One late afternoon, on the day the early autumn painted maple leaves crimson, the village head kowtowed before Xie Lian and begged, “Please, Daozhang. Please save us.”
Xie Lian had found this village by chance and stayed by choice, and before he realised, a month had already passed. It was a quiet and remote place in a faraway corner of the land he neither cared about nor knew how to name. It mattered little, for names had become as irrelevant to him as time itself. The important part was the contentment he had found here and the reprieve from misfortune that shadowed his steps.
He pulled the elder back to his feet. He was no longer a prince and his godhood was no more – and thus no man should kneel before him. He lost the right to respect after he had brought destruction to his world.
“Uncle Wang,” he said calmly. The smile on his face was that of the Flower-Crowned Martial God. “Why don’t you tell me what’s wrong?”
And the story was this:
Once upon a time, a mortal man won in a game of dice against a ghost.
“I want good fortune for my people,” he told the ghost, for the circumstances were dire and no god answered his prayers.
“How much of it?” the ghost asked, unperturbed. His face was hidden behind a veil of red shadows and secrets unimaginable.
At that time, the man was not old but neither was he young and thus he knew the fickle nature of fortune. The tides of luck could turn at any moment, in mere seconds grinding to dust what had taken years to build.
And so he said, “Twenty years,” for that would allow him to shape his little world as he saw fit and leave it a better place for those who would come after him.
“Twenty years you shall have,” the ghost agreed without bargaining. He was known for always honouring the winners’ wishes. And so they shook hands over the table and a pair of red dice still lying on it.
“Thank you,” said the man and bowed. “Thank you, my lord.”
“No need to thank me.” The ghost’s eyes were already elsewhere. There were plenty of those who sought good fortune, and he was the only one granting that kind of blessing. “Put your twenty years to good use.”
The man bowed again. “I will.”
And the story was this:
Once upon a time minus twenty years, a mortal man played a game of dice against a ghost but this time, he lost.
“Please,” he begged on his knees like many had before and many more still would in the future. “Let me try again.”
“You’ve had your twenty years,” the ghost said, uncaring, for little did he care about mortal affairs and the lives that passed quicker than thoughts. “You already bet your life once and now I have no use for it.”
An easy life, happiness, and good fortune were the most addictive drug of them all – it had taken the man twenty years to realise that. The village was thriving, the people were safe and sated, and yet he still craved more. And just like twenty years prior, no god would heed his prayer for even they knew the risks of playing with the nature of luck.
“I offer you,” he said, reaching for the dice, “the most precious thing in the village.”
And so they played and the man lost again. And while he wept, the ghost stood up and regarded him with eyes devoid of compassion. After all, he respected the winners but held no regard for fools.
“I will collect my prize seven days from now. Now get the fuck out of my city.”
“And you want me to do... what, exactly?” Xie Lian asked because while the story was clear, his role in it was anything but. “Beat him up when he comes? I’m afraid I’m not powerful enough for that.”
“No, no!” Wang Shen grabbed his arm and it took all of Xie Lian’s self-control not to shake his hand off. Years taught him that human touch meant nothing but pain. “Not that! I would never ask that of you.”
“Then what, pray tell, do you want me to do?”
Wang Shen looked away, skittish. He reminded Xie Lian of someone, but his memory was no longer what it used to be.
“I want you to don the red and pretend to be a bride.”
And the story was this:
On the seventh day, the prince who had become a god who became a calamity who became someone that belonged nowhere, sat in a marriage sedan while the villagers gathered their belongings and fled. RuoYe was curled around his wrist, tight like never before, and he caressed it absent-mindedly. It was wary and restless, he could tell; and so was he.
The plan was simple. Once the ghost came, distract him long enough for Wang Shen to ensure his people were safe. Then run, and hope for the best.
The best, in Xie Lian’s case, was avoid mutilation. He had had enough of that to last him a lifetime – there were days when he still felt the cold blade piercing his abdomen and slicing his throat, and the scorching hands of the mob tearing him to pieces. A day without pain was a blessing; a year without injury – a miracle he had not experienced in ages. And so he knew his hopes were in vain, for there was also misfortune he had to take into account. His was gargantuan; a beast of his own making, with jaws gaping wide enough to swallow the universe.
“Do you take me for a fool?”
It had to be the ghost, for in his voice was death and suffering and ashes scattered over a battlefield. RuoYe moved, unseen under the layers of red robes and ready to attack.
“No! No, my lord!” Even a fool would tell Wang Shen’s panic. It was breathless, formless—endless. “I would never! This is truly—”
“Truly what? A misunderstanding? An act of good faith? Don’t make me laugh.”
More excuses and apologies followed, but Xie Lian paid them no mind. They were not his to make. As always, he was a guest, a wanderer outside time with no place to call his own and no sense of belonging. And it was fine. He got used to it.
So when out of the corner of his eye he spotted something shimmering, he turned towards it and so did RuoYe.
It was a butterfly; silver, translucent, bobbing up and down right next to his face. The moment Xie Lian looked at it, it perched on the tip of his nose and spread its wings.
“Oh, you’re so cute!” Even though his voice was breathless and hardly anything more than a whisper, the butterfly started glowing even brighter.
“Only a useless mortal trash would try to go back on his word like you did.” The ghost went on and on, and with every word his ire grew. “Who the fuck do you—what?”
Someone hurriedly approached the sedan. Xie Lian tensed, his instincts of a martial god too strong and too old to ignore. RuoYe loosened its coils around his wrist, ready to pounce. Only the butterfly remained as it was, content and still on Xie Lian’s nose.
And then the veil was lifted, and Xie Lian found himself face to face with the ghost.
“Your Highness,” the ghost whispered, his mouth slack and eyes wide. Then he fell to one knee without a preamble, without explanation or reason, and in the line of his bent neck was written devotion with no bounds.
Xie Lian no longer deserved it.
“Get up, get up, please.” He rose to his feet and pulled the ghost up as well. His fingers were cold in Xie Lian’s hands, trembling. “Why are you doing this? Do I... know you? Your voice sounds familiar but my memory isn’t... ah. I’ve forgotten many things, you see? Many years and many things.”
“I wouldn’t presume Your Highness remembered this lowly devotee.”
Xie Lian smiled wistfully at that. RuoYe shifted and tightened around his wrist again, once more his only source of comfort. It had been this way for centuries.
“No one believes in me anymore. And it’s fine!” he quickly added, seeing the outrage come to life on the ghost’s handsome face. “I’m not a god anymore.”
“You are my god,” the ghost said and something in his voice once again called to memories buried under the rubble of time. “The only god I’ve ever needed.”
In his eyes was nothing but sincerity, and Xie Lian—Xie Lian felt safe.
“Would Your Highness do me the honour of accepting an invitation for tea?”
“Will you tell me who you are if I do?” Xie Lian countered and the ghost gave him a smile brighter than the sun and more beautiful than the moon.
“I will tell you everything you want to know.”
And so Xie Lian took his hand and let himself be led.
“Who would’ve thought,” the ghost told Wang Shen as they passed him by. “You did give me the most precious thing in the world after all.”
In San Lang’s eyes were warmth and love Xie Lian sorely missed. He scooted into the chair next to him; only an arm wrapped around his waist succeeded at dispersing the buzz of frantic thoughts that had been filling his head for the past three days.
Somehow, he had ascended again without trying and that was the worst joke the universe could have played on him. Having gone to sleep in his own warm bed and waking up to a rocky hole in the streets of the Upper Court was surely one of the most bizarre experiences he had ever gone through.
“They finally let you go?”
Xie Lian hummed a wordless assent into San Lang’s neck. Three days in Heaven with only memories and the familiar weight of the ring around his neck had left him restless and touch-starved.
“They even gave me work to do,” he said once his heart finally settled. “Apparently no one believed me when I told them my ascension was a mistake.”
San Lang snorted but did not say a word. He let actions speak instead and soon no place on Xie Lian’s face was left unkissed. Someone in the vicinity grunted nonsensical protests, but neither of them minded.
Xie Lian had found San Lang again by chance, stayed with him by choice, and would be damned if he ever let go.
With great reluctance, Xie Lian tore himself off San Lang and glanced at two young martial gods standing nearby. He did not notice their arrival but admittedly, he could not care less.
“Did Ling Wen send you? I told her I didn’t need help.”
After all, San Lang was all he needed and he was already here.
“Yes, she...” one of them stammered and broke off. The other one was simply staring at them, unmoving. “Your Highness, just... who is this person beside you?”
Xie Lian looked at his home, his world, his everything. “This is Hua Cheng,” he said because ‘San Lang’ was a name only he could use. It was the name for the crowded streets of Ghost City, for their bedroom in Paradise Manor and his altar in Qiandeng Temple, for breakfasts together and confessions under the light of myriad lanterns. “My husband.”
For a moment, even the universe seemed to hold its breath. And then—
And the story was this:
Once upon a time, a god wedded a ghost and Heaven wept but eternity rejoiced.