Do not fret for my sake, Tonia, and refrain from making trouble for anyone at home. I will be home soon. When I have seized the seven stars of Liyue and laid them at the feet of Her Majesty the Tsaritsa, I will take the first ship home, just as I promised—and you know how I always keep my promises.
Yours faithfully, Your loyal knight.
Tonia frowns as she reads the letter. Re-reads it, more like. It arrived over a week ago, the gifts it mentioned coming shortly afterwards. Teucer and Anthon are outside with the kites last she checked, taking advantage of these last few days warm enough to not need gloves. The rattle drum sits on their father's desk, confiscated after the noise made his headache worse. She has helped herself to one of the snacks, a doughy ball of something with a sweet filling. And the dolls from Inazuma are sitting on the shelf, along with all the other dolls.
Tonia sighs. It's been a long time since Ajax has been home. Longer still since that visit had been more than a few days. Their parents seem to prefer it that way, and her younger brothers don't seem to mind too much. She, though, is beginning to fear that Ajax is losing touch with who his siblings are.
When was the last time she played with a doll, anyways?
With another sigh, Tonia steels herself. She ties her hair back with her mother's old kerchief, and prepares to pen a harsh truth to her brother.
Thank you from all of us for the presents. Father has found the wind medicine to be a great help, though the rattle drum swiftly undid its work.
You know full well that I am not the one who would cause trouble here. Even less so now, as I have taken up an apprenticeship with the tailor. I am learning lots there (more about our neighbors than the arts of clothing, though. There is a reason your uniform had to be ordered from out of town.)
In truth, though, I must confess, though the dolls are lovely and mother much loves displaying them, I am past the point where playing with them is of interest to me. Please do not fret over this. As I said, mother adores having them, and I find that the clothes they wear serve as inspiration for my work.
Teucer and Anthon have been asking when you will be home. If the Tsaritsa wills it, perhaps you could take a vacation once you have three or four of the stars of Liyue. You work hard, so it will be well-earned.
On behalf of us all, faithful knight, much love,
“Please, could you just go in and get Zhongli for me? Please?”
“Sir,” the Ferrylady says, “like I just said, you need to calm down. This is a funeral parlor.”
“I know that!” Childe snaps. “So if you can go get Zhongli I’ll be out of your hair, unless you think I should go in there and—” His mounting threat is cut off as the door opens, revealing the man himself.
“Zhongli! Thank the Tsaritsa you’re here.” Magnanimously, Zhongli chooses to ignore the irony of greeting the former Geo Archon with that.
“You seem agitated. What is the matter?”
“It’s—Here, read this.” Childe thrusts a piece of paper into his hands. At a glance, he can see the youthfulness of the penmanship, but the Ferrylady’s sharp look convinces him to move away from the parlor as he reads. He crosses the bridge of the main road, then down some narrow stairs to a private little corner, Childe matching him step for step. The letter is not obviously distressing, as Childe’s behavior had led him to believe. On the contrary, much of it has a smile tugging at his mouth. He reads it again, just to be certain he hasn’t missed anything.
“So?” Childe says. Zhongli looks up at him; His nervous energy has led him to climb over the rails of the street and perch on the nearby tree.
“I’m afraid I still don’t understand the problem.”
“The dolls, Zhongli!” Childe wails. “She doesn’t like them!”
“That… was not the impression I got at all.”
“Well she’s not playing with them, is she?” Childe clutches at his hair for a moment, sighing heavily. “Teucer and Anthon are easy, all they want are toys and my time. With Tonia though, it’s—She’s growing up so fast, and—and I don’t know what to get her.”
“Why ask me?” Zhongli asks
“You’re like a magnet for high-quality, expensive presents,” Childe replies. “I figured you’d be at least half as good at picking presents for other people.”
“Hmm,” he hums. Childe waits, fingers restless at his frayed scarf.
“She seems to enjoy what she does at her apprenticeship,” Zhongli says at last. “She must have an eye for the craft to take inspiration from miniature clothes, and she is certainly skilled if her boasts of outclassing her employer are true.”
"But would she really enjoy a present related to her job?"
"With your resources, I doubt she would have any reason to work other than passion," Zhongli points out.
"Hrmm…" Childe considers that a while longer, his face changing as he warms to the idea. When he starts to look excited, Zhongli steels himself to be dragged around the Harbour.
"I mean, I think she learned how to do those things as a kid—And I guess she wouldn't work on it when my visits are so short… You're right! She'll love this. Come with me, we've got shopping to do!"
My my, an apprenticeship! What a mature young lady you are! Befitting such a lady as yourself, my friend pointed me towards the finest selection of teas Liyue has to offer for you. He also helped pick out some silk (cloth and thread both—he assured me that was important.) If your refined tastes demand different colors than what I've sent, rest assured that they will be yours. Just say the word.
Is Mr. Leonid still the tailor? If he is, perhaps you can be the one to finally convince that old man to retire.
Teucer should be back safe with you before this letter arrives. International travel is something else, even for a troublemaker like him. You are right, I should consider coming home sooner, if only to avoid a repeat performance. Work has gotten interesting since my last letter, so I will keep an ear out for any opportunities to visit.
Apologies for not attaching a warning to the rattle drum!
Faithfully as always, Your loyal knight.
The silk is beautiful. It’s weighty in her arms, and softer than butter. One folded square is vivid red, the other brilliant white. Tonia’s best guess is that they’re five yards each. It’s so much fabric, and she clutches it tightly to herself, the massive bobbin of white silk thread balanced on top of her bounty.
And she absolutely will not let her brothers touch it.
“Eat something before you go, Tonia,” her mother chides as she shuffles into her boots, never once letting go of the silk.
“Mr. Leonid has tea and toast for us every morning, I’ll be fine,” Tonia dismisses her. There is no snow outside yet, so it’s safe to carry the silk out in the open. With hardly a goodbye, she nudges open the door and is hurrying to her apprenticeship. The air is crisp and chilled, and carries the scent of woodsmoke from other people cooking breakfast. People who do not have something as important as silk to take care of. Tonia dashes over the cobbled streets, feet following the familiar path to the shop windows with the mannequins and the bright, refreshing teal walls.
“Good morning, Tonia!” greets Sasha, the other apprentice, when the bell above the door rings. “You’re here early—Oh, wow.” Tonia brushes past them, hurrying to the back room where they store all the fabric.
“Is that what I think it is?” they shout at her as she puts the silk in a high, hidden corner of the shelves. The thread nearly rolls off the stack and to the floor, but Tonia manages to catch it between her arm and chest. She sets it gingerly atop the fabric.
“Ajax sent more gifts,” she responds simply.
“He’s in Liyue right now, right?” Sasha asks as Tonia reemerges to the store front. She nods.
“Really nothing better he could’ve gotten you, then. He’s got a good eye.”
“He had his friend help him shop,” Tonia says.
“Aha,” Sasha says sagely. “He’s got good taste in friends, at least. The luster of that silk!”
“I know!” she enthuses. “And it’s so soft, Sasha.”
“Any ideas for what to make with it?” they ask.
“I can’t. It’s too pretty. I’ll just come here and look at it every day.” Sasha laughs at her.
“You say that, but you always think of something. Clever little fingers of yours. Speaking of, we have an order you should get started on today.”
“Right away. What is it?” Again, they laugh at her.
“It was nice to see you smile for a bit, you dour little thing. It’s a dress. I pinned the details to the dress form, so if you could drape it while I finish off hemming a few pants, that’d be great.”
“I’m on it.” Tonia only takes a single step towards the dress form, though, before her stomach growls. Shasha chuckles at her.
“Go eat something, first. Mr. Leonid should be just about done brewing tea,” they tell her. With a simple nod, Tonia goes again to the back of the store, this time opening the door that leads to a narrow set of stairs. At the top, she knocks on the door to Mr. Leonid’s home, and he welcomes her in with a hearty, “Come in!”
“Good morning, Mr. Leonid,” she greets him. His kitchen is simple and charming, wooden furniture topped with doilies and cushions. A pot of tea is simmering atop his little stove, and the elderly man himself is pulling two thick pieces of toast out of the fire below.
“Good morning, Tonia! You usually don’t join us for breakfast.”
“I was in a hurry. Ajax sent me silk, and I had to save it from my brothers.”
Mr. Leonid laughs at her. It seems Tonia's the new hot comedy trend in town. She helps him get breakfast on the big serving tray, and after bringing it down and scarfing down a piece of toast, Tonia hurries over to the dress form to work.
The order is pinned to the cloth torso, just like Sasha said. A-line skirt to the knees, butterfly sleeves, sweetheart neckline. A party dress, and despite the specificity of the cut, all that’s written for the color is green. And the customer’s name is…
Oh. Elena. Tonia remembers her.
Sasha had laid out some fabric already, a lovely spring green flannel. Tonia picks up the whole bolt and carries it back to the storeroom. She slides it carefully in place, next to the other flannels, then surveys the entire line. A soft pink, a warm red, burnt orange and deep blue. And in the back, buried almost in shame, is a different green. It’s bright, almost acidic on her eyes, and if Mr. Leonid got this from the mill at full price it was a ripoff. This flannel could only be the result of a dyeing mishap.
Tonia carries it over to the dressform, unfolds it from its cardboard, and promptly begins cutting and pinning a bodice.
Ajax had been back for a month, and he’d gotten in trouble for fighting. Again. And everyone at the schoolyard knew it.
“What’s it like, living with the terror of the town?” Elena had asked.
“It’s fine,” Tonia said. Elena’s brother was the one that Ajax beat up, so Tonia didn’t say any more.
“Really? I bet it’s awful,” Elena continued. “I bet he told you to say that. I bet he beats up your mommy, and your daddy, and all your siblings.” Ajax would never! He doesn’t even roughhouse with any of them anymore, and he especially wouldn’t hurt—
“Even little baby Teucer.”
“He doesn’t do that,” Tonia said.
“But he told you to say that,” Elena argued. “All your brother’s good for is fighting. I bet you’ve got bruises under your sleeve right now. Let’s take a look—”
“You’re wrong!” Tonia yelled, yanking her arm away before Elena could grab it. “Ajax is better than that. He’s really helpful at home! He cooks, he cleans…” He rocks Teucer to sleep in the middle of the night, he makes up stories for Anthon, he stands guard for her when the shadows outside look just like a monster…
“He's the bestest big brother ever!"
“But he told you to say that,” Elena repeated. Tonia gave up on the conversation then. She was so mad she was fighting tears, and she had to climb up a tree to get Elena to leave her alone, which got her in trouble.
Tonia stole her mother’s drop spindle that night, along with a thick chunk of wool. She brought them with her to recess the next day. She wasn’t good at spinning yet, but she found a good spot on the tree’s roots to perch, and she could keep the yarn going without it snapping. She focused on the wool instead of Elena, or any of the other kids. It was nice.
Elena approached her again, arms crossed like she was ready for round two. With mind clear as crystal and voice cool as ice, Tonia told her, “I’m busy.” Elena watched for a while, but eventually she got bored and left. Tonia brought the spindle every day after that. Mother eventually got a replacement.
Thank you for the silk. I adore it. And yes, it’s important that the thread matches the fabric, or else the whole piece is basically ruined. Silk is special like that. The fabric is beautiful, and I am going to save it to make something very special. Just having it is exciting. I think there is enough silk thread that, after I use the fabric, I can do some embroidery with it. I think I’ll use black. Silk is so shiny, it’s going to be so pretty.
You need to tell us what your friend’s name is already. You only write about him and the traveler, and at this rate we’re going to start calling him Mr. Silky.
Teucer is back home safe and sound, except for a scolding from mother. I've heard many tales of "Mr. Cyclops World" from him. Perhaps he would be less of a troublemaker if you could bear to disillusion him. I will leave that up to you, though.
On behalf of us all, faithful knight, much love,
“Mr. Cyclops World?” Zhongli questions when he finishes reading the letter.
“A story that doesn’t need to be told right now,” Childe dodges the question. “What’s important here is that Tonia liked her gift!”
“Quite,” Zhongli chuckles. “Her enthusiasm was palpable, even through a letter.”
“And it’s rare to see her that excited! She’s normally like,” Childe’s face falls comically flat, and in a monotone an octave higher than normal, he says, “Leave me alone, you guys are annoying. Don’t touch that, Teucer!” His grin comes back full force at the end of his impression.
“Oh. I didn’t realize she was that… difficult,” Zhongli says slowly.
“Eh, she’s at that age,” Childe brushes him off. “But really, thank you. I wouldn’t have been able to get Tonia a gift she liked that much without you.”
“It was no trouble,” he replies. “In fact, I enjoyed shopping with you.”
“Great! Because we’re doing it again today.”
Zhongli blinks. “Didn’t you just send gifts?”
“Well yeah, but I didn’t send any snacks,” Childe says. “Anthon and Teucer look forward to the snacks. Father too, I think. And surely, being who you are, you’ll have a better eye for local treats than a foreigner like me.”
“Who knows what else we might find while we’re out,” Childe adds. It’s Zhongli’s weakness: Someone offering to be his wallet to buy pretty things.
“I suppose it can’t hurt to spoil your siblings a bit,” Zhongli gives in. “And since your sister is interested in embroidery, she might enjoy a sample of Liyuan embroidery.”
“Oh, that’s a great idea!” Childe cheers. “Same shop as last time?”
“That was more of a supply shop than a place to purchase finished goods,” Zhongli says. “However, I believe I have a friend who can, at the very least, point us in the right direction.”
That friend turns out to be Madame Ping, the woman that the traveler had heavily hinted at being an adeptus. Of course.
“Well, hello! It’s been too long, Zhongli,” she greets as she begins pouring tea. All three cups are steaming, even though the teapot wasn’t. “I hope you’re finally taking me up on my offer for drinks.”
“Well…” Zhongli hesitates, shooting him a glance.
“We’re out shopping today, but there’s no reason we can’t sit and chat for a while,” Childe answers her, taking a seat at her table. Zhongli sits as well, picking up a mug with all his usual grace. Childe grabs his own mug and takes a sip, pleasantly surprised when he doesn’t burn his tongue.
“What are you shopping for?” Madame Ping asks.
“Gifts for my siblings,” Childe says quickly. “I’m having Zhongli help pick out some snacks for them, and we were thinking about getting my little sister some embroidery since she’s interested in that stuff—Which reminds me! He said that you would know where to go for that?”
Madame Ping chuckles. “You’re in luck, Childe. Embroidery is one of the many hobbies I’ve picked up over the years.”
“It is?” Zhongli asks.
“You would know, if you ever bothered to visit me,” Madame Ping scolds him. She sips her tea with a frown on her face. “I do happen to have a few pieces with me, if you would like to see them.” Her frown stays, and she looks sternly at Zhongli. Waiting.
“I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you very much, Madame Ping.” Apology accepted, Madame Ping’s sweet smile returns, and she reaches under the table for a bag.
“Here’s where I keep all my projects, now let’s see—No, I’ve barely started that one, and this one’s… Oh, perfect! I’ve already hemmed this one.” She pulls out a square of fabric and lays it on the table, displaying a beautifully embroidered silk flower, each strand of thread shining in the sunlight. The white of the inner petals fade gently into the pink of the longer outer petals, and the woody stem curls gracefully into the corner. There is a sense of depth to the flower’s center.
“It’s like a painting,” Childe says.
“This truly is stunning work,” Zhongli compliments her. “Do you plan to frame it?”
“Not at all,” Madame Ping says. “Something like this deserves to be used. In fact, would you care for a demonstration?”
“I don’t see why not,” Zhongli agrees. Swifter than the elderly should be, Madame Ping snatches up the cloth, folds it once into a triangle, and in a blink ties the corners under Zhongli’s chin.
“There you are. A lovely headscarf.” Madame Ping steps away, letting Childe see the full effect.
“PFFHAHAHAHAHAHA!” Zhongli stares at him as he laughs, clueless. He braces himself against the table, trying to catch his breath, but every time he looks at Zhongli—
“Archons,” he wheezes. “You look just like my babushka.” With shaking shoulders, Childe slowly sinks onto the table, forehead resting on his arm.
“I’m happy to hear I’ve achieved the authentic style,” Madame Ping says. “Zhongli may know all there is to know about Liyue, but I know fashion from the world over.”
“Was this a targeted assault?” Zhongli asks, face flat.
“Who can say?” Madame Ping replies smugly. “In any case, I hope your sister will enjoy it half as much as you have, Childe.”
“Wait, are you giving this to me?” he asks, lifting his head from the table. He has himself under control now, so as long as he doesn’t look over.
“We couldn’t—” Zhongli starts, only for Madame Ping to hold up a hand.
“I insist,” she says sternly. Childe goes to shut down whatever argument against accepting the scarf Zhongli is about to start, but—
"HAhahaha! Hoo, I wish my siblings could see this."
"The Feiyun Commerce Guild are still doing pictures with their Kamera doohickey," Madame Ping suggests. "From what I've heard, they can give the picture to you within the hour if you stick around.”
“That’s perfect!” Childe leaps from his seat, grabbing Zhongli by the wrist and dragging him along. “Thank you for the tea!”
“You’re welcome,” Madame Ping says with a smile, watching the two of them cut through the crowd.
Nothing could make me happier than knowing you are pleased with your gift. With passion like yours, I bet someday you’ll be making dresses for the Tsaritsa herself! Since you mentioned embroidery, a friend of a friend has given me her own work to send to you. Even my untrained eyes can see it’s impressive work. I hope you are able to find even greater value in it than I.
I promise, someday I will tell Teucer the truth about my work. You know I always keep my promises. But he was young enough to not remember a time before I left. I want to let him hang on to his dreams for as long as he can. When he can understand why I would lie, then maybe I will explain things.
My friend “Mr. Silky” helped me pick out the snacks that should come with this letter. His name, in fact, is Zhongli, and more than that, this letter should include a picture of the two of us. (The Feiyun Commerce Guild does Kamera photos, they’re much more convenient than paintings.) He’s the one with the scarf on his head, the very same that I’ve sent you. Doesn’t he look just like babushka? I could barely stop laughing at him the whole day!
I am beginning to run low on things to do here in Liyue. By the time I write my next letter, I should be able to give a date for my return home.
Yours faithfully, Your loyal knight
“Don’t touch that, Teucer!”
“But I wanna help!” he whines. Tonia sighs, prying the sugar out of his hands. Honestly, he still thinks caramelized onions have sugar in them.
“I can handle dinner on my own, thank you very much. Go keep babushka company while I cook.”
“She still hasn’t heard about Mr. Cyclops World,” Tonia coaxes him. He wavers for a moment, but telling the story of his adventure again wins out over cooking. He scurries out of the kitchen, joining Anthon in sitting beside babushka. Ajax is right: With the scarf in the photo, his friend does look remarkably like babushka. Where Tonia prefers to tie her hair with a handkerchief folded into a strip, babushka wears hers in the classic triangle fold. Her hair is still dark, like mother’s and Anthon’s, and she still wears it in a low ponytail when most women her age have switched to buns. She’s even wearing a brown dress today, like the man’s suit in the photo. Zhongli, his name is.
His eyes look strange in the photo, but everyone else is convinced it’s simply the Kamera’s fault. Tonia returns her focus to finishing dinner.
Later, after a hearty meal, Tonia looks carefully at the scarf Ajax sent her, holding it far too close to her face. She tries to count the rows of stitches for each section, to find the edge between shades of pink. The dimensionality of it—the way the center seems sunken bellow the rounded petals—is the easiest part to grasp. There is the tiniest of gaps between the yellow center and the white surrounding it, and in that gap the faintest hint of graphite. As long as she can draft out her design, it seems the only trick to this is picking the exact color needed.It would take a master dyer to achieve such specific colors—That, or someone with an absurd amount of thread and time. Tonia won’t risk her silk thread for this.
She goes to sleep thinking of what designs will look nice in white, what she may want to try embroidering in the Liyuan style someday, and other such pleasant and vague plans.
“Come here, Tonia,” her mother said one morning. She had all the pots out, boiling water and different plants in each of them. “I know you took my old spindle and my wool.”
“I—I’m sorry,” she apologized weakly.
“It’s fine. At least one of my children has picked a practical hobby,” mother scoffed. “Now come and bring your yarn. We’ll dye it.” Tonia beamed then, and scurried off to her room. She had been unwinding her yarn from the spindle onto the back of her chair, and had practically built herself a cushion to lean back against. Carefully, she pried it all off and carried her prize back to the kitchen. Mother raised an eyebrow at the small mountain set down on the table.
“That’s not all one strand,” she observed.
“No,” Tonia confirmed.
“Separate that mess,” mother told her. “Pair up the strands, and I’ll help you ply them.”
“But I want them thin,” Tonia protested. “I wanna weave them.” Mother furrowed her brow and came over to inspect Tonia’s work
“This is even,” she observed, inspecting a long section of yarn. “It’s not too fragile, either.”
“Will it be okay?” Tonia asked.
“This’ll be fine as a single,” mother said. “You still need to separate it all.”
“Right!” Tonia got to work right away, then. She grabbed the loose end on the top of the pile and wound it quickly around her hand. If the yarn caught on the strands below, she gently pulled it free, and soon enough, she had a fistful of yarn all in one piece. The one on top was her latest work, though, and the ones below weren’t as good. It hurt the first time her yarn snapped. She pushed it down, though, because big girls didn’t cry, and it would all end up as one thing in the end anyways. It didn’t matter if her yarn was in shorter pieces.
Eventually, while mother dunked her own yarn in pots with onion skins, woad, coneflowers, and sunflowers, Tonia finished sectioning her own yarn off into fist-sized circles. Mother checked the time, deciding when she needed to handle her own yarns, and then came over to help Tonia.
“What color do you want?” she asked
“Then we use beets.” One by one, mother tied the yarn nuggets so they wouldn’t fall apart and dropped them into the beet pot. Tonia started to do the same. The beets in the pot had been mashed and boiled, and the juices turned the water an intense red. Then, mother shooed her away, telling her the yarn wouldn’t be ready for a while.
Dinner that night had been food from town, since the stove was occupied. Right before bedtime, mother handed her a basket, filled with her red yarn. A loom replaced Tonia’s spindle the very next day, a wooden frames with two rows of pegs at the top and bottom so she coud fit more warp threads onto it.
At the time, she had no project in mind. She simply wove for the sake of it.
Your friend has no pupils.
“Ah. I did not think of my eyes while planning my retirement…” Childe snorts at him.
“Don’t worry about it too much, Tonia’s the only one who’s pointed it out. I didn’t even notice until she did.”
“…I don’t know if I should take offense to that.”
“No, no! Just don’t get stressed over something small like that. Besides, apparently the traveler knows a few people with star-shaped pupils.”
“Oh? To my knowledge, the only people with pupils like that were—”
“Just read the letter, Zhongli.” He does so.
The rest of the family is convinced that this is a quirk of the Kamera, but I do not think so. You can see him in person, so you can confirm it for me.
Zhongli does look remarkably like babushka with the scarf. Speaking of the scarf, the embroidery is beautiful. I had no idea that something so lifelike could be made with thread. It’s like a painting! Someday I’ll have enough colors and thread at my disposal to try making something like that. A flower, like Mr. Zhongli’s friend’s piece, or maybe a landscape. For now, I will practice embroidering more organic shapes in just one color.
If work is truly calming down for you, then come home quickly. Mother is already planning on getting cherries at the next market, so if you don’t hurry you’ll have to eat all the old vareniki. Even Teucer and Anthon wouldn’t eat it at that stage, and you know how they get.
On behalf of us all, loyal knight, much love,
“So it seems Tonia once again appreciates her gift,” Zhongli observes.
“Yes, but I think I’m the only one that found any humor it in,” Childe sighs good-naturedly. “Thank you again for helping me find everything, by the way.”
“It was no trouble. I enjoy our outings together,” he replies. “Though, it seems your next outing will be a bit outside of the harbor.”
“That leads perfectly into what I wanted to bring up, actually!” Childe chirps. “I wanted to invite you to come with me.”
“Where else?” Childe laughs. “You can’t spend your whole retirement in just one city, after all.” His laughter hangs in the air with his offer, and Zhongli considers it. He comes to his decision and smiles.
“I would love to, Ajax.” It’s the answer he was hoping for, and he opens his mouth to reply, only to suddenly freeze.
“That’s my—How do you know—The letters. Of course.” His hand covers his face.
“I learned your name from the first letter you showed me, but I assumed you preferred your code name in public,” Zhongli tries to explain himself. “Seeing as we aren’t in public right now, I thought it would be alright. Should I not have?”
“No, it—It’s fine. You can use my name. I suppose this saves us an awkward conversation at my parents’ house.” Ajax forces a laugh.
“Why did you continue to share the letters with me, if I may ask?” Zhongli changes the topic.
“That’s simple. The best part of giving gifts is seeing how they make people happy, and since you helped me so much picking out all those gifts, sharing that happiness was the least I could do.”
“Ah. I see.” Then, teasing, “Does that philosophy have anything to do with how often you’ve indulged me?”
“AHA! So you are self-aware!” Ajax exclaims. Zhongli simply gives him the knowing, almost scornful smile of a god. It nearly sends Ajax into hysterics.
“Haha, keep your sense of humor at the ready. I want my siblings to like you.”
“Speaking of this trip, I may need your help negotiating vacation days with Hu Tao.” Zhongli shudders. “That child is a menace.”
“Just wait until we get to Snezhnaya,” Ajax playfully warns him. “My siblings might just make you miss her.”
Don’t tease Zhongli like that, you’ll make him self-conscious! I’ve been letting him read these letters, you know.
The both of us are happy to hear you like the scarf. Zhongli has passed your compliments on to Madame Ping. I know that, whatever you end up making, it’ll be wonderful. I hope you’ll let me see it. In fact, I’ll be able to see your embroidery first-hand soon enough. Work has finally allowed me enough time to come visit! Don’t send a reply to this letter, I’ll be there before it could reach me.
Yours faithfully, your loyal knight.
“Morning, Tonia,” Sasha greets her as she shuts the door on the snow outside. Winter has finally hit Morepesok, and it has hit full force.
“Good morning. Any new orders?”
“Just this,” Sasha says, lifting the shirt in their hands. “Someone singed their shirt while cooking. All it needed was new cuffs.”
“Lucky person, to be that bad at cooking and only have damaged shirt cuffs,” Tonia says dryly.
“Haha, yeah. Lucky person indeed. Mr. Leonid's out on a mail run, go ahead and make yourself comfortable.” Tonia does just that, pulling a chair out from the work table and fishing her latest project out of the bag on her shoulder: the front panel of a pocket, outlined in thread on a black square. Its twin sat in the bag, waiting patiently for the twig of snowberries to finish sprouting on the fabric. The white silk shines brilliantly against the black, just as Tonia had predicted, and for what her design lacks in colorfulness, she is attempting to make up for in shading. Carefully using shorter stitches where she wants a shadow to fall on a berry, letting the black peak through more and more like pointillism. It takes a lot of focus to get every detail just right, and Tonia is lost in her own little world until the shop door swings open.
“Welcome back, Mr. Leonid!” Sasha waves, evidently done with their cuff. “What’s the news?” Mr. Leonid, normally a cheerful, relaxed man, now looks serious. He is quiet as he closes the door. Something big has happened. Tonia tries her best to banish the terrible possibilities from her mind.
“Tonia,” he says, and she digs her nails into her palms. “Your brother’s boast about you is about to come true.”
“Wait, is this what I think it is?” Sasha asks. “I heard something about other Harbingers’ hometowns, but I assumed it was just because they’re all from big cities.”
“It’s exactly that,” Mr. Leonid says. His normal grin is returning to him. “The rumors about the Tsaritsa having dresses made from all her Harbingers’ hometowns is true. We’re up next.” It finally sinks in for Tonia that nothing has gone wrong. Nobody is dead. This is good news, even.
This is great news. Wait, this is the most exciting news of her life!
“I’m getting the silk,” she says at once, standing swiftly and marching to the storage room, her pocket carefully abandoned on the table. Sasha tucks it back into her bag for her, and Mr. Leonid pulls out the dress form, setting it by its dials to the measurements in his gloved hand.
“Ajax is leaving for the Fatui at the end of the month.”
Tonia couldn’t have said she was to surprised, when father told them that. He’d been different, ever since that day. He got into a lot of fights now—fights he won—and he didn’t play anymore with anyone he used to call a friend. The whole town knew those things. But there were things only their family noticed, like the knife he picked up off the street and sharpened every night, in the dark. It was the sound that lulled Tonia to sleep now, with how regular it was. Or how now, when he wasn’t itching to get in trouble, he could be very quiet and patient. Tonia overheard Father complaining about him keeping them out ice fishing, even when nothing was biting.
“The boy just stares into the hole like he can see the bottom of the sea,” he said. “I can’t even guess what’s going through his head then.”
And there’s the one thing only Tonia knew. The twins were busy herding Anthon and Teucer, and mother and father were busy herding Ajax, prying the sword out of his hands and taking him home. Tonia’s the only one that looked at the sword itself, before it got buried in the snow and then swept away somewhere by mud and melt. The sword was rusty. Ajax was too smart to go out with just a rusty sword. She was convinced something big happened, even if he never spoke of it. Something like out of a storybook.
Ajax was one of those story characters now, a knight that had to go and defeat the bad guys. It was just the way of things, for him to leave for an adventure. He’d be working for the Tsaritsa, even. Her brother wouldn’t be a knight for just anybody.
She would still miss him, though.
She still had her weaving. Red square after red square, all with a dark stripe on the side from the one skein that came out funny. She got an idea. She started sewing them together, lining the stripes up and hemming the sides to fix the uneven edges. All of them together were nice, warm and long, but it felt like it was missing something.
Knights wear armor, right? Something shiny like gold. The closest thing she could find was a ball of mother’s yarn, some sort of light coppery color. Tonia borrowed it without asking and added swirlies to Ajax’s scarf, right in the middle where he could show it off. It was her first attempt at embroidery, just a few curving lines that almost puckered the fabric from being pulled too tight, but it made it feel right.
And the right way to give it was not to hand it over, like a boring person, but to ambush Ajax with it right before he left.
“Tonia! You’ll strangle your brother, stop it!” Mother scolded. Ajax laughed at her.
“She couldn’t do anything to me,” he said easily. Tonia dropped off his back, and he took the ends of his scarf in his hands, looking it over.
“Tonia, did you… Make this for me?”
“Yep!” she chirrped. “Do y—Do you like it?” He gave her a smile, and then a hug.
“It’s perfect,” he said. “I’ll keep it on all the time. I’ll be back soon, I promise.”
“Lemme fix it up when you do,” she told him. “You’ll rip it.”
“A gift from my baby sister? Never!”
“Tell that to all your other clothes!” she teased him gleefully. Ajax had no defense for that, so he dug his knuckles into her hair. She squirmed away, giggling, and then he waved goodbye, and then he was gone.
Tonia started praying to the Tsaritsa for his safety that night. She was closer to Ajax now, after all, and there wasn’t really anything else Tonia could do.
Ajax leans over the ship's rail, sticking his face out into the bite of the cold wind.
"Ah, finally, real weather. We're close! I can't wait to see my siblings again."
"I've… been meaning to ask," Zhongli starts slowly. Ajax turns to meet his eyes. "You speak of your siblings a lot, but what of your parents? From the letters, it seems they're alive and well, but how is your relationship to them?"
"It's—" Ajax stops short, then turns back to face the sea. Deliberately, almost.
"Well, if you do the math, my parents waited until I could help with childcare before having the second half of the family. I've always been a troublemaker! And…" As he trails off, the chipperness that he says everything with fades away.
"It only got worse when I got older. Fourteen, or so."
"That's around the time when you—" Zhongli pieces together.
"Joined the Fatui, yep! My parents got the Tsaritsa herself to handle their black sheep, and got a golden goose in the deal."
"Ah. …I see," Zhongli responds. He falls quiet, and Ajax waits, enjoying the cold that's too familiar to be painful. He pulls his scarf up to cover more of his neck.
"What are your feelings towards your parents?" Zhongli asks at last. Ajax sighs, letting himself slouch against the railing.
"Well, my siblings love our parents, and I love my siblings."
"…That does not answer the question," Zhongli points out.
"It's the best answer I’ve got," he shrugs. And then silence. This conversation is not going any further.
“I am looking forward to meeting your family, in any case,” Zhongli says. Ajax smiles, still looking out over the ocean. At Morepesok, even as just a speck on the horizon.
If the shop gets any new orders, Tonia doesn’t know of it. She’s too busy sketching drafts, pinning spare fabric to the form, planning the design for the Tsaritsa’s dress. She doesn’t even notice she’s in charge of it, at first, too excited at such a big project ahead of her. Mr. Leonid and Sasha both are more experienced than she is. One of them should be in charge of this, but by the time she realizes, they’re all already in love with the plan.
“We all have the skill, technically, but you have the energy, Tonia,” Mr. Leonid tells her.
“Speak for yourself, old man!” Sasha teases. “This is a group effort. Not your fault you’re a good leader, Tonia.”
“…We’re going to make something beautiful,” she answers. The two of them smile at her, and then its back to work.
The dress is like this: the front of the bodice is red, with two rounded pieces at the collar. The sides and back are white, cutting the front off into a point. A heart, with lace trimming the top and wrapping around the sides, where two strips of sleeves slide off the shoulders. The skirt is the inverse of the bodice; a white trapezoid in the front, widening with the rest of the skirt as it goes down.
Before anything can be sewn, though, it must be embroidered. Snowflakes drifting down the red edges of the skirt, and the Tsaritsa’s Cryo insignia on the bodice. On its own, though, the insignia seems lacking. Tonia thinks, and then she made a suggestion.
“Let’s dye some of the silk.” They unspooled it, measured it carefully, argued over how much would be needed, and made the happy discovery that the spool’s center was thinner than it first appeared. With the math they barely had faith in, they measured, cut, and placed the silk in boiling pots of blues and greys. While they soaked, Tonia outlined the design, basting instead of drawing. Who would she be to leave graphite on the Tsaritsa’s dress?
And then she works. Stitch by careful stitch, she pulls the ocean through the snowflake’s spokes. She puts the sea foam that crashes against the dark rocks of the shore, and above it the shimmer of the frosted dock. White, and more white, and shades of grey that are almost white, teasing out the shapes of a snow-burried town. Tonia paints Morepesok onto the dress, right over the Tsaritsa’s heart.
She hopes she’ll like it.
After three days missing, Ajax came home fish-eyed. Mother wrestled him first into a bath, then into bed, spooning soup into his mouth somewhere in between. He hardly did a thing on his own that night, like his body had just remembered how to be tired and was catching up on lost time.
Tonia just so happened to have a nightmare that night. A nightmare about Ajax, and that rusty, stained sword, and about something that would keep him from ever coming home.
“I’m supposed to be resting,” Ajax said flatly when she opened his door.
“Sorry,” she whispered. She shifted in the doorway a bit before admitting, “I had a nightmare.”
“Can’t you bother mother and father? Or Timofey? Anika?”
“…No,” she said. She expected Ajax to sigh, or grumble about how she was being annoying. That’s what he would have done before. But now, the new Ajax simply said, “Alright. Come here.”
Tonia crawled onto the foot of the bed, the blanket stolen from her room settling around her like a nest. Ajax was perfectly still, laying on his back and staring at the ceiling.
“You had a nightmare?” he asked, knowing full well what the answer was.
“Yeah. It—It was about you.” Ajax didn’t go still, because he already was, but there was a shift in him.
“…What was I doing?” he asked slowly.
“You—In the dream, you didn’t… come home. You couldn’t come home, ever.”
“Oh,” he said.
“It was bad,” Tonia told him. A beat passed.
“You went somewhere while you were gone, right?” she asked. “I saw the rusty sword. Something big happened, right? Where did you go?”
Ajax didn’t say anything. Tonia wasn’t even sure he was breathing.
“You did go somewhere, right?”
“…I did,” he admitted.
“You won’t go back there, right? You’ll stay with us now? You won’t go missing again?”
“I…” he trailed off. “I might go somewhere again someday. But I promise I’ll always come back. And I don’t break promises.”
“Are you sure?” Tonia asked. “What if something tries to keep you away?”
“I’d beat it,” Ajax declared. “I’ve gotten strong while I was away.”
“Very. Go to sleep, Tonia.” She did, small body curled comfortably at the foot of the bed, close enough to feel her brother safe beside her.
“Home at last!” The boat has barely docked, but Ajax leaps from it onto the dock, landing in a roll on the wood. Zhongli doesn’t make him wait long, but chooses the much more elegant option of constructing a temporary stone bridge.
“We don’t have to worry about our luggage, the crew knows where to bring it,” Ajax tells him.
“Are we going to your home now?” Zhongli asks.
“No, it’s still early. We can kill a few hours before anyone’ll be up.”
“What do you suggest we do, then?”
“It’s been too long since I’ve fought a bear,” Ajax notes glibly. “Come, let’s track one down.” Content to follow his lead, Zhongli trails after Ajax through the dark, cobbled streets, then past them into a forest. For all his knowledge, he does not recognize the signs Ajax is using to track his bear. Perhaps he is simply wandering and waiting for luck to strike. Either way, luck does eventually strike in the form of a bear.
“There we are,” Ajax breathes. “You wait here. Oh, and hold this for me?” He hands Zhongli his Harbinger mask as he advances. He wishes to challenge himself by not allowing himself to use his Delusion; Zhongli knows him well enough to understand that. As he takes the mask, though, his thumb lands on something inside. He looks down.
It’s Ajax’s Vision.
“Ajax!” he hisses, but it is too late. Ajax, bow still firmly across his back, is already fighting the bear.
Tonia is out of the house early that morning. Today, they are going to finish the Tsaritsa’s dress, and her excitement is like fire in her veins. She is so fixated on her goal for the day that she almost doesn’t register the deep voice yelling, “Ajax!”
Her head snaps to the sound. Coming down the street is Ajax, playing the dumb game where he tries to run on the icy stone without breaking his face. He always comes out of that game with bruised elbows. Behind him is Mr. Zhongli, arms sticking out as he struggles just to walk across the ice. Fortunately, she does not share his struggle.
“Ajax!” she shouts as she starts towards him, skidding on the street. Ajax looks up at her voice, and he beams at her.
“Tonia!” They rush towards each other, making fools of themselves on the ice and laughing accordingly. When they’re close enough, Ajax scoops her up in a hug and twirls her around. He sends them tumbling into a snowbank someone had shoveled, but neither of them really mind.
“You’re back!” she says happily.
“I’m back!” he echoes. Tonia shoves him aside, sliding down the snowbank before she is able to get back on her feet. Ajax follows suit, heaving himself up. Zhongli is still hobbling in their direction. “Shall we head to the house? I’m sure everybody else will be excited to see me.”
“They’re all still asleep,” Tonia says. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”
“Well, it’s obviously earlier than I thought it was,” he replies. “But my sister, up early of her own volition? Who are you and what have you done to Tonia?”
“I can wake up early when I want to,” she pouts. Then she recalls why she is up, and her excitement returns twofold. “Come with me, there’s something I want to show you.”
“Oh? Lead the way then,” he says, letting her grab his hand and pull him along, taking two steps for every three of hers. As they pass him, Ajax grabs Zhongli’s hand, dragging him along and saving him from his embarrassing fumbling. Tonia leads the two men around a bend, to the shop window with the mannequins and the teal walls inside.
“Good morning, Tonia! Excited for—Guests?” Sasha asks. They eye Zhongli up and down. “Mind introducing them?”
“This is my brother, and that’s the eye guy I told you about.” Sasha squints at Zhongli. He presses his lips together, uncomfortable under the scrutiny.
“Huh, his pupils are light even in person! Why’re they like that, eye guy?”
“It is… a… family condition… Yes, it is hereditary,” Zhongli says very convincingly. Ajax is trying hard not to laugh.
“His eyes don’t matter. Look at this.” Tonia carries out the dressform, setting it down gently and showing off the fabric pinned to it. The finished Cryo embroidery shines slightly in the shop’s lights, making the sea and snow shimmer.
“Woah… This is beautiful!” Ajax exclaims. “Did you make this, Tonia?”
“Every stitch,” she says, adding smugly, “It’s for the Tsaritsa.”
“The Tsaritsa herself?!” he gasps. Then he starts squishing Tonia’s cheeks, gushing all the while. “I knew it, my baby sister is the best tailor in all of Snezhnaya—In the whole world !”
“Ajaaaaax,” she whines. It does not get him to stop. Pinching his cheeks in retaliation does nothing, either.
“This truly is an exemplary piece of needlework,” Zhongli says. “The lines of the Cryo symbol are incredibly clean, and the image inside is so detailed as to be lifelike. It’s like looking out onto the dock through a series of very narrow windows. I’ve never seen a technique like this used before. Where did you get the idea to embroider an image within an image?”
“I thought o’ it m’self,” Tonia brags with Ajax still smooshing her face.
“My sister’s a genius!” he declares.
“Yeah, so let go of our genius. We’re supposed to finish this today,” Sasha steps in, and thanks to their intervention, the war of cheek pinching is over. Even as she settles in to the last of her work, though, her mouth is free, and so Tonia talks. She tells Ajax everything that’d happened while he’d been gone, the things that didn’t fit in the letters. She knows he won’t return the favor, because he never does. He never talks about his work as a Harbinger in anything but broad generalizations. It’s alright, though. Tonia is perfectly happy to have Ajax listen to her ramble about boring things, drinking in her stories because he couldn’t be there to live them.
It’s good to have him back here.
To my Eleventh, and his sister,
The Morepesok gown is lovely. While the materials are not what I had expected, it is a wonderful thing that I expect I shall wear for many years to come. I shall have to employ young Tonia’s skills once again if I wish to sample Morepesok’s local fibers, though I am not one to turn down Liyuan silks.
Speaking of, I understand that there is a certain person of that nation staying in your home, with a certain reputation as a connoisseur of all things. Should you happen to have enough paper, I would like his own review of the gown. Such a perspective can be revealing, when one is accustomed to finery in all things.
My Eleventh: I understand how the events in Liyue were particularly strenuous, physically and otherwise. As such, I see it fit to allow you time to recuperate. Liyue, at least for the time being, can be managed by the people already stationed there. For the immediate future, your only assignments shall be short-term, and will not take you as far from your home. I trust your guest will be able to help stave off the boredom, as the trade-off for this is a lack of the excitement you so enjoy.
Tonia: please take care of him. I have come to know that you have a large family, and that many responsibilities may have fallen to you through your life. Still, take care of them as much as they take care of you. A family is stronger together, just as it takes all of its people for Snezhnaya to be strong.
You two siblings have a strong bond, and anyone would be remiss to loose something of such value.
From the Archon of Love, her Imperial Majesty,