Twice a day, Hu Yuan would take the long walk from his rooms to his father’s. The south-facing building had the very best views of the garden that housed a large, deep pond. However, it had been many years since his father had appreciated its beauty. From the day Hu Yuan’s mother died, Hu Tianyi had withdrawn into himself, leaving his sons to do much as they desired.
Often, Hu Yuan himself would wander the curving paths after a long day’s work. Flowers bloomed in every season, while strangely-shaped rocks had been installed in various yards and side gardens around the estate, so there was always something to admire. Shapely trees took center stage in some of the smaller yards, all appearing as though they had grown naturally into evocative forms, but Hu Yuan knew the head gardener had taken great pains to achieve the effect.
He and his late wife used to spend happy hours walking around the garden, and then having tea at one of the pavilions by the pond. She had sung sweet songs from her hometown while he fed the fish. On one memorable occasion, she had tipped him over into the water as a joke, laughing when he tugged her in as well. After her passing, if he felt particularly pensive, he would have the servants give him vegetable scraps for him to toss to the koi. Watching the colorful fish jostling one another always made him smile.
For the past few months, however, he barely had time to even look at the fish, let alone feed them himself.
This morning, he wished he could be feeding koi instead of attending to his father. The physician and attendants were already at work; several machines beeped their dull monotone, with the occasional high-pitched hiccup. Hu Tianyi’s physical and mental state had been deteriorating rapidly over the past year; the physicians had privately told Hu Yuan that it was unlikely for the old man would ever improve.
Sick with dread, Hu Yuan waited for the physician to step aside before he made his way to Hu Tianyi’s bedside. The old man was so thin that Hu Yuan dared not touch him, for fear of breaking his father’s brittle bones. The incense used to perfume the air could barely mask the cloying stench of his father’s ailment. They would have to open the windows after the old man was asleep; he would not have them open it while he was awake, for fear of catching his death of cold. Yet, although Hu Yuan was loath to admit it, death would be a release not only for his father, but also for everyone else in the household.
“Yuan. Is that you?”
“Yes, Father.” As if I haven’t been here every day at this hour ever since you fell sick. Hu Yuan tamped down his inner frustration. It was unbecoming and unfilial to even harbor such thoughts.
“Come here, my son,” Hu Dingtian wheezed, every breath a battle within those ailing ribs. He grasped his son’s hand with fingers cold as bone. He was nearly blind with cataracts and the wrinkles on his face seemed to be carved deep, right into bone. “Where is Yao? Where is my grandson?”
“Yao is not at home, Father,” said Hu Yuan, having had this very conversation twice daily for the past two weeks. He made himself smile. His father must not know about the child’s death – that would be too cruel. “I told you. He was chosen by the teacher to go on a special school trip to the capital.”
“He is home. I know he is! Bring him here,” said the old man, gasping between every word, his thin chest rattling with every exhalation. His eyelids fluttered close but he blinked them open again. His mouth worked, opening and closing. There was a desperation in the way his gaze fell on his eldest son. “I want... I want Yao. Where is he?”
That demand alone took all his energy. Hu Yuan waited until the rattling breaths eased a little. “Father, I can’t do that. Hu Yao isn’t... He’s not able to come. He’s in the capital with his teacher and classmates, to visit the imperial library.”
He is never coming back, Hu Yuan's mind corrected, though he would never be able to utter the words. He repeated his answer, trying to keep his tone calm and stable.
“Nonsense!” yelled the old man abruptly. His right fist pounded the eiderdown quilt with surprising force. “My grandson is here! I want to see him! It must be that evil creature, that witch, that insect girl, she must have hidden her son from me-”
A coughing fit came over him and the physician hurried over again, while two sturdy attendants hovered by the door. Hu Yuan stood by helplessly as the physician tried to calm the old man down.
The sight of his father in such a state suddenly angered Yuan. How dare his father become so weak? How could he lose his acumen, his determination, how could be turn into this raving and confused old man? Hu Yuan could not reconcile the ambitious, vital man of his childhood with the frail patient he saw before him.
Suddenly Hu Tianyi pushed the physician aside. “There he is,” the old man laughed, sitting up in his nest of pillows and blankets. “My dear boy, come, come to Grandfather...”
Just as Hu Yuan took a step forward to tell his father to lie down, Hu Tianyi slowly fell back onto his pillows. A smile hovered on his wrinkled lips and his eyes were closed. His chest went still.
“Attend him!” Hu Yuan all but shoved the hapless physician at his father.
It was no use.
The physician tried to resuscitate the old man, but he was gone. Defeated, Hu Yuan sank into the nearest chair and covered his eyes. His nephew was in the morgue not yet laid to rest; his father finally succumbed to his illness.
The steward, Hu Dan, hurried in after the most perfunctory of knocks. “Young master Yuan,” said the rotund man, “Young master Wen has come home.”
No one dared to disturb Hu Yuan as he waited in his father's antechamber for his younger brother. In the bedchamber, the physician and attending servants aired out the room and dismantled the array of medical equipment. It didn't take long before sturdy bootheels could be heard in the corridor outside and the door slammed open.
“I heard. Selfish old loon. He could've at least held on until after my son is buried.” Hu Wen did not mince words as he strode into the room. “Was he in a lot of pain when he passed?”
“What answer would please you more, Wen?” Hu Yuan said. There was no heat to his tone. He could barely feel his limbs as it were; all he could sense was an overwhelming fatigue in both body and spirit. “He died calling out for Yao, if you must know.”
“If you're trying to make me feel bad for him, it's not working. He had over thirty years as our father, and spent none of those on showing us affection.” Hu Wen folded his arms and scoffed as he studied his father's slack face. “This is the first time since I got married that he's not scowling at me.”
Though he was the younger by three years, he was taller and bulkier than Hu Yuan. Like his older brother, Hu Wen also had a square-jawed face, though his was slightly narrower. His hair was messily bound in a ponytail. As if to distance himself from the respectability of his clan, he tattooed two tiger stripes that slashed from his right cheek down and across to his shoulder, to mirror his qi lines on the left of his face and over his arms. His attire of a hide vest over a short-sleeved navy shirt and rough linen trousers made him look like a common laborer, though his gait and weapons exposed him as a pugilist.
Hu Yuan was already tired, even though it was early in the day. “Whatever you think of him, keep it to yourself.”
“So. What do we do now?” Hu Wen asked. He dropped his weapons on the table. The two three-prong forks, the tines curled cruelly like claws, scratched the varnished surface, narrowly missing the mother-of-pearl inlay. While Hu Yuan inherited his sword from his teacher, Hu Wen had designed his own, adapting his Tiger Palm Technique for armed combat. He yawned and stretched. “I took an overnight coach and I really want some sleep. Fucking automaton hit every fucking pothole in the road.”
After signaling the steward to set his younger brother’s weapons in a more suitable place, Hu Yuan stood up, feeling twice the weight of his years. “We do what we're supposed to.”
What they were supposed to do first was to ritually cleanse their father’s body. With the physician's help, the brothers stripped their father's clothes and changed him into his funeral best, the clothes having been chosen when Hu Tianyi turned sixty, while the servants cleared away the soiled bedding to be burned later.
As they went through the customs, Hu Yuan realized that this was probably the first time since they were teenagers that he and his brother were working together. He combed his father's thin gray hair into a bun, while Hu Wen slipped soft onto his father's bony feet. They did not converse, but they did not get in each other's way, which made for a moment of calm that Hu Yuan had not expected.
By the time they had laid their father's corpse in the coffin atop plain indigo cotton and a carved ebony pillow, it was well past lunch. Servants carried the covered coffin out to the ancestral hall while the physician went to take a bath. The steward then brought the brothers two large pails of herb-infused water with sweet flowers floating in them for immediate cleansing, along with towels and three sets of mourning clothes, all in pale, undyed linen.
“Remember to give everyone who attended to Father a red packet, and thank Doctor Luo for his care. Have the clerks settle up the bill and see to it that he gets twice as much as he asks.” Hu Yuan mentally went over the list of notables that he would have to inform, first with a datapad message so that they could be ready to travel, and follow up with a formal letter sent by priority mail. “Tell Jiao Chan to be here in an hour with the address books of all our major clients.”
“Yes, master.” Hu Dan’s immediate change in the address took Hu Yuan by surprise, but then he realized that the steward had probably been preparing for the change. Hu Dan added, “Flowers and herbs have been prepared for your personal baths as well, Master Yuan, Second Master Wen.”
Hu Wen stripped in the corridor and poured one bucket over himself, unconcerned with his nudity. Hu Yuan only washed his face, neck and arms.
“I bet the whole city is going to want to come and see Father in his box,” Hu Wen drawled as he dried himself and pulled on the mourning clothes. “As if he's some sort of sideshow. We could charge admittance. We'd earn a pretty penny.”
“We won't turn away anyone wishing to pay their respects,” Hu Yuan said, ignoring the flippancy. He signaled to the steward to get started on the different tasks.
As he tied the rough rope belt about his waist, Hu Wen asked, “Are you sad about Father's passing?”
For a heartbeat, Hu Yuan thought his brother was mocking him, but then he saw that the younger man was truly curious. He exhaled deeply and shook his head. “He was very ill and not getting any better. Death is a release from pain and indignity.”
“Know what I think? I think he should have died instead of Mother way back when,” said Hu Wen. His jaw was clenched. “Life would have been better.” With an ironic smirk, he added, “At least Mother loved all of us.”
“Wen, you know Father had to work, he didn’t have time to take care of us-”
“And you know he didn’t need to work that hard, we’re fucking rich.” Hu Wen wrung out his long hair and left it loose over his shoulders, moisture seeping into his pale linen shirt. “Besides, I was talking about Xiang. Father hated her from the start.”
Hu Yuan bit his tongue. It was the truth, but the criticism of a late parent was inappropriate, particularly where a servant could overhear. “Father’s already dead and you still can’t bring yourself to think generously of him?”
Hu Wen snorted. “He doesn’t deserve it. If it weren’t for... If I hadn’t intended to come back home in the first place, I wouldn’t have returned for his funeral. You can keep playing the filial son for the world to admire.”
“I don’t want to argue with you, not today. Not after everything that’s happened.” Hu Yuan took a deep breath. “You will have to tell your wife. She'd want to... She'd want to be at Yao's funeral instead of the wake. She must be present when Father’s friends and associates pay their respects, and they could be arriving as soon as tomorrow.”
“They and their mothers can fuck themselves,” scoffed the younger man. “If you really cared for her, you'd leave her be.”
“She has been traumatized by Yao’s abduction. She’s barely eaten or slept. You think she should be further devastated by her son's burial?”
“Don't act like it's all about her welfare,” Hu Wen sneered. “Be honest, older brother. Does it sting that I'm home? Because now, you can’t seek comfort from her nor offer consolation.”
Incensed by the insinuation, Hu Yuan gripped his younger brother's left wrist and dug his fingers into the tendons. In a stern whisper, he hissed, “Watch your tongue. There is nothing improper between me and your wife.”
“Watch your prick,” Hu Wen retorted. He yanked his wrist free from his brother's hold. Hu Yuan was so taken aback by the vulgar and disrespectful reply that he was speechless. Hu Wen glared, his nostrils flaring. “You've never forgiven the fact that I married the woman you’ve always wanted.”
Taking a deep breath to center himself, Hu Yuan said, “She is my sister-in-law. I have only ever treated her with propriety and friendly concern. What I’ve not forgiven you for is neglecting your family and breaking her heart with your affairs.”
“What I have not forgiven you for,” said Hu Wen, “is thinking I don’t deserve her.” He then turned on his heel and stalked away, the third set of mourning clothes tucked under his arm.
Hu Yuan watched his brother leave, and murmured, “Do you?”