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When Meng Yao was thrown down the stairs in Jinlin Tower, no one had looked twice at her.

It was only later, when one of the servants came to collect her at the bottom of the stairs, to pick her up and brush off the dirt and blood and explain with a smile that it was only a matter of saving face – that it was the legitimate young master’s birthday that day – that her father’s wife was jealous and required pacification – that of course she was welcome, a proper part of Lanling Jin, her father’s daughter, and entitled to all the rights and privileges thereof – that the looks started.

Looks of pity.

She hadn’t understood why, at first. Why pity? Wasn’t she getting everything she’d ever wanted, a place at her father’s side, recognition, wealth and power beyond her wildest dreams?  

And yet.

And yet.

She was left with the distinct feeling that she had made a terrible mistake.

It was only later, when she’d been re-named Jin Yao, when she’d been shown to her fancy new rooms, when the servants finally relaxed enough to start gossiping, that she learned what a mistake it had been. There would be no wealth and power for her, no; why should a bastard get any of those? The only reason she’d gotten recognized at all was because Jin Yao was more useful a pawn than Meng Yao: her new beautiful room that she hadn’t even had a chance to enjoy was little more than a cage, meant to lock her away until she could be sold off, part and parcel with one of her father’s alliances.

“Maybe this one won’t mind it,” one of the maids giggled. “Not like the last one.”

“The little lady from the north?”

“No, the merchant’s daughter – you remember. The one who threw herself out the window when she saw the old man who’d come to take her as his concubine.”

“Can you blame her? Cultivator or no, he was practically decrepit. Uglier than a dog, pox-marked and leaking piss and snot every time he coughed…she would’ve only been a concubine, too, so neither her nor her child would even have hope of inheriting anything later on. I would’ve thrown myself out the window, too…!”

They giggled for a bit, and then that one added in a smart sort of tone, “Of course, we have railings on the window now. This new one won’t be able to do that.”

“Would she care?” the other one asked, tone scornful. “She’s from a brothel, isn’t she? Being a concubine to some rich man is undoubtedly a step up in the world for someone like that. Nothing at all like a merchant’s daughter with a scholar sweetheart back home who’d offered to make her his principal wife – and to think she’d said no to that poor boy on account of wanting to get what was hers from the Jin sect…”

“Get what’s hers? Hers! Don’t make me laugh – more like what was promised to her mother, yeah? As if we don’t all have a pearl button to our name, each and every one of us. Only we’re not so stupid as to try to make use of them…”

“You wicked woman! Don’t be so crass. How’s the daughter of some country merchant or common nobility supposed to any know better? I bet they don’t even know how to prevent something like that from sticking, and get with child all by accident.”

“Oh, sure, one of them, maybe not. But this one’s a prostitute’s daughter! How dumb does she have to be?! Doesn’t she know that there’s no point in carrying anything with Jin blood to term, much less fill her kid’s head with dreams? As if any of them ever get anything – the girls all get sold as party favors, the boys sent into the army to disappear without a sound…”

“I heard they thought this one was a boy at first,” one of the maids said, her voice a stage whisper meant to draw attention. “She was dressed like a boy when she came – that’s what got Madame Jin so upset! You know she hates seeing the boys more than anything, and on her own son’s birthday, too; really, it’s no wonder Sect Leader Jin had to take stronger measures than usual. That’s why he threw her off the stairs himself, rather than just sending the guards to drag her away…only she screamed as she fell, you see, all high-pitched. That’s when they realized she was a girl.”

“Oh, I see! That makes sense. I was wondering why they bothered with the stairs – wouldn’t making such a fuss just have made things awkward, later?”

“Oh, to be sure. I’ve heard that Sect Leader Jin had been planning on throwing her out of Lanling entirely, actually, even when they though she was a boy. After a fuss like that, the usual convenient army death would’ve been a little awkward if anyone found out about it later – there were other sect leaders at the party, you know! – but as it is, since she is a girl, he’s promised Madame Jin that she could vent her rage about the interrupted party by matching the girl with any old man she pleases. It’ll be even worse than that old decrepit from last time, mark my words!”

More giggles, and then they moved away, still chattering.

Meng Yao’s nails were dug deep enough into her palms to draw blood.

She checked the window, and there was indeed a railing there, keeping her from opening the window anything more than a crack to let a breeze in. If she asked, they could probably excuse it as being for her own safety…assuming, of course, that they’d bother at all with making the pretense that this room, larger than the entire brothel she’d grown up in and yet suddenly claustrophobic, was meant as a gift rather than a cage.

She supposed their approach on that question depended entirely on whether it would amuse them more to see her immediately succumb to despair, or whether it’d be funnier to have her dance to their tune for a little while, running to and fro in a desperate and futile bid to win favor that they all already knew she’d never be able get.

She got her answer the next morning.

A bunch of old women burst into her room while she was still sleeping. She was on the bed, of course; it was the finest and softest thing she’d ever encountered, and anyway there was no way out of the locked room that she could spot so there was no point in martyring herself by sleeping anywhere else. Before she could wake up fully or try to escape, they grabbed her and held her down, prying her legs apart and forcing them wide while they peered and prodded at her most sensitive parts.

“Still a virgin,” the oldest woman there announced for all to hear, and at least one muttered something under her breath about it being little more than a miracle, what with Meng Yao’s origins. “Genuine, too, no tricks. Get her dressed and take her to see the Madame.”

Madame Jin wore enough gold on a single finger to buy Meng Shi’s freedom from the brothel ten times over, and she had gold on every finger, not to mention her headpiece and necklaces and even her dress. Meng Yao had always known that the Jin sect was rich, but both her and her mother had apparently dramatically underestimated the amount – willful self-deceit on her mother’s part, she assumed, since seeing the vast riches of Lanling Jin made painfully clear how little effort it would’ve taken for Sect Leader Jin to redeem her out of slavery even if he’d done nothing else, as easy as flipping over his hand, only he hadn’t even bothered with that.

Someone pushed Meng Yao’s shoulder roughly, making her stumble out in front of everyone – Meng Yao didn’t fight against it but instead went with it, gracefully turning the near fall into a curtsey.

She had experience saving face in situations like that, lessons hard-learned at the brothel and her mother’s knee, and she hated to have to be grateful for that. She’d never been grateful for the brothel for anything, not even shelter, and to now have to thank it for the background that let her handle herself with what little remnants of pride she had left to her rather than fumbling around in the face of other women’s wickedness and jealousy like a complete novice, the way some poor merchant’s daughter might…

She hated it.

She hated them.

“So you’re little A-Yao,” Madame Jin said, looking her over with a cold expression that was barely covered with the veneer of geniality implied by the intimate term of address.  

“I am,” Meng Yao murmured, her voice as soft and sweet as she could manage it. It didn’t matter that she wanted to claw the woman’s eyes out, just like it’d never mattered how much she’d longed to do the same to all of her mother’s clients, the ones her mother had fought so hard to defend her from all these years. All for the sake of preserving her for this. “This humble one greets Madame.”

“Stand up and let me see you.”

Even in the brothel, people wanted to inspect the goods before selling them, wanting to know what sort of price they could obtain. Meng Yao stood up.

She’d been stuffed into a dress that would have stopped her breath if she’d seen it in the streets of Yunping, all golden silk and yellow ribbon, covered by a gauzy overlayer that seemed as light as a breath of cloud; the servants dressing her had matched it with jewelry fit for an unmarried maiden, done up her hair and touched up her face with a little make-up. If she hadn’t overheard what she had from the maids, hadn’t seen the indifferent expressions on the faces of the serving-girls, she probably would’ve been ecstatic to receive such a thing, thinking that such a valuable gift represented the first step towards ultimate acceptance. As it was, Meng Yao compared her clothing to the other women in the room with a critical eye and found that even Madame Jin’s maids were dressed better than she was.

“Acceptable,” Madame Jin said, and Meng Yao heard fit to be shown in decent company, I suppose. “Clever of you to dress as a boy to avoid notice from any unsavory characters on your way here. Tell me, do you have any talents? Can you write your name?”

Meng Yao could write essays so well that she could sell them to scholars in the local academy who wanted to show off to their teachers, not to mention writing letters both formal and informal; she could even wield a brush fast enough to take dictation, as sharp as any secretary. She could recite classic texts from memory and propound on a given theme so well that she probably could have sat for one of the triennial examinations. She could play weiqi and debate philosophy, compose poetry and analyze artwork, paint pictures and play music on half a dozen different instruments; she could maintain a conversation among people of any rank or status in a way that disguised her origins and made them feel comfortable as if they were amongst their peers. She could keep accounts, both the written ones and the real ones that lived only in her head, and manage a schedule book, arranging things in such a manner that pleased everyone involved; she could bargain merchants down to reasonable prices, coordinate the thousand and one things necessary to run a business, and do it so well that they’d thank her for the privilege of working with her. She knew how to read a person, especially a man, after exchanging only a dozen words or fewer, knew to predict his actions and anticipate his desires; if she chose, she could make that man’s life so easy and comfortable that he didn’t even realize he’d started to rely on her.

If she’d been born a man, she would have been a treasure.

“This humble one can write a little,” she murmured, ducking her head demurely instead of saying anything of any of that. “I also have some small talent at playing qin, but nothing worth offending Madame’s ears with.”

She allowed her voice to sound a little proud, as if she thought herself quite good at playing but didn’t want to show off – as if it were her only real talent, and she couldn’t keep herself from mention it to show off to her new ‘family’, to try to make them proud of her.

Madame Jin huffed. “Music is good,” she said, completely disinterested. “A-Ting, you examined her earlier. How are her meridians?”

“She’s past the best age to start and has done nothing until now, but she can cultivate,” the chief of the women that had manhandled her earlier said. “If she’s a quick study, it won’t take more than a few months to establish a basic foundation, even if forming a golden core is unlikely.”

Meng Yao’s mother had worked herself to the bone to buy cultivation manuals for Meng Yao to practice with – all fake, it seemed. Meng Yao had suspected as much at the time, but it still burned to hear it now, knowing how much her mother had sacrificed to get them.

“Get her some standard introductory manuals, then,” Madame Jin ordered. “A-Yao, you are now a daughter of the Jin sect. We are a cultivation sect; there is no place here for those who cannot cultivate. You will need to work hard to catch up with the rest.”

Meng Yao understood: so they would have her dance on their string first, just long enough to entice her to work hard at developing the characteristics that would increase the price they could get for her, and then only later would the truth come, and the despair. That was fine, preferable, even. It would give her more opportunity to find a way to escape the cage she’d accidentally let herself be trapped in.

She wasn’t going to throw herself off some tall tower.

“Madame is gracious,” Meng Yao said, and curtsied again. “I will work hard to live up to your expectations.”

“Don’t think that cultivation is all that you will need to learn,” Madame Jin said. “You’ll need lessons in manners, etiquette, decorum, which you’ll be provided with. In the meantime, you can remain by my side and learn by example.”

Doing the job of a maid for free, Meng Yao assumed. It hadn’t escaped her notice that Madame Jin called her A-Yao in the same tone that she’d called the maid A-Ting, less an intimacy than an insult.

Still, there wasn’t anything for it. She inclined her head in a nod, accepting it, and was sent away, nominally for her to rest but actually so that they could discuss her future fate without her interference.

After that, events proceeded much as she’d expected, only she’d mistakenly thought that Madame Jin would off start with a pretense of benevolence towards her. In fact, there was none of that at all. It wasn’t three days before she saw the first sign of Madame Jin’s famous temper and had a cup of tea thrown at her head. If she’d intended on staying, she might’ve shrugged it off and redoubled her efforts to convince the woman to approve of her – indeed, she could see others in the same position as her falling into the same trap, remembering only the honey of that first meeting and hoping against hope to reclaim it in the face of their current adversity, flattering themselves that their skills were so unquestionably good that they would eventually win over anyone, given time.

It would have been a good trap. It would have worked on her.

But those looks of pity had let her know that something was wrong, and the words of the maids had let her know what – and now she saw, as she hadn’t before, how carefully her freedom was curtailed. There were always guards around to ‘see to the lady’s protection’; there were places she could and could not go, places that were beneath her – if by beneath her they meant any place she might be able to use as a means to escape. The Jin sect had a use for her, and they didn’t intend to let her go before she could fulfil that role.

It was a few weeks before she met her legitimate brother, Jin Zixuan, and only, she presumed, because they didn’t have any choice in the matter. He’d insisted on seeing her, it seemed; he had heard about what happened with the stairs and started arguing with the guards and servants that he was entitled to meet his sister. It seemed, also, that he didn’t want accept no for an answer, like the spoiled gilded lordling he must be, having never been denied anything a day in his life.

Meng Yao went out to meet him.

“I heard about you,” he blurted out, eyes wide as saucers as he stared at her. “From…from before. You know, I’ve never met any of – any of my siblings before. You’re the first.”

From this Meng Yao determined that Jin Zixuan was a sheltered idiot, and that Sect Leader Jin hadn’t yet bothered to introduce his heir to the harsher realities of life. If she hadn’t arrived during that birthday party and lost face so publicly for the Sect Leader and his wife, if she hadn’t been mistaken for a boy that might have expectations of inheritance instead of a girl that could be traded out like yet another coin, he probably would never have heard of her existence. She would have disappeared into the cavernous mouth of Lanling Jin without a sound, just like their unfortunate half-brothers had disappeared into the army, supposedly to win glory but in reality to be appropriately disposed of once no one was looking…

Someone else, then, would have been the ‘first’.

There were no bastards in Jinlin Tower. No living bastards, anyway.

Still, being an idiot didn’t mean being useless, and so Meng Yao put on her best smile for him.

“I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” she lied, averting her eyes in pretended shyness. “I’ve never had a big brother before.”

He was probably younger than she was, she’d wager, not older. But boys preferred to protect sweet younger sisters, while expecting to be themselves babied by mature older sisters, and she knew which one was more advantageous to her right now. Anyway, who was going to call her on a detail like that? Who even cared enough to check?

She’d been foolish enough to give her birthdate at the door, back when she’d deluded herself into thinking that they cared enough to need it to put her on the family register in her proper place, but while it was undoubtedly stored somewhere to be used in future matchmaking, she doubted anyone would bother to think of it long enough to contradict her.

Sure enough, Jin Zixuan puffed himself up a little when he heard that.

“Then we’re well matched: I’ve never been a big brother before,” he said, and smiled in a way that might’ve even been cute if his parents weren’t casually planning to destroy Meng Yao’s life at that very moment just to mildly improve this stupid little boy’s reputation and their own. Maybe if Meng Yao thought that Jin Zixuan could be worth something as an ally – that he might be willing to try to convince them not to do that – or even just to help her in getting out –

“Jin-gongzi! Your mother’s here!”

Jin Zixuan’s face lost all color and he quailed. “Oh, no,” he moaned under his breath. “She’s going to be so angry…”

Useless, Meng Yao thought, and smiled through her anger. “I’ll go back inside,” she offered, still pretending to be gentle and kind the way she always did and always had and now, terribly, suspected she would always need to. “You can pretend you didn’t get a chance to see me.”

Relieved, Jin Zixuan nodded.

Perhaps the deception worked well enough for him to avoid blame, but Madame Jin wasn’t fooled, nor had Meng Yao suspected she would be. This time, it was a vase that got thrown at her head, and when the first one missed, Madame Jin ordered her maids to hold Meng Yao in place, and made sure the second one didn’t.

Madame Jin was very smart, Meng Yao thought, examining herself in the mirror later that night. She seemed careless in her rage, completely unable to control herself, but she’d restrained her strength enough to avoid actually disfiguring or damaging Meng Yao – as a cultivator herself, a truly casual blow from her would have been enough to snap Meng Yao’s neck. But by seeming so uncontrolled, she avoided blame for what she had done: as far as anyone else was concerned (anyone who mattered was concerned), it was Meng Yao who had to bear the burden of having angered her ‘mother’ until she reached such a state, and not Madame Jin who was oppressing her.

It also meant that it was Meng Yao’s duty as a good filial child to double or even triple her efforts to win her new ‘mother’s’ heart through her hard work and good efforts.

In the end, all told, Meng Yao stayed at the Jin sect for two months.

That was how much time it took for her to memorize everything in the introductory cultivation books that had been provided to her – she wasn’t allowed to look at anything more advanced, not even when she’d pretended it was just to motivate herself to do better with the current ones – and to lean how the Jinlin Tower was laid out, the ins and outs of it, and while she was at it to also learn the ins and outs of the cultivation world enough to figure out her next steps.

It was also enough time for Madame Jin to come up with a suitable match for her.

Perhaps the match was indeed some dashing and handsome young man intent on making her his principle wife, a man who was well-born and well-learned and full of potential, desired by all female cultivators, the way her maids assured her with false smiles on their faces, or perhaps he wasn’t. In all honesty, Meng Yao didn’t care: either way, she had no intention of sticking around to find out.

Now that she knew the truth, she’d figured out that she’d rather set herself on fire than do something, anything, that would benefit the man who’d fooled her mother with baseless promises of love, and nearly fooled her with the same.

(What had she even wanted from Lanling Jin in the first place? she wondered. She wasn’t a boy, capable of inheriting – she was a girl, good only for marrying out. Even the most loving father would have thought the same, though perhaps not quite at this level of vile cruelty.)

She would do better just about anywhere else.

After two months of Meng Yao playing the naïve idiot role to the hilt, her guard had gotten lax, and even Madame Jin’s endless suspicions were hampered by the fact that she simply didn’t respect Meng Yao enough to think her smart enough or ruthless enough to do what was needed to get out.

But get out she did.

When she crawled out of the stinking hole she’d hidden in for three endless days and thousands of li, having left the shining brightness of Lanling Jin far behind, she still thought the same: anywhere, surely, must be better than there. She was dressed as a man again, though this time she had no intention of letting anyone see through her disguise so easily this time.

This time, she’d be taken in on her own merits, or not at all.

And for someone with capacity for merit but no birth and no backing, there was only one place to go.

Add to that the fact that the Qinghe Nie were longstanding rivals of Lanling Jin, constantly causing her paternal sect problems through their excessive honesty and straightforwardness, constantly sneering down at them from the safe moral high ground of their incessant righteousness, driving them up the wall with annoyance every time they met…if the Unclean Realm was a place that the scions of Lanling Jin would not go unless they had no choice, and which would never, as far as the current Sect Leader Jin was concerned, receive an offer of alliance of any sort, much less one with a girl thrown in, especially given that the rotten old prudes, as he called them, wouldn’t accept such an offer anyway…a place that even Madame Jin complained of as a barren place and swore she’d never go no matter the inducement, a place which hadn’t had a woman of sufficient status to receive her in the manner to which she was accustomed in over a decade…

Well, all of that was just a bonus.

This time, Meng Yao thought to herself, this time, she would make her own way in the world, winning what she could win through her own efforts – and no one, no one, would convince her to throw it away for all the false gold in Lanling Jin.

Least of all herself.