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Game for Two

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It was late at night. With the buzzing of the busy town quieting away, it was as though even the whispers of the northeastern wind can be heard. The wind rattled the wooden windows, and the knocks that followed seemed natural—pre-ordained. It announced the visit of a foreigner.

A servant received the knight into the parlour, and led him into the consultant's office... Which was quite humble, given his appearance. Yet, the interior was carefully symmetrical, carefully decorated and Zhongli was seated as if he were the centrepiece statue. But he was very much alive, and very much anticipating the man.

‘Sir Kaeya. Thank you for setting aside the time to meet me,’ he greeted warmly. Two warm cups of tea were set on his table.

‘Mr. Zhongli. My apologies for the visit at this hour. I saw the lights from outside... But you seemed to have been prepared.’

Did the man know? That couldn't be right. But the walls have ears, or so they say. Kaeya specifically chose this time to avoid interruption and as an element of surprise; the odorous steam rising from the cups said otherwise.

Was this man the ears they spoke of?

‘Please, no need to apologise. Hosting for guests is one of the small joys of life. One should always be prepared for it.’

I’ve brought a gift, Kaeya added, handing an exquisite bottle of wine from Mondstadt to the servant before taking a seat in front of the owner. Zhongli's polite smile revealed little and answered none of the questions that arose, but his eyes widened at the sight of the bottle. He signed to the servant to keep it safely collected before gesturing to the teacups in front of them.

‘One of my favourite cups. Glaze Lily has existed in these lands before Liyue was even established. The fragrance beckons the old... But I look forward to something new with you, Sir Kaeya.’

Taking a sip first as was customary, Zhongli then returned the cup to look at the knight directly. It was hard to grasp, this man, with his lyrical chain of words. Perhaps the secrets were hidden deliberately, but he made it appear as if there existed no such thing. Following the etiquettes of this land, Kaeya would take his cup only after the master of the house takes his. The mention of the delicate patterns drew Kaeya’s gaze over to follow those, before directing towards Zhongli across the steam.

‘And yet, it is also the birth of a new life. The blooming of a new relationship, for this case.’

A sip is taken, the heat flushing through his body.

‘You are unlike the other Knights, yes? You don't seem as bound by tradition.’

The accurate (what he assumes to be an) observation deepened the knight’s smile.

‘You have quite an eye, Mr. Zhongli. I value tradition, but am in no way bound to it. I do hope that does not sully your view of me.’

The consultant stared at his teacup and sipped the drink for what felt like an inordinate amount of time. Zhongli exhaled deeply in appreciation before offering Kaeya a smile that was... sheepish.

‘Thank you for thinking of me highly with such ability, but I merely had the Traveler speak of their journey in length. And how you were described makes one think of...’

He thought for a moment quietly.

‘... An irreverent, mischievous older brother. Not exactly a character I expected to be a knight.’

Zhongli pushed forward a small plate of candied nuts and dried fruits. The knight’s attention is fixed onto the other throughout, searching for hints, signs that could unravel this seemingly graceful composure.

‘They appear to have left quite an expression.’

He sighed, but playful in nature. It was an understandable result of how he had treated the two companions. The offered plate was taken with a nod of appreciation as he took a piece of plum, albeit pausing for a brief moment from the question.

‘But I always enjoy a good twist in a story. And I thought a man like you would have something interesting to say about a dilemma Liyue is facing.’

‘A dilemma, you say?’

To the Cavalry Captain of another nation? It was likely not a vital fragility of any kind, but a strange choice of discussion under these circumstances. Nevertheless, Kaeya remained a welcoming stance.

‘I’m not quite sure how my humble opinion would be of use, but there is no reason for me to decline. Do you wish for my words as a diplomat—or as merely a man?’

Zhongli briefly wondered if the eyepatch was a premade excuse for the Knight to have free reign in observing with the limited sight that was before him. Two eyes made surveillance; one made pity. But it didn't matter to the consultant.

‘Would you find me greedy if I said both?’

He wasn't teasing; he asked seriously as if bartering with a vendor.

‘Though that may take all night. I understand if you value your time over humoring a man with too much time in his hands.’

Owing a favour was what a man of power should always avoid; Kaeya was once again alarmed by how easily the request was laid out, but chose to take advantage of it nevertheless.

‘The funeral parlour having time on its hands has got to be a good sign. I’d be more than happy to spend the night with you, Mr. Zhongli.’

A deal required an offer from both ends——a concept that should not be new to the land of contracts. Though unspoken, Kaeya expected the return of this favour.

And with that, the consultant began; he finished his cup, as a prelude to the preamble.

‘Liyue is at the cusp of change. It has long been on the last line of a page, only requiring someone to turn it... As I know it, Mondstadt has survived eras of revolution. From storm to calm, calm to storm. Moments like these are when I envy the wind and water. You have seen the mountains on your way; they are proud and constant. What will come to Liyue may change its landscape forever.’

The man refilled his cup slowly, deliberately, with the zen of a monk.

‘The Traveler is just that, ever-moving. They will witness but not remain. But you, an outsider who has made promises and ties to the land of windmills, may better understand what is at stake. How do you do it?’

Amber eyes lingered on the knight, as if taking him in fully for the first time.

‘How do you keep your balance?’

The cup was emptied on the knight’s end as well, while he allowed the question to sink in. Perhaps he was being tested. Or perhaps, it was a whim, like how many of his actions had appeared to be like. The eye contact remained unbroken.

‘Without movement, a river would die. Without wind, the seeds never reach new land. Development requires change, and hence Mondstadt is constantly changing, whilst the castles remain standing in the center. We choose to bring in change a little by little, so that there is time for adaptation.’

There was no deal or even light promise at stake beyond the usual social contracts assumed to be in place. It was a refreshing turn. Zhongli could be a simple host to a friend's friend; he meant what he said, to savor in life's small joys. He took Kaeya's cup and refilled it as he listened to those words.

The knight then paused, leaning forward to approach the consultant, signifying that what came next was his words as one man.

‘No matter how strong the mountain is, it breaks down slowly with time. Revolutions solidify what you have...’ He lowers his voice, now taking a more risky approach to observe his reaction. ‘So you must take control. You must choose what you wish to keep, and what you wish to discard.’

A lingering, complicated silence fell between the two of them. Their faces were close——very close, the blue and gold reflecting each other. Kaeya would have expected this conversation to turn into something entirely different from there, until Zhongli finally responded.

‘You have brought me much wisdom, Sir Kaeya. Thank you for your honest, uncensored thoughts.’

Kaeya’s words of challenge were simply brushed away, the eye contact breaking for the consultant to avert it towards the teapot.

Over the course of the knight's response, Zhongli saw many men named Kaeya: the jester, the diplomat, and the survivor. All had their purposes, he was sure. But the consultant could only thank one and offer tea to one. You must choose what you wish to keep, and what you wish to discard.

Wistfully, he smiled.

‘People try not to speak at all amongst the dead, you see.’

All Kaeya had gained in the end, was the knowledge of how refined the consultant was at handling tea. With the silence broken, Kaeya leaned back once again to take the newly refilled cup.

‘A little strange, coming from a land that likes to keep death lingering around. We try to put them away as far as we can.’

Ancestors may have been the more appropriate term in this case. Kaeya was well aware of this custom (an understandable one too), but chose to visit nonetheless.

‘I thought you would like some company, in that regard. It can be terribly lonely to be an outcast.’

He would smile, once again. It might be just what he needed to try to coax his way into the consultant’s heart once again.

‘For all the industriousness of Liyue, death remains the great equaliser. The one non-negotiable. People cannot mourn with the dead so distant, but to see it too close reminds them of their own impending closure of life.’

Zhongli returns Kaeya's smile with his own (though differing in nature), nodding at his words.

‘Perhaps you are aware of the Funeral Parlour’s place in Liyue society? Its workers are thought to call to death itself. I am not often invited to things—though I still have the freedom to invite guests, it cannot be pleasant to have one obligated to contemplate mortality along with their tea. It is why I call for aid amongst foreigners like yourself. I must say, when I heard of you from the Traveler, I reveled in the luck of having just who I wanted to speak to in my vicinity. And what you say...’

Genuine hurt colors the consultant's eyes, his brows narrowing.

‘... What you say confirms what I feared. Revolution solidifies? Then all I can control is my own mourning.’

Kaeya raised a brow to have received an entirely different reaction from what he had anticipated; this one was quite the difficult one to grasp. Or was it to move? Despite that, Zhongli appeared earnest in this conversation. Like a blunt rock, he’d think. The words the consultant cherished held no value to the knight. Seeking those words cannot possibly be the only reason he was invited here.

‘It’s one thing to weep over an inevitable change, and another to look to their benefits. Even when humans were first blessed by the gift of writing, many feared that words will lose their sincerity... And yet, we now rely on it to speak to our distant friends.’

The knight's words evoke a deep reminiscence within Zhongli. He remembered the day writing became popular amongst the people of Liyue—how the Adepti argued amongst themselves how it would become the beginnings of their indolence, so used to keeping records they would not commit life to memory. Zhongli himself had no opinion, but he held the hopes the hardworking nature of the land's people would prevail. And it did. It ever will.

Kaeya cooed gently, once again to provide comfort. He thought to put his hand over the other’s but refrained from doing so, making sure his intentions were kept subtle.

‘You could always reach out, Mr. Zhongli. Perhaps the times would change, and you’d also receive an invitation one day. If anything, I can be the first. Have you ever been to Mondstadt? Although far from Liyue in scale, the architecture is simply astonishing no matter how much I look upon them. I pray that you will be fond of it.’

... How strange that this foreigner's words made their way into his heart. Even though something about the Cavalry Captain told Zhongli he spoke from a desire to reconcile rather than profess belief, he could not help but admire his efforts.

‘Perhaps you are right... I have been too mired in this land, too exhausted. Some movement should provide clarity. If you offer an invitation, I will be all too glad to take it. But before you do—I invite you once more for something else.’

As if on cue, the lights of the Funeral Parlour slowly dim, and Zhongli himself put out the candle on his desk. He stood and turned to slide open a door behind his office that led somewhere deeper, somewhere darker into the building. He gestured to Kaeya with a beckoning finger before disappearing into the hallway's shadows.

The said knight had begun to think that the man that sat before him was somehow entirely immune to his tactics. Zhongli’s invitation was a reassurance to his years of experience, but also a cold realization of a sort——he was just the same as the others.

‘...... Mr Zhongli?’

Kaeya would let a hint of confusion mix in with his voice; these people always liked to feel as if they had the upper hand. Meanwhile, he was unable to contain his grin of satisfaction over this victory.

What could he want? Connections, information, benefits... Or other personal favours? Whatever the scenario, Kaeya straightened his back, preparing himself for it. ... The beckoning to a dark, closed room left not many possibilities.

He stood up, following the other into the shadow, heart beginning to race at the anticipation.

The consultant steps across the crypt's darkness are regular and steady. It is only when a floating light approaches them and reveals herself to be one of the undertakers by her dress that he stops. She hands him her candle without a word, and he continues on; the undertaker passes Kaeya by like a ghost. It was then Zhongli finally opened a heavy door. Based on the fluidity of the stream of actions, Zhongli must have done this occasionally. He didn’t exactly strike Kaeya as the type, but they do say to never judge a book by its cover.

They entered what appears to be another morgue, the room tabled and tiered ready to receive bodies, but there were none to be found. The room looked more lavish and palatial than anything mortuary. It was a vulgar taste, especially coming from a man that spoke of the dead so sincerely. Or perhaps it was the sincerity that twisted into a strange preference. Kaeya wondered how the cold stone would feel on his back, but despite his speculations, the two walked onwards.

The surroundings were draped and decorated with golden and ochre silks, the pillows and wooden furniture supporting all sorts of miscellanea: lacquered bins, stacks of joss paper.

It was then that Kaeya’s eyes met with another pair. Artificial, googly, standing out in the most ridiculous way in the solemn space. There was a miniature house (?!) featuring a——rock?

As if there was absolutely nothing wrong with that, Zhongli walked past everything to reach the end of the room to a grand table with a felted green top.

‘—Apologies,’ he finally said, taking another seat on the green table. ‘It was quite dark on the way. But even the Funeral Parlour has hours where it closes. We all must quiet, so we had to retreat here.’

Just as Kaeya was attempting to process the intentions of what was displayed before him, the consultant gave the final blow.

A mahjong set.

‘Do you game, Sir Kaeya? You may enjoy this quite a bit.’

Explaining nothing more, Zhongli began setting game pieces from it: they were bright and shining gold.

‘................ Pardon me?

Kaeya managed to squeeze out after a long silence.

Zhongli was busy lighting the candles around the mahjong table which only served to make this whole situation look like a prolonged ritual—or joke. Hearing Kaeya's disbelief, the consultant mistook it for polite offense.

‘As I understand it, mahjong has been interpreted as gambling elsewhere. I would understand if you found it distasteful,’ he said, still preparing the tiles. ‘There are no minimum stakes for these rounds. Except perhaps, our companionship.’

The room is warm, inviting even. The table perfectly set, Zhongli smiled at the knight.

As a fairly intelligent man, Kaeya felt his mind going blank at the overload of information for the first time in years. He smiled back, but there was nothing behind it.

He needed to organise the situation.

This gentleman took him into a hidden chamber after expressing that he hoped to spend the night with the Cavalry Captain. That could only mean one thing... Which was somehow proven wrong. And yet, he appeared to be fond enough of Kaeya to invite him for a game. But he cannot possibly let that break his composure.

‘......... No, of course, I’d be happy to. I do know the rules——‘

The consultant, at that, said even more happily and brighter.

‘Ah, and if we are waiting for another player... Earthquaker has been a great student of the game.’

‘..... Earthquaker?’

As Kaeya cautiously took a seat, his thoughts wandered to this suddenly introduced member. An alias, perhaps, of a known warrior in Liyue? He did his research prior to arriving, but saw no such name.

‘Earthquaker is one of my wards, happily bestowed to me by—‘ The heavy door opens once more. Kaeya’s heart sunk when the interruption prevented him from receiving a complete answer. He was quite certain that Zhongli was not a married man. Could that mean there was an illegitimate child involved? Did he say ‘one of’? Did that mean there were multiple of them?

It was the undertaker with a tray in her hands. She placed it next to them and left quickly. The aroma made it clear it was the gifted Dandelion Wine, but it was cupped and mulled in a decidedly un-Liyue-like way.

‘Ah, here we are. Warm drink for the long night ahead,’ Zhongli said as he picked up his cup in a toast. ‘While its pure form is one of my favourites, an old friend taught me this recipe in case anything required concentration and consideration. It would be a shame if we did not remember our first night together, after all.’

Taking a sip, he glanced to the set table with a serious eye.

‘Now. Are you ready, Sir Kaeya?’

Upon the invitation, Kaeya’s fingers reached out to the mahjong pieces. Perhaps the consultant was taking his time. Perhaps, this was him warming up to the knight..........

... and absolutely nothing happened.

The subtle notes of anticipation and push-pull by the knight were lost to the consultant, but their games were worthy of kings. Neither side ever underestimated the either. A seeming landslide victory would be overturned into a neck-and-neck match. Kaeya was the kind of man who believed in the heart of the tiles—and Zhongli was both grateful and exhilarated such a man was his opponent.

After hours and hours of confusion, anticipation, and a series of fairly intense games, the knight was beginning to feel the haze falling over to his mind. His eyelids grew heavy without even realizing so. Such thrilling games went on into the night, and it was only after spending half a candle's worth of contemplating a game-changing move that the consultant noticed his opponent was... sound asleep, resting against his hand.

Ah, of course. All things must come to an end, even games between newfound friends. Without even thinking, Zhongli stood and picked the knight up to place gently onto a pile of pillows atop an examination table.

... Oh, his eyepatch—it slipped slightly, and Zhongli looked away while he tucked it back into place. Clothing was an odd tradition; the force of social contract meant what was not revealed to him could not be his to witness. With a final fluttering of a blanket over Kaeya, Zhongli was satisfied. The ritual for sleep was complete.

It was time to care for his ward, meanwhile.

♦︎

A soft, lingering scent of incense.

‘.............——!?’

Kaeya sprang up, baffled for a moment by a ceiling he did not recognise.

The very first thing he checked was his current state. Clothes, hair, eyepatch——nothing touched. If anything, he was covered with care by a blanket with the most exquisite Liyue embroidery. The dim light pouring in from the corridor signified that it was daytime. Slowly, the memories of his previous night (or rather, this dawn) began to come back to him.

He had never slept so soundly in the presence of a stranger. Not even the closest knights had seen him with his eyes closed. Another wave of confusion swept past; how could he possibly so careless?

His eyes darted around the room, looking for the owner. Though it had been made comfortable... where was he laying at, anyway?

But there was nobody there, leaving him with no explanation.