It's more difficult than she expects, to convince Baixiao to come home with her. The girl is too young for the flinty expression she puts on, wary and cynical. Then again, Ningguang can't say she was much more innocent, when she was the same age.
But she won't risk Baixiao getting snatched up as well—or worse, deciding to take matters into her own hands, and surely making the situation worse.
There is an already a pall of anxiety hanging over Ningguang, squeezing at her chest, a sense that everything that has gone too smoothly for her thus far is finally about to come crashing down.
Worse, that it's her own choices that have led to this.
When she finally gets through to the girl, it's under the pretense of making preparations for a daring rescue tomorrow, and the promise of a night spent out of the cold. She sets a brisk pace back—it's not as though anyone's chasing them, and she doesn't want to scare Baixiao, but every time her mind wanders, she finds herself unconsciously hurrying her step.
That's likely why, when she comes to an abrupt halt on one of the larger, better-lit avenues on the route home, Baixiao stumbles immediately into her, having been all but running at her heel.
"Why did you stop?" the girl says, rubbing her cheek. Any fragile respect she's been building for Ningguang has evaporated, with her friend's capture.
Silently, Ningguang points up. They are standing under a statue of Rex Lapis, the same one she passes every day, twice a day, on her way to and from the market. Sat on his throne a full story above street level, inspecting some cube-shaped artifact in one hand, his hooded features look elongated from directly below, deep with shadow.
"How does this help get Baishi back?" complains Baixiao. "What, you're going to wait until the Rite of Descension, and try to ask him for help? Because people like us, they won't even let us close enough to see his big dragon toenails. In case you didn't know."
"He doesn't have big dragon toenails," Ningguang says absently. Mostly she's shocked that the Rite of Descension has fallen off her mental awareness. While the price of seashells weren't exactly a feature of Rex Lapis's past pronouncements, she is trying to move up in the world of commerce, after all. How could she forget such an important event was upcoming?
"Well, people like me and Baishi anyway," Baixiao adds, after a moment without any real response from Ningguang. "I don't know about you."
It's a puzzling statement, until Baixiao adds a pointed look at Ningguang, gaze sweeping up and down her clothing. It's one of the two good dresses Ningguang owns, bought for the express purpose of looking presentable at market. Once again, Ningguang has to wonder how these girls must view her, when inwardly she hardly feels any more put-together than they are.
"Wait until you see the accommodations at home," Ningguang mutters to herself. Then, more audibly, she adds, "No, of course we can't wait that long."
She sets her packs onto the ground, and digs out a single seashell, which she lays upon the altar at the base of the statue. Gingerly, she kneels down before it, and closes her eyes.
"Baishi will be fine," she says, with as much assurance she can manage, in the face of the hard stare at her back. "We'll save her. But until then, a little bit of divine blessing wouldn't hurt."
She doesn't mistake it for an actual dream of him, though it would hardly be her first in recent weeks, far from it. Those are more jumbles of the senses, impressions of touch and scent, a steady form leaned over her, warm and close, like a sloped roof against the rain.
The dreams are never clear images like this, close enough to reality that at first she thinks she might still be awake.
She's floating on her back again, in the black, still waters of the harbor, and she's just watched her god descend upon her from the sky. But, instead of a great dragon coiled around her, it's his statue rising out of the sea, the exact same one she prayed to a few hours earlier, the waters lapping against its base.
Or is it?
For, instead of his likeness carved out in stone, there he is in flesh and cloth, chest rising and falling, undeniably alive.
Whether due to the high angle, or the forbidding severity of stone, she's never before noticed that he's slouched in his seat—leaned against his armrest, as if being immortalized in statue form across all of Liyue is a casual afternoon's affair.
As soon as she's noticed this, more humanizing details become apparent. He has one leg tucked up onto his seat, lost in the folds of his robes. His other foot is bare. And, as she watches, he moves—what has always been a stone carving, motionless her entire life, now draws back his hood, and smiles down at her.
She finds she has missed that smile. Something about it sets her panicked heart at rest, and a tension she has been holding, even in sleep, can't help but ease.
That doesn't seem right.
She has known Zhongli too short a time to have such a reaction to his face, his eyes catching hers warmly. Does some part of her crave to confess her troubles to him, ask him to take care of them entirely? Such an idea makes her warier still. She has not survived as long as she has by relying on the strength of others, and it seems like a dangerous path to follow.
Cautiously, she sits up, and finds the water is gone, replaced with sandy beach beneath her. She shifts her position to kneel down before him, just as she has done earlier, at his statue.
"Come, there is no need for that," he says, and she looks up just in time to see him lob the cube aside, and stand. If it was a shock to see the statue move, it's even moreso when Rex Lapis gets out of his carved seat and takes one long step down to the ground, bare feet digging into the sand. "Will you not tell me what is on your mind?"
"My lord," Ningguang stalls, trying to gather her thoughts.
"So quickly you retreat to formality." Zhongli makes a disapproving sound, even as he reaches down to offer his hand.
Despite herself, despite a strange longing to take it, if only to feel the press of his skin against hers, Ningguang finds herself brushing it off.
"It's been some time since your last visit," she says shortly, standing up on her own accord. It's only as she's patting the sand off her skirt that she realizes the impertinent tone she's taken with her god.
But Zhongli's smile only widens. "Ah, that's more what I've come to expect from you. As to your observation, there are a number of matters that have required my attention. I hope I haven't neglected you."
She thinks again to Baixiao's offhand jeer about the Rite of Descension, and wonders if it's really preparations for this event that have been keeping Rex Lapis away. Does he even need to prepare for it? Does he fly over all the land to gather the information that he then shares with his people?
It's on the tip of her tongue to ask him if he'll spare her some knowledge about what's to come, if the jade that she's been guarding so jealously will feature among his predictions. Surely he could even change its value if he wished, with just a word, a hint, at the Rite?
"Rest assured, I have not forgotten about my promises to you," Zhongli adds. "I have asked a certain one of my adepti to share some wisdom about the floating pavilion and its construction, as you requested. She is quite stubborn, alas. Perhaps you two should meet."
"That is most kind, my lord." Somehow, knowing that he remembers her selfish, off-hand wish, even busy as he is, brings back a rush of guilt at her current situation.
Zhongli leans back against the base of his statue, and she's surprised to see that there's a stone version of him back in the seat, even as the living one is conversing with her below. "I suppose this is not what you wished to speak with me about either." He reaches behind him to the altar, and picks up the seashell that Ningguang left earlier, in the real world. "What troubles you?"
"I made a mistake," she admits in a rush. "I tried to make my move, and it's not proceeding how I had planned."
"I see," says Zhongli. He gives this his full contemplation, more than it truly deserves: the natural consequences for a foolish girl who has made foolish risks. She is about to open her mouth and explain it away, when he flips the shell in his fingers, catches it in one fist, and then opens to show an empty palm. Offering received.
"Mistakes are tricky things. Sometimes, a mistake can be a sign that our priorities have shifted, or need to shift, to align with new information. Sometimes, what seems like a mistake may have simply been the only viable action in an impossible situation."
The words are reasonable, but she feels gutted somehow, like he's seen right through her. In some sense, her plan is working out just as well as she could have hoped. That the Feiyun Commerce Guild acted so rashly, and against a little girl, suggests that the provocation she set out for them has hit its mark. They're threatened by her; she should be pleased. It's not everyone who can make a play against one of the most powerful guilds in the city, much less a nobody like her.
The only catch? Baishi is not a game piece she is willing to sacrifice, and this worries her. There should be nothing more important to her than reaching her goals; doubly so, with the weight of her contract with Rex Lapis behind it. The sensible action would be to proceed with her plan, but nevertheless, she finds she can't. An impossible situation, indeed.
"So?" Zhongli prompts. "What will you do about this mistake?"
"I will take care of it myself, of course," Ningguang says immediately, though she still doesn't know how she will.
"I commend you on your self-reliance; it should hardly surprise me by this point. But I would also remind you that it is impossible to do all things alone. You are playing a game at great disadvantage, against opponents who have been amassing their strength for multiples of your lifetime. There is no shame in requiring assistance, in evening the odds."
"Odds this disparate would be impossible to even." Ningguang protests. She too has been mulling over the unfairness of it all: that an established guild like Feiyun can monopolize the market, steer it at will, while smaller merchants have no choice but to ride along on the ensuing currents. The rich stay rich, while the poor have no opportunity to change their lot.
"So it is an issue of fairness, after all," Zhongli says, with a fond chuckle. "You have been unafraid to scold even me for my perceived failings. Whatever is troubling you presently, I have no doubt you will fight any injustice in this matter as well."
So saying, he reaches out to stroke her cheek, and she leans into the gesture.
She's not sure if she feels his warm touch right as the dream ends, or if her mind simply fills in the gaps for her.
It's light enough in the room she thinks it's morning already, but then she realizes that the lantern has been left burning overnight. Baixiao has finally fallen asleep at the table, sprawled over the impromptu board game Ningguang fashioned for her, as a desperate distraction, out of odds and ends. Standing over the girl, Ningguang works a few pieces out from under her limp hand, and moves them across the tabletop herself, like a general reviewing her battle plans.
In the end, she concludes what she has known all along: the only leverage she has is the jade in her stockpile, valuable not for being any fine grade or massive amount, but simply an unknown factor to the Guild, and therefore outside of their control. Her grand plans for the future, for attracting the attention and admiration of the Qixing, for propelling her that much closer to her goals—all of it hinges upon this supply, personally mined, each piece eked out over late nights in the lonely mountains from the dirt and stone.
To play that card early leaves a bitter taste in her mouth, like defeat, like casting aside her ultimate weapon, shot unfired.
It doesn't make any sense to do so. As Zhongli said, she is playing this game at a disadvantage—for someone like her, such an opportunity is rare to come by once in a lifetime, much less a second time.
But, somehow, it feels like the only move she can make.
True morning comes sooner than she would have hoped. She takes Baixiao on a trip to the bank, and then, grimly, they turn toward the headquarters of the Feiyun Commerce Guild.
A few streets out, Baixiao goes her separate way, and Ningguang stops to take a deep breath. Mingxing Jewelry is a few stores ahead of her, within visual distance. She lifts her open palm, and lets the first jade fragment float upwards, into the air. It's of an uneven cut, and as it drifts into the air beside her head, it turns over lengthwise, again and again, catching the sunlight in a hundred irregular facets. As she resumes her walk, a second joins it, then a third, each among the largest of the jades in her collection, glittering in the early morning light, forming a halo around her, ever shifting and rotating.
While planning this, she wondered how long it would take to attract notice. Not long, it turns out. As she passes by Mingxing's, she tosses a handful of small pieces into the air, and swirls them ostentatiously around her, before drawing them into tight orbit.
"Hey, girl," someone calls after her from within the store, but she ignores it and walks on.
"You got a Geo Vision there? Hello?" There's a pause, a moment of confused deliberation, before he runs after her. "Where did you get those jades? Are you selling? Hello?"
The path she's picked out takes her past a number of strategic stores and merchants, but in addition to her planned targets—those who are aware of the recent jade shortage in the city, stunned to watch a young woman strolling by, juggling them freely in the air—they also pick up random passersby, curious what the commotion is about.
By the time she turns the corner to the Guild's headquarters, she knows she makes quite a spectacle. Arms spread, sleeves and robes and hair all streaming behind her, wreathed by a shining, living crown of floating gemstones—not to mention the procession of people she brings with her, calling out offers, questions, or just the exuberant hollers of those who have confused this for some kind of parade.
When she comes to a stop in front of the Guild's headquarters, she's sure that the meaning is not lost upon the more savvy in the crowd, who know the cause for the jade shortage—but it's a smaller part of the gathering than she expected.
Taking a moment to gather herself, she lets the stones fly and weave in the air above her, like a flock of birds. Then she lifts one arm, pulls back her sleeve, and lets a few of the jades dance along her bare forearm, flick and twirl between her fingers, turning over and over as they go. She has never had the attention of so many people in her life, and it's a wonder she can withstand their shouts and scrutiny at all. She needs the Guild to take heed soon, or all these people are going to expect something to happen, something more—
A tug on her skirt, and she nearly loses her focus on the jade.
"I saw her," says Baixiao urgently, at her feet. "She's okay."
Ningguang gives a curt nod, and attempts to step in front of the girl, hide her from view. Baixiao was meant to be keeping an eye on Baishi from a distance, not attracting unnecessary attention here.
Baixiao doesn't take the hint. "And there's this boy who's with her, he talks funny but—"
Ningguang tries again to push her aside, but the girl is insistent.
"—he's just a kid, but I think he could help—"
Then the gates slam open, and the Guild emerges.
From the girls' descriptions, Ningguang is expecting at least one man with glasses and one with a shining bald dome. Instead, there are several men with glasses, including the one that takes the lead, striding all the way up to her—or near enough, leaving a healthy margin of distance from her floating gems.
"I am Guild Manager Xingchun of the Feiyun Commerce Guild. What is the meaning of this spectacle? Young lady, are you seriously trying to peddle your wares here, of all places? Don't you know you need a permit?"
Ningguang puts on an innocent smile. She has not spent a month of her life chasing permits not to put that knowledge to use now. "I would indeed require a permit if I were performing commercial transactions in this district. As it is, street performances are not subject to the same restrictions."
"Street performances," mutters Xingchun, "juggling precious jade? Like a cheap circus?"
"Is there a reason to believe one couldn't put on a show with jade?" With a wave of her hand, she creates a great swirl in midair, to oohs from the crowd. "It's a lovely stone, and I thought Liyue's mines were abundant with the material."
Another tug on her skirt, and Ningguang falters. "Not now," she tries to say out of the side of her mouth. If only she were a real performer, and knew how to accomplish that feat.
"But Ningguang," Baixiao whispers, "That's Uncle Tian! The one from the docks!"
Despite herself, Ningguang turns to look. Near the front of the gathered spectators is an older man, starting to grow gray in the beard. He's stroking at this beard now, and looks amused.
Ningguang's stomach falls. She knows this will not look good; it's certainly not the way she would have played her hand, if it were only Mora at stake.
Before she can respond, the Guild Manager's eyes fall on Baixiao, and her unsubtle whispers. The girl yelps at the sudden notice, and finally disappears.
"Didn't that look like—?" says the younger man beside him, and Xingchun nods. A slow smile spreads across his face: relieved, and not a little patronizing. "Ah," he says, "So this is about the girl."
Ningguang can sense the situation getting away from her. "This is about business."
"Why don't you come inside and talk, young miss? Rather than waste the time of the good folk you've gathered here? The rest of you all, there's nothing more to see here," he adds to the crowd, and some of the other men fan out to move the crowd along. "Please go about your day."
Ningguang takes in a deep breath. Releases it, but not the slow anger that has been building all this while. It's just as in her dream last night. Those in positions of power are equipped to hold onto it. Those not so lucky are locked out. She cannot stand for this. She has scolded Rex Lapis, the god of Liyue, and lived to tell the tale—who are mere mortals to stand against her?
"Guild Manager!" she calls, and waits until she has his full attention again. "If I am not mistaken, several have already left the crowd. A young man of Huishan Hall. A messenger for the Mingxing Jewelry. Where do you think they have gone, in such a hurry?"
Xingchun's smile freezes. "You have a keen eye, young lady. And yourself? Who is it that you work for?"
Ningguang freezes the jades dancing over her knuckle. Flips her hand, and lets them fall into her palm with a decisive click. "Is that truly your concern right now? When they return with their employers' offers, I will surely entertain them. If you wish to negotiate with me, it would be best to do so before that happens. Tell me, who here is authorized to make a contract with me? Is it you?"
"As Guild Manager, I am certainly authorized to make any transaction I see fit." Xingchun's arms cross, skeptical.
"Then here are the facts. I have received a shipment of jade from undisclosed sources. I was planning to hold on to it until a certain upcoming festival, and undercut you when you attempt to sell yours. But in the interests of forging a prosperous relationship between us, I am willing sell it all to you directly, today, at current market value."
This is the largest sale she has ever attempted to make, and the suddenness of it leaves her lightheaded. To go from selling a few cheap trinkets one day, to a mountain of precious jade the next, feels surreal. But she can't afford to look away from the Guild Manager. Not to check where Baixiao is. Not to search out Uncle Tian's disapproving face in the crowd. The timing of this play could not appear more foolish, to yield her advantage to the Guild, grant them only more of a monopoly than they already have. It's far from the good impression she wanted to leave, but she can't think about that now. She must commit to the play she's already begun.
"We've heard the rumors of more jade in the city. Leaving aside whether its acquisition has been entirely above board, it's surprising that your employer wants you to sell at this stage. The girl must be worth a lot to him. Why should we buy from you at market value, when he seems to have other stakes in the game?"
Ningguang bristles at the insistence that she must be working for someone, at the hint that they might withhold Baishi even now, when she is already making such a concession.
"You would bargain using a girl? Giving a lost child a place to spend the night might generously be called hospitality. To keep her against her will the next day? That is more troubling territory."
"Heavens, no," Xingchun laughs, "She is our guest, and we have no intention of not returning her to you. We are merely settling on the terms of an unrelated contract, before it happens. The contract that you insisted on, I'll remind you."
Ningguang seethes. The guild enforcers have done an admirable job of clearing the crowd, so there's no one here to witness the Feiyun Commerce Guild all but admit to kidnapping and extortion, only stopping short of the exact words.
Before she can say something regrettable, another tug comes at her skirt, and she nearly snarls down at Baixiao.
Then she realizes Baixiao isn't alone. Baishi is there, clinging onto her like an anemone, arms wrapped around her friend's waist like she'll never let go, looking otherwise no worse for wear. With them is a little boy of no more than five or six, dressed like a little lord, and with an impish grin on his round baby face.
"Xingqiu!" gasps the Guild Manager. He takes a step forward, then stops short. "What are you doing over there? Where's your nanny?"
"Oops," Xingqiu giggles, pulling away from the girls. "Father's mad, gotta go. Play with you next time!" He waves his chubby fingers, then races off on stubby legs, vanishing around the corner with remarkable speed.
Xingchun looks like he's ready to give chase, until the younger man beside him calms him down.
Meanwhile, Ningguang puts her hand on Baishi's shoulder, as if unable to believe the girl really there. In response, Baishi looks up at her with teary eyes, and then grabs onto her hand.
"Yes, the price," Ningguang says. The Guild might have refused to bring out their "guest", but now that she's free, they can hardly snatch her back again. Ningguang will make the deal, they will walk away free and clear, and be done with it. "I believe we agreed on market value?"
Xingchun nods with great reluctance. He has no reason to look so put out; it's a windfall for him. "Yes, well, I can tell you know the value of what you have here," he replies, glaring at the girls, or perhaps past them, to where his son has run off to. "We'll send our team of in-house gemologists to assay the quality of your goods, and invoice you accordingly—"
"There's no need." Ningguang pulls a slip of paper from her sleeve, folds it around one of the largest of the gems, and sends the lot flying, with one last burst of power. The guild members scatter, ducking the incoming jade, which pile themselves up neatly at their feet. "I have here a certificate from Northland Bank attesting to the quality of the collection, itemizing what you'll find within, and also documenting the current market value of like goods—which your Guild has driven up for me nicely. In addition, I have brought a sample of the goods for you to examine for yourselves. I believe we have what we need to make a contract now."
Xingchun steps forward, and picks up a piece from the pile. "Northland Bank?" He sounds a little dumbfounded.
"Indeed. You didn't think I would keep it in a cellar somewhere?" Ningguang gives a silent thanks to the spear-wielding adeptus who showed her the error of her ways. The very next morning, she had hired porters to move the bulk of her supply to a vault at Northland Bank. Yesterday morning, come to think of it. "Or is it the particular bank that you're asking about? I assumed rumors among the Snezhnayan contingent in this city were less likely to fall upon the wrong ears. That seems to have worked out, considering its existence remained a secret from you."
It takes the better part of the morning to hammer out the details of the transaction and make sure she is given what she's due. To leave with the girls, she is willing to part with her supply, but not for one Mora less than it is worth. It takes longer than it should to convince Xingchun that she knows that figure to the decimal place; only slightly longer to actually receive it from him.
When she finally takes the girls away, the shock begins to wear off, and the magnitude of what has just happened is threatening to finally catch up with her. She has never made a transaction of this caliber before. She is wealthy now, and not merely by the standards of a girl who a year ago was sleeping on the streets. It is a staggering, life-changing amount of Mora that has been shifted to her, by a slip of a ledger, and she can hardly feel it, for the adrenaline coursing through her.
She gets only a few blocks away before she stoops down and hugs the girls into her arms.
The two of them squeak, but hug back; even Baixiao seems to have forgiven her.
Then a gentle throat clearing interrupts her, and she straightens quickly.
Uncle Tian is standing right behind them. This close, she can see that the silver is starting to thread through the hair at his temples as well. He has a kind expression on his face, one that persists, even as he says, "That was a foolish decision you made."
Ningguang feels her own expression go cold. "Some of us don't have the luxury of only making wise ones."
"I understand," he says, placating, "I have a daughter myself. But I've never allowed her to get tied up in these affairs. Mixing business and family, that's nothing but a liability. Make no mistake, this kind of play will ruin you someday."
Qixing or not, she knows she no longer has any chance at impressing him. There's nothing more she can do about it now, nothing to be gained in allowing herself to be lectured by a man who's never been in her position.
Spinning on her heel, Ningguang takes the girls by each hand, and silently walks away.