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when rome's in ruins

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“Noble Jie,” Pei Ming pleaded, his voice cracking from the depth of his grief. “I beg you to reconsider.”

“I won’t,” Ling Wen said stonily, her expression chillingly devoid of compassion as Pei Ming prostrated himself at her feet. He remained kneeling, his forehead pressed firmly to the ground, but dirt dug under his nails as he clenched his good hand into a fist. His other arm wasn’t in a sling anymore, but it was braced in a splint and tucked uselessly against his chest.

“Have I not been your faithful friend? Have I not shared in your wrath? Your joy? Your sorrow? Have I displeased you? Have I sinned against you? If so, allow this one to make amends, allow this one to atone.”

Ling Wen pursed her lips. “You’re my dearest friend, Old Pei,” she said, tone utterly flat. “But it changes nothing.”

Mu Qing rolled his eyes. “Get up. This is pitiful. Don’t you have any dignity? It’s worthless to beg for empathy from someone so callous.”

“I think he looks fine like this, actually,” Quan Yizhen commented.

“This is so fucking fucked,” Feng Xin bemoaned.

“I’m not sure I understand how this is Ling Wen’s fault,” Lang Qianqiu said slowly, his expression troubled. “It’s not as if she has a choice.”

At that, Pei Ming reared up onto his knees, twisting his torso to glare back at Lang Qianqiu. “There’s always a choice!” he roared.

Unimpressed, Lang Qianqiu crossed his arms. “Really, you should look at yourself. All she said was that we cardinal martial gods would have to share a palace for now; I don’t know why you’re making this into such an affair. It will take time and merits we don’t have to finish rebuilding the Heavenly Capital. For now, can’t we just accept that with so few palaces it’s only fair that we share?”

Pei Ming, Mu Qing, Feng Xin, and Quan Yizhen all shouted, “NO!” in anguished unison.

“Oh, look at that,” Ling Wen said, humorlessly. “You’re already working so well together.”

“No one likes Pei Ming,” Quan Yizhen grumbled. “So why should we have to tolerate him?”

He picked at the edge of one of the bandages that still bound most of his body. He’d healed substantially, but his progress had been hampered after he’d spent a significant amount of spiritual power returning Yin Yu’s soul to his body.

Unfortunately, it hadn’t been enough. Yin Yu’s soul wasn’t ensnared in the cursed shackle anymore, but Yin Yu hadn’t returned to consciousness. The medicine gods evaluated Yin Yu and declared that his soul still needed nurturing, but Quan Yizhen didn’t know how. Neither did the medicine gods (they’d never seen a cursed shackle used so nefariously), nor the Palace of Ling Wen. The stall in restoring Yin Yu meant Quan Yizhen could focus on healing himself, but it’d left him in such a terrible mood that he kept picking fights that reopened his wounds.

“Ling Wen,” Pei Ming whined with renewed vigor. He clambered to his feet and touched his injured arm pointedly. The bone had mended since his agreement with Rong Guang, but Quan Yizhen scuffled with him recently and broke it again. “Is there really no other way?”

“What would you have me do?” Ling Wen sniped. “We’ve all had to make adjustments. I’m sharing a palace with two other civil gods; how do you think I feel?”

“That’s not so bad,” Quan Yizhen said. Ling Wen glared at him with such disdain, he stumbled back.

“I can’t stand the other civil gods,” Ling Wen wrinkled her nose. “They’re disrespectful, argumentative, and—least forgivably—utterly useless.”

“Yes, well, so is Feng Xin—” Mu Qing said (“Fuck off!” Feng Xin spluttered indignantly), “—and yet we’re each expected to share a palace not only with him but three other gods too. Your situation is hardly comparable.”

Ling Wen’s icy eyes flicked to Mu Qing. “No one else can fit; all other space in our palace is occupied by the scrolls I’ve worked tirelessly to restore,” she sniffed.

Even Mu Qing looked sheepish at the reminder that the task of replacing the tens of thousands of scrolls lost to Jun Wu’s inferno fell to her and her eidetic memory.

“Besides, Quan Yizhen doesn’t keep junior officials, so he’s hardly a burden,” Ling Wen added.

“He keeps a dead body!” Pei Ming shouted. “You are asking us to share a palace with a corpse!”

“Shixiong is alive!” Quan Yizhen protested.

“He just leaves the body out in common spaces,” Mu Qing muttered. “It’s terrible Fengshui.”

“A comatose immortal takes very little space,” Ling Wen dismissed with a wave of her hand. “He was hardly notable when he was in the Upper Court, I’m sure you’ll forget him in the palace too.”

“That still leaves the rest of us,” Mu Qing huffed. “And our junior officials. The finished palaces aren’t large enough to comfortably accommodate this many Upper and Middle Court officials, even with Quan Yizhen’s… limited personnel. Never mind that you’ve chosen to force Feng Xin and me to share a space. It won’t end well, not for us, and certainly not for our junior officials.”

“They argue worse than we do as of late,” Feng Xin muttered.

“And whose fault is that? You’ve spent centuries feeding them all manner of poison about me!” Mu Qing snapped. “Just because we’re…” Mu Qing made a face as if he’d bitten into a particularly pungent sour plum, “… adjusting our expectations of each other doesn’t mean we can expect them to resolve their distrust so quickly.”

Friends,” Feng Xin grumbled. “Just say we’re friends, you freak.”

Ling Wen pursed her lips. “I’m sure you’ll find some way to maintain decorum among your officials, Xuan Zhen Jiangjun, given your esteemed status. Further, Nan Yang Zhen Jun and his own officials spend much of their time in the human realm, and I’m sure that will only continue to be true now that Taizi Dianxia has resolved to remain there.”

“Don’t speak for me!” Feng Xin retorted. “I don’t have time to fuck around in the human realm anymore. I was kept in fucking detention even before Jun Wu’s military occupation, never mind everything that came after. And then there’s the time I spent hunting you down! I’ve got a backlog of prayers the size of a fucking mountain, I’ll be lucky if I ever see sunlight again.”

“That’s hardly my fault,” Ling Wen said blithely. “Perhaps you should have spent less time sniffing for me and more time on your Palace’s affairs.”

“Oh, FUCK YOU,” Feng Xin shouted, stepping forward. But Pei Ming looped his good arm around Feng Xin’s torso and dragged him back against himself.

“Breathe, Nan Yang,” Pei Ming murmured.

Feng Xin tensed in his grasp as if he were going to break out of it—and he could, too, Pei Ming’s injured arm ached where it was pressed between Pei Ming’s chest and Feng Xin’s body—but then Feng Xin stilled with a pout. He hesitated, and then took a deep inhale.

“Good,” Pei Ming encouraged. Feng Xin exhaled, eyes closing although his brows stayed furrowed. He breathed deeply three more times before he opened his eyes and tilted his chin to look at Pei Ming imploringly.

“Take a lap,” Pei Ming said, releasing him and clapping his shoulder. Feng Xin scowled, glared once more at Ling Wen, and then set off to burn his remaining steam by running laps around the mountain. Pei Ming wouldn’t be caught dead thanking Rain Master for much of anything, but he could be privately grateful that she’d offered Feng Xin advice for managing his anger the last time he’d exploded in front of her.

The others didn’t say anything, although Mu Qing watched Feng Xin’s retreating back with a complicated expression. Pei Ming returned his attention to Ling Wen, who met his gaze unblinkingly.

“Have some face. You five are among our noblest, most esteemed martial gods,” Ling Wen said, without a trace of sincerity. “Your fortitude and willingness to foster our new era will set a good example for the others.”

“She’s right!” Lang Qianqiu announced as if she hadn’t been mocking them. “Besides, it’s better than the tents we’ve been living in here.”

She was not right, and it was not better than the tents on Taicang.

The palace they shared was grandiose and would have been sizeable for one Upper Court official, but it was achingly small for five. Each of the Upper Court officials got their own sleeping quarters, but Middle Court officials were forced to share, often four or five to a room. Further, there wasn’t enough space to work separately, and so the palace’s two studies were split between the five gods, while their junior officials squeezed into various antechambers for their own tasks. At first, Feng Xin, Pei Ming, and Lang Qianqiu shared a study, and the other was shared by Mu Qing and Quan Yizhen.

That arrangement didn’t last.

Pei Ming was unclear on what precisely occurred between Mu Qing and Quan Yizhen. But he did know that only a few days after they’d returned to the Heavenly Capital, an absolute brawl erupted from Mu Qing and Quan Yizhen’s wing of the palace. The situation escalated so quickly, with such brutality, that a desperate junior official called Rain Master to intervene.

Although she remained in Yushi Country, Rain Master had taken on somewhat of a peacemaker’s role in Capital. The gods had all agreed they didn’t want a new Emperor—Mu Qing, actually, had been the one to first suggest that an Emperor on a pedestal inherently precluded equity among gods, and the others agreed that it was best that, at least for now, they govern together. However, despite their shared desire to improve their relationships with one another, the heavenly realm was still rife with residual toxicity, pettiness, and jealousy. It quickly became apparent that addressing conflicts through mediation did more to defuse bad behavior than the centuries of sporadic isolated detention that Jun Wu dealt.

However, mediation requires a sensible third-party facilitator, and few in the heavenly realm had the temperament for it. And so, it was inevitable that heaven officials began showing up outside of Yushi Huang’s cottage with all manner of issues for her to resolve.

(Some especially bold officials went to Xie Lian instead, although most were too ashamed after how they’d treated him and after all that had occurred. And then some were simply too afraid to approach him, knowing that he was Crimson Rain Sought Flower’s consort and not entirely trusting that Crimson Rain had truly dissipated.)

If conflicts couldn’t be taken to her, Yushi Huang would make an appearance in the heavenly realm. Usually, Pei Ming avoided her during these visits, even if she sought him out (which she often did, if only to say hello). But he couldn’t rightfully ignore a summons related to the incident between Mu Qing and Quan Yizhen, given he shared the palace with them. At her request, he appeared in the Grand Martial Hall, where she was unpacking vegetables from the back of her ox.

Pei Ming had expected Mu Qing and Quan Yizhen, or the official that had requested Yushi Huang’s help. But it was only Yushi Huang, her ox, and enough yams to feed a village.

“Would you like one?” she asked, sensing Pei Ming’s presence even though her back was turned to him as she stacked produce on the altar at the far end of the hall. Pei Ming hovered near the entrance, eyeing her ox even as her ox eyed him. “Harvest has been good to us.”

“Isn’t harvest always good to the Rain Master?” Pei Ming asked gruffly. She smiled at him over her shoulder, and familiar guilt settled in his throat.

“I prefer to think that it's everyone’s sincerity here that has enriched the soil this year,” Yushi Huang murmured, lifting a vibrant bunch of orange, purple, and red carrots by their greens. “It’s good to see compassion in the heavenly realm.”

“En,” Pei Ming grunted.

Yushi Huang set the carrots on the altar and turned to face Pei Ming. He shifted uncomfortably under the weight of her kind gaze. “I have a favor to ask, Ming Guang Jiangjun. It’s not fair of me, and I understand you’ve already given so much. But I’ve spoken with Xuan Zhen Jiangjun and Qi Ying Dianxia, and they’ve agreed to settle their grievance so long as they are no longer required to share a workspace. As such, I ask that you welcome Qi Ying Dianxia into your study.”

Pei Ming grimaced, and her eyes crinkled in sympathy. “My study isn’t mine to offer,” Pei Ming said. “I shared it with Nan Yang Zhen Jun and Tai Hua Dianxia.”

“Nan Yang Zhen Jun will share with Xuan Zhen Jiangjun going forward. It’s apt, they do share their cardinal region,” Yushi Huang offered.

“They don’t get along,” Pei protested, unable to maintain eye contact. He trained his gaze on her ox instead. Her ox huffed impatiently, but Yushi Huang’s voice remained as soothing as monsoon rain on a tile roof.

“They wish to work through their past grievances, and both have agreed to this arrangement,” she said. “It was actually Nan Yang Zhen Jun’s idea, I’m very impressed with him.”

“Quan Yizhen hates me,” Pei Ming blurted, glancing at her serene face only briefly before choosing to glare at a yam instead. He was far too old to feel this petulant, but far too guilty for the grace she always carried like a mantle.

“He misunderstands you,” she said gently. “He’s in pain, and he’s only ever found solace in aggression. He’s only remained so present for his Shixiong, he doesn’t want to leave him alone for very long... perhaps this will be an opportunity for you two too like it is for Nan Yang and Xuan Zhen.”

And Pei Ming eventually agreed, if only because he couldn’t bear her thoughtfulness any longer.

Quan Yizhen wouldn’t tell him what had happened between him and Mu Qing either, but he made himself scarce. Lang Qianqiu didn’t often join him either. And so, in a very roundabout way, Pei Ming became more privileged than the Southern gods.

Months passed, and tensions rose in the cramped palace. There was hardly room to work, much less decompress, and fights were frequent and vicious. If it were only a few junior officials, then issues could be resolved with disciplining. But there were too many incidents, among too many distinct officials. This wasn’t a matter of a couple of troublemakers; everyone had simply spent too much time pressed against each other and tempers inevitably flared.

It also wasn’t only junior officials.

Despite their reconciliation, Mu Qing and Feng Xin’s playful barbs still sometimes escalated into genuine bickering. Their arguments didn’t have the same bite as before, but their junior officials became defensive and combative each time. And Quan Yizhen, predictably, couldn’t help but join in whenever he saw a brawl. Only, he was much too powerful to tangle with the Middle Court, and so Pei Ming often stepped in. Which usually only further excited Quan Yizhen, who loved to wail on Pei Ming most of all.

The week the bell wouldn’t stop tolling was the worst of them all.

The constant cacophony set everyone on edge even more than usual. The din shook the ground around the bell tower, destabilizing some of the structures in the surrounding area. Some officials fled to the human realm, but that was difficult too; their previous haven on Taicang was no longer safe now that Crimson Rain Sought Flower had returned, and so many were forced to grit their teeth and bear it in the Heavenly Capital.

Irritation over the bell bled into irritation with each other, which only worsened when the bell rang itself loose from its fastenings and fell onto a nearby palace, disrupting the civil gods who were housed there. The spiritual array became a place of such vehement and unproductive venting that they all agreed to suspend casual conversation and reserve the array for emergencies only, at least until the bell quieted.

It was a relief when Xie Lian extended an invitation for heaven officials to visit Puqi Shrine for its dedication. It was an excuse to leave the Capital, and an opportunity to politely alert Xie Lian to the trouble his beloved had caused. Of course, only Mu Qing had the gall to actually bring the matter up with Xie Lian, and most of the gods found they couldn’t yet face Crimson Rain Sought Flower.

And so most gods resigned themselves to return to the cramped, noisy Capital without enjoying Xie Lian’s hospitality, but Mu Qing and Feng Xin lingered.

“Should we tell Dianxia about everything at the Capital?” Feng Xin asked when he and Mu Qing put aside their brooms to eat and lounge just outside the shrine. “He’d let us stay here if we asked. Or at the cottage. Or—” He broke off with a pained expression, the thought of staying in Ghost City clearly a step farther than he was willing to go.

“No,” Mu Qing said sharply. “It’ll only trouble him and Crimson Rain only just returned. Leave Xie Lian his happiness.”

“Call him Dianxia, you disrespectful asshole,” Feng Xin chided while gazing at Mu Qing with such naked fondness that Mu Qing smacked him with the broom again to hide his own flush.

A few days later, the bell stopped tolling. Whether it’d quieted for good was unclear, but even the blessed silence that followed couldn’t dispel the animosity roiling in the suffocating cardinal martial palace. The officials sealed inside clung desperately to decorum, to the lofty ideals they’d all agreed upon after they’d tucked Jun Wu and his patronizing despotism beneath Mt. Tong’lu. But their few remaining threads of patience were just as entangled as their daily routines, their workspaces, and their living quarters.

Except for Lang Qianqiu, of course.

Lang Qianqiu, the only one among them without any grudge or ill intent, the one who’d been bravest about their unfortunate circumstance, was blissfully unburdened by their suffering. As of late, he spent most of his time in the human realm raising Guzi, the child left behind when Qi Rong dispersed. At first, he intended to deputize Guzi as a junior official, so that he could live in the heavenly realm with Lang Qianqiu. But he was still a child, and Lang Qianqiu fretted over interrupting his growth by appointing him too early. And so, he and Ling Wen were working on a spiritual device that might allow Guzi to age even if appointed a deputy god.

Lan Qianqiu didn’t bother taking his junior officials with him to the human realm, and so they took up valuable space, often watching the others’ antics with wary, judgmental expressions. No doubt they gossiped to others in the Middle Court because bored, nosy officials began stopping by the palace with the sole intent of catching some entertainment.

It was undignified, and petty, and everything they’d agreed to quit being when they’d rebuilt the Capital.

More importantly: it drove Pei Ming mad.

Finally, after a particularly embarrassing incident wherein Pei Ming earned an unsightly black eye while tearing Quan Yizhen from a junior official in front of a tittering crowd of spectators, Pei Ming had enough.

He burst into their study and dragged Mu Qing and Feng Xin by their arms through a distance shortening array. They arrived in a rural village nestled at the base of a mountain, far from anyone who’d care to overhear.

“I can’t take it anymore,” Pei Ming announced, dropping their arms. “I can’t take it anymore, and I won’t.”

“What the actual fuck?! Don’t just fucking shove people into arrays!” Feng Xin barked.

“You’re filthy,” Mu Qing hissed, brushing himself off and smoothing his robes. “If you got any of Quan Yizhen’s blood on my robes, I’ll rend your skin from your bones,” Mu Qing warned. Pei Ming grimaced.

“If there’s blood on your robes, it’s mine,” Pei Ming said. Mu Qing’s lips curled.

“Disgusting,” he sneered.

“So, then you understand the urgency of our situation,” Pei Ming insisted. “I know I’m not the only one exhausted with our arrangement.”

Mu Qing and Feng Xin both slumped, their divinely youthful faces briefly displaying the strain of their hostile living environment.  

“It’s super shitty, but I don’t know what else we can do about it,” Feng Xin groused. “I’m doing my fucking best.”

“It’s not you,” Pei Ming said. “It’s—”

“We could curse Quan Yizhen,” Mu Qing interrupted. “That should take care of the bulk of our issues.”

“What? No! What is wrong with you?” Pei Ming hissed. “We’re not cursing another god—and I loathe to admit it, but it’s not just Quan Yizhen. It’s all of us, and our junior officials too. No one could remain calm in our situation. We don’t need threats, we need financing. With financing, we could finish the rest of the palaces.”

“Presumably,” Mu Qing said. “Although—"

“Stop trying to fucking curse people, you fucking nightmare,” Feng Xin muttered while Mu Qing made an indignant noise deep in his throat. Pei Ming got the impression this was a conversation they’d had before.

“Right, so we need money,” Pei Ming barreled forward. “And we happen to have an extremely wealthy friend, freshly returned from the ether—”

“No!” Mu Qing hissed. “Shut up! No!”

“We just got the fucking bell to quit,” Feng Xin anguished. “Fucking shit, Pei Ming, this is the worst idea you’ve ever had.”

“We need help—” Pei Ming started.

“He wouldn’t piss on us if we were on fire!” Mu Qing shouted.

“He would and he did!” Pei Ming shouted back, throwing his hands in the air. “The Heavenly Capital was literally on fire, and we’d have all burned with it if not for him and Dianxia! Compared to what he’s already done for us, this is nothing.”

“He’ll take advantage,” Mu Qing griped darkly. “He’ll leverage our desperation and choke us with our own self-pity. He’ll make horrible demands with horrible intent.”

“I’ve no doubt he’ll expect something in return. Let’s at least give him the opportunity to offer his terms,” Pei Ming insisted. “Surely you’re just as ready as me to have your own palaces again?”

“It helps that we don’t piss off Quan Yizhen,” Feng Xin mused. “Have you considered that maybe you shouldn’t antagonize him?”

“Oh?” Pei Ming ground out. “And how have you two fared? I’ve yet to come to visit your wing of the palace, but my officials tell me it’s become awfully messy lately. And the Palace of Xuan Zhen is so renowned for tidiness. Your junior officials must be grinding their teeth over their god becoming so comfortable living in filth.”

Mu Qing’s expression became thunderous. If looks could kill, Pei Ming would be dead. Feng Xin, on the other hand, merely looked guilty.

“Careful, Ming Guang,” Mu Qing spat. “You’ve enjoyed having use of your arm, I’d hate to see it snapped again.”

“Mu Qing…,” Feng Xin said pitifully, scratching the back of his head. Mu Qing’s gaze flicked to him, and then back to Pei Ming. His nose wrinkled as he chewed on their options.

“Fine,” Mu Qing finally sneered, his aura no less threatening. “Whatever. But I won’t grovel, and I won’t relent to any whim he conceives. We should be thoughtful about what we’re willing to give him, how much we’re willing to owe.”

“And I don’t think Mu Qing should come,” Feng Xin said. “He really hates Mu Qing,” he added, despite Mu Qing’s offended scoff.

“You’re certainly not his favorite either,” Mu Qing retorted, rolling his eyes.

“Yeah, but I’m not the one that kicked him out of the army—”

He was a child—”

“Enough!” Pei Ming interrupted, actual irritation contorting his usually handsome, smooth features. “Of all heaven officials, you are the only ones he might heed because of your close relationships with Dianxia. You’re both coming. All you need to do is hold your bitter tongues for the time it takes us to make our request and then take our leave. Okay?”

Mu Qing and Feng Xin shared a look, and Pei Ming wondered if they ever noticed how deftly they communicated when they weren’t spitting barbs at each other.

“En,” Mu Qing grunted.

“I’ll call Dianxia,” Feng Xin sighed. He lifted two fingers to his temple… and then frowned, his eyebrows furrowing. “He’s not answering,” he said, lowering his hand. He looked between Pei Ming and Mu Qing. “You don’t think anything—”

Pei Ming waved his hand dismissively. “No, nothing’s happened to him. Hua Chengzhu did only just return. I’m sure they’re merely enjoying each other’s company.”

Mu Qing sniffed. “We’ll just go to Puqi Shrine, then. If they’re not there already, they should be soon.”

“If we’re lucky, Crimson Rain will be in Ghost City, cleaning up whatever nonsense happened while he was gone,” Feng Xin commented, pulling out a chunk of cinnabar. He glanced around himself before finding a sizeable stone that would suffice for a distance shortening array. He set to work, with Mu Qing watching over his shoulder with a critical eye.

“Watch that line,” Mu Qing said casually. Pei Ming braced himself for a fresh bout of bickering, but the corner of Feng Xin’s lip quirked.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said, indeed slowing his hand to better his precision.

Pei Ming raised his eyebrows at their chummy exchange, but he didn’t dare comment. Instead, he said, “If we decide to go without announcing ourselves, we should tread lightly. If they are at the shrine when we arrive, we don’t want to inspire a bad mood.”

Mu Qing cast him a funny look. “We’ve always shown up at Puqi Shrine at our will. Dianxia welcomes us there. It’s not our fault if Crimson Rain chooses to be difficult.”

Pei Ming barked out a laugh. “If you insist. Still, I’d hate to interrupt their time together.  I think it best if we wait in the village proper and catch them when they’re out and about.”

“What? What a waste of time,” Feng Xin asked. “Don’t ramble nonsense, Pei Ming, you’re old enough that we’ll start to worry you’ve gone senile.”

Pei Ming twitched. “I’ll have you know,” he retorted, “I’m just as spry as I was when I was mortal and 26.”

“Oh, I doubt that,” Mu Qing mused. “Overindulgence must have softened you if Quan Yizhen can toss you around like you’re a child’s doll.”

“You two,” Pei Ming muttered, “have more nerve than you’ve got sense.”

Feng Xin finished the array, and the three stepped through. Pei Ming was startled to find they’d arrived just outside of Puqi Shrine, the late afternoon sun glaring off the tacky paint.

“This isn’t right,” he said. “I thought we were going to wait in the village?”

Mu Qing rolled his eyes. “No, you told us that’s what you wanted, and we told you that was stupid. Dianxia won’t turn us away.”

Pei Ming looked at them, bewildered. “This isn’t a matter of Dianxia sending us away, this is about…” Realization dawned on Pei Ming, but perhaps it had arrived too late. “You two—we can’t just knock, you know!”

“Why not?” Feng Xin demanded, already striding to the front door. “We always have.” He raised his fist but then froze. Pei Ming was still standing by the array, too far away to hear whatever startled Feng Xin. But he could guess.  

Hua Cheng had only just returned to Xie Lian after a terribly long year apart. Pei Ming had seen the weight of Hua Cheng’s absence in the lines of Xie Lian’s perpetually youthful face. After such a long separation, and given how much they’d clearly yearned for each other even prior to Hua Cheng’s dissipation—

They must be fucking constantly.

It’s certainly what Pei Ming would do if his heart weren’t made of steel and if he had someone he ached for as deeply as Hua Cheng and Xie Lian ached for each other. He recalled their casual touches, their devoted gazes, their murmured vows. It wouldn’t shock him if they hadn’t left the shrine since its unveiling in favor of tangling their limbs in ecstasy with no mind for the passing days.

It only made sense. After all, the bell had stopped ringing. The bell rang at bursts of immense spiritual energy, it stood to reason that it would find peace again when that spiritual energy found an outlet.

So consumed was Pei Ming with imagining the various lurid sex acts that must be taking place in the freshly christened Puqi Shrine, that he didn’t notice Feng Xin’s head had cocked in confusion. Not until Feng Xin began beating at the door in earnest.

“Dianxia?!” He called, while Pei Ming’s eyes widened in horror. “Dianxia! Are you okay?”  

Feng Xin looked helplessly at Mu Qing. “I feel both him and Crimson Rain, they must be in the shrine— but I heard Dianxia crying out!”

“What are you doing? Don’t hesitate!” Mu Qing snapped, already gathering spiritual power in his hand.  

“Stop!” Pei Ming finally found his voice above the ringing in his ears. “You sheltered idiots—don’t just—!”

Too late, Pei Ming was perpetually too late. Feng Xin raised his knee and struck out, kicking down the door. He and Mu Qing burst into the shrine, hearts full of noble intent and heads devoid of even a shred of intelligence.

It would be cowardly to abandon them here. It would be wise, fair, and just, but it would be cowardly. Pei Ming dragged his hand down his face, took a deep, steadying breath, and then followed them.

The scene he arrived at was, admittedly, unexpected.

Hua Cheng hunkered in the corner of the room, his face a mask of unadulterated anger, his body clothed only in the outermost layer of his crimson robes. Xie Lian wasn’t anywhere to be seen, although Pei Ming, too, had felt his presence only moments before.

Killing intent radiated from Hua Cheng in palpable waves, so strong that even Pei Ming felt nauseated beneath the weight of his fury.

“To what,” Hua Cheng snarled through bared fangs, “do we owe the pleasure?”

Feng Xin and Mu Qing looked pitifully lost, their heads turning every which way as they tried to process that Xie Lian wasn’t in the shrine, as if they’d somehow missed him in this refurbished but still humbly sized space.

“We—uh,” Feng Xin said, dumbfounded.

“Where’s Dianxia?” Mu Qing demanded harshly as if he couldn’t feel the oppressive anger emanating from the calamity reclining on the shrine’s cot. Despite Hua Cheng’s vicious expression, his pose was that of a relaxed youth.

“Hua Chengzhu, our sincerest apologies for interrupting your evening,” Pei Ming said, bowing deeply to Hua Cheng. With chagrin, he recognized he was becoming too used to the act of prostrating himself.

Hua Cheng considered him coldly, his mouth twisting into a disappointed frown. Somehow, Pei Ming felt even more embarrassed.

“I expect this from them,” he said, jerking his chin at Mu Qing and Feng Xin, who were both still bewildered and braced for a fight. If there were one, they all knew it’d be over before it’d begun, but Mu Qing and Feng Xin were nothing if not brave fools. “But you’ve surprised me, Pei Ming. I thought you above this sort of simplemindedness.”

The southern gods shouted their offense, but Pei Ming swallowed.

“I intended to wait for the two of you in the village,” Pei Ming admitted. “But we were simply too anxious to see you.” He glanced at Mu Qing and Feng Xin, too honorable to allow them to carry the entirety of the blame, but too angry at them to resist making it clear that this was still very much their fault.

Hua Cheng quirked an eyebrow. “Oh? And what could possibly be so important that three heaven officials felt compelled to burst into another god’s shrine? Have these officials forgotten that this shrine belongs to the Crown Prince who saved them all? The god whose indomitable will and endless grace drove back heaven’s demise? How quickly immortal memories falter,” Hua Cheng tsked.

Mu Qing and Feng Xin still clearly did not realize what they’d done, nor did they seem cognizant of the gravity of Hua Cheng’s displeasure. But they did recognize when they were being mocked, and Mu Qing’s pale face flushed with anger even as Feng Xin stepped forward.

“Where the fuck’s Dianxia?” Feng Xin demanded again. “I felt him here, and now he’s gone!”

“Explain yourself, Crimson Rain!” Mu Qing barked.

Pei Ming marveled at their immense stupidity. For a moment, he longed for the sort of empty-headedness that would allow one to reproach a Ghost King even after barging into his home unannounced, almost surely while he was enjoying his marital bed.

Then again, it was odd that Dianxia wasn’t anywhere to be seen. From the corner of his eye, Pei Ming noticed a window. The previous Puqi Shrine had only the front door and vents, but the villagers had crafted this shrine with the knowledge that their god lived here faithfully, and they’d constructed windows with delicate latticework carved from maple.  

One such window hung ajar.

“Oh,” Pei Ming said aloud. Hua Cheng’s dark eye flicked to him.

“Oh,” Hua Cheng said lightly, and Pei Ming grimaced.

With a heavy sigh, Pei Ming cracked his neck, and then his knuckles.

“Hua Chengzhu,” Pei Ming said, lowering himself to his knees, pressing his forehead and palms against the ground, “this one apologizes for our terrible misstep.”

Mu Qing and Feng Xin were struck silent. Pei Ming couldn’t see Hua Cheng’s expression, but his voice was chilly when he said, “Then tell me why you chose to appear in the first place if you recognize it for the mistake that it is?”

Pei Ming willed Mu Qing and Feng Xin’s continued silence and said, “This one came to ask for Hua Chengzhu’s patronage once more. This one knows Hua Chengzhu has already given the heavenly realm much, even after the heavenly realm’s egregious treatment of Hua Chengzhu and Taizi Dianxia. But we’ve no other recourse, we must again ask for Hua Chengzhu’s grace.”

Mu Qing made a strangled noise as if he were choking on the indignity, and so Pei Ming hastily continued, “The Heavenly Capital is yet to be restored; although we’ve returned, we are in need of further funding in order to finish rebuilding.”

“Oh?” Hua Cheng said, malicious pleasure seeping into his voice. “Is that so?”

Pei Ming glanced up. Hua Cheng smiled wryly. “Yes. We would be in Hua Chengzhu’s debt if he would grant us the money necessary to complete the Capital.”

Feng Xin opened his mouth, but Pei Ming held a palm out, dismissing whatever retort rested on the tip of his tongue.

Hua Cheng and Pei Ming studied each other, Hua Cheng consideringly and Pei Ming with ironclad resolve.

Finally, Hua Cheng said, “Fine. But you’ve overstepped horribly, and I’m still very angry.”

“And what do you have to be angry about?” Mu Qing sniped, rolling his eyes. Pei Ming could have throttled him.  

Hua Cheng’s glared icily at Mu Qing.

“You show up unannounced,” Hua Cheng began, “you startle my husband away,” he continued, while Feng Xin and Mu Qing’s idiot faces fell into idiot expressions, “and then you levy demands. I’ve plenty to be angry over, and any money I lend to the heavenly realm will be just that: a loan.” He grinned, again baring fangs. “One with steep interest.”

It was then that Mu Qing’s eyes fell on the open window. He flushed brightly and straightened his back. Feng Xin, however, still appeared perplexed.

“How could we possibly scare off Dianxia?” He retorted. “We come here all of the time—”

“They were having sex, you innocent fool!” Pei Ming hissed. Feng Xin’s face fell into shock, and then horror.

“What the FUCK?!” Feng Xin shouted while Mu Qing buried his face in his hands. “How the fuck were we supposed to know? We knocked!”

“Yes, and therein lies the issue,” Hua Cheng sighed.

Feng Xin furrowed his brows, but Mu Qing elbowed him and gestured to the window. Feng Xin glanced at the window and squinted before understanding dropped his jaw.

“Did he—he fucking ran?!” Feng Xin blurted. “What the fuck, how could we have fucking known he would do something like that?!”

“Dianxia, my husband,” Hua Cheng said as if they’d forgotten, “is pure-hearted and noble. You insisted on entering without invitation, and he didn’t want to be seen in such a state, nor do any of you have the right to lay eyes on him in that state,” Hua Cheng sniffed. “And so, now that you realize the extent of your trespass, what do you plan to do about it?”

“I hate this,” Mu Qing bemoaned. “I hate this, I hate this, I hate this.”

“Fucking fuck, shit, fuck,” Feng Xin muttered miserably.

Pei Ming closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then opened them again. “Your previous arrangement, with Jun Wu? We will uphold it.”

“Oh?” Hua Cheng said. “But that was an arrangement I made with Jun Wu.”

“We will take any amendments you so require into consideration,” Pei Ming said slowly, wincingly.

Hua Cheng hummed and appeared thoughtful for a moment.

Finally, he decided, “I still would like the word of my heroism and kindness broadcast in the Heavenly Capital daily.” Pei Ming nodded, but Hua Cheng added, “But it can’t be for only a year any longer; not if I’m to give you money on top of everything I’ve already done.”

“How fucking long do you want, then?” Feng Xin said.

“Ten years,” Hua Cheng said.

“Ten fucking—” Feng Xin started, but Pei Ming cut him off and said, “That’s fine. We’ll broadcast the tale of your heroism and kindness daily for ten years.” It was better than the fucking bell.

“This is of course, in addition to the expectation that you will pay back any money I lend,” Hua Cheng said.

“Of course,” Pei Ming conceded.

“With interest,” Hua Cheng added.

“Yes,” Pei Ming agreed. “With interest.”

“Interest with a 24% APR,” Hua Cheng clarified. Pei Ming flinched as if struck, but he tilted his head in acknowledgment. “Also,” Hua Cheng added. “I meet regularly with Black Water to discuss our financial relationship and I expect the same of the heavenly realm. I will not let you sit idle on your debt.”

“That’s very reasonable,” Pei Ming said.

“Also,” Hua Cheng his face splitting into a sharp grin, “I want a statue of Dianxia and myself in the new Grand Martial Hall.”  

Mu Qing choked on his indignation. “We can’t promise that!”

“Then I can’t promise funds,” Hua Cheng mused.

“If we don’t have the fucking money for palaces, how the fuck do you think we’ll pay for statues?” Feng Xin shot back, clearly proud of himself for the comeback. Hua Cheng’s grin did not waver.

“I’ll provide the statues, of course,” he said.

Mu Qing and Feng Xin shared a wild, horrified look.

“You bastard!” Feng Xin shouted.

“If you think we’ll let any of those—that smut from the Cave in the Heavenly Capital—” Mu Qing spat, but Hua Cheng cut him off.

“No, no I’ll carve them especially for the Grand Martial Hall,” he promised, mirth twinkling in his eye. “These are my terms. They are not open to negotiation, you will accept them in their entirety, or you will return to the Capital with nothing.

“And even should you decline a loan, I still expect compensation for today’s offense. It won’t do for heaven officials to become comfortable barging unannounced into my home any more than I’m sure heaven officials would welcome me if I were to trespass into the Capital.”

Mu Qing, Feng Xin, and Pei Ming exchanged looks.

“What do you say?” Hua Cheng mused.

***

And such is how a number of gods had to secretly beg the head of Ghost City for help.