The room is small, it is unadorned, it is unassuming.
A deity walks into this room and stays a while.
The bare floor creaks, the window lets in the night draught through its ill-fitted hinge, and the bed is a bare frame. Just a raised plane upon which to place a mattress; a dais upon which one lies prone. Simplicity.
There is a dais waiting in Yujing Terrace, adorned with incense and floral vases.
The previous tenant of this room left no trace nor decoration, only a thin miasma of dust that hangs in the air. It makes gold bars out of the dim evening light that filters in through the shutter, but it is not Dust, it is only dust, and it too is unassuming.
Rex Lapis walked into that room, but Zhongli, he decided, shall walk out again alone.
“I'll take it,” he says pleasantly, and when the contract is signed, gold does not spill from his hands; it is drawn quite ordinarily from a pouch marked with the sigil of Northland Bank.
The corpse hits the dais like a meteor and slumps convincingly against the stone. Vases are broken and incense is knocked violently aside, and as the dust settles, the harbour realises it is orphaned.
The man named Zhongli watches with his forged heart thrumming in his throat to see what Liyue will do.
The room is small, it is unadorned, it is unassuming in that it assumes nothing of its owner.
He stands at the shuttered window in quiet contemplation as he listens to the sounds of the harbour, muffled though they are by the four walls.
There is a buzz of chatter everywhere (dead – can't believe – Rex Lapis – what will we – should we – where-how-who-why-what) and for the first time (Rex Lapis is gone?) in a memory old enough (please, I know in my heart you're there) to be engraved in bedrock (what will we do?) he (Rex Lapis?) thinks, this is overwhelming, and he shuts it all off.
The silence almost brings him to his knees.
A man walks among other men. He wears a decorated black suit with clean lapels. He bears a bright Vision of Geo, gleaming at his back like it was carved from Cor Lapis, and perhaps it was. He wears his hair in a thin tail, this man. He is careful to pretend no authority. He is careful to be unassuming.
Zhongli decorated the body well enough to explain away the confusion that he might live and travel alone, but he does not craft much of a history; it will forge its own with time, and he is unhurried. This man is a blank slate, but he bears a smile soft and tired; not as sparkling nightlit jade, but as overworked clay.
The man walks the street from the upper half to the lower with his hands folded at his back. Some might think he looks pensive as he browses the things merchants try to sell him.
There is jewellery here, a fine price, see this carving of noctilucous jade made in the image of Skybracer, see its pearl antlers delivered from the sea by the Crux! Here is a tea house: there will be a performer tonight whose voice will take your mind off these dark times, come in, come in! Here is a box, a basket, a vase – of a necklace, of herbs, of Qingxin Flowers gathered under the blanket of the early morning dew.
Here, there's a musician: a girl who plays her strings so loudly that the Stone Harbour shudders! (Let it shudder! Such energy!)
There is the Yuheng: don't talk to her of gods on the eve of this funeral, let her blaspheme in her own time! (Let her! She is a breath of fresh air!)
Here is a chef who cooks up a dessert with nectar drawn from Pyro Whopperflowers! It is warming to the soul, it is cutting like a blade, it is sweet. (It is sweet, but it could be sweeter, he can hardly help it when he tells her there is a place near Luhua Pool where a Regisvine grows...)
Here is the dock, here is commerce's bare lung breathing into the city, here is where commodities from the world are hoisted home, here is where contracts begin, here is where blood enters the vein!
Here is a trap full of eels, half-price.
Zhongli walks away.
There is a gentleman at the parlour who begs forgiveness for asking for such a service during this time. His mother was a pious woman, and it would grieve her that her funeral comes now. She wished for incense, though, the expensive kind. Think nothing of it, says the consultant.
There is a woman who begs forgiveness for asking, now of all times, for a service for her grandfather. He liked the sound of horsetails in the wind. It is nothing, says the consultant. Allow us to pay proper tribute.
There is a man... His grandfather is gone, you see, but all he wanted was a bouquet of Glaze Lilies and he said as much when he lay in bed. The man hopes Wangsheng Funeral Parlour can acquire the best? It is nothing. I know where the most delicate Glaze Lilies grow; they will be his.
“Curious!” says Director Hu Tao, steepling her fingers and looking pleased that she gets the opportunity to comment.
The client is gone from the room, so Zhongli asks:
“Did I speak out of turn?”
Director Hu Tao leans back in her chair and stretches like a cat.
“Ah, no. You're good at listening to the clients,” she explains, and it does not feel like praise when she grins at him like that, “but you have no gravity at all."
Director Hu Tao is a hypocrite, but she is also right.
He sifts through the past few conversations like a fine sand and hears himself say, it is nothing, it is nothing, it is nothing.
A death is never nothing.
"I see. I will take more care in-"
"It's just really curious, isn't it?" Hu Tao interrupts, and her grin stretches with some inexplicable mirth. "Considering."
Zhongli does not play to her suspicions, nor does he pretend any harder. Whatever the Director thinks she knows takes a back seat to the matter at hand. He steers back to it with what he thinks is polite grace.
"Be that as it may, Director Hu, I would appreciate your guidance."
“So clumsy,” she remarks, shaking her head. It’s unclear whether she’s talking about his handling of clientele or something else entirely.
A death is not nothing.
Families grieve; Liyue grieves.
The harbour writhes with the pain of it. It brings Zhongli no pleasure to see the common folk weep, nor to witness firsthand how it hurts them to try to cauterise the wound he’s inflicted. He dares to think that his plans might fail and Liyue Harbour might fall to pieces after all. Perhaps he will be needed again. The contract may not be over.
The Qixing makes stitches, the adepti steady the tapestry, and at the critical moment it is still almost too much. He prepares to step in.
But there is a factor Morax did not account for at first, one that has curiously been weaving itself into the story from the start. A starfallen child pulls the tearing edges together, and the tapestry holds.
What a terrible thing it is to know that Rex Lapis is no longer needed.
The Director declared him clumsy, and she was correct in a great many ways.
He is clumsy without his gnosis, imperfectly rattling around in a body he has worn hundreds of times but never inhabited without godly power thrumming through it. His spear is heavy in his hands and he finds that practice is gracing him with calluses, that not every strike will be true, and that sometimes Geo hears his call and does not answer.
Today he earns a bruise for arrogance. He has never been betrayed by stone before, but when a lawachurl heaves him against a cliff face like a child’s doll he is reminded just how unyielding it can be. Zhongli gingerly examines himself later in his small, unadorned, unassuming room and finds the proof has painted itself across his side in ugly purple.
He is clumsy when he talks to the people he gave his old life to protect. It makes sense to him that he should share his knowledge, that he should give them the gift of information freely now that he walks among them all year long. His information is always correct, but people don’t always like to listen, and Zhongli wonders at first if this is a lack of interest or a lack of time. He is suitably cowed when he works out that it is because he is a stranger.
He is clumsy in the parlour one day when he knocks over a bottle of ink and ruins a sheaf of funeral requests. Shame bubbles up in him like a geyser for causing trouble for the mourning – and sudden, cold fear because he cannot work out why it happened. Perhaps his body is showing its first signs of failing, is mortality really so swift-?
“Sheesh. Did you even eat today?” asks Director Hu on the way past, sounding chipper and unconcerned.
Zhongli waits in Wanmin Restaurant with his hands shaking. It is always busy here, but Xiangling takes one look at him and suddenly he finds himself prioritised quite against his will.
“I require no special treatment,” he tells her.
“I insist!” she replies firmly. “And don’t bother telling me you have no Mora, either. No charge today for my favourite taste tester!”
The other guests regard him with some kind of fearful respect. It is not because they know they are looking at a man who used to be Rex Lapis. It is because he is making short work of a dish that contains both Geovishap marrow and Mist Grass seasoning.
Xiangling likes him for telling her it needs salt.
“Mr. Zhongli,” she begins, sliding into the seat opposite him for the first time, “I know we never talk outside of food, so I hope this isn’t weird - but I wanted to thank you for letting me know about that Regisvine. It really added some boom shaka laka to that dessert!”
Zhongli does not know what boom shaka laka is, but contextually it must be positive. Xiangling puts a small jade object on the table between them and slides it towards him with a finger.
“You don’t seem like the kind of person who likes clutter, but maybe you can use it as a paperweight…?”
It is a small hand carved panda, cut perfectly flat on the bottom so that it sits stably wherever it’s placed. It is not the most remarkable craftsmanship, but it is recognisable for what it is.
“One of our regular customers gave it to me, but I travel around way too much to be carrying things like this with me. Don’t tell him I regifted it, okay?”
Zhongli returns to his small, unassuming room and immediately adorns the windowsill with the jade panda. The little piece of clutter stares blankly at him from the bare sill, and after a moment of staring back he reaches down to remove it so that his room may return to order. He falters at the last second and just moves it a little bit to the left.
The wheels of time creak and finally begin to turn.
Rarely at first, people begin to offer other things to Zhongli. He is just as surprised as the first time to find himself in their thoughts when he is so used to hearing himself in their prayers.
The little undead girl from the pharmacy writes his name in her book when she meets him in the street. She forgets him three times in as many weeks, and remembers him in the fourth when he comes to her place of work. She pulls a pressed Qingxin flower from the pages where she wrote his name and plaps it on the counter like she’s giving him his change.
“Yours,” she murmurs decisively.
“Mine?” He plucks the flower off the counter as delicately as he’s able, examining its dried petals in the light. He wonders if the adepti knew they would preserve her just as perfectly. “Why?”
“Polite to me. Nice man.”
She goes back to sorting herbs into drawers and forgets he’s waiting for her to give him his order.
When he brings the second son of the Feiyun Commerce Guild the little packet of medicine, the boy smiles and thanks him for offering to fetch it in the first place.
“Chongyun will appreciate it, I’m sure. He does not take ill often, but when he does I’m afraid it’s quite severe. Oh!” Xingqiu holds out a brown paper package in one hand, the other folded neatly at his back. “You must take this for your trouble, my liege.”
“It was no trouble.”
“You are an unusual man, Zhongli, to have a job of such status and yet spend your free time running errands for a couple of teenagers.”
There is something in that sentence that Xingqiu is trying very hard to keep veiled from him, and it has nothing to do with Rex Lapis. Zhongli does not press to find out what it is, but he wants very much to know anyway.
No; on second thought, it’s not that he wants to know Xingqiu’s secrets. He wants to be the kind of person that a teenager will confide in.
“Helping others justifies itself,” he says automatically.
Xingqiu beams at him quite by accident.
“Justice indeed!” Xingqiu says daringly, and presses the brown paper package into his hands with a mischievous wink before slipping coolly back into the airs and graces of a commercial heir.
Zhongli has the pressed Qingxin framed, and it hangs neatly by his bed that night as he turns his attention to the package. He unties the string and peels back the paper to find a book; inside the cover is a disaster of a signature so utterly distressing to look at that he can barely make out the name Chenqiu.
It’s not a bad book, though.
He finishes it by candlelight that night in bed, tucked under a blanket from Ganyu that is just as soft as the clouds patterned on it.
She had delivered it shortly after finding out that Zhongli and Rex Lapis were once two sides of the same coin. Really it had been an excuse, hastily given and handwaved away so that she might demand a thousand answers of him in person. Ganyu managed only a few questions before the tears started, and nonsensical apologies to go with them. At Zhongli’s suggestion, they left the little room behind and took a walk through the harbour until her emotions ran dry.
She had every right to be upset with him. And the blanket is comfortable. Ganyu managed a smile, then.
The Traveller brings him a pillar of basalt one day. He can sense the energy rolling off the suspended cube of pure Geo that glows faintly at its core. Zhongli notes that the Traveller has been battling hypostases, and when he says this out loud he receives a glowing smile to go with his pillar.
“Don’t worry for my safety, Zhongli. I’m made of strong stuff.”
He sets the basalt pillar on his nightstand so that he might later read another of Xingqiu’s books by its light.
“I don’t doubt that one bit. Would you care for some tea?”
The tea set is from Madame Ping. Though this one does not contain a pocket dimension, it’s tagged with an amused little note about how he might try to keep the cobwebs out of his.
These things are offered to him, but they are not offerings. He accepts each gift graciously, and like a dragon (but unlike a god) he hoards them all in his room because he does not know what else to do with them. There are opulent curtains from Sumeru that arrived already paid and signed for by the Tianquan. A set of Snezhnayan cutlery with no official sender. An ornamental spear once used in a ritual to ward off evil – this one just appeared in his room one day while he was out on business, and takes pride of place on his wall.
Objects, knick-knacks, curios, things, stuff. He had meant to live simply…
The sound of liquid being sloshed around in a glass bottle behind him is his only warning that Barbatos is here at all, save for the faint breeze that sneaks in through the open window.
Zhongli turns with a book open in his hand and regards the archon with an even stare. The silk curtains billow silently.
“Hello, old friend,” says Barbatos.
Three words that carry the weight of a thousand he won’t say out loud.
“Lord Barbatos,” says Zhongli, carefully measured. “It has been a while.”
“We’ve left it too long,” the archon agrees. There is something so grievously tired about that sentence that Zhongli almost forgets he’s supposed to be the eldest. Barbatos holds out the bottle of wine and waggles it at him again.
He should be beside himself with anger that Barbatos would bring his drunkenness here, but he is not. This is a very specific type of wine. This is a very specific type of meeting.
“This is unexpected,” he admits. A deep breath in, a longer one out. “As well as ill timed.” He doesn’t reach for the wine just yet.
“Ill timed,” Barbatos repeats with a sarcastic lilt. “What time is there but the present? Speaking of which, I brought you one.”
“There is the past.” Does not reach for the wine.
“Obviously, you’re tired of the past,” says Barbatos, “and my name is Venti. Take the wine.”
Does not reach out. Does not, does not, does not.
“I am not tired of the past,” he insists, feeling terribly unsteady.
“Of course you are. If you wanted to pretend to be no more, you could perhaps have warned the god next door. But here we are. Take,” Venti emphasises, “the wine.”
He can ask no more patience of Venti the bard. Zhongli takes the bottle and searches in his cabinet for a set of glasses, turning away from the too-bright eyes that are fixed on him like pins in a moth.
“I am not tired of the past,” he repeats, gently this time. “I am simply tired.”
They would both very much have liked to have an argument, perhaps. Once upon a time. If this had happened sooner. Now, though, too much time has passed. They are two old friends meeting for the very first time.
Zhongli pours the wine and they sit at the little table by the window and they clink their glasses together. They let the chance for an argument pass them by.
Osmanthus wine is a memory that was once shared by seven, and now it is a memory clung to by two.
They talk of gnoses (and their lack thereof). They discuss bruises, Signora, Childe. The outlander is mentioned in curious tones; Zhongli learns that Venti is fond of the Traveller as well, but neither of them has more useful information than that. He does not have to ask to know who told Venti the truth.
There is mention of the days of the Seven, too, but neither Venti nor Zhongli can bear to make more of it.
Zhongli admits he had thought osmanthus wine an extinct beverage, and Venti smiles and taps his own nose. At first he thinks he’s being secretive, but then Venti gestures to the bottle and tells him to take a sniff. It smells of earth. Roots. Windrise.
He does not ask how many of these bottles Venti has buried out there, because he knows the answer will be finite.
The bottle is nearly empty when Venti slurs, “You have a busy looking home.”
“The contents of my room were not my choice,” he answers, minding himself much more carefully. Venti has had most of the wine, anyway, though there is a warmth in Zhongli and a numbness of the fingers regardless. “All of it was given. It was more orderly when I first arrived.”
“Order…” Venti slides his elbows forward and rests his cheek on his arms, heaving a sigh. His eyes are closed, but he isn’t going to sleep. “What a lucky mortal, to have so many mortal friends,” he quips slowly. “I’m glad your heart knows kindness now the age of Seven ends.”
Zhongli takes a look around the room, eyes wandering here and there over the things people have given him. He hadn’t realised there was so much, not until Venti breezed in through that window, but he finds he’s glad of the second opinion. Of course that’s what it means. Of course. Yes.
This body has cried before, but not in a very long time. Zhongli folds one arm over the other and wipes delicately at his eyes with his gloved fingers, blinks, and takes a deep breath while he steadies his foundations and closes up the cracks. It is a quiet and delicate thing, and he’s glad Venti at least affords him the justice of keeping his eyes closed.
Eventually he sniffs sharply and pushes back his chair to hunt down a handkerchief.
“Don’t go anywhere, will you,” Venti calls.
“No, old friend.”
The room is small but it is well adorned, and it assumes much about its inhabitant. For instance, despite his learned disposition and expensive-looking clothes, this is the kind of man to keep an empty wine bottle as a vase for a Glaze Lily.
This room does not belong to, has never belonged to anything like a god. It is a room full of the junk that accumulates around mortals; a room full of the things that fall out when you take a lived life and shake it gently.
His name is Zhongli, and at the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour he keeps a tidy desk and ensures perfect order, and his contracts are sound as stone.
But at home – and it is a home – he will allow some organised mess.
He is learning to be human, or perhaps he is being taught.