Chapter 1: which tender hearts are soft
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."
Had to get this out before the Zhongli banner ended! I'd like to turn this into a longer story, if it cooperates. Feedback always welcome and appreciated!
Content warnings: mention of parent death, poverty and hunger, implied past (and possibly underage) prostitution.
Chapter 2: the measure that she requires
Please note I've added the tags "Creator Chose Not To Use Archive Warnings" and "Prostitution". Full warnings in the end notes.
"My favorite food? A slow-boiled soup of leftover chicken and pork bones drenched over some cabbage leaves. I have few culinary requirements. Having a few staple dishes like this is enough." —Ningguang, Tianquan of the Liyue Qixing
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The god of Liyue deposits Ningguang in the mountains, under the thin light of a new dawn.
Dazed, the imprint of hard scales still a lingering memory on her skin, she finger-combs her windswept hair, half expecting to brush away remnants of cloud as she does. Next, she checks the purse of coins he's left her, then the precious glaze lilies she's shielded against the nipping wind the entire flight back, curling the delicate shells of their blossoms to her breast.
Any moment, she'll surely wake empty-handed, but for now she presses her face in close to inhale their scent—and gasps, when the petals release a cold breath of air, captured from that floating temple in the sky.
She might never hold something so valuable again.
She sells them that very day, before they can lose their freshness.
It would be impossible to prove that they are from the sanctuary of Rex Lapis, given to her by his own hand, so she makes no such claims.
Only hints. Suggests.
She keeps only a solitary flower to honor her father with, and when she's tallied the sum that the others have fetched, is sorely tempted to part with it also.
The kind folks at Wangsheng Funeral Parlor are more helpful than she has any right to expect, but there are still fees to be paid. The cremation. The services. The funeral criers.
Her father has no living relatives to mourn him, save her. She will have no one at all.
Hence, the paid actors, who make up the attendance at his funeral. Their performative tears, their excess wailing, make it easy for Ningguang to hold back her own sorrow. It is stone-faced, dry-eyed, that she approaches the fresh urn with the remaining lily.
Behind the professional mourners, set apart from the bustle of the street around him, stands Rex Lapis, with the straight-backed poise of a poet, or a martial artist, hands clasped behind him. He is far enough that she can't make out the color of his eyes, but the gaze still roots her to the spot. Breath quickening, she darts her glance around, expecting all in attendance to be awed, to drop to their knees. Then she remembers that they wouldn't recognize their god in this form.
When she looks back, he is gone.
She straightens the glaze lily, which has dropped from her slack grip onto the urn. As she lights a stick of incense, waves it back and forth, cold fingers of dread clench at her spine. She has no wish to experience the consequences of breaking an agreement with Rex Lapis, the god of contracts. Unbidden, the image of enormous claws, smoothly carving the water around her, rises to her mind.
But there was no contract about the glaze lilies, and she put the proceeds of their sale towards the funeral, besides. A handful of flowers and a few whispered rumors paid for it all, leaving the purse of Mora that Rex Lapis has given her untouched. This is the true contract between them. This is what she must uphold, at any cost.
After the services, she counts the coins again, though she knows their number by heart. It is more Mora than she or her family has ever possessed, and she gets a little dazzled all over, looking at them, like she's been staring into the sun. She will not be a fool nor a wastrel, not with Rex Lapis's money.
Each night, she carefully does the figures in her head again, just to be sure. If this is what the god of Mora, the god of commerce, has granted her, then it must be enough.
And if the path forward seems feasible, but by no means easy, then... well, then it must be a test. Of her abilities. Of her fortitude. In neither of which, she promises himself, will she be found lacking.
Her days spent scavenging and peddling were busy indeed, but somehow, with a seed of Mora in her pocket, they become busier still. She has never seriously considered that she might have an opportunity like this, and there are mountains of work to be done, oceans of knowledge to gather, in order to grow that seed, to translate her dreams to reality. Every small step is paved with bureaucracy, the kind that frowns at a slight woman trying to make herself heard amongst the crowd, the kind that can only be greased along by gold. If it's this difficult with money, she thinks, chasing down another minor official, then she never even had a chance, without it.
One day, hurrying to deliver a form before a particular bureau closes, she finds herself in too-familiar surroundings. At first, it's just a brightly-painted signpost that she vaguely remembers. Then a stone rail. And then it's that mansion looming before her, with its terra cotta roof and crimson pillars, and she's viscerally struck by the sight, unprepared. Nauseous sense memory floods her, though previously she's only seen this place at night. All too vividly, she remembers the walk through those gates, a heavy hand bearing down on her shoulder each step of the way. Remembers degrading herself, on her hands and knees, how cold the marble floor on each palm, each shin. For survival, she tells herself now, as she did then, but it doesn't help much. This is why she avoids this part of town. But today she doesn't have the time to spare to take the long way around, so she forces herself to continue.
As she draws closer to the familiar columns, the stone lion statue that she'd hugged afterwards, sobbing, in the dead of night, she realizes that the house is barren. The once opulent windows are shuttered, the gate boarded over. When she peers between the planks, she swears the garden is overrun with weeds, though it can't have been that long since... since she's last seen it.
The memory sends her backing up sharply, until she hits one of the columns. There's a peculiar, winding scratch cut along its length, and when she places her finger into the groove, she can easily imagine the claw that would have carved it. The idea leaves her disturbed and comforted all at once.
Grimly, she presses on her way, sparing the lion statue a pat as she goes by.
Mystery of the house aside, she must turn this form in, if she wants use of the stall that has just opened up in a busy shopping district. The form will not grant her the stall, but will instead bestow upon her the privilege of applying for it at a set date. Through yet another form, naturally.
At the minister's office, she delivers the paper just in time: no sooner has she handed it over that the window snaps shut, nearly catching her fingers.
Still catching her breath, she makes her way back down the stone steps she rushed up a moment ago. There is still an uneasy roil in her gut, an imagined grime to her skin. That's why she almost thinks she's imagining things, when she recognizes a well-dressed man coming up the steps. It's too coincidental, to encounter another former customer of hers—the kind that bore no interest in shells—so soon after the mansion.
Before she can figure out how to avoid catching his notice, their eyes lock, and he instantly turns chalk white, as if he's seen a spirit. She almost looks over her shoulder, wondering what could have scared him so badly, but he departs as quickly as a spirit himself, and she is left none the wiser.
The stall quickly picks up business, and she has a knack for making the sale, hard-won from her time spent peddling trinkets by the side of the road, an intensity of training regimen that only desperation can bring.
Soon enough, she has a sign over the stall, and not one but two sets of good robes to alternate, for standing behind it. Regular trips to the bath house, simple perfume, some basic sustenance to take away the pinch of hunger from her face—all these things make a world of difference in who is willing to look at her wares. She even splurges on a home to retire to each evening, and the unexpected sense of security it gives her makes it difficult to regret the expense.
In short, she's doing well for herself, by her past self's standards, and not well enough, by what she hopes to be her future's. The simple truth is that she can't keep selling the same shells and starfish that she resorted to as a little girl.
There must be more. Rex Lapis will expect more.
And so it is that, one evening, he comes calling.
She is just returning from the market, laden with the goods she has yet to sell, when she notices him waiting on her street.
The shocking sight of a god walking around her humble neighborhood is softened by how at ease he appears there. He's engaged in conversation with a street vendor of kites: brightly colored, but cheaply made, as with much in this poor district. Despite the shoddy work, Rex Lapis seems rapt, and points at some detail in the kite. The seller, a crotchety old man who's cursed at Ningguang more than once when she walked by, is lit up, more animated than she's ever seen him, spittle flying in his excitement. He has no idea who he's talking too, who he's nearly spit on.
Ningguang feels a glow inside, like she carries an important secret within her, one that imbues her with an importance that she's never borne.
At the same time, she feels a stab of worry.
As she nears, Rex Lapis excuses himself to join her, and she just barely manages to refrain from bowing before him. Instead she invites him into the cellar she calls home.
The woman who rents her this space also uses it for storage; wine casks and grain sacks share Ningguang's abode. She's cleared a space for her own things: a cracked table with a single chair, thin bedding huddled up against the wall, under the one narrow window she has to the above-ground world.
As he descends into the cellar with her, Rex Lapis, the god of Liyue, takes in his surroundings.
Starkly, Ningguang remembers a magical night many months past, being flown up on his back to his sanctuary in the sky. By contrast, she is literally taking him into the cold, damp earth.
"Why do you come in this guise, my lord?" she says, hoping to distract him, as she discreetly pushes the shabbiest and most broken of her belongings out of view, arranges casks and crates like decorations rather than clutter. "When your people would welcome you with open arms?" She carries over an empty crate for her own seat at the table, trying to affect an air of normalcy.
For her god, she pulls out the bamboo chair, and can't help but see it anew: the cracked seat, the worn edges. A sudden anxiety fills her, that she might give a god a splinter, and she quickly sheds her outer robe, folds it into a cushion for his seat. For a moment, she's worried he'll refuse it, but then he sits graciously, sheer dignity transforming the cheap furniture into a throne. His expression doesn't shift a millimeter, even when it creaks ominously under his weight.
"Lately, I have found it pleasant to mingle amongst the people of Liyue, without drawing undue attention. I only hope that you, and they, can forgive this deception."
She is not sure he blends in even as he is now: he is too tall, too well-dressed, too assured in posture and manner. But she nods along. "Then, allow me to welcome you, as I would welcome a mortal guest."
Truth be told, she has never had a guest. She racks her brain, thinking of what food she can serve him, and is startled out of her thoughts when his hand falls upon hers, warm and human-like.
"I did not come to impose upon your hospitality." He turns her hand over, and sets a small satchel upon her palm. "A gift of tea, for my gracious host. This blend of qingxin and osmanthus has long been a favorite of mine. If you were to brew it for us, that would do wonderfully while we converse."
"Of course," she says, but there's a knot in her throat. "Please wait a moment."
"I have been waiting longer than you can imagine," he replies. "What's a moment more?"
She takes her teapot upstairs, to her landlady's kitchen, but a stubborn heat unspools in her breast, rivaling the water as it comes to a steaming boil. A god has condescended to visit her here, and she refuses to offer him nothing. She checks the pot over the fire where her own dinner is waiting, and decides that it will have to do.
The butcher a few stalls over sometimes gives her bones to take home, and, given time, it cooks nicely into broth. This particular batch has been simmering since last night, and by now the bones will have yielded up their collagen and savor into the soup. She should be ashamed to serve this to her god, but when she scrapes off the foam on top and tastes the broth underneath, she finds it rich and flavorful. It is no feast in the sky, on plates of gold, but she'll strain it thrice, and call it something.
With a silent apology to her landlady, she plucks a head of cabbage from the garden. She is sure that Mrs. Chen would be glad to offer her vegetables to Rex Lapis, anyway, if she knew. She thoroughly washes it, hand-picks the shapeliest leaves. Arranges them in the least chipped bowl in the kitchen, and ladles the broth over it. By the time she sets a tray before Rex Lapis, the cabbage has softened, and the tea has steeped.
"Divine," declares Rex Lapis, after the first spoonful of the peasant fare he's been presented, and Ningguang pretends there isn't a hot prickle in her eyes at the magnanimity of these words, a flush down her chest, as if she's the one who's just swallowed warm broth. She perches on her crate, and drinks with him.
"You live with a housemate?" he says, after a few more sips.
"Mrs. Chen?" She's startled. "No, lord, I rent this place from her."
"I see." The god takes another delicate sip, and then says, just as delicately, "I hesitate to be so direct in my questioning, but... why do you live in this manner?"
Ningguang chokes on any potential response, which means she's unable to stop him from continuing.
"The Mora I've given, is it gone?"
And she bows her head, letting the judgment fall upon her. She hasn't done enough with what she was granted. Rex Lapis expected more from her, and found her wanting. The contract—
"I've put the money to work," she uneasily defends herself. "I've made back now the same amount, and will do so again in a month. Through frugality, I grow my wealth. I am still working towards my ambitions, as we agreed."
"Hmm." The god looks quietly over the darkening cellar, to her growing shame. "Perhaps there exists an alternative interpretation of the situation at hand: the amount that I provided was insufficient."
The concept is preposterous. Of course her god has given her the measure that she requires. It is up to her to make something of it.
"It will take time for me to turn it to profit." Then she adds, daringly, "Perhaps as an immortal, it is difficult for you to gauge how humans experience the passage of time. But I've only had a short while yet, to make something of what you've granted."
"I have seen many millennia, indeed, but I am hardly immortal." The presently human form of Rex Lapis graces her with a smile that makes her cheeks flush. "And time isn't the only thing difficult for me to gauge, it seems."
This is hardly going the way that Ningguang expected at all. Flustered, she unbuttons the collar of her robe, and suddenly realizes that Rex Lapis is watching her quite closely.
In their last meeting, she was a filthy, ragged thing fished out of the sea, no better than a half-drowned cat. Now she is wearing presentable clothing, purchased with his money, her hair is scented and combed. She is sure that Rex Lapis has scared off her former clients. For what possible reason, other than to have her to himself?
"If I may ask, my lord, why have you come here? Is there something... more... that you require of me?" The full weight of his gaze always feels heavy as stone when it settles upon her, and she feels her breath squeeze accordingly in her chest.
It is clear he knows what she's offering. But when he responds, it is circumspect, indirect. "To outsiders, our emphasis on contracts may seem cold. Transactional. But we of Liyue understand: it is a means of being clear and precise about our requirements. Of understanding exactly what it is that we owe to one another."
Ningguang furrows her brow. This does not appear to be leading towards a positive response.
"The contract between us has already been set. The Mora, for your ambitions. You need not fear any... late additions to the requirements. For that to occur, we would have to make a new contract."
Clearly, she will have to take matters into her own hands. "And if there is indeed something else I wish from you?"
Rex Lapis looks taken aback. He sets down his tea with a click.
"With the money you've granted me, I've greatly improved my ability to attract customers, and I currently turn a modest profit. But now I need to improve the product that I sell. There is only so much money to be made in seashells."
"Go on," he says.
"In my time, I've found many hidden resources in the mountains. Lovely jade deposits, abundant and untouched. The value of jade has been rising in Liyue of late, with many of the known mines picked over, and I'm certain these would fetch a dear price. I only lack the means to harvest them."
She pictures her thin arms trying to heft a pickaxe, like she's seen on the miners, and hopes that Rex Lapis isn't entertaining the same pathetic image. If the miners were fed on bones and scraps, they'd hardly have the strength either.
"I see. And you wish for me claw them out of the earth for you. A simple matter—"
"No!" she bursts out, shocking even herself. When she is not struck down for her boldness, she takes it as permission to continue. "No. What then, when the jade you harvested for me has all sold? I don't request your aid, only to require it, again and again. The money you have given me, I have spun into regular income, that will continuously grow. In this, too, I ask for your favor once, that I might turn it to something that sustains."
"If you would ask for more Mora," the god says slowly, "it would be a simple matter for me to provide. But you do not wish me to give you Mora."
"I have seen those blessed with Visions use their abilities to accomplish unthinkable feats. If you would grant me a Vision of Geo, your own element, I would use it to mine precious stones to sell, to continue to grow my wealth. A second contract, that would only support the first."
"This is most unusual—" he begins, shoulders stiffening. She is unsure whether to be gratified, or unnerved, that she has shocked him, that he is trying to forestall her from saying it. Either way, she won't let him.
"In return, I would offer you anything I have." She spreads her arms, to indicate her barren, underground dwelling. "Anything you see here, is for your taking." But the only thing she owns, that has remotely commanded any sort of value her entire life, is her own flesh. She knows it. Rex Lapis, the god of commerce, knows it as well.
"And of course," he sighs, eventually, "such a valuable gift as a Vision, you would not accept for free. A true child of Liyue, you are."
Ningguang could respond here, but she has developed a sense for these things. Wielded skillfully, silence can be a sharpened spear, a weapon as crucial in a negotiation as money or words.
It takes less time that she expected, for Rex Lapis to shake his head, and beckon her to approach. While she does so, on uncertain legs, he undoes the lapels of his jacket, and from somewhere within, near the vicinity of his heart, pulls out a glowing trinket, no longer than his finger. It is shaped like an ink seal, for stamping his name, or a game piece.
"A Vision is also a type of contract in itself," says the Lord of Geo. "A fraction of my power, given in the promise that it will be used with all care and responsibility."
He turns his legs from the table, presenting his lap. She kneels before him, to put her chin upon it, but he catches her in his palm instead.
When he holds the Gnosis aloft, it's with two fingers, and the air of a calligrapher wielding a brush. First, he uses the edge of his palm to draw her eyes shut. Then there is a warm, firm touch on each closed eyelid, leaving behind a light that permeates through them. When she opens her eyes, a glowing gemstone hovers before her, cut like the very jade she hopes to sell, slowly revolving to show off every even facet. As soon as she holds out her hands, it drops into them, and there she can feel it thrumming in her palms, her limbs, her veins.
"I trust I needn't tell you not to part with this at any time."
"No, lord." Awe hushes her voice. The gravity of the moment. The surprise, that he was so easily bargained with.
"Go ahead," he says, curious. "Try it. What does it call on you to do?"
Perhaps it is her shame at being seen by her god in these surroundings. Her wish to hide the signs of her lack and struggles. When she calls that seed of strength she can feel taking root within her, what naturally bursts into existence is a screen of jade, glowing and semi-translucent, that cuts across the entire floor and shields the rest of the room from view.
Rex Lapis stands abruptly to approach it, chin cradled in one thoughtful hand. She can't imagine what he is reading from it, as he studies the manifestation with an intense, single-minded absorption. Finally, he reaches out, passing his fingers through the screen. From the way his eyes widen, marginally, she can tell it gives a sensation. It is a heady thing to imagine—that she can affect a god so.
"You do nothing by halves, do you, Ningguang?"
She moves past him to step through the screen herself, and feels a full-body tingle as she passes, like a warm coin pressed all over her, or like being drenched in golden sunlight.
"No, lord." She turns back to grasp his hand, both of hers cradling his through the screen. "Not this. Nor fulfilling my end of a contract. I always give my all."
And she tugs him through the screen to her, to where her bed awaits.
Content warnings: funeral of a parent, hunger, age gap of 6000 or so years. Direct mention of Ningguang's prostitution in the past and propositioning Rex Lapis in the present.
Thank you so much for the feedback so far - I really appreciate it!
Chapter 3: the grazing roughness of his touch
Today's update is easily skippable if you don't care for smut. (Please note I've upped the rating to Explicit!) It also comes with fanart by the talented haga!
"In the city of commerce, we do not merely exchange money or goods. We also exchange knowledge, memories, and foresight, as well as positions, roles, and lives." —Zhongli
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When she is down to her last flimsy layer of undergarment, scant protection against the growing chill, she takes a deliberate pause. Smooths the sheer fabric against her thigh and says, "Am I to be the only one undressed?"
It comes out a quiet murmur; she could add a flirtatious lilt to it, a batting of her eyelashes, but sultry tones have never sat well upon her tongue, and it certainly doesn't feel appropriate now, not under the eyes of her god.
Fortunately, it still has the desired effect.
Rex Lapis, who walked as far as she pulled him, and not a step farther, might as well have been replaced by one of the many statues of his likeness that stand guard over Liyue. From the moment she dropped his hand, he has stood as still as a carving of himself, utterly immobile as he watches each garment unbutton, unclasp, unwind; slither down the length of her body to join the growing pool at her feet.
At her words, however, the statue finally comes to life. He folds his long limbs with a practiced grace to sit on what passes for her bed, posture alone lending a regal air to the humble pile of bedding pushed up against the wall. His fingers pick over his cloth button ties, and she kneels beside him to pull his shirt away as each comes undone—as much to assist, as to hasten the exposure of the taut chest she glimpses beneath, the sharply defined ripples of his torso. Statues of the Geo Archon are many in number, and Ningguang has always assumed the toned muscle depicted to be the result of artistic license. Now she can see for herself that his flesh is every bit as chiseled as the stonework that made young girls giggle as they passed. Somehow, despite everything, it brings a flush to her cheeks, and she finds herself looking aside.
He draws her back with a gentle hand, then uses the blunt edge of his thumb to caress her cheek. Now that she's put in mind of statues, she can't help but feel stone rather than tendon in the understated strength of his fingers; liken their heat to sun-kissed stone, rather than living flesh; the slight grazing roughness of his touch to the weathering effects of time, rather than the wear and callus of a life hard lived.
Then he pulls her in for a kiss, tender and supple, and the soft warmth of his breath is so obviously alive that it puts the idea from her mind altogether.
His fingers dance over her underclothes, deft as they strip her last layer of defenses, replacing the touch of her garments with the expansive, searing caress of his palms and fingertips.
At last, she is left bare before him.
She has always found nakedness a shameful thing: at best a humiliation, at worst, a prelude to degrading, desperate acts. But there is not a shred of lasciviousness in his gaze, only pleasure and deep appreciation, like he's drinking in the fine wine of her form, and cherishing each sip. Somehow, she finds this even more difficult to bear—being looked at as if something precious beyond value is deeply unfamiliar, and leaves her feeling more exposed than ever.
After the third or fourth time she averts her gaze, he plants a a kiss to the top of her forehead. "This will be difficult indeed, if you are unable to even bring yourself to look my way."
For a moment, she thinks he will release her from her hasty promises, and is surprised how every bit of her rebels at the thought. She forces her gaze up again to meet his, to signal her want, and something about the vehemence of her protest seems to settle him.
Only then does she realize that she needn't have worried. Rex Lapis would never stand for a contract being reneged.
"I invite you to turn around, if it would better suit you."
She's not entirely sure of his meaning, but he helps her rotate her body so that she's facing the wall, and then promptly draws her back flush against him. Under the dimming light cast by the window, they fit together perfectly, her legs on his, her head cradled against the curve of his neck. His fingers trail up her shoulders to gather the long strands of her hair, sweeping them off to the side so that there is nothing between them, every millimeter of her bare back pressed against the skin of his chest, which burns outrageously warm, reassuringly solid. She wants to relax against him, but something holds her rigid instead, biting back her instinctive response even as his hands trace up her sides in symmetry, set on exploring every last contour of her skin.
"There is no need to hold back," comes a whisper directly into her ear, and she'd jump if he weren't holding her in place. "I fail to see how we may complete the contract, if you hide from me your body's natural responses."
Far be it from Ningguang to interfere in the completion of a contract, but it still takes time for her to unwind.
Time, and patience, and his exploratory, grazing caress.
Slowly, she submits to his touch, letting out the occasional hum of pleasure, a minute shiver, a gasp. Though the reactions that escape her are minuscule, she can sense that he is absorbing each one. Every time he manages to draw a response from her, he returns to pay the area special mind.
"My... lord..." she breathes, when he begins to stroke her inner thighs, and together they discover how sensitive she is there.
"That seems a little formal for our current position, does it not?" He might be teasing her; it's hard to tell, hard to think. She is nearly out of her mind with the teasing, tickling strokes, his breath washing over her, the proximity of her god.
"Morax," she tries, though it should feel improper, to call her god this.
"That is indeed my name, but..."
"But?" she struggles to concentrate, as his hands wander upwards.
"Before Morax, I was called Zhongli by those who knew me. It would give me great pleasure to hear it from your lips."
"Zhongli," she says, and there is an immediate tremor beneath her back. The Archon of Geo, the god as solid as the stone he commands, shivers at her voice. So she does it again.
"Just like that," he says, and warmth floods the core of her. All the exhaustion of her day's struggles, her life's struggles, has bled right out of her. Her endlessly calculating mind is now all but unspooling under his care, floating on bliss and trust and the physicality of the moment, and not a single thing else.
The touch on her thigh shifts up at last to the most sensitive part of her anatomy, and there gives just one light stroke. She jerks in his arms, as if struck by a live wire, and then tries to recover, embarrassed by her reaction. His other arm winds around her in response, holding her securely in place.
"You may move as freely as you like," he says solemnly. "I will hold you steady."
He strokes her again, and she couldn't hold back if she tried, but it's a relief not to have to. No mortal force could break his grasp on her, and with his permission, she allows herself to come undone in his arms, to fall into unfamiliar surrender. When he brings his fingers to her mouth, she licks them automatically, wetting the digits, and they are wonderfully slick and agile when he brings them back down. His other hand clamps down over her mouth as she begins to whimper, not so much to silence her as to encourage her. To enable her to cry out as loud as she likes, without fear of waking those nearby.
Soon he has reduced her to a molten, desperate mess, bucking against him, all but sobbing with ecstasy. She has never felt like this before, not from her own hand, and certainly not with any man. He has brought her to the edge of a vast cliff, and masterfully holds her there, suspended in endless sensation, ever moments from teetering over the edge.
Just when she thinks she can take it no longer, that her body will break under the strain of it—he abruptly stops.
She opens wet, questioning eyes, and is disoriented by the full dark that has settled in the cellar, the passage of time that it indicates. At first all she can see is the amber light of Zhongli's eyes. Then she realizes that there are other shapes floating over her head, their heads, circling lumps of ore or gemstone, each glowing the same amber as his eyes.
"Did I...?" she tries to reach out to touch them, but her god still has her pinned down.
Instead, he grasps one of these shapes for her, and draws it close enough that she can identify it as jade, pulsing and radiant. Then lifts it up to his own face, where it lights the curl of his lip. "You must be careful with your new Vision," he says. "During heightened emotional states, it can be easy to lose your hold, but that is also precisely when it is the most crucial to keep control."
So saying, he places the gem in his mouth, and bites down.
Ningguang is too shocked to react, even as he plucks another one from the air above her head, and eats it as well. The third and last one, he keeps. "Fear not. Tonight, I will take control of your Vision, to prevent it from causing harm," he says. "Just as I will with your body, and your voice. You need focus on nothing but enjoying the moment."
As he speaks, he's forming this last jade with his hands, molding it as if it's something soft and pliable, drawing it longer and longer, until he's holding a stretched cylinder, rounded and tapered off at one end. This is the end that he begins to trace across her skin, drawing calligraphy on her breast and collarbone. It is a way of allowing her to get acclimated to it by touch, before...
She's blushing again, and hopes he can't see it in the dark.
"May I?" he says, ever polite, at total odds to the firm grip he has on her, the hard length of him that she can distinctly feel beneath her.
"Be it as you wish."
"But do you wish it?" he insists.
What should she say? Should she admit the yawning, aching emptiness inside her, awakened by his ministrations, just longing to be filled? She frees a hand from his hold, and uses it to push the jade in his hand in the only direction that makes sense. Together, they drag it down over her breast, slide across her navel, all the way down to the cleft between her legs. She is already sopping wet there, but he's in no rush. The way he presses it into her is so gentle, so slow, that her body has time to welcome it in at each step.
It fills her beautifully, and she can imagine it glowing there within her, making lanterns of his hand, her thighs, but she can't look, can only throw her head back against him. As he moves it sharply within her, his hand returns to her mouth, so that when she cries out, shocked and ragged, it is into the solid palm of her god.
"Go on," he commands, and only then does she realize that her free hand has found itself between her legs. She begins to work herself from without in time to his strokes within, following the relentless, glorious rhythm that he sets as though her life depends on it, racing back to the top of that cliff and all but delirious with the crescendoing pleasure of it. This time she comes down with his name upon her lips, a wail that would surely wake the entire street if Zhongli's hand wasn't clasped over her, catching her cries.
By the time she comes to herself, he's fastidiously wiping her clean. She can't tell in the darkness, but she has the worrying suspicion that he's using something deeply inappropriate for the cloth, like an article of his own clothing, which by all rights shouldn't touch her body, much less be sullied in this manner.
Yet she finds no protest within herself. Her entire body is tingling with the aftershocks, and it hardly feels like her own, partly because she had no idea it could be made to do this, to feel this.
But something is still amiss.
"My lord, don't you also..." She shifts deliberately against his lap, the hardness she can clearly feel through the pants he still wears, and frowns up into the darkness.
"That will not occur," he says, voice final. At her noise of protest, he gives a deep, chest-rumbling chuckle that she can feel through their proximity. "I fear I would lose control, at this point. That is not something you wish to witness."
She disagrees most vehemently on the last point, but keeps her silence; she can't imagine that anyone would dare argue against the hint of steel in his voice.
Then he softens it with a kiss to her temple.
"You've already given me a precious gift. The contract that we made tonight shall be considered fulfilled. However... it does bring up a new matter that I wish to put before you."
The sleepy haze that has settled into her limbs vanishes in an instant.
"What is it, my lord?"
If he notices the returned formality, he doesn't remark upon it. "A new Vision can be a difficult thing to control at the best of times. To use yours for the purposes that you intend, in the mountains, on your own... the risk is unacceptable. I would like to be with you for your first attempt, as a safety measure."
She slowly eases off his body, and then onto her own two feet. In the dark, she gropes for the oil lantern, lights it with steady hands, and lifts it so that she can study the form of her god. There is the glisten of sweat upon his chest, but he is already sliding his arms into shirtsleeves. In another moment, he has buttoned himself back up, and looks unruffled, undisturbed.
"Are you proposing a new contract between us?" she says.
Zhongli makes a thoughtful sound. "If there is something you wish for, in return for indulging my concerns, only name it."
That isn't what she meant at all; if anything, there should be additional payment required of her, in exchange for his valuable time. Watching him straighten his clothing, smooth his hair by feel—and missing a dark curl of it that has been plastered askew by sweat—she is nearly hoping for it.
But far be it from her to turn down an advantage.
She twirls into her own robes, reversing the layers that she earlier shed, feeling unusually light on her feet. If a glimpse of skin helps her bargaining power, she is not above using it. Especially not when Rex Lapis—Zhongli—watches her in that solemn way of his, without a hint of understanding that she is his for the taking.
"I still recall with fondness the temple you brought me to, on our first meeting, the way it floated in the sky. If it is possible for mortal arts to replicate, I should like to know how it's done."
Her casual tone belies the gravity of the request: stealing secret knowledge from the gods. But when he only inclines his head and says, with utter serenity, "That can be arranged," she feels a curious lack of surprise.
She shouldn't push her god.
That he has indulged everything she has dreamt of asking should by no means entitle her to turn around and ask for more. But she nods as through his ready agreement was only to be expected. Hooks the lantern in her fingers and makes her way to the far side of the cellar, where she remembers seeing a crate of old linens, in an illicit inventory undertaken when she first moved in. Mrs. Chen will have to be honored to sacrifice to the god once more, she decides.
As she opens one lid, then another, and replaces them both, the silence behind her drags on into a question. "Humble though my bed is, my lord is welcome to share it," she explains, as her lantern light finally falls on something soft.
"I appreciate the sentiment," Zhongli says, "but that will not be necessary."
"Hmm?" She's set down the lantern, and is tugging on the corner of what must be a dusty old comforter. As she pulls it out, she turns simultaneously, sending dust flying out around her, a shower of glowing motes that flash golden in the lamplight.
Zhongli stops mid-word to stare at her, frozen, and the reaction so startles her that she briefly freezes herself.
Then she dissolves into coughs, and the moment is broken. He brings her some of the earlier tea, which is cold by now, and waves the dust away while she drinks.
"Allow me to trouble you no longer," he says, taking the cup from her when she's done. His eyes flicker down to the remainder at the bottom of the cup, and tips it back to drink these last dregs. And then, almost on impulse, he leans in and kisses her one more time, lips still wet and tasting of osmanthus flowers.
This wasn't part of any contract, is the only thing she manages to think.
And long after he departs, she still can't puzzle out which of them has received an unexpected dividend.
Chapter 4: nothing like hard living, to put years on a child
"I've always believed that children are the most naive and innocent. The reports they give me are of the most value." —Ningguang
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Ningguang arrives at market, as always, before the dawn. Early as she is, she can already pick out a number of familiar faces under the ashy gray light, tending the stalls nearest hers.
The butcher, Dao'er, is hard at work, huge shoulders bunched like a treading ox. He doesn't bother to look up as she passes, but she offers him a silent thanks anyway, for the the scrap bones that last night fed the god of Liyue.
Auntie Xima's cart already boasts a long queue of yawning customers, stopping for breakfast on the way to their own early mornings. Despite the rush, she still manages a wink for Ningguang between flipping racks of bamboo steamers, letting out an enormous plume of steam and an aroma that perks up all her waiting customers at once.
It should come as a comfort, that things are business as usual, that the stars have not fallen out of alignment after the events of the night before. Instead, she finds the normalcy surreal, contrarily dreamlike, in contrast to the vivid hue of her memories, the phantom sensation still lingering upon her skin. It's hard to believe that the whole world can't see it written all over her, for the blistering heat of it should be visible from leagues away. But everyone simply proceeds with their normal routine, none the wiser to what she's done: lain with a god, bargained with him, been driven to ecstasy and heresy by his touch.
There is a statue of Rex Lapis standing guard over her usual commute; when she passed under it this morning, she could not meet its hooded gaze.
Whether the statue is holding judgment over her or not, the people she passes seem oblivious, unchanged. The only tangible reminder of her evening is the solid weight of her new Vision, drumming against her hip as she walks. She dares not touch it, draw attention to it, much less use it—not when she has made a formal contract with the Archon of Geo not to—so she's sewn it into the lining of her robes, to ensure that she'll always have it with her.
She's glad for the precaution when, a few hours into her day, engrossed in trying to make a sale, she turns at just the wrong moment, and feels a light graze against her waist, probing fingers in search of a coin or purse. She doesn't look, doesn't even think, just strikes out—and manages to snatch a slim arm on its retreat. When it tries to pull free, she only squeezes harder, drawing out a high, thin yelp.
Her present customer, a young man trying to impress his lady friend with a litany of seashell facts, breaks off mid-lecture, with a quizzical look.
"Honored customer," Ningguang smoothly sweeps her free hand over her wares, whilst holding her squirming prisoner tight with the other, under the cover of the stall. "In your estimation, which of these treasures best reflects the beauty standing beside you?"
The so-called beauty blushes, the honored customer stammers, and within a few minutes Ningguang's tucking his coin into her lockbox, the action made ever so slightly awkward for being executed one-handed. She holds her polite smile until they've gone a safe distance, before finally looking down to see what else she's caught for herself.
A child, is her first thought, though she can't decide if a boy child, or a girl. Appallingly filthy, either way, dressed in rags, and as if sensing her scrutiny, the child stops struggling altogether, instead staring at the ground, the stall, the rest of the street—anywhere but at Ningguang.
Ningguang squats down and attempts to make eye contact. "Trying to steal from me wasn't very clever, now was it?"
The child looks up at that. Tries to pull free again, finds her grip unrelenting, and finally gives up. Ningguang decides that it's a girl.
"Didn't even take anything," the child rasps. "Don't turn me in to the Millelith, you can't. I didn't take anything!"
"Not for lack of trying," Ningguang says, and then sighs when the girl looks close to tears. As a merchant, she needs to take a hard stance against thieves, as a baker against mice, but it wasn't so long ago that she was a threadbare child looking for a break of her own. "What's your name?"
The girl's chapped lips tighten into a white line, as if trying to hold the syllables back.
"I'm going to do for you what someone did for me: I'm going to give you a chance. But first, you must tell me your name."
The girl squints up, and when she finally admits, "Baixiao," it comes less out of trust than resignation.
"Very good, Baixiao. Allow me to propose a contract between us. How would you like to have a job?"
Baixiao looks no less suspicious, but at least there is a tinge of curiosity starting to creep into her gaze. Ningguang takes a chance, and releases her hold. The girl doesn't bolt, only snatches her arm back, and hugs it to herself. A good sign.
"Go to Auntie Xima over there. Ask her for a bun, whatever filling you like, on me. But there's a specific place I want you to eat it, outside of a particular building on Feiyun Slope. Take your food there, and stay the whole day. You can play with other children, you can sit around and write poetry, it doesn't matter to me. Just keep your ears peeled, and remember what you hear. In the evening, you'll come back and report it to me, every word. Can you do that?"
The girl takes her time turning this over, looking for catch, a trap. She is careful, also a good sign. Eventually, she says, "How do you know I'll come back? If you already paid?"
"The buns?" Ningguang tries not to smile. "That's just to ensure you'll last the day." She pinches the girl's cheek. There's not much there to pinch. "If you do this job properly, there's mora in it for you. Well?"
Baixiao ponders it a little longer, before holding out her grubby little hand, resolute. It takes Ningguang a moment to understand what's offered, and shakes it.
A surprisingly adult gesture, for a little girl.
Nothing like hard living, to put years on a child.
As the girl darts off to Auntie Xima's stall, Ningguang straightens her own wares, and allows just a moment to second-guess herself. The girl will be inconspicuous—in her experience, people seldom have a glance to spare for a street child—and playing outside the window of the preeminent jade merchant in the city, she is bound to collect some important nuggets of information. Less certain is whether Ningguang will be in a position to put this information to use. At present, she has no jade to sell, and no guarantee that Rex Lapis will return and make good on his promise to help her acquire it—not on a mortal time scale, anyway, when her lifetime might well pass in a blink of his eye.
But when the little girl gets to the front of the line at Xima's, and turns to point back at her, Ningguang still nods and flashes two fingers. Xima's eyes dimple up, and with floury hands wraps up two large, soft buns from the steamers.
As expected, the girl can't resist. She bites into one right away, then darts her gaze fearfully back up. Whatever she sees in Ningguang's face seems to calm her, because she takes a big bite out of the other as well, claiming them both for her own.
As she heads off, Ningguang watches to make sure it's in the direction of Feiyun Slope. Slowly, the unease that has been gnawing at her all morning finally lets up.
Then she realizes they are all gathered around her stall.
Hurriedly, she pushes through to find, not her stall at the focus, but the blue-haired woman perched upon it. The blue-haired adeptus, with horns curling from the glossy bed of her hair, and an inhuman, dewy quality to her skin that gives her a youthful glow, belying her centuries of age.
For some reason, Ganyu, the secretary of the Liyue Qixing herself, is sitting on Ningguang's stall, trying to diffuse the attention upon her with her hands clasped shyly in her lap.
When she spots Ningguang, she brightens. "Ah, Miss Ningguang!" she calls, in a voice softer and sweeter than Ningguang would have imagined, for the woman who runs the elite few who in turn run this very city. "My apologies for dropping in on you unannounced. I was asked to take come care of business for you for the remainder of the day."
Ningguang must look puzzled, because Ganyu coughs, embarrassed. "To free you for... another engagement?" She tilts her head, pointedly, and Ningguang follows the motion—only to find Rex Lapis standing off to one side, placid and unassuming, as if it's just every day you spot the god of Liyue walking among its streets.
Then again, considering her past two days, perhaps it really is.
Ningguang thanks Ganyu, and hurries over to his side. Starts to say, "my lord," but catches herself in time. "Zhongli," she tries, hoping it's still an appropriate address for her to use, "I didn't see you there."
Zhongli's eyebrows rise, swift and severe. "Should I be insulted?"
"Please, don't be." To speak with Rex Lapis, a god, is so far out of her wildest imaginings that even now, after several meetings, she still can't wrap her head around the concept. The secretary of the Qixing, though a legendary figure in her own right, is somehow more real, and so the awe at spotting her, speaking with her—
Then she spots the amused glint in Zhongli's eye, and abruptly ceases her struggle to put the words together.
"Be at ease," he deadpans. "You are hardly the only one."
That much is true, at least. As soon as she stepped away from the crowd, it closed up behind her, everyone clamoring to get a moment of Ganyu's time and attention. In contrast, no one has spared a second look for an anonymous if handsome man hovering nearby.
"Will she really be all right?" Ningguang wonders.
"Of all things I may doubt," Zhongli says serenely, "let it never be Ganyu's ability to handle whatever task is set before her."
Ningguang feels a tinge of something like jealousy, but then his hand is in hers, and the sensation seems to sear the petty emotion right out of her, in a sunburst shock of heat.
"I thought it would be an opportune time to test your new Vision. I'm aware you're depending upon it for your livelihood, and I shouldn't like to keep you waiting long. We've already established my poor grasp of human time scales."
His lips quirk, and this time Ningguang recognizes the wry humor for what it is. Her god must be in an good mood today. Or—no, more than that, he's treating her with a warm familiarity, as if she is someone he already knows well. The idea is shocking, even somewhat blasphemous, but not unwelcome. Even more astonishing, she retains the presence of mind to suggest, "Shall we acquire some provisions for the trip?"
"A wonderful idea. I was just admiring the wealth of options available. What do you recommend?"
They join the line at Auntie Xima's stall together, Ningguang feeling conspicuous as a lantern, wondering if her face is glowing as red as it feels. Rex Lapis attempts to order everything in sight, and Ningguang has to jump in to make the transaction for him, bargaining the price down with Xima while paying for Baixiao's earlier food as well.
As she counts out the coins, she wonders how it can be, that the god of commerce has no concept of haggling.
But when he wanders off to another stall, she feels compelled to chase after him, lest he attempt to buy that one out as well.
They cut through the kept gardens, taking walkways over the lotus ponds, and she half holds her breath as they pass by Yujing Terrace, until the sweeping staircases take them past and into the mountainside. Throughout it all, Zhongli continues to treat her almost as a friend, expounding in turn upon the history, the architecture, the flora and fauna. If the normalcy of her morning felt surreal, she hardly knows how to conduct herself now, being conversed with so casually by a god, but she must give passable responses, because his conversation carries them all the way up the mountain slopes, until scrubbed steps give way to worn rock, which give way in turn to dirt and grass, and her surroundings at last begin to look familiar.
She has wandered these mountains heavily in summers past, foraging for anything of value. Though the topography of tree and brush has changed, the underlying stone remains steady and dependable. She finds her first jade deposit the late afternoon. Something about Zhongli's freeness of speech has put her at ease, perhaps too much so, and there's almost a teasing lilt to her voice as she gestures and asks, "Show me how it's done."
In response, Zhongli steps forward and embraces her.
Pulled in this close, she can smell the perspiration on his skin from the hike up, the fresh woody scent of nature all around them, and something else, cool and ancient, like the bleached bones of the mountain itself where it rises from the dirt.
"Mining is dangerous work," he says into the top of her head. "You must take adequate precautions against stray projectiles."
About to ask if his arms wrapped around her are adequate precautions, she's stopped by the golden shield that shimmers into existence before her, snugly envelops them both in a protective cocoon. With a harsh grunt, Zhongli sends out the force of his Geo, and the ready crop of jade explodes, bright pieces bouncing harmlessly off their shield.
When he steps back, allowing the shield to dissipate, a spear has appeared in his hand, practical and worn. He gives it an easy flick and then banishes it, a sharp, thrusting motion that could just as easily drive the weapon into a beast or a foe. It's only a brief glimpse of what the Archon of War might look like in battle, but it surprises her. Shakes her. Thrills her.
"Now, you try," he says.
By the time he declares himself satisfied with her technique, and gives his blessing for her to use it on her own, night has already started to fall. At his suggestion, they put up a fire and share the last of the buns huddled up in its glow. Given that he could literally fly off at will, it puzzles her that he chooses to spend his time here. Surely this is not the most important matter of business for the god of Liyue to attend.
He is inspecting one of the jades that they have mined, turning it this way and that. She wonders if he will open his mouth and eat it, and the memory sends a flush of heat into her limbs, against the drawing cold.
"What do you intend to do with the proceeds of these sales?" he asks, as he hands it back to her.
Her hands close around the stone, finding it still warm from his grasp. "I intend to become wealthy."
"And is wealth an end in its own right? Are these the ambitions that you promised me you'd achieve?" The reflection of the dancing firelight sets his eyes captivatingly aglow.
"One day, I will number myself among the Liyue Qixing," she finds herself saying. She has never come closer to that illustrious group than the scant words she shared with Ganyu that morning, but even that simple exchange has done something to her. Planted the possibility, that her world and theirs may intersect, that there exists something to reach out and touch.
She expects him to laugh. She is half laughing at herself. But he only nods gravely in response. Perhaps he's not aware of how far-fetched the notion is, for someone like her, to join someone like them. Perhaps all mortals are so limited in their dealings, so incomprehensibly minuscule to his sight, that it makes no difference to him which impossible pebble one ant aspires to climb, when all would vanish under the tread of his boot.
The snap of a branch breaking in his hands, dry and crisp, startles her out of her spiraling doubts, to focus on his actions instead. Surely he is beyond the need of this small campfire, but still he feeds the branch to it tenderly, one half at a time.
"You wish to have power, then," he muses, pushing in another twig. "What will you do with it?"
"There are changes I would make to the city."
"Is there something you're dissatisfied with? In how the city is run?"
Too late, she remembers that she is speaking to its ruler. But she's spent the whole day talking with him freely, and she finds it impossible to stop now.
"Would I not be? When there are orphans in every alley. Poverty, hunger, stalking the streets." Abruptly, she remembers Baixiao—if the girl did come back at the end of the day, Ningguang was not there to receive her news. She allowed herself to be swept away by Rex Lapis, without a second thought for anything else. "Not all of us are lucky enough to receive the favor of a god."
"Indeed," Zhongli says slowly. "I have told you that I hold myself responsible—"
"Responsibility is not enough," she snaps. "Will responsibility alter what you've countenanced for thousands of years? If so, when?"
His expression shutters, swift and thunderous as an avalanche.
Finally, she has gone too far.
Something in her tells her to beg for forgiveness, but she doesn't know how—neither how to find the words, nor how to swallow the ember of righteous anger that's sparked to life within her.
They sit like that for a silent eternity, broken only by the crackle of the burning wood. At last, Zhongli leans back on his hands, and gazes up into the night. "Are you familiar with the history of the Archon War?"
"I am," she says, wary.
"Once there were so many of us, those you would call gods. Too many to fit in one tiny Teyvat, and so we fought. We diminished. It's a funny thought, is it not? That the ones that remain to rule today are those who were best at slaughtering their foes. Do you think those are the same qualities needed, to govern over a city?"
She expected anger. She expected retribution. She doesn't know what to do with this melancholy reminiscence, the searching intensity with which the god studies the dark clouds above, as if seeking to find the stars hidden between them.
"From what I understand," she says slowly, "that's not an accurate assessment. Those who won the Archon War were those who could inspire allies to fight at their side. Surely, that indicates qualities of a leader worth following, even in peace."
At this, Zhongli finally tears his gaze from the heavens; his face has softened. "So kind, after your earlier rebuke."
"I didn't mean—"
"I suppose there is truth to your words, the praise and condemnation both." He leans in, as if falling towards her in slow motion, drifting closer as he speaks. "If it is a position amongst the Qixing you've set your sights on, I am confident you will accomplish it. That is the contract you made with me, after all. I look forward to the governance you will bring."
By now, he's so close that their faces are nearly touching, that she can feel his breath on her cheek.
She closes her eyes.
And that's when the heavens open up with pouring rain.
The campfire gutters out in a moment. Ningguang is soaked through the next. She scrambles to her feet, hunching over as though it'll keep the rain off her.
"Find cover," he commands.
She doesn't need telling twice. She gathers her things and hurries up the slope, hoping to find an overhang, an outcropping, anything to provide some shelter against the storm.
She thinks Zhongli is running after her, but then there comes a sudden rushing gust of wind from behind, and she turns to see an enormous shape take flight—Rex Lapis in dragon form, flying straight at her.
There is a curious lack of panic. Despite how how she's spoken to him, despite his incomprehensibly vast bulk, ever looming larger, she feels no fear at all.
The column of one enormous claw closes around her, as secure and comforting as his earlier shield, and lifts her from the ground, draws her in to tuck against his underbelly, where it's almost dry.
"It won't be long," he says, voice in her mind again, as together they soar down the mountainside. "I know a place."
Thanks again for all your feedback, it means a lot to me!
Chapter 5: the rhythmic clattering of new coins
Yixuan: Well then, answer me this: Long ago, when Liyue Harbor was being constructed, the Lord of Geo taught the people how to build houses. The model home he used to teach them was completely cast from Mora, correct?
Zhongli: That is correct, indeed.
Hanxue: Okay then, tell me: Why would the Lord of Geo do something so extravagant if not because of the mystical power that Mora contains?
Zhongli: There's a simple explanation, really. To the God of Wealth and Commerce, what material is easier to get than Mora?
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When she last flew with Rex Lapis, it was through a crystalline sky at dawn, the world rushing past like an intricate and vibrant tapestry. By contrast, flying through a storm is a chaotic, blurry affair. Torrents of rain crack deafeningly against Zhongli's back, and beneath them is only a a wet blur of murky shapes, impossible to make out. Clutched in enormous talons, tucked up against the scales of his underbelly, she can feel the enormous muscles rippling and working to keep them airborne, propel them against the wind and rain.
Abruptly, there is the impression of the mountain crags dropping away below them, and then they are plummeting too, swooping down in a great lurching, dizzying rush.
A dark shape at the foot of the mountain grows more and more distinct as they close in, until it seems to catch the lambent glow of Rex Lapis's scales and reflect it back at them in its own gleaming gold.
They land on the tallest of a series of sloped rooftops, Ningguang still curled up against Zhongli, so that she hardly feels the impact at all.
Zhongli's long, sinuous body drapes over the upturned edge of the roof, head dipping down as if to inspect something on ground level—or maybe to speak to someone down there? She thinks she can hear a voice, a human voice. It's muffled in the rhythmic patter of rain.
Said rain is falling all around them in sheets, setting the golden rooftop awash in a brilliant, molten radiance. Ningguang is protected enough from the downpour, with Zhongli's form hunched over her, forming a roof over her head and a supporting column all in one. Somewhat dazed, she reaches out to stroke the scales above—and her shelter jerks around her, reminding her that it is, in fact, alive. And possibly ticklish.
She snatches her hand back, abashed.
After a time, Zhongli cranes his head back up to her. It's hard to read facial expressions on a dragon, especially in this damp darkness, but she thinks he looks pleased with the result of the conversation. Geo energy pulses out around them, and a hatch on the back of the roof lifts, sized for a dragon. He secures his hold on her, and together they slip through the hatch, and into the building beneath.
The sight is, in a world, breathtaking.
Blinding after the dark, stormy skies above, it takes Ningguang a period of adjustment to realize that the interior is actually quite dim after all, lit only by a few glowing lanterns set in tasteful alcoves along the walls. The walls which, on closer look, are plated with gold, ornately trimmed in the patterns and symbols of the Imperial Mint.
They land on a central dais, large enough to hold the enormous body of Rex Lapis, and sturdy enough to bear his weight, even though the floor does not extend to the four walls, and in fact appears to be suspended at only a few points, by stairs running to the great doors on either side. In the empty space along the edges, she can see through to the chasm beneath them, which is piled high with mountains of gold, rising up in mounds and peaks, in some places high enough to kiss the stairs and dais that they stand upon.
As the ceiling closes up behind them, she realizes the rhythmic clattering is not just rainfall, but the sound of coins clicking somewhere far below: Mora being minted, the already boggling wealth underneath them ever growing, the vast mountains ever rising, new coins springing into existence as steadily as a ticking heartbeat.
Ningguang's childhood, her very essence, has been shaped by poverty, lack. Even the mere glimpses of the treasure spilled carelessly around them are beyond anything she could imagine. She is utterly transfixed by the sight.
"I've been meaning to bring you here," says Zhongli's voice inside her head.
She turns to see those enormous dragon eyes looking down on her, inspecting her, and can't help the tremor that runs through her whole body.
He must take it the wrong way, because he promptly opens his maw and breathes out over her, a hot, dry gust that reminds her of wind sweeping over sun-baked stone.
It's a blessedly warm caress against her face and neck, and she suddenly realizes she's drenched and freezing. Her hands find their way to the tie of her rain-soaked robes, where they hesitate—until Zhongli gives a low, encouraging rumble. Modesty at this juncture hardly makes sense, but she still only strips off the outer few layers. The thin shift she wears beneath dries out well enough, especially once she goes as far as to turn herself in the warming wind.
As she slowly rotates, she finds herself face to face once more with the vast treasures laid out around her. No matter how many times she schools herself not to look, she finds her eyes continually drawn to every glimmer, every glint. She is just starting to get used to the weight of a few Mora in her purse at a time, the security of knowing that she'll have a bed that night, a meal—a previously incomprehensible wealth. One glimpse at the riches before her here is enough to set her straight.
Just a few dusty coins, fetched up against the remotest, most forgotten corner, would have made a world of difference for her growing up, for her family.
Her mind feverishly tallies, straining and awed under the weight of the growing digits alone, to say nothing of the coins they represent.
"It is the eternal question," Zhongli interrupts her reverie, and she flinches and turns back, caught staring yet again. He has returned to human form, in the same clothes that he had worn up at their campfire, perfectly dry, not a crease out of place. A dragon-shaped outline of rainwater snakes the ground around him; he steps delicately out of it, the motion bringing him closer to her.
"What is, my lord?" she says.
If he notices or minds the return to formality, he doesn't acknowledge it, only spreads his gloved hands. "When people see the object of their dreams laid before them, how many are able to control their desire and follow the terms of their contract?"
She realizes then, that if she asked, he would let her draw from this well, this ocean overflowing with gold. She could dip her hands into the sea of Mora, or a bucket, or a cart, and he would never notice or mind the missing coin.
It should make her feel small, inconsequential. Instead, under the warm weight of his gaze, she feels a wondrous thrill. Since the moment he landed, he has no more looked at the riches around them than he has the ground at their feet. All the Mora in the room, in Teyvat, is as inconsequential to him as flagstones. Yet he has yet to take his eyes off her for a single moment.
There is an emotion in that gaze she can't name, but also a certain curious appraisal, which she is all too familiar with. He is waiting for her to say something, do something. But what?
"May I... touch it?" she asks.
"Of course." His voice is strangely tight, as if hovering on the precarious verge of delivering some judgment.
She makes her way to the stairs, to a point where the mountain of coins rises close enough to reach, and kneels at the edge of the floor. Leaning over, she can just brush the topmost coins. They are warm to her touch, as if freshly minted, as if just dropped from the palm of a living being.
"You create this, do you not? All the Mora we spend issues from Morax, the Archon of Gold."
"Indeed," agrees Zhongli. "In a way, it is a part of me. Every transaction, every coin."
While he speaks, she stands back up, and slowly, smoothly, removes the last layer of her robes, until she's naked as the day she was born, showing herself to her lord entire. As his eyes widen, she carefully folds them, sets them aside. Then she sits back down, edge of the platform cool against her thighs, and extends down one long, bare leg, then the other.
Her feet meet the pile of Mora, slipping a bit on a jangling slide of coins as she puts her full weight upon them. Once she's steady, she settles down onto the pile, laying herself out, feeling the coins digging, not unpleasantly, not unlike scales, into the bare flesh of her back. It reminds her a bit of the feel of Zhongli in dragon form, and she stretches out her arms and legs, as if to extend as far as she can, touch as much as she can.
Above, Zhongli makes a startled sound. His face appears over the floor's edge, brow furrowed in puzzlement, earring dangling wildly as he stares down at her.
Despite herself, she smiles. It is always a victory to surprise a god, so why not savor it?
"One day, this will be mine," she says impulsively.
"No, of course it—" Then she looks closer at his expression, and relaxes. "This will always be yours. In a way, it is you, just as all the Mora that we spend is you, all the gold that passes between our hands and flows through the veins of Liyue."
A thoughtful look comes over him, as he folds his chin into his hand. "But?"
"But the Qixing who oversee the mint are but mortals, who come and go. One day I will take my place among them, and at that time, I will be responsible for Liyue, for the Golden House, and for all the people that rely on its output."
Even before he speaks, she knows how he will respond, what he must think she's after.
She pushes herself up on her elbows instead, and urgently adds, "I will not get there by relying on your generosity, by asking for a share of this Mora, though you could easily provide it. My place with the Qixing, I can only attain through diligence and hard work. As we agreed, my lord."
There is no sound of surprise this time, only a soft chuckle, but she still suspects that she has startled him, once again. She is getting good at this.
"Do you know," he says after a pause, "this is very much the way you looked on the day that we met. Though it was quite a different ocean that you floated upon at that time."
Ningguang prefers this one.
"You descended from the sky," she recalls, then raises her arms in supplication, or invitation.
In response, he jumps down from the dais, and lands lightly beside her, scattering not a single coin out of place.
"What is it that you're proposing," he asks, "miss future Qixing?"
She thinks back over her feeble attempts to bargain with him so far. To struggle to find something to offer a god that can match what he has given her. But here, lying upon the magnitude of his riches, she realizes that it was never needed at all. Nothing she has to offer comes close to the value of what is already his. And yet, as he kneels astride her, she is certain that none of it holds any value to him at all, not compared to the way he is hungrily looking her all over.
"I'm afraid I have nothing left to bargain with, my lord. The only thing I could give would be as much for my sake as it would be for yours."
He strokes her cheek with a thumb, and when the cool touch of leather makes her shiver, he pulls away. Bites the his glove by a finger, and pulls it off with his teeth, so that he can caress her with the warmth of his hand, tracing the curve of her stomach, cupping her breast with a reverence that makes her shiver in a different way altogether.
"I would beg to differ," he replies at last. "But if it is still a contract you long for, I can certainly oblige."
He raises his other hand overhead, forming a stone spear out of nothing. "Please hold still," he says, and then thrusts it into the pile of coins behind her head with a soft crunch. Again, his hand goes up; again, a second spear, plunged down.
"Hold on to these. Don't let go, no matter what, until I say so. Can you do this?"
Ningguang lifts her arms over her head, enjoying the way the motion draws his gaze back down to her chest. Behind her, she finds the twin spears, and wraps a hand around each one. Just a slight adjustment in posture, and she abruptly feels her nakedness a hundredfold, exposed and vulnerable, arms held out of the way, elbows crooked and trembling already. Her voice is not as steady as she would like, either, as she utters, "My contract is as solid as stone."
"Good." He picks up a coin from beside them, flicks it across his fingers, and then runs it over the fullness of her breast, catching the nipple with the thin, ridged edge in a way that makes her gasp. "Tell me, Ningguang. What is Mora to you?"
"Mora is potential," she says, not entirely lucid, as he continues to stroke across her with fingers, with gold, until the two threaten to blend together in an indistinguishable haze of sensation. "Power, security. I... What is it to you?"
"It is the simplest thing for me to create." He cups the coin between both hands, and when he opens them, they are overflowing with Mora. He lets the handful pour down over her breasts, a plethora of small, bright impacts, and watches her watch them hungrily.
Then he leans down and kisses her breast, sucking the nipple into his mouth. It's almost enough to make her let go already, but somehow she manages to clench her grip tightly, even as she arches up into the warm, wet heat. There's a budding urgency building inside of her, and she yearns to reach down, as much to touch herself as to tangle her fingers in his hair, draw him in, touch him, kiss him—
But she made a promise.
As he plays freely with her body, the stone grows slick with sweat under her palms, and the noises she lets out come ever more desperate and keening. It is pure torment, delicious and unbearable at once. It also fills her with a strange sense of utter safety, serenity, allowing her god to take charge of her, a rightness to subjecting herself to his whim.
"Please, my lord," she manages, before she's too far gone. "Zhongli. Last time, you didn't... you wouldn't..."
He shushes her with a finger on her lips, and she kisses it, licks it.
"You have your contract," he says, and she grips the stone spears tighter, as if to remind herself.
He gives a pleased hum in response, and grasps her by the hips. As he lifts her up, the coins beneath seem to lift with him, her bed of Mora levitating her into the air, bringing her body up closer and closer to her god.
To her shock, Zhongli leans in to close the rest of the distance between them, and mouths down from her inner thigh to the very spot that has been so badly aching for his touch. What protests she might have made are lost in the jolt of pleasure and relief that courses over her, the sight of that head of lush black hair rocking against her stomach, the sliver of tongue that meets her again and again. It is all she can to hang on, with hands, with thighs, as he laps at her eagerly, until her wails echo from the rafters of the Golden House.
The following day, after the close of market, Ningguang is just putting away her wares when she feels a tug on the back of her skirt.
Baixiao is back, and she's brought another girl with her, just as thin and dirty as she is. "We've been trying to find you, but that Adeptus lady was here instead. You said to meet you back here in the evening! But you weren't here!"
Ningguang hums, trying not to show her relief. "I am here now. And who's this?"
"My friend, Baishi. You were gone for two days," Baixiao says stubbornly. "So there needed to be two of us to listen. For the two days."
That doesn't make any sense, and Ningguang prepares to tell her so. Then she sees how stiffly the girls are holding themselves, fully expecting the worst. Baishi is hiding bashfully behind Baixiao, as if accustomed to using her as a human shield. Whether this has ever worked in the past, now Baishi is a full head taller than her friend, and sticks out noticeably. Occasionally, she gazes up at Ningguang, wide eyes brimming with something uncomfortably like awe, before snatching her gaze away.
"This was not part of our contract," Ningguang says, and the two girls flinch in unison. "But if you have brought me two days of information, then you will certainly receive two days of pay."
Baixiao looks like she's going to argue, but Baishi whispers urgently into her ear.
Ningguang softens. "There's more than one location that I need a set of ears. If you both work for me tomorrow, then tomorrow, you will both be paid."
She finishes packing her things away, ties it to her back, and extends her hands down to them, one for each girl. "For tonight, I'll make sure you both get something to eat."
Good news, I found an exquisite chest doing "research" for this chapter!
Bad news, I've reached a gap in my outline that just says "???", so I'm not sure when the next will come. My apologies to those without AO3 accounts who are manually checking for updates. If it helps, I also have a Tumblr that I update whenever I post.
Thanks again for all your patience and feedback!
Chapter 6: too small to be worth anything, but polished to a shine
"Be it simple price negotiation or a full-blown trade war, momentum and bargaining chips are but minor factors. To win, you need to be first to find out what cards your opponent is holding." —Ningguang
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Though the longest, coldest winter nights are behind them, the girls' exhales still hang in the air, puffing from their cheeks like miniature dragon's breaths. They're huddled together on the stoop where she left them, tucked out of the way of the main thoroughfare, hands pressed between their legs for warmth.
Ningguang has never considered herself a particularly nurturing person, and would insist to anyone who questioned that her cautious relationship with the girls is more mentoring than maternal. But as she returns from the nearby stall, balancing steaming bowls of noodle soup on her forearms, their faces light up in unison, frozen fingers reaching eagerly for the piping hot bowls, and she can't help but feel a twinge of... something.
She hasn't had a consistent roof over her head nearly long enough to take such things for granted, to forget the bone-deep chill of a night spent sleeping on flagstones, little available distraction from the cold besides the pervasive pang of hunger, and the flinching fear of discovery by every passing Millelith. Perhaps her new circumstances haven't caught up with her yet, or she has simply spent too long peering upwards, measuring how far she has yet to go. Ever way it's a jarring lurch, to look down and discover she is no longer among the smallest and neediest of creatures on the streets of Liyue Harbor.
Once she's distributed the food and utensils, she settles down next to them, her own bowl a warm weight in her lap, and indulges in a deep inhale of the rich aroma and steam. Once, she would have counted this an extravagant expense, but in trying to fatten up the girls, it seems she's eating better herself.
"Miss Ningguang," Baishi exclaims, "There's... there's meat in this!" She sounds as astonished as if she's discovered a nugget of gold in her bowl, or a scale from the very hide of Rex Lapis. Baixiao can't respond, too busy slurping the contents straight from the bowl—noodles, beef, and all—but she nods vigorously with bulging cheeks, eyes wide and fervent.
Primly, Ningguang clears her throat, and delves into her bowl with an an exaggerated swish of her chopsticks. Sheepishly, the girls pick up their own.
In this, as in other things, they prove quick to learn, and eager as well. Once she managed to convince Baishi to stop reporting on what everyone was wearing, and Baixiao on what everyone was eating, they began to provide gleaming scraps of information that Ningguang ferrets away like treasures.
Day by day, the shape of the market unfurls before her. Within Liyue, the Feiyun Commerce Guild is mentioned most often, so she deploys Baishi near their headquarters. To monitor news of foreign imports, she sets Baixiao down at the docks. It doesn't hurt that these are both relatively safe places for two inconspicuous girls to play: the prosperous neighborhood of Feiyun Slope, and the bustling shipyard where dock workers are more than used to keeping an eye out for children running underfoot.
"What do you have for me today, girls?" she says, and Baishi stops eating with a guilty jolt, as if remembering she has a job to do.
"The glasses man is still saying 'not yet, not yet,'" she mumbles, but picks up confidence when Ningguang gives an encouraging nod. "And the bald guy is getting really mad about it!"
"Not yet what?" Ningguang says, though she thinks she's pieced it together by now. It wouldn't do to let her preconceptions color a picture already distorted for being filtered through the perceptions of children.
"They don't want to sell yet, I think he said. And how they have all this jade in their warehouses! He was talking about the Lantern Rite a lot. And the bald guy got so mad he threw a bunch of papers around!"
Intel delivered, Baishi happily turns her attention back to the rest of her noodles. Ningguang hides a smile behind a chopstick-ful of her own. Jade for sale has been even more scarce in the city of late, and it's clear that Feiyun is at fault. They control the source at the mines, they control the sales at market. It's almost criminal how they can artificially inflate prices this way, waiting for the right time to sell at obscene profits. Could the upcoming Lantern Rite be what they're waiting for? Hoping that the surge of demand will drive buyers into a frenzy, forced to bear whatever price they set?
If only they knew about the stockpile of jade that Ningguang is slowly accumulating, one trip to the mountainside at a time. She hasn't sold a single stone of it yet, and the more it grows, the more of a looming threat it becomes, ready to undercut the guild at the exact right time. It's just a shame that they have no idea what's building beneath their feet.
Impulsively, she reaches into the inner pocket of her robes, and pulls out the handful of jade shards that she's been carrying around for this purpose: chips too small to be worth much of anything, but polished again and again with her Geo, until they shine in any light.
"Hold out your hands," she tells the girls, and she gets a pale, open palm from Baixiao, and eventually a hesitant one from Baishi. She drops a few shards into each hand, and then curls their fists closed.
"A gift, for being such good workers."
"Can we really have this?" Baishi wonders, pulling hers up for a closer look.
"That's what a gift is."
Baixiao has already started clicking her pieces together, like dice. When she opens her hand to check, the uneven facets sparkle fetchingly under the street lights, and Ningguang smiles.
The girls have become her eyes and ears; now they can become her mouthpiece as well.
"If anyone asks where you got it, just tell them there's much more where that came from." And Ningguang is sure that they'll ask.
Is it wise to antagonize the largest merchant guild in the city? To show, if not her exact hand, then the shape and strength within?
But the guild is comprised of humans, and humans make mistakes when they're emotional. A little pressure, applied judiciously, can only push things in the right direction.
"There were people talking about jade on the docks too!" Baixiao blurts, eager to have a part in this as well, now that there are prizes at stake.
"Yes?" Ningguang closes up her robes, and returns to her meal. She's been wondering if any foreign merchants have gotten wind of the inflated prices yet. Who would be the first to brave astronomical import duties, byzantine bureaucracy, in search of the profit lying beyond?
But it's not incoming ships that Baixiao eagerly describes, but an old fisherman, "the one that Miss Ganyu talks to all the time," who seems to have jade on his lips of late.
"You've never mentioned this... fisherman," Ningguang says.
Baixiao shrinks back, until Ningguang remembers to smile. Emboldened, Baixiao strokes the jade chips in her hands. "He's always there! Miss Ganyu talks to him like every day, sometimes more than that, when he's just trying to focus on his fishing and stuff. But he calls her 'Little Miss Ganyu', isn't that funny? Isn't she way old? And she calls him 'Uncle Tian'. He was saying that something weird is going on with the jade—"
Ningguang flicks up her chopsticks to forestall the rest. She needs a moment of quiet to puzzle this out.
Since her encounter with Ganyu, she's made it a point to look more closely into the Qixing's secretary. The first impression everyone has of her is how perpetually, super-humanly busy she is. The day she spent selling Ningguang's seashells should have been an unthinkable waste of time she did not have, which makes it all the more puzzling that Rex Lapis requested it of her.
For someone with such a full schedule to seek out an old fisherman, daily...
For him to refer to her as "Little Miss", and for her to call him "Uncle" in return...
Uncle Tian. Tianshu.
As in, the Tianshu of the Qixing?
Could it be a coincidence, or is there a member of the Qixing masquerading as a humble fisherman?
If so, if he's taking an interest in the movement of jade in the city—or the present lack thereof—this whole thing might be bigger than she imagined.
If Ningguang plays her cards right, her budding plan could attract the attention of the very Qixing, and much sooner than she expected.
What seemed like a far-off ambition abruptly feels uncomfortably close.
This is an opportunity, she tells herself fiercely, and opens her eyes.
Some time has passed. The girls have finished their food, and are waiting uncomfortably, on the edge of bolting. Baishi is fidgeting with her chopsticks, looking ready to flee, while Baixiao is touching her new jade shards individually, as if she plans to name each one. Ningguang observes this with a shred of guilt, but reminds herself she never set out to be nurturing.
"This is excellent information you've given me." Again, she has to remember to smile. "Tell me, what else did Uncle Tian say?"
Instinct tells her to stay frozen, hope not to be seen. But she is not a helpless girl anymore.
She summons the force of the Vision her god has granted her, and as the glowing fragments of Geo fill the air, they illuminate the figure crouched in her window.
He is faced away from her, staring outwards into the night, not inwards, as she feared. But as the faint light picks his shades and contours from the darkness, he turns sharply, so that she can see his profile: a young man, perhaps even a teen, with narrow features, and a spear balanced on the points of his knees.
He studies her summons with an impassive air, and in their light, his eyes take on a warm, yellow hue. Despite the situation, she finds herself relaxing a sliver at the sight, and holds her fire. They look very nearly the same shade as Zhongli's.
"Are you an adeptus?" she says.
"Go back to sleep," says the figure, and his voice isn't that of a boy, but of an eternal creature, who has known eons of pain. It's an answer in itself.
"Not until I know what you're doing in my window."
"I have been ordered to add this district to my watch." Is that a contemptuous curl to his lip, or is Ningguang only imagining it? "Well that I was, with that hoard you keep here, poorly hidden under wine flasks and crates. I sent a few petty thieves scurrying, and only paused a moment to see if more would return."
First Ganyu, and now this man. Teen. Adeptus.
That the god of Liyue has sent not one, but two of his mighty lieutenants to her aid, feels like drastic overkill. And yet a rich warmth floods her at the thought, potent against the night air seeping in from the window, the bite of shame at his rebuke.
"I'm sorry to have put you to the trouble." She glances at one of the crates in question. The rumors she has asked the girls to spread probably have not helped matters, but she never expected they would be traced back to this location. Were the thieves just opportunistic? Or was she really attracting too much attention? "I will move to more secure housing in the morning."
Even as she says it, she feels a brief pang. It's not that Rex Lapis, the god of Liyue, should not be able to find her anywhere in his city. It's not even that she expects him to come looking—if he hasn't for these past few weeks, he must have found grander things to occupy his time. It's just that this has become her place, her first real home after so long without. This shabby table, where she once hosted a god. This crumpled bedding, where she once—
"It's no trouble," the adeptus interrupts. He follows up with a scoff, as if the very idea is preposterous, but Ningguang is getting surprisingly used to disagreeing with supernatural beings.
"Is that blood on your sleeve?"
He looks down at the dark stain on his robes, and rubs the fabric between his fingers, as if expecting to scrub it away. Instead, the fabric tears under his thumb. "From an earlier skirmish," he says dismissively.
"Please, allow me to mend that for you." She sits up in bed, covers falling away from her, and the figure leaps up from his crouch in response.
"Don't be foolish," he says. "Tonight's patrol is far from done."
And with that, he leaps away on a gust of air, and is gone in an instant. Only her curtains fluttering wildly behind him give any clue he was ever there at all.
Normally perceptive, she hardly even registers when Baixiao alone slips out of the shadows and tugs on her skirt. It's only when she's followed her to their customary alleyway that she notices the wetness on the girl's cheeks.
"They locked her up," Baixiao whispers miserably, swiping at her tears with the heel of her palm.
"Who did?" Mind on other matters, Ningguang finds herself struggling to catch up. "Locked up?"
"I whispered at her through the cracks in the wood. She's okay, but she's scared. Please, we have to do something!"
"Baishi?" Ningguang awkwardly pats the girl's shoulders, still reeling. "You're saying someone took her? Who? The Feiyun Commerce Guild? They'd kidnap a little girl?"
Disbelief makes the situation difficult to grasp, though it's hard to decide whether it's aimed more at the guild's behavior, or at her own naivete.
Even through a fresh wave of tears, Baixiao manages to look scornful. "Why wouldn't they? Who would care what happens to us?"
And that's just it, isn't it? That's the most dangerous part about being a girl on the streets.
No one to care in the remotest what fate befalls you—and, in the gaze of everyone who bothers to lay eyes on you, the prickling awareness that they understand this fact perfectly well.
"That's not true. You're my," Ningguang falters, "my workers. I won't let anything happen to you."
"Then you'll help us? You'll help her?"
Ningguang stops herself from saying something rash. Her acting without thinking is what got them into this mess. She needs to be better than that. Far better.
For a moment, she considers the adeptus who visited her last night, his grip loose and familiar around the worn shaft of his spear.
Then she shakes her head. She will do this on her own. If she can't solve her own problems without running to Rex Lapis and his adepti for every slight bump on the road, she wouldn't deserve any prize she manages to attain at the end of it.
"I'll take you to her," Baixiao says urgently. "She's been in there for hours, she's so scared—"
"No." Ningguang hides the tremor in her own fingers, and bends down to look the girl in the eye. "It makes no sense to act tonight."
An anguished cry tears out of Baixiao's throat, and she knocks Ningguang's hand away. The fury written on her tiny features is shocking and uncharacteristic—but familiar all the same. Ningguang knows exactly how it feels, to be that angry, that helpless.
"You don't even care, do you?" the girl snarls. "All this time, I've tried my hardest to keep her away from bad men. Men who would use us, who think we're disposable, that we're nothing, just because we have nothing. I never thought you'd turn out just the same as them."
"Enough!" Ningguang tries to project stone into her voice, the effortless way Zhongli managed to make every word sound like a decree. "We will get her back, but not tonight. If they've held her for now, they don't intend to harm her. They'll want to know who she's working with. We'll prepare, and sleep on it, and act in the morning. Do you understand?"
When Baixiao finally gives a single, stiff jerk of a nod, it's hard to say if it comes from real understanding, or just an utter lack of other options.
Either way, Ningguang sighs with relief.
This is for the best.
Humans make mistakes when they're emotional.
The Tianshu (天枢) of the Liyue Qixing spends his days incognito as a fisherman. There he goes by Uncle Tian (天叔)... which happens to be pronounced exactly the same as his title. Is it just me, or is he trolling everyone?
Chapter 7: playing a game, at great disadvantage
"Trade relies on both contracts and fairness. There is one thing you must never forget when making and abiding by a contract: if fairness is lost, then the contract shall become proof of one's deception." —Zhongli
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
I was almost going to save the last scene for the next chapter, but at the rate I'm posting, I figured I'd better include it with this one. :)
Thanks again to all of you for reading, commenting, and otherwise encouraging me - I appreciate it so much!
Chapter 8: her network of eyes and ears
"Be it simple price negotiation or a full-blown trade war, momentum and bargaining chips are but minor factors. To win, you need to be first to find out what cards your opponent is holding." —Ningguang
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Between vending trinkets from a humble stall, and executing a business transaction with the most prestigious commercial guild in the city, there lies a vast gulf of difference—not least of which is the sheer number of figures involved. A great many things change for Ningguang on the other side of this gulf, rapid and successive, like tumbling rocks gathering momentum toward the inevitable avalanche.
First, she buys property. It's a modest home by most measures, but a step up, quite literally, from a rented cellar where an adeptus had to stand guard at her window and frown disapprovingly at her choices. There's a walled courtyard delimiting her space, a servant's quarters, presently empty, and even an overgrown, weed-choked garden that she hasn't the faintest clue what to do with, beyond attempting her metaphorical best to hide it under a rug, in the hopes that no one will notice.
This is made more difficult by the second major change, when she invites Baixiao and Baishi to come stay with her. Initially, they react with wariness and suspicion—understandable, as she would have reacted the same way to anyone extending her such an offer. But she doesn't press, doesn't cajole, only mentions it again after a week has passed, and again after another. She thinks to how Zhongli did it with her, managed to change her life and make it seem like the most natural thing in the world. She just about manages to mimic that air of straightforward practicality, if not the softness of his smile, and sooner than expected, they are won over, just as she was.
She is unused to having others in her space, but there is so much of it now. The girls are normally so quiet she hardly expects to hear them anyway, much less see much of them.
For all of two days, this proves true. Then, on the evening of the third, she returns home to the sound of laughter, and almost wonders if she's at the wrong house. Listening more closely, she makes out two teenage girls, and a third voice—the high sweet tones of a young child.
Hastily, she pushes open the gate, to find a familiar of mop of dark hair bowed intently over some kind of game, Baixiao and Baishi giggling next to each other as they watch.
After her showdown with Feiyun, the last thing Ningguang wants is anything to do with them. Instantly, she swivels around and steps back through the gate, out onto the street. Looks this way and that. No sign of any escort or guardian. How did the little lordling find his way all the way here?
In disbelief, Ningguang makes her way over to the children, and crosses her arms. Baishi stops laughing first, and pulls nervously on Baixiao's sleeve, who also looks abashed.
Xingqiu, on the other hand, only smiles brightly when he sees her.
"Oh, it's Miss Ningguang," he proclaims. "You know, father and all the other guild uncles were always talking about this scary mogul who had collected all this jade." He pronounces "mogul" in the same breath as "guild uncles", and with the same fluency. "To think it was such a pretty lady all along!"
Taken aback, Ningguang closes her mouth on what she was about to say. This child will be quite the charmer when he grows up, she can already tell.
When no scolding proves forthcoming, Baixiao shrugs up at her and returns her attention to the game, which seems to involve some marbles and colorful sticks, precariously balanced on top of each other. She tries to extract a loose stick, and the whole thing comes falling down, to another peal of laughter.
Flattery aside, the sound of the girls giggling after a long day is startlingly pleasant. The two of them are still going out to spy for her, despite her misgivings. In response, Ningguang found herself hiring more children, enough to send them out in pairs and groups—if safety in anonymity doesn't prove enough, there's always safety in numbers. She doesn't know yet what she'll do with all the tidbits they bring her, so she's been carefully noting them down, storing the gems of information, much as she previously stockpiled jade.
In a position of seniority now, relative to the other children, Baixiao and Baishi work harder than ever, and then make themselves scarce when they come home, silent as ghosts. Ningguang can't deny laughter is a positive change.
With a sigh, she shuts and bars the gate, and enters the house, leaving the children to their games.
These days, she receives more customers than ever, and of a different caliber than she's used to: not just the laborers who pass by this road, or the common folk who happen upon her on a stroll, but distinguished gentlemen, framed by bodyguards, or women with that subtle whisper to the fabric of their clothing that speaks of money. Sometimes, she suspects that they come just to look at her, not the shells at all—though when she gets their attention, they make a purchase more often than not, as if a few coins are less important to them than maintaining social graces.
"I'm sorry, we're actually sold out for the week," Ningguang tells one such woman, towards the end of the day. She looks old enough to be Ningguang's mother, yet her face is free of sun wrinkles, and under her hat, her hair is cropped in fashionable waves. There is an enormous broach pinning her lilac shawl in place, yet she has been staring at Ningguang's stall for an age now, as though hoping to replace such a treasure with a mere seashell.
When the staring continues, Ningguang clears her throat, and closes her display case with a meaningful snap. "We have no more stock, I'm afraid. Business has been good."
"I'm sure it has," says the woman at that, and gives a sly smile. "If your business for the day is completed, why don't you let me take you to dinner?"
Ningguang tries to keep her expression still, but the woman seems to read the frown from her eyes anyway.
"Oh, how rude of me," she laughs. "My name is Madame Wu. I'd love to bend your ear about something, if you'll hear me out. No strings attached."
What can Ningguang say? She is not in the best of states.
While an outside eye might say she has moved up in the world—as a landowner, as an employer—Ningguang felt nothing but concession as she penned her name on the deed. Owning property might be an outward sign of success, but it has nothing to do with her true ambitions, and she would never have allowed herself to divert her precious Mora to this purpose, if her recent setback didn't make said ambitions feel so suddenly far away. Sales may be good, but it's back to seashells that she's selling, back to where she started. She will never get anywhere at this rate.
So she goes.
For the restaurant, Wu chooses Xinyue Kiosk, a name Ningguang is familiar with as a landmark, a sign on an ornate building that has never crossed her consciousness as a place to be entered. From the way the staff scramble and bow at their approach, she suspects that reservations are usually required, but Wu's smile alone gets them a private room in the back, walls tastefully lined with paintings and calligraphy, table already set for two.
Once seated, Ningguang picks up her teacup, and finds its material is thin enough to be near translucent. A year ago, she might have been stunned by her surroundings. Now, she manages to acquit herself as if she sees such opulence every day. At least there are no golden chopsticks, she tells herself, as she helps herself to the dishes she recognizes, and carefully avoids the platter of prawns and lobster, which she's not certain she knows how to eat.
Wu does most of the work of the conversation, filling the silence with stories of her birds, and her travels, and her recent purchases. Ningguang suspects there is some kind of etiquette at play, to finish the meal before discussing business, but it's still disconcerting to wait, with no idea what the woman is after. She keeps her own responses light but uninformative. Does she have any pets? Birds are such lovely creatures. Where did she grow up? She's known Liyue Harbor her whole life.
Eventually, the waiters clear away the last of the dishes, refresh their teapot, and make themselves scarce. Ningguang picks it up, cradles the warm ceramic of its rounded body, and pours them each another cup.
"You are a remarkable woman, Ningguang," Wu says, tapping the table in thanks, "developing quite a reputation for yourself. I'm told that you have ways of finding out certain things, of acquiring bits of knowledge that may escape others."
Ningguang hides her initial response: that this comes as news to her, so at least one piece of knowledge, that of her own supposed reputation, has escaped her. Instead, she makes a noncommittal, "hmm," as she drinks.
"On that note, there is a certain matter that I hope you might help me with. I won't be so crude as to discuss remuneration at the dining table, but I assure you that you will not be dissatisfied. What do you say?"
Ningguang takes longer than she strictly needs to set down her cup. She has no idea how she's gotten into this position, and is confident she has none of the powers that Wu, or anyone else, seems to have ascribed to her. But, every lesson in her life so far tells her it would be foolish to let on.
"How could I say anything, without hearing the details?"
"I knew I liked you." Wu gives a throaty chuckle. "As mentioned, I'm a businesswoman, like yourself. I mostly deal in literature, rare tomes of all sorts. Recently, I've heard rumors that a certain priceless volume has made its way into the city, but it was gone before it even entered the market. I simply must know who snatched it up so quickly."
In a city the size of Liyue Harbor, hundreds of books must change hands in a day. What in Teyvat is this reputation of hers, Ningguang wonders, that a sensible woman like Madame Wu would think her capable of finding out a thing like that?
"So," Ningguang says slowly, "you're asking me to get this book for you?"
"No, no, I would simply like to know where it went, so I can inquire about a private sale. Nothing more, I assure you. The book is entitled, Seven Secret Teachings: The Ancient Methods of Guhua. It's quite the collectible."
And there it is: the request has fully been laid out. Ningguang takes another drink of her tea, drawing the sip out so she can calculate. Would it be better or worse to take the commission, pretend to look into it, and then regretfully concede? Who knows, if she stalls long enough, maybe she could even find something out. One of her spies might hear a whisper, a rumor, or even—
Abruptly, she chokes on her very long sip of tea.
"Are you quite all right?" says Madame Wu.
"Of course." Ningguang lowers the cup, a little too hastily. Luckily, it's empty.
She does know where that book is.
For the past few days, Xingqiu has been full of nothing but stories from a certain new book of his. For such a young child, Ningguang assumed it was some picture book, not a priceless artifact—but what does she know of how the wealthy live? Come to think of it, the stories he's been recounting to the girls have been far too involved—and, from the snippets she overheard, too bloody—to be a children's book. At the time, she only thought he was a very good, and imaginative, storyteller, but the title is one she distinctly remembers. How can she not when, after every one of his recent visits, Baixiao would ceaselessly pester her to get the book for them too?
Now, sitting in this lavish restaurant, staring across the table at Wu's expensive broach, Ningguang breaks into a helpless chuckle. As if she could have afforded a book like that!
"Rest assured," she says, when she manages to suppress her laughter long enough to speak. "I will look into it."
She suspects, however, that Wu is not nearly so close-lipped. Another dinner invitation arrives for her the following week, delivered by a servant who doesn't even pretend to be there for her wares. No sooner has she answered it than, on leaving yet another fancy restaurant, a second note is pressed into her hand, this one by a harried-looking courier, who immediately darts off into the night.
If Wu was exaggerating about Ningguang's growing reputation, those exaggerations have made themselves reality. These dinners always go the same way: food, drink, conversation, all ample and flowing. And then, at the very end, as if slipped in incidentally, a casual remark: "They say you can find out certain things."
Ningguang gives each commission her best effort, less out of perfectionism than bewilderment, certain that this one will be the last, that whatever new fad she's become will lose its luster here. On the occasions that her spies can't turn up the information, she conveys this without dissembling—but strangely, on success and failure both, her reputation only seems to grow. Even more surprising, they often do return clutching the very information she seeks. People rarely guard their secrets in front of children.
By the time the Rite of Descension finally arrives, Ningguang has given up her stall and made a business out of her home—after acquiring yet more permits, of course—so that she can take inquiries there. As the demand for information grows, so does her army of listeners swell, until her network of eyes and ears covers much of the city.
Does it make her a true businesswoman? Some might argue, but she won't make their case for them. When she arrives for the Rite, there is already a sizable crowd gathered, but she pushes herself all the way through to Yujing Terrace, as though she has as much a right to the coveted viewing locations as any other merchant here. She has purchased a new set of robes for this occasion, and lacquered pins to hold up her hair. The weight sitting atop her head reminds her, somehow, that she is not the girl that the Millelith used to chase off on sight.
It's her first time getting close enough to peer into the great courtyard, already set up for the ceremony. Taking pride of place at the center of it all is a great censer in terra cotta green, with the bulk and rough shape of a great sea tortoise, dwarfing the offerings laid out around it. Between shoulders and elbows, she counts three, four scribes knelt all in a row, along the inner courtyard, scrolls and brushes at the ready. At the periphery wait the Millelith, in solemn pairs.
And, standing before them, jittering from one leg to the other, must be none other than Luojia, the Tianquan of the Qixing, who has the honor of asking for the divine predictions this year. He's much younger than Ningguang expected, maybe ten years her senior, dark hair faintly burnished red, as if bleached by the sun. He's holding a white cane, which he taps occasionally on the flagstones, and dressed in ceremonial robes of pure white-on-white, with embroidered patterns that would be imperceptible if the fabric didn't shimmer with his restless movements. She thinks at first they might be qilin, but surely it would be sacrilege to wear one of the symbols of their god. Only when he shifts again does Ningguang recognize that they are instead stags, with great, curved horns.
A sudden hand falling on her shoulder interrupts her observations, and Ningguang steels herself not to jump. It's not as though she hasn't been expecting to be banished, as she would have the year before—though this time, she turns with her haughtiest expression, prepared to fight it. Hasn't she earned a place here, among the other knowledge seekers?
But even she isn't prepared to find Madame Wu standing over her, knowing smile gracing her cheeks.
"You won't be able to see anything from here, my dear," she says.
A vision of Baixiao floats across Ningguang's mind, mouthing, "dragon toenails," and she hastily shakes it away. Too shocked to respond, she follows Wu through the throng of people, who now part before them, until they enter the inner courtyard, and come to a stop beside a young man with cropped hair and muted scholar's robes. From here, they have a clear view inward at the Tianquan and his scribes, and she suspects a number of others have a clear view inward at them. Prickling stares, imagined or otherwise, dot the back of Ningguang's neck. On reflection, she should have purchased a nicer dress.
"This is my secretary, Xiao Ling," Wu says, gesturing to the young man. "Will you not be taking notes, Ningguang?"
"I have an excellent memory," Ningguang replies steadily, while internally she wonders: should she have brought paper?
Fortunately, she doesn't have long to stew. After a few pleasantries exchanged, there comes the sharp rap of the Tianquan's cane upon the ground, more decisive than his previous patters, and drawing an expectant hush from the crowd.
"The time is upon us," he declares, lifting the cane in both hands. He moves his palm aside to reveal the scarlet gem embedded into its head: a Vision, suspended in a glass sphere. With a great flourish, the air over the entire courtyard goes crackling and dry, as a great surge of Pyro pours forth, into the censer, and then bursts upward in a thick, fiery column that radiates an intense heat, until the air is shimmering around it. As it grows hotter and hotter, it pales to a intense, brilliant white, that grays the clouds in contrast.
An answering roar echoes down from the heavens, and with a great, sky-splitting rush, Rex Lapis descends, spiraling around this burning column.
At first, she thinks it's only a matter of perspective, distance, but as he gets closer, it's undeniable that his present form is smaller than the one she has seen before. Not purely dragon, but with qilin horns also—some celestial mix of the two mythical creatures—and a thick, dark mane that reminds her inappropriately of running her hand through Zhongli's soft hair.
Rex Lapis comes to a preternatural stop in midair, entire length of his body suspended vertically, half twined around the column of white-hot Pyro, great head hovering a few scant meters from the Tianquan, as if in a perpetual state of descending from Celestia.
"We beseech you, O Rex Lapis, to impart your wisdom for this coming year," Luojia intones, and offers a few more ceremonial lines of this nature.
There comes another mighty flash of light, amber and familiar, that swallows up the white column from the censer, like an offering, like fire breathed in—
And then it's done.
Rex Lapis roars again, and his lithe body curls upward with a deceptive grace. For a moment, he seems to seek out Ningguang's form in the crowd—but surely that's a trick of her imagination?—before he soars back up into the heavens.
Ningguang's mouth drops open. Unbidden, she remembers hiking in the mountains with Zhongli, how the man could talk at length about a single talonprint in the dirt, faint as a shadow, or a lonely snatch of petals blowing by out of season. Was all the crucial information delivered in the Rite of Descension truly done in such a short, silent moment?
The Tianquan motions, and the scribes rush forth, and begin to take notes as he speaks to them, in whispers and murmurs. Paper after paper shuffles. The audience strains closer, and the waiting Millelith strain right back against them.
It seems to take an interminable amount of time, and yet before she knows it, Luojia lowers his cane with a final click. The head scribe gathers all the pages together and prepares to read, while the Tianquan walks off, jitters gone at last.
A number of papers come out in the audience: as if all gathered are ready to receive dictation, in the simple desire to have it hours before the official documents are circulated. Wu's expression goes serious—she too is listening—while her secretary begins to jot down notes. Ningguang focuses on absorbing the information: what will increase in value by a fraction of a Mora per kilo, what will be in shortage or abundance.
"Noctilucous Jade," comes one prediction that captures Ningguang's undivided attention, "will be devalued."
A muffled gasp, and it isn't until Wu's secretary gives her a dirty look that Ningguang realizes she's the one who made it. She thinks of all the jade she's recently divested, and wonders if her god is watching out for her after all. But that's a foolish thought, and she doesn't allow it to distract her long enough to miss the rest of the predictions.
And then, one day, one of these customers is none other than Uncle Tian.
He arrives at her home without the courtesy of advance notice, as many have started to provide. When she meets him at the gate, she suddenly wishes with new intensity that she had hired doormen after all.
Stiffly, she invites him into the sitting room that she has furnished for such guests, though not this one in particular.
"You seem to have a talent for getting information," Uncle Tian says, before she has even finished gathering the tea set. Whatever her feelings toward him, at least he is refreshingly direct.
Ningguang can hear the pre-eminent of these "talents" whispering to each other in the corridor: Baixiao and Baishi are always too curious for their own good. She only hopes that Xingqiu isn't with them today, as she sits down at the low table.
"Do you believe every idle rumor that crosses your ear?" she says smoothly, rinsing out their cups with hot water from the pot.
"Only when I have witnessed the proof with my own eyes."
That's where this all started, Ningguang supposes. A story distorted in the retelling, so that her desperate gamble turned into a deliberate bet, her lack of option turned to a feat of insight.
"As I'm sure you've taken note, one of the predictions disseminated from this year's Rite of Descension concerns the price of Noctilucous Jade."
"You may not have heard that I'm barred from the jade game," Ningguang responds sweetly. Uncle Tian goes on as if she didn't.
"However, in addition to the predictions of Rex Lapis, our analysts make their own predictions. This year, it was calculated with near certainty that Noctilucous Jade, along with a number of other precious stones favored for gifting, will explode in demand. That's why your good friends, the Feiyun Commerce Guild, were investing in it so heavily."
Frowning, Ningguang pours the tea, and wonders if, by any chance, Zhongli altered the prediction on her behalf. She dismisses the idea immediately, but she can't shake a warm surge in her cheeks, and the resulting frustration comes out in her response.
"Rex Lapis's word is absolute. Are you simply upset that your analysts were wrong? Or that your wealthy accomplices made the wrong investment, and will miss out on the payoff?"
"Young lady," Uncle Tian says sternly, though he ruins the effect by nodding briefly in thanks over the cup he's handed. "You don't understand a fraction of what goes into these calculations. No, something is wrong with the prediction that was issued. An error. The first in hundreds of years."
"You can't possibly be saying that Rex Lapis has made an error."
"Heavens, no. As for what actually happened, our investigations are ongoing. We've gathered a number of witnesses of the ceremony, only for their memories to mysteriously change under questioning. Our working theory is that one of the scribes tried to affect the outcome, and took the wrong dictation on purpose. This is as grave an offense as they come. We absolutely must find out who did this."
"But won't Rex Lapis notice that the wrong prediction has been issued?"
"You are mistaken if you think he pays us such close mind."
Ningguang thinks to how long it's been since she heard from him, and tries not to agree.
"In any case," Uncle Tian sighs, "we cannot contradict what was already announced at the ceremony, not when everyone who matters in these affairs was already in attendance. You have one thing right: Xingchun of Feiyun is furious. But that's the least of it. We of the Qixing are here to govern the day to day of Liyue on behalf of Rex Lapis, to implement his will. To do anything less would be blasphemy— What is it?"
Ningguang feels the inappropriate urge to smile, despite the gravity of the situation. So her hunch was correct about Uncle Tian's identity as a member of the Qixing. But she's hardly in the mood to celebrate.
"And you expect me to do something about this?"
"You won't be the only one to look into it, but we would like to hire your services, certainly. We need to find out the truth of what happened, at any cost, before the next Rite of Descension. Even if it takes the entire year, we must identify the culprit before this can happen again. We cannot mistake the wisdom of Rex Lapis."
Ningguang knows she should stay out of it. This is a matter for gods, not men, and if someone is flaunting the will of Rex Lapis, she wants no part in such a foolish endeavor, no more than she'd stand under a tree in a thunderstorm.
But strangely, the image that comes to her is not that great celestial creature hanging impossibly from the heavens, but the memory of Zhongli's face, alight with enthusiasm and animation, as he delivered yet another lecture about the rare tree they've just spotted, and the silkworms that take shelter in its leaves stitched together.
Such a simple detail, the lives of such minuscule creatures, and yet he felt the need to convey that knowledge to her, just as he feels the need to convey his wisdom to his people. Who would interfere in such crucial communion with their god?
"Very well," she declares, standing so abruptly that Uncle Tian jerks back with surprise. "Rest assured. I will look into it."
Chapter 9: a perpetual, insatiable demand for answers
More tags come into play this chapter; please see end notes for more detailed content warnings (and art by haga!).
"...It is then heated, slowly, gently, and with the utmost care and technique... Such a "particular" taste may only be shared with those who know how to appreciate it." —description of Zhongli's specialty dish
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
While the citizens of Liyue Harbor are many in number, more staggering still is the number of secrets that they keep.
Ningguang has gathered just enough to know she's barely scratched the surface, but the city already begins to look different to her eyes, as if honeycombed, laced through with intricate paths and tunnels that connect the most disparate parties in unexpected ways.
It is thanks to Liyue's secrets—and her citizens' love for them—that Ningguang's business is growing like a living thing. Each happy customer attracts a handful more, driving a perpetual, insatiable demand for answers that no one else seems able to provide.
To feed them, she turns to the hungry children of the streets—and here too, her network grows. For each one who receives Mora from her hand, more children arrive the next day, holding out their palms, eager for their share. Soon she has so many little listeners in her employ that she can't hear them all out herself; she simply doesn't have enough hours in the day. Baixiao and Baishi, by now veterans to these affairs, become her intermediaries, collecting reports from the other children, and delivering them in what rudimentary scrawl they've picked up in brief and haphazard stretches at one schoolroom or another.
Even with their help, Ningguang feels stretched thin. She has a waiting list now, rivaling that of the finest restaurants in the city, and she only sees her customers in short, impatient bursts. She can't answer every query, can't draw meaning out of scattered observations like oracles with their tea leaves. Sometimes the only truth is that there are no answers to be had.
On the rare occasion she's able to stroll around, there is a marked change in the city. It takes her a while to notice, longer to confirm, but in an hours' walk she sees hardly a single child begging for coin, not even in the most impoverished parts of the city, the streets that she herself remembers haunting in her leanest years. The idea that she could actually change the face of Liyue—albeit one that most don't care to look upon—is a startling one. Some part of her has been thinking of this as some sort of game, a strange wave she's riding along to see how far it will take her.
Staring at an empty stoop she remembers huddling upon years ago, sheltering from a rainy night, nothing could be clearer.
Her actions have meaningful impact.
This is not a game.
"Information is a curious thing," she tells Baixiao the next day. "One might say a fact is intangible, weightless, but a key insight can provide more leverage than any stone."
"Yes, Miss Ningguang," says Baixiao skeptically, from the doorway of Ningguang's room. She hands over her paper and immediately darts off, clearly eager to get back to something else.
Ningguang sighs, and shuts the door. Carefully bars it, before she pulls aside the heavy curtain, revealing not a window, but the enormous board hung there: stretching the entire span of wall, and pinned all over with scraps of paper much like the one in her hand. By now, she has no other way to keep track of it all, her collection of secrets much lighter yet weightier at once than her previous hoard of jade. Conscious of the value of what she has, she guards it jealously, keeping it out of sight of windows and doorways. Unlike jade, a piece of information can lose its worth upon a single careless glimpse. Yet information grows as jade never did, alive and ever building upon itself. At this point, when someone comes to her with a query, that act in itself is another connection for her board.
Consequently, her board is getting rather full.
New reports take time to reconcile with the existing web, and she's spent many a long evening studying the shape of it, rearranging things, drawing new connections, feeling like she's peering into homes and alleyways uninvited.
As for the most important commission she has, regarding Rex Lapis and the Rite of Descension, she has made no progress, none at all. She's tracked down a number of the attendees of the ceremony, traced out the shape and circuit of their routines, and deployed additional spies along their paths. So far, she has determined that the scribes live mundane lives, full of bureaucracy; that the merchants are full of lurid dealings, ones that enrich her board and help answer certain other queries, but not the one that should have her priority.
Finally realizing she's been squinting down at this latest scrap of paper for ages, she gives up and sets it aside. She's no closer to making any sense out of it, whether due to her splitting headache, or Baixiao's poor literacy and poorer penmanship. That girl needs more schooling, they all do, but that's another problem Ningguang doesn't have the time to deal with.
At just that moment, a shriek of laughter worms its way under her door, and Ningguang snaps.
She strides out to the courtyard, just in time to get nearly bowled over by Baixiao dashing by, spilling giggles as she goes. Not far behind her are Baishi and, who else, their constant guest Xingqiu, tiny hands outstretched. The sounds of laughter, which she had considered so soothing a few short weeks ago—or has it been months?—now grate on her nerves.
"Enough!" Her voice rings out in the air. "Don't you have anywhere else to be?"
The three of them swivel their heads in unison. Baixiao and Baishi have alarm on their faces, while Xingqiu looks distinctly unimpressed, as if used to exasperating his elders.
"Ladies," he whispers dramatically to the girls, even shielding his mouth with a frilly-sleeved hand. "Perhaps we should retreat to an alternate location at this time."
Baishi gives a nervous giggle, and Baixiao runs back and grabs her elbow. "We'll just go," she says to Ningguang, uncertain. In a few heartbeats, they've cleared out, taking their noise with them.
The headache remains.
Groaning and looking heavenward, it takes Ningguang surprisingly long to locate the sun's position in the sky. How has it gotten be late afternoon already? That means she hasn't been outside, seen daylight, in over a day.
Or slept, really.
She closes her eyes, and takes a deep, long breath, then another. She doesn't know how long she stands there just breathing, just holding on, before she hears it.
In the now unfamiliar silence, there it comes again: a steady, methodical scrape.
She follows the sound around the corner, to the overgrown thicket of her garden, and stops dead in her tracks.
There, between the sticks of bamboo, kneels Rex Lapis, the god of Liyue. He has his back to her, his sleeves rolled up past the elbow, and he's digging into the dirt with what looks like a little hand shovel, formed of luminous Geo. Every motion works the muscles of his arms, sends his shirt tugging against the expanse of his back.
While she watches, he even begins to hum.
"It has been months," she remarks, before things can escalate further. "If I had known to look for you in the weeds, maybe I'd have found you sooner."
"Ah, Ningguang." Zhongli stops what he's doing, turns. Even dirt-tracked, his every motion is grace and dignity. There's a smudge on his lapel.
"I was sidetracked," he admits a little sheepishly, and holds up a freshly dug bamboo shoot, nestled in his trowel.
Zhongli has carefully cleaned and peeled his scavenged harvest, and proved himself deft with both blade and wok. His efforts have produced some kind of stew, bubbling merrily over the fire, which he seems satisfied to leave for the time being. He's dusted off his clothes and washed his hands, but his sleeves are still rolled up, and when he comes to sit down across from her, it's his bare forearms she stares at, rather than looking into his face.
"Congratulations on the new home," he says belatedly.
She doesn't want to talk about the new home.
She wants to talk about the Rite of Descension, about the wrong prediction he gave. She wants to know what he's been so busy with, all this time. She wants to ask how he managed to find something edible in the untamed thicket she's been treating as more of an embarrassment than a garden—though she fears such a question might send him into a treatise about the lifecycle and care of the bamboo plant. As pleasant as it is to hear him talk, she has too many competing questions to ask, too many things she needs to hear more urgently than bamboo talk.
Instead, she places her elbows on the table, and clasps her hands, trying to hold herself together.
As if directly seeking to sabotage her efforts, he places his hands over hers, swallowing them up. One thumb strokes at the skin of her wrist, alarming and comforting at once. She suddenly notices her headache's gone.
The only question left to her is the most obvious: "Why are you here? Why now?"
"I have felt your exhaustion," is his simple response.
"Is that what it takes to compel a visit from you? Being exhausted to my limits?"
The thumb stills its motion, as if puzzled. "The way I am accustomed to relating to humans is as... petitioners. They come to me when there is something they seek. Ningguang, when your life and plans were proceeding smoothly, I certainly watched, but did not see the need to intervene."
She is put slightly off track by the idea that her god has been watching her all this time. That and, sometime in his speech, he's gently worked her clenched hands apart, and turned them over in his grasp. Now he's running his fingertips along the sensitive flesh of her underarm, as natural as can be, and she has to repress a shiver with each pass.
"Forgive me," she says, "I spoke too sharply." An admirable amount of composure, if she says so herself, when her mind is racing to the last night they spent together, and how he'd traced her skin then too, she slotted against him like a puzzle piece, tucked into his arms.
"Nonsense." He smiles at her, simple and sincere, and her heart squeezes to realize how much she's missed the sight. "You have undertaken a great many responsibilities all at once, of far different nature than your experiences have prepared you for. I know this feeling well."
Being compared to a god makes her feel foolish and selfish at once, that she would complain about his absence, when he must have so many more demands on his time. But he only continues to tattoo his touch into her skin, and she grips his arm back, as if affirming his presence, or anchoring him in place.
"You asked why I'm here. Part of it is that I have missed your company. Part of it is to offer my assistance, if you wish it."
"Assistance," she says with a laugh, one that he answers with a corresponding rumbling shake of his shoulders. "Is that what the gods call it?" He has not forgotten the time they spent together, no more than she has.
"In light of the circumstances, I thought we might try something different." He releases her, and in the absence of his touch, her gaze follows his hands to his collar, where they deftly unwind his tie. He holds it out for her to inspect, an innocuous strip of of white fabric, draped over both hands.
"I am not commanding it of you, only offering. In your daily life, you are faced with so many decisions. For today, I only ask you to make one more."
She is no innocent, to demur and feign ignorance of the proposal, but she must still be in shock, because she finds herself casting around for excuses.
"Aren't you forgetting something?" she finally nods over his shoulder, at the stew still bubbling over low flames.
"Let it cook," he chuckles. "Worry not about such things. I will take care of it."
She can't deny how appealing it sounds, calling to some deep weariness within her. It must be that part that responds, bone-tired and overwhelmed, nodding her head yes as much as drooping it in exhaustion. He gets out of his seat to support her chin, letting her sag against him. Carefully, he winds the fabric over her eyes, blotting out the sight of him. Soft silk settles against her face, still warm from his skin, and he takes a moment to smooth her hair aside, consideration and caress in one.
"Can you see?" His voice is somehow richer, more melodious, without the sense of sight to distract her.
"No, my lord."
"Good." He kisses her, first softly on the temple, and then hungrily upon her lips. Both are equally startling, when she can't see them coming, equally thrilling. As she parts before him, she is glad to know she's not the only one who has been waiting, wanting.
Without warning, the world shifts, and she's lifted up, cradled in his arms. Her hands come up to clutch at his chest, even though she knows that there's not a place in existence she could be more secure than right here.
"Always reverting to formality," he chides, as he makes his way down the hall. He needs no direction to find her room, but as they pass through the threshold, he comes to a stop.
It takes her a moment to recall she's left her board uncovered, and he must be looking at it now. All the papers, all the notes. All the unanswered questions she needs to attend to. She finds herself squirming in his hold, only for him to shush her, and carry her the rest of the way to the bed.
"You have gathered so many burdens in such a short time. For just a few hours, will you not give them to me to carry?"
It doesn't sound plausible, but she allows him to lay her out on the bed all the same, undress her with careful attention to each clasp, each tie. She's still not comfortable with her own nakedness, but it's hard to feel self conscious when she can't see, when every uncovered bit of her is met with warm, wonderful kisses: throat, shoulder, all along the curve of her breast.
Soon he's licked all the way down to her navel, tonguing his calligraphy upon her flesh, and she reaches out vaguely, trying to do her part, to find him, to touch him. He only catches her hand, gently pulls it down to her side. The second or third time it happens, he pulls her hand down, and doesn't let go.
"I know you are a woman of action," he says, planting a kiss to her fingertips. "You've proven that most admirably. I wonder: do you also know how to surrender?"
Somehow, she knows what it means when she nods.
Somehow, she's still surprised by how it transpires: the touch of something soft and supple winding around her wrists, pulling them loosely down to her sides. The string twines around her waist, a brief rasp against her skin, and is hitched into place, before Zhongli gives her a moment to test her new bonds. They don't bite into her, don't hold her particularly tightly, but it takes only a few tugs to find she can't lift her hands high enough to do much of anything with them. Is this what he means by surrender?
"Focus on me, nothing else," he answers her. "Surrender all your worries and duties to me. I will take care of you, if you allow me."
When he eases her to lie on her back, she follows the motion, goes where he places her. Blind, bound, It's easier than she expected to do just that, to surrender to his will.
It helps that everything that he wills feels marvelous, his mouth on the jut of her hip, his fingers teasing her nipples to hard peaks. Even if she could, all she would ask is for him to do exactly as he's doing, but faster, more. There's a building urgency at her core that he seems oblivious to, or content to ignore, lavishing his attentions on her belly, then her thighs, while it's the area skipped over that longs for his touch. Perhaps this is what he meant, she thinks, to take things as they come, on his timetable. To stop directing, demanding, and only experience what is given.
Almost as she thinks this, his teasing touch presses its way between her legs. A white hot jolt of pleasure shakes her, and even behind the blindfold, she sees sparks. She must have given some kind of whimper, because his touch turns even gentler, stroking in soft, circular motions, coaxing and soothing.
"You're doing a wonderful job," he murmurs, fingers sliding down, down, slicking into her folds, and she flushes as much to the sensation as the praise. "Relaxing for me, opening for me. It's not easy for you, but you're doing so well."
The maddening touch bears down, even as the finger inside her crooks upward, such a delicious pressure that she lets out a cry, a needy wail she had no idea she was capable of.
Abruptly she surfaces, awkwardly and utterly aware of her body lying on the bed, aware of the responsibilities she's shirking, aware of these shameful noises she's making, too loud, too ugly, surely audible to any passerby.
"I, my lord." She flounders, physically and mentally at once. Her wrists come up short against their binds, and she doesn't know whether to find it a comfort or a concern.
Zhongli pulls away, and before she can explain that's not what she wanted at all, he's laid himself out alongside her, arm wrapping around her shoulders, drawing her in close. His seams press all along her bare skin, and she knows at once that he's fully clothed, selflessly attending to her, while he hasn't undone so much as a single button.
It reminds her of their previous encounters, and before she can think better of it, she says, "Will you not take your pleasure also?"
"What do you think I'm doing?"
There's amusement in his voice, and she doesn't have to see to know his eyebrows are raised.
"In all these times, you've never—" Ningguang burns to be so blunt. "Are you worried you'll get me with child?"
"I assure you that is not possible."
His touch skates down her back, up and down several times before he finally speaks. "I cannot afford to lose control with you, Ningguang. I might harm you, and I could never forgive myself for that. But I hope you can take assurance in this, as one who prides herself in always being in control, and fears to let go. If I must be vigilant anyway, allow me to do so for the both of us. For the time being, let me take care of matters, so that you don't have to."
Whether it's the words, the calming hand on her back, or the warmth of his embrace, she releases her tension, bit by bit. The blindfold, the string, they are both reminders that her lord has her, that she is right where she needs to be.
When he senses she's ready for it, he kisses her again, and she melts into it entirely: his lips, his hands cupping the back of her head, his body steady and unshakeable against hers. Every sensation now, she accepts, every caress; and somehow that allows her to relish in it fully, sink into it, clearing all else from her mind.
"Very good," he murmurs, as he spreads her legs apart.
"Just like that," as he buries his face between her thighs, and then he says nothing more.
She arches into the touch, into the purity of the moment, into knowing that this is all that's required of her. Allowing him to do with her as he will, playing her body like an instrument he's intimately familiar with, eking out chords and melodies that she has never produced.
He brings her to that high note again and again. There come times she thinks she can't take any more, but he patiently assures her that she can, and wrings yet more pleasure from her body, sobs from her throat.
By the time the blindfold lifts from her eyes, she's barely sensate, fallen into a deeper kind of exhaustion, boneless and satisfied.
He pours her under the covers, draws them up over her, and smooths his hand over her face, encouraging her to close her eyes once more. She barely manages to stay awake long enough to hear his murmured praise, but it still fills her with a warm contentment.
She did well.
She never got a chance to ask about... something... or another...
She sleeps the whole night through, and wakes as rested as if she's slept for days.
As expected, Zhongli is gone in the morning, but she helps herself to a hearty bowl of the stew he's left behind.