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“Why does she want me?” Coraline asked the cat. “Why does she want me to stay here with her?”

“She wants something to love, I think,” said the cat. “Something that isn’t her. She might want something to eat as well. It’s hard to tell with creatures like that.”

Coraline, Neil Gaiman

--

 

 

 

Eight hundred years ago, there was a kingdom known as Xian Le.

The kingdom had four treasures: beautiful women, music, riches, and its crown prince.

 

“And this is…”

Forgetting himself in his excitement, Xie Lian took the sword down from where it was displayed on the wall to examine it more closely. He turned it this way and that, examining the pommel, spying down the length of the blade to see the fineness of its edge.

“…jingeom, Four Dragons!” Xie Lian exclaimed. “Unmistakably! A Four Dragons blade can only be crafted once every twelve years, you know, and only by the finest blacksmiths.”

“Just so,” Jun Wu confirmed. “Foreign pieces often find their way into my collection. I don’t discriminate when it comes to quality.”

Nor did Xie Lian, but it was nigh-on impossible to keep his attention on a single dazzling artifact when he was surrounded by hundreds more. Xie Lian had already handed off the blade to Feng Xin, and was back to eyeing up the rest of Jun Wu’s collection. Jun Wu laughed; a warm, delighted sound.

“Xian Le is so knowledgeable! But so hard to impress.”

He was clearly amused, but Xie Lian would hardly deny the sentiment. He was Xian Le’s crown prince, after all – he’d seen the best, thought he could do it better, and then proceeded to do so. It was simply the natural way of things.

Xie Lian had already stacked more discarded legendary swords into Feng Xin’s arms like so much firewood. (Feng Xin’s soul had long since left his body at the sight of Xie Lian’s shameless behavior in the Heavenly Emperor’s own household, and he simply stood there like a statue, numbly accepting whatever Xie Lian handed to him.) Xie Lian squinted at the blade he currently had unsheathed, frowning slightly.

“This is…a fortune-telling blade?” Xie Lian inquired aloud.

“Ah, yes, that old stick,” Jun Wu said dismissively. “I don’t put much stock in that sort of thing. Lovely craftsmanship, though.”

“Mm,” Xie Lian agreed, re-sheathing the sword and handing it off to Feng Xin. He, too, cared very little for fortune-telling; much to the chagrin of his teacher. But the fact that Jun Wu shared his opinion made his heart buoyant with pride. “Neither do I. I wish you’d been around to get me out of all those dull divination lectures, before I ascended…”

Even so, seeing that blade in front of him, he found himself trying to recall those lessons…though he could now confidently proclaim that fortune-telling was a frivolous pursuit, he was admittedly a little curious to what that reflection was trying to indicate. Butterflies, dancing on that gleaming surface…

Jun Wu made a sympathetic noise, and reached out to pat Xie Lian’s back. “Dreadfully dull indeed – and wholly unsuitable for Xian Le. What a waste, to have you cooped up indoors staring at star charts instead of cultivating your swordplay! It truly speaks to Xian Le’s innate talents that he was able to ascend so soon despite these obstacles.”

Xie Lian bubbled with happiness at Jun Wu’s words; at his agreement and praise. Even that touch to his back didn’t feel as overly-familiar as it should – he supposed if anyone was permitted to pat Xian Le’s crown prince like a child, it would only be the Heavenly Emperor himself.

“In any event, Xian Le doesn’t have to worry about any of that silliness anymore. And if that Head Priest of yours still tries to lecture you for falling behind in your lessons, just call on me.” Jun Wu leaned in, his expression comically grave. “I’ll give him a lecture he won’t see coming.”

Xie Lian laughed at the very thought of Jun Wu scolding Head Priest. Perhaps he’d have him write lines, just as Head Priest had assigned Xie Lian when he outsmarted those silly riddles of his!

He reached for another sword.

“At this rate you’ll have gone through my whole collection before the sun rises!” With a flick of Jun Wu’s sleeves, the swords in Feng Xin’s arms rose up and re-arranged themselves on the walls. “I’ll have to work hard at adding new pieces, so Xian Le always has something to see when he visits…”

At long last, Xie Lian had found a sword that piqued his interest. He went through a few practice poses with it as Jun Wu spoke; testing its balance, testing its reach. His skillful feet, his step as light and spritely as a deer’s, barely made a sound on the polished floors. His robes billowed and swirled with his graceful movements, blooming about him like the petals of a heavenly flower. The blade sang like a bell as Xie Lian sliced at the air.

Jun Wu circled him, evaluating his form. He reached out and gripped Xie Lian’s elbow, tilting it up just a bit to straighten up the point of the blade. The adjustment was slight, so slight that even a trained eye could hardly see it. But it resulted in a form so perfect, so divine, that it looked like a statue formed at the hands of a heavenly architect.

“I should fetch you a flowering tree branch,” Jun Wu said. “Then you’d be fit to for mortals to paint. Though I don’t think your shrines can hold any more icons of you…”

Xie Lian puffed out an annoyed breath. “They can just use my other statues and murals for reference. I have more than enough, and they can make do. Even when I was small I loathed sitting for portraiture.”

It was such a waste of time, standing still for hours while a royal painter squinted and sketched. A true artist would only have to see him once!

“They truly don’t understand you, Xian Le,” Jun Wu murmured. “Don’t worry. Now that you’re here, you don’t have to concern yourself with any of that, anymore. You’re beyond what they could ever comprehend.”

Jun Wu’s hand came up to pat his head, to stroke his hair.

“Shall we retire to my study? You must be in need of some refreshments.”

“No, thank you,” Xie Lian said, and it was the truth – he never was a big eater, and it was something of a relief that the worship he received now was nourishment enough. “I should go back to my temples and address prayers. The Mid-Autumn Festival is coming soon, and I wish to give a strong showing.”

Gods did have duties, of course, and Xie Lian did have so very many prayers to answer. All the same, there were few among gods, ghosts, and mortals who had such confidence that they could rebuff an invitation from the Heavenly Emperor himself.

But Xie Lian was the one and only crown prince of Xian Le.

Jun Wu laughed again. “Xian Le is truly hard to impress, indeed. I wish him luck. But please, don’t hesitate to come calling whenever you wish. I promise to show Xian Le many more splendid things.”

 

--

 

Eight hundred years ago, there was a kingdom known as Xian Le.

The kingdom had four curses: idleness, corruption, excess, and its foolish prince.

 

“I must say that I didn’t expect Xian Le to drink down the wine during our game so readily. And that play – the human realm is so full of wild ideas!”

Xie Lian tittered a nervous laugh at the mention of the play. “Y-yes, um. That play was…truly something.”

After the Mid-Autumn Banquet concluded, he’d been unexpectedly invited to the Great Martial Palace for after-dinner tea. The sky was still ablaze with lanterns, and Xie Lian was still too dazzled and dazed by the sight of them, and the thoughts of the person who’d sent them heavensward, to give much thought to refusing the summons. And so here he was, having tea and sweets with Jun Wu in his personal study.

It brought back old memories – of himself as a foolish seventeen-year-old, rattling off the history of every weapon mounted on Jun Wu’s walls, as if the Emperor wasn’t aware of their properties and lineage! Such arrogance he’d shown, back then. Lecturing for hours, talking his ear off. But Jun Wu had stood and listened to him go on and on, a fond smile crinkling his eyes and mouth. Truly, the Emperor had always been so kind to him.

“Do you know that it’s a tradition for the runner-up of the Lantern Battle to host dinner for the winner?”

Xie Lian blinked and tilted his head curiously. “No? That seems unfair, though. Like salt in the wound.”

Jun Wu chuckled fondly, as if he’d expected such a response. “Yes, well. Being that I usually win, most of the other gods leap at the chance to host me at their palaces. It’ll be me doing the leaping this year…and my leaping muscles are so out of practice! Xian Le has given me a splendid chance to exercise them. It will be an event you won’t soon forget.”

Xie Lian was suddenly exceedingly thankful that Hua Cheng had sent up so many lanterns. Even if it was just on a whim, a second-place finish would have had him hosting the Emperor of Heaven at his Puji Shrine! He could not have borne up under such shame.

It was as though Jun Wu could read the thoughts flitting through his mind. “Shall I pay a visit sometime? To this shrine of yours that I’ve heard so much talk about.”

“Ah—”

How to respond? His little shrine was much too humble to receive the Emperor himself, no matter how well Xie Lian swept its dirt floors! He knew he shouldn’t have put off fixing the roof for this long. And he’d been meaning to mend the curtains he’d salvaged, but with his sewing skills, they would likely look better if they stayed torn…

“It—it may not be to your lordship’s liking. It’s quite cramped, you see; I’ve been hosting – many visitors lately—”

“Surely proof that Xian Le is a gracious host, and all the more reason for me to come calling.”

Xie Lian shifted uncomfortably. He had no face to lose, honestly. Less than a year ago, he had been sleeping on the streets; having even a leaking roof over his head was an improvement. But to allow Jun Wu to see the state in which he lived – his tiny, tattered little home, with bare cupboards and junk piled in every corner – filled him with an acute sense of shame. The Emperor had always been so kind to him, thought so highly of him. And his pathetic state was all that came of that trust. The shackles on his skin prickled uncomfortably, like marching, biting insects.

Jun Wu smiled magnanimously. “Well. I hope you’ll receive me, one day. Perhaps in the home I built for you here.”

To his further embarrassment, Xie Lian often forgot the Palace of Xian Le even existed. He could only nod, further shamed by his own careless, ungracious behavior.

“I suspect that it is not to your liking.” Jun Wu leaned his head on his hand, and regarded Xie Lian with an air of gentle concern. “You seem to prefer a shabby little hut in the human realm to the comforts I’ve provided. I personally designed it. I personally funded it. I sent word to you when it was finished; I would have liked to spend an evening in your company, to catch up on all these years. I waited for days for you to finish whatever business kept you in the human realm. Days into weeks. And now, here we are at the height of autumn, and you still haven’t spent a single night there. You must understand my confusion.”

Xie Lian’s cheeks flushed hot. “I’m…it’s—”

“The pantry is always full of the finest produce from Heaven’s trees and fields.”

“I—”

“I’ve filled your wardrobe with many fine ensembles. Windmaster, too, has sent over piles of clothing that he must think suits you. He seems so terribly fond of you.”

“That’s—”

“Is it perhaps that your neighbors have been discourteous and unwelcoming? Excepting Windmaster, of course. Understand that the stars in the night sky must not concern themselves with the jealous sputtering of an innkeeper’s candles.”

“It’s…it’s just—”

“If Xian Le would prefer, I could make whatever arrangements necessary to make him feel more at home. He need only ask.”

The generous grace being shown to him was so utterly undeserved that Xie Lian could never dream of accepting it. He was not the spoiled little prince that Jun Wu remembered – so full of promise and potential, so desperately foolish. He preferred to live as he was now – busking on street corners, gathering scraps, washing the same two pairs of robes in the nearby stream. Chopping wood for the fire, chatting and laughing as Hua Cheng helped cut and gather and carry. Cooking the vegetables he’d been offered as thanks for helping in the fields, and eating with Hua Cheng by his side as the fire crackled into embers.

(It went without saying that Hua Cheng would not be a welcome guest in the land of the gods. This, too, was something that could not be overlooked.)

A life holed up in the Heavens, in a sumptuous palace, far away from the troubles of the other two realms. Perhaps it suited the other gods, gods that were greater than him. But it did not suit Xie Lian. Not anymore.

He was at a loss on how to explain his feelings.

“I…I can’t stay tonight,” Xie Lian said. “I’ve been looking after two human children. And dealing with my cousin.”

Jun Wu gave a sympathetic wince at the mention of Qi Rong, and the sight of such a silly, human expression on the Emperor’s face made Xie Lian give a brief titter of nervous laughter. “Ah. Xian Le has always leapt headlong into trouble. He needn’t worry tonight about moving house, but one hopes that he’ll consider sometime in the future, once his various errands have concluded. I look forward to being your guest.”

With that, Jun Wu lifted his head from his hand and saluted Xie Lian, allowing Xie Lian to return the salute and beat a hasty retreat to his humble home.

It would not be the first time he’d disappointed someone who had faith in him, and it surely wouldn’t be the last.

 

--

 

Two thousand years ago, there was a kingdom known as □□□□□.

The kingdom had four treasures: beautiful women, music, riches, and its crown prince.

 

“I waited for you, after the Mid-Autumn Banquet. I would have known the moment you set foot in this palace that you’d come. But you never did.”

“…”

“I built this palace especially for you, Xian Le. Do you think I do that for every god that comes through the heavenly gates?”

“I never asked you to,” Xie Lian spat.

“I wonder who taught you to be such a scornful child,” Jun Wu sighed. “All those years in the mortal realm have taken their toll on your manners. Or perhaps it was the company you’ve kept, recently. I think some time for reflection in your quarters is in order.”

Jun Wu stopped at the door to the Palace of Xian Le, and waited for Xie Lian to trudge up before he continued speaking.

“Not that I was asked to, but I’ve taken the liberty of making some adjustments to make you feel more at home. I want this to be a place you’re comfortable in. A place you can while away many happy years, a place where I can always come calling and see a smile on Xian Le’s sweet face.”

Jun Wu briefly stroked a hand over the fall of Xie Lian’s hair, down his back. The old, sick memory of White No-Face’s tender embrace flared in Xie Lian’s mind, and he whirled away; nearly falling down the stairs in the process.

“Careful,” Jun Wu chided. “Clumsy.”

Xie Lian choked as he was pulled out of his freefall by Jun Wu’s grip on the shackle about his neck. He clawed at his throat, gasping for air. Jun Wu opened the door of the palace, and dragged Xie Lian inside; dumping him unceremoniously on the floor at his feet.

“Welcome home,” Jun Wu said gently, warmly.

“Welcome home!”

“Welcome home!”

“Your highness!”

“Your highness!”

The palace of Xian Le was the palace of Xian Le.

“Lianlian,” his mother said, approaching him with the warmth and carefree joy he remembered from his earlier years. “I made us dinner – your favorite! You must be so hungry from training all day!”

The fine porcelain bowls lined up on the table were filled with discolored, rot-smelling sludge. This was, in itself, not cause for special concern, or something particular to this nightmare that Jun Wu had thrown him into. While it was not Xie Lian’s “favorite”, he could recognize it on sight (and scent). Taste, too, most likely. It had tasted the same going down as it had coming back up on that morning when he’d dined next to his parents, while they dangled from the ceiling by their necks.

His father – hale and healthy – chuckled. “Don’t worry, son,” he said in a stage whisper, winking as he did. Xie Lian could not remember the last time he saw the king act so jovial, so warm to him. “There’s plenty of fresh meat buns from the cooks in the kitchen.”

“Your highness!” Feng Xin and Mu Qing said in unison, then startled theatrically at that fact. They harrumphed dramatically, and crossed their arms, determinedly not looking at each other.

“I’ll get you a change of clothes—”

“He needs to have a bath first, idiot!”

“He can change his clothes and then have a bath! Then change his clothes again!”

The palace of Xian Le was the palace of Xian Le and the palace of Xian Le was filled with the people that Xie Lian remembered so well even after so many years. They should have been dead. They should have been dead or should have drifted so far away that Xie Lian could hardly recognize them anymore. But here they were, as they had been. Exactly as they had been, save for one fact: every familiar face was grotesquely twisted into a half-smile-half-frown. There was not the courtesy of masks, just flesh and sinew rearranged into an impossible expression of despairing bliss. Heart in paradise.

Xie Lian began to tremble.

Jun Wu leaned down to whisper into Xie Lian’s ear. “There’s a swingset in the back garden,” he said. “Your mother told me how much you loved to swing when you were a little one.”

“She didn’t tell you anything.” Xie Lian’s voice was tremulous with fear and fury. “She’s been dead for eight hundred years. Because of—”

Jun Wu cocked an eyebrow. “Because of me?”

“Because of me,” Xie Lian snapped. “Don’t interrupt.”

Jun Wu’s eyes went soft. He knelt and helped Xie Lian to his feet; his touch and voice filled with compassion. “It’s not your fault. Oh, it’s not your fault, Xian Le.”

He pulled Xie Lian into his warm, unrelenting embrace. His heart beat under Xie Lian’s cheek, steady and strong. Thump thump, thump thump.

“The frailty of others is not your responsibility,” Jun Wu said. “Xian Le should not blame himself for others’ shortcomings. For others’ failures. The burden is not his to bear up under. This is a lesson that I’ve tried so hard to impart to you, and save you further pain.”

Xie Lian wished he could flay off his own skin, and grow a suit of new pink flesh that wouldn’t bear the memory of this touch. He felt a nudge to the back of his knees, and a head pressing itself to the underside of his palm; like a dog begging to be petted. He looked down, slowly, dreading what awaited him.

The sight of Qi Rong gazing up at him adoringly struck Xie Lian with a nostalgic vertigo that threatened to make him vomit even more than the smell of his mother’s stew had managed. He wore the face of the innocent child he once was, before grief and loneliness and madness had warped his mind. The smile-frown on his face was present, but his mouth was sewn shut with dark thread. Qi Rong could only make small, animal noises from the back of his throat as he continued to bump against Xie Lian’s palm; finally taking his hand and pressing it firmly to his head.

“I thought it would be best for everyone if I took care of that vile mouth of his,” Jun Wu explained. “Less noise. Less spitting. Better diet regulation. He’s much more manageable now, don’t you agree?”

Qi Rong nodded in agreement, and continued to pet himself with Xie Lian’s hand. Xie Lian yanked his hand away, finally, and stumbled out of reach. Qi Rong made an awful squealing noise at the loss, like a starved pig denied a bucket of scraps. He toddled after him in hot pursuit. Xie Lian could hardly hold himself back from kicking him clear across the room.

“That’s quite enough,” Jun Wu scolded. He brought his boot down on Qi Rong’s back with a sickening-sounding crack. The pig-squealing doubled in volume. “Ugh. Well, if he was completely manageable, I suppose this home of yours wouldn’t quite feel as it should. Still, I’ll have him taken away and trained a bit more.”

Obeying this implied order, the shadows on the floors shivered, and dozens of rats scurried forth to collect Qi Rong and drag him away to parts unknown. Xie Lian immediately recognized them as the rats of the ruined city at Mount Tonglu and heard their whispers as they went. your highness your highness your highness your highness your highness as your highness commands

“It’s late,” Jun Wu stated. Feng Xin and Mu Qing both stepped forward in unison, and stood at Xie Lian’s sides, ready to escort him to his chambers. “But I hope you’ll find your new home comfortable. I’ve made sure to stock and staff it with everything I remember you adoring.”

But there was a notable face absent.

“Your memory must be going, then,” Xie Lian said. “Someone’s missing.”

Jun Wu’s eyes narrowed. “Do tell. Who could I have forgotten? I know Xian Le very well. Who could Xian Le possibly care for so much that I don’t know about?”

Jun Wu stepped forward. Xie Lian stepped back, but did not break eye contact. Feng Xin and Mu Qing obediently kept step with Xie Lian, strolling backward with his every move.

“Is it perhaps the former Windmaster? No, Xian Le did not even care enough to search for him. Perhaps if he did, then he would have retained the use of his limbs. The two little children he cared for in his earthly hovel? No, hardly a thought spared for them when it wasn’t convenient. Sealed that snake priestess into a pickle jar and set her on his shelf to forget about...even though Xian Le seems to like children so much, he does not seem to be especially good at caring for them.”

Xie Lian’s back hit the wall. Jun Wu stepped into his space, leaning in close, until they were nearly nose to nose.

“I wonder what happened to that filthy urchin you stopped my parade to save?” he quietly asked.

He reached up to tug aside the collar of Xie Lian’s robes, to expose the silver chain there, and –

“I meant Head Priest, you old bat,” Xie Lian snapped.

And he did, in fact, mean to refer to his old teacher. He tugged the collar of his robe back into place, and tried to will his heart from hammering its way out of his ribcage.

Jun Wu smiled, and gave Xie Lian back a modicum of personal space.

“Ah,” Jun Wu said. “Xian Le is correct, how silly of me. I’ve been having some…difficulties with your teacher. He doesn’t seem to want to join us in this happy home of ours quite yet. But he’ll be convinced soon, just be patient.”

Convinced? Xie Lian was certain that he was surrounded by illusions; mindless shells painted to look like the people he remembered. They were merely empty vessels for Jun Wu to puppet as he pleased. They did not need to be convinced of anything. They were not who they looked to be. They were not his long-dead parents, they were not two long-lost friends, they were not a child long-lost. Xie Lian was certain of this. He was certain.

Jun Wu gave the order for Feng Xin and Mu Qing to take him away to his chambers and get him ready for bed, and gave the order for his parents to remain at the dinner table to keep the food and company ready for Xian Le when he was ready for it. The king and queen simply bowed their heads at the order, and sat dutifully in their seats, idly stirring the foulness in their bowls.

“We’ll be waiting right here, Lianlian,” his mother said. “I’ll leave a midnight snack out for you.”

 

--

 

Eight hundredHUNDREDfourHUNDRED years ago, THERE WAS a kinngdom knnownn as □□□□□.

The kinngdom had four TREASURES: □□□□□, □□□□□, □□□□□, and its crownn prinnce crownn prinnce crownn prinnce CROWNN PRINNCE.

 

Xie Lian walked on his own, flanked by Feng Xin and Mu Qing, and was led into a bathing chamber to be scrubbed down. The bath was pleasantly warm, scented with fragrant herbs, and big enough to swim in. Ruoye shifted on his person, clearly wanting to swim around and wash up, but unwilling to leave the safety of his master. Xie Lian patted him gently, bidding him to stay put. The reflection of heavenly light on the crystal-clear surface of the water hurt Xie Lian’s eyes; he would not be able to keep track of the white silk under these conditions. Thankfully, he was still so filthy from the volcanic ash at Tonglu that the bathwater turned black in short order.

He knew he’d had a long day, but…it made Xie Lian flush a bit. Hua Cheng was so generous to have allowed Xie Lian to embrace him when he looked like this! And not just embrace, but…Xie Lian flushed harder and brought a hand to his mouth, huffing into it to check how his breath smelled.

“If his highness would tip his head back,” Feng Xin said.

Xie Lian tilted his head and allowed his hair to be rinsed clean. He eyed Mu Qing from this position. Mu Qing was folding and re-folding every piece of fabric that he saw, making unintelligible noises of displeasure as he worked. Indeed, a quite perfect likeness of the Mu Qing he knew. What was quite unlike the Mu Qing he knew was this…complacency. It would take more than threats from a mad god-emperor to make Mu Qing placidly march in lockstep alongside Feng Xin. Likewise, to make Feng Xin sit and wash hair like a docile housewife while Mu Qing sighed and complained in his vicinity.

An idea came to Xie Lian’s mind.

“Feng Xin, Mu Qing,” Xie Lian said. “I have a joke for you both.”

“Yes, your highness,” they said in unison.

“A horse walks into a teahouse, and says to the owner, ‘I’ll have a pot of tea and a plate of candied almonds.’ The owner says back, ‘By the gods! A talking horse!’”

Xie Lian finished speaking, and waited for a reaction. Feng Xin and Mu Qing both laughed in delight, laughed with their distorted mouths.

“Your highness’ sense of humor cannot be beat,” Mu Qing said.

“Yes, his highness is as talented in words as he is in the blade,” said Feng Xin.

The last time Xie Lian had told them that joke, Feng Xin shattered a rib from laughing too hard, and Mu Qing was so incensed at the noise of his horrible bleating that he broke a chair over his head. It went without saying that Mu Qing did not find the joke funny at all.

Convinced. Jun Wu only phrased it like that to rattle him. These were simply soulless magical constructs, of that Xie Lian was sure – quite sure. But this did not answer the question of why Jun Wu had not simply made a construct of Head Priest to round out this vile little stage play. It was not a matter of power – the Emperor of Heaven himself had more than enough of that, enough to create walking, talking copies of two heavenly officials. Creating a copy of a cultivator – no matter how ageless and immortal – would have been child’s play in comparison. It didn’t make sense.

Xie Lian was old enough to know when to lay low, when to wait for an opportunity. He allowed the puppets of his friends to finish washing and dressing him, to turn down his bedsheets and stoke the brazier beneath the bed. He allowed them to close the curtains, put out the lamps, close his door. He was not locked in. This was, of course, his new home. He had no thoughts of escaping; if there was a way to escape this realm of Jun Wu’s own making, Xie Lian had yet to think of it. And so, he lay in bed, to think.

Tap, tap.

Tap.

Tap, tap.

Xie Lian wearily turned his head towards the tapping noise. A full-length mirror was set into a large wooden vanity, and in the mirror, he saw his room reflected. The high ceilings, the carved jade pillars, the swooping silk canopy of his bed. He saw himself, sitting bundled in the sheets. He saw a hunched figure, standing just behind the glass, peering around the side of the mirror as if they were a prowler peeping at an inn window. The figure was wearing a half-smiling-half-frowning white mask.

Xie Lian rolled his eyes and sighed. Honestly, hadn’t Jun Wu had enough of trying to scare him today? He was trying to sleep. He made a big show of yawning and rolling over, hoping he’d get the message.

Tap, tap.

Tap.

…But, just in case he didn’t…

“Fuck off, old man,” Xie Lian shouted over his shoulder. “Go get eaten by those rats of yours.”

The tapping stopped briefly as the figure behind the glass pondered these words.

BANG. BANG. BANG.

Xie Lian flew up, worried that the glass would shatter and he’d have to fight in his nightwear. Ruoye roiled around his limbs, distressed at the noise but ready to fight for his master’s sake. The figure stopped pounding at the glass with their fist, satisfied that they finally had Xie Lian’s attention.

With a bit of spiritual energy, they frosted the window glass in a thin sheen of ice, and began to write to him with their fingertip.

The characters were mirrored, of course; backwards and tricky to parse. But Xie Lian knew that elegant handwriting well.

“Head Priest,” Xie Lian said.

Mei Nian Qing quickly brought one finger to the mouth of the mask he was wearing, and Xie Lian immediately fell silent. This message was easy enough to translate: be silent and wary of eavesdroppers. Xie Lian nodded, and waited for him to finish writing.

Heavenly Capital locked down. No way in or out. You are well?

Xie Lian wrote back with his own finger.

Been through worse. Where are you? Why is Head Priest wearing that unsightly mask?

Mei Nian Qing was still for a long moment, then turned his head to the side to show Xie Lian the truth of it. Xie Lian choked back the panic that threatened to tear a scream from his lungs.

A line of black stitching attached the mask to his face. The stitching itself told the story far more succinctly than a finger on iced glass: at his chin, forced and sloppy, with torn skin and fingerprint bruising. Evening out as it proceeded, ending with a stitch so fine that a god of embroidery would praise it. The skin there was unbloodied and worked so finely that it was as though the needle used was spun from a fairy’s whisper. It was clear that Mei Nian Qing had stopped struggling, towards the end, and Jun Wu had rewarded him with tenderness. Or what passed for it.

Mei Nian Qing wrote a simple phrase in the ice:

I’m sorry.

He let the characters hang there, frozen in frost and glass, and stared down at his lap. Xie Lian was not about to let this conversation end like this. They were alone here, and they would band together, and flee together. He wrote phrase after phrase, insistently, even as Mei Nian Qing continued to sit there motionlessly.

Where are you?

Are you alone?

Is someone watching you?

He’s made copies of my mother and father.

Mei Nian Qing’s attention appeared to be drawn to the last phrase. He stared at it, the mask hiding whatever expression it had stirred. After a few moments, he began to tremble. He crumpled in on himself, clutching his head and tangling his hair in his hands. A sob tore from his throat, causing Xie Lian to startle as the sound shattered the silence.

“I knew it’d made him angry,” Mei Nian Qing sobbed. “I knew he’d thought me pathetic. But I was alone for so long, you have to understand. I needed – I needed them – I needed them to play cards with— I didn’t mean it as an offense. Your highness. Your highness, please, you have to understand, I’m so sorry…”

“Head Priest! Teacher!” Xie Lian whispered frantically. “It’s fine, I understand! None of this is your fault! Just tell me how to get to you, I’ll come find you and cut that ugly thing off your face!”

His pleas fell on deaf ears. Mei Nian Qing continued to sob, babbling to himself in increasing hysteria about solitude and cards and your highness, your highness, your highness. Xie Lian leapt to his feet, his martial god brain taking over. A person trapped behind glass: the simple solution was obvious, and that simple solution was to smash the mirror with his fists.

“Hold on! I’ll be right there!”

Not even needing a command, Ruoye wrapped around his hands and wrists to protect him from the soon-to-be-shattered glass. He flexed his fingers, readying himself to strike.

your highness

Xie Lian’s fist stopped mid-swing.

your highness your highness your highness

bad ungrateful awful I’m telling

Xie Lian recognized that raspy sound. He whirled just in time to see a rat scurry off; out the door and into the halls. Whatever that rat wanted to “tell” Jun Wu, it couldn’t be good. There was little time for Xie Lian to make assurances to Mei Nian Qing that he’d be right back, or to stay put or hide himself or just try to stay alive. The most he could do was close the door of the wooden vanity, hiding the mirror from view, and race after the rat down the hall.

The rat was smaller than the others he’d seen at Tonglu; suitable for reconnaissance, and fast enough that even Xie Lian’s fleet feet had trouble keeping pace. It also made a small enough target that Ruoye couldn’t strike true. He lashed out over and over, like a lunging snake, and each time was thwarted. All the while, the rat chittered in its awful voice:

your highness your highness yourhighnessyourhighnessYOURHIGHNESSSSSSSSSSS AWFUL AWFUL AWFUL THEY CALLED YOUR BEAUTIFUL MASKS UGLY—

The rat’s tattling cut off with a garbled shriek.

Xie Lian finally caught up, and found that the rat had met its end at the claws of a sleek black cat. The cat stood poised over its kill like a beckoning statue, washing its ears and purring so loudly that Xie Lian could hear it from ten paces away.

Briefly pausing its bath, the cat looked at Xie Lian. It winked its single eye at him slowly, continuing to purr. A red ribbon was tied around its neck.

“San Lang.” Though he was tearful with relief, the words felt punched out of Xie Lian’s heaving lungs. He collapsed to his knees, trying to catch his breath. “Th…thank you…”

The rat’s corpse dissipated with just a flick of Hua Cheng’s tail. Hua Cheng trotted over immediately, and before he even could think about hesitating, Xie Lian scooped him up and bundled him close to his chest.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng said, low and soft. The sound of it alone was enough to soothe Xie Lian’s frayed psyche. “You’re unharmed?”

Xie Lian nodded. Hua Cheng’s fur in this form was so silky soft, so pleasant to bury his face in. So much so that Xie Lian almost forgot to question the why of it.

“…you’re a cat,” Xie Lian finally noted aloud.

“Yes indeed,” Hua Cheng agreed.

Oh, Xie Lian could almost see that bratty little smirk on his face. Hua Cheng patted his paw against the pout of Xie Lian’s mouth, playfully.

“If gege wishes for me to explain myself: I came here in disguise and found myself…temporarily locked into this form, for the time being. Nonetheless, as a cat, I enjoy many benefits in a situation that calls for stealth. It becomes all the more simple for me to slip into places unnoticed, unseen, unheard. Such as into this palace, or into gege’s sleeves with his Ruoye, to fly out with claws bared at a moment’s notice.”

Ruoye swirled around Xie Lian’s arms, clearly miffed at Hua Cheng for inviting himself in to Xie Lian’s sleeves without consulting their current resident. It wouldn’t do for them to be cooped up in there together – how could Hua Cheng do any clawing, or Ruoye any whirling, when they would have to jostle around each other? There was only one solution.

Hua Cheng let out a startled mrrp! as Xie Lian stuffed him into the breast of his robes to be carried there. It wasn’t an ideal solution – he was in his nightclothes, and the lack of layers made hiding him difficult. Though Hua Cheng was small in this form, he was still large enough that there was a noticeable bulge. Xie Lian arranged him this way and that, until he was mostly hidden in the wrap of his sash around his waist. Hua Cheng’s soft fur tickled his bare skin.

“I’m sorry. Please bear with it for now,” Xie Lian said apologetically. “Once I’m dressed, we can find another way.”

Hua Cheng was silent for a long moment.

“…of course,” he finally managed.

Eavesdroppers everywhere, Xie Lian belatedly remembered. The bedroom was hardly better than an open hallway, but at least there was the illusion of privacy in the former. He and Hua Cheng could discuss what to do next, there…how to free Head Priest, how to escape from this place, then came the matter of how to escape from the Heavens themselves next, then…Jun Wu surely wouldn’t take any of that lying down, so, then…

Then…

The thought of taking the head of the man that had done so much to him, done so much to so many others, should have filled him with glee, or at least some sort of righteous thrill of justice. But there was nothing but a cold sense of duty, tempered by a pathetic little whimpering at the corner of his mind. The Emperor was always so kind to me. The Emperor always believed in me. The Emperor has always showed me heavenly grace and compassion even when I’ve done nothing for eight hundred years but disappoint him.

And? So what?

What’s your point?

Eight hundred years had given Xie Lian plenty of time to disappoint a lot of people and none of them had reacted half as badly as this.

“Gege is being very quiet,” Hua Cheng said. He squirmed a bit, and Xie Lian suppressed a giggle as his whiskers tickled his skin. “One hopes that he’ll tell this San Lang his thoughts.”

“It’s nothing,” Xie Lian said.

“Forgive my insolence, but I sense that’s not the truth.”

Eight hundred years of humiliation and regret and shame. Xie Lian thought he was used to it, by now. It was painful enough to disappoint someone he once considered an idol, a father figure, a beneficent authority. Xie Lian once thought that if he could live through that, he could survive anything the world threw at him.

But…then he’d met Hua Cheng. Hua Cheng, who was always so kind and generous, who believed in him no matter what and smiled at him like he hung the moon and stars.

I’ll just wind up disappointing him, too.

He’d survived so much. But he couldn’t bear the thought of the sadness and pity in Hua Cheng’s eyes when he eventually found out the whole of the crown prince he’d carved in a thousand perfect images.

Xie Lian set his hand on the bedroom door, and quietly replied:

“It’s not. I’m sorry.”

Maybe one day he’d be brave enough to tell Hua Cheng the full truth of himself. He doubted it.

He opened the door and saw Jun Wu sitting on the edge of his bed. Jun Wu smiled at him.

“Xian Le is up past his bedtime. He won’t be at his best if he doesn’t get a full night’s sleep.”

“If anyone needs beauty rest, it’s you,” Xie Lian snapped. “Aren’t you sleeping for four?”

Jun Wu’s expression darkened. “That was very rude.”

“Is that the group consensus?” Xie Lian was pushing his luck, but he could feel Hua Cheng purring against his skin, encouraging him. He gestured to the door. “Get out if you want me to sleep so bad. Go bother someone else.”

Jun Wu rose off the bed. Hands resting behind his back, he strode over to where Xie Lian stood at the door. He was so much taller than him. Even now, bolstered by fury and Hua Cheng’s closeness, Xie Lian could not help but feel small.

Jun Wu wore a tired, sad expression.

“Does Xian Le always treat the ones that love him with such cruelty?” he asked. “I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me. Whether his noble parents or the lowliest of ghosts, he awards devotion with the heel of his boot.”

Xie Lian went pale. Jun Wu stroked his hair, moving his hand down to cup Xie Lian’s cheek and tilt his face up to look at him.

“But I still have faith that he can be made to see sense, to be a grateful and dutiful child. Eight hundred years I spent refining you, so you could direct that boot of yours where it belongs – onto the backs of those who caused you so much misery, those common folk you wanted to save so desperately.”

“Go bother someone else,” Xie Lian hissed, again. “Just leave us be.”

Jun Wu’s eyes went dark, like those of a predator who’d scented blood. “‘Us’? Who could Xian Le be referring to?”

“Don’t play dumb,” Xie Lian stepped back, trying to reclaim some breathing room. “You know what you did.”

Jun Wu’s eyebrow raised. “In this instance, Xian Le really has to be more specific.”

Incensed, Xie Lian stormed over to the wooden vanity.

“Sewing one of those ugly masks of yours to Head Priest’s face and throwing him into this mirror, how’s that for specifics—”

Xie Lian nearly tore off the door of the vanity when he opened it to reveal…

…a completely normal mirror.

Xie Lian barely had a moment to process when he found himself roughly shoved to the side by Jun Wu. He couldn’t find his footing quickly enough, and fell to the floor hard. He only just managed to avoid landing all his weight on where Hua Cheng still wrapped around his middle; instead feeling the impact spark pain up his hip and spine. Jun Wu paid him no mind; instead, he clutched the sides of the mirror, white-knuckled. He wore the expression of a madman – wild-eyed and furious.

Without a single word, he pulled his fist back and brought it down upon the glass. A single flick of the pinkie from the Martial Emperor was enough to topple fortress walls. But the mirror did not crack.

Jun Wu’s jaw tightened enough that Xie Lian could hear his teeth grinding, like two swords against each other. The skin of his face was rippling and shivering like a disturbed pond, and – suddenly, horribly – the flesh of his cheek opened into a mouth; bursting forth with tongue and teeth.

MURDERER! BLACK-HEARTED SINNER!

Xie Lian had seen the Human Face Disease progress to the point where the lesions could shriek, to where they could babble nonsense. This, however, was the most erudite subject he’d ever encountered.

Jun Wu turned away from the mirror, and reached his fingers up to his cheek. He felt about blindly for the thrashing tongue, then grasped hold of it; only narrowly avoiding getting bitten in the process. He then pulled. The wet sound of tearing meat filled the room, punctuated by the sound of garbled shrieking from the bloody, toothy carbuncle on Jun Wu’s cheek. Jun Wu himself made no sound. He worked his jaw a few times, as if checking to make sure he hadn’t ripped out a tendon in the process, and tossed the tongue to the side. It splatted against the floor, still twitching.

Jun Wu composed himself. Spiritual energy crackled around him, healing his wound and re-applying the glamour that hid the curse and kept him pristine.

“Don’t let me see you out of bed again tonight,” Jun Wu said. “We’ll talk about your behavior in the morning.”

With that, he strode out of the room. The bedroom door did not slam, but clicked shut quietly. The rats scurried out of the shadows and greedily grabbed up the tongue, darting back out of sight.

“Gege. Look at me. Gege!”

Xie Lian blinked. How long had Hua Cheng been perched on his chest, staring at him and papping his nose with his paw?

“Sorry,” Xie Lian said. He picked himself up a bit, wincing as the motion sent more pain through his bruised hip. He settled Hua Cheng in his lap. “I…I shouldn’t have said anything about Head Priest…”

“Dianxia is not the guilty one in this situation,” Hua Cheng said in a deliberately measured tone. The fur along his back was raised, and his tail thrashed slowly but furiously. “This one should have not hid himself like a coward. If he lays hands on you again then his life is forfeit.”

“San Lang doesn’t need to fight this battle on my behalf,” Xie Lian said. “I wouldn’t have wanted you to pop out then, anyway. We still need to lay low and find a way to get Head Priest, and make a break for it…”

“Can dianxia please explain the situation with his teacher?” Hua Cheng asked. He tucked his tail under his paws, unable to keep it under control. “I’m afraid I was not present.”

Oh. Xie Lian felt a little foolish. He’d gotten so used to Hua Cheng being by his side all the time, that he…forgot that he sometimes wasn’t. So Xie Lian explained; or explained what he knew, which wasn’t terribly much. But Hua Cheng sat and listened, curled on Xie Lian’s lap, allowed him to smooth down his fur.

“…so, not a prison, but a hiding spot,” Hua Cheng observed. “There’s no way you could’ve known.”

Xie Lian smiled wryly. “That excuse only goes so far. I have no choice but to get Head Priest out of here, no matter what.”

“As his highness commands,” Hua Cheng replied. “I will follow you no matter what.”

Xie Lian did not doubt his sincerity. But he wondered if he’d still say that, knowing the whole of him.

He thought of his various failures as a son; how he drove his parents to humiliation and poverty, how he couldn’t spare them any kindness the night when they finally took their own lives. He thought of how Mu Qing and Feng Xin suffered and suffered until they could take no more and left and were immediately better for it. He thought of all he didn’t do for Qi Rong, and what he’d become.

He thought of the devotion of a masked ghost, and how he’d met it with nothing but coldness and disdain. He thought of how he’d forced him to sacrifice his very being to pay for his own sins. He thought of the white flowers he’d ground under his heel.

He was often staggered by his own capacity for cruelty. In this, Jun Wu spoke true.

 

--

 

Six hundred years ago, there was a kingdom known as Long An.

The kingdom had four treasures: brave heroes, epic tales, splendid banquets, and a mysterious ancient coral pearl.

 

Dressed, ready, and with Hua Cheng re-stuffed down the breast of his robes, Xie Lian was ready to march out his bedroom door and start knocking on every mirror in the household to track down Head Priest. But the moment he flung open the door, he found himself facing not a long, dark hallway, but a quiet night garden.

“I should’ve known it wouldn’t be this easy,” Xie Lian sighed.

Hua Cheng arranged himself so he could peer out from the collar of Xie Lian’s robes, and eyed their surroundings critically.

“We’re not alone,” he said.

Indeed, they were not. The false Qi Rong – the one wearing the face of his child self, mouth stitched shut – stared at them from behind a tree with an expression that could only be deemed as hungry. Xie Lian stared back, debating on whether it would be best to simply run away and do his level best to find an exit that would lead them back into the palace. Before he could make a break for it, false-Qi Rong pointed to the swing hanging from the tree.

Xie Lian’s heart twisted, despite himself. This wasn’t real. This was nothing but a puppet.

“…I’m sorry, I can’t right now,” Xie Lian said. “I need to go back to the palace.”

False-Qi Rong pointed at the swing again, insistently. Xie Lian steeled himself and began to walk away, but was stopped in place by a sharp squealing cry. He whirled around and saw false-Qi Rong tearing at the stitching around his mouth; his efforts doing nothing to break the thread, but succeeding immensely in bloodying his skin.

“Stop! Stop it!” Xie Lian rushed over and pulled his hands away. “San Lang, can you cut that stitching with your claws?”

Hua Cheng stretched out a paw from over Xie Lian’s collar, and extended his nails. “As gege commands. Bring him close and keep him from squirming.”

Hua Cheng’s claws were sharp, and made short work of the thread. False-Qi Rong patted his face with his hands for a few moments, not daring to speak just yet. Then, that half-smile-half-frown twisted in glee.

“…he told me to stay out here in case cousin crown prince wanted to swing,” false-Qi Rong said. “I stayed awake all night in case cousin crown prince wanted to swing.”

“I can’t right now,” Xie Lian said. “I need to get back to the palace.”

False-Qi Rong positioned himself behind the swing, waiting not-patiently. He tugged insistently at the braided silk ropes.

“Cousin crown prince said that I could always push him,” false-Qi Rong said.

“Another time,” Xie Lian said, before he rose to his feet.

“I’ll scream if cousin crown prince doesn’t get on the swing!” False-Qi Rong had already spiraled into hysterics, which was very much in line with the real Qi Rong. “I’ll scream and then he’ll come out and see that you’re out of bed!”

There was no question about who “he” was. Perhaps earlier, Xie Lian would have steamed on ahead; heedless of the threat. But right now Jun Wu’s temper was…unpredictable. And with Hua Cheng here to be protected, he could not take any chances.

Xie Lian stiffly sat down on the swing, and allowed false-Qi Rong to push him. False-Qi Rong, just like his true self back then, was not very good at pushing. Instead of giving measured pushes with his arms, keeping him on a steady straight path upward, he simply rammed his entire body into Xie Lian’s back, sending Xie Lian swinging in random directions. Occasionally, he’d fling his arms around Xie Lian’s middle with a joyful cry of “cousin, cousin!” and be dragged along the ground behind him as the swing whirled from the momentum.

How could eight-hundred-year-old memories still be so painful?

It didn’t take long for the false-Qi Rong to tire himself out. He dangled limply from Xie Lian’s waist, his arms locked there tight. Xie Lian twisted in place, looking down to see those massive dark eyes and eerie, twisted smile staring straight back at him.

Out of all the puppets, Jun Wu seemed to have the least control over this one. Moreover, Jun Wu himself seemed…like he might be otherwise occupied right now.

“Thank you for pushing me,” Xie Lian said. “Have you seen Head Priest around?”

The false Qi Rong smiled even wider.

“Pat my head. Pat my head and I’ll tell cousin crown prince what happened to that moldy old man.”

Xie Lian lowered his hand and began to stroke the puppet’s hair. The false-Qi Rong made a blissful noise, and pressed his head up desperately into Xie Lian’s half-hearted pats.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng said quietly. “I understand your motives. But tread cautiously.”

“Of course,” Xie Lian said. “I’ll keep you safe.”

“Gege, you know full well that’s not what I meant.”

“It’s what I meant,” Xie Lian countered.

After a few more strokes, false-Qi Rong finally spoke, no louder than a whisper.

“He got mad at that sad look. Your old teacher wouldn’t stop with his sad faces. He got so, so mad. He sewed a mask on him so none of us would have to see.”

“…and then?”

“Then your stupid teacher ran away and hid. He got even madder. Then he went to go see cousin crown prince. Now he’s even more mad.”

The false Qi Rong shivered. Xie Lian felt a twinge in his heart. This was nothing but a puppet, enchanted into existence by a man hellbent on breaking his mind. All the same, Xie Lian couldn’t help but feel compassion for it. A puppet in the shape of a child he once knew, a child who Xie Lian once felt responsible for, once upon a time. Brutalized, terrorized, forced into the garden at night like an unloved dog.

Slowly, Xie Lian bent down, and wrapped his arms around the false Qi Rong. He felt him stop shivering. He felt him go completely still. He felt his small hands creep up to his sleeves and fist there.

“I love you, cousin crown prince,” the false Qi Rong whispered. “Can’t you stay here with us? I’ll stay out here and I’ll push you whenever you want.”

“I’m so sorry,” Xie Lian said. “I can’t.”

“Then I’ll leave with you. It’s so scary here.”

Xie Lian closed his eyes. A single thought from Jun Wu would cause the enchantment to dissipate and these puppets to dissolve into dust. He had no spiritual energy of his own, certainly not enough to support a being like this.

But he couldn’t live with himself for the next eight hundred years if he didn’t try.

Xie Lian moved from the swing to kneel on the ground, putting himself at eye level with the false Qi Rong. The false Qi Rong wiped his damp face and nose with his sleeve. Still had those awful habits of his.

“Do you know how to get out of here?” Xie Lian asked.

False-Qi Rong gave a shaky sigh and nodded, but was otherwise silent.

“You can’t tell me, can you,” Xie Lian observed. “He won’t let you.”

Another nod.

“Well,” Xie Lian said. “You can meet us there, then. Go wait by the way out. I need to find teacher first, then I’ll come find you. I’ll find my way there and we’ll all leave together.”

The false Qi Rong gave a loud snorting sniffle, then wiped at his face again. “I can leave with cousin crown prince?”

“We can try,” Xie Lian said. “You might not…be able to last long on the outside.”

“I know,” the false Qi Rong said. “Some of the other mes and the other others before us tried to run away. I’ve seen what happens. But they didn’t have cousin crown prince with them.”

Xie Lian was silent. Finally, the false Qi Rong disengaged his grip on his sleeves, and hesitantly moved a few steps back.

“Cousin crown prince is the best,” the false Qi Rong said. “I’m really happy that I could meet him.”

With that, the false Qi Rong bolted into the bushes like a fleeing animal. Xie Lian called for him, and heard no response.

The palace loomed over the garden’s tree-line.

“San Lang,” Xie Lian said. “Is it possible that…those puppets are truly acting on their own?”

Or is it just another one of his head-games, was the unspoken but obvious addition to that inquiry. Luckily, as always, Hua Cheng understood him.

“Puppet magic seems to be quite popular with those of his generation,” Hua Cheng noted. “But there’s such a thing as being too skilled. Perfectly imbuing them with all the memories and mannerisms of a person, then hooking them up to a spiritual energy source of that magnitude…it’s not surprising that they’ve started acting out.

“In addition, there’s the matter of the personality they’ve been assigned. A construct modeled after your cousin should be expected to be especially disruptive and unmanageable.” Hua Cheng gave a heavy sigh. “Ah, but gege must never let his real cousin know that I ever implied any compliment.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Xie Lian assured him. “He wouldn’t believe us even if we told him.”

 

--

 

Fifteen hundred years ago, a new and glorious Heavenly Kingdom was founded.

The kingdom had four curses: idleness, corruption, excess, and its two-faced emperor.

 

Leaving the garden was so simple: simply opening the elegant doors back into the palace brought him back to where they left off. They found themselves in a hallway, meticulously decorated with all manner of things that Jun Wu was so certainly convinced would suit Xie Lian’s tastes. That being: swords. Swords, swords, swords. Vases of flowers with arrangements of colorful spring blooms; none of which included the tiny white flowers Xie Lian adored the most. Then more swords.

“It’s like he thinks I never matured,” Xie Lian griped. “Even when I was seventeen I had other interests!”

Hua Cheng was on guard again; tense and ready to pounce. He eyed every sword warily as they passed, as if they’d spring off the wall at any moment.

“…San Lang’s home is much more tastefully decorated,” Xie Lian said, hoping to soothe some of the tension.

Hua Cheng did give a brief huff of laughter at that; or a chuffling noise that passed for laughter.

“I can assure dianxia that ‘taste’ never factors into the equation when it comes to my approach to home décor.”

They did not have a chance to continue the discussion. They both fell silent as their ears caught the sound of Jun Wu having a furious one-sided argument, just a hallway away. Xie Lian looked around for a good hiding spot, and, in a split-second decision, he settled upon one of the vases with the garish blooming arrangements. He wriggled his way into the tall vase, and stoppered it back up with the flowers to complete the ruse.

“Gege does manage to find creative solutions.” Hua Cheng seemed to be holding himself back from laughing, despite their situation.

“If San Lang was bigger, I would have needed to be even more creative,” Xie Lian whispered back.

The vase allowed them to hide, and also allowed them to eavesdrop. Xie Lian strained his ears, trying to determine who Jun Wu was arguing with, to determine who had made him so furious.

“…you think you can just stay in there forever, don’t you. It’s all you know how to do. Run and hide. Thought you could just run and hide forever and that I’d forget. That I’d just forget! As if I didn’t recognize you the instant you came to tutor my Xian Le. Did you think I’d let you hurt him the way you all hurt me? And you did. You did! His world fell apart and you just judged and lectured and ran away again! Imagine how much kinder the world would have seemed, if his beloved teacher had stayed by his side in his time of need. I should have struck you down the moment you set foot on those temple steps. But my Xian Le needed a good education, needed the best. He needed to cultivate and ascend. There was no other way; by my side, I could protect him from the world. From you.”

It sounded like Jun Wu smashed one of the floral vases. His heavy breathing was so loud that it seemed to echo through the halls. After a long moment, he continued in a carefully measured tone.

“What bliss it must be, to be able to consider the time we spent side-by-side nothing but ancient history…to play the role of wandering cultivator, to make little dolls of our brotherhood and play with them all day. It must be so much more pleasant, without me to intrude on the four of you. You want me to just forget! It’s so easy for you to just forget! Do you think it’s that simple for me, or Xian Le!? He still freezes up like a frightened little bunny at the very thought of my creation, even after eight hundred years. And after two thousand years, the hatred you all have for me is still carved upon my face.”

It seemed like an eternity before they heard Jun Wu’s steps trudge down the hall; crunching on the shattered vase pieces before disappearing out of earshot. Xie Lian waited a few more minutes before moving to peek out of their hiding spot, and then, carefully climb out, supporting Hua Cheng with one hand the whole way.

“Are you alright?” Hua Cheng asked quietly.

“He’s getting senile in his old age if that’s how he remembers things,” Xie Lian said. “‘Freezes like a bunny’. I kicked him into a tree! And I’d like to understand how he thinks a bunny could control a statue the size of a mountain—”

Gege! Stop joking around!”

Hua Cheng’s tone was so frustrated, so serious, that Xie Lian was taken off-guard. Hesitantly, he looked down to meet Hua Cheng’s gaze.

“If you’re hurt, if you’re scared, if you’re sad, if you’re angry, please, tell me properly,” he said. “You saw the cave, and you now understand my feelings towards you fully: I love you, no matter what. I am truly a simple man when it comes to this.”

Xie Lian was silent.

“Do you believe me?” Hua Cheng asked.

“…I believe San Lang loves what he knows of me,” Xie Lian finally said.

He loved the dazzling prince that saved him as he fell, he loved the steadfast warrior that descended in a futile attempt to save his country, even if it ended the way it did. He loved him so much that it built the foundation of his continued existence in the world. This, Xie Lian believed.

He did not know of the fallen wretch that became the White-Clothed Calamity. He did not know the cruelty he was capable of. If he ever found this out, Xie Lian knew the consequences: Hua Cheng’s love for him would evaporate, and with it, that foundation…and then…

“I love the whole of you,” Hua Cheng said. “There is nothing, nothing, that could change this.”

“Thank you,” said Xie Lian, for he couldn’t think of anything else to say. “I feel the same,” he said, because it was the truth.

They came across a spot in the hall strewn with broken porcelain and crushed flowers. A mirror hung on the wall. Clearly, they’d happened upon the spot from where Jun Wu had just departed. Hesitantly, Xie Lian peeped into the mirror.

“…Head Priest?” he whispered.

There came no answer, and there was no sign of him in the glass. There were, however, several fist marks in the glass, and spindling cracks like spiderwebs. An entirely ordinary mirror, holding no Head Priest, and wholly vulnerable to the misplaced fury of a ranting madman.

“Lianlian?”

Xie Lian felt his blood go cold at the sound of his mother’s voice calling for him.

“Lianlian? Are you out there? I heard you. Your mother’s here with your supper still.”

Slowly, Xie Lian walked toward the source of the voice. He peered into the room from where it had called him, from where she was still calling. Lianlian, Lianlian, it’s getting cold.

It was the room he’d seen when he first entered the palace; the grand receiving room, where his false parents had sat with their twisted smiles and empty black eyes. They still sat, exactly where he’d left them. The bowls of rotten-smelling sludge still sat, exactly where he’d left them. His false mother tittered in excitement at the sight of him.

“Darling! Darling, wake up. Lianlian’s here again.”

His false father was sleeping, face-down in his bowl. His snores blew bubbles in the sludge, sending more foul smells airborne as they popped. His false mother giggled; one voluminous sleeve over her mouth, as befitting a refined lady.

“Oh, your father’s always so hard to wake up. But he’ll be so excited to hear that you came to visit!”

Xie Lian took one step forward, then another, making his way to sit at the table with his parents. He stroked Hua Cheng’s furry head, silently pleading with him to trust him. Hua Cheng silently understood.

His false mother happily pushed over “his” bowl, and, with a proud flourish, plucked a flower from the table centerpiece and placed it atop the mountain of sludge.

“Presentation is important,” she said. “It’s called ‘The Reflective Pond That Allows One a Glimpse of the Heavens’.”

The flower was dissolved by the sludge in a matter of seconds, sending up green smoke and a burning smell. Xie Lian idly wondered what his false father’s face would look like right now, if he were to wake up.

“Thank you,” Xie Lian said. “How long has he kept you here?”

“It’s been eight hundred years since then, Lianlian. You should know that, silly thing.”

“That’s not what I asked.” Xie Lian kept his voice deliberately even, calm. “How long has he kept you here?”

His false mother’s smile faltered, if only for a second.

“I don’t know what you mean,” his false mother said. “Eat your supper, Lianlian. It’s getting cold.”

“You’ve been here longer than the others,” Xie Lian observed. “Long enough to know things. Long enough to know that playing along was your only option.”

His mother was always the picture of courtly grace. She knew how to entertain guests, how to comfort her husband, how to pamper her son. She knew how to read a situation, how to be spared as a target by the backstabbing Xian Le court. She knew how to play dumb.

It did not surprise Xie Lian in the least that she was the longest-lived of the puppets here.

“It’s getting cold, Lianlian,” she said.

“Do you know where Head Priest has hidden himself?” Xie Lian asked. “Once I find him, I’m going to get us all out of here.”

“It’s getting cold, Lianlian,” she said.

“I’ve already told…my cousin to meet us at the exit,” Xie Lian said, not quite ready to call the false Qi Rong by that name, not yet. “You’re welcome to join us. My father, Feng Xin, Mu Qing; they’re all welcome. I…I can’t guarantee that any of you will survive out there, not for long, but it’ll be better than living like this…”

It’s getting cold, Lianlian!” his mother nearly shrieked, grabbing onto his hand and shoving his spoon into it. “Eat it before it’s cold!!”

Baffled by this outburst, Xie Lian stared at the spoon, then his bowl. The sludge looked…odd; odder than normal, anyway. It looked like someone had buried something underneath it.

Xie Lian dug away a little pit in the center of the bowl; moving the gelatinous goo around until he saw a reflective, shiny surface. A hand mirror. And clearly one that was enchanted heavily enough to keep it pristine against the onslaught of the stew that hid it.

Xie Lian carefully pulled the mirror out, and wiped it down with his napkin.

“—your highness!” wheezed Mei Nian Qing. He gasped for breath behind the glass. “Thank goodness. I don’t know how much longer I would have lasted…”

“Good to see you well, Head Priest sir,” Hua Cheng greeted him warmly. “I will be happy to remove that unsightly mask for you, if you’d take a moment to come out of that mirror.”

Although his expression was obscured by the mask still sewn to his face, Mei Nian Qing’s confusion was clear in the tilt of his head.

“Lianlian never said anything about wanting pets,” his false mother said at the sight of Hua Cheng poking his head out of Xie Lian’s robes. “Does Lianlian remember his fourth birthday? He’d been given a pure white pony of the finest pedigree, with a golden saddle and bridle, and little bells to jingle when it pranced. The moment we put Lianlian in the saddle, he cried and cried…”

These puppets having the memories of their true selves was essential to breaking free of Jun Wu’s control, but perhaps there were some drawbacks. Oh, how he hoped Hua Cheng would forget about that little anecdote. But he knew he wouldn’t. Xie Lian felt his ears burn.

“This…isn’t a pet,” Xie Lian finally said. “Head Priest, this is San Lang; he transformed to sneak inside, and then got stuck…”

Xie Lian caught Mei Nian Qing up on all that had happened in the past few hours, told him of Jun Wu’s increasingly erratic behavior, told him of his plans. When he finished, Mei Nian Qing remained silent.

“…they won’t survive outside of this home,” Mei Nian Qing said quietly. “Please trust in my experience on the subject of puppets. Even if your…gentleman ghost friend…were to support them with all of his considerable spiritual power, it would not be compatible. They would fall apart like clay.”

Xie Lian’s fingers stopped brushing through Hua Cheng’s fur.

“…I thought that might be the case,” Xie Lian replied. “But…”

“If we escape, he is certain to destroy every last one of them in his rage,” Mei Nian Qing said. “Whether they colluded with us or not. Die inside, die outside. Unless we consent to be jailed here for the rest of eternity, their fate will be the same.”

A heavy weight pulled on Xie Lian’s heart. More deaths. More deaths for people who committed the crime of having been associated with him, once upon a time.

“Your cat. Is he handsome, when he is in the form of a man?”

Xie Lian stared at his false mother, trying to parse her question. She gazed at him evenly. Even with those black empty eyes and twisted smile, she seemed tender and sincerely curious.

“…yes,” said Xie Lian, finally. “He is.”

“Gege flatters me,” Hua Cheng said. “I am nothing in comparison to his beauty, I assure you, my lady queen.”

“Does he take care of you?” his false mother asked, voice soft and urgent. “Does he speak to you gently, and support you no matter what?”

Xie Lian clutched Hua Cheng closer and closer with every phrase.

“Yes,” he said.

“And I will continue to do so,” Hua Cheng said. “For eight hundred years and many more.”

His false mother nodded.

“I…know I’m not your true mother,” she said. “But I have her memories, and I love you as she did. And I think…for her, it would be enough to see you one more time, and to know that you have someone who loves you so completely. Knowing that, I could…I could…ccccc…ccccccccc…”

His false mother’s jaw suddenly went slack. It went slack, then drooped, and drooped; until it dropped from her face and fell into her supper bowl. She stared at it for a moment as it dissolved there, then turned to look once more at Xie Lian with black, black eyes. They could still shed tears.

“…uvvvvv…annnnn….”

She began to melt like clay, like mud. Xie Lian wailed in dismay, lunging forward to try and hold her together with nothing but his embrace. It was over in seconds. His false mother was gone. His false father, melted into his soup. The false Qi Rong…the false Qi Rong…

“I told Xian Le that he wasn’t allowed to leave his room again. What a mess he’s made. I think I stepped in his cousin on the way here.”

 Xie Lian’s fists clenched at the sound of Jun Wu’s voice. Jun Wu strolled into the room, tsking his tongue in disappointment.

“I made them so you’d have someone to love you, even when I was away,” he said. “And all you can think about is how to best kill them. I can’t imagine what they thought of you, hearing you talk like that about them.”

“Fuck you fucking gutter pig,” Xie Lian spat.

Jun Wu frowned. “I was going to make you some fresh ones, but if you’re going to curse at me, then maybe you need some time alone for a few months.”

Jun Wu moved to grab Xie Lian’s arm. Xie Lian wasn’t fast enough to take a swing at him before Hua Cheng lunged out of his hiding spot in the breast of his robes.

Jun Wu stumbled back with a shout. As if part of a coordinated sneak attack, Ruoye whipped out of Xie Lian’s sleeves without being directed, and wrapped himself around Jun Wu’s wrists to bind them behind his back; allowing Hua Cheng to flay apart Jun Wu’s face and eyes with abandon. Xie Lian leapt to his feet, joining the fray with a windup kick to the gut. Ostensibly the goal was to aim for his meridians to block his spiritual energy, but there were few things more satisfying than knocking the wind out of someone you really, truly disliked.

Even as a spiritual weapon, Ruoye had limits. Xie Lian felt him begin to tear. If he tore, there was no one to repair him, and – and Hua Cheng – he had to think fast.

“San Lang, get away! Ruoye, return!”

Coordinated enough to sneak attack, but not coordinated enough. Perhaps Ruoye was too swift in his retreat, perhaps Hua Cheng was too slow in his. Regardless of the cause, the result was Jun Wu seizing Hua Cheng by the scruff, and hurling him across the room hard enough that he crashed into the jaded ornamentation on the wall. Hua Cheng slumped to the ground, unmoving.

“San Lang!” Xie Lian cried.

“Inviting friends over without asking me first,” Jun Wu snarled. His face resembled bloodied, butchered meat; both his eyes were utterly mangled and sightless. “Horrible little Xian Le. What does he think of you now, seeing all you’ve done tonight?”

It was hard to tell, amidst the damage already done, but three more mouths had appeared on Jun Wu’s face. Mouths and eyes and tiny arms and legs; sprouting from his wounds like little flailing worms.

“MURDERER!”

“BLACK HEART!”

“SINNER! LIAR!”

The mouths screamed and cursed and screamed.

“WHAT WILL HE THINK OF YOU, XIAN LE? SEEING YOU AT YOUR WORST?” Jun Wu shouted, trying to make himself heard above the chorus. “Your dear teacher saw me at my worst and fled, fled for twelve hundred years, acted like we’d never known each other! Acted like we never meant a thing to each other! That’s our fate, Xian Le, that’s what happens to us! Abandoned and forgotten, until we force them to remember!”

Xie Lian cradled Hua Cheng’s tiny, bloodied body, fully ready to defend him with his very life.

“You’re a monster who ruins lives,” Xie Lian spat. “Of course no one would want to stay with you.”

Jun Wu laughed, and laughed, getting louder and louder by the second.

“I’m the monster? I’m the monster that ruins lives?” he asked. “Have you told your sweet Crimson Rain about your tenure as a Supreme-to-be?”

With a wave of his hand, Jun Wu conjured another puppet:

A puppet of a young man, clad in black, with a smiling white mask.

Xie Lian froze in place. He could barely hear anything over the hammering of his heart.

“Go ahead, Xian Le,” Jun Wu said. “Treat him as you did. Call him worthless, call him useless, crush his offerings under your heel. Offer him your hand to kiss and then use it to strike him across the cheek. Order him to sacrifice himself to atone for your own sins. This is the great god you worship, Crimson Rain.”

Here he was, standing before him. The reminder that he was a failure in all things: a failure as a god, a failure as a demon, a failure as a decent human being. Here he was, standing before him, the truth of what he really was; laid plain before Hua Cheng.

The jig was up. It was finally over, and it was just as painful as Xie Lian feared.

Perhaps Hua Cheng would hate him less if he was forthcoming with an explanation. It was worth a shot. Xie Lian squeezed his eyes shut, took a shaky breath, and began to explain.

“San Lang…back then, after Xian Le fell, I…I was so hateful and bent on revenge, and I made a pact with a ghost—”

“I was…taller…than that…”

Hua Cheng’s voice was more resonant, now; richer. Xie Lian looked down. Hua Cheng, human and handsome as could be, smiled up at him. Smiled like…

Smiled like…

With effort, Hua Cheng slid off Xie Lian’s lap and slowly made his way over to where the puppet of that nameless ghost stood; silent and motionless. Hua Cheng looked it over, critically, and plucked the mask from its face. There was nothing beneath it but blank blackness – of course Jun Wu did not know his face, for the ghost had never removed his mask, even for Xie Lian. Hua Cheng put the mask on his own face, and turned to show himself.

“I love you, no matter what,” Hua Cheng said. “Do you believe me?”

“San Lang,” Xie Lian said, wretchedly.

“I’m here,” he said.

“I’m so sorry for everything, back then. I didn’t deserve your love.”

“I love you, no matter what. God or demon, prince or pauper. Enshrined in the heavens, cast down into the dirt. ‘Deserving’ or not. The point of it is that it’s you.

Hua Cheng went to his knees in front of Xie Lian, hand to his heart.

“I’ll say it as much as you need to hear it,” Hua Cheng said. “And then more, for my own pleasure. I love you, no matter what. Life into death and far beyond.”

Xie Lian flung his arms around Hua Cheng, dragging him in for a kiss.

Jun Wu was not the type to allow these interludes.

“Isn’t Xian Le lucky, to have such a faithful believer?”

Xie Lian drew back from Hua Cheng’s mouth, glared hatefully at the monster still lurking in their midst.

“Xian Le is so…dreadfully…horribly…lucky…” Jun Wu hissed, stumbling blindly forward. His face was still a jumbled mess of flesh; sporting eyes and mouths that were not his, arms that tore fresh wounds and tore at his eyes just as quickly as Jun Wu tried to heal himself. “Do you think…if I had a believer half as faithful, for all those lonely years…that things would have turned out like this?”

Xie Lian couldn’t answer. Jun Wu laughed quietly at the silence.

“Ah, but you wouldn’t be able to relate. I suppose we aren’t quite as similar as I once thought.”

Jun Wu stumbled into the dining table, adding bruised shins to his list of injuries. He toppled to the ground, and lay there, still; allowing the wretched carbuncles to tear at his face.

There was a great and terrible silence.

“I’m so tired, Xian Le…it’s been a very long night. Your host needs to rest a while. Can I trouble you to adjourn to your Puji Shrine?”

It almost seemed too good to be true. Xie Lian cautiously rose to his feet, helping Hua Cheng up in the process. Jun Wu twitched his fingers against the floor, and a door appeared; inlaid into a previously-blank stretch of wall. The door opened to show the streets of the heavenly capital; being cleared of Jun Wu’s supporters by an army of sentient farm produce in war armor. They saw the Rainmaster pass, atop her ox, with Ling Wen hogtied behind her.

Xie Lian turned to look briefly back at Jun Wu. Once his idol, once a mentor, once someone who cared.

“I won’t be coming back,” Xie Lian said.

“I wouldn’t expect you to,” Jun Wu said. “I don’t think I was a very gracious host today. Farewell, Xian Le.”

Before he turned to leave, Xie Lian gestured at the silent figure standing over Jun Wu’s prone body.

Head Priest? he mouthed silently at him. Come on. I don’t think he knows you’re here.

Mei Nian Qing smiled faintly. The mask was off his face, now; set carefully on the dining table. The remnants of the stitching were still visible on his skin.

He saluted Xie Lian.

Farewell, he mouthed back. 

“Your highness,” murmured Hua Cheng.

Xie Lian nodded, and returned his teacher’s salute. With that, he walked out the door with Hua Cheng in tow. The moment they set foot outside, the palace door clicked shut with an air of finality.

When they looked back, it was gone – gone, as if it had never existed at all.

 

--

 

Two thousand years ago, there was a kingdom known as Wuyong.

The kingdom had four treasures: beautiful women, music, riches, and its crown prince.

 

“Your highness. I hope this teaches you to use puppet magic more cautiously. It’s very exhausting to one’s spiritual energy reserves, even for one like you.”

Mei Nian Qing touched his arm, just lightly enough to let him know where he was.

“…Nian Qing,” Jun Wu said. “I can’t see, so you’ll need to tell me. Crimson Rain was that ghost?”

“It seems so.”

Jun Wu snorted a brief laugh. “He was that street urchin, he was that soldier, he was that ghost fire, he was that ghost general…honestly, you’d need to be a fortune teller to predict such a thing.”

“Mmm.”

“And I haven’t had one of those by my side for years.”

“If you’d ever listened to my lectures, you would’ve been able to do it yourself.”

“Oh, for the clarity of hindsight.”

Heedless of the blood, the flailing limbs and spitting mouths, Mei Nian Qing reached to touch Jun Wu’s chin.

“Your highness,” Mei Nian Qing quietly said. “I think it’s time for us to rest. Both of us.”

Jun Wu covered Mei Nian Qing’s hand with his own, and tilted his head towards the warmth he felt, radiating from Mei Nian Qing’s thigh. He heaved a heavy sigh, and was then silent.

 

--

 

 

 

 

 

Four hundred years ago, there emerged a dazzling city in the realm of the ghosts.

The city had four treasures: freedom, riches, gourmet soup, and its beloved king.

 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian said flatly.

“Her name is Porkbun,” Hua Cheng said, referring to the white pony that he had allowed onto their bed. “Does gege like his anniversary present?”

For the first time in their new life together, Xie Lian considered divorce.

 

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