“SHIZUN!!!” Shen Yuan shot up out of bed, rising from the dead by the clarion call of his bun. Not bothering to shift the gaping sleeping robes he stumble-ran across the floor, walked into the door frame, corrected, and then rose a hand to keep the sun from his sleep bleary eyes.
It wasn’t until he stepped on one - with his bare feet!! - that he realized that there were crickets everywhere.
There were also Shen Yuan’s songbird rejects having the greatest meal of their life. Meng Mo, the great betrayer, had joined them and Bing Bing was chasing crickets and birds indiscriminately.
Binghe was in tears, “This Binghe has been sabotaged!!”
Trying not to gag, Shen Yuan untied and slid his outer robe off and began to pick up crickets with his hands (trying not to gag) while the silk was moving. Yingying, who had begun setting out Shen Yuan’s things for the day, immediately followed Shen Yuan’s example. “Ganyuan, get the birds.”
“But Master Shen’s birds--”
“It’s alright, just grab them. Throw stones at them if you must. We must save the crickets.” Binghe’s empire was at stake! “Binghe!” Shen Yuan said in a tone he almost never used with him. The sobbing boy turned to him. “Collect them in your robe.”
Thankfully, crickets weren’t trained to kill, just coaxed into fighting until one backed up. They didn’t like the jumbling pile of other crickets, but they also didn’t kill each other.
Shen Yuan was going to die. But the crickets were alright.
Ganyuan was able to get the birds in their cages, locking Meng Mo back into the rooms where he went flying with a: Don’t leave me Shizun! Thankfully, Binghe had inked them all with numbers, so he knew which was which. “Did we get them all?”
Ganyuan was counting while Binghe went down to his knees in the corner. There, the tiny cricket body of Master Suishu of the Master Yuan line lay. It gave one little croak and then went still. Though he was pretty certain he was going to throw up, Shen Yuan was deeply moved by the sad tableau. Master Suibu, er, Suibe? Suibo? was a descendant of the cricket that shared his name. “Binghe.” Shen Yuan tucked the boy in his arms where he cried in big gasping sobs. His little heartbroken bun. Shen Yuan was not going to lie and say it was going to be okay. The School of Shen Jiu hadn’t trained him in that.
“What is this Binghe going to do?” Binghe’s voice was so small.
“Well,” Shen Yuan said. “Binghe still has a fight, right? So, he will persevere. So,” his head was only a moment ahead of his mouth. “Binghe will… find another descendant of Yuan the Great and avenge Master Shisui.”
“Suishu,” Binghe said.
“Yes. Master Suishu. And… we’ll give this Master a royal funeral.”
Filled with a purpose, Binghe had Ganyuan report about the damage and their prospects. Ganyuan, as ever, never acknowledged Bingthe’s tears. He was a good boy. Shen Yuan looked over at the birds. With the exception of Xiao Niao - who was still on the tournament grounds in the finals - they all looked suspicious. Most suspicious of all was a giant crow who gave Shen Yuan an unrepentant look. Having slipped his cage before (Ganyuan had upped security afterward), he was the most likely to spring the others. One of the brightest had his head tucked under his wing. Mob mentality was no excuse.
“You,” he pointed at the crow. “And you,” an example had to be set. “Yingying, please take these two down to the kitchen. Let them do as they will.” That settled, Shen Yuan went back inside and found the nicest box he had from the cabinet of ‘gifts’ he habitually received. It was a very fine carved jade studded with bronze medallions. In a move that would cause Yingying a heart attack later, he cut a small square of silk for a robe and lined it.
“Here,” he said, coming out into the courtyard again. The heat of the moment having passed, Ganyuan averted his eyes and Binghe went completely red. Shen Yuan’s under robe was almost completely transparent. “Use this.”
“Shizun,” Binghe gasped. “This is too fine.”
In the end (and after Shen Yuan put on some clothes), they buried Master Suishu in a fine box surrounded by grains of rice for sustenance in the afterlife.
“Who will Consort Shen invite?” Madam Wu asked, laughing through a box of incense sticks when Shen Yuan told her he was hosting an event. After remembering he had created an event defending Young Master Gongyi Xiao. “Outside of this one, of course.”
“Young Master Gongyi Xiao...um, Lord Liu,” Madam Wu’s eyebrows rose five inches. “Young Master Yang Yixuan..” Shen Yuan only knew so many people outside of the Orchid Palace concubines...who couldn’t attend a mixed gathering. “Ambassador Zhou. Consort Qiu. Uh…”
Madam Wu’s eyebrows kept rising and rising. At some point they had ascended to the Heavens.
“The Duke of Yuanqu. The Royal Astrologer...for Binghe.”
“Consort Shen is allowing Binghe to attend?”
“Does Consort Wu think this one could invite the author of The Romance of the Rosebud ?” Behind them, Yingying set the hot water urn a little too hard on the stand.
“This one has to ask. But is Consort Shen hosting an orgy or a polite gathering?”
“Why would this one host something like that?” Asked the largest papapa publisher in the Empire. Who read them for the animals, sweets, and fierce women. Shang Qinghua’s gardening background made for (sometimes) realistic fauna and the fierce protagonist of the Romance of the Rosebud really knew their sweets. Even Shen Yuan’s favorites!
He would never expose his pure white bun - he wouldn't expose himself - to anything like that.
“Yingying looks very well,” Shen Yuan said as she helped him with his ubiquitous light green robes and a belt embroidered with crickets. This was a surprise for Binghe he’d had made to show his support.
He had also ordered a custom bird belt, but with the current situation this seemed in bad taste.
Yingying did look well. She and Wanyue would be escorting him to the children’s games while Ganyuan and Ming Fan went with Binghe. The servant support for Young Master Binghe was very strong. As for their part, the Shen Yuan Protection Bureau had been working doubly hard to combat the ridiculous rumors that had been swirling around Master Shen. Wanyue had gotten into it with a visiting lady’s maid who ‘hadn’t held jade in her life.’ Wanyue had been promoted to one of Shen Yuan’s personal servants by Yingying after passing a test that only Yingying knew the content of. She was very sweet but prone to romantic fancy.
“Shizun!” Binghe cried out, his bamboo tube of crickets over his shoulder. The tube was a series of cricket ‘apartments.’ After assessing injuries, he had selected four. The only one Shen Yuan remembered was Suijiu, a fierce fighter. Oddly enough, the Jiu in its name was the same character for Shen Jiu’s name. “Shizun is wearing a cricket belt!”
“En.” In his excitement, Binghe tripped on the edge of the table and fell into Shen Yuan’s arms. As the cricket tube was subtly moved to not be harmed, there was very little furniture in the room, and Binghe’s trajectory was too good, there was a 100% likelihood that it was on purpose.
“This Binghe is sorry, Shizun.”
“Is Binghe alright?” Shen Yuan straightened Binghe by his forearms.
“En,” Binghe grudgingly stepped back. “This Binghe was too excited.”
Shen Yuan refused the palanquin and the sextet (meeting up with Ming Fan outside the Orchid Palace) walked over to the Tournament grounds. The Palace servants were in good spirits and greeted Consort Shen with great cheer. Unable to return Young Master Gongyi Xiao’s gift of deer - and really, what does one do with 15 deer? - Shen Yuan had given them to split between the servants. He was unaware that most of them had never eaten meat in their lives.
He had also commissioned a pair of deer hide boots and mittens for Young Master Gongyi Xiao. Because, honestly, an invitation to a party seemed...lacking?
The first thing Shen Yuan thought, upon seeing the crowd, was that he had never seen so many children in his life. He’d never really had any opinions on children. Binghe had generally been self-sufficient (whether he was or not, Shen Yuan treated him that way) and the thought of a thousand crying children was enough to make him shudder.
By all accounts (recounted at very embarrassing times), Shen Yuan had been a sweet natured child who refused to wear clothes, stole sweets, and ran around chasing rabbits. These attributes had finally caused Shen Jiu to take matters into his own hands when he ran into a naked child carrying a terrified rabbit. Shen Yuan had, reputedly, smiled at him with a mouth filthy from honey and bun crumbs.
The Aunts were strong proponents of letting children fend for themselves. Though they did take a bit more care with Shen Yuan because he was a fragile boy (thus all the sticky buns).
There was more of a festive air around the Children’s games as it was in the ‘wild’ (not on the Palace grounds) and included middle ranking children as well as high-born. It was thronged with merchants, harried servants, and more toys than Shen Yuan had seen in his life. Also, sweets.
“Pinch pot is first, Shizun.” Binghe reminded him. “Will you support this Binghe, Shizun?”
“Who else would this Shizun support?” Binghe made a great show of handing over his name token with the neatly carved 'Shen.'
If you asked Shen Yuan about the foot traffic at the Children’s games, he would say ‘not too bad.’ Because people made way for him. He was obviously a Consort by his Orchid seal though was walking instead of being carried. He was also thronged with the Shen Yuan Protection Bureau. Yingying and Wanyue were fierce (though Yingying would win in a contest), Ganyuan was… very small. But Ming Fan, despite being far from brilliant, was very large. None of them had the pampered servant thing that most aristocrats servants had going for them. Most of the Orchid Palace servants were born from good families with ‘expectations.’
Binghe. Well, unlike Shen Yuan, everyone felt that Binghe would shank them if they came close to his Shizun. Which was fair.
The competitors for pinch pot were set in brackets. A lot of brackets. Binghe was in the 12-14 range and Shen Yuan thought that there were a lot of really big children in the 12-14 range. Binghe was almost as tall as Shen Yuan, but he was still slender.
Also. That Young Master Chu Guoyang had immediately flocked to his bun! Didn’t he have any other friends? “Keep an eye on that boy,” he told Ganyuan, who had a talent for fitting into places and ‘accidentally’ hearing (and poisoning) things. “This one doesn’t trust him.”
Ten minutes earlier: “Keep an eye on Shizun,” Binghe had advised Ganyuan. “Make sure no one kidnaps him.”
Ganyuan thought that as much as they looked at each other that really no babysitting was needed.
Having not attended the other ceremonies, Yingying was astounded by the gall of people. To walk right up to Master Shen without a formal introduction! These manners were too familiar!
To think that he was open to receive attention from every corner!
‘Consort Shen, have you tried this candy?’ ‘Consort Shen, talk of your beauty does not do it justice!’ ‘Consort Shen…’
“Consort Shen--” The Young Master, from some Southern vassal state tripped, falling into the gathering of people attempting to get close to Master Shen. Yingying drew her foot back under her robes. Wanyue, pretending to get something out of her eyes, winked at her.
“Master Shen,” Yingying advised. “Perhaps the Master would like to rest in the Tea House?” The Tea House was built just for the Conference and was likely to be removed afterward. From outside, Ming Fan signalled to them. He had gone ahead to get a private room.
“Master Shen has been standing for a while and Master Shen should rest.” Her eyes said ‘I will put you in a palanquin.’ They were winnowing challengers through 150 brackets. It would be hours before Binghe made it to the serious playoffs and the cricket qualifiers were in the late afternoon.
With one last narrow-eyed look, Master Shen agreed.
While most of the servants had their favorites, Yingying’s CP was Bingyuan. She was absolutely satisfied with this. She had watched them grow up together. Master Shen had in no way been an adult when he found Binghe and Yingying believed that she’d raised them both (despite being Master Shen’s junior). She knew how to manage Master Shen and she knew how to manage Young Master Binghe.
So she put down a big bet on her CP, anonymously of course, with no intention of losing. She was in for the long game.
Yingying knew a lot of things. She knew that Young Master Binghe corresponded with Master Shen’s brother. She knew that 99% of the ‘love notes’ that arrived for Shen Yuan were ash in the brazier. She also knew that Master Shen’s dealer was able to source an elephant. She also knew that 100% of the notes telling him this were also in the brazier. For reasons.
Yingying considered herself the eyes and ears of this operation.
But she was not infallible.
She had just settled Master Shen when a party of foreigners arrived. At their head was a woman, small but commanding, in a dark red robe ending at her calves and her undergarments - embroidered with gold fire - on view. It was rather shocking.
The Innkeeper, who was borrowed from his own Inn for the Conference, was sweating bullets telling them that there was no room for the party. Their interpreter was from the Palace and translated the capital dialect into smoother sounds. Yingying could only make out a word here or there.
Master Shen’s ‘private room’ was really just a raised platform separated from the room by a simple screen. The aforementioned screen having been pushed aside for Yingying to return with Master Shen’s tea (and the bean-filled rabbit buns she had in her sleeve).
“Consort Shen,” the Royal Interpreter said, only a moment behind Yingying. Only a fool would batter against the front of Yingying, Wanyue, and Ming Fan’s hard looks.
Master Shen, who had been attempting to look out the tent at the field where Binghe was working down the ranks (while simultaneously avoiding any potential ‘lovers’), turned in surprise. “Master Interpreter.”
“This humble one asks a boon of Consort Shen.” When Master Shen didn’t throw him out, the man said, “But dignitaries visiting from the Southern Kingdoms would like to join Consort Shen. If it is possible.”
The Royal Interpreter waited, sweating profusely under his robes. “This one will accommodate them.” Yingying sighed. People were so familiar with her Master! Why was he so accommodating?
Even Master Shen’s ‘private room’ could not fit the entire party, so only three came over. A small woman who took no pains to hide her sex nor her power. She was flanked by two guards. Both in white robes.
“Consort Shen, this is--”
The woman cut the Interpreter off. “It is pleasing to be invited to your table,” the accented capital dialect made Yingying laugh at the flummoxed interpreter. “If we suit, I will return your customs when it is convenient.”
“This one is pleased to accommodate your party,” Master Shen said, all practiced politeness. “This one is Royal Consort Shen.” It had taken years for Yingying to plead for him not to introduce himself as ‘Shen Yuan.’ It was not proper!
“Sha,” she said, “I am Sha Hualing.”