Chapter 1: Part 1: To the Light
Sunlight was a rare commodity for the girl. She wasn't allowed to play with the other children, she would be badly burned, or hurt her eyes, both were too pale to stand long in the oppressive heat. Yet the girl would always flaunt and press against this rule as much as she could. She would wake up before dawn to see the sun climb up over the Sea of Clouds from her small window, scorching the sight into her eyes. She would go to the roof and reach for blinding orb at noon. Then she would finally wave goodbye as it sank below the region called Lisha, by her mother.
Her mother, who never failed to scold her for each and every one of these activities. She would repeat, again and again, how she needs to be careful. How the light wasn't for her. She fussed over every blemish or red splotch that appeared. Each time she was caught embracing the light, her mother's eyes would get that much more oppressive, she would get that much closer over her shoulder.
"Ning. You have to be careful. Your skin, your eyes, they're so precious. So, so precious. Everything Mama has done for you will go to waste if you keep doing this."
Words like these prevented her from running out into the daylight, but never stopped her from languidly hanging from the window, watching the other children play. She would watch them race around with sticks, playing at being the Millelith, or pirates or some such. So too was this added to her rituals. From it, she would quickly catch on to the hidden rules of their games. The pirates would be caught with a poke, but they could never be captured forever. They could break out if they counted to one-hundred, or grabbed the hand of another pirate until they left the Millelith's square. After a few weeks, Ning noticed that there was a third class in the game, sailors or merchants, who could help either side but didn't get to use their own sticks.
Another year would pass. Ning continued to watch the saga of the children unfold every time they played within sight, constantly imagining her own additions. She always thought to herself that the merchants could be doing more, mostly they would sit and be robbed by pirates, then ask the Millelith for help when everything was taken. She wondered what would happen if they hid some of their "money". Or promised to pay the pirates in help with jailbreaks, or went and got more sticks and gave them to one side or another.
But she was forbidden from going out. Her additions would bounce in her head relentlessly, so she would gather loose stones, odds, and ends, and work on making a small model of the game in her room. A model of what she could see from the roof, and the stones took the place of the players. She obsessed for awhile over the small game, playing out scenario after scenario and checking them against what happened that day from the window. She found that, over the course of the year, she could guess what everyone's next moves would be. What would happen in response to what. It lost its chaos the longer it continued.
That is, until the new girl joined.
She had messy brown hair and a disheveled look, brought in by a girl with darker hair. What most absorbed Ning's attention, though, was the new girl's eyes. They were nearly the same reddish-pinkish as her own. A little darker but so very similar.
And she was outside.
She was more than just outside, grasping at the sun and watching, she was playing alongside the others. Playing in a way that entirely disrupted the balance of the game. She was nearly unstoppable with her stick. It took ten of the Millelith children to so much as touch her, she so easily defeated anyone who came across her. She could probably take every single "mora" the merchants had with the other pirates. Yet she didn't. She always went alone, then gave her share to the pirates who didn't join the raid, who would get them confiscated when they were caught, then she would rescue them and the game would start all over again.
Ning often grew excited to see her hoard grow, but then puzzled again when it was given to the more useless pirates. All they would do is lose money and time in rescuing them. She could do more than this, she could win the game. Through strength alone she could win, she was unlike any other piece on the board. The merchant that could stand to hire her...
Scenarios around the new piece on the board kept her up late one night, long after her mother had stumbled into her bed. She had just been considering her latest move when she heard a rustling sound from outside. Ning knew every sound in her world, and this was a new one. Similar to a squirrel in the sunsettia tree outside, but too loud. She had to know what it was now, and carefully opened the shutter of the ratty old building.
A pair of red eyes stared back at her. The girl with the dirty, brown hair was hanging from a branch, three sunsettia fruits in the crook of one of her arms. She smiled devilishly.
"Hi! This is a bit embarrassing, isn't it? Didn't expect anyone to be awake right now..."
Ning looked to the fruit, then back into the other girl's eyes. All of the words she had been imagining between her propsed piece on the board and this girl, the pirate queen, suddenly fell fallow in her mouth.
"Well then, bye!" The brown-haired girl dropped from the tree and landed hard in a tumble, scattering fruit everywhere. She rubbed her backside and tittered in pain on the stone below, then looked to the fruit and back up at Ning.
Words came back to Ning. "Wait!" She shouted as quietly as she could. The girl down below ran about in a fluster, evidently torn between collecting the fruits and fleeing. She clearly wanted them, but also...
The words Ning had wanted to say came to mind at last. "I have a contract for you!"
Liyue, the nation of contracts. She had been told constantly, as long as she could remember, that contracts were the foundation of the entire city. To honor them was divine. The word "contract" alone seemed to have magic in it.
Evidently the magic worked, even on pirates and fruit thieves.
"Yes." Ning's voice was shakier than she would have liked. "Those fruits belong to Mama and me, you can't just take them! But if you come up here and talk to me, I'll let you take a few..."
"You just want me to talk to you?" The girl scratched her head. "Really?"
The girl shrugged her shoulders and clambered up the tree again, sitting in the crook of a branch. "What do you want to talk about?"
"Um... The game that you play with the children on the street. Tell me the rules."
"Huh? It's only pirates. You just kind of... play. If you come by tomorrow, you can learn with everyone."
"I can't leave the house. I... as you can see, I'm not normal."
"You're just pale 'cause you've been inside for so long!"
"Mama gets mad when I go out into the light though..."
"Are mamas supposed to do that?"
"I guess so. She says that I'm very delicate."
"Weird. Does that mean I'd have to stay inside all day if I had a mama?"
"You only have a papa?"
"No. It's just me. Well, me and Xiling. She taught me lots of fun shanties!"
"Where do you sleep!?" Ning looked concerned.
"How do you eat?"
The girl just looked at the sunsettias and rubbed her head sheepishly.
Ning ran a hand through her pallid hair. She suddenly realized that she had been totally taken in to the strange girl's pace. She looked to the moon overhead, and back to the remaining fruit in the tree. She would have enough for more nights.
More nights indeed. The unlikely pair quickly grew used to the new nightly routine. Sometimes the girl without a home would bring an apple, or a shiny rock, asking Ning to take care of it, or saying it suited her. Throughout their talks, the rules of the game the children played became clearer and more concise. Often Ning would ask the girl to relay a few plays she wanted to try to a merchant player, and she got to watch the results the next day. Other times she would talk about herself, and her history and how Papa had left at sea and simply never returned. Her mama had been working ever since to bring enough home so that they could eat, but she wasn't sure what Mama did. Surely just the things any adult would do. The most dangerous conversations, however, were nights when the girl attempted to coax her out to play. Efforts that always ended in failure.
Except for one night, when Ning had neglected to put away her model of her street.
"What's that?" The voice from the window startled her.
Ning jumped and flustered to hide the creation. "N-nothing! It's just... a model!"
"A model? I wanna see! Can I?"
"It's not very good..."
"Sure it is, just making something is incredible! C'mon, show it to me, I promise I won't laugh."
Ning eyed her suspiciously before pulling the board into the moonlight.
"Oh wow! It's a street!"
"It's all of Liyue..."
"Is it? But where's Yuehai Pavilion? Or the main street? Or the market under the docks? Or the pharmacy even?"
Ning cocked her head. She had never seen such things from her window.
"You've never seen any of it!? But you live here! You should come and see it!" The girl stepped into the window slightly.
"What are you doing? I can't, Mama said-"
"She said you couldn't go out in the sun. But it's nighttime right now! She's asleep anyway, isn't she? I'll have you back before daybreak!" The girl held out her hand.
The image of her standing in the windowsill, hair blowing in the breeze, was an irresistible invitation. The girl's arguments were sound enough besides. There was no sun out right now, and her mother wouldn't wake for hours. She never did when she had that certain funny smell on her breath. Ning placed her hand in the girl's and was helped down the tree.
She was amazingly strong for her size.
Ning was on the lantern-lit streets of Liyue Harbor. On her own two feet. Stars made their silent journey overhead as she looked at the tiled roofing and errant passers-by. The homeless girl grinned and lightly lobbed a sunsettia to her friend, then took Ning's hand once more, pulling her to a wooden pier that acted as a sort of bridge. This led to a part of town the sheltered girl had never seen before. An incomplete arch served as a gate of sorts for ships both new and old, and were perfectly lined up with a main square of sorts, with a street decorated in vibrant red lanterns. Ning was pulled along the piers, to a small market of carts, filled with pinwheels and the like. Toys unlike any she had seen before lined each. Some had art, or expensive-looking goods. Ning's eyes flitted from pinwheels to stringed balloons, and then from rings to hairpins, where she finally settled. She had often stared at the fancy ornaments that women wore from her window, wondering how the ladies managed to make a bun out of such a thing.
"Oh? I haven't seen you around before. Are you new in town?" A shopkeeper had apparently noticed her intent gaze. "You seem to have an eye for this pin. Does your mother or big sister wear one?"
Ning was totally stupefied. The kindly woman was talking with her. She wasn't sure if she should speak, Mama had always said to keep to herself, away from criminals and thugs, but this was just a toy seller. Ning's friend lightly elbowed her in response.
"Go on, answer her! Miss Shan is a nice lady."
"Hehe, I try to be. I have toys as well for children like you, but you seemed so intent on this that, well... Would you like to try it on?"
Ning looked at the kind smiles of the other two before nodding tentatively. Miss Shan motioned to have her turn around, which she did when her friend took her by the hands and pointed her away while the shopkeeper fussed and tugged lightly.
"There we go, all done. You have very beautiful hair, little one, I hope you continue to keep good care of it." Miss Shan pulled out a mirror so that Ning could look at herself. Her hair was all up in a bun more fitting of a child, simple and out of the way, unlikely to come loose.
"Haha! It fits you perfectly!" The girl laughed loudly, but the sentiment was sincere.
"And you." Miss Shan pointed to the laughing girl. "Come here, let me get the hair out of your eyes so you can match your friend."
"Ah Miss Shan, that kind of stuff doesn't suit me!"
"Nonsense. Your hair is just as pretty and deserves to be treated just as well. Come on now." She held another wooden hairpin and waited. The girl tried to back away but found Ning gazing plaintively. The girl was suddenly powerless and allowed her own pin to be placed, struggling to stop from crying out over the de-tangling of her long, brown hair. Finally, defeated, she sheepishly shrugged her shoulders.
"See? Doesn't fit me at all, does it?"
"No... It does. It looks really nice on you."
"Nah, my hair's all ratty, not like yours."
Miss Shan took the opportunity to speak up. "You should listen to your friend more. You look like ladies of the Qixing itself. You know what? Go on and take those hairpins with you, you look so natural that way that it feels like a shame to take them back."
"Are you sure? We haven't paid and-" Ning started.
"Thank you! I'll keep it safer than anything else I've owned!" The other girl finished.
"My, my. Go on you two." Miss Shan waved them off with a smile.
"C'mon, there's still so much of Feiyun Slope to explore!" The pair sped off for the festive red and the lanterns, taking in every sight and smell that they could. Books and priceless aromas filled the lane, but once or twice, Ning's friend would pull her into a side alley with a wary look.
"Hey! What's wrong?" Ning asked the first time.
"Millelith. The Tianquan's men... Xiling always tells me to stay away from them at night."
"But the Tianquan is the law man. Have you done something wrong?"
"No! Well maybe, just whatever fruit I could make off with to live on. But that's not it. Sometimes the street kids tell stories about how their friends will just disappear after talking to a Millelith at night."
"Maybe they got put in jail..?"
"I don't want to be the one that finds out."
The look in the girl's reddish eyes immediately set Ning on edge. Those were the words of someone who was very firm in their belief. She suddenly felt very alone and scared on the busy street. She squeezed her friend's hand a bit.
"Maybe I should go home... Which way is home?"
"Huh?" The girl snapped to. "Oh, it's... that way." She eventually decided after scanning the night sky, pointing south.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, you live on Chihu Rock, which is south of Feiyun Slope."
"But how do you know where south is?"
"Oh, that's easy, you just find the North Star." She pointed out several bright stars overhead. "That constellation is very important, see how it makes something that looks like a pot or a big spoon if you imagine lines like this? Also, all the stars that make it up have names after the offices of the Qixing. That one's for the Tianquan, that's the Yuheng... One day I'm gonna be one of those stars too! No, I'm going to be greater than all of them! I'll do something so famous that they'll all tell me that I'm the best of all the stars! Like slaying Haishan!"
"You'll be Tianquan... Um... I don't think I ever asked your name."
"It's fine, I don't even have one, hahaha! Just saying 'hey you!' is fine enough for me."
"You have to have a name! Everyone has one."
"Really? Then what's yours?"
"Ning. It's a very simple name but it's mine."
"Ning. It's nice, I like it."
"Then what about you? You've never even thought about naming yourself?"
"Nah, I'm just me. I didn't think they were so important."
"Then... I'll give you a name!" Ning thought long and hard about it, from the markets back to her home in the dark hours. She puzzled over how it should be spelled and what meaning it should have. When they finally left the cover of the shops and restaurants, she checked the sky again for the time, and saw that constellation again. The way it was called, how it was spelled, the way this girl had guided her...
"Beidou. That's what I'll call you. It's a different kind of reading of the Qixing's constellation, but it encompasses all of it, and it even guides people, like you did tonight!"
That's such a goofy name! Hahahaha!" The girl was doubling over in a fit.
"It is not! It's a nice name. Nicer than 'Ning'!" She pouted.
Her friend smiled and placed a hand on Ning's shoulder. "If you give me a name like that, I'll have to live up to it."
"Hmph. You better, then."
Beidou grinned again and took her charge back home.
Ning and Beidou continued to meet secretly, the latter even conveniently forgetting her payment of one sunsettia on some nights. For months this would go on. Each time they would learn something new. Each time Beidou got a little closer to getting Ning to come out into the daylight.
But it would never come to pass.
Ning was startled awake one night by a knock at the entryway. Startled because there was never a knock. Only her and her Mama were here. She thought, for a moment, that perhaps Beidou had gotten brave and come directly to her house. Instead, she found four Millelith, and an opulently-dressed man in front of them all. Her mother was bowing and clasping her hands together.
"-Yes, yes she is exactly as promised! I trust the price is still..?" She came to a stop as Ning came downstairs, nervous over the sudden arrival of the men.
"Is this the girl?" The head man asked.
"Yes, yes!" Ning's mother drew near and put an arm around her. Not as a mother comforting a daughter, but a woman showing off a prized position. "You can check for yourself, this is her natural tone, you won't find another like her in Liyue!"
"Mama..?" Ning stammered, but was shocked into silence as the man drew near, then ran a hand through her hair, pulling some up to check her roots, then forced her mouth open as well and ran a finger up and down her gums. Ning tried to cower into her mother's grasp, but found no warmth.
"I'll be... An albino. This really is something quite rare." He turned from the mother, then knelt to the level of the daughter. "How would you care to serve the Tianquan himself, and be his most important aid?"
"I... I..! Mama who is this man?" She turned in a panic.
The man answered, however. "I am in the private employ of the Tianquan. I manage his more... personal affairs. And he has taken a personal interest in someone like you. So I have come to take you into his service."
"Does that mean Mama is coming too?"
"No. But rest assured she will be very well taken care of, for depriving her of her only daughter. Honored as well."
"But... I don't want... to be alone... Beidou. She um... she needs me too! Will I see her again?"
"Beidou? Who's Beidou?" Her mother's tones turned to ice.
"Beidou is my friend... She looks after me sometimes and-"
"You went out? Without me knowing?" The woman was suddenly looming over the girl.
"Oh dear. You assured us that she was sheltered." The man sighed. "That will cost some of the payment."
"You..." The woman's demeanor broke and she lifted Ning by the shirt. "How could you!? After everything I did to make sure you were perfect!? Where is this Beidou!?" Seeing that she wasn't getting answers from the terrified girl, she turned to the man. "If it's just the one girl then I'll hunt her down, all across Liyue if I have to!! There will be no loose ends, just don't dock the payment!!"
"Hmm... Fine then. You'll receive the halved amount now, and another half when we confirm that it was the correct person."
"Thank you, sir!! Thank you, you won't regret it!!" She turned back to the daughter, who was pressed against the walls, tears streaming from her pinkish eyes. "You!! Who is this Beidou!? Tell me now!!"
Ning was silent, unable to speak to this monster before her. The man shoved the monster away.
"Don't damage the goods. You brought this upon yourself, and you, yourself, will fix it. Men, procure said goods. Securely, if need be. We depart for Yujing Terrace."
Ning was picked up by her arms by two guards. She then realized that she was being taken. She squirmed and cried out in a panic, only to earn a rag in her mouth to silence her pleas to all of Chihu Rock. As she was carried to a carriage she continued to lash out and attempt an escape.
"Sir." One of the guards started. "Is it alright to leave that woman alone to silence the threat?"
"Of course.. A fine, upstanding woman who would sell her own daughter won't mind killing some random street urchin. We'll find out for sure which one it is and pay her upon completion."
Ning went limp at the words.
She had been sold.
When Ning came to, she was aware that she was lying on a very soft bed. It was in the center of a room decorated in gold, occasionally dotted with a pink lacquer flower. For all the ornate decorations, fashionable hair pieces, and well-kept furniture that filled it, it lacked any sense of comfort. No books, or maps, or boards, or toys abounded to soften the purpose of the room. It was only for sleeping, and putting on beautiful things. She couldn't bother to search the shelves and the like, instead crossing to the door, trying the handle. Furtively at first, then louder and louder as panic set in. She had to get out. The door rattled only a small amount though, the most her sickly frame could accomplish. She kept it up until her arms were weak, and even past that, until she slumped against the door. There she would lean, sobbing quietly.
She heard a heavy clatter on the other side, and snapped to attention, then fell inwards as the door opened. Ning was greeted with the sight of a woman's leg. She was in a long qipao, with shoes fit for a court. More importantly than that, though, was the lavish, red-carpeted hall that seemed to go on forever for her. A hall. That meant a building, and that meant...
Ning kipped up and attempted to bolt, only to be immediately caught up by powerful arms. Now she noticed the two large men flanking the woman. They weren't wearing Millelith uniforms. She struggled and strained to get out of their grasp, desperately grabbing at the end of the hall.
"You should really stop trying to run. You're only going to make it harder on yourself in the long run." The woman had a cold, matter-of-fact tone
Ning still tried to squirm out, only half-listening. The cold woman sighed and motioned. The guards brought her inside and threw her to the bed. Ning was held fast as she struggled, but stopped when she heard the clink of metal, and saw a gilded collar hanging from a thick chain in the woman's hand. She pointed to an iron loop embedded in the wall over the bed.
"If it's that hard to control yourself, we'll be forced to use this until you calm down."
Ning stopped struggling, eyes wide and looking from the loop, to the chain, and back.
"Good girl. You are in the Tianquan's private care now. If you behave, you will earn his good graces. If you don't, then you will have privileges removed. Do you understand?"
"I asked you a question. Respond."
"Good. Now then. I am in charge of the Tianquan's private retinue and keeping order among the ladies. You were purchased from your mother for the sum of two-hundred thousand mora. Contracts are supreme here, no, divine even. You were sold as a good, and will conduct yourself as one, less you incur the wrath of both contractors, and Rex Lapis himself."
"But..." Ning managed to squeak.
"No buts. This is the law, as set by the master of laws. Anything can be the subject of a contract. Unless you mean to tell me you can provide full recompense equal to your value, plus interest. Do you mean to tell me this?"
Ning stammered, eyes wide.
"Precisely. We will keep exacting totals of your current debt. If you perform well, then perhaps one day it might be cancelled at the discretion of the Tianquan. Until then, you will taught to be useful to him. You will be placed in the care of another of my girls and learn the craft from her. Do you have any questions?"
Ning sulked, drawing her knees up to her. A single word escaped, more than a question for the woman's words, but to the universe itself.
"Simple." The woman answered. "This is where you value lies. You are a fragile rarity. Here is where you have the most worth. Nothing more, nothing less." The woman got up and made for the door. Ning didn't even bother to run for it. Instead, she sat curled into a ball, crying silently.
The next years of Ning's life would forever come back to her mind in fits and snatches. Memories of the woman, Jia Li, who was her "tutor". It was a stretched definition, to be sure. Jia Li would teach her how to dress her hair and apply makeup. Ning had to be careful with hers, the pale powder was different from most tones, and was very hard to get ahold of. Jia Li would do her best to assuage mistakes, but all Ning could think of was the cost of each speck as another debt. Sometimes Jia Li would sing to her, late at night when she would cry. Other times the cloying smell of smoke gripped her, and she would forgo lessons and calmly assuage Ning.
She wasn't sure what the soft hugs costed, but kept a tally all the same.
Eventually she was introduced to women besides Jia Li, who all welcomed her warmly, but also with looks of what Ning later understood to be pity along with whispers saying how young she was. Through them, she absorbed stories of the outside world from any who knew. It seemed their own recollections were limited. The Rite of Descension occurring, gossip about restaurants. News about a vigilante wandering the docks. Sometimes news about the other Qixing. Time passed in this manner for Ning, who greedily ate up news about the sunlit world and dutifully attended Jia Li's lessons, all for the privilege of books and writing supplies. Whatever she wrote was taken far away from her, but the books remained. Until the day she noticed she had been outgrowing her old dresses at an alarming rate. More than that though, Jia Li said she was growing into a young woman now.
That was the first time she met the Tianquan. He was an opulent, middle-aged man with short black hair, and a shifty look in his eye. His hand was covered in rings, the same he used to grasp Ning's chin.
"Yes... Very beautiful indeed. You were well worth the investment."
His voice turned her stomach.
"Have her attend tonight." He said off to the side. "It's time for her to learn her duty."
Ning remembered Jia Li's hand on her shoulder, and the look in her eyes as she helped do her make-up, and fit her into a new qipao.
Ning learned what her duty was to be that night, among the tangle of the man and chosen woman.
Her lessons were never the same after that. Instead of looking beautiful, it was "acting beautiful", as Jia Li put it. She was forced to watch. Forced to learn... techniques. More than she wanted to know.
Later in the year, or years, she would learn to apply them firsthand. She felt burned alive by the wrongness of it all. She held it together just long enough to see herself to Jia Li, who did the only thing she knew to comfort her, and offered her pipe to Ning to take a breath of. To calm her, she had said.
It grew to be a habit, the nights she had her "duty".
She had to get out. The smoke could calm her panic, but not her disgust. Each time, she grew more and more hateful of her circumstance, pacing her room late one night.
The thoughts riled and bounced in her head. Money. Money had gotten her into this mess. Money was everything. Money bought the perfect gilded cage. Money bought all of these people. Money, forever out of her grasp, because of money itself. Without it, she would just be a slave forever.
There must be some way forward. somewhere out there. If she could just get her hands on a single coin, just one, and put it to use in the outside world, she could make it into two coins. Then four. She just needed a start that wasn't beholden to the Tianquan.
That was her new goal. Contempt was a powerful motivator. She had to find a way to gain money, then invest it. She also needed to know more about the outside world. That was her second request. Instead of books, she asked for newspapers, trying to keep up with a world she could never see. Secretly, she would copy articles and pin them to a board, connecting details with string. Planning movements on a model like she used to when she was younger.
When she was free. Her hand tightened.
News about business dealings and openings, new market trends, sudden success stories, and more tangled with one another. The fishers brought in record catches, that made cheap fish dishes popular. Seafood restaurants recorded record earnings. Merchant logs were recorded as well. Ships listed to captains recorded their earnings and co-operated missions.
One name above all others, halting her in her tracks.
She couldn't believe it. The girl was... alive. She was out there. She also gained no purchase in a fleet, never listed in a co-op. She was only newly listed for two weeks, and the third... was news of her impending arrest. Captain Beidou was ordered to appear before the Tianquan in one week's time or suffer the consequences.
The charge was the murder of one Miss Liu.
"Mama..." Ning couldn't help but say under her breath. She traced her fingers over the paper time and again. A plan twisting in her mind. A long-shot plan, but with this girl...
A coy smile twisted her lips. She knew what must be done.
The first step was speak to Jia Li.
"Jia Li. I have... A favor to ask of you." Ning approached her room.
" Hm? What is it, dear?" The woman was languidly lying in bed with her pipe.
"I need mora... There is something I wish to buy."
"You know you're not allowed to the markets because of your... condition, dear. You can just-"
"No! No, I need mora. I need to own mora. Even in a loan."
"Everything we own belongs to the Tianquan, though. I can't give you any of my spending money or anything. What's wrong, Ning? Why are you so desperate for this?"
"... I have my reasons."
"You can tell me, I won't laugh."
"I wish to make a wager of sorts. The ships. I want to invest in a voyage and see if I have any talent for picking the correct ones. I would rather not waste the Tianquan's mora on such a frivolous thing, though. Frankly, I'd rather keep this hobby a secret."
"Nothing is secret where the Tianquan is involved. More than that, is this something that is really, really important to you?"
"More than anything. A woman has to explore her talents, does she not? Think of how much more value I can bring if it's found that I have a knack for multiplying mora."
"I can tell you're lying. But I can also tell that this is important... What are you up to, Ning?"
"I am just betting."
"... I have ten thousand mora I can give you. It's earnings from a successful little restaurant on Chihu Rock, back before I was... this. I gave one thousand to own a little piece in return, back then. Really though, Ning, what are you up to?"
"Why, I am going to buy the sun, of course." Ning turned with her practiced smile.
"Honored Tianquan, I... was wondering if I may make a special request of a sort." Ning had to swallow her bile back as she cooed lightly to the man who had, until just recently, been atop her.
"What is it? If it's for my precious jewel I can't imagine it would be too difficult."
"I wish to implore to you. The captain that is demanded for trial. I wish to oversee it. Even in secret."
"Oversee a trial? Such affairs are well beyond anything you need to worry over."
"Please, Honored Tianquan. I only wish to know more of you and your work firsthand. And a murder trial that has made it to the newspapers, that you graciously grant me, must surely be the most exciting show of your profession. And she... She killed my mother. I have no love of her, but I must know the end."
The Tianquan huffed and mulled it over, placing hand to chin. Ning lightly placed her finger on the scale, cooing lightly and showing attention in the manner she was forced to learn.
"Very well... But you must be silent, and mask yourself. Also, you must not leave the private viewing gallery. I should be very, very disappointed if you do."
"Your word is as law, Tianquan." Ning agreed falsely.
Ning watched from her perch over the golden court. In a nearby satchel, she had her promissory note in the amount of ten-thousand mora, duly signed and legal. The gallery was chattering with one another, awaiting the largest case of the day. Everyone anticipating the Millelith to drag her into the court in chains.
Instead, the woman slammed the doors wide and entered on her own power. Arms free and a bright grin on her face. A single reddish eye gleamed, the other covered by a red strip of cloth. He hair fell to the middle of her back. What would only catch Ning's eye, though, was that half of her hair was pulled back by a hairpin, keeping her vision clear.
"Well now, well now! I didn't expect an entire summons just for little old me!" Beidou was grandstanding in the court of one of the Qixing.
"Miss... Beidou. Is it?" The Tianquan was supremely unimpressed.
"Captain!" she corrected with a grin.
"Bold attitude for one accused of the murder of Miss Liu."
"Murder!? That woman took out my eye, and nearly me along with it!" Beidou stamped back and forth awhile.
"Do you have any proof of this accusation?"
"Yeah! This!" Beidou raised her eye patch, showing the hollow where there was once a perfect eye. An eye not far from Ning's own color.
"You could have put it out any number of ways. Why should we believe that story?"
"'Cause it's the truth! I'd swear on Rex Lapis' own hide if I could."
"Then tell us your full story, and let one of his loyal retinue be the judge." The Tianquan motioned to the side, where a woman with blue hair and red horns stood. "You would not dare lie to a qilin would you?"
"I wouldn't lie to anyone, simple as that."
"Then... If you could tell me the whole story."
"Fine then. It started years ago, when I was just a little kid. I was just some street rat, but a nice girl would give me fruit if I talked to her. So I climbed the tree, like any other night, but she wasn't there. She was never there, anymore... But of course I kept looking for her! I kept going to her room until one night. I saw it too late. Glint of steel, she got my eye and I fell from the tree. That Liu... I know it was her, I looked up and saw her hanging from the window. It hurt, I was confused, so I ran. I want the record to show this! I was attacked totally unprovoked and I ran from her. I kept really far away after that..."
"Any sign of your friend?" The Tianquan interrupted.
"... No. I would only learn later on that-" Beidou's eye found its way to the upper gallery. Ning had let her mask slip, showing her pink eyes and a strand of white hair. Beidou froze in place, just staring. "I would only learn later on that her own mother sold her into slavery."
"Slavery!?" The Tianquan looked from Beidou, up to the gallery, but there was no trace of Ning there. "What a preposterous idea! Slavery in Liyue. You are clearly lying as a cover story!"
"Never call me a liar, Tianquan. That woman hounded me for years. Assassins were sent after my crew and I when I became a sailor. Merchants I wanted to sail for were all threatened. When even that wasn't enough to stop me, I saw her one more time. She had some thugs with her and in the battle, I had to kill her. But what I don't get..." She paused and motioned to the room. "...Is where a woman who was so poor suddenly got the money to hire assassins, against a street rat and sailor. Why, the only person who-"
"THAT IS ENOUGH!!" The Tianquan shouted over the young woman. "Your stories of taking on assassins and thugs, and killing Liu herself as though she were some gang leader... Your story is as preposterous as it could be."
"Sir... she's not... I don't think..." The qilin started, only to be dismissed with a wave.
"Then she believes her own delusions so thoroughly that she is a danger to herself and others! I sentence you, Beidou. According to the laws of this land, you can offer one punishment to the court for consideration. What do you think you deserve?"
Beidou grit her teeth and looked like she was about to snap. Instead, she paced and looked all around the court, eventually to the high balcony she had seen...
Now there were two objects on the banister. Relics from a past life. Small beads that once denoted the roles of a children's game. A merchant, and the queen pirate. The old game pieces Ning played with, and wanted to play again, by the look of it. Pirates...
"Haishan..." The word came to her naturally. "If you're really going to call me a killer, then I offer you a service to Liyue only a killer can complete! I'll slay the great monster of the sea! Haishan himself!!"
The court was utterly silent. Disbelief froze the voices of everyone inside. The Tianquan was the first to regain his senses.
"You will go out to sea to slay Haishan, crew or no, never return to Liyue Harbor until you slay him, and bring proof back?"
"A fool's errand. You should be put to death."
The qilin in the room raised her voice. "Sir! To do so while we're so close to the Rite of Descension! Rex Lapis would never grace us with blood on the stones of Liyue."
The Tianquan huffed and grit his teeth. He waved his hand and commanded the room once more. "Fine then. Go. Leave and do not return to the Archon's sainted earth until you bring back the head of Haishan!"
Beidou saluted in a half-mocking way and left easily, cracking her knuckles on the way out onto Yujing Terrace. She stretched and cracked her back too as the Millelith eyed her suspiciously. Eyed her, but did not intercede when a woman in a black cloak approached.
"My... The ferocious Captain Beidou, sentenced to death in such a gruesome way."
"Sentenced to death? Pft, not likely! I'll overcome anything put in front of me. But maybe you already know that, old-" A finger was placed on Beidou's lips as she went to cross the distance between the two of them.
"We'll get to talk, but only if you're successful on our venture."
The cloaked woman held out the promissory note. Ten-thousand mora. Beidou looked at it with the eye of someone who had never seen the amount written, let alone be in her hand.
"I buy stake in your expedition in the sum of ten-thousand Mora. I expect a return equal in percentage to what I put in."
"Wait, wait. What does all of this mean, how did you? You were-!"
"If you want it to be fixed then achieve your lifelong dream. If you do we will meet again. If you do not, then... Well you will not be able to miss me, anyway. Listen carefully, Beidou. Keep these next words close..."
Ning was brought into a cold, stone chamber. Her arms were chained firmly to the walls. She didn't try to resist, she knew that this was something she would have to endure when she first thought of her plan.
The Tianquan bared his teeth and snapped his fingers. She knew he never got his hands dirty with this line of work, leaving it to the professionals. Like the man beside him who lashed at Ning's arm with a whip.
"That woman. Beidou... How is it that you know her?"
"She's just some street rat. I didn't think she would be my mother's killer!" The whip stung her.
"Your lying is too easy to see through. I talked to the procurer after the trial. He says you mentioned a "Beidou". And this woman said she was nearly killed by your own mother while looking for her friend. My only regret in this is not seeing through your deception sooner. If I had kept track of this one thing, then we wouldn't be in this predicament now. All of that trust. Gone.
"I'm curious, did you think that woman would save you somehow?"
"No... I don't need saving. I admit... I only wanted to see my childhood friend again."
"If that's your story, then so be it. Let's see how many times it changes tonight. If you will." He motioned to his hired muscle, who kept up with his whip work until what Ning assumed was late into the night.
Her story remained as sturdy as the stone walls. It was, after all, the truth. She knew how far a shot she had made, how much could go wrong. To her, it was as good as just wanting to say goodbye to the girl who had once pulled her around Feiyun Slope. And a gratitude to the woman who had ended one source of her nightmares.
The last words she heard before she passed out were orders that it was time to mark her.
Ning woke to harsh pains on her arms, and soreness upon her thigh. She tried to gather herself in the dark. She could always see well in the gloom. She saw the lacerations that straining in the cuffs made, and the remains welts up and down her arms. Both were a warning. Her body was precious, a commodity, but its value would be reduced until she held no worth left, if it came to it. She was irreplaceable, but easy to let go of.
She tried to see her leg in what little moonlight came from under the door. A snakey, swirling design was on it, and while she could barely make out any detail, she remembered when Beidou had once answered her question when she pointed and asked what the mark on someone's arm was.
Beidou said it was the mark of an irredeemable criminal.
This mark would be easy to hide. It was just another warning. She could still go out once again, if she behaved. She gave off a twisted grin in response to the realization. Her next move was already playing out. All she has to do is put on the airs of a quiet, obedient object and silently work on her own end.
Months would pass by. The first month, she was rarely allowed to leave her room. The second, she was under the strictest supervision. But the more she cowered and bowed, the more privileges she would win back. Notably talking to Jia Li, the only other reader of news and records in the house. She would spend most of her time talking to the woman, but when either partook in their shared bad habit, Ning gently coaxed news from her, well out of earshot of the others. No news about the departed and disgraced "fleet". The name of said fleet, in reality only a single listed ship, caused no end of mirth in Ning. The crux of their plans was the Crux Fleet. Two months, and then three without any news whatsoever. On the fourth month, it was declared missing in action.
Ning still clung to her next move. She would have to await a new arrival to the chambers, and be most agreeable for the chance at becoming her tutor.
Her patience would be rewarded. A group of three would be introduced late one evening, all thrown into different rooms. Not just three different girls, that wasn't rare enough for the Tianquan, but triplets. Baishi, Baiwen, and Baixiao. They must have cost the man a fortune, not just for the set, but they were all older than she had been, and had clearly seen more sunlight. The hazard cost must have been enormous.
Ning's plan was to buy them right out from under him. She angled herself to become their tutor, as Jia Li did for her. She was to groom them, and by doing so, remove some of her own disgrace. She would meet with them all, teaching them how to apply makeup, and quickly learned that Baishi had very poor eyesight. This was the first stepping stone.
The triplets were gathered into one room that had been prepared. It was down one level from the main floor, a floor with windows. Thought the blinds were shut, Ning reveled at the dappled sun that shone though on her way to them all. When she arrived, the first thing she did was hold out a pair of glasses in one gloved hand.
"Baishi, will you try these on?" She said with a soft smile. When the girl stammered and froze, she continued. "I'm afraid I don't know the exact make you need, but hopefully they will help, even a little."
Baishi finally spoke. "B-But I was told that-"
"Then you had better keep them our little secret, don't you think?" Ning held a finger to her lips and winked.
Baishi put them on without further protest.
"Now then... You three. You... I'm so sorry for you to have come here. Do you know why?"
"We were sold." Baixiao, the girl in short twintails, said.
"Uncle wouldn't just sell us like that!" Baishi yelled back. "He had to be coerced, or manipulated!"
"Uncle never cared for us. Those are just the facts, Shi." Baiwen blankly concluded.
"You're wrong! You're both wrong!" Baishi stood and shouted at the other two. As she stood, though, her head bumped into the palm of Ning, who gently patted the girl.
"It's difficult, isn't it? These doubts and accusations, I lived through them as well when my own mother sold me to the Tianquan's men."
"You were sold..?" Baishi asked.
"Yes. I had a childhood, just like you all. Well, perhaps mine was a bit different."
"How different can it be?" Baiwen inched forward. The mood was slowly easing. Good.
"Well, as you can see, I'm very pale. An albino. The sunlight is very harsh for me, so I was kept inside most of the day long, unable to make any friends. Until I met a homeless girl. I gave her food to talk to me." Ning noticed that the triplets were all intent on her. Exactly as she wanted. She invested her time in the three of them, not just teaching them how to do their makeup in the proper way, or carry themselves well, but secretly and late at night cultivated their own talents. Baiwen had a knack for reading and memorization. Baixiao, however, quickly took to games that involved reading the intentions of others. Baishi... Was a bit of a klutz. Ning mostly attributed to her poor vision, but even if she was like this with full sight, she had other traits. Namely how dedicated she was to any of Ning's lessons. Often practicing them again and again. Even the "fake" lessons of fashion and dressing.
Secrecy all in the name of earning something important.
Ning's plans were put into jeopardy after another two months. The chamber mistress came to see her.
"Ning. You have a new directive for the triplets."
"So soon? Do they not need more teaching, first?"
"These are the master's orders. Get them comfortable with one another."
Ning instantly knew the meaning of the words.
"Very well." She said, biting back excuses and reasons to hold off.
"Start tonight. Ease them into it."
Ning bowed to the mistress as she left. She would have to do it, there was no arguing that. She would have to continue the cycle one more time. She opened the door and saw the three girls. Baiwen and Baixiao were playing a game of chess with one another. Baishi turned from her hair-dressing practice and gave Ning a large, emphatic grin. They were all just sitting. Innocently awaiting her.
Ning clenched her hand at the sight, and closed the door behind her.
"I have something to tell yo-"
"Oh, Ning! Look, look!" Baishi interrupted. "See? I can do the same style you have now! I've even been practicing a few more, if you want to see them!"
"Shi, you interrupted her." Baixiao said with a deadpan look.
"I did? Oh... sorry..." The first looked away sheepishly.
Ning was silent.
"What did you want to talk to us about?" Baiwen asked.
"I've been asked to teach you something new..." Ning started. She felt a tremor in her hand. "You girls... Do you fully understand what manner of place this is?"
The three looked at each other. Not to collaborate, it seemed, but to elect one to answer.
"It's a slave harem." Baiwen said at long last.
"You're supposed to teach us how to to be of 'service', aren't you?" Baixiao sadly clacked a piece on the chessboard forward.
"Yes." Ning simply answered. She looked at the girls again. The resignation on Baixiao, the blank, distant stare on Baiwen, and the look of disbelief on Baishi.
This wasn't the winning move at all. The looks of hurt cut deeply, more so than a whip. The next words however...
"Ning... if you have to... If it's you, I mean, then, I know you don't have a..." Baishi stammered.
Ning raised her hand.
"I have no intentions on following any such program. We will continue to meet and pursue your private studies. I swear that I will protect you for as long as I'm able to."
She saw a sliver of light return to the girls' eyes. Baixiao was the first to question it.
"But, won't you get in trouble when they find out that you haven't been teaching us anything?"
"It's fine. I've been punished before for worse. Who knows? Maybe before then, my investment will come through."
"Investment?" Baiwen perked up.
"Yes. I wish to buy the sun."
It would be another six months of secret visits. Another six months of not only teaching, but learning anything they could get their hands on. Ning was intent on giving them all as much knowledge about the outside world as she could manage to scrape together. Stories about the exploits of famous merchants, new reports on earnings and discussing why things had turned. Above all else, though, was keeping the triplets safe.
Ning always told herself that it was the price to buy their loyalty. Just a business transaction. Most of the time, the line worked on herself. She had to be emotionally distant, if only because after all this time, her treasure was lost at sea.
At the end of the sixth month of pretend, the safety was broken by the rude entry of the mistress one evening, when Ning was discussing a book with the triplets. Ning acutely remembered the stillness in the room as she entered, and the look of disdain that she met with a sly smile.
"What is the meaning of this, Ning?" The mistress scowled.
"Why, I am getting the girls comfortable, of course. We enjoy reading together."
Ning's joke stuck in the air like a rebel flag. She knew full well what she was doing, she was shielding them as long as she was able.
"You have been subverting the will of the master and the sanctity of this place for six months? Truly, Ning, I had thought you had learned from your warning. Now there will have to be punished." She snapped her fingers and three burly guards came into the room. "Take Ning to her punishment. These three will watch. What a shame that this is their first incentive. You could have taught them all of the good things they could feel, instead they will learn the price of disobeying."
Ning hid her smile deep inside her heart. It wasn't her that was hurting these precious girls. That was all that mattered right now. One small, pyrrhic victory.
Ning was chained to the wall once more. She felt the chill of the walls on her skin.
This time, she wouldn't be warned.
This time, her blood hit the floor.
She kept up the bravest face she could manage as the triplets looked on in terror at her bleeding arms.
Why was it the arms? Ning wondered, trying to keep her mind on something other than the pain. To keep her weak? Or because the Tianquan didn't care about that part, so they were the first to go?
When the questions ran dry, she desperately searched for another line of thought. Anything would do.
Thunder so loud she could hear it all the way down into the cell. Thunder that threatened to tear the very sky open. Thunder that she imagined would collapse the entire foul complex around her.
Ning fainted as the last peal rang.
The port of Liyue was abuzz and still all at once. Three ships had pulled into port. A small skiff of Liyue, a larger mercantile ship, and a ship of Inazuma design. More than just a rare set of three, though, the people were stranger still. A burly man with a brown beard and joyful attitude stood alongside a man in traditional Inazuma clothing, and between them, a woman in a sailing outfit, one eye covered by a red cloth. Bandages peeked out of her clothes, and down one arm. A violet jewel hung from a thick chain that served as a belt. Not just a jewel, as everyone could see, but a Vision.
The Vision was not the only prize the motley crew carried. From the larger ship, a cart was wheeled off. It bore an enormous serpentine head within. The head that any old sailor could say the name of. Haishan himself, the terror of the seas. Any who dared venture further up the docks would see that it wasn't just the head, the entire rest of the serpent's body was towed behind.
"Juza. Get Zhang Shun some care first, then go find our buyer. The voyage isn't over yet." Beidou solemnly stated to her chief mate.
"Aye, Captain. What of the ones lost? Should I send-"
"I'll talk to their families. Personally."
"'Til then, Hiro." She spoke to the Inazuma native.
"Yes, Captain Beidou?"
"You'll be fully compensated, as promised. I'm afraid I don't have enough to keep you 'til then. Wait a day for the bounties to come in?"
"Captain, you hardly need to treat this as strictly business. You received the blessing of the Raiden Shogun herself. Your word is eternally good with me."
"Appreciate it, then." Beidou cracked her knuckles. It would be a short time before she could fully call herself "ashore". Not until she marched to Yujing Terrace.
The Tianquan would only have a day to prepare. There were no rumors of return, or whispers of tussels with the great serpent in the weeks before. The captain had just appeared as if by magic one day.
Just the way Beidou wanted it when she slammed aside the giant doors to the hearing chamber. Juza, Hiro, and a woman with her hair in a bun and spectacles on her nose all followed in after the captain.
"Slayed your stupid sea snake." Beidou said simply, motioning back through the still-opened doors, to where the head lay on a cart. "I fulfilled the contract, services rendered. I believe that means I'm a free woman."
"You... Beidou. You expect me to believe that a singular woman with a singular ship took down the great serpent?"
"Proof's right out there."
"How do you intend to prove that it was you who laid the killing blow? How do we know that you are not taking credit for the work of another?"
Beidou smirked and looked to Hiro, who nodded her on. They both knew the man was desperate.
"'Cause the Raiden Shogun herself recognized my act! I cut the head off Haishan after four days of fighting with only myself, and the ones who'd join my crew!" She took her Vision and held it high.
The blue-haired qilin in the court gasped. "That... It really is an Electro Vision!"
"This must simply be the Vision of the man next to-"
"Tianquan, I must implore you not to besmirch the gifts of my lady the Archon." Hiro had a dangerous smile. "I saw as Captain Beidou slayed Haishan with a single mighty swing. I watched as she was recognized in a flash of lighting that morning. To call someone who will be recognized by eternity a liar in front of one of the Shogun's itinerants is... Unwise."
"He is telling the truth." The qilin said, before the Tianquan could interrupt again. The court was abuzz. A tiny fleet had slain the serpent. This woman had dealt the final blow.
"...Fine then. You have performed you service. Forfeit the remains of the great beast and you shall henceforth-"
"No can do, Tianquan." Beidou grinned. "Sorry, the contract was for a service. You didn't say anything about what to do with the body, so we sold it."
"It's what I just said, isn't it? The service itself repaid the contract, isn't that right, bookkeeper?" Beidou motioned to the bespectacled woman, who nodded emphatically. "So the spoils of the body, taken in at our own peril, are ours."
The Tianquan knew when he was defeated. He would have to leverage his closest eye on the woman. "Fine then. A contract is a contract. Begone, Beidou, you're fulfilled."
The Tianquan did not know when he was defeated.
"Sure, sure. Right after I deliver a return on investment." Beidou motioned and the bookkeeper handed her a parchment. She kept her confident smile and showed it all around, clearly addressing the room at large. "The Crux Fleet received an investment of ten-thousand mora. After everything, her return of the profits per percentage invested.... Is ten million mora. With options for more depending on final sales, blah blah blah, boring financial stuff. You get it, I must personally deliver this to the investor because of the amount that she is due to collect."
"Then go and do so. This is hardly a matter for the court."
"But Tianquan, the investor is a lady in your employ."
The room seemed to freeze over.
Beidou continued, she knew when she had the room's attention. "This promissory note of payment is for Miss Ning. I believe she is in your private manor."
"...Enough. There is no such person. Your criminality is only-"
"I'm not finished. Yes, she's in there. Along with how many other women now?" Beidou held up another note. "Return on investment due to one Lady Ning, Third floor of the private manor of the Tianquan, third door on the left. Remove the sealing bar if impeded. Well? These are exacting notes. Signed by both myself and my investor. Millelith! Do I not have a contractual obligation to swiftly carry this to the owner?"
Murmurs were broken by a shout.
"ENOUGH!! This slander will not stand in my court!! I know not what your game is but I am the law here, I will decide how this matter is conducted!!"
"And I say I'm going to go deliver this note! Nothing in Liyue is more sacred than a contract! Or are Rex Lapis' words just hollow here!?" She stared down the Tianquan, then looked to the qilin girl.
"Soldiers! Arrest this woman and her crew!! IMMEDIATELY!!"
"Halt." The girl's soft voice brought the room to a standstill. "Millelith, I am assuming a commanding role, in... in accordance with my personal contract with Rex Lapis."
"Your role is to be my secretary!! You shall do no such-"
"You are wrong." It felt like anger itself was silenced around her. "I am the secretary to the entirety of the Liyue Qixing. Serious accusations have been brought against you, and you are impeding the fulfillment of a contract. In the name of the Geo Archon, I will take command of the Millelith until the matter is resolved." She left his side and attended to Beidou. "I am Ganyu, secretary to the Liyue Qixing as a whole."
Beidou held out a hand to shake, but her remaining eye went wide when she saw a golden glow from the Tianquan's chest. She grabbed the girl and pulled her claymore out in front of her, shielding from a spire of stone and knocking her back with a grunt.
"I am blessed by the Geo Archon! Rex Lapis himself recognizes my righteousness! This is insubordination of the highest!! Order!!"
Ganyu looked on in horror, "You can't! To use a Geo Vision like this... it's disgusting! You heathen!!"
Beidou gently moved Ganyu out of the way and waved her crew to stand behind her. She rolled her shoulder and swung her claymore to the ready.
"I've fought things far tougher than you. If you think you have anything that can break me, feel free to test yourself here and now." Her voice was a dangerous growl, and electricity crackled in the air.
The man sent another pillar at her. She swung her blade and shattered it utterly. She took a step forward. A rock was hurled at her and she took it in the shoulder, easily rolling it off. A larger gilded boulder was created over the man's head, and he flung it at her. Beido firmed her stance and let the electricity flow freely down her blade.
"Back off!" A wicked slice not only weathered the blow, but crumbled the assault utterly. The Tianquan was cowering. He would raise his Vision one more time, before he noticed the spears of his own guard alongside the tip of Beidou's weapon.
"I get the feeling that Ganyu is about to say that you're under arrest. Fork over the Vision."
Ning languished in the small, cold cell. She wondered how many days it had been since the thunder rang out. Her arms were still shackled to the wall, the wounds still open to the air.
She wondered the fate of the triplets. She wondered if they were already...
She had done the best she could. Not good enough. Perhaps the next-
Thunder. It was thundering again. So powerful that it shook the foundations of even the stone room. It must be herself shaking, not the walls. It must be the chill air that made her skin prickle, not an electric feeling. She was daydreaming again, she was sure. She tried to quiet her hopes. Her hopes had been what had gotten her here, and for what? The triplets would still be...
Her hope had to be kept down.
It was, until thunder shook her walls once more. This time with such force and such a rattle, she couldn't help but look for a source. The iron door fell inwards. A woman with a single red eye stood there, and behind her were three familiar faces.
Ning let herself go limp as Beidou broke the chains and scooped her close. She called for something to wrap the young woman in.
Thunder had torn down her prison, and now it was lightly carrying her away from the ruins.
"Hey... Ning. I'm sorry that I took so long. I'm so, so sorry."
"You... actually went along with my plan."
"I prefer to think of it as our plan." Beidou's attempt at humor was quickly abandoned. "Yes."
"I... win." Ning said, too quietly to be heard.
Her last memories, among the din of the Millelith and the crew of the Crux, were when Beidou took her out into the midafternoon sun. The light burned into her like a cleansing fire. Burning away nightmares in a baptism of her very own. She had bet everything, and taken the light back.
Light... the character for light...
Chapter 2: Part 2: Light to All
Years have passed, and Ning has grown into a young woman who is poised to take all of Liyue to heel. But it can be difficult to remember why you began to climb in the first place, at times.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Ning stood on Yujing Terrace for the first time in a month. She was scanning the skies overhead, apparently wondering over something.
"Lady Ning! Oh, your parasol! Please be careful!" Baishi's voice made an attempt to cut into her inner monologue.
Ning didn't grasp for the umbrella that was pushed on her. Instead saying, "I prefer to be in the light, thank you."
"Oh... Okay, yes, if that's what you want."
"Shi, are you bothering Lady Ning again?" Baixiao asked.
"I am not, Xiao! I'm just being a secretary, like Wen is doing with all her papers!" Baishi huffed and adjusted her glasses. Then more sheepishly turned to Ning. "R-right?"
"Exactly so, Baishi. I expect nothing less from the woman who makes me so presentable each morning."
Baishi stuck her tongue out at her sister, who huffed and shrugged as a result. Baixiao turned and began a question.
"What are you thinking about, Lady Ning?"
"I am thinking about how I can achieve a vision I've had lately. Those floating islands near the mountains, what are they made of?"
Baiwen stepped forward. "A mineral called plaustrite, Lady Ning."
"How much would it cost?"
"Plaustrite baubles tend to be in the range of five to-"
"Ton!? Ahem. I mean, per ton? I am unaware. It is not a common building material outside of the Lantern Rite Festival. I can have estimates done in two days' time and check them against festival records."
"Lady Ning, are you trying to build a really big lantern? Or floating house?" Baishi asked.
"I have an idea to do so. It's fitting, is it not? The rich in Liyue live as near to the clouds as the adepti do. Each merchant competes to earn the highest seat. How fitting would it be, what a show it is, to win out over them all in the position highest to the sun?"
To take that spot and put everyone else into the shadows?
Baixiao spoke up. "Lady Ning, you have a lofty goal, don't you? How can we accomplish it?"
"The first step is to earn a spot at a higher stakes table. Can any of you girls tell me the very first part of achieving that?"
Baiwen and Baixiao looked to one another. Then looked at their sister in shock when she was the one to answer.
"A showy name! All of the noble types have fancy names, it's the first impression you'll ever make on them!"
"My thoughts exactly, Baishi."
"Then, I can help you with spelling and finding something."
"No need, I've already thought of it. It is the name I will be using going forward. The day I took back the light. That character, I will add it to my own name.
"Ningguang. Is this amenable to you three?"
The other three made a short bow. "Lady Ningguang."
"Will you continue to go forward with me? Your assistance since our freedom has been most agreeable. I would not have made it this far without you."
The triplets performed their habit, where they looked to one another to decide which would speak. This time it was Baishi.
"Of course, Lady Ningguang! You can always count on us."
"Hmm, these are all fine choices. I would prefer, however, something with a higher slit." Ningguang puzzled over the various articles laid out over the bed. She had been a shadow investor for long enough, it was getting closer to her time to debut, as it were.
"A higher slit? I have a few, of course. Do you need a shawl piece to keep your leg hidden? It's a surprising look! Just knowing the slit is there is enough to make some people swoon."
"Hehe... I am sure. I have no intention of keeping my leg hidden, though. Quite the opposite, I wish to show it to the world."
Baishi's response was stammering that would eventually find its way to the words, "I- I- I-! Um... Showing... You see, I understand but, with the history of..."
"You are concerned about me showing off the mark of a criminal."
"I'm sorry, Lady Ningguang. I know you must have some reason, but I don't see it yet."
"Then allow me. This mark could have only only been ordered by the previous Tianquan. A disgraced man's mark only serves to show anyone in the know a portion of what we have endured. Whether they know the full extent of his activities or not."
"Then, shall I take the gloves as well?"
"No, those may stay a part of the outfit. I agree with what you said about the clawed fingers. Besides, the marks on them, while they tell the same story, don't do so in the same way." Ningguang decided against mentioning that it was also because she noticed that the triplets would get a sad, distant look when they saw them.
"Ah, I see what you mean. Then, perhaps with the golden- Oh no! I haven't brushed your hair yet! Hold on, I'll start right away."
"We have plenty of time." Ningguang stated calmly.
"Plenty of time for what?" There was a new voice in the room. The source was Beidou, who was fussing and tugging at her own elegant red qipao.
"Hey! Quit messing with that, it's super expensive!" Baishi shouted.
"I can't help it! This is weird!"
"Typical. Should I get you a formal suit instead? Maybe a gold and auburn piece?"
"No not the dress, I'm used to wearing a dress. I mean having my shoulders so bare. Usually have to cover them out on the deck of a ship."
"Ugh! Fine, there's a shawl with fur trim in the closet, second box from the bottom, third from the left. It should match."
Ningguang smiled as she heard the ruffling sounds from the closet, and held it as Beidou adjusted her new cape and gave a grin of approval within sight.
"Thank you again for attending to me tonight, Beidou. Your appearance at my side is certain to be beneficial to the both of us. Everyone will make note."
"Eh, if you say so. I don't really care about all this appearance stuff. Honestly I'd rather be back at Chihu Rock, drinking with my crew."
"All the more reason for my gratitude, then."
"Bah... You asked me, after all. What else am I supposed to do?" Beidou sat on the bed and crossed her legs.
Beidou's huff and fluster only served to make Ningguang giggle.
"So what's the big idea? You're really rich now, you don't need to play with all these stuffed shirts."
"It is because I have a desire to win the game."
"Game?" Beidou shifted uneasily.
"Yes. All of Liyue's mercantile dealings... If you step back, does it not resemble a giant board game? Where the biggest players trod upon others?"
"I wouldn't know, all I do is keep my eyes on my crew and keep them from getting stepped on. That's good enough for me."
"Hmm." Ningguang dropped the topic. She kept the next line within, wondering if the captain saw her as "crew".
Legends were in the air over the course of the next six years, since the debut of Lady Ningguang and her escort, Captain Beidou herself. They would both quickly skyrocket in fame. Beidou's exploits at sea and the swaths of treasure that the Alcor and the Crux Fleet brought in made her a commonly spoken name on the docks. Not only for her treasures, but for the way she bumped shoulders with everyday people, and doled out second chances to lost souls, giving them a shot at a new life in her crew. She was a true folk hero in every respect.
Ningguang quickly obtained a host of competing, terrifying rumors. She wasn't simple and jovial like Beidou. She became a symbol of ruthless business, letting nothing escape her claws. It was quickly spread that her small Jade Chamber in the skies above Liyue was enchanted in such a way that every whisper in the land made its way up to it. With every business that was brought low by her hand, the floating island's shadow grew that much larger. The growth never seemed to stop, plaustrite bought in entire tons didn't even scratch her wallet. More than that, though, the Millelith's provisional leader, Ganyu, was beginning to approach her for advice more and more. A meteoric rise that began whispers about dark activities in the shadows.
Ningguang had no such intentions. Ruining her name with criminal dealings was off the table, but the rumors could only help her. The nobles would all wonder what lucrative business she was in, when the answers were all at once more complicated and more simple.
First, she was beautiful, and wealthy. Suitors from high-ranking families from all across Teyvat would come to try and woo her to their side. All of them would only get as close as the length of her arm, however. The perfect place to glean their intentions, and she wouldn't have any call for them after that. Keeping the final bit of distance was simple for her when it came to the men, after all. She had no taste for them.
Second, her three famed confidants. The only ones who she would take when mulling over a change in business. They weren't only powerful in the Jade Chamber, however. Their private business dealings were nearly as harsh as the lady herself. Baixiao could spot a lie from a mile away, cleaving through diplomatic sweet talk. Baiwen had an organized and complete picture of facts and figures. She was brutally fair in her dealings. Baishi was never seen as often, but her work spoke the loudest, cultivating an image and a legend around Ningguang that was flawless. The group of four quickly became unassailable.
Third, and not the least important, she listened. Not just to the business advisors, either. As a matter of fact, she often outright dismissed their advice. Instead, stories that Beidou told her from her crew, and the goings-on of passerby that the triplets collected found their way to her ears. Rumors were mercilessly tracked down to their truths and leveraged in contracts. Ningguang would even walk in disguise out on Feiyun Slope, gathering for herself and winning over new assets.
It was in this manner that she would come to the conversation that was laid out before her now.
Ningguang was sitting by a drawn window, letting the smoke from her pipe drift down to Liyue. The Jade Chamber had expanded from the modest single room over the years, to a small-scale palace. Some rooms served as meeting for the Qixing, when privacy was requested, and others were given as a tour to impress a particularly immovable or agreeable business associate. But this room had only been seen by five people. The triplets, Ningguang herself, and the woman who was lying naked on the silken sheets of a large bed. Naked enough to even leave her eye uncovered.
"You look really far away, am I that good or something? Haha!" Beidou gave off her rarer-than-usual laugh, usually reserved for nights like these.
"Hehe... Always." She paused to let out another then stream of smoke, to create room to change the topic. "Ganyu has requested that I make a bid to become the new Tianquan."
Beidou sat up in bed. "Wow... Tianquan, huh? Do you really think you can do it?"
"Ganyu is a trifle airheaded at times, but she is meticulous. If she says for me to make a bid then I must have a high chance of success."
"I mean, do you want that office? You already got enough money to do anything you've a mind to. You don't need any fancy words on top of it, 'specially not that one."
"It is the highest seat on a mountain of mora, I would be a fool to turn it down."
"That's not quite what I meant, Ning." Beidou was the only person alive who would call her that name to her face, and only in the sanctity of this room. "Don't get me wrong, I think you'd make a great one and all, but that title carries an awful bunch of memories. You don't have to, you can just be Lady Ningguang, businesswoman extraordinaire." When her lover didn't answer, she shook her head and left the sheets, picking up a jug from among her scattered possessions. Beidou laid herself alongside Ningguang and offered the jug, which she accepted with a polite sip, compared to the other's hearty swig. "Just think about if you really want it, yourself."
"That position is everything to my plans."
"You worry me a bit when you say things like that, Ning."
"Mn? How do you mean?"
"Your plans sound a bit more important than, well yourself. You're a person too, doesn't it hurt?"
"That is immaterial to my goals."
Beidou sighed and took another drink. It was clear that Ningguang would follow through, all the sailor could hope at this point was that it meant a little favoritism in docking fees. A long shot but better than nothing. She reached and absentmindedly massaged the tattoo on Ningguang's leg.
She wondered what the world around her would be like if she had just stormed the castle herself all those years ago. If she had a Vision in the first place.
If she was the daughter of a noble that the Qixing would listen to.
A pale figure approached the cold, dark cell. Inside was a single broken, old man.
Tonight, he would be visited by a ghost. A memory caught in the only ray of moonlight, a golden, shining jewel in her hand. She tossed it to herself lightly.
"It has been awhile, has it not?"
The man gave a hacking wheeze.
"Did you ever wonder why I was so resolute in all the years you tortured me? It was all for this exact moment. Ever since you took everything from me, I have only ever held one goal in my mind. Crushing you utterly. Not in the childish admonishing of my business partners, I truly mean everything."
The man blankly wheezed again.
"The girls you stole, I gave them better lives. Your wealth, I have surpassed it. Now your title has been stripped from you and given to me. Even your Vision... it is in my possession now. Every single rancid mark you have left upon Liyue has been painted over in gold."
"Even your own mind, it seems. Go on, dog, speak to the true Tianquan of the Liyue Qixing!"
The words echoed up and down the hall. Ningguang grit her teeth and banged loudly on the bars.
Dry, decrepit heaving.
"Everything! Even the light! I have won!!"
More heaving. Or was it laughter?
Ningguang collected herself. "Fine. Fade away into the dark, just like you would have of your victims. But know that I shall keep your misbegotten jewel near me at all times. I will relish the day that its glow dies out forever." She turned with a sweep of white hair and golden dress, squeezing the Vision in her clawed glove.
Beidou stood on the observation deck of the Jade Chamber awhile before she would go inside. Memories came back from when it was smaller, but more importantly, when Ningguang would be standing and tending to flowers, watching the clouds roll by. She always used to be somewhere outside on the plaustrite island. Now she was only ever inside, mulling over paperwork and scanning data.
To Beidou it began to look less like a floating island and more like birdcage.
She swallowed the image and entered the inner sanctum, waved in with a bow by Baixiao.
"She's not happy, Captain..." She warned under her breath.
"Yeah, I ain't either."
Beidou went downstairs, before the grand desk of of the Tianquan, strewn with papers.
"...Captain." She really must be mad.
"Can you explain why the Crux Fleet has offloaded goods without sale to workers on the wharf?"
"Yeah, easily. We had the goods and they needed them. It's all salted fish and clean water."
"Salted fish and clean water paid under contract by the Qixing. That's stealing, Captain, you know that you have to reimburse their full amount."
"Then just send me a fine, I'll write you a fancy check and everything."
Ningguang drummed her fingers on the desk.
"Then next, you deviated from course. An entire shipment of fruit was ruined as a result, now the markets are thrown in an entirely different directions."
"Had to, there was a sea monster."
"In your way?"
"In the way of another ship. They would've been sunk if we didn't interfere."
"Then finally, here. You bequeathed so much wealth to dockworkers and the like upon your return. All of that was projected to have been spent on a new ship of the same specifications of one of your cutters. You just costed Liyue shipbuilders millions if I don't find a buyer."
"What can you do about it? I don't need another cutter."
"I told you-"
"I'm the one who's out there."
"I told you, if you just stick to my plans, then you would be bringing Liyue three times the wealth you currently are."
"All due respect, Ningguang, but I have a crew that needs looking after. They got families to look after beyond that. My responsibility is to making sure they're safe and fed, first and foremost."
"Clearly your responsibilities extend to the entirety of Chihu Rock. You cost almost as much mora as you make, sometimes, I swear."
"I got plenty, and not everyone does but they need some, don't they? More and more opportunities are evaporating, all due to nobles amassing their mora, holding it tighter than ever!"
"They're only holding it because they are cowards who are afraid to lose."
"Damn it, this isn't some game!"
"Certainly, it is. It's all a game to all of Liyue that the elites play. They will play it until the end of time. It is only right there should be a winner of it all, don't you think?"
Beidou deflated. "I'm not just going to do whatever. Not when there are lives on the line."
"You'd go against the Qixing?"
"You know what? I would!"
"What will you do then, become a pirate?"
"If that's what it takes, then I'll be one!"
Beidou shifted from one foot to the other, clearly frustrated. "What happened to you, Ning?"
"Don't call me that."
"Why not? You've been saying things like this more and more. It's starting to look like you're just after the next coin. I can't deal in money alone. I gotta deal with real people."
"Just pay them and they will be yours."
"It's not like that. My crew don't stick with me because I make them rich. If that was the case I'd never have killed Haishan."
Ningguang shuffled papers on the desk. "They wanted to gain wealth by whatever means necessary, obviously. Wealth is everything in Liyue."
"It's... It's not."
"Oh? Then we will see how many of the Crux stay with you when you are declared a pirate and lose your current tax rights. The answer is none in the face of mora. Perhaps then you will heed my advice, and begin to listen to me."
"Never. Not if you're like this." Beidou turned heel, but stopped. She tore her hairpin free and dropped it to the floor with a clatter. "I don't want to have anything more to do with you, Tianquan Ningguang."
Ningguang would hear the doors upstairs slam before rubbing her brow and returning to her quarters. She would storm back and forth for awhile. The past two years had been the most difficult, the accumulation of wealth had slowed to a trickle, and Beidou seemed incapable of causing anything but chaos in the markets, always citing her crew. Not only that, but she often worked in direct opposition according to her whims at the moment. She was utterly impossible. Fines never deterred her, the promise of becoming wildly rich never seemed to sway her. All for the sake of people who would stab her in the back for a few hundred mora more than she gave them.
The Poison of Liyue. Every single dealing she had since the day she had taken the title only served to reveal a more complete picture. Each noble family had some darkness to it, when they couldn't surpass Ningguang's worth, they would inevitably offer barter of whatever foul pit they had hands in. They only ever offered them because Ningguang was a desireable business associate and financier. If she only had a platter of seashells, they wouldn't hesitate to crush her underfoot. Nothing about her was of use but her mora, and that clearly went for every citizen.
The captain seemed to have difficulty understanding that she had a larger role she could play. That together, the pair of them could rise above everything here. Every meeting over the course of many months would end much the same way between the two. Ningguang would send out a summons, be harsh to the letter of the law, impose large fines on the pirate, and each and every time it would roll off the woman's back. She was unshakeable in every respect. More than unshakeable, she became like a magnet. Not a soul in Liyue would speak ill of her, even Ganyu would sneak out to eat alongside the woman, and shopkeepers bucked her control if it meant covering the pirate. It must surely be from all the mora from her activities, buying out people from under her.
It was a year of this that would lead to yet another heated argument between the two over an excursion to Inazuma for the Qixing. Beidou declined, she was short-handed due to a battle with the Fatui at sea. Both parties, frustrated in every which way, left the audience room. Ningguang attending to her private chamber. But not before catching a glimpse of a look between Baishi and Beidou. Ningguang bared her teeth from the privacy of her room, trying to ward off a headache by rubbing her temple.
There was a soft knock on the door. Baishi's glasses caught the light when she peeked inside.
"Lady Ningguang? I came to check on you, I hope you don't... um... mind."
"I'm fine, Baishi. That captain just has not grasped the nature of Liyue yet and keeps bucking my vision for her. So she will have to learn the hard way that mora is everything."
"...Is mora really everything?"
Her too. Why did they insist on this?
"Everyone has a price."
"I don't..." Baishi muttered under her breath.
"Oh? Do you really not?" Frustration welled in the pale woman. She knew the reason her confidants were confidants. Because she paid them well enough.
"I... I don't!"
"Really? Are you sure you cannot name a price I can give you to go to Liyue and kill for me?"
"What!? Lady Ningguang, I- I- I- couldn't! Why would you ask such a thing?"
"True, you do not have those skills." She noticed that Baishi was looking away. She had to make her eyes meet her own. She took up the woman by the chin. "Still, how much, Baishi? Two million? Two-hundred million? How much are you?"
"I... I don't understand at all." Baishi attempted to step backwards, but hit the bed, falling onto it. She flustered for a moment before noticing that Ningguang was over her.
"Then another example. I will give you two-hundred million mora for you to remove your clothes. As simple as that, and you will be wealthy enough to buy a home on Yujing Terrace. It should be easy, you have seen mine often enough. Or do you want more for your bod-" Ningguang was stopped as a hand struck her face. She looked back down to see tears streaming down Baishi's face.
"I don't want your stupid money!! I never wanted it! I followed you because you were an amazing woman, you helped save my life, you sacrificed as much as you could for me..." Baishi sniffled. "You had me already... but now I'm just some... transaction?"
Ningguang removed herself from over the crying woman, rubbing her temples over what she had just done. She looked all around, only to find that glowing Vision staring at her from its place on her desk. Looking on, and waiting. Bile welled up. She had to get out of the room. She had nearly...
The woman was crying too harshly to even hear her.
She plucked the Vision. She was going to the docks.
Ningguang, for the first time in several years, made her way to Chihu Rock. Businesses tended to meet on Feiyun Slope or Yujing Terrace for their opulent airs. Of course, that would only merely mean that Ningguang was never led to Chihu. She had outright avoided it because of other reasons. Namely the lonely remains of a two-story shack, with a sunsettia tree in the front. It seemed no one would ever buy it. The current Yuheng even moved to have it torn down several times, but at Ningguang's insistence. It had remained.
She simply let herself stare at the sight. She could very nearly hear the shouts and cries of pirates and Millelith chasing one another around the street. Until she heard a loud voice call out.
"Hey Miss! Whatcha doin' standin' around?" It was a small girl with dusky skin and sharp eyes. Her short black hair was stuck out at weird angles, and her dress was disheveled. She seemed to have no qualms about standing wide-legged in it either. Behind her, a girl with flowing blue hair and a bandage across her nose looked on with a wary look.
"Xinyan... look, she's so pale, she must be the ghost dad told us about!"
"Eh? Really? Hey Miss, are you a ghost?" The girl asked matter-of-factly.
Ningguang tilted her head and turned more fully to the strange pair.
"Ghost?" She managed to ask.
"Yeah! Xiangling's papa told us that he used to see a ghost up on the second floor when he was our age. Are you her?"
Ningguang looked up to her old room, then again to the girls.
"Perhaps. I suppose in a lot of ways, I already am a ghost."
"Ehh? Wow, that's amazing! I've never talked to a ghost before!"
"Xinyan! You can't talk to her if she's a ghost! She'll steal your stomach!" Xiangling panicked out to her friend.
"Stomach!? Not soul?"
"Stomachs are important to ghosts, they steal them and then eat everything in the kitchen just to hear the popping sound when it explodes from eating!"
"Hey Miss Ghost, you're not gonna steal our stomachs are you?" Xinyan stood easily.
What was this strange story? Children were always strangely honest about everything.
"I have... no intention of doing so."
Xiangling pouted from her spot behind her friend. "She must be lying! Come on, let's get out of here!"
"But if we go then she'll just be stuck here! Ghosts all have some last request, don't they? Let's hear her out." Xinyan said back. "'Sides, she seems like she's tellin' the truth."
"Hahaha! Don't worry! I'll protect your stomach!" Xinyan puffed out her chest. "So Miss Ghost, got any regrets we can help with?"
"Hmm? I do not have any hidden treasures or the like to reward you with though." Ningguang said, hoping that they would simply leave without reward.
"It's just the nice thing to do ain't it? Must be awful lonely without all your friends."
Ningguang allowed herself to stand there awhile longer, somewhat dumbfounded.
The last word rang in her mind. Friends.
"Yeah? What about them?" Xinyan asked. Apparently Ningguang's perfect mask had slipped in the day's events, and she had repeated the word when she thought about it.
"I don't believe I have any. Not any longer."
"Yeah, that's why we're tryin' to get you to heaven."
"Hehe... I mean to say in life that I have done something terrible to them. I am certain they will never want to see me again. Staying here seems like a fitting punishment."
Both Ningguang and Xinyan were surprised by the voice of Xiangling.
"Have you ever said that you were sorry to them? I always do when I break one of papa's woks and he always gives me a hug after."
"Not... yet." Ningguang said.
"Hey hey, that's no good! If you know you did somethin' wrong, you should go and apologize!" Xinyan scolded her.
They were children, after all. It was simple to them.
"I cannot. They would not want to hear from me."
"Sure they will! If they're friends then they're probably waitin' for you to say sorry right now! Go on, give it a try, see if they're listenin'!"
She looked from one expectant face to the other. She had been completely outmanuevered.
"I am sorry." She stated simply.
"No, you need to really mean it!" Xiangling encouraged her.
The fines and punishments she had levied against Beidou came to mind. Not the actions herself, the way she attempted to force the woman into her plans. Then to Baishi's crying face when she had attempted to bu-
With both, she had left behind their personhood, and with a twist in her stomach, she realized. That personhood was what she had relied on the most when she was lowest.
"I really am... sorry." The road was quiet.
"Aw man... that sounded genuine and everything. Maybe you gotta say it to their faces! Do you know where they are?" Xinyan asked.
"...I do." She turned to ask a question, as an adult does to a child when they want to make them feel smart and important. Instead, a question more genuine leaked out. "Do you think they might accept the apology of an old evil spirit?"
"If not, then make it up to them some other way. Or we'll be your friends! Right, Xiangling?"
The blue-haired girl nodded. "Just don't make my stomach explode... I need it if... oh. Well..."
"Hmn?" Ningguang questioned.
"It's not important."
"Xiangling wants to be a chef! She's really good too! You wouldn't think sugar-frosted Jueyun chilis with chicken would taste good but it's like a whole explosion of flavor!"
"You say that about everything I make..."
"Cause it's the truth! Man... now I really want some of your boiled fish."
"We don't have much extra to give right now, though. Papa says all the fish prices are really really high."
Ningguang knew exactly why the prices of fish were so high at the moment. She was squeezing a fishery business in order to encourage the sales of red meat all during a crucial time for restaurants. Solely so she could pressure a restaurant on Feiyun Slope into signing to a resourcing deal.
That was what Liyue was.
"Maybe the Crux will bring a whole bunch of fish next time it comes back to port." Xinyan scratched her head. "Last time I even got a glimpse at Beidou!"
"Beidou?" Ningguang asked.
"Yeah! She's famous! Everyone knows her, don't you do too?"
"I... am a ghost, please recall."
"Oh wow.... I thought Beidou was around since forever, are you saying you don't know her at all?" The ghost shook her head no. "She always brings things back in and spreads them around here. And she's super nice to all the kids! Sometimes she'll even play pirates with us when she has the time."
The thought of the woman, who hunted sea monsters and was called undefeatable by the likes of even the most unshakeable soldier, playing at being a pirate was simply too much. She let out a small giggle. Then her gaze grew distant as several thoughts began to play out in her mind. The image of the symbol of Liyue, the balancing scales.
The image of the winds that swept down from Mount Tianheng, tumbling over Yujing Terrace, to Feiyun Slope, to the sea where it beat back the waves and sent the ships out.
The image of the waves that then defied the winds to bring goods back in, the sea spray brought all the way up to Yuehai Pavillion on the boots of sailors.
The games that the children played with stones and shells, and the games adults played with mora.
The mora paid to her, and the adoration paid to another.
The simple interludes where she pretended to be a peddler of seashells to gain information, and now the long-forgotten smiles that came with those bits of info.
Liyue, the mountain balancing the sea.
She had a lot of work to do.
Ningguang would excuse herself from the pair of friends, taking a single sunsettia from the tree.
Baishi, Baiwen, and Baixiao all stood outside Ningguang's private chambers. It had been nearly a week since the woman shut herself inside without a word. It was like her to work hard, but this was now a concerning amount. The three looked to one another, then nodded, unlocking the door.
A haggard Ningguang sat at the desk, scratching through mounds of papers. Her white hair was draped everywhere, and she had thick bags under her eyes. She coughed lightly into her hand before looking up at the intruders.
"Lady Ningguang? What's-?" Baiwen started.
"Lady Ningguang! What is all this!? How long have you been working!? Do you have a fever!?" Baishi ran up and slammed her hands on the desk, startling the other sisters.
"Shi... You're startling her." Baixiao said, then looked at the papers scattered everywhere. "But from the look of things, that might be good. what's going on in here, Lady Ningguang?"
The pale woman murmured something, averting her eyes.
Baiwen picked at a few papers. "There's data from all over Teyvat here. You're onto some very large change? Why not call us?"
"I... am onto a large, uncertain change that will affect Liyue. I do not want to waste you time on a theory."
"Instead you've worked yourself half to death! Wen, Xiao, can you go get the tea and some pillows from storage?" Baishi immediately took command of the situation. The two of them nodded and set about their task. "And you, you're going straight to bed!"
"Not done yet..."
"I don't care! Come on, up we go." Baishi hooked Ningguang's arm around her. Ningguang fought against the pull uselessly, all but spent.
"No... Baishi, you don't have to-"
"I do." The look of determination on her face silenced the overworked woman until she was placed firmly into bed, where Baishi arranged the covers around her. "Don't get me wrong, I'm still mad, but it's not like I want you dead."
"...I am sorry."
"You will be, doing all this!" Baishi kicked papers out of the way. "What is all of this anyway?"
"A plan... to make Liyue... more prosperous."
"More money gathering..?" Baishi's heart sank.
"No... All of Liyue..."
"All of it?"
Baishi sighed and pushed her glasses up.
"I'm going to talk to Doctor Baizhu and get some medicine. After you're better, we're gonna have a very long chat about what you've been doing lately. Got it?"
Ningguang couldn't help but give a soft, barely-there smile.
"Anything... you need."
Baishi and her sisters organized tea and pillows for their Lady.
Yes, Baishi thought. The bright light she had once followed, that had grown dim in the past week and year, showed a flicker again.
"Hey Captain, you got... a present, I guess." A burly, bearded man called into the cabin. Juza had gotten a lot older, but he still seemed to retain all his strength from his first journey.
Beidou was lying cross-ways in her chair, rubbing her temple.
"What is it?"
"Well it's.. Well here." he placed the item on her desk. Beidou had to turn her entire head to see it.
"...Who gave this to you?"
"Oh um... Some lady with glasses and a ponytail. "
"Ah I see..." Beidou considered the fruit, picking it up and turning it around in her hands. " I guess someone wants to ask me some honest questions after all this time."
Beidou tossed the fruit to herself and took a bite. "I'll be back, Juza. Gotta go visit an old friend." The pirate made to leave, but hesitated for a moment be the door, deep in thought over something. She glanced to her right and took her hairpin in hand.
Just in case her friend up in the window wanted to walk with her.
Ningguang was turning the jewel over in her hand. In the intervening months between her illness and now, it had lost its glow at some point. She would never know the exact day, she hadn't even looked at it in all that time. More pressing matters, more personally important, were handled. Not the least frustrating of which was the acknowledgement that the chaos that Beidou routinely caused had helped keep the city together as much as any action of the Qixing. Somehow the girl playing pirate had indeed lived up to her name. How vexing that it was at the cost of Ningguang's own self-image.
Well, if it was a win, then it was one for the people who lived here. The people who she disguised herself to rub shoulders with, or the children she occasionally handed out sweets to.
That left the matter of the jewel at hand. It was a useless husk now. When a Vision's owner dies, the magic inside dies with them, leaving a pretty stone. Rarely, someone could resonate with a deadened one, but the method was uncertain at best. To Ningguang, though. this was still a Geo Vision. A symbol Rex Lapis' own power in his own city. An auction would drag in a ton of mora by some noble looking to keep up appearances. It's not like anyone, not even the triplets, knew where it came from either.
But there are more Visions besides. If there was a way to collect them and redistribute them... Then there could be more than mora in the deal. It could be a business! A new cycle to add into Liyue and produce more for-
A golden glow shone over the room. Ningguang was frozen in her last position.
The Vision in her hand was glowing. It had resonated.
"Lady Ningguang! Congratulations!" The triplets had taken notice, with Baishi at the forefront.
"You've been recognized by Rex Lapis!" Baiwen added. "Your business acumen was always legendary, I'm surprised it wasn't sooner."
"Lady Ningguang? Are you annoyed?" Baixiao, as always, cut into the heart of dealings.
Ningguang definitely gave off the air of someone who was annoyed. This Vision. This last disgusting memory, brought back from the dead, almost as some kind of joke from the Geo Archon. If the triplets knew where it had come from, they would probably be expressing their sympathies instead.
Her thoughts drifted out of the window, finding Liyue. The city that had once been someone else's too, wasn't it? Now it was remodeled into something she drove her hopes into, to become better.
She let out a deep sigh, and with some small false bravado, said. "What's there to be happy about? Once broken, considered sold!"
I feel that one of the things I have to apologize for, aside from my bad writing in general, is my very rough handling of Chinese naming convention and nicknames. The only favor I ask is forgiveness on this, I promise it was only for narrative reasons!
Now that it's the end, I feel like I can share some of my thoughts. Firstly, of course, in her artwork, Ningguang looks very much like she has albinism, and I wanted to take that into the story a little bit.
That aside, Ningguang always struck me as someone who had difficulties letting go of wealth, but also didn't hesitate to sacrifice her Jade Chamber to save Liyue Harbor from Osial. So here started the story of someone who was intent on winning wealth and power to secure her position at the top, and nearly gets destroyed by it came to mind. Someone who has every call to hate the system, but has the wit to crush it when given a chance, to eventually realizing there's more to Liyue Harbor than merchants playing games, it's also a home to a lot of people with very real lives.
I don't think she'll ever stop amassing mora, but I do think that she'll end up doing it in a way that benefits Liyue as a whole, and that was the awakening of a Geo Vision. Providing business to the city.
Basihi, Baiwen, and Baixiao all have slightly different personalities when you talk to them in the Jade Chamber, I hope I gave those three their chance to shine in this story too, since they're so important to Ningguang.
Anyway, it was an interesting story to write, but also difficult enough for me to want to post it anonymously, it's a complicated feeling I have about publishing. Maybe someday I'll put my name on it properly. But until then, I think I need to write some fluff. It's been too long.