The Kingdom of Khaenri’ah wasn’t built in a day.
Albedo watches it rise from the darkness with his own eyes. The barren fields come to life first. Rhinedottir’s creations burst forth from the soil: synthetic vegetables to feed the people, then fields of flowers to fill the earth with color. After that, they start building from the ground up. Bridges. Buildings. Walls and towers.
In the center of it all lies Aether.
He is the one supervising most of the construction. Albedo sees him flitting around the city like a busy bee, drafting plans and delegating duties. He may be the founder of their budding nation, but he lives and laughs with the people.
Khaenri’ah is deep underground. The sun does not shine here, but Aether does. Albedo watches him from the lab’s large window. Today he seems to be tending to the gardens. His wheat-colored hair is plaited into a tight braid, and his pale hands are digging into the earth. What he is planting, Albedo does not know.
Aether looks up. He meets Albedo’s gaze and smiles radiantly, lifting a dirt-stained hand to wave.
Albedo blinks, stunned.
“I see Aether has started sowing the Inteyvats.”
He turns to see Rhinedottir standing behind him, her arms crossed over her chest. Her face is impossible to read, but there is a glint of approval in her eyes, one that Albedo rarely ever gets to see.
“Well then,” Rhinedottir says sharply, picking up a book. “I hope you are prepared for more lessons today.”
Albedo nods. “Of course, master.”
When he turns around, Aether is gone, but the soil below has been watered. Nothing in Khaenri’ah remains the same after Aether has touched it.
His lessons with Rhinedottir are nothing short of grueling.
There is a reason why his master is the only known alchemist to have mastered the Art of Khemia. It is complex and nuanced in ways that the human brain can hardly wrap itself around. Thankfully, Albedo is not human.
He persists for the sake of Khaenri’ah. There is little by way of natural flora and fauna to be had in such a harsh environment. To survive underground, they must take matters into their own hands.
The lab is one of the first rooms in the castle that got furnished, but their supplies are sparse. Rhinedottir hovers by the crafting bench, frowning. “We’ve run out of Butterfly Wings,” she’s muttering to herself. “Should I substitute them with…? No, that wouldn’t work.”
Albedo flips to the next page of his book. There’s no point attempting to speak to his master when she is like this.
Even a knock at the door isn’t enough to draw her out of her reverie.
He snaps his book shut and heads over to open it, then comes face to face with a familiar pair of golden eyes.
“Good afternoon!” Aether says cheerfully. He sticks his hand out. “Albedo, right? I’m—”
“Aether,” Albedo finishes for him. “I know.”
He laughs good-naturedly, withdrawing his hand. “I didn’t want to be presumptuous. Is your master around?”
“Yes.” Albedo takes a step to the side. He holds the door open, allowing Aether to come in. “She is somewhat distressed at the moment.”
Aether hums sympathetically. “Running low on materials, right?” He holds up a bag. “Don’t worry. I took a trip to the overworld this morning. I fetched some things for you guys.”
“Oh,” Albedo says. “Thank you.”
“Anytime!” Aether grins.
Albedo looks away. Too bright. His eyes have adjusted to the darkness here. Aether sticks out like a sore thumb in Khaenri’ah. A single star in the night sky.
Aether bounds up to Rhinedottir. “I got you the stuff you asked for,” he says, placing the bag down. “Butterfly Wings, Flaming Flower Stamens… Oh! You said you didn’t need a new stock of Crystal Cores yet, but I found a few Crystalflies on the way.”
Rhinedottir snaps out of her trance. “Oh, Aether. Finally. I’ve been working with scraps for far too long.”
Aether smiles sheepishly. He rubs his neck. “Sorry. I’ve been busy.”
Rhinedottir waves him off. “Don’t fret about that now. Let me put these away.” She picks up the bag then turns around, but not before adding. “Albedo, entertain Aether while I handle this.”
With that, she’s gone.
Albedo blinks. He turns to Aether and says, tone apologetic, “I am not sure how to entertain you. Would you like some tea?”
Aether smiles at him warmly. “Sure!”
There are no tea plants growing in Khaenri’ah. Rhinedottir has attempted to grow them in the greenhouse, but the leaves come out wrong and sour. However, they do have jars of it stored away, along with several bottles of milk, all taken from their sparse trips to the overworld.
Albedo prepares a cup for Aether, who takes it graciously. “This is good,” he says after taking a sip. “It’s been a while since I’ve had tea.”
“We are working on developing tea plants that can survive in these conditions,” Albedo reassures him. “It is simply taking a while. However, my master is incredibly talented. She will figure it out.”
Aether smiles. “I don’t doubt it,” he says. “She managed to make you, after all.”
Albedo tilts his head. “Yes, I suppose human life is more difficult to create than a plant. However, when accounting for taste, things become somewhat more complex. Would you like to try our previous attempts?”
“I’m almost afraid to say yes,” Aether says wryly.
Albedo fishes out a jar from the back of the cupboard. He pours some in a separate cup, then hands it to Aether.
“It looks pretty normal,” Aether says, though he does observe it warily before drinking it. “That’s not so—” He chokes. “Oh, stars above. What in Teyvat was that aftertaste?”
Albedo watches him with a faint sense of amusement. “That was one of our better results. If you don’t account for the sour aftertaste, it was nearly a successful attempt.”
“Nearly,” Aether says. He picks up the other cup and takes a sip to wash out the taste, pulling a face. “Remind me not to agree to be your lab rat ever again.”
Albedo raises an eyebrow. “You wouldn’t let me study you?”
Aether laughs. “Well, maybe if you ask nicely,” he says, “and make me proper tea.”
“That can be arranged,” Albedo acquiesces. His lips twitch, and he brings a hand to his face. Strange, is this what smiling feels like? Rhinedottir never taught him how to do that.
It takes a few months, but with ample time and care, the flowers bloom.
Albedo takes a step out of the castle and into the gardens. There’s a sweet scent lingering in the air. A sea of pale petals greet him. Even under the light of the Abyssal Moon, they glow faintly.
He stoops by one of the flowers, studying its shape. Inteyvats, as he’s come to learn, are very resilient plants. Five petals. A hardy stem. If he plucked this flower clean off the ground, it would wilt in two weeks.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?”
Albedo turns to see Aether hovering over him. He gets up, dusting the dirt off his shorts. “They are. I never imagined something so lovely could grow in a place like this.”
Aether smiles. “Well, we’re here, aren’t we?” he points out. “Khaenri’ah is thriving, against all odds.”
“Yes,” Albedo says faintly. “Thanks to you.”
Aether nudges him. “We’ve all had a hand in it. Without you and Rhinedottir, the people would hardly have anything to eat.”
Albedo hums. “We’re still working on the tea plants.”
“How is that going?”
Albedo raises an eyebrow. “Would you like to taste for yourself?”
Aether huffs a laugh. “I would rather not,” he says. “Anyway, it’s a nice day. I wouldn’t want to drag you back to your lab. We both rarely have free time as it is. Care for a walk?”
Albedo nods, his gaze softening. “I would like that.”
“Is this truly necessary?”
Rhinedottir shoots him a look that could cut through steel. “Celestia will find us sooner rather than later. Hand me the Chaos Core.”
Albedo does as he’s told. He watches as she slots the final puzzle piece in place. The Field Tiller’s eye glows. There’s a faint hum emanating from it. Rhinedottir gets up, placing her hands on her hips.
“Not my most refined work.” Her lips are pursed in a thin line. “Then again, a weapon doesn’t need to be beautiful.”
The door opens, revealing a tall man swathed in black. Albedo rarely leaves the lab, so his brain takes a moment to pin a name to his face. Dainsleif. Captain of the Royal Guard. The Twilight Sword.
Behind Dainsleif, Aether steps out. Albedo feels the tension in his shoulders unwind.
“The prototype is complete,” Rhinedottir says. “I will tinker with it some more, but we will be able to make an army’s worth soon enough.”
Dainsleif crosses his arms over his chest. “When you pitched this idea to me, I nearly took offense. I thought perhaps that you saw the royal guard unfit for battle.”
Rhinedottir scoffs. “You thought right.”
Dainsleif glosses over her quip. “However, I see your point now. For mere humans to wage war against the divine…” He shakes his head. “We could use all the help we can get.”
Aether sighs. “I was hoping it wouldn’t have to come to this.”
Rhinedottir shakes her head. “This is the price that our godless land must pay. We are done tilling the soil to grow food for our people. Now it is time to use our tools to secure our land with steel and blood. Be prepared.”
“You’re right,” Aether says. He looks so world-weary. “Dainsleif, go test out the prototype Field Tiller with Rhinedottir. We need to finalize the design as soon as possible.”
Albedo slips away from the conversation silently. He digs out their last jar of tea from the cupboard.
Behind him, the Field Tiller whirs to life. It follows Rhinedottir and Dainsleif as they file out of the lab. Its footsteps are so heavy that Albedo can picture the building shaking under the weight of it.
Aether lingers behind, leaning against the counter. There are bags under his eyes. Between the lingering threat of war and the ongoing building of Khaenri’ah, he must be exhausted.
Albedo sidles up to him with a cup of tea. “Here,” he says softly.
Aether smiles. Even as tired as he is, he still looks radiant. The Abyssal Moon pales in comparison to those golden eyes.
“Thank you,” Aether says. “I needed that.”
Albedo stares at him hopelessly. “Don’t thank me. I am no soldier. There is nothing else I can do for you.”
“Don’t say that,” Aether chides. “You do plenty.”
But when war finds them, he won’t be able to do anything at all. Steel and blood, Rhinedottir had said. Albedo is neither. He is not a machine, but he is not human. Where does that leave him?
Aether puts his cup down. He takes Albedo’s hand. “Hey. Talk to me.”
Albedo blinks, startled by the calloused slide of Aether’s fingers against his. “There is nothing to say.”
Aether downs the rest of his tea before Albedo can tell him to slow down. “Come on,” he says, tugging Albedo along. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Aether takes him to the gardens. He plucks two Inteyvats from the ground, then guides Albedo deeper into the castle. They venture through hallways that Albedo has never traversed before, then stop before an unfamiliar door.
“Did you know,” Aether says, voice wavering, “that I have a sister?”
Albedo blinks. “I have heard… many things,” he answers. “About you.”
He knows that Aether is a fallen star from another world. He knows that Aether built Khaenri’ah from the ground up in hopes of making a home after losing the last one he had. He knows that Aether has a sister, and that she is stuck in a dreamless sleep.
He does not know her name.
“It’s okay. People talk.” Aether pushes the door open. “After you.”
Albedo steps into the room.
Despite being unused, it is pristine. Aether clearly dusts it off every so often. In the middle lies a large bed, and on that bed is a person.
She has the same pale complexion as Aether, but her hair is a shade lighter. There is a blanket drawn over her slumbering form. Not a wrinkle on it. Her body is rising and falling at a steady pace. If it wasn’t for that, Albedo would have mistaken her for a corpse.
Aether’s bright eyes have gone dim with sadness. “Her name is Lumine.”
“It’s a lovely name,” Albedo says.
There are two Inteyvats pinned to Lumine’s blonde hair. Two weeks must have passed since they were placed there, because the once-vibrant petals have shriveled up. Aether takes them out, then replaces him with the fresh ones he picked from the garden.
“I think she would have liked these flowers,” Aether explains, pulling away from his sister. “I wonder if she would have liked this place.”
“You will find out,” Albedo says, squeezing his hand, “when she wakes up.”
The smile returns to Aether’s sweet face. “You’re right.”
Albedo finds it in himself to smile back. “I am rarely ever wrong.”
“I hope you get to meet her one day,” Aether continues. “I think she would like these flowers, and I think she would like Khaeri’ah, but I know she would like you.”
“How are you so sure?”
Aether’s hand is warm in his. “Because I like you.”
Aether is always busy. He has meetings with the royal family to attend. After those, he aids with construction work in the heart of the city, and then trips to the overworld to gather supplies. There’s also odd jobs to do, and—
Well, he’s busy, but he always finds time for Albedo.
“You don’t have to keep coming to see me,” Albedo says. “I know you have work to get done. We all do.”
“You can’t get rid of me that easily,” Aether teases. He sits back, leaning his weight on his hands. “If you want me gone, you can just say so.”
Albedo frowns. “That’s not what I meant.”
“I know.” Aether smiles. “I enjoy your company, so I won’t let you chase me off.”
“I… enjoy your company as well,” Albedo says haltingly. He brushes his hair out of his face, then draws a line under a passage of his book. Rhinedottir has assigned him with more reading as of late.
There is a particularly stubborn lock of hair falling over his forehead. His hair has been growing out over the months. Rhinedottir never taught him what to do with it, so he cut it himself, but the result was jagged and uneven. He blows it out of his face.
Aether huffs a laugh. “Will you let me do your hair?”
Albedo blinks. “Alright.”
He resumes his reading as Aether starts carding his fingers through his hair. It’s a strangely nice feeling. Albedo leans into the touch, his eyes sliding shut. Aether’s fingers are gentle.
“There we go,” Aether says, pulling away.
Albedo looks up at his reflection in the window. His ashen hair has been pulled back in two messy plaits on either side of his head. At least it’s out of his face.
Aether smiles, clearly pleased. “You look nice. It suits you.”
“Thank you,” Albedo says. “I’m just glad its out of the way.”
Aether laughs. “If you want me to do your hair again, you know where to find me. And—hey, look, we match.” He pulls his own braid over his shoulder, grinning.
Albedo smiles back. “Yes,” he says. “We do.”
Eventually, Aether has to drag Albedo out of the lab.
“You haven’t slept in three days,” Aether points out. “Human or not, you still need rest. The secrets of the universe are not going anywhere.”
Albedo rubs his eye. “My master wanted me to check on the Field Tillers—”
“I already did that.” Aether ushers him into his room. “Honestly, she’s working you to the bone.”
“I don’t have bones.”
Aether huffs a laugh. “You know what I mean. Let’s get you ready for bed.”
Albedo takes off his shoes, then sits on the edge of his bed and lets Aether tug his gloves off. His gold eyes are shining in the dim light. He looks strangely concentrated for such a mundane task. Albedo flexes his fingers, and Aether smiles, leaning down to brush his lips across his knuckles.
“Why did you do that?” Albedo asks, peering at him curiously.
“Because I wanted to,” Aether answers simply, tugging off his other glove.
Albedo hums, shrugging off his coat. Aether rummages through his closet and finds him some bedwear. He looks away politely as he gets changed, though Albedo wouldn’t mind if he didn’t.
“Your room is pretty bare,” Aether comments. “Have you ever considered decorating?”
“Not really,” Albedo says, pulling a shirt on. “You can look now.”
Aether tosses his coat over a chair. “Promise me you’ll get some sleep.”
Albedo raises an eyebrow. “Will you?”
Aether sighs. “I suppose I have to, or I’ll be a hypocrite.” He draws a blanket over Albedo, smoothing the wrinkles out.
“You don’t have to fuss over me,” Albedo grouses.
Aether laughs. “Maybe I want to.”
Albedo grumbles. The shirt Aether picked out is a size too big, and it keeps slipping off one shoulder. He drags it pack up over the exposed skin of his collarbone, though he doesn’t miss the way Aether’s eyes follow the movement.
“What are you looking at?”
“You,” Aether says.
Albedo offers him a wan smile. “Not much too look at.”
“That’s not true at all,” Aether protests, leaning closer. “Sometimes, I look at you and think: ‘You must have been made by a loving hand.’ Isn’t that cheesy?”
Albedo blinks. “What does that mean?”
“It means that you’re beautiful,” Aether explains, “and that your creator must have loved you dearly, to make you this stunning.”
Albedo raises an eyebrow. “I do not believe Rhinedottir is capable of such a thing,” he states. “She does not love me.”
Aether laughs. “Well, I am,” he says, twining their fingers together. “And I do.”
They wake up tangled in Albedo’s bed. The light from the Abyssal Moon is streaming through the curtains. Albedo pries himself off Aether, but not before brushing his wheat-colored hair off his forehead.
He gets dressed. Aether stirs awake as he’s buttoning up his shirt and gets out of bed to press a kiss to the exposed skin of his shoulder.
Once they’re read to go, Aether takes his hand and says, “Breakfast?”
“We might have some tea left.”
“The good kind, I hope.”
“Hm. I’ll surprise you.”
This earns him another laugh. Albedo squeezes his hand and pulls Aether out into the hallway.
They don’t make it to the dining hall. Not before the sirens start ringing.
Dread pools in Albedo’s stomach. So soon?
Dainsleif sweeps past them, his shimmering blue cape cutting through the dark. “It’s time,” he barks out. “Kreideprinz, evacuate. Aether—”
“I have to get Lumine,” Aether says.
Albedo’s grip on his hand goes tight. “I’ll come with you.”
Aether shakes his head. “No. It will be faster if I go alone. Dainsleif, please escort Albedo to the gates.”
Albedo’s eyes go wide. “I can’t—”
“You can, and you will.” Aether lets go, his golden eyes shining. “I’ll meet you when it’s over.”
Albedo swallows hard. His heart thrums in his chest frantically, like a Crystalfly pinned to corkboard. He trusts Aether; he has to trust Aether.
“Okay,” he says, slipping away. “Live. For me.”
Aether smiles. “You can’t get rid of me that easily,” he promises.
Then he’s gone, and Dainsleif is pressing a hand to Albedo’s back and urging him away. He can still feel the lingering warmth of Aether’s hand in his. After all, nothing in Khaenri’ah remains the same after Aether has touched it.
He doesn’t see Aether again until much later.
The people all around him are swarming, and he can feel himself getting jostled, but his eyes are frantically scanning the crowd for a familiar flash of gold. The Field Tillers are active now, and they’re spinning through the streets. He darts underneath one, then whirls around to see—
“Aether!” Albedo shouts, his voice raw.
All around them, Khaenri’ah is falling apart. Buildings are collapsing. Rubble is raining down from the heavens. People are screaming, crying, running. Albedo’s own body is shaking along with the earth’s tremors.
Then Aether turns around, and everything goes silent.
His blond hair has come loose from his braid. The strands are messy, and they’re at the wind’s mercy. His eyes flash, bright and gold, as he smiles at Albedo one last time. An explosion rings out in the dark, wreathing him in an ethereal backdrop of flames.
Go, Aether mouths. He’s holding a radiant sword. Of course he’s going to stay and fight. This stubborn, stubborn—
A dark cube falls from the sky, shattering the pavement, and Albedo staggers backwards.
“Aether!” Albedo shouts again, reaching for him. He surges forward, but a firm hand grabs his arm, yanking him backwards.
“What are you doing?” Rhinedottir demands. Her eyes are cold. “Run.”
The Nail descends from the heavens.
The Kingdom of Khaenri’ah wasn’t built in a day, but it takes only one for it to fall.
When they’re far enough away, Albedo turns around one last time.
Khaenri’ah is in ruin. Most of the buildings have collapsed, or are in the process of doing so. The mangled corpses of Field Tillers litter the ground.
He thinks of Aether bringing Khaenri’ah to life. His fingers digging into the earth, planting the seeds of the Inteyvat flowers. His hands drawing up maps, outlining plans, hammering nail to wood. His gaze alight with wonder as they watched the darkness become a home.
Even now, in Albedo’s eyes, Khaenri’ah is still beautiful.
You were made by a loving hand, he thinks, then turns around, disappearing into the retreating crowd.
Hundreds of years later, Albedo is confronted by the golden eyes that haunt his nightmares once again.
“I was told that you’re an excellent artist,” Lumine says, now awake and alive. The Inteyvats in her hair are just as fresh as they were the day Aether placed them there. “I need someone to draw missing posters for me.”
“Are you searching for someone?” Albedo asks. He already knows the answer.
“My brother,” Lumine answers.
“I see,” Albedo says. He picks up a chunk of graphite. His fingers go dark. “Describe him for me.”
Lumine takes a deep breath. “Well, he looks a little bit like me. His hair is almost the same color, but mine is a little lighter. Our eyes are the same, though—”
Yes. He knows. Gold.
Albedo tunes her out. He doesn’t need to hear it. With a loving hand, he begins to draw the face he knows by heart.