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Skin as White as Snow

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There’s a god of broken things.

Things forgotten and lost, things ruined beyond repair. Things cast aside without care, things that used to bring joy and now remind only of regrets. Things the world turned a blind eye on, things best left untouched.

There’s a god who isn’t a god.

He’s a broken thing himself. He’s old and forgotten, and has walked just enough of winding roads to lost himself along the way. He’s what people make him – a vagrant with a sack of junk, a nuisance to laugh at, an unnerving rumour no one believes in. He’s a small smile and gentle hands, and a resigned acceptance of whatever the world deems necessary to throw at him. He’s a thing of old, a thing of misfortune, and a thing of emptiness. He’s a whisper of the past that has been wiped clean by the winds of time. He remains only a story now, in the minds of those who have seen it come to pass. It’s a story of hope and determination, and of a fall that shook heaven and earth and depths of hell alike.

Xie Lian prefers not to dwell on what the gods in their golden palaces may think of him. Most of the time, he doesn’t even remember what it was like, to ascend and live in the glory of the Heavenly Emperor. He vaguely recalls it was warm and bright, like a mother’s embrace after a nightmare. There was comfort to be found in Heaven, in the shared net of minds and the life that carried on long after the gods had transcended simple boundaries of it. He bathed in it as well, all those innumerable centuries ago when his soul was young and carefree, and his future was still bright. It’s just distant echo now, an after-image of a memory chipped away by the passage of time. He let go of it happily. Some things are better left forgotten and that was one of them, hardly more than a dead weight pulling him down.

Even with most of the memories gone, a spark of godhood still burns within him. It’s tiny now, and has been like that for as long as he remembers. He’s surprised it’s even there at all. All of his temples lie in ruins, brought down by the people who had once believed in him. His name is forgotten, not even uttered as a curse anymore. It’s a fickle thing, humanity’s favour; given freely and taken away even quicker. He knows better than anyone how difficult it is to remain on their good side.

The cursed shackles embedded into the very essence of his being quell even the tiniest scrap of spiritual energy he would get from his followers. He must have at least one for that minuscule flame to still burn, and he’d like nothing more than to tell them they should’ve chosen a better god to worship. He can grant no prayer and offer no guidance. He has no temple they can go to, and no priest to guide them in his stead. He’s nothing but a forgotten god of forgotten things.

Xie Lian wonders sometimes if that one faceless, unknown follower feels just as forgotten by him.

He wonders if he met them at some point, that family devout so deeply that they passed their faith down countless generations; if they ever walked by him without a single glance thrown his way—or perhaps they did look and were one of those people who thought him no one but a mad beggar. He wouldn’t blame them if they did. That’s exactly who he is nowadays. That’s who he’s been for centuries.

He’s a god of forgotten things and of things lost with no hope of ever finding them again. He’s a god who’s hardly more than a mortal and has been that way for much longer than he wielded the power of divinity in his hands. He’s old and tired and so incredibly, incredibly lost.

And thus when a man he doesn’t know offers him his arm to take, and is gentle and kind and smiles at him as if Xie Lian was more than just an empty shell of himself, as if Xie Lian was someone who still, even after all this time and all the things he’s done, deserved to be treated with kindness—Xie Lian loops his hand around that arm with a grateful smile and not even a shadow of apprehension.

It’s a baffling assumption, to believe he’s worth more than just a spare glance; it’s a novelty that leaves his heart fluttering in his chest. San Lang seldom takes his eyes off him; he steers him gently through the festive crowd of ghosts and demons, and red lanterns above their heads paint his pale skin red. Laughter and joy reign in this chaos of a city and Xie Lian has to restrain his curiosity lest it shows on his face and makes him wander off as he’s prone to do. He’s been doing that more often than not recently, and not all roads were kind to him.

“Does gege like it?”

In his enthusiasm, Xie Lian almost forgot he has company. It’s been so long since he travelled with someone. “It certainly is lively,” he says, averting his eyes from a few ghosts that are indulging in... whatever it is they’re doing. He doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t crave what he doesn’t think about. So he looks at San Lang instead, at his patient smile and twinkling eye. “I’ve never imagined the ghosts being so... so...”

“Passionate?”

“That’s one word for it.” Memories of celebrations held in the kingdom of Xian Le resurface in his mind – a kaleidoscope of lights and distant noises, and him in the middle of all that hassle. He’s never truly experienced them, not the way his subjects did. The distance didn’t bother him – not at first, when keeping up appearances was his main goal, and certainly not later, with his mind elsewhere. Death and ruin truly do wonders to one’s perspective and priorities. “They’re so... carefree. Happy.”

“There’s little to worry about when you’re dead.” A tiny demon nearly collides with them. He stops a few steps away, looks up at them both and immediately flees with a blood-curdling scream. Xie Lian raises his eyebrows and San Lang has enough decency to at the very least look chastised. “I’m in a good mood, I wouldn’t do anything to him.”

He should have known it was too good to be true, too optimistic to hope for a kind soul to come across his way. Misfortune is a heavy yoke atop his shoulders that only got heavier over time; it’s barbed manacles around his neck and ankle that slow him down and drag a shadow in his wake. He tried to scratch them off countless times; he clawed at his skin until it broke while the shackles remained as they were. His soul is stained and nothing can change that.

“And if San Lang was in a bad mood?” he asks despite common sense, despite the desire to believe in a lie for one more second, one more moment of peace.

“Then it depends on whether he’d touch gege with his filthy little hands.”

Xie Lian stops in the middle of the crowded street and San Lang does the same. Passerby rush all around them – he can’t remember the last time he’s been around so many people at the same time. It doesn’t matter they’re dead, neither does he care that some of them are demons. It’s crowded, loud, and chaotic – and for once in his life, he loves it. Truly, it’s been too long if his solitary travels with only RuoYe wrapped around his wrist made him crave the bustling life of a city.

“I’m no better than them,” he says quietly. San Lang tenses at his side but doesn’t let out a sound. “I think...” Life and colours bloom all around them and the joy permeating the air is more genuine than any feast ever held in Heaven. “I think no one is ever truly better than the other person. Everyone has a breaking point. Everyone has potential for greatness. It’s just a matter of finding it.”

For a moment, San Lang says nothing. Xie Lian can’t bring himself to look at him. He should’ve got used to witnessing disgust and exasperation directed at him—and yet, it always hurts.

A single butterfly lands on his nose and then takes off again. He watches it dissolve into nothingness in the silver of San Lang’s vambrace. “Gege is too good,” San Lang tells him. He starts walking again, and Xie Lian follows. “They’re demons. They’re ghosts. Some of them were murderers and the worst filth to ever walk the mortal realm. Some of them would try to devour gege in a heartbeat. Gege was attacked not so long ago. How can he even say he’s no better than them?”

“I’ve lived for a very long time. Does San Lang truly think I haven’t done any of that?”

He raised a sword that killed his own country. He bathed in the blood of his own kin. He was destruction and pain, he was the calamity he brought upon those he loved more than the world itself.

“Whatever gege has done, I’m sure he must have had his reasons.”

Childlike naivety and too much faith in his own strength were his reasons, and too much hope followed closely behind them. He was too full of himself and the image he had crafted came crashing down and buried him beneath the rubble of his own godhood.

“They do not absolve me of responsibility.” Xie Lian doesn’t want to argue, not with San Lang. Not when for the first time in decades he’s being treated like a person again. “Let’s forget about that. It’s in the past and nothing can change that.”

“As gege wishes.”

He’s almost deferential, this San Lang dressed in blood and silver. There’s something familiar about him, but Xie Lian’s memory is not what it used to be. Centuries lie heavy on his mind, blurred by the time itself.

“So who exactly is San Lang?” he asks when curiosity rears its head and he decides not to resist it. “People here seem to...”

“Be afraid of me?” San Lang lets out a dry laugh. It sounds like a bark and an avalanche coming, it sounds like a rumble of hungry earth. “They better be.”

Xie Lian hums and smiles to himself. It’s a sad broken thing, that smile. “Should I be afraid as well?”

San Lang freezes. Xie Lian tugs gently at his arm, but it’s akin to trying to move a mountain. Once upon a time, he was able to do that, but those days have long passed.

“Gege, no. Your Highness.” Xie Lian sucks in a breath as the title he thought he’d never hear again hits him with all the strength of a thunderstorm. His heartbeat is its thunder, and the rush of blood is the flood that accompanies it. All of a sudden, he’s seventeen again and he holds the fate of an entire kingdom in his own hands. He’s a boy who doesn’t know better, he’s a child about to face the consequences of his own failure. He’s all that and more. Sometimes, he’s even less. “This lowly servant would rather dig out his one good eye than hurt His Highness.”

Xie Lian looks at San Lang. He should tower over all, that mystery of a man. Power spills from his fingertips and sets the air aflame, wrath rises from his shadow and spreads its wing wider and wider until it covers the entire sky. Now, he clasps his hands together and bows his head, and it’s as good as if he knelt in the dirt at Xie Lian’s feet.

Xie Lian’s heart weeps in his chest. “San Lang. San Lang, please.” He takes San Lang’s hands in his. They’re cold, bony, and larger than his. They’re shaking, so Xie Lian squeezes them in what he hopes is a gesture of reassurance. “Please don’t do that. I don’t deserve it.”

“Your Highness—”

“I’m not a god anymore,” he says as ghosts and demons rejoice around them. The mood is festive and so he smiles. If nothing else, he’s alive—that’s good enough a reason to smile. “I implore San Lang to not treat me as such.”

San Lang’s mouth is a thin, stubborn line. Xie Lian almost wants to laugh at his disgruntlement. He doesn’t – it would be like laughing at the bloodshed he caused ages ago.

“San Lang is from Xian Le, isn’t he?” He doesn’t even wait for confirmation. “I should’ve known by the accent alone, but it’s been so long...”

“Your Highness—Gege—”

“So if San Lang is from Xian Le,” he goes on as if he hasn’t been interrupted. If he doesn’t say it now, another chance will never come. He’s learnt by now to seize opportunities when they appear because every day may be his last. It’s truly astonishing how humbling mortality is, how painful a lesson it can teach. “Then he should know what I did. He should know I’m not worthy of...” Worship? How can he even think of someone worshipping him? “Of respect. I should rather be the one to kneel and beg for forgiveness.”

He would beg if only he could, if only it fixed anything. He would let the hungry ghosts devour him again and again if it meant that the disasters he had caused could be undone. His body and his soul, that leftover spark of godhood flickering weakly somewhere within him he can’t reach—he would offer them all just to turn back the time and tell the Xie Lian of yore, “You cannot save everyone.”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” San Lang says. Xian Le is in his voice – the sound of winds over the hills in spring and the whisper of rivers at the height of summer, the stillness of autumn mornings and the crackle of frost in the dead of winter nights. People’s cheers on the day of the Offering to the Gods parade echo in his every word, and the vast emptiness of the royal palace rings in the spaces between them.

San Lang is the voice of a nation long dead, but he only tells lies.

“I killed everyone. I destroyed the country I swore to protect.” Xie Lian’s voice rises but he doesn’t care. Once upon a time, it brought down walls; now there are days he can barely hear himself. A whisper of destruction shapes his voice—and how can it not, when he carries the ruins of Xian Le in his heart wherever he goes? “You think that’s something forgivable?”

They’re still holding hands. San Lang looks down at them as if he could read the tides of future in the shape of their fingers. “I think,” he begins so, so slowly, and Xie Lian doesn’t have the heart to berate himself for being the first to forget and forego propriety, “that His Highness did his best in the worst circumstances. That he stood his ground after everyone had already given up. That he raised a sword against the will of Heaven and proved to be a better person than all the famed gods of old.”

Oh, how Xie Lian wishes he could believe him. There was the time, centuries ago, when he would’ve given everything to hear someone say it hadn’t been his fault. No one stood by his side back then, for the weight of failures and the punishment that came with it was his to bear alone. His fate was to face the world made of dirt, and his destiny to look for what could never be found. He’s lost himself somewhere along the way, too, and become yet another relic of an age brought down by the misfortune he carried within.

Not truly a mortal and no longer a god, he’s just as lost as the garbage he collects, but there’s no one to give him a second chance. For who picks up the lost and the broken, who remembers the fallen if not him and him alone?

“It was your homeland too, San Lang.” Red lanterns overhead and red robes in front of him—he’s lost amidst the sea of red, and that’s even without taking the blood on his hands into account. “And I’ve brought an end to it.”

“Had Your Highness wished so, I would have destroyed it myself.” Fire burns in San Lang’s only eye. If he weren’t so cold, his touch would probably be just as scorching. “It never mattered to me. And what was it, in the end, if not a pitiful bunch of ungrateful bastards who turned their backs on their god?”

So much vehemence, so much determination – had he ascended, San Lang would have made a terrifying god. Xie Lian doesn’t know what he is, though, and wild guesses based on luck he doesn’t have will take him nowhere. For what matters is that San Lang is power wrapped in crimson and silver, and he’s the presence that makes the world tremble.

And he’s holding Xie Lian’s hands like a treasure.

Xie Lian has never been good with possibilities. He took a sword and slashed them to pieces, putting together a fate of his own making no matter how wretched it would prove to be. Now he thinks of a reason behind San Lang’s behaviour that wouldn’t be simple mockery or revenge. Amidst the sea of ideas, one of them stands out so much that he’s tempted to believe in it no matter how impossible it seems. Once, he would have laughed and tackled the impossible and turned it into reality in spite of everything; now, he cups it gently and cradles its spark to his heart, hoping against hope for it to bloom.

He would pray if only there were a god who’d listen to him—if only he didn’t know just how deaf Heaven's ears truly are.

“I still feel someone.” Xie Lian’s voice is a whisper—just like his godhood. “After all these years, after everything, there’s still someone. Could it...” San Lang’s eye is focused on him and Xie Lian is drowning. “Could it be it’s been San Lang all along?”

“No matter how many years come and go, I will still believe. Your Highness, I am forever your most devoted believer.”

His words are like swords piercing Xie Lian’s heart, like an incomprehensible weight of failure he’s been carrying with him all those centuries.

“San Lang, I... I’m...” Not worth it, undeserving, lost amidst the ocean of his own mistakes. “You should’ve forgotten me a long time ago.”

San Lang’s hands finally stop shaking. He’s steady now, immovable – a grounding pillar and a beacon for the lost. And Xie Lian is lost, lost, lost.

“Your Highness.” San Lang rubs his fingers along the line of Xie Lian’s scarred knuckles. It’s a comforting gesture, and Xie Lian’s hasn’t felt this kind of comfort since... He doesn’t even know. He’d rather not dwell on the past if he can avoid it. “I could never forget you. You’re the only god for me.”

Xie Lian looks at him, at this man wearing blood and power like a second skin, at his earnest expression and imploring gaze. He moves strands of hair away from San Lang’s face. A black eyepatch comes into view, simple and nondescript. A gasp like a clap of thunder breaks the air – he doesn’t know who lets it out. It could’ve just as well been both of them simultaneously.

He cups San Lang’s right cheek. San Lang’s eye widens as he tentatively puts his own hand over Xie Lian’s. “You’re the child who fell from the tower,” Xie Lian says. There’s a possibility he might be wrong; there’s a possibility it’s nothing but a coincidence. Misfortune plaguing him would ensure it’s just a mistake and an embarrassing assumption. And yet, deep in his weary heart, Xie Lian knows. “The boy from the temple. The little soldier. The nameless ghost.”

San Lang opens his mouth but no sound comes out of it. An eternity passes before he nods. Nothing more, nothing less – and yet Xie Lian’s heart sings. It’s lighter now. Calmer. For a moment, he entertains the possibility of being safe in this place where safety is the least likely to be found.

“You grew up,” he says fondly. Gone is the raggedy child and the tired soldier too young to fight. In his place, a man stands – no less passionate, no less devoted. “I told you repeatedly to forget me.”

“I will never forget you,” San Lang says with vehemence that goes beyond simple determination. His voice is a force of nature, the only constant in an ever-changing world. Xie Lian thinks the strength of his faith can shake Heaven.

Satisfaction stirs in his heart. It’s warm and content, and basks like a cat in the warmth of his godhood, tiny as it may be.

“I’m old,” he tells San Lang, “and powerless. I can’t give you anything in return for your devotion.”

“All I’ve ever wanted was to protect Your Highness.” San Lang’s passion is an inferno, a roaring pyre lighting up the coldest of nights. And Xie Lian is so, so tired of the cold. “To see Your Highness happy and safe, even from afar, is the greatest dream. Whatever you want, I’ll do for you. If you want me to leave you alone, I’ll go. If you want me to bring death and ruin to Heaven, I’ll do it. Just say the word and it’ll be done.”

Power is a thrilling thing, and to have power over others is the most dangerous thing of all. Once, Xie Lian had thought he could do wonders with it, all the while the three realms laughed when he learnt the depths of his mistakes. Only now does it seem true. Only now does it seem doable.

It’s a pity he no longer craves grand things.

Forgotten things are small, lost in the tides of time. He bends and picks them up, and in his palm they die. It’s a miracle San Lang didn’t die when Xie Lian held him in his arms. A tiny wisp of a boy, just as lost as the god he’d chosen to follow. The tiny boy is no more, but Xie Lian isn’t so sure about him not being lost.

If he weren’t, Xie Lian would probably never find him again.

“You know, San Lang,” he says now. He lets his hand fall – San Lang makes an aborted move to grab it but in the end decided not to. “I think I just want to... stay here for a while. If that’s possible.”

San Lang extends a hand – in it, a small white flower shines brighter than everything else around them. Xie Lian raises his eyes and sees a smile; softer than anything ever directed at him. Gently, carefully, he takes the flower and breathes in the sweet fragrance it gives off. It smells like a sunny day and memories of youth.

“Anything gege wants,” San Lang says and offers Xie Lian his arm again. Xie Lian takes it and lets himself be led.

The flower in his hand is not forgotten and neither is it lost, and he cherishes it all the more. And for the briefest of moments, he thinks that maybe he’s finally been found.