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our love isn't fleeting dear, but i fear that i may be

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Chapter 1: Whispers

The king looked upon his reflection in the ornate, rectangular mirror as he readied himself, the gold flakes in the metal catching the light and sending refractions of amber onto his tanned face. His slender fingers carded through his hair, tying it back with a gemstoned hairpiece, centering it at the base of his skull. He checked himself one last time, straightening out his sleeves at his wrists, pulling his blazer into place and evening out the way it lay against his torso.

He considers himself to be tidy- though he has heard his servants and colleagues muttering about him being uptight, or vain, or any other flavorful vocabulary they can come up with to insult him when they believe he cannot hear. He could, though, and he prided himself in not letting the quick words of others get to him. Prideful- that was another.

He was going out to town today, something unlikely of him now in recent years, he’s considered himself too busy with the recent entanglements regarding the Fatui army. They, becoming a growing power, have been seeking out the royals from each city- apparently, Mondstadt was currently being investigated, though its ruler has been quiet for years and may perhaps be in hiding. Although, that last bit was all just speculation, and Zhongli didn’t want ill-mannered rumors tarnishing his personal opinion of the leader themselves.

‘Zhongli’ was one of his many names- most of the rulers these days had more than one. They would have a public one, then the private ones, or other nicknames given to them by their people. His names weren’t that complicated- all of them known by his people. He had a thing about honesty. Zhongli was just one name among Morax and Rex Lapis, the former a play on the name of Teyvat’s money system- the one that he “blessed,” or helped improve. Rex Lapis being after a valuable gemstone that both miners and jewelry enthusiasts alike found themselves scrambling to Liyue to get their hands on. Either way, he supposed it was a good thing his people remembered these names, and it didn’t seem like they would forget them any time soon.

He wrapped the final piece of fine jewelry around his horns, the delicate strands of gold fitting into the grooves in the deep brown, the action of doing so neatly practiced over the years- it was harder to do than it seemed. Then, once he considered himself satisfied, he left, walking through the careful, geometrical walls of his castle until he reached the front where his general, Xiao, was usually positioned. And, he was, standing at the side of the front door, his head turning toward Zhongli at the sound of his arrival. He took note of how the younger man’s posture straightened upon his arrival, a small, sly smile creeping up onto his face at the action. “Now now, Xiao, there really is no need to grow so tense. I’m not here to scold you, simply to ask for you to accompany me while I visit town today. That is, if you find yourself up to it.”

The general relaxed his posture at the comment, and Zhongli made a mental note to try not to intimidate the young man so much. He wanted Xiao to trust him, especially considering that he was the strongest soldier he had met in years. “I... Apologize, my Lord. Of course I’ll accompany you, it would be an honor.”

“Ah, wonderful. Thank you, Xiao. I was concerned I’d have to resort to asking general Mountain Carver and, well, you certainly know how he becomes when someone even just gets a little too close.”

Xiao gave a curt nod in response, and Zhongli couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Xiao had something underlying in his mind. He felt that this visit to town may help whatever it was- if that was the case. Xiao very well could just be keeping up formalities as best as he can.

The general was quiet most of the time, and when he spoke he tried to keep it short. Zhongli understood, in spite of his own demeanor coming off opposite to those he was comfortable with. Over anything, really, he understood Xiao’s desire to keep to himself. Zhongli did enjoy company, of course, but he often times found it disappointing in the end. Either people wanted from him, or he wanted from them. He supposed that was how all relationships functioned, but never once did it feel equal or fair in his circumstances. He didn’t ever indulge in the worries of his head, though. He felt it was unreasonable, and no nation needed a leader who was affected so easy mentally.

The two walked into town, Zhongli giving waves to the few that bothered, or recognized him, or young children that stared at his ensemble and draconic features. He doesn’t blame them for being what their parents call “rude,” he too, would stare at a tall man with horns and a tail if he wasn’t that shocking sight himself. Xiao kept not too far behind, eyeing those who he deemed “suspicious,” which Zhongli would make humored comments on. Xiao needn’t worry, anyway- Liyue was a good country with very little crime. Xiao insisted he keep an eye out, though, and Zhongli only shrugged. Might as well let the general do what he thought necessary, there would be no harm to come from his caution.

As they walked through the plaza, the sound of music filled their ears. Xiao’s eyes opened wider than usual, and Zhongli noted he seemed almost happy. The king couldn’t blame him, the music really was lovely- though it was noticeably foreign. The lyre wasn’t exactly an instrument Liyue was known for. Zhongli looked around for where the music was coming from, and eventually his eyes settled on an interesting looking stranger.
It was obvious upon looking at him that he wasn’t from Liyue, his clothing much too different from that of the locals, cape fluttering in the wind that seemed to encircle him as he strummed the teal-stringed lyre. His hair, a dark navy color that faded into a bright turquoise at the end, was braided at the front, framing his round, pale face. The stranger turned around in a circle as he sang, his lithe fingers strumming away masterfully at his instrument, and when he opened his eyes, they peered directly into Zhongli’s own, their deeper hues and greenish teals not reminding him of the ocean, but rather of a wide, open sky, to his surprise. The bard sent a smile his way, and though the king knew it was unusual, he felt grounded in place, his heart a steady beat, the heated core in the center of the earth pounding under the surface.

And then, in a moment too short for him to fully process, the bard smiled at him, bowing down with a cheeky smile, his chest rising and falling underneath him as he caught his breath. His head raised, his eyes gleaming- something that Zhongli could only stare right back into. And when he spoke, his voice was a melody- though this time, the song was directed at him.
“Why, hello there, my Lord! I didn’t expect the king of Liyue to stop and listen to my songs.” He rose up again, taking a few steps forward- something that made Zhongli tense up- and placed his free hand on his chest, a smile stretched wide over his teeth. His hand shot out for the king to shake.
“I’m Venti, Venti the bard! And honestly, I’m very excited to finally meet you, your highness.”

To finally meet him? What a strange thing to say. But he let himself will his hand to connect with Venti’s, the other man’s skin soft against the roughness of his own- suddenly, he found himself self-conscious. He pushed the feeling aside, shaking the hand of the bard and letting it go after.

“Call me Zhongli. May I inquire as to what you mean by that? Have you been searching for me?”

“Ehe,” Venti laughed, and his smile only grew wider. “Something like that.”

And so the crowd began whispering again.