At precisely fifteen years old, his head full of romantic ideas and beautiful courtiers smiling at him from behind prettily painted fans, Crown Prince Xie Lian did what most teenagers did and sought the wise words of an oracle to divine the true identity of his bride (or bridegroom!) and the nature of their marriage.
While Xie Lian merrily day-dreamed of a beautiful wedding, a sumptuous feast, and a sensual night with his spouse in their marital bed, the elderly oracle was grim as her gnarled hands sifted through the cracked bones in the ashes of the stone fire pit. The news wasn’t just not good; it would be among the worst news Xie Lian would hear in his life!
“O Prince, your life will be spent in the lap of luxury and comfort, tended to by loyal servants and adorned with riches the likes of which you can never even dream of. But the husband who stands at your side will be a great and powerful demon, whose might will one day shake the foundation of Heaven itself!”
Horrified, Xie Lian all but fled back to the palace, diving into his bed and wrapping himself in blankets upon blankets as if his demonic bridegroom couldn’t penetrate the layers of silk and cotton with his clawed hands. He dared not tell anyone of the fate that awaited him; how could his family bear the shame and fear that their darling Xie Lian would be engaged to a demon! He thus treated all possible suitors, from then until his ascension, with equal parts suspicion and hope. Maybe they would be a normal spouse to break the curse...or they would come to fulfill the prophecy.
In the coming eight hundred years, Xie Lian thought of his demonic bridegroom in fits and starts. As a Heavenly Official, he feared that the prediction would get him booted from Heaven should it come to light. Or worse still, that his bridegroom would come to Heaven himself to collect what he thought was his due. He kept that secret locked up tight but occasionally it slipped through the cracks and terrorized him in his nightmares—a horned demon tearing through Xie Lian’s bridal robes with iron claws.
(Although Xie Lian would never admit it, each time he was cast out, he would dream of his life as the bride of a wealthy demon. He imagined he was curled up on a divan instead of the cold ground, using his husband’s thigh as a pillow instead of a pile of leaves and grass. He wouldn’t even mind the feeling of claws tenderly running through his hair.)
Xie Lian hadn’t thought about his doomed marriage for quite a long time after his third ascension, at least not until the bridegroom decided to make himself known in the most dramatic of fashions.
“Crimson Rain Seeking Flower has declared war on the Heavenly Kingdom,” Jun Wu explains to a frightened Xie Lian. He’s not afraid of the prospect of fighting—he is a martial god, after all. The feeling of pure dread didn’t climb up his spine and grip his head until Jun Wu continued,
“He will be here in three days unless we give him Xie Lian as a bride.”
Hua Cheng’s declaration of war came with a set of ornate bridal robes and a red veil, both of which now sit in Xie Lian’s lap.
Around him, the various gods chatter and gossip as if he weren’t even here. If this were eight hundred years ago when he first ascended, the reaction would be nothing short of pure outrage. The Crown Prince, Xie Lian? Wedded to Hua Cheng! The streets of Heaven would run red with the blood of demons!
But he’s no longer the great Flower Crowned Martial God. Now the gods around him gossip about why Crimson Rain Seeking Flower, Ghost King, wants a scrap-collecting garbage god as a bride! Others suggest that maybe it’s not a bad thing that Hua Cheng wants Xie Lian as a bride—Xie Lian doesn’t really do anything, doesn’t he? He spends his days helping out villagers with menial tasks like picking vegetables and repairing broken wagon-wheels while living in a run-down little hut he calls Puji Shrine. Hua Cheng might have poor taste, but at least he’s not asking for anyone of great importance!
It seems the only god who has anything to say in Xie Lian’s favor is Shi Qing Xuan, who wails in rage at Jun Wu. “You can’t let Crimson Rain Seeking Flower do this, can you? What has Xie Lian done to deserve such a horrible fate? Surely there must be some other way to work this out!”
“He’s made his point clear. He’ll have Xie Lian and no other, and if he’s not ready in three days time, we’ll have a war to shake the Heavens.” Jun Wu rubs his forehead, clearly upset about the situation but understanding that his hands are tied.
Shake the Heavens…
Xie Lian tunes out the rest of the argument as he turns the wedding garments over in his hands. He was afraid at first, but hearing those words calmed something in him. Why should he fight the prophecy? He knows he’s been fated to marry a great and powerful demon for centuries. Hua Cheng is a Devastation-class; one of the Four Great Calamities. And as a king of the underworld, he’s bound to have “untold riches.” He certainly fits the narrative. Perhaps he heard the prophecy too? Xie Lian wonders what it would sound like on Hua Cheng’s side. ‘Your bride will be the Crown Prince of Xian Le, trash-collecting garbage god.’
Besides, if Hua Cheng is threatening to besiege Heaven, then…
Scandalized gasps fill the heavenly halls as Xie Lian drapes the bridal veil over his head and clasps his hands demurely in front of him. “Tell Crimson Rain Seeking Flower…that I accept his offer of marriage.” His words are hollow and final, and he hopes his sleeves hide the nervous wringing of his hands.
Shi Qing Xuan sweeps Xie Lian away to prepare him for his journey to the Ghost City. He takes a long, hot mineral bath before anointing his wrists, the nape of his neck, and just behind his ears with rose oil. The robes he dresses in are a deep red, almost burgundy, and Hua Cheng’s signature butterflies dance merrily in silver embroidery. The wide black sash around his waist matches the black outer coat, which is lined in dark red fur. Xie Lian makes a striking figure, considering his usual attire consists of tattered white robes. Shi Qing Xuan tells him as much, and Xie Lian briefly wonders why everything fits so well before he’s sat down in front of a mirror so Shi Qing Xuan can work on his hair.
With the Wind Master in her female form combing out Xie Lian’s hair, they make the perfect tableau of a handmaiden preparing a bride for her wedding. That is, if the handmaiden had some very pointed remarks about her lady’s pick of bridegroom. And if the lady in question was a martial god, and his bridegroom a great and terrible demon.
“Your Highness, you really don’t have to do this. I’m a shapeshifter; I can take your place! Crimson Rain Seeking Flower has never met you, right? Who’s to say he could tell the difference if we switched places?”
“But then you’d be stuck in the Ghost City instead of me. And if Hua Cheng discovers that he’s been tricked, he’d storm Heaven with his demons. It’s a small price to pay for everyone’s safety. Besides, it’s not like I had a beloved already.” Xie Lian gives a self-deprecating laugh.
“How can you be so nonchalant about this?!” Shi Qing Xuan huffs, putting the comb down and beginning to plait Xie Lian’s hair. The jewelry Hua Cheng included with the robes and veil is very fine; it reminds Xie Lian of the jewelry he had as Crown Prince. Each of the pins Shi Qing Xuan uses to hold the plait in place is topped with a black pearl.
Xie Lian sighs in defeat. “Lady Wind Master, there’s something…more to this whole situation.”
He can practically hear her eyebrows raise in surprise. “Don’t tell me Crimson Rain Seeking Flower is actually your secret lover or something!”
“No, nothing like that!” Xie Lian’s hands flutter uselessly. “As a teenager, I visited an oracle to divine the fate of my marriage. She predicted I would marry a wealthy but powerful demon strong enough to shake Heaven itself. Hua Cheng fits the description too well for it to be just a coincidence.”
“You’re telling me that, because some old bag of wind told you a bunch of nonsense eight hundred years ago, you won’t fight a forced marriage to one of the Four Great Calamities?” Shi Qing Xuan stabs another pearl-tipped pin into Xie Lian’s hair hard enough to make him wince. She smooths a hand over his head in apology.
“I can’t figure out how to fight it. It’s either me, or Heaven. Hua Cheng isn’t giving me much of a choice.” Xie Lian picks up the red veil and drapes it over his head once more.
At least Hua Cheng isn’t fussy about Xie Lian’s departure into the Ghost City. Shi Qing Xuan is allowed to accompany him to a prearranged meeting point in a misty forest, where a bridal sedan awaits with a full bridal party. Eight demon maidens to walk alongside the sedan, and four male demons to carry it. They all bow deeply to Xie Lian, murmuring “Your Highness” in reverent tones.
Shi Qing Xuan hugs Xie Lian tightly and adjusts his veil. “Crimson Rain Seeking Flower better take damn good care of you, or he’ll have me to answer to,” she whispers into Xie Lian’s ear before letting him go.
The bridal party helps Xie Lian climb into the bridal sedan and make sure he’s situated comfortably before setting off. He looks back and watches Shi Qing Xuan until she’s obscured by the mists.
The Ghost City is brighter and livelier than Xie Lian would’ve expected it to be, although as the bridal sedan moves closer and closer to the city, it appears his wedding to Hua Cheng has turned into some sort of holiday. Everyone is dressed well, festival games are set up for the youngsters, and brightly lit lanterns adorn every stall, illuminating the goods for sale: necklaces made of finger bones and molars, customizable voodoo dolls, and skewered eyeballs.
Xie Lian’s stomach, already churning nervously, nearly inverts itself out of existence at the sight. Is this what demons eat? Is this what will be expected of him now? Oh gods, the wedding feast! He didn’t even think of that! Plates piled high with human flesh and goblets overflowing with blood flash before his eyes. Xie Lian holds his stomach and quietly groans, thankful that he didn’t eat anything today out of anxiety.
A young girl with a birdlike face is the first to notice the procession. She tugs on her father’s sleeve excitedly. “Papa, look! Papa! It’s the Lord’s bride! Pick me up so I can see him better!”
Heads snap up and twist in the direction of the bridal party. Xie Lian tries to slink back further into the sedan so he can’t be seen, but it’s a futile attempt. They know he’s here, and they swarm the procession at once. Vendors abandon their stalls and parents pick up their children to give them a better look. Many carry armfuls of colorful flower petals and scatter them in front of the procession to make a carpet of petals.
Xie Lian is…oddly charmed at the sight. He didn’t expect such a warm welcome, being a Heavenly Official among the demons. Even more surprising are the excited murmurs that drift through the crowd and reach Xie Lian’s ears on the wind.
“Can you see him? Is he as lovely as they say?”
“I heard he got kicked out of Heaven because the moon herself was jealous of his beauty!”
“I heard our Lord battled thirty-three gods all for a chance to glimpse his face!”
“I heard that when he fell from Heaven, our Lord thought he was a falling star and caught him in his arms!”
Xie Lian blushes, grateful that no one can see the pink of his cheeks. Such tall tales, each more fantastical than the last! Where did they come from? He’s never met Hua Cheng or been to the Ghost City before! Xie Lian reaches under his veil to touch his warm face. ‘Am I really so beautiful? Does…does Hua Cheng think I’m beautiful?’
A loud, slurring voice breaks through the excited chatter. “I -hic!- heard…” And Xie Lian braces himself because drunks rarely have anything good to say,
“I heard he got kicked outta Heaven for -hic!- bein a WHORE!”
The silence that settles over the procession is suffocating. The bridal sedan comes to an abrupt stop.
Xie Lian covers his veiled face with his sleeves. The blush on his face goes from an embarrassed, albeit slightly flattered light pink dusting across his cheeks to a blaring red, full-face flush of mortification. He wants to die! He wants to disappear! He wants to cry out, “lies! It’s a lie! I’m still a virgin, I swear! I’ve never even kissed someone before!”
He needn’t say anything to defend himself. Waves of murmured discontent ebb and flow throughout the crowd until they crest into an outburst of anger—on Xie Lian’s behalf, no less!
“Who said that? Who’s slandering our Lord’s beloved bride with filthy lies?”
“Our Lord deserves nothing less than the rarest and purest of flowers!”
“Where’s the rat bastard? I’ll tear out his throat so he can’t tell any more lies!”
“I’ll scratch his eyes out!”
“I’ll flay him to the bone!”
There’s movement from one corner of the crowd and a pig demon bursts out, pursued by an angry mob intent on defending Xie Lian’s honor. One of the maidens accompanying the sedan knocks on the side to get Xie Lian’s attention. He lifts the curtain to address her. The tufts of hair on either side of her head look like ears, and her mouth is full of teeth when she smiles sweetly at Xie Lian.
“Is His Highness all right?”
“Yes, I think so.” Xie Lian clutches at his wild heart, willing the hammering to stop. The whirlwind of emotions will kill him! He closes his eyes and tries to meditate to the cadence of the sedan as the procession begins again.
They called him Hua Cheng’s beloved bride.
…Does Hua Cheng really love him?
The procession continues with much fanfare but thankfully no further incidents. Xie Lian lifts his veil a fraction to get a better look at Paradise Manor as it comes into view on the horizon. This is where he’ll be living from today onwards. It’s a beautiful place, but it doesn’t feel like a home. Xie Lian suddenly feels very homesick for Puji Shrine. He imagines Hua Cheng living in this big, lonely place and his heart twinges.
The bridal party comes to a stop and the maidens help Xie Lian get down from the sedan. Paradise Manor is as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside, and just as lonely. Xie Lian is led into a room where he’ll wait for Hua Cheng, his bridegroom.
Finally alone with his thoughts, Xie Lian sinks onto the divan with a deep sigh. He thinks of the days when he was cast down from Heaven and he entertained dreams of laying on a divan like this, nuzzling into his husband’s thighs. Those dreams sound so silly now that he’s actually getting married, but sometimes they were the only things giving him hope.
With time to kill before Hua Cheng arrives, Xie Lian surveys the room he’s in. The divan he’s sitting on is black with a sloped back, covered with several shawls and blankets. A white marble fireplace sits across from him, unused due to the unseasonably warm weather. Several pewter braziers lend the room cool, calming light. Scenes of cranes feeding and preening at a calm lake decorate the walls. A table, made of the same white marble as the fireplace, sits in front of him. The wooden floor is carpeted in thick, ornate rugs and Xie Lian walks across the floor to open a set of folding wooden doors. He assumes they lead to another part of Paradise Manor but he finds himself out on a balcony overlooking the palace gardens.
Tiny lights dot the gardens here and there and it takes Xie Lian a brief moment before he realizes those aren’t lights—they’re butterflies! Does that mean Hua Cheng walked in the gardens recently, or do they just live on the grounds? Xie Lian likes the thought of Hua Cheng walking through the gardens to calm himself before meeting Xie Lian. He doesn’t want to be the only person nervous about this wedding.
Two of the butterflies flit upwards towards Xie Lian, and he holds his hands out for them to land on. They’re so cute and pretty! How can anyone find them fearful? Xie Lian coos, letting them walk all over his fingers. They tickle!
More butterflies begin appearing, landing on Xie Lian’s fingers, hands, or arms and bathing the Crown Prince in a soft silver light. Xie Lian laughs, briefly forgetting his anxiety.
“They seem to like you, Crown Prince.”
The door at the other end of the room slid open without Xie Lian noticing, and when he turns back, there’s a young man in the room. He’s dressed very well, in a long, maple-red tunic over white pants and black boots. Elegant silver vambraces shine on his arms. His long, inky black hair slips over his right eye like his own veil.
In his hands is a tray of food, and Xie Lian conveniently remembers that he hasn’t eaten all day today. His stomach growls.
The man lifts the tray of food and smiles. “I thought His Highness would like something to eat.” His voice is smooth and low, and keeps his head bowed as he speaks to Xie Lian. The butterflies flee from his arms and back into the gardens.
“Yes, thank you.” Blessedly, the food on the tray is normal food: steamed buns, rice, chicken, and some vegetables. There’s even a pot of tea. Xie Lian moves to the divan and the young man places the tray on the table with a gentle “clink.” He’s obviously not a servant. He’s nothing but polite and respectful to Xie Lian, but he holds the tray improperly and nearly loses a steamed bun. And when he pours the tea, a few droplets land on the table. Xie Lian doesn’t mind. His manners are impeccable and the food is delicious.
The young man goes to serve Xie Lian, but the Crown Prince waves him off. “No need, I can handle it myself. But thank you…” Xie Lian prompts for the young man’s name.
Xie Lian hums as he serves himself, taking a little bit of each. Everything looks good, even if his stomach wasn’t empty. Suddenly realizing he’s got the veil over his face, Xie Lian stutters. Shouldn’t only his husband see him behind the veil? “U-um…”
“Is something wrong, Your Highness?” San Lang watches him, propping one elbow on the table and resting his chin in the palm of his hand.
“I-I need to take off my veil to eat. But my husband should be the one to take it off of me…”
“I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.” San Lang’s dark eyes curve up mischievously. There’s a second bowl on the tray, and he begins serving himself.
Even so, Xie Lian’s hands hesitate to take off his veil. He lets the red veil fall to his lap in time for San Lang to look up after serving himself some rice. “Ah, Your Highness…” His gaze is rapt, his lips parted in admiration. “You’re so beautiful.”
Xie Lian blushes, covering his face with his hands. “Thank you, San Lang. I normally don’t look like this, though…”
“Nonsense, I’m sure His Highness is beautiful every day,” San Lang proclaims matter-of-factly.
Spluttering, Xie Lian snatches up a piece of chicken with his chopsticks and stuffs it into his mouth before he says anything more to embarrass himself. Definitely not a servant!! No servant would have the balls to talk to their master’s bride like that. Xie Lian would bet anything that San Lang was a member of Hua Cheng’s family here to scope out his future in-law. He may be as closely related as a brother or a nephew!
If he’s family of Hua Cheng, this is Xie Lian’s opportunity to learn more about his bridegroom, who will be here any minute. “San Lang, what can you tell me about Hua Cheng? As a person, I mean. I’ve already heard the legends.”
Right as Xie Lian asked him that, San Lang took a big bite out of a steamed bun. He tries to store it in one cheek so he can still talk, but he ducks his head in embarrassment as he chews and swallows. Xie Lian laughs good-naturedly and pats him on the shoulder. “It’s okay, take your time! I should’ve been more patient when I asked.”
“His Highness can ask me whatever he likes.” San Lang sips his tea, chasing down the remnants of the bun. “As for Hua Cheng…” Xie Lian notes he’s the first person in the Ghost City who doesn’t refer to Hua Cheng as “Lord.” Xie Lian’s family theory is becoming more probable by the minute.
“He’s an ornery bastard, and petty too. When he’s in a good mood, he’s a perfect gentleman. When he’s in a bad mood, he’ll find an excuse for heads to roll. Usually he doesn’t really care and just does whatever. He’s selfish.”
Xie Lian’s fingers tighten around his cup of tea. The room suddenly feels very cold. He heard of the atrocities Hua Cheng committed, of course, but not when he was dressed in bridal robes and minutes away from marrying him! Truthfully, too, Xie Lian tried to ignore Hua Cheng’s reputation on his way to Paradise Manor and fool himself into thinking Hua Cheng would be a kind and gentle husband to him.
As if sensing his distress, San Lang puts down his bowl and hurries to Xie Lian’s side. “But, Your Highness, in Hua Cheng’s heart…he loves you. He really does. You could call him a worthless dog and treat him like the shit under your boots and he’d gladly accept it. He’d sooner stick his hand in boiling tar before he allowed that hand to leave so much as a bruise on your delicate skin.”
The weight of San Lang’s words and the sincerity of his tone hit Xie Lian like a ton of bricks. “Oh, I…thank you.” Perhaps he wasn’t fooling himself at all. He clears his throat nervously. “I would never treat Hua Cheng like that, by the way.”
San Lang’s eyes glitter fondly. “I know, because His Highness is very sweet and kind. He’s also very good at calligraphy, and Hua Cheng sucks at it. He’s a great painter, but he can’t write worth a fig, even a rotten fig.”
“Is this a hint that San Lang wants me to teach Hua Cheng calligraphy?” Xie Lian teases.
More glittering, this time accompanied by the amused quirk of lips. “Maybe.”
They dine in silence for a few minutes, with Xie Lian periodically looking up to check the door. He’s no longer worried; not since San Lang’s earnest reassurance that Hua Cheng would treat him well. Maybe Xie Lian wouldn’t love his new husband, but at least he wouldn’t live in fear of him. And if Hua Cheng loves Xie Lian so much, maybe he’ll let Xie Lian return to Puji Shrine from time to time.
A sharp, whistling sound catches Xie Lian’s attention and his gaze snaps from the door to the balcony. Outside, a firework explodes into a shower of red and purple sparks. “Oh!” Putting down his bowl, Xie Lian hurries over to the balcony.
The fireworks come from all over the city. Some of them are tiny blips of light, far enough away to look like colorful stars. Others bloom right over Xie Lian’s head like flowers, their thundering explosions shaking the balcony. Xie Lian oohs and ahhs over the display, clapping happily when a firework opens up into the shape of a silver butterfly.
“San Lang! This one looks like Hua Cheng’s butterflies! San—” Xie Lian turns, only to find no one behind him. He didn’t even hear San Lang leave. The tray is gone, and some of the braziers have been put out to darken the room. It looks quite romantic now that the lights are dimmed.
Xie Lian swallows thickly. He doesn’t know how late it is, but Hua Cheng should be here soon. He’ll be expecting his bride. Hurriedly, he goes back into the room to grab his veil. He took it off to eat with San Lang, so it’s probably still on the table or the divan, right?
It’s not there!
Panic creeps up Xie Lian’s spine, the hair on the back of his neck raising. He checks the floor, then the sleeves of his robes and the outer coat.
It’s not there either! Oh no, oh no!
San Lang’s words echo in Xie Lian’s head. “I won’t tell anyone if you won’t." Xie Lian doesn’t want to think San Lang went back on his promise, so he won’t think about it. But maybe a servant came to take away the tray, mistook the veil as another shawl on the divan, and took that away too. Or maybe San Lang took it accidentally. Either way, Xie Lian is totally screwed. Hua Cheng will know Xie Lian took off his veil in front of someone else.
Maybe he can use one of the shawls on the divan as a substitute? But as Xie Lian sifts through the various shawls and blankets, he finds they’re too big, too thick, or the wrong color to be inconspicuous.
Anyway, didn’t Hua Cheng send the veil and robes himself? That means he picked them out personally! He’ll know Xie Lian lost the veil no matter what! Groaning, Xie Lian collapses to the floor and buries his face in his sleeves. The voice of the drunken pig demon echoes in his head: What kind of bride takes off their veil for anyone but the bridegroom? A whore, that’s who!
The word “whore” ricochets in Xie Lian’s head. He can resign himself to his marriage to Hua Cheng. He can listen to the demons spouting fairy tales about him. He can eat with San Lang and believe Hua Cheng is in love with him. But those are only temporary solutions to the pressure that’s been building in Xie Lian all day, and he finally cracks.
A broken sob escapes his lips.
“Husband? My husband, what ails you?”
Arms encircle Xie Lian and pull him up onto the divan. Soft hands pet his pinned and plaited hair soothingly. Somewhere in Xie Lian’s consciousness, he acknowledges that this is Hua Cheng, Crimson Rain Seeking Flower, cradling him tenderly, but he shakes his head and doesn’t respond to the question. He merely curls into himself like an armadillo. Xie Lian wishes he had a hard shell. He’s too soft. He feels exposed, even in his layers of silk.
“Are you hurt? Are you ill? Please, tell me. I can’t bear to see you in pain.”
Hua Cheng’s voice rumbles in his chest, a deep, husky timbre that warms Xie Lian despite the chill of his hands. His hands which are, by the way, still petting Xie Lian’s hair, tracing the elegant plait with nimble fingers.
“H-husband,” Xie Lian hiccups, because he doesn’t know if “Hua Cheng” is too casual but “Crimson Rain Seeking Flower” is undoubtedly too formal. “I lost my veil.” Saying it out loud sounds stupider than when he said it in his head, and even in his head it sounded stupid. How do you lose something on your head?? “A young man, San Lang, came in with some food and I had to take off my veil to eat. Someone must have picked it up by mistake and taken it away. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”
“San Lang,” Hua Cheng echoes above him.
“…I like it when my husband uses my name.”
Xie Lian gently pushes away from where he’s been cuddled up to Hua Cheng’s chest, and looks up at the man cradling him.
If you put San Lang and Hua Cheng side-by-side, Xie Lian would think they weren’t just related to one another, but that Hua Cheng was just an older San Lang. San Lang had the appearance of a young man in his late teens; Hua Cheng appears to be in his mid or late twenties. Both of them have dark hair, but Hua Cheng’s hair is midnight-dark as opposed to San Lang’s inky black. And San Lang wore no decoration in his hair, but Hua Cheng sports a little braid with a red bead.
Furthermore, Xie Lian is positive San Lang had two glittery eyes, and did not wear an eyepatch over his right eye.
Hua Cheng awkwardly clears his throat and reaches into his sleeve. His robes are designed to be an inverted version of Xie Lian’s: black robes with silver butterflies and a red sash, under a red outer coat lined with black fur.
And from his sleeves he produces a bunched-up piece of red fabric.
“I’m sorry,” Hua Cheng—San Lang—says, placing the veil back over Xie Lian’s head and arranging it properly over his face. He looks like a child who just got caught spoiling his appetite with sweets. “I took the veil because I felt playful. Never did I think it would upset you so terribly.”
“And…and your disguise?”
“I wanted to see you, but I knew you’d be afraid of me if I appeared in my true form like this. But everything I told you over dinner is true. I’m a selfish, petty bastard who sucks at calligraphy, and I’d steal the moon and stars just because you wanted them.”
“Oh.” Xie Lian breathes it more than he says it. Watching this handsome, gentle, earnest man looking at Xie Lian like he hung the moon and stars, he feels…something. Maybe he wasn’t cursed to marry a demon. Maybe it was something else. Something like soulmates. When Hua Cheng heard the prophecy, it would mean something different to him. Xie Lian would marry a wealthy and powerful demon; Hua Cheng would marry a god who failed and landed in the muck not once but twice, and became the laughingstock of Heaven.
Yet Hua Cheng still wants him. Still loves him. Still waited patiently for him.
Eight hundred years is a long time to wait indeed…
“San Lang,” he whispers, and Hua Cheng’s eye glitters as if to say yes? “I have a favor to ask of you.”
“Anything you want. Just name it.”
They move the divan to the balcony to watch the fireworks show. Xie Lian’s hairpins and veil litter the ground and Hua Cheng cards through Xie Lian’s crimped hair, smoothing it out.
Xie Lian presses his cheek against Hua Cheng’s thigh and smiles.
It’s like a dream.