“Tell me, Captain,” she says, dripping with disdain, through the smoke that drifts lazily from the end of her pipe. “What is your heart’s desire?”
Beidou has heard tales of the new Tianquan: of this deadly creature wearing a woman’s guise who sinks steel talons into unsuspecting prey; who uncovers their weaknesses and sews silk beneath their skin, manipulating the threads for her own profit and greed. Her blood-red eyes glow gold with temptation, reflecting the sheen of the late afternoon sun, and they are embraced by dark hunger and sing like the void, and Beidou knows danger when she sees it.
She can feel the undertow pull at her feet, wrap around her ankles and draw her into the deep, and the danger is not in the drowning itself, but rather that Ningguang would compel her to crave it; would give rise to the urge to wade into waters unknown and beg for this woman to break her.
“There is nothing you can offer me that I can’t obtain myself,” she replies, and revels in the narrowed challenge of those haughty crimson eyes, and with an irreverent salute and a turn on her heel, Beidou leaves Yujing Terrace unscathed.
She returns to the wharf tense and unmoored, that alluring, slow chuckle ringing in her ears, and as she boards her ship to the hails of her crew, Beidou ignores the foreboding of Ningguang’s parting words:
“A day will soon come," the Tianquan had said, "when you'll require my resources. It is only a matter of time.”
“Tell me, Captain,” she insists, a keen look in her eye, and she pours herself another cup of fragrant green tea. “What is your heart’s desire?”
Beidou does not answer, engrossed by the chess board between them, instead, and Ningguang sighs her displeasure, sets aside her tea, and watches as Beidou’s brow furrows in confusion.
“I could give it to you,” she continues. “For a price, of course, but if you lend me your aid, then I will see to it that you are duly rewarded.”
Still Beidou says nothing, shifting from piece to piece, glancing every so often in Ningguang’s direction as if trying to decipher her strategy.
“All you have to do is sign my contract,” she urges, gesturing to the scroll unfurled on the desk, its patient companions her finest brushes and boldest ink, just waiting for Beidou’s untidy signature. “A business venture together, nothing more, nothing less—and everything that you ask for will be yours.” She hums beneath her breath, and tilts her head just so, boring crimson eyes into Beidou’s forehead. “Within reason, that is.”
“I want you to be quiet,” Beidou mumbles, annoyed, as her fingers hover over her remaining knight, “and grant me a moment to think in gods-forsaken peace so I can figure out how to win this time.”
Ningguang laughs, thick and low, and retrieves her tea, taking a satisfied sip as she gazes at Beidou over the rim. “There are no moves you can make that I have not already countered,” she says, “much like your avoidance to this contract of ours.”
Her eyes gleam in triumph, obscured by the steam, when Beidou groans her defeat into the silence.
“Sign the contract, Beidou,” Ningguang says, rolling her eyes, and rises to gather the scroll. “And once the matter has been dealt with, you are more than welcome to try your fortune again—from a purely statistical standpoint, at least, you’re bound to best me eventually.”
Beidou merely grunts and picks up the brush, but stubbornly moves her knight, anyway, and she scrawls her title and name and the date on the line, before taking a loud, echoing swig of her own tepid drink, smirking when Ningguang raises an exasperated brow.
“I look forward to the day when I beat you, fair and square,” she says, lifting her cup in a half-mocking toast. “The look on your face will be well worth the wait.”
“I’ll be sure to look quite shocked for you,” she dryly replies, and settles back down with her tea.
“So tell me, Captain,” she whispers, desolate and dim, as tears carve canyons into her marble façade. “What is your heart’s desire?”
Osial is vanquished, the Jade Chamber destroyed, and after calming the chaos and assessing the damage, Ningguang had retreated to her office, alone. It had taken half a day for Beidou to weave through the waves, guiding her ship through the endless storm, but she’d laid anchor in the Harbour and hastened straight up the hill, braving thunder and lightning and torrential rain to confirm for herself Ningguang’s safety.
The Tianquan kneels on the floor, collapsed before her desk, the weight of her sorrow overpowering her, and she looks up to Beidou with grief-stricken eyes when she crosses the room in long, rapid strides, and Beidou swallows hard the lump in her throat as she sinks to her knees beside Ningguang.
“You,” she replies, laying a hand on her cheek—her palm rough and calloused against porcelain skin—and Ningguang’s hitched breath is warm on her lips as she wipes away the evidence of her agony. “Just you.”
Beidou draws Ningguang tenderly into her arms and runs soothing hands along the length of her spine; tries not to dwell on how small Ningguang feels as the fractures in her armour begin to fail her.
(She bites her tongue to restrain her own tears—to be the pillar of strength that Ningguang needs her to be—and Beidou buries her emotions as she clings Ningguang tight, hidden from view in the depths of her heart for when she can weep her relief that the Tianquan is alive, later in the privacy of her cabin aboard the Alcor.)
They sit close together, for hours through the night, and Ningguang, exhausted, curls in Beidou’s lap, head beneath her chin, fading fast and deep into merciful, dreamless sleep; and when sunrise peeks feebly behind the grey curtain of clouds, Beidou runs gentle fingers through pale, tousled hair and holds her until she awakens.
“Tell me, Beidou,” she sighs, Beidou’s head between her thighs, and Ningguang inhales, unsteady, as she nips at her skin. “What is your heart’s desire?”
Beidou looks up, a loving glint in her eye, and the final fragment of stone that guards Ningguang’s heart cracks amid the rush of Beidou’s short, sharp breaths, warm and wanting against the very core of her.
“I already have it,” says Beidou, softly in reply, and her lip curls upward in a salacious grin as strong hands spread her legs even further. “Allow me to show you, my dear Tianquan.”
Ningguang’s eyes flutter shut and she moans low in her throat when Beidou smoothly resumes her position, and her thoughts flee her mind at the first touch of her tongue, soaring swift past the sun to the far-flung stars, as Beidou proceeds to make good on her promise.