I. The Departure
Despite all the drama leading to the near destruction of Liyue Harbour, the aftermath is all rather…anticlimactic.
The people of Liyue go about asserting order with a stiff, uncompromising discipline that would make the military branch of the Fatui green with envy. The streets and roads are cleared of debris, the docks are cleared of any boats run aground, the injured are shepherded to healers in orderly queues, and the dead are brought to Wangsheng Funeral Parlour. Infrastructure is repaired and rebuilt under the watchful eyes of the Millelith and Liyue Qixing at a truly impressive speed.
There is a large part in Childe that is glad that his actions did not break the people’s spirit. It’s nice to see how life carries on even after multiple calamities. Mind you, he’s done more than just watch. Unlike what the Signora claims, Childe is not one to enjoy causing turmoil, not when it leads to the bloodshed of the weak and the defenceless. Where’s the challenge in fighting those who can’t fight back? Where’s the thrill in such a pointless display of power?
So, he takes the limited time he has left in Liyue Harbour to help. Discretely, of course. He’s heard the unflattering rumours that are (rightfully) shifting the blame on to him, and he doubts any of his overt acts of charity would be welcomed. Instead, he donates here and there. An anonymous donation of a million mora to the local orphanage, another million to the school damaged by the storm, tons of shipments of supplies to keep the healers’ morale up, and to keep the builders going just a bit longer. None of which can be traced back to the Fatui or to himself. He’s not an amateur.
His efforts seem to be paying off. In less than a month, the Rite of Parting takes place in a Liyue Harbour that is, once again, shining and whole.
And after that, normalcy resettles itself rather quickly, like a piece of the puzzle that’s been jostled loose slotting seamlessly back into place.
Well, almost everything is back to normal.
It’s been near two months since the storm, and Childe hasn’t seen Zhongli not even once, not since that fateful meeting with the Signora where the truth is finally unveiled.
And what a fun little kick to the gut that is, the realization that not only had he been played by all sides, but he's also being tossed aside like trash now that his use had run its course.
It’s not that he doesn’t get it. He’s a Harbinger. He knows first-hand what it means to do his duty, to put the mission first and his personal feelings far, far away, preferably locked up in a box, where it wouldn’t interfere with his job. He knows what it’s like working with vipers, to scheme and plot and lie in wait for the opportune moment to stab his opponent in the back.
But this time, this time Childe can’t help but feel a little (a lot) gutted.
Stupid. He’s gotten himself stupidly attached.
He’s known Zhongli for almost as long as he’s been in Liyue, and during those two years, the enigmatic man was a constant presence in his life. He doesn’t even remember when he first met Zhongli; it’s as if one day, Childe was minding his own business and the next thing he knew, Zhongli was beside him like he had always been there, waxing on and on about the quality of silk flower perfumes and obscure economic theories, while staring longingly at the steam bun stall because he had, once again, forgotten to bring mora.
Childe had a few running theories on who Zhongli was at the time. An exiled prince? A pampered lord who ran away from home? Surely, he must be of some noble origin to have accumulated such a wide breadth of obscure knowledge about the culture of Liyue while possessing exactly zero life skills.
He never guessed Rex Lapis despite all the obvious signs pointing to that.
But somewhere along the lines, Childe (stupidly) stopped seeing Zhongli as an acquaintance or an enigma and more as a friend. He found himself carving more and more of his evenings out for the other man. They would spend them dining on the best food Liyue has to offer and drinking until the twilight, and during that time, he would listen to Zhongli speak at great lengths about anything and everything – the history of commerce in the Harbour, the evolution of certain traditions and rites to venerate ancestors, the ancient, brutal battles that once left the country soaked in blood.
And Childe found himself utterly enthralled. He was captivated by the colourful images spun from the other man’s words, by the soothing cadence of his low voice and the elegant poise of the man. By the smallest curl to his lips that denoted satisfaction, the slight arch of his brow as a reaction to Childe’s more audacious questions.
By the sheer blinding beauty that is Zhongli.
Professor, Childe would call him with a teasing smile. Master, Great Teacher, and, whenever he forgets the mora, which is all the time, Oh Wise One.
And Zhongli had borne the brunt of his teasing with good grace. He seemed content, peaceful even, with his audience. With Childe.
Childe can’t remember the last time anybody outside of his family reacted that way towards him.
It looks like he read everything wrong, huh?
Looking at the grand scheme of things, he’s being a right idiot for being upset. He can’t exactly blame Zhongli for approaching him with a motive when Childe’s entire mission was to literally rip the divinity right out of his chest. Besides, compared to everything the great god Rex Lapis has seen and done in his long, six thousand years of existence, his time spent with Childe – a mere two years – must seem laughably insignificant to him, probably as insignificant as a drop of water in the vast ocean.
How can Childe expect to matter to Zhongli compared to the countless friendships and relationships the God of Contract must have had? Especially when the relationship wasn’t even a real one?
He should just be grateful that he’s still alive after this whole fiasco. Even though Rex Lapis finds him insignificant, he at least can now boast about being on friendly terms with Morax for the past two years. For two years, he had shared the finest drink and food, and had traded banters with the oldest Archon in Teyvat, and that Rex Lapis had willingly indulged him with his presence. Not a lot of people alive today can claim such an achievement.
And now that it’s all over, it’s best for him to take a page out of Zhongli’s book and move on.
“Lord Harbinger, all the cargo are secured and we’re ready to set sail on your orders.”
Childe loosens his tight grip on the railing and turns away from the sight of the bustling harbour, grimacing a little at the familiar feeling of pins and needles flooding his right hand. He curls his fingers into a fist, counts to five seconds in his mind, before slowly letting his fingers relax.
The tingling sensation disappears. And The Fatui Agent before him does not bat an eye at his delayed response. Good.
“Let’s go home,” Childe finally says. “We’ve overstayed our welcome.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Childe turns back to what’s possibly his last sight of Liyue in a very long while. Under the brilliant setting sun, the buildings themselves seem to glow gold against the dramatic purple cliffs of Mt Tianheng. How fitting, gold for a city from where all mora flows, gold for the seat for the great God of Commerce himself. It’s doubly fitting that the gold that paints the city matches the colour of his eyes as well.
Childe’s gaze roams over the dock once more and – huh.
For a second there, he could swear that there’s a familiar figure in black, standing tall and still among the hustle and bustle of the merchants and dockworkers around him. But in a blink of an eye, the figure is gone.
Childe shakes his head and turns away to head for the cabin. It’s probably just his imagination.
II. The Polar Palace
The grand, glittering crystal halls of Zapolyarny Palace are designed to simultaneously awe and intimidate its visitors. Every step along the grey marbled floor echoes down the length of the near empty corridors, just like how every whisper, every snicker, and every word is magnified in the oppressive silence. Above all else, the palace is kept dark and freezing with blue frost and ice fanning across ornate walls, creeping along shadowed pillars and statues. Everything about the castle screams cold and uninviting, just like the Empress that calls this place her seat of power.
Once upon a time, Childe had been one of those people staring wide-eyed at the grand sight around him. He jumped at every little sound, no doubt looking more like a scared rabbit than the prodigy fighter that he was. Now, after traversing these halls for close to a decade, as well as owning a set of rooms in the Palace, courtesy of being a Harbinger, he barely gives his surroundings a second glance as he marches straight for the throne room dressed in all his fineries.
With every step, he sheds away his persona as Childe and slips into the familiar face of Tartaglia. Ruthless, cold, ambitious Tartaglia.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” he greets, once the court announces his presence. He sweeps back his silver furred cape with his left hand, places his right over his heart and bows low as court dictates. His every movement is executed with crisp perfection. “I have returned from my mission in Liyue. I hope you have been well during my absence.”
He stays perfectly still as the silence stretches on, ignoring the tingle in his right hand as he keeps his face a neutral mask of pleasantry while his gaze locked on the ornate stone by his feet. One does not dare to rise or look at the Tsaritsa without Her permission. One must wait patiently, for Her will is paramount. To challenge it is to seek death.
That was his very first lesson in court etiquette.
After what feels like a small eternity, he hears the command, “Rise. You may take your seat.”
He finds his seat amongst the circle of plush chairs placed in the room, with the throne in the most northern position. From his peripheral vision, he can see a handful of the other Harbingers are already present. Pedrelino, being the first of the Harbingers, has made themself comfortable in their assigned seat to the Tsaritsa’s right, and beside Pedrelino, looking vaguely bored, is the Dottore himself. Signora, in all her obnoxious smugness, is seated one seat over to Tartaglia’s right, an unfortunate location but there’s nothing Tartaglia can do about it. As with everything else in the Palace, the seating arrangement follows a strict protocol set by the Tsaritsa herself and it remains permanent.
He makes himself comfortable and, tucking his right hand in his pocket, curls his fingers into a fist. After counting to five in his head, he slowly lets his fingers relax.
The tingling is gone. Good.
He turns his attention on the Tsaritsa, who is resplendent as usual in her silver satin gown. Even from where he’s seated, Tartaglia can make out the sparkle of thousands of tiny diamonds stitched on to the luxurious fabric to make patterns of swirling snowflakes. No doubt, each of those are painstakingly hand-stitched with care and a healthy dose of fear by a litany of seamstresses. A great cape made from pure white fur drapes over the Tsaritsa’s shoulders, spilling around her deceptively delicate frame, threatening to swallow her whole if not for her billowing gown. Atop her coiffed hair rests a great diadem made entirely of diamonds, pearls and bright sapphires that match the piercing, glowing blue of her unnatural eyes.
Her expression is as cold and emotionless as the marble statues that line her halls.
“We have obtained the Geo Gnosis from the God of Contracts,” the Tsaritsa says, her voice rings out through the hall like bells. The underlying thrum of power behind each word sends an uncomfortable shiver down Tartaglia’s spine that he’s long since learned to ignore. “The God of Contracts deemed the service we provided as satisfactory, and for that, we were able to retrieve the Gnosis with no complications. The efforts exerted to achieve this result are…commendable.”
With a wave of her pale hand, a swirl of white frost materializes on her palm. It dissipates in a shower of sparkling mist, leaving behind a rectangular box made of pure gold.
“For your role in leading the mission. My Eighth, please accept this reward in recognition of your success.”
It takes everything in Tartaglia not to gnash his teeth at the sight of the Signora waltzing her way to the Tsaritsa. Really, her role in leading the mission? What the hell did Signora even do except sit back and watch? That was his mission. Liyue was his territory. He was the one who did all the leg work in getting the Fatui set up there. He’s the one who followed the Tsaritsa’s order to a tee and played at being diplomatic, which he hates. He’s the one who was friendly with the locals to help improve the Fatui’s reputation. He even made friends with Zhongli –
His thoughts come to a screeching halt.
Except, that’s not quite true, now is it?
Made friends with Zhongli implied that the relationship was reciprocated, and well, clearly that’s not the case.
Still, there’s a part of him that wants to know, did he truly mean so little to Zhongli? Did he matter at all?
Stop, he thinks a bit desperately. This is – he’s projecting too much Childe. Now’s not the time. Right now, he needs to be Tartaglia.
And Tartaglia wouldn’t let something as trivial as a fake friendship make him lose focus.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” Signora demurs as she bows low and accepts her gift, probably the only show of humility anybody would witness from her. “For as long as I have breath left in my body, I pledge to serve you with complete devotion.”
The Tsaritsa’s expression remains stony. “Hmm. See that you do,” she drawls out and dismisses her with a casual wave of her hand.
That has Tartaglia snapping to attention, and his eyes meet the unnatural blue of his Goddess’s piercing gaze.
“You have done well given the circumstances. Without your contributions, the Geo Archon would not have so readily given up his Gnosis.”
A second gold box materializes in her palm in a swirl of glittering frost, identical to the one Signora received. “You too deserve a reward in recognition of your efforts.”
Well, that’s unexpected.
Tartaglia’s lips curl upwards. For the first time since his arrival to the Palace, his smile comes from genuine, unabashed glee. At least he’s getting something out of being an unwitting pawn and getting played by the Signora.
Tartaglia stands and, with the easy grace and self-satisfaction of a cat that got its cream, he moves towards the throne. He bows low before the Goddess.
“Your Imperial Majesty is much too generous. This humble servant thanks Your Imperial Majesty for her benevolence.”
His words are met with an approving, “hmm.” Good. That’s his queue to reach for his reward.
But just as he takes the gift, the familiar prickling sensation surges through his right hand, coupled with what feels like a deep shock. His hand spasms, and, for a split second, his fingers lose all sensation, and the gift goes tumbling to the floor between nerveless fingers.
Then, heat, scorching, terrible, blistering heat. Liquid fire races up his veins from the delicate tips of his fingers to his forearm in a great, unstoppable rush. The fire sets his nerves ablaze, its wild, blinding heat spreading up and up, devouring every agonizing inch of flesh in its path like an uncontrollable forest fire.
He barely bites back a yelp, but a hiss manages to escape through gritted teeth. His left-hand flies to his forearm and tightens its grip on it to stop the spread, to quell the pain, but to no avail. Sweat is starting to bead his brow, and his right hand is trembling, and trembling, completely out of his control.
Just as he thinks things couldn’t get worse, familiar purple sparks start to arc from his hand in little bursts of energy.
Tartaglia’s eyes go wide with horror. I–it almost looks like whenever he casts his electro spells from his Delusion, the way the spells start to build and build in potency before materializing into something much deadlier.
He tries to cut off the flow of power. Nothing happens. He tries again. Same response.
Fuck. Fuck. What is happening to him? What is going on? Why can’t he make this stop?!
A pale hand latches onto his forearm in an iron grip, shutting down the stream of his panicked thoughts. Immediately, a shock of arctic coolness bleeds through his clothes and burrows deep, sinking past his skin, his muscles, all the way to the very marrow of his bones, making him gasp in pain. The ice spreads down his arm and quells the fire and electricity alike, and the sudden shock of heat and cold hitting his limb at once is almost as unpleasant as the fire from before. But the ice surges forward uncaring of his discomfort, chilling everything more and more to the point where it feels like it’s freezing the very blood in his veins, and just as Tartaglia is about to lose all sensation in his limb, just as he’s about to jerk away, the feeling…calms.
A few seconds more and the ice retreats completely along with the pale hand.
Which, Tartaglia just realizes, belongs to the Tsaritsa.
Who is staring at him with icy displeasure.
For the first time in a long, long time, Tartaglia can feel his heart stutter as the first inkling of fear start to churn low in his stomach. Years of court etiquette lessons come crashing through him at once – to disobey is to court death, to breach protocol is to court death, to cause a scene is to court death –
Keep it together, Tartaglia. Keep it together.
He bows low. Almost in supplication. “My most sincerest apology, Your Imperial Majesty, I – ”
“Tartaglia,” the Tsaritsa’s frosty voice cuts in. “What is this?”
“I do not know, it was beyond my control,” he answers, his head still bowed, but his mind is running through everything he can think of. “If I were to hazard a guess, I would say it’s related to my Delusion. Perhaps a side-effect.”
“Side-effect.” The tone carries a hint of disgust, and Tartaglia feels his stomach drop even further. “What have you done out of the ordinary to have developed this…side-effect?”
What did he do out of the ordinary? After fighting that epic battle with the traveller, he laid low to recuperate and to clean things up. He’d been recovering slowly, far too slowly for his liking, but he had been getting better, this he was certain. Then, his younger brother paid him a visit, and he –
Tartaglia’s eyes widen.
No. Could this be related?
“Your Imperial Majesty,” he begins with dread, “I used my Foul Legacy Transformation a second time before fully recovering from my initial use. I suspect that is to blame.”