On more than one occasion, Qinghua’s ‘little brother’ saved his life.
Shang Qinghua spent the first year of his life as xiao-Bao, the child of Master Shang’s second wife. After much outside consultation (read: his grandmother and four aunts), it was decided that Qinghua would be raised as a girl, so xiao-Bao was now Shang Zhang. There was nothing more of note until Qinghua/Zhang turned thirteen and a ‘what’s that?’ turned out to be Qinghua/Zhang’s tardy puberty.
After much outside consultation (again his grandmother and four aunts), it was decided that Zhang was now the third son of Master Shang and renamed Qinghua.
Qinghua’s mother loved him very much, though she worried. “Who will marry our xiao-Qinghua?” she asked. To be fair, she wondered this often. Particularly when Qinghua did something very stupid. Which was...a lot. There was very little difference in raising a son from a daughter, least of all to a prosperous merchant family very (very) distantly related to the Emperor, so Qinghua continued as he’d had.
Then things changed.
Qinghua’s grandfather had a ‘falling out’ with the Emperor on whether the Emperor should continue to live. So heads rolled. Grandfather. Check. Father. Check. Uncle. Check. First brother. Check. Second brother. Check. When it got to Qinghua, whose mother’s sister was a mid-level concubine, he was given an option. Die or give up the goods.
The Emperor was a firm believer that his enemies - and the sons of those enemies - would become loyal if they were castrated and then given a political position. It made no sense to Qinghua either.
Fourteen year old Qinghua was, literally, on the chopping block when his ‘executioner’ looked down at him (with a very big knife) and said, “Let me talk to my manager.”
Shang Qinghua had never been more grateful for late puberty in his life.
It so happened that neither his ‘executioner’ nor his manager ever returned. Qinghua was left sweating bullets on the bench until a hooded figure arrived with the characteristic forehead tattoo of the Northwest Zhou, faithful (though unhappy) vassals of the Emperor. As he would learn later, a red tattoo symbolized affiliation with the Heavenly family.
But that’s a story for later.
“How do you feel about a life of constant stress, the hovering threat of discovery, and a lifetime of paperwork?”
Qinghua, revealing his defining qualities - the desire to stay alive and a head for strategy - asked where he could sign up.
With a borrowed bao (necessary for advancement), Shang Qinghua began his life as a chair-bearer (Eunuch Level 16). Because of his willingness to do whatever he had to do to stay alive, he rose to Eunuch Level 15 after tripping another chair-bearer and sparing the daughter of a minor official from road rash.
He fed whatever intelligence he had to his Zhou handler.
By 18, he had been promoted to the Orchid Palace where he became a gardener (Eunuch Level 13).
It was at this point of the narrative that Qinghua, needing a little extra money, began to write really awful papapa novels under the nom de plume: Cart Up the Mountain (note: he was not good at naming things). His position didn’t pay well until Eunuch Level 5.
It was also at this point where Concubine Shen came into his life. Qinghua’s very first novel, Golden Peaches of Emperor’s Court , was based on the hours he spent coaxing an ornamental deer from the Concubine’s courtyard. Do you know how hard it is to convince a deer to leave a concubine’s courtyard when said concubine had been giving them fruit on the side?
His literary juices were helped by the fact that Concubine Shen was extraordinarily beautiful, was being courted out of his political concubine status by no less than fifteen people (2 of them royal daughters), and was the most oblivious person he’d ever met in his life. How many of the Emperor’s concubines had green eyes? Exactly 1.
He was in the middle of his most successful novel: the Bannerman’s Bride , when Concubine Shen said, “You know, I have a cream that will get rid of that beard.” This was just after the Pond Fiasco, which had taken back breaking work to put in and back breaking work to fill up. As per Palace gossip, Concubine Shen had had a child with the Emperor (plot of The Potent Prince ) and had mellowed out a little. Qinghua’s knowledge of biology was abysmal (see: misuse of antlers in Golden Peaches of Emperor’s Court ).
Qinghua broke out in a cold sweat. As he got older, his voice cracked and he started to grow a beard. He could perfectly mimic the high, soft voice of the other Eunuchs.
But Eunuchs did not grow beards.
“I’m not going to tell anyone,” Concubine Shen waved it off as if it wasn’t a death sentence for Qinghua.
“What do you want?”
“I want first look at your future novels, exclusive rights to distribution at the Orchid Palace, and a signed copy of Golden Peaches of Emperor’s Court . I’ll even pay you a salary.” Concubine Shen’s green eyes were mercenary. It was a good look on him. “Besides. The Cang Qiong Mountain Sect has to look out for itself, right?” He said the last in the Cang Qiong dialect that was very hard for non-native speakers to understand. Pronunciation was a nightmare.
It was actually a very generous deal. Promotion was always difficult when you were cribbing notes in the small hours of the night after eighteen hour days. “Deal.”
“I do have a bone to pick with you,” Concubine Shen’s eyes narrowed as he handed over a jar of depilatory cream. He wasn’t the most expensive concubine for nothing. “Antlers cannot be used like...that. It’s unsanitary.”