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a crown of your own choice

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In taverns and houses of pleasure, in training grounds and army barracks, men sometimes tell the story of a princess who didn't know her place.

They share the tale of the only daughter of a king long dead, spoiled rotten by her parents so much that they let her do anything, including learning sword-fighting and cultivating under the wing of the finest master of their time, and they shake their head at that educative failure. They speak of a girl who became a goddess to the surprise of everyone, a martial goddess no less, and they gasp in disbelief. Who has heard of a female martial goddess before, no one! Literacy goddesses were odd enough, and everyone knows a sword in the hand of a woman is a recipe for disaster.

And so disaster happened, for then they get to narrate in long and excruciating details her inevitable downfall. Of course the story couldn't have an happy ending! Women are not meant to lead armies, they are not meant to meddle too much in Heaven' business, they are not meant to say ridiculous and unnatural things like 'I don't want to marry, I want to dedicate my life to save the common people!'. Yet that's exactly what this foolish princess did. She failed, miserably, and she took her entire country down with her as she was casted out of Heaven like trash.

Trash, that's the appropriate word to describe this stupid, irrespectful, selfish girl, they laugh as they recount the misfortune of a princess turned garbage collector. The laughing-stock of Heaven, roaming the mortal realm in shredded rags and dirty shoes, sunken dead eyes, dry hair and scarred skin, her former beauty a far away memory. Wanted to save the common people, ah, can't even save herself, they snicker when they tell the story of the girl who ascended twice and fell twice. All that ruckus, and for what, just a silly girl who should have been taught better.

They say she's still alive, cursed to never die until she learns her lesson. She could be the exhausted traveller stumbling in your shop. She could be the beggar sleeping in your alley. She could be the whore selling her body for a few coins.

Don't be so difficult, like the princess of Xian Le, they scold their daughters. You'll only bring ruin and misery to your family! Meanwhile, in shops and temples, in tea houses and public baths, women whisper the tale of a girl who tried to reach Heaven and fell, over and over, and they scowl, shake their head and click their tongue at her silly dreams. And sometimes, only sometimes, when no one sees them, they weep too for that one child among thousands who shattered herself in her mad attempt to break the threads of fate tying her to reality.

There is one woman who doesn't dismiss her foolishness or weep on her cursed fate when she hears the story of the girl of Xian Le, Flower-Crowned Princess, and Heaven's laughing stock. She rages instead, and the sky bleeds red with the tears she never sheds. This woman is also a lesson in what happens when girls step out of the safety zone society assigned them, but her story went very differently indeed. This one fell and fell and fell, just as deep as the princess did, but she revealed in her downfall instead of shattering in humble pieces.

Heaven and Earth belong to men, but it's a woman who sits on the throne of Hell, and her name is Crimson Rain Seeking Flower. People laugh out loud of the foolish princess and her broken sword and her broken fate, but they recount the legend of the ghost witch who wears provocative red and mocking grins in hushed whispers and fearful murmurs. She's a temptress, a bitch, a slut, a whore, her tits are rotten pomegranates and her cunt is poison, those who have yet to learn how to fear the wrath of the deads snort. She's a demon queen ghost, living folk and gods alike learned to respect, those who do shake their head, she's a gambler who keeps good fortune on a leash, she's a warrior who will crush your bones under her heels and won't care for a second, she's a demon who tore apart her own heart and fed the remains to her pets.

She's the Supreme who spurted out of TongLu with her clothes dripping of blood and silver butterflies feeding on her wounds, a demonic scimitar in hand, spat on Heaven's face and walked out of the sky victorious.

They say Crimson Rain recognizes no master, no god, no authority but the Fallen Princess of Xian Le, for some inexplicable reason. They are both fallen women, but they couldn't be any more different. The Princess might be a former goddess, but she's only a joke, a forgotten figure whose story has been distorted by centuries of gossip. Crimson Rain however holds Ghost City between her clawed hands, inspires fear wherever she goes, and ironically has more followers than this garbage goddess ever did, even at the peak of her power. Truly, those two don't belong in the same world!

Yet, they say Crimson Rain will kneel for one god only, and for once, they're right.

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The irony of Xie Lian's first Heaven mantated mission in eight centuries involving herself pretending to be a bride isn't lost on her. She can't helping giggling hysterically behind her bright red veil as the surrealness of the situation fully hits her. Xie Lian spent the first twenty years of her life dodging marriage proposals like arrows in the middle of a battlefield. 'No time for a husband when there are people to be saved,' she used to claim, when she actually meant 'I really refuse to give any man so much power over me'. Plus, her cultivation path relied on abstinence. What kind of husband could accept such a nonsensical vow from their wife?

Back then, it would have never come to the golden and beloved princess of Xian Le's mind, Flower-Crowned Goddess, that one day, no one would propose to her except out of pity or as a joke, for who would marry the laughing stock of Heaven? No one. It makes sense the only occasion the most unmarriable goddess of Heavens would get her own wedding procession would be to play bait in order to attract some random ghost bridegroom terrorizing the country.

It's funny. It really is funny, in a very cruel kind of way.

"Your Highness?" Nan Feng whispers from the other side of the sedan, having heard her demented cackling. "Are you alright?"

Xie Lian coughs awkwardly. "Ah, yes! Just got some dust in my throat! No problem at all, sorry for the bother."

"...No problem at all. If you need anything, don't hesitate."

Such a considerate escort! Xie Lian could almost believe they were doing play-pretend, the way she used to as a child. She would drape herself in her mother's gowns and bully Feng Xin to escort her mock procession. The groom would be some fake figure built with pillows and sheets for the lack of a real prince to wed.

"You can't marry me," the spoilt child she was once said to Feng Xin. "Cause I'm a princess, and you're not a prince."

To his credit, her childhood friend accepted this fact of life without complaints. Her mother was very fond of those games. She was less fond of the mock battles her daughter replaced the wedding processions by, though Feng Xin very much approved of the change.

Ironically, she felt less like a fraud back then than she does now, draped in inescapable red and curled up in her sedan, trying to take as little room as possible. She looks absolutely ridiculous, engrossed in a dress not meant to contain her too muscular form, too aware of her calloused hands, indelicate frame and scarred soul. Hardly bride material right there.

Nan Feng and Fu Yao thought so too. They could hardly look at her after the little girl adjusted her dress into something decent.

Yet her heart beats madly behind her ribcage with a feeling that isn't quite fear, despite knowing perfectly well there is no groom waiting for her at the end of the journey. There is no one waiting for her, anywhere. Xie Lian has been alone for a very, very long time. And that's okay! She's used to it, really! There have been a few mortals who proposed to her every once in a while, pitying the beggar girl travelling around with only a bag of trash on her back and a smile struggling to remain cheerful, but she always refused. No one should have to shoulder the weight of her misfortune and past mistakes for her, it wouldn't be fair.

Then why is she getting so worked up about this? She thought the early years of her banishment when she would fantasize about a warm house, warm meal, warm bath, warm bed and warm arms of a kind companion to nest herself into were long behind her. Stupid, silly, foolish girl. It's like she hasn't learned anything in centuries.

A wicked voice arises, whispering dark songs and enthralling curses, effectively snapping Xie Lian out of self-inflicted spiral of misery. Xie Lian urges Ruoye to help when the ghost bridegroom's lackeys appear, quite relieved for the distraction. Fighting is easy, it's something Xie Lian can actually do. None of that wedding nonsense matters!

Silence falls over the procession. Xie Lian leans on her knees, wary by the unnatural quietness. Where have Fu Yao and Nan Feng gone to? Surely they wouldn't abandon her mid-mission.

The sounds of heels clicking on the ground and bells chiming in the air tingle through the heavy silence. Xie Lian's breath coagulates in her throat, all her muscles tensed with nervous anticipation. Ruoye slides back inside and coils itself by her wrist, ready to strike if necessary. The person stops by the sedan, their shadow stretched over the thin curtains. Slowly a hand creeps inside, and, to Xie Lian's surprise, waits expectantly. The hand in question is pale and elegant, the fingers long and the nails painted in black.

The bridegroom? Who else could it be? In her situation, the best Xie Lian can do is play dumb and follow along until an opportunity to act arises. It would also be very convenient if the ghost bridegroom had the kindness to lead her where they're keeping the stolen brides.

She takes the offered hand. Whoever is behind the curtain squeezes back with unexpected gentleness, tugging Xie Lian along without any hurry whatsoever. Their hand is cold to the touch, yet very kind. That's… odd.

Xie Lian lets herself be led out of the sedan. Her partner waits patiently for her to slide out of the carriage, without releasing her hand once. Her veil prevents her from seeing much of them, to her growing frustration. She catches sight of black heeled boots adorned with silver trinkets, a glimpse of red and black, but no more.

Once Xie Lian is ready to move, the groom gently tugs her ownard. They walk together on the mountain way, leisurely strolling around as if they were an actual couple enjoying the sights. Her mysterious companion acts like the perfect spouse, letting her walk at her pace without getting impatient, helping her to avoid puddles and opening an umbrella over her head to shelter her from a strange spontaneous rainfall.

They are even considerate enough to destroy the array protecting the area with disarming nonchalance. Except Jun Wu, Xie Lian can think of no god who would be able to shatter such a strong spell so easily! If this person truly is the bridegroom, they might be in deeper trouble than she estimated.

Nervously, she removes her veil, her heart exhausted by this cruel play-pretend. She can only catch a glimpse of snow white, ink black and crimson red before her companion dissolves into a storm of silver butterflies.

Xie Lian finds herself abandoned by the side of the road, very confused by what just happened. On the plus side, her… strange acquaintance had the kindness to lead her straight to a very suspicious temple which has to be involved in her current mission. There is no point feeling sad about things she can't change anyway, as Xie Lian learned through painful trials centuries ago.

Better get back to work and ignore her wounded feelings! It's a foolproof method!

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Later, she learns the name of her fake groom: Hua Cheng. Xie Lian personally thinks it's quite a lovely name, but the rest of her colleagues disagree vehemently and hurry to recount all the misdeeds this Hua Cheng has ever committed. In retrospect, she should have known the person acting like her groom couldn't be anyone but a fearsome ghost whose simple name has the power to strike fear in the heart of mortals and Heaven Officials alike.

"Crimson Rain Seeking Flower! Here! Of all places!" Fu Yao rages after the commotion is over and the female ghost has been captured. "What did she want with you?"

"I have no idea," Xie Lian muses, lost in thoughts. "Is this person really so scary?"

"She's one of the Supremes and reigns over Ghost City. She has destroyed the lives of thirty-three Officials for no other reasons than she felt like it. Of course she's that scary!" He rolls his eyes, practically dripping sarcasm.

"Your Highness, you must stay away from that witch!" Nan Feng briefly puts his hand on her shoulder, his face marred with concern.

Xie Lian blinks at him. A witch, ah? That's too bad. It has been so long since someone touched her with such kindness. How can someone so gentle be so feared?

"Why would such an important person seek me specifically?" Xie Lian laughs cheerfully. She's a nobody, a failure everyone is forgetting, and Hua Cheng is a queen. A queen of ghosts, demons and wicked creatures, but a queen nonetheless.

She shakes her head. "I doubt our paths shall ever cross again."

Famous last words.

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"The Princess of Xian Le?" the good folk of Puji repeats, dumbfold. "Never heard of her."

Xie Lian preens at the news. That's actually pretty good. If they had heard of her, it would probably be all bad things, better not to know anything at all and allow her actions to speak for themselves. "No problem, no problem! She's not very famous!"

As in, not famous at all. Which wasn't surprising, after all, it has been eight centuries since her peak of glory and following fall from grace.

"What kind of prayers does your goddess answer to?" an old lady inquires. "Marriage? Children?"

Xie Lian's enthusiastic smile freezes at the question. She can hardly pretend her realm lies in matrimony, considering she has zero experience in the matter. That would be dishonest, and surely whoever prayed to her would realize this foolish virgin goddess cannot help them with sentimental woes or, god forbid, fertility. Unthinkable! She's thankful for every single prayer addressed to her, even the ones busier gods would consider insignificant and unworthy of their notice, but she would die of embarrassment if her worshippers asked for bed activities related blessings. "Hmm… not exactly?"

"No? What then?" another woman says. "Childbirth?"

Actually, Xie Lian does know a bit about childbirth. She wouldn't call herself an expert, but she did lend a hand a few times in emergency situations. "That's alright, I believe." She tries to think of women related activities she could assist with. "Sewing is okay too. And cooking!"

Xie Lian only learnt to appreciate the fine art of sewing after she had no one to do it for her and had no other choice but to learn how fix her own clothes. It gave her an insight on everything Mu Qing did for her and that she took for granted. As for her cooking skills, she'd argue it wasn't as terrible as everyone claimed. Xie Lian could cook decent meals!

Her public look at her strangely, silently wondering what kind of cooking and sewing prayers they could use. 'Please Princess of Xian Le, fix the hole in my underwear for me, thank you very much!' Preposterous!

"Can she punish unfaithful husbands?" a young wife cackles, poking at her husband's side.

"Hey!" He protests. "I have never been unfaithful! Stop saying that, wicked woman!"

Xie Lian brightens at the suggestion. "Yes! She's a martial goddess, so that sort of request is no issue at all!"

They all gasp at her incredulously. Oh. Oh no, Xie Lian misread the mood and said something awkward again. Quick, she needs to change the subject. "A bit. She can wave a sword around a bit. Has killed a few monsters, that sort of things. She'll take any request, truly. Not a picky goddess in the least!"

The 'wave a sword around a bit' doesn't seem to have eased their worries at all. Oopsie. Xie Lian honestly doesn't know how to talk with people without ruining everything. She thinks she's doing great and then she mentions her non-female skills or weird past and it goes south.

To her surprise, there is at least one person who liked her fighting prowesses.

"What kind of monsters?" a little boy with two tooth missing and wide bright eyes tugs at the hem of her dress. "I wanna know about the monsters."

Xie Lian smiles and kneels down to pat the child's messy hair. Oh, since she already screw up anyway, might as well have fun and indulge her nostalgia while she's at it.

"Well, where to start…"

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Once upon a time, nothing infuriated more Xie Lian than being underestimated. She spent her whole youth fighting to prove she could do just as well than any man. The judgemental and condescending looks on her training outfits and callused hands was unbearable, and she couldn't help herself from showing off just to make a point. She craved respect like food, or so she thought at the time. Since then, Xie Lian got thoroughly acquainted with the voracious hole called starvation, and realized long ago the comparison was hardly adequate.

Haha, to think the princess of Xian Le genuinely raged for not getting the respect she thought she deserved… It took years of walking, eating, sleeping and agonizing in the dirt for Xie Lian to understand how privileged, spoilt she had been.

The Xie Lian of old suffocated under responsibilities she didn't wanted, demanded responsibilities she couldn't have, and eventually fell because of responsibilities she was unable to shoulder. And now, no one expects anything from her. Not the people of Xian Le, for obvious reasons. Not Heaven, who considers her existence a joke, which it is. Not the mortals who sees an unfortunate girl humbly roaming the streets instead of a centuries old soul bleeding still due her own mistakes. Her parents expect nothing from her anymore. Feng Xin and Mu Qing neither.

She's just Xie Lian, with no responsibilities attached to her name and no expectation clinging to her image. No one cares of what she does as long as it's not blatantly illegal. Not even her.

At some point, she learnt how to stop caring people did not give her the respect she was used to. Truly, she even managed to appreciate the value of being underestimated. There is a certain freedom in that. And it gives her edge if she does need to strike. Honestly, she's fine with it.

Sometimes, rarely but sometimes, someone sees her. Sees the centuries old soul, burnt at the edges, slashed at the center, stabbed at the core a thousand times, bleeding still with wounds of her own making, They see, and they weep with her for a few blessed hours, that old man who gave her his coat, that pregnant woman who shared a cup of tea, that blind man who let her sleep under his roof for a few days.

She wondered how they could feel something about her what anyone else failed to perceive.

"It's in the way you stand and walk, m'lady. Shows that ya were highborn once," the old man said. "But also like you completely got rid of your pride. Like it was stomped over and over and ya had no other choice to give up on it and move on. Takes time, that."

"It's in the way you smile," the woman said. "It's optimistic, but very, very sad too. That's not a young woman smile. That's the smile of a woman who knows how terrible life is, but learnt to see the bright sides despite that."

"It's in the way you speak." the blind man said. "I don't know how to explain it. Your voice is youthful, but your tone is old. Does that make sense?"

It did make sense. At least to her. Something young, something old, something history chewed and spat out before leaving her for the dead on the side of the road. Something time refuses to let go as it keeps on dragging her decrepit but intact carcass across centuries.

San Niang feels a bit like this too. Old and new. Youthful limbs adorned in vibrant red, youthful grin shining in cockiness, youthful stance set as a study in nonchalance, like an overgrown weed full of confidence in her own invulnerability.

But the eyes. The eyes speak of a pain only time can inflict and a wisdom that cannot grow without decades of suffering.

Xie Lian doesn't know what to do with San Niang. On one hand she is very odd, claiming to be a run-away young mistress despite acting extremely casually about her situation. On the other it's been so long Xie Lian had such fun talking with someone else. Usually it's other people who have fun with Xie Lian's awkwardness. To be fair, it's not her fault she can't keep up with the time! She's a busy little bee! She doesn't mean to have weird topics of conversations or interest.

San Niang may be a teenager, but she doesn't make Xie Lian feel like that. She listens closely to what Xie Lian has to say, without hurry, without annoyance, and the conversation flows easily. Xie Lian likes the way she speaks. Sophisticated, but not snob. Smart, minus the condescendance. Kind, without pity.

She knows so much for someone so young, and her opinion on Heaven and gods is acerbic, sarcastic and unforgiving. Out of morbid curiosity, Xie Lian can't help herself from asking: "San Niang, have you heard of…"

Words pool at the back of her tongue, refusing to come out. She gives a few soothing strokes to Ruoye, who's shivering anxiously under her sleeve in reaction to its mistress' latent nervousness. It's silly, because Xie Lian is perfectly fine with her disastrous public image. She had no use left for pride anyone. Pride destroyed her. Pride destroyed her country, her family, her life, and left a shameless beggar behind.

People think of her as a cosmic joke, when they think of her at all, and Xie Lian has no spare dignity to rage about it. Yet, a part of her is reluctant to hear what this bright girl can think of the foolish princess of Xian Le, if she knows of her at all.

San Niang blinks, eyelashes long and dark, smile lazy and eager at once, voice velvet smooth. "Yes, jiejie? Tell this San Niang."

It's not the first time San Niang has called Xie Lian 'jiejie' in the last hour, far from it, but Xie Lian finds herself blushing all the same. The word sounds so affectionate and respectful coming from San Niang's playful mouth. Xie Lian had forgotten the feeling of affection and respect freely given to her.

She takes a deep breathe, gathers her courage, and smiles. "Have you heard of the Princess of Xian Le?"

"I have," San Niang replies without an instant of hesitation.

So San Niang knows even of that forgotten princess of old tales! She didn't even need a moment to remember and collect her thoughts. Such a incredible mind. Whether or not she's an actual teen, it's quite extraordinary.

Xie Lian scratches her throat. "And what do you think of her?"

This time, San Niang does take a second to formulate her answer. "I think she was a good, kind person. I think she tried her best, that she did what she could in a really bad situation. I think she deserved better."

There is a pulsing knot when Xie Lian's throat used to be. It throbs and shivers and wails, while Xie Lian tries as much as she can to keep her composure.

This is the kindest thing anyone has said about her in a very, very long time.

"And I think Jun Wu must have disliked her very much." San Niang adds with a vindictive scowl.

The tension within Xie Lian ebbs at that nonsensical analysis, and she finds herself chuckling. She could hardly blame her failings on Jun Wu. He did what he could to save her from herself, but the Xie Lian of then was so arrogant and inflated with her own ego, convinced she could rescue everyone just because she wanted to.

"That's an interesting take, San Niang," Xie Lian giggles fondly. "I'm pretty sure most people would disagree with you!"

"Most people are idiot, jiejie, it can't be helped," San Niang says with doubtless certitude.

Xie Lian laughs the way she hasn't laughed in centuries.

.

Convinced she's being real smooth in her investigations, Xie Lian asks San Niang to 'read her palm' and fix hair that doesn't need fixing. Her fingers run over white skin and black hair as San Niang relaxes against her touch.

She's beautiful, Xie Lian can't help but notice, her heart missing a beat or three. Beauty is such a rare commodity for her. To think she used to be surrounded by it, day and night, a life in indecent luxury and she didn't even notice. For Xie Lian the Wandering Trash Collector, a simple wildflower or a pretty shade of sunset will make her day.

Or apparently, the sly smile of a girl she randomly met on an ox cart.

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It doesn't take long for Xie Lian to come to the conclusion San Niang is a very imposing person. The height helps, of course. It's impossible to ignore someone literally towering over the crowd on top of her long legs and chiming boots. But really, it's her presence. San Niang gives the impression of a woman who couldn't care less what other people think of her. She walks at a leisure pace, lurking by Xie Lian's shoulder with an amused smirk stretching crimson lips, yet with the confidence of a leader who expect people to move out of her way.

And people do move out of her way, like they used to move out of Xie Lian's way. Now it's Xie Lian who moves out of people's way, and she can't even be mad about it anymore. It's one of the first things that got to her, not the hunger, not the scratchy clothes and the cold nights, but the lack of recognition, the lack of that respect she had always taken for granted.

She used to have entire crowds flocking at her feet. Now she walks in the dirt and the dust instead of smooth wood and flower carpets and no one cares.

San Niang cares. San Niang, with her big presence and her rogue queen attitude, made room for Xie Lian, accommodated her unassuming and unimportant travelling companion, actually stepped down without a hesitation to let Xie Lian lead the way and followed along with unquestioning deference. Well. Deference for Xie Lian. Everyone else seemed to be free game for her to mock, dismiss and snarl at.

San Niang is so big, and she got only bigger after she jumped inside the pit. Her presence explodes within the darkness, silver butterflies dancing around her singing sword and crimson bleeding in her laughter, as everything around her finally dies as it should have two centuries ago.

So tall and overwhelming, yet San Niang never makes Xie Lian feel small. She's so careful not to crush Xie Lian's tiny, fragile, barely noticeable presence. She tries so hard to fold her sharp angles, rearrange her long limbs and bite back her barbing retorts so that Xie Lian has room to exist. No, room to thrive. Xie Lian doesn't need any room to survive, she has been doing so for the last centuries.

And Xie Lian just doesn't understand why a big shot like Hua Cheng of Ghost City, terrifying Supreme Crimson Rain Seeking Flower would bother with her insignificant person. Surely she has more interesting things to do! Xie Lian has nothing that could gather her interest. Nothing to steal. Nothing to give.

"I prefer San Niang, if jiejie doesn't mind," Hua Cheng says with practised casualness. "Is jiejie mad at me for deceiving her? It was never my intention, I just… didn't know how to approach jiejie as Crimson Rain."

Xie Lian hums in understanding instead of asking why would such an important person conceive strategies to approach her in the first place. It takes a lot for Xie Lian to get angry nowadays, she's more curious than anything else. "No, no, I'm not mad at all! I enjoyed San Niang's company very much. And I have to thank you for your assistance with the ghost bridegroom…"

Xie Lian had known it was Crimson Rain who intervened for mysterious reasons since Nan Feng and Fu Yao yelled at her about it, but the idea of San Niang leading her out of her bridal sedan and holding her hand so gently is something else entirely. What a funny picture they must have made.

"It was my pleasure, Your Highness," Hua Cheng says as she bows slightly, her spine gracefully bending and smooth hair tied in the crooked ponytail Xie Lian is responsible for flowing over her shoulder. "Truthfully I saw Your Highness in the sedan and couldn't help myself. Please forgive this San Niang's impertinence."

Understandable, Xie Lian thinks as she smiles indulgently to herself. Hua Cheng seems to be a bit of a prankster, of course she'd be curious by that odd procession and her even odder bride. "Ah, there is nothing to forgive! Let's eat, alright?"

San Niang nods and obediently takes a bite of the food on her plate. Xie Lian waits for her declare Xie Lian's cooking the worst thing she has ever had the misfortune to consume, which is the usual reaction, when her food testers don't outright faint. That's not what happens. Instead, San Niang licks her plate clean and says with sincere gratefulness: "Thank you very much for the meal, jiejie."

Xie Lian finds herself flustered once again. "Haha, glad you like it!" She laughs awkwardly as if it's a common occurrence. Then, daring to try her luck. "More?"

"Please." Hua Cheng raises up her plate with an adorable pout.

Cute, too cute, how is Xie Lian supposed to be frightened of her? Xie Lian has heard many horror stories and frightening rumors about the Ghost Queen, has seen her slaughter her entire pit of feral ghosts in an instant not three hours ago, but she's still comfortable around her. Hua Cheng feels warm and soothing, like basking under sunlight after a day of work, like curling up under a heavy blanket in winter. Perhaps it's just her youthful fake skin giving that impression, but Xie Lian doubts it.

She's too old to be fooled by masks.

"I wonder what San Niang looks like," Xie Lian muses out loud, water and soap sliding over her unscarred hands.

Next to her, sulking still after Xie Lian refused her offer to wash the dishes, Hua Cheng's pleasantly neutral expression twitches. A little something like panic flashes through her eyes, before she hides it away under placidity. "Ah. But this San Niang isn't as beautiful as jiejie…"

"Haha, don't speak nonsense, I'm not beautiful at all!" she giggles at the ridiculous idea.

Xie Lian fits exactly zero beauty standards. She didn't even at the peak of her popularity. She was not petite and thin, she was not delicate and gentle, her muscles were too defined by hours and hours of training, her voice too loud and grating, her opinions too strong and temper too tempestuous. It wouldn't have come to anyone's mind to compare her to a clear water river, a moon-lit night or an ephemeral flower. And now, ah! There is no point to even mention it.

It's not as if Xie Lian minds. In the streets, no beautiful women stay that way very long. Her lack of appeal is actually an advantage.

"I hate to disagree with jiejie but I must protest," Hua Cheng frowns, looking genuinely distressed. "Jiejie is obviously the most gorgeous, striking, beau-"

"Ahhh, San Niang, please, no more, no more!" Xie Lian laughs as she splashes Hua Cheng with a few drops of mischievous soapy water. "No matter, let's not speak of that anymore. It doesn't matter what San Niang looks like."

"It doesn't?" Hua Cheng speaks softly, too softly. "Really?"

"Really," Xie Lian promises, smiling happily.

Hua Cheng nods, her eyes glistening with the hopeful light of newborn stars. "Then… I'll show jiejie my true form the next time we meet."

"Oh, you don't have to!" Xie Lian hastily says. "It was rude of me to ask."

"I know I don't have to. But I want to."

Well then. Who is Xie Lian to say no to that? And she has to admit that 'next time we meet' is very pleasant to hear. Like having plans with friends. That's a concept that became completely foreign for her.

Xie Lian truly can't wait.

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A ring clear as glass hangs by her neck the next morning. Another novelty in her life. More like, another indulgence of a past so remoted memories are blurry, another detail of Princess of Xian Le's blessed days she has forgotten. What use can a wanderer have for such finery? Can't keep the hunger away, can't keep her warm, therefore it's unnecessary, and dangerous. She sold almost everything she owned after her first fall, except her mother's favorite hair pin. Thanks to her terrible luck, it got stolen shortly after her second ascension, and Xie Lian had to accept even mementos were too much of a risk.

Hua Cheng wears jewelry. Silver trinkets on her arms, butterflies by her ears, bells on her boots. On her, it doesn't look useless and frivolous. On Crimson Rain's white skin, silver glints like the blade of a weapon.

Xie Lian hides the ring under her robes and walks out to find some work.

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Xie Lian likes the Wind Master. She likes their cheerfulness and their ability to put everyone at ease, herself included. She likes their wish to help, their strong sense of justice, their determination to do what's right above what's convenient. She likes the way skirts or robes flutter around their legs indifferently.

But truthfully, what she likes most is the way they talk to Xie Lian. With kindness and respect, as if they genuinely think Xie Lian is worthy of those.

It's… nice. Really nice.

.

There is no throne in the Gambling Hall of Ghost City.

There is no throne, crafted of the most expensive marbles, crimped with priceless jewels, lined with gold and draped with aerial silk. There is no statue either, nor portrait whose only point would be to remind who's the master of the place. There is no court grovelling for favors, only ghosts and humans alike swarming among the gambling tables with greedy eyes and shaking hands, ready to battle for their fate with dice and cards. There is only San Niang, lounging nonchalantly in a long chair behind a crimson curtain, shameless and crownless.

There is no throne in the Gambling Hall of Ghost City, yet everyone knows who is the Queen.

"You. You're not holding your dice right," Hua Cheng's true voice is deeper than her teenager carefree tone, sounds woven in raw power and undisputable authority. "Come closer. I'll show you the correct way."

This is the voice of a sovereign, used to be obeyed on the spot. And so Xie Lian does follow along when one of Hua Cheng's croupiers drags her toward the silk curtain.

Hua Cheng's true form is… very striking. Such an intimidating figure, fitting for a Ghost Queen of her caliber. She's all cutting angles and sharp bones, set in crimson, silver and black, leather, steel and satin, her silver jewelry shining even more dangerously than in her teenager disguise, hair deep dark like a moonless night and nails painted black, lips so red Xie Lian feels dizzy just looking at them. A pitch black eyepatch covers her right eye. Her infamous scimitar hangs by her side, a crimson eye on the handle spinning excitedly.

'Not beautiful,' ah? Xie Lian hopes Hua Cheng was playing a prank on Xie Lian by saying such a silly thing. Otherwise she's very worried for her eyesight.

"Jiejie," Hua Cheng mouths out, her voice barely audible. "What a pleasant surprise."

It should sound sarcastic, but Xie Lian can tell Hua Cheng means it. The commanding voice that was all frost a second ago caress her ears with spring warmth.

She greets back with a cheerful whisper, as if they're two children playing a play pretend game. "San Niang! Is there really a secret technique to roll dice?"

"Of course there is, jiejie, would I lie to you? Go on, give me your hands."

Xie Lian gingerly extends her arm, giddiness bubbling inside her chest. A tiny smile blossoms by the corner of Hua Cheng's mouth as she accepts Xie Lian's exhausted hands with delighted reverence and somehow manages to coax luck out of misfortune made goddess.

.
.

She was five years old the first time she held a sword between her tiny, smooth hands. It was the family sword, the one her father used more for ceremonies than actual battles. She couldn't even lift it, her noodle arms who had never known labor too weak to carry the weight of pure steel and decades of history. Her father thought it was hilarious, his little princess trying to wave a big bad sword more than half her size. He didn't thought it was nearly as amusing after the little princess grew up and still refused to trade the blades she kept on stealing for a needle or a brush.

She was five years old the first time she held a sword between her tiny, smooth hands, and it took several decades, the death of her family, the ruin of her country and her own student leaving her for dead inside a sealed coffin for her to let go of her sword-woman's life.

Maybe they were right all along, the cackling shadows she wanted so much to prove wrong, the bitter whisperers lurking behind walls and masks, when they said girls weren't meant to wield weapons. Maybe they were right, and Xie Lian was the responsible of her beloveds' fall, not because of her inadequate reaction to the situation but because of her inability to accept her place.

She was five years old the first time she held a sword, and she felt five years old again when the first blade she grabbed clashed against Hua Cheng's scimitar. Steel sings, light flashes, flames storm, and within the void of her ribcage, her heart flutters.

She has missed this.

.

.

Her past crashes back into her life because of course it does. The student she failed comes for her head again, and the cousin she never knew how to handle spits venom, reproaches and endless insults to her face.

Lang Qian Qiu, Qi Rong, they are completely different, but they are very similar too. They both saw her as something she was not. They both hated her as she failed to fulfill the image they had of her. They both think she needs to die already, and frankly so does she.

They both refuse to use the word slut. They call her traitor, murderer, dirty hag, waste of air, trash, garbage, but that word, they will not use.

And Xie Lian is stupidly thankful for that small mercy.

.

"Xian Le." Jun Wu says, and there are so many disappointed sighs lurking under those two words Xie Lian cannot possibly count them all. "Xian Le, really, what am I going to do with you?"

Xie Lian chuckles sheepishly. That's a understandable question. She does have an history of getting involved in messes and making everything worse. Frankly, she still doesn't know what to do with herself either. She just stopped asking herself the question and… learnt to go with the flow.

"You need to be more careful," Jun Wu adds, frowning with concern. "Crimson Rain Seeking Flower is a dangerous ghost. And she has proved many times she has no fear nor respect for gods."

Perhaps, but Hua Cheng has been nothing but respectful of her More than anyone has in centuries. Xie Lian doesn't want to let go of that feeling. And it's not like Xie Lian has anything left to lose in the first place.

"I'll be very careful, my lord, don't worry!" She chirps.

Jun Wu smiles wistfully. "You know I only want what's best for you."

She knows. Jun Wu has always believed in her, since day one. When everyone treated her as a little girl who somehow got lucky enough to ascend due to little merits of her own, the Emperor gave her the same missions as the other martial gods, favored her even. Naturally, instead of proving Xie Lian was a capable as her male counterparts, his trust only managed to fuel dirty rumors about their relationship, as it was to be expected.

People smiled at her face and called her a filthy whore in her back. Heaven was no different from the palaces of kings and the shacks of paupers in that regard.

"Thank you for your consideration, my lord. I promise I won't act rashly." She bows.

Xie Lian is no longer the naive brat Jun Wu took under his wing, eager to prove she could majestically fly on her own just like the other gods. She has learnt her lesson since then, got rid of her foolish ambitions.

Xie Lian is fine crawling on the ground as long as she has scraps of food to put in her belly and a roof to sleep under. But she has to admit the idea of companionship is terribly tempting, fearsome demon queen or not. It's not like she can afford to be picky.

Ghosts, gods, mortals. Is there so much of a difference, truly? Kindness is kindness. And Xie Lian intends to enjoy it as long as she can, before Hua Cheng inevitably gets tired of her.

.

Wicked whispers and veiled stares follow Xie Lian as she trots behind a very enthusiastic Wind Master. She barely pays any mind to it. The gossip she loathed so much as a teen seems like a minor inconvenience now, as easy to ignore as a bug. It's slightly annoying but hardly enough to stop her from enjoying herself. General Pei Ming is angry still at her for her involvement in his descendant's fall from grace, the Water Master glares at her with barely hidden condescendance and Feng Xin and Mu Qing alternate between glowering at her and pretending she doesn't exist, but that's alright because Shi Qing Xuan slips their arm under hers and laughs merrily about this lord's funny robes and this lady's ugly lipstick.

It's fine if no one else wants her here as long as one person does.

Soon, three thousands lanterns wearing her name light up the sky, and there is not a single god in Heaven who can act as if the Princess of Xian Le is not back to town for good.

.
.

Ashes and dust gather where bodies should lay in peace and she pretends she doesn't care.

Her cousin screams for murder while a child begs her to release him and she pretends she doesn't care.

She slips a pillow under her robes and over her belly and says it's not problem, no problem at all, and she pretends she doesn't care.

.

Technically, her first kiss is a passing prince from a neighbour country who thought he was entitled to take everything he wanted. She beat him up with a stick while Feng Xin kept watch and no one else ever found out, for what boy would admit they got wrecked by a little girl. They all agreed it never happened.

Her second kiss is Mu Qing. His hair is smooth, his frame lean and his mouth soft looking, and Xie Lian likes the way he moves, fluid like water and steady like rock. She's fifteen years old and very curious about what girls whisper about when they think she can't hear. The kiss itself wasn't bad, but Xie Lian couldn't help worrying Mu Qing felt obligated to indulge her and cut short to it. They also agreed it never happened and politely went back to their respective roles.

Her third kiss is Feng Xin. It's an angry and bitter little thing barely daring to grace her lips. They just had another pointless argument on whether or not Xie Lian should take the risk to search for work in the streets. Xie Lian screamed they couldn't afford to hide her away at home and rely only on Feng Xin to win their bread and nobody would guess she was a girl anyway. Feng Xin yelled she knew what happened to women who worked in the streets and then he kissed her out of frustration, for a given value of that word. She kicked him in the knee, sending him on the ground and stormed out. Later he apologized for his unforgivable conduct and vowed he had no vile intention on her, which Xie Lian already knew.

They didn't even need to speak any further to agree they should never mention this episode again.

Hua Cheng presses her cold lips against Xie Lian's and it's nothing like she has ever experienced. Air slips between their joined mouths, as Hua Cheng breathes urgently into her. It feels like Hua Cheng is pouring so much more than mere oxygen, and Xie Lian lets her without a moment of fear or a gesture of protest. Instead she clings to Hua Cheng's floating robes, white fingers sinking into red silk, staring at Hua Cheng's only visible eye widens with surprise.

They break to the surface just in time to see Hua Cheng's butterflies tore apart the foetus spirit.

"Jiejie, are you alright?" Hua Cheng asks, water running over her alabaster skin and crimson lips. Aren't they redder than usual? "I'm sorry for..."

"That's okay, San Niang, no need to apologize!" Xie Lian cuts in before Hua Cheng can spill unnecessary display of remorse as she paddles toward the shore. "You wanted to help me breathe, I understand! What's a little kiss between friends, haha!"

Swimming behind her, Hua Cheng mumbles something inaudible.

"What was that?"

"Nothing," she says with false cheer. "I'm just surprised jiejie has so much experience at kissing."

Experience? Definitely not! She's merely trying her best not to make a big deal out of this. San Niang only kissed because Xie Lian was literally suffocating for air, there is no need to read anything odd in her self-sacrificing kindness. "San Niang, you say the strangest thing sometimes!"

"It's jiejie who's being very casual. Maybe my kiss was terrible and jiejie is kind enough to try sparing my feelings by telling me it didn't matter."

What? Is she fishing for compliments now on her mouth-to-mouth emergency technic? San Niang, so shameless! "It was a very good kiss," she says obligingly as she squeezes a worrying amount of water out her dripping clothes by twisting the sleeves. Oh dear, that's her only robes, now covered in mud and water. Definitely ruined, even by her lose standards. "Very efficient."

"Efficient."

Xie Lian turns around, alarmed by the viciousness in Hua Cheng's tone. It's not the first time she hears the Ghost Queen sounds so cold, steel piercing through the smooth velvet of her voice, but it is the first time it's directed toward her personally. She catches sight of Hua Cheng staring at the horizon, the foetus spirit locked inside a discarded pot. The Supreme has removed her outer robe and casted it aside, the poor red layer bleeding lake water on the ground. Her remaining clothes are clinging to her skin, which is apparently enough to make Xie Lian's thinking abilities bail completely out of her grasp.

Curves. Hua Cheng has those. Of course she does, everyone does, what was Xie Lian expecting, a cardboard haha? Just breasts, normal breasts, every woman has those including Xie Lian herself though she's pretty sure hers don't look like that and she really needs to stop staring at Hua Cheng's wet cleavage like a creep. Anytime now.

"Jiejie?" Hua Cheng wonders, tilting her head to the side. Water drops slide down her neck in a excruciating slow motion, and Xie Lian. Just. Can't. Look. Away. "I was merely teasing, don't worry about it. Are you sick, jiejie? Your face is all red."

Xie Lian slaps her own cheeks forcefully. Unsurprisingly she's burning up with embarrassment. "I'm not worried! Not worried at all! I'm fine!"

Hua Cheng's answering glance is warm with amusement. She's probably reading Xie Lian like an open book. Oh no, she has to be so used at being gawked at, considering how beautiful she is. I'm not like that, Xie Lian wants cry out. I'm really not! I just think San Niang is very pretty without any ulterior motives!

"If you say so," Hua Cheng smirks, her previous sullenness forgotten. She absolutely knows. Xie Lian wants to disappear and never have to talk to anyone again. "C'mon jiejie, let's warm you up. My house is nearby."

"M'lord, is that you?" a ghost calls out. "Watcha doing? Ravishing some virgins, ah? Good good, let us help!"

"Scram." Hua Cheng snaps, her good mood melting away like butter under the sun.

They don't scram.

.

To her everlasting surprise, the inhabitants of Ghost City seem to like Xie Lian. Not due to any virtue of her own, but because Hua Cheng does, therefore all ghosts living under her rule must shower her under appreciation as well. Nonetheless, she finds herself quite puzzled by the interest 'Grand-Aunt' wake among those damaged and ravaged souls holding themselves out of the spite and stubbornness.

Everyone want to talk to her, give her food of dubious quality, guide her in the right direction. In Ghost City, she's treated like foreign royalty of an ally country visiting their queen. In Paradise Manor, she's a pampered guest of honor who must be given everything she wants the second she wants it. It's just so odd.

She has a temple. A giant temple. Her.

Hua Cheng shows her around with endless patience, excitement buzzing under her usual mask of bored indifference, and Xie Lian can't help but burn with curiosity about her friend. Ghosts linger for a reason. Often that reason is revenge, despair, fear, spite. But most of the time, after a few decades to a couple centuries, ghosts progressively loses that spark that attached them to the mortal realm.

Hua Cheng is almost as old as Xie Lian is. What is the reason that can motivate her to stay for so long, more powerful than ever? Xie Lian longs to know so very badly.

Well. It's not like she can just ask. It would be rude. Xie Lian enjoys their easy banter and their comfortable friendship too much to risk it for the sake of her morbid curiosity. And if she lays awake at night fearing one day Hua Cheng will be gone and she will be left alone once again, that's on her, and doesn't entitle her to an answer. Maybe soon there will be no one to call her jiejie with affectionate respect, no one to fuss over her injuries and care for her pain, no one to cradle her foot tenderly as if she's something precious. And that's fine! Xie Lian is used not to have those things!

Nothing is meant to last, so she smiles when Hua Cheng does, which is often, and she tucks away her abandonment issues where all the sad dead weights she can't get rid of sleep with one eye open.

.

Lan Chang cradles her monster-child in her exhausted arms and hides her misery under heavy makeup and bitter snarls. Xie Lian wants to help her, she truly wants to, but she doesn't know how.

Not to mention bad things happen to the people Xie Lian tries to help, always. You'd think she would have gotten the message by now.

.

Xie Lian comes home with her feet throbbing, her bones heavy and her smile scratching her face raw like an open wound, which isn't unusual in the least. Just one of those long long days stretching out into infinity. What is unusual however is coming home to someone.

"Jiejie?" Hua Cheng calls out when Xie Lian walks in, Guzi and Lang Ying holding on desperately to her hands.

Xie Lian tilts her head in direction of her voice and there she is, looking comfortably nested inside her carefree teenager skin and into Xie Lian's kitchen. "Oh, San Niang, you're here!"

"Uhu," Hua Cheng nods, her eyes looking down at the two children hiding behind Xie Lian's robes. "Jiejie is back early. And with two new kids?"

When Hua Cheng puts it like that, it does look very odd, but it does make sense in context! What a change to her wandering hermit lifestyle, though. Xie Lian is used to sad, cold and empty houses her old self is incapable to fill with warmth and happiness, and now she has a warm home filled with kitchen smell, two children clutching desperately to her robes and a companion smiling with something so close to quiet love her heart swings in the space between her lungs and her ribs.

"En! It's… a long story," she chuckles sheepishly as she pats Lang Ying's head. "Don't be shy, this jiejie doesn't bite."

Hua Cheng leans down and grins a smile full of teeth, showing off the tiny fangs Xie Lian had no idea she had. Fangs! Cute baby fangs! Too cute, way too cute! Is that supposed to be scary? "Most of the time. I don't bite most of the ti - Ji-Jiejie, what are you doing?"

Inspecting them from up close, naturally! It's not everyday she has the occasion to see adorable demon teeth from up close. She pounced toward Hua Cheng, her previous exhaustion lightened up with giddiness. "San Niang, San Niang, can I please touch your fangs?"

"Jiejie wants to put her fingers in my mouth?" Hua Cheng's eyes are wide with disbelief. She doesn't take long to turn her shock into mischief. "Hmm, it's not that I'm opposed to it, but there are children in the room…"

Of course she would find a way to twist Xie Lian's perfectly innocent intentions. "San Niang! Don't make it weird!"

"I'd love to take credit but this was weird before I got here." Hua Cheng laughs brightly, a waterfall of delight slipping out of her grinning mouth.

It's. Hm. Hua Cheng's laughter is. Really pretty. Like the rest of her. Objectively speaking. Xie Lian wouldn't mind hearing it more. She would even go out of her way to make it happen again. She only manages to snap out of her trance when Guzi tugs on her sleeve. "Oh, I'm sorry, are you hungry? I'll make some food!"

"No need, I prepared a meal for jiejie, I thought she might be tired after her hard day of work." Hua Cheng gestures at the pot on the table. "I didn't know we would be so many but it should be fine."

Hua Cheng, terrifying Ghost Queen, extremely busy demon leader and city governor, made food. For Xie Lian. While she was waiting for her to come home. That's. Xie Lian does not even have words to express how utterly bizarre and heartwarming the attention is. "San Niang, you didn't have to!"

"Jiejie fed me last time, it's my turn to return the favor." Hua Cheng shakes her head as she removes the lid from the plate and reveals mouth-watering pork and rice, arranged elegantly in an artistic kind of way Xie Lian couldn't hope to reproduce in a thousand years. The complete opposite of the biological warfare Xie Lian's dinerware is accustomed to.

"But I already ate so much at your Paradise Manor!" Xie Lian bemoans.

Servants kept on constantly bringing her meals and snacks, and Xie Lian was physically unable to refuse food even when she was full, out of sheer habit. If she didn't know better, she'd assume they were trying to fatten her up. Fu Yao and Nan Feng would scream those demons clearly intended to eat her alive or some other nonsense. Who would want to chew on subpar meat like Xie Lian's old bones? Hua Cheng is just that kind of an host and working under the basis Xie Lian is perpetually on the verge of starvation, which is patently untrue. Xie Lian eats! Daily!

...most of the time.

And there is still the matter of the house fire she accidentally unleashed on Hua Cheng's manor. Hua Cheng claimed it was fine and Xie Lian didn't owe her anything but that was not acceptable. At this rhythm, she would never be able to return the numerous favors and gifts Hua Cheng bestowed upon her.

"That? That's nothing," Hua Cheng waves her hand dismissively. "Don't think anything of it, jiejie. Next time, you can cook for me, alright? Jiejie's food is worth a hundred meals from this San Niang."

Xie Lian is pretty sure no one else would think so but brightens up at the prospect nonetheless. No one ever looks forward to her food except herself. The fact Hua Cheng does means more than she can say. "Deal! Well then, let's sit down and thank San Niang-jie, uh?"

"Thank you San Niang-jie," Lang Ying and Guzi mumble with varying degree of enthusiasm. Their wariness is quickly lifted when they take a bite of San Niang's tasty food.

Xie Lian beams at them, filled with happiness. If not for her cousin screaming bloody murder in the backyard, she would think they looked like … a family. A weird, patchwork family, but a family nonetheless.

.

The Wind Master is scared. It shows in the way their smile tremble at the edge, in the way they hide their hands on their lap instead of making enthusiastic gestures and flickering their fan like they usually do, in the way the light in their eyes dims when they think she's not looking. They act extravagantly and merrily as usual, but Xie Lian can see the fear behind their cheerful facade as clear as day. She is after all quite familiar with the feeling of being forced to watch your life slowly crumble in front of you and fail to stop it.

The Wind Master is scared, and the Earth Master is… not.

.
.

You'll lose all your money, the ghost who ate misery once said, and she laughed at him.

Your roof will leak, your house will crumble, your food will rot, your friends will abandon you, the ghost hissed, getting more and more frustrated with Xie Lian's lack of reaction. Still, Xie Lian laughed at him. What roof, what food, what friends, hahaha? That creature truly was hilarious.

You will never have a family. No one will ever love you, he snarled before disappearing for good. You will be forever alone.

She will.

.

She's having fun, she realizes belatedly with no small amount of astonishment. Her heart is throbbing for her poor friend cried and wailed when their brother took them away, but right now she's genuinely enjoying the instant, instead of merely being content. And how could she not? She's being carried in a ridiculously luxurious step-litter driven by a cohort of actual golden skeletons. The entire carriage is lovingly bizarre and so, so like Hua Cheng. 'Infernal Ghost Carriage', haha, Hua Cheng is so adorable giving her things names meant to be terrifying.

The owner of the extravagant step-litter is smiling brightly at Xie Lian, curled up by her side as much as she can. Her long legs rest by Xie Lian's, the leather of her boots soft and cold to the touch, her arm covering Xie Lian's shoulder and her hand squeezing her shoulder. As a natural consequence of their snuggling position, the gentle swell of Hua Cheng's breasts press against Xie Lian's triceps, and she is definitely not hyperfocusing on that minor detail.

Clearly this was not meant to carry two grown adults, and that's perhaps what makes the trip even funnier.

"San Niang, did you know?" Xie Lian giggles. "Ghosts on the road thought I was your Madam Wife!"

"Did they?" Hua Cheng says, eyes glistening with the fervor of a thousand ghostfires in the dead of the night. "Jiejie. Want to get married?"

Xie Lian's giddiness dissolves in her chest. That's not the first time she heard of those words, of course. Marriage proposals were part of her weekly routine once upon a time. Granted that was forever ago, but still. Yet, despite her experience in the matter, her brain cannot seem to process what Hua Cheng just asked, her thoughts running in a mad circle of her own making.

Want to get married, want to get married, want to get ma-

It's not the first time she hears a marriage proposal, but that's the first time a visceral no does not leap out of her mouth.

"Just kidding, just kidding," Hua Cheng adds quickly after. "Did I surprise jiejie?"

Her heart sinks into her stomach, and nausea clouds her senses. The step litter that was so fun a second ago feels like a cage, oppressive, suffocating. It's the shame, she knows. She thinks she has stripped herself bare of the remnants of pride she had left, that she cut off all expectations of being respected, of being wanted, but still her princess entitlement flares up every once in a while.

It's the shame, but it's also the hope. A part of her honestly, fiercely wanted Hua Cheng to mean it.

"-ie. Jiejie, Your Highness, please talk to me, I'm sorry…"

Xie Lian blinks confusingly. Hua Cheng is leaning over her, her hands cradling Xie Lian's irresponsive fist on her lap. She looks so devastated Xie Lian immediately feels bad for ignoring her. "Ah, my bad, my bad!" She tries her best to sound cheerful. "Sorry San Niang, I got distracted! What were you saying again?"

"Your Highness, please don't that." Hua Cheng's hold on her hand tightens.

Xie Lian moves her other hand to cover Hua Cheng's trembling fingers. She looks scared. San Niang shouldn't look scared. What could possibly frighten someone as strong, brave and competent as she is? "Don't do what?"

"Pretend you're not hurt. I shouldn't have said that, it was wrong of me. I panicked and I said a stupid and hurtful thing I didn't mean."

… well, the idea of marrying her can certainly qualify of stupid. Xie Lian would make a terrible wife, she has been told so many times. At the time, it was quite the relief to hear and she endeavored to remain awful potential spouse material as long as possible. Now, not so much, but she'll survive. "That's fin-"

"It's not fine. It's not fine, because I know Your Highness thinks no one would marry her of their own free will," Hua Cheng whispers, clinging to Xie Lian's hand.

Ah. Is it that obvious? How embarrassing. "Haha," she chuckles awkwardly. "San Niang, you don't have to call me Your Highness, it's not like I have a kingdom anymore, you're more of a Highness than I am..."

"Your Highness will always be Your Highness, kingdom or not. Those useless pigs who asked for your hand weren't worth of you," Hua Cheng says, vicious anger replacing her distress. "They weren't even worthy of looking at you. They wanted to change you, make you something you were not. But Your Highness, you don't need to change a thing if you don't want to. You're wonderful the way you are, and sharing your time for even a single minute is a honor."

That. Hua Cheng can't just say things like that! It shouldn't be allowed! Getting her tentative hopes crushed, she can deal with, but her poor heart cannot handle so much emotional whiplash. Not to mention her cheeks are so close to self-combustion it's not even funny. "S-San Niang…"

"Ah, I'm babbling, aren't I?" the corners of Hua Cheng's mouth twist upward. "There is only jiejie who can make me lose my cool like that. Anyway, my point is, no one's worth depends on their married status, and certainly not jiejie's. But if you do want to get married to, let's say, a hot single dead Supreme with a lot of money who would give you literally anything you want, I'm right there and ready to elope at any moment and I cannot believe I just blurted that out loud."

Xie Lian bursts out laughing. She shouldn't, it's a terrible thing to do to the face of someone who just proposed to her. Twice. But Hua Cheng looks so shocked at her own confession and determined at the same time she can't help herself from giggling hysterically. "Oh San Niang, you… a hot single dead Supreme…"

"It's true, jiejiie, one hundred percent authentic sexy corpse, available anytime." Hua Cheng leans closer to Xie Lian, strands of black silk falling on Xie Lian's shoulder, and bats her eyelashes. "Who can cook. Remember, jiejie, I can cook. Aren't you seduced yet?"

"Hmm, that's true," Xie Lian agrees, amusement shivering under her pensive smile. "San Niang's cooking is great. I was very impressed." And she is indeed criminally attractive. It's hard to think with her slender thigh resting against Xie Lian's and her very kissable mouth so close to her own.

"And that's not all, I have other arguments to plead for my case. Would jiejie listen to them?" Her voice is light and her smile playful, but Xie Lian can feel the slight trembling in her hands.

She rubs her thumb over the cold knuckles. This is fine. They're fine. "Of course, I'm always happy to listen to San Niang."

"Oh. Good, very good," Hua Cheng breathes out, her eye wide and gleaning with an emotion Xie Lian couldn't begin to describe. "Alright then. For starter, I would say I have a large panel of skills, including but not limited to: cooking, cleaning, sewing, drawing, sculpting, murdering things of all kind, gathering and investing ridiculously high amounts of money, managing large and arguably evil organisations, making guys who think they're tough piss their pants just by looking at them - jiejie, stop laughing, I'm being very serious here."

"Haha, I'm sorry San Niang, I'm listening very attentively, I promise!" Xie Lian puffs, trying her best to reign in her fond amusement. "San Niang is a very skilled person, this jiejie is in awe."

"I am, aren't I," Hua Cheng smirks. "For the sake of honesty and full disclosure, I have to say my writing is shit."

"That's not true!" Xie Lian protests. "Your writing has… character. It's not shit. In any case, I can write for two, that's not an issue."

Hua Cheng's delighted smile when she hears Xie Lian say 'for two' makes her heart skip a beat. "I see. I must also point out I'm a fearsome and very powerful demon who can kick anyone's ass. I just need a name and a direction, and it will done. Not that jiejie can't do it herself, but in case she doesn't want to bother with such an insignificant task, I'd only be too happy to deal with it."

There is no such a thing as an insignificant task for Xie Lian. She'd accept any prayer, even prayers other gods wouldn't even touch with a ten-inches pole. Yet, the idea of relying on someone who'd help just because is so painfully pleasant she could cry. "Duly noted."

"It doesn't only apply to people," Hua Cheng adds. "I can destroy buildings. Cities. Temples. Inflated egos. Mountains."

"Mountains!" Xie Lian says incredulously. "Why would I need to destroy a mountain?"

"There are many reasons to destroy mountains, jiejie. It had the gall to stand in your way. It contained the secret base of your mortal enemy. It looked at you the wrong way. All valid and plausible explanations. I'm just putting the possibility out there. If my wife wants that rock nuisance gone, it's gone."

Her wife. That's. A very intimidating and very lovely word. Wife. Hua Cheng's wife. Who could also be Xie Lian's wife. If Hua Cheng were serious, and she's most likely not. "I-I'll remember that for the future. You never know."

"Just say the word. And have you noticed I'm a shapeshifter?" Her voice is smooth like the satin she likes so much. "I can turn into whoever jiejie wants."

Hua Cheng is very very close, and Xie Lian very very weak. Her hearts beats like a hummingbird, tiny wings shattering against her ribcage. Softly, she says: "But why would I want that when San Niang is already perfect?"

Hua Cheng's cocky contenance crumbles like a house of card in a storm at that one sentence. "I. I'm. Jiejie, you can't just say that."

"W-why not? It's not fair if I can't, San Niang has been saying all those nice things about me!" Xie Lian says, feeling extremely flustered but unwilling to concede that point. If Hua Cheng can say 'my wife' with a straight face, then Xie Lian is definitely allowed to throw a few compliments out there.

"I'm... Fine. You have a point. If jiejie is fine with how I look like…"

"More than fine," Xie Lian cuts in.

"More than fine, then it's… good. Though I couldn't help but notice jiejie showed a certain preference for my boobs. I could make them bigger-"

"San Niang, don't finish that sentence, I'm begging you!" Xie Lian yelps as she covers Hua Cheng's mouth with her hand. "You're so shameless, ahh! Your-your breasts are also perfect the way they are!"

Hua Cheng's eye shines so brightly Xie Lian feels blinded. The ghost catches Xie Lian's wrist so gently she cannot find the strength to struggle when Hua Cheng presses a kiss at the center of her palm.

"Small boobs lover, uh? I can work with that," she chuckles lowly. "Alright, alright, don't be mad at me, jiejie. What else can I offer? Oh, you like the step litter right? If jiejie were my wife, she'd have a fun carriage like this one to go anywhere she wants."

Her hand is now being held captive on Hua Cheng's lap. She makes no move to free it. "I do like your Infernal Ghost Carriage," Xie Lian admits easily. "But it wouldn't be nearly as fun without San Niang in it."

"...oh," Hua Cheng breathes out, staring at Xie Lian as if she just offered to give her all stars in the sky. "Oh, yes, absolutely, didn't I mention that the ghost entertainer is furnished with the car? No take backs. And… jiejie I can't think when you look at me like that."

"Like what?" Xie Lian can't contain her smile. It spills from her mouth, crooks into her cheeks, exposing the bubbling happiness coming out of her throat. "I can stop looking at you San Niang, if you want."

"Please no, don't ever stop. What else? I have a list, actually, but I can't remember anything."

Xie Lian never thought the day would come she'd see Hua Cheng so nervous. The Ghost Queen is usually so composed, so confident, so aloof about everything, and now she sounds like broken glass trying to put herself together all by the strength of her determination.

Could it be that… she truly means it?

She does, doesn't she? She wouldn't go this far for a joke, not when she knows how sensitive the subject is for Xie Lian. Hua Cheng is sincerely trying to convince Xie Lian to marry her.

Want to get married, want to get married, want to get ma-

"You could touch my fangs anytime you want. My wife gets 24/7 fang petting privileges." Hua Cheng brightens up and shows off her teeth for emphasis.

"That's a very compelling argument," Xie Lian very solemnly says, ignoring the mad dance of her heart in her chest. "I like your fangs very much. They are cute."

"I still maintain they're scary and not cute, but whatever. Speaking of my mouth… my wife also gets to kiss me at any moment she pleases."

Xie Lian's eyes falls to Hua Cheng's very red mouth and licks her own lips in a very obvious sign of interest. If it's all for fake, she might have to go die somewhere in a ditch, for good this time. "I-Interesting. From the sample I've got, San Niang's kisses are… lovely." Then, daring to feel mischievous, she adds with a giggle. "Very efficient."

"Jiejie. Teasing me so cruelly," Hua Cheng shakes her head. "I can do better than very efficient, I swear. I can even prove it to you. If you need more samples to make an educated decision. And. And my kisses are not only restricted to the mouth. If that's jiejie's thing, that's it."

Xie Lian's elation curls up to hide in her belly, and familiar shame raises up its ugly head instead. She might not be an expert, but she doesn't need to be to know what Hua Cheng was implying. Naturally Hua Cheng would want such things, it's to be expected, who would to marry someone who can't indulge in intimate activities with them. "I. San Niang, I'm…"

"Of course," Hua Cheng cuts in softly, "if my wife were, hypothetically, an eight centuries old abstinent goddess with no interest in sex, I would be perfectly fine with cuddles and kisses only. Or just admiring her from afar. That works too. My wife's comfort would be my top priority, always."

She means, she really means, they are discussing terms of an actual wedding, and Xie Lian has no idea how it happened. How do people breathe again? Xie Lian cannot seem to remember for the life of her. "If. Hypothetically. If the wife in question wasn't sure what she would be comfortable doing…"

"Then, hypothetically, I would adapt to any scenario," Hua Cheng vows, sounding extremely serious. "This is not a contract, I'm flexible. If my wife wants snuggles and smooches, I'd be happy to provide. If she'd rather I stay within a safe distance from her, it's not my favorite plan but I can do it. The other stuff is a bonus."

The way Hua Cheng says bonus is enough to wake shivers along Xie Lian's spine. "I-I don't know about the b-bonus, but snuggling is good. Very good."

Xie Lian gathers all the shards of her shattered courage and slides on Hua Cheng's lap. Hua Cheng quickly slips an arm around her waist to support her, looking stunned by this development. Overwhelmed with shyness and embarrassment at her shamelessness, Xie Lian ducks her head into the crook of her breathing seat's neck. Must she look at Xie Lian like that? Like Xie Lian is the most beautiful creature in the entire universe and she can't believe how lucky she is.

It's Xie Lian who's lucky. Too lucky, really.

"Your Highness," Hua Cheng croaks as she nuzzles her face in Xie Lian's hair. "Your Highness, you'll be the death of me."

She doesn't mean it literally, obviously, but it still strokes a cord within Xie Lian. There is a reason she has been alone for so long. She's cursed. Misery falls upon those who stand too close. She doesn't want that to happen to Hua Cheng. "San Niang. San Niang, I have bad luck, I am bad luck, I might bring misfortune to you…"

"There is nothing about Your Highness that's bad," Hua Cheng firmly declares, her finger running along Xie Lian's back soothingly. "My luck is good enough for two. We balance each other out."

Her other hand stills clings to Xie Lian's, fingers intertwined on Xie Lian's white robes, the ones Hua Cheng gifted her after she ruined it in the lake. At the time, Xie Lian thought it was odd Hua Cheng had a set of robes fitting both Xie Lian's size and preference available at her manor but felt it would impolite to question it. The material is so soft against Xie Lian's bristle skin, as gentle as Hua Cheng's adoring stare.

"Jiejie, how are my hugging skills? Up to your standards?" Hua Cheng asks, her hold on Xie Lian's frame tightening to pull her closer, closer enough for Xie Lian's mad heartbeat to echoes inside Hua Cheng's still chest. "I don't have a lot of experience, I have to admit."

Which standards? Gentle touches are such a hot commodity for Xie Lian she'd take anything she can get. A shoulder pat will make her happy for an entire day. A ruffle on the head will sustain her for a week. If gestures are a language of their own, then physical displays of affection are words she used to know so well, and that time washed away from her memory.

"Me neither," she admits, her voice hoarse with emotion. "Or… I forgot. But I like San Niang's hug."

"I'm glad," Hua Cheng whispers in her hair. "You can have them all. You're the only person I want to hug in the entire world. You'll never feel touch-deprived again, jiejie. If you want me to, I'll snuggle with you and I'll hold your hand and I'll brush your hair all the time."

Xie Lian raises her hand to catch a loose strand of Hua Cheng's glossy back hair and twist it around her finger. "That sounds really nice, San Niang. Can I brush and style your hair too? I'll do my best not to do a messy job like last time"

"Of course you can, and you didn't do a messy job at all. I loved your crooked ponytail," Hua Cheng laughs lowly, an avalanche of golden pebbles stumbling out of her snow white throat. "Jiejie, you'll never be hungry again. I'll make sure you're well fed, everyday, three full meals a day."

Three meals! Xie Lian considers herself lucky if she manages to eat one full meal before the sunset colors the sky red and gold. "San Niang, that's too much, I don't need to eat all that!"

"Three full meals a day, plus snacks. That's up to jiejie whether or not she feels like eating, but it will be there." Hua Cheng shakes her head decidedly. Xie Lian would never waste food, which Hua Cheng is very aware of! "Jiejie will never get cold again. She'll have a mountain of blankets and a giant fire in her room to keep her warm. She'll never get lonely either. She'll always have someone to talk to."

Never hungry. Never cold. Never lonely.

"And she can bring her kids too. All the kids she wants," Hua Cheng adds.

"That's a dangerous thing to promise, San Niang," Xie Lian says, incredulous. "What if I show up with thirty children in tow?"

"So be it. I have lots of rooms available. And minions. did I mention I have an army of minions? They can make themselves useful for once and babysit your legion of hypothetical children."

That sounds like a fever dream. To never know crippling hunger, bone-shattering cold and soul-eating loneliness. To have a home full of warmth and soft clothes and pretty things she doesn't need. To have someone who loves her, without condition, without restriction, without limit.

"San Niang's wife would truly be the happiest person on Earth," she says wistfully. "I don't… San Niang, you keep on talking about what you would bring to the table, but I have nothing to give in return. It's not a fair trade."

The only thing Xie Lian owns is her broken smile, her street tricks and the bag full of mistakes, regrets and traumatic experience she cannot get rid of. Even the clothes on her back don't belong to her.

Xie Lian is just old and tired. Her skin, coated in divinity, unmarred and unscarred, is the worst kind of liar. On the inside, she's all exhaustion made flesh and bones and wounds that only half-cauterized.

The farthest thing you could think of as bride material.

"No, jiejie, Your Highness, you don't get it." Hua Cheng cups Xie Lian's face, her fingers fluttering nervously over Xie Lian's jaw. "All my arguments are shit, complete bullshit, I'm such a fucking liar. You don't have to marry me to get all that. There is no 'if you were my wife', I'll give it to you for free. It's all yours. It's always been yours. Your Highness' company is a blessing by itself but the only reward I need is Your Highness' happiness."

Xie Lian lets herself be held, her face cradled tenderly in Hua Cheng's cold hands, without trying to get away. Hua Cheng's dark eye enthralls Xie Lian to throw herself into its depth. What is she doing?

"I'm doing this all wrong, fuck," Hua Cheng curses under her breath. "I had a plan, Your Highness. It was a good plan."

"A plan for what?" she asks, though she already knows.

Very seriously, Hua Cheng says: "Woo you."

"Woo me?"

"Well, who else?" Hua Cheng laughs helplessly. She releases Xie Lian's face with a sigh, to Xie Lian's silent disappointment. Her fingers run listlessly at the edge of Xie Lian's sleeves instead. "Alright. The thing is… I'm actually a very religious person, Your Highness."

"You are?" Xie Lian repeats skeptically. So far, Hua Cheng has expressed nothing but disdain for Heaven and its Officials.

"I am," Hua Cheng confirms. "The trick is that I only believe in one god and one god only. One goddess. She's the only one I would recognize as such. The rest of those so called gods can choke in their own vomit for all I'm concerned. Are you following, Your Highness?

She hasn't been following ever since Hua Cheng said the words 'want to get married. "I think so? Keep going, San Niang."

"My goddess is the most virtuous, kindest, strongest person I know. She saved me when I was very young, and I have been her most devoted follower ever since. I never stopped believing in her, not for a second. Even when people insulted and blamed her for disasters that were not her fault, I kept on believing. Even after I died, I kept believing."

"S-San Niang," Xie Lian struggles to speak. She feels like she's suffocating under centuries of remorse. She feels like being freed with the way Hua Cheng says believe. "Maybe they were right. Maybe it was her fault for -"

"It wasn't!" Hua Cheng snarls angrily, and Crimson Rain flashes through her eye. "It wasn't her fault. She did the best she could. She was the only one trying to help. No other gods gave a fuck, but she did. She was my light in the dark, the only reason I could keep going. My only reason to live, and my reason to remain in this fucked world."

Once, the Princess of Xian Le was asked a question she couldn't answer. What to say to a child who doesn't want to live anymore? She was a god, but she was a twenty years old god who had never known the true, deep misery this child lived into. She had no idea what to say, no idea how to help, but she couldn't stand to leave the issue unsolved either.

So she said something incredibly stupid. Stupid and so, so selfish.

"Oh." The gasp escapes her mouth. It would be a sob if Xie Lian knew how to cry anymore. "I. San Niang, I…"

"It's alright, Your Highness," the child Xie Lian rescued an eternity ago says. "You don't have to say anything. Frankly I'm surprised you haven't jumped out of the step litter already."

Xie Lian looks around her confusingly. She has honestly forgot where she was. She has forgotten everything but Hua Cheng's arm grounding her inside a reality of their own and Hua Cheng's self-deprecating smile cracking her beautiful face. They haven't been moving for a while, have they? Xie Lian can guess the outline of her Puji shrine behind the silk curtains cocooning the two of them inside the step litter.

"San Niang, I'm… not the good person you think I am," Xie Lian has no other choice but to confess. "There are things you don't know about me."

Hua Cheng sees her as some morally superior creature, but she's really not. She's no better than the 'selfish' gods Hua Cheng despises so much. If she weren't, she wouldn't have almost accepted White No Face's offer. She would have never listened to the demoness in snow white robes' sweet lies and sweeter promises. She wouldn't have caused her last follower's destruction.

"Your Highness. I'm pretty sure there are things I don't know about you, and that makes me happy because it means more to discover in the future," Hua Cheng says as she rests her forehead against Xie Lian's. "But this, I know. I know what happened with this cursed Calamity. You don't have to feel ashamed with me. There is nothing Your Highness could do that would drive me away, except if you ask it of me."

Hua Cheng knows Xie Lian almost became a white-clothed calamity herself? How? Only Jun Wu, White No Face and Xie Lian were there.

And her nameless ghost general, who she had been so sure had been a man.

"San Niang. Want to get married?"

The words slip out without her control. She doesn't not take them back.

Hua Cheng's eye is perfectly round with astonishment, and her bottom lip gaping. Xie Lian daringly presses a kiss by her jaw and a tremor shakes through the Ghost Queen's entire body. It shouldn't be this cute, but it really, really is. "Your Highness. Jiejie, Your Highness, you truly mean it?"

"Of course," Xie Lian smiles. "Perhaps not right now, but San Niang had very good arguments. What she said sounded very reasonable to me."

"Nonsense," Hua Cheng croaks. "I have never been reasonable a day in my life. And after life. I'm the most extra person I know and I apologize for being annoying but could you say that again?"

She's crying, crystal clear pearls of emotion blooming at the corner of her eyes and rolling down her alabaster cheek. Xie Lian catches one tear by her finger and watches it dissolves on her skin. "San Niang, Hua Cheng, Crimson Rain Seeking Flower. My most devoted follower. Would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"

"Your Highness." Hua Cheng's arms tightens around Xie Lian with enough strength to bruise. "Your Highness, the honor is mine! I promise I'll do anything to make you happy!"

"I promise the same," Xie Lian vows as she hugs her ghost queen back just as fiercely.

"I can't believe I didn't even need to use my best argument!" Hua Cheng laughs delightedly. "I was keeping it for last."

"Which is?" Xie Lian asks, full of indulgence for her fiancée's antics.

Hua Cheng smirks without any shame whatsoever. "That it would really, really piss off Heaven if we got married. Especially without their blessing."