“Osmanthus wine,” began Zhongli, “tastes the same as I remember. A splendid gift for Barbados, no doubt.” Beside him, the traveler sighed. “From you. Sorry about the sudden expense.”
The traveler only shrugged. Without Paimon’s constant babble it was hard not to notice how quiet the traveler truly was. Zhongli helped them up the last steps of the mountain and across a clear pool to a table where Barbados—no, Venti-- sat. It was just the three of them up there on the peak of Aozang—four, if Zhongli were to count Paimon who slept in the traveler’s rucksack.
“About time,” said Venti. “Food is only half good without any wine to wash it down with. Ha! That bottle looks so big when you carry it, traveler!”
Zhongli began preparing their drinks with an air of ease and elegance that only came with time. The traveler watched this all quietly, which made Venti a tad uneasy. He leaned closer.
“I can’t help but feel like he’s still outdoing me,” he said in hopes of conversation. The traveler said nothing but laughed. “You’re almost a bore without that flying toddler talking for you,” he said kindly.
“Perhaps some wine would put you at ease.” Zhongli offered the traveler a cup sweet smelling wine.
“Morax, tactless as ever. Our friend is far too young to drink.” Venti’s arm made its way to snatch the cup, but the traveler already had it in hand. With a cheeky wink, they finished the wine in one go.
“Good wine,” they said, and wiped the back of their hand across their mouth. The two Archons could only stare as the traveler took the bottle and poured themselves another cup.
“Tell me you’re at least twenty,” said Venti, snatching the bottle back.
“Sure,” said the traveler pleasantly. “I’m at least on par with however old Mr. Zhongli is.”
Zhongli let out an amused laugh. “Looks can be very deceiving, traveler.”
“I mean, you’re at least ten thousand, right?”
Venti choked on his wine.
“Don’t look at me like that,” said the traveler with a smile. “You’re both old.”
“Not like you!” Venti shot back. “You--! You’re an old crone! And what’s with that smile? Are you telling me you’ve met older beings?”
Zhongli cleared his throat. Venti sat back down beside him and continued sipping his wine, albeit a little peeved, now.
“This is a stunning revelation to be sure,” said Zhongli. “Even I thought myself to be ancient.”
“I know! It was so funny,” returned the traveler gleefully. The wine made their cheeks flush and words tumbled out of their mouth carelessly, and here and there Zhongli would hear the ghost of an accent. The traveler was probably not yet used to speaking the common tongue of Teyvat. Still, it was nice to see them gleeful again. “Venti was like a little baby to me, ha-ha.”
“Yet you remain an old crone to me,” mumbled Venti.
With more wine and food the day flowed into night, and under the night sky their conversation mellowed. The better part of the night was spent reminiscing between the old gods, of friends gone and the changing land, of memories both too painful and precious to forget. Throughout all this the traveler sat back and listened, basking in the warmth of good food and friends.
They looked up at the night sky, and as they always did with their brother, started counting stars.
“What is?” said Venti.
“When we first came here there was a big star in the night sky, right in the middle.”
“Oh,” said Zhongli thoughtfully. He put his chin in his hand and thought for a moment. “Yes, of course. The seafarers of old called that star Polaris. But that was in the days of my youth.”
“Weren’t you born old?” slurred Venti.
“No,” came Zhongli’s earnest reply. “But I only noticed that it disappeared after…the dust of a great war settled.” Venti nodded sagely beside him, but he swayed too far and almost fell before Zhongli caught him.
The traveler sighed. “Long lives only burdens one with loss, it seems.” They stared at the remainder of their wine in their cup in silence before they turned their head and asked, “Do you want to hear a story from my homeland?”
Venti raised his cup enthusiastically. “Tell us your secrets, you crazy old bat!”
“I’ve just remembered. Not even Paimon knows this, I think, but my homeland was one that had suffered many catastrophes. By the time Aether and I were born the time of peace seemed to be ending, and the threat of another apocalypse loomed over us.
The lone guardian of our homeland had lived for over fifty thousand years. When she was certain she’d done her duty to humanity, she sealed her memories away in feathers and let herself have a chance at a normal life.
People found her feathers eventually. Through her memories people saw the cataclysms she survived and grew anxious. Our guardian had seen the death and rebirth of life twice over, and we hoped she could save us one, last time. So she was pulled from her new life, her memories returned and her powers reawakened.
But the loss of life and the grief it caused over her long lifetime was far too much to take in it at once. Our guardian burned. But she was a phoenix, so she rose out of her ashes a pale, smoldering ghost of herself. Lost in the sea of her memories, she turned her flames toward us.
Aether and I were only children when we flew away from all the ash. We must have done nothing but hang in the void for at least a century before we started to travel.”
It was quiet after the traveler spoke. The rays of the morning sun started to crawl down the peak of Aoguang, bringing with it cool air and dew.
Venti broke the silence with a somber hum. “When I was…tiny,” he began, “I used to watch a pair of golden stars in the sky. When this brute was done slinging mountains and hurling meteors I saw that they were gone, and I almost thought Morax here had sent them to crash down onto some poor fellow!”
“That’s what you were mad about?” Zhongli asked incredulously.
“Could you blame me?” Venti shot back. “Anyway, I am never drinking with you again, hag. You’ve gone drained all the merriment we had with your story.”
The traveler laughed. “And who would buy you your wine, my good Archon?”
Zhongli spoke up. “I’m sure we can all reach a happy medium—”
“Goodness Morax, don’t you dare,“
“--with a contract. Whenever our friend brings a bottle of wine we listen to whatever tale they decide to tell. How about it?”
“I think I’m getting shafted here,” said the traveler, “but I’ll take it.”
“For wine,” said Venti, “I'll take it.”
The traveler was beaming as they climbed Aozang. They carried with them a bottle of clear glass that they’d bought (stolen) from a noble in Sneznhaya.
“Knocked me right on my ass after a few drinks!” said the traveler. Venti gave the bottle a skeptical glance before tipping its contents into his and Zhongli’s waiting cups.
“This’d better send me to Celestia,” he murmured.
At the end of the night only Zhongli stood tall and stable. Sometime during their drinking they’d made their way down from the table and sat under the only tree of Aozang. Here, Zhongli’s companions had taken to making him their pillar and leaned their heavy, swaying heads on his shoulders.
“Zhongli is like a warm mountain like this,” said the traveler.
“Don’t let that fool you,” argued Venti from his shoulder. “When he’s this warm he’s drunk.”
Zhongli sighed. “In any case, you’ve yet to tell us a tale, traveler.”
“Mm,” hummed the traveler. “I can’t remember it anymore.”
“Nooooo,” cried Venti, still very drunk. “Make something up or Morax’ll get mad and rock-ify you. I won’t let it happen.” He tugged on Zhongli’s arm.
“If our friend can’t remember a thing it can’t be helped. They are forgiven,” said Zhongli. Then after a pause, “for now.”
“Can we revise the terms of our contract instead?” said the traveler, suddenly sounding very tired. “Since I’ve become forgetful in my old age.”
“We shall see. What do you propose?”
“I bring wine and we’ll talk, but…can you call me by my name? Since waking up here my memory comes and goes. I'm afraid without Aether calling me I…I might forget.”
Zhongli nodded, then waited in patient silence as the traveler scrunched their eyes shut in an effort to tug at their memory. Finally, as the sun rose, the traveler remembered.
“Lumine. That’s my name.”
“Then our contract is set, Lumine.”
“Yep,” said Venti distractedly. “I’ll have to change the words in your ballad, then.” He began to sing broken bits of song. Together they watched the sky slowly fill with light.