Jiang Cheng remembered the first time his mother took him into the Shrine of Lotus Pier.
Or, perhaps it is more correct to say that this is the only Shrine in the pier he remembered visiting for the first time. Since he was a baby his family had been bringing him to the meditation rooms, to the ancient halls, to the tablets of memorial to his ancestors, the cultivators who built Lotus Pier into one of the four great Sects. The smell of incense was a part of his earliest memories, along with his mother’s hand on his head, pressing it into a bow. He remembered his father’s voice, gentle and echoing in the dimly lit room. “These are your ancestors, Jiang Cheng. Respect them well, and stand in their legacy. Everything in Lotus Pier was built by their efforts.”
That shrine and the respectful visits were simply a part of the rhythms of his life, the same as the passing of the seasons, the bloom and fade of the lotus blossoms out on the water. He trained, he celebrated in festivals; he went to hunts and watched his father’s power, he paid respect to his ancestor.
It was his mother who took him to that other Shrine.
“My son,” She’d said. He’d stood in front of her, trying to remain straight and tall under her eyes, and she had nodded at him. It was the kind of nod that Wei Ying had yet to earn, and the knowledge that Jiang Cheng had kept his esteem in his mother’s eyes where Wei Ying had continued to fail delivered a furious kind of comfort to him. He held her esteem, and that, he’d thought, was all he needed.
“It is time for you to meet the gods of Lotus Pier.”
“The gods?” he had echoed her.
His mother had nodded, and gestured to a door. It was set into one of the courtyard walls. It was one that he’d noticed-- how could he not have? He was the young master of Yunmeng Jiang. There were very few doors that were not open to him, and all of them would be in time, when he became the Sect Leader. That he was about to learn one more of these secrets had excited him, so he hurried to keep pace with her as she went to the door and opened it.
The space had been dim, and it smelled just as heavily of incense as the rest of the family’s shrines did. Light filtered into the dusty air through screens and slim windows, and Jiang Cheng could just barely see, past the dim openings, the beautiful backdrop of the lotus ponds and the docks where some of the trainees were flying their kites. For once Jiang Cheng didn’t long to join them.
His mother had taken up a match and stepped forward, lighting a candle and then a stick of incense, which she set in front of a statue. No, Jiang Cheng had realized, it was a pair of statues. They were carved out of wood and painted delicately, one wearing pale green and white, the other in blue and black. Both were beautiful, and their features bore a certain resemblance to one another. The figure dressed in white carried a fan painted with the character for wind. The one in blue and black carried one that read water.
“These,” said his mother’s voice, gentle for once, “are the Water Master and the Wind Master.”
Those statues had looked too soft to be Masters of the elements, he remembered thinking, but even at that age he had known better than to voice such a thought at the foot of statues of the gods.
“These are the protectors of Lotus Pier,” his mother had explained, kneeling to pull some things from her sleeve. Jiang Cheng didn’t pay attention to what, exactly, she had put down that first time, though he thought that it was probably flowers, or coins, that first time. Those were the sorts of offering they made often enough later on, whenever they came back to the shrine to offer that pair of gods their prayers and their respect. Jiang Cheng had been too occupied with hunting out every little detail on the statues-- the gold of the earrings set into the Wind Master’s ears, the stern serenity of the Water Master’s face, that reminded him a little of his own mother’s expression. “We bring them offerings and come here to pray for the safety and prosperity of the Jiang sect. We give offerings, and they listen and bring good to us. Now that you know, this will be a part of your duties as well.”
“Yes, Mother,” Jiang Cheng had said, very seriously, and had followed her unspoken expectation to come and sit beside her as she prayed before the statues.
Now, he ran full-tilt for the little Shrine at the back of the compound, his eyes burning and his throat tight, scrambling past disciples and servants with no regard for who he knocked out of the way. Those bastard Wen! Damn them, and damn Wei Wuxian anyway, and his father for being gone, and his mother-- she was brilliant, wasn’t she? How was it that she could not find a way for them to escape this situation with the damn Wen, with both their pride and their home intact?
There was shouting from the courtyard behind him, but Jiang Cheng didn’t pay attention to it. He would not give up without using every option available, and he remembered his mother’s words about the Gods in that Shrine. He was the heir to the Sect, and prayed with the weight of the entire Sect behind him. Surely, that must do something...!
But when Jiang Cheng barreled through the doors of the Shrine, he stumbled to an abrupt halt, taken by surprise.
“Who are you?” he demanded. His hand went to his side, clenching in wary readiness.
There was a man standing in the shrine. He looked like no one Jiang Cheng had ever seen before. His skin was pale as a drowned man’s, his eyes sunken into his face and his dark hair hung in lax sheets around his impassive face. He carried what looked like a bone dagger in one hand, and he wore black robes that were at once tattered and eerily regal.
Or maybe it was the man’s aura. Jiang Cheng felt a shiver go down his spine as the man’s gaze met his own, and he had to bite his teeth on the urge to bow his head. In doing so, he caught sight of the Shrine behind the man, and his breath caught.
“What have you done here?” he demanded, his voice cracking. Behind the man, the Wind and Water Master statues were in ruins. The Water Master statue’s had had fallen from his shoulders, and lay in his lap. Next to him, the Wind Master was more intact, but there were great rents in the wood of the statue’s limbs, and dark lines tracked down from the statue’s eyes. Jiang Cheng realized, with sickening certainty, that they were blood, real blood.
“These Gods are dead,” the man said. His voice sounded strange, like Jiang Cheng was hearing it from underwater-- or like the man was the one underwater. He turned toward Jiang Cheng slowly, but he did not at all look threatened to be confronted with one who was clearly a cultivator of the Jiang Sect. He did not have the look of a cultivator, and certainly not a Wen, but Jiang Cheng’s stomach tightened anyway. He felt like an insect, about to be swatted.
“Who are you?” he asked anyway, tightening both hands into fists. “How do you know that?”
The man looked at him with a dead man’s eyes. “I am Black Water Sinks Ships,” he said. “I am He Xuan. And I killed them.”
He took a step forward. Jiang Cheng trembled, from the top of his head to his feet, but he would not run-- could not. His feet felt rooted to the ground, under those terrible eyes.
“They will not answer if you pray to them. But if you are desperate… I believe we can come to a bargain, young cultivator.”
Jiang Cheng could hear sounds now, from the courtyard. He could hear screams, and shouts. He could hear the crackle of lightning, and his mother’s voice, ringing out clear and angry.
He clenched his jaw, and closed his eyes. Took a breath in, and out. When he looked up again, He Xuan had not moved, but was still watching him, that bone knife in hand. Waiting.
“If it will save Lotus Pier,” Jiang Cheng said, “I will take your bargain.”
Immediately, he felt the sensation of water around him, cold and heavy. He didn’t dare open his mouth to cry out, but his vision was going hazy, and his attempts to flail did him little good. He crashed to his knees, and his mouth came open, but no sound could come out of him. It was as though he was drowning on dry land.
Through the dim haze surrounding him, he saw a strange expression on He Xuan’s face. It looked almost like a smile.