Flying into Lotus Pier is now impossible, so Lan Wangji goes by boat.
It is the first time he has ever visited Lotus Pier, although Wei Ying invited him many times.
At Cloud Recesses --
("Lan Zhan! Have you ever been to Lotus Pier? Ah, you have to visit! They have the best food and the prettiest maidens, come visit, I'll show you!")
And during their hunt for the Yin Iron --
("Lan Zhan, when this is over, you should come visit Lotus Pier with me. We'll be as good as sworn brothers by then, Uncle Jiang will welcome you with honor, show you the best time!")
And when they'd been stranded in the cave with the stinking corpse of the Xuanwu --
("Ah, Lan Zhan, I dreamed of it again. Lotus Pier. Will you take me back there? Will you go there with me? I miss it. I don't want to die without seeing it again, Lan Zhan, I don't want to die.")
-- when the war was just beginning.
But not when it was over. No, never then.
The news they'd heard when they finally emerged from the cave -- Yin Iron sword in hand -- warned them of Wen troops marching, marching on Lotus Pier and Cloud Recesses. They'd made oaths then, oaths before parting ways, each flying ahead of the oncoming storm, pushing their cultivation to its utmost limit to reach their homes before the storm broke on them.
Lan Wangji made it to Cloud Recesses in time to carry a warning.
He hadn't seen Wei Ying again until Sunshot, gathered in the command tent with the cold wind rattling the poles, when the tent flap opened and Wei Ying walked in, hem-stained and red-eyed and carrying a sword that screamed with the damnation of ten thousand men.
The words Lotus Pier had not crossed Wei Ying's lips again since then.
And today, Lan Wangji goes to Lotus Pier by boat.
Lotus Pier appears over the water like a mirage at first, the light playing off the water in a way that makes the distant buildings look like they are floating in the air. As the boat draws closer the illusion resolves, and the outbuildings of Lotus Pier melt down to settle upon the earth.
There are no shouts of alarm, no running feet. No trails of smoke or distress flares arc above the treeline. All appears well.
Lan Wangji stops poling, lets the current of the water carry his boat the rest of the way into the docks. He stares at Lotus Pier without blinking, staring until the light off the water makes his eyes burn, trying to see past the walls.
There's no visible damage on those walls, on the outlines of the buildings; whatever the Wen broke has been repaired, it seems.
The boat drifts over to the dock, bumping gently against the wooden beams of the pier, and the dockhands there spring into motion. A motley group of laborers, dressed in practical but stained clothing, throw lines and pull the boat about with smooth efficiency. Some of them wear bandages over their faces; others don't. None of them speak.
They don't need to speak; Lan Wangji knows what they are, and the cold horror of it crawls up his spine and down his arms, cramping his hands with the need to seize on Bichen, to draw his sword.
(He's fairly certain that was how Jin Zixun died, though there are no witnesses left to tell for sure. But he knew Jin Zixun -- knew him better than he would have liked, as they fought through the Sunshot Campaign together. Jin Zixun was not the sort of man to stay his hand, or his blade, when he felt provoked. If he drew his sword on these docks -- and Lan Wangji can easily see him doing such a thing -- then he would not have left them alive.)
(But there's no new bloodstains on the docks, so maybe he's wrong. Maybe Jin Zixun and his men got further than this.)
He leaves his sword in the scabbard.
The boat is tied up securely, and the dockhands go back to their former positions. Waiting for the next boat to come to the dock, for the next time their services are needed. Waiting without motion, without sound.
Lan Wangji takes a breath, settles Wangji against his back, against his shoulder, and steps onto the dock.
As he walks along the wharf, through the gates, up the path to Lotus Pier, he passes other laborers going about their duty. Teamsters, carrying boxes of supplies back and forth. Gardeners, kneeling in the rich damp soil of Lotus Pier, carefully weeding and tending the vibrant flowers. Carpenters, one crouched on a ladder while another passed up short beams of wood, carefully repairing a damaged corner of latticework.
Lan Wangji does not draw his sword. He does not strike them down.
It is one of the hardest things he has ever done.
Lan Wangji has never been to Lotus Pier; he does not know the way. He thinks he can find his way to the main hall alone, but he quickly gets lost among a snaking maze of covered walkways that wind along the irregular bank. The inhabitants of Lotus Pier do not bother him at first, but when it becomes obvious that he has no idea what he is doing, a small boy appears in front of him and bows, wordlessly. Stands still, waiting.
Lan Wangji looks at him. His stomach crawls in his throat. "Can you," he says, and has to swallow the bile and clear his throat before he tries again. "Take me to your master."
The boy bows again, then turns and walks off, leading the way. Lan Wangji follows. It is easier, when he can't see what remains of the boy's face.
After a few minutes of twists and turns -- Lan Wangji, cursing every lost second -- they finally arrive at the Sword Testing Hall. The messenger boy knocks on the door, then turns and melts into the scenery while two disciples, standing inside the door, pull it open.
One of the disciples does have a head. Lan Wangji walks past them both without stopping.
The Sword Hall is beautiful; the Lotus Throne is stunning, elegant and authoritative at once. It's occupied, now, by a thing that used to be a man; a man that used to be a boy; a boy that Lan Wangji used to know. At its left side is a smaller, more comfortable chair, where is seated a slender female figure with an elaborate veiled hat. They are impeccably dressed, in rich Jiang colors of turquoise and indigo, decked about with jewelry that shows off their wealth, their status, their fine aesthetic taste.
They are both, as everyone else in Lotus Pier has been, very dead.
Jiang Wanyin's death wounds are obvious and gruesome, despite the attempts that have been made at repair; fingers reattached, skin glued carefully back on, hair brushed and styled and arranged in a splendid guan. He was the heir of Yunmeng Jiang and the Wen had no mercy on him when he was in their power. If he didn't already know it was Jiang Wanyin, Lan Wangji might not have recognized him. But in this place, in this time, he knows it can be no one else.
It is not so obvious what killed Jiang Yanli; the veil hides most of the evidence. But he can tell from the shade of her skin, as her hands pass carefully over the embroidery in her lap, that she too has been dead for some time. There is no bloating, at least; there is no stench of rot. Something has preserved them, some power exquisitely careful.
"Welcome to Lotus Pier," a familiar voice calls out -- and Lan Wangji starts as he turns to the side, and does not draw his sword -- and then a living man walks out of a small door to the side of the room, stops in the center of the room, turns towards the throne and bows deeply, an obeisance of profound respect.
He straightens up from his bow, turns to look at Lan Wangji with one eyebrow raised. "Well, Lan Zhan?" he drawls. "Aren't you going to offer your courtesies? He might have been your classmate once, but he's Sect Leader Jiang now. Have some respect!"
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji whispers, and he only thought his heart was breaking up till now, through the horrible briefings and the endless journey down the river and the excruciating walk through Lotus Pier, past row after row of corpse puppets acting out their grotesque parody of living workers, into this hideous pantomime.
But it breaks now with a feeling like cracking ice, plunging his heart now into a lake of cold dread from which he cannot pull free. Because when he meets Wei Ying's eyes now: familiar, beloved, reddened with grief and rage and the creeping corruption of his foul magics -- he knows that Wei Ying is not mad.
They thought he must be, when the reports first came back of what Wei Ying had done. First the rumors, carried back along the river by trades-boats who had stopped at Lotus Pier and encountered the strange, eerie dockhands working there. Suspicions growing, the longer they heard nothing but silence from Lotus Pier itself. Then the horrifying confirmation, as the Jins sent out a scouting party -- led by Jin Zixun -- to investigate the truth of Lotus Pier. Only rumors returned from that expedition; only horror stories. That what the Wen had razed to ruins, Wei Ying had restored -- every building, every pier, every step of the grounds exactly as it had once been. That those whom the Wen had slaughtered, Wei Ying raised again.
Every servant, every disciple that had been murdered in the sacking of Lotus Pier -- all returned, now, to a grotesque parody of their peaceful pre-war lives. A clan of corpses, a guild-hall of horrors -- Wei Wuxian must be mad, they repeated, for what sane man could ever contemplate such an atrocity?
A few -- those who had known him before the war, or fought beside him during -- took a more sympathetic view. Grief, they said, and grief, repeated; how could it be otherwise, when he'd lost his entire family to the war? When he'd arrived at Lotus Pier fresh from his mission to retrieve the Yin Iron Sword from the cave of the Xuanwu to find his home aflame, his Sect slaughtered -- to find the bodies of his fellow disciples stacked like cordwood in the courtyard, blood clotting the lotus ponds, to find his sect-sister and sect-brother hanging from the rafters and his sect-leaders' heads stuck on pikes?
No one had asked too many questions about how, exactly, Wei Wuxian had retaken Lotus Pier; when he'd shown up at the command tent with a blood-stained hem and a coal-black sword, he'd merely reported that all of the attacking Wen had been dealt with. Nobody had wanted to press for too many details, then. Perhaps they should have.
(If not then, then later, when Wei Wuxian had walked onto the battlefield and raised his sword, and a legion of fallen Wen cultivators got up from their graves and trooped out to follow him into battle. It should have been obvious then, if not before, what exactly had happened at Lotus Pier. They should have known. They should have seen.)
(But they didn't.)
Does it matter, truly? Does it matter whether it was the madness of grief that drove him to commit unspeakable atrocities, or whether it was the corruption of his heretical cultivation that drove him mad? Not to the rest of the clans, who are fresh from the grueling war against Wen Ruohan's wicked deprivations, twitchy and unwilling to tolerate the presence of such unorthodoxy on their borders.
Mobilization -- perhaps not pleasant, but still very familiar. It took only days for the Great Sects to convene, to debate, to decide what to do. Only Gusu Lan said, wait. Only Gusu Lan said, grief. Only Gusu Lan proposed: let us try liberation, first. Let us send a cultivator into Lotus Pier, to find the infamous Wei Wuxian, to do what may be done to bring him back from the madness. Surely, once he realizes what he has done, he will recant; and there need be no battle.
The other Sects agreed -- reluctantly, conditionally. They wait, now, on the boundaries outside Lotus Pier -- till sunset. Lan Wangji came ahead, alone, carrying the most powerful spiritual instrument that Gusu Lan can offer.
Lan Wangji has only till sunset to cleanse Wei Wuxian of his madness; except that Wei Wuxian is not mad.
"Well?" Wei Ying says, now, his lips twisted in a sardonic smile. It never ceased to confound Lan Wangji, how Wei Ying can express so many different emotions through smiles and laughter. When he's happy they are bright, joyous things. When he is filled with rage, his laughter is the sound of war-horns and his smile the slash of a banner through the air. And when he is bitter, as now, the cruel humor in his eyes makes Lan Wangji's heart curdle in his chest. "Aren't you going to play along, Lan Wangji? Try to humor me in my delusions?"
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says. Again. Words have never come easily to him, always rationed and measured, except for those two; they were free in his mouth, easy to say and easy to hear. Until today. "You must stop this."
"Why must I, Lan Zhan? Because the wall of disciplines says so?" His smile twists further. "We aren't in the Cloud Recesses now. This is my world, my home."
Lan Wangji shakes his head. Steps in closer. "There isn't much time," he says, his voice low and urgent. "The other clans... they cannot overlook this. They'll come at sunset."
"I'm aware." Wei Wuxian studies his nails, an overt show of casualness. "Not really sure why they think they'll fare much better than the Wens did, when they tried their hand at conquering Lotus Pier!"
"This is not necessary." Lan Wangji tries, again, to appeal to the goodness within Wei Ying. To the goodness he knows lies within Wei Ying. "There doesn't have to be bloodshed..."
Wei Wuxian's eyes flash dangerously. "Oh, and why shouldn't there be? Why should the other Great Sects get a free pass to trample all over Lotus Pier? So that the lesser clans can loot the treasury of anything the Wens didn't take? So that Jin Guangshan can turn this place into a Jin trading outpost?" He leans back, crossing his arms over his chest, settling an insolent stance. "No, I don't think so."
"You know why they are coming. Because what you have done here is wrong."
"Ah, so that makes what everyone else is doing right?" Wei Ying turns it back on him in an instant. "You were right, you know, there doesn't have to be bloodshed. All the armies have to do is go home. We're minding our own business here, living peacefully. But if anyone tries to attack us, they'll pay."
"Living!" Lan Wangji hisses, stung into fury. His gaze sweeps the hall, the bloodstained floors, the grim diorama on the dais. "You call this living?!"
Wei Ying sighs. Rocks back on his heels. He doesn't have an answer for that, it seems, because his next words are a question. "Why are you here, Lan Zhan?" he says. "Did they send you to fix me? To cure me? All those times during the Sunshot Campaign you wanted to play your music at me, my answer was the same every single time. Why should it have changed now?"
He did, a dozen times and more, and Wei Ying refused him every time. Every time Wei Ying slipped a little further from his reach, and his hope guttered a little further. But never died; never quite that. "Because... this is the last time," he says at last. "Truly the last."
Wei Ying rolls his eyes. "Well, that's at least is a relief," he says. "I can look forward to some peace."
"Wei Ying. Please." He stretches out his hand, just barely brushing against Wei Yin's sleeve. He wants to grab, to pull, to take him away by force if he must, but he's seen enough Wens try that trick on the battlefield to know how it goes. "End this. Come with me to Gusu."
"Ah... this again," Wei Ying groans. "And what will I do in Gusu, Lan Zhan? What will I do when those vultures out there are tearing Lotus Pier apart, stuffing their gullets with its remains? Will I be a student again? Hm? A guest scholar, perhaps?"
His smile is mocking, his eyes hard as obsidian. Something glassy and shattered, something with razor-sharp edges. He already knows the answer.
"No, I think I'd be a prisoner," Wei Ying says, when Lan Wangji is silent for too long. "Yours, maybe, if you're feeling particularly responsible. Your own little fucked up heretical secret, to be kept behind bars for the rest of my days while you try to play morality back into me. No thanks, Lan Zhan. I quite think I would rather die."
Fear clutches at Lan Wangji's heart. "Wei Ying -- "
"Get lost," Wei Ying interrupts him, cutting across his pleas with the neatness of a blade. His face is dark, his eyes furious. But then he smiles. "Or don't! Stick around till sunset, if you like. I never did give you that tour of Lotus Pier. You'll be the last outsider to ever see it -- the way it was. The way it should be."
It's clear that Lan Wangji will not be able to win this war with Wei Ying with words. He never was able to; words were never his preferred weapon. He and Wei Ying argued a dozen times or more, during the Sunshot Campaign, about Wei Ying's diabolical cultivation and the price that it would surely extract from him in the end. He never won.
It didn't help that no one else had supported him in opposing Wei Ying's dark methods. Even Nie Mingjue, so famously righteous -- even his own brother had been willing to turn a blind eye to what Wei Ying was doing, what he was doing to himself. All their principles brought low by practicalities -- that without Wei Ying's army of the dead there was no way for them to resist Wen Ruohan, that without Wei Ying's command over the dark sword there was no way for them to counter Wen Ruohan's mastery of the Yin Iron. Nobody had seemed to care, back then, about the blasphemy Wei Ying committed every time he ripped another Wen corpse from its grave and flung it into the fight against their own descendants. Nobody cared, when it was the Wen.
Now they care. Now, when it is too late.
He should leave, he knows. Return to his brother, waiting outside the gates, and report his failure. But Lan Wangji has been stubborn all his life, and -- and Wei Ying said he could stay.
So stay he does, as the river runs on and the day creeps closer to sunset. He stays, and he watches.
The grotesque tableau doesn't remain static, he quickly realizes. The corpse puppets have a routine, or an interlocking series of routines. Jiang Wanyin -- or at least, the thing that once was Jiang Wanyin -- and his sister remain in the throne room for while, as undead messengers come in and deliver reports. The corpses pretend to read them, pretend to confer, pretend to give orders. Then, at no signal Lan Wangji can discern, they get up and leave.
He follows Jiang Wanyin to a large, well-appointed study, full of shelves and chests of books and scrolls -- histories, tax codes, cultivation manuals. A Sect Leader's study, he realizes, although the one at Cloud Recesses looks very different. Jiang Wanyin seats himself before a large desk, shakes his sleeves back from the blue-tinged skin of his wrist, and begins to write. The perfect picture of confident, competent authority; the leader that Jiang Wanyin had never lived to be.
Lan Wangji leaves when he can no longer bear to stay.
All over Lotus Pier the same drama is playing out in a dozen different forms; corpses acting out the roles they would have played in life, seemingly oblivious to their own deaths. The ranks of dead disciples in the courtyard, practicing forms, is simultaneously the easiest and hardest to look at: they could be any sect's disciples, studiously training, except these are the ones that are missing the most pieces.
Someone has made an earnest effort at repair. Any time a lost limb or head could be reattached, it appears, it was -- carefully aligned and sewn on with fine black stitches. He must assume that if pieces are still missing, it was because they could not be found after the Wen siege was over.
The non-cultivator bodies -- servants, family, staff -- are less damaged, but the senselessness of the pantomime is much more apparent among them. They labor carefully to maintain the everyday life of a place with a living population of one. Servants draw water that no one drinks; cooks prepare food that no one eats; laundresses scrub industriously away at linens that have not been stained.
It is unnatural; it is grotesque; more and more, as the day goes on, it is heartbreakingly sad.
In a shaded pavilion alongside the water he finds the former Lord and Lady of Lotus Pier; unlike the rest of the puppets, they don't seem to move around during the day. They are seated across from one another at a table, on which has been set up an exquisite weiqi set carved of onyx and jade. Yu Ziyuan has an open mouth in her chest where her own dagger pierced her life; her husband is one of those whose head and hands have been carefully reattached. They ignore Lan Wangji's staring, attending only to their game, which resets and restarts any time it seems liable to come to a close. Under the table, they hold hands.
Lan Wangji searches among the buildings and courtyards for a sign of life. He finds one at last, hidden deep within the family's suite, sitting behind the screen with the corpse of Jiang Yanli.
Lan Wangji lingers, not wanting to call attention to himself, as he watches Wei Ying through the doorway. The Necromancer of Qishan, the hero of the Sunshot Campaign and bane of Wen Ruohan, is folded forward across his knees like a child, his forehead resting on the lap of his sister's corpse. Her withered fingers stroke his hair, all gently. Her blind eyes stare at nothing. Her neck is livid with the marks of the strangulation that killed her; such marks cannot, perhaps, be fixed.
It is only because of Lan Wangji's sensitive hearing that he can pick up what Wei Ying is whispering. "Shijie, you have to stay," he's saying -- pleading -- begging. "The Jin, they can't have you. I won't let them take you off to be buried at Jinlintai, to be some kind of -- of ghost bride to that Peacock. You have to stay here with us. You have to stay. I won't let them take you. I won't let them."
Lan Wangji leaves.
What does madness look like, when it is born of grief? Does it look like the rending of clothes, the tearing of hair, foaming at the mouth and clouding of the eyes? Or does it look like repeating the same day, the same evening, over and over and over again? Does it look like forsaking dignity, and orthodoxy, and reason, because none of those things will bring your loved ones near to you again?
Does it look like going out to a house surrounded by gentians once a month and kneeling before a door that does not open, hour upon hour, even in the rain or the snow?
Does it look like love?
Lan Wangji goes to the Sword-Testing hall, again. Jiang Wanyin is not here; at the least, his body is not. There are still bloodstains on the floorboards that all of the corpse-maids have not been able to scrub clean, and Lan Wangji's knee touches upon one as he lays out Wangji, steels his own nerves in readiness.
The sun is getting low, the golden rays glancing along the leaves of the tallest trees and the highest gables of the roof. There is not much time left.
Lan Wangji touches the strings, begins the opening bars of Inquiry.
The reaction is -- about what he expected. A cold wind bends through the inner courtyard, screaming past the doorway to the Sword-Testing hall and then Wei Ying is there, appearing on the threshold with his hair undone and his eyes wild. The black sword is in his hands, sending twisting tendrils of corruption up his arm, writhing under his skin. "Stop!" he shouts, reaching towards Lan Wangji as though he would physically snatch his hands off the strings. "Stop, stop, what are you doing?"
Lan Wangji stops mid-note, but he does not lift his hands from the strings. He does lift his eyes to meet Wei Ying's. "You already know what," he says.
"Well, stop it!" Wei Ying snaps, though the crackling threat dies back a little now that Lan Wangji has halted. "There's no need for Inquiry now. What good is that going to do? Asking people who they are, how they died? We already know all that! What exactly do you hope to learn, huh?"
"If they want this," Lan Wangji says.
Wei Ying seems struck momentarily speechless, able only to repeat back the words. "If they -- Lan Zhan! Who are you to ask a question like that?" He is angry now, truly angry. "You aren't part of the family! You aren't part of the Jiang! It's none of your business, and you have no right!"
"I am a cultivator of Lan," Lan Wangji replies. "The welfare of the dead is always my business. And justice is always my right."
Wei Ying grits his teeth. "I've let you in here, but this is going too far," he says. "Get out of my house. Leave!"
Lan Wangji completes the notes he began, fingers strumming across the strings in a ripple of magic. "No," he says.
"Get out!" Wei Ying's eyes are beginning to blacken, his hair to tangle in an intangible wind; the black tendrils of the sword begin to spread, leaving sinister marks through the veins of his wrist and arm. "Get lost!"
Lan Wangji keeps playing, not for one moment looking away. Wei Ying lets out a wordless cry of frustration, of fury, and brings the sword around. Not on Lan Wangji himself, but on the qin in front of him.
He's ready for it. His own sword is out in an instant to meet it -- the scrape and slide of steel on steel setting up a racket throughout the hall as Wei Ying's momentum carries his blade to the floor. The corpses standing around the room all shiver and shake at the sound of it, clashing musics and magics ripping at the foundation of the spell that keeps them up and moving.
The black blade bites deep into the floorboards, hungry for the bloodstains there. Wei Ying doesn't try to retrieve it; he just stares down at the ground, at the blood, at Lan Wangji's sword crossed over his own.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying says at last, and his voice is quiet and unutterably wretched. "Who knew you could be so cruel? This is all I have left. This is all of my family that I have. How could you try and ruin this for me?"
This was what he wanted, to reach the depths of Wei Ying's grief under the hardened shell, but he's not certain he can bear this. He has to try. "Wei Ying. You loved your family. And I know they loved you." He does not, in fact, know this -- but he cannot imagine knowing Wei Ying, and not cherishing him, so it must be true. It is true. "You must know they would not want this -- this caricature. Not for themselves, and not for you."
"You don't know that," Wei Ying snaps. "You don't."
"I could know. I could ask."
Wei Ying tenses, shudders. "No."
"I could call upon your sister." Lan Wangji tries to make his voice gentle, but he does not falter. He cannot. "Only her. Of all those present here, she loved you best. If I asked her whether she wanted this -- if she wants her little brother to fight, to die, to dash himself on the rocks of futile resistance --"
The corpses dance and judder, again, to the sound of Wei Ying's scream. When the echoes fade, they quiet again.
When Wei Ying speaks again, his voice is barely more than a whisper. "There's no need to bother waking up Shijie's spirit for something like this."
Lan Wangji holds himself perfectly still, but he can't help letting out his breath in a slow trickle at the words. At the profound relief he feels to hear that confirmation: that the bodies in Lotus Pier are empty puppets, without consciousness. That whatever else he has done, Wei Ying has not wrenched dozens of souls out of the cycle of reincarnation, only for his own consolation.
The black lines are still creeping up Wei Wuxian's wrist; unthinkingly Lan Wangji reaches out and closes his hand over them, as though he can stop their progress with simple pressure. Wei Ying frowns at his hand, at the snaking tendrils of corruption; to his surprise they retreat again, almost sulkily coiling back down into the pommel of the sword and vanishing from sight.
Riding the wave of that relief, Lan Wangji can try again to speak. "Wei Ying. Why?" he says. "You know they would not want this. When the clans come here, they will destroy everything here anyway, and they will kill you."
Wei Ying raises his head, and his jaw is set like stone and his eyes are burning glass. "Then I'll die fighting to defend my home and my family," he says. Tears well up in his eyes and break over his face, sliding down his cheeks unheeded. "The way I should have. The way I should have, the first time."
The thought of Wei Ying dying -- either then or now, surrounded and overwhelmed, pierced by swords, bleeding out -- sends a ripple of horror through him. "Wei Ying. Please."
"What else is there for me, Lan Zhan?" Wei Ying demands, raw and wretched. "How am I supposed to go on without them? Lotus Pier was all I had. The Jiangs were all I had."
"Not all," Lan Wangji says.
"This is the only way for me," he says, as though begging for Lan Wangji to agree. "I can't go to Gusu, you know I can't. And every other Sect is closed to me. Where else can I go?"
"There is more to the world than the Sects," Lan Wangji insists. "The sky is vast and the world is wide, and as full of beauty as of horrors."
"What, that's your suggestion?" Wei Ying lets out a harsh, strangled bark of laughter. "Become a rogue cultivator, a lone vagrant pushed here and there by the wind?"
"No," Lan Wangji says, and the words are out before he realizes he's going to say them. "Not alone."
Wei Ying stares at him, confusion evident on his face. "What?"
Gusu Lan is sympathetic to Wei Wuxian's grief. Gusu Lan emphasizes liberation over elimination, always. But Gusu Lan also cannot overlook the enormity of evil that Wei Wuxian has committed. They will save him, if they can; they will spare him, if they may. But once he comes to Gusu, he will not be allowed to leave again; he will be watched, always, to ensure he commits no further sins. He will be stopped.
When Lan Wangji accepted this mission, he did so knowing that there could only be two outcomes. Either he would fail, and his beloved would die. Or else he would succeed, and retrace at last the same fated path that had swallowed his father and his mother -- to bring his beloved back only by force, to hold them in confinement until their spirit withered and they died. He'd accepted the assignment anyway because even if Wei Ying were confined, at least he would live -- anything was acceptable so long as he would live.
He left Cloud Recesses yesterday. He's had almost twenty-four hours to think about it, to see two paths diverging before him, either one unbearable. And yet it is only now -- just now, in sight of Wei Ying's lovely face -- that it occurs to him that he can step off the path.
"You can walk away from Jiang Sect," Lan Wangji says at last. "The way your father did. With another beside you."
Wei Ying blinks, shedding more tears, but his face floods with astonishment. "With you?"
"Yes," he says.
"But -- you'd be painting yourself with my same target," Wei Ying says. His voice is halting, his thoughts struggling to keep up -- to go down new paths, instead of circling endlessly in the same tracks of despair. "You could never go back to Gusu Lan after that. Lan Zhan, you can't be serious!"
"I am," Lan Wangji says. He's never been more serious in his life.
There is a long silence in the hall, punctuated only by the sound of their breathing; Wei Ying, overwrought and catching with the tail end of sobs, Lan Wangji's, barely audible. The corpses make no sounds at all.
"Why?" Wei Ying whispers, at last.
He considers the answer. "Because... because this is the only way for me, too," he says honestly. "I cannot go back to a Cloud Recesses where you are a prisoner, withering away. And I cannot live in a world without you. We go on together. Or not at all."
Wei Ying looks up at him, slowly. Light glints off the wetness on his cheeks, his eyes, his lips bitten bloody. He looks terrible -- which, Lan Wangji thinks, is only right. Things are terrible and to show any other face would be a lie. But he also looks beautiful.
He has one moment to wonder if Wei Ying is going to kiss him -- if he should kiss Wei Ying first -- when Wei Ying throws his arms around Lan Wangji and crushes them together.
Lan Wangji is not good at hugs. He is not practiced. He has observed others doing it (mostly Wei Ying, watching Wei Ying always, jealous of the way he touched others so freely) but it was not done among his family, not once his mother is gone. He doesn't know the right way to respond; where to put his hands, how hard to hold on.
It doesn't seem to matter; Wei Ying does all the work. He buries his face against Lan Wangji's collarbone, locks his arms around Lan Wangji's chest, rocks them slightly back and forth. All Lan Wangji has to do in the face of this is to hold on, to stand firm and take the weight when Wei Ying slumps against him, the force of his sobs shaking through both of them together now.
Grief it is, after all, and grief at last Lan Wangji understands. He can share with Wei Ying in this, share his sorrows, share his strength. His body, his bones.
When the assembled Sects finally storm Lotus Pier -- shortly after sunset -- here is what they find:
They find a white banner over the door.
They find that the hearths have been swept, the fires banked, the doors and shutters drawn. The animals have been turned out of their coops and pens to wander, although most of them have not gone far from their familiar homes. The whole place is tidied and shut up and set rights, as though its owners have just gone on a short trip down the river and wish the house to remain safe while they are gone.
They find bodies, rows and ranks of them, lying in the hallways and the bedrooms in positions of repose. Many of them show signs of repair, of wounds closed or limbs reattached; all of them, down to the smallest child, are dressed in their finest garments, and even the lowest servant bears at their feet a lotus flower and a small bowl of lotus seeds or rice.
They find the Lord and Lady of Lotus Pier, Jiang Fengmian and Madame Yu, and their children, dressed in the richest robes of white and laid into their graves at the top of the hill overlooking Lotus Pier.
What they do not find -- at least, not when they first go looking -- are the many fabulous treasures and artifacts of Yunmeng Jiang; they are not in the vault. They are eventually located, when the bravest goes looking, inside the graves of the family. The first person who tentatively suggests that perhaps the treasures could be recovered -- since after all the burials were not properly sanctioned -- receives a tirade from Nie Mingjue that leaves them cowed and half-deafened. No one else dares to bring up the topic again.
What they do not find is a sword of stygian black, nor one of purest white. Not a strand of hair, nor a scrap of skin. They are gone. They are gone. They are gone.