“Shizun! Shizun!” The patter of little feet and the slide of slippers as the boy, no more than 5, slides past the doorway, corrects, and then dashes into the room. “Shizun!”
The Shizun in question, quite a bit more than 5, barely reacted to the ripple on the surface of his tea. Only the narrowing of his eyes showed any emotion, the promise of a wince for the state of his possessions. Many of which were pockmarked or repaired from the little bun headed towards him at an alarming rate.
Binghe was a hurricane. But he was Shen Yuan’s hurricane.
“Don’t run, Binghe.”
“I’m sorry, Shizun.” His hat - an embroidered dragon with flaps - was sideways. His mouth was sticky from stolen sweet rice dumplings. But there were stars in his eyes and a dimple in his cheek. He was...too cute. But Shen Yuan would never say that. Instead, he called for hot water and had him clean up.
All pretense of cleanliness was destroyed when he turned out his pockets to handfuls of crickets with, “Shizun! I brought a present.”
Shen Yuan’s life was not always this way.
He had come to the Emperor’s harem at 15 from the powerful Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. He was a political addition rather than a nameless warm body. His one - and only - visit to the Emperor’s chambers had not featured a slow-crawl over the Emperor’s person. It had been a quick ‘welcome to the Palace,’ ‘your brother is scary but his loyalty is absolutely necessary,’ and ‘make yourself comfortable in the Orchid Palace.’ Shen Yuan had been given the seal of a Consort Level 4, a handsome allowance, his own courtyard (!!), and two servants.
For someone whose ambition was to sleep, eat sweets, and read, it was perfect.
A decent tactician and a voracious reader of papapa literature, Shen Yuan became very popular among the inhabitants of the Orchid Palace. Most concubines didn’t even know his name. It was xiao-didi this and xiao-didi that.
Life was good for a lazy, spoiled Shen Yuan.
In the third year of living in the lap of luxury, Shen Yuan found a child in the wild.
Now, ‘wild’ in the Orchid Palace was sort of a misnomer. Courtyards were meticulously maintained - Shen Yuan had a gardener (though he shared with two other Consort Level 4s) - and only contained items based on status. Shen Yuan formerly had an ornamental deer. But he laterally graded to rabbits after it kept eating the leaves of his three trees...and pretty much anything Shen Yuan tried to eat outside. It even came into his room once and ate the rice paper of his favorite screen.
Now, Shen Yuan rarely left his own room. He could order in food, books, and pretty much anything a young, lazy consort could want. When he did decide to venture out one day for the exercise he was prescribed by the Palace Physician (apparently it was possible to eat too many osmanthus cakes), he became lost immediately.
Lest the reader believe that Shen Yuan was directionally challenged (he was), it was easy to get lost in the Orchid Palace. While Level 1-4 consorts had their own rooms, Consorts Level 5 and lower (concubines) only had a small room. The lowest even shared rooms.
They all looked exactly the same.
Upon building the Orchid Palace, the Royal Architect had waved his hand over the rest of the compound with a ‘and some other rooms.’ An official signed off and 100s of screenmakers got to work making the exact same screen for every single doorway.
Compounding this, the former Emperor had had just a little over 20,000 concubines. The current Emperor had about 4000. So there were a lot of unused rooms. The extra rooms didn’t mean you got your own. It meant that you still had to share, but you might have a very serviceable room right next door.
So finding a child in the ‘wild’ was a very real, though far-fetched, possibility.
Most of the Emperor’s three-hundred plus children were extraordinarily coddled. They all belonged to the Empress, no matter their mother, and were virtually indistinguishable from each other. They wore the same clothes, ate the same food, and followed a proscribed educational path that had fostered five generations of incompetent rulers.
It was unlikely that #256 was going to inherit something, but if the Emperor pulled your number by lottery they could at least see their father.
Which leads us back to the auspicious day when Shen Yuan, Consort Level 4, ended up lost in an endless maze that would only end in his starving to death. Maybe. His servants were fairly diligent and he had left a note. But it could happen.
He heard crying before finding the source.
In the tiniest, darkest room he’d ever seen, Shen Yuan found a little boy. He was small and dirty. Snot-nosed, with a dandelion puff of hair (was it hair?), and a split lip. He was pitiful.
Shen Yuan’s life did not lend itself to accidental baby acquisition. He slept all day. He would get lost in a novel and forget to eat. He had no idea how to dress himself without a servant. In short, he was the absolute worst person in the world to raise a child. The boy was curled up in a corner, wrapped in a light yellow robe, crying. He flinched when Shen Yuan opened the screen and said, “That cannot be comfortable.”
Immediately, the boy slammed his forehead to the ground prostrating himself. “This one is sorry, Young Master, for daring to look at you in this pitiful state.”
Something in Shen Yuan’s chest cracked. He had grown up under the dictatorship of Shen Jiu. Surviving being put on the menu by Shen Jiu’s vegetarianism and dint of looking like his brother in low lights. When Shen Jiu thought it was beneficial to have a sect consort in the Emperor’s Palace, Shen Yuan was in the carriage before the last word was out of Shen Jiu’s mouth. Cang Qiong Mountain Sect was not a place for the weak, so Shen Yuan had trampled all the weeds of softness: empathy, love, the willingness to sneak a second bowl of rice for his fellow sect members.
His tiny heart grew three sizes the day he found this tiny dirty bun. “Where is your mother?”
“She died, Young Master.” Oh no, the tiny crack was getting larger.
“And… they just left you here?”
“No one would have me, Young Master.” His little eyes sparkled, a fat tear rolling down his long lashes and onto his dirty cheek. How was Shen Yuan supposed to be strong against tears?! How did this child have such large eyes? Was that a normal child thing? Oh no, his lips were trembling. Could you die from having feelings? Was he dying now?
“Okay,” Shen Yuan said, checking his meridians at the same time to figure out if he was dying. He said, “You don’t have lice, do you?” Because he was actually going to save this little bun. Why was he referring to him as a little bun in his head?!
“This one doesn’t know, Young Master.”
“I can’t bring you to my room looking like that,” Shen Yuan said out loud.
They found the nearest kitchen where the boy ate his weight in rice and had to be scoured four times before the water was clear. His little body was black and blue and Shen Yuan had feelings. “You can’t leave here in wet clothes. Here.” Shen Yuan rarely left his rooms in less than seven robes. He peeled down to give the boy layer three and tied himself up the best he could (see: cannot dress without a servant).
“This is the most beautiful robe I have ever seen,” the boy marveled. “This one does not deserve such a thing.”
“All the children I’ve seen wear clothes, so it's probably mandatory. That means you have to.” The boy was still marveling over the fabric. “Besides, it’s just a night layer, so you shouldn’t stick out.”
The boy stuck out. They pulled it up and tied it as best they could, but Shen Yuan was tall and the boy was very, very small. Shen Yuan ended up carrying him most of the way. Though they had to take so many breaks it took hours to get back (see: Palace Physician prescribing exercise).
All of the lamps were lit in his rooms and Yingying started fussing immediately. “Master! Where have you been?! I was going to send for the guards.” The boy was a floppy hindrance. Apparently child weight distribution was poor. “What do you have?”
“A...child?” This seemed fairly obvious. “He’s going to stay with me for the night. Do we have any extra bedding?”
“This one can make a place on the floor…”
“Ah,” the boy was snoring in the crook of his neck, warm and only a little wet. Was it normal for children to cry this much? “I’ll just put him on the bed with me. He’s so small, I’ll barely notice.” Particularly as Shen Yuan’s blanket allowance was three times that of other consorts. He dropped the boy a little harder than he’d intended on the platform, but he didn’t wake up.
The boy - Luo Binghe when Shen Yuan remembered to ask - kicked in his sleep. He also showed octopus traits and drooled. Shen Yuan… well, mostly Yingying kitted him out in tiny pants and robes and figured out how to comb his wild hair. Their food allotment - and noise - increased ten fold.
Luo Binghe just...never left.
The sticky boy slept in Shen Yuan's bed, hung off his robes, and cried big fat crocodile tears. He screamed “Shizun!” while running down the hallways and pressed too hard with his calligraphy brush. He broke guqin strings and chased the rabbits in Shen Yuan’s courtyard. He broke bowls and trampled flowers.
Binghe was also excited to see Shen Yuan everyday. He was charming and sometimes polite. He conned sweets and gifts from the other concubines. He had a picture perfect memory and was a quick learner.
Binghe overrode every bit of good sense Shen Yuan thought he had...and knew it.
Shen Yuan had become the guy buying a miniature guqin, matching (green) robes, and paying an exorbitant amount of money to the haberdasher for a felt dragon hat (the kind with a tail).
He still slept in until the afternoon (when not jumped on by Binghe), read salacious material (having never taught Binghe how to read naughty words), and refused to let Binghe call him Yuyu (he’d spit blood when that came out). “Just call me Shizun, ok?”
The Book of the Four Masters would write that Shen Yuan had uniquely prepared Emperor Luo Binghe to be a wise and just ruler. But that was for historians several centuries after his reign to postulate.
Shen Yuan had no idea what he was doing.
In the end, he accidentally nurtured Binghe to be Binghe.