He’s twenty-nine when he gets out of the Kiln.
Time moves in its own eddies and swirls — in the streets, in the war, in death. He thinks he died when he was eighteen and he thinks there was about a year there before he wound up in Mount Tong’lu and by his best guess, it’s been ten years since he’s seen the world outside of this mountain.
So the newest Supreme Ghost King, first since the White-Clothed Calamity, emerges from the fire and wreckage of Mount Tong’lu a year shy of thirty.
He steps out of the fire and the ash with teeth bared, and below his feet, the world shakes.
At the start, his only goal is to find His Highness.
He goes to Lang’er Bay. It’s easy to blend in. With dark robes and his hair tied up high, he looks like any other young man wandering through the streets. It’s…disorienting, to look at the buildings under the bright blue sky and unfaltering sun when he last saw them swallowed by resentment and hellish wrath.
No one he passes seems aware of how close they came to annihilation. He walks along the same path he did ten years ago, but at the edge of the city, His Highness’ temple is gone. Where it once slouched into decay, a field stretches. Little white flowers bob amidst the tall grasses, shading the last stones that once formed a foundation.
There’s a child in the field. They peek up at him with wide black eyes, hair falling down around their face. He stares back, feeling as if someone has reached in and pulled his spine a hand’s width to the left.
“Hi, gege,” they say.
He swallows, suddenly voiceless.
“Cheng-er!” a voice scolds from behind him. “Cheng-er, what are you doing over there?”
He doesn’t flinch anymore. He used to, any time he heard someone lift their voice like that. It sounded too much like home, too much like useless trash and cursed freak. He’s gotten used to harder hits since then. Learned to walk off death.
His hands still curl into fists at his sides.
“Sorry, jie,” the kid says, a little petulant.
They straighten up from the grasses, holding up the hem of their outer robe. Within the shallow bowl it forms is a mound of flowers, plucked haphazardly and dropped into the russet fabric. At a glance, he still recognizes those delicate petals and slender stems. Half have been crushed by the child’s clumsy fingers.
“And who’re you?” the voice from behind demands. “Why are you talking to Cheng-er?”
He turns, irritation pinching his brow. He hasn’t said anything to the kid — he hasn’t said anything at all since he came here.
The speaker is a lean woman with a round face and dark hair pulled back neatly from her face. Her eyes widen as she looks up at him before she ducks her head abruptly.
“Ah, my apologies, young master,” she says. She looks up at him through her lashes, a little smile curling up her lips. “This one didn’t mean any offense.”
“It’s fine,” he says stiffly, wary of the sudden change.
She ducks her head, a curtain of ink-black hair spilling down across her collar. He stares a moment, sensing a trap.
Once during the war, earlier on when they were all still high on the news of their god leading their armies, some of the soldiers from his company dragged him along to a night in the city. At the time, his latest growth spurt had left him taller than most of them and none questioned whether he was actually old enough to go to the establishments they picked.
The women they met had cooed over him, curled delicate fingertips over his wrists till he flinched back and snarled. It had felt like taunting, teasing, rubbing it in his face how hideous and undesirable he was. He’d retreated spitting and furious, snapping at the women and his fellow soldiers.
The way this girl dips her gaze and flutters her eyes reminds him too much of that night.
“I’m Yuan Lie, gongzi,” she says, “and this one is my little brother, Cheng-er.”
The kid scowls at the way she presses both hands on his shoulders before shooting an unimpressed look up at him. Words stick in his throat, unsure what form to take on the way out. His last name was Nameless — before that, nothing that could be repeated.
Yuan Lie blinks at his silence, her smile faltering. Her hands tighten on the kid’s shoulders, pulling him back a little closer.
“Will gongzi not give us a name?” she asks.
He swallows air, pulling back into himself. As the flirtation fades from the girl’s face, she looks more and more like a child — younger than him not in years so much as centuries. Her eyes grow wide, brow furrowing.
“Jie,” the kid says, reaching one hand up to tug her sleeve. “Jie, niang said to be home before dinner.”
“Ah!” Yuan Lie says, startling. “Right! Right. Um well, goodbye, sir.”
They turn to walk back down the street away from the ruined temple, the girl’s hand firm on the child’s shoulder. Halfway down the avenue, the girl looks back once. Catching his eye, she flinches and turns to hurry on their way.
Left in the ruin of His Highness’ temple, he frowns and turns back to the rubble. There’s no sign of His Highness here, no hint as to where he could be. A butterfly flutters through the grasses to come to a languid rest on his wrist. Through his missing eye, he watches an entire tour of the city and finds no one who looks anything like Dianxia.
The butterfly dissolves, vanishing back into his false skin. Around him, the grasses sway and bob heavy-headed against his legs.
He needs a name. Something he can use when he exists as someone out in the world. He’s been No One for all his life — the thought of changing that now leaves him foundationless.
Brushing his fingertip over the petals of a white blossom swaying in the breeze, he frowns.
Old names come to his mind, but none of them are tolerable. Hong-er? Hardly fitting for a Ghost King. Feiwu? His lip curls in old anger. There’s no appropriating his father’s epithets.
The flower flits away from his touch, pulled by the wind.
It’s not the first time he’s held his own bones. After the temple, when he realized how utterly he’d failed his god, he set to finding and hiding them. He couldn’t serve Dianxia if he was always at risk of dispersing should someone get over-eager and crush his old bones. He buried them deep in the mountain where his god once lived.
He digs them up again.
With all this power running through him, it’s only the flick of a hand to light a fire hot enough to burn bone. The flames lick up around his former femurs, curve through his own empty eye sockets. The flesh rotted away long ago; only dirty white bone remains. He eyes the process a moment before hunkering down on his haunches to wait. He no longer needs the warmth of the fire, but he shouldn’t go too far while it burns.
He doesn’t miss being alive. It was ugly and painful and futile — a two-handed scrabble against the shit drowning him in the gutters. The only good thing he’d done alive was die for His Highness.
He watches the fragile pan of his skull char and collapse under the weight of the fire. At his side, the stupid saber shakes and rattles against his hip.
There used to be maple trees here. He can still remember the scarlet of their leaves, the flame-like, blood-like gleam of them carpeting the earth. The coral pearl he rolls between his fingers is nearly the same shade as that long-burnt forest. The same shade as that cursed eye. Red red red, blood soaked all the way to his roots.
He thinks again of names, tries to roll any of them out and still can’t find one to fit. Flowers and butterflies, crimson and death. He doesn’t really know how people go about making names. He doesn’t remember if he was given a name when he was born or if his mother’s nickname was the only one he ever had.
His middle brother called him the same, as long as no one else was around. His eldest brother didn’t call him anything; five years older, he never spoke to him and pretended he couldn’t see him when they were in the same room.
Rolling the pearl back and forth between his thumb and index finger, he watches the fire eat away the former residence of his soul. He’d been the third son of that family, for the short years in which he’d been allowed under their roof. It still doesn’t sit right.
As the fire burns low, he tucks the pearl away into his robes and the thoughts with it. He only needs a name for His Highness; there’s no one else worth speaking to. He can remain nameless until he finds the proper fit.
Straightening, he smooths down a scarlet tunic. It falls to his knees, black lapels intersecting across his chest. He keeps the same black armguards he’s worn since the war. They work for their purpose and there’s no sense being extravagant. He’s still only a soldier, even if he can’t find his commander.
He scoops his ashes into a small pouch, warded against tears or leaks, a handful at a time. He’ll need to forge them into something more compact, harder to destroy. Something he can give to His Highness to prove his loyalty.
There’s a surprising heft to the pouch when the last of the ashes have been sealed away, a greater weight than his brief life deserves.
He becomes accustomed to seeing through two eyes. Long before he’d carved out his right eye with his fingernails, he’d gotten used to accommodating for the lack of it — compensating for the worsened depth perception, the great hole in his periphery.
Now, he learns to see what is before him with his good eye while simultaneously watching through a hundred others on his right. His butterflies scour the earth, flitting through forests and cities, searching and searching. His Highness is out there, somewhere. He will find him, even if it drains him of all the energy he accumulated in Mount Tong’lu, even if it kills him.
He will find His Highness and protect him.
It’s through this missing eye that he catches a glimpse of a face that makes his dead heart lurch. The curve of the jaw, the angle of the nose — he stops short with unnecessary air choking in his throat.
“Dianxia—” he starts, and then the face turns and the words sour on his lips.
It’s not His Highness — but he recognizes this face, too.
Rage climbs up the ladders of his bones, skeletal hands hooking into tendons and through his withered lungs. He knows this face, knows its slimy, sneering grimace up close. Even now, ages past, he can remember the feeling of rough hands shoving him into a gunny sack and the sound of cackling laughter.
How fucking dare he. How dare he look anything like His Highness, how dare he be found when he’s so unworthy of any attention.
Before he has made up his mind at all, he stalks down the empty street and yanks open a random door. The motion is more impulse than plan, but as he steps through, it is not into a house but a forest.
Night has already fallen, cloaking him as he stalks down the forest path. Little green ghost fires flicker between the trees, flaring bright in surprise and alarm at the calamity walking among them. He ignores them, brushes off their light.
Qi Rong is easy to find. He’s wrapped in ostentatious robes, all sleek green silk and dripping jewels as he sits outside a cave and crunches through a fat white thigh. Blood splatters across his cheek and a forked tongue flicks out to lap it away.
He hates him.
Qi Rong looks up, startled. The air has grown thick with demonic energy, with the oppressive surge of hate. Around him, other minor ghosts shriek and scuttle around as if trying to hide.
“Who the fuck are you?” Qi Rong demands. “What dogfucker thinks they can come up here? Don’t you know who I am? I’m the fucking Night Touring Green Lantern, you piece of dog shit!”
His lips curl up in a silent snarl, baring his teeth. He doesn’t reach for the saber, but it is suddenly in his hand and quivering with anticipation. He hasn’t been a child in decades, not since long before the sword was forged, but somehow, the scimitar remembers what it was not alive to feel.
“What? Too scared to say anything? Pah!” Qi Rong spits out a bit of gristle and fat. “Come on, you dogfucker. What do you think you’re doing bothering this ancestor?”
Since Mount Tong’lu, he’s kept his energy wrapped close to his core. When he finds His Highness, he doesn’t want to alarm him with the horror he’s become. He needs to prove that he’s trustworthy and can help before showing his god his monstrosity.
Now, he steps forward and unfurls.
Butterflies swarm like a hundred thousand knives, slitting throats and carving ghosts’ faces into gruesome new designs. They bite and sting at Qi Rong, their wings leaving a hundred paper-thin cuts. Blood rains down in torrents, streaking across the earth and Qi Rong’s body alike.
“Ah! Ah what the fuck! What the fuck!” Qi Rong howls. “Get the fuck off me!”
He walks forward, saber steadied and unflinching in his grip. Around him, the butterflies are already devouring the lesser ghosts, but they know to leave Qi Rong for him.
“Get these fuckers off me!” Qi Rong screeches. “You useless pieces of shits, what are you doing hiding? Pah! I spit on all of you and your dirty fucking ancestors!”
Lifting the saber, he aims. He is going to kill him. He is going to run this piece of shit sham through the chest and leave him pinned to the dusty earth, and then he is going to find his rotten ashes and crush them in his own hand.
Qi Rong’s eyes widen, lit with the moon-like glow of the butterflies feasting on his subordinates’ bodies. His lips curl back, revealing sharpened teeth still coated with human blood.
“Fuck you!” he yells and turns, sprinting away.
He stares after, eyes narrowing as Qi Rong’s bloody green robes start to disappear into the night. A flick of his hand, and a few hundred butterflies chase after. He sheathes the saber.
Let Qi Rong run. Let him be hunted and chased down by some more powerful force with the ability to tear his limbs apart and to make his centuries hell. He can wait.
Summoning a red waxed umbrella, he turns to go back the way he came. He’s only made it a few strides when a pale flicker catches his eye. A flower, delicate and already bruised by the rain, sways drunkenly by the side of the path. It’s nothing more than a wildflower, a tight bundle of fine white blossoms.
He pauses before slowly, without conscious thought, tilting his umbrella until no more rain can reach the fragile petals.
The blood soaks in where it’s fallen, staining the petals with blots and streaks of red. He stands still, listening to the tattoo beaten into the surface of his umbrella, and watches the red run.
While he searches for His Highness, he makes other plans. All the ways he has previously fallen short become ways to improve and things to fix.
He trains with the saber until his hands are numb and stiff, fixed into claw-like form from gripping the handle so long. He practices until his legs tremble under his weight and he has to collapse to the ground to rest.
And he reads — voraciously.
It starts when he passes a small shrine in the northwest and then freezes before it. He knows that face. The portrait is well-crafted but the visage upon it makes his hackles raise with snarling hatred.
“Ah gongzi, come in, come in,” says the shrine master, a withered old man with eyes gone cloudy with age. “Come, say your prayers.”
Swallowing, he has to remind himself to breathe before he can speak. He so rarely speaks these days that he often forgets the breath necessary for words.
“What is the name of the one worshipped here?” he asks.
“Eh! Eh you don’t know? Gongzi, this is Ding Tian, ascended from our very own Dacaodian! I was even in his class in school, I’ll have you know,” the man chatters.
His lips curl back, anger snarling up from his core like black flames. God? That worthless pathetic scum who fed off the land His Highness had found?
“You worship a worthless leech,” he spits and turns away.
Behind him, he can hear the old man splutter and protest, but he ignores him. He has a new task to complete for His Highness.
He’s been fighting his whole life and every moment of his death. He has no heart but this snarling, savage fight — to survive, to protect His Highness, to claw his way out of the Kiln and kill anything that ever tried to touch his god again.
He throws himself into it now with teeth bared and saber starved. E’ming drinks its fill on the essence of ghosts and demons and yao, and he hunts through long days and weeks. A few junior officials run into him on his long walk, and they flee bleeding and cursing. When he crosses paths with a man pinning a boy to a tree and carving lines down his sobbing face, he kills the man and winds up half-carrying, half-dragging the boy back to the edge of the nearest small town.
Blood and tears soak into his robes, and he drops the kid onto the ground and scowls down at him. The teenager, older than he was when he joined the Xianle military, whimpers and curls in on himself. The scent of piss rises acrid and sour on the night air.
“Stop that,” he snaps. “Stop crying. You’re fine.”
Instead of shutting up, the boy whimpers and tucks in on himself until he’s a soggy, sour-smelling ball. He scowls down at him, crossing his arms.
He’s never comforted someone before. He doesn’t know where to start. Swallowing, he nudges the boy with one boot.
“It’s not your fault,” he says, stiff. “Don’t be afraid.”
He tries to remember more. His Highness had reassured him so deftly, his arms the safest place he’d ever known.
He is not going to hug this sobbing, piss-stained child.
“That man’s dead,” he tries. “He won’t hurt you again.”
The boy’s still trembling, but he slowly peeks his gaze over one shoulder.
“You — are you going to kill me?”
His scowl deepens, and the boy whimpers, flinching behind his arms.
He stops. He’s killed scores of humans before. He killed every soldier who stood before him on the battlefield including the one who ran a sword up under his ribs and through his heart. The boy at his feet is still splattered with blood from the man he just killed.
“I’m not going to kill you,” he says. “Now stop crying. Just — go wherever you go at night.”
The boy peeks out again, blinking wide black eyes up at him. He unfolds slowly, a limb at a time, as if afraid they’ll be cut off if he moves too quickly.
When the boy’s finally crawled a meter away, he clambers slowly to his feet.
“Are you —“ The boy stops, swallows. “Who are you?”
He blinks. Standing there in his teenage skin, he doesn’t have an answer.
“I know you’re not human,” the boy says, growing bolder. “You’re — you’re a god, aren’t you? A god in disguise, helping people.”
He stares back. How stupid does this kid have to be? A god? He is a devastation hunting the heavens.
“It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me,” the kid blurts out. “I know gods aren’t supposed to show themselves. Just — just if you give me a name, I promise I’ll pray at your temple.”
For a moment, he almost says His Highness’ name. Everything he does is in service to His Highness. If anyone should receive merits for any of his acts, it should be the Flower Crowned Martial God.
But he can’t make the words cross his lips. Even the thought of pretending to be His Highness for a single moment makes his stomach twist and choke up in his throat. His Highness would be so much better at all of this — catching the man before he cut a single line into the boy’s face and comforting him in a way that actually worked. Taking his name would be a sin, a grave insult to his god.
“Crimson Rain Sought Flower,” he says, the title unwieldy on his tongue.
He’s heard it bandied around since that run-in with Qi Rong. It sounds absurd but he doesn’t have anything better to give the kid.
“Good luck finding a temple,” he calls back over his shoulder.
Turning away from the kid, he heads back along the road he was taking to the east. He’s heard of a great library there, filled with enough knowledge to make even the highest ranked literary gods envious.
He starts collecting things by accident: books and poems and weapons that remind him of His Highness. At first, he buries them in the same hillside where he first hid his own bones. His ashes, now forged into a plain white diamond ring, are buried in a sealed jar alongside the gifts he stores for His Highness’ return.
The vault he’s dug out is fortified and protected by his own spiritual energy and carefully watched by his butterflies — but there’s something absurd about all these treasures lying in the dirt.
The Ghost King goes looking for a place to stay.
It’s not his main objective. Primary, still, is his hunt for any sign of His Highness; then, training and studying so he can wipe those thirty-three filthy pieces of shit out of the heavens.
But now when he goes stalking his prey or chasing down some rare tome, he keeps watch for an auspicious place to build something more permanent. After fifty years of searching, he’s begun to wonder how many times he’s passed by His Highness only a day ahead or week behind. If he only stood still, would he find His Highness any faster?
He’s been looking for four years when he finally pauses at the shore of a vast lake. The blood of the xiangliu forms a scarlet river pouring from the lake’s edge into the soil of the surrounding forest, rushing past his boots in a great tide. From here, the moon reflects a starved crescent on the black surface of the water and the stars glimmer in the ripples formed by the serpent’s writhing last moments.
Wiping E’ming’s blade clean on his thigh, he considers the land. It’s thick with resentful energy from the centuries the xiangliu has spent dwelling in the lake and from all the families and villages it drowned in its floods. The forest crowds around it, protective and sheltering.
He closes his eye and checks one last time. A hundred thousand butterflies scour the earth, and he looks carefully through each of their views. Cities, mountains, bustling harbors — all of them empty of the one person he’s looking for.
He sets to work.
First comes a place to store his growing collection. He scuffs out the lines of an armory and a library with the edge of his boot. They’re about equal size, each about four paces by six. When the corners seem square, he turns to cutting trees and splitting boards from the trunks.
It’s slow work and tedious. As a Devastation, he can lay most ghosts and demons low with a single flick of his spiritual energy. Such an abundance swells under his false skin that he could burn even gods to ash under its brute force — but he never cultivated in his life, never received guidance on how to manipulate and maneuver this molten sun burning in his hollow chest. The kind of delicacy needed to split trees into long, straight boards and align them on the stone foundation he builds with rocks dredged up from the lake seems daunting.
He adds it to his list of tasks and rolls his outer robe down to his waist in the meanwhile.
The sun is shy in these parts, hazy and grey through the canopy, and he turns a venomous scowl toward it any time it grows too bold and floods the valley with light.
The armory is finished and library half-built when he feels someone approach. Hand tightening on the handle of the hammer he’s been using, he turns to greet whatever errant ghost with a scowl.
A fox spirit meets him, hovering at the edge of the clearing. They’re half-corporal, barely more than a ghost fire at this point. Certainly neither a threat nor a challenge to him.
“Ah!” they yelp, ducking behind the nearest tree.
His eyes narrow, irritation trickling down his spine parallel to the sweat already soaking his inner shirt.
“What do you want,” he snaps.
Silence hangs in the clearing for a long moment before a tail tip flicks in and out of view on one side of the tree.
“Ah my — my apologies, my lord,” they stammer. “I — I — that is we didn’t mean to interrupt you or trouble you, I promise! This one begs forgiveness for intruding.”
My lord? He squints at the tree they’re hiding behind as if its bark will split to form a mouth and give voice to an explanation.
“We were just — we were just traveling together and felt something here,” the spirit explains. “We can leave! We’ll just — yes, that’s it, we will just leave you. A thousand apologies, Lord Ghost!”
He resists the urge to rub at his forehead or fling the axe to cut through the wood and the spirit’s neck. It hasn’t done anything wrong and he can’t feel any maliciousness roiling off it. There’s no scent of human blood or anything, so it probably hasn’t attacked any innocent.
His Highness would be saddened by unnecessary loss of life. He would be ashamed to have it committed by his follower.
“Stop hiding behind that tree,” he orders. “Who else is with you?”
There’s a long pause before the spirit slowly steps around the tree. This time, two others accompany them: the ghost of a young man with a fair face and a scarlet line through his throat and a little green ghost fire bobbing at their side. The fox spirit bows low, deferent.
“This lowly one is Wan Linyu, my lord,” they say. “We call this one Chenmo-jun and that one xiao-Huo.”
The fox spirit shuffles her feet, as if embarrassed to be introducing her companions with jokes for their names.
He eyes them a long moment before turning back to his work and beginning to hammer the next nails into place. They aren’t worth his time.
“Eh! Lord Ghost,” the fox spirit chirps. “Lord Ghost, don’t you have anything to say?”
Wiping back tendrils of hair where it’s caught on his forehead, he huffs out a breath and drives the nail in through the board.
“Scram,” he spits over his shoulder.
He doesn’t bother turning around to see if they obey; he doesn’t care either way. Once the library is finished, he can move his gifts to His Highness here and seal it with the kind of protections that would make even Jun Wu tremble.
He doesn’t have time for lost ghosts seeking a home.
The butterflies cluster on his vambraces when they return to him, melding into a silver veneer over the plain black wraps he’s worn all these years. They flutter and shift, wings pulsing in tired beats, as they fade back into his skin. Some collect on his hair, a few resting on his shoulder and one, particularly bold, fluttering over his unbeating heart.
He doesn’t remember exactly when they came into being. Those years in Mount Tong’lu are hardly made equal; the first many are hazy, blurred — he’d been so close to dissipating after Lang’er Bay, clinging to existence only out of stubbornness and a snarling rage, and his brief, bloody ascension left him wrong-footed and disoriented.
For the first three years after that travesty, he’d remembered nothing from before except the urgent need to survive, to find someone. Blood had run freely from his missing eye and E’ming had shifted and reformed with his changing moods and slow-returning memories.
Somewhere in the mess, the butterflies had bloomed. By the time he’d found the caves, they’d fluttered around him like an ever-present entourage. They’d devoured ghosts without his command and lit the darkness of the Kiln with gossamer wings.
Now, he looks down to find them once again encircling his wrists in silver. Their wings flatten together and form a pattern, interlocking loops. He studies them a long moment, an idea crystallizing in his mind.
He exists to serve His Highness — but His Highness deserves better than a ragged dog off the streets. In his memory, the prince’s attendants always wore fine robes and tidy jewelry. It would be impossible for them to shine like His Highness, but it had been clear from every aspect of their dress that they belonged to the royal household.
He never wants to be anything like those lying, traitorous snakes but—
In life, his robes were whatever scraps he could salvage from the streets. His hair was left ragged and unkempt, bound up only when he could find a long enough ribbon or tear a strip from his own hems. Filthy, monstrous, vile — he’d been cursed out of alleyways by beggars and made fine young ladies gasp in horror when they caught sight of him.
He will never be worthy of His Highness’ sight, but if he is to help him, he should not disgrace him so fully.
Swallowing, he turns over his wrists and concentrates. The black blurs, merges with the glow of the butterflies’ wings to form first a hazy grey before steadying and silvering. Wings curl around his arm and spread into silver metal up his forearms. The lines of the wings blend with maple leaves and the shapes of some of the beasts he’s killed in His Highness’ name.
Chains loop around his boots and a gleaming necklace lays across his chest, shimmering silver. Looking down at himself, he holds his breath a moment as if the world has tilted two hands’ width lower on one side.
He’s never cared about his appearance. Why would he when he knew how hideous he was? There is no length of fabric or pile of jewels that can turn a monster into a prince. His own family made it clear from the time he could walk that he was disfigured, malformed — a demon poorly disguised as a child. He’s never owned fine things.
A fingertip traces uncertainly over the curling edges of maple leaves on his vambrace. It’s for His Highness, he reminds himself. It’s only so he doesn’t embarrass him.
His hands shake as he threads the coral bead into his hair.
They ask his name when he challenges the heavens, and it rolls off his tongue as if born to him.
“Hua Cheng? Hua Cheng?”
“A fake name!”
“I’ve never heard of such a ghost!”
They chatter and mutter as if he can’t hear them, as if he isn’t worth considering in their conversation. How forgetful they all are, to have lost all memory of him in the last century. He has no desire to be remembered for his brief and undeserved ascension, but hardly any time has passed since he was dragged screaming and snarling to the heavens and threw himself back down. More fools they to forget the bloody, snarling ghost who tore through their gilded sham and found it wanting.
He waits, unflinching, as thirty-three agree to his terms. Two decline, too arrogant to think him worth their while. He doesn’t mind. He will hunt and hound them, make them suffer specially for the hurt they inflicted upon His Highness. He will make them bleed out every drop of disloyal blood that runs through their veins, and then he will make them do it again and again and again. He will make them suffer in a way even His Highness would think too much.
He will make them pay.
They’re the ones who choose to take the fight to the mortals’ dreams. They name the stage as if there is only one way for this to end.
There is, of course, but it’s not the way they’re planning.
E’ming’s eye is wide open for each of the fights, but the blade does not quiver or shake. It is focused, honed, fixed on this single aim. It cuts through Heavenly Officials like lightning through water, burning them from the inside out, and it drinks in their blood and essence like a desert parched for rain.
He cuts hamstrings and slit throats, leaves gods choking as their throats open in scarlet torrents. When the wounds start to heal with their spiritual energy, he snarls and commands them open once more. E’ming’s blade gleams red, coated in a garnet sheen.
The literature gods are nearly as pathetic. They quibble and debate and stumble over themselves when he answers precise and savage. He has poured himself into this endeavor, and he leaves them decimated.
They lie. They all pretend it never happened, act as if they had not made a fair wager. Life for life, destruction for destruction.
Standing on the edge of the lake, he grips E’ming’s shaking handle and considers. He should have known better than to expect these false gods to have any honor in this.
His hand tightens around the saber, a warning, and the quivering eases. The stupid thing might act like a spoiled brat but at least it knows when there’s work to be done. Under his hand, it falls still and focused.
If they will not accept their destruction, he will ensure it.
They start calling it Ghost City. He’s not sure who gives it the name or if it’s only because the mortals and Heavenly Court are too lazy describe it each time. He doesn’t care. What the other ghosts who have clustered in bunches and buildings around his starting point do is their own business.
His own space has expanded, outbuildings sprawling from the center point of the armory and library. They started as additional storage rooms, then a small spot where he could rest while he was near. With that came a kitchen, where he abruptly remembered he’d never really learned to cook.
Over the decades, it has grown from a single building to something like a manor — haphazard and looming. Standing in the midst of the cluttered outbuildings, he realizes with a disorienting lurch that he has accidentally built a residence. A house, if never a home.
It’s been a hundred years since he last saw His Highness. He has trained his body and spiritual energy into a saber to cut down any of His Highness’ enemies. He has studied and learned every thing he possibly could to dethrone the literature gods who sneered at His Highness and he has continued searching the world for a white-robed figure who will not be found.
The armory and library remain where they are, but the rest of the manor burns like so much kindling.
“Ai! His lordship! Is his lordship alright?”
Ghosts flock to the conflagration, shrieking and howling in alarm. Hua Cheng stands before the flames with his arms crossed over his chest and barely spares them a short glare. They stumble to a halt a few meters away, just barely within reach of E’ming’s blade.
“Chengzhu?” the fox spirit from so long ago chirps. “Chengzhu, what happened? Why is your home on fire?”
“It’s not a home,” he snaps.
The first thing he’d building when the ashes have cooled is a wall to keep all these idiots out of his way.
“Ah, Lord Ghost King,” a three-legged demon starts, “who did this? We’ll hunt them down and string them up for the offense!”
Next to the demon, a tiger spirit with spectral moss trailing down its broad shoulders growls and nips at the demon’s far left leg.
“Shut up, you idiot,” the tiger snarls in a voice like splitting boulders. “You think you could take anyone His Lordship couldn’t? His Lordship can take anyone in all three realms! Even that old Heavenly Emperor wouldn’t stand against him.”
The tiger spirit sounds almost…offended on his behalf. That is a strange thought.
Before them, the fires start to flicker and die down and he flicks his hand out in a sharp gesture. Blood begins to pour from the sky, dousing the flames, and he snaps out his umbrella before a drop can touch his hair.
“Scram,” he orders as he walks forward into the scarlet mist.
Under the deluge, the ashes grow thick and muddy, and he begins to plan.
He hasn’t spent much time in fine houses, but he read volumes on architecture before he challenged those gods. Starting with those instructions, he plans out a grand estate this time, fit for a lord, a king, a missing god.
Within the plans, he expands the armory and library as well. Additional rooms are incorporated in case His Highness has cause to linger. A prince needs more than a single chamber, and each must be sumptuous enough to fit his standards. A god needs more than a mortal; he plans a temple near the lake, based on the one that crowned Mount Taicang but refined, polished into something so fine no mortal hands could make it.
When he has designed every corner for His Highness, Hua Cheng pauses over his sketches.
He will find His Highness. He will find him and offer him everything: his blade, his power, his wealth, his city. Everything that is his has been His since Hua Cheng was a ten-year-old plummeting to certain death.
What if his worship is insufficient? His Highness deserves a hundred thousand worshippers, nations bowing at his feet. Why should one more devotee stand out? Just because he can offer a bed and some martial skill does not mean he is any more significant than all those commoners in Xianle kneeling before his statues.
He presses his thumbtip into the ridge of his brow.
He is nothing. He is unworthy of even thinking His Highness might notice him among all others. He is only a single drop of blood in the great arteries of worship that should support His Highness.
He is selfish. He wants to stand before His Highness. He wants to offer him his hand and prove that he deserves to fight for him, to protect him.
All his existence, he’s been a greedy thing and never more so than with His Highness. He grabbed hold of His Highness and clawed his way through survival for him. After death, he tailed after him like a stray dog that couldn’t be beaten into leaving.
And now — now, he has been dead for a hundred years and he still craves the feeling of His Highness’ gaze, the gentleness of his acceptance or the cold weight of his condemnation.
If all he can offer His Highness is physical, is petty wealth and assets, then what good is he?
A snide voice hisses that he’s only looking for an excuse to stray in his devotion, that he is as weak and feeble-willed as they always said. How pathetic, to use His Highness as his excuse to diverge from his path.
He digs his thumb in deeper until his nail cuts a dash of pain into the fragile skin of his eyelid.
Pathetic. Weak. Useless. Trash — still, always.
He turns his rage toward the temple. He will not fail; he will not deviate. His life has always been His Highness’. His death, twice over. He will build a temple that makes even the Heavenly Emperor bow to His Highness.
The ghosts of the city give him a wide berth as he cuts in the foundation. He works alone, shooting a cold look at anyone who dares to approach to offer help. He will not cheapen his offering by relying on anyone but himself.
On the third day of his labors, he notices a small bundle left on the corner of the half-built foundation. Curling his hand around E’ming’s handle, Hua Cheng approaches the wrapped package with narrowed eyes. If it’s a threat or some kind of poison, he will hunt down the offender and crush their ashes beneath his heel.
Under the wrap, there are dumplings.
After so many years of hunting legendary beasts and searching for His Highness, he’s developed unparalleled skills in tracking. It isn’t any challenge at all to identify the essence lingering around the package and trace it down to a stall along the crooked west end of the main street. A fish spirit slumps over a work table, whiskers drooping down toward the jiaozi it pinches closed on the table.
“Lord Chengzhu ah!” the fish blubbers, round eyes growing moon-like on either side of its head. “Ah ah! Lord Chengzhu, this one did not expect your noble s—”
“What is this.”
He drops the package onto the table, glaring at the dripping spirit. He’s been wearing a teenaged skin all day, somewhat younger than he was when he died and modeled after what he’d wanted to look like as a child. If he bothered to look at his reflection, he’d find a young master looking back — well-dressed and refined, glossy in a way he never was in life.
Generally, he likes this skin. It’s nicer than the crude shape of his true form, all that monstrosity hidden behind sleek hair and polished features.
It’s also shorter than he really is — a problem he never noticed till now, as he scowls up at the gargantuan fish staring back at him with wet eyes.
“Ah,” the fish says dumbly, looking down at the bundle and then up at Hua Cheng. “Dumplings?”
Scowling harder, he tightens his grip around E’ming’s handle. It’s one thing to look young and unintimidating, but all the ghosts here ought to know he is anything but.
“Ah! Ah Lord Chengzhu, this lowly one apologizes,” they burble. “These are surely not the quality such a noble and — and esteemed one such as your lordship. I will make better ones more fitting of your lordship!”
Their fins have started flapping as they talk, flicking little drips of salt across the entire stall and splattering the half-made dumplings on their table. Hua Cheng stares, confusion lessening the severity of his glare.
This…is not what he expected when he came to hunt down the offender.
“A thousand apologies, Lord Chengzhu,” the fish now weeps, bringing its fins together to bow repeatedly toward him. “Please forgive this unworthy one’s failings.”
He raises the hand not on E’ming to forestall any more apologies. The fish stills at once, halfway through a bow.
“Why,” he demands before stumbling, struggling to sort his thoughts into words. “Why did you leave them?”
The fish blinks glassy eyes back at him. Tear tracks have started to slither down its scaly cheeks, dropping in fat puddles on the table.
“Your lordship has been very hard at work,” the spirit says slowly, as if confused. “No one has seen you take a break at all these three days. We — we thought you might be hungry.”
No one has ever worried about whether or not he might be hungry. As a child, he was lucky to sneak a single bun out of the kitchen before his father or step-mother caught him and broke a piece of firewood across his back. Out on the streets, he had adult vagrants fight him for a scrap of discarded food.
He eyes the fish skeptically a long moment.
“We’re already dead,” he points out.
No ghost needs to eat. He’s gone years without it at times, only finding himself eating again out of habit.
“Y-yes, your lordship,” the fish agrees, bobbing its round head. “We just — we thought it might be nice.”
Narrowing his eyes a moment longer, Hua Cheng reaches out slowly and picks the dumplings back up. The motion makes the fish’s bulbous eyes grow large again, as if expecting him to reach out and kill it. Instead, he snatches the package back up and takes a step away from the stall.
The fish makes no move to stop him, only watches with its great round eyes. Still keeping an eye on it, Hua Cheng heads back to the temple.
Sitting on the half-built foundation, he unpeels the paper wrapping from the dumplings and takes a bite. They’re too salty but still warm. The fish spirit was right: it is nice.
He’s hunting when Mount Tong’lu opens again.
The south is a great swath of mountains and rivers, but his luck is so sweet that he hardly needs to glance ahead to know where his quarry walks. Generals Nan Yang and Xuan Zhen might lord themselves over their devotees with the kind of grandiose pride native to all heavenly officials, but in his eyes, they are nothing more than servants run off with the household jewels.
They don’t recognize him, not even Mu Qing with his sneer and cold eyes. That’s fine. Hua Cheng has all the ages of eternity to make him realize just who is better with a saber.
“Crimson Rain, back the fuck off,” Feng Xin spits.
Blood splatters his lips and chin with the words, his left hand desperately trying to heal the gaping hole E’ming carved through his ribs. At his side, Mu Qing can’t speak anymore: his belly gapes open in such a wide mouth that his intestines would spill out if his arm didn’t hold them in.
“We haven’t done anything to you,” Feng Xin continues.
Haven’t done anything? Bold words from a coward whose very existence is an insult and offense to all that Hua Cheng believes in. He smiles as he steps forward. Long robes flutter around his ankles, a deeper red than usual, and his hair sweeps his back in glossy tail. Butterflies dart before him and the generals both flinch at their delicate wings.
“No,” he says. He laughs. “I just don’t like you.”
He hates them. Hates them more now than he ever did as a mortal. How dare they abandon His Highness? How dare the Heavens let them in when they turned their backs on their better? They could burn for four thousand years and it would not be enough. They could crawl on broken knees for the rest of eternity and it would not be atonement.
He darts forward, E’ming a flash of silver aimed at Mu Qing’s proud face — and fire erupts in his chest.
Volcanic, it floods his ribcage and pours down his throat. He stumbles. Pain breaks through his skull, a hundred knives splintering through his right eye socket and tearing through his nose and cheekbone.
“What the fuck.”
The voice jams a shard down through his jaw, agony lancing through the bone. Opening his eyes, he snarls and turns toward it with his blade bared.
They are weak, pathetic, sniveling idiots who crumple under his onslaught. Wounds that had healed years ago reopen and weep, rivers of red running down their gleaming armor and fine jewelry.
They abandoned His Highness.
They betrayed him.
They turned their backs and left him to ruin.
He hates them, hates them hates them. He wants to carve their eyes from their faces, force them to tear strips of their own skin from their limbs. Let them know what it is to be monstrous, to be cursed. Let their hideous souls seep through the golden facades they wear.
His lips peel back over sharp teeth and the taste of blood coalesces on his tongue. He will rip them limb from limb and slice a thousand cuts through their peeled skin. He will string them up and hang them from the rafters of the heavens, let all the world shiver under the rain of their blood.
He — he—
He trips, knee giving out under the weight of his rage. It’s choking him, thick and snarling in his throat. Burning hot as Mount Tong’lu’s flood, it sears through his throat and burns into his bones. His body is burning, a fire he cannot control.
“Go! Go, run!”
Snarling, he lunges forward and flings out his rage. It catches one of them in the back of the knees, cutting through ligaments and muscle, but the other keeps them upright. His vision is blurred, foggy and scarlet-hued. Before he can lash out again, they have tipped their feet and ascended in a searing pillar of golden light.
Left behind, he shakes and snarls and digs clawed fingers into his scalp until blood trickles down his cheeks.
He wants — he needs — to kill. To tear through throats, snap spines, claw out tongues. Feel bones break under his hands and lives gasp out beneath E’ming’s edge.
He wants the world to hurt, to run scarlet with blood and flame.
His Highness would be so disappointed.
Heaving in a shuddering breath, he digs his fingers in harder. It takes spiritual energy and focus to produce blood in a skin like this. One he has in abundance; the other slips away from him like carp in a river.
There’s a lull in the rage, like a pause for breath in the scream that’s tearing through his bones.
He needs to get away from here, needs to hole himself up somewhere he can’t hurt any innocent. He doesn’t have enough blood to vent all this boiling energy, but he can at least contain himself so no one else bleeds for him.
Reaching a hand into his robes, he pulls out a pair of dice and rolls them in his palm. A single dot stares up at him from each. Snake eyes.
Fine. He closes his eyes, swallows. So he won’t make it back to Paradise Manor for this. His Highness showed him another way, once.
Pulling back his sleeve, he draws E’ming.
He doesn’t often drink. As a rule, he’s never liked alcohol: anything that blurred his senses was a danger both when he had a house and when he lived on the streets, and later, even if he didn’t understand shit about cultivation, he knew His Highness didn’t drink and that was enough.
And — it reminds him of his father.
His father wasn’t a drunk and being sober never made him nice, but he developed a sense of humor when he was a few cups in. When he was sober, he’d beat Hua Cheng with bits of wood or with a metal pan or with his horse whip. When he was drunk, he’d cajole and coax his youngest son into his lap and hold him like a precious thing — only to fling him out in the alley behind the house where the stray dogs gathered. He’d stand there in the firelit doorway and he’d laugh and laugh and laugh.
So. Alcohol has never had much appeal to him.
He’s only drinking now because he’d emerged from the temple’s grand shadow to find a pair of jars sitting on the step as if in offering and he’d been tired and pissed in a way that neither sleep nor prayer could fix.
Drinking didn’t make it go away, but at least it was something to do. He sits on a divan in the sprawling recesses of his empty residence and downs the wine. He’s had enough now to slide out of that warm-edged softness that comes first and into something more restless, edged.
If there were any of Heaven’s dogs around, he’d egg them into a fight. None of the ghosts here are strong enough to even provide a distraction, though, and so he’s left to his own devices.
Drawing out his die, he rolls them carelessly across the table. Sixes. He scoops them up and rolls again. Each time, they fall to the same face, even when he tries to wish for something else. Too much luck, apparently.
The thought itches at the back of his neck, a familiar irritation.
The first prayers started before he’d even escaped the Kiln. Among those terrified humans, some of them had apparently decided that a half-mad, one-eyed ghost was worth praying to. Over the decades, the voices have grown no matter how he ignores them.
He’s not a god. He threw that joke back in the faces of the Heavenly Court the moment he was pulled up there. There is nothing divine about Crimson Rain Sought Flower, the monster in red.
Still — the prayers.
At first they were in thanks for his intervention. Then came pleas for protection. After he cleaned out those thirty-three scum, tides of them came flooding in: for martial prowess, for high marks in exams, for luck.
He tosses the die up in the air and they land in the center of his palm. Sixes, again.
Maybe there’s some use for his insatiable fortune. He doesn’t know anything about ruling a city or running a business, but he’s read enough books to have some ideas. The house always wins — so what if he scatters some of his unnecessary luck around?
The building is easy enough to throw together. Rambling and low-slung, it slouches over the city in gleaming red and black. There’s no need for fine design in an establishment meant for sin.
A few of the more human-looking ghosts are dragged in as croupiers. They all blink in mute shock when they’re arrayed before his desk and offered a job. None of them decline.
He pauses when it comes to the establishment plaque. He knows how to write. Technically. He traded lessons for labor back when he still thought it mattered; the worn-out scribe could barely sit upright by the end of the day, but he dutifully walked Hua Cheng through the characters and strokes.
Since those patchy lessons, he’s written very little. A few mementos carved into wooden walls or scratches into the dirt wherever he slept. And, of course, his tattoo. He’d dug it into his skin in a fit of fury after Mu Qing threw him out of the army, vowing to serve His Highness even if the only way he was allowed was by staying alive.
He traces a fingertip absently overtop his vambrace where it covers the tattoos. Shrugging slightly, he reaches for a brush and ink. It can’t be that hard.
He’s been dead for two hundred and fifty years when he first picks up a useless book.
It’s small and worn, the cloth cover wearing away where too many hands have touched it. Inside, he finds poetry — bittersweet and ripe with longing, words like dry wine as they roll over his tongue. The poet’s name is recorded as Liu Xie.
“Gongzi has good taste.”
The library’s haunted, of course. A landslide devoured half the town some fifty years ago, and the only ones who didn’t move away now linger as spectral stewards of the buried city.
“To be expected of such a refined young master, I suppose,” the spirit remarks with a lazy smile.
He shoots her a narrow-eyed glare at the teasing. His hands have grown stiff around the book, unable to let go and unwilling to let himself read further.
She’s older than he ever was, short and square with a steady confidence to her manner that suggests she’s used to walking her own path. Dark hair hangs loose down her back, clinging to the dried-blood burgundy of her robes. Most her weight leans on a walking stick, finely carved.
“Aiya, what are you doing with such a sour look, gongzi?” the ghost laughs, leaning her hip into the nearby bureau. “You’ll ruin your handsome face screwing it up like that.”
“Shut up,” he snaps and looks down at the book in his hands.
It’s no use to His Highness. None of the poems were penned by any name approaching his, and it’s too plain to be of any use in future engagements with literary gods. It’s useless, a waste of time he should use for better purpose.
His hands won’t let go of it.
“Ah, I see,” the spirit says sagely. “it’s because I’m dead, isn’t it? I should have guessed a dashing young cultivator wouldn’t like flirting with a ghost.”
“Stop that,” he spits, hands tightening around the book. “Do you want to get dispersed?”
In his periphery, she blinks once before narrowing her eyes and frowning at him. He ignores her in favor of trying to decide if the book has some hidden property that is making it so hard to let go. Perhaps there’s a hint somewhere in its lines that will direct him to His Highness. The last glimpse he caught of anyone like His Highness was only a few li west of here, after all.
“Ai, gongzi, have some pity on this lowly one,” the ghost says. “Some of us aren’t Ghost Kings to go sauntering around the world as we please. We don’t get to see such pretty things as you — you can’t blame one for having a little fun.”
“Stop,” he orders, irritation spiking, “trying to mock me.”
It’s not as if he isn’t used to comments about his appearance. Even in this skin, cleaned up, aged up, he knows he can’t hide his own ugliness. He doesn’t care except that he has more important things to worry about and this ghost is annoying. Her constant taunting needles at his false skin, pricks along his shoulder blades with discomfort.
The ghost stops short, and he finally looks up with a cold gaze. Did she think she was subtle? Clever? Her voice has that same wheedling cadence as those women in the brothel so many lifetimes ago.
“Gongzi,” she says slowly, canting her head, “have you never looked in a mirror?”
“Have you never learned to shut the fuck up?” he retorts.
Releasing the walking stick, she raises both hands up in placation. Her expression has gone from that lazy smirk to actual confusion, or at least a good facsimile of it.
“Look, I might be dead,” she says, “but I’ve still got eyes. And you’d catch looks anywhere, even if you do look like you want to murder someone.”
He narrows his eyes further, jaw tightening. He’s going to crush her ashes if she doesn’t shut up soon.
Huffing out a breath, the ghost shakes her head and drops her hands to take up her stick again. She walks over a few paces from him, her steps rocking as if one leg doesn’t move quite right.
“It’s a good book,” she says, nodding toward the one in his hands. “You should take it.”
At his suspicious look, she shrugs. Her nonchalance seems affected now, subdued. She doesn’t look him in the face but instead looks down at the book. She swallows.
“I promise you’ll never find another copy anywhere else in the world,” she says. “One of a kind.”
Her hand lifts as if to touch the cover, but she freezes partway there and then pulls back. He waits.
“And it’s pretty, right?”
Her lips quirk up in a little smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. The words seem sincere, though. Eyeing her, he hesitates a moment before he asks.
“What is your name?”
The smile turns a little wry, and she brings her hands together to salute politely.
“Liu Ming,” she says. “You’re holding my baby brother’s last book.”
Later, when he’s returned to Paradise Manor, he summons a mirror and stands before it. The face that looks back at him is close to thirty, pale and rounded along the edges. Dark eyes look back at him, somber and doubting. He sketched this skin based on strangers he met in markets and on cultivators he saw in the capital. The nose he stole from the Guoshi who told His Highness he was cursed.
Swallowing, he drops the skin.
It’s been years since he looked at his own face. He’s never seen his real body in full except when he was already dead and looking down at his corpse where it lay full of arrows and drained of blood.
His cheeks are thinner than the skin he wore before, all his features sharper and harder. His remaining eye is narrower and colder, and his hair spills down his back to his waist. He’s not sure if it was this long before he died or if it’s kept growing in the years since he last looked. It’s still messy, hacked away from his face with a dull blade and no help.
He’s taller than he realized — broader in the shoulders, too. The red fabric of his robe hangs smooth and unmoving over his still chest.
For a long moment, he stares at his own reflection and tries to see it from the outside. The ghost’s words jingle in his skull like die rattling in a cup. He can’t fit them to him. He tries to bring up all the old insults instead, and they fit better but no longer as firmly as they once did.
Shaking himself, he turns away from the mirror. With unsteady hands, he picks up the book from the table and settles in to read.
When the new supreme arrives, it is with the wariness given to a tiger and the respect afforded a lord. Over the course of four days, black seeps through the lake until the tides leave inkstains on the shore and the will o’ wisps flee the water to huddle up in alleyways in the city.
Hua Cheng goes to greet him in a comfortable skin. Somewhere between his real form and a youth, he’s taller than the figure that waits in the shallows but younger-looking.
Black Water Sinking Ships looks more like a ghost than Hua Cheng ever does: pale, hollowed out, starved. Even in rich black robes, he looks like a walking corpse.
“Lord Crimson Rain Sought Flower,” he greets but doesn’t bow.
“You’re dirtying my lake,” Hua Cheng replies.
Aside from a single, slow blink, Black Water shows no sign of surprise. His dark eyes are flat and blank as a dead fish. Hua Cheng half-expects gills along his neck.
“I have a proposal for you,” Black Water says.
It’s bold to offer any gift to the ghost king feared and revered by both the heavens and the earth. Intrigued, Hua Cheng cocks an eyebrow.
He’s heard about Black Water in the five years since the younger ghost emerged from Mount Tong’lu. After his emergence, Black Water did his best to submerge himself in deeper waters than most cared to tread. Hua Cheng has always had more dedication than most.
“What could a failed scholar have to offer me, He Sheng?” he asks, affecting boredom.
Black Water’s bloodless lips thin just-so. Resentment saturates him, soaks through his robes and skin.
“You are looking for something you cannot find,” he says, flat and edged.
After this long, Hua Cheng is an impeccable liar. He doesn’t flinch or stumble. His heart can’t stop nor his breath hitch.
He waits. Underneath, a fire rages. Anger burns through his empty chest, immolates his withered heart.
He has searched for five hundred years. His bootprints have left trails across all the known world. He burns spiritual energy by the cask to send his butterflies searching across the land and seas.
Still his god remains lost to him.
“What good are you to me?” Hua Cheng asks, cold.
“Eyes in the heavens see further than on the highest mountain.”
He laughs. It’s an ugly sound, like a blade grating against stone. Leaning back, he dismisses it out of hand.
“The heavens?” he scoffs. “Are you a child to think all problems solved by the gods? You would rely on them to save you.”
Black Water bristles, lips pulling back from sharp teeth.
“I am a Supreme Ghost King as you are,” he retorts. “I do not bow to any in heaven. I am going to rip them apart until they beg to die.”
Resentment floods his words, rushes through his form and into the air. Behind him, the lake rises in a monstrous surge.
Hua Cheng grins, entertained. Such antics could only scare an infant.
“You are a child,” he rejoins. “You think you’ve suffered? You think you know what misery is? hunger? You know nothing.”
The night draws close and bloody, lit only by a sliver of the rust-red moon and the blade-like lights of butterflies.
“You are a spoiled brat lashing out,” he says. “You think surviving Mount Tong’lu is an accomplishment? That was a joke, nothing more than stacking gold foil and calling it a palace.”
He unfurls slowly, until his own aura is oppressive and suffocating in the still night air. Under all that weight, a stubborn ember burns white-hot, fuels the snarling burn of his soul no matter how he ignores it. He could snap Black Water’s neck without a thought, crush his ashes in a single hand.
Supreme Ghost King? Ha. The notion nearly makes him laugh.
Light flickers in Black Water’s eyes, butterfly wings reflecting off the flat black of his irises. He doesn’t back down.
“I have no need for a grandmaster,” he spits. “My path is my own.”
He says it so stubbornly, so resolute like a donkey digging in its heels, as if the idea actually bore some reality. Hua Cheng laughs. Folding back into himself, he straightens into his true form. E’ming watches from his hip, scarlet eye narrowed in intrigue.
“Go on, Black Water,” he says, amusement purring through his tone. “Get your revenge. I’ll even help you; consider it a loan.”
He has no need for riches or gifts, but the Gambling Den has taught him the value of debt.
The proposal seems to disgruntle Black Water; his brow creases just-so and lips draw into a seam. The waves retreat, his own resentment pooling back within his form.
“In exchange?” he asks. “You know I have no wealth.”
Shrugging carelessly, Hua Cheng brushes off the thought. He’s never needed wealth anyway. He would burn it all if His Highness asked — if doing so could bring his god back to him.
“You already said it: you can see a long way from the heavens,” he says, “and I’ll see everything you do.”
Irritation flickers over Black Water’s expression but he swallows it.
“You will not interfere with my plans,” he says.
It’s easy to agree. Hua Cheng has no love for the shitheels in their golden palaces. None of them care for His Highness and none would help find him. Their destruction will not hurt the only god who matters.
“Do whatever you like,” Hua Cheng says, “but there’s one you cannot touch.”
By the time word reaches him of the gilded banquet in Yong’an, Lang Qianqiu has already ascended. If not, Hua Cheng would rip his heart from his chest and force him to eat it, bite by bloody bite. He has enough power to draw it out, to make that selfish, useless piece of shit die slow. A hundred years would be a mercy.
Instead, Hua Cheng stands over an empty grave a century too late, and he hates.
The stone coffin is busted and splintered, half-buried by the dirt carried by wind and rain. Bloodstains still remain. A deep, broad smear coats the floor, years of it layered together like the wound never healed but only kept weeping. More is swiped across the sides; he can make out the thin white scratches of fingernails in streaks of four under all the blood.
He’s not a dog to scent his master, but divine blood carries its own power. Even standing above it, carefully not touching, he can feel the strength of it — the echo of anger and grief and pain.
His Highness didn’t die here: he suffered.
He hasn’t needed to breathe in centuries, but now it comes jagged and hitched in his chest. He has one purpose. One reason to still be on this fucking piece of shit earth. There’s only one task he has to do, and all he does is fail at it.
Where was he when His Highness was trapped here? Reclined in Paradise Manor with all those books that help no one? Watching over the Gambling Den and all those spirits who would make His Highness sick to his stomach?
What has he done but lay about, useless and fickle?
His hands curl into fists, claws biting into the meat of his palms. So much for his devotion, for his loyalty to one cause. He claims to be a faithful worshipper and yet lets the dogs tear his god apart piece by bloody piece.
The skin of his hands gives with a lurch, nails sinking deep in through tendon and muscle.
What good has he ever done except die? The only time he was useful to His Highness was with a sword sticking through his gut and a hundred thousand spirits tearing chunks out of his consciousness.
Staying for his beloved — as if he had any right to make such claims. He’s never known what love is — only claimed he did, acted like he deserved to believe in some great cause. As if he could ever be anything more than a monster playacting at being worthy enough of being even his god’s lowliest servant.
He should have died the first time he tried. He should have plummeted from that tower and not been caught by gentle arms but broken on the stones below.
E’ming shakes at his hip. He’s aware of the vibrations only distantly, as if they come from a li away or are rattling through some other hollow body.
He is nothing.
He’s forgotten his place, grown too complacent in his death. He’s always been worthless, but at least he knew where he belonged. Trash doesn’t deserve fine things, grand manors and lavish libraries.
That night, Ghost City is lit by the flames of Paradise Manor.
The former general of the west is by all standards a sorry wet sack when Hua Cheng finds him. Hunched over in sodden black robes, he’s bundled into a shapeless mass by the river side and shows no sign of noticing the rain pounding down around him and running in great gushes through the trampled grass.
Pausing, Hua Cheng eyes the pathetic figure curiously. Even drenched and dejected, divinity is still leashed to his soul.
He walks over closer and tilts the umbrella just enough to interrupt the downpour drowning the banished god. He doesn’t stir except for a flicker of tension that briefly stretches through his shoulders and then fades away.
“You can check but I don’t have anything worth stealing,” he says.
Hua Cheng cants his head at that. Every martial god he’s ever met is brash and loud and swollen with their own pride — all of them but one.
“I can tell that from here,” Hua Cheng replies.
He stiffens, shoulders tightening.
Yin Yu never mattered enough to run into Hua Cheng personally, but there’s no one in all the three realms who doesn’t recognize the ghost in red.
“Come on,” Hua Cheng says. “I know what will warm you.”
For a moment, it seems Yin Yu will resist, but he climbs to his feet wearily and follows as Hua Cheng takes a step forward. A roll of the dice brings them to Paradise Manor, but the drenched god doesn’t even blink in surprise.
It would be impressive if Hua Cheng didn’t think it is entirely due to the former god’s complete lack of will to live.
None of the rain soaks through the red waxed umbrella, but the former god leaves a trail of rainwater on the tile behind them. He asks no questions as they pass through the manor to the kitchens.
At the sight of them, a few of the younger servants flutter and squeak in alarm, but the old cooks barely bat an eye. The three of them have been around for a few centuries, seemingly sustained by a low-level grudge toward anyone who doesn’t properly appreciate their food. Hua Cheng is fairly sure he earned their respect by virtue of not having much sense of taste at all. Eating on the streets didn’t leave him particularly picky.
A small feast is laid out before them, centered on the pathetic figure in black. Lifting his dull gaze from the dishes, Yin Yu looks to Hua Cheng and does not touch a bite.
“You look like shit,” Hua Cheng says. “Eat.”
“Why,” Yin Yu says.
It sounds rote, like he’s only going through expected motions and doesn’t actually care about the answer. Hua Cheng leans back in his chair and stretches out his legs to cross them at the ankles.
“I’m bored,” he says lazily. “You’re pathetic. Eat. Answer a few questions and I’ll give you what you’re really looking for.”
For the first time, a flicker of engagement passes through Yin Yu’s expression. Dark eyes narrow, wariness in the crease of his brow and glint of his eyes.
“I may not be part of the Heavenly Court anymore, Crimson Rain Sought Flower,” he says quietly, “but I won’t betray them.”
From the way his shoulders curl in as he speaks, he expects to be hit for his impudence. He doesn’t even raise his voice to sound proud or obstinate; there’s only quiet duty in his tone, obligation sinking through his voice.
“You think too highly of yourself,” Hua Cheng replies. “Do you really think you know anything about the heavens that I don’t, Yin Yu?”
Lowering his gaze, Yin Yu doesn’t say anything. Acceptance or resignation settle his shoulders. He’s average in every way, nondescript enough to pass for anyone’s cousin. The idea of him ascending seems almost laughable.
“You’ll pass out before you can answer anything if you don’t eat,” Hua Cheng says. “And bodies don’t leave the kitchen if they can’t walk.”
He knows the look; over the course of his brief mortal life, he’d collapsed in alleyways and along the streets, his stomach gnawing on nothing.
Slowly, Yin Yu lifts his hand and starts to eat. He takes measured bites, chewing rotely and barely looking at what he puts in his mouth. Hua Cheng waits.
When he’s eaten enough for some color to return to his cheeks, Yin Yu rests his chopsticks neatly across his bowl and places his hands back in his lap. He still doesn’t lift his gaze but keeps it respectfully lowered.
“What do you know about that thing on your wrist?” Hua Cheng asks.
Blinking once, Yin Yu doesn’t immediately answer. The shackle is hidden now under a tightly-wrapped sleeve, but Hua Cheng remembers it clearly from He Xuan’s report. The moment he’d seen that black band in the butterfly’s memory, he’d sat up with recognition flaring white-hot through him. His Highness had worn bandages around his neck, but no silk could survive the tearing and torture of that temple.
“It is a cursed shackle,” Yin Yu says flatly. “It binds my spiritual energy.”
Hua Cheng cants his head, considering. That explains some of His Highness’ actions and the strange void of energy he’d felt in place of the warm power he remembered from the fall, from the war.
“Its effects on mortality?”
Yin Yu’s lips thin, paling with the pressure. It takes longer, this time, to answer.
“I can still get sick and injured,” he says at last. “I can’t seem to die.”
His voice is still even and hollow, but Hua Cheng recognizes the echo of disappointment in his tone. Watching him a moment, Hua Cheng considers him before crossing his arms and shrugging.
“I can kill you,” he says idly.
There is very little in all the realms he can’t kill. One measly banished god would be nothing more than a divertissement.
“Or,” he says, flicking out his fingers for a butterfly to perch on the tips, “you could work for me.”
The butterfly lifts up from his finger to drift in a lazy halo around Yin Yu’s head, close enough for him to see the memory reflected in its wings. It’s an old one from his ascension, rare for the absence of his bombastic shidi. Yin Yu’s eyes widen at the sight, glassy depths lit by the shimmer of energy.
Brushing a razor wing past Yin Yu’s cheek, the memory flits off to find a new host. A child, probably, the easiest to make believe. Yin Yu watches it go, hunger in his eyes.
“Why?” he asks, hoarse. “I’m useless. I’m a failed god.”
Hua Cheng shrugs.
“I have better things to do than settle petty fights in the city,” he says, “and collecting debts is boring. You can do that much, can’t you?”
He can take care of all of it, but he’s found he doesn’t want to. He had no experience leading or organizing in life and in death he has no interest. Let someone deal with the minutiae. He has bigger quarries to hunt.
Yin Yu stares back at him, expression completely blank.
“I can always kill you later,” Hua Cheng offers, “or you can go back to huddling in ditches like a stray dog.”
For a moment, Yin Yu only looks back at him. His face becomes a mask, empty of expression or sign. It’s a good skill, useful when dealing with the rowdy crowds of Ghost City, though Hua Cheng has a feeling the former god won’t want to show his real face around the town. Few do.
Finally, he gives a mute nod.
“Where should I begin, Chengzhu?”
He has never thought himself worthy of emulating His Highness. Where His Highness is divine judgment and gilded right, Hua Cheng is a savage and bloody blade. He has never been more than a tool, never known greater fulfillment than when he could serve His Highness’ will.
Mortals are as hideous and cruel as any vicious ghost. He has no interest in cleaning up that unceasing cesspool.
But, occasionally, there are particularly hideous monsters who crawl up to reign over men. Selfish, cruel, gluttonous, they pervert the right of rule to carve their palaces from the bodies of the common people.
Hua Cheng couldn’t care less about the common people — but His Highness does. His Highness cares about even the smallest and ugliest, the least deserving of all the trash.
There’s always a chance His Highness will be drawn to those places, too, his righteousness leading him to the fight.
Hua Cheng always sends a herald before he goes, butterflies and blood rain announcing his approach.
By the time he gets there every time, the tyrant has already killed theirself. He lingers only long enough to look for any sign of a cultivator in white, a lost god with a smile like the sun.
Each time, he leaves with empty hands.
He searches for eight hundred years. Ghost City sprawls and clambers over itself; Paradise Manor grows and burns. When he’s petty, Hua Cheng sets fire to temples. When he rages, he carves red lace patterns into Mu Qing and Feng Xin’s skin.
Yin Yu settles into his role with alacrity, nearly invisible in his unobtrusive efficiency. He Xuan plots and seeps through the heavens like poison in the well.
Hua Cheng waits.
There are years where he hardly steps foot in Ghost City, restless and snarling. He crosses the map from end to end, climbs mountains and descends into swallowing gorges. Treasures are sent back carelessly for Yin Yu to organize and stow. He collects languages like gems and hopes with every one to hear a familiar voice speaking the strange words.
Yong’an falls and it takes him half a century to realize. His enemy, the savages who dared attack His Highness and destroyed Xianle seem little more than a blip in the long run of history.
He died at eighteen, emerged from the fire just shy of thirty — after so many centuries, he has to think to recall his own birthday. Even the version of himself that emerged from Mount Tong’lu now seems a fragile, juvenile form.
Reclined on the jade divan and ignoring the dancers filling the main hall, he wears the years in the weight of his bones. E’ming settled in its form some centuries ago, divine and demonic blood both giving it a lethal edge and gleaming silver adornments. It rarely shakes anymore, all that childish weakness bled out of it over the years.
A butterfly drifts through the dancing silks, languid and pale. As it nears, he extends his hand for the light to perch on his palm.
He Xuan usually offers updates through a communication array or the few times each century they see each other. He’s a lazy fuck, though, and the butterflies are an easy way to pass whole memories or events.
Closing his eye, Hua Cheng turns to the message. His false breath freezes.
Mount Yujun is only a roll of the die away, but for the first time in centuries, Hua Cheng hesitates.
Last time he saw His Highness, he’d been nothing more than a nameless, useless ghost. All he’d had to offer was his loyalty and his death. The last thing he remembers before drifting to Mount Tong’lu is His Highness yelling at him to put the sword down—and then, the pain.
Now, he is a Ghost King even the heavens fear, with wealth and power to tear any kingdom into a hundred thousand pieces. His armory could outfit an army of legendary warriors; his library could overwhelm the most astute scholar. Mortals pray to him and gods hide — and what good is any of it?
After everything, he never found His Highness. All his wealth, all his power, and He Xuan’s the one who brought the news to him.
A snarled order clears the hall, and Hua Cheng closes his eyes to replay the memory.
It’s short, barely a glimpse. Rumbling, shaking the Heavenly Court quaking in the face of so grand an ascension. As the broken palaces settle and the burning light eases, a dusty cloud inundates the avenue. A civil god cuts through the fog, waving it out of her face with one hand. Ahead of her, a silhouette unfurls in the midst of the destruction.
“Congratulations, Your Highness,” the civil god greets.
A small laugh escapes the figure. The smoke starts to dissipate, and it rolls away to reveal a gentle smile and a beloved face. He draws breath to speak—
The memory ends.
Left alone in the empty hall, Hua Cheng stares out at the tile floor blankly.
He will have to make it up to His Highness. He’s ascended once more, the martial god he’s always been returned to his rightful place. Restored to his proper throne, there’s little His Highness won’t have—but Hua Cheng is more powerful than the rest of the court combined, strong enough at last to serve His Highness.
Opening a communication array, he demands He Xuan answer him and he prepares.
Hua Cheng has never been prone to nerves, but he feels jittery and uncertain as he crosses Mount Yujun. He Xuan had said His Highness was sent to take care of some savage ghost killing brides—how like the heavens to send His Highness off on stupid errands wasting his skill.
E’ming rattles and shakes at his hip, and he’s too distracted to do more than swat it absently. He plans what to say to His Highness and rejects it a dozen times. Is it wrong to act as if they’re strangers? But His Highness would never remember such an insignificant spirit. He leans against a tree, straightens up, adjusts how E’ming hangs from his belt.
He’s just debating whether it’s better to sheathe or unsheathe the blade when he finally hears screams and the sounds of fighting. Relief rushes through him as he steps forward through the shadows, following the sounds of swords and base slaves. He watches for a flash of white in the darkness, a glimpse of gold armor.
The screams cut off abruptly, a pervasive silence filling the night. Only the jingling of chains on Hua Cheng’s boots breaks the quiet as he passes through the shadows.
He steps around bodies with snapped necks and gaping mouths. A few have stab wounds, but most have long slashes through their throats or broken necks as if yanked sharply to the left.
There is no armor to be seen but a bridal sedan, abandoned on the mountain road. Red silk banners fluttered in the night breeze, drifting gauzy on the wind. There’s no noise except the subtle sound of breathing behind the fabric, but there’s an echo — a sense memory that curls around Hua Cheng’s wrist and draws him closer step by step.
He parts the silks with a careful hand then pauses, palm offered. For a moment, there is no motion inside the tent; even the sound of breath vanishes.
Then, a hand settles lightly in his, calloused and steady. The fingertips are a little chilled, as if the night air slipped through the sedan and coiled cold around his hands. Hua Cheng takes a step back, guiding him carefully from the red-cloaked palanquin.
The last time he saw His Highness, he wore worn cultivation robes in stark white. Before that, it was always the gilded robes of a prince and general.
Red silk emerges first, robes let down with hasty stitches to match his height. A veil conceals his face, but Hua Cheng’s breath still hitches at the soft ripple of the fabric over His Highness’ mouth. If he had a pulse, it would be thundering wildly at his wrists and neck.
His Highness doesn’t speak, doesn’t ask who is greeting him or where they’re going. He follows Hua Cheng’s lead quietly and docilely, and even when he stumbles, he accepts support without question.
Hua Cheng can feel a faint pulse of spiritual energy, but it feels — residual. Borrowed. There’s too little of it to be His Highness’ own.
It doesn’t make sense. His Highness has ascended. He is a god in everyone’s eyes once more — where is that overflowing strength, that insurmountable power?
When Hua Cheng pauses to open his umbrella, His Highness stops as well and waits patiently. Hua Cheng fumbles a little with opening it, too busy gazing at His Highness’ obscured face and trying to make sense of all that is happening. His Highness doesn’t seem to mind.
The silk is too tightly woven for him to catch any glimpse of the fine features underneath, but it flutters and flattens to his face in soft tides. Red curls lovingly against a firm jaw, a straight nose. If the night were paper, His Highness would be sketched in swift scarlet strokes.
Xuan Ji’s array is a trifling thing, easily crushed under foot. Then, too soon, they stand before the temple. Hua Cheng stops, his lips parting around words he still can’t find. Should he kneel? Should he hand over E’ming and his life, too?
Last they met, His Highness had little patience for his supplication. He means it still, but he hates to disappoint His Highness so early in their reacquaintance.
He reaches out a hand to catch the hem of the silk veil. There’s a quiet surge of resentful energy that comes from His Highness himself and not the haunted temple and forest, and Hua Cheng pauses with his fingers curling carefully in the fabric.
As he lifts the edge, white silk shoots out. He catches a glimpse — a flicker of long brows and a narrow chin — and then—
Over the centuries, Hua Cheng has imagined meeting His Highness again countless times. He has turned over scenarios and possibilities until he could go mad from it. His imagination has always fallen short of the reality of His Highness, but he never expected it in such a way.
He returns to Paradise Manor and paces the halls like a tiger caged. Die roll back and forth in his palm, worried so much that the dots would wear off if they weren’t spelled. At his hip, E’ming shakes and shakes, its red eye spinning wildly.
His Highness still doesn’t have his spiritual energy.
He wasn’t dressed as a martial god or as any prince or general. He was brought into a disguise that would make most Heavenly Officials blanch in mortification.
He carried no sword but that same silk band Hua Cheng remembers from the temple, from the battlefield. The thought makes something nauseous and sour roil in his stomach.
At his hundredth lap of the hall, he stops short. Yin Yu stands patiently at the door, mask shifted to the side but face still carefully blank. His hands are folded behind his back, the very image of a dutiful retainer.
Hua Cheng has the sneaking feeling he’s laughing at him.
“Lord Chengzhu,” he says with a polite salute, “I have received news that His Royal Highness the Crown Prince has descended to the mortal realm.”
“Where?” he demands. “When?”
His voice comes out snappish and edged, but it rolls off Yin Yu like rain off a duck’s wing.
“Near a small village called Puqi,” he says, “a week or so ago.”
A week. He must have left the heavens almost as soon as he returned. The thought makes Hua Cheng stop, frowning. His Highness has always belonged in the heavens — why should he strive to escape them so quickly?
“I’m going to be away,” Hua Cheng decides abruptly. “Don’t let things get out of hand.”
“Yes, Chengzhu,” Yin Yu says, bowing.
This time, he curls his true form under his favored disguise. Young enough to be carefree and not frightening in the least, old enough to not be questioned for wandering far afield. He used to wander in this guise most often until he grew sick of wearing the same face for too long.
His fine robes are traded for a simple set of tunics, the flaws and disfigurements of his true form filled in with glamor. The missing eye, the final scar from the blow that killed him, the ragged chop of his hair — he smooths it all over.
His Highness is not the same as he was when Hua Cheng last saw him. That’s fine. Hua Cheng is a shapeshifter, after all. He can make himself into whatever form His Highness needs now.
Thus disguised, he rolls the die and winds up a few li off from the aforementioned village. Sunlight glows golden and red through the maple leaves, casting long shadows along the road. Hua Cheng lifts a hand against it and glares up at the offending light.
Before he has time to drop his hand, an ox cart comes rumbling up the road. An old man drives it, but he calls the ox to a halt as he spies Hua Cheng standing along the side. He squints a little, as if struggling to make out his figure.
“Ah gongzi, are you lost?” he asks.
Hua Cheng eyes the road unspooling before them and shrugs.
“Uncle, what town are you headed toward?” he asks.
“Ah, you must be lost!” the driver says. “Hop on, hop on. I’m just on my way to Puqi Village down the road. You can find your way from there for sure.”
Pausing as if in consideration, Hua Cheng rattles the die once in his cupped palm. Sixes.
He grins up at the old man and climbs on the back, reclining in the mound of hay stacked there. He dozes, or as near as he can in unknown territory, for some time. The shadows flicker and dapple across his closed eyes, warmth flitting near and away again.
They’ve only traveled a mile or two when they come to a creaking halt. He tenses but forces himself to stay still, even as he hears a voice lift in question to the cart driver. After a moment, steps round the opposite side of the cart and it dips briefly under added weight. There’s the rustle of cloth and the clanking of some small objects, and then they’re off again.
For a few minutes, the easy peace continues. Hua Cheng lies in the hay with his eyes held closed and forces himself to breathe at a normal rhythm and keep his lanky frame relaxed.
“Ah scrap-collecting gods and martial gods aren’t so different really. All gods are equal after all.”
He can’t help the laugh that huffs out of him, startled by the bold statement as much as the stubborn cheer of the voice.
“Is that right?”
Hidden like this, he allows himself undeserved boldness.
“Of course people love to say all gods are equal, but if that were true, the Heavenly Court would be empty.”
There’s a quiet breath from the other side, then a soft laugh.
“Ah yes, you’re probably right.”
Quiet returns again, and Hua Cheng tries to figure out what next to say. He hasn’t allowed himself to plan beyond this, beyond finding His Highness and figuring out who he should be for him.
A quiet noise, inquisitive, sounds from the other side of the hay.
“How strange,” His Highness murmurs thoughtfully. “How should the Water Master be the god of wealth as well?”
Swallowing, Hua Cheng tries to make sure his voice stays even and mild. He’s playing at a careless youth, after all. Still, after all these years, the words rise to his lips eagerly. He spent so long searching, so long teaching himself and dragging out any kernel of knowledge that could be of use to His Highness. Now, at last, finally, he can provide at least this much.
They go back and forth for some time, filling in the startling gaps in His Highness’ knowledge. Then, His Highness leans around the hay stack to meet Hua Cheng’s eyes.
He’s wearing the same plain robes as Hua Cheng’s memory, bandages curled around his neck and around his wrists where they slip out of his full sleeves. A bamboo hat, not quite familiar, hangs against his upper back.
His smile is softer than all the statues Hua Cheng has carved. His eyes narrow just a little, bright in the golden light flickering through the leaves overhead. For the first time, Hua Cheng finds he doesn’t hate the sun if it shines so gently on His Highness.
“My friend, you seem young but you’re quite knowledgeable,” His Highness says gently. “Do you know much about ghosts as well?”
“Which ghost?” he asks, curious.
His Highness has always been an incredible cultivator. He must have encountered even legends unknown to Hua Cheng in his travels. If there are any who have wronged him or crossed his path, Hua Cheng will cut them down and burn their ashes.
“Crimson Rain Sought Flower, Hua Cheng.”
His title sounds different in His Highness’ voice. He’s never cared about it, never bothered with it as anything other than another unwelcome gift from undeserving others. It’s meant to strike fear into fools’ hearts, to ensure obedience in the realm of ghosts.
In His Highness’ voice, the title sounds almost lovely, almost gentle. The thought is an unsettling one. What could His Highness have possibly heard to speak so gently of the worst demon on earth?
Hua Cheng draws himself to sit up and turns to face His Highness fully.
“What do you want to know?” he asks.
He hardly knows what to say for himself. His Highness deserves the truth, but it’s such an ugly thing. Hua Cheng wouldn’t dare dirty his ears with such worthless stories.
His Highness cants his head, thoughtful.
“Crimson Rain Sought Flower is quite a title,” he says. “Do you know where it comes from?”
Of all things, that seems the last Hua Cheng would have expected. Surely His Highness would want to know what kind of cruel ghost could last so long, what disaster he brings in his wake. His title? His name?
Drawing up his knee, he loops his arm around it and sets to neatening his sleeves.
“Nothing very impressive, really,” he says. “There was just some incident where he cleaned out the lair of some ghost. The blood rain was battering a flower by the road, so he stopped and shielded it a while.”
Whatever ghost survived Qi Rong’s lair long enough to spread that story, Hua Cheng abruptly wants to offer them a raise. They’re likely dispersed by now, but he contemplates it briefly as His Highness’ eyes narrow in laughter.
“Does Hua Cheng often pick fights?”
There are a hundred ways he could answer that. He only picks fights that are deserved, only those he cares enough to finish. He is no conqueror but simply a result, the inevitable outcome of the world’s misbalanced justice.
“Depends on his mood,” he says.
His Highness’ questions continue, each baffling. None of them seem strategic, not like His Highness is planning to take out this ghost but more like he’s simply curious. Even when he asks about his missing eye, there’s no hint of a threat behind it. He sounds only inquisitive, like he’s discovered some new story to chase down.
Centuries ago, Hua Cheng claimed he remained in the world for his beloved. As His Highness’ expression goes soft and sweet at the mention of ghosts exchanging their ashes, Hua Cheng realizes abruptly how silly and shallow the sentiment was.
All he knew then was worship, was the unshakeable devotion of a lowly servant bowed before his great god. Watching him smile and sigh and question, Hua Cheng’s chest seizes with wonder at how little he truly knew of his god.
He will never deserve a moment of His Highness’ attention, but he relishes in every brief smile and shift of his expression. He should burn all his statues and paintings to ash for how short they fall in comparison to His Highness in the flesh.
“Friend, what is your name?” His Highness asks.
A name, a name — a hundred thousand options flicker over his lips. He’s always been nameless; he would answer to any call if it came from His Highness’ lips.
“I’m the third in my family,” he says as if with someone else’s voice, “so you can call me San Lang.”
His Highness’ smile grows a little broader, honest and cheerful. Hua Cheng has never seen a sight more beautiful than His Highness painted in amber and red under the trees. He wants to bow before him, to apologize for all his shortcomings and centuries of failure.
“My name is Xie Lian,” he says, as if he were only another traveler on the road. “Are you headed to Puqi Village as well?”
Hua Cheng swallows and leans back. Wherever you go, I will follow, he doesn’t say. His false heartbeat is a runaway horse galloping in his too-small chest.
His Highness—Xie Lian offers out a steamed bun just shy of going stale, as if it is the easiest thing in the world to give away his only meal. Hua Cheng accepts half only when he’s sure Xie Lian will take the other, and they settle into companionable quiet as they eat.
“Puqi Shrine?” Hua Cheng asks eventually. “What god is worshipped there?”
He’s been wondering, though he hesitated to ask. It makes little sense for His Highness to work at some other god’s shrine, but the heavens are capricious and snide. Perhaps Jun Wu has demanded it out of some vile show of power.
For some reason, His Highness grows almost bashful at the question. Coughing a little, he clears his throat.
“Ah it’s for the Prince of Xianle,” he says. “You’ve probably never heard of him.”
Oh. A slow smile pulls up Hua Cheng’s lips at the admission, wonder and curiosity growing in his chest. Dressed as a bride, master of his own shrine—
For centuries, Hua Cheng has worried over his own changes, tried to map them to a form that would serve the memory he carried of His Highness. And now—now he finds neither the golden prince of his childhood memory nor the cold general of his second death.
In memory, His Highness is immutable. The one perfect constant of Hua Cheng’s miserable existence. But before him, Xie Lian smiles in the dying light of Zhongyuan, eight hundred years apart from that fragile memory.
Puqi Village, then. He has always liked water chestnuts.