Xie Lian hadn’t been fond of fancy things for over eight hundred years.
Not since his days as the Crown Prince of Xian Le had he put on dazzling jewelry, or lush silks, or aromatic makeup. He could vaguely remember those days, when Mu Qing would spend nearly an hour in the mornings readying him to be seen by the citizens of Xian Le. Beautiful and stately their beloved Crown Prince was.
After the fall of his kingdom, Xie Lian went from the pampered prince to a lowly trash collector, and his appearance reflected that. He made sure to take care of himself of course, but he’d never been able to afford anything besides simple white robes and crude accessories to hold his hair in a plain style.
Even now, after being exposed to more riches than he’d seen in centuries, Xie Lian abstained from reverting back to dressing in fine clothing and jewelry. Hua Cheng was more than happy to shower Xie Lian in his wealth, yet Xie Lian had never taken up the offers.
Huge closets in the halls of Paradise Manor were filled with lavish robes fitted specifically for Xie Lian, boxes upon boxes full of the finest jewels found throughout the three realms. Any spirit within the Ghost City could easily be commissioned to become Xie Lian’s loyal assistant, if he so wished.
Xie Lian didn’t wish, though. He wasn’t with Hua Cheng for his money, didn’t love him because of the fancy house and the beautiful objects within it. The only pretty thing that mattered to him anymore was Hua Cheng.
However, there was nothing wrong with a little experiment, right?
It was Shi Qingxuan’s idea, which should have been a bad sign already. Dress up for your demon , she said. He’ll love it , she claimed.
Xie Lian just hadn’t expected to feel so ridiculous.
That day Hua Cheng had been incredibly busy managing ghost affairs, locked up in the throne room of Paradise Manor seeing countless people. Xie Lian didn’t know what kind of business they could possibly be settling, but he took the absence of Hua Cheng to his advantage.
Rising early in the morning after Hua Cheng had taken his leave, Xie Lian went to the cavernous closet that was reserved for him. He was ashamed to admit it, but he’d never even entered the room after Hua Cheng first showed it to him, looking upon the rows and rows of fine silk robes in wonder.
How could he possibly choose?
Walking along a rack of hanging robes, Xie Lian let his fingertips drift over the smooth texture of refined silk and cotton. Every piece he gazed upon was a different color, each embroidered beautifully and tailored with expert precision. Xie Lian felt guilt settle low in his gut as he thought about how Hua Cheng bought him so many nice things and they just sat in this dark room, collecting dust.
Xie Lian walked for a long time, barely even glancing at the robes his fingers touched, before stopping abruptly. He didn’t know why, could barely even see it, but something about the robes he was currently touching spoke to him. Pulling out the hanger, Xie Lian flashed a bittersweet smile.
The luxurious set of robes he held were heavy and intricately crafted, the different fabrics ranging from vibrant to pale yellow with a pattern of gold embroidery along the outer robe. Along the hems of the collar and sleeves was the picture of blooming flowers done in white thread.
These were much like the robes he would have worn when he was younger, when he was the esteemed Flower Crown Prince of noble birth. It almost seemed wrong to put this outfit on now, like he was putting on a costume instead of his own clothes. It felt like stealing from his former self.
Still, Xie Lian had already come this far, and wasn’t going to back out quite yet.
Walking back into their bedroom, Xie Lian began to put the robes he’d chosen on.
Or, at least, he began to try.
One thing royalty often took for granted was the hard work of the people who helped them. Since Mu Qing had officially stepped down from being his royal hand eight hundred years ago, Xie Lian had only worn the simple white layers of his current outfit. A tie at the waist or the fastening of a belt was really all that he needed to worry about.
Now, trying to work all these clothes on himself without any sort of assistance, he had a renewed respect for Mu Qing! They really were quite finicky: several layers of cloth needing to be set a very specific way, ties needing to be done at every corner, each one falling off as he got another finally correct. He couldn’t tell if they were overly complex or if he was just not very bright.
It took an embarrassingly long time before Xie Lian could finally look in the mirror and see a half-way presentable outfit, pulling to make sure all the layers were set properly. Secretly, he was dreading the next steps; this was supposed to be the easy part.
Taking in a deep sigh, Xie Lian next moved to a room adjacent to the closet he’d been offered by Hua Cheng. This room was smaller, crammed with many wooden boxes filled with accessories; colorful jewels and polished metals dazzling the eye as each box was propped open to show only more beautiful pieces. There was simply not enough time in the day to filter through the jewelry to find the perfect matching set.
Xie Lian knelt down next to one of the many gilded chests, careful not to sully his pristine clothes. Running his fingers over the metal and shining stones filled to the top of the trunk, he couldn’t help but smile.
Hua Cheng really was too much. Each and every time he collected a new piece for this collection, Xie Lian would insist that he really didn’t need anything fancy like this and that San Lang shouldn’t waste his money or time on him. Hua Cheng would just argue that it could not possibly be considered a waste, that simply providing Xie Lian these possessions should he ever need them was nothing but an honor.
He supposed now was the time to thank Hua Cheng for always going above and beyond.
Xie Lian first found a pair of earrings, golden with bright rubies in the center. Pressing them into his ears, they felt heavy against his skin as he was reminded of what it was like to wear jewelry. So simple, yet he hadn’t done so in centuries. Whenever he was able to find pieces of jewelry while scrap collecting he would marvel at his prize no matter their age or state of disrepair, subtly wishing he could own such a thing again. Minutes later, he would sell it off for a handful of coins to buy food.
After choosing the earrings, Xie Lian just chose any jewelry that matched the motif of his outfit. Several gilded bangles that jingled against one another with every movement, a garnet amulet to hang from his belt and swing as he took a step, a headpiece with chains of gold and ruby that came down to drape gracefully over his hair.
He took great care to put everything on, reverent of these gifts bestowed upon him by Hua Cheng. It really wasn’t right to just allow all these beautiful things to collect dust within neglected closets of Paradise Manor, perhaps he should find a use for them. Even if he wasn’t fond of finery anymore, he could surely find a deep love for anything that Hua Cheng’s fingers graced.
Xie Lian had no hope of doing his hair in an elaborate style, settling for tying it up in his usual style just with the addition of the beautiful headdress. Even affixing this to his hair by himself took much longer than he anticipated, sat before the vanity for far too long just finagling the twinkling jewelry amongst dark hair.
By the time he deemed his hair halfway presentable, he was almost out of breath and his long trained arms were aching with fatigue. He was finding a new reason to not dress so fancy on a daily basis, it was too much work!
Taking a deep breath, Xie Lian stared at himself in the mirror for a long while. Hesitant eyes drifted down to a jade pot on the table. This had been a loan from Shi Qingxuan, with the claim that it would ‘complete his look’.
The blush of rouge against his cheeks would surely complete the shame of this look, if nothing else. He really shouldn’t put any makeup on, he already looked gaudy enough with his flashy robes and glittering jewels. He really shouldn’t…
His mind was surely deteriorating, as without another thought he reached to unscrew the lid of the little pot. Fingers dipping into the sweetly scented paste, he took a little bit of rouge and began to pat it onto the highest part of his cheeks.
Before his eyes, be turned into the blushing image of a noble in luxurious dress. In bright robes and jingling chains, he reminded himself of the people he would often see traversing the palace halls of Xian Le. Setting the pot of rouge down, his eyes saw an image of a distant past.
Standing up slowly, he walked to stand before the polished silver of a floor length mirror. Careful eyes above reddened cheeks examined the creation of his own making.
If any crueler parties were around (ergo Feng Xin and Mu Qing), they would say he looked like an utter mockery of his former self. These robes were beautiful in their design and matching the color and style of nobility, yet their delicate appearance only looked odd in his eyes.
The rouge on his cheeks made him appear blushing and bashful, his silks flowy and sleeves billowing, the golden belt pulling all the robes in to make his waist appear exceedingly thin. And yet, the reflection in the mirror still showed not a pretty noble son but a simple man; his jawline still sharp, eyebrows still long and poised, shoulders still broad with centuries of fighting.
The contrast looked ridiculous.
Shi Qingxuan must have been joking when she suggested this! Maybe Xie Lian was just bad at styling himself, picking all the things that looked shiny and appealing to the eye rather than anything that would actually look good on him.
Xie Lian was seriously considering just cleaning himself up and putting on his white robes again, picking at strands of hair in the mirror. Of course Hua Cheng would never disparage him or laugh at him even if he wore nothing more than a burlap bag, Xie Lian knew that; but this truly wasn’t much of a prize!
Even if Xie Lian looked fantastic, what kind of a surprise was it to just show up wearing different clothes and expect Hua Cheng to get any more than a mild kick out of it? Here he was, standing in the priceless gems and flawless robes that Hua Cheng so selflessly gave him, and this was his own idea of a gift?
Being poor truly did find new ways to ruin his life every day.
It took another few moments of Xie Lian staring at his reflection to come to the decision to just show himself. What could go wrong? Maybe Hua Cheng wouldn’t even notice anything was out of the ordinary.
Xie Lian found that he didn’t really like that idea, but it would probably be better than blatant rejection. Probably.
Picking up the dragging hems of flowing yellow robes, Xie Lian made a resolute move for the door. Only when it shut behind him and he was standing in the corridor did he realize just how embarrassing this was. What if someone saw him?
If he feared ridicule from his beloved, he could only imagine how embarrassed he would be should he run into a stranger in these halls. They of course would just smile or simply pretend not to have seen anything out of the ordinary, but that was somehow worse.
Xie Lian began to walk quickly throughout the labyrinthian halls of Paradise Manor, making sure to avoid the more populated areas where workers could be walking. It took longer to reach the throne room, but that was a small price to pay for dignity.
Coming to a halt outside of the set of doors to the throne room, Xie Lian considered his next move. Pressing his ear to the door, through the refined senses of a martial god he could tell that the visitors of the day were all gone. No sound at all, not even an errant heartbeat or stray breath. Just Hua Cheng, then.
After a moment, he heard the faint sound of Hua Cheng huffing out a deep sigh. He really did work too hard at times, despite his perpetually relaxed attitude. Xie Lian hoped that his presence could soothe the day’s stress away, even if just for a moment.
Carefully cracking open the door, Xie Lian slipped in and made sure to keep his movements silent. As he moved across the marble floor and closer to the dais, his self consciousness was completely banished in favor of happiness.
Head propped down and fingers rubbing at a temple, Hua Cheng still looked ever handsome despite his visible tension. They hadn’t been together all day; the second the visage of red robes came into his sight Xie Lian recognized just what a miserable day it was without this man.
Stopping before the steps of the throne, it was obvious that Hua Cheng knew he was here now yet kept his head down. He truly was not good at playing coy, finding his own not-so-subtle ways of asking for attention. And yet Xie Lian found himself indulgent time and time again.
“San Lang,” Xie Lian’s voice was stilted and almost got caught in his throat. A smile spread over his face despite the embarrassment that brought a flush to his face behind the rouge.
Only after this did Hua Cheng’s head raise, a confident smirk already set in place on elegant features. It didn’t stay that way for long though, as his smile instantly fell the second his eye lay upon the vision of Xie Lian.
It appeared as though all understanding of how to function left his mind and body, only left with his mouth hanging open and exposed eye spread wide. The expression on his face was beyond comprehension, an odd look about him that Xie Lian couldn’t begin to define.
How could one person look happy, yet sad, yet somehow completely devoid all at the same time. It were as though every emotion known throughout the three realms was simultaneously at war on Hua Cheng’s pale face.
Before Xie Lian could even think to question the other in any way, a blur of red fabric flashed by his eyes. With the accompaniment of clinking metal, Hua Cheng was already out of the room!
That surely wasn’t an expected reaction…
Had he done something wrong? Was Hua Cheng upset at him for putting on these things? Had he committed a great faux pas and wasn’t actually allowed to touch the ‘gifts’ he’d been bestowed with? Surely there must be an explanation as to how he’d angered Hua Cheng so greatly.
Not one to run from his problems, Xie Lian lifted up yellow silks again and ran after Hua Cheng. It wasn’t too hard to find him, following the sound of clacking boot heels to a small sitting room off of the throne room. Xie Lian’s feet slowed as he approached the archway, mouth curving into a frown.
Sat upon a velveteen divan, Hua Cheng was facing away from him with his back bowed inward and face shoved into his hands. From where he stood just feet away, Xie Lian watched the subtle shivering of a strong back, heard the soft shudders of artificial breath.
Was Hua Cheng…?
“San Lang,” Xie Lian spoke again, pained voice carrying the evidence of his distress. Had he truly caused this? Once again he felt a renewed sense of shame. “Are you crying?”
Crimson Rain Sought Flower was the Supreme Ghost King who terrified all those in the three realms. The ground shook beneath his feet and the heavens trembled above his head. Wreaking death with but an errant glance, possessing an unmatched well of spiritual power, he could be considered by many the most fearsome being known to man.
Yet here Xie Lian stood covered in silks and rouge, watching his humble Ghost King shudder upon a throne of red velvet.
“I’m sorry, gege,” Hua Cheng’s voice was strained and carefully held together by will alone. His posture only seemed to worsen, shielding himself from Xie Lian’s view. “His Highness shouldn’t have to see me like this. His eyes shouldn’t be corrupted by the sight of such a pathetic wretch.”
Xie Lian thought of these words, and then immediately wrote them off.
“If your worries concern you corrupting me, I believe that ship sailed some time ago.” Stepping into the room, Xie Lian lifted his robes so he could sit down on the other side of the divan. His thigh pressed into the base of Hua Cheng’s back, still only seeing the back of his head. His hand came up to rub soothingly over his beloved’s shoulder. “What’s wrong? Have I done something to anger you?”
At this, Xie Lian was surprised as he saw Hua Cheng’s head spin around in horror. The sight of Hua Cheng’s face peaked his worry for just a moment, the sight of blood startling him. Down one half of his face ran the steady rivulet of violent red.
From his uncovered eye came normal, clear tears turning white skin glossy; however, from under the black eyepatch streamed a single long tear of alarming blood. Stained upon pallid skin was the evidence of Hua Cheng’s grief.
“His Highness could never anger me, any faults committed are purely my own. I’m sorry for making you worry, gege. I’ll light one thousand incense before your image tonight to atone for the suffering I have caused you.”
Xie Lian couldn’t help but laugh, brushing the pad of his thumb across Hua Cheng’s right cheek to clean off the blood. “I’m sure that won’t be necessary, San Lang. Now why are you so upset?”
He hoped to get to the bottom of this. Tears were surely the last thing he’d expected when putting on this ridiculous costume, wondering if he might look so bizarre that it simply shocked Hua Cheng to tears.
“It’s just… His Highness is so beautiful.” With this choked out statement, Hua Cheng released another sob. The experience of being complimented while causing his beloved to cry was truly bewildering. “I’m sorry, gege. It’s just very overwhelming.”
And to think, Xie Lian was afraid of Hua Cheng not liking this look on him.
“You look just as you did eight hundred years ago, only more handsome. His Royal Highness the Crown Prince stands before me again, and I’m still the unsightly worshipper who doesn’t deserve his gaze. You bewitch me everyday, Your Highness, but like this you remind me of the origins of my humble worship. The sight overwhelmed me at first, is all.”
Xie Lian’s mind flashed to the image of a young boy stood before his statue in a simple shrine, a white petaled flower in hand and hopeless words falling from cracked lips. He thought of words of unending devotion shouted to a failing god; of a raging ghost fire watching him fall apart; of a masked and nameless man by his side in his darkest moments. He thought of the image of fading red robes beneath his hands as Hua Cheng died for the third time in his name.
“I understand, San Lang,” said Xie Lian. He wiped away Hua Cheng’s tears, not minding the stain of red on his fingertips. Nothing about Hua Cheng could be undesirable, even this.
His free hand came up to smooth down red silk and fix a black eyepatch into the right place, smiling with untouched fondness. Golden bangles filled the air between them with a soft tinkling sound as Xie Lian ran a soothing hand over lean shoulders. Comforting Hua Cheng was always oddly calming for Xie Lian, like the feeling of petting a sleeping cat on one’s lap.
The image of Hua Cheng sat atop his lap and purring loudly brought an amused smile to Xie Lian’s face, fingers gracing over long black hair. In time, Hua Cheng’s sniffles became quieter as his tears slowed. Xie Lian broke the silence between them with a gentle voice, “Honestly, I worried you might find me ridiculous for wearing all this. I suppose that was silly of me.”
“Very silly,” Hua Cheng agreed with a chuckle. “Gege should know better.”
“Perhaps… I must say, San Lang really has gotten me too many gifts. I could destroy a set of robes after wearing it once and still have a new one every day for the rest of my unending life.”
“You could rip them all apart and it would still be an honor to have your hands lay upon them for but a second.” Hua Cheng had sobered from his previous emotions, turning towards Xie Lian on the divan with a renewed happiness. “I… enjoy seeing you wear them. I hope my gifts could give His Highness a moment of happiness.”
“They did,” Xie Lian answered in a murmur. His fingers came down to tangle with Hua Cheng’s on top of the couch, two bright knots of red contrasting against light skin. “Even if it made San Lang sad.”
“Not sad,” came the immediate retort from his companion. “Simply elated to the point of extreme emotion. Ah, it’s truly embarrassing… If only something could make me feel better.”
Xie Lian was tempted to roll his eyes at Hua Cheng’s act, attempting to mask his smile.
“I’m sure San Lang could think of something that could make him feel better. His gege has to do something to make up for shocking him so cruelly.”
Hua Cheng faked deep contemplation for another moment before exclaiming with realization, turning further toward him. His thigh pushed against the calf Xie Lian lied on the divan, a stark contrast between black pants and pale yellow silk. Their hands remained intertwined. “If only His Highness would bless me with a kiss. That would surely repair my broken ego.”
“I don’t know…” Xie Lian teased with a poorly concealed smile, eyes sparkling. In the warm red light of this sitting room, he was taken momentarily by the soft look on Hua Cheng’s face. Xie Lian could go blind and would not complain, were that face the last thing he ever saw. In this room sat not one, but two humble worshippers. “I suppose San Lang has earned such a simple reward for his gifts.”
Leaning forward to close the distance between them, Xie Lian cradled Hua Cheng’s jaw in his hand and pressed their lips together. His eyes fell closed as he felt the bliss of a returned kiss, pulled closer by an arm around his waist.
“Please, Your Highness, allow me the honor of demonstrating my devotion to my lord.”
Xie Lian squealed in a mixture of shock and delight as Hua Cheng pressed him down into the divan, the jewelry in his hair jostled out of place. When golden robes laboriously put on were taken off in but seconds, he couldn’t find it within himself to complain.