Wei Wuxian knows what must be done.
Lotus Pier has been bright and vibrant for as long as he has known it. Yet now sits atop what now amounts to a puddle, the lush greenery and soft pink of the lotus flowers withered away to nothing. The fish were the first to leave and everything that crawls or flies has fled by now. With the ground so dry, food is scarce and there is no hope of feeding even the youngest among them for more than another month.
Everyone whispers that someone in the Jiang household must have drawn the ire of the heavens somehow and every day the people grow more and more certain that it is the fault of either the Sect Leader or his wife.
Well, not everyone. Many who are old enough know that it has rained less and less for the past fifty years until it stopped entirely. They also know what must be done. The very oldest citizens of Yunmeng, only two of them remaining, remember the last time that rain ceased to fall and the wind stopped blowing, and they remember well what finally brought it back.
It’s in the Jiang Clan annals as well, but this particular secret is well kept.
One hundred years ago, a great-great aunt of the current sect leader was sent up the mountain in wedding red. She did not return, but the rain did.
So, there is nothing else to do, and this way he can finally pay back the debt he owes the Jiang Clan for every night spent under their roof. Madam Yu didn’t even have to demand it of him, though of course she had on principle of the thing.
Jiang Cheng, being the heir to Lotus Pier, is not an option and Wei Wuxian would rather die than stand by while his shijie was sent away to an uncertain fate. He likely will and they all know it.
Jiang-shushu hasn’t been able to look at him since the decision was made and Jiang Cheng refuses to. Shijie’s voice breaks when she speaks to him and Madam Yu no longer looks for him when something goes wrong. She must be getting used to the idea of not having him to vent her frustrations upon.
Wei Wuxian has no living relatives to help him prepare, and so he sits in front of the bronze mirror in Madam Yu’s private pavilion. That he is allowed to set foot there at all makes him certain that his death is all but inevitable.
Yinzhu and Jinzhu stand guard at the door, as if he would suddenly decide to back out now and make a run for it, only hours before he must face down his fate.
She doesn’t say anything to him as she pins up his hair, methodical and detached. It is the first time she has touched him with something that isn’t Zidian. She will likely scour her hands afterwards, once she is well and truly rid of him.
He’s been doing very well up to this point, statue still and silent. He intends to keep it up for the rest of his life.
His resolve shatters the instant he sees Jiang Yanli out of the corner of his eye. She stands straight-backed and elegant, but her eyes are red and her hands are shaking as she dips the thin brush she holds into the rouge he knows she had bought for him. The only sound she makes is a tiny sniffle. Madam Yu’s head whips around in her direction as though it were the shattering of one of her teacups.
“A-Li, don’t cry for him,” she barks, which only makes her daughter unable to contain the sob she had been valiantly holding back. “Do you cry for every servant that passes through Lotus Pier?”
The wounded look of her is the last straw. Madam Yu goes to either retrieve something she has forgotten or more likely, give her daughter time to compose herself before she deems her fit to lay eyes upon. Yinzhu and Jinzhu stay at their posts, as good as the lady of Lotus Pier leaving a pair of her own hands behind.
“Shiije,” he says around the fuzzy, sick feeling on his tongue, “It’s okay.” They both know that it is not. If he were truly getting married, he still might be leaving Lotus Pier, but it would likely be for a political alliance with allowance for them to see each other again. Even if they never could because of distance and responsibilities, there would have been letters. They are both aware that there will be no letters. He allows a smile to crack across his face anyway, the way he would like to be remembered. “I’m getting married, shouldn’t I be pretty for it?”
She smiles too, weakly and without joy. He will miss her so much.
“A-Xian is just fine as he is,” she says, tweaking his nose. Even so, it keeps her hands busy to line his eyes and paint his lips with rouge.
She does a nice job on him. He looks almost like a fairy, despite the ridiculous way that he’s dressed. The robes are too small for someone of his height, leaving his ankles exposed and clinging too closely to his hips and shoulders. There was absolutely no way that Madam Yu would allow him to use anything important of hers nor anyone else’s and he certainly wasn’t going to have any wedding robes prepared for him. He doesn’t need to look nice for something that’s very likely to eat him and certain to kill him. Uncle Jiang had not wanted to risk offense in their offering, but Wei Wuxian prefers it this way. There is no use spending any money on him when it can be used to put food into hungry mouths.
So, he has old silks with the holes sewn up and hastily dyed red, embroidery with loose threads that hang. He will have a veil, too, roughly sewn by nervous fingers. There is no way he’s putting it on before he gets where he’s going. Stumbling up the mountain with his vision obscured would be deeply unwise. If he trips and cracks his head open before he gets there, the whole thing will be an absolute failure.
“Thank you, shiije.” He wants to apologize as well, but he isn’t sure what he would be apologizing for. It’s no one’s fault that this is happening, but he hates to see her upset. Still, her tears are infinitely better than her being sent up the mountain instead. Wei Wuxian may not think much of her fiance, but she seems to really like him, she has a whole life waiting for her. Wei Wuxian simply doesn’t. His life was to be spent in the service of YunmengJiang from the moment he was found on the streets and now, it will be.
Madam Yu returns, as if she knows this is as good as he’s going to get, and waits at the door with her handmaidens at either side. She does not speak a single word.
Wei Wuxian stands more carefully than is probably necessary. The weight of the pins in his hair feels as though it keeps him rooted to the ground. They aren’t half as heavy as they could be, but it changes the proud set of his head to something more careful. She turns away as he approaches and sets off onto the long pier that separates her pavilion from the rest.
Even months into the drought, he hasn’t gotten used to seeing the water levels so low. It makes the pier seem like a rope bridge high up in the mountains, like any misstep will send him plummeting down to certain death, despite how short the fall would truly be.
He walks with long, slow strides so as not to outpace her, eyes locked straight ahead. He knows what’s there, he doesn’t need to see the wilting flowers and cracked mud.
The children of Lotus Pier are as happy to see him as always, all gap-toothed smiles in gaunt faces. Their parents turn their eyes from him as he walks toward the gates, a one person procession.
“Come back soon, Xian-ge!” one little boy shouts at him and his mother’s face goes a bit green at the edges, mortified as she pulls him back behind her skirts.
It is, in a way, a hero’s sendoff. The children don’t know any better than to think that he’s going off to save them and he doesn’t want them to. They shouldn’t be thinking about such things anyway. Their parents know, which is, now that he thinks about it, probably why they aren’t looking at him.
It’s not as if the drought is their fault, and if someone must go…
He waves at the boy, but he makes him no promises. He keeps his head higher than he had been. There is no need for anyone to get all upset on his behalf.
The gates have been shut for weeks, Yunmeng being in no position to fend off even one bandit, let alone anyone else that might see the opportunity to seize power and take it. Once he is gone, the gates can open again, Lotus Pier will be alive again.
No one waits for him there and his heart sinks. He had thought that Jiang-shushu and Jiang Cheng would at least say goodbye to him. For the first time since he’s accepted what he must do, he feels truly hurt.
The decision was not Madam Yu’s alone. His sect leader would have had to approve. Wei Wuxian understands why it might be hard to act as if nothing was wrong in the weeks leading up to this day, but for the man who was so close with his parents, the man that took him in off of the streets to not even say goodbye…
There is no love lost between Madam Yu and himself. She will doubtless be glad to be rid of him, and yet she is the only one outside of his shijie that can face him today.
He’s no fool. He knows that he isn’t truly one of the family, but he thought… Well, he isn’t sure what he thought and there’s no time now for dwelling on it.
The disciples manning the outermost gates stir to action at their approach and begin the work of opening them. As heavy as they are, it takes four.
This is it then. The best he hopes for is to be remembered kindly.
He’d left his disciple’s robes in the armory, hopeful that eventually one of his shidi would reach his height and be able to make use of them, but he could not part with the Jiang Clarity Bell he’d been given. It jingles faintly from where he’d tied it around his wrist with each step that he takes, out of place with the gravity of the situation.
Madam Yu stops in front of the gates as they begin to swing open and Wei Wuxian stops three strides behind her. He works at the knot with his nails discreetly until it comes free, the nine-petaled lotus rolling in his palm.
The gates open, the empty city welcoming him as a grave welcomes a corpse.
Without a word, he turns and places the bell into Madam Yu’s hand by the string, careful not to make contact. She wouldn’t be so wasteful as to throw it away, it will probably be given to the next disciple to come of age. If he’s very lucky, she’ll let his shijie keep it to remember him by.
In his experience, it’s better for him and Madam Yu not to exchange any more words than necessary. So, he does not say anything even as he strides through the open gates into the barren city and waits for them to be closed firmly behind him.
He turns to the call of his name
Madam Yu’s face, the tightness of her lips and the glare that is always present in her eyes when she looks at him, does not change. But, this is the first time she has ever addressed him by his courtesy name. “I cannot say much in your favor, but you are loyal.”
With that, the gates are closed with a heavy thud and he is alone. Wei Wuxian is really, truly loyal and he will march to his death alone and done up like a joke of a bride.
Well, he hopes the one responsible for the rains has poor enough eyesight not to be offended. How he’s dressed might not even be the greatest offense, the last one to leave Lotus Pier like this had been a maiden.
It doesn’t seem like that should make too much of a difference, how much of an effect does something like that have on taste, anyway? Besides, he may not be a maiden in the complete sense, but he’s certainly never been married before nor has he even so much as held anyone’s hand.
Whatever waits for him will just have to make due with its lot in life like everyone else.
Wei Wuxian straightens his posture, gathers his wits, and sets off for the last adventure he will ever have.