He wants to know what fresh air is like.

 

He stares ahead, toward the dirt path leading to the cluster of houses like theirs. They aren’t rich- well, no one is aside from the blessed ones. No one’s happy either, but the Fatui is hopeful. For whatever the future will bring after they win the war. They had always called his stepmother their Queen. God knows if she really has what it takes to become one. Being Queen and leading a rebellion are two different things after all. What’s going to happen when all the anger and hatred disappear?

 

There’s going to be turmoil. And then someone will start another war. It’s going to be another cycle.

 

Tartaglia doesn’t want to stay long enough to see that.

 

So why won’t he just run away? Why won’t he just leave?

 

Leave and chase his dreams?

 

In the distance, he hears church bells ringing. He can’t see the church from where he’s standing, but he can hear just fine. There’s a wedding.

 

Cheerful chattering, blissful laughter. Sounds of joy and congratulations.

 

He finds himself smiling slightly. It was a miracle - this newly wedded couple was a miracle. Somehow, despite their hard life, they found something no amount of riches can compare to.

 

Happiness in its purest form. With each other.

 

The bride and groom’s carriage enters his line of sight, coming down the street. It wasn’t really much - just wood painted sloppily with white, an old donkey pulling them along slowly. Even the couple’s outfits weren’t impressive. They looked like hand-me-downs with sewed patches. Regardless, the couple looked genuinely happy as they smiled at each other. Their families and friends trailed behind the carriage, some small children throwing flower petals around as they giggled. The bystanders looking out of their houses shout their cheer at them.

 

The small parade was like a beacon of hope.

 

The bride catches Tartaglia’s eyes, and she smiles at him, face flushed due to all the attention they were receiving. Then she waves. Unconsciously, Tartaglia smiles and waves back.

 

Maybe… just maybe…

 

He could find happiness too. Maybe he could find his happy ending too, someday.

 

Somehow.

 

He is snapped out of his musings when the door at the end of the hall opens. He turns around, meeting his stepmother’s smiling face. It was a different smile from the bride’s. This one made his blood run cold.

 

“My dear Tartaglia, come over here.” It was a command.

 

He nodded silently, watching as people filed out of the room.

 

The meeting was over.



-



“But mother! Why him?!” Scaramouche all but screeches, turning to glare at a stunned Tartaglia. “He hasn’t even killed before! He’ll ruin everything from the very beginning!”

 

Signora frowns but says nothing, turning instead to their mother with a questioning gaze.

 

Tsaritsa sighs heavily, “That is precisely why it has to be him, dear Scaramouche.” When said boy opens his mouth again to voice his displeasure, Tsaritsa levels him with a glare which makes his protests die for the moment. “It has come to our attention, courtesy of Sir Pantalone, that the prince fancies men.”

 

“Signora is out of the question. As for you, Scaramouche, while you do have a pretty face, your bloodlust is loud. It will easily give you away. That leaves our sweet little Tartaglia. He, who has never wielded a weapon. He, who has never taken a life before.”

 

Tartaglia shivers when he feels Tsaritsa’s gaze land on him. The shock was still overwhelming, so he just stared at the table quietly. There’s an old gentleman sitting beside him, his fingers intertwined and resting calmly on the table. He’s apparently Sir Pantalone, the King’s adviser.

 

“But that’s just it! How are you so sure he can do this, mother!?”

 

“Your brother can be taught! This role is for him and nobody else!”

 

Scaramouche growls as he crosses his arms over his chest, defeated. He then turns his acidic gaze on Tartaglia, which he promptly ignores - the reality of the situation hitting him like a ton of bricks.

 

I-I’m going t-to… to kill the p-prince?”

 

His stepmother stares at him blankly, nodding. “For us to win the war, you are to kill the prince.” She says sternly.

 

Tartaglia shivers again, feeling sick with the knowledge. He was going to kill the prince. Him. The one who has never hated the blessed blue bloods. He was going to sneak in, dressed up, charm the prince, and then… kill him.

 

Oh god.

 

He shakes his head. “I… I-I can’t… I d-don’t…”

 

See! He can’t do it, mother!” Scaramouche sneers. “I’ll do it instead!”

 

“The role doesn’t fit you, Scaramouche.”

 

Turning to him, his stepmother croons, “My dear little Tartaglia.” It made him flinch, but he forced himself to look at her. He didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to kill anyone. “It would make me very happy if you do this for me.” Her voice was sickeningly sweet, just like her smile.

 

“You can do this, Tartaglia. You want to make your mother proud, right? This will help us win. You’ll become a hero.” Tsaritsa places a hand on his shoulder, squeezing painfully tight as though warning him of what might happen should he decline. “Don’t you want a new, reformed kingdom where everyone is equal? Don’t you want peace?”

 

Tartaglia sucks in a breath at that.

 

Then his stepmother places a shiny, crystalline dagger on the table, near a blood red mask.

 

“You know, your father would have fought for this too.”

 

No, he wouldn’t.

 

But Tartaglia was weak. He should have ran away years before, when he still had a way out. When he hadn’t been an important pawn for his stepmother’s coup d'etat.

 

Warily, he picks up the dagger, staring at the clear blade. He gulps and closes his eyes.

 

“... yes, mother. I’ll do it.”



-



Oh god, oh god, oh god. What am I doing?! I’ve never killed someone before, much less know how to wield even a knife in that way. How am I supposed to do this? And they expect me to dance and charm him! Ha! I’d be lucky if he falls for me… and so screwed if he sees through me… Tartaglia finds himself thinking as he gets fitted for his clothes for the party. Tsaritsa’s voice drones on in the background, briefing him on his mission.

 

“We’ve managed to seize a fairly extravagant carriage for you, along with two horses.” She says. “You are a distant nephew to the late Earl of Fontaine, and will be taking his place at the party while the main family is in mourning.”

 

“What about the nephew? Is he even real?” Tartaglia couldn’t help but ask, anxiously biting his lower lip. “What if he goes to the party?”

 

His stepmother just smiles, eyes shining maliciously. And that was enough of an answer. The nephew was dead too. He died so Tartaglia could take his place and be a murderer.

 

He winces.

 

He had never really cared about what they did before, but now… now it was different. He was going to be one of them. He was going to let his father down just because he was weak and couldn’t say ‘no’.

 

“When Sir Pantalone introduces you to the prince, try to charm him. Grab his attention. Have him focus on you, and you alone.”

 

Tartaglia gulps, “A-and then…?”

 

“On the last day of the party, at the stroke of midnight, lead him to one of the gardens. Then kill him. Make it quick so no one sees your face.” At this, she holds out the blood red mask from before - the symbol of the Fatui. “Wear the mask as you leave so they know it’s us.”

 

With shaking hands, he takes the mask from his stepmother. “B-But… what about the body?”

 

“Hm?”

 

“The… b-body. What do I do with it? D-Do it hide it?”

 

Shrill laughter spills out of Tsaritsa’s smirking lips, “Of course not, silly child! Leave the body out for show. Let them realize how serious we are.”

 

Suddenly, images of a faceless body, bloody and lifeless, mutilated, and his hands holding a sharp, blood-stained knife plagued Tartaglia’s thoughts. He blanches, feeling the sudden urge to vomit. He can’t do this. He just can’t.

 

But then, it’s not like he had any other choice. He can’t run away, not anymore. He’s a valuable asset to his stepmother’s plans now. She would probably send some of her men after him if he does decide to run. Which he won’t.

 

Perhaps, in some way, he could warn the prince…? No. That’s a stupid idea. Would the prince even listen to him? To a person he just met, to a stranger? If the prince listens to him and miraculously believes him, would he be merciful? Would he just let Tartaglia go? Or would he be like his parents? Have Tartaglia captured, torture him until he exposes the identity of his stepmother as the leader of the Fatui, and then he’d be executed.

 

What if he lied to his stepmother? Tell her he lost the knife, endure Scaramouche’s flood of insults to his intelligence and competence, and be done with it? He’d be back to being the housekeeper, and she would order another person to assassinate the prince.

 

No, that won’t work. Tartaglia shakes his head slightly, sparing a glance at his stepmother, who was talking to the man that took his measurements - Pulcinella - about the clothes he would wear. Years of living with his stepmother made him aware of her tendency to be prepared for anything. A lie as shallow as that wouldn’t work. There would be people spying on him to make sure he did as he was told, by her orders, at the party.

 

She was a cunning serpent, cold and manipulative.

 

Ruthless.

 

He had no escape.



-



“Your son really looks lovely.” Pulcinella comments as he gives Tartaglia a once-over. “I’ll have his clothes prepared for him in four days’ time.”

 

“That’s good.” Tsaritsa smiled.

 

Loud footsteps came down the hall before the door opened, revealing Sir Pantalone. A painting was held under his arm. The man tips his hat in greeting when he meets Tsaritsa’s gaze.

 

“Here it is, just like you asked.” Pantalone says, handing the painting to his stepmother. She takes it, smiling sweetly as she thanks him, before turning back to Tartaglia.

 

“This is what the prince looks like.” She holds up the painting.

 

It was of a young man that seemed to be only slightly older than Tartaglia himself, posing against a mantelpiece, dressed in full regalia. A silver crown sat atop soft-looking auburn hair. His amber eyes looked like they were glowing as he gave a barely noticeable smile, and he was handsome. Tartaglia had to admit that as he sucked in a breath.

 

Then he remembered what he was ordered to do. The morbid images returned, but this time they had a face. And- oh god. His stomach coiled, and bile threatened to rise up his throat. He felt sick again, so he looked away.

 

“W-what’s his name?”

 

“Zhongli.”



-



A few minutes later, his stepmother and Pulcinella left the room, deep in a discussion about fabrics and colors for his clothes. Tartaglia stands up to follow them, intending to busy himself with housework as he tries to fight back the dark images invading his mind, but a hand on his arm makes him stop. It was Sir Pantalone.

 

“I would like to have a word with you.” Came the fierce whisper. It confused Tartaglia, and he so badly wanted to go to clear his morbid thoughts, but the hold the man has on his limb tightens slightly. He shifts his attention from the hand to Pantalone’s face, nodding albeit warily.

 

“I need your help with something.” He says. Tartaglia blinks, nodding again although this time with confusion. Pantalone takes this as a sign to continue, “After you kill the prince, I want you to get caught. And then pin the blame on your mother.”

 

What?” He finds himself asking loudly, horrified. The hand tightens around his arm, painfully this time. A warning. Tartaglia makes sure his voice is low when he asks, “But… why?”

 

Sir Pantalone smirks, slowly letting go of his arm. “Your mother isn’t suited for the throne. She’s too impulsive. Reckless. This kingdom needs someone calm and collected.”

 

Scapegoat. The man wanted Tsaritsa to be a scapegoat. And he gets it - Sir Pantalone’s plans. If Tartaglia gets caught and reveals the identity of his stepmother as the leader of the Fatui, the royal army would go after her. Then this man would take advantage of the chaos and take over the throne while the royal family sat clueless and defenseless.

 

It was an ingenious plan, if not morally debatable.

 

Tartaglia frowns, “But it’s impossible to do it by yourself.” His frown deepens as he adds, “I thought you were on her side?”

 

“Not everyone that serves your mother should be trusted.” Pantalone says, “And don’t you want revenge? For all the hard work your mother has put you through? For mistreating you?”

 

“I-I…”

 

“This is your chance. All you have to do is to get caught.”

 

“...”

 

“Tell them it was your mother that sent you. That she’s the leader of the Fatui. As the King’s adviser, I’ll make sure you go unharmed.” He pats Tartaglia’s shoulder. “And as soon as I take over the throne, I promise to reward you. Whatever you want. A piece of land, a title? Or, perhaps, make you an actual prince?”

 

Tartaglia stares down at his hands, clenching and unclenching them as his mind tries to process everything. It was honestly too much.

 

He… he didn’t want any of those.

 

He only really wanted one thing.

 

He just wanted to be let go, to leave this godforsaken kingdom, to find some peace. But no matter how much he craved - yearned - for it, he would never get it. Because despite who they were and whatever they could offer, they would never give him the freedom he so much desired. He was their pawn, their way to power.

 

So, Tartaglia decided, he’ll do it. He was already in too deep anyway.

 

“Alright.” He says.

 

Sir Pantalone smirks.