“This is the one, Shizun,” Binghe said, squatting over the obstacle course he’d put together with bamboo, string, and a very fine silk fabric to stop any escapees. “This Binghe thinks Master Suishu has the fighting spirit.”
Ganyuan agreed. “Master Suishu is the grandson of Master Zhizhong.” This meant absolutely nothing to Shen Yuan, but he suspected that Master Zhihong was the cricket they had buried with full honors in the courtyard. It was a good thing they’d chosen a long poem for their generational names at the rate these crickets bred and died. “It is a good family line. Very strong.” Binghe preened.
Shizun’s Binghe had gone with Master Yang’s younger brother, Yang Yilue, to the Spring Market and got his hands on the grandson of the famous cricket Master Yuan who had brought wealth to the family who caught and raised fighting crickets. ‘This Binghe knew that a cricket named after Shizun would be blessed.’ Shen Yuan had feelings about this. ‘Also, Master Yuan made 200 bronze cowries from one fight alone!’ This seemed like a gross exaggeration for a single cricket fight, but Binghe had actually sold several of Master Yuan’s ‘great grandchildren.’
After introducing them into the thriving (?) Palace cricket market, he was able to pay dividends on Shen Yuan’s initial investment. Ganyuan was also getting a cut of the profits as he was responsible for the exacting feeding schedule. Shen Yuan had found him in the middle of the night feeding his charges one grain of rice at a time. Not to mention ‘nutrient powders’ and something they called ‘secret formula.’
Their courtyard was full of clay pots containing the offspring. The sound was actually quite pleasant. The crickets that didn’t meet ‘the standards’ were sold as pets and even Consort Wu, who was not fond of animals, had two.
Binghe had a good head for numbers, an obsession with multiplying his cowrie cache, and a knack for investing. Mercantile matters weren’t exactly appropriate for the son of the Emperor, but Shen Yuan didn’t see the harm in it. His own papapa industry was, afterall, doing very well.
He was completely unaware that Binghe had started investing in other things (Shen Yuan amongst them). But that comes later.
While Binghe cultivated his crickets, Shen Yuan had more aviary pursuits.
Because he was attending for Binghe, he was convinced (he agreed before anyone asked) to participate in the songbird contest. “Oh! This looks interesting,” he said, very obviously. “There is a birdsong competition…” As if he hadn’t already put in orders two months ago for every singing bird his suppliers could find.
Meng Mo, who was being bathed in a copper bowl by Ganyuan, gave Shen Yuan an ominous look. Followed by a Binghe-esque Don’t leave me, Shizun. Really, this household!
“Does Binghe want to participate in pinch-pot?”
He had good hand-eye coordination, even if his balance needed help. Shen Yuan had gone over the Qing Jing forms every morning (early afternoon) in a simpler dress for ease of motion: gathered pants and shirt. Binghe, who was usually a very graceful boy, had been falling all over himself. ‘If Shizun could just show Binghe once more…’
“Master Shen,” Madam Qiu said, “You have to participate in something other than the safe option of guqin performance...Perhaps archery?” Madam Qiu was too cunning! “It would be an honor for Master Qingge if you performed well.” While he considered it, she added, “There is also Polo. Horsemanship is integral for maintaining a healthy and vital lifestyle.” The look she gave Shen Yuan’s midsection was too much!
“It is unlikely to be one of those if Lord Weizi is in attendance,” Madam Qiu said. Lord Weizi was the highly respected Uncle of the Emperor. He very rarely attended events, but still came to the Discussion Conference. “In my younger days, it was a treat to see the Lords unrobed. Ay, a handsome warrior…” Shen Yuan stopped listening as he looked down at the pile of invitations.
Madam Qiu, in his opinion, was too invested in the Discussion Conference. He reminded himself that he was doing it for Binghe.
Not for Xiao Niao, his winning songbird. Not at all.
Ah, the Discussion Conference. As the Emperor continued to align the actual business of the State with other pastimes, true business happened during his Hunts and ‘Water Parties.’ The Conference had become more spectacle than an actual political gathering. While only encompassing a week of official activities, many attendees had travelled a long way and private events would go on for over a month.
The Royal Consorts were crucial to the smooth running of the festivities. They hosted events and served as conversational diplomats in a space where not everyone got along and (hopefully) dissuading the generational feuds that followed these sorts of things.
The Opening Banquet was also one of the few times where the Orchid Palace flowers would be on display amongst the lords of the Emperor’s vassal states (though not to the general populace). Their beauty and the misuse of state funds were a testament to the Emperor’s power. To be served by a concubine whose silks alone would fund a small state for generations was an ‘Honor.’
For obvious reasons, not all 4,000 concubines would be in attendance.
Through Oricular intervention, 88 concubines would be chosen. The choice was both a blessing and often a curse. It came with the promise of expensive gifts, often beyond the reach of the lowest level concubines, and maybe catching the Emperor’s eye for an evening. It also came with the prospect of catching the Emperor’s eye for an evening. In years past, more than one concubine had been found in the Lake of Wine in their silks and jewels.
As grand as the Palace spaces were, not all lords had the political capital or name recognition to attend the Opening Banquet (although they could be gifted leftovers). So. After the ‘High Lords,’ a lottery would decide which of the next tier would attend. These spots were almost always ‘won’ by families or persons thought to be politically valuable or had name recognition due to service to the Emperor.
Shen Yuan - despite being a Consort Level 4 - had never attended official or unofficial events. Politically speaking, it was a thing. But it wasn’t? No one expected Consort Shen to be in attendance. As very few of the vassal lords had actually met him (Shen Yuan’s ‘visitors’ were self-selected from the larger sects), there were rumors that he was ‘too delicate’ to attend. Less generous gossip mongers believed that he was hunchbacked or disfigured and was a ‘pity consort.’ The Shens being, so it was said, ‘only one generation from barbarians.’
Shen Yuan enjoyed these rumors. He’d started the hunchbacked one himself.
But. He was attending this year for Binghe. Children, well teenagers (Shen Yuan cried tears for his growing bun), were always sponsored. The Emperor couldn’t sponsor everyone - there were too many children - so outside of the Heir, maternal families threw their weight behind competitors. Shen Yuan had entered Binghe as a Shen (to Binghe’s absolute pleasure).
This had become a thing. Shen Yuan had no idea.
“...but these days, I’d rather not see my contemporaries without their robes…” He blinked back to attention. “Help me pick out fabric for the Opening Banquet.”
Madam Qiu owned so many robes that she maintained a scroll of silk scraps sewn into the paper that she used to remember what she owned. From there, her handmaids would dress her.
The Qiu were a very politically important vassal state Southwest of the ancestral Shang (Xin) lands. Madame Qiu’s grandfather had been the brother of the Emperor’s grandfather. She had one son by the Emperor who was not favored as official heir. That did not mean he wasn’t politically important. He had taken the title of Duke of Qiu as her brother died very young. She also had a daughter that was ‘just a little older than’ Shen Yuan… whose betrothed had died. She ‘was in possession of a good fortune’ with ‘impeccable connections’ and was ‘an accomplished and charming Princess.’
Madame Qiu was too embarrassing! If her daughter knew she was trying to find friends for her this way, she would not be pleased.
“You will come to our gathering after the Tournament,” she decided. The Tournament being the second day event. It was only open to boys between 15-20 who sought to make a name for themselves through archery and foot races. Binghe was too young to participate and was very sulky about it.
‘Who will care for Shizun,’ he’d sobbed, ‘If his Binghe is not there?’ Save Shizun some face, Binghe! Just because he chose to stay home (and sleep) didn’t mean he was completely inept.
He had been making dark predictions about the event - ‘the stars foretell disaster, Shizun’ - for weeks. Despite the dire prognostications, Binghe had become quieter as the date approached.
Shen Yuan attributed it to nerves.
The afternoon of the Opening Banquet, Shen Yuan was dressed by Yingying while still asleep. He had mastered the ‘pretending to be awake while sleeping’ a long time ago. “It’s going to be very hot, Master Shen, so this one has chosen something light.” Light being a pale green silk robe embroidered with gold bamboo over a thousand under robes and skirts and pants. His belt was a silk fabric that was either gold or green depending on the light and on a red silk rope he wore the Shen sigil as well as the gold Orchid Medallion of the Palace. She pulled and pinched his head until he didn’t even recognize himself under so much gold.
It was too much! “Yingying, this Master Shen cannot lift his head.”
“Master Shen must wear such things!” She wrung her hands. She also had her hands perilously close to rice powder and vermillion wax which he knew for a fact contained pig pancreas. He had kept his hands in his sleeves to avoid any nail color.
“This one physically cannot.”
“But Master Shen is a Royal Consort! Did Master Shen not see Consort Qiu’s preparation?!” It was likely that Consort Qiu would be dressing for hours (if not days). The Opening Banquet had many ‘meals’ to accommodate those who wished to attend. Shen Yuan had ‘overslept’ the early meal and was dressing for the second. After the second, he would have to change clothes for the third where the Emperor would likely be in attendance. Despite Yingying’s clucking about the heat, she had obtained a heavy emerald-blue robe that he’d only agreed to wear when she pointed out the embroidered elephant hidden amongst the leopards and flowers.
“There must be something simpler. What about this?” He picked up the koi hairstick Binghe had given him. “This one is very fond of it and wants to wear it.”
They compromised by including some gold beads to his braid with the koi hairstick. To appease her, Shen Yuan agreed to using rose paper for his lips. They were just lips, what did it matter?
Shen Yuan managed to slip into the Banquet Hall with little fanfare. There were many people who wanted to get a look at the ‘haves’ as they entered. Shen Yuan avoided that by sneaking in through the back entrance. The servants knew him (or knew of him) and his peculiarities. Dressed as simply as he was, he hoped to go unnoticed.
Shen Yuan’s seat, though in the second row, was in a very good position. With his eyes focused on the only prize: lotus paste seed cakes and iced sugars (!), he did not immediately notice that he was getting a lot of attention. The soft light of the palace lanterns was a friend to Shen Yuan and Yingying’s preparations were deadly. A young master of Huan Hua was immediately to his right, the (perceived) intimacy of Shen Yuan’s smile upon greeting him and the beauty of his face pretty much signed the death warrant on Shen Yuan’s dreams of laying low.
One of the elder Madams on the East side of the Hall, catching the Royal Consort’s eyes, took an indrawn breath. It is Low Wall by the River! She immediately relayed this deduction to her seatmate and so it passed like dominoes. It was a Madam Zi who reasoned that the young man sitting next to Low Wall by the River was, in fact, the Fair-Faced Prince. Despite the fact that the two had only made their acquaintance only that evening. How coy they play it, was whole-heartedly agreed upon, To act as strangers when such things had happened between them. This came to the ears of both the Duke of Lanling and Master Hua. Both contenders for Shen Yuan’s heart...and more than a passing knowledge of the series (the Duke’s copy well thumbed through).
Thus most of the court was looking at Young Master Gongyi Xiao. Being a perceptive person, he was not only overwhelmed by Consort Shen but had become the focus of hundreds of jealous eyes.
He was certain that the Duke of Lanling was going to kill him.
As Shen Yuan had not been announced at the door, and the distance was too great for the ‘truth’ to be shared, there was a low murmur of voices as the West side of the Hall attempted to figure out who he was. “This one has heard that that one is a Prince of no small renown,” Consort Wu said, laughing into her wine,“and keeps wild animals as pets.”
“What sort of wild animals?” The unknown lord behind her asked, face deeply shadowed. “I once had a snake I raised from a hatchling that tried to kill me. No filial piety that one.”
“What sort of question is that?” the Lady next to him asked, quite astonished by his easy way of speaking.
“The only one worth asking,” he said, mouth curling as he dangled his glass from the arm propped up by his knee. “How do you even know he is a Prince?” he said...just for saying. The unknown lord was, in fact, very interested in his future son-in-law. There was not a doubt in his mind that the man was...
“Consort Shen,” a very old Master said, not particularly invested in the identification. “They have those Xirong eyes and looks,” he allowed one of the Emperor’s concubines to refill his glass. “This old Master heard that the Emperor had brought one back to the Palace. A waste though,” everyone around him hung on his every word, eager to believe him. “The Shen only breed men.”
The unknown lord in the back snorted. “Does this Master disagree?” Madam Wu asked him, her voice low and dangerous.
“We both know, Jianshi, that that is not true.”
“Only an idiot would come where he is not wanted and eat his enemy’s food.” There wasn’t a trace of judgment in it. Just a statement of fact.
“I am only here for the wine.” He swirled the pot in his hands, looking at her through his lashes when she turned away. “They say… the tardy fruit's a fuller wine…”
Madam Wu ‘.....’
“It looks like your Low Wall by the River is in danger of being breached.” Shen Yuan did, in fact, have a glow to him that was unusually inviting. His son would have his work cut out for him. It would be a good show.
“Don’t,” Madam Wu grabbed his wrist before he evaporated. “Touch him.” The Duke of Zhao’s eyebrows shot up.
“We both know, Junshang, that feelings have never been the issue.”
When Master Lao Gongzhu’s daughter put her foot in her mouth, the Opening Banquet became the most fraught situation of the Old Master's life.
The Huan Hua Old Master had earned in his youth the honor of a yellow jacket from the Emperor’s father and thus was afforded a place at the first row of tables. Directly in front of Shen Yuan. He had aspirations of Consort-dom for his daughter and the position was auspicious. He did not think much of the man until he noticed a great deal of attention behind him.
A lot of attention.
The Old Master was not a cultured man, nor did he often come to the Capitol. For these reasons, he sponsored his First wife’s nephew, Gongyi Xiao. He was a filial boy, around 18, and well esteemed in the Kingdom. With the Emperor in her sights, Xiao Gongzhu would not have Gongyi Xiao as her husband despite the obvious match. This did not mean, however, that she enjoyed anyone else giving him attention.
“Is this Young Master’s first time in the Capitol?” Shen Yuan asked, smiling at Lady Hao (Concubine Level 6), who had given him two lotus paste seed buns! The Young Master was young and bore more than a slight resemblance to Binghe. This immediately made Shen Yuan fond of him.
“En,” Master Gongyi said. “It is...” he floundered when Shen Yuan smiled. The bitter tea he’d had instead of the wine had stung his mouth red. Oblivious to this, Shen Yuan said,
“This one remembers the first time this one set eyes on Xin.” It had been enormous, compared to Qing Jing or even Qiong Ding. Shen Yuan had felt very small, almost inconsequential, on his way to the Palace. “This one had never seen so many people in one place. Tell this one of your homeland, Young Master.”
Gongyi Xiao, relieved to have something to add to the conversation, began “Huan--”
“Huan Hua is a most majestic place,” the Young Palace Mistress said, finally having enough. Her arrogant voice rose over Gongyi Xiao’s. “It is equal only to Xin as its founder was the son of Pan Geng and not barbar--”
The Old Master nearly fainted when Shen Yuan turned towards him. The eyes! His own eyes dropped to the belt where the Orchid Palace medallion and the Shen sigil fell under the narratively convenient spotlight of the lantern.
Huan Hua was a vassal state that sat along the border of the Cang Qiong An Ding Peak separated only by a river valley. Their ‘power’ as it was was due to currying favor and its being a ‘family state,’ distantly related to the current Emperor. Though this carried much less weight since the Emperor no longer had any compunctions over deposing relatives.
They had chosen to watch when the Xia decided to take Cang Qiong lands and as such their relationship to the Duke of Yue was polite, though not friendly.
Any slight to a Royal Consort was a slight to the Emperor and a death sentence. Any slight to Consort Shen would be a death sentence to Huan Hua. Barbarian origins or not, the massacre at Xiazhai Gorge had made a deep impression on the Old Master. A river valley was… not much of a barrier.
“Daughter,” Master Lao’s face had gone splotchy as he cut off the Princess. “This one’s nephew is gifted with words and will do it justice.” He kept a bruising hand on his daughter’s arm.
“Oh?” Shen Yuan gave the Young Master a smile that he hoped conveyed his interest. It was a killer. Many ladies, fans fluttering against the romanticism in their hearts, were certain. Such subtle flirtations. Such loveliness. Gongyi Xiao’s flush only sealed the deal. Shen Yuan said,
“Consort Shen is a great lover…” A hundred drawn breaths. “...of the arts. Young Master must join Consort Shen for a more select gathering,” Shen Yuan said, trying to give the boy face (he looked like Binghe!) before realizing that it would now include hosting something. Good lord. He quickly took a bite of his lotus seed bun before he said anything else.
Within seconds, everyone in the Banquet Hall was trying to figure out how to get on that guest list. Such longing. Such delicacy of feeling.
The War God of Bai Zhan Peak’s wine pot broke in his hands (there had been a small crack in the vessel). The Concubine attending him made such a fuss that the Madam next to him heard, “It is nothing.” She looked at Lord Liu very carefully. He was handsome, though a little rough, and...had he always had that beauty mark under his eye? Does he not resemble the masks from the players? Oh...it is the Bird by the Willow. Their dangerous affection is why Lord Liu has never married!
Next to him, a young woman - veiled and mysterious - watched the stupidity and made her own schemes. She would get into that gathering if she had to jump the roofs.
“That person is very handsome,” she said, unable to stop from throwing oil on flames. “Do you know them?”