In Dihua Marsh, beyond the fluttering silvergrass, a young wanderer from the lands beyond Liyue perches on a rock. His fancy, flimsy green cape could not possibly be enough protection against the winds, nor were the gemstones glittering at his shoes and neck inconspicuous.
Another fool, Xiao thinks as he grips his spear. Monsters still roam Liyue even after the wars, and despite the tales the mortals tell, the adepti cannot deal with all of them. And yet, the mortals continue to walk the roads at night, to linger outside their houses, and to sit in the yakshas’ battlefields, like this boy whose feet barely brush the slashed reeds below him.
This newfound brazenness will get them all killed.
Xiao summons his mask and stalks closer, hoping to menace the wanderer into leaving and avoid any awkward questions—questions like “Would you please bless me with untold riches?” or “I humbly ask for your blessings, O Mighty and Illuminated Yaksha” or “What’s your name?” His spear is heavy in his hand, blood still dripping from its point.
Unaware of his presence, the boy brings out a flute. Xiao bristles at the presumption—any foreign sound lures monsters, no matter how melodious—and he tenses, prepared to defend this monumental idiot against the consequences of his actions before the sound of the flute knocks the breath out of his lungs.
He knows that song.
He’s heard it before, on this very battlefield.
Pain he didn’t know he was carrying vanishes from his body, the tension in his limbs fading and the voices in his head falling silent. All he hears is the gentle trill of the flute, the ease with which the boy—the god—coaxes notes from it. Even when Xiao closes his eyes, he still sees the tilt of the boy’s head, the sway of his braids, the way his graceful fingers dance.
Something warm and foreign blooms in Xiao’s chest as he opens his eyes and sees the boy still sitting on the rock, playing to his audience of wind and moon. Xiao’s mask has vanished, and the breeze is cool as it rustles through his hair and stings his heated cheeks. The song feels like a gift he’s being given, a moment’s respite and peace against the rest of the world.
It doesn’t last. Beyond the horizon, in the depths of Guyun, darkness seeps from the stone seals. Xiao stirs, as if waking from a dream, and rouses himself enough to grip his spear. He has his duty to fulfill, after all.
When he returns to the marsh, long past daybreak, the boy is gone.
Xiao receives the summons from Rex Lapis in the dead of night. All the yaksha, whosoever remains of their ranks, are formally invited to the ceremony to receive one of the Seven from the North. The summons brooks no protest, or Xiao would have attempted to avoid it.
As soon as he sets foot in Jueyun Karst, he can feel the change in the wind. The altar is lavishly decorated, a stone table laden with offerings and ceremonial lanterns. The lesser adepti, unburdened by excessive care, gather in knots around the clearing, sharing stories of the humans they had encountered over the years. Xiao searches for familiar faces and finds—
“—Alatus,” Bosacius says, inclining their head. “It is good to see you.”
“I hope you are well,” Xiao says, keeping his face blank. Even so, he notes the weariness bending Bosacius’ proud frame. “We are to…receive an Archon?”
“The Anemo Archon from the North.” Bosacius sighs. “Morax believes there is a crisis and that our aid is required. In order to provide that aid—” they gesture to the gathered adepti. “A show of power.”
“Thank you, Bosacius, for that concise summary of my motives,” Rex Lapis says over Xiao’s shoulder. Xiao breathes and with great effort, does not jump out of his skin. “I could not have put it better myself.”
Bosacius colors. “If my Lord would see fit to forgive his humble servant—”
“There is nothing to forgive,” Rex Lapis says, with certainty. His cowl is spotless, gleaming white, and Xiao is suddenly aware of the blood spotting the hem of his sleeve and the dark stains on his spear. “I would like you both by my side, in the event that this is a threat needs to be quelled.”
When the hour arrives, a gust of wind whistles across the tops of the mountains, and the archon descends in a flash of light and feathers. Xiao catches his breath.
It’s the boy from Dihua Marsh.
He crouches on the grass, feathered wings spread and braids fluttering. Gold glints from the spires of his wings, around his chest and wrists and hips. His hood settles around his shoulders and he looks up, mischief written on his face. Xiao’s heart thumps frenziedly in his chest at the sight. The archon’s bright eyes seem to sear right through him.
“Barbatos,” Rex Lapis says, with dignity.
“That’s my name,” Barbatos says brightly, standing and stretching. “Here.”
He tosses a bottle of wine through the air, and Rex Lapis catches it. Xiao has only seen his lord perplexed a handful of times. Several times with Guizhong, once or twice when dealing with the mortals and younger adepti, and today.
“It’s dandelion wine from Mondstadt. No finer brew exists in Teyvat.” Barbatos winks, and it takes all of Xiao’s self-control not to react. “Care for a taste?”
Rex Lapis sighs, massaging his forehead. “You have come here all the way from Mondstadt—”
“—hey, in my defense, it isn’t that far—”
“—to bring me a single bottle of wine?”
“If you had said there was a gathering, I would have brought more than a smattering,” Barbatos says, suddenly addressing the crowd of gaping adepti. “You’ll have to excuse me, but since your archon didn’t inform me of this, I don’t have enough for all of you.” He turns, counting on his fingers. “Perhaps if we only took tiny sips? But then you wouldn’t get to appreciate the flavor—”
“—Barbatos,” Rex Lapis says, through gritted teeth. “I believe you have delivered your message. Thank you for the gift. Should you not be returning to your duties?”
“Oh, but it’s so fun here. So many mountains.”
“There are mountains in Mondstadt.”
“Not anymore.” Barbatos flits along the table, tasting dishes as he goes. “You should show me around Liyue.”
“I am occupied with my duties, sadly.”
“Someone else can show me around—I don’t mind,” Barbatos says, grinning at the other adepti. Xiao doesn’t meet his gaze, but neither do the others, astonished at the archon’s irreverence.
“Enough. You will leave, Barbatos, and kindly do not trespass in our borders again.”
Barbatos trespasses again.
Every year now, the Seven gather in Liyue, all seated at the same table, sharing the same drinks. After every gathering, Barbatos annoys Morax into giving him a guided tour of Liyue, babbling loudly enough to be heard from the depths of Guyun and the clouds of Mt. Aozang—to the consternation of Cloud Retainer. These visits are always accompanied with several days of Morax looking dark and stormy as he goes about his duties, distaste clearly written on his face.
Despite himself, Xiao cannot bring himself to share this opinion. After all, even Morax admits that the Anemo Archon is, for all his faults, charismatic.
Every year, Xiao lingers by the entrance to Morax’s abode for as long as he dares, hoping to catch Barbatos before he leaves. It is only polite, he thinks, to offer thanks to someone who has saved him from succumbing to corruption. A common courtesy, if you will. It would be rude not to do so.
And yet, every year, Xiao leaves before he can so much as catch a glimpse of the Archon. Some years, he is called away by his duties. The demons, after all, do not stop their relentless war because Xiao is dealing with personal matters, and the ranks of the yakshas grow thinner every year.
Some years, the gathering runs late, and Xiao leaves to preserve the dignity of his own Archon. He did not need to know what Rex Lapis sounded like when drunk, yet the memory remains burned into his mind, nonetheless.
(When he thought to confide in someone, Cloud Retainer, who was merciless when it came to these matters, only saw fit to furnish him with even more stories regarding the indiscretions of his master. He regrets this knowledge greatly.)
But more often than not, Xiao simply decides that he does not have any business meeting Barbatos personally. After all, the Archon has a nation of worshippers and devotees to administer over, countless prayers and petitions to grant. His time is most likely precious and in great demand.
And yet, every year, without fail, Rex Lapis and Barbatos walk leisurely around Liyue until the dawn of the next day, taking in the sights. Afterwards, Barbatos will roam the road from Liyue to Mondstadt in the form of a mortal bard, voice raised in raucous song.
Perhaps Xiao is mistaken.
Some years, the Geo Archon and the Anemo Archon walk Liyue in mortal forms.
“I have a request, master bard,” Rex Lapis says, amber eyes glimmering with amusement. Today, she takes the form of an herb-gatherer, and her arms are full of flowers.
“Oh?” Barbatos says.
“Not far from here lies a patch of wild Glaze Lilies, rare in this area. The sound of song enriches their fragrance. If you would play to them, I would be most obliged to you.”
Barbatos laughs, and his laugh rings through the fields like wind chimes. “Of course! No trouble at all.”
“But—” Rex Lapis holds out her hand. “I would like it to be a song from my nation, played on a traditional instrument.” Her lip curls. “None of this…Mondstadt music.”
“What a demanding audience I have.”
“Only a discerning one.”
“Very well, then. I won’t let the small matter of an instrument stop me.” From the air, Barbatos summons a flute adorned with a single red tassel. He laughs, a little. “Of course, it’s been ages since I’ve last played the flute. Centuries, in fact. So, what you’re about to witness is a special, one-of-a-kind performance by none other than the best bard in Teyvat!”
“It’s called confidence,” Barbatos corrects, and begins to play.
In Xiao’s defense, he’d had a long day.
Rex Lapis had been assassinated. The Qixing had been obstinate in refusing the influence of the adepti. Osial had been summoned and awakened once more—by a mortal at that—bringing Liyue under the full force of its wrath and power. During the fight, he had to rescue several mortals from plummeting to their deaths. And finally, after the defeat of Osial, a child had come up to him and asked him to participate in the Lantern Rite. She could not have known, of course, but the experience still left him rattled.
And now, upon returning to the Wangshu Inn, he hears the strains of a familiar tune before he can step inside.
“Thank you, thank you! If you like my ballads, feel free to buy me a drink.” Xiao can hear the wink in Barbatos’ voice before he sees him.
The Archon is in his mortal form, humming under his breath as he strums his lyre. He tilts his head with every note, eyes shut, braids swaying, and a look of pure delight on his face. Xiao’s cheeks flush—perhaps it is the strain of the day catching up to him, and he should seek medical attention. His point is further proven when Barbatos looks up and his heartbeat picks up like he’s been poisoned.
Xiao is pushing through the crowd before he knows what he’s doing, heart somewhere in his throat and a ringing in his ears. He grabs Barbatos’ wrist—blasphemy, absolute blasphemy—and looks him straight in the eyes.
“I love you.”
For a moment, they stand there, Xiao burning with embarrassment, Barbatos smiling blankly at him. Barbatos is taller by a few hairs, and the realization only adds to Xiao’s utter humiliation.
And to his surprise, Barbatos slings an arm around Xiao’s shoulders and laughs lightly, bringing their foreheads together. “Aw, I love you too!”
Xiao freezes. “…Pardon?”
“Of course I do,” Barbatos says, nonchalant. “Who wouldn’t love the other half of their soul, the companion who’s haunted their dreams? Really now, I expected better from you.” His fingers twine in Xiao’s hair as he whispers in his ear. “How I’ve longed to see you.”
The crowd dissipates as Barbatos speaks, muttering about the shamelessness of youth. Xiao stands stock-still as though rooted to the floor, and his voice cracks when he speaks.
“It’s Venti now, actually.” The Archon tilts his head. “Um, now that’s out of the way, I’ve been meaning to ask…”
“…who, exactly, are you?”
Venti drops into his rooms unannounced, as is always the case.
“Morax!” he sings. “I brought you something!”
“Morax is dead,” Zhongli says pleasantly, taking the bottle from Venti’s hands. “I go by Zhongli now.”
“Zhongli. Zhongli, Zhongli,” Venti tests, rolling the name on his tongue. “Well, it’s easier to rhyme, at least,” he says, plopping himself down on the nearest seat. “You’re finally living the mortal life, huh?”
“That is the intention.”
“Pretty luxurious mortal life if you ask me,” Venti says, eyeing the trinkets and gemstones that adorn the walls and pile on the furniture. “Developing a few hoarder tendencies, are we?”
“Supporting local businesses is a noble and worthy cause. Besides, they are of superior craftsmanship.”
Venti rolls his eyes. “O, children of Liyue, hark and listen to the valiant deeds of eras gone by! Marvel and thrill at how the heroes of old strengthen the economy and change the landscape of bureaucratic relations forever!”
Zhongli blinks. “You jest, but master storytellers weave those tales with ease.”
“Of course they do.”
Venti babbles as Zhongli pours the tea and sits across from him, laying a plate of dumplings in front of them. When they are settled in, and Zhongli has lectured him on the proper way to hold his chopsticks, Venti leans across the table. “Say, I didn’t know your adepti were so affectionate.”
Zhongli does not spit out his tea, because it is high-quality and it is a shame to waste it, but he comes close. “Excuse me?”
Venti doesn’t seem to notice. “Well, one adeptus. Adepti might be exaggerating a little.”
Zhongli goes through the adepti in his head, trying to find one that could be said to be “affectionate” and failing. “You will have to clarify that statement,” he says, finally, clearing his throat.
“I was performing, you know, for a drink—”
“Exactly. As I said, I was performing and after my performance, there was this guy—”
“I was just getting to that part. He was a little shorter than me, had black hair with teal streaks. Tight shirt, one long sleeve, creepy mask hanging from his belt.” He pauses. “Oh, and red eyeliner.”
“Ah, the Conqueror of Demons,” Zhongli says, still confused. “Go on.”
“Yes, so he came right up to me, grabbed my wrist, and told me he loved me.”
“It was very romantic,” Venti says, grinning.
Zhongli takes a deep breath, ignoring the urge to pry further. “…And what did you say?”
Venti gives him a look of deep offense. “I said I loved him too, of course. Come now, Morax, I’m not rude, unlike a certain blockhead I could mention—”
“—I told you I go by Zhongli.”
“Now, see, I was trying not to mention it, and yet here we are.” Venti sips his tea, making a face at the lack of alcohol. “Anyway, that was my day.”
“My most hearty congratulations.”
“I shall take my leave now. I must go and make preparations.”
Rex Lapis arrives at the Wangshu Inn a few days after the incident, and Xiao scrambles to kneel before him.
“—there is no need for that,” Rex Lapis says. “I am now living as a mortal. Please call me Zhongli.”
Xiao does his best to disguise his frown. “…Zhongli,” he says, shuddering at the disrespect of the title.
“Please, relax. I simply come to bring you medicine and ask for your opinion on a few trivial matters.” Zhongli takes several pamphlets from under his arm and spreads them out on the table.
Xiao barely glances at them. Sedan chairs, floral decorations, catering menus. “I fear I am not the best person to consult on…whatever this is.”
“On the contrary, your opinion on them is perhaps the most valuable.” Zhongli bids him to sit. “Now, your preferences on the matter of food are well-known, but as for the guests, I believe it is necessary to serve something other than almond tofu. Now, do you have another preference for the dishes, or will you leave it up to me?”
Zhongli doesn’t seem to hear him. “Yes, I imagine a few from Mondstadt will also care to attend and it will be necessary to serve some dishes that cater to their tastes as well.” He pauses for a moment. “Xiangling has recently visited Mondstadt. Perhaps I will ask her opinion.”
Xiao gives him his best look of polite confusion.
“Ah, yes. I do realize that it is not auspicious for the consultant of a funeral parlor to be arranging this event, but given your preference for solitude, I thought that this would be more acceptable.”
“Your upcoming marriage to Venti,” Zhongli says calmly, ignoring how Xiao chokes on air. “Now, do you have any specific preference for the flower ball? Silk flowers are traditional, but given your preferences, we can procure Glaze Lilies or perhaps—”
“I apologize, Glaze Lilies might contain troubling memories. Qingxin flowers then—”
Xiao clears his throat, desperately trying to cut Zhongli off before he can continue. “—my upcoming what?!”
“Now, now, there is no shame in attending to the matters of the heart. And you know that whosoever you choose to share your life with, you will always have my full support.”
“I-I have to go,” Xiao says, his voice breaking into a shout at the last.
“Ah, young love.” Zhongli sighs, and goes back to preparing a menu.
Xiao is in the middle of exterminating a camp of corrupted hilichurls when a gust of wind descends on the battlefield and slaughters the hilichurls where they stand. Not for the first time, Xiao is grateful for the mask that hides his face as Barbatos—Venti—approaches him, strumming his lyre as he does.
“Conqueror of Demons, love of my life, how are you doing?”
Xiao fights the urge to cover his face with his hands. “Don’t mock me, Lord Barbatos.”
“I told you, it’s Venti. And I’m not mocking you.” Venti holds up a wicker basket, dangling it in front of Xiao like a lure. “Care for a picnic?”
“No, thank you.”
Undaunted, Venti sprawls in the grass, unpacking the contents of the basket onto the ground. “I brought almond tofu. Heard it was your favorite.”
“…Perhaps I could reconsider,” Xiao says cautiously. The food does look tempting. He removes his mask, the better to savor the aroma of almonds.
“Dig in, then.”
Venti steals another piece of almond tofu from Xiao’s plate, licking his spoon clean. “Mm. Sweet,” he says, humming.
“I like the texture,” Xiao confesses after a moment of silence. It’s a small enough secret to give up. A safe secret, unlike the one he blurted out about Venti, or the supposed wedding he didn’t know he agreed to.
“See, now I know more about you,” Venti says lightly.
Xiao can’t bring himself to look him in the eyes, doesn’t trust himself enough to not make more embarrassing confessions. Instead, he fixes his eyes on a blade of grass nearby, and pointedly ignores how his heart goes venom-quick in his chest. “I suppose.”
“So shy,” Venti says. “Something on your mind?”
Zhongli thinks we’re getting married, Xiao thinks. If you show me the slightest hint of affection, I might actually die. I meant it when I said I loved you.
“I…want more almond tofu,” he says, finally.
“Sure, but do you think the inn will accept a song in exchange? I’m all out of Mora.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Ah, well, I’ll make it up to you.” Venti leans towards him and before he can flinch back, Venti plants a kiss on his cheek. “I have to go, unfortunately. When I get back, I’ll bring you some wine.”
“Don’t look at me like that—it tastes perfectly fine!”
“That was not my concern.”
“Aw, don’t tell me Morax doesn’t let you drink.”
“He does not, to my knowledge, have an opinion on the matter.”
“Excellent. So I’ll be off then, love. See you soon.”
Xiao watches as Venti flounces up, brushing the leaves from his clothes and rising from the ground. Before the Archon can disappear, he clears his throat, loudly. “Wait!”
Venti stops mid-flight, hovering in the air. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I just need to tell you something.”
The look of concern doesn’t leave Venti’s face. “You sure? Your throat sounds horrible. I can get you a lozenge for that—”
“—I am fine,” Xiao insists. “I just think you should be informed that Rex La—that Zhongli believes we are engaged and is now planning our marriage. That is all.”
“Is that so?” And after a long pause, he shrugs. “Well, all the more reason to hurry back then!”
Xiao nods, stiffly, and turns to go.
“One last thing!” Venti yells.
Venti tilts his head to one side. “So, do I call you Conqueror of Demons in the vows, or do you have another name I can use?” His eyes widen and he backtracks quickly. “Not that I don’t like that name, I mean, I just think it’s a mouthful, you know, six whole syllables and—”
This god will be the death of him. Xiao takes a deep breath, unclenches his fists, and smiles. “Xiao. My name is Xiao.”