The walk from the back hill into the heart of Cloud Recesses has always been a pleasant one, even during the winter rain. Today the tranquility is shattered by the bodies of the Lan, scattered across Cloud Recesses like dead birds.
The red of blood is everywhere. Like a sacrilegious wedding the blood paints the wood of the buildings, the floors, the white robed bodies, the armor of the Wen soldiers that kick in doors and toss in fire talismans and torches. There is an ugly meat smell in the air. A mockery of the Caiyi night markets, sweet and sickly and fetid.
Bichen is torn from Lan Wangji’s hand and his arms are chained behind him with heavy Wen silver. He is dragged through the heart of Cloud Recesses, across familiar sand pathways now black and muddy with Lan blood.
Nausea rises in his gut and horror crawls against his skin like a hot wind. There are so many dead. The Lan are not a large sect. The families are so small. Children are rare. And there are so many dead. So many names to mourn. So many voices to put to rest.
It is so quiet. Only the snarl of burning wood, as Wen throw talisman after talisman at the buildings.
He passes the young man that made him blush for the first time when he was thirteen, his beautiful eyes empty and dry, throat cut open to the bone.
He stumbles beside the body of the old doctor that had taught him how to make proper stitches. Their head smashed in, blood black on black against the wood walkways.
Up ahead, their little boy, the doctor’s spiritual sword through his heart, pinning him to a nearby tree.
At the sight of the boy Lan Wangji loses his footing and collapses, head hitting the ground with a hard crack that sends bright sparks through his vision and renders him mute with pain. He is breathing too hard, too quick, he can’t stand, he can’t breathe. Wen Xu grabs him by the hair and pulls him to his feet, fisting his fingers in the tail bound by the long Lan ribbons. He drags him like this the rest of the way through Cloud Recesses, past more bodies, across the raised walkways until they reach the Elegant Room, and pushes him down to his knees over the clouds and waves of the blue and white rug.
“Look. Look at what your arrogance costs your stupid little clan, Lan Wangji.”
Wen Xu’s voice curls around his name with a sickening familiarity that makes Lan Wangji shudder. There is a wrongness to it, a warning that he wants to listen to if he can only place it.
Wen Xu drags Lan Wangji’s head back up, making sure he sees through the open doors and outside the Elegance House. Makes sure he can see the fires burn. He gets up close, so close Lan Wangji can feel his hot breath against his ear, against the sensitive skin of his neck. He feels cold in a way he has not felt cold in a long, long time. His skin roils with it, prickling with loathing.
“Tell me where your brother went and maybe I’ll be nice.”
Wen Xu’s lips curl into a smirk against Lan Wangji’s ear. He wants to close his eyes but he keeps them open and tenses his mouth to keep himself silent. He needs to remember this. Every moment. Every life. Every drop of blood.
One of the Lan disciples outside is still bleeding, their body flung across the black wood where everyone is punished equally. Dark blood like a pulsing stream in time with a slowing heart.
Lan Wangji is watching them die and Wen Xu’s other hand grips his jaw like claws, forcing his head up so he can’t look away. Lan Wangji breathes out hard from his nose and feels the itch of blood running down over his lips. The Wen chains around his arms scratch at his spiritual energy. They hurt even more than the Yin metal did.
“Where has your brother gone?” Wen Xu snarls, twisting his fist in Lan Wangji’s hair. “Or is the Second Jade is too arrogant to speak to me?”
Lan Wangji stares at Wen Xu’s vicious smile. He is used to being called arrogant. He’s been called cold since he was a child, angry and cold, but he isn’t. Not now. He’s scared and hot with grief, running the names of each dead disciple through his thoughts like a string of knots, small knots barely big enough to stop thread through a needle, for the children, large thick knots over and over themselves for the elders. He’s scared his uncle will leave the cold pond cave too early. Scared his brother will be captured. Scared more Lan will die. But he isn’t sure that he is scared for his own sake. He gave himself up to try and stop the killing. He can’t allow himself to live with regrets. He won’t die with them. Even if he’s given up his life and the yin metal for a single cowardly traitor.
The Wen bring inner disciples into the Elegant Room. Lan Wangji knows their names. He knows their parents. He ate with them. Learned how to write with half of them. Learned how to fight with most of them.
Wen Xu makes Lan Wangji watch as the Wen begin cutting them open, spilling their insides out onto the waves and clouds that took more than a year to weave. He remembers the day they brought the rug in when he was eleven, and Uncle warned him to keep his boots clean so he would not track dirt across the beautiful threads dyed cream and Lan blue.
Red blood spatters the blue and white and dries to black. Thickens. One slice for every unanswered question.
When enough time has passed, Lan Wangji has learned that blades really do make a sound as they cut through skin. When they pierce the hard parts between ribs.
The scream of someone in helpless agony, the hopeless cry of a mind shattered with pain and fear, is different from any other sound. It cuts at the mind. Lan Wangji heard it once before, on a night hunt, when the ghost turned out to be a man that liked to skin men and animals alive. If he lives to be an old man he will still flinch at the memory. The same noise echoes against the wood of the Elegant Room, made by Wen blades and the dull, ugly smack of Wen Xu using a Lan cane to beat one of the disciples to death when he decided cutting was too boring.
The floor is littered with bodies broken and torn open, white stained red. Lan Wangji still refuses to speak.
He is shivering uncontrollably, muscles trembling around the bones of his body. His eyes are heavy with tears but he swallows them down. He is surrounded by Lan corpses. Their blood pools beneath their bodies, soaking their robes. Seeping across the bare wood floor.
A Wen soldier mourns the size of the breasts on one of the dead and shoves open their robes to get a better look.
They are all dead because he would not speak. Lan Wangji is surrounded by Lan that are dead because of him. Because he would not speak. He clenches his chained hands into useless fists against the small of his back and swallows the salt of his tears. He wants to keep Wen Xu from seeing him weep even more than he wants him to see Bichen’s sharp edges cutting into his heart.
Wen Xu grabs his hair again and grips it so tight his scalp is a crown of pain.
Lan Wangji will not speak, and so his mouth is made useful.
Wen Xu tastes like the bitterness of plum pits. He smells like heat and sweat and blood and syrup-sweet bath oils. He holds Lan Wangji’s head still, keeps his fist in his hair, and presses himself inside until Lan Wangji thinks the back of his throat is going to start bleeding from the scrape of the blunt head of his cock and the drag of its tight folds against the inside of his mouth. Every time his teeth brush against his cock he pulls out and hits him somewhere new on his face, until it is hot and stinging all over. His jaw aches and strands of his hair are torn free each time Wen Xu thrusts, from the hand clenched so tightly in his hair.
There are too many wet noises. The wet of blood flowing from a disciples belly. The wet of Wen Xu filling his mouth, making him fight to breathe through the wet that Wen Xu’s cock makes as it leaks down his throat. The wet of blood in the lungs of a Lan disciple that can’t seem to die just yet, slowly drowning on the floor. Close enough that Lan Wangji could reach out and hold their hand if he tried hard enough. If he wasn’t bound so tight the silver chains draw blood every time he fights against them.
Wen Xu finishes, suffocating Lan Wangji against his belly, crushing his face against the crease where his trousers were knotted, and Lan Wangji gags, throat seizing as his lungs fight the stickiness that tries to choke him. He is pushed off Wen Xu’s limp cock, sticky release slipping down his mouth and dripping down the clouds embroidered across the collars of his robe. He is let go with another shove and he loses his balance and hits the floor.
When Lan Wangji opens his eyes, he is met with the blank eyes and slack faces of the dead disciples, the rug sticky with their blood. Red foam trails out of the drowning disciple’s mouth, still and silent and dead.
They didn’t speak. So he won’t.
They keep the chains on Lan Wangji when he is brought to a large battle-blackened red carriage decorated with Wen flame and bird carvings, the walls made of intricate woven screen panels. There is only one entrance and exit.
He recoils, his body a bowstring drawn taught. He can’t help it. It’s a cage. A large, red cage. Wen soldiers laugh, and he hears one joke about the need for gold trimming. Someone calls for a red veil and they are all laughing.
Wen Xu kicks Lan Wangji’s broken leg, tripping him, and shoves him inside, face down into the plush red pillows. Wen Xu follows. The door locks behind them. Lan Wangji is pulled by the waist backwards into a lap before he can react, a heavy hand wrapped tight around one of his bound arms, leveraging it to shove him down and keep him pinned. He’s too tired, too drained from trying to hold back the pain of bruised muscles and cracked bone and the bleeding wound in his heart where the sound of a man choking on his own blood has cut razer sharp.
Lan Wangji glimpses the inside of the carriage in flashes of bright color and darkness. The glitter of a glass jewel encrusted robe of translucent red and black, flung across a pillow in the corner. Perfume bottles of blown glass, small and large, round and tall. An incense burner in the corner. A single black slipper embroidered in gold thread with tiny images of women being fucked by bodiless cocks. The musky rotten wood scent of agarwood perfume has soaked into the pillows and fills his mouth with overripe decay and sweetness.
Lan Wangji’s body screams at him that it is going to be split apart, that it can’t hold itself together and is moments from ripping at the seams like a too-tight shirt. Wen Xu’s burning-heat-scent is too close, is pressed up against him, hot and sharp, metal pieces digging into his bare skin, the invasive heat digging into his flesh like he is trying to carve himself into his body and break him apart from the inside.
Light from outside dapples the inside of the carriage in shades of bright and dark. Over the sounds of Wen Xu’s body against his, he hears laughter and lewd wedding songs. And because Wen Xu is taking his time, he feels him panting against his shoulder as the soldiers talk about the last woman Wen Xu bought and kept on these pillows. A whore from Qishan with no stamina for travel.
Just when Lan Wangji thinks he might scream, Wen Xu clenches his hand carelessly tight around Lan Wangji’s neck and Lan Wangji’s pulse grows loud and frantic and he cannot scream because he cannot breathe. He drives Lan Wangji deeper into the pillows as he finishes inside him, too slow, taking too long. It hurts. Everything hurts and he can’t breathe. Lan Wangji can feel the bones of Wen Xu’s hips and can feel the bite of his own teeth against the inside of his cheek and his eyes are watering into the pillow. He thrashes against him, desperate for air, even as it makes Wen Xu press down harder against him, groan louder against his hair and squeeze more tightly around his neck. He can’t help it, his body is frantic with the need to stay alive.
When the hand leaves Lan Wangji’s neck he sucks in air and it hurts, it claws at his throat, scratching and biting.
Wen Xu smacks the door with an open palm and it opens.
Lan Wangji curls himself up small in the center of the pillows and listens to orders for scouts to move ahead on their swords. Orders to the other carriages and wagons.
The carriage doesn’t stop moving as Wen Xu jumps out and the door slams shut.
Lan Wangji blinks back the damp on his eyelashes and tries to relearn how to breathe. Golden afternoon sky filters through the tiny diamonds of the screen walls, flashing against his eyes - too bright, then too dark and then too bright again.
On the first night, three soldiers try to break into the carriage. Lan Wangji cannot speak, cannot shout. There is a ring of bruises around his neck like a collar, and a ring of cuts around his heart like a fist of knives. The first two soldiers are stopped at the door. It takes a long time before the third soldier is noticed. It takes being slapped into the shelf of perfume hard enough for three of the glass bottles to break, and kicking the soldier against the door hard enough that the wood cracks.
Lan Wangji blacks out from the pain and wakes up to the sound of Wen Xu shouting about no one touching his things. Through the diamonds of the screen walls he sees Wen Xu’s outline in front of a small campfire, kicking at the soldier’s limp body with his heavy boots, and when he shuts his eyes he hears the wet crushing noise of the man’s skull breaking open. He silently retches into a corner of the carriage, but there is nothing to vomit but what Wen Xu has put in him.
From any port town a loaded trading caravan takes four days to reach the Nightless City. Wen Xu takes seven.
Lan Wangji knows Wen Qing is a doctor and is grateful for all that she has done for himself, and for others. But he hates letting her see him like this. Hates letting her see the curtain of bruises hidden under his robes. The black and purple and green thunderclouds blooming across his skin, poisoned by sulfur and ash. The red where the bruises have opened up. The perfect imprint of teeth on one shoulder, scabbed over where the skin was broken. The cuts where the chains dug into his arms, and where they now dig into his ankle. It is her purpose to see them and make them go away. But he hates it. He just wants to be left alone.
The solid gold chain wrapped three times around his ankle makes muted clinking sounds as he shifts in his seated position on the bed, bared to his waist so she can apply healing pastes to the deeper bruises. He jerks away when she touches the paste to the back of his neck, and it takes three tries before he can stay still long enough for her to finish.
When Wen Qing is done, she sighs and folds her hands into her lap. “I need to look at all of you, Lan Wangji.”
Lan Wangji is hunched over, hands curled over his thighs. His hair is unbound, hanging in a solid black curtain down to his hips so she can check his scalp. His forehead ribbon is set aside. He looks at Bichen on the sword mount by the bed. They have given it back to him like a joke. Like he could do anything with it, without more Lan dying for his own actions.
“You aren’t healing.” She adds.
Lan Wangji turns his gaze down to his broken leg. The thin fracture grinding against itself. Not enough to separate the bone, just enough to cripple him and keep him drained. He has had to practice inedia since days before his capture more than a week ago and focus so much of his spiritual energy on holding his leg together, on keeping it from healing wrong, that he can’t heal anything else. His body is one single, pulsing, aching, bruise. Every cut keeps reopening.
Wen Xu broke three of his fingers and two of his ribs three days ago on entering Nightless City. He had laughed and said Lan Qiren had to be found soon so he could begin negotiating Lan Wangji’s price. ‘I need a pretty ass that won’t stretch with children and yours is nice and sweet’.
Lan Wangji’s hands had been re-chained at the front to make it easier to restrain him in the carriage, and so he had broken the wood he had been chained to, and stabbed Wen Xu with one of the long glass perfume needles. His broken fingers are no longer purple, but only because Wen Qing had been informed of his arrival and was prepared to begin putting him back together the moment he was placed in the Lan House. He does not regret losing control of his temper. He only regrets missing Wen Xu's heart.
Lan Wangji is struggling to understand why he should care about getting better.
“I can -- I can give you something so you aren’t awake for it. If that’s what you need.”
“No.” His voice grinds over his throat. The bruises are covered by a paint Wen Qing brought him and he has to remind himself that it is another kindness on her part. Lan Wangji has to remind himself there is no shame in his hurts. He has not caused them. But he can’t let anyone see them.
The Lan are butchered and gutted and Lan Wangji cannot let anyone see the back of its ribs or the glistening spine of his broken voice.
When Lan Wangji slowly, carefully moves to undress, the cool touch of air on his bare skin sends his heart racing and dizziness overtakes him, his vision graying out, breath coming in short, shallow pants.
Wen Qing grabs his wrist, delicate and efficient, avoiding as many of the bruises as she can, and she touches his pulse. Before he can pull his arm back there are three needles in his arm and he lets out a shaking gasp, his lungs suddenly capable of taking in more air.
“Thank you.” He whispers, careful of his throat.
“Keep them in.” She opens a drawer in her medicine case. “Don’t worry about my modesty, Lan Wangji.” She adds, blunt and to the point, “You know that I like women, and I know that you don’t. And most importantly, I’m a doctor. That means there’s nothing about you that I haven’t already been up close and personal with.”
Lan Wangji feels the corner of his mouth lift up. Almost a smile. It doesn’t meet his eyes. He is so tired.
Wen Qing is quick and efficient but she has to touch him. When he starts shivering so hard his teeth ache from it she puts more needles in him. He doesn’t make a sound, but he almost blacks out again from the relief of his muscles no longer clenching so tightly against themselves.
When she is done, she smacks his hands. “Stop moving. Yes. I know you aren’t a child. But you need to rest.”
“Get some sleep, Lan Wangji.”
“I can take care of that.”
“No.” Sweat beads on Lan Wangji’s temples. His hands try to curl into fists but they hurt too much, even with the pain numbing tincture Wen Qing made him take as soon as she arrived.
Wen Qing sighs. “I can stay. If you’re - if you can’t be alone.”
Lan Wangji briefly closes his eyes. “Not a child.”
“Then don’t be a brat.”
Lan Wangji clenches his jaw and swallows hard. “I don’t know how I will wake up.”
“You just wake -,” Wen Qing pauses. “Ah.”
He turns his eyes to look at her. Her mouth is tight and a cloud has passed over her eyes.
She pulls out several talisman papers and writes across them, then shows them to him so he can read the marks. “I’ve used these before. Trust them. Get some rest.” She flings them at the doors to the House, and then begins packing. “Drink the tea. It will help your throat. I’ll bring more tomorrow. Now, do you want something to sleep?”
“Do you… want me to take a message to Wei Wuxian.”
Lan Wangji looks down at the long rope of gold chain, from where it hangs from the bed to where it connects to a solid gold spike in the middle of the floor.
“Good night Wen-guniang.”
Lan Wangji drifts through a space between waking and sleeping, lingering in a dark pool of blinding exhaustion, but through it he hears a sound. A scrape at the door.
He summons Bichen into his hand before he even sees the person enter. He rolls out of the bed, onto the floor and into the corner, each of his meridians lighting up like they are tearing into his flesh. He is spiritually exhausted and every moment of him fighting back will be taken out on any surviving Lan tenfold. He can’t afford to be using Bichen like this. But the door has opened and someone is entering the Lan House and they are too tall to be Wen Qing.
He presses his back against the wall when he recognizes the Wen soldier uniform and some desperate animal part of him wonders if he could make it out of Nightless City if he cut off his own foot to free himself of the chains.
The soldier double-takes at Lan Wangji and then quickly unbuttons the face cover and removes his helmet.
Lan Wangji’s grip on Bichen falters. He is already too exhausted to keep holding it up in a defensive position, and his hands drop to his sides.
Lan Wangji is furious, but he can’t feel the heat of it. It is more like a knowing. Like looking at the word for a flower but unable to smell the scent of it. See the colors of it. He is so tired.
He puts down Bichen, and wonders if his voice is going to cut his throat and make it bleed. He says nothing. He shuts his eyes and wishes Wen Qing were here to needle his arm and quiet the rapid beating of his heart. It hurts. It’s the only way he can tell he is also afraid. The knot of pain trying to claw its way through his chest.
He hears the clunk of the helmet dropped to the floor and he flinches.
“Lan Zhan. Are you the only one here? Where is everyone else? Did you have a nightmare? Did I scare you? Lan Zhan, what’s wrong?” Wei Wuxian steps closer, and Lan Wangji can’t help pressing up harder against the wall.
“Come on, Lan Zhan, just tell me what’s going on.” Softer. “Please?”
Lan Wangji feels his face crack at the plea, and he brings up a hand, swiping at the paint over the bruises around his neck until he feels enough of it come away on his fingers. He hears the sharp inhalation of breath.
“Is that why you didn’t say anything, this morning?”
Lan Wangji nods, then shakes his head and lifts his eyes to the soldier’s helmet.
“Leave.” His voice feels like sharp chips of ice and he can feel the blood well up before he swallows it down. He can’t let anyone see Wei Wuxian give him attention. Wen Chao is as cruel as his older brother.
Oh. This time he can feel the fear, and it is a cold thing, a creature of coldness that slithers over his skin. If they know Wei Wuxian came here, they will hurt him. As far as the Wen are concerned, Wei Ying is the son of a servant. They didn’t care about Lan Wangji. They will care even less about Wei Ying. But he can’t say that. He can’t be the one to remind him of the cruelty of the world. He won’t be the one to say those terrible things. But he needs Wei Ying to leave. He can’t watch anyone else suffer because of him.
“After I went to all this trouble of getting here?” Wei Wuxian’s voice wavers as he steps closer.
Lan Wangji sobs and it is a small noise that barely makes it out of his throat, still cutting at him. He throws Bichen’s sheathe at Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian catches it. Puts it down gently on the nearby table where Wen Qing’s tea sits. He slowly crouches down until he is slumped against the wall, next to Lan Wangji.
“I don’t want your pity.” Lan Wangji whispers, staring at the floor. He swallows down the blood, but it is warm and licks at his teeth.
“Wen Qing said her spells will last until dawn.” Wei Wuxian ignores his words.
Lan Wangji wipes at the blood where tries to stain his mouth, and looks away. “Someone will discover you are gone.”
“I sleep in all the time. It’s fine. I trust Wen-guniang.”
Lan Wangji can feel the questions building up in Wei Wuxian like a flood. Questions he doesn’t want to answer. He remembers that perfect moment when they fought together, back to back, nothing clouding their ability to move as one. Knowing a soul that wasn’t his own, and yet was an extension of his own body, his own senses. Wei Wuxian is his zhiji and that is just how it is. He stopped being angry about it, scared of it, a long time ago. His vision blurs and he shuts his eyes, not wanting him to see the tears, but it’s too late and they run down his face, hot like blood.
Wei Wuxian’s voice is so quiet and careful. “This floor is kind of hard.”
Lan Wangji is shivering. The Nightless City burns, but the air is so cold his breath comes out silver-white. He is too drained to keep himself warm.
Drunkenly, he puts his unbroken hand on the floor to push himself up, and lets Wei Wuxian take his other arm to help him stand. They make it to the bed and Wei Wuxian carefully avoids touching the gold chain that drags over the bed, but Lan Wangji sees him slide a confused, troubled glance towards the gold spike in the middle of the floor. The elaborate spells carved into the metal.
“Ask in the morning.”
Lan Wangji curls on his side under the blanket, his back against the wall and he watches Wei Wuxian remove the extra armor pieces from the Wen uniform. Wei Wuxian lays down facing him. The robe smells like Wen, like cinnamon and smoke, but Wei Ying smells like Wei Ying and Lan Wangji can feel his heart finally begin to quiet. Wei Ying’s breathing is as good as listening to Rest. They are too far apart, and they both reach out to close the distance at the same time. And as if Wei Wuxian already knows exactly where he hurts the most, his hands manage to avoid each of the deepest bruises, the healing bones, as he gently reels him in.
“Is this good?” Wei Wuxian asks, lightly brushing Lan Wangji’s hair back from his face and then bringing the blanket up around him where it has fallen away from his shoulders.
Lan Wangji shuts his eyes. He is so tired. He presses his forehead against Wei Wuxian’s chest to feel his heartbeat, tightens his unbroken fingers in his robe like the fabric is driftwood in a flood, and is asleep before he can respond.
The two Jades meet for tea during a quiet moment in the Sunshot Campaign, in a town somewhere between Carp Tower and Qinghe. They are having one of their rare, terrible, quiet fights. When suddenly, in an outburst no louder than a murmur, Lan Xichen tells Lan Wangji that he has no idea what it was like. Hiding for three months in a brothel. Earning his keep by playing songs on Liebing instead of spells.
And Lan Wangji looks at him.
Lan Wangji looks at the brother he loves, and thinks about when he gave himself over to Wen Xu to try and stop the slaughter.
He thinks about all of the bodies he was dragged past as he was taken away. The dead children. The disciples torn apart in front of him because he refused to talk.
The blood, pooling in every crevice of Cloud Recesses like a black rain.
The burning. The smell of cooked meat. The snarling of the fire as it consumed the buildings. Wen Xu's smug face. Wen Xu's teeth. Wen Xu making the journey to Qishan take three extra days. Wen Xu's hands when he beat him for fighting back.
Lan Wangji thinks about Wen Xu laughing as he watches Lan Wangji put on white. Wood shattering as Wen Xu is breaking his guqin and the silk string that snapped and cut Lan Wangji’s arm. Bichen's sheathe, cool under his palm as he gives the sword up. Wen Chao sneering down at him.
He thinks about having to bare himself for Wen Qing’s cool, clinical hands. Having to let her touch him as he struggles to think of a reason to care about healing.
His soulmate trying to talk to him that first morning of the indoctrination but being so tired from fear of falling asleep, so exhausted with heartache and pain from a leg that is trying to heal wrong that he can't speak, can barely see straight.
He thinks about being chained in the house for Lan disciples. The empty house. Alone in the house for the Lan and the gold chains wrapped around his ankle like a leash, made for Wen concubines that have tried to run away, and the house is silent and still because he's the only Lan left alive.
He thinks about not knowing if his uncle is going to die from the spiritual wounds of the Wen's fire magic. The fear of Xichen being found. His panic that they will hurt Wei Wuxian so much worse than Lan Wangji if he shows Lan Wangji any form of kindness. The sickening terror-dread that Wen Xu will come back for him like he promised.
He remembers being trapped in a dark cave, singing to keep himself awake, shaking and desperately afraid that if he falls asleep he will wake up with Wei Wuxian cold and dead in his arms.
He realizes he is too tired to bridge the chasm that has been carved between himself and his brother. And that he is not sure he cares to.
“You're right. I don't.” And he refills Lan Xichen's tea cup.