“Take the books and go,” their uncle tells them, but by the time Lan Wangji and his brother lift the sacred Lan texts from their hiding place, it’s too late: the Wens have overrun the Cloud Recesses.
At first they are fighting to try to clear a path to escape. Then, they are fighting until a break in the action: surely, at some point, the Wens will stop pouring into the Hanshi and they can steal away. Eventually, though, they are fighting for nothing more than simple survival, the world having irised shut around them to just the space they occupy, the breath in their lungs and the blood in their veins. Outside of the small room there are the sounds of hooves and screaming, the smell of smoke, but Lan Wangji can process none of that information. He presses forward and is driven back again and again, his sword opening throats and bellies, his brother at his side.
There are fourteen Lan disciples fighting with them, then thirteen, then twelve. The night wears on, moonlight shining on blood, on bodies, and the Wens keep coming. Surely, Lan Wangji thinks, the flood will be stanched. Wen Xu cannot possibly have brought enough men to kill an entire sect, not when each Lan disciple is worth ten Wen soldiers. But they keep coming. There is no time to think beyond the next moment, the next blade driving at his chest, the next soldier sent screaming into the afterlife. The Wens keep coming, and the little band of Lans who have stayed to defend their Sect Leader fall, one by one, until quite abruptly it is dawn, and Bichen is knocked from Lan Wangji’s nerveless fingers, and it is over.
He and Lan Xichen stand together, gasping, sweaty, surrounded on all sides by a veritable thicket of swordpoints. His brother turns his head and looks at him with a world of grief in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Wangji,” he says quietly, which is ridiculous — Lan Xichen has nothing to be sorry for.
All at once Lan Wangji realizes how tired he is. His sword arm is aching, his spiritual power almost totally depleted with the effort of their desperate stand. His robes are damp and heavy with sweat and other men’s blood. Deep within him there’s a sick feeling that will eventually be grief, but right now that feeling is far away, numbed and muffled by fear and exhaustion.
Wen Xu swaggers into the Hanshi, also damp with sweat and blood but flush with his victory. Lan Wangji straightens his spine. He is not afraid to die defending his home, not with his brother at his side, and if Cloud Recesses is no more he’d rather follow it into oblivion anyway.
“Zewu-jun,” Wen Xu drawls. “You have lost. The Lan Sect of Gusu is no more. This is what comes of standing against the great Wen Clan; you could no more hope to defeat us than you could hope to defeat the sun itself.”
The ground seems to tremble beneath Lan Wangji’s feet, the walls of the world crumbling around him at the incomprehensible sight of Lan Xichen sinking slowly to his knees. Zewu-jun, the most formidable cultivator in generations, the Sect Leader who’s led the Lan Sect to new heights of greatness, the best and bravest and most upstanding man Lan Wangji has ever known, kneels at the feet of Wen Xu, a sneering bully with no honor to speak of. Every fiber of Lan Wangji cries out at the wrongness of it.
“Wen-gongzi,” Lan Xichen says in the smooth, measured tones of a born diplomat. “Congratulations on your victory. The Lan Sect were mistaken to think that we could oppose you.” If it costs him anything to say this, the effort doesn’t show on his face or in his voice. The words fall strangely on Lan Wangji’s disbelieving ears, as though his brother is speaking another language entirely.
“You were mistaken,” Wen Xu says, “and now the world will see the price of your arrogance. Cloud Recesses will burn. Your Sect will be executed, to the last man.”
This is monstrous. With Lan Xichen having surrendered, it would be customary for the Wens to take Cloud Recesses for their own — the buildings and books and other treasures the property of another sect, but preserved as these things should be. To kill everyone and destroy all that remains of the sect is a cruel and unnecessary waste. Lan Wangji can do nothing about it but glare his outrage at their captor.
Unthinkably, Lan Xichen bows forward, prostrating himself before Wen Xu, his forehead to the floor. It doesn’t make sense; the Wens are going to kill them no matter what they do. There’s no reason for Lan Xichen to throw his face so entirely in the mud. “The Wen Clan has proved itself mighty today. This one can do nothing but bend to the Wen Clan’s will. And so this one must throw himself on the mercy of the great and powerful Wen Clan. Wen-gongzi,” Lan Xichen says, and for the first time his voice betrays a quiver of emotion, “I beg of you. Spare my brother’s life.”
“Xiongzhang —” Lan Wangji reaches for his brother, but is driven back, a blade at his throat. “Don’t,” he says helplessly, wishing for his brother’s facility with words. I don’t want to live without you, he thinks. I am ready to die. You don’t have to do this for me. But the words won’t come out.
Lan Xichen and Wen Xu both ignore him. “Why should I spare him?” Wen Xu sneers. “Why should the Wen Clan grant any quarter to those who stand against us?”
“Wangji is young,” Lan Xichen says. He sits up but stays on his knees, his eyes downcast. “He followed his family — his Sect Leader — and what else could he do? The blame lies not with him, but with me. Please, Wen-gongzi, show that the Wen Clan can be magnanimous in victory. Spare him.”
Wen Xu gives a superior little chuckle. For the first time, he turns to look at Lan Wangji; Lan Wangji doesn’t bother trying to conceal his rage or his disdain. Wen Xu chuckles again, cocking his head to give Lan Wangji a considering look. “The Second Jade of Lan,” he says, his eyes traveling slowly down and back up, taking the measure of him. With the tip of his sheathed sword, he nudges Lan Wangji’s chin upward, scrutinizing his face. Lan Wangji sets his jaw and allows it, aware of the sword points hemming him in, his brother still kneeling vulnerable on the floor. “You are as beautiful as everyone says you are,” Wen Xu muses. Lan Wangji does not spit in his face.
Turning back to Lan Xichen, Wen Xu smiles. “Very well,” he says. “Since you beg so humbly for your brother’s life, I will grant your dying wish. The Nightless City is home to a number of courtesans, and I think your brother will look quite pretty in paint and silks. Let anyone who visits the Nightless City be witness to the Lan Clan’s shame. Let them see what will happen to their sons, if they disobey.”
Lan Xichen’s head snaps up, his face pale with horror. “Wait,” he says. “Wait, please, he’s only seventeen —”
“He killed two dozen of my men tonight,” Wen Xu snaps. He turns a knowing leer on Lan Wangji. “If he’s old enough to kill a man, he’s old enough to suck a man’s cock.”
Lan Wangji can barely hear what they’re saying over the thunder of blood in his ears. It doesn’t matter anyway, because Lan Xichen is going to get up from the floor in a minute, or reinforcements are going to storm in — this is a ruse, a diversion, a stalling tactic, it has to be. Otherwise Zewu-jun debasing himself in exchange for something as small as Lan Wangji’s life makes no sense.
“Wen-gongzi, please —”
“You would prefer he share your fate instead, Zewu-jun?”
Lan Xichen swallows. He’s visibly begun to shake. “No.”
“Take him,” Wen Xu says, and suddenly hands are grasping Lan Wangji’s arms, forcing him away toward the door.
“No!” Lan Wangji shouts, struggling against them, and he’s exhausted and there are a lot of them but he is the Second Jade of Lan, he’s a better cultivator than all of them combined, and with the last dregs of his spiritual energy he wrenches an arm free and reaches out toward his brother. “Xichen,” he gasps.
Heedless of the forest of blades between them, Lan Xichen reaches out and grabs Lan Wangji’s hand in his, his palm callused from the sword, his fingers callused from the guqin, a hand that held Lan Wangji in his cradle. His brother looks into his eyes, his face calm, his eyes bright with unshed tears. “I love you,” Lan Xichen says firmly.
“I love you,” Lan Wangji whispers. “Xiongzhang, please —” But his hand is ripped away. The Wen soldiers clap iron manacles around his wrists, chaining them together in front of him.
“Hey, that’s right,” Wen Xu drawls. “Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of great cultivator?” He laughs. “Break his leg.”
There is a burst of bright white agony, and Lan Wangji falls to one knee, his other leg suddenly declining to support his weight. He grunts, but does not cry out.
“Put him in the carriage,” Wen Xu instructs his men. Lan Wangji is hauled to his feet again, the pain in his leg flaring and throbbing. He fights, desperate, clawing, but there are so many of them, and he’s so tired. Trying to stand on his injured leg sends an enormous gray wave of pain over him; he stumbles, and is dragged from the room.
That is the last time he ever lays eyes on his brother: Lan Xichen still on his knees, bowing his head as Wen Xu raises his sword.
Outside, they shackle his ankles together as well, jostling his leg until Lan Wangji thinks he will vomit from the pain. A tired-looking Wen cultivator seals his meridians with a curt gesture; Lan Wangji is so spent that it barely feels like anything. They shove him into a carriage, a heavy guard taking up positions around it, and all at once everything around him is quiet.
The screaming has mostly stopped by now. The air is thick with acrid smoke, the smell of burning wood and flesh and hair. Lan Wangji sits in stupefied silence, his home burning around him. Somewhere inside he is screaming, weeping; somewhere is the knowledge that his uncle must be dead, that his brother is dying now. Somewhere much further off is the understanding of what Wen Xu had said, the knowledge of what will be done to him in Qishan, if not sooner. His mind deals kindly with itself for the moment, keeping all these things at a remove. He sits there simply existing, unseeing, unhearing, even the ache of his broken leg seeming to come from very far away.
He doesn’t know how much time passes. It could be a ke or a dian. He thinks it is less than a shichen. Eventually the carriage door opens, and Wen Xu climbs up to sit beside him. He’s cleaned up a bit, Lan Wangji notices dully; he’s changed his blood-spattered overrobe for a fresh one, has washed his face and redone his topknot. Lan Wangji is expecting more sneering, more taunts, but something — whether victory or tiredness or the absence of an audience for his antics — has made Wen Xu quiet. He looks at Lan Wangji for a long moment, studying him. Lan Wangji stares ahead.
The carriage starts moving with a jolt that sends a lance of pain through Lan Wangji’s leg. He grits his teeth against it.
With surprisingly gentle fingers, Wen Xu reaches out and smooths an escaped wisp of Lan Wangji’s hair behind his ear. His fingers brush Lan Wangji’s forehead ribbon. Lan Wangji finds that he’s too exhausted to even bring himself to care. He sits there and endures it.
“You must be tired,” Wen Xu says. He tries to hand Lan Wangji a red brocaded cushion from the carriage’s well-padded interior. When Lan Wangji makes no move to take it, Wen Xu nods as though this is to be expected. He sets the cushion on the seat between them. “It will take most of the day to get back to camp,” he says, pulling out a stack of reports to read. “Try to get some rest.”
Of course. The Wens could not have launched such a large force from Qishan, flying by sword. This many soldiers need supplies, which means a camp. The thought of what will happen to him when they get to the camp attempts to suggest itself and is snuffed out. Lan Wangji leans against the wall of the carriage, existing, surviving, breathing, and sooner or later the waters of his exhaustion close above his head and he sleeps.