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we are what we pretend to be

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The doors of the Jade Chamber open with little to no sound, not a rusty hinge to strain. Beidou doesn’t know why she expected anything else— everything from the plateau to the door hinges are cared for with every inch of mora the world has ever seen. 

She walked into the room with a scroll tightly clutched in her hand, her heels clicking on the polished pavement with sharp taps, forcing chambermaids and servants to look her way as she passed by. The smell of incense was strong in the air, one that smelled similar to the businesswomen and the wives of rich trades that Beidou was so accustomed to meeting— yet, here, the smell was more authentic, almost, as if even the world’s most lavish perfume couldn’t hold itself to the standards to even the air of the Jade Chamber. 

Beidou dipped her head and smiled at the maids bowing to her. She had spent enough hours in the Chamber to recognize the faces of Ningguang’s attendants, and some to the point of knowing their names and family life. She waved a lazy hand in greeting at Baiwen, who dared enough to smile at her in return before quickly bowing her head. 

Ningguang’s main room had always been a little intimidating to her. The jade screen behind an expensive looking throne, coupled with the amount of men sitting on chairs on either side of her, was unnerving, that was for sure. She didn’t let the unease show on her face, however, and she decided to bow to Ningguang halfway and avoid the stares of her businessmen. 

There was never an audience whenever she was called to the Jade Chamber for her most recent misdeeds. So, to see so many men gathered around them was not only shocking, but downright bizarre to her. Idly, she wondered if it was Ningguang’s way to get back at her. The woman knew how much she despised the affluent merchants of Liyue, after all. 

“You usually request my presence when none of these guys are here,” Beidou commented lightly. The strained smile on Ningguang’s face was enough to let her know that Ningguang wasn’t having any of her tricks today. Yet, as Ningguang’s face relaxed, it looked somehow… different. She couldn’t place why. “Is something wrong, dear Tianquan?”

Ningguang’s title landed like bitter salts on her tongue, and even the patient Ningguang couldn’t help but make a slight face at her while the men gave her looks of disbelief. 

But then Ningguang’s annoyed look melted away to a languid smile, one that made her feel as if she was trapped in a corner with a tiger. Ningguang simply uncrossed her legs and crossed them again, the movement so tranquil that it was only then did Beidou understand that this was not an ordinary scolding of her recent endeavors. 

The men murmured to themselves and their chairmates, and Beidou couldn’t help but add, “Boy, if you wanted an audience so much, you could’ve just asked me.”

It was a comment she knew would bite into Ningguang’s skin. However, the reaction she anticipated, the reaction she wanted, was never present. 

Ningguang only smiled at her. It wasn’t sardonic, no— it seemed genuine, a sincere smile that reached her eyes and stared back into Beidou with not so much as a malicious intent. Seemed, was the keyword to her because there was something quite odd from the way she was looking at her, and Beidou couldn’t help but shift her weight uncomfortably from foot to foot as subtly as she could. 

“My dear,” Ningguang purred, and the tracks in Beidou’s mind creaked to a stop. “You know how I feel about your games in front of my guests. Come here and join me?”

Ningguang gestured with her right hand to her side, one that occupied a chair much similar to hers. Beidou noticed two things at that moment. 

One, the chairs were identical. She was a fool to not notice such a tantalizing addition to Ningguang’s Jade Chamber, and a bigger fool to start walking towards it without a question on her tongue. 

Two, the chairs were on equal footing. 

Ningguang had always been so adamant in making sure everyone knew that there was no equal to her. 

By the time Beidou had reached her side, Ningguang was already addressing the men, speaking to them about some sort of ongoing tax disagreement in Liyue for the next year’s winter season. Beidou couldn’t be bothered to tune in for any longer than the first few sentences— she was more curious in why Ningguang’s hand was in hers, and why she kept glancing over at Beidou was a smile that made her sweat slightly underneath. 

In all her travels and adventures, Beidou had never been so confused in her life. 

She wanted desperately to ask Ningguang (or anyone would be better than no one, at this point) about the scroll that urgently called for her appearance at the Chamber as soon as possible, or why Ningguang had wanted her there if she was only made to sit next to her (which was confusing in and of itself) while she spoke to her businessmen about things that should and never concern her. 

Though, whenever she found an opening to speak for her behalf, Ningguang would shoot her a side-eyed look, one that wasn’t anything short of enigmatic. It was only Beidou’s curiosity that kept her there at that point, but she didn’t know how long it would be until she got bored. 

As if reading her mind, Ningguang cleared her throat and told everyone in the room that her time was precious, and that she had other meetings to attend to for the rest of the day. 

And as Beidou got up from her seat to follow the men, mostly out of habit (but also much due to her confusion, and her thinking that maybe Ningguang urgently called her here as a joke), she felt the cool touch of Ningguang’s nails follow up her arm. 

Ningguang kept speaking to the guests in her Chamber, ordering them to rethink the disparity and the percentage of mora in their proposals, with numbers that made Beidou’s head spin, and then the cool metal of her fingers were underneath her chin. 

She swore that Ningguang’s eyes had never been so sharp. 

It was almost comical how that was. They were both unwilling to reveal, yet revealing by its very nature.

Though she couldn’t truly tell the true words behind Ningguang’s look, she could see a subtle permission to it, even as her lips stayed sealed and curled in a smile that she finally recognized as practically coquettish. 

What was Beidou supposed to do, other than give her a slight, almost brusque nod to whatever proposal Ningguang would ever make to her?

And then Ningguang’s lips were on hers, and it’s swift but binding, and makes every nerve in her brain burn like an overnight fire. 

She could hear the distinct murmurs and outcries from the men, but Ningguang’s smile looked triumphant even as she hid it behind a snapped open fan, and Beidou had never been so ready to swear at her more than now in her life. 

(To swear what, exactly, was a question she knew she’d ponder over beer at the Alcor.)

“Archons, Ning,” Beidou said, mouth agape, and she couldn’t do anything else but stare even as they’re left as the only beings remaining in the gigantic room. “Did you make me dock my ship just so you could kiss me?” 

“Not exactly,” Ningguang said dryly, and her trenchant personality had finally settled in. Its presence made Beidou grasp the meanings of her smiles and actions from moments ago. 

She was acting flirty. Or, more precisely— as if she was in love. She’s met many women who’ve tried to seduce the Great Captain of the Crux Fleet before, but she couldn’t say that she ever anticipated the Tianquan would ever stoop to those… tactics.

The concept was so bizarre that Beidou could only gape at her, and Ningguang rolled her eyes before resting her back against her tall, silk chair. She fanned herself slowly. 

Beidou’s eyes scanned the room while Ningguang tried to find the words. Everything was where she knew they were to be— nothing had changed, save for the identical chair that she was currently sitting in. They were put so close together that Beidou could move her elbow an inch and knock it against Ningguang’s. 

Ningguang’s chambermaids were also nowhere to be seen. Usually, they littered the room after Ningguang’s guests had left, though the place was drier than Beidou had ever seen it to be. 

“I wish I could give you the benefit of a euphemistic proposition, but you and I both know we don’t have the time for that, might as well the time for you to spend the time in here I made you take,” Ningguang said dryly, and Beidou could only bob her head and hum in agreement. “My conglomerate of suitors have gone to the point that it’s become more than just a nuisance to deal with. You know how men are— ‘no’ to their ears is a ‘maybe’ at worst and ‘keep trying’ at best.”

Beidou could only snort at that. “Easy,” she said, and she leaned back against her chair. It was quite sturdy for something that looked as if it should be more displayed than used. “Threaten them with a club until they back off of you. Or is that why you needed me here?”

Ningguang tilted her head. “I can no longer separate your sarcasm from you, Captain, but you should know that I do things for a reason.”

Ah. 

Oh. 

Beidou’s eyebrows jumped up. “So your little smooch wasn’t just because you could?” she said, half-jokingly, because she knew that Ningguang could always do so if she ever entertained herself with it. Honestly, she could do a lot of things— mora, in this era, could buy off anything, and the Tianquan of the Liyue Qixing could do just that. 

“I want you to pretend to be my fiancée.” 

Direct and straight to the point. Ningguang always knew how not to disappoint. 

Beidou stared at her. She kept staring, even long after Ningguang’s face was set in that stoic, almost bored, look of hers. She blinked once, then asked, “I don’t have a problem with that, honestly, but you really wanna ask me?”

“Why not you?” Ningguang asked in return. She furled up her fan. “You are the Uncrowned Lord of the Ocean. You’ve slain beasts even I cannot help but be impressed by.”

“I mean—” She searched for the words in her head, making gestures with her hand to try and elicit a response. “Don’t you want to ask someone more of your… tastes?”

Ningguang looked almost amused by that. “And what is a person of my tastes?”

“You know, like—” Beidou put her hand closer to her chest level, whilst Ningguang crossed her legs idly to get comfortable. “Someone not as tall and burly as me. Someone who doesn’t have a crap ton of fines from the Qixing themselves.”

“But that would be most, if not all, of my suitors, wouldn’t it be?” Ningguang mused. At Beidou’s lack of response, she added, “They will see that person as someone easily replaceable with them. They would only seek to try and win my hand with more vigor, even if their proposals are to become more of an affair or a stolen away fantasy.”

Beidou hated how right she was. “So you think if you asked me, you’d scare them away?”

Ningguang looked delighted by her response. “Both metaphorically and literally, wouldn’t you say?” she said, a genuine smile curling on those lips. She looked up to the ceiling of her Jade Chamber, painted by colorful depictions of Liyue’s animals that Beidou could only assume was brought on by Teyvat’s most expensive artists. But, if she was being honest, she’d seen better. “The moment I tell them that I’m engaged to the Queen of the Crux Fleet, I assume about ninety percent of them would back down without a fight.”

“And the ten percent who do?” Beidou pressed. 

Her head turned idly to look at her, lazily almost. Her curled lips looked sinister in the lighting. “Well, I’m certain you know how to dispose of your enemies, Captain.”

Beidou gulped. Her throat felt a little dry. “You couldn’t have just told them we were dating or something?” Ningguang peaked an eyebrow at her, interested in the way she swerved around her comment. 

“You honestly think those men would ever take that seriously?” she said disdainfully, and honestly, Beidou didn’t know why she asked. She was right, obviously— even she would’ve never taken it seriously. 

But an engagement. 

For one thing, that was an entanglement that needed a breadth of lies, ones without chinks in the armor for someone to take advantage of. And here was Ningguang, sitting there so casually like she didn’t worry about a single aspect of it all. 

“How long have you been planning for this thing?” Beidou asked her in disbelief. 

“A week,” was the immediate answer. But then Ningguang hummed, propping her chin on her hand, and then said, “I would have initiated it much sooner, but I only received the responses from the other members about the strings I pulled to convince you.”

“Oh, this is gonna be good,” Beidou said with a snicker. She rested her elbows on her knees and leaned forward, turning to look at Ningguang in the eyes. “What did you do?”

“I asked the Qixing to give your fleet full immunity for seven years,” she said patiently, and Beidou’s jaw slackened. Ningguang tapped a finger against her cheek. “Thankfully, I managed to avoid most questions about the request, even if it came at the price of having it delayed by some few days.”

Beidou stared at her. “Full immunity?” she repeated. 

“Full immunity,” Ningguang confirmed. 

Fines never bothered Beidou. Mora was never a problem for her fleet, at least not anymore— but to be granted full immunity by the Liyue Qixing meant that she no longer had to dance around the Harbor, that she could trade among her favorite merchants without worrying about a tap on her shoulder and being escorted by the Millelith towards the floating Jade Chamber for a few hours that could have been spent doing something much more precious next to the sea. 

“You really thought this out, huh?” she said with a chuckle. She couldn’t help but let the impressiveness seep into her voice. Ningguang deserved that much. 

“Is that a yes to my proposal, Captain?”

Beidou couldn’t help it. “Yes,” she said, then in a higher pitched voice, “A million times yes!”

Though Ningguang turned her head to shake it, closing her eyes in annoyance, a small quirk of her lips showed Beidou that she was relieved by the outcomes.

 


 

“Are you falling asleep on me, Captain?” Ningguang asked her, a slight edge of amusement to her tone. 

“No, no.” Beidou waved a lazy hand at her. “Keep going. How many more pages of this do we have to get through?”

“A hundred and twelve,” Ningguang said patiently, and chuckled when Beidou groaned and buried her face on the table. “You signed the contract, Beidou.”

“I know,” she said miserably. “But I didn’t think that this whole faux engagement thing would take up sixty seven chapters.”

Ningguang watched her groan at the table. “If you would like, we could go over the first few details of our arrangement before we continue,” she said patiently, and Beidou had never lifted her head so fast in her life. 

“Gods, please, I’m begging you, Ning.”

Ningguang shook her head. “Where did you propose to me?”

“… A restaurant?”

“What kind of fiancée are you?”

Oh, that one she knew how to answer. “One forced into it,” Beidou said jokingly. 

 


 

“You really couldn’t have found me a looser fit, Ning?” she hissed, rolling her shoulders to prove her point. “I’m practically choking in this.”

“Don’t grumble so much,” Ningguang chided her. She had her arms crossed, looking Beidou up and down with a watchful eye. “This was the closest thing to your size they had in the Boutique at such short notice. You should be grateful they even let you have it.”

“Maybe if they let me breathe in this, I’d be a lot more thankful. Wouldn’t you be?” Beidou asked her dryly. She played with the collar of her suit, huffing as the itch underneath it only grew. She ran a nail through her skin irritably. 

Ningguang clicked her tongue in disapproval. “You didn’t even get the knot right.”

“Well, sorry if I’m not well-versed in the kinds of suit tie knots in Teyvat,” Beidou told her hotly. “I could tell you all sorts of sailor’s knots, but I don’t think I could even name one of these to you.” She pointed at the hurriedly tied knot right above her sternum. 

It was only pride that prevented her from asking Ningguang for help, or at least to admit to her that even the knot in the mirror looked like a crumpled up piece of paper. 

Cool fingers hooked underneath the knot, and in one flourish that made Beidou blink, it untied itself. Ningguang lined up the tail ends of the tie and cinched in a few steps that seemed much too practiced. 

When Beidou met her eyes, Ningguang pursed her lips. “Even a businesswoman needs to know the basics, Captain,” she said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Where did you propose to me?”

The question made her lips move on reflex. “I proposed to you with a cor lapis ring on the terrace of the Jade Chamber after I came back from a battle in Inazuma.” Said battle was only two weeks prior. Somehow, Ningguang was watching her much more closely than she thought. “I wanted to marry as soon as possible after getting a taste of death, and you thought it was romantic enough for you to say yes.”

“Good. You look dashing.” Ningguang flashed her a smile, then tugged on her tie to pull her close enough for a kiss on the lips.

Beidou knew not to misunderstand her intentions. It was a reminder, a forewarning even, to remember how to behave and act her part of the bargain. It was insulting, almost, that Ningguang had to remind her in such a way. 

Beidou licked her lips. She had to admit though, the Tianquan had good taste in whatever lip care she had at her disposal. She tasted honey-like, like the nectar from the glaze lilies the people of Liyue were quite fond of. 

She wondered if she could make some quick mora from selling off that information to the men who desperately wished for its knowledge, though she quickly dispelled the thought when Ningguang stepped away from her and flashed her the most genuine smile she had ever seen on the woman.

“Shall we then, m’lady?” Beidou said, and stuck out her elbow for Ningguang to take. With a practiced flurry, Ningguang held onto her elbow with both hands, then let Beidou slide open the door to make their way to the main hall of the dining area. 

Her first assignment was easy enough. Meet a couple suitors from Ningguang’s inner circle for dinner and drinks— this was something she did for some women in her crew anyway. If her brashness and subtle (or not subtle) mention of her achievements on the seas weren’t enough, then certainly her threats would be (though, it never came to that, and she hoped that these people had the sense not to try her now). 

Though the pair had arrived a couple minutes earlier than the agreed meeting time, it seemed that these suitors wanted the luxury of impressing Ningguang more than Beidou had realized, because both men had already situated themselves in the very corner of the restaurant. Their heads turned at the same time when Ningguang was close enough in their proximity, her golden dress making them practically salivate at the mouth, and Beidou had to purse her lips to keep from laughing out loud at the comically huge eyes they both wore when they landed on whose arm Ningguang was hanging from. 

“I’d like you both to meet my fiancée,” she said, and Beidou had to give a hand to her for how easily those words slipped out of her mouth. Affectionate, with the right amount of pride. “I don’t think I really need to introduce her though, do I?”

“Of course not,” one of them sputtered, but the other one was quicker to recover. 

“No, of course not,” he reiterated, and cleared his throat, tucking in his chair closer to the table now that it was made certain that Beidou was the one to pull out Ningguang’s chair for her. “Beidou. The Captain of the Crux.”

“Yo,” she said, and there was a quick pinch to her side. She almost yelped. 

“Don’t be so crass,” Ningguang hissed in her ear, and then louder, “She’s just arrived here in Liyue after a trade in Inazuma. Isn’t she sweet for agreeing to come here?” 

Though Beidou knew what lied in between the lines of her words: My big bad fiancée agreed to come here specifically to see you. 

“Yes, very,” the first man squeaked out.

Before sitting down, Ningguang pointed to each man and introduced him to Beidou, though Beidou had already given them much easier nicknames to remember them by— Squeaky Knucklehead and Punchable Knucklehead. But well, both were punchable enough anyway. 

Beidou kissed her fiancée on the temple to further rub the situation in their faces. Neither of you are here to woo the Tianquan. You’re here for a formal rejection. 

“So, how are the stocks of both of your businesses?” Ningguang said amicably, and she smiled at them with such sincerity that Beidou had to look twice to realize that she was playing with the napkin on her lap, annoyed just as much as she was to be where they were. “I’m sure they’re flourishing under your new care. Your fathers must be proud of you.”

Beidou knew that every word out of her mouth was a straight up lie. She was so good at it though, that on multiple occasions she had to keep herself from turning to look at Ningguang in disbelief at the utter sincerity in her tone.

She was under the impression that Ningguang wasn’t one to be a flatterer for the people she spoke to, no matter what influence they garnered in their corners. Nonetheless, she picked up the menu from their waitress without saying a thing, just as she was directed, and ordered the first thing she saw that her hungry stomach was willing to digest. 

Beidou stared at the men the entire time, shooting Ningguang loving looks here and there to pepper in the reason for her appearance at their little “business meeting”. 

She raised her wine glass (unfortunately, Ningguang forbade her to drink her “boorish beer” in the company of her men), letting the light of the restaurant reflect the glint of her golden engagement ring. 

As a sailor, even Beidou would appreciate an expensive ring here and there. And the men certainly did. 

When the men began to prattle on about their businesses, in what Beidou assumed to be their poor attempt in saving face, Ningguang leaned over to her to whisper, “I was only kind to them this once to let them down a little gentler.”

Beidou snickered behind her glass. She couldn’t help but peck Ningguang on the lips, both as a reminder to the eyes staring into the side of her face and just because she could. It was quick, and it was obvious that Ningguang didn’t like the taste of her wine from the way she leaned back, but Beidou’s grin was all the more genuine. 

“What a kind soul you have there, then,” she said with a merry laugh. 

 


 

There was one thing that Ningguang didn’t anticipate in her web of plans, and it was the fact that Ningguang wasn’t the only one benefiting from their little arrangement. 

Beidou never had more fun in her life than pretending to be the Tianquan’s wife-to-be, such as winning every bet among her crew. All she had to do was declare that Ningguang gave her the ring, or say that Ningguang would kiss her without protest, and she’d prove as such in front of her crew while they were docked in the Harbor and she was out in the market with her fiancée to grab some food. 

Apparently, the footnotes of the contract she signed with Ningguang said she couldn’t tell anyone on her crew about their arrangement and to fake that it was real until their eventual “downfall”, so Beidou wanted to take advantage of her sealed lipped promise as much as she could. If her crew accused her of lying to them, all she had to do was point to Liyue, and they’d know immediately how sacred every contract was. 

And then, there was the fact that she could bother Ningguang all she wanted, and Celestia itself couldn’t stop her from doing so. 

When she was in a particularly good mood (read also: in a mood to bother Ningguang), she’d burst into the Jade Chamber and ignore the calls of the servants to run into Ningguang’s meeting and vociferously announce her presence to everyone in the room. 

“Hi, honey! How are ya!” she announced one time to Ningguang and her dozen or so patrons sitting crossed legged around a long table. Ningguang gave her a strained smile, and though she seemed happy to see her to the others in the room, her eyes glared daggers into Beidou’s very soul. “I just got back from wrestling with this gigantic sea creature in the archipelagos, so I probably reek of seaweed. Give your fiancée a little kiss?”

And every time, she’d pucker up her lips and give Ningguang a big ol’ kiss on the lips, which Ningguang had to endure for every request made. 

And every time, Ningguang would laugh and comment about how incredibly sweet and funny her wife-to-be was, though the nails on either side of Beidou’s face would bite into her skin. Beidou didn’t mind, and she’d grin at Ningguang every time it happened, knowing that she was in a position where, for once, Beidou clearly had the upper hand, even as the people around them thought so differently. 

“Look at how lovely you look today, Captain,” she’d reply, and though her tone was saccharine sweet, Beidou could hear the complete annoyance in them. From practice and familiarity, she supposed. 

Ningguang’s tight smiles and the speed in which she pulled away from Beidou’s lips were always under the radar, and though others only saw two lovebirds who loved to be affectionate as often as they could after spending most of their love life in secret to keep formalities (and only revealed now to prove to Liyue the “gravity of their love,” as Ningguang eloquently put it in front of her group of suitors), Beidou knew that every kiss was cold, calculating, and held no warmth that a true lover should have. 

So how could she ever truly brag about holding Ningguang’s affections?

Beidou shook off the sudden sentiment. She brought the beer up to her lips and chugged it, downing every last drop. 

She looked towards the sea and watched as the water lapped up the beaches. Her crew celebrated behind her, the laughter and the sea shanties as bright and loud as the lanterns in the distance. 

The Alcor was set to dock on Liyue shores in the next hour, a routine that had been so tried and true that she knew her entire crew could guide them to Liyue in the dark. 

Beidou tilted her chin upwards. 

The Jade Chamber was the brightest lantern in the star, one that could pass off of her personal North Star, and she wondered what that could ever mean for her. 

Was it the Chamber she looked for when coming to Liyue, or the woman who commanded it?

She set down her drink on her table and let out a loosened groan, running her hands through her hair as the Chamber got slightly bigger and bigger with each passing knot of the sail. The image of the grandiose floating palace could be burned into the back of her eyelids and it wouldn’t make a difference to her. 

Shaking her head, her fingers found the band around her ring finger and moved it around. It was comforting, and the cool metal reminded her of the nails under her chin before Ningguang would kiss her so feather-lightly against the lips in front of anyone she deemed needed to see it. 

Ningguang had told her everything she needed to know about their fabricated arrangement. Everything from when they “fell in love” (Beidou had beaten her at chess yet again, and it was an attraction to two like-minded people) to when they were to chop off the arrangement (Beidou would be made to leave Liyue for two months overseas, and Ningguang would inform her closest confidants over tea that they severed their relationship like a hydra before a marriage could ever become final, a decision made over obvious differences overlooked by young love). 

Everything about their relationship was arranged from beginning to end with a red thread that Ningguang meticulously crafted, one without faults and fissures that could fall underneath a watchful gaze. It was a feat that impressed Beidou on several levels, and her fascination with Ningguang’s dexterity and devising would only grow with each passing day that she’d reveal to Beidou about her further steps. 

If this was a chess game, Ningguang would be five steps ahead from everyone in the game. There were no faults, and absolutely everything was taken into consideration. 

But perhaps Ningguang had forgotten that Beidou was just as good, if not better, at these kinds of mind games than she was. Even if this was Ningguang’s best match played to date, Beidou couldn’t help but find one fault in her plans, even if she told Beidou everything she knew. 

The only thing Ningguang didn’t tell her was how to cope with missing the proximity. 

 


 

Ningguang invited her to a small outdoor party two days after her return. 

Though she wouldn’t call it “small,” unless in Ningguang’s modest words. It seemed as if half of Liyue was shoved into this short square of an area, string instruments only barely heard over the mingling of people and the clinking of their glasses. 

Though Beidou prided herself in being able to befriend even the most vulgar of guests, she couldn’t find a good foothold to start off with the men and women on Ningguang’s party list. They were much too stuck-up, and they looked at her with so much apprehension that Beidou wondered if they thought she was about to pounce on them like a lion who hasn't eaten in days. 

Truth be told, she wouldn’t be caught dead where she was had it not been for the contract she made with Ningguang. She would so much rather drink the night away with her crew, docked or undocked, letting the sway of the sea be her natural dance teacher while the drunken bards provided the most beautiful music she could ever have the privilege of hearing. 

She didn’t even understand why she was needed there in the first place. Ningguang was busy chatting with other people in the corner of the gettogether, not once sparing a glance at her, save for the few moments where she would extravagantly show off her fiancée to suitors who continued to try and woo her with the power of liquid luck. 

The men would almost always scurry off with their tails tucked in between their legs, looking completely dejected while Beidou would get her fill of entertainment for the night, but now that most of them had been exterminated off the list from Ningguang’s potential admirers, Beidou was in a position of complete and utter boredom. 

There was nothing to do except wander from corner to corner as if she was a ghost, greeting folks here and there if they looked friendly (or, not scared) enough to approach. Her eyes would wander if she wasn’t careful, though Ningguang was nowhere in sight after their latest endeavor in scaring the pants off one of her subordinates in a faux makeout session behind one of the pillars. 

But finally, Beidou found her hailing savior— an assembly of musicians that played a soft melody that coerced many of the couples to sway and embrace each other along the pitted floor. Ningguang and Beidou already had their fair share of dancing under the public eye, and Ningguang had said as much, so Beidou let her shoulders deflate and pulled them back to let herself get lost in the music.

She brought her glass of wine to her lips and sipped. Though it could never live up to the cheap beer brought in barrels on her ship, she appreciated that the alcohol was much more prominent in it now than it was at the other galas they attended. She wondered briefly if it was Ningguang’s doing after her constant complaining of the drink selections they were brought to, though she couldn’t possibly imagine her to be merciful about alcohol, of all things. 

Closing her eyes, Beidou could feel the floor sway underneath her. Her sea legs hadn’t been very kind to her ever since she let herself on land for the longest she’s ever been, though it was comforting in a way. She could feel the arches of the sea bring her up and down, swaying her gently from side to side like a goodnight lullaby from the monsters that laid beneath the ocean. 

Paired with the gentle pull of the strings and the melodies that could put even the toughest sailor to sleep, Beidou quickly forgot her nuisances of the night. She wished she could commission a bard to play those songs every night on her ship, but she knew how quickly they all got sea sick. 

“I didn’t think that this kind of music would be of your palate, Captain,” Ningguang said beside her. She didn’t sound so surprised, though there was an interested quirk of her eyebrow as she drank her flute. 

Beidou chuckled, mimicking Ningguang’s action with her own sip of her drink. “Is that right?” she remarked. 

“One would assume you’d find that one young lady’s music much more to your taste,” Ningguang said. She tried to find the words while taking another sip. “Xinyan, I believe her name is.”

“Xinyan’s great!” she said with a laugh. She remembered fond things of that woman, mostly of fire hazards and noting the importance of cotton balls in her ears. “Just not my style. Her kind of music isn’t for me, exactly.”

Ningguang gave her an odd look. 

“What?”

“You’re much different than what I imagined, my captain.”

Beidou gave her a lopsided grin, raising her glass slightly. “On the contrary, you’re everything I imagined you to be.”

“Should that be taken as an insult or a compliment?” Ningguang asked, and there was no bite to her words. Just genuine curiosity. 

“A little bit of both, I reckon,” Beidou said with a hum. She sipped again, enjoying the fruity taste in her mouth. “But lean more on the compliment side.” 

“How chivalrous of you, Beidou,” Ningguang said, a little laugh escaping her lips. It was quite charming to hear, especially since the only things Beidou had ever heard from her were ones made to quickly dismiss badgering businessmen. It was genuine, at least to her knowledge. 

She wondered if she could coax a louder one from her. 

Before she could get the chance to try, a couple moved up to them and apologized for intruding on an intimate moment, before unapologetically asking for Ningguang’s presence on the other side of the gala. 

Before Ningguang could disappear off to the crowd, Beidou called out, “Wait!”

When she looked expectantly back at her, Beidou pointed at her cheek and grinned. “You forgot something.”

Rolling her eyes, Ningguang leaned over and planted a quick kiss on her lips, before murmuring a whispered, “I’ll be back soon, my captain.”

It was still tight and brief, but the first few sparks began to appear on the bumps of her forearms. 

 


 

Visiting the Jade Chamber had quickly become routine to her. 

Barking orders to set down the anchors, visiting the sick bay, reloading the cannons— all of those were routines that Beidou had become accustomed to, and they were things in her life that she knew she had to attend to until her imminent death. Though they were sometimes a hassle, they weren’t things she could wave off, and thus needed to accept them as duties that had to be done. 

Except now the Jade Chamber had almost become a beacon to her, a pause in her day to day life that became more comfort than chore. Instead of the growing pains in her back and the groan on her lips, much as she bent over to check the cannons and tend to her sick, her shoulders would feel twice as light and the little clicks of her heels on the marbled floor felt homely as it could ever get. 

Though she knew that as much as she enjoyed her tea time with Ningguang, or chatting with her over plans that concerned their nation, or even flirting by the banister, this was nothing more than a routine. A job. A commission by the Tianquan, bound by a written and wordless contract, sealed by open kisses and mouths that declared feigned love in front of people that Ningguang deemed necessary to see. 

Yet she couldn’t find another reason not to smile and whistle to herself as she fidgeted with her pricey ring, her heels clicking sharply on a floor that felt like glass.

“Captain Beidou!” a secretary called, and her desperate voice made her stop in her tracks. She turned her head in time to watch as two secretaries made their way to her, eyes wide as does and their mousey figures nearly cowering under her. Which was odd, considering how tall they usually presented themselves, even to her. “Captain Beidou!”

“Hey,” she greeted, half curiously, with a blink. She reeled her mind in to remember their names. “Baixiao and Baiwen?” It came off as a slight question. She shook her head and retried with a, “Is everything okay?”

“Yes, everything is fine, but—” the second secretary said (Baixiao, she finally remembered— she had gotten them mixed up) and fidgeted with her hands. Beidou tilted her head. “You can’t be here right now.”

Beidou couldn’t help but feel a little affronted by that. “I’m… here all the time though,” she said with a chuckle. “Why can’t I be here right now?” To her knowledge, nothing was happening at the Jade Chamber today, or the day after that, or the day after that. Ningguang would always kiss her on the cheek and smile, truly smile at her and wish for her safe return to the Chamber, and their last meeting was nothing less of that. 

The pair eyed each other, shooting each other worrying looks that made Beidou look between them in suspicion. It wasn’t like them to keep secrets from her— Ningguang had specified to all of her attendants that she was to know the ins and outs of the Jade Chamber. 

Unless, of course, Ningguang had wished for certain things to go unknown. 

“Why can’t I be here right now?” she repeated. 

Her heart pounded. She couldn’t help but wonder, just in the back of her mind, if Ningguang was currently in her office, her silk robe pulled off of her by the teeth of a woman who was enchanting her, making her lips part, making her—

And why would it matter?

Their contract had specified that they were only to keep up the appearance.

But she supposed it could be the possibility anyway. Even her closest attendants don’t know of their inner proceedings, just as her closest crew members did not, such as an eye for an eye. To them, Ningguang’s affairs were true affairs, and their orders would always be to make sure her relationships do not fall through. 

Beidou’s mouth felt dry. 

“You just can’t be here, Captain Beidou,” Baiwen said with an apologetic bow. “I’m sorry.”

“And why can’t I?” she pressed. She knew it wouldn’t matter no matter what they told her— Ningguang’s affairs were her business, and she shouldn’t be the one to judge her for them. Yet she couldn’t help but let those words slip out, and keep slipping out. “I’m her fiancée. Last I checked, most of your rules don’t apply to me.”

“Captain Beidou, please, we—” The secretaries stepped in front of her, just as she tried to make her way around them. The hallway to her left would take her directly to Ningguang’s private quarters, and if she strained her neck enough, she could see the screen that hid Ningguang away from the world. “You can’t be here. We’re asking you to leave.”

“And I’m asking you,” Beidou snipped, and she turned her gaze onto them, “for the reason why I can’t be here right now.” She didn’t mean those words to sound as cold as they were. 

She was suddenly struck by the thought that Baishi, the woman who constantly prowled on Ningguang for everything she was, was nowhere in sight. It made her ground her teeth together slightly harder. 

The secretaries looked at each other for a brief moment. Whatever they communicated to each other was found in conflicting hindsights, though Baixiao closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and finally nodded. 

“Lady Ningguang asked us to keep all guests out of the Jade Chamber today,” Baiwen explained, and a quip of I’m her fiancée found itself on the tip of her tongue, but disappeared like sugar candy when she added, much more quietly, “She specifically asked us to keep you out as well.”

Beidou’s breath strained. “Why—” It sounded a little too hoarse for her liking. She licked her lips and tried again. “Why would she do that?”

The secretaries fell silent. Baiwen was the one brave enough to tell her. “Lady Ningguang has had a… an unpleasant start to her day.” She bowed her head slightly to Beidou. “She wanted to request some alone time. Just for today.”

Baixiao bowed as well. “She also wanted us to tell you that she’s grateful to you for taking the time to see her, but now is not a good time for visiting.”

Beidou laughed dryly. “She had enough foresight to say that, but didn’t think I wouldn’t go in anyway?” she asked, and the secretaries pursed their lips. “I don’t know what else to say, ladies. If she starts scolding you two about this, tell her I threatened you or something.”

Then she patted them both on the shoulders and walked around them, walking at a brisk pace to Ningguang’s private chamber without so much as a peep from the secretaries behind her. Smart ladies.

The guilt settled on her stomach when she put her fingers on the screen. 

An affair. 

Of all things her mind could jump to, why there? 

She chewed on her bottom lip and let it slide open, blinking at the amount of sunshine Ningguang let into her room. 

Despite all of the opened windows and the sunroofs next to her bed, Ningguang looked as solemn as ever, and she picked up her head to glare at Beidou with an abacus thrown to her side and open scrolls tangled around her hands. 

“Aren’t you a sight to behold?” Beidou declared, and she shut the screen behind her. “What are you doing holed up in here?”

“I told them to turn you away,” Ningguang said with an irritable sigh, though she didn’t sound any more surprised. 

“If you wanted me gone that much, you could’ve put some of the Millelith in here,” she noted, and she craned her neck to gaze at the colorful paper cranes strewn in Ningguang’s room. They were sloppily made, with most lines uneven and scribbles of characters written in crayon under the wings. Beidou could only assume that they were given to her by the children of Liyue. 

Somehow that only made the scene in front of her make her heart ache more. 

“I could have,” Ningguang agreed. She put down the scroll onto her bed, rubbing generously at her eyes. Beidou was too far away to read most of the writing in it, but she could tell what bad news looked like. “But I believe it wasn’t worth the effort. You would’ve subdued them all even when you’re drunk.”

“Then why tell your secretaries to keep me from you?” Beidou said, and they came out soft. Gentle. As if Ningguang was going to break under the pressure if she raised her voice any higher. 

She knew more than anyone how untrue that could be. That Ningguang could withstand even the greatest of threats in front of her face, even when they were in screaming matches and the crackles of the sky threatened to break them apart for it. 

Ningguang sighed. 

Her makeup wasn’t on, her hair fell into unkempt curls around her face, and most evidently of all, the woman hadn’t even changed out of her night robes. 

Beidou sat at the edge of her bed, and her weight made a slight dip. Ningguang looked at her, her beautiful mind working to say something to her that Beidou knew would be calculated and deliberate. They always were. 

“Perhaps I just wanted to give you a forewarning,” Ningguang settled on saying. She gestured at her body, her unmade bed, the wrinkles in her silk robe. Beidou hated how she laughed then. It wasn’t as genuine and heartening as they usually were. “So you didn’t come in here expecting me to look as if all was well.”

“All isn’t well,” Beidou pointed out. “And as your fiancée, I’mmm pretty sure I’m entitled to hearing you talk all about it, right?”

“I could ramble to you about these things all I want,” Ningguang said, curling up the scroll, “but  you cannot solve them. They don’t concern you, after all.”

Beidou hummed. “That’s true, but…” She shrugged. “Don’t you think it would make you feel a little better just to talk about?”

Ningguang’s brow furrowed in reply. 

Beidou moved her hand around to look for an answer. “I know I can’t ask my crew to seek out my answers for me. But I talk to them about it. You know the little guy, Kazuha? Perfect example. He’d be there while I drank and listen to me go on and on about how I couldn’t find enough fruits to keep my men healthy while we voyaged across the country. Sometimes, he’d offer me some good advice, but usually he’d just nod along and listen to my sob stories.” She laughed at the thought of it. “People don’t always have to find the answers for you, Ning. If you want them to, they can just be there.”

“I don’t think I ever thought about it that way,” Ningguang admitted, and though it was an observation on her side, Beidou could hear the tentativeness come from it. 

“Hey,” Beidou snickered, and she elbowed Ningguang slightly in the rib. “Remember those guys we had dinner with? I bet you fifty thousand mora they went out drinking after that to ramble to each other about how they lost a big catch like you. All snot-faced and cheap beer down their chins and everything.”

And Ningguang laughed. 

It was neither sarcastic nor dry, and it was all sincere and out from the stomach. The light in her eyes matched the scenery behind her head, finally, all sunshine and bright blue heavens.

Maybe the smile on her face was a testament to her name as the Queen of the Skies. 

And maybe Beidou didn’t want to come down so easily anymore. 

Ningguang’s forefinger and thumb found her chin, and she coaxed it upwards slightly enough for them to meet each other’s eyes. 

A soft, malleable kiss found its way to her lips, and Ningguang let go of her after letting it rest there. 

“The kiss was a thank you,” Ningguang told her. “For making me feel better.”

Beidou grinned at her, then scooted closer in from the bed. “You’re welcome,” she said. She took Ningguang’s scroll from her. “We won’t be needing this for a while. How do you feel about a game of Liyue Millennial?”

Maybe a win will finally bring her spirits up again. 

And just as she thought, Ningguang lit up, if not subtly, then got up for the first time since that morning to get up and get a board. 

In her curiosity, Beidou checked the first few words of the scroll, then pursed her lips. They were tabloid rescinds about their engagement. 

If their arrangement was causing her more trouble than victory, then why was she trying so hard to maintain it?

Ningguang was never one to lose, and it was evident in the way she played her game with Beidou and changed every rhyme and reason to get her way. 

 


 

The children of Liyue were arguably Ningguang’s greatest ally. 

They ran up to her the moment she walked into the Harbor, though contrary to popular belief, they liked Ningguang’s presence more than any present she ever harbored to them. The children’s eyes lit up the moment she came, and they were only taken slightly aback when Ningguang presented them with street food she bought from around the corner. It was more touching to see it in person, rather to hear it by word of mouth. 

Beidou crossed her arms and leaned against a building, watching her faux fiancée crouch to the children’s height to pass each one a street crepe. Her heart felt as warm as the steam emitting from the food, as each child gave Ningguang a wide-toothed smile while Ningguang mirrored them with a gentler one in return. 

She didn’t mind children, really, though now she could understand why Ningguang loved to entertain them so much. Their lopsided grins and excited hops were on the surface of their cute charms. 

But in all honesty, she couldn’t find herself focusing on the children so much as she was focusing on how easily Ningguang got along with them. 

They came up to her one by one, beckoning her to come closer while they whispered in her ears and backed away to giggle with their friends, while Ningguang would hold them by their little hands and earnestly thank them as if they were the ones to solve all of her problems in the Jade Chamber. They’d light up and eat the last of their food, before beckoning the others to join them to play pirates next to her. It was a cycle with more or less a dozen children in Ningguang’s tight circle, and it occurred enough for people to pass by them without more than a glance to the side in curiosity. 

Though while Ningguang let the children inspect the jewelry on her hands, two men passed by to stop and sneer at her, their backs facing Beidou and effectively obscuring her sight.

She was about to tap them on the shoulder when the burlier man jeered, “What a waste of legs.”

She froze.

“Are you kidding?” his companion exclaimed. “What a waste of everything. Can you believe she’s getting it on with a mercenary?”

“Don’t remind me,” the first man grunted. His crossed arms made his shoulders even thicker, and Beidou bit her lip to keep from gripping her claymore resting against the wall to whack him right there. “Richest woman alive and she chose to be with someone who probably tosses mora into the sea when she’s drunk. You think her woman held her at knife point to marry her?”

“She may very well did,” his friend laughed. “Getting married or not, it doesn’t stop me from looking at all of that.”

The burly man grunted. “Lady Ningguang, Tianquan of the Liyue Qixing. Reduced to the butt of a joke because she couldn’t find a more honest suitor.”

It’s not the jabs at her that electrified her veins, sparking under her skin and threatening to hail the heavens with her lightning. 

It was the way they looked at Ningguang, hungry eyes that feasted on everything they could see, even as the view in front of them was a loving, beautiful woman and all the children who played around her because they found her admiring enough to do so. 

Beidou walked past them, clipping one of them in the shoulder and turning her head to glare. They definitely saw her and recognized her, if their pale faces and quickly drained laughter was any indication to that. 

But, they were due for a scalding fight another time. 

Beidou fixed a smile on her face and came up to Ningguang just in time for her to get up, a look of surprise on her face as Beidou gently put her palm against her side, tugging her closer almost protectively. 

“Hey honey,” she said sweetly, and it dropped from her tongue just as sweet as the namesake. Naturally as well. “I was just passing by. You didn’t happen to save one for me, did you?” She pointed at Ningguang’s empty bag. 

Ningguang chuckled. “Are you a child?”

“Is that a trick question?”

“I bought enough to give one to each of them,” Ningguang said patiently, and she walked in the direction Beidou was leading them to with blind trust. Away from the men, though she didn’t need to know that. “If you want one that much, we could turn back around and—”

“No need, no need,” she said quickly. “But you sure look hungry. Let’s grab something to eat and I’ll escort you back to the Jade Chamber. How does that sound?”

Ningguang looked at her, slightly confused. She leaned in closer to Beidou. “You don’t have to do any of this,” she whispered, though she put a gentle smile on her face while others passed by them. Perhaps to make them think she was whispering sweet nothings to a fiancée she was in love with. 

“That’s where you’re wrong, Ning,” Beidou declared. She moved her hand up and down Ningguang’s side gently, like a lover should. “What kind of lover would I be if I didn’t make sure you ate?”

Ningguang shook her head. She wondered if it was meant to be as fond as she hoped it to be. “Do as you please.”

“Planning to,” she said happily, then kissed Ningguang on the temple. 

She didn’t look back to see if the men, or anyone really, had caught that slight kiss. 

She didn’t care. It was for Ningguang, anyway.

 


 

Her fiancée’s laughter was cut short when a secretary came in to bow in apology, before telling them that Ningguang’s suitors demanded a public explanation of their relationship as solid proof. 

Beidou hated how easily her status and her beauty was seen as something to be sold off to the people, to the highest bidder. 

She despised how quiet that made Ningguang. 

 


 

“You don’t have to tell them.”

Beidou frowned as Ningguang’s long fingers hooked over her tie, and looped them in. They used to tie it for her so quickly that a blink would be all it took for it to be over. But now it felt like forever. 

“You could end it right here,” Beidou added. “You could say that I ended it because I didn’t like the constant pressure. And as a lasting touch for you, I could point a knife at all of your suitors and promise them hell if they touched you.”

Ningguang chuckled dryly. She hated how forced it felt. 

How fake. 

She swallowed the lump in her throat. 

“You and I both know that it would be too easy,” Ningguang murmured. She kept staring at Beidou’s tie. 

It was a brilliant gold that matched her dress, a pair that made them look as coordinated and matched as a couple should be. Now, though, it only made Beidou feel more like a fraud. 

“You don’t have to do this,” she pressed on. She wrapped her fingers around Ningguang’s wrist. “If you say it to the rest of Liyue, you can’t back out of this as easily as you can now. They’ll all be watching you.”

Ningguang met her eyes for the first time that night. They hid every emotion behind her doors. Beidou used to be able to read her so well. 

“How many times have you said that in the past hour?” Ningguang wondered out loud. “‘I’ don’t have to do this. ‘I’ can’t back out of this. They’ll all be watching ‘me’.”

Beidou watched her silently. The chatter outside sounded happy and excited, despite the press and the common folks being yards and yards away from them. It only added to the pressure inside the chamber.

“How does this affect you, Beidou?” Ningguang asked her. Her eyes were imploring as she stroked her tie with nimble fingers. Nervously, maybe. “Are you telling me these things as a courtesy?”

Beidou frowned. “I don’t know what you’re getting at, Ning.”

“My dearest captain,” Ningguang said softly, and Beidou could feel her sea legs giving into this siren’s song. “What do you want me to tell them?”

She’s never been one to lie. In fact, the entire expanse of their contract had been a string of lies longer than any lie she’s let out of her lips for the longest time. 

Though, there was a certain deceit she kept for most of her life, one that fooled even her for the longest time. 

“I want you to tell them the truth,” she said simply. The simplest request she could make. Perhaps, by the end of the night, maybe she could say her truth as well, and move on to the corners of the seas she usually did, away from Liyue and their watchful Jade Chamber. 

“Do you know what I’ll tell them, then?” Ningguang asked her. Before she could reply, Ningguang continued on. There was a shakiness to her words. It wasn’t prominent, and it was easily dismissed as rocking of the winds, but Beidou could read her better than anyone else in the world. 

“I will tell them that you infuriate me, that you are the sole winner of Liyue Millennial only due to how aggravating you can get when you argue with me,” Ningguang said, and Beidou let out a little laugh. “And I will tell them all of how easily you make me laugh. That you like to barge into my home like you own the place and demand kisses that are not yours to keep.”

Ningguang put the tips of her fingers over Beidou’s lips. There was no pressure, and it was gentle enough to practically ghost over them. “And I would kiss you right there, with all those kameras and in front of all the children I adore so much and with the people I’ve sworn never to hide a thing from.”

Beidou felt her breath hitch. “And you’re telling the truth?”

Ningguang’s smile looked wistful. “You may not believe me, my captain, but I have never told a lie to you in my life.”

And then she turned. Away from her and towards the doors of people who admired her, who despised her, who worshipped the very ground she walked on. Beidou was all of those people at once before, and she still was. 

Except now, her truth lied in the fact that she never made the contract to gain the compensations from the Qixing, or to brag to her crew about managing to nag the most powerful woman in Liyue.

She simply did it to make Ningguang happy. 

So Beidou pulled, right on the sleeve of Ningguang’s dress, turning her around and making her head slightly dizzy with the implications, and kissed her to the point of truth and faith. 

She felt Ningguang’s smile against hers, and she breathed a quiet and sultry, “Let’s go somewhere more private?”

“We’ve been alone this entire time, Beidou,” Ningguang said in amusement, and Beidou was powerless to do anything but laugh against her lips. 

“I know,” Beidou said, kissing her once more. The electricity in the air had never been so sharp. “It was only for you. It’s always been just for you.”

Ningguang’s laugh was infectious. “Then give me more.”

A party of people was told to go on without them, as the servants were told that the pair needed to catch up on a love less lied about. 

 


 

The afterglow of the morning had never been so gentle on her skin, even as they ached so wonderfully from the night before. 

The other side of the bed was empty, though even in her blurry, sleepy vision, Beidou could see the outline of her robed lover on the balcony of their private chambers. 

She came up behind her, pecking her on her marked shoulder, all the way to the back of her ear, then to her lips, where Ningguang kissed her back with the generosity of a genuine lover’s kiss.