“To be the god of contracts...and commerce...and war, don’t you think it’s a little overkill?” Guizhong laughs. She had taken him to a new patch of wild glaze lilies she had chanced upon, and as they sit with their backs against a nearby tree, he tries his best to understand why these are her favourite flowers. The heavens are home to a plethora of celestial beauties, and he had once commented that he could have easily found a flower more breathtaking than the blue buds she loves so dearly. She had laughed it off and claimed, “The ones up there barely ever change. Eons could pass and they wouldn’t have dropped a single petal. These...if the wind so much as blows a little too hard, they could break...doesn’t it make you want to take care of them so badly?” Personally, he does not feel the same pull to these fragile flowers as Guizhong does, but to see her so pleased by such a simple sight is more enjoyable than he had expected.
“So long as it is within my capacity, I have no qualms about it,” he replies stoutly.
She turns away from the glaze lilies and faces him instead.“Before you are a god, you are Rex Lapis, Morax, whichever of your aliases you choose,” Guizhong says, grabbing his hands in her own. Her slender fingers fit snugly under his palms, and his gaze flits between her eyes and their joined hands in mild confusion. Then she leans in, and he can feel her breath on the shell of his ear as she murmurs, “And above all, you are Zhongli.” She presses her lips to his cheek in a chaste kiss before pulling away with an innocent smile.
“I know my own name, Guizhong,” he complains, though he thinks the kiss had been rather sweet. With the way she is smiling now, it is hard to believe in the gravity of her words. But her gaze is serious, and as it pierces his own, Zhongli is somewhat harshly reminded that she is a goddess.
“You will live forever, if no great tragedy befalls you, and it is important that you remember yourself. One with as many titles as yourself might even forget their own name. It is hard to predict what may happen in a course of a century, or a few.” Her hands are still grasping his, thumbs brushing affectionately over his knuckles, and he thinks it best to heed her advice.
“Is it not the same for you?”
“I’m a little less ambitious than you so it’s considerably easier,” she giggles. “I know my own name too. I am Guizhong, and I belong here, with my glaze lilies and my people...and of course, my Zhongli.” He frowns, though not out of distaste, and her nose crinkles in delight. The wind in Guili Plains is always gentle, so although the glaze lilies sway, their stems will probably never snap.
I am Zhongli, he thinks as Guizhong leads him home when the sun sets. I belong here, with my Guizhong and her glaze lilies and her people. When it’s phrased like that, Zhongli thinks it is harder to forget.
“Zhongli, put the poor boy down.”
He releases his grip on the boy’s collar, expressionless as the boy falls to the ground in an unsightly heap. “He was in no condition to walk all the way back here. I merely thought I would assist him in his commute,” Zhongli mutters. The dust rises disturbed around the crouching form of the strange boy, and as Guizhong smiles fondly at him, he stares at her warily. Strangely enough, she looks at the boy, then at Zhongli, then back at the boy again before giggling.
“It’s no wonder you made such a spontaneous decision to bring him back. He’s so charming.” She crouches down next to the boy and pinches his cheek, grinning. Unable to move away from her invasive affection, he lets himself be assaulted but shows his displeasure in a regal manner unbefitting of a scrawny boy covered in dirt.
“I do not think he enjoys that, Guizhong. I was also hoping you could clean him up a little; the battlefield has been unkind to him...and his clothes.” Zhongli remarks, his own attire mostly pristine save for a small tear near the hem of his coat.
“Battlefield? You told me you were going to examine deposits of cor lapis.” Guizhong has disregarded the fact that she is wearing white in a landscape of soil and is now completely seated cross-legged on the earth behind the boy, combing her fingers through his matted hair.
The boy finds the domesticity between the two of them to be stifling and comforting at the same time, but he shelves that as an emotional crisis for another time. Preferably a time when his eyelids can stay open and his skin doesn’t feel raw. But before the beautiful woman carding her fingers through his hair can continue to lull him to sleep with her presence, he feels the need to make himself known. He may not know much about life outside destruction, but one probably does not touch a weapon of bloodlust as gently as this. Zhongli is now talking about his cor lapis, which had presumably been the task he had set out to do before he decided to battle a heretical sorcerer for child custody, but is interrupted by the boy sitting on the ground.
“My name is Xiao.” It is a simple statement, and the note of finality that it carries warms Zhongli’s chest ever so slightly. “I am a yaksha, and...” Xiao hesitates, not knowing what else he can add to his name.
“And you do not like being pinched on the cheek,” Guizhong finishes, an impish glint in her eyes. Xiao opens his mouth to refute, but realises that he does not like being pinched on the cheek and closes it in begrudging acceptance. “Welcome home, Xiao.”
For a fleeting moment, Xiao is reminded of the abode of his previous master. Every time after a quest, he would be asked to come home, covered in bloodstains and other people’s tears, where he would be left alone till the next mission. But Guizhong’s smile and Zhongli’s stoicness hardly feel the same as chains, and having made his grand announcement, Xiao lets himself rest for the first time in a long while.
On a crisp morning, Guizhong plays chopsticks with a little village girl. The grass is moist with dew, and the girl’s squeals of delight slice through the cool air.
“You have utterly bested me, brave warrior princess of chopsticks,” Guizhong bemoans, clutching her fists to her chest as all her fingers have been used up. “Your kingdom may have been saved this time, but peace is not a permanent option!” It is evident that the girl does not realise she is playing a finger game with a goddess, as she lets out another peal of laughter upon victory.
As the corners of Guizhong’s eyes crinkle in delight, she feels something being placed in her lap. “Perhaps xiangqi would be a good option as well. I have heard that such a strategy game helps in early development.” Zhongli rumbles from behind her, having deposited an elaborately-crafted xiangqi set in her lap. The little girl stops giggling and stares at Zhongli, who remains stone-faced for lack of a more pleasant expression. Seeing her gaze begin to fill with decidedly unchildlike caution, he desperately searches for something considerably child-friendly in his speech bank, something Guizhong would say. While he struggles to handle the volatile emotions of a human child, she merely gazes up at him, mirth tugging up on the corners of her lips. “I have heard that brave warrior princesses of lands far from here engage in such activities. A most regal game indeed. If you would like to protect your kingdom from the clutches of malicious forces, your royal advisor suggests such a pastime instead,” Zhongli finishes, adding a little bow to the end of his statement. Zhongli is a god, but the thought of making a human girl cry is somehow more terrifying than a good majority of the horrors he has experienced. In response, the little girl hesitates, then whispers something in Guizhong’s ear, all the while keeping her eyes trained on Zhongli.
“She wants to know if you would like to teach her,” Guizhong explains. Zhongli nods to acknowledge his new task and kneels stiffly next to the two of them. As he begins to explain the rules of the game to the little girl, who has started to mimic his stoic expression, Guizhong leans back on her palms watching the two of them.
“You may call me Zhongli.”
“Mister Zhongli, do I get to keep this? I should teach my brother how to play as well,” the little girl requests, her face severe, or as severe as a seven-year-old’s face can be. Zhongli nods.
“Why don’t you ask your brother to come join us next time then?” Guizhong asks.
“He can’t come play. He is only allowed to play with the other boys, and even then Father still grumbles about how he should spend more time studying,” she explains. Then, with a proud expression, she continues, “After all, he is going to be village chief one day.”
Zhongli nods again. “It is indeed true that one who will one day become a chieftain should learn a thing or two about strategy. Keep this one; I will obtain another set, so that both of you may own one each.” Upon hearing the news, the little girl’s face breaks out in the brightest grin she’s worn all day.
“Thank you, Mister Zhongli!”
Soon, the sun dips below Qingyun Peak, and the little girl bids the two of them farewell. Months later, a lone xiangqi set is found in the assembly ruins, covered in dust but otherwise in perfect condition. The characters embossed in the pieces are filled in with streaks of cor lapis, but despite its splendour, its intended owner had never been able to lay eyes on it even once.
It is easy for Zhongli. He slices through flesh easier than a hot knife through butter, and his skin is quickly speckled with red. That is his duty, to cut down armies with a single wave of his weapon. So, he does not weep for the crying children with blood of unknown origins on their clothes, no matter how much they remind him of Little An and her beloved xiangqi set, her small face set into solemnity as she contemplates her next move. He does not weep for the newly-minted widows with voided eyes, even though he sees Guizhong’s sullen face in every single one of theirs. He does not weep for the foot soldiers with boyish frames lying lifeless on the streets they grew up in, although he takes a moment to remind himself that Xiao is fighting strong alongside him and not on the ground dead.
Zhongli takes Guizhong’s advice and heeds it well; he will never forget that he is the god of war.
It is easy for Xiao. Instead of seeing all and feeling for none, he is blinded, polearm stabbing into brutish creatures from above as he takes grave pride in their agonised groans. This is his path to redemption, and different blood is spilled when commissioned by a different master. This blood is foul and blackened; it needs to be let. When there is nothing left to face him, he does his victims a favour and consumes their nightmares, no matter how bitter they taste, so that they may rest. This is his redemption.
Xiao learns from Zhongli and does not enjoy the hunt, but looks his enemies in the eye while dealing the fatal blow.
It is not easy for Guizhong.
As Zhongli and Xiao try their best to draw the heat of the battle away from the settlements, Guizhong stays with them as a sort of final barrier between her people and the fires of war. But the only people she is protecting are the women, children, elderly, and the sick, and the wish to be able to protect all of her beloved people thuds dully against the inside of her chest. It tastes like worry.
“Miss Guizhong, won’t you come inside?”
She looks to her left to see Little An next to her. She is no longer little by any means, having grown much taller over the years, but the slight tremble in her voice reminds Guizhong of the little girl frightened by Zhongli yet too stubborn to admit it. Guizhong smiles.
“That’s alright, I can see the land far better from out here.” To be ready if anyone hostile comes, to protect all of you, is what she does not say, but from the look on Little An’s face, she understands.
“Then I’ll stay out here with you,” she mumbles, her voice soft but unwavering. “Father and Brother may not return...I don’t think Guili can afford to lose another guardian.”
Does she then think she is capable of protecting a god? That is a foolish thought to harbour, Zhongli would have remarked. But however foolish it may sound, Guizhong understands that humans have always had ridiculous ideas, ideas that drive them into mortal peril. And yet they’d do it, not out of foolishness, but out of love.
Guizhong pauses, but her smile does not falter. “I have something better for you to do. Take this bell and stand outside the central hut, where everyone is gathered. Should you see anyone suspicious or hostile, ring it three times and I will come to you.” Guizhong hands her a silver bell about the size of her palm. As Little An grasps the bell tightly and runs back to the centre of the village, her skirt billows blue and white amidst the dust caught on the wind, and Guizhong lets her smile fall.
If the wind so much as blows a little too hard, they could break...Doesn’t it make you want to take care of them so badly?
The battle may be over, but the war is far from done. When Zhongli and Xiao return, Guizhong’s feet are on the brink of giving way from standing at the village gate for a day and more. Her brows relax themselves and she feels herself let out a breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding as she grips tightly onto Zhongli’s forearms, leaning almost all her weight against his grip. She rests her head against his chest, and while her headpiece presses uncomfortably into his ribs, Zhongli remains still and silent.
When Guizhong regains the mental strength to detach herself from Zhongli, she looks to the two of them with a newfound determination and says, “I’m going to build a weapon of mass destruction.”
While countless battles blur into one endless storm of conflict, Guizhong spends her time designing mechanisms and tinkering with parts. She pores over models made of hovering dust, then dissolves them in frustration, fiddles with scraps of metal and ore and muses over which is the most durable.
“Zhongli, from what I’ve seen in the village, women prefer to receive gifts of flowers than iron ore,” Xiao mutters, struggling slightly to keep up with Zhongli’s wide gait. He is carrying a basket of iron chunks in his arms, looking way too smug for a man who is carrying mineral ore to give his beloved.
“Women also like rocks, do they not?” Xiao feels the urge to refute the fact that these rocks are not like gems in the slightest, but cannot gather the energy to argue. But when Guizhong squeals upon seeing the rocks, he guesses some things are just different with the two of them.
Before long, a shiny and terrifying ballista stands menacingly near the entrance of the village. “What will you call it?” Xiao asks, gingerly touching the bowstring.
“The Guizhong Ballista.” Xiao pauses. He should have known better than to have expected anything else.
With the newest addition to their battle squad, a small burden is lifted off of Guizhong’s shoulders. However, much like a middle-aged housewife pouncing upon a new hobby, she has started fervently crafting various weapons in her idleness. Every other day, Zhongli appears before her, covered in blood and holding out some kind of mineral, and she kisses him on the cheek. Every other day, Xiao, equally bloodied, uses a newly-designed polearm and strikes Zhongli in the gut as hard as he can. Zhongli, winded, gives a grave thumbs up, and that is how the two of them come to amass a frankly astounding number of weapons. This is as close as they are able to get to some kind of domesticity, up until the point when Guizhong requests for Xiao to shoot Zhongli in the face with a hand cannon. He says no.
February is cold, but the lights glow red and warm. The villagers have left the raucous cheer of reunions at home and gathered in the field next to Guili Assembly, paper lanterns inked with blessings in their hands. Little An stands with her mother, eyes boring into the lantern as if the harder she stares, the more likely her wishes are to come true. She wants an invitation to Guizhong and Zhongli’s wedding, and for the florist’s daughter to smile at her more. She wants her brother and father to come home safe, so she lets go of her lantern and watches as it floats into the navy blue night. As the lanterns rise and shrink, they replace the stars and suddenly, the constellations don’t feel so far away anymore.
Zhongli and Xiao mill amongst the villagers, Guizhong being busy with some unknown occupation, but their hands are empty. “Would you like one, too?” Zhongli asks Xiao as they approach the stall selling blank lanterns.
“I have nothing to wish for,” Xiao replies stoutly, although a little part of him wants to feel what it’s like to make a star. When nights are hard, he might be able to imagine the little lantern continuing to rise, a speck watching him from the sky. But Zhongli has already paid the man and obtained a single blank lantern, depositing it into the hands of a rather indignant Xiao.
“If you do not wish to write anything on it, I can write on it and you can do the releasing. It is cost-efficient that way as well, since we do not need to acquire two separate lanterns,” Zhongli remarks, already penning something down on the side of the lantern. Does a god still have much to wish for, Xiao thinks, but takes the completed lantern and lights it. When he lets it float up into inky darkness, he suddenly regrets not taking a peek at Zhongli’s wish. A god’s wish is surely to be something of great magnitude. World peace? Knowing Zhongli, his wish could even be to have even greater prowess on the battlefield, since it’s really the only thing he’s got going for him.
As Zhongli watches his wish join the stars, he wonders which god had taken the duty of granting wishes upon themselves without telling him, but recognises that he is often kept out of the loop with most celestial activities in general. It also puzzles him why Xiao had not thought to read his wish, but all it amounts to is that Zhongli will have to remember it himself, just to check if it comes true.
I hope we will always remember to come home.
A simple wish, really.
At home, Guizhong gasps sharply, and then the night is as silent as it began.
Little An gently fingers the markings on the bell Guizhong had given her that day. She hadn’t had the chance to use it, and hopes she never needs to, but she can’t help wondering if it had just been a placebo for the younger her. She reasons that since she doesn’t need it anymore, it should go back to its original owner.
“Guizhong?” Guili Assembly is grand, and the pillars tower imposingly over her small frame, making her a little unsteady on her feet. Her call echoes slightly off the walls but is met with no answer, so she turns to leave when she sees a shadow flit past. Her gut tells her to pretend she never saw it, but her feet move against her better judgement. Movement just around the corner catches her eye, and while it is by no means fast, it is quick to disappear. Little An finds herself wondering, is it possible for a break-in to occur in a god’s home?
She whirls around the corner and the corridor ends in a room. Guizhong backfaces her, staring at nothing out of a roughly-hewn window in the rock. “Guizhong?” Little An’s voice is tinged with relief at the sight of familiar blue robes. Guizhong turns around, but she isn’t smiling. A look of confusion hazes her eyes for a moment.
“Here’s your bell,” Little An places the bell in Guizhong’s palm and closes her fingers around it. One of Guizhong’s nail guards scratches the skin on her fingers and leaves a reddened line in its wake, a motion so subtle that an ill-timed blink would mean missing it. Guizhong looks at the bell in her hand, face blank for about a second more, before she breaks out into one of her signature smiles.
“Ah, I nearly forgot...thank you for returning it to me,” Guizhong laughs, slipping the bell into her pocket. When Little An leaves, having completed her mission, she feels like the pillars of Guili Assembly are slanting a little more towards her, as if it would only take a single crack to send the structure crumbling down. But she blinks fiercely and the pillars look as good as new, so she brushes it off and makes her way home.
Guizhong fishes the bell out of her pocket and stares at it, its markings shining in the sun’s orange glow.
“Zhongli, is it possible for gods to contract mortal illnesses?” Xiao asks one day. The road ahead of them winds and turns into the horizon.
“I am not sure,” Zhongli admits, gaze floating over the wildflowers growing on the edges of the path. “I have never heard of such an instance, though I presume it is not impossible.” Xiao does not respond, and for a while all is silent save for the gentle thunk of Zhongli’s boots on the dirt. Dust rises and falls with every step, golden in the sun.
“An told me something of interest the other day...it appears that when humans grow old, they forget,” Xiao remarks. “Of course, I am aware of humanity’s many physical limitations, but to forget the names and faces of those you once held so dear...it all sounds so counterproductive to me.”
“They spend their entire life loving but then they forget. What worth would their sacrifices have amounted to if they no longer remember the reason?”
For the first time that he can remember, Zhongli is unable to come up with an appropriate reply. “And you are concerned that this may happen to gods as well?”
Xiao nods. “I mean, gods do tend to get very old.”
“Are you worried, Xiao?”
They continue walking along the dusty path that winds and turns over the hill. If they were to forget, Xiao thinks, what would I do? Maybe he’d be chased away by the same hands that broke his chains and combed his hair. Maybe he’d try to disappear. For now, he tells himself that he’ll always remember that his name is Xiao, and that he has something the mortals call a family, but as the years roll and gather dust, who’s to say what might happen?
It is obvious then, that Xiao really hadn’t taken a peek at his wish that night. “I am the god of contracts, Xiao. When the terms are penned onto paper, there is no such excuse as forgetting ,” Zhongli states, seeing that Xiao has fallen into his own thoughts. “Love could even be considered a type of contract, one that binds you to other people.”
Xiao considers this for a moment. “Does that mean that you won’t forget me simply because I am bound to you by duty?”
“I wouldn’t call it simple, but you are right in concluding that it will be very difficult for me to forget one as feisty as yourself.”
“Because I am bound to you by duty?” Xiao has already been somewhat reassured by Zhongli’s certainty, but decides to milk this moment for what it’s worth. Zhongli turns to face him now, expression stoic as always.
“Let us hurry back. I had not thought to bring a lamp and it is getting dark.” Xiao wants to comment that there must be some other, more godly way to see in the dark other than using a lamp, but follows Zhongli home all the same. Another day has passed; another day of coming home.
Zhongli resembles a rock in multiple ways, including but not limited to his chiselled physique, stagnant expression and limited emotional capacity. Likewise, his aversion to change and adaptability makes him all the more sensitive to it.
This is the reason he is feeling especially grumpy today. When he comes back to Guili Assembly, Guizhong usually greets him with one of her signature smiles and a peck on the cheek. Today, however, Zhongli has been reduced to a shell of his former self because he had not received a kiss.
“Xiao, what does it mean when you no longer receive affection from a loved one?”
“It’s not like Guizhong doesn’t love you anymore. Maybe she was just busy and forgot.”
Zhongli looks at him incredulously, unable to fathom how he had identified the root of the problem to be Guizhong. Xiao truly is a man of many mysteries.
“She forgot? Should I remind her?”
Xiao snorts. “I’d love to see it when you do. What’re you going to do, write up a contract with a hundred clauses for one kiss?” His smile melts from his face when he sees Zhongli’s look of determination. He should have known better than to put that idea into his head.
When Guizhong sees the contract, she laughs. “If I fail to adhere to the terms stated in this contract, what happens?” Zhongli does not respond and instead averts his gaze. Xiao sighs.
“You will be subjected to a timely reminder,” Xiao replies in his stead, face buried in his hands. Guizhong looks at Zhongli expectantly.
“Well, if you dally for any longer, this reminder will no longer be timely, Zhongli. Are you going to break your own contract on its first day of effect?” she teases. For a moment, he looks genuinely distressed at the prospect of breaking his own contract. Xiao decides that it is time for him to leave before his dinner leaves his stomach first.
From outside the door, he hears Guizhong giggle. “See, now that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Xiao grimaces. He never thought he’d ever think this, but he is starting to see the appeal of contracts. In a way, they make sure promises don’t need to be spoken but won’t be forgotten.
Today, Zhongli decides, is a surprisingly clear day. Even amidst the chaos of war, certain parts of the region remain untouched by conflict; the dew is fresh and the flowers glisten. Out of the corner of his eye, he spies a cluster of glaze lilies in the shade of an overhanging cliff, so he chooses the brightest one to bring back for Guizhong. The rest can take their time to bloom and scatter, as is the natural order of things.
“This is indeed a most elegant flower, but it will not survive after it’s been plucked,” is what she says. “What use is such fragility in these trying times? People are dying, Zhongli.” She smiles at him, and for some reason he does not feel comforted as he usually does.
“I saw a patch of them, and I thought you might enjoy the beauty of one,” Zhongli remarks, slightly guiltily. “The next time you are free, I will bring you to view them without dooming a single one.”
“Well, if you had decided to show them to me, it would have been more efficient to simply pick all of them,” Guizhong remarks without lifting her head from her workspace. “What use would I have for a single flower?”
“If I had picked all of them, they would all have died.”
“If your purpose was to show them to me, then does it matter if they die in the end?”
Zhongli lowers the hand holding the glaze lily. “Do they no longer need to be protected? Is their fragility not the very quality that warrants our kindness?” He speaks quietly, and when his words land, all that’s left is the gentle whirring of Guizhong’s automatons.
Xiao enters, grimy and unkempt but otherwise unharmed, and Guizhong looks up at his arrival. “Welcome home, Xiao.” She grins as she ruffles his hair and makes it even messier, completely ignoring his grouchiness. “How would you feel about helping me with another small favour,” she requests, holding out a catalyst prototype. This is the first time she has created a catalyst-type weapon, and Xiao isn’t really confident he even knows how to operate it. Even so, he takes the prototype and leaves the room. Guizhong gets up in a flurry of fabric and makes her way to the door.
Truth be told, Zhongli doesn’t really understand why he called for her. He has nothing to say, only the scratchy feeling in his gut telling him that if she leaves now, she may not return. Which, to him, is a rather stupid feeling, because this is Guizhong’s home. There is no way she will not return. But she turns to him at the sound of his voice and fixes him with an intense plea of a stare. Their eyes meet gravely for a few drawn-out seconds before she turns away and leaves the room to follow Xiao.
It is another breezy day when Guizhong suggests that the three of them pay a visit to the village.
Zhongli is still bothered by her erratic behaviour, and his worry is only exacerbated by the memory of his conversation with Xiao. If it truly were to be a mortal illness, he vows to find a cure. Recently, he has begun collecting all sorts of plants and creatures in hopes of cataloguing their medicinal properties, as a precautionary measure, he tells himself.
He tries his best not to let his worry show, but the crease between his brows is all too telling. “What’s bothering you?” Xiao asks quietly as the three of them stroll idly among the street stalls.
“It’s nothing,” Zhongli mutters. It’s obvious that he’s lying, but the very fact that he has chosen to lie deters Xiao from prying.
While pretending to have his eye caught by some shiny gimmick on a felt-lined display, Zhongli avoids meeting Xiao’s gaze. When he looks back up, he sees Little An wave to them excitedly from across the street. Zhongli shoots her a small smile. “Where’s Guizhong?”
That’s right, where is Guizhong? Xiao whirls around, because he swears she had just been behind the two of them, but she seems to have disappeared without a trace. Xiao blames it on some unknown godly ability and dismisses it almost immediately, but Zhongli, the last person he’d expect to panic, looks absolutely distraught.
“I’m sure something on this street caught her eye and she just went back to look at it,” Xiao offers, but Zhongli’s lips remain pursed. He stalks, without so much as a word, back in the direction from which they had come from, leaving Xiao and inexplicably, Little An, to follow briskly behind him.
If Guizhong’s strange behaviour worsens exponentially with time, then Zhongli can only imagine that the reason for her disappearance is an ill-timed symptom. As he paces amongst the stalls, his mind trails back to the conversation they had had in her workshop. If she had been as ill as to forget her beloved glaze lilies...call it selfish, but nobody wants to be forgotten, especially an immortal god.
He sees Guizhong standing in front of the village entrance and stops abruptly, causing Xiao to crash into his back and Little An to crash into Xiao’s. Her hands are neatly poised behind her back as the breeze toys with the hem of her skirt, and the crease between Zhongli’s brows lets up upon seeing her safe.
“Guizhong?” She turns toward them, mild surprise morphing into a soft smile. “Let us go home now,” Zhongli says as he approaches her. “You must be tired.” As he grasps her shoulder, his gaze lands on some bloodstains on the front of her robes and his eyes widen. “Guizhong, are these yours? Is this your blood? What—”
“No, no...no,” Guizhong whispers, grabbing Zhongli’s forearm. “This is not my blood.” Zhongli lifts his gaze to look at her face, and her eyes are watery. “Zhongli, I’m afraid we can’t go home today.”
“What? Do you still have business here?” Zhongli is relieved to know that Guizhong isn’t hurt, but there is still a void in his brain to be filled with the relevant explanation. He had planned to ask once they returned, but evidently that plan will not come to fruition.
Guizhong buries her head in his chest. Much of this scene is reminiscent of the first day the war had posed a danger to the villagers, when she had been so worried she had stood outside of the village for an entire day and had collapsed into Zhongli’s arms out of fatigue. “You are very clearly exhausted,” Zhongli murmurs, placing a hand atop her head. “Why don’t we head back now, and you can come back for whatever it is you needed to do another day?”
“I killed him, Zhongli.”
His hand stills. Her voice is so soft, it almost gets lost in his heartbeat. “Who?”
“He was so fragile, I didn’t know it would be that easy, I couldn’t have known,” Guizhong sobs. “I couldn’t help it.” Zhongli feels his blood run cold. From where Xiao and Little An are standing, it just looks like the two of them have been hugging for a strangely long time, and from the corner of his eye, Zhongli sees Xiao make his way toward them and shoots him a sharp look that stops him in his tracks.
“It is not your fault that he was so breakable, and all mortals die in the end,” Zhongli replies after a while. “He is just one man. There is still an entire village.”
“No, no...that’s what I keep hearing,” Guizhong pulls away from him, tears streaming silently down her face. “It keeps telling me that I should not bother with such breakable things, like mortals and flowers. It keeps telling me that I will only be satisfied with more power, one befitting a god. It’s getting so loud…” she drifts off, voice too unsteady to be heard.
“We will find a way to stop it then. There must be a cure of some sorts somewhere, we’ll find it and you will stop being tormented by this entity. Just give me a little while longer—”
“There is no cure. I did this to myself, I got too curious when inventing new weapons and something happened one day and I started to feel myself slipping.” Guizhong wipes her face, but her eyes are still rimmed with red as she shows him a watery smile. “Can I ask a favour of you?”
“Yes.” I would do anything for you.
“Promise that you’ll kill me.”
Zhongli takes a shorter time than expected to absorb the instruction. Ever since she had said there is no cure, a dull ache had begun settling in the pit of his chest, not unlike a feeling Xiao had told him was called dread. He nods, and Guizhong all but collapses into his embrace again.
“Xiao, take Little An back and then go home without us,” Zhongli instructs, trying his best to keep the quaver in his voice to a minimum. Xiao nods and leads Little An back into the village, but not before Little An shoots the pair a concerned glance. Zhongli watches them until they disappear into the crowd before turning back to Guizhong.
“Zhongli, have I ever told you how old I am?” she laughs. He shakes his head, not wanting to speak and expose his brittle control over his emotions. “Actually, I don’t even remember. I seem to have lost count at around fifty thousand years. Something like this was bound to happen, although I hadn’t expected it to be so...detrimental. It probably won’t happen to you though, since your memory is so superb.” She pauses then, hand reaching up to brush his cheek. It feels faintly cool and damp, and only now does Zhongli realise he is crying.
“It’s better this way...I’d rather die than let myself forget more and more, until I myself am no longer Guizhong.” She takes a deep breath. “I am Guizhong, and I belong here, with my glaze lilies and my people...and of course, my Zhongli.”
Zhongli is the god of war. He cuts through people like a hot knife through butter, and decimates entire armies with a wave of his weapon. But holding the blade of a dagger to the stomach of one woman is an almost insurmountable task, and though his knuckles have already turned white, his grip is still unstable.
Above all, however, he understands the concept of a promise, a verbal contract. So, today he fulfills the terms of two contracts at once by pressing a kiss onto Guizhong’s lips as he drives the blade into her body.
Xiao looks up from his polearm at the sound of Zhongli’s entry. “Where’s Guizhong…” he begins to ask but trails off at the sight of Zhongli’s bloodied hands and voided gaze. Zhongli does not show any sign of acknowledgement and instead walks straight past Xiao into Guizhong’s workshop. Xiao feels at least three and a half emotions tussle inside him, and decides to follow Zhongli instead of dealing with them.
Zhongli sets two things upon Guizhong’s table, and when he retracts his hand, his fingers linger almost imperceptibly longer along the scratches caused by her tinkering. One is a silver bell a little smaller than Xiao’s palm, and the other is the dumbbell Xiao had helped to test. When Zhongli turns to leave, he bumps into Xiao, and only now does he seem to recognise his presence. “She has gone home.” he solemnly states before nudging past Xiao and leaving the workshop.
Xiao runs out of Guili Assembly and doesn’t know where his feet are taking him, but after sprinting for long enough, his attention is caught by a flash of blue and white. Amidst a patch of glaze lilies, a stone tablet has been erected. “This is where all things settle—” Xiao reads, “When the wind ceases, so will the dust return to the earth.” Xiao feels like a rock has made its presence known inside his gut, and the weight of it brings him to his knees, the fall softened by the petals crushed beneath him. Their stems are bent, but they are not broken. They are soft, but strong. And it is within this fragrant stronghold that Xiao weeps.
Without Guizhong’s face reflected in the aftereffects of war and Xiao equally numbed by grief, Zhongli drowns himself in his combat with fresh fervour, no longer hearing the anguish in the cries of man. Even when the fighting moves upwards, dangerously close to Guili Assembly, he makes no move to defend it. After all, there is nothing inside for him to protect. All he can do now is remember with all his might, and as he swings his polearm sharply down onto the neck of a soldier, he notes with grim delight that he has not forgotten what it is like to be the god of war. When he gains a seat among the seven archons as the Lord of Geo, he does not smile.
I am Zhongli, Rex Lapis and Morax. I am the god of war, contracts and commerce, he reminds himself ever so often. Centuries later, he sits on a stone in the ruins of Guili Plains with a cup of osmanthus wine. I belonged here, with my Guizhong and her glaze lilies and her people. But the glaze lilies are dwindling, and her people are now his people, so all there really is left to remember is Zhongli and Guizhong, Guizhong and Zhongli. Zhongli looks to the sky, where Guizhong is far away from home, and he thinks of his lantern; his wish. Closing his eyes as he takes another sip from his cup, he envisions the lantern burning up in its own flame, the paper browning and curling at the edges until it is nothing but embers that fall into the sea.
Let us go home now. You must be tired.
He drains his cup and rises from his seat. I’ll come home soon, he says to the heavens, for I am very tired.