In the dried well behind the room which your father hid your brother, you find two sets of skeletons, jumbled together. They are small, like him.
You wonder what their names were, if they were your brothers or sisters. But your father revealed nothing before he took his own life. Inquiry is a technique unique to the Lans, and for the sake of your mother, you cannot air out your father’s shame in the open.
Your brother—the one who was kept—is named Meng Yao. Your mother wants to send him away. His presence is a reminder of your father’s shame. You're almost tempted to agree, but the physician tells you that your brother's only hope of surviving past twenty is to develop a golden core.
Your father behaved monstrously, and monstrous things were done to your brother. You will not—cannot—turn away from them.
Officially, your father had died from a qi deviation caused by overindulgence. There was no mention of children kept in the storage room, or skeletons in the well.
Officially, Meng Yao is your new servant.
You live at the mercy of the new Sect Leader, and Jin Zixuan has been merciful, much more so than his father. But you know the fickleness of mercy. There were days where your father would show your mercy, morsels of sweets fed to you by hand, words of comfort when you cried. Once, he fed you a full meal and held you like a child through the night, yet he still fucked you the next morning.
Jin Zixuan is merciful, but you cannot rely on that mercy forever. He doesn't share the same proclivities as your father. You have tried, foolish in your desperation, to seduce him, and once he picked up he had reacted with such horror and disgust that you had to beg him from throwing you out that instant.
Jin Zixuan cried that day. He asked you, “What do I do?”
In your haze of panic and shock, you didn’t have an answer. You wish you did. It was an opportunity to seize control, and you had let it slip through your hands.
The Sect Leader is not fond of you, you are the reminder of his father’s shame. For now, you will use his conscience. You will use his guilt until you can find another way to make yourself indispensable
You’re given a small room and a courtyard near the Sect Leader, a bit more generous than those of a regular disciple, a lot less than the members of the family. It was chosen for the sake of discretion, away from the main paths. You suspect this was where your father brought his paramours, the ones he could lure with money and false promises, the ones he didn't lock up.
It is an improvement from that room.
During the day, you’re allowed to be out in the open. The condition to your freedom is simple, you are to never speak of the former sect leader, or what he has done to you.
You have yet to venture very far from your courtyard. You will need to, eventually, if you’re to make yourself useful. But your body has been made weak from confinement, and you must avoid attracting the disdain of the madam dowager.
During free moments, you allow yourself to sit in the courtyard and bask under the sun. Sunlight, you have learned, is a luxury. The room that you were held in had but a small window near the ceiling, out of your reach. You have spent too much of your life in perpetual dimness.
Sometimes, you wake in the middle of the night, and you’re back in that room. When that happens, you let your eyes adjust to the darkness and make out the layout of your room—these days your eyes are too used to the light. It is different. You know the layout of that room intimately, and you memorized every difference between it and your current room. But in the darkness, it is hard to tell.
There’s a simple solution to your worries. If you just approach the door, it will open. It will be unguarded, and if you feel up to it, you can take a midnight stroll.
But what if it doesn’t?
What if you approach the door, and it doesn’t budge? Or maybe it will open, and you’d walk out, and someone will spot you and drag you back, inform your father, and then it won’t open again for many days to come.
The door will open, you know it will. But you don’t know for sure. So you lie on the floor and stare at it until morning comes, and light flood through its windows so you know they’re windows after all.
Your brother moves through Koi Tower like a ghost.
Your father’s ghost, you think unfavourably. You should not think that way. He should not be defined by what your father has done to him.
But to you, to everyone who is in the know, that is exactly what he is. A reminder of your father’s mistake.
You didn’t know what to expect when you found him. He could have been dead or dying, starved or half-mad. You expected madness, simply because you could not comprehend what was done to him. You do not—can not—
But he lives, and he behaves with no hint of madness. He accepts everything with poise and deference, always calm, always smiling.
And somehow that is the most unsettling part of all this.
Once, when the two of you were alone, he had propositioned you. You lost your temper then, allowed your discomfort and disgust to run your tongue. For a moment, you gave into the young boy in your heart that still wanted to look up to his father, who refused to believe his father was the monster. You asked if he had seduced your father like he had attempted on you. And you saw, from the horror in his eyes, that it wasn’t true.
It couldn’t have been true. You should have known. No one would possibly wish for what happened to him. You should have known.
His knees hit the ground with a thud, followed by his forehead, just like the day you found him. He begged you for forgiveness with tearstained face, promising that it’d never happen again, when it was you who should be begging.
The entire motion was so smooth, so practiced, you wonder how often he had to beg your father.
Monstrous things were done to him, and you have behaved monstrously.
You fear your brother. Because when your brother is around, you fear becoming your father.
“Meng Yao, what did you say that you were good at, before you came to Koi Tower?”
“I was an accountant, Sect Leader.”
Your brother, as it turns out, is a very good accountant. He would have been a great cultivator too, if only he’d have started earlier, if only his body wasn’t damaged beyond repair by starvation and neglect.
But against all odds, he’s developed a wisp of what would one day be a golden core.
You wonder how brilliant he would be if you grew up alongside one another. If he had access to all the teachers you’ve had. Surely, he’d outshine you.
You don’t know if what you feel is pity or admiration.
It isn’t relief.
There’s a wall between the two of you. One that you’re afraid to break. Every interaction is tainted by what your father has done to him. Every interaction is tainted by your guilt, by his resentment, by what could have, should have.
When you were still in that room, when the pain became too much to bear, you’d think of your mother, who was always there to comfort you after a beating. You knew she couldn’t save you, yet you still clung to the memories of her cool hands wiping the sweat from your forehead, memories of her soft embrace.
Nowadays, when you remember those memories of comfort, you remember being kept in that room. When you think of her cool hands on your forehead, you remember being fucked by your father.
That, above all else, is the one thing you cannot forgive your father for. It is the one thing you cannot forgive yourself for.
Nowadays, when fear threatens to choke you, when you find yourself back in that room, you remember Jin Zixuan opening that door, horror and grief marring his young face.
Hope is a poisonous thing. Jin Zixuan cannot be your saviour, because—
You find your brother on the day after your birthday, sealed away in his room with a talisman for daring to show his face in public the day before. He bows at your feet, just like the first time.
The room stinks of sweat and vomit, and when he looks up, you can see that his eyes are red, his face is pale.
You remind yourself that monstrous things has been done to him.
“I’m sorry—My mother—I came as soon as I could—“ You begun.
He stares at you, expressionless.
You sigh, and you can’t keep the frustration from your voice. “Do you need anything? I’m sorry about Mother. She’s—her temper was unstable yesterday. Why did you come out? You knew my mother was sensitive about… About…”
Monstrous things has been done to him, and you should not be frustrated at him for your own failure.
Suddenly, he laughs. A sharp, unexpected sound.
“Sect Leader Jin, did you know? Yesterday was my birthday as well.”
You blink. You never would have—
“I showed my face in public yesterday,” he says, calmly, “because I wanted to feel like I exist in this world.”
You open your mouth, but you don’t know what to say.
Your brother falls silent as well, biting his lips. When he opens his mouth again, he doesn’t look at you. “He had called me by many names, in the end, but never my own. Did you know, Xiongzhang, that your name was the last ones he called?
“Son.” Your brother’s voice and expression changes, as if possessed by your father’s ghost. “Zixuan. Son. Good boy. Excellent! You’re doing so well—”
“Stop!” You plead. He silences at once. “Please stop talking.”
He stares at you as you retch. Waits for you in silence. When you stare back and says nothing, he asks, “May I speak?”
You wanted to shake your head, but you couldn’t. You have made a commitment not to turn away from your father’s crime.
He presses his mouth to a thin line. For the first time, he looks angry. He bites each words as if they’re dragged out of him.
“I wanted your life, Jin Zixuan. I wanted to be the one whose name he called. Who could walk in the daylight with no fear. Who would never worry about being replaced.”
“I’m sorry.” You didn’t know what else to say, so you repeat yourself again. “I’m sorry.”
He stares at you, and for the first time, you see him. Meng Yao, with your father’s brows and his mother’s eyes, slighter than a boy his age should be. He stares at you until once more, his anger fades to exhaustion.
“What are you apologizing for?” He asks. “it’s not your fault.”
That night, you go to your father’s grave just to scream at it. “How could you do this? To them! To me! How could you do this to me?”
You should be angry for their sake. For Meng Yao’s sake. You’re alive, healthy, unsullied. He has never laid a hand on you, never beaten you, never raped you.
But the heart can only contain so much anger, and you only have enough anger for yourself.
“How could you do this to me?”
The day Jin Zixuan found you, he called you brother. He said, "Do you remember me from the hall that day? I came as soon as—“ He never finished that statement. Did he come as soon as he found out? Did he come as soon as he could? Where was he when you were kicked down those steps?
You don’t like to think about that day. It reminds you too much of the hope you use to have, of the life you thought you would have.
“I’m sorry.” He tells you, two days after he found you the second time.
“For the acts of your father?” You ask, a carefully crafted forgiving smile on your face. You remind yourself that you still need him. “There’s no need to trouble yourself, Sect Leader Jin. You didn’t know.”
“I should have gone after you, the moment my father ordered them to kick you down. I should have stopped them.” His face is an open display of foolish sincerity.
“I should have tried.”
And just like that, your carefully crafted smile crumbles into dust.
In your dreams, you relive the day you rolled down the steps of Koi Tower. Sometimes, you get up, dust off your cloth, and leave. Sometimes, the stairs never end, and that’s a blessing in and of itself.
You never dreamt of a world where you could have been saved.
And he didn’t. He could have, but he didn’t. Foolish, noble Jin Zixuan, merciful Jin Zixuan, who called you brother, who says he should have tried.
It’s too late for that. You cannot be mended by apologies. You cannot be mended by what should have. And yet—
You wish someone could have tried.
You remember Jin Zixuan opening the door to that room, horror and grief written all over his face.
He looked so young.
“Monstrous things have been done to us.” Your brother reaches out and holds you by the shoulders, grip surprisingly strong.
“But Ge,” He says, as if it is a revelation. “I’m alive. We’re alive.”
In your arm, Meng Yao is slight, thin, much smaller than a boy his age is supposed to be.
But his heart beats strong, just like your own.
“Young Master Meng,” You kneel down, “Would you allow me to acknowledge you as my brother in public?”
That night, you dream of your mother. You dream of dreaming for a better life. When you wake, it is to the darkness of your room, the coldness of the floor.
A few steps before you, there’s a door. If you get up, if you just push it, it will open. You know it will open, but how can you know for certain?
You get up. You approach the door. You reach out your hands and undo the lock.
The door opens with a push.