Nevertheless, Lotus Pier goes about a normal morning. Jiang Cheng feels snappier than usual, his emotions simmering in his throat like a geyser ready to erupt. The disciples hold their forms longer with more scrupulousness today, and he can’t help but think they are trying to avoid his criticism more than normal. Today, the reproach is ready on his tongue. He feels agitated and rushed to release it, as if holding the end of a lit rope, before it burns.
It feels familiar and comforting, like his mother is there with him. He wonders if she’d be happy with how Lotus Pier was rebuilt: the flowers rebloomed, the courtyard scrubbed, and the floors of Sword Hall replaced. It looks right, as it was in his childhood and as it is in his dreams, yet it’s nowhere near the same.
“Sect Leader Jiang, the preparations are finished.”
He calls the head disciple to finish leading today’s training session. The boy grasps the stances easily despite only a few years of learning. To the rest, he is a prodigy. They know no better. These faces are naïve and have barely seen war. They don’t know how Jiang Cheng looked as a child, how he practiced all day to stay neck and neck with the prodigy of his time. The ones who remember those days are long gone.
He approaches the ancestral hall. In his childhood, it was a place lined with plaques of unfamiliar names. After his sister finished her bows, a time when she was taller than him, he would kneel and offer incense to ancestors even his father had never met. He knew these names were important, but he felt nothing except solemnity and a desire to kowtow with the perfect posture in the smoky hall.
Today, the low altar is laden with the traditional foods – oranges, chicken, pig. As he had instructed, there were three bowls of soup next to three bowls of rice, one perfectly shaped lotus root, like wheels turning forward, and one spare rib in each dish.
Jiang Fengmian. Yu Ziyuan. Jiang Yanli.
Reading each name brings crickets to every inch of his body, and with the enormous grief overwhelming his heart, he can barely proceed with the ritual. With each touch of his brow to the ground, he wants to slap his head so hard it’d bleed.
He offers incense and pours wine and tea. He tells them that Jin Ling is healthy and is spending this Qingming at Koi Tower. His nephew has people to remember there too, though he is too young to understand the tradition. To the side, servants have begun burning paper lotus flowers and joss notes. They burn a paper structure modeled after Lotus Pier and he marvels in the irony of it.
He continues talking. Their numbers are growing, almost equal to what they once were. Jiang Cheng has received offers of betrothal to daughters more accomplished than the last. While he hasn’t accepted any, his parents and sister should not be concerned. He’s still too busy with sect business and he promises he will marry soon. As he has promised the last few years.
Behind him, others are kneeling as well.
He sees two yellow butterflies flutter past. He hopes his parents are happy. He promises to take care of Jin Ling.
When all the joss paper becomes ash, Jiang Cheng returns to his room. He needs to get out of there. There’s a lingering itch in his chest and he knows it’s not from the smoke. His heart is a dark cloud – it hides the sun and its warmth and takes everything around in stride until so heavy, it must pour.
He loves his family. If he could, he’d give anything to get them back. But another moment in the ancestral hall and he would have lashed out, swept the bowls to the floor and thrown the fruits until they rolled into the freshly weeded grass.
It wasn’t right.
There should be a fourth plaque even if there isn’t a fourth tomb. It was a damning thought and he knows he’d feel conflicted either way – outraged if it was there, contrite when it’s not.
He had tried. He knows he tried.
He had scoured the cliffs of Nightless City. Jiang Cheng knows where he fell, had caused it himself. He couldn’t let anyone else find the body. Jiang Cheng had been running on pure adrenaline and grief, his sister’s blood barely dry on his robes. If his mind was a loud scream, his heart was a desperate prayer.
In the end, no one found Wei Wuxian’s body. That man was always doing the impossible, and now there would be no one to burn money for him or sweep his tomb.
Jiang Cheng knows he tried. He burns more paper than necessary during the Hungry Ghost Festival each year. But he is his mother’s son. His emotions are a landslide formed from stockpiling hurt and anger for years, weakened by envy, stabilized by affection. It crumbles and each day he lives through a conflict between his heart and mind. He meditates. But still the first stone tumbles from a mountain built on anguish and resentment, so high he can’t tell what starts its fall.
He’s sorry. He wants an apology. He regrets. He’s proud to avenge his family. He’s sad. He’s glad he’s gone.
In the end, when the dust clears, he settles on anger. Because it’s the emotion that leaves the shortest migraine and it’s an emotion he deserves. He will never not be angry at Wei Wuxian.
Yet, sometimes Jiang Cheng thinks that if he had supported him, if he had defended Wei Wuxian from both snakes and dogs, if he had told him he was loved, things wouldn’t have happened the way they did. It was a useless thought. Nevertheless, the guilt spun him into a thick sticky web of his own making and there was no one left in this world that would cut him loose.
He was being maudlin. Well, no one had to know this thread of thought. No one else held him accountable. No one except –
Jiang Cheng lets out a gurgled shout and kicks whatever's closest. Zidian sparks. A wooden chest falls over and its contents spill, someone’s cosmic joke to torment him more. It reveals the silks of Jiang Yanli’s lilac clothes, broken treasures returned from the Wen supervisory offices, a wooden comb.
He thinks about the futures taken from him and his family and his sect. He thinks that he could have protected them more, his siblings at least. He thinks that he didn’t just betray Wei Wuxian at Nightless City – no, there were numerous small treacheries along the way and if someone wrote out the story of their brotherhood, it would be well foreshadowed.
Jiang Cheng picks up the comb tenderly. He thinks that even if he had done everything right – seen his malice as a plea for help rather than arrogance, acted like a brother, said something – his hold is so tight the comb snaps.
He thinks of Wen Qing, the curves of her moonlike face, her perceptive eyes, how she begged Wei Wuxian for help. He heard that she had approached Koi Tower with her head high, that she had held her brother’s ghostly hand as they were surrounded, that she didn’t scream while burning alive.
Jiang Cheng lets himself think that even if he had done everything right, even if he had stood beside his brother at Nightless City, Wei Wuxian would still have died. Their lives are not stories of morality or heroes winning the day. In reality, even with great effort and love and sacrifice, brothers die anyway.
It’s a strangely comforting thought.
He turns the chest upright, returns its contents, and locks it shut.