Ningguang is sixteen when she realizes that she will never be rich.
Newly orphaned and newly homeless, she has spent the entire day plying her pitiful wares: pretty shells gathered from Yaoguang Shoal and sold, in dribs and drabs, along the endless march back. There aren't many who will spare a look for a pitiful, shoeless waif with a pinched face and a soggy bundle smelling of wet and brine. But she's painstakingly polished each shell to gleaming radiance, and more importantly, she knows which jewelers are looking for a bit of shiny bauble, and which tender hearts are soft to an earnest, wide-eyed gaze.
She doesn't allow herself to stop until the bundle is empty, which means she walks until dusk, until her aching feet find their way back to Liyue Harbor, where she set out that morning.
Even now, empty bundle tied over her grumbling stomach, the few meager Mora she's scraped up tucked carefully into an inner pocket, she doesn't feel accomplished, only defeated.
She is too good at math to delude herself that efforts like these will ever amount to the kind of wealth she has always dreamed of.
With work, and insight, Mora can be expanded. Doubled, tripled, multiplied many-fold over time. Insight she has, she knows she has. But to turn nothing into something would take more lifetimes of work than she has within her mortal frame.
The business of the day has wrapped up at the harbor, most more fruitfully than hers. The remaining boats in the water are securely tied, planks creaking, dark water lapping gently against their hulls.
Ningguang settles her exhausted body into a secluded spot on the docks, dipping her scraped and swollen feet into the water. The salt of it stings, but the cold soothes. More importantly, by this point she is too tired to lift them back out.
The sunset unfurls in front of her, an exquisite, fiery tapestry in scarlets and magentas. She remembers watching sunsets like this, with her father, when it was just the two of them. When there still were two of them. Now the only thing her tired mind can think is that, if she could cut that sunset out of the sky and sell it, wring any profit from it at all, she'd do so in a heartbeat.
The smell of street food wafts down to her even here, the shouts of vendors mingling with the cry of seagulls. Ningguang tries to tune it out, the smells and the shouts both.
Eventually she eases her whole body onto the water, turning to float upon her back. Gently, she kicks away from the docks, and spreads out her arms and legs, feeling her long hair fan out behind her across the surface of the sea.
If she cranes her head back, she can stare up into the darkening sky, watch the pinpricks of stars begin to emerge.
If she tucks her chin in a little, she can see Liyue rising before her, the merchant district above the harbor, and then above that, majestic Yujing Terrace, built into the very slopes of Mount Tianheng, which in turn towers over it all.
Liyue is peaceful like this, not the bustle of wealth and commerce that has always been locked to her, but a mere smudge of dark shapes, corners softened by the moonlight. The voices are quieter, with her ears underwater, and any time her thoughts get away from her, she can always turn her gaze back to the heavens.
As night sets in, it's hard to distinguish between the black surface of the water, still as a mirror all around her, and the blackening sky above. Sandwiched between them, drifting under the dark silhouettes of clouds, the bright wedge of moon, she pretends that she is floating in an endless void, unfathomably distant from her worldly troubles, untouchable and serene.
Until she spots a strange shape in the cloud.
Serpentine, glowing with its own internal light, it paints amber spirals into the dark backdrop of the sky. Rapidly grows, larger and larger in her vision, until its winding form blots out all the heavens from view.
By the time she thinks to flee, it's far too late.
The dragon lands in the water with impossible delicacy, hardly kicking up a ripple, a wave.
Rex Lapis, the god of Liyue, arranges the coils of his body around her, walling her in.
His dragon head is the size of her entire body, and when it bends down to peer at her, a warm waft of breath flows over her, like a sauna. If she weren't so terrified, she might describe the gaze as inquisitive. Because she is, she finds herself struck uncharacteristically silent.
Her god is merciful, however, and speaks for her. Not with his giant maw, but directly into her head, as if seeking not to interrupt the quiet moment.
"Will you come with me, child?" says Rex Lapis, easing one canoe-sized foreleg into the water beside her. The leg, like the rest of his body, is covered in scales; lit from within, they have the same amber glow as riches, as freshly minted Mora, as the enormous, luminous reptilian eyes staring down at her.
Shakily, she grasps one of his talons. Her small, wet hand can't even wrap around the point of one claw, and unwillingly her mind flashes to an image of that claw rending her in half. It would take him no more effort than for her to brush aside a cobweb, or step on an autumn leaf.
But the dragon god holds himself steady as stone, and so she steels herself, and climbs onto the limb. Waits.
In reaction, Rex Lapis gives only an expectant pause, and so she continues, hardly believing her own daring. Climbs her way onto his back, deeply embarrassed at presenting herself before him in this manner, a wet, mangy creature dripping seawater all over his magnificent scales. Instinctively, she tries to wipe some of it away, but her wet palm only makes it worse. The scales are hard beneath her, but not uncomfortable, like bamboo, or clay. When she presses her shivering front against them, they suffuse her with a comforting warmth, encouraging her to wrap her arms around his massive form, as far as they will go. She finds a handhold, then another. Settles herself, and feels a deep rumble of approval beneath her.
That's the only warning she gets, before he rears up out of the water, and lifts into the sky.
She doesn't know how a being as solid and enormous as this can get airborne, but he cuts through the air as easily as a fish through water. As they break through the clouds and rise into the very stars, she thinks that perhaps she's died, and this is her flight into the afterlife—but she can't imagine the great Rex Lapis deigning to ferry a nobody like her.
The cool night air rushing over them dries out her sodden clothes and hair, and soon enough she finds herself actually enjoying this, racing to exhilarating heights, watching the moonlit clouds pass beneath them, occasional breaks revealing jagged mountain ranges a long way below. By the time she spots a floating... something... in the sky before them, she has stopped shivering entirely.
Rex Lapis lands as delicately as he had in the water, and Ningguang waits, frozen, until he lifts his tail to her side, in offer. She eases off his back, helped by the steadying presence of the tail tucked up against her side, and doesn't breathe until she has her feet on solid ground again.
She is standing on stone, true, but it seems to be a chip of rock free floating in the sky, kilometers above the surface of the earth. There is a pavilion built into the center, a simple roof with no walls to block out the elements. Over the edge of the great floating stone, she can't see much in the darkness, but she thinks one of the lights below might be Liyue, now as tiny as a distant cluster of fireflies.
"This place above the clouds is a personal sanctuary of mine," comes an unfamiliar voice from behind her, low and rumbling. "I like to come here from time to time, in order to be alone with my thoughts."
Ningguang turns abruptly to see, not a dragon standing with her, but Rex Lapis in human form. He has affected a youngish sort of man, dark haired, somberly dressed. Only the amber light in his eyes betrays his divinity; it reminds her of the color of his scales. She hastily bows her head, even as something inside her thrills to see such an intimate side of him. Of Rex Lapis. Of a god.
"I have always wished for such a refuge of my own," she says. "In my imagination, though, I would float above Liyue. Close enough that I could watch all the people going about their business..."
Then she realizes what she's saying, and stops herself, abashed. "Of course, those are only dreams. Big dreams, for a girl who can't even afford glaze lilies for her father's funeral."
The god blinks at her. Then extends a black-gloved hand. She half expects it to feel warm, like his scales were, but it's cool leather that crinkles as it folds around her fingers.
"A fine ambition," he says, and leads her toward the pavilion.
For the private sanctuary of Rex Lapis, the place is sparsely furnished. Rustic chimes rustle around them. Vases grace a few tasteful corners, bearing fresh blossoms—including, yes, glaze lilies. A table laden with golden platters is the most opulent fixture there, the steam that rises from each intricate dish carrying a divine aroma to her nose. Everything is set and ready for a feast, though she can see no sign of servants, and can't imagine how they would make it up to this temple in the sky. It occurs to her that perhaps he has flown her up here to be his servant, and uncharitably wonders if she will be paid, before banishing that thought. Of course she will do as her god requires.
What her god requires, it turns out, is not to wait at the table, but to sit with him at it. To eat her fill of luxurious dishes that she cannot name, much less guess as to their ingredients. When she first saw the table, she could have sworn the dishes were laid out on solid gold, with utensils to match, and felt her heart quail at the sight. When she finally sits, however, the plates are plain porcelain, and she wonders how the magic was done: both the switching of the plates, and the god's immediate intuition, that the idea of eating at them made her hands tremble.
As she picks up her chopsticks, now ordinary wood, he begins to draw her out in conversation. Through the course of the meal, she finds herself telling of her childhood, her loss of one parent, then the other, and her day's efforts to ensure that her recently departed father is sent off in peace—by earning just a little bit of Mora. (Her ambitions to make a great deal more Mora, she keeps to herself, but she has the feeling that he already has full awareness.)
When she can eat no more, he puts down his bowl and chopsticks as well. Stands, and comes around to her side of the table.
She senses him directly behind her, but carefully refrains from turning her head. His hands on the back of her chair also brush against her shoulders, and she doesn't lean into them, or away.
Slowly, he draws her chair away from the table, with her still seated upon it. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see that the plates on the table have been cleared, and she doesn't know how.
When she looks back in front, Rex Lapis is knelt before her, with a basin of water. The earlier gloves are nowhere to be seen, and his bare hands are starkly pale against the dark lacquer of the bowl. The water has a strange tint to it, but is still clear enough that she can see the red carps inlaid at the bottom, outlined in gold.
These details she takes in, all in an instant.
What she can't comprehend is when her god picks up one of her bare, battered feet, and sets it gently into the bath.
The water is shockingly warm, and soothing, and steals away a hundred tiny daggers of pain that she didn't realize she was ignoring.
Then he picks up her other foot, and does the same.
"Please, my lord," she chokes out at last. Her earlier freeness of speech has all but dried up in her mouth at this impropriety. How could the god of Liyue deign to touch her grimy, blistered feet, much less wash them?
But he only hums. Smiles.
She knows this body isn't his natural form, and wonders if he's aware of the effect, when he curls his lip like this, and smirks down at her ankles.
With unthinkable tenderness, he proceeds to scrub the dirt from her feet. There must be some some sort of medicine in the water, because they emerge soft and fresh as if brand new. Next, he applies an outrageously plush towel, then soft bandages. Last, a pair of slippers, black and practical, that wrap snugly around her toes, and soles, and heel.
"These are for you," he says, wiping his hands, and she could weep, luxuriating in the feel of her feet treated and enveloped in something protective. The walk tomorrow to Yaoguang Shoal will be far easier than today's.
As if reading her thoughts, Rex Lapis gestures outward. Over the lip of stone she can see that the expanse of cloud underlying their floating perch is already beginning to light up from below.
"Tomorrow is already upon us," he says, placing his hand on her knee. "I suppose this means that our time together is drawing to a close."
Ningguang gathers her thoughts, searches within her for some last reserve of strength. She will not disgrace herself here, now, not after all this. "You've been more than generous to me, my lord." Her hand is steady as she places it upon his, fingertips resting lightly upon his knuckles. "I understand what's expected of me."
"Do you?" He looks down at their joined hands, and sounds amused.
Of course she does. If he were a wealthy businessman in the streets of Liyue, who had stooped to a bit of a charity with a street girl, she knows precisely how the evening would be scripted to end. How much higher in station, then, is the god of Liyue himself?
But perhaps she doesn't know how gods work.
He is a dragon; for all she knows, he wishes to eat her.
Instead, he stands. There is a sudden edge in his gaze that hadn't been there before, something close to anger, that he has to forcibly push away. But by the time he cups her face in his hand, looks deep into her eyes, the anger is gone, replaced with the same gentleness he has treated her to all evening.
"Those fools," he says. "To demand your body, when they could have had something far more precious. As the god of this city, I hold myself responsible for what you have been through, and for that you have my apologies. But nevertheless, Ningguang, it is unwise to enter into a contract without full understanding of its terms."
She flushes at the admonishment. "Then, tell me the terms."
"I will provide for your father's funeral. Go to Wangsheng Funeral Parlor in the morning, and all will be arranged for you. I will also provide capital, to seed some of those wild ambitions I see within your eyes. In return..."
Ningguang feels her heart sink. His side of the bargain is already so magnanimous. She has no idea how she will be expected to repay her god, how she will even have the capacity.
"In return, you will show yourself worthy of my faith in you. You will achieve those ambitions of yours. Or you will have me to answer to."
As she takes a moment to think about this, he helps her to her feet. Pulls a pair of glaze lilies from a nearby vase, shakes the water from their stems with swift, practiced motions. Then he holds them out to her, expectant.
"I understand," she says finally, for she comprehends the terms of the contract laid before her, if not why. For if Rex Lapis, the god of contracts, wishes it so, then surely it will be done.
"It will be done," he agrees, and presses the lilies into her hands. "My promise is solid as stone."