When Xiao is summoned to Emperor Zhongli’s chambers in front of all the ladies in the court, the first thing Consort Tianquan says to him is congratulations. Which he knows is just Ningguang’s way of telling him you’re dead meat, watch out for scorpions in your shoes for the rest of your life.
Indeed, unintentionally becoming the emperor’s most favoured concubine has definitely thrown a wrench in Xiao’s mission to assassinate him. Firstly, he has attracted the jealous ire of every woman in the imperial harem, and he is constantly harrassed by both a barrage of gifts from others trying to win Xiao’s favor as well as the frequent attempts on his life. Even as an assassin himself, some methods he’s encountered are downright creative-- Ningguang once gave him an umbrella that, upon opening, rained poison-coated needles upon him. He’s just relieved he, with his honed reflexes, was the one to realize it and not the cook Xiangling who he had given the umbrella to later (it is a very pretty umbrella).
Secondly, Zhongli’s increased attention on his person means the emperor is all the more likely to eventually realize Xiao is a man. This isn’t as urgent a problem as the previous, honestly, because his limited interactions with Zhongli have already revealed to Xiao that he is an absolute buffoon. He’s at greater risk of Keqing figuring out-- Consort Yuheng possesses not only cutting wit, but is just good at cutting people in general, as Xiao learnt when Ningguang sent bandits after two during an excursion, only to have them dispatched by Keqing wielding a hairpin alone. Xiao was grateful for the help, yes, especially since part of his disguise is to pretend he isn’t capable of snapping necks with his bare hands, but it was also absolutely terrifying. Maybe he shouldn’t hide his assassination skills after all, seeing that every other concubine in this harem is ready to kill a man at a moment’s notice.
Thirdly, and this is the killer-- Xiao has begun warming up to... nay, he is becoming fond of his target. The first time Xiao had a chance to kill Zhongli was when the emperor had rushed out to personally save Xiao after two young nobles (Xingqiu and Chongyun, the brats) had thought it hilarious to shove the unsmiling concubine off the pavilion and right into the lake under it. And the emperor himself, who had just happened to be passing by, leapt in right afterwards to grab Xiao and haul him from the waters before he could tell Zhongli he knew how to swim himself. When Zhongli’s royal advisors immediately rushed him upon the emperor stepping on the lakeshore looking like a drowned kitten, his only answer for his reckless action was-- “As emperor, do I not have a duty of benevolence towards all my people? I had been there, and had the ability to save her. So I did.”
“...You are emperor, you could have just ordered someone to save me,” Xiao blurted in pure shock, and when the royal advisors screamed at Xiao to kowtow for speaking in such disrespectful tones, Emperor Zhongli had only smiled.
And thus began Xiao’s meteoric rise from another faceless concubine in the harem to being titled Consort Alatus in a mere few months.
Indeed, Xiao has realized that their God-Emperor, He who Holds the Mandate of Heaven, Unifier of Liyue who crushes his foes with such strategic military prowess that he has been titled by friend and foe as God of War Whom Walks the Earth-- He who holds all those titles is a masochist. One who only laughs upon being called an idiot, pighead and-- Xiao’s personal favorite-- slower than a tortoise who has already been boiled into jelly, with a head emptier than its shell, of which has already been smashed into oracle bones. Xiangling had called Xiao a man of few words, but when faced with Zhongli, Xiao becomes a poet-- which only seems to embolden Zhongli.
In fact, upon Xiao releasing that final one, Zhongli had only praised him for his knowledge of ancient Liyuen writing systems, before launching into an hour-long lecture on how Liyue first produced paper.
“Just how do you do it?” Ningguang had asked that of Xiao once over a game of chess, when she was still pretending to be friendly and not out for blood. “Emperor Zhongli has not taken to someone so quickly since his beloved Empress Guizhong passed. What is your secret?”
Xiao grabbed a game piece and promptly made an illegal move. “I put up no pretenses in front of him,” Xiao answered simply, and despite breaking the rules, Ningguang beat him in the next turn anyway. And then bribed a few guards to actually beat Xiao. Who Xiao promptly beat into their graves and never said a thing to anyone about it.
But perhaps Xiao is the stupid one, because once he had faltered the first time from accomplishing his mission when Zhongli was right there, holding Xiao his chest and rising from the lakewater-- well. Xiao’s master has penned countless secret letters which Xiao has been tossing directly into the fire without opening, because the terrifying fact is Xiao who has known nothing but murder is finally seeing more of life because of Zhongli’s favor, and he wants to continue living this lie-- as if he actually stands a chance of having a happy life with the emperor. As if Zhongli would not execute him the moment he figured out who sent Xiao and what he means to do. Which will happen, Xiao knows, because the letters are coming more and more frequently, with Xiao’s name scrawled in more panicked calligraphy, and that only means one thing: the imperial forces are cracking down on them.
Though, Xiao’s master had sent him here without expecting the assassin to ever return. One does not simply expect to assassinate the emperor and get out alive. Really, the moment he first donned a dress and joined the harem, his life was forfeit. Or, rather, Xiao’s life was never his own in the first place-- from the moment Xiao was rescued as a child following the rest of his family’s execution for treason towards the previous ruler, only to be enslaved by said saviour, trained to kill, taught to dance and sing and play the flute for purposes of charming his targets-- well.
Lastly, because yes, there is another problem: Emperor Zhongli has no heirs, and in fact, has not slept with anyone in the imperial harem, full stop. That not only puts pressure on said concubines to seduce him, but also raises the question of whether Zhongli even knows what sex is.
At all of this, Xiao remains just mere inches from throttling him. Not because of the whole assassination thing, but out of sheer disbelief that this man is real, and the current ruler of Liyue.
When Xiao is summoned right to Zhongli’s chambers, he wonders, with the faintest hint of melancholy, if this is it-- if this is the moment he’s found out. Because the emperor calls upon him frequently, yes, but mostly to stroll in the imperial gardens as he tortures Xiao with his latest tirade of esoteric knowledge literally anyone would enjoy hearing more. And once, to dance for him in front of foreign diplomats (Xiao still despises the orange-haired Snezhnayan who asked Zhongli if he could buy Xiao to bring back home, but Zhongli’s withering rejection of Childe’s proposition did leave a warm feeling in his chest).
Basically, he’s never actually been in Zhongli’s room. Alone with him. With no witnesses to see the concubine snap their emperor’s neck and flee the scene. All things considered, this is likely the best chance he’ll ever get-- and the only one, because this might mean the masochist-emperor has figured out how to produce heirs and seeks to do so with Xiao. Which is, obviously, impossible, and if the tattoos of his master upon Xiao’s right arm isn’t enough to blow his cover, the fact that he’s a man definitely will.
“Your Majesty,” Xiao greets as he is led into Zhongli’s room. He had expected Zhongli’s private chambers to be luxurious, of course, but once again the emperor has exceeded all expectations, because it is disgustingly extravagant: within his chambers alone is a heated pool with freshly-scattered flower petals, and a bed so large it could probably fit ten people within it if the emperor so desired. Each curtain on each window is gorgeous, and there Zhongli is, sitting at an ornate table with gold engravings. “You called for me?”
Zhongli’s eyes raise from the book in his hands, and he gives Xiao a gentle smile. “Consort Alatus. Thank you for coming to see me on such short notice,” he says, as if his word alone is not powerful to summon anyone in Liyue to his side in an instant. “Come, I would like to see you dance.”
“As you wish,” Xiao obeys with a deep bow, and in his head he looks for escape routes as well as possible weapons. Worst come to worst, he can always drown the emperor-- sometimes Xiao has imagined doing many times, but now that he is here and having to do so is suddenly a real possibility, his wrists seem to stiffen in anxiety, as if his bones itself protest to the act.
Zhongli sees none of this inner turmoil. He watches as Xiao wears the distinctive nuo mask he carries upon his hip. Concubines do not often learn nuo dance: it is dramatic, forceful, and though capable of elegance, that is rarely the focus. The beastly mask nuo performers wear are also not what most would consider attractive, but this mask is Xiao’s only remaining possession from his family-- and one which has piqued Zhongli’s interest.
“Ah, wait,” Zhongli says, and Xiao turns to him, mask still on. “Yesterday, I read further about nuo opera. Many performances involve the use of props. Do you know of any, Consort Alatus?”
“Yes,” Xiao responds. “When I was a child, I learnt dances with fake spears.”
“I would like to see that.” And then the emperor, in all his glory, gets up from the table before walking up to an ornamental suit of armor. He reaches out, taking the ornamental-- wait, no, it’s a real spear. “You may use this one.”
The gods themselves could not give Xiao a clearer sign that it was time to stab the man and be done with it. But instead, as Zhongli casually hands Xiao a lethal weapon, he only stares at it in utter disbelief, fingers refusing to curl around the handle.
“Your Majesty,” Xiao breathes. “This is a real spear.”
“It is,” Zhongli confirms with all the audacity in the world. Xiao gapes at him, but with the mask on, Zhongli doesn’t notice it.
“Your Majesty,” Xiao repeats incredulously. “You are handing me a weapon. If I wanted to, I could kill you with this.”
If I wanted to, Xiao said, because even though the fates themselves have quite literally presented Xiao with Zhongli’s life on a silver platter, the matter of the fact is that Xiao doesn’t want to kill Zhongli. The man who jumped into a lake without thinking twice on some vaguely butchered Confucian principle of royal duty is a buffoon, yes, but also an unequivocally good man. Not only has he united much of Liyue through his successful military campaigns, the nation enjoys an era of unprecedented prosperity under his rule. Lifespans are increasing. Children play on the streets without fear of war. Trade has been established with neighbouring regions. And this is all just things Xiao has learnt from Keqing’s ramblings, which Consort Yuheng claims up and down she can (somehow) do better.
Zhongli is, without a doubt, a good emperor.
But Xiao will always be an assassin. The tattoos on his right arm mark him, and the mask upon his face is a heirloom for an executed family-- and such execution orders do not expire, even Xiao was only a child when it was given. If Zhongli stays alive, then the reveal of Xiao’s identity is an inevitability. Xiao’s death at this bumbling buffoon’s hands is an inevitability. The gods have gifted Xiao a spear, and with this spear comes just a flicker of a chance to fulfill his orders and escape the palace alive, if he’s lucky.
Of course, once again, Zhongli knows nothing of Xiao’s troubles. Instead, he simply thinks to himself for a moment, before saying: “Do you want to kill me, Consort Alatus?”
“What?” Xiao gasps breathlessly, and his hands suddenly tighten around the handle, every nerve in his body firing to life. Zhongli’s face remains neutral, completely unreadable, and Xiao thinks, oh, does he already know? All of the sudden, Xiao’s thankful he has the mask on, because the face he’s making must betray his intentions-- as Xiao raises the spear, his heart quickens in his chest to the point where all he can hear is just the race of his own pulse. He’s taken the lives of so many but now that it’s him, the emperor, the one who showed him there is more to life than just murder, the one he--
“Haha,” Zhongli suddenly laughs, shattering the tense air around Xiao. “I jest. I know you would not do such a thing, Consort Alatus.”
Xiao takes a deep, seething breath with his mouth. He can literally feel the blood return to his face, by the gods. “Do you... do you even know how to tell a joke?” Xiao doesn’t either, honestly, but he stares Zhongli down all the same.
Zhongli tilts his head, amber eyes twinkling with amusement. “I would like to believe so.”
“Your Majesty, the only joke here is when you’ll tell me you actually know what to do with that thing in your pants,” he blurts passionately, and, fuck’s sake, you’ve done it now, Xiao, you’ve insulted the emperor’s dick.
Zhongli, however, is so confused by the insult that Xiao almost feels a little sorry for saying it. “What to do with... the thing in my pants?” The emperor puts his hand on his chin, creating the perfect imitation of a thinking person. “I do have a bad habit of not using my bookmark after I am done reading for the night...”
Xiao grits his teeth in pure exasperation, willing away his frustration. He lowers his spear, because he really doesn’t want to kill Zhongli. “I am not dancing with a real spear,” he protests, because while most quake in fear at the thought of defying an order, Xiao knows from experience that Zhongli simply laughs such things off. “I could hurt you.”
“Yes... I had not considered that if you had tripped with a real weapon, you may hurt yourself as well,” Zhongli hums.
“Not myself. Just you,” Xiao corrects, fully confident. It only summons another laugh from his emperor.
“In that case, if I maintain my distance, surely I shall not be in any risk of harm,” Zhongli reasons. The emperor’s unwavering calmness and trust is contagious, in a way, but also evokes a terrible fury from within Xiao.
“Your Majesty, you need to be more careful,” he chides as calmly as possible. “Handing someone a weapon in your own private chambers, with no one around, is going to get you killed. You are emperor, and many want you dead.”
Zhongli’s smile widens in the most infuriating fashion, and it seems like even his amber irises form little twinkling curves of amusement. “I am truly fortunate to have someone who cares as deeply about me as you do, Consort Alatus.”
Xiao almost wants to retort again, but this time, Zhongli has the right of it. In fact, it’s so accurate Xiao nearly lets out a laugh, just at the sheer irony of it all. It’s obvious why so many women of noble birth seek to join the imperial harem-- when you are the emperor’s favorite, suddenly, the world is your oyster. Your garments are woven of the finest silks and your meals will be made perfectly with the best of ingredients. It’s kind of pathetic, that Xiao cares so much for the first person to make his life a little less bad. It’s not as if the emperor cares for him in the same way. To Zhongli, he is simply a favored concubine; but to Xiao, in this strange new life he’s stumbled and settled into, Zhongli is everything.
And when he eventually falls out of favor, as do all in time, he’ll just be left fending for scraps. Not unlike Ningguang now. But he won’t survive till that point anyway, because he’s not even a concubine in the end: just an assassin.
“Now, enough distractions,” Zhongli says, and he takes a seat back at the table, gesturing for Xiao to begin. “Maintain your distance and dance for me.”
“As you wish,” Xiao obeys, and he flicks the sharpened spear into the air as if it were a bamboo pole.
When he grabs it back, he twirls it behind him, not even breaking a sweat as he dances along the pool’s edge. Xiao is far enough from Zhongli that there’s no chance of hurting him, yet still close enough for the emperor to admire every part of his performance. He sees the emperor tense somewhat, the first few time Xiao tosses the spear, but after a few successful catches he relaxes into his chair and enjoys the show.
“I have you in my grasp, demon,” Xiao recites, as the theatrical aspects of nuo opera is indistinguishable from the dance. “With my spear, I will cut you down.”
Xiao slashes into the air, his form a little too impeccable. And then he kicks the spear, whirling it around his foot with ease, and, okay, maybe this is a bit too much. Concubines shouldn’t be able to do this, even one as unique as Xiao. He snatches the spear back into his hands, abruptly ending the action, and suddenly he extends his foot a little too wide--
It turns out that dancing around the rim of a pool is not a great idea, because when Xiao’s foot steps into warm liquid rather than solid ground, it sends his entire body careening into the water.
He hurriedly throws his mask onto dry land to prevent any damage from the water. The spear is held at arm’s length before he splashes into the pool, leaving himself with no wounds except for the one on his pride. The pool is rather deep, and Xiao submerges in it for a moment, cursing his misstep. As he raises his head to breathe, however--
Zhongli grabs him around the waist, pushing him out of the water with a gasp. “Xiao, are you alright?” It’s rare for the emperor to call him by name rather than his title. “Are you hurt?”
“Your Majesty,” Xiao coughs as he hacks up water. “I inhaled more water from the shock of being grabbed by you than the actual fall. I was about to swim up myself.” Their bodies are pressed together like this now, and Xiao looks down at the water-- it wouldn’t do to acknowledge that his face has gone completely red.
Unfortunately for Xiao, Zhongli reaches out to cup the side of his cheek, turning his face so that their eyes meet. “I thought you did not know how to swim,” Zhongli confesses, and Xiao lets out a nearly imperceptible sigh. “...That aside. Your performance was spectacular. Your training must have been rigorous indeed.”
“Very,” Xiao confirms, mentally rehearsing the details of his fabricated backstory as he says so. “I was particularly talented with the spear.”
“A fake one, or a real one?” Zhongli smiles, and the worst thing about his little ‘joke’ from before is that Xiao has no idea if he’s asking a serious question or not. Xiao doesn’t have the capacity to answer anyway-- as Zhongli lifts him out of the water, he cradles Xiao to his chest, and somehow, just the sound of Zhongli’s heart beating right by his ear makes Xiao’s blush run even deeper.
He is meant to stop this man’s pulse, not. Be immobilized by it.
Xiao drops the spear to the ground as they rise from the pool, flower petals stuck on their soggy clothes. “Let us get out of these clothes,” Zhongli says as he puts Xiao back on solid ground, and Xiao simply nods in response before he realizes Zhongli is asking them both to get naked. Zhongli’s hand reaches for Xiao’s chest, undoing one of the buttons on his dress before Xiao flinches violently, slapping Zhongli’s arm away.
The emperor doesn’t seem affronted by the action, but his face twists into one of confusion, then... sadness? “I can change myself,” Xiao tries to reason, as if that helps with anything. He’s a concubine, after all-- getting naked in front of Zhongli is supposed to be part of the role, just... one that he’s managed to avoid all this time, seeing that Zhongli has not asked to have sleep with anyone in the harem, to the point where Keqing is convinced he just doesn’t know what sex is.
“Ah,” Zhongli breathes, “I had guessed as much.”
Guessed as much?
Xiao’s eyes flit to the spear on the ground-- perhaps he will be left with no choice after all. “What do you mean, your Majesty?”
“Consort Alatus,” Zhongli begins, and Xiao takes a preemptive step back, hands ready to fly for the spear at any moment. “You will answer me honestly, for you have sworn to always be true to me upon joining the imperial harem.”
“I will,” Xiao lies, fingers poised to grab the spear’s handle.
Zhongli meets Xiao’s piercing gaze with his royal amber eyes. “Do you not wish to sleep with me?”
“Huh,” Xiao gapes, because he had expected some kind of interrogation about his flimsy fabricated backstory or his spear-dancing skills or anything else at all. “What do you mean?”
“I understand many are forced into the imperial harem. It is unfortunate... all ministers wish to have their daughters bethrothed to me, even if against their will,” Zhongli explains. Xiao blinks in disbelief, finally understanding the emperor’s meaning-- is Zhongli going to ask for permission, as if the concubines were not literally his property? “Is that true for you as well, Consort Alatus? I have greatly enjoyed your company, but whenever I seek to touch you, you flinch away. If have no desire to sleep with me, then, I do not wish to force you.”
What a turn of events. After Xiao had spurned the opportunity to kill the emperor, the gods grant him another mercy: a way out. A way to ensure Zhongli will never find out his true identity (unless his master sells him out upon being captured, but that’s a worry for another day). He just needs to say the word, and the emperor will leave him be.
Why is he struggling to give an answer?
“Xiao,” Zhongli addresses him by name. “What do you want?”
What do I want, Xiao thinks to himself, just slightly hysterical. Gods, he’s never had the space to contemplate what he wants his entire life. He’s definitely not prepared for this moment, being put on the spot by the Emperor of Liyue himself. He doesn’t want to be executed, that’s for sure, but-- even if he says no, what then? Zhongli just respects his wishes and moves on to a new favorite?
Xiao doesn’t want that, either. Which is stupid, utterly stupid, how is the love of a man worth more than his life itself-- but perhaps because Xiao had long accepted he is a dead man walking, he opens his mouth and says: “I want you.”
Zhongli’s face lights up, in a manner so innocent Xiao almost feels a pain in his chest. “But I’m marked,” Xiao says, pointing to his right arm. He’d best explain the tattoo away, at least, and hope Zhongli buys it. “By a previous man,” he says, and gods that sounds dubious, why couldn’t be phrase it any better--
Zhongli takes Xiao’s right hand with all the gentleness in the world. “Is that why you hesitate?”
“...Partly,” Xiao starts, and he’s about to explain the rest of it when Zhongli suddenly pulls his sleeve up and exposes all of his jade tattoo. Now the words die in his throat, because Zhongli doesn’t even hesitate before placing kisses on Xiao’s marked skin, and, oh, this is actually happening, isn’t it?
When Zhongli’s lips suddenly find their way to the skin of Xiao’s neck, all caution flees from his mind. “You are beautiful,” the emperor declares, undoing the buttons on Xiao’s dress and it turns out he probably does know what to do with that thing in his pants after all. Xiao decides that it’s too late to turn back, and if later on Zhongli isn’t amused by the fact Xiao is a man, well, the spear’s right there.
So he kisses back, grabbing the back of Zhongli’s head and pressing his lips to the emperor’s forehead while Zhongli’s hands undo his clothes. “Your Majesty,” Xiao breathes in utter reverence, and when all the fabric falls away from Xiao’s body, Zhongli doesn’t say anything, only presses his hands onto Xiao’s bare skin and he melts right there under Zhongli’s touch, back against the stone floor, naked from the waist up.
“I love you,” Xiao just barely manages to say as Zhongli leans over him, looking less like an emperor and a little more like a god. Zhongli promptly responds by kissing his open mouth, greedily, hungrily, and then he picks Xiao up by the waist like he is as light as a doll before carrying him into the bed, pushing him onto the mattress--
In the gentle morning light, Zhongli rises in bed first, caressing Xiao’s cheek. When Xiao’s eyes flutter open in response, he sees Zhongli’s towering frame backlit by the dawning sun, and Xiao allows himself to put his mission aside for just this moment. Because suddenly, Zhongli looks just like an emperor should, basked in golden rays with eyes of piercing amber that his royal lineage has given him. Perhaps it’s because Xiao’s just woken up from the calmest dream he’s had in years, but right now, Zhongli looks celestial.
Xiao decides to commit the latest addition in his chain of bad decisions-- the ones which have led to Xiao sleeping with his target rather than breaking his neck. Xiao rises from the bedsheets, letting the covers fall off his lithe body, and boldly kisses the emperor on the lips. Zhongli responds in kind, reaching to hold Xiao’s head against his own, and when they break away, the emperor glances down at Xiao before looking as though he has uncovered the mystery to the universe itself.
“Xiao,” Zhongli says, sounding both surprised and delighted, yet with every bit of a commanding air and confidence an emperor should have-- “You are a man.”
"Fuck you and fuck your royal ancestors to the eighteenth generation,” Xiao rasps in absolute disbelief. “I had sex with you the entirety of last night and you only figure out now?”